Unstrange Mind

Autistic Author, Artist, Advocate, and Speaker

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I Don’t Have Privilege, Do I?

lens flare

[image description: lens flare from the sun. In the upper right corner, the sun blazes brightly, sending penetrating rays down into the forest and culminating in a green arc at the lower left. Perhaps it could be taken as a visual symbol of the penetrating light of wisdom? Taken November 19, 2016, in the Devil’s Millhopper Sinkhole, Gainesville, Florida. Copyright Sparrow R. Jones]


Privilege. I’ve seen so many arguments crop up when people start talking about privilege. I understand where people are coming from: if you’re white and impoverished, you probably don’t feel very privileged, right? You probably think something like, “oh, right. This white skin sure hasn’t done much for me. I’m living in a run-down trailer while Kanye West has millions of dollars. Don’t tell me about privilege!”

I’ve seen that argument, or some variation on it, so many times over the years. The argument is incorrect because it comes from not understanding what is meant when someone talks about “white privilege” or just “privilege.”

For starters, the word “privilege” means an advantage and most people don’t feel like they have much advantage in life. “Membership has its privileges” “he’s a privileged character.” People think of the word “privilege” as something that means you were ‘born with a silver spoon in your mouth.’

Yes, that is one definition of privilege, but when the word is being used to talk about social issues, it just means a specific edge, often (but not always) brought about through society’s stigmatized view of different types of people. If you don’t belong to one of the groups of people who are especially looked down on, hated, and/or feared you have privilege…at least in that area of your life.

It doesn’t have to be a huge edge. Privilege is not an absolute and it is not like an on/off switch where you’re either a millionaire or a skid-row bum.

But there’s something even more important than the amount of any specific type of privilege you have: the interaction between different amounts of privilege or lack of privilege in your life. Let me talk about something that might (or might not) be a new word for you: intersectionality.

Yes, it’s one of those academic words. But I’m going to break it down now and hopefully it will help you understand how you can be down on your luck or even at the bottom-of-the-barrel and still have some kinds of privilege.

Every single one of us is the result of intersections (combinations/interactions) of many different personal identities.  For example, here are some of my identities:

  1. white
  2. female at birth
  3. transgender/transmasculine
  4. alternate sexuality (very complicated to explain. Let’s just call it grey asexual for now.)
  5. Autistic
  6. multiply physically disabled
  7. not mobility impaired/not a wheelchair user
  8. multiply neurodivergent/neurologically disabled (N24 in addition to autism)
  9. psychologically disabled (C-PTSD, Anxiety, Depression)
  10. middle-class upbringing (college-educated parents, good childhood nutrition, etc.)
  11. highly educated (both self-educated and at university)
  12. poor/homeless
  13. middle-aged

Each of those identities has a different amount of privilege or lack of privilege.

Let me draw you a picture of my own intersectionality. I have way too many identities to put them all in one diagram, so I’m just going to talk about four of them in this diagram:

privilege diagram

[image description: a drawing of four circles that overlap. On the edges, each of those four circles is labeled: ‘WHITE’, ‘AUTISTIC’, ‘HOMELESS’, ‘EDUCATED’. In the center, where all four identity circles overlap, is the word ‘SPARROW’.]

This diagram illustrates four of those identities I listed above: white, Autistic, homeless, and educated. I put my name in the center where all the circles overlap, to show that I am a combination of those identities. If you take one of them away, I’m no longer the Sparrow you see before you today.

When you look at my privilege this way, you can see that my white privilege is not the whole story. Way out there on the edge where I am nothing but a white person, there is a lot of privilege. The place where the race circle overlaps with the circle indicating that I’m highly educated is a space with a huge amount of privilege.

My education represents multiple layers of privilege, starting with my birth into a middle-class family with two parents who had been to college. I grew up learning things from my parents because they are also highly educated. Growing up in that family also meant I got good nutrition in childhood to help my body grow strong. I got to travel on vacations and have broadening experiences in places other than the neighborhood and community where I grew up. I lived in safe neighborhoods with good schools. I was able to go to university and earn degrees because of many intersecting (there’s that word again) privileges that go all the way back to my childhood. The good nutrition and intellectual stimulation as a child helped my brain to grow in ways that made it easier for me to educate myself. There’s a massive amount of privilege contained in the intersection of those two identities: white and educated.

But what about those other two circles? I am poor and homeless and that often makes me life very difficult. This week I have been going around to places like the Salvation Army, trying to find enough food to keep myself alive until I can either get paid for some of my writing or my next disability check comes in — and I am currently very worried about my disability income because I’m up for re-certification and I filled out the paperwork today and it doesn’t look good. If I lose my SSI disability, I have no idea how I will be able to hold my life together at all. That’s not privilege, right? My homelessness and poverty are the opposite of privilege. A lot of my humanity doesn’t matter to a lot of people in this world if I can’t pay bills or afford the basics of life.

And I am Autistic, as you likely know since this is a blog where I focus on Autistic issues and talk about my lived experience of autism. There is a lot of stigma connected to being known to be Autistic. A lot of people refuse to listen to anything I have to say. A lot of people value what non-autistic people say about autism much more highly than what those of us who live Autistic have to say about it, even when we’re saying the same thing. Most especially when our lived experience is not what the non-autistic experts say it is.

When you look at the space where Autistic and homeless overlap, you realize there is a huge lack of privilege there. Often I need things because I’m homeless that I can’t get because I’m Autistic. Or I need things because I’m Autistic that I can’t get because I’m homeless. My medical care is deeply substandard because of this intersection of lack of privilege. I have a lot of struggles with trying to build a career (ironically, since I chose to become homeless because it was the only way someone at my extremely low income-level could do the work I now do.)

But here’s the thing about intersectionality: that intersection of poverty and homelessness and being Autistic does not erase that intersection of being white and highly educated. I am still privileged at the same time that I am not privileged. I know, right? It can get confusing. But the thing about intersectionality is that I am not just one or two of those intersections of identity but I am all the intersections. When I am struggling to get my healthcare needs met because I am Autistic and homeless, I have an advantage over many other homeless Autistics because I am also white and highly educated. So there are doors that I can open with my privilege even though I am also a marginalized person.

Last summer, I was camping at a free equestrian camp in northern Missouri. There are a ton of those free camps scattered all across the northern part of the state…so many, in fact, that I counted and saw that a person could live for a full year for free, moving from horse camp to horse camp and staying a week at each one, without ever staying at the same camp twice. They are fairly primitive camping spots because they’re mostly there so that people with horses have someplace to go ride them.

My campsite on that particular evening had a fire ring and a picnic table, plus the site had a dumpster and a vault toilet (a big outhouse, basically.) There was no running water, no electricity…and no people. I had a great time there because I was alone for most of that week. Someone parked near me for a few hours to take their horse out of a trailer and ride him around and then left. I really enjoyed the solitude.

