Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Sleep is a Slippery Thing

(This is for the disability blog carnival, the topic of which is 'long nights'.)

For as long as I can remember, I've had insomnia. I've never stayed awake all night (not even when, as an experiment, I deliberately tried to do so) and I don't have trouble sleeping every night. My insomnia, therefore, is mild. But still, sleep is something I have to work at.

If the conditions aren't right, then I have trouble falling asleep. I need to be in a familiar place. I need a book to read, or else music I like on a playlist or an interesting radio piece. Boring reading doesn't help me sleep, because either I don't read it, or the effort to read it is enough to keep me from relaxing. But if I think something too interesting, it'll keep me up as well. And worrying about being sleep-deprived is almost the worst thing I could do.

Part of it, undoubtedly, is executive functioning. I have a poor time sense, so I may easily stay up too late without realizing it. And my difficulty shifting attention extends to difficulty 'turning my mind off' when I need to sleep. Giftedness also plays a part in this, since gifted people often have very active minds. Sensory processing issues are also relevant - the 'princess and the pea' problem.

But I think a bigger part of it is trauma.

I can't remember the sexual abuse I suffered. I know it happened (for one thing, one of the culprits confessed), I know I used to remember it, and I can feel it in my instinctive beliefs and feelings, but I can't remember it. Still, from what I've pieced together, I know at least some of the abuse happened at night.

I had an alarm on my door, to stop my cousin from getting in. He figured out tricks around it, such as making it look like I'd wandered out and set the alarm off that way.

I was afraid of the dark for a long time, to the point where I needed my bedroom light on. Now, I mostly keep a light on to read by, but if I let myself think about it, the darkness still scares me somewhat. Every shadow becomes an enemy creeping towards me. I can't just close my eyes or they'll get me.

If I have an argument with my parents late at night, I can't sleep until we resolve it. Even if that means them not sleeping. Unfortunately, sleep-deprived parents aren't as good at calming down their child, so this tends to be extremely unpleasant.

But despite all that, most of the time I sleep well. I have my routine and it works. And once I get to sleep, I get the joy that is dreaming. Many of my best ideas have come from dreams. Even nightmares give me a glimpse into my own needs, and some of them become interesting (though emotionally intense) stories. And when I wake up, I feel like myself again, ready to go out and deal with the world and all its excitement.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Things To Do If You're My Teacher

Earlier this month, I posted a blog entry about things not to say if you're my teacher. One commenter recommended that I write a complementary blog entry, about things to say if you're my teacher.

Firstly, the prior post was solely things my teachers have said while in conflict with me. By the time it gets to that point, it's probably already too late. So this post is divided into two pieces: how to prevent conflict with me, and how to resolve it.

Preventing Conflict:

  • Be flexible. As much as possible, have preferences rather than rules. For example, some psychology teachers like to get their students to write on a work of fiction, usually a movie, related to a psychology topic. I hate these assignments. In three classes, my teachers gave me an assignment like this, and with one of them, I dropped the class over it. The professor whose class I dropped had a list of movies, and we had to pick one of them. We could suggest movies, which might be added to the list for later classes, but we wouldn't be able to write on them. I panicked, fearing that I'd have nothing to write about any of those (ironically, after dropping the class, I got a great idea for a paper about one of the movies). One of the other professors had no recommended list. The other class had a recommended list, but we could do a different topic if we discussed it with the teachers and got approval. In that class, I wrote on one of the recommended works.
  • Explain reasons for rules. Some things you can't be flexible about. I understand that. Just tell me what's so important about it. As I said in my previous post, if you can't give me a reason why you're insisting on something, I assume you have no good reason. I'm highly intelligent, I'll be able to understand your explanation. And I'm not going to take it on faith that you have a reason, because I know many people's 'reasons' include things like 'that's how I've always done it' and 'I don't like this student so I'll make things hard for them'. Not all people are reasonable, objective and fair. Prove to me that you are.
  • If I see a flaw in your reasoning and point it out, judge my statement on its own merits. Just because I'm the student and you're the teacher doesn't mean you're right and I'm wrong. And you should be willing to learn from anyone. Remember, also, that I'm not trying to be offensive by pointing out a flaw - I'm trying to reach an agreement with you. If I've misunderstood, explain that to me calmly. If I haven't, then think it over yourself.
  • Don't treat your students equally. This sounds really counterintuitive. But your students are individuals. Every one of them is of equal worth, but that's the only thing that's equal about them. Some of them learn faster than others. Some learn in different ways. Some are talkative, some are afraid to speak up. No matter what you try, you'll never get all your students to act the same way and learn at the same rate. And if you instead try to figure out how everyone works best, they'll all benefit. I understand that in a larger class, this is a lot of work. Being flexible is one shortcut you can use, especially when teaching students who are mature enough to know themselves well. Also, identify the unusual students, since they're the ones who miss out the most when everyone is treated equally.
  • Listen to me about my disability. I've lived as a demand avoidant autistic person for 21 years, and as a person with PTSD for 16-20 years. I've been learning about PTSD since I was 6, and when I started figuring out about autism, at the age of 13, I obsessively researched that too. And since I've lived both conditions, I know things about my own experience that no one else can know. Unless you have psychic powers, there's no way you know my particular mix of disability better than I do. This is the main reason I tend to prefer people who know absolutely nothing about autism over people who have some experience with the condition - because most people who don't know anything about autism know that they don't know, and therefore readily accept that I know more about it than they do. And remember that even if you've worked with autistic people your whole career, each of us is an individual, and autism is quite variable. Furthermore, I have a rare kind of autism.

