Monday, 4 April 2011

Etymologies of Resistance for 'Autistic' and 'Asperger's'

I use the word 'Autistic' with reservations, acknowledging that its validity and range are the zone of a constantly shifting 'word game' a la Ludwig Wittgenstein (who I must admit I have not read yet but have heard summarised.  Pretending to have read books one has not in order to claim status is another confusing social custom).  

For some in the medical profession, 'Autistic' refers to a specific set of symptoms, which when they occur together become syndromal.  Medicalizing discourse draws a distinction between so-called 'lower-functioning' people, who are termed 'Autistic', and so called 'higher functioning' people, who are given labels such as 'Asperger's, Pervasive Development Disorder, etc.' Labelling creates socially constructed subjects, it also attempts to divide up the essentially organic continuum of characteristics which occur within a portion of the organic, unified whole that is humanity.  Most such labelling, in the final analysis, makes such distinctions according to the perceived economic value of individuals, rather than their intrinsic worth as human beings.  

In writing this blog, I will consciously resist being drawn into a discourse of 'low vs. high functioning', seeing each individual as possessing infinite intrinsic worth as a child and creation of God, rather than their production value to others.  'Autism', in this setting, refers to a continuum or field of characteristics, identities and selfhoods on which individuals can be situated at various points, and indeed move among points throughout their existences.  The term is used because of its familiarity and name-recognition value.  But the word 'Autism' is not without its problems. 

'Autism' comes from the Greek word 'αὐτός'  (autos) for 'self', the same root as in 'automobile' or 'autobiography'.  It means, quite literally, self-ism.  This is both a factually and discursively inaccurate term.  'Autistic' people may face difficulties in social communication, but they are by no means intrinsically self-centred incapable of communication, and any other negative connotation 'self-ism' implies.  They are indeed fully capable of showing love, expressive communication, serving others, and indeed altruism when not societally hindered from doing so.  'Self-ism' also carries negative moral connotations of selfishness, which are also manifestly prejudicial. One autistic person challenged the term by inverted its Latin etymology, coining the word 'heterism' for the neurotypical mode of being. 

The term 'Asperger's, which defines my own span of the autism spectrum bandwidth, is also problematic.  The term derives from the Austrian pediatrician Hans Asperger (1906-1980) who codified the condition.  While his definitions may have been of some use, my own being is not defined and encompassed by some Austrian doctor's syndrome description. 

With a view to subverting these labels, I would like to propose some alternative etymologies.  Etymology, the history and origin of words, is one of my own 'special interests' and one of the motives for my study of Old Norse at University.  One game I play is to take a modern English word of Old Norse/Old English deriviation and trace it back to its Indo-European origin based on phenomena such as vowel shifts.  Etymology also conditions the meaning of words in their modern form, and so proposing alternative 'folk etymologies', however artificial, can still serve to shift the boundaries of the word game and invert the power of the label. 

Take 'Autism':  αὐτός  in Greek means 'self', but aut in Latin means 'either...or'.  Its derivative autem means 'on the other hand' and 'moreover'.  Herein is one of the blessings of autistic minds.  They think laterally, unconventionally, far outside the box.  Where society says there is only one way, they say 'on the other hand'. Where unjust social structures say 'take only this path' they say 'either...or'.  Minds on the spectrum see possibilities where others may see closed doors, options where others may see determinism.  With the Latin, rather than the Greek etymology, 'Autism' is a term of power. 

For 'Asperger's': In French, an asperger is one who sprinkles holy water.  Therefore, to be an Asperger is to be one who sprinkles blessings upon those around us.  A slight change of spelling among the bilabial plosive phonemes (b/p) and an accent on the /A/ gives us another sanctifying Old Norse alternative etymology.  'Ás' means a god of the pantheon of the Æsir (who dwell in 'Ásgarðr', or Asgard). 'Berger' is one who dwells in a city or fortress, from where we get the words 'burgher' and the city-suffix '-burg'.  So a person with  'Ásberger' is 'one who dwells in the fortress of the Viking Gods.' Tell that to the local bully!