Reblog: “Open letter to those who think autistic kids should not be allowed to disturb mainstream education settings” by Michelle Sutton

Reblog: “Open letter to those who think autistic kids should not be allowed to disturb mainstream education settings” by Michelle Sutton

Michelle Sutton has written an excellent summary here of the issue of including autistic kids in mainstream education, and why improving the school environment for autistic needs can benefit everyone. Definitely a must-read.

As usual I’m coming into the discussion “late”. The conversation about inclusion of autistic students in our nations classrooms has been at the forefront of all my social media feeds this week, and I’ve been sitting here, swinging between trying to take it all in and trying to avoid it.

Read the full letter here: Open letter to those who think autistic kids should not be allowed to disturb mainstream education settings

Enjoying A Day of Conflict

Enjoying A Day of Conflict

On Thursday I was in Oxford with my great friend Sonia Boué, attending a conference at Oxford Brookes University. The conference, under the aegis of Oxford Human Rights Festival, was titled Art & Science Vs. Conflict in the Global Present.

It was a conference I’d been interested in attending since I first heard about it a month ago, and on learning that Sonia would also be there it didn’t take me long to make up my mind and book my place.

The presentations covered topics including the effects of conflict on art and culture, the use of art as therapy for conflict-related injury, and the ways in which art and science can help victims of conflict. A common thread was the ways in which we are all affected by loss due to conflict. I’ll not repeat what was in the programme: you can read that on the conference website here.

We learned of the loss of artifacts from Nimrud due to museum looting during the Gulf Wars and the deliberate destruction of the site of the palace by Islamic State: the loss to Iraqi national cultural heritage in particular. This was in contrast to the preservation of bomb-damaged buildings in Belgrade, the scars left by NATO attacks keeping alive memories of that recent conflict in which ethnic divisions in the former state of Yugoslavia tore the nation apart.

In other presentations we saw the products of people working through bereavement and trauma suffered through conflict. Stuffed toys sewn from the uniforms of those killed on active service, boxes of mementos: ways in which families could memorialise their loved ones that were creative and personal. And we saw examples of artworks created as therapy by those suffering combat-related PTSD. Some of those were shocking in their raw depiction of despair, hopelessness and isolation, a reminder that the mental scars of conflict are often deeper and more painful than the more obvious physical injuries.

We were given a fascinating insight into forensic anthropology, from the recovery of remains to the attempts to identify victims of conflict. It’s hard to imagine working day after day, week after week, sifting through a mass grave that might contain hundreds of bodies. Putting bones together, identifying evidence of trauma to try to determine the cause of death. Working against the odds to attempt to put names to the victims: in cases such as the Rwandan genocide whole families, whole villages were murdered so even if DNA can be extracted there is nobody left to whom it can be matched. Most will never be identified.IMAG0246

The missing–those taken and killed by repressive regimes–were memorialised in some deeply moving performances. Christine Brault spoke about the more than 4000 First Nation Canadian women and girls who have either disappeared or been found dead over the last 30 years. We the audience picked poppy petals inscribed with their names, announcing their names and pinning them to her shirt. One that I picked was Kiowa Oakes, aged 1: I choked a little as I read out her age and wondered how anybody could harm a baby.

Veronica Cordova de la Rosa sat behind a desk in a manner reminiscent of a news reader from years ago and simply read a list of names from among the 27,000 missing victims of violence in Mexico. For me her performance brought to mind a wartime radio broadcast of those missing in action.

Also mentioned, in another presentation, were the estimated 140,000 who disappeared in Spain and its territories under Franco from the start of the Guerra Civil in 1936 to his death in 1975. It is hard to believe that the Spanish government to this day continues to do next to nothing to even recognise the atrocities committed under Franco. No process of Truth and Reconciliation as happened in South Africa after the fall of Apartheid, no efforts to prosecute those responsible who to this day continue to live openly.

There was so much I learned at this conference and I can only give a brief taste of it here. I left with conflicted feelings myself: there is so much violence in the world in so many forms and at so many levels that it would be easy to resign oneself to the belief that it is inevitable. Lives and culture are lost and damaged by conflict, but it also pushes some to wonderful acts of compassion, imagination and creativity through which people can come together and healing might begin.

