CW: mentions of suicide, bullying
My youth was spent in total ignorance of my true neurological inheritance, an ignorance all but guaranteed by the word “female” that was stamped emphatically on my birth certificate. It was exceptionally rare for anyone other than non-speaking boys with intellectual disabilities to be diagnosed as autistic back in those days.
I wouldn’t learn of my autistic neurology for 3.5 more decades. I never had a chance of understanding myself in the correct context growing up.
What I did have the chance to do was to internalize the more insidious tenets of capitalism and ableism.
The status quo was enforced on me from all sides, at home, at school, even socially. You go to school. You get good grades. You go to college. You get a good job. You marry and reproduce. You work until you’re 65. You retire and go on The Price is Right and guess the price of soap.
But it was apparent to me from a young age that school was really nothing more than a worker preparedness factory, a dehumanizing place which punished individuality and individual approaches to doing things, an enforced homogeneousness in thought, with society-sanctioned hazing for anyone who dared stray from the narrow boundaries of the ideal worker-consumer personality.
When I was much younger, when play dates were mostly arranged by parents or by circumstance, when it was seen as more or less normal for all kids to be shy or obsessed with certain things like trains or horses, I was much better able to fly under the radar. As I got older, however, my neurodivergent traits became more and more apparent the more the groups of girls I associated with relied on complex and nuanced social rituals which I just could not accurately decipher or keep up with.
Before I knew it, it was my turn to be hazed for failing to stay within the lines. In the 6th grade, almost all of the girls in our entire grade signed a 12 page handwritten letter, front and back, written and addressed to me by a popular girl. In it, all of my now-obvious neurodivergent traits were brutally torn asunder, and I was given the “advice” that I should just kill myself.
By 8th grade, the teasing had intensified into an orchestrated campaign whose only goal was to make me suffer enough to give in and actually rid the world of my existence.
One day, I reached my breaking point. I punched a girl in the mouth who was verbally attacking me. I was suspended. I was grounded. I was even made to show up to her house with a bouquet of flowers and forced to apologize.
That same year, a boy a few grades ahead of me killed himself after years of intense harassment at the hands of his peers, students in the same class as my older brother.
I walked to school every day by taking a short cut through the town graveyard and would always pass by his grave. I would often stop and tearfully apologize to him for the way others had treated him because I knew that they never would, and that even though I hadn’t known him when he was alive beyond passing him in the halls, I nevertheless felt a sort of kinship with him.
The following year, a friend I had made from one town over used his father’s revolver to put a bullet in his head. He, too, was the victim of a years-long harassment effort carried out by his school peers.
There were many other victims, as well, but most had managed to convince their parents to let them transfer to other schools. One girl whose parents refused to let her transfer to another school actually wrote and sent a letter to the school containing a bomb threat so that her parents would believe her that the school was too dangerous and allow her to transfer. We had to evacuate as a bomb squad came in and everything. That is how bad the bullying problem was at my school. Those are the measures people were taking to get away from it.
The toxic school environment took children, widely regarded as some of the most innocent and loving beings on our planet, and turned them into people intolerant of any differences (such as disabilities) or divergences from expected norms, who would enforce adherence to those norms with literal physical and verbal abuse. This was seen by parents and faculty as a sort of unfortunate inevitability, even a right of passage. The victims of bullying were, myself included, advised to try harder to blend in, while our attackers weren’t admonished to be more accepting. It was seen as our fault for failing to conform.
I somehow hung in there. Maybe it was because after I physically defended myself, no one really messed with me anymore. It became known that I clearly had my limit, that I would push back. I would defend myself. I would also defend anyone else who was being bullied, and still do, to this day.
What is interesting and worth mentioning is that the type of bullying that is seen in American school systems (and workplaces, for that matter) doesn’t really happen, at least not to anywhere near the same extent, in other countries.
I lived in New Zealand for two years in my twenties. A person I met there asked me one day whether people really experienced the level of bullying in school as Hollywood movies depicted and the question just completely caught me off guard. It felt like a gut punch that took the wind from my lungs.
When I found my breath again I managed to respond, “wait, that doesn’t happen here!?” He laughed and said no, of course not. I informed him that sadly, the Hollywood depictions of American high school hazing often weren’t as bad as what happens in real life. He couldn’t believe it.
The phenomenon is distinctly American.
As I’ve aged, as I have reflected on why these realities are apathetically accepted as “just the way of things,” and as I have pulled the string, it became increasingly apparent that I was beginning to tug on the very fabric of our economic and governmental structures. The thread I was pulling on went beyond the toxic environments of our American public schools, ran right through the halls of adult workplaces, and looped around the trading floor at the stock exchange, before leading to the doorsteps of those whose bottom lines relied on the exploitation of the working class.
