Autism News, 2016/06/23

Posts about childcare and education:

Reviews:

Sadly, the murder of autistic people by their caregivers is back in the news again, so here’s a section about that. Everything in this section has the usual TWs that you would expect given the topic.

Misc:

Million-Year Elegies: Hallucigenia

My poem, “Million-Year-Elegies: Hallucigenia“, is up in Liminality, Issue #8.

This poem is about a creature from the Cambrian explosion. It is also about perception and belief, and being the object of flawed perception. It’s the first in a series/project of many different poems that I have been writing about ancient creatures.

Although my poem has nothing to do with it, Issue #8 of Liminality is dedicated to the victims of the mass shooting at Pulse Nightclub in Orlando.

Acivilcampaign

Autistic Book Party, Episode 25: A Civil Campaign

Today’s Book: “A Civil Campaign” by Lois McMaster Bujold

The Plot: Characters from the Vorkosigan series take a break from the usual space opera to focus on romance and politics.

Autistic Character(s): Enrique Borgos, a scientist from Escobar.

I will say this up front. Bujold is my fave. And she is an author who, by and large, writes disability very well. Miles, the series’ protagonist, is physically disabled, bipolar, and epileptic, and is a fave of many disabled readers elsewhere. His brother Mark, another viewpoint character, has Dissociative Identity Disorder. (Also Miles’s love interest, Ekaterin, is the best portrayal I have ever seen of a woman struggling to navigate new relationships, or even the idea of new relationships, after leaving an abusive marriage. Thumbs up for that.) All these characters are well-drawn, well-rounded, and full of life.

It’s why I was a little disappointed by Enrique. He’s not a really bad portrayal. If you take all the characters in every book or TV show whose autistic traits are played for laughs, Enrique is one of the better ones. But in a book where several other disabled characters are consistently full people and worthy of empathy, Enrique seems to only intermittently transcend his stereotypes.

Enrique is a business partner of Mark’s. He has genetically engineered a type of bug that produces nutritious food for humans. He would like to cultivate the bugs and sell the results. He needs Mark’s help, though, because he is terrible at finances and marketing. Also, he is wanted by the government of Escobar for fraud.

Although the word “autistic” is not used, Enrique fits comfortably into the stereotype of an autistic scientist who is brilliant at science and terrible at everything else. His bugs do their job perfectly, but he cannot talk about anything but bugs, cannot understand jokes or irony, and forgets to bathe. He is clueless about many practical matters – for example, he mistakes expensive flowers from a florist for bug food. He loves his bugs passionately and believes they are beautiful, but has trouble convincing any of the other, more bug-phobic characters of his point of view.

Enrique’s portrayal at least contains a wider range of traits than those of many stereotype autistic scientists. Rather than simply being arrogant and rigid, he is shown having genuine practical difficulties in a realistic (though comical) way.

I also appreciate that Enrique is neither desexualized nor portrayed as a sexual menace / accidental harasser. He gets crushes on several women during the book, but his ways of approaching them, while odd (rewriting his dissertations’ abstract as a bug-sonnet, for instance), are not intrusive or threatening.

My biggest problem with Enrique can be summed up by a single paragraph of dialogue, in which Mark asks his girlfriend Kareen to help him and Enrique with their business project.

“Um . . . excuse us a moment, Enrique.” Mark took Kareen by her free hand, led her into the corridor outside the laundry room, and shut the door firmly. He turned to her. “He doesn’t need an assistant. He needs a mother. Oh, God, Kareen, you have no idea what a boon it would be if you could help me ride herd on the man. I could give you the credit chits with a quiet mind, and you could keep the records and dole out his pocket-money, and keep him out of dark alleys and not let him pick the Emperor’s flowers or talk back to ImpSec guards or whatever suicidal thing he comes up with next.”

I don’t disagree that a man like Enrique could benefit from practical help and supervision. What makes me uncomfortable is Mark arranging this behind Enrique’s back, and in an infantilizing way, without explaining to Enrique the true purpose of Kareen’s presence or asking what Enrique thinks of it. Mark’s treatment of Enrique sometimes veers close to the trope I discussed in Hawk, in which neurotypical characters use an autistic character for their skills, while hiding their true disdain and disgust for who the autistic character is as a person.

A few things soften the impact of these parts of the book and make them easier to deal with than Hawk. First of all, Enrique is genuinely a business partner of Mark’s. He is not doing the work for Mark’s benefit, or out of a deluded belief that he and Mark are friends. Instead, he will profit monetarily from the results the way Mark does. This is very important.

