Tag Archives: dominant narratives

Guest Post: Reflections on being Jewish and Autistic: Different minorities, same critique

Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg is a wife, mother, writer, editor, artist, photographer, and leader of the Vermont Chapter of the Autistic Self Advocacy Network (ASAN). She blogs at Journeys with Autism, and her latest book, The Uncharted Path: My Journey with Late-Diagnosed Autism, was published in July of 2010. Her last guest post for FWD was “I Do Not Suffer From Autism.”

In writing this piece, I in no way wish to imply that my approach is the only approach, that having a religion is better than having no religion, or that Judaism is right and that other paths are wrong. As long as people act consciously and ethically, I really don’t care what they believe, or whether they avoid religion like the plague. I have been involved in social justice work on behalf of all people from a progressive Jewish perspective for much of my life, because that is the culture in which I find myself at home and because it provides me with a useful framework for action. I abhor proselytizing and fundamentalism of any variety; I reject violence, no matter who carries it out; and I support a just, two-state solution in Israel/Palestine, may it be in our lifetimes.

For almost two years now, I’ve become increasingly aware of how other people regard autistics. As you all know, the news is not altogether good. As I’ve waded my way through all manner of error and nonsense, I’ve had the most familiar feeling, as though I had heard it all before. The other day, it finally occurred to me: I’ve encountered the same basic stereotypes and misinformation about Jewish people as I have about autistic people.

All minority people, to some extent, have to endure similar false charges, but the similarities between my experience of prejudice as a Jew and my experience of prejudice as an autist are striking. Here are some of the most damaging myths:

We don’t love properly. In the larger, mainly Christian culture in which I’ve lived my life, the view seems to be that the Jews of the “Old Testament” were all about strict justice, and that the Christians of the “New Testament” were all about love. (I put the names of the books in quotation marks because I don’t see one as being old and outmoded and the other as having superseded it; I see them both as valid traditions in their own right.)

The Jewish God, the critique goes, is only a God of judgment, a God of punishment, a God who lacks forgiveness, and we are just like our God: cold, judgmental, merciless. The Christian God, on the other hand, is a God of love and forgiveness. When I was growing up, without much of a Jewish education, I actually believed all of this. I believed it until I was in my late thirties, and I asked a rabbi whether there was anything in Judaism to help me heal my broken heart. His reply? “Yes. Our people brought the truth to the world that there is a God who loves us and cares about our lives.” I nearly fainted. When I began to study and practice Judaism in adulthood, I was startled to find that we are instructed to love our neighbors, to love our enemies, to love mercy, and to make right the wrongs of the world.

And what did I believe about autistic people until I found out that I actually am one? I believed that autistic people don’t have empathy, the very basis of loving relationships. The lack-of- empathy trope has been at the core of autism theory for a number of years, and it’s appalling how many people still believe it. Of course, they don’t appear to have met any of the autistic people I know, nor do they seem to have much empathy for the pain and suffering this canard causes autistic people on a daily basis.

We think terms of black and white. Now, the interesting thing about this particular myth is that it betrays some pretty black-and-white thinking on the part of the people who accuse us of black-and-white thinking. For example, when people say that Jews are only about justice, it’s justice of a kind that brooks no shades of gray. Christians, on the other hand, are said to be all about love, which encompasses many, many shades of gray. But the truth is that Jewish tradition has always been concerned with a concept called tzedakah, which is essentially an action that combines justice (righting a wrong) with love (easing and, ultimately, healing the suffering of other beings). We do not think in black and white about justice and love; in fact, we combine them. To split them apart is an example of black-and-white thinking at its best.

Now, consider the myth that autistics think in black and white, usually expressed as our being all about logic and systems. In fact, some researchers believe that we have Extremely Male Brains that are high on systemizing, while non-autistics have brains that are high on empathizing. And yet, when I look at my own life, and that of other autistic people, I often see a capacity for high levels of both systemizing and empathizing, and I see them working together. We don’t split them apart. Other people do, and then they tell us that we’re the ones with the black-and-white thinking. It’s enough to make you weep.

