01 February, 2016

The Softer Side of Searing

The New Yorker has been kind enough to publish my letter, where I point out that Autistic kids don't have black mirrors for eyes. (Their version // my initial version.) I really appreciate them doing this because I hope it will make their readers consider the effects of dehumanizing language. I don't refer to my hurt feelings, but to the way people may behave after being exposed again and again to the idea that Autistic kids are bad tempered, bad to be around, and different to the point of being inhuman.

I also hope that the wording of my letter will remind people that autism is just one of the many disabilities that exist. I feel this is an important thing to remember, both for Autistic people's benefit and for the benefit of people with other disabilities.

When the New Yorker first edited my letter, I didn't like some of the changes they made. I worried that they would not publish my letter if I argued, but the Letters Editor was very nice and accommodated the 3 requests that I had.

However, I want to point something out. I summarized the black mirrors quote this way:

Shapin claims that Autistic children's eyes "are not windows to their souls, but black mirrors."

The New Yorker wanted to change it to:

Shapin mentions the struggle of parents whose autistic children’s eyes "are not windows to their souls, but black mirrors."

My original letter did not mention parents at all, nor did it need to. It was only about a 9-word phrase describing Autistic kids' eyes. Knowing that this phrase appeared in a sentence about parents does not explain or excuse it. It is just as bad to write, "Autism parents suffer because their kids have black mirrors for eyes," as, "Autistic kids have black mirrors for eyes"--and for the purposes of my letter, I don't see the value of one over the other.

I explained why I did not agree with the edit--"Bringing up parents' 'struggle,' when it's not relevant to my point, is something that I don't agree with because I think media discussions of autism are already biased toward the experiences of parents. (Of course their experiences are important; they are just not the only perspective, and they're often treated that way.) That line doesn't represent how I would write."

It's a bad habit the media has when discussing autism--always inserting the perspective of parents, whether or not there is a reason to do so.  I've read a lot of great deconstructions of this by Autistic people, but my favorite is Zoe's parody article from a few years ago, Person With Autism Manages to Do Something:

How does Joe Autie feel about his achievement? “We’re very proud of him,” said his mother.

Anyway, I suggested that if the editor wanted to provide context, it would be better to quote more of the review. Now the letter includes the entire sentence that the black mirrors line is from:

It’s a searing experience to have a child who doesn’t talk, who doesn’t want to be touched, who self-harms, who demands a regularity and an order that parents can’t supply, whose eyes are not windows to their souls but black mirrors.

This edit is okay with me, but does have an unfortunate result. My letter begins with this quote, but only talks about black mirrors--giving the impression that there's nothing to say about the rest of this quote. However, it's actually pretty awful from beginning to end. I just decided to write in about "black mirrors" because it was the most obviously wrong and offensive part of the sentence, and I felt I could write something very short about it.

I want to address the rest of the sentence, though, except for the part about the "searing experience." If people feel "seared" by having Autistic kids, I can't argue with that--it's how they feel. I feel "seared" by reading that it's "searing" to have a kid like me--and that's how I feel. If feelings can't be criticized, it's a tie. However, I can and will criticize the list of reasons that Autistic kids are "searing."

After "black mirrors," what stuck out to me is the self harm--specifically the construction, "It's a searing experience to have a child who self-harms." I'm afraid that this is such a common construction, when writing about autism, that it's not obvious what is wrong with this picture. Imagine the following description of a violent accident:

Kendra, a kindergarten teacher, slipped on the steps of her house; she fell and cracked her head open on the sidewalk. It was very upsetting to all the people on the street to see Kendra lying there. Kendra's husband fell into a deep depression, unable to deal with what had happened. Kendra's students were very distressed when she could not come back to work because of her brain injury.

Hopefully this example gets the point across. Everyone has good reason to be seriously affected by Kendra's accident, especially her husband. But we don't expect to have their perspectives emphasized to the point that they entirely drown out Kendra's perspective of her situation. Her physical condition is only described in terms of its effect on others, and her feelings aren't described at all.

That is just a ridiculous way to describe something bad happening to Kendra--because first and foremost, it happens to Kendra. It does not happen to the people around her, no matter how much they love her. I can't speak to every person's experience of self harm, but in my experience it feels pretty bad internally--and physically, of course, it hurts a lot. No one else's reaction to self-harm is as "searing" as being in that situation yourself. To frame a child self injuring in terms of how someone else feels about it is unbelievably unempathetic to the child; and when it happens over and over in the media to the point of being unremarkable, that is really disturbing.

