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.

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The Hard Things

Often, but especially this month, there tends to be a false equivalency that gets promoted- that Neurodiversity advocates ignore the hard things, or that we don’t experience the hard things. From there, self-advocates are told that we can’t speak to the lives of other, usually younger, Autistics.  Obviously this is false. The hard things are a part of our lives, are a core part of them.

On the 18th of March, I had to go to Baltimore. To manage airports, I have a pretty set script that I follow in order to make sure that I make it through the airport and flights. Usually it works fairly well, and if I get confused I let a security person know I”m Autistic and it typically works out. The first time I went through security by myself, I had a TSA agent walk me through the security point step by step. (I have a soft spot for Pittsburgh, PA’s TSA agents as they’ve treated me fairly well. I can’t speak for anyone else’s experiences though.) I’ve had people let me be or give me appropriate instructions when I’ve lost words. Mostly I have decent experiences. Not as peaceful as trains, but decent.

Except this time I flew southwest, and their gate check process is different. Instead of picking your bag up at the gate, they put it through to the carousel in bag claim, and instead count it as a late bag check. A bit nerve wracking as I rarely if ever do a regular bag check. But this wasn’t the hard part. Nor was sitting on the floor next to the assigned baggage carousel for an hour. (I took video of myself rocking there, and it is edited in with other video on my youtube channel.) But by the time I got through what my bag looked like, I couldn’t verbalize words any longer. The words went away. Thankfully the BWI Southwest baggage customer service acted like it wasn’t unusual at all for someone to get out a netbook and start typing instead of talking. I also had to get help getting on the van- which was directly across the room- to the hotel.

That evening, I had to leave dinner because I couldn’t sit upright any more. My brain was completely done, and I poured coffee on the table because I could no longer judge where my cup was in space. The next morning, I couldn’t get out of bed because I had no clean clothes. The very thought of putting on dirty clothes Shut me down for hours. Thankfully, the thing I was at was Developmental Disability centered, so the organizers were understanding, ordered me lunch, managed dealin with the airline and hotel, and the person I was supposed to facilitate with took over my duties. (Thank you Nachama!)

And this is only a mildly hard “day.”

Even the tiny Hard things add up. Loud noises making me need to hide, camera flashes leaving me utterly disoriented, the wrong smells, colors, and textures- the little hard things could make me have issues where I would normally have none or even where I’d normally excel. I curl up in a ball in a grocery store because I don’t know the practical steps rather than economic difference between using credit and debit. I sit on floors in airports for hours because I can’t figure out the steps to get to my hotel. I get C-Diff or MRSA because I can’t remember when to clean. I pee myself because I hear the wrong noise and become scared. I can’t tell until the last moment that I need the restroom, and then I better get running before I forget or lose control.

A thousand tiny hard things.

I had to live off campus because I didn’t understand paperwork for housing and couldn’t figure out that I needed help. I had to drop out of school and became house bound for 6 months because I didn’t understand or know how to ask for help with school tuition or paperwork. I watched my carefully laid goals collapse, and can’t do anything beyond repress and hide when people I know graduate or talk about completing midterms. I lose my ability to conceptualize my goals after having plans go awry.

A thousand hard things.

Becoming homeless for a thousand tiny reasons. Being unable to navigate the housing system, and having to rely almost entirely on my Intensive Case Manager to even fill out the forms let alone deal with the people. Having difficulty with a form because I want to answer truthfully but have no idea how much people have spent buying me toilet paper- and then crying, pacing, yelling the same phrase repeatedly and staring at blank walls. Hiding in my 3 year old niece’s closet because I can’t calm myself, can’t process my environment further to get away from what is bothering me. Being trapped in town because I can’t speak that day and I need to find a way out.

Hard things.

