Tag Archives: self-identity

On the Outside of the Outside

I’m giving serious thought to closing down this blog. As has happened so many times, I find that it’s difficult to keep more than one blog going with any regularity. It’s partly a matter of available time and energy. More critical is the difficulty of sticking with a specific topic, and staying within the bounds of what that topic is concerned with. Maverick Writer, my writing blog, has been running for almost seven years because the central topic allows for so many side paths.

The third reason why this blog may not continue is its lack of relevance to most people on the autistic spectrum. The title of this post: On the Outside of the Outside, has two meanings. One is that my personal experience of autism/Asperger’s is so “mild,” so “high-functioning,” that it barely relates to the experience of other outsiders, as that’s expressed in their own blogs. I am so far out on the fringes of the spectrum that I can’t relate to most of what they write about their lives and experiences. By the same token, it seems that my perspective is one that very few on the spectrum will relate to.

Blog posts by people on the spectrum tend to break down into two categories. There is the very personal post, which concentrates on the blogger’s experiences and feelings. Then there is what I call the “catch-all” post, which approaches autism/Asperger’s as a collective in which everyone is considered to be part of a community of similar experiences and feelings. “Me” or “we.”

Even if I believed my personal experience had wider relevance, as an introvert with a strong need for privacy, I have no interest in writing “me” posts. But I also have no interest in writing “we” posts, for the simple reason that much of what is considered the autistic community is a construct, created out of elements that, as often as not, have no basis in what we know as the autistic spectrum, but in the infinite variability of human nature and the human mind. I’ll go further and say that autism itself is a construct and the so-called spectrum is an attempt to unite all its elements under one umbrella. The impossibility of doing this is the root of all the arguments and dissension about who is or isn’t autistic, what autism means, how it should be regarded, how autistics should be treated and how they should think about themselves.

Because I see patterns of thinking and behavior in a much larger context than autism, I can identify the many ways in which thinking about autism is similar to or identical to thinking about other issues. In other words, much of what autistics think is special about the spectrum, isn’t. I would hesitate to say that autistics see themselves as special snowflakes, but that’s one perspective.

Here are a few of the patterns I see that are present in any group of humans but which autistics see as exclusively theirs. Creating “community” out of perceived commonalities (that may or may not exist), based on disabilities. Defining disabilities out of existence, disregarding the very real negative impacts they have on some people, and labeling those impacts as talents or special abilities. Further converting disabilities to a kind of superior status, negating the negative implications of disabilities and allowing for a personal sense of superiority. Insisting that the public at large should recognize their existence and problems, and alter their attitudes and behavior.

We see these attitudes among the blind, among the deaf, and probably in any disability group you can name. Any group of people who are in some way ignored, or mistreated by the general population will, if they can find each other, form groups that are not only supportive, but intent on changing public perceptions to the point where failure will justify withdrawing from the larger human community, and establishing their own culture and traditions.

All of this presupposes that you define your identity as a part of a group. But who were you before you knew of the group? Who would you be if you were no longer part of it? These questions are identical to those asked by people who have lost their religion, and the community that revolves around the religion. Not that constructed communities are without value. Without them, many people would be entirely on their own, without any type of support.

What I question is the tendency to identify with a group so strongly that it determines how you think and act, that it can become who you are. Everything in the rest of the world is either legitimized by it or rejected as valueless. More critically, it can become the sole measure of how you view and value yourself.

Discovering that I’m on the spectrum was useful because it explained a lot of my differences from the norm. But I have no more interest in defining myself as a person with autism (or as an autistic/aspie) than I have in defining myself as a _____ patient now that I’ve been diagnosed with a major health problem. In both cases, I deal with the problems individually, as necessary. Both may be decisive, in many ways, in determining how I’ve functioned in the world, but they do not change the core of who I am.

And that brings me to a question I’ve pondered often: why is it that so many people have no sense of self, or such a fragile sense of self that it’s dependent on external factors. That dependence is the basis for so many fights in defense against perceived slights or criticism of communities. If a community, or a belief system, is absolutely necessary to your self-image, then an attack on the community or belief system is an attack on you.

Is this post an attack on the autistic community? It isn’t intended to be, but can easily be perceived as such. How any reader views it will depend on the extent to which they have allowed autism to determine who they are.

To Be or Not to Be — The question of “Passing”

Passing is an interesting concept. Before I learned about autism and started reading up on it, I was familiar with the term only in the context of race. And to tell the truth, it still whizzes by me as something to consider when thinking about autism and Asperger’s. One of the taken-for-granted traits of females on the spectrum is that they are better than males at passing. Girls are more likely to want to please, to be part of a group. They are also thought to be better at “faking it”. And failure to pass is a source of considerable unhappiness.

I’m not questioning any of this, but it doesn’t ring any bells with me. As I look back over my life, I can see that there were occasions when I wanted to do some of the things that my age peers were doing. More often, I was stubbornly going my own way. It was paradoxical, really, because I was an extreme introvert, and also very shy to start with, and my deliberate refusals to do the “right thing” often made me stand out in uncomfortable ways.

What I can see now is a girl who, for the first few years was frightened and confused by school and by the activities that seemed to be normal and even enjoyable for other children. My goal was to retreat and remain unnoticed, as much as that was possible. And yet… Where did the ability to “defy” the normal ways of behaving come from? The pressure to be normal came from my mother as well as teachers, so it wasn’t as if I had any psychological support.

What I can see now is that I was developing an unusually early sense of self-identity. There were no Barbie dolls or Disney princesses when I was growing up. TV didn’t exist, and movies were few and far between. There were no models for me to follow — except… Fairy tales. If I had one real obsession, right through junior high school, it was folk and fairy tales. Those were where my models lived. Heroic characters, both male and female. I didn’t realize how powerful an effect they had on me until I read an article, many years later, by Bruno Bettelheim. Yes, he of the terrible “refrigerator mother” who was responsible for her child’s autism. But when it came to understanding the impact of fairy tales, he was spot on.

Let me not forget: there were also no autism diagnoses. With all this as background, I sometimes wonder if the current emphasis on diagnosis and support is always a good thing. For the majority, very possibly. Even necessary. But as this blog has mentioned before (and will mention again, ad nauseum) for a small population of spectrum inhabitants, it might be interfering with normal emotional growth and the construction of a strong, life-affirming self-identity.

That’s all I’m going to say about it right now. It’s one of the topics I’m still mulling over, and it will come up again, hopefully more fully developed. Is “passing” a valid goal?. Can the attempt to pass short circuit individidual development? In the meantime, it’s here to provoke thought and introspection.