by Alyssa Hillary from Yes, That Too
Q is for Quirky
I’ve got a really complicated relationship with the word “Quirky.” I think many of us (neurodivergent people) do, and often for reasons that are … also complicated, and often highly personal.
Thought the first: Quirky is true. I know you should never let the dictionary be your entire thoughts on a word, because there is connotation on top of denotation, and there are cultural (and subcultural) meanings that are not always captured. Dictionaries are written by people, and they generally reinforce whatever norms are already in place. That said, this first thought starts with the dictionary.
Oxford English Dictionary tells me that Quirky means:
“Characterized by peculiar or unexpected traits.”
“Unusual in an attractive or interesting way.”
Merriam-Webster gives me:
“Different from the ordinary in a way that causes curiosity or suspicion.”
Before questioning what traits are expected vs. unexpected, before questioning what ordinary is and isn’t, before questioning how subjective these definitions really are, I have to admit it: By mainstream subjectivity, I’m all these things.
Thought the second: Question everything. Question the assumptions behind those definitions. What is peculiar? What is unexpected? What is expected? What kinds of differences do we think of as attractive or interesting? What kinds of differences lead to curiosity or suspicion? Why are those differences in particular attractive, interesting, curious, or suspicious? And why does one dictionary note only that the traits are atypical, while the other two give (slightly conflicting) information on how others react to those differences?
I don’t have full answers to all those questions, by the way. I’d be interested to read what some of you think. (All of us together know more and speculate better than any one of us can alone.)
Thought the third: Just like the term “self-advocate,” yes, “quirky” is true, but incomplete. It doesn’t tell the whole story. (How often can one word tell the whole story?) Quirky doesn’t tell you that I didn’t figure out intentional disobediance was an option until a special education aide (not officially there for me, but still) told me so. Quirky doesn’t tell you why we rock or flap or generally act as neurodivergent as we are.
Thought the fourth: Quirky is “safe.” No one tells me “quiet hands” when I am just quirky (I have to partially quiet hands myself to continue to pass for merely quirky/weird, though.) No one tries to prevent me from going on a study abroad trip when I am just quirky. No administrators make multiple attempts to have me sent home from study abroad when I am just quirky, because “people like that shouldn’t be in college.”
Sometimes, being seen as purposefully weird is often safer or otherwise “better” than being unintentionally or involuntarily weird. Sometimes, we figure this out without even knowing we’ve figured it out, and so we get called on our (more) intentional weirdness rather than our (more) directly autistic traits. Sometimes this works. (Sometimes not.) It wasn’t the main point, really, but Mel writes about this some in sier BADD post from a while back.
That’s why I have typically let my students think I’m “just weird.” I mean, weird (quirky) is a true statement, and it’s a safer statement. (Isn’t there a stereotype that college professors are eccentric? Ever wonder why that is?) If I’m going to spend 2.5 hours per week (either 3 meetings of 50 minutes or 2 meetings of 75 minutes) in front of a classroom, teaching in a primarily spoken format (still a good bit of writing on the board), telling my students that I’m disabled and that my neurodivergence especially affects communication, language, and specifically speech is a risk. Yes, there are disability laws that theoretically protect me, but being open does mean more scrutiny in ways I don’t really want. When you’re “just quirky,” some communication … quirks are going to be more accepted than they are when you’re openly disabled, and it’s not about the particular differences. Same person, same communication patterns, different responses based on the label, and that’s why quirky can be safer.
Thought the fifth: Quirky is erasure. (There’s quite a few kinds of erasure, and this is definitely the point to plug Neurodivergent K’s post on erasure from earlier in this series.) Quirky isn’t quite assimilation, but it’s not not assimilation either. Quirky is when we’re implicitly expected to be weird, but not too weird, and not blatantly and explicitly neurodivegent. It’s what we get when we make euphemisms and talk about the (shinier) ways that someone is neurodivergent, disabled, without saying those words. It’s a bit like “differently abled” that way, though less condescending because there isn’t necessarily a specific disability label we’re avoiding when we say someone is “quirky.” Or maybe there is, and we just don’t know which one.
Quirky is erasure when it is avoiding calling me autistic because I’m “not like that” (I’m more like that than you want to admit.) Quirky is erasure and dodging responsibility for properly portraying disability in fiction when you draw the quirks from neurodivergence but refuse to address the neurodivergence behind the eccentricity. Quirky is erasure of other personality traits when the oddity is all your attention is drawn to, both in fiction and in real life. And Quirky is erasure when it’s given as the only vocabulary we have to discuss our differences, ignoring our disabilities. (How can you talk or write about an issue when you literally don’t have the words to do so? Sometimes I suspect keeping those words from us is done intentionally to keep us from communicating frankly and openly about disability and ableism.)
And if to be safe, we have to erase ourselves, are we really safe at all?
This is part of a series of posts addressing themes from the neurodiversity movement and paradigm which will be published during the course of April 2016. To read the rest of the posts, please click here.