Knowing something is wrong, large or small, and not having the words for it for 5 years. Being told I’m articulate when I can’t get my basic needs across to be met. Trying to report abuse, and not having the words to articulate it yet- then having my call dismissed because of my disabilities and inability to articulate it. Pressing myself into walls or running into them full stop because the pressure is soothing and I can’t get my world to stop- and then being treated poorly for daring to do so. Being put through unneeded procedures because my self soothing behaviors look scary to others, and echoing (oh echolalia!) their words back when they ask why I do them- Is it because of self hate, self loathing? Do you want to die?- because I don’t have the words yet to tell them how it really feels in my head.

Life is full of hard things.

But the hard things don’t make that life less worthy. It doesn’t make it okay to deny accessibility. It doesn’t mean you can’t adjust a little- and often to mutual benefit- to make the world more navigable to us.

The Hard Things don’t take the joy out of it. It doesn’t make the self soothing activities less self soothing. It doesn’t take the joy of observing the infinite diversity of our world within even human neurology- a joy that we can share, if we are willing, despite having infinitely diverse faiths or even having none at all. It doesn’t make my niece’s bringing me my stuffed cat less an act of love. That my former cat, ‘baka, was my service animal that I needed to help me self regulate doesn’t make my affection- nor even my grief at her passing- less deep.

The Hard Things, though, mean that you will look at them and say:

I don’t want that for my kid.

That is not safe.

That is too strange to do in public.

If you’d only “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” and get over it, the hard things wouldn’t be hard.

Your tears and meltdowns prove my point of your incompetence/that you will always be a child.

instead of finding a way to make the hard things livable. Instead of accepting that I need help today even if I didn’t yesterday. That I am an adult who is able to make my own choices- even when they are bad ones. That the reason it’s so strange is because of repression. That there are ways to make this all safe. That risk is a part of being human.

That there is joy in being one’s self.

Written for Autism Acceptance Day and Month. Many Thanks to Paula Durbin-Westby for originating Autism Acceptance Day and all the effort she has put into this event- please go check out some of the other posts she’s collected. Thanks also to Emily T for her sharp editorial eye.

On Childish Things II: Harry Potter, Reclamation, and Finding Community

All of us have moments in our childhood where we come alive for the first time. And we go back to those moments and think, ‘This is when I became myself.‘” – Rita Dove

This is part two of a two part post. You can read these separately, but this post will make more sense if you’ve read On Childish Things I first. 

[Content Warnings: mentions of Abuse, ableism, denigration of “childish” behaviors”, sibling’s internalization of abuse/ableism]

The year that Rick left was the same year that I read the Harry Potter books. At first I had been reluctant to even read them for the same reasons I had avoided other fantasies people my age were reading. But then I read Prisoner of Azkaban.

I hadn’t sought it out. My cousins from New York were visiting and my Aunt Lisa over heard me complaining that I was bored and wanted something new to read. She went to her van and dug out one of her son’s books and handed it to me. I think the most effective way to explain what happened is to say Collin never got his copy of PoA back. (Cousin, I owe you a copy if you ever read this.)

Within a few months, everything in my life became about Harry Potter. It was mostly internally, as we were too poor to afford any merchandise. But every moment, every safe hold, was wrapped up in this special interest that was blossoming within me. I dreamed of leaving Rick and therapy and censure behind, to go to a school- not a magical school, I knew that wasn’t real- where I would have to stay in a dorm, as safe from it all as Harry seemed to be from his Aunt and Uncle. Indeed the moment when I truely came to love the SCA was when, during my first Pennsic, the only comments I got to sitting to read in a public thoroughfare were comments from adults asking me like an equal how I liked the latest book.

Rick finally left that fall- and we got internet for the first time. My struggles with being around others my age had developed to a point where, combined with behaviors at home, the choices were a residential placement or the newly emerging cyber school programs. We chose cyber school. That first year of internet was covered through that, though I learned more from my “recreational” time than I had from the official curriculum. Searching for more things on Harry Potter, I found the Fandom community.

I don’t know how many of you are familiar with Fandom. I think of it a bit by taking apart the word parts. Like in a kingdom, all things were centered on what the thing we were fans of in place of a king’s will. It’s like a community where a shared interest- or, not uncommonly it seems, special interest- is where everything is funneled through. I learned so much there- how to have friends, how to maintain coversation, even how to write and articulate my thoughts and feelings beyond inept, purely practical communication.

