Learn Karate and Social Skills to Become Either a Victim or “Above The Game”

When I was a kid, I took martial arts lessons (not actually Karate, but something similar). I think my parents thought it was a good idea for two reasons – they wanted me to participate in something with other kids and they wanted me to learn to defend myself.

It didn’t work. Now, granted, I only did this for a year, so I suspect I lacked much insight or experience, and certainly learning from one instructor in one dojo doesn’t imply anything about any other instructor or dojo. But I do think I can talk a bit about why it didn’t work for me, at least with my limited experience.

First, the easy one: I didn’t bond with the other kids. Kids in the dojo, just as kids at the playground, recognized I was different. I didn’t fit. And I never would with them. Putting on a special outfit doesn’t change that. It ignored the problem by simply changing the setting – I don’t get along with kids in school, so maybe somewhere else I’ll get along with them. But it never addressed the root of the problem, just the setting where it occurred. But that’s not what I’m trying to write about today.

For the self-defense aspect, that didn’t work either. Sure, I learned a few blocks, kicks, and punches. I learned to stand one foot in front of the other. So I learned a bit of the basics. But even if I learned the advanced stances, blocks, kicks, and punches, and could perform them well, that wouldn’t have helped. I was missing something: the application. Memorizing muscle moves (even making them part of muscle memory) isn’t the same thing as being able to quickly analyze a situation and determine how to respond. I was smart enough to know that, even when being attacked by other kids physically, most of my moves would end up getting me beat to a pulp even quicker. Running was a better tactic – and I already knew that before class!

Now, I’m sure that plenty of people have used martial arts in self-defense, and that’s good. And maybe I should seek out a better instructor and dojo and learn now. So I realize the limitations of what I’m saying. But the key is that I wasn’t taught how to dynamically respond to a real-life situation, just how to statically respond to a scripted situation. There’s a huge difference between what the “attacker” might have done in the dojo and what he might have done behind the wall at school.

Did you see that? I told you the problem with social skills training, too – learning to respond to a scripted situation isn’t helpful.

Too much of today’s social skills is focused on the same stuff. Seriously. To be honest, I think the training methods may be why autistic guys too often think there is a magic set of steps to essentially get to have sex with a girl. They’ve spent too much time learning formulas, techniques, and scripts. We saw on Kickstarter this week when a “seduction guide” entitled Above the Game that sought funding. Among many problematic parts, the guide told the message that guys don’t have to listen to the girl, they can basically force themselves on her. Fortunately, Kickstart has since removed the guide and attempted to make amends. Kickstarter eventually recognized that the guide is standard “if you want sex, be an asshole” garbage.

The book is appealing to a certain subset of sex-craving men (now I’m not saying this group is generally autistic people or anything similar – although autistics, neurotypicals, and plenty of other groups all have these men in their midst). After all, it says that all the standard dating advice (you know, stuff like “don’t force her to engage in sexual contact without consent”) is wrong. That’s important – it’s appealing to a group of guys that haven’t had the success they want, and they may have even tried (or thought they tried) the “standard” formula. So this is a new-and-improved formula, one that “actually works” (Uh, until you do find a woman that can defend herself – you might end up rightfully having a coffee mug shatter against your own mug; But, sure, rape will get you sex if you’re able to overpower her).

The underlying premise of this seduction guide and all other seduction guides (besides for teaching people to be assholes) is promotion of the idea that there is a formula that you can follow to make – overpower if you will – people do what you want them to do. Give them the right input, you get the output you crave. Maybe it’s sex, maybe it’s something else.

That’s also the premise for much social skills work. You want someone to listen to your special interests? Pretend to be interested in them for a bit. Then you get what you want. Simple. You have control.

One fairly popular – but fairly ineffective – way to teach social skills is “social stories.” It’s ineffective for the same reason my Karate lessons were ineffective: a bunch of techniques or responses to scripted situations doesn’t teach the improvisation necessary in dynamic social situations (you know, like the…uh…”real world”). While it doesn’t have the formality of formal social stories, a variation on this is talking through a make-believe situation and doing role-playing to figure out how to respond. The problem is that this teaches someone a make-believe situation, not the real-life. In real-life, the other person (or group) is going to veer “off-course” pretty much immediately, leaving you lost if you’re expecting scripts to get you through things.

I’ve also seen this with AAC (augmentative and assistive communication). One of the first things people learn when they use (or see someone use AAC) is that it’s slow – painfully slow sometime. The obvious, but wrong, solution is to create a system that stores sentences or thoughts as a whole unit. There’s just one problem – it turns out that even things you think you say all day long are actually unique to the situation most of the time. Sure, sometimes some stored phrases in an electronic device have use, but if you expect more than 1% of your communication to be accomplished that way, you’ll be in for a big surprise when you try.