One night, a police officer pulled up to my campsite. He asked me if I had heard gunshots. I answered honestly that I had not, and that I had been in my van for the last hour, so I wouldn’t have heard them anyway. I have no idea if there were really gunshots or if that was just his way of opening a conversation with me. He asked me what I was doing and he was pretty friendly about it. I told him the truth: I was on my way to spend the Fourth of July holiday with family but, “you know how it is: I don’t want to show up so early that they’re tired of me before the holiday even starts! So I figured I’d spend a little time camping. Really nice campsite you’ve got here!”

He laughed with me about the idea of imposing one’s self on family too long and agreed that Missouri sure was pretty. Satisfied that I hadn’t decided to permanently move in and that I seemed to be just an innocent traveler, and not up to no good, he wished me a good evening and left.

After the officer left, I wondered how that encounter would have gone if I were Black. Would he have been so quick with the friendly banter? Would he have been so quick to decide it was okay for me to camp there? What if I were  not from a highly educated middle-class family? The words that come out of my mouth tell people that I come from a particular background and many people respect me when I am speaking well. What if my stress levels and anxiety  had been so high that my Autistic tendency to lose speech in difficult times had kicked in and I wasn’t able to speak smoothly with him? What if I had been in one of my moments where I can’t speak at all and had to type my half of the conversation to him on my AAC device?

This is intersectionality of privilege: the way I was treated by that police officer showed me that he was seeing my privilege and feeling comfortable about me because of it. I could easily have been in a situation where he mainly saw my lack of privilege and felt concerned about my presence at the campsite, wanting to chase me out of his county or put me in his jail or take me to a mental hospital. And if I had been a different person — perhaps one who had a harder time hiding my lack of privilege…say because it was predicated on my dark skin color that I could not hide from him no matter what … it is anyone’s guess how that interaction would have gone.

This is why we talk so much about white privilege when we discuss privilege, even though there are so many different kinds of privilege. Being Black is something a person can’t turn on and off, can’t disguise, can’t just keep their mouth shut about, can’t see a voice coach to learn how to obscure it. Black is Black, no matter what. And that’s a great thing, and something to be pleased and proud of…but it’s also a facet of a person’s identity that means they have to be careful with every single life choice.

Being Black is a facet of a person’s identity that means they live with a target on their back every day, every moment. The wrong word, the wrong movement, going to the wrong place, wearing the wrong clothes, walking home the wrong way on a dark rainy night with your hood up to keep the rain off your head … every single thing that Black people do or say can put them at risk because Blackness is the first thing that people see about them and people make judgments and decisions based on that.

And that is why white privilege is such a huge thing, even for someone like me who is poor, hungry, homeless, multiply disabled, struggling to get by with anxiety and PTSD and a history of abuse and institutionalization. The cards are stacked against me…but my skin is white and my words, when they are working for me, instantly reveal my level of education and privilege and that has kept me alive against the odds for fifty years.

The next time you see someone talking about privilege and you feel angry or ashamed and want to reject the idea that you have privilege? Don’t. Accept that you have privilege. Admit it. Own it. Privilege is not something to be ashamed of. Most of us didn’t even ask for the privileges we have; we were just born that way or born into an environment that was aimed toward shaping us that way. “Check your privilege” doesn’t mean to be ashamed of what you have or of the advantages it gives you.

Being asked to check your privilege just means that you should stop to think about the things that seem easy for you and remember that they are not easy for everyone. You may make phone calls with barely any effort, but it can be hell for me and impossible for someone else. I can drive really well: I’ve driven 31,000 miles in the last 18 months and have only put a few light scuffs on the car in the process (that one-lane tunnel in Indiana was way too narrow, I swear to you!) Not everyone can drive so well or even at all. I’d go so far as to say that at least half of my friends cannot drive at all. Maybe even more than half of them. I am not ashamed that I can drive, but it is important that I check my privilege and remember that it’s not something everyone can do (and there’s no shame in not being able to drive, either!)

If you feel like people want you to feel guilty for being white, stop and ask yourself if you are projecting your own feelings onto them. I have been told to check my white privilege a lot of times and I have never felt like someone wanted me to be ashamed of being white (or of having any sort of privilege). Being ashamed of being white (or privileged in any other way) accomplishes nothing! If you are having a hard time getting past that feeling, though, it can be very therapeutic to use your privilege to help break down the barriers that other people face. Here are some suggestions of ways to use your privilege for the benefit of marginalized people:

Seven ways to use your cisgender privilege (the privilege of being born the sex/gender you identify as being) to help transgender people.

Four ways to “push back” against your privilege (of any type) and help marginalized people.

What to do instead of just feeling guilty about it once you realize you have privilege in some area of your life.

Five ways to use your privilege to fight anti-Black racism.

And, just for good measure, a white cis man explains why wearing a safety pin is not enough.

So don’t resent it when someone lets you know about your privilege. They are helping you to understand yourself better. You are not supposed to feel ashamed. Someone said, “people tell me to check my privilege to get me to shut up” and that’s kind of true. Because as some of those links I just gave you will remind you, when someone reminds you of your privilege that’s the time to stop talking, start listening, and learn about the realities of someone else’s life.

I have learned so much when I have listened to my Black friends, my Latinx friends, friends who are trans women, friends with psychiatric disabilities I don’t have, friends with other disabilities I don’t live with, immigrant friends, friends much older or much younger than me. I have learned so much when I let people tell me about the marginalized aspects of their lives.

When someone helps me check my privilege, they are doing me a favor. It might sting in the short term, but I benefit so much in the long run. We all benefit from understanding the realities of the lives of people who are not the same as us. And we all benefit from increasing access for everyone and working to build a world that is more understanding, more fair, has more opportunities and less stigma and bigotry.

Do you have privilege? Probably, yes. Most people have some amount of privilege and some amount of lack of privilege. It’s not a contest and it’s not a zero sum game. Don’t get caught up in trying to calculate how much privilege you do or don’t have. Accept that you have some privilege and do what you can to help marginalized people (including yourself, if you are marginalized in aspects of your life) get heard and respected.

We are stronger together, all of us. Check your privilege and then use that privilege as a force for good in the world.

Neurodiversity: Creativity and Innovation Thrive When We Welcome Diverse Minds

Sparrow Rose Jones

[image description: Sparrow Rose Jones at the podium. A smiling white transmasculine person with metal-frame glasses, short dark hair, a dark red button-down long-sleeved shirt, jeans, and a black belt with silver buckle. Photo credit: Dr. Evelyn Chiang]

This presentation was delivered at the University of North Carolina’s Fourth Annual Disability is Diversity Week celebration, on Wednesday, November 9th, 2016 in Asheville, North Carolina

content warning: mention of suicide


Thank you for having me here this week to share in your celebration of disability as diversity. I travel all over the country and I have quickly grown to love Asheville and this university for setting such a shining example to the rest of the country when it comes to opportunities for Autistic people and their families.

