Social Skills for Everyone

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

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[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

5 Supports That Changed My Life

Autism, Identity, Neurodiversity

It’s been over a year and a half now since I first began to realize I was autistic, and what originally kicked off that process of self-discovery was that the demands of ordinary life were beginning to outstrip my personal resources, and I needed to know why. I’ve since heard this described by autistic people in different ways, from “rolling burnout,” to “my workarounds were no longer working,” to Cynthia Kim’s phrase “playing life in hard mode.” I myself often described myself as being in survival mode on a daily basis, and my therapist once said that I needed to get “out of the basement level of functioning.”

When I sought a diagnosis in spring of 2015, there was some magical thinking involved in my expectations for psychological diagnosis and therapy. My goal was to go from being a flailing, falling-apart passing-as-neurotypical person to a thriving autistic person, which I still think is an excellent goal. However, it doesn’t happen by magic and as it turns out my psychotherapist was not the Blue Fairy.

bluefairy

Image is from Disney’s Pinocchio: The Blue Fairy points a magic wand at the nose of Pinocchio the puppet, who is sitting on a shelf amongst pots of paint.

It’s been a gradual, trial-and-error filled journey, but I’m finally getting to a place where I know what kind of supports I need in order to thrive, and can access them. By no means should anyone assume that what works for me will work for them, which I’m sure my readers already understand. But here are some of the supports that have been integral to my ability to cope with ordinary life without feeling like I am overdrawing my energy bank every single day. These things have gotten me out of survival mode and made me feel more like myself again.

BoseQC15

Image is a pair of black and silver Bose QuietComfort noise canceling headphones.

Noise canceling headphones. The particular pair that I own are Bose QuietComfort 15 (I asked around and was told by a few people that the older 15s are a bit better than the new 25s). This was one of the first things I did for myself after getting diagnosed with autism: I stalked eBay until I found the make and model I wanted for a good price. They are expensive, but if you are noise sensitive and can afford to splurge or save up for them, they are well worth the cost ($250-300 on Amazon, I got mine for under $200 on eBay). Bose QC are high quality, comfortable, and are wireless when you use the noise canceling feature only (that runs on a AAA battery). If you want to listen to music with these you have to use a headphones cord. Bose does also make a Bluetooth enabled pair so you can listen to music wirelessly – those are called SoundLink ($250-280 on Amazon).

Lately I have not needed noise protection quite as much, but for a while I wore my headphones every day, and on low-spoon days (when I didn’t get enough sleep and/or was recovering from a social event) sometimes I wore them all day long. You can still hear people talking at average volume in a room with you, so I could hear my kids and husband and do everything I needed to do – but they dampen really loud and/or high pitched sounds, and also ambient sounds like the refrigerator running, iPads playing cartoons, and so on. I didn’t even realize how much that kind of background noise was zapping my energy until it was gone. The downside of these, besides the cost, is that while they are super comfy by themselves, I have trouble wearing them at the same time as my reading glasses. So people who wear glasses all the time may have some issues with fit. Also, they are (obviously) conspicuous, and I can tell you from experience that if you wear them out in public people WILL stare.

Herebuds

Image shows a pair of white Here Active Listening earbuds in their case, a white iPhone with the Here logo on the screen, and a pair of sunglasses. The sunglasses make me laugh but I choose this photo because it shows the buds, case and app.

Noise canceling ear buds. Yes, I have noise canceling headphones AND earbuds. After I purchased my headphones I started hearing a lot of buzz (no puns intended) in the autistic community about Here Active Listening earbuds. These actually do a lot more than noise canceling – basically they are a smartphone-controlled EQ system for your ears – but I mainly use them to block sound. They started off as a Kickstarter project and now are issuing a trial run of the buds, which means you must sign up on a waiting list, and when a pair are ready for you, you receive a code in order to purchase one pair. For me this took exactly 6 weeks (plus a 2-3 days’ shipping), which seems typical from what I’ve heard. Currently a set of Here buds costs $200 but once out of the trial phase they will likely go up to $250.

I was nervous about buying Here buds because, like many people, I worried about whether they would be uncomfortable. I have small ears and many earbuds do not fit me at all. Here buds come with two or three different sizes of squishy flexible bud attachments, and yes, they fit me well. There are some times when I don’t like the feeling of them in my ears, but most of the time, they’re fine. I would say if you HATE earbuds do not get these, but if you can tolerate a soft earbud, they are pretty comfortable.

