Definitions & Characteristics

Atmosphere – Rays (Part 3)

When I say things like “I don’t believe in the diagnoses in the DSM,”

that does not mean I think people are faking it, or making their experiences up. […] Their experiences are absolutely, definitely real.


I agree that we need a language,

but I disagree that the DSM provides a good one. […]

Out of context, Sarah K Reece


Diagnosis recognizes reality; it doesn’t create it.

The way medical diagnosis works can often make disabled people feel fake. (Any kind of disabled people, including people with mental illness or chronic illness). There’s a widespread culture misperception that real disabled people have a clear professional diagnosis, and that everyone else is just faking it for attention or something. It doesn’t actually work that way. Diagnosis is more complicated than that.

People with disabilities are disabled whether or not anyone has diagnosed their disability. […] But it doesn’t change the reality. Someone diagnosed today was already disabled yesterday. Many people are disabled for years or decades before they get access to accurate diagnosis. […]

In addition, some conditions aren’t currently diagnosable, because they have not yet been identified and named by doctors. If a condition was discovered for the first time today, someone had probably already had it yesterday. And last year. And back and back and back. […]

Ruti Regan


Words, like the chisel of the carver, can create what never existed before rather than simply describe what already exists.

Martin Heidegger


Was There an Autism Before the Name?

Were we here before the world called us ‘autistics’?

Was there an ‘us’ or a ‘we’ before we and the world called ourselves so?

How were we, autistic people, autistic, before we actually were autistic?

Adapted from writings by Dallyce Potess


Definitions & Characteristics

Atmosphere – Streaks (Part 1)

When we describe autism in terms of binaries, discourse communities, or circles, we construct a very unreal, [very black and white,] very us/them reality. […]

The typical autism essay, ironically, often proclaims that autism cannot be placed in a box, all the while concurrently placing autistics in boxes – LFA, HFA, mild, severe, verbal, nonverbal, etc.

And, I would also posit that autism should not be (because it cannot be) contained within tidied-up circles, which, despite being round, are themselves boxlike.

Discourse community theories fail to account for how these circles get created, get named, get claimed, get dismantled. In effect, discourse communities largely render their users passive.

In “Hybrid,” Bizzell claims,

These elements [discourse conventions] are so powerful that the discourse could be said to take on a life of its own, independent of individual participants; it could be said, even, to ‘create’ the participants that suit its conventions by allowing individuals no other options if they wish to be counted as participants.

Per this logic, I have been passively constructed into autism – by discourse. I have been passively constructed into aspiedom – by discourse. My other autistic commonplaces – or identity markers – have also been shaped or spawned by discourses: stimdom, speechdom, lack-of-eye-contactdom, patterndom, take-everything-literally-and-then-somedom.

But discourse alone can’t name these things, can’t claim these things. These facets of me, the diverse facets of other autistic individuals, of human individuals – autistic cousins or not – only fit within these circles because someone has squished them there, has proclaimed generalization as the new world order.

Low-functioning autism exists because the people who write the typical autism essay say it does: they make the circles; the circles themselves don’t independently create themselves; the circles aren’t material objects that exist or breathe or birth or contain people, all neatly sorted; the circles have human help. While I like to objectify humans and categorize stuff [very much], circles alone just don’t do the trick.

Melanie Yergeau


There are many autistic people whose best method of communication is nonverbal. By which I mean, not speech, not writing. […]

Most people don’t know this because the current theories of autism all involve us being terrible at nonverbal communication. By which people mean, terrible at one specific kind of nonverbal communication that most nonautistic people are good at.

So for many of us – nonverbal communication, and the world of things outside of words, are our best way of communicating. Whether we can also use words or not. […]

It’s true that many people who are thought not to be able to use or understand language, actually are. And it’s terrible that they are overlooked. But in their desire not to overlook such people, many people claim that all disabled people who can’t communicate through speech fall under this umbrella. And that’s simply not true. In order to communicate with people who will never use words, you have to learn their language.

Mel Baggs


‘Autism steals their voices.’

The idea of “voicelessness” presents itself as a convenient vehicle to get from autism to (living) death.

Voicelessness, here, does not refer primarily to literal variations of mutism […]

To be a voiceless autistic person does not entail an incapability of using language, but rather, an all-encompassing credibility gap.

Are autistic people, after all, expressing themselves, or merely their symptoms? Are they themselves expressing, or is autism? […]

When autism speaks, autistic people do not.

Voices here are only reserved for native speakers of a particular kind of symbolic language.

This language assumes and creates a normative, human subject, one who both comprehends and is comprehensible to other humans.

The faith […] is put in a shared, normative language, as a tool to fathom oneself and other people […]

This mechanism, while steeped in hyperbolic doubt, is intertwined with an essentialist humanism.

