Society should be moving beyond autism awareness and autism acceptance towards appreciation of all forms of neurodiversity. However, the label of neurodiversity is being co-opted. I cringe when I read statements and absurd goals like this one:
SAP has announced an intention to make 1% of its workforce neurodiverse by 2020—a number chosen because is less than the percentage of autistic people in the general population.
Co-opting of neurodiversity is the flag of convenience for exploitation. The reality: SAP, Microsoft et al. make a big deal out of aiming at 1% of “proper, certified by the autism industry” autists within their workforce, whilst at least another > 9% of their workforce don’t dare to openly identify as autistic, because they know what it would do to their career prospects.
This is Autwashing and not the celebration of neurodiversity. Autism awareness has translated into a proliferation of stereotypes. Autism acceptance has translated into the realisation that we are not going away.
#Autwashing is the opposite of #AutismAppreciation.
Our culture is sick. We don’t even have a good language to talk about diseases of society. Instead our society cultivates a language for describing ways in which individuals are “deficient” and “deserve to be rejected”.
The theme of the upcoming CIIC workshop on 22 September in Auckland is the Anthropocene. I wonder when our culture will start to acknowledge the link between mental health problems and social diseases – diseases of society that negatively impact people and the environment. “Treating” individuals is only addressing symptoms and not any of the root causes.
Mental health professionals have developed an increasingly rich diagnostic language to talk about individual mental heath, but we do not have any nuanced framework to talk about social / cultural / environmental diseases.
The underlying assumption of neoliberal psycho-marketecture is that human behaviour at all levels of scale can be explained as competition according to culturally defined rules.
This ideology nurtures instead of curbs the latent human tendency develop an arbitrary socially constructed sense of entitlement and to construct deep social power hierarchies.
The social norms that operated in small stateless societies and in hunter gatherer societies prior to the advent of large scale civilisations and empires did exactly the opposite, and curbed any attempts to gain power over others. Such egalitarian social norms allowed human primates to become much more successful than all other primates, and being very much compatible with autistic social motivations, they allowed neurodivergent creativity to flourish.
There is every reason to believe that contemporary human societies survive in spite of neoliberal psycho-marketecture and thanks to the exploitation of neurodivergent people, and especially those with autistic traits.
The catch is that non-autistic people have a big emotional attachment to status within their culture and social groups, whereas autists usually don’t. Therefore, whenever we say or do something that questions the established social order we are perceived as not having empathy. Until the 1980s most of us were simply seen as weird, and some people even genuinely appreciated the qualities that came with our weirdness.
The wider population is still ignorant and is completely unfamiliar with the social model of disability. Pathologising stereotypes keep getting circulated, leading to the perpetuation of support for organisations that advocate Applied Behaviour Analysis (ABA) and research on the slippery slope towards eugenics like this New Zealand branch of the autism industry. No autistic person is in sight, only geneticists and “normalisation” therapists.
This article provides an excellent summary of the level of appreciation afforded to neurodivergent individuals:
“Too many depictions of autistic people rely on tired clichés. The neurotypical world needs to take note of our own voices… Imagine describing an organisation as institutionally black, institutionally female or institutionally Muslim … Yet, somehow, intelligent people can drop ‘autistic’ into conversation whenever they want to draw a contrast between the unfeeling, insensitive, uncreative parts of this world, and their bright, emotional, magnificent selves.
Judy Singer was one of the first people to write about the rise of autistic culture and community in her thesis in 1998:
For me, the significance of the autism spectrum lies in its call for and anticipation of a politics of neurodiversity. The neurologically different represent a new addition to the familiar political categories of class / gender / race and will augment the insights of the social model of disability. The rise of neurodiversity takes postmodern fragmentation one step further. Just as the postmodern era sees every once too solid belief melt into air, even our most taken-for granted assumptions: that we all more or less see, feel, touch, hear, smell, and sort information, in more or less the same way, (unless visibly disabled) are being dissolved.
From “Odd People In: The Birth of Community Amongst People on the Autism Spectrum: A personal exploration of a new social movement based on neurological diversity”
The internet has enabled autistic people to connect, share knowledge and collaborate at scale. A large number of closet autists play key roles in the sciences and in all kinds of industries and pursuits that depend heavily on deep bodies of knowledge and on specialised skills.
One of the most obvious and visible results of autistic collaboration is the Open Source software movement and the fact that most parts of the internet run on Open Source software.
The role of Open Source in our society provides a good example of exploitation of neurodivergent people. Our economic paradigm does not recognise the value of the majority of contributors to Open Source and instead attributes most of the value to corporations that wrap Open Source software into commercial software products and related professional services.
Autistic people are power users of online tools, but significant numbers of us also prefer to collaborate and interact with autistic peers in the physical world. Statistics on mating preferences within the autistic community clearly highlight the preference for interactions with autistic peers, with the odds of autists choosing an autistic mate being more than 10 times higher than a random choice.
Full appreciation of neurodiversity and social progress in relation to autistic rights is overdue. To get involved, and to fully embrace neurodiversity, engage with the neurodiversity movement, for example via these projects, these people, and these neurodiventures.