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


Definitions & Characteristics

Atmosphere – Silhouette (Part 3)

In her 2005 book Constructing Autism, Majia Nadesan provides a useful but woefully under-recognized definition of autism.

She writes that autism is “a nominal category useful for grouping heterogenous people all sharing communication practices deviating significantly from the expectations of normalcy.”

In simpler terms: autism is a label for people whose social behavior is very different from what their culture expects. […]

Autism does not reside a priori within my body.

Autism is an idea, a social category. Autism is the meaning that we project onto certain modes of behavior. It is made up of society’s collective anxieties around what it means to be ‘normal,’ to be fully human.

There is still a stubborn essentialism that pervades the entire discourse around autism […]

Caroline Narby


Autism is not a thing. It’s an abstraction.

The only concrete reality is the existence of the people who get called autistic.

So when I say what autism is, I mean how my particular brain, that is called autistic, works.

Amanda Baggs


I think that my ‘story,’ though intensely personal, is not at all singular.

Beneath its idiosyncrasies lie vast strata of commonality, communality

Out of context, N. Mairs


For many years, ‘autism’ and ‘autistic’ were also used descriptively: […] autistic disorder is a disorder characterised by autistic features, ‘autistic’ being an adjective that describes behaviour

Since 1979, a different use of the word ‘autism’ has crept into general use, and even into specialized use.

It’s now used to refer to an underlying medical condition that is assumed to cause autistic behaviour.

Why does that matter? It matters because what has also crept in is the assumption that if people meet the diagnostic criteria for [autism], that means they have the underlying medical condition that causes autistic behaviour – that everybody’s autistic characteristics must have the same cause.

Sue Gerrard


A lot of autism research begins with the premise that even though there are [over a thousand] different ways of getting an autism diagnosis, being in the autism ‘gang’ makes you (a) fundamentally similar to all the other gang members and (b) fundamentally different to everyone that doesn’t make the grade. That’s a big, big assumption.

Jon Brock


We acknowledge the heterogeneity within autism, but our intuitions still drive us to seek a common essence of autism.

The essentialist view of autism goes hand in hand with the way autism research is conducted and reported. […]

By always beginning with autism and working backwards, we have invested too much significance in the label itself.

Jon Brock


Critics […] pointed out the circularity in Spearman’s argument.

Intelligence tests were assumed to measure intelligence, but because no one knew what intelligence actually was, the tests also defined intelligence – even if they varied considerably.



No true Scotsman / Appeal to purity


[T]here is no consistent underlying ‘essence’ to those ways of being we now classify as autistic; rather, in each case, the underlying difference is idiosyncratic and unique. […] Of course, this is not to deny that autistic cognitive and behavioral profiles tend to overlap in specific and interesting ways.

Robert Chapman


The problem with calling {something} ‘biological’ is that biology is complicated.

Hardly anything in biology fits into […] neat categories

Partial quote, Luz Delfondo


Just because something’s a social construction doesn’t mean it’s not real […] Now, is it based in biology? Influenced by? Completely unmoored from?

That’s a different argument, and one we can’t get to until we stop conflating it with this one.

Sam Killermann



Lines – Glass (Part 2)

There are two definitions for inertia: 1) indisposition to motion, exertion, or change (“I don’t like or fear change.”) and 2) a property of matter by which it remains at rest or in uniform motion in the same straight line unless acted upon by some external force.

Generally speaking, people tend to be inert.  We develop habits, and we stick to them.  It doesn’t matter if the habits are good or bad.  We like predictability (“I like my car and would like to keep it.”).  We don’t want to be confronted on how we do things, what we think, or how we interact with others.  If it’s always been done a certain way, then most people will continue in this customary fashion from the smallest habit to the grandest cultural traditions.  In terms of inertia, this is called uniform motion.  For the most part, we like to remain in a state of uniform motion and/or rest, and this is not necessarily bad.  Society needs structure and uniformity to function from the nuclear family all the way to level of government.

In terms of health, this is called homeostasis.  The human body requires a certain amount of sleep.  We require vital nutrients, daylight, human interaction, physical touch, exercise, and clean air and water in order to maintain homeostasis.  All of this is part of uniform motion.  When an outside force acts upon this homeostatic inertia, that usually means a stressor has occurred like a virus, toxin, physical injury, genetic mutation, car accident, or the like, and homeostasis has been disrupted.  We are no longer inert.



4.  When you regulate your daily actions, you deactivate your ‘fight or flight’ instincts because you’re no longer confronting the unknown.

This is why people have such a difficult time with change, and why people who are constant in their habits experience so much joy: simply, their fear instincts are turned off long enough for them to actually enjoy something.

5.  As children, routine gives us a feeling of safety. As adults, it gives us a feeling of purpose.

Interestingly enough, those two feelings are more similar than you’d think (at least, their origin is the same). It’s the same thing as the fear of the unknown: as children, we don’t know which way is left, let alone why we’re alive or whether or not a particular activity we’ve never done before is going to be scary or harmful. When we’re adults engaging with routineness, we can comfort ourselves with the simple idea of “I know how to do this, I’ve done it before.”

