Aspies are from Vulcan!

Who out there loves Star Trek?!

I love Star Trek. It was my “special interest” when I was at school. I think there must have been an aspect of the self-containedness that appealed to me: restricted to one ship, a military hierarchy (if in somewhat idealised form) with rankings to dictate the boundaries of relationships, and a limited number of people contributed to a social construct that – unlike most soaps and dramas – I could actually understand. Things evolved slowly, relationships unfolding in a wonderfully simple and idealistic fashion. Voyager was my favourite, with it’s almost entirely closed system: particularly good for consistency. (Also, Captain Janeway. Who doesn’t want to be her?) I don’t watch it so much any more, but there’s a lot that stayed with me.

One of the great things about Star Trek is its characters. They’re multicoloured. All of them are strong, in their own way; but it’s in the spectrum of their vulnerabilities that the real interest lies. There’s Tom Paris, with his chequered history and survivor guilt. There’s Harry Kim, just a little bit too young, idealistic and homesick: his naivety sits on the fence between invoking protectiveness or annoyance. The half-Klingon Torres fulfils what is in many ways an extension of Uhura’s role in the original series: a focus to challenge racial and cultural stereotyping, addressing closely and painfully the impacts of such divides.

And it doesn’t stop with race or gender. Dr “Bones” McCoy of the original series, grumpy but lovable; indignant, inflexible and abrasive; and yet somehow not weak. Seven of Nine, a grown up child, a mess of analytical genius and PTSD and contradictions. Tuvok. And the inevitable Mr Spock.

Comparing autistic people to Vulcans is something of a cliche: something you read on the internet in quirky, unrealistic pop news. Not something I ever expected to happen in real life. As it happens, it has – but that’s not really the point. It’s an analogy that, secretly, I quite like. Because it’s usually made by someone who knows nothing about Star Trek, and nothing about the very nuanced characters and characteristics of these fictional Vulcans. This is also roughly equivalent to their understanding of autism. They see the stereotypes, the surface behaviour – reliance on logic, the struggle to understand human social relationships – and they match. So they say “you remind me of Mr Spock”.

And inside, I laugh. Because I am, and I am not, like Mr Spock. Just like autistic people, there is more to Vulcans than first meets the eye.

Let’s take a look at some of the reasons autistic people might be compared to Vulcans:

  • Vulcans find human behaviour chaotic and unpredictable – “illogical”.
  • Vulcans have strong analytical skills, and place a high value on logic. (This is something seen particularly in autistic women, who often turn to logic to unpick complex social situations and problems.)
  • There is a tendency towards rigidity in rules and their enforcement.
  • Vulcans appear unemotional – but they can show both empathy and love. “I have been, and always shall be, your friend” (Spock, in The Wrath of Khan). Stilted, uncomfortable, painful to articulate – but it’s there.
  • They have hypersensitive hearing! (On any away mission, the Vulcan is always the first to sense approaching danger.)
  • Vulcans tend to be solitary and quiet. Rather than socialising, they spend a lot of time alone to meditate and recharge.
  • Some Vulcans understand analytically the importance of emotional communication to humans, but struggle to do it themselves.
  • Occasionally Vulcans struggle with outbursts of emotion.
  • They are all different! Mr Spock and Mr Tuvok, underneath all their logic, have very different histories and personalities.

Of course, there are differences between this fictional species and the reality of us as autistic humans. Emotions for Vulcans are a cultural taboo: one which they take pride within their species in learning to suppress. Autistic people in public may seem repressed or withdrawn – but in a safe environment, or among their own, can be emotionally expressive. There are references in Star Trek to a long distant past in which Vulcans could not control their emotions: an age of violence, chaos and fear. If not totally irrelevant, this may be intended as an analogy to autistic children learning to “control” meltdowns as they grow up. If so, it would be dangerously misleading. Autistic adults don’t “control” their meltdowns: they learn to avoid and manage the triggers leading to that level of sensory overload. But nonetheless, it’s easy to see how these two very different cores of being manage to generate almost identical surface behaviours.

So I laugh, secretly, because these people are both right and they are wrong – and it doesn’t matter. The underlying details of Vulcan and autistic people’s nature aren’t the same. But that’s not what these people see. They see behaviours that match. I see behaviours, accepted.

