I Didn’t Ask For That

“Boy, you’re asking for it!” The teen towers over me despite being a stair lower, and the fierce glower makes me flinch away, which moment is my undoing. The world spins as I am elbowed away, lurching drastically over the railing at the vertiginous two-story drop, then my footing slips and I am skidding down steps to crash on the midway landing. The herd of students storms past me, an impediment to their passage between classes. I didn’t ask for that, I protest silently as I taste blood, still unsure of what had precipitated the swiftly violent interaction in the first place.

“Well, if you’re going to choose to be irresponsible and leave your math book at school every day, then you’ve just made the decision to not have any reading time tonight,” declares my mother righteously. I meant to bring my algebra book home, really. I’m not trying to avoid the homework at all. I didn’t “choose” to forget my math book again. Nor am I deciding to forgo my favourite leisure activity. Not at all. In fact, I don’t remember being a part of any of that “decision” process whatsoever. I didn’t ask for that.

My graduate school advisor leans back in his desk chair and announces, “I need to know what your decision is.” I’m still numbly trying to absorb what-all his two page letter means. A few months earlier after my first research proposal meeting, I had described some of my learning difficulties to my committee members, and each had said they would help. But now the results of such difficulties are being flung back at me, described herein as deficiencies. He is informing me that I am being removed from a research Master’s degree. Decision? I have choices? Apparently so. “I don’t make snap decisions about important things,” I hedge, mostly because my brain’s freezing in shock at this unexpected turn of events. The hourly bell jangles out in the hallway, making me wince as usual, which in turn produces a twitch of annoyance in him at my “over-reaction”. “Well, let me know what you want,” he says by way of dismissal. After a few re-reads, the “decision” proves to be rather a dilemma between outright quitting the program (not mentioned in his letter, but implied) or taking a terminal degree. Which one did I “want”? I didn’t ask for that.

There is a seriously heavy, late-summer storm brewing outside, and the air is damp and prickly. I finished the daily reading lesson ten minutes ago and am squirming hyperactively around in my seat with nothing to do. My tights itch, and my dress sashes have come undone again, causing the calico to billow ticklishly. I’m six years old and in second grade, and have not yet learned how to fidget acceptably; “good sitting”, like “good penmanship”, is something that I struggle to achieve. I’m wobbling on my chair from sitting on an ankle, and leaned over sideways across my desktop with one arm rocking back and forth off the side, staring distractedly out the classroom window. Cumulus clouds are piling up into tumultuous towers and flattening at the top into an impressively green-grey anvil. An actinic far-violet flash of lightning rips from one end of the cloud to another, and impulse wins out again – I am plastered to the window to see more. “Andrea! Sit down in your chair.” The teacher trots me back to my assigned place, and no sooner than I get my behind on the chair seat, she clamps my shoulders to the chair back to emphasize how I am supposed to sit. “You really want to miss recess, don’t you? It’s reading time. You need to stay in and read your assignment.” But I’d already read the stupid story … spending half an hour more confined to my chair and reading it all over again, thus losing out my only opportunity to vent some energy and to go spinning on the playground carousel, wasn’t what I wanted at all. I didn’t ask for that.

Decisions? Choices? Hardly.

Choices are between things you want, or at least will accept. Situations like these aren’t even “forced choices”. Even the phrase “forced choices” is part of the problem. (A forced choice should really mean a situation more like, “Okay, you’ve narrowed it down to coconut or fudge ripple; the ice cream store closes in five minutes, so you need to decide now.”) It still implies volition upon the part of the person.

Situations like these really aren’t choices; given more than one option, they are dilemmas or predicaments between bad option and worse option or intolerable option. Some “option” indeed.

Sometimes the situation is couched in the language of “choice”, but has nothing to do with the person choosing for their self. The consequences are really decided by someone else, and the language is a distractor meant to bamboozle everyone. It’s doublespeak meant to transfer the apparent (symbolic) power to the one person who in actuality has little power over the situation.

It’s also about obedience deceptively, attractively, cloaked as “responsibility”. If you’re not being submissive to someone else’s wishes, then you’re “choosing” to be irresponsible even if there is no malicious intent. The punishment chosen for the transgression is tagged as self-selected and self-imposed, when it’s anything but.