Being a part of this community was just as “magical” as Hogwarts itself. The elusive concepts of community and fellowship that I saw others have little trouble with became real things. Connection to others suddenly had a real value. I could go on, I think, for a long time about how Fandom changed me, gave me elusive skills, and even healed some parts of me that abuse and mistreatment had damaged. (Indeed, Fandom and the vast joy it gave me allowed me for the first time since early childhood to reclaim that oft repressed joy of flapping.) But Fandom’s healing powers has only a tangiantal connection to what this post is about.

Until after I graduated high school, Harry Potter and its fandom were my primary interest. I ate, slept, and breathed it, I did my homework at school instead of reading in my down time there so that I would have more time for it at home. I excelled in it. When I finally returned to public school after a year at the cheapest private school in my area- an evangelical school- I had a focus that allowed me to ignore the other students for the most part. This focus on fandom and my fandom friends also allowed me to follow my mother’s advice of just trying to be painfully nice to others, which meant I did eventually gain a limited number of friends.

At the same time, though, the other things that I had avoided continued to be things to avoid. While some of the other fans my age were also into books like Animorphs, I secretly looked down on them. (I now recognize how horrible this is, and wish to appologize to my friends who I secretly held this interest against.) Though my brother’s skill at video games and my own enjoyment of RPGs existed, I tried to focus on more mature stories ranging from the Final Fantasy series to fairly- though not explicitly- adult themed tabletop gaming. Other stories were terrifying to me because of the childish associations I had for them. Indeed, though I did play Pokémon in private when no one was around, I didn’t allow myself to talk about it. I didn’t allow myself to fix the names in my head of the various creatures and towns for fear of anyone actually knowing that I could enjoy it.

While my interest in Fan art and geekiness allowed me to gain an interest in the art and style of Anime, I couldn’t bring myself to enjoy any of the stuff marketed to teen aged girls. Indeed, even though a distant cousin of mine shared an interest in anime I couldn’t deal with being around her for very long, as her love of Sailor Moon left me conflicted and a little scared. It was firmly, to my mind, in that realm of childish things. Even though my primary tormentor was gone, the fear of being seen as a child and as incompetant remained.

The effects of how Rick used this to divide my siblings and I remained too. My brother was 16 and I 17 when he decided he couldn’t handle living with me anymore. My behavior at home, though much better, could be set off by taking away my special interest. I was using up my energy and self control at school and in public, and couldn’t handle being parted from my interest for most things that my brother saw as “normal.” Honestly, I don’t know to this day what he thought would be better or more normal. I have no idea what else someone with very few friends- most of whom I didn’t do anything with outside of school or organized activities until the end of my Senior year- was supposed to be doing. I did know that I had something that brought me joy, and that taking it away brought me distress.

Having internalized the idea that I would never be mature or competant, my brother couldn’t take it any longer and moved in with the family of one of his friends. Though he is not as avoidant of me as he once was, he never lost the idea of me as incompetant. The idea that I would never be competant to fully understand things never left him. To this day, I do not feel safe holding any opinions when I am around him. I am not skilled enough or fast enough with putting things into words to defend my opinions, and when I become frustrated he brings up that I’m too emotional, stupid, or even incapable of understanding things to hold a proper opinion. Indeed, even those times I have prepared myself he will point out that in his opinion since I’m Autistic, what I have learned about social dynamics, politics, and even social justice are invalid or just not true. That my reasoning automatically must be immature and incomplete. I my mind, he has assumed the role of Rick’s enforcer, even if he doesn’t mean to.