I laugh, secretly, because those people told me something they’ll never realise. They match my identity with a different species – something so odd it is not even human. But in that one thought, they show me how I can exist among others, as me. Star Trek paints a vivid picture of a society in which people like me are an intrinsic and valued part – not as some defective version of humans, but as Vulcans. Spock, Tuvok and many others are accepted by the people around them, who understand their differences, value their strengths, and learn to read the different ways they show their emotions and feelings. In the Star Trek universe, people who move like me can live full and complete lives, as themselves, without needing to change or conform.

A future world where I am not disabled: just different. Idealistic, maybe. But what a world to hope for.

Fat shaming, gender roles, and becoming a woman with autism

Those of you who were diagnosed autistic as adults will probably understand when I say it takes a while to grow into the identity. There’s the tearing down, sudden or incremental, of the person you’ve built on lies of neurotypicality; the grief; the acceptance; and the beginnings of real life.

The process isn’t steady: it comes in fits and starts. Against a smooth background of progress, I encounter every so often those single jolts of realisation, “eureka” moments that seem like a physical leap forward from where I’ve been.

I’ve known for a long time that the images we see and the views we read in the media, online and on television, can have a strong influence on our unconscious biases. The constant bombardment of idealised female physiologies, the skewed representation of women towards youth and a specific body type, twists the self image of girls from early in childhood: that if they do not fit this trope, they are a failure. There are further, deeper issues around “thinspo” and “fitspo”: online media specifically designed to encourage disordered and self-damaging behaviours around eating and exercise. These issues are well covered in the more progressive online literature, as well as, ironically, by much of the same media that perpetuates the problem. But something I read recently cast this type of media message, for me, into a different frame.

The piece from Beauty Redefined, which very eloquently and sensitively explores the benefits of a “media fast”, doesn’t strictly cover anything I didn’t know. But it sets out the problem in a slightly different light. Instead of just telling me again that these messages towards women are wrong and harmful, it suggests tools I can use to choose which media messages are safe to consume. I was intrigued: it made me think. And considering those tools for a while brought home to me a new understanding on why being an autistic woman, in this world, can feel so dreadfully wrong.

The narrow, idealised pictures we see of women in the media aren’t just physical: they’re personal. The few roles available for women in books and films paint them as social creatures, valued by society for their prettiness, but also for their “traditional values” of kindness and sensitivity. They have many friends. They organise parties. They answer the telephone late at night and babysit their siblings’ children. When a friend is in trouble, they always know the right thing to say. The role of this comfortingly conventional woman is defined entirely by her interactions, not with the world, but with people: who she knows; who she supports; who she loves.

This picture of women painted by society as we know it is distorted enough from a neurotypical perspective. From an autistic one, it is almost unendurable. In my darkest moments it was to this impossible stereotype that I compared myself, doomed to failure and shame. To be autistic was to diverge from every part of the societally accepted female identity. A lifetime of niggling doubts had coalesced overnight into something monstrous; and I suddenly saw myself marked, judged all my life by something that everyone but me could see. My lack of social skills had me constantly labelled as aggressive; insensitive; uncaring; I’d learned not to listen, to try not to be hurt by what I could not understand. But now I knew of those people accusing me: that they were right, and I was so, so wrong. It didn’t matter that I didn’t feel or mean those things. It mattered how they saw me. How I looked.

When first I realised I had autism I forced myself to read on and on, no matter how much it hurt. I read about how I was different, how I was less, in order to learn to be more. Endless reams of well-meaning advice for the parents of young boys; myself described in such condescending terms, a million miles from where I had learned I should be. And it wasn’t just the popular media, by any means. There was autism psychology, emotional maturity and developmental trajectories: bald statements in print, coldly enumerating the skills I lacked at each level of my childhood and adolescence. The tone of pity – or not even pity, but pragmatic acceptance that people like me just need to be cared for and tolerated. Like we couldn’t ever have value as autonomous adults, or command respect as our own selves.

