Neurodiversity as Relation
Autism is a disability of society. I hope the world will see me for the real person I am and not all arranged like a person who is not aware - Adam Wolfond
Cutting up old diagnostic reports seems like a good place to begin. Since autism is a neurotypical invention, a social construction, we are hesitant to continue its narrative, although its violence has cut, and continues to live within us. We therefore acknowledge autism, as it is written by non-autistics, as part of us and move on.
Why do tropes about autism, as they are authored by non-autistics, continue to linger, even among some autistic people? Referred to as impairment, disorder or even the “'differently-wired brain,” Adam and I ask why this imaginary persists.
Why do notions of disorder and brain-centrism adhere despite their connections to normality and the composition of the humanist subject - the properly walking-talking human?
How can we untether from ideas of competence, independence, intelligence, brain-body binaries, self-identity - that derive from Western, determinist views of the human?
These ideas emerge from what we call the humanist rubric, which then characterizes the autistic as the unmastered and unregulated - the undesirable Other. The rubric is an ever-expanding development of measures in order that the “normal” humanist subject persists. This consists of ideas such as intelligence, competence, speaking, proper-gait/movement, cognition, executive function and the nodal-directional imaginary of neurology.
The questions we ask are particularly important to us as Adam is a non-speaking autistic person and I am his mother: we are mutually supportive in this collaboration and challenge prescribed relational roles that suggest I must work to normalize my autistic son and that Adam must change his way of being in the world. As such, our relation is problematized through the rubric of humanism. We don’t measure up. Neurodiversity, however, shifts the manner in which we can move and think about relation. We think about neurodiversity for its creative-relational and transformative potential that moves from identity-politics and humanist views of the body anchored in the pathology paradigm. This paradigm envisages difference as dis-order.
We turn toward art and collaboration for thinking of how neurodiversity is intrarelational. Our collaborative process is mutually supportive and we think of invention as the movements we already engage in as life in our relation as mother and son - and also, with the stim, with objects, and our collaborators at the A Collective. This is an emergent process that invents itself in relation. We think that this activity is freedom. Freedom is not enabled, planned, bestowed from the outside. We consider the processual rather than directive - as the freedom of expression that is withheld from Adam as an autistic person within, for example, the education system in Canada. It is withheld in schools that ask the autistic to stay still; in the grocery line when glaring eyes remind Adam he is being watched, and so much more. Autistic movement is characterized as undesirable, maladpative movement. It is not free to be, express in its own way, or become. It is not enough to perform neurotypicality to obtain the rights ascribed to the humanist subject - inclusion, access, accommodation. We must be free to express and become as we are.
Within this expressive collaborative process, we think together about neurodiverse futurities. Elizabeth Grosz who follows Henri Bergson writes: “Free acts are those which both express us and which transform us, which express our transforming” (Grosz, 2011, 66). This seems important to move forward in a time when autism continues to adhere as a social problem and dis-order rather than diversity. Autistics are forced to normality rather than regarded as a part of diverse life and as capable of transforming us. Autism has for too long been characterized as unable to contribute and transform through its own expressions, for a way to live. We propose otherwise: the arts allow us to express and invent with neurodiversity. We enter into a collaborative creative practice to bring forth ways of understanding relation through creation - outside the pathology paradigm.
In our collaborative PhD work, we are moving from the pathology paradigm where autism was born, toward neurodiversity as the transindividual mode of becoming. This moves from the static concept of the human as stable and with a fixed location on the Chain of Being toward a transformative (moving) orientation. Adam and I refer to it as the undulating relation, or the intrarelation, where we cannot be certain of edges, identity, voice, influence. Our bodies are not defined by the inside/outside, but move co-compositionally, rhythmically, within the affective milieu. This milieu comprises movements of the the non/human. We are in relation also with the matter that is often left out of accountings of it, particularly in terms of subject-object (Other) (which focuses on the human-to-human relation). The object is also relational. The intrarelational that co-composes with non/human reconsiders identity-politics and thinking that has often been associated with neurodiversity. Our work is the way we live and relate everyday. To this, Erin Manning writes: “Alternative diagrams for life-living must resist returning to a model of inside-outside where the human subject is situated as the motivator of experience” (Manning, 2016, 15). We immerse in a collaborative study-process of life-living, moving away from the positivist/humanist approach to research that situates Adam on the outside. Adam’s writing and work in this collaboration contributes a deeper understanding of perception and the relational ecology that affects the way we move. We ask then: how does a collaborative artistic process that attunes to incipient movement and the relational field shift the way we think about neurodiversity and also, our lives? How do we rethink support and inclusion when we pay attention to the affective and relational as Adam describes it, outside the logic of normality?
