the natural

i don’t like developmental narratives.

correction: i hate developmental narratives.

developmental narratives are stories about how things get built. about how people, countries, trees, or ideas, are born, grow up, live, and die. developmental narratives are what teach you how to identify the “age” or “stage” of something based on how it looks, or how it talks, or how big it is, or how it’s organized.

developmental narratives tell you that humans started as hunter-gatherers then progressed into either settled, or nomadic pastoral life–tending, herding and living off of different kinds of livestock–and later developed agriculture, then villages, then towns, then cities, then empires, then star trek and so on. developmental narratives tell you that cultures develop oral language prior to developing a written language, and that children talk before they learn to read, and that your brain is supposed to learn to think more and more abstractly as you grow into an adult, that we all start in a state of unbiased and genuine social innocence that is then lost, progressively, as we become fully social and sexual beings. general knowledge 101. obviously.

it’s easy to write off our knowledge of these narratives as simple factual knowledge, or old introductory lectures we sat through at the start of our school terms. but then someone points out that in a single moment in history, different people can live in different ways simultaneously, in different places around the globe–one might live in a village, while another lives in a major city, and some people still migrate and herd livestock. to which you’d probably reply: “of course! this doesn’t mean that everyone goes through these stages at the same time, just that the stages always occur in the same sequential order. it’s part of the nature of how societies and cultures and language and humans and brains and social skills function; each step can only be built if the step that goes before it is already in place.”

sometimes, we’ll try and subvert the narrative, because we see how it could be used to devalue certain people in favor of valuing others. we’ll talk about how much we can learn from people who are still in stages that precede our own. don’t people who live in those “early stages” show us how much simpler and more genuine life can be? don’t they seem to transcend all that normal social claptrap like it’s not even there, and connect with people on a deep, personal level? isn’t it like they live in a world so much more intense and real than that of normal people, unburdened by all of society’s assumptions and biases and expectations?

there is an extremely famous scientist named alan snyder, who has received numerous awards for work that he believes shows that savant skills are latent in all people, and only emerge in actual savants because the “higher” brain areas that normally over-rule the “lower” areas are not working properly. he does tests where he momentarily inactivates those higher areas in normal people, and sees if they suddenly improve in their ability to draw still lives, or shit like that.

every time i read about this man’s research, i have to stifle the urge to set things on fire.

there is nothing subversive about assuming that all autistic people’s talents and positive qualities result from their inability to “develop” further.

there is nothing subversive about assuming that you could have all those same talents and positive qualities if you just, you know, turned back the clock on your own development.

autistic people learn. and develop. and grow. and expand their horizons. and find new ways of thinking and being and relating. and autistic people do this shit all the time. just like normal people. autistic people have savant skills because we are curious and engaged in our worlds, not because we’re so broken that we’re somehow stuck in the “lower levels” of the brain. why is it that when an autistic person is incredibly empathetic, and genuine when it comes to relating to others, people attribute that to them being somehow naive, or unknowing, or childlike, rather than attributing it to them being simply a kind and compassionate person who dedicates their time to caring for others? why is it easy for people to attribute the positive qualities of autistic people to our supposed immaturity, or incapacity?

i feel the need to help others and live an ethical life because, when you’ve experienced hard stuff and prejudice and exclusion, it often motivates you to try and help other people who experience those things as well. to suggest that i want to help others or live well because i simply am too naive or innocent to know otherwise is to belittle my motivations, and ignore the weight and importance of my choices.

you don’t need to tell us how our being lower than you, or younger than you, or earlier than you, or less than you, is actually positive quality, because we aren’t lower, younger, earlier, or less than you. this is not jurassic park. we are not neuroscience’s own personal dinosaur clones, built as a window into the depths of evolution. when we love, we love because we are human, and when we have talents, we have talents because we are human, and when we learn, we learn because we are human. and if you stopped sitting and waiting for us to “develop” for one damn second, you might finally notice that we’re changing and growing every day…we just aren’t changing and growing into a person like you.

