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Aug. 29th, 2015

On Writing Autistic Characters

The first autistic character I ever read about was a girl named Susan in a children's book. She was a piano savant who could play anything she had heard, even if only once, though it was plain she did not understand the music; when she heard a record, she copied the skips of the record player too. She didn't communicate, didn't have friends. At the end of the story, Susan was sent to an institution, and everyone agreed that it was in her best interest. (Anne M. Martin, The Secret of Susan.)

It was published writing. It was also very bad writing--and not just because autism wasn't depicted in a realistic fashion. The biggest problem was that Susan herself was not a well-written character. She was not, in fact, a character at all; she was a plot device. She did not change or learn; she reacted to events as though pre-programmed with her responses. She was not human.

So let's talk about this. Let's talk about good writing, and about autism, and about why characters like Susan need thorough re-working.

1. Your character is not a walking blob of autism.
When you write a neurotypical character, you have to write them as a complete person. That doesn't mean giving every single minor character a complete backstory, but it does mean that what your readers see of your characters should be parts that fit into the larger picture of a whole person. Autism is a part of that picture for your autistic characters, but it does not make up the entirety of that character. If you take a list of diagnostic criteria and use that list as the description of your character, you will have a computer program, not a person. In the real world, autistic people don't act like a list of diagnostic criteria; they act like people. Most of their traits are traits not on the diagnostic description, and most autistics will be exceptions to the rule on one or more traits. For example, there are autistic people who have wonderful imaginations, who speak fluently, who are extroverts, who are popular, or who really, really suck at math.

2. Your character makes their own decisions.
When a neurotypical character takes an action or makes a decision, there are multiple causal factors. What they do is up to them, and it's determined by their personality, by their mood, by their relationships, by the things they know. That should also be true for autistic characters. If an autistic character does something, it should never be explained that they did this thing "because they have autism". That's about as worthless a description as saying I did something because I'm an American. Unless it's something explicitly based on the diagnosis, such as, "She goes to a special school because she has autism", you'd better have a reason for your character to do things.

If your five-year-old autistic character has a meltdown, it's not "because he has autism"; it's "because his mother made him wear that itchy sweater on a day when he was cranky and hadn't gotten enough sleep". If your autistic scientist snaps at a co-worker, it's not "because she's autistic", it's "because she was preoccupied with her work and irritated to be jolted out of her concentration". If your autistic character wanders, it's because they've got somewhere to escape from or somewhere to go. If your autistic character rocks, flaps their hands, taps their feet, chews on pencils, or fidgets with a Rubik's cube, they do those things for a reason. And if you don't know why, then you need to go back to the drawing board, because you don't know your character well enough.

3. Autism affects, but does not determine, everything in your character's life.
Autism affects everything about a person because it is part of what makes them who they are. At the same time, autism does not create some kind of pre-written script which your character will follow. Think of autism as a trait along the lines of culture, gender, or nationality--it touches every life experience, but it does not prescribe life experiences. Your story about an autistic person should be about an autistic person who is also many other things--a part of their family, their community, their nation, their race, or even their species and home planet. Think about this: How does autism affect the way they see their role in their families? Their careers? Their country? And how do those things affect their perspective on their autism? And, most importantly, how does their personality mesh with all of that? Which brings me to:

4. They have a unique personality.
If you can write down "Autistic" as your character's main personality trait, you're doing it wrong. Autistic people are too diverse for "autistic" to be a valid personality descriptor to begin with; and besides, it's a cognitive trait, not a personality trait. Autistic people are more likely to be introverted than average, it's true, but there are extroverts, too. Some are angry and brash, others shy, others confident. Some are know-it-alls, others unsure of themselves. Some would happily deliver a beating if they thought the other person had it coming; others can't conceive of the thought of violence. They have diverse interests, goals, preferences, and desires. You need to do some serious thinking if you cannot write about who your character is without using the world "autistic" or describing autism.

