Different not disordered? How the “neurodiversity” redefinition of Autism as “difference” can be used to enforce Neoliberalism within the prevailing culture of postmodernism.

It is indisputable that public awareness of autism has improved to a significant extent. While we should acknowledge that autistic as a whole have received greater public attention in the media Aspergers Syndrome Disorder (ASD) is located within this spectrum and it will be Aspergers that we will be specifically focused on here. Typically, ASD comes with a variety of overarching traits which affects each individual to differing degrees. Difficulties in creating and sustaining friendships due to a lack of social imagination, aversion to change, executive dysfunction, fixation on the familiar and rountines, hyper-sensitivities or hypo-sensitivities, susceptibility to having additional health related disorders (comorbidities) such as depression and anxiety, and so on.

This increase in public awareness of autism has led to an increased public consideration and acceptance of people who are on the autism spectrum – those with Aspergers Syndrome Disorder (ASD) – whose autistic traits are not visibly obvious to the public. This has been widely understood has a hidden disability.

 

The significance of public awareness of autism can be traced to the rise of non-autistic and autistic people who support neurodiversity or neurodivergence. Neurodiversity comes from the idea that autism should not be recognised as a “disorder” but a “difference” in thinking. It is thought that a recognising autism as a difference will result in a society that includes people on the autism spectrum rather than treating them as an oppressed “other”, to use a postmodern term. This seems to result in championing autism because it opposes the dreaded medical model of autism which stigmatises autistics or, in postmodern terminology “otherises” them.

 

Postmodernism and the influence of reactionary identity politics.

 

Postmodernism is an idea that emerged amongst academics in the late 1960s and was influential in empowering individual identities/individual autonomy within minority groups as a means of resisting and confronting discrimination within capitalist society and its institutions. Postmodernism is a messy mix of theories but it has a special relationship with psychoanalysis and the study of the self. When it is practiced, postmodernists establish groups whereby people who identify as a certain skin colour, gender, disability (known as the oppressed “other”), can tell their own personalised stories (narratives) as a means of establishing connections with one another and a common means of reacting against discrimination. These “stories” are basically an individual’s life experience of discrimination and oppression. This is evident among people with ASD when they are encouraged to tell psychologists they’re stories or experiences of being on the spectrum and how they are otherised.

There is nothing directly wrong when someone is encouraged to share their own experience. In fact, this is often vital for understanding how a person lived; their thoughts and emotions can be very valuable. One of many well-known examples of where experience is a useful source of understanding would be the diary of Anne Frank who documents her experience as a Jew living under Nazi occupation. Indeed, the focus postmodernism provides on oppressed people provide some form of rallying attempts at resistance from power structures.

Despite, this, when practiced, postmodernism is a limited, arrogant, cavalier and reactionary ideology in the following ways.

Postmodernism’s  primacy on the lived experiences of people within their respective groups supposedly creates a sense of belonging within groups who face a higher tendency of discrimination and oppression groups because the idea is that sharing stories/narratives with one another will lead to some form of group commonality known as intersectionality. Again this seems harmless but the postmodern reliance on personalistic experience has the effect of creating a solipsistic mindset. In other words, a mindset that disregards anything outside that individual identity or group’s identity’s experiences. This embrace of the insular solipsistic identity-thinking may result in a parochial sectarianism within so-called groups of solidarity, as well as creating an authoritarian consensus that disallows any kind of dissent from the objectives and views that the identity group has. It also becomes clear that postmodernism creates a hierarchy of which group is more oppressed than the other. This pits people against each other.

For example, the embrace of identity first only retrenches and possibly further divides neurotypicals so-called higher-functioning autistics and so-called lower functioning autistics against one another. In reality postmodernism, when practiced, is not interested in the oppressed because it is opposed to rationality (the very basis of human thought). Thus, it disassociates itself from reality and the means by which to create alternatives to capitalism.

