Lent has begun with the Ashes and the Mass of the Feria yesterday. I seem to have battled through a bout of “writer’s block”. Truth to be told, there are few comments on this blog these days, since my subject matter over the past few weeks is somewhat off-key to most, but numbers of people looking at the blog are about the same. I reflect “out loud” and don’t have to worry about people getting tired of my writings, because they can go elsewhere without my knowing about it or being offended. That is unimportant. There is little to discuss presently in the Church world, at least things to which I feel like contributing. This blog is the garden of my little world, and I write about the things that concern me.
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I have been reading things on the internet about neurodiversity, and what this term really means. On the surface of things, it seems to describe a utopian ideal of a world in which people learn to tolerate others and accept differences. We emerge from centuries of a paradigm which insists on absolute conformity of all to a single ideology or “orthodoxy”, such as was imposed by the various totalitarian dystopias in the twentieth century, both real (Hitler and Stalin) and imaginary (Orwell and Huxley). Issues of tolerance have been discussed by philosophers like Voltaire, especially since the eighteenth century Enlightenment. The oppressive entities ranged from the Church to psychopathic dictators.
Every human idea has been taken to extremes and perverted, and became a new form of intolerance. We find this with the gay agenda and feminism, where attempts have been made to impose a “new orthodoxy” with its own Inquisition, KGB and Gestapo! The common denominator seems to be human conservatism (nothing should ever change) and self interest. Only Christ seemed to bring something new intended to liberate the human spirit from the animal struggle for power and the instinct to improve and purify our species.
When I sought to understand my own differences in relation to other people with whom I am called to interact in the normal course of life, I came across the scientific category of high-functioning autism or Asperger syndrome. That would link me with an extremely nebulous typology with certain fairly clearly-defined poles of experience and behaviour. Psychiatrists, like other people of science, seek laws and coherence in the formulation of a typology. What do all the cases have in common? Thus emerged a notion of spectrum to explain why the typology itself contained a vast diversity. With a critical approach, we see that neurotypicality is not monolithic either, because there is a spectrum within those who are not autistic between “accepted” or conventional standards of “normality” and various other atypical conditions.
This brings us to seek a “dividing line” between “normal” and “abnormal”. Science does this through diagnosing pathologies like diabetes, paranoid schizophrenia, cancer, Down’s syndrome and so many other debilitating problems of the body, brain and spirit. Many of these ailments and handicaps come in degrees between those who can cope reasonably well in an independent and dignified life and those who have to be in a hospital or an institution, totally dependent on care-givers. Tolerance and intolerance too come in degrees on a continuum – everything between “Hangman” Heidrich’s Final Solution to the outlawing of any observation of difference.
What we all have in common is self-interest. It is a fundamental animal instinct within us. We all want the right to live, reproduce, eat and to self-esteem. In the natural world, only the strongest and most powerful have these rights. The opposition to this constant of eugenics and genocide would come from visionary and altruistic elements in humanity. Christ is the shining example of standing up for the weak and those in need of forgiveness. Sometimes, the Church has sided with this ideal, sometimes with the rich and powerful.
In contrasting these two fundamental human instincts, competition or compassion for the weak, we can situate calls for diversity between the weak and the strong. Some of the weak are less weak than others, and some of the strong are less strong. Perhaps such a notion might help to get rid of the “us and them” paradigm, by which the oppressed become the oppressors.
We are all broken vessels, however a medical doctor will describe us according to the characteristics he observes. Throughout Lent, we will read stories of blind people, cripples and the possessed seeking help from Christ. On account of the person’s faith, Christ performs a miracle and the person is totally cured, but yet the experience of having been disabled will certainly form that person’s outlook, hopefully one of deep gratitude and joy. Going to extremes, the psychiatrist’s manual will give a typology for every human condition until everyone needs the psychiatrist – and someone is making a lot of money from old rope! Do we need the alphabet soup of ailments to put large numbers of human beings into the category of disabled or sick, and therefore having right to help or being deprived of the consideration given to “normal” people? The problem is ultimately political and finding a stick big enough to beat the dog.