5. Savant skills and splinter skills: Use with caution.
So you want to give your character a savant skill. Why? Because they're autistic and you associate that with autism? Because you think it's cool? Because it turns them into a budget superhero?

Before you give your autistic character savant skills or splinter skills, or even unusually strong talents, think about why you're doing it. What purpose do these talents serve? Will they serve to further the story? Or are you just randomly tacking them on without any real reason to do so? Even worse, are you tacking them on so that you can talk about the savant skill rather than the person? If your autistic character has devolved into a display case for their savant syndrome, scrap it and start over.

About ten percent of autistics have some kind of splinter skill, and they're usually not all that flashy. Not too many of us are prodigious savants; for most of us, a splinter skill is more like a knack or a very specific skill that we learned with unusual ease. If your autistic character has a savant skill, think about what that means to them: What does your character think of their talent? Do they enjoy it? Do they show off? Or do they hide it for fear of seeming odd? How aware are they that others can't do what they do without a lot of practice? Does it help them in their daily life, at work, at school, or dealing with other people? Might they use it as an escape from the hassles of life, or a springboard for a career? Does it give them a perspective that other people don't have?

6. Autistic characters are not to be used as a plot device unaffected by the plot.
All too often, I have seen autistic characters used as a source of conflict. An autistic child creates problems for their family. An autistic witness creates problems for crime-scene investigators. An autistic person sits at the center of the conflict, unmoving and uninvolved, while their presence diverts the story; but the story does not affect them in return.

Writing a love story between a single mom with an autistic child and her potential dream guy, and the autistic child is the problem they have to overcome to get together? That's a bad idea. That autistic child has their own perspective on things. Suddenly Mom is dating; there's a new man around. What now? The child will have their own thoughts on the matter. Or that autistic witness who can't communicate very well--they just witnessed a crime, probably a murder because that's what writers like to write about; a person doesn't walk away from that unchanged. Your autistic character is not a black box from which the investigator must extract information. They have their own story.

7. You can't group real autistic people into "Smart" and "Stupid" types.
Fictional autistics come in roughly two categories: The "smart" autistics, who are stiff and formal and genius at something, usually something scientific, but who take things literally to the point of obtuseness, and the "stupid" autistics, who need lots of care and have a splinter skill they don't quite understand themselves and occasionally show that they're more perceptive than you think. But autistics are more than Spock and Rain Man, and you can't stuff them into those boxes. Each person has their own particular set of skills and talents.

8. Their morality is human morality.
An autistic person is no more likely than the average human to be either a saint or a sociopath. Autistic people have trouble understanding and communicating emotion, but they have as much compassion as the general population, and their ethical decision-making is very much like that of any other human being. If there is an exception, it is that autistic people find external, specific rules easier to follow and take longer to figure out when rules can be broken; for example, your autistic character might drive at the speed limit even when most cars are going ten miles an hour above it. But even then, some autistic people are rule-breakers, and many, especially adults, have their own systems of values that they follow regardless of the law or social convention. Your autistic character will care about the same things most people care about--the well-being of their family, their loved ones, their friends, their country, about fellow human beings, animals, life in general, the world in general; about knowledge, cultural traditions, religious beliefs. Their atypical cognitive style may lead them to act on those ideas in their own unique ways--but their beliefs run the same human gamut as non-autistic people's do.

9. Your autistic character has a future.
Many of the fictional autistic characters I've encountered end up in one of three ways: Cured, institutionalized, or dead. Something about the writer's need to tie together loose plot threads seems to demand that autistic characters' autism be resolved somehow, that an autistic character cannot simply go on living their life, being autistic. Ditch that. Your autistic character does not have to be cured, nor do they have to die, nor do you have to "send them away" somewhere out of sight and out of mind.

