Tolerance and Teaching

This world needs more tolerance.

It’s getting to the point where you can’t express an opinion without somebody immediately jumping on you and shouting you down.

I get that not everybody will agree with me. I don’t understand or know every nuance of every subject. Sometimes I make mistakes, or fail to express my meaning clearly. Sometimes it’s simply an opposing perspective.

But in this hair-trigger, offence-taking, call-out culture there is no place for uncertainty, mistakes, or a lack of clarity. One foot wrong in this social minefield and the dust won’t settle for days!

I get the anger, I really do. I see people repeat the same old misinformation again and again: whether it’s vaccines or immigration or any number of other subjects. It’s frustrating.

But if I were to attack everybody who says something I disagree with or find problematic, I would be doing neither side any favors. I see it this way: either a person is going to listen or they are not.

If they aren’t going to listen to my argument then however forcefully I make it I won’t reach them. If they might listen, then shouting and bullying them will only make them defensive and unwilling to listen any further.

I know that when I first started writing about autism I was on a steep learning curve. At first I was pretty ignorant, uninformed. I invested my time in learning as much as I could, interacting with people through their blogs.

In the early days my terminology was less than perfect; there was more I didn’t understand than I did. I dread to think of the reaction I would get today from some people I have seen on Twitter and elsewhere!

But luckily the people I interacted with were patient and forgiving. Tolerant of “newbie” mistakes. So my investment of time and effort in learning about autism was worth my while.

If I’d been bullied for things like person-first language (“person with autism”) or for innocently using problematic phrases that are common in colloquial speech, I think I’d have disengaged from the autism “community”.

I don’t know that I have contributed a whole lot myself, but I know for sure that I would know a heck of a lot less about myself and autism.

So, tolerance. Be forgiving of others’ mistakes. Try to help them understand better, give them a chance to learn and improve.

Some may say that it’s not their job to teach everyone they encounter. But if not, then whose job is it? Do you seriously think everybody will spend time learning as much as possible before they begin to interact publicly?

By putting myself out there in public spaces as autistic and trans I have made myself, intentionally or not, into a representative of those identities. I owe it to myself and everybody else who shares those identities to do what I can to increase people’s knowledge and understanding.

The best teachers are patient, compassionate, and understanding as well as knowledgeable. What use is knowledge that is not shared? What use is a message that nobody will listen to?

This post was originally posted on my personal Facebook wall.

Religion and Belief

I’m not a believer, nor a member of any religion. I never have been. My wife, on the other hand, is Catholic and has a strong belief in god. For her, belief is a source of strength: a firm anchor that she can rely on to remain fast in the face of an ever-changing world.

My mother felt similarly; she wasn’t religious in the sense of attending church or praying regularly but she maintained her strong faith. I was always puzzled by people’s belief in the divine. I have never felt any sense that there was some ubiquitous presence. There’s just me and the universe around me.

My natural curiosity has led me to speculate about religion and belief since I was a child. A particularly cynical child who could not imagine any benefit from subscribing to the archaic, male-dominated, hierarchical view of the world promoted by the Christian churches. I had–and still have–a consistent world-view that works for me with no obvious gaps into which I feel compelled to fit a divine entity.

However, as I have matured I have come to recognize that their beliefs do provide comfort to some people. Something to hold on to: as long as they maintain their grip they cannot become lost. It provides a sense of security, a safe haven. A sense of familiarity and unchanging stability that feels like home.

That is a feeling I can identify with, although my personal comfort derives from being in a predictable environment with well-established routines. In some ways this mirrors the trappings of religion with days being measured by regular masses and prayers, the familiar Sunday attendance at a church service. Echolalia substitutes for the recitation of the Rosary; stims rather than the sign of the cross. Subconscious ritual.

Understanding leads to acceptance. I can understand why their faith is so important to some people, I can see how it gives them strength and support. I accept them as they are.

What I cannot accept is intolerance. Whether it stems from religious teachings or the influence of others in society does not make a difference: intolerance is the opposite of acceptance. It’s hate instead of love. It destroys instead of supporting and nurturing. If your faith truly gives you strength, then be strong enough to love and accept those who are different from you.

Resisting Erasure

There are some strong parallels between being autistic and being trans. Both derive from the way our brains are set up; both set us apart from the majority of people; both are largely misunderstood and even feared. And both have seen an increase in media coverage over recent years.

