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.

Quiet No More- The Loud Hands Project

“Remember, you weren’t the one / who made you ashamed, / but you are the one / who can make you proud.”  – Laura Hershey, You Get Proud By Practicing

I think a lot of the people who read my blog are also people who have read Quiet Hands by Julia Bascom. (I actually already linked to it in my own Rocking (and Flapping) at a 1000 Revolutions a Minute.) If you haven’t yet, please go do so either now or after you’ve finished reading this post. Julia got a massive response, as Quiet Hands went viral. It became very obvious that it was describing an experience that a lot of us have either experienced or have observed, sometimes unaware of the emotional and communicative consequences.

One of the devastating effects of the phenomena that Quiet Hands describes is how it silences Autistic communication. For many of us- and particularly those of us with verbal communication difficulties- our hands are our primary communicative tool1. We stim with our hands, we supplement our language with gestures and pantomime, we use languages like ASL with our hands, we type with our hands, and even utilize AAC devices with them. Things we do with our hands is how we connect with one another- even if that community building isn’t recognized by others. So when our hands are stilled, we are silenced and isolated.

What, with this context, does having “Loud Hands” mean? Obviously it would have to embody the opposite of- and possibly counter to- the silencing described above.

The Loud Hands Project (which is being run as a project of ASAN) demonstrates a pretty good idea of what it could mean to have Loud Hands. The project description defines Loud Hands as “autism acceptance, neurodiversity, Autistic pride, community, and culture, disability rights and resistance, and resilience.” Essentially, efforts that work counter to the silencing and discrediting that comes with a culture that denies Autistics the ability to communicate in ways that are natural to us.

The Loud Hands Project (LHP) is planning on being a transmedia project, spearheaded by Julia Bascom. The current focus is on putting together a written anthology that will serve basically as a foundation document. Submission guidelines/call for submissions for the written anthology went live on January 8th. They include a number of prompts on what it means to be Autistic and aspects of Autistic culture, but they welcome submissions that aren’t answering the prompts while still reflecting “questions about neurodiversity, Autistic pride and culture, disability rights and resistance, and resilience (known collectively as having loud hands.)”

From there, the plan is to focus on multiple mediums as a way of documenting and curating Autistic culture and community, particularly as related to the afore mentioned concept of what Loud Hands means. And I do mean curating- one of the stated goals is to collect and store some of the founding documents of the Autistic community.

Another major direction is looking to be video projects, starting with the trailer (more on that in a moment). I’ve noticed a lot of brain storming for future videos for the LHP media collection, but the actual non-written media submissions aren’t open yet. (Opening of those submissions is still to be determined.) They are welcoming your ideas/brainstorming for future non-written submissions though! Eventually I believe that they will join the trailer on the Loud Hands Project Youtube channel.

Fundraising efforts- LHP is using indiegogo– were launched December 26th with the video below. (You can read a visual transcription/description on tumblr or at the youtube page itself.)

In the first 24 hours, the indiegogo campaign raised over $3000- and over $6000 at the end of the first week. As of 9:30pm January 10th (when I’m composing this entry) it hit $7463 USD. Fundraising ends March 15th with a goal of $10000 USD. UPDATE:  January 14th the $10000 goal was met. They are still collecting funds though- see the bottom of this post for more on this!

You can see the support levels, along with the number of people contributing at each level, at the LHP indiegogo page. Each support level has a different corresponding “reward” for your donation, ranging from a thank you email, to PDF pre-releases of the anthology, to signed hard copies donated to libraries in your name.

I personally feel that it is a much needed project, and am totally excited about it. As such, I’ve been trying to contribute in any way I can to this effort. I wrote the Visual Transcription mentioned above, as well as designing the Blog Badges (shown below) and writing most of the how to on using them.