When I read about autism, even now, it makes me want to change. Sometimes that change is about learning and growing, but mostly it’s not. I don’t feel encouraged by what I read to reach out, to connect with others and learn new social skills. I feel obligated not to inflict my naivity on the world. I don’t feel eager to develop my appreciation of the wider picture: I feel ashamed of the narrowness of my focus. What I see written about us entreats a primarily non-autistic audience to tolerate and accept our limitations, but never to encourage, accommodate or seek out our strengths. It paints autism as an embarassment. It tells other people about me, that I am less. It tells me I’m not good enough the way I am.

But back then, when I was at my most vulnerable, I had to read; I had to learn to be a better person. If I didn’t read and absorb and accommodate the world’s expectations, it meant I was lazy. And worse than that, it meant I didn’t care about the people around me. I had to protect them from the horrible impacts of autism. From me.

The parallels between this thinking about personalities and the distorted body images encouraged by fitspo and thinspo are closer than a breath. What’s written about autism is meant for non-autistic people – as if we didn’t exist – with no regard to the damage it can do. Like thinspo, coverage of autism is all about looking a certain way for other people. It’s never about being and feeling a certain way, interacting with people authentically, as myself. Even the labels, conjoured by disordered thinking from these caricatures of reality, are aligned. “Lazy”, “selfish”, “undisciplined”? These are all traits that the body-shaming media silently attribute to “fat” people – and particularly fat women – by implication, for not trying hard enough not to be who they are. “I just feel sorry for them – think of [ how much healthier they’d be / how many more friends they’d have ] if they [ weren’t so fat / acted more normal ]?” Wrapped up in the guise of caring, people who just want you to be healthy, to be happy. Keeping your failures hidden from the world. Helping you to change who you are.

I don’t need to change who I am to be happy. I don’t need to become invisible to be loved.

I do need some support and accommodations at work. I need guidance to navigate office politics and clarification of what’s expected of me. I have a lot to learn about many things, for which I will need time and patience and acceptance, just like anyone else. But I don’t need the guilt. I don’t need to feel bad every time I ask a question, that I haven’t “developed the skills” to be completely autonomous. I don’t need to force myself through social interactions that drain the life out of me and give nothing in return. I don’t need to ration the supports I request for fear of being seen as lazy or undisciplined. I help other people with the things I’m good at, and they help me. I am not worthless because I think and socialise differently.

I’ve grown as a person since my diagnosis. I’m becoming more comfortable with this identity. But sometimes I still need reminding of the benefits of a media fast, to clear my mind and remind me who I am.

Nice people

I’m struck sometimes by the cognitive dissonance there seems to be in the heads of a very specific breed of “nice people”. Nice people know how you feel. Nice people sympathise with you. Nice people make soothing noises when you break down and cry, and tell you that everything is going to be OK. But tomorrow those nice people will do sweet F.A. to make it so.

Nice people, you see, don’t need to change. Their sympathy is enough. They know how good they are with people – they’ve been told so all their lives. They couldn’t possibly be part of the problem.

The problem with these “nice people” is their pride. Whether or not unconsciously, they are proud of being nice. Their natural way of being makes others feel comfortable. It’s a role they know from heroes in stories and leaders in films, the aspiration of many. They share others’ pleasure and soothe their pain; and they draw what is a perfectly innocent satisfaction from their social value.

Honestly, I do understand. It’s rewarding beyond measure to know that you can help or inspire another person. There is a deep, quiet joy in being able to support a friend or loved one, in the everyday things of life as well as the crises. I can imagine how that situation being normal, and not the beautiful exception, might shape a person’s self image; and might shape what they come to expect from the world.

Nice people know, with quiet certainty, that their value is intrinsic. This is their gift. They always know what to do and what to say. They’ve never had to think about the impact of their actions. That impact has never – to their knowledge – been anything other than good.

And then they meet me.

Actually, it’s not only me. It’s anyone they meet from the Other Side: poor, frail, depressed, sick, disabled. Anyone whom the system does not support. Anyone from whom, in fear or in pain or through simple lack of ability, the social niceties in just one of many crises might slip away.

Nice people are hurt when you snap at them to STOP causing you pain. Nice people feel pressured when you beg for their help. Nice people know the best way do things is gently, with trust and with patience. They’ve never had to step out of their own heads to feel what you feel. And that’s the danger, right there: that they’ll treat their own passing sadness with more urgency than your desperate, existential need.

