Daniel Wins the Fantastic Falcon Award for Exhibiting Compassion

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Today Daniel’s teacher awarded him the Fantastic Falcon Award for Exhibiting Compassion during the 3rd quarter. Every quarter each class at Arapaho Classical Magnet gives out non-academic awards to students for things like helpfulness, compassion, and resilience. In the past the awards were less specific, meaning the teachers could interpret the awards however they wanted. This time, they gave out two, with the specific criteria of compassion and resilience.

I’m guessing one would have a hard time convincing Daniel’s teacher that he doesn’t have empathy!

A Pathological Look at Neurotypical Behavior

When you read about autism, you typically read about it as a pathology. Autistic people are viewed as being normal people with pathological deviations from the norm. Every so often you will come across an article that delineates a few of the special abilities of people on the spectrum, but even in doing so, it comes across as “well, at least there are a few positive things that come out of this tragedy.”

Autism is a structural variation in the brain’s architecture that gives rise to differences in processing and in different abilities. One may even argue that it gives rise to a different kind of mind. The vast majority of those people are in the “mild” end of the spectrum, though a great deal of focus is on the “extreme” end, with those who often cannot speak and seem to be particularly mentally disabled. This focus further pathologizes the spectrum precisely because it does not fully or even properly represent the reality for most people with autism.

To fully understand my point, I want to treat those not on the spectrum as though autism were the norm and what we now call neurotypical behavior were the minority. That is, I want to treat neurotypical people the way they treat people on the autism spectrum, from the perspective of someone on the spectrum. Because, from our point of view, you are full of deficits.

The Pathology

Irrational behaviors are one of the primary aspects of neurotypical people. Very often decisions are made without a great deal of thought or, certainly, research. This is especially true when it comes to their opinions. Whereas a sensible autistic person will do a great deal of research before developing an opinion or coming up with a proposed solution, neurotypicals have been observed to have an immediate opinion on things without, apparently, knowing the first thing about the topic. This is different from the kinds of errors autistics make from managing to miss something in their extensive research; rather, the neurotypicals carelessly won’t do any research at all before making a decision. And if they do any research, it will be at best a truncated version, as if they are impatient to come up with any answer at all rather than to make sure they have the right one.

It seems that a strong reliance on emotions is a typical reason for this immediate, almost knee-jerk, way of making a decision. As a result, it is not uncommon for them to agree with a solution that sounds good, sometimes regardless of the overwhelming evidence against the proposal, rather than something that has a track record of actually working. This seems to especially be the case in the areas of economics, the social sciences, and government. While this same tendency does allow them to respond more quickly to others, sometimes that is done at the expense of properly assessing the social situation. Fortunately, they do seem to have a particularly strong ability to make that proper assessment, so we must admit that in this particular case their pathological tendency toward immediate conclusions is often beneficial.

Having said that, there are some very strong negatives of that ability that seem to be combined with a kind of empathy that makes them more likely to identify more with people like themselves than with different people. While we autistics have a tendency to not be judgmental or biased, neurotypicals are terribly judgmental and biased. They judge people on things like race, sex, gender, deviations from the way they themselves think, culture, religion, and pretty much any difference one could possibly imagine, often to the point of hating members of other groups. Some autistics who have been raised with these people have learned these behaviors themselves, even though they are not typical to us. This makes associating with neurotypicals potentially dangerous, unless we remain on our guard against their biases.

This note on this particular moral deficit brings me to the topic of the large number of moral deficits commonly associated with neurotypicals. They have an under-developed sense of loyalty, and many do not seem to show any degree of loyalty at all. Further, they seem willing to lie about just about everything. The primary use of language for them seems to be to lie to each other. They will tell each other they look nice when they don’t; they will say one thing to one person, and another to another; they will backstab; they will tell their friends they are right when they know their friends are wrong. I could go on and on with the ways they lie to everyone.

They will also exaggerate and say things they don’t really mean. They will sometimes use words to mean completely different things. For example, I recently heard one of them say, “Give me a smack.” Which seems an odd request. But then I saw their neurotypical partner give them a kiss in response. How strange to ask for the opposite of a kiss and then to get a kiss! As a result, it can be very frustrating to deal with neurotypicals. You never know if they really mean what they are saying, you do not know if you can ever really trust them, and if you make the mistake of thinking they think the way you think, you will too often find yourself screwed over without your understanding what just happened.