If you “choose” to have difficulties or misbehave, then you’ve “decided” to be punished by losing privileges like a much-needed recess, or having major plans derailed, (or if you’re a student at JRC, missing some of your daily food ration or getting zapped with electric shocks) or –

I didn’t ask for that.

All Those Needy, Needy Kids!

From an email some years ago: 

" I have a friend who teaches Kindergarten in the town where I now live. She told me that last September over one half of her incoming Kindergartners had IEPs, with most of those children having an ASD."    

Well of COURSE they now have IEPs to help them with their scholastic issues. Why? Because the schools now offer services.  Why didn't we see kids with these kinds of "needs" in previous decades? Partly because some of those kids didn't even go to regular schools — they were kept at home or in institutions.  Those who did go to regular schools just had to struggle along. They rarely had IEPs and such because their parents didn't – couldn’t – ask for services that simply did not exist.

I had multiple needs. What I got were glasses for nearsightedness, speech therapy, and forced right-handedness. I also got told that my difficulties were due to being lazy, stupid, careless, inattentive, rude, or due to inventing problems just to make life difficult for my mother.

What they "missed" was the ADHD, Auditory Processing Disorder, Asperger’s, prosopagnosia (faceblindness) et cetera. Of course, they didn't really "miss" those things, because they didn't have the screening tools (or even the names) for all those things then.  (In a previous diagnostic incarnation, ADD used to be known as “minimal brain dysfunction”; charming, eh what?)

Because the school districts did not recognise those characteristics as creating problems for me or for other students, they did not have services for such.    That such a large percentage of students are now requiring various accommodations does not mean that we have a greater number of "damaged" children.  Rather, it means that we have more students who are actually getting diagnosed as not being able to learn the same way as most of their peers. 

It also means that we have an educational system that is poorly – too narrowly – designed to teach children.  Too often children are faulted for "being problems" rather than for "having different needs". And quite often it's not necessarily the child that has the problem; it's the way they educational process is set up.   

When people cannot work well in human-designed environments, it is not the fault of the people; it is bad design.


They are playing a game. They are playing at not playing a game. If I show them I see they are, I shall break the rules and they will punish me. I must play their game, of not seeing I see the game.

~ R.D. Laing, Knots

Oh, here we go again. I assert negative opinions about bad conditions, and people who don't like that opinion will assert that the problem is neither the bad conditions nor the bad conduct found there, but rather that:

I'm crazy.

"Be happy in your delusion" says "ann" on Kevin's blogpost on the JRC.

Ad Hominem attacks are always popular for dismissing the validity of people's arguments. That particular blogpost is an exciting thread for fallacy-spotting; there's also the related Tu Quoque, the good ol' Straw Man argument, retreating to Appeal to Common Practice to defend the use of pain-aversives, and in the above example, Appeal to Ridicule. Let's make trading cards and collect 'em all! But I digress.

It's not surprising to see this kind of reaction from people who are working at or have worked at places like the JRC. Such blanket rejection of the content or validity of someone's opinions by declaring them to be delusional very much reflects the whole power paradigm of such places.

Ditto the assertions that no one can know what is appropriate for the students in those places, unless they've actually seen the students to appreciate that somehow those students are worse than any others elsewhere, and that they both need and deserve electroshock punishment.

There's a whole recursive sequence of irrational statements and assertions that create this kind of entrenched mindset. It is, unfortunately, found in a great many wretched places, most of which present themselves as being good, helpful places for troubled people, such as psychiatric institutions.

I'm in charge. I know what's good for you. I'm responsible. You don't know what's best for you. If you disagree then you don't know what's going on. I know how things really are. If you disagree then you don't know how things really are. You must be delusional. No one will take what you say seriously. You have to accept that what we tell you is really real. Until you do, you're really just crazy.

Crazy people deserve what is being done to them. That's why you're here, after all; you're crazy. You're not capable of leaving until you become a good, sane person. Sane means you believe what we tell you is real. Good means you accept that you are wrong and are crazy.

