Take a moment and browse over to your favourite search engine. Type in “strengths of autistic people.” Examine the results.
Regardless of your choice of tool, it’s likely that the first few pages of results will be populated by pages seeking to quantify the autistic experience. That is to say, they’re full of reductive articles that feature stereotypes of autistic people in relation to their “worth” to society.
“It’s equally likely that they’re not written by autistic people or from the point of view of the autistic community.”
In the world of curated search results, this is no accident. It’s also quite a dangerous line of inquiry. Let’s examine why.
More than 100 years ago, Francis Galton defined eugenics. He noted in Eugenics: Its Definition, Scope, and Aims, 1904, “[t]he aim of eugenics is to represent each class or sect by its best specimens; that done, to leave them to work out their common civilization in their own way.” John Maynard Keynes, in The End of Laissez-Faire from 1926, took the concept further, “[t]he time has already come when each country needs a considered national policy about what size of population, whether larger or smaller than at present or the same, is most expedient. And having settled this policy, we must take steps to carry it into operation. The time may arrive a little later when the community as a whole must pay attention to the innate quality as well as to the mere numbers of its future members.”
Those quotes may seem rather generic or esoteric. For a more specific look at the early eugenics movement, we can turn to University of Reading researcher and author John S. Partington and his catalog of quotes in support of eugenics from the English author H.G. Wells. Here’s just one of the viler of Wells’ thoughts, “The way of nature has always been to slay the hindmost, and there is still no other way, unless we can prevent those who would become the hindmost being born. It is in the sterilization of failures, and not in the selection of successes for breeding, that the possibility of an improvement of the human stock lies.”
Now that I’ve got your attention, what on earth am I on about?
As I write this, my state has been under lockdown by the governor for about a month.
Every evening’s news broadcast leads with an update about how many have died with COVID-19; with the prediction of more deaths to come unless we submit to the strict regime imposed by the state.
The big urban cities in my country (the US) dominate the news cycles as more and more deaths are chalked up to the virus. Prediction models have the upper end of this pandemic at over 200,000 dead world-wide. Over the last month, that model has (thankfully) trended significantly lower.
Many countries are grappling with this medical crisis. Early on, the discussion turned to rationing care and limiting “non-essential” visits to hospitals and clinics. Many news stories feature a narrative that if a COVID-19 patient goes into respiratory or cardiac arrest, the response team must take extra precautions and use protective equipment that’s already in short supply. Otherwise, the experts tell us, doctors risk getting sick themselves or spreading the virus to other patients. Indeed, many health care professionals have been sickened by the virus. Some, sadly, have died.
Over at The Mighty, reporter Renee Fabian helps us link these three topics (eugenics, autistic people, and COVID-19) together. “Normally health professionals work to do everything possible to save every patient, it’s part of their oath when a patient doesn’t have a do-not-resuscitate (DNR) order. But in a scenario where the health care system is overtaxed, the priority switches to what actions can save the most patients. This is the reality doctors in Italy have been facing. And some hospitals are considering a “draconian” blanket do-not-resuscitate order for COVID-19 patients to protect as many people as possible.”
She goes on to say, “People with disabilities have already expressed concern about the guidelines and decisions hospitals are preparing to make to decide whose lives to prioritize if the health care system’s resources are overwhelmed. Karin Willison, The Mighty’s disability editor, wrote how these rationing policies and pandemic guidelines pose a threat to people with disabilities and chronic illnesses.”
Why would such policies be a threat?
Karin Willison helps us with the answer, “[p]eople with disabilities are often seen as less worthy of care, less valuable as human beings. Of course, many individual doctors and nurses on the front lines of this pandemic are heroes, working for days at a time without proper protective equipment to save the lives of all their patients, regardless of disability, chronic illness or age. But if the system itself does not protect people with disabilities and chronic illnesses, some of us will pay the ultimate price at the hands of those who do not see our value.”
Why would these patients be at risk?
Eugenics and the quantification of the autistic experience. Eugenics has successfully informed the world’s medical systems such that in a crisis, the disabled and the differently abled will not be chosen for heroic methods in order to save their lives.
“The world has been conditioned to believe that we’re a drain on society.”
Why? The world has been conditioned to believe that we’re a drain on society. The news reports tell me, an autistic person, that the sum of my symptoms (as seen by society) add up to a net negative. Thus, I’m not worthy of the potential risk associated with resuscitating. This is the message autistic people are currently receiving via the evening news.
Why would this be?
Consider the guidance given to new parents of autistic children as illustrated in this guide.
“Better yet, we’ll consider this from the point of view of my parents. Rather than “congratulations, ma’am, it’s a boy;” we now have the tragedy narrative – “I’m sorry ma’am, he’s autistic.”
This would be followed up with the typical brochure:
“He’ll likely have a hard time motivating and difficulty of focusing on something other than his own interests.
He’ll have trouble following unwritten social rules; however, those rules can be learned through instructions via ABA. We’ll give you brochures on that later.
He’ll likely miss the big picture.
He’ll have trouble with summarizing information to include in speech.
He’ll have difficulty with the generalization of concepts.
He’ll probably have an unbalanced set of skills.
He’ll have trouble expressing his feelings in a way that other people would understand or expect.
