How’s This for a Radical Idea?

July 20, 2006 at 1:54 am (Labeling, Neurodiversity, Political correctness)

[Originally published on December 31, 2005]

“You’re such a lawyer,” I said to my young son, my firstborn, when he was about five. He had been negotiating a deal with us about something: some punishment, some decision, something we were discussing that wasn’t going his way. He has always had this way of seeing something just a little differently, or arguing something in such a way that everyone else ended up feeling slightly foolish and he ended up getting his way. Some would say he was rather spoiled. Maybe.

I wasn’t even that mad when I said it, but something about the way I said “lawyer” made my son think I was insulting him, as if I were saying, “You’re such an idiot,” or “You’re such a brat.” He got very red in the face and started screaming, “I am not a lawyer! I am not. No, I’m not a lawyer. Don’t call me a lawyer!!!” My husband and I just looked at each other and started laughing, and this made my son stop screaming long enough to ask, “What’s a lawyer?”

Then we really busted out laughing.

By now my readers might be thinking, there is no way this firstborn son (if he even exists at all) could have said so many memorable things over the years, let alone things worthy of writing about or things relating to bigger and more important issues than what they were originally about. Frankly, it makes me wonder, too, but it’s all true. Just this morning, I asked my son, who is now 14 years old, to verify that he was the author of yet another statement; it was one I had mentally attributed to him, but I wasn’t sure if he was the one who had said it.

He smiled and told me he did remember saying it.

This was years ago, back when I was adrift–again–looking for that ideal church that doesn’t exist anywhere, but thinking I would start by trying to find a church that most closely resembled the way the first century church was described in the Bible. I thought, maybe the problem with churches today is that they don’t model themselves after the biblical ideal, but rather have splintered off into hundreds of sects and denominations, all with different sets of doctrines and forms of church government, all believing they have it all figured out, many believing they are the only door to salvation, and most of the members of each church feeling rather proud to be a [insert church denomination]. I thought, I need to find a church that isn’t an “-ist,” “-an,” “-al,” or “-ic,” but is just a plain old church, so I announced one day in my son’s hearing that what we really needed to find was a nondenominational church.

He paused for a moment and said, “Yeah, but isn’t ‘nondenominational’ a denomination?”

I fell through the proverbial floor. These are the kinds of kids that teachers tend to either love or hate. My son has had both kinds of teachers. On the far extreme was a kindergarten teacher who literally couldn’t stand him, traumatized him, refused to challenge him academically because of his disruptive behavior, and refused to believe me that he was being disruptive because he wasn’t being challenged. I pulled him out of kindergarten in October of that year and put him in a private school in a new kindergarten class. This new kindergarten teacher also had some difficulty handling his behavior, and the following year his first grade teacher told me at a parent-teacher conference that my son was a teen-ager trapped in the body of a six year old. She said she never had a kid like him in her class before. In second grade, I put my son back into the public school system. He floundered around for the next few years until his last year, when he had Mr. Parsons, a bald scary teacher that nobody wanted because they were afraid of him. This was his best elementary school teacher, and this is the one who told me at the end of the year that he never had a kid in his class like my kid, and this teacher was close to retirement. He said my son was like an adult trapped in the body of a ten year old.

I’m not yammering on about my neurotypical kid in order to brag about him, although a certain amount of parental bragging is completely natural, as I pointed out in my last essay. Most parents do brag about their kids on some level and to somebody, somewhere. What was at issue in my last piece was not parental bragging per se, but the impetus behind the bragging and pedestal-raising (both self-imposed and imposed by others) when it comes to autistic people. Neurotypical people do not have to prove that they are worth something and/or deserve to live. If they happen to be particularly good at something, that’s great and they will be applauded, especially by their parents. If they are Average Joes, however, they are still considered fully human and fully worthy of just “being.” Nobody is sitting around in some laboratory pondering the cost-benefit analysis of allowing future NTs to be born. Nobody is wondering if aborting NTs might be a mistake because maybe in the process of global NT annihilation, there might be a genius NT aborted by mistake. When people are opposed to abortion in general, it is because they believe life begins at conception, and they believe it is murder to end a human life. When people are opposed to future abortion of fetuses identified as autistic, it could be for any number of reasons: (1) all abortion is immoral, (2) autistics as a minority group should be allowed to live (even if they don’t think abortion in general is immoral), or (3) you might just kill the next Bill Gates by accident, which would be a crying shame for the world.