* A note: I am not in any way taking issue with autistic adults who describe their experiences as being more sensory, or more in tune with the natural world, than the experiences of the average adult–I’m one of those autistic adults, for heaven’s sake. My issue is primarily with people who feel the need to justify, or explain this tendency to live in a different world by presuming that autistic people’s experiences are just, you know, what normal people would experience if they hadn’t grown up, or learned to be social, or learned to talk, or reached sexual maturity, or gotten an office job, or whatever the fuck. Like, if a person loves leaves, and collects leaves, and draws leaves, and experiences the world in leaves, is it that hard to believe that they might just be a person that fucking loves leaves? It’s important to examine what it is that makes people need to categorize, like, “people who love leaves” as inherently less developed, or evolved, or mature than themselves. Because it’s gross bullshit.


Me, when I’m probably like two or three, in a swimsuit on the beach. I’m completely by myself, and holding a golf club that’s taller than I am, staring quizzically at a golf ball on the sand that I’m trying to hit with the golf club. This picture is a really great summary of how I feel like a large amount of the time. 


6 thoughts on “the natural

  1. If I may, I would like to pick your brain about a thing:

    My (tentative) thesis topic is autism and changeling myths, specifically how we’re still using a lot of the same fairy-story tropes to talk about autistic children and even to “treat” their autism. There’s a really tempting opportunity here to take the “stolen children”/”punishment from God”/etc. crowd to task about how, for all we claim we’re so enlightened, we’ve barely advanced at all in how we talk about or treat autism from the times when infanticide and other abhorrent “cures” were routinely practiced.

    The pitfall, of course, is that to do this I have to engage in exactly the kind of developmental narratives you talk about here, which I hate for the same reasons you talk about here. I could probably devote some space to taking apart developmental narratives, but (a) I’m not sure yet how that actually relates to the paper as a whole, and (b) I’m not seeing the logic of juxtaposing “you’re all basically medieval in the worst implications of that term” and “but nothing is actually about ‘growing up’ anyway.”

    So…what do you think? How would you handle this?

    • Ooooh, cool things. My thoughts are as follows:
      1. While I think that you’re completely right in tracking the idea of changeling myths from medieval times to now, I also think that it’s important to not characterize changeling myths and infanticide as a necessarily typical or universal response to atypical children in the medieval era. Because the narrowing of what’s considered “typical” childhood behavior is very much a 19th-20th century phenomenon, meaning that in the centuries before then, a large majority of autistic children would just have been perceived as being on the weird end of normal. Similarly, in parallel to the changeling myths, there is also the kind of ancient historical trope in many cultures of the child that’s “old before their time” or that comes out seeming really wise but not talking. So while I think that the changeling myth is definitely characteristic of an attitude towards “abnormal” children that leads to things like infanticide and abandonment, I also think that what’s interesting is the way in which that specific kind of “narrative” has grown in its prevalence and dominance just as our conceptions of what is and isn’t normal childhood behavior have narrowed. Does that make sense?
      2. One of the things that I think is relevant to all this is how “developmental narratives” as they’re applied to autistic or disabled children is the way in which people now feel that they have the right to a normal child. And that by having a ‘not-normal’ child, they’re being deprived of an experience they should have gotten.
      3. We’re always going to make up narratives to explain how we change over time. It’s just a thing. But what I think is particularly important to think about is how narrowing limits of acceptability and normalcy result in an increase in the attractiveness or prevalence of the kind of narratives that consider abnormality or unexpected change a kind of loss, or betrayal, rather than simply a surprise, or a revelation of something about the world that they weren’t aware of before.

      Does that help?

      • Holy late reply, Batman! I managed to get (a) sick and (b) busy just about the time I asked my original question, hence the delay.

        1. This does make sense, and actually, I’m starting to get really interested in how our seeming need for the “myth” versions of autism (changelings, “Indigo children,” etc.) does seem to be increasing just as our scientific grasp is also increasing. I had framed this in my notes as “why can’t science beat the myth?” (talk about developmental narrative-style question-framing!), but yesterday I was reading Julius Heuscher’s “A Psychiatric Study of Myth and Fairy-Tale,” where he posits that the myths are (re)-surfacing now *because* we’re a science-saturated culture yet science can’t meet certain *human* needs. So I suppose my question now is more like “what is science failing to explain or help us understand – and how are we absorbing science ideas and tropes into/interpreting “data” via the myth”? (I feel like “theory of mind” fits well here, as does Bruno Bettelheim’s now-defunct “refrigerator mother” theory. Bettelheim, incidentally, wrote a book on the importance of fairy tales in child development as well!)

