I Was One of the Scary Kids

Content note: ableism, stigmatization of Autistics and other PWDs, the Sandy Hook shooting

I didn’t want to write about the shootings at all. I knew a number of people (who I’ll link to throughout this post) and organizations would be posting and writing, working to counter the inevitable stigma fail that would happen. I even was keeping to commenting on the links of people I care about, people who I know and who I want to have these sorts of discussions with. Then, it happened. I’ll leave the critiques of the post gawker promoted to others, but I feel obligated to make a comment about some of the assumptions it is based on and promotes.

That comment starts with a declaration: I was one of those scary kids.

It’s not some great proud thing to say. It’s a truth, a truth that when I reveal it makes people behave differently. Admitting that you were a “scary kid” means that people heighten their bar of behavior for you even more than a simple disability disclosure does. It makes even normal responses to threatening situations take on a sinister light to others. Telling someone to back off goes from angry to a threat. Pushing away someone who feels entitled to your body becomes violence rather than defense from it.

It makes people suspicious. It makes people question your ability to accurately report crime, abuse, or health concerns. When you are a former scary kid and let people know, they don’t want to hire you in meaningful positions — or sometimes at all — they don’t want you living in their buildings, and they don’t want you learning at their schools. Your opportunities are curtailed. You are told all the things you will never do.

All of these are true of having certain disabilities to begin with, but when you add in a confession of having been one of those scary kids it is heightened.

I was a scary kid. It makes me sad, but only because I actually don’t like scaring people, though I often can’t tell.

Before the age of 14, I was the sort of child that service providers recommend parents to place in a residential setting — that is, juvenile mental health institutions. Parents were — and are sometimes still — encouraged to relinquish them to the state, who would willingly pay for this kind of care. My mother fought it, and demanded community based services and the training my providers needed to provide it. But she was pressured the entire time, and when I was reviewing her records last year I found boxes of pamphlets and packets that she was given to encourage my placement in those settings.

I also found her private journals about our lives at that time. These were journals she might only ever show excerpts from to a therapist, but were meant to be private accounts. It was scary for her. I cried when I read them, because it was horrible to realize that I had made my mother feel so horrible and hadn’t known. I had not realized that anyone would have interpreted my behavior in a truly scary way, that they wouldn’t see the same causes that I was reacting to.  But she was terrified in those pages — the ones she never meant for anyone but herself to read. Even in her advocacy work, she wouldn’t say that certain events were from my life, just that they had happened to “a young person” she knows. Even the things that she was terrified about.

In the pages of that private journal, she talks about the times I would charge at or by her. To me, I was desperately trying to escape a scary situation for me. To her, it was a charging at. I would throw things, and at the time didn’t have the impulse control to find soft things in a safe space. I never aimed at people, but to her I just had really bad aim. I screamed, and I said things that made little sense — I was scared and angry and frustrated that I couldn’t articulate it. These were seen as threats. When I was put in a scary situation, I would flail and push to try to get out of it — and these were seen as violence. When she left on trips, I was taken with her because she was worried what would happen if I was left with a babysitter.

Most of the episodes she chronicled for her private memory keeping were ones that she never saw the cause for. So many start with, “I came home from work, and Savannah…” It took me until into my twenties to be able to articulate what happened before — that her second husband had provoked responses and behaviors. How he would tell me I was fat, lazy, and that I would never be competent. How he would threaten me with sending me away.  How he did any one of a number of things that would set off my behaviors. There’s no coincidence that the behaviors dramatically decreased a year after he left- at 14, I even was off medication.

Not all the behaviors were triggered by him — some of them were reactions that I didn’t know how to handle internally. Some of them were because of how my internal state from incorrect prescriptions made things harder to deal with. Some of them were from being unable to handle fear, frustration, and change internally. Change was a big trigger for me, and set off the start of my fear responses. I just didn’t have the skills to handle those states. I would go on to develop them, but I didn’t have them yet.

For me, those times were scary because of the outside world, because of confusion at people’s responses, and because of people using my being a “scary kid” as a weapon. To her, I was scary and she didn’t know and couldn’t predict fully why. She understands it now — time, observation of me growing up and learning, my finally being able to properly articulate what was happening for me in those times.

