Blog Assessment 3: Autistics, bipolars, schizophrenics, animals and trees…speaking the same dehumanised languages?

Having spent the past several weeks reading like mad, I have reached a point where I feel it is necessary to orient myself amongst all of this literature and really hone in on what it is that I want to achieve with my neurodiversity & more-than-human research paper. In the interest of letting my thoughts come freely, I will not be citing heavily in this blog. In fact, I will only be referring specifically to the original papers of interest: Autistic autobiographies and more-than-human emotional geographies by Davidson & Smith 2009; and Autism & the question of the human by Bergenmar et al. 2015.

The Davidson & Smith paper really engaged in what and how we can understand autistic (and other neurodiverse) lives through engaging with their accounts of more-than-human relationships through sensuous, phenomenological experience, despite autism generally being considered a socially-deficit condition. The Bergenmar et al. paper builds on this by using more-than-human engagements to demonstrate the ‘common ground’ experienced by the ‘less-than-human’, that is, those who are denied equity and justice through dehumanisation. In this paper, the authors really start to delve into the similarities between exclusions of autistics and exclusions of the natural world from rational society and human-ness. Both of these positions are presented primarily in terms of gaining insights into autism, but I would like to further the argument to suggest that neurodiverse experiences have something to offer in terms of insights into more-than-human research too.

Some samples of my photographic ‘therapy’ exercises from over the years. The task is generally to share with my family and friends insights about how I experience the world and concepts such as communication, reality, voice, friendship and ‘togetherness’ (not feeling alone and insecure in the world).

It is important to avoid ‘reinventing the wheel’. These papers have already combed through a range of autistic autobiographies and collated the most compelling examples and insights into more-than-human engagements. Beyond this, obtaining further insights from the neurodiverse communities is beyond the scope of my current research allowances, so I would be limited to publically available commentaries and blogs on the subject. So, while it would be satisfying to be able to write a paper that engages with the mysterious worlds of neurodiversity and the equally mysterious worlds of other-than-humans, it is really not practical or helpful to do so at this stage.

Something that would represent a helpful contribution, and something that I am finding myself increasingly drawn to as a neurodiverse research student, is engaging with how the ways of knowing and doing embodied by autistics, bipolars, schizophrenics, synaesthetes, and so on, could be included in more-than-human research (and perhaps all research across disciplines). What I liked about both of these papers is that they began to introduce ideas around how we do research, and whether those ways are really taking seriously the ways in which neurodiverse people experience the world. However, they largely focussed on autobiography in particular without pushing boundaries further into other ways to undertake and communicate experiential research. There is an argument developing in my mind that current academic structures do not support those who may not speak or write verbal words as their first language (see video by Amanda Baggs). Given that our other-than-human ‘Earth-house-mates’ also do not communicate verbally, it seems somewhat illogical that we would think verbal research structures are the best and sole means of conducting research with and about them.

So at this moment in time, my direction is twofold. First, to engage with neurodiverse/more-than-human relationships through both phenomenal and dehumanisation experiences. Second, to challenge the existing framework for contribution to research to engage with the ways of knowing and doing that come about through the embodied (and even disembodied) experiences of the neurodiverse. I would be very happy to have my name attached to a contribution that could open doorways for recognition and inclusion of neurodiversity in research.

Amanda Baggs is an advocate for autism and other forms of neurodiversity. In this video, she first presents daily life in her ‘native language’, one that is non-verbal but – as you discover in her computerised explanation in the second half – is extremely communicative. Using video as a medium to share her language with us, Amanda Baggs challenges the conventional verbal structures of academic research, and I wonder why such non-verbal forms of communication as video and movement cannot somehow be incorporated into the ways in which we do research.
Interestingly, in another video that Amanda makes of her cat drinking from the kitchen tap, she describes her feline companion as a ‘person’ in the comments, similar to the way in which Dawn Prince-Hughes refers to gorillas as ‘gorilla men and women’. For me personally, I have always referred to other-than-human animals as ‘bird friends’ or ‘tembo rafiki’ (elephant friends), for example. It seems a common experience for neurodiverse individuals to place themselves and other-than-humans on a similar hierarchical platform that decenters ‘human’ as a prerequisite for ‘human-ness’ or ‘personhood’.

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