Celebrities including Susan Boyle, Daryl Hannah and Paddy Considine have publicly stated that they are on the autism spectrum. But coverage of autism has paled beside that devoted to transgender people: I wouldn’t be surprised if there have been more TV minutes and column inches solely about Caitlyn Jenner’s recent gender transition than there have ever been about autism.

The biggest difference is that autism is an invisible condition; there are no physical characteristics to identify somebody on the spectrum. Being transgender is all too visible, affecting one’s outward presentation. It’s perfectly suited for the show-and-tell of TV and photographic media: no need to burden the audience with detail, just give them before and after shots.

For both conditions the media is a mixed blessing. Increasing awareness is a good start but without detail, without providing a deep insight into the minds of those with either condition, there can be no understanding. Awareness alone doesn’t help us.

Such insights are elusive; they must build on a foundation of experiences that are familiar, laying course after course of analogy and asking the audience to incrementally build a picture of something that is foreign to them. No wonder the media so often takes the easy path of simply repeating the same old stereotypes.

But these stereotypes are often harmful, feeding prejudices and serving to portray us as broken, defective people. Autistic people are painted as emotionless and unsociable, unable to form or maintain relationships, objects of pity and ridicule who act in strange, frightening ways. Trans people are often shown as freaks, objects of revulsion indulging in a twisted sexual fantasy. We’re objectified, erased as people.

This is what we need to overcome to gain acceptance: we just want to be seen as people. We don’t want to be pitied or feared, laughed at or persecuted. But mainstream media continues to fail us by rarely if ever educating its audience. I don’t want tales of inspiration, I don’t want the shock-factor of graphic surgery. I want to see our everyday realities, our unexceptional — dare I say normal — existence as we simply live our lives. But who’s going to pitch a TV show about that?

I don’t know how best to raise understanding beyond awareness. I fear that our experiences are simply too far removed from those of the non-trans, non-autistic majority for them to ever gain more than an intellectual knowledge of our lives. How can they learn what it feels like to need to stim to regulate sensory input? How can we convey the strength and depth of the pain when your mind knows a reality of existence at odds with your physical body?

How else will we be accepted and not excluded, othered, erased?

Taking “Ought” Out Of Autism

Ought is a word I’ve heard too often in my life. If I had a penny for every time I’ve been told what I ought to be doing, how I ought to be behaving, I’d have enough for a nice new pair of shoes! Maybe not Jimmy Choo or Christian Louboutin but you know what I mean.

Ought is a word that does violence, imposing the speaker’s values on the recipient. It says that the person being addressed is in the wrong, that they must change to satisfy the speaker. It’s an insidious word, couching the statement in the guise of suggestion.

Being told what you ought to do can be harmful for autistic people like me who formalize sets of rules to govern our actions. It denies us the right to behave and express ourselves naturally: I’ve acquired a motley collection of inhibitions over the years as I have internalized the expressed preferences of those I’ve spent time around.

I realized a few years ago that all this was compelling me to try to pass as allistic, to mimic the behavior of those non-autistic people around me. I reduced my stims to barely noticeable actions, I’d push myself to stay when the environment was hostile — too crowded, loud or bright — and I neglected my self-care.

The result was that I’d melt down far too frequently, I would drink most evenings to try to shut off and relax. It was largely self-destructive; the way out for me was to learn to be more self-aware and to recognize my feelings, my mental and physical states. That led me to understand that I was trying to live up to other people’s expectations: what I ought to be like.

Discarding years of internalized guilt and shame about all the ways I’d been doing things “wrong” isn’t easy and I’m still some way from working through it all, putting it behind me. There’s a huge amount of anxiety involved in consciously facing the inhibitions and going against them.

Things like hand flapping, walking away to find peace and quiet, asking for accommodations; for example, moving to another desk at work away from distractions. All this goes against the grain of what I’ve been conditioned to believe, but it all has positive benefits for my well-being. And I’m learning to trust my own judgment about what is right for me.

Children Don’t Need Gendering

There was a child who grew up with two brothers. This child would knock about in denim dungarees, build karts from old fruit boxes and pram wheels, climb trees. Closer to their father than their mother, they would watch avidly while he tinkered under the hood of his car, eager to get involved and often ending up covered in grease.