Before Will left, my sister had her accident. Her own judgement centers had been damaged by her Traumatic Brain Injury, and this left her with following impulses. Unfortunately, this meant that I lived through a period of several years where she took advantage of how easily upset I was. However, she had been too young to have the full force of Rick’s influence and she eventually matured. At first, she still thought my uneven skills meant I was being stubborn or lazy. After my niece was born, though, she dated a young man who had 4 step siblings who were all somewhere on the Spectrum. Seeing that wide display of what Autism could be, her approach towards me changed. I’d never say she treats me perfectly, because she’s still herself- a proud bitch by her own labling. (I only use this word for her because it is how she describes her self when she’s short tempered.) But she treats me as an Equal in a way that accomedates for what I do need accomedated for. When I need her help, she no longer holds it against me. While she is still hard on me, it is more of pushing me in my skills than accusing me of anything. She treats me as much as an equal now as she treats anyone, really.

Years have gone by. I’m 24 as I write this; it has been more than 11 years since Rick left. While I hope, I doubt that I will ever reach the day where the things he left behind in my head are ever completely gone. Afterall, milder forms of what he has said are riddled throughout our society. Careless ableism, paternalism, and fixation on the pitiable and perpetual child with disabilities are unfortunately a deeply ingrained thing for the West. But I take hope, I think, from the little buddings of Autistic Community Building. It’s not just the community itself, of course- community alone is something I could seek out in fandom- but a community that recognizes and reclaims the things we’ve been told to hide.

Some of my friends haven’t felt forced to give up childish joys. I wish I were one of them, but I am not. In spending time with my community, particularly members my own age range, I am surrounded by reminders of what I had forsworn, of joy. But for me, reclaiming this part of who I am is harder than reclaiming the joy and releasing the shame of stimming. Rocking and flapping in public is no where near as terrifying for me as openly taking joy in childish things.

I wish I had a better way to word all this. To uncover all the parts of that terror. In fact as I type this, my throat is tightening with anxiety. If I reclaim my childish joy, a part of me thinks, am I affirming that idea of being stuck a child? Am I admitting to being that child in an adult body that is bandied about with pity? Do I become not an adult with their own interests but a child stuck on the past?

I know that these things aren’t true. I no longer feel shame for or superior to my friends who continue to take joy in Muppets or My Little Pony. I no longer avoid conversations where my partners linger on Pokémon or Sailor Moon (which it turns out is pretty cool.) I’m slowly taking steps to explore those things that I had discarded in fear.

But my doubt in myself lingers, and I find it so hard to join in joy easily, myself so out of practice at the words and flow for these sparks of childhood that I mumble or stay silent. I have to tell my dearest friends aloud that I do enjoy listening to them talk, and to pardon my silence because it’s too scary, my toungue too trembling, to join in their words. I beg of them to indulge and keep talking, because I still love some of these things but am not yet past my fear enough to speak that love aloud.

A friend recently was talking to me about the new Muppet movie and their excitment over it. Eventually they took notice, though, that I only hummed along to their singing and smiled and nodded to their reiterations of facts. Like many members of our community, they had been taught that a shortcut to figuring out if someone isn’t as interested in a conversation is if they do the smile and nod. Trying to explain this whole thing to them was difficult- they had never been made to feel as I had. Eventually I just told them I’d be writing this post, and we continued on walking.

A block later, I mentioned having enjoyed the muppet babies cartoon when I was very little, and how I had liked the peanut butter and bananas sandwiches that one character had been fond of. It was a short sentance, but it was something. Some sort of tiny step forward.

This week, I have plans to try and see the new Muppet movie. I don’t know that it will happen- my mother is a bit unreliable for recreational plans- but it is a plan.

My three-year-old niece, too, has been a catalyst in re-examining these things. Last week, my niece and I started watching a children’s show called Ruby Gloom. The day after she left, I was still at my mother’s. I turned on the Xbox, and I sat down and watched an episode, just for the Joy of it.

Progress is slow, but it’s never too late to make a little more.

It is never too late to have a happy childhood” – Tom Robbins

This post is dedicated to my best friend. Their interest in things I had put away initiated my thoughts, and their joy made me re-explore my own shame.

