Crip The Week: James Damore and the Autism Problem

Errol Kerr discusses the issues with media reporting of neurodiversity, and of those on the autistic spectrum
By Errol Kerr  •  Nov 20, 2017 at 1:53pm  •  Disability, Mental Health, Social Issues

 

Welcome to my new regular article, entitled Crip the Week, in which I’m going to tackle the most prominent stories from each week in regards to disability and neurodiversity. Within this writing space I want to tackle the larger issues within the disability community, which still seem a taboo subject even in the most progressive of communities.

 

This week, The Guardian – the UK’s largest liberal newspaper – has recently published an article in which they interview James Damore. For those of you who don’t know this guy, or for those who do but just can’t pin down who he is, he’s the guy who got fired by Google after publishing that ten-page anti-women rant. This article discusses James Damore’s autism diagnosis.

The article, opening with “I see things differently”, discusses “how his autism may have shaped his experience of the world”. By starting with “James Damore conforms to the stereotype”, the article told me we were in for a rollercoaster ride. I’ve read it, so you don’t have to, and have a fair few thoughts.




 

Firstly, I’m quite disappointed with The Guardian. I mean, talking about autism in this manner is an issue in itself. We, the autistic community, have been trying to divide ourselves from this stereotype for years now, and in one article, The Guardian shoves that back in our faces.

It’s a fight we’ve been sick of since the 1990s, when we became the poster-children for “problem kids”, and just talking about “stereotypical” autism in such a high-profile article doesn’t really give us much in the way of positive press. Just last year, the autistic community was outraged at Dylan Marron’s handling of his “Shutting Down Bullshit” video regarding autism, and you’d think that The Guardian would do better.

Not only that, but pinning the blame of how Damore “sees the world” on his autism brings me onto my second point: autism isn’t synonymous with being a bad person. I’ve seen parents of autistic children let their kids get away with saying and doing things that I wouldn’t be caught dead saying or doing as a child, only for those to be shrugged off with “they’re autistic” and that being the end of it.

 

 

Exclusion from society is one of the worst experiences for autistic people, and most definitely impacts their mental health. However, the “lonely white boy” stereotype has become dangerous, and an association between autism and misogyny, as well as autism and angry or violent acts, is becoming more and more common.

 

 

I know of many autistic adults who definitely excuse their negative behaviour through their autism too, and it’s genuinely upsetting, as an autistic person, to have my own experiences turned into a way to excuse awful behaviour and comments often deemed sexist, homophobic, racist, or ableist.

I wish to remind people who are neurodiverse or have mental health difficulties, however, that any level of psychological difficulties does not, despite popular belief, excuse you from being a dick.

Being a bad person, and being an autistic person, are separate, and you can be neither, one, or both. They don’t correlate, at least, not in the way people want it to.

Thing is, there’s a lot of issues, and these stem from how reliant people are on the stereotype of autism that James Damore exemplifies. James Damore fits certain stereotypes, sure: he’s socially awkward and a bit clumsy, but there are other stereotypes that he fulfils that are often overlooked, such as being a young, white, cisgender male.

There are a lot of problems associated with considering autism as a white man’s condition: it reduces diagnoses in people of colour and women, and only reinforces the traits that we recognise as autistic in men, but register as “normal” in other groups, such as the social difficulties in autistic women often being passed off as a socialised shyness.

The more we move away from these stereotypes, the more autism becomes recognised and the more that autistic people will feel included in their society.

 

 

Exclusion from society is one of the worst experiences for autistic people, and most definitely impacts their mental health. However, the “lonely white boy” stereotype has become dangerous, and an association between autism and misogyny, as well as autism and angry or violent acts, is becoming more and more common.

Take 2014, for example, where Eliot Rodger killed six people, injured fourteen others, and took his own life. He had made several videos before this incident, in which he declared a “war on women” because they had forced him into a life of “involuntary celibacy”. The media immediately latched onto his social awkwardness and “autistic tendencies”.

This was repeated again recently in October of 2017, where Stephen Paddock killed 58 people, injured 546, and then took his own life. The media immediately latched onto this man, and many sites pointed out what were deemed “autistic tendencies” to explain his violence.

Using autism and mental health difficulties to explain violence in white men allows people to move away from problems such as gun violence, or the socialisation of men, particularly young men, to feel entitled to women.

To make this worse, this makes autistic people a target. It makes us seem inherently flawed, dangerous, a group of people to be feared. It pushes us further out of society, away from the people who care about us, away from other communities, away from our own communities.

 

 

I wish to remind people who are neurodiverse or have mental health difficulties, however, that any level of psychological difficulties does not, despite popular belief, excuse you from being a dick.

 

 

Autistic people don’t just struggle being a part of a neurotypical, non-autistic community, they’re still out of place with the wider disabled community.

This has little to do with the disabled community itself; it’s about the way society still separates disability and neurodiversity, to a point in which I still have to explain why my autism does, in fact, disable me at times.

“Accessibility” is often split into two groups, between those with physical disabilities, and those with autism, other neurodiversities, and mental health difficulties. The debate as to whether autism is a “disability” or “difference” dehumanises autistic people.

The decision to make “dangerous” an autistic stereotype is just as dehumanising, and not only that, it puts autistic people in a precarious position.

“Does this person think I’m a danger to them?” is not a thought that any person should have to think, but autistic people are already vulnerable as it is, already susceptible to mental health difficulties.




 

Autism is becoming the go-to excuse to explain violence perpetuated by white terrorists and this needs to stop. The media needs to change the lens through which they see autism and the disabled community need to start thinking of autism as more than a “stereotype”, as more than a “flaw”.

The media need to start recognising that we are not broken, we are not dangerous, and that we want a place in this society.

How can we do this? Now that’s another article entirely.

About the Author

With a particular interest in ideas of the neuroatypical, mental health and dabbling in feminism and international politics, Errol prefers to surround himself with tasks – usually giving himself more to complete than he’d ever care to admit. Taking the time to enjoy writing for Verbal Remedy is just one of them.

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One Comment
  1. Errol:

    glad I found you on Twitter through #inclusion2017 I think or Ruti Regan’s writing:

    “It’s a fight we’ve been sick of since the 1990s, when we became the poster-children for “problem kids”, and just talking about “stereotypical” autism in such a high-profile article doesn’t really give us much in the way of positive press. Just last year, the autistic community was outraged at Dylan Marron’s handling of his “Shutting Down Bullshit” video regarding autism, and you’d think that The Guardian would do better.”

    I remember my first exposure to Marron’s work in December 2016-January 2017. And, yes, the 1990s. Actually autistic people had to share the #problemkidposterchild stage with a lot of people and sometimes were hidden/invisible outside of this.

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