Humans, aliens & autism
Daedalus, Summer 2009 by Hacking, Ian
Contraries illumine what they are not. Aliens, typically from outer space, are almost by definition not human. Current portrayals of aliens may show more about who we, the humans, are than they do about our extragalactic contraries. In portrayal by opposites there is often a large dose of fear: for example, that we may be all too like the aliens we imagine. That leads to a paradox about autism and aliens. A persistent trope in some autism communities is that autistic people are aliens, or, symmetrically, that non-autistic people seem like aliens to autists. Some autists are attracted to the metaphor of the alien to describe their own condition, or to say that they find other people alien. Conversely, people who are not autistic may in desperation describe a severely autistic family member as alien.
I wonder less what this phenomenon shows about autism than what it reveals about what it is to be human. It is to be expected that what contraries teach may not be something hidden, but something that has always been on the surface, almost too banal for us to notice. The revelation of the obvious is not to be despised, for often the obvious is blinding.
Oliver Sacks used a remark by Temple Grandin as the title of an essay about autism, which became the title of his book An Anthropologist on Mars. Grandin, an extraordinarily able autist, had said to Sacks, "Much of the time I feel like an anthropologist on Mars."1 She felt that interactions with other people were often as difficult as interviewing Martians. We move on from Mars to the extragalactic planet Asperg�a, whose denizens have, unfortunately, been exiled to Earth. They find that the inhabitants of Earth are aliens with whom they are forced to share a planet, while earthlings in turn regard them as an alien species.
A nasty variant was used in a disturbing autism awareness sound bite given wide distribution a couple of years ago by the advocacy organization CAN : Cure Autism Now. After a bit of ominous music, an intensely concerned young father intones, "Imagine that aliens were stealing one in every two hundred children. . . . That is what is happening in America today. It is called autism." This is the ancient myth of the changeling, the troll child substituted in the dead of night for an infant sleeping in his cot at home.
I spoke of some autism communities toying with the metaphor of aliens. Autism is a highly contested field, and there are many collectives with quite distinct agendas. I have to make clear from the start that, far from regarding people with autism as aliens, I believe it to be a very substantial human achievement that room is being created for autistic people to live more comfortably among those who are not autistic. More and more resources are available to serve such ends, and the social history of this ongoing progress is a promising tale of hard work, a ray of light.
This essay uses autism as a foil. What is it about autistic people that prompts the trope of the alien? How are autists different from other human beings, in such a way that a gifted autist can feel that living among humans is like living with Martians? How can a gross but effective sound bite create the sense that aliens are snatching our children to make them theirs ? I am of the school that thinks you can learn about X by reflecting on what makes something not-X. What does the metaphor of the alien, insofar as it's connected to autism, show about humanity?
Alien invasion is the lowest form of intergalactic fiction, but the word alien dates back to earliest English, and has always had an association with otherness or foreignness. In America, the term "resident alien" is used for noncitizens allowed to live and work in the United States - a term so demeaning that, colloquially, Americans tend to refer to immigrants as having a green card, rather than as being resident aliens. Although "resident alien"...
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