Wednesday, June 17, 2015

11 Things Adults With Autism Are Tired of Hearing

Greetings people of the Internet!

As I was scrolling through my Facebook feed yesterday, I noticed that many of my friends were sharing an article on entitled "10 Things People with Anxiety Are Tired of Hearing" which reminded me to do this post.  Like a great number of people in my position, I feel that society's general idea of autism is skewed by stigma, prejudice and stereotypes, resulting in numerous misconceptions.  These are often addressed to us in questions and statements that unintentionally come off as questionable, offensive or both.

From these, I have selected the ones we'd like you to be aware of the most and am going to make a few rules to keep things orderly.

*No entries involving the r-word, I have a whole post and video focused on that.
*No entries that are (almost) universally condemned such as death threats.
*No entries specific to a certain person, they need to be applicable to multiple people with autism.

One thing you'll notice is that many of these seem benign and a few may even surprise you.  You may stand by some of these entries and I am not trying to offend anyone.  There are many things that didn't make the cut, but I rounded up the 11 I think you need to be aware of.  Why not just do ten like most lists of this sort?  It never kills to go a step further than what's expected of you.  Also, yes, the numbering here is largely arbitrary.  So, without further ado or further warning, here is...

11 Things Adults With Autism Are Tired of Hearing

01.) "You don't look/sound/act autistic."

All three of these were going to appear separately, but I decided to package them all together.  As for the statements themselves, well,... maybe that's because... autism doesn't have a look, sound or anything like that!  There's more to a person than their appearance or voice, and while I won't deny there are some behaviors we're more inclined to engage in, they still vary from person to person.  We experience different symptoms to different degrees of severity and use different methods to work on them at different paces.  Some overcome challenges entirely, some to a certain degree and some make little to no progress. 
People usually say this to express that we present ourselves well, communicate very fluently, etc.  Of course we see those thoughts as flattering and don't mind being complimented, but just say outright "You're well-spoken" or "You present yourself very well".  It's more straightforward, actually feels like a compliment and doesn't come off as insulting.  Even if you're a parent, special education teacher, therapist or someone else who's constantly exposed to autism, don't say it like that.  It makes it feel like that's all you see in us when you and I both know that isn't true.

02.) "Are you really autistic?  Were you misdiagnosed?" 

Okay, let me ask, is that your real eye color?  Are you sure you're the race you claim to be?   I don't think that's your real hair color, when did you dye it?  Get the idea? You sound just as insensitive when you ask us whether a part of our identity exists.  Due to the sheer stigma, most people would not lie about having autism- this isn't The Ringer.  We really understand the idea of an intelligent, well-spoken person with autism is foreign to many people and I'm not being sarcastic there, but we do exist, you just have to take our word for it.

03.) "When were you cured of autism?"

I'm not, never have been and never will be.  Even if communication and sensory difficulties were 100% gone, our cognitive skills and how we process information are pretty much permanent.  If you want to ask how we got to where we are today, ask us just that!  I've been asked this too many times to count and it's embarrassing for me as a person with no formal training in education or therapy to answer this from people who really do work in these fields.

04.) "People with autism are not imaginative or creative."

This is a stereotype stemming from the difficulty many individuals on the spectrum have to grasp concepts that aren't grounded in the physical reality we call planet Earth.  People on the spectrum have become animators, writers, musicians and many other professions that require some form of creativity.  Imagination and creativity for all people are like muscles, they becomes stronger the more you use them and it helps if you get an early start.  Ask some people I know and they'll probably say I use my imagination a little too much.  :)

05.) "What did your family do?  You better thank God for them!"

I... uh... I'm sorry.  This is a question I've answered a couple of times in the past and it understandably seems benign, but I along with many others cannot stand it.  This will require more elaboration than the others, so in advance, I extend to you my apologies.
The biggest reason is that it implies that the outcome of an individual with autism is entirely dependent on parenting, but that just isn't the case with any child.  Your upbringing can greatly affect your transition for better or worse, certainly, but the individual can and will do many things of their own volition.  I'm the one who earned my high school diploma and college degree, I'm the one who's trying to go to law school and I firmly believe responsibility for everything (good and bad) you've ever done lies with one person- you.  
Also, some autism families don't want to discuss these personal matters publicly and it's best to respect that.  I'll let you in on a secret- I've been doing autism talks since 2009 and nobody in my family has ever seen me in action thus far.  And you know what?   I'm totally okay with that, we established early on that this is kind of my thing and I think it helps me speak on my own behalf.  It should go without saying that I'd love for them to see me speak one day, but they're my strongest supporters no matter what.  
I obviously think it's great that parents and families can learn from one another.  Heck, it's something I encourage and if you're wanting to ask other autism families in a parent group or something, have at it!   However, just be sure to respect families who don't want to share personal information and unless we willingly offer input, leave us out of it!  Don't think for one second we're ungrateful just because we don't like being asked this question.  We're just saying we actually had to put a lot of effort ourselves into our transition and continue to do so every day.

