Friday, May 30, 2014

Neurotypical Hegemony

This is a completely updated version of this post that will appear in the I Don't Feel Special Zine. This piece was originally written a long time ago and went through significant editing, but it is much the same. Comments critiquing incorrect arguments related to "gender socialization" that I made before I knew I was trans and got better opinions have been deleted because they don't relate to the post anymore.

Content Warning: mentions of restraint and seclusion, passing mentions of threats of arrest by a school resource officer and ABA, and discussion of ableism.


Autistic people are often viewed as having deficits in cognitive empathy—the ability to understand signals that correspond to different emotions. Here's the issue I have with this: when I am in Autistic spaces—whether that is just me and another Autistic or a group of us—I don't have this problem, and this is an almost universal experience among Autistic people. So, it has become apparent to me that we do not have an “impairment in cognitive empathy,” we instead have what has been described by many as a "language barrier." Eventually, many of us create a working autistic-to-allistic (i.e. non-autistic) translator. Problem is: only Autistic people use it. The language by which Autistic people communicate is devalued. 

While an incredibly imperfect metaphor, I will call these forces that demand conformity to neurotypical norms Neurotypical (NT) Hegemony. According to Merriam Webster, hegemony is the "the social, cultural, ideological, or economic influence exerted by a dominant group." [This term relates to colonialism/imperialism which myself and other white disabled people living in the imperialist powers do not face, this term can be used as a tool for understanding how ableism (discrimination against disabled people) and its related ideology of eugenics work.] In this case, the dominant group—abled (i.e. non-disabled) people—are exerting their power over Autistic people to conform to unnatural social ways to express emotion, interact, and view ourselves.

Here are some examples of Neurotypical Hegemony in action.

Autistic students are regularly forced into special education programs to modify their behaviors. There is not something special about us that makes us a danger to ourselves or others. According to neurotypical norms, however, basic Autistic behaviors such as stimming, echolalia, and others are "unsightly" and therefore unacceptable. Although what may be the reasoning school administrators use for us entering a behavior modification program may be a "violent outburst,” the cause and nature of these "outbursts" are themselves a function of ableism. Most "violent outbursts" are a response to inaccessible spaces and/or the violence of a teacher "quiet hands-ing" someone generally are not "violent" but rather self-destructive.

An incredibly blatant example is behavior modification programs and techniques like Applied Behavioral Analysis (ABA). ABA seeks to make Autistic people (and “feminine boys”) "indistinguishable from peers." To be indistinguishable is to be autistic but unnoticed—to be autistic but not to be unsightly. Other behavior modification tools, such as the Behavioral Intervention Plan—almost synonymous with restraint and isolation—are often traumatizing and personally worsened my mental health. Yet, neurotypicals believe it to be justified because they believe neurotypical norms are more important than Autistic mental health.

Neurotypical norms are more important than Autistic mental health. Your ideals of being sightly are more important than me living my life free of anxiety that disables me in very real ways; your ideals of being sightly are more important than my right to learn in an integrated, inclusive environment of my peers.

Even farther, resistance to ableism is pathologized; a personal favorite is my diagnosis of “Behavioral Disruptive Disorder Not Otherwise Specified.” It is assumed that—rather than schools being inaccessible and teachers, administrators, and students being ableist—there is some sort of defect that makes me act out against their perfect system. So much is this believed, that instead of finding the causes of my “outbursts,” they threatened me with being thrown to the floor, shoes torn off while pinned down by three adults, and thrown in a tiny room closed off with an electro-magnet. In 7th grade, I was threatened with arrest if it was done again.

And that is what NT Hegemony looks like. 

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