Friday, October 20, 2017

Autism, Homeschooling and Socialization

I came across this article recently. It's a parent of an autistic kid reporting on a conversation with another parent about why she doesn't homeschool.

First, let me say that the other parent in the conversation is out of line. Homeschooling or not isn't about how much you love your child, and accusing a parent of not loving their child because they won't homeschool is not acceptable.

However, this woman's reasons for not homeschooling really don't hold up, in my opinion. She mentions two reasons - one, she doesn't want to do it, and two, well...
Sam NEEDS more social interaction, not less
Ugh. This reasoning is wrong on several levels.

First, you totally can work in plenty of positive social opportunities while homeschooling. Extra-curricular activities, social groups, just going out somewhere to do something...

In fact, there's some research suggesting homeschooled kids have better social skills than regularly schooled kids.

My theory is that it's for the same reason that having siblings - but not a twin - boosts theory of mind. Interacting with kids of different ages than yourself boosts social skills. Regular schooled kids spend most of their time in age-segregated groups, while homeschooled children's social interactions tend to be in age-mixed groups.

Unfortunately, no one has studied the effects of these environmental factors on autistic kids, but in the absence of data, it's more reasonable to assume similarity than difference here.

Secondly, autistic kids are at high risk of being bullied. This study found that 63% of autistic kids had been bullied (roughly twice as often as NT children), with mainstreamed children being at higher risk than children in special education settings.

Bullying is never positive. Research has documented that victims of bullying are prone to low self-esteem, chronic anxiety and depression, psychosomatic health problems, suicidal ideation, poorer grades, greater likelihood of dropping out, self-injury and drug abuse.

The kind of social interaction experienced matters more than how much you experience overall. If your child is bullied, it could damage their mental health, hurt their physical health, impede their education, or even kill them. No one needs bullying.

Friday, October 13, 2017

Almost Human

Recently, I've been fascinated by human evolution, and the different species that were closely related to us.

We humans like to think we're special, so different from all the other species. We tend to see it in black-and-white – either you are a person, or you aren't. But in human evolution, it wasn't black-and-white. There was no one point in time when we became human. Instead, different traits of humanity appeared at different times, and depending on what you think is most crucial, you'd draw the line at different points. Compassion for others and basic tool use were most likely present before our ancestors split off from chimps and bonobos. Upright walking and smaller jaws distinguished Lucy and other australopithecines from the other apes, but their brain was mostly unchanged. Then brain sizes increased, and the first stone tools were found, skillfully crafted by homo habilis. At first, our ancestors only made one kind of tool, but then we had an explosion of tool-making diversity, and we started to make technological advancement, with a steady improvement in tool designs over time. Then, deliberate burials, carved statues and cave paintings began to appear, suggesting the birth of imagination and religion.

There is a lot of disagreement over when certain crucial human behaviours appeared. It used to be thought that homo habilis was the first hominid to make and use tools, until we discovered that many primates make simple tools, such as stripping a stem of leaves to fish for termites. There has been a lot of debate about whether creativity and deliberate burial were unique to homo sapiens or could also be seen in Neanderthals and our common ancestor homo heidelbergensis. (My impression, from the research, is that all three species did this, but homo sapiens did it more extensively.) There have been a lot of debates about language, when and how it first emerged. We used to think Neanderthals didn't talk, but genetic evidence suggests they did (and may have even used a tonal language!). Now, the bigger question is whether homo erectus could talk, and how well.

This debate, for many people, involves an element of looking for the crucial step, the crucial point at which we became 'fully human'. In this way, it mirrors how many people think about severely disabled people – where is the line between a person who struggles with X and Y and someone who is not really a person anymore?

When homo sapiens first appeared, we shared our world with four other hominid species – Neanderthals, Denisovans, homo erectus and homo floresciensis (nicknamed 'hobbits'). We're not sure where Denisovans fit in (one suggestion is that they were a cousin to Neanderthals), but both us and Neanderthals descended from homo heidelbergensis, which descended from homo erectus. Homo floresciensis, who were tiny little guys, were another branch off of homo erectus.

