[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] Communication Differences

(Sorry we’ve been scarce on this blog lately; there’s been a lot going on in our offline life that’s prevented us really having the spoons to update any blogs, whether that refers to this one, our Tumblr, or our locked Dreamwidth blogs.) 

Anyway, I’ve been thinking about social interactions with people, both on and off the spectrum, and how we, as a system, process these interactions. For the purposes of this post, I’ll just say ‘non-autistic’ to refer to people not on the spectrum, rather than ‘neurotypical’, since there are people who aren’t autistic, but don’t consider themselves neurotypical (eg, people with ADD, bipolar, OCD, etc). 

While we definitely do have non-autistic friends that we really enjoy being around, it’s still harder to interact with them in person than it is with autistic people. It doesn’t matter how close they are to us, or how much we trust them. They feel a bit ‘opaque’, even if they’re clearly interested in spending time with us and enjoy our company. You’re never quite sure what they’re thinking. We’re better at picking up basic emotions in people (usually, telling the difference between a negative emotion and a positive one) than we used to be when we were younger, but there’s still this veil that’s up that we find hard to see past, no matter how much we learn social skills. It’s still a matter of intellectually realising what people want, rather than moving based on intuition. 

Autistic people, wherever they fall on the spectrum, are much easier for us to read intuitively, and it’s easier to pick up that they’re upset. It’s not just an intellectual interpretation of their emotions, unlike what occurs with most people who aren’t somewhere on the spectrum. I’m not saying we can understand ALL autistic people’s emotions immediately or with accuracy, just that it’s easier by far. They’re also easier for us to open up to; they’re more likely to get more candour earlier in the relationship than others. When befriending non-autistic people, it generally takes us longer to come to trust and feel comfortable with them. 

I think that the social-skills deficit that autistic people have is basically a difficulty interacting with people not on the spectrum, while interacting with autistic people involves more intuition, since they have more expected patterns of social behaviour (for them, anyway). 

Online, it feels as if that’s levelled a bit, and it’s easier to read people off the spectrum, with the same level of readability applying to people on it. We have misinterpreted some things that other people on the spectrum said online, and it’s actually more likely for us to misread autistics online than it is in person – the likelihood matches what would happen with members of the general public – because a lot of the social distinctions that are more apparent offline aren’t as much online. There is an area where such things are a bit less level, though: we’re still likely to be more candid with other autistic people than we are people who aren’t. 

[Kerry] About writing, and direction, and labels, and other sorts of things.

So, we’ve got a paper due this week. The introduction’s in place, but the rest of it isn’t. 

I don’t think we’re quite at the point where we need an extension, but we’ve had a harder time writing stuff that isn’t just personal reflection or writing about our own lives. It’s not necessarily an ‘expression’ problem right now, as talking to people and writing journal entries is going just fine. But writing papers? It’s a lot harder right now. It’s one of those periods when it’s easier to identify what’s going on within, but it’s harder to describe things that are outside us, and consist of lots of labels and terminology and ‘widgets’ and loads of things that are just layers and layers that obscure the people and events underneath them. That kind of thinking isn’t very easy right now. There are times when it’s not so hard to think about these things, these terms and labels and abstract concepts that are so far divorced from the concrete realities that people actually live, but right now, it’s very hard. 

And then that leads me to the silly stereotype that people who sometimes have problems with this sort of thinking are ‘less intelligent’ or ‘less thoughtful’. That’s not really the truth as there are different sorts of ‘intelligence’ and there are times when someone can understand these concepts, just not with the sort of expected language that people expect you to use flawlessly. (Hello Social Theory.) I often feel as though there are bits and gaps missing when working with such language, as it’s easy to understand the underlying concepts, but making some of the words join up with the ideas they’re trying to express doesn’t always work, and it’s embarrassing when you’re trying to explain your opinion on something and the language doesn’t sync up properly. It’s got us in a bit of trouble on an exam once, even though we understood what was being talked about, but a lot of times, the words were not there even though the ideas were. 

These are the times when I wish I could just telepathically transmit my intent and have it automatically translated into words instead of muddling about trying to tease things out and getting a bit scrambled. 

[James] “Passing,” Early Diagnosis, and Identity

There’s never been a period where we didn’t know specifically what our neurotype was. We were certainly aware of it at the age of four or five, at the very least, and we definitely referred to it by the time we were six. As we’ve written on our “about” page, we’ve had some form of autism-spectrum diagnosis since very early childhood, and we’ve always been aware of it, regardless of the name applied to it (PDD-NOS, Asperger’s, autism, etc). 