On Childish Things I

[Content Warnings: Abuse, ableism, spiritual violence/abuse, misapplication of biblical concepts as justification, denigration of “childish” behaviors”, mention of disordered eating]

The things which the child loves remain in the domain of the heart until old age. The most beautiful thing in life is that our souls remaining over the places where we once enjoyed ourselves.” – Kahlil Gibran

When I was a kid- and I mean between the ages of 8 and 13- I was desperate to get away from anything I liked that were “childish things.” Cartoons? Muppets? Books with pictures in them? All became objects of shame. For me, though, this was not triggered by an internal dislike. Here, I cannot speak to the lives of other Autistics. I know a number of my friends and collegues who never faced this particular pressure, even if they faced the same taunts. The same use of “childish” as a dirty word.

My mother’s second husband, Rick, was a big man, and a bully. Speed, attention, interests- all were made into critical faults in me. Even hunger after school was pointed to and mocked when my mother wasn’t around, fostering an unhealthy relationship with food I still haven’t been able to shake. His treatment of me was often explained away by two interconnecting concepts. The idea that as a child with disablities, I both needed treatment and couldn’t accept it as “right” was a big one, but the other was the concept of “The Willful Child.”

“When I was a child, I used to speak like a child, think like a child, reason like a child; when I grew up, I put away childish things.”- 1 Corinthians 13:11

Today, I may be Jewish. I’ve even taken on my ethnically Jewish stepfather (my mother’s 3rd husband)’s last name, Breakstone. But at that point in my life, my immediate family all practiced some variation of Christianity. I could talk about specific denominatons or sub-faiths- from Dutch Reform to Jehovah’s Wittness- but in truth, what was held in our home had less to do with a denominational affliation and more to do with Rick’s idea of using biblical teachings to his conveniance.

One of his favorites when it came to me was the concept that some of you may be familiar with of “The Willful Child.” James Dobson’s books on this idea- The Strong-Willed Child– may be fairly known now, and maybe they were at the time as well. What I do know about how they were used at this time was how they were used at my house- the same way the bible itself was used, at least when my mother wasn’t home. The principles were twisted to Rick’s convenience. (My mother and I personally found that “The Explosive Child” by Ross Greene worked a lot better for me in the end.)

While at the same time encouraging services and at home abuse as “needed treatment,” Rick also labled my behaviors as that of the willful, sinful child. I was told that I was everything that a good “Christian” child was not, be they actually backed up by biblical text or not. Resistance to abuse was also framed as childish, and as willfulness. Both typical behavioral censure and spiritual censure were used against me for things as simple as wanting to continue playing with something or not cleaning up fast enough. (In retrospect, it is no wonder it took me so long to admit that even as a child- and I hope not to offend my Christian friends and readers- I found the concept of a risen Christ improbable at best.)

Perhaps most devestating in the long run was how this censure was used to divide me from my siblings. Today, I have a supportive relationship with my sister. But at the time- and to this day with my brother- this was not true. My behaviors, my failure to live up to Rick’s idea of an obediant young woman, were held up to them as a model of everything they ought to strive against being.

I think my Catholic friends might be familiar with what my behaviors were labled under different names. Lazy (Sloth) was a big one because of my lack of speed and efficiency. Angry or even violent (Wrath) when I was reduced to lashing out as resistance. Fat, chubster, and so forth (Gluttony) for hunger and later hoarding behaviors. While I avoided the traditional concept of vanity being played against me until my eating disorder had excelerated, elements of it cropped up in accusations of selfishness (Greed) and willfulness whenever I attempted to establish boundries about my self, my privacy, or my belongings. Indeed, my distress when several things I had charished as perhaps only an Autistic can were lost in our move to Pennsylvania were added to my greed and willfulness. The only “Cardinal Sin” I was not accused of in some way was lust, though I’m not sure if it was through the non-consensual labling of PWD as asexual (as opposed to labeling one’s own orientation as such) or if it was my age.

I could- and perhaps someday I will- write a full length book about the things that happened when my mother was not at home. I want to reaffirm right now that other than her obliviousness to what was happening my mother did right by me in every way that she could. I believe that in part the spiritual abuse she was facing- an abusive form of complementarianism combined with a religious bigotry against divorced individuals- combined with her own ADHD that allowed things to be missed. Additionally, Rick’s articulate dissmissals over my barely articulated- if you could even call it that- complaints of “unfairness” would be hard to dismiss in our society even without the abuse she was facing.

