Tolerance and Teaching

Tolerance and Teaching

This world needs more tolerance.

It’s getting to the point where you can’t express an opinion without somebody immediately jumping on you and shouting you down.

I get that not everybody will agree with me. I don’t understand or know every nuance of every subject. Sometimes I make mistakes, or fail to express my meaning clearly. Sometimes it’s simply an opposing perspective.

But in this hair-trigger, offence-taking, call-out culture there is no place for uncertainty, mistakes, or a lack of clarity. One foot wrong in this social minefield and the dust won’t settle for days!

I get the anger, I really do. I see people repeat the same old misinformation again and again: whether it’s vaccines or immigration or any number of other subjects. It’s frustrating.

But if I were to attack everybody who says something I disagree with or find problematic, I would be doing neither side any favors. I see it this way: either a person is going to listen or they are not.

If they aren’t going to listen to my argument then however forcefully I make it I won’t reach them. If they might listen, then shouting and bullying them will only make them defensive and unwilling to listen any further.

I know that when I first started writing about autism I was on a steep learning curve. At first I was pretty ignorant, uninformed. I invested my time in learning as much as I could, interacting with people through their blogs.

In the early days my terminology was less than perfect; there was more I didn’t understand than I did. I dread to think of the reaction I would get today from some people I have seen on Twitter and elsewhere!

But luckily the people I interacted with were patient and forgiving. Tolerant of “newbie” mistakes. So my investment of time and effort in learning about autism was worth my while.

If I’d been bullied for things like person-first language (“person with autism”) or for innocently using problematic phrases that are common in colloquial speech, I think I’d have disengaged from the autism “community”.

I don’t know that I have contributed a whole lot myself, but I know for sure that I would know a heck of a lot less about myself and autism.

So, tolerance. Be forgiving of others’ mistakes. Try to help them understand better, give them a chance to learn and improve.

Some may say that it’s not their job to teach everyone they encounter. But if not, then whose job is it? Do you seriously think everybody will spend time learning as much as possible before they begin to interact publicly?

By putting myself out there in public spaces as autistic and trans I have made myself, intentionally or not, into a representative of those identities. I owe it to myself and everybody else who shares those identities to do what I can to increase people’s knowledge and understanding.

The best teachers are patient, compassionate, and understanding as well as knowledgeable. What use is knowledge that is not shared? What use is a message that nobody will listen to?

This post was originally posted on my personal Facebook wall.

Religion and Belief

Religion and Belief

I’m not a believer, nor a member of any religion. I never have been. My wife, on the other hand, is Catholic and has a strong belief in god. For her, belief is a source of strength: a firm anchor that she can rely on to remain fast in the face of an ever-changing world.

My mother felt similarly; she wasn’t religious in the sense of attending church or praying regularly but she maintained her strong faith. I was always puzzled by people’s belief in the divine. I have never felt any sense that there was some ubiquitous presence. There’s just me and the universe around me.

My natural curiosity has led me to speculate about religion and belief since I was a child. A particularly cynical child who could not imagine any benefit from subscribing to the archaic, male-dominated, hierarchical view of the world promoted by the Christian churches. I had–and still have–a consistent world-view that works for me with no obvious gaps into which I feel compelled to fit a divine entity.

However, as I have matured I have come to recognize that their beliefs do provide comfort to some people. Something to hold on to: as long as they maintain their grip they cannot become lost. It provides a sense of security, a safe haven. A sense of familiarity and unchanging stability that feels like home.

That is a feeling I can identify with, although my personal comfort derives from being in a predictable environment with well-established routines. In some ways this mirrors the trappings of religion with days being measured by regular masses and prayers, the familiar Sunday attendance at a church service. Echolalia substitutes for the recitation of the Rosary; stims rather than the sign of the cross. Subconscious ritual.

Understanding leads to acceptance. I can understand why their faith is so important to some people, I can see how it gives them strength and support. I accept them as they are.

What I cannot accept is intolerance. Whether it stems from religious teachings or the influence of others in society does not make a difference: intolerance is the opposite of acceptance. It’s hate instead of love. It destroys instead of supporting and nurturing. If your faith truly gives you strength, then be strong enough to love and accept those who are different from you.

