Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Too Young to be a Boy

In my volunteering program this year, there's a transgender 15 year old. This kid is physically female, but identifies as male. He's a troubled kid, but basically a nice kid who's had a whole heaping of trauma in his life (alcoholic mother, deaths in the family, etc). He's also high functioning autistic and has ADHD, which makes things more difficult. And he seems to get bullied a lot by other kids - being autistic and trans can be a bad combination for that.

Notice that I used 'he' to refer to this kid? I couldn't have said the above paragraph in the volunteering program, because I've been officially forbidden to use male pronouns to refer to this boy. Some mental health program that's involved in this kid's care has decreed that all involved should use female pronouns for him. Apparently because he's too young to know his real gender.

Now, I've read research that suggests that transgender teens are not too young to know they're transgender, and early transitioning is better for the kid's mental health. And all I've seen of this kid indicates that he has given this a great deal of thought and knows that this is who he is - although we haven't spoken directly about it a lot, he knows a great deal about the physiology of gender differences (he was explaining some stuff to a random bystander about why guys have Adam's apples), and he's quite consistent in saying he's a guy. In fact, sometimes he almost seems to forget he's physically female and talks as if he's born male, saying things like 'I'm the only guy left in my family' (he had two brothers die).

Not only that, he outright told me he prefers male pronouns. Given that, it feels like a betrayal to call him 'she'. Even when he's not around to hear it.

But, if I call him 'he', I risk getting in trouble. I'm not sure what the consequences would be if I pushed the issue. At worst, they'd ask me to stop volunteering. Which would be bearable, but is something I really want to avoid. Firstly, I like to think this kid gets some benefit from me being around, given that I get what it's like to be different, and I've already made it clear I'm supportive of transgender rights. And secondly, one of the other participants, a 12 year old autistic girl, is getting to be a good friend of mine, and I really don't want to lose my only way of having contact with her.

I've settled reluctantly for the choice of avoiding pronouns as much as possible when referring to the transgender kid. I'll structure my sentences so I can use his name only, without it being too awkward. But the whole situation makes me extremely uncomfortable. This kid is having a really rough time, and I know one thing I could do to make it a little better, but I'm forbidden to do it. At least the kid looks convincingly male, so people who don't know him well perceive him as male. (I'm actually kind of amazed at how, using simply dress, hairstyle and mannerisms, he's managed to make a female body look entirely male. Of course, the fact that he looks pre-pubertal obviously helps. I don't know if he's on hormone suppressing drugs or just a late developer, but either way, he doesn't show much sign of puberty.)

But what kind of mental health provider would think it was in this kid's best interests to try to make him deny who he is? Especially when the research evidence shows otherwise? And what frustrates me most is that I really have no power to do anything about it, and fighting this is only likely to make it worse. And the one who loses in all this is the kid. Hopefully he can hang on until he's 18 - he's a tough kid, and he seems to be coping remarkably well given all he's dealing with. But what kind of damage is this doing, and how hard will it be for him to heal from it?

Monday, July 23, 2012

Abuse of Psychopathic Kids

Although psychopathy isn't caused by abuse, I can think of several reasons why psychopathic kids would, nonetheless, be more likely to be abused than non-psychopathic kids.

Parent-Child Transmission

Psychopathy is mostly genetic. Therefore, it stands to reason that children of psychopaths would be more likely to be psychopaths themselves. They are also more likely to have suffered abuse or neglect. Although a few psychopaths report feeling empathy for their own children and no one else*, many more feel no more concern about the welfare of their children than they'd feel about an ant.

Liane Leedom's book Just Like His Father, which I reviewed here, is written primarily for parents concerned about the inheritance of psychopathy and antisocial personality - parents with unpleasant ex-partners, or adoptive parents whose children have biological parents with antisocial tendencies. Unfortunately, her confusion over the relationship between antisocial personality and psychopathy makes her book less useful than it could have been, but it's interesting that she recognized the potential link.

Parental Stress/Vicious Cycles

Psychopathic kids are very hard to parent, and my sympathy goes out to anyone caring for a child with psychopathic traits. Unfortunately, the behavioral characteristics of psychopathy can cause these children to bring out the worst in their parents.

Parental stress is one of the major contributing factors to child physical abuse. This study, focusing on parents of oppositional kids, found that several were being abused by their parents, and the abusive parents reported being under a lot more stress than non-abusive parents. Part of this stress was dealing with an oppositional child, obviously, but the abusive parents were also more likely to be under environmental stress, as measured by number negative life events in the past year. This shows that everything in a parent's life matters, and if you're getting overwhelmed by it all, your parenting suffers as a result. (This is also one reason why we should approach abusive parents with less blame and more help.)