Hypoppycrisy

Hypoppycrisy

I’ll not wear a poppy.
I used to; in years gone by
I would blindly conform
To the conventions
Of society.

But now I notice
So many people policing,
Shaming the objectors.
I will not be coerced
And so I will remain
Poppy free.

Those who insist
That all must display
This symbol of past wars
Are denying others
The very freedom
That they say so many
Died to protect.

I need no paper flower
To call to mind
Such sacrifice. But
Foremost in my thoughts
Are those swept up
In conflict’s tumult.

I cannot help but think
Of other times and places
Where people were forced
To wear some symbol.

Or where refusal
To overtly demonstrate
Allegiance: wear the badge,
Join the Party,
Was cause for suspicion,
Detention,
Torture,
Murder.

So I condemn those
Who would deny
Freedom of choice,
Freedom of conscience,
And I will go poppy-free:
A conscientious objector.

Responsible Freedom

Responsible Freedom

I’m a great believer in freedom of speech, and not just in the sense of vocalization: I include all forms of self expression. It is enshrined in Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.”

This right, like all other rights, comes with an unspoken duty: the duty to ensure to the best of my ability that anything I do express does not harm others. That it does not curtail the right of those others to live free from fear, oppression and abuse.

That is where my own sense of morality comes into play. I must judge for myself whether my words and actions are appropriate and in alignment with what I believe to be right. I must put myself in the position of those people affected by what I say and do, using my sense of empathy to imagine how they might feel.

I have a very strong aversion to conflict and confrontation, and I’m sure this plays a role in shaping my behavior towards others. But there is also compassion which causes me to feel hurt by others’ pain and anguish. This suggests there might well be a degree of self-interest involved in what I refer to as my morality, but I’d argue that this is no bad thing. It gives me an honesty of purpose to understand my own motivations rather than simply label my behavior as intangible belief.

Freedom as a concept is both shockingly simple and overwhelmingly complex. Simple in that it may be expressed in very few words and applies equally to all. Complex in the effects and ramifications of that simplicity. Freedom is not a license to do whatever you want. It is a contract between an individual and the society she lives in, a tacit acceptance of a framework of rights and responsibilities.

I believe any society, any situation involving two or more people living together, requires some set of rules governing behavior. I’m not necessarily referring to formal laws and such like. But complete, unfettered individual freedom inevitably conflicts with the well-being of the group as a whole. If one member of a group hoards all the food then it hurts all the rest, so a rule gets developed for fair distribution of resources. Those who don’t conform, who don’t live within the societal restrictions on their individual freedoms, are cast out of the group. What in former times were called “outlaws”: those who are outside the the set of rules and protections offered by the group.

Some use the idea of individual freedom to justify bullying and oppression: if I’m stronger than you and physically able to take from you then I’m free to do so. I want your land so I’ll force you out and take it. Freedom becomes associated with strength and aggression, with a lack of restraint.

Human rights are not the same as freedom. Accepting universal rights requires accepting restrictions on individual freedom, accepting that some actions are not acceptable behavior since they deny those same rights to others. It’s not about strength but empathy, compassion and respect.

Freedom

Freedom

Freedom is an illusion. Freedom of expression, freedom of movement, freedom of action; all are constrained in one way or another by the written and especially the unwritten rules – conventions – of society. The uncomfortable truth is that there is no such thing as freedom from consequences.

Everything we do, everything we say has an effect, whether large or small. Every time I articulate an opinion it colors somebody’s feelings towards me: if they agree then they feel more closely aligned with me; if they do not then they feel alienated. Even the way I express myself has an effect: my vocabulary in the workplace is more extensive and less coarse than when I’m in the pub. This is because social conventions exist in both places. There are certain behaviors that would be seen as inappropriate in the “wrong” context, such as swearing or drinking in the workplace. So while it is physically possible for one to, say, drink a beer at work, one would certainly face serious consequences as a result.

Can one be said to be free to act when one is physically able to perform an action that will result in censure or punishment? I do not believe so. I believe that freedom implies that no harm will befall one as a result of one’s actions: that there will be no consequences that one is unwilling to accept.

Unwilling to accept – that is the crux of the matter. If one truly does not care about what happens as a result, either to oneself or to others, then one is free to do as one pleases. Greater freedom comes at the cost of diminished responsibility: being responsible for one’s actions means being aware of and accepting the consequences.

