Thursday, December 23, 2010

The Battle of the Two Caricatures

I've started realizing something important about conflicts of opinion. And that is that it's not just two people disagreeing. It's also a clash of caricatures.

Cracked magazine has an article named 10 Things Christians and Atheists Can (And Must) Agree On. This article argues that atheists and christians should agree on things like 'celebrating the death of a guy you disagree with makes you a dick', 'people can do terrible things in the name of either belief system', etc. It's a great article, in the fine tradition of social commentary thinly disguised as comedy.
Numbers 6 & 7 are especially important. Number 6 is 'we tend to exaggerate about the other guy' and number 7 is 'we tend to exaggerate about ourselves'.

Number 6 is the well-known tactic of 'strawmanning'. Rather than address the real arguments of your opponent, you paint them out as having much more simplistic, extreme and refutable beliefs than they do. In this example, christians portray atheists as wanting to live in 'one long drug-riddled blood orgy' and atheists portray christians as wanting to 'abolish all science and live in grass huts'. These strawmen may, in some cases, consist of actual opinions held by a minority but applied to the majority, and in other cases, may have been completely invented.
Number 7 isn't so well known, but it definitely exists. I've seen it many times. It's so easy to get drawn into saying things you don't actually believe, just to refute your opposition. For example, I know autism isn't entirely genetic. After all, if 60% of identical twins of autistics are also autistic and 92% are somewhere on the broader spectrum, that leaves 8% non-autistic and 32% 'cousins', despite them having the same genetic material as an autistic kid. Something has to explain that difference. But when I see someone telling people to chelate their kids because they're convinced that autism is caused by mercury poisoning, suddenly I'm saying that autism definitely completely genetic. And I hate doing this!

It's easy for me to see both sides on the atheism/christianity debate, as a low-key atheist with nice christian parents. But it's not so easy for me to see both sides when it comes to autism, because I'm a neurodiversity supporter and proud of it.
But post like this one remind me of the importance of seeing past caricatures. When a curebie parent says that while neurodiversity advocates are wrong about autism treatments, they're right about 'mercy killings', that's a wake-up call to me. Just like awhile back when I made peace with a curebie mother on a listserv after we'd been fighting over biomedical treatment of autism, or when the host of an autism conference featuring Ron Leaf (a person marketing ABA) spoke at a conference on inclusion about how angry she was when her son's teachers used restraints on him.

So, here are a bunch of goals that both curebies and neurodiversity people, as well as people involved in other 'hot-button' debates, should try to meet:
  • get an understanding for how & why the other side could believe what they do - a good enough understanding that you could write an article faking that viewpoint and have it be convincing (as an author, I've had some practice trying this)
  • find at least one person on the other side who expresses an opinion you agree with, preferably something relevant to your topic of disagreement
  • examine what, in your life experience, has led you to believe what you do - thinking back on my life, it seems pretty obvious that the autistic daughter of a feminist who didn't want anyone to call her child disabled would end up as a neurodiversity supporter, right?
  • identify at least one time that you strawmanned your opponent rather than replying to their actual beliefs (it's possible you've never done this, but I doubt it)
  • identify at least one time you said something you don't think is technically correct, just to disagre with your opponent (again, it's highly likely you've done this at least once)
If we can all do this, then maybe we can find our way to a solution that holds to what each of us finds important. Remember, pretty much everyone involved in the autism community can agree on one thing: we want good things for autistic people.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010


Warning: If you're a fan of the TV show Supernatural, have not yet seen seasons 4 & 5, and don't like spoilers, then don't read this blog entry. It's a major spoiler.

Supernatural focuses on two brothers - Sam and Dean Winchester - who were raised by their single father to fight supernatural menaces, such as ghosts, demons, and many other things. In that world, most myths are true and out to kill people.

The amazing thing about this show is how well they do the characters. Their psychological reactions are all spot-on, exactly what a real person with that person would feel and do in that situation. It amazes me. I keep expecting them to fall into pitfalls (such as the dead loved one in the first episode being forgotten about) but they keep deftly avoiding them.

