Stoic on the Spectrum: Consider how quickly all things are dissolved and resolved

arrows in all directionsToday’s brief note comes from from Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations

IX. Consider how quickly all things are dissolved and resolved

… the bodies and substances themselves, into the matter and substance of the world: and their memories into the general age and time of the world. Consider the nature of all worldly sensible things; of those especially, which either ensnare by pleasure, or for their irksomeness are dreadful, or for their outward lustre and show are in great esteem and request, how vile and contemptible, how base and corruptible, how destitute of all true life and being they are.

So, things come and go. Pain comes and goes. Energy and vigor come and go.

One day, I’m fine. The next, I’m pretty much disabled. That, too, comes and goes. And there’s really no way to predict how things will be. I’ve tried. Oh, how I’ve tried. Doesn’t work. Best thing is to just stay loose and roll with it, so to speak.

“Consider the nature of all worldly sensible things…” All of them are ultimately resolved. They, too, shall pass. And if I wait for that to happen before I go on with my life, I’ll never get anything done. I won’t have a life worth living.

So, today, as my bones ache and I have less feeling and coordination in my arms than usual, I’m easing into my day… Doing my exercises that ease the pain and increase movement, so I can at least do the bare minimum… drinking plenty of water… getting some good food in me… doing less of a workout, this morning, but a workout nonetheless. And reading.

Reading things I love, that lift me up and brighten my day.

That’s certainly something.

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Here #IFixedIt – Ian McClure’s truly bizarre riff about #Autism

bored emoticon mehIt’s been a strange day. Apparently, an eminent psychologist went on about Autism in some pretty bizarre ways — all the more bizarre, because apparently he helps determine direction for agencies(?)

He repeatedly talks about “autism” like this — see the transcript here. And I couldn’t just sit back and not say anything. Seriously, conflating “autism” with environmental or sensory distress experienced by Autistic people is very mid-20th century. And it’s got to stop.

I’m on a “tear” about how we need to stop referring to environmental/sensory distress experienced by Autistic people as “Autism”. It’s not Autism. It’s the result of external circumstances hobbling us as Autistics.

Take a look at what he says below, and note just how nonsensical his ideas sound, when we consider them in the true light of the Autistic experience. Italic emphasis  is mine. For effect.

 

Ian McClure (IM): The question I am trying to ask here is does it help us when we are trying to work with autistic people in environmental or sensory distress to actually say maybe this person is emotionally stuck at the level of a two year old, just hold that (inaudible) in your head for a bit

IM: and ok so we are coming back in hopefully, we are coming back to this thing about egocentricity, now what I, I have been wondering about is, if we did think about autistic people in environmental or sensory distress as egocentric in the sense of a toddler and if we do remember this whole phenomenon of regression, emotional regression. That suggests that maybe there would be a process for a n autistic person in environmental or sensory distress, right at the beginning of their life, which was very stressful. Ok so I want you to just sort of entertain that idea in your head. We’ve got somebody that right at the beginning of their life, that something really stressful happened to them that means that they cannot move forwards from that emotional regression stage, from that egocentric phase, and so the question is what could that be? What I am wondering about is, is it possible, that autistic people who end up in environmental or sensory distress, in that first year of life, they are not much different to everybody else? Is that possible? And that what we have got is a situation where something happens in that first year of life which does then change the way that that infant is developing. Maybe environmental or sensory distress in a way is a social coordination disorder there’s something about the way that we coordinate ourselves socially, the cerebellum is doing that. We know that autistic people in environmental or sensory distress often have difficulties with these systems but we don’t really know why. Maybe it goes back again to something to do with maybe two different human species came together and what you’ve got is a genetic mess that isn’t quite right, that something is not quite right.

IM: So I am wondering about whether we should think about the idea of what I call a kind of internal exponential trauma caused by the sensory and the neurological challenges in the brain of the autistic person in environmental or sensory distress one of the reason I am so keen on this idea is, this idea which I think a lot of us have who work with autistic people in environmental or sensory distress, is that somewhere inside that person is a, dare I say it, normal person and this is the experience of parents, the desperation (inaudible) is I know there’s somebody in there if I could only just get at them and reach them. Now I know that that has been dissed a lot and people say oh you’ve got to move on from that, that’s just emotional, you know, it’s just the emotional (inaudible)

….

IM: Maybe we need to go right back to what people like Freud and Bleuler and Kraepelin and have a look again at what they were thinking because what happened in the 1950s was that whole thing got chucked out and DSM and so on and all these other things are just not interested in it. And the way it is going forward now is that the research that is being done by psychiatrists by academic psychiatirsts in places like London and America and stuff like that is very focused on looking for drugs. They are looking for drugs to answer these behavioural differences, and that is what they are doing they’ve got this magic bullet idea, if we can get a drug for that just think how much money we can make. And that’s a big motivator. And I know I am sounding very cynical but I’m afraid, you know, that’s going on.

