Tests and some rambling about tests

The other day on Twitter, Bogi Takács said:

the @bogiperson test of non-tokenized QUILTBAG representation: more than one QUILTBAG character. um that’s it?

Which of course got me thinking of Bechdel variants of all sorts. I actually went in and counted up the number of autistic books/stories that passed an autism version of the Bechdel test.

If you go with the simplest version – more than one autistic character, full stop – then a bunch of good stuff by autistic people passes but some of it doesn’t, and “The House of Idiot Children” passes even though it’s about as horrible as you would think from the title, because the story is set in a special school for autistic children and there happens to be more than one autistic child there.

If you start adding more criteria – more than one autistic character and both of them talk to each other – then everything actually gets even more problematic because:

  1. Both of Meda Kahn’s amazing short stories fail this version of the test, even though both of them show awareness of a multiplicity of autistic people and an autistic community, but people in the community who are not the protagonist don’t actually end up getting speaking roles, and any test that Meda Kahn keeps failing at is clearly the wrong test
  2. How exactly do we define “talking” here? Typing something meaningful is “talking”, right? Sign language is “talking”, right? AAC in general is talking and behaviour is communication RIGHT YOU GUYS? *stares meaningfully*
  3. No, actually, I take back 2 because with a disability defined at least partly by communication difficulties THERE IS NO NON-PROBLEMATIC WAY TO INTERPRET THIS RULE. Really. No. Back away slowly, please.

(Also: You know what definitely does pass an autistic Bechdel? The Big Bang Theory. But only because I read Amy as autistic and I am constantly confused and frustrated at how nobody else appears to read her this way. I mean GUYS, everyone on that show is ridiculous and offensive anyway but in my opinion, Amy is actually a slightly MORE realistic ridiculous depiction of an autistic person than Sheldon. She tries very hard to be socially acceptable to the normal people and just can’t quite get it, but she is completely on Sheldon’s wavelength and knows exactly how to deal with him, even though he treats her like crap. Seriously. I hardly even watch this show anymore and this still bugs me.)

So.

Maybe we need an autistic Mako Mori test instead. This accords a lot more strongly with my general intuitions about which stories suck and which ones don’t. But then, that’s me.

(And oh hey it turns out there are actually even more feminism tests besides these two, although it looks like many of them are specific to the issue of sexism and wouldn’t translate well to judging ableism without a LOT of adjustment.)

I wonder how many autistic people, in real life, have talked to other autistic people? I have heard people saying that they are surrounded by the autistic community, that autistic people are their family and their peeps, etc, that they feel close to other autistic people even when meeting them for the first time and separated by what NTs would classify as a large difference in functioning or other symptoms. I have also heard people saying the opposite, or saying that they simply haven’t ever had the opportunity to meet other autistic people in the first place.

I keep running into autistic people these days (gee, I wonder why? *stares at blog which is all about autism*) and that’s cool and all and I like them, but there was a time earlier in my life when I didn’t know anyone autistic outside my family. I got put in a high school social skills group for a while but I had approximately zero interest in any of the other people there. I know it’s probably internalized ableism but I still kind of roll my eyes when I get emails about ASAN fundraising galas because, seriously, a gala? I think if I went to a gala for autistic people I would just stand in the corner awkwardly the way I do with everything else. I don’t think being around other autistic people would actually help all that much for that purpose. But on the Internet, on my Internet turf… Well, that’s different.

Just because you share a diagnosis with someone doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll get along. Just because you have no autistic friends doesn’t mean your story as an autistic person isn’t worth telling. Being in the “autism community” (which is actually a lot of different communities if you look at it closely) doesn’t somehow make you more autistic.

By the same token, just because you have a diagnosis associated with social skills difficulties, that doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll be isolated or the only one, and I think NTs don’t realize how common it is for us to “get” each other and become strong friends.

It’s hard to get across this complexity in just one story.

I don’t know.

