I found his list of four reasons so intriguing, I wanted to talk about them today, in the context of autism and why so many of us struggle to achieve our goals. It has nothing to do with willpower and everything to do with barriers and supports as you’ll see. The section headers come from Benjamin Hardy. The discussion is my own.
You’re internally conflicted, and haven’t made a committed decision about what you want in life.
I have talked to many Autistic people who struggle with this. One way it gets put is, “they say that we all have a special interest, but I don’t have one. I am not a savant, I’m not good at anything. I guess I will just go nowhere in life because I don’t have any gifts.” Yes, I’ve heard that almost word-for-word from people and it’s devastating to hear. There is so much despair, depression, and desperation in those words. There is probably a good measure of self-loathing mixed in, too.
In part, this thinking comes from how we talk about autism. Look around you at the fictional media, the books, the documentaries. There are typically two types of Autistics portrayed (there are exceptions, of course, and they are delightful. But I also notice them quickly fading into obscurity. Maybe because people don’t know how to think of them in the current set of autism narratives we end up working with?)
One type is the super-achiever. The fictional doctor savant. The amazing artist or designer or Nobel-awarded professor. There is a very good reason that we like to talk about these people, whether fictional or real-life. Autism is a diagnosis and it is typically defined by deficits. Showing people who achieve amazing things — often things that would still be amazing if a neurotypical achieved them — helps counter the public image of autism as something devastating and horrible, a burden on families and society, and so on. The down side of this sort of portrayal is that it primes people to think of Autistic people as only having value if they accomplish amazing things. It commodifies Autistic people in a way that the average person is not. It sets up a lot of pressure to achieve. And it opens the door for despair in both parents of Autistic children who do not seem likely to discover the cure for cancer and Autistic adults who are struggling to find something they can excel at.
Of course the other main depiction we see of Autistic people is the deficit depiction. That is the portrayal that gets funding. It’s the portrayal that miserable people sink into when they feel depressed about their child’s development and future prospects. It’s the portrayal desperate people promote when they are afraid for what will happen to their children after they, the parents, are gone and can no longer protect them. It’s the narrative that gets emphasized when caregivers want to make sure you know just how hard their life is or charitable organizations want you to know just how badly your donations are needed.
The vast majority of Autistics occupy a space in between those two narratives. Those are the narratives of function labels – high functioning and low functioning. I sometimes joke that I am a middle functioning Autistic, but it’s more than just a joke. Function labels are useless and damaging. Most of us are somewhere in between the two extreme narratives and our skills and struggles are not static positions on a number line spectrum. We are not a function label at all. We are individual human beings with individual profiles that cannot be so easily classified with the cardboard cutout portrayals of autism that are so ubiquitous and try to pass for “awareness”.
So some of us will have a fierce passion for writing or geology or medieval history or fluid mechanics or something marketable, but just as many of us will have a fierce passion for license plates or toilets or Harry Potter fandom or Sesame Street or something else not so marketable. And there isn’t a lot of mentoring about how to turn our passions into careers, especially for those with passions that are not so simple to convert to a college major or trade school path. And some types of therapies even teach parents to withhold our passions to use them as rewards for learning other things or simply to prevent us from “obsessing” on something because we don’t look “indistinguishable from our peers” when we’re really excited about the etymology of a word or the shape of a horse’s withers.
Work initiatives for Autistic people are currently aimed at Autistics who have a clear and obvious marketable skill, like computer programming. And even those programs are understaffed and thin on the ground. There’s nearly nothing for an Autistic who wants to work but has no idea what they might be good at. We need to start paying more attention to the massive “excluded middle” of Autistics who are languishing because our current autism narratives leave no room for people like us to exist.
You aren’t invested enough in yourself, your values, and your goals.
It’s really hard to invest in yourself when you feel worthless. And it’s really hard to keep feeling worthy when you exist in a world that compares you to diabetes and cancer, that regularly talks about how many millions of dollars you cost to society, that describes you as a burden. I have heard charitable organizations say their goal is a world without autism. I have watched again and again when a parent murders their Autistic child and is treated like a martyr and offered sympathy and understanding.
Words have a real impact on us and the kind of words we hear about ourselves every day are terrible. When April — Autism Awareness Month — rolls around, the constant stream of negativity we’re exposed to gets turned up to a firehose intensity. And it’s no mystery what sort of effect those kinds of words have on us.
Health care does not adequately serve our needs and too many of us languish in depression and suicidal despair. Our lifespans are cut short as a result of stigma and neglect. We are struggling and suffering and unnecessarily dying. We are murdered by caregivers and law enforcement. Our homeless rates are dramatically higher than the general population’s. Life is pain, yes, but it often seems like Autistics got a double serving of it.
And n the midst of that ongoing crisis — myriad individual crises and a crisis of our entire people — it is not so surprising that we struggle to invest in ourselves and our goals.
