[Kerry] Autistic Ability Stereotypes

There is just one stereotype about autistic people that will not die: the idea that we’re all geniuses at maths, technology and science. I think some of this comes from the stereotyped, sexist ideas that people like Simon Baron-Cohen and his followers spread in their writings about the ‘extreme male’, ‘systemising’ brain that focusses on factual, quantifiable information, rather than more subjective or interpersonal aspects of their environment. There may also be some influence from the diagnostic criteria of autism that characterise people on the spectrum as ‘lacking imagination’ and seeing things more concretely than abstractly, and the ‘hard’ sciences are thought to be rather objective, concrete and unambiguous. (Of course, that’s not true; science is full of unsolved mysteries that researchers seek to find out, and mathematicians can be some of the most imaginative people around, but stereotypes are ridiculous and annoyingly pervasive.) Noël discussed this about two years ago in his article ‘”Systemising”, Jacob Barnett and Autistic Stereotyping’. I feel as though this stereotype is far too generalised – is every single non-autistic person interested in arts and the humanities? I really don’t think so. 

Yes, there are lots of autistic people who are interested in maths and the ‘hard’ sciences. There are lots of people not on the spectrum who are too. Whenever you look at a large group of people and decide that they must all have identical interests, you’re not simply analysing their brain type; you’re drawing crude caricatures of them. This is no different from ‘Women are horrible at maths and sciences’ and ‘Men can’t empathise’ and ‘East Asians are all maths geniuses’. These categories of people are far too broad to attach a single group of interests to them, as though they’re all clones of the same person. Yes, some men struggle with empathy, but not all do. In fact, I would say most don’t struggle with it. Do some women struggle with maths? Of course, but many men do too. (Not to mention that a lot of women’s struggles with maths stem from stereotype threat and negative attitudes towards women doing ‘objective’ subjects at school, rather than women’s innate ‘inferiority’ at such tasks.) There are some East Asians who are brilliant at maths, but there are some who routinely fail their algebra exams. No one group can be characterised with such broad stereotypes. There are commonalities between autistic people, but assuming that they all have the same interests and aptitudes is grossly unfair and misleading. 

This stereotype can be incredibly damaging to those of us whose strengths lie in other domains. There are lots of autistic people who are stronger in language than they are in maths, and prefer art and literature to the sciences. People who don’t fit into the ‘maths/science/technology genius’ stereotype may be seen as ‘not being autistic enough’ because they can’t make fast calculations in their head, programme robots, conduct clever science experiments or memorise the periodic table. This might especially be hurtful to those of us who lean towards artistic and literary works, or people who choose to study the humanities rather than the sciences. There are people on the spectrum who would rather be poets, historians, journalists, novelists and painters, and those interests don’t make them any less autistic than those of us who want to become engineers, computer programmers, accountants, IT specialists or pure mathematicians. Even within our own community, some brains work differently. That’s just people in general, really. We’re not all alike.

In our system, there’s a tendency towards having people who tend to fall between the ‘humanities vs science’ divide, each approaching it in their own particular ways. There are some collective tendencies, though; our mathematical struggles affect everyone. It’s sort of obnoxious, actually. Maths is definitely not our strong point. There are many things that we understand conceptually, but it’s difficult for us to actually get things right if we’re sitting down to try and work out a particular problem. Quite a few of us are technophiles, but at the same time, we don’t know how to write software, and the majority of us (save Darwin) have little time to be poking around in the command line when a GUI does the job. And we straddle the boundaries anyway, as we’re pursuing a social science degree and have interests in combining scientific rigour with humanistic thought and analysis. It’s a lot more complicated and less hierarchical than people imagine it is. 

[Kerry] Language as the medium of thought.

Some autistic people have talked about communication ‘underneath’ words. I think of it as being ‘interverbal’, being between words and underneath them, rather than being driven by words. They don’t specifically see words as the natural medium of thought, but imperfect explanatory devices to describe a concept that exists in their minds. At least that’s what I glean from it; my interpretation of it might be flawed, as my own experience is quite different. (If you tend to have that sort of thought pattern, correct me if you’d like?) 

I personally do think in language. Words are very important to me, and I can be sensitive to how they’re being used. That’s not to say that I prowl about policing how people talk, except if they’re saying things that are blatantly offensive (racial slurs, deliberately misgendering people, overt misogyny, etc). I used to be a prescriptivist, but I’ve moved away from that over the past four years. I will, though, have a strong reaction to it, even if I can keep from letting the other person know that that strong reaction exists. Your language is how I read what you’re trying to communicate. I’m not saying that I can’t read interverbal or nonverbal communication, but the language you use is the clearest signal for me. Richard is similar to me, but he’s better at recognising subverbal meanings than I am. (This makes him a lot more tactful than I am, because he can detect underlying meanings that I can’t always pick up on.) 

Noël, however, doesn’t, and tends to conceptualise his thoughts as a series of patterns, images and textures, which he later translates into language. He can usually pick up on those cues that I can’t, since his way of interpreting things involves picking up on patterns and senses that he has, rather than noticing the explicit words that someone uses. I may just take people’s words at face value, while he doesn’t. There are images and patterns and signals that he finds, and the words are a frame for those ideas that he has in his head, rather than the means of thought themselves. When he communicates with me within our headscape, he tends to send conceptual ‘bundles’ of communication, with intermittent verbal messages. This is in contrast to me, because I tend to just send words his way if I’m not trying to get a large amount of information to him all at once – in which case, I send out an information packet. 

James is somewhere in between, as are Darwin and Hess. They don’t have the same verbally dominated thinking style that people like Richard and me have, but they are still more verbal than Noël is. Darwin tends to use a lot of images and patterns and symbols. Hess is a combination of words and images. Hess and I tend to use words when communicating with one another, but he changes his communication style when dealing with other people like Darwin, Noël and James, whose thought patterns are less dominated by words than either Richard’s or mine are. 

So, yeah, we have a wide variety of ways that we deal with thought patterns, but then again, that’s what plurality means, doesn’t it? It’s interesting to see how our being differentiable relates to our being autistic and what that entails when it comes to our thought processes. 

[Kerry and James] Thoughts on language-learning.

People who know us well know that studying foreign languages is one of our favourite hobbies. We’ve studied, or attempted to study, about seven or eight languages (Spanish, French, German, Romanian, Japanese, Latin and briefly poking at Dutch, Italian, Russian, Portuguese and Swedish) within the past decade, and have read about several more. 

Interestingly, languages that we’ve taught ourselves tend to be retained better than those which we’ve primarily studied in the classroom. A few years ago, we learned the equivalent of the first two semesters of Latin within the course of a few months. About eleven years ago, we were studying French pretty intensely and were able to do the equivalent of several typical academic years’ worth of study in the course of a few months. By contrast, it took us three years to reach the same level of skill in Spanish, which we took as our foreign language at high school. The same applies to German right now. We haven’t studied French intensely since 2003 (when we had a terrible French class at our first college, which is something we’d rather not talk about), and we can still read longer French passages with more fluency than we can German ones, even though we’ve studied German for a chronologically longer period of time. We’ve become rusty over the years, and we’re going over French again to get ourselves up to speed again. (Same applies to Spanish, actually, although our ‘rustiness’ in Spanish has a different quality to it than our rustiness in French. We’ve used Spanish more often over the years than we have French.) 

One could argue that it was easier to learn French because we already had two semesters of Spanish, but we ultimately ended up knowing more French than we did Spanish after those months of intense study.  Nor does it have anything to do with difficulty; we seem to have internalised Latin declensions better than we have German ones, even though the Latin case system has more actual cases than German has. I think that for us, self-directed learning allows us to use our own methods alone, rather than having to use methods that are less effective for us in order to receive a good grade. Also, perseverating on a particular language greatly accelerates our ability to learn it, since we’re sucked up into it. Interestingly, we tend to perseverate on subjects that we aren’t currently studying in class. That’s not to say that we necessarily lose focus on what we’re studying formally – although that would have been the case several years ago when we were in grade school – but there’s usually an intensity that comes out of perseverative learning that doesn’t exist otherwise, and we wonder if the collective nature of formal learning conflicts with some aspects of our need to completely consume certain subjects. 

[Kerry] Plurality and The Experts™

It’s wearying reading ~the literature~ on plurality. The way they describe system members gets to you after a while: Parts. Alters. Alternate personalities. Personas. Fragments. Anything but ‘people’. Anything other than the possibility that plural systems may very well be composed of several people, in the Cartesian ‘cogito, ergo sum’ sense. 

I am not a ‘personality’. I am not an ‘ego state’. I certainly have a personality distinct from others’ in this system. But I am not ‘a personality’. Nobody is putting on a mask of me, only to casually discard it when they’re bored of it. Nobody retreats ‘into me’. I’m just…me. And in the same way, Hess is just Hess. Darwin’s just Darwin. James is just James. And so on. It’s frustrating to see this model, sanctioned by The Experts™, touted as the only one, even when it’s not your actual experience. 

But they’re never going to listen to you because you’re ‘crazy’ anyway. That’s just your weird, fucked-up brain talking. How dare you actually assert your personhood and individual identity? 

Maybe I’m sensitive because we’ve spent our entire earthly existence receiving messages that we are somehow ‘not really people’. Racism. Ableism. Homophobia. Transphobia. Classism. Misogyny before we transitioned. It messes about with your self-image, even when you know deep down that your existence is as valuable as anyone else’s is. And speaking up for who you are, regardless of what it is, is being uppity. It’s challenging something that people consider self-evident. I’m not, of course, conflating plurality with more obvious oppressive situations. I am, however, criticising the idea that if you belong to a ‘target’ identity, whatever you say is invalid, because your experiences aren’t being filtered through ‘experts’, who are invariably outside your community. It’s like those nonautistic ‘autism experts’. Rich and middle-class social workers who are out of touch with the people they work with. I’m not trying to bash allies, but there’s a difference between an ally who actually listens to you and an Expert™ that tries to impose their narrative on you. 

I’m not even claiming that our plurality can be absolutely, 100% empirically proved. I am saying, though, that identity is complex and it’s silly to just dismiss stuff out of hand because it doesn’t match your experience or doesn’t fit into your ‘pathologise everything that doesn’t fit into our idealised norms’ mentality. (I’m going to add a disclaimer that I’m not claiming that DID/MPD don’t exist. I am, though, saying that they’re not the only ways in which plurality can exist.) 

It’s frustrating, because these ‘experts’ don’t know our lived experience. They don’t listen to our lived experience. It’s just CURE PATHOLOGY CURE PATHOLOGY CURE PATHOLOGY over and over and over again, and the constant hammering on about how there is One True Good Brain. 

And when you’ve got a ‘bad brain’, it’s hard to fight against it. You’re never sure if you’re going to be listened to. After all, your view is ‘less valid’ because you’ve got a ‘bad brain’, right? 

Our plurality is part of what helps us to function. We don’t know whether we arose to assist in dealing with the world or not, but regardless of our origins, our separateness is beneficial. We are, however, more than simply a ‘coping mechanism’; we’re people. More importantly, the relationships we have with each other are important. To try and ‘integrate’ us, to act as though we’re all parts of the same mythical individual, to be eliminated for the sake of an imagined idea of normality, is to crush something that simply doesn’t deserve to be crushed. 

I know I’ll never convince your run-of-the-mill troll posing as a ‘sceptic’ that atypical identities are valid, or the outsider Experts™, but this blog is not for those people

[Kerry] Bad.

[Content warning: Verbal abuse and bullying]

This is admittedly a hard entry to write, but I think it needed to be written, since it’s been weighing down on me. 