Second, unlike the secondary characters in Hawk, the cast of A Civil Campaign does not all agree with Mark. Mark is surly and misanthropic, and his remarks should be taken in that context. Other characters’ responses to Enrique range from annoyance to tolerance to kindness. It can be easy to miss, because the majority of the scenes with Enrique in them are from Mark’s point of view. But the female characters, in particular, seem more comfortable with Enrique and more willing to treat him the way they treat most other people.

“Oh, he’s brilliant about the things that get his attention. His interests are a little, um, narrow, is all.”
The Countess shrugged. “I’ve been living with obsessed men for the better part of my life. I think your Enrique will fit right in here.”

In fact, it’s heavily implied at the very end of the book that Enrique has struck up a functioning romantic relationship with a minor character. This is nice to see. However, despite all of this, no one ever actually questions Mark about the way he treats Enrique.

I also have questions about Enrique’s history of fraud, which is somewhat glossed over. Mark states that Enrique didn’t understand why he could not sell five times as many shares in his company as the company possessed. This is about as much as we ever hear about what took place then. I would very much like to know if Enrique did, in fact, understand the law. I would also like to know if anybody tried to explain the law to him at any point, or if it was another thing that Mark tried to handle for him without his knowledge. We don’t hear Enrique’s own thoughts on the matter, so I will have to stay mystified.

It’s not terrible, and is, in some ways, better than most. But with Enrique’s played-for-laughs status through most of the book, and with patronizing and controlling actions toward him going unchallenged, I cannot wholeheartedly give it a recommendation.

The Verdict: YMMV

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

Ivory Madonna

Autistic Book Party, Episode 24: Dance For the Ivory Madonna

Today’s Book: “Dance For the Ivory Madonna” by Don Sakers

The Plot: An African civil servant navigates political intrigues and seeks to avenge his parents.

Autistic Character(s): The author.

So, here is a matter worth clearing up at least once: Just because a book has an autistic author doesn’t mean I’m going to like it. This is one that I bought, but simply couldn’t get through. I’m reviewing it now, not in order to single out or shame the author, but to illustrate this point with an example.

The plot, characters, and writing style failed to hold my interest; it also has racial (especially towards Native Americans), gender-y, and parapsychological content that made me uncomfortable. Despite a valiant attempt at Afrocentrism, a lot of it reads like white guilt projected onto a supposedly African protagonist. There is some mildly interesting stuff about AI in there, but since there is no discernible content related to autism, this admittedly lessened my resolve to slog on through the bad parts.

I got about six chapters in and gave up.

The Verdict: Not Recommended

Autism News, 2016/05/12

With an important autism research conference coming up, Shannon des Roches Rosa and Carol Greenburg have put together a recommended reading list for people attending a conference and wanting to be able to think critically about autism research.

The provincial government of Ontario in Canada recently changed its rules for what kinds of autism therapy it will pay for and at what ages. A lot of parents are up in arms about it. Here’s Anne McGuire, Patty Douglas, and Estée Klar explaining why both sides of the debate are wrong when it comes to actually respecting autistic people. (As a resident of Ontario who has seen a lot of local NTs throwing around articles and petitions about this issue lately, I was very grateful for this article.)

Posts about traits, impairments, and accommodations:

Posts about attitudes and social change:

And in other news, the Disability in Kidlit team is still doing important work:

Book cover of "Blindsight" by Peter Watts.

Autistic Book Party, Episode 23: Blindsight

Today’s Book: “Blindsight” by Peter Watts

The Plot: Mentally augmented scientists investigate the source of a mysterious alien signal.

Autistic Character(s): None, but see below.

I’m departing from my usual formula today and reviewing a book with neither an autistic author nor autistic characters. Why? Because, despite the aforementioned lack, this is a book that keeps coming up every so often in discussions of autism in SFF. It shows up on lists of books with autistic characters, it gets recommended to autistic friends, etc. Not super often, but not just once, and not in just one way. So I want to talk about why that is, and what an autistic reader might get out of this book, and why I disagree in general with how people are going about things here.

The character in this book who’s most often described as autistic – or as an unintentional autistic stereotype – is the narrator, Siri Keeton. Siri is not ever described in the book as autistic. Instead, he has a different form of neurodivergence – he was severely epileptic as a child and underwent a radical hemispherectomy. In Siri’s case, the missing half of his brain was replaced with computer circuitry, though in Watts’s fictional future, having such circuitry in one’s brain is not uncommon.