Help the Autistic people in your life to believe in themselves. Support them like a springboard supports a diver. Nurture their sense of self-worth. Mentor them in a path pf self-discovery and growth. Help our people. Help each person. The odds are stacked so heavily against us. Don’t add to our burdens; help tear down the walls that stand in our way.
Your environment opposes your goals (most people’s environment is pushing against them, not pulling them forward).
Most people face barriers and environmental resistance, true. But hopefully I’ve helped you to see just how many barriers we are facing. People talk about autism as an “invisible disability” and our barriers seem to be invisible to many people, too. But our barriers are real. No amount of shaming a person or telling them they need to straighten up and fly right is going to remove those barriers we smack up against. So often we can’t even see the barriers ourselves and we are the ones most affected by them.
I was genuinely baffled for most of my life about why I struggled so hard but couldn’t seem to succeed. I would get angry with myself and think I just needed to try harder. I attributed my lack of success to a lack of self-discipline, a deficit of willpower. It was only after learning that I am Autistic and learning about the many barriers disabled people face that I started to understand how systemic my struggles are. Yes, I do have to show up and put in the effort, but much of the weight holding me back comes from society’s judgments and hampering rules, not from my lack of effort, commitment, or drive.
Sure, there have been times in life when I’ve just laid down and given up. But who wouldn’t falter in the face of such overwhelming opposition? Even now, as my life finally seems to be finding a path through the minefields of life, my future is in question. I found my passion (writing, teaching, offering emotional support) and I figured out a way to make all the pieces fit but I might not get to go to grad school for the training and connections I need to make my business plan a reality because I’m held back by old medical debt. Poverty, itself, is a sucking pit of quicksand that keeps people — of all neurologies — needlessly mired within it.
(Quick shameless plug: if you want to help me with that debt so I can go earn my master’s degree, share and donate to my GoFundMe. Thanks.)
If you have been battering yourself against your environment and getting angry with yourself as a result, stop blaming yourself for the ways the world makes things so hard for you. Ask for help. And when you get that leg up and finally break through the barriers, don’t forget to reach back and help pull others over the ramparts. We can storm life as a team. We need to have one another’s backs.
If you are watching an Autistic person flinging themselves against obstacles, help them get around or over the obstacles. Don’t judge them, even if you feel like their solutions are obvious. They are not wilfully ignoring the solution. Don’t leave someone to wither and die because you think they ought to know better. Sometimes we need help seeing “the obvious”.
You’re trying to do it alone — willpower is an individual battle, and you can’t make positive permanent change by fighting silent battles. The opposite of willpower is connection — you need an environment and the right people to help you change.
It all comes down to support. You can’t live our lives for us, but we need you to help us figure things out. We need people in our lives who are not dragging us down or holding us back but encouraging us forward.
One thing I’ve noticed about my own life with a developmental disability is that I am an incredibly late bloomer. In my 50s I’m finally beginning to tackle things that average people address in their 20s. I sometimes joke that I might get it all together by the time I’m laying on my death bed, but that’s gallows humor. It’s whistling past the graveyard. It’s my own struggle not to be devastated by missing out on so much in life because I wasn’t ready when I was at the proper age and had no mentors to help me through and have no access now because I’m too old.
We are late-ripening fruit and it’s criminal how many of us are left to rot on the vine.
We need a network of supportive people — our own Autistic people and truly supportive friends and family — to help us achieve our goals. We need to reach out for help and we need help in reaching out because asking for assistance is not typically in our wheelhouse. We struggle so much because we are people who need help asking for help.
We need mentorship with money. Not just budgeting it, but negotiating it. I can’t tell you how many Autistic people I’ve talked with about the incredible difficulty of asking for a raise, requesting a fair speaking fee, invoicing clients, or bartering while buying and selling. Being assertive about money is a skill we struggle to learn. The ever-present battle to maintain feelings of self-worth isn’t helping.
We need to be surrounded by people who are celebrating our victories instead of pressuring us to achieve the victories they think we ought to. We need guidance from people who truly understand what it means when we flop limp onto the floor. We need people who help us grow at a healthy pace, not people set on breaking us down so they can rebuild us. Break us down at your own risk. The pieces don’t always go back together once you break us enough.
What I’ve written here seems particularly bleak because I’ve put so much focus into what holds us back from achieving our goals. But I think it’s important to make those barriers visible because we can’t get the support we really need until we and those around us understand what we’re up against. To support us, you need to know what you’re supporting us through.
And I hope you do choose to support us. We are fighting for our lives but we can’t break through alone. We are storming the gates without a key. Unlock some doors for us. Let us in.
This is a re-post of an essay that originally appeared on Unstrange Mind November 10, 2015.
I learned about Longmore’s work shortly after I self-published my first book, No You Don’t: Essays from an Unstrange Mind. I had worked hard to write my collection of memoir-flavored essays about my lived experience of autism and my hopes for the children currently growing up Autistic. Not only did I write, revise, and edit all the writing, but I laid out the typesetting for the print version, designed the cover, and created the Kindle version. I spent many hours in front of a computer tweaking images by a pixel here or a pixel there and shuffling words around to prevent awkward widows and orphans (isolated bits of words at the top or bottom of a page, disrupting the visual flow of pages.)
