Sunday, December 26, 2010

An After-Christmas Smorgasbord: Rhetorical Questions, Political Correctness & Tone Deafness: Rejecting the Angry Places

Twitter, facebook, various blog directories, Yahoo and Google news alerts are all familiar ways to most readers to get caught up with the world, and specifically for us, the autism-related world. This morning I read Susan Senators' serious post about the way the world views her two oldest sons and Autism and Oughtism's piece on when it's okay to laugh and when it's not. These are heavy pieces and speak to our human frailties, tendencies to inaction or covert action. They both speak to the pain we can feel as parents and to our darker moments. They're not light reading, but they're thought-provoking and worth the effort. It was not a bad way to start the morning, just a serious way to start it.

What came next in my things to read  this morning came through Wrong Planet's twitter feed: "Asperger vs NT war.: Who would win?Why? Assume that the Neurotypicals and ASD in the war are both equal in terms....There are a few answers to the thread, most saying NTs would, and one saying whoever had the most money. And all I could think is what the heck kind of question is that to ask the morning after Christmas, any day for that matter?

What is with this way of framing the world two dimensionally that we all do it? The haves and the have-nots, the in-group and the out-group, the disabled and the non-disabled. It's not that cut and dried. It's not that black and white. And as long as we focus on false dichotomies, it's going to be incredibly difficult to build a truly supportive, inclusive community.

The personality traits (when we remove aspects of crippling disability that are involved on the severe end of autism) that are involved in autism are spread throughout all of humanity; there is no clear dividing line between a fictional neurotypicality and Asperger's, and neither state of being is superior or more worthy. I look at my children and see my husband, my parents, my brothers, and myself reflected back from them. I see shared personality traits and quirks and issues that make us the complex, interesting people that we are. I see the adversities that my children work to overcome, some of which I've had to overcome as well. The idea, the very notion, of positing a war with Asperger's and NTs is absurdity. 

I get that my kids are literal thinkers; so many who are not on the spectrum are literal thinkers as well. That isn't something the ASD has the corner on. I get that many on the spectrum have difficulty with theory of mind. So do a whole lot of folks who are not on the spectrum; drive through a school parking lot and you'll see lots of evidence that most folks aren't using their theory of mind. There is a tremendous overlap of traits, attitudes, and behaviors between all people, so that we have more in common that not. We must focus on these areas of commonality in order to build community. We must see the humanity in others and recognize that it is the same humanity within ourselves.

We must be willing to join our friends in their darker, sadder ponderings, as I did with Susan and Autism & Oughtisms this morning, so that we can be a support, so that we can bear witness, even when we're not quite certain what to say in response, so that we are none of us alone on this journey. 

But I think we have to reject the kind of rhetoric displayed, even if in jest, on Wrong Planet this morning. I think it's easy, terribly easy to set ourselves up as one side in a battle against an implacable enemy, and I have no doubt that many in this community do indeed set themselves up in this way: bitter enemies on a battlefield, each certain of their mental superiority and the righteousness of their cause. 

I read them hammer down the other, time after time, day after day. There's no exchange of ideas, no transmission of information, just an incessant, pointless hammering, with people thinking it perfectly acceptable to call pediatricians "Propaganda Prostitute for the Vaccine makers" and another to cast me as her "old foe, KWombles, hi Kim, speaking out in deception on the side of toxic vaccines...Good thing people aren’t duped by you here working to do so as most are awake now a days & those in the dark or on the fence are soon to meet reason & logic once they start paying attention." The one thing I can say absolutely is that I've never considered this particular individual a foe.

Reading blogs and forums in our community can be landmines waiting to be set off, setting us up to take a tailspin if something connects too painfully, or if we read something so utterly off the deep end that we wonder at both the moral compass and sanity of some of the people we come across. And I wonder, when I read those so far entrenched, what must the weight of their burdens be to be so utterly lost and devoid of hope, of light, of reason? I do not consider them my enemy, my foe, or an outsider; I am not naive enough to think we can change those people, reason them out of positions they didn't reason themselves into in the first place, but keeping a check on them is a good thing to do. There is an underbelly to this community and at any moment, it can reach out and try to tear us down into it.