If you were okay you wouldn't be here. You're here because you're not okay. You should be thankful that we're doing this for you. You would understand why this is necessary if you weren't delusional. Denying your problems just shows how bad you are.

Don't you go being smart! I never said we'd let you go if you told us what we wanted to hear. You're delusional. You don’t understand what’s going on. You're dangerous when you get delusional. We have to manage your behaviour because you're incapable.

Quit confusing people with nonsense stories. You need to apologise for bothering them! We can't let you talk to them any more because you've chosen to misbehave.You're just asking for it; now you have to face the consequences of your actions. This is for your own good––

Et cetera, ad nauseum. It's the kind of thing that ties one's brain up into horrid tangles. Some chilling details of such situations are described by a survivor on Ballastexistenz blog.

Schools are sometimes like this, too, as are some workplaces. These others are the sorts of situations that more people can relate to personally. The names and the details vary, but not nearly enough. The whole rationale is much the same.

Substitute "bad" for "crazy" if the student or employee complains about the system.

Or, substitute "lying" if the student or employee complains about the people there.

The whole purpose of this is to keep the people manageable by convincing them that they can't understand what is really going on, and that their own personal realities cannot be valid. Keeping people confused by deluding them as to what they are really experiencing will preoccupy them, and keep them from getting uppity. Learned helplessness prevents them from taking effective action.

If nothing else, one very, very important thing I have learned over the years is that,
When something seems confusing, it means that we don't have the whole story, and that we need more information.

All these knots of dismissal, denial and denigration are disabling. They are designed to snare one in traps, recursively wandering about in a standstill, and getting nowhere. They are meant to stifle enquiry.

Pain is always an alert of danger to an organism, be the pain physical or mental. That horrid, familiar sensation of wading through confusion should not freeze us, but rather send out warning klaxons:

WARNING! Obfuscation and deception.

Time to gear up in your Personal Protection Equipment. Grab the shovels and waders and engage the Bullshitometers, because it's gonna get deep …

Moving Into Commitment and Inclusiveness (PART 2)

Implementing personal change creates opportunities not only in the immediate sense, but also because you will find yourself connected to others in new and surprisingly beneficial ways.

However, the ripples can ricochet back in unexpected manners. Personal change that moves towards social change is always a threat to someone – often masses of someones. People often find change to be a threat, or they find differences to be threatening. Agents of change that push at the paradigm are therefore met with resistance. (Excruciatingly earnest but ineffective revolutionaries typically underestimate the weight of social inertia that buffers systems against major changes.)

But what is it that makes change – even social change obviously intended to improve opportunities for people – such a threatening concept? Why does challenging social assumptions create such opposition?

A lot of it has to do with the discomfort of having the world view pushed and challenged. "Cognitive dissonance" is an emotional reaction to events that contradict what you know; they make your brain hurt, as it were. To be able to accept that what you are experiencing is real means that you have to change your attitude, OR if you are to maintain your beliefs then you have to change how you are perceiving things. So, do you adjust your understanding of the world, or do you imagine things to be different than they are?

In this case, someone acting out of the paradigm (be it a social hierarchy, a expectation for a particular kind of social interaction, or a personal ability) challenges not just the hidden assumption that there is a paradigm. It also challenges that everyone must be contained and constrained within it, and that what they do is because of their position in that paradigm. It’s an artificial social construct. It’s not “real” except what we make real, and we can change that.

If people can't imagine why you would act the way you do, they may erroneously attribute various motivations or faults to you, despite the lack of real evidence for such. They then try to “put you in your place” because you are acting out of character, and not fitting into the expected social rôles. When you are trying to push for social change of some sort, especially for acceptance of differences, you are going to get a lot of challenges to this new agenda of inclusiveness.

People who assume they are normal can be trouble. They tend to go around changing the world to suit themselves; their standards are "community standards". "I'm normal, so if I like it this way, almost everyone else will. Right?”

~Glyn Webster

Inclusiveness is an extremely dangerous idea, because it redefines all of the miscellaneous parameters of what is “normal”. A great many ideas about “abnormal” did not fully exist until someone came along and set down specific boundaries about what constituted “normal”.

