As an advocate for those with neuroexpansive minds in bodies that have become commodified bodies, I have come to understand, over the years, that a piecemeal approach to the valuing of difference and extensions of freedoms for all designated expendable in modern culture depends on every such movement to band together. A veteran of many social justice movements, it is clear that as we celebrate the crumbs we seek, we have failed to see that without a root transformation, a society founded on horrendous casual cruelty will simply close ranks after one group or another is finally “accepted.” But as Abraham Lincoln famously quoted, “Those who deny freedom to others deserve it not for themselves….” I believe this especially true of those who’s very innate sensitivities and connections are responsible for them being pushed out of the cultural sphere in the first place.
Since my first awareness of my sensitivities and connectedness with the world, and the healing of those through my years with the Gorilla Nation, I haven’t made distinctions between myself and the living things that share my mind. My heart breaks when I see humanity continuing to make those distinctions, knowing that doing so will ensure never-ending cycles of devaluing and pretending to value those who are different. This is especially heartbreaking when I see neuroexpansive human beings engage in the same subjugation.
I was deeply disturbed recently, reading a piece about the sentience – the neuroexpansive capabilities – of animals other than ourselves, as I work on a book about these ideas.* There were many examples of obvious and moving altruism and intelligence among our neuroexpansive kin in animal form. In reading about pigs, for example, there were abundant news articles about pigs who saved their human families from housefires, heart attacks, undetected diseases and the like, as well as numerous accounts of them showing ingenuity and nuanced thought and planning. One particular reference that caught my attention was by an autistic colleague. She wrote about factory farmed pigs who, when finding the feed allotment scan tags fallen from around another pig’s neck, will take them and run to the feeders, scanning the stolen tags to get extra food.
What disturbed me, beyond envisioning pigs crammed into dark, poorly ventilated warehouses, desperate for natural food, was my autistic colleague’s lack of moral reflection on the fact that such an action by an animal is inarguably evidence that they possess neuroexpansive minds that are ignored because there is social and monetary benefit in continuing to see them only as bodies to make money from. My colleague’s attitude struck me as some kind of neurological Stockholm Syndrome, reflecting that the ability to compartmentalize, dismiss suffering, and commodify other sentient beings is an evolutionary trademark of the neurotruncated power structure, not the flowering of the sensitivity and connection that is at our core.
On following my questions about pigs and other animals, I decided to read more on my colleague’s website. There, I found no stories of animals showing their neuroexpansive capabilities. There, they were reduced to simple, commodified bodies. For example, she gives in clear detail her personal recommendations for how to properly cut animals’ throats as they swing upside down on a kill line filled with screaming and terrified friends, fighting with all they have to stay alive. I knew from seeing this process that the line often moves so fast that the stunning of these animals is often botched so that they are conscious while their legs are sawed off, they are skinned alive, or are scalded to death. Perhaps aware of this inefficiency, the website offers that it is even more expedient to put groups of them into gas chambers, where one pulling the lever should look for it to take almost a half a minute for the animals inside, clawing to get out, to “lose posture.” She is careful not to say “lose consciousness” for obvious reasons.
Losing consciousness, though, is exactly what they do. Through our modern history, such euphemistic aloofness has coolly described the killing of those who we consider closer to home when we think of neuroexpansive minds in commodified bodies. Terrible historical examples abound and continue now. That we, as kindred of all of these tortured and liquidated minds, turn a blind eye, is unacceptable in my view.
There are many alarming and destructive examples of this dangerous embracing of commodifying attitudes toward other living things perceived as expendable where the status quo is concerned. Apologist speakers among our own marginalized group abound.
Modern, connectively truncated influence has driven an obsession with homogeneity, and increasingly raised a maniacal rejection of inward and outward difference to a hellish art form. The lives (and deaths) of sentient, neuroexpansive beings is foundational to daily life and underscores the danger of using gifts evolutionarily tooled for a better, more compassionate future are pressed into service for the structure we were put here to change.
We are living in a time, however, that leaves no doubt regarding the path of “neurotypical” destruction. There is a resounding call for us to examine our complicity – complicity eased by successful masking, perfected in fear of falling into an even lesser category, perhaps seven to be included among those we join in subjugating. Somewhere, though, in the connective way of being that is our gift, we know that the plight of animals, the bleeding gouge of the clearcut forests, the polluted and evaporating waters, the recent pestilence on the land, all serve as irrefutable examples of the default trajectory of disconnected modern neurotypicality.
Unable to see shades of lived nuance and constitutionally lacking organs of exquisite sensitivity, the truncated, neurotypical gaze rakes over the bodies of neuroexpansive life – whether designated autistic, animal, any other undesirable caste, or nature itself – they assess them only in terms of cost, threats, or utility. They can’t or won’t see them.
Modern neurotypical humans, in the history of all life on the planet, are the only ones who have ever engaged in the kinds of enslavement, torture, greed, and insatiable appetite for killing we face now. Only the basest hubris would see these developments as progress. From my perspective, modern humanity are the “neurodivergent” ones. I would argue that what is currently called neurodivergence – expansive sensitivities, processing styles that include every part of the environment, a sense of kinship with living things – are actually the natural state of a reality imbued with consciousness.