For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places. In modern terms, we are up against the lust for domination of those who act out of self-interest and disregard for the weak. For this reason, the weak seek means to defend their lives and rights, sometimes going to extremes.
The movement for diversity takes many forms: male and female, different races and ethnic cultures, degrees of ailment and health, wealth and poverty, homosexual and heterosexual, “unconventional” sexual tastes and gender dysphoria, the list goes on. It can become political and confrontational, or it can incite us all to remember our own weaknesses and develop compassion and empathy for others who don’t have it as good as ourselves. We should not forget that we all have talents and weaknesses, things we are good at and like doing and things we are not good at. We usually get to know when we are at school and our teachers observe our performance in every aspect of human life.
I would be inclined to support the neurodiversity idea, being personally affected, though mildly in comparison to some I have met. I would like to see the concept cover all who are both “typical” and “atypical”. What does the majority of humanity have in common, where no two persons are exactly alike? I cast doubt on the notion of “normality”, and propose the idea of a human world made up of individuals who have different talents and handicaps. We are all called to help those who cannot cope for themselves and accept help from those who are stronger than ourselves – if they have the empathy to do so. There is always “worse” than me, or “better” than me.
For questions of mental problems or genetic conditions affecting the brain and central nervous system, it becomes difficult to set that line between a non-verbal autistic child, an idiot or a paranoid schizophrenic who might harm himself or others without control measures, and those whose intellectual faculties are unimpaired, but have emotional difficulties. The science of psychiatry has often been confused with complete quackery from the days of torturing “lunatics” in places like Bedlam, using questionable methods like electric shocks and lobotomies, sloppy diagnostic work and simple human prejudice. We seek understanding with psychiatric diagnostics, but the result is often increased confusion. This is why I prefer a more philosophical approach even though psychology is a subject that fascinates me.
The question most concerning me, autism / Aspergers, is a marker that encourages me and others to seek what we are good at and not attempt to succeed in things we are not good at beyond a certain point (for example being at a Christmas party and giving a decent performance). There is manifestly no cure for most mental and neurological conditions, but we can learn to adapt to society and live our own personal life to the full.
These matters are too complex to be solved by activism and over-simplification. This is a problem I find with the LGBT agenda. Notice that everything is lumped in together. Few homosexuals (active or not) would be inclined to want to become the opposite sex or something that looks like it. In our society, we are generally faced with the alternative of calling such tendencies normative on pain of being labelled as intolerant and “Fascist” or “Nazi”. For us or against us, rather than seeking a different way of looking at it. I do believe that people should be allowed to live in the way they want as long as they respect others and don’t seek to impose their choice of lifestyle. I find transsexualism repugnant, especially the idea of mutilating surgery on a healthy body, but those people only have this way to become happy (though some regret it when they come round from the anaesthetic and go and commit suicide!). They could be repressed by the law, but what good would that do? Naturally, I am talking about the civil order and not Christian morality or natural law. In Christian terms, a homosexual is just as acceptable as anyone else if he doesn’t seek to impose himself on others or have carnal relations with same-sex partners. Mental and neurological issues generally don’t involve morality, and thus are situated elsewhere.
How do we deal with a weaker person (elderly, sick, disabled, etc.)? We are often patronising and take pride in hauling someone in a wheelchair up a flight of steps. How kind I was! Did I not simply do my duty as a human being? We need to let people cope for themselves in what they can do. That is very important. We all need our independence and autonomy as persons. We have not to be shamed or patronised for something that isn’t our fault – and care-giving is often difficult with unreasonable or cantankerous people.
Something like autism isn’t always bright. It does make life difficult for parents of children, schoolteachers, peers, etc. I do know that had my parents been able to detect this anomaly when I was a child, rather than my being a difficult or rebellious character, my life would have been different. Better? What other kind of life would I have had? Speculation is futile. I agree that we all need to be critical of ourselves and more accepting of differences between persons and groups of persons (when respect is mutual).