But it is an underbelly, not the whole beast, not the entire story, and there is so much love, so much light, and so much beauty in the midst of pain and heartache that the journey of being part of this community is well worth the price of admission. Heather writes about embracing Christmas, this first one without her daughter, and I am overwhelmed by her grace. Eric writes about his son and celebrating Christmas and the issues they face with his son's seizures, and I am honored to watch this father battle for his son's life and well-being. Born 2b Me wishes his readers a merry Christmas, as do many of the bloggers on the directory, and there is joy and peace and love on most blogs this holiday weekend. Corina offers a lovely drawing at her blog, and Clay shares some coca-cola videos at his blog. Matt has a cartoon on Rudolph that will make you smile. 

And so this morning, I end my reading on an upnote, amazed at the grace, the fortitude, the joy, and the compassion that is out there in our community, just waiting to be found and shared. I have seen into the dusty corners where our fears lay, I've seen into the closet where the monsters lie in wait, and I have pulled the shades to the sides of the windows and let the sun in. All these things are a part of our world, our community. And we must face them all, ideally together, so that we are none of us alone and without hope.


Jen said...

I prefer to stick to the supportive positive side of the internet when it comes to autism. I find that question about who would win very insulting, why does it have to come down to winning? I also think very literally and while I do not have an ASD (maybe I do) I have some mighty fine traits :)

Happy New Year to everyone at the directory, I hope it is peaceful and positive for all of us:)


kathleen said...

What Jen said :) Merry and Happy!

Anonymous said...

Thanks for mentioning my blog Kim.
When I started to look into Asperger's, I happened to find myself in a very kind, courteous, upbeat and supportive corner of the spectrum blogosphere. I feel very blessed, and I am grateful to have found my friends in Aspie Bloggyland!

Kim Wombles said...


I'm glad you've had positive experiences in the blogosphere! :)

I'm hoping that while we may not be able to avoid all negativity, we can cultivate a positive, supportive environment and avoid the drama if we choose to!

Landon Bryce said...

I understand the feelings expressed here, and agree with most of them. I wish I saw more respect for Wrong Planet as a safe place where people with autism can talk without being judged by NT people. I would feel betrayed if a post I made there was pulled out as an example of what's wrong with the online AS community. I would not feel that way about something from my blog being used in the same way.

I don't much difference between the Wrong Planet thread about war and the sort of humor Autism and Oughtism discusses. It's appropriate for people to use both humor and hypotheticals to deal with the stress that autism causes.

I think about the fragmentation of the autism community every day, and I share your concerns, really. But I don't think conflating Wrong Planet and Age of Autism, which you do sort of do here, is enlightening in any way.

The communicative difficulties faced by people with autism make it impossible for most of us to write things that are as lengthy, coherent, and emotionally compelling as the parent posts you begin with. To move directly from those to the Wrong Planet thread seems unfair, doesn't it?

Finally, the timing issue. For many of us, Christmas feels like a war zone. It's a time when we are bombarded not just with lights, noise, weird food, and changes in routine. We are also bombarded with other people's emotions, their need for us to conform to them, their annoyance when we cannot. To have autism is in many ways to live in a world which is at war with you. There is a point where the compassion of other people ALWAYS fails, where you are simply too odd to be seen as fully human. That happens more often at Christmas than on normal days.

Kim Wombles said...

Landon, I appreciate your thoughts.

I actually ran across that particular thread from Wrong Planet on twitter. It wasn't in a closed forum. I'm not sure that I engaged in any particular judgment; I asked what kind of question is that to ask. Period. I think that's a fair question, regardless of who's asking that kind of question.

I never mentioned Age of Autism in this post, nor did I conflate the AoA rhetoric with the post at Wrong Planet. What I linked was black and white, two dimensional, them-or-us rhetoric.

I don't think compassion and empathy have to reach the point where they fail. I don't. And I say that as the mother of three on the spectrum. Our holidays are not more stressful because we do not set up a situation where our children's needs are not considered.

