Unstrange Mind

Autistic Author, Artist, Advocate, and Speaker

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ABA

misty summer sunrise in maine

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

This is a re-blog of a blog post originally made on 7 October, 2014.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

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


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

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

Autistic adult: “ABA is abuse.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This approach is troubling for many reasons.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

The Fruits of Damaging Childhood Therapy

Hudson River

[image description: a photo of the Hudson River, taken by Sparrow Rose Jones. A bank of clouds hangs low in the sky. The river looks inscrutable and the way to it is mostly inaccessible, due to scrubby weeds and aging concrete structures.]


I cannot go to a therapist.

It’s not that I don’t have the money to go. I currently have some amazing insurance through Florida Medicaid. I pretty much have my pick of therapists, but I can’t go. This is going to be difficult for me really soon because I need to go to a gender therapist to prove I’m “stable” enough to be allowed to medically transition. I am concerned.

I am concerned because Kayden Clarke was killed by the police during a suicidal episode triggered by being told he could not have access to medical gender transition until his autism was “cured” (which, as you already know, translates to “never.”) I fear facing similar barriers in my own efforts to get my medical and psychological needs appropriately addressed. I am required to go to therapy; I cannot go to a therapist.

The reason I can’t go to therapy is because I am living with the C-PTSD that has resulted from years of iatrogenic damage resulting from childhood therapy. I’m going to unpack that sentence now, because it probably has some terms you aren’t familiar with and because I just put a decade of pain and a lifetime of aftermath into one sentence. Bear with me, gentle reader. It is impossible to talk about these things and almost as difficult to write about them.

C-PTSD is Complex Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. It is not yet officially in the DSM, but there was strong debate during the shaping of the DSM-5 and C-PTSD was included in a subsection under PTSD. Childhood therapy is not my only source of C-PTSD, but it was a strong contributor. I encourage you to do some reading about C-PTSD and reflect on the symptoms carefully. The symptom picture will probably look familiar to you. I believe that recognition comes from the large overlap between C-PTSD symptoms and descriptions of autism. I believe that large overlap comes from the amount of trauma that so many Autistic people grow up with.

The Summer 1998 issue of The Communicator, the newsletter of the Autism National Committee (AUTCOM), includes a quote from the book Learning to Listen (1996) by Dr. Herb Lovett:

People who have been hurt in the name of therapy may not understand their plight any differently than survivors of cult abuse or sexual abuse. A common feature of post-traumatic stress syndrome is the flashback in which a person acts as if a memory is present reality…. every time they recall their previous maltreatment, unless their panic and rage are recognized as a function of stress, they are likely to be further stigmatized as “impossible to serve.” – from Can Aversives and Restraints Produce PTSD in People with Autism?

In addition to the trauma of being helpless and subjected to difficult therapies, Autistics have an extra obstacle when it comes to trauma, due to having a nervous system that is different from that of the majority of people and living in a world where we are “neurologically outnumbered,” as Carol Greenburg so aptly puts it. Just living in this world, with its sensory content that leaves Autistics overloaded and underfed in varying patterns and to varying degrees can be filled with trauma-triggering events that seem ordinary to people with nervous systems tuned more to the keys found in the majority of people. Ariane Zurcher has already written about our very active amygdalas and the risk of trauma. Rather than “re-invent the wheel,” I invite you to read her essay on Trauma & Autism.

I don’t believe that all therapists are bad. I don’t believe that all therapists who work specifically with Autistic children, teens, and adults are bad. I believe there are good therapists and helpful therapists. It wouldn’t be so upsetting to me that I can’t go to a therapist if I thought they were all bad and unhelpful. I would love to find a good therapist to help me work through my issues. I would especially love to find a good therapist who can help me with my medical gender transition.

I am not telling people to give up  on finding a therapist for their Autistic child. If your child needs help with one or more aspects of life, there’s nothing wrong with looking for a trained professional to help. What I am saying is that therapy should center around what your child needs and should serve your child’s best interests. I have experienced trauma in childhood therapy and it still haunts me and overshadows my life. I have witnessed Autistic children traumatized by bad therapy and the suffering was real and very visible. The entire family suffers when a child is traumatized by careless or harmful therapy, but the child suffers the most, of course. It makes me heartsick when I see it and I would give anything to save children and their families from those experiences.