My mother doesn’t regret keeping it private, between her and her private journal or her therapist. Today she was at  a consumer and family advisory for our behavioral health managed care organization (BHMCO). They read that gawker article, and my mother was appalled. She has scary stories about me, but the idea of sharing them in a way that associated them publicly with me was a horrifying violation of privacy and good sense to her. She was struck by the negativity of the piece, of the author. And she noticed how it relies on and perpetuates stigma, and jumps to conclusions.

Having been one of those scary kids is scary.

It’s not scary in and of itself. What made it scary to have been one is what people assume based on it — and what they assume when you don’t disclose.

I’ve had people try to justify things from the JRC’s electric shocks to denying someone an integrated learning environment, to defend seclusion/restraint to “therapy” induced injuries and even deaths using my fellow former scary kids as their reasons. The kids with “significant disabilities.” The ways that other people saw my behaviors — things I didn’t know at the time- are the same things I hear from people trying to justify violence and isolation towards kids and adults with disabilities.

They also project forward to futures that are inaccurate, contributing to the problems that us scary kids face when we grow up. They say we will become criminals, or will commit violent crime, that we will be a danger to society. That we are “sleeper agents” of mass murder. They say that of course people who have had such and such a diagnosis, especially when you are also a scary kid, will do certain things or will never do other things. That we couldn’t successfully ever live on our own, that we’ll never graduate, never hold a job for long, will never have successful, healthy relationships. That we are doomed. And while not all scary kids have mental health disabilities (and not all kids with MHDs are scary kids), those who have developmental disorders with the right behaviors are lumped in.

When I- and others who are autistic, have Mental Health Disabilities, or both — talk back with truth, we are denied. When we talk about how having xyz diagnosis doesn’t mean we will do stuff, when we point out that we aren’t mass murderers, we are shut down. When we talk about how yes, mental health reform is important but that it shouldn’t come out of stigma, coercion  and false equivalence, we are told that we are calling other scary kids lost causes. When we point out that we don’t have enough information, we are dismissed. When we disclose, we are called too close to the issue. Even when our mothers join us.

In reality, only 5% — or 1 in 20 — of those in jail for violent offenses entered jail with a diagnosable condition. The other 95% did not present as diagnosable on entry. Most of those with diagnosable conditions are there on non-violent and drug offenses, including a number of which are a symptom of a lack of supports rather than their conditions themselves. Some estimates place the rate of Mental Illness at 50% of the inmate population, and yet only a very small percentage are there for violent crimes.

In reality, these impressions of us make us targets of crimes. People with “Serious Mental Illnesses” are more than twice as likely to be a victim of a violent crime. We are targeted for sexual assault, particularly if we are or are seen as women. We are likely to feel stuck in abusive relationships, or to have people use our diagnostic status as justification for abuse. And that is just the violent crimes  — we are astronomically more likely to be victims of personal theft, and 4 times more likely to be victims of property theft.

In reality, the stigma and stereotypes that people are promoting mean discrimination in employment, in housing, even in healthcare and courts. It means having people turning their backs on friendships and relationships when they find out, even if you are relatively stable now, even if you have the supports that make it irrelevant. It means people leaving if you have a setback that they would stand by someone without your diagnostic history for.

It is facing stigma, or hiding from it, sometimes at great cost. I certainly made a lot of poor choices based on trying to hide having been a scary kid, even when I wasn’t hiding having Mental Health Disabilities.

Being a Scary Kid isn’t certain doom.

They told my mother and I that I would never graduate high school and I’d never get into college. Some speculated I’d need to live in a group home or a more intense, and that I’d never live on my own. Some thought I’d get sucked into crime based on my psych history alone. Some said I’d off myself before I turned 18, 21, or 25.

I graduated high school — my siblings, the non-scary kids, dropped out and either have or are working on their GEDs. I even aced a number of classes, and other than my last semester (which was sucked up in depression) was pretty much tops. I’ve had some unsuccessful attempts to live on my own in the past, but those had to do with daily living skills more than being scary. Right now I’m living relatively successfully on my own, even if it did follow a period of homelessness. I did get into college easily, even if I had to drop out for a mix of financial and ADL deficit reasons. I’ve never been in jail.

