Boosting Respect for Neurodiversity: A Proposal for Action

Spock and CaptainKirk

By Claudia Casser

Context

I’m not a joiner. People exhaust me. One on one, I enjoy short interactions, but then I need to get away into a book.

So I don’t voluntarily join groups unless they are my only way to a goal. On the other hand, I have a compulsion to “help out” when someone brings a problem to my attention.

Now that I’ve discovered I share a cluster of characteristics which the psychological community called “Asperger’s Syndrome,” in DSM 4 (second guessing themselves regarding the validity of that category in DSM 5), I am becoming aware of problems that people “on the spectrum” want to solve.

Hence this modest proposal for ameliorating one of those problems.

The Problem Presented

“Neurotypicals,” especially neurotypicals with social power, fail to (i) appreciate the contributions the social minorities defined as “neurodivergent” can make to society, and (ii) remove barriers to those contributions.[1]

The barriers on which my modest proposal focuses are those of (a) stigma and (b) civility norms. Other social minorities, such as women and the LGBT community, have made great strides in overcoming these barriers to productivity and happiness. (I am particularly familiar with women’s efforts.)

The Proposal

My modest proposal is that we lobby schools and social venues to adopt a “new” template for civil interaction among diverse mentalities. This template is highly successful on a fictional world described below, and, in more primitive form, existed in many historical cultures of our “real” world. The proposed conventions will make it easier for diverse groups to understand each other; and, to the extent that language and understanding affect perception, should, over time, reduce stigma and open doors.

A. Fostering appreciation of the contributions of neurodiverse minorities (reducing stigma)

There is a well-trodden path here, prepared by minorities of color and gender. We need to make neurodiversity cool.

I understand that many recent YA novels (including my own “No Child Left Behind,” published this year) are already undertaking this task. However, I can find no archive of cool neurodiverse characters, real and fictional; no place that collects them to show how many and how amazing they are.

To speed the process of helping everybody appreciate that neurodiversity is cool, IMO we need to gather the cool kids in one place so they’re easier to find. This website (or whatever) would collect and diagnose fictional and “real” people like Sherlock Holmes, the Big Bang Theory kids, Whoopie Goldberg, Robin Williams, and, for the British, Jon Richardson. I say “diagnose” so that the public mind directly associates the famous members of each DSM minority with their quotidian members.

In addition, we need to agree on cooler names for each DSM minority. For those people “on the autistic spectrum,” I suggest “Spectrics.”[2] Or, possibly, “Spectrix,” if you prefer a term where the singular and the plural are identical.

B. Removing barriers to productivity

In the far-future universe of C.S. Friedman’s “This Alien Shore” , a New York Times Notable Book from 1998, the first technology used for FTL travel caused radical mutation. This was discovered shortly after colonization of hundreds of planets, and before the vast majority of these planets were self-sufficient.

In fear of mutations entering their gene pool from returning space-farers, Earth cut off all contact with her colonies. Half a million settlers were left to fend for themselves.

Those who colonized the planet Guera suffered brain mutations. Everyone descended from humans who travelled to Guera by the first FTL technology were born with genotypes that expressed one or several “mental disorders” (called “kaja” in the novel) similar to those characterized in DSM-IV. The world became a Babel of cognitive styles, with none achieving majority status.

The problem of appreciating neurodiverse minorities was not an issue on Guerra, because everybody was a neurodiverse minority.

So what was Guera’s solution to promoting productivity? It was a social code that facilitated interaction and cooperation among the kaja. The code encouraged (i) each person to identify themselves each day with standardized facial designs; and (ii) each other person to interact with them according to specified rules.[3]

On Guera, the rules for interaction were based on assessments of what behaviors would promote the productivity and reduce the stress of citizens “suffering” each “disorder.” The code also contained rules of “precedence” for when citizens with conflicting needs interacted (e.g., those who preferred subtlety in communication were encouraged to speak plainly to those who did not understand subtlety in communication).