We propose neurodiversity as a transient/transformative term that is moving from the political toward the relational. This shifts an understanding of identity-politics in the struggle to be counted. We acknowledge the neurodiversity movement’s contribution, since 1993, toward a deeper understanding of people who are labeled autistic. Neurodiversity has been a way of reimagining how we think and perceive, how we experience across diversity, and how identity (as in autistic self-advocate or neurodivergent person) can re-form policy and practices. The neurodiversity movement has been important for shifting what is meant by “human” rights so that both speaking and non-speaking autistics obtain rights to access - be it a communication device, support for that device and for daily life, education, and community inclusion. We remember, however, that these methods of inclusion have, so far, been extensions to the neurotypical way of life - an architecture. We ask, now, how neurodiversity can re-form the architecture itself. What is neurodiversity becoming? How are we becoming with neurodiversity?
The Future of Neurodiversity?
Neurodiversity’s comparison to brain-wiring and technology are also its limits as an imaginary. Neurodiversity is, in fact, a metaphor of the internet network that we suggest is overly neuro/logical. These logics, as already suggested, subsume to the ever-expanding humanist rubric that directs the neurotypical architecture; in other words, it directs the way we live our lives. The neurotypical architecture restricts movement, rather than letting bodies create space through virtual movement: movement that emerges in relation within events, with others, with matter and that leans towards the future. Neurodiverse relation attunes to cues in the environment, is lured to the detail, always moves, tics, hesitates. These movements, although they may sound repetitive, are never the same twice in their emergence.
Autistic experience as proprioceptive, vestibular, synaesthetic - that moves “differently” - continues to be measured against normality which derives from the mind/body binary; mind is conceived of the arbiter of all (self-regulated) movement. This conceives of conscious movement - cogitated and articulated, rationally; a mind that can organize mind and body. This logic is always directive. It is instrumental. If the mind cannot control the body, its “wires” are described as “crossed” - it produces (supposedly) non-sense and non-compliance. This is the neurotypical way of making sense of movement through the machinic/cognitive/intelligence imaginary. The neurotypical architecture answers to the rubric of humanism and the pathology paradigm, as its subset, serializes the dis-ordered.
Can we shift neuro/diversity from the pathology paradigm where it tethers to medicalized imaginings? We suggest that creative ways of understanding expression as relational, and outside of this paradigm, is urgently needed, particularly when the medicalization of bodies proliferates divisive categorizations of life itself. We live in an era of dis-order in order to order. Notice, as this essay moves, we hyphenate the neuro/diversity - we are uncertain of its future as a reference term. We might want to think beyond its ownership to the medical. We also do not wish to contract to identity-politics through the dis/abled binary and where neurology is presently situated. We think this misses the intrarelational, incorporeal aspect of neurodiversity in the way we are using it in our practice. While we have learned much from people who have the autism label, or identify as autistic, neurodiverse or neurodivergent, the therapeutic/educational fields persist using the scientific paradigm of reduction and negative comparison. These fields continue to pathologize neurodiversity despite “accepting” it as a different way of perception and being in the world. We hear of clinicians “accepting autism” while simultaneously working to eradicate it. We are concerned with the colonization of autistic experience by non-autistic researchers and clinical fields despite professional placards claiming neurodiversity expertise.
