ŠUM#9 / Dominic Fox: Autism Wars: Neurodivergence as Exit Strategy

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Dominic Fox

The Professor Branestawm stories by Norman Hunter depict an eccentric, absent-minded professor whose inventions invariably develop malfunctions, or work relentlessly as intended with chaotic unintended consequences. Professor Theophilus Branestawm is a creator, an ingenious bringer of novelty into the world, who has seemingly no insight into the way his creations will be received: no notion, or at best a very erratically calibrated notion, of social utility. He invents because it is in his nature to invent: because that is what a professor does. Depicted in illustrations by Heath Robinson as a shambolic figure in haphazardly-selected clothes, his bald head covered in pairs of spectacles he has forgotten he is wearing, he is reclusive, scatterbrained, unworldly and scarcely capable of looking after himself: he depends on his housekeeper, Mrs Flittersnoop, to restore and maintain order around him. His unimaginative but stalwart friend Colonel Deadshott, a uniformed military man, is on hand to smooth over interactions with the wider world of authority and everyday social norms.

Branestawm has long been a model for children with neurodivergent traits—not of good conduct, but of self-acceptance and self-delight. He is arguably the autistic “little professor” writ large, valued, appreciated and indulged. Heath Robinson draws the professor’s inventions as fantastic Rube Goldberg contraptions, brilliant and baffling mechanisms full of gears and pulleys, which evoke simultaneous order and disorder: they are intricately assembled, but spill out unboundedly into a world that usually prefers to keep such mechanisms tidily hidden away. What is “eccentric” about Branestawm is precisely his direction of attention away from rules which organise the social sphere, towards the deeper organisation of the material, a domain full of hidden powers and unruly surprises.

An article by Dr Alice Bell in the Guardian, titled “The Trouble With Professor Branestawm”,[1] worries about whether the professor sets quite the right tone for the public image of science: don’t these stories instill “a sense that the inability to interact with society is a necessary consequence for scientific achievement, and by that vein, also socially acceptable”? The implication seems to be that Branestawm’s social deficits should be considered unacceptable. We need scientists to be responsible, accountable, attuned to the social contexts of their research. Bell fears that Branestawm’s “return” (in a 2015 TV adaptation starring the comedian Harry Hill) is a symptom of moral backsliding: “Rather than developing to forge new relationships with wider society, if anything the social structures of science are regressing, playing the tune of hierarchies of old.” The proper demeanour for science is to be “developing” to “forge new relationships”, not autistically “regressing”, retreating from relationship into the wilful, disorganised joy of solitary tinkering.

Bell has a point about “the hierarchies of old”. Branestawm’s place in the social world, a place of tolerance and exemption, is secured by the caring and protective labour of others. As Mrs Flittersnoop’s name suggests, her job is to scurry (flitter) around him, looking in (snooping) every now and then to make sure he’s not blown himself up. He gets to fiddle with the levers that control reality; she gets to fuss over a domestic environment, which he is continually turning upside down. In an eye-catching paragraph in Steve Silberman’s NeuroTribes, Dr Judith Gould suggests that one reason for a rise in adult autism diagnoses might be the withdrawal of such invisible support, as the gendered division of labour has shifted:

Another reason that autistic people have become more visible, Judith proposed, is that gender roles have become more fluid in recent decades. “In traditional British life, men worked, and were cared for by their wives, who didn’t work. They were the caregivers and men were the breadwinners,” she said. “I see many, many men who refer themselves here for diagnosis who would never even have thought that they had a problem in times gone by because they were protected by the family and society.”[2]

There are two overlapping but not identical reasons why “gender roles have become more fluid in recent decades”. The first is that the gendered division of labour between “breadwinner” and “caregiver”-type roles has been challenged by the feminist movement, which has rejected “the hierarchies of old” and struggled for equality—a non-hierarchical relationship—between men and women. The second is that a shift in the way profit is generated in the advanced capitalist economies has given rise to increased demand, especially within the service and knowledge industries, for forms of work which combine aspects of both roles: “emotional labour”, in the still-resonant 1983 formulation of Arlie Hochschild.[3] Over the course of its long life, capitalism has brought forth numerous figures of the “new man”, aspirational images of humanity in which desired forms of preparedness and productivity are idealised. Today’s “new man” is, in the language of neurodiversity activism, inexorably allistic: other-oriented, extro-verted, emotionally available.

