04 August 2008

The R Word

For some reason my comment failed to publish on this post, so I'm putting it here:

This is patently offensive, and that this was allowed to go through to production this way is very telling how much farther we need to come before the general public realizes how harmful this is.

And I don't buy that "well, we're not REALLY making fun of disabled people, we're making fun of blah blah" - when you used that word, there's no way that it's NOT about disabled people, even when it's not meant that way, and to be so resistant to change use of a WORD. It's like how I saw a news person on TV say that when they used the word f****t in school, that they didn't REALLY mean gay people. It's a pathetic excuse.

I am autistic, and have had an IQ score of in the borderline range as well as in the gifted range, and have been called retard as well as a bunch of other physical and verbal abuse at school, which was justified by both students and counselors by my "weird" behavior, so I must just "expect" that treatment because I look so odd to them. Well, I can expect it and be used to it, but that doesn't mean it's right and it doesn't mean it should go overlooked.

Whatever the IQ score, whatever someone's adaptive skills or disability or whatever, it is hurtful and completely unacceptable that this passes for acceptable usage. I have know decent, kind people who have used this word, because they have absorbed it and also absorbed the justification that it's "not REALLY making fun of disabled people", but that's why this kind of thing needs to be countered - I don't want even MORE otherwise good people absorbing and using this offensive language, simply because society presents it as mainstream and OK.

The Particles of Oppression

This post is in response to this post by ballastexistenz.

I don't remember the specific moment when I realized the pattern of what was going on. It's mostly consisting of a lot of little realizations, which have been incrementally coalescing into a broader understanding of discrimination, how it applies to me and to others.

One thing I remember real clearly, though, was when I was in grade 7, unsuccessfully pleading to the counselor to let me write an incident report or to discipline the bullies for yet another assault, after all this time of it being blamed on my "odd" appearance, resulting from everything from autism to seizures to lacking designer jeans. And as she started lecturing me on the importance of attending class, I saw in the adjacent room that a girl, one of the very social, non-disabled, girls, was entering the office and asking for an incident report, and handed one right away. Being given the not-so-subtle threat of institutionalization, I saw very clearly that I was fighting in the ring with my hands tied behind my back.

Also that year, around the same time, I was in the office while the counselor talked to a teacher about a student they suspected to be autistic. I had been shading the windows of a building on newsprint, and they talked about his main interest and how they were hesitant of how to approach the parents (they also used his name, though I don't remember and wouldn't breach confidence anyway, unlike the counselor), and I remember stopping what I was doing, and saying "Autistic - that's like what I am" and they continued talking, as if I weren't there or neither of us mattered. I suspected it was the latter.

That year I got the distinct impression, that to them I was naught but a test score, a number whose value had suddenly dropped. It shook me to realize, how they were concerned far more about the financial impact of my absence from school, yet were perfectly content to have me warehoused in offices, and when in class or outside, to be constantly attacked physically and emotionally, and then blamed me for my behavior, both what was naturally my behavior and that which was induced by the circumstances, and say that this was justification enough to exclude me not only from school, but potentially permanently from society.

My parents got calls, day in, day out, about my "bizarre" behavior - mostly autistic behavior and catatonic-type stuff, with sporadic seizures, and talk of medication and institutions pulling on my mind and leading me to pace the floor more vigorously and at later advancing hours with each passing day.

I don't think I told anybody yet about how often I was just sitting in this office or that room the whole school day, or most of it. It wasn't a place for me to "calm down" or anything, and basically had a consistently elevated level of stress, which would spike at particular points, such as pending assault or the talk of the counselor.

At that point, I had little insight as to what exactly about me constituted something "autistic", but I had a definite sense that I was being treated unfairly for these things, even if I couldn't pinpoint them with words, and thus couldn't communicate well about them.

That is something that has been highly deceptive about me - my use of large vocabulary, writing skills, and the fact that I didn't have significant speech delay, hides the fact that I do often have difficulty finding the words and being able to describe important things, even when these fall under the category of what is usually considered simple. "I need a pencil", for instance, at age 10 was a phrase I needed a lot of time to be able to get out, but at another moment I could recite a 10-minute rant about things that happened during the school day, because I had spent the time during the school day to come up with and memorize the words to make this rant.