The neurotypical characterization of repetition and obsession as non-relational and unaware, as an example, is the articulation of difference as compared to normality. Pathology invokes the negative comparison. We therefore turn to proprioceptive experience (a way of spacing space) as diverse perception, considering how Adam and some other autistic people describe a perceptual sensitivity to movement in the visual field, or the feeling of an absence of a limb when moving. We consider duration and repetition, with Henri Bergson’s “difference” - toward the way Adam expresses (and writes) of moving, feeling, managing, navigating. Difference in Deleuzian thinking is not comparative, but “is a movement beyond dualism, beyond pairs, entities or terms at all… all entities, things, in their specificity and generality and not just terms, are the effects of difference, though difference is not reducible to things insofar as it is the process that produces things and the reservoir from which they are produced” (Grosz, 45). Erin Manning, using an activist philosophy, extends difference to speciations that “…are rhythmic activations of an ecological body that never precede the event of their coming into relation. They give rhythm, they give tone, to the how of the event’s in-forming, cutting across the idea of species fully formed” (Manning, 130). Differences in degree are felt during a process where creation emerges; where we invent with neurodiversity as the transformative intrarelation.
We turn towards an affirmative practice as process. Adam inverts the notion of mastery (the neurotypical skill) and movement toward repetition as ticcing, tapping, pacing with objects. Objects are also bodies, eliding the subject/object binary. The object becomes with Adam as the co-compositional oscillator within the afffective milieu that, he writes, is always in motion. Always a threshold, a transition, Adam notes how objects are bodies that assist with movement and also, co-compose with him: “the object is about making it more than what it is,” he writes. These are relational and non/human collaborative moves that are an important part of our artistic practice. This collaboration, then, moves beyond neuro-reductionism and brain-centrism and its bedfellows - cognition, intelligence, executive function, and the mental - to explain movement. We return to the importance of expression than articulation in language, as language has been used against the non-speaking autistic to classify as unaware. Adam writes: “I think that autistic life is like all life that is thinking answers toward questions other than what is autism.” Both Adam and I have a lot we wish to explore, particularly with respect to shifting the way relations are enacted with autistic people who are assumed to be non-relational. We explore with movement, expression and language. Although Adam cannot speak fluently, and instead types to communicate, he has been reading before he could walk, entering into language diversely. “Language is all I am,” he writes. Adam writes language also creatively, as movement, expressed in his prose and poetry. This acknowledges movement as the collaboration with the non/human forces within the affective field. It is expression always emerging in co-composition, rather than the reduction of language for instrumental use, or for the articulation of neurotypical logics.
Neurotypicality, however, is insidious and always at work, erasing relational traces within research practices that aim to include “autistic voices.” Voice is always the assertion of the independent body where support and collaboration go unrecognized. A neurotypical insistence of mastery/skill, goal/intention, and authorship/ownership erase the movements and relations that give rise not to just art’s becoming in the world, but to relation itself. We do this collaboration to make intrarelations visible in order to challenge the pervasive humanist insistence on an independent voice as performed through the able body in order to be counted. This is our political resistance: an immersive intrarelation, expressed as it emerges. We assert that we are mutually influential and share ideas (and movements) as a way of study. Mutuality is at the heart of how we envision support as non-hierarchical. Everyone participates in the improvisational moves that give rise to creation. Therefore, we do not enact inclusion, or enable participation as if it were something to be provided by the more able-body. We are careful with these terms in the disability context that presumes disabled bodies as vulnerable bodies, thereby reinstating the humanist hierarchy. We turn to neurodiversity as multivocal-relational. It is the collaborative bodying, always creative and emerging within the non/human relation. Rubber bath toys, sticks, people, co-compose in relation; space, pace, tapping, ticcingflapping, waving, water-flicking, an emergent expression of what we name S/Pace, as Adam writes about tics and taps as a way of pacing with others and the environment. These movements also move into Adam’s sentences that flick, tic and also flow like water. His contribution allows for relation of a different quality, and register; to resonate rather than answer. This work creates more questions than answers which art is meant to do, although we know that many will seek elicit answers to why autistics do what they do. Adam writes as if a question always lingers, resisting cause and effect explication: “I want to tic and stick and not study ramming questions about autism.”