06.) "Why didn't you tell me you had autism?"

Oh, that's a good question.  Let me ask you this- why didn't you tell me something personal about you that would run the risk of me changing how I think about you for the rest of my life?   Obviously, I'm very open about this part of my identity, but not everyone is.  Furthermore, I do not recommend people adopt such an attitude unless they understand the connotations of revealing this and are able to deal with negative reactions.  When I came out to my peers as autistic in 10th grade, I was just trying to get them to stop taking the r-word out of context.  Luckily, my classmates took it surprisingly well and thank God for that, but that may not be the case for everyone.  This is also why I strongly discourage teachers from revealing this about a child in their class to their peers, even with their consent- they should be the ones who do that when they're ready.

07.) "Autism kills people/is deadly."

Saying people with autism are more likely to die from wandering or other things is one thing, there's definitive statistical evidence to support that.  Saying we have a deadly disease is something else entirely and I would never say I have a deadly disease on the grounds of being autistic.  It not only feels inaccurate, but straight-up insulting to people who really are dying from disease.  It also ignores that not all people on the spectrum wander and people without autism also die from wandering.  Above all, correlation does not equal causation and this basic concept of scientific literacy is important to know for anyone who plans on advocating.

08.) "Don't vaccinate your child, it will cause autism and ruin their life!"

The vaccine controversy is quite possibly the most divisive issue in the autism community, it causes so much discord that I didn't even bother addressing it until now.  I'm not getting into the science here, it will speak for itself, let's discuss why this particular phrase is worded poorly.  This implies that people with autism have no potential and you have nothing to lose if you don't vaccinate your kids, this is total nonsense.  If want to advocate against vaccines, nothing is stopping you, but try to do the courtesy of not painting autism as a death sentence to potential.  You have absolutely no idea how much this scares families and adds to the stigma unless you've been in their shoes and sometimes, not even then.

09.) "Autism is just a brat/the result bad parenting ."

You'd be surprised how many people still hold onto this lie. (*cough* Michael Savage).   Mature adults are able to handle most insults directed at them and only them, but attributing autism to bad parenting is antiquated and a surefire way to make yourself look like an idiot.  No matter the parenting style or whether there's abuse in the home, parents on their own do not bring the onset of autism.  I was a kid when I learned the  'refrigerator parent' idea existed, I found it laughable then and it was officially discredited decades ago.  Unless you're living in the year 1960 or prior, it's not going to work!

10.) Any references to us as 'autistics' 

Not only does this push a lot of people's buttons, but it isn't recognized by any spell check.  Okay, okay, spell check isn't reliable, but my point is that there are many better terms that you can use.  Obviously, it's not as offensive to most of us as the r-word, but this still only addresses a part of our identity that very much is seen as a deficit/burden to most people.  If you noticed my language in this post and many others, I almost entirely use terms like "with/without autism" or "on/off the spectrum" when describing people.  This is no accident, I use these terms because they acknowledge that we are all people, 'normal' is just a dishwasher setting and our cognitive functioning is a part of our identity, not our primary character trait.

11.) "Autism doesn't make a difference in the workforce."

As a job-seeking individual on the spectrum who's had some interview experience, I can safely say that, yes it most certainly does.  I've mentioned this on Facebook and Twitter before, but the autism unemployment rate is close to 85%, believe it or not.  Even if that weren't the case, the interviews and virtually all jobs call for communication skills when deficits in these areas are a hallmark trait of autism.   Granted, not all companies have the financial capacity to hire on a bunch of new people, some businesses just aren't equipped to hire people with autism and some people say there should be a federal mandate for a quota of employees with disabilities, I don't agree.  People shouldn't get a job just for being on or off the spectrum or any arbitrary reason like that, a company is like the autism puzzle- it comes together when all the pieces fit.  However, to say autism doesn't make a difference is nothing short of dishonest.  There's a large reason why I hope more kids with autism go to college aside from the obvious boost it gives in job searching- generally speaking, academia is more accepting of diversity than corporate America.  The number of open doors and minds can certainly increase, but not if we remain silent on this matter.


