Social Skills for Everyone

ableism, Autism, Disability, Education, Friendship, Infographics, Neurodiversity, Parenting

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

[Each of the slides above has its own image description. Slideshow can be paused for ease of reading text. Full transcript at the end of this post, with a downloadable PDF.]

Issues of social inclusion are often persistent throughout a disabled person’s lifespan. Lack of inclusion can be a vicious cycle if non-disabled people are unfamiliar with how to include and interact with disabled people in their community:

1. disabled people are excluded, are segregated to disabled-only spaces, and/or withdraw from community life when they are socially rejected

2. non-disabled people continue to have social spaces and groups that have no disabled people in them, and they never become familiar or intimately connected with disabled people

3. disabled people continue to be rejected or excluded by non-disabled people who are unfamiliar with how to include us

And, REPEAT.

How do we break this cycle? Traditionally, most of the onus has been on disabled people to assimilate and “normalize,” but this not only doesn’t work well, it’s unfair and ableist. Mainstream culture is beginning to realize that non-disabled need to do more to include us without trying to “fix” us, but it’s crucial to understand that acceptance is more than just a feeling. It’s a series of actions, and for most it will require some learning and listening to disabled people.

I have a dream that parents of non-disabled children will begin to talk to their kids about disability, as early and as often as possible. Just as with other issues of discrimination, it’s not enough to trust that your kids will be “nice” – even nice, lovely, kind hearted children may discriminate against or exclude disabled children if they simply do not know how to include them, and don’t understand people who are different from themselves in ways that a child can easily perceive.

This guide is a start. Please please share it with your kids and talk to them about what disability inclusion means. It’s not about pity or charity, it’s about equality.

Social Skills for Everyone PDF

FULL TRANSCRIPT:

Cover.
Infographic cover has the title Social Skills for Everyone,” subtitle making friends and getting along.” Above the title are two human figures, one waving their arms with a speech bubble saying hi!” and the other with arms akimbo and a speech bubble containing ellipses. 
Page One.
Infographic text says: You might have noticed… there are all kinds of people in the world. no two are exactly alike. Not even twins! You probably won’t be friends with everyone you meet (and that’s ok!) but learning to get along with people makes life a little better for all of us.” One group of human figures is multicolored, with a green figure waving and saying hello!” A pair of orange figures who look the same as each other stand side by side, one saying I love drawing comic books” and the other saying I don’t draw. But I love Minecraft!” 
Page Two.
Infographic text says: There isn’t only one right way” to socialize… Just like there isn’t only one way to play! Everyone has their own style figure adds, and I think that’s cool!’ and learning someone else’s style is how you include someone new figure adds, and hey, remember… next time, the new person… could be you!’” Bottom image shows a green figure standing in foreground holding/touching their own head, with other figures in the background playing and one waving in greeting to the green new person.
Page Three.
Infographic text says: When you meet someone new… it’s nice to greet them and ever nicer to invite them to talk or play with you.” Image shows two human figures in foreground and two more playing in the background. A green figure waves and says to the orange figure, Hi, I’m Alex. Do you want to play tag with us?’ More text: but what if they don’t answer?” The green figure stands with a question mark thought bubble, while the orange figure touches/holds their own head and stands with a thought bubble containing ellipses.
Page Four.
Infographic text says: It might NOT mean they don’t want to play. Try this! Wait a few more seconds some people just need a little more time to answer questions or think of what to say.” Orange figure has a speech bubble that says …………okay!’ Move so they can see your face some people need to read your lips while you talk.” Two green heads in profile face each other, one with sound waves around mouth. Ask in a different way if they aren’t sure how to answer, using different words might help.” Green figure points to the side and says to orange figure, He’s it.” Let’s run!’ Or maybe just try again later. They might not be ready to join in yet, and that’s okay too!
Page Five.
Infographic text says: Some people do not speak at all (or not very much) but you can still include them! People who don’t speak communicate in other ways, like: Body Language! (orange figure in a variety of poses/gestures), using their voice in other ways (orange laughing face with speech bubble hahaha!’) or even using an app on a tablet! (orange figure holds a black tablet which has a dialog box saying okay. let’s play!’)
Page Six.
Infographic text says: When you meet someone who seems different, you might notice that they look, talk, or act differently than anyone else you’ve met before.” A green figure stands touching/holding their own head with a question mark thought bubble. It’s okay to ask polite questions.” A green figure asks, Does that hurt?’ to an orange figure with a small red mark on their face, who responds, No. It’s just a birthmark.’ More text: It’s good to celebrate our differences AND remember we aren’t all that different on the inside we all pretty much want the same things: to be accepted, to feel we belong, and to have fun doing things we enjoy.” At the bottom is a row of human figures: a green one with arms akimbo, orange one with heart-shaped birthmark, gray one waving arms, green one with headphones high-fiving a gray one with an orange wheelchair.