Artificial boundaries exist everywhere. A lot of people’s definitions of themselves are what groups they belong to, and those groups are partly defined by “otherness” – who and what they aren’t. People who have spent their entire lives in a world defined by exclusion, where exclusion defines many of the others as being not-normal and therefore not-okay, often do so without any consciousness about this exclusionary paradigm. It’s too entrenched and socially invisible.

Inclusiveness will only become normal when there is no Other to exclude. To do that, we have to realize that in most ways, in all the important ways, everyone is okay-normal for who they are. (It is intentional behavior that is acceptable or unacceptable, not the intrinsic qualities of a person.) We all pay a great price when people must go around pretending to be something else than what they are and someone else than who they are, and trying to "pass for normal".


Overcoming Inertia and Moving Into Commitment (PART 1)

So much of what people have been blogging about lately is the necessity for major changes in what assumptions are made about the abilities and worth of people, all kinds of people, even those that have been considered to be of so little worth as to need removal from the gene pool or to not even rank the status of murder victim.

High moral ground is easy to take. It’s abstract, refers to grand sweeping generalities, and oddly, often doesn’t make a lot of impact on our daily lives. It’s easy to witness for big things against the big impersonal bureaucracies or in demonstration marches. But it’s far harder to protest the steady barrage of small, deadly insults from family, neighbors, coworkers, neighbors, fellow church or club members and other acquaintances.

Part of this lies in the fact that writing a letter to an editor, or posting on a blog, or doing a public presentation all give one the opportunity to plan ahead, to contemplate and improve wordings and rationales, and to deliver precise quantities of verbiage in a manner that is calculated to be clear and rational. You can define the problem and explain your position.

Instead, real life happens. And here we find ourselves in odd moments with unexpected opportunities to assert that NO, this is not right!

“Normal” injustices are easy to point out. “No, wait a minute – the end of the queue is behind me.” That Mr Next-Guy-In-Line here in front of me is in a wheelchair doesn’t matter; no one should be treated as a nonperson or noncustomer. (And then the interloper apologises to me for having cut in front of me, still ignoring the man ahead of me in line!)

The unusual injustices are hard to point out. These are the things where the current paradigm so permeates culture that most people can’t even see the injustices. When those are pointed out, most people do not even understand why they are problems. Pointing these injusticess out attracts dismissal. Expecting and then demanding fair treatment on someone’s part earns denial. Being the recipient of denial and dismissal, not even being taken seriously, gives one the horrid sensation of fighting fog.

Full-fledged denigration would almost be easier than denial. Anger (even excruciatingly polite righteousness) is easier to deliver. But being “on a mission” when people fluff off your responses as unimportant or silly or borderline crazy or merely picky is very, very difficult.

It’s hard to advocate when people don’t even understand what the hell you are talking about. You’re not starting from ground zero, you’re starting from the negative integers. You can’t even protest the problem until you can define it for someone and then convince them it exists!

Moments like that can paralyze one, especially when they happen unexpectedly, and you are left standing there gawping with profound indignation, but finding that the words just don’t come. There are no set phrases laid down by Dear Abby or Miss Manners to initiate the right social scripts for some things. To ask for apology or to demand equal, human treatment requires the transgressor to understand the problem in the first place.

Hey, I’m not crazy or contagious with some loathsome disease or going to harm your children or steal your wares. I’m just exhausted from working nine hours and dizzy from the smells of the cleaning solvents and perfumes and new merchandise and all the crazy flickery lighting and background noises, and being ticcy, and having auditory processing delays, and flinching because my hyperacussis makes me overly sensitive to that sudden screech, and wearing my sunglasses inside because a migraine is creeping up on me, and HEL-LO Mr Cashier you don’t need to turn your back on me so you don’t have to acknowledge my presence and wait upon me, and Mommy you don’t need to drag your kids away, and Ms Assistant Manager don’t bother asking me if I want to sit down by the pharmacy so someone can call a responsible party to come fetch me. I’m just a harmless shopper who needs to get a few groceries and go home and make dinner for the family and then get some rest! I’m an otherwise Okay Person and I belong here!