All of these species lived fairly similar lives, making tools, eating a mix of meat and plant products, living in small, tight-knit social groups. Two of these species were actually close enough that we could produce fertile offspring, although probably with difficulty. (DNA research suggests that only daughters with Neanderthal fathers and homo sapiens mothers contributed to the small percentage of Neanderthal DNA in all non-African people. Their brothers were probably infertile, and the reverse crossing may not have been viable or may have only produced sterile offspring.)

I sometimes wonder how we might see ourselves and other species differently, if those other hominids had survived as separate populations. If, as in many fantasy stories, we shared our world with other species who are different and yet so similar, would we see them as people, or as talking animals? Would we even see such a divide? Would we still think of ourselves as so special and unique, if our closest relatives were still around to show us how non-unique we were? Or would we just move the line over a bit?

It used to be that we did not see personhood in such a black-and-white way. In the medieval era, a nobleman was more of a 'person' than his wife, and both of them were more 'people' than their servants were. Their servants, in turn, were more 'people' than a different ethnic group would be. Personhood was a spectrum. Over time, this idea fell out of favour, mainly because it led to some vicious prejudice.

But in some ways, our current black-and-white divide isn't that good a concept to replace it with. I don't think the same ethical standards apply to me as to my cat. If we saw all species as having the same moral rights, then my cat would be no different from Jeffrey Dahmer – both of them killed and ate other living creatures, not because they had to do so to survive, but because they enjoyed it. But I think a cat killing and eating mice for fun is very different from a human killing and eating another human for fun. But where it gets messy is when the difference is less clear. If we didn't see Neanderthals as people, how would we see their children? How much Neanderthal ancestry would you need, before you weren't considered a person? (Incidentally, I have 3% Neanderthal ancestry, which is the same percentage I'd have if I had one great-great-great grandparent who was a Neanderthal.) Well, let's say we did see Neanderthals as people. What about homo erectus? They had an average brain size about 2/3rds of our own. There's no evidence that they buried their dead, or showed any sign of imagination. There's a lot of debate about whether they used language or not. If they did use language, they'd have conveyed much simpler ideas, and may have had a simpler language structure. And yet they made tools and may have used fire to cook their food. And they loved their families, cared for the sick, injured or disabled, and worked together to achieve common goals. It would be so interesting, getting to know a homo erectus. But for many people, it would probably also be quite threatening. They were so similar to us, but at the same time, they were so different. In speciation terms, there is no evidence that we successfully interbred with them – either we couldn't interbreed at all, or all offspring that resulted were sterile. But a homo sapiens and a homo erectus could certainly become friends, if both were open to the possibility. What kind of friendship would that have been?

Friday, September 08, 2017

Advice Is Usually A Trap

In my experience, as an autistic person with PTSD, a lot of the time, when someone gives me advice about how to handle a problem related to my disabilities, I get defensive. I've had people call me out on this and tell me that I'm just 'shooting down all of their suggestions'. People see giving advice as helpful and well-intentioned, and I should be happy about it

But if you understand the reason behind this behaviour, it makes perfect sense.

The thing is, for the vast majority of people, my problems aren't seen as real. Or else they're seen as the closest NT equivalent, which is very different and much easier to solve.

Throughout my childhood, over and over, I've had this experience:

Adult notices I'm struggling with something, or I tell them I am.

Adult offers The Solution(TM) which is supposed to Solve Everything.

I try their suggestion and it utterly fails, or works for awhile and then falls apart, or works but doesn't completely solve the problem.

Adult gets mad at me because clearly now the problem must be My Fault because I'm not using The Solution properly.

As I got wise to this, I started refusing any solution that I wasn't 100% sure would work, as long as there was any chance the person could blame me for it not working. And I started to automatically mistrust anyone who tries too hard to solve my problems for me.

