The following is an autobiographical account of Jonathan Mitchell, better know as Autism’s Gadfly. Jonathan is a controversial figure among autistics for espousing autism as a disability, his desire for medical treatment for those who need the same, and the need for more research into neurodevelopmental conditions. He has described Neurodiversity as a «tempting escape valve» and a movement that offers no solutions for lower functioning autistic individuals. This has propelled members of the Neurodiversity movement to hurl insults towards him and express their outright hostility by making disparaging comments about him, his parents, and his religion. In an article on the Huffington Post, «Neil Greenspan states that Mitchell’s critics, while seeking acceptance for their views, have not respected Mitchell’s. He says Mitchell would likely not demand that others seek treatment» (http://bit.ly/2cVImv9 ).
I was born in Los Angeles in 1955 where I still live. In 1958, my parents noted that I was losing my speech and having behavioral issues such as tantrums and feces smearing. I was evaluated by a pediatric neurologist at UCLA who had no idea what was wrong with me (very few people knew what autism was in those days). Since they could not find anything wrong with me, it was presumed I had some sort of psychologic issue and I was referred to a child psychoanalyst. She was a practitioner of the Bettelheim era who blamed the parents for these problems. I have a sister three years younger and the onset of my problems occurred around the time she was born. My psychoanalyst blamed castration anxiety, the fact that I saw my sister naked and noticed she did not have a penis and was worried that my parents would cut off my penis as part of the etiology of the trauma that I experienced. I saw her for more than ten years (until about age 13). I was enrolled in a private kindergarten at age 5 and my mother had to make a deal and be an aide to another emotionally disturbed child for me to attend there. She did not get along with the person who ran the kindergarten and placed me in another one for my second semester. I was expelled from kindergarten due to behavioral issues and aggression towards other children. I also had a phobia of birds and a bad fine motor coordination problem which impaired my ability to handwrite, low score on the performance part of the Wechsler IQ test, though above average on the verbal IQ test. Very poor scores in the block design and object assembly part. I also had an abnormal Bender-Gestalt visual motor score, which was said to be an indicator for brain-damage.
I also engaged in a self-stimulatory behavior which I referred to as «twiddling» where I would take a pencil and shoelace in my left hand and a lone shoelace in my right hand and shake them at various frequencies and engage in fantasies and my desire for this behavior was/is like a drug addiction.
At age six, I was enrolled in Dubnoff school which was one of the premiere special education schools in Los Angeles, where i was occasionally abused, given spankings by one or two teachers and what were called «boo boo awards» where I was hit with a chalk filled eraser for being bad.
After three years in Dubnoff school, I was enrolled in a lab school affiliated with UCLA for learning disabled children. Shortly after this I went to Frostig school after school for tutoring for my fine motor and perceptual motor impairments.
At age 12 I was enrolled in a mainstream private school, but was expelled after half a semester for losing my temper, laughing out loud in class and getting into arguments with the other kids and had to return to the UCLA lab school for the next year and a half. After I stopped seeing the psychoanalyst, I was in therapy with a psychiatrist and he recommended I attend the mainstream junior high. I was put in 8th grade at age 14 and left Special Ed for good and stopped the tutoring at Frostig. I did not do really well but got semi-decent grades. After my last semester in the 9th grade, I started to do much more poorly. I attended a private school for a year in the tenth grade, but had arguments with the faculty there and left and went back to public school for the rest of high school where I barely graduated. At age 16 I saw a behavioral psychologist after my psychiatrist felt I was autistic and could not help me. This psychologist did not tell me I was autistic but said I was brain damaged.
