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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Mother

I don’t really talk about my mother on here too terribly much- though if you talk to me on facebook or twitter or any of the “social” media I do- especially in comparison to talking about her ex, aka Rick aka her second husband. But there’s a reason for that- because she for her part did well with me.  I’m not saying she’s perfect- she does indeed struggle with some of the attitudes that she’s internalized about abilities and supports- but she was still amazing.

Last fall, my posts about intent, and about how the parent movement tends to erase or drown out Autistics, had one person remark that I was arguing that parents are a part of the problem. Actually, I think it was “are the problem” but . . . yeah. I don’t think parents are the problem so much as that their voices and ideas are too often prioritized of that of the PwD that they are parents to. Indeed, I recently attended a rally full or parents with great intentions- intentions of undoing the cuts to services in my state. But they felt it was okay for them to over talk the time limits when self advocates didn’t, to use patronizing language about their adult children, and to erase the efforts of self advocates with Developmental and Intellectual disabilities around some of the laws that protect our rights. Really it’s a perfect example of what the problem is- that we live in a society where these things are considered okay. But I digress.

History

My mother worked pretty hard at advocating for me in school as a kid. She even got heavily involved in advocacy around service provision, as the county tried to say that I would need shipped to a residential facility (which is an institution for youth, essentially) to have my needs met. My mother worked super hard to keep me at home and in school, even when we were being told that even graduating high school might be a “pipe dream.” (Hint: I’m the only one of my siblings to have graduated HS. My brother has a GED, and my sister is still working on passing the GED.)

She also, during the time that my behaviors were the most difficult until she married her third husband, was the primary wage earner in our household.

But beyond all this, she instilled some of the basic principles that have gotten me to where I am. She respected my wishes and goals about school, and later on- around age 14- about medication. She encouraged me to be involved in advocacy, including asking me to be on my first panel at age 12. But beyond that, she taught me a bit about how it is our civic duty to work for what is just.

 Current

Now she has her own needs disability wise. She can’t do the driving she used to without being in extensive pain. She has to do a lot of self care to stay off of medications. While she supports when and where she can, she actually isn’t able to do as much as she used to. And that is fine- it has to be, if we are living the sort of life that matches what we believe about access and self care and  love.

We are relearning what it means to support each other as our needs change and grow. I’ve had my skills and abilities vary greatly in the past 7 years. I can actually articulate the things that happened to me better, and as a result my mother is learning more and more about what happened when she wasn’t there, and what I’ve tried to communicate but couldn’t in the past.

At the same time, though, I’m not as easily verbal as I was. It takes more effort to say things verbally, even though I have more words and a better grasp for them now. While I don’t pretend I have nothing to say to avoid letting people know Words drop out on me, they do drop out more often. (We think this is because of the amount of stress I’ve been under with housing). I also have had my anxiety around phone use spike.

When I was little, I pantomimed what I wanted when the words couldn’t come, and she thought it was a game I played. Now she knows, and I’ve had a chance to explain that it was never a game on my side. As I got older, if I couldn’t verbalize what I wanted I pretended that I didn’t want or need. Now, I can send her a message on facebook at any time, and she will respond no matter where I am- across the country or across the room.

Over the past year, my relationship with my mother has shifted around, become more complex on some levels and yet simpler on others. Simpler, because we now both know that the standards for communication out in “normal” land aren’t suitable. Complicated, because her roles have changed along side her needs. And while her role shift went smoothly on me being my own advocate, being able to balance asking her for help with respecting her own needs as a PwDs isn’t smooth at all.

In example

When I contact my mom over facebook, for a long time I had to initiate. And then one day, from across the room, she sent me a message asking me a question. It wasn’t a complicated one, it didn’t need an elaborate explaination or links to make sense. Indeed, it was something mundane. But the fact that she was willing to ask it in what is essentially “my” lanuage instead of hers and waiting for an answer? That was pretty amazing.

I love you mom. And not just for your kitten pictures.

I reached out to a number of bloggers to write about mothers, relationships with parents and parent figures of choice good *and* bad, and what it means to express familial (family) love as/with Autistic and Neurodiverse people. I will post links later in the week, but this is both for our community and as a huge mother’s day gift.

 I’d also like to remind everyone that it’s International Autism Acceptance Year (IAAY) April 2012-April 2013, and that all this year, various community members will be doing projects around it, thanks to the organizational skills of Paula Durbin-Westby.