10. All other rules that apply to good writing, still apply.
Why is it that people think that once you're writing about a disabled character, you can ignore things like avoiding melodrama, providing complex motivations for your characters, or remembering that everyone is the main character of their own story? If you find yourself doing this, back away from the novelty of writing about an autistic character and think about your character's preferences, dreams, goals, pastimes; think about the people they love, the places they call home, and their image of who they are. If you are writing about an autistic character, you are by definition writing about a person. "Autistic" implies "person", just like "woman" or "American" does. All of those human universals still apply.

Aug. 24th, 2015

Social justice

I’ve started avoiding social justice type discussions lately. I don’t know how to say all the right things and how to avoid all the wrong implications. I take things literally, like I might say that “all lives matter” is a true statement, because they do matter; and then people think I’m a racist and don't care that black people get killed for no good reason much more often than white people do. And wish I could do something to help but don't know what to do because everybody who talks about it is just talking about words and saying the right words and... what I want to know is, how do I keep people from dying?

It’s hard being autistic and wanting to stick with facts, but also wanting to love people and change the world so that everyone is allowed in it. Because no matter what I say, I can never memorize all the social rules, and then people think I hate them, or hate some group of people who don’t deserve it. In reality I’ve never hated anybody in my life, not even the people who hurt me or hurt innocent people, because I just don’t know how to hate people. But people wouldn’t believe me if I said that, because I also said the wrong words, and words matter.

I’ll ignore “social justice” altogether and just love people. I don't care who you are or what you've done or what category you're in; I love you. All of you. Forever. Whoever you are. That's just... it.

Sorry. I'm tired. I wish things weren't so complicated.

Aug. 13th, 2015

The Power of Helping

You ever thought about how much power you have when you're helping someone? I have.

I do volunteer work, when I can, when I have the spoons left over from taking care of myself and my cats. And every time I help someone, this is what I notice: By helping them, I am taking on a role that gives me power over them.

I used to volunteer at a food pantry. I'd been a client in the past, and when I had free time, I came back as a volunteer, taking down information from voice mail and stocking food. I watched the people who came into the food pantry, and the way they acted was very much like a frightened cat--the don't-hurt-me pose, down low to the ground, soft voice as though they were afraid to assert themselves, or ashamed, or thought they had to be subservient in order to be helped. I don't know; I'm better with cats; but if these people had been cats, they'd have been feral cats sneaking up to a feeding station for the first time.

As a volunteer at the food pantry, I had the power, if I wanted to use it, to dictate what these people had to eat. Beans instead of corn? Chicken nuggets instead of leftover pizza? My choice, not theirs. And socially, I'm allowed to do that. I would probably have been able to, completely groundlessly, accuse someone of not needing our help and turn them away, if I had wanted to. And most of these clients are older than me, with more life experience; many are parents. If I hadn't been helping them, they would have had some degree of power over me.

Incidentally, when you donate to a food pantry, I highly recommend that at least some of the food you donate should be morale-booster type food--things that simply taste nice and make people feel good, things like hot chocolate, parmesan cheese, tea or coffee, candies, the good jelly instead of the cheap grape stuff, the canned fruit instead of your leftover water chestnuts, etc. Having used a food pantry in the past, I can assure you that having something good in that paper bag can really make your day, and if there's anyone who needs their day made, it's someone who's short on food. Also ask the pantry if they give out toiletries or kitchen supplies; can openers are particularly useful and there's almost no one who can't use a bottle of shampoo. Also ask if they need baby items; some pantries are overflowing with baby items and others never seem to have enough; if yours is the latter sort, ask which size diapers they're lowest on beforehand. I don't know how many times I've stared in dismay at a huge pile of size 3 next to two lonely diapers in size 2, or vice versa, and wondered how annoying it would be to diaper your kid a size too big or small.

Back to the power thing. In case you're wondering, I never turned anyone away, nor saw any other worker doing so. Maybe one in two or three hundred clients probably didn't need the food we were giving out, but even those people we didn't send away because, well, it's food. Giving someone food, whether or not they need it, is not going to hurt them or anyone else. And can you imagine if we'd sent someone away, mistakenly thinking that they didn't need the food, when they actually did? Hunger is a real thing, people. I don't wish it on anyone. I'd rather be swindled one in two hundred times than leave someone hungry one in two thousand times.

