It’s a gripping video, a youtube window into the autistic mind:
And now Dr. Sanjay Gupta, the telegenic brain surgeon on CNN, has spent time with Amanda, the “low-functioning” autistic woman produced and starred in the video:
She taught me a lot over the day that I spent with her. She told me that looking into someone’s eyes felt threatening, which is why she looked at me through the corner of her eye. Amanda also told me that, like many people with autism, she wanted to interact with the entire world around her. While she could read Homer, she also wanted to rub the papers across her face and smell the ink. Is she saw a flag blowing in the wind, she might start to wave her hand like a flag. She rides in a wheelchair, she says, because balancing herself while walking takes up too much energy for her to also type and communicate. To an outside observer, the behaviors would seem eccentric, even bizarre. Because Amanda was able to explain them, they all of a sudden made sense. In case you were curious, there is no possible way that I was being fooled. Amanda, herself, was communicating with me through this voice-synthesis technology.
It really started me wondering about autism. Amanda is obviously a smart woman who is fully aware of her diagnosis of low-functioning autism, and quite frankly mocks it. She told me that because she doesn’t communicate with conventional spoken word, she is written off, discarded and thought of as mentally retarded. Nothing could be further from the truth. As I sat with her in her apartment, I couldn’t help but wonder how many more people like Amanda are out there, hidden, but reachable, if we just tried harder.
It’s a very Foucaultian idea, that “madness” or “dementia” or “autism” is largely a social construction, defined by its opposition to “reason”.* As Gupta points out, Amanda is only “low-functioning” if we force her to function within the normal linguistic confines of society. If she is allowed to type on her computer, and make her videos, and express herself in her own language, then she simply embodies another form of communication. She is an emblem of “neurodiversity,” a poignant reminder that we should always “honor the variety of human wiring”.
*I should note that I’m not endorsing the thesis of Madness and Civilization. Foucault lost much of his appeal for me once I actually met people suffering from “madness”. I quickly realized that schizophrenia isn’t simply a social construction. Definitions of madness may have fluctuated wildly since the 18th century, but a paranoid delusion is still a paranoid delusion. That said, people like Amanda remind us that beneath every psychiatric label there is a real individual, full of their own ideas, insights and expressive forms.