Brianna Wiest


[T]here is something very different about how autistics react to novel and familiar things.  There is something very different about their preference for, and reliance on, repetition and routines.  But it’s not that they’re rigid while everyone else is flexible.  Neurotypicals are so inflexible that they insist on their social rituals even when it would jeopardize others’ safety.

Neurotypicals misunderstand other people, and inadvertently treat each other badly all the time – often in more damaging ways than autistics do.  Neurotypicals can be more rigid than any autistic about the rituals that matter to them.

The difference is that autistics and neurotypicals misunderstand other people in different ways and are inflexible about different things.

Because autistics are in the minority and sometimes lack the ability to explain or advocate for themselves, their way of misunderstanding and being rigid has been pathologized, while neurotypicals’ has been ignored.

Emily Morson


[…] can we talk a little bit more about how much of autism therapy is about the therapist being rigid and controlling?

Alyssa Hillary


Autistic people don’t all have a convenient love of tedious tasks everyone else hates. Some of us have the audacity to want jobs others want.

Ruti Regan


(Under ‘Leadership/Management’)

How many times have you heard that you need to get the big picture? Or that you feel like you didn’t have the big picture? I’ve heard this phrase repeated too many times to count and each time I do the thought that runs through my mind is this: what exactly is the big picture and how can I get big picture thinking?

The fact is that the big picture depends on your point of view. I don’t believe anyone can truly have the big picture (serious emphasis on ‘big’) because it’s not possible to see the infinite number of influence points involved. In fact, the bigger the project, program or issue the more difficult it is for anyone – even the leader at the top – to have the big picture.

Christian Knutson


They are fully aware of their entire environment. We are talking about a multifocalized attention.

Whilst the attention of a neurotypical individual only focuses on one point at a time.

People with this multifocalized attention are hypersensitive and perceptual. Thus, they have the ability to perceive the overall picture of a situation including all of the details, even those that usually go unnoticed for the majority of people. Therefore, it is extremely difficult for them to perceive only one thing at a time and to concentrate on it, if there is no relevant interest in doing so. […] These people perceive the global nature of their environment in a very complex way. They are sensitive to ambient noise, light, people’s movements, etc. They see and feel everything, constantly.

Out of context, Mélanie Ouimet

(translated by Tanya Izquierdo Prindle)


Consider which two of these objects go together: a panda, a monkey and a banana.  Respondents from Western countries routinely select the monkey and the panda, because both objects are animals. This is indicative of an analytic thinking style, in which objects are largely perceived independently from their context.

In contrast, participants from Eastern countries will often select the monkey and the banana, because these objects belong in the same environment and share a relationship (monkeys eat bananas). This is a holistic thinking style, in which object and context are perceived to be interrelated.

Nicolas Geeraert


There is a set of powerful visual learning tools used in schools, universities and workplaces all over the world that can help us better organize our ideas. […] thinking maps are a rich resource when it comes to creative analytical thinking processes. They help us visualize even the most complex ideas and make them tangible.

Orana Velarde


I’d like to ask if we’re really more vulnerable to everyday emotional and physiological challenges or if we’re tired because we’re dealing with more of them. While I ask, I’d like to see how many neurotypical people can function while walking on an untreated broken foot. I’d also like to ask how many neurotypical people who unexpectedly found themselves unable to speak 10 minutes before they were scheduled to present at a conference would still present. Not more vulnerable than y’all, just dealing with more nonsense.

I think saying we are unusually poorly equipped to deal with certain challenges (lower threshold) and have fewer innate coping strategies is a simplification at best and wrong in places. We wind up getting into trouble more, that’s definitely true, but how would you cope in an environment designed for how I work? It’s often about mismatches.

Also, we have plenty of coping strategies. Noping out of bad environments (avoiding them) is an effective strategy when we’re allowed to use it, but it often gets called eloping because for some reason y’all want us there anyways. Covering our ears is a semi-effective way to deal with loud. Those things that get taken as signs that we’re getting dysregulated […] are often actually ways that we stay regulated, and that realization could (but only partially did) lead to the conclusion that we’re not so much short on coping methods as disallowed from using them.

Alyssa Hillary


[P]lenty of people make choices that others would find terribly limiting – not teaching their children multiple language, not having children at all, working in a career that is emotionally rewarding but not financially so, or the reverse, codes of dress or diet restrictions imposed by religious belief. What right, then, do we have to criticize someone’s preference for the comfort of repetitive activities?

Restless Hands


Some people might be better at certain things, we even call some of those people ‘geniuses’. But their ‘intelligence’ is the product of a concept of the time and place they live in. It is possible that, in another time, in another place, their ‘intelligence’ would not be ‘superior’.

Amy Sequenzia