Wednesday, May 6, 2009


I'll see if I can make this succinct, though I'm skeptical. I'm totally Irish and as we see it, why use one word when a thousand will do?
I was thinking the other day of times when I've felt most vulnerably, unhappily, intensely autistic. It's not that
I lack autistic pride, but that I appreciate my prerogative to determine my 'outing,' and value people who sort of mind their own business and don't feel the need to scrutinize others' oddities. Live and let live is enduring wisdom. But I find when I relive experiences that it's not just trying to say something coherent to someone behind a counter, go nonverbal, melt down, and have people look at me weird that constitute truly hurtful experiences. That's just life for someone on the spectrum, upsetting, frustrating, regrettable, but in the end, inconsequential, especially if I make the flight, get the refund, whatever. But I can identify three experiences when I recognized in harrowing detail what I'm up against as someone on the spectrum.

Moment 1
I am attending the ASA (Autism Society of America) in Pittsburgh. I'm cash poor but I've been invited there by the publishing parent and email correspondent mother of an autistic daughter whose roommate I am. As I circulate the exhibit hall and sessions I know for the first time to what degree I constitute an it, someone reduced from whole person to problematic entity. Call it critical mass.* I make a valiant effort to humanize myself and my psyche and then it happens. My roomie networks with an autism publisher and she invites me to lunch with two of their reps. I find myself aroused by some topic of luncheon conversation and begin to verbally perseverate like mad on something that excites me no end, free associating into and around an elaborate and intricate line of reasoning and observation, when roomie looks at the other lunch participants and says, "See. She's just like my daughter!" Oh, dem pronouns! I am now the elephant man, third person singular, just like that!

Moment 2
I find out Tony Attwood is speaking in the metro area. I must give him a copy of WFAP? Perhaps he can do a wee expert blurb for a new edition. I have to teach in the morning but figure I can make ot from Ann Arbor to the Detroit 'burbs for lunch and Attwood's speech. Delayed just a little I arrive halfway through lunch to find no more food left. I paid for lunch! Those not on the spectrum will have little sense of how debilitating something like this is. On the other hand, whether I'm debilitated whereas an NT would not be, we've both been screwed. Either the caterer didn't cater enough food, or the conference attendees ahead of me got greedy, either way, I've stretched my executive function and budget to make it here and this is not meaningful to anyone but me. I arrived there wearing a makeshift sign saying "Ask me about my book." Had my sign been produced by a proper sign maker I expect I would have had credibility but makeshift means weird. NT culture is about the status quo and propriety, which provides income for sih=gn makers. EEEEuuuwwww! How not NT!! I tried networking those milling around but I was clearly off topic. The P&Ps (parents & professionals) in attendance lacked the capacity or interest (one and the same?) to imagine what women on the autism spectrum might possibly have to offer in their resolute pursuit of triumph over their children. I mailed the book to Atwood.

Moment 3
I am on my own turf, that is, until I come out. I and colleagues, Charles Avinger and Edie Croake, have just done a panel at 4 Cs ( the annual Conference on College Composition and Communication) titled "Normie Hegemony: Culture, Rhetoric, and True Life Adventures in the Land of the Neuro-typicals," my piece of which is "Normie Hegemony: Culture, Rhetoric, and True Life Adventures of Autism." The attendees are enthusiastic and I remain over the moon about the work of my disabled/disability studies CCCC colleagues in making the case for all of us. But feeling endangered in neurotypical hegemony swoops in nevertheless, and for me this happens at a session with an autism focus. In response to something said I, in customary excitable mode, say, "Autistics see NTs [neurotypicals] as grasping, needy." The audience laughs, heartily. Chagrined, I say, "Oh, no! I'm not joking!" And the audience, horribile dictu!, laughs. AGAIN.

It's that pronoun thing again. Reductio ad absurdum autisticam. Why do they willingly detach and discount?


  1. Oh, CCCC. Wow. When did you present there, if I might ask? (Btw, this is "aspie rhetor.")

    I suppose I lucked out with my audience at CCCC -- hardly anyone showed, and two people in the audience, while not autistic, were certainly not NT and made that very plainly clear. It was comforting.