Dealing with Conflict:

  • Pay attention to my feelings. The conflict starts with a concrete problem. But my PTSD and demand avoidance cause it to develop a very strong overlay of fear, shame and betrayal. If you give me a practical solution while ignoring the emotional overlay, it won't work - even if that solution is just fine. The teacher who had a set list of movies, when I kicked up enough of a fuss, changed the assignment for me. But by then, she'd already said some hurtful things to me, and made it abundantly clear that she was only accommodating me because she felt she had no other option. Because of that, I no longer trusted her enough to continue attending her classes. A lot of people seem to miss this, when having conflicts with me. They assume that if I'm still upset, then the solution they suggested must not be effective. This is not necessarily true, as I'll readily tell you in such a situation.
  • Try to stay calm. I'm working on learning to speak civilly when I'm extremely upset, but that's not easy for anyone. When I'm upset, I'm pretty blunt, and what I'm thinking of you is probably not flattering. Remember, to me, it doesn't feel like just a minor conflict - it feels like a life or death situation. I'm not exaggerating here. I honestly feel like I'll die if someone else controls me too much. It's a phobia, like someone who screams at the sight of a tiny harmless mouse. It may not be reasonable to feel this way, but that doesn't change the reality of my feelings.
  • Work with mediation. I find it hard to reveal vulnerabilities to a person I'm in conflict with. I become extremely defensive, telling you only what you're doing wrong and never admitting that I, too, have faults. It can be very helpful to have a (somewhat) neutral party to talk to, someone I trust enough to reveal my faults to, and to explain precisely why I'm panicking.
  • Be willing to admit mistakes. Chances are, if you've gotten into conflict with me, you've made some important mistakes. If you're not willing to admit that to yourself, then you're likely to repeat those mistakes later on. And if you're not willing to admit it to me, I'm likely to expect you to repeat your mistakes.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

What 'Family Values' Should Mean

I've seen a lot of conservatives talk about 'family values'. Typically, what they mean is that only the traditional, nuclear family with a stay-at-home mother is acceptable. All other families are harmful to society as a whole.

That's not what family values should mean. It should mean valuing families as the foundation of a healthy childhood. Families hold our future, and how our families function determines what kind of adults will make up the next generation. And contrary to the well-known saying, happy families aren't all alike. Every family, happy or unhappy, is unique, because every individual is unique and families are made up of individuals.

Family values means setting in place policies to support families. Things like free, high-quality daycare, so families with single parents or with both parents employed can ensure that their preschool child is well cared for during the times that they're not available to care for the kid. Things like funding the school system, so they can afford to pay teachers well, and therefore raise the standards for teachers without suffering a shortage. And reducing classroom sizes, because it's a lot easier to treat 10 kids as individuals than it is to treat 30 kids that way.

And especially, policies to help the families and children most in need. Social services needs to be expanded and better funded, so that they can better distinguish between bad parents and struggling parents, and the latter can be helped rather than just losing their children. We also need more and better quality foster homes, and kids need to stay in a single home longer. We need more support for foster parents and adoptive parents, so they can manage the difficulties of caring for the children who are really hard to care for - especially since many of those kids became that way because they didn't have a consistent family.