The EQ itself is very good, has powerful noise canceling ability and can be adjusted in many ways, by turning up and down the decibels, bass, treble, etc. It comes with a number of preset “filters” and also a custom live EQ setting. One common complaint is that it does not have a directional microphone; that means you can tune out everyone’s voices or tune in all voices, but you can’t tune in the person sitting across a table from you while blocking out the people behind you – though I’ve read they may try to add that feature in a future model.

My main complaint is that my Here buds are a little buggy. Sometimes I hear a buzz in the left one. And I often have trouble with trying to disconnect them from Bluetooth and reconnect within a single day – so it’s usually easier to just leave them on, and switch back and forth between a noise blocking filter like “Office” and a tune-in filter like “Human Speech” if I need to, for example, hear the kids playing in another room, and then tune out again. These issues can be resolved by resetting the buds, but that’s kind of a pain in the ass if I’m in a state of overload and needing relief. Even so, I use these quite a lot. They are less cumbersome than my headphones, I enjoy not having something on my head when I use them, and they’re so small and discreet that it’s very convenient to throw them in my bag when I leave the house in case I need them while I’m out. For anyone with noise sensitivity who doesn’t mind earbuds, I recommend them highly (more than the headphones, if you have to choose).

drugs

Stock photo of an orange bottle of prescription drugs lying on top of a notepad that says Rx. Note: these are NOT my actual pills.

Prescription drugs. This is NOT a support I am comfortable recommending to just anyone, since everyone is different and some people do not do well with medications and some choose not to take them, which is their right. However, I wanted to include meds because for one thing, it’s the truth – they have helped me immensely – and for another, this is me doing my little part to push back against ableist attitudes toward psychiatric medications. I view meds as just another support, one that people should be able to freely choose for themselves, and hopefully should be able to get help finding one that really works for them.

A thing about being a neurodivergent person, particularly one raised and socialized as a girl, is that you tend to defer to anyone in anything resembling a position of authority, even when you know they are wrong. You’re pretty sure they’re wrong. But they probably know better so maybe they are right? I won’t go into all the boring details but I took an antidepressant that wasn’t helping me, instead of the ADD med I knew I needed, for nine months, because I didn’t fully trust myself to know better than a doctor how I felt and what would be good for me. Eventually I found a better doctor and a better support.

Taking a drug doesn’t mean that I don’t accept my neurology – if anything, I am better able to appreciate the beauty of my ADD-autistic mind now that I am not scraping the bottom of the barrel for the inner resources to function. I don’t feel like someone else, I feel like my real self, the self I was before things got overwhelming. Maybe if I could move out to the seaside and live in a wifi enabled cottage and my kids were a little older and more self-sufficient or I had more help – and if life were simpler, maybe I wouldn’t need meds, but right now my environment is such that I need a little pharmaceutical support and I am not ashamed of that. Nor should you be if you need that too.

(Side note that I dislike the terminology of “attention deficit disorder” (I mean, really!) but am using it to be understood by a broad audience. I would love a better term, maybe attention divergence?)

Screen Shot 2016-06-01 at 2.25.55 PM

Image is a screenshot of my Habitica browser page: at the top left are my avatar and stats, with my party’s avatars lined up to the right. Below that from right to left are lists of: Habits, Dailies, To-Dos, and Rewards.

Habitica. Oh how I love Habitica!

When I got off the antidepressant and on ADD meds, the boost in mood was immediate, but executive functioning improvements still took more time and effort. Fortunately I remembered another autistic person I knew online had mentioned months back (when I was still too overwhelmed to even consider it) that they used Habitica to get their stuff done. I suspected that a task manager set up like a video game would be perfect for me, and I was right.

The above photo is a screenshot of my actual Habitica dashboard on my computer (I also have it on my phone but I use the desktop version more). At the top left is my avatar: yep I’m a Level 14 Rogue riding a golden lion and accompanied by a white bear cup, and proud of it. To the right of that are the members of my party, a social function you can use, or not. Below all that I let you see some of my tasks and how they’re organized on Habitica (as you can see I’m in a bit of a nest feathering phase with my to-do list).

I looooove this game. I don’t avoid or forget to check my to-do lists anymore because… it’s fun! This is another thing that I’m sure won’t work for everyone, but for me, getting a couple of pieces of virtual gold for doing the dishes feels motivating. It helps me manage my time, not stress about deadlines, and it also helps me to relax and enjoy my downtime because I don’t have to worry that I’m forgetting an important task.

downtime

Image is a photo my 4 year old took of me. In the foreground are chairs around a table with toys and a bowl on top; in the background I am seen from behind looking out through glass doors – a person with short brown hair and a gray sweater. To my right is a wooden hutch.

