Why the Trans Stuff?

This could also be titled, “Can you explain what Joel has been up to the last year?”  Or “Why is Joel glad Autreat moved from Johnstown.”

Some readers of this blog may wonder why there is the trans-advocacy stuff here.  It mostly started in 2012 with an issue involving Autreat.

In 2012, as a member of the planning committee, I discovered, by accident, that our Autreat venue at the time (University of Pittsburgh @ Johnstown) was discriminatory against trans people (and, most likely, still is).  Essentially, they decided to prohibit many trans people from using the correct facilities for their gender identity and expression (I.E. a transman should be able to use the men’s room; that said, depending on where he is in his transition and with his expression at the time, he may choose to use the women’s room for safety purposes, which should also be respected as this is an issue of safety from assault, not preference or comfort).  The change was made in 2011, despite a pretty good official non-discrimination policy (that includes, ironically, gender identity).  It was proclaimed semi-officially – it didn’t go through the typical rule making process, nor was it put on paper, but it absolutely was enforced and echoed by official statements made by the University.  In fact, it was enforced against a student at Johnstown who arrested for using the “wrong” facilities and charged with indecent exposure.

This was significant to Autreat because research shows that autistics are highly represented in the trans community (for instance, 6% of people with gender identity disorder are autistic according to one study – much higher than one would expect if there was no relationship).

There’s all sorts of commentary on U Pitt’s decision online and in print – most of it revolving around whether or not different advocacy organizations and trans people responded “right” to the discrimination or whether or not the trans person who was arrested was right or wrong. Unfortunately most of this commentary doesn’t actually question the discrimination, and most seems to imply “just wait it out” is the right response when you personally face discrimination – but that’s the typical response to anything that disturbs the status quo from people not personally bothered by the status quo. However, the root of the problem is not any specific case, but rather official statements from the University administration about how trans people would be treated. For instance, a spokesperson quoted by Think Progress said,

As this [policy] applies to use of facilities, a female who identifies as a male, or a male who identifies as a female, may use restrooms or locker rooms of his or her declared gender identity after he or she has obtained a birth certificate designating the declared gender. This practice applies to student athletes as well.

Many trans people, for many reasons, do not have birth certificates that agree with their gender.  Depending on where you are born, you may be able to change your birth certificate simply by filling out a form (no documentation or surgery requirement), by providing evidence that you are undergoing treatment for Gender Identity Disorder, by proof of certain surgical procedures, or, in some cases (such as if you are born in Ohio), not at all.  Thus, this can place people in not only bad, but dangerous situations of being forced to use a facility that doesn’t match one’s gender expression.

As a result of this discrimination by the venue, I wrote a long document near the end of July addressed to others on the Autreat planning committee (see this PDF: The Right to Pee) about my concerns.  I sent it after Autreat 2012 (we couldn’t move Autreat when this was discovered immediately prior to Autreat 2012, so I held off on the formal presentation of my concerns until after Autreat 2012).  The document includes documentation about the decision by the University, responses to questions I predicted people would have about the policy, and samples of good policies (such as the guidance issued by the NCAA, a group that knows a lot about single-gender activities and facilities usage, particularly in the context of college campuses).  I’m publishing it here primarily so that people can get ideas for their own advocacy and also to understand the problem surrounding the University’s statements (which are too numerous to go into here).  I’m also publishing it because Johnstown, Pennsylvania continues to be a hot spot for discrimination against trans people, unfortunately – I suspect in part due to the University of Pittsburgh normalizing discrimination.

A few months after I wrote about U. Pitt’s discrimination to the committee, the University of Pittsburgh in Johnstown still had not made an offer that accommodated Autreat’s dates and other needs to host Autreat, so the gender identity discrimination issue became somewhat moot at that point (the end of November) and a venue search was then begun.  Unfortunately my document and/or it’s presentation to the committee was insufficient by themselves to persuade the committee to begin the search immediately (it did trigger the creation of an ad-hoc committee, which over a year later still hasn’t produced any recommendations and is probably moot now with the Autreat re-organization), so the search was started at the end of November rather than earlier.  That’s a common problem – it’s hard to convince people that discrimination exists, and it’s even harder for even good people to challenge the status quo in areas that don’t fit with their own personal experience.