The book released very successfully, considering what a small fish I am, and I dutifully reported my income from it. Social Security rules for earnings while living on SSI are designed to help disabled people transition from living on benefits to being self-supporting. A small initial amount is exempt and then SSI is reduced fifty cents for every dollar earned. So I expected my checks to be reduced by a small amount, but imagine my shock when my checks were slashed so dramatically that I couldn’t pay my rent anymore. (I had already spent the royalties I’d received in that first burst of sales on life necessities, assuming that I would still get nearly a full SSI check later.)
When I contacted the Social Security Administration (SSA) about the problem, it turned out that they were considering my income under the rules for “unearned income.” These rules are more draconian: one’s check is reduced dollar-for-dollar. This is why I never bothered to go get utility assistance: if an agency gives me money to pay my winter heating bill, that money is unearned income and my SSI check would be reduced by the exact dollar amount two months later. So all utility assistance does for a person on SSI is shuffle their expenses but it doesn’t actually help them in any way.
It took me months to straighten out my money situation with Social Security and I am grateful that my landlord worked with me during that time because otherwise, I might have become homeless in the middle of the battle. The SSA was applying the rules for royalties that come from things like mineral rights. If you are on SSI and strike oil on your property and sell that oil to a corporation, the money you are paid is called royalties and it is considered unearned income. I have no problem with that because selling mineral rights on one’s property doesn’t require a lot of effort on the seller’s part and the oil that is pulled out of their land is worked by someone else. That income pretty much is unearned.
But the royalties that come from a creative work of art are different. As I said, I worked hard for a long time to put that book together and I continue to work all the time to market that book. I continue to work, writing more essays and books and promoting them in various ways. The royalties I earn from my book are, indeed, earned. I haven’t yet earned enough royalties to compensate at minimum wage for the hours I put into creating the book. My task was to prove to the SSA that I had earned that money and deserved to have my income considered under the earned rules instead of the unearned rules. And when I set out to do the research to prove my case, that’s when I discovered Paul K. Longmore.
Longmore was a history professor and a disability activist. In 1953, at the age of seven, Longmore developed polio and lost the use of his hands as a result. He needed expensive medical care for the rest of his life, due to post-polio syndrome, and so keeping the medical benefits that come with Social Security disability was very important to his survival.
Longmore wrote an award-winning book, The Invention of George Washington, by holding a pen in his mouth and using it to type on a keyboard. It took Longmore ten years to write his book. I do not tell you of his writing process and the length of time it took him to write as some sort of inspiration porn. I tell you because it underlines how much the royalties from his book were earned income, not unearned in any sense of the word. Longmore worked hard on his book and it is a highly regarded book in its own right.
But the SSA did not share this view and Longmore was suffering as a result. The fact that they took away every penny he earned was bad enough, but he could not accept awards for his book if they included a cash prize and his healthcare coverage was at risk. Longmore burned a copy of his book on the steps of the SSA main headquarters in Washington, D.C., an act of protest that he wrote about in an essay included in his collection, Why I Burned My Book and Other Essays on Disability.
Longmore’s protest and subsequent lobbying lead to a change in the late Eighties to the SSA rules governing earnings from creative works, colloquially known as the Longmore Amendment.
This is just the beginning when it comes to learning about Dr. Longmore’s contributions to disability activism and I highly recommend reading his books and learning more about his life. Sadly, Longmore died unexpectedly in 2010 at age 64, but his legacy lives on. He is one of my heroes and I think he will become one of yours as well. Thank you, Dr. Longmore, for fighting for our rights.
When I took my information to the SSA — information about the change in rules and direct citations from the SSA’s own rulebook — my meeting was almost anti-climactic. My caseworker barely looked at my evidence and changed my earning status with no fight at all, treating me as if I were engaging in overkill by bringing in documentation (despite the way I had been treated earlier without documentation, even to the point of being lectured that SSI is “need-based” as if I shouldn’t even want to have a higher income let alone have a right to work for a higher income and a chance to transition off benefits, becoming self-supporting.)
My reception was irritating, but I got over it pretty quickly when I saw the results: I don’t have to report my income month-by-month. Every year, I submit my tax returns and estimate my next year’s earnings. My check is adjusted annually, based on projected earnings. I am free to focus on working hard to build my business of writing, speaking, and trying to help shape a future world that has a place for people like me.
I owe much of my continuing success to the work of Paul K. Longmore. I hope my work pays tribute to his memory. He is one of my heroes and role-models. Thank you, Dr. Longmore, for fighting for all of us disabled folk who are trying to build careers and touch the future through our work.
