Daily Archives: January 28, 2007

This stuff isn’t just about autism.


Another response I saw to the video I did was from a person with brain damage. They said that the part I said about learning other people’s language was very true — that in rehab, for instance, therapists would say “Use your words or people won’t care what you’re thinking,” etc. (And here I thought “use your words” was an obnoxiousness reserved for special ed.) In fact they were so stunned by the reality of the thing, from when they were newly injured, that it took them a long time to even formulate a response.

I write about stuff from the perspective of an autistic person, because that’s part of what I am (I’m also a lot of other things, including probably brain damaged). But when I write about the experience of not being a “person” until I learn a foreign language, I’m not writing to give insight into autism specifically. I’m writing because that’s true even in accepted languages, that people are more “people” when they speak the dominant language, or the dominant dialect. I’m writing because that’s true of people with brain damage, people with Alzheimer’s, people with intellectual disabilities, people whose bodies don’t let them form speech easily even if their cognition is totally standard, people considered crazy (in all the various ultra-sophisticated medicalizations of that basic concept), etc, and I see it all the time.

A lot of the time I think I get pigeonholed as doing “autism writing” because that’s the specific circumstance I write about, but I’m almost always writing about something broader than that, some set of circumstances that applies to a wide variety of people. The point of what I wrote was not my own struggle (whatever people imagine that struggle to be) to communicate with people, but the bias behind what is considered communication.

A bias so strong that someone I used to know who was training to be a speech pathologist marveled at the fact that she received no actual training on augmentative communication techniques in school — that training was optional, and out of her own pocket, because speech was worshipped so highly. And that I have known a number of people whose communication goes totally ignored — even their very clear verbal communication at times — because it doesn’t fit a preconceived idea of what communication is. And then people routinely judge the personhood of any given person in question, based on what that person is and is not said to be able to communicate, which is another giant leap of assumption.

These are assumptions which leave people lonely, isolated, and trapped, at best — not by some internal condition but by what others do and don’t do based on those assumptions. At worst, they’re used to justify things like torture and murder, or at least to make them seem less heinous. Some people have asked exactly what I was referring to in that regard.

From the Miami Herald:

Circuit Judge Clayton Simmons made the ruling at a pretrial hearing Thursday in the case against Kathleen Garrett. Trial is expected to begin next week against the 26-year veteran of Seminole County public schools charged with physically abusing the students, who ranged in age from 12 to 15.

Garrett was arrested in November 2004 on charges that she abused autistic students in her class at South Seminole Middle School in Casselberry, even chipping one boy’s teeth by slamming his face into a desk.

Other allegations include beating children, humiliating them, pushing one’s face into vomit and disciplining some behind closed bathroom doors, where screaming and sounds of furniture banging around could be heard.

Defense attorney Thomas Egan argued that it is vital for jurors to see the kind of students Garrett supervised.

“One of these kids actually eats his feces,” Egan said. “I think the world will see volumes when they see these children.”

In this case, the fact that a kid eats his own feces is supposed to somehow justify the abuse that happened to him and the other students. Less of a person. (Many newspaper stories about autism, even ones that don’t stress what some autistic people do to feces, still stress our connection to it, which I am beginning to believe has something to do with people’s attitude about what they think we are, not just what we do.)

Things like that go on in nursing homes all the time, too, but older people are considered even less people than autistic people are (especially when the autistic people in question are, as often stereotyped, children), at times, so even fewer people hear about that kind of thing unless they have the misfortune to live in one of those places.

If you want more systematic and conventional torture of children considered to have a wide variety of labels, look no further than the Judge Rotenberg Center. (Or the guy who used to whack me on the knee harder and harder until I looked at him. He later justified his behavior by saying that he was saving me from a life of institutionalization.)

When I talk about people dying, I’m serious as well. My friend Joel has amassed quite a bit of information on the murder of autistic people, and we’re far from the only ones targeted (or seen as less worthy of saving) once we reach non-person status. Read When I Woke Up by Rus Cooper-Dowda for an account of a near-miss in that situation. Tracy Latimer‘s father gassed her to death and tried to justify it because she had severe cerebral palsy, after which such murders actually increased.

But even those who are not being tortured or dying, are still usually subject to a large amount of day-to-day degradation and denial of their existence as people (not even as “good people”, but as people at all). If all I had to write about were some sort of extremely stereotyped story of autistic people “overcoming the odds,” I doubt I’d write much at all.