25 June, 2011

real time post #1

but not a super composed post, just a reply to a comment. Normally I'd just respond in the comment thread obviously, but since I've had poor access to the Internet I have spent a lot of time thinking about the comment and have a lot to say.

Sarah Abraham-son is a person who writes a blog called Aspies on TV where she lists TV and movie characters who she thinks have "Asperger's." Several months ago I made a comment here expressing why I didn't agree with the blog, and she recently came across the comment and left her own comment on one of my recent posts. This is Sarah's comment:

Hi Amanda:
I just read this, I'm not sure how we disagree, based on your comment on my blog. Of course people with ASDs commonly have EF issues and mood issues, but these are not core features and not part of the diagnostic features, but often more disabling than some core features. Many of the fictional characters I described do have these features, eg. David Brent in The UK Office (EF issues help him be bad at his job, mood issues develop later when he's fired). This sort of issue though is not very funny, and the aim of fiction is firstly to entertain in some way, so not standard in comedy characters with ASDs.

Hi Sarah. Like many Autistic people and allies, I don’t consider the stuff you consider to be core features of autism to be core features of autism. I’d recommend reading my “social skills don’t exist” series to better understand my perspective on social skills being socially constructed.

As for executive function and mood not being part of the diagnostic critera for autism spectrum disabilities, that’s neither here nor there as the DSM kind of blows in this department. Also, the social skills thing is really neither here nor there either, as a lot of of the characters you claim are “Aspies” don’t even have the kind of social problems that verbal people with autism usually have, but are insensitive or odd in any number of ways. I think fictional diagnostics is fun and everything, but to pick out any character who doesn’t fit in socially or acts rude, without taking the time to think about the specific reasons why some verbal Autistic people don’t fit in or are perceived as rude, is to thoughtlessly perpetuate the very popular and inaccurate belief that all types of insensitivity and social awkwardness equal “Asperger’s.”

Not really clear what you mean with the entertainment value thing--I can think of many humorous portrayals of people with mood disorders and other psychiatric disabilities (although I don’t agree with a lot of them obviously), and cognitive disabilities including intellectual disabilities and Alzheimer’s. Just on a basic level, I tried to serve myself corn in a water glass the other day and all my campers thought it was really funny. Probably much more funny than if I said, “Wow, you have ugly hair” or whatever I’d be saying if I was an autism pop culture character.

Furthermore...come on. Funniness is not an excuse for portraying minority groups inaccurately or disrespectfully--not that portraying a minority group was even what most of these TV shows and movies were trying to do.


  1. Or, you know, I'd like to see more social awkwardness where a character is clearly trying to do something thoughtful or sweet but it comes across as creepy or rude to other people-- not because the socially awkward character "isn't empathetic enough" or can't understand that other people have different points of view than they do, but because there's poor communication going on on both ends. Or because the awkward character's unusual body language/way of speaking/whatever is being misinterpreted by everyone else.

    Pop culture autism/Asperger's seems to be a condition where people just go around acting like jerks all the time because they are completely self-centered and can't understand that other people have feelings or that other people's feelings are important.

    Also, I think it's weird how people who are really fixated on a special interest are often depicted droning on about that interest in a bored-sounding monotone like they're quoting directly from a particularly dry textbook. Because *my* special interests make me excited, and talking about them tends to involve a lot of giddy enthusiasm and arm-waving and temporary loss of all embarrassment and shyness. Not every autistic person acts like me, either, but I don't think I've yet run across a real person who did the bored-oblivious-textbook-monotone thing when discussing one of their passions.

  2. I love you for this.

    Also, fitz-clementine, agreed about the special interest=excitement! I'm told I only do the bored-oblivious-textbook-drone thing when I'm trying to chit-chat--and even then, I'm more likely to panic, talk really fast, and sound giddy at first before the failure and shame and revulsion and stiffness set in.

  3. You are awesome.

    "Asperger's"/autism != being a jerk.

    I really think a lot of people think it is, though, even autistic people. Hence the vast speculation that characters such as House, Snape, and even (ugh!) Voldemort are on the spectrum, with jerkitude being the main criterion for diagnosis.