(Siri, by the way, has nothing to do with the iPhone app of the same name, which came later.)

I am not a neuroscientist, and the research I did into hemispherectomies while writing this review was fairly perfunctory. According to what I have read, though, the primary side effects of hemispherectomies are to do with partial paralysis and vision difficulties on the side corresponding to the side of the brain that was removed–not with personality change. Because of brain plasticity, sufficiently young children who get hemispherectomies actually have a fairly good prognosis.

However, for some reason–possibly the computer circuitry–Siri isn’t described as having motor, vision, or cognitive difficulties. Instead, his primary symptom is difficulty feeling or understanding human emotion. Life feels flat and colorless to him, and he has difficulty with empathy or with relating to why people behave in the way that they do. In childhood, he has violent episodes which are attributed to his lack of empathy, and his mother–a noxious, manipulative narcissist–wails about the difficulty of raising a child who lacks the expected mother-child emotional bond. As an adult, he struggles to connect to anyone at all.

Although Siri has difficulty relating to people’s emotions, however, he uses his circuitry to become quite good at learning and analyzing these emotions by rote. In fact, he is so good at this and so perceptive of the small details of people’s expression that he is hired as a “synthesist”. His job is to analyze the speech and behavior of the enhanced humans who are on the mission with him, and report them back in a form that normal humans can understand.

At this point, you might understand why so many people read Siri as autistic. Autistic people often have trouble understanding NT people’s emotions. Many of us end up learning to “fake it” and interpret emotions and facial expressions by rote. Many of us have a flattened or seemingly under-responsive affect, or alexithymia which prevents us from noticing or understanding our emotions. Some of us struggle with violent meltdowns when overwhelmed; some of our parents feel intensely beleaguered and victimized by having to care for us; and most of us have trouble understanding how to form close relationships with NTs, even if we want to.

In fact, there is enough rough correspondence that it feels very plausible Watts might have been influenced, in his portrayal of Siri, by previous acquaintance with autistic stereotypes – even if it wasn’t his conscious intent.

So why do I adamantly believe that Siri Keeton is not autistic?

First, because if Siri was autistic, he would say so. He’s not exactly under-informed about neuroscience, nor shy about discussing the neurodivergence that he actually has. Watts clearly knows what autism is–it’s mentioned briefly once or twice, albeit in problematic ways–so if it was his intent for Siri to be autistic, there would be no reason to hide that information or to disguise it as something else. There’s also no reason to “explain” Siri’s state of being using autism, when there is already a different explanation for it plainly stated in the text.

Second, and even more importantly, because Siri’s resemblance to an autistic person start to unravel when you look at it closely.

Siri’s emotional flatness more closely resembles depression combined with alexithymia than it does autism. While some autistic people experience few emotions, and many have difficulty adequately describing or understanding their emotions, it’s not very common for autistic people to be truly emotionless. It’s much more common for autistic people’s emotions to be odd in ways that NTs have trouble understanding. We might express emotions oddly, by using body language or stims rather than showing a lot on our face, which leads NTs who overrely on faces to underestimate how things affect us. We might show things on our face, but in an atypical way. We might not understand the things that NTs are expected to do or say when they have certain emotions, and be left feeling emotions without knowing what to do about it. We might have very intense emotions–distress, pleasure, excitement, enjoyment, pain, fear, confusion, disgust–which confuse NTs because the things that elicit these emotions are not what an NT would expect.

I know a lot of autistic people who have plenty of emotions thankyouverymuch, but who are accused of being emotionless because they don’t show socially expected emotions at socially expected times and ways, and aren’t even sure how to do so. I don’t find these people emotionless or difficult to read IRL (even though I have trouble reading many NTs). But apparently, to NTs, they are flat and baffling.

Siri’s emotions have none of this oddness, none of this nuance or hidden-ness that I’ve come to expect from other autists. They just aren’t there, or perhaps, aren’t accessible in a way he can describe.

On the other traits from the list, Siri fares slightly better. In fact, his reliance on rote processing to understand NT emotions–and subsequent ability to do so better than the average NT–is one of the things that the book does rather well. Many autistic people do use this kind of ability to help us navigate the world. It’s nice to see an author acknowledge that these methods can be effective, even highly effective, even without an intuitive understanding of why things work the way they do–and even though it doesn’t solve all social problems. In fact, some of Siri’s descriptions of how this works seem to have been lifted straight from real-life autistic people’s descriptions:

I’d spent my whole life as a sort of alien ethologist in my own right, watching the world behave, gleaning patterns and protocols, learning the rules that allowed me to infiltrate human society.

