Unstrange Mind

Autistic Author, Artist, Advocate, and Speaker

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But What About the Good ABA Therapists?

ABA Bear

Image description: A hand-drawn bear of many textures is riding a tricycle. Above him are the letters ABA and below the letters, it says Abolish Bear Abuse. Below the bear, it says A bear will do ridiculously unnatural things for a handful of gummy humans … but that does not give you the right to make him do it. Available on t-shirts, stickers, tote bags, and more. Copyright Maxfield Sparrow

This week I ended up in yet another conversation with someone who wanted to defend ABA. He repeatedly asked us not to demonize ABA and kept dismissing discussions of the origins of ABA by saying that Lovaas is a long time ago and we can’t compare ABA to where it came from. Along the way, he used a racist analogy that I won’t repeat here.

He kept insisting that there are abusive ABA practitioners and good ABA practitioners so we shouldn’t vilify the entire body of ABA based on those bad apples. After several rounds of that, I wrote this and decided to polish it and share it here in my blog as well.  Thanks for reading!

My problem is bigger than ABA. I have a strong issue with the entire field of behaviorism from which it springs. (I know, I know. You have some analogy about how I shouldn’t judge roses unfairly because they grew from manure. Now we can skip past all these analogies. You’ve been heard there.)

Before behaviorism, psychology was concerned with mind. Psyche. It’s hard to translate from the Greek, but you usually get soul, mind, or spirit. The whole field of psychology was concerned with interiority.

Along came Skinner with his boxes and his pigeons and his scientific revolution. You can’t question a pigeon about her interior existence or enact the talking cure on her. All you can observe is her behavior. And so behaviorism was born, by studying animals and later transferring the methodology to humans.

Skinner didn’t originally want behaviorism to be applied to humans. Read Steve Silberman’s excellent history in the book Neurotribes for more details about Skinner’s concern and eventual yielding to those who wanted the theories of behaviorism to enter the field of human psychology.

This is why so much ABA looks like animal training: that’s where it came from. Watch anyone training a bear to do tricks and you will recognize the methods. (Any readers who have been traumatized by therapies should not watch videos of bear training. It gave me nightmares for weeks.)

ABA has a fundamental flaw because Behaviorism has a fundamental flaw. It’s a psychology cul-de-sac that people cling on to because they don’t know how to access the interiority of those who do not speak so they don’t know how to do any psychology other than animal training when faced with non-speaking clients.

And since Behaviorism rapidly became the gold standard for addressing autism, the toxic viewpoint and theories blanket nearly all autism projects, programs, theories, therapies, and classes. Most insurance will only pay for something named ABA, so everyone jumps into that name because it’s the only game in town. And the organizations certifying people as officially qualified to perform ABA are perpetuating everything that’s wrong with Behaviorism while veiling it in soothing words — often, ironically, Behaviorists use wording lifted from the Neurodiversity Movement but stripped of their intended meaning and context. It’s insidious and it’s awful.

And some good people slip through. Some people give lip service to behaviorism, knowing in their heart it’s the wrong approach, get their certification, and then get out into the world and practice with genuine compassion and help people.

And a lot of those people don’t have the resources to set up their own practice, so they go to work for someone else and are forced to do things they feel very wrong about if they want to keep that job. Those who don’t have the resources to quit and go work someplace else end up with PTSD over time because of what they are economically forced to perpetrate. I feel for them. I’ve met some after they quit and recovered somewhat. It’s a very real trauma they’ve experienced — the trauma of causing trauma in others.

I never did make that flaw in Behaviorism clear, did I? That flaw is the Black Box. Behaviorism is external. Behavior. What you observe.

You say ABA cares about internal things? Motives? Preferences? Aversions?

True, but it’s designed to be able to glean all that from observing behavior, not from social-emotional bonding between client and professional.

You can talk all day long about practitioners who do care about their clients, who do bond with them socially and emotionally, who do care about interiority, etc. You and I both know that they exist. I have met some BCBAs that I really liked, who were genuinely good people.

But … in order to present ABA as something beneficial for ALL Autistics, it has to be something that can be done with non-speaking Autistics and show documentable results.

That’s the number one argument I hear from those who support ABA: “it works. It’s documented.”

I’m not denying that. ABA works for all the same reasons that bear training works. My argument against Behaviorism is that I don’t want my people viewed as or treated like animals. We are human beings. It harms us to be viewed as or treated like animals and that is what Behaviorism encourages from its practitioners.

Behaviorism, at its core, only cares about the exterior reality of a person. And until professionals start learning how to access interiority with non-speaking Autistics (it can be done. I know parents who do it every day with their non-speaking children) Behaviorism and ABA will always be the order of the day because ABA is easy and documentable and no therapist ever has to return 15 to 20 years later to clean up the mess when the trauma they started finally comes to full fruit.

Every oppressive system has many, many good people in it. People get caught into systems in so many different ways. I will never deny that there are good people out there practicing ABA. But there are far more people out there damaging children because they are working from within a system that, by design, damages people.  In the end, the good ABA therapists don’t matter. I mean, they matter as human beings and I feel for the struggles they will face if we manage to get rid of ABA and they have to re-certify in something else.

But it doesn’t matter that there are good people doing good work in ABA. The system is so flawed and so damaging those few good apples aren’t worth taking on the whole rotten barrel.

 

 

ABA

misty summer sunrise in maine

image description: An early sunrise in late summer coastal Maine, the sky streaked with orange and the crevices in the land filled with a river of mist. This side of the mist is a picturesque tool shed surrounded by carefully curated “wild” vegetation. Photograph copyright 2016 by Sparrow Rose Jones

This is a re-blog of a blog post originally made on 7 October, 2014. An edited version of this essay appears in the excellent anthology: The Real Experts: Readings for Parents of Autistic Children, edited by the incomparable Michelle Sutton and available for purchase from Autonomous Press or a library or bookseller near you (and if it is not available at a library or bookseller near you, please do ask them to provide copies. Thank you.) This essay also appeared as a guest post on the Diary of a Mom blog and on the Tiny Grace Notes blog.

Content note: compliance-based training, labeled as therapy. Lasting trauma and PTSD from ill-advised treatments. Sexual abuse and rape. The lasting effects of ABA (Applied Behavioral Analysis). The risk of being told “not my ABA.”


This week, I watched a community implode. I’m not going to talk about that, though, because it was very painful to watch people I love being treated so badly. But a lot of the implosion centered around a topic I do want to talk about. That topic is ABA – Applied Behavior Analysis, a common type of therapy for Autistic children. I watched people fight around in circles, chasing their metaphorical tails. It will take some time and lots of words to unpack this topic, but I hope you will stick with me on this because it’s so important and there is a lot that needs to be understood here.

Here’s the argument in a nutshell. It gets longer, angrier, and much more detailed than this, but I am exhausted just from reading the fighting, so I’m boiling it all down to two statements. And both statements are correct.

Autistic adult: “ABA is abuse.”

Parent of Autistic child: “I’m not abusive and my child is benefitting greatly from ABA therapy.”

You read me right: both statements are correct. That is part of what I need to unpack today. I think the best place to start is with the fact that both people above are using the term “ABA”, but what they are actually talking about are usually two different things. First we need to define ABA.

Well, actually, first I want to put people at ease. Parents — it’s got to be painful to feel like a whole group of people are ganging up on you and telling you that you are abusing your child. You love your child. You want the best for your child. You are spending thousands of dollars out of pocket to try to give your child the best possible chance in life. You worry about your child. You feel like you never even knew what love was until your child came along. You are not abusing your child. And if something you are doing is harming your child, you want to know about it and stop it. It hurts to be told that you are abusive toward the child you love so much.

And my fellow Autistics — you grew up feeling picked apart. You were subjected to things that harmed you. You still have PTSD today from things that may have been done with your best interests at heart but were actually quite damaging. You don’t fit in to the world around you and the adults who were charged with your care when you were growing up were stumbling around in the dark when it came to trying to figure out how to raise a child like you were. It is triggering to see that so many of the things that hurt you when you were growing up are still being said and done to and about children who are so very much like you were when you were their age. You want to stop the cycle of pain and you want children to grow up happy, healthy, and loved. It frightens and angers you to see many of the “best practices” that Autistic children today live with.

And there is a good chance that the two of you — the Autistic adult and the parent of an Autistic child — are not even talking about the same thing when you say “ABA.” Major organizations (particularly Autism Speaks) have lobbied hard for Medicaid and insurance companies to cover ABA therapy for Autistic children. As a result, many therapists now call what they do “ABA,” even in cases where the actual therapy is very different from genuine ABA, in order to have their services covered by insurance. It’s similar to the philosophy of therapists I’ve known who don’t believe in diagnosing mental illness but put a name on their patients’ struggles anyway because many insurance policies only pay for therapy if the treatment is for a diagnosis listed in the DSM. That’s the main point that I wanted to make, but there’s still a lot to say on this topic.

If almost everything is being called “ABA” then what is actual ABA? And why do Autistic adults say it is abusive? What sort of warning signs should parents be watching for? What is harmful about certain practices? Those are a lot of questions to answer, but I will do my best. Bear in mind that I’m not a therapist — ABA or otherwise — and I’m not a parent. I’m one Autistic adult, one person coping with therapy-induced PTSD, one person exhausted by the all-out war I see every day between people like me and people who love people like me, one person who wants to see a better world for everyone (but, I admit, especially for Autistic people.)

ABA was developed by Dr. Ivar Lovaas. As a 1965 Life Magazine article explains, the core theory of ABA was that a therapist, “forcing a change in a child’s outward behavior” would, “effect an inward psychological change.” The article says, “Lovaas feels that by I) holding any mentally crippled child accountable for his behavior and 2) forcing him to act normal, he can push the child toward normality.”

Much has changed, but this core premise of Lovaas’ work remains solid. ABA’s core belief is that forty hours per week of therapy geared toward making a child externally appear as “normal” as possible will “fix the brokenness” inside that made the child behave that way. ABA believes in an extreme form of “fake it until you make it,” and because it is behaviorism at its most pure — that is, a psychological science that treats internal processes as irrelevant to function (Lovaas said, “you have to put out the fire first before you worry how it started”) — it treats behavior as meaningless and unwanted actions rather than as communication.

This approach is troubling for many reasons.

ABA strongly emphasizes the importance of intensive, saturated therapy and insists that it is crucial to get 40 hours a week of therapy for very young children. Think for a moment how exhausted you, a grown adult, are after 40 hours of work in a week and you will begin to understand why we get so concerned about putting a three-year-old child through such a grueling schedule. Being Autistic doesn’t give a three-year-old child superpowers of endurance. Forty hours a week of ABA is not just expensive, it is painfully exhausting. ABA maintains a schedule like this with the intention of breaking down a child’s resistance and will.

I understand that you are afraid for your child. Their future is unknown. You are worried about their ability to live a fulfilled life. You are worried about their ability to have self-supporting work and be taken care of after you pass on. And I understand that this fear, coupled with a deep desire to give your child the best you can give them, can lead you to accept the ABA attitude of “more is better.” But stop a moment and think about the capacity for sustained focus of the average three-year-old and consider what a therapy that tries to double (or more) that capacity is doing to a child. If you stress a child out or even traumatize them with extreme therapies, you are paradoxically increasing the chances of incapacitating PTSD in the child’s future. Yes, you want your child to develop as much as they are able to develop and you want them to enjoy their life and hopefully provide for themselves, but exhaustion and trauma are not going to aid those sorts of development.

Worse than the exhaustion of so many hours of therapy, though, is the heavy focus on making a child “indistinguishable from his peers.” The main goal of ABA is to make a child LOOK normal. This is insidious for a few reasons. first, it is the best way to get the parents to continue to co-operate with the therapists for many years. Of course you are going to be moved to tears if the therapist gets your child to look you in the eye or say “Mommy” to you or sit at the table and eat a meal without fidgeting or melting down. Of course you will feel like the therapist is making progress and healing your child. That is a very natural response. So you will see the progress and you will want to continue with ABA therapy and you will be very defensive when adults Autistics online suggest that what is happening in your home might be a bad thing. What was bad were fights every mealtime. What was bad was never hearing your child’s voice. What was bad were the judgmental or pitying stares you and your child got when you went out in public and people saw your child spinning around or flapping her hands or becoming so anxious you were forced to leave your groceries unpurchased and flee the store.

But if your child is getting classic ABA therapy, what you are seeing is an illusion. And what looks like progress is happening at the expense of the child’s sense of self, comfort, feelings of safety, ability to love who they are, stress levels, and more. The outward appearance is of improvement, but with classic ABA therapy, that outward improvement is married to a dramatic increase in internal anxiety and suffering.

ABA therapists are trained to find out what your child loves the most and hold it ransom. Often, it’s food. If your therapist suggests withholding food as a form of behavioral therapy, run screaming. That is harmful. If your child’s therapist will not allow you to remain in the room during a session (they will usually tell you that your presence will be a distraction that will keep your child focused on you instead of on the therapy they need to be paying attention to) that is a big warning sign. If you are able to witness your child’s therapy sessions and your child is spending a lot of time crying or going limp or flopping on the floor or showing signs you recognize as indicators of anxiety or fear, beware the therapy. If the therapist insists on pushing forward with the therapy when your child is crying or going limp instead of giving your child recovery time, run screaming. Therapy that trades your child’s sense of safety in the present for a promise of future progress is exactly the sort of thing that Autistic adults mean when they talk about abusive therapy.

Therapy should make your child better, not traumatize them, possibly for many years, potentially for the rest of their life. A therapist might tell you that “a little crying” is a normal thing, but I was once an Autistic child and I can tell you that being pushed repeatedly to the point of tears with zero sense of personal power and knowing that the only way to get the repeated torment to end was to comply with everything that was asked of me, no matter how painful, no matter how uneasy it made me feel, no matter how unreasonable the request seemed, knowing that I had no way out of a repeat of the torment again and again for what felt like it would be the rest of my life was traumatizing to such a degree that I still carry emotional scars decades later. It doesn’t matter whether the perpetrator is a therapist, a teacher, a parent, or an age-peer: bullying is bullying.