Resisting Erasure

Resisting Erasure

There are some strong parallels between being autistic and being trans. Both derive from the way our brains are set up; both set us apart from the majority of people; both are largely misunderstood and even feared. And both have seen an increase in media coverage over recent years.

Celebrities including Susan Boyle, Daryl Hannah and Paddy Considine have publicly stated that they are on the autism spectrum. But coverage of autism has paled beside that devoted to transgender people: I wouldn’t be surprised if there have been more TV minutes and column inches solely about Caitlyn Jenner’s recent gender transition than there have ever been about autism.

The biggest difference is that autism is an invisible condition; there are no physical characteristics to identify somebody on the spectrum. Being transgender is all too visible, affecting one’s outward presentation. It’s perfectly suited for the show-and-tell of TV and photographic media: no need to burden the audience with detail, just give them before and after shots.

For both conditions the media is a mixed blessing. Increasing awareness is a good start but without detail, without providing a deep insight into the minds of those with either condition, there can be no understanding. Awareness alone doesn’t help us.

Such insights are elusive; they must build on a foundation of experiences that are familiar, laying course after course of analogy and asking the audience to incrementally build a picture of something that is foreign to them. No wonder the media so often takes the easy path of simply repeating the same old stereotypes.

But these stereotypes are often harmful, feeding prejudices and serving to portray us as broken, defective people. Autistic people are painted as emotionless and unsociable, unable to form or maintain relationships, objects of pity and ridicule who act in strange, frightening ways. Trans people are often shown as freaks, objects of revulsion indulging in a twisted sexual fantasy. We’re objectified, erased as people.

This is what we need to overcome to gain acceptance: we just want to be seen as people. We don’t want to be pitied or feared, laughed at or persecuted. But mainstream media continues to fail us by rarely if ever educating its audience. I don’t want tales of inspiration, I don’t want the shock-factor of graphic surgery. I want to see our everyday realities, our unexceptional — dare I say normal — existence as we simply live our lives. But who’s going to pitch a TV show about that?

I don’t know how best to raise understanding beyond awareness. I fear that our experiences are simply too far removed from those of the non-trans, non-autistic majority for them to ever gain more than an intellectual knowledge of our lives. How can they learn what it feels like to need to stim to regulate sensory input? How can we convey the strength and depth of the pain when your mind knows a reality of existence at odds with your physical body?

How else will we be accepted and not excluded, othered, erased?

Taking “Ought” Out Of Autism

Taking “Ought” Out Of Autism

Ought is a word I’ve heard too often in my life. If I had a penny for every time I’ve been told what I ought to be doing, how I ought to be behaving, I’d have enough for a nice new pair of shoes! Maybe not Jimmy Choo or Christian Louboutin but you know what I mean.

Ought is a word that does violence, imposing the speaker’s values on the recipient. It says that the person being addressed is in the wrong, that they must change to satisfy the speaker. It’s an insidious word, couching the statement in the guise of suggestion.

Being told what you ought to do can be harmful for autistic people like me who formalize sets of rules to govern our actions. It denies us the right to behave and express ourselves naturally: I’ve acquired a motley collection of inhibitions over the years as I have internalized the expressed preferences of those I’ve spent time around.

I realized a few years ago that all this was compelling me to try to pass as allistic, to mimic the behavior of those non-autistic people around me. I reduced my stims to barely noticeable actions, I’d push myself to stay when the environment was hostile — too crowded, loud or bright — and I neglected my self-care.

The result was that I’d melt down far too frequently, I would drink most evenings to try to shut off and relax. It was largely self-destructive; the way out for me was to learn to be more self-aware and to recognize my feelings, my mental and physical states. That led me to understand that I was trying to live up to other people’s expectations: what I ought to be like.

Discarding years of internalized guilt and shame about all the ways I’d been doing things “wrong” isn’t easy and I’m still some way from working through it all, putting it behind me. There’s a huge amount of anxiety involved in consciously facing the inhibitions and going against them.