When we were growing up, there was this pervasive mindset that we were inherently bad. This isn’t because we usually set out to do anything malicious, but there was this narrative about our behaviour and the way we moved about the world that implied that we were. After all, we (mostly Hess) were packed off to detention when we had shouting, crying meltdowns because of bullying, sensory overload, or desperate attempts to communicate a desire, only to be brushed off. We were shouted out at home because we were acting out, and the response was always criticism, verbal abuse and punishment, not legitimate attempts to understand what was provoking our negative reactions. 

People saw our behaviour and didn’t try to find out the reasons behind it, and didn’t make the slightest effort to try and see what we were trying to communicate when we didn’t have the words to step outside the meltdowns or other bothersome behaviour (bothersome to them, desperate attempts to communicate for us). We internalised it, because we didn’t have another framework to allow us to accept ourselves. We had read parenting magazines and books and noticed that parents were supposed to show more empathy, but we dismissed it, because we were told otherwise at home.

We didn’t have problems because people were hurting us or misunderstanding us. We had problems because we were bad. The flaws were in us, not in others. It’s almost as though they acted as though we chose to be autistic and have difficulty communicating things to them. Like we were trying to be obstinate on purpose

In contrast to us were ‘good’ children, who were frequently chosen to do things that we weren’t. We were left behind, because we didn’t deserve such things, or we were too ‘different’ to truly fit in. While we were in ‘gifted’ programmes, we were often left to do things by ourselves, and we were excluded from a lot of programmes and events that other people were invited to. We felt as though we were tainted and inherently flawed in a way that others weren’t. We had the impression that teachers liked ‘smart’ people, but the ones they liked better were more compliant and did things in a more typically acceptable way, so we believed that our abilities themselves were illegitimate. We responded to this stereotype threat by not investing ourselves as much in our education as much as we should have when we were younger, because we would never be ‘good’. Top universities were not Where People Like Us™ Belonged. We would never be in any honour societies because we were Bad. Teachers would not praise us because we were tainted. Why try to get sky-high grades when you’re bad anyway?

Of course, we did have positive influences growing up, and there were people who saw beyond our ‘badness’ and encouraged us to do as well as we could. We are eternally grateful to those people, and we are incredibly fortunate to have those voices interrupt the stream of self-hatred brought on by unwarranted stereotyping. But for years—even as recently as last year—we’ve subconsciously sabotaged our own success because we ‘don’t deserve it’. Because we’re ‘bad’. It’s definitely not intentional; it’s a product of years of negative messages that we’ve received.

It didn’t help that our younger sibling was ‘good’ too. 

When we feel desperation or frustration now, or when something disappointing happens to us, there is still that potent voice at the back of our head, telling us that we’re ‘bad’. We don’t listen to it as much as we used to, but that doesn’t mean it’s been expunged. There are still events that bring up the old messages, and this year was full of them. I won’t go into details in public, but for a few months, we felt as though we were eleven again. It seemed as though more ‘typical’ people were rewarded, and our efforts were invalidated. Fortunately, things did work out for us, but we still have triggers from the worst bits of this year, because they took us back to this space of ‘badness’. 

I wish that it were easy for us to stop thinking of ourselves as ‘bad’. Some of us, like Noël and James, tend to struggle with it less than Hess or I do, but that baggage is still there. We’ve got over our resentment that we used to have of so-called ‘good’ kids years ago—we tend to resent situations, not people, these days—but we still worry, deep down, that we actually are ‘bad’. 

I wonder how many neurologically variant people have similar relationships with ‘badness’. 

Is it something I personally want to reclaim? There’s too much baggage in being ‘bad’, I think, and I don’t want to imply that I support things that are actually bad, like abuse or murder. I can’t speak for anyone else here, though.

[James] “Unlocking” Autism?

I was reading about Carly Fleischmann, an autistic teenager who gained the ability to communicate with other people using her computer, and I noticed that much of the commentary on her father’s book was about “unlocking” autism. (Not to mention that that the book itself has a subtitle of “Breaking Through Autism.”) 

This isn’t the only example of a narrative about an autistic person’s newfound (to their nonautistic families and caretakers) ability to communicate to them using comprehensible language, unfortunately; it seems to be a trope that exists among the autism community—by which I mean parents, therapists, and teachers, rather than the autistic community, in which the discourse is directed by autistic people themselves. Is it really a matter of “unlocking autism,” or is it a matter of finding a way in which people can communicate mutually, rather than a one-sided, neurotypical-focused, model that presumes that the autistic’s world is a sealed-off fortress? 

When an American learns French, do we say that he’s “unlocking France”? When an Italian learns Vietnamese, do we say that she’s “unlocking Vietnam”? No, they’re learning a new way to communicate with a larger group of people, and it would be considered condescending and xenophobic to assume that learning a foreign language involves “unlocking” the secrets of an unconquered culture. “We have discovered this uncharted land! Let us fraternize with the natives!” Feels a bit White Man’s Burden, doesn’t it? 

When I write, I’m not “unlocking autism,” nor do people talking with me or reading my writing “unlock autism.” I’m communicating, and I am actively insulted by the notion that my wanting to talk to people, regardless of their neurotype, is “unlocking” me. Existence isn’t a one-sided phenomenon, and I think that “autism parents,” caretakers, and teachers would benefit very much from a mutualistic perspective that recognizes the agency of autistic people themselves. Yes, some autistic people do have difficulty communicating in the way expected by nonautistic people, but that doesn’t mean that they need to be treated as though they are savages to be “civilized.” Try to understand what we’re trying to say, and I think most of us would return the favor. Don’t try to “unlock” me; try to find out what I’m trying to tell you, as a fellow human being. I may be autistic, and may communicate my thoughts differently from you, but that doesn’t mean that you have to act as though I am an inscrutable puzzle who exists to frustrate you. Communication is a mutual act. Trust me, even though I may get it wrong sometimes, that doesn’t mean that I don’t want to hear what you say. Please grant me the same respect. (And by the way, neither I nor my system-mates deserve extra brownie points because we speak. This applies to nonspeaking autistics, too.) 

(I’d be interested in reading the book, by the way, despite the subtitle. I also apologize for the sprinkling of “dick quotes” throughout this article, but the “unlocking autism” trope bothers me enough to necessitate them for me.) 

[Kerry] Autistic Gender Stereotypes

[The language used in this article is a bit messy, but I don't want to marginalise trans and genderqueer people, so I will try to draw distinctions between gender stereotypes, actual gender identity and the gender someone may have been brought up as.]

There’s a website that describes the differences between ‘male’ and ‘female’ Asperger Syndrome presentations. While I’m glad that it does recognise types of AS or autism that don’t seem like the stereotypical ‘computer brain autistic’, I’m not glad that it’s being handled as though it’s a set of binary gender stereotypes. My opposition to the gendered framing has a few origins: I’m opposed to genetic determinism used as an end-all be-all answer for differences that could either have biological origins, social origins or a combination thereof; gender itself is more complex than ‘men vs women’; and there’s a faint hint of evo-psych stereotyping that I’d rather avoid.  

I have noticed some differences between some autistic people brought up as boys and those brought up as girls, but they aren’t universal, and there are often combinations of these traits that exist in all people, regardless of how they were brought up. 

As a social scientist, I feel really uncomfortable with these pronouncements that autism’s presentation is related to gender as a supposedly ‘biological’ phenomenon, rather than a social one. Is it possible that autistic women, or others raised as girls, come across as being more socially adept because girls are taught to be more socially open, and that odd social behaviour is less apparent in people brought up as boys? Boys are expected to be better at maths and science than girls are, so couldn’t gender stereotyping influence how autistic people present themselves? Whether someone’s autistic or not, they’re quite likely to be affected by their society’s gender norms, whether consciously or not. It is true that some autistic people may not be aware of some social cues that nonautistic people notice, but that doesn’t mean that that cultural exposure doesn’t exist. The idea that women are inherently poorer at maths has been debunked, so why resurrect that risible idea as Science™?

I cited an article earlier this year about how autistics raised as boys were more likely to be successful within society in general in comparison to autistics brought up as girls. There’s another item on the author’s list, in which she mentions that autistic women and girls are more likely to pay less attention to grooming. This sounds more like a social expectation that people brought up as girls are likely to be subjected to. If you’re perceived as a boy and show up with sloppy hair, you’re more likely to get less social opprobrium than someone who’s perceived as a girl. Girls are supposed to be ‘sugar, spice and everything nice’, and if you deviate from that stereotype, you’re probably going to get some negative feedback about it, to put it mildly. The idea of autistic girls being more youthful and childish plays into more stereotypes about women and girls as well, in which they’re often infantilised and treated as if they’re much less mature than boys or men. Girls and their ‘pretty little heads’, and that sort of thing. 

Again, it’s refreshing to see portrayals of the different ways in which autistic people can present themselves, but it’s definitely not refreshing to see someone frame it in the form of tired gender stereotypes. 

It seems as though the same old cultural stereotypes about men and women are playing themselves out again, and we should be careful to avoid promoting the same outmoded hypotheses about gender in order to understand how autistic people move throughout society. As activists, we should agitate against such stereotypes to create a more equitable world for all of us, regardless of gender. 

[Kerry] Objectivism, Body Mapping and Irrational Hatred

For about a year, there has been a spate of trolling targeted at trans/genderqueer people, plurals, otherkin and other communities on Tumblr. I noticed that a lot of the attackers were libertarians (or libertarian-leaning conservatives), judging by the profiles they’d filled out on Tumblr. For a while, I was befuddled by the correlation between libertarianism and rampant hatred for people whose minds didn’t have a one-to-one mapping with their bodies. It seemed quite contradictory to the idea that people are free to exist as they are, without others’ coercion. I’d seen that sort of bigotry before coming from libertarians, but it was isolated cases, rather than organised attempts to attack particular groups of people. I don’t think that this is a problem that exists amongst all libertarians; for instance, left-libertarians tend not to hold these sorts of views. I am, of course, against most forms of libertarianism as a philosophical principle and as a foundation of government, but I’m not out to tar all libertarians with the same brush. Most of the problems I’ve noticed are from right-libertarians, ‘voluntaryists‘ and objectivists

I suspect that some of these people draw their hostility towards these groups because of a particular set of philosophical tenets—that is, Randian objectivism—that discounts the importance of subjective perception.

There also tends to be a lot of black-and-white thinking that comes along with it. I was reading an entry on John Scalzi’s blog, where he criticises objectivism and Atlas Shrugged, and one of the commenters, Bruce Baugh, gave an anecdote of objectivists disbelieving in ring species because they represented an intermediate between one species and the next. For an objectivist, ‘species’ would be a binary, immutable category, with no in-between states. (He also mentioned a particular disdain for quantum mechanics.) If Baugh’s anecdote is true, this exemplifies some of the thinking I’ve seen amongst objectivists. Ambiguity doesn’t exist! Apparently. Even though it does. Things are what they are, with no variation between them. This accounts for their utter rejection of transgender identities, for instance. You’re born with what you have, and you cannot transcend or question it. It also accounts for their inability to understand plurality. Personhood is defined by the body, and regardless of how your perception may work, you cannot truly be plural. Of course, I think that’s utter tripe, and the psychological community itself is moving away from these simplistic ways of thinking. But that’s what objectivists believe, and that’s where the nastiness is coming from

This explains why Thomas Szasz claimed that trans people were delusional, even though he disbelieved in mental illness, and was a libertarian. This also explains why the Tumblr trolls were essentially doing the same thing. With that sort of worldview, we’re all black boxes. Nothing subjective can truly exist, and if someone does mention that they have an identity that has strong subjective roots, they are immediately shot down and told that their self-perception is absolutely wrong, and that they should ‘stop pretending’. 