It is this Gueran model that I suggest we neurodiverse minorities advocate to schools and social groups (e.g., the Girl Scouts).

Note that the Gueran model differs from the “equal treatment” most race and gender minorities demand.[4] However, precedent for personalized “different” treatment does exist today in the forms of (i) “reasonable accommodation” legislation, and (ii) old-fashioned courtesy.[5] As an example of the latter, I always give up my seat to people I recognize as pregnant or lugging around an infant, as I expected people to do for me when I was so burdened.

1. Self identification

The first step to adapting the Gueran code to Earth is agreement upon (i) the characteristics to be identified and (ii) the symbols to represent those characteristics.

Once agreed upon, that relationship initially could be communicated through associating with each symbol one or more of the “cool” neurodiverse characters collected in the archive proposed above. FREX, if I am a male who just can’t speak to women, I could wear a badge showing Big Bang Theory Raj’s frightened face and an icon or hieroglyph of a male stick figure with a hand over his mouth, crouched in front of a female stick figure.[6]

Note, this of course requires the courage to self-identify as something others may ridicule or shun, but such appears to be a necessary stage to “neurodiversity is beautiful.” (Or, for the corporate types, “neurodiversity energizes productivity.”)[7]

Without self-identification, it is unreasonable to expect special treatment. One cannot fault a man for hitting on a married woman at a bar if she is not wearing a wedding ring.

Like wedding rings, other badges identifying personal statuses or characteristics adjust expectations in social interactions, reducing friction and frustration on both sides of the interaction. This opens the door to proposing adoption of more badges for neurotypicals, too.

FREX, neurotypicals might wear a badge for peanut allergies, or the recent death of a relative or pet (until recently, in most non-tribal cultures, one could reliably identify the bereaved by the color of the clothes or ribbons they wore). Today, many alleged neurotypicals already wear sports team hats to bars, informing others there about their likely response to derogatory comments about those teams. Other neurotypicals wear t-shirts reading “Boss Mare,” informing others about their odds in a fight for a taxi; still others stick plaques reading “police pension patron” in the back windows of their cars, hoping for forgiveness for traffic violations.

Building on these existing neurotypical fashions could help combat the singling out of “I’m Aspie, I follow the rules” badge-wearers.

Introducing badges in pre-school could even create a demand for them in kindergarten, a fad in first grade, and who knows what from there! I imagine a pile of “get to know me” badges at the door of primary school classrooms. Both “neurotypical” and neurodiverse minority kids could bring badges from home or pick from the pile each day, telling other kids what they liked and disliked.[8]

Primary school badges which both majority and minority kids might choose could say stuff like: “I like to talk about cars,” or “I’m not contagious, I just have allergies,” or “When I grow up, I’ll be a fireman.” Some neurodiverse minority kids might also pick badges saying “I don’t mean to be bossy,” or “I hit when I’m hugged,” or “I prefer to read than talk,” or “I bet I’m shyer than you!” or “I hate sitting still.” Kids could choose to wear multiple badges, changing some each day.

In high school, the badges might read, “Leave me alone, I’m busy writing Mortal Kombat XX,” or “If you want a friend who will tell you the truth, it’s me.” Or Sheldon.

2. Rules for Social Interactions

The second step in my modest proposal is agreement upon the details of what could be called a guide or manual of etiquette, or, if enforcement mechanisms are put in place, a code of conduct. An example of a rule of etiquette might be: when talking to a boy wearing a badge with a picture of the older Howard Hughes or the television detective Monk, do not hand him anything unless he is wearing gloves.

More difficult than agreement on first level rules, however, will be agreement on second level rules: what to do when neurodiverse needs clash. FREX, what should the rule be when those with the need to hug, meet those with the need to not be touched? Which need should prevail? Or should a third norm of conduct be substituted (e.g., pantomiming hugs)?

But difficult as reaching this agreement might be, we gotta start. Per the official motto of the United States Navy Seabees, “the difficult we do immediately, the impossible takes a bit longer.”