An Intraethnographic Artistic Collaboration
Our work also extends the frame of “arts-based” and participatory research methods aimed at knowledge- production. Our questions arise from the ways in which the neoliberal university positions knowledge-production and how autistics are situated as ancillary within it; providing data for non-autistic “experts” to explicate and rationalize autistic experience. Knowledge-production denotes intelligibility, skill, mastery, adherence to form and excludes many other forms of creation and contribution. We work in many forms: a multidisciplinary approach using a critical disability studies lens within our artistic process challenges what we refer to as the architecture of neurotypicality which directs the way bodies and knowledge are to move and produce in the world. We read across many fields - the arts, philosophy, feminist theory, queer theory, black studies. We gravitate toward affect theory, vital materialism and theorists who follow Deleuze and Guattari. The work of Erin Manning and Brian Massumi and our relationship with SenseLab at Concordia University has been a refuge for thinking-becoming, specifically about autism, relation and movement. We are grateful for their work and those at SenseLab and also the 3 Ecologies Institute - people and places that welcome autistic expression and relation. We are also indebted to autistic presses and autistic authors, with whom we have read with and met over the years. We know that the authorship of autism must be reclaimed by autistics, and the world is slowly paying attention. We hope we return the share in kind, where we work in Toronto at The A Collective. As for the production of a PhD, we grapple with this tension in academia to produce knowledge in specific forms and hope this work might reconsider the many ways that contribution and experience can be shared. We propose neurodiverse ways of collaborative study and neurodiversity as relation.
Adam and I have developed an intraethnographic manner (expression) of exploring relation, improvisation with movement, and creation as a collaborative life/artistic practice. We are not proposing a prescriptive method for relation as in enacting support or enabling agency. We already recognize that we are all always agential. Agency is activated in relation, not directed as in the self-same performance of neurotypicality. This is, in a way, our story of our relation and the way we have moved to survive the oppressive, exclusionary and violent behavioural practices enacted toward autistics in Canada, where we live. As Adam’s mother and supporter, it is always a struggle to resist these neurotypical holds. This is difficult when funding is limited to segregated behavioural remediation practices that aim to eradicate autism before the right to inclusion. The behavioural hold in Canada is tight and ready to blame me, as parent, if or when Adam fails within the neurotypical architecture. Yet, now a young adult, Adam goes to high school, is a co-founder of the A Collective and is a published author. I guess we’ve survived and are thriving. We hope for more in this affirmative practice.
A Way to Move
We do not spend all of our time in the studio critiquing the medical model or pathology paradigm from which autism was born, but we know it has left an impression because neurotypical oppression keeps coming up. It asks: “Whose the author? How is autistic/neurodivergent experience different from neurotypical experience? What is the knowledge that is being produced and how can we use it to eradicate autism? Why do you flap your hands the way you do? What does it mean?”
These questions press against the way we both move as mother and son; a relation that is ridden with skepticism and govern-mentality in terms of how we should be, and what we should be doing to cure autism. Just what is our relation? How is Adam supported? Who benefits? If we spend too long, here, in the world of the neurotypical, we can no longer move. But that is, after all, the neurotypical architecture… to promote stillness, and move only when and as directed.
There are so many other impressions, feelings, that are expressed in our practice, particularly our attention to perception, time, space and relation; where we can move or where a hand or cue from the affective relational field initiates movement. We hope this deepens an understanding of neurodiversity and how this collaboration is always an emergent, multiple relation. We hope it rethinks notions of support, care and also, inclusion. We hope to imbue neurodiversity with, as of yet, minimially seen, creative and collective moves.
Erin Manning. The Minor Gesture. Duke University Press, 2016.
Elizabeth Grosz. becoming undone: Darwinian Reflections on Life, Politics and Art. Duke University Press, 2011.