We also need more support for parents of disabled children. We need schools that can teach unusual learners without damaging them. Better training, better funding and smaller classes would help with that. We need good quality respite care readily available for those children who are exhausting to look after. We need better services for disabled adults, because most disabled children grow up. And often when the services aren't there, parents take up the slack, caring for their child long after they've stopped being a child. And children usually outlive their parents.

We need a society that welcomes children, that supports and acknowledges the efforts of their parents. Instead of judging parents, we need to offer them a helping hand. We need to stop telling parents to be perfect, because no one is perfect. Instead, they just need to be 'good enough' parents. We also need to stop telling parents that their kids are damaged and offering dire predictions so we can play on their desperation. Desperate parents sacrifice things, and take risks, and the kids pay the price. We need to support parents to deal with what life brings them, and build something that works for their children.

That's real family values.

Thursday, November 04, 2010

Things Not To Say If You're My Teacher

I've noticed, in multiple different conflicts with teachers, that they always seem to say the same things. These statements always set me on edge, and my trauma-based 'friend-or-foe' detector immediately switches them to foe when they say this. I've known from a young age that these arguments are wrong, but it's only recently that I've started being able to articulate why.

Here's a list. I probably left some things out, because I've never formally worked on listing these statements before. And based on my prior post about advocacy bingo, I'm going to explain why each one is wrong for me, even though that's not the real point. The real point is how I feel when someone says these things to me, how they send me into panic. Note also that these aren't exact, it's possibly to vary the message slightly and still say the same thing.

  • "I've been teaching for 20 years" - About one out of 100 people is on the autism spectrum. Many are in special education classes, many don't go on to higher-level education. Within the sample of your students, therefore, autistics are probably uncommon. And my own subtype of autism, demand avoidance syndrome, is rare even among autistics, since Elizabeth Newson said most specialist schools for autistic kids would have only one or two PDA students. So it doesn't matter how long you've been teaching, I'm almost certainly your first ever PDA student. (Besides that, what guarantee is there that you've been teaching well for the past 20 years?)
  • "All the other students are doing it" - Again, I'm highly unusual. That does not make me any less entitled to a decent education. Furthermore, there is ample evidence to suggest that many people will do what an authority figure tells them to, even if it's clearly the wrong thing to do. My condition makes me somewhat of a 'canary in the coal mine' when it comes to authority figures, what I'm complaining about might be something others are silently putting up with.
  • "You won't be able to [some measure of living a good life] unless you can handle this" - When I was in elementary school, my teachers warned my parents that unless I learnt to obey their commands, I'd be a juvenile delinquent by the age of 16. Now I'm 21. My sole legal infraction was to steal a bead from a bead store when I was 11, and I confessed and returned it within a couple of days. You're a teacher, not a fortune-teller. Besides, even if you were right, I clearly can't handle that thing. I can't just wish away my disability because you want me to. When I was an elementary student, any teacher who tried to make me do any schoolwork at all ran into conflict with me, whereas in university, only 2 out of 11 professors had any significant conflict with me. I've come a long way, but it took a lot of time and a lot of work. I will continue to progress, but it will continue to be a gradual process.
  • "Just trust your teachers" - Not all teachers are trustworthy. I've learnt that the hard way. If you want my trust, you'd better earn it, not just demand it.
  • "Do it because I said so" - That's code for 'I can't think of any good reason for you to do this, but I'll demand it anyway'. If you have a good reason, you can explain it to me, and I will listen. I might agree to do it, or I might suggest a compromise that works just as well. But being an authority figure doesn't mean you're in the right.
  • "See? You can actually do this" - Sometimes, I can do something in one situation but not another, or can do one task but not a closely related task. And sometimes I can do something only if I'm not being forced to do it. Dark chocolate is one of my favorite snacks, but if you told me 'you have no other choice, you must eat this dark chocolate', I'd be unable to swallow it. Not just unwilling, unable. On the few occasions that I gave in to (or was tricked into obeying) an authority figure, panic filled me to the point where I just wanted to die. It's more intense than my worst flashbacks. Something deep inside of me is convinced that being controlled by another person is the worst fate imaginable. I can't reason with this feeling, and I can't tolerate it. Unless you've got a gun pointed to my head or something, I won't endure that feeling on your command.