McCollum’s lawyer is asking for letters and donations to try to save Darius McCollum’s life. McCollum is facing a judge who will decide whether he can finally get treatment for his impulsive nature — treatment he has never been able to get ever before in his life — or whether he will be locked forever in a prison for the criminally insane. That prison might as well be an execution because it would mean the end of the line for Darius McCollum’s chance at having a happy or fulfilled life.
If you would like to donate to his legal defense or write a letter to the judge pleading for treatment rather than imprisonment, visit the #FreeDariusNow website:
Below is the letter I wrote to the judge. Do not copy my letter. The judge will notice duplicate letters and, as a result, take our words much less seriously — if considering them at all. Write your own words and your own thoughts if you choose to send a letter. I am including my letter to help others understand the intense importance of McCollum’s case and to inspire others to write letters as well. The more sincere and carefully thought through letters the judge gets, the more chance we have to weigh in on Darius McCollum’s fate.
I am an Autistic adult, a writer and public speaker, and an advocate for Autistic people. I am writing to plead Darius McCollum’s case with you. It is my firm belief that Mr. McCollum does not belong in prison or in a facility for the criminally insane but rather in treatment that permits him to be part of society.
Mr. McCollum loves the transportation industry. He was fortunate enough to learn his passion at an early age and blessed to find acceptance and community for a time among the MTA workers who embraced and respected him. He proved himself motivated and responsible by sweeping trains and helping MTA workers with mundane tasks. Mr. McCollum is no irresponsible joyrider but a disciplined man who, through being misinterpreted and misunderstood, has missed his calling: a lifetime of service to the people of New York as a transportation professional.
The biggest criminal action in Mr. McCollum’s case is how life circumstances and the prejudices of those around him prevented him from following that calling. How many people sincerely wish they knew where they belong in this world? Mr. McCollum has known nearly all his life where he should be — serving the city of New York as a transportation professional. But his ambitions and dreams were thwarted every step of the way until we have come to this crisis point where the judicial system — where you, Your Honor — decides if the balance of Mr. McCollum’s life should be discarded forever to a grim punishment or rehabilitated.
In his 2018 book, Lost Connections: Uncovering the Real Causes of Depression and the Unexpected Solutions, author Johann Hari tells a story about a rice farmer in Cambodia who lost a leg when he accidentally stepped on an old land mine left over from war. The farmer was fitted with a prosthetic leg but fell into a deep depression. His neighbors recognized that the farmer was in pain, was struggling to continue his physically strenuous work, and lived in fear of stepping on another mine. The neighbors pooled their resources and bought the rice farmer a cow so he could become a dairy farmer instead. His depression lifted as a result.
The story of the cow highlights the importance of community in treating mental illness. Mr. McCollum does not belong in a prison for the criminally insane. He belongs in treatment and he needs his community to step up and “buy him a cow.” Mr. McCollum’s distress and mental illness is situational: it is caused by his community rejecting him and then repeatedly punishing him for following his dreams and pursuing the one career he found he could excel in. Even when he helped authorities make the subways secure after the tragic acts of terrorism on September 11th, 2001, he was punished for sharing his extensive knowledge and working to make New York safer.
All his life it has been Mr. McCollum’s dream to serve the people of New York and he has demonstrated his loyalty and devotion again and again only to be slapped down and punished again and again. Who among us would still be alive after decades of such a life? Mr. McCollum is a strong man and instead of punishing him I feel he should be helped in the hopes of ultimately permitting him to serve the people of New York or some other metropolitan area. With therapy to help Mr. McCollum address his impulsive nature and social services to help him adjust to life in the community after spending so many years behind bars, perhaps Mr. McCollum could graduate to working as a transportation professional — if not in New York City, in some other major city. If not as a driver, perhaps in a related capacity such as museum worker or service technician. His transportation skills and his deep passion for the machines of transportation and for serving the community are Mr. McCollum’s “cow.” Can’t we do everything in our power to build Mr. McCollum up rather than close the final jail door on his life?
Thank you for your time and consideration.
This is an edited re-posting of a blog post that originally appeared on June 9, 2014.
-=-The saying goes, “if you’ve met one Autistic person, you’ve met one Autistic person.” That was really hammered home for me today as I watched a short video in which an Autistic man explains why Autistic people flap our hands . . . . and pretty much nothing he said matched up with my own experience. A few of the things he said even bothered me.
My intention is not to erase what he said, however. His view of why he used to flap his hands is just as valid as my view of why I still flap my hands. There are many ways of being Autistic.
(Since the video was not captioned, I took the time to make a transcript of it for those who can’t hear or understand it. That was fortunate as the original video was removed from YouTube.)
The video explains, “It comes down to repetition. When we, as people with Asperger’s, are in a really unknown situation or we’re in a situation where there’s a lot of anxiety […], there’s a lot of stress, the way that we manage that, is because generally it’s overwhelming we do repetitive motions, because then we at least know, hey, if I do this I have complete control over it. And I know that whatever I do, I have complete control and it’s going to happen the same time every time. Therefore, I get a little bit of comfort from it.”