The thing is, though, no-one is claiming that subjective identities can be empirically proved in the same way that gravity can. But we, as a society, do recognise that subjective phenomena can be quite influential, for better or for worse. Emotions are deeply subjective, but they certainly have a factor in how we conduct ourselves and how our societies develop. A plural system who perceives themselves as being several individual consciousnesses generated by the same brain isn’t the same thing as, say, a creation ‘scientist’. Creationists are categorically denying scientific fact, and their fairy tales should be kept out of science classrooms. If someone were to claim that they were literally a cabbage, then you might have a problem, but there’s a massive distinction between ‘I perceive myself in a particular way subjectively’ and ‘I am a cabbage.’ Objectivists fallaciously conflate ‘this is my self-perception’ with ‘I AM REALLY A CABBAGE DON’T YOU KNOW.’ I’m not against empiricism. But I am against false appeals to ‘science’ to deny people their identity and their voice. 

You know, even Richard Dawkins, the reductionist’s reductionist, doesn’t go this far. In a TED talk he gave in 2005, about ‘our queer universe’, Dawkins discusses how our perception of the world is just a model of it, and that our senses create a version of the world that’s quite different to how other animals see it. I don’t always agree with Dawkins, but in this case, I think he makes quite a bit of sense. 

I am an atheist. I am a materialist. But I am not an objectivist. My beliefs in empiricism and my disbelief in spiritual phenomena do not preclude my acceptance of subjective phenomena as being valid. 

Objectivism ignores the complexity of human thought, and reduces it to a set of facilely constructed axioms. Reality is messy, complex and can’t be cut down into twee slogans for disaffected nerds. Can it be quantified? Yes, for the most part. But that doesn’t mean it’s not complex, or that variance doesn’t exist. 

[Em] The Whitewashing of Neurodiversity

There’s this idea that autism is a “White condition,” even though it affects people of all ethnicities. It’s certainly prevalent in the US. Can’t speak for other countries, though; would anyone care to share if they are somewhere else and see similar portrayals? An article in Disability Studies Quarterly, “Autism, Rhetoric, and Whiteness,” discusses the White-centered image of autism that exists in the United States. When you think of autistic people in popular media, who do you think of? White folks, probably. If they’re so-called “high-functioning,” you think of Silicon Valley geeks, like software engineers and computer programmers. If they’re “low-functioning,” they’re the children (and I do mean “children,” since adults are frequently made invisible in this kind of rhetoric) of doting White, upper-middle-class parents. 

Autistic people of color are incredibly invisible in this narrative. Some of this is because of stereotyping, and some of it is because of the sharp differences between the ability of middle- and upper-class White people to get diagnoses in comparison to Black and Latino folks. If you’re a comfortably off family in Silicon Valley, Boston, or Portland, you’re more able to afford the kind of schooling and medical care that would allow you or your child to get a diagnosis. But if you’re in a more impoverished area and can’t afford good schools or healthcare, you’re probably NOT going to get an autism diagnosis, and might get slapped with a different label that’s more stereotypically associated with people of your social status. Or they might just say you’re a “troublemaker.” We were fortunate enough to get a diagnosis early on, but we still had to deal with people who were incredibly unsympathetic, and acted as though we chose to be the way we were, rather than trying to understand our motivations and reactions to our environment and the people in it. Had we been White, I think things would have been easier, and people would have been more likely to understand that our behavior was something that deserved compassion and accommodation, not punishment and ostracism. 

Sometimes we feel super-invisible, even in the neurodiversity movement, which calls a lot of anti-autistic stereotypes into question. I feel that there’s a lot of socioeconomic diversity, but not so much ethnic diversity. Kerry’s talked about this already a few months ago, actually. I agree with them in that there’s a real paucity of PoC voices in the autistic blogosphere, but I think that there is a lot more socioeconomic diversity than they imply. 

It’s so fucking lonely. 

To be fair, I doubt it’s all about race, and I think class is also a factor. (But then again, there’s a huge relationship between race and class in America, with Blacks and Latinos getting the short end of the stick.) Poorer people are probably less likely to receive an autism diagnosis than are middle-class and richer people, because they’re often stuck in shitty, underfunded schools, they can’t afford the kinds of evaluations that people with more money can get, and they often get misdiagnosed when they DO get hold of professionals. 

[Kerry] The Problem with Some ‘Autism Parents’

There are two types of problematic parents we’ve noticed: those that infantilise their children, incapable of seeing that their children are people and can self-advocate, and those parents who are hellbent on ‘normalising’ their children with ‘tough love’, which in its most extreme cases manifests in psychological and emotional abuse that leaves lasting scars. For some particularly bad parents, physical abuse is used as well.

We don’t have personal experience with family members who only use infantilisation, but we are far, far too familiar with tough ‘love’. I put love in quotation marks, because the behaviour was tough, but I don’t think it was very loving. Trying to humiliate someone having a meltdown isn’t loving. Shaming someone for being overloaded or struggling with certain scenarios is not loving. Becoming more critical and snappish once a nonautistic sibling comes along is not loving. It is abusive, and it’s reflective of the harmful ideas surrounding the autistic spectrum.

Because of our experiences, most of this article will be focussed on the harmful behaviour on the part of ‘tough love’ parents.

Their feelings of parental protectiveness are overlaid with resentment about their having an ‘abnormal’ child, one who may never fulfil any of the goals that parents associate with success. My child will never get a degree from Harvard or Oxford. My child will never become a doctor, lawyer or nuclear physicist. My child will never learn anything at all. Never, never, never. They’re so focussed on the possibilities of those ‘nevers’ that they work assiduously to stamp out the autism that they fallaciously view as ‘separate’ from their child’s existence. They want that typical child they’d been hoping and dreaming for, not the neurologically variant child who happens to be right in front of them. They see the child as a burden, a symbol of their failure to have a child that meets society’s expectations of what the perfect child should be, and they dread having to potentially look after the child for longer than the absolutely must. Things would be easier with a typical child, and these parents’ actions never let the child forget it. There is this undercurrent of being unwanted, of being flawed, in the child’s perception of the parent’s actions.

In order for these parents to get a ‘return on investment’, they subject their children to behaviour-modification techniques. This can be handling conspicuously autistic behaviour with traditional discipline like corporal punishment, revocation of privileges and aversives, rather than trying to understand the child’s behaviour and finding adaptations and services that allow them to make more sense of the world and have fewer negative reactions to it.

There’s often a problem when these parents see a particular atypical behaviour, and only see the behaviour, not the intention or stimuli that might motivate it. For instance, a parent who only looks at their child’s behaviour may interpret a meltdown as a deliberate attempt to make trouble, rather than a response to sensory or emotional overload. A ‘tough love’ parent may attempt to correct this external behaviour with traditional discipline, rather than trying to correct the situation, since they’re uninterested in the child’s interiority. Achieving success for this kind of parent is indistinguishability from a child’s nonautistic peers. It’s a superficial response to a deeper problem.

The problem with this childrearing style is that they’re not focussed on who their children actually are. They’re fixated on an Ideal Child, someone who their real child will never be. (This behaviour also exists with homophobic and transphobic parents, who refuse to see their queer children for who they are, and try to force them into a heteronormative or gender-conforming model ‘for their own sake’.)

People may write volumes and volumes about how we lack ‘theory of mind’, but this lack of reciprocity can go both ways. When parents kill their children because of their autism, it’s absolutely nonsensical to claim the lack of empathy only exists on our end. Most of these dysfunctional parent-child relationships don’t end up in the child’s death, but they can result in psychological abuse that leaves lasting damage to the child’s emotional health. When you’re constantly second guessing your self-worth and your abilities, that’s not a healthy place to be in. When your feelings are invalidated and people aren’t even trying to work out what’s wrong behind the visible behaviours, you might end up in an emotional state you’d rather not have.

Trying to correct who someone is isn’t the right way to go about things. Someone’s being autistic isn’t a crime. While being autistic does present adaptive problems, the more humane response is to accommodate and to teach a child healthy coping mechanisms that are person-centred, rather than trying to force someone to contort themselves to fit into a box labelled ‘Indistinguishable From Peers’.

In our case, we cut contact with our immediate biological family. Their tough ‘love’ was more damaging than simply letting us exist as who we were, and I think it turned out for the worst. Learning how to navigate the world comfortably involved years of trying to undo what they had done, and it’s still continuing today, even though things are easier for us than they were even three or four years ago. For people on the spectrum, not having that family support means that they are being deprived of access to services and help that most people are fortunate enough to have. It’s meant we’ve had to scramble to find resources and support. We have been able to, but it took several years.

While I believe the vast majority of autism parents are well intentioned, sometimes things go wrong, and people erroneously conflate being nonautistic with being a more valuable member of society. Sometimes, when those stereotypes are internalised too much, and are combined with a parent’s own negative personality traits, that can result in behaviour that is ultimately destructive to the autistic child’s psyche–or worse, their very existence.

[Kerry] Liminality and Invisibility on the Spectrum

A lot of times, we feel like a minority within a minority within a minority. Always between boundaries, negotiating the intersections between neurological variance, gender identity, sexuality and race, and realising the impact that every single one of those differences has on our daily existence. 

It’s been very hard to find voices like ours in the autistic blogosphere. I don’t think we’ve come across any heavily updated or trafficked blogs by autistic people of colour, save one or two, much less autistic PoC who are also on the plural spectrum, are queer or are trans. Correct me if I’m wrong, but I feel like there is a lot of uniformity within the ‘mainstream’ (if you can call it that) network of autism-advocacy blogs. Most bloggers are White and middle- to upper-middle-class, with some exceptions, mostly where economic status is concerned. It’s very hard to find people with experiences like ours. Even finding first-hand accounts on how, say, anti-Black racism and autism interact with one another is pretty difficult, and it makes us feel quite alone at times. Since autism’s prevalence isn’t linked to ethnicity—it occurs just as frequently for Blacks, Indigenous Australians, South Asians, Native Americans, East Asians and Mestizos (to name a few ethnic groups) as it does for Whites—one has to wonder why there’s so few of those voices being heard. We’ve found some amazing autistic narratives, but very few have the intersections of racial prejudice, particularly in education and employment. 

And that’s just autistic narratives in general: with ‘success stories’, the voices are even more limited. Most autistic people who end up studying at—and working with—top universities or end up in high-status jobs are quite privileged in some ways. These people are overwhelmingly white and upper-middle-class. In our case, I suppose we would qualify as a Success Story™, but we hear very few voices like ours. Most autistic PoC fall through the cracks, to be unheard from, and to be denied the services they need in order to survive—we’re not even going to be talking about thriving, here.  

Fortunately, it’s been easier to find other queer and trans autistic voices. However, most of those narratives fall under the ‘white and middle-class’ category that I mentioned above. It does make us feel less alone to find those stories, though, since sexual or gender variance can change how autism is expressed when growing up, or in adult life. Being autistic can modify how someone perceives their gender or sexuality, and being queer or trans can modify how they perceive themselves as an autistic person. Those complexities are certainly real, and they can be potent. Having those voices out there is something that’s tremendously heartening to us, even if they don’t share every single bit of our history. 

As for other plural systems, there are a few that blog specifically about autistic and neurodiversity issues. There aren’t that many systems blogging about it openly, at least not in a dedicated way. I think that some of it is because of the stigma surrounding multiplicity/plurality, and some of the unfortunate stereotypes and misconceptions that get attached to it from detractors probably aren’t a strong inducement for people to be open about it and discuss it in blogs or other public formats. I mean, if you’re worried about people trolling you just for talking about your own subjective experience, it’s hard to go out there and talk about them with the intent of holding a serious dialogue. 

…I suppose it would be easier to approach people about some of these issues were we not to write as individuals and not mention plurality; however, we find it difficult to maintain blogs using a nonplural persona.  Most of these have fizzled out over the years. To us, that’s like acting, and it’s not a comfortable act, either. We identify as plural precisely because it’s more convenient and practical to identify the consistent and localised variances in our cognitive styles as being separate people, in a philosophical sense, and to pretend that that variance doesn’t exist simply doesn’t feel right in this context. This is a neurodiversity blog too, and experiencing consciousness this way does fall under that rubric, at least to me and the other writers of this blog. 

