“Weeds or Herbs?”: Eugenics Rhetoric Reinvoked

Filed Under (Activism, Employment, Eugenics, Uncategorized) by Estee on 26-11-2013


I am end of term, writing papers on technology and autism using critical theory and my interest is how we invoke these to obtain work, to socialize, but also in how these shape our existence. While technology is said to open up avenues for communication, we do not heed the critical theorists warnings of Adorno and others – that there can be “no true life possible in a false world.” The question is, how do virtual realities and mass culture, mechaniziation and so forth limit the acceptance of autistic bodies among us? It seems that work to befit the body, not the body to work. This is also a feudal notion invoked by the company Specialisterne which is a software development company providing work opportunities for autistic people.

My job is to critique these structures and life is my lab. I am a mother to an autistic son as well as a single mother and I engage (and explore) in atypical forms knowledge production with my son – I attempt to resist the standard ways of producing knowledge that in fact are, to Adorno’s critique (my interpretation), relativist – that speaks only unto itself within a frame. That is, science speaks to science and we’ve adopted its rhetoric. As such, it may shape the way we think about our lives by this framework.

We cannot examine a system if we don’t try to work from without. So, when I go online to look at the company Specialisterne, which provides work opportunities for autistic bodies, it is imperative that we question how bodies may be vulnerable to exploitation in totalizaing “autistic charactersitics” as: “able to focus for long periods of time; superior ability to recognize patterns; superior visual perceptual ability” and so forth. While autistic people need to eat, and work provides important human connection (see “emotional labour”), we have to be cognizant that we are working within a system that reduces support, devalues disabled bodies and in fact, requires all of us to work longer and harder – in fact, like machines…automated…autistic. While these characteristics that may be present for some individuals, we have to be aware of how generalities about autistic characteristics may serve to oppress people.

That said, as I do my research, I was tuned in on the marketing of Specialisterne to ask if an autistic person is a “weed or herb?” (see Specialisterne’s banner above). If we are to speak, to anchor ourselves in frames of reference for how we have come to be where we are and to think about autism, we are obliged to point out that the term came from a eugenics book Weeds in the Garden of Marriage (1931) by George Henry Lane Fox Pitt Rivers. Using this object metaphor is also explored in this paper by Gerald O’Brien in Disability Studies Quarterly.

It might be helpful for self-advocacy organizations to engage in media and marketing monitoring to ensure that dignity, respect and the history of oppression is recognized, so that we may never again re-invoke the rhetoric which belonged to the eugenics movement which rendered the segregation and sterilization of disabled people mandatory. It is curious that marketing firms would not research this thoroughly.

Autism and Work

Filed Under (ABA, Employment) by Estee on 17-01-2013

Listening to CBC Radio 2 this morning is a special report on autism and work. Interviewed is Thorkhil Sonne, Chairman of Special People Foundation. He has built an I.T. company, Specilaisterne that I wrote about a few years ago which hires autistic people. Citing some of the skills that belong to some autistic people – attention to detail, pattern-recognition skills and honesty – Sonne makes a great case for why he only hires autistic people.

It is no wonder that we must think about creating jobs for autistic people. In reality, we live in a labour market economy where making a living is a necessity and independence is highly valued. Yet, there could be some future challenges that we need to address when creating such opportunities lest we harken back to the Poor Laws and work houses for the disabled that have lead to sheltered workshops that still exist in Canada today where a “worker,” is paid thirty cents an hour. We are talking true sweatshops that are in operation right now in Canada. Sonne seeks to better that but there are still issues that we as a community must continue to discuss. That we live in a market-economy in the first place will challenge the equity notions that I posit.

First off, let us not reify autism and its skills. Autistic people have a variety of skills that are indeed useful in market economy as Sonne mentions. My concern however, is that the general population will now view ALL autistic peoples being the same. All autistic people are “love computers, are good at detail and are honest.” Such overgeneralizations can serve to further discriminate against individuals with autism.While applaud these needed efforts to provide equal pay for equal work, this does not preclude further discussions about our socially-constructed ideas regarding autism and people.

Many good folks are working hard to provide opportunities for autistc individuals. We must support these efforts while at the same time, bring these issues that continue to this day, to light. Autistic individuals are at risk of abuse in the workplace. Notions about perserverence where “typical people” don’t have the same attention, risks overworking the autistic individual (I’m thinking of Chinese workers here and crazy hours, choking on their own “production”). Perhaps we have to discuss that many autistic people tend to be sequestered and over-prompted from the time they are children and learn to comply with ABA therapy. Compliance may extend to the workplace where an employer may expect a certain way of working and attention and the autistic individual may not, by virtue of challenged social interaction skills, know how to negotiate. Perhaps this is one area teachers can look towards – self-empowerment and esteem building opportunities for children as we do for the typical population.

We must discuss supported decision-making and other aides and guardians to attend to the needs and desires of people with autism. If we are not willing to finance these supports and allow aide workers in the workplace or at schools, colleges and universities, we are further disabling environments for people with autism. We have to continue working for equity. While we must keep moving forward, we have to ensure safe-guards are in place and that autistic people are not all expected to be I.T. workers. What oher kinds of work might individuals in our community want? What is “contribution to society?” There are many ways, shapes and forms of contribution that must be considered, valued and supported.


About Me


I’m a PhD candidate at York University, Critical Disability Studies, with a multi-disciplinary background in the arts as a curator and writer. I am the Founder of The Autism Acceptance Project (www.taaproject.com), and an enamoured mother of my only son who lives with the autism label. I like to write about our journey, critical issues regarding autism in the area of human rights, law, and social justice, as well as reflexive practices in (auto)ethnographic writing about autism.