It was obviously a relief that a different venue was chosen for Autreat 2013.  AFAIK, California University of Pennsylvania does not have any official policy (or interpretation) that would lend itself towards discrimination.  Nor do I know of any trans discrimination issues recently in California, PA.

The PDF document linked above (as “The Right to Pee”) still basically applies to the University of Pittsburgh (all campuses), with a couple of caveats due to changing circumstances.  First, trans students are now supposedly allowed to use bathrooms corresponding to their identity, on the basis of statements made on a “Student Life” page on the U Pitt website:

“The University has agreed, prior to the finding, to allow people to use the bathrooms with which they identify,” Frietsche said, citing a statement posted May 21 on the Pitt web site’s “single use restrooms on campus” page (www.studentaffairs.pitt.edu/lgbtqa/singleuserestrooms) that lists the locations of non-gender-specific restrooms on campus.

It states, in part: “The University trusts that members of the campus community and their guests will exercise sound judgment and discretion when accessing and using the restrooms.”

Frietsche, quoted above, is a lawyer for the Women’s Law Project, a group helping represent the campus LGBT group in a complaint against the school over the problematic policy (the above quote was from a University Times article).  However, it’s unclear whether or not “sound judgement and discretion” is the same thing as “allowed to use the bathroom that corresponds to your gender expression.”  The terse and strangely worded statement also leaves many questions unanswered – can a transwoman take a PE class offered to women?  Which locker room is she supposed to use?  Which dorm?  And since this new “policy” is listed only on a site that is specific to one campus, on a page that lists where single-occupancy bathrooms are located on the main Pittsburgh campus, does it apply to other campuses, like Johnstown?

The bathroom policy changed to the current “sound judgement and discretion” standard only in response to a legal complaint by the Pittsburgh campus LGBT group. The University seems to be losing in this (thus far, their motions to dismiss the complaint on have been denied, and the parties were ordered into the current phase). However, that complaint was made to the City of Pittsburgh (which has strong non-discrimination law), and it’s unclear how much influence the City of Pittsburgh would have on a campus located in, say, Johnstown, PA.  After all, unlike most places in the US northeast, there are no protections in Johnstown (or most Pennsylvania communities) for trans people – for instance, it is perfectly legal to refuse a trans person service in a restaurant simply because you don’t like their gender identity or you think it’s a sin and you don’t want to “enable sin.”

The complaint is currently in a reconciliation phase where the two parties are to try to come to an agreement that is mutually satisfying, according to the process for complaints made to Pittsburgh’s Human Relations Commission.  If the parties can’t agree (likely), it will go back to the City of Pittsburgh (and, likely, be appealed to state court by whichever side loses).

Other than this, the situation essentially remains as described in the document.  Trans people still don’t have real rights on the U Pitt campuses, with the possible exception of being allowed to use bathrooms (if the school agrees it was sound judgement) and even then possibly only in Pittsburgh.

So, back to why I care – a significant number of autistic people are trans, and it’s simply not possible to have an autistic event without considering the venue’s attitude towards trans people (or, put another way, whether they have simple respect for people). Learning about this also opened my eyes to how easy it is to unknowingly participate in furthering discrimination against trans people (Autreat certainly didn’t know Johnstown was discriminatory when we signed the contract to have Autreat there, and a lack of prior preparation through policy and procedure caused significant delays when trying to figure out what to do about it).  So it’s importance to be careful and do research, and for those of us who have learned about this to speak up when we see gender identity or expression discrimination.  It’s also important to think through these issues so you aren’t learning after there is a problem, but you learn and prepare ahead of time (that said, this shouldn’t be hard: people leaving others alone in the bathroom should also be left alone – duh – how hard is this to figure out?). As I researched this particular issue, it was pretty clear that trans people routinely face discrimination in all areas of their lives and that the fight for trans rights is – as Vice President Joe Biden phrased it – the civil rights issue of our times.  I’d like to be on the right side of history and to be able to tell the next generation, “I did my part.”