Furthermore, the reliance that any identity group has on “lived experiences” often produces an exclusive bubble that effectively gives the people within that specific identity group more of an authority to speak about an issue that relates to their own identity more so than someone who does not belong to that specific identity. In effect, this means that anyone who is, say, a straight man, cannot talk about their thoughts on the gay “community”. I flank apostrophes between the word community because the LGBTs community are a very clichey and superificial group due to their integration of LGBTs into mindless, nihilistically promiscuous consumers (don’t get me started on those who pretentiously cling to Queer as an identity).

Additionally, this has become the case with people on the autism spectrum, specifically those with Aspergers Syndrome Disorder (ASD), whose views about autism are regarded by academics as more important than neurotypicals simply because it is naively assumed that their identity gives them a special authority. We see this, particularly in our discussion of the Aspergian researcher, Luke Beardon’s rhetorical article on autism.

 

Postmodernism’s regressive abandonment of rationality.

Postmodernism creates an irrationalism and reactionism which is often counter-productive to the cause they’re trying to promote. This reactionism is evident in postmodernism’s blanket denial of rationalism as some sort of evil force that has no potential for being used in positive ways for human civilisation. But why is this?

 

The fundamentally regressive belief shared among all postmodernists is the idea that everything is social constructed (social constructivism) – humans are the products of their culture. Despite, evidence which shows that humans have innate universal grammar, with forms of socialising that stand apart from animal communication, this never discourages postmodernists sanctimonious drive to reject and tear apart (deconstruct) any objective, rational and scientific means of understanding the world. This is because in extreme cases postmodernists fundamentally reject science and rationality, preferring to attribute it as part of, to use a phrase of their postmodern/post-structuralist admirer Michel Foucault: “regimes of truth”.

Fortunately, the postmodern assault has been exposed for its elitism when Alan Sokal sent an article, “Transgressing the boundaries towards a transformative hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity”, that was intended to expose postmodernism for it’s exotic and lofty terminology which only a select few postmodern academics can understand.

The reason postmodernism is so elitist is that it takes from Nietzsche that there are no facts, only interpretations. Thus, postmodernism rejects everything, presumably out of a fear of being accurately defined, pinned down and critiqued by more honest academics who don’t hide behind exotic terminology in order to make a living. The essence of postmodernism is an extreme relativism which reduces everything, even the most pressing and empirically serious concerns to matters of opinions and taste. It is an outward expression of human nihilism. The postmodern attitude is very visible within Neoliberal capitalist society – facts are increasingly reduced merely to matters of taste and opinion.

In effect, this attitude only complements the prevailing superficial consumerist attitude; a sort of “what are you into” mentality that cynically and often arrogantly abandons principles and any sort of striving for truth. Indeed, the postmodernist may well whisper into your ear: “Actually, we do believe in truth. Individual truth (Self-truths): To ‘Know thyself.’” However, this only serves to illustrate our earlier point that postmodernists advocate a self-absorbed solipsism that outrightly rejects certainty in anything and has politically and morally paralysing effects within wider society.

The abandonment of truth within the wider world has a wide variety of deep social consequences that affect the minds of people who are not accustomed to reflecting and connecting what is going on around them based on the empirical evidence. Instead they are easily susceptible by short-term concerns, broadcast by the media, which are isolated from wider structural problems within society. One should add that it is easier for a privileged academic to have the luxury of irresponsibly adopting and promoting the extreme moral relativism of postmodernism than someone on benefits who relies upon a universal safety net to survive.

 

Celebrating ‘difference’ within postmodernist culture and among neurodiversity adherents such as Luke Beardon

One can easily identify the ways in which postmodernism, with its almost mindless embrace of difference, has permeated into the minds of autism researchers and activists. These are known as neurodiversity supporters who talk about human beings as neurodivergent. Some go as far as to lazily put those on the autism spectrum on the same spectrum as people with anti-social personality disorders, as I found out in talking to the latter online and upon viewing the comments of neurodiversity supporters.

Certainly, neurodiversity supporters should be commended for their opposition of organisations such as autism speaks who have presented autistics as a ‘burden to society’, and people who resemble the pseudo-science of Social Darwinism who spread hate speech that people with autism are genetically impure or diseased. However, recalling our earlier discussion, we must remember that their fixation upon autism as a mere identity, as a social construct, produces a reactionary myopia.