It's not just volunteer work that gives you power over people. All kinds of helping does, even if you're paid for it, even if you're helping family. Now that I'm working on the ASAN Disability Day of Mourning list, I'm acutely aware of the kind of power caregivers have over disabled people in their charge. And parents over children, disabled or not. Cops over... well, pretty much anyone who isn't a cop. And when that power gets abused, people get hurt. People live in fear and pain, desperately trying to stay alive, knowing that their abuser is seen as a hero for "helping" them. They have very little recourse when they are hurt by someone whose power over them comes from their role as a helper.

I asked my aide, Emily, whether she was aware of that power gap between her and me, and she replied, yes. She's acutely aware of it. She knows she has power and she refuses to abuse it. I don't know if I was reading her right, but I almost wonder whether she's a tiny bit afraid of how much power people like her have over people like me, if they choose to take it. Emily is a rather good aide and she likes her job; most of her clients are younger than me, but she has other adult clients and some of them aren't as good at communicating as I am. If she wanted to, Emily could really hurt people and probably get away with it. But she doesn't, not because something's keeping her from doing it, but because she doesn't want to. I think she just likes her clients because she likes people and she sees her clients as people. That's the way most of the good ones seem to think; they recognize their clients as people.

But swap Emily out with someone who's narcissistic, psychopathic, or just simply doesn't care... Well. I read about the result of that all the time. Some of it ends up on the memorial pages.

Aug. 11th, 2015

Gender, Sex, and Sexuality for Multi-Species Stories

So you're writing about a species where gender, sex, or sexual orientation are a little more... complicated than for humans?

Here's my terminology guide for sci-fi, fantasy, and non-human gender and sexual orientation.

Biological Sexes:

Female: The gender that lays eggs or produces the egg cell to be fertilized.

Male: The gender that fertilizes eggs.

Hermaphrodite: An organism with the sexual organs of both genders. Usually refers to entire species, and refers to the typical state of affairs within these species. Hermaphroditic organisms may or may not be able to reproduce on their own, but when engaging in sexual reproduction they are able to either impregnate or be impregnated. Use this word for non-human species that fit this description. Many plants and some animals are hermaphrodites. Gender and sexual orientation may or may not be meaningless to hermaphroditic species; some adopt gender labels out of convenience or preference. Sequential hermaphrodites, which switch from one biological sex to the other during their lifetimes, may or may not switch from one gender identity to the other as well.

Intersex: An atypical condition found in species with two or more genders; refers to those individuals which cannot easily be categorized, physically, as one gender or the other. May be attracted to either gender, both, all, or none; may have any gender identity. Ex: Intersexed person, gender identity male, attracted to females, would be heterosexual; if gender identity is female, then homosexual. For human intersexed people, the term "hermaphrodite" is near-always incorrect and usually considered offensive because Earth-humans are familiar with hermaphrodites only in terms of relatively simple animals; calling an intersex human a "hermaphrodite" is equivalent to calling them, for example, a slug. Exceptions may exist for genetically engineered humans which fit the biological definition of hermaphrodites in sci-fi continua.

Asexual (Biology): The condition of having no gender. Refers to entire species; for example, amoebas. May reproduce by fission, spores, etc. Gender identity and sexual orientation are probably meaningless to these species; some adopt gender labels out of convenience or preference. Since they do not reproduce sexually, these creatures may not have a sexual orientation, or may be asexual in terms of sexual orientation.

Third, fourth, etc. genders: Your species may have multiple genders, each with a different role. You will have to name these yourself. Some species have an infertile third gender to care for young (ex., worker bees).

Gender Identities:

Social, personality-based, brain-based gender. Distinct from biological sex but usually consistent with it.

Agender; nongender; gender-neutral; androgynous: Some of the many words used to describe people who identify as having no gender. Applies to most creatures who are biologically asexual and many who are hermaphroditic, as well as some individuals from species with sexes. May be attracted to one or more genders, all, or none.