Autism Acceptance 101

Autism, Disability, Neurodiversity, Parenting

Autism Acceptance 101

Image is an infographic with the following text:
guide for parents
Autism Acceptance 101
Autism Acceptance sounds simple enough, but what does it really mean for parents of autistic children?
[photo of a red tricycle on a sidewalk]
Autism Acceptance is NOT:
– ignoring challenges for parents or children
– giving up on your child or having low expectations
– pretending that life is all unicorn farts and rainbows!
[photo of a smiling child on a swing]
Autism Acceptance IS:
– accepting that autism is an inextricable part of your child
– acknowledging your child’s unique challenges & needs
– providing supports & helping your child thrive….
as an autistic person!
Erin Human
facebook.com/theeisforerin
erinhuman.com
This infographic also comes in a printable PDF:
Autism Acceptance 101
Image has the text "5 Things I've Learned About Parenting & Gender" followed by five humans figures in pink, white, blue, purple, and green

5 Things I’ve Learned About Parenting & Gender

Identity, Neurodiversity, Parenting

 

When I had my first baby, I had good intentions about not boxing him into a prescribed, stereotypical gender role. But I also had a lot to learn, about gender and about parenting too.

Seven years later, I still have plenty to learn about gender issues (and about parenting too!), but here are a few things I can share:

  1. Gender is not binary.

It’s hard to believe now that I ever thought there were only two genders – especially since I have never fit all that well into the pink/blue dichotomy myself – but I did make that assumption, and a lot of other nice people do too.

Now that I know better, the whole idea of a gender binary seems patently absurd. Nothing about human beings is binary. Do we only come in two different skin tones? Two eye colors? Two body types? Two sexual orientations? Two personalities? Sexual anatomy isn’t binary either, but more of a spectrum, with “intersex” being a term for all of the varieties of anatomy that lie between the binary options most people are familiar with.

So why would gender be the only thing about us that’s so black and white?

It isn’t.

  1. Being transgender is not rare.

When I first had kids I assumed that being transgender was so rare, my kids so statistically unlikely to be trans, I didn’t really have to bother incorporating trans issues into my parenting. I was wrong on two counts. Not only is transgender relatively commonplace, but also, even if my kids are not trans that doesn’t give me a pass to not teach them about transgender identity and trans rights.

The most recent study I’ve seen estimates the US population of transgender people to be around 0.6% of the population; however, I believe it’s most likely much higher, because the study counts people who self-identify as trans. Not only is it not at all safe to be transgender in the US today – on average, over two dozen trans people are reported murdered every year – but many people don’t know that transgender identity includes non binary people, and many don’t know that non binary gender identities exist at all.

Even if my kids don’t fall into the category of transgender people, ignorance always promotes prejudice and bigotry, so I now know it’s my obligation to be inclusive whenever we talk about gender.

  1. Children begin to develop a gender identity around age three.

It’s typical for children to begin to develop a sense of their own gender as early as age two or three, and that identity tends to firm up around age five, though it may become more fluid again later.

However, many adults persist in perceiving this to be a normal gender development only for cisgender* children, and will characterize young transgender children as confused or disordered when they assert their gender at this young age. It’s not fair, humane, or even logical to hold some genders to one developmental yardstick and some to another. If a child in preschool tells us he’s a trans boy, how does it make sense to question if he’s really sure – do we ever ask this question of a cis boy?

The sad irony, of course, is that these waters are muddied by the aggressive efforts of adults to police the genders of young children – even of infants! From the color coding of onesies and toys, to crowing over baby girl’s first pigtails or boy’s first handsome short haircut, to the incessant messaging in children’s media, the pressure to be cisgender that adults put on children from the moment they are born is completely suffocating.

Which leads me to…

  1. It’s Not Enough for Parents to be Passively Nonconformist.

It would be nice if raising our kids with gender freedom was as easy as just NOT gender-coding their toys and shoving them into stereotypical cis roles, but alas, the world around us is hell bent on playing Gender Police. And that means that we have to be vigilant about countering their influences and giving our kids the critical thinking skills to make their own judgment calls on what the world says about gender.

Sometimes the messages are overt – we once had a young friend over who told one of my sons that his stuffed owl was “a girl’s thing” because it was pink. Most of the time they’re more subtle, and pervasive, almost atmospheric – I’ve noticed how many of the kids’ iPad games ask for them to input their gender, and the only options are boy or girl, or pink avatar with long hair versus blue avatar with short hair.

So as a parent, my role goes beyond opting out of gender policing – I have to also equip them with the tools to stand up to gender policing when it happens to them, and to question and counter the cisnormative** messaging they find all around them.

  1. Kids are far more flexible and open-minded than us, if allowed to be.

It’s true that children are not born with prejudice and bigotry in their hearts, but they are born ready to adopt and perform social norms (to varying degrees – neurodivergent children are often slightly less oriented toward conformity, which I count among my blessings in life!). Kids who learn transphobic and sexist culture at home are quick to carry it out in their interactions with peers.

I’ve heard so many adults claim that their young cisgender children are naturally masculine or feminine without any coercion from parents, without acknowledging the subtle ways kids’ gender is policed from birth – and even before birth, with many well meaning parents eagerly pinning a gender on their fetus as early as a 20 week ultrasound! If not subjected to this pressure, however subtle and seemingly benign, most young children could and probably would be more fluid and flexible in their explorations of gender.

