23 August 2017

Thinking about patterns of opposite extremes among autistic people

About a year and a half ago, I posted this list of characteristics that seem to be much more common in autistic people (especially the more of them a person has) than in non-autistic people. But both while writing that list, and over many years of thinking, being with other autistic people, and learning about many of our experiences, I keep noticing this one pattern among our experiences -- we tend toward extremes of the same phenomenon, both between different autistic people (and thus, observable sub-groups of autistic people) and within the same person (often dependent on context).

Other people have noticed the same pattern in some contexts, like the rough split between sensory-avoidance and sensory-seeking, and noting that an individual autistic person can be both very sensory-seeking in some contexts but very sensory-avoidant in others. Or in noting autistic people's relationship to math -- apparently roughly half (this is not a scientific number) of us struggle intensely with and hate or at least dislike math, while the other rough half of us have a deep affinity and love for math. Or in noting autistic people's use of verbal speech or writing -- many autistic people rely heavily on text-based forms of communication, especially with widespread availability of instant messaging apps, but there are many other autistic people who have such difficulty processing language that they have extreme struggles with text-based forms of communication.

But I've also noticed this phenomenon crop up in about a million (still not a scientific number) other contexts, such as the following:

(1) Autistic people tend to be either extremely gender non-conforming and oblivious (or deliberately indifferent) to gender norms and expectations, OR, extremely gender-conforming, and hyper-attuned to gender norms and expectations (regardless of whether this related to compliance-training in a very patriarchal society).

(2) Autistic people tend to be either asexual (or somewhere on the asexuality spectrum, including gray-asexual or demisexual), and indifferent or totally repulsed by sex, OR, hyper-sexual, and very desiring of and interested in sexual intimacy.

(3) Autistic people tend to either hold very intense and long-lasting grudges (even for many, many years) and resentment, OR, to let go of wrongs and slights very easily, and have an intensely forgiving and merciful nature.

(4) Autistic people tend to be either extremely aware of and affected by their surrounding climate (temperature, humidity/dryness, etc., either indoors or outdoors), OR, extremely oblivious and indifferent to these factors.

(5) Autistic people tend to either like their drinks/food to be at very cold/hot temperatures, OR, to like their drinks/food to be closer to room temperature and only mildly cool or mildly warm.

(6) Autistic people tend to either develop very strong feelings/opinions about autism and disability-related politics (regardless of what those opinions are), OR, are very indifferent to and uninterested in autism/disability politics.

(7) Among autistic people who do autism/disability activism, we tend to be either very interested in and excited by critical theory type work, OR, we tend to be totally uninterested, put off by, or even irritated by that type of work.

(8) Autistic people tend to be either extremely regimented and strict about timeliness and schedules, and have very high anxiety when timeliness/schedules don't work out, OR, have extreme difficulties in understanding time, and following schedules/keeping appointments/being on time to things.

(9) Autistic people tend to either do really well in school or at conventional/traditional academics (either in K-12, or in college, if they get to go), OR, struggle immensely with school and conventional/traditional academics (either in K-12, or in college, if they get to go), and even fail out.\

(10) Autistic people tend to be either deeply emotionally and intellectually invested in fiction (books, shows, movies, whole fandoms, etc.), OR, have extreme difficulty even cognitively processing or understanding fiction, let alone relating to it.

(11) Autistic people tend to be either really into extremely spicy foods, OR, have an intense aversion to basically anything spicy at all.

(12) Autistic people tend to be either stunningly adept at navigation/directions, OR, terrifying incapable of doing them.

On that one, I'm definitely in the second category ... In this photo, I'm pretending not to be totally panicked about being lost and confused while on the Tube in London. (The t-shirt, which isn't fully visible, has an upside down cat with bugged out eyes, and says, "I can't adult today," which in retrospect, was very apropos.) (photo by Eleanor Lisney from Sisters of Frida, and yes at some point, we got separated on the Tube, and at another point, we managed to get separated on *the Eurostar train going between different entire fucking countries*)

In each of these sets of patterns, the extremes can also exist in the same person. Someone might like certain categories of drinks/food to be at extremely noticeable hot/cold temperatures, but other categories to be at tepid/lukewarm temperatures. Someone might have high anxiety about other people making it on time to things and starting events on time, but also struggle greatly with any expectations of being on time themselves, simply because time is impossible for them. Someone might do very well with one type of school environment, and earn excellent grades and academic achievements, but struggle hard with another type of school environment (commonly they do very well with K-12 and then struggle with higher education, or the reverse).

Note that these are just a few examples, and I'm sure there are hundreds more that any of us could think of, that we've observed in our own lives compared to those of other autistic people we know, work with, love, teach, learn from, or live around.

What I find important about this type of pattern -- that autistics tend to fall into extremes of various characteristics, preferences, or access needs, both between different autistic people and within the same autistic person -- is what it means for accessibility. I don't really have answers or solutions, so much as ideas about starting points here.