What do you think?

Autistic Book Party, Episode 15 and a half: Short Story Smorgasbord!

Adrienne J. Odasso, “Letters to Lost Friends & Imaginary Lovers” (Strong Verse, November 2012)

[Autistic author.] A poem. Not about autism, but about connections and the loss of the same. Given that we are so often accused of being unable to form or desire connections in the first place, this is important. It is also very pretty, and very sharp with its evocation of specific emotions. [Recommended]

*

Alex Dally MacFarlane, “Thin Slats of Metal, Painted” (Crossed Genres, Issue #1, January 2013)

Jess is a young girl with a strong interest in measuring things, who interacts with paintings as though they have feelings and agency. I read her as autistic, though I don’t know if that was the author’s intent. I’m not entirely happy with the way her imaginary life is handled, for reasons that are somewhat idiosyncratic to me and have very little to do with autism per se. But MacFarlane does an excellent job of showing that Jess is highly imaginative and empathic despite her solitary existence. As a result, the story rings true. [YMMV]

*

A.C. Buchanan (writing as Anna Caro), “Built in a Day” (Luna Station Quarterly Issue 013, 2013)

[Autistic author.] This story involves a strange planet, a time loop, and a person whose past and future selves work together to build a city but cannot directly interact. The ending has the protagonist learning to end her isolation, and I am conflicted about this: part of me wants to say, “Why can’t one of us stay alone and be happy that way, for once?” But even I do not really want to be alone forever, and there is nothing ableist or condescending about the way Caro drives the story to its conclusion. I think my discomfort here is a sign that the author is engaging effectively with themes that are highly emotional for many autistic people, including myself. This makes it, in turn, an important story. [Recommended]

*

Meda Kahn, “That’s Entertainment” (Strange Horizons, November 2014)

[Autistic author.] A story about disability being used as exploitative entertainment and exploitative entertainment being used as activism. This one didn’t drop-kick me in the feels quite as hard as “Difference of Opinion”, but it’s very smart, very on-point and very sad. [Recommended]

*

Luna Lindsey, “Meltdown in Freezer Three” (The Journal of Unlikely Entomology, December 2014)

[Autistic author.] Like Macfarlane’s story, but to an even greater extent, “Meltdown” deals with the persistent animism experienced by some autistic people. Unfortunately the whole thing is a little too cartoony for my tastes, and the plot doesn’t entirely hold together. (Why are a pair of small children suddenly trying to violently destroy an ice cream truck? Who is supervising all of these children? And where does Corrine get off saying she “doesn’t believe in magic” when there are already tiny “faeliens” living in one of her ice cream freezers?) Still, Lindsey gets props for writing a protagonist who is more visibly developmentally disabled than most, and for an ending which validates Corinne’s atypical thinking style as few endings can. [YMMV+]

A tiny poem

Niteblade #30 is now out, and with it, my tiny poem “Abominable Snowman“. (Yes, the lines visible after that link are the whole poem – though with Niteblade that’s generally not the case.)

If you go here you can see Alexa Seidel, Niteblade’s poetry editor, saying some very kind things about the poem (and about my poem “The Mermaid at Sea World”, which was published in Niteblade earlier in the year).

Though I do have a small correction – “Abominable Snowman” isn’t a haiku. The number of syllables is wrong, and some other stuff (if you are a Japanese haiku traditionalist) is also wrong. It is merely a tiny three-line poem, but I am okay with that. 🙂

Please do check out the rest of the issue as well.