In my opinion, the goal of therapy should be to help the child live a better, happier, more functional life. Taking away things like hand flapping or spinning is not done to help the child. It is done because the people around the child are uncomfortable with or embarrassed by those behaviors. But those are coping behaviors for the child. It is very important to question why a child engages in the behaviors they do. It is very wrong to seek to train away those behaviors without understanding that they are the child’s means of self-regulation. When considering whether you have made a wise choice in what therapy you are providing your child or not, you want to always remember a few cardinal rules: behavior is communication and/or a means of self-regulation. Communication is more important than speech. Human connection is more important than forced eye contact. Trust is easy to shatter and painfully difficult to re-build. It is more important for a child to be comfortable and functional than to “look normal.”

Work on things like anxiety and sensory issues first. Work on getting better sleep (both you and your child). Things like eye contact can come later, much later, and only if your child is comfortable with them. There are work-arounds. Lots of people fake eye contact. Lots of people have good lives with minimal or no eye contact. But forcing a child to do something that is deeply painful and distressing for no reason other than to make them look more normal is not just unnecessary, it is cruel.

I live two blocks from a behavioral clinic and I frequently walk several blocks out of my way to avoid walking past it because of the kinds of things I have seen when walking past the clinic. Let me tell you about the last thing I saw there, the thing that made me decide that I would rather walk an extra half-mile than risk seeing more ABA therapy on the sidewalk in front of the clinic.

A mother and father came out of the clinic with a little girl, around 7 years old by my best guess. Mother said, “Janie (not the actual name), look at me.” Janie didn’t look at her mother. The mother said to the father, “you know what to do,” and the father took hold of Janie and turned her head toward mother, saying, “look at your mother, Janie.” Janie resisted, turning her head away and trying to pull out of her father’s hands.

Mother crouched down and Father lifted Janie’s whole body up, laying her across Mother’s knee, face up. “Look at your mother, Janie,” father said. “Look at me, Janie,” Mother said. Janie began to whimper. Her body was as stiff as a board. Father held her body firm and Mother took hold of Janie’s head, “look at me, Janie,” Mother said.

I was glued to the sidewalk. I didn’t want to see any more but I couldn’t look away, couldn’t walk away. Janie began to moan and thrash her body. Father’s hands held her body steady as she kicked and flailed. Mother’s hands held Janie’s head steady. Both kept urging Janie to look at her mother. Janie’s moans turned to screams but neither parent let her go.

Finally, Janie’s entire body went limp with defeat. She apparently made eye contact because Mother and Father began to lavish praise on her. “Good girl, Janie. Good eye contact. Good girl. Let’s get some ice cream now.” Janie’s limp body slid to the sidewalk where she lay, sobbing. Father picked her up and carried her to the car, the whole way praising her submission. “Good eye contact, Janie.”

a drawing of eyes looking away with the caption forced eye contact hinders human contact

(This image – a drawing of eyes looking away with the caption
“Forced eye contact hinders human contact” – is a sticker and is also
available as a light t-shirt or dark t-shirt in adult and children’s sizes.)

What did Janie learn that day? I’ll give you a hint: it was not that people are more trusting of those who make good eye contact. It was not that she will appear more normal and thus fit into society better if she makes good eye contact. It wasn’t even that Mom really loves it when Janie connects with her through the eyes like that.

Janie learned that adults can have whatever they want from her, even if it hurts and even if they have to hurt her to get it. Janie learned that her body does not belong to her and that she has to give others access to it at any time, for any reason, even if she wasn’t doing anything that could hurt herself or others. Janie learned that there is no point in resisting and that it is her job to let others do what they want with her body, no matter how uncomfortable it makes her.

You may think I’m exaggerating or making this out to be more extreme than it is, but stop for a moment and imagine years of this therapy. Forty hours a week of being told to touch her nose and make eye contact and have quiet hands and sit still. A hundred and sixty hours a month of being restrained and punished when she doesn’t want to touch her nose and being given candy and praise when she does touch her nose for the 90,000th time. Nearly two thousand hours a year of being explicitly taught that she does not own her body and she does not have the right to move it in ways that feel comfortable and safe to her. How many years will she be in therapy? How many years will she be taught to be a good girl? To touch her nose on command? To make eye contact on demand? Graduating to hugs, she will be taught that she is required to hug any adult who wants a hug from her. She will be punished when she does not hug and praised and fed when she does.

And who will protect her from the predator who wants to hug her? Who will teach her that she is only required to yield her bodily autonomy for her parents and therapists but not for strangers? What if the predator turns out to be one of her therapists or parents? How will she resist abuse when she has had so many hours of training in submission? Therapy is an investment in the future, but ABA therapy is creating a future for Janie of being the world’s doormat. Is that the future Janie’s parents want for her?

If your child’s therapist believes it is more important for your child to comply with every command than to have any control at all over his or her body, run screaming. And don’t forget that a layer of training does not change the underlying neurology. ABA uses the same methods and theories as dog training and if I train my dog to shake hands, it doesn’t make him more human. It just makes him a dog who can shake hands. Similarly, if you train an Autistic to make eye contact and not flap their hands and say “I love you, too” and stay on task, it just makes them into an Autistic who can fake being not-autistic with some relative measure of success. Underneath the performance is still an Autistic brain and an Autistic nervous system and it is very important to remember that. Being trained to hide any reaction to painful noises, smells, lights, and feelings doesn’t make the pain go away. Imagine years of living with pain that you have been trained to hide. How long would it last before you broke down? Some Autistics last an amazingly long time before they break down and burn out.

And intensive ABA therapy will also teach a child that there is something fundamentally wrong and unacceptable about who they are. Not only is that child trained to look normal, they are trained to hate who they are inside. They are trained to hate who they are and hide who they are. They will work very hard to hide who they are, because they have learned to hate who they are. And as a result, they will push themselves to the brink of destruction. And when they finally crumble from years of hiding their sensory pain and years of performing their social scripts and blaming themselves every time a script doesn’t carry them successfully through a social situation, they will be angry at themselves and blame themselves for their nervous breakdown and autistic burn-out.

All those years of ABA therapy will have taught them that they are fundamentally wrong and broken; that they are required to do everything authority demands of them (whether it’s right or wrong for them); that they are always the one at fault when anything social goes wrong; that they get love, praise, and their basic survival needs met so long as they can hide any trace of autism from others; that what they want doesn’t matter.

Now you know what to watch for. Your child’s therapist may use the term “ABA” in order to get paid, but they might not be doing these harmful, degrading, abusive things to your child at all. If your child’s therapist is respecting your child, not trying to break down the child’s sense of self and body-ownership, treating behavior as communication rather than pointless motions that need to be trained away, valuing speech but not at the expense of communication, giving your child breaks to recover and not over-taxing their limited focusing abilities . . . then they can call their therapy anything they want to, but it is not ABA. (And hold on to that therapist! They are golden!)

And I hope that the next time you hear an Autistic adult say that ABA is abuse, you are compassionate. Remember the suffering so many of us endured. Know that we say those things because we love your children and want to help them. We do not say them because we hate you and want to call you abusers. We don’t hate you at all and we want to help you. Sometimes we are clumsy in how we go about it, because, well, we are Autistic and communication difficulties are part of that package. But know that when we attack ABA, we are not intending to attack you. We want your child to sleep through the night and laugh with joy and become toilet trained (on whatever schedule their bodies can handle — don’t forget that we tend to be late bloomers), and have a healthy, happy, productive, love-filled life.

We want you to rejoice in parenting and connect with your children on a deep and meaningful level. When an Autistic adult says “ABA is abuse,” you might be tempted to hear, “you are abusing your child.” But that is not what we are saying. Next time you hear an Autistic adult say “ABA is abuse,” please hear those words as, “I love you and your child. Be careful! There are unscrupulous people out there who will try to convert the fear you feel for your child’s future into money in their pocket at the cost of your child’s well-being.”

And if you are a therapist and you are upset when we say “ABA is abuse”, know that we are not talking about you . . . unless you are using shock punishments or making children endure long hours of arduous therapy beyond their ability to cope or teaching children that they do not have the right to say who can have access to intimacy with their body or not (and forced eye contact is a particularly nasty violation of a person’s control over their bodily intimacy.) If you are not the kind of therapist who we are talking about when we talk about the harm of therapy, then we are not talking about you! Thank you for being one of the good guys. We need more like you. Teach others what you know. Spread the love and help change the world, please!

Thank you for reading all of this. I know it was a lot of words, but this is such an important topic. The children are the future and I don’t have words to explain how painful it is when I see Autistic adults being verbally bullied and abused because they are trying to help the children by helping parents to understand more about the lived experience of autism and more about the kinds of things that can be very harmful to Autistic lives. I had over a decade of therapy in my childhood and much of it was not good therapy and I am explicitly damaged because of it. When I say ABA is abuse — when we Autistic adults say ABA is abuse — we are speaking from a collective wisdom gained through painful experiences that have left lasting scars on us. We don’t want anyone else to have to go through the pain we have gone through. Please respect where we are coming from and please do not add to the trauma by attacking us for trying to help others. Thank you.

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Edited to add: if you would like to see some video examples of helpful vs. harmful therapies, check out this blog post I made a month later on that topic:

Helpful vs. Harmful Therapies: What Do They Look Like?

N24 Awareness Day 2018 – Autistic and Living With N24

It’s that time of year again: November 24th is N24 Day. If you read my blog for autism information, you’ll want to keep reading because N24 is roughly three times as prevalent among Autistic people as in the general population. And if you read my blog to get to know me better you’ll definitely want to keep reading because N24 is my most challenging disability (and I am deeply and pervasively challenged by living Autistic in a world not build with our needs in mine.)

N24 is short for Non-24-Hour Sleep-Wake Syndrome which has many other names including free-running sleep disorder and hypernychthemeral syndrome (I will happily pronounce that last one for you if we ever meet in person and you remember to ask me.) N24 is a circadian rhythm disorder (CRD) and it has “sleep-wake” in the name, but it’s about so much more than sleep. Sleep is the most obvious marker of the disorder so that’s what it gets identified by and what it’s named after, but it affects the body on deep, systemic levels.

Here’s the nutshell scientific description. I’m keeping it as short and sweet as I know how to:

In the center of your brain, there is a region just above the optic chiasm (the place your optic nerves run through on their way to the visual cortex at the back of your brain.) That brain region is named by its location rather than its function: the suprachiasmatic nucleus. The short name is the SCN.

Your retina is the “movie input” for the imaginary visual theater in your brain. Light comes into your eyes and the rods and cones on your retina translate that analog information into electrical impulses that pass through neurons on their way to the visual cortex where they’re interpreted (and the image, which becomes flipped on the way there, is corrected again so things that are right side up look right side up to our perception.) Many of you reading this were privileged enough to learn this information in high school (or even elementary school for some) but others may never have learned about rods and cones and how our nervous system works to allow us to see. So I apologize if I’m going over well-worn territory and you’re bored. I’m trying to get everyone on the same page.

So there’s another type of sensor on your retina that you probably never learned about unless you studied university-level biology. I’m not even going to bother with the long name because I’d have to look it up and it’s not that important to this story. So we’ll just stick with their nickname: ipRGC cells. (I might even have the capitalization wrong on that, but I’m stubbornly not going to look it up.)

The ipRGC cells are pretty special and there are some amazing experiments that have been done that show that many people who are 100% blind and can’t even see light and dark still have intact ipRGC cells that are doing the job they evolved to do. These neurons have super long axons that go all the way from the retina to the SCN in the center of the brain. And we’ve found one specific function of the ipRGC cells (though they probably do lots of other things I’m not aware of, like most body parts) which is that they recognize light (the ipRGC cells are found in their densest clusters on the parts of the retina that are most exposed to the sun when we are walking around outside) and tell the SCN about it.

That’s it. Even if our rods and cones are damaged or absent, so long as we have ipRGC cells we can “see” light and the SCN knows when day and night are happening and does its work accordingly.

Now you might ask me, why is it so important whether my SCN knows if it’s day or night? I’m glad you asked (even if it was a pretend ask that I just typed myself. You probably actually don’t care. Or I guess you marginally care or you wouldn’t still be reading.)

Every cell in your body has a clock in it. Even your blood cells have internal timekeeping mechanisms that have been shown to continue to respond to day and night in a laboratory after being removed from your body to be studied. Cells are tiny, though, and there’s not a lot of room in there for complicated “machinery.” The clocks in your cells are only as accurate as they need to be. They’re like those wall clocks that are designed to periodically talk to the “atomic clock” the Navy keeps. A radio signal broadcasts the most accurate time we have and your wall clock tunes in to that feed and nudges its own display regularly to reflect accurate time. The clock only needs to be vaguely accurate and check in with the radio signal often to make it a highly accurate clock.

Your body’s cells are the same way. They have clocks in them but they’re so-so. They’ve evolved to check in regularly with the SCN, which knows what time it is, to keep your body synchronized.

 

While bodies are always working to maintain homeostasis (a balancing act that requires different glands and organs to secrete precise amounts of hormones and other biochemicals.)the human body is not static. One example of homeostasis in action is when you eat a piece of chocolate cake and, if your pancreas is functioning properly, your body secretes insulin to escort all that sugar into your cells where it can be converted to the fuel your body runs on.

One example of the body not being static is that you have a different amount of cortisol when you wake up compared to when you go to bed. (Cortisol is usually referred to as a “stress hormone” but that can be a little deceptive because you’ll be way stressed out (and chronically ill) if your body doesn’t make enough cortisol (any cortisol at all.) That’s called Addison’s Disease.)  Someone without a CRD will usually have the most cortisol upon awakening (to rouse you and stir you from sleep) and, unless they’re under a chronic, unhealthy level of stress, cortisol will usually reduce through the day.

So your body is always changing what it’s doing and cycling through different hormonal routines. All of this is precisely timed and regulated by responses to stimuli — in other words, your body reacts when things happen to it. Some of those things are obvious: like eating the piece of chocolate cake. Some of those things are almost TOO obvious: they are things that are so much a part of your environment you might never actually think about them. One of the biggest stimuli — one that has ruled life on this planet for as long as there’s been life on this planet — is the light of the sun.

One way to measure light is lux. Lux is a measurement that combines brightness and distance. I spent thousands of dollars on therapy lights and still was only able to produce a tiny fraction of the lux our eyes receive when we’re sitting in the shade of a tree on an overcast day. The sun is bright and in the sky all day and not only does it let us see what’s around us, but it also regulates what our bodies do. Some mammals are mostly awake at night and sleep during the day. Others (like mice) are crepuscular. That means they are most active at dawn and twilight and chill during the darkest dark and the brightest light.

