Inside and Outside Safety

[Content warning: Mentions of violence towards PwD, both external and internal. Passing mention of the R-word and of a cat dying.]

“If you are silent about your pain, they’ll kill you and say you enjoyed it.”

 -Zora Neale Hurston

I think sometimes when we talk about “passing” versus visibility we forget what that really means, what it is really about. We forget that it means a choice between being safe in the out there instead of being safe in the in here.

It’s a process of making a difficult choice for some of us. Which will destroy us sooner- the violence that others do to us or the violence we do to ourselves? How long do we defend ourselves from the violence that other people send us before we end up destroying who we are inside? Can we live in a world where we can be safe in our own heads without endangering ourselves from the violence of others?

A number of people have written about what it is to internalize oppression- ableism in particular. There’s one phrase I’ve seen that always strikes me- “outposts in our heads.” The place I remember coming across it was at Amanda Bagg’s blog, when it was used- along with the Sally Kempton quote- as the title of a post. Outposts in Our Heads was a big deal for me when I first read it back in 2008. It helped me form into language the things I was noticing about my own experiences, my own terrors, my own damages.

When we internalize the messages that tell us we are unreliable narrators of our own stories, that we are “bad” and “wrong” when we exist as ourselves, it creates violence inside of us. It’s not the physical kind of course- though sometimes people do hurt themselves as a result of this “inside” violence. But that makes it no less violence, no less an attack on our beings.

The more I reflect on my own behavior and the writings of others the more I feel as though a lot of our passing comes from this violence that has been pressed inside of us. Our passing is  an expression, in part, of the thousand little insidious things we were taught.  To remind ourselves that we are wrong, that we are “slow.” To remind ourselves that we don’t count as humans unless we take these “lessons” to heart.

With those lessons is one that gets pointed to as the “reason” for them, why it is so “needful” for us to find indistinguishable. Why the parent I will sit next to in a meeting next week will tell me that they just want their kid to have a shot at pretending to be normal. The outside world is violent towards us when we don’t accept these things, sometimes in more obvious ways.

I don’t think we have to go far to “prove” them their theory on how unsafe it is for us. Neli Latson‘s arrest- Young, black, and Autistic Neli- is proof in an of itself, however much it is also tangled up in racism. The bullying of kids who rock and flap are constantly held up against the bullying of queer youth by some parents, the violence that both populations face sometimes used to outline how bad it is not to pass. Sometimes I even hear the statistics about how 70% of women with developmental disabilities experience rape and that is used as an example of why we shouldn’t be obviously disabled. (Sometimes I even hear this from people who would fiercely remind you that how a person dresses or what they drink doesn’t make them responsible for the violence done to them.)

These things are brought out time and again, these dangers of the world. And too often- particularly when it is our families rather than disabled people ourselves- the solution offered is to teach us to pass. To not behave or exist as we are. To make eye contact and don’t flap or rock in public or don’t jump at loud sounds.

The solutions offered to individuals too often aren’t to make it so police know what to expect from Autistics (as well as unknowing the stereotypes of race), to end bullying through truly inclusive practice, to teach people not to rape and sexually assault people.

We are told that in order to save ourselves from the violence out there we must do everything we can to look normal out there.

And when we do look normal out there, they pretend that no violence is being done to us. Too often, they forget the violence that they did or dismissed to make us this way. Too often, they will always dismiss that it left us with violence in our heads.

As time goes on I try to unlearn the violence that was taught to me. I try to uproot the strongholds that tell me how wrong and bad it is of me, how selfish, to want to be okay with myself. This process isn’t helped by living in a society that reaffirms that all the bad things are because I’m wrong, I’m deviant, I’m disabled and I dare to try not to hide from it.

In June, I attended the Allied Media Conference as a Co-track Coordinator of the Disability Justice Track with A’ishah of ResistDance. Admittedly there were huge chunks of things that were issues in the physical world- for example, some people not getting what “scent free” meant, or staff members forgetting that sharpies can be toxic for some folk, or how incredibly echoy and not sensory friendly having closing ceremony in McGregor was. But the biggest thing for me had nothing to do with my external environment.

It had everything to do with my internal one. I was working so hard at uprooting the ableism inside of me, and yet while I was there surrounded by movers and shakers and hopeful justice makers I found more. I spent a couple of hours one afternoon sitting in a corner, crying and rocking and holding my arms tight. My outside was safe enough- someone even gave me a tissue as they passed. But on my insides the violence I had worked so hard to uproot from my mind was taking over.

I was alone and unworthy and bad girl. Of course you are having a hard time, I thought, you are wrong at the most basic level.  Remembered directives of Stop Crying and This is for Attention isn’t it? and You are selfish for wanting to be safe and everyone knows that retards can’t lead.

I eventually got settled enough to move, to look for my mum in the Healing Justice Practice Space. When I got there, though, it was obvious in ways I couldn’t know that there was a violence happening inside of me to some of the healers. I had some tea, and Mariposa had me do medicine on my self by way of chalking protection at my wrists. It is protection from the elements of the outside that give power to the violence inside, she told me.