And there was another child, painfully shy, who would spend hours with only their toys as company in their bedroom while their brother and his friends would pretend to be cowboys, or Tarzan swinging on ropes from trees. This child hated to get dirty; would borrow their mother’s clothes and play dress-up, loved to help mother in the kitchen.

That first child was Anne, my wife, and the second was me. So much for gender stereotypes.

There is an argument used to invalidate the experiences of trans people which says that we are somehow not authentic because we didn’t experience growing up as our real gender. But there are as many different childhood experiences as there are different people. Sure, we are the product of our upbringing to a degree but playing with dolls as opposed to a football does not define one’s gender experience one way or another.

The real myth is that there is such a thing as a definitive childhood experience that all girls (or boys) go through, and that their gendered experiences are completely separate and unrelated. At the end of the lane where I grew up was a farm; there were four children: two girls, two boys. Apart from the boys having their hair cut short they were almost indistinguishable. Dressed alike in jeans and shirts they all helped with jobs on the farm: driving tractors, hand-feeding new-born lambs, rounding up the cattle for milking, shooting rats in the barns. Only a few hundred yards but a whole world away from my own experience.

What I have learned is that my childhood experiences have more in common with those of other autistic people than they do with any arbitrary collection of women or men. I can’t even see any relevance or practical use to gendering children, and yet Western society in particular is moving more and more towards a total binary division: just look at children’s clothing and toys. There is this prevalent meme that colors, styles, activities and more are gendered: that everything in a child’s environment is either masculine or feminine and the two sets must remain disjoint.

Even where there is an overlap society plays tricks with language, Nineteen Eighty-Four style, so that girls have dolls while boys have action figures; kilts are not referred to as skirts. It all reinforces the notion that there is but a single “correct” way to be a particular gender, and also that each one of us must be identifiable as either one or the other. Individuality is out, conformity is in.

But conformity is death to self-expression, death to the personal freedom to look and act naturally. Enforced through bullying and oppression, conformity harms. Instead we need to promote acceptance, to allow each person to be themselves, to let their personality be shown however they want, to let them enhance our world with their individual creativity. I believe we would all be richer for it.

Because One Post Wasn’t Enough: Acceptance, Love and Self-care: #AutismPositivity2015

I fear my traitorous mind;
Prized asset, golden treasure
In which lurks a monster:
One I cannot hope to control.

Lying in wait it watches,
Senses when I am weak,
Releases its psychic poison
Infecting me with fear.

As I lie besieged by doubt,
Assailed by anxiety’s forces,
I begin to believe its lies:
That I am alone, unloved and broken.

All that I have, all that I am
Lies scattered: small trinkets
Dot the empty wasteland;
I lie in pieces in this desert.

Furnace heat of merciless sun
Makes the very air dance;
All else is stillness and silence.
Laid bare I cannot hide.

But…

In the midst of this ruin,
In the eye of the storm of fear
There is a mote, a tiny seed
Holding my essence in trust.

Though the ground is barren
Where the beast has raged
I plant this seed of hope,
Water it with my tears.

I spend the last of my strength
To protect and nurture this spark,
I give all of myself to it
And rise again, renewed.

The monster has vanished,
The burning sun become a fount
Out from which streams the warmth
Of healing love from friends.

The barren wastes turn green,
Meadows and woodlands host life
Amid which I sit at ease,
Healing in these peaceful arms.

Poisonous Expectations

There’s a toxic belief permeating all levels of society: that disabled lives are worth less than able ones. In just the last couple of days there has been a political candidate calling for compulsory abortion of fetuses that test positive for genetic conditions such as cerebral palsy, and a columnist in a national (UK) daily newspaper using the phrase “remedial-level dipshit” to describe children with developmental delays.

I have a daughter. I understand having hopes and dreams of what your child may achieve: that’s only natural. What isn’t natural, or at all healthy, is this cultural obsession with perfection. TV, magazines, newspapers are all full of examples of what is deemed to be “perfect” with public shaming and criticism of those don’t live up to this ideal.

Those with physical or mental disabilities are not spared. Portrayed as objects of pity, a modern-day freak show exhibited so that the able-bodied and those without cognitive differences can feel better about themselves, feel thankful that they are “normal”. And don’t get me started on the patronizing “inspirational” bullshit when a disabled person manages to achieve something that the able take for granted.