That’s why I care.

Autistic Cliques

No, this is not an oxymoron.

Sometimes the online autistic community reminds me of junior high.

No, I’m not saying that autistic people are immature, so please wipe that from your mind right now.  I’m saying that the thing that makes junior high (and in fact the rest of society) difficult for many people (hardly just autistic people) is inside the autistic community too.

Cliques.

Now, I know we’re not robots, and I know that we too are going to have people we highly respect and like – and are more likely to take them seriously than other people.  We know these people, after all.  So I’m not saying this is a completely bad thing – it’s not.  But it’s also not a completely good thing.

Over the last several years at Autreat (maybe the last 3 or 4?), I’ve noticed a change from Autreats previously.  I didn’t go last year, so I don’t know if it changed last year or not.  What I noticed was two things, and I didn’t consider either particularly good, although both come from something that is good.  I suspect this is a wider community thing, and I think we need to look not just at Autreat but at our community as a whole. We need to shape up.

First, I noticed a lot less manners. No, not the typical social skills stuff we’re taught, but things like recognizing that other people might be impacted by your own behavior. Things like actually respecting people’s red badges. Things like trying to figure out how someone interacts at the start of an interaction because you care about their style of interaction, too, not just your own. Things like not doing things that you know will bother other people. Yes, autistic people can and should have manners. Having autism is not an excuse to be rude or inconsiderate. Yes, it means we might not recognize social cues, we might not realize that we’re bothering someone, or we might interact in ways that make others uncomfortable.  But there is a huge difference between doing it accidentally and doing it intentionally (and then using “I’m autistic” as cover). It seems like the autistic community has been slowly getting more and more selfish over the years (although I know that there are many, many exceptions to that).

Second, and I think related to the above, is the rise of more cliques. There have always been autistic cliques when autistic community exists, despite conventional wisdom that says we think logically and don’t blindly build groups or follow leaders. And I think there’s a reason for the rise of cliques: we are meeting each other a lot more often now.

In 2002, when I first attended Autreat and met autistic community, I knew nobody there. Not one person. I learned that others like me exist. And I learned how important it was to see that we exist. A bunch of people there were in the same boat and knew nobody. We spent the week together and enjoyed our time with each other. There certainly were cliques, even then, but there were a lot of people not in any cliques.

Fast forward to say 2011 or 2012. Today, most of the people who come to Autreat already know another autistic person. When I went to Autreat in 2002, I had never met another Autistic, nor had a lot of interaction online. Today, thanks to Facebook, blogs, local autistic get-togethers, advocacy movements, and other events (as well as Autreat being held in the same area for many, many years), the average attendee knows – and maybe even is friends with – other autistic people. And you’ll see even first time attendees often come with friends, either from their own region or met online. That’s a pretty dramatic shift in our community.  That didn’t really happen in 2002.

There’s good with this: it means more people want to come to Autreat and similar events, because they have another reason to attend: to meet the people they’ve met online. Of course you want to meet your friends! You want to spend time with them! This is particularly true if you don’t get a lot of real-life face-to-face communication and your social life is mostly online. So what do you do at Autreat? You hang out with your friends! It’s a wonderful time. But, to an outsider (that is, someone not in your group of friends), this is a clique.  It’s hard to break in, because they don’t share the bond that the others share among each other, at least not yet.

