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On Diabetes and Autism?

I wrote a guest post about diabetes in "pets" at Paw Talk called "Lessons Learned" which was published over the weekend. I think it's important to reach out to the pet people, as many have already demonstrated their desire to see sentient nonhumans as more than just commodities. Perhaps with time and some exposure to a reasonable line of thinking regarding those they see as pets, progress can be made regarding those they see as food or clothing. After all, I was a cat person as a child. A cat person who liked the taste of chickens (though I later realized that fried batter was the taste I liked).

Diabetes is still one of the top five reasons readers come to Animal Person, and I understand why. Diabetes in humans is its own industry and it's out in the open and there are seminars and commercials and books about it, all of which encourage the person with the disease to take control of it.

But when it comes to "pets," it's all very cloak and dagger. You have to trust your veterinarian to do all of the work and then you just follow the instructions about insulin. However that doesn't educate you or put you next to the disease on a daily basis–there'e always a vet (/"expert") between you. Confidence in dealing with the disease comes from knowing as much as possible and doing as much as possible (i.e., testing, blood curves, taking lots of notes about how different variables affect the animal in your care).

Next, I've always felt like I couldn't talk about why Temple Grandin's autism made her the spokesperson for a different way to kill because that would be politically incorrect. Her autism gives her a free pass of sorts, at least from me. But not from Jeffrey Masson and Jeff Nelson in "Temple Grandin: Using Autism to Make Money Killing Animals," who say what many of us have been thinking:

“Grandin’s autism gives her a special understanding of what animals, whether house cats or cattle, think, feel and—perhaps most important—desire.” The reviewer [who wrote that sentence] has bought into the myth that Dr. Grandin seeks most to instill: because she is autistic, she understands animals. All you need to do is say this aloud to realize how ridiculous it is. Try it in other ways: “I am depressed, so I understand dogs.” “I hear voices, so I understand birds.” We have never heard anyone describe an animal, any animal, as autistic, so why should somebody who is autistic understand animals better than anyone else?
 . . . .
Why would we need to have somebody self-proclaimed as autistic explain these emotions to us? All we need to do is live with any animal—dog, cat, parrot, cow, chicken, pig, sheep, goat, or even rat—to understand how deeply they feel emotions similar to ours.

Temple Grandin is the perfect spokesperson for animal exploitation industries because, like me, many people are loath to ask what could possibly make her more qualified than anyone else to talk about the thoughts and feelings of sentient nonhumans. I'm glad someone finally has.

10 Comments Post a comment
  1. I'm actually getting ready to post a review of the actual book itself by Jeff on; he did a wonderful job with it.

    There is much in the essay you link to that was excellent, that needed to be said, and that I was happy to see published, but I do think we need to tread carefully in the area you quoted for a couple reasons (and these are thoughts I posed to the Jeffs too, just so you know that I'm not criticizing behind their backs). I am obviously no fan of Grandin, but what made me uncomfortable about this part of this essay is that it unintentionally compares autism to mental illness via comparing it to depression and hearing voices. Autism is not a mental illness, and the implication that it is, even though unintentional, is still offensive to people with autism, so I just think we need to be careful in this area when we're critiquing Grandin.

    And again, though not a Grandin fan and though I have no problem criticizing her generally, especially her hypocrisy, I'm also hesitant to remark on how her autism does or does not affect her experience of the world such that it may be more similar to an nonhuman animal's experience than perhaps mine is. One argument that she makes is that she's less verbal than people without autism–she thinks in pictures, in images, not in words, experiences the world visually rather than verbally. And that's one of the comparisons she makes, in addition to her remarks on her emotions in comparison with animals' emotions. And many people with autism will tell you that they do feel like they experience the world differently and understand some things better (or just differently or even less well). So again, I think this is all open for discussion, especially given that Grandin herself invokes her autism as making her uniquely in tune with animals, but I do think we need to be cautious about how we frame this discussion.

    All that said, regardless of whether her autism does or does not help her to better understand animals–and I'm not sure we could ever really prove that one way or the other–her claim that it does itself is an excellent basis for criticism. She claims this deep kinship with animals yet helps send them to their deaths, eats them herself, and approves of humans forcing them to live in confined captivity (in his book review, Jeff mentions an astonishing instance of this approval that appears in her book–stay tuned for that!). What's most remarkable isn't that she may or may not connect with animals; it's that she feels this connection with them yet uses that self-proclaimed gift to prop up the industry exploiting and killing them, rather than using it to really help them. Sad.