I’m so tired of feeling alone. All of us here are, and I’m pretty sure there are others who probably feel the same. 

[Noël] Curebies and Integration Evangelists

I have noticed disturbing similarities between nonautistic people who are hellbent on finding a cure for autism, and nonplurals who evangelise integration as the universal treatment for all plurality, whether it falls under the classic definition of MPD/DID or not.

Both of them, I feel, seem deeply uncomfortable with the idea of neurological variation being something other than a dangerous pathology. When defending their pro-cure stance, they will invariably cite “their brother who smears faeces” or “their dysfunctional cousin whose ‘personalities’ have destroyed her life.” It is always the most extreme cases, nearly calculated to elicit disgust in the general population, that these people use in order to invalidate the idea that all neurological variance should be eliminated.

Empowerment is never an option; it is always cure. Because being neurotypical is the only acceptable state. There are no exceptions. I could draw further comparisons, to the anti-LGBT religious fundamentalists who advocate reparative therapy for queer people. Only straight sexuality and cisgender identity are acceptable. No deviation is permitted. You must be assimilated. They, too, trot out the worst examples of LGBT people in order to invalidate the entire movement.

This makes me feel deeply uncomfortable as a member of a plural system on the autistic spectrum, whose individual behaviour appears autistic. It does not seem like a considered evaluation of neurological difference; it feels like a visceral reaction to the idea that someone does vary from them, and that there is a challenge to the way in which they perceive personhood. Since humans are considered social animals, the idea that there is a subset of humans that does not derive the same experience from social interaction, and has different reactions to other environmental stimuli, makes them incredibly uncomfortable. What, then, does it mean to be human, if there is this group of people that “are human in a different way”? Plurality, too, challenges their notions of what the self means—if many selves within one brain can exist, is it possible that I, too, could be many? That I may have to share my thoughts, that the notion of privacy or identity could be more complicated than what it initially was on the surface?

The singular obsession with cure and healing also reminds me far too much of the eugenicist policies favoured in the United States and in Western Europe in the early twentieth century. Psychiatrists and academics relished drawing up hierarchical diagnostic schemas and creating Great Chains of Being, and consigning anyone who was considered “substandard” to abusive, soul-destroying institutions. The rise of Autism Speaks (and its predecessor, Cure Autism Now) in the past decade is simply repeating the sordid history of the suppression of disabled communities, and words cannot describe how much I loathe Autism Speaks and organisations that are philosophically akin to it.

It feels deeply adversarial. Us against them, combat neurodiversity, combat difference.

Combat me, combat Kerry, combat Hess, combat the majority of our closest friends. Crush the lives and ambitions of real, living, breathing people, because there is something that they perceive is challenging. Threatening.

My goal is to encourage people to accept complexity in identity, and to realise that variance, in and of itself, is not to simply be eliminated.

[Kerry] WTF is this shit. (warning: curebie ideology)

We don’t post here as often any more, mostly because offline stuff has kept us so busy. That doesn’t mean that we’ve abandoned the blog, though.

So, we found a website by an autistic man, Jonathan Mitchell, who is apparently in favour of curing autism, both his own and others’, and is vehemently opposed to the neurodiversity movement. He runs a blog, Autism’s Gadfly, which is devoted to this worldview. I’ll place a warning there, since readers may be upset by the content. I certainly was, but I did want to address it.

The problem with this worldview is that it upholds the idea that autistic people are inherently broken, rather than different. And by being an autistic person who advocates curing autism, his own claims seem to be that he is an inferior human being, with his own existence being worth less than others’ because of how he perceives the world and moves through it.

Mitchell also grossly misinterprets the neurodiversity community, claiming that we completely ignore the struggles and difficulties that autistics encounter. This is bullshit—there’s really no other way to put it. Has he ever read any pro-neurodiversity or anti-cure autistic blogs? The autistic people who write these accounts of their lives are incredibly frank about the difficulties they contend with, and don’t attempt to claim that their existence is all fairy cakes and sparkles. We haven’t made any claims on this blog, and none of the autistic bloggers we know personally or whose work we’ve followed for some time have made any such claims. This doesn’t sound like a rebuttal; this sounds like the straw man logical fallacy, in which someone attacks a made-up version of their opponents in order to ‘refute’ their points.

The problem with the ‘cure-it-all’ mindset for autism is that it creates a hierarchy of humanness. People who are not autistic are intrinsically better, and worth more, than those who are. Curing autistic people allows them to be brought into the class of ‘worthy people’; their worth is negligible before that. Autism isn’t like cancer or diabetes—it’s an inborn neurological variance that has both beneficial and negative aspects. Are there struggles? Yes. Are there parts of autism that can be seen as disabilities? Of course. Does that mean that the entire form of neurological variance needs to be wiped out ‘for the good of the species’? No. All this cure-mongering and pandering by people like Mitchell and the Autism Speaks/Defeat Autism Now!/Jenny McCarthy/ad nauseam crowd isn’t helping autistic people succeed. It’s promoting a eugenicist ideology that wishes to wipe out all neurological variance. It’s homogeneity for the sake of social cohesion. This is not helping autistic people. This is wishing them out of existence.

I find this view morally repugnant. Be honest about your struggles, yes. But don’t tell people they don’t deserve to exist. Don’t pander to eugenicist ideologues who would jump at the chance to exterminate people like you. You are claiming that an autistic life is a life unworthy of life.

Discriminatory philosophies like to create hierarchies in which some people’s lives are worth more than others: men’s lives are worth more than women’s; white people’s lives are worth more than the lives of people of colour; straight and cis people’s lives are worth more than LGBT people’s lives; westerners’ lives are worth more than non-westerners’ lives; abled people’s lives are worth more than disabled people’s lives. And guess who’d be gone first? People like us: queer, non-white-bodied, autistic, neurodivergent, disabled. The human race is not homogeneous. I am completely fed up with the idea that total homogeneity in society is desirable and any outliers should be eliminated. It’s been done to LGBT people; it’s been done to autistics. It’s this fucking obsession with having to be like the majority of people in order to be a valid human being. Being different to others isn’t a crime. It’s not something that needs to be wiped out just because it’s different. I know that a lot of people do have negative reactions to difference because they aren’t used to it, or don’t know how to deal with it at first, but that doesn’t mean that the difference in and of itself is bad.

You know what? I refuse to be an inferior human being. We, as a group, refuse to call ourselves broken and inherently flawed simply for existing. Are things often difficult because we’re autistic? Yes. Does that mean that we need to clamour for a cure, or say that we are unworthy of existence as we are? Fuck no; that’s unnecessary. I’m sorry, I am pretty well convinced that I have the right to exist. This is what neurodiversity advocates are asking for. Not to ignore the difficulties that autistic people can struggle with, but to recognise that our existence and personhood are valid, and that our sharing physical and philosophical space in this world with non-autistic people is not a crime.

Different, not broken. Worthy of life, self-determination and success. This is what I am, this is what we are, this is what our community is. And this is what we will fight for, as long as we draw breath.

[Kerry] Plurality and Scepticism

Philosophically, I’m a sceptic. I don’t believe in God (of any sort); I tend to believe in naturalistic explanations for both psychological and spiritual phenomena, and I critically evaluate people’s claims, especially if they can’t be empirically tested.

You may wonder, then, why we identify as plural, and why I have a strong attachment to my individual identity, even though I don’t have a visible physical manifestation.

I tend to have a philosophy of ‘materialist dualism’, in which nonspiritual philosophy is combined with the idea that there can be a distinction between someone’s external presentation and internal self-perception. I believe that the perception of that distinction occurs in the brain, at least for us. I don’t see there being a contradiction at all between being our identifying as separate people, and having many sceptics in the system, like Em, Yavari and me.

No, you can’t directly test our personhood in the same way that you can measure REM sleep or other brain phenomena that are less complicated. I think that the reason why the personhood of members of plural systems isn’t always recognised because we have differing operational definitions of personhood. People who don’t conceptualise identities as existing outside the body may see personhood as embodiment—and those people also tend to have gender-essentialist views as well, in which trans people are not ever ‘really’ the gender they identify as, or aren’t so until they’ve had The Surgery™. That philosophy leads to rigid definitions of selfhood, identity, gender and other cognitive constructs that are simple for some people, and complex for others. Those of us who have more fluid conceptualisations of identity allow for these differences, and can recognise that a mind-body problem may exist for many people.

The fact that operational definitions for personhood may vary across schools of thought doesn’t mean that being plural is inherently pathological. It means that some people tend to view identity in a rather simplified way that doesn’t account for the variations in self-perception that people actually experience. This occurs in behavioural science sometimes; there are some schools of thoughts that see people as complex, and there are others that simplify us into black boxes that are solely defined by our behaviours, and there are still others who believe that we are primarily driven by our biological urges. In general, though, the most effective psychological, sociological and anthropological approaches are those that look at people holistically, rather than turning them into DNA strands or black boxes.

Materialist dualism is a holistic philosophical approach to the mind-body problem: it recognises the difference between subjective and objective truth, does not make claims about the objective world that can’t be verified scientifically, and recognises the identity and personhood of those whose identities don’t have a one-to-one correspondence with their exterior physical manifestations. I know that my individual identity is subjective, and that when I move through the world and interact with people who don’t know we’re plural, they’ll see something different, and I’m fully aware of that. But at the same time, I have a strong sense of who I am, and that’s where my motivations, worldviews, likes and dislikes come from. It’s not a classic ‘delusion’ or ‘pathology’; as I said, I’m aware of its subjectivity, and our plurality doesn’t make us dysfunctional. Rather, we’re able to support each other emotionally and lead a halfway decent life, so no, it’s not dysfunctional. It’s a variation from the norm, but we view it as a positive adaptation that’s served us well, for the most part.

[Kerry and Hess] Disfigurative Language

There’s this misconception that autistic people necessarily struggle with complex or abstract thought.

That’s not completely true, at least not for us. It’s more complicated than that. Most of our seeming difficulties with ‘abstract thought’ aren’t related to ‘abstract thought’ at all, but communicating the relationship between certain figurative language devices and the concrete things they’re connected to, and a tendency to call up very literal visual images in certain situations.

We generally understand that figurative language isn’t to be interpreted literally, but there are still times when our minds call up literal mental images. For instance, there’s the phrase ‘hold a master’s degree’. Now, we know that it’s an expression, and not to be taken literally, but the first thing we (well, the two of us, anyway) think of is someone walking around with a degree certificate. That’s right—they ‘hold a degree’! The same applies to ‘hold down a job’; it’s as though a ‘job’ is a big fuzzy monster that needs to be held down, or it’ll get away from you. (And in this economy, it just might!) When our computer pops up a message asking to ‘send a report to Apple’, we’ll sometimes imagine a report being sent to an apple, even though we know full well that they’re talking about the techs at Apple Inc.

It’s difficult for us to pick out certain things when analysing literature, like identifying types of figurative language (other than the most obvious ones, like metaphors and similes), and even though we’re better at it than we were when we were younger, we still feel that we’re at a disadvantage compared to most people. Analysing nonfiction is much easier for us, even if the nonfiction deals primarily with abstract concepts. Although, as Noël said in an earlier entry, we have a hard time with books that express those ideas in impenetrable philosophical jargon, even if the ideas themselves are perfectly understandable to us. Read: Judith Butler, Jacques Derrida and other postmodernist philosophers. Interesting ideas, obscurantist prose.