Admittedly, there was a phase when we had doubted whether we were autistic or not, when we were in our late teens, but I think that was a combination of frustration with some of the infantilization we encountered from biological family members and teachers, and some of the noxious stereotypes we’d seen of autistic people. (In fact, when we did come across someone who we knew to be on the spectrum, we deliberately distanced ourselves from them, because we saw some of our younger behavior in them and found it embarrassing.) We hadn’t known too many people on the spectrum at that time, either, whether it was online or off. Another factor in our distancing ourselves may have been our exposure to early social interventions, so we had had some autism-specific social training that people who were diagnosed later on didn’t have. When we started joining Asperger’s/autism forums online, the majority of people we’d met had diagnoses in adulthood or were self-diagnosed. They may have been aware of their social differences, and may have had some things pointed out, but they probably didn’t have treatment that was specifically intended to modify the behavior of autistic people. 

Because we were subject to early intervention, we had a lot of social-skills training, including roleplaying social situations, speech therapy (we didn’t have any specific speech impediments, but it was more a matter of what we were saying, rather than issues with pronunciation or grammar), worksheets about social interactions, observational learning, and other techniques designed to teach us how to communicate with non-autistic people without seeming so conspicuous. Also, one of our system members was incredibly interested in acting, which allowed us to pick up some other social scripts. We’ve also learned a lot of social interaction over the Internet, especially after our late teens. We can come across as eccentric, but it’s not as blatant as it has been in the past. Those of us who are working on our degree are specifically interested in studying people, too—which is why we’re social scientists.

In public, we generally “pass,” unless we’re under extreme stress. It takes some effort on our part, admittedly, but it’s very much programmed into us. Because we do “pass,” people will sometimes get exasperated with us when one of our limitations does come up—for instance, our struggles with self-care, or the occasional social gaffes, or our sensory issues, or being provoked into a meltdown. They’re not sure what happened, because we’ve absorbed the social scripts well enough that it’s not immediately obvious that we’re autistic. I often wonder whether people who were diagnosed later in life tend to “pass” less than people who were identified as autistic, or at the very least neurodivergent, in early childhood. This isn’t a defense of ABA or other forms of early intervention that devalue autistic existence as much as it is an academic question. 

In my opinion, our ability to “pass” is both a good and bad thing. It makes it easier for us to move throughout the world without immediate judgement from NTs, but at the same time, it sometimes masks many of the actual difficulties we go through, regardless of our ability to superficially handle social situations in a way that could pass for non-autistic. 

[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] Words Words Words, and the Attention Tunnel

This is not a very wordy weekend. At least not for written words outside a particular range of subjects. I think we’ve exhausted a lot of our social battery this week—classes have just resumed, and there have been a lot of people at our house lately—and that exhaustion sometimes comes with a drop in the ability to deal with writing that’s outside needing to communicate personal stuff or that’s outside our ‘special interest zone’. (For instance, Richard and I have half-finished a short paper for an elective class, and have slowly been going through the readings, but I was  able to prattle on to a friend about Romance linguistic features and read lots of blogs and sections of foreign-language books.) It’s the autistic ‘attention tunnel’, and anything that’s outside that tunnel isn’t going to be noticed as much. If we’re going to produce words, they’d better be directed at something that’s in sight of the tunnel. It’s not selfishness or obstinance; it’s realising that this is the way our cognition is right now, and we’ll be able to focus on what we need to do when we’re able to. But right now, we need to process and be able to spend time inside our cosy ATTENTION TUNNEL OF LOVE AND WARMTH. And right now that means listening to songs on repeat, writing about ourselves and our own interests and only talking to the people in our house and our friends online (and having breaks from those conversations). 

People have sometimes assumed that we seem to have an inexhaustible supply of words. That’s…really not true, at least not for us as a whole. Hess and Darwin struggle with writing long-form essays with frequency, even though they’re quite talkative in conversation before they run up against our collective burnout. James’ skills vary. (I think another reason why people think that we burn out verbally less than we actually do is that we compensate by switching. If someone wears out, someone else can come in and start talking so they can carry the conversation.) I tend to lose my verbal skills less quickly than some other people here do, and Richard is similar, but even we run out of juice sometimes, especially when we’ve hit a particular limit. Just because we’re good at writing, though, doesn’t mean that our ability to write is a ‘renewable resource’. Sometimes it runs out. Sometimes we’ll sit there for a week trying to work on a project that is inherently highly verbal, and the words just won’t come. The concept’s there, fully formed in its visual and conceptual glory, but translating it into words? It’s sometimes like swimming through treacle. Not exactly the easiest thing around, you know. 

