Form and Functioning: For Autistics, There’s No Truth in Advertising
In the world of advertising, marketing, and sales, the success of most products depends on a two key elements: form and function. When design elements such as beauty, fashion, and ergonomics are blended seamlessly with functional elements such as speed and durability, the expectation is that the product will be highly marketable and profitable, especially if the price is competitive. In TV commercials, other advertising campaigns, and articles on the art and science of advertising, the blending of form and function has been likened to a marriage. In an old article from Creative Computing Owen W. Linzmayer explained why one particular printer was better than all its predecessors:
In the world of printers, the marriage of form and function is not always a happy one. Often one trait is compromised for another; leaving you with either a beautifully inoperative machine or an unsightly beast of burden. Such is not the case with the 7500EP dot matrix printer from C. Itoh. Recently reduced in price to a competitive $289, the 7500EP is one dot matrix printer that combines sleek good looks with uncompromised features.
This kind of binary thinking works very well when it comes to selling products. The 1980s printer probably was something brand new, replacing some pretty primitive equipment. The iPod stands out as a recent example of form and function being taken into consideration in the formation of a truly innovative piece of technology. Innovation becomes excess, however, when manufacturers seek to achieve perfection—or public perception of perfection—in products that need no real improvement. In a speech from the Toyota press room on the Lexus LF-A, Dennis E. Clements stated: “The key to our success for the past 15 years will remain the key to our success in the future: Strive to build a perfect car and deliver the perfect customer experience.” His colleague Wahei Hirai later remarked, “Simplicity. In form and function it is styling that is uncluttered and void of extraneous elements, revealing beauty with extreme depth and purity.”
Marketing hype is designed to create a false dichotomy in the minds of most consumers: Other products are either attractive or operative, but our product is both. It creates discontentment with the products the consumer already possesses. Television ads seem especially designed to feed the consumer with a constant diet of “bigger, better, newer, faster, cheaper,” causing the consumer to cast a jaundiced eye upon a house full of a wide array of items that actually work perfectly well and look perfectly nice. Greed sets in, and everything each season becomes a “must have.” Finally, it draws the consumer in, keeps him there long enough to buy the product, and hopefully creates blind loyalty to the manufacturer, so that when its product breaks or becomes out of fashion—and it will—the consumer will come back and buy another one, only this time even better, more “perfect” than the last one.
In another article on this subject, Karen Booy interviews designer David T. Hawko, who lays out some tips for booth exhibitors to maximize their “punch” on the trade show floor. Why is punch so important? Because “the advertiser only has a few seconds to get your attention and draw you in.” When asked, “What are the most important elements of good booth design?” Hawko replied, “Simply form and function (form rings the bell, function makes it sell).”
Normal and Abnormal
At this juncture, you might be wondering what any of this has to do with autism. My answer is this: binary thinking, perhaps even from a marketing model, is widespread when it comes to interpreting, packaging, and sorting autistics into groups. If you are autistic, you are not normal; if you are normal, you are not autistic. Normal is good; abnormal is bad. Normal is complete; autistic is deficient. Parents with children newly diagnosed with autism are usually sucked into the hype that surrounds autism. Again, the benchmarks of such hype are (1) false dichotomy, (2) discontentment, and (3) loyalty to the author of the hype. Very few parents—probably none, unless they themselves are autistic or they have raised one or more autistics already—are nonchalant, let alone happy, when they receive the news that their son or daughter is autistic. Rather, they are “devastated,” and I use that word very purposefully; it is the word most often used to describe the feelings that come over newbie parents. That is because they perceive of autism only in a negative light. Autism is abnormal is bad. Second, they become discontent with their child and usually seek out a cure as soon as possible. When they look at other normal children, the natural reaction tends to be sadness springing from jealousy. I know because I have gone through the gamut of these emotions myself. This writing is not just a theoretical exercise. Finally, if completely drawn in by the “bell,” parents can become fiercely loyal to whatever organization is promising to cure their children. The Recovered Autistic Children video put out by Defeat Autism Now! comes to mind. Its shameless use of cameras panning the audience for a good shot of sobbing moms, and the bizarre display and interviewing of “cured” autistic children on stage, belies a loyalty bordering on religious fervor.
Let’s go back to the first example of form and function, in which the writer was extolling the virtues of this new computer printer. He presented the case that—up until now—printers were either an “unsightly beast of burden” (worked well, but were woefully lacking in form) or “beautifully inoperative” (were pleasant to look at, but were lacking in function). This was intended to “ring the bell” of the reader, making him believe that there was now a perfect product where none existed before. When it comes to printers from the 1980s, this was probably quite true. But when this kind of thinking colors the interpretation and classification of human beings, it becomes problematic and even dangerous.