Respect is a factor in this: respect for the right of others not to be offended or harmed by anything one might choose to do. Consider the idea of freedom of expression: a concept that many, especially in the Western world, feel is an inalienable right. A liberal interpretation of it could be construed as a license to lie, offend, incite hatred or violence – one has the freedom to say anything at all and because of that one is absolved of any responsibility for the outcome.

I recall the controversy over the publication, initially in Denmark, of cartoons depicting the Muslim prophet Muhammad. The publishers used freedom of expression as their defense; however there appeared to be an almost complete lack of understanding of the degree to which many Muslims would be offended, of the utter revulsion they feel towards those committing what they see as blasphemy. It is the same revulsion that many people feel towards those who desecrate Jewish cemeteries with Nazi graffiti, or those who abuse children. Would you say that people should have the freedom to commit those acts? Or should they instead have enough respect for others’ rights that they could not do something so harmful? Understanding that, I feel I have a responsibility not to cause such offense – and in this it does not matter whether it offends me: it is about respecting the rights of others. Is it not reasonable to expect other people to behave with the same respect?

Having started on the subject of freedom, and dismissed it as a chimera, I have ended up reiterating my long-held views about respect and responsibility. I do not worry about whether I am “free” – it is a concept that carries little meaning for me with my consciousness of the social constraints within which I must navigate my daily life. I try to act intentionally according to my beliefs: in basic terms, to treat others as I would wish to be treated in return. It is more important to me that I be treated with respect than that I should feel free to do as I please.

Dream of Freedom

Dream of Freedom

Night has fallen; we are gathered round the fire. The old man who is the repository of our tribe’s history and lore begins to chant, slowly and softly at first, using the ancient tongue brought to this land by his ancestors. But we do not need to understand his words: we know the tales that he tells for the last time this night. Of how our tribe first came to this land, driven across the sea to escape persecution at the hands of our enemies. The desperate flight with the invaders at our heels, the anguish of leaving so many behind to face death or slavery, the razing of our homes and destruction of our way of life.

Our strongest survived the voyage across the unknown ocean, guided by the stars and the visions that our gods imparted to our spiritual leader. The gods were kind to us in those days and led us to a land of riches: plentiful animals to be hunted, fish in the rivers and sea, and fertile ground for our crops. We raised new homes and dedicated new sacred sites to our gods in thanks for our deliverance. Over many generations we grew in numbers and spread across this new land, but in all that time we never met other men: no other human tribes inhabited this place and we lived in peace.

But this soft life made us weak and complacent. We started to forget the old ways. We stopped visiting the sacred places and they were allowed to return to nature; we neglected our old gods. Like fruit left unharvested they withered and died, and we did not notice that we no longer had their protection until it was too late.

New people came across the sea from the North: strong, pale-skinned men in two long ships. At first we were fearful of them. It had been so long since we had had any contact with other humans that we had started to believe we were alone in the world. They were few and we approached them. They traded cloth and tools for food, restocking their provisions for their journey home. They did not linger on our shores and we thought little of their visit. Until they returned in their hundreds with fearsome beasts at the prows of their ships; ships filled with fierce warriors and iron swords.

They built a settlement by the shore where they had landed, using timbers from their ships to construct their halls and raising tall earth banks around to protect them. We realised then that they were here to stay. The returning traders had obviously told of the rich land across the sea and these Northmen wanted it for their own. We sent messengers to them bearing gifts and offering friendship; they demanded tribute and submission. Although we were many and they were few, we were weak and most of our tribe were afraid of the newcomers. We had abandoned our old gods, and they had now abandoned us, leaving us to our fate.

This small band now gathered around the fire is all of our tribe that remains free. The rest bent their knees and are ruled by the Northmen, worshipping their gods, obeying their commands, paying tribute to their lords. They are no longer free men. We stood against the invaders and many of us were slaughtered in battle or taken into slavery. Our warriors did not lack courage but could not overcome the strength and iron weapons of our foes. We survivors fled to the farthest reaches of this land, hoping that we could remain free. That was four summers ago.

