La­bels al­low lim­i­ta­tions to ex­clude and dis­miss

Mercury (Hobart) - - NEWSFRONT -

WE all know them — the shy school­boy who sits alone study­ing maths while the other kids frolic in the play­ground, the teen girl who sim­ply will not stop talk­ing de­spite the ob­vi­ous signs of bore­dom from her friends, or the ma­jes­ti­cally gifted mu­si­cian who fails to pass a sin­gle sub­ject at school.

Chances are that if any of th­ese peo­ple sought spe­cial­ist help be­cause they felt they were strug­gling to “be like every­one else”, they could be di­ag­nosed with a de­gree of autism or Asperger’s syn­drome.

In ev­ery­day life, we glibly throw around phrases about our friends and col­leagues — “he’s on the spec­trum” or “she’s an Aspie”.

Th­ese kitchen-ta­ble di­ag­noses have be­come part of pop­u­lar cul­ture.

That con­cerns me be­cause th­ese la­bels im­pose lim­i­ta­tions on peo­ple and pi­geon­hole them, en­abling them to be ex­cluded and dis­missed without good rea­son.

Aus­tralian psy­chol­o­gist Tony At­wood is at the fore­front of global ef­forts to un­der­stand autism and Asperger’s syn­drome.

An as­so­ci­ate pro­fes­sor at Grif­fith Univer­sity in Queens­land, he has gained a fair bit of me­dia in re­cent days and will ap­pear on the ABC’s Aus­tralian Story on Mon­day night.

Prof At­wood’s re­search and the­o­ris­ing is help­ing to more ac­cu­rately de­fine what it means to be autis­tic or to have Asperger’s. His work is crit­i­cal to a bet­ter un­der­stand­ing.

I was so pleased to dis­cover he be­lieves that, while there are as­pects of th­ese con­di­tions, es­pe­cially in se­vere cases, that can be in­ter­preted as dis­abil­i­ties, many traits dis­played by peo­ple with autism or Asperger’s are part of a nor­mal vari­a­tion of peo­ple that can and should at times be cel­e­brated.

He says the dif­fer­ences are of­ten ad­van­ta­geous to our so­ci­ety. I reckon he is right.

The likes of Mozart and Van Gogh have been said to have ex­hib­ited traits that could to­day be di­ag­nosed. Where would we be without their con­tri­bu­tion to cul­ture?

In days gone by, many traits we now at­tribute to autism or Asperger’s were re­garded as part of a per­son’s per­son­al­ity or as ec­cen­tric­i­ties.

The Bri­tish have a great tra­di­tion of ac­cept­ing ec­centrics as part of the won­der­ful va­ri­ety of peo­ple who con­trib­ute to our com­mu­ni­ties.

The sci­en­tific anal­y­sis of autism spec­trum dis­or­ders is a dou­ble-edged sword be­cause while it de­liv­ers use­ful find­ings, it can be ma­nip­u­lated to os­tracise, ridicule and dis­ad­van­tage.

The term autism was first used in Ger­many in the 1930s at a time when the Nazis were killing peo­ple with dis­abil­i­ties in the name of eu­gen­ics. The Nazis are an ex­treme ex­am­ple of the way such la­belling can be used ma­li­ciously. There are other sub­tler ways.

I of­ten won­der whether pop­u­lar cul­ture to­day, de­spite our so­ci­ety’s progress to­wards lib­erty and equal­ity, is be­com­ing in­creas­ingly nar­row in its def­i­ni­tion of what is “nor­mal”.

I won­der whether in the fu­ture we may look back at this pe­riod in his­tory as a time we were en­ter­ing a new moral era akin to Victorian days when so­cial pro­to­cols and norms were strictly en­forced by a rul­ing elite, with a rigid class sys­tem, op­pres­sive taboos and bru­tal crime and pun­ish­ment regimes.

The Victorian era, for all its fo­cus on upright mores, was rife with de­prav­ity, drug use, child labour and per­verse modes of treat­ment and pun­ish­ment. Just look at what went on at Port Arthur.

I won­der whether there is a sim­i­lar di­chotomy emerg­ing to­day.

So­cial me­dia is blur­ring the bound­aries be­tween work and play and there is a scram­ble to de­velop pro­to­cols for how we should and should not be­have with each other, whether on­line or in per­son. The new me­dia en­ables com­pa­nies to peer deep into work­ers’ per­sonal lives. Face­book posts, on­line com­ments, emails are fair game. And with that new reach comes a new form of con­trol.

Eti­quette and so­cial pro­to­col are favourite sub­jects of pop­u­lar cul­ture. We are con­stantly be­ing told what is right or wrong, beau­ti­ful or ugly, ap­pro­pri­ate and in­ap­pro­pri­ate. More and more peo­ple are marginalised.

There is a push to leg­is­late and en­force moral­ity and a race to de­fine what is nor­mal at the same time as there is an ex­plo­sion of free­dom be­ing ex­plored thanks to the new me­dia.

The late Amer­i­can com­poser Frank Zappa took plea­sure in ex­pos­ing taboos, and the dou­ble-stan­dards that of­ten ac­com­pany them, by writ­ing songs about them.

Zappa said that “without de­vi­a­tion, progress is not pos­si­ble” and that he “never set out to be weird”, it was just that

“other peo­ple called me

The likes of Mozart and Van Gogh have been said to have ex­hib­ited traits that could to­day be di­ag­nosed. Where would we be without their con­tri­bu­tion to cul­ture?

weird”. That’s the way it works.

Some of his songs tested my sen­si­bil­i­ties, but I could al­ways turn his mu­sic off.

Most of us are as dif­fer­ent from one an­other as we are the same.

I pre­fer to re­gard un­usual traits as ec­cen­tric­i­ties rather than patholo­gies, and I suspect Victorian-style at­tempts to con­trol ac­tu­ally cre­ate and com­press any re­ally dan­ger­ous patho­log­i­cal be­hav­iour.

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