Nice people are used to feeling respected. They’re not used to holding back their feelings when someone is rude to them. They’re not used to thinking about the “why” before they complain. They don’t know your pain. They don’t mean to hurt you. But they do.

Nice people are wonderful when things are going well. When you’re passing and functioning and ready to have fun. And nice people can be great at propping you up for a while, just until you get back on your feet. They can be there for you. They know all the sorts of crises that normal people go through – losing friends, breaking up, divorce, bereavement – and they really do mean well. They want to be able to use their skills to help you. But they are so sad, so disappointed, when you can’t be fixed.

What those nice people don’t realise is that we can’t all be like that. Some of us have lives where being on your feet and fully alive is the transitory thing. Some of us can’t rely on being there for others, not at just any time. Some of us save ourselves in anticipation of those glorious days when we’re not sad, frightened, confused or in pain. Some of us mourn those selves that barely see the light of day.

Some of us need “nice people” to be different. Some of us need them to realise that speaking up, again and again, when your basic needs aren’t being met isn’t selfishness: it’s survival. That being in constant exhaustion or confusion can preclude giving away parts of ourselves to support others. That making one choice between being realistic about our capabilities or chronically unreliable doesn’t make us bad people. It’s just that we didn’t have the choice you had. To be nice.

Serenity

“God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
Courage to change the things I can,
And wisdom to know the difference.”
(Reinhold Niebuhr)

In the small bedroom I slept in when visiting my grandmother’s house, at the foot of the bed, was a wooden panel inscribed with these words. Simply carved, decorated only with the raised image of a pair of hands, clasped in prayer. The simultaneous simplicity and depth of those few, short words has never failed to astound me.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what it means to be autistic, and to be me. Which parts of me are immutable, and cannot change? Which parts of me are not? And even if I could change those parts of myself, would I want to?

There are things about me that make other people uncomfortable. The way I speak. The tone of my voice. The way I use my hands. These things are different, alien, and open to misinterpretation, but they are not in themselves harmful.

The language of autism is not something I would ever wish to change. It is beautiful, emotional and expressive. It does not tend naturally to hide or manipulate. Rather than change myself, where I can, I seek to ensure that those I interact with regularly have the correct understanding of these mannerisms. Then I can express myself safely, comfortably and freely in my own language.

There are other parts of myself that I would seek to change. The defensive barrier that rises in response to constant anxiety. The ever-deepening need to protect myself from criticism, moving gradually from legitimate dismissal of unreasoned negativity, to refusal to accept any form of feedback that challenges my fragile self-esteem. The relentless erosion of ability to take risks, learn or grow for fear of destroying the tiny, brittle, frightened thing that I have somehow become.

In changing this part of myself – this figment, whittled down by fear – I need a strength that it does not have. But it is not the only part of me. My autism is my strength. I need to stand up for myself, to challenge the inevitable pressure to conform to a pattern that is not me. My autism can do this, and will not be ashamed. The power to fix myself is already inside me.

Looking back at those words tells me I am not broken. I know myself as I am now: accepting the parts of me that are mine and beautiful, and looking to change what I can. Things will not always be this way – couched in this quiet place where everything is clear. But for today, I am serene. I am courageous. And perhaps, if only in this, I am wise.

Hate

I get most of my news off the radio. So it was on Sunday morning, over breakfast, that I heard about the mass shooting at an LBGT nightclub in Orlando, Florida, USA.

The obvious explanation that sprung immediately to mind was that this was a hate crime. A horrible attack on gay people, in a deeply Christian culture that quietly tolerates the intolerance of any relationship not strictly classed as heterosexual. A clear, stomach-churning example of the way that quietly letting everyday injustices pass can nurture the attitudes that eventually lead to such brutal, horrific acts of violence.

The reporting journalist, however, had other ideas. I was shocked a second time by the rushed inevitability of her quick and eager report: that no, there was as yet no conclusive evidence on whether or not this was an act of Islamic terrorism.