Well, thank you all for reading, hopefully you learned something new and maybe even found something you can apply.  Also, I would like to point out that I did not act alone with this post and give a shout out to my friends Michelle and Jason for their contributions.  They're very inspiring people on the spectrum and I definitely feel it helps having input from other adults in this position.  
If you like what you see, be sure share this on social media, sign up for blog updates in the upper right corner of the page and leave a comment telling me your thoughts and what you would've added along with any requests for future posts.  For faster updates on my personal endeavors, follow me on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram- links to all of those will be below.  I will resume YouTube videos when I get a new computer in August, after Windows 10 comes out.  Have a great week and I look forward to hearing what you have to say soon.

Best regards,

Natalie "NatKat"

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Saturday, May 9, 2015

Autism In the News- Student Put in Trash Can

Now that classes are over for the semester, I now have more time and will try to become more productive.  I do apologize for putting you guys to the wayside, several things happened and I kinda lost track of time.  The audio on my computer is horrible, so videos will resume when I get a new computer- after Windows 10 comes out or my laptop just dies, whichever occurs first.  Luckily, my friend Michelle handed me today's topic on a silver platter (figuratively, of course) by sharing the titular news story.  I'm just going to come out and say it, this is the worst Autism in the News segment I've ever had to tackle.  Similar to my very first story of this kind, it involved a student being punished by being placed in something completely inappropriate.  Let's cut to the chase and begin our analysis, the link to the story is provided below, but I first request that you read the disclaimer- especially if you've never read one of my news article reviews yet.

DISCLAIMER- I have no affiliation with anyone involved, it was my own decision to discuss this and I'm not getting any compensation to do so.  Everything within this post is my own opinion unless otherwise indicated.  Due to the serious nature of this series of events, I feel it is my duty to provide my readers with opinion and examine both sides of the issue to create as little bias as possible.  Nobody involved is immune to positive or negative criticism, I will address fault on anyone's part and can acknowledge valid concerns coming from the antagonist.  If you want a one-sided story that does nothing but bash the perpetrator and overlook nuance, please do us all a favor and click on something else.  I'm always open to feedback and it does not have to agree with me, but I do ask that if you choose to participate in discussion that you be mature with your comments. 


The Story-  I encourage you to read the article for yourselves, but I'll give you the main points.  The event in question occurred at Mount Bethel Elementary in Cobb County, Georgia on April 30, 2015.  During an after school event, a child on the autism spectrum became upset due to distractions from outside and a peer who was allegedly bothering him.  When 45 year old special education teacher Mary Katherine Pursley failed to control his kicking and screaming, she grabbed his leg and placed him head-first in a trash can.  It's also reported that Pursley went so far as comparing the child to Oscar the Grouch for his "trashy behavior" and saw his punishment as fitting.   Three employees and several other students witnessed the event, but it was another employee who confronted Pursley and prompting her to stop before contacting authorities.  She was arrested for child cruelty, but released after posting a $5000 bond and is on administrative leave with pay.

The Analysis

This is the part where I'd normally do an analysis of both parties, but I have a different approach due to the nature of this article.  Most of the worst things about this scenario are also present in my Boy in Bag post, Loathe Thy Neighbor post and ALS Bucket Prank video and restating those elements would come off as redundant.  Also, to help put things into perspective, I feel a few terms need to be defined.  Punishment is intended to discourage a certain behavior and its opposite is reinforcement.  Both can be done in either a positive or negative way, but these two words have a different meaning in psychology as opposed to everyday use, so don't be deceived.  In this context, positive simply means adding something and negative means taking something away.  This results in four distinct ways of addressing behavior, here is a list of them and a relatable example of each.

Positive Reinforcement- Raising an allowance for doing extra work that week.
Negative Reinforcement- Taking 30 minutes off a curfew for getting straight A's.
Positive Punishment- Getting a detention for bullying other kids.
Negative Punishment- Confiscating cell phones for texting in class.

Get the idea?  That was rhetorical- you guys are smart, of course you get it.  Of these four, the one I think best describes this situation is positive punishment because he received something no other kid at the event got to discourage a behavior that was found unfavorable.  You guys want to remember this for me, please?  The focus for today isn't who did it or what happened because both answers have been established.  I already have opinions to answer the questions that will be asked, but for the sake of this analysis, let's suppose I don't and find out as we go along.
When Did It All Go Wrong?
By all accounts, Pursley knew what she was doing and even went so far as using rhetoric in the form of puns to justify placing the boy in the garbage.  However, let's put the garbage part of the story aside and go back to what happened prior for a moment.  Since teachers need to create an environment suitable for learning, not only can they react to harmful or disruptive behavior, but they should.  Regardless of who it comes from, people do not deserve to have a bad experience by being subjected to one person acting out and to assume they'll ignore it is ridiculous.  In other words, Pursley had every right to react to the boy's behavior and the bystanders did nothing wrong at this point.  Similar to the Loathe Thy Neighbor letter, it's not the vehicle that's the problem, it's the route that they took.