Karate, seduction guides, social stories, and stored-sentences all have this in common: they work great in a make-believe, scripted situation. And they’ll cause you pain and hurt if you don’t also know how to handle course changes and improvisation.

Another problem with Karate, seduction guides, social stories, and stored-sentences is that they may just plain be the wrong thing, even in a situation that is very similar to the scripted situation. For instance, an example PDF of social stories includes:

Stethoscope –
The doctor will listen to my chest with a stethoscope.
This helps him/her hear if I am breathing properly and my heart is working well.

The doctor will lift up my shirt, put the stethoscope against my chest and ask me to
breathe in and out.
The stethoscope will feel cold and may tickle but it will not hurt.
I can do this for the doctor and he/she can tell I am ok.
The doctor will be happy and mum will be happy.

Really? It won’t hurt? How does the writer of this story know? They might know it doesn’t hurt themself, but they have no idea about someone else, particularly if that someone else has sensory differences! Certainly it would be better to talk about how the stethoscope may be uncomfortable or cold, but won’t cause lasting hurt them even if it feels like it will. Maybe it’s better to explain “it will be over quickly.” I’m also not a fan of the outcome where the kid is okay – maybe he is, maybe he isn’t – maybe the doctor actually finds something going on. Maybe he/she can tell me if my heart and lungs sound ok. And, no, mom and Doctor better not be happy if he does find something, but they should be happy they found it and can provide medical help.

Is there value in the above? Certainly – you can explain what things someone might expect before a situation. But, once you start making assumptions about how they will experience sensations, or once you start (like most social stories) expecting things to follow a script, there are problems.

There’s tons of other criticisms from autistic adults on many social skills training programs – I won’t go into things like how they may be making an unreasonable demand on an autistic person (“don’t stim” or “look at the person talking” come to mind) that may be counter productive.

What’s a better approach? I’m not entirely sure. But I know we (autistic people) need accurate information. We need accurate information about how to appropriately satisfy our sex drives (hint: it’s not through raping women), deal with the doctor’s office, or defend ourselves from bullies. But, in addition to being accurate, the information needs to teach flexibility and thinking, not just a bunch of memorized sentences, techniques, or scripts. There’s no magic method here – it’s hard stuff for anyone to learn (and even harder to teach). People aren’t tools I use to get what I want. I treat them decent not only because that might help me get something I want, but, more importantly, because it’s simply the right thing to do.

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?

Is Violence worse than Teasing?

There’s a common misconception that teasing, insults, and other abuse is non-violent. At the very least, it is every bit as harmful as a physical attack.

Let’s look at physical violence. Physical violence can cause great harm – for instance, death. Not much can be more severe than death. But let’s put violence that causes death and lifelong physical injury aside for a minute (I’ll come back to this though).

Let’s look at what a physical attack causes. Let’s say a woman is beaten by her husband. She may physically heal, but that’s hardly the full extent of her wounds. Her other wounds – which won’t heal easily – may be depression, low self-esteem, inability to participate in intimate relationships, sleep disturbances, increased illness, heart disease, social withdrawal, inability to trust, and suicidal thoughts and/or attempts. These things aren’t because of the black eye or the broken arm (after all, you can get physically injured without suffering these other effects in sports or other activities). Rather, they are due to the emotional component of the abuse. The physical component, if any, of the abuse is merely one manifestation of the control and power exerted over the victim.

Now, don’t get me wrong: it’s wrong to physically harm your spouse. I don’t mean to minimize the physical aspect at all. I also recognize that some physical abuse causes life-long physical harm – but even abuse that doesn’t is harmful and potentially deadly. In addition to the physical aspect, there is an emotional aspect – and for most victims of physical abuse, the emotional element remains long after the physical wounds heal. And the emotional aspect can still exist even without physical harm.

Growing up, I was sexually molested. I was not physically harmed by this, but that doesn’t make the abuse any less awful. The awful part wasn’t the physical, it was the emotional. It was the feelings of humiliation, worthlessness, undesirability, shame, and powerlessness. Even later, it affected how I perceive and react to loving touch. It is why using a shared bathroom or locker room is nearly impossible for me every day (this has real health effects – try going through a day in society without using a shared bathroom!). But it’s the emotional aspect, the feelings about myself, that were most horrible.