Blog Badge- large. A large white person is holding a sign up that says "The Loud Hands Project". Below this image, text reads "The Loud Hands Project" and "Autistic People, Speaking". Below that it reads "Watch the Video. Read About the Project. Support the Work. Visit indiegogo for more about The Loud Hands Project."

The large blog badge, which I'm using in my own side bar; 170x300 pixels

Blog Badge- Small. A large white person is holding a sign up that says "The Loud Hands Project". Below this image, text reads "The Loud Hands Project" and "Autistic People, Speaking"

A smaller Blog Badge; 170x193 pixels

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I’m also (obviously) writing this blog post, and sharing it in my networks. Right now, LHP is on Twitter as @loud_hands and there’s a Loud Hands Project facebook page as well. (If you clicked through on my original link, you’ll notice that the Loud Hands Project is on tumblr as well.)

I think another interesting feature of the campaign is how various accessibility measures have been added.

The visual transcript for the trailer was requested before the campaign went live, which is kind of a big deal- while captions are becoming more popular, visual transcriptions are not as common. After all, they are time consuming to create- more so than image descriptions- and like image descriptions can be hard for people with visual processing issues to write. But they can be a big deal for visually based messages becoming accessible for the Blind, visually impaired individuals, and those with visual processing issues.

Additionally, there has been a recognition that language processing difficulties can be a barrier in sharing stuff like this. Two days after the campaign went live, scripts for sharing LHP‘s campaign went live.

This isn’t as uncommon to be accommodated, though outright recognition that it is an accommodation is, I think, less common. More often scripts get framed as “We recognize you are a Busy Professional Person™ who doesn’t always have time to handcraft sharing emails, so here’s an example you can use!” It has become something that, when present, isn’t seen as an accommodation, which would be great if it wasn’t for the resistance that those who do need this particular thing usually get when they have to ask for it. I think that in this context, the fact that the scripts are openly recognized as having an access function as well as being given in an overwhelmingly supportive manner in response to requests is significant.

And, of course, the blog badges have image descriptions and I’m going off to caption the lyrics to the song in the trailer via Universal Subtitles tonight. (Which means they’ll be up by the time this post goes live.)

I hope you’ll join me in supporting the Loud Hands Project. I hope you’ll link it, share it, tweet it, blog it, and post it. I hope, for those who have the money for even the lowest level of support ($10) , that you’ll donate. That you’ll encourage others to donate. And, once the fundraising campaign is over, that you’ll continue to support the projects of the Loud Hands Project.

I believe that we all should have Loud Hands, and that LHP is a great way to facilitate that. Not everyone is in a position where they can go and be safe stimming in public, or writing long blog posts, or have the supports to do speeches or attend protests or go to conferences like Autreat.  But it is possible for some of us to do some of the little things- making a video or a painting, answering a mini-prompt, constructing things in our own natural languages that say, “I am here. I exist. I can be proud.” These are the core of what it means to have Loud Hands.

The big things are great. But sometimes it’s the little ones together that end up being the loudest.

1 I recognize that some of us also have mobility difficulties that make using hands in particular not something that is doable. If you can think figuratively, hands is a stand in for all the other non-verbal techniques that people use to accomplish the things we are talking about. Our hands here are not just literally our hands, but our own means of communicating. The same goes for words like “voice” and “speaking”.

UPDATE (January 16th, 2012): On January 14th The Loud Hands Project met their $10000 USD goal. That’s right, in 19 days you- the supporters- met a goal that was planned to take 80 days. Great Job!

Seeing how much our community needs LHP, and with encouragement from indiegogo, LHP is going to continue fundraising through the original March 15th deadline with benchmark goals at $15,000, $20,000, and $25,000. You can read the details on the projects at the Loud Hands Project blog, but they include more videos, more documenting of our community, more supporting Autistics pursuing community, and the launch of the website and all of the resources that will bring.

It’s exciting- exciting because we need it, and exciting because it means that we won’t have to wait for the anthology to be a success before LHP will be able to start bringing more projects to us.

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.