If the symbolic connects all humans to a network of intelligibility, the subjects who fall outside of this network must not be fully human.

Anna N. de Hooge


Definitions & Characteristics

Atmosphere – Snowflakes (Part 3)

Theory of mind does violence to autistic people.

Autistic people lack a theory of mind (ToM), so it is said. Autistic people can’t know that other people are people. That they have bodies, unique mental states, lives, experiences. That other people know, want, feel, and believe things.

To have a ToM, it is believed, is a very human thing. To know that other people are people, and that you yourself is a person. To know that people are not mindless bags of skin moving through space.

On one hand, are the humans who do have a ToM. On the other hand, are those distant Others who do not.

ToM is always a binary.

ToM is always a dichotomy between the human and the neurologically impaired.

Autistic bodies are violently absent. The absence of a body suggests that violence cannot be done to it. The absence of a body is the erasure of the violence done to it.

ToM is defined by a negative. ToM relies on a circular logic. We know that autistic people lack a ToM because non-autistic people have a ToM; we know that non-autistic people have a ToM because autistic people lack a ToM. This is what we know – what we think of as fact and hold onto as true.

Non-autistics’ failures mean they are simply human, but autistics’ failures show their impaired ToM. Autistics never have natural ToM. Any ability they demonstrate, however, means they are merely hacking, passing, faking.

In the same way that autism is the boundary for the (in)human, ToM is the boundary for the (non)story.

ToM, it is said, is based on absolute, on empirical fact. ToM represent where a story cannot be trusted.

There are plenty of dichotomies. Theories about ToM represent truth; theories about autistic personhood do not.

Autistic people have come to represent the limit of the inhuman, all in the name of facts, in the name of ToM.

The autistic is not trusted, is not reliable, is not accurate. Any claim coming from a ToM-impaired autistic body can be refuted by everyone with a ToM.

Theories about ToM tell stories about the violence against autistic bodies. They enable the violence, explain the violence, defend the violence.

What matters are the feelings and attitudes of the non-autistic. What matters is what the non-autistic thinks of the autistic.

The autistic body is nonexistent; the autistic body’s story is told by the non-autistic.

Based on an article by Melanie Yergeau



Nevertheless, even if intelligence is only a matter of appearances, appearances matter. […]


In-group, out-group:
The place of intelligence in anthropology




Disputes about intelligence are disputes over status.

Status is usually seen as a two-tiered structure:

  • at the upper level, an abstraction of social goals;
  • at the lower, any concrete evidence or collateral one might have for claiming it.




Intelligence is not itself concrete collateral: it brings no offering to the great god Status except the promise offered by the word itself.

That is because it is wholly internal to the game of bidding for status […] It belongs in the realm of appearances and mutual recognition alone.




[Intelligence] connects status at its higher level, as an abstraction of values and goals, to its lower level, as concrete collateral to be used in support of a bid.

This is why […] people claiming status will talk about their intelligence as if it was self-evident when actually the term is purely self-referential.



(claim to status)

Intelligence, [like honour and grace], fills the round hole of individual human uniqueness with the square peg of abstract hierarchy.

Like them, it creates not just an in-group but an out-group that is definitely disqualified from entering the bidding in the first place.




Intelligence sanctifies the person. It confirms the legitimacy of an individual’s behaviour by referring it to an external authority.

[The psychologist allocates IQ scores (to the intelligent, as a sign of intelligence). Similarly, it is the king who disburses honourable titles (to the noble, as a marker of honour), and it is God who dispenses grace (to the elect, as a confirmation of grace).]

Although this authority is arbitrary, in receiving its blessings we abnegate our right to question it,

thereby binding ourselves to accept practices which a different generation, in different historical circumstances, might regard as utterly wrong.




Intelligence is a form of apparently equal exchange amongst creatures who are actually inequal. […]

The relationship between the intelligent and the intellectually disabled is one of exchange, inasmuch as the credit of the one could not exist without the debit of the other; it takes place without the awareness of either, or perhaps only with the awareness of the latter.




We have already seen that the procedure for establishing intelligence as a scientific concept consists first in conjuring up the notion of a mean purely as such. Subsequently, and only subsequently, this mean becomes something concrete […]

Intelligence [is] what those with the power say it is, as were honour and grace: a dummy category, a magic hold-all into which they can pack whatever they like according to purpose.



(biological hierarchy)

Nevertheless, [intelligence] does have one constituent that covers all contexts: intelligent means better.

The word can only function as a disguised comparative. True, so do all descriptive terms in the human sciences. None is neutral.

But ‘intelligent’ is not only value laden, it is content free. […]




Status by its very definition consists of ranks; and if that is the case, then abilities too must come in ranks, otherwise there would be no way of pegging one to the other. […] But [what] constitutes the merit of one sort of ability against another?