For the difference between autistic activists who are really invested in critical theory approaches, and those who have struggles with comprehending critical theory (whether they like it, dislike it, or are indifferent in the abstract), maybe the important thing isn't to try to come to a community-wide consensus about how we will talk about theories relating to autism and disability. Firstly, there is not and has never been such a thing as a single autistic community (and personally, I've been really cynical for several years now that any autistic community truly exists). Secondly, we're a loud and opinionated bunch, and we tend to cling tightly to our opinions (this is very often a good thing, to be clear), so, all of us agreeing on something is highly unlikely to occur. Thirdly, even if we did try to come to some kind of consensus, I'm pretty sure it would be more likely to just fuck over everyone a little instead of making it workable in a meaningful way for everyone, since we'd be asking everyone to compromise their access needs all the time.

A better solution would be a process (not a one-time, end-all-be-all solution) that accounts for many different ways of doing and talking about activism, without treating one of them as better or more important than the others. We can value and support the people who are interested in, learn from, and are personally empowered by critical theory, so long as we also value and support the people who aren't interested in it, can't learn from it, and don't find themselves empowered much at all by it.

Most importantly, real access has to mean not valuing one group over the other (or one tactic over the other, or one access need over the other). When those of us who go to conferences and write academic papers using critical theory get more (or almost all, or the only) attention, funding, opportunities for speaking or leading projects or whatever, and so on, that sends a message that only those of us who can do (never mind like or not) critical theory are really important or worth being in the movement. When all documents, resources, websites, and blog posts use critical theory language, that means that a huge swath of people are automatically excluded. (To be clear, I don't mean that you have to have a formal education, or be upper-class, or have fewer disabilities, to be able to access critical theory. I just mean you have to personally have a brain that understands it, and many of us don't. Personally, I kind of understand it, but only sometimes, and a lot of critical theory concepts are very slippery for me -- but I know I can use at least some of it, and I can and do.)

I know we're (and I'm) not perfect, but I am committed to doing my best to respect everyone's access needs. I just know we can't do it by pretending even implicitly, that we have fairly monolithic needs, or by stopping once we merely acknowledge that we are all different. And I'm open to more observations of other patterns of opposing extremes, and suggestions for handling them -- I hope we can all keep learning from each other.

16 July 2017

Undesireability and sexual mockery (from autism meetups to high schools)

Content/TW: Sexual harassment, sexually/generally abusive relationships (including in linked posts)

[photo: stock image of an East Asian child wearing blue shorts and a yellow shirt, sitting with knees up and arms crossed to cover face, and head down, beside a backpack and in front of a brick wall, from an article about racist bullying.]

Undesireability and sexual mockery
(from autism meetups to high schools)

Just yesterday, Kim Sauder at Crippled Scholar wrote a brilliant essay on what happens to disabled people not considered nonsexual but outright undesirable at "Undesirable: Toxic Romantic Dreams, Disability, Sexuality and Relationships." Earlier this year, Kassiane Asasumasu at Radical Neurodivergence Speaking also wrote a badass post on a particular phenomenon that happens to her and many other autistic people who are women, femme, or forcibly assumed to be/assigned feminine or female, called Autism Meet Up Groups ARE NOT for "finding a girlfriend".

I want to share some of my own experiences with what Kim and Kassiane have written about. This type of sharing is something I generally don't do much of, and frequently avoid, because of my deep discomfort with the self-narrating zoo exhibit expectation that Jim Sinclair first named and described in the autistic community, though that type of exploitation and abuse is by no means specific to autistic people.

In one autistic youth meetup many, many years ago, a parent of an autistic young man felt the need to inform my mom (who then passed on the information to me) that her son had never talked to a girl before. Even if the other person's mom meant this statement purely as an observation of fact (as far as she was aware of the goings-on in her son's life), and had no ulterior motive or agenda with putting this information into the conversation, I felt immediately uncomfortable.

When someone's parent tells your parent, who then tells you, that they have never spoken to someone assumed to be/presenting as the "opposite" gender, there feels an unspoken expectation. Not just what some would call "heteronormative" (really, just assuming that everyone is either a girl or a boy, and if you are one, you must be attracted to/interested in the other, by default) expectations that he may now suddenly be romantically and/or sexually interested in me, but also that I must be automatically interested in return based solely on our (assumed) genders and the fact that we are both autistic. The other autistic person's mom never said the rest of this, at least to me, but as Kassiane repeatedly points out ... being autistic by itself is not the basis for a romantic/sexual relationship when you know nothing else yet (or very, very little) about the other person.

There are other layers in there, like the assumption that of course autistic people should and would date only other autistic people, which includes its own ableism and disablism, by both implicitly assuming that allistic (non-autistic) people are somehow "above" autistic people and that we would be a step down for them to deign to date, and conversely, that autistic people are unable to date/have sex/have a relationship with allistic people because they would automatically be "out of our league." (Yes, this is also patriarchal language that assumes all relationships are a pursuit with the other person your prize, because that is part of the same gross assumptions here.)