The reason I keep recording my son’s sayings is that, for whatever reason, they keep seeming so relevant to my thoughts these days on all kinds of issues. And to suppress these things he’s said for the sake of some self-imposed modesty would just be silly. When my ideas about an issue start percolating into an essay, it tends to be someone’s random comment that will push my thoughts over the edge to the point where I am actually ready to sit down and put my thoughts to keyboard. A lot of these comments have literally come from the mouth of a babe, my babe.

So this morning, after spending three days thinking about the Autistic Bitch From Hell website (one I’d categorize under the heading “radical autistic activism,” because that is what it is intended to be), I was standing in my kitchen gazing at the back of my son’s head when suddenly “The Lawyer” and “The Nondenominational Denomination” archives bobbed up to the surface of my thoughts. My ideas on labels and antilabelism started to come together, ideas that had been flying at me from all angles while I read through each of her articles (her real name is a mystery, but I’m going to assume the author is female, as in “female dog”). After reading through the entire site, I became mentally itchy and I spent the past few days trying to put my finger on why I had a problem with some of what she wrote. What gradually began to emerge was a sense that, the more some people try to avoid political correctness the more politically correct they can become, and the more they can become entangled in their own contradictions while seeming to have discovered something that nobody else has.

I just want to say before I go on that overall I did like this site. I thought it was kind of funny, kind of edgy, and kind of different. I thought the author made a valiant attempt to cut through a lot of BS currently going on in the so-called autism community, and I thought it was worth adding to my growing library of autistic activism. Now I will tell you what I didn’t like about some parts of the articles, but not for sole purpose of ripping them apart. That would be pointless. I’m doing this because one of the things I truly dislike is the feeling that I am being told how I should think and what words I should say, even if the person telling me is someone I basically like and basically agree with. I don’t think anyone should combat manipulation with manipulation, even for the purpose of achieving an end result that everyone agrees is a good one.

I Am Not Abnormal! They Are Not Normal!

In NT, or Not NT, the author uses what I consider to be a clever literary device. In the context of, “I’m angry as hell, and I’m going to invite you to kiss my ass–or at least introduce your ass to my steel-toed boot–if you disagree with me,” she writes:

I [emphasis mine] don’t use “neurotypical” or “NT” when discussing the non-autistic majority population. That is by design. Yes, it’s a convenient shorthand term for non-autistic folks, and it’s not as cringe-inducing as “normal,” but it suffers from a number of very unfortunate linguistic woes.

Since the author introduced the term “linguistic woes,” I’m going to take her own term and run with it. Here is the mechanism I see going on here:

    Neutral words (normal, abnormal) are interpreted as derogatory–>

    New words (neurotypical, neurodiverse) replace the old words in an attempt to correct their perceived offensiveness, but this is interpreted as a failed attempt to be politically correct–>

    The new PC words are revamped (“neurotypical” becomes “non-autistic”; the usage of “neurodiverse” is critiqued and the true definition restated) because they are considered inaccurate and/or insulting–>

    Nonlabeling is now considered “correct” and, correct wordage being at the very heart of political correctness, inadvertently a new PC word (non-_____) has been substituted–>

    More insults ensue because most people do not like being told what words they are allowed to use and what ideas about a given issue are, as if by majority concensus, “accurate” or “inaccurate”–>

    The person that the new uber-PC person is trying to empower and embolden is somehow left feeling like, to belong to the ass-kickers club, they must agree with all of this rhetoric.

Here’s a news flash: autistic people are not normal. In the same way my son felt highly insulted at the word “lawyer” because it sounded offensive even though he had no idea what it meant, many people feel insulted by the notion that there are normal people and abnormal people, or that there is normal development and abnormal development. That is their problem. For those who don’t already know, this is the primary definition of normal:

Conforming with, adhering to, or constituting a norm, standard, pattern, level, or type; typical: normal room temperature; one’s normal weight; normal diplomatic relations.

This is the primary definition of abnormal:

Not typical, usual, or regular; not normal; deviant.

I am fully aware that some people use the words “normal” and “abnormal” only to signify “good” and “bad,” but that has nothing to do with reality, and anyone who accepts that these are the only meanings has nobody to blame but themselves, not the people who misuse the words.

    It is abnormal (but wonderful) for a woman to have multiple vaginal orgasms.

    It is abnormal (but wonderful) for a woman to be able to conceive and give birth to sextuplets without the aid of fertility drugs.