One day I was looking at a My Little Pony cartoon with my younger child, and I commented on a pony described as “he” that I’d thought the character was a girl. My kid told me, “well, he’s kind of a boy and a girl at the same time.” Without having it explained to him, my 4 year old easily grasped the concept of a non-binary gender identity.

In that moment I could have chosen to nudge him back toward cisnormative culture, or simply affirmed his intuition; of course, I did the latter. “Oh, that’s cool – you know, some people in real life are a boy and a girl at the same time too.” Life is full of such teaching moments, and how we respond to them influences how our children view not only themselves, but other people who are unlike them in various ways.

It’s challenging at times to walk the fine line of countering cissexist*** messages without insulting the things and people our kids like. It can be painful sometimes to see them exposed to ridicule from peers who are raised differently. But the rewards of raising kids with gender inclusivity are plentiful. I’m so grateful that my children are able to enjoy a wide variety of entertainment and cultural interests without being hemmed in by gendered expectations and stereotypes – I see how this gives them confidence, a sense of self, and pure joy unpolluted by prejudice. And my hopes are high that they will be more compassionate people in the long run, with a good foundation built on principles of equality and respect.

* cisgender or “cis” means a person is the same gender as the one designated or assigned to them at birth based on genitalia – i.e., if a baby is born with a vagina, they are typically designated by doctors and/or parents as a girl but may not be so.

** cisnormative means it’s implicitly assumed that people are cisgender, and/or that cisgender is the default position and transgender is an exception or in any way an “other” type of person – e.g., the common anatomy lesson we give to kids that “girls have vaginas and boys have penises” is cisnormative and not factually correct.

*** cissexist means biased against trans people, including non binary and gender non-conforming people.

Image has the text "5 Things I've Learned About Parenting & Gender" followed by five humans figures in pink, white, blue, purple, and green

Image has the text “5 Things I’ve Learned About Parenting & Gender” followed by five humans figures in pink, white, blue, purple, and green

Dangerous Assumptions

Autism, Books, Neurodiversity, Parenting

Trigger Warning: This post will discuss ableism, abuse and filicide of disabled children and adults, dehumanizing language about autistic people, and harmful behavioral therapy. I’m placing a trigger warning here as a matter of courtesy to readers who have forms of PTSD that could be triggered by these topics.

I recently read a book called Ghost Boy by Martin Pistorious. This remarkably compassionate and sensitive memoir relays the story of how Pistorious fell ill with a virus at age 12, went into a kind of waking coma for a few years, and reemerged into consciousness in his mid-teens. When he awoke from that blackout state he had very little control over his body, so that he was unable to signal to anyone in any way that he was again aware, listening, and wanting to communicate.

Eventually an attentive caretaker noticed that he seemed to want to communicate and she advocated for him to be evaluated as a potential AAC (Augmentative and Alternative Communication) user. He was able to use eye gaze to prove that he could communicate, and eventually, with hard work and great passion, learned to use a few different AAC tools, including of course typing out his memoir of these experiences.

Meanwhile, I’ve also been reading Typed Words Loud Voices, a book of essays edited by Amy Sequenzia and Elizabeth J. Grace. It’s a slim volume out of Autonomous Press but I’ve been savoring it slowly. These essays (and a few poems) are all written by people who type to communicate; some are autistic, some are not, some are functionally non-speaking, some are partially non-speaking, and some speak most of the time but communicate better through typing than through talking. A common thread through these works is the experience of typed communication as freedom for the authors – freedom from the pain of being misunderstood.

A book review came out in The New Yorker last week that has set my mind on fire. In “Seeing the Spectrum,” Steven Shapin reviews the new book In A Different KeyThe Story of Autism, but he has a few choice editorial comments to make about autistic people himself. I’ll leave my thoughts on the book for another time as my copy is currently in the mail and I plan to read and review it fully.

One of Shapin’s remarks goes thusly: “It’s a searing experience to have a child who doesn’t talk, who doesn’t want to be touched, who self-harms, who demands a regularity and an order that parents can’t supply, whose eyes are not windows to their souls but black mirrors.”

His choice of words here strikes me as notably harsh and hateful, but the truth is, the sentiment beneath them is far from original. The idea that having a child who does not speak or like certain kinds of touch is soulless and tragic is, unfortunately, not only not new – it’s terribly commonplace. Shapin, like everyone else who parrots this narrative, leaves aside the question of why such a child might self-harm, but let’s not.

A common straw man argument that people use against autistic adults who argue for acceptance is that we are not like those so-called low functioning children and therefore cannot speak for them or even about them with any credibility. This argument assumes quite a lot: it assumes, for one thing, that none of us are parents to autistic children. It assumes that none of us were once non-speaking children who were thought to be “low functioning.” It assumes that functioning is a set of two static, binary categories. And it assumes – and this is so important to point out – that none of the autistic activists fighting for acceptance and equality online, in articles, in blog posts, and on Twitter, is actually non-speaking themselves.