[…] Meritocracy (some abilities are more equal than others) is at one with conservatism (hierarchy is natural). One’s level of intelligence both determines one’s vocation or calling and is that calling, one’s place in a natural social hierarchy […] Meritocracy cannot favour ‘ability’ over bloodline or wealth without passing hierarchical judgements that involve matters intellectual and their concomitant social and political interests.




In […] confusion, the purely nominal classification of certain abilities as intelligent or intellectual is passed off as real.

I may be especially able at maths, for example, or ironic humour, or orienteering, or recognizing another person’s concealed emotions. The only thing they have in common is that I can be judged as being better or worse at them. That judgement may in some cases be real enough.

But to be useless at maths or orienteering is a chosen characteristic of intellectual disability, to be useless at ironic humour or perceiving hidden feelings is not; and in fact some people labelled with severe intellectual disability are better at ironic humour and perceptiveness than some people classed as highly or just normally intelligent.

No distinction between intellectually better or worse can exist unless some temporary, subjective and purely human consensus has been reached as to which particular abilities ‘intellectual’ or ‘intelligent’ covers and which not. Talking about emotional intelligence, which might seem to cover humour and perceptiveness, does not solve the problem, since exactly the same point can be made here too.




One might [think that, surely, the intellectual hierarchy] cuts out at some point near the bottom of the scale, where the selection of certain abilities as intellectual becomes no longer merely consensual but is indeed objective, separating off a discrete set of really intellectually disabled people who are therefore exempt from an otherwise historically constructed group. Surely there must be some such creatures.

But the exemption would only work if one were already assuming that they exist separately in nature as some biological subspecies, which is indeed the historically contingent premise on which the modern notion of intellectual disability has been built. They are exempt from egalitarian principle only because that principle, in order to exist at all, has already exempted them.


C.F. Goodey



Lines – Amber (Part 2)

Sometimes the same behaviors in a person {read as} neurotypical would not even be noticed.

But because people with autism are scrutinized all day, every day, by teachers, therapists, parents, and almost everyone else around them, their behaviors are labeled, treated […]

Partial quote, Lisa Jo Rudy


When you tell me there is no such thing as normal, this is true, in a sense. The things we as a society prize as normal can not all be found in one person. […] There is no one ‘normal’ person, never was, never will be. So many of us are more comfortable with people like ourselves that we take as normal those with a certain amount of similarity to ourselves, and if we have sufficient power in society, this normal may override the normals of others.

Alyssa Hillary


There is simply no need to speak at all of ‘what makes us human’ in scientific discourse. What makes us human is nothing, save perhaps our rich diversity.

Sophie Vivian


A lot of people think they can relate {to my struggles} which means it’s brushed under the carpet as not a big deal.

Partial quote, Amy Miller


“You know how it is. People like that . . . they don’t experience emotions the same way that you and I do.” […]

I thought about telling her [that I am autistic]. I chose not to. I’m not sure what it would have accomplished if I had told her […] revealing myself to be a person like that

The truth is, I don’t experience emotions in the same way as that woman who spoke to me about her disabled clients. Or in the same way that you do. No one does.

Human beings are cognitively and behaviorally diverse. We are so diverse that we defy taxonomy entirely.

There really is no norm, no fixed point of reference from which to deviate.

Caroline Narby


[F]ew issues are completely exclusive to one group, but some things affect some groups more strongly than others, and that can be very important.

Elizabeth Bartmess


[S]ome critics […] suggest abandoning the term ‘autism’ altogether. In their opinion, labelling autistic people as such was merely a mistake: We thought there was a natural category called ‘autism,’ but now that we know more about it, we can see that this was an error.

[I]dentifying as autistic may not be biologically meaningful, but it is politically meaningful

[W]e have our own communities, norms, and practices […] Autism, in other words, has begun to develop into a culture, and this culture opens up the space for autistic behaviors to begin to manifest as meaningful […] challeng[ing] existing standards of acceptability within […] dominant social and ideological framework[s]

Some of our most significant and deeply-entrenched human categories – like race and gender – are partly rooted in a constellation of physical elements, and partly in historically situated social construction.

They do not reside on a single gene, or even a network of genes, and yet they are both extremely ‘real’ and extremely important to our conceptions of self and others.

Robert Chapman


When you are different it’s okay for you to not quite meet up with the rest of the world here and there, because most of the time, when it matters, everything syncs up.

When you are disabled you don’t have that luxury.


When you are disabled you have to prove, over and over again, that you are a real person […]

Julia Bascom


In a world where autism exists, because we do taxonomize human difference and build systems of power around it, I am autistic.

Caroline Narby