Posted in autism acceptance month, information, quotes

the autistic operating system

This post is part of my april autism series for autism acceptance month. Visit the first post here for links to the rest of the series!

I still remember the first time I heard of autism, although I don’t remember exactly how old I was (I think I was younger than 10). My dad was talking about one of his coworkers who had twins, telling my mom that while one of the children was developing normally, the other didn’t speak and liked to watch objects spin instead of playing with them in a typical way. My major impression was that autism was a sad and life-ruining thing (probably because my dad said it was sad), but I didn’t really understand what was so wrong about this little boy’s way of being and developing. In hindsight, I think this was the first time I realized that there was a “normal” way to be and that there could be something wrong about being different.

In the years since then, I’ve learned a lot more about what autism actually is: not a spectre of damaged children unable to connect and interact as humans, but a different neurological operating system that manifests in a fairly consistent range of behavioral patterns. Interestingly, these behaviors do not include either intellectual or language impairments, although both of these can present along with autism in an individual. Instead, autistic differences center around areas of social communication, sensory processing, and cognitive focus (including executive functioning). Autistic development is not necessarily disordered – it just proceeds on a different timeline than normal. Autistic ways of thinking, of processing sensory information, of handling emotions in the self and others, are not broken – just different.

The medical definition of autism can of course be found in the DSM-V, and I believe it is good to read and understand that definition even if it does portray autism in a pathologized way, but my personal favorite description comes from Nick Walker at Neurocosmopolitanism (go read the full article!):

The complex set of interrelated characteristics that distinguish autistic neurology from non-autistic neurology is not yet fully understood, but current evidence indicates that the central distinction is that autistic brains are characterized by particularly high levels of synaptic connectivity and responsiveness. This tends to make the autistic individual’s subjective experience more intense and chaotic than that of non-autistic individuals: on both the sensorimotor and cognitive levels, the autistic mind tends to register more information, and the impact of each bit of information tends to be both stronger and less predictable. (emphasis added)

Walker puts so much useful information into this paragraph. While lists of common autistic behaviors can be helpful, especially when deciding whether an ASD diagnosis might describe yourself or someone you know, they can often seem disjointed and random without an understanding of their underlying cause (and, I think, can contribute to the common uninformed statement that “everyone is a little bit autistic).

But knowing this central difference between the neurotypical and autistic brain can provide a clearer delineation between the two, regardless of potentially overlapping behaviors, and can also explain many of the strengths and challenges associated with autism. For example, autistic individuals can often have excellent long-term memory and fact recall, as well as higher innate abilities to analyze data and detect patterns – all of which makes sense if the autistic brain is picking up on more information (with more internal emphasis), on a cognitive level, than the neurotypical brain. On the other hand, picking up more information with a stronger impact on the sensory level can make coping with everyday life extremely difficult, when “normal” touch and sound and smell can be acutely uncomfortable or overwhelming.

I’ll be going through more of those differences, both positive and negative, later this week, but for now the important point is that all autistic traits and behaviors stem from a fundamental neurological difference, and that autism, this difference in a person’s innate operating system – in the way they perceive, process, and respond to the world around them – does not make an autistic individual any less in terms of personhood, human dignity, ethical consideration, or worth.

Posted in autism acceptance month, information, links

autism acceptance month

Each April is Autism Acceptance Month.

Not, as some groups would put it, Autism Awareness Month. It’s a different perspective, because it’s coming from a different place. The autism awareness campaigns – like the Light It Up Blue campaign from the notorious organization Autism Speaks – tend to originate from medical professionals and non-autistic parents, people who see autism primarily as a disorder that merits pity and needs to be cured. The autism acceptance campaign, on the other hand, originates with autistic self-advocates (specifically the Autistic Self-Advocacy Network): people who understand autism to be a difference rather than a disorder – a difference that gives to us even as it makes certain things more challenging, and a difference that shapes our identities. To those who advocate for acceptance, considering autism to be a disorder and trying to eliminate it feels like a personal offense.

