Behaviorism, Compliance, and the Subversiveness of Autistic Pride – Ryan Boren

It is deeply subversive to live proudly despite being living embodiments of our culture’s long standing ethical failings.

Source: THINKING PERSON’S GUIDE TO AUTISM: On Hans Asperger, the Nazis, and Autism: A Conversation Across Neurologies

This conversation between Steve Silberman and Maxfield Sparrow on Hans Asperger, Nazis, and autism connects past with present through the ever present themes of compliance and behaviorism.

Seeing non-compliance pathologized by Nazi doctors makes me proud to belong to a people who resist oppression. And realizing that so much of what passes for therapy and accommodation today would be wholeheartedly embraced by Nazi doctors reminds me that the monsters who killed Autistic children 80 years ago were also human beings with families and friends and loving relationships. It reminds me that otherwise good people today could also be monsters.

To be openly and proudly autistic is to be regarded as a threat to the social order.

If we were not threatening to the social order in some way, there would not be therapies designed to control how we move our bodies and communicate.

A threat processed on a near instinctual level:

I don’t get to talk about the lived experience of autism from this angle as often because I’m nervous about appearing too radical. I’m usually talking about how challenging life is for us, how often we are social outcasts, how the thin slice studiesshowed that people prejudge us harshly in just micro-seconds of seeing or hearing us (though we fare better than neurotypical subjects when people only see our written words), how many of us are homeless or unemployed. All of that is the flip side of this same subversive coin, though.

The revelations about Hans Asperger serve to remind us that “eugenics reassert themselves in every historical era” and that compliance and behaviorism are the social order acting against our neurotypes, our freedom, and our health—as they have done for a long time.

The hardest part for me was coming to realize how much the entire identification and naming of people with my neurotype was part of a tireless search to purge the Reich of all the non-compliant people. Asperger’s full name for our neurology was “autistic psychopathy” because our lower-than-neurotypical interest in social compliance was viewed as dangerous to the state. Sheffer says those identified as psychopaths were people “such as ‘asocials,’ delinquents, and vagrants” who “threatened social order.” We Autistics are still fighting lifelong battles against those who go to great lengths—sometimes abusive and deadly lengths—to force us to comply with their wish for us to not be Autistic. We still threaten social order. I opened this book thinking “history,” and closed it thinking “origins of an ongoing human crisis.”

One of the best things that could come out of this is a wake-up call, because concepts like eugenics reassert themselves in every historical era—whether it’s Nazis talking about “life unworthy of life,” geneticists in Iceland talking about “eradicating” Down syndrome through selective abortion, a presidential candidate mocking a disabled reporter from the podium while bragging about his “good genes,” or autism charities framing autism as an economic burden on society. Resisting institutionalized violence requires perpetual vigilance.

Reframe our tendency to rebel as part of our gift to the health of society,  as a perpetual vigilance that humanizes our spaces and our systems.

…at the same time, Asperger insisted that the non-compliance of his patients, and their tendency to rebel against authority, was at the heart of what he called “autistic intelligence,” and part of the gift they had to offer society.

Our non-compliance is not intended to be rebellious. We simply do not comply with things that harm us. But since a great number of things that harm us are not harmful to most neurotypicals, we are viewed as untamed and in need of straightening up. Sheffer writes that Dr. Asperger called this non-compliant trait malicious, mean, and uncontrollable. She notes him describing Autistic children as having a “lack of respect for authority, the altogether lack of disciplinary understanding, and unfeeling malice.” That appears to be the majority opinion of us today as well. If we were not threatening to the social order in some way, there would not be therapies designed to control how we move our bodies and communicate.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m not anti-therapy. I embrace therapies that help me with some of my Autistic co-occurring conditions like circadian rhythm disruption and digestive malfunction. I welcome treatments for epilepsy-a co-occurring condition found in 25% – 30% of Autistics-because I’ve seen how much suffering epilepsy brings. My late fiancé died from SUDEP, a fatal complication of epilepsy, and before his death I watched seizures shred his attempts at living a full life. What I am against are therapies to make us stop flapping our hands or spinning in circles. I am against forbidding children to use sign language or AAC devices to communicate when speech is difficult. I am against any therapy designed to make us look “normal” or “indistinguishable from our peers.” My peers are Autistic and I am just fine with looking and sounding like them.

But seeing more clearly that we have always faced the barriers we face today has stirred some pride in being part of a people who survive against the odds. Seeing non-compliance pathologized by Nazi doctors makes me proud to belong to a people who resist oppression.

It is deeply subversive to live proudly despite being living embodiments of our culture’s long standing ethical failings.

Max, for instance, based on your reading of Sheffer’s book, you said earlier, “Asperger called this non-compliant trait malicious, mean, and uncontrollable.” That’s partly true, but that’s also a result of Sheffer’s relentless cherry-picking, because at the same time, Asperger insisted that the non-compliance of his patients, and their tendency to rebel against authority, was at the heart of what he called “autistic intelligence,” and part of the gift they had to offer society.

One of my favorite anecdotes from Asperger’s thesis is when he asks an autistic boy in his clinic if he believes in God. “I don’t like to say I’m not religious,” the boy replies, “I just don’t have any proof of God.” That anecdote shows an appreciation of autistic non-compliance, which Asperger and his colleagues felt was as much a part of their patients’ autism as the challenges they faced. Asperger even anticipated in the 1970s that autistic adults who “valued their freedom” would object to behaviorist training, and that has turned out to be true.

Source: THINKING PERSON’S GUIDE TO AUTISM: On Hans Asperger, the Nazis, and Autism: A Conversation Across Neurologies

Source: Behaviorism, Compliance, and the Subversiveness of Autistic Pride – Ryan Boren

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