    But I did attend one very (and unfortunately) well attended session that included a paper, read in absentia by another panelist (the writer was ill), about an autistic problem student. The writer regurgitated the same-old, same-old about theory of mind, lack of empathy, disregard for others, and so forth. The student sounded both incompetent and sociopathic from the descriptions. And everyone was applauding.

    I didn't know what to do or say, but one woman raised her hand and outed herself as a parent of an aspie, and she described neurodiversity, maintained that autistic people have different ways of expressing empathy and emotion. I was so relieved and grateful that, after the panel disbursed, I followed the woman and wanted to thank her... I tapped her on the shoulder, because I couldn't quite catch up with her, and she whirled around and yelled "EXCUSE me. I'm TALKING with someone." I hadn't noticed she was conversing already. And as she wandered away, I heard her mutter under her breath.

    I suppose the weird thing is that I never touch or tap people. In my mind, I was adopting NT "discourse conventions," or whatever you want to call it. I felt very hurt by this encounter. And stupid.

    Oh, CCCC...

    Long, rambly comment! But all this to say... ugh. And RE: the laughter bit: I find it frustrating as well when people laugh at things meant to be serious, or when people remain silent during parts where I'd hoped they'd laugh. And laughing at how autistics see NTs... it sounds so... patronizing, almost? As in, "look at this funny little autistic person, saying such a bizarre thing?" Though I also wonder if some of the laughter might have been one (albeit peculiar) way of expressing, "Huh, I never thought of that before?" I'm not sure. It could be a combination of good and bad, depending.

  2. That CCCC was San Francisco in 2005. I've already sent in a proposal for Louisville next year about the neurodiversity project I'm doing for my community college on sabbatical in fall. But I wonder if there were a way to panelize this professional aspie problem for a conference, maybe CCCC Atlanta in 2011, or even CEA in March 2010 in San Antonio (with a fall '09 deadline) possibly after finding a third A-typ as the charm. (One of my colleagues is bi-polar and a good prospective panelist, so might be interested, as would be my co-panelist at CCCC). We'd have to figure out how to conceptualize "it" in rhetorical terms but I do see it as a rhetorical problem. Paul Heilker (from VaTech and dad of an autie) did a very good job at CCCC New Orleans 2008 of defining autism as a rhetorical concept.

    The reason this is fresh in mind is a hospital stay yesterday for which I took along a wonderful book I'd never taken time to read even knowing--from snippets of readings--it was a wonderful book! Two of my colleagues and I have an article in it that parallels our San Fran panel.* It's called Disabled Faculty and Staff in a Disabling Society: Multiple Identities in Higher Education Ed. Mary Lee Vance, pub. AHEAD (Association on Higher Education and Disability), 107 Commerce Centre Dr. #204, Huntersville NC 28078. Mary Lee's intro is spot on IMHO. I'm finally committed to the rest of the articles too and so far they resonate loudly despite widely different disabilities. The heart of the book is the social construction of disability. (Bell ringing: clang, clang.)

    I've also enjoyed meeting the folks in the sig group at CCCC on disability and was blown away by the MLA Conference on Disability Studies at Emory in 2004. Wonderful to know of such kin, despite clear differences in issues among dxes.

    So whether the focus is the academic profession or just the self-awareness of prounouns/belonging/something or other of the educated autism spectrum person, might be worth a thought or two. (Note: No thoughts in head right now at all. Hope this post coheres.)

    I'm also indebted to the work of Patrick Corrigan and his stigma research program at Chicago who strikes out two of the most common delivery methods for anti-stigma messages (statistical proof and exhortation against) to affirm outing as the only way of dissipating stigma. "I'm one of you, but guess what? I'm one of them, too." Or "I'm one of them, but guess what? I'm one of you, too." Films like People Say I'm Crazy join in this effort.

    *Our article was written as a case study, for personnel reasons, but our bios spell things out. It's titled, "Breathing Underwater in Academia: Teaching, Learning, and Working with the Challenges of Invisible Illness and Hidden (Dis-)Abilities."