Daily Archives: May 30, 2007

On psychiatry, privilege, and parlor games.


The concern has been growing in my mind lately that a lot of autistic people see psychiatric classifications of people as a value-neutral system that is essentially benevolent, scientific, accurate, and probably useful in understanding the way that human beings operate. A few of them have actually experienced psychiatry, but mostly in a cursory way that has avoided the nastier features. A few have experienced the nastier features of psychiatry and believe that if they just put themselves into the right classifications and frenetically avoid the wrong ones (while promoting stereotypes about those they do see as belonging to the wrong ones) then they’ll be okay. Most haven’t experienced much if anything of psychiatry at all and are speaking from a position of immense privilege.

Which is what I thought when some responses to the Autobiography of Anonymous were brought to my attention.

People were actually sitting around trying to figure out whether this woman is autistic or not.

Because apparently when writing about the wrongs that have been done to her, she should’ve been really careful to make sure to include all the stereotypical traits and DSM or ICD criteria she possibly could.

This is someone who has been chewed up and spat out by the psychiatric system where she lives, which is by all accounts (not just hers) nasty.

This is someone whose life is incredibly representative of what happens to chronic psych patients in general, and also of what happens to people who are both unidentified as autistic and not managing to “function in society” in various ways.

This is someone who’s been living alternately homeless, filthy, starving, and in jail because she can’t get the assistance she needs (and who has nonetheless kept looking for it trying to survive).

And people actually seem to care more what diagnostic grouping they can fit her in than what is happening to her.

Do you think this would be okay if she really were a “psychopath” or “attention-seeking”?

Do you think that whether she appears to you over the Internet to be “more autistic” or “more OCD” or “more other things” has a shred of relevance to the fact that she’s in trouble and needs assistance to get out of trouble?

Do you think it’s a good idea to classify someone’s attempts to get help to survive as “attention-seeking”? What about survival-seeking, hello???

Do you really think that psychiatry’s treatment and labeling of her over the years was benevolent, objective, and helping her in some way?

Do you really think that the idea that professionals automatically know what is going on in someone’s head more than that person does — and implicitly reinforcing that idea by automatically siding with professionals and doubting the person damaged by them — is not going to harm people?

I just get this picture in my head of all these people sitting around in relative comfort, playing a mildly amusing parlor game of “What category does this person fit in according to psychiatry, based on one piece of her writing?” and “Can I see autism in someone’s writing?” and so forth. And passing judgment on a woman they have never even met. While said woman might well be starving or homeless or on her way to jail again because she can’t get the assistance she needs in order to survive, and therefore has to put herself in positions where she knows she’ll get in trouble but it’s the only way she’ll be able to eat. The disparity and the callousness here is sickening to watch.

People need to wake up and realize that these classifications aren’t a parlor game, aren’t a neutral classification system, aren’t enforced by people with any more insight into human nature than the average layperson, and aren’t a mildly interesting way to pass the time while watching people at a distance and neatly sorting them into categories the way I used to enjoy sorting buttons as a young child.

They are a life and death matter to a lot of people who don’t have the privilege of sitting around discussing them in a calm and detached manner. The power of that system to essentially blacklist a woman from getting any help to survive, to heap derision and nastiness upon her everywhere she goes, to tell her who she is and deny her the right to define herself in any way, to ensure that no doctor will even see her, to ensure that she will forever be stuck between a rock and a hard place when it comes to survival, to ensure that Internet people will automatically doubt her because of the labels some in the system have bestowed on her… that needs to stop being lost on those who don’t have to live the sort of life she lives. And if people don’t think that it’s mostly privilege (whether ability, class, race, whatever) keeping them out of the same position she’s in, they’ve got another think coming. Her life greatly resembles the lives of a lot of people I know. And her life could be any one of ours. No amount of invocation of psychobabble (which usually translates into “take her, not me”) will change that.

People like her are in danger of dying and all some people can think about is what false medicalized category she belongs in and how “pure” she is or isn’t. That’s the bottom line here, everything else is details.