    It is abnormal (but wonderful) for a pearl to develop naturally inside of an oyster.

Anything that does not usually happen at all or does not happen in the way that it happens in most other beings or things is actually abnormal, but that does not mean it is undesirable. It means it is rare. Autistic people are rare, and they are wonderful just like all other people and yet different from other people. Objects (like pearls) are considered wonderful because they are rare. Autistics are not wonderful because they are rare; they are wonderful because they are human beings. They are rare because they do not develop in the normal way, the way neurotypical people do, which leads to the next term that the author wants thrown out.

Out with the old PC, in with the new

The author wants us to hate the word “neurotypical” for this reason:

The chief problem with the word “neurotypical” is that it abjectly concedes what ought to be a huge point of contention—that there is such a thing as a typical human brain. Let’s do a thought-exercise here: Imagine what it would be like if other minorities used such terminology to describe the majority group. Can you picture Muslims referring to Christians as religion-typical? Black activists calling whites color-typical? Feminists speaking of men as gender-typical? Hispanics describing Anglos as language-typical?

The absurdity is obvious in all of these contexts. In today’s multicultural society, the concept of diversity means that there is no standard human template against which all other groups are measured. Society regularly exhorts us to celebrate our diversity and to respect others’ differences. Most of us wouldn’t dream of asserting that our particular group, whether racial, religious, or whatever, ought to be
described as the “typical” human.

I’m forced to point out the obvious absurdity here, but it is not with the word “neurotypical.” The author uses two fallacious arguments to prove that the word “neurotypical” is inaccurate: 1) There is no such thing as a typical human brain: At issue is not whether there is a “typical human brain,” because by “brain” (following this author’s line of reasoning and examples given) one can mean gross anatomical architecture, personality, sexual orientation, religious persuasion, learning style, food preferences, and any number of things. I believe the word “neurotypical” refers specifically to physical, social-emotional, and language development and behavior, and I thought it was understood that those called “neurotypical” are those who exhibit the pattern of development of the vast majority of all human beings. They gaze, vocalize, walk, talk, pretend, and socialize when and in more or less the same manner as most other people do. That is all it means.

2) Multicultural diversity and neurodiversity are analogous: Abnormal development in the form of autism crosses both genders and all religions, races, and ethnicities. It is accurate to say that autism is an typical (i.e., abnormal) form of human development. What the author is positing is that we should not call normally developing people “typical,” just as religious and racial minorities should not call their respective majorities typical. That is utterly ridiculous, even though I believe I understand the motive behind the author’s impassioned plea for acceptance and tolerance. Religion (e.g., Muslims, Christians) and political idealogy (e.g., feminism) do not follow a genetically encoded path of neurological development from birth to adulthood. They consist of ideas and choices, and they can change or be abandoned at any time. Autism cannot. Race and ethnicity happen to you at birth but remain static, not subject to development; citizenship is another story. The common thread between autism and these other examples is that all people need to be treated with respect and tolerance, but the reason why autistics need to be treated with respect and tolerance is that they are human beings, not because it is offensive to suggest that their development is abnormal (i.e., the way it might be considered offensive for an American Christian to suggest that this is a Christian nation founded on Christian principals, even if somehow this could be proven to be true). The concept of civil rights for all is a good one, but we need to make the distinction between groups formed by choice, place of birth, race, and religious affiliation versus groups that came about through variations in biology. What we need to change is the commonly held notion of what abnormal means, rather than denying the fact that something is abnormal by playing around with words and definitions. In other words, in my opinion, true civil rights for autistics will come about when abnormal is okay.

Imagine no neurological labels

The author sets up this strange analogy:

autistic:Muslim as neurotypical:Christian

The author then goes on to say that there is no neurotypical person, and that the meaning of the neurodiversity movement has somehow been perverted as follows:

Let’s take a look at what the word “neurodiversity” really means. (This definition comes from Word Spy.)

“The neurodiversity movement is based on the belief that there is no such thing as normal when it comes to the human mental landscape. The neurotypical person simply does not exist. Together we display a wide variety of neurological behaviors and abilities…”

Now go back and read that quote again.

Okay, I have gone back and read that quote again, and here’s what I found:

1) The term “human mental landscape” is meaningless because it is vulnerable to any interpretation and can be used to promote any agenda, as I already demonstrated above.

2) The term “neurological behaviors” is also meaningless because it is nonspecific.