Here, in sum, is our problem. Feminism and capitalism are both asking for a “new man”, and the two demands are entangled. When two groups are placed in a hierarchical relationship, this means that the privileges of the one depend on the subordination of the other. Every participant in a complex society requires the labour of others in order to exist, but none is entitled to invisible labour to which others are assigned by default. Dismantling such hierarchies does not necessarily require a normative demand for sameness, for example for everyone to be both “breadwinner” and “caregiver” in equal measure, but it does entail removing the automatic protections granted to the privileged group, and re-evaluating role models and professional stereotypes that silently presuppose and naturalise those advantages. This is a necessary and ongoing process, with respect to gendered and other hierarchies.

However, there is something more than this to Bell’s language in her discussion of Professor Branestawm. When such recidivists as “scientists” find themselves subject to a universal imperative to integrate, to “interact with society” and attend to the world as participants in pro-social networks of reciprocal caregiving, attuned to the diverse needs of others around them, then we are seeing the promulgation of a new normative model of social comportment. It’s notable that polemics around Silicon Valley’s “diversity problem” are often focussed less on the issue of unequal access to presumably desirable well-paid and high-status employment, and more on the image of Silicon Valley as an isolated clique of white-and-Asian male nerds who are dangerously indifferent to the needs and priorities of others unlike themselves. Silicon Valley must strive to become more diverse, so the argument runs, not (just) because its hiring practices are actionably discriminatory, but because it has become an “echo chamber” which needs to be opened out to include a wider range of “voices”.

An editorial in the New York Times makes the capitalist form of the demand explicit:

Many studies show that companies with gender and ethnic diversity tend to be more creative and more profitable, because varied perspectives help them design products and services that appeal to a diverse, worldwide audience.[4]

Here, two claims are interleaved. The first is that “varied perspectives” lead to greater creativity; the second is that appealing to a “diverse, worldwide audience” makes you more profitable. The former is a question of the internal performativity of companies, their ability to generate marketable ideas; the latter is a question of adequation between those who “design products and services” and those who consume them “worldwide”. Both of these criteria reflect the priorities of businesses whose task is to continually put new propositions before a global marketplace. They must produce novelty, but also integrate it into a system in which local idiosyncrasies must be reconciled with the rule of universal translatability and communicability (which is dictated by the goal of being able to reach many market segments simultaneously). This structural imperative is reflected in an ideologised personal imperative, addressed to the worker desired by such companies: be the kind of person who works well with others, who is adept at communicating across contextual boundaries.

My point here, then, isn’t that the demand for diversification is intrinsically unreasonable (or that resistance to it is somehow virtuously anticapitalist), but that the way it is framed calls upon an imperative—Integrate! Interact!—which is thereby promulgated as the kind of tacit norm to which everybody naturally subscribes by default. The kind of gentle celebration of eccentricity which pervades collections of programmer folklore such as The Jargon File[5] is increasingly regarded as suspect, as the self-glorification of a privileged and wilfully oblivious male sect (which it also, always, was). Against the background of this imperative, the “social deficits” associated with autistic spectrum traits are increasingly thrown into relief as deficits, as moral failings even. Even when it is ostensibly targeted at imbalances in race, class and gender representation in the tech industry, the “diversity problem” critique often rides on an insinuation that the wrong type of personality predominates in that sphere: narrow, obtuse solutionisers rather than broad, socially aware empaths. To be “unworldly”, to have one’s head too much in the cloud(s), is to be in default of a responsibility which has begun to define what it means to be recognisable as authentically human.