No acknowledgement of any alternative motivation. No mention, beyond the nightclub’s identity, of the LGBT connection, or even the possibility of a hate crime. Muslims are so inherently violent, it seems, Islamic terrorism so rife, as to be simply assumed. The first person I heard to intimate that homophobia might have motivated the attack, later on in the afternoon news, was the gunman’s father. The media, however, denied the issue, or were silent.

How elegantly the marginalisation of two separately stigmatised groups is reinforced. How subtly the discrimination that LBGT people experience throughout the Western world is trivialised. How neatly the blame is shifted onto another culture, another religion, another type of person. Someone else. Not like us. That could never happen here.

Except that it does happen here. It happens every day. I remember the case fought and won by a gay couple who were refused entry by the Christian owners of a B&B. Yet even winning that case couldn’t suppress media coverage disgustingly sympathetic to the guilty, and has not stopped other bigots considering it acceptable to repeat the offence. Closer to home, I’ve seen my own gay friends being subject to derogatory street abuse by an elderly white man, in all other respects the picture of stately gentility, making his steady way towards the corner shop. These aren’t the isolated acts of terrorist radicals. These are the everyday aggressions perpetuated by “respectable people”. The people we worship with in church. Our neighbours. The people who live next door.

I’m not for a moment implying that the majority of people would take an assault rifle into a nightclub and gun down over a hundred people. It doesn’t matter. The majority of LBGT people didn’t die in that assault. That doesn’t make this any less the expression of a hatred many in our society still choose to accept. That doesn’t take away the fact that somebody singled out those hundred people, of whom at least fifty have died, specifically because they were part of the LBGT community. That doesn’t make this any less their pain.

Why is it so hard to acknowledge others’ pain? Why do we struggle so much, collectively, to empathise with perspectives different from our own? Is it because we feel ashamed? Is it because we know, deep down, that we are a part of the society that collectively accepts the discrimination and tacit oppression of anyone different from ourselves? Does it feel safer to express outrage at anti-gay laws in Uganda, the very strength of our indignation protesting the alienness of it all – as if somehow this abuse were confined to strange foreign lands, separated from us by thousands of miles, instead of happening right outside our doors?

We need to be able to accept the pain of others. We need to acknowlege their suffering. We need to validate their fear. Even if there is nothing more we can do, no support we can offer, we cannot but take that first step, and stand beside them.

Updated: because this atrocity isn’t mine to own. These are the posts you should really be reading:

Gender unawareness: the benefits of social isolation

Growing up autistic, I was less receptive than most to the subtle underlying pressure society exerts to separate men from women. At primary school, I was bullied horribly by girls and boys alike. But from the age of 11, I attended an all-girls secondary school that prided itself on teaching its students to be leaders. Rarely socialising with my peers, I was never exposed to the social requirement to hide my competence and enthusiasm in the presence of men. Looking back, my loneliness seems a small price to pay for the privilege of a sexism-free adolescence. Of course, I knew that there was something “wrong” that made me less than my peers. But it had nothing to do with my gender.

The lessons I learned in childhood and adolescence bear a stark contrast to the lessons impressed on most girls in their teenage years. In a girls’ school and later at university, I found delight in exploring concepts, helped on as we were encouraged to discuss and develop. Never mind if our answers were wrong or incomplete; I was consistently met with a willingness to explain, to lead me into a deeper understanding.

But in a gendered environment, girls learn that they are expected to be wrong. They learn that unless they have a perfect answer, they should keep quiet or risk ridicule. “Girls talk too much”: so goes the stereotype, implying that women should be careful before speaking to ensure that what they have to say is truly valuable. By the mid-teenage years, some girls would rather present their teacher with a blank page than submit their work so far and ask for guidance. The lessons learned here persist long into adulthood, with women (in my experience) being much more defensive about mistakes and less willing to discuss what went wrong – with a view to what could be improved – than men.

I remember a time when I didn’t “see” gender. Although I grew up surrounded by women and girls, I’ve never been uncomfortable in a working or social environment dominated by men. It served me well in my university studies, and I had no qualms about gender balance in applying for jobs in scientific fields. In the workplace, that’s changed. But not in the way you might expect.

