02 November, 2009

Like a person, part two

Recently I watched Autism is a World. It was good. I obviously don't agree with Sue Rubin's politics, but she's an admirable person, and I do agree with some of her characterizations of autism (these are things she's said in her writing online, not necessarily in the movie). To some extent--for me at some points, and obviously for her--it is something you can get lost in, and that is not really a good thing, even if it's politically incorrect to say so.

But anyway, I wanted to talk about this one thing that occurs in the movie. It doesn't occur only once, but I thought the best example of it was when Sue was stressed out about her aide's impending departure, and she yelled at her aide when they were sitting together. The aide (Aisling, I think?) correctly interpreted this as Sue wanting her to leave, and she told Sue that if Sue wanted her to leave, she should get out her communication device and say so, "instead of yelling at me." Eventually Sue did communicate that using her device, and Aisling said something like, "Okay, I'm going to leave now, because you asked me with words instead of yelling."

You might ask what is wrong with this, and it's true, when you're just presented with this kind of interaction--one person being rude to another, and the other person saying, "no, I'm not going to do what you say unless you talk to me respectfully"--it seems like there's nothing wrong with it. People shouldn't yell at each other; they should be polite.

But, okay. I already wrote a post called "like a person," but even before I wrote that post I had an idea for another post, also called "like a person," forming in my head. And Aisling provided an example of exactly what I'm thinking about. In this post, "like a person" isn't an alternative to "like an ASD person" and "like a normal person;" it's an alternative to "like an adult," which is often a euphemism for "like a child."

The way I started thinking about this is with another example that I hesitate to use because it's not exactly a big deal, but it really annoyed me at the time. When I was learning to drive, I would get into little fights with my parents because I'm not good at remembering a lot of directions, and every time I got to a fork in the road or a new road coming off the main one, I would ask which way to go. Sometimes my parents wouldn't want to tell me. When they did tell me, we would sometimes have a power struggle because they said "straight" instead of "right" or "left." This would be if, for example, the road curved slightly to the left and another possible turn appeared on the right. I wanted to be told right or left because that was a little easier to process than "straight," because it took me a second to figure out which road was considered to be the same road we were on, and which road was considered to be a turn--"left" or "right". Obviously, it only took me a little longer, but I thought that my parents should respect my preferences about being told "left" instead of "straight," so when they said "straight," if we were alone on the road, I would stop the car and wait for them to say "left." If it was my dad, he usually won, and if it was my mom, I usually won.

Anyway, "like a person, part two" was going to be me arguing that, while my parents would probably say they were treating me like an adult when they refused to say "left" or "right," and likewise when they refuse to do some kind of unimportant social interaction that seems very overwhelming to me at the time, they are not really treating me like an adult, because that's not how you would treat another adult. If another adult expressed preferences, you would probably go along with their preferences, not force them to do something they would rather not do because you're trying to teach them a lesson.

But I know this is kind of a dweeby example, and also, pretty much everyone treats their kids like this, even (if not especially) when they claim to be treating them like adults. I think the Sue and Aisling example is a lot more striking because Sue and Aisling are the same age. I mean, let's think about how you would expect this interaction to go if Sue was not a disabled person.

If I was a 26-year-old woman, sitting with another woman the same age as me, who considered me a good friend but was having some conflicted feelings towards me, and she got upset and yelled at me and indicated she wanted me to leave, I would probably do one of two things:

1. Leave.
2. Be hurt and try to convince her, based on the fact that I knew she cared about me, that she didn't really want me to leave. This scenario might end with me eventually giving up and leaving, of course.

There is just no way that I would treat a situation like this as an opportunity to train my friend to be more polite to me. And I know Aisling sort of works for Sue, so maybe it's not exactly the same thing, but still--Aisling's job is to help Sue communicate with other people, not train Sue like she's a dog. They are the same age. Sue is just as smart as Aisling if not more so. She is understandably upset. Aisling would probably say that it would be spoiling Sue if she went along with Sue's angry, nonverbal request, and that she wants Sue to behave like an adult, but part of being an adult is that people respect your wishes and do not try to forcibly keep you from expressing anger. Most adults yell and make demands sometimes. Sue is acting like an adult, because she is one. Aisling should have treated Sue like an adult, just like she would if Sue did not have autism.


  1. Actually maybe this is nitpicky, but my parents don't really treat me like that. I mean obviously there's a power imbalance but they do take into account my preferences in communication (like when I say I don't want to talk about something they respect that). I dunno. I mean obviously they wouldn't like me yelling at them but when it happens they don't treat me like I'm being childish, they treat me like I'm expressing emotion in a way that's not helpful in that situation.

    Argh I'm not being coherent about this. I mean to say that my parents don't seem to have a problem with me being very emotional and sometimes doing emotionally inappropriate things, they just want to give me the tools to express them in more helpful ways. They don't seem to hold me to higher standards of emotional/behavioral control.

    Like when I used to bite people they thought it as funny and didn't get mad at me, partially because (I think) it was a clear form of communication--if someone tried to touch me/pick up my toys/do some sensory things I didn't like, I would ignore them or move away or shout or hit them, and then if they kept doing it I bit them, hard. It wasn't an okay way to tell someone to go away but they weren't upset at the sentiment.