I celebrated my 25th birthday in August. I am alive, and though my health isn’t the best I am surviving and working towards my own personal wellness.

I have little in common with the things they assumed. My scary is now just the normal stigma that any of us, autistic, with mental health disabilities, or both, face. I do struggle, but not in the ways that were assumed when I was a scary kid.

Being a scary kid is just that — having behaviors that scare people when you are a kid. It doesn’t mean you have a particular diagnosis or neurotype. It isn’t predictive of being a mass murderer or anything else- heck, a lot of the people who are mass murderers, diagnosed with something or not, didn’t reach the heights of being “scary kids” when they were younger. Not scary the way I was, or others were.

When I point out to try not to link scary kids to criminal violence, particularly of the mass murder sort, I’m not saying that services and supports aren’t needed. I’m saying that they would be even if we never had a massive violent event. I’m saying none of us are doomed, if only we combat stigma and prejudice at every chance, be it ableism, racism, or classism that we are talking about.

When I tell you no, I mean that none of us are lost causes.

Decolonizing Our Voices

Today is Autistics Speaking Day, a day when we are particularly asking our allies and allies-to-be to step back to allow the voices of Autistics ourselves to be heard and listened to.

When ASD started last year (2010) we were in essence protesting an “awareness” campaign that people who purported to be our allies had designed and promoted with heavy pity language. They had asked people not to post at all, to be silent and non-speaking online to draw attention to the communicative issues many Autistics face. I believe our response was pretty understandable not only was this basically online “crip drag,” but it also denied the fact that for many Autistics, online resources such as social media sites have given us a voice.

I myself had great strides in my personal development after getting online. I know a number of people who are Non-speaking Autistics whose ability to communicate was greatly augmented by online resources, and a number whose involvement in virtual advocacy have made the people around them rethink everything about their care. In short, Social Media and other virtual resources have done for us what having a ramp in a public building does for our chair using brethren. (I will freely admit that it doesn’t solve all our problems, and we still face hostility online and off that prevents access just as having a ramp alone doesn’t make your building wheelchair accessible.)

This year, Autistics Speaking Day is taking place at a time when we have people in the streets protesting economic disparity and corruption. For some of the protesters, there are harsh economic realities in their own lives motivating them-  Homelessness, lack of accessible health care, and unemployment. Others feel that their voices as citizens have been infringed upon by corporate interests, particularly when it comes to our elections in the United States. Still others are driven by a need to undo injustice.

This movement of protests is popularly called “Occupy Wall Street,” so named for the action of camping- or “occupying”- public places such as Zuccotti Park in NYC or Mellon Green in Pittsburgh, or a wide number of other Occupying sites. However, a number of indigenous groups quickly pointed out that Wall Street has been occupied for centuries- it was originally Lenape tribal land.

So when their site started, Boston issued a solidarity statement with Indigenous Peoples, and were followed by a number of other sites. In light of this, some people have been using the term “Decolonize” rather than “Occupy” so that the voices of marginalized Americans- such as our indigenous populations- can be better respected and more easily centered.

People of Color are especially hard hit by the economic environment, and in a number of places the living conditions on reservations are deplorable. People with Disabilities too are feeling the economic burden our services are being cut, our programs redefined to limit our involvement in our communities, and supports being withdrawn under the excuse of “budget issues.”

After some thought, I’ve decided that there’s too much of a cross over for me in the work of Decolonizing Wall Street and of our voices as Autistics to not write this post today. While people in general are seeing their demands of their political representatives co-opted or diverted by corporations, Autistics routinely have our voices co-opted by our allies and diverted by large “non”-profits such as Autism Speaks. Many of us are frustrated by the lack of Genuine Voice that the general public hears from us. Instead of looking at the things that help us live our lives and improve the quality of it, research funding is sent to projects that could potentially prevent us from being born in the first place.