Another odd behavior neurotypicals exhibit is their habit of “small talk.” From what we can tell, small talk appears to be talking just for the sake of talking. A “how are you doing” results in the same non-answer of “fine.” It seems unlikely everyone everywhere at all times is truly “fine,” so it seems that that is a non-answer to what is in fact a non-question. It has been observed that if you give an actual answer to the question, the questioner gets frustrated and impatient, as though they are annoyed that you would actually answer them. A whole conversation can actually go on like that, with general questions giving rise to pat answers so that you could actually change out any pair of people and you would end up with the same conversations each time. The vast majority of their conversations are not about anything of any substance, and, again, they seem positively annoyed if you try to engage them in such a conversation. As a group neurotypicals seem positively frivolous most of the time.

This frivolity extends to their work. They treat work as a social experience rather than as work. They don’t seem to treat work seriously or to engage in it with the kind of attention we autistics do. How any of them can keep a job is a mystery. Perhaps their ability to lie to their bosses and to pretend deference to them is what keeps them employed despite their inherent laziness. They also do have a tendency to do things exactly as they are told to do them rather than to find new ways of doing things. While one could view this as a lack of creativity on their part, in many cases it is useful to have a group of people who will unquestioningly do what they are told. If you can keep them from wasting their time socializing, businesses could make good use of this tendency to conform and engage in groupthink.

How It Feels to Be Made a Problem

I’m guessing you didn’t like the above description of yourself. You no doubt agree with many of the things listed, that they are all-too-often traits of the typical person. And no doubt many of you have made positive efforts to overcome those things—especially such things as racism and sexism. Indeed, we on the autism spectrum also make an effort to overcome what are perceived to be deficits. And yet, there are no doubt things I discussed above that you would argue are unusual, to say the least, interpretations of your behaviors. Well, guess what? That’s how we feel about many of the things we read about people with autism.

For example, we read that we do not have empathy or a theory of mind. That’s utterly ridiculous to us. We fully understand you have a mind—we just treat you like you have a mind like our minds, which results in a number of errors on our part. But guess what? You do exactly the same thing. You treat us as though we ought to have your mind, and when we obviously do not, you actually go so far as to declare that we don’t have a theory of mind! In the past people used to dehumanize others from other races and cultures using exactly this same logic. Since the person from the other culture does not act like us, they must not be human like us. We now know this to be untrue—and to be outright racist—but this way of thinking still manages to creep into studies of people with autism.

Yes, there are studies of young children involving hiding a toy, removing the child who saw where the toy was hidden, then moving the toy elsewhere and bringing the child back in where the young autistic children do not properly recognize who knows what, but where are the studies of older children and even adults? Why is it that we autistic adults don’t make this mistake? Could it be that the development of this ability is simply delayed rather than absent? Indeed, I see a great deal of evidence that people with autism have a tendency to have to learn through direct instruction many more things than do neurotypical people, who seem to have a large number of instincts that allow them to learn certain things more quickly. This is a difference in learning, not necessarily a disability or pathology. It is slower, but more accurate. As with anything, there are tradeoffs.

Finally, I want you to consider something else we autistic are always hearing. Given the negative aspects of neurotypicals listed above, what would you think of calls to fix you? From an autistic’s perspective, you would be much better people if you were more autistic. You would lie less, be less biased and judgmental, and be less frivolous. You would waste less time at work and get more work done. You would say what you mean and mean what you say. From our perspective, life would be much better for you if you were more like us. Now how does that make you feel? I can describe you as a pathology, as a problem that needs to be fixed. I am certain you didn’t like it one bit. Well guess what? Neither do we. If people would spend more time talking to us rather than studying us as some sort of black box that can only be understood by external observation of our behaviors, you may have known that by now.

Different Isn’t Worse

People with autism aren’t broken normal people. We are different. Our brains have different architectures, different biochemistry. It is driven by differences in our genes. All of which give rise to a different way of thinking and thus to different minds. Some of our minds are closer to neurotypical minds than others. It is a spectrum, after all. And some people with autism are definitely disabled when it comes to living in the neurotypical world. But then, there are extreme examples of the neurotypical mind as well—people who are pathological liars, people without morals, people who cannot seem to tell the difference between themselves and the external world. The difference is that they are closer to you, and thus seem more normal to you. To me, a man whose autism would be considered “mild,” those with severe autism seem more normal. I get how they are thinking. It is different, not wrong. And if people were more accepting of those differences, I would predict that many of our extreme negative traits would lessen considerably. We are frustrated, and that frustration comes out in a variety of negative ways. But then, consider what would happen if everyone treated you as a disease needing to be cured and not as someone who needed to be truly understood in the least?