A Quick Update

It has been a while since my last post, and I have a lot of stressful stress happening. I do have plans for several entries this spring that I hope to get written, but I wanted to give a very quick update in the mean time. It’s my hope that I’ll manage to get a post out on each of these issues this spring.

First, a reminder: Loud Hands Project is still taking donations for 7 more days/until the end of march15th, 2012. The initial fundraising goal of $10, 000 to fund the anthology was met, but there are more benchmarks. If we can reach the next one, $15,000, in the next few days LHP will be able to do a documentary on Eugenics and Autism. That’s only about $1300 to meet that benchmark- and there are more benchmarks after that that you can read about on the website.

If you know me personally, you know that for the past year and roughly two months, I’ve not had a permanent residence. Thankfully, I’ve had family in my area who have alternated care of me. I stayed for several months at my grandmother’s last spring, stayed in a building owned by family that isn’t technically livable over the summer in a camping style, and since September have alternated between my sister’s and my mother’s. It’s very hard on me, and it is hard on my family. We’ve been trying, with the help of my Intensive Case Manager, to navigate the housing system, but with little luck. I’m hoping that I’ll have some resolution on this soon so that I can process some of it to share.

During the time that I stayed at the old house, I had an incident with sexual harassment that might be mentioned in another post. I thought at the time I was being targeted because of being poor, but my sister thinks that the fact that everyone in that little town is very aware of me being disabled was a factor. So I’m hoping to get a post on sexual harassment written. It would have been nice to have written it for International Women’s Day today, but I just couldn’t get it together.

I’ve gotten involved with a group of self advocates called Self Advocates United as 1. They asked me to join their board, and to become a trainer. I got a chance to visit a couple of state developmental centers to teach self advocacy skills for the people still living in the centers to use. It was a great experience. I loved being around other people with disabilities, and I learned a lot about audience participation and involvement from fellow board member and trainer, Larry Kubey. (Larry is also THE music man- he knows almost everything there is to know about pop music from the 60s on.)

I’m looking forward to an event in May where we will be gathering questions about moving into the community from the people from the centers who are looking to move in the next couple of years and addressing them to providers in the community. Hopefully, some of the myths and misconceptions people have about community living can be addressed, and help people feel more confident about their choice to move into the community.  I hope to have something on community living this spring or even early summer to share with you all.

I went to a specialized psychiatrist in Pittsburgh, and had one of the best experiences I’ve ever had with this type of doctor. The facility specializes in people with developmental disabilities, and the particular doctor I saw had a lot of books on OCD, Anxiety Disorders, and Autism on his shelves. Because I’ve had so many horrible experiences, I found it remarkable- as did my mother- and so you should expect a post on this next. Depending on my anxiety levels, I might even get it done this week or next.

It’s my hope that you can use it in a couple of ways: 1) to know that not all psychiatrists are going to be horrible. 2) to have an idea of what might or might not work for you to look for in your search for a psychiatrist that will respect you. 3) To show your psychiatrist or care provider that they don’t have to be so horrible.

Of course, I’ll also be writing a post for Autism Acceptance Day‘s blog carnival this year as well. I’m not sure of the topic yet- and one of the above topics might end up being my post for it- but I do have plans for it. It would be great to see some new writers contributing this year, too, and I’m willing to provide some basic support where I can if you want to try.

The last thing I want to make sure I mention is a little post I am planning on doing for Mother’s Day. I’d love to hear from people about their mothers, or about mother figures’ experiences getting unconventional expressions of love from their families to either share or link to in my post. I’m going to be talking a bit about how even though many of the masculine figures in my life perpetuated some serious abuse- which I’ve discussed elsewhere- how my mother worked hard to support me.

I think that this is especially important, not just because I want to recognize my mother, but because my Autistics Speaking Day post was initially mentioned (and since amended!) in a round up as pointing out parents/allies as the problem, and that wasn’t my intent at all. I think many parents end up coming into the support role with this idea that their voices and experiences are centered. That they are “the voice” of their kids rather than the facilitator of their kid’s “voice.”

And that’s true no matter what level of communication your child has. You are there to facilitate their needs and interests being met. And the role of facilitator becomes more and more just facilitating as your child grows. And now I’m ranting, and I’m going to end now. Basically, I want to reaffirm my gladness for my own mother’s support and facilitation of my needs, and in the process celebrate similar mothers/maternal figures who have demonstrated excellent ally-ship.