Psychopathic kids also tend to elicit specific behavior patterns from parents which can have a harmful effect as well - specifically, by amplifying psychopathic tendencies. Firstly, punishment insensitivity, which is a characteristic of psychopaths, tends to elicit harsh punishment from parents (if the kid doesn't care about time-out, maybe a spanking will get his attention?) and this harsh punishment, in turn, increases punishment insensitivity. The result is a vicious cycle that could lead to parents crossing the line into abuse in the hopes of finding a punishment that will actually work on the child.

Parental attachment and child callousness is another area that could have a vicious cycle. Parents will get the sense that their psychopathic kids don't really care much about them (which is true, in many cases). The natural reaction from parents is to withdraw emotionally, both to avoid being hurt and because they feel it doesn't matter to the child. However, many psychopathic kids can form attachments to others - it's just a lot harder to do so. If parents give up on bonding, the kid will never learn how to bond with them, and will instead shut off whatever ability to bond he or she did have. This sets off a vicious cycle where the child's coldness gets parents to be cold back, and their coldness makes the child colder.

The last way that psychopathy may put kids at risk of abuse from a non-psychopathic parent is because of the stigmatizing effects of identified psychopathy. If the parent knows the child is a psychopath, they may use this to justify actions they would not have even considered with a non-psychopathic child. Online, I've heard many people suggest extreme measures for dealing with hypothetical psychopathic kids - on Yahoo Answers, the question 'psychopath as a child, what would you do?' had 'accidentally push him off a cliff' rated as the best answer. I have no idea how many people would actually act on this if they were in that situation, but it is a worrisome possibility.

Extrafamilial Abuse

Psychopathic kids may also be at risk of being hurt by people outside the family, because of their delinquency, risk-taking and lack of fear. All of these result in a kid who is likely to put themselves in dangerous situations without realizing just how dangerous they are.

Firstly, psychopathic kids (like many delinquent kids) are often poorly supervised**. This means they're often without any parental protection because parents are unaware that they've gotten themselves in danger. Psychopathic kids have a poor ability to judge danger both due to their young age and their psychopathy (fear is adaptive, it draws your attention to signs of danger and makes sure you notice them) and when they're unsupervised, their parents' ability to judge danger can't help them out. A child alone also attracts abusers, and though they prefer kids who give off 'victim' body language (which psychopaths rarely do), they'll gladly go for any kid they think they can take advantage of. Some of these abusers may be adult psychopaths, others are just messed up. Psychopathic girls may be especially at risk, since many abusers prefer to target girls.

Delinquent activities also put the kid in direct contact with dangerous people. In particular, many delinquent kids may consume products (drugs or hookers) provided by organized crime, and organized crime members can be extremely dangerous if you threaten their business (or sometimes even if you get involved at all). A psychopathic kid may not realize this, or may be blinded by the thought of the rewards they could gain by screwing over or working for organized crime members, and quickly get themselves in deep trouble with connected people. Even adults often don't realize the risks - kids certainly won't.

Crying Wolf

Psychopathic kids tend to lie a lot. And, in particular, many make false allegations of abuse, as revenge or manipulation or just to get a reaction. One serious consequence, once a kid has gotten a reputation for false allegations, is that it may be very hard for that kid to be believed if they really are being abused.

This is why, no matter how many false allegations a kid makes, you can't just ignore their allegations of abuse. The 'crying wolf' story is taken as a parable for the boy who cried wolf, but it's just as much a parable for the townsfolk - just because someone sends out false alarms does not mean all their alarms are false. While it's important not to cause too much harm to the falsely accused, all abuse allegations need thorough investigation, even if they come from a child who has made false allegations in the past. To do otherwise risks abandoning a child to be abused.

Does It Matter?

There is a stereotype that psychopathic kids aren't hurt by abuse. Certainly, they seem less responsive to poor parenting than non-psychopathic delinquent kids, their fearlessness can protect them from developing trauma-related anxiety disorders, and their grandiosity may protect them from abuse-related shame. But this does not mean abuse has no effect on psychopathic kids.

In particular, there is good evidence linking abuse of psychopaths to the psychopath's likelihood of becoming violent. Some psychopaths are never violent - they con and use people, but they never actually lay a hand on them. Others may be severely violent, and a rare minority may even be serial killers. One of the predictors of whether a psychopath will be violent or not is how much violence they've been exposed to. (I'm not saying this is the only predictor, because there are multiple pathways to violence, but it is a major link.)