We are excessively logical. Many people believe that Judaism is all about “legalisms,” and that it does not concentrate on coming from the heart. This particular myth is very old and very intractable, in part because most people believe that Judaism begins and ends with the “Old Testament,” ignoring thousands of years of mysticism, story-telling, discussion, ritual, and practice that are all about opening one’s heart. I’m not saying that all Jews come from the heart, any more than all Christians come from the heart. I’m saying that Jewish culture has its own ways of combining head-thinking with heart-wisdom that are little known or understood by others.

Of course, autistics are constantly stereotyped as being overly logical—except when we’re stereotyped as being out of control. And yet, somehow, we manage to have friends, families, relationships, children, and ethical lives.

We insist upon being different. For a number of years, I wore garb that clearly identified me as Jewish. For awhile, I wore a yarmulke and tzitzis (ritual fringes) every day, all day. During another period, I only wore headscarves and dresses. I now dress in a thoroughly secular fashion. When I didn’t, I got all kinds of attitude about “setting myself apart.” Of course, I wasn’t setting myself apart. I was just being myself. And I wear what I wear now because I am just being myself.

I grow. I change. I morph. I explore. I’m inconsistent. I’m human. Go figure.

Not surprisingly, I have gotten similar messages regarding my autistic sensitivities to all things sensory. I’m told that I’m “choosing” to be so sensitive, that I’m setting myself apart, when I’m really just being myself. And when my sensitivities are not as troubling, I’m also just being myself.

I grow. I change. I morph. I explore. I’m inconsistent. I’m human. Go figure.

Other people are normal, and we are abnormal. Many years ago, when my daughter was small, her father used to pick up one of her friends after school and bring him home. One December, on the way home, the young man said, “We celebrate Christmas at my house. We don’t celebrate Chanuka. We’re not like you. We’re normal.” My ex-husband took the long way home and patiently explained the concept of diversity to the young man until he got the picture.

And of course, we autists get stuck with the “abnormal” label all the time—more evidence of that dualistic, black-and-white thinking that “normal” people aren’t supposed to engage in.

We are all alike. In response to all the many myths surrounding Judaism and Jewish people, I did interfaith work for a number of years, teaching workshops in areas schools and churches. Some of the most common questions I got began with the words, “So what do Jews believe?”—as though we all believe the same thing! That was the moment I’d introduce the mantra of “You get two Jews in a room, you get three opinions.”

Likewise, it seems, people have an excessive need to see autistic people as being all alike. It usually expresses itself in terms of narrowing the definition of what autistic means. (I recently saw a YouTube video in which the mother of an autistic young man actually said that you can’t be autistic if you can speak. I was flabbergasted. ) At other times, this need to see us as alike expresses itself in conclusions by researchers that autistic people are a collection of deficits and impairments without any strengths at all. If we have strengths, they are usually called “splinter skills” (a term I despise, even though it’s got some cool alliteration and assonance going on).

Of course, we’re as varied as any other group. I’m not sure what kind of impairment, oops, I mean, neurological difference keeps people from seeing that variation. It might be interesting to do some genetic research on the matter.

We are not fully human. I first became aware that some people believe that Jews are not fully human when I was in Hebrew school and saw a piece of Nazi propaganda in which Jews were likened to vermin. I felt such pride in who I was that I just couldn’t believe my eyes. Who could really think that Jews weren’t people? Apparently, at certain times in history, a great many people.

I was reminded of this experience when I happened upon some writing by Dr. Ivar Lovaas, the psychologist who pioneered the treatment now known as Applied Behavioral Analysis. In discussing the basis of his treatment, he wrote of autistics in 1974:

“You see, you start pretty much from scratch when you work with an autistic child. You have a person in the physical sense—they have hair, a nose and a mouth—but they are not people in the psychological sense. One way to look at the job of helping autistic kids is to see it as a matter of constructing a person. You have the raw materials, but you have to build the person.”

I shudder to think of how many people still believe this kind of thing.

Of course, Jews, autistics, and members of any other minority group share similar experiences: we are vulnerable no matter how well we “pass” and live up to the standards of the larger culture, and we constantly have to fight against the appropriation of our own voices. Moreover, the solution to whatever problem we appear to pose consists of attempts to do at least one of the following: a) efface our differences to make us indistinguishable from others, b) demand at least a pro forma conversion to the dominant paradigm, which means that we can stim/rock back and forth in prayer/be ourselves, but only out of the public eye, or c) isolate us in ways both visible and invisible.