[Kerry] Book Review: ‘Got Parts?’

We’ve been reading Got Parts?, which is a guide written for trauma-based DID/MPD systems to learn how to manage their lives while dealing with the fact that they are plural and must recover from trauma. It’s written by a DID system who’s credited as ‘ATW’, based on their own experiences as a DID system that needed to develop a better operating system in order to go through life in a healthier way. It uses language like ‘parts’ and ‘alters’, which we personally avoid in favour of ‘people’ and ‘system members’, but it’s written from the medical-model perspective, so this usage is fairly standard. 

A heartening thing about the book is that ATW define ‘re-integration’ as co-operation between system members, rather than trying to combine everyone into a ‘single personality’, which is something I appreciate. While some trauma-based systems do benefit from integration in the ‘combine everybody’ sense, most systems don’t actually integrate, and setting up a mutualistic system is a more realistic goal to work towards. (I have expressed my personal opposition to ‘integration evangelism’ in the past, and won’t belabour the point here.) 

This book is intensely practical, which is something I appreciate. It’s not focussed on the therapeutic process as much as it is working on basic life skills and system co-operation. The book begins with chapters on getting to know one another and establishing relationships with system members through visually mapping out the system; having system members write about themselves, their individual histories and their skills; how to present to therapists; and creating an environment of mutual respect. The author& also suggest that systems hold daily house meetings in order to discuss and delegate tasks; that they use planners to organise daily-life tasks; and that they find ways to co-operate to work towards the common goal of a fuller, more co-operative life, rather than constantly working at cross purposes. While our own system has developed better co-operation techniques over the years, some of the advice would still work quite well for us, such as holding more frequent meetings and using day planners to delegate tasks and organise our lives. 

I have a few quibbles, but they’re relatively minor: in a preface written by the Sidran Institute, the authors write that ‘parts’ and ‘alters’ are manifestations of the same person, rather than being individual people themselves. Our views on personhood are based on self-perception and identity, so we don’t necessarily agree with this for our own system. There are systems that do see themselves as being facets of a central identity; however, none of us feels comfortable using that model for ourselves. Also, there’s a section about sexuality that describes BDSM as being unhealthy, which I disagree with — kink can be responsibly done, in my opinion. 

(For the record: we ourselves aren’t fully sure of our origins. We have gone through trauma—primarily emotional and psychological abuse—but there’s no way to go back and pinpoint exactly what happened to make us plural. If we separated because we were traumatised, that doesn’t invalidate our identities, in my opinion; origins may explain how we go about some things, but origins are not destiny.)

[Kerry] Being a Douche Isn’t ‘Social Justice’.

[Content warning: Violence, death threats, internet douchebaggery] 

I’ve talked about this before, and I’ll talk about it again. 

Being a fucking jerk online does not constitute ‘social justice’. 

Posting pictures of dead Pakistanis who were inadvertently hit during a drone strike in order to frighten people from voting for Obama is not social justice. It’s bullying. It’s using a shock image in order to anger people into voting for a third-party candidate—usually Stein, but I think some Johnson and Anderson supporters were involved too—who would never defeat Obama or Romney. I am not saying that the drone programme is right; in fact, I think it’s reprehensible and wish the US, UK and Pakistani governments would stop it. I am, however, saying that bullying people by posting gruesome images with no warnings in order to prevent people voting for Obama is a douchey thing to do. Especially when the only viable alternative was Romney, who showed no interest in dialling down warfare in the Middle East, and coupled his aggressive foreign policy with a regressive domestic policy that would have been much worse than anything that would happen under a second Obama administration.

Sending death threats and posting the home address of a woman (Laci Green) who said things she no longer agrees with on her popular YouTube series about sex education and health is not promoting social justice. It’s harassing someone whose words you find offensive. There are loads of people whose attitudes I find offensive, but I don’t use my blog to tell people to stalk conservative bloggers. I may disagree with these conservatives, and address their arguments, but I would never tell them to kill themselves because they wrote something I find awful. (If that were the case, I’d be telling a lot of people to kill themselves—but I’ve never done that.)