Friday, September 01, 2017

Pedophilia, Age-Specific Attraction and the Split Attraction Model

I've been thinking about how pedophilia relates to the split-attraction model, particularly since some pedophiles feel romantic attraction to children as well. Specifically, which types of attraction should be age-specific, and which ones are fine being directed towards any age?

This is a personal question for me. I'm aromantic and asexual, but before I figured that out, I was briefly afraid I might be a pedophile, because the feelings I'd inaccurately labelled as 'sexual' (aesthetic, sensual and emotional attraction) were just as likely to be directed towards younger children as towards my peers. (In fact, my first ever squish that I can remember was towards my 2 year old brother, when I was 10.)

I know that most people don't feel sexual attraction until puberty, and are attracted exclusively to people of broadly similar age. Romantic attraction seems to have an onset around the same time in many people, though I've heard some people claim to have 'crushes' well before puberty. And if anything romantic attraction seems to be more age-specific than sexual attraction - judging from the many older adults I've seen who admit to being sexually attracted to young adults but don't seem to feel limerence for them.

I have no idea what is normative for other forms of attraction, though. I had my first squish at the same age as sexual attraction usually starts, but was that because I'd entered puberty, or because my brother had finally gotten old enough to start expressing his wonderful personality? Who knows?

But really, does it matter what's normal? No. It matters what's healthy.

Being sexually attracted to children is considered unhealthy for one simple reason - it motivates you to do something that would harm someone else. The negative impact on children of having an adult do sexual things with them is very well documented. It's been linked to a wide range of mental health problems, including depression, suicidal ideation, self-injury, anxiety, PTSD, substance abuse, eating disorders, dissociation, somatization, and personality disorders. Obviously I know this from personal experience, and my own abuse has resulted in me experiencing many of those issues myself.

Romantic attraction is probably also a problem, for similar reasons. Although it's less widely studied, there is evidence that non-sexual adult-child relationships that involve many typical markers of romantic relationships are often unhealthy for the child. There's a book, The Emotional Incest Syndrome, that discusses parents using their children to meet the same needs that a romantic partner typically would. This is reported as causing emotional problems, primarily because the parent is expecting a level of emotional maturity that isn't appropriate to the child's developmental level. A couple of research studies have discussed the same phenomenon as a subtype of generational boundary dissolution, linked with psychological problems, such as depression.

But what about other types of attraction? What are the implications of aesthetic, sensual, emotional or intellectual attraction when felt by an adult towards a child?

Aesthetic attraction doesn't seem to involve a desire to really do anything about the attraction, other than admire the person's appearance, or if you're artistic, presumably making art inspired by them. Neither of those things seem particularly harmful for a child target. I doubt any children will be harmed by having an adult enjoy looking at them or drawing pictures of them.

Sensual attraction is the desire to engage in non-sexual, non-romantic touch, such as hugging or cuddling them. Not only is this a normal healthy part of interaction between children and the adults close to them, but it's actually essential to a child's emotional well-being. From observation, I strongly suspect that the vast majority of parents feel sensual attraction to their children, particularly right after birth, feeling drawn to hold and stroke their newborn. And not just parents do it - think of the ritualistic 'passing around the baby' that many new parents do with people they trust. Obviously, as in any relationship, consent is important, and even hugging and cuddling can be intrusive if the child doesn't want it at that moment. But because children have an innate need and craving for touch, it's quite possible for an adult to act upon sensual attraction towards a child in a way that the child experiences as unambiguously positive and beneficial - especially if you're the child's parent.

Emotional attraction is the desire to get to know someone better, and to be their friend. Although most children prefer same-age friendships, intergenerational friendships don't seem to be harmful. I, personally, was friends with several adults as a child, and I found most of those relationships beneficial. Research, similarly, suggests a positive impact of intergenerational friendships - this study reported that children who were sent on visits to elderly care homes described feeling worthwhile, having fun and enjoying the elderly people's company, while their parents described them as having increased empathy, understanding the cycle of life better, and being better at communicating with elderly people. Based on this, I'd say it's fine to feel drawn to befriend a child.

