considering neuro-accountability

I really like email lists. They feel more personal than blog readers, and it seems that an update –– however infrequent they tend to be, as a whole –– will inevitably come at just the time we (I) need it. That happened yesterday, when I received an email from the only email-exclusive blog-list-thing I subscribe to, written by nina la poubelle/b. binaohan, author behind the now-inactive blog mxbees as well as several books and zines, including “decolonizing trans/gender 101” (highly recommended). la poubelle is autistic and multiply-disabled, and writes frequently about navigating interpersonal relationships as an autistic person.

This latest update discussed what it meant to do a social skill “wrong” both with and without a diagnostic label attached to it –– that is, what kind of sorcery turns a “weird kid” into an “autistic” with the mere invocation of the word? The way in which diagnosis manifests entirely new, frightening realities –– the way utterance makes truth and permanently transforms concrete conditions –– is endlessly fascinating to me. However, what fascinates me most about this particular update is not the theoretical implications but the very everyday conclusion la poubelle comes to about the relationship between autism, diagnosis, and their own relational behavior.

la poubelle describes what has now become pathologizable as, prior to diagnosis, “personality quirks” –– people simply knew that they were “weird.” With this as a self-evident truth, la poubelle was able to imagine others’ rejection of them as a friend and lover as the problem of the other person. If not that, then it was an issue of timing, circumstance or chemistry. Now, however, every failure was necessarily internal, necessarily the result of this condition named “autism,” which irrevocably, for lack of a better term, fucked up their social skills so badly doctors needed a special name for it. Now, they lament, the blame rests not only on them, but on an aspect of them that they can do nothing about –– this, they write makes them perpetually wrong, like a single human social gaffe that is impossible to correct.

This weekend sort of felt like that for me. Some of my most cherished personal relationships faced difficulties that were, in large part, caused by me; as such, I’ve spent the bulk of the weekend on my thesis, repressing critically reconsidering my role in these relationships, and more specifically, what genres of strangeness (benign or not) are things to be accepted from me, and what I’ve got to change. What behavior can be positively, or neutrally, attributed to neurodivergence, and what (regardless of attribution) is neither positive nor neutral, and must be improved in order to live in good faith with other human beings? Given the deeply-binary and fundamentally useless perspective most commonly taken when someone [x] makes a mistake –– either pretend [x] did nothing wrong or turn [x] into a cartoon villain –– this is no easy question to answer. Further, the deeply binary perspective with which we view “im/permissible disabled behavior” (it’s either okay because the pathetic disabled person “has no choice,” or not okay because the lazy disabled person has not taken “personal responsibility”) turns my neurodivergence-influenced life into either a willfully obnoxious one or, even worse, the result of a pathological freakishness.

On an ideological level, I clearly take the middle road, or choose no road at all. I don’t believe anything about me is inherently “weird,” nor that ” weird” is a thing divorcable from cultural conditions. But I also don’t think that any person has complete control over their situation or behavior, given that very same cultural influence. This is sufficient, in my view, until it comes time to approach harms we’ve done: in that case, despite having seen interesting writings to the contrary, I do believe in the value of establishing a primary perpetrator and receiver interpersonal pain. This becomes significantly more difficult when we’re surrounded by claims that either a wrongdoer cannot be helped due to their neurotype, or conversely, is using their neurotype as an excuse to cause pain with impunity.

As I’ve said before, this interests me greatly, and I think about it a lot. It’s particularly important to think about in light of a new wave of what can loosely be called neurodivergent activism: that is, the normalization and uplifting of we who have, for our whole lives, been marked as neurologically irreconcilable with “normal people” (a category which itself can stretch and shrink depending on the needs of medico-psychiatric, legal, and other authorities. Many of us have spent our lives in the implicit or explicit shadow of cure; those around us deem our ways of relating to the world inherently inferior and even objectively wrong, compared to the ways that they do. Covering my ears with my hands and retreating in the face of loud noises becomes rude and even humiliating when saddled with the baggage of ableism and saneism, by mere virtue of its association with people marked as disabled.

But there are other elements of neurodivergent social experience that cause genuine interpersonal issues, not discomforts rooted in compulsory able-bodied(/minded)ness. To use myself as an example (and to cite the reason I chose to write this post) my own tendency to avoid social interactions, including those to which I’ve already committed, can hurt the people who care about seeing me. They’ve made time for me in their lives, and my sudden panic feels like a devaluation of their care. My difficulty breaking out of my schoolwork-space leads to a dismissiveness on my part that’s felt as cruelty by others, even if I don’t “intend” to be so. And, as is the quintessential autistic struggle (further compounded by my incorrigible Sagittarianism) my honesty and openness is always a half-step from revealing something unnecessary, unhelpful, or unwarranted to someone who really neither wants nor needs to hear it. It’s not my being autistic that hurts someone’s feelings, in that case. It’s a particular comment or behavior which may be, in part, attributable to this thing called autism, but whose felt impacts actually evade the comforting explanatory power of diagnosis.

It’s not my being autistic that hurts someone’s feelings, in that case. It’s a particular comment or behavior which may be, in part, attributable to this thing called autism, but whose felt impacts actually evade the comforting explanatory power of diagnosis.

