Thursday, October 27, 2016

Autism and Normalisation


Normalisation is the process of making or becoming normal. ‘Normal’ can mean a great many things in different contexts, but here I mean it in a social sense: to be normal is to conform to society’s norms.

You Will Be Assimilated
[image: black-and-white illustration
of a Borg drone, by Sonya Hallett]
Within this context, there are two very different meanings of ‘normalisation’: to make normal, or to become normal; to normalise the individual, or what makes them stand out. Normalisation in the first sense is what the Borg does in Star Trek: individuals are assimilated by having their rough edges, their deviations from what is expected, removed, or hidden.

Normalisation in the second sense is what the writers repeatedly do in Star Trek: groups once seen as monstrously beyond the pale, like the Klingons, are slowly seen to have more in common with ordinary humans than it first appeared, and to be capable of existing fruitfully in society once certain accommodations are in place.

Normalisation of the individual is what interventions for autistic people tend to aim at. If autists can be taught to make socially acceptable levels of eye contact, to keep from stimming too obviously and generally expressing ourselves in unacceptable ways, perhaps we can co-exist with normal humans in society without causing too much disruption.

There is a high price to pay for assimilation of the individual, even if this process is seen to be successful, and the things that make autists’ ways of thinking and being fundamentally different from those of the neurotypical population are always going to remain, however well we learn to bury them. For all these reasons, normalisation of the individual is not something autistic advocates tend to push for. Normalisation of autism is a much more appealing prospect, although I’m not aware of anyone else contrasting the two like this.

Society has many ways of dealing with deviation, each with advantages and disadvantages. Anything short of full acceptance is a kind of othering, and always dehumanising to some extent. Usually, for something to be accepted, it needs to be seen as within the bounds of normality.

Doesn’t a Klingon deserve love (par'Mach)?
[image: black-and-white illustration
of a Klingon warrior, by Sonya Hallett]
Any given way of being different often passes through phases of being dealt with differently. Homosexuality, for example was demonised, criminalised, medicalised and exoticised, in turn or concurrently, before society at large started to accept it; nowadays it is well on the way to full normalisation. Autism is sometimes demonised, quite often exoticised and still overwhelmingly medicalised. As more and more people are identified as being on the spectrum, and autistic advocates and others pull us towards a better understanding of what autism means, there is perhaps a trend towards its normalisation.

The neurodiversity paradigm is key here. Different people have always thought differently, and some people have always had trouble fitting in, and the language and study of autism have helped us to start understanding why that is and what it means. Some brains are autistic because that is the way humans have evolved, not just because some brains come out ‘wrong.’ Autistic people tend to be better at some things than allistic (non-autistic) people, and it is very likely that the diversity of brains and the diversity of ways of thinking that follows from it are a positive boon to humankind at large. If autism is indeed a part of the normal variation of human minds, it must surely be a matter of time before some forms of it at least are accepted as such; their normalisation is inevitable.

However, the limits of this normalisation are less clear. The medicalisation of Asperger’s-type autism is a relatively recent phenomenon, and while aspies have presumably always existed, and largely been more-or-less accepted, we have probably always been seen as weird. We probably always will be, in societies where a large majority are not autistic, so the question is to what extent being weird like that is accepted as part of normality. If we are seen to stand on ‘the outer fringes of normality,’ so be it  --  in a society that respects eccentricity, the periphery needn’t be a bad place to be.

Things are much harder for people whose autism makes them stand out that much more, though  --  which includes a lot of people who manage to stand out less at other times. Full normalisation of autism would require a substantially broader concept of ‘normality.’ It would mean acceptance of autistic people who are non-speaking, an understanding of meltdowns, and general awareness of the dangers of sensory overload. The population at large would need to learn not to be unsettled by visible stimming, not to freak out when someone doesn’t make eye contact or want to be touched, to take a more relaxed attitude to misunderstandings arising from literal-mindedness.

Perhaps this is a lot to ask? Certainly we have a long way to go, but maybe it’s not unrealistic, with increasing visibility and consistent challenges to othering. It might even work out well for the rest of the population  --  particularly for other disabled, or mentally ill and otherwise marginalised people  --  if we were all more aware and accepting of difference.


A version of this essay was previously published at Medium.