Shapin makes the absurd distinction that “the capacity for independent living is an important factor in whether an individual is held to be ‘high functioning’ or ‘low functioning’.” I’ve also heard it said that the ability to hold a job is what qualifies an autistic person as high functioning. Of course, the ability to live on one’s own and hold a job are things that are only pathologized for disabled people, right? Lots of non-disabled people struggle with those things without being called low functioning.

If you stop to think for even a few seconds about what these labels mean, I think – I hope – you will see how little sense they make. Which label do you slap on a person who does not speak, needs significant daily live-in care, but can write a book? Which label do you slap on a person who speaks fluently, and lives alone, but relies on disability payments for income? I hope that it is obvious how arbitrary it is to qualify a human being’s “functionality” if you really consider it for a moment or two.

Of course, people like Shapin bolster their arguments by dismissing out of hand those who require assistance to use AAC – sometimes called “supported typing” or “facilitated communication” (FC). (The link in previous sentence goes to an awesome post on Unstrange Mind that includes videos of FC users in action.) FC was supposedly “debunked” in the 90s, but that research is now known to have been bad science, and there are many wonderful FC success stories, including that of Amy Sequenzia (co-editor of Typed Words mentioned above) and poet Tito Mukhopadhyay (one of the autistics featured in Spectrum: The Film). By dismissing both the autistics who speak and those who don’t but use assisted typing to communicate, the people who want to discredit the neurodiversity movement get us both coming and going.

Where am I going with this and how does it all relate? I want to return to Shapin’s statement about the searing experience, if you can bear to reread it: “It’s a searing experience to have a child who doesn’t talk, who doesn’t want to be touched, who self-harms, who demands a regularity and an order that parents can’t supply, whose eyes are not windows to their souls but black mirrors.”

By dismissing the voices of those who type to communicate, by erasing the souls of children who do not talk, Shapin and others who perpetuate this kind of narrative dehumanize autistic people. Dr. Ivar Lovaas, the founder of ABA therapy whom Shapin extols in his piece, once said of autistic children, “You have a person in the physical sense—they have hair, a nose and a mouth—but they are not people in the psychological sense.” I hope that if you ponder it for even a moment, that quote runs a chill down your spine.

This dehumanization and dismissal of autistics as not-people, as not really there, as soulless, as without thought, is precisely the kind of story – the kind of lie – that leads to abuse and murder of autistic children and adults. We don’t have to speculate that such awful things could happen; they do happen, with disturbing regularity. What sorts of things would people, in their carelessness, callousness, and sometimes cruelty, do to a person whom they think is not really, in any practical sense, there?

Martin Pistorious tells us in Ghost Boy of the awful things that were done to him when he was unable to communicate. He was treated like a thing, like an annoyance, treated worse than an animal, when people viewed him as not-a-person simply because he could not speak.

Aaron Greenwood tells us in Typed Words, “i was never ok with being treated like i needed to change. it is a horrible reality only to have people in power treat you like an object only without asking you or respecting you.”

It’s inexcusable, inhumane, and utterly irrational to persist in the belief that people who don’t speak do not think, when over and over and over again – given access to some usable communication tool – they tell us that they do.

There’s a concept from Disability history called “the least dangerous assumption.” As applied to people with communication differences, including non-speaking autistics, it means that in a very real way, the least dangerous assumption parents, teachers, caregivers, and the public can make about a person who currently is not able to verbally communicate is that they have complex thoughts and feelings just like any other person, but are not yet able to express them.

What harm, after all, could be done by treating this person with respect and assuming that they do understand you, they do feel a wide range of emotions, they do have thoughts and opinions, and that the ways they do communicate – be it laughter, echolalia, screams, or even self-injury – are meaningful? At worst, they never do find a method of expressing their complex thoughts, but have been treated like a human being.

The most dangerous assumption, meanwhile, is that they don’t understand. Their eyes are not windows to any sort of soul. They are people in form but not in substance. Their communications are disregarded as meaningless or rudimentary. Imagine if, all along, a person treated this way understood absolutely everything they were told, understood that people underestimated not only their cognitive abilities but their very humanity, understood that they were seen as less than, damaged, or not even there. Imagine the danger to a soul viewed as soulless.

Imagine how you would feel in that person’s place. Would you feel angry? Would you want to scream? Would you lash out sometimes? Can you imagine something like an inner struggle to express rage without hurting other people that might lead you to self-harm?

The desire to be seen is perhaps the strongest craving in a human being. To simply be seen or heard by another person is the most basic level of communication; and I don’t mean seen literally with the eyes, or heard with the ears, but to be beheld by a fellow human by any means available. To know that you have managed to convey something of your unique self to another person both roots you to the world and frees you. Martin Pistorious did this with only the smallest movement of his eyes at first – and a person who was willing to see him. Aaron Greenwood (again from Typed Words) wrote of his “life’s longing to be part of this world.”

Everyone wants this: a place in the world. And everyone can have it, if we truly listen. 

