Wednesday, January 15, 2020

Cognitive Dissonance and The "Aspergian" Question

"The genius of apartheid was convincing people who were the overwhelming majority to turn on each other. Apart hate is what it was. You separate people into groups and make them hate one another so you can run them all."
-Trevor Noah
Born A Crime

It is my opinion that the history of the term "Aspergian" is so rife with ableism and eugenicist ideology that nothing may redeem it. I say this knowing that had I been born in the late 1980s or 90s, this term, which is today conflated with the term Aspergers,  might have been added to my own "gifted" label.

My son is considered Black under the one-drop rule.
 He is a diagnosed nonverbal autistic.
Image of a Hispanic male presenting youth  with
curly dark brown hair and tan skin clean-shaven in
a wheelchair drinking a bottle of water Image
posted with permission of the subject.© Kerima Cevik 
In the fall of the past year, I was bombarded with a rage tweetstorm by individuals who felt I was threatening their identity by tweeting my views on the Aspie supremacist nature of the fabricated term 'Aspergian' and for that matter the eugenic past of Asperger himself ("He joined several organizations affiliated with the NSDAP (although not the Nazi party itself,) publicly legitimized race hygiene policies including forced sterilizations and, on several occasions, actively cooperated with the child 'euthanasia' program"). Eventually, I chose to stop trying to justify my position or explain it in any way because I realized that no matter what facts I had to back up my points, what I had to say would never be accepted.

So what I am writing here is for readers who truly want to understand my point of view on the topic of Aspie Supremacy, Aspie Segregationism, the Aspergia Island myth, the error of using the term Aspergian interchangeably with Aspergers and Aspie, and how the language of Aspergian promoters so closely resembles white nationalists post-election attempts to change their lexicon of terms to make white supremacy more acceptable to mainstream audiences that I began to push back against the use of the term Aspergian entirely.

I also need to remind people that this is my perspective, based on how things are right now in the United States, and how much damage and hatred is harming us all by building these disability hierarchies within already marginalized communities.

What made me so sure that explaining the link between eugenics, disability and racism, and how this informed the Asperger supremacist philosophies that gave rise to the Aspergia Island concept and later the conflation of the term for citizens of fictional Aspergia, i.e., Aspergians, would make no difference to those people who identify as Aspergians?  It has to do with how people hang onto desired identities even when presented with any factual evidence to the contrary. An excellent example of this rejection of any identity viewed as less acceptable to society is the story of Susie Guillory Phipps, and how an unknown fact can induce cognitive dissonance that results in serious emotional reactions in people.

Susie Guillory Phipps' Crisis of  Racial Identity

Susie Guillory Phipps and her husband Andy went to request her birth certificate to apply for a U.S. Passport needed to travel to Europe. But when Susie got her birth certificate "she was, as she put it, "flabbergasted and sickened" to learn "the state's Bureau of Vital Statistics had her down as ''colored.'''

''I'm not light,'' she said, pointing to her face. ''I'm white.''  But the State of Louisiana had a surprise for Susie. A genealogical record going back 222 years to a maternal ancestor, a black slave named Margarita. Margarita was the daughter of white planter John Gregoire Guillory and an unknown slave. So Susie's race was not determined by 222 years of white ancestors but by a 1970 Louisiana law that codified the "one-drop rule" meaning if a person had one thirty second percent "negro" blood that made them "colored".

The idea that she had a black ancestor, even in 1982, was such a shock to Susie Phipps that she upended her entire way of life to reject this truth. She believed she was suddenly not accepted in the most privileged caste of her state. She vehemently denied any ancestry that linked her to the caste of least privilege. The cognitive dissonance was too great. In her own words, "sickened" by the idea she could be "colored", Phipps spent over five years and $20,000 demanding in court Louisiana change her race on her birth certificate to "white." Before the one-drop rule applied to her, Susie probably never gave racial identity a thought. But once such a rule directly impacted her class and race privilege she reconciled a fact about her ancestry by rejecting it.

Informed by eugenics, white supremacy remains part of the structure of society in Louisiana and much of the United States. Even now. Mrs. Guillory Phipps's identity crisis and desperate efforts to get her suddenly 'lost' white privilege back demonstrate that individuals faced with a choice between any uncomfortable revelation that places their perceived identity into a lower status and a pleasant myth that allows higher societal privilege they will choose the myth every time. They will passionately defend the myth, and they will abhor the idea of being associated with anything they view as a less privileged or exclusive identity.

I began writing about the harm done at the intersections between racism, eugenics, and autism through the stories of individual autistic youth and children when my son was constantly harmed because of these biases against him. Within the autism community, there are parents, professionals, and adults who segregate and classify autistics by their ability to use verbal speech, their degree of disability, the degree to which their autistic loved ones can mask any outward sign of their disability. or their achievement potential. Some parents weaponize complex support needs nonspeaking autistics like my son to justify usurping the right to dominate discourse about autism resources and public policy, thereby controlling funding and decisions about my son's quality of life that should belong to him. Others use the Asperger's label as both a stick to beat their offspring into what they hope will be a path of being indistinguishable from their typical peers and a way to show superiority over parents of nonspeaking, complex support needs offspring. Then there are those folks whose entire identity hangs on carrying the Asperger's label in the way Susie Phipps needed to have the label "white" rather than "colored" to somehow prove her right to access all the privileges of being in what she considered the upper caste of an apartheid-like social system.