When I started this post, I didn’t realize how much spiritual abuse played into this, nor how much “willfulness” and “childishness” had been conflated. In any case, they were conflated and tied together. Indeed, any sign of so called willfulness were pointed out as evidence of why Rick’s claims that I would never grow up, that I would be perpetually incompetant to make my own choices just as a child would be. I became desperate to prove somehow that I wasn’t childish- that I wouldn’t stay a child forever.

Unable to eliminate my “childish, willful” behaviors despite my own best efforts and Rick’s “treatment,” I searched for other ways to escape this censure. The only thing left to me was to eliminated the outward trappings of childhood as much as possible. Things that I enjoyed became things to avoid at all costs. Cartoons were an especial target, even if they weren’t designed exclusively for children. We didn’t have TV- we couldn’t afford cable, and there were no channels that we recieved reception for- but we did have VHS tapes.

No longer could I enjoy, for example, the animated Hobbit and Return of the King. I forced myself to bury my distress at having lost my Disney movies (they were among the things that were lost in the move), and struggled when my brother’s interest in Beauty and the Beast and The Nightmare Before Christmas flourished as we entered our teens. Even my enjoyment as a child of puppet based television such as the Muppets or Fraggle Rock were to be eliminated.

Toys, too, became objects of dirision, even ones that were educational or even deemed “age-appropriate.” I had never really played with my toys the way some children would- I stacked my dolls or created displays of them unless another child was present to direct play. But now even creation of toy based dioramas was taboo. My drawings became focused on more mature subjects and styles. I began to draw, for example, scenes of the slave trade instead of costumes when my interest in history shifted to the Civil War era.

Indeed, I struggled even with my special interest in history. While it can be a mature and sober pursuit, it had initiated via a children’s book on dolls from the Victorian period. My readings turned from child appropriate texts to thick novels and non-fiction accounts. I think I would have turned to them even without this pressure, but I don’t think I would have been so strident in avoiding books written for children my age. Perhaps I wouldn’t have mocked them as harshly.

My own sense of aesthetics was also to be challenged anytime it might co-inside with “childish things.”

One thing I couldn’t rout out, though, was my interest in fantasy and magic. I did try to limit it to “classics” of the genre though- instead of contemporary young adult fantasy I read T H White, CS Lewis, J R R Tolkien, and similar almost exclusively. The exception was in the school library, where I read every vampire novel I could get my hands on. Even there, though, I tried to form a preference for classic, genre development specific stories such as Carmilla. I don’t regret this, as it did eventually develop into my sub-interest in Gothic Victorian Romantacism which I indulge in to this day. I did take joy in it, but I trained myself to limit my expressions of that joy.

Fairly early on, before things became more obviously abusive, my expressions of joy and comfort were limited. If seen on a timeline, this was the “first” target, though it is one that regretfully many parents of Autistics target. Flapping was eliminated. Bouncing was frowned upon. Toe walking was framed as inappropriately timed and poorly executed “ballet” play. (I was interested in dance when I was very young, but by this point I was not.) Wiggling my fingers was wrong. Even those “allistic stims” of leg jiggling or finger tapping were a basis for censure, pointed to as proof that I was unthankful, impatient, and willful. The only acceptable forms of joy were smiling and sometimes- and only when deemed appropriate- laughter. Seeing as how smiling wasn’t an automatic thing for me, especially when feeling simply happy, this didn’t become terribly common.

Children need models rather than critics.
– Joseph Joubert

This post has gone much deeper and longer than I ever thought it would. It has been harder to write than I truely expected, even after thinking about it and predrafting it in my head for a month. I’ve decided to save the second half for another post, which you should expect tomorrow. It covers the working through and reclaimation of joy, among other things. EDIT: The second post, On Childish Things II, has been posted.

This post is dedicated to my mother. Without her, I would have been forced into institutional settings and would never have been able to move beyond this to reclaim joy.