An essay by the autistic writer Reese Piper, titled “I Thought I Was Lazy: The Invisible Day-to-Day Struggle for Autistic Women”,[6] shows how neurodivergent “deficits” come to be moralised along gendered lines. Piper’s essay explores her own and other autistic women’s difficulties with scheduling and completing personal and domestic maintenance tasks, describing these difficulties as a mystery, and a source of deep personal shame, which was eventually resolved through an autism diagnosis which offered both explanation and expiation: “It hasn’t waved a magic wand over my messy room but, at least now, I understand why I struggle with organization, cleanliness, and short-term memory.”[7] Although autistic individuals are often imagined to be very tidy and regular in their habits, the stereotypical autistic “rigidity” often works as a way of managing what is otherwise found to be unmanageable: beyond the bounds of strict habit lies consuming chaos.

Piper quotes Corina Becker, vice president of the Autism Women’s Network, as saying: “Women are expected to just pick up daily skills naturally. You’re tainted as a moral failure if you can’t get organized.”[8] While absent-mindedness about domestic tasks is seen as common for men (albeit attributable to a learned helplessness which they must labour to unlearn in order to function as equal partners with women), it is markedly deviant for women, who are expected to have developed proficiency and focus in these areas as a result of their gendered social training. Feminism has challenged the claim that it is natural for men to be disorganised in the domestic sphere, and for women to be the organisers who pick up the slack, arguing instead that this is purely the consequence of differences in socially-enforced gender expectations, which can and should be reshaped to be less unfair. However, it is still held to be natural that both men and women will be shaped by their social training, will “pick up…naturally” what society puts in front of them, and unnatural for either to depart from that training except by deliberate conscious effort. For a woman in a domestic partnership with a man to down tools and refuse to perform more than her fair share of the housework would be a deliberate political act; for a woman living by herself to be simply very bad at it is something else.

An uninformed observer of Piper’s domestic disarray would likely diagnose depression, or some calamitous failure of self-respect, much more readily than an organic impairment in executive function. To care and to will, and therefore to try, is all that is needed to fix things. If you don’t care, then your values are malformed and you need to be educated in why it’s important to look after yourself; if you don’t will, then you need to summon up volition and overcome discouragement; if you don’t try, then you must simply be lazy and in need of disciplinary intervention to improve your ways. It is apparently extremely difficult for normally functioning people to think outside of this model of agency, and the maladies and remedies it indicates. As Piper recalls:

My last therapist suggested a new productivity app that had promising results. When I told her it didn’t help, she dismissed my organizational concerns altogether, with a dismissive, “Don’t worry, you’ll get more organized when you’re older.” I laughed bitterly. I had been in therapy for three years and my chaotic schedule had not improved with time. Her words were crushingly easy to translate: Don’t be lazy, work harder.[9]

Misfiring executive function disconnects caring, willing and trying from doing. I will miss an appointment that is important to me, that I want and intend to keep, that I am making my best efforts to show up to on time. When I am then accused of not caring, willing or trying hard enough, I will feel diminished and ashamed, but will at the same time feel that the root of the problem, the cause of the mishap, has not really been addressed. Something went wrong that was not an external accident (the trains were running late, etc.), but that equally was not under my control in the sense of being reliably subject to my own volition.

To find oneself prone, frequently and humiliatingly, to such misfires is to experience oneself as impaired, and that impairment as not merely physical, but as a failure of personhood. It is difficult in such cases to apply straightforwardly the social model of disability, according to which disability is the result of society creating impediments, or failing to provide reasonable accommodations, and so magnifying impairments into obstacles to full social participation. A malfunction in the machinery of personhood itself—at least as it is normatively described and understood—situates the obstacle elsewhere, as an immovable object placed before the unstoppable force of social construction. No amount of education, redescription, psychotherapy or gamified robot-CBT will persuade it to dissolve away.