I get having issues with noise, with light, with being overbombarded with sensory information (because I share those issues), so I make sure my children don't have to deal with that.

That's my job: to respect who they are and what they can handle and to not ask or demand more than they can give. Or to think less of them because they have limitations. We all have limits. We all have issues. Some of us have more. Understanding and empathizing that we each bear different issues that we must manage is the most important thing I can teach my children.

And my kids are fully human. Always. Forever. And I'd kick some serious ass if anyone ever looks at them as anything but.

It really pisses me off that anyone would look at anybody as less than human; if that's happened to you, I'm so sorry.

Landon Bryce said...


Thanks for your response, and your compassion.

I guess you are not aware that the Facebook "Like" button was recently removed from Wrong Planet because of concerns about threads being put in public places. I doubt that any of the people who participated in the thread knew that it was being shared on Twitter. It is my observation that many people view Wrong Planet as a support group. It is just about the only place where it is acceptable to actually act like someone who has Aspergers.

What do you see as the difference between the humor described in Autism and Oughtism post you approve of and the Wrong Planet thread you don't?

I think the primary difference is the communicative ability of the writer. I think you are judging people with autism for talking like people with autism, in a place where it is completely appropriate for them to do so.

Kim Wombles said...


I follow Wrong Planet on twitter, but don't often have time to go to the site. With twitter and nearly 500 blogs to read on the directory, I don't get out and around to many of the forums and other communities.

I didn't express approval; I noted that the first two pieces I read were "heavy pieces and speak to our human frailties, tendencies to inaction or covert action. They both speak to the pain we can feel as parents and to our darker moments. They're not light reading, but they're thought-provoking and worth the effort."

I'm not sure how that is taken to be approval of humor in one place and rejection of humor in another. I think that humor is an integral and key part of adaptive coping, but that some humor is not helpful but instead harmful, and I think that it's important to take care of what kind of humor we use.

Was the writer being humorous at Wrong Planet? There's no way to tell; no emoticons to lead the way, and nothing in the answers to suggest it was humorous, but humor, whether it was there or not, was not my point. It still isn't, as I wasn't expressing approval in one place and rejection in another.

My point was and remains on the false dichotomies we tend to delineate our world into, which this simple question provided an example of, as did the quotes later on.

I did not place two-dimensional thinking on the side of autistic people. I placed it at all our doorsteps. We ALL do it. We all create ingroups and outgroups.

And it is an unnecessary and unreal barrier to true community building and acceptance of all people.

One of my favorite people to read is Joseph Campbell. Cyril Morong writes, "Joseph Campbell said over and over that all of us living on planet earth now need to identify with one group: the entire human race, not any one racial, ethnic, or economic group. The world community is (or needs to be) a community of heroes. Be heroic and you will help yourself and your community while promoting the values of your community."

When we divide ourselves into arbitrary groups, we place those common connections that unite us at a distance that doesn't need to be there. Acceptance isn't possible as long as we keep placing people into specific, arbitrary groups, as long as we keep making outgroups and ingroups.

I really hope that my children feel free to be themselves, that my friends feel free to be themselves, no matter where they are or who they are. That's the whole point of Kathleen and I working on Respect for Infinite Diversity and the directory: acceptance of people for who they are where they are.

Ummm, and just to note, proportionally, most my time is spent with people on the spectrum or on the broader autism phenotype than it is with "neurotypicals." Seriously. Three kids on the spectrum. My husband and I have, in varying degrees, all the broader autism phenotypes going on (we just note we're BAPpy). Our extended family does as well. In other words, we're quirky as hell, with our fair share of issues, and my kids come by their autism naturally.

Kim Wombles said...

I have to work hard to overcome the natural instinct to be a literal thinker as well (ah, and if I'm doing full disclosure, when I do write figuratively, like I did in my latest post about pits, I actually visualize people in the bottom of a pit when I'm writing it), so I understand my kids' tendency towards it. In other words, I don't think I was judging autistic people for behaving autistically. There wasn't a judgment there, at least not a negative one. There was the use of a quote to discuss the idea of false dichotomies.