We are here, say the autistic self-advocates, we are autistic, and we have the same rights and humanity as everyone else. Stop trying to make the way we think and feel and act mirror yours; our autistic personhood is just as valid as your neurotypical personhood.

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autism acceptance word cloud from the autism acceptance month website

This year, for the month of April, I have two major goals. First, I am going to spend the month writing about autism from the perspective of neurodiversity and acceptance, both as a (probable/self-diagnosed) autistic adult and as the parent of an autistic child. Second, I am going to pursue an official medical diagnosis for myself (although all the evaluations are in April, I won’t have the final word until May, unfortunately). I hope that you will join me on this journey – that together we can learn more about neurodivergence and how it affects individuals and society, and find ways to accept and love the differences in ourselves and those around us.

I highly, highly recommend that anyone wanting to learn more about autism focus on information from autistic people. Otherwise, it’s as if you’re trying to learn about the African-American cultural experience from a bunch of white authors, or trying to figure out what it feels like to be queer from the observations of the straight/cis community. Non-autistic professionals can give you an understanding of the history of the diagnosis, or the medical definition of the diagnosis, but they cannot tell you what it is like to live as an autistic person. They simply don’t have that inside understanding.

To get you started, here are some of my favorite #actuallyautistic internet presences (some of them are more than just blogs!), in no particular order:

  • Autistic Not Weird, by Chris Bonnello
    • I’ve been following ANW for a long time now, since back when it was simply a blog. Chris Bonnello has a great sense of humor, a lot of stories to share, and an accessible way of explaining technical information. This was one of the first blogs I read that was written by an autistic adult, and finding that I could identify with almost everything he wrote pushed me forward in my own path of self-discovery. The ANW community on Facebook is one of the most inclusive I’ve run across, with autistic individuals and their families asking and answering practical questions honestly and kindly.
  • Suburban Autistics, by Ally Grace
    • I found this blog by searching for gentle parenting tips, actually! Ally Grace and several of her children are autistic, and she writes about parenting in a gentle, accepting, positive way. I am always both inspired and challenged to be a kinder, more compassionate person and parent when I read her work – and to give myself a touch more grace in my own struggles as well. If you are on Facebook, I believe she is a bit more active there than on the blog.
  • Neurocosmopolitanism, by Nick Walker
    • I don’t think this blog is active anymore, but it is foundational in my understanding of neurodivergence. I would quote liberally from his articles except that once I start, it’s hard to stop! So just go and read them in full. Start with Throw Away the Master’s Tools if you really want to understand the mindset behind acceptance as opposed to awareness.
  • The Girl with the Curly Hair, by Alis Rowe
    • This is significantly more than a blog; it is a compendium of resources, especially for autistic women. Honestly, my main interaction with this site has been mediated through Pinterest, where I’ve found so many quotes –  accompanied by the curly-haired girl illustration herself that – resonate with me on a deep level. (In the following quote, keep in mind that in the US the diagnosis of Asperger’s Syndrome has been deprecated and replaced by an autism diagnosis.)
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Quote: ‘Women with Asperger’s Syndrome may be both brilliantly strange and strangely brilliant! We are genuine, truthful, thoughtful and interesting… with unusual problem-solving skills and out of the box thinking styles. We tend to have volatile emotions, quirks, interesting mannerisms and we tend to feel most comfortable and relaxed when we are on our own.’

So for World Autism Awareness Day today, let’s start looking at autism from the perspective of difference rather than disorder, and seek to understand it from the inside out! My challenge for you is to pick one of the websites I shared above and read at least one article from it 🙂 I’d love to hear what you read and anything from it that stood out to you!


all posts in the april autism series will link here after they’re published!