I also think having a chance to meet with other autistic people online interacts with our manners. We can build an online persona that is rough and tough, self-deprecating, or otherwise not all that pleasant of a person to be around. And, no matter how rude we may be, you can probably find validation online somewhere. That can be attractive – I can be “who I am” rather than having to be someone else. And there’s truth that this is a good thing, but it still has limits. It’s still important to think of other people and their feelings. I remember in 2002 being amazed at how concerned everyone was about everyone’s feelings. I saw that in 2012 too, certainly, but I also saw some seeds of difference on this point.

I also saw how, as more and more people at Autreat knew others, how it has become more difficult for people who aren’t “plugged in” to have positive social interactions. They might see someone that they think is really interesting, but they are surrounded by a large group of friends, clearly sharing a common bond. That’s not a great place for an outsider, even in an autistic community.

For my community, I beg all of us to consider each other’s feelings and personhood. Being yourself doesn’t mean “not changing anything about how I want to interact, I can be as selfish as I want.” No, it means, “I can stand firm on my convictions and my identity. And so can other people. I have a part in making that happen.” It involves us taking a less selfish route sometimes. Selfishness is not the same as “being yourself,” even if you can get away with it online.

I also beg all of us to consider that person who isn’t plugged in.  Not everyone is on social media.  Not everyone on social media is popular on social medial. It’s a pretty miserable experience sitting alone at an event filled with people who supposedly know what it is like to sit alone. And, back to manners, if you want to sit alone, that’s cool, but be nice to someone who asks if you want company – sure, you can still let them know you want to be alone (and they should respect that), but no need to be nasty! Taking time to get to involve others is particularly helpful if you know you’re comfortable with your friends. Take time to get to know someone and bring them into your circle. Don’t do what happened to you and me in junior high, and stick to a tight group! Invite (not just allow) others to participate with you! Yes, it’s hard – that’s why it is so comfortable to stay in a tight group, and why NTs in junior high didn’t include us so often! And maybe you do need time just in a familiar group once in a while (particularly if you don’t get it in “real life”). But empathy – which autistics certainly have – also means you notice the autistic doing what you do in real life, staring at a potted plant trying not to look lonely.

All of this involves effort. Community is work. Community is not easy. Community involves conflict, personalities, hurt feelings, and sometimes hurt in other ways. Hurt happens. It happens a lot in community. But so should love, nurturing, respect, consideration, politeness, and generosity. And we shouldn’t ignore those things, either, either if everyone can’t do all of this at once.

We also need to do this online and in other community spaces. We need to start thinking that we’re all really in this together. We need to, when conflict occurs, take a step back or two, breathe, and not demand 100% orthodoxy. We need to be careful about how quickly we run to the defense of our friends, and remember that this “circling of the wagons” was exactly the same behaviors we despised in junior high and onward into adulthood. We need to listen first before we immediately defend the person we know or like. We need to be an open and welcoming community that deals with conflict well.

And we need to recognize our own privilege. Not just things like white, male, privilege. No, also the, “I have influence” privilege. It should scare you when you see it. I know when I have talked about community issues that affect me in abstract terms or anonymously, and see them ignored. Yet when I attach my name and personal experience, now the issue is serious. That’s not cool – the issue is or isn’t serious no matter who is bringing it up. This is something we have to be on-guard about. The leader or blogger or researcher or whoever else shouldn’t be granted more consideration than the yet-unknown autistic person who wants to find out if others exist like themself.

Again, that takes effort. Sometimes a lot of effort. That’s the price to pay for community.  Community is hard. But, community is good and important, particularly for people who have never experienced it.

I’m not writing this in regard to any specific incident. I know people will try to say that I am, but, truly, I’m not. Autreat 2013, which I didn’t attend, had problems. For the record, yes, I do think there were many things wrong in 2013. I hope whatever rises from the ashes is better. I do think this type of concept is important. And I want to see it rise. Yes, we’ll have different leadership next year and fixes for some accessibility issues. And I hope we build a community that is more inclusive – not just eliminating barriers to access, but also actively inviting people into our space. Why get together if we don’t want other people around?