SOLICTING YOUR INPUT

So, what are your suggestions for non-fictional and fictional neurodiverse stars to populate the “cool” archive? What are their DSM diagnoses?

What characteristics or clusters of characteristics (aka syndromes or diagnoses) should the first neurodiversity badges symbolize? What symbols should we use to identify those characteristics?

Which neurotypicals are most likely to join our efforts to reduce stigma and remove barriers to our productivity?

Please let us know your thoughts. 🙂

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Footnotes

1. Please note, I do NOT suggest that my modest proposal is a panacea for the ills of a society containing diverse cognitive styles; nor even a remedy for most societal disadvantages experienced by minority cognitive styles. Nor do I take a position on whether we are “entitled” (because of natural rights, the social need for efficient exploitation of human capital, justice, compassion, or whatever) to insist that society remove one or more barriers to our productivity and happiness for us.
2. “Spectrans” could be confused with Trans people, unless you are both on the spectrum and Trans.
3. Examples of this concept abound in Earth’s history. Many cultures prescribed the colors each social caste could wear, as well as the styles each sex could wear. Rigid rules defined which caste and sex would bow to which others, which could touch, which spoke first, which could end interaction. In cultures with royalty, rules filled volumes, with violations punishable by death for lese majeste. In the United States today, we have t-shirts, earrings, Emily Post, Amy Vanderbilt, university codes of conduct, columnists and bloggers. But there is no general agreement on identifying symbols or rules of engagement.
4. It is closer to the pure Marxist “from each according to his abilities to each according to his needs,” but involves only courtesy, not compensation.
5. We are also not here concerned with the line between civility (avoiding, to the best of your ability, hurting one another’s feelings by the form, as opposed to content, of your discourse) and political correctness (insisting there is only one “right way” to discuss a person or an issue, and insisting that prescribed “correct words” must be used to do so).
6. Yes, icons and hieroglyphs may perpetuate stereotypes if you use stuff like long hair and a skirt on your stick figure to show it is female. But baby steps and reasonable compromise, fellow feminists.
7. I do NOT recommend self-identification as neurodivergent for those applying for jobs. Before you receive an employment offer, that would likely cost you too much. On the other hand, after starting the job, I believe that self-identification to take advantage of the ADA to pursue reasonable accommodations like coaching, or work-at-home two days a week, could make good sense.
8. In primary school or wherever else reading skills were undeveloped, you might make the badges electronic “talking badges” like talking birthday cards.

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Claudia Casser (ccasser@gmail.com), a graduate of Harvard Law School, worked as an antitrust litigator and a corporate in-house counsel before retiring to write and raise her children. Claudia’s 2016 semi-comic coming of age novel, “No Child Left Behind,” celebrates neurodiversity. Visit her website at www.ethicalantics.com, and buy her novel on Amazon.

7 Comments

  • Claudia Mazzucco says:

    Dear Claudia,

    You cannot possible take the DSM too seriously. I would recommend reading the book “They Say You Are Crazy,” by Paula Caplan, and listening to her videos in YouTube. The definitions for mental illnesses found in the DSM are widely believed to be firmly based in science. But Dr. Caplan’s suspicions to the contrary began surfacing when she served as a consultant to the APA committee, which sets the definitions for the newly identified mental disorders to be included in a revised edition of the DSM. In observing the process, she found that the decisions about who is normal are riddled with personal biases and political considerations. As she determined during the preparation of this book, there is no scientific evidence to verify the existence of most of the disorders found in the DSM. Many things labeled mental illness, observes Dr. Caplan, can be more accurately described as “problems in living,” such as loneliness and mourning.

    • Hi

      I absolutely agree that the clusters of symptoms given syndrome names by psychiatrists are a product of many biases. A few weeks ago, I actually made a list of my characteristics and played a game “clustering” different groups of them into new “syndromes.”