This represents a challenge to what we might call the logics of persuasion which underpin norm-shaping moral pedagogy. The assumption is that people’s behaviour can be changed, can be morally reformed, by modifying the social training to which they are subject: by changing the roles that are modelled for them, the values which are reinforced by messages from their surrounding culture, and the incentives to which they are subject. Behind this assumption is a model of persuasibility, or rhetorical susceptibility: people learn how to be people by imitating other people, by absorbing encouragement and admonition. There is an implied developmental path, from infancy to adulthood, along which personhood is formed through these means. Caring, willing and trying are all amenable to persuasion, which continually shapes people’s values and incentives. Nobody is simply immune to this, but there are some things about some people—left-handedness, queerness, transgenderedness, neurodivergence—which are not so much resistant to persuasion as simply mistargeted by it.

The autistic writer, neurodiversity activist and theorist of rhetoric Melanie Yergeau situates the challenge posed by autism to these logics of persuasion in the rhetorical capabilities of the autist herself, whom Yergeau sees as “queering” rhetoric, disrupting the categories of intentionality, embodiment and practical efficacy through which rhetoric as persuasive speech is understood to operate. Fizzing with a fine anger at the widespread presumption that the autist somehow lacks a minimal kernel of selfhood, Yergeau’s Authoring Autism[10] employs a dizzyingly varied rhetorical arsenal to engage the neurotypical model of agency in a spirit of chameleonic mockery akin to high camp. For Yergeau, it is no longer a question of situating autistic rhetoricity as outside of neurotypical “compulsory sociality”,[11] straightforwardly resisting or refusing it (although she acknowledges the temptation to  “kaboom all the things”[12]). For while “autistic rhetorics bristle against the compulsoriness of interaction, of human engagement, of compliance with the neurotypical”,[13] they also cannot be understood wholly in terms of absence, withdrawal, walling oneself away. Indeed, the compulsive tic through which neurotypical theorists of autism represent the autist as beyond the reach of rhetoric, dually incapable either of moving or of being moved, and so mindlessly perseverating in a kind of mimicry of real agency and intentionality, can be seen as an attempt to manage, by pre-emptively subduing, precisely the “queer entelechies”[14] that autistic rhetoric summons.

What is a “queer entelechy”? Entelechy is the self-organising, goal-directed, motive force involved in self-realisation, in something’s becoming what it is “meant” to be. It is an internalised teleology in which the goals to be realised are posited as inherent within the agent which strives to realise them. This is a related concept to that of conatus, the life-instinct or inclination towards self-enhancement which characterises living agents: we might define entelechy as directed or cybernetic conatus, conatus which furthers itself through positing goals and adjusting its striving in order to meet them better. I would suggest therefore that we understand “queer entelechy” as a dissident conatus, a version of human flourishing that is out of sync with the goals posited as universal, natural, desirable and so on by the prevailing model of successful, respectable, performatively effective human self-realisation. The point is then not to identify (neuro-)queerness with unregulated conatus, a pure vitalism untrammelled by goals, projects or external norms, since this can always be read, as autism is pervasively read, as dysregulation or the failure to have any “directedness” at all (PDD-NOS, an autism-adjacent diagnosis, stands for “pervasive developmental disorder, not otherwise specified”, which perhaps says more about the perplexity of diagnosticians than it does about the state of the individual so diagnosed). Instead, (neuro-)queerness stands for the ability to posit and realise non-standard goals, goals which are not readily reconcilable with those promoted by the standard model. (In the language of ASD, we sometimes call these “special interests”.)

Yergeau’s project of elaborating a “neuroqueer” positionality that is framed in terms of “continuous motion”,[15] a “stimpoint” rather than “standpoint” (inside or outside of an identity category), suggests a refusal to decide between “voice” and “exit”, both resisting the demand for integration on neurotypical terms, and rejecting the lure of exceptionality and exile. “Voice”, on neurotypical terms, means exercising a rhetorical persuasive power to articulate one’s needs and wants, demanding understanding and recognition. While it may challenge the allocation of resources within the system, it also functions in deep compliance with that system’s communicative norms, its logics of persuasion, according to which the game of contending for resources is played by “having a voice” among diverse “voices” jockeying for inclusion. Conversely, the “exit” option might be fairly represented by Hamja Ahsan’s Shy Radicals,[16] a manifesto for the “introfada” which centres on the conceit of an independent Aspergistan in which the introverted and autistic might escape the toils of “extrovert supremacy”. Yergeau’s “queering of demi-rhetoricity” does not directly correspond to either of these options. She frames her rainbow-coloured “autistic pride” badge as a “prickly declaration”[17] problematically situated within the neurotypical world, where it acts as a conductor of neuroqueer affect, attracting and repelling intensities of feeling, somewhat along the lines of Lyotard’s “tensor”.[18]