The thing is, though psychopaths may have reduced feelings of fear and possibly sadness, they are just as capable of getting angry as anyone else - if not more so. A psychopath who has been abused has a lot to be angry about. Furthermore, abuse teaches psychopaths a way of behaving, making them more likely to use abuse and violence as a conscious strategy.

* See this thread. It's possible they're lying, of course, but it seems plausible to me, considering how many species of animals care only for their young and no one else. Parental concern is one of the most basic forms of empathy.
** This often has more to do with the child's behavior than the parents'. It's hard to keep track of a kid who lies about or doesn't tell you where he or she is going, skips school, breaks curfew, and sneaks out. Well behaved kids are a lot easier to supervise properly because they'll tend to be where they're supposed to be.

Friday, July 20, 2012

The Allegedly Manipulative Child

In my research and thinking on how to treat psychopathic kids, I realized one big issue is how to deal with manipulative behavior. In order to effectively treat psychopathy in kids, it's vital that the kid notbe able to use manipulation to get what they want.

So when I saw a book called The Manipulative Child (by EW Swihart and Patrick Cotter) I thought I'd found a useful resource that might give good ideas on how to manage psychopathic kids. I was wrong.

The big problem is that this book, contrary to its' title, is not actually about manipulative kids! At the start of chapter two, they say:

"We noticed that most descriptions of manipulation assumed or implied that these behaviors were guided by conscious thought. From novelist to scientist, all assumed manipulation to be consciously planned behavior. When we looked at our patients who were manipulating their way through life, however, we discovered just the opposite: They did not seem particularly aware of how they were operating or why they were doing what they did."

So, they've redefined manipulation in a way that conflicts with everyone else's definition of manipulation. The reality is, conscious, planned manipulation is a psychologically meaningful category of behavior, which is what most people call manipulation. Their 'unconscious manipulation', in contrast, lumps together a pile of behaviors motivated by a pile of different things, and labels them with what most people consider a very loaded and negative term. When people think of a manipulative child, they do not think of a kid who lacks confidence and needs a lot of support. They think of a callous, selfish kid who deliberately tricks others into doing what he or she wants.

And this sets the tone for the victim-blaming prevalent in this book. From pages 37-39, they talk about a girl who was the victim of two separate attempted rapes. They talk about her acting seductively and not knowing how to say no, and imply that she's at fault for the attempted rapes (though they briefly admit that the boys' behavior couldn't be condoned). Firstly, contrary to stereotypes, acting seductively does not put you at higher risk of rape - acting insecure does. This is because rapists want an easy victim, who won't resist. The idea that seductive dress leads to rape is identified as one of a cluster of beliefs known as 'rape myths', beliefs which are more frequent in rapists and which lead to lower sympathy for rape victims.

They also blame the victims of bullying - one kid, for example, they say was being bullied because she reacted too readily. While her high reactivity may have been what got her singled out instead of some other kid, fundamentally she was bullied because there were bullies in her classroom. And the failure to recognize this not only teaches her that changing herself is the way to deal with bullying (a dangerous lesson) but leaves the bullies unrecognized and untreated. Being a bully is a risk factor for some pretty serious psychological problems, and some very adverse outcomes in life (such as becoming a chronic criminal). In fact, bullies often fare worse than their victims over the long run. Early intervention can help, but as long as we blame the victims, the bullies won't get the help they need.

They also think learning disabilities are often caused by kids avoiding work and manipulating people into helping them when they don't really need it. As a result, these kids don't learn the basic skills. On pages 10-12, they discuss a dyslexic 17 year old who was 'cured' by simply teaching her phonics, and claim that her problem originated by her deciding to give up because some kids were better readers than her. They also claim that the association between ADHD and dyslexia is because ADHD kids don't like reading instruction and try to avoid it.

Avoidance behaviors can play a part in developing learning problems, but in many cases where a kid is seeking too much help, this is a sign, not a cause, of learning problems. They also have a good point about how not learning basic skills sets up the kid for failure - this doesn't mean the kid's failure to learn the basic skills wasn't due to a disability. There's a big difference between a 6 year old and a 17 year old, so a 17 year old's ability to learn phonics doesn't mean she could've learnt it at 6. Some kids simply mature a bit more slowly, so they get ready for basic reading and/or math skills around (for example) 8-10 years instead of 6 years old. In a standard school system, often these kids don't get the chance to learn the skills when they're ready to learn them, because they're expected to already know them by then.