There are many, many autistic people who cannot do a “pro forma conversion,” who cannot “pass” as I do, and who have endured severe levels of bullying, assault, and isolation as a result. I shy away from the word Aspie and I use the word autistic to describe myself in order to make common cause with people across the spectrum (in the same way that I refer to myself as a Jew, not a denominational Jew, in order to make common cause with other Jews, no matter how differently they may think and practice, and how vehemently I may disagree with them). I will continue to do both. I have Asperger’s Syndrome, and that makes me autistic. I had Jewish parents, and that makes me a Jew. I may present differently from others in my group, but then again, so do trees and birds and rocks. Why should people be any less diverse than the whole of creation?

[Interested in guest posting for FWD? Please see our Guest Posting page for more information!]

‘Normal’ and the Dominant Narrative

He got through school, he has a good job and he married. That’s probably the biggest concern of Tourette’s sufferers and their relatives: Will their life be normal?

This quote comes from Anne Miller’s Washington Post piece, ‘‘American Idol’ segment helps push Tourette’s Syndrome into cultural mainstream,’ which I mentioned in ‘Whose Voices?‘ There’s a lot to unpack here, because there are a whole lot of problematic things going on.

‘Normality’ is often treated as a holy grail, especially for people with disabilities. Everything’s ok, as long as we can be normal, or at least act normal. ‘Normal’ is, of course, decided by the dominant members of society and any attempt to redefine normal from another perspective will be met with significant pushback. People who reject society’s definition of normal are viewed as highly suspect; look at the critical reporting on the Mad Pride movement, for example. How dare those people say they don’t want to take medications? How dare people say that being ‘normal,’ that fitting in with society’s demands, isn’t a big priority for them? For that matter, how dare people reject psychiatricization and the very idea of being ‘mad’ at all?

What this quote tells us is that getting through school, having a ‘good’ job, and getting married are the paragons of normality. People with disabilities who accomplish this triad of goals are role models. We should all aspire to this. Anyone who doesn’t is just giving up. Anyone who doesn’t want a college degree, a good job, and a spouse is clearly a social failure, no matter what ‘reasons’ can be mustered to explain why these goals are not of interest.

Never mind that there are barriers to getting through school. Everyone wants to go to school, right? There is not one single person in this world who is not interested in going to college. Who doesn’t believe that school is something that ou needs. Who has other goals. College is where it’s at! After all, if you don’t go to college, you are an abject failure who will never get anywhere in life.

That’s certainly what society seems to think. People are shamed for not wanting to go to college or for being unable to attend if they do want to go. Let alone people who want to leave high school early; they are informed that they are throwing their lives away and ‘dropping out.’ If you do decide not to go to school, you had better be an accomplished artist or musician or writer or something to redeem yourself in the eyes of society and even then people will express amazement about having ‘gotten so far without a college degree.’

And, of course, everyone wants a job, right? Specifically a ‘good job’? People who do not want to work are lazy. Because working is empowering! Not wanting to work makes you morally suspect and questionable. Not being able to work, even when you very much want to do so, is a moral failing; just try harder! If you’re not working, you must be feeding off the government, which means that you expect the working people to pay for your existence. Should you do something like choosing to live with your parents, you are obviously not realising your full potential.

Marriage, too, is the ultimate social goal. There are no reasons why anyone on Earth would not want to marry. First comes love, then comes marriage1, as we know, so clearly, if you are not married, you are not capable of love or being loved. And, of course, everyone who does want a spouse can get married, so it’s not as though there are any legal impediments to marriage.

These are all things which people believe.

These are all things which ‘advocates’ believe. Note that it’s right there in the quote; people with Tourette’s are ‘sufferers’ and their relatives just want them to be ‘normal.’ Miller is proud of her husband for ‘succeeding’ and being a ‘role model’ and she wants other people with disabilities to ‘succeed’ in the same way. I’m sure it’s well-meant, but it comes across as yet another reinforcement of social attitudes about who is normal, who is a good person, who is worthy.

