Other Voices: People with Autism Deserve Better Than Brain Bigotry
The Ann Arbor News, Oct. 31, 2005
I don’t know which is more frightening: the hate speech/office gossip of Mikita Brottman (Other Voices, Oct. 11) or the fact that it’s seen by editors across the country as appropriate editorial content. Brottman writes of two difficult co-workers whom she diagnoses with an autistic abnormality, Asperger Syndrome, even though the characteristics she describes have nothing to do with AS, even though her article violates the privacy of her subjects by pinpointing the campus with which they were associated in the recent past making them easy to out, and [even though Brottman claims to be a psychotherapist without any credentials at all]*.
That Brottman generalizes from two anecdotal examples should be considered suspect. By doing this she creates a portrait of a clearly obnoxious colleague. (I could speculate that she did what she could to make her co-workers’ lives miserable, but that would be following her lead.) She also implies that when a professor is not eccentric but has Asperger Syndrome, he or she should not be hired much less granted tenure.
And there it is, brain bigotry, the last shameless prejudice.
By reclassifying her colleagues from eccentric to AS, Brottman is choosing a spot where she is free to bash as she wishes. And publishers of newspapers (including the online Chronicle of Higher Education) see nothing wrong if they see it at all.
In fact, Brottman’s right to the thorny crown of martyrdom at the hands of these two colleagues who are, after all, gone, is nothing compared to the authentic suffering of all autistics at the hands of people with views like Brottman’s who see them as inhuman, thereby missing out on the great but divergent humanity these kids offer for the taking. Instead, children are subjected to violating treatments to make them more likable, easier to love. Sometimes the treatments, from suffocating restraints to snake oil, have killed; sometimes a parent will murder, but the demon child is seen as understandable motivation and indictments tend to be weak.
As adults, autistics are subjected to excessive scrutiny thanks to perceived oddities that are after all just oddities and nothing more. Since affect doesn’t coordinate with inner state very well, we are perceived to be indifferent, aloof, uncooperative, guilty, secretive, unfeeling, blunt. Yet we are asocial but not impersonal.
Some neurologically typical people are the opposite, with a knack for reading social settings but no sensitivity at all to others as persons. Lacking social intuition, we simply meet others as individuals of presumed value. We seldom take offense, hold grudges, lie successfully, or take advantage, because our brains lack those social capabilities.
Yet our circumstances in community, society, and its institutions, such as education, employment, criminal justice, and commerce, are almost certainly treacherous. While making twice the effort of neuro-typicals to function well, we are easier to arrest, convict, fine, fire, not hire, scapegoat, dismiss, overcharge, undervalue, marginalize, disenfranchise, and otherwise penalize for our non-conforming neuro-biology. The financial setbacks alone, like those faculty let go at Brottman’s institution, are considerable.
Each day is open season, and we struggle to pass for normal to keep ourselves safe.
I’m one of those Aspies in academia and I must say my work is grueling.
It’s not my world I teach in, so I can never forget my place. But I have also been greatly rewarded. I have lots of former students who are buddies for life, colleague friends I treasure, continued capacity for self-renewal, curiosity, and hope, and a firm grasp on the gifts of my autism. Yes, gifts. My strengths are not in spite of AS but because of it. We must celebrate neuro-diversity if only to strip people like Mikita Brottman of publicity and validation to which they are not entitled.