Posted in musings

response to a sermon on worship

I can definitely be an over-sensitive perfectionist, but I don’t think it is irrational to be hurt by a sermon about the role of the body and communication in worship that doesn’t even mention disability. There wasn’t anything technically incorrect with what was preached, but everything had to be translated, contextualized, or rephrased if it were to be relevant to the life of someone with a physical disability or social communication disorder. And it just leaves me feeling so unwanted in the church – feeling that people like me can never fully participate in the body of Christ because of issues with how our own bodies and brains both respond to our environments and express our emotions.

It is important to give the best of ourselves to God: all of our mind, heart, and body, as the gospels say. For the Israelites of Malachi’s time (the source text for the sermon was Malachi 1), it was important to offer the sacrifices according to the law instead of just giving Him their leftover and damaged animals, and it is good and right for us to remember that principle and follow God with singleness of mind and whole-hearted devotion. Translating that to the lived reality of worship music during Sunday service is not so clear-cut, however. I remember when I was in high school and thought I knew what was best for worship music: what types of music would best glorify God and lead people to honor and meditate on Him – and I wrote about it in a public forum, and I received the most graciously pointed rebuke I have ever been given for my arrogance. Fifteen years later, I am more aware of the diversity of the body of Christ: how each of us responds in a different way to different words and styles of music; how each of us can offer worship in a unique way; and how when we worship together we all must bend and accommodate others, both sharing from and holding back on our individuality so that we can worship as a unified body.

It is for this reason that I participate in the musical worship at our church, although it is difficult for me in multiple ways. I wear ear plugs so I can tolerate the volume; I sit on the end of a row so I won’t feel overwhelmed by the people around me; and when it’s really bad, I try to sit in a small area just off the sanctuary instead of going outside so that I can still be part of the service. I sing even the songs that I don’t particularly like (although I will skip lines that I feel are theologically inaccurate…), and when I can’t sing I try to meditate on the message of the songs. I don’t expect the worship service to be tailored to my preferences and needs, and I often find great beauty and encouragement through music I would never have sought out on my own.

When a pastor tries to tell his congregants how to worship, however, with the fear hanging over their heads that if they don’t get this right they will be guilty of offering their secondhand, broken leftovers instead of a worthy sacrifice, it is reminiscent of the same arrogance I had at sixteen. Jesus told the woman at the well that the time was coming in which God’s people would worship Him in spirit and in truth – so the way we move our bodies during a praise song doesn’t matter if we are centered on God and praising Him. Additionally, to imply that there are right and wrong ways to physically conduct oneself during musical worship – and then not to say what those ways are because everyone should know – is to pave a straight and smooth path to anxiety, shame, and a sense of inadequacy for anyone in the congregation who struggles with reading social norms and expressing feelings in an “acceptable” way.

I am positive that if autistic and intellectually disabled adults were moving and responding in worship in an expressive way that felt authentic to them, someone in the church would call it disruptive and try to make them conform to a more “normal” behavioral pattern. This same attitude is just as toxic in reverse, when it lands on people who tend to not show any emotional expression with their bodies. I prefer not to move in large ways, not to lift my hands and be exposed and vulnerable with a crowd of strangers around me, not to share my emotions with people I do not know well. God knows what is in my heart, and it is that which I offer to Him – He will not judge me for not moving my body in a way that aligns with neurotypical standards for deep emotional responses. He will not make me feel ashamed because my anxiety and sensory overload cause me to respond in a less than perfect way.

If the church wants to be truly inclusive, truly open and welcoming to those of us who feel and respond and behave differently, then the least it can do is acknowledge our presence. Acknowledge that some people cannot physically respond with lifting of hands or kneeling because of chronic pain or age or muscular dystrophy or any other disability. Acknowledge that for some people a verbal response is the most genuine and whole-hearted response they can offer in worship, because their authentic physical responses are buried under years of practice at masking to fit in with a neurotypical society. Stress the importance of the heart centered on God, and acknowledge the reality that the outward response can look radically different because disability and neurodivergence are real things that affect real people present in the body of Christ.

Posted in musings, quotes

treating autism

“The absence of effective treatments for manic-depressive illness in earlier times did not mean that these patients were not treated. They were treated with all sorts of substances and procedures from ancient times onward. It’s just that none of these treatments worked, and most were harmful.” – Walter A. Brown, Lithium (emphasis added)

When I came across this quote I thought instantly of modern treatments for autism – not the few designed to help an autistic individual learn to cope with the neurotypical world, but those that claim to cure the condition. Even the most mainstream behavioral therapy is concerning (particularly to autistic adults who endured it as a child), and desperate parents who can’t handle having an autistic child try many stranger and more dangerous “treatments.” Different restrictive or elimination diets are supposed to reduce the behavioral symptoms of autism, according to parental observations; given the oral and textural sensitivities of many autistic people, those diets are likely to become even more restricted to the point of being unbalanced, or very costly for the parents (and objective, blinded research observations show no difference). Parents may choose not to vaccinate to prevent autism, and instead create opportunities for potentially deadly preventable diseases to flourish. And one has only to read about the “bleach cure” to see how supposed cures can cross the line from unwise to abusive.