IM: Ok so I am just going to summarise, In environmental or sensory distress my experiences as a clinician has been that the thing that is really challenging is this own agenda behaviour, that’s not in anyway minimising all the other stuff, but what it boils down to is time after time you know in the clinic this person is causing havoc because they won’t give up on their agenda. So then I started to think, could that be about egocentricity? And then I started to think, hmm, what about, what about something has gone wrong that has meant that that person has got stuck in the egocentric phase. Does that help us, think about it? what could that be? What could that be? If that was true, what could it be? We’ve got clues, we know that autistic people in environmental or sensory distress are in some way experiencing the world differently and that can be incredibly distressing for them. We don’t know a lot about it but we’ve got some clues and could that be enough as an internal stressor and are we having possibly a traumatic encounter there which is exponential because of the massive development that is taking place in the first year of life.

Anon (Name to be added if they give permission): My name is (deleted), I am a clinical psychologist and Ive spent most of my working life asking autistic people in environmental or sensory distress what they think and feel, I’m also neurodevelopmentally challenged myself and I really found thinking of myself as a different species and a genetic mess, I’m also a mother of a son who is a genetic mess, if we don’t have autistic people in environmental or sensory distress and people with dyspraxia and dyslexia and adhd in our society then it would be much less rich. The reason that those things were thrown out many many years ago is that they were wring. And to start to move back to things like refrigerator mother and prevention of environmental or sensory distress, I think is not appropriate.

(Lots of applause)

IM: Shall I respond?

IM: I never said anything about refrigerator mothers and I acknowledge that that was a dangerous area that went, you know, clearly wrong but I think it is great that I have had this response actually, because I think it is important to get a reaction like that and I’m pleased that you have reacted like that. All I am doing here is asking questions, I don’t know the answers to these questions. What I am trying to do is I am trying to make sure that we don’t get stuck in a silo mentality, I want us to keep our eyes open about environmental or sensory distress and I do not mean to cause any offence by saying the things I have said but it’s a free country, last time I checked it’s a free country and we are allowed to say what we think and I am basing this on my experience with my patients over twenty years so you know that is just my experience. I am worried that these people are being traumatised by something that is going on in side their minds, that’s all I’m trying to say to you, so thanks a lot (applause)

So, yeah… If you look at Autism just as something that occurs in the brain, you get these kinds of ideas.

But if you understand Autism as something that shapes your every experience in a physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual way (with an emphasis on the physical which can lead to a ton of distress), that changes it, doesn’t it?

It changes everything.

Which is where I’m hoping the Autism research community goes. Away from the “egocentricity” idea. Away from the “own agenda” concept. Away from the belief that meltdowns are “tantrums” which we choose to leverage to get our own way. “Creating havoc” and all that.

The good part is that people are speaking up about this.

The bad part, is that we have to.

 

Sickness and lameness and hindrance, oh my…

grid of four people rolling stones up hills
Just keep going. Just keep working.

My stoic meditation of the day comes from The Enchiridion By Epictetus

9. Sickness is a hindrance to the body, but not to your ability to choose, unless that is your choice. Lameness is a hindrance to the leg, but not to your ability to choose. Say this to yourself with regard to everything that happens, then you will see such obstacles as hindrances to something else, but not to yourself.

10. With every accident, ask yourself what abilities you have for making a proper use of it. If you see an attractive person, you will find that self-restraint is the ability you have against your desire. If you are in pain, you will find fortitude. If you hear unpleasant language, you will find patience. And thus habituated, the appearances of things will not hurry you away along with them.

Indeed. I tend to lose sight of the fact that all my sensitivities don’t prevent me from choosing what to do with my life, and finding ways to deal with them. The simple fact of my life, which is my guiding principle, is that if I can identify that something is a problem for me, and I know what alternative I want in its place, then it’s incumbent upon me to do something about it.

I’m pretty resourceful, when it comes down to it, so I can’t very well make excuses for my life going the way it has, when I’m actually capable of A) seeing when I’m going off the rails, and B) coming up with alternatives.

Now, certainly, it’s no fun to have to constantly navigate a world that’s designed for people completely unlike me. But one of the reasons I left my parents’ house and took off on my own, was precisely because I knew that out there in the world, I could fashion my own environment that suited me. I know what bothers me, I know what makes my life difficult. And with that knowledge, I can design a life that works for me.

Of course, not everything is going to be suited to my liking all the time. But so what? The times when things are extremely challenging, are the times when I build up strength. Provided I give myself time and space to recover and assimilate all the lessons, the challenges just make me stronger. More resourceful. More determined. Maybe it’s just my character. Or maybe it’s because of how I was raised. Whatever the reason, when I look back at the worst times I went through, those were the most valuable lessons.

In some cases, you get what you pay for. And I’ve paid dearly, I can tell you that.

It’s all been worth it. Some of my experiences have felt like they tore me to shreds, but you know what? I’m still here.

So there.