But if you ask us to identify the literary symbols in a particular work when we’re writing a paper, we might pick out the ones that are most obvious to readers, but the subtler symbols may be massively more difficult to articulate in writing, even if we fully understand the piece as a whole, and what it’s trying to communicate. It’s not that we misunderstand the symbolism, as such, but that it’s more difficult for us to name and discuss those symbols with the same fluency that people without our perceptual differences might.

Sometimes we’re self-conscious about it, and worry that we seem ‘less intelligent’, even though it’s a difference in processing—we tend to articulate ideas that we notice in writing that are less codified than a lot of literary tropes. Cultural studies and identity, for instance, are things we grasp well, but identifying specific symbols in a poem or short story is honestly more difficult. It interests us less, to be honest, and…it’s not because we’re ‘philistines’ who don’t appreciate ‘high’ literature as much as it is because we’re just going to have a more difficult go of parsing it in a systematic way. We can communicate it well enough not to get bad or mediocre grades any more on these sorts of assignments, but it’s still something that we don’t handle as well. (Another issue is that some of us, like Kerry, only become passionate about fiction if the work is particularly special in a…weird, almost mystical way, and to be frank, most fictional works don’t have that effect, especially not ‘realistic’ ones.)

 

[Kerry] aesthetics, autism & computing

Joe Clark starts this blog entry off with an interesting and relevant premise: that empathy and thoughtfulness are necessary in design. He ends this, however, with a gross stereotype of autistics, claiming that they are worse at creating empathic interfaces.

Newsflash: not every single autistic person is a self-absorbed geek with no concept of aesthetics or empathy. This is a stereotype. Yes, developers who don’t understand the ‘user’ aspect of ‘user experience’ create bad websites and apps, but that’s not to do about autism as a neurological configuration. It’s a representation of the divide between design-orientated computer users and development-orientated users. Also, autistic people are perfectly capable of empathy, even if it doesn’t manifest in the same way it does for NTs.

Designers, like Joe Clark, value form as much as they do function; developers often prefer function over form, or function to the exclusion of form. This bears itself out all over the internet: developers will often have bare-bones websites with minimal visual stimuli; designers will try to make their websites visually appealing. I’d say it’s a ‘right-brain/left-brain’ divide, although the ‘brain lateralisation’ idea isn’t as scientifically sound as people once thought it was.

We’re autistic, as has been made abundantly clear here. I’m definitely aesthetically inclined, and often find myself getting frustrated at people who don’t consider aesthetics or design important. I’m—well, many of us are, with some exceptions like Hess and Sean—sensitive to subtle things like type rendering in operating systems, the quality of the typeface being used and the texture of the paper it’s printed on. I’ll notice if the type in a book—or a computer operating system—uses ligatures or not, for instance. (Fact: Mac OS X does, except in WebKit-powered apps like Safari; Windows didn’t until Vista, and they only appear in applications that support them—you won’t see them in WordPad, but they show up in Notepad under Windows 7; Ubuntu Linux does if you’re using GNOME or Xfce, thanks to FreeType.) Our primary operating system is Mac OS X—and there are several reasons why; one of those reasons is the aesthetic sensitivity. I find Windows’ type handling hideous (ClearType’s grainy rendering irritates me to an irrational extent), and it’s difficult for me to look at. It’s been like this for years: when we were younger, Richard couldn’t stand to see adverts and other material printed in typefaces he found hideous. There were very strong opinions about how letters ‘should’ look, for him, and for others. We, in general, don’t like to set our writing in Times New Roman or Arial, preferring other fonts that are both aesthetically pleasing and professional (eg, Garamond Premier Pro, Adobe Garamond, Arno Pro, Minion). Form is just as important as function around here. I’d go as far as to say that it’s a long-standing perseveration.

But at the same time, it’s not an indictment on people who value function over form, and make computing or typographical choices based on these preferences. It’s a difference, and good user interfaces require the collaboration of people with sensitivities to both form and function. The aesthetic needs I mentioned are an internal thing, only mentioned here to draw a contrast between what Joe Clark is claiming, and what the reality is, at least around here.

Are there autistic ‘geeks’ who are more concerned with functional interfaces than form? Yes, but that doesn’t apply to all of us, and the disablist, insulting language is completely inappropriate, whether you’re coming from a designer’s perspective or a developer’s.

[Kerry] Subjectivity.

I wrote about this two years ago, in articles entitled ‘“Weird” Identities and Being Special’ and ‘It’s All in Your Head! (and that’s okay)’. There seems to be renewed debate about non-‘standard’ personal identities, at least in the internet circles we’re spending most of our time in these days. Most of the uproar is about ‘otherkin’ identities, or ones in which people subjectively perceive themselves as being nonhuman.

Admittedly, I’m a sceptic. Not in the sense that I think that otherkin are ‘deluded’ or ‘crazy’, but that their nonhuman identities are subjective and a product of their own neurones, or something like a religious or spiritual belief. That doesn’t render the identities invalid, but I do tend to disbelieve people who claim that their bodies contain nonhuman DNA, or anything similar. There’s a line, I think, between ‘this is how I personally identify’ and ‘my body literally has dragon DNA’. Even if you do view it as totally imaginary, what’s the problem with having a subjective identity that’s different to your exterior presentation, especially if you aren’t harming anyone with it? I don’t see how these things necessarily need to be placed within a medical model, just because they make you feel personally uncomfortable.

I don’t see subjective identity as being problematic, but I do think that there’s a cultural opposition to it, especially since Western culture is quite rooted in this idea that the mind and body are wholly unitary, and when there is a discrepancy, it needs to be explained with medical language, rather than philosophical or spiritual language. I’m not a spiritual person, so I don’t invoke that language to refer to my own identity within the system, but I do discuss philosophical subjectivity. Recognising subjective identity as an acceptable thing requires reinterpreting brain, mind and body, and viewing self-images that diverge from the physical body takes a significant effort to conceptualise, especially when you’ve been brought up to believe that it’s either idle imagination in children, ‘phases’ in teenagers, or madness in adults. If you’re a writer, actor or artist, you may have fewer problems with it, but if your career or general mindset is divorced from subjectivity as an important element in your life, it’s going to be a bit more difficult.

I think that a lot of these identities are formed through subconscious (or conscious, in some people’s cases) affinities that develop in the brain over time, and become part of someone’s self-representation inside their own heads. I think that’s how my individual identity was formed, and that doesn’t make me any less real: obviously, I can think; I have separate emotions and reactions to my headmates; and I perceive my headmates as ‘non-me entities’. I know that our separateness isn’t directly scientifically observable, but I consider matters of selfhood to be beyond medicalisation, in most cases. I think that modern society has shunted off too much to medicine, in the same sense that premodern societies attributed social differences to ‘Satan’ or ‘demons’.

Also, I think that there’s this…cultural impulse, at least amongst some people, to seek out the oddest-seeming people about and mock them (or ‘diagnose’ them over the internet) because of their own insecurities. It doesn’t make you look ‘normal’ to obsessively focus on others’ beliefs and practices; rather, it just makes you look irritatingly obsessed with what others are doing, and unwilling to mind your own business.

[Kerry] Maths, Systems Thinking and Pedagogy

Many people here, including me, are holistic, nonlinear thinkers who see things as conceptual wholes, rather than as sequential, step-by-step processes. It’s not about hierarchies; it’s about ‘soups’, to extend a metaphor that I used a few weeks ago. We’re systems thinkers, seeing things in the context of other things. Complex structures are pretty fucking awesome. This is one of the things that makes maths comparatively difficult for us.

I don’t think that in our case, at least, that it’s a lack of aptitude. There are a lot of dyscalculia-like symptoms, but our maths difficulties are pretty much limited to classroom maths, and not numbers in general. For example, when Hess and I do the shopping, we don’t make basic calculation errors that we would on a maths worksheet. There aren’t confusions between seemingly obvious things like plus and minus signs. In fact, we tend to be pretty accurate. I can keep track of our bank balance in my head. Calculating percentages has generally always been easy. For us, maths needs a context, whether it’s groceries or a bank account or some other application.

The fact that the same frontrunner can perform the same operations with wildly varying levels of accuracy, depending on the situation, definitely demonstrates that. For systems thinkers, disconnected facts may seem…rather empty and irrelevant, even if they really aren’t.

That’s a hurdle that many of us had to deal with when we were younger and were first encountering maths concepts at primary school. (I wasn’t here for this; I only joined the group in 2001, when we were in high school.) People tell me that there was a lot of difficulty understanding why these disconnected facts were so important and crucial for us to learn, especially when every other academic subject was at least somewhat interesting to people here. It didn’t help that the predominant maths teaching method that they encountered growing up primarily consisted of constant drilling and homework assignments that consisted of 100 multiplication or division problems each. Any interest in maths was effectively killed after that, which was pretty unfortunate, because maths was one of the first subjects that teachers accelerated them in, along with spelling and reading.

The problem with a lot of maths teachers is that they treat maths as though it’s this disconnected collection of rules, operations and symbols, rather than something that’s part of a coherent, well-connected system of ideas and procedures for understanding certain aspects of the universe. Every other science is taught in a way that emphasises larger-scale, systems thinking, but maths isn’t. It’s really disconnected, and I think that’s a problem with maths pedagogy in general. There are some people who find pure maths interesting in its own right, but I don’t personally get interested in a subject unless it has a broader context, whether it’s scientific, social or political, and I’d venture to say that’s the case for a lot of discouraged maths students.

Why isn’t it being approached like every single other ‘hard’ science? Actual science is being taught, but it’s being taught in this really disconnected way that doesn’t put it in that context. Maths is a discipline that talks about a certain aspect of nature: quantity, space and, to an extent, time.

These are pretty important properties of the universe, but you’re not hearing about it in that context: it’s drill-and-kill exercises and pages and pages of problems and exercises that don’t emphasise the beauty and coherency of mathematical thought. Explain why it’s important. Don’t say that things are ‘just because they are’; people aren’t satisfied with such ‘answers’, and they tend to just shut down. Place mathematical reasoning in the context of our broader universe, as physicists,  biologists and chemists do. Introduce maths as a means for understanding the wider world around us, because it’s what is. It may look rather abstract, but behind those abstractions is that broader understanding that I mentioned—even if you can’t see it, there’s something to all of it, and I feel as though that ‘something’ is largely left out, leaving us with the disconnected problems and operations that I mentioned earlier.

Seriously, maths isn’t just a collection of problems and ‘facts’ to be learned by rote, but tell that to the majority of people ‘teaching’ maths, especially in secondary schools. I think that there are a lot of people who think that maths is interesting for its own sake, without having to contextualise it, and that’s the problem: people who don’t have a special interest in the subject in and of itself may need it to be contextualised in order for it to have relevance to them. I’m not talking about ‘dumbing it down’ or making it ‘easier’; I’m talking about realigning maths pedagogy to conform to the way in which other sciences are approached as academic subjects.

I wonder if some of the ‘traditional maths’/’drill-and-kill’ advocates are taking personal offence at the idea that some people aren’t interested in ‘maths for maths’ sake’, and need to have it placed in a particular context. ‘How dare people not be interested in my academic field of study!’ I’m not defending the rampant innumeracy that occurs in a lot of Western countries; this is a criticism of how these people are trying to ‘handle’ the problem. Yes, people should be able to have a handle on, at the very least, addition, subtraction, multiplication, division, fractions and decimals. Possibly a bit of algebra to handle finances, as well.

However, maths doesn’t need to be treated as this rarefied, untouchable subject that can only be taught in One True Way.  Interestingly, many of these ‘traditionalist’ advocates also seem to be highly conservative politically, but I’ll avoid digressing into politics right now. (That’ll come later, probably, knowing me.) Scientists in other disciplines are starting to move on from that: look at all the progress that biologists have made in getting laypeople interested in their subject. (Strictly, Stephen Jay Gould is a palaeontologist, but he wrote extensively on evolutionary biology.)