Why This Punishment?
Referring back to the types of reinforcement and punishment, I attempted to provide realistic examples of all four for a reason.  Using this scenario and the positive punishment example, let's do a little side-by-side comparison.

Natalie's Example
Behavior- Bullying other kids in school
Punishment- Giving student a detention slip

Our Story
Behavior- Acting out due to distractions and not calming down
Punishment- Taunted, being held upside down and placed in trash can in front of others

I believe my example is reasonable because the student did something to deserve the punishment and it's fitting for what they did.  If the punishment was getting expelled, provided the nature of bullying is the same, that would be a stretch.  If you had to calm down a child who was disrupting others and they wouldn't stop, would you put them in a trash can while using puns as if to imply it's funny?  I sincerely hope not.  When I was a kid and I had episodes in school, my teacher would usually make me sit in the hallway so I wouldn't disturb the class.  I had a hard time considering how others felt at the time, but it did instill in my brain that my actions were out of the ordinary.  How Pursley punished the student was flat out unjust, could've resulted in injury and she only let go when  confronted.   Most people who knowingly go this far to punish a child generally do so simply because they want to for a selfish reason.  Even it's hard to articulate, making someone pay for what another person did or something we don't like to think of (ex. schadenfreude), it's incredibly rare for us to act with absolutely no motivation. 

Schadenfreude- (n; shaw-den-froi-duh) German for "happiness at the misfortune of others"

What Is the Solution?

The comment section of the article includes input form many people who are understandably angry at the punishment Pursely got for this.  While I feel a mere paid suspension wasn't enough, there's not much I can do about it and I certainly don't think using revenge as a form of punishment is a good idea.  Revenge may be a perfectly normal emotion, but if we all took an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth, we'd all end up blind and toothless.  Since I mentioned that people should do the courtesy of explaining why we shouldn't do certain things, it'd be hypocritical of me to not provide you with reasoning for my opinions, so I will.
Frederick Douglass said that it's easier to build strong children than it is to repair broken men and I agree.  By the time we reach adulthood, much of our worldview and behavior is shaped due to what I believe is a combination of natural instinct and the slew of influence around us.  Some of us may experience life-changing events in our adult lives that alter our way of thinking, but there's no guarantee that will happen.  On the other hand, the developing minds of children and teenagers are fertile ground to plant seeds of good and bad influence on who they become as adults.  Eliminating these types of problems in our education system and beyond begins with how children are educated.  It's been almost five years since I graduated high school and if there's anything I could tell every parent, teacher and professor, it'd be that the most valuable things you can teach us are not in any book.  Though there wasn't much attention on these until college, the biggest takeaways were critical thinking, respect, empathy, life skills and creativity. 
A mindset can't be changed, so let's go to the kids and give them some critical thinking skills, not throw character development out the window after elementary school and help teenagers learn things they need to know to successfully transition into adulthood.  Removing any of these things that help shape youth into successful adults would be the same as pretending they don't exist and/or are obsolete.  They can be seen as unnecessary to some students as MLA formatting, the quadratic formula or which European nations were established after World War 1.  There will always be a few individuals who won't have capacity for empathy and only care about themselves, but that isn't the majority by default.  Let's face it- we live on planet of variables that's harsh, disorderly and unforgiving, but we don't have to be that way.

I don't think this deserves much of an outro- this whole event was awful when it didn't have to be.  While the acting out provided a good reason to take action and Pursley had every right to do so, what happened was completely unnecessary and never should've gone that far.  What angers me the most is how these incidents make other teachers look bad when the vast majority of them are truly motivated by helping students succeed.  How we teach people about these things and what parents pass on to their kids is what will ultimately do the most good as it creates a generation of stronger people who will be ready to take their place as members of society.  While horrible situations like this are going to happen no matter what, we have three options when all is said and done-
1.) we can do something progressive a provide assistance, education or insight to our fellow people.
2.) we can do absolutely nothing about it and giving the impression we don't care
3.) we can do something reprehensible by trying to justify or celebrate other's misdeeds and misery.

I know my answer, but which option are you going to go for?

Well, thank you all for reading and I hope you enjoyed or at least learned something from this.  I'd love to hear your thoughts on this story and for more frequent updates, be sure to follow me on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.  The YouTube will be on hold until I get a new computer, but you're welcome to check out my videos I have there- I plan to redo a lot of them.  My username for all four sites is (of course) natkat921.  Stay tuned for more to come! 

Best Regards, Nat