Image is a photo of the Earth in space, as a background to the text in capital white letters: “Everyone can have this: a place in the wold. And everyone can have it, if we truly listen. eisforerin.com”

Listening to The Real Experts

Autism, Books, Neurodiversity, Parenting

Image is the front cover of The Real Experts: Readings for Parents of Autistic Children, edited by Michelle Sutton. Front cover blurb reads: “Full of practical advice… a landmark book.” – Steve Silberman.

The Real Experts: Readings for Parents of Autistic Children, a collection of essays written by autistic authors and collected by editor Michelle Sutton, is a challenge for me to review. In my efforts to do so, I read through the entire book twice, once just to enjoy it, and then again to highlight my favorite passages. Even so, when I try to sit down and write a review, all I can seem to come up with a bubble of excitement in my chest and a wordless feeling that is kind of like a whole body fist pump, and then the equivalent of a third grader book review: “This book was AWESOME! You should totally read it!”

But why, Erin, tell us why. Yes, I still remember the format: a brief synopsis, then tell us what you think of it and why.

Michelle Sutton is a writer, neurodiversity rights activist, and mother in a neurodiverse family (for those new to the term, neurodiverse means that within her family are a variety of neurological types). She put this collection together by selecting a group of essays and articles, all written by autistic people, as a guide for parents – and other people who know, love, or work with autistic children – but mainly for the parents.

These are the people (or some of them, anyway) whose work and words have guided her in her own journey of parenting autistic children and now she wants to share them with others. I would not, however, want to limit this book only to people with autistic children in their lives, because in my view, it appeals to an even wider audience: anyone who is interested in learning more about what being autistic means, anyone who has a passion for equality for marginalized people, and anyone who cares about disability rights (and really, shouldn’t that be everyone?) will get a lot from The Real Experts. 

The authors in the book (including Sutton herself) are also all people from whom I have learned a lot – about parenting, about being autistic, about activism, about writing, and even about friendship, as some have personally been mentors and friends to me. I can imagine how difficult it was for Sutton to choose only one or two pieces each from the impressive bodies of work these authors have created.

What is covered by The Real Experts, in a purely topical sense, are a range of subjects of interest to everyone with a connection to the autistic community – communication, sensory processing differences, “passing” as neurotypical, ABA therapy, functioning labels, identity first language, disclosure of diagnosis, intersectionality, all kicked off by Nick Walker‘s well known article “What is Autism?” (Link goes to the book’s foreword, republished on his blog.)

Those are all important, useful, even crucial topics, but even those thought provoking questions and answers are only a part of what The Real Experts offers. The rest is the thing that gives me that bubble of excitement that I can’t quite put into words. There is power here. Beauty that almost hurts. Pain that almost heals. Vulnerability so real it leaves you a little breathless. There is love, expanding beyond what the page can contain.

Ultimately, The Real Experts is a book not only about parenting, or autism, or disability, but about humanity. This is a book in which autistic voices call out to the world with strength and clarity: we are here. We are people. We think, feel, love, hurt, and wonder. We thrive when you nurture us, but we will also triumph if you reject us. This is a book that challenges you: we will find our place in the world even if you try to stop us. And it’s a book that invites you: find that place with us.

*

The Real Experts can be ordered directly from Autonomous Press, an independent press cooperatively owned by disabled workers. 

The Clay vs The Seed

Education, Parenting

The Clay

A lump of clay has the potential to do or be almost anything, but until the intent, creativity, and pressure of a higher being is applied, it just sits there. Generally it quite willingly gives to that pressure and molds to the shapes desired, but if left to its own devices, it will just sit on the table, inert, with no ideas or motivation or momentum of its own. With the steady and goal-oriented guidance of more intelligent hands, it can be shaped into a thing of beauty and purpose.

The Seed

A seed also appears to be an inert object, but is actually a small bundle of energy and potential that just needs a fertile environment in which to grow. It needs some nurturing, but it does not need to be told how to grow, how quickly to do it, or what to grow into. Its full potential and eventual form are all contained within the seed. Funny thing, many seeds can even grow in a crack in the concrete; but it’s best to start with a nourishing soil, and sunlight and water as needed (another funny thing, too much watering can cause the budding plant to wilt). The seed needs opportunity, but not motivation; it is born with the drive become the mature form it will someday be.

I firmly believe that children are very much like seeds. I agree with author and father of unschooling John Holt when he says,

We can best help children learn, not by deciding what we think they should learn and thinking of ingenious ways to teach it to them, but by making the world, as far as we can, accessible to them, paying serious attention to what they do, answering their questions — if they have any — and helping them explore the things they are most interested in.

I’ve heard many arguments against unschooling that go something like, “without adults to tell children how to behave, it will be Lord of the Flies.” Lord of the Flies is an allegory about the essential evil of human nature (by the way, NOT children’s nature specifically! It’s meant to be about people generally, much the way Animal Farm is not actually about the natural instincts of barnyard critters) that ties in with the concept of original sin (and the name “Lord of the Flies” is a synonym for Beelzebub).

Golding believed that people were basically cruel and evil, and if the veneer of higher law and order were ever stripped away, we’d fall back on killing and eating each other. When people use the Lord of the Flies argument for controlling children, we should interpret that not as a parenting or teaching style but as a certain kind of fundamental worldview.