Genderqueer: As a general term, non-binary people in a species with a binary (or trinary, etc.) gender divide. May be attracted to one or more genders, all, or none. As a specific term, unlike agender (etc.) individuals, genderqueer individuals may identify as one gender or another at different times during their lifetime, switching genders. Sequential hermaphrodites may or may not be described as genderqueer.

Transgender: Someone with a biological sex that does not match their gender identity. Both the biological sex and the gender identity can be anything, including neutrois (physically non-gendered), as well as the binary (trinary, etc.) genders. Use their gender identity to describe their sexual orientation; for example, someone with a female gender identity, attracted to females, is homosexual even if their biological sex is male. Depending on the species, this may be a very typical condition or a very unusual one.

Sexual Orientations:

Homosexual/Heterosexual: Attracted to one's own/the opposite gender. This designation can only apply to people who have a gender identity, and usually in the context of a species with two main gender categories.

Asexual (Orientation): A sexual orientation found among species which reproduce sexually; lack of sexual attraction to all genders. Asexual individuals can identify as any gender or none at all. They may desire platonic romance and have gender preferences for partners, or not desire platonic romance at all. Most biologically asexual creatures can be described as asexual in orientation as well, though their species probably does not have a distinct concept of "asexual" unless they have been in contact with species which are not biologically asexual.

Bisexual: An individual, usually from a species which has genders, attracted to two of those genders. In species with three or more genders, "trisexual", etc., may be an appropriate category (but must be differentiated from the old "I'm trisexual; I'll try anything once" joke).

Pansexual: An individual attracted to other individuals regardless of gender. Different from bisexual in that it encompasses those who do not fit into the two genders that bisexual people are attracted to. Will still have preferences regarding age, personality, species, etc.

Androsexual; Androphilic: Attracted to males. Different from "Straight female" or "Gay male" in that it can be used to describe those who are neither female nor male, or are both.

Gynosexual; Gynophilic: Attracted to females; useful for describing those who are neither/both female and/nor male.

Xenosexual: Someone attracted to those from a different species from their own. Generally unusual, but some species are xenosexual by default (cf. Mass Effect Asari). Usually also has preferences regarding gender, age, etc., and may be attracted to one species, some, or all. Assumes sapient (able to consent) species only.

OmnisexualJack Harkness.

Sex Drives, Reproduction, and Families

Aromantic: An individual that does not experience romance in connection with their sex drive. For some species, this is the default situation; sex occurs without romance, as an instinct, a ritual, or a biological need, and there is little or no attachment between sexual partners. A good example in the animal kingdom: Cats. Cats go into heat, call for toms, and mate; then the toms have nothing more to do with them unless they were friends beforehand. Cats form friendly attachments, but not romantic ones. Species that are aromantic or tend to be aromantic may have a strong estrus cycle that forces them to reproduce as a biological imperative (ex., Vulcans). Some aromantic species may reproduce by spores, eggs, etc., and may never meet the other parent. Most aromantic individuals are capable of love; it just doesn't have anything to do with sex.

Monogamous: Attached to one other individual. Monogamy may be social (an exclusive pair-bond), sexual (exclusive sexual relationship), or both (a social and sexual pair-bond). It may be temporary (one breeding season), semi-permanent (as with humans; can be terminated by death, divorce, or "falling out of love") or permanent (Tolkien's elves, for example; bond for life upon their first sexual contact and will not re-marry if one dies).

Polyamorous: Just what it sounds like--loving more than one other person at once. Some species may have this as the norm; for example, bonobos (the classic example). Polyamory may involve the formation of "group marriage" style bonded groups (three or more people in an exclusive sexual or social group), or it may involve romantic pair-bonds with multiple people who are not also bonded with each other. Distinct from aromantic sexuality in that the bonds are emotional and often familial.