Total tangent time: "Ableism" is more common in the United States. "Disablism" is more common in the rest of the English-speaking world especially the United Kingdom. A lot of people are very attached to their preferred term, and will usually argue that it is the other one that centers nondisabled people. I used to believe that, and preferred ableism. Currently, I think both terms are useful and actually have different meanings. Ableism means the value system that promotes some people's bodyminds as valuable, worthy, and desirable while by definition dismissing other people's bodyminds as not valuable, not worthy, and not desirable. Disablism means the oppression specifically foisted on disabled, mad, neurodivergent, Deaf, sick, and other divergent and atypically bodyminded people. But I don't think this distinction is super important in everyday conversation, especially since those two phenomena are clearly and obviously related and connected to each other. OK now back to the rest of this post.


Kassiane describes something that is familiar to way too many of us who are autistic and also  women, femme, or have at some point or continue to be forcibly (and incorrectly) assumed to be/assigned as female or feminine. How that one offhand comment from another autistic person's mom gave way to years and years of trying to go to autistic meetups and only finding constant sexual harassment even and especially after requests to stop and signals, implicit and very explicit, of not being interested and not being available.

At an autistic adult meetup, I once walked in a room and immediately several men locked eyes on me and began moving toward me, each one of them trying to get my attention and start up a conversation immediately, and at least two of them explicitly telling me they were interested in me romantically/sexually by saying they wanted a girlfriend. I don't remember the rest of the questions or what they said; I just remember saying that I was already in a relationship and that we were exclusive. At least one of these people kept asking me about dating him.

Another time, a white autistic man I've never met in person and had never spoken to before in any context at all sent me messages through Facebook telling me that his fantasy was to date an autistic Asian female, and that since I was an autistic Asian female, I would be perfect for him. I shouldn't need to explain why this was creepy, inappropriate, racist, and gross for at least a dozen different reasons.

I don't go to autistic social meetups anymore, almost ever.

When I was in fifth grade, many years before I ever went to any autistic meetups, a group of girls crowded around my desk and told me that they dared me to walk over to another girl and tell her that I thought she was hot. They were giggling as they told me this, and I immediately got the sense that there was something funny going on -- funny to them, of course -- but I thought about it, and I couldn't figure out what it was. I thought that "hot" meant "beautiful" or "pretty," and I did think that that specific girl was pretty. So I couldn't figure out what would be wrong with telling her that I thought she was hot and since they were pushing me to just go and do it, I did. I walked over to this other girl and I told her, "I think you're hot." The girls who dared me to do it burst out laughing. I was immediately embarrassed and I still couldn't figure out why.

Later, I don't even think that much later, I figured out that "hot" didn't mean just pretty/beautiful. It specifically meant "sexually attractive." They managed to mock me by getting me to do something they had figured out implicitly I didn't understand because my young, autistic, asexual self would never have figured out without being explicitly told, and then laughing at me. It was supposed to be hilarious (to them) and humiliating (to me) because one girl telling another girl she was hot would make me a lesbian, and therefore give them another reason to mock me.

In seventh or eighth grade (I think, maybe a little earlier), someone photoshopped my face onto someone else's face in a photo of another person in our class dancing with someone at a dance. The classmate who wasn't photoshopped was also a disabled student (multiple learning disabilities) who was constantly bullied and harassed by other students. He was the one that my "friends" were talking about in eighth grade when they said that I was a retard because I hung out with other retards. The joke, and why it was supposed to be so humiliating, was probably because both this other person and I were assumed (a) undateable by everyone else, (b) funny, self-sustaining subjects of mockery by existing, and (c) only "fit" for each other, so each of us seen as dancing with the other being seen as an insult and embarrassing to the other of us. (He was my friend. We did dance at another dance much later.)

Around fifth through eighth grade, because all these years are really starting to blend together the more I think about it, which may also just be a sign of getting older, there were rumors that I humped the flagpole all the time at recess. Our recess lot was a small paved gravel/tar lot (same type of paved ground that is used for parking lots and streets for cars). In the back of it away from the entry/exit fence gate, was a flagpole in a raised concrete mound. I liked to walk over there and pick my nose because I figured that other people wouldn't really be able to see me picking my nose if I stood at the right angle behind the flagpole. (Yes I'm now admitting something that is arguably actually embarrassing, unlike dancing with a friend and having a crush on a girl.) I figured out pretty quickly that saying I was humping the flagpole was an insult and supposed to be mean and another reason for people to think I was gross and then socially outcast me even more. But I didn't know what humping meant. And as one of many autistic kids who didn't have a whole lot of friends in my peer group, and at that time, was pretty sure that talking to another peer would be instantly dooming myself even more, I walked up to a teacher and I asked her what humping was. (Her response was to stiffen and awkwardly tell me, I think that's something you should ask your parents.)

(I didn't even remember the humping rumors until I was in the middle of writing this post, when the memories leaped from some hidden part of my brain to remind me that they had happened. It seems I've blocked out at least some of this stuff.)