This is what I think has to do with the decreased reliability of speech for me over the last 10 years, even though communication is much better for me now. When I was 7, or 9, for instance, I knew most of the academic material being taught in class, so for one thing I could afford to "zone out" while constructing scripts and mapping out potential replies and replies to replies and replies to replies to replies, but not only that, I could also come up with the words and then memorize them.

One thing very different between 10 years ago and now: then - rote memory was good, maybe even excellent; now - rote memory is very unreliable.

That, and being in high school and college classes, even for classes I considered relatively easy and familiar in terms of the material taught, rarely was I so familiar with the content that I could afford to not pay attention to four hours of instruction (really, in first grade I really couldn't afford it either, but at that time I didn't care about my grades).

In fact, the only time that I had the luxury to "zone out" to the degree that I did in elementary school, was in high school chemistry, which for me was a review, as 2 years earlier I had studied AP Chemistry books and learned the material for the whole year in 2 weeks - though unfortunately the chemistry class did not cover thermodynamics much at all, which was a topic that I hadn't studied on my own).

In that year I took chemistry, I had been absent a lot (as with most years of public school), and when I got back to school (after weeks, almost a month being absent), there was a chemistry test. We had a substitute that day, so as he handed out the tests, I used my alphasmart to type that I had been absent for the whole chapter (which, while all the material up to that point had been stuff I'd already covered, I didn't know that for sure as I hadn't been in class to know what the test was about).

The substitute said, "Take it anyway".

Now this was quite the predicament. While I could theoretically take it anyway, and had a fair chance of doing well on it, what if it was all stuff I'd never covered before? Then, the teacher would have to make up an entirely new test for me to make up. I started typing on the alphasmart, to clarify this point, and also the fact that I had been absent the whole duration that the chapter was being taught, and the other students (as well as my absence record on the attendance sheet) verified this.

He told took the test back and told me to  write an e-mail to the teacher. So I started writing it. He told me to stop typing, and I froze for a minute, then started typing an explanation of why I was typing.

After a couple minutes he called me to his desk (which I didn't notice he was talking to me until some students around me pointed it out, as he hadn't used my name).

I went up and showed him what I typed. He asked me to spell my name. I did. Then I did some typing, and asked why.

He said it was a detention slip for disrespecting a teacher. I typed "If I may ask, in what way did I disrespect you?" and he said "you didn't listen." I typed about how I am autistic and often don't respond when my name is called, much less when my name isn't used, and that sometimes I need to type things, or I can't get words out, and that when I typed after he told me not to that it was to type this explanation of why it's necessary for me to type.

(Also keep in mind that this was my first year having an alphasmart, so I was not used to defending my right to communicate, whereas most times before this I had had no choice but to remain silent.)

Then at lunch I started writing my frustration about this, and asked a friend in AP European History about the iternerary for the day, and she said that we had a unit test, and a substitute, but she named the substitute she'd had, who was a lady most agreed to be nice.

I walked into AP European History next and guess who was sitting at the desk with the pile of tests?

You guessed it. The same guy as from chemistry.

There are lots of forms that oppression can take, and to those who are so accustomed to it that it is sewed into the daily fabric of their lives it can, at its mildest forms, be taken as annoyance, at its serverer forms, be taken as a "bad day".

The most important lesson to be taken away from the observation of these particles of oppression, though, is that each of them, regardless of size or impact, constitutes an increment of oppression coalescing with the other particles of injustice, however major or minor.

02 August 2008

On Regression and Skills

This started out as a forum post, but I started getting into a big meandering tangent, so I decided to make it a blog post.

I have experienced what's been called regression (actually, they called it "degrading", which is obviously even more inaccurate and offensive than "regressing").

For me, while there's been many times, most times I didn't know how to describe what was going on, when I would lose skills, and mostly believed it when I was told that I was being "unco-operative" or "playing games".