In human terms, the “perfect product” can be seen as the normal, or neurotypical, individual. Normal people are presumed to have a perfect marriage of form and function-ing, and this makes them desirable to each other and profitable for society as a whole. For normals, form consists of external features such as appropriate outward appearance, behavior acceptable to other normals, independent life skills, and ability to produce intelligible language. Functioning consists of the internals, which are presumed to be measurable with a high degree of accuracy: intelligence, as measured by IQ tests; and thought processes and comprehension, as measured by writing skills and verbal responses to questions.
Perceived deficiencies in form are generally overlooked when a person has a function that society values, usually monetarily. For example, a blind and not conventionally attractive person with an incredible singing voice (e.g., Stevie Wonder, Diane Schuur) can have a vibrant musical career despite not being totally normal (the fact of their blindness seems to be inserted into every article about them). A wide swath of social forgiveness is usually allotted to socially, neurologically, or physically abnormal geniuses who are able to make significant contributions to society through science and technology (e.g., Albert Einstein, Bill Gates, Steven Hawking). This would be akin to the “function over form” rule in certain products, but not others.
A handful of autistics have been catapulted into the spotlight because of some kind of marketable talent or because they represent some kind of an interest group (e.g., Temple Grandin, Tito Mukhopadhyay, Sue Rubin). Unlike the other examples, however, it seems to be the autistic stars who end up being described as “inspirational,” because they are doing, saying, and producing things that are thought to defy their diagnosis. For most autistics, however, form doesn’t “ring the bell” and draw others in to get a closer and deeper look at the whole individual. The outward signs of their autism can be so annoying, stigmatizing, even sometimes scary to neurotypicals that function never gets addressed at all, and if it does, it is wildly misinterpreted and downgraded on the basis of form alone. This leads me to the second example of binary thinking about autism.
High-Functioning and Low-Functioning
If you are autistic, you are usually given the additional label of either high-functioning or low-functioning, defined as follows:
Children with low-functioning autism are more likely to display mental retardation, epilepsy, and extremely limited receptive/expressive language skills. They are extremely weak on "theory of mind," and overload on too much sensory stimulation quite easily. As a rule of thumb, testing will show IQ ratings of 70 or below... Children with high-functioning autism are much more efficient with expressive and receptive speech, less likely to suffer from epilepsy, and have IQ scores of 71 or above. Although too much sensory input can overload them, they have a higher tolerance and learn to desensitize themselves. These children have a stronger grasp on the theory of mind and can empathize with the feelings and reactions of others.
Enter Amanda Baggs. Amanda is an autistic self-advocate and writer who defies any autistic label. As the terms are used by most, is she high-functioning? Yes. Is she low-functioning? Yes. Is she functioning? That depends on the day and whether she has adequate support staff. I have known her through her writings for nearly a year, and I have gradually come not only to understand but to accept her views on the trouble with labeling in autism. She has written extensively on the subject, both on self-advocacy groups and on her non-site. The following excerpts are from her blog, titled Ballastexistenz. The first problem with these labels is that they come with a set of assumptions:
Are some of the assumptions about how people work ingrained so deeply that when people come across an example of a person who does not work like that, they literally are incapable of perceiving or understanding it? At least for some people?
For instance, when I say that one ability does not mean another ability is necessarily there. I mean that one ability really doesn't mean that another ability is necessarily there, no matter how related they may seem to someone.
That means, for instance, "Just because I can type, doesn't mean I can tell you that I am in pain or where that pain is located."
But other people seem to think they're dropping all their assumptions, and then they will say something like "Well it's good you can type, because you can tell people you're in pain." No, actually, I can't, and I've almost died thanks to that one not being noticed, so it's a bit of a sore spot, thanks.
When people do things like that, it makes me wonder what on earth they think the assumptions they're dropping are. I can say, "Drop your assumptions, the fact that I can't cook has nothing to do with whether I know what toast is." And be back on that damn toast-making program by the next day — "Obviously you haven't learned what toast is if you still can't make it after all this time" and so on. What assumption is being dropped here? I can't tell. Is there one? (Amanda Baggs, Assumptions, 09/04/05)
The second problem is that this kind of thinking can actually kill, in that if you demonstrate that you are “high-functioning” on any level, you can be cut off from access to desperately needed services when you are also “low-functioning.” In writing about Joel Smith and his article You Have it So Good, Amanda states:
Joel Smith doesn't often pass for NT, but he can drive, work, and sometimes speak. And he's a self-advocate, no-cure, disability rights sort of person when he writes, not a woe-is-me my-life-is-hell-I'm-the-lowest-functioning-person-on-the-planet we-need-a-cure-for-autism type. All of that works against him in the stereotypes of many. This kind of stereotyping has got to stop. It may not sound like sophisticated disability theory, but these are people's lives we're talking about. He's not the only one. The prevailing view of how abilities fit together, as well as of how abilities are connected to political views, has to change. Or people will die, and in fact I am certain that many people are already dead over exactly this kind of thing.