And I’m going to stick around. There is no way I’m going to succumb to the dire predictions that I’ll die 20 years earlier than my non-autistic peers. That’s just ridiculous. We get to choose what we do with ourselves, what choices we make, what direction we take. And if I choose to do things that I know are not good for me — like avoiding certain foods because of the textures, but not supplementing my diet in other ways, or like avoiding exercise because I don’t have the energy — I have only myself to thank for vitamin deficiencies or poor physical condition.

Some magical being in the ethers isn’t going to descend to earth and save me from myself. If there are things I have to do, because the laws of physics and human anatomy require them, then one way or another, I’ll do them. It’s my choice. And I have the capacity for reason, discernment, to find alternatives, if one way doesn’t work for me.

So, with that said, it’s time to get on with my day. I find out what the deal is with my job — new paths are being charted for us at work, and the direction we’re taking actually makes a whole lot of sense for me.

Maybe I don’t have to leave my job, after all… Even so, I have a video interview for another position on Monday. It’s all a dynamic process.

Of course it is.

It’s life.

Something must be up in the world… but I wouldn’t know.

man in a boat on a lake with mountains in the backgroundWow – people are on a tear tonight.

All kinds of feisty, racing around, slamming into each other… the cops are out en force, and I’ve seen plenty of people pulled over, sometimes with lots of extra emergency vehicles around them.

Traffic on the way home was crazy tonight, with people flying all up in each others’ tail-lights, beeping, roaring… you name it. And this is even more than usual.

Something must be up in the world.

But you know what? It’s been 2 days since I looked at the news, and I have no idea what bees might be in their bonnets. Nor do I care. I mean, I care, but not so much that I’m willing to sacrifice my own well-being for others.

And I realize, that’s what I’ve been doing, lo, these many years that I’ve been paying attention to what other people do in the public arena. What a poor use of time. It’s useful to keep in touch with who votes in my favor, and it’s a good idea to participate in positive change. But all this other… crap that’s all over the news… yeah, it just doesn’t make sense to follow any of it.

Especially when nothing really seems to change much, even after all the upheaval and drama. There are so many other more constructive uses for my time and energy, than “following” the antics of people who are all into the drama for drama’s sake.

Me? I want to actually accomplish something.

So, I do. I’ve been reading a lot, lately. Spending far less time online. Chillin’. And it’s good.

Have a lovely evening — or day, if you’re reading this in the morning.

In search of my flow state

stream flowing through forest with the flowing water in focusI’m in the process of resetting for the new year. Resetting my activities. Resetting my priorities. Resetting my activity levels. I typically do this earlier in the year, when I’m swept up in the New Year’s Resolution blitz.

But this year, I haven’t been feeling it. At all.

It’s not going nearly as well as I’d like. Work is weird. My life is weird. It’s all kind of… weird. I don’t feel like I’m fully inhabiting my own life, and I’ve been so busy with everything, lately, I haven’t had time to stim or reach a flow state for weeks… perhaps since the beginning of the year.

It’s maddening. Probably the worst thing about the way things have gone, for the past months, is the ever-increasing level of interruption in the course of each day. It’s absolutely maddening. As in, it makes me really, really mad. I have to be able to settle into extended periods of thought, in order to be effective, and my current job is preventing that on every level.

Distraction kills, and it’s doing a hack job on my performance at work, not to mention my job, overall.

Well, that’s the job, right? That’s “just how things are” in my current professional corner of the world, and anyone who can’t keep up is left in the dust. Personally, I’d be fine with being left behind. Just cut me a check and let me go. Let’s call it a day and say it was an interesting learning experience, shall we? And let’s all move on to other, better things.

But I don’t have a substantial back-up plan. I’ve been putting out feelers for work, but the kinds of work I’ve been applying for… well, it just hasn’t been a good fit. I got a job offer, a month ago, but I had to turn it down because the conditions were, well, crappy. A longer commute. Into the thick of the worst rush hour traffic in the area. Frenetic pace. Frenzied, from what I was told. In a building where they have chemicals that smell and bright lights that blind. An open work space plan. And not more money than I’m making now.

So… no. Not that.

I put in for some other jobs, and I heard back from what looked like a really good opportunity, but after I responded to them, they didn’t get back to me. I need to ping them again. There’s a good chance they took a look at my resume and realized — Hey, she doesn’t have a degree! — and, like many others, decided I “wasn’t a good fit”.

It’s a little depressing, actually.

But it’s got me thinking… About what is actually the best work for me to do. After being a web developer for 15 years, I gradually shifted into project and program management for the past 8 years or so, because it felt like the software engineering world was closing in on me and I was getting crowded out. I felt like I just couldn’t compete with all the lower cost talent with more updated skills… the people who “fit better” with organizations… or who had degrees. The project/program management space seems to be less amenable to people who literally teach themselves how to do things, than the development space. And while that didn’t hurt my prospects in the past handful of jobs I’ve had, it’s starting to feel like it’s closing in on me even more than development did.

bomb emoji with lit fuse looking down
This is about how my “career” is feeling, about now.