Telling people with whom you may have policy disagreements that they are terrible feminists and the worst people on the planet is not social justice. It’s being a fucking arsehole. Talking about how ‘cis scum’ should die isn’t social justice. It’s being a douche. I know facetious ‘shock’ language like ‘kill all the white men’ has been used in performance media like punk rock, as a friend of mine pointed out to me a while ago, but ‘die cis scum’ is used with seeming earnestness amongst the Tumblr/social-justice blogger lot. I can’t tell you how you should feel or respond, but I personally feel uncomfortable with addressing all instances of inadvertently transphobic comments with ‘die cis scum’. Yes, there are some people who are legitimately bigoted douchefucks, and yes, they should be called out (preferably not with death threats, but with arguments that address their noxious ideas), but there are a lot of people who are simply flat-out ignorant about transgender identity, and these people are qualitatively different to those who think that people shouldn’t have any recognition of a non-designated-at-birth gender. Ignorant people should be directed to good educational resources by those who have the energy and desire to do it.

I know it takes a lot of energy to deal with these misconceptions, and I don’t think anyone is obliged to deal with them directly, but there’s still a difference between ‘I don’t feel comfortable talking about this’ and directing an ignorant commenter to better resources and telling them they should fucking die. There are some really awful people out there, like Cathy ‘Bug’ Brennan, who have made a career out of invalidating and harassing trans people online, but I would still not make death threats or post their addresses; I would warn others about them and try and refute their arguments. 

Death threats are not all right. Calling people names is not all right. Trying to make the world a more equitable place does not necessitate being a fucking bully

I’m not even against calling people out for being racist, sexist, homophobic, transphobic or otherwise offensive. I am, however, tired of the semantic word games and bullying. All it does is serve to alienate people and make it harder to actually promote the equity we so desire. 

And the sad thing is that people revel in this behaviour. As Flavia Dzodan says in her article for Tiger Beatdown, it’s a piece of performance art. Reality TV. People try and one-up each other as being More Devout, calling out more and more people, regardless of the severity of the incident, or whether they’ve recanted or not. Ariel Meadow Stallings, of the Offbeat Empire blog network, notes similar problems. Calling people out doesn’t have to always involve name-’em-and-shame-’em public performance, especially if the mistake happened because of sheer ignorance, or was already apologised for sincerely. Now, there is definitely a place for public callouts: rape apologists, politicians, pundits and columnists who unapologetically make awful remarks or pass discriminatory laws, sexual abusers and scam artists should be warned about in public, in order to protect people. For instance, Dan Savage, the Russian government, Todd Akin, Martin Ssempa, Richard Mourdock. But going after a sixteen-year-old who said something inadvertently on Tumblr with death threats or shock images is not the same thing. That’s not promoting justice. That’s being a bully. It’s creating a toxic environment where legitimate ‘teachable moments’ can’t happen. (And when you mention that this behaviour maaaay not be the best way to go about things, you’ll get shouted down about ‘tone arguments’. Sorry, noting that BULLYING is not how you promote justice is not a tone argument.) 

I am so fucking sick of this. Of seeing a concept associated with making things better for as many people as possible turning into a carnival of theatrical hatred and bullying. 

[Kerry] Really, now? Diversity, Stereotype Threat and Conservative Head-in-Sand Syndrome

About a month ago, the conservative designer and blogger Andy Rutledge wrote an article called ‘Design’s Cult of Diversity‘, which was in response to an article written by Sarah Wachter-Boettcher, ‘Universal Design IRL‘, in A List Apart. I’ll gladly recommend Wachter-Boettcher’s insightful article, but Rutledge…eh. While I’ll give Rutledge credit for laying his argument out well—both visually and rhetorically—I do think that he’s completely wrong about diversity, affirmative action and the effects that stereotyping and prejudice have on the workplace, whether that refers to design or anything else. 

