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A Perspective on Communication and Humanity
It is often made apparent that there is a misguided notion that those who are unable to communicate by conventional means, or in a conventional fashion, are somehow “less than human”. Two autistic voices who have provided readers with their perspective on this matter are Remi Yergeau and Mel Baggs. Yergeau is a self-described “autistic academic” who works as an associate professor at the University of Michigan while additionally contributing to the dialogue surrounding disability through various outlets (Yergeau). Baggs, who unfortunately passed away in April of 2020, was a non-verbal autistic author, blogger, and visionary within the realm of disability studies. Both Yergeau and Baggs have created works that illustrate their experiences as autistic individuals and incorporate ideas surrounding the ties between communication and the perception of one’s humanity. Though they worked independent of one another, Yergeau and Baggs both appear to have aimed to dispel the misconception of autistic communication as being lacking in humanity.
Remi Yergeau, author of “Introduction: Involution” (contained within Authoring Autism: On Rhetoric and Neurological Queerness), uses this piece to express to readers how autistic minds and bodies are frequently mistreated and improperly categorized as “abnormal” and “incapable” if they are not able to conform (or mask conformity) to the norms of society. Additionally, in this same vein, Yergeau notes that the ability to communicate in traditional ways is considered to be a requirement for entry into rhetoric and through rhetoric, entry into a sense of humanity (6). This work by Yergeau addresses unfair generalizations “that deny autistic people their humanity and the chance to define themselves while also challenging cognitive studies scholarship and its reification of the neurological passivity of autistics” (Duke University Press). As Yergeau puts it, “[it] is not uncommon, for example, for rhetoricians to claim that rhetoric is what makes one human… [and] if one is arhetorical, then one is not fully human” (6). In other words:
” Rhetoric comprises how we learn things and how we live. Autism, by contrast, signals the dissolution of such learning. This dissolution is sometimes presented as all-encompassing and at other times is claimed as a matter of degree or severity. We, the autistic, are that which contrasts”Remi Yergeau, “Introduction: Involution”
What is also important to criticizing this thought process is acknowledging how autism itself is a condition that one does not choose to have, yet it is perceived “as a disorder that prevents individuals from exercising free will and precludes them from accessing self-knowledge and knowledge of human others” (Yergeau 8).
To gain a broader perspective on the perception of the humanity of autistic people, namely autistic people whose characteristics do not meld perfectly well with the common, pre-conceived notion of what “proper” behavior and communication looks like, one may consider looking into reading “Up in the Clouds and Down in the Valley: My Richness and Yours”, an essay by Mel Baggs that was published in Disability Studies Quarterly. Baggs has been described as the mind behind several “forthright writings and films about being a nonverbal person with [autism who made] an impact in the fields of neurodiversity and disability rights”, to include their aforementioned essay (New York Times). “Up in the Clouds and Down in the Valley: My Richness and Yours”, among many other works from Baggs, recounted and explored Baggs’s own personal experiences with being both non-verbal and autistic and used these experiences to generate a conversation around what constitutes “proper” or “acceptable” forms of communication (which are founded on entirely faulty ideas of conformity). Additionally, Baggs made a great effort to “[convey] that people who think and communicate in nontraditional ways are fully human, and that humanness is a spectrum, not something that can be reduced to a normal/abnormal dichotomy” (New York Times). The tagline for Baggs’s personal blog, dubbed Cussin’ and Discussin seems to light-heartedly relay this untruthful thought about the humanity of those with developmental disabilities, including non-verbal autistic people, being less than those that are able to vocalize their thoughts aloud by portraying themself as “being human in a world that says [they’re] not” (Cussin’ and Discussin’).
As Baggs put it, “[autistic] people are not a special kind of people set apart from all other people”, as autistic people seek to be seen as “just one of many kinds of people”(Baggs). Baggs placed a heavy focus on the idea of non-verbal communication as indicative of an absence. Referring back to the idea of rhetoric and now language acting as the arbiters of cohesive thought to many, Baggs noted that “language was built mostly by non-autistic people… the most important things about the way [they perceived] and [interacted] with the world around [them] can only be expressed in terms that describe them as the absence of something important” (Baggs). It would be unfair, still, to equate a lack of language with a lack of thought or a lack of connection to humanity. There are additional ways in which people, autistic or not, are able to communicate without the use of verbal language. For instance, communication through the physical was essential for Baggs, as they “[had] many forms of communication in addition to, or instead, of language”, adding that “[they had] a body language… the way [they interacted] with things around [them] at a particular time, compared to how [they] usually [interacted] with them… ways of arranging objects and actions that give clues about where [their] interest [was] directed and in what manner” (Baggs). These non-traditional forms of communication should not be destined to be shunned and unappreciated, as they “are rich and varied forms of communication in their own right, not inadequate substitutes for the more standard forms of communication” (Baggs).
Ultimately, unconventional modes of communication are not indicative of either an absence of or a deficiency in humanity. Additional forms of communication outside of verbal communication are valid and should not cause their users to be punished simply because non-verbal communication is not what is promoted as broadly acceptable independent of the verbal. Yergeau and Baggs both independently demonstrated a strong understanding of this, which will hopefully work to further chip away at some of the negative stereotypes surrounding autistic communication, non-verbal or not.
“I hereby declare upon my word of honor that I have neither given nor received unauthorized help on this work”
Baggs, Amanda. “Up in the Clouds and down in the Valley: My Richness and Yours.” Cultural Commentary: Up in the Clouds and Down in the Valley: My Richness and Yours, Disability Studies Quarterly, 2010, dsq-sds.org/article/view/1052/1238.
Baggs, Mel. Cussin’ and Discussin’, 10 Apr. 2020, cussinanddiscussin.wordpress.com/.
Genzlinger, Neil. “Mel Baggs, Blogger on Autism and Disability, Dies at 39.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 28 Apr. 2020, www.nytimes.com/2020/04/28/health/mel-baggs-dead.html.
Yergeau, Remi. “About.” M. Remi Yergeau, remiyergeau.com/.
Yergeau, Remi. “Authoring Autism: On Rhetoric and Neurological Queerness.” Authoring Autism On Rhetoric and Neurological Queerness, Duke University Press, www.dukeupress.edu/authoring-autism.
Yergeau, Remi. “Introduction: Involution”. Authoring Autism: On Rhetoric and Neurological Queerness, 2017.