And indeed, the lack of flow is a huge issue. Somehow, I seem to have acquired work that I absolutely hate. Tracking other people’s activities. Communicating to everyone who needs to know about program and project status. Navigating political minefields. Battling for my territory. Making nice with people across the organization. Being interrupted every 20 minutes (or as soon as I get into a flow state). Conference calls. Lots of conference calls. With people who have thick accents and/or are on a poor phone connection. And more interruptions. Travel. Regular business travel, which doubles my workload and completely trashes my routine.

It just feels like a setup. I can do it for so long, then I am completely wiped out. Because nobody sees how much I struggle, and I can’t let on, because that would trash my career prospects like nothing else. And I can’t chance that.

The fact that I’m really good at it, is no consolation. At all.

I mean, seriously, I’m really good at it. I’m a fantastic meeting facilitator, I can communicate extremely well to people who need to know. I know how to work effectively with offshore folks (been doing it since 2002). And I can turn on a dime if the situation calls for it.

But man, oh, man, do I pay for it. In a very big way. Of course, nobody else sees how steep the price is, because they rely on me to keep doing what I’m doing, just the way they are accustomed to seeing me do it.

And seriously, this is no way to live.

I need my flow back. I need to settle into a chunk of code and just work my way through it. I need to cozy up with a tasty algorithm and just do my thang. Seriously, I do.

{pause to take a breath}

Okay, so where does that leave me? Or rather, where does that point me?

Realistically, away from where I am now. And back into the development world. In my former life (before I trained my replacements in 2002 and was then told to go find another job in 2005), I was one of the best of the best at my chosen line of work. Web development. Front-end web development. UI coding. Cross-browser. Cross-platform. Proficient in ‘nix flavors and the command line. Not afraid of anything code-related.

And it suited me. In a very big way. Because I could create things and make stuff work, like nobody else. I could convince browsers to do things they weren’t built to do. I was good. I was one of the best. And I was relieved of my duties by the bean-counters who had no idea what the work entailed. All they knew was that I was “too expensive” and they were convinced I could be replaced.

Hm.

Yeah, as it turns out (having managed a lot of projects involving developers who weren’t even close to as good as I was), I can’t be replaced. My skills are still needed. And my interview and subsequent job offer this past December (for a developer job) tells me that I still have a future in that realm. I tend to get pretty rigid about things and get convinced that since I’ve almost exclusively done project/program management for the past 3.5 years, so I’ve been telling myself that I have to stay in that space. But I don’t. I can shift back to development. I’m the only one who’s blocking myself, at this point.

Plus, I can do my own “thang” in the process. Build tools. For mobile. Just build things that show people what I do — like Temple Grandin recommends. I’ve actually got a pretty impressive portfolio, and it’s not even complete. I need to get focused on completing it, and lift myself up out of this increasingly wretched state I’ve been in, for the past year and a half, when it first started to dawn on me that this was probably not the best job choice for me.

There’s a lot I can do about my situation, right now. I can build my own apps. I can build my own websites. I can do a lot that shows how I work. And I can put the finishing touches on some projects I started over the past years but lost the energy to do them – because I was too wiped out from my day job to keep up with it all.

So, there is hope.

But for now, it’s time to go move some snow. We got a bunch of it overnight, and I need to shovel it before the temperatures start to rise. Heavy snow is no fun.

It’s easier if people aren’t nice to me

Man Thinking, Looking Out Over Foggy Harbor - Photo by Phoebe Dill on Unsplash
Photo by Phoebe Dill on Unsplash

This is going to sound strange, but it’s actually easier for me, when people aren’t nice to me.

When they don’t say and do nice things for me, befriending me, and so forth.

I find it confusing. And the reciprocity thing makes my head feel like it’s spinning.

And I’m going to get it wrong.

Either I’ll get too close, too fast, or I’ll keep my distance when I’m not supposed to.

They’ll expect me to hug them. And that’s no good. I’m a terrible hugger, objectively speaking. I don’t know how to get the right pressure, and I always seem to dig my chin into the other person’s shoulder, which is a weirdly intimate thing to do, when I think about it.

They will say things and expect me to respond in kind. But my brain doesn’t work at their same speed, so I’ll end up saying something stupid or coarse or reflexive that’s unconsciously meant to push them away.

It’s better, if people aren’t nice to me.

That’s not to say I don’t like people. I do! I really enjoy their company, and I like to spend time chatting about things that interest us. Even the dreaded small-talk is fun for me, at times. Banter. Witty banter. Laughs. Ha-ha-ha. 😀

But other than superficial fun times, I prefer that people are objective and a little cold towards me. Matter-of-fact. Because facts really matter a lot to me, and it’s more important for me to handle things in the correct manner, than it is for me to “exchange energies” with potentially needy others.

I don’t mind the chill. I prefer it, in fact.

Just don’t be rude.

Rudeness I cannot countenance. Standoffishness, yes. But rudeness, no.

And that’s what I have to say about that tonight.

Whoah – now *this* is a welcome change!

autism journal cover before after showing old puzzle piece and new circles motif

So, this is refreshing!