Indeed, when we speak we are dismissed using logical fallacies so that the voices of those who proclaim themselves working for our “own good” can be prioritized. Obviously, not all of our allies are like this. But some are, be they parents, professionals with pet theories, or Organizations whose bottom line would be affected by what we are saying. Those are the ones we are talking about when we talk about how our supposed allies need to step back and stop centering themselves.

The Protesters in the Occupy/Decolonize use  consensus building as a process. This does have flaws by itself- those with pre-existing privilege can still flaunt it- but there are some principles that can and at some sites are added to mitigate those flaws. One of them is the concept of “Step back, Step up.” This means for people who have privilege- white people, straight people, cis people, men, and so on- to take a step back in the conversation, and to encourage those without your privileges to step forward so that they can be heard- something that won’t happen on its own. Without taking this into consideration, the same hierarchies that divide us out in the world will be reproduced in our movements.

This saying is the reason I’m bringing up the consensus process in this post- because the conversations we are having in the Autism and Autistic communities need to utilize the same principles. Otherwise no matter how good natured and well meaning people are, those who have less privilege will not be heard. And to me, this Principle is at the core of what Autistics Speaking Day is about.  It is about us being heard when we try to step up, and about our allies supporting us doing that.

I’ve been involved from afar with the Occupy/Decolonize activities at Pittsburgh, PA’s site, working especially with the Marginalized Communities and Allies workgroup.  The Safety workgroup took most of my comments about safety concerns for PWD and added them to the safety document. I’ve been encouraged to stay involved in the processes and networks being formed.

Most encouraging to me is that our site’s working groups have been prioritizing ways for people who can’t stay on site to be involved. Instead of the sentiments that if you aren’t at an action you aren’t really committed that have characterized some other movements I’ve tried to be involved with, I have gotten reassurance. Paul O’Hanlon, a protester with disabilities who has been very active both on site and off, told me to remember that they know that every person there is representing people who can’t.

That isn’t to say that there aren’t people who assign high value to people on site. There are still people who fail to recognize that even when we are eliminating our class barriers that our other oppressions and privileges are still intact. There are still people who don’t get the anti-ableism, anti-racism, and so on work is still very much needed. But I’ve seen what feels like great strides. Objectively, perhaps they aren’t that huge, but for someone who has had their voice sublimated repeatedly it feels huge.

Just as as a young teen blogging, instant messages, and other internet resources helped me to gain a sense of community and skills, the internet is enabling me to be involved.  I’m someone who has not been able to physically be on site because of a number of reasons. I’m rural, I have to have access to certain services on a regular basis that would not be present on site, and I also have fibro Myalgia, which would make winter camping a mobility and possible safety hazard.

So I’ve been doing support work, editing virtual documents, and organizing accessibility work. I started a cross disability group called “Occupy Disability/Decolonize Disability” for people with Disabilities to network resources on both being on site and working off site. A friend with Multiple Chemical Sensitivities started #Occupy at Home to help people like us find ways to be involved. There’s even an “Occupy Autism Speaks” page to highlight the issues with that organization.

All of these things keep seeming to parallel to me the ways that Autistics have built community online when our physical environments have been barred to us. We’ve worked to create venues to be us in, to see the value of our forms of communication. To be involved as we are, not as others think we “ought” to be.

Today is the day we take back our voices. Now is a time when “The Whole World Is Watching” what is happening. Tomorrow is when we will continue to speak out- so please, keep on listening.

____________

When I wrote this, I was working along side Native and Black activists who preferred the Decolonize language over the occupy language for things to do with the various wings of the “Occupy” movement. I’ve been informed more recently that there are problems with using that, particularly since that context has passed, and won’t be using decolonize in this way in the future – Nov 1, 2013

Sometimes it feels like Nice is a Dirty Word.

Being polite is this really tricky thing for me.

On one hand, I know that I struggle with being polite, even when I mean to be. There’s lots of little things that even after ages of studying, I miss. And those little things end up having big consequences as to how I’m taken. I miss a signal to stop, I’m “over bearing;” I miss that I’m supposed to say something/contribute, and I’m “Unfriendly.”