Humans evolved to be mostly diurnal – awake at day and asleep at night.  Yes, it’s not that simple. In the winter when nights are very long, humans who do not live with electricity (and thus no artificial lights to affect their SCN) tend to go to sleep earlier (because it gets dark earlier and dark triggers sleepiness in ways I will probably explain before I’m done writing this) and then wake up for a few hours in the middle of the night before going back to sleep for the second half of the night. If you do that and you live with electricity you are probably not experiencing that natural mid-sleep awakening. You are probably being disrupted by artificial lights, especially if you wake in the middle of the night year-round and not just in the darkest part of the winter.

Also, even without artificial lights, some people have an easier time in the morning (larks) and some have an easier time in the evening (owls) while the vast majority of people living without electricity will naturally wake at about the same time, early dawn. We have so many more night owls now than humans did historically because we live with artificial lights that have disrupted our circadian rhythms and the way our bodies’ timing system works, adding artificial light will make people into night owls, not into larks. Light keeps us awake because the ipRGC cells (which have tuned into blue and part of the green section of the light spectrum because the sky is blue and the sun is green (I know it looks yellow. That’s the effect of the atmosphere. I took a terrific astrophysics class from Dr. Ronen Plesser and one thing I love about how he teaches is that rather than tell you something cool about astronomy he has you do problem sets and teach yourself the cool stuff by discovering it through the calculations. I did the math and the sun is most definitely green.)

When we see blue/green light (which is mixed in with all the other colors in those white light bulbs we light up the night with) the SCN tells the brain to mop up the melatonin. Melatonin is a hormone that, among other things, helps you feel sleepy. That’s why dark makes you sleepy. It’s not the dark per se. It’s the absence of light from the blue-green spectrum. Using a purely red or amber light should allow your body to become sleepy as well if you are producing melatonin and no blue/green light is leaking into your red or amber light. That’s why a campfire won’t typically keep you up all night: not enough blue/green light in it to wipe out your melatonin.

But the SCN does more than just help you wake up and go to sleep. Remember all those cellular clocks that don’t keep perfect time? Without the “atomic clock” they will drift farther and farther away from the actual time? Your SCN is that atomic clock. Every cell in your body talks to the SCN. It’s a busy place. And when your SCN is confused, your entire body gets confused. It’s why studies show shift workers getting fatter and sicker on their work schedule – their SCN is struggling to keep up and their body literally doesn’t know what time it is. Hormones like ghrelin and leptin get out of whack. The stomach is not prepared to digest at mealtime. The pancreas doesn’t know which way is up and loses grip with its cycles and reactions.

Now back to what N24 is. Most people who have N24 are completely blind. They have N24 because they don’t have retinas. One example is an acquaintance, Eric, who had an infection that required his eyes to be removed. Now he has N24. I am not blind and I do appear to have functioning ipRGC cells, but detective work insinuates that the root of my N24 is my SCN, probably not my ipRGC cells. I say that because when I sleep outside and wake up with the sun and don’t go indoors until noon, my SCN starts functioning the way it is supposed to. When I live indoors I just can’t get enough light into my eyes for my brain to work the way it’s supposed to.

A freelance journalist wrote an article about me and my choice to live in my car in order to get the amount of sun I need in order to function: http://www.sparrowrose.com/2015_SeptOct_SciAmMind_circadian.pdf

So…. what happens to my body when I live indoors with the lower level of daytime light and much higher level of artificial evening light? The first thing that happens is I start to have “insomnia” and “excessive daytime sleepiness”. But that’s not actually what’s happening.

Think of your circadian rhythm like a conveyor belt. Your body is on a sort of long treadmill, moving through the cycles of the day. When you are in sync with the 24-hour day you probably wake up in the morning, get ready, go to work or school, hit a late afternoon slump, get a second wind and do fun things with family or friends in the evening, then go to bed and do it all over again the next day. You might stay up a little too late sometimes and maybe you always grumble when the alarm clock goes off. You might even be tired all the time because you keep staying up a little too late and stretching yourself a little too thin.

But you keep getting up and going to work every day because your circadian rhythm is like a thick rubber band. You can stretch it by staying up too late or setting the alarm earlier than your body wants to get up, but the stretchy band keeps snapping back into place. Maybe you don’t have any patience for people who are late or miss things because you know how hard it is to stay in a routine but, goshdarnit, you put in the effort and deal with the suffering and get it done so anyone else who doesn’t do that must be weak and undisciplined, right?

Except some of us have broken brains that have turned our stretchy rubber band into something stiff and rigid, fragile, easily broken and hard to restore.  There are two aspects to a CRD: your sleep is not happening at the time you want it to happen (and/or happening at times you don’t want it to) AND there is a rigidity that it’s futile to fight. I’ve fought (and lost) that battle and after a few times of getting so sleep deprived I was hallucinating and a few times of nearly accidentally killing myself by falling asleep while driving I’ve learned to respect the rigidity and respect that the Sleep Monster is stronger than I am.

So my “conveyor belt” is broken. In me, that looks like I still have a conveyor belt but instead of being 24 hours long it’s something like 26 hours long. When I don’t live outside, I come unmoored from the 24-hour day. I start to slip around the clock because my conveyor belt is set to the wrong speed. And my body’s cells get confused and start desynchronizing — for example, my immune system might think it’s 7 am while my stomach thinks its noon and my pancreas thinks it’s 3 am. When I am living outdoors and synchronized, I take 10 units of insulin per day. When I am living indoors and desynchronized I take over 30 units of insulin per day and still have what’s called “brittle diabetes” which means I’m always dangerously high or dangerously low and on a roller-coaster between the two with no real control. It’s miserable and deadly.

I get depressed and angry when I’m desynchronized, mostly because I feel so awful on such a deep, systemic level that I can’t even identify “what hurts”. Basically, everything is shit when I’m desynchronized. It takes days to recover from, as well.  And the worst part is that my entire connection to humanity falls apart. I can’t even make it to a doctor’s appointment when I’m desynchronized, let alone get to work or class. I learned I can’t even maintain a synchronous (like real-time chatting) online friendship because I can’t be awake consistently during the times my friends are awake. If I meet night people while I’m awake at night, I will continue to shift around the clock and not be able to see them for weeks. By the time I “come back around the clock” they have decided I abandoned them and moved on to other people.

So there’s my annual contribution to N24 Awareness Day – a rambling, stream-of-consciousness discussion about what I live with. There is no cure for N24. Evidence points to it being a genetic condition. I am forced to live in specific ways and with specific routines or the entire world falls apart and I can’t function. My circadian system is almost unbelievably delicate and it doesn’t take much to upset it. I can’t live with people. I can’t sleep with a lover. When I go to multi-day conferences I have to miss out on so much because I can’t spend three days in a dark hotel conference room watching powerpoint slides and my evenings in brightly lit hotel bars and dining halls. I have some laser goggles that filter out all the blue and green light but I hardly use them anymore. I had an evening class with a professor who thought it was really funny to use the red markers on the whiteboard and laugh about how I couldn’t see what he was writing (I could have easily seen blue or green markers as they would have looked black through my goggles.)

Being Autistic can be tremendously isolating and I do experience that. But my N24 makes me far lonelier and feel far more isolated. I can find people who appreciate Autistic people. I’ve never yet found anyone who appreciates N24, let alone anyone able and willing to bend their life the little bit I would need someone to bend to meet me.

Many of us Autistics complain that we go 95% of the way and meet neurotypicals unwilling to go that 5% because they insist that we should meet them half-way…not realizing how far we’ve already bent to get on that bridge between our neurologies.

With N24 I feel like I’ve gone 250% of the way and no one sees that because it’s still not enough for me to mesh with “normal society” (and I haven’t yet found an “abnormal society” that could be a social home for someone with N24.)  Even dating someone else with N24 was a challenge because we were dealing with TWO people’s sets of restrictions and then when one or both of us lost entrainment and became desynchronized we’d often be on different cycles, chasing one another around the clock like a dog chasing his tail and never catching it.

Being Autistic can be lonely, but I have a huge “Neurotribe” and many dear friends within that group. Having N24 is what it’s like to be a “tribe of one” — isolated, alone, misunderstood, and struggling to survive in every sense of the word.

And now, if you have read this far, you are so much more aware of N24 and the devastating effects it has on a person’s life. Thank you for listening.

 

 

Mercy(less) Killings – A List Poem

I’m working on a poetry manuscript and I wanted to share one of my poems with you. This is a poetic form called the List Poem and the form has a respectable history, having been used by ancient Greek poets, Biblical scripture, Walt Whitman, and Alan Ginsberg, among many others.

Content note: murdered Autistics, murdered children.


Mercy(less) Killings: A List Poem
Maxfield Sparrow

“A person with a disability is killed by their parent or other caregiver approximately every week.”1

At least 72 disabled people were killed by their parents or caregivers in the year 20132
These were the Autistics slain:

  1. Brandon White3 – smothered with a pillow by his mother’s boyfriend, age 15 years.
  2. Tia Jones4 – slow death from neglect and multiple untreated infections, age 12 years.
  3. Jessie Dziomba5 – days of severe diarrhea with no medical attention, age 19 years.
  4. Isabella Wiens6 – removed from a non-abusive mother with a learning disability then abused to death in foster care, age 21 months.
  5. Girl Child Seo7 – strangled by her mother, age 4 years.
  6. Alex Spourdalakis8 – stabbed in the heart by his mother, age 14 years.
  7. Robert Guinyard, Jr.9 – beaten to death with a metal rod by his father, age 4 years.
  8. Terry “JuJu” Smith, Jr.10 – killed by his step-brother and buried in the family’s backyard, age 11 years.
  9. Matthew Hafer11 – given an intentional prescription drug overdose by his mother, age 28 years.
  10. Jake Harkins12 – shot by his father, age 10 years.
  11. Jaelen Edge13 – poisoned and drowned by his mother, age 13 years.
  12. Tamiyah Audain14 – starved and had infections neglected by her aunt, age 12 years.
  13. Antonio Brooks15 – his father neglected medical care while Antonio slowly died from a ruptured stomach, age 14 years.
  14. Damiean “Luke” Gulley16 – strangled by his step-father who hid his body in a ravine, age 14 years.
  15. Randle Barrow17 – drowned by his mother, age 8 years.
  16. David Herrerra, Jr.18 – burned alive by his sister for the insurance money, age 22 years.

 

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  1. Perry, David. “Ruderman White Paper: Media Coverage of the Murder of People with Disabilities by Their Caregivers.” Issuu, Ruderman Family Foundation, Mar. 2017, issuu.com/rudermanfoundation/docs/murders_by_caregivers_wp_final_fina. Page 6.
  2. “2013 Deaths.” Disability Day of Mourning, disability-memorial.org/2013-deaths.
  3. Hutchins, Ethan. “Man Sentenced to 90 Years for Denison Teen’s Murder.” Texoma News, Weather, Sports | KXII News 12, www.kxii.com/home/headlines/911-call-helps-convict-Robert-Gray-Jr-of-murder-265783951.html.
  4. Shaffer, Cory. “Ohio Supreme Court Will Decide If 10-Year Prison Sentence Too Long for Parents Convicted of Letting Sick Child Die.” Cleveland.com, Cleveland.com, 12 Sept. 2018, www.cleveland.com/court-justice/index.ssf/2018/09/ohio_supreme_court_will_decide_1.html.
  5. Michel, Lou. “How Did Jessie Die?” The Buffalo News, The Buffalo News, 27 July 2013, buffalonews.com/2013/07/27/how-did-jessie-die/.
  6. Kane, Laura. “B.C. Mother Sues Province after Infant Daughter Dies in Foster Care.” CTVNews, 25 Mar. 2015, www.ctvnews.ca/canada/b-c-mother-sues-province-after-infant-daughter-dies-in-foster-care-1.2297457#.
  7. “Korean Mother Kills Her Autistic Child, Gets 3 Years in Prison.” Korean Mother Kills Her Autistic Child, Gets 3 Years in Prison – KoreaBANG, www.koreabang.com//2013/stories/korean-mother-kills-her-autistic-child-gets-3-years-in-prison.html.
  8. WFLD. “Suburban Mom Admits to Stabbing Autistic Son to Death.” WFLD, www.fox32chicago.com/news/crime/suburban-mom-admits-to-stabbing-autistic-son-to-death.
  9. Jamie. “Exclusive – Robert Guinyard’s Life and Death in SC’s Child Welfare System.” Thestate, The State, www.thestate.com/news/politics-government/politics-columns-blogs/the-buzz/article13876415.html.
  10. “Terry Smith Jr. – The Strange, Sad Story of a Murdered 11 Year Old Boy in Menifee, California.” Sott.net, www.sott.net/article/263989-Terry-Smith-Jr-The-strange-sad-story-of-a-murdered-11-year-old-boy-in-Menifee-California.
  11. Cullen, Natalie. “Woman Arrested For Murder in Son’s Death.” LASVEGASNOW, LASVEGASNOW, 31 July 2013, www.lasvegasnow.com/news/woman-arrested-for-murder-in-sons-death/72405028.
  12. “Memorial Dedicated at NE Phila. School to Autistic Boy Who Died.” CBS Philly, CBS Philly, 2 Apr. 2014, philadelphia.cbslocal.com/2014/04/02/memorial-dedicated-at-ne-phila-school-to-autistic-boy-who-died/.
  13. KABC. “Mother Sentenced to Life in Prison for Murder of 2 Kids in Santa Ana.” ABC7 Los Angeles, 9 Jan. 2016, abc7.com/news/mother-sentenced-to-life-in-prison-for-murder-of-2-kids-in-santa-ana/1152156/.
  14. CBS. “Report: Questions Arise For Child Welfare Workers After Death Of 12-Year-Old.” CBS Miami, CBS Miami, 27 Sept. 2013, miami.cbslocal.com/2013/09/27/report-questions-arise-for-child-welfare-workers-after-death-of-12-year-old/.
  15. Speed, Ashley K. “Hampton Man Pleads in Autistic Son’s Death.” Dailypress.com, 25 Aug. 2015, www.dailypress.com/news/crime/dp-nws-plea-manslaughter-20150826-story.html.
  16. Peres, Jessica, and Corin Hoggard. “Stepfather Arrested for the Murder of Damiean Gulley.” ABC30 Fresno, abc30.com/archive/9341176/.
  17. “Police Say Autistic Child Was Murdered by His Mother.” Quadcitiesdaily.com, 16 Dec. 2013, quadcitiesdaily.com/?p=140932&utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=police-say-autistic-child-was-murdered-by-his-mother.
  18. Malik, Alia. “Police: Woman Set Fire That Killed Her Brother.” San Antonio Express-News, Express-News, 22 May 2014, www.mysanantonio.com/news/local/article/Police-Woman-set-fire-that-killed-her-brother-5495449.php#photo-5620559.