Posted in information, musings

quack quack: my autistic duck analogy

Whenever my husband and I talk with people about autism, or describe some of the behaviors and traits that are related to it, someone will inevitably identify with one or more of those behaviors and joke about how they must be on the spectrum too. As another logical conclusion would be that autism is an exaggerated or imagined condition, I am glad that no one I know has used their identification with an autistic trait as an opportunity to disbelieve the existence of autism! However, the situation is common enough that I’ve been searching for a good way to illustrate the difference between having one or more common autistic behaviors and actually being autistic.

An infographic from Little Black Duck (an Australian company specializing in autism communication services) uses the analogy of pregnancy: someone might have some of the symptoms that are commonly associated with pregnancy, like sore feet or nausea or weight gain, without actually being pregnant – there is a different underlying cause behind the similar or even identical presentations.

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I think this is a helpful analogy for the most part, except for the fact that autism as a condition is defined by the presence and degree of certain types of behaviors. Pregnancy is very clearly distinguished from non-pregnancy by the presence of a fetus; there is no such clear-cut biological test to distinguish the autistic mind from the allistic mind. Those very human behaviors that present in both autistic and allistic individuals are the only metric used in making the diagnosis, and the line is drawn at a somewhat subjective conjunction of multiple co-occuring traits and the severity thereof.

To me, the clinical struggle of defining the autism spectrum seems similar to the zoological struggle of defining a taxonomical species. Perhaps a duck could be defined as a warm-blooded, egg-laying animal with wings, feathers, webbed feet, and a broad bill. A seagull could relate to many of these duck traits, but not having all of them would fall short of the official criteria. A bat or a snake or a duck-billed platypus could relate on a more distant level, while a moose or bear would struggle to understand the duck at all save from an external perspective.

Likewise, some people will relate to the social anxiety many autistic people struggle with; some people will identify with sensory sensitivities; others will connect with the difficulties of small talk and nonverbal communication. People with other neurodifferences, like ADHD or FAS, will probably have more behaviors in common with autistic people than the general allistic population will, but like the seagull will fall short of the official criteria for the diagnosis. On the flip side, some people will lack almost all of the autistic traits and behaviors, and struggle more to bridge the differences between them and their autistic family and colleagues. But just like ducks are still animals, and all of their characteristic traits are shared (individually or in sets) by some species or another in the animal kingdom, so too autistic people are still human, and all of their characteristic traits can be found scattered throughout the general human population. It is only when all those traits converge that a duck is defined, or autism is diagnosed.

Now I just have to wait for a conversational opportunity to use my new analogy 🙂 What do you all think? Does it make sense? How do you try to explain the difference between autism as a neurotype and commonly seen autistic behaviors?

Posted in sqt

{sqt} – why I write about neurodivergence

For this week’s quick takes linkup Kelly wrote about why she and a few other bloggers write about their families and how disability affects them, with some solid insight about the good to be gained from writing and the pitfalls to avoid. I do recommend reading it, especially if you write or are considering writing about your own family! (Key takeaways? Show how the happiness of everyday life is not less because of disability, and don’t overshare about your children’s private issues.) From my perspective, here are several of the reasons that I write as much as I do about my own neurodivergence and Rondel’s autism on this blog (in no particular order).