Let me start by telling you a little bit about myself and why I am talking to you today about neurodiversity, the diversity of human minds, and the crucial role universities play in fostering and supporting diverse minds both in academia and in the world at large. I’m Autistic. In a perfect world, my telling you that would not be much different from my telling you that I’m white, 49 years old, a musician, or a nature-lover. It’s a fact about who I am.

Being Autistic means that my nervous system, including my brain, is wired differently. Some of my senses, like hearing, are tuned so high that the world can be a painful place for me. Other senses, such as my proprioceptive sense — that is, my sense of where my body is located — are tuned so low that I have to move around a lot to feel comfortable. That’s just one small sample of the ways that my body and mind respond to the environment differently. My nervous system has a wide variety of interesting twists and turns and some of those twists can vary from day to day or even moment to moment. Each Autistic person has their own interesting nervous system and that’s why we can be so different from one another in so many ways yet all be Autistic.

As a child, I had a lot of difficulty with school. I wasn’t getting adequate support and so I tended to be disruptive in class, trying to get the sensory input I needed for those senses that were turned on low and trying to escape the sensory inputs that were too intense for me to handle. Any of you who have worked with Autistic children know what kind of challenges I was up against, not to mention the challenge I presented to my teachers. Those were less enlightened times and it can fairly be said that I got an education in spite of school rather than because of it.

We still have a long way to go, but our understanding of autism has evolved and more and more Autistic children are getting good educations as they grow into Autistic teens. More and more Autistic young adults are graduating high school and seeking a university education. This is a terrific turn of events and universities are scrambling to set supports in place to help neurodivergent students succeed in college.

Neurodivergent? Some of you will be very familiar with that word while others have never heard the word before and are figuring it out through context. Neurodivergent is just what it sounds like: some people, like me, have minds that diverge from the mainstream. We are neurodivergent. You might have heard the word neurotypical used to describe people who aren’t autistic? Today I want to talk about the importance of supporting neurodivergent students — all those students who are not neurotypical.

Although I am Autistic and autism is the neurodivergence with which I am the most familiar, both because I have lived Autistic for 49 years but also because I have hundreds of friends all over the world who are also Autistic, autism is not the only neurodivergent neurotype.

All these neuro- words! The root of these words is Neurodiversity, the main word in the title of my presentation today — Neurodiversity: Creativity and Innovation Thrive When We Welcome Diverse Minds. I want to unpack that word a little bit because understanding what neurodiversity is (and is not) will help you understand why it is, or should be, such an important part of the university mandate.

There are three different but interconnected things I can mean when I use the word neurodiversity:

First, neurodiversity is simply a biological fact. We all have brains and all our brains have variations. We might use a word like “neurotypical” or talk about “the neuromajority” or even say things about “the average brain” or “a normal brain” but hopefully most of you realize that there is no such thing. Everyone’s brain is different from everyone else’s brain in ways both subtle and significant. Those of us who are identified as neurodivergent have more significant variation from the majority, but all brains differ and thus the word “neurodiversity” is a word that describes every one of us.

This is neurodiversity as a simple, undeniable, scientific fact. All of nature supports diversity and we have noticed that our natural environment thrives best when we work to preserve biodiversity. The world of ideas is not dissimilar from nature and universities have fostered a spirit of fearless inquiry and seek to create a sanctuary for human knowledge and wisdom. More on this notion of intellectual diversity and its intersection with neurological diversity shortly.

A second meaning of the word is found in the phrase “the neurodiversity paradigm.” The neurodiversity paradigm is a philosophical approach to the biological fact of neurodiversity. The neurodiversity paradigm holds that neurodiversity is not only a natural trait of human existence but that this diversity of minds is a valuable attribute of our species. The neurodiversity paradigm maintains that it is wrong to value one type of brain above another because each has its particular benefits and contributions. Just as we would rightfully cringe at the thought of determining which gender, religion (or lack thereof), or ethnicity is the best, the neurodiversity paradigm instructs us to stop playing favorites with brain types and seek instead to foster all that is great about every brain and every human being in whom those brains dwell and for whom those brains and their larger nervous systems serve as the seat of thought, feeling, will, perception, and identity.

A third meaning of the word neurodiversity is political: “the neurodiversity movement.” The neurodiversity movement, which was born in the Autistic community but exists to serve and support all neurologies — particularly those of fellow neurodivergents such as people with ADHD (many of whom have chosen to identify as Kinetics to escape a pathologizing label), dyslexia, anxiety, bipolar, schizophrenia, and more — is a political movement seeking justice and equality for all those “differently-brained” people in every sphere of society, including the university.

So neurodiversity is a biological reality, a philosophy about that reality, and a political movement informed by that philosophy.

Now back to the mandate of the university and why I posit that upholding the neurodiversity paradigm – the philosophy that all brain types are valuable – is, or should be, part of that mandate.

Over 160 years ago, John Henry Newman wrote a book many still value today for the way he explained and defined the concept of a liberal education, “The Idea of a University.” In that book, Newman explains why it is important for a university to offer areas of study that still garner criticism today, such as the humanities.  

“it is a great point,” he wrote, “to enlarge the range of studies which a University professes, even for the sake of the students; and, though they cannot pursue every subject which is open to them, they will be the gainers by living among those and under those who represent the whole circle. This I conceive to be the advantage of a seat of universal learning, considered as a place of education. An assemblage of learned men, zealous for their own sciences, and rivals of each other, are brought, by familiar intercourse and for the sake of intellectual peace, to adjust together the claims and relations of their respective subjects of investigation. They learn to respect, to consult, to aid each other. Thus is created a pure and clear atmosphere of thought, which the student also breathes, though in his own case he only pursues a few sciences out of the multitude.”

What Newman is describing could be called academic diversity or intellectual diversity and you will be hard-pressed to find academic faculty who believe a university should narrow its range and exclude wide swaths of intellectual disciplines from the educational menu offered to students and, by extension, to the world at large. At one time or another nearly every discipline universities embrace has been threatened with extinction by legislative budget cuts coming from outsiders unable to recognize the immense value that comes from art history, philosophy, musical performance, political science, theoretical mathematics, foreign languages, even English. Economic pressures and political forces focused more on everyday pragmatism than on the sort of creativity and innovation that fires the human spirit to ever higher achievements seek always to convert universities from temples of knowledge to cookie-cutter vocational pathways.

Universities resist this attempted narrowing of the collective mind every day. Yet what of the narrow range of the types of minds welcome to engage in this Great Conversation of universal learning?

Not only is there a place in academia for a wide range of minds, including those which diverge from the dominant majority of neurotypes, but the university needs neurological diversity in order to thrive and grow.

All great thought and innovation has benefitted from diversity of one form or another. African-American minds brought us the blood bank (Charles Drew), open-heart surgery (Dr. Daniel Hale Williams), an understanding of bioluminescence (Emmett Chapelle), the traffic signal (Garrett Morgan), the gas mask (Garrett Morgan), the synthesis of medicinal drugs from plants (Percy Lavon Julian), not to mention the literature of Maya Angelou, James Baldwin, Octavia Butler, W.E.B. DuBois, Ralph Ellison, Langston Hughes, Malcolm X, and so many more.