Another thing that is distinctly American? Our particularly brutal form of capitalism.
It is that brutal form of American capitalism which influenced the creation of our state-run schools in the first place. It is no wonder that the American public school system is a microcosm for the greater economic macrocosm that is capitalism, that the same intolerance for those who could not turn a profit for capitalists spilled over into the culture of the schools. It is literally engineered to prepare the future generation to enter that system as the working class. There is even a covert hostility implicit in the very prison-like design of most public school systems that seems like a veiled threat.
Capitalism is defined as: “an economic system characterized by private or corporate ownership of capital goods, by investments that are determined by private decision, and by prices, production, and the distribution of goods that are determined mainly by competition in a free market”
Capitalism wouldn’t be a problematic economic system, actually, were the people who engaged in it uniformly ethical. But the people at the helm are not uniformly ethical, and money is a highly corruptible influence on those who might have once had ethics and morals. The only natural checks and balances on unfettered profit acquisition at any cost would be one’s morals and ethics. When these erode, profits will always supersede the well-being of human beings.
And it is simply not profitable to accommodate disabled people. What public accommodations we now have as a society had to be pried from the clenched fists of the lords of industry under pain of fines and financial losses that were more expensive than the cost of implementing such accommodations in their workplaces and places of business in the first place.
Do you think wheelchair ramps and ADA compliant, accessible bathrooms were just benevolent measures willingly adopted by businesses everywhere? No! These things were the result of protracted legal battles which even went to court in the first place because marginalized communities and those who empathized with them came together to form organizations to challenge the status quo. These things had to be fought for.
Under morally bereft capitalism, we have been told, and come to believe, that people only deserve basic survival necessities like food, housing, clothing, respect, etc., if they are able to work hard. We have been told, and have come to believe, that homelessness is the product of laziness and irresponsibility, neglecting to realize that most who enter homelessness are intellectually disabled, physically disabled, mentally ill, and have been failed by the systems which were supposed to catch them when they fell.
And really, these capitalistic tenets are ableism, which can be defined as, “discrimination and prejudice against people with disabilities.” The belief that people who, for any reason, are unable to work as expected under capitalism, are not worthy of help, compassion, or even survival, is the very definition of ableism, and it is inextricably linked with capitalism. Said another way, in a morally bereft capitalistic society, disabled individuals are useless.
It is ableism like this which infects state-run public school systems and indoctrinates school children into telling their obviously different (often disabled) peers that they’re better off just killing themselves. At least the children who say such horrible things still do so directly and happily sign their names on the letter. Capitalism and the government which enables it both pretend to be inclusive while doing everything in their power to keep the basic necessities of survival just out of reach of the disabled people who need them, which is just an underhanded way of telling someone to just do everyone a favor and die. What was it that honorable and successful businessman, Ebenezer Scrooge, said about the poor? “If they would rather die, they’d better do it, and decrease the surplus population!”
These things become internalized over time. In fact, internalized ableism is central to “hustle culture” It is inseparable from capitalism, and, I believe, a result of a century-long extremely successful gaslighting campaign perpetuated by those who rely on the exploitation of the labor of people who can and will work themselves into the ground for crumbs while the private owners take the cake, and by people who have no use for those who can’t or won’t.
Where do disabled people, especially those with invisible disabilities, fit into this system?
In this society, if you cannot produce a profit for someone, you are seen as unworthy of even the basic necessities of survival. You are seen as a burden, as a dredge, as a living embodiment of the worst attributes of human nature. Your struggles are subverted to fit the narrative of you as the worst of what humanity has to offer.
This narrative of the disabled as lazy, as freeloaders, as burdens, as tragedies, as undesirable, is gaslighting. It is a smear campaign intended to make disability so socially abhorrent, so synonymous with laziness (which has been thoroughly vilified as the single worst human failing), that workers will do anything to distance themselves from those “undesirables” and from any suspicion of laziness, seeking to demonstrate their “worth” and their industriousness in their willingness to work themselves into an early grave without a single complaint.
This intolerance and disdain for those who are disabled and those who are different is acculturated into each generation through our worker preparedness factories, our public school systems. It is there that natural compassion and tolerance are brow-beaten out of each new generation to ensure that they don’t object to the economic system which treats them as disposable. It is where children are turned into custodians of the status quo, enforcers of norms, and bullies to anyone with disabilities or differences. It is where ableism is taught and learned.
It is where disabled children are not properly accommodated and whose failings are misinterpreted as stemming from laziness or immorality, where children’s first bullies are often teachers and principals, who demonstrate to their other students, through their intolerant and punitive behavior, how to treat people who do not or cannot conform to ableist standards of excellence or “acceptable” behavior.