(It should be noted that, towards the end of the book, there is considerable doubt raised as to whether Siri’s synthesist abilities are as effective as he thinks they are. To Watts’s credit, he does not attribute this doubt to Siri’s neurodivergence, but to a belief that no one can really ever be sure what other people are thinking, and to Siri’s usual synthesist protocols being compromised as he gets more and more personally involved in what’s going on, thus falling prey to wishful thinking, projection, etc.)

The kind of social problems that Siri does wind up with are a mixed bag. Some, I found quite relatably sad. Others… Well. Let’s just say that for someone who supposedly knows so much about how NTs interact, he shows a really remarkable inability to understand that people in romantic relationships might desire tenderness, or affectionate words, or anything at all beyond the most reductive possible variety of evo-psych bullshit.

Then again, plenty of young male Aspies in real life are taken in by MRA evo-psych bullshit of even worse types, and Siri can hardly be said to have had healthy relationships modeled for him growing up. (Spoiler: it’s a Peter Watts book: EVERYONE is maladjusted.) So I may be protesting too much on that point.

My biggest problem with the reading of Siri as autistic, though, is not to do with how these traits apply to him, but with all the traits that don’t apply and aren’t even mentioned.

You don’t get autism in real life by taking a regular person and removing certain things. You don’t go into an NT’s head, cut out the bits that handle social/emotional processing, and get an autistic person by doing that. Despite certain corporate logos, we are not NTs with a piece missing.

Instead, an autistic brain–even a “high-functioning” autistic brain (although functioning labels are problematic)–is wildly different from an NT brain on many axes that don’t reduce to missing traits. Senses are hyper- or hypo-sensitive or both at once, or different in even weirder ways. Communication is not just flattened, but different and quirky or difficult or selectively impaired in ways that go far deeper than a lack of social skills. Interests are intense, passionate, and often aligned in directions that make no sense at all to NTs. Movement and expression is not just flattened, but different; stereotypical flapping is of course not the only way to stim, and some people suppress all their noticeable stims, but nearly every autistic person, in their natural state, will not move like an NT. I could go on. There is a wildness to autistic brains, a weirdness (if “weird” is not too pejorative a term), a set of ways of being and doing and thinking that are not just NT ways with pieces missing, but their own ways.

It’s exactly this qualitative different-ness that is missing from Siri.

It’s also exactly this qualitative different-ness that people ignore when they spin the worst forms of propaganda about autism. When people talk about autistic people as incomplete NTs, as having no emotions or awareness, as being missing some essential part that would allow us to have Real Feelings and Real Empathy…

Well.

Siri Keeton is portrayed as being closer to that description than actual autistic people are.

I have a few additional points to make before we wrap up this review. First, I focused on Siri in this review because most of the fan discussions I’ve seen center around Siri as a supposedly autistic character. That’s not the only way to discuss autism in the context of “Blindsight”. In fact, the Wikipedia–somewhat inexplicably to me–describes not Siri, but the book’s vampires as autistic. (Yes, there are vampires. In space. Long story.) This is so baffling to me that I’m not sure what to say about it, except that the vampires really do not strike me that way, and apart from their lack of desire for social contact, I’m not even sure why anybody would read them that way. To me the vampires (and, please note, I liked the vampires) struck me as being something more like superintelligent predatory animals in human form.

The second point is that, according to many sources (I’ve seen this attributed to Watts’s own notes, but haven’t managed to track that part of the notes down), Siri is not meant to be an autistic character–he is meant to be a philosophical zombie. Not to spoil too much, but there is a lot of really interesting stuff in “Blindsight” about consciousness, and about whether or not consciousness is necessary for intelligence, or whether it is desirable at all. A philosophical zombie, or p-zombie, is not a Night of the Living Dead style zombie. Rather, it is a hypothetical living person who acts exactly like any other living person, but who has no actual consciousness. It’s not spelled out in the text itself, but the theory is that Siri is an unreliable narrator, and is actually a p-zombie for most of the book until another character violently awakens him.

I actually find this theory even harder to swallow than the one about vampires, for a number of reasons. First of all, if Siri used to be a p-zombie, then how exactly is he able to describe experiences that he had before being awakened? One answer is that, since p-zombies are outwardly indistinguishable from living people, they can describe events in a way that makes them sound conscious. But this answer is rather vacuous, in my opinion, because if that’s what Siri is doing, then we’re not really reading a book about unconscious p-zombie Siri; we’re reading a book about the conscious person that p-zombie Siri is pretending to be. There is no discernible difference between that book and a book in which Siri is conscious. You could maybe describe Siri as having had a somehow lesser or inferior or shallower version of consciousness, but to say that there was no consciousness just makes no sense.