And I did come back to me, to knowing that I am worthy and human and deserving of existance. To knowing where those thoughts were pressed into me from. To knowing that it is a violence taught to me.

I won’t discount that the violence outside of me is painful. I can’t pretend that I wasn’t devastated when the neighbor shot my cat Tribble knowing that he was in training to be my therapy cat. I will never deny that there’s still a spot on my back that when pressed makes me panic, to think that my mother’s second (ex)husband is going to put me in prone restraint again. But I think that the most devestating is the ways that violence is pressed inside of me.

I’m tired of doing violence to myself inside of me to avoid the violence that could happen outside of me. I’m tired of having no safe place inside of me because someone might believe that the demonstrations of my disabled person-ness gives them license to grant violence to the external face of me. I don’t think it’s right to give in to demands that I pretend that passing doesn’t hurt me.

This afternoon, I’ll go shopping. At checkout, while I’ll smile at the register and answer questions from the check out person, chances are I won’t make eye contact. Chances are I’ll startle when someone shouts or drops something. Chances are I’ll flap in line, wander in a way someone else’s parent would characterize as aimless and pathological, cover my face or eyes or ears when things are “too much,” flinch when someone touches me in passing unexpectedly. I’ll stare and not be able to process a shelf display or two, and forget how much I need to get some bottled water because it looks like there’s so much stuff in the cart already.

And I will  be safe.


This Post was inspired in part by “Dear ‘Autism Parents’” by Julia Bascom, as well as other writings of her’s at Just Stimming. I highly recommend going over there and reading more of her stuff. I also want to direct people to the writings of Amanda Forest Vivian at A Deeper Country whose writings have been helping to “percolate” these thoughts all summer.

This has been reprinted at Shift Journal.


Indistinguishability and Modeling- or, To a Friend or Three

I think that for too many of us, we are brought up to look for role models upon which to model our behavior. This modeling is something that I think is sometimes so very encouraged in some of us- Autistic or otherwise neuroatypical- because we are taught from very young age that we need to blend into social environments, to conform to behavioral expectations.

Or, to put it in IEP goal language, to “become indistinguishable from [our] peers.”

A number of us in the Neurodiversity movements believe that this is a potentially destructive goal emotionally, and one that is counter-productive ethically. There are numerous essays out there talking about this in the class room context. There’s even some conversations going on about how this inter-plays with integrated classrooms, and how some of our allies who join with us on integration do so because of this idea of modeling “normal” behavior.

We- that is, self advocates- fight a lot against the idea of indistinguishably as a goal. We talk about it as violence, and we try to find ways to stop it from being so central a goal in how people interact with our younger counterparts. We decry it, and try to uproot it.

Too often, though, the damage has already been done for us, even in places in ourselves we don’t want to look.

Feminism talks a lot about how society internalizes messages about women, as do other movements. The truth is we are all socialized in some way or another. But when we go through that process as neurodivergent, we don’t absorb some things that others do. Some of us of course do internalize messages, but some of our socialization around certain skill sets are not served by the process that typical society uses.

Too often, what this means is that we internalize the pleas for “indistinguishbility” from the norms of society, while finding that we don’t have the skills to meet the expectations.

I’m finally getting to why I started this entry:  How we model and expect our relationships- with friends, with family, with romantic and/or sexual partners- to work, and how those are supposed to make us feel.

I have an ex, K, who often talked to me about his relationship with his father. K had been brought up with a certain idea of what a father-son relationship should look like, and how he should feel about it. However, none of these were expectations modeled with him in mind. He would watch TV or his brother’s relationship with his father. K would find himself confused and frustrated when he went through the same motions and still felt disconnected from his father.

He took the (socially pressed rather than IEP directed in his case) directive to strive for indistinguishbility and held that up as the goal, the thing that “should” bring happiness if he did it right. After all, the reasonings that are used in society for why this is such  goal is often held up as a way to find happiness in the long run.

But the truth is, following modeled behavior doesn’t mean we will be happy. Too often, it means that we aren’t actually building the sort of connections or environments that make us happy or connected. We are basing our expectations of what these should look like on someone else’s happiness, someone else’s feelings of connection to the things in their lives.

We’ve taken the modeling that people provided as a stop gap for indistinguishability- a goal that ignores who we are and what our needs are- and we’ve added it to the things we count as skills. We’ve allowed for things that tear us down to oversee how we build our lives.

I was originally going to write a poem on this, but prose came out instead. I’m going to get to the point before I devolve into poetry again:

If we want happiness, satisfaction in our friendships (and other relationships) we need to stop basing them on other people’s definitions of what they should look like. We need to define them for ourselves.

Further Readings:

Feet– A poem. by me (Savannah Logsdon-Breakstone)
Relationship Performativity and Deconstructing Mononormativity by Emily Emily Emily
what is an indistinguishable when it’s at home?  by Amanda Forest Vivian

If you have more links for further reading on the topics touched upon in this post, please leave them in the comments. This post has been republished at Shift Journal.