Even worse for me than the sexual abuse was the emotional, non-sexualized, abuse I experienced every day. Once in a while, I also experienced physical abuse. I was burned, hit, choked, tripped, chased, punched and a few other things. But as horrible as those things were – and they were truly horrible, particularly when I thought, “they might actually kill me this time,” I wonder if I would have had an easier time if it was “just” this type of abuse.

It wasn’t just that type of abuse, that’s what was horrible. The above would have been bad enough. It was the constant barrage of hate. It was everything from being the last person picked for the team in PE (the last person picked for every team) to people pointing and laughing at me just for the hell of it. It was the sneaky manipulation by others to get me to say or do something humiliating or incriminating. It was the exclusion from the life others had. It was the constant reminders that I was different, whether that was because of my voice, my laugh, my perceived sexual orientation, my size, my awkwardness, my social naivety, my overloads, or whatever else they picked up on (I’m convinced there was no area of my personhood that was untouched).

That was bad enough. That could push someone to suicide.

Added to that abuse was the response by those who could have stopped it – the adults and the quiet bystanders. Either they approved of the action (awkwardly laughing at what the bullies did, or even just staying quiet and saying nothing) or they just plain responded with complete ineptness.

What was some of the advice? “Think about your friends.” I was supposed to remember that not everyone saw me the way the bullies did, because, for instance my friends liked me. Yes, that’s probably true, if I had friends. Of course admitting I didn’t would have increased the shame – one of the most powerful emotions – even more. Or “stand up for yourself.” That works fine with physical attack, assuming you can do so (I couldn’t), but it is both useless and even counterproductive when dealing with the covert bullying – the bullying designed to produce a reaction, that the outsider would see as Joel overreacting to something and proving he is either crazy, violent, or disruptive while the bullies did “minor” if any infractions. Other times, they asked me to talk it out with my bullies, to see if I misunderstood them. Sure, that works great when you have a beaten down powerless person with less verbal skills dealing with a cunning, verbally advanced bully – it’s not a fair negotiation in the least. Or I got to learn I was even worse than I thought when I was told it was my behavior that could change to stop the bullying. If only I didn’t laugh that way (I did change the way I laughed; it didn’t help), if only I tried asking the bullies to play with them, if only I told them that their statements make me feel unhappy, or whatever other stupid behavior modifications they wanted me to make.

What they didn’t do was equally telling: only rarely did the bully face punishment, but it was never severe or significant (in fact, I was the one nearly expelled and confined to a small room for a week after one incident – the bully was told he actually did good). After all, he only said words, it was Joel who overreacted. And, yes, the only time the bullying was dealt with was those times when I supposedly “overreacted” (hint: it’s not overreaction to react to the 10,000th time someone does something “minor”). It is sad that the only time some people will get heard about their bullying is when they react violently. The outcome of that is never good for anyone.

In other words, the people “in charge” reinforced what the bullies said. I was different and broken. And the bullies were just normal kids that maybe I misinterpreted or misunderstood. After all, bullies are masters of manipulation, appearing as innocent youths doing nothing unusual. Unless there is physical violence. But usually they didn’t leave marks.

Nobody was on my side. Nobody.

Sure, you might say my parents were. And, sure, they were. But they didn’t know what to do and couldn’t stop it. And by the time it got severe, I could no longer talk about it. It was shameful and humiliating to be bullied. Talking about it made it even worse.

So, nobody was on my side. To be on my side, you would have needed to actively help, not teach me how to deal with things, tell me I’m okay, or arrange mediation with the bully. No, if you wanted to be on my side, the only credible currency would have been direct actions by you that addressed the real problem: the evil actions and words of the bully. Not my reactions to them. Not my perceptions. Not my laugh or other traits. No, you needed to deal with the bully’s behavior while simultaneously affirming that I was a victim that didn’t deserve that, but who would see justice done. You lost the minute you started helping me “respond” to bullying. I needed justice, not social skills.

But there was no justice.

That is the problem. And that is what we need to change. The teasing and taunting and manipulation and humiliation is harmful, in most of the same ways physical violence is. It lasts for a lifetime for many people.

And that gets to the next point: it is deadly. Just like physical violence. Too many kids and adults end their lives way too soon because they are just sick of feeling the shame and humiliation, and seeing nobody on their side.

Let me tell these suicides, which people read about without a second glance in the newspaper. Let me tell you a few things.

It wasn’t the victim’s fault. It was the bully’s fault. No, the bully didn’t tie the rope, load the gun, or count out the pills. But the bully did mercilessly demean and take away the victim’s human worth. He did it so incredibly effectively that even the victim believed it.

