Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Can 'outing' of any kind accomplish good?

I was listening to a discussion about "outing" by "Rainbow Reporter" Harold Riley and co-host Lenny Matthews on KPFZ 88.1 FM. The term refers to publicizing that someone is gay without his or her permission. As I remember, the discussion raised the question, can "outing" accomplish good?

For the brief time that I was able to tune in, the announcers' discussion intrigued me because I encounter a similar practice among caregivers and self-advocates concerning Asperger's syndrome, a neurological condition that is classified on the autism spectrum. Diagnostic criteria for AS were established in the mid-1990s.

I recently volunteered at the UC Davis M.I.N.D. Institute for a study involving adults with AS. The study included a professional assessment that involved formal questioning and activities such as narrating a story out of a picture book and from a selection of objects. I also played computer games that involved choosing from among two shapes, the one I thought was "correct."

This was my first professional assessment but up until this time, I had read enough about AS to conclude that I in fact had it.

One of the things I frequently encountered among first-hand narratives by caregivers and people with AS, were their beliefs that certain famous people possibly had had AS: Albert Einstein, Andy Kaufman and Andy Warhol are a few of the candidates.

Warhol's art is on exhibit through May 17 at the de Young Museum in San Francisco's Golden Gate Park (www.famsf.org/deyoung/). In her memoir, "Elijah's Cup" (Free Press, 2002), Valerie Paradiz speculates that some of Warhol's creations exhibit the repetitive tendencies of a person with AS. She also relates examples of his behavior that led her to conclude that Warhol could have had AS. Paradiz also similarly examines the life and career of Andy Kaufman.

What I've observed in these speculations is that the people so-identified tend to be readily admired. Very little is said about people in the news who, having been charged with a crime, proffer an Asperger's diagnosis as defense -- unless it's a disavowal that states, bad behavior is bad behavior.

My Yahoo! News feed doesn't make a distinction between the positive and negative portrayals, so I end up seeing them both. But when offering up examples of people with whom I share this condition, I have the luxury of focusing on individuals who exemplify its positive aspects -- like creativity and unique perspective.

I was excited to read an interview with David Byrne in which he said he believed he'd had undiagnosed AS (www.stuff.co.nz/4809087a1860.html). "As a young man I think I was mildly autistic, really," he told the Sunday Star Times. "I probably had an undiagnosed case of Asperger's Syndrome, but I grew out of it. My music back then reflected my personality."

Byrne used to front the Talking Heads, my all-time favorite band -- so much so that radio announcers with whom I worked years ago nicknamed me "David Byrne's kid sister Toast." Even today, their selection of songs by the Talking Heads is the gold standard with which I evaluate karaoke proprietors.

So, does publicly identifying the neurological uniqueness of Byrne, Einstein, Kaufman and Warhol -- even if mere speculation -- accomplish a positive result? In my opinion, it can. Elevation of these individuals as role models by and for people with AS reinforces our thinking of possibilities instead of limitations in connection with our shared tendencies.

Published Feb. 10, 2009 in the Lake County Record-Bee

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