Being able to advocate in such situations can be hard at first. It’s certainly not a lack of desire. It’s not necessarily a lack of ability. Given enough moments alone, some useful scripts can be formulated and practiced, to have on hand for those brain-dead moments. The hard part is overcoming the decades of inertia that have been trained into one. Be a good little victim. Don’t inconvenience people. It’s not important. Who the hell are you to complain?

Personal change is not always easy. It’s not usually the cognitive impetus that is difficult; sometimes it’s not even the emotional impetus. It’s the inertia that holds us back, that prevents us from speaking up when something wrong is happening, or from speaking out and initiating changes. The internal change cannot be merely called forth just by wanting it.

On the cusp of genesis is the threshold of inertia. You must gather sufficient momentum to force, to hurtle yourself through the portal. Up to that very grain of time is an oozing molasses of eternity that impedes the effort, although the mind is halfway on the other side. But mere movement is not enough, for mere movement is not progress. To overcome the inertia and move into change, you need sufficient commitment. Not just commitment to an idea, although that is first necessary, but commitment of the heart towards a goal, a purpose for something.

Once that commitment is invested, the portal is not just a change from one room to the next, but a threshold that lets you fall upwards with a single large, fateful step …


Personal change is dangerous, not for the person taking the step, but for everyone else. The person who makes that transition is pushing at the very assumptions of the common paradigm, because any major changes you make in yourself are going to create ripples that affect others.

It’s this ripple effect that creates some of the inertia – you have to want to step forward, not just for yourself, but also at risk of changing the way others relate to you.

What helps create some of the crystallization of will is the realization that implementing change not only creates ripples, but also creates opportunities. “Nothing succeeds like success”, and crossing that threshold is a success. It is not only a moment of empowerment, but also of genesis. It initiates a hub and lightning rod for other changes; you acquire some of the momentum of the universe, and previously unimagined and oft-unexpected things are now drawn to you; new webs of connectivity sprout and catch onto the new hub, and you find yourself meeting people and getting aid, encouragement and inspiration from unexpected sources. This liberation and delight also means that you are now an agent of change yourself, and can in turn connect with and help others …

The Plural of Testimonial is not __________.

Remember when you were a young school child and your class had the exciting event of a visiting speaker to the classroom? Later on after the presentation, your teacher then had the opportunity to use that event as the basis for an exercise on How To Write A Letter. Chances are the class’ letters went something like this:

Dear Mr Visitor,
Thank you for coming to our class to talk about blah.
It was very interesting.
Now we know lots of blah-blah-blah.
Yours truly,
A. Student*

Having been the adult recipient of such, I can vouch that there’s a not-so amazing consistency in the form that these letters take, and I’m not referring to the construction paper covers. Whenever a number of people are invited to write a document, and their efforts are in direct response to a series of questions, there is going to be a formulaic quality to the answers.

Requesting feedback on specific services in itself is not necessarily a biased thing; for example, when the employing colleges or inviting organisations ask the attendees for evaluations of instructors or guest speakers, there are specific factors about the presentation that are being assessed.

However, when eliciting responses one has to be careful to not slant the wording of the questions so the responses are not biased. Similarly, verbal requests for impromptu responses or exit surveys must likewise be worded carefully to prevent coaching.

It’s very rare that every client or conference attendee will fill out an evaluation form; the office responsible for creating evaluation summaries has to realize that such volunteers are going to be somewhat self-selecting, if for no other reason than the fact that those were the people who weren’t in a hurry to get somewhere else. On the other hand, a true evaluation has to look at all the all the responses returned. A cherry-picked group is never going to be representative of the entire cohort.

When looking at any kind of response document, there are shadows behind the discourse that merit critical analysis. These include the unwritten assumptions of the author, such as who they considered to be their audience, what they presume the audience to know, and what kinds of details were deemed necessary to include to support the statements given.

What is not included is also equally important. Unless the document is an expository theme or persuasive essay, there are beliefs about social reality that are built in the framework of the discourse and are not explicitly mentioned.