Today we saw a band of Northmen scouting near our homes. We know it can only be a matter of days before they return in overwhelming numbers to destroy us in a final battle, so we are spending the time in recollection of our heritage, trying to summon back our old gods to support us. But few of us believe in the gods any more. The gods have forgotten us as we forgot them. We must face the enemy alone, and when we are gone none will remember who we were or where we came from: our gods and our tribe will be lost to the memories of men, and only the invaders from the North will remain here. It will be their land then to settle with their new gods and new ways. Perhaps they in their turn will be swept aside by a stronger people. That seems to be the way of things: either submit to those who are stronger than you, whether willingly or at the point of a sword, and become like them, or fight for your beliefs and way of life – fight to be your true self – and die proud and free.

Perhaps one day there will be a third way and all the different tribes of humans will find a way to live together in peace. But as long as the strong continue to simply take what they want from the weak that day will never come, and men will not be truly free: free from fear, persecution and harm. We will stand and fight to the death for our right to be free because we truly believe in it.

Rights Manifesto

Rights Manifesto

I just read a post by Rachel Cohen-Rottenburg, The Empathy Issue Is a Human Rights Issue, and it got me thinking about the rights I take for granted.

The first right I list below, “to be identified and treated as a member of the human race”, is a direct reaction to some of the quotations in Rachel’s post – statements she has found in certain academic papers on the subject of autism and empathy. These quotations indicate that a significant number of researchers – some at the top of their fields in psychology and neuroscience – are denying autistic people their humanity based on perceptions of limited or absent empathy. I take great offence at the implications of this – I feel strongly that this is a dangerous direction to be heading in: once you start thinking of a group as non-human the next step is to treat them as non-human, without human dignity and rights.

If anybody reading this feels that this seems a small point to be taking issue with, may I remind them that, historically, labelling a group as inferior has been a prelude to their exploitation (enslaving black Africans) or persecution (denial of freedom to women to this day in parts of the world). I will speak out against such malicious, pernicious misrepresentation because I believe we are all human with all the worth and dignity that entails. There are some people who would twist and restrict their definition of human to divide their world into “people like me” and “people different from me” – with the latter group being summarily cast out from the human race. Here’s a thought for you: would you feel it was more offensive if instead of autistic people it was black, Jewish, disabled, terminally ill or English people that were being called non-human?

So, having said my piece on that subject, here’s my take on the rights I claim, and what I will give in return.

  • I have the right to be identified and treated as a member of the human race.
  • I have the right to express myself in whatever way is most natural for me to the extent that it does not breach the rights of any other person.
  • I have the right to hold my own opinions and beliefs and not have them imposed on me by others.
  • I have the right to be free from intolerance, intimidation, exploitation, persecution and abuse.
  • I have the right to feel safe and free from anxiety, and the right to seek a place of safety if I feel threatened.
  • I have the right to be different without interference or being told that there is something “wrong” with the way I am.
  • I have the right to expect understanding from other people.
  • I have the right to make mistakes without incurring any disproportionate penalties.
  • I have the right to be left alone in peace when I need to shut down.
  • I have the right to choose who I associate with, and who I do not associate with.
  • I have the right to ask for help when I need it, and the right to refuse help when I do not.
  • I have the right to live, or the right to die should I choose to.

I don’t believe that rights are automatically inalienable or that they exist in isolation; instead I believe that to expect one’s own rights to be respected, one must respect the rights of others. To that end I submit the following undertakings.

  • I will take responsibility for my own actions.
  • I will treat other people as I would expect to be treated myself: with understanding and compassion.
  • I will be tolerant of other people and will not intimidate, persecute, exploit or abuse them.
  • I will allow other people to express themselves and to act in whatever way they see fit as long as they do not infringe upon my rights or the rights of others.
  • I will not force my own beliefs and opinions on other people.
  • I will offer help to those in need and refrain from interference in the affairs of those who want to be left alone.
  • I will accept that everybody is different and that this does not affect their worth as human beings.
  • I will dissociate myself from those who breach my rights or the rights of others, and will not tolerate them as long as they cause harm.
  • I will judge others based on how they treat myself and others, and not on how they might differ from me.
  • I will endeavour to correct any mistakes I make.
  • I will accept that nobody is infallible and forgive accidental mistakes by others.
  • I will accept restriction of my rights should I fail to fulfil my responsibilities.