I became interested in psychology and thought I might like to be a clinical psychologist, but was not sure. I was also interested in writing and attempted to write a novel about two mentally retarded boys who formed a friendship but never finished it. After taking a course in physiological psychology at the local community college, I thought I might like to be a brain researcher, but I was not able to do that, and I tried to learn what I could about the brain to try to find out what was wrong with myself. I wanted to take Ritalin to see if that would help and the psychiatrist I saw at UCLA who prescribed the Ritalin told me I was autistic and the Ritalin did not help. I transferred from community college to UCLA barely getting a bachelors in psychology
After school I had a variety of jobs, where I was mostly fired, including working at a warehouse and typing prescription labels in a pharmacy and data entry. After being fired from several jobs, I learned medical transcription and was able to work doing various medical typing jobs sporadically but still getting fired from the various jobs. I still read what I could about autism and was disillusioned that there did not seem to be any brain researchers working in the field. In the late 1980s I read about a researcher named Eric Courchesne who had done MRI scans of various autistic people and found that a certain part of the vermis of the cerebellum was smaller in autistics than in controls. I hoped that he could tell me what the etiology of my problems was. I became a research subject for their group and had a few MRI scans with them, but all they were able to tell me was that lobules VI and VII of my cerebellar vermis were «average» in size for an autistic. I wrote a nonfiction article about being his research subject and some of my ideas about it. I tried to get it published without success. After this, and my failed attempts to write novels I wrote several short stories and a few nonfiction articles about my autism but was not able to get anything published. I then wrote my first novel, which I was not able to get published, but was able to read on the national radio show studio 360. The novel dealt with an autistic boy’s experiences in a special education school and his mother’s attempt to get services for him. I wrote some more nonfiction book including an essay refuting the neurodiversity movement and another one disputing the posthumous diagnoses of Albert Einstein and Thomas Jefferson. Someone who had heard my radio show and found me interesting built a website for me with some of these writings.
I later learned about something called the neurodiversity movement, which I found very offensive and started a blog Autism’s gadfly in which I tried to dispute what they said to me. Because of this, I was often viciously attacked online and ironically told that by a few of these people that my disability came by having a domineering mother who taught me to hate myself. I say this is ironic, since I had already been through this during the Bettelheim era in the late 50’s and 60’s.
A reporter on NPR who was interviewing Eric Courchesne about the lack of postmortem brains after the freezer failure in which many of the postmortem brains were destroyed, happened upon my article about being his research subject many years ago and he interviewed me as well and i figured prominently in the piece on a national radio show.
Not long after this I wrote my second novel, «The Mu Rhythm Bluff» which dealt with an autistic individual who undergoes an experimental treatment involving stimulating mirror neuron areas in the pars opercularis with TMS and also training the subject in mu rhythm suppression hoping it will mitigate his autism. Instead, it gives him super mirror neuron capabilities and an extraordinary ability to read people, thus making him an expert poker player. I self-published this novel, but it did not go anywhere. After this, I wrote two more novels that were never published and aren’t relevant to autism- with no autistic characters. I’ve now been writing a nonfiction book trying to refute the neurodiversity movement, but, due to my disability, it is going very slowly.
I finally retired at age 51 and tried to get disability but was unsuccessful after a four and a half year battle. At age 61, I will probably never work again. I have had few friends in my life and basically never had a girlfriend.
Man, I feel for him. He has my compassion, nobody should suffer like him, and to top it off he said that his mother was also attacked. No wonder he is upset.
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Moving and honest
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Thank you for sharing Jonathan’s story & his point of view.
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That’s been a rough life and sadly, not uncommon for autistic people. I was diagnosed in my early 40s with Asperger’s and did not know anything really about the «Neurodiversity Movement». I certainly can’t get behind something that says we aren’t really disabled and that we’re just «variations of normal» (whatever normal is). I believe this minimises the impacts autism and other conditions have upon a person and those around them, and could in fact be easily described as a form of Ableism.
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It’s a sad story, and one that illustrates the invisible disability aspect of autism all too well. I’ve certainly known that in my own life too. I had good vocabulary and language, but I too got into trouble playing with poo, and acting inappropriately toward other kids. My parents took me to a Bettelheim-era psychologist, with similar result – it was my mother’s fault. I was in special school programs most of the time, but none really worked except for the special tutoring I had in 6th grade, which I described in Look Me in the Eye.
Somehow our developmental trajectories diverged. Jonathan graduated from college, but did not make a lasting transition into work. I did not make it through school, but did transition to employment that paid for independent living. Why were we different? No one knows.
Jonathan and I both communicate well enough in writing here, yet he is unemployed and I am not. Reading his words, you would think a literate and articulate man like that would have no trouble finding and keeping work. Yet he does, and that is a central theme of this piece.
Jonathan has been alone most of his life, and never had a serious girlfriend by his account. I was able to get married. Since both of us can talk about it, what sets is apart? We are both autistic, but from a functional standpoint, is Jonathan just a lot more disabled by it than me, in those regards? I don’t know.