These beliefs are assumed to be mutually held and self-evident. (You know, the sorts of assertions that when challenged, provoke a, “Well of course we had to …” response.) Sometimes people aren’t even aware of these world-views, because they are so encompassing, not unlike like fish being unaware that water is “wet”.

I don’t claim to be a forensic linguist, but as an author and behavioural observer, the following curiosities from the Judge Rothenberg Center’s Web site (the 18 testimonial letters and excerpted quotes all referred to therein as “comments” by JRC parents) certainly caught my attention.

Like the children’s thank-you letters, there’s a formulaic quality to them. It shows through in the sentence structure and word choices. Theoretically it’s possible that those letters represent the way the parents always compose missives; we naturally lack known writing samples for comparison. And yet … one gets the impression that there are leading questions that yield repeated patterns of content.

Our child has X and did YYY. No place else helped him.
JRC uses the “GED” skin shock device.
Now he is controllable. The “GED” is the answer!
He has been there for years. We are very happy.

Okay, that’s a trifle simplistic; the testimonials that are letters are longer. My example is a distillation of quotes.

On the amazon.com site, you have probably seen the term "statistically improbable phrases", which refers to those constructions and idioms specific to the particular book being described. They are phrases that jump out of the text because they’re not the sorts of things commonly found in writing.

In this kind of critical analysis, if a writer inserts a few "twenty-dollar words" when the rest of the letter is just "fifty-cent words", they stand out. They are statistically improbable phrases, or compositional outliers. There will always be some terms that people will just pick up from interactions with staff (such as using the term “GED”). But in verbal and written communication most lay people don't go around using jargon specific to a particular discipline or industry. When those "twenty-dollar words" show up, well, one gets the impression that there likely are leading questions or requests guiding the effort. A prime example of this would be the Shields letter, which is composed of a series of declarative sentences, but also includes the expanded technical phrase: “GED” skin shock device.

Surprisingly, JRC is not just a temporary location for controlling children with behaviour problems; it’s also an institution for lifetime confinement. Some of the inmates have been there for over a decade, at least as reckoned by the dates of their parents’ letters.

“We are the parents of a 35 yr. old autistic adult. He has been in this program since he was 19.” (Shields)
A 32-year old autistic adult has been in this place under the GED aversive system for over ten years. (Soucy)
Yet another person has been there for eleven years, also past legal majority. (Slaff)

Another parent describes their child as benefiting from the GED (or rather, “GED” is the typed word repeatedly pasted over the handwritten note), because “it helps her to eat better, exercise better, learn better, socialize better, and enjoy life better”. ( Bognar) Personally I have to wonder how being the recipient of repeated electric shock punishment enables one to “enjoy life better”.

Obviously, JRC feels the need to assert and validate the necessity for using the “GED” skin shock device; there are people such as myself who strongly disagree with the necessity and efficacy of using punishment. Lots of companies use testimonial letters to show off their satisfied customers. But this isn’t about carpet cleaning. This is about people trying to convince us that systematic, repeated punishment under inescapable conditions, i.e. torture, is both beneficial and necessary.

Now, what’s one of our favourite fallacy flatteners? The plural of anecdote is not data. Or in this case, the plural of testimonial is not validation.


* Not to be confused with the author of Student’s t-distribution, who was actually Mr W. S. Gosset, a chemist at Guinness Breweries (statistics classes aren’t completely dull!)

Going Through the Motions

“I’ve been making a list of the things they don’t teach you at school. They don’t teach you how to love somebody. They don’t teach you how to be famous. They don’t teach you how to be rich or how to be poor. They don’t teach you how to walk away from someone you don’t love any longer. They don’t teach you how to know what’s going on in someone else’s mind. They don’t teach you what to say to someone who’s dying. They don’t teach you anything worth knowing.”
~ Neil Gaiman

“Pay attention!” my mom would command, “Look at me when I’m talking to you!”

And then I’d wonder to myself, (Which? Pay attention to what she was saying, or look at her eyes when she was talking to me?)