Perhaps teachers didn’t set out to be bullies, but pressure to adhere to state-approved curriculum and to ready students for standardized testing on that curriculum, which scores often determine the amount of funding a school gets and so provides a financial incentive for teachers to demand their students all file neatly into the proper channels, punishing those who don’t or can’t either by not accommodating them or worse, by actually belittling them in front of the class.
Compassion for the disenfranchised in our society is equated with weakness, which is quite bizarre when you stop to realize that evidence of human compassion in the fossil record is what paleo anthropologists and archeologists see as clear evidence of the establishment of true human civilization. When we begin to see in the fossil record evidence that people are surviving injuries that they could not have survived without the help and care of their fellow humans, we point to that and say, “ah, see? Sentience, humanity.”
At what point was that definition of humanity usurped by ruthlessness? (Probably about the same time as modern Christianity repackaged Jesus as the patron saint of the super rich who condemns the poor and the “weak.”)
Those of us in the disabled and marginalized communities are really omnipresent reminders of society’s lack of compassion, and for that, we are demonized.
It is even easier to demonize disabled people who don’t outwardly appear to be disabled because at least one can pretend that their disability doesn’t exist, and that their only “true” disability is the most grave sin one could commit under capitalism: laziness. When someone struggles with invisible quicksand pulling at their feet with every step, it is easier to deny that quicksand exists. It is easier to dismiss that person’s struggles.
There is no room for compassion when capitalism is driven by those infected with a craven, insatiable greed, and when those so infected have infected a large portion of society with their warped ethos, as compassion as seen to represent unnecessary expense.
A recent study demonstrated that autistic people are more likely to choose to stick to their morals, even when no one is looking, rather than abandon their morals in order to make a financial gain. Nonautistic people were more likely to abandon their morals in order to acquire financial rewards when they thought no one was looking.
Not surprisingly, even this behavior was framed as a deficit on the part of autistic people, saying that we “care too much” about our morals and posing our disregard for social reputation as “abnormal.” That’s how you know you’re in a society that must demonize the disabled in any way possible, when even our strengths are pathologized and couched in the language of “social deficits.”
I really want to clarify here, however, that I do not think neurotypical people are monsters. I do think neurotypical people are the majority and do set the tone for our overarching social structures such as economics and government, and it has indeed been shown in a few studies that autistic people tend to be less likely than nonautistic people to compromise on our morals for financial gain (even when no one is looking.)
But I also believe that economic systems are made by many people, over a long period of time, and that simply being a member of the autistic community does not automatically confer upon someone impunity from all wrongdoing (ahem, Elon Musk) just as simply being neurotypical does not guarantee that one condones unethical actions. Even though society is made up of more neurotypical individuals than neurodivergent, our society is made up of both, and economic structures and government structures weren’t created by neurotypicals in a vacuum.
But on the balance, these systems may have been able to become so corrupted over time because of ethical blind spots that some neurotypical people seem to be more prone to, and the corruption of but a few powerfully wealthy individuals could have the net effect of changing the standard for morals and ethics in capitalism for the whole country.
I think it has more to do with the cumulative effects of corruption over time creating the runaway monster that is now American capitalism, and that in a way, we’re all victims of it, neurotypical and neurodivergent, but that neurotypicals are better able to cope within it, being that they are not actively disabled by an environment that is not built to accommodate someone of their neurotype, in the same way that neurodivergent, disabled people are. I don’t think anyone is particularly enjoying the-stage capitalism who isn’t already gluttonously wealthy, but disabled people enjoy it least of all.
As the majority of the population, however, and as people who are not disabled by their environment and are better able to function within it, neurotypical people have more power to create meaningful change that leads to better outcomes for everyone, and that is a responsibility which needs to begin to be shouldered by the neurotypical community.
Do I think capitalism or even money are the problems? No. I think a lack of moral integrity is the problem. I think a tendency to push for expansion and profits at all costs, even the cost of ruined human lives, is the problem. I think that capitalism could be a perfectly benign system in the right hands, with integrity and morals standing as natural checks and balances.
I don’t have an idea for the replacement of capitalism, and I’m not necessarily advocating for one. It would be futile to do so, anyway, before humanity had found its heart again, for any system would inevitably just result in continued oppression for marginalized people.
So in the meantime, all I will say is that a good first step would be to inspect ourselves for internalized ableism, to challenge the belief that only those who live without physical or mental disability are worthy of surviving, and to try to find our hearts again in a heartless system.
Maybe we as autistic people are nature’s way of bringing balance back into a system which is so unbalanced it is about to teeter off an existential cliff. Maybe autistic people can demonstrate that there is a better way to meet our needs without diminishing one another or diminishing our home, without having to demonize or withhold compassion from anyone. At any rate, we are a living embodiment of an invitation to return to basic human compassion.