This does not even begin to describe why I flap my hands or make other “Autistic movements.” Yes, I flap in stress. I flap in overwhelm. I flap when I get hurt. The video presents hand flapping as if it only occurs as a result of stress or anxiety, however, and that is not at all true for me.
I flap my hands when I am happy. I flap them when I am content. I flap them a lot when I get excited about something. I have as many different ways of flapping and twisting and ruffling and fluttering my hands as I have emotions and emotional combinations that wash over and through me. My hands are like barometers of my emotional climate.
There are plenty of things I do to try to increase the amount of control in my life, but flapping my hands is not really one of those things. I don’t flap my hands to have something reliable and constant in my life. I fill that need with other things, like small stuffed animals I carry in my pocket or ritual ways of doing certain things. For example, there is a little ritual to how my boyfriend and I say good night in the evening and that ritual comforts me, gives me a sense of stability and predictability in my life, and helps me to make the transition from visiting with him to being alone again. I do other things like always removing the ice cube trays from the freezer in the same order, always putting the same number of ice cubes in my glass, always walking or bicycling the same route to get places, always brushing my teeth for the same number of minutes every night, and so on.
These things serve my need to have a predictable, orderly world that is under my control as much as possible. The more I am able to feel a sense of control over my life, the calmer and happier I am. I suspect this is true for most or all people, but it is quite extreme in my case. Something small, like not getting my usual seat, or having the water turned off for twenty minutes in my apartment building in the middle of the day with no warning, can make me feel like my world is coming to an end. I am always fighting back the forces of chaos. But I do not wage this war with hand flaps.
The most common reason for me to flap my hands is that I am very happy and excited about something. My boyfriend told me that he loves to see my hands flap because there is a lovely joy that goes along with it that is fresh and appealing, without guile or artifice. If I recall correctly, he used the word “childlike” and meant it in a beautifully loving and respectful sense. Over the month of December, we went through a Jacquie Lawson advent calendar together every morning right after having breakfast together and he got to see lots of hand-flapping on the days when the calendar surprise was a steam locomotive or a peacock spreading his bright tail feathers or a mansion kitchen staffed entirely by giant teddy bears.
I’d see these things that made me really happy and excited and there would go the hands. By the time I was aware that I was flapping my hands, they’d already been going wild all on their own without my awareness. My hand flapping is so often an expression of sheer, unadulterated joy — pretty much the exact opposite of what is being taught in the video. Asperger Experts says, “it’s basically a giant signal saying, “hey! I’m not comfortable right now. Things are too much pressure or too much, just, overwhelm of sensation to the point that I need to do something to feel better about it.”
Yes, I can feel pretty overwhelmed by joy! But the kind of flapping I do when I’m not comfortable and suffering is another kind of hand flap. It’s a whole language of flaps and twists and shifts and strokes and claps. My hands speak my emotions so clearly, but only to those who are willing to learn what they are saying. My hand flapping is not a single message of suffering. It is a multi-faceted expression of my complex and beautiful emotional life.
As an alexithymic, I’m not usually aware of my emotions. So I even watch my own hands flapping away to help me understand what emotions I’m experiencing. I am “blind” to my emotions — I have emotions, usually very strong ones, but I am unable to know what I am feeling so I have to play detective and watch my body for clues. My hands are always telling me what I am feeling. Without my hand flaps, I would not be anywhere near as connected to my inner life. Without my hand flaps, I would struggle so much more every day, just trying to understand what my body and spirit were experiencing. My hands are my teachers and they educate me about my deepest self every day.
While I feel as if my three-dimensional experience of hand flapping is described in a very one-dimensional way in the video, that’s not what really bothered me about the message. I was bothered by the way hand flapping was presented as something bad, undesirable, ridiculous looking, and mainly restricted only to small children. The video admitted that hand flapping is necessary, but presented it as something annoying and embarrassing that should be substituted as quickly as possible with something less visible, like repetitive thoughts.
“You shouldn’t just try to stop it because then they’re just going to find some other way of gaining comfort. […] All of a sudden, they might gain a tic, like [clicks tongue several times] and then that’s just even more annoying.”
You shouldn’t try to stop hand flapping because it is part of who we are. Would you like it if everyone were trying to make you stop smiling? Or tucking your hair behind your ear? Or putting your sunglasses on top of your head? Or crossing your legs when you sat? That is what people are doing to us when they try to make us stop flapping our hands: they are trying to force us to stop moving in ways that are natural, healthy, and comfortable to us.
(And when I say “we” and “us,” I mean those of us who do flap our hands or otherwise naturally move in different ways from the rest of society. Not all Autists move in the same ways and that includes the fact that not all of us rock or flap or spin (although the vast majority of us do) so don’t assume someone is not Autistic because you don’t see them moving in different ways. Or they speak. Or hold a job. As I always say, there is no one way of being Autistic.)
