Some good news…autistic teen gets a replacement bike

There’s been a lot of bad news lately. But there’s also good news too. A Utah teen received a gift from a stranger (from KSL, with video) who wanted to replace his stolen bicycle.

I too learned the hard way to lock up my bike. I lost two bikes in my home town – both were found bent and broken (with no pieces missing, just destroyed) in a field not far from my house. Mine were most likely stolen by other kids who just thought that it was a fun thing to do to the autistic kid who lived down the street.

Like A.J, the bicycle represented freedom. You didn’t need a destination to ride a bike. You didn’t need a friend to go with you. And you could be anywhere you wanted to go, so long as you were willing to move your legs enough! It was the one time when my body worked in harmony with my desires – it was natural to ride the bike. Today, I don’t ride the bike as much as I should, but ride the motorcycle instead – for exactly the same reasons.

Someone who is used to having freedom and being in touch with their bodies probably doesn’t understand how freeing the bike can be. I know that many other autistic people – I see how well and careful my wife is with her large scooter. She (like me) is significantly more careful with it than most people are with their motorcycles. It’s more than two wheels and an engine, it’s a chance to enjoy being in the world. That’s not something we always get to do.

So I can relate to what this teen must have felt when he found his bike missing. Like his family, mine must have been equally baffled when they discovered my bike missing, something I was ashamed to tell them happened (because of course I was told to take good care of it – and saw it as a personal failing that some criminal youth decided to be nasty). I’m glad he got a new one, and I hope that the family can keep this one from being stolen (and I hope they catch the thieves that stole the last one). Fortunately my family was always able to replace my bike – they weren’t rich, but mom always found something for me and I always ended up with something I was really happy to have. I’m glad A.J. can enjoy his rides again! I know how enjoyable a simple bike ride can be.

All that said, wouldn’t it be nice if we could just be left alone when we have enjoyment? Hopefully A.J. gets that chance now.

Microagression and Microavalanches

There’s a word coined in the 1970s – maybe earlier – around race that perfectly describes what a minority group experiences most of the time for prejudice among a supposedly enlightened society: microagression. This is, for many people, the thing that makes their life hell. What is this prejudice?

Hint: it isn’t violence or threats of violence.

It can also be the little stuff, the stuff that day-in and day-out someone faces. It’s the stuff that if it happened one time would truly be no big deal – but because it happens all the frickin time – these little things become an avalanche. And, of course, when the person experiencing this crap day and night dares to say something about it, they are blowing things out of proportion. After all, “it wasn’t that bad.” No, in isolation it wasn’t. And “they meant no harm.” Maybe, maybe not, but prejudice still hurts and action must be taken to stop it. And this action isn’t “get the victim to do the educating.” You see, that’s yet more microagression.

Probably the best way to explain microagression is to give examples:

  • A hispanic person is asked, in the US, “do you speak English?”
  • A child who experiences seizures finds himself having to explain what causes seizures and what to do about them to every new teacher.
  • A trans person is greeted with the wrong pronouns by a store clerk.
  • An autistic person is asked, “Why does my autistic child do X?”
  • The non-disabled adult sitting with the disabled adult is handed the check automatically by the waiter.
  • A woman joins a motorcycle repair forum, only to find surprise and disbelief that a woman can understand how engines work.
  • A Sikh is asked his opinion on Osama Bin Laden by a new acquaintance.

Notice the above? Any of the above may occur without any conscious awareness by the person doing them that what they are doing is likely offensive or hurtful. The person isn’t trying to hurt the victim, but the effect is just the same.

Being asked once a year or two if you speak English is hardly offensive to most people. But if you get asked this question every time you interact with the government, while others are not asked this question, you probably start to get annoyed and upset, especially if you don’t know any other language and have lived in an English speaking country your entire life (which the person can’t tell just by looking at you, regardless of your skin color). Why shouldn’t you know English? And who says that whites all speak English?

Being asked as an autistic adult, “Why does my autistic child do X?” is not an intent at offense most of the time, but rather sincere curiosity and concern for their child. But we’re not experts on your child, at least most of us aren’t.

Plenty of women don’t understand engines. But plenty of men don’t either (go read some of the motorcycle repair forums – and see the incredibly bad advice given). Yet people often make the mistake – often unintentionally – of seeing someone’s gender and assuming that they can now tell if that person knows engines or not.

