In my previous post, Autism, Aikido, and Systems-Oriented Cognition, I published my answer to a question that the fabulous Steve Silberman asked me as part of the research for his upcoming book, Neurotribes: The Legacy of Autism and the Future of Neurodiversity

Below is another excerpt from that same conversation with Steve – my answers to two more of his thought-provoking questions. 

My aikido dojo, which Steve visited prior to this conversation, is called Aikido Shusekai. Shu means, essentially, commitment to excellence (a more in-depth explanation of shu can be found here, for those who are curious). Sekai means world or society. So Aikido Shusekai roughly (very roughly) translates as Aikido for an Excellent World. This is what Steve is referencing in his first question, when he puts the word “excellent” in quotation marks – he’s citing my own use of the word, in the name of my dojo and in my explanations of the vision that guides my work


Q: Why would a society that honors and celebrates neurodiversity be more “excellent”?

Well, I guess in order to answer that question, we first have to ask another question: by what standards should we measure a society’s excellence?

First, I’d say, by the degree to which the society succeeds in meeting the fundamental needs of all of its members, while simultaneously safeguarding their fundamental rights (including but not limited to cognitive liberty, bodily sovereignty, pursuit of happiness, freedom from coercion, and freedoms of expression and association).

Second, by the degree to which the society is committed to (and successful at) developing the systemic flexibility and complexity necessary to accommodate and integrate the fullest possible range of available diversity into a harmoniously functioning overall unity – a unity that’s based not on conformity, but on heterogenous elements functioning together while retaining differences (the Baha’i – and also the philosopher Edgar Morin, of whom I’m a great fan – refer to this as “unity in diversity”).

Third, by the degree to which members of the society treat others – particularly those who are significantly different from themselves, and those who are in a position of need, difficulty, or distress – with acceptance, compassion, civility, generosity, regard, and respect.

And fourth, by how well the society recognizes, protects, and cultivates its natural resources for the benefit of both present and future generations – and neurodiversity, like most forms of biodiversity, is an essential natural resource – as is the unique creativity of each individual.

Honoring and celebrating neurodiversity (along with the many other forms of human diversity) is obviously essential to meeting any of these standards.

Here’s a bit from another recent interview with me, that’s also relevant to this question:

I’d like to see the eradication of the use of functioning labels — “high-functioning” and “low-functioning” — to describe Autistics or any other human beings. What exactly to we mean by “functioning”? In practice, when people say “high-functioning” and “low-functioning,” they generally seem to be using the term “functioning” to mean “conforming to dominant neurotypical social and cultural norms, standards, and demands.” But do we really want to buy into the assumption that such conformity is the proper “function” of a human being?

I propose that instead of rating human beings as “high-functioning” or “low-functioning,” we apply the terms “high-functioning” and “low-functioning” to societies, rating the functioning of a society according to the degree to which it succeeds in supporting and furthering the well-being of all of its members; and the degree to which it can accommodate and integrate diversity, and employ diversity as a creative resource, without attempting to reduce or eliminate it, and without establishing hierarchies of privilege.

My preferred term for this approach to neurodiversity is neurocosmopolitanism.

Q: What would be the benefits for all of building a neurodiversity-positive society?

This question troubles me, because in some sense, it’s a question that should never even be asked – a question that is rooted in the attitudes responsible for some of the worst atrocities in human history, including some that are still happening. Because the inevitable shadow side of “benefit” is “cost” – so as soon as you start framing the acceptance of human diversity in terms of benefits, you’ve stepped into in the dangerous realm of thinking about human lives in terms of cost/benefit analysis.

And human lives, and human equality and dignity, should never be considered in terms of cost/benefit analysis. It’s far too slippery a slope, because sooner or later, inevitably, one runs into a situation in which the benefits, by the standards and values of the dominant culture, don’t appear to outweigh the costs. And then suddenly we’re in Nazi territory, eugenics territory, Autism Speaks territory, with certain human beings being talked about being talked about in terms of their “cost” – being talked about as “burdens.”

That’s where the dominant culture is right now, in fact, in regard to Autistics and various other neurominorities. That’s a big part of what the Neurodiversity Movement is trying to change.

Of course, there would be many benefits to building a neurodiversity-positive society – or a neurocosmopolitan society, as I’d call it. Neurodiversity is an invaluable creative resource, a problem-solving resource. The greater the diversity of the pool of available minds, the greater the diversity of perspectives, talents, and ways of thinking – and thus, the greater the probability of generating an original insight, solution, or creative contribution.

And in any given sphere of society, we only get the benefit of the contributions of those individuals who are empowered to participate. And we only get the full benefit of a given individual’s unique potential if that individual is empowered to participate without being forced to suppress their differences.