The thing is, from an autistic perspective, I’m now generally more afraid of women than men. In the neurotypical world, behaviours that come naturally to me are often misinterpreted. Both men and women have cautioned me against arrogance, where I suspect they might have recognised (and approved of) confidence in a man. But in face-to-face interactions, I feel like I can trust a man to speak out openly if he thinks I’ve been rude. An open challenge I can face down, or accept and apologise as necessary. Whilst a woman, conditioned to avoid conflict, will keep her feelings quiet and unresolved – and I will never know. This is an observable impact of men learning that their identity and personhood has a value worth defending; whereas women have been socialised to submit, never challenging anything that makes them uncomfortable. The upshot of which is that with a woman I’ve offended unintentionally, I may never get the chance to make it right. With a single mis-step on my part, the relationship is poisoned.

The fact that I’ve learned to “see” gender in the working environment because of these socialised differences does bother me. I try very hard to treat people equally, and I always presume competence regardless of gender. I know that it’s equally possible to have informative, rewarding technical conversations with women as with men. But I’ve found that from an autistic perspective, conversations with women tend to be much less accessible to me, and much higher risk. There is so much more padding and subtext. Getting to the point with someone who’s been taught it’s rude to be direct is hard.

So I find myself fearing a female supervisor. Not because I have a problem with women in authority, or with women in general, but because experience tells me we’ll struggle to maintain an honest dialogue. I fear she will misjudge me, and not speak out. I fear I won’t be able to find her message, hidden in amongst the soft edges. I fear that when I make the inevitable mistakes, I’ll never have the chance to make it right.

(Throughout my life, largely because of my undiagnosed autism, I have learned that my own feelings are subordinate to those of others, and that I should not assert myself or challenge those things which are wrong or uncomfortable. The same lessons learned by every schoolgirl, but on different subjects, and for different reasons. The irony – that I must be afraid of women who have learned not to defend their own interests and expect me to be equally submissive – does not escape me.)

Of course, this fear of perpetual misunderstanding applies to some men, too. But in my experience, there are fewer men who will not speak out in the face of a perceived wrong. And perhaps this is because of how we are taught to relate.

The language of interectionality and feminism is new to me, but the concepts make a lot of sense. It’s interesting to think about the interplay between autism and gender in UK society. I don’t pretend to offer deep or particularly original insights here, but I think I might post around this topic every so often, when I want to explore something new. (New special interest, moi?!) In the meantime, if anyone more experienced wants to recommend me some reading on this I’d be keen to learn more.

This world we live in

I’ve been a bit sick this week, so instead of actually doing anything I’ve been mostly curled up on my sofa reading the internet. A lot of what I’ve read makes me sad; some of it makes me horribly, guiltily grateful. And that makes me angry.

For example: this guy I’ve been reading for a while. He has a son with Down syndrome, and he writes a lot about how we could and should do better for disabled people in our societies. One of his older pieces, which is linked from the post above, talks about how a “cult of compliance” discriminates against and allows the abuse of children with disabilities, and in particular seems to be used against children who are not white.

Another post that turned my stomach was something that came to me through Facebook. I’ve never read this woman’s writing before. She tells a story about a college student in a dangerous situation, whom she and her friends tried to remove to a place of safety; but every authority they encountered was more interested in rebuking the girl for drinking than in keeping her safe. In fact, the only option they gave her was to go back to the place where she’d been about to be raped.

So once again in my life, I find myself thankful. I am thankful that I was born white, in a Western country where to be any other colour, it seems, is to be presumed guilty until proven innocent. I am thankful I was not diagnosed autistic in childhood, despite the help and supports I might have accessed, for fear of the stigma and abuse (intentional or otherwise) that could well have come with them. I am thankful, God help me, that I am not pretty enough to be a desirable target for rape.

What sort of a world do we live in that any child (or adult, for that matter), particularly one made vulnerable by disability, should fear for their safety because of the colour of their skin? What sort of society hides its disabled children away and physically abuses them for being unable to comply with certain commands? Why is it OK that a pretty woman can’t just enjoy being pretty without fearing the consequences?

I should not be grateful that I have not encountered those things – not through any virtue of my own, but through an accident of birth. I am angry that others have, and do, and will continue every day to suffer through the accidents of theirs.

How can we live in this world?