And one last example of victim-blaming - on page 37, they discuss a girl whose parents ask her why she got a low mark, and she replies "I was so upset by you and Dad fighting, I just couldn't concentrate." This is portrayed as 'putting the blame on her parents and trying to make them feel guilty'. Well, when I'm listening to two people I love arguing with each other, I can't concentrate! Parental conflict does have an averse impact on children, and part of this can be a decline in marks. This is not shifting blame - it's quite possible that this girl truly was unable to concentrate because of her parents arguing.

They also discourage parents communicating clearly with their kids. They recommend that you not ask kids 'why' they do things, because a) most kids don't know why they do the things they do, and b) it implies if you give a good enough answer, you won't be punished. Both of these are valid points, but they ignore just how valuable asking why can be. Firstly, if people introspect regularly, they learn to understand themselves better - this is why talk therapy so often asks you why you do what you do. Struggling to answer this question about your own actions teaches you how to analyze and understand yourself.

And secondly, when kids do give an accurate answer to this question, it often suggests a useful solution to the problem. If the kid doesn't want to wear his/her shoes 'because they're too tight', maybe he/she needs a larger size of shoes. If the kid doesn't want to go to school 'because Johnny always picks on me', maybe you can find a way for him/her and Johnny to get along, or maybe Johnny needs help learning not to pick on people. If the kid doesn't want to go to Grandpa's house 'because Grandpa sticks his hand in my pants and it feels weird', then it's time to call the police and keep the child away from Grandpa for his/her own safety.

When you understand why a kid does what they do, you're going to be more effective at dealing with it. And even though a kid's report of why they do things isn't always accurate, it's foolish to completely dismiss that method of gathering information on their actions. Obviously, you should also look at all the other evidence - the ongoing pattern of behavior, their body language, other people's reports, etc - but why would you ignore one of the most valuable sources of information on what's going on inside your kid's head?

Oh, and one minor complaint - they suggest the rule of 'homework first, then other activities'. This can work for some kids. But other kids find school so stressful that when they get home, they don't have the energy for homework. If you try to get them to do homework right away, you'll have a fight on your hands. But if you let them spend X amount of time doing something they like, and then insist on homework, they'll be a lot more cooperative. The key is timing it right, so it's a) not so soon that they can't relax first, b) not so late that they're tired and delays will infringe on sleep, and c) at a clear transition instead of interrupting something.

So, sadly, this book has nothing about actual manipulative kids. So, what do you do about manipulative kids?

Well, I'm far from an expert on the issue, but here are some ideas:

* Communicate directly with anyone involved with your child - If your child goes to school, talk to the teachers about his or her day; if he/she visits Grandma, talk to Grandma about how the visit went - that way, your kid can't pit you against them with lies.

* Check their facts - For example, one of my cousins, while in my family's custody, made a bonfire in the backyard and exploded a paint can. When my father came home, he immediately told my father a tale of helping someone with a house fire, to explain his singed hair. My father asked to be shown the house that was burning. My cousin claimed he couldn't remember exactly where it was. My father suggested they walk around and look for the burnt house. Of course, my cousin couldn't show him any burnt house. He also had no explanation for the blotch of paint on the wall of the house.

* Reward actions, not emotions - Children can't control what they feel, or don't feel. It's possible to control your feelings to a limited extent, but not completely, and this limited control isn't going to be learnt by rewarding the right emotions. Instead, rewarding emotional expression tends to teach kids to fake the right emotions and hide the wrong ones.

Labels: , ,

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Mathematical Giftedness Plus Dyscalculia

I decided to research Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy, in large part because two brothers in my volunteering program have this condition. On the Parent Project Muscular Dystrophy website, I came across an article about learning and behavior problems in Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy, which included a lot of information relevant to many kids without DMD as well.

The section about Dyscalculia caught my eye:

"There are two general areas of weakness that can contribute to problems with mathematics. One is a weakness in mathematical reasoning ability, which results in difficulty understanding math concepts. Children with problems in this area may have difficulty estimating amounts, understanding relative value (greater than, less than), or understanding abstract or symbolic concepts in math ("ten's place, hundred's place", money, fractions, etc.).

Another general area of weakness that can contribute to problems with mathematics is memory for arithmetic operations. Children with problems in this area have difficulty remembering number facts (e.g., multiplication tables), sequences/steps used in math problems, or computing easy calculations in their head. Some children may demonstrate problems in just one of these general areas, while others may have difficulty in both areas."

I've always had a hard time deciding if I'm good or bad at math. (Or whether I like or hate math.) Sometimes I struggle with mathematical things that others find easy, and other times I find mathematical things easy that others struggle with. And reading that passage, I finally realized that I'm actually both! I am gifted at one of those aspects, and disabled in the other!

