Against the Typical vs Divergent Binary
On the politics of Devon Price's Unmasking Autism
The neurodiversity movement has taken a turn toward the individualistic, and I don’t think that’s a good thing.
There’s a biologically-essentialist, “Us vs Them” kind of mentality in mainstream understandings of the paradigm that I find inaccurate and politically unhelpful — I wrote about this last August, and it seems to only have proliferated since then.
My understanding of the neurodiversity paradigm is based in the work of Damian Milton and Nick Walker, who write that there really is no such thing as neurotypical (Milton calls it “an idealised fantastical construction of Galtonian inspired psychological measurement”).
If you’re going to say that “normal” and “typical” are social constructions (which the neurodiversity paradigm does), then you can’t turn around and say there’s such a thing as a “neurotypical brain” — that negates your entire premise.
Neurotypical is an ideal that most people struggle to live up to, and that’s pretty clear to me in the fact that depression is the leading cause of disability worldwide, or that about half of Americans will be diagnosed with a mental illness in their lifetime.
I’m not neurodivergent because I have a special, “differently-wired” brain. I’m neurodivergent because my way of being has been shamed, punished, and labelled abnormal, and my (totally understandable!) distress in response to that has been pathologized and called disorder.
It’s a social and political category for me, not a biological one.
Mainstream understandings of disability have fallen into a similar binary that don’t square with the critical disability studies work I’m familiar with. Feminist scholars like Susan Wendell wrote back in 1989 that everyone will experience disability at some point in their lives, because we all get sick and grow old and need support:
Recognizing this helps us to see that disabled people are not “other,” that they are really “us.” Unless we die suddenly, we are all disabled eventually. Most of us will live part of our lives with bodies that hurt, that move with difficulty or not at all, that deprive us of activities we once took for granted or that others take for granted, bodies that make daily life a physical struggle. We need an understanding of disability that does not support a paradigm of humanity as young and healthy. Encouraging everyone to acknowledge, accommodate and identify with a wide range of physical conditions is ultimately the road to self-acceptance as well as the road to liberating those who are disabled now.
I hear these sentiments echoed in Unmasking Autism, a new book by my friend Dr. Devon Price that attempts to reach across the line we’ve drawn between typical and divergent.
I’m quite proud to be quoted and mentioned in the acknowledgments of this book — it feels like I’ve been included in a bit of history, to be honest. It’s the first self-help book for Autistic people who want to learn how to live in line with their values, but I also see it as a new beat in the culture war over what it means to be Autistic. (FYI: Harmony Books did send me an advance copy, but I was not asked to review it.)
The history of Autistic discourse since the 90’s has been one of struggle over control of public narratives, with professionals and parents on one side and Autistic adults on the other. Who gets to say what autism is? Who gets to set the agenda? (Some scholars argue that Autistic people are losing this culture war.)
As an Autistic social psychologist, Devon straddles both these worlds, and his book pulls together many threads to weave something that has both broad appeal and specificity. It’s about expanding the public understanding of autism to include the hidden and historically excluded — Autistic people of color, queer and trans Autistic people, women — but it’s also about forging a kind of solidarity that is radically accepting of difference.
It’s an argument that making the world more supportive for neurodivergent people benefits everyone, even “neurotypical” people, or at least, people who fake the neurotypical ideal better than we can.
Masking is something lots of people who fall outside expected social norms do to get by — we fake niceties in the service of “professionalism”, we insist that we have everything under control when we’re really drowning, we people-please and hold back what we really think and posture and pretend.
The more you fall outside society’s ideal, the more you mask, and the more you mask, the more distress you feel, because hiding who you are is always a soul-crushing experience. This is not unique to Autistic people, though we experience it to an intense degree.
Of course, a lot of people will get angry reading this, because they will hear “Everyone’s a little bit autistic”. But I think this overlooks perspective and intent — there is a huge difference between someone who is not Autistic saying “we all experience that” to hand-wave a person’s struggles away, and an Autistic person saying “you all experience a version of this, too” as a way to assert our shared humanity.
…when allistic people declare that everyone is a little bit Autistic, it means they are close to making an important breakthrough about how mental disorders are defined. Why do we declare some people broken, and other people perfectly normal, when they exhibit the exact same traits? Where do we draw the line, and why do we even bother doing so? If an Autistic person benefits from more flexibility at work, and more social patience, why not extend those same benefits to everybody?
There’s a story toward the end of the book about a woman named Wendy, who realizes, through learning how to support her Autistic daughter, that she also benefits from things like working less and living at a slower pace:
“…from raising my daughter I’ve learned I’m very not Autistic. I just happen to love an Autistic lifestyle.”
If you didn’t make it to Chapter 8, you might walk away thinking it’s just a book about helping Autistic people introspect, but Devon sneaks radical ideas into popular books in what I can only assume is a clever rhetorical strategy.
Get your average NPR listener nice and cozy with lots of relatable stories and interesting studies, and then hit them with Abolition of Carceral Systems on page 246:
Without access to shelter, health care, and a supportive network of loving people who are willing to grow with us, none of us are free to become our true, unmasked selves. This is why it is vital for the project of unmasking to be more than just a personal one. All the self-affirmations and radical visibility practices in the world cannot overcome economic injustice, racism, transphobia, or profound social exclusion. We have to fight to create a more just, accepting, and supportive world for all people if we wish for everyone to be free to unmask.
The great civil rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer famously said Nobody’s free until everybody’s free, but neoliberal disability politics usually define “freedom” in terms of inclusion and access — we need more access to diagnosis for marginalized people, or we need to use more “culturally-sensitive” language when we pathologize people with the DSM.
But inclusion in an oppressive system is not freedom — these are band-aids that don’t structurally change society. Capitalism can absorb all these things and only grow stronger for it.
A neurodiversity movement focused only on helping people who have certain DSM labels assimilate more easily into capitalism is not one that I align with. For me, neurodiversity is about recognizing our shared struggles under an oppressive regime of normality, breaking apart these impossible standards, and building networks of care for everyone.
We all need material support that will enable us to work less and slow down. We all need time and space to reconnect with our core values and build community. We all would benefit from free access to healthcare, laws that protect workers’ rights, universal basic income, and freedom from police and prisons.
Devon’s work recognizes that further othering disabled people is not the path to liberation — recognizing, as Wendell said, that “they are really ‘us’”, he concludes that unmasking isn’t just for Autistic people. It’s for you, too.