More on Making a Mockery of Disability
October 27th, 2012 by Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg

I was planning to move on from the issue of Tony Attwood’s mockery of disabled people, but in the comments section of my last post on this issue, Karla provided more details about other parts of his presentation. One in particular grabbed my attention, because I think it’s such an excellent example of everything that is wrong with mocking disabled people. Karla writes about Attwood’s words:

He made 1 joke about Britts and 2 about NTs. Other than that it was all out laughing at autistic people….

At one point Tony talks about a married ASD couple. He talks about how they are in their house at night quietly reading and the neighbor stops by to bring them some nice snack and introduce himself (<—- here the NT neighbor is set up as the “good” guy offering gifts and introduction). Then Tony gets into his “acting mode” and gets wild eyed and starts to freak out as he explains… The ASD couple are quickly running through the house turning off the lights and ducking behind the chairs. Tony ducks behind the podium to act out the bit. (<—— sets ASD couple up as the assholes at worst, a stereotype at best) At this moment the entire room is laughing validating that this behavior is NOT okay by any sort of social standard.

Let me be clear: Attwood does good work on other fronts, but this kind of performance, coming from a person in the center of the culture about people at the margins of the culture, is offensive.

Let’s look at what’s being mocked here: a need for quiet and rest. For an autistic person to be quiet at night, after a long day of social pressure, sensory stimulation, and overcompensation, is an adaptation to a disability and a form of self-care. A lack of this kind of self-care results in stress, physical pain, exhaustion, burnout, meltdowns, and depression. I can attest from long experience that it is an absolute necessity to have time alone and in quiet to recharge. It is exactly the same as a diabetic needing to test his or her blood sugar regularly, or a person with cerebral palsy using a wheelchair in order to conserve energy.

How is the exercise of self-care in the face of disability something to laugh at? Should able-bodied people make fun of diabetics testing their blood sugar? Of people with CP using a wheelchair? Of people emptying their catheter bags? How is any of that open to mockery by those who are not disabled?

Let me put it to you very simply: My senses and my neurological system work hard, every day, doing things that “normal” people take for granted. Going into a crowded store is work. Walking in a noisy downtown area is work. Hearing is work. Speaking is work. I barely even notice how much work it is, because it is my normal. I have always worked this hard at it. It’s my reality. It’s not a question of willpower, of mind over matter, of somehow taking a deep breath and making it less work. It’s the nature of my disability. So wanting to be left alone after a long day of more sensory and neurological work than any able-bodied person can possible imagine is not a sign of willful selfishness or an act of social deviance for an able-bodied professional to mock at an autism conference. It’s a sign of understanding how to take care of my mind and body. And that’s all it is.

My husband understands these things. When he wants to chat and I say, “I’d rather not talk right now, because I’m spent,” he doesn’t laugh at me. If the issue can wait, he says, “No problem.” If it’s an emergency, of course, all bets are off. Most people will push past their limits in an emergency as much as they can. But wanting to chat about the presidential debates, like a new neighbor wanting to chat over a snack, is not an emergency.

How people can defend or rationalize mocking such things is beyond me. I’ve understood how wrong it is for as long as I can remember. But then again, I’ve been a minority person all my life. I’m not sure that a lot of people in the majority, who take respect for granted and haven’t had to face this kind of treatment, can understand it as easily.

But that’s no excuse for not listening when we speak our minds on it. It’s no excuse at all. When minority people say, “Stop mocking us,” you just stop, even if you don’t completely get it, even if you need to think on it, even if it’s inconvenient. You stop because you’re potentially hurting people, and the people you’re talking about know a great deal more than you do about what your words mean to their lives.

© 2012 by Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg


8 Responses  
  • jason nolan writes:
    October 27th, 20122:45 pmat

    I was working with a new therapist last week, and we were testing each other out. He’s non-medical model with good politics, yada yada, but I mentioned your blog posts about tony attwood, and he smiled and said something “I think Tony’s offended just about everyone.” made me feel a bit more comfortable as it was a totally unscripted response. Thanks for the posts.

    • Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg writes:
      October 27th, 20123:03 pmat

      It’s such a blessing to have a therapist with a disability rights perspective. I have one who is an Asperger’s expert *and* understands disability rights, and it’s such a relief from my previous one. I’ve never once heard her say, “It’s all your individual problem to get over, and we’re not going to talk about how injustice and ignorance affect your state of mind.” To the contrary. We talk a lot about the obstacles the world throws in my path and how to engage them politically and professionally as well as emotionally and spiritually. Hope your experience turns out to be as positive.

      • jason nolan writes:
        October 29th, 20129:26 amat

        If I can get the hoped for funding to keep it up I think it will be good. He was already up on what the AWN was doing, and we talked about doing a conference at my school organized, and run, by the autistic community, with primarily autistic presenter and the support community that we would like to talk to us about issues that interest us. He’s on board in any capacity that might help us. I just gotta get ASAN Toronto set up first.

        Thanks for the words of encouragement.

        Perhaps we need to start a petition to ask Tony to grow up. :)

  • GirlWithTheCane writes:
    October 27th, 201211:12 pmat

    I was not familiar with Tony Attwood before hearing about his, frankly, deplorable display at the conference through this blog and a few others…it’s baffling to me.

    I’m NT, but quite introverted…much more so than I appear to be when I’m out in public. Particularly since the stroke I had 15 years ago, large crowds can be overwhelming, particularly if I have to concentrate on one conversation when a lot of others are going on around me, and a simple trip to the grocery store can sometimes be a lot to handle. I need a lot of “down time” to maintain the level of extroversion that I’m required to, and I can’t imagine how it would feel to see that mocked by someone who claimed to be an ally.

    I don’t know what this man thought he was trying to accomplish, but shame on him.

  • Karla Fisher writes:
    October 28th, 20122:50 amat

    I live all alone on 40 remote acres. I do not go out very often and I always have a queue of friends waiting for me to store up enough tokens to visit with them. Sometimes they get a bit angry or antsy with me as months will often pass before I can spend the time with them. Sometimes I get mad and/or sad when I see my friends at a party on facebook that I would love to go to… but I cannot.

    It takes inordinate amounts of tokens every day for me to do the work that I do. I need my down time and my quiet alone time. It is not something that is a choice but a need just as medicine is a need for a diabetic.

    When Tony did this “Aspie routine” of the couple turning off the lights and the room erupted in laughter at them, I realized that not one of the people in that room had empathy for the seriousness of this need.

  • Alex Wilkinson writes:
    October 28th, 20128:08 amat

    Thanks for your post. I’m in the position of having both diabetes and Asperger’s and I’ve been bullied because of both; consequently it’s wrong to suggest that discrimination isn’t present for other condtions and illnesses.

    I read Atwood’s complete guide to Asperger’s Syndrome and I thought that he was at least sympathetic to the issues that we face. It would appear that I was wrong and I’m extremely disappointed. I think it’s important that we bring this article to his attention. Perhaps he might learn to be a bit more inclusive. We could lead with this question: what kind of person mimics those who s/he aims to be helping?

    Personally, I’ve had enough of bullies and I feel that it’s time we stood up to them.

    • Sparrow Rose Jones writes:
      October 28th, 20122:48 pmat

      Wow, I also have diabetes and autism and I’ve never once been bullied about my diabetes. I’m so sorry to hear that, Alex! I can’t even imagine what someone might say. “Do you *have* to do that *here*? Eewwww! Blood!” That’s about all I can even *think* that someone might say — it’s so unthinkable to me!

      But, time and again, people have proven to be capable of the unthinkable. *sigh* So I don’t doubt you for a moment, Alex! Sadly, I don’t doubt it at all!

      And, yes, I’m all about standing up to the bullies. Some of them don’t realize what they’re doing and they will learn. Others won’t learn but our standing up to them will serve as an example to teach others who are paying attention. People need to know what’s appropriate and acceptable and what is not. We do a great service by demonstrating just that through our responses to people.

  • Virginia writes:
    October 28th, 201211:36 pmat

    “When minority people say, “Stop mocking us,” you just stop, even if you don’t completely get it, even if you need to think on it, even if it’s inconvenient. You stop because you’re potentially hurting people, and the people you’re talking about know a great deal more than you do about what your words mean to their lives.”

    This is so universally true. I just wanted to say that and thank you for writing this.

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