3) The flip side of this definition is that there is no such thing as autism.

If “autistic” is to “Muslim” as “neurotypical” is to “Christian,” and if the word “neurotypical” is an artificial construct (i.e., “there is no such thing”), then autism doesn’t exist either. Here’s where her theory begins to unravel. On her homepage, she writes:

A brief explanation of neurodiversity: It basically means that people with neurological differences are sentient human beings who should be treated with respect and should have the same civil rights as anyone else.

Hmm…”People with neurological differences.”

Compared to whom, if there is no such thing as normal? If everyone is “different” then we are all the same. Yet the author believes the solution to this problem is to throw out the word “neurotypical” and replace it with “non-autistic.” We can’t do that if we cling to the nebulous definition of neurodiversity supplied by the author, because if there is no such thing as human normality we cannot be allowed to point out anything that is abnormal, and therefore labels can no longer be used at all.

And since “autistic” and “non-autistic” no longer really exist because they have been supplanted by “human mental landscape,” we have just lost the left sides of our analogy, leaving dangling religions. I guess, then, we are left to imagine “no religion, too,” all the while knowing that religions are very real, very distinct, very diverse, and just as vulnerable as autistic activism to new forms of political correctness. In his song Imagine, John Lennon admits that the things he imagines are idealistic and radical, but he suggests that these ideals are still worth striving for:

You may say I’m a dreamer,
but I’m not the only one,
I hope some day
you’ll join us,
And the world will live as one.

What he does not admit is that if we could actually eliminate heaven, religion, countries, and possessions, we would not only live as one, but we would think as one. And that is a scary thought, not a radical one.


At 7:43 PM, Tera said…
Thanks for this essay.

Like the Autistic Bitch from Hell, I have a problem with the word “neurotypical”–though maybe in a different way.

I’ve noticed that when people talk about a “neurotypical,” they aren’t really talking about someone who has a “typical” neurology. They’re talking about someone who doesn’t have their neurology–or their child’s, friend’s, lover’s, whoever. As Aspies For Freedom’s encyclopedia entry for Neurotypical says:

“Although there are people (such as those who are dyslexic or ADHD) who are not necessarily in the autistic spectrum, but also not technically ‘neurologically typical’, the term is often used by autistic people to include anyone who is not on the autistic spectrum.”

So, as the Autistic Bitch from Hell points out, “neurotypical” often does mean “non-autistic.” I’ve also seen it mean “non-bipolar,” “non-dyslexic,” “non-ADHD,” “non-NLD,” etc.

I actually just posted my feelings about this issue here. There must be something in the water 😉


At 2:33 PM, Traci, It Takes A World, Inc. said…
Another fabulous piece.

I do have to say that it’s not wanton use of the descriptive terms such as “neurotypical” and “Autistic” that troubles me.

The labels are simply sets of letters which have little to do with the people I know and love–whether “NT” or “autie”, or some indescribalbe morph of the two.

What pisses me off the is the legion of largely unverifiable, unspoken and life-limiting assumptions/presumptions that come attached to the average, speaking human being’s perceptions of those with “neurological atypicalities” (vbg) when they brandish neurological labels.

Invariably, over time, these assumptions/presumptions become firmly attached to the original “labelling word” as immutable “facts” about the capabilities/internal processes of the person(s) labelled.

Generally, use of the term “autistic” to describe a person automatically spins off into one of two directions based on the ability to use spoken language.

So now, within one “label” we have two “autistic” tracks, and God forbid the two should ever meet, intersect, or very from the autistic “norm”. (what an oxymoron)

Now, under one label, we have established a new hierchy (I’m sure I mangled that spelling) of labels–high functioning=verbal=mildly cognitively impaired=remediable=worthy of funding dollars vs. Low Functiong=nonverbal=severely retarded=less worth “remediating”=more costly=less deserving of educational assistance than their “high functioning” counterparts=better off dead or locked way somewhere.

Having two children who sit at both “ends” of the spectrum, and a daughter who I swear to GOD is aspie but somehow got labelled “gifted” as the both could not POSSIBILY co-exist (snort), I’ve learned that one label cannot speak for the internal processes of the other, or vice-versa. None of my children has any more clue of how their siblings perceive life than I do about how my sister perceives her existence.

Therefore all of the “neuro-whatever-labels” which were orginally intended simply to sort and categorize various neurological manifestatinos of behavior and intellect have become useless in their intended goal to neatly describe the observable behaviors of the persons labelled. Yet, these “labels” are used by “experts” to predict best “treatments” or “outcomes”.