Eye contact among autistics is a funny thing; some can do it easily, some situationally, some rarely, a few never at all. Interestingly, how well someone can make eye contact has no bearing as an indicator on how well one can socialize, the verbal-communicative abilities or other-communicative abilities, intelligence, sensory sensitivities, or any number of other traits sometimes associated with autism. (I also work with children with other developmental disabilities who can make excellent eye contact, but have great difficulty with verbal communication and other kinds of social interactions.)

Eye contact is also a cultural thing, as such is considered to be rude in other parts of the world, meaning that gaze aversion is not necessarily a problem elsewhere.

So basically, one’s ability to make eye contact when interacting with people doesn’t mean squat in regards to other abilities. It just means that making eye contact can be difficult.

Personally, it’s something I have to make a conscious effort to do in job interviews, doing public speaking, and in some conversations. This conscious process distracts from other mental efforts, such as the extra work required by my Auditory Processing Disorder, and making the eye contact is also distracting in itself because it detracts from my ability to retrieve and process information needed for the conversation. Some of my perceived “making eye contact” is really just me doing a little lip-reading when there’s background noise getting in the way of auditory filtering and decoding.

And yet, in this part of the world the eye contact issue is a big deal for some people, or so you’d believe from reading various kinds of autism resources. People spend great amounts of time ensuring that their autistic children learn to do this when they are expected to do so.

Like teaching a Deaf child to lipread and use speech, some kinds of social training are emulator processes. The perceived improvements in communication can be deceiving because the Deaf person is not necessarily getting the same quality level of communication from the process, and is working many more times harder than anyone else to get what they do.

Recent research by Dr Gwyneth Doherty-Sneddon and others at Stirling University has shown that gaze aversion reduces the cognitive load (amount of mental processing required), thus enabling both adults and children to better recall information and to better formulate responses. Requiring eye contact actually reduces the factual quality and the verbal complexity of responses.

So when we teach and require eye contact, what we must ask is, Who really benefits from this? Does it help the autistic? Or does it mostly just make the neurotypicals (NTs) feel more comfortable? Is the autistic really getting the same results (of being able to discern the non-verbal communication), or are they just going through the motions?

This is important – it’s not just window dressing designed to put others at ease – if the autistic person merely appears to be conversing typically, then the NT half of the dialog assumes that the rest of the communication is also happening. And of course, when something isn’t perceived by the autistic, the NT is frustrated and may erroneously attribute rudeness or lack of caring. And/or, the NT is confused because the non-verbal signals the autistic is giving off don’t jibe with what is “supposed” to be going on.

In any regard, if one is not getting the real or perceived benefits, then it’s just play-acting. It’s an elaborate social lie and a misrepresentation, and ultimately benefits no one. Furthermore, trying to stamp out gaze aversion makes various kind of mental processing more difficult, and for crying out loud, no one needs more mentally-taxing work!

Parents, therapists, educators and clinicians are focusing on the wrong thing (pardon the pun). Eye contact or gaze aversion is merely a sidetrack issue. What people are really concerned about is whether or not the individual of concern (child or adult) is truly engaged in the communication process. Is there mutual participation, comprehension, and the ability to share understanding and information? These are the real concerns that we need to be looking at.


The Crime of Punishment

The unfolding layers of cruel imprisonment and torture of students with mental/emotional problems and learning or developmental disabilities at the Judge Rotenberg Center as described in this report have created ongoing responses by horrified and angry posts by parents, professionals, and survivors of similar places (e.g. Kevin Leitch’s Autism Blog Web Design Blog, Mike Stanton’s blog Action for Autism, or Amanda’s blog Ballastexistenz).

I won’t list the litany of carefully crafted, systematic and officially sanctioned malfeasance described in the Report, which span a range of criminal, irrational, abusive, and generally mindf**king evils that are only more shocking for the fact that so many people seek to defend them as being sensible and necessary. You really need to read the report to understand that the anger generated by the JRC & its head Matthew Israel are far from over-reactions.

What I do want to bring up are my thoughts on the whole underlying paradigm of punishment that such institutions, and indeed much of society, are operating on. It’s not enough to shut down one place (and given the current political climate, that will be far more difficult than should be compared to other bureaucratic efforts). We have to understand how such things come about, and continue to pop up. Otherwise we’re just picking off mushrooms and not addressing the fact that the entire structure is rotting and permeated with fungal mycælium.