The Protective Gift of Meltdowns

turtle

[image description: a terrapin in the middle of the road on a hot, sunny day.  His skin is dark with bright yellow stripes and his shell is ornate, covered with swirls of dark brown against a honey-yellow background. The terrapin is rushing to get across the street and his back leg is extended from the speed and force of his dash toward freedom. photo copyright 2017, Maxfield Sparrow.]


I hate meltdowns.  I hate the way they take over my entire body.  I hate the sick way I feel during a meltdown and I hate the long recovery time — sometimes minutes but just as often entire days — afterward when everything is too intense and I am overwhelmed and exhausted and have to put my life on hold while I recover.

I hate the embarrassment that comes from a meltdown in front of others.  I hate the fear that bubbles up with every meltdown.  Will this be the one that gets me arrested? Committed? Killed?

Meltdowns, Like Shutdowns, Are Harmful But Necessary

We Autistic adults and teens put a lot of energy into figuring out what will lead to a meltdown and working to avoid those things whenever possible.  Parents of younger Autistics also put a lot of energy and work into figuring these things out, both to try to keep triggering events out of their child’s life and to try to help their child learn how to recognize and steer around those triggers themselves. Outsiders who don’t understand will accuse us of being overly avoidance and self-indulgent and accuse our parents of spoiling and coddling us.

I have written about how shutdown can alter brain function in unwanted ways.  Meltdowns also have their dangers and can alter brain function over time.  A meltdown is an extreme stress reaction and chronic stress can damage brain structure and connectivity.

But meltdowns serve a purpose, just as another unpleasant experience that can also re-wire the brain if it continues chronically and unabated — pain — also serves an important and very necessary purpose.

Pain is an alarm system that helps us avoid bodily damage and urges us to try to change something to protect our body. While pain is usually unwanted and something we seek to avoid, without pain we would not live very long because we would not have such a strong drive to eliminate sources of damage to our bodies.

Meltdowns are alarm systems to protect our brains.

That idea is so important I gave it its own paragraph.  And I’ll say it again: without meltdowns, we would have nothing to protect our neurology from the very real damage that it can accumulate.

So often, I see researchers and other writers talking about meltdowns as if they were a malfunction or manifestation of damage.  I strongly disagree.  It is easy for someone outside of us to view a meltdown that way because they see an unpleasant outburst that makes their lives more unpleasant or difficult to be around.  They see someone who appears to be over-reacting to something that’s not such a big deal as all that.  They see someone immature who needs to grow up, snap out of it, or get a “good spanking”  to teach them to behave.

When someone doesn’t experience the hell it is to be the person having the meltdowns, they can easily misunderstand and misjudge what it actually happening.

Meltdowns Are A Normal Response To Sensitivities

Let me ask you something:  this is a thought experiment and you don’t have to actually do this, but you might understand better if you actually follow along physically.  Take your finger and poke the softer flesh on the inside of your thigh with it so that you are pressing the tip of your fingernail into your thigh.  Don’t actually damage yourself! You’re just looking for a reference sensation.  Poke it about as hard as you might press a button to ring someone’s doorbell.

If you have long, sharp fingernails that might have hurt a little bit (I hope you were careful.  The goal here is not to injure yourself — just to create a physical sensation.)  It was a quick poke, so it probably didn’t even leave a mark behind, no matter how long your fingernails are.

Now do the same thing to your gums, either above or below your teeth, in that area between your teeth and the inside of your lips.  Oh! You couldn’t even poke it as hard, could you?  Do be gentle with your gums, please.  I repeat, this is not about harming yourself.  You don’t even have to poke yourself at all if you don’t want to.  You know your thighs and gums.  You know without lifting a finger that I am telling you the truth when I say your gums are much more sensitive than your inner thigh.

And you are not “over-reacting”  when you have more pain response in your gums than in your thigh, right?  It’s easier to hurt your gums so your reaction to the same stimulus is much more intense when it is applied to your gum than to your thigh.  You are not self-indulgent or spoiled.  You don’t need a good spanking to get over how sensitive your gums are.  You just need to take extra care that things don’t poke you in the gums.

So what’s my point?  If you are not Autistic — and even more so if you are pretty close to neurotypical — your neurological wiring is more like your thigh.  Life pokes at you a lot and you don’t even notice it.  Much of life’s poking is fun for you.  Some pokes are less recreational but present satisfying challenges.  So when you see an Autistic person having a meltdown you might not even recognize the pokes they have been processing all day long because you don’t even feel them.

But our Autistic neurological wiring is more like your gums.  Except not even that predictable.  Some of our senses may be “hyporesponsive”  and we need to stimulate them to be aware that they are even functioning.  Some of us spin around or pace in circles.  Some of us move our hands or fingers in ways that make us feel better.  Some of us blast loud music with a heavy bass and drum component to it.  Some of us rock back and forth.  Our wiring demands more input than the world’s regular pokes can give us.

Some of our senses are “hyperresponsive”  and we need much less stimulation.  Life’s pokes are like fingernails grinding into our gums and we need to make it stop because we cannot bear the pain.  Loud sounds or high-pitched sounds get to some of us.  Others are overwhelmed by the struggle to understand speech when more than one person is talking at the same time.  Some can’t stand textures of fabrics or foods.

Most people I know are a complex mixture of hyporesponsiveness and hyperresponsiveness.  Most people I know have some senses that are both hypo and hyper responsive, changing over time.  I can’t give you any single idea of a sensory pattern for an Autistic neurology because we each have our own combinations of needs.

Normal Human Variation Includes Variant Emotional Sensitivity Levels

But when it comes to meltdowns, it’s not just sensory input (or lack thereof) that will set off an Autistic’s neurological warning system and throw us into meltdown.  What inspired me to write about this topic today was reading something I had written a year ago.  I spent a few months living in an emotionally abusive situation last year.  The man I was living with for a brief time figured out very quickly how to manipulate my compliance triggers.  He even commented specifically on how easy it was for him to physically subdue me once he spotted the compliance “fish-hooks”  that childhood had left embedded in me.

I’m not going to go into much detail about what he did for the same reason that I shy away from going into much detail about my decade of childhood therapy.  I am working on removing those hooks from my flesh.  The last thing I want to do is instruct others as to where those hooks are embedded and how to use them to steer me like a puppet.

My point in mentioning the incident at all is that I realized after the fact that my meltdowns had been sending me a very clear message I should have heeded immediately.  Instead, I did what I always do: I interpreted my meltdowns as a sign of how damaged I was and how much I needed help to gain self-control. Most of my life, I’ve allowed lovers to convince me to try to medicate my meltdowns into submission.  I have hated them because they seemed to illustrate how flawed and awful I was.  My thought process went like this: I melt down because I’m Autistic and meltdowns are frightening and horrible and who would want to be my romantic partner? I can’t blame people for treating me badly and wanting to get away from me because look at these meltdowns!

My experience last year helped me to finally realize that I was looking at things backwards.

I don’t melt down because I’m Autistic.

I melt down because something in my environment is intolerable and I am having a normal reaction of pain and/or anxiety.  That pain can be from something physical, like an intolerable temperature in the room or a sound that is piercing my eardrums and making me nauseated.  Or it can be something emotional, like internal feelings of frustration or external abuse.

Everyone has meltdowns.  It’s not just an Autistic thing.  But our wiring is different, just like the wiring is different between your thighs and your gums.  Some things that make neurotypicals meltdown don’t bother me.  A whole heaping lot of things that don’t bother neurotypicals make me meltdown terribly.  I’m not deficient in some way; I’m  wired differently.

Meltdowns Protect Us From Harmful Situations And People

One of the things I learned last year is that even when I can’t recognize abuse because I have alexithymia, even when I can’t recognize abuse because my compliance training is kicking in full force, my body and nervous system will send me the message with repeated meltdowns.

What I wrote a year ago:

If I have lots of shouting, freak-out, PTSD meltdowns when we spend time alone with each other, yes it’s an Autistic thing. But it also means you’re regularly doing something messed up.

An isolated meltdown could just be a random convergence of awful that has nothing to do with you, but if a pattern develops, you’re probably gaslighting me, mistreating me, abusing me, or generally taking nastily unfair advantage of that same autistic neurology that makes me unable to recognize I’m being abused or mistreated until I see the pattern of meltdowns.

All my life I’ve been told, and believed, that losing my shit was a personal shortcoming I should work to overcome.

I now realize it’s actually my body/brain’s alarm system letting me know something’s seriously wrong in my life. Something bad that needs to be fixed, like yesterday, if not sooner.

I finally realized all this today. Everything suddenly connected.

And in an instant, I no longer hate my meltdowns. I think I might actually love them. They protect me.

So… I still do hate meltdowns.  More specifically, I hate having meltdowns.  They are hard on me, physically and emotionally.  They are embarrassing, messy, frightening.

But I am grateful that my body has a way to tell me when I’m in a bad situation, even if my mind is not capable of figuring it out yet.  I vow to respect and honor my meltdowns.  This is not the same as excusing my behavior.  This is not the same as giving myself free reign to do whatever, whenever.

I still want to do whatever I can to avoid having a meltdown.  I still want to work on my ability to detect a meltdown on the horizon and remove myself to safety before things go too far.

But I also vow to listen to my meltdowns and pay closer attention to my triggers.  Meltdowns teach me what my nervous system can handle and what is too much for me.  Meltdowns teach me how to take care of myself.  Meltdowns teach me what my nervous system needs.  Meltdowns highlight areas of my life that are not on track.

Sometimes my depression shows me that something is wrong in my life but sometimes depression is just like a wildfire, burning out of control.  The same with anxiety.  But I have learned that meltdowns are always highlighting something I need to address.

Meltdowns protect me.  Some aspects of my neurology make me more vulnerable.  Some remnants of childhood experiences leave me more vulnerable.  Meltdowns fill that gap and send me messages about my life that can help me protect myself.

While I will never enjoy having a meltdown, I promise I will always value the protective gift meltdowns bring me.

 

The Evening Temple Grandin Cured My Hypernychthemeral Syndrome

For the Love of Cows

[image description: For the Love of Cows, Digital art created by Sparrow Rose (and available on a t-shirt by clicking the image) for an art history class focusing on the work of Andy Warhol. The assignment was to create a work of art inspired by Andy Warhol’s style while visiting one of his classic themes. Sparrow chose “celebrity” for the theme and built his artwork around Temple Grandin, arguably the most famous autistic alive. The work uses the classic image of Grandin lounging peacefully with cows. Superimposed over the image are ghostly images of slaughterhouse blueprints, depicting Grandin’s crowning achievement: drafting facilities rich in the organic curves that fulfill the demands of the bovine nervous system, enabling cows to meet their ultimate destiny feeling comfortable and secure.]


I met Temple Grandin. I didn’t write about that encounter when it happened, because I came away feeling very unhappy and angry. I needed a few years to process the feelings before I could write about meeting her.

-=-

Now I feel the need to talk about Temple Grandin. She made some statements recently about Autistics getting our butts out of the house and getting jobs. It horrified a lot of people, especially Autistics who can’t do that and parents of Autistics who don’t have that option.

-=-

I don’t need to write about that aspect of things, because The Teselecta Multiverse has already done such a brilliant job of it. I wholeheartedly recommend reading “I Regret to Inform You That Temple Grandin Is at It Again“. Also Check out Corina Becker’s Open Letter to Temple Grandin.

-=-

I want to talk about what it’s like being a multiply-disabled Autistic who can’t get/keep traditional employment and meeting Temple Grandin.

This is not easy to do because Grandin is such a public figure. For many people, Temple Grandin is the only non-fiction autistic adult they have ever heard of. I don’t want to deal with how I would feel if I tried to count or even estimate the number of times someone has said to me:

“Oh, you’re autistic? That’s very interesting. Have you ever heard of Temple Grandin?”

– random clueless people everywhere always

As if it were possible to be an Autistic adult and not have heard of her.

Before I tell you what it was like to meet Dr. Grandin, however, I have to give you some context. First we need to talk about one of my other disabilities, hypernychthemeral syndrome, a.k.a. Non-24-hour Sleep-Wake Syndrome or just Non-24 for short. Please don’t just skip over this part. Understanding my non-24 is essential to understanding this story overall.

-=-

I was born with a circadian rhythm disorder called Delayed Sleep Phase Disorder or DSPD. My case was pretty severe. By the time I was old enough to work, I was waking up at sunset and sleeping at sunrise. So I worked night jobs, but I couldn’t keep them. I could interview my way in the door because I can hold it together for 30 minutes to seem …. together enough to work at that bar or restaurant, I guess. I don’t know. But once I was actually working there every day I couldn’t keep up appearances full-time (because, as Albert Camus so aptly put it:

“Nobody realizes that some people
expend tremendous energy
merely to be normal.”

-Albert Camus

I suffered a lot during those years. I spent a lot of time homeless. I spent a lot of time living or working in places that were not the healthiest places I could have been if I’d had more options in life.

I finally decided to try academia. I’d gotten it into my head that college would be different. I probably got the idea from all those people who tried (unsuccessfully) to prevent me from dropping out of high school by dangling college as a carrot. “College will be different. People are too focused on what they’re doing to bother with bullying you. You can get really deeply into a topic and people will admire you for it, unlike high school where they beat you down for it.”

It was a nice dream. It wasn’t true. The bullying was just as bad in college. It got even worse in graduate school. Academia was not my solution, but I was learning a lot about self-regulation and coping, so I just kept pushing through, hoping I’d be able to figure out the social muddle eventually.