Coming to this understanding between autistics and neurotypicals matters. Given the negative social consequences felt by pretty much everyone on the autism spectrum, we can only conclude that autism is one of the last ways of being human for which it is still completely acceptable by everyone to discriminate against. We are punished in the schools, discriminated against there, with the result that only around half graduate high school. Those who go to college don’t do much better. And even if, like me, one not only graduates from college but gets graduate degrees, one finds upon graduation that the work world is almost completely hostile to you. Not because we can’t do the work—because not only can we do the work, we will likely do it better than the average neurotypical person—but because we don’t interview well, we don’t acknowledge hierarchies, we are blunt, we come across as arrogant, and we aren’t social in typical ways.

I wrote this piece in order to help the average person understand what it’s like to be treated as a pathology. It can just as easily be done to you as it has been done to us. Does that mean you are a problem that needs to be fixed? Or does that mean we ought to be considered fellow human beings whose minds are part of the natural variation among human beings, whose contributions to society are vital for social health? We correctly recognize that acceptance of cultural, ethnic, racial, and sexual diversity results in a healthy society. Perhaps we can one day soon include different ways of thinking, different kinds of mind as well.

Reflections on Being a Student on the Spectrum

Having taught 2nd grade summer school Reading and Math, and now working as a sub, I cannot help but reflect upon my own elementary school education. I was always considered to be a very intelligent child by pretty much everyone, including my teachers. Any bad grades were considered to be laziness on my part.

One area in which I struggled throughout my years as a student was math. I particularly had a very hard time with word problems. I also had some problem with certain areas of multiplication, and fractions made no sense whatsoever to me until I took high school chemistry. I failed 8th grade math, made a C in Algebra 1 (Freshman), Cs and Bs in Geometry (Sophomore), a B in Algebra II (Jr), and an a in Calculus and in Trigonometry and Analytical Geometry (Sr). In college, I made a C in Calculus I, and I failed Calculus II so miserably that I managed to make a fairly low F even doing all of the extra credit.

Math in elementary school has now gone almost completely over to word problems. When I was in elementary school, tests would have almost all numerical problems, and only about 2 word problems. That meant I could miss the word problems (which I almost inevitably did) without failing the test. But today, the quizzes I have had to give involved nothing but word problems. Meaning there’s a very good chance that I would have been failing math well before 8th grade.

While there is no question that we need to teach children how to formulate problems (which is what word problems do), it doesn’t make a lot of sense to teach formulating math to children who cannot add, subtract, multiply, or divide. That is, you absolutely must have the mathematical skill in place before you can move on to mathematical reasoning and formulation of problems. The latter may be most important overall, but you cannot skip establishing the foundation.

Now it may be that this way of doing things is the best way for certain students. I won’t deny that possibility. But it’s coming at the expense of other children. And if this is true, then the way I was taught it came at the expense of the kinds of students who do well in the way math is taught today. There are trade-offs. In this particular trade-off, I would have been the one traded, from doing well enough in math to pass to failing very much earlier on.

Another thing I have noticed about education today is that it’s designed to be much more social. There’s more group work and “shoulder partners” and sitting together on a rug and so on. None of this is exactly inviting to anyone on the spectrum, and I certainly wouldn’t have liked school nearly as much if it had been run like it is today.

Indeed, though I was perhaps seen as highly intelligent but quirky (to put it nicely) as a child in the 1970s, I think there is little doubt that in the current school environment that I would have been identified as having something “wrong” with me. I would have been seen as refusing to participate and I probably would have had some quite negative reactions to a lot of this forced sociality (something perfectly fine for neurotypicals, who don’t find it forced at all). I would have likely been identified as having ODD, if not Asperger’s/autism. I probably wouldn’t have been identified as having ADD/ADHD, because I was never outwardly hyperactive (inwardly, I’m in a dead run almost all the time), but I would have likely been sullen and I wouldn’t have liked the classroom environment at all.

In other words, I think I would have done worse in school today than I did in the 1970s.