Just…stop, stop, for the love of God, teaching maths as though it exists in a vacuum. It doesn’t, any more than any other academic discipline does.

[Kerry] Outdated notions and incivility.

Yes, I’m talking about good brains and bad brains again. It’s been a perseveration for the past few weeks, thanks to some of the jerky, clueless behaviour I’ve been seeing both on the internet and off.

This entry is in response to a few people who have been waging all-out war against trans people, plurals and others whose identities don’t quite match up with their bodies. They’re known trolls (or just hardcore conservatives), but even so, they’re repeating a lot of standard transphobic and anti-plural tropes that should be addressed, no matter where they come from.

The guy who seems to be the loudest voice in this debate was, at one point, actively going around and telling trans people and plurals that their experiences are ‘delusional’, and they’re sick and need help to make them ‘normal’ (that is, singlets or members of their assigned gender). This person flat-out ungendered at least two trans people to their faces, and told many people that they didn’t exist.

Delusion? You have got to be joking. If someone recognises that a phenomenon is subjective, it’s not a delusion. If you’re saying ‘it’s in my head’, then how the hell is it a delusion if you’re able to point to it and recognise it as a subjective phenomenon that can’t be tested objectively, but has some reality to you, anyway? Delusional is saying ‘hello, my body is LITERALLY, PHYSICALLY, a fucking cabbage’, not ‘we perceive ourselves as being separate people because that’s how our brain fucking works’, or ‘my gender identity is male because that’s how my brain works’. Before you throw psychiatric terms around, you should at least know how to use them.

I’ll admit that both transgender identities and multiplicity are in the DSM-IV. However, the consensus amongst psychologists, psychiatrists and therapists is that the ‘treatment’ for GID isn’t reparative therapy to force trans people back into an ‘assigned gender’ role; it’s affirmation of those people’s identities. Even recent psychological literature doesn’t deliberately use incorrect pronouns and gender designations—the only people who do that are either totally ignorant of how gender identity works, or are blatant bigots, like this guy. Forcing people to present as a gender other than their own is generally unsuccessful and unhealthy for the person you’re trying to ungender. If you seriously think that reparative therapy is going to fix those poor, sick, deluded trans people, fuck you; you’re wrong, and you have no business even attempting to try and talk about how it’s a psychiatric problem when you don’t even understand the current protocol or Standards of Care for dealing with transgender identities. Not that the WPATH guidelines are spectacularly awesome; they currently are really not effective for nonbinary people, and are more difficult to implement in more conservative areas in which endocrinologists will be less likely to co-operate with trans people seeking hormone regimens, but they’re better than ‘shove those freaks back into the closet and treat them as their birth gender’, which is what these people are suggesting should happen. Again, reparative therapy DOES. NOT. WORK.

Where multiplicity’s concerned, it’s complicated; there are some therapists who still think that all multiplicity needs to be stamped out, and that everyone should integrate, but there’s an increasing number of therapists who think that it’s more effective for multiple groups to co-operate and work together, rather than forcing themselves to combine into a meta-host. The latter position is the one our therapist takes, herself, and it’s the position that many others take. Integration Evangelism is like reparative therapy, in a sense: it doesn’t work for everyone, and it isn’t ideal for everyone. Some systems do feel that integration is the appropriate path for them; others don’t. In our case, it would be, well, not a good idea, especially considering that we’re pretty discrete individuals, and each of us is a complete person, and it wouldn’t make any sense to smash us all together. Psychological care isn’t just about making people ‘be normal’; it’s about helping people to work with what they have. We were dealt a certain pack of cards with this brain, and we’re working with it. We’ve gone through about twenty years of this ‘must act normal’ bullshit; it’s over. Pretending to be normal gained us no friends; it gained us no self-respect; and it gained us little understanding of how our brain actually fucking works. Now, I’d say we’re pretty functional, and we have a lot of things going for us—but all of that came after we dropped this ridiculous idea of forcing ourselves to fit into people’s narrow little mould of what ‘normal’ is, and embracing ourselves for who you are.

It’s not a cut-and-dried situation of ‘the psych establishment needs to cure you’, especially when even the psych establishment itself is less hell-bent on ‘curing’ us ‘freaks’ as you are.

I’m pretty much convinced that people who talk like this are less concerned about getting anyone ‘help’ as much as they are completely unable to accept that people’s brains may work differently to theirs, and that it’s okay. Maybe it’s insecurity. Maybe it’s just plain meanspiritedness that they’ve picked up from being around communities in which you get brownie points for being a prat. Either way, it’s an unhealthy and divisive way to view and treat others. No matter what you believe, there is absolutely zero fucking excuse for people to go out of their way to harass people just because they happen to be different, especially if their difference causes them to experience marginalisation and discrimination in society.

Why am I wasting my time writing about these people? Well, it’s not directed straight at them; I’d rather not get into an internet flamewar over whether I ‘actually exist’ or not; it’s about the principle of the matter. I’m just one of those people who feels the need to say something when this kind of thing happens.

And for all the plural and trans people out there: you’re worth it. These jerks are out of touch with, well, everything. They don’t know you, or your situation, and it’s not their place to tell you what you should do.

[Noël] Do what you feel, just how you like, nobody has to know.

This may sound silly, but I would like to try unorthodox employment-finding strategies, and novel approaches. I know that the common wisdom is to conform, and not seem to “strange,” so that prospective employers will have an impression of you that fits a particular cultural mould of the “ideal worker.” We have, in the past, tried “traditional” employment searches, and none of them have been fruitful. Any paid work we have done has been by means of personal relationships, whether they are direct or within a few degrees of separation. It has been entirely impossible for us to find paid work where there was no pre-existing relationship. Some of these struggles are related to the ways in which we handle social interactions, as autistic people; others are related to a lack of passion for most work outside certain areas in which we have special interests. There are some things that present quite a bit of difficulty for us, like traditional interviews. We received input on an interview in the past, in which people were obviously nervous and struggled with maintaining NT-style eye-contact. (I have mentioned, in the past, that it is difficult. To paraphrase an old entry of Amanda Baggs’s, it is “EYEBALLS, EYEBALLS, EYEBALLS.”) I know that there are workplaces that are more tolerant of quirky behaviour; it is just trying to find them, and deliberately going after those who are interested in having people whose thought patterns are atypical join their teams. Many companies, nonprofits, and individuals are looking for people who conceptualise ideas in ways that are novel or surprising, although most standard job-search advice is not geared to them. It is quite left-brained and linear, and too generic to apply to everyone, everywhere.

That being said, we have no interest in joining excessively corporate-minded workplaces. This is a mixture of both “odd-brain”-related reasons, and ethical concerns. And no, this is not “special snowflake syndrome,” in which we are acting as though we are too good to be like “normal people”; this is an honest evaluation of our skills, abilities, and interests, based on actual, lived experience. I disclaim this, not because I believe that the majority of plures.org’s readership believes such nonsense, but because we have seen a rash of posts elsewhere that claim that all neuroatypical people who wish to see society modify its views of different brain structures to be afflicted with the fictitious “special snowflake syndrome.”

I have ideas. Talking to people, feeling about for needed skills, writing to people. Not adhering to standard, staid formats, but emphasising that which makes us stand out, rather than that which makes us blend in. I do not mean writing laundry-lists of neurological differences; I mean skills that would be an asset to a potential workplace. Intellectual curiosity, empathy, technical knowledge, cultural sensitivity, artistic skills. That they are hearing from people, people with passion and commitment, not robots.

As Kerry said earlier, in the semi-distant future, we are strongly thinking of doing neurodiversity consulting. I do not wish to divulge too many details in this forum, but it is an idea. Right now, though, we need to carve out a niche for ourselves, and stop either trying to appeal to people who would have difficulty understanding the way in which our brain worked, or completely giving up and feeling as though we will never find anything appropriate. I think that this is possible, although it will take effort and planning to find something suitable.

I have passion, drive, and a keen interest in doing things that interest and excite me. I do not want…stereotypes and The System™ (not my headmates, but “the system,” meaning society and its prejudices) to get in the way of my pursuing something that is worthwhile, and works well with the way in which this brain functions. This is not idle snobbery, or an attempt to be “lazy” by avoiding the sort of work that students “typically” do; it is a recognition that we are atypical, and should not force ourselves into a mould that is ill-fitting and has brought us no gain over the years.

Again, like the self-advocacy post, this is a…reminder of my own accountability. If it is there in public, and there for me to look at when I load up our blog, I will see it, and remember it, and try to keep my word to myself. I have done it before, and I will do it again.

[Kerry] ‘Glamourising’ Multiplicity/DID

(This is an expanded version of a post I made on Tumblr earlier today.)

Now, Plures.org is more focussed on daily life and positive self-advocacy than ranting; people generally reserve that for Tumblr and journalling sites, but this had to be crossposted, so.

I don’t think that nondisordered multiples are trying to glamourise DID. Most of them, actually, make the distinction between medical-model DID and the multiplicity that they experience, and recognise that those multiples who do deal with DID or trauma-based symptoms have an entirely different concept of how it is to be multiple/plural. And to be honest, we have experienced a lot of DID-like symptoms before we discovered healthy multiplicity, and how to co-operate as a group and function in life. Before, the left hand didn’t know what the right hand was doing, and there was zero communication. This doesn’t make us more or less legitimate than other nondisordered systems, or DID-based systems. This is just our experience, and you can take it or leave it.

The idea that multiple minds in one body is inherently ‘ill’ or ‘disordered’ is more of a Western cultural trope than it is a scientific reality. It’s similar to claiming that trans people are all sick because their body doesn’t match the way they conceptualise themselves. I’m a person; I’m not just a named emotion, and I’m definitely not just someone’s imaginary friend. I have my own unique responses to things and have my own ideas and so forth, but I’m a bit tired of defending my own personhood; I’m mostly wanting to deal with the idea that ‘all multiplicity is disordered!!!!1’—the idea that only ONE type of brain is valid is pretty fucking ableist itself. It’s like saying all autistics need to be cured and that all trans people need to be forced into therapy to act in a way associated with their assigned sex. The idea that there is, in fact, a ‘normal’ brain, and that everyone must be like that archetypical ‘normal’ is inherently ableist and privileged, and is culturally bound.

Yes, we have an easier go of it than systems that have more struggles when it comes to fronting and co-operation, but that co-operation took time, and I think that’s the case for a lot of groups, even ones who didn’t originate via trauma. Yeah, having zero communication for twenty years is totally fucking glamorous and special. I’m sorry, my mere existence doesn’t invalidate others’ suffering; I’m just here. I don’t exist for any particular purpose, and I’m incredibly fucking insulted that some people think that my existence, in and of itself, is enough to invalidate others’. This is similar to the stuff that the ‘Women Born Transsexual’ say about genderqueer and other nonbinary people: how dare we violate the confines of the gender binary when we are suffering from severe gender dysphoria? So much for diversity of opinion and identity, huh? If you’re not normal, you’re either sick, or really normal and just trying to get attention; there is no real room for being different and healthy.

That’s the true ableism here, not nondisordered multiplicity. The idea that only ONE kind of brain is acceptable, and that we should all think in a predefined way in order to be socially acceptable, is what leads to ableism towards people who are mentally different, whether those differences cause suffering or not. The fact that people feel that they can sit and dictate who exists and who doesn’t, and declaring everyone who doesn’t fit into their mould of ‘what plurality is supposed to be’ to either be in denial or making light of a ~*TERRIBLE ILLNESS*~ is pretty fucking problematic and exposes their own privileged mindset on how brains are supposed to work. Now, I don’t think it’s particularly fantastic for people to glamourise disordered forms of multiplicity, or stuff like cancer, but all multiplicity isn’t inherently ‘bad’. The fact that you want to declare someone else’s neural configuration either pathological or fake, regardless of how they experience themselves, is pretty revealing of your own bigotry and privilege, or at least your buying into the idea that there is only one right way to exist. I’m fairly allergic to One-True-Wayism, and this is what these people’s behaviour towards nondisordered multiples looks like.

