IEET > Rights > CognitiveLiberty > Interns > Anne Corwin
No Singing Allowed: Assumptions and Other Nonsense
Anne Corwin   Feb 2, 2008   Existence is Wonderful  

This week, an autistic sixth-grader in San Jose was handcuffed and suspended for singing during a physical education class.  No, I’m not making this up…you can read the news story yourself.

This is the kind of thing that comes to mind whenever I see people accusing self-advocates of “playing identity politics” (I’m still not entirely sure what that even means, but I know it’s often employed in the service of dismissing people’s attempts to point out injustices).  Regardless of what you want to call the act of pointing this out, the bottom line is that people who appear atypical are vulnerable to having our actions, mannerisms, and responses interpreted improperly.  This boy wasn’t hurting or threatening anyone, and he wasn’t even making more noise than the other students in the PE class—he was just doing something different from what those around him were doing.

I have no idea what the current generation of advocates is going to be able to accomplish with regard to making the world a more welcoming place for all people (regardless of whatever their individual distinguishing characteristics might be).  I don’t know what “strategies” are best, and I realize that no strategy is guaranteed.  But this kind of incident tells be beyond any shadow of a doubt that more work needs to be done with regard to helping reveal the pervasive and damaging nature of assumptions. 

Making unwarranted and fearful assumptions about people based on their mannerisms and responses (and no, I’m not talking about the case in which someone is running at you with a knife…keep your strawmen in the barn, thanks) is just as wrong as making assumptions based on skin color or gender.  And while yes, it would be lovely to live in a world where nobody really used these things as a basis for discriminating against people, we don’t live in that world yet. 

I was misread, misinterpreted, and assumed to be thinking and feeling all kinds of things I wasn’t while growing up.  I wasn’t handcuffed, thankfully, but I was sent out in the hall numerous times, yelled at, and punished for things I didn’t even know I was doing.  I was punished for intentions I supposedly had based on people misreading my “tone” and “body language” and making assumptions about how someone my age “should know how to act”. 

Being diagnosed on the autistic spectrum didn’t cause any of that, and it was all happening well before I knew my brain was configured the way it is.  It was happening long before I had any clue about politics.  And I see it continuing to happen to other people whose experiences I can identify readily with—people who, more than likely, see themselves as a whole, dynamic, and complex being lacking in any desire to “reduce themselves to a single trait” (and I don’t think being autistic is a “single trait” to begin with—it’s not a plug-and-play feature, but that’s beside the point for now). 

I think some people don’t like reading or engaging with this kind of thing because to them it seems like an overfocus on differences (likely to prompt concomitant problems like separatism and a “permanent victim” mentality), along with a functional denial of the shared goals and objectives all people committed to progress, freedom, and the securing of more rights and opportunities for all face.  And I get that.  I really do.  I get regularly annoyed when I read things that suggest a “hierarchy of authenticity”—e.g., people trying to claim that they’re more-feminist-than-thou, or more-autistic-than-thou, or more-Californian-than-thou or whatever, and that a person needs to fit some narrowly-defined absolute category in order to get behind relevant goals. 

I’m not interested in that kind of thing at all.  It’s not only unproductive, but terribly tiresome. 

For me, “identification” in the political sense is very confusing, and I’ve actually been rather surprised at the degree to which saying you’re anything ends up turning into a political statement.  It took me rather a while to even get comfortable publicly admitting to being autistic because of this; I initially saw it as kind of a private issue, but then I realized that all I was doing by not getting involved in the larger discussion affecting people like me was tantamount to agreeing with “don’t ask, don’t tell” policies.  I don’t by any means see “female”, “autistic”, “Californian”, “blogger”, or “engineer” as being the sum-total of who and what I am, but by the same token, all these things are pervasively interwoven with who and what I am. 