I have always found mathematical concepts easy to grasp - especially visuospatial concepts. Geometry and Statistics are two of the easiest areas of math for me to understand, and with both of those I've found I have an intuitive idea of the 'ballpark' of the correct answer, even if I don't know the exact numbers. For this reason, multiple choice questions on math tests can sometimes be easy for me, when only one answer possibly could be correct. I can also readily spot when someone else's math reasoning is logically flawed. This aspect of math is not only easy for me, but can also be extremely fun, especially when the data I'm looking for matters to me and when I can avoid the mechanics of math as much as possible. (As regular readers of my blog will know from my SPSS posts, ever since I discovered SPSS, I've been doing statistical analyses for fun.)

Memory for arithmetic operations, or what I sometimes call 'recipe math', is very difficult for me. I still haven't completely memorized my times tables, though the ones I haven't memorized I've figured out shortcuts to solving (such as 5 * x = x / 2 * 10). I rarely memorize arithmetic operations either, instead I figure it out anew whenever I'm given a problem requiring that operation. (I really appreciate how university math exams provide you with the formulas instead of expecting you to memorize them, though I still have to work at figuring out which formula is which.) The most frustrating thing about math, for me, is that when I make mistakes, they're often very silly mistakes - I know how to do the problem, but I did an F-test instead of a T-test, or I thought 8 * 7 was 49, or something like that. I've been told over and over that this kind of thing is helped by practice, but if practice helps this for me, it takes far more practice than I can tolerate actually doing.

The good thing about this pattern of strengths and weaknesses is that it's the exact opposite of a computer's pattern of math skills. Computers are extremely good at basic operations, but it's a lot harder to program them to understand mathematical concepts. As a result, it's very easy to compensate for this type of dyscalculia - just give the person a computer program (like SPSS) that can do the basic operations for them.

The hard thing is that schools are really not designed for this kind of learning style. They're a better fit for the opposite pattern - a kid who struggles with math concepts but is really good at memorizing operations and performing them. (My father taught some kids who, if given a word problem with insufficient data to actually solve it, would input random numbers on the page - once even the date - and solve it based on those numbers. To me, this indicates someone who is doing math they really don't understand.) I really believe that, if I'd been taught math in a way suited to my learning style from the very start, I'd have excelled at it, and it could very well have been one of my favorite subjects.

Incidentally, this particular pattern seems to be a common pattern of math skills for both autistic and ADHD individuals, in my experience. This may partly explain why some autistic people are extremely good at math and others are dyscalculic (although there are some conceptual dyscalculic autistics too, most of whom seem to have NVLD).

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Is Belief a Choice?

It may seem like an odd question. Most people seem to feel that belief is a choice. When they know I'm an atheist, they all seem to think I could choose to convert to a religion, and be a believer of that religion, but I simply don't want to do that. I've had people justify treating me badly on the basis of religion as acceptable because I could choose to believe (I don't think something being a choice makes prejudice against it acceptable, but that's another issue).

But honestly, thinking back, I don't think I chose to become an atheist. In fact, I don't think I really chose any of my beliefs, except inasmuch as I chose what data to examine.

There are things I know to be facts. And once I know them, the only thing that can change that is more facts. My beliefs follow naturally from the facts I know (or think I know).

When it comes to religion, I know the laws of physics. I know Big Bang Theory. I know what the universe looks like. And I just don't see any room for a God anywhere in that picture.

I have a good imagination. I can imagine a world where God is real. I can also imagine worlds where vampires are real, aliens have visited earth and are secretly invading in the form of mind controlling slugs, and shapeshifting into an animal is possible. All of these are things I've wanted to believe in, have actually tried to believe in, at some point or another. But I just can't make them fit with what I know of reality.

Now, I could be different. I know I have less 'suspension of disbelief' when it comes to fiction - I'm fine with fantasy, but if I spot any logical inconsistencies in the world, I can no longer enjoy the story. (Old science fiction holds no interest for me due to this issue, while old fantasy often holds up well.) My father can enjoy some stories that seem ridiculous to me. I don't know if this is related to my inability to choose beliefs, but it could be. Maybe most people can choose to suspend their disbelief when they want to believe, and I can't.

Or maybe, this whole idea of choosing beliefs is wrong to begin with. Maybe no one actually choses what they believe. Given the findings that certain beliefs can be correlated to certain neurological makeups (for example, belief that everyone is in it for their own gain and no one is really trustworthy is correlated with psychopathy) it's possible that most people overestimate how much people can choose their own beliefs.