Who gets to decide who is ‘normal’? Who gets to decide which life goals we should aspire to? It’s the people who write the dominant narrative.

Let’s contrast that quote I used at the opener with a quote from someone who actually has Tourette’s, from the same article:

At a recent public appearance, Koterba met a mother and her young daughter with Tourette’s. The woman asked Koterba if her daughter would have a normal life. It broke his heart, Koterba recalled. “No,” Koterba told the girl. “You’re going to have a great life. An amazing life. A creative, beautiful, wonderful life.”

  1. No baby in the baby carriage for you, because your child might be disabled like you.

Whose Voices?

There seems to be a bit of a theme these days of nondisabled people writing about the disabled people in their lives for the mainstream media. We had Sue Blackmore writing about her daughter Emily, who has anorexia, and Anne Miller writing about her husband, Michael Davoli, for example, and I’m sure there were countless other instances in the news in the last week or so, it’s just that these two jumped out at me.

This is a consistent and troubling theme in media discussions about disability. Anna touched upon this in ‘Making ‘Invisible Women’ even more invisible‘ recently as well, discussing an opinion editorial written for international women’s day by a nondisabled man talking about women with disabilities.

For nondisabled readers, I’m sure it’s very comforting to read about disability from the perspective of other nondisabled people. It’s a familiar zone. Common ground. But for readers with disabilities, it’s a repeat of the tired old story we’ve been hearing for years; people talk about us but they do not talk with us and we are not allowed to have our own voices.

These personal essays are framed as providing insight about living with disability, but really they are about what it is like to be a nondisabled person in a relationship with someone with a disability. Which is certainly a point of view which may be worth hearing at times, except that right now, it’s the dominant narrative. In the media, it’s not that hard to find examples of pieces by nondisabled people writing about living with people with disabilities. It is hard to find writing by disabled people discussing what it’s like to live with nondisabled people, and it’s hard to find people with disabilities writing about themselves and their own experiences.

In fact, it’s rather dehumanizing to reduce people to their disabilities, which is basically what these articles do. These articles are a reminder to reader that disabled persons are the other and that we are so peculiar and alien that we can only be written about. We cannot have our own voices; we cannot speak for ourselves, we cannot discuss our own experiences, we cannot push back against narratives which stick us in boxes and hide us away.

In Miller’s piece, she says ‘Such is life with Tourette’s Syndrome.’ Not ‘such is life with my husband, who has Tourette’s Syndrome,’ or even just ‘such is life with my husband.’ And she uses her personal experiences with her husband as a springboard to position herself as an authority on Tourette’s, just as many other nondisabled ‘advocates’ use their family members as tools to suggest that they know what it’s like and thus should be provided with platforms to speak from. After all, it’s not like people with disabilities could self advocate, right? It’s a good thing we have those nondisabled folks around to speak for us.

Many of these pieces have common elements. It’s so hard living with someone who has a disability! But I love ou anyway! There are so many obstacles and barriers I face! It’s a real struggle, being nondisabled. The authors write about having to advocate all the time, or having to use tough love, and nary a mention is made of self-advocacy. Of the feelings of the subject of the article. These articles often feel like they are all about the sacrifices the author has been forced to make to ‘live with disability.’

We are subjects. We are topics of study. We are topics of discussion.

What we are not is autonomous human beings. We are not capable of communicating for ourselves.

It’s not that our voices aren’t out there. It’s not that it’s impossible to find people with disabilities to write about disability and to write about their experiences. It’s that our voices are rarely centred beyond the disability community. We are rarely asked, for example, to write about our own disability for the Washington Post. We are rarely profiled by the Daily Mail. The media wants to talk to the people who live and work with us, with our friends, but they do not want to talk to us.

Is it because actually allowing people with disabilities to speak would destroy the carefully structured beliefs of nondisabled people? Would it make people uncomfortable to know that we don’t appreciate being fetishized, treated like objects, and silenced? Would allowing us a platform mean that nondisabled people have to confront their own ableism and the ableism inherent in a lot of these ‘caregiver writes about subject’ narratives?