I think I've demonstrated in my comments that you've inferred things I did not write in my post and that I am not condemning autistic people for communicating in an autistic manner.

I am pointing out that when we reduce ourselves to black and white thinking, we make community building more difficult than it should be. Two-dimensional thinking is not the sole purview of autistic people; it is a common trait across all people. And it is one we must overcome.

Kim Wombles said...

When I wrote this piece, there were two or three comments to the Wrong Planet post, Landon, not the two pages worth. Humor obviously took over, but at the time, there was no indication that it wasn't serious. It's nice to see the humor, but the point of my piece remains: two dimensional thinking is a serious barrier to community building.

Landon Bryce said...


I still think you are looking at the words in your post and not admitting that you ask people with autism to do one of two things:

A) Display a level of communicative skill that is completely unrealistic for many("Was the writer being humorous at Wrong Planet? There's no way to tell; no emoticons to lead the way, and nothing in the answers to suggest it was humorous")


B) Shut up unless they have happy things to say ("Corina offers a lovely drawing at her blog, and Clay shares some coca-cola videos at his blog. Matt has a cartoon on Rudolph that will make you smile")

Two dimensional thinking is a huge barrier to community building. It is also part of the diagnosis of autism. I respect and like you and a great deal, and am very appreciative of the work you do for our community. Thanks for the dialogue.

Kim Wombles said...

I appreciate the dialogue, but I can assure you I absolutely am not doing the latter.

As to whether I am doing the former, I may be asking more of people in general than they can do, not specifically autistic people.

The post is about two dimensional thinking. Two-dimensional thinking is not restricted to autistic individuals and is not part of the diagnostic criteria in autism, although it is widely understood to be a common feature (the problem is that it is ignored that it is a common feature in non-autistics, as well). I made it abundantly clear I was not referring to autistic people's tendency towards two-dimensional thinking, but that I was speaking to ALL our tendencies to engage in two-dimensional thinking.

The diversity of voices on the directory clearly indicates that I respect people's freedom of speech; the fact that there are bloggers listed on the directory whom I disagree with vehemently is clearly indicative of the fact that I don't expect or want them to shut up and that I count them a part of the community, regardless of what they write about.

I included a wide variety of blog posts in the post; ones that were heavy, ones that were not, and comments that demonstrated two-dimensional thinking. My post had a main message of trying to move beyond two dimensional thinking and of creating community. Again, there was no condemnation of the poster at Wrong Planet. I'm sorry that my use of that quote as a demonstration of two-dimensional thinking bothers you and leads you to believe that I have unrealistic expectations of individuals on the spectrum or want them to only be pleasant. Again, I think that the directory and my work across blogs clearly indicates that neither of these is true.

I think you continue to miss my point: two-dimensional thinking is not restricted to the autism community. It is widespread throughout all people. As long as we divide people into groups based on select criteria and then pit them against each other, it's going to be rather hard to form a society that is accepting of others' differences as it is those differences that will be seen as dividers and ways to place some people as less than others.

On a related note, while I believe that we should be compassionate and attempt to understand where others are coming from, that no one should be asked or expected to do more than he or she is capable of, I believe strongly in accountability. We own our words and our actions, and that goes across the board. You wouldn't hold a three year old accountable for what a twenty year old can do, of course. And online it's impossible to tell what a person's abilities are, so I try to cut slack, ask for clarification, or shrug it off. I do the same in real life, too.

While I believe strongly in accommodation for everyone, some basic agreement on what is acceptable behavior and what is not is necessary. For example, death threats are not okay, period, regardless of someone's abilities. Even casual threats of harm tossed out are not. It's part of parenting, to teach our children: this you can do, this you cannot. What should be malleable is the consequences to the unacceptable behavior. If the person cannot help it, is not capable, the consequences are different than they are for someone who intentionally commits the act knowing its wrongness.

As I wrote in my latest post on lines, there are some lines that cannot be crossed.

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