Second, it’s not a victim’s weakness. I understand why too many people have killed themselves over constant teasing and taunting. I don’t understand why more haven’t – which is probably the bigger question. I see survivors of emotional abuse similar to how I see the one person who walks away with scrapes after the loaded airliner crashes into a fireball killing everyone else on the plane. Somehow, even with all the other good people on that plane dying, someone got through it alive. They probably didn’t do anything differently than the other people on the plane. The cruelties of fate let them survive while the others parished. Suicide is similar – I’m sadly less surprised that people abused kill themselves than I am surprised that some people who are abused don’t. But it’s not weakness that too many die anymore than it’s weakness that people die in the fires of a plane crash.

It’s a miracle that I survived. I don’t know why I survived but others didn’t. I know it isn’t my strength or character, because plenty of those who died had at least as much strength and character.

I want to pause for a second and say that while I used an example from my personal life, this affects others too – not just kids. Too many disabled adults, LGBT adults, homeless, women, and others face emotional abuse at the hands of a few bullies and tons of supposedly good people unwilling to lift a finger to stop the hate.

Finally: It can be stopped. Yes, it can be stopped. All it takes is for us to stop giving bullies the benefit of doubt, stop requiring physical harm before responding, stop standing by cowering in fear of becoming the next target. We have to recognize that what appears to be a mean, but minor, statement by someone may in fact be the tip of the iceberg – both for the victim and the perpetrator. The “relatively innocuous” statement of the bully may be the words that, added to the rest of the victim’s life experience being abused, are now too much for him to carry. And they may be the one statement you saw the bully make, while you didn’t see the thousands of others. So you can’t let “minor” statements slide. You have to respond.

You also have to show the victim you are on their side. If you’re in authority, use your power for good (start by not conveniently excusing yourself of power and claiming to be powerless when you’re not! Many of us have privilege and power in situations even when we’re not directly supervising someone). Second, even if you aren’t in authority, you can stand up. Yes, there’s risk there. But you are making a choice: either the victim’s life – and, yes, we’re talking life – is not as important to you as your own safety and comfort, or you think that the victim isn’t really being abused “too badly” (thus their bullies are doing nothing that is “really” wrong – think about the message this sends for a minute), or you can take a risk and do something – anything – to let the victim know you’re on their side.

I could tell you what a decent human being would do. But, from my personal experience, I know decent human beings – that are willing to actually act – are in very short supply. I do hope you will be one though. You just might save a life.

I Would Make an Awful Welder

In the early 90s, a guidance counselor in my school suggested welding as a possible career choice. I’m guessing he didn’t have a lot of respect for welders, unfortunately. I certainly wouldn’t have helped that field any – and if I was welding, there would be more Arkansas pipeline spills in the world. We don’t need that.

Here’s what I think happened: I think the guidance counselor probably was overworked, busy, and required to help 750 students or so find their true calling in life. That’s just not going to work, period. But with autistic people, it can be even more challenging than it is for many other students.

So this guy, who doesn’t know me personally (the school had about 3,500 students with only a handful of guidance counselors), pulls up my transcripts and other records. In the other records, he sees that I was at one time in special education for reading, had numerous absence problems, and was planning on making up some classes in summer school that year. He probably saw teacher notes – you know, things like, “your child has more potential than he uses” on his report card. Then he saw my transcripts – I was solidly at the top of the bottom 25% of my class! My grades in math were poor (D’s), I failed several humanities classes, but did great in introduction to auto mechanics.

So, seeing someone with behavioral problems, trouble reading, laziness (isn’t “your child has more potential than he uses” the long way of saying “lazy?”), failing or nearly failing things like math and English, and who seems to only be doing good in one class, what does he do? He picks something totally out of left field and suggests it (likely, in his eyes, welding and car repair are basically the same thing).

There’s just one problem. He didn’t have all the records, and the ones he had misled him (and plenty of others in my life).

It missed my passion. I had a passion for computers and programming. I still do. In fact, I used to brag that at age 25, I was doing my dream job – the one I wanted when I was 5 or 6 years old. How many people get to do that? (turns out that I found out that job wasn’t quite as great as I thought, so, although it wasn’t bad, I moved on to other related fields) I would never have found my path if I listened to this counselor or ignored my passion.

Passion is important for autistic people. Our skills look uneven to people who equate normal neurotypical strengths and weaknesses with “even skill development.” We’re not neurotypical, so our strengths and weaknesses differ. This isn’t bad, it’s just plain different. And one of my weaknesses was dealing with the structure of a school day and homework. It’s not that I couldn’t do it, it’s that it would burn me out.

