Sunday, November 20, 2011

Anarchy, Ableism, and Asperger's

Today's post will be a guest post from John, an activist and organizer with Asperger's Syndrome, who has kindly allowed us to repost his writing here. Thanks so much to John for letting us share this piece with everybody.

Anarchy, Ableism, and Asperger's: My Own Struggles With Myself
By John (butternut[at]
(written in Summer 2009)

I've never really considered myself “disabled.”  The truth is, I'm quite able-bodied, played sports and ran track in high school, and I'm still in shape to run from cops and fight them off if need be.  Mentally I'm also very gifted (that's the word they used in the schools), with an embarrassingly high IQ and a year of graduate school under my belt at a highly-ranked school.  I've always had some emotional and social difficulties, but my parents, peers, and teachers have always ascribed that to being “timid” or “shy” or “introverted,” and neither them nor I thought anything seriously wrong was occurring.

Despite this, ableism has been one of the most interesting ideas I've come across since joining anarchist circles.  I first heard of it about a year ago, and the discourse largely came from militant queer/trans anarchists.  The idea of critically assessing ability within our movement was exciting, and I feel has the ability to better understand and fight white supremacy, patriarchy, heteronormativity, transphobia, and classism—in fact, many systems of oppression have aspects of ability woven into their foundations (for example, craniometry and studies of biological differences between queers/women/non-whites/poor and straight white upper class males).  But until very recently, I considered it one more oppression that I needed to fight as an ally, along with the ones listed above. 

What changed?  About a month ago, I finally started going through the process of diagnosis for Asperger's Syndrome.  Asperger's is a Pervasive Development Disorder and an Autism Spectrum Disorder, but a very high-functioning one.  Compared to many other forms of Autism, I am very high-functioning, but as a human being I have to disagree with that label, for some aspects of this condition can be physically, socially, and emotionally crippling.  Those struggling with Asperger's often develop special interests, which manifest themselves as obsessions in many cases.  I was lucky, one of my special interests just happens to be anarchist organizing, go figure.  While appearing to be loners or have social anxiety, we often desire attention but lack the social skills necessary to begin and maintain strong and meaningful relationships—noted characteristics of Aspies (people living with Asperger's) include a lack of empathy, difficulty with nonverbal communication, especially making eye contact, and inability to read subtle social cues, described somewhere as “terminal cluelessness.”  We also have a tendency to talk on and on about things that interest us, without letting others have a turn to speak and without much concern for what their needs are.  There are also some physical characteristics, like repetitive motions (for me, I constantly play with pen and marker caps), rocking, and a lack of coordination.  Aspies often are bullied as children, and later in life suffer from depression and sometimes continue to be taken advantage of.  There are numerous other characteristics of Aspies which can make participation in collectives difficult, and I encourage everyone to do more research to see what else Asperger's entails.  Many times I know I'm acting like an asshole to or around people I care about, and I don't want to blame my condition for my behavior but there often isn't much that can be done about it, sometimes I literally have no control over my behavior.

My situation is additionally difficult because of the intersection with other conditions, experiences, and identities.  Growing up with well-educated parents (my father has a Ph.D. in astrophysics and my mother has a bachelor's in chemistry and a master's in nursing), I excelled in school early on while lacking examples for social behavior given their nerdiness, introversion, and self-insulation (and I suspect their own undiagnosed struggles with Asperger's and depression).  Everyone—my parents, my peers, and my teachers—quickly recognized the potential I have, shuffling me off to “gifted and talented” classes and functions, while sometimes setting the bar impossibly high.  When I got a problem wrong in class, it illicited almost a shocked reaction from the teacher, and I was made fun of mercilessly by classmates.  I still remember many of the questions I got wrong throughout my schooling.  This led me to withdraw further, and the G/T programs isolated me from my peers much of the day.  On the playground, I often wandered around alone, though other kids would approach me to make fun of me and bully me, often calling me a "retard." 