This video presents hand flapping as a necessary evil — something that is annoying but has to be tolerated because we do it to soothe anxiety and might end up doing something even more annoying if we’re forced to stop. In my opinion, hand flapping is a fundamental manifestation of the native nervous system of those who flap. It is how we are built, it is what we do. The focus should not be on whether it “might look ridiculous” or whether it’s better to “[transition] into listening to the same song over and over again, [or] say the same thing in [one’s] mind over and over again.” the focus should be on building a society that understands that we don’t all move our bodies the same way and that’s okay.
“You know, you don’t see many people that are forty doing this [waves hands].” I am fifty and I flap my hands. Many of my friends who flap their hands are older than me. I know people in their twenties, thirties, forties, and fifties who flap their hands and even someone in his seventies who flaps his hands. It’s okay to move differently from others. It’s okay to have a different neurology and it’s okay to be who you are.
There is a much worse risk that comes from trying to suppress hand flapping than developing an “annoying tic.”
When I was a child, I felt like there was no place that was safe, no place where it was okay to be who I am, no place where I could just relax and be myself. Everybody was trying to give me the advice of “just relax and be yourself,” but when I would actually do that, I would be yelled at, criticized, punished, bullied. I lived in fear and anger because nothing I did, no matter what, was ever right or good enough. At school, I was bullied by the students and even by many of the teachers.
At home, I was blamed for the bullying and told I was bringing it on myself. In a misguided attempt to shape me into someone who would not deserve to be bullied so much, all my mannerisms and stims and quirks were under attack. I felt like I was constantly picked apart for behaviors like walking on tiptoe, clearing my throat, flicking my fingers, spinning around, talking too loudly, grunting instead of talking, and so on. I spent . . . wasted . . . so much energy and focus on trying to make my body and face and voice do all the proper things. But no matter how hard I tried, I kept always doing something wrong and getting called out for it.
As a result, I was filled with so much anger toward everyone around me and so much self-loathing. I felt like nothing I did was ever right and I had no place to relax – school was filled with bullies and home was filled with picking apart my stims. I grew to hate everyone and often would lose myself in bitter daydreams with imagery I don’t care to re-visit now. My whole life was torment and I was in agony. This is the reason to let Autistic people be, not the fear that they might develop new behaviors that are even more annoying to the people around them.
The video’s reason for tolerating hand flapping was all about what makes other people feel okay or uncomfortable and had almost nothing to do with what the Autistic person wants and needs. Hand flapping almost had to be defined in that very one-dimensional manner, because if hand flapping is nothing but a comfort for excruciating anxiety, it is easier to decide to tolerate the “annoying” and “ridiculous” behavior, but if hand flapping is something that can be a sign of happiness as well as of more difficult emotions it’s harder to justify allowing people to be “annoying” just because they are happy.
But the problem is not with the hand flapping. The problem comes when the decision has been made that hand flapping is annoying or weird and not natural and adorable (which happens to be how it appears to me. I love to see people hand flapping! It makes me happy to see someone making a happy hand flap.)
The makers of the video may be Asperger’s Experts, but they are most surely not Maxfield Experts, because I’m not at all like what was portrayed in that video and I have many Autistic friends who are similar to me. Of course some Autistic people must resemble the portrait that was painted by the educational video purporting to explain hand flapping because that is how those two young men experienced their own Autistic movements. I don’t want to erase their voice when raising mine. But I also want to make sure their message is not the only one available to people.
So, as I said, the lesson here is that if you’ve met one Autistic person, you’ve met one Autistic person. There is not just one way to be Autistic. I’m sure the makers of the hand flapping video were expressing the truth about what being Autistic is like for them. Just be careful to remember that no one (including me!) speaks for all Autists. It is a pretty safe bet that there are also Autists out there who aren’t like the description in the video but aren’t like me, either.
So when you see someone flapping their hands, don’t make assumptions about what it means. There are some meanings that are more likely and some that are less likely, but better than guessing — better even than statistically-backed guessing — is getting to know the individual Autist and learning what hand flapping means for them. Engaging with humans is almost never a one-size-fits-all scenario. We Autists are individuals — it’s good to learn general autism data, but “at the end of the day” there is no substitute for learning the language, including the body language, of the special person in your life. Or of yourself, if that’s how it’s all playing out for you.
But no matter what the flaps mean where you are, I do hope you will take one thing seriously that I said: don’t hate on the flaps, don’t be afraid of them, don’t judge them so harshly. Learn to live with the hand flaps because they are a good and useful thing for Autists, no matter what purpose they serve for each individual Autistic person. And, who knows: if you don’t already, there may come a day when you begin to see the beauty in hand flaps. Hand flapping and other Autistic stims are quite exuberant and lovely if you remember that they are a person’s heart and spirit made visible in time and space for all to behold.
The Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry published an editorial perspective by Dr. Simon Baron-Cohen in their June issue that is only now beginning to get some media coverage. In his essay, titled “Neurodiversity – a revolutionary concept for autism and psychiatry,” Dr. Baron-Cohen makes a solid case through most of the piece for viewing autism through the lens of the Neurodiversity Paradigm.
From beginning to end, the piece is filled with what would otherwise be marvelous messages from one of the most prominent autism researchers in the world. Dr. Baron-Cohen speaks from a huge platform, so it is greatly heartening to read positive statements from the abstract — “Evidence at the genetic, neural, behavioural and cognitive levels reveals people with autism show both differences, and signs of disability, but not disorder. Disability requires societal support, acceptance of difference and diversity, and societal “reasonable adjustment”, whilst disorder is usually taken to require cure or treatment.” — to the conclusion — “genetic or other kinds of biological variation are intrinsic to the person’s identity, their sense of self and personhood, which seen through a human rights lens, should be given equal respect alongside any other form of diversity, such as gender.”
If the entire essay actually promoted the Neurodiversity Paradigm, it would truly be cause to rejoice. Having Dr. Simon Baron-Cohen on board would represent the biggest boost the Neurodiversity Movement has ever seen. Sadly, there are two major stains on Dr. Baron-Cohen’s editorial. The first is his use of person-first language throughout the essay. How can Dr. Baron-Cohen claim to believe that autism is “intrinsic to [a] person’s identity” yet not even give a nod to identity-first language?
The importance of Dr. Baron-Cohen’s choice of terminology pales, however, in light of his choice to fold the idea that only some Autistics are not disordered, while others are, indeed, disordered (thus, one would assume, Dr. Baron-Cohen views those Autistics as “requir[ing] cure or treatment”.) Dr. Baron-Cohen wrote, “‘Disorder’ should be used when there is nothing positive about the condition, or when despite trying different environmental modifications, the person is still unable to function. […] Using these definitions, we should remain open-minded that some forms of autism are properly thought of a disorder, and others not, given the heterogeneity that exists within this diagnostic category.”
Dr. Baron-Cohen has declared that some Autistics have nothing positive about their neurology. And what of the second half of his definition of disorder? Those Autistics who are “unable to function” are disordered while, logically, those who are “able to function” are not disordered. But what does “function” mean? Dr. Baron-Cohen has gone one step beyond the “high functioning/low functioning” paradigm that the Neurodiversity Movement so strenuously speaks against and straight into functioning/not-functioning as his dividing line between who is permitted the human dignity of “identity, […] sense of self and personhood” and who must be “cured” of their “disorder.”
Not only is this attitude not at all in line with the Neurodiversity Paradigm, it is terrifying. Who gets to decide what “functioning” means? Who gets to draw that line between person and not-person? Are my friends who cannot drive (not all of whom, I should note, are Autistic) still “functioning”? What about those (also not only Autistics) who can’t manage money? Those who can’t work a job (you guessed it: also not only Autistic friends) and live on disability payments? Those who are unable to speak (yes, even these friends are not all Autistic) with their voice? Obviously, my answer is that all Autistics have personhood and “function” just fine.
Dr. Simon Baron-Cohen has inserted a chillingly genocidal twist into his version of “Neurodiversity” that is so overwhelmingly negative it erases any warm feeling I might have had about the marvelous things he says in the rest of his essay. I am left with the feeling that Dr. Baron-Cohen does not actually understand the Neurodiversity Paradigm and is merely repeating buzz phrases in, at best, an attempt to remain relevant and, at worst, an attempt to sabotage the Neurodiversity Movement.
The Neurodiversity Paradigm says that all brains are good brains and no one is disordered or in need of a cure or treatments that work to the detriment of their personhood. Dr. Baron-Cohen needs to study Neurodiversity further and either sign on to it as-is or realize that his work is incompatible with the Neurodiversity Paradigm and stop trying to re-make it in his own image. The Neurodiversity Paradigm declares everyone worthy and valid, not merely those upon whom some official seal of medical approval has been bestowed.
We were discussing early diagnosis/identification and early intervention/therapy over on the Facebook forum for this blog and a reader, Megen Porter, made a deeply insightful comment: “It’s almost like early identification is important so you can intervene on yourself as a parent.”
What a brilliant way to put it, Megen! Thank you!
The standard meaning of the phrase early intervention is to jump in with hours and hours of therapy to try to get an Autistic child to be “indistinguishable from peers” as quickly and as thoroughly as possible. This means extinguishing Autistic behaviors, even absolutely harmless ones that are beneficial to the Autistic person but embarrassing or off-putting to onlookers, the classic example of which is hand flapping.
But Megen put a lovely spin on things by pointing out that it is the parents who need the early intervention. When autism can be recognized and identified early, the parents have a golden opportunity to begin working to understand the child they actually have. They can now learn about autistic neurology and stop interpreting their child through the wrong lens. Their child will be happier, healthier, and feel more love and acceptance for who they truly are once their parents’ fear and confusion has cleared away. Parents can avoid shaming their child for being different and can come to understand that their job is not to try to shape their child like a lump of wet clay but to celebrate who their child is and work from there.