Does Yergeau’s neuroqueer perspective offer a way of moving through the apparent deadlock between the demand that hierarchical relationships and exclusive clubs be broken down and opened out to wider and more equal participation, and the intransigence of “queer entelechies”, of neurodivergent traits and neurodiverse communities, in the face of normative moral pedagogy? Her general strategy is to counter the devaluation of autistic selfhood as failed or lapsed personhood by rebasing that selfhood in the phenomenology of autistic experience: in the involuntary corporeal expressiveness of stimming, ticcing and echolalia, or in what it is like to “be” during a meltdown in which higher cognitive functioning is rendered inaccessible by panic and sensory overload (“I am busy defying Cartesian logic; I don’t think, but somehow I still am”).[19] This implies the possibility of a different pedagogy, a different model of human flourishing, in which autistic modes of embodied cognition are accommodated and enabled, and the normed reliability of “compulsory sociality” gives way to an aleatory relationality drawing “all of the my-ness of my bodymind” into contact with “others, human and non”.[20] I once again picture Professor Branestawm tangled up in an untidy, overspilling apparatus of cogs, gears and levers, no longer imagined as a- or anti-social but as wildly connected; not “unworldly”, but deliriously in-the-world.

Lacan—no friend to autists, but let’s plug him in anyway—famously said “there is no sexual relationship [rapport sexuel]”, meaning that when we think of sexual encounters in terms of a reliable reciprocity, a mirroring or complementarity of agendas, we are substituting a reassuring image of sex—a model, regulated by whatever fantasy we have of how a rapport operates—for the often misfiring and unpredictable reality. Something similar might be said of Adrienne Rich’s notion of “compulsory heterosexuality”: that it models a sexual rapport in terms of a supposed complementarity between male and female roles, each desiring the other according to its realisation of a given stereotype. And so, by analogy, does “compulsory sociality” offer a regulated vision of how encounters between selves and others are supposed to function, stabilised by ideas about personhood and persuasibility that can only picture autistic encounters as non-encounters, as failures to connect. The ideology of interaction which governs this model, and which Yergeau interrogates through its pervasive hold on the theory of rhetoric, is at the root of what writers like Bell mean when they speak about “society” as something with which the “socially awkward” are unable to interact, rather than continually—awkwardly—interacting.

The neurodiversity movement does not offer, as some may have hoped, a moral position from which the demand for a more socially diverse and inclusive STEM sector can be countered and reversed. Or at least the counter it offers is not to the “diverse and inclusive” part of that formulation, but to the qualifying “socially”. It suggests that rather than providing an exit pass for those who find the demands of communicative capitalism impossible to live up to (or a get-out-of-housework-free pass for males on the spectrum), neurodiversity might best be affirmed through a strategy of infiltration and “neuroqueering”: make more things more autistic. Reese Piper writes that “recognizing areas of strain — that maybe those won’ts are indeed can’ts — [autistic people] can try different methods, such as finding a routine that works. They may also learn to accept, for instance, that maybe both cleaning and cooking are not possible in one day, as each depletes so much energy.” Adjustments of this kind to one’s pattern of living do not depend on moral persuasibility or behavioural reprogrammability, but on an accommodating environment which acknowledges a diversity of can’ts and allows for practical experimentation around them. Spaces which make accommodation for autistic can’ts are spaces which are more inhabitable by anybody who is weary, even if only momentarily, of interactivity; of the labour of sifting through and synthesising a constant barrage of sensory inputs; of the rituals of social fluency and the burdens of maintaining the functionality of their own personhood.