In some of the literature about neurodiversity, I have come across the idea that an autistic child is “part of normality”. What is normality? Does normality exist? Is not the whole of humanity on a spectrum or several spectra depending on the matters under consideration like health, wealth, intelligence, talents, etc? Perhaps all that can be said is that the greatest number of people have more in common with each other than those with “extreme” characteristics and who need more help. That notion leaves “normality” as something that is vague, negotiable and fluid. That is a far cry from claiming “normality” and being included in it. There is the often ideologised word of inclusive or inclusiveness. Do away with “normality” as an absolute, and we are all in the same boat, and able to relate to much of Christ’s teaching about the first and the last, the sick and the healthy.
Many of our various ailments do make life difficult. If we can’t be cured, we might need help or a way to overcome the difficulty. A person with poor eyesight wears glasses and someone who cannot walk uses a wheelchair. Medicine is marvellous in the way it uses technology to make life easier for so many people! Someone with Aspergers is little more than an eccentric, but who can cope in life, making some sense of other people and pursuing one’s special interest and vocation. A deeply low-functioning autistic child will find it a little more difficult. Sometimes, special training and education help. Sometimes, they don’t.
The notion of neurodiversity is geared towards the high-functioning people like myself with my ability to work, get on with other people (even if a little tactlessly at times) and get on with life as someone who is quirky. It is tempting to see this as a “normal” state and do down “other people”, but how do I see patients in a mental hospital? I feel for them and it is distressing to see people in such a state, but they are also human beings. They need help, so they are not “normal” (through I will not promote a criterion of “needing to be helped” to draw a line). There is a limit to self-serving or using a scientific diagnosis as an identity marker.
Were there a cure for autism sometime in the future, who would not want to apply it to a disabled child so that he can leave the institution and live an independent and dignified life? Who would not want to improve one’s ability to live with other people whilst keeping the talents he has? Life is much easier when there are no social difficulties, or if their severity is reduced to an extent.
There is a whole issue to our coming to terms with ourselves, accepting that we have “something” and need to find a way to live life in an acceptable way for ourselves and others as they are. There is a certain sub-culture aspect as with the gay world, with expressions as “coming out” and claiming special consideration and respect outside questions of our merit and good done to others. We have to get on with all people – especially when the category of “normal” is removed. We all have strengths and weaknesses. The “pride” aspect is very unhealthy, because it fosters that “us and them” attitude, as with “gay pride” and militant feminism, both of which cause blow-back and a return to old prejudices and real oppression.
Diversity movements often airbrush real suffering and pretend it doesn’t exist. When treatment by professionals is possible and necessary, it needs to be available. Such treatment includes training and education given by parents to bring autistic children out of their shells as an alternative to institutionalising them. I am sure that procedures and methods will improve with research and development. What is not possible now might be possible in the future.
I would like to aim for a via media between the diversity movement and the search for cures and solutions for those who suffer the most. Otherwise, we trivialise the disabled and deeply affected. Aspergers affects people in different ways. For me, it has made me socially awkward and given me difficulties in my married life, and that is a cause of suffering, even if I am happy to have both intellectual and manual talents. I accept what God made me, but would welcome any means to improve my social interactions. I’m not too bad, saying so myself, and I have done better than many. At the same time, I need to have consideration and empathy for those whose suffering is a mystery to us all.
My fundamental conclusion is that “normality” is either an extremely narrow category, so much so that the word contradicts its meaning, or that it doesn’t exist. We share the same humanity, from the most disabled to the most talented, but no two persons are the same. Persons are radically “other” and are definitely more particular than universal. This “otherness” is a terrifying mystery in our human experience and our philosophical and theological understanding of communion (or fellowship).
We are all abnormal for each other, especially when Number One is the only “normal” person in the world!