When the American Psychiatric Association updated its fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) and renamed the diagnosis Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), dropping the sub-diagnoses (Autistic Disorder, Asperger Syndrome, Pervasive Developmental Disorder Not Otherwise Specified, Disintegrative Disorder), all hell broke loose.  Parents who wanted complete control of the autism conversation demanded a "severe autism" subcategory. Parents who wanted their children presented consistent with the "little professor" myth and wished to distance themselves from autistics with ID/DD labels wanted to keep their Aspergers labels. Others wanted more. They wanted to be another degree of distance from the rest of those with the ASD diagnosis. They rushed to embrace the fabricated label "Aspergian."

In 1999, Aspergia Island, an imaginary island state, was created by a group of people who wanted to design a culture in which their genetic differences were a mark of human evolution. They built an online site that tried to establish a full-blown virtual nation, including passports for members, a logo, and an origin myth. The myth of being diasporic refugees from the Aspergia utopia drew a following that filled chat rooms and threads with disturbing rhetoric. They flirted with eugenic based language, the idea that perhaps they, diasporic Aspergians, were the next phase of human evolution. They discussed their own intellectual advantages. While much modifying of the original messaging happened as more information on autism positivity and unity spread online, the underlying message of Aspergian superiority and the emotional need to build an identity of higher status based on the name Aspergian was passionately embraced by those who wished to separate themselves from other autism community members. 

In 2007, John Elder Robison published his memoir Look Me In The Eye. He identified himself as Aspergian, thus doing irreparable harm to the autism community by perpetuating what amounted to a North American rule of hierarchy-of-disability-based hyper/hypodescent to autistic identity. Late diagnosed at 39, Robison spent years dealing with internalized ableism, and this was unfortunately reflected in his writing. Robison's books became bestsellers and expanded the Aspie separatist culture globally. Other famous autistics, most notably Temple Grandin, was justifiably taken to task for making ableist statements against autistic youth with ID/DD labels and complex communication/support needs.  In her book Thinking In Pictures, she says

In an ideal world the scientist should find a method to prevent the most severe forms of autism but allow the milder forms to survive. After all, the really social people did not invent the first stone spear. It was probably invented by an Aspie who chipped away at rocks while the other people socialized around the campfire. Without autism traits we might still be living in caves.
 After 2007, the rift between families wanting to distance themselves from those who could not mask autistic traits and those who did not want funding and support given to autistic children and adults who could pass for typical intensified. The resentment of families whose loved ones required lifetime support and services and who could not mask ID/DD labels became toxic online. Wealthy parents wanting to be free of their complex support needs offspring began using their wealth and influence to lobby for institutionalization. They learned to present institutional settings as less toxic places by changing the labels used to describe them, but this continues to be the goal.

The Aspergers label is still used in other parts of the world, and it is an identity that those who own the label are so emotionally invested in that like Susie Guillory Phipps, any idea of replacing it with any label of less status causes such cognitive dissonance that people will react as she did and drop everything else to protect the risk they will lose their perceived identity. Those like me who believe that it is critical to understand that autism as a single label allows everyone to receive every right to needed services and health support throughout their lives will continue to be viewed as threats to this need for holding on to the identity of most privilege.

Parents of those who wish to distance themselves and their offspring from any hint of association with the more marginalized "autism" label continue to demand a return to the Asperger's label in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM–5). I will continue to state that Aspergian is a harmful term, it should not be conflated with Aspergers or Aspie. I believe that at least here, in the United States, the DSM change that collects all subcategories into a single disability umbrella was the right thing to do.

My son is autistic. There was never any chance, even when the label existed here, that he would be diagnosed with Aspergers. He is one of the folks autistics like Temple Grandin consider collateral damage and that is not acceptable to me. Everyone who insists on demanding I accept the term Asperigian in this community should take a deep dive into the history of the term, why those who use it refuse to accept factual information about the toxicity of it and explore the internalized ableism inherent in perpetuating a term meant to make those like my son less in a hierarchy of disability to feed their own need for an identity of misperceived higher privilege.

One last note. Supporters of a magazine that uses the term "Aspergian" insist that Googling the term proves that the magazine's publisher has succeeded in redeeming it. I disagree with this because of the way Google searches work. What these people are viewing are search results based on their personal search histories and preferences, not what will result when anyone else does the same search.  "According to Google, personalized search gives them the ability to customize search results based on a user's previous 180 days of search history, which is linked to an anonymous cookie in your browser. ... By tracking search results Google attempts to provide the most useful and relevant content based on your search"

Resources and Further Reading
United States v. Bhagat Singh Thind, 261 U.S. 204 (1923)

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