The brothers aren't the only ones hunting supernatural beings - there's a loose organization of 'Hunters' - and when their father dies, Sam and Dean form a close bond with one Hunter, a man their father's age named Bobby. It's pretty obvious that Bobby is a surrogate father to those two, and a better father than their real one ever was.

And then, in the midst of a fight, Bobby gets stabbed. He's rushed to the hospital, and once they've got him stabilized, they realize his spinal cord is severed. He'll never walk again, the doctors say.

So, I'm expecting the usual. Either Bobby will be miraculously cured, or he'll die soon - maybe even suicide, or assisted suicide. But neither happens. Castiel, the one character both willing and able to heal him, gets partially depowered before he gets a chance to do so. And though Bobby contemplates suicide, he doesn't act on it.

Several episodes later, they meet a Poker-playing male witch. But instead of betting money, this witch bets years. If you win, you get unaged the number of years you won. If you lose, you age that many years, and those years get added to the witch's lifespan. Considering that this witch is several hundred years old, it's clear that he's good at Poker.

Bobby gets an idea. If he were to unage, he might get his mobility back. Unfortunately, the minimum bet is 25 years, and Bobby's not a young man. He plays the witch and loses, instantly becoming elderly. Dean decides to play for Bobby's sake and gets Bobby back his 25 years, but loses 50 himself. (Dean is 30, so that means he's instantly 70.) He spends a large chunk of time discovering the various unpleasant aspects of being old, until Sam finally plays the witch and wins, getting Dean back to normal.

At the end of this episode, Dean realizes that his stint as an old man has given him a bit of insight into what acquiring a disability might be like. He talks to Bobby about it, and Bobby describes how useless he feels now that he can't fight. At which point, Dean says that Bobby's not useless, admitting that if Bobby were dead, he'd fall apart emotionally.

They laugh it off, but one thing becomes clear. Bobby has decided to live. He's decided to accept his disability and deal with it. It's not cure or die for him anymore - he can live this changed life. He's clearly not happy about being in a wheelchair, and he'd accept a cure if it was offered, but it's not essential anymore.

How many shows have a character, midway through the series, getting permanently disabled and living with it?

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

My Wall

When I was a preschooler, my cousins, living with us in kinship foster care, sexually abused me.
I was a good kid. I didn't tell anyone. I don't remember that time, but I suspect I didn't realize they were doing anything wrong. After all, I was under 3 when it started. And to them, it was natural. Their father had trained them, groomed them to do the same as he did (he liked bringing people down to his level, so they couldn't criticize him). It probably never occurred to me that once I knew how to talk, I could've told Mom and Dad and they'd have stopped it. I did show it in my behavior, masturbating, regressing and acting depressed, but the counselors assurred my parents that nothing was wrong.
The lesson came in a series of events when I was 5-6 years old. The older of my cousins had already left by then, so this was about her brother. He sexually assaulted a classmate at his high school. He'd been a constant problem at that school, but this act was especially bad. And my parents suddenly realized that I wasn't safe, living in the same home as a teenager willing to engage in that behavior.
So off he went to another foster home. Realize this: my parents still didn't know what happened to me - they only suspected, and they weren't willing to take the chance that their suspicions were unfounded. But a year later, he confessed. Charges were laid, the police came to take my statement, and I told them everything. (My older cousin never got charged, because it was only my word saying what she'd done and they didn't want to put me through a trial, but telling still was powerful.) And I learnt that if something hurts you, it's not OK, and you have a right to protest it.
Around this time, I was attending school. As a traumatized, undiagnosed autistic kid with a subtype of autism that causes a phobia of being controlled, I was obviously not your typical student. And my school decided they wanted to stamp out everything that made me hard-to-manage or unusual.
But I'd learnt my lesson - don't let someone else's demands take precedence over your self. And so I learnt to build the wall.