We’re okay just as we are, thanks; we don’t need your ‘concern’, and we’re pretty fucking sure we exist. That’s not up for debate, and comments that try to engage us in debate over our existence will be, as the disclaimer reads on the ‘about’ page, either deleted or fisked.

Sorry for the snarkasm and swearing; it’s not the normal tone I use on plures.org articles,  but some of the complete and utter tripe that I’ve come across from supposedly well-meaning nonplurals and NTs has to be addressed.

[Noël] “Systemising,” Jacob Barnett, and Autistic Stereotyping

On Tumblr, a few people reblogged an article about a 12-year-old boy, Jacob Barnett, who is developing hypotheses to explain the origin of the universe, and adding to Einstein’s theory of relativity. In the Facebook comments section, someone remarked, “It might seem unbelievable, but there is a reason why people with autism and aspergers are so adept at mathematical sciences.” This person continued with this, saying that autistic people in general are more adept at “systemising,” or understanding mathematical, linear concepts.

As complimentary as this person wished to be to Barnett and others like him, Simon Baron-Cohen’s hypothesis that autism manifests itself as extreme “systemising” is actually inaccurate. Firstly, it feeds into essentialist notions about sex and gender, claiming that systemising is an example of an “extreme male brain.” Additionally, it fallaciously assumes that autistic people in general are adept at linear and mathematical thinking, and all take pride in categorising and quantifying. There are people on the autistic spectrum who actually do not fall under this rubric of “systemising,” including many people in this group. We are not particularly mathematically gifted, especially not where computation is concerned. We are not terrible at it—the majority of us can manage to tot up figures well enough—but it is not a particular skill that we have. We are certainly not the sorts of people who would be astrophysicists at the age of 25, much less 12. We certainly have scientifically-minded people, but they tend towards the biological sciences and social sciences, rather than pure mathematics and physics. Even our resident physicist runs up against our difficulties with computation and quantitation. We are largely nonlinear thinkers, which makes it difficult for people here to understand mathematics in the way that it is conventionally taught in schools.

Baron-Cohen reduces autistic brains into “types,” rather than understanding that people’s interests and aptitudes can vary. There is an assumption that all autistic people share the same skills: we are all supposed to be programmers, economists, mathematicians, and physicists, not social scientists, artists, writers of fiction, or poets. The people we know on the spectrum are not solely focussed on Baron-Cohen’s definition of “autistic interests”; they each have their own fascinations and predilections, reflective of the diversity of people in general, rather than adhering to a facilely constructed rubric of how autistic people “ought to be.” We do not all swiftly reckon numbers in our heads; we do not all find solace in squares, logarithms, and asymptotes, as beautiful as mathematics and its logic may be. There are other things that people gravitate to: words arranged on pages, the feel of cool clay as it is being moulded, the metamorphosis of caterpillars to pupae in chrysalides to butterflies.

There were also some problematic aspects to the article on Barnett itself: it seemed to place people considered “early bloomers” on a pedestal. (But then again, it was from the Daily Mail; what can you expect?) This is difficult to handle, because people who are determined to conceptualise certain ideas earlier than others are considered more valuable or “intelligent” than those who come to those ideas much later in life. This is not to say that Barnett’s accomplishments are not remarkable; rather, it is to say that the article’s tone seemed to handle these accomplishments in a way that struck me as rather problematic, especially considering the opprobrium that people considered to be “late bloomers” receive. In our case, we exemplified both “early bloomer” and “late bloomer” tendencies: we were incredibly early readers (we started at around 2.5), and understood abstract concepts about identity and personhood (people here recall wondering if they were “real” or in someone else’s imagination when the front-body was 3 or so), but struggled with gross- and fine motor skills, basic social interactions, and executive functioning. Development is not a hierarchical ladder of “better” and “worse”; it is variable. It is the “soup” that Kerry referred to previously.

I think that this article about Barnett exemplifies many of the problems that seem to exist when discussing autism and developmental differences (whether they are considered “beneficial” or “deficits”)—the oversimplification, the reduction of complex people into lists of traits, and the constant comparison between “normal” people and the rest of us. I, for one, am tired of seeing articles like this about every single neurodivergent person who does something newsworthy.

 

[kerry] change and closets

So, we just recently moved house, which is always stressful. While we have more physical privacy, we’ll be going from a plural-, autistic- and trans-friendly setup to one in which nobody knows about any of it. While we had to move, I don’t share Noël’s optimism about it 100%.

Especially since we tend to be quite conspicuously ‘different’ in private. And none of us was even under the delusion that we’d actually find something where we could disclose ANYTHING. Part of that is our own fear; part of that is us not wanting to be too demanding. We honestly don’t have the courage to disclose our headstuff except online. But I wonder how much longer we’ll be able to keep up the pretence. We have enough passing privilege to not have to disclose being trans. That’s not as much of a big deal as the autistic/plural stuff.

Maybe it’s just our weird reactions to change–a lot of autistics react to change in different ways to NTs–after big life changes, initial reactions tend to be negative for some of us, including me. We can be adaptable people but it takes tonnes of effort and work. We’ll adjust and not compromise ourselves too much; it’s just a matter of coming up with good solutions.

[Kerry] Good Brain, Bad Brain

There seems to be this deep-set misconception that brains can’t possibly be wired to have more than one person/conscious entity using them without there being an underlying problem, either with the way the system’s brain functions, or as a response to traumatic experiences.  Or if you’re autistic, you’re BROKEN and need to be CURED of the TERRIBLE DISEASE from which you SUFFER! The dichotomy is between ‘sick’ and ‘healthy’. I think that this is an incredibly oversimplified way to view identity and how it can form. Seriously, brains don’t all come in one way, and just because yours doesn’t work in a predefined ‘right’ way doesn’t mean that you can’t function, or don’t exist. If you’re not neurotypical, your brain is ‘bad’. You need a ‘cure’ for existing.

According to that paradigm, we’ll never be ‘healthy’, and never have been—after all, we’re autistic and plural. Clearly, we need to be ‘fixed’ because our brain is ‘broken’ and needs to be NT and nonplural in order to be real, valid people with the right to self-determination. There’s no way to rewire our brain to fit that mould, so people like us just get written off as having bad brains. We’re weird. We’re abnormal. We’re an unwanted deviation from what we’re ‘supposed’ to be, so it needs to be stamped out for our own fucking good, or something.

It’s difficult to engage with people who have these deep-set views of ‘good and bad’ brains, especially when it’s clear to them that your brain is ‘bad’. If they already think that the way you’re wired is wrong, they’re going to completely write off everything you say as being ‘crazy’, rather than being valid for its own reasons. Because of this, we generally don’t prefer to engage people directly about plurality, except in the context of our websites, which people can just come across themselves. I mean, what do I tell these people? ‘LOL, sorry I exist?’

This isn’t saying that mental disorders don’t exist; it’d be hypocritical. I’m not anti-psychiatry. We don’t consider the autism or plurality to be inherently disordered, but the panic stuff definitely is. This also isn’t saying that trauma-based systems don’t exist; we know several of them, and while their origins are different to ours, and while they feel that the psychiatric paradigm describes their experiences more accurately than it does ours, that doesn’t mean that their experiences are less valid or real than ours. I’m just questioning the idea that being differently wired, in and of itself, is bad.

And here we are back at privilege again. Because your brain is seen as generally being ‘okay’, you have the privilege of having your words listened to. You aren’t continually being written off. People don’t try and meddle in your lives to fix you, or to make sure that you’re absolutely capable of functioning in society. You know you aren’t going to get hit with a battery of tests year after year to prove that you’re able to manage stuff. You’re not poked and prodded. People don’t act as though they own you, your life and your experiences. Those things are a given for you, but they aren’t for those of us who are labelled or perceived as having bad brains.

Our brain isn’t ‘bad’. It isn’t ‘broken’. It is what it is, and our functionality is based on being the best people we can be, rather than shoving ourselves into an uncomfortable box or looking for an imaginary ‘cure’.

[Kerry] Stimulus Storage

(Title lifted from a product that’s apparently marketed at autistics.)

The title I discussed this in ‘Soups and Ladders’ a few days ago, and I’ve been thinking more about unbalanced ability profiles.

Sometimes it’s difficult to make sense of our environment. It’s not immediately obvious to most people, because we pass pretty well as neurotypical in most social situations, but it does happen, and it’s quite difficult. In a textfile conversation with Hess, he and I discussed the way our brain tends to tag certain items in our environment, and how limited that tagging system is. Some things tend to recede into the background—except when we’re deliberately paying attention to a landscape or something, the environmental items that will be guaranteed to be noticed are people, animals and electronics, or food if it’s prepared and in the open. Other items have to be specifically ‘tagged’ in our head as being important. This isn’t a conscious process, for the most part. Generally, the items that have mental tags outside that range of items that are automatically noticed are the stuff that we need every day, like our wallet (and its contents), coins with a denomination higher than 1¢, and items that other people have pointed out beforehand as being specifically important to them and not to be touched or messed about with.

We can see the other items with the same visual clarity as everything else; it’s a matter of the brain’s processing those items as being significant.

People don’t understand how this works, and are often incredulous when people here completely miss something that we’re apparently ‘expected’ to notice. Because we appear ‘high-functioning’ (really, functioning labels are bullshit), there are these expectations that go with that. ‘You’re so intelligent. How do you not know to pick up clothing from the floor?’  (Never mind the dubiousness of ‘intelligence’ as a monolithic concept, anyway…) ‘Why do you keep stepping on stuff?’ Abstract reasoning and the ability to handle physical aspects of our environment are two different things, people! They don’t come together, at least not in this brain. Just because we can remember some things really well doesn’t mean that we’re able to remember stuff in another domain.

This is what makes it incredibly difficult for us to work in a retail or food-service environment, actually—those jobs require more environmental awareness than we’re able to provide, not to mention the bombardment with customers’ requests and attempts at small talk, and the reliance on auditory instructions. For instance, if I (saying  ‘I’ here, because I’ve done the bulk of our paid work experience) were working at a coffeeshop, I’d have to use a lot of mental tags to identify everything that’s supposedly important, and after a while, it gets overwhelming, even if I succeed at it during the first few weeks. I start forgetting that the teabags are supposed to go in the top drawer, or won’t remember to pick up a discarded filter that’s fallen to the floor, or will forget some protocol that is apparently highly important but seems pointless, or will just completely unintentionally ignore a sticky spot. Or I’ll focus all the energy on the inanimate objects, and lose focus on the people I’m supposed to be helping. Each of these things wouldn’t be much of a problem on its own, but they add up and cause frustrations on the part of supervisors, co-workers and the management.

This is what’s happened in the past when working at these sorts of jobs: we never lasted that long at any of them because of our perceptual problems.  It’s only been over the past few years that we’ve been able to identify what they are, and be able to describe them with some degree of accuracy, rather than melting down when being confronted about it and going ‘I DON’T KNOW WHY! IT JUST HAPPENS!’, and not being believed. It also makes it fairly easy for us to empathise with the employees, because we imagine that they’re having a difficult go of it, too. I’m still a bit nervous about explaining it to people—well, outside the confines of ‘safe spaces’ like this blog—because I worry that most of them won’t believe me, and will think that I’m just ‘making excuses’. Noël’s a bit better with disclosing difficulties than I am; I have this tendency to think that I can just soldier through everything, no matter our limitations. I have to remind myself that pushing myself is good, but that I shouldn’t do it to the extent that I end up burning out.