Did you choose your beliefs?

Monday, July 16, 2012

Identity Weirdness

There's a category of conditions I've been learning about lately, which are misunderstood by a lot of people. What these conditions all have in common is that your sense of your 'true' identity doesn't match the body you were born into.

The best known are transsexuals, officially termed 'Gender Identity Disorder'. I've recently met a teenage transsexual, a boy with a girl's body, in the volunteering program I'm in. He's a participant in the older group and a volunteer for the younger group. He's got a rough situation, but he's handling it very well - better than I would've. For more information on transsexuals, check out Transgender Care or one of the many other websites devoted to transgender issues.

What many people don't know is that transsexualism is only one kind of identity weirdness. There are many others as well.

A lot of people confuse identity differences with weird sexual kinks. Even transsexuals are sometimes confused with transvestites - people, usually men, who dress in the opposite gender's clothes for sexual excitement but are secure in their gender identity. For transsexuals, it's not a sexual thing, it's an identity thing. And that's true for all the conditions I'm describing here.

First, there are the transabled, also known as people with body integrity identity disorder - people who, though non-disabled, feel that their true self is someone with a disability. Most often they want to have a limb amputated, though spinal cord damage and blindness are common too, and some identify with other disabilities. If they can't get someone to surgically induce a disability, they might pretend they have it, such as a transabled paraplegic using a wheelchair even though his or her legs work fine. For some reason, a lot of disabled people seem to be really offended by the existence of these people, which makes no sense to me as a disabled person - just like the negative reaction to transgender people by many feminists makes no sense to me as a feminist. I don't think being disabled is a bad thing, so why would it bother me that someone wants to be disabled? For more information on transabled people, check out

A condition some people confuse with being transabled is adult baby syndrome (adult child, teen baby, etc)also called transaged, age identity disorder or infantilism. These people identify as being a much younger age than they actually are, such as feeling they are in some sense a baby despite being physically adult. The thing many of these people hope for the most is to find someone willing to roleplay as a parent or babysitter and take care of them while they drink from a bottle, wear a diaper, and play with baby toys. Again, this is not a sexual thing - although there are 'diaper lovers' who are sexually attracted to wearing diapers, they are separate from adult babies in the same sense that transvestites are separate from transgender people. Many adult babies still act as adults for much of the time, but want freedom to act as a baby from time to time. For more information, check out Little AB's website.

Another category includes otherkin, furry lifestylers and others who feel they are not truly human. Inside, they feel like they are actually a different species, whether some sort of animal or anthropormic animal or a mythological species of some kind. This has also been described as 'species dysphoria'. This is one of the harder forms of this condition for me to understand, because they don't just have a human body, but a human mind, and in that sense will never be anything but human. For example, sometimes I'd like to be a cat, but I know my cat sees the world in a way I will never understand because I do not have a cat's mind. It makes more sense to me, actually, for people to identify as mythological creatures, because many of these creatures are depicted as having reasonably humanlike minds, such that a human could conceivably think like them. Nevertheless, this is something some people seriously identify as, and I respect that. I don't understand it, but I respect it. For more information on otherkin, check out Otherkin Alliance.

There are probably other identity conditions in this cluster that I'm not aware of. Most of these conditions have little, if any research into them, and so not much is known about what causes them. Likely if we figured that out, we'd know a lot more about identity than we currently do. The human brain is an amazing thing, and some very strange phenomenon can result from it. But at the same time, we must remember that these are not just phenomenon, they are people, and many of these identity conditions carry with them a great deal of suffering. It can be extremely distressing to feel like you're in the wrong body, no matter what you feel your true form is.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Katawa Shoujo

There's this one game that my brother has recently gotten into. And it really surprises me how glad I am that he's playing it.

Katawa Shoujo's premise doesn't sound promising. A dating sim where you choose between several disabled girls could very easily turn out as an objectification of disability and girls, with a freakshow tone to it. But surprisingly, it's not like that at all.

Firstly, each of the girls has a unique personality, with many having traits that are completely unrelated to their disabilities. The blind girl Lilly, for example, is a very cultured half-foreign girl; and the armless girl Rin is an artist with a very unusual perspective on things. While many characters have angst, all of those characters have reasons other than disability to angst (Hanako, who has a bad facial burn, lost her father in the fire that burned her). The protagonist also has a disability as well, a heart problem which almost killed him and resulted in him being sent to the special school where the story takes place. This heart problem can actively impact your character during the storyline, especially if you end up with Emi, the legless track star.