We celebrate the accomplishments of so many brilliant minds of people from various sexual and gender minorities such as Alan Turing, John Maynard Keynes, Margaret Mead, Florence Nightingale, Oscar Wilde, Willa Cather, Emily Dickinson, Eleanor Roosevelt, Leonard da Vinci.

Accomplished and brilliant women are far too numerous to name, but a few of my favorites include Emmy Noether, who developed much of the mathematical modelling of Einstein’s theory of relativity, Rosalind Franklin, whose x-ray photograph of DNA revealed its helical structure to Crick and Watson, Jocelyn Bell Burnell, who discovered pulsars, Chien-Shiung Wu, who disproved a law in physics, the law of parity, that had been believed for thirty years prior to her work, Nettie Stevens, who discovered X and Y chromosomes.

I’m sure most of you are familiar with the Autistic agricultural scientist, Temple Grandin, and realize that it was her innovative work that is revolutionizing the cattle slaughter industry, making it simultaneously more efficient and more humane.

There are so many more great neurodivergent thinkers: John Nash won a Nobel prize for his work with game theory. Vernon L. Smith won a nobel prize for his work in experimental economics. Michelle Dawson has conducted great work studying cognition and perception in autism. Charles Dickens wrote classics of literature still lauded over 100 years later. Franz Liszt, Vincent Van Gogh, Scott Joplin, J.D. Salinger, Kurt Godel, Max Weber, Sylvia Plath, William Styron, Georg Cantor, Robert Pirsig, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Joseph Pulitzer, Charlotte Perkins Gilman … surely I have convinced you of the value of fostering the creativity and innovation that comes from neurodivergence by now?

But it’s easy to value neurodivergence after the great achievements. As novelist and poet Marge Piercy wrote:

  “Genius is what they know you / had after the third volume / of remarkable poems. Earlier / they accuse you of withdrawing, / ask why you don’t have a baby, / call you a bum.”

It is crucial for the university to embrace the neurodiversity paradigm because not all genius can prevail against social stigma and unaccommodated barriers of disability. Jack Kerouac, with schizophrenia, produced brilliant work but drank himself to death. Sylvia Plath, with recurrent depression, produced brilliant work but ended her life by putting her head in the oven. Virginia Woolf, bipolar, produced brilliant work but ended her life by loading her pockets with stones and walking into the ocean.

Two months ago, Rex Morgan, an 8-year-old Autistic boy was stopped by his mother during a suicide attempt. He explained to her that life made him too anxious and “being asleep is better than being awake.” His mother saved his life but he is part of an estimated 30 to 50 percent of Autistic people who have considered, attempted, or completed suicide. Life is often difficult to bear for those who are wired differently from the majority when support and accommodations have to be fought for as if they were special privileges.

The barriers faced by neurodivergent people are massive but not insurmountable. And the creativity and fresh thought neurodivergence can bring to universities must be fostered and supported through accommodations and opportunities designed to help break down those barriers and nurture the spirit of those whose greatest pains and greatest joys can come from the same source: their divergence from the mainstream.

You may ask yourself, “university funding is already threatened on all levels and from all directions. Where will we find funding for special treatment for these different minds?”

And if you do, I will tell you that you are asking the wrong question. Accommodations are not special treatment; they are investments in society. It was North Carolina’s own Ronald L. Mace who pioneered the concept of Universal Design: the concept of creating architectural structures with all people of all ages and abilities in mind. Mace believed that good design accommodates everyone and helps to eliminate stigma and ableism by viewing access as a basic human right and disability as an aspect of human diversity.

Mace devoted his life and his work as an architect to educating us all that accessibility accommodations benefit everyone of every level of ability. He worked to build a world everyone could participate in and found great success in that work, including the accessibility of the Capitol Building and the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C.

It is time for Mace’s vision to be extended to neurological disability. Remember: the accommodations and supports that will help increase the neurodiversity of academia are not expensive “special needs” efforts that only benefit a few. Universities can and must develop accommodations that help all students to succeed in their studies and in their lives.

What student would not benefit from a strong counseling program? Who has not yearned for a designated quiet space to decompress after a stressful day? I’ve seen universities bring therapy animals to designated areas during midterms and finals week for all students to pet and hug. The arboretums, gardens, and landscaping of many universities are encouraged as much for their effects on the human spirit as for their educational value.

I am not suggesting that we sacrifice rigor or intellectual discipline in our universities, but rather that we surround our academic exploration and inquiry with an inclusive environment and a culture of acceptance and mutual assistance in which bullying and ostracization have no place.

I am calling for a university culture in which those who move and communicate and think differently are valued and welcomed as vital participants in the life of the mind and service to the world that the university has long fostered and promoted.

I charge all of you to do your part in creating an academic environment where there is no single right way to come to answers and solutions and where different ways of gathering information, processing ideas, communicating thoughts, and synthesizing knowledge are not just valued but actively supported and not just for neurodivergent students, but for all students. There is no room in the university for prejudices against academics whose minds differ in ways large or small. We are all on the same journey of discovery and stretching the limits of human understanding. Let’s make a point of finding every way to be kind to one another on that journey and help one another over and around the access barriers we stumble across on our way from here to the infinite realms of human potential.

Yes, neurodivergent students will often still need additional accommodations such as: quiet areas for testing, alternate methods for communicating answers in class or on tests, extra time for processing and recording answers for tests, visors to shield their eyes from harsh overhead lights, help with time scheduling, support for self-care needs, supported living arrangements on campus, a guarantee of all important communication being provided in written form, and many other accommodations too numerous or too individualized to list here.

Accommodations are a small investment for the return society sees from encouraging thought, communication, and problem-solving from those who bring such fresh vision to the table. And the alternative to accommodating those who are eager and capable of university-level work with reasonable support is to leave valuable human beings — and have no doubt: all human beings are valuable — excluded, isolated, and discarded. How many lives have been wasted or even lost because of the limiting fears, stigmas, and false beliefs of others about what a mind like theirs is truly capable of?

What’s more, excluding neurodivergent students from academia, whether intentionally or inadvertently, deprives other students who could have benefitted from sharing intellectual insights with others who think and view the world differently from them? We encourage foreign exchange programs because exposure to minds of students from other countries broadens us all. Let us encourage greater neurodiversity in universities so that, to re-visit Newman’s words, students can learn ‘to respect, to consult, and to aid each other, creating a pure and clear atmosphere of thought.’ When neurodivergent minds are effectively denied access through a lack of sufficient support and accommodation, everyone loses.

When we approach university with a truly collegial spirit, we all win. If you want your university to be better than ever, look at the barriers laid before neurodivergent students and potential students and work to dismantle them, creating a truly universally accessible university where creativity and innovation can thrive, thanks to a meeting of the minds …. All minds. It is time for the university to become an intellectual ecosystem that understands the deep value of fostering neurodiversity.