Second, if Siri is supposed to be a p-zombie, then this makes it EVEN MORE problematic to call him an autistic character. Because autistic people are not p-zombies. But there are an awful lot of people who would like very much to say that we are, or that we don’t have emotions or reactions (just because you can’t read our damn facial expressions), or that it’s not possible we could understand anything (because some of us can’t talk). Or any number of other statements which boil down to the argument that we’re not people and it doesn’t matter how you treat us.

If the first thing that you think of, when trying to imagine how a p-zombie would live, is autism because of what these people say about autism… Then that’s a problem.

(Thinking that you can somehow just suddenly make a supposedly non-conscious person conscious, by violently attacking them, is also pretty gross.)

Third, like I said, I’m not an expert on radical hemispherectomies, and the focus of this review series is on depictions of autism. But I’m pretty sure that stating you can become a p-zombie because of having a hemispherectomy is even more offensive to people who have had this procedure than it is for autistic people.

Pretty sure that goes for the other inaccurate depictions of the results of a hemispherectomy, too.

If you want to read about the experiences of radical hemispherectomy patients in real life, a good place to start might be the Hemispherectomy Foundation.

The Verdict: Not Recommended

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

March and April updates

Charles Payseur was kind enough to mention my story, “The Scrape of Tooth and Bone”, a second time – this time in his Monthly Round, in which he pairs his favourite short speculative fiction from February with an adult beverage.

Indeed, even with the other amazing stories this month, I’m not sure any can live up to the sheer number of different awesome elements crammed into this tale. Steam-powered archeology featuring a queer neurodiverse female protagonist interacting with the ghosts of dapper sentient dinosaurs while acting as a double agent and getting double crossed and navigating some heavy misogyny and it is all just so good.

The Scrape of Tooth and Bone’s official drink pairing is a rye IPA. Not being a drinker myself, I had to look up what an IPA was, but I am quite flattered.

Meanwhile, I am pleased to report some new and very exciting poetry acceptances.

“Snowflake”, a love poem, will appear in a future issue of Through the Gate.

“Million-Year Elegies: Tyrannosaurus”, the poem where the entire idea for the Million-Year Elegies series comes from, will appear in a future issue of Uncanny Magazine.

“Million-Year Elegies: Edmontonia” will appear in an issue of Mythic Delirium.

New poem: The Raising of Lazarus

In the Spring 2016 issue of “Breath & Shadow”:

http://www.abilitymaine.org/breath/spr16h.html

This is a poem I came up with in the summer of 2014, when recovering from a bad mental health breakdown.

It’s also the most overtly religious poem I’ve ever written, though I hesitate to call it a Christian poem; it is not particularly concerned with any specific articles of Christian doctrine. Then again, poems get associated with other religions without being dogmatic at all. So. Whatever. Enjoy.

Autism News, 2016/04/05

Today is a very big Autism News post! Partly because I procrastinated harder than usual, but also because there is genuinely a lot of autism stuff in the news, especially as we gear up for the Awareness/Acceptance Month of April.

Since everyone is lighting it up different colors for autism right now, we should probably start with Real Social Skills’ post on what autism awareness means to them.

There was a lot in the news lately about euthanasia, murder, death in general, and other medical problems for disabled people. Everything in this section has a TW for these and related topics.

Meanwhile, autistic self-advocate John Elder Robison wrote a book about his experiences with Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation.

  • Here is a post by Robison about his book, and on the difference between “having feelings” and “reading social cues”
  • Sonia Boue lists objections that many autistic people are raising to the promotion of TMS in Robison’s book
  • This interview with Robison responds to some of these objections, and goes into more depth on Robison’s feelings about the potential risks and drawbacks of TMS.

Posts about adult diagnosis:

Pan-disability posts for the SFF crowd!

Other pan-disability posts:

  • Erin Human on why she says “disabled”, not “special needs”
  • Feminist Aspie on food policing
  • Clarissa Krikpe on community living for people with high-support/ developmental disabilities. (Note: There is a lot of parent-centric language in this article, but if you can deal with that, it has some pretty interesting information.)
  • Karen Hitselberger on why the “How Do You See Me?” campaign doesn’t work

Misc: