W.E.B. Du Bois coined the term “double consciousness” at the turn of the twentieth century. The concept describes the feeling of possessing more than one social identity and the subsequent difficulty in developing a unified sense of self.  Since reading this at the beginning of the semester, the idea of double consciousness has permeated many of our subsequent discussions and readings. I felt this most strongly last week while reading stories from Oliver Sacks’, An Anthropologist on Mars: Seven Paradoxical Tales. While Du Bois writes about race in the essay “Of Our Spiritual Strivings” from The Souls of Black Folk, in particular the experience of Black Americans, his lens can be readily applied to the experience of living with a disability. Despite increasing attempts to assist and accommodate those with physical and mental disabilities, they are another group of people regularly “othered” by society. The titular story from this week chronicling Sacks’ experience meeting Temple Grandin illustrates this connection.
Grandin sheds light on her idea of disability, paralleling what DuBois’ calls double consciousness, “the peculiar sensation…of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity.”  Temple Grandin seems more adept than most at “looking at herself through the eyes of others”. Her ability to do so has been a huge factor in her success as an academic and a public speaker, and has been tremendous in helping the world understand autism and the lives of people with disabilities.
Du Bois comment on contempt and pity struck a chord with me. I spent nearly my entire sophomore year of high school in a wheelchair or with walking aids. Most people wanted to be helpful; they opened doors and offered to hold my backpack. However, people with disabilities do not always like the implied assumption that they are incapable of completing a task, regardless of whether or not the assistance is needed. In my direct experiences, both personal and professional, while it is understood that offering aid is courteous, it also very consciously draws to mind that the disability is being seen rather than the person as a whole.
Taken another way, the experience of autism is the struggle to understand the fundamental differences between implicit and explicit communication. Implicit communication, that is societal expectations and public behavior, comes naturally to most people as they acquire new life experiences. A person with autism, Grandin says, needs to very consciously record such interactions and learn to make explicit their observations of the implicit. This is the idea behind her statement of feeling like, “an anthropologist on Mars.”  This is all compounded by her identity as a strongly visual thinker. The majority of people think in words or language. Some people, however, think more visually, or in pictures, and there is a much higher incidence of this type of thought in people with autism.
Grandin is able to concretely verbalize her experience as a person with autism and interactions with neuro-typical people on a daily basis. Autism is generally characterized as a disorder affecting one’s ability to communicate and empathize with others, as well as one with issues of sensory over and under stimulation. She has helped herself to cope with the latter by modifying equipment normally used for animals and using it to apply controlled pressure to her body, creating a level of comfort.
While Grandin was fortunate to overcome the inability to speak early in her life, Sacks is amazed that she exhibits, “an enormous difference between [her] recognition of animal moods and signs and her extraordinary difficulties understanding human beings, their codes and signals, the way they conduct themselves.”  Given the neurology of the autistic brain, it makes sense that she might understand animals and their behavior more easily than humans. After all, there is no implicit communication to interpret, and more importantly, to understand.
For those who enjoyed Oliver Sacks’ stories and are thirsty for more, I strongly recommend checking out the film Awakenings. It is a terrific movie and provides a visualization of his holistic approach to medicine.
 Alston, Chevette. “Double Consciousness & Du Bois: Definition, Lesson & Quiz.” Education Portal at Study.com. Accessed May 4, 2015. http://study.com/academy/lesson/double-consciousness-du-bois-definition-lesson-quiz.html.
 Bois, W. E. B. “The Souls of Black Folk: Of Our Spiritual Strivings.” In W.E.B. Du Bois: A Reader, edited by David L. Lewis. New York, NY: H. Holt and, 1995.
 Sacks, Oliver W. “An Anthropologist on Mars.” In An Anthropologist on Mars: Seven Paradoxical Tales. New York, NY: Knopf, 1995. 259.
 Sacks. 269.