Of course there will be some kinds of specialized education. All children get education at home and at school, and identifying children who are neurodivergent in various ways means that those children can get more targeted education that works with their brain, not against it. Autistic children might need extra mentoring in coping with processing sensory input. All children need to learn how to self-soothe — none are born knowing that. Autistic children often need extra mentoring in that area. Later, it might be extra important that an Autistic child gets academic directions in a written form in addition to or instead of a spoken form. Or an Autistic child might need help with finding a method of communication that works well for that child since speaking isn’t always the optimal choice. These kinds of interventions are very important.
But the most important early intervention — and the earlier the better! — is for the parents. Let’s all work to help parents of newly-identified Autistic children with their early intervention program. What can you do to help?
When someone tells you that their child was just diagnosed, don’t say “I’m sorry.” Say, “that’s great! Now you know what is going on. I’m so glad you have that information.” If you’re a hugger and they’re a hug-liking person, add a hug in there. Be friendly, encouraging, upbeat. If they are telling you this because your child is Autistic, there are other things you can say as well. Talk about the ways that it was helpful to learn about your child’s autism. The newly-aware parent is probably feeling overwhelmed with all kinds of emotions. Emphasize what is good about getting the diagnosis to help that parent get a good start on this new phase of their life. Remind them that their child is still the beautiful, magical, wonderful child he or she has always been. Let them know that the only thing that has changed is that there is more information now, to help them understand their child better.
We should all be as supportive of one another as we possibly can — parents, children, adult Autistics, professionals, everyone. But let’s all try to be extra supportive of the newly-aware parents among us. If you are the parent of Autistic children, don’t white-wash your life but do spend a little extra time talking about the good things. Spend a little extra time talking about great solutions you found that made your child’s life better and, by extension, the whole family happier.
Remind the newly-aware parent that *all* parenting is challenging. This is especially important, because parents whose children are not Autistic cannot say something like that. A parent who does not have an Autistic child is offensive if they remind others that all parenting is challenging because they are not speaking from the same set of experiences, but if you are parenting an Autistic child, please do take the time, when it feels appropriate to you, to remind others that all parenting is challenging because it help to put the struggles of families with Autistic members into perspective. Too often I see *everything* blamed on autism. Other families say “it is hard to transition from one grade of school to the next,” or “that first day of kindergarten is so hard because so many kids get upset when they realize they’ve been left there without mom and dad,” or “the hormonal changes of pre-teen and teen years can be so chaotic!”
Remind that newly-aware parent that they get to say those things, too. Of course it is different with autism because we Autistic people experience and think about the world differently, so we add our own individual flavor to every challenge of growing up and living life. But we are not off in our own world; we live in the same world as the rest of you. We are struggling with the same things everyone is: learning, growing, changing. Our life stories are unique, but just because everything we experience and do is “autism colored” doesn’t mean that everything about our lives that is challenging for those around us is “all the fault of autism.” Gently help that newly-aware parent to realize that blaming autism for everything difficult is the same as saying, “my child’s worldview sucks.” Gently remind them that children are not very good at separating the ideas of “my brain is different and that is a horrible thing” from “I am a horrible thing.”
And, honestly, I think the kids got it right. Any time I try to set my autism on one side and heap all my troubles over there with it and set “me” on the other side and heap all my joys there, I get a massive cognitive dissonance headache. It can take a long time to get there, but help those newly-aware parents learn that autism is not something their child has; it is something their child is. Help them shift their perspective so that they don’t fall into the trap of hating autism and loving their child because that’s a Gordion knot that gets harder to cut through the longer it is being knotted together. If you try to stick a sword into that, you’re inevitably going to cut your child because it is impossible to find the place where autism ends and the child begins. Because that place isn’t there. There is a reason the medical books call autism “pervasive.” It is in every part of a person — there is no part of me that is not Autistic. My brain is an autistic brain and everything I know, see, taste, hear, think, remember, hope, wish, feel, and do comes from that autistic brain. Help the newly-aware parents understand that if they love their child (and you know they do!) they are loving an Autistic child and that’s a good thing.
Early intervention is so crucial for future success. The faster we can get to those newly-aware parents, the more quickly we can soothe their fears, lead them to acceptance, help them to see the joy that they are inheriting from their children every day. Sure, it will be hard — all parenting is. Yes, there are things they can do to increase their child’s chances of success. But they need to be canny and learn as quickly as possible that not every professional has their child’s best interests at heart. They can be choosy and only take those therapies and lessons that help their child to grow strong and healthy. If we can get to those newly-aware parents as quickly as possible, we can save their children a lot of suffering and the parents a lot of grief and guilt. As Megen said, “early identification is so important!” And it is because we have the best chance when we can all help newly-aware parents with the early intervention they need so badly in order to thrive and to help their children thrive.