In his article, Rutledge argues that making attempts to reach others based on their cultural background or gender is inherently racist and sexist, because it’s based on characteristics other than a person’s indiviual merits. He’s using the assumption that people are judged on merit, without any attention to race, gender, belief or other personal characteristic unrelated to someone’s skills. Unfortunately, that’s plainly not true. This is a conservative fantasy that prevents them taking responsibility for social inequities, whether it’s because they contribute to them (like Rick Santorum or Mitt Romney), or simply ignore them and stick their heads in the sand (David Cameron). If white men are consistently getting top jobs, it’s not because there are structural inequalities in place; it’s because they’re just better at the job! There couldn’t be any other explanation for why certain professions are demographically unbalanced. And conferences dominated by white men? Well, they’re the only ones who wanted to do it! Nevermind the reasons why women may turn you down.  Things are a lot more complex, and I feel as though those gradations of experience aren’t being noted when people make claims like Rutledge is making. 

The research doesn’t bear it out, nor do the experiences of women, people of colour and others who are not Andy Rutledge, a conservative white man who would not be disadvantaged by the faux-meritocracy he espouses. (Notice that it’s nearly always white people who make these claims?) As I’ve mentioned before in previous entries, stereotyping does lead to diminished performance, which ultimately handicaps people’s success in professional life. People who are subject to these stereotypes start from behind, and ignoring the fact that some people do, in fact, start from behind, is a recipe for simply continuing the status quo. People who live in a society that demeans their talent, intelligence and worth are not going to have the same advantages as those who grow up in a society that affirms their worth and ability, and people who shriek about affirmative action don’t get that. 

I think that people are inherently equal, but they aren’t being treated equally, and it’s ridiculous to act as though they are, when there’s plenty of evidence that we don’t live in a postracial egalitarian utopia. Not when racist incidents are increasing in the United States, Britain and Greece. Not when Romney can go on about ‘binders full of women’ (which he lied about anyway). Not when people of colour—not all of them, but a disproportionate number in comparison to whites—are at falling-apart schools and are malnourished in their inner-city households. Conservatives who bray about the horrors of affirmative action and recognising the existence of structural inequality are ignoring scientific research and the lived experiences of everyday people. This isn’t just about Andy Rutledge and his conservative Republican talking points in his corner of the internet; it’s about the imbalances that those of us who experience cultural oppression experience every single day. 

[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.

[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.)


[Noël] About “Google Minus.”

I have seen many people discuss their concerns with Google+ (which Kerry calls “Google Minus”), and I share those concerns.

The most troubling policy that Google+ has is its “real” (presumably legal) names policy. Other people have mentioned its significance to transgender people whose names may or may not correspond with their identification, and still others have mentioned the significance of pseudonyms and handles to many long-time Internet users whose online presences are better defined by those handles than they would be by the names that appear on their driving licences, birth certificates, or passports. There are many people who prefer not to go by their legal or given names (they are not always the same thing—there is a distinction with us, for instance), and they should not be penalised for it. I believe that the insistence on Very Real Names is cultural: Westerners have the idea that people’s names are largely fixed throughout life, and cannot be changed according to things that affect them over their lives; and it is also emblematic of Silicon Valley culture, in which entrepreneurs and SEO experts use social networking services like Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn to personally “brand” themselves. For them, social networking is an extension of “branding,” and the expectation is that users of social networking sites will also wish to engage in such personal branding, even though the sites’ ostensible purpose is to connect others to friends, colleagues, and family. For those of us who are not part of that culture, social networking sites can be quite restrictive for those of us who prefer different forms of online socialisation. For my part, I am fonder of social blogging platforms like Dreamwidth and Livejournal, because of the emphasis on intentional community and less on “branding.”

How does this affect me? As a member of a plural system, I would technically not be allowed to sign up as “Noël Dawkins,” even though I prefer to use my own name online, rather than presenting as the “front identity.” I would probably not be banned, as my name looks like a name, rather than an actual pseudonym, but it would technically be against their strict community guidelines. I suppose that I could simply sign up under the front identity (disclosure: we have already done so), but there is a difference between social networking under that guise, and social networking as myself. One is a social interface layer; the other is me, even if it is processed through a social networking site, which necessarily restricts the quality of social interaction in which I am allowed to engage. It is difficult to explain in clear language, but there is a cognitive difference between “presenting as singlet” and “presenting as a discrete individual,” even in contexts in which I am, say, writing status updates. It is one thing to filter yourself through someone else’s identity; another to present as yourself. It is a bit hard, as well, to “brand” someone who, in the philosophical sense, does not exist, except as a role that you play. (Yes, I am aware that one can brand fictional characters quite effectively, but I am not speaking of fictional characters, but superficial roles.)