-=-

Except the struggle to get a degree while still living with extreme DSPD ended up creating a situation that was sort of accidental chronotherapy. James S.P. Fadden wrote about the danger of chronotherapy to those with severe DSPD in his article “What You Need to Know About Non-24,” saying “Non-24 also may result from attempts to treat another circadian disorder, Delayed Sleep Phase Syndrome (DSPS), using chronotherapy, in which patients are instructed to gradually delay their sleep time until they go around the clock to a more socially acceptable schedule.”

And Fadden is pretty clear about the reasons one would want to avoid developing Non-24. He writes:

The impact of non-24 on the lives of affected patients, both blind and sighted, is considerable. It has been described as “extremely debilitating in that it is incompatible with most social and professional obligations.”

-James S.P. Fadden, quoting Dr. Oren and Dr. Wehr, writing in the New England Journal of Medicine.

So this is the thing I live with now, this Non-24, and it makes it impossible to support myself by working inside a building or for most employers.

-=-

Award-winning author George Dawes Green has non-24. He just goes with it. There are treatments, but they don’t work very well in severe cases and even when they do work, they require an incredible amount of self-discipline and time-regulation. I did it for a while. It was expensive and tedious and entrainment was as fragile as a sculpture constructed from tobacco ash. I have also let myself go free-running like Green and can definitely see why he went with his choice, especially if his rhythm is very regular and predictable. Mine used to be when I was younger. Now it’s harder to predict and my sleep/wake drive is so rigid and ossifying more all the time as I age.

Fadden, on the other hand, points out that some people with non-24 prefer the “inconvenience” of the treatments to free-running. This is also true and I would fall into this camp if it were possible for me to actually have a life while adhering to therapy. I found it impossible to succeed in graduate school while adhering to the strict therapy regimen required to keep my non-24 in check.

I couldn’t live my life on the therapy and I have no desire to maintain the therapy if I’m not trying to fit in to the schedule required to maintain traditional employment and social connections. Being unemployed and living on disability is bad enough already without adding a draconian schedule of light and dark all the time.

Dawes understands the trade-off, saying, “It’s never easy. There is always that sense (that) if only I had a regular schedule, I could get so much more done. But I couldn’t be as creative. When I let myself go free — going to sleep when I want — then creativity surges through me.”

This reminds me so much of what bipolar friends have said when explaining why they don’t take medication, preferring instead to work with their body’s rhythms and honor their own process.

But free-running like George Dawes Green doesn’t resolve the strong metabolic issues that come along with my non-24. My suspicion, though I’ve never been tested sufficiently to prove it, is that my internal clocks are still desynchronized even when I’m sleeping and waking at my body’s request when free-running while living indoors. I need very bright sunlight to bring my body into synchrony.

-=-

My solution has come about through rather unconventional means. I manage my non-24 by living in my minivan. I consider this a valid medical approach to managing my non-24, every bit as much as injecting insulin and eating a ketogenic diet is a valid approach to managing my diabetes. The longer I live in my minivan (it will be two years on May 25th) the more I realize that I have finally found the only workable solution for me. It also means that I had to get van insurance from somewhere like one sure insurance just in case I get into an accident or my minivan is stolen.

I got the idea to move into the minivan around the same time as the conversation with Temple Grandin that I am working my way toward telling you about. Maybe a year after meeting Dr. Grandin, I was taking an excellent class in circadian biology from Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München through Coursera. The course, taught by Dr. Roenneberg and Dr. Merrow, was called Circadian Clocks: How Rhythms Structure Life.

While taking that class, I learned about ongoing research at the University of Colorado in Boulder on camping and circadian rhythms. Much of that work has been summarized in the recent article “Can’t Get to Sleep? Go Camping, Study Finds“. The first of the two studies included in the paper this article summarizes, was published in 2013. That study sent people camping for a week in the summer and found that spending the day outside in the sun and the night in darkness with nothing brighter than a campfire to illuminate the night caused the campers — who had entered the study with a full range of non-clinical chronotypes — to entrain to the sun together.

-=-

Now that was an angle I hadn’t considered! I was using a bank of therapy lights every day, ranging from several thousand lux to ten thousand lux. Annoyingly bright. Painfully bright. And useless unless I spent many hours in front of them every day.

But being outside? Not only is the sun less painful for me than therapy lights (although still a lot to handle) but a sunny day provides over ten times as many lux of brightness as my strongest therapy light. I spend a lot of time on the hottest days in the shade, with everything around me illuminated by the clear blue sky. That’s still twice as many lux as my most powerful therapy light.

It turns out that I sleep better when my nights are darker, but the most therapeutic thing for my non-24 (it varies from person to person, depending largely on the cause of their non-24) is to get enough very bright light in the daytime. So I’ve got to be outside every day.

And that’s when I first started seeing the logic of living in a van. If I could find a vehicle with lots of windows, I could wake with the sun. Whether I was inside or outside of my house, I’d be getting lots of therapeutic light. And I could travel with the seasons, so I could continue to spend time safely living and sleeping outdoors year round.

The Colorado researchers have conducted a second study that backs up the things I’ve learned in the last two years of living in my Chrysler minivan — a cozy micro-tiny home of roughly 70 square feet.

-=-

If I might be indulged in a brief digression, I’d like to tell you that I’m writing this right now from my office. I’m sitting on my bed with one foot on the vintage wool carpet that covers my floor. Mr. Kitty is sprawled beside me, sleeping peacefully, fang tips just peeking out from his slumbering smile. My tiny bluetooth speaker is filling the air with the best writing music I’ve found in ages: the Galactic Caravan channel on Pandora. The sun has reached the nine a.m. point in the sky: not quite at 45 degrees from horizon this time of year. Periodically, a gentle breeze comes through the slightly open window. I’m parked on a particularly appealing slant — it keeps my mousepad flat so my mouse doesn’t keep sliding around — next to the gym where I will be showering when I finish writing this. The weather is lovely. Tomorrow is Easter — Eastern and Western coincide this year. I’m eating peanut butter chocolate Keto Chow for lunch. Life is good.

-=-

One thing I have learned is that the winter sun is strong enough to keep me entrained as well. This is what the Colorado researchers also found in their second study: the winter sun is sufficiently potent when it comes to sleep entrainment. Moreover, they found that camping for a weekend produced 69% of the circadian shift that the full week had produced in their earlier study.

In my experience, the sun is necessary. Fully overcast days only provide one or two thousand lux of light. That’s far weaker than the therapy lights I used to use. And they barely worked. So I lose my entrainment if there are too many overcast days in a row.

And, over time, I’ve figured out that my magic number is three. Three days living indoors or in constantly rainy and overcast conditions will cause my body and sleep to desynchronize. And three days out in the sun, living and sleeping outdoors in good weather sews everything back up again.

The sun is so powerful that when I moved into my minivan full time on May 25th, 2015, I was at a phase in my sleep-wake cycle where I was only awake during darkness. It would normally take me around two weeks of patient waiting and carefully monitoring therapeutic light and darkness conditions to swing from that to waking up at sunrise.

I was waking at sunrise by May 28th, 2015.

-=-

Reporter Emily Laber-Warren had started studying my case in fall of 2014, to add color to her Scientific American Mind article about circadian rhythms and sleep. She was still actively asking me questions to verify details when I was unfurling my natural therapy wings at that first campsite in Hemingway’s fishing country, so she got to share my excitement at the shocking speed with which my body entrained to the sun.

In her article, Out of Sync, she wrote of me:

Managing non-24 made it impossible to hold down a job, but Jones has a character, shaped in part by autism, that is fundamentally optimistic and animated by passionate, sustaining interests. After leaving graduate school, she self-published a book of personal essays and a CD of original music. Then she conceived a radical new life plan. Jones decided to give up her apartment in Pocatello, Idaho, and drive cross-country, becoming a modern-day nomad—sleeping in a tent, indulging her love of nature, and visiting train yards, science museums and the graves of famous writers along the way. Her goal: to arrive on the East Coast to meet her love for the first time—the person whose advice helped to stabilize her rhythms and with whom she has developed a long-distance romance. If things work out, she can settle close by; if not, she is mobile.

But Jones had an additional motivation for pulling up stakes—a theory that living outdoors, as our ancestors did for millions of years, experiencing the full force of the sun every day and true darkness at night, might cure her circadian disorder. “It would be pretty sweet if a primal hobo life does automatically what modern medicine struggles to accomplish,” she wrote in an e-mail before her May departure. By June, when this article went to press, her rhythms seemed to be naturally and effortlessly stabilizing to a regular 8 a.m. wake-up time— but this progress disappeared whenever she visited friends and slept indoors. “It’s a shame that sleeping outdoors is such a radical ‘therapy’ that few will be able to replicate it,” she wrote, “because I am overjoyed with how well it is working for me.”

There is a lesson here for the rest of us, with our overextended, brightly lit, Starbucks-fueled lives. Modernity has made it possible to stretch beyond the confines of the 24-hour day, but in the process we have become untethered from the fundamental pulse of our planet. Science is revealing that we do so at our own risk.

Some things have changed since Laber-Warren’s article was published. I no longer sleep in a tent. The romance ended. And my pronouns are he/his/him now.

But much has remained the same. I still love my “primal hobo life” and hope to be able to continue my nomadic life for many years to come. I wake up with or before the sun every day now. I’ve cobbled together a delightful mobile office inside my minivan and am getting better all the time at living fully within a minimalist, mobile lifestyle. My current goal is to shape a life where I maximize my writing time and my time spent in nature with a mid- to long-term goal of becoming completely self-supporting. I sense it is within my grasp. I’m more optimistic about achieving that goal than ever.

-=-

So that was enough set-up, I think. You had to understand my non-24 and the huge impact it has had on my life and the extremes I have gone to in addressing how to have a satisfying life while living with non-24. I wanted you to see how much I want to work and how excited I am as each piece of the answer to my struggle falls into place. You needed to understand how much my circadian rhythm disorders have shredded my life and how much work it has been to craft a life where I have a chance to succeed if I just focus on what keeps me writing, fed, fueled, and healthy. For me, that is living in a minivan and seasonally migrating while writing all the time and periodically spending time with good people.

So… back to telling you about when I met Temple Grandin.

She was speaking at my university and I was very excited to hear what she had to say.

The first thing I learned was access clash. Dr. Grandin immediately moved the sign interpreter to the back of the stage. She can’t focus with anything moving around in her field of vision. I can relate to that. I have some issues with visual movement. But I couldn’t be happy about moving a sign interpreter to the back of the stage. They belong out front and easy to see. I understand that Dr. Grandin was the person we were all there to see, so her access needs were most important, but I would have a hard time nearly completely removing someone else’s access in order to accommodate me.

I learned something valuable from her actual presentation. She talked about the different types of thinkers, saying that not all Autistics think in pictures like her. She listed off the kinds of thinking and I immediately recognized myself when she described pattern thinkers. So I learned something new about myself at her presentation.

-=-

During the presentation, I became very glad that I had ended up with a balcony seat. I was full-body rocking as I listened to Dr. Grandin speak. Someone seated down on the floor was rocking, too, and Temple had them removed to watch from another building on closed-circuit television. Again, the motion was disrupting her presentation.

Because I hadn’t had to leave the building, I was able to get up and walk to the exit while I watched her field questions from lines of people walking up to the microphones. I noticed, then and at other points during the evening, that Dr. Grandin has a lot of assistants helping everything move smoothly. I hovered near the exit because I knew there would be a book signing and I wanted to get in line quickly to get my copy of Animals in Translation signed.

-=-

I didn’t like a lot of the answers I heard. Her childhood consisted of that intensive, 40 hours a week, ABA therapy a lot of us Autistics warn against. As a result, she believes what worked for her is the best way to treat autistic children.

It’s not that unusual a stance, really. Think of the people you’ve heard advocating for spanking children, saying things like, “look at me. I was spanked as a child and I turned out just fine. ” Dr. Grandin turned out fine, but she doesn’t examine too closely whether that was because of or in spite of the therapy.

Temple Grandin’s mother was told to institutionalize her, but refused. That is deeply admirable, but also a sign of privilege. Most people could not afford the therapy back then. Throughout Temple Grandin’s life, privilege has provided a buffer against some of the harshness the world has on offer for Autistics.

Or, as I wrote elsewhere:

“As a result, Grandin clashes with:

  • people from less advantaged socioeconomic positions than hers,
  • people with multiple disabilities that require a delicate dance among often conflicting accommodations,
  • people who are opposed to ABA and other compliance training,
  • and all people who do not have access to the things that must seem perfectly basic, normal, and ordinary to someone born in the 1950s as a cis, asex, white, very financially comfortable, Autistic woman with anxiety and no other significant disabilities.”

So, yeah. As you can imagine, I did not like most of her answers to people’s questions. I kind of feel like just leaving it at that. I don’t want to disrespect Temple Grandin. She works hard. She believes in what she’s doing. She has been tremendously successful in the field of animal agriculture and I respect her hard work.

But it was hard listening to some of the things she said. And it’s even painful to recall some of it.

-=-

I wanted to get my book signed, so as soon as they finished the question and answer period, I speed-walked up to the tables to wait for Dr. Grandin to come around and I managed to be the first in line. That was focus on my part, for sure.

I had rehearsed what I wanted to say to her, because I wanted my words to be haiku-tight, not wasting any time while still conveying a world of meaning behind the words.

“Hello, I’m Autistic, too, and I’m a student here.
Thank you for what you did for the cows.”

I had rehearsed it carefully and in my imagination, she would say, “thank you. How do you spell your name?” with her pen hovering above a blank space in the front of the book, waiting to write my name and move on to the next person. Temple Grandin, I reckoned, would be very busy signing books now. I wanted everything to go smoothly because I didn’t want to waste any of Dr. Grandin’s time.

-=-

But it didn’t go smoothly at all. As you can see from the article about Temple Grandin that others like Teselecta and Becker are upset and writing about, Dr. Grandin is positioning herself as a career counselor these days.

So I got my first sentence out, but she interrupted me and I never got to offer gratitude on behalf of cattle everywhere.

“Do you have an internship?”

I blinked. Not the response I had expected.

