Thanksgiving, Star Trek, Abuse, and Miracles

For people in the US, Happy Thanksgiving!

I’m thankful for…

  • My freedom
  • My wife
  • My survival
  • My friends
  • Star Trek
Let me explain.

Sometimes life is hard.  But just surviving those hard times makes me thankful.  I’m thankful that when I tried to take my life as a child, I failed.  I’m thankful for all the stupid little things that kept me alive in the midst of abuse.  I’m thankful that these things gave me a reason to wait just another day or even hour.  I’m very thankful.

I spent much of my childhood terrified that I was going to be killed by classmates (there are a few instances where I think it was but for a miracle that they didn’t).  Much of it was without friends, only tormenters.  I remember almost feeling like I was looking at myself from the outside, being burned, punched, spit on, urinated upon, and things even worse than this.  I remember the humiliation of it all, and it still hurts – 20 or even 25 years later.  I remember being locked in seclusion for two weeks straight while at school because I told the truth (I didn’t do it.  Really.).  I remember running for my life, running to a teacher, where I was laughed at and told to be a man.  I remember other abuse, and the shame that comes with it.  I wanted to disappear most of the time, even as I was crushed under the loneliness of my life.

I know that others can relate.  Others have stories even more horrifying, although I would never try to compare one form of hopelessness, humiliation, and shame with someone else’s.  In the end it takes a miracle to make it through it.

My miracle came in many forms.  It was often something very small, something that just gave me a reason to make it through one more day or maybe just one more hour.  I mentioned I’m thankful for Star Trek.  Sometimes just wanting to watch the next episode of The Next Generation was enough to give me a reason – something I desperately wanted at the same time I desperately wanted to die – to hold off, at least for a little bit.  There were plenty of other things – maybe I told someone I’d help them with something.  Maybe my cat curled up in my lap.  Maybe I wanted to finish the chapter of the book. These might seem like small things, but they aren’t.  They were life and death.  They gave me just enough reason to hold off.

I am thankful to God for putting those things in my life.  Star Trek wasn’t made to save my life.  It was made to sell advertising for a bunch of products that people didn’t know they needed.  Yet somehow that was sufficient when I needed it, as were the hundreds of other things used to give me just enough hope or just enough reason to wait it out.

I’m so very glad I waited it out.  It’s not because of any strength of character or supernatural ability.  It was stupid little things.  No, that’s not right – it was because of the miracles that God put in my life to turn my focus away from the horrors of my reality, for just a little bit.

I’m thankful that this is no longer my reality, and I’m thankful for this in my autistic friends who also somehow made it through childhood.  My life is a good life today.  I have a wonderful wife.  I live in a nice town, a full day’s drive from the hell hole of my childhood.  I have a great job.  Nobody has tried to urinate on me, burn me, rape me, or assault me for the last 17 years – about half my life now.  I don’t feel that shame or humiliation that was so incredibly horrible and hopeless.  Things did get better, from the minute I left my hometown at 4:00 AM on the first day I could (that is, the first day that the dorms opened at my university at 8:00 AM, a 4 hour drive away from home).  I’ve been able to come to peace with my childhood – recognizing the horrors that no innocent child should ever know, while also recognizing it’s affect – good and bad – on my character and who I am today.  I’m thankful for the empathy it has given me.

So things did get better for me.  But, still, I’m most thankful for those times when I was 8, 9, 12, 14, 16 or whatever when the only thing that I could see that was worth staying alive for was the next episode of Star Trek.  Perhaps our perseverations aren’t merely deficits or disordered.  Perhaps they are survival.

Along with my prayers of thanksgiving this holiday will be prayers for those who feel they don’t have hope or must endure another day of abuse on this holiday.  I’m praying for miracles.  If that’s you, please find something – ANYTHING – that can get you through this day.  It’s okay if it seems stupid or small.  It’s not if it gets you through another day.  Don’t worry about tomorrow if that’s too much – focus on just getting through the here and now.  I don’t know what you’re going through, and I can’t pretend I know how much pain you’re in.  I just know that I endured a lot of pain, a lot of abuse, a lot of hopelessness, and I’m glad today that I made it through.  I’m glad you somehow have made it this far, against all odds.  And I’m thankful for that miracle too, even while I pray and hope for your next miracle.

How to Create a Bully in an “Accepting” Environment

A lot of autistic people like black and white rules.  We want rules that make it clear what is, and what isn’t, acceptable.  Unfortunately, not all the world works that way.  While clear, concise, easy-to-summarize rules are ideal, they simply don’t fit in every situation.  In fact, they can make things worse for autistic people (and others prone to being victimized by others’ abuse).

One of the favored technique of my childhood abusers (the bullies, I.E. those who assaulted and battered me) was to provoke me to violence or meltdown.  They would simply learn the rules of the classroom and manipulate those in a way that was a bit more socially cleaver than I could.  For instance, they might know that a certain sound was nearly unbearable for me, while the teacher didn’t.  They might also know that this sound wasn’t considered a violation of rules (perhaps it was free time or lunch).  And they might know that my reaction to the sound would render me unable to clearly communicate.