And secondly, the approach to dating these girls is a very healthy one. As a visual novel, it has a structure similar to Choose-your-own-adventure books, so a few choices in the beginning determine which character you'll end up with - if you get a good ending (you can also get bad endings, one example being falling off a roof and dying). Then, you proceed to befriend the girl you chose, get to know her well, and only then does the relationship become a sexual one. It's usually the girl who initiates this shift, incidentally.

There is some explicit content, which you can choose to turn off if you wish. My brother has played it both ways. But the explicit content in Katawa Shoujo is far better than any porn you can find, because it's depicted in the context of a caring, healthy romantic relationship. You know the girl well and care about her deeply long before the sexually explicit interaction with them. They also provide a model for how to handle the sexual aspect of the relationship as well. With one girl, the second time you have sex with her, the two of you decide to try something unusual, which it turns out the girl really doesn't enjoy. She honestly communicates this to you and you both make the decision never to engage in that particular sexual practice again. (Also, every instance of sex in Katawa Shoujo includes condoms.)

My brother is a heterosexual teenager. Someday, he will be sorting out these questions for real, when he gets over his shyness enough to start a relationship with a girl. And if he follows the model of Katawa Shoujo, I think he'll make a great boyfriend for whichever girl is lucky enough to have him. And if he ever gets involved with a disabled girl, Katawa Shoujo will have shown him that there's a lot more to that girl than her disability, and that having a disability need not be a barrier to having a relationship.

Labels: , , ,

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Bonding, Autistic Style

I've said many times that lower functioning autistic kids seem fascinated by me.

I'm currently volunteering for a summer program for disabled kids for the second year in a row, and I've been working a lot with a boy I described last year as the 'highest functioning nonverbal kid I've met' because he was inaccurately described to me as nonverbal when he's actually got a good degree of useful speech. He's improved a great deal in both speech skills and behavior over the past year, and we've got a more severely-affected mix of kids now, so he stands out less. We've got a couple new kids who are kind of intermediate between him and the other minimally-verbal autistic kid (she entered the program halfway through last year, and was nonverbal and jargoning back then, but like him she's grown a lot in the past year). One of the intermediate kids is an extremely hyperactive kid who appears to have speech delays and has an unusual physical appearance, so I'm pretty sure he has a genetic syndrome. Also, the program has gotten smarter about autism - they're getting people from the autism services group to help out, and doing social stories to explain the plan for each day to the kids.

Anyway, I've been working with this kid this year, when last year I mostly just watched others work with him. He can be an exhausting kid, because by the end of the program he's generally tired and fed up and just wants to go home. He's handling it better now than he did last year, now he mostly just asks repetitive questions ('go back church?') and complains when we tell him to bit a bit longer. (He tends to reply to 'not yet' by saying 'yet!' in an insistent tone.) And asks for neverending back rubs, which I give even though it makes my arms ache. I think partly he just doesn't like being outside. I can't blame him - we're having a very hot summer, and he's a heavyset kid so he probably gets hot more easily.

Anyway, we had a neat interaction a couple days ago. He often sits with his legs crossed and one foot twisted so the sole is pointing up (half-lotus, I believe it's called). I sit like this too. He noticed me sitting like that once and got a happy look and touched my foot. I commented that I was sitting like him. Ever since then, he's had a habit of sitting like that and then grabbing at my legs and giving me a significant look. When I ask him if he wants me to sit like him, he says 'yes'. When I do it, he looks really pleased.

I think this is what cues lower functioning autistic kids that I'm like them - I move like them. I sit in similar positions to them and I do similar stims (I don't suppress my stims like many higher functioning autistics try to, because I feel that it's part of my self-expression). Partly my similarity to them is amplified because I tend to unconsciously mimic their movement patterns (this only happens with autistic kids, I find it very difficult to imitate non-autistic movement patterns). But when they see me sitting a way that they sit and none of the other volunteers sit, or flapping my hands in my peripheral vision, or rocking and humming softly, they're fascinated.

And when we get this kind of connection, these kids - who are said to be aloof, to lack reciprocal interaction, to have trouble with interactive play - show themselves to be quite playful. We'll get into these mostly-silent nonverbal conversations with each other. It's like if you had two Amandas doing In My Language together.

This kind of interaction is what makes me believe that autism is not an impairment in social skills, it's a different style of interaction, which doesn't always translate well to NT styles of interaction. I get these kids, and they get me, in a way that NTs don't get either of us.