However, academics within neurodiversity only mirror the same postmodern mindset, namely, the embrace of passive and reactionary idea that autistic people are merely “different”. Neurodiversity adherents react in dread and haughty contempt at the medicalised definition of autism as “disordered” even though some have willingly fought through their GPs to get a diagnosis from a medical professional in order to qualify for support in the form of social security or any other form of support.

You don’t need to look far to notice how neurodiversity embodies an insular identity politics that pits one group against another without analysing the wider implications of what the arguments for accepting autism as a difference not disorder has on someone that is reliant on, for example, social security because of their disability.

In ‘Is Autism a disorder’ Luke Beardon of The National Autistic People’s Organisation, tells us:

“Perhaps we should be saying that Neurotypicals (NTs) are impaired in their understanding of autism, rather than people with autism are inherently impaired – that, certainly to my mind, would be a far more accurate reflection of reality.”

He argues that for someone to call an individual with autism ‘impaired’ suggests that there is something wrong with them that needs fixing, which he deeply disagree with. He goes on in an impassioned tone:

“Now consider a child who complies with what he is told (to the letter) and is subsequently admonished for doing just that. One might say that is the result of literal interpretation of language – part of the so called ‘impairment in communication’. But where is the celebration of honesty for that individual? Where are the cries of anguish over the NTs illogical and highly disturbing propensity to say things that are not accurate, precise or even true? Surely we should be decrying the NT population as a bunch of liars who cannot use verbal language accurately, rather than placing blame firmly on the head of a person with autism. Rather than insinuating that the problems lie with the individual, look at the problems created by the NT population.”

At first glance and without any real reflection, the kind of argument Beardon outlines seems very progressive. Noone would rightly argue that autistic people should be blamed for their autistic traits as it would constitute discrimination. However, Beardon does what we have described in our analysis of reactionary postmodern identity politics; he entrenches the divide between neurotypicals and autistics. Beardon produces a kind of glorification of autistics as if they are somehow a higher species of human that a neurotypical doesn’t understand; a kind of Us versus Them mentality which only sows more division. Within his argumentation there is the assumption that all autistics are in the struggle against people (presumably neurotypicals) who calls their autism a disorder or disability. Because, as he assumes in traditional postmodern irrationality, that all talk of disorder stems from the social regime of neurotypicals within the medical community who seek to impose ‘their’ evil definition of autism as a disorder. Although Beardon doesn’t specifically mention the medical professionals in this article, I have witnessed people who argue along the same lines as Beardon who make that point.

Of course, Beardon accepts the social model of disability that advocates that neurotypical attitudes should accommodate people on the autism spectrum. What this results in is a whittling down of autism as a disability and transition to difference. However, aside from a happy-clappy, kitschy celebration of autism, there is no mention by Beardon of the implications of what such a transition would look like. Nor is there any understanding of the serious socio-economic implications generated by the transition of autistic attitudes from disorder to difference.

We will look at the consequences of unreflectingly accepting autism as difference later in our discussion of the ‘fitness to work’ assessments (Work capability assessments) within the social security system as well as the poor, oppressive and precarious quality of work within neoliberal capitalist society.

 

Neoliberal capitalism – some brief examples.

The rhetorical language of empowering autistics as this is attributable to the wider Neoliberal economic climate that dominates Europe and America, as well as countries outside of this sphere. Neoliberalism is an ideology that asserted it’s primacy in the 1970s. Since then, it has become the mainstream economic doctrine (Neo-classical). The essence of it’s thought is a rejection of traditional state intervention in the economy (state economic planning). Numerous individuals ranging from Noam Chomsky to the former Vice President of the World Bank, Joseph Stiglitz, have argued that Neoliberalism is a form of market fundamentalism because it claims that markets, wealthy investors in the market and the CEOs of secretive multinational corporations are more effective at managing the economy and, by extension, services to the public than the government. Because Neoliberal politicians are so fanatically devoted to Neoliberalism they enact policy that is favourable to the market and those within it – their core constituents. These policies can be broken down to market deregulation, privatisation of public services & utilities and “public-private partnerships” are part of the Neoliberal doctrine.