      In the article, I probably should have said more about this than the one observation I made at the beginning about the contingent nature of the DSM diagnoses:

      “I’ve discovered I share a cluster of characteristics which the psychological community called “Asperger’s Syndrome,” in DSM 4 (second guessing themselves regarding the validity of that category in DSM 5)”

      That said, however, the DSM categories influence public perception and so make good targets for badges. Spock was obviously Asperger’s. 🙂

  • Claudia Mazzucco says:

    Do you realize, Claudia, that Mr. Spock was not a real person? It was a fictional character written for a TV series, who only existed in a TV study and through Leonard Nimoy’s portrait.

    • My daughter would debate that with you, maintaining that “Nimoy’s” and “Spock’s” realities were of equal ontological weight, but I agree with you. Except now that Nimoy is dead but Spock is not, I might reconsider. 🙂

  • Claudia Mazzucco says:

    You are kidding, right?

    Are you really telling me that your daughter is not able to distinguish between the real person that Leonard Nimoy was, and the fictional character he portrayed on TV?

    Things will start to get clearer and make much more sense to me if you could pinpoint what shaped your idea that people are divided between a majority of neurotypical individuals and a minority of “neuro-divergent”? What cultural factors have influenced you in terms of setting expectations for the kinds of relationships you look for?

    • Hi

      With regard to your first question, my daughter questions the western quotidian definition of “reality.” Her ontological stance is that physics supports the notion of “levels” of reality. I agree with the notion of “levels” of reality, which is not just a theory in physics, but the popular perception of Buddhists and Hindus, who constitute the plurality, if not the majority, of human beings. However, I disagree with my daughter’s rather complicated philosophy-of-physics argument that characters in books and movies may be “more real” than we mere physical humans.

      With regard to your second question, “what shaped your idea that people are divided between a majority of neurotypical individuals and a minority of “neuro-divergent”? “, the answer is the media. Whoever is in power in the United States calls themselves “neurotypical.” Everyone else is some flavor of “neuro-divergent.” The nervousness of WASPs at losing the political majority in the U.S. is similar to the nervousness of “neurotypicals” at the idea of respecting equally the perspectives of people whom the majority view as cognitively divergent.

      With regard to your third question, that would require a full autobiography. Instead, I suggest you read my first post on my website, http://www.ethicalantics.com
      I wrote that post BEFORE I was diagnosed DSM-4 “Asperger’s” or DSM-5 “autistic” by a therapist.

  • Claudia Mazzucco says:

    That is the major difference between us. I believe with Gary Greenberg (author of The Book of Woe), Paula J. Caplan (They Say You Are Crazy) and Dr. Enrico Gnaulati (Back to Normal) that Asperger Syndrome should have never made the DSM 4. Asperger Syndrome as a disorder does not exist in real life; it was designed purely in the mind of the DSM’s authors and its only effect has been to turn otherwise ordinary behavior into “abnormalities,” leading in extreme cases to personality disorders, which actually exist.

    You are just a regular person, Claudia. You may not like to admit it, but you are. I can accept that the division of the world between “neurotypical” and “neurodivergent” people started in Silicon Valley, as an inside joke among those in corporations like Google, Microsoft and Facebook who in this technological age believe themselves to be “The Masters of the Universe.” (In the eighties, the Masters of the Universe were living in Wall Street.) But it is only a joke. It shall not go beyond Silicon Valley.

    As for me, my odyssey with autism began in childhood. When I became an adult I wanted to make sure if I had overcome autism (as my grandma believed I did) or if I was still living with the effects of autism as it turned out to be. In London, in August 2001, at Autism Research Center, I got first a diagnosis of Asperger Syndrome. I was dubious about the diagnosis. There definitely had to be something wrong here, I thought, but God knows if I could figure it out. I insisted to know who in the world Dr. Asperger was. This sequence of events: 1944, Austria, Nazism, WWII, that culminated in the Final Solution for one people invalidates any medical authority that Dr. Asperger’s paper could have. I rejected immediately the diagnosis of AD and it was then diagnosed that I suffered originally from Infantile autism, and then I learned to overcome (or live with) its main difficulties.

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