There is a high level of disability awareness, for all the good it does. A lot of able people feel uncomfortable around the disabled. It would be nice to think that it stemmed from a sense of guilt over that way they treat us, the way they think about us as lesser people, but I don’t believe that’s the case. I believe it’s because seeing us reminds them that we exist in their “perfect” world, They don’t want to be aware of us; they wish we would just disappear and stop disturbing their comfortable illusions.

The majority of language used in depictions of disability is negative: it’s all about deficits, what we can’t do, how we can’t hope to match the standards set for the able. We don’t need to be told: we’re perfectly aware of the areas where we face limitations and restrictions. The thing is, many of these restrictions in areas such as mobility and communication can be overcome to varying degrees by accommodations.

Yes, it costs a bit more to accommodate people who are outside the statistical normal range of ability. But by failing to provide that assistance the message being sent is that we are not worth it. We don’t matter. We’re not even considered a lot of the time, and when we are it’s grudging.

So it’s no wonder, when we face the constant implication that we’re a burden, a tragedy, that so many expectant parents have a fear that their child will be disabled. It’s their worst nightmare: their expectations dashed, their plans in ruin. They’ve been told time and time again about all the problems faced by families in that situation. The fear is overwhelming and colors their feelings towards the child. It fosters resentment — this disabled child took away their dreams of happily-ever-after.

No. The child isn’t the problem, it is their belief in the lies told by the media and self-interested organizations that led them to think that a “perfect” child would automatically bring happiness. The truth is that happiness comes from love and acceptance, from strong bonds and mutual respect. Society has a sick, twisted, poisonous view of what success looks like, and a long record of destroying those who drink the kool-aid and fall short of the unreachable goals.

Acceptance is the only way to go. Acceptance of people as they are, not how you might want them to be. Acceptance of difference. And just as important, acceptance of self: discarding all the baggage of internalized hatred, shame and guilt. All children have potential, all children take effort to raise, all children are different. Instead of judging them, dismissing them as failures if they don’t meet some arbitrary criteria, help and support them to explore and learn what they can do.

Give them the tools, and see what they can build.

Pride Positive

I’m proud and I’m not ashamed of it. Pride attracts a lot of negative responses: it’s named as one of the seven mortal sins in the Christian faith and it’s all too often conflated with egoism and hubris. I will argue that feeling pride is a good thing, a positive response to positive actions and circumstances.

To begin we need to define what pride is, and the first part of that will be to remove any confusion by identifying what it is not. Pride is not the excessive, self-absorbed arrogance of hubris. It is not the over-estimation of one’s own abilities, nor is it the egoistic self-congratulation of the narcissist.

Pride is a recognition of one’s own worth, that deep satisfaction which results from a job well done, an uplifting feeling of self-esteem. Pride is the natural step beyond simple self-acceptance: once you have learned to accept yourself as you are then it follows that you may begin to like yourself, to derive pleasure from aspects of your identity. I put it to you that being proud of who you are, of what you have achieved and what you may be capable of, is an act of love: to love yourself is to feel pride in yourself.

Pride is entirely a positive emotion. It arises when you feel good about yourself, when you feel worthy. It is empowering. In many ways pride is opposite to embarrassment; where embarrassment is the acknowledgment of failure, pride comes from success. Being proud is a celebration.

So when I say I am proud to be autistic, proud to be a trans woman, proud to be Lancastrian and proud to be married to Anne it is an indication of the high value I place on these things and the degree to which they form part of my identity. My pride is my internal celebration of them, my recognition that they shape me and make me the person I am. My pride gives me self-belief and the strength to deny any who would put me down. They cannot belittle me because I know who and what I am and where I come from: I know I’m worth something.

Reflected in Others’ Eyes

One thing I said to people when I came out as a trans woman was that I’m still the same person. And indeed I do not feel like I’ve become somebody different at all. I do however feel less constrained, more free to express myself in a way that feels natural. I no longer feel that I’m playing a role, fitting in with what I believed people expected of me when I presented as male. It’s as if I had been confined, a square peg in society’s round hole, but by taking the step to be true to my own sense of identity I have been able to cast off the false act.