This is also why I think that despite the variation in functioning, high and low functioning autistics fundamentally have the same condition. These lower functioning kids often seem to have many of my traits, only to a greater extreme than me. Low functioning autism is essentially 'HFA magnified'. It really is a spectrum. Every autistic person is unique (as are all people), but it's possible for a nonverbal kid in diapers and a verbally gifted eccentric young adult to have something in common that NTs don't get. I honestly believe the differences between HFA and LFA are not as big as they seem. They're propbably a few, relatively superficial traits that have a cascade effect overwhelming the ability to compensate.

Thursday, July 05, 2012

Eye Contact, Autism and Psychopathy

Researchers have found that children with psychopathic tendencies have trouble recognizing fear. Some new research suggests a relationship between poor fear recognition in psychopathy and lack of attention to the eyes of fearful faces. (Apparently fear shows most prominently in the eyes.) One study shows that psychopathic teens pay less attention to the eyes in emotion recognition tasks, and another study shows that instructing kids to look at the eyes improves psychopathic kids' fear recognition to normal levels.

They explain this through a theory which suggests that lack of eye contact in infancy results in poorer parent-child attachment, which impairs development of a conscience in these children. Problem is, psychopathic kids aren't the only ones who pay less attention to eyes. Many studies, such as this one, have shown reduced eye contact in autistic children as well. In fact, this is a more consistent finding, to the point where lack of eye contact is listed in many diagnostic scales as a sign of autism.

So if their theory is right, autistics should show the same lack of moral development that is seen in psychopaths. Problem is, they don't. Several studies have shown that autistic kids perform more like NTs than psychopaths on many psychopathy-related tests, such as the moral/conventional distinction and self-report of emotional empathy. On fear recognition, autistic kids are no poorer at recognizing fear than any other emotion - they show a generalized difficulty in recognizing all emotions (interestingly, kids with both psychopathy and autism show an additive effect, with the effects of both conditions combining to make them extremely poor at recognizing fear).

Clearly, then, lack of eye contact is not a cause of a lack of conscience and empathy. So what would explain the association between fear recognition and eye contact in psychopaths? Well, here's my theory:

lack of interest in others' emotions --> less attention to eyes --> poor fear recognition

So, most people, when they see a face, they immediately flag this as something to attend to, and they look at the eyes of the face so they can figure out what the person is thinking/feeling. They do this unconsciously. And one of the big reasons they do this is because they care what other people are thinking/feeling - they have affective empathy.

Psychopaths don't care what others are thinking/feeling. So when they spot a face, they won't instinctively try to figure out what's going on in that person's mind. As they get older they'll consciously try to figure people out when it serves their advantage, but they don't automatically try to do so. As a result, they don't gather as much information, especially from the person's eyes, so they don't recognize fear as easily.

Meanwhile, the situation for autistics is different. It seems to me that with eye contact, there are two kinds of autistic people. For one type, their brain flags eyes as important. In fact, their brain practically screams at them that eyes are important. The signal is too strong and causes overload, and they cope by averting their gaze. (This post is a good illustration of what eye contact is like for this kind of autistic.) Very often this type of autistic will not only avoid eye contact, but will avoid gazing at people at all - these tends to be the people who turn away when you're trying to talk to them. Fragile X Syndrome kids show this type of reaction to eye contact - they avoid eye contact, show abnormal brain activation to eye contact, and show lower cortisol (stress hormone) the less eye contact they make.

The other kind don't have eyes marked out as important. This is not, as in psychopathy, because they're not interested in how others feel, but because they don't get the same kind of information from people's eyes. It's like how a prosopagnosic person pays less attention to faces, because faces don't tell them who the person is. For this kind of autistic person, the brain regions that process and interpret subtle cues to other people's facial expressions are not working properly, and so they don't get all that much information from the person's eyes. Some focus on the mouth instead of the eyes, because many kids with language problems will often use lip-reading to boost comprehension. Others focus on body areas that they can read emotions in more easily - I tend to read emotion most easily from people's shoulders (tension, height, etc).

How would you test my theory? Well, the same study that showed recused attention to the eyes of fearful faces in psychopaths also showed that non-psychopaths look at eyes more for fearful faces than for sad faces (eyes are less important for recognizing sadness). Other studies have shown that psychopaths make more, not less, eye contact in certain settings, such as when being interviewed, suggesting that there's no generalized deficit in eye contact in psychopaths. This supports my theory that lack of eye contact is an effect of reduced empathy - in situations where people make eye contact for reasons other than empathetic ones, psychopaths will make plenty of eye contact.

Secondly, we could examine whether there's any relationship between the amount of eye contact infants seek and their performance on the Strange Situation several months later. If my theory is correct, individual differences in eye contact should have no relationship to attachment style.