        2. It has fascinated me how this deprivation has *not* shown up in the “classic” changeling myths. Usually, the parents are really confused by the child and need the help of some wiser person (usually an old woman or a tailor) to figure out what the “child” is and what to do with it. The child is “stolen” by the fairies, but no one ever seems to get angry *at* the fairies for stealing. Which also seems to me to be related to your point no. 3 in an important way.

        tl;dr that helps a lot. Thank you!

  2. No worries! I am the queen of the delayed reply, so I get it.

    1. Yeah, I’m really down with the idea that we use science data and pretend like it fulfills our psychological need for ‘explanation,’ but in reality said scientific data is actually being constructed around these cultural tropes and myths specifically *because* by itself it fails to satisfy our needs. There’s also an interesting slippage between the idea of “explaining” a phenomenon, or event, and “justifying” it, which I think has a huge role in this–science tries to explain both how and why things happen, but their “whys” usually end up just being more “hows” in disguise. I’m currently kind of nerding out over Mical Raz’s work about how psychologists and social scientists in the fifties, sixties, and seventies used research about the effects of extreme sensory deprivation to argue for equivalent states of “cultural deprivation” (with regard to poor children and children of color) and “emotional/attachment deprivation” (with regard to the autistic children of “refrigerator mothers”) that they thought responsible for any number of “pathologies” observed in children.There is a really consistent emphasis in that “deprivation” work, and in explanations based on “Theory of Mind” or (fucking) Bettelheim, on framing the autistic child as either a byproduct of social/cultural degeneracy, or a bizarre post-modern aberration. I can smell social Darwinism allllllll over this shit.
    2. Oooooh. There’s deeeeefinitely something to be said about the fact that medieval changeling stories are founded upon the assumption that fairies are a natural and unpredictable part of human life. Nobody’s ever like “We gotta eliminate those fucking baby-stealing fairies.” Mostly because fairies. will. whoop. your. ass. Scientists need to be more appreciative of fairies.
    3. There’s also something very inherently self-definitional that occurs in theorizing the autistic “other,” that isn’t necessarily present in medieval changeling myths. The fairy “other” is different from the modern autistic “other” because it’s like…a site of indeterminacy–people can raise fairy children as changelings, and even inter-breed with fairies, but nobody can’t predict the kind or degree of weirdness that a fairy/part-fairy child will embody. But in modern theories of autism, the “other” is like, a means of defining “us” in opposition to certain kinds of “lesser” beings. I find Bettelheim’s work–and that of researchers like him–to probably be the most egregious characterization of autistic people…Because I actually get more upset about the implications of “Theory of Mind” (really all of Baron-Cohen’s theories) with regard to the “nature” humanity in general.
    There’s something uniquely despicable about his arguments! Like: The reason certain people fail to conform to human norms/social expectations is because they have no emotions and can’t appreciate others’ feelings…And “normal” people are normal because they’re able to “naturally” understand what’s going on inside of other people. Oh, and P.S. Autism is just a somewhat excessively intense iteration of masculinity–being masculine naturally means being the best at science/math and incapable of handling others’ emotions. Like, I remain in awe of how efficiently slimy Baron-Cohen is.

    Phew. I built up lots of thoughts over time, I guess!

  3. Wait. I just realized that Baron-Cohen’s theory is actually just “The Theory of How Simon Baron-Cohen Knows Better Than You.” If he says your defective, it’s because he can see inside your head. If you disagree with that, it’s because you’re incapable of understanding what’s in his head. And if you think he’s being a terrible fucking person, it’s only because he’s too intellectually hardcore and manly for your sensitive girly-brain to appreciate.

    Excuse me. I need to go set something on fire and watch it burn.

  4. Pingback: Autism, Changelings, and Developmental Narratives | Dani Alexis

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