Limiting the Conversation: Gentle Methods for Immoral Goals

"Other people talk about us without us, and set the terms of the conversation, and the stories it is permissible to tell."
– Julia Bascom, on narrative disempowerment

This year I started working at a preschool, which encourages everyone to take child development classes even if they aren't a teacher. When I found out my college has an autism class in the child development section, it was a natural choice. Of course, it was also a dangerous choice.

One of the class periods (not all of them, thank goodness) was devoted to parent perspectives. First a video documentary, then a live speaker.

The documentary showed two parents getting "the news" and then the inevitable barrage of alarmist pseudoscience from doctors. They had the typical reaction that "if everyone's saying it, it must be true" and started ABA. A few months later, they discovered Floortime and it quickly resonated with them as a common-sense approach. They saw their son start to improve with Floortime, for whatever their definition of "improvement" was (the narration didn't make it clear what their criteria were), while being obviously unhappy during ABA, so eventually they dropped ABA completely. Although they questioned and refined their methods, they never stopped to consider whether therapy was actually necessary. In the video, I saw no evidence of aggression or self-injury. Maybe some AAC would be useful, but that's not what either ABA or Floortime are about. It was simply assumed that once you find out your child is autistic, trying to stamp out the autism is just what you do.

The documentary showed a balanced perspective. The parents' attitudes were problematic, but honest. They had some "woe is me" moments about stress, but never explicitly said they wanted a neurotypical child. I wondered what the alternate perspective would be: Maybe this other parent's kid is completely nonverbal, or by contrast, hyperlexic? Maybe they're much older and had to navigate public school before a lot of services existed? Maybe they didn't get the autism label until their kid was already an adult? Remember that this was a child development class, so for once it really isn't about adults. Even among parents only, there are many different perspectives, each of which offer valuable insight. My teacher chose one that doesn't.

It's a vaccination photo showing people's faces, not looking particularly distraught, and featuring no dehumanizing gloves or surgical masks. Eat my shorts.
In an act of reckless and rapid-fire disrespect, not only to autism but also to science and academia, an anti-vaxxer began rambling about subjective truth. It was the equivalent of inviting someone to a political science class to say that 9/11 was a conspiracy and Obama is a Muslim from Kenya, or inviting someone to a biology class to say that germs don't exist and diseases are really caused by demons.

At first I thought the speaker would be a little closer to moderate, at least compared to other anti-vaxxers, solely based on the fact that they used the word neurotypical, which even the teacher relegated to air-quotes; I was wrong. When I posed this mystery to colleagues in an online support group, it all made sense in one sentence: "Anti-vaxxers can use any word as long as they do not understand its meaning." (credit to Cornelis Holtkamp for that quote) The guest in my class asserted that their son was neurotypical, then gained autism along with OCD, irritable bowel syndrome, and Lyme disease, all from a couple of vaccines. Fortunately they were able to book a consultation with the private physician of Playboy model Jenny McCarthy (yes, they specifically mentioned McCarthy), who advised them to remove dairy and gluten from their son's diet. Poof! Everything went away. He was neurotypical again. So not only did a change of diet cure autism, an outcome that doesn't even make sense on a conceptual level, and OCD, which similarly makes no sense, but it also cured IBS and Lyme disease. I wonder then why this parent hasn't won the million dollar prize from the James Randi foundation for proving the supernatural.

My head feels heavy after my ears were filled with even trace amounts of your bullshit.
Of potentially greater concern than giving an anti-vaxxer a platform and legitimacy is the way in which they were presented. The anti-vaxxer is an obvious extremist; that much was not disputed. An opposite extreme would be an autistic adult with the opinion that autistics are superior to neurotypicals, or more likely just the barely-problematic opinion that autism and mental illness are two different things. Actually the latter isn't even extreme, just radical. No such perspective was included, because of course it wasn't; Autistic people aren't supposed to have opinions about autism. The only other perspective was the Floortime family from the documentary.

The teacher had previously explained that ABA and Floortime come from opposing schools of thought, but there was really nothing opposing between these two families. The Floortimers didn't hate science or believe in magic, but they did want their autistic child to act as neurotypically as possible. Gently pursuing an immoral goal is still immoral. A parent who wants to "cure" their autistic child, but chooses Floortime rather than ABA, is not a progressive extremist at odds with anti-vaxxers. They're a moderate, leaning towards agreeing with the anti-vaxxers.