It seems to me that many people who are not necessarily religious or Christian nevertheless have absorbed this concept of original sin – man’s sinful, evil nature. And actually it seems a little dangerous to me that atheistic/agnostic people can retain that concept of man’s evil nature while rejecting the theology of redemption. Christians, at least, are saved by grace. What do you have to save you if you aren’t religious but believe that humans are inclined toward murder and destruction? (Maybe worth noting at this juncture that Golding died by suicide.) I suppose all you have is the idea that we can choose to be civilized and live under a higher authority that forces us all to behave and not be too murdery, and so it stands to reason that we have to do this to children (mold them, shape them, control them, and convince them it’s better not to stab people). (As Modest Mouse once sang, “who would want to be such a control freak?”)

I reject this worldview completely. I’m an atheist, but I’m a humanist with an essentially rational, not dogmatic, belief system. I believe that humans are social animals whose driving force is to form groups and support each other to perpetuate the species. My belief is almost the opposite of Golding’s, who felt that culture had the ability to sort of tenuously suppress evil; I think that culture often stirs up and perpetuates evil (see: racism, misogyny, ableism, classism, et al), while the essential nature of humans is sort of neutral-good. We are built to learn and thrive.

It’s my view that children do not need to be taught how to think; they are born knowing this. What usually happens is that adults convince them they don’t know how to think, and that we must teach them. Some kids acquiesce to this more easily, and struggle with a lack of self-confidence as they believe the message that they quite incapable of thinking on their own; others resist it, and struggle with a lack of self-worth as they are continually locked in battle with adults who tell them they are defiant and disrespectful.

These feelings don’t magically evaporate as we push grown children out of the nest; they persist into adulthood and so those children become adults who have fully internalized the belief that they were once children who, if they hadn’t been molded, sometimes forcibly, by adults, would not have amounted to anything – or worse, would default to delinquents and monsters. It stands to reason then that these are adults who, in turn, insist that children are lumps of clay who must be molded, taught how to think, shaped by outside hands into functional beings. As with many things in human culture, a cycle perpetuates itself.

I think that being autistic gives me a kind of advantage when it comes to critically thinking about cultural practices. I am as susceptible as the next parent (and homeschooler) to the emotions of fear and feelings of inadequacy, but I don’t adopt cultural attitudes automatically. It’s not in my nature to do what everyone else is doing (in some ways doing so would actually help me, but it just isn’t my way). In parenting and in homeschooling I’ve taken a leap out of the cycle of molding Clay. Providing a nurturing environments for Seeds makes more sense to me, better suits my worldview, and is more conducive to the kind of mutually respectful relationship with my children (and any other children for which I am in the position of caring and teaching) that I desire.

Image shows a sprig of maple seeds with the text: a seed needs some nurturing, but it does not need to be told how to grow, how quickly to do it, or what to grow into. – eisforerin.com.

On Trust

Parenting

I want to write about trust. I have written about trust before, in the context of specific parenting practices, but what about the concept as a whole? What is trust? What does it mean in our lives? Why does it matter?

Trust, like love, is a relationship rather than a feeling. One-directional “love” is really just infatuation, and one-directional “trust” is really just blind faith. To truly have a trusting relationship with another person involves being a trustworthy person for them, and respecting their privacy, autonomy, and feelings. This dynamic has to flow both ways in order for the whole thing to really work, to be authentic and sustainable.

Early-ish on in our relationship, while we were not yet married but were financially intertwined enough to share many major expenses and responsibilities, Mike and I argued about money fairly often. I don’t feel that’s too personal to reveal, as many couples have that issue, right? The gist of our dilemma was that I constantly worried too much and he wanted me to stop hounding him about every dollar. The dynamics that were in play involved my fear of scarcity fueling my need to control his spending, and his fear of being controlled by me fueling his need to assert autonomy by spending money on whatever he chose.

The only way out of that seemingly endless cycle was to shift our mindsets from fear to the opposite of fear: trust. I don’t recall how we eventually broke through that wall of fear (I think, truth be told, some friends of mine basically said dude get off his back you are acting irrationally), but what we ended up realizing was that we had a common goal: we wanted to build a stable financial future together. When we let go of our fears we were able, pretty easily in fact, to trust each other to work toward our common goal without having to bicker over every single dollar.

Building a trusting relationship with another adult may, as tricky as it is sometimes, seem straightforward compared to the task of building a trusting relationship with your child – but the latter is no less important. You and your child, too, have common goals: for your child to grow up safely, for him to have a full life, and for him to have healthy relationships (hopefully including one with you). trust

Image is a map with a compass in the lower right corner, and the typed words: I may stumble, fall, veer off course many times, but I always know to orient myself toward the true north of trust.

There are a lot of factors going into this parent-child relationship that are different than adult relationships – factors like the long slow burn of child development, like our need to protect them and keep them safe, like our worries about delivering them to adulthood prepared to live without us, and like the incredibly enormous loads of baggage we carry from our own childhoods and from the social conditioning all around us.