Healing Doesn’t Look Pretty

Trigger warning: discussion of trauma, both sudden and violent and prolonged and subtle.  Also for Racism and Ableism.

This is a picture of me, Savannah Logsdon-Breakstone, having a raw, terrifying healing moment. My hair is back, greasy, and a mess. My brow is wrinkled, my nose is red and so are my eyelids, even through my glasses which are perched slightly down and askew from proper.. The reason they are red is there too- there is snot dripping from my nose, and there are tears on my round cheeks and slicking my eyelashes together. Though it is a still, the chapped lip trembling is also visible. This is a close up, so aonly the neckline of a beige crochet sleeveless top and bare shoulder can be seen, with a messy corner shelf in the background and a pale greenish wall.

This is what healing looks like. It doesn’t look like sitting under a tree on a clear day, or walking with your homogeneous looking family. It isn’t playing frisbee with grandkids and their dogs, and it isn’t lifting your hands in victory after climbing a mountain.

Healing isn’t pretty. It hurts sometimes. You have to dig around and realize exactly what has happened to you, what attitudes and perspectives you’ve been taught to frame your world in. It isn’t something that happens all at once, or in a short time.

I was sobbing because I was healing. I was realizing just how much my world and what I engage with was based on the abuse I faced and the things my abuser said. So I took a picture, a reminder that this feeling and this confrontation is a part of healing. Of undoing the damage that was done on me, that was continued through me.

I was watching the “Pretty Girl Rock” video. And it came to the part where the style of TLC was depicted. I remembered the day I heard Left Eye had died. I was sitting in a hotel room at a CASSP conference in PA. The world had gotten overwhelming, so I had retreated to the room to watch MTV. I cried as the alert scrolled across the bottom.

But when we got home, and I mentioned it to my abuser he scoffed. He said that she was crazy, that she was a druggy, that she was “bad” and that her death was due. He equated her race, too, to her inadequacies. I went to my room, and I played TLC’s Fanmail on repeat.

But from that time after, I didn’t listen to rap, hip hop, or R&B. There was something lost to me after that. A desperation to stop being “other” in order to avoid the abuse I faced, to stop being “crazy”, stop being a “Social Retard.” I told myself that it was because of the way that things have changed, because of misogyny, because of glorification of “Ghetto” culture in the main stream music.

But the reality is that I had turned those things that were said to me, that destroyed my faith in the world inwards. They were all connected, all tied to those things that were labeled undesirable to my abuser. That avoiding them somehow would make me safe.

Looking back, I can see how these things played into his racism, his ableism, his xenophobia. That they fit his words on people with mental health disabilities, how we aren’t fit or competent and how those of us with developmental issues would “never grow up.”  How his deriding of non-white people, his saying that black people were sub species, interplayed with his ableism and his sexism.

“Lazy Nigger Bitch” he called me one day when I couldn’t get my brain to move fast enough, to disengage with what I was doing. This might have been the same day he threw my typewriter on the floor, shattering it, for the same reasons. In any case, he combined all the things he saw as “bad” into insults, into things that I would hope to avoid in order to make myself safe. That by avoiding association with certain “elements” I could somehow make myself safe.

That particular incident was 10+ years ago, but now I’m just starting to see how much it twisted me, and made me a victim of fear. How much it made me enable systems of power that would continue to oppress both my friends and myself. To realize how much these systems of oppression were twisted against me, and against those I love- and those I’ve never even met.

This, this disassembling of the systems he re-inforced in my brain? This, this determination to fight the injustices he made me think were universal and unchangeable?

This is healing.

(Post started in Dec 2010, finished march of 2011)

In response to a journalistic approach

I read an article today, and it is spurring me to write two blog entries. This one addresses the article itself; the other talks more about Non-profit use of articles and releases written by others and some ethical issues surrounding that.

The article in question was published in the Raleigh News Observer under the title “Study: Four killings reported in rest homes“.  The lede is “In the past two years, at least four residents of North Carolina rest homes have been killed by fellow patients who had histories of severe mental illness and violence.