Downtime. This is not an app or a medication, but actual downtime. And plenty of it. Half a lifetime of “playing life in hard mode” has conditioned me to feel like I always have to be hustling just to keep up with the minimum standards of getting by. I’m aware that it doesn’t always appear as such from the outside, but I have always felt like I am working twice as hard just to do the things that everyone else seems to do with ease. A former friend once described me as “ambitious,” and at the time I was genuinely shocked by that characterization, but now I think I understand that being driven to succeed, somewhat perfectionistic, hard on myself, and religious about productivity, are adaptations I have cultivated (mostly unconsciously) in response to having an invisible disability.

But the cost of those adaptations is that I repeatedly push myself too far and crash. That worked well enough – I could hide it, mostly – when it was just me, but now I have a family, and it’s too hard on all of us for me to be crashing all the time.

So I am learning to build in lots of downtime as an essential support. It helps that my kids need this too (one of them especially does) so it’s not really an option to skip it. The actual *time* has been available ever seen we chose to homeschool, but the pressure I put on myself to “be productive” every day was still there. Additionally, getting to the point of rolling burnout meant that I never actually experienced relaxation – only crashes. There is no downtime in survival mode, only survival. So, all of the above supports enabled me to access downtime, and untangling myself from the internalized ableism that drove me to always-be-productive is necessary in order to truly relax.

(Easier said than done, I know.)

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.

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.

#Introvert(Parent)Problems

Parenting

Being an introverted parent comes with a unique set of challenges. Lately I’ve tried to become more aware of how MY challenges and needs are contributing to my own parental “misbehavior” – yelling, losing my cool, or just being unable to weather the everyday demands of parenting with a calm and compassionate attitude.

I am prone to sensory overload, particularly in the realm of NOISE. It was only in the last year or so, when I read Quiet by Susan Cain, that I learned that sensory overload is a very common trait of introverts. I always thought I was just grouchy! And I might be a little grouchy by nature, but being sensitive to sound and what I perceive as “chaos” (too many people talking at once, too many different inputs at once) is an enormous influence not only on my mood, but on how well I am able to function.

The most difficult times are when we come home from being somewhere that has completely drained my energy – a play date, the children’s museum – and I desperately need to be alone. The best way I can describe the feeling is that it’s like having low blood sugar, but instead of needing to eat I need to escape into my own head, preferably in silence. That need to recharge is real and it’s strong.

A common pitfall of introvert parenting for me is winding up someplace that’s very noisy and crazy and only THEN realizing that I just don’t have the ability to handle that much stimulation at the moment. If I’m tired (which is often, obviously) or I’ve done too much already, I have a weakened ability to handle sensory input like a noisy room. Having to speak loudly or yell to make myself heard above the din is likely to send me over the edge. Places like the children’s museum or a bounce house place (all the white noise of the fans that keep the bouncers inflated is very intense for me) can be too much if I’m not in the right mood.

This all makes me sound sensitive and ill tempered, and I guess I can be. But at the same time, I can recharge and rebound if I just get some time with a quiet activity (and let’s face it, a little caffeine might help). Smartphones are a boon to introvert parenting, because to some extent, it’s a way to escape and recharge on the go without having to actually BE alone or take a lot of time to myself. Having said that, I’m no good at multitasking, so if I’m somewhere where I need to keep both eyes on the kids, I can’t be checking out Facebook too. Being alone to write or read is definitely a more potent battery charge for me but it has to be a solid chunk of uninterrupted time to be any good – and we all know how easy to come by those chunks are for parents!

One common misconception, or maybe it’s just a gross overgeneralization, about introverts is that we don’t like to be social at all. That is not true of me and I know not every introvert feels that way. I enjoy time with people and crave it when I go too long without it. But it’s tiring. It’s like how some people enjoy workouts (I’m not one of them!) – you have fun and it feels good while you’re doing it, but you have your limits and afterward you need to rest. If you push too hard or don’t rest properly, it feels bad and takes longer to recover. But I never want people to think that while I’m sitting there talking to them I’m longing to get away – that’s hardly ever the case. I just might need a nap when we’re done!

As the kids get older I will do my best to explain to them what introverts and extroverts are all about, so they understand themselves and other people better. I wish I’d known all my life that I wasn’t totally weird, in fact I was a pretty classic introvert (well, and maybe a little weird too).

What’s It All About? Thoughts on Disability, Difference, and Dissatisfaction

Writing

We spend nearly every minute wanting things to be a little bit different, a little bit better. Even now, reading this, you might be thinking defensively: But I only want what’s best.