“No, I’m in graduate school and will have to do teaching hours here as part of my degree,” is what I would have said if I’d been given a chance. As it was, I only got the first syllable out when she swept in again, to lecture me about the importance of an internship, because Autistic people need to have real-world work experience before they leave school or else they will flounder.

-=-

Which, I’m sure, is great advice for a lot of Autistic college students. But I am multiply disabled and at the point that I went to see Dr. Grandin’s presentation, I was trying to figure out, navigate, and self-advocate conducting my teaching hours in spite of my non-24. I wanted to do my teaching hours through asynchronous online education, as many of the classes I’d taken in the economics department were conducted.

But the political science department had not yet ventured into online education. Because my first class taught would have to be as an assistant and because no professor in my department had made the move to asynchronous online education, my accommodation was not, legally speaking, a reasonable accommodation. Legal precedent had already established that requiring a brick-and-mortar school to convert to online education when none had been conducted previously was unreasonable. And when I brought up the topic of asynchronous online education, the professors of my department laughed, so I knew it would be a losing battle.

And at the same time, the non-24 was running me so ragged my grades were steadily dropping. As Emily Laber-Warren notes in the Scientific American Mind article featuring me, I had gone from being a dean’s list student to a transcript covered with Ws and eventually failed my first class. I was going through hard times when I met Temple Grandin, and her pressure to get an internship left me stuttering and unable to focus my thoughts enough to say much of anything coherent.

-=-

And as I struggled to make my struggles into anything resembling a sound bite, or even just a sound snack, Temple Grandin cut to the root of all my problems and announced her cure with eager pride:

“Just go to Target and buy yourself a really good alarm clock!”

– Temple Grandin, single-handedly curing an orphaned neurological disorder

Wow. My circadian specialist had studied sleep for years and practiced exclusively as a sleep specialist — no distracting animal agriculture on the side for him — and he had missed such a simple and affordable answer.

And that is how Temple Grandin cured my hypernychthemeral syndrome.

 

How We Teach Disabled People to Secretly Hate Themselves

This is a re-blog of a post originally made on February 26, 2016.

This blog post has been graciously translated into Russian by Neurodiversity in Russia.


self-doubt

image description: a silhouette of an agitated looking person, surrounded by words of negativity and self-doubt, such as “deficiency,” “disrespect, ” “disconnection,” “weakness,” “rejection,” “abandonment,” “inadequacy,” and so on. Mixed in with these words is the word, “disability,” which does not deserve to be connected to words like humiliation, instability, inadequacy, and insignificance but still gets slipped into the mix unquestioned because society’s ableism is so deeply ingrained in our cultural views that it is virtually invisible.

It’s a fancy academic-sounding term: internalized ableism. It means feeling less worthy than others, ashamed of who you are, unwilling to stand up for what you deserve, or even hating yourself. And it’s so culturally supported by society that many people (including myself) can play host to ableist self-deprecation or self-loathing for years without even realizing it.

I have been working on my own internalized ableism for years and still keep finding pockets of invisible ableism in myself. Let me put that in more blunt terms: after years of working on loving and accepting myself, I still find entire areas of my life in which I have held myself back unnecessarily due to feeling unworthy on a fundamental level.

I’d like to share with you some of what I wrote on my private Facebook wall this week, to help you understand how damaging internalized ableism has been in my own life:

-=-=-=-

When my daughter died, there was a small voice inside me that said, “it might be for the best. You are poor. You are disabled. What kind of life could you have given her? There is a reason so many people in your life put pressure on you to abort her. Maybe keeping her was selfish. Maybe it’s better that she didn’t live. What right did you have to try to bring life into this world anyway?”

This is the first time I have fully admitted those thoughts in public. I tried once. I went to a meeting of Compassionate Friends, a support group for people whose children have died. I got the first sentence out, “I was thinking maybe it was for the best that she died…” When I was interrupted by the meeting leader.

He was angry. He shouted at me. He asked me if it was for the best that another member’s child had died in a fire, that one was murdered, that one had died from cancer, that one had been hit by a car. He shouted and shouted and there was no room for me to shout back, “I wasn’t talking about your children! I was talking about me and what a horrible mother I would have been. Maybe it was for the best because no one should have to have a mother like me!”

But I didn’t shout back. I cried. And I ran from the room. And I fell down in the parking lot because I was crying too hard to see. I banged myself up pretty bad, but it didn’t hurt. I was already hurting too much to feel it.

And here I sit, almost 22 years later. In the intervening years, I told myself that I didn’t really want her. I told myself that I didn’t want a child, that I loved my freedom too much to give it up. I reminded myself of all the sacrifices parents make for their children and how expensive children are. How expensive and noisy and messy and heart-breaking.

I congratulated myself for dodging a bullet and reminded myself how grateful I am to be unencumbered and not responsible for another human being’s well-being. And life. And suffering. Because if I had a child, they would just grow up to hate me for all my shortcomings anyway. They would hate me for bringing them up in poverty. And they would be ashamed of my disability. And I would be burdensome to them. And, knowing my genetics, they would hate me for the disabilities they were born with because I was too selfish to just not reproduce.

And the truth is that I mourn her every day. And the truth is that I mourn not becoming a parent. And the truth is that I watch my ovarian clock tick, tick, tick, seeing time running out and knowing there is never a “good” or “right” time to have a child, but that all the best times are behind me and I would be a fool to have a child now, at almost fifty years old, in poverty, living in a vehicle, only just barely starting to build a career, finally, after a lifetime of false starts and shredded dreams.

And I wish I had the courage and opportunity to be that fool.

And I know I won’t. Because I’m too scared, too poor, too disabled. And I would be a horrible mother. And my child would grow to hate me.

But I beg of anyone reading this, I beg of the world: there are younger people out there who would like to have a family but are being held back because they are disabled and people in their lives have taught them that they shouldn’t have children, that it would be wrong, that they can’t do it. Do not leave those young people to end up in twenty or thirty years where I am, wishing they could turn back the clock and have another chance.

No parents raise their children alone. All parents have a support system comprised of some combination of friends, family, government, society. Disabled parents need support as they raise their children. All parents need support as they raise their children. I wish I had not been so ashamed of my poverty and disability that I let life slip by without holding my own, living, growing child in my arms and doing what all parents do: loving them and raising them as well as I possibly could.

Life’s own longing for itself. I missed my chance to fulfill it.

Don’t let that happen to today’s young, hopeful, disabled, would-be parents.

-=-=-=-

Feeling unworthy to have a family and raise a child is only one example of internalized ableism. People with internalized ableism can subconsciously (or consciously) sabotage their chances for a better education or a better job because they feel unworthy. They describe themselves using medical language of pathology because they were brought up to refer to their minds and bodies with words of lack and brokenness only.

Some forms of internalized ableism superficially resemble high self-esteem until you scratch the surface. I meet people who refer to themselves as “high functioning,” which might seem like a self-esteem phrase until you look a layer deeper and see the fear of being mistaken for “one of those.” When ableism is levelled against other people with your same disability but different support needs, it is a sign of internalized ableism as well. Those who truly accept themselves as they are have no need to punch down – whether directly or indirectly – against those with the same disability. Accepting yourself means accepting others who are like you, not fighting to distance yourself from those who resemble you in some way.

I see people recoiling from the word “disabled,” as if it were a great insult. You are fighting the wrong demons. Instead of fighting against the valuable and useful word “disabled,” please fight against the underlying ableism that causes you to recoil in horror from the word, “disabled.” Instead, do something pro-active to make the lives of disabled people better, happier, and more just. When you try to hide from the word “disabled,” you are only increasing the sum total of ableism in the world and that is what will truly hold you or your child back in life. Sadly, internalized ableism has held me back from so many things I wanted from life. It is a great injustice to allow rampant, half-hidden ableism to squash even one more dream. Root out ableism, both in society and within yourself, and let’s stamp it out forever.

What Does Helpful vs. Harmful Therapy Look Like?

Asters by a weathered fence at Antietam

Wild asters, an early autumn burst of bright purple with orange centers, blooming untended by a grey weathered fence near Burnside’s Bridge at the Antietam Battlefield. Photograph copyright 2016 by Sparrow Rose Jones

This is a re-blog of a blog post originally made on 7 November, 2014.

Content note: discussion of bad therapy, including video footage of a suffering child.


About a month ago, I wrote about the types of therapies used with Autistic children. I mentioned the sorts of practices that are not advisable and what to look for to see if the therapy your kid is getting is helpful or harmful. I was thrilled to hear from lots of parents whose children are getting great therapy that builds them up in many ways. I am so happy that there are professionals out there who understand autism and work to help kids grow up to be their happiest, most productive Autistic selves instead of training them to pretend to be someone they aren’t.

Many other people asked for something more specific than the words I wrote. Some people gave me links to videos and asked me to comment on them. Others asked me if I had videos that showed good or bad therapy practices. That’s what this post is all about. This is important stuff and many people specifically asked me to do this. It is not my intention to publically shame anyone by using publically available videos. I am sharing one video that I found particularly disturbing and two video examples of good therapies in the hopes that seeing these examples will help make the ideas I write about more visual and understandable.

I’d like to start with a four minute video titled “Isabella 22- Knock-down drag out battle for Severely Autistic Child to attempt Speech“. I want to warn the sensitive that this is a difficult video to watch. Many of my Autistic friends were unable to watch the video or could only watch a few seconds before they had to turn it off because of the level of suffering and because of the difficult memories it triggered in them. I watched this video several times so I could analyze and write about it and it was very hard for me, too. There are reasons why I am only sharing one example of harmful therapy and one of those reasons is that I just can’t handle watching very much of it myself.

And, again, I want to emphasize that I am not accusing Isabella’s parents of anything. I am 100% sure that they are loving parents who care deeply about their child and her future and who believe that they are helping her to have a better life with the therapy they are providing for her. But I cringe in pain when I see what the poor girl is being put through in the name of helping her. I assume her parents put this video online to help others know more about therapy. Please take my comments in that light as well.

Let me start by talking about my broad impressions of this therapy session. Just the title of this video is a first clue about the attitude the adults in her life have toward Isabella’s therapy. They call it a “knock-down drag out battle.” Now, I’ll be the first to admit that parenting, or being parented, can often be a battle of the wills. I was a pretty difficult kid and I’ll admit that. But this video is nearly four minutes of Isabella crying with frustration and confusion while her therapist repeats “ma ma ma!” at her, over and over, trying to get Isabella to say “mama” and get gummy bears as a reward.

The therapist showed her candy, then withheld it from her while making lots of confusing sounds at her and leaving Isabella to try to figure out what the heck was going on, what was expected of her, and why she could see but not get the candy. If I dangled candy in front of a child but refused to give it to her and made her cry with frustration, you would call me a bully and say I was taunting the child and that I should stop making the little girl cry and just give her the candy, right? But because Isabella is Autistic, some professionals believe it’s not cruel; it’s therapy.

There are so many important things to say about this short video of a therapy session. Something really important, though, is that this is not in line with the ways language acquisition occurs. What is happening in this therapy session is closer to the way animals are trained to perform tricks. When I was a pre-teen, I taught my standard poodle to shake paws. He never understood what a handshake meant to me — all he ever knew was that it made me very happy if I put out my hand and he put his paw in it. And he liked to make me happy, so he learned to shake paws very quickly and would do it every time I offered my hand. And I never used food to teach him, just affection. And I never made him whine with confusion or behave in a distressed manner.

Now, I don’t mean to compare an Autistic child to a dog. That would be demeaning. But look at this speech therapy and tell me that Isabella is not being trained like a dog to mimic a behavior she doesn’t understand any more than my dog understood a handshake. In fact, Isabella is being treated far worse than most dogs are treated, because she is in real distress as she tries to get the candy and has no idea what is going on or why she keeps getting teased with candy. This is exactly the sort of trial-and-error behavior shaping you see when people train monkeys or bears to perform in circuses. It assumes that the subject being trained is incapable of understanding anything and must be bullied, badgered, and tempted until it randomly performs the act (or makes the sound) and then operant conditioning is applied to strengthen the desired response. This is not speech therapy, it is monkey training and, my apologies to Isabella’s parents, but it is painful to watch. This is not a therapy that respects Isabella’s personhood or addresses her needs.

Not only is this treatment cruel, it is setting the stage for potential future violence. This kind of therapy creates massive amounts of frustration in people who have limited ability to express their needs and wants and who are often not allowed agency or autonomy. Right now, Isabella is wringing her hands and pulling at her clothing. How much of this can she take before she starts pushing the therapist away? When pushing doesn’t make the frustration stop, how long will it take before she resorts to hitting or biting? I was a hitter and a biter, and just watching Isabella’s frustration makes me want to forget everything I’ve learned that keeps me from hitting people now.

This is really important. People worry a lot about their “violent” Autistic children as they get bigger and stronger and harder to control. But far too often, the “violence” is stirred up by years of very frustrating therapy just like the session you are seeing in this video of Isabella. There’s only so long that a person can take being pushed into sobbing meltdowns of frustration before they are willing to do whatever it takes to get the torment to stop. It is not only heart-breakingly cruel to treat a child this way, it is grossly irresponsible. Therapy like this creates problems. The best it will produce is a child trained to do things that make no sense in order to avoid distress and get rewards. The worst it will produce is a child that bites, kicks, hits . . . and gets bigger and stronger along with becoming less and less controllable. This therapy is not designed to raise a child who feels safe and comfortable with who they are, who feels safe to express their individuality, who is mentored in growing and developing into the best person they can be, expressing their true nature in ways others can come to connect with. The goal of being “indistinguishable with their peers” is a goal meant to make other people feel comfortable and happy. The goal of any therapy for an Autistic child should be to help the child feel more comfortable and happy. Therapy is not supposed to be about performing for others — it is supposed to help a person grow and express themselves in the truest, healthiest way possible.

At 58 seconds, Isabella gives up and starts to wander away. The therapist gets her attention and shows her the candy again. Isabella goes back to crying because it is so frustrating for her. From her perspective, she is being teased and taunted with candy she can’t have. She doesn’t understand what the therapist wants from her and she is filled with anger and frustration and probably a massive sense of unfairness about the whole ordeal. At 2:20, the therapist says “any sort of verbalization.” Isabella is making plenty of verbalization and some of it is even pretty close to an M sound, but the therapy continues and those verbalizations aren’t rewarded. How confusing for the little girl!