It’s not everyday we #ActuallyAutistic folx get some good news, especially from within the realm of research. But it’s a new year, and it appears that — somewhere, somehow — people have been listening. And what’s more, they’re willing to act.

But lo and behold, this is exactly what’s happened. Just got the news yesterday from the journal Autism:

A new era for autism research, and for our journal

… autism research is a shared endeavour. Precisely because it is a common endeavour, autism research requires the participation of that broad community on fair terms. It is not right that one group holds all of the influence and power. If any group, or collection of groups is unattended or their opinions discounted, then they are being treated unfairly and in a way that does damage to autism research itself. The core ethos of this journal must include ensuring that everyone who participates in autism research has their views taken into account.

This takes us, of course, to the symbol that used to occupy the cover of this journal – the puzzle piece. Others have written at length about the history of that symbol, how it was initially deployed by the UK’s National Autistic Society (NAS) in 1963, and how it has become increasingly controversial as the years have progressed (Grinker and Mandell, 2015; see also Gernsbacher et al., 2017). But what has become much clearer recently is that autistic selfadvocates and many who support them have not only felt that the puzzle piece does not capture their view of autism itself, but that the failure of organisations such as this journal to act in response constitutes a core disrespect, as if their voices and opinions did not matter equally to other people’s (Brook, 2016).

Oh, my… I’m feeling a little choked up, actually. The fact that people in positions of influence have actually been listening… and have taken substantive, public action… that’s huge.

What’s more, the new design makes total sense. They say they developed the design with input from Autistic people, which in itself is amazing. And the red circles — overlapping, yet separate, similar yet slightly different… that pretty much says it all to me.

Plus, no blue. #Redinstead. Always a nice change.

So, I’m feeling like I can breathe a little easier. Not until I saw the new design, did I realize just how I hold my breath and brace for a conceptual … infringement… whenever I encounter official outlets for Autism research and thinking. Even with publishers and organizations who are very much “on our side”, I brace myself, every time I read their tweets or publications. I’m always on the defensive with the official outlets, no matter how well-intentioned they are. Because they so often just don’t get it… and I have to go to considerable lengths to rectify everything in my mind and convince myself — yet again — that they are not the enemy, they just don’t get it 100%… yet… and they’re trying.

Of course, the bulk of the conceptual work is on my shoulders, because I’m in the minority and on the receiving end. I don’t have the time and leisure and money and stature to do much of anything about it. Me taking the giants of the Autism industry to task about their unwitting slights and oversights, is like piloting a jet-ski through an iceberg field, trying to avoid the chunks of floating ice out of the way so I don’t wreck on them… as well as trying to nudge them out of the way, so others less speedy and attentive than I don’t run into them and wreck themselves.

The peril of poor word choices and dismissive language, I feel, is so much more severe for Autistic individuals, because we can experience language so viscerally, so physically, so deeply. Handing over Autism vocabulary to non-autistics, is a little like handing a gangly teenager a razor-sharp katana. They just don’t have the coordination and maturity to handle it well. And somebody’s gonna get hurt. Of course, the person wielding the weapon(s) isn’t going to suffer. They won’t feel a thing, when they draw blood from others.

And that’s precisely the problem. Because, well… double-empathy. Yet again.

For a less gruesome comparison, how ’bout this — asking non-autistics to research and address Autism on their own, is like asking a color-blind person to pick out a coordinated outfit out of your wardrobe of colorful prints for your big job interview. Nothing against the color-blind person. They’re still valuable and valid as a human being. But you’re better off having someone who can detect a lot more colors in the spectrum, if you’re going to present your best for The Big Job.

Fortunately, it looks like things are shifting. Changing. With any luck, improving. Big thanks goes to the researchers who have been raising the alert about how … er, screwed up, er, incredibly deficient , er, lacking the old route has proven. And hey — how ’bout all these profoundly insightful Autistic adults who know firsthand what it’s like to actually BE Autistic… mightn’t they have something to contribute.

We might, indeed.

So, I’m supposed to be resting today. Reading. Taking a break. But hell, this is big news, and I’m not about to sit this one out, when there’s so much to be lauded about it.

I could go on for hours about how the circle motif makes SO . MUCH . MORE . SENSE. But I’ll leave that to another blog post, after I’ve regained my strength. I’m still struggling after last week. And on top of that, I had a big get-together with 16 very chatty friends (old and new) packed into a 10×10 foot space.

Can you say sensory overload? Uh… yup. I will definitely blog more about my experience of hearing seven simultaneous conversations at top volume for four hours… and my ensuing glee that I didn’t completely melt down in the  mist of it.

Oh, but I digress. Let the record simply show that I approve of this new direction that the journal Autism is taking. And I suspect a lot of other Autistic people like me do, as well.

Oh, except for those who hate it. We’ll always have some of those 😉

Sharing from ‘Autism’: A new era for autism research, and for our journal

No more puzzle piece used on the cover of the journal 'Autism'

Big news – The journal Autism will no longer be using the puzzle piece on their cover.