So, the abusers, knowing this information, would provoke the meltdown.  When I screamed, punched at the abusers (note that I was much, much smaller than them and couldn’t have done any physical harm to them even if I wanted to when not overloaded), ran from the room, or otherwise responded in the only ways that I could – note I say ONLY ways, and this is important – I would then find myself in trouble, sometimes serious trouble.  And of course I wouldn’t be able to defend myself eloquently (or likely any way other than screaming incoherently).

So what happened?  I stayed after school.  The abusers may have even been seen as victims of my unpredictable violence.

Yet my “violence” wasn’t unpredictable.  The abusers predicted it, and, in fact, sought it.  They were hardly victims of an unstable, mentally defective kid.  No, they were already showing the signs of sociopathic behavior.

Yet, what, objective, verifiable, non-subjective events occurred?  Two did – and this is why a non-subjective, black-and-white evaluation is not sufficient:

  • The abusers made some sounds, which were allowed by school rules (some noise is of course allowed at some times of the day!)
  • The victim reacted violently, loudly, and incoherently, against school rules

To solve this with central authority (I.E. teachers, principals, etc), the central authority would need two things.  First, they would need to have empathy and a deep social understanding of the situation, including the motives that were at play.  Secondly, they would need the ability to articulate that to others in authority and to the abusers.  They would need to show that they weren’t going to be a tool the bully uses to abuse their victim.

Most teachers fail at that.  So do most organizations that claim to be supportive of disabled people.  It’s hard, and true social understanding a rare gift among both autistics and neurotypicals.

I see this behavior online frequently.  Someone will try to skirt the rules of a forum or group, and provoke others.  When there is a lack of moderator or SIGNIFICANT community opposition to intentional provocation, it’s only a matter of time before someone is provoked and violates a formal, black-and-white rule.  Yet the destructive element in the community was not the formal rule violator.  Rather, the problem was the guy (or gal) that walked-the-line and stayed just shy of crossing it.  That person had malice.

When rules don’t recognize the difference between provocation (malice) and response, the bully has been given a true weapon.

Unfortunately, it’s hard to put malice into a black and white rule.  And often when a leader or community stands up to such bullies, the bully will publicly, loudly, and, often, successfully claim to actually be the victim!  After all, they “didn’t violate even one rule, but are now being excluded.”  Particularly in communities where people have been excluded for inappropriate reasons, people will sympathize with the person claiming to be unfairly excluded.

In autistic circles, there’s a further element.  The destructive bully will know the community norms.  He’ll know we want black-and-white rules, because we have trouble sometimes with following, with good, non-malicious intentions, the fuzzy rules.  So he’ll point out that he violated a fuzzy rule, to gain our sympathy.  It’s easy to see his side and say, “Wow, I could have done that too.  It’s hard to know what the rules are if they are fuzzy, and if they are going to throw people out for that…that’s unfair.”  Ironically, this typically leads to a call for black-and-white rules, which are the exact tool that the bully needs to cause even more havoc in the community!

We need to be cognizant of this in our communities.  It’s okay to exclude someone who intends to destroy a community, even if they are clever and able to walk just inside the line of what is covered by black-and-white rules.  We don’t need people operating under malice.  We don’t need, nor should we tolerate, the bully.  But we need to recognize what bullying looks like.  It’s not the autistic child provoked to meltdown who then strikes out at their antagonizer.  Yet, that’s exactly who the black-and-white rules would say was the bully.

We must not enable bullies by immediately sympathizing with them.  We need to recognize that it’s possible to follow the black-and-white rules, yet be a very destructive and dangerous person.  Yes, dangerous.  And we need to agree we don’t want those people in our midst, or at least we don’t want to give them the weapons to inflict damage.

Yes, people are excluded for bad reasons too.  When an autistic misunderstands a rule and unknowingly violates a fuzzy rule, this is not the time for exclusion.  And we need to fight against that exclusion.  But throwing out all fuzzy rules isn’t something that creates an inclusive environment.  It creates bullies.  Intention can be everything.

Responding to Your Own Prejudice

Someone I know voiced their upset at an advocacy organization that discriminated against them.  The whole situation reminded me of experiences I’ve had in the past (albeit different scenarios that didn’t affect me as significantly as it affected this person).

You are prejudiced.  Really.

You act like a bigot.  Really.

You discriminate.  Really.

Sure, you don’t do this all the time, in all ways.  And it need not be a big deal.  None of us fully understand the experiences of others, so it’s really easy to discriminate out of ignorance (and, no, ignorance is not a dirty word).

If you are a member of a minority community, you’ll experience prejudice, bigotry, and discrimination from others – even from people that are “good people.”

In fact, for some reason, I’ve found some of the worst discrimination comes from advocates for other minority groups.  I’ve also found some of the best, most accepting, most decent people are among advocates for other minority groups.  How can advocates be so much more polarizing than the general population?  I’m not sure.  I expect them to be a bit abrasive when challenging power structures that have discriminated against them.  but I’m always surprised when they turn around and discriminate against others.