  1. Writing helps me process life. Since I learned how to write I have consistently found it far easier to coherently express my thoughts in a written format than vocally. My mom and I actually had a journal for writing back and forth to each other when I was around 10 or 11 that we used and that I appreciated a lot! Similarly, my husband and I used Facebook Messenger for most of our serious pre-marital conversations, because the anxiety involved was so much less and the processing time could be longer. Now, I use the blog to help me focus on things I want to remember, organize events as they happen (since I can never remember anything chronological reliably), and fully formulate my thoughts on issues that are important to me.
  2. My son is a human person of innate worth due all the respect that any other person should receive. (Well of course, you should say). But from a lot of the autism rhetoric on the internet, a person could easily come to the conclusion that this is a radical or even untrue statement – and for that reason alone I believe it is essential to write about him and our family in a way that demonstrates his humanity. Some of his actions may not look like what society expects; his developmental timeline may be different than “normal”; and he may struggle with things that most people consider to be trivial inconveniences or perhaps don’t even notice. But those developmental differences do not make him less worthy or less human.
  3. Autistic children grow up to be autistic adults, and they still struggle with things that most people don’t struggle with. So that’s why I write about myself: first so that people can understand why I or other neurodivergent adults may act in certain ways, second so that neurotypical adults don’t trivialize our struggles because they only perceive the slight quirks and oddities that show through our masking, and finally so that younger neurodivergent individuals can see adults like them living and struggling and coping and thriving in the world. We might not be the best at forming in-person communities (and it would be hard anywhere except in a large city anyways), but even just knowing other people like me through the Internet has been hugely encouraging and enlightening; I’d love to be able to extend that gift to someone else.
  4. As a corollary to this, it has been especially difficult for me to find a community of Christian autistic/neurodivergent adults, particularly women. There is one in my small group which is amazing – I don’t recall having had that kind of connection in an adult friendship before – but other than that there are just a couple blogs that’s I’ve found. I would love to both share how I live my faith as a neurodivergent individual and help the church deepen its understanding of neurodivergent individuals, and maybe I can start small here.
  5. Sometimes I find things that I want to share, and the blog is an easier way for me to share them than on Facebook, where it is so easy to hurt feelings. See this link for an example: Ink and Daggers: Small Talk (trigger warnings for ableism, child abuse, and language).
  6. I can’t think fast enough in conversation to discuss things that are close to my heart. I struggle to read my companion’s reactions, to gauge where next to move the discussion, to know how to change the subject without giving them my agreement, to be passionate without getting emotional and losing the words I need most. I wish I could tell everyone about neurodivergence, to promote acceptance instead of toxic awareness, to advocate for myself and Rondel and other people who are hurt daily by the ableist assumption that they are less because they are not normal, to help people to understand instead of pathologize autistic behavior. But I just cannot manage all the little things required by conversation while a high-stakes, emotionally-charged issue is the topic; it never ends well. Instead I write, and maybe my words will reach eyes that need to read them instead of ears that need to hear them.
  7. Finally, this story is all-too-common among people whose differences were seen purely as deficits, whose superficial abnormalities were trained out of them but who were never given coping skills for their deeper struggles, who were only ever valued for appearing normal and never praised for their unique abilities. This is not my story, because I was blessed with parents who always sought to understand and support, but it is a story I have read time and time again in the online adult autistic community. I write to try to create, with my words, a world in which this is not the norm for autistic children. (Is it the norm, you ask? Surely it can’t be that bad? Well, it is the result of therapeutic practices condoned by major groups such as Autism Speaks and the Judge Rotenberg Center, so it is definitely mainstream. I am hoping it is becoming less common, of course.) I write also to share those more painful and disturbing stories – and the principles gleaned from them – so that fewer people can say, “oh, I didn’t know!” as an excuse for their inaction and indifference.
Posted in giveaway, sqt

{sqt} – differently wired

As we’ve navigated Rondel’s diagnostic process, one of the most helpful resources has been Deborah Reber’s podcast Tilt Parenting – and as a dedicated bibliophile, I have found her book Differently Wired to be equally if not more encouraging and challenging. It is currently the bestselling book in Amazon’s Disability Parenting category, and #18 in their overall Parenting list, and in my opinion (having read an early release copy) it deserves that top spot.

In fact, I think this book is important enough that I purchased an extra copy to giveaway, and that giveaway is live now! Head over to the official post to comment for an entry… I think my publicizing of it hasn’t been very effective so you have a good chance of winning 😛

Continue reading “{sqt} – differently wired”

Posted in giveaway

Differently Wired Giveaway!!!