Plus, they’re shifting their approach to research:

… Precisely because it is a common endeavour, autism research requires the participation of that broad community on fair terms. It is not right that one group holds all of the influence and power. If any group, or collection of groups is unattended or their opinions discounted, then they are being treated unfairly and in a way that does damage to autism research itself. The core ethos of this journal must include ensuring that everyone who participates in autism research has their views taken into account.

This, in my view, is huge.

And it’s a welcome change. I encourage you to read the whole announcement. It’s not long, but it’s chock-full of encouraging signs.

Read it by clicking here.

What if non-#autistic “pretend play” is pathological?

board game with pieces
I’ve been thinking a fair amount about so-called “theory of mind” (ToM), lately, and I keep coming across references to it. Take, for example, the recent paper “Theory of Mind Deficit Is Associated with Pretend Play Performance, but Not Playfulness, in Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder” They talk about how “pretend play” is impaired in autistic kids (oh, sorry – “children with Autism Spectrum Disorder”), and how “ToM significantly predicted pretend play variables”.

Well, okay. They ran the tests, they did the analysis, they made their findings. The paper says:

The results showed that children’s ToM was significantly associated with their pretend play in initiating play actions, object substitutions, property attribution, and pretending an imaginary object were present. However, the correlation coefficients failed to show a significant relationship between children’s ToM and their playfulness.

So, kids who did poorly on ToM didn’t “perform” pretend play very well.

From the paper (bold emphasis is mine, and I’ve taken out the citations):

Play, the main occupation of children, both reflects and improves the development of their physical, cognitive, and social skills. Play is the dynamic interaction between the individual child and the child’s immediate environment, and it is influenced by sociocultural factors. The two essential manifestations of play are external performance and internal experience. The former is observable performance, which unfolds in play activities; the latter is playfulness, which is the key to determining whether an activity belongs to play or not. Therefore, it is important to view play as a whole construct involving both external performance and internal experience.

Issues with this paper begin right from the start. First off, the idea that play is “the main occupation of children” seems flawed to me. And it seems to completely misunderstand the purpose of “play”. Kids aren’t just horsing around. They’re developing their inner systems, their senses, their reflexes, their relationship with the world. In my opinion, learning and development is the main occupation of children, and if it comes across as play, then great. But learning/development is not secondary to play, as the authors seem to believe. Quite the contrary — play is secondary to learning and development.

The paragraph then takes a turn for the better (sigh of relief) when the authors talk about how play has a dual nature — external and internal. It’s not just about how it looks to outsiders; it’s also about how you experience it yourself (the level of playfulness). And yeah, we need to consider both the internal and external sides of play, in order to assess it fully.

Pretend play is a form of external performance and is defined as play composed of both conventional imaginative play and symbolic play. Conventional imaginative play is preliminary pretend play. It refers to perceiving objects (or conventional toys) as real or small copies of things, and using them in a functionally proper way outside of the typical context. Examples are pretending to feed a doll using a toy spoon, using an empty cup to pretend to drink, or rolling a toy car on the floor and making engine noises. Symbolic play is sophisticated pretend play. It refers to using objects (or unstructured toys) as something else, attributing properties, or pretending an absent object is present. Examples are using a banana as a telephone, pretending a piece of cloth is wet, or making an imagined cup with the hands and pretending to drink. Therefore, pretend play provides an opportunity for children to practice events occurring in their daily lives or social worlds. Through engagement in pretend play, children learn the differences between reality and imagination. Moreover, pretend play reflects and facilitates the development of emotions, language, cognition, social skills, social awareness, and perspective-taking ability.

I’m sure there’s plenty of research substantiating the above, but I think there are a lot of conceptual leaps that hew to a typical line. And those leaps may be blinding the researchers to additional considerations.

Why is it so essential that children turn something into something it’s not, to show sophistication? Why is it assumed that children who substitute one thing for another are developing normally? Seems odd to me. Why wouldn’t they wonder if something was amiss with those kids, if they clearly can’t tell that what they’re holding is in fact not a telephone, but they keep trying to use it as one? And how is it heart-warming, for a child to not understand that their doll is inanimate, that it’s incapable of eating and drinking, so it’s pointless to try to feed it or give it a bottle? Maybe that’s standard-issue non-autistic childhood behavior, but it’s not the only kind of human behavior that bears fruit.

The bias becomes quickly clear. Pretend play appears to be the one and only precursor to normal development. So, one could say that if it’s absent, it’s logical to expect that “emotions, language, cognition, social skills, social awareness, and perspective-taking ability” would all be ultimately impaired. Ugh.

