27 September, 2009

Like a person

My post yesterday was supposed to be about something else, but I got distracted by the fact that in high school my homosexuality created "special needs" that I had to advocate for. I think it's a funny story and also shows that, while disability is real, many of the worst aspects of having a disability aren't innate to being disabled.

My friend Niyatee said that she interacts with me as though I don't have AS, and she wondered if that was ableist. I don't think it is. At the same time, I like that she thought of it and doesn't buy the idea that people with disabilities, or any difference, should be treated "like everyone else." The "like everyone else" model actually puts a lot of pressure on people who are different to reduce their difference to one very measurable, nonthreatening thing, and be "like everyone else" otherwise. For example, for my teenage self homosexuality couldn't just be as simple as having a girlfriend or wife in the future while a boyfriend or husband was in everyone else's. Because I was attracted to girls, it affected many aspects of how I related to my peers. I ended up feeling like a failure because I couldn't keep my homosexuality "to myself," as I saw it. It was messy. It spilled out into other people's lives.

There probably are lesbian teenagers who have completely asexual friendships with straight girls. Similarly, there are disabled people whose only difference from nondisabled people is that they are in a wheelchair; and while it's hard to find an ASD example of a "like everyone else" disabled person, there is probably someone out there who has developed good social skills and doesn't have trouble with routines and obsessions, but has to use typing to communicate. If you can accept that this person types, you're good; otherwise you can treat them like...well, you know.

One of my favorite books contains the gloriously inarticulate sentence, "Mike needed to treat Randall like an autistic person. But he also needed not to treat him that way." The book is Send in the Idiots by Kamran Nazeer, and Mike and Randall are based on a real couple. Mike was great at advocating for Randall when people tried to bully and manipulate him, but he also patronized Randall, overestimating his guilelessness and dismissing his poetic talent as a savant skill. While Mike was admirably attuned to Randall's impairments, he didn't recognize the parts of Randall that didn't fit a stereotype. To supplement Nazeer's incoherence with my own, the best way to treat other people is always "like a person." Not like everyone else. Not like a gay person or a disabled person or a person of color.

My school treated me like everyone else in a way that was damaging. But on the other hand, what would it have meant for my school to treat me "like a gay person?" I guess, based on my dancing and changing problems, you might institute a system where gay students are classified as the "third sex" we were considered to be in the early twentieth century. It would not be standard practice for gay students to change with the same gender; you would set aside another room. If the atmosphere was especially puritanical (the type of school that doesn't allow boys in girls' residential halls, for example), you would have to set aside more rooms depending on how many gay students there were, with one gay boy and one lesbian changing in each changing room so there was no possibility of misconduct.

I have a feeling that if a school did this, it would be seen as a bad thing by almost everyone. Conservatives would complain that the school was recognizing an "alternative lifestyle," while liberals might protest that it treated gay people like another species. I would have liked it--after all, it's a policy tailored to fit my teenage self--but other gay kids would have been embarrassed that it was made into such a big deal. And of course the policy doesn't mention bisexual or questioning students, who would presumably make up a "fourth sex" not allowed to change with anyone. My school ignored the ways same-sex-attracted students were different, but the third and fourth sex system overestimates it, and assumes that all SSA students are different in the same way.

Actually, putting aside the fact that my school treated me like everyone else in a way that caused special needs, once I actually had those special needs certain teachers did a great job treating me like a person. As I mentioned in the previous post, Mrs. M. either understood, or didn't understand but respected, why I had so much anxiety about dancing with girls. She was also supportive when I dealt with my self-consciousness in idiosyncratic ways, like refusing to workshop my plays until my classmates had signed a contract saying they understood that it was natural for a gay person to write plays about gay people, and that they wouldn't be surprised or judgmental when that plot element appeared. As has probably been obvious, my gay person special needs were completely interconnected with my Asperger's special needs, which my teachers were equally sensitive to even though not all of them knew about my diagnosis. I didn't have to invoke a label for Mrs. G. to believe me and help me when I explained that I couldn't learn a dance by watching other people do it. I almost think it was better without a label, because it meant that Mrs. G. didn't think of a book or movie about autism, but just helped me with the specific problem that I had.

My friend John doesn't believe I have Asperger's. He says that I seem normal and people are overdiagnosed with trendy disorders. But he doesn't make a big show of being amused or baffled by the way I talk, which is something annoying that most people do when they don't know I have AS. This summer, John and I planned to meet in New York City, and based on what he already knew about me, he assumed I would have trouble taking the subway. He offered to take an unnecessary ride so he could find me at the train station and I wouldn't have to take the subway alone. This is a really good example of knowing and thinking about someone's challenges, without making a big deal out of how they are different. And I couldn't care less if John thinks I have Asperger's, because he treats me like a person.

One of the first times I talked to Niyatee, she kept saying how she liked the way I talked because "you just say things straight out." I said that I wished everyone liked it; I actually didn't, because it made it hard to write emails to professors or prospective employers. Then Niyatee said she felt embarrassed because she'd forgotten that I had Asperger's and had assumed I talked the way I did on purpose. This is the only time that she ever needed to consciously think about my AS, and because that was more than a year ago, she thinks it means she might be treating me "like everyone else." But actually, all it means is that when she finds out things about me she just finds them out, and doesn't feel the need to divide them into piles called Amanda and Asperger's, which is good, because those are really difficult piles to make and it also doesn't matter.

1 comment:

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