I have a collage I made as part of a therapy program. I actually made two collages, which portrayed different pictures of myself. One accidently turned out as the four parts of self (mind, body, emotions and spirit), much to my surprise. The other one, which is the one relevant here, depicts the wall.
This wall isn't a bad wall, like the one in Pink Floyd's album. I can put it away when I'm safe, so I can accept love and caring. It's a good wall, that shields me from damaging attitudes.
In the collage, I cut out three categories of pictures. There were simple things that I liked. A disabled woman laughing with a friend, a beautiful dog, something sparkly, that sort of stuff. On the other side of the page was stuff that bothered me: a man precisely measuring his trimmed bush, an aging woman with her flaws pointed out, a fat woman in a 'before' picture of weight loss, etc. And in between is the wall, with a feminist cartoon, a story of a mother advising her son to help an unhappy classmate, a cat and a dog reacting differently to a command, and so forth. That wall is necessary. Without it, the bad outside would touch the good inside, and damage it.
The wall leaks, unfortunately. And sometimes it blocks good things from coming in, like when I have a meltdown. But it's much better than letting everything in, like I used to do.
This post is for the disability blog carnival, theme 'let your freak flag fly'. So, what does it have to do with that topic? Well, the wall is my freak flag. That's how I block their attacks. It long predates my diagnosis, so only recently have I applied disability language to my wall, but before then, I talked about unfairness, about being myself, about how they were wrong and I was right. When they tried to rush into my heart and rearrange things to their liking, I put up my wall to stop them.
It was never much good at attacking back - I'd try to persuade them and they wouldn't listen, probably because I was a child and kids are stupid - but there was no force of arms that could bring that wall down once it was up. I could out-stubborn anyone, mainly because my sense of self depended on it. My mantra during these fights was 'they can't kill me', meaning that I'd get through this and have freedom later on.
This wall is why I never seriously contemplated suicide, despite sometimes wishing I was dead. This wall is why I went to college despite my teachers thinking I'd never succeed there. This wall is why I've only shoplifted once and returned the stuff with apologies the next day, despite my teachers saying I'd be a juvenile delinquent by the age of 16. This wall kept me safe throughout my childhood. And though I'm learning how to not bring it out sometimes, I'll never let it go, because I might need it someday.
Oh, and one last thing: I couldn't build the wall by myself. My parents provided the scaffolding when it was weak and new, and the foundations keeping it from crumbling. If they'd ever joined forces with my teachers, I think the wall would have come down.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Reply to Shiva's survey

Shiva is presenting a paper soon, and has a list of questions for autistics. I tried to post my answers as a comment, but it was too long, so here's my comment below:

I'm jealous - I was planning to send in an application, but got overwhelmed by schoolwork.

Anyway, survey questions (feel free to quote me):

"1) How would you choose to identify in terms of your neurology (eg. autistic, Asperger's, "cousin", self-diagnosed autistic, etc.) (multiple answers acceptable!)"
 Autistic. Sometimes 'demand avoidant'. Though my official diagnosis is PDD NOS, that label has pretty much no relevance to me. I think there could be reasonable divisions between autism subtypes, but the DSM currently doesn't recognize them. Demand avoidant is one example of such a subtype. Another might be nonverbal learning disability/autistic (which currently mostly overlaps with AS). I'm not sure what others there are.

"2) Do you identify with a particular political "label" (eg. Marxist, anarchist, radical feminist, deep ecologist, etc.) (multiple answers acceptable!)"
 Autistic rights activist. I also call myself a feminist, but that's not a big part of my identity.
 "3) What drew you to radical social activism?"

Well, firstly, my Mom's a feminist, so I was raised with it. My foster siblings/cousins (kinship foster care) sexually abused me, and when my parents found out they took action to protect me and encouraged me to speak about what happened, so I learnt that if you talk about what hurt you, things can change. Then, in school, I was acutely sensitive to my teachers' abuse of power (partly because I'd already been abused, and partly because demand avoidant kids are like that) and the only way I knew to handle it was to fight back. My parents' support ensured that I never thought the school was in the right, never believed what they told me about myself.

With autistic rights, specifically, it was discovering my autism that did it. Several teachers figured something was different about me, one even guessed Asperger Syndrome, but my parents didn't think there was anything wrong with who I was. They finally started homeschooling me, and independently I discovered autism and autistic rights, and at the same time I recognized myself.