However, I passionately believe that none of those factors exempts us from the need to build trusting relationships with our children, including all of the building blocks we use in adult relationships: being trustworthy, and respecting the other’s privacy, autonomy, and feelings.

Being trustworthy for your child is more than keeping a promise to go for ice cream. It means being honest about your own feelings (you don’t have to tell them all the gory details, but don’t put on a stoic mask when you need a good cry; they know). It means being humble when you are not at your best – apologizing when you screw up. It means that you are their safe place when they screw up or fall down or need a good cry.

Respecting your child’s privacy and autonomy may look different in everyone’s house, but I hope that the concepts, at least, mean something to you.

It makes me sad to hear parents say that they don’t trust their children to make good decisions, to want to learn anything, to use their time constructively, to solve their own problems. My heart aches when I hear someone say that if they don’t make their kid do this or that, they would never do anything (except play video games, is often how that sentence ends). If you think that your lack of belief in your child does not filter into his consciousness, you are kidding yourself.

Being in a trustful relationship with our kids means holding several pairs of slightly dissonant ideas in our heads at the same time: we know that young children are too young to understand some things, yet we must trust them to be capable and curious beings. We surely must endeavor to protect their safety, yet we know we must allow them to experience risk, pain, and failure in order to grow. We know we are tasked with providing them with moral and social guidance, yet we also know that we must allow them to navigate the world and the humans in it on their own terms.

None of that is simple or especially easy, at least not all the time, but for me, it’s about setting my compass in the right direction. To be frank, I haven’t felt like the World’s Greatest Mom lately – I’ve been tired, a bit down in the dumps – but I’m still trying. I may stumble, fall, and veer off course many times, but always I know to orient myself toward the true north of trust. Remember (I say this to myself as much as to you, dear Reader) that the opposite of trust is fear; so when you find that fear is dictating your relationship with your child – or anyone else – you can be certain that you are heading the wrong way.

Plumbing My Memories In An Attempt To Break Through Writer’s Block

Parenting

One morning when I was 15, J and L and I walked from L’s house down to the lagoon at the end of Skiff Ave., carrying a canoe on our heads, just before dawn. Only L knew how to canoe; she paddled. We saw the sun come up and it felt like we were the only people in the world. I don’t think we talked much, or at all. That’s how I remember it, but my memory is unreliable.

Another time we walked from L’s house to a hotel at night, climbed over the fence, and jumped into the pool with all of our clothes on. We walked back to her house dripping wet. Some boys passed us and asked why we were soaked. We told them and felt cool.

It was maybe that same summer that L and I slept on the beach on the far end of Owen Park Beach – it may have even been private property. I suppose you probably couldn’t get away with that sort of thing now, but in 1994 we did. When I say we slept on the beach, we literally slept on the sand with no tent or even sleeping bags. In the morning, with sand in our hair, we bought breakfast at Cumberland Farms store, instant cappuccinos and Hot Pockets microwaved right there in the convenience store.

I couldn’t have explained why I lied to my parents in order to do things like this, but it felt important. To slip away from ordinary life and exist in the margins, to be nobody nowhere, even for 24 hours. Even for 12 hours. Even for 2 hours.

There was a time a year or so later when a group of friends and I camped out in the State Forest. It wasn’t a legal camping spot but no one would catch us there. It was just a clearing out in the woods somewhere. It was early November, too late in the year to be camping, especially as we were with just sleeping bags and some basic survival skills. We built a campfire. I took pride in being good at building a nice campfire because I had figured out how to do it by my own internal logic. We passed around a flask of something. We let the fire die down slowly as we huddled around it in sleeping bags. In the early morning, one of my friends woke up and screamed that her contact lenses were frozen to her eyes. We all laughed. Waking up outdoors with your whole body warm in a sleeping bag except for the top of your head and your face feeling chilly in the November morning isn’t like anything else.

There was another time we were camping in another forest and S called to me to sleep in his tent. We slept side by side in sleeping bags. When we woke up in the morning our faces were inches apart. I could see tiny grains of sand in his eyelashes. He said something to me about a bird and I replied. I didn’t understand him, at all. Later he wrote a poem about it and read it at an Open Mike in front of our friends and everyone. He’d made a literary reference to a girl and she didn’t get it. He didn’t mention me by name but I slipped out of the coffee shop and stood outside in the night keeping my tears in. Someone out there smoking a cigarette said my haircut made me look like a homeless kid.

Static Mode

Parenting

I do believe that being a creator means being a conduit between yourself and that other mysterious place from whence ideas come. In my experience, you can’t so much reach inside yourself to pull forth – by force of will – your stories and images, as you must instead make yourself available to the stories and images that already exist inside you.

It all sounds a bit woo-woo and I’m not actually big on magical thinking, but, hey – that’s the way it seems to work.

Unfortunately for me, my conduit to the Place of Ideas has been all static lately. I’m not even having any good Shower Thoughts. I just stand there thinking about how much I need to scrub the mildew out of the tile grout. That’s not inspiration.

However, I feel like I have to write something, even if it’s the worst thing, just to keep myself open, just a crack, to something new. It doesn’t make for scintillating reading, I know.