But I haven't gotten to the worst thing, the thing I'll never forget.

I wrote a post more than four years ago about strangers and acquaintances deciding that it is totally OK to ask me extremely personal and invasive questions related to the fact that I am adopted. (My own feelings and relationship to being an adoptee are more complicated and nuanced than what I wrote about then, but the part about the questions is still true and relevant.)

But this has also happened to me about sexuality, twice that I specifically remember.

The first time was when I took my driver's education class. Hosted by a well-known driving school, my class had about 20 or 30 students total in it. I didn't know anyone else there. Some of them probably knew each other, since we were all from surrounding towns/cities and it's New England. I don't really know for sure, because I'm faceblind and can't quickly or intuitively figure out how neurotypicals interact without being coached through it.

At some point, we went over to a pizza place nearby for lunch. While we were there, a group of maybe around ten or slightly fewer of the other students were sitting around a couple of tables, obviously talking and snickering. One of them asked me, "Do you have a boyfriend?" I said yes, because at the time I was romantically involved in a weird long-distance relationship. Then they asked me a series of other questions.

"Have you made out?"

"Have you french-kissed?"

"Have you had sex?"

"Have you done a blow job?"

"Have you done anal?"

I don't remember all of the specific questions or all of the wording.

I just remember feeling confused, embarrassed, and singled out, and I knew even while it was happening that they were doing it to mock me. They were doing it because it was funny for them, and supposed to be embarrassing for me. And even though I knew they were somehow making fun of me in doing this, I couldn't stop answering the questions because even to this day, I struggle with saying no and setting boundaries, but of course it was way worse back then. I couldn't figure out how to not answer their questions in some or another way, so I kept responding and each time I answered one question they asked me another one.

The second time it happened, a few months or maybe a year later, there was a horrible déjà vu. I was in my high school, a small private Christian school, in a small room where sometimes a few students would hang out and study. There were only a handful of other people there in the room. But the same questions started.

"Do you have a boyfriend?"

"Do you have sex?"

Almost an exact repeat. I don't remember all of the specific questions or their wording, but I do remember at the time, that the questions were almost or exactly the same as the first time. And just like the first time, I had a gut instinct that I was being made an object of mockery, and that everyone else was in on the joke, and that even though I knew I was being made fun of, I still couldn't shut it down. To the best of my knowledge, the people who did it the second time didn't even know any of the people who did it the first time.

None of them may have known that I'm autistic, or maybe all of them did. High school is when I started being a lot more open about it. (It's also when I first got involved in autistic activism and self-advocacy work.) But they had all figured out, whether or not they knew the specific word for what kind of neurodivergent I am, that I was gullible, easily manipulated, and hilarious (for them). They had figured out I wouldn't say no. They had figured out I wouldn't evade or shut it down. They had figured out I wouldn't turn the tables and set the questions on them, let alone give them a verbal smackdown. They had figured out I was socially awkward, socially oblivious, and socially ignorant enough to walk into their trap and lay there. All of those traits are related to being autistic in a neurotypical-dominant world.

This is a very specific and particular kind of sexual harassment. I know that now even if at the time all I knew was that I was being mocked without knowing exactly how/why. And while I may not remember the exact questions, wording, or sequence, I'll never forget how I felt so ashamed and exposed in both of those situations, because I felt like I was supposed to both prove that I was sexually knowledgeable/experienced to be socially accepted, and, like any information that I had had any sexual activity at all would also mean I was filthy and gross. (I'm sure plenty of that also had to do with purity culture, since I was raised in an Evangelical Christian church, and once even went to a church retreat with a special day set aside for purity and keeping ourselves pure until our [with Christians, heterosexual, monogamous, child-bearing] marriages. And we were taught that sex wasn't dirty ... but only if it met those requirements.)

In my lifetime, I never really got the message that I was expected to be nonsexual and desexualized because I am autistic. (I know many other autistic people do get those messages -- especially if they are nonspeaking and/or have multiple other apparent disabilities.) Instead, I got a series of messages that I was in fact a sexual being, but anything to do with my sexuality was gross and an object of mockery, or, to be used only for really fucked up fetishes for which I could become a fantasy object (but that was much later). I'm willing to bet money that I am not the only autistic person of any gender or sexuality or asexuality to have had this kind of sexual harassment happen to them. It seems particularly targeted to people who are neurodivergent in pretty specific ways, and like it particularly emerged in adolescence -- in high school -- though I'm sure it could and has happened to autistic adults of younger and older ages too.

Just in case I wasn't clear, this kind of behavior and sexual interrogation is ableist sexual harassment and ableist bullying, and can probably amount to ableist sexual abuse depending on the circumstances. I can probably think of even more ways in which my a/sexuality was targeted by some or another person or group to be dragged into the open and mocked, but honestly, I'd prefer not to go trawling through memories that it seems like I've blocked out at least some of. My point is that many of us have had extremely varied experiences with all types of sexual harassment and sexual abuse, both the type of abuse that desexualizes disabled people, and the type of abuse that hyper-sexualizes and/or mocks or pities, and some of it can be incredibly disability-specific.

