Our society places a high value on a person’s ability to gain mastery over their emotions. Presumably this is a hangover from, among other things, the more puritanical strains of Christian doctrine and their coercive use to maintain hierarchies and control over people, and the maintenance of a ‘civilised’ and ‘orderly’ society; as well as, more recently, capitalism and it’s doctrines about ‘appropriate’ ways of being – not solely related to conduct in the workplace, but also how we interact with the societal systems and processes which underpin capitalism and shape our existence.
Even today, with so much popular discourse about mental wellbeing, about the ‘mental health crisis’, and about the apparent ‘green light’ to no longer supress our anxieties, depressions, ‘disorders’, and so on, there remains the widespread tacit conviction that it is incumbent upon the individual undergoing the distress to resolve it, and to maintain a way of interacting with the world that meets with the approval of society in general. People who do not maintain this desired level of comportment are often referred to as ‘immature’, ‘weak’, ‘attention seekers’, ‘snowflakes’, ‘head-cases’, are accused of manipulation, overreacting, being dramatic, entitlement, and are urged to ‘grow up’, ‘get over themselves’, ‘toughen up’, etc. Sometimes these urgings are well-meant ‘tough love’, but often it is sheer exasperation and frustration directed towards those who won’t (because there is often the assumption that such behaviour is the result of a conscious choice) behave in a way conducive to maintaining a social equilibrium – the received wisdom as to how a person should or shouldn’t act in a ‘civilised’ and ‘respectful’ society. I’d characterise this as a latent (and sometimes blatant) conservatism that conceives of a world perfectly tolerable to all, if all would only conform. ‘Put up, or shut up’ are the only options such a conception will allow.
Now, I’m not wholly innocent in this regard either – I have certain preferences for behaviours that I consider to be acceptable to me, as anyone does, I am not wholly against some of society’s conservative leanings – but for me, and I imagine thousands of other autistic people, and people with mental health challenges, the current incarnation of society’s understanding (and therefore societal practices) of neurological difference, and associated behaviours is wholly inadequate. It is stifling, simplistic, unresponsive, and disabling; it persists in its belief that the solution to the various challenges faced by those forms of neurodiversity that don’t easily allow for ‘fitting in’ is for more effort by the neurodiverse individual, more responsibility placed on them to master their difficulties. That is not to say that autistic people can’t or shouldn’t adapt as far as they can, but it is to say that there is, in my belief, often a huge gulf between how far a person can adapt and how far they are expected to adapt by someone who has little or no experience of the actual condition. Any signs of reluctance to adapting is frequently met with accusations of ‘not trying hard enough’, or ‘unwillingness’, rather than as a possible sign of a person already ‘doing their best’; and often, attempts to explain that a person is already devoting substantial resource in attempting to meet expectations is met with disbelief – a bad faith judgement made by those who reason that the most likely explanation for a person failing to meet requirements is lack of motivation. This is something I alluded to in my satirical post about the limitations of this mindset, ‘We Need to Talk about Autistic Ableism’.
The bind is that the claims of autistic people, and those with mental health challenges, about already doing their best are essentially unprovable. A leap of faith is required on behalf of wider society – a leap of faith not often granted when ‘allowances’ need to be justified, either financially, or socially. I believe it is largely (though not completely) the sense of injustice that stems from these ‘bad faith’ judgements, and therefore the lack of viable avenues to pursue a peaceful and secure existence, that drives so much of the mental health challenges faced by the neurodiverse community – the anxiety, depression, and the rage.
This is a thought I’ve long held, but was reminded of earlier today when I read All the Answers by the Arty Aspie. The clear sense in this article of being continually failed by a system and being made to feel that you are the failure is something I think many folk on the spectrum can relate to – particularly when it comes to questions around ‘work’. I can certainly relate to the sense of having something of value to contribute to society, and wanting to contribute, but finding that the options through which you can make a contribution (i.e. the contemporary ‘workplace’ and it’s associated processes and culture) are often entirely detrimental to your wellbeing. Workplace stress is a leading cause of absence, but often for autistic people the experience of being in many workplaces goes far beyond what most people would consider ‘stressful’ – but again, because the experience is internal, it is easily dismissed. These reactions somehow are often perceived as autistic people not wanting to work (again, a narrow and simplistic conception), whereas in reality the case is that many autistic people simply cannot work in that way, but do want some form of useful employment. I believe the difficulties faced by autistic people in the workplace have become more pronounced with the widespread adoption of performance management practices of the neoliberal era – propelling more people to seek diagnosis, and therefore driving the surge in diagnosis. Prior to the intensification of performance pressure, workplaces more conducive to the autistic way of thinking, being, and experiencing, were likely more widespread than they are now.
In light of this, and given the Conservative government’s attacks on state benefits via a series of disastrous reforms, it’s little wonder that autistic people feel there is little room for them in this society, that there are no viable options to exist (let alone contribute) that result in greater peace of mind, and that, to be frank, they’d be better off dead (suicidal thoughts are common in autistic people).
And yet such thinking, such power of emotion, such so-called ‘irrational’ behaviour, is also denied autistic people. It isn’t the done thing, it is not ‘appropriate’ in the eyes of much of society. This is why I’ve been thinking about rage.