"4) Do you think that there is a connection between your neurodiversity and your activism? If so, what do you think that connection is?"

Besides the fact that I'm fighting for the rights of people like me?

Well, demand avoidance definitely is linked to activism. We're like the 'canary in the coal mine' when it comes to power dynamics - what hurts others in subtle, hard to pinpoint ways is blatantly obvious and meltdown-inducing for us. We basically either fight back or go nuts, we can't just put up with it.

"5) Can you describe any particular experiences (whether positive or negative) of being autistic in radical spaces that stand out to you?"

When my mother and I presented at the association for research on mothering conference. The topic was 'motherhood and war' and we were presenting on the war on autism. It was amazing to see all these people understanding what we were saying, and why we were concerned about this. Also, I met a parent whose son had a late diagnosis for the exact same reason that I had - she had to accept neurodiversity before she could believe an autism diagnosis.

"6) Do you think that the radical social movements you are involved in are a) aware of autism and what it means and b) accepting of autistic people? If not, why not?"
 Well, since I'm involved in the autistic rights movement, yes.

Feminists, on the other hand, sort of vary. Some are very willing to listen, others aren't. It seems like in every activism movement, there are two kinds of people: those who support rights for everyone, and those who only support rights for their chosen group.
 "7) Do you think that radical social movements/spaces tend to provide an environment that is better or worse suited to autistic people than mainstream political society? If so, why? If not, why not?"

Autistic rights movements do, mostly, though different subtypes can run into conflict. Other movements are often, but not always, more accepting.

"8) Is there anything else you can think of in your personal experience that is not covered by the above questions, but is relevant to this paper?"


Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Wheelchair Bowling and SPSS

For a psychology degree at my university, you need to take two statistics classes. I'm currently awaiting my final exam in the first of those two. In the course of this class, I was introduced to Statistic Package for Social Sciences (SPSS), a computer program for doing statistical analysis. (And something I desperately wished to have when I was 14!)

My best friend and classmate invited me to go bowling with her last Friday. She has CP and uses a wheelchair. In case you don't know, the usual accomodation for someone bowling in a wheelchair is to give them a T-shaped wooden thing they can put on their lap, and let the ball roll down that thing to propell it along.

Anyway, my brother claimed that using the T-shaped thing would make the game considerably easier, so I decided to test that. Half of the time I bowled standing up, and half of the time I bowled sitting down with the T-shaped thing. My friend, of course, used the T-shaped thing every time. I kept records on our scores, and plugged it into SPSS.

Here's what I found:

T-test for my scores sitting vs standing:

N was 10 for both groups. My mean score while sitting was 10.3, with a standard deviation of 2.79 and a standard error (mean) of .88; for standing, the mean was 4.6, standard deviation 4.35 and standard error 1.38. On the face of it, then, it seems like my sitting scores are higher.

SPSS does two forms of the T-test - one assuming the standard deviations of the two groups are equal, and one assuming they're not. It also runs a test to decide if they are equal or not, and based on this test, we decide which set of data to pay attention to. In this case, the variances were equal (significance .277) so I used the data for the equal-variances form of the T-test.

Mean difference between my score sitting vs standing was 5.7. The 95% confidence interval for this mean was 2.27 to 9.13 - this means I'm 95% certain that the true difference in mean score between my sitting and standing scores is between these two values. Since 0 is not within the confidence interval, the probability that there is no difference between sitting and standing scores must be below 5%. This is confirmed by the p-test, which gives the value of .003 (in other words, 0.3%).

So I can reject the null hypothesis - my scores are significantly higher when I'm sitting than when I'm standing.

T-test for my scores vs my friend's scores:

N was 20 for both groups, since I lumped together my sitting and standing scores. My mean score was 7.45, with a standard deviation of 4.61 and a standard error of 1.03; my friend's mean score was 6.15, with a standard deviation of 4.32 and a standard error of .97. On the face of it, my score is slightly higher, but it's awfully close. (Incidentally, this is bunched together from two games - my friend won the first and I won the second.)

The test for equal variances spit out .817, so it's very likely that both me and my friend had the same standard deviation of scores. (As you can see by simply glancing, the standard deviations are very close.)

