The Great "Why Label?" Debate

by Jane Meyerding (2003)

Several people who have read my essay "On Finding Myself Differently Brained" have told me that they enjoyed it and even saw themselves in it to some extent but, they say, why do I want to "label" myself? Why not just think of myself as different. One person went so far as to say that the difference was one of integrity. Many people, she wrote, are liars, and most people get into the habit of "reading between the lines" in order to figure out what people really mean, because they assume there often is a difference between what people mean and what they say. Most people are hypocrites, in other words, and AS people are simply those who have too much integrity to be hypocrites.

I responded:

It's a matter of personal preference and point of view, I guess. You feel overly determined (or you think other people will perceive you in an overly determined way) by associating yourself with what can (but doesn't have to be) seen as a "label." Rather than put yourself in that position, you prefer to put yourself in the position of living in a world full of liars, conformists, and people without integrity. You think a "label" would make you "different" in a standardized way (either "devalued" - by yourself or others - or "special"), and you prefer to think of yourself, perhaps, as being a unique location in a multi-dimensional continuum expressed in varying values of hypocrisy and integrity. Is that what you meant to say?

My own orientation is based on several factors. For one thing, I don't allow labels to have that much power in my life. I don't think of them as being like the label on a can of peas, where what is written on the label corresponds co-extensively (so to speak) with the contents of the can. I am not a can and I cannot be expressed in/by a label. Therefore, what words I associate with myself are not limiting for me. If other people try to relate with me as if those words did determine me, I feel free to correct them.

The word "autism" is not a label anyway, as far as I'm concerned. It is an explanation. It is not The (capital T) explanation of life, the universe, and everything. Nor is it The explanation of Jane Meyerding. It is, however, the best explanation I've come across thus far to explain a constellation of experiences that have been part of my life all along (changing and developing as I have changed and developed, but retaining their own identity/character, just as I have retained mine). "Gravity" explains some of how I (and you) experience the physical world. "Autism" explains some (a lot) of how I experience the social world.

It's quite possible that I prefer my explanation (of these elements of life) to yours because my up-bringing made me a person who prefers (perhaps needs) to be able to find reasons for the differences between me and most other people that don't require me to find most of the species contemptible. A lot of what NT ("normal") people do is based on social interaction instincts and abilities (e.g., being able to "read" and respond to non-verbal communication) that can be seen as having value within the majority population's frame of reference. In many cases, I think it's even possible to figure out how social expectations and assumptions might have (or might have had) evolutionary value for the species as a whole. A lot of the "normal" social interactions that are meaningless to me (because I am autistic) are what maintains the civil society in which I live my life. Why should I put down other people just because they are different (non-autistic) and engage usefully in activities and ways of thinking/perceiving/ interacting that don't work for me? To say that "normals" are showing a lack of integrity when they use their skill of being able to "read between the lines" and pick up nuances invisible to me....that makes no sense to me. Would I, if I were deaf, criticize hearing people for using their aural abilities? If I were color blind, would I criticize graphic artists for using colors I was unable to see?

Another reason I prefer my explanation to yours is that it gives me more resources, resources I can use to develop the abilities I do have. Recognizing myself as autistic helped me move from worrying about what I couldn't do well and concentrate instead on enjoying my strengths. Maybe I should have been able all on my own (with no background support other than more willingness to see my differences as a sign that other people were deficient) not to care that I repeatedly failed in many activities and areas of life to which the culture around me gives priority. Maybe my mind is not as limber as yours. At any rate, I did have an "aha!" moment when I came across autism as an explanatory system, and I continue to find it very useful. It gives me a community of people who are working on (and working out) the same set of problems, many of whom are uniquely helpful to me because their thought patterns are much more compatible with mine than I'm used to. All my life, I have been forced to translate, translate, translate. Now, suddenly, I have found people who speak my own language.

With these people (and the context of the autism explanation, which is not a static label for us, because we are developing it as we go along), I am able to explore myself and also figure out better ways of coping with my-life-in-the-world. Why do I have certain types of trouble again and again with certain people at work? Is it because they are bad people, or is it because they had perfectly normal expectations about how co-workers interact and I have been violating their expectations? Understanding that does not mean I am going to change my behavior to conform to mores I consider hypocritical. What that insight (drawn from applying an evolving autism explanation to my daily reality) does is give me the chance to work out how someone like me might be able to communicate more effectively (and less abrasively) with people whose expectations I will be violating continuously.

It's true that many in society are ignorant about autism and will have weird reactions to hearing that I am (or another person is) autistic. Perhaps it's my personal/family background that makes it more natural for me to react to that reality by wanting to challenge it rather than avoid it.

And, in more general terms....

Some people who "see themselves" in my essay are surprised to find themselves having so much in common with a "leftist lesbian feminist anarchist." To one of these people, I wrote:

It's rather startling to me every time I find someone reacting as if my opinions and/or experiences fit into neat boxes and could be comprehended by a single glance at the lid of each box. Am I a leftist? Compared to whom? Am I a lesbian? Even though I've spent almost all my life being celibate? Am I an anarchist? By what definition?

The obvious rejoinder is: So why use the labels? Because they are signposts, I guess. They describe some of where I've been, some of what I've learned. It's a kind of shorthand, and a way of positioning myself with respect to some aspects of culture that interest me. Maybe it's also a habit.

And there's another way to look at it: For me, categories are a rough sorting device, made necessary by the "so many books, so little time" nature of human life. Example: I fall (for a variety of reasons) into the mystery-reader category and not into the romance-reader category. Although there are plenty of mysteries I don't like and probably some romances I would like, when I want a book to read, I don't head for the romance section. I count on reviews and personal suggestions to keep me from missing those selections from the non-me categories that I shouldn't miss. (Reading reviews, and hearing them on the radio, is something I do a lot, for this very reason. I'm a chronic requester of specific books at the library.)

Pretty much the same thing happens with people. Life as I have lived it has taught me to steer generally towards some categories and (generally) away from others in order to maximize my chances of finding acceptance and avoiding assault. There are many (!) in "my" categories whom I do not trust or feel "like," and of course there are people outside those categories whom I do trust/respect/appreciate. It's hard (for me) to do without any sorting/filtering at all, though perhaps doing with less and less of it would be a worthy long-term goal for all of us.

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