And listen to what one adult says at 3:25 – “we can’t let you win.” What? Isabella is frustrated, angry, upset, crying, has no idea what they want, has made lots of “mmmmm” noise, has put up with having her lips pinched, having people make tickly uncomfortable sounds against her forehead, and the adults are framing the whole thing as some kind of battle of the will that they can’t let her win? This is not a game to the little girl. She is not resisting making the sound because she is obstinate. That comment, about not letting her win, is possibly the most upsetting thing about this video for me. It’s not a game. It’s cruel. It’s confusing. And I am sure that Isabella is not thinking of this session in terms of getting the upper hand or refusing to give the adults what they want.

So how else can speech therapy look? Well, here’s an example: RPM – how it’s helping non-verbal autistic children. These are not isolated cases — I know children and their parents who are using RPM to learn expressive language. Over and over, I hear the same story: the people around a child think they are “not in there,” are deficient, incapable, not understanding, unable to communicate, or other similar or related thoughts. Then RPM is brought in and suddenly everyone is shocked to learn that the child they thought was “sleepwalking” through life was actually soaking up knowledge like a sponge. I have also known parents of children who did not get any kind of language therapy but their child spontaneously began spelling words on an iPad or with magnetic letters.

I have a few big problems with much of the standard speech therapy:

1. the emphasis on speech-only. I won’t deny that speech is very important in this world, but some people never speak. Will we never give them a way to communicate? To me, that feels like punishing someone for being unable to speak. Deaf children who are taught sign first have better overall language skills, whether they learn to speak later or not. Their written English is better if they are allowed to start with sign instead of being pushed to only speak and write English. Autistic children are the same way. If you want good future language skills, don’t insist on only one method of communication now. Allow signs and gestures. Work with pictures. Try RPM or another similar method of spelling. Try everything and don’t make your child get stressed about language. The more you can open up your child’s options for communication now, the better their overall language acquisition will be for the course of their entire life.

2. The emphasis on getting children to say things that please others rather than things that please parents. Isabella was supposed to say “mama.” Over and over, I hear parents say they suffer because their child doesn’t say “I love you.” I find it unsettling that there is so much focus on getting children to say things other people want to hear. I rejoice when I see children learning to say “I’m hungry” “I hurt” I want” and “no.” Teach a child the things the child will want and need to say. “I love you” can come later. Be honest: those three words, “I love you,” are for you, not for your child. Therapy should not be selfish — it should be about giving the child the tools that are important to the child.

3. The teaching methods that involve lots of emotional stress and confusion. Don’t underestimate Autistic people. We often look like we aren’t paying attention and aren’t understanding. Give us a chance. Don’t just assume that you have no choice but to train us with candy and tears. Look for therapies and teaching methods that enlist us as partners in our education.

I have another video to show you. I asked my friends to share therapy videos they especially like and this five minute Sensory Diet therapy video (sadly, this video is no longer available on YouTube) came from Cynthia Kim at Musings of an Aspie.

First, look at how much fun the kids are having! This is something I heard a lot from parents after my ABA post last month — that their children love the therapy they get and they laugh and rejoice and only cry when it’s time to leave because they want to keep going. That warms my heart beyond the telling! Yes! If your child loves therapy, you chose well.

This physical play therapy the kids are doing is really important stuff. The narrator mentions that the play is engaging their vestibular and proprioceptive senses and helping them to feel like they are a part of their body, connected. It is impossible to overstress the importance of this sort of sensory play. I am here to tell you that feeling disconnected with one’s body has repercussions you can’t even imagine. I work to get “in” my body more and my body-mind disconnect affects nearly every aspect of my life. It is imperative to know, hear, and trust your body. Help your child to feel more connected to their physical existence and you will have a calmer, more centered, more confident child.

The kids are learning other stuff in this therapy, too. They are learning interaction with others, they are learning to ask for what they want and need, they are learning to take turns and consider others. There is a lot of social learning that is happening while they are focusing on body learning. This is great therapy! I admit, I’m a bit envious — I wish I could go play, too.

I hope that sharing these videos and talking about them has helped to make the idea of helpful vs harmful therapy more concrete and clear for you. I sometimes hear parents say that these ideas are great for kids wil “mild autism” but their child is “too severe” and needs more. You might already know that I feel that separating the Autistic world into “mild” and “severe” (or any other similar division you might choose) is harmful to all Autistic people. But beyond that, thinking this way about your child is harmful to your child. No child is “so severe” that they need to be made to suffer. If therapy time is stressful for your child (and especially if therapy time is stressful for the whole family) you really want to think about the therapy you’re using and what the goals are and whether those goals are worthy of your beautiful child or not.

I want to leave you with a link to a blog entry — Caregiver Burnout from Love Explosions. The entry was written to address parents who feel burned out with everything that goes into caring for autistic children, but it is far more valuable than just that stated goal. read this blog entry because it paints a picture of what a healthy family looks like. The author has two beautiful daughters, one of whom is Autistic. If you are one of those parents who thinks the ideas I’ve been talking about here don’t apply to your family because your child is “too severe,” you should know that the Autistic daughter in the Love Explosions family is non-speaking and has epilepsy and is, by any way you would choose to measure “very severe.” (Although that is not the way I think of Evie! To me, she and her sister are beautiful, bright, wonderful girls who I think of first as little sisters and second as dear friends.)

This blog entry will show you what a happy, healthy household with an Autistic child can look like and what “therapy” and education for an Autistic child who is developing wonderfully into a healthy, happy Autistic adult can be. There is a lot to learn in Beth’s entire blog, and there is much wisdom to be gained in this one entry about living happily together as a family. I urge you to read Beth’s words and take them to heart.

added note: On the old blog, a commenter thanked me for mentioning RPM and gave a link to a blog written by a young man who uses RPM to communicate. I didn’t want that blog link to get lost when I moved this post to the new blog, so I’m including it here. Please visit: Faith, Hope, and Love … With Autism

Autism Speaks Hasn’t Really Changed Anything

millipede

A millipede at the Antietam Battlefield. It’s coming right at you! Photograph copyright 2016 by Sparrow Rose Jones.

You can’t have missed it. It’s everywhere you look: the announcement that Autism Speaks has dropped the word “cure” from its mission statement. It’s being lauded as a great sea change in the organization’s approach to autism and a sign that Autism Speaks is finally starting to listen to the activists who have rejected the cure mentality for so long and called on Autism Speaks to reject it, too.

Except it’s not a sea change. It’s not a change at all. Autism Speaks hasn’t changed a damned thing except their wording.

Look at their mission statement. The cure mindset is still front and center:

Autism Speaks is dedicated to promoting solutions, across the spectrum and throughout the lifespan, for the needs of individuals with autism and their families through advocacy and support; increasing understanding and acceptance of autism spectrum disorder; and advancing research into causes and better interventions for autism spectrum disorder and related conditions.

Autism Speaks enhances lives today and is accelerating a spectrum of solutions for tomorrow.

from: https://www.autismspeaks.org/about-us/mission

Allow me to unpack this shining new mission statement.

Autism Speaks is now promoting solutions instead of cures. Except that one of their definitions of solutions is not only synonymous with what “cure” actually meant, it is even more chilling with the new wording. But I’m getting ahead of myself; you’ll see what I mean further on in this essay.

“Cure” was code language — something called a “dog whistle” because it’s language meant to only be truly understood by certain people just as dog whistles can only be heard by certain ears.

To the general population, “cure” sounds great. When you hear the word cure, you naturally think of an alleviation of suffering. You think of a cure for cancer. You think of the cure for the common cold. You think about kind-hearted, humanitarian scientists coming up with ways to soothe the discomfort and fend off death. Who could possibly be against a cure, right? Cures are good and make people happier and healthier.

But what does a cure for autism look like?

Autism is a difference in the structure and function of the brain. All the behavioral differences you see, all the perception differences we experience are informed by differences in neurological structure and function. The brain is the seat of our individual human identities. Autism is the ownership of an autistic brain. Curing autism would mean changing our brains.

Maybe it could be done carefully and someone could cure the pain and nausea I experience when I hear certain sounds without removing the musical parts of my brain. Maybe I could be cured so that I could listen to a soprano singing without my whole body trembling in pain but would I still have been able to learn to read sheet music at age four and play Chopin sonatas on the piano and compose and record my own music? Maybe.

Maybe I could be carefully and precisely cured so that I don’t regularly lose the ability to speak. It would be nice to not have to type to communicate sometimes. People aren’t very patient when I can only communicate by typing. They talk over me, they ignore what I tell them, they ask me five more questions while I’m still typing the answer to their first question, overloading and overwhelming me. Maybe I could be cured so that I never lose speech again without removing the parts of my brain that make me a skilled writer. I am as skilled with the written word as I am because it is my first language and the spoken word is my second language. Maybe I could be cured so that I could speak all the time, reliably, without losing my writing skills. Who would I be if I weren’t a writer? It is such a deep part of my personal identity, crafting written words. Anyone who has met me, heard me present, watched my YouTube videos knows that I speak well but I write so much better than I speak. Maybe my intermittent mutism could be cured without destroying my writing. Maybe.

You can see where I am leading you, right? There really isn’t a cure for autism. Once my brain was wired this way, my life trajectory was always going to be divergent from the bulk of life trajectories around me. Once my brain was wired in an autistic configuration, a cure would mean untangling my neurons and pasting them back together differently. Curing my autism would quite literally mean giving me a different brain. Giving me a different brain would quite literally mean erasing who I am. A “cure” for a living Autistic person is impossible because once you make such major changes to a person’s brain, you haven’t cured them; you’ve removed them and replaced them with a different person who might (or might not) share their memories. If you enjoy reading science fiction, read Elizabeth Moon’s novel, The Speed of Dark, for an eerily realistic example of what a cure for autism might look like.

So now I’m hearing some people praising Autism Speaks for removing the word “cure” from their mission statement, but has anything really changed? Let’s look at their new word, “solution,” adn see why it’s much more frightening to me than “cure.”

“Autism Speaks is dedicated to promoting solutions” …. let’s enumerate those solution goals:

1. across the spectrum
2. throughout the lifespan
3. for the needs of individuals with autism
4. for their families
5. through advocacy and support
6. increasing understanding and acceptance of autism spectrum disorder
7. advancing research into causes for autism spectrum disorder and related conditions
8. advancing research into better interventions for autism spectrum disorder and related conditions

And, for comparison, here is the old mission statement:

“We are dedicated to funding global biomedical research into the causes, prevention, treatments and a possible cure for autism. We strive to raise public awareness about autism and its effects on individuals, families and society: and we work to bring hope to all who deal with the hardships of this disorder.”

1. Across the Spectrum

If these words mean what are claimed, this would be a sea change worthy of advertising. I am suspicious of all the focus on the removal of the word “cure” when “across the spectrum” is a much bigger change. Why is no one talking about this?

For years, those of us Autistics who could communicate using words, whether spoken or typed, were told to sit down and shut up. Autism Speaks wasn’t talking about us, we were told. They were only talking about those ‘poor unfortunates’ who could not speak for themselves. Sure, we got counted whenever Autism Speaks wanted to share the huge numbers of millions of Autistics they needed funding to help. They wanted us to be counted as warm bodies for fund-raising purposes. They just wanted us to be silent warm bodies. Shut up, Autistics, you’re getting in the way of us helping.

If Autism Speaks is truly committed to offering solutions “across the spectrum,” they need to look at how many of us are homeless and hungry. They need to look at how many of us are slipping through the services cracks because there’s nothing out there for us. They need to look at holding universities accountable for the accommodations Autistic students need to succeed and thrive in an academic setting. There are massive unmet needs among the Autistics that Autism Speaks has traditionally told to shut up. If we really are part of their mission statement now, are they going to make good on that? Or are those just words designed to shut us up yet again. “There, we mentioned you in our mission statement. Now sit down and shut up.”

Put your money where your mouth is, Autism Speaks. And by that, I don’t mean the $1,167,786 spent on catering.1

Autism Speaks likes to make you think they are giving a lot of direct financial support to Autistic people and their families by rolling several categories together in their pie charts. They told us they spent $24 million on “family services, awareness, and advocacy”2 because that hides the specifics.

It hides the actual amount that went to family services: $4.6 million

Versus the amount that went to advertising: $52 million

It hides how much of that advertising, “awareness and advocacy” was spent on promoting programs like MSSNG that teach the world that Autistics are “missing pieces.” Notice what they chose to leave out of the word “missing”: We Autistics are missing “I” – identity, humanity, self.

And what are the missing pieces that the MSSNG is discovering? Autism Speaks is sequencing thousands of genomes. “The best research minds in the world are going to mine this database of DNA so we can uncover and understand the various subtypes of autism. Then we can get to work developing customized treatments and therapies so we can improve the quality of life for so many people who need help.” – Liz Feld, President, Autism Speaks.3

Customized treatments and therapies? This would be great news for everyone, Autistic or not, if that’s what they’re actually doing. One-third of Autistics have epilepsy, so people with epilepsy would rejoice because those customized treatments would help them, too. As many as three-quarters of Autistics have clinically significant sleep disorders and that means the 25% of the general population with sleep disorders would rejoice because those customized treatments would help them, too. If MSSNG is really doing what it claims to be doing, the entire world should rejoice because the things we Autistics suffer with are not autism-exclusive things. Every treatment or therapy customized to our genetics will help thousands of non-autistic people who suffer those same things.

Except I’m not convinced. What are you developing, Autism Speaks? Will I be able to go get a genetic test and get targeted treatment for the digestive distress, neurological circadian rhythm sleep disorder, dyspraxia, anxiety disorder, and connective tissue disorder that are my genetic hitchhikers, the traveling companions of my autistic genetics? That would be a dream come true — not just for me, but for the millions of other people of all neurological profiles who also suffer these conditions and may share the particular genetics related to them.

I think MSSNG is more likely to be part of that “cure mentality” Autism Speaks claims it has jettisoned by changing the wording of its mission statement. I think MSSNG is a way to detect autism in the womb. I think MSSNG is a way to provide a “solution” to autism….. I think MSSNG is a way to make most future Autistic children be as missing as the estimated 80% of Down Syndrome children who are not born, thanks to genetic testing.