He’ll have trouble with basic functioning; hence he’ll have difficulties in planning long-term activities.
You’ll have trouble bonding with your son people with autism have difficulty perceiving emotions of other people.”
As shocking as the above narrative is to read, it’s taken directly from the above linked guide.
This is what a multi-million dollar “autism support” organization thinks of me.
“Taking the opposing view, might there be a benefit to society for a group of people who are direct in their communication? Is there value to “matter of factness?” Is honesty of any value? Can we find worth in punctuality? What about loyalty? Considering what society calls our fixation on particular special interests, what value is there in a population of subject matter experts?”
Circling back to the eugenics movement, let’s again visit George Bernard Shaw and hear him, in his own words, ask you and I to justify our existence (link). “If you can’t justify your existence, if you’re not pulling your weight in the social boat, if you’re not producing as much as you consume or perhaps a little more, then, clearly, we cannot use the organizations of our society for the purpose of keeping you alive, because your life does not benefit us and it can’t be of very much use to yourself.”
On the balance sheet of your life, do your strengths outweigh your challenges such that your life is a net benefit to society? How would a particular point sample, a day in your life chosen at random, compare to a normal distribution of the entirety of your life’s experiences?
“On the balance sheet of your life, do your strengths outweigh your challenges such that your life is a net benefit to society?”
Speaking only for myself, I will say that the first thirty years of my life were quite a challenge; even more so given that there were no diagnoses or supports for the many things that place me firmly within the “autism spectrum.”
If the eugenicist were to examine those years, they would likely conclude that I’m not worth the effort of keeping me alive during a crisis.
My research has shown that the neurodivergent take a while to grow into the knowledge of how to operate their amazingly complex brain and body. As an example, we’re given an unregulated quantum field generator (our brains) and no operating instructions for it’s use.
But by way of example (accepting the premise that I must justify my autistic existence), since 30 I’ve developed and practiced my use of the English language (my second, foreign language). As a non-verbal person, this takes time. Now that I have developed and practiced this skill, I’ve merged my particular interests into a single focus – working within, writing about, and teaching the many domains within the digital forensic sciences (a discipline that didn’t exist when I was a child).
I think my experience speaks truth to Jared Reser’s hypothesis, that what we now call “autism” has been with humanity for tens of thousands of years; that it’s survived in our species through natural selection precisely because what makes us autistic has been useful to humanity’s success as a species; and that autistic people have often been responsible for the very survival of our collective way of life.
“You see, unlike the guidance noted above, the neurodivergent generally have no problem perceiving the emotions of other people. In fact, the opposite is true. The majority of us are highly empathic and get quickly overwhelmed by other people’s uncontrolled emotions.”
Meltdowns and shutdowns are the inevitable result of our interactions with groups of neurotypicals who often have no concept or control of their own energies. Thus, many of us seek a sort of semi-isolation. With this in mind, during this crisis with it’s social distancing dictates, we’re perfectly suited to ride it out. This is a rule we were already following.
Given current events, this time is rather perfect for examining the concept of strengths and challenges.
When a member of one of New York’s most famous and powerful families can’t follow recommendations and remain under quarantine for two weeks, potentially spreading the deadly virus around one of the most populated cities on the planet, how do we quantify the worth of a single human? Had he become gravely ill and in need of resuscitation, would he be denied life-saving care over his complete lack of judgement in a moment of panic? Would his behaviour justify a DNR order? Or, would his privilege of being the son of a former governor, as well as the brother of the sitting governor, exempt him from such calculations? Probably.
With all of this in mind, let’s get away from weighing people with a balance sheet. We are all endowed by our Creator with certain inalienable rights. The abled, the disabled, and the differently abled all have the same rights to life, liberty, and the possession of personal property. As philosopher Hannah Arendt noted famously, these rights do not end at arbitrary national or state borders. We each have these rights simply by being human. We each do not need to justify ourselves to anyone; nor do we have to justify our right to exist.
“We each do not need to justify ourselves to anyone; nor do we have to justify our right to exist.”
To conclude on a happy note, I’d like to call your attention to one of history’s greatest declarations on the value of life and love, Shakespeare’s Sonnet 116. So much has been written about it. It’s been interpreted in many ways. But, by way of justifying my existence as a human being – worthy of love, I’d like to offer a translation that I believe completely encapsulates the autistic experience of this amazingly powerful emotion.
“Autistic love is not love which changes when it finds a change in circumstances, or bends from it’s firm stand even when a loved one is unfaithful. Oh no! Love is a lighthouse that sees storms but is never shaken. Autistic love is a guiding North Star to every lost ship, whose value cannot be calculated, although it’s altitude can be measured. Autistic love is not at the mercy of Time, though physical beauty comes within the compass of his sickle. Autistic love does not alter with hours and weeks. But, rather, it endures until the last day of life. If I am proved wrong about these thoughts on love, then I recant all that I have written, and no one has ever truly loved.”
In these trying times, let’s not look upon each other with envy and ask that we quantify our existence in order to receive the blessings of society.
We all have strengths and challenges.
Let’s instead look to each other kindly; simply loving each other without precondition.
This is, after all, the autistic way of proceeding.
Have a great day, my friends.