12 November, 2010

5. Is going to a hospital normal?

I really love chaoticidealism's blog, but I take issue with something she said in this NPR article about her. I actually don't really like the article at all because it seems to be focusing on how Lisa Daxer/chaoticidealism's ASD causes her to be able to study normal people and their amazing social behavior. I dislike this frame of autism ("autism teaches us about ourselves [ourselves meaning people who have certain abilities and act a certain way]!") and, although I haven't read all of her posts, the ones I have read have been about ableism and disability/autistic identity, not about studying normal people. I feel it does her a disservice to describe her blog that way.

Anyway, the offending passage is:

Daxer learned a lot about empathy from one of her housemates, a young woman she calls "superneurotypical" because she had such good social skills.

At the time, Daxer was feeling increasingly depressed and isolated. This woman seemed to understand. "I think she knew that I was hurting and she didn't want me to hurt anymore," Daxer says.

But her depression got worse. Eventually, Daxer ended up in the hospital.

"She visited me in the mental ward," Daxer says. "In our society, being crazy is considered very, very frightening. You think of TV slasher killers. And this girl, when I had depression, she visited me in the mental ward. That takes courage; that takes friendship; that takes empathy."

Obviously this girl sounds awesome, but I wouldn't characterize her awesomeness as "superneurotypical." To say that someone is "supersmart" would mean that they have more of whatever the average smart person has; to say that someone is "supergay" would mean they have more of whatever the average gay person has; and so on.

So, is the average "neurotypical" person (not a word I like, but I'll go with it) able to kind of judge what a person with ASD is feeling? I mean, is it the case that "neurotypicals" are better able than ASD people to judge everyone's feelings, not just "neurotypical" feelings? Which would lead to the conclusion that "neurotypical" people outperform ASD people at judging ASD people's feelings?

Well, that would be interesting--but it's obviously not true, because many people with ASD say that they can judge the feelings of other people with ASD. I don't know whether that's the case for me*, but I definitely know that lots of non-ASD people are terrible at judging how people with ASD are feeling. If you just noodle around the Internet for a minute, you will find quite a lot of ASD people describing how someone thought they were nervous or sad when they were calm, bored when they were having a panic attack, uninterested in things they were actually very interested in, and so on. In fact, sometimes police officers will harass or physically hurt people with ASD because they misinterpreted the person's behavior.

Lisa Daxer describes the "superneurotypical" girl as not just being able to identify LD's feelings, but as being brave and kind because she visited Daxer in the mental ward of a hospital, an intimidating and stigmatized place. Is this, too, a super version of normal behavior? Would the average normal person do something a little bit intimidating for the sake of kindness, whereas this extra-normal person did something very intimidating? With the implication being that people with ASD wouldn't inconvenience themselves for the sake of kindness at all?

Again, I think this is not true. I think normal people run around hugging each other all the time because that's easy for them. I think all people, when confronted with a scary action that seems like the right thing to do, make a decision based on various things--ability to handle anxiety and stress, bravery, morality, how much they care about the person they're doing it for.

I don't think chaoticidealism's friend was more normal than other normal people. I think she was a normal person who was extremely sensitive, loving, and brave. I think disabled people can also be sensitive, loving, and brave, and I would prefer that those characteristics not be equated with "ourselves" (non-disabled people) at the expense of the rest of us.

(I should mention that the impression I get of chaoticidealism from her blog is so different from the impression I get of Lisa Daxer from the article that I wonder if her comments were misrepresented by NPR. I have no idea whether this is true, but if it is true, the passage in the article is still a good example of how not having autism is associated in pop culture with kindness and sensitivity, to an illogical degree.)


  1. I'm also kind of mystified by the "autism enables [person with autism] to study people in an objective manner and learn to copy their behaviors" thing, even though I know it is a thing that some people with autism can do.

    I *wish* I could learn how to "study normal people and their amazing social behavior," but the fact is that normal people are too different from me for me to understand what I am seeing. Most of the time, I cannot *perceive* their amazing social behavior, let alone analyze it.

    (I've met people with an amazing capacity to empathize, too, and "neurotypical" is not what I'd call them, for the most part. They have tended to be quite unusual in their own ways).

  2. I don't really associate compassion with neurotypicality. I more associate people being cruel when they're in groups with neurotypicality but maybe that's just my hardened cynicism talking.

    Not that NTs can't be compassionate, but it's certainly not a rule that they are.