In addition to these problems, my struggle with Asperger's has been further compounded by also being somewhat bipolar, moving halfway across the country in both directions for school on multiple occasions and frequently migrating between circles of friends, and traumatic experiences at street protests.  I've also run into a number of other mental health problems, the most serious of which have thankfully subsided since high school: coming uncomfortably close to drug and alcohol abuse, never-acted-upon thoughts of cutting and suicide, self-hatred, depression, anxiety, and other self-destructive behaviors.  To this day, I still have a constant level of anxiety and depression due to a lifetime of expectations I could never hope to achieve; I often start a lot of projects yet abandon them before I finish them for the same reasons: if I never finish it, the finished project can't be a failure!

Asperger's caused me to engage with ableism on a much more personal level because it showed me that many of us have special needs and special abilities, whether we have a diagnosed “disability” or not.  There are many things I can do very well, like running websites and other technical tasks, writing, publishing, and organizing books and things like that.  I also have the ability in some cases to see the world/society/politics in ways that other people can't, like being able to understand and make sense of highly complex systems and social networks.  There's also a number of things I just can't physically/mentally do.  I have difficulty making small talk with strangers (and even good friends and partners), and I sure as hell can't stand on a corner and sell Socialist Worker or Challenge.  I also struggle with public speaking in some but not all situations.  Anarchist and activist circles have been more accepting than the rest of society—a few close friends have given me more love and support than I could have asked for, without even knowing the name for my condition—but there is still a critical lack of understanding that I have encountered.  Even in the past few months, I was called “retarded” by one activist (a Stalinist of all anachronistic ideologies, so fuck him) and laughed at by my partner when I told her about the disorder. 

I still don't know everything there is to know about Asperger's, and I'm definitely not an expert on Autism or mental health as a whole.  I may spend the rest of my life trying to understand how to interact with my condition.  Language and treatment are two of the things I've been trying to figure out.  I don't think I need to be treated; that assumes that there's something wrong with me, legitimizing normality while othering myself, when I know that my condition has blessed me with special abilities.  And language creates a number of dilemmas, as it does when talking about any system of oppression.  Am I living with Asperger's, or struggling with it?  Is it a condition, a disorder, a disease?  Am I disabled?  The Aspie community has developed the term “neurotypical” to describe those without Asperger's, Autism, or similar conditions, along with  “neurodiversity,” which I like because they don't confer normality or superiority to non-Aspies.  Part of our challenge in confronting ableism in our communities is to develop a discourse that is as useful as it is liberating.

What can allies do?  Some obvious actions, like taking the words “crazy” and “retarded” out of our vocabularies, help make everyone feel more included.  In some ways, I want to suggest to able-bodied and neurotypical allies that they familiarize themselves with Asperger's, depression, social anxiety, bipolar disorder, PTSD, eating disorders, and a few other common mental conditions so that they can better incorporate individuals into anarchist and anti-authoritarian spaces.  But what I think is even better, and more productive, is just to pay attention to everyone and try to find ways to engage them on a personal level.  There are things that I can do that no one else can't, and many things that most people can do that I can't.  But mental health aside, isn't that true for everyone?  It’s also an issue of consent: just as we're trying to get better at asking for gender pronouns and seeking consent in our romantic relationships, we can make it a point to see what special talents and abilities each other have, and what limitations and needs we each have.  That way, we can make sure that everyone's abilities can be nurtured while refraining from forcing others into situations they aren't comfortable with and doing everything we can to meet the needs of the individuals in our communities.

Resources for Asperger's and Autism Spectrum Disorders:
John Elder Robison – Look Me in the Eye: My Life with Asperger's
Jerry & Mary Newport – Mozart and the Whale: An Asperger's Love Story
Erika Hammerschmidt – Born on the Wrong Planet
Aspies For Freedom –
Aspie Quiz and lots of resources -
Institute for the Study of the Neurologically Typical -

Resources for Mental Health:
Bay Area Radical Mental Health Collective -
Pomegranate Health Collective -

1 comment:

  1. This is a great article that resonates with my experiences. Thank you for writing. I'd love to meet with you and learn more about your activism and the strengths associated with your aspergers.
    Kenneth 412-867-9213
    Pittsburgh, PA