This perceptual stuff is mostly related to inanimate objects—a lot of seemingly ‘abstract’ stuff gets tagged fairly easily, though: remembering the complexities of others’ gender identities, discussing human rights issues within different communities, remembering which language should be avoided because it contributes to the oppression of others. Remembering the grammatical structures of other languages, the euphemism treadmill, concepts of selfhood, rules on comma usage by country and language (well, this is mostly me, but). Our ability to handle abstract concepts is quite unrelated to how we handle concrete information. People sometimes don’t get this, though, and think that because our cognitions handle this kind of information well, we should understand ‘basic’, ‘common’-sense skills, too. Yes, it’s more difficult for me to remember to not cook at high heat all the time than it is to remember how to make a Japanese adjective negative and past-tense. I’ll forget to do the laundry (because the clothes lying on the floor get parsed as ‘neutral items’, not anything to be dealt with until there is absolutely nothing clean to wear), but I’ll remember to write a paper. I just wish people wouldn’t conflate these types of skills.

[Kerry] Soups and ladders

So many conceptualisations of human behaviour and traits seem to be based on hierarchies. I really don’t think that people and their brains are as hierarchical as some people claim they are.

I recently read a blog entry by Kaninchen Zero at FWD/Forward on ‘intelligence’, and how it’s an ableist concept. I do think that there are differences in the ways in which brains process information, but arranging people as ‘normal’, ‘intelligent’ and ‘stupid’ often becomes a value judgement. People judged as ‘stupid’ are inherently worth less than those considered ‘intelligent’, and therefore deserve a lower quality of life, which I simply can’t stomach. When I was younger, I had a lot of ableist ideas about people with intellectual disabilities, which I’m quite embarrassed about now. For instance, like many members of the general public, I thought it was acceptable for parents to abort foetuses that might have profound intellectual disabilities or Down Syndrome. Fortunately, I was thoroughly schooled by other people, and I’ve learnt to check my own privilege in situations like this.

I don’t think that it’s necessarily constructive to force people into social hierarchies based on their perceived intellectual functioning. There’s a lot of privilege associated with being considered ‘intelligent’ in society: people listen to your ideas with actual interest; they don’t automatically switch their brains off when you try to tell them how you feel; and you’re less likely to be met with condescension and ridicule by people in power.

There are a lot of ableist expectations associated with it, as we’ve experienced, and as other people have mentioned in the comments to Kaninchen’s post. You’re expected to be able to have a command of basic life skills, to live a certain lifestyle and to be able to communicate in a way that’s understandable to other people. We were guilted for ‘being intelligent, but not applying ourselves’, and people were confused that we could grasp foreign languages and had a large vocabulary, but struggled with a lot of basic living tasks. We struggle with maths, and feel guilty about it because it’s considered more ‘intelligent’ to be mathematically gifted. ‘Intelligence’ can be used as a bludgeon against those who are neurodivergent, but are able to do well on IQ tests and academic ‘achievement’ tests (eg the SAT, A-Levels, Baccalauréat, Abitur).

I don’t feel that human beings’ abilities can be organised into such linear, clearly defined hierarchies. There’s no ‘ladder of human value’. Rather, I conceptualise these sorts of things as being a bit more soup-like: nonlinear, with traits that coexist with each other without being neatly organised into profiles of ‘normal’, ‘stupid’ or ‘intelligent’ people. It’s fluid. It’s disorganised. There are people who are brilliant at totting up figures and writing symphonies, but struggle with spelling. People who win spelling bees and write polished essays, but have problems planning their budgets. People can name the stars and paint the sky from memory and make pies and build relationships and do the washing-up—and all those things, and more, have meaning. The fact that they exist, in and of itself, has meaning. Our humanity, our existence, our lives: that’s what gives us value. Functionality isn’t a ‘package deal’. There’s no ladder of value; there’s no Great Chain of Being. Just us mixed-up, complicated people.

With hierarchical views of intelligence and human value, where do you draw the line? When do people become ‘unworthy of living’? That’s not a decision I feel free to make. Who am I, someone with ‘intelligent’ privilege, to decide whose lives are worthy of being maintained, when I know I’ll be spared on those grounds? For me to decide that is simply unjust—do I know what’s going on in their heads? Can I determine, objectively, whether another person ‘deserves to live’ or not, especially when they’re already socially oppressed because they have difficulty with a particular set of skills that’s associated with ‘intelligence’? What if I turned it around, on people with brains like ours in which we’re considered ‘intelligent’, but struggle with daily living tasks like cooking and cleaning? Should we have been aborted or euthanised because we, too, lack skills that are seen as vital? Obviously not, and neither should these people. Again, there is no ‘hierarchy of human value’, and we need to abandon the illusion that there is.

This is tangentially related to mental hierarchies, but I can’t relate to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. As much as I like his positive, humanistic mindset towards human cognition and needs, as opposed to Freudian/psychoanalytic obsessions with sex and negative experiences during childhood, I feel as though my perception of needs doesn’t fall in that neat hierarchical structure that he constructed. For instance, worries about self-actualisation or belonging may occur when there are threats to the more immediate physiological needs. For instance, we get very little sleep these days, but the need for belonging, affirmation and self-actualisation is parsed in my head as ‘just as important’. In more dangerous situations, there was still the desire to have our identities affirmed—this is more related to the trans issues than plurality, at least in this case—and to feel as though I belonged with other people. It’s sort of a soup of needs rather than a linear hierarchy.

[Noël] Thoughts on psychology, philosophy, and language.

We have been working on a pair of final papers. Fortunately, one is entirely finished, and the other is nearly so. The English one was actually easier, in some ways, to work on, than the psychology one. For some reason, it is easier for many of us—me, in particular—to write about subjects relating to gender, identity, and sexuality from a philosophical or cultural level, rather than using the language of psychology.

The problem I have with psychology is that much of its discussion, with the exception of abnormal psychology, seems quite limited to “typical” people’s profiles; those who vary are mentioned either within the context of “abnormal” psychology, in brief footnotes, or not at all. I also feel uncomfortable with the application of empiricism towards all human behaviour: some things, I feel, are best left to philosophy. Although philosophy, at least as a Western discipline, has its own problems: there are philosophers like Judith Butler, Jacques Derrida, and Theodor Adorno who use jargon-laden, impenetrable prose. Postmodernists are particularly bad at this. Their ideas, when distilled by people with better “writer-hacking” techniques than I, are often interesting, but the prose itself is nightmarishly difficult.

I feel bad for admitting this, though, because it may make me seem less “intellectual,” but it is less a matter of intelligence as much as it is the ability to discern ideas from mountains and mountains of unclear, deliberately obscure writing.  I do not think that the use of abstract concepts in and of itself is confusing; it is the way in which they are expressed by people like this. I feel as though it has gone from ideas, to a series of “widgets,” as Amanda Baggs described it so lucidly in a past entry of hers.

I feel that this writing is ungrounded. Not “groundless” in the sense that the ideas are bankrupt, but that the ideas are unconnected and seem to reference other “widgets.” It feels wholly verbal, without the visual conceptual framework that I tend to use to understand things. I am good at writing certain things, but as I said in my previous entry, it is not the verbally driven process that it seems to be on the surface. I understand abstract concepts, but I prefer them to have “grounding.” Visual metaphors. Actions associated with the concepts. Not words, words, and still more words to explain other words, with absolutely no image to be associated with any of them.

 

[Hess] The permanence of memory.

So, in a comment to this post on Ballastexistenz, Anne of Existence is Wonderful discusses how she needed to search high and low for artefacts from younger years to confirm that her memory of the past ‘was real’. Before reading that, I didn’t know that anyone else did that, too, and that it was just a ‘Plures-thing’, trying to search through old documents to see how we were back then.

It’s something I miss, a lot, because…we don’t have our childhood or teenage writings until we hit 17, which is when we started leaving a traceable internet presence. After that point, we can just pull up old forum posts and Livejournal entries to reconstruct the past and confirm that things were what we remember them to be.

When we ran away from the Donors’ house a few years ago, we foolishly left ALL of our old crap there. In order to get that stuff back (if it hasn’t been thrown away, that is), we’re going to have to get in touch with them, which is very much Do Not Want, considering how hostile they were to our coming out as trans to them, and when they hear stuff like our changed voice, they’re going to freak out. They think this is all about the devil, and it’s hard to explain stuff to them when they’re so set in their damn ways.

That’s our history, damn it, and I want it back.

Nonlinear thoughts, writing, and “latency.”

[by Noël]

Nonlinear thinking affects the way in which I write. Also, the process of translating conceptual, vaguely verbal ideas into coherent written structures works, at least for me. In some ways, this applies to everyone; in others, it does not. Some people tend to be able to convert the ideas more quickly than others; for others, the translation time is quite slow, and there can sometimes be a significant “latency period.”

When I have something to write, I start off with concepts that are connected in my mind, like “selfhood,” “plurality,” and “gender identity.” (I use these examples, because that is the content of the paper I am working on, at least in a broader sense.) It is a whole being filled in with its parts: general to specific. The concepts are there; it is a matter of translation, reinterpretation, and conversion to change “Noëlese” to coherent, readable thoughts to share with others. The thoughts exist in cognitive groupings that make sense to me, and can be organised into an essay, but they would be more difficult to follow for someone other than me (or some of my headmates) unless I reorganise them. For instance, the paper that Kerry and I are writing has already been “finished,” conceptually, in our head, but there has been a significant amount of “latency” involved.

When actually writing, I often write these concepts in an order that reflects the way I see them, rather than writing the article, essay, or entry in sequential order. For instance, I will write a few sentences or paragraphs about one person’s experiences, and then I will move further up in the document to write about the universal experience which relates to the person about whom I am talking. Even journal entries, at least longer ones, are written this way. For instance, this entry is like that: I was also writing the paper, and I thought about how nonlinear thought processes affect the way in which I write them; I conceptualised how these processes work; and I settled down to write this, writing pieces out of order, and organised them as I continued.

For works that are written in a nonplural context, there is also the mental process of modifying certain forms of personal expression, which increases the level of latency that I experience. “Personal” writing is by far the worst: the multithreaded experiences of a “we” become a singular, fictionalised “I,” and I find myself writing about things I never experienced. It is a matter of dancing about topics, barely skimming the surface. It is easiest to write papers in which “I” do not come into it, because I can use my own authorial voice without much modification. (Really, the only changes I make are using American spellings rather than British ones; my natural writing voice is suited for writing formally, I think.)

Sequencing comes later, near the end of the project: it consists of connecting the paragraphs with joining sentences and paragraphs to improve flow, and reordering things to be in a logical order that readers will see as more understandable than the original one in which the text was set. Sometimes I reorder sentences, but this is generally at the paragraph level, rather than words, phrases, and sentences. It is quite difficult to write a paper in the standard “beginning, middle, and end” fashion: that is just not the way I conceptualise ideas. Because of that, I strongly dislike in-class, handwritten essays, because it practically forces that writing style. In those cases, those of us who are writing tend to conceptualise what we are supposed to write beforehand. Using a computer to write has been a boon: with word processors, you can write out of order without having to plan out spacing on a written sheet of paper.

Because of the nonsequential fashion in which I write, it is impossible to produce a traditional paper outline as a preliminary step when writing papers for classes. Rather, I start on the actual writing well before the deadline, and produce the outline to satisfy the grade requirements. So far, this system seems to be working for Kerry and me when we are working on papers. (More than working, actually: we consistently earn high grades on our essays.)

Even though this is decidedly a nonlinear process, it is still fundamentally bottom-up: concepts are written out in portions, and are joined up later, even though they are tied by a holistic concept that exists in the brain, and not on paper.

Kerry’s process is similar to mine, although she has a shorter “latency” period than mine. Hess’s is longer than either of ours, and he avoids writing papers and other things for this reason.