But that’s not all of it. That special education for reading? I had a great vocabulary. I could read several grades above my grade level in elementary school. But I couldn’t express myself nearly as well. So, rather than realizing the difficulty was expression, it was believed to be reading. And later writing. Ironically, I didn’t discover until after I finished school that I love writing and am at least fair at it – I truly believed it was one of my biggest weaknesses. I hated reading and writing – today they are both huge joys in my life. Yet, I remember sitting there in elementary school repeating flash card words back to someone, thinking, even then, “Why do they keep asking me to tell them what this card says? This is dumb.” It was.

He could see that I did bad in math. Of course I was getting a “D” in advanced math, but nevermind that! I was getting a “D” because I lost books, pencils, paper, assignments, etc, and because of something else I’ll mention later. But I did great on the tests. Someone looking into this would have realized, “Wow, this kid knows the math but is nearly flunking. What is going on here? We should figure this out. How can he be nearly flunking, but get A’s on all his tests?” Perhaps grading my ability to learn math rather than my executive function without support would have been a good start.

Then, in English, I just hated that class. Same with social studies and history. Ironically, I love all of them today. But I really did hate them in school. I saw no connection to what I wanted to do in life. And that is important to an autistic student! Combine that with the same executive function problems I had in math…well, there’s no way I was going to pass those classes.

But there was an even bigger problem in school: I was suicidal, extremely depressed, and routinely afraid for my life at the hands of others. I was insulted, shoved, pissed on, hit, burned, taunted, molested, and generally bullied in pretty much every way possible. Go figure that I did bad in that environment. When I told a teacher, I was told to “man up” or whatever else would get me out of their hair. I don’t recall any of my complaints of bullying being taken seriously. Some even got me things like a group circle discussion between me and my bullies where the bullies explained what was wrong with my social skills and how I needed to change to not be bullied – uh, ya, that’s social skills training. Apparently the person who is taunting another is fine, but the victim should stop it. So I stopped making complaints to adults.

Combine the bullying with intense loneliness. I had nobody much of the time. Nobody.

So I did bad in school. Well, except for auto mechanics. You see, auto mechanics didn’t require any homework. So I did good if for no reason other than not needing to lug around books and remember to do assignments. But combine that with it being a relatively easy class, and of course I got an A. If you could change oil, you probably passed this introductory class. If you could also not destroy anything in the process, that got you a B. If you knew oil was black, not red, that got you an A I watched a couple of my fellow students drain the transmission and, then, when noticing it was the wrong color, tell each other, “Oh, that’s the RED oil. It’s really good stuff”; I watched another drive a car off of the auto lift. So I was going to do pretty good here. I didn’t destroy anything.

I’m still okay in auto maintenance. But just okay. You don’t want me fixing your car.

But that still doesn’t get us back to welding. I’m still not sure where that came from, but the idea of me welding is absurd. I’ve seen my wife (a master welder) do her stuff – it requires a fine motor control, eye for detail, and patience that I just don’t have. That’s fine. Welding is a great career. But so is my field.

Here’s my advice to people giving others advice. I’ll keep it simple, like people like to do with special education:

Listen!

When the kid says, “I love X”, it might be helpful to look at that field first. Duh.

Look!

If you’ve seen this kid get bullied, that kid has a problem. Even if it was mild. Even if it was only once. The bullies aren’t seen 99% of the time. So if you see it, it’s bad. Really, really bad. And that kid ain’t going to be able to accomplish shit until the problem is fixed. And he might end up dead if you don’t do something.

Think!

Oh, he’s doing great on tests, but poor on homework? Maybe something is going on. Maybe it’s worth investigating. Maybe it’s bullying. Maybe the kid is working to support his family when he’s not at school. Maybe he’s being abused at home. Maybe he’s autistic and has difficulty with executive function. Maybe it’s more than one of these.

But don’t just pick a random career and ignore this!

There’s More

I’d also add the following:

  • Focus on strengths – What is the kid good at? But not just, “Where does he get good grades” since grades measure a whole lot more than the subject at hand.
  • Be creative, school isn’t life – Just because a student doesn’t demonstrate an aptitude for something in school doesn’t mean that he doesn’t have an aptitude for it in a slight different environment. Think about solutions to the school problems and how the student can find solutions to actual career issues.
  • Career isn’t life either – While I’ve been talking about careers, a traditional career-that-gives-paycheck isn’t the only way to have meaning in life or to improve the world.
  • Get the whole picture – Find out if the kid has hobbies or interests that he pursues outside of school. Might these be important?
  • It’s okay if he’s different – Some of the greatest people in our world (not just financially successful or successful in a career) are different. Greatness requires difference.

So, what else is there? I’m sure I’m not the only one with thoughts or experiences.