Of course all of the above can also occur for sinister reasons. Someone might intentionally use the wrong pronouns for a trans person to show their moral disapproval. Others might not believe the child really has seizures so thinks they need to “test” the kid to see how knowledgable he is about them, so you can catch them in a lie. Another person might show their dislike for non-Christians by prodding a Sikh with questions about Bin Laden.

The key is all these things allow someone to still say, “Oh, I didn’t know!” You get the benefit of being nasty and hurtful without having to take responsibility for your actions. And of course the people doing it intentionally say they weren’t, as do the people that weren’t.

Add to that, most people, when confronted about a microagression, whether intentional or not, will respond poorly. They will turn the conversation around and see themselves as a victim of political correctness, of a slight etiquette misstep that the other person is taking way out of context. After all, they didn’t attack the person!

At the end of the day, it is this refusal to take responsibility that is most insulting. Someone truly acting in ignorance will take responsibility if they are a decent person. If they aren’t, if their ego is more important than the other person, if being right is more important than the other person, then they will not take responsibility. They’ll get upset at the person for “blowing it out of proportion” because, after all, they “didn’t mean to hurt you.”

Yet, often in life we face consequences for acts we don’t mean to do. I might forget to put a stamp on a job application I’m mailing and fail to get the job. I might leave dinner going too long in the stove and find it burnt. I might drive faster than I should in a moment of inattention and get a ticket (if I’m lucky to not cause an accident).

In addition, all of these behaviors, even when unintentional, are still hurtful. They all point out that we’re weird and don’t really belong. Being an outcast is not enjoyable. Sure, you don’t mean to “other” us by asking me about your autistic kid – but when that’s the only type of thing you want to know about my life, you don’t see me as a full person.

Now, I’m not saying that it’s bad to recognize differences. It’s not. Sometimes we need you to recognize our differences. Sometimes we want to share about our culture or life experience. Sometimes we do want to educate you. Sometimes we want to be treated in an appropriate way that is different from how you treat others.

And sometimes we want to be believed when we say, “Hey, this wasn’t accidental on this person’s part.” Sure, what they did might sound like it could be accidental, but the person relating the story likely has a lot more life experience dealing with how people interact with them. Yep, they might be wrong. So this shouldn’t replace, for instance, the court system’s process of examining evidence! But at the same time, part of stopping bullying involves stopping the intentional microagressions, while also educating others on the harm of microagressions.

And, just for reference, here’s some ways people could have responded in the situations I mentioned above:

  • A hispanic person is asked, in the US, “How can I help you?” If the person doesn’t seem to understand, then you should figure out what language they speak or use (in the case of a deaf person). Even better, you have obvious and clear ways for people to indicate their preferences (a government office with multiple windows might have a sign indicating what languages the clerk speaks, and invites people who don’t speak English to use that line).
  • A school makes it standard practice to share key student information with new teachers, while also providing an opportunity for students and parents to refresh and review the information that is given. Then, specific, relevant, questions are asked as needed, but the person who experiences seizures isn’t expected to answer the same question 10 times because there are 10 staff members.
  • A trans person is greeted by name by a store clerk, and if a mistake is made and the person says, “It’s not Ms, it’s Mr,” the clerk immediately corrects themself and says, “I’m so sorry sir” and then moves on using the right pronouns.
  • An autistic person is asked if they know of any good references for parents about parenting autistic kids, or other ways of getting that information.
  • When two or more adults are sitting at a restaurant table sharing a check, the waiter asks how they want to handle the check.
  • A womanperson on a motorcycle repair forum has a chance to show her intelligence or ignorance when it comes to motorcycles before any judgement is made.
  • Someone seeing someone wear religious garb asks if there is any symbolism in the person’s clothing

Maybe those aren’t all the best ways of responding, but they are likely better than the first attempt. Sure, you might not know that some of these ways of interacting are tiresome and hurtful, so you’re going to make mistakes. Again, the mistake isn’t the horrible part – but being stubborn if confronted is. And doing it intentionally certainly is.