In all honesty, it’s a pretty standard approach used in journalism to use a “bloody” headline and/or lede to grab attention. But is it the right thing to do, especially when talking about an already vulnerable population? Does it not contribute to some of the problems of stigma we face today, not only for those with Mental Health disabilities, but in the larger disability community?

Most of my comments here won’t make sense unless you’ve read the article. Go on, click it, I’ll wait.

First off, the placement of people in nursing homes is actually a misappropriation of the implications of  the Olmstead decision. For the vast majority, the nursing home is *not* the least restrictive environment, and for some it is further inappropriate. The language in the article doesn’t seem to recognize that the warehousing of patients in nursing homes is exactly counter the opinion put forward by the courts.

This study further worries me, because the way it is presented starts out with wording that is extremely negative about people with MH disabilities, and might lead those who do not read the entire thing to assume that taking people *out* of institutions was wrong. The public might not be familiar with what exactly Olmstead was, or even the breadth of human rights protections the ADA affords.

Towards the end it makes comments on the horrible conditions. If you *do* know your history, you can recognize as rather identical to the sort of institutional care that we have been trying to get people out of, but few people know their institutional history.  It does not adequately suggest what the appropriate measures would be. It does not call for change, but instead allows the imagery to “fester” in the reader’s mind, where someone with less of a background in the issue might come up with some very frightening “solutions” indeed.

This perspective is very much one that favors the provider, as well as the social worker voice, over that of the consumer (remember, nursing home placement is generally speaking 18+), especially with the emphasis on homelessness as the only visible alternative (rather than showing examples of the underfunded and harder to get a spot in alternatives) and this treatment leaves me worried. While yes, it is true that many would currently end up in the streets, very little mention is given to the sorts of programs that are *supposed* to be the alternative, but are under funded.

How are we supposed to rise support for something to be appropriately funded if the information we give out doesn’t explain what exactly that *means*?

There’s another question here, too, when it comes to the professional view bias. It’s one that has been repeated over and over in the history of institutional placements of all sorts. Owners and superintendents have manipulated the public perception of various populations in order to increase their standing, power, and funding in the public. Just as a politician manages public perception of himself, professionals manage their and their clientèle’s perception. And so half-truths and misleading information about populations in institutions abounded.

While today, the Eugenics hot topic focuses on pre-natal testing, in the early 20th century the argument was focused on Sterilization. The idea was that those with developmental or intellectual disabilities were either too fertile, or unable to protect themselves from unwanted advances. With the rise of the concept of Social Darwinism in the late 1800’s, it became more and more worrisome that there was a possibility of so called “degenerates” reproducing.

At first, some superintendants supported the idea of sterilization privately. There was an initial reluctance to publicize this, though, for fear that they would lose funding for patients that, once un-sexed, might be returned to the community. Over time both the concept of the disabled as a public menace and issues of over-population in institutions grew. Eventually, in the face of a lack of space for larger and larger intakes, they shifted their public support to sterilization. Privately, their letters show that as they gained more public support for the procedure they grew doubtful about the actual usefulness outside of institutional control. *

Back to the lede and title.

The fact that it leads with “four killings” caused by “other patients” with no mention of the deplorable conditions until later on is extremely troublesome. It uses, instead of the entirety of the problem, something that PLAYS SPECIFICALLY on stigma the public holds towards people with MH disabilities. In fact, there is very little relevance to the subject of the article in the lede. Deplorable conditions should be “bloody”  enough to grab headlines, and that is the real focus of the article.

Even if you are a parent rather than an individual with MH disabilities, there needs to be a recognition that leading with this sort of stigma will *not* help in the long run. Instead, it will just perpetuate the stigma so that when someone who is a minor right now reaches age of majority, the stigma will still be as virulent as ever.

In my eyes, to ignore all of this in writing an article on this topic is negligent- not as a journalist, but as a human being.

*For more information about the history of the treatment of the Developmentally Disabled, I would recommend Trent’s “Inventing the Feeble Mind