Pretend play deficit appears to be a clinical feature of children with ASD and has long been a focus of the study of child development. Previous studies have found that children with ASD are unable to understand the pretend actions in play. Wing, Gould, Yeates, and Brierly (1977) conducted the first research that directly examined pretend play in children with ASD and children with intellectual disability and found that the majority of children with no observable pretend play or those with stereotyped, copying pretend play behaviours were children with autistic disorder. Several studies have also found that pretend play is apparently less frequent in children with ASD, and that their play behaviours lack symbolism, creativity, and complexity. Rutherford et al. conducted a longitudinal study that measured children’s pretend play in a free play condition and a structured condition with external instructions. Their results showed that children with ASD found it significantly more difficult than typically developing children to perform pretend play in both conditions and that spontaneous pretend play was more impaired. Furthermore, in addition to difficulties in performing pretend play, children with ASD have impaired comprehension of pretend play as well. In summary, research has shown that children with ASD are unable to understand the pretend actions in play. Children with ASD have decreased frequency and complexity when performing pretend play, and the difficulties can present spontaneously or appear with external facilitations.

Oh, my. That’s chock full of bias, pathologizing, and outright cluelessness about what’s really going on beneath the surface of autistic play. It’s so full of … “incomplete understanding”… I’m not sure where to start.

There’s the deficit model approach. Talking about our differences as impairments. Citing research from 1977 (for heaven’s sake!), and not apparently asking any #ActuallyAutistic folks about why we played they way we did, when we were younger. Trust me, a lot of us remember. And we could shed a truckload of light and insight on this question of “Why do autistic kids play the way they do?”

I take issue with their assumption that autistic kids don’t understand pretend actions in play. What if — just what if — we actually did understand, but categorically rejected it, because we needed to play in a very different way? What if we’re just more interested in learning how the real world actually works, rather than fooling around with playthings that aren’t the real thing? There seems to be an assumption that children aren’t capable of that kind of reasoning, when we’re quite young.

But I remember clearly, so many times when I was young, being offered dolls and toys and other objects that were supposed to be played with a certain way, but consciously choosing not to interact with them the way I was expected. Because I wanted to find out how they worked. I wanted to see how they were put together. I didn’t play with the pretend vacuum cleaner my aunt gave me one Christmas. I took it apart and played with the different pieces, to see how they operated, how they felt, how they took up space. I had no interest in any dolls other than one that looked exactly like a real baby and had a body made of fleshlike foam. I didn’t think of that doll as my child, though. I thought of it as a friend. Because clearly, I couldn’t have a child of my own. I was too young. I was closer in “age” to that baby, than I was to my mother. So, you do the math. It made no logical sense for me to pretend I was that “baby’s” mother.

So, when all these adults are sitting on the floor, trying to get autistic kids to do pretend play like the “normal” kids, they might ask themselves if it makes any logical sense for those kids to do what they’re asking them to do. And it might also help if they tossed in a bit of reality along with the pretend. I just don’t get why children are expected to concoct their own version of what’s real and what’s not, when the real, physical, tangible world is right there in front of them, just waiting to teach them about all the laws of physics.

What the paper clearly misses, is the possibility that rather than being a sign of impairment, autistic kids’ modes of play are simply a sign of difference. Where non-autistic kids may pretend more, say, using a banana as a telephone or pretending that a doll is a real baby or imagining that a toy car is a real vehicle that makes real sounds, autistic kids might — just might — have more of an interest in non-pretend (or real) play.

What if autistic kids (who were shown in the study to be playful just like the non-autistic kids) simply have a different mode of play which emphasizes reality, which interacts with things as they are, rather than turning them into something else?

And what if that ability to actually play with the real properties of objects were essential to our development in learning to navigate the world around us and interact with our environments?

Looking even deeper, what if the researchers factored in sensory processing issues and rather than pathologizing their play styles, they realized that they actually served a purpose. To whit:

In this study, it was observed that children with ASD who had poor adaptation to change and more unique use of objects would exhibit play behaviours that were less changeable and lacked narrative. For example, the children might keep rolling the toy truck to watch the rotation of the wheels without any play purpose, and the children would also show resistance when asked to play with other objects or when the tester modelled the play actions.

Play, as many of us autistic folks know, can be “less changeable” for a whole host of reasons.

First, the situation might be overwhelming for the kid, which prompts them to stim, or find some repetitive motion that soothes their jangled nerves. Also, certain kinds of play might lead to a “flow state” which is blissfully consistent. Or the kid rolling the truck might be observing the rotation, seeing how it changes, based on the surface, sensing the vibrations of it, basically absorbing massive amounts of data about that seemingly simple scenario — all of which is invisible to the adult. What’s more, that adult might have had a childhood rich with pretend play, which got them in the habit of making stuff up in their mind that seemed to correlate with reality, but which was just the product of their undirected, uninformed imagination.

And if an adult comes along and interrupts your flow state, disrupts your experiment, insisting that you do something different that isn’t contextually appropriate, how is that supposed to affect an autistic kid? It’s annoying. It can be  hurtful. Why should we accommodate their non-contextual request to change what we’re perfectly fine with?

However, the results showed that ToM was not a significant predictor of children’s playfulness, possibly because of the small sample size. In addition, the results showed that autistic behaviour was the most significant predictor of children’s playfulness. It suggested that children with more autistic behaviours would look less joyful during play. As autistic behaviour encompasses the characteristics of ASD, the results are congruent with those of previous studies demonstrating that children’s playfulness is related to individual characteristics, such as age, sex, and other personality attributes.

