Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Social Skills

I think most of the research into social skills is screwy. The reason? It all assumes you're interacting with an NT person. Therefore, 'good social skills' refers to good understanding of NTs, while 'poor social skills' refers to poor understanding of NTs.

Imagine if we defined 'good language skills' as 'speaking English well'. A celebrated Swedish author, who writes compelling and interesting books but whose English is very poor, would be considered to have poor language skills. I hope everyone can see the problem with that. The same problem arises when we describe 'good social skills' in terms of ability to relate well to NTs.

I think there are two distinct sets of social skills. One is the ability to 'put yourself in another person's shoes' and imagine how you'd feel in their situation, and use that to decide how to treat them. This works well if the person you're interacting with is similar to you, not so well if they're quite different from you. Most NTs use this set of skills quite heavily, because most people they meet are similar enough for it to apply fairly well.

The second set of skills is the ability to set aside your own perspective and pay attention to the other person, to figure out what they're thinking and feeling by observation. This is more laborious and inconvenient, but it works with anyone, no matter how much they differ from you. Most NTs seldom get a chance to learn these skills, unless they travel to another culture, form a close bond with an animal (merely having a pet doesn't necessarily count), or befriend someone with a developmental disability.

For autistics, and for many other people described as having 'poor social skills', what's actually going on is quite different. They are different enough from most NTs that 'putting themselves in other people's shoes' frequently leads to the wrong response - such as a 10 year old regaling his classmates with facts about cockroach biology on the assumption that they'll find it just as fascinating as he does. With time and effort, they learn to stop putting themselves in other people's shoes, and instead use the second, harder set of social skills a lot.

I think both sets of skills are important. Being able to put yourself in someone else's shoes, when appropriate, results in a far deeper experience of empathy for that person, and gives you a very rich knowledge base to interact with them. And though it's easier than the second set of skills, it does take a certain degree of self-understanding to be able to match up someone else's experience to your own and figure out what would have been helpful to you in that situation.

And the second set of skills is important in understanding diversity, in seeing the rich variety of experience for what it is. It's also, I think, important for social scientists, who use similar strategies even when dealing with their own 'kind' of people. And it's important because even NTs can't always avoid interacting with people who are different from them. You may find that circumstances throw you unexpectedly into a situation of bridging difference, such as when a new mother is told that her child has a developmental disability.

Atypical kids often learn the second set but not the first set. This means that they learn to see interaction in general as difficult and confusing. It also means that they have more trouble developing self-understanding, because they don't get to form links between their own experience and what they see in others. Alexithymia, the inability to name or identify your own emotions, is commonly associated with autism. I suspect most kids learn to label emotions by having adults correctly recognize and label their own emotions as they're feeling them (which is harder when the adults are struggling to bridge a difference between themselves and the child), and by empathizing with others while hearing people label the others' emotions (which is harder when you wouldn't feel that way in that situation). Spending time with people who are 'like you' is very important to understanding yourself.

Which brings me to the topic of integration vs segregation. Atypical kids, in order to succeed in life, need to learn skills for relating to NTs. And segregation is often used as a way to deny a proper education and enable discriminatory practices - no 'proper people' see it who aren't participating in it, and the children don't see counter-examples to make them question it. But on the other hand, segregated spaces are important, since they allow atypical people to connect with others who are more similar to them. The solution, I think, is to allow opportunities for both integration and segregation, and to make sure the segregated spaces are voluntary and positive (and preferably organized by the same kind of people who participate in that setting, like Autreat).

Neurotypical people often miss out on learning the second set of skills. Being the majority group, this only causes problems under special circumstances, but it does mean missing out on some of the richness of human diversity. And it can be a serious problem for atypical people, dealing with a society where almost no one knows how to relate to them. Furthermore, as I noted before, NTs can't always tell when they'll be thrust into a situation requiring the ability to understand someone very different from themselves.

And here is one of the best agruments for integration - when it's done well, it gives NT children an opportunity to get to know someone different from most people, and to develop the skills to understand them. That is, when it's done well. Many times, atypical kids in typical settings are rejected. No one tries to understand them or see their point of view. Instead, they learn that in order to be accepted by the people who matter, they must distance themselves from anyone who doesn't fit in. I don't think my classmates in any of my classes learnt anything valuable about relating to autistics kids from knowing me, for example.

Other opportunities are cross-cultural encounters such as exchange programs or simply having immigrants in their social group. Being an immigrant, of course, is a potent way to learn about difference - I remember reading about a father of a high-functioning autistic boy who gained a better understanding of his son after they moved from US to England and he started running into social misunderstandings. Having pets can also be a good experience, but only if you approach your relationship to them with the understanding that they have their own, rich, nonhuman experience of the world. If you anthropomorphize them or else treat them like objects that happen to move around on their own, you won't gain much in the way of understanding differences.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Steering My Brain

I read an interesting article about the dangers of the Internet, right here. And while I could see the potential problem, my high level of Internet use seems to have had none of the adverse effects they warn about. I could definitely resonate with the need for downtime, since that's when I tend to get most creative.

I was pondering why I haven't found my frequent Internet use - including several forums that I sometimes compulsively check - having any of the effects they describe. I still get plenty of writing done, I still enjoy quiet time petting my cat, I still read stories and empathize with the characters. Even though I have felt the pull of the Internet (and especially World of Warcraft), that pull comes and goes, leaving plenty of time for other things.

I think it's because I'm autistic. And not that autistics are inherently better at avoiding obsession - quite the opposite! All my life, I've been getting obsessed with one thing or another, and learning skills to handle obsession. I know when to give into it and let it out of my system for a bit. I know how to make myself stop something I don't want to stop, in order to do something less interesting. I know how to get my brain shifted into different 'modes', from 'World of Warcraft playing' mode to 'going for a walk' mode to 'working on a story' mode to 'doing some academic research' mode. Since early childhood, I've been learning these skills in many different settings, because almost anything can be as addictive to me as the Internet.