It is quite common for autistic people to have atypical acquisition and loss of skills, and it can also be triggered by overly stressful events, like change in environment or other physical or emotional distress.

I used to be really good with rote memory and arithmetic, and also pretty good with abstract math reasoning, though difficulty with understanding instructions and sequencing made me start out at each math lesson in elementary school as the slowest to learn, but once learned then I would be tutoring others on those same concepts.

I taught myself algebra and calculus when at 10, then I forgot most of it, then I learned it again at 13, along with physics, then forgot most of the calculus, and then learned it again between ages 16 and 17. At age 16, I picked up a textbook about number theory, as well as one about modern algebra.

This was in Algebra II/Trig, and I had for two weeks the ability to instantly solve logarithms problems, that would take an overhead sheet or two and half an hour for the class to solve. A few weeks later, and I couldn't remember any formulas for the next test, and got a C-.

In the two years following that, I've gotten especially good with conceptual math, and can understand the formulas so long as I don't have to remember them or to calculate arithmetic (advanced math is mostly proofs and theorems anyway, so that's no big deal).

I have had varying skills with speech. It varies more on a day-to-day or minute-to-minute basis, though, rather than between months. Though I can usually speak, I usually have to have a lot of time not speaking, not in crowds, stressful things like that. Otherwise, speech will shut down.

Since at school I am around lots of noisy kids, crowds, processing tons of speech, fluorescent lights, having to keep attention to tasks, socializing - it's a heck of a lot more stressful than a day at home with my at-home routine of court shows, I Love Lucy, Tetris, swimming, walking, writing, reading, and Internet. So speech shuts down a lot more often for me when going to school and other such busy places, which tend to put many more demands on me than the non-pressured summer-at-home environment.

More recently, in high school, while overall I was gaining a lot of skills (body awareness, identifying and articulating feelings and sensations, initiating things, socializing, riding the bus independently, etc.), the skills that I lost (reduction in how often speech is possible, arithmetic, increased rocking and other stims, generally being more visibly autistic) apparently caught their notice, even though things like stims enabled me to learn the other things and did not give me trouble.

They also said I was having more frequent meltdowns and shutdowns, but any consultation of my mother regarding driving me to school and picking me up four years earlier, would have roughly disabused them of this notion - my looking more visibly autistic clouded them to think I had increased meltdowns.

Such implication of skills or functioning as universally measurable as going forward or backward, particularly struck my recall, recently, as I read a report from the people who did testing on me.

According to my test-score on the KTEA, I have kindergarten-level math skills. Whereas, I got a B in AP Calculus (I got "A"s on the exams, but did not turn in two chapters worth of homework) last year, and still have roughly the same ability in calculus as I did then, though it is rusty a bit from lack of practice.

Two years ago, when I was about 16, and took the Woodcock-Johnson test, I scored as well above average in math skills for my age. The difference in those two years? From sophomore year to senior year, I have lost most arithmetic skills, other than the most basic (simpler ones like 2 + 2 and 5 - 1 I can still do without writing down or using a calculator).

The testing procedure obviously is what gave the misleading score here - they had to get me to write a certain amount of questions right (I think 4) to establish a basal, then after that however many I got wrong would determine where they stop the questions. If they had done the test from the more advanced questions to the arithmetic ones, instead of the opposite way (as one person administering the test suggested), then it would've been a more accurate score.

I really do not think that I am going on to pursue a physics degree in college when I have kindergarten math skills. Sure, a third grader could outperform me at times tables, but I could outperform a high schooler at physics.

When I was 7, and I was in a class that was mostly kindergarten students, but about 5 other 1st grade students, I remember being the only one who couldn't remember my home address, and being the oldest student in the class, I considered this an embarrassment. I soon got over that, though, taking my own advise about embarrassment.

01 August 2008

Pushing Limits Interview

Today I was interviewed on KPFA (94.1), for the program Pushing Limits, which centers around disability issues, about autistic rights and aspies for freedom.