Iatrogenic damage is damage that is caused by medical examination or treatment. What I am saying when I call my trauma iatrogenic is that it was directly caused by years of therapy. This is not as radical as it might sound. The mental health field acknowledges, albeit quietly, that therapy can lead to iatrogenic damage. Boisvert and Faust (2002) write that, “Iatrogenic symptoms may originate through the over-reliance on a belief system within which therapists interpret, reinterpret, or label clients’ characteristics or distress as pathological. Therapeutic communication that emphasizes pejorative language may introduce clients to this belief system.” This ties directly into the message of autism acceptance — so many Autistic adults (including myself) have told the world how harmful pathologizing language is.  These researchers have written an academic article that backs our claim up.

The evidence I’m sharing here is mainly about mainstream psychotherapy. It’s pretty intense data: Dr. Allen J  Francis estimates that as many as 15% of psychotherapy patients worsen with treatment. When you add in the special situations that arise in autism therapy, how much does that estimate rise?

I’m asking you to avoid therapies that teach your child that they are lesser or broken in some way. I’m asking you to avoid therapies that teach your child that the ways they move or communicate are wrong when those ways do not harm anyone and are being changed because they “look odd”  or make others uncomfortable for non-harmful reasons. I’m asking you to avoid therapies that take away your child’s ability to set boundaries and enforce them.

And I’m warning you about the life-long damage that can come from inappropriate therapies. I actively need to go to therapy and cannot because of the damage I have sustained in childhood therapy. I enter a therapist’s office and start crying uncontrollably and can’t stop until I leave. Therapy is dangerous for me because therapists see that reaction and, understandably, want to have me committed on the spot. My ability to benefit from therapy has been stripped from me, leaving me with fewer tools for coping with life and fewer mentors trained to help me thrive. The damage inflicted in childhood can last a lifetime. Approach therapy with caution and always keep your child’s best interests foremost.

 

How to Wage Love

deer

image description: a deer, visiting my campsite to eat the nuts falling off the trees. She is standing just across the road from me, looking at me with fearless curiosity. She stands in the grass and behind her are trees, poised at the cusp between summer and autumn.

Enough with the war on autism. Enough with the war on Autistics. Enough with the war between adult Autistics and parents of Autistic children. Enough with internal bickering and blame. Enough.

It is time to wage love.

Autism Acceptance demands love.

The world is starving for love and your pantry is full.

The same oppression that is visited upon a marginalized minority from without is enacted within that same marginalized community. I’ve seen it again and again. Every group yearning to breathe free eventually eats its own. No group of oppressed people is immune to self-immolation.

Do not mistake the oppressor as “them.” the oppressor is always “us.” The oppressed are always us. Take this knowledge and convert it to a stance of inclusive love from which to call for justice. Wage love. Always wage love.

When you can see the mass of humanity as one heart wearing many faces, you are ready. Assert your boundaries. Protect the vulnerable. Press for justice. But do not fool yourself into thinking you are battling them. There is no them.

Wage love, for there is only us.

Is Everyone “a Little Autistic”?

apples

How do you like these apples? Just as apples can be different yet all be apples, people can be different yet all be fully human. You can’t support someone’s differences by pretending they don’t exist.

(Originally posted December 5, 2015)

You’ve heard someone say this before, right? “Oh, well, autism is a spectrum and I think that means that, really, everyone’s a little bit autistic.”

Now, I can see why someone might say that. I said something in my first book, No You Don’t: Essays from an Unstrange Mind, that might seem to support that idea: “And if you aren’t Autistic, don’t be surprised if you recognize pieces of yourself in here, too. Because autism is a difference of intensity and frequency but above all, it is a slice of the human condition. If you are human, you will recognize yourself in some of the things I write.”