Privatisation is the selling off of state assets that are supposed to cater to the public to a private multinationals that dominate the global market. Public-private partnerships (PPPs) are distinct from privatisation but produce equally damaging results to the public as it is an example of government-private sector collusion. One example of public-private partnerships is the government created Private Finance Initiative within the NHS, whereby the NHS borrows money from private insurance companies and banks and pays back the money in the form of interest. PFI has been referred to as a form of stealth privatisation due to the huge amounts that the NHS pays back, creating the financial problems within the NHS as a public service. It is a very damaging system because it drains the NHS as a public service of its funds, creating the media narrative of underperformance in the NHS, and potentially creating the pretext for future privatisation.

This is something which Alysson Pollock and specialists within the NHS are deeply critical of.

The recent changes to the social security system also reflect the Neoliberal economic consensus. For example, the government pays hundreds of millions of taxpayer money to Atos, Maximus and Capita to carry out fitness to work tests to coerce people with disabilities into the labour market process. The American insurance firm Unum Provident is behind the recent changes to welfare reform since the last decade. As the disability activist Mo Stewart points out, in an internal Unum report in 2005 the company was involving driving government decision making (lobbying) regarding the welfare system.

Dumbing down & postmodern propaganda: The bizarre reverence that people show towards unreal, meaningless televised representations to disability.

The rhetorical babble of autistic empowerment often as the result of creating misleadingly glorified notions of autism, particularly Aspergers Syndrome which primarily comes from media representations that are baffling so revered, presumably because television lives our life for us and presents to us a dumbed down shadow version of life itself. These glorified and romanticised notions come in the form of recognising Aspergers as imbuing a person with superhuman qualities which is designed to “empower” an Aspergian individual to excel and integrate within society.

The word “empower” is part of the lexicon (language) of corporations and government as a buzz-word which is meant to coerce people into thinking employment is somehow an empowering part of someone’s life because it rewards that individual with social networks, skills and a sense of pride at belonging in working for an employer, regardless of the social value that the employer represents.

Other examples are adverts and television programs that communicate a kind of “we’re all in this together mentality.” Those with physical disabilities literally regarded as superhumans when you observe television advertisements. This communicates a kind of bland and forceful message that translates to: “Hey, you there! You sitting in a wheelchair! You, with crutches! Yes, you, you and you! You can do this too if only you put your mind to it.” And why not when athletes are encouraged, perhaps even independently go out of their way, to instill this sense of patronising rhetoric that adds a little positivity to people’s general malaise, apathy and disillusionment within capitalist society.

*The above may sound exaggerated and yet there is clear evidence that this cultural attitude has been around for some time in the US. For example, Barbara Ehrenreich’s Smile or Die and Brightsided: How positive thinking is undermining America documents how this attitude/propaganda prevails in corporate environments and is spreading outside of them into the wider society.*

Past Malteser adverts also present in a rather cringe-worthy, condescending fashion (as if we were all still suspended in the intellectually bankrupt educational system) sassy, ’empowered’ women in a wheelchair gossiping with friends about nothing in particular. Yes, people with physical disabilities can be just as nauseatingly like everyone else, we get it…oh and Maltesers…Maltesers…MALTESERS! Despite the embarrassingly patronising nature of these advertisements, they serve as an effective propaganda tool for enforcing deeply harmful Neoliberal policies among the public and a parasitic individualism which threatens the once secure social protections that come from public services.

We also see this with people on the autism spectrum who are often regarded as “fit to work” (DWP reference) with a few pokes and prods in the right direction, as the tv programme Employable Me often softly dictates to viewers.

But beneath the of autistic people’s, particularly Aspergian, jubilance towards being represented and enshrined in a farcical television show, documentary, cartoon, there are serious social consequences that are either ignored because they are either regarded as too “negative”, or they are simply not unaware of how such propaganda facilitates the goal of promoting a mindless get up and go culture.