Autism News, 2014/11/01

Stuff about the theory of disability activism:

Shared experiences:

Pan-disability stuff:

Misc:

Finally, we have Sad Things, Special Kelli Stapleton Edition because apparently this topic simply will not stay out of the news:

  • If you are new here and need a recap, Kelli Stapleton is one of many parents who have tried to murder their autistic children. Her daughter, Issy, survived the attempt. Her case is getting more media attention than most because she was a popular “autism parent” blogger before this occurred. Recently it was back in the media because the case went to trial and she was found guilty of first-degree child abuse.
  • Kelli Stapleton appeared on the Dr. Phil show. Many autistic people felt that Dr. Phil’s coverage was much too sympathetic, or that it shouldn’t have happened at all. (ASAN statement)
  • Other ASAN statement on the case
  • Also some people were making blog posts saying that anyone could snap and try to kill their autistic children if they were under enough stress. In response there was an #IAmNotKelliStapleton flash blog.
  • There were some good posts that I’ve decided not to link to because I’m really tired of this topic, including posts very strongly making the points that have already been made in other posts about Kelli Stapleton I have linked to, and posts by mentally ill mothers who had far fewer resources and supports than Kelli Stapleton did and still never considered harming their children. However, I will link to a couple of other posts that showed up in the flash blog:
  • Anonymous poster makes important points about how media attention & excuses for KS encourage other abusive parents (TW physical abuse)
  • Anonymous poster turns “I am autism” rhetoric back around on itself
  • Also, if you are not convinced yet of how damaging ABA therapy can be, even without aversives (Issy was in an intensive ABA program for most of her life), ischemgeek has the most harrowing post on the topic I have yet seen

More on Kea’s Flight

Here’s an interview with Erika Hammerschmidt about the book:

http://marshaamoore.blogspot.ca/2011/05/coauthors-erika-hammerschmidt-john-c.html

Choice excerpts:

The patronizing speech of Kea’s teachers— its sweet droning sound, the over-use of phrases like “good choice” and “poor choice,” the predominance of the phrase “you need to” as a command— is straight from my real junior-high special-ed experience.

They spent the entire critique session telling me that my experience from junior high school could never have happened. That was when I learned that there is a certain divide in literature between realism and believability.

Autistic Book Party, Episode 15: Kea’s Flight

(Pay no attention to the five-and-a-half-month hiatus between Book Party posts. We have had some technical brain difficulties but there is TOTALLY still a Book Party going on in here.)

Today’s Book: “Kea’s Flight” by Erika Hammerschmidt and John C. Ricker

The Plot: On a future, theocratic Earth, abortion is banned, but nobody wants disabled children – so the unwanted embryos are sent away to be raised in exile on spaceships. As the disabled children grow up, they band together to take control of their own fates.

Autistic Character(s): Karen Irene “Kea” Anderson, the book’s protagonist; Zachary “Draz” Drazil, her best friend and love interest; and a variety of other minor characters. Many characters are non-neurotypical in other ways as well.

So, after “This Alien Shore“, I was intensely curious to see what an autistic author’s vision of a non-neurotypical society would be. So I snapped up Hammerschmidt and Ricker’s book, which does exactly that.

One thing that’s clear right away: “Kea’s Flight” is a dystopia. The disabled children, or “rems”, on the Flying Dustbin – as Kea’s spaceship is informally named – are allowed very little in the way of autonomy or self-determination. Instead, they are cared for by robots and NT workers, who govern everything according to arbitrary, oversimplified, and totalitarian rules. Any questioning of the rules, pointing out inconsistencies in the rules, or reporting of the multiple harms done by their oversimplified nature is met with a condescending lecture at best, or with removal to an isolation room. No distinction is made between critical thought and active disobedience, and no disobedience is permitted.

To people who were raised with certain forms of disability interventions, this will all be very familiar. Indeed, parts of the book may be emotionally difficult to read.

Friedman, in “This Alien Shore”, assumes that non-neurotypical people somehow built a society to their liking, and hand-waves the details. In contrast, Hammerschmidt and Ricker dive right into the oppression and neglect that they know about, and extrapolate it into the future.