This passage does not say that everyone is a little autistic. It says that Autistics are human beings. As my book says a couple of pages later, we are not “a different species, an alien creature, a changeling, a robot, a freak of nature.” We are human beings and so much of what we experience is fundamental to the human condition. Our autistic nervous system affects how we experience our humanity — our experience is often heightened in intensity and colored by our different perspectives on life. But it is humanity we are experiencing because we are fully human.

The converse of “all Autistics are human” — “all humans are Autistics” — is not implied and does not hold. When I say all Autistics are fully human (which, in case you were doubting, we are!) I am in no way implying that all humans are autistic . . . not even a little bit. People see that Autistics are human and that we often experience very intense versions of basic human experiences — anxiety, for example. We often carry a lot of anxiety and we get stressed out and we meltdown from high stress.

Since everyone has felt anxious at some point and everyone has felt overloaded with stress and everyone has “lost their shit” at one point or another, some people get mixed up and decide that sharing such a common experience as a stress and anxiety meltdown means that they are “a little autistic” too. But that is not true and it is a diminishing thing to say, particularly to Autistic people.

If everyone were a little bit autistic, Salvation Army bell ringers would be illegal. If everyone were a little bit autistic, nothing ever would have strobe lights. Ever. Fluorescent lights, sirens, shirt tags, sock seams — these wouldn’t exist. There would be a strong social taboo against dragging a chair across the floor and making that horrible scraping sound with it. Perfume and cologne would be outlawed as hazardous substances and every school and workplace would have a quiet zone for recuperation. How we handled turn-taking would not involve long lines of people standing scrunched up close to each other. In short, if everybody were a little autistic, our whole society would look a great deal different than it does.

Experiencing a taste of what we live with does not make someone autistic, not even a little bit. It would be like me saying that, because I sometimes lose the ability to speak and need to type in order to communicate, I completely understand the lived experience of being an Autistic who never communicates with their voice. I can guess at the experience, but I do not live it. I have intermittent mutism and that does not make me “a little non-speaking” any more than someone who hates standing in lines or even someone who lives with daily anxiety is automatically “a little autistic.” The struggles I face are not the struggles others who have never spoken experience. The struggles non-autistic people face may have some surface similarities to struggles Autistics live with but that does not make someone “a little bit autistic.”

The only way I know to communicate how dismissive it is to say something like “we are all a little autistic” is to shift the whole idea into the context of some other disabilities:

“Sometimes I am looking for something and it’s right in front of me and I just kept missing it even when I was looking right at it. We’re all a little Blind, aren’t we?”

“The other day, I was sitting funny and my foot fell asleep. When I stood up, I almost fell down from the pins and needles. I guess we’re all a little paralyzed, huh?”

Those are ridiculous things to say. But so often I hear people saying analogous things, and not just about autism. How about, “I have to keep my house so clean and everything put away. I am so OCD!” Or “I am completely addicted to Sudoku puzzles!” Have you heard, “I can’t make up my mind. I just keep going back and forth I’m so schizophrenic.” Or, just as bad, the words are applied to something inanimate: “Rain, then sun, then rain, then sun. The weather is so bipolar today!”

Don’t do this! When you use someone else’s disability as an adjective for your quirks or otherwise reduce it to a one-dimensional descriptor, you are making light of their entire life. And when you say everyone is a little bit autistic, you are trivializing what it actually means to be Autistic.

I understand that some people have good intentions. They want to highlight the humanity of Autistics. Be careful — this is how person-first language arose: through an overzealous urge to bludgeon others with a disabled person’s humanity for fear that no one could see it otherwise. Others may be saying they are a little autistic in order to show solidarity with people they view as “fighting the good fight.” I’d like to show solidarity with People of Color but I would never dream of saying we’re all a little bit Asian or everyone is Native American inside or I’m a little Black. So don’t try to appropriate my disability just to show solidarity with me. I will appreciate your support just fine if you just try to pay attention and be sensitive. You can’t support my differences by pretending they don’t exist.