Hope that helps...
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Jul. 27th, 2015

Divide and Conquer

I really wish autistic people who can talk and live on their own would stop trying to distance themselves from the autistic people who can't do those things... It frustrates me that they're still kind of buying into the idea that "I'm autistic but it's okay because I'm smart"... because that buys into the idea of ranking people's worth by their abilities.

I want autism rights to stop emphasizing our talents or our disabilities, and start talking about what we want, what we need, what our lives are really like. It just makes me really sad when I hear somebody say, "It's okay that I'm autistic, but I wouldn't want to be one of Those People who needs diapers and has intellectual disability and needs a group home; in fact, they're probably not really autistic at all because autistic people are smart"... It just makes me sad.

We can't shut them away. We need to stick together with those who can't communicate or who need a lot of help. We need to defeat the fear-pity-hate thing altogether instead of trying to wiggle away from it and leaving the "low-functioning people" to deal with that stigma alone.

Jun. 27th, 2015

Still God's Children

A friend of mine recently expressed that they disagreed with the recent decision allowing same-sex marriage in all states. I'm re-posting my response here...

I disagree with you on this one... I understand that some people believe that loving someone of the same sex is a sin, but I don't think the government should be denying marriage to any adult capable of entering into a legal contract. Gay couples have really been suffering when they cannot marry. They've been barred from the ICU when their partner is desperately ill; their children have been sent to foster care when one partner dies because the other was not allowed to adopt. I as a Christian can't see any particular reason that same-sex relationships should be called sinful, at least not more so than eating pork.

But I know I probably can't change your mind. Say that, from your perspective, gays and lesbians are sinners. Well--so are you. So is the person who gossips about others, or holds a grudge, or doesn't bother to return the extra nickel they got in their change. Gay people have been mistreated, mocked, stigmatized, and even murdered; they are people we should defend, not exclude. We don't get to say, "You need to be an ex-sinner before God can love you," because God loves all of us, loved us before we ever even understood that sin was a thing at all. If a gay person needs help, we help them. If they're mistreated, we defend them. If they are threatened, we protect them. They are fellow humans and they are often fellow Christians. Whatever your opinion on the morality of loving someone of the same sex, it doesn't let you off treating them as God's children.

Jun. 2nd, 2015

A four-dimensional cat.

You want to experience the way my brain works?

Picture a four-dimensional cat.

That's what my brain got up to last night. It does this kind of thing all the time, leaving me rather bemused. Think of something odd. Pull together all kinds of information. Solve a problem. Draw a picture.

I lie in bed petting Tiny (because Tiny finds me too intimidating when I'm not on his level), and I should be sleeping; but instead I look at him and I think... "How many legs would a four-dimensional cat have?"

When you read this, remember that it's transcribed into words. I didn't think of it in words; words are too slow and clumsy. I think in concepts, relationships, and ideas, connecting to each other to form greater ideas. Words come in as key words, here and there: Cat. Legs. Dimensions. Balance. They pin down the corners of the ideas, but they don't make up their substance.

So I listen to Tiny purring, and I think...

Well, what are legs for? They're to balance you against gravity while you shift your weight to move. Cats have four. Humans have two, but we bounce from leg to leg while we walk, alternately falling and catching ourselves, and balancing as much on the two points at the heel and ball of each foot as we do from foot to foot.

A walking cat walks on four points of contact, one point per leg, instead of two points per foot. Three dimensions; four legs. Each pair of legs stabilizes the cat along one dimension: two dimensions against that third up and down pull of gravity. In three dimensions, balance is best achieved with three points--a three-legged stool at rest on a flat surface will always have all three legs touching the surface. Stability; three legs.

 A cat has those three legs, plus a fourth for movement. When two legs are on the ground, there are always two more legs to offset a shift to one side or the other. When walking, three legs are on the ground and the cat is balanced even if it freezes in midstep. Stability and motion: four legs.