There’s also some ways people observing can help – and these can be the most valuable and useful, as it shows the person, “No, you are one of us! You are part of our group, not an ‘other’.” Here’s some examples, from the above:

  • A hispanic person is asked, in the US, “do you speak English?”. A friend observing this might respond by saying that it might be quicker to just ask something in English and see if he gets a puzzled response or not. Or “what would you do if he said he spoke Russian?”
  • A child who experiences seizures finds himself having to explain what causes seizures and what to do about them to every new teacher. Another teacher could preempt this if she knew the kid was going to transfer to another teacher, by making sure the teacher gets this information ahead of time. But I admit this is a harder one.
  • A trans person is greeted with the wrong pronouns by a store clerk. A friend corrects the clerk so the trans person doesn’t have to (hopefully the clerk takes the hint).
  • An autistic person is asked, “Why does my autistic child do X?” Again, this is a hard one – I’d love to hear how a friend should respond. Probably should work it out with each other as part of the things you learn about each other during friendship.
  • The non-disabled adult sitting with the disabled adult is handed the check automatically by the waitress. Depending on your snarkiness, you can either make a great show of handing the check to your friend or simply say, “Don’t you want to know if we want to split it or who should take the check?”
  • A woman joins a motorcycle repair forum, only to find surprise and disbelief that a woman can understand how engines work. Other men could talk about how plenty of men do dumb things or plenty of women know mechanics. Or could simply point out that it might be better to listen and evaluate what the person has to say without being a jerk.
  • A Sikh is asked his opinion on Osama Bin Laden by a new acquaintance. I think here a “Why are you asking this?” would probably be appropriate.

Again, I’m not sure this is always the right or best way to handle things. But a lot of times, someone in support who shows that they recognize you as a friend or part of the group can do a lot to combat the feelings of otherness that is created. One of the worst things a friend or someone observing this can do is to stay silent, even if they don’t know how to react. It’s frightening, and sometimes you’ll respond wrong. But at least you tried rather than silently allowed the hurt to be inflicted.

I’m curious on other people’s thoughts on the microagressions. How can they be handled? What can people do about them?

Some Thoughts about Steven Simpson’s Murderer’s Sentences

Steven Simpson was an autistic, gay man brutally burned to death at a party (his birthday party). For some background, see this Huffington Post, this NineMSN, or this Daily Mail article.

He wasn’t murdered. No, he just had anti-gay hate messages sprawled on his stomach, face, and arm. He then had his groin set on fire. Oh, that didn’t kill the man. No, he survived in what I can only imagine being the worst possible pain until the next day, when he died at the hospital. The person who did this act didn’t try to put out the fire (according to the Daily Mail), but instead ran away. In fact, nobody tried to put the fire out until a neighbor – not at this party – intervened. Then the murderer tried to say that the man lit himself on fire.

Again, from the Daily Mail:

Passing sentence, Judge Roger Keen told Sheard that the evening had involved ‘good-natured horseplay’ but that putting a flame to a man doused in flammable fluid was ‘a highly dangerous act’.

No, homophobic insults and trying to humiliate a vulnerable person is not “good natured horseplay.” Certainly lighting a man’s groin on fire goes beyond “dangerous act.”

The murderer received 3.5 years for manslaughter.

Let me help out judges and prosecutors everywhere by giving some definitions and examples:

Prank or “Good-Natured Horseplay”

  • Something that the person it is done to will laugh with you about.
  • Typically does not involve having racist, bigoted, or homophobic statements intended to humiliate you.
  • Does not involve inflicting intentional great pain
  • Is reciprocal – you might prank me as a friend, and I might pull a prank of similar magnitude on you later
  • Done by friends
  • If it goes wrong, people stick around and help. There is deep concern when this happens.
  • Oh, pranks are funny, not hate-fueled.

Murder

  • Might involve fire
  • Murderer typically does not want to face consequences
  • Persons committing it do not provide medical help to the victim
  • Sometimes fueled by hate, bigotry, and homophobia

I’d add that anyone that can hear someone who must have been in the pain Steven was in screaming and crying for help and then turn their back and leave…well, that’s not good-natured fun. That is also, IMHO, murder.