If it’s true that I would have done worse under the way teaching is done today, then we may have some explanation for why none of the education reforms we’ve tried have ever worked to improve scores. It’s because while the reforms help some children learn better, it ends up acting as an impediment to others. It also may explain the “rise” in ADD/ADHD and autism, since the way students are taught today seems to draw out many of their identifying factors.

But we ought to be a little disturbed that someone like me would probably no do well in today’s system. The system I went to school in put me on the path to succeeding in college and graduate school. I fear that this system would have had me identified as a problem student and perhaps even having the autism I do in fact have. That is a problem because even though there is a lot of rhetoric around people with disabilities being able to succeed, the fact is that nowadays we are put on a pathway to “succeed” outside of a college trajectory–mostly because we are left unprepared to go. My brother, who has dyslexia, was discouraged from going to college in high school–and he now has a B.A., an M.A., and an M.F.A. You cannot tell me that autistic children aren’t discouraged, directly or indirectly, from going to college.

What is worse is that, if I am right that the majority of advancements in the world were made by autistics, then we are doing a terrible disservice to the world at large by creating an educational system that educates perfect copiers well, but leaves reformers/inventors/creators on the sidelines.

A Proposal for Education Reform

All teaching should be structured so that autistic children can learn the material. Because if an autistic child can learn it, a neurotypical child will be able to learn is using that method as well.

That means anchoring language to images and repetition.

But it does not work the other way around. What works for neurotypical children won’t necessarily work for autistic children.

Coincidentally, both do best in a Montessori school.

North Carolina Higher Ed Center Weighs in on Nancy MacLean Controversy

The James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal, out of North Carolina, has recently published a piece on the Nancy MacLean autism controversy in which this blog is cited and linked. As far as readers of this blog are concerned, there is perhaps not a great deal of new information in the piece by George Leef, but he does point out that Duke University has failed to address any aspect of her comments or conduct.

It is difficult to avoid politics in a situation like this, especially since Nancy MacLean’s work is highly politicized to begin with, and much of the controversy is itself politicized. This is why my objections were picked  up by libertarians and conservatives and pretty much ignored by the other political side. That being said, I do not consider her comments to be political in the least. I don’t like her anti-autism comments, and I went after her because she’s a well-known academic who made these comments. I will do the same any time anyone who is relatively well-known says anything ableist or spreads misinformation about autism or, as she did, accuse us of being the origin of an evil ideology. What’s worse, is that in her C-SPAN interview, she still tries to make that tie between autism and ideology.

At this point, I think it’s clear that MacLean simply doesn’t get it. She doesn’t actually understand the reason I object to her comments. She is so bound to her conspiracy theories that she doesn’t actually understand what she did wrong, or that it’s wrong. While I do appreciate the apology she did submit, I still don’t think she understands the actual offense she committed. While I think it’s silly to necessarily tie autism to a particular ideology, there’s nothing necessarily offensive in arguing some historical figure is or is not autistic. But it is offensive if you say that the reason they believe evil things is because they are autistic. In her C-SPAN interview she still makes that suggestion. What good is an apology when you then double down on your initial claim?

(Disclosure: I have published articles in The James G. Martin Center site, though none directly on autism and none on MacLean.)

There Is No “Autism Defense” for Crime

I hate to have to write about the school shooting in Florida, but when one of the attorneys for Nikolas Cruz says that “the defense team would be exploring mental health issues and “the possibility of autism.” ” then I have to say something. Especially in light of the comments made by Nancy MacLean.

If Cruz’s attorneys make the “autism defense,” there is nothing good that can come of that. Autism is not a defense for such an action, because autistic people are not any more prone to perpetuating this kind of violence than are neurotypicals. The problem is that because people believe that we do not have empathy (a notion Nancy MacLean perpetuated with her comments), it will be easy to get people to believe that we will therefore be more prone to doing things like shooting up schools. I would actually suggest that because we have a very strong moral core, we may in fact be less included to do so. In fact, if you consider how ill-treated we are by practically everyone and how confusing most people’s actions are, I would argue that we probably engage in far, far less violent behavior relative to neurotypicals who have been similarly treated their entire lives.

The fact of the matter is that autistic people can control their conscious actions just as much as any typical person. True, there are those who have meltdowns, particularly young autistics, but they are triggered, sudden, and suddenly over. They do not involve planning. In other words, while it may be possible that an autistic person could commit such an atrocity, they did not commit such an atrocity because they are autistic. We are responsible for these kinds of conscious actions.

