Black and White and Degrees of Difference

On this blog, members of the College Neurodiversity Working Group share ideas, information, and inspiration about what neurodiversity means for us and for our campus community.

To join the working group, contact co-chairs Warrenetta Mann (wcmann@wm.edu) and Karin Wulf (kawulf@wm.edu)

Black and White and Degrees of Difference by Karin Wulf

Understanding and appreciating difference is fundamental to a healthy community.  Varieties of diversity are as limitless as the number of people on the planet, but there are some that need to be called out and appreciated in a world where the privileges of race, gender, class, and sexuality are clear.

The College Neurodiversity Initiative seeks to make plain an obvious and yet underappreciated point:  in a community where brainpower is common currency, there are many different ways of thinking, perceiving, and understanding.  Brains are different.  Those differences make for a rich and wonderful world, but some differences can be hard to live with—not inherently difficult, but difficult in the context of contemporary society.

In this blog space we’ll be considering, among other things, a range of perspectives on cognitive difference and disability.

What a pleasure for me, in this first post, to highlight our own Working Group Community Liaison, Renée Salas.  As an author, speaker, and advocate, Renée shares her experiences as the autistic parent of two autistic kids and a third, neurotypical child.  She is particularly focused on the educational needs of autistic people, and also on, as she says on her blog, http://srsalas.com, “what autistic people CAN do.”

In her first book, Black and White:  A Colorful Look at Life on the Autism Spectrum, Renée describes her life as a child, as a college student, and as an adult raising a family with her neurotypical husband.  “I wanted Black and White to tell a different story, a positive one.  It had to be about life on the autism spectrum, not about the disorder itself.” Renée shares the challenges she faces, including sensory sensitivities, trying to anticipate the unexpected, and communicating across neurological differences.  Mostly she simply explains what and how she thinks.  She is writing for both neurotypicals, who may appreciate a guide to some of the basic issues faced by many (though not all) autistic people, as well as her fellow autistics. Renée doesn’t see her book as “a ‘how to’ guide or a book of solutions,” but as a “glimpse at the world through my eyes.”  Glowing reviews from folks including well-known autistic writer Temple Grandin suggest that a wide audience finds Renée’s glimpses compelling.

Black and White is also powerful reminder of the ways that difference is experienced and construed.   Each person’s perspective is very particular.  Although we speak of neurotypicality and neurodiversity, and the current state of brain science tells us that neurotypicality means that some people’s brains are more alike than other people’s brains, the range of cultural as well as neurological diversity is astonishing.  What is expected by one person in a particular context is utterly surprising, painful, or incapacitating to another.

Sometimes this is a matter of scale.  I really dislike fluorescent lighting, which I find distracting and uncomfortable.   My eyes don’t focus well in spaces that are exclusively lit by fluorescent bulbs, and I avoid those spaces as much as possible.  I have a reading lamp on my desk at work to try and dilute the flicker and blue glare.  For Renée, many different kinds of lighting are distracting and worse.  The shimmer, shake and glare that emanates from horizontal blinds, for example, can quickly cause anxiety and nausea.  I can work around my preference and discomfort, while Renée has to find ways around what is painful, even paralyzing.

Neurological difference is not always about a matter of degree; it’s about what is and is not accommodated.  Both Renée and I have figured out how to work around, mostly, issues with light sensitivity.  But what about issues that are harder to work around?  Or places where the affected person doesn’t have the capacity or authority to change their environment?  Disability can be created by the context in which one is trying to operate.

The title of Black and White is meant to invoke Renée’s logical approach, but also what she calls the autistic “unemotional facade” that many people mistake for a lack of feeling and emotion.  Her next book is titled Grayscale.  I am eager to read her further thoughts on difference, and so grateful that she is a key contributor to the College Neurodiversity Initiative.