People considered “mentally ill” were, until recent generations, confined to institutions where they would be out of society’s sight and mind. As we have become more humane as a nation, and as understanding of human difference has helped to provide better life opportunities for those who are not considered “normal,” schools have enrolled far more students who once would not have been allowed inside their doors.
I have, in the last 20 years or so, taken a much greater interest in such people. In fact, I am among them, as are several people in my family. Various people in my gene pool have been diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome, Tourette’s syndrome, chronic anxiety, depression, obsessive compulsive thinking, oppositional-defiance, and other conditions. I suspect that many readers can say the same.
I have written a good deal of late in academic journals about “neurodivergence,” the wide range of ways of being in the world produced by the neurological system. The issues are decidedly complex and have taken me years to begin to grasp, and I am still learning. In this essay I wish to discuss one thing about which I have become confident: the disabling notion of “disorder.”
UGA professor Peter Smagorinsky with doctoral advisee Stephanie Shelton at the May graduation.
When I listed syndromes and conditions earlier in this essay, I did not use the term “disorder.” Technically, these terms are often accompanied by either “disorder” or “disability,” as in Autism Spectrum Disorder, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, and so on. I hope to persuade readers that using such phrasings serves to perpetuate the notion that being different from most people represents a form of disorder.
I’ll confine my attention here to a few conditions that are assumed to be, ever and always, disorders: ways of being that produce poor and threatening functioning in society. The Autism Society of America states that Asperger’s Disorder is synonymous with Asperger’s Syndrome. Obsessive Compulsive Disorder is typically known as OCD; and Anxiety Disorder has its own Wikipedia entry.
In part because of the ways in which these conditions are named, people tend to believe that those who are made up in these ways have a stable, everlasting deficiency, perhaps even a chronic illness, from which they are inevitably said to “suffer.” I don’t wish to suggest that many people do not indeed suffer from conditions like depression, or that a severe bipolar makeup is just another okay way of being in the world. Although some of my colleagues in the neurodiversity movement would disagree, I can only conclude at this point in my understanding that extreme versions of these makeups can make social life so difficult that they are debilitating in and of themselves.
As one whose neurodivergence includes Asperger’s, anxiety, and obsessive-compulsive thinking, however, I disagree with the general view that having this makeup makes me, and those like me, necessarily disordered at all times and in all places. If anything, Asperger’s is about as highly ordered a way of being as is possible. We are oriented to patterns, routines, and other aspects of living highly ordered, often predictable lives. Yet to many, such a life is one of disability and deficiency, and is for all such people in all situations.
I profoundly reject this judgment. As part of my rebellion against this stereotype, I have begun referring to my Asperger’s Advantage, especially when Asperger’s is bundled with my anxiety and obsessive-compulsive thinking. How can three disorders be considered an advantageous order?
First, these conditions are not always an advantage. In some situations, they are indeed disabling. I can’t fly without Xanax, and can’t give public talks without Inderal. I know I’m not alone; every airport I know of is teeming with bars that operate around the clock, with alcohol then freely available in flight; and public speaking is feared more than death itself.
In academia, however, this triad of conditions gives me the advantage that I claim. Researchers who can see patterns and go into meticulous detail without losing focus—traits of Asperger’s—tend to have successful careers in publish-or-perish environments. Those who are anxious are often incapable of leaving matters unfinished or hanging, leading to a disposition to finish tasks promptly and dependably. And obsessive-compulsiveness allows one to stick with a topic, sometimes when others would be more preferable, until a task is done.
As a package, this set of traits is hard to beat if your job security depends on publishing research, as a good part of mine is. The teaching aspect of academia might or might not benefit from such a makeup. Universities have employed many brilliant researchers who have had trouble communicating with students and colleagues, leading me to conclude that people like me will not always make good teachers.
In this sense, whether or not my conditions represent a disorder is entirely a matter of context. Disorder is relational and situational, not absolute and irrevocable, as terminology and everyday assumption suggest. The same makeup might be ideal, or disorder, depending on the environment. Even within one profession, university teaching, one might be considered successful in one area, research, and unsuccessful in another, teaching.
Personally, I’ve been teaching in high schools and universities for the last 40 years. I’ve gotten tenure in Midwestern schools based on my teaching, and tenure in universities based on my research. I don’t say that to boast, only to offer an example of how it’s possible to undertake a teaching life while also embodying neurodivergence.
Put me in a different setting and I might indeed be, if not disordered, at least dysfunctional. I would make a horrid politician, for instance. Beyond the problem of taking drugs constantly to make speeches, I could not engage in the endless pandering and gladhanding that seem required of the job. Asperger’s does not accommodate small talk or an emphasis on social conventions. In this context, I would be an utter failure.
My point here is both simple and complex: “Disorder” is an inappropriate term to attach as a fundamental part of the name of a neurological condition. Whether it’s order or disorder is a matter of how it works in relation to other people and settings. Unless this basic idea becomes better understood, too many people will go through life burdened by a false sense of who they are and what their potential is.