9 December 2021
Including Autism Without Normalizing or Other-izing
When in the course of human creation, there arises several genetic differences that create what is known as the “individual”. Common morality would argue that these differences are unavoidable and therefore each individual ought to be treated with respect to ensure a common human flourishing. However, eugenicists argue, often successfully, that these genetic differences are tragedies and ought to be “cured” as a way of ensuring ethnic homogeneity. These statements have made their way into the public consciousness in many forms and have created several problems for people with disabilities. Remi Yergeau, in their piece, “Introduction: Involution” from Authoring Autism: On Rhetoric and Neurological Queerness illustrates how these problems affect autistic people, including autonomy, negativity, and diagnosis.
The culture facing autistic people creates a lack of autonomy. Remi Yergeau was born and raised as a “normal” child up until they were diagnosed “as a young adult… with autism.” (1) Traditionally, some would say that their behaviors typical of autistic people represents a loss of autonomy — their involuntary gestures, screams, and others. Instead, their diagnosis soon provided a lens through which to read all their previously normal (perhaps a little “odd”) behaviors. As they write, “My hand and full-body movements became self-stimulatory behaviors; my years-long obsession with maps and the Electric Light Orchestra became perseverations; my repetition of lines from the movie Airplane! became echolalia.” (Yergeau 1) Essentially, “This, my body, this was autism… I was no longer my body’s author.” (Yergeau 1) By way of their diagnosis, Yergeau lost a large degree of control in the sense that they could no longer explain their own behavior. That is, they had the physical capacity to communicate their individuality, but people would not listen. Their patterns and words were construed to be as a result of their autism — there is “autism” and Yergeau, each separate. This shows a loss of autonomy, because while this traditional line of thinking places the autism and person separately, the autistic person is the total individual.
Even the notion of “involuntary” creates a loss of autonomy. As Yergeau explains:
When one is schizophrenic, for example, her rhetorical actions are rendered less as symbolic actions and more as biological motions: schizophrenia causes the person to act. The schizophrenic person, in these constructions, has no volition—or whatever volition she has is tempered by the schizophrenia. (10)
As they put it, “Involuntarity is a project of dehumanization.” (Yergeau 10) In other words, they lose physical and symbolic control over their own actions. People will look at a neurodivergent person and separate their intended meaning from their actions, creating a loss of autonomy and dehumanization. They continue, “We are conditioned to believe that our selves are not really selves, for they are eternally mitigated by disability, in all of its fluctuations.” (Yergeau 10) This creates a sort of two selves — the autism and the person, rather than the autistic person. In this sense, autistic people lose their identity, control, and autonomy.
Autistic people are portrayed negatively in popular narrative as well. According to Yergeau:
Media accounts of autistic people communicate the sensationalism of savant-beings who are at once so extraordinary yet so epistemically distant and critically impaired. We are bombarded with anecdotes of children who refuse to hug their parents, of children whose worlds are supposedly so impoverished that they spend their days spinning in circles, or flapping their hands, or screaming or self-injuring or resisting—ardently and fixatedly resisting. (3)
Essentially, autistic people are shown to be strange, inhuman creatures. Hugging one’s parents, retaining control over one’s body, and other behaviors constitute what is “normal”, by violating this, autistic people are viewed as abnormal, which is decidedly negative. These are “shitty narratives”, hyper focusing on what is outside of autistic people’s control and authoring a narrative that places “autistic people as victim-captives of a faulty neurology” (Yergeau 3). Here it shows that there is intersectionality between the various problems facing autistic people: their autonomy is directly connected to a negative stereotype.
Nothing shows this intersectionality more than a medical diagnosis. As Yergeau explains, “When autism is diagnosed, it is thought to reside, to push out the normalcy and invade, body-snatcher style. As in, autism made toddler me throw and smear and lick my own shit. As in, autism is making me write this book, and you, dear reader, should be skeptical at all turns.” (16) This is an example of a diagnosis creating a lack of autonomy and a negative stereotype. The imaginary doctor in this scenario invites the reader to read the text through a lens of disability — that is, not just accepting that the author has autism but assuming their writing stems from it. The reader might assume these thoughts are just as involuntary as their erratic body movements, leading to both a negative and a lack of autonomy. In addition, this shows how diagnosis creates a stigma that was otherwise not present. When combined with the author’s story of their diagnosis as a young adult, this adds to the notion that there are two separate Yergeaus: Autism, and the “real” Yergeau lurking under it all, and this distinction only formed when they were diagnosed. The reality is that Yergeau is both “real” and autistic and has been since they were born.
Ultimately, Remi Yergeau’s story explains perfectly three major areas that impact the perceptions of autistic people: autonomy, negativity, and diagnosis. These areas, because of Yergeau’s narration, have been shown to correlate. By way of intersecting each other, these three spheres have combined under a larger negative perception. This is ableism, a phenomenon that impacts all people with disabilities, including autistic people. It involves otherization, viewing people as “lesser”, and attempting medically to “solve” what fundamentally composes the individual. This a pipeline to eugenic ways of thinking, with the average person feeling pity for the disabled and advocating for science to “cure” disability, because the disability is apparently separate from the individual. Therefore, society must work towards eliminating this discrimination that autistic people face as a step towards a better world.
Word Count: 1012
Yergeau, Remi. Authoring Autism: On Rhetoric and Neurological Queerness. Duke University Press, 2018.