Thursday, October 25, 2007

Low Flying Aircraft

A couple of weeks ago, I read a story called "Low Flying Aircraft" by J.G. Ballard. In the story, the population of humans on Earth had dwindled and it was generally accepted that the species was dying out. The cause of the sharp decrease in population was an alarming rise in a specific kind of birth defect; the majority of children were born blind, with incredibly deformed limbs and heads. Babies who were born like this were quickly euthanized to be put out of their misery.

In any case, by the end of the story it is made known that a number of these deformed children have been allowed to live into adulthood, and they have colonized abandoned parts of England. The twist at the end of Ballard's story is that these seemingly sickeningly malformed beings were not "defected" at all; they represented a new kind of species, a mutation of humans, that would inherit the Earth after the last of the humans died out.

Most importantly, these people were not blind per se - they could see and communicate with this special kind of silvery metal paint that they use to mark their surroundings. In this way they were actually superior to humans, because they could see things in the silver paint that their non-deformed predecessors couldn't.

Well, I thought about this story while I read "Prodigies," "Banishing Verona," and "Parallel Play" this week. The realization that a condition long considered a "deformity" or "disability" might actually represent a simple different way of being or experiencing the world is a common theme for all of these stories. It is in fact a common theme among bloggers who write about autism (I'm thinking specifically of a woman named Amanda Baggs whose website, Ballastexistenz, focuses on autism and disability rights).

We talked in class about the fact that homosexuality used to be considered a disease and in fact was listed in the DSM for many years. "Transgender disorder," someone pointed out, is still listed in the DSM. So is autism. Should they be? In some ways, yes, autistics are deficient. As Oliver Sacks explains, autism consists of "a consistent traid of impairments: impairment of social interaction with others, impairment of verbal and nonverbal communication, and impairment of play and imaginative activities" (246).

Well, there are some ways in which we are all "impaired," when we are compared with others. Compared to the way that my father (who is not autistic - just an example) can calculate sums in his head, I am impaired. I think that everyone comes to realize, sometime in childhood, that there are some things some people do better than others and some things some people do worse than others - that's non-debatable.

Autism isn't just about "impairment," then. It's about the impairment of a specific set of skills that we feel make us human: those that have to do with socializing. Impairment is acceptable only so long as you can make a joke about it: the fact that you can say, "Oh, I'm so bad at math," somehow makes it understandable. You can't say, "Oh, I'm so bad at relationships with other people." Somehow having a grasp of seemingly straightforward social niceties isn't something that you can laugh off. Somehow, while we don't presume that everyone is good at math or understanding literature, we do presume that all "normal" people are pretty decent at getting along with others.

Why, then? Well, I mentioned before - it makes us human, supposedly. Human relationships are far more complicated than animal ones. We take their complexity for granted because we are programmed to understand them. Autistics, however, are not.

As always, what we take for granted are our implicit abilities. Take Zeke, for example, who has to go "through the steps he'd learned from the poster he'd been given at the clinic" to understand that Verona was smiling at him (4). What kind of person, you might think, has to do that? Recognizing a smile doesn't seem like something you have to think about, or even something that you learn. Babies can understand facial expressions. It's something "built in."

Even more interesting and baffling, I think, than the thought that someone might lack an ability that is "built in" to all of our "normal," neurotypical minds, is the thought that such a person might have abilities "built in" that we DON'T have. I get the feeling that the general opinion on intelligence, before a couple of decades ago, was an "all or nothing" thing. If someone was "retarded," they were "retarded." There were no "different types" of intelligence.

Yet we see this in people like Stephen who "could draw, with the greatest ease, any street he had seen; but he could not, unaided, cross one by himself" (203). This seems strange to us, but would it seem strange if I told you that I have always been excellent at reading but had troubles with arithmetic? You wouldn't, because the two are seemingly unconnected. I'm simply not a "math person."

But it does not always happen, however, that someone who is bad at arithmetic is automatically good at reading, or vice versa. The strange thing about autism is that it seems to come with a certain, fixed set of strengths and weaknesses, as if they were linked somehow. True, not all autistics are prodigies like Stephen, but a commonality among autistics seems to be the tendency to see parts, and not the whole - which aids in Stephen's drawings but keeps him from understanding and appreciating the "big picture." There are other commonalities: "it is typical of autistic people, sometimes in early childhood, that they acquire geometrical conepts and terms to a far greater degree than personal or social ones," says Sacks (229).

Autism doesn't seem as unpredictable and varied as, say, schizophrenia. Autistics, in my experience, don't represent entirely different expressions of the same illness - as in schizophrenia, there are different types of the disease: paranoid, catatonic, hebephrenic, etc. - but rather different points on a spectrum.

So, there are people like Zeke, who is labeled an "oddball," "gets freaked out by things most people wouldn't even notice," and has problems with recognizing facial expressions and knowing how to behave in social situations (90) - all common with autism - but does not have symptoms severe enough to keep him from going to college, having a job, having a relationship - he "passes," for the most part, as a "normal person." The symptoms of his Asperger's are more likely to be called "quirks" or "idiosyncrasies" by people who don't know him well.

And then there are people like Stephen, who can probably never live on his own; who has a very low verbal IQ of 52 (202); and who did not speak until the age of nine (201). In his emotional development and talent for art he is very similar to Jose, who lives in an institution.

