Mad Autistics

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I regularly come across individuals with intersecting neurodivergent disabilities. For instance, its very common to find autistics who are learning disabled, dyslexics with ADHD, and so forth. But one intersection I very rarely see are mad autistics, but which I mean individuals who identify as both autistic and mad.

This seemingly elusive intersection is particularly important to consider given the common goals of the neurodivesity movement (which has mainly focused on autism and other developmental disabilities), and the mad pride movement (which often focuses around classifications such as schizophrenia and bi-polar). Notably, the neurodiversity movement and mad pride movement are very similar in their fundamental aims, philosophies, and arguments. Yet, in practice, there has been less dialogue than we might expect given how closely aligned the movements are in theory (although see, e.g. here).

Some hypothesise that madness and autism as at opposite ends of a cognitive spectrum (see e.g. here) making the division natural. But I suspect the real reason we don’t often see them both in one person is to do with stereotypes. Autism is often framed as being a kind of robotic hyper rationality and absence of emotion, while madness is often stereotyped as being overly emotional and irrational. 

Regardless of how misleading these stereotypes may be, it is vital to recognise that such biases will delineate how all of us think about both others and ourselves.  My own suspicion is that these stereotype framings stop people from simultaneously embracing both identities to some extent, forcing a kind of epistemological stifling on us that hinders our recognition of the prevalence of this intersection even as we live it.

This is a form of what feminist philosopher Miranda Fricker calls “hermeneutical injustice“. That is, instances where our shared vocabularies (and the stereotypes that comes with them) are structured a way that distorts the self understanding of minorities in a manner that is harmful or limiting. Consider, for instance, when being gay was wrongly construed as a mental illness rather than a sexual orientation. This would have been a form of hermeneutical injustice in so far as it negatively distorted the self understanding of gay people, often stifling the very existential possibility of embracing being gay as a legitimate way of being. 

By the same token, though, I also wonder if each of the two identities could help break down harmful stereotypes of the other. That is, if autistics begin to explore their disposition to aspects of madness, this could help challenge the robot stereotype, while mad folk embracing their autistic traits might be similarly helpful for challenging narratives about madness that undermine the legitimacy of mad rationalities.

Doing this may not only be individually liberating, but could also help foster solidarity across two political movements that should sit naturally side by side.

4 thoughts on “Mad Autistics

  1. I’m more curious about how much “madness” is actually neurodiversity. Psychiatry looks at behavior from the outside in. They are out-of-date and out-of-touch. So many female autistics accumulate numerous psychiatric diagnoses before getting identified as autistic. Why? Is there overlap? Or is neurological difference a better explanation for behavioral differences, even for non-autistic people? It’s time for psychiatry to pay more attention to the field of neurology and to look to understand behavior from the inside out.

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  2. It’s the curse of trying to label a person’s way of being – gets assigned a misleading label among other in helpful confusions. It’s the blessing of recognizing and leading to a sense of clearer self identity – at risk of being stereotyped and socially straight jacketed.

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  3. TIL I support “Mad Pride”, thanks for giving me a name for this 🙂

    I agree with Sarah, I think there’s enormous overlap between madness and neurodiversity, both by cause and effect. If you’re ND, the world is more challenging and stressful which can push you into mental illness. Alternatively it can make you been seen as ill when really you are just differently wired and healthy.

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  4. I agree that many of the issues addressed by the Mad movement are issues that Autistics face, as discrimination against Autistics is largely based in psychiatry. I think we all benefit from solidarity affiliations. Though linking the movements is a great idea, it also faces solid obstacles, mostly cultural and bias-based. Here are a few that I can see:

    Many Autistics want out of psychiatry, have been/are subjected to psychiatric treatment and/or institutionalization, and may have an aversion to identifying with the Mad movement, because they want distance, not affiliation. If I understand correctly, I think this is the result of hermeneutical injustice you mentioned.

    There’s also internalized ableism. And super bad unconscious bias against madness (as there is toward illness) in our western societies. Autistic folks are not immune to this. So once someone has an Autistic identity/diagnosis/passport, they often stick to it fiercely as a positive shield, as *not* mental illness, as *not* illness. This is unfortunate, but very real. To compare on another axis, just think of the many speaking Autistics who explicitly disassociate from non-speaking or multiply-disabled Autistics.

    I know I’m the devil’s advocate. I think theoretically, cooperation makes sense though.

    Here’s an article you may find interesting on the topic of joining efforts by Mad studies and crip theory scholars and activists: https://cjds.uwaterloo.ca/index.php/cjds/article/view/597/868

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