People need to stop spreading these stereotypes. That includes autistic people who think that by questioning our diagnostic credibility because of our political views, they will come out ahead services-wise. We're all in this survival thing together and it's not okay to sacrifice others that way. (Amanda Baggs, You Have It So Good, 09/02/05)
Let’s get back to the marketing model of autism. Read the following and forget for a moment that the writer is talking about cars. Change “product” to “autistic” and “consumer” to “society” and you will get a sense of what could be going on here:
One thing is clear, although functional performance may ultimately be a necessity and justify ownership, the aesthetics inevitably contribute to our initial perception of a product and create desire. In a commercially competitive world the ‘style’ is often the only way to differentiate two similar products and as with a piece of sculpture it has to promote a set of emotional responses from the consumer that ultimately lead to purchase. (Russell Carr, Head of Lotus Design)
If an autistic person is both low- and high-functioning, but the initial perception is that of a low-functioning individual, there will be no social desire generated within the first few seconds of meeting that person, the observer will not be drawn in, and the element that is considered high-functioning will be dismissed outright as incompatible with the externals.
People who had no knowledge of me in person were calling me a liar. They said I wasn't really autistic. They said that if I really were autistic, I did not really live the kind of life I led. They said that I did not look like I did. They even told me that I could speak, that I had a job, that I had never lived in an institution, that I did not bang my head, that I had never had any of the "therapies" I was criticizing, that I could "take care of myself." (Amanda Baggs, You Have It So Good, 09/02/05)
Conversely, an autistic person who appears to be high-functioning may be quite impaired in other ways, in silent ways, and that person’s lower functioning may be dismissed and badly needed services denied, as described in Joel Smith’s article.
I have used the terms high-functioning and low-functioning autism many times, but I should know better. My own son, who is 11 years old and autistic, has never fit neatly into any category. He has been given many diagnoses: PDD, macrocephaly, ADHD, ODD, autistic spectrum disorder, autistic disorder, and (most recently) a note that read: “rule out mental retardation.” My son reads, writes, speaks, and reads music. He plays video and computer games. He knows how to program a VCR. He also bites me and kicks me, tries to touch my breasts all the time, and has just started spitting again—on the floor, into his cups, on my car seat. He ranges from talking nonstop to not being able or willing to talk at all, or hardly at all. He loves his kid brother and tries to take care of him as much as possible, but he squeezes him and knocks him down, not being able to control his impulses and extreme sensory defensiveness. He got A’s on all his spelling tests last year in fourth grade, but he still struggles with second-grade-level math and reading.
Despite all of these contradictions, up until I started reading—and really getting—Amanda’s recent writings, I have not hesitated to describe my son as a “high-functioning autistic,” even in the course of casual conversations when using a label wasn’t even necessary. I’m thinking back now to the car quotation above: “In a commercially competitive world the ‘style’ is often the only way to differentiate two similar products.” I’m wondering how functioning labels came about in the first place, and I wonder why people continue to use labels long after they lose meaning. The fact that someone can be truly low- and high-functioning simultaneously or each at different ages, places, and situations means that both labels are true and yet neither is true either. If neither is true, then why not throw both labels away and stick with just one word: autistic? It goes back to competition. Once the “goods” are labeled, it’s time to compete for services.
In order for this to change and for autism labels to be abandoned, there needs to be a realization that labeling is a form of ownership, kind of like slaves being branded by their slave masters with the words “slave for life.” Labels are purely a reflection of how well normals (educators, employers, society) will tolerate autistics. Thus, the label owns the autistic, not the other way around. The way to end this is for autistics to take ownership of themselves by not buying into the labeling scheme. Labels do not reflect, on any level, an autistic person’s level of happiness, either. Who is to say that the highest functioning person—autistic or otherwise—is not also the happiest person? How one interprets the meaning of functioning all depends on whether one believes there is truth or hype in advertising.
Lisa Jean Collins c 2005