We need to make allowances for each other, and especially for people whose ways of being in the world have been treated with cruelty and disrespect, deemed worthy only of total eradication. At the same time, though, I’m unwilling to go through life with exactly the sometimes-bumbling emotional intelligence I come by on my own. While I’ll probably always be a bit ignorant of others’ respective interiorities, I’m also comfortable placing the resulting behavior among my bad qualities. In these cases, maybe I am “always [or, often] the one at fault”. I certainly felt that way this past weekend, when a series of such missteps, and the resulting fallout, broke my heart. Nothing happened that wasn’t able to be discussed with compassion and maturity, but it was incredibly difficult to confront my own capacity to cause hurt. That capacity is not limited by the diagnostic labels assigned to me.

la poubelle laments the feeling that, in the wake of their formal psychiatric diagnoses, they “should be the one bending or understanding or accommodating people or behaviours that make no sense”. They gesture at what has caused increasingly-heated debates among neurodivergent communities: what is the responsibility of the disabled (in this case, neurodivergent) perpetrator of any harm to the person they’ve wronged? What is the responsibility of the neurodivergent person for their (our) own wrongdoing? Is it actually the undergirding social norms that are wrongly defined? Or, does there come a point at which causing hurt is not excusable, perceived brain-wiring notwithstanding?

When I do something that for me feels normal, and another person tells me it is uncomfortable, rude, hurtful, or infuriating, I feel a combination of righteous indignation, deep shame, and rational understanding. The indignation is the result of the aforementioned activism: for so long told that my strangeness was my fault –– that no one would love or accept me until I learned to adapt (that is, assimilate) –– I feel a natural pull to those who claim that embracing our difference grants us immunity from the level of self-reflection neurotypical people* must perform. “We’ve been struggling to fit into a world not made for us,” they say. “Why must we continue apologizing for who we are –– how we naturally act?” (The essentialism in this statement is kind of a doozy, but that’s another post). I feel indignant, in short, because I don’t believe that certain bodyminds are inherently wrong, nor that social skills are a stable category of abilities one can have or not have.

Neurodivergence is, in part, all that confusion stripped bare, a hard look in the mirror for those who use social skills to mask the brutal reality of their own awkwardness.

Yet, I also feel rational understanding, because hurt –– while influenced by social norms and circumstances –– also has an ineffable element that I don’t pretend to understand. Like most other aspects of human relationships, I don’t only feel in the dark because I’m autistic –– because I don’t always pick up things like sarcasm, understand when a tone is joking or serious, or when bluntness becomes “rudeness” –– but because I’m a person. Social conventions are a distraction from how confusing we are to ourselves and each other, and neurodivergence is, in part, all that confusion stripped bare, a hard look in the mirror for those who use social skills to mask the brutal reality of their own awkwardness.

Given this universal awkwardness, not differentially experienced but differentially covered-up by social rules, the “line” between neurotypical and neurodivergent is blurry at best and likely nonexistent. This is a good thing, and draws attention to the violence and arbitrariness of pathologizing “noncompliant” ways of living. I want to live in a world in which I can leave a loud space, ask for the volume to be turned down, accidentally infodump, and communicate in other ways that are safe for me without being ostracized or bullied. But this also confers upon those of us marked as neurodivergent an increased responsibility for our own ability to cause the very hurt we feel from others; that a genuine depathologization of non-normative traits necessitates an embrace of accountability. My trouble with cognitive empathy –– the ability to put oneself in the shoes of another person and imagine their emotional process –– doesn’t make me deviant or sick, but it also isn’t something I can leave unaddressed if I want to have positive, mutually-beneficial relationships with others.

I understand –– and, dare I say, “empathize”–– with la poubelle’s and others’ frustration at being told they cause hurt, because we as neurodivergent people have faced arbitrary, punitive social demands starting in early childhood. That said, I feel a genuine sense of responsibility toward those I love who I harm by my words or actions, even if they are not the result of malice but only a different way of interacting with the world. I will continue to struggle with a complex mixture of emotions around behavior-modification for others’ sakes, and push back against demands I feel are grounded in a normalizing impulse and not genuine hurt. But I recognize the need for nuance in discussions of appropriate behavior toward each other, and a more honest consideration of what compassion, attentiveness, and respect mean for neuropluralistic, anti-ableist communities.

I wish I could end this blog post in a “conclusive” way, with strict guidelines as to when accountability means asking that a harm be addressed, rectified, and not repeated, and which simply suggest the need for a reframing of societal expectations. I expect that, even if I were to do so, such guidelines would be useless across some national border, within a decade, or among a group to whom I don’t belong. This post was inspired by my own hurt and confusion at wanting my unique experience of the world to be acknowledged, without using it as a means of writing off my capacity to harm others. Rather than a summation (or even sketch) of my full “position” on negotiating relationships among different brains,** I consider this 1) a means of writing-through the difficult and important conversations I had over the weekend, and, more importantly, 2) an interstice through which I can publicly address an issue I’ve long toyed with.

*Also an ever-changing group without firm borders or criteria. In this case, I mean people whose everyday habits and styles of communication are not marked as medical or psychiatric problems.

**As referenced above, I’m not convinced that the oft-used cliché “brain wiring” explains what’s been called neurodivergence, but I also couldn’t think of a better shorthand to use in this post.


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