On some level, autistic people feel this. To a lesser extent, perhaps, the neurotruncated also feel it. Imagine if I had used the very gift that ensured my resonant identification with gorillas to build a career based on killing them for human consumption. How macabre and shocking people would be if I used my neuroexpansive understanding of the gorillas’ ways of being as a means to teach poachers how to more skillfully ensnare them. Think about the revulsion if I were to write monographs about the best ways to fatten gorillas up by cutting off their newborn testicles with no anesthesia, or how to place gorilla mothers in body cages for months before, during, and after the birth of their children so that they couldn’t touch them or fight back when their children were stolen. Imagine the public outcry if I detailed how to cut gorilla throats as they hung upside down, fighting with all they had to stay alive. What outrage there would be if I included on my official website that you could put them in groups in gas chambers and it would take 20 seconds for them to lose consciousness as their lungs seared and they clawed the walls.
If I recommended these things, the public would think I had lost my mind, and rightly so, even though these very realities are accepted when they apply to other neuroexpansive minds that are no different in any definable way. But why? Why get upset over the violent imprisonment and destruction of a gorilla, but not a pig? Is it because one is deemed “high functioning” in the power structure’s estimation and the other “low functioning?” What about a duck? A cow or chicken? A tree or forest? The living Earth, itself a conscious organism? Because many of us have accepted the profitable dissociation that is foundational to, even defining of, the current, neurotruncated power structure, we have excepted the bodily commodification of other neuroexpansive minds.
In mimicking neurotruncated behavior, we have been able to ignore not just the suffering of farmed animals. We have been complicit in the reality that 70% of all indigenous animals have been wiped out in the last 50 years. And as Covid loosens its grip on the world, it is easy to forget that it, like N1H1, SARS, Ebola, Bird Flu, and Swine Flu, we’re all the result of humans demanding to eat the bodies of others with different minds – farmed and free – at a pace and volume that cages stacked in barns and wet markets become petri dish prisons because a monolithic, neuro-retentive pathology continues unchecked. The lungs of the living planet are scorched and wheezing in the ashes of the Amazon and the coals of the Congo fires set to clear land for more sentient animals to be raised as saleable bodies, a planet-wide gas chamber. Fires, droughts, dust storms, ocean acidification, floods, hurricanes, tornadoes, and wildfires – all happening at an historically unprecedented intensity.
The horrific list of such abuses and their resultant impact on the planet, normalized by the neurotypical power structure, is endless.
I understand. We have blended to survive. We saw early in our sensitive, connected lives how the current, homogenized power structure treats neuroexpansive minds in commodified bodies (in our case currently, commodified at the hands of “experts,” money and resources won to “cure” us, by those in power who make money studying us, the lucrative warehousing of our bodies, and on and on). Such is the unrelenting pressure on us from the soulless, utilitarian world that you’d think we’d all just be silent diamonds at this point. We find ourselves in an impossible state of suspension between getting along with an unexplainably violent humanity as we, with our exquisitely sensitive abilities, hear the desperate call of a natural world around and within us. It exhausts us, but, like other neuroexpansive animals, it continues to be on us to go the vast extra time and distance to communicate with humanity, leaving little voice for those so like us.
In my experience, though, ignoring all that lives around us does not resonate with our true selves. What does resonate with us, by definition, is an expansive awareness of interconnection – even if it is damaged and dormant. We know, personally and painfully, that the unfortunate truth is that the more different your mind, the more humanity has permission to harm you.
We are, these days, becoming more assertive where our specific voices are concerned. We have pushed back against a terribly unjust power structure and have begun to assert that valuable ways of being exist on a complicated neurological spectrum. Though so far, we have failed to understand that we are ignoring the implications of our own message by ignoring that all sentient minds have innate value, we can pledge now not to be comfortable engaging in the very thing we decry.
I believe we are constitutionally, and rightly, more sensitive to this kind of compartmentalized dissonance and the suffering it compounds. We are becoming proud that we see things holistically, without arbitrary cultural filters. It is a gift that accounts for our ability to make clear connections between disparate phenomena, and to draw complex lines between one concept and another in ways unfathomable to more truncated minds. This state of natural connection should also give us a unique empathy and solidarity with all minds who are trying to kick their way out of boxes and chains, literally and socially.
We can start a new, inclusive movement by leading the way back to the primal awareness, the connective wisdom, we were born with, because we are first and foremost, in all ways that matter, neuroexpansive minds. We know that physical form is empty of meaning. We know personally and painfully that the acknowledgement, the valuing, of our minds is everything.
Intuitively we know we are at a crossroads at which our way of being must be embraced as a roadmap to survival for all living beings and the Earth as a whole, as we represent the response of our dying planet, calling for translators and healers. Our movement, both as a social force and on an individual and evolutionary level, is intimately connected with solving every intersectional existential problem today.
We can speak so uniquely to the catastrophic failings that brought us to this point of crisis. When we on the neuroexpansive spectrum truly embrace our way of being, we can feel secure sitting on the front lines with lions, find meaning in sharing the megaphone with monkeys, in the comforting of cows, and the singing with sows; singing with the trees, living lullabies for the land, humming the Earth itself. It is not only valid, but imperative, that we use our gifts in harmony with a sustainable future for all living things.
*I didn’t have to look far. There are currently more than 2,500 peer reviewed papers concluding animal self-awareness, their ability to think and feel in complex ways, an ability to recall the past and understand the idea of future, to be truly compassionate and altruistic, to feel remorse and experience a moral consciousness.
Dawn Prince-Hughes, PhD, is a long-time autism advocate and bestselling author. She is currently designing and facilitating the Autistic Ethnography Project at Yale. For more information, please contact email@example.com.