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- A quick google of “Temple Grandin + capitalism” or “Temple Grandin + Neoliberalism” won't net a lot of results. People don't actively make a connection between Grandin's work and the doctrines that define the structure behind our modern society and our theories of labour. But, if like me, you've read between the lines in many of her talks & pieces, you may well see where I am coming from joining these two ideas. Grandin's talks often focus on the sin of mollycoddling young Autists, and that the best thing they can do is to go out and find a job, even something one would consider menial labour. Put social pressure on them to do so, even if it may seem harmful. It gets you out of the house. It's character building. But above all, it makes you useful, unlike the existence of the “lower functioning” Autists Gradin laments.
- Despite the title, this article may well have less to do with Temple Grandin, the person. Rather, it is about Temple Grandin, the ever present phenomenon, the shining example of a successful Autist, our own version of a Randian Superman we should inspire to become, so we may inspire others. So we make others forget about our dysfunctionality in modern society and focus on what we can bring to the table. What this article is about, truly, is the abusive relationship between Neurodiversity and Neoliberalism. Autism & Capitalism. Mental Illness & the Culture of “Mindfulness”. But perhaps the problem goes deeper than that, even, and says a lot about how we deal with those who don't quite fit in to wider society, and how we try to figure out what to do with them.
- One has probably heard of the stereotypes associated with “Basket Weaving” in mental health institutions throughout the ages. While some would argue it has a therapeutic component, such menial work tends to focus on the idea of teaching those who are seen as having little place in the outside world to emulate productive members of society. In Laws, J. (2011), ‘Crackpots and Basket-cases: A history of therapeutic work and occupation. History of the Human Sciences, 24 (2), pp. 183-199, this concept is touched on in the following:
- “Moral therapy rested on a mixed philosophical heritage of Enlightenment faith in reason, burgeoning capitalist rational self-interest and (at the York Retreat) the Quaker ethics of prudence and selfcontrol. At the core of such philosophy, Tuke and others argued that the madman or madwoman was not radically different from the rest of humanity, but rather that through engaging with the patient as a rational being and encouraging him or her to behave the same way, madness could be cured.”
- It also suggests that “the therapeutic value of such employment was minimal, and justifications instead rested on more simple economic and managerial goals.”
- The inspiration for this article came from a brief exhange with my key worker from the local Aspegers outreach service. He told me about a Danish company called "Specialisterne"(the Specialists), started in 2004 by Thorkil Sonne after his son was diagnosed with Autism. Specialisterne focused on training Autists & other neurodivergent young people for the Software industry. This is a somewhat archetypal association – many Autists, including myself, study computer science and related fields. The romanticised stereotype of the “Silicon Valley Aspergers” gives these Autists their own little American(Danish?) dream to work towards. But what sorts of skill sets are really emphasised in the work created for us?
- Ultra Testing, a New York based firm, posits this: Autistic people are excellent at spotting bugs in programming. We are good at picking things apart, naturally, and often have a focus on things other people would find repetitive and boring. And absolutely, this is the case for some of us. This is less an inherent tendency of autism, however, and more another attempt to capitalise on the “Special Interest” component, perhaps, with things related to computers & coding often being an easy sell to our sensibilities. You can see the cog wheels of the neurotypical, capitalist brain at work here – how can we capitalise on this? How can we use these people? How can we signal our virtue here while also benefiting our bottom line? People's first instinct isn't always to fear what's different. It's how to exploit it.
- Like a lot of Autists, I was also diagnosed with ADHD(plus, I'm Borderline as heck, traditionally “Crazy”). I suck at most repetitive things. As a Muslim convert, I find it almost impossible to perform the traditional salat more than 2-3 times a day, and a simplified version at that. I don't tend to get spiritual benefit from it when I do it over-regularly, and I suspect this is why a lot of Muslims fall out of regular practice. Other people do. And there are areas where a degree of repetition does work for me to a degree – like doing dhikr along with Sufi inspired music. Sometimes, practising my faith in the traditional manner can be therapeutic, at other times, frustrating. My own complicated relationship with the practice of my faith in many ways reflects the relationship between Autists and the “suitable work” ascribed to us.
- These firms are largely just putting a new lick of paint on the bus Autists & people with disabilities have ridden on for a long time. Simple, repetitive labour stacking shelves, maybe working tills. There is no shame in these jobs, of course, but there is something telling about us being bound to what is considered menial labour by wider society. Sure, the bus has been tuned up and comes in a more pleasing colour now, but the fact that we're still riding as second class citizens is still a problem. This is, as I've said earlier, the result of people trying to figure out what to do with us. How do you solve the problem of Autism? How do you make us PRODUCTIVE? Pick out the bugs. Stack the shelves. Weave the basket.