As a kid, I would try (when brave enough) to mimic the “playful” teasing I observed between my peers, and miss that it had slipped over that vague line of playful. I was shocked and hurt to hear my mother mention my on occasion “bullying” kids who were trying to be my friends. But the rest of the time, I was too “shy,” too “drawn into my own world.” It seemed as though there was no way to reach a happy medium in between, the one where other kids would presumably like me.

I’ve gotten, I think, a little closer to a manageable compromise. I’ve decided against listening constantly and desperately to the coaching and pleading, and generally try to be nice, opting to withdraw rather than risk it.

There are exceptions, of course. I tend to have a highly developed sense of right and wrong, and sometimes there’s just a little too much *wrong* in the world. Then I seem to slip up.

Let me give you an example. Recently, I was visiting my Aunt in NYC. She married a guy who has done pretty well in contracting, and so yes, there’s a good bit of a class difference. In any case, we were having  conversation with my sister and step aunt, nd she started going on and on about how great “The Secret” was. She was recommending it to my sister.  After a while, I couldn’t handle it any more.

I stated that actually, a lot of people who are facing various oppression (Like classism, racism, or ableism around Mental Health Issues) find the culture around subscribing to The Secret to be very hurtful. Too often, people whose issues face against more than the white middle class abled “mainstream” are said to have not worked hard enough at it for the “Laws of Attraction” to have worked. The Secret in too many circles is used to both deny privilege and to blame oppressed peoples for their continued struggles.

That’s not to say that there aren’t people for whom it works and is mega helpful. But to hear it go un-critiqued when recommended to my sister- who like me comes from a different economic class and who has her own disabilities- was not something I could handle. I Had to say something.

I later found out that she thought I hated her, in part from this and in part because of not interacting otherwise as she expected. Which isn’t true- I love my aunt very much, I just get frustrated by what I see as obvious class differences and how they effect how we see the world.

In any case, I end up feeling as though I’m too mean.

Online, it’s a little bit different. Somehow, I feel as though I’m a little too nice compared to some of my friends and fellow advocates. Maybe it’s who I spend time with. I often feel like there’s so much of my conditioning from childhood of trying to fit in, to dodge some of the less than wonderful experiences of “treatment” that makes me try to be nice all the time. To educate instead of protecting my boundaries.

Most of the people I know in Social Justice circles know that it’s not an oppressed person’s duty or reason for being to educate those who hold privilege over them. It isn’t, for example, an Autistic’s (or other person with disabilities’) job to live as a “self narrating zoo exhibit” as Jim Sinclair would say. It is the oppressor’s duty to get educated, not the oppressed’s to educate.

But I cannot bring myself to not educate. Trying to establish boundaries like some of my friends have is something that leaves me feeling torn.  And I know that it is okay for me to educate people, but sometimes I worry it makes me seem too *nice* when compared to some of my friends. And I don’t mean nice in a kind person way. I mean nice in a too compliant way.

Nice in a way that would make people I love and respect look down on me as feeding into my own oppression. Or, perhaps, in a way that belies how deeply ableism has infiltrated my thinking. There’s a lot of things I keep stumbling across when I go to examine my thoughts that remind me how much of life as someone who- in my case- is an Autistic and has MH issues ends up being about compliance in order to survive.

How much of my desire to be kind is based on my beliefs, and how much is based on the feelings that I need to be “nice” in order to be worthy of surviving, of getting the supports I need?

I’m not going to stop being kind, or educating people.  I will admit I can get s little sharp- for me- on my tumblr, but that’s tumblr and a lot of it is reblogging other, sharper people’s comments. But I’m not going to deny that drawing the line between being kind and being compliant is difficult.

But then again, undoing the things we have internalized is never easy.

_____

Sorry if this isn’t at my usual standards. I just needed, for myself, to write this.

This has been republished at Shift Journal.

Perils of (Buy?+) Copy+Paste

I have noticed something a little disturbing. Well, perhaps not terribly unusual- may actually be a standard in the world of publicists for all I know- but still disconcerting. What is this? The copying of another person’s article or release as framing for your own work.

I’m not talking necessarily plagiarism- oftentimes, the original writer is cited someplace, in a terribly unobtrusive way. Sometimes, the story was paid for from a news service.  Certainly not Plagiarism. And in the general population, it would be nothing.