    February 23, 2009
  2. I hear you, Stephanie. However, I must say that I didn't in any way take what he said as a comparison between autism and mental illness.

    Wouldn't have gone in that direction.

    But that's me.

    February 23, 2009
  3. Dan #

    First, if one is going to put autism up on a pedestal for “interpreting” the experience of nonhumans better than non-autistic people, as Grandin does, then it is completely fair game to knock autism off of the pedestal. Anyone who takes offense has only Grandin to blame for putting the issue at center stage.

    Second, while some comparisons of autism to other abnormalities, such as certain mental illnesses, may be offensive to some, the offense is a subtle form of misunderstanding. To put it in perspective, it is not in the same universe as the extreme speciesism and bigotry of Grandin and 98.6% of society. Yes, we ought to be sensitive and avoid offending humans, but much more importantly, we need to avoid the extreme anthropocentrism that views an honest misunderstanding as an offense against a human ‘demi-god’ as even remotely comparable to the savage speciesism that views animals as ‘things’ and commodities to own, torture, and kill for our most trivial pleasures.

    Third, I agree with the writers that autistic people have no privileged position from which to judge what nonhuman beings experience in a slaughterhouse or anywhere else. What is much more RELEVANT in Temple Grandin’s case than her autism (even if one accepted that autism is ‘special’ for understanding animals) is her extreme conflict of interest in taking lots of money from animal exploiters to tell them what is in the animals’ best interest – which is to say, telling industry precisely what they want to hear. Grandin’s work is trash; not because she’s autistic or not autistic, but because she is as laughably biased, and therefore as laughably unreliable, as one can possibly get.

    What do animals really want? To not be exploited and slaughtered. It doesn’t take an expert or genius or autistic human to figure that one out.

    February 23, 2009
  4. "Autism is not a mental illness, and the implication that it is, even though unintentional, is still offensive to people with autism, so I just think we need to be careful in this area when we're critiquing Grandin."

    Actually, as someone who's suffered from anxiety and depression, I'm a little offended that some with autism might be offended by such comparisons. This attitude buys into and reinforces the idea that mental illness is shameful, a personal failing, and/or a mental deficiency. Yes, autism is a neurodevelopmental disorder as opposed to a mental disorder, but both are just that – disorders, with variable causes and treatments (or means of coping).

    I mean, would someone with autism be deeply offended if his disorder was likened to chronic arthritis? Confused or perplexed, maybe (as the two are clearly different), but offended? Probably not. And it shouldn't be any different with depression or schizophrenia. Only difference is, mental illness is taboo, while arthritis, not so much. *shrug*

    (This isn't to pick on Stephanie, either. I'm just saying – it cuts both ways.)

    And re: Grandin – if she's going to tout her autism as a unique qualification for evaluating animal emotions, then definitely, it's fair to critique her on this point. Again returning to what Stephanie said, I actually think it's somewhat plausible that she has some insight into animal thought, inasmuch as she may tend to think visually vs. verbally, experience stronger (more "primitive" or "animalistic") emotions, etc. But as for having a a special kinship with animals? Um, no. Whatever her understanding of animal emotions, at the end of the day, she still helps to kill them for profit. If she does have a unique insight into their mental lives, as she claims, then her actions are that much more reprehensible.

    February 23, 2009
  5. Ahh, I need to clarify some things: First, I should say that this idea that such a comparison could be problematic isn't something I came up with alone. During editing, I submitted the remarks to AR-supportive autism advocates, including someone with autism who also happens to be a longtime vegetarian, and the reaction was immediate. And maybe "offensive" isn't the right word so much as "frustrating"–because autism advocates, as I understand it, have to work to counter the idea that autism is a mental illness and can be treated in the same way. And I wouldn't be surprised, of course, if some hypothetical people's dislike of it being compared to a mental illness would be, yes, the unwarranted stigma some attach to mental illness too. But like Kelly, I also take enormous issue with the stigma attached to mental illness, including for some personal reasons related to some intense family history. So it definitely wasn't my intention here to imply anything derogatory or demeaning about mental illness.