That said, I don’t have a solution other than asking people to be inclusive. I’m certainly interested in thoughts about how we can fix this.

Mugged by Sound – from NPR

A Facebook friend shared an NPR story (and the video I’m commenting on) about a fictional autistic boy dealing with the noise of his city.

I’ve linked the video here as well:

I’m sure there are a lot of autistic people who can’t relate to that video, but I definitely can relate to some of it.  That said, I do think my own audio processing difficulties are a but nuanced and that an overly simplified view of this can confuse people who expect it to be a simple matter of noise.

It’s not about noise, or volume.  It’s about energy levels.  It’s about what I’m doing at the time.  It’s about whether or not there is “information content” in the noise.  It’s about whether or not I’ve had a break or have a sanctuary from the noise.

I don’t mind noise.  I do some noisy things, like riding a motorcycle.  I don’t mind power tools or a load air conditioner – at least most of the time.  But I do need a place that is safe to retreat to, which means less noise.  Even routine noises – like those depicted in the video – can drain people (and, from research and observations of others, I don’t think autistic people are unique here, even if the magnitude of our drain is different).  I can deal with noisy crowds in cities or airports with earplugs – that extends my energy significantly.

I can also deal with short-duration noises.  Someone running water for 20 seconds is fine.  Someone running water for 10 minutes can, if I’m not ready for it, or if I’m trying to do anything (such as read, watch TV, etc), is overwhelming.  The same with noises like that of a spool scraping against a bowl – a few scrapes are no big deal.  But if there is 10 minutes of scraping and I’m crawling up walls.

Layers of noise are a problem, particularly when there is information content in the layers.  By “information content,” I mean that there is some sort of meaning – it’s not just noise.  Music and talking have information content.  The sound of traffic generally doesn’t.  So, a restaurant with loud music and tons of people talking to each other is horrible.  But another restaurant with the sound of loud traffic – even if it’s the same volume – is not.  There’s something about the information trying to grab my attention, so when there is multiple sources of information – even sources I’m not particularly interested in, my attention is yanked every which way which is simply exhausting.

I need breaks occasionally.  When I’m listening to, for instance, a lecture, I can handle this if there’s some back-and-forth, some delay, something to give pause between points.  I probably am very similar to someone with ADD in this regard – short, clear points are fine, but a long complicated point without a map can be a problem.  A large part of this is my very poor working memory – I simply can’t hold much in that working memory  so hearing 200 details together to synthesize the whole in a lecture isn’t nearly as effective for me as hearing about the whole first, then hearing each of the 200 details individually.  You want me to do well in your lecture class?  Give me an outline before the lecture!  I suspect that’s one reason I don’t have the ability to keep up with social dynamics in groups – it’s all about the details and you’re left to your own to somehow juggle thousands of individual details to synthesize a whole.

Certain sounds when I make them are fine, but not when others make them.  When I make them, I can stop anytime.  I’m not trapped by the sound.  I can escape.  But that same sound made by someone else, doing nothing differently than I did, can be extremely overloading.  The keys are duration of the sound, my energy level, what I’m doing at the time, other sounds simultaneously occurring, and my ability to escape the situation.  Volume level has relatively little to do with it, although certainly the louder the sounds are, the worse this is.

Some examples – I already mentioned motorcycle riding.  Hearing the wind noise at 80 MPH is no big deal, even combined with traffic and maybe some music.  I encounter few things in life that are this loud.  But I can handle it fine, even enjoy it.  The only information content is the music (note I’m not saying the traffic noise doesn’t cue me into what is going on around me, but it doesn’t have the same type of information content).

I can operate power tools all day, even loud ones.  That doesn’t bother me in the least.