    And that blog...just, no. It's kind of scary to think that people who are going to be professionals buy into that pop culture b.s. and are so dismissive of autistic people describing our disability experiences.

  4. Hi Amanda,

    I've been reading your blog for a while, and I find it fascinating, erudite, entertaining, and altogether excellent, as far as illuminating issues I had never before considered, associated with autism/disability. (For a bit of context, I recently began working with children with special needs in a London primary school. Some of them are autistic, others are disabled in other ways.)

    One area I'm curious about is the fact that you describe yourself as Christian. How do religion and autism interact for you? So much of organised religion seems to be built around somewhat arbitrary rituals. It doesn't strike me that it would come naturally to someone with autism. I realise it's a fairly personal question, but I'm genuinely interested in what your experience with religion has been.

    many thanks,

  5. Natalia:

    I can't answer for Amanda, but even though I am not a religious person I still find many of the (Christian) ceremonies I was raised with very beautiful and comforting. I don't know if this is because autistic people like order and ritual to give their lives shape and meaning, because human beings like order and ritual to give their lives shape and meaning, or just because *I* like order and ritual, etc.
    I think there's a common idea that autistic people are somehow more logical/rational than non-autistic people, and another common idea that religious people aren't logical/rational. I would say that neither of these generalizations is true, and if you don't use them as your starting premises, it doesn't seem to me that there's any reason to assume that autistic people would gravitate in a particular spiritual direction simply on account of their autisticness.

  6. "I've yet run across a real person who did the bored-oblivious-textbook-monotone thing when discussing one of their passions."

    We sometimes really do sound like we're lecturing people, I think especially when we're younger and maybe haven't had our communication style influenced by other people as much yet. But we generally still sound like we're interested in our interests, even though there's a whole range of what that sounds like, some of that quite detached and calm sounding.

    I guess this is that thing where if you have a stereotype, some people are going to fit it perfectly, more people are going to sort of fit it or be close to it, and lots of people aren't going to fit it at all.

    In regard to the blog post itself, I can also mention myself as an autistic person who agrees with it. I don't think the PHD seeking woman sounds that bad at all, but she clearly has lots of academic weight pushing her to think about as subjects of study and some of the result of that is pretty condescending sounding. When you invest yourself in academia like that then that kind of influence is one of the costs.

    And yeah I'm not religious but I don't think there's any contradiction between being autistic and religious. I'd think it was really cool if most autistic people were nonreligious like me, but I think there's actually not any correlation. Then actual religious communities can be some of the most accepting places for autistic people in the US so there's that aspect.

  7. Sorry about this...
    "she clearly has lots of academic weight pushing her to think about as subjects of study"

    Should be "to think about us as." I do proof read but my brain still does weird things when I'm writing.

  8. Not speaking for Amanda, here. Just as myself.

    A lot of “arbitrary” rituals in any religion have a lot of deep meaning behind them. The people who are really into those rituals often are tapping into that meaning. Unfortunately, Christianity is “pushed” onto a lot of people in this country, so there are people who do not generally “get” the deepness behind that particular set of rites, but do them anyway. Just “going through the motions”. But that doesn’t mean the depths aren’t there.

    There are lots of ways to communicate something outside of words, and ceremony, like (communicative) stimming is a way of sharing understanding outside of word!brain. Both from the outside have been described as “meaningless”.

    On the other hand, protestant Christianity isn't as big on ceremony as many religions, anyway and has a lot more religious scholarship/book reading.

  9. gosh I forgot to answer this. tbh I'm a huge fail at being "Christian" in the way you might mean it, I find it very upsetting to go to church so I don't go, although I like to imagine someday I could find a church that I'd be able to go to, maybe a really big anonymous church that's also informal, if there are churches like that. I wasn't raised religious so I think that religion tends to feel more personal for me than it does for other people and doesn't necessarily have implications that it has for most people (for example people often seem to assume that being Christian and being gay is or has been a conflict for me, but because my Christianity is just an individual thing I haven't been part of an anti-gay Christian family or community, or whatever people are assuming). I have a Christianity tag that I have written a few posts in if you are interested, but I haven't written much as it's hard to talk about.

    I don't really understand your question about ritual though. In fact I'd be more inclined to think that people with autism would be attracted to something that involves rituals.