How many potential Einsteins have lived and died without giving society the benefit of their genius, because they were murdered or driven to suicide, or because they were denied the accommodations that would allow them to bring their genius to fruition?

Or because their particular forms of genius, their uniquely brilliant and beautiful ways of knowing the world, their most potentially valuable cognitive capacities, were inextricably connected to their natural Autistic styles of movement, embodiement, and play, and could no longer blossom once those styles of movement, embodiment, and play were squelched with ABA?

So, yes, there would be enormous benefits to society as a whole. A truly neurocosmopolitan society would actively explore, cultivate, and reap those benefits.

But again, if we make those potential “benefits for all” our primary argument in favor of a “neurodiversity-positive” society, we’re still operating in the territory of cost/benefit analysis. And a truly just, moral, and humane society simply can’t be founded on that sort of thinking, because that sort of thinking always leaves the door open to the possibility of someone deciding that the “benefits” of certain lives aren’t worth the “cost.”

One crucial factor that is outside most people’s awareness, when they speak of societal “costs” and “benefits” of neurodiversity, is that these cost/benefit analyses take place in the context of the currently dominant capitalist social paradigm, which tends to define “costs” and “benefits” in terms of financial profit and material productivity. Again, this is not a good way to evaluate human lives.

One of the greatest benefits of building a truly neurocosmopolitan society is that it would call for us to reassess the current capitalist, profit-and-control-oriented paradigm and its values, because that paradigm and those values make ableism inevitable. A society that regarded love, novelty, beauty, laughter, knowledge, and wonder as the most valuable contributions a person could make would not only have a far more positive attitude toward neurodiversity, it would be a better society for everyone.

 

 

NeuroFly

Steve Silberman is a journalist and wonderful human being who’s done some superb writing on autism and neurodiversity. He’s currently working on a book entitled NeuroTribes: The Legacy of Autism and the Future of Neurodiversity, which I’m certainly looking forward to reading. 

As part of the research for his book, Steve visited me at my aikido dojo, Aikido Shusekai, watched me teach a class, and then interviewed me over dinner afterward. Later on, he emailed me a few follow-up questions. Much later on, I emailed him back with some rather lengthy answers.

One of Steve’s questions was particularly interesting and thought-provoking. I’m posting his question and my answer here (slightly revised from the original, for improved flow and readability). I’m posting it because the question prompted me to articulate thoughts that are central to my work and that I hadn’t previously articulated to my satisfaction, and I don’t know how much of what I wrote will make it into Steve’s book (I’m also posting it in the hope that this taste of the interesting stuff into which Steve’s research delves will encourage you all to check out his book when it’s published). 


QUESTION: How does being autistic inform your method of teaching Aikido? Though Simon Baron-Cohen has come under well-deserved criticism for his Theory of Mind stuff, my own experiences in the autistic community make me think he and others are onto something in talking about people on the spectrum as “systematizers” who extract sets of rules from chaotic experience and have a natural gift for pattern recognition. If you agree with this, how does this system-oriented cognition help you as a teacher and manifest itself in your dojo?

I do agree that a gift for pattern recognition and systems-oriented thinking seems to manifest, in some form or other, in many Autistics.

My chief criticism of Baron-Cohen, apart from his awful “Theory of Mind” garbage, is the false dichotomy that he draws between “systematizers” and “empathizers.”

Outside of Baron-Cohen’s imagination, pattern recognition and empathy aren’t opposites, and certainly aren’t mutually exclusive. This is apparent from even the most casual observation of humanity. Great systems-oriented thinkers like Noam Chomsky, Gregory Bateson, and Edgar Morin are often known for their empathy and compassion, while those who display the least empathy, like Rush Limbaugh and Michelle Bachmann, are often terrible at coherent systematic thinking as well.

I am certainly one of those Autistics who has the gift for pattern recognition and systems-oriented thinking. But I think many people misunderstand what this means, partly because of cultural stereotypes – the same cultural stereotypes that underlie (and are reinforced by) Baron-Cohen’s false dichotomy.

What I mean is that many people seem to wrongly equate systems-oriented thinking with a rigid, mechanistic attachment to superficial order. But the two are not at all the same. In fact, the sort of systems-oriented thinking at which many Autistics particularly excel is in some ways incompatible with the rigid mindset that is addicted to the imposition of artificial and static forms of order.

Autistic systems-oriented thinking, developed to its fullest potentials, means insight into the rich depths of underlying patterns and structures, the beauty of the deeper levels of natural order beneath surface realities, the beauty of the Tao.

It’s not fussy anal-retentiveness, it’s a deep and joyful mysticism, a meeting of the intellectual and the spiritual.