Fortunately, Kea is a plucky protagonist who grabs on to agency in any way she can. Early in the book, she devises a secret way of communicating with her friends. And as more friends and co-conspirators are added to Kea’s circle, they quickly find themselves embroiled in issues affecting the whole ship – including mysterious hackers, malfunctions, and eventually questions about the destiny of the Dustbin itself.

The non-neurotypical characters are well-drawn, with an appealing variety of talents, personalities, and challenges. It’s pleasant to watch them working together, complementing each other’s strengths, and compensating for each other’s weaknesses. (There’s also some reasonably good intersectional content; in particular, the characters turn out to be of a variety of sexual orientations, including asexuality.) Some of the NT characters come off as shallower, and I could have done without some of the scenes from the main villain’s point of view, but that’s rightly not where the book puts its focus. And while the plot occasionally wavers, it builds to a genuinely exciting finish.

There are also one or two interesting, neurodiversity-related flaws here – or at least, traits that come off as flaws at first glance.

First, there is the issue of didacticism. A number of reviewers on Amazon mention that the book seems to lecture the reader at times, or to be preachy. What’s really going on here is that Hammerschmidt and Ricker’s characters are eager to share information and opinions on whatever interests them – including autism, and the value of autistic people’s lives. For characters raised in a place like the Flying Dustbin, all such opinions are hard-won and exciting.

At first the frequent discussions of autism, language, and other topics feels like infodumping. Gradually, though, one learns that it’s really much more than that. Sharing information is not a “dump”, but a meaningful activity; it’s how the characters communicate, how they bond, even how they soothe themselves at tense moments. It makes perfect sense for a book full of autistic people to contain such information. So if any reader feels preached at or confused by digressions, I would strongly advise them to stick with the book anyway, and to see what they can learn.

The second, more serious issue is inconsistency with regards to – and I wish I had a better word for this – functioning levels. Hammerschmidt’s characters can all speak aloud (even though one of them frequently forgets certain words) and perform the activities of daily living without assistance. Kea notes several times  that not all the people on the Flying Dustbin can do these things – but she never quite takes the next step into introducing these more-impaired people as characters in any meaningful way, or exploring what their lives are like, or whether it would be worth inviting some of them into her circle of friends. According to the narration, some of the more-impaired people are still frozen as embryos, to be raised when the Dustbin reaches its destination – but others are already alive and exist in the same space as Kea, and are ignored.

Kea and her friends seem to only intermittently remember that these people exist. At one cringe-inducing moment, one of Kea’s friends describes her as “the most autistic geek of all the rems on this ship – besides Draz, and maybe some of the embryos that are still frozen”. Yet only a few paragraphs later, she says, “I’m not severe autism, just Asperger’s.” Huh?!

Later – at the end of the story, when Kea’s friends have taken over the ship – they discuss how to care for their more severely disabled shipmates. Some good ideas are raised – but the idea of ASKING those shipmates about their needs, or of involving them in the decision-making process at all, is somehow not one of them.

I wish I could say this was a small flaw. It is not. It is a very big flaw. If you’re trying to do disability rights, that needs to mean rights for ALL of us – not just the shiny Aspies. (And I say that as a pretty stereotypically shiny Aspie myself!) And in a setting like the Flying Dustbin – in which the whole point is that all sorts of developmentally disabled people are together, and that they’re together precisely because the NTs on Earth didn’t want them – that goes, like, quintuple.

(And then I start to wonder how the story would have gone if it had been written by Meda Kahn…)

(But, then, we can’t all be Meda.)

Still, when talking about herself and her own experiences, Kea’s observations are often poignant and insightful:

Their rationale for treating us like children was that we acted like children. Of course we did— what choice did we have? Were there any responsible, adult activities to do in this garbage can? Go to work and pay bills? Not applicable. Care for those younger than us? There weren’t any. Marriage and sex? Forbidden. We acted like children because we were treated like children. We acted like children because the role of children was the only role available to us.

