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Autism: Who Needs It?

Updated on September 23, 2014

Last year, a close friend gave a talk at a local bar entitled “Feminism: Who Needs It?” The answer, of course, was that everyone needs feminism because it provides a perspective on our culture that helps us to recognize behaviors and attitudes that have harmed women for centuries. The ongoing prevalence of anorexia and other eating disorders, the representation of women in the media, the documented glass ceilings and pay inequality, and many other observable facts about our culture demonstrate the continuing need for a feminist perspective on gender inequality.

In the university where my friend teaches, this is no longer a contested issue; the local bar is a different context, however. After her talk, someone from the audience got up and presented the following challenge: “You talk about feminism as a universal problem, but it only includes half of the population. Isn’t it discriminatory to exclude men’s issues? Why not abandon the term ‘feminism’ in order to address the larger issues that include both women and men?” My friend’s answer was that feminism is not exclusively about women; rather, it is a perspective that displaces the dominant, normative point of view that we have as a culture. This normative point of view privileges values that we associate with masculinity: competition instead of cooperation, strength over softness, violence rather than acceptance. It is not that men don’t exhibit the qualities of cooperation, softness, and acceptance, but these qualities are often not valued to the extent that dominance and aggression are in our culture.

Culturally, women and men both privilege certain values at the expense of others, even though men as well as women frequently suffer from the assumptions embedded in our masculine point of view. The importance of feminism lies in its ability to question these values, giving us enough breathing space to wonder whether or not we really want to perpetuate these cultural norms.


What is "Neuro-Typical," anyway?

Since I started using the term “Neuro-Typical,” my friends and family have presented similar challenges: “What you call NT includes a large, diverse population. Isn’t it too simple to characterize such a large group by a few qualities? After all, many of the aspects of autism spectrum that you talk about also show up among NTs. Why not use a more inclusive term that takes this complexity into account?”

I think these are important questions that really deserve a response. Just like my feminist friend, my goal is to find a way of talking about the culture I live in without having to accept the normative values that, from my AS perspective, often harm NTs and non-NTs alike. The term “Neuro-Typical” identifies a whole way of being that is so close to us that we can’t see it for the most part. We just are a Neuro-Typical culture, and it’s almost impossible to imagine another world. This is also how the world looked before feminism: You simply referred to the world’s population with the concept of “Man,” and it seemed normal that everyone in positions of authority or power was male.

Neuro-Typical is not a bad word anymore than in is a bad thing to be a male in a male-dominated world. However, being Neuro-Typical does mean that you are in a privileged position in which your outlook on things is mostly reflected back to you in your day-to-day experience. If you are non-Neuro-Typical, this world doesn’t seem like it belongs to you. Often times, it feels like you don’t have a place in it, and there is little interest in or patience with how you understand things around you. Some days, this feeling is dramatically foregrounded to the point that you feel like an alien in your own culture. Other days, it is the subtle sense that you don’t quite fit, even though things generally seem alright.

Using the term “Neuro-Typical” helps me name a mode of thought and feeling that is so pervasive as to seem natural. One of my favorite authors, David Foster Wallace, writes about the strangeness of this normative NT perspective. In one of his most famous anecdotes, he describes two fish swimming along and chatting until a third fish swims by and says, “Morning, boys. How’s the water?” The two fish continue on their way for some time, until one turns to the other and asks “What the hell is water?” The water we live in is the NT air we breathe, the typical quality of everyday life that is so close to us that we can’t see it until it is named.

It’s not that I think it’s better to be non-NT than to be NT, or that I think there is something profoundly wrong with Neuro-Typical behavior. Rather, I think there are serious risks to any pervasive attitude that goes unquestioned, because the assumptions that inhere in any dominant point of view can be harmful if they are not thought through. This critical attitude is the quintessential non-Neuro-Typical perspective.

We have a long tradition of this kind of critique in the US, from feminism to the cultural revolution of the 1960s. Today, this critical attitude has receded into the university, a privileged world that shelters most of my non-NT friends. The fact that so many academics are obviously on the spectrum isn’t so surprising if you consider that the university is a space that fosters criticism of our cultural assumptions. In my generation, even this protected, nurturing space is now in the process of becoming more normalized. University administrators are consistently cutting back courses that teach a critical attitude in favor of normative classes that put students on the path to a standard career instead of helping them to understand the world they live in. This happened right before my eyes at UNC Chapel Hill, whose English graduate program is ranked in the top 25 nationally.

A recent article in the New Yorker notes the demise of this critical perspective since the 1990s:

http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2014/09/15/naysayers

The article ends by arguing that we need to keep this critical tradition alive. It may well be that, as the university gives up this critical role, the conversation will shift to people who can’t help but notice the water we swim in. I still teach in the university, but my life isn’t focused there anymore. As the university loses some of that sheltering quality it once had, it begins to make more sense for me to come out of the closet, to introduce my version of feminism to a male-dominated world, and to look for opportunities to create a world that is more open to the immense spectrum of being human.

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