I am glad a neighbor showed Steven some humanity and did his best to help, even to the point of receiving his own burns. That’s what anyone should be expected to do, but when it mattered only Sean Banner did it. The murderers (referred to as pranksters by the defense attorney) didn’t help and didn’t care about the human they tortured and killed.

My prayers are with the family of Steven, who lost someone they loved and haven’t seen justice. I can’t imagine what that is like.

Autism is Linked to Violence

Violence is linked to autism.  Really.

Two recent, horrifying massacres involved a possibly autistic person and one of their parents.

But that’s not the only link, by any means.

All of the victims were autistic.  The parents who murdered were not reported as being autistic, and most are, presumably, neurotypical.

So you see, yes, there is a connection between autism and violence.  Autistics are murdered by mothers or fathers at an alarming frequency.  I found these in about 5 minutes of Googling.  There are many, many more out there.  I stopped researching the murders of autistic people years ago because of how sad it is to do, and seeing the above list fills me with sadness.

When a presumed autistic person kills, the discussion becomes one of locking up people like him – autistics and mentally ill.

When a mother kills her autistic kid, the discussion focuses on how hard it is to raise an autistic kid.

Even as dead murder victims we’re at fault.

Often it will be pointed out that many of the mothers or fathers who kill their autistic kid (who may be a child or may be an adult) also kill themselves, and people will say, “You can see how horrible that person’s life was, that’s why they killed themselves.”  When an autistic person commits murder and then kills themselves, the discussion is about what a monster they were.

Now, I’m not saying that a murderer isn’t a monster.  I’m shocked and saddened by the horrible loss of life in Connecticut.  But I do note a double-standard that reflects society’s bias towards the mentally ill and autistic.

Mentally ill and autistic people are much more likely to be murdered by their parents than to murder their parents.  Nobody would suggest that autistic people’s parents should be locked up.  I’d like to suggest that we quit suggesting that for mentally ill and autistic people too.

In hindsight, do I wish the Connecticut shooter was locked away and/or received effective support and treatment?  Sure.  Of course.  Just as I wish each of the mothers and fathers above could have.

I beg parents of autistics to blog with perspective and fact.  Yes, there are violent autistics.  Your kid might be.  But, there are also violent non-autistic parents.  It would be unfair of me to paint a loving parent who would never harm their child as a potential murderer.  Likewise, it’s unfair – and unsupported by science – to claim that autistics or mentally ill people are more likely to commit violent acts.  It’s simply not true.  And, yes, it’s been studied.

Violence is linked to autism.  Autistics are the victims.

Where’s the Real Risk?

The shootings in Connecticut have touched our raw emotions.  It’s absolutely horrible that someone would take the lives of children at their school.  So I want to start this by saying that I too am very sad that an evil act took these lives from this world.  I can’t understand why someone would do such a thing.  I also think it’s appropriate to grieve and to remember those who are still with us with refocused intensity.

One concern I have however is that in the discussions of gun control, mental health care accessibility, and school security – certainly issues that are important and should be discussed – is that we’ve lost fact of the real risks.

The CDC studies why Americans die and releases reports on exactly that.  For 5-9 year olds, the most common causes of death in 2009 (in the US) were:

  • Accidents (31%)
  • Malignant Neoplasms (19%)
  • Congenital Malformations, Deformations, and Chromosomal Abnormalities (8%)
  • Assault/Homicide (5%)
  • Influenza/Pneumonia (4%)
  • Diseases of the Heart (4%)
  • Chronic Lower Respiratory Diseases (3%)
  • In Situ Neoplasms, Benign Neoplasms and Neoplasms of Uncertain or Unknown Behavior (2%)
  • Septicemia (1%)
  • Cerebrovascular Disease (1%)

For 10-14 year olds:

  • Accident (29%)
  • Malignant Neoplasms (13%)
  • Intentional Self-Harm/Suicide (8%)
  • Assault/Homicide (6%)
  • Congenital Malformations, Deformations, and Chromosomal Abnormalities (5%)
  • Influenza/Pneumonia (4%)
  • Diseases of the Heart (4%)
  • Chronic Lower Respiratory Diseases (2%)
  • In Situ Neoplasms, Benign Neoplasms and Neoplasms of Uncertain or Unknown Behavior (1%)
  • Cerebrovascular Disease (1%)

In both cases, accidents, not murder, top the list.  The leading cause of accidental death is a traffic accident.  That said, it’s still rare for a child to die – the death rate per 100,000 4-9 year olds is 12 per 100,000 people in that age group per year.  The rate for 10-14 year olds is 15 per 100,000 people in that group per year.  However, even the mass murder in Connecticut doesn’t have a significant impact on these statistics.  Over 5,500 children between ages 4 and 14 die per year.