And when it comes to putting all sorts of disabled people together and centering their everyday experience, Hammerschmidt and Ricker are the first SF authors I’ve come across who even tried. That’s valuable, and much of the way in which they do it is valuable, even if there is a big, problematic hole in the middle.

Furthermore, by the standards I usually use in reviewing these books, “Kea’s Flight” passes handily. There are autistic characters. They get stuff to do. They’re treated as real people, portrayed with nuance and sensitivity, not reduced to their differences or comically exaggerated. They get to be protagonists, they talk to each other, they form strong and devoted friendships, and in the end they work together to save the day. This is good and worthy stuff, and it’s good stuff that comes authentically out of real-life neurodivergent experience.

So, yeah, in spite of everything, I’m gonna say “go read it”.

The Verdict: Recommended

For a list of other past/future/possible Autistic Book Party books, or to recommend a new one, click here.

Self-Portrait as Bilbo Baggins

The first issue of Liminality is so gorgeous, you guys. And it has a poem by me about hobbits. (As well as amazing work from Sofia Samatar, Adrienne J. Odasso, Lisa M. Bradley, Erik Amundsen, Gemma Files… Basically just drop what you’re doing and read this whole thing, okay, guys? It is delish. 😀 )

Autism News, 15/09/2014

The autism news this month is a doozy; there are several different unrelated Sad Things making the rounds. First, though, some miscellaneous non-sad news:

In the wake of Ferguson, a lot of people have been reflecting on interactions between disabled people and law enforcement – particularly for disabled people of colour.

Kelli Stapleton, an “autism parent” blogger who attempted a murder-suicide of her 14-year-old autistic daughter last year, recently pled guilty to first-degree child abuse. This has renewed the debate online about how to discuss this and similar cases.

Meanwhile, a new study reveals what disability advocates have been saying for years – that a lack of sex education puts disabled people at risk in multiple respects, including a heartbreakingly high rate of sexual victimization.

Other sad things:

That’s it for this post; now go have some chocolate, if you made it to the end, and cheer yourself up!!

Autism News, 15/08/2014

My last post about language was prompted by some of these interesting posts about language.

There was an article recently in New York Times Magazine about children who “recoered” from autism by reducing their visible signs of autism to a certain level after therapy. I’m not going to link to the article, but here’s Chavisory taking it down by explaining what life ends up being like for children who go this route.

Meanwhile, here’s some interesting “what it’s like to be autistic”-type posts:

Some intersectionality:

  • The Autism Women’s Network is Kickstarting an anthology on the topic of autism and race. This is awesome.
  • Speaking of autism and race: a while back I posted a link to an article about undercover cops in the US preying on developmentally disabled teens by pressuring them into agreeing to a fake drug deal, then arresting them. Turns out it’s even worse for developmentally disabled Muslim Americans; the FBI entraps them into agreeing to help with fake terrorism.
  • On a completely different note: Virginia Hughes on the sexual politics of autism. (Note: This article is pretty medical-model-y, and is exclusively about researchers rather than the viewpoints of autistic people. Proceed with caution. I’m linking mostly because I find it interesting to see what the researchers are arguing about these days, and because it might be useful for newbie/NT readers who have seen gender-related research claims and want context for them.)

And some pan-disability stuff:

  • Real Social Skills on what disability acceptance means
  • Everybody is talking about mental illness and depression now following Robin Williams’ death. I’m not going to post much on this topic since I’m certain it’s already been plastered all over everyone’s social media feed in great detail. However, if you’re interested in this topic, here is a much-needed post by Jo from Ether Drift Theory reminding us that it’s not only about depression.
  • Here is a Disability in Kidlit roundtable about what not to do when writing disabled characters.

Misc:

  • Here is an ASAN toolkit for managing health care during the transition to adulthood.
  • Cynthia Kim on backstopping: a useful skill for our close friends and caregivers
  • A shout-out from Mel Baggs to atypical Aspies. (Oh man. I fit, like, six of these.)