The only significant advantage, apart from the ability to filter information to selected groups of contacts, that Google+ has over Facebook is that it allows members to choose a gender other than “male” or “female,” which Facebook has steadfastly refused to accommodate even after multiple requests to do so. Its nonbinary identity is labelled as “other,” which is not optimal, but it is better than what is there, and is equivalent to Dreamwidth’s gender offerings. It is, as far as I know, the first major social networking site that offers a nonbinary option. The only other site I can think of that does this is Flickr, but its purpose is specifically for sharing photos, art, and video, rather than social networking for its own sake.

[Kerry] Nonviolent Communication

Sorry we haven’t updated this blog as frequently as we would have liked. We’re going through a rather difficult time emotionally, so it’s a bit difficult for everyone to gather together the spoons to write properly.

Over the past year or so, I’ve become fond of the Nonviolent Communication process. I can’t say that I always stick to it, but I do try and use it as a framework when talking to—or talking about—other people. I don’t think that it’s 100% foolproof, but in my case, it works for me, and helps me to rein in some of my tendencies to form misconceptions about other people’s behaviour.

Basically, Nonviolent Communication (NVC) is a process that helps people to connect to each other by dealing with the underlying needs and emotions behind someone’s words or communication, regardless of how they’re addressing you, and empathising with those needs to promote mutual understanding. Marshall Rosenberg, the developer of NVC, talks about it in detail in his book Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life. NVC discourages evaluating, labelling and judging behaviour, and encourages focussing on the needs of the person who happens to be exhibiting that behaviour. It’s focussed on your own reactions and the ability to empathise with the other person, rather than labelling the other person’s actions. This doesn’t mean that it excuses actions that would be considered inappropriate or hurtful, but that it provides tools to understand why someone is behaving a certain way, and how to communicate with that person to achieve more balanced, healthier communication patterns that allow both parties to get their points and feelings across effectively. It’s not ‘social mind-reading’; it’s a combination of self-awareness and a willingness to try and understand the other person’s point of view. Josh Uebergang, of the blog ‘Tower of Power’, describes it in detail over here: the way in which he describes it is pretty detailed, and is a lot clearer than what I would come up with.

It’s helped me tremendously, not just in social interactions, but in communicating with myself. For instance, when dealing with people who have hurt me in the past, it allows me to note the effects of someone’s behaviour without engaging in unnecessary character judgements. In general, character judgements don’t accomplish much; they merely put people on the defensive and make it difficult to resolve a situation. In the past, I would have been more likely to make a character judgement and go ‘wow, this person is fucking terrible’, rather than ‘wow, this person is hurting and is saying things like this because there’s an unmet meed, and they’re expressing it in a way that may come across as something else’. It’s a lot more difficult for me to hold grudges if I’m thinking that way. This doesn’t necessarily mean that I’ll want everyone who’s affected me badly to be close to me, but that I’m aware that they’re people with feelings as well, and that regardless of my own experiences with them, I shouldn’t go out of my way to dehumanise them or point fingers, shouting, ‘This person sucks, and you should completely and utterly avoid them and treat them as though they’re Satan incarnate.’ Learning how to empathise and step back from pointing my finger and judging has been an instrumental part of my development as a person, and I want to share that.
It’s still a learning process for me; sometimes I still criticise certain behaviours, although I generally refrain from making character judgements about others, as it’s generally not my place. I’m still learning how to frame certain things as constructive criticism of someone else’s behaviour (ie, ‘they’re approaching this in a way that may be difficult for others to understand’) as opposed to value judgements (‘this is EVIL!’), but I think that I’m in a healthy enough place to know that I’m not going to be constantly judging others’ motives.

[Kerry] Privilege-checking ≠ demonisation.

(This entry is crossposted and expanded from a previous tumblr post)

I’ve noticed an unsettling trend of demonisation lately.

I think that, yes, being angry at people who think that LGBT people don’t deserve civil rights, or that anything that doesn’t match their heteronormative, cissexist, misogynistic, racist mindset is okay. But demonising them and acting as though they absolutely cannot change? Not exactly the best thing to do. I feel as though anger at oppression has spilled over into outright demonisation of other people. I want to try and make the point clear that it’s the oppressive behaviour that’s problematic, not the other person’s very existence. Bigots are made, not born. The way some people talk, though, it seems as though they’re approaching people’s problematic words with the mindset that their opponents are congenitally bigoted, and absolutely cannot change.