Ultimately, this propaganda serves to produce a sense of mindless, reflexive jubilance among the public. This sense of jubilance comes in the form of positive thinking or positive psychology which effectively is meant to imbue them with a positive sense of self. However, this positive sense of self is inherently deceptive because it ignores and conceals that threat that neoliberalism has in promoting greater insecurity and social deprivation within society. Of course, anyone who makes these points about Neoliberalism to someone that has been subjected to the examples we have outlined above are more likely to dismiss them merely “negative”. Such a casual dismissal is indicative of the effectiveness of the style of propaganda we have already outlined. In other words, positive psychology is meant to instill a sense of obedience as well as socially ostracise or to sideline anyone who is critical of the deep inequalities within capitalist society.

The consequences of postmodernism neurodiversity and Neoliberalism: the treatment of people with disabilities under the new “welfare” regime.

The National Autistic Society’s projection is that only 32% of autistic people are in “some kind of paid work”, the majority are unemployed and on some form of benefit, unless they have middle-class parents to depend on. Thanks to so-called ‘Left/(Neo)Liberal’ (postmodern) media’s representation of autism and the get up and go attitude that autistics are expected to convey and conform to, the government encourages people (the public) to  think of claimants within the benefit system with contempt. A consequential example of this hatred is the 213% rise in disability hate crime – people being “abused, injured or murdered” – fuelled by distortions of people on benefits through the distribution of benefits propaganda (Crown Prosecution service & Welfare Weekly).

The gilded land of modern work/employment (what was in the past described as wage-slavery or chattel slavery), on the other hand, is treated with great reverence regardless of the nature of the employment such as it’s precarity as well as how monotonous and psychologically degrading it is. In fact, the NAS happily contract themselves out to employers in order to train employers how to “support” a potential autistic worker.

Indeed, no one so much as blinks when we autistics are spoken of as productive instruments for corporations with huge capital. This is because no one explicitly says this, however the business terminology of seeing autistic people as “positive assets” is often used to describe how autistic traits can be used by employers in order to bolster their corporate productivity. This is something which the NAS actively promotes.

Aside from these rhetorical musings of neurodiversity adherents and organisations like the NAS, it doesn’t even appear to enter in the public mindset that the very nature of employment/work involves the demeaning process of selling your skills to your employer. To speak of autistic people as well as the wider workforce as having “assets” to be bought by corporation isn’t rightfully recognised by the wider public as a form of neo-feudalism; a new form of slavery in which people are drafted into a primarily low-paid, long-term, insecure toil for multinational corporations, who are given patronage in the form of huge amounts of tax-free subsidies by the government to run their operations.

For example, one “asset” that someone with Aspergers would probably be assumed to have by an employer or employment coach, or occupational therapist, is a preference for repetition. From the perspective of people in these roles, that means encouraging someone on the autism spectrum to be relegated by their employer to do all of the most demeaning activities in the workplace because they assume that, being an autistic, the person will not mind so much.

For instance, many autistics have, namely an inability for foresight that is necessary when having to cope with finding work in an insecure, poorly paid, ever-changing and psychologically abusive labour market. An autistic person’s tendency to think in black and white can also be exploited by an employer or an employment coach. For example, being bombarded by messages from Neurodiversity adherents who myopically and superficially celebrate autism and employment as empowering only serves to reinforce the idea, particularly on an autistic person’s mind, that everything will be fine once they enter into employment because they have unique “assets” and, as a result, are a unique kind of wage-slave, unlike neurotypical workers.

 

Like slavery before it, it is simply considered the normal state of things within the amoral, value-free world of superficial taste and opinion that is at home within the empty postmodern culture of capitalism.

Moving on, the postmodern climate of looking at people on the autism spectrum merely as being different not disordered as certainly contributed to the devastating effects on how people are treated under the new terms by which people claiming benefits are treated.