A post about language, ableism, and words

[Content warning: some discussion of specific slurs and ableist statements]

I’ve been wanting to talk about this for a while now, but ironically, I haven’t had the words.

I care about language; it would be hard for a writer not to. For instance, I prefer identity-first language to person-first language, largely because I have considered the arguments for it and agree with them. When speaking about myself or about others with disabilities similar to mine, I try very hard to make use of this language.

I also don’t really care that much how other people refer to me.

Language is an act that occurs in context, and I care more about context and intent than I do about language. If I need help and you’re helping me, for example, in some way that involves referring to my neurotype in front of others, then I don’t really care if you call me an “autistic person”, an “Aspie”, a “person who has autism”, even the dreaded “high-functioning” – whatever. As long as it’s what works in the situation we’re in. If you say something really weird, I might gently bring it up with you later. But mostly, I care that you’re helping.

(Though, of course, claiming you’re “helping” does not give you a free pass. I care that you’re helping cluefully, effectively, and with my consent. But that’s another post.)

I’m also a fan of reclaiming slurs, although that’s neither here nor there.

Many people are more upset by person-first language, or by other language-related matters, than I am. That’s fine, and it’s a thing one should take into account when deciding how to talk. But I think on some level most of us are like this. We care how we, and others like us, are treated. Language is one part of that. It can be important but is not always the most important part, and I think very few of us really believe that it is.

Social justice people get accused of being the “PC language police”, but in my experience, the worst offenders when it comes to pointless PC language (more about the term “PC” below) are very privileged people who don’t actually care about any of this.

A friend of mine told me a story once about an American politician who stated publically that people who are “mentally retarded” should be happy to work for only pennies an hour. (Because yes, it is still legal to pay that little to certain classes of disabled people in certain classes of job.)

After public outcry ensued, the politician apologized, and explained that he had misspoken. He had meant to say that “intellectually disabled” people should be happy to work for only pennies an hour.

I don’t think anybody actually found this reassuring.

If you ever hear me use the term “politically correct” non-ironically, then this is likely what I mean. People in power who carefully sanitize their language without actually caring about context, or about the effects of their actions on the people they are talking about.

It’s possible to be very, very dehumanizing and emotionally abusive without ever using the “wrong” words or the “wrong” tone. It’s possible to dress dehumanization up in a nearly-unlimited number of kittens, rainbows, and reassurances. It’s possible to do it with exactly the terminology and speech style of the people you are dehumanizing. It still is what it is, and if we critique only the surface features of language, we’ll never fix it.

However, even though it is not one of the battles I choose for myself, critiquing the surface features of language can be important. I don’t want to shame anybody who does choose this battle, or to suggest that their concerns are not worth hearing.

And, while it’s easy to go on, say, Tumblr and find people who seem to be focusing on language to the exclusion of all else, I’ve come to the conclusion that this is rarely what’s actually going on. Sometimes people choose that battle for themselves because they recognize it as a battle someone has to fight, and one that they have the tools for; that doesn’t mean they believe there are no other worthy battles. Sometimes people are genuinely upset by certain terms or language forms and need to talk about it. Sometimes people talk about language in one place, and other issues in another place. Sometimes people want to make a deeper critique of someone’s attitudes, but have trouble doing so without pointing to specific words and saying “see, that.” All of these things, and others, are valid.

(Though there are some related problems that should be talked about. Such as “punching sideways”, in which a marginalized person tries to talk about their experience and is shouted down by other marginalized people – or, worse, “allies” – because they didn’t use the correct terms. I want to talk about this but I don’t have my thoughts in order about it and can’t right now.)

In the meantime – and I can only say this for myself, personally, never for other autistic people – as long as it’s clear in context that you actually do have my back, and are actually listening when I talk to you, then you can call me whatever seems reasonable to you. And when referring to yourself, you can use whatever language you damn well please. I don’t, and shouldn’t, mind.

That is all.