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

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.

=========

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?

Why I Call Myself Autistic

Tree at the Antietam Graveyard

image description: a tall, bright tree at a family graveyard on the Antietam Battlefield. The photograph has been put through post-processing to frame the tree in light while darkening the borders of the picture. Photograph copyright 2016, Sparrow Rose Jones

A reader named Karin posted a lengthy comment on my blog post from two days ago and I felt that all the time and effort that went into it deserved a full blog response. You can read Karin’s full comment under the blog essay What Is a Disorder?

Those of you who have read my latest book, The ABCs of Autism Acceptance, will recognize that I’ve covered this ground already, in my chapter “I is for Identity-First Language,”

 

Thank you, Karin, for your thoughtful and courteous comment. I also have anxiety, C-PTSD, and depression. These acquired neurodivergences are not, in my case, traits I was born with but neurological responses to abuse and ableism, both of which I’ve been handed heaping helpings of throughout my life. I am sorry to hear that you struggle with these very challenging neurodivergences as well.

 

I would tend to agree that using or preferring person-first language doesn’t necessarily mean a person views the trait being described as a bad trait, but most often it does and I see indications from your words that you do feel that person-first language is necessary to try to linguistically separate a person from an undesirable trait. Specifically, your response to the choice so many of us have made to refer to ourselves as Autistic shows that you feel autism is a highly undesirable trait that should be held as far away from a person as possible. I will explain further shortly; I am addressing your points in the same order that you made them.

 

You write, “I want others to see me as a whole person. My disability is PART of me, yes, and it affects many choices I make…but I also have personality traits and interests that have nothing to do with my disability.”

 

This is where Autism (and many other neurodivergences) are not like many other disabilities.

 

As an Autistic, I am a whole person. “Autistic” is a label of identification that contains full personhood within it, much as many other labels of identification. If I called someone a “woman” or a “Muslim” or “Black,” would you feel that it was important for them to use person-first language because someone might mistakenly forget that they are a whole person? Instead, perhaps, I should call them a “person with femaleness” or “a person who follows Islam” or …. I’m having a hard time with this last one, because every person-first construction I can think of feels so wrong. “A person with Blackness” is about the best I can come up with. My apologies.

 

These constructions feel awkward and wrong and sometimes even a bit insulting because….well, because they are. I am trying to separate out someone’s gender, religion, or racial identity from their personhood. I am suggesting that these core traits of personal identity somehow obscure the fact that women, Muslims, and Blacks are whole people. Ridiculous, right?

 

But people seem to feel so differently about Autistics. Is it because we’re disabled? I don’t think so. Do people question whether a wheelchair user is a whole person? I’m sure some ignorant people do, but most people don’t — as evidenced by the linguistic construction: a wheelchair user, not a person with a wheelchair (although I have seen “a person who uses a wheelchair” but not exclusively.) The same goes for someone who’s Blind or Deaf. We don’t tend to talk about a person with blindness or a person with deafness.

 

It is because Autism is a developmental disability and sometimes an intellectual disability. This is where I see people insisting most fiercely that person-first language is important to remind others that they are talking about a whole person. We have a cultural prejudice against those of us with neurological disabilities. Because the brain is the seat of pretty much everything — our senses, our movement, our thoughts, our memories, our drives, our communication — people take an extremely ableist view that a brain that is not like theirs might be the seat of someone who is not fully human.

 

That’s so important, I want to say it again in its own paragraph: people get so insistent about using person-first language to “remind” the world that Autistic people are whole people because they don’t fully believe it themselves.

 

Why would anyone need to be reminded of our personhood? Because people don’t really believe we have personhood. No one needs to insist that you remember that women are people. It’s self-evident that women are people, right? (Okay, maybe not always. But among reasonable people, yes, it’s self-evident.) Person-first language is a perfect example of Gertrude’s exclamation in Hamlet: “The lady doth protest too much, methinks.”

 

Another thing that’s different about autism, compared to many other disabilities: you talk about having personality traits and interests that have nothing to do with your disability. My disability is that I have a type of brain that is in the minority and I live in a society that looks down on those of us who are in a neurominority. So everything I do and love and think and feel gets pathologized as a “symptom” of a “disorder”  because it all comes from my beautiful but misunderstood brain.

 

You see, I actually am my brain and I am autism and all my personality traits and interests come from my Autistic brain and that’s why I refer to myself as Autistic rather than trying to create some kind of artificial separation between myself and …. Myself. It makes no sense to try to separate myself from autism because I am my brain and my brain is Autistic. And my brain is beautiful and wonderful and not something I want to try to disown by using person-first language to try to create some kind of pretense that my self is not my self due to shame about my self or a false belief that being my self makes me less than a whole person.

 

Rather than using unnatural language to try to convince others that I am a whole person (and I don’t know how I could convince someone I am a whole person by using the language of shame and lack of personhood) I prefer to do the work I’m doing right this minute: the work of explaining to people that their belief that Autistics are not whole people is illogical and bigoted and needs to stop. We should not have to hold ourselves out away from ourselves as if our identity were soiled underwear in order to be recognized as the whole people we are. It is an oppression to insist that we will only be viewed as whole people by disowning our own brains.

 

So it is a very different thing for someone with a “physical disability” (I think that’s a false dichotomy, but that’s another essay for another day) to use  person-first language, because a diabetic *can* be considered separately from their diabetes or a person with Ehrler-Danlos Syndrome (a connective tissue disorder I have) is a person completely independently of what their tendons and ligaments are doing. But my disability is one of cognition, perception, communication — it’s my brain that is different from the mainstream and my brain is me and using person-first language to try to distance me from my brain is actually denying my personhood rather than affirming it.

 

Karin writes, “I do have a question about the language I see many autistic people including yourself often using – “Autistics.” I understand calling yourselves A/autistic people, but not autistics. To me as a reader it sounds dehumanizing and distancing. Can you explain this so I can understand? I just cannot imagine ever calling myself a disabled, a cerebral palsied or other people with my condition cerebral palsies. I understand the concept of identity first in general, but why remove the person part?”

 

If it sounds dehumanizing and distancing, it is because you have internalized the ableism I was just speaking of — the idea that being Autistic is being lesser in some way, particularly in the area of being human. It is intriguing to me that you call identity-first language “distancing” when it is person-first language that strives to distance me from my own brain.

 

If you feel that calling myself Autistic has “removed the person part” you are admitting that you feel Autistics are not whole humans and require additional linguistic humanity to be added. By referring to myself by my neurotype, I am saying, “I am this type of human” just like a person referring to themselves by their gender says “I am this type of human.” No one suggests that identifying as “man” or “woman” has removed the person part because no one feels it needs to be added in the first place. Believing that Autistics need to have person added to our identity reveals an underlying belief that it isn’t already there, rolled into the definition the way it is for men, women, and all gender identities.