29 April 2017

Ableist bullshit targets nonspeaking autistics/autistics of color. Also, the sky is blue.

In Portland, Oregon, a nonspeaking autistic high school student has just been nominated to attend a prestigious national program at the United Nations, after going through a competitive process in his state. Now, the national program staff have decided that he can't go because he is autistic and have refused to accept him.

His name is Niko Boskovic, and he uses a letterboard to communicate, by pointing at each letter to spell his words. The program is the Odd Fellows and Rebekahs U.N. Educational Pilgrimage for Youth, which brings youth from across the United States to the U.N. each year. (And they should be ashamed of themselves, and fix this, immediately.)

They are refusing to allow Niko to participate because he needs support to communicate. They are calling his mom, who has volunteered to pay out of pocket to travel to provide him communication support, a "chaperone" who is not allowed on the trip. That means that (a) they refuse to recognize her role as a human accommodation (like a reader, a notetaker, a transcriptionist, a personal attendant, or an interpreter serves as a human accommodation); and (b) they believe Niko is incompetent and less than his peers since a "chaperone" would only be there as someone to supervise him. Chaperones at middle school dances supervise the students in futile efforts to prevent "dirty dancing." Chaperones on school buses supervise the students in totally ineffectual efforts to prevent bullying, food throwing, and jumping off the bus (okay, maybe a bit more effectively at that last one). Chaperones of small children supervise the students to make sure they aren't accidentally wandering away from their field trips only to end up lost, hit by cars, or kidnapped. et cetera. That language makes it clear that they believe Niko is less competent and not on equal ground with his peers such that he is trying to bring a "chaperone" to participate.

Niko would be planning to bring his mother as a support person, meaning, to provide him with the tools he needs to communicate, participate, and take full advantage of the opportunity. This is horrifying and wrong, and not entirely dissimilar to when organizations like colleges and courts (as they do all the fucking time, for the record) deny d/Deaf and hard of hearing people the right to sign language interpretation (especially tactile for deafblind people) or CART captioning. (Yes, Niko not being able to participate in some educational program sponsored by a fraternal society is not in any universe the same thing as someone being denied interpretation at a hearing that could result in them being locked up indefinitely in jails/prisons that may literally kill them.) But it is, at its core, denying his right to communicate and to reasonable accommodation, and in so doing, demeaning his form of communication and presuming his inherent incompetence.

You know what this reminds me of? My study abroad experience when I was in college and older than Niko currently is.

Firstly, the staff member in the college's study abroad office insisted, in the most patronizing tone ever, that I should disclose to my professors immediately once abroad, not because of a specific cultural difference related to disability, but because I "just ... seem different" and that "it's obvious that you're different in any classroom." (Saying the word "different" in a tone of voice that sounded a lot like, "not normal and therefore maybe scary, unpredictable, or otherwise uncomfortable for other people to be around.")

Then, the external program's staff demanded to schedule a meeting with me on very short notice (right before Thanksgiving break), so they could question whether or not I would be "safe." They were worried I would not be "safe" because of details about my disabilities that I did not consent to be disclosed to them and that were not included in my file with the disability services office (meaning they only got those details by creepily looking me up online, again, without my consent).

Note also that at the time I was planning to study abroad, I had a cumulative GPA below the required 3.0 to receive approval from the university to do study abroad. I was also a declared major in a department that required its undergrad majors to study abroad in order to graduate. So I had one part of the university telling me I was not allowed to study abroad based solely on my grades (which were undoubtedly impacted by all sorts of ableism and insufficiently or not-at-all accommodated disability), and another part of the university telling me I had to study abroad or else I couldn't graduate.

And when I finally went and got separate special approval to go do it, I got hit with a double whammy super extra special dose of ableism, in the form of questioning whether or not it would be feasible or safe for me to participate in a program, and reminding me that unless I can pass for neurotypical to other people's standards (which apparently, despite all the hate mail I get deriding me for being "high functioning/mild/not really disabled" and thus unable to talk about disability, I don't), I "just seem different" (and meaning it with all the possible negative attitudes attached to the term).

Niko Boskovic deserves better. He went through the process to compete, and even knowing he is autistic and uses a letterboard, the Oregon chapter supported him and endorsed his nomination. The only reason the national program has denied his nomination and rejected him as a delegate is because of his disability. And that's ableist as fuck.


I also want to note that while I haven't been blogging a whole lot in the past few years, the other thing that's been nagging in my craw lately has been the recent news coverage of several autistic students in Florida -- one Filipinx, one Black, and one white -- subjected to appalling punishment and even arrest and police force as a means of control and compliance training, in response to their existing while autistic. Their names, respectively, are Seraph Isaac Jones (check that link for a fundraiser to help Seraph and family cover a neuropsych evaluation that could help him in fighting the awful fucking school), Ashton Gelfand, and John Benjamin Haygood.