Some of the changes that Anne has noticed since I started my transition:

  • The first thing she said, which others have also remarked on, is that I appear much happier.
  • My gait has changed. I used to be heavy-footed, walking with feet splayed, and also what she described as bouncing. I now walk with my feet in line, placing them rather than “stomping”, and the weight is distributed more evenly instead of being mostly on the heel. In some respects it is similar to how I used to walk as a child, before I acquired “bad habits” (I often used to toe-walk). In fact I am now unable to reproduce my former gait as it feels too unnatural.
  • I am more expressive. She described my face as being more animated where before I had a flat affect. I also gesture more with my hands when speaking where before I would usually stick my hands in my pockets because I didn’t know what else to do with them.
  • I appear more sensitive and understanding. She told me I am more patient and responsive to her needs; I used to have a short fuse at times and would be snappy.
  • I’ve discovered color in my wardrobe. I’ve gone from wearing exactly the same black shirt and jeans every day to a variety of dresses, tops and skirts in different colors, never the same two days running.

I’ve also noticed some changes in other people’s behavior towards me since I started to present publicly as female. When I’m shopping the checkout assistants are more likely to engage in conversation. More people at work say “Good morning”, and I’m more likely to receive a smile; I’ve actually had more non work-related conversations at work in the year since transitioning than I ever did in the previous seven years! Even a few compliments on my attire, which pleased me very much since I try to make an effort.

Some signals have been more mixed: a couple of times I’ve noticed men speaking to my chest rather than my face! Not sure what they’re looking at: I’ve not much development there to speak of. Perhaps it’s just habit with them? On a brighter note I had a very positive encounter with a real gentleman last summer: I was driving to work one morning along the M4 when, while overtaking a pickup, something like a string bag full of straw fell from the back of it and lodged under my car. The driver of the pickup noticed this as I pulled in front of him and he signaled for me to pull over. I pulled onto the shoulder and he pulled over behind. We both got out, and without hesitation he walked to my car and practically lay down on the asphalt, reaching far underneath to remove the debris. I was most grateful and not a little surprised since I’d never experienced anything like this before.

All this is wonderfully validating and has increased my self-confidence. Together with discarding inhibitions it all contributes to a greater sense of calm and a reduction in my general stress levels. These inhibitions were to do with my internalized view of appropriate male behavior, a collection of rules I had acquired since early childhood. How I had learned I ought to act to avoid negative reactions: certain mannerisms, displaying physical reactions to my emotional states, even the way I walked.

Some of my inhibitions were a result of as well a cause of anxiety. Being on the receiving end of teasing or bullying will affect your behavior as you work hard to suppress the things you do that seem to be the triggers. Catching yourself doing one of those things causes a huge sense of panic: you stand there waiting for the expected hurtful reactions from those around you.

Societal gender roles have a lot to do with what is seen as acceptable by people in general. Presenting as male I had the advantage of privilege and the protections deriving from that, but only as long as I conformed to the expectations of that role. For me it was uncomfortably confining because I wasn’t able to be myself, but for such a long time I was too afraid of the reaction if I didn’t “play along”: I was trapped by my fears.

Now, presenting as myself, I don’t experience those fears. I do feel more vulnerable when I’m out and about which I believe is a result of no longer hiding behind a role, a mask. I’ve written before about how I used to feel I was safely hidden inside an avatar of flesh that was all the rest of the world ever saw of me. That’s gone now: what I show is my inner self, the person that was always there behind my protective wall of conformity.

Occasionally I regret that I took so many years to build up to the point of coming out, but that’s not how my life turned out. The simple fact is that I am here now and wishing things were different can never change that; it can only make me sad. It’s true to say that I am happier now than I had been for a heck of a long time and that’s worth a lot.

Trust and the Poetic Form

Trust is such an important concept. I couldn’t get by without the trust I have in my wife to handle certain aspects of my life. And trust extends to the readers I have here: I trust you to interpret what I write in the way I intended it.

That goes especially for my poetry (not that I have a particularly high opinion of my scribblings, as I’ve mentioned before). But still, I use poetry to capture images in my mind and can only hope that some echo of what I see id transferred to my readers. Some thoughts are easier to represent in a form other than prose. Poetry provides the means to stimulate a reader into an expectation of an interpretation beyond the literal.

This strikes me as ironic given my own literal inclination. The strange thing is that to me what I write in poetic form is literal. It’s a translation of what I see in my mind’s eye into words.

The potential problem is that it might be too dependent on my own experiences, my own response to particular words and phrases. But I persist because I trust that my readers will understand my meanings. After all, I believe that we have more in common than not.