Mean difference was 1.3, with a 95% confidence interval of -1.56 to 4.16. This range includes 0, so I'm more than 5% certain that there's no difference in mean score between me and my friend. The p-test confirms this with a value of .363 - well above .05.

I can't reject the null hypothesis - we don't have any evidence to claim our overall scores were different.

T-test for my sitting scores vs my friend's scores:

Remember, my friend was sitting for every round, and I've already shown that my sitting scores were higher than my standing scores. So, if we only compare rounds done while sitting, what do we get?

This is actually pretty tricky to tell SPSS to do. I had each data point marked both by who was bowling and whether they were sitting or standing. There's an option to split the file by a certain variable, so you calculate multiple groups as separate data sets - I told it to split by sitting/standing. Then I ran the t-test by person bowling. It actually tried to run separate t-tests on both sitting and standing, and spat out an error for standing because my friend didn't have any standing data points. But I didn't care about that.

I'm not going to review the means, standard deviations and standard errors, because I've already reported those. So let's get on to the equal variances measure. This is interesting - it spat out .011. That's lower than .05, so the standard deviations are probably not equal. My friend's standard deviation was about twice my standard deviation (even though it should've been smaller since she had a larger sample size). This indicates that her scores were more variable than mine.
Mean difference was 4.15, with a 95% confidence interval of 1.46 to 6.84. That doesn't include 0, so our means are unlikely to be the same - the p-test reported .004.

So I can reject the null hypothesis - when both bowling the same way, my scores were significantly higher than my friend's scores.


What have I found out? Bowling with a T-shaped thingy is easier than normal bowling, and I'm better at bowling than my friend is. (Then again, she does have significant upper-body impairment, which is why she uses a motorized chair rather than a manual.) Neither of us is particularly good at bowling, not that it matters since we both like playing regardless.

And SPSS is really fun to play around with. I'm going to love being able to do actual psychological research, which I'm apparently going to start doing in 3rd year.

Wednesday, December 01, 2010


I've never understood it.

As a grade 10 kid, a victim of bullying, one of my names was 'tattletale'. I knew that my classmates weren't supposed to trip me and shove me and call me names, so I told the teachers about them doing this. Not just once, many times. I finally gave up because the teachers weren't doing anything to stop it, but I still considered telling to be the right thing to do. I honestly believed the only people who thought being a 'tattletale' was a bad thing were bullies and other misbehavers. If you'd asked me back then if any adults were opposed to tattling, I'd have said only criminals were like that.

Apparently, I was wrong. I don't get it. How can an authority figure, who takes their position seriously, not want to be told of possible rule infractions? Sure, kids may, out of confusion or malice, report things that aren't really a problem. So what? You don't have to act on their report. If they're outright lying, that's a problem, but that's not tattling - it's lying. Tattling is informing an authority figure of a true behavior (for certain values of true, since it may depend on perspective) that you believe to be a rule infraction. And if you can trust the authority figure to have good rules and enforce them, then talking to them about rule infractions is clearly the right thing to do.

Besides, what about the kids who don't tell? 'Mike touched my private parts and I didn't want him to.' 'Jimmy's planning to bring a gun to school.' 'I think Susan's drinking too much.' 'Kyle's talking about killing himself.' 'I saw Laura beat Joanne up.' All those are potential messages you might be missing out on, if you discourage kids from talking about other kids' infractions. And the consequences of that are much worse than some minor annoyance.

Some people say that you should tell kids the difference between tattling and reporting, where tattling is stuff the authority figure doesn't want to hear and reporting is what they do want to hear. I say, don't confuse the issue just because you're sick of kids telling you that their classmates gave them a funny look or made a burping noise. Tell the kid that they're allowed to do that, if there's nothing wrong with it; or advise them on how they could resolve it on their own, if it's a personal dispute. But never discourage kids from telling you what's going on.

Remember, the research on bullying shows that teachers, despite thinking they have a good idea of what's going on in class, actually know only about 40% of what happens. Make sure you get told the remaining 60%, or you might be surprised by a suicide or other disaster.