Things like hand flapping, walking away to find peace and quiet, asking for accommodations; for example, moving to another desk at work away from distractions. All this goes against the grain of what I’ve been conditioned to believe, but it all has positive benefits for my well-being. And I’m learning to trust my own judgment about what is right for me.

Children Don’t Need Gendering

Children Don’t Need Gendering

There was a child who grew up with two brothers. This child would knock about in denim dungarees, build karts from old fruit boxes and pram wheels, climb trees. Closer to their father than their mother, they would watch avidly while he tinkered under the hood of his car, eager to get involved and often ending up covered in grease.

And there was another child, painfully shy, who would spend hours with only their toys as company in their bedroom while their brother and his friends would pretend to be cowboys, or Tarzan swinging on ropes from trees. This child hated to get dirty; would borrow their mother’s clothes and play dress-up, loved to help mother in the kitchen.

That first child was Anne, my wife, and the second was me. So much for gender stereotypes.

There is an argument used to invalidate the experiences of trans people which says that we are somehow not authentic because we didn’t experience growing up as our real gender. But there are as many different childhood experiences as there are different people. Sure, we are the product of our upbringing to a degree but playing with dolls as opposed to a football does not define one’s gender experience one way or another.

The real myth is that there is such a thing as a definitive childhood experience that all girls (or boys) go through, and that their gendered experiences are completely separate and unrelated. At the end of the lane where I grew up was a farm; there were four children: two girls, two boys. Apart from the boys having their hair cut short they were almost indistinguishable. Dressed alike in jeans and shirts they all helped with jobs on the farm: driving tractors, hand-feeding new-born lambs, rounding up the cattle for milking, shooting rats in the barns. Only a few hundred yards but a whole world away from my own experience.

What I have learned is that my childhood experiences have more in common with those of other autistic people than they do with any arbitrary collection of women or men. I can’t even see any relevance or practical use to gendering children, and yet Western society in particular is moving more and more towards a total binary division: just look at children’s clothing and toys. There is this prevalent meme that colors, styles, activities and more are gendered: that everything in a child’s environment is either masculine or feminine and the two sets must remain disjoint.

Even where there is an overlap society plays tricks with language, Nineteen Eighty-Four style, so that girls have dolls while boys have action figures; kilts are not referred to as skirts. It all reinforces the notion that there is but a single “correct” way to be a particular gender, and also that each one of us must be identifiable as either one or the other. Individuality is out, conformity is in.

But conformity is death to self-expression, death to the personal freedom to look and act naturally. Enforced through bullying and oppression, conformity harms. Instead we need to promote acceptance, to allow each person to be themselves, to let their personality be shown however they want, to let them enhance our world with their individual creativity. I believe we would all be richer for it.

Because One Post Wasn’t Enough: Acceptance, Love and Self-care: #AutismPositivity2015

Because One Post Wasn’t Enough: Acceptance, Love and Self-care: #AutismPositivity2015

I fear my traitorous mind;
Prized asset, golden treasure
In which lurks a monster:
One I cannot hope to control.

Lying in wait it watches,
Senses when I am weak,
Releases its psychic poison
Infecting me with fear.

As I lie besieged by doubt,
Assailed by anxiety’s forces,
I begin to believe its lies:
That I am alone, unloved and broken.

All that I have, all that I am
Lies scattered: small trinkets
Dot the empty wasteland;
I lie in pieces in this desert.

Furnace heat of merciless sun
Makes the very air dance;
All else is stillness and silence.
Laid bare I cannot hide.

But…

In the midst of this ruin,
In the eye of the storm of fear
There is a mote, a tiny seed
Holding my essence in trust.

Though the ground is barren
Where the beast has raged
I plant this seed of hope,
Water it with my tears.

I spend the last of my strength
To protect and nurture this spark,
I give all of myself to it
And rise again, renewed.

The monster has vanished,
The burning sun become a fount
Out from which streams the warmth
Of healing love from friends.

The barren wastes turn green,
Meadows and woodlands host life
Amid which I sit at ease,
Healing in these peaceful arms.