So now we have a bunch of legislators, lawmakers, “educators” (excuse me while I cough and gag), behaviorists (God FORGIVE me for ever doing THAT to my kids), and medical doctors making life-altering and often life defeating assumptions about the internal events (or lack thereof) going on inside of the nonverbal person’s mind.

When we give in to descriptive neurological labels of ANY kind, the very nature of the typically wired brain is to sort and categorize. The limits and notions of “perceived worth” imposed by the label’s assumptive/presumptive shorthand inevitably follows. That shorthand serves to limit opportunities. It serves to take lives. No scientist has yet to discover where the seat of the soul or consciousness lies in the brain.
Yet, our lawmakers have accepted that “vegetative” equals “better off dead”. And the label “vegetative” implies the attached shorthand of “without internal perception” and this is translated into “life not worth living.”

This shorthand then makes it ok to starve, dehydrate and torture a person on the basis of presumptions made on the basis of a “neurological label” and the unproven assumptions about the internal processes of the label’s wearer.

It is this assumptive process that accompanies “labelling” that begins to shape a child’s destiny, often while he/she is still in diapers. If CAN and bioethicists have their way, sentence can be passed while the child is still in utero. (Abortion)

Now we have futures and “outcomes” based not only on “labels”, but on the presumptive set of unproven predictions attached to the label which were formed by external perceptions of those not wearing the “label”.

Imagine you have a child, like one of mine, who at the age of eleven, is subjected to lining up letters in a row for six hours a day because he is being forced to respond in the same fashion that a typically developing (eg, child who scores average on developmental assessmenst invariably requiring that the child be able to organize a multisensory response to a largely visual/auditory delivered set of questions that assumes a typical process of child development) would be asked to respond. But he can’t. If he is speaking, he is not hearing. If he is hearing, he is not seeing. If he is walking, he cannot simultaneously speak. If a label in his clothes is agitating him, he is immediately disconnected from all other sensory input. But his label, “autism”, tells you none of this. It tells you that he is a social drain, a cost prohibitive nightmare, that he is an “ineducable” vegetable.

So we home school, where at least he can feed his mind with Mozart, Shakespeare and the utter beauty of Phi and the Fibonacci numbers, which he loves. Oh, but wait, he’s too retarded (nonverbal) to comprehend such things. Silly me. I must be insane to entertain such notions. Surely I should immediatly sign over control of all of my assets to the Senate Bio-ethics Committie so that they use them to fund the legislation which can have me legally euthanized to insure the standardization of the gene pool. After all, I might give birth to more “auties.”

Shoot the bitch before she multiplies! 🙂

Sorry, I rambled. It’s all *your* fault for posting such a thought provoking essay!


At 4:59 PM, Lisa Jean Collins said…
I just wanted to say thanks for your comments, and I wanted to admit to you that I’ve been crippled by inertia again, which is why I haven’t been able to respond to any of the comments. I have been finalizing the corrections on my children’s book, about a young Christian autistic girl and her experiences. She is a real person, not an imaginary character, and about 1 1/2 years ago she asked me to make a book that she wanted to be in her words, “based on a true story.” She’s very excited about the book coming out, which I think should be in about two months. Anyway, after the last essay, the electronic galleys of my book came in and I’ve been stressed out trying to make it perfect before I get the real galleys and any further corrections start costing me money.

I did want to write two more essays based on the ABH site, but as yet I have not had the time.

Thanks for your patience while I wait to catch the next wave of energy. I’ve been a zombie for days now. I don’t like this feeling.


At 2:22 PM, Estee said…
I too find semantics difficult and tried to address it in my blog in an entry titled “Autism Venacular.” I feel squeamish listening to comparisons between normal (NT) and whatever else may lie on the “periphery” of that idea. At the same time, I find some of the language impossible to avoid for the sake of context. The only way we can get around semantics is to raise awareness and tolerance in our society.


At 11:04 AM, Anonymous said…
There was a conversation recently on a message board I go to about the neanderthal theory. I read alot of posts from parents comparing their children with ASD’s to neanderthal’s. All I could say to these parents was “I thought NT stood for neanderthal.” I think I’ve been guilty of using the term “NT” in a derrogative way to describe anyone who would call me or my child defective or disabled. I guess I never gave much thought to the implications of it.


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