Quick: Think of the last time someone said you were not being accepting, open, accommodating, etc.  Think of this last time when someone said that something you were doing was hurting a member of a minority.  How did you respond?

If your response was denial, explaining how you weren’t discriminating, being offended, or similar, please think about your actions carefully.  Nobody likes being told they’ve done bad.  And nobody likes to be seen as discriminating.  I suspect part of the reason I’ve had so much trouble with people who should know better (advocates for other minority groups) compared to people who shouldn’t know better (such as employers who don’t know about the minority issues important to me) is that the advocates for other groups have their identity tied up in not being discriminatory.  So when they are told something they do is discriminatory, this is a challenge to their very self-image.

I’ve seen amazing denial by organizations when confronted with this type of discrimination.  I’ve asked organizations to simply call a room something other than a “quiet room” when they create an accommodation for people who are having overload (quiet room also can mean the room where a person might be secured to a bed against their will, which obviously can be very triggering for people who have lived through that experience) – and seen that organization respond by digging in their heals and explaining why that term is not discriminatory.  Well, who really cares?  How hard is it to call a room something different?  But I apparently challenged some egos that were tied up in being seen as progressive, understanding, and accommodating people.  So when I said, “Hey, you are normally great people, but this is a problem,” I was telling them that they weren’t quite as great of advocates as they wanted to be.

At that point, they could have responded two ways.  They could have said, “Oh, I didn’t know.  It’s easy to change the name of the room.”  Or they could have fought for their honor.  They chose the fight, not realizing that this doesn’t give you honor, it takes it away.

You want to show me you’re an ally?  It’s simple.  LISTEN.  Seriously, listen.  If people in a minority group tell you about something that’s hurting them, take it seriously.  Even if it means a little work or public acknowledgement of your change.

You want to show me you want a fight?  That’s simple too.  Ignore my pain and the discrimination you are showing.  Tell me it’s not as important as something else.  Tell me that you are really a good person.  Tell me that people I care about don’t need whatever it was I was asking for.  And then get mad at me for sticking to my own community and needs above that of a community discriminating against me.  For extra points make sure to tell me how I’m aggressive, over-reacting, trying to start a fight, or am otherwise acting against my cause – while you do nothing for my cause.

Your acts don’t tell me if your discriminatory.  They might tell me you might be discriminatory, but you also might just be ignorant – like the rest of us.  None of us can know everything about everyone’s experiences!  It’s your response to people who call out your ignorance that tells me if your a bigot.

You’re either a great person or a bigot.  It has nothing to do with whether you did something wrong.  It has everything to do with how you respond.  It’s your move (and my move).

Yes, You Might be an Ass!

Donkey looking over a split-rail type of fece at the camera, with a smaller donkey in the backgorund

Donkey by bagsgrove (flickr) – Licensed CC BY-SA 2.0

Autistics are not like NTs (neurotypicals) in the social arena.  We may not pick up on emotions the same way as others.  We may not be motivated by feelings of belonging in the same way as NTs, and may be more likely to go against the crowd (for good or bad).  Our emotional expressions may be misunderstood by neurotypicals.  We may communicate differently or less frequently about our feelings and thoughts.

Some of these things can lead us to being considered rude, jerks, or, yes, even asses.  For instance:

  • YOU SEE: You are someone who doesn’t care that I’m upset
  • I SEE: I didn’t realize you were upset.  I wish I did.
  • YOU SEE: Why do you have to make a big deal out of this?  Can’t you just get along?
  • I SEE: I’m not supposed to express my opinions and thoughts here?
  • YOU SEE: You’re not upset that this happened to me?
  • I SEE: I am upset!  I’ve been trying to tell you!

There’s a lot of these NT/Autistic misunderstandings in any relationship.  Heck, these same types of misunderstandings can take place among pairs of autistics or pairs of NTs – autistics don’t have a monopoly on being misunderstood or misunderstanding others!

While these types of misunderstandings exist, and they might even be more frequent when NTs and autistics mix, that doesn’t mean that every argument between an NT and an autistic is rooted in the differing neurologies.  Sometimes an autistic person is an asshole.  Sometimes they don’t care about another person.  Sometimes they are mean.  Sometimes they are selfish.  These things aren’t autism, nor are they unique to autistics (how many Fortune 500 CEOs truly care one bit about the janitor?  Maybe a few, but certainly not all).

There is a theory that “autistics are morally superior.”  This sometimes gets brought up (typically around Autistic Pride Day) to show we’re better than NTs or some such nonsense.  But usually this theory is presented in a bit more subtle way: how dare you accuse me of being a bad person, when I’m autistic!  Uh, no.  You might actually be a bad person.  You might not be.  I don’t know.  But I do know all of us are capable of evil deeds (both autistic people and generally “good” people are).

Maybe a person is being perceived as an ass because of his expression of autism – but he isn’t actually an ass.

But it’s also possible that the person perceived as an ass, even if he’s also autistic, really is an ass.  We can have the same sorts of human evil and immorality as everyone else.

So…don’t be a donkey.