Rethinking Autism

This amazing video made and narrated by an autistic person (silentmiauw) troubles the special educationist mind. It challenges all that we think we know of autism, and thus what a free and fair democracy owes its autistic citizens in the way of schooling.

The accepted definition of autism is (from wikipedia): ” a disorder of neural development that is characterized by impaired social interaction andcommunication, and by restricted and repetitive behavior.” EDU 6460’s critical thinking emphasis has given me to see a clear bias or presumption in this definition: the autistic person has a cognitive”disorder”– something is wrong with him/her. His or her “impaired social interaction and communication” with the rest of society makes the autistic person a drag on the rest of us. The definition for neurodevelopmental disorders –ASD’s–(of which Autistic Spectrum Disorders) explains that they “are associated with …mental, emotional, physical and economic burden to individuals, families and society in general.” Society in general–the rest of us, pay for the ASD student. Safely incorporating him/her into regular school facilities (the effect of the Americans with Disabilities Act (1990) has in fact increased the economic “burden” on schools. The extremely low teacher:student ratios and the cost of assistive technologies and adaptations has seen to the high price.

The random seeming gesticulations and non-verbal vocalizations to most of us–and to me, previously–were deemed non-sensical noise. In fact, the founder of the faith on which Concordia University of Chicago is founded, Martin Luther, advocated just suffocating the autistic and putting them out of our misery.

But silentmiaux’s video asks what if our treatment of these students ignores their true aptitudes. Perhaps, by judging them by the degree to which they interact and communicate with their fellow human beings de-values their authentic intelligences and voices? That is what Silentmiaux’s revolutionary video suggests. She attributes language to people with ASD’s (perhaps over-generously). What if we discounted (by never even recognizing) the communicative and interactive “language” of a large group of students? Would we not thus have cheated them of their substantive 14th Amendment rights to a free and fair public education? No school district could ignore the language background of its students. If it is indeed a “language,” no school can ignore the “language” of the ASD students.

Silentmiaux claims in a blog I found that our understanding of “intelligence” has been insufficient to account for the differently-abled ASD student. If intelligence is being measured by the extent to which one interacts with one’s “reality,” then valuing our “reality” over the ASD person’s reality reflects our own disability in adequately understanding “reality.” In order for this “disorder” to be addressed, she suggests, the educator’s pre-suppositions are what need the “re-ordering.” Silentmiaux explains how many of us just totally misunderstand people like her.

…many people describe what I do as checking out of reality, or various variants on this. In fact, this has more to do with which parts of reality a person is paying attention to. Somehow it is “reality” to engage in a lot of abstract symbolic thought (and sort of paste that thought on over one’s surroundings and believe oneself to be perceiving them) but “not reality” to engage in interaction more or less directly with one’s surroundings. If you talk to me for awhile you will find me quite a bit more lucid than some people are painting me as.

She goes on later in the blog to claim that she and other ASD students actually “communicate” with each other, though, again, not in ways that “normally abled” educators are able to notice.

For over ten years I have worked with special needs students–many with ASD’s. The repetitive behaviors and speech, the socially inappropriate behavior have always been explainable as the symptoms of their irrevocable and uncontrollable “disorder.” The best we could do for the student was closely attend to his adaptive and safety needs with aides, teachers, and equipment. Otherwise, we could not safely allow them to share space with the rest of the student body. This video give me pause–perhaps they can have safe and socially redeeming lives interacting intelligently with their environments as individuals. Can that be true?

I was excited last summer to learn of a new therpeutic approach to a severely autistic young man named Chris. Chris’s normal behavior includes sudden and seemingly spastic movements, loud and un-intelligible noises, and plenty of grunting. While I only heard of the therapy, it involved Chris’s family holding on to him–in some gentle way restraining his spastic muscles–enough so that he could verbally communicate by means of a computer that responded to his touch. Could this be the technology behind silentmieux’s video? In any case, the story goes that the first time they tried it with him, Chris was in the same room with his snotty younger sister, his mom, dad, and the computer. As mom and dad held Chris up to the computer, the younger sister said something like, “Oh, don’t bother, mom and dad. Chris can’t say anything.” Amazingly, the story goes, Chris was able to intelligibly address the slight his sister made, “verbalizing” the message, “Why you gotta dis’ me sister?”

The story suggested that what silentmiauw is also saying, that ASD people exist with thoughts, intelligences, and meaningful interactions of their own, albeit invisible to the rest of society, even of their own close relatives. Eugene Bleuler, who invented the term “autistic” did so by deriving it (according to wikipedia) “from the Greek word autós(αὐτός, meaning self), and [using] it to mean morbid self-admiration, referring to ‘autistic withdrawal of the patient to his fantasies, against which any influence from outside becomes an intolerable disturbance.” And that is how these people have been characterized to me and have appeared to me: as dis-ordered and dis-connected individuals, people with who efforts at higher levels of communication–much less authentic engaged learning–are fruitless.

The issue of “autistic intelligence” challenges accepted notions of special education. It represents a new “voice” at the discussion of how to best educate people with the particular cognitive sort of functioning deemed “Autistic” revolutionize the way in which a large and growing population of our students should be seen and serviced. brings up new ways in which we might begin to approach them. Maybe our assistive technology–the one that worked for Chris–could be helpful?

It may be that articulated statements of the “disabled” autistic, like this one, add to our understanding of the “non-real” cognition and consciousness of themselves and their existence that autistic people have.

3 responses to “Rethinking Autism”

  1. This person's “autism” is a matter of some controversy with reports that she attended a college for gifted youths, was very verbal and was able to interact socially with other persons like anyone else. See: site has been up for several months and contains emails from academics who claim to have attended school with her. To my knowledge no action has been taken to have this site or the information on it removed from the internet. Nor have the persons whose emails are posted on the site written to the site or elsewhere on the internet claiming that the site information is false. To my knowledge Ms Baggs herself has not published a public challenge to the emails and other information posted on the site.As the father of a severely autistic boy I get tired of seeing this video cited as a revelation of how autistic intelligence should be seen by society. This person's situation, even assuming her to be autistic, does not represent all persons on the very diverse autism spectrum of disorders.


  2. Thank you for bringing some realism into what has been a surreal experience for me–having to second guess my instincts in working with ASD students. While not a special ed teacher, I sponsor a club that works with plenty of kids on this extremely wide spectrum of cognitive “disorders.” I wish you and your boy the best. Why do you suppose Amanda Baggs is using this video to deliberately deceive, or get people like me into discussing the notion? Is it mental illness? It it some sort of political activism? It may interest you to know that the video was introduced to me through a graduate class in education at CUC–perhaps to inpire just such discussion as we're having.It would be unfortunate if her remarkable video distorts or otherwise affects the public's view of autism in a negative way. Again, thanks. How did you ever find my post?


  3. I receive Google Alerts for news reports and blog comments dealing with autism.I would not like to speculate about Ms Baggs motivations behind her writings and videos including this one.


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