So, stop with the pathologizing, already. And never mind the ToM stuff, period. I find it very telling that the researchers felt the need to say autistic kids “look less joyful during play”. How would they know what joyful looks like? Trust me, I can be ecstatic on the inside, and people around me think I’m pissed off. Seems the impairments of social detection aren’t only autistic.

After reading through this paper, I have to wonder, what if so-called pretend play were actually a sign of pathology, indicating that non-autistic children are prone to make up things  in their minds which simply aren’t true… and if left unchecked, that can ultimately develop into full-blown inability to deal with reality as it is. What if children who were skilled at pretend play eventually grow into adults who surround themselves with invented falsehoods which confirm their biases and are never challenged, because they’re seen as “normal” behavior? Given the amount of autism research like this paper, it would appear that too many pretend-play experts have been allowed to persist in their childhood habits of making sh*t up, and it’s now affecting their adult work.

Hmmmm… I think someone should do some research on that. Now that would be a paper I’d like to read.

We’re all autistic, we’re all family… what’s the problem?!

three figures with one close up

Ugh. My familial disillusionment strikes again. I had hoped so much to be able to connect with my parents, this holiday season. I won’t be traveling to them, so I’ve been hoping we could interact with each other in a mutually satisfying way. I’ve been cherishing the idea that the distance will relieve me of some of the existential angst that used to push me to suicidal ideation this time of year… every . single . year . until I was nearly 50.

Yeah, I know I’m being unrealistic. Everybody’s bothered by family stuff, almost without exception. I know very few people who don’t have issues with their parents, who don’t carry some sort of painful “baggage” about their relationship, who aren’t haunted by unaccountable ghosts that seem to embed themselves in our sinews and make themselves known like so much arthritis when the weather turns cold. And when you’re autistic, family stuff gets even more… interesting. I’m no exception.

So, I’m all spun up about sh*t. And what, pray tell, is it about?

This morning, my father finally responded about a piece of writing I’d sent to him a few weeks ago, to see what he thought of it. He’s seen my writing before, and he hasn’t always had favorable reactions. He’s misunderstood a lot of what I’ve written and said over the years, and he’s lectured me on all sorts of non-issues that he got all worked up about.

I chalk it up to his own Aspergers… that clinical tone he takes, the critical eye he turns to things… he seems to think he’s doing me a favor by telling me where I’ve gone wrong. He doesn’t actually discuss my overall ideas. He looks at specifics, homes in on the things that he thinks are flawed, and then he tells me in detail what those things are… usually from his own dogmatic point of view.

Yeah… thank you, Aspergers. That whole big-picture thing isn’t a strength of his. My mom isn’t much help, either. She also homes in on a narrow slice of something I’ve written, she takes it out of context, and then she gets upset. She’s much more emotional than he is, and she’s been so beaten down by the rampant sexism in her world, that she has a hard time articulating exactly what’s bothering her.

And then I have two of them all twisted up about my work, when all I really wanted to do was share it with them so we could discuss some of the ideas I’ve been thinking really hard about. It’s generally a really tough situation for everyone, and I hate it every time it happens.

Part of their issue is that I don’t have a college degree. Both of my parents have Masters degrees, and my father used to teach at the college level. I’ve got a number of PhD-level academics/researchers in my family — some of them considerably younger than I — and the whole formal education thing is very big in my family. I still get little insinuating lectures from my parents about how inexplicable it is, that I never got my degree. I attended university for four years. I accumulated the debt. I did my time. But no degree. That just rankles them to no end… probably in no small part because of their Aspergers.

What they can’t seem to get their heads around is that my “issues” were severe and cumulative in college… to the point where I had a serious drinking problem, I was in trouble with the law, I’d “acquired” a stalker, and I literally couldn’t complete my coursework in a timely manner, so completing the whole gauntlet just wasn’t possible. They’ve always felt it was my fault. I just didn’t do a good job of… anything. I’ve embarrassed them. And what right do I have to write anything that sounds like I know what I’m talking about, when I’m clearly such a loser?

So, when I’m presumptuous enough as to write something for others’ consumption (they don’t know about this blog), they get all up in arms. Because they think the things I write about require years and years of study at accredited universities, to qualify to speak about them. If I haven’t done the coursework, I can’t use my voice. I’m not qualified. I’m not vetted. I’m just some upstart making noise. And I’m making noise in ways that might embarrass them, if other people find out. I’m making noise that embarrasses them simply by right of me making that noise. It has no order for them. It has no sense. Because I haven’t ticked all the boxes that tell the world I’m allowed to say the things I say.

And for this very reason, I am incredibly grateful that I’m not traveling to see them for Christmas. We were going to try to travel down, but… nah. It’s winter. Officially. There’s snow on the ground and too much traffic on the roads. Better to stick close to home, and just settle in with my books.

My comfort.

 

On my terms.

In my own way.

That’s not “wrong” at all.

Not by a long shot.