22 January, 2016

I wrote a great letter to the New Yorker

In Steven Shapin's review of In a Different Key, he claims that Autistic children's eyes "are not windows to their souls, but black mirrors." Actually, I'm Autistic and since I was a child, I've had completely ordinary-looking eyes--irises, pupils, and so on. I've known a lot of Autistic kids and adults, and I can testify that none of us have black mirrors for eyes.

Some people don't do much communication through eye gaze, which is presumably what Shapin meant. Many Autistic people don't make eye contact because it hurts us. Blind people don't make eye contact because they cannot see. Some people with other disabilities (like Parkinson's disease) cannot control the motions of their eyes. I've met all kinds of people who don't make eye contact, but I've never met anyone whose eyes I would describe as black mirrors. It sounds like something out of a horror movie.

Now, this is some figurative language, so maybe I'm missing the point. I'm Autistic, after all. But I think and think about this phrase, and all I see is some very negative, dehumanizing language aimed at children with a developmental disability. In an article that contains several pieces of misinformation about Autistic people, "black mirrors" is the icing on the cake.


  1. I'm the mom of an Aspergirl, who is 7. I agree that the statement in The New Yorker was a bit surprising, and I disagree, too -- certainly if it's meant to be a generalization. But where I'm at in my own journey of understanding both my daughter and outside perceptions of her, I can accept reading that. I can accept reading all sorts of hearsay and misunderstandings so that I can better support my daughter should she feel frustrated when she's old enough to talk about her childhood. maybe, as the DSM-V becomes more the reality, people will really understand that some people can be autistic AND compassionate, and some can't and the "spectrum," just like you shouldn't make generalizations about any groups of people. I like your writing! It's philosophy mixed with kvetching mixed with heart and truth.

    1. Hi Mick--thanks for your comment, but I don't think you're picking up what I'm putting down. It seems like you're saying that the problem with "black mirrors" is that it's a generalization. But no one has eyes like black mirrors.

      I find it such a weird image that it's hard to understand what he's referring to, but I think Shapin was maybe referring to trying to look at a person's eyes to communicate with them, but the person either avoids eye contact, or has a spaced out look and the observer perceives the person as "looking through him" or not noticing his attempts to make eye contact. I get that this may be unnerving for some people, but saying that the Autistic person has "black mirrors" for eyes makes them sound like some kind of monster--it calls to mind the urban legend of supernatural creatures disguised as "black eyed children" (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Black-eyed_children) and the complete phrase (with "windows to the soul") comes up just on the edge of implying that Autistic people don't have souls.

      It is just way out of line as a description of Autistic people's appearance. I hope that most people would at least understand that it's wrong to describe blind people this way (maybe I'm giving people too much credit)--it's just as bad to describe Autistic people that way.

      There's a pretty long and storied history of disabled adults & kids being described and framed as not fully human, or not human at all, or not having souls or feelings. This may even be especially the case with Autistic people. For example the famous Ivar Lovaas quote about Autistic kids: "You have a person in the physical sense — they have hair, a nose and a mouth — but they are not people in the psychological sense."

      But you can see this almost anywhere, in popular books about autism, or articles in popular magazines/newspapers, or on TV and in movies. There's nothing behind our eyes; our behavior is always described as being "for no reason," instead of assumed to have a reason; we are missing basic elements of humanity; we don't feel love, pain, etc.; we are like aliens, or husks of a person. We are described in a way that emphasizes strangeness and ignores our humanity. I have seen a quote literally saying that Autistic people are "not sentient human beings."

      When the average person hears descriptions like this again and again, of course it has a real effect on how they treat Autistic people they encounter. It's simply unacceptable for the media to dehumanize people like this, especially kids.

      Your focus on generalizations implies...I think...that you see the problem as being that some Autistic people really are as described (black mirrors, feel no pain, etc.) but other Autistic people are not, but they're being lumped in with the people who are. I don't agree at all. Not sure where the reference to compassion comes in.

    2. This book has many flaws. I think the worst of them is it does very much play into the notions of autistic as absent, devoid of empathy and other things which I would guess we have all seen enough of.

      Every clip I have seen has some dehumanizing tidbit and they make a lot of claims that cannot be substantiated. Not sure why the book gets any press at all as it is truly horrible.

      I am 47 years old and a bit sick of being describe in ways as if I am missing something central to being human and this book is in there doing exactly that too often.

    3. Just to clarify, I haven't read the book and the line I'm quoting was said by the reviewer Steven Shapin and not in the book as far as i know.

      That said, my impression of the book isn't good, and I kind of wondered in Shapin's review if he wasn't too familiar with the issues and was just parroting what he read in the book. I particularly thought this toward the end when he dragged out the old thing about how Autistic self advocates are all "high functioning," don't want autism to be treated, and don't care about "low functioning" people. He wasn't even saying that this is a criticism made by parents, but repeating it as if it was a scientific fact.

  2. Apt.

    You can see more of the problems with the book in Emily Willingham's review at the SF Chronicle: http://www.sfchronicle.com/books/article/In-a-Different-Key-by-John-Donvan-and-6778305.php?t=1be6630190&cmpid=twitter-premium

    I'm live-tweeting my reading of the book at @shannonrosa and @thinkingautism at #InADifferentKey, will Storifying and full review forthcoming.

    1. This is a quote from the reviewer not the book, although I sure haven't heard anything good about the book.