Autism may not even be curable. It’s highly unlikely a single compound will be found that renders the autistic mind essentially neurotypical, like lithium can regulate and even prevent the mood swings of bipolar disorder. And yet so many people invest so much time, energy, and money into making autistic people act like and think like neurotypical people – even when those efforts are harmful to the autistic people they claim they want to help. It’s like forcing deaf children to speak orally and lip read instead of encouraging sign language, or shaming a wheelchair user for not trying harder to stand and walk. Instead of hurting autistic children to try to mold them into conformity with some neurotypical standard they can never completely reach, support them by making the world more aware and accepting of neurodiversity. Help them develop social skills, adaptive and pragmatic skills, and language skills without trying to change the core of who they are, and learn to see each child for the unique and beautiful person that they are, needs and struggles and gifts all bundled up together.

Posted in links, musings

janus (looking forward, looking back)

Image taken from page 384 of 'Man, embracing his origin, ... civilization, ... mental and moral faculties. ... Illustrated'
Picture of the two-headed Roman god Janus, from the British Library Flickr

I’m not really that great at looking back or looking forward. I read a lot of C.S. Lewis in my formative years, and I still have his words echoing in the back of my head: Screwtape teaching Wormwood how to enslave men to either the past or future and thus distance them from the present which alone intersects with eternity; the unfallen Queen on Perelandra describing time and circumstance as the waves of the sea into which we plunge as we swim, taking what comes and letting go of what has come before.

Aubade standing in the waves rolling ashore, feet in the water, arms spread wide in the air, with her back to the camera and the sunset before her.

However, it can be helpful to look back and see the path I’ve taken – to see evidence of God’s grace, of answered prayer, of comfort in hardship, of blessing and providence in good times – and be reminded of God’s faithfulness. It can be encouraging to see progress made, or convicting to see unhealthy patterns deepening. Similarly, it can be good to look forward, to make goals and resolutions, so that I can prepare well for the future I hope to build.

This year especially is a bit of a landmark, as not only the old year but the old decade comes to a close. Ten years ago – 2010 – I was single, graduated college, moved out, bought my first car, and began working at the university where I am still employed now – so really, the whole of my adult life so far has taken place in the now-past decade, and even the highlights would take far longer than this post to describe.

One of the major highlights of 2019, however, was finally getting diagnosed with autism and having a reason for all the times I’d felt out of place and two steps behind despite hearing from everyone how smart I was, for all the moments I’d been so overwhelmed by a sound or touch that I couldn’t process anything, for all the weird behaviors (now I know they’re called stims) I’d accumulated over my life, and more. This was reflected on the blog – 4 of my top 5 most popular posts this year were from my Autism Acceptance series in April:

  1. autistic inertia
  2. seven awesome things about being autistic
  3. {sqt} – spring will come again
  4. autism and faith
  5. {sqt} – seven senses: sensory processing struggles and strategies

That third post in the list above touches on one of the things I’m most proud about this year, actually: the way I was able to identify the onset of seasonal depression and take steps to counteract it. This is the first Christmas in several years that I have only had minor situational anxiety instead of moderate overarching depression, and I think being prepared made a huge difference. It wasn’t the type of preparation that gets me all anxious about making lists and potentially forgetting things; just a conscious choice to let go, to dig deep, to roll the thoughts away, to take things one step at a time, and to center my life on meditative prayer.

What also helped was a chance, at the beginning of December, to bike significantly more frequently. I started biking in to work 1-2 days a week in November, but in December my hours increased (from 8 to 20 per week!) and I needed to commute 4 days a week. That regular time outside exercising is amazing for mental regulation and emotional health, at least for me! And the reason for the change is also something I’m excited about, both for 2019 and going into 2020: I have the chance to learn bioinformatics and transition over the next 6 months from the genomics wet lab team to the bioinformatics team, which gives me a chance to learn something I’ve been interested in for years and develop skills which will be even more valuable for my career.

Outside of work, I’m looking forward to an opportunity to help develop neurodiverse community and support at my church. The woman who’s been running the special needs children’s ministry wants to reshape it to better reflect acceptance and neurodiversity, multiple people have anonymously asked the pastors about ministries specifically for neurodiverse adults, several pastors across our web of churches are working on formulating a theology of disability, and I’m apparently one of the adults they know of who is neurodiverse. Hopefully they will not ask only me, since neurodiversity is by definition diverse 🙂 But I really appreciate that they care deeply about the whole spectrum of the children of God, that they don’t want to make it something that neurotypical people are doing to or for us without our input or leadership, and that I have a chance to be involved!

With all of that said, I have just a few resolutions for the new year.

First, I resolve to pray every day. Things are just better when this happens, like marriage is better when I actually spend time talking with Paul 😛

Second, I resolve to write on this blog more frequently. My goal is approximately every 3 days – so, 122 posts for the year. I have lots of ideas but often don’t post for reasons that don’t make sense outside of my head, so I’m going to try to let go of my perfectionism and just share my thoughts.

Third, I resolve to read a variety of good books and keep a book log again! That was such a good experience in the past and I really need to get out of my fan fiction rut anyway. (I already have two books on my list and I can’t wait to write about them!)

How about you, readers? Any highlights from the year (or decade)? Anything you’re resolving for the New Year or especially looking forward to? Or conversely, any challenges from the past or apprehension about the future? I always love to read your thoughts.

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.

AAMwordcloud3
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.)

alisrowequote
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.

everyonesautistic-500x708

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.