Rigid imposition of artificial order is not the natural domain of most Autistics, although that’s a stereotype that often gets projected onto us, and although some of us can be quite good at it when we need to be. Such imposition of artificial order is, in fact, more the domain of the sort of people who’ve always tried to do away with autism and with Autistic people – the domain of the eugenicists and Behaviorists, the domain of the Eichmanns and Lovaases of the world.

That sort of rigid mindset – the fear of the strange and unknown, and the compulsion to guard against that fear by imposing artificial, mechanistic order – is indeed incompatible with empathy.

But true systems-oriented thinking – the capacity for insight into the living, pulsing patterns and complexities underlying the surfaces of all things – is not at all incompatible with empathy, and indeed requires a similar sort of open awareness. Empathy and systems-oriented cognition are both essential aspects of my approach to practicing and teaching aikido.

Upon hearing that I’m an Autistic aikido teacher, those who think of autism in terms of the conventional stereotype of the rigid “systematizer” – the stereotype promoted by Baron-Cohen and his ilk – might expect that I’d be quite attached to reducing every aikido technique to rigidly choreographed forms. But my experience is exactly the opposite: I’ve found that, by my standards, the majority of non-Autistic aikido teachers are overly rigid in their thinking, overly focused on teaching the superficial choreography of a fixed catalog of techniques. I find that this focus on dogmatic adherence to rigid choreographies limits access to the full depth and potential of the art.

By contrast, my Autistic style of systems-oriented thinking has always led me to go beyond superficial choreography, to feel my way into the underlying patterns and principles, the exquisite complexities of the underlying flow.

Morihei Ueshiba, the founder of the art of aikido, said, “The techniques of aikido change constantly; every encounter is unique, and the appropriate response should emerge naturally. Today’s techniques will be different tomorrow. Do not get caught up with the form and appearance of a challenge. Aikido has no form – it is the study of the spirit.”

It’s my Autistic cognitive style that enabled me to remain true to this dictum – to go beyond the superficial focus on the form and appearance of aikido techniques, to find the underlying flow from which the forms and techniques organically emerge, and to find my way into the joy of the cosmic dance that is aikido’s heart and source.

 

NeuroFly

Neurodiversity: Some Basic Terms & Definitions

September 27, 2014

New paradigms often require a bit of new language. This is certainly the case with the neurodiversity paradigm – even the word neurodiversity itself is still relatively new, dating back only to the late 1990s. I see many people – scholars, journalists, bloggers, internet commenters, and even people who identify as neurodiversity activists – get confused about the […]

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The Veiled Oasis

September 15, 2014

In my previous entry, I posted an introduction and link to The Hyperlexicon, an online hypertext labyrinth that I created in 2006, as an undergraduate student in the Interdisciplinary Studies program at California Institute of Integral Studies. In December of 2010, I returned to the hypertext medium that I’d used to create The Hyperlexicon, and created a […]

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The Hyperlexicon

September 13, 2014

In 2006 I was a student in the Interdisciplinary Studies program at California Institute of Integral Studies (I’m now a faculty member in that same program). At the beginning of our first term, my classmates and I were given the following assignment: Create a lexicon of words that are new, confusing, or of particular interest to […]

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The Process of Emergence: An Interview

September 9, 2014

The following interview with me was originally published on the Thinking Person’s Guide to Autism blog on April 22, 2014. It was part of an “Autism Acceptance Month” series that Thinking Person’s Guide to Autism ran over the course of that month, in which they interviewed various members of the Autistic community, representing a wide […]

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Autism and Gender Binarism: A Stern Letter to an Academic Colleague

September 8, 2014

Back in 2011 I was moved to write a letter to an academic colleague in Australia, calling her out on the gender binarism of her online dissertation research survey on autism and sexuality (this was hardly the only flaw in the survey in question – the entire research project was packed with ableism, stereotyping, stigmatizing […]

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Ripples of Goodwill: An Interview About Aikido

August 25, 2014

This is an interview with me about aikido, intended for an audience more or less unfamiliar with the art. The interview was conducted way back in February 2011 by Monika Broecker, a colleague of mine in the field of somatic psychology. Monika had an intention to publish this interview in some local magazine, but that […]

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Advice to Young Autistics: Stick Around and Be Awesome

August 21, 2014

In the summer of 2012, shortly after my wedding to my fabulous wife, someone involved with the Thinking Person’s Guide to Autism blog heard from a teenager who’d been newly diagnosed as Autistic. Learning that she was Autistic had devastated this young woman; because the mainstream discourse about autism is so negative and stigmatizing, she thought that it meant […]

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Letter to an Autistic Aikido Student

July 26, 2014

I’ve been teaching aikido for more than three decades. As far as I know, I’m the most advanced Autistic aikidoka (aikido practitioner) in the world. There are few enough people at my level in the art that if there were another Autistic close to this level, I’d almost certainly have heard about them by now – […]

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