But what I’m talking about isn’t just in the general public, general sphere. It’s used by the people who are supposed to be our defenders- without checking that the article or release’s approach is appropriate. It’s one thing to link to an article that has appeared elsewhere. I’ve done it, even when the article in question irritated me. But to run it under your letterhead, or to purchase it for distribution, is something else entirely.

Let me use an example that came through my inbox today:

I got a forward that was originally distributed by the people Organizing the Reinventing Quality Conference in Baltimore, Md this week. I was a bit upset by the approach that the article in the email used, so I started to check them out. From their website, they looked interesting. Lots of talking up about bringing in community living, self advocates, etc. (I’d love to hear from anyone who is better familiar with them and their reputation among self advocates; savannah@autismwomensnetwork.org)

But talking up isn’t unusual even in organizations that aren’t so supportive. It is a tough lesson to learn- one that might make an advocate, particularly one that has ASD related issues, bitter. But many organizations assume token language usage, alongside the more obvious issue of token representation. Not being sure what to think, I plugged the Lede into google.

I discovered a couple of things. It turned out to have been originally written for the Raleigh News & Observer. As a general news  source, the treatment in the article was typical, though frustrating. And it isn’t unheard of for companies the size of their owner, McClatchy, to sell distribution rights (McClatchy-Tribune).  All perfectly normal in the industry.

What bothers me is how many groups- and the sort of groups- have reprinted the article as is. Some do so in a way that clearly shows- albeit at the end of the article- that it was retrieved from a distributor, like Behavioral Health Central. NAMI- for all the issues I have with them- doesn’t even host the full article, and instead links the reader to the News-Observer’s site to read the full article. All of these have various levels of appropriateness in distributing this article. As much as it personally pains me, NAMI’s approach was the most appropriate.

But back to the email I received. This is how it started (where a byline might be):

Image shows the email, with the logo of a non-profit, followed by edit dates, the title of the article, the lede (with Raleigh in caps at the start) and no byline in the normal position

And here’s the bottom (where the full information is given on Behavioral Health Central):

Bottom of the email, with the last line of the article, followed by a name, a phone number, than an edited date and links to two PDFs, followed by the email client's buttons for "reply", "reply all", and "forward"

Someone who is familiar with journalism or publicity might think to google the lede. But my guess is that the majority of readers won’t- maybe their background is in social work, or maybe they are parents. I know the org that forwarded this to me has a primary family base.  To these “average” people, the language would appear to be authorized by the distributing organization.

My opinions on the article itself can be found in my last post. I disliked the perspective. But when a non-profit or other organization promotes an article- especially with such limited sourcing- counter to the interests of the population they claim to serve, there is an ethical problem.

Now, that was just one example- one that was specifically centered on a journalistic article that was distributed without proper sourcing.

But the problem is vaster than that. I have seen publicists copy over releases from government agencies to give context to the information their client is trying to get out. While giving context is an important step, that context needs to be in the language and perspective consistent with the organization you are representing. It is both lazy and unethical to refrain from copy editing the entirety of what you put out there to be consistent. And if a publicist were to submit something this way to a professor in college, they would most likely receive a reprimand.

I have a proposition. Why don’t we all take a moment to find some standards as to what we do and don’t put out there. Here are my suggestions:

1) When distributing an article, source clearly. Don’t cut out the original distributor. Use bylines in their customary place. I would even prefer that the sourcing be put in the by line. EX: “Michael Biesecker for the Raleigh News Observer.” But even putting the sourcing clearly at the end (EX: “Originally published in the Raleigh News Observer”) is at least consistent with Journalistic standards.

2) Use language consistent with the organizations/people we represent. While there does need to be a recognition of the language and views of the public, that doesn’t make it okay to use language inconsistent- or even opposed- to the organization or people. Instead, use it as a chance to promote their language and views, even if only subtly.

3) If creating context, don’t simply copy and paste someone else’s release for it. First of all, it’s lazy and bad work. Secondly, it limits your ability to promote who or what you you are supposed to. And occasionally, it might promote things that are *unwanted* instead.

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