Autism and the DSM 5: Part 10: Development and Course: Part 4

picture of book pages

DSM 5? I’m an open book about this book I’ve opened. [image description: photo of the pages of an opened book]

Autism and the DSM 5: Development and Course: Part 4
originally published October 26, 2013

Index
Part 1: Losing Your Diagnosis? 
Part 2: Diagnostic Criteria: Section A
Part 3: Diagnostic Criteria: Section B
Part 4: Diagnostic Criteria: Section C
Part 5: Diagnostic Criteria: Section D
Part 6: Diagnostic Criteria: Section E and Severity Levels
Part 7: Development and Course: Part 1
Part 8: Development and Course: Part 2
Part 9: Development and Course: Part 3
Part 10: (you are here)

After a pause to blog about other things, I’m back with some more examination of the DSM-5 diagnostic criteria for autism and related discussion points. I’m still working my way through the Development and Course section, which has seven paragraphs. Today, I look at paragraph four:

Deafness may be suspected but is typically ruled out. During the second year, odd and repetitive behaviors and the absence of typical play become more apparent. Since many typically developing young children have strong preferences and enjoy repetition (e.g., eating the same foods, watching the same video multiple times), distinguishing restricted and repetitive behaviors that are diagnostic of autism spectrum disorder can be difficult in preschoolers. The clinical distinction is based on the type, frequency, and intensity of the behavior (e.g., a child who daily lines up objects for hours and is very distressed if any item is moved).

The reference to deafness is based on our reputation for not responding to our name when it is called out. I think the most common reason for this is that we can get so focused in on what we’re thinking about or looking at that we close off the senses we aren’t using. Or, if we’re using our hearing to focus in on something, it’s hard for something else to break through to us. We tend not to have the same kind of sensory filters that non-autistic people have, so many of us don’t have the “cocktail party effect”  that makes voices stand out to us against a background of other sounds. I have seen research that tries to claim that human voices are “less important”  to us than other sounds, but I don’t think that’s a completely accurate interpretation for how we respond (or don’t respond) to voices.

The article I linked to claims we aren’t “motivated” by human voices. I think they are mixing up cause and effect and the truth is more likely that we aren’t as “motivated” by voices because we don’t hear them as well. On top of everything I mentioned in the previous paragraph, many of us also have some amount of CAPD (central auditory processing disorder) which seems to most strongly affect cognition in the range of human voices. I know that I can listen to music with a finely-tuned musician’s ear and hear every little nuance of sound but someone speaking can get very garbled very quickly. I’m not so good with telephones but can usually do well in a one-on-one conversation on Skype with a headset because the sound quality is better and always coming straight into my ears. In the open environment of a room, my hearing ability quickly degrades, especially if there are multiple people speaking at once or a noisy environment like  a restaurant with lots of piped in music, dishes rattling, etc.

I have surprised people when I have been sitting in a restaurant and started pointing out sounds to them — naming the song playing over the speakers above (“I didn’t even hear music at all!”) the sizzle of the grill in the kitchen (“oh! I hear it now that you point it out. But it’s so faint! How did you hear that?”) — yet I struggle to understand the speech of my dining companion sitting right next to me. I have no auditory filters — I hear EVERYTHING, all at once — and I have CAPD, so speech gets mixed up. (Think of CAPD as being something similar to having dyslexia of the ear.)

So, yeah, I probably have less neurological “pleasure reward” from voices, too. Even though I love the rich, chocolate sound of my boyfriend’s voice. Even though I can often identify people by their voice alone (a nice compensation for being blind to faces.) I’m not less motivated by voices, I just have a really hard time hearing and understanding the darned things!

So I suspect the actual issue with appearing deaf and not responding to hearing our name called is simply that we really don’t hear it. Some people seem to have a hard time understanding how our sensory perceptions work. It’s hard to fault them for that, since that ” how”  is actually a very individual thing. There are some commonalities, yes, but the overall pattern of hyper-sensitivities, hypo-sensitivities, changing sensitivities? That is excruciatingly individual. Every single thing I ever say about how my senses take in and interpret the world? There are Autistic people just like that and there are Autistic people not like that at all. Take me as a general guidepost but not a perfectly representative map.

