Expanding Definitions

I have taught children, teens, and adults for many years. And I am noticing a trend — as a people, in the name of a more just society, we try to make our definitions ever more expansive. Sounds like great thing, right? But consider this. Decades ago, children diagnosed as autistic were few and their symptoms had to be severe to get this diagnosis. Now we have an autistic spectrum. More and more children and adults get placed on this spectrum. We seem to want to catch as many autistic individuals as we can by expanding the definition of what it means to be on the spectrum. We are being ever more expansive in the name of justice.

But shouldn’t we be expanding the spectrum the other way instead? Perhaps it is better to be more inclusive in our definition of what it means to be on the “normal” spectrum. We are all different. We all have a grab bag or positives and negatives. And that’s a good thing. It takes all of our differences to create a great society.

So we can treat ADHD kids as different from “normals” or we can think of them as us. Dividing children into us and them is a dangerous proposition. And humans have always gravitated towards dividing any group larger than a family or a small village into us versus them. It’s easy to hate “them” — they are different from us, they are other, and we have to view all others with suspicion. As primates, humans are wired for suspicion of others. So we have to be extra careful with our ever expanding definition of others. That uncle who used be just a guy with eccentric sense of humor and hobbies is now on the spectrum and we all better watch out — who knows what he might do? We better keep our kids away from him. These kinds of reaction are more and more common. We can predict what people like us would do, but can we predict the behavior of other?

There is a great book Crazy Like Us written by a man I consider a friend, Ethan Watters. He is a journalist and his wife a psychiatrist. Ethan traveled the world documenting the societies’ relationships to people with mental illness. How are people with schizophrenia treated in Africa? Do people with that disease do better there than in America? They do! How is depression diagnosed in Japan? What symptoms are exhibited by Chinese anorexic sufferers? How do different societies treat their members who exhibit differences? Are those treatments divisive or inclusive? Who stands to gain by creating divisions?

During his ethnographic research, Ethan learned that non-western cultures divide their people into us and them according to different criteria than we do. And in some cases, it’s a blessing to those who are a bit outside of the “norm” and to their families.

So perhaps when we expand our definition to what it means to be “on the spectrum”, we do so to make our own lives easier and keep ourselves from having to deal with the full range of what it means to be human. Sure the effected families have to suffer, but it is so much easier on the rest of us not to have to confront and accommodate differences in behavior and emotions.

As a writer, I write a lot about people who are different and find it hard to fit in. I wrote about autism in “Twin Time” and “Good Girl”, homelessness and physical handicaps in “Pigeon” and “Mirror Shards”, obesity in “The FATOFF Conspiracy”, genetic outliers in “Harvest” and “Becoming Animals”, just to name a few. I believe it’s important to give a wide representation of all kinds of people in fiction. It’s easy to divide and recognize differences. It is far more work to see the whole range of humanity as human.

“In a constantly changing world, we need the flexibility that only imperfection provides.”

The Social Conquest of Earth by Edward O. Wilson

So be kind. This is the greatest gift most of us can give during this holiday season.

This nice collection of science fiction ebooks is still available for a free download until Christmas Day! My book Mirror Shards is part of this collection. The whole book is available for download for free. Mirror Shards is about a boy who was born with health complications that severely limited his life but through some possibly magical intervention, manages to find an alternate world that is kinder to him. Or is it? This one is about love and all of its many forms. So grab it, gift it, read it, review it. Or pick up any of the other dozens of cool books in this giveaway…or all of them! Happy Holidays and see you in the New Year!!!