However, as I read the multi-faceted "searing" quote again and again, what stands out the most is the implication that autism is volitional--that Autistic children are being Autistic on purpose, just to torture the people around them. I addressed this idea a few years ago in my post Behavior vs. Ability. I was saying that those who are more empathetic to a disabled person will usually see the person's actions/inactions in terms of what they are not able to do, the fact that they may have to do things in alternate ways, and that they are trying to cope. On the other hand, there's the colder view that the actions are all there is--the person "prefers to do this," "refuses to do that." No reason is given, and no acknowledgment is given to the idea that a reason might exist. The person is just being bad.

It's subtle. But look what Shapin says:

a child who doesn’t talk

Why not "a child who can't talk?" Does Shapin mean to say that kids who can't talk are just refusing to talk? Does he really believe they can talk?

a child who demands a regularity and an order that parents can’t supply

Why not "a child who needs a regularity and an order that parents can't supply?" I doubt the child is drawing up a contract of "demands" like a rock band demanding green M&Ms in their rider. The child is upset when things aren't regular and orderly. The child is struggling, not "demanding" things.

(Imagine if the New Yorker had wanted to edit my letter to discuss "the struggles of children with black mirrors for eyes" instead of "the struggles of parents who have children with black mirrors for eyes." It's really too bad how surprising that would be.)

And how come the child "doesn't" talk, but the parents "can't" supply order? Why not say "the parents refuse to supply the order the child needs?" Because Shapin has empathy for the parents and understands there are things they can't do--but the child is just a mirror-eyed cipher.

Well, I'm just spitballing here--I don't want to go point by point through the whole sentence and edit everything to make it sound more like the child is in fact disabled--not "demanding" the things they need to function, not refusing to talk to "sear" their parents, not self-harming just for the hell of it. At that point, the sentence would no longer be as damaging to Autistic kids, but it still wouldn't be very good. ("This is the worst writing I've ever seen in the New Yorker," was my mom's comment, although her judgment may have been affected by all that searing I did to her.)

Anyway, I just wanted to give the searing sentence a more thorough look, and now I'll shuffle off with 2 boring postscripts:

1. I want to be very clear that I was not offended by the idea that Autistic kids' eyes look black, or that they look different from other people's eyes. I was offended by the context and implications. I don't like the resemblance to the Black-Eyed Children urban legend and to the purely black eyes (including black sclera) in a lot of ghost/alien/monster characters in movies and TV. I don't like the idea that our body parts aren't flesh but metal, or the idea of us having "nothing behind our eyes" where other people have souls.

However, lots of people do have glass eyes, metal spines, and so on. There's nothing supernatural about that either. When I jump on this quote like, "How dare you say this!" it is NOT because I think there's something horrific or monstrous about anybody who really has glass eyes, has very different looking eyes (no pupils, etc.), or doesn't have any eyes at all. It is because of the context and the tropes it's drawing on. And while the insult was specifically aimed at Autistic people, I don't think it does blind people any favors either to talk in such a weirdly tragifying, spooky way about eyes that look different, or eyes that do not focus and make eye contact.

2. It's hardly worth responding to, but Shapin says some really false and insulting things about the neurodiversity or Autistic self advocacy movement. I assume these are regurgitated from the book. For a smart and clear self advocate response to In a Different Key, that explains exactly how untrue these assertions are, I recommend Ari Ne'eman's review.


  1. Thank you for your letter. I'm still fuming after reading it.

  2. (after reading the article, not your letter.)

  3. I wish the Times had published this entire piece. Have you considered submitting it to The Huffington Post, or elsewhere? Your points are so very important.

  4. When you see something that is SO wrong, it is hard to fix it by changing a few parts.

  5. A poor choice of words to be sure but I sure get BOTH concepts?!

  6. If you read the old Irish, Scottish, etc changeling legends, many of the "characteristics" they describe sound like autism or Asperger's. And the "cure" was to abuse the child horribly until the fairies brought your "real" child back. And here we have someone describing kids with autism with language that sounds like a horror movie.