Prove me wrong. Fix my digestion and connective tissue and my sleep patterns that are too messed up for me to be employable. Please, do prove me wrong.

I am part of that “spectrum” you now speak of reaching across. Show me the solutions.

2. Throughout the Lifespan

This is another “I’ll believe it when I see it.” The entire world still thinks of children when they think of autism. They think it so much that we don’t ever really grow up, we become “adult children.” If Autism Speaks has a new commitment to “solutions” throughout the lifespan, let’s start seeing the word “adult” appearing more often. Alone, as a noun. Not as an adjective to modify the noun “child.” We grow up and we need help.

What are you going to do about the 10%+ of Autistic adults who end up in the penal system? what are you going to do about the 10%+ of Autistic adults who end up homeless? What are you going to do about Autistic adults who are deemed “too high functioning” to get services but “too low functioning” to be helped by Vocational Rehabilitation? What are you going to do about the Autistic adults languishing in sheltered workshops because no one cared enough to introduce supports to help them into the mainstream workforce with real wages? What are you going to do about the Autistic adults stashed away in institutions who could be living independently in the community with adequate supports?

You, Autism Speaks, are vacuuming up all the money from all the local communities, to the tune of $122 million per year and you are giving back only $4 million of that in actual services. You can change the wording of your mission statement all you want, but until you start helping the thousands of Autistic adults who are homeless, hungry, or imprisoned because there was nowhere for them to go and no services for them (because there was no money to help them, since it all ended up going to Autism Speaks) then your new mission statement is nothing but words designed to provide a louder and more elegant “sit down and shut up” to the inconvenient Autistic people who actually need the help you love to pretend you are giving them.

3. For the Needs of Individuals With Autism

Oh, yes. About our needs.

We need schools to accommodate us, from pre-school to university level. We need the supports and accommodation to attend school within the community, not segregated. We need programs that understand that our academic needs and our social needs can be on radically different levels and that both those needs must be addressed or you have failed us and, by extension, all of society.

We need to be spoken of in respectful terms, not called a tsunami or a public health crisis. Not to have our beautiful brains compared to cancer, AIDs, and diabetes. Not to be called a disease. Not to be used as inspiration porn, and for all those that just read the word porn and thought what the heck, inspiration porn is nothing like actual porn like this https://www.tubev.sex/?hl=ja, porn is now used as a word for lots of pictures of something i.e. food porn which is lots of pics of food. Not to be portrayed as the haunting menace that will destroy families, society, the economy, and all of civilization.

We need real access to healthcare, not to have our co-occurring conditions dismissed as “that’s just what autism is like” and not to be subjected to quack treatments like bleach enemas, worms, chelation. We need medical professionals who will take the time to understand our healthcare access barriers and work with us to overcome them. We need to have it understood that having spoken communication does not automatically erase our support needs and we need to have it understood that not having spoken communication does not automatically erase our intelligence and autonomy.

We need safe places to live, access to people we love, adequate healthy food to eat. We need to not be isolated from the community. We need to not have our autonomy overrun. We need help with employment for those of us who can work and we need help with financial support for those of us who cannot. All of us need support for the activities of daily living, and we need to have our support needs recognized, understood, and respected even though they can look very different from one person to the next.

And all that’s just for starters. Can you address this baseline, Autism Speaks? It’s in your mission statement now. We’re waiting.

4. For Their Families

The number one thing our families need is to see us provided for. Our families need the peace of mind that comes from knowing we will be okay when they have passed on. Our families need to see us being educated appropriately. Our families need a level of social understanding of autism that lets them not get harassed by neighbors for living with us in their homes, that lets them go shopping or to a restaurant with us without being judged as bad parents, that lets them hire a sitter to watch us for a reasonable price.

Presenting us as terrible burdens does not help our families. Calling us a public health crisis does not help our families. Encouraging traumatizing ‘therapies’ that create anxiety problems and PTSD in us does not help our families.

5. Through Advocacy and Support

Yes, what kind did you have in mind? We don’t need any more of that ‘advocacy and support’ like the “I Am Autism” video. We don’t need to be told we’re “MSSNG” (the two Is that are missing are the ones they are trying to pull the wool over.) We don’t need to be called a tsunami or called lepers or have it said that we are so pure and innocent because we don’t care about money. (I can show you an awful lot of Autistic adults who care an awful lot about money because they don’t have enough to pay the rent.)

How do you intend to advocate for us now? Is your support going to change? Are you going to spend more than the pitiful 3% of your income you currently spend on services for us and our families? Do the people who lovingly volunteer their time and resources to organize your fundraising walks realize that only three cents of every dollar they raise is actually going back to the community?

You’ve got to do much better in your advocacy and support than your track record, Autism Speaks, for anyone to take this new mission statement seriously. Where are your solutions that come through advocacy and support? What are you planning to solve?

6. Increasing Understanding and Acceptance of Autism Spectrum Disorder

This is where your alleged solutions start to sound like little more than buzzwords, Autism Speaks. You have latched on to the word “acceptance” without understanding what it means. I know you don’t understand what it means because you never would have listed this as one of your solutions if you really understood “acceptance.”

Yes, we have been calling for acceptance. We have been calling for acceptance of Autistics! You are calling for acceptance of Autism Spectrum Disorder? Seriously?

Accepting Autistics means accepting that we often look and sound and choose differently than other people but we are no less worthy of dignity and respect. Accepting Autistics means working with our patterns of strengths and struggles to help us find our way in this fast-moving and chaotic world. Accepting Autistics means making room for us at the table. We deserve to live independently in the community, with whatever supports we need to accomplish that. We deserve a chance to work, to go to school, to have a family, to shape a meaningful life — meaningful from our perspective and our needs and desires, not meaningful according to your judgment of how you think we should live.

You are calling for accepting autism spectrum disorder. What does that even mean? How does that help us? We are different and disabled but not disordered and we do not need you to accept a disorder; we need you to accept us. If you have real solutions, they will be about accepting us, not about accepting a disorder.

7. Advancing Research Into Causes for Autism Spectrum Disorder and Related Conditions

Here! Here! Here! This is it right here! This is why your new mission statement is far more terrifying than calling for a “cure.” This is why your emphasis on “solutions” is so chilling to me!

You want to study the causes of autism? You are dedicated to promoting solutions related to finding the causes of autism??? If you find out what causes autism, what solution are you planning to implement? Why do I keep hearing the word “final” every time I think about your solutions for the causes of autism? This is why I do not trust your shiny new mission statement. This is every bit as much entrenched in the cure mentality as your old mission statement. This is a piercing dog whistle for pre-natal testing and abortion.

This is why I read your new mission statement and I still see a huge organization draining all the money from local communities — money that could have helped us, our families, our schools, our vocational aspirations, our future — and using that money to research how to kill us before we are born.

This is why I say you have not changed a damned thing. You have slapped a fresh coat of paint on the same terrifying eugenics agenda you’ve always had, Autism Speaks.

You only took the word “cure” out of your mission statement. You did not remove the hatred of our existence. You might have fooled some people, but you aren’t fooling me.

8. Advancing Research Into Better Interventions for Autism Spectrum Disorder and Related Conditions

Meet the new torment; same as the old torment. Are these the better interventions that strip away our autonomy more efficiently, leaving us even more vulnerable to predators? Or is this more support for “treatment centers” that use electric shock on us? Or are these the better interventions that prevent us from being born in the first place?

No thank you, Autism Speaks. You have to do more than draft some buzzier buzzwords for me to trust you.

In fact, I think I agree with my friends who have said that the only thing you could possibly do at this point to win our trust is completely dismantle and donate all your money to other organizations that are Autistic-led and doing the real work to make our actual lives better.

Who cares what causes autism? What good can it do Autistics to learn why we exist? We are grossly under served — all of us, “across the spectrum and throughout the lifespan” are not getting what we need to thrive and you are taking the money and volunteer time that could help bridge that gap and throwing it at research designed to eradicate us.

No. You have not changed a damned thing. I still don’t trust you. I still don’t trust those who support you.

All the carefully worded mission statements in the world will not change that.

1. https://www.autismspeaks.org/sites/default/files/docs/final_autism_speaks_2014_28229.pdf
2. https://www.autismspeaks.org/sites/default/files/docs/annual_report_9-11.pdf
3. https://www.autismspeaks.org/science/science-news/autism-speaks-launches-mssng-groundbreaking-genome-sequencing-program

Autistics Are at Greater Risk of Trauma

Wolf Lake

[image description: a photo of Wolf Lake in Sebring, Florida, taken by Sparrow Rose Jones. It has nothing to do with either autism or trauma, but it’s pretty and the author enjoys including an image with their writing.]


I am at the 2016 Association for Autistic Community (AAC) conference. During Kit Mead’s excellent presentation, Autism, Awareness Campaigns, and the Mental Health System (slides), several people mentioned the need for research supporting the idea that Autistics might be more easily traumatized. I mentioned that there has been a small amount of research in that area and others were eager to know more. Since multiple people wanted that information, I decided to make a brief annotated bibliography in a blog post to more easily share it with as many people as would like to see.

As you might imagine, the bulk of the available research (and there isn’t a lot of it yet — I definitely agree that we need more research into multiple aspects of autism and trauma) focuses on the role of the amygdala in stress and trauma imprinting. There are two main aspects of showing an autistic predisposition for trauma: showing the role of the amygdala in sustaining trauma, and showing the ways that the autistic amygdala is different in structure and/or function, thus exacerbating that brain structure’s role in trauma. Some of the following research is of one type or the other, much addresses both halves of the equation.

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Some assessments of the amygdala role in suprahypothalamic neuroendocrine regulation: a minireview

This article has little to do with autism specifically. I am including it in this annotated bibliography because it does a good job of explaining the role of the amygdala for those who don’t have a neuroscience background and thus may not instantly know why the amygdala is important in considering the autistic risk for trauma. As the abstract says, “The amygdala plays a key role in what has been called the “general-purpose defense response control network” and reacts in response to unpleasant sights, sensations, or smells. Anger, avoidance, and defensiveness are emotions activated largely by the amygdala.”

The Basolateral Amygdala c-Aminobutyric Acidergic System in Health and Disease

This research review article from 2016 is the main “smoking gun” I was referring to when I mentioned that there has been some research already that has found a higher risk of trauma among Autistics.

“This Review discusses the anatomy, development, and physiology of the GABAergic system in the BLA and circuits that modulate GABAergic inhibition, including the dopaminergic, serotonergic, noradrenergic, and cholinergic systems.” That’s a lot for those of us who are not biochemists, but I’m going to try to boil it down a little bit. The article says that Autistics, along with a few other categories of neurodivergents (Alzheimer’s, TBI, epilepsy) have hyperexcitability in our amygdala. That means the neurons in our amygdalas are firing much more often than neurons in the amygdalas of the general population and that this increased amygdala function leads to anxiety and “the development of neurological and/or neuropsychiatric diseases.”

In Autistics, GABA metabolism is reduced and certain GABA receptors are delayed in their maturation. The authors point out that a reduction in GABA-mediated synaptic inhibition (a reduction in ‘less neurons firing because GABA “calms them down”‘) is linked to an increase in anxiety. The hyperactivity of the amygdala not only increases anxiety but greatly increases the risk of developing PTSD. The review goes on to say that benzodiazepines (which are commonly given to people experiencing anxiety and/or PTSD) may not be effective in Autistics because their mode of action relies on the same GABA receptors that take longer to develop in Autistic people than in the general population.

The authors are careful to point out that they are not arguing that hyperactivity in the amygdala results in PTSD but simply to point out the role of GABA in PTSD and the action (or lower action, as it were) of GABA in the autistic brain creates an environment more likely to result in PTSD and other anxiety disorders. They suggest the need for research into deeper understanding of the role of GABA and the possibility of developing therapies that increase the growth of interneurons that could reduce the excitation of neurons in the amygdala.

The Result of Traumatizing Events on a Child With Autism

Although the 2016 GABA review is new, knowledge of the role of the amygdala in autistic trauma has been around for a while. This is a 2008 statement by Dr. David Larson Holmes who, unfortunately, does not include citations when he writes, “Recent studies have confirmed that children with autism have very active Amygdalas; the center of the brain that stores traumatic events. This center is directly connected to the brain stem [reticular formation] which is the area of the brain stimulated during potentially threatening conditions and places the child in a ‘fight or flight’ condition. […] Upon further analysis of the brain activity of children with autism it has been found that the Hippocampus, the center of the brain which stores pleasant experiences, is actually much less active than the children’s Amygdalas. This has resulted in a supposition that children with autism are affected more from traumatizing events than pleasant events and that the traumatizing events have greater robustness; thereby maintaining a greater degree of panic and fear in the child than what would be found in typically developing children.”

Amygdala and Hippocampus Enlargement During Adolescence in Autism

Strictly speaking, this 2010 study doesn’t indicate anything about increased risk of trauma. I’m including it because it’s an example of a structural difference in the amygdala between Autistics and the general population. The authors are unsure whether the increase in the size of brain structures causes emotional differences or whether the “increased emotional learning” Autistics go through when compared to the general population is the cause of the structural changes.

Amygdala Subregional Structure and Intrinsic Functional Connectivity Predicts Individual Differences in Anxiety During Early Childhood

This article is not about autism or Autistics, although the lead researcher, Vinod Menon, has conducted other research that does focus on Autistics. This 2013 paper ties in with the uncited claims above of Dr. Holmes, as well as the 2010 study directly above about amygdala size increases in Autistics during adolescence (an emotionally difficult time for nearly anyone of any neurological profile.)

The study found that the larger the amygdala, and the more connectivity between the amygdala and other neurological structures, the higher the anxiety rate in children and the greater the risk of anxiety disorders developing later. In addition to the human study upon which this article was based, “Studies of laboratory animals placed in an environment causing chronic stress have determined that the animals’ amygdalae grew additional synapses and that synaptic connectivity increased in response to the resulting persistent anxiety.” This suggests that what the authors of the 2010 study were calling “increased emotional learning” in adolescence was actually a burden of chronic stress and anxiety, causing the amygdala to grow larger than non-autistic controls.

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All of this information is pieced together and none of it is so clear cut as the 2016 GABA minireview, but taken together, they paint a strong portrait of the greater trauma risk Autistics face and the great need for further research into the nature and causes of trauma in Autistics.

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