We call it wanting the “best.” We say we want “advantages” for our children. We say we are “enriching” their environment and “exposing” them to more “opportunities.” That’s all well and good, but what do we mean when we say that? Do we mean that we want them to turn out smarter? More talented? More popular? More attractive? More admired? More successful? More accomplished? With more status and money? Yes! We mean all of that and more! To what end? To serve whom? To serve ourselves? So we can be satisfied? We won’t be satisfied then unless we know how to be satisfied now.

What do we mean by all these things we want “for our children?” All these things we think they “need?” Whatever they are, and however, we acquire these things, the fact remains: desires are inexhaustible. Chasing them, however, will exhaust you. It will frustrate you. It will cause worry and anxiety, grumbling and dissatisfaction. It will disrupt your home and impose expectations on those around you. It will cost you money, and it will cost you time, all the while distracting you from your life, bountiful and precious, right in front of you.

– Karen Maezen Miller, Momma Zen: Walking the Crooked Path of Motherhood

I recently shared on Facebook a guest post by one of the bloggers I read regularly: Lisa Morguess’s “On the Possibility of Curing Down Syndrome.” In it Lisa talks about her thoughts on emerging technology that could potentially “cure” Down Syndrome by shutting down the extra copy of the 21st chromosome (this, in case you didn’t know, is what Down Syndrome is – an extra copy of that particular chromosome). At the crux of her position is this: “What bothers me about the question of whether I would change the fact that my son has Down syndrome that it’s just another example of how we value people based on arbitrary standards, like intelligence and achievement and performance.”

When I posted this, another friend commented to share a TED Talk by Andrew Solomon (and by the way Lisa has blogged about Solomon’s book too which made watching this talk a little weird for me knowing that Lisa did not find him to be all that diversity-friendly, but that’s a side note) in which he talks about the tension between new science that can or will allow us to prevent, treat, and cure disabilities and the growing social acceptance of people with disabilities.

In it, Solomon quotes Jim Sinclair, an autistic adult who co-founded Autism Network International: “Therefore, when parents say, I wish my child did not have autism, what they’re really saying is, I wish the autistic child I have did not exist, and I had a different (non-autistic) child instead. Read that again. This is what we hear when you mourn over our existence. This is what we hear when you pray for a cure. This is what we know, when you tell us of your fondest hopes and dreams for us: that your greatest wish is that one day we will cease to be, and strangers you can love will move in behind our faces.”

This is a powerful message that shouldn’t be brushed aside: when you try to fix us, we feel that you want to erase us. I can’t pretend to know a lot about disability or how people with disabilities feel, but Sinclair’s statement reverberates within me. It seems to me that a lot of the disability in disability stems from the rest of us – mainstream, able-bodied, neurotypical people – refusing to make room for other ways of being.

Andrew Solomon compares disability to homosexuality in his talk, in the sense that gayness also used to be considered a condition or mental illness that should be treated and cured. I too thought of this comparison when I was reading Lisa’s essay. If we discovered a way to shut off the genes that make a person gay while still in utero, would people do that? Would we allow it? How is that different from shutting down Down Syndrome, or autism, or (to use some other disabilities that Solomon has researched) deafness or Dwarfism?

The question at the heart of all of this is not a small one. It’s the Big Question, really: What is the meaning of life? I don’t think many people would come right out and say that the meaning of life is living independently, finding gainful employment, choosing a life partner and reproducing, but these seem to be our unspoken assumptions about what makes a life meaningful. These are little more than American conventions and yet they are the goals that we drive people towards with great intensity and anxiety from the moment those little people are born without really ever explicitly asking ourselves what we truly value. Whether it’s Early Intervention for the toddler who doesn’t speak or working on literacy with your preschooler so that he’ll enter kindergarten ready to read – I think we have to stop and take a moment to ask ourselves what it’s all about.

This is why I put the quote from Karen Maezen Miller (author, mother, and Buddhist priest) at the top of this post. It seems to me that the desperation to give our children head starts and to “intervene” in the development of young toddlers and even to “cure” disabilities all arise from this same, fearful, inexhaustible desire to make everything better, different, to maximize potential, to do what’s BEST with really no clue what “best” even means or whether it’s something worth achieving.

Everyone must have a personal answer to the question of what life’s all about, but maybe as a culture we can come up with some new, less exclusive and materialistic values. I might be a bit of an idealist but I think it is possible. Maybe we can value people simply because they are people and not because of what they are able to achieve. Maybe we can encourage authenticity. Respect diversity. Ease suffering. Embrace difference.