 

Karin writes (in reference to depression, anxiety, PTSD, etc.): “We need treatments. Cures. Adequate healthcare coverage for intensive therapy when needed, better medications that don’t have bad side effects or cost a fortune. I don’t think it is wrong to pursue treatments or cures for conditions while also saying “I am a valuable person as I am and deserve respect and opportunities, not stigma.””

 

I am not against taking medication for depression or anxiety or PTSD I am not against therapies. What I am against is people being defined as “mentally ill” against their will and forced to take medications. I can’t take medication for depression because the medication makes me very sick. I have required hospitalization for the effects of anti-depressants. I don’t think it’s wrong to pursue treatments for depression so long as it is up to the person to choose whether to take mind-altering drugs or not.

 

But I am very much against seeking a cure for autism. My brain has 100 billion neurons and there is no way to re-wire them and make me not-autistic. There is no way to cure autism in a living person. Autism is a type of brain and you cannot change my brain.

 

The only way to “cure” autism is to prevent it from happening and that’s exactly what is happening with genome projects like MSSNG. The aim is to determine autistic genetics so that pre-natal testing can determine which babies are developing autistic brains so that their mothers can be counseled to abort them. This is not science fiction. This is exactly what has happened with Down Syndrome. Pre-natal testing for Down Syndrome results in pressure to abort when the test comes up positive. Attempts to “cure” autism are thinly-veiled attempts to create a world where people like me are no longer born in the first place.

 

Think for a moment how that makes us Autistics feel, watching everyone hustle to funnel millions and millions of dollars into building a world without people like us while the vast majority of us are so under served that we die from preventable diseases and live in abusive situations, sub-standard housing, homeless, or in prison because no one had any better idea of where to warehouse us.

 

A “cure” for autism is not like a cure for Ehrlers-Danlos Syndrome. I would think it was grand if some gene therapy could cure my connective tissue disorder. I live with a lot of pain every day. My connective tissue is not “me.” I don’t think with it. I don’t dream with it. It is strictly for maintaining this physical body and moving it around, much like you describe when you write: “The majority of problems cerebral palsy causes for me can be alleviated by better wheelchair accessibility, improved home care services, and the ending of assumptions and bias against people with physical conditions.” That is how I feel about my EDS. It is not at all how I feel about being Autistic. My EDS is painful and impacts my mobility, but Autistic is who I am, to the very core.

 

Karin writes, “To be clear, I’m not championing research to cure autism, and especially not if it would involve abortion or any coercive treatment. I think we would lose something as a society/world without autistic people in it. But I also can understand that there are some autistic people who would want certain treatments, like perhaps something to make sensory stimuli less overwhelming.” and “I think it’s important that we don’t assume that just because we don’t want something, that doesn’t mean others won’t want it either.”

 

I have devices to make sensory stimuli less overwhelming. I am not against treatments.

 

But I am strongly against millions and millions of dollars being poured into a “cure”.

 

Helping me to navigate the world with less pain and more understanding is called accommodation and I am a strong supporter of accommodation. I support everything that makes life easier for Autistics. The problem is that “cure” and “treatment” are synonymous with things that make life harder for Autistics or erase us from the world completely.

 

I will never support “cure” because that can only be accomplished through genocide.

 

I am cautious in my support of “treatment”  because that word is used to describe so many tortures and torments that cause the depression, anxiety, and PTSD so many of us Autistic people live with.

 

It is our existence and core identity that are under attack and so long as this war against Autistics continues, I will boldly and proudly continue to identify as Autistic. I refuse to linguistically set my being off to one side so that I can present a socially-acceptable ghost of who I am to a society that will never fully  accept my personhood so long as I am working to hide my whole, natural humanity, no matter how many times I toss the word “person” at them.

 

I choose to live with integrity and authenticity, claiming my beautiful brain as my own. I am Autistic and I am proud of who I am.

What Is a Disorder?

Smilodon Fatalis

Smilodon fatalis, the sabre-toothed cat. The name means “fatal knife-tooth” and this was the most exciting creature I’d spotted on my travels since the Borophagus hilli,  “Bone-crushing Dog” I saw at the Hagerman Fossil Beds in Idaho last  year. I discovered this graceful yet skeletal creature at the I-79 Southbound West Virginia welcome center. Photograph copyright 2016, Sparrow Rose Jones.

Yesterday, I posted an essay about Autism Speak’s new mission statement, and in that essay I wrote: “We are different and disabled but not disordered and we do not need you to accept a disorder; we need you to accept us.”

A reader commented:

Great article overall, but I’m a bit confused as to your meaning of ‘we are not disordered.’ As a person who does have multiple disorders aside from being autistic, I’m worried about what this implies when it comes to people with mental illness and other neurodiversities beyond autism; that maybe it is a ‘throwing one group under the bus to support another’ thing. I can’t imagine you meant that on purpose, and it certainly could be me misconstruing the meaning (it may have just meant to remember we are people before we are ‘disordered’) but I thought I’d point it out in case it was confusing to anyone else as well.

You are correct, dear reader, I did not intend to throw anyone under the bus. And I did not throw anyone under the bus, intentionally or accidentally. Since you are confused, I decided to make a fresh blog post so I can explain my perspective more thoroughly.

Before I start in to topics like “what is a disorder” and “why do I say that autism is not a disorder” and “mental illness” — because that’s a lot of ground to cover — let me make one quick side note first:

The Language of the Neurodiversity Paradigm

There is no such thing as “neurodiversities”  unless you are speaking in the same sense as modern physicists when they talk about “universes.” Neurodiversity is, to quote Nick Walker’s excellent and foundational essay: “the diversity of human brains and minds – the infinite variation in neurocognitive functioning within our species.” You can see why the plural form, “neurodiversities” doesn’t make sense….unless one is speaking of neurodiversity among multiple species or among multiple peoples, such as humans on Earth and denizens of some as-yet undiscovered planet with which we might establish communication in the future.

I think what you meant was “neurodivergences.” I apologize if I appear to be nitpicking your word choice, but the language of the neurodiversity paradigm and of the neurodiversity movement (two different things – see Nick Walker’s essay. It’s a must-read, really) are still new enough and the topic is important enough that we must all work hard to use this language accurately while these ideas are still taking shape in society’s general consciousness. The linguistic work we do today will save us so much difficulty and miscommunication in years to come. I am multiply neurodivergent and the accurate use of this language is very important to me because it provides such clarity in communicating my lived experience.

Now, on to the actual point of this essay.

What is a Disorder?

I can’t say enough good about Nick Walker’s work and if you have a couple of hours to watch his presentation from February 23, 2015 at CIIS, you should watch this video. I definitely recommend it, both for understanding why I say autism is not a disorder and for exposing yourself to Nick Walker’s brilliance.