I picture a two-dimensional silhouette cat. It has two legs. A two-dimensional cat cannot have the stability that a three-dimensional cat does. Like a human, it must hop from leg to leg, using more than one point per foot to stay balanced. But unlike a human in three dimensions, a cat in two dimensions stays effortlessly balanced when standing still. Two legs are adequate for two dimensions.

A four dimensional cat would look like... what? To balance a three-legged stool, we need a two-dimensional plane and three points. To balance a four-legged, four-dimensional stool, to define it in four dimensions, we have to add another point. Four points: Stability.

But four legs is not ideal for a four-dimensional cat any more than three legs is ideal for a three-dimensional cat. When a three-dimensional, three-legged cat moves, no matter how slowly it moves, it must always lose stability during the step, because it must lift one of its three legs to walk, leaving only two, an unstable configuration. And when it balances on those two legs, the third leg can only be on one side or the other of those two legs, and so the cat can tip over on that side. (Realistically, of course, three-legged cats learn not to shift their weight in that direction, so as not to tip over. But this is a theoretical cat. A spherical cat, if you will.) Two legs gives the cat one degree of freedom, and adding another two legs balances the cat through that axis.

So a four-dimensional cat, like our four-legged stool, must have four legs for balance; but on each side of those four legs it must have one leg, placed along the fourth dimension. A four-dimensional cat with three legs is like a three-dimensional cat with two legs: It can balance along all dimensions but one. Add a fourth leg to the four-dimensional cat, and you have the equivalent of the three-dimensional cat with three legs: Stability. But to have movement, do you add one more leg, or two more?

When a cat picks up its leg to walk, it shifts the weight onto another leg. Which leg it shifts to depends on whether it's walking or pacing (same side or opposite side), but the point is, the legs are paired. When it lifts one, there's another leg to partner it, keeping its weight evenly distributed for easier and more efficient movement. So we need an even number.

So my conclusion is: A four-dimensional cat, living in a world with gravity, most likely has six legs.

It took me just over a half-hour to articulate this in words, but last night, when I thought about it for the first time, I went through all those steps in two or three minutes, jumping from the concept of stability, to friction, to images of the cat and the three-legged stool, to ideas about walking, to coordinate systems and four-dimensional vectors. Thinking about four-dimensional cats is a bit silly, but it's a typical enough daydream.

I don't think all autistic people think this way. Our experiences are as individual as our minds. I do know that I do, and I know that words are not as fundamental to me as they are to most people. There are people who believe that without a word to articulate a concept, you cannot conceive of the concept at all (I was first introduced to this idea when I read 1984), but I don't think those people have talked to a lot of autistics. Words make thinking more concrete, but wordless thinking exists and it is the source of many new ideas. When I think of a four-dimensional cat, I don't go through the process of generating all of that language. I don't need to. I don't even really need the "pin words"--cat, motion, stability, dimension, etc.--because those words are just simplifications of concepts much bigger than themselves. Just like the word "cat" cannot contain the idea of catness, the words I produce cannot contain my thoughts.

Do most people have thoughts bigger than their words? I think they must. We have whole universes inside our heads. Words are just the tiny trickle of proxy symbols meant to trigger bits of other people's universes when we say them and they hear them. When we don't have a word and we need to communicate, we make a word; but the idea was there before the word, and was no less real.

May. 22nd, 2015


You should do.

          I won't do.

You should do.

          I am I, not you.

          I want to. Not should.

          You should; but I want.

          I can, or could, or might--or I won't.
          My choice.

You should.

          You should; but I won't.

Your shoulds are I wants.

          I still won't.

          I won't should. I want, could, might--or I won't.
          I choose.

...You could.

          I can.

May. 21st, 2015

Taking marriage for granted

I can’t help but think how nasty it was of us to deny gay people the formal commitment and legal acknowledgement that straight people have enjoyed for so long.

I’m not surprised that the fight for gay marriage has made straight people think about the value of marriage, too; we took it for granted for so long, until we realized what it was like not to be able to marry at all, whether you wanted to or not. I think gay marriage will probably strengthen the institution of marriage, overall.