That's the same state, by the way, where Arnaldo Eliud Rios-Soto, a Latinx autistic adult, was involuntarily committed and then confined indefinitely in a long-term residential institution operated by a for-profit corporation with a decades-long history of abuse and neglect of disabled residents in multiple states ... that being after nearly being killed and witnessing police (thankfully nonfatally) shoot Charles Kinsey, a Black man and a behavioral therapist working at Arnaldo's former group home.

The same state where Reginald Cornelius Latson (better known as Neli), a Black autistic adult, has also been confined, indefinitely, in the very same institution as Arnaldo ... after suffering solitary confinement and other abuse for years in Virginia prisons stemming from his arrest after police were called because he existed in public while Black and autistic waiting for a library to open. (That's after the governor's "conditional pardon" by the way.)

What strikes me about all of this ableist violence in/near schools and similar environments, is how ordinary it is. 

In the past several years, I've met and talked to hundreds, if not potentially thousands, of autistic and other disabled people. Almost every single one of us has survived at least one (and usually) multiple traumas, often beginning with family of origin or the school system, or both. Just from my friends and people I interact with regularly, I bear witness constantly to the devastating impact of ableist schools, ableist doctors, ableist police, ableist social workers, ableist bureaucrats, ableist families, ableist neighbors, ableist bosses ... on the literal physical and mental health of disabled people, especially those whose experiences lie at the intersections of disability, race, gender, class, and sexuality. 

Intersected disabled people are dying. Intersected disabled people need material help now. Intersected disabled people are surviving the violence of exclusion, rejection, and isolation every day.

I'm glad these stories are receiving attention in news media, but to those of us without the same privilege and power, it's not news. We've always already been living this violence, and it needs to stop.

06 January 2017

Racism, Ableism, and Much-Needed Reminders on Chicago Torture Case

Content/tw: mentions and brief descriptions of sexual violence, torture, racism and specifically anti-Black racism, ableism

photo: a set of six street signs that say, Racism, Sexism, Heterosexism, Classism, Colonialism, Ableism. in the middle is a green banner that says Intersectionality, which is a term coined by a Black woman scholar, Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw.

(1) The vast majority of everything I've said here, other people have been saying also (even if in different words/language), including and *especially* Black Disabled people. Like Cyrée Jarelle Johnson and Mrs. Kerima Çevik at Intersected. Listen to them. Follow them. Amplify their voices.

(2) What happened to this young white disabled person in Chicago -- his name is Austin Hilbourn, according to some sources -- was wrong. (For those who somehow missed the news, four people tied up a disabled person and beat him, cut off parts of his scalp, and taunted him, while livestreaming it to Facebook.)

(3) This attack was deeply ableist.

(4) The four people who targeted the disabled victim knew him from their school. That means it is highly likely that they knew Austin is disabled, even if they didn't know anything specific about what kind of disabilities he has. As a former disabled high school kid, trust me, everyone can peg the disabled kids. It also means they very likely targeted him because they knew he is disabled and therefore vulnerable and easy to attack.

(5) This type of ableist violence is NOTHING new. The reality for disabled people is that our entire lives are often marked with violence and abuse -- violence that is extremely more likely, more deadly, more brutal, and more erased when the victims are disabled AND marginalized, targeted, or oppressed in other ways. The statistics are horrifying. Anywhere between 83% and upwards of mid-90's-something percent of developmentally disabled "women" (people designated that way by researchers) are raped at least once in their lifetimes, and somewhere upwards of half of that number at least 10 times by the age of 18. Somewhere between half to 70% of all people killed by police are disabled, making Black Disabled or Indigenous Disabled people the most likely to be targeted in police killings. The numbers go on and on and on. They are appalling not just because of what they are but also because they attach to real people's lives and repeated, compounded trauma. Violence against disabled people is SO FUCKING ORDINARY and so often dismissed in the icky approach of "omg who would ever hurt a disabled person?! so horrible!" as though it never happens when in reality it happens all the time.

(6) The only new things in this instance, that are being sensationalized wildly by the media, are that the attackers, who are Black, yelled at the victim, "Fuck Trump supporters" and "Fuck white people." Prosecutors have charged the attackers with a hate crime. Because of these facts, (white) media has decided that this is a case that must be about anti-white racism.

(7) Anti-white racism does not exist. Racism is not just individual bias or prejudice; it's a system of power relations in white supremacy where racial bias and prejudice are backed by claims about science, political institutions, and social/cultural/economic structures.

(8) Obviously the attackers are *prejudiced* against white people. No one aware of the known facts here could possibly think otherwise. But again, (a) prejudice is not the same as racism, which requires an entire system/history/structure of devaluing people (not) in a racial group; and (b) it should be pretty fucking obvious why four young Black people might be prejudiced against white people given how violent and pervasive in all parts of society white supremacy continues to be.