Certainly, we all want schools to be safe.  We also want them to be welcoming.  We want them to spend our tax dollars wisely so that children grow up to be the best adults they can be.  We want parents and the community to know what is being taught to children  Sometimes these goals are contradictory.

And some of the proposed solutions are worse than the problem.  Sure, we can make schools more secure from outside threats.  Will that stop a teacher or other student who is authorized to be there?  Will these things contribute to better transparency and accountability for educators and school systems, or will they hamper those efforts?  Will we increase the internal threat to reduce the external threat?

Sure, we can arm teachers – I’ve heard suggestions of anything from handguns to tazers.  How long would it take for the tazer to be used on a special needs student who is upset about a change in his routine, but not dangerous?  How long would it take for a teacher to misplace his gun, and have that gun found by a student?  There’s a reason most prison guards don’t carry guns – even in a prison, surrounded by criminals, and on the person of a well trained law enforcement employee, the gun is more likely to be used against the officer than to protect the officer.

You want to make kids safer?  Get the flu shot.  If we didn’t give the flu to children, by being vaccinated, we would cut 3% of deaths among 4-14 year olds – or a bit over 1/2 of the number of children murdered each year.  Wouldn’t that be a good thing?  Strangely, I don’t see the flu shot getting the press time that the murder did (nor even 1/2 the time).  Certainly the flu doesn’t inspire the same raw emotions as a shooter attacking children, but it’s just as serious when it’s a child you know.

After doing the flu shot – just about the easiest thing we can do to help save children – we need to address traffic deaths.  Traffic deaths kill 19% of the 4-14 year olds that die each year in the US.  And we know how to do this.  We know it’s things like ensuring we aren’t distracted when we’re driving, not drinking and driving, following traffic (and speed) laws, and giving up our licenses when we’re not able to drive safely.  Yet, it’s far easier to think about putting stronger doors on schools than to change our own behavior.  We care about children’s death – so long as it’s something government can buy rather than something we have to do.

Then we get to suicide.  5% of 4-14 year old deaths in the US are due to suicide.  That’s over 2/3rds the total that is murdered.  But of course we have organizations in the US that have made anti-bullying programs political, so we won’t see real progress there.  Preserving the right of bullies to bully is more politically safe than actually helping the victims – ask the Anoka-Hennepin School District who preferred to foster an environment that promoted suicides rather than ignore right-wing churches.

Finally, there’s been a ton of rhetoric on mentally ill.  Most people distance themselves from someone who could murder children.  They want to know what the difference between themselves and the murderer is.  In this case, they want to say, “he was autistic” or “he was mentally ill.”  Of course they don’t really mean mentally ill is a problem – they mean “mentally ill in a way I’m not,” since up to 1 in 4 people may experience mental illness of one type or another.  And categorizing mental illness as the problem in this shooting does little to get people help.

For what it’s worth, mentally ill people are far more likely to die at their own hands or those of someone else’s than to kill.  Did you know 24% of recognized mentally ill adults report they have been the victim of violence in the last 12 months?  Let that sink in for a minute – 1 in 4 EACH AND EVERY YEAR.  Think about someone who lives more than 4 years as a mentally ill adult.  In the article linked above, Simon Smith says, “Although research suggests that there are factors that may increase risks of violence – such as co-occurring substance use, or not being engaged in treatment – people living with mental illness are 10 times more likely to be victims of violence than perpetrators.”

Yes, we have to do more to protect children in the US.  And we should look at the recent mass-murder in Connecticut and find ways we can realistically help keep kids safe.  But not at the expense of ignoring even larger elephants in the room, nor at the expense of making children less safe rather than more safe.  Our safety initiatives should be based on fact and evidence, not just emotion.  And before we throw up to 1/4 of our fellow citizens behind bars, to “protect” the children, perhaps we need to look a bit deeper.