None of this precludes other issues with Cruz. He may have other mental illnesses. But quite frankly, unless he was hallucinating, he would still be completely responsible for his actions with the overwhelming majority of mental illnesses. Even psychopaths who literally have no moral core to guide their actions are nevertheless responsible for those actions.  No one would dream of using psychopathy as a defense, and rightly so.

There are all sorts of issues that need to be raised with school shootings, not the least of which is why schools are not dealing with mental health issues in the schools, other than putting the “worst” ones in the behavior units. Also, why is it that people are being made to feel the need to violently lash out, with the schools as their targets? What is going on in our education system that is making people feel so powerless that they feel the need to wield the ultimate kind of power: deadly force? What is happening in our schools to make our children feel this way?

We need to raise a voice of protest against the use of the “autism defense.” Yes, we need to insist that, if an autistic person commits a crime, neither they nor their attorneys can use autism as an excuse. If we want people to accept the fact that we are merely neurologically different, but that different in no way means “worse,” then we have to stand up against every slur, every instant of prejudiced language, every attempt to argue that it’s an excuse for truly criminal behavior. Yes, there are a variety of behaviors we on the spectrum cannot help, but those involve saying the wrong things or stimming, not criminal plots.

Learning and Boundaries

There’s a phenomenon in people where your location or mental state affects what you remember. This creates a problem in the realm of education because, if learning is context-dependent, what you learn in school may be easily recalled in the classroom, but it may be less able to be recalled outside the classroom (some things, like reading, are obviously retained, but learning to read is a different thing than learning science facts). Another example, perhaps most appropriate for college students, is that if you study while drunk, you’ll remember what you studies while drunk, but you may not remember is sober–and it’s probably a good idea to show up to your test sober. This is also why homework does absolutely nothing whatsoever to improve your grades at school, or your test scores. What you learn at home stays at home.

This phenomenon is likely why children don’t learn anything from TV. All of the educational programming–such as PBS Kids–tends to be for naught because the children don’t recall the information in other settings, such as in the classroom. Within our classrooms, they are discovering that what children learn on iStation doesn’t transfer into the classroom itself. Math that children learn on iStation, for example, is recalled when taking a math test on iStation, but is not recalled when the same math is tested on a paper test. As a result, children doing well on iStation hasn’t translated to children doing well on standardized tests.

This phenomenon is actually much broader than learning and recall. People also tend to behave differently at work, at home, at church, among friends, etc. If someone saw you at work, they might not recognize you if they are familiar with how you behave among friends, for example. People compartmentalize their lives–and, as it turns out, their memory also gets compartmentalized depending on those varying contexts.

One of the issues autistics run into is our tendency to behave the same way no matter what the social context. That is, we have a hard time compartmentalizing. We tend to treat people the same for that same reason, ignoring social hierarchies others find important. If you want to find out how egalitarian someone really is, see how they react to the way an autistic person treats everyone the same. You’ll find few people who believe in egalitarianism to quite that degree.

I believe this also translates into learning for autistics. One of the things we noticed about Daniel is that, despite having read that children didn’t learn anything from education television, Daniel has learned a lot from watching his favorite shows on PBS Kids. I also suspect that what Daniel is learning on the computers and iStation travels with him outside of those contexts. I suspect this because he spent the evening telling us all about what he learned on his school computer learning games. So it’s at least transferring to our house. It seems his learning is decontextualized, which is actually a very good thing overall. That means what he learns will more easily be retained outside the context of school.

I believe this to be the case because I know that I retain everything I learn and can recall practically everything in practically every context. Of course, this means I can talk to you about my very well-researched obsessions whether I’m at home, at work, in a school, on a plane, at a party, or anywhere else you may be unlucky enough to be with me when I decide to tell you absolutely everything I know about the topic. My mind never ceases dwelling on my interests no matter where I’m at. But anything I learn I can recall–and apply–in any context.

A sample size of two is of course not enough to establish a general principle. But it would make sense since we don’t distinguish contexts in any other area of life (this inability to distinguish contexts is also why we on the spectrum have very high rates of interracial/intercultural marriages, since what would be too-wide cultural differences for neurotypicals are all the same to us). Anyone else notice this phenomenon of cross-contextual retention of knowledge? What may that imply for education for both neurotypical and autistic students? What may that imply regarding the tendency for autistics to be highly creative (I find it strange that autism researchers claim we’re not creative, but all the autistic people I know are highly creative–but that’s perhaps another topic for another time)?