Thursday, January 20, 2011

At least I can cuss creatively out your bias

Being an avid facebook junkie, I tend to notice trends among my friends that catch on like wildfire, some more worthwhile than others. A few months ago, there was an "Autism Spectrum Quotient Quiz" of sorts that was proving popular. I took it out of curiosity, and scored rather high, but not without noticing some irksome stereotypes that the quiz made, mostly based on Simon Baron-Cohen's ideas of what constitutes autism. Among the questions, there were gems such as "Do you prefer going to a play, or a museum?" and "Do you enjoy creating things, or are you more scientifically oriented" (paraphrasing, I sadly lack an Eidetic memory)
At first, with that former question, I thought it was inquiring about sensory issues: I certainly would enjoy going to a museum more on a less crowded day simply because there are fewer people, the lighting is more consistent in a museum, and there's less of a chance of loud sound effects such as a fake shotgun crack or applause from the audience, both of which bother my delicate ears. But as the survey went on, I looked back at the succession of questions and realized it had nothing to do with sensory issues (None of the questions I recall did, actually) but was making a judgement call on autistic people's appreciation and application of creativity. I was baffled, and quite frankly, offended, and then spent the remainder of my time on the quiz warning other people who took it that it was slanted and not without cultural bias.
This goes beyond just one goofy facebook quiz though. It feeds into a larger social narrative that autistic people across the spectrum are incapable of creativity and originality, and that our thought processes rely on imitation, but never creation. If I were to make an educated guess at the origins of this dubious assertion, I would trace it to the idea that autistic people learn exclusively through repetition. Since many of us, myself included, are echolaliacs, there is a nugget of truth to this. It appears to have mutated into this idea that learning through repetition is the only type of learning we are capable of, and we have no organic thoughts of our own to cultivate and nurture. I often most see this applied to verbal articulate autistics, and ones with stereotypical savant skills.
The most vivid example of this in my memory is a particularly loathsome Babysitter's Club Very Special Lesson installation called "Kristie and the Secret of Susan". The titular Susan was a nonverbal autistic child with a memory for calendric dates who could play the piano skilfully enough to attract the attention of other children, who would bring recorded music for Susan to play so they could observe (jeeringly) her musical abilities. Kristie noted with a hint of sadness that when a record would skip due to a scratch, Susan would play the scratches, as though the music didn't "matter" to her, she was just repeating the noises.
This was published in 1990, a year after I was born, and the insulting stereotype remains intact. I can still recall people claiming that autistic people were "devoid of creativity", which is why we were more likely to be found in the sciences rather than the humanities-related fields. Others attributed it to our "hyper male brain", not suited for creative or artistic expression.
This is not only a crappy stereotype about autism, it's also a sexist piece of tripe and distorts the beauty and wonder of science. I'm not a scientist myself, but my non-neurotypical partner is getting a masters in Theoretical Astrophysics, and explains the field of choice by indicating the beauty and majesty of the night sky and stars. He is under the guidance of an advisor who models the galaxy with computers. The advisor chose this work out of a desire to better understand God through obtaining a greater understanding of the universe. Every truly passionate scientist I have met has been gifted with a creative spark that allows them to advance in their fields. A big part of science and scientific advances is possessing a creative mind so you can find solutions to problems nobody else can.
We are also discovering, more and more each day, that the gender gap between girls and boys with autism is not as biological as we think. Before, very few people thought to look for differing ways autism may manifest in girls than in boys. The gender gap in autism is eroding with every new discovery about how autism works and presents itself. To drive a further point, Daniel Tammet, an autistic man, has been shown to be just as capable at creative pursuits as he is linguistics and mathematics, writing poetry to honour the natural beauty of Iceland, and possessing excellent writing skills in his two memoirs and blog. He also paints "landscapes" of his synesthesia sight, which are delicate and beautiful in their use of colour. There is nothing inherently "male" about science, and nothing particularly "female" about writing poetry. It was more a matter of institutionalized sexism and prescribed gender expectations which prevented women from gaining recognition in either of these fields in Western society.
Above all else though, there is an ironically, close-minded and decidedly inflexible way that neurotypical society defines "acceptable" creative expression, going back earlier to that point I made about the creativity of science. Painting, poetry, photography, drawing, writing, sculpting, dance, and music are the primary acceptable ways one may express creativity. These art forms are beautiful and I know many autistic friends who are interested and immersed in them. But there are many ways that creativity is expressed by autistic people which goes unnoticed by neurotypical eyes, and is therefore not counted as creativity. I consider some forms of my stimming to be a way of cathartic creative expression myself. On a daily basis, I can feel a tug between the weight of my body and the desire to be feather-light, between the sensory input of everything around me and the desire to be closer to that stimuli and yet escape it for a moment. Stimming helps me unite the desires and sensations, and allows me to feel whole for moments in ways I normally do not. It goes beyond therapeutic repetition for me. It is a territory of exploration and excitement for my body and mind, and in my eyes, it is creative. But I can't share what goes on in my head and body with the people around me when I stim like this. So it is not seen as creative.
Others may have their own secret creativity which can't be perceived by outsiders, like mine. One need not be a masterful artist or delve into musical composition to be considered such. Creativity is a trait shared by all, whether they realize it or not. I'm reminded of a major plot point in Never Let Me Go about creativity and the main characters. Without spoiling, I'll say that it showcased how much neurotypical society values creativity not only for its beauty, but also for how it's perceived as inherently human. Denying autistic people the label of creativity serves to dehumanize them and marginalize their accomplishments and paths of thought. Nothing is as close minded as thinking that your creativity is the only one that can be labelled as such.


  1. Another awesome post!

    I never thought to connect echolalia with the assumption that we can only learn by parroting things --- makes sense, though.

    (Also, how did I miss a Babysitters' Club novel about an autistic girl? I was a huge BSC fan when I was, like, twelve or so --- read every single one I could find in the library.)

    "[M]y non-neurotypical partner is getting a masters in Theoretical Astrophysics, and explains the field of choice by indicating the beauty and majesty of the night sky and stars."

    I had a friend in college who was double-majoring in Physics and Theater, and one of her big senior projects was to write, and perform, a one-woman play about a gamma-ray burst. I got to go see her play, and it was awesome. I think most of the Physics & Astronomy faculty went to see it, too...

  2. Thanks again! I picked up this particular BSC at the library when I was about 12 or so. There was another, later BSC novel that had an autistic child in it, and in that one, the girl used a hugging machine, and was slightly more accurate in discussing autism, but not by much.
    Also, your friend's performance sounds amazing. who says that science and art are mutually exclusive?