Spectrum Nope

[CN: Functioning labels]

I spent several hours creating an image today to address misconceptions about the word spectrum. I’m not entirely happy with the finished product, but there comes a time to walk away before too many hours are expended doing the same thing. Unfortunately, while I have walked away from working on that image any further, the whole thing is still playing on my mind, so clearly I have a lot more I want to say about this, even though I’ve already written about why I don’t really like the word spectrum.

Coincidentally, I also discovered that today is Blogging Against Disablism Day today, so this will be my contribution towards that.

People are constantly using the word spectrum to reinforce misconceptions about Autistic people. They’re continuously (or what feels like continuously) conflating the word spectrum with a linear scale of functioning. People really want to categorise us into neat little boxes of low- and high-functioning. They use arbitrary measures to put us on a sliding scale from “severe learning disability” to “extreme ability in some areas.”

Can you see how it is impossible to remove the value judgments that are attached to those words, especially when they are arranged in the way that they have been in that image?

Can you see how misconceptions about the spectrum can directly relate to functioning labels?

Which arbitrary measure is being used to assess functioning? Intelligence.

I have written about why calling me intelligent isn’t a compliment before, and I know (I know!) that Kanner’s original definition of high functioning was based on intelligence measures.

But, here are some things to consider:

Intelligence isn’t really one thing

Intelligence isn’t really one thing. It’s several things, but IQ tests tend to assess only some of them, and many IQ assessments are biased in favour of English-speaking people. So, really, IQ assessments, those things that are being used to determine how “severe” we are really only measure how well we can perform on IQ tests. It’s a completely arbitrary measure.

Based on that arbitrary measure, we’re assigned – by external observers – a functioning label, and then people create and share images like the one on the left, and this reinforces the belief that some of us are maybe, sort of, kind of useful, while there’s no hope for others.

Autistic Functioning is not static

Autistic functioning is not static. Just like everyone, we have good days and bad days. We go through phases of being able to do all the things and being able to do none of the things. Our development is not the same as a neurotypical person’s development. We don’t develop in steps and stages building on what we previously learned. We go backwards and forwards in our development, and that continues in adulthood. Just because I learned X skill which is needed to do Y, that doesn’t mean that I can do Y. I might not be able to transfer X skill into doing Y. I sometimes have to explicitly learn how to do Y using X. Sometimes, I “forget” X. I may then “remember” X at a later stage, or I may have to relearn X.

So, when people share images with linear scales like the one described above, and when they describe people as low functioning or high functioning, mild or severe, they think ‘spectrum’ means a scale from Rain Man to Sheldon Cooper (i.e., “almost useless” to “needs no support”).

The Rain Man-Sheldon Cooper dichotomy is not one that I made up. It was one that was told to me by someone who prefers to describe themselves as mild so that people understand that they’re not “Rain Man or Sheldon Cooper.”

Stereotypes are not an accurate representation of an Autistic person

Neither Rain Man nor Sheldon Cooper are an accurate representation of an Autistic person. I am a little taken aback that I need to explicitly state that fictional characters are not accurate representations but here we are. The character of Raymond Babbitt was loosely based on Kim Peek who was not autistic. Kim Peek was a savant, but there are major problems with conflating autism and savant skills.

And Sheldon Cooper? That character is based on the geek stereotype. Many people conflate geek with autistic, and they are wrong. Some Autistic people are geeks, while some are not – for example, some are amazing jocks.

Autistic communities are diverse

There’s a further problem with conceptualising autism as a dichotomy consisting of two fictional characters. Both of those fictional characters are white men. Autistic communities include people of all races, genders, and ages. We are not all white men.

Finally, I realise that when the word spectrum was first attached to autism, it may have been with the idea of a linear continuum of functioning, but I also know that that was done by non-autistic people who were looking at us on the outside.

So here I am from the inside (of me and my community) telling you that Autistic people are not a homogenous group, nor can you separate us into dichotomous categories of high- and low-functioning. We’re different from each other in numerous ways, and that’s all that spectrum means to me.

3 thoughts on “Spectrum Nope”

  1. Well put. The other thing about “spectrum” that you don’t mention explicitly here, is that it assumes that all the “good” characteristics are at one end of the line, and all the “bad” characteristics are at the other. In reality, though, autistic people may be brilliant but non-verbal, socially adept in theory but limited in their social interactions by apraxia,overwhelmed by sensory input but patient and caring with their children. And of course, as you note, everyone has good days and bad days.

  2. I have to agree. Describing my autistic classmates using terms such as these always felt fundamentally wrong. I mean, “high” and “low.” The connotation of better and worse is painfully obvious.

    I do have one question, though. Many autistic people, including myself, often describe ourselves as being “on the spectrum.” If we begin to move away from the “spectrum” idea, what shall we identify ourselves as instead? Just “autistic woman” or “person with autism?”

    I’ll make a conscious effort to remove “spectrum” from my vocabulary either way, though.

    1. I wouldn’t ever try to tell another autistic person who to describe themselves, but for myself, I just say that I’m Autistic. I’m a big believer in reclaiming the word autistic, and making it our own. I feel that by doing do we get to create our own definitions, and move away from the definitions other people have placed on us.

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