Humans, psychologically, pair-bond. We just do. We want to find another person and take on life together. Some of us don't want sex, some of us don't want romance, some of us prefer a person of the same gender; some of us want more than one person at once. A few aren't into the pair-bonding thing, and while that's unusual, there's nothing particularly wrong with it. But the point is--we bond with each other, naturally, and we see it as a good thing.

When all those love hormones are overwhelming your senses and you're "in love", it's easy to stay bonded. You just can't live without each other. Your cognitive abilities are measurably diminished. But that can't, and shouldn't, last forever, and that's where social bonds come in. As a relationship matures, people become friends as well as lovers; they rely on each other, learn to compromise, even learn to argue without hurting each other. Such a relationship takes work to maintain. Commitment.

There are benefits to a formal marriage. You've made your commitment publicly. You've made a legal contract and, if you're religious, you've also made a promise to each other before God. You're agreed that you're in it for the long haul. Legally, things change; you're taxed together, expected to both be responsible for children, and not expected to testify against each other. You can make medical decisions for each other when one is incapacitated. You inherit each others' property and can adopt each others' children.

And all of this is something we've taken for granted for a long time--until gay people reminded us how precious it is to be able to formally, publicly, and legally commit to another person, and how much pain can come from being refused that right.

I grew up with a mom who married some not-so-nice men. I didn't have that much respect for marriage in general. I think I would've been happier with a single mom. And yet all of this is forcing me to think about the value that marriage does have to people who are in love and want to spend their lives together, and how much they lose when they're not allowed to marry. I still don't want to marry, myself; I've never had a romantic relationship. If I did marry, it would be a platonic partner, probably for simple companionship, or to foster children together. I'm not even sure what gender I would prefer; gender is more or less irrelevant to me right now. But all the same, I'm just a tiny bit more open to the possibility of eventually finding that close friend, that love that would mean I would always have both someone to depend on and someone who depended on me. Maybe I'm a loner; maybe I'm not very romantic; but like many people, I've been taking marriage for granted--until I realized how much it matters to people for whom it's not an option.

Apr. 29th, 2015

In the News: Adopted Pit Bull Helps Autistic Teenager Hug and Kiss His Mom For the First Time

Adopted Pit Bull Helps Autistic Teenager Hug And Kiss His Mom For The First Time

It's not uncommon for autistic people to learn things from animals when humans are too complex to understand. Learning to cuddle with a dog is just so much less complicated than learning how, when, and when it's appropriate to hug a human. I can't help but wonder whether Aspie kid now enjoys hugging his mom, or does it because he knows Mom likes it. Personally, I learned how to back off and stop being annoying from my cat, who would just glare and hiss. People don't glare and hiss, they're too polite to do that, so we don't get clued in!

But there's something about this article that seems a little skeevy to me. It's like... the dog is some kind of miracle, a dog with a saintly halo who helped this poor Aspie kid to do things he never would've otherwise. But plenty of people, autistic or not, learn things from their pets. Dogs are very demonstrative creatures, with such obvious emotions; why shouldn't it be easier to learn to hug a dog than a human?

What gets me about it, I suppose, is mostly that it's taken as extraordinary that this kid learned how to hug Mom without it being overwhelming. I guess he must have been very touch-sensitive, or something of that sort; and I guess the dog was easier because a dog doesn't get mad and sad and disappointed if you don't want to hug it. Still, it's not unusual for us autistics to learn new things, from a dog or from a human or from reading a book or watching someone do it or just figuring things out ourselves. And I'm pretty tired of newspapers that act like it's an unusual thing for us to learn something new, or to grow out of ultra-sensitivity that makes hugs painful, or to learn to ration our energy so we can hug someone who really wants a hug from us.

Because it's not unusual at all. It's the way things go. You grow up, you learn things. A boy and a dog become friends and both of them are the better for it. All I see is a very human, everyday situation.

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