(In this interview with NeuroTribes blogger Steve Silberman, Robison says that part of the reason he wrote his second book was because people kept asking him how he was able to be successful, and whether he had any advice or wisdom to impart that would help other autistic people achieve similar success).
So I was quite disappointed when I came to this part of the interview:
Silberman: Are there any ways that society could be reformed to make it a more comfortable and supportive place for autistic adults?
Robison: I don't think that's a realistic question, Steve. We represent one percent of the population. Asking what 99 percent of the world should do to make it a better place for that one-percent member --- that's verging on science fiction and fantasy. People who get into that way of thinking become militant about demanding their rights and thinking about what the world owes them. Frankly, I don't think the world perceives that they owe us one single thing.
If you're a guy with severe autistic disability and you can't talk, you cry out for compassion by your very existence. It's obvious when people look at you and listen to you. If you're a person in a wheelchair, nobody can reasonably argue that you should just get your ass across the street. But when you're a person like me and your disability is principally with social functioning, and at the same time you have good language skills, people are going to dismiss you as a jerk if you don't learn to fit in. That's the hard truth. To suggest that someone like me should ask for accommodations is, in my opinion, setting that person up for failure. Because when your language skills are good, there's no external sign of disability, and you act weird --- and then you make demands on people for how they ought to change to accept you? That's a non-starter.
It looks like Steve Silberman was also taken aback by this answer, because he actually starts arguing with Robison about it for a while:
Silberman: But other minority groups have demanded reasonable accommodation from society, such as laws against discrimination in the workplace. Black folks did it by launching the civil rights movement, many other disabled groups have done so, and gay people --- like your brother Augusten [Burroughs] --- have done it, too.
Robison: The race thing is completely different. You can look at someone and right away know if they're black or white. There's been a huge gay rights movement, but look at what there is already for gay accommodation. I don't think there was ever an issue of people refusing to hire gay people in most workplaces.
Silberman: Well, that isn't true. I'm not trying to argue with you ---
Robison: In the autism world, people look at your behavior and say, "He's acting like a jerk, I'm gonna treat him like a jerk." If you're a gay guy and you're acting like a jerk, people think you're a jerk; but if you're a gay guy and you're nice, people think, "He's a nice guy."
Silberman: Not always, but I hear what you're saying. [changes subject]I think Robison misses the point about a lot of things in this exchange. When he's trying to explain how the neurodiversity movement is fundamentally different from, and less reasonable than, past liberation/civil-rights movements, he greatly overstates mainstream society's willingness to do what those past movements asked of it.
He also overstates the degree to which racism and homophobia aren't still entrenched in mainstream (white, straight) society today. Obviously things are better than they were, but Robison is flatly wrong when he says that today, a gay man can be confident that he'll always be judged according to his personal merits, and not by the fact that he's gay (or a black man by the color of his skin). He's also flatly wrong when he says that gay people were never barred from any form of employment because of their sexuality. (What does he think "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" refers to, one wonders?)
I also have serious problems with this:
If you're a guy with severe autistic disability ... you cry out for compassion by your very existence.
The poetry of this image aside, I find its implications --- that autistic people (or other people with severe disabilities, however we're defining "severity" today) don't need any more rights, legal protections, etc., because other people will automatically take pity on them and give them whatever they need --- disturbing.
They disturb me because I know differently. And it makes me angry, given the extent to which abuse and neglect by caregivers is A HUGE PROBLEM for people with disabilities, to hear that we cannot possibly be abused, neglected, impoverished, or anything else bad because our mere existence appeals so urgently to the better angels of human nature.
Anyway, apart from that, it also bothers me that his argument is essentially, "But it's too hard to change society! We can't ask *THAT* of them!!" and then, when faced with examples of other minority groups who've done just that, and achieved some success, he seems to think ... I don't know what. That society has already adopted those reforms, and since it hasn't adopted the reforms neurodiversity/disability activists are pushing for, that those reforms must be less reasonable than the reforms already (grudgingly, laboriously, slowly, incompletely) adopted?
There's also the fact that his whole "the 99 percent cannot be expected to change the way they do things for the benefit of the 1 percent" essentially amounts to, The Devil take the hindmost! Which is pretty much the way we do things here in Capitalismland, but which I think is a really horrible way to run a society. Horrible for everyone, not just autistic people.
Which brings to mind the last big, philosophical thing that bothered me about his answer. He assumes that the reforms neurodiversity activists want would only be beneficial to autistic people, and would either do nothing for, or actively inconvenience, everyone else. I don't think that would necessarily be the case; I think lots of people would benefit from a more flexible, accommodating workplace or an improved system of caregiving or more walkable communities or whatever else. People who aren't disabled might be able to stay afloat in the current social/economic arrangement; that by no means implies that they're thriving under it, or that their lives couldn't also be improved by tweaking said arrangement. After all, "society" isn't this immutable thing like the laws of gravity or thermodynamics; it's something people make, and can remake as needed.