(9) We know Austin is white. We have no idea whether or not he is a Trump supporter, or could even vote and if he could, whether or not he voted for Trump. Anyway, it doesn't matter whether he voted for Trump or not. This kind of violence is not okay no matter who it targets. It is wrong. It is fucked up. And as someone who is extremely anti-Trump myself (which should be obvious to anyone who follows this page), it's additionally fucked up that the attackers did this in the name of resisting Trump.

(10) BTW, even the police have said they believe the victim was targeted for being disabled, not for being white. Though, to be clear, even if he was targeted for being white, (a) he was also targeted equally for being disabled, and (b) it still doesn't mean the attackers are reverse racist; it means they're prejudiced against white people, and ableist assholes to boot.

(11) Yes folks should be outraged that this happens. Feel outraged that the attackers did this. Feel outraged that the prosecutor described them as kids who made mistakes but shouldn't have their lives ruined over them. But where was your similar level of outrage every single damn time Black Disabled people are tortured, abused, raped, and murdered? Whether by caregivers, teachers, the police, or strangers? And where the violence is *clearly* tied to disability, to race, and often the entanglement of the two? And where similar words are spoken -- that they're good kids / good parents / good teachers / good officers, who made mistakes / snapped / lost it -- those words result in zero accountability? Where is your outrage for Korryn Gaines? Tanisha Anderson? Kajieme Powell? Melissa Stoddard? Terrance Coleman? Kayleb Moon-Robinson? Neli Latson? The young Black Disabled person who was brutally and viciously raped by several white football players, all of whom have gotten off scott-free for their attack? And many, many others?

(12) The four attackers in this case will most definitely end up in prison, with severe charges, and spend significant amount of time locked up, with hate crimes charges. The vast majority of white people who torture, abuse, rape, or murder Black Disabled people will not.

(13) White folks trying to call this the "BLMKidnapping" (Black Lives Matter kidnapping, for those unfamiliar with the acronym) are completely missing that (a) the attackers never once invoked Black Lives Matter as a movement; (b) even if they claim to be supporters of it, didn't do something Black Lives Matter actually advocates for; and (c) when white people commit obviously racist crimes, like the attack on a historically Black church in Charleston, it's not blamed on every white person nor are all white people expected to take responsibility and apologize or be publicly excoriated in the media.

(14) The rush to associate this attack with the Black Lives Matter movement, along with vicious and dehumanizing comments about the attackers -- like calling them monsters, calling for horrible things to be done to them, etc. -- calls to mind the lynch mobs that in a frenzy, would round up young Black people to publicly and brutally murder them in retaliation for crimes they supposedly (and maybe in some cases, actually) committed, while celebrating their violence. These rhetorical responses are racist as fuck.

(15) The attackers did something horrific and wrong. Perhaps unforgivable. The victim will have to live for the rest of his life with the trauma of not only the abuse itself but of having his torture livestreamed for the world to witness at the hands of his own classmates, people he probably saw on some consistent basis even if he did not really know them well or personally. He might never fully recover from what happened in some senses of the word. Undoubtedly, he won't receive disability culturally competent trauma-informed care. The attackers have done this. But in no way can or should caring and committed people attempt to turn this around and add to the racist shitshow by basically calling for the public spectacle of humiliation and violence against the Black attackers either.

(16) I don't believe in relying on police or prisons to promote "justice," so I'm not going to be calling for these four people to go to prison, because I'm deeply uncomfortable with the idea that prison/punishment must be the only possible solution. HOWEVER, these clear and undeniable disparities in how these cases are talked about by media and treated by police, prosecutors, and courts, provide more evidence of how UNJUST the in-justice system is in handling hate crimes against multiply-oppressed people in particular.

(17) Remember, ableism and racism and part and parcel with one another. White supremacy depends on ableism to further its eugenic mission -- of deciding which people are valuable, worthy, and desirable, which people are functional, healthy, normal, and fit. The victim in this case is not just any white person -- this person is someone whom white supremacy would also reject as not the best standard of whiteness, e.g., ability. Stop talking about this case if you cannot understand one basic fact -- disability justice requires racial justice. Disability justice requires the end of white supremacy. Black and Disabled communities are not separate entities that must now be pitted against each other; they overlap in deep and intricate ways, and Black Disabled artists, scholars, activists, organizers, and community and cultural workers have already been working for decades or longer at the intersections. Folks like Leroy F. Moore, Jr., and Patricia Berne, and Talila (TL) Lewis, and Jazzie Collins, La Mesha Irizarry, and Brad Lomax, and as far back as Harriet Tubman, alongside many, many, many others. They understand/understood these truths because they live them in ways that I, as a disabled east asian person of color, still don't, because of how our experiences against racism differ profoundly.

(18) The latest events in Chicago have got me shaken up and enraged and devastated, because not only has a fellow disabled person been subject to appalling ableist violence, but that very same violence has already become an excuse for virulent and violent anti-Black racism that will inevitably target my Black Deaf, Mad, and Disabled comrades the most -- and unless those with relatively more privilege and power keep speaking and keep amplifying their work and their voices, they will be the only ones left defending their humanity and right to exist.