I believe that Tim Page is somewhere between Stephen and Zeke on the autistic spectrum. He barely made it through school, but he is clearly independent and self-supporting. And then, I think, Asperger's syndrome is somewhere between autism and "normal." Are we all on the autistic scale?

Some tend to think so. Page writes that "there is even some question whether it [Asperger's] should be considered an affliction or merely a "difference" - one of many human variants" (5).

Sacks says,

"Stephen's development has been singular, qualitatively different, from the start. He constructs the universe i a different way - and his mode of cognition, his identity, his artistic gifts, go together. We do not know, finally, how Stephen thinks, how he constructs the world, how he is able to draw and sing. But we do know that though he may be lacking in the symbolic, the abstract, he has a sort of genius for concrete or mimetic representations ... a sort of genius for catching the formal features, the structural logic, the style, the 'thisness' (though not necessarily the 'meaning') of whatever he portrays" (241).

We all know someone who is a little awkward in social situations, although he or she does not have Apserger's or autism. We all know someone who is particularly adept at socializing. Autism represents the extreme of that "awkward" person's difficulties. It is possible to conceive of a scale where people are positioned according to their capability in math or writing. The problem is, math and writing - while unique to humans - are not typically considered the things that make us human.

But it is possible we only think that way because so many people are decent at socializing. Even if you don't consider yourself a social butterfly, it's likely you know how to respond to simple "polite" questions like, "How are you?" and "Nice weather, isn't it?" which have no real purpose beyond to engage another person socially. But is knowing the answers to these questions really what makes us people? Maybe, if you define "humanness" by a person's reactions to others. The idea that you might define a person as human by their interactions with other humans seems flawed, somehow. What, then, is a human when there are other people around?

Whatever autism is, I don't believe that it is something to be "cured," and neither do autistics. Unless the "cure" for autism cosists of a change in our understanding of autism, and not the autistics themselves. I'm sure some autistics may think that it would be nice to be able to interact more easily with other people, so that they don't have to suffer the kind of aggravation a person gets from being "different." I would like to be able to add and multiply things better. I would not, however, sacrifice my identity for it. If being bad at arithmetic is part of my identity, I wouldn't lose it. It's not always a deficit, you know. I've met many nice people from needing to ask some random person, "What's twelve times eight?" Stephen Wiltshire has built a career out of his savant talents. I'm sure that other autistic people, who may not have become famous from their autism, nonetheless experience benefits from their unique perception of the world.

1 comment:

Molly said...

I find it so difficult to come up with concrete opinions for these readings. I was affected by each of them in a different way.
With 'Prodigies' it is hard because Stephen is very incredible and 'very autistic' on one spectrum, but completely 'normal' and 'capable' on another. We are hearing about a part of the 5% when we read these stories of both Stephen and Temple.
Yes, they are incredible, even incredible to those who do not have autism, but what about the other stories, I'm not sure everyone else with autism is satisified, and that is what is so frustrating, the varied space it takes up under its title.
In 'Parallel Play', Page is very engaged in the 'real world' and his writing and his effective stream of conciousness represents that.
I think this touches on a big poing that Madeline pointed out that what is the difference than if someone is bad at math, or sciences, that could be referred to as a type of autism. But I think that's also placing it a bit too lightly because we understand that there are things that we could be good at, we understand that we have the ability to strive for more, people with autism don't. If they find something they enjoy then that is what it is, for whatever reason and they are not concious of their decision.
I am so intrigued by these stories. The human hugging machine that Temple invented is absolutely incredible. That is how changes are made, find the problem and create a solution in it's most pratical form... a v shaped pressure machine, maybe it doesn't sound practical, but it gets the job done.
I couldn't help feeling a big eerie about it all, especially the way it is written in 'Banishing Verona' or the way that Temple is described. It is like people with autism are aware of another universe that we can't relate to, at the same time we are apart of a universe they can't relate to, but they are not aware of that. It is like having an advantage without knowing that their are disadvantages, striving to win when thinking you may lose never occurs, because even if you do it wasn't a negotiable or comprehended option. It is so key that it was referred to as a sieve, that's what I need to do, is weed through all the crap I say and stick to the things that are correct, the things that are relevent. But conversation equals some fluff and I guess without that it wouldn't be a conversation it would be an analytical paper, and who wants to talk about that... no thanks. I am very interested in these autismisms- don't know if that is absolutely the right word, but the the way that people with autism react because they have austim and the they react because they are informed to perform a certain way through training, like robotics. What is the difference between acting like a child and acting like oneself when they are a child?
How do you define behaviors? Different settings? My space and yours? Who comes up with the rules? And how do we know that we in our society aren't the ones stifling them, that we through narrowed growth haven't been stifling ourselves?
Sometimes I wish Sack's would do cases that weren't such the extreme, the amazing, the prodigy, but just the one whose making it, just by being, the randomness, the things that can't be identified as musical, artistic, talented, there are incredible things that people do every day that don't necessarily have a category. But maybe like Matt pointed out, we need categories, and boxes, and places to store our thoughts, because without that, who knows where our minds might be. Perhaps this is crazy to throw out here, but this made me think a lot about reincarnation, a mind inside of a mind and each speaking a different language with different motives... complete craziness?