Every year at Autreat – an environment where people have a greater understanding of sensory issues, however, I face challenges.  This proves the point that one autistic’s differences don’t necessarily match those of another autistic.  Inevitably, there’s a crowd gathered near the sign-in table.  Typically there are several groups of people, all very (understandably) excited to see each other, so there’s typically a lot of volume in the side-conversations – sometimes even nearly (or actually!) screaming.  It takes every bit of my strength and self-control to walk through the room to the table, say my name, and get my registration items.  The reason is that there is information content in those conversations.  Even though I very likely can’t hear the conversations well enough to understand the words, my mind tries – whether I want it to or not.  This is pretty much the sound that is the absolute worst for me, and every year I experience at Autreat one of the worst assaults on my senses!  Of course there are other things going on too – typically there’s a bit of chaos rather than order (the registration might be late, or something may be missing, or someone at the table might not know how to do something).  I might also want to say hi to people and greet them, so I’m trying to do something different than what I’d normally do in such a situation, and I stick around.  And, importantly, I’m typically rather worn out after traveling, so I’m “out of spoons”.  Together, this makes it a huge, overloading, draining, exhausting, and painful time (I would definitely prefer a root canal as far as pain level!).  But clearly not every autistic feels that way, since typically it’s other autistics making the noise!  We are all different, after all!

In the Autreat case, another factor is not being able to escape.  There are two parts to this – firstly, I can’t escape because I need to register to attend Autreat, something I very much want to do.  So I want to get it over with – it’s not going to be easier in an hour, so I want to get through the stress as soon as possible.  Second, escape isn’t just hindered by external requirements or environment.  It’s also hindered by internal desires and feelings.  In some situations, escape may draw unwanted attention to me – probably not at Autreat though.  At Autreat, the motivation is still internal: I want to interact with people, I want to see people, I want to meet people.  And if I escape to my room, that’s impossible.  Sometimes I get lucky and someone there who knows me already recognizes what is going on, and we leave the room together somewhere at their suggestion – then I get the human contact I’m seeking and get to escape!  But of course asking for this is something that also hits internal barriers, which is why it needs to be at the other person’s suggestion – simply asking “can we go talk somewhere quietly” is expressing the very thing that makes me vulnerable.  When you grow up abused, you learn not to speak your vulnerabilities.

So it’s not about Autreat being a horrible environment or anything like that.  It’s about the complex interaction between the environment at Autreat and my characteristics, some of which are autistic, some of which are part of being an abuse survivor  some of which are energy and ability level at the time, some of which are internal motivations, some of which are just plain the way I am.

That’s part of what makes this hard for people to understand.  It’s not as simple as “Joel is autistic and dislikes noise.”  It’s “Joel has sound sensitivities which are subtle and unique, and not just like that autistic boy in your kid’s school.”  Because it’s unique, and because it’s seemingly contradictory and manipulative.  For instance, if someone is talking during a church sermon, it can be very overloading, even if they are very quiet.  But the reaction I get, even if it’s not spoken so plainly, if I express this is, “You don’t mind hearing that power tool, but a little bit of whispered conversation in church causes you to go into overload?  You just want to control the situation!”  Yes, control is part of it – control makes things easier to handle, for sure.  Because with control, there’s the removal of the stress of not knowing how to escape.  But this gets mistaken for manipulation:

This gives us one of Joel’s Laws:

 Any difficulty someone has that is not immediately understandable by another person is called “manipulation.”

Sure, autistic people can be manipulative.  Of course!  But just because someone wants something changed doesn’t mean they have a sinister motive.  They really might be suffering in a way that you don’t understand.

What Makes a Good Communication System…Part 1

Those of you who know me probably won’t be surprised that my first post will include a rude gesture!  But for others, welcome here – I’m really not quite as evil as people seem to guess I am from my blog posts, and I hope you stick around long enough to figure that out!  So…on with the post.

At Autreat 2012, I spoke on designing asssistive technology (or, more specifically, how NOT to design it).  One of the points I brought up is the need for a complete communication system for everyone.  I’m not talking about the need for specific technology, but rather a combination of methods for someone to communicate.