Again, we see a mention that autistic behaviors can become more apparent in the second year of life. This is significant because it correlates with some vaccination times and could cause confusion in people who believe that autism is caused by vaccinations. The amount of change can be really dramatic, though. Some Autistic kids gradually reveal their autism as they grow and don’t make milestones on the same timetable as their age peers. Other Autistic kids really do change a lot, though. I’ve seen the video and photographic evidence: before age two (or so) the child is speaking, smiling, laughing. After age two (or so), the child no longer speaks, no longer smiles, and exhibits a marked loss of emotional affect. Science still has a lot of exploration to do before it begins to understand the development and course of autism.

When I look back at my childhood photos, I see myself laughing and smiling at age one and two but mostly deadpan, sullen, mournful afterwards. In my case it’s really hard to determine what’s what, though. I definitely became less bubbly when I started school because of the stress of it. The further along I got in school, the more stressful it became and the more my default affect became that of a dog that’s been kicked one too many times. I also had a brother who spent most of my childhood dying and completed the task just before I turned seven. So it’s impossible to look at my childhood facial expressions and determine what might be a sign of autism and what is just a general sign of a miserable childhood.

I find it interesting that now that I am an adult, I frequently get asked what I’m angry about or what’s wrong when I’m feeling calm and peaceful and happy. I am definitely a sufferer of “Bitchy Resting Face.” Either my face developed the habit of looking unhappy all the time (except when I’m laughing or when I’m paying attention to making my face look pleasant) as a result of years of suffering or I really do have affect issues and my default, relaxed, no-affect face looks gloomy to others who are so accustomed to all faces having stories written on them that they are still trying to read mine even when it’s just a blank page. Or I could just have, you know, Bitchy Resting Face.

Another point the DSM-5 makes is that many of the repetitive practices of autism are common to all small children. This is an echo of what I (and many others) are often saying: that autism is not so alien. The things we do are mostly things all people do. We just do them more often and with more intensity. My sister is not autistic. When she was about two years old, she memorized every commercial on television. She is quite bright so she only needed to hear them once to have them completely memorized. She would gallop through the house on all fours, pretending to be a horse, singing commercial jingles at the top of her lungs. If you said something that had two or three of the words of a song from a commercial in a row, she’d start singing the whole jingle.

My sister was deeply obsessed with television commercials and repeated them all day long. But for a two-year-old, that is normal behavior. I used to know an Autistic boy who behaved the same way at age twelve. He memorized commercials and entire television and movie scripts. Almost everything he ever said was a line from a movie. The technical term is echolalia, but when you read about echolalia, so much of the literature claims that the people engaging in it are not making sense and are just randomly speaking nonsense. In my experience with “Kyle,”  that was not the case at all.

Kyle was always communicating when he repeated movie scripts. If you looked past the fact that someone else had written the words he was using, you could clearly see that they were his words — he had made them his own. And he was always matching quoted phrases to the situations he was in. For example, if you were serving him at Thanksgiving and asked him if he preferred breast meat or dark meat he might answer by quoting Freddy Krueger from the horror film, “Freddy vs. Jason”:  “How sweet! Dark meat!” (In the creepy Freddy voice and everything!)

Not everything Kyle said was so easy to interpret as that, but every quote he recited had meaning for him, regardless of whether those of us around him could accurately interpret it or not. All I can say about researchers and other professionals who claim that repetitive movie quoting is random and pointless is “what we have here is failure to communicate — some men you just can’t reach.”  And, in case I’m not being clear the failure is on the part of the professionals. The “echolalic” is doing just fine . . . for anyone who is willing to really listen and presume competence and communication.

So there’s my take on paragraph four. I’ll be back with the next paragraph and on through the rest of the DSM-5 entry. I will probably be be returning to this DSM-5 topic (with interstitial side-tracks on other topics, including the upcoming Autistics Speaking Day and Autistic History Month essays) throughout the rest of the year because there’s so much in there and it’s so fascinating to me. I hope these ramblings are helpful to you, too.

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