17 December 2016

I don't trust allies and I'm not sorry.

Content/TW: Graphic descriptions of severe workplace bullying and abuse of an autistic person for being autistic.

In February 2013, New York City Councilman Vincent J. Gentile released a public letter and press release demanding the return of the 120 New York residents who were locked up in the Judge Rotenberg Center torture hellhole at the time. At the time, Gentile described JRC varying (and accurately) as a “barbaric facility,” “an institution which subjects its students to these cruel and unusual forms of ‘behavior modification,’” and “[an institution] in gross violation of the most fundamental standards of humane treatment of people with disabilities.”

One year later, Michael Bistreich began work as Gentile's Legislative and Budget Director. Michael is autistic, like many of the people formerly and currently in the JRC. He was forced to resign in June 2016 after being demoted and losing a raise for fabricated reasons, two and a half years after beginning work, after his co-workers, supervisor, and Gentile himself spent almost the entire time abusing him.

Photo: Michael Bistreich (who seems white or white passing), sitting on a couch with his hand on his emotional support bunny. 

Among other things reported in various news sources reporting on the lawsuit he's just filed, the chief of staff once locked Michael in a basement; the councilman repeatedly asked him if he could look into “upping your medications” to stop “twitching” because “you annoy me” and “when you twitch like that, it's annoying to people;” Gentile laughed openly at another employee's joke that they should “test the doors” in case Michael would “elope;” and staff coordinated a mass decapitation of his stuffed animals (teddy bears) that he kept on his desk for comfort (the ones he told his fellow co-workers he “identified with and emotionally valued”), even impaling one's head on a flagpole and “a stuffed animal dog that was gutted and impaled and had red coloring around its slit stomach, mouth and eyes to resemble blood” -- which left Michael in the conference room for an hour in shock and horror.

(Because, you know, stimming is such an inconvenience and source of discomfort for non-disabled people. So abusing someone to force them to stop stimming is totally okay. Not like you're expressing open opposition to an autistic person's right to exist as autistic or anything.)

Bullying and abuse don't stop with middle school’s merciful end. And they are absolutely not limited to the people who publicly express hateful opinions about disabled people (or autistic people specifically), but in fact, are at least, if not more, common and pervasive among people who are supposedly “allies” to autistic people. What Gentile did, allowed, and approved of is horrific and fucked up beyond all reason, but what stands out to me is the juxtaposition of his apparent advocacy on behalf of disabled New Yorkers trapped and tortured in the JRC with his abuse of his own employee. The people put out there as “allies” are so, so, so often the first and most likely people to be the most abusive and violent toward autistic people. whether that's the parents and other relatives who murder their autistic (and other disabled) family members, or the well-documented abuse/assaults targeting prominent autistic activist Kassiane Sibley, or the special education teachers or therapists responsible for violent restraints and seclusion behind closed classroom or institution doors.

I don't trust nondisabled, non-autistic people who claim to be allies, because Vincent Gentile is an elected official who spoke publicly and of his own volition against the evil that is JRC because of its inhumane treatment of disabled people, while simultaneously being an extremely abusive boss who preyed on his openly autistic employee just because he could, and did so with malice and deliberate knowledge about his victim's neurology, using autism as a means to target him.

(Another aspect to the bullying and abuse is undoubtedly the fact that Michael is not only autistic, but also seems fat based on the pictures posted online of him, and anyone who is perceived as fat is so incredibly likely to end up on the receiving end of abuse and brazen mockery. I noticed this trend in multiple school settings where the kids who were both disabled and fat got hit with a special kind of bullying that the thin disabled kids, like me, didn't.)

Vincent Gentile is clearly a hypocrite, but he is absolutely not some extraordinary exception or a standout example of a workplace abuser or disability advocate/ally hypocrite. Almost every autistic person I know who has ever had jobs has stories and stories of workplace bullying, harassment, abuse, and ostracism. Almost every disabled activist, advocate, or organizer I know has heaps of stories of nondisabled “advocates/allies” who routinely talk over, dismiss, and attack actually disabled people (and yes, I most definitely also mean physically, or with threats of physical attack). I have plenty of these stories too. And what's the worst about reading shit like this is the reminder that some absurd number of people I know right now are dealing with similar ableist, fucked-up bullshit in their own workplaces when they're lucky/privileged enough to get a job, and that no amount of fancy degrees or professional clothes or affected intellectual speech or, whatever, can disguise someone's otherness (from any marginalized identity/experience) to a professional predator.

If you're one of those nondisabled advocate/ally people, and you wonder why autistic and other disabled folks are so angry or bitter or resentful, or so quick to judge, just take a gander at Vincent Gentile. He's a perfect example of very well-placed distrust, because we've witnessed it over and over again, that the people most likely to twist the rusty, serrated knife in the back are the ones who profess most publicly to be our allies. I don't trust allies and I'm not sorry.