The Differently Wired launch date isn’t until the 12th, but guys, I got the book in the mail yesterday so we’re opening this giveaway now!

differentlywired

I did want to remind you that if you want the pre-order bonuses, you should order a copy of the book for yourself before June 12th. Personally I am most looking forward to the resources guide, a web page containing links to all the podcasts, articles, and experts referenced in the book. It won’t be available until the launch date, so I haven’t seen it yet, but I’m anticipating it will be exceptionally helpful. To see the full list of bonuses, visit here!

For those of you who are new to the blog, you can read my thoughts on Differently Wired, as well as some significant quotes I’ve shared, here, here, here, here, and here. If you just want the short and sweet version, Differently Wired is a book for parents of neurodivergent kids (including differences such as autism, ADHD, and giftedness), and approaches the unique challenges of raising these kids in a neurotypical society from a respectful and positive perspective. It manages to encourage and challenge parents without either minimizing their potential struggles or demeaning the children (and adults) who have these differences. The book is very practical, but I think the greatest thing about it is how it walks you, the reader and parent, through a paradigm shift via a series of Tilts in perspective and attitude. And since the pressure of mainstream society tends to be counter to these Tilts, I’m expecting this book to be one I refer back to again and again to refresh the way I look at my son, myself, and the way our family navigates life.

If you’re interested, our giveaway opens today and closes at the end of the day next Sunday! Just leave a comment on the post letting me know how neurodiversity has affected your life and/or what you are hoping to learn from the book if you win. If you follow my blog as well that will give you another entry into the giveaway, but only if you also leave a comment 🙂 I’ll use random selection (maybe have the kids draw a paper out of a hat, or something higher tech) to choose the winner, and then I’ll contact the winner to get their shipping address.

Good luck! This is an exceptional book and I am so glad to have the opportunity to share it with someone else.

Posted in family life, information, musings

responding to an autism diagnosis

We received Rondel’s clinical report today, with his official diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder. It was definitely not unexpected, and in many ways it is a huge relief to finally have it on paper with a physician’s signature and notes.

But it is also very hard to read through the report and take in the medical assessment of my child, who I see in all his brilliance and originality and intelligence, and who is being evaluated in light of his struggles and deficits. It is the very embodiment of the pathology paradigm, particularly given the list of recommendations at the end of the report that includes ABA, a therapy that is consistently attacked by autistic adults who experienced it as children. It reminded me of why we used the NODA app for diagnosis in the first place: so that Rondel wouldn’t need to be exposed to the pathology mindset, but would still be able to obtain a diagnosis for support, self-advocacy, and understanding. I just forgot that I as the parent would still have to deal with all of that negativity on his behalf, and buffer him against it.

In an ideal world, doctors could still assign the autism label without calling it a disorder. There are definite differences between the way the autistic mind functions – in the way it perceives the world, in the way it processes information, and in the way it prefers to interact with other people and objects – and the way the majority of minds (neurotypical minds) function. What people often miss, including doctors and therapists, is that the autistic wiring comes with its own unique strengths as well as its own unique weaknesses. A diagnostic process that sought to exist within the neurodiversity paradigm rather than the pathology paradigm could look for examples of both these strengths and these weaknesses, to generate a complete picture of the individual, and to help develop specific plans of support for the individual. In other words, for example: you have autism, and so you struggle with sarcasm and implied humor, you have difficulty reading facial expressions, social interactions and small talk take a lot of energy because of how hard you have to work to keep up and fit in, and certain noises and smells make you want to curl up into a ball or run away – but you also have a mind like a steel trap, the ability to make connections between information and ideas, unique ways of solving problems, and intense loyalty towards the people you are attached to. How can we craft your daily routine to take advantage of your strengths without putting too much pressure on you in your areas of weakness? That would be useful and practical support, without pathologizing the condition.