    But in response to Dan, I have to say that if this *were* something we all agreed was offensive (I'm really moving into hypotheticals now, not talking about this specific autism issue anymore), this position would bother me: "The offense is a subtle form of misunderstanding. To put it in perspective, it is not in the same universe as the extreme speciesism and bigotry of Grandin and 98.6% of society." Most of us agree that we're opposed to -isms and oppression of all types and that we want to make allies across issues and movements, and I don't think contributing to an incorrect perception that a group is trying to rid themselves of (whatever that group and perception may be) and then dismissing our contribution to the perception as not important, when we're not the ones who have to deal with the consequences of that perception, gets us anywhere. I guess this is what I'm thinking: If we re-read the "The offense is a subtle form…" statement, would we find that position acceptable when PETA contributes to sexism or other -isms, all of which really are, as Dan said, not in the same universe as extreme speciesism? If not (and indeed, I'm guessing that "no" is the answer for most of us here), then I don't think it should be an acceptable response to positions that reinforce misperceptions about or oppressions of other groups either, whatever those groups are.

    Also, I hope it didn't ever seem that I was suggesting that this comparison was anywhere near the injustices of speciesism and anthropocentrism; that certainly wasn't my intent.

    And finally, I think talking about knocking autism "off a pedestal" is too charged–talking about knocking down Grandin and her statements is fine, but I'm not comfortable with an approach that seems to be taking on an entire group of people, not all of whom agree with Grandin's animal-related stances. I don't see the point of alienating potential allies by saying "just blame Grandin if you're offended" or by implying that because they're not as oppressed as animals, how they feel doesn't matter.

    Anyway, I've strayed far away from talking about the content of the actual post and am now just engaging in a tangential conversation, so I'll shut up now. 🙂 Book review from Jeff goes up tomorrow!

    February 23, 2009
  6. I don't think Grandin's "gift" is exclusively due to her autism. I'm sure a pedophile knows what makes a child happy, but being a molester isn't a prerequisite to that information. It really seems that the industry is offering Grandin as the "expert" precisely because she's autistic, and because of such, they are assured no one will discredit her. It's a variation of the emperor's clothing… and animal agriculture is her tailor.

    February 24, 2009
  7. Dan #

    Stephanie –

    I agree with Mary when she didn't see the comparison as one between autism and depression or hearing voices. Rather, the comments were merely saying it is presumptuous (to say the least) to claim a priviledged position because of *any* mental difference. There is no empirical or rational evidence whatsoever for the claim that autistic people perceive and experience the world like cows. Further, a knife across the throat is a knife across the throat whether you're a cow or autistic or not autistic.

    I did interpret your original comment as being hypersensitive to autism and lacking perspective in the vast differences of injustice. (Incidentally, I think PETAs sexism is NOT subtle at all, and doesn't compare to the relatively trivial comments made by the Jeffs; not to mention the past injustices of sexism compared to autism.)

    Anyway, my main point was and is to put it into perspective, not to cheer on significant insensitivity and offense to others.

    February 24, 2009
  8. Thanks for clarifying, Stephanie. I understood that you weren't voicing your own opinion so much as reiterating what you've heard from the autistic community. "Frustrating" certainly sounds more appropriate.

    February 24, 2009
  9. I'd also like to add, I'm sure some of Grandin's "pass" stems from her autism – i.e., a well-intentioned desire to not offend an already misunderstood community, coupled with a more insidious "oooh, look how this disabled person has overcome her handicap, isn't that special" patronization – *but* I think society's indifference to animal suffering is also to blame. As in, mainstream, non-AR folks don't bother to challenge her claims simply because they don't care to. "Happy meat" makes them feel okay about consuming animals, so they actively *want* to believe in Grandin.

    February 24, 2009
  10. I'm going to bow out of this conversation now, but I first want to note again that I know the authors' intentions were not to offend (or frustrate) in any way. Jeff M. and I talked about this and actually more or less agreed on the issue but didn't have time, energy, or specific ideas for edits to it. My point in this conversation was not to overly criticize how they remarked on this but more to explore this broader issue of taking on Grandin's positions–especially dealing with her claims that her autism makes her more in tune with the animals–while also being careful to be sensitive to the autism community at large and not discrediting or dismissing how they may feel and experience the world, when we're not experts in autism.

    Anyway, Jeff Masson's review of the book itself (as opposed to the review of a review) is up now, and it's quite good:

    February 24, 2009

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