I didn’t get too much into what communication should consist of.  Yet, too often, the what is overlooked while the focus becomes the how.  Focus becomes “how can this person communicate,” rather than “what should this person be able to communicate.”

Communication improves our quality of life.  But what is the “what” of communication?

  • The ability to change things
  • The ability to express emotion
  • The ability to inform others

That’s what it’s about, at least to me.  For me, as a part-time speech user (who is using speech probably 99% of the time right now), I feel I have good command of all three of these things.  That said, my ability to express emotion is best accomplished in writing and through keyboard based augmentative communciation devices.  I can’t say what I feel with my natural voice, but I sure can with a keyboard in front of me.  And I’ve learned that’s okay.

But, even more important than emotions is the ability to change things.  And there are several things that are so important that I don’t think any communication system should exclude them.  Sadly, I’ve seen too many children who are emerging communicators denied the ability to change things – particularly the important things.

I’ll be getting more into this in the next few posts.  But I’m going to start with “No.”

A rude gesture, which can be a powerful, visual way of expressing “No.”  Licensed according to the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic by vidrio.

The ability to say “NO!”

Everyone needs to have the ability to say “no,” even when it is inappropriate and there are consequences to the “no.”  The word “no” has tremendous power.  Most children learn “no” (or an equivalent) at a very young age.  Yet, “no,” has shades of power to it that go well beyond the power a 3 year old may be able to muster.

It can share an emotion, such as sadness, loss, or anger.  The word “no,” uttered in a forceful way, can show the true depth of emotion a person has about a situation that they don’t like (or which even is harming them).  Picture a meeting of support workers for an adult autistic person.  During that meeting, lots of words are flying about, lots of concepts, and lots of legal and social-work jargon.  Imagine now that the autistic person, already overwhelmed, pulls back a bit and can’t figure out how to insert himself into the conversation.  A loud shout of, “NO!” or “STOP!” can bring the meeting to a crashing halt and allow that autistic person to hopefully now insert themselves back into the decisions involving their own life.  That’s the power of emotion.

It can demonstrate a boundary.  Sadly, many autistic people are abused (most statistics show the vast majority of us are sexually abused as children).  “No” can show incredible power here, too.  After all, “No means no.”  In the US, the phrase “no means no” was coined as a way to express, “No, it’s not okay to rape your girlfriend, she has the right to say no.”  Similarly, even an autistic kid who can express “no” could stop some abuse just by putting up a clear boundary.  This type of communication is vital.  Sadly, not everyone will respect the boundary, but there are some people who will claim ignorance of the existence of a boundary without the boundary being expressed clearly and concisely.

It can also express choice.  One of the easiest things to teach someone about language is the power it gives them to change their environment.  But this only makes sense if the person is allowed a choice in things, and, particularly, allowed to say “NO!”  It might be motivating to a young child to ask, “Do you want to play with the puzzle or the doll?”  But it might be even more motivating for the child to say, “NO!” if it can have an impact on the child being able to avoid some activities they don’t enjoy.  Power is a tremendous motivator – all of us want power in our own lives.  And that legitimate need for control in our own lives can be a powerful motivator for further communication.  But it has to start somewhere.

Now, “NO!” doesn’t need to be spoken, screamed, or even written.  In fact, almost everyone knows a way to say “no” already.  It’s equally important to listen and respect that person’s way of doing so.  Certainly there are appropriate and inappropriate ways of saying no, but and sometimes saying “no” won’t get you out of something you need to do. But the ability to express that is important, as is the willingness for people to listen to it. If a person can grunt to say no, and it’s unambiguous, there’s no need to teach lots of language just to say something they can already communicate.  Focus on the nuances, not the concept of “no” at that point!  And listen when the “no” is communicated, however it’s communicated (as I’ve said, this doesn’t always mean going along with the no – but rather it simply means listening to it and responding appropriately).

So, the first thing I look for in a communication system is simple: Can the person say
“no?”