Intellectual attraction is feeling interested in how someone thinks, and wanting to engage in intellectual discussion with them. I'd argue that many child psychologists, including Piaget, probably have felt intellectually attracted to children. On the child's side, I see no harm in asking a child interesting questions and exploring how they think. Indeed, that probably provides beneficial intellectual stimulation. And as a gifted kid with intense interests, I've certainly had older people 'pick my brain' regarding topics of interest to me, which has pretty much always been a fun experience for me.

So, in conclusion, sexual and romantic attraction to children have the potential to lead you to harm the child they're directed at, and so feeling those types of attraction is a problem you should learn to manage in some way. However, other types of attraction lead you towards activities that are typically harmless or beneficial to children, and so are probably fine. Even if your interest in children might be unusual, if it's limited to non-sexual and non-romantic forms, feel free to seek out that kind of contact, provided that neither the child nor their caregiver (if they're not your child) objects.

Friday, August 25, 2017

Are Autistics More Often Bisexual?

I've cited this study several times in saying that autistics (at least AFAB autistics) are more likely to be asexual, but today, I'm focusing on another finding of theirs. In addition to finding that 17% of their sample was asexual, they also found 13.2% were bisexual.

So, is this borne out by other studies? Are autistics more likely to be bisexual?

This study compared autistic people of both AGABs with matched NTs, and found that autistic and NT AMAB participants didn't differ in sexual orientation, but AFAB autistics were significantly more likely than AFAB NTs to experience attraction to women. In fact, 64% of AFAB autistics were attracted to women, with all but one of them identifying as bisexual. (Note also that 33% of AFAB autistics in this sample had a gender identity other than female.)

This study looked at institutionalized AMAB autistic participants. Their methods are questionable, depending far too much on caregiver report and including what sounds like very subjective 'impressions' caregivers had of their charges' sexuality, but they did find that 13% of the sample were thought to be bisexual. Also, 25% were considered 'unclear', probably including a mix of asexual participants, those whose caregivers just didn't have any real information, and those who hadn't gotten enough sex ed to really consider whether/who they were attracted to. If that group is excluded, bisexual participants jump to 17%. (They also found two possible hetero-pedophiles and several who may have had fetishes.)

This study, which focused on romantic relationships in autistic adults (both sexes), found that 10% were bisexual, 7% homosexual and 14% couldn't label their orientation with the options given. (I'm guessing probably most were ace-spectrum, but some may have been multi-spec.) This was described as significantly higher than population norms.

This study screened binary trans individuals for autistic traits, finding elevation in autistic traits among both trans men and trans women. In addition, non-straight trans people (who they transphobically describe as 'non-homosexual') were more likely to be autistic than straight trans people.

This study assessed relationship functioning in a community sample of autistic people, and reported that 42% of their sample identified as sexual minorities, with 15% gay/lesbian, 9% bisexual, 12% unlabeled and 5% unsure.

This qualitative study of relationships in autistics of all genders found that in their sample, 25% identified as asexual, 17% as bisexual and 12.5% as gay or lesbian. They also commented on how many individuals identified with multiple labels, with the asexual and bisexual groups overlapping. Only 37.5% identified solely as heterosexual.

Overall, it seems that autistic people, especially AFAB autistic people, are significantly less likely to be straight. But, despite desexualizing stereotypes, bisexuality and possibly homosexuality are elevated too, not just asexuality.

There are a lot of possible implications for this. But one that immediately springs to mind is this: it's especially important for autistic kids to have LGBA-inclusive sex education, even more so than for NT kids. And yet, my impression is that sex ed for disabled kids, when it's offered at all, tends to be more conservative.

It's also important to remember that sexual identities shaped by autism are just as valid as sexual identities held by neurotypical people.