For those who don’t have time or data to watch the video, here is my summary of Nick’s points that pertain to what I am discussing in this essay (there is so much more in his presentation than this. I love Nick Walker’s work so much. Every time I take the time to listen to or read Nick’s words, my entire world gets bigger.  Nick Walker is like human LSD: he expands my consciousness every time I take a dose of him.)

The following paragraphs are in italics because they are my paraphrasing (and sometimes direct quotation) of what Nick Walker says in the above presentation.

Diversity is creative potential. Exciting new things are introduced to society by people whose minds work differently from the minds of those in the culture around them. All forms of diversity are subject to society’s power dynamics, which means that those whose minds are neurodivergent — whose minds work in ways that are noticeably different from the neuromajority — are pathologized and called disordered or ill. It’s just another social power dynamic and an oppression of a minority’s civil rights, just like what we’ve seen before around gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity, culture, etc. The dynamics work the same way.

Books like the DSM tell us that autism and other neurodivergences are disorders, but it’s important to remember that science has been used for a long time to justify the oppression of those who diverge in ways that society does not approve of. The oppression of neurominorities that comes from using science to describe us as “disordered” is the same pattern we have already seen so many times in the past in other groups who have struggled to assert their civil rights against a society that chooses to pathologize their existence.

Pathologization of “disorders” leads to a social urge to normalize those who have been considered “ill” or “diseased” because their brains work in ways that differ from the “straight and narrow” neurotype that society has chosen to label as “healthy” only because it is way that the majority of people’s  brains work. The phrase “mental illness” is false and a scam. When these neurodivergences are labeled as illnesses, people are convinced that the way their brain naturally works is a disease. I’m not dogmatically anti-medication, but I’m anti-bullshit and I think the term “mental illness” is bullshit. 

There are government labs where vials are stored. These vials have anthrax, small pox, measles, and other illnesses. You cannot have a “vial of bipolar” or a “vial of autism.” These do not exist outside the bodies and minds of the people who embody them. It’s us, not illness. When I say that “mental illness” is bullshit, I’m not saying nobody should ever take medication. If you are severely depressed and there is a drug that works for you and you want to take it? Go ahead. You should not have to call yourself “ill” in order to get the mind-altering drugs you want.  I don’t think people should be involuntarily medicated, ever. But I’m all for consensual medication of anyone who wants it.

There’s a whole industry around selling these things as diseases and we live in a society that is increasingly hostile to carving out niches for people who function on different rhythms. When you honor your body and brain, Bipolar no longer feels like an illness. You’re surfing your neurology. How do you find the safe spaces to shape your life? If no one does it, it stays unsafe for people to do. The more people out there doing weird stuff with their brains and self, the more acceptable it becomes. We have an obligation to be really weird to make space for other people.

So there’s the background to my answer: what is a disorder? A disorder is an illness. I have some disorders – a connective tissue disorder that can be very painful, for example. But autism is not a disorder. Bipolar is not a disorder. Schizophrenia is not a disorder. There is no such thing as a mental illness because our mentation is our self and we are not ill. We are divergent members of a neurodiverse population that needs the full span of neurodiversity to fuel creativity, innovation, and the full expression of humanity.

Am I Throwing Anyone Under a Bus When I Say That Autism Is Not a Disorder?

I most definitely am not. I am not saying , “autism is not a disorder, but some other mental stuff is.”  I’m saying exactly what I said in yesterday’s essay: “We are different and disabled but not disordered and we do not need you to accept a disorder; we need you to accept us.” I’m not saying other people are disordered; I’m saying Autistics are not. I’m not speaking for other people at all — it’s not my place to speak for other people … although I don’t believe in the construct of “mental illness”  so if anyone is calling someone else disordered, it’s not me. I didn’t think I needed to make that explicit, but here it is explicitly stated now.

Am I Saying We Are People Before We Are Disordered?

No, I don’t engage in person-first language. If someone else wants to use person-first language to describe themselves, I will respect their choice, but I believe in identity-first language because I don’t believe we are disordered at all.  There is no need for person-first language, in my opinion, because person-first language is designed to separate people from things that are deemed shameful or diminishing in some way. Autism is not a disorder, it is not shameful, it is not diminishing. I see no reason to use person-first language. In fact, person-first language inherently implies that there is a disease or disorder present in a person, so I find person-first language offensive when directed at me. As I said, I will respect someone else’s choice to use person-first language to describe themselves because people should have the right to self-identify in any way they choose. But person-first  language is not appropriate for me.

So, no. I am not at all saying that we are people before we are disordered. I am saying we aren’t disordered and it is an oppression to suggest that neurominorities are disordered at all. We are people: Autistic, Bipolar, Multi-dimensional, Kinetic, Schizophrenic, and so on. If you are in one or more of these categories and you have accepted that you are ill, disordered, diseased …. know that you are not required to view yourself that way. You are not required to accept society’s labeling of you based on your divergence from the mainstream type of mind. You are fully permitted to embrace your natural mind, as it is, for the beautiful and creative brain you possess. read more about the Neurodiversity Movement and Mad Pride and rejoice in your uniqueness. Celebrate it. Help to forge new pathways for those who will come after you. The more that we accept and celebrate our uniqueness, the easier and safer it will be for future generations to be authentic to their natural bodies and brains.

I hope that my words are somewhat less confusing now.

 

 

 

 

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. 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

Autistic Inertia: An Overview

Mason Dixon Line

Image description: a photo of the Mason Dixon line from about 20 miles away, taken by Sparrow Rose Jones at the Maryland/Pennsylvania border near Clear Spring, Maryland on October 4, 2016

This is a re-blog of a post originally made on January 2, 2013. It has been slightly edited for grammar, clarity, and availability of external links, but not for content.

Autistic Inertia: An Overview

I was talking with my boyfriend yesterday about autistic inertia. I was describing how it affects me and bemoaning the fact that it’s so clearly a real thing that exists but I never see researchers or educators talking about it — just us Autistics. We know it exists, we know it’s a real thing, but it’s not in the official literature and no one is researching it.

After I described it a bit, my boyfriend remarked upon how similar it sounds to what people with Parkinson’s experience. Upon reflection, that didn’t surprise me too much since Parkinson’s is linked to dopamine and I’ve read autism research that talks about irregularities in dopamine and seratonin in the autistic brain. He did a little searching and found a study using Parkinson’s medications on autistic people that reported little improvement. But he also remarked that if the researchers weren’t specifically looking for improvement in autistic inertia, they may have missed some of the effects of the medication.

I promised my boyfriend that I would send him some links to things fellow Autistics have written about autistic inertia. At the same time, I realized it’s been a while since I updated my blog and so I thought I would just share the information here in case it’s helpful to more people than just myself and my amazing boyfriend who is always so willing to go out of his way to understand me better.