The program can be listened to at:

The questions were given to me prior to the interview, as well as displayed on a thread at AFF, and these were my answers I wrote out ahead of time, so that I would have a reference of what I wanted to say. The interview covered some other stuff that I didn't have written out, and I didn't get to all of these points on the program (though I had a lot of time and got to the crucial stuff), so here are my prep notes:

What is autism?
Autism is a neurodevelopmental condition that generally affects speech and language, socialization, and sensory processing. Autistics vary greatly in how this manifests, as some people are completely non-verbal, while others have little to no difficulty with speech and language, but most of us are somewhere in between, and that goes for a lot of traits.

What does neurodiversity mean?

Basically, that neurological configurations that differ from the norm, such as autism, are not inherently inferior to more typical configurations, and trying to make the neurodivergent conform to typical ways of doing things, often creates more problems than it solves.

Why did you join this AFF site?

I joined AFF, for a couple of reasons. One is the community - when I'm facing discrimination, or trying to figure out how to navigate an airport, there's a lot of support, from a lot of people with diverse knowledge and experiences. The main thing is the activism - it's easy enough to say, yes, I'm autistic and proud, there are better ways to improve autistic people's lives than by funding research to make sure no more of us are born - but as it is today, not many people are hearing our voices. That is changing for the better - it's better than 5, even 2 years ago, thanks largely to the work of autistic self-advocates, but we still need to make a lot of progress.

Do you know of the wider disability rights movement?

In my research of autism and autistic advocacy, I started to realize not only how much autistic rights are tied into things like gay rights, but also to disability rights. Some believe that all autistics are disabled or that none of us are, but from what I've seen it varies from person to person, especially when looking at our situation through the lens of the social model of disability.

Even autistics who don't consider themselves disabled, and are capable of employment, even if they have degrees, a lot of times won't be hired because of unusual eye contact or body language, things that have nothing to do with their job responsibilities. Others don't attend out-of-work social events, and are seen as not being a "team player", even if the reason is that they don't see obligation to the events and that they would stress them out too much.

Where would you like Autism Rights to go?

I would like there to be better information and supports to the families of the newly diagnosed, and for there to be less stigma. We should get to a point where it's not considered an undue burden to write out instructions instead of saying them, for instance, or to provide autistics access to communication, whether by using pictures, signing, typing, speech, or any combination of methods. When a parent gets told their child is autistic, and that parent sighs in relief because now they know their child will have access to a good education and services and opportunities and choices for their future, then I might say we've reached our goals.

Also I'd like to see the Judge Rotenberg Center shut down, for their use of electric shocks and other harsh aversives on autistic and otherwise disabled people who are kept there. They have withheld food from people for not getting the right answers on a computer, and administer the shocks in such a way, that the person receiving it has no way of even knowing where on their body the shock will occur. There are many complaints about the treatment of people held at Guantanamo Bay, but when acting in these ways on disabled people in the name of "treatment", then it's allowed to go on for decades.

I would also like more of a venue for autistic people to voice our opinions and advocate for ourselves. There is too much of a trend in having non-disabled people "speak for" people with disabilities, and this even gets reflected in the names of organizations - for instance, the pro-institutionalization group called "Voice of the Retarded", or "Autism Speaks". The people leading these groups assume our voices, and in so doing assume our goals and intentions. I'd like to see more support going towards organizations like the Autistic Self-Advocacy Network, and Autism Network International, which are led primarily by autistics and allies. Autism Speaks does not speak for me.

Does this community here give you positives where the larger society can't meet those needs?

The larger society is certainly capable of meeting many of these needs, through greater understanding and acceptance, which runs deeper than garden variety awareness, though there is one need that I don't think the larger society will ever be able to meet, and through no fault of anyone - there is a certain...recognition, almost, a deeper kind of understanding that you find with someone who's wired a lot more like you than most people, and to be able to communicate with a whole bunch of such people, who aside from being autistic have a huge variety of experiences and interests, there's a certain connection that is hard to describe and impossible to substitute. But as for other things, like acceptance and removing roadblocks to education and independence, society in general is capable of meeting those needs, and I have seen individuals demonstrate this capability. It's just that we're not there yet.