Thursday, August 17, 2017

Asexuality Research - What I Want to See

This month, the asexuality blog carnival topic is Asexuality and Academia. I'm just going to list things I want to see more researchers doing in their asexuality research:

  • using the split-attraction model
  • studying squishes and platonic attraction
  • studying sex-repulsion
  • studying libido and determining how aces with average libidos differ from aces without libidos
  • studying the needs of ace children in sex education
  • studying features of allosexuals that make them more or less likely to make an ace/allo relationship work
  • studying asexual autistic people, especially AMAB autistic aces, without approaching the question of sexuality in autism from a deficit framework or especially from the 'extreme male brain' theory
  • studying asexuality in an fMRI
  • studying asexual nonbinary people
So that's that. A short post, I suppose.

Friday, August 11, 2017

Is Baby Signing Good for the Deaf Community?

There seems to be some controversy in the Deaf community about the Baby Signing movement - a movement by hearing parents of hearing preverbal children, teaching their children to sign in an attempt to boost cognition and early language ability.

As a hearing person who plans to sign with my children, I've looked at the controversy and arguments, and here are my thoughts.

First, it's important to remember that sign languages aren't just languages - they're also assistive technology. There are people for whom learning a sign language has benefits well beyond those accrued by learning a second spoken language. Deaf people, obviously, fall into this category, but so do many hearing people, especially those with complex communication needs and kids who are strongly visual-kinesthetic learners.

It's also important to remember that unlike a physical piece of technology, signs are not a limited commodity. Many Deaf people have complained that, in a time when Deaf babies still don't have guaranteed access to signs, hearing babies are being signed to. But while that is ironic, signing to a hearing child doesn't take away access to signs for a Deaf child. In fact, quite the opposite.

Hillary Wittington, in her book Raising Ryland, describes how when her son Ryland was 8 months old, a fellow mother told her that she'd enrolled herself and her hearing son into a sign language class, extolling the benefits of the class. When Ryland was almost 14 months, another friend, Jenn, said that she's enrolled her hearing daughter into sign language classes, and convinced Hillary to go to an intro to check it out. Two days before the intro, her father-in-law told her that he was concerned about his granddaughter's hearing. She gets assessed by an audiologist several months later and is diagnosed as profoundly deaf.

Because of her friend's involvement in baby signing, Hillary and Ryland began baby signing classes before he was even diagnosed as deaf. Ryland's grandmother and uncle both study signing with her. Despite choosing to get Ryland a cochlear implant, Hillary insists on continuing to sign, both to allow Ryland to communicate before he can speak, and for those times that Ryland will need to remove the external processor. By the time Ryland has his implant activated at 20 months, he knows more than 200 signs, and he continues to use signs throughout the book whenever he is not wearing his external processor.

Besides those Deaf children whose hearing parents get coincidentally involved in baby signs before their diagnosis - or possibly even before they are born, if they have older siblings - the increasing awareness and normalization of baby signing is likely to reduce the fear of signing for many hearing parents.

One of the biggest fears for many hearing parents is that if they sign, their child will never learn to speak. While we should also challenge the prejudice that leads to parents valuing speech over alternate communication modes, the central tenet of baby signing is that signing helps speech. So even if parents value speech over sign, this need not stop them from signing.

And it's not just Deaf people who need to sign. Parents of children with complex communication needs often don't feel welcome in the Deaf community, and their children, who generally understand speech far better than they can speak, don't have the same needs. Many of the stylistic traits that hearing signers gravitate to and Deaf people label as bad signing, such as PSE and signing while speaking, actually suit the needs of hearing people with CCN better than ASL does.

Many CCNs are also harder to diagnose accurately than profound deafness, and can't be diagnosed in newborns. Which means that the only way most children with CCN will be exposed to sign before their speech falls behind is if their parents are signing when they believe their child is an NT hearing child (this happened to Maya from Uncommon Sense).