Clearly he is dissatisfied with the life he’s had, and when he looks at others in society, I understand he wishes he was different. So he says he seeks a cure, and I can understand that, even as I think autism is not subject to cure. As I’ve told him many times, I support and push for research that would improve his quality of life, and minimize his disability. But benefits are slow in coming, and it’s frustrating.
In my opinion, neurodiversity is a concept that makes sense, but it means different things to different people. Jonathan and me may well have different understandings, and he’s been at odds with others on this topic for years. We happen to have an autism community where there are a great range of differing views, and it’s hard for people to respect and accept each others positions.
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I only know Jonathan through the internet,we are in fairly regular contact through Facebook,and through comments on his blog,and have been for several years.I first found Johnathan’s blog,about the same time I learned about neurodiversity,and was,at first very surprised,that there was somebody with autism,who was not intellectually disabled,someone who very high functioning,someone who had no comorbid medical or psychiatric disorders,and still wanted nothing more than a cure for his autism.
I share Jonathan’s views about wanting cures (plural) for the different forms of autism,but I come from a very different background.I have what could be called atypical autism,I had intact language,and could communicate very well,but was very low functioning in pretty much every other area.I was one of those autistics who lived with a parent right up until the parent died,so unlike Johnathan,I have not lived alone most of my life.Also,unlike Johnathan,I am one of the lucky ones who has found a treatable cause for their autism,which has allowed me to function on my own after my mother’s death,but I still have other serious medical issues,that I now have a genetic cause for.I have close family members who are diagnosed Aspergers or high functioning autism,who also have serious comorbid mental illness,so I have have experienced some of the worst of what autism can do.
Most advocates of neurodiversity,have not.I believe the differences across the spectrum,in the perception of what autism is,are so great,that we will never see eye to eye,or get along.
I have very good reason to oppose neurodiverisity,which I do see as an ablelist movement,because it completely ignores,and belittles the suffering of more profoundly disabled autstics.That these autistics,and their families,might need,or desire,cures or treatments for their autism is not considered part of the neurodiverse worldview.Mr. Robison seems to be the lone exception in the neurodiversity movement that seems to understand the needs of the lower functioning.
I greatly admire what Jonathan has done as far as being a voice,and an advocate,for more profoundly disabled autistics.Like his fellow blogger,Harold Doherty,he has added a much needed position to the discussion about autism.
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An Autie’s Response to Autism’s Gadfly.
Are the people who espouse the philosophy of ‘cure’ typical of autistic people in general? Do they represent the best interests of the majority of people on the autistic spectrum? No, and hell no. Here’s my explanation why:
I am a formally identified autistic person, non-speaking until I was 35 months old, faeces smearing (amongst other things I was doing with it) as a teenager, 12-year veteran of first mainstream and then ‘special’ ‘education’, yet I do not share Jonathan Mitchell’s view. I no longer wish for a cure for my autism, not least because a cure at age 38 is not the same as at birth (I’m autistic, baby. I was born this way)…
My problems are many. I had to leave school before GCSEs and have since been fired from multiple jobs, both paid and voluntary. I now do not work at all, although not for want of trying. I only ever once had a boyfriend, and that relationship was disastrous. I have also been sexually abused as a child by staff members and other boys in various placements, and by a female GP when I was 15 and 16 (no, none of these events ‘made me gay’ because I already was). In addition, a failed attempt to sexually abuse me was made by a neighbour when I was in my mid-20s. When I was 8, Social Services took me from my parents on the basis of my autism and co-occurring dyspraxia, and even now I have flashbacks caused by the physical, institutional, and psychological abuse and neglect subsequently inflicted on me by caregivers and teachers…
I also have problems applying myself and staying on task due to my autism and its exacerbation by co-occurring diet mediated ADHD, and my autism alone has made it difficult for me to do many things I want to do, like learn how to cook for myself and also learn BSL so I can better communicate with non-speaking people. Sometimes, when made cross by seeing (or previously having seen) that something I might like to eat or drink contains an unnecessary ingredient or three which prevents me consuming it, I stand in the middle of the (often large) shop, wagging my finger at the products on display, but gabbling complete nonsense in a castigating tone without understanding exactly why I am doing so, yet completely unable to help myself. At home, I often sing Ode to Joy and part of The Alphabet Song, amongst other tunes I know, in pure glossolalia…