The pathology paradigm shows up in other places than the medical profession, though. Even a shift in the diagnostic process would take a while to seep through the culture – and until the culture changes, a diagnosis of autism is still going to be met by attempts to sympathize over the tragedy of it, doubt (because your child doesn’t look like he has autism), pseudoscientific “cures”, and even blatant disbelief.

What I wish I could tell everyone I know is that I am not sad or upset at all by Rondel’s diagnosis. His mind is different, and it is different in a beautiful and wonderful way. Will he struggle in a neurotypical society because of those differences? Probably so. But with love and practical support, he can also flourish and give to the world using his unique gifts and talents. He has the focus and the interest to immerse himself deeply in a topic and absorb everything there is to know about it. He has the imagination to see past the status quo and envision new ways of being and doing. And he has support around him to help develop his emotional awareness and executive functioning (two things that were a struggle for me well into adulthood).

What I wish everyone knew is that autism doesn’t just look like one thing. It might look like a mostly non-verbal ten year old communicating in one or two word phrases, dumping out every toy box and taking apart every Duplo tower, standing with the outdoor curtains blowing against his cheek to calm his body down, dancing to his favorite music videos, wanting to be part of the social action around him even as it overwhelms him. It might look like a very verbal twelve year old swinging endlessly because the sensation is so enjoyable, singing the same made-up song over and over again because the repetitive loop is comfortable and fun and transitioning to something else is hard, identifying what day of the week any date falls on, and communicating the love of God in profound and beautiful words. It might look like a four year old melting down because the color he used on his picture doesn’t look the way he expected, talking nonstop to manage auditory input, mimicking the meter and pattern of books and songs in his own games with new characters and situations, wanting a parent to snuggle with him every night at bedtime, or demanding animal documentaries at every possible moment. It might look like an adult struggling to focus on assigned tasks at work because their mind is stuck on other less-prioritized projects, getting into arguments with their spouse because of missed non-verbal cues, falling apart at movies because the emotions and sensations are just too strong and overwhelming, crying because they are running fifteen minutes later than they wanted, or developing a new system of project tracking for their lab from scratch and becoming a source of expertise without formal training because of their analytical skills and desire to learn.

Labeling all of those individuals as autistic helps them to obtain the support they need for the shared weaknesses that accompany the condition (weaknesses partially but not entirely due to living in a neurotypical society), but it doesn’t predict what they will do with their strengths and how their lives will play out. We are just as unique as neurotypical individuals in that regard! I believe – and this is why I think the neurodiversity paradigm is so critical – that if we can stop thinking of neurodivergence as disordered we can create better conditions for autistic and other neurodivergent individuals, a culture where all people can receive support in their areas of weakness and be given the opportunity to explore, develop, and contribute in their areas of strength.

What I wish everyone could see is that the autistic way of seeing and perceiving the world is also beautiful. That a person’s thoughts and feelings are equally valid whether they prefer to speak them, write them down, sign them, or use an assisted communication device. That the same processing circuits that cause us to flap our hands or scratch our arms or chew on our clothes to stay regulated are the same ones that allow us to retain incredibly detailed information and connect seemingly unrelated data in relevant and insightful ways. That the honesty and authenticity that keeps us from betraying or lying to the people we love makes up for our tendency to laugh at the wrong moments in a conversation or our inability to pick up on all your sarcasm or implied humor. That while we may experience and exist in a different way than you do, our differences do not make us less than you.

As an autistic adult (without an official diagnosis yet) raising an autistic child (now with an official diagnosis, hooray!), my plan for “treatment” consists mostly of helping Rondel to understand himself and to understand the world around him, cope with the things that are difficult and embrace the things that give him passion and fulfillment; and of prizing the wonderful individual that he is, and giving him the support he needs (right now, practically, speech therapy and mindfulness practice) to keep his areas of weakness from overshadowing and hindering his talents and strengths. It does not and will never include considering him to be disordered because his mind doesn’t function within that narrow range deemed “normal” or “typical” by the DSM.