It’s Time To Stop Portraying Autistic People As ‘Aliens’

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A video showed up in my Facebook feed recently, shared by an autism advocacy organization. It’s an old clip from the well-known children’s series Arthur. In the sequence, a character with Asperger syndrome explains his experience in the world by comparing it to that of an astronaut navigating a strange planet. The title of the upload on YouTube is straightforward: “Asperger’s syndrome explained for children.” Non-autistic child viewers are shown that their autistic peers are like aliens. Autistic children are taught that they were born on the wrong planet, that they are perpetual outsiders who will never quite belong.

In her 2005 book Constructing Autism, Majia Nadesan provides a useful but woefully under-recognized definition of autism. She writes that autism is “a nominal category useful for grouping heterogenous people all sharing communication practices deviating significantly from the expectations of normalcy.” In simpler terms: autism is a label for people whose social behavior is very different from what their culture expects. Today, autism has broadened into an almost catch-all social category. Anyone who is withdrawn or rigid or awkward might be suspected of being “on the spectrum.”

I like to think of autism as a genre of stories that we tell ourselves. Fundamentally, this genre is about defining “normal” human behavior in relation to people who are deemed cognitively and behaviorally deviant. How, exactly, that deviance is manifest and what it means depends on the specific story being told.

One common story that we tell about autism is that autistic people are like aliens. The genesis of this trope seems to be the titular remark made by Temple Grandin in Oliver Sacks’ 1995 book An Anthropologist on Mars. “Much of the time I feel like an anthropologist on Mars,” Grandin says. Other autists have portrayed themselves as being like aliens stranded on Earth, as on the Wrong Planet forums. Non-autists use the alien analogy to explain autism to themselves, as seen in the clip from Arthur and in various other media.

The meaning of the story that autistic people are like extraterrestrials is obvious. It conveys that autistic people are, well, alien. Ideas often go unexamined precisely because they are so ubiquitous and unsubtle. “The revelation of the obvious is not to be despised,” as philosopher Ian Hacking puts it in a 2009 article for the journal Daedalus, “for often the obvious is blinding.” Hacking’s essay is titled “Humans, aliens, & autism.” He sets out to illuminate something about what it means to be human by examining the trope of the autist-as-alien. “Aliens, usually from outer space,” Hacking writes, “are almost by definition not human.” Aliens are always them, never us. Because the alien is a foil for humanity, any portrayal of “aliens” reveals our deepest anxieties about ourselves and who we are.

Hacking emphasizes that the divide between autists and non-autists is “symmetric.” He attributes this divide to the fact that autistic people cannot intuit non-autists’ feelings and intentions, and vice-versa. “We are fellow humans in that we grasp each other’s intentions, feelings, and wants,” he argues. Because autists and non-autists cannot immediately grasp each other’s interiority, they see each other as alien. They do not share the “bedrock” of a common humanity, nor do they “share a form of life,” Hacking claims, borrowing two turns of phrase from Wittgenstein. Hacking does ultimately try to gesture toward inclusion, and I do think that is laudable. However, I disagree with many of the premises of his argument, and I wholeheartedly reject the idea that autists and non-autists must be fundamentally alien to each other.

I do understand the impulse to identify with aliens. I get it. I feel it myself. I think it’s a natural reaction to feeling alienated. But non-autistic people too often interpret that expression of alienation as evidence of autists’ inherent strangeness. Autistic “otherness” is reinforced, and the primacy and power of the neurotypical subject is reified. The world belongs to them, while autistic people remain eternal outsiders.

“You know how it is. People like that . . . they don’t experience emotions the same way that you and I do.”

The woman talking to me was friendly and earnest. She had been telling me about her work supporting people in a sheltered workshop, about how her clients had been affected when Massachusetts began shutting down such programs. That was who she meant by “people like that”: people with the kinds of developmental disabilities expressed among her clients, including those with “high functioning autism.”

I just gritted my teeth and nodded. I thought about telling her. I chose not to. I’m not sure what it would have accomplished if I had told her. Revealing myself to be a person like that would have done nothing to resist or rupture that paradigm of us versus them.

There is nothing unusually ignorant or malicious about what that woman said to me. Non-autistic people make assertions like that about autistic people all the time. There is still a stubborn essentialism that pervades the entire discourse around autism, including the emerging rhetoric of “neurodiversity.” Other liberatory movements have incorporated deconstructive social theory into their rhetoric and praxis. Autistic advocacy needs to get on that level. And non-autistic allies need to take heed.

Steve Silberman’s recent bestseller NeuroTribes has what I think is a tantalizing subtitle: “The Legacy of Autism and the Future of Neurodiversity.” The phrase seems to suggest that the concept of autism might eventually be relegated to the past, allowing us to move toward a new paradigm free of such categorization. But Silberman himself is not autistic, and his book never quite reaches that level of analysis.

I am not fond of the book for many reasons, but my biggest problem with it is encapsulated in the following passage: “Whatever autism is, it is not a unique product of modern civilization. It is a strange gift from our deep past, passed down through millions of years of evolution.” This statement bothers me for the same reasons that I grumble when things like the Arthur clip show up in my social media feeds. I am not an alien, and I am also not a “strange gift.” I am not a foil to help non-autistic people process their anxieties and hopes.

And I am “a product of modern civilization.” Every aspect of who I am, including autism, is the product of my culture and my environment. Autism does not reside a priori within my body. Autism is an idea, a social category. Autism is the meaning that we project onto certain modes of behavior. It is made up of society’s collective anxieties around what it means to be “normal,” to be fully human.

In the end, the association of autism with aliens seems inevitable. The alien is a kind of ultimate manifestation of otherness. And the autist is always understood as the other — an outsider by definition. The assertion that autism is fixed and innate, that it has always existed and will always exist, relegates autistic people to that silenced, subordinate position forever.

The truth is, I don’t experience emotions in the same way as that woman who spoke to me about her disabled clients. Or in the same way that you do. No one does. Human beings are cognitively and behaviorally diverse. We are so diverse that we defy taxonomy entirely. There really is no norm, no fixed point of reference from which to deviate.

I want to see the concept of “neurodiversity” used to dismantle the very system of normality versus deviance. My autistic politics compel me to imagine a world where categories like “autistic” and “neurotypical” don’t need to exist.

The idea of some shared humanity is just that: an idea. One that is too often used to exclude and dehumanize people. But I do think that it can be a useful idea if it’s deployed just so. When it comes down to it, we are all just animals fumbling around on a rock. That is what it means to be human. We do not always make each other feel at home here on Earth, but none of us is truly an outsider, either. We all belong here. None of us are strange visitors who can only hope to be tolerated and accommodated.

There really is no “them.” It’s just us.

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