Once upon a time, long time ago, when people had problems in life (being sick or poor for example), these were seen as due to divine punishment for being sinful. Centuries later in more enlightened times, problems were seen as being due to the natural consequences of being sinful (a Renaissance, humanistic perspective). More modernly, problems were seen as resulting from people choosing to be sinful, so they therefore deserve punishment from other people or from God. (I’m speaking generally here, so history majors will have to keep their corrective twitches to themselves.)

All of these revolve around the idea that humans are inherently sinful – and if people have problems, it’s their fault. Because it’s their fault, they should have to deal with the consequences.

That sounds reasonable on the surface, but what it really means is that people are often being punished for having problems. E.g., if you’re poor, it’s because you’re lazy and sinful and deserve to be poor.

Furthermore, the “help” given to people often seeks to perpetuate the status quo – the person who is being the helper gets cosmic brownie points. Such “help” is about doing things to people rather than doing things with them; it reinforces power inequalities and objectifies people. It’s about maintaining these paradigms rather than empowering people.

In classroom situations, this kind of helping or behaviour “management” just creates tasks defined by what the giver (teacher, administrator, special education therapist) wants done, rather than by what the receiver actually needs, or is able more better suited to do. (If that doesn’t seem true, ask yourself if you ever had teachers who gave out pages of “busy work” that were neither useful nor needed, just to keep the students busy and quiet for the teacher’s benefit. Or, did you ever have to practice “skills” over and over even though you were never able to improve significantly, just because you “needed to” be able to do neat penmanship or work without an assistive device, nevermind that in the real world you would later rationally drop those tasks in favour of methods that were more functional.) Commands like, “You need to do thus-and-such,” are flags that should make us examine the situation more closely.

When the students fail to comply, the resulting punishment often teaches quite different lessons, not those about how to better manage one’s papers or how to mediate playground arguments, but rather lessons about power. “I’m bigger/ older/ in charge, so I can make you do what I want,” is the message actually learned.

A big problem is that the whole system seems sensible because it’s so entrenched, and because it’s easier to temporarily suppress certain behaviours by punishments (or coercing people with shiny rewards), than it is to identify and resolve the underlying problems that are causing the distress in the first place.

Sometimes that distress is the student’s feelings of powerlessness and helplessness. But when students act up from feeling powerless, what do the authorities then do? Clamp down even harder, create more restrictions, and more punishments. This is hardly a solution, and very much a self-perpetuating feedback loop that increases distress for everyone involved.

The worst kind of pedagogical punishment is making someone do a task that is otherwise supposed to benefit them. That is, if a student acts up by being oppositional or disruptive or fails to do the assignment because there is something they cannot do cognitively or physically, then the student is “taught a lesson” and punished by giving them more of the same kind of assignment. Learning should never be used in an aversive manner; the student then gets even more upset and frustrated and acts out and then becomes a “problem student”. The student is then being punished for having problems.

Aversives in the form or corporal punishment (such as the electroshock apparatus used at JRC) teach both the giver and the recipient that aggression and inflicting pain are acceptable and appropriate ways of responding to people when they don’t do what someone else wants them to do. Unfortunately, lots of people have learned this “lesson” all too well …

Not only does punishment as behaviour modification set up and maintain coercive power systems, but it also distances teachers and others from their students, and puts them into antagonistic roles, rather than as partners in education (contrary to what many school districts’ mission statements assert).

Punishment can not only ruin learning, but also takes moral development from an inner-directed process and changes it to a situation of “don’t let me catch you doing that again” where the message isn’t avoiding the behaviour and doing something positive, but rather of not getting caught. The focus is on consequences instead of creating interpersonal and social benefits.

Instead of morality being inner-directed (under a person’s self-control and self-initiation) it becomes personally directed – how to get what one wants for themselves – not how to work with and help others.

One of the biggest challenges we face is not just shutting down localized hotspots of cruelty and injustice, but also of providing viable alternatives to replace the vacuum left behind. Otherwise we’re just plugging dikes with our thumbs.