Look, I know how it feels to be totally written off as someone totally incapable of being reasoned with. This is more related to my own personal relationships than it is political disagreement, but the principle still exists: it’s counterproductive to demonise people, even if they’re saying things that you vehemently disagree with. Yes, there are some people with whom it will probably be entirely fruitless to engage, like Fred Phelps, but most people are not, in fact, like Fred Phelps. They have privilege, and they haven’t learnt how to deal with it, or they live in a social cocoon in which those issues are never addressed, or they’re honestly convinced that they’re doing something good for the world by saying what they do. The latter especially applies to conservative Christians who honestly think that they need to preach to queer people to go to reparative therapy in order for them to be ‘right with God’. Their philosophy is damaging, but their intentions aren’t evil; they’re misguided, and if the misinformation is corrected, then they may be able to change their stance on queer people.

People change. They’re not static; they’re not two-dimensional characters written by hack authors with more time than talent. People experience philosophical realignments when they encounter new ideas. For instance, look at all the people who have changed their stance on LGBT rights after having met queer people and learning that, well, they’re people who deserve rights, just like them, and that it isn’t anyone’s business whom someone else loves. I know heaps of people who used to be conservative Christians, for goodness sake. I’ve seen people change over time and become more accepting, even after initially being hostile. Bill Clinton, who passed DOMA and Don’t Ask Don’t Tell in the 90s, has come out in support of full marriage equality. If that isn’t a massive change, I don’t know what is, especially when Clinton is still symbolic of moderate leftism in America, and making such a statement might reflect badly on the Democratic Party.

I’ve held beliefs in the past that many people would find offensive and bigoted, particularly ableist views towards people with intellectual disabilities. Being engaged in intelligent, thoughtful dialogue was what got me to change my mind. Some of that dialogue was forceful, and I needed it, but if I had been treated as though I was an irredeemable pariah, I wouldn’t have learnt anything. I do think that it’s important to privilege-check, but there’s a difference between that and ‘You are a terrible person who will never change.’

Does this mean that you have to engage the bigots and trolls who go out of their way to deny your existence? God, no; I don’t. I personally choose not to engage most of them, because the exchange will be triggering and upsetting (yes, I am aware they are two different things) for me, and fruitless for both sides. I know that for me, I would be unable to sustain the debate without being too distraught to focus on the issues, rather than claims that I don’t exist, or that I don’t deserve civil rights. If you want to engage these people in discussion, à la Soulforce, I’m glad that you’re able to.

Even so, I refuse to act as though they’re immutably evil.

There’s a time for open dialogue; there’s a time for righteous indignation; there’s no time for creating folk devils and pariahs.


[Noël] Eye-contact, the Internet, and people-mapping.

Like many other autistics, we struggle with maintaining consistent eye contact when talking to people face-to-face. Interestingly, our eye-contact difficulties translate to the Internet, even though we are not actually looking into others’ eyes when leaving comments or chatting on instant messengers. We have to actually avert our eyes from names (and icons, sometimes, if it is a face) when chatting or leaving comments, because for some reason, our brain processes that as “looking into someone’s eyes,” even when we are not technically being looked at. We generally scroll down so that we only see the comment box when replying, after seeing whom the comment is from.

I consider this to be related to our eye-contact difficulties, because the avoidance of names and icons does not occur when reading others’ entries, comments, and chat transcripts—only when we receive comments or are in an instant message conversation. There seems to be a “switch” tripped in our brain that says “People are interacting with you; do not look at them.” Names and icons attached to comments and messages become “eyes.”  This is not to say that we dislike comments or instant messages—otherwise, we would not have an instant messenger account, and we would disable comments on our blogs and journals—but that there are some of the same autistic reactions that occur when social interaction over the Internet occurs.

Unlike people who parse others on the Internet as being similar to computer readouts, or “words on a screen,” many of us tend to be intensely aware of the presence of others, even if they are communicating textually. They seem physically present in comment threads and on forums, and this makes it incredibly difficult for people here to say things like “It is just the Internet. You cannot see them, so feel free to treat them badly with impunity.” This is not to say that we are physically hallucinating people, but that…their presence, as other people, can be felt. I think that that perception of people contributes to the way in which our brain maps user names and icons to people’s eyes. If people’s presence is already parsed in a material way, then why can the brain not map analogues to eye contact on to that Internet presence?