In addition to neurodivergent cant’s, we might also consider that Yergeau’s autistic rhetorician may have unusual wants—unusual not in the sense that their content is strange (e.g. wanting to eat peculiar things) but in the sense that the way they are articulated and experienced resembles a consumer preference less than it does a strategy for negotiating around a non-negotiable condition (e.g. wanting to eat the same thing every day). Autistic people are described as “rigid” when they want something that isn’t what others want (or think that they should want), and this rigidity is interpreted simultaneously as a surplus and a deficit of agency: both an obstinate refusal to give way and reconcile your desires with those of others around you, and a failure to know what’s good for you, to understand what you really want.

If the firing patterns of your executive function mean that you are contentedly able to let time and activity drift, in ways that look to an outsider like extreme aimlessness or chaotic disorganisation, then the desire to inhabit this drift, to drift along with it, can seem pathologically irresponsible. Why don’t you want to get organised, to get in sync with the rest of the world? One of the uses of “narrow” routines which make one’s sensory environment predictable is to avoid having the flow of one’s internal environment needlessly interrupted: if I eat the same thing every day, I don’t have to break out of thinking about whatever I’m thinking about to think about what I “want” to eat. I want what I always want.

These ways of wanting are both dissociated from the faculty of choosing and can be challengingly impervious to the request that one express a choice, or choose otherwise if one’s choices are irreconcilable with those of others. But they are both nevertheless expressions of a desire to be a certain way and to be permitted to reside undisturbed in that way of being. That desire is not an absolute, and deserves no more than any other desire to be unconditionally accommodated, but it is as real a desire as all the other desires it has to rub along with in the social world, and it cannot straightforwardly be reformed into a more neurotypically intelligible and compatible desire, such as the wish to go bowling this evening. One of the abiding conundrums of neurodivergent life is how to maintain conviviality—how to live with others—when one’s wants are so differently formatted from theirs. “Queer entelechies” do not take us out of the neurotypical world, but they create continual friction within it.

[1]      BELL, Alice, “The Trouble With Professor Branestawm”, in: The Guardian, 24/12/2014, available at: https://www.theguardian.com/science/political-science/2014/dec/24/the-problem-with-professor-branestawm. [Accessed 2/2/2018]

[2]      SILBERMAN, Steve, NeuroTribes: The Legacy of Autism and the Future of Neurodiversity, New York: Avery, 2015, pp. 421–422.

[3]      HOCHSCHILD, Arlie, The Managed Heart: Commercialisation of Human Feeling, Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003.

[4]      New York Times Editorial Board, “Silicon Valley’s Diversity Problem”, in: New York Times, 4/10/2014, available at: https://www.nytimes.com/2014/10/05/opinion/sunday/silicon-valleys-diversity-problem.html. [Accessed 31/3/2018]

[5]      See AHSAN, Hamja, Shy Radicals: The Antisystemic Politics of the Militant Introvert, London: Bookworks, 2017.

[6]      PIPER, Reese, “I Thought I Was Lazy: The Invisible Day-to-Day Struggle for Autistic Women”, 30/11/2017, available at: https://theestablishment.co/i-thought-i-was-lazy-the-invisible-day-to-day-struggle-for-autistic-women-6268515175f3. [Accessed 18/3/2018]

[7]      Ibid.

[8]      Ibid.

[9]      Ibid.

[10]    YERGEAU, Melanie, Authoring Autism: On Rhetoric and Neurological Queerness, London: Duke University Press, 2018.

[11]    Ibid., p. 60.

[12]    Ibid., p. 78.

[13]    Ibid., p. 71.

[14]    Ibid., p. 78.

[15]    Ibid., p. 213.

[16]    See AHSAN, Hamja, Shy Radicals: The Antisystemic Politics of the Militant Introvert.

[17]    YERGEAU, Authoring Autism: On Rhetoric and Neurological Queerness, p. 154.

[18]    LYOTARD, Jean-François, Libidinal Economy, trans. Iain Hamilton Grant, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1993.

[19]    YERGEAU, Authoring Autism: On Rhetoric and Neurological Queerness, p. 176.

[20]    Ibid., p. 212.