- It goes without saying that none of these people are doing these things truly out of benevolence. One can only imagine the potential nobility in a father setting out to make opportunities for his son who'd be otherwise denied them. But what about the rest of us that can't dance like monkies for our corporate overlords? Those of us too uncoordinated, too exhausted? Those of us who don't fit into the neat box of what “autism” or “aspergers” looks like to the lay person, those who aren't traditionally employable?
- To examine this we do need to go back to Temple Grandin, the person, for a second. Temple Grandin is a white, cisgender woman born into a middle class family who never had much issue receiving the help she needed. She is what we might refer to as “high functioning” though many, including myself, often take issues with such labels, and has a scarily eugenic view of those she deems too low functioning to contribute, to be productive. This is the advice she has to offer young, autistic people:
- “Young adults with autism—need to get their butts out of the house and get a job! Work experience can start small walking dogs in the neighborhood or mowing lawns.” When I was fifteen-years-old my dad helped me get a job as a dishwasher at Bell Knapps. I developed social skills and manors by working in the hospitality industry.”
- There's one very obvious tell here – my dad helped me get a job. Your supportive, middle class, white Dad. While I come from a similar background, and have reaped the benefits - how easy would it be for someone who is somewhat visibly Trans & Muslim to get on in the hospitality industry? You tell us your womanhood was more of an obstacle than your autism, but what about a Latinx or Black Woman in your country being paid far less than you, and refused more jobs? This is an interesting reflection, it should be noted, of how people also talk about Millennials who lament the damage neoliberalism has wrought on their prospects. The truth is that it's harder than ever to “just get a job” but Grandin is far too out of touch to grasp the Zeitgeist, let alone her how her own privilege was complicit in her success. That Latinx or Black girl may not have even gotten her diagnosis in the first place, or a fraction of the support.
- Walking dogs, washing dishes, chiselling wooden prosthetics for soldiers returning from the Great War – start small. Learn to be productive. Though she says in the same talk to “let geeks be geeks”, it certainly seems like she on some levels wants to reprogram her Aspie Basket Cases to be something they're not. Not all of us can do those jobs. Not all of us can get even those jobs. We are not disposable because we can't be productive in the hyper-competitive neoliberal world we live in. While autistic people have a lot to offer the world, the validity of our existence should not be dependant on this. The same is seen of, for example, Asylum Seekers and Immigrants in general who's ability to assimilate and benefit the economy – and not their humanity, their personalities, their virtues their basic human right to a safe and prosperous existence(a rather gauche concept in the age of neoliberalism), justifies them taking up space on our land. Like Autists, like the mentally ill. We're all second class citizens in some way expected to be happy with underpaid and undervalued work – and worse – that doing so builds our character.
- And of course – something of a taboo to talk about – a large number of both immigrants & the neurodivergent end up in some form of sex work to circumvent this, or because they have little other option. Which can be especially difficult for an Autist – with our sensory issues, but often with our lack of executive functioning skills it's simply more doable than the rigid corporate world. And of course, this is shamed, made unsafe or more difficult, with little consideration for the vulnerability of those working in it. People seldom work to create safer, more suitable options – just try and control and reshape the “fallen” amongst us. Sound familiar?
- Taking you to my residence of Ireland for a minute, we continue to put Asylum Seekers in institutions just like we did the mentally ill, and unmarried mothers not that long ago. I spent much of my time with my Outreach worker staring at the old Asylum, visible across the River from the Lee Road at the edge of Cork City. Wondering what sort of things went on there, how well people were treated, what sorts of abuses the Nuns may have perpetrated. Or were things not that bad? How many baskets were weaved there? Going back across the pond – while slave labour has been nominally eradicated for well over a century and a half, prisons – often private, for profit prisons are filled with Black & Brown citizens and used for cheap labour. And guess what – the prisons are also filled with those struggling with mental health. Would Grandin consider the work these people, less privileged than herself, engage in character building? Helping mould them into productive members of society?
- My outreach worker tells me he hasn't seen anyone on the programme really benefit from these attempts to make space for us in the traditional work force. Which isn't surprising. They're still stuck in the same mentally that buggers over the marginalised. Neoliberalism and minorities cannot reconcile. It's an abusive relationship, and frankly the former should be held to account for the most potent forms of abuse prosecutable. I'm sorry to tell you, Ms. Grandin, that you are not qualified to be a relationship councillor. We are both both white, autistic women coming from fairly comfortable upbringings, but our experiences diverged at some point so much that our windows on the world show us very different pictures. In some of mine, I can still see the Asylum bars.
- If you would ever like us to sit opposite one another, you in your cowboy shirts and myself in my oddly complimentary headscarf and witchy skirts, I'd like to think despite our differences in age and experience I could help you to see us Weavers as more than Basket Cases in need of repair. Rather, we should turn our unique skills outwards, and fix the tangled messy tapestry we call a society.
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