In the tradition of clinical discourse, Frith (2004) jarringly describes Asperger’s Syndrome as a “failure of empathy”. Those words rock me to my core, and I feel myself relating strongly to Amanda Baggs’ (2006) description of what it is like to be an “unperson”. Clinical discourse around neurodiversity is full of the language of ‘impairment’, ‘deficiency’, and ‘failure’. We are spoken about, rather than to; we are spoken for, rather than with, and in doing so we are robbed of agency and autonomy. We are dehumanised. Frith (2004) goes on to describe the Asperger’s experience from the outside, claiming that the individual is unable to engage in a mutual sharing of feeling and struggles to form interpersonal relationships as a result of being unable “to put themselves into another person’s shoes and to imagine what their own actions look like and feel like from another person’s point of view”. Extending the description to autism in general, Baron-Cohen (2003. p.137) agrees that “autism is an empathy disorder: those with autism have major difficulties in ‘mind-reading’ or…imagining the world through someone else’s eyes and responding appropriately to someone else’s feelings.”
Yuck. How such language continues to pervasively characterise the lives of those who think, perceive and conceptualise the world a little differently evades my particular comprehension. However, rather than getting bogged down in an argument about rights, personhood, and the cold dehumanising of my ‘neurotribe’ (Silberman, 2015) and others, it seems more fitting to challenge the clinical ‘deficit’ discourse of neurodiversity by re-situating it against the more-than-human geographical contexts that I have found myself increasingly embedded within.
But what is this term ‘more-than-human’ that keeps popping up across the disciplines in recent times? I’m not sure that a blog post could adequately define that which is not wholly knowable, let alone do it justice! Put simply, more-than-human understandings question the separation of, and decenter, the ‘human’ and ‘human exceptionalism’ to encompass, enmesh and entangle with a wider spectrum of lives, selves, realities, worlds, experiences, and understandings beyond ‘us’ (Haraway, 2008, Latour, 2012). Beyond human.
Neurodiverse animal scientists Temple Grandin and Dawn Prince-Hughes immediately come to mind. Works like theirs (Grandin, 2009, Grandin and Johnson, 2009, Prince-Hughes, 2004), as well as extensive literature reviews of autistic autobiographies (Bergenmar et al., 2015, Davidson and Smith, 2009) have made it evident that more-than-human engagements offer a window – or several, or a door, or a rabbit hole, or even a sensory continuum– of insights into autistic realities. But can neurodiverse experiences also offer possibilities around how we understand that other dehumanised world of animals, plants, minerals, elements, and so on? By re-framing the arguments of Davidson and Smith (2009) and Bergenmar et al. (2015) to ask precisely this, I hope to not only extend and stretch more-than-human insights, but also to empower and acknowledge neurodiverse ways of knowing and the potential forms that embodied research methodologies could take to ensure that those knowledges are included in geography research.
Temple Grandin, well known as ‘the woman who thinks like a cow’; and gorilla primatologist Dawn Prince-Hughes, who remarkably had Kanzi the bonobo sign to her “you gorilla question” in what many consider to be one of the most powerful examples of interspecies communication and other-than-human intelligence ever encountered.
But perhaps most importantly, by demonstrating such neurodiverse knowledges and potentials for contribution to what is ultimately a deeply interpersonal field of study, I hope to challenge the clinical and humanist discourses that suggest we different minds are a “failure of empathy” and instead argue, to borrow from Temple Grandin (2003), that we are “different, not less”.
BAGGS, A. 2006. Being an unperson. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4c5_3wqZ3Lk.
BARON-COHEN, S. 2003. The Essential Difference: Male and Female Brains and the Truth About Autism, Basic Books.
BERGENMAR, J., ROSQVIST, H. & LÖNNGREN, A. 2015. Autism and the Question of the Human. Literature and medicine, 33, 202-221.
DAVIDSON, J. & SMITH, M. 2009. Autistic autobiographies and more-than-human emotional geographies. Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, 27, 898-916.
FRITH, U. 2004. Emanuel Miller lecture: Confusions and controversies about Asperger syndrome. Journal of child psychology and psychiatry, 45, 672-686.
GRANDIN, T. 2009. Thinking in pictures, Bloomsbury Publishing.
GRANDIN, T. & JOHNSON, C. 2009. Animals in translation: Using the mysteries of autism to decode animal behavior, SUNY Press.
HARAWAY, D. 2008. When species meet, U of Minnesota Press.
LATOUR, B. 2012. We have never been modern, Harvard University Press.
PRINCE-HUGHES, D. 2004. Songs of the gorilla nation: My journey through autism, Crown.
SILBERMAN, S. 2015. Neurotribes: The legacy of autism and the future of neurodiversity, Penguin.