The first thing I ever read about autistic inertia was Anna Sullivan’s handout from her presentation at Autreat 2002: Inertia: From Theory to Praxis. Sullivan talks about the different manifestations of inertia and her descriptions make it clear that inertia is not one single thing. From what I can see, there are elements of executive dysfunction, of low energy/hypotonia, and of being out of touch with one’s body and emotions. And this is just the beginning, from what I can tell. One thing Sullivan doesn’t mention, though, is the idea that inertia is a difficulty in “changing gears.” You will see the professionals talking about “gear changing” issues sometimes and that’s a part of inertia, although not all of it.

Also, Sullivan doesn’t mention that inertia in autistics is not dissimilar to Newton’s inertia, in that not only do we have difficulty starting things if we’re stopped but we also have difficulty in stopping things if we’re started. As I told my boyfriend yesterday, when I start researching for a paper, I have a hard time stopping the research and starting the writing. So I will end up with enough research material for seven papers before I ever manage to make myself stop researching and start organizing my material and writing it out. It does mean that my papers tend to be really good since I know far more than I end up putting in writing. But it also means that it doesn’t matter how early I manage to start working on a paper, I will always be scrambling to finish it at the last minute.

Something very important that Sullivan points out is the unevenness of skill sets in autistics. That is, an autistic person might be able to do something easily one day but run up against severe inertia with the same task on another day. Autism isn’t something constant and steady-state but rather something variable, more like multiple sclerosis, fibromyalgia, or lupus. What we can do one day, we can’t do every day. What we can’t do one day, we might be able to do on another. This, in my experience, has been one of the hardest things for people around me to grasp. People seem to expect some sort of constancy and consistency in the people around them and I’m just not able to provide that steady, constant level of skill and ability. Some days I easily “pass” for non-autistic while other days I am quite obviously Autistic, no matter who you ask.

Sullivan ends with a suggested reading list. Since the article is older, one item on the list might be supplanted with a newer book. Sullivan lists “Punished by Rewards” by Alfie Kohn but I might recommend also reading (or reading instead) “Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us” by Daniel H. Pink.

Sullivan mentions a posting from Kalen and it’s really good so it should be on the to-read list as well: Inertia: by Kalen. Kalen writes about inertia from a more Newtonian perspective, including both getting stuck within a task as well as getting stuck trying to do a task. Kalen also mentions how disabling inertia can be in a person’s life. It was a relief for me to read someone else describing inertia that way because it has certainly prevented me from doing many things I really wanted to do and it’s hard not to feel lazy or inadequate about one’s own inertia without the proper understanding of what it really is and what it really means.

Kalen describes inertia as “a combination of attention shifting and motor planning difficulties” which definitely resonates with my experience. There are times when I am only able to act by willing my body to perform and just as many times when I cannot get my body to perform, no matter how much will I exert. When I lose the ability to speak, I can think about the sounds that I want to create. I can think about the ways my mouth and throat and lungs move when I generate those sounds. But I cannot will my body to speak. It is as baffling to me as it is to those around me, but I can think the words — I can even type the words — but I cannot speak the words when I am in a state of “speaking inertia.” Just as there are times when those around me feel I might never shut up, there are times when it seems I might never speak again.

Kalen offers a few suggestions for how to work with or around inertia, warning that not all suggestions will work for all people, nor will a suggestion that works sometimes for someone work every time or in every situation for that person.

Aspergia Jones writes about the idea that autistic “special interests” might actually be a form of inertia in her blog entry on her site, Letters from Aspergia. She talks about inertia as a sort of “stuckness” and mentions how much more we Autistics tend to get overtaken by “ear worms” — music stuck in the head. Or movies stuck in the head. Or anything stuck in the head. I have gotten stuck on a word or phrase and ended up repeating it over and over. In my opinion, yes, “stuckness” is inertia, whether it’s being stuck on a special interest or stuck on song lyrics or just stuck.

In the original version of this blog post, Aspergia Jones posted a comment:

Thanks for the link! You’re right, very very little is written about autistic inertia, even though it really is A Thing – personally, it can be more disabling than the social stuff. I think the research tends to concentrate on the things about autism that are a problem for or seem weird to neurotypical folk, like stimming and differences in social interaction. Things that affect us deeply but don’t affect those around us – like sensory/motor stuff and inertia – get a lot less press.

Although, just as with every other aspect of autism, it is easy to assume that all difficulties trace back to an autistic trait even when they don’t. On LiveJournal, ChaoticIdealism writes about Autistic Inertia & Sleep in a way that makes it clear to me that they are living with Non-24-Hour Sleep-Wake Disorder and assuming it’s actually a manifestation of autistic inertia. I can really relate to that since I originally thought that my own Non-24 Disorder was actually Autistic Burn-out. (That’s a whole different blog entry, but you can read about autistic burnout in Amanda Baggs’ excellent essay Help! I seem to be Getting More Autistic!)

Ali/Eliot writes about inertia and perseveration as two sides of the same coin in his blog entry, Stare Up at the Sky. He talks about how difficult it can be to make decisions — everything from big decisions like buying a new laptop to little decisions like what to eat for lunch. He talks a bit about how his partner, Kitty, does thing to make it easier for him to eat regularly and make other decisions.

This blog entry is no longer available. In the original post of this blog entry, Ali wrote a comment:

The post you’re referencing of mine is a couple of years old, and my thoughts haven’t drastically changed so much as refined a little. Inertia and choice paralysis (which isn’t a term I used in that entry but I think is self explanatory?) also happen for people who are perfectionists–and I’m that, too. The basis is entirely different, at least in me. Autistic inertia is most of what I listed in the post originally: needing external or internal prompting to begin or end a task (or part of a task), where task is a value-neutral word for any possible thing you could be doing. The perfectionist inertia is more about the choice paralysis: you can’t pick which option because one of them will be the wrong option or at least not optimal, so until you have all the data ever you’re stuck. I think my long example in the post about laptop purchasing is actually more related to perfectionism than to autism.

There’s overlap between the two, but thinking about them as separate things has helped me sort out what I can consciously change (the perfectionist stuff) and what I can’t or find very difficult to change (like remembering to eat if I’m distracted). And it’s been almost like there’s inertia about my inertia: when I can handle the perfectionist stuff, it makes it easier to brain together some of the physical inertia or get the song I’ve had stuck for over a week out of my head.

Andrea has a few tips on how to battle inertia in her blog entry Coping With the Inertia of Task Paralysis. But, as a commenter points out: “Great ideas, Andrea, but how the heck am I going to remember to do all that? I have a hard enough time remembering to remember and now I’m supposed to remember the reminders for remembering? Help! I’m trapped in an infinite regress!”

I’m sure there is much more out there on autistic inertia, but the above is a fair introduction to the topic. Please do discuss this in the comments! I really want to hear from anyone and everyone about inertia, whether it’s personal experiences or scientific (or even pseudo-scientific) theories. This is a topic that needs to be understood much better than it is and right now we are the ones hashing the ideas out. It’s up to us to figure out what’s going on and what to do about it.

Thanks for reading and I look forward to hearing from you all!

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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