I don’t think it’s fair or logical to engage in knee-jerk armchair psychoanalysis of people who point out examples of improper social assumptions, problems with the status quo, discrimination, and misinterpretation and assume that all such people are just trying to “construct an identity around a single trait” or worse, “construct an identity around victimhood”.  I’m well aware that no great purpose is served by forging one’s entire sense of self around the fact of being oppressed—after all, oppression is a bad thing, and most of us (I hope) would prefer it to go away! 

The way I look at any aspect (or set of aspects) of a person is such that the person will still be that person if all their social and political goals are achieved.  And of course that can’t happen if a person is so invested in the idea of being oppressed that they consciously or subconsciously work to make sure they remain that way. 

It also can’t happen if a person lets herself get so attached to how different she is from others that she starts seeing this as something to feel superior about. 

And it is most definitely unhealthy for a person to decide, simplistically, that since they’re X, and all Xs supposedly do A, B, and C (but not D or E), that they have to restrict their own actions and aspirations to that particular set of supposed axioms.  This is actually something I see as a prime goal for advocacy—getting people to stop putting themselves in boxes whenever possible, and to stop fearing that not fitting the axioms exactly means that they don’t have the right to a voice in the larger discussions likely to affect them (regardless of what they call themselves).

So, the kid in the story I linked to is autistic.  He’s also currently a sixth grader, a Californian, and someone who likes to sing.  It’s ridiculous, wrong, and frightening that he was physically restrained ostensibly “for the safety of the other students” when he’d provoked no violence and not threatened a single person. 

I may write about things under the auspices of “autistic advocacy” or “cognitive liberty” or “morphological freedom” or “disability rights”, but all of those pretty much run together in my head when I’m not deliberately squeezing them down for the sake of making the relevant language easier to work with. 

Fundamentally, what I want people to understand is that their very definitions of what ranges of cognition, perception, and action exist are probably far more limited than they should be, and that there are more valid ways to be and grow in the world than they can easily imagine. 

Why can’t we have a world where kids can laugh, chatter, or sing in their PE classes? 

Why are kids who bully others not usually pathologized for it, whereas kids who get bullied are so often accused of “having provoked it”?

Why is the present world one in which sitting on a bus and rocking is considered more “dysfunctional” than getting drunk in a club and wandering around puking on the sidewalk afterward? 

Why is “society” assumed to be comprised only of people who can get by using only currently-available supports (and anyone who thinks they don’t use supports is seriously ignorant), and those of us who might have different needs and ability sets (which sometimes means we need less assistance in some areas than others) are somehow “interlopers” or burdens by default?

I don’t think a lot of the answer to these questions has to do with individual people consciously setting out to be mean and nasty.  I think very few people actually consciously set out to create evil in the world. More likely, the primary answer lies in the fact that a lot of people never have any good reason to question their assumptions, so they just don’t—in other words, it’s plain, old, garden-variety ignorance that isn’t anyone’s “fault” in particular, and certainly not the result of a deliberate and vast conspiracy.  Heck, even the power imbalances I complain about at times (and which I do think are real and important to acknowledge) don’t only (or even mostly) necessarily come about due to individual “evil-ness”, but due to social and institutional structures that perpetuate those imbalances. 

Basically, people who aren’t as affected by the pervasive background assumptions that permeate the surrounding culture tend to not see the backgound at all.  All I’m trying to do, really, when I write stuff like this is point out the existence of the background to people who might not be aware of it.  Not because they’re bad people, but because the background isn’t something they’re constantly banging up against and having to deal with in very real, very tangible ways every day.  I don’t know if anything I’m doing actually helps in that regard, but that’s sort of what I’m attempting.  Hopefully at least some of that comes through.

Anne Corwin was an IEET intern 2006-2007, and is an engineer and technoprogressive activist in California. She is a member of the Board of Directors of the Humanity Plus, and is active in the longevity movement through the Methuselah Foundation and in the neurodiversity movement addressing issues along the autism spectrum. Ms. Corwin writes the blog Existence is Wonderful and produces a related podcast.

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