What happens when a moderate and an extremist are presented as the only two sides of an issue? First, the median between the moderate and the extreme is misperceived as being the moderate and therefore most reasonable position. This phenomenon is well documented in sales: Starting with an unreasonable offer makes it easier to haggle for a better deal; beginning with a reasonable offer gives away ground too soon, leading to a deal that is worse for the reasonable party. For example, if I'm trying to sell you a car, you say it's a worthless piece of crap and I say it's worth millions of dollars, we might reach a reasonable price if we keep negotiating. If you start by offering $10,000, a reasonable price for a car that is new but not an ultra-fancy brand, I can probably haggle you up to paying more than it's really worth. The median between the Autistic community and the cult of anti-vaccination might be misguided use of Floortime, while the median between Floortime and anti-vaccination could be that we'll strive for a "cure" while respecting science, and therefore do whatever the American Psychiatric Association says is best, in other words dog training.

Second, whatever is contrasted against an extreme is misperceived as being an equal and opposite extreme. This in-turn leads to a few premature and erroneous conclusions:
  1. The two positions are equally valid. If Floortime is an opposite extreme from anti-vaccination, then Floortime must be just as ridiculous as anti-vaccination, making ABA seem reasonable by comparison; or if Floortime is sound, then anti-vaccination must be equally sound.
  2. The two positions are as far from each other as you can go. If Floortime is already the extreme, then there is no other ideology that is further away from anti-vaccination. Therefore, we don't have to seek out or consider one.
  3. Any position that falls outside of this spectrum (heh) must be a fringe movement that is totally outside the bounds of reason. If Floortime is extreme, then the neurodiversity movement must be even more extreme than extreme. This makes it easier to dismiss the neurodiversity movement and any other ideology that falls outside the artificial restrictions imposed on the conversation about autism.
To achieve the next level, one must first realize that the next level exists.
This is one of the many tactics which the cure industry (ABA association, Autism Speaks, etc.) uses to silence Autistic people's input about autism. It's inevitable that a group of people with a different kind of brain are going to approach issues in a different way and therefore come up with different conclusions. It's inevitable that autistic children, even under the influence of neurotypical parents, are going to develop disagreements about autism, just as gay or transgender children often disagree with their cishet parents. Without acknowledging the obvious causal relationship, the cure industry takes advantage of Autistic people being outliers as a means to discredit us.

The same thing happens to other minority groups. "Fringe" as a description of a social movement just means that not a lot of people support it. Thinking of the term "fringe movement" as inherently pejorative is basically the definition of argument from popularity. Of course minority groups aren't going to hold the most popular opinions; by definition we don't have a lot of membership. The one exception might be women, an oppressed group who are actually the majority. What misogynists then do is rather than framing the issue as "women say X" it's "feminists say X". Not everyone explicitly identifies as a feminist, therefore any woman who talks about women's issues can be relegated to minority status by being "a feminist" rather than "a woman". Such an extreme emphasis on the application of labels demonstrates the power granted by mainstream status, and the relative lack of power held by the fringe. The #YesAllWomen conversation is in part a rebuttal to this tactic, as is the name of the organization Feminist Majority Foundation. How this relates to autism is that the cure industry loves to talk about neurodiversity (if they talk about it at all) strictly as a fringe movement. If we start with neurodiversity, the biological fact, rather than the neurodiversity movement, then we have to acknowledge that 100% of all humans are part of neurodiversity.

In the case of autism, arguments from popularity also tie in with other silencing tactics, for example "your opinion is extreme because your inferior autistic brain prevents you from thinking rationally." Another argument from popularity is the reverse, that our unpopular opinions are evidence of inferior thinking. The use of functioning labels, to say you're either not autistic enough to understand autism or too autistic to have opinions, implies that the "high-functioning" category is a minority within the autistic population (even though most definitions of "high-functioning" such as "speaks using mouth" would in fact make us the majority.) These are just a few examples.

Let's recap the process of silencing the opposition:
  1. Adopt a popular position.
  2. Conflate popularity with legitimacy.
  3. If the opposition is already speaking up, pathologize them as lacking rationality or intelligence.
  4. Present only an extreme exaggeration of your position and a watered-down version of your position that still ultimately agrees with you.
  5. Play up the differences between the extreme version and the watered-down version so that they seem like they're in conflict.
  6. Assume the apparently reasonable, moderate position between the two extremes you have constructed.
How do you get rid of Autistic voices without individually addressing every complaint? Limit the conversation to include only the neurotypical range of opinions.

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