I have to wear incontinence products to avoid accidents even at home because although I can use toilets properly, reduced sensory perception caused by my autism means that by the time I feel the need, it’s already urgent. Whenever I am itchy, I can scratch myself so severely that I raise nasty looking red weals on my skin, and have created bloody gouges in it whilst attempting to pick spots off my back. Every so often, I body slam to gain relief from pressure build-up because I have no access to a squeeze machine, and even hit myself when I am frustrated or have lost my words right when I need them (thank you, Sainsbury’s, for the patience displayed by your employees, which prevents me going that far). Sometimes, the internal pressure gets to be so much that I feel like my head is screaming, and then both the body slamming and my stimming increase in frequency…
I occasionally have aggressive meltdowns that have ended up with me having a criminal record for ‘assaulting’ those who put me in that ‘fight or flight’ position, then took away the option of flight (because ‘Criminal’ ‘Justice’ System), and during outings, I have bolted from the person or people I’m with in response to the frustration of not being listened to. The most recent time I bolted, in fact, was from a dental surgery in late 2018, and since I’m very socially independent for a severely autistic person, I was there by myself and so never got from them the information I had gone to obtain…
What I credit my autism with is giving me the compassion to help even a wild bird (it had come indoors through a window and trapped itself), the creativity to write stories and lyrics, and for making me a linguistic savant so that I can spell better than most people with my apparent IQ (123 on the Wechsler Scale) and can correctly say (as well as write), “Je m’appelle Naughty Autie, et je suis autistique,” despite my never having had even one successful French lesson. My autism has also given me a kind of moral superiority because I’m too rubbish at lying to even bother in the attempt, and it’s neurologically impossible for me to be a ‘walking hate crime’ or to deliberately mistreat non-human animals, unlike a lot of neurotypicals. What all of the negative things have at their root is a lack of awareness of autism and its ‘cousins’ as I was growing up in the ’80s and ’90s, plus ignorance and a lack of autism acceptance that still pervade society to this day. That’s why you can keep all your dubious and dangerous ‘treatments’ and ‘cures’ for autism. What I want a cure for is autism hatred, however it manifests…
In 1996, Sir Tim Berners-Lee created a medium through which a small vocal minority of those who hate their own neurologies can espouse their personal opinions and claim to be speaking for everyone on the autistic spectrum (even as they show evidence of having forgotten that it is a spectrum, and thereby includes Aspies and BAPs). Most autistic people have never had a web page, but we have, Auties and Aspies, et al., expressed our opinions on the various online message boards and fora for and about autistic people, and in the comments section of blogs belonging to other people. One autism-related blog belongs to Amy Sequenzia*, a non-speaking autistic woman whom some parents, including the likes of Amy S.F. Lutz and Catherine Maurice, try to pretend is nothing like their children, because, as someone who is eligible for the services local autism charities in the US now struggle to provide, whenever she speaks out to state that autism is often not the horrible, hope destroying financial disaster a certain greedy 501c organization makes it out to be and that the ABA they promote can be torture, the voices of people with autism who have signed up to ‘Light It Up Blue’, ‘Walk for Autism’, and wear puzzle piece badges, like Kerry Magro, for example, become that much weaker. In fact, John Elder Robison, an adult-diagnosed Aspie, actually left the organization after two years in 2013 because, when it came to autistic people like him (and myself) who feel that “Nothing about us, without us, is for us” and do not believe a eugenecist ‘cure’ is any answer to the ‘problem’ of autism, they failed to live up to their own motto: It’s time to listen.
*Amy Sequenzia also writes for Ollibean, which hosts many of her essays on autism and related subjects.
Copyright © 2019 Naughty Autie. Individuals and groups are free to copy and share this work for all purposes except large scale distribution, subject to credit being given and any derivatives being released under the same or a similar licence. All other rights reserved.
Adapted without permission from a statement made by Jonathan Mitchell under an exception to the CDPA 1988 for the purposes of criticism, review, and news reporting.
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«I also had […] a bad fine motor coordination problem which impaired my ability to handwrite, low score on the performance part of the Wechsler IQ test, though above average on the verbal IQ test. Very poor scores in the block design and object assembly part.»
So this guy claims to be ‘advocating for’ Auties like me, yet his performance IQ and verbal IQ are the very opposite of ours, suggesting that he is actually an Aspie.
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