There’s this thing that happens to autistic people, when sometimes a special interest dries up – or worse, all of them do. Sometimes they come back, other times they don’t and you find another one. But when that fire is out, there’s nothing you can consciously do to kindle it back up or start a new fire. Much like with creative inspiration, you kind of just have to wait for an interest to find you.

I think I’m in that icky state when I have no special interest for a time. I feel simultaneously dull, bored, and restless. Nothing excites me very much, but it’s also hard to just relax. I crave that feeling of deep focus, but I haven’t sunk into it in some time.  I try to read a book but it doesn’t grab me. I try to write but nothing’s there. I can’t even think of what to eat half the time.

I hope it passes soon.

The Question of Parental Oversharing

Parenting, Writing

As my kids have grown out of infancy, I’ve thought more and more about where the boundaries are around what I share here on my blog and on other forms of social media. I think about it quite a lot, and I’ve wanted to write about it many times, but I have backed off every time in fear of being too judgmental of other parents. I don’t want to add to all the noise in social media about how parents aren’t doing this or that right – I know intimately how completely overwhelming and crazymaking that can be when it reaches a certain pitch.

So this is not an advice column  – more of an invitation to work through this question with me, because it can be pretty tricky and confusing. How much is okay to share when it comes to our children? When it comes to photos, anecdotes, funny moments, hard moments, and when it comes to asking for advice or support?

I like to write about my life (obviously) and I’m not one to bemoan the evils of social media too much. I am an autistic parent, which means that most like parents, I have a need to connect with other adults who share similar interests and experiences, but like most autistics (and introverts, for that matter), I have a limited amount of energy to socialize in person or on the phone (actually I have NO energy to socialize on the phone and would rather stab myself repeatedly in the eyes with a fork thank you very much). So for me, Facebook and Twitter and blogging are pretty much the best things since sliced bread.

My kids are a big part of my life of course, and I’m with them almost all day almost every day. They take up a lot of my headspace. I love them and think they things they say and do are interesting and amusing. It’s natural for me to want to share some of that as I write about my days, I think, but the older they get they more I become aware that their stories are not mine to tell. So more and more lately I am trying to zero in on the incredibly fine line between writing about my life as their parent, and not writing about their lives as individuals who have a right to privacy but do not actually know what the internet even IS yet besides an endless fount of cool videos.

When I think back on my childhood, my parents are part of my story, an integral part, a shaping influence, but they aren’t the main characters. I am. And my kids are the main characters in their own stories, not supporting actors in mine.

So if you have noticed that I’ve been writing less and less about them here on my blog, it’s not just because my autism diagnosis has provided me with a lot of non-kid-related material, but also because I am deliberately moving away from oversharing.  

Image is a faded cartoon line drawing of a tree, a child, and a dog. Over that are printed blocky letters that say “My kids are the main characters in their own stories, not supporting actors in mine.”

I suppose “Mommy Blogging” seemed less problematic to me when the kids were babies. New parents are on a steep learning curve. I know that I was quite frantic at times to reach out and ask whether I was doing anything at all right! And since babies pretty much all do more or less the same things (eat, sleep, cry, poop), I don’t think anyone’s child will mortified to learn that his mom once asked whether the consistency of his poop was normal. Hey, we all wondered about that at some point. And all babies poop. They aren’t terribly private about it either, I’ll tell you what.

I don’t know when exactly they change over from Everybaby to little tiny people, but they definitely do. And then all the questions begin. What is okay to share? What isn’t?

The business of protecting privacy while sharing our lives is so complicated and multilayered. I have been developing a rather convoluted system of levels of privacy. I share pics of the kids on Instagram, but I monitor who is following me. I don’t share kid pics on Twitter. I do share some funny kid stuff on Twitter but without using their names. I share photos of the kids on Facebook a little less than on Instagram, and I do share funny or cute stuff about them with their names. But I also have some different friends lists for different levels of intimacy. I do share photos and names and some anecdotes here on my blog, but honestly I’m becoming less and less comfortable with that stuff and thinking about how to move away from that while still writing about being a parent.

Sometimes I wonder if I will lose followers who came here for cute kid stories and are getting bored of hearing about sensory issues or social justice or whatever else is on my mind. But hey, it’s my blog.

I do still like to read about other people’s family lives though, is the funny thing. Other people have come up with other solutions to this privacy issue, like blogging under pseudonyms. I decided a few years ago not to be pseudonymous here because this body of work is important to me and I want to have my name on it. Some people make their blogs private, another good strategy, but I didn’t do that for the same reason cited above. Perhaps I could have invented names for the kids, but that would probably be a flimsy wall to climb if anyone wanted to find them.

I like the idea of asking the kids’ permission to write about them, and probably will someday, but they aren’t old enough yet to understand what writing on the internet means. When I do write about my children, I try to keep in my mind the idea of them someday reading this. Or of their friends someday reading this. Or of their boss someday googling them and finding this. I never want them to feel embarrassed or as though I made their lives all about me. Though I would be happy for them to someday read this and know that I respected them, was proud of them, and felt privileged to stay home with them. I know I have not always managed this well, but I’m trying very hard to do better.