It's like if you took a sighted person and a blind person and put them both in a dark room filled with obstacles. Normally, a room full of obstacles would give the blind person more trouble, but now it gives them less, because part of the room's design ends up temporarily giving the sighted person the same impediment the blind person deals with all the time.

Most people have a 'direct way' and an 'indirect way' to steer their brains, and Internet disrupts the function of the 'direct way'. For me, the 'direct way' is functioning poorly all the time, so I focus instead on the 'indirect way' to steer my brain - what Amanda Baggs refers to as 'thermals'. I've learnt how to find the right thermals, how to nudge them into existence if I can, and when a small amount of flapping can get me onto a new thermal. Most people are much stronger flappers than I am, so they just get by with ignoring the thermals, until a strong wind wrests away control of their flight. Caught up in that strong wind, they try to flap against it and fail, while I gently shift my direction to find the way out without much effort.

And this probably applies to more than just the Internet. I've often wondered why there aren't more autistics with addictions, such as alcoholism, gambling addiction, etc. (A search of google scholar with the keywords 'autism addiction' only finds the crackpot theory that improper gluten and casein digestion causes opiates in our brains, not any research showing links between higher-functioning autism/BAP and addictive behavior.) And I think it's because we know how to manage overwhelming desires without letting them consume us. It may look like we're being consumed by it to others, on occasion, but we're just letting it out of our systems, and the intensity will fade somewhat over time. Other people don't experience this intense a desire for something, until they find things that highjack the pleasure centers of their brains and cause addiction.

I have no evidence for this theory, really, but it's an interesting thought. (And I took a break from World of Warcraft to write it!)

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Naivety and the Free Market

It seems like it's usually leftists who get called naive. But in some ways, many right-wing people strike me as much more naive.

Conservatives seem to fall into two groups - those who geniunely believe in the ideals they espouse, and those who only believe in lining their own pockets. The first group doesn't realize they're being used by the second group. They don't release they're helping the second group. And this is what I mean by naivety.

We haven't had free enterprise in 200 years. There are some very powerful comporations who crush any small businesses that threaten their profits.

Have you ever noticed how gas prices in every Canadian gas station are exactly the same? (I don't know the situation in US.) And how they go up before every long weekend? And how they go up when the oil supply is threatened, but don't go down when things improve?

Back in the 80s, gas stations charged all sorts of different prices, and many were 'Mom and Pop'  small gas organizations. Then the 'price wars' came. The big corporations agreed to drive the price of gas really, really low, low enough that the small gas organizations went bankrupt because they weren't making any profit. (The big corporations had enough money saved up, or other sources of income, that they could weather the loss.) Then, once they controlled the profit, they made a deal to all charge the exact same price so people would be forced to pay it. My Mom used to work at the Co-op gas station, and they'd check the prices on nearby gas bars to make sure they charged the same.

There are many ways that you can make a profit on a free market economy while screwing the public and the small businesses. You can get a monopoly - De Beers has a monopoly on diamonds, which is why they're so expensive. You can go into price wars to cut down on your competition. You can sell cheap junk so people have to replace it often - as long as everyone else sells cheap junk, you'll do fine. You can cut the forests down faster than they can grow, or fish the fish faster than they can breed (what do you think happened to our cod stocks?), because you can make a profit today and go into a different line of business ten years from now.

A free market economy can be a great thing. I see it in World of Warcraft, where you can find stuff for affordable prices on the Auction House, and sell stuff there and make some good coin fairly easily. But World of Warcraft isn't realistic. It doesn't cost you any in-game money to stand around mining ores. It's prohibitively difficult for others to stop you from mining ores. And if everyone's prices are too outrageous, many of your customers can go out and get the stuff themselves instead of buying it. Lastly, it's just a game, and no one lives or dies based on whether they turn a profit on that stack of copper ore.

In real life, a free market leaves us with no protection from exploitation, from having our futures undermined for today's profits, from being forced to pay through the nose for cheap crap that we need, from having good businesses go bankrupt through no fault of their own. That's why we need government controls on business - so we can keep the market as free as it can possibly be.

Wednesday, June 08, 2011

Pro-Choice and Pro Disability Rights: How Do You Reconcile It?

Firstly, I will state that I'm pro-life. I believe that, as long as cell differentiation has occurred, embryos and fetuses are deserving of the right to life, and that right takes precedence over a woman's right to control her own body. (I'd like to clarify, for people who stereotype pro-lifers, that I am atheist, feminist and quite left-wing in my attitudes. Pro-life doesn't have to mean 'Christian Right'.)

Recently, I got dragged into an abortion debate on a forum. Most of the people there seem to be pro-choice, although I certainly wasn't the only pro-life person there. With the exception of one guy who supported infanticide, most of the pro-choice people were of the opinion that the right to life only applies after you are born.

And while they tossed around many arguments about the rights of the mother, what it finally seemed to boil down to, for most of them, was that embryos and in some cases fetuses lack certain cognitive traits that they felt determined personhood. Traits such as feeling pain, 'consciousness' (however that is defined), feeling emotions, etc.

One thing I jumped on immediately was that those are also traits many already-born people lack - namely, people with certain disabilities, such as insensitivity to pain, 'vegetative state', etc. When I pointed this out to them, I discovered that most of them were just fine with the way Terri Schiavo died - to them, she wasn't a person either.

But I know there are pro-choice disability rights activists. If you are one of them, I have a question for you. How do you reconcile denying certain rights to embryos, while granting them to people in vegetative states?