Like the NHS, the benefits system is tailored around public-private partnerships (a process in which the government rewards contracts that allows the running of public services to private corporations) is in the increasingly punitive welfare system we see today, whereby the formerly disgraced American business Maximus, Atos and Capita police sick and disabled benefit claimants lives in the ‘innocent until proven guilty’ tailored Work Capability Assessments that, as Mo Stewart as referenced from the Department of Work and Pensions mortality statistics published in 27th August 2014, have caused a nation-wide total of 84,140 suicides of ESA and IB claimants alone. This is the result of sanctioning by the DWP if claimants are found “fit to work.” It is importance to remember that this is but a flavour of what is going on and what is to come as the implementation of Universal Credit (UC) will have deep effects for anyone claiming benefits.

 

Why is this the case and what does it have to do with our earlier discussion regarding Neurodiversity? – The non-medical model work capability assessments of the new social security system

The mentality of the new social security system curiously mirrors the extreme relativist ideas that are represented by postmodernism and neurodiversity adherents; the idea that a person’s ‘disorder’ is not really a disorder but, quite simply a difference that society should embrace. The social consequences of spreading unreflective inspirational soundbites that “autism is a different way of thinking” may as well be translated into “autism is a state of mind”. If autism is a state of mind that means one can be ‘cured’ or ‘overcome’ their autistic traits in heroic superman fashion. Often this is called “managing” but, regardless of the use of word, it produces the same method of coercing that person on the spectrum into an authoritarian workplace. This postmodern/neurodiverse rhetoric has found its form within in the social security system’s non-medical model of assessment – the Work Capability Assessment (WCA).

The non-medical model was promoted by the Cardiff university academic, Professor Mansell Aylward, promotes (as Mo Stewart points out in detail in Cash not Care: The planned demolition of the welfare state).

The non-medical model is conducted by occupational therapists, nurses and other individuals who have little medical knowledge of a given disorder or disability that doctors are qualified to know and understand. This has had significant consequences for benefit claimants, as Mo Stewart argues:

“In the UK, the DWP now liken themselves to a private security contractor and have adopted the American analysis, which doubts all clinical opinions of GP’s and the evidence of all claimants.” (Cash not care: The planned demolition of the welfare state).

We see here how the wilful ignorance of medical diagnosis (facts) of someone’s disability has damaging effects on those on the autism spectrum as well as those with other disabilities in having access to state support. We also see how this wilful ignorance by the DWP and it’s private contractors (Atos, Capita and Maximus) sums up the same neglect of the facts of someone’s disability as neurodiversity adherents who simply say a person’s autism is a state of mind or different way of thinking rather than a neurological disorder that does impair an autistic person’s ability to function, especially in a chaotic Neoliberal society. In this Neoliberal society cuts to support services and the shift to favour funding of cheap and cheerful “individualised” ones based around empty buzzwords and phrases are primarily designed to coerce people into employment by encouraging them that a peppy attitude about their disability is all they need to ‘cope’.

However, what is really needed among those who preach neurodiversity is an understanding of how the wider society will be affected by their regressive and rhetorical phraseology. Furthermore, they should also be aware, if they care at all, and reflect upon the very nature of employment itself in this neoliberal society. An insular individual empowerment is enough. It simply encourage a vain and insular identity politics that disregards the external realities that we have outlined and simply retreats into the lived experience of that person’s group (perspectivism).

It’s time for people to wake up and understand the consequences of the postmodern culture of identity politics and neurodiversity. It is time to realise how it complements to the prevailing capitalist doctrine that has seen it reap terrible consequences on disabled people, as well as the wider population who are within the workforce or on benefits and in the workforce.

 

 

One thought on “Different not disordered? How the “neurodiversity” redefinition of Autism as “difference” can be used to enforce Neoliberalism within the prevailing culture of postmodernism.

  1. R, your blog will soon be added to our Actually Autistic Blogs List (anautismobserver.wordpress.com). Please click on the “How do you want your blog listed?” link at the top of that site to customize your blog’s description on the list (or to decline).
    Thank you.
    Judy (An Autism Observer)

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