25 March, 2010

affectionate disability issues

The Joe and Amanda Adventure wasn't one, because Joe wasn't as smiley as last week, and the teachers said that all the kids were in a bad mood because it was the day after their field trip. Something else interesting happened, though. After circle time, the teacher dimmed the lights (which for some reason resulted in Joe yelling) and put on some quiet music and had the ambulatory kids sit on beanbags, and picked up Joe and put him on a beanbag. She laughed and said, "It's really more for my benefit than theirs."

There is a kid in the class named Zach who frequently cries and seems angry. I don't know what his disability is but it's the kind of thing where if I was more educated I'd probably be able to tell. He's very small, uses a wheelchair, and has a really small, short face and small eyes. I like Zach because he's always trying to take off his shoe so he can stim by waving his sock in front of his face. Today I think he seemed interested in my presence when I showed up in the middle of their gym class, he was kind of looking at me and clapping and stuff.

But yeah, he was making a lot of noise after the teacher had dimmed the lights, and she picked him up out of his wheelchair and put him on the floor. I couldn't tell if she did this as a punishment, or just because she thought it was more appropriate for what was supposed to be a relaxing time. I feel like if she was trying to relax him she would have put him on a beanbag. I just thought it was sort of weird.

Zach crawled over to me where I was sitting in a chair. He took hold of my arms and with my help lifted himself into a standing position. Then he sort of turned so I was holding him in my lap. I sort of hugged him, but I felt weird about it because he's fourteen. When I first met him I thought he was seven or eight at the oldest, and I wouldn't have reacted that way, but I just wasn't sure if it had different connotations given how old he is, so I sort of made him sit back down on the floor.

Then he crawled over to the other side of the room where his teacher had put his wheelchair, and I got up and went with him. Zach was sitting next to the wheelchair and touching it. He reached out to me and looked at the wheelchair. I felt really bad because it seemed like he wasn't comfortable not being in the wheelchair and was hoping that I would help him (I may be totally projecting, but I don't know why else he would crawl away to the corner of the room if not to be near his wheelchair). I quietly talked to him and told him that he couldn't go in his wheelchair yet but would probably get to be in it again after the class finished listening to music. I don't remember what else I said.

Anyway, he started kind of having me pull him into a standing position, and then he basically put his arms around me, and I was sort of holding him (I was kneeling, I think), and he had his face pretty close to mine and I think might have been trying to kiss me--I got a bit of an impression of that, at least, so I kept turning my head away.

Now that I write this out, it sounds a lot weirder than I thought it was at the time. I mean, from a little kid I wouldn't think it was weird. I also know some intellectually disabled people who are very physically affectionate with people they don't know well, and it doesn't bother me at all, I think it's awesome. But because I'm confused about what the nature of Zach's disability is, I didn't know how to react, whether to classify him as the kind of person from whom such a display would be cute.

I'm thinking about this more and thinking about what hugging and kissing means, and what it means to define someone as the kind of person from whom hugging and kissing is cute, and the kind of person from whom it's inappropriate. I'm not sure it even makes sense for me to act as if there are people who are always allowed to do it and people who always aren't. I met an intellectually disabled guy who, when meeting women who were wearing low-cut shirts, would take both their hands and shake them up and down, staring at their breasts--his way of greeting people obviously wasn't "cute," and he was rather creepily taking advantage of the fact that people were going to perceive physical contact from him as "cute" rather than as sexual. Another intellectually disabled person actually had to explain to my friend why she shouldn't let Adam shake her hand. On the other hand, I know a woman named Andrea who likes to hug and kiss people, especially people she's seen before, and it doesn't strike me as creepy. But it's theoretically possible that Andrea is doing this for sexual reasons, whether or not she's aware of it. But I just assume she's not. I'm not saying Andrea doesn't have a sex drive, but just that this particular action of hers isn't necessarily sexual, and it doesn't seem obviously sexual to me.

If a fourteen-year-old boy who didn't have a disability started hugging me and climbing up on me, I would absolutely not be okay with it. But let's say, even, that Zach has absolutely no intellectual disability at all, but just can't communicate--well, that still means he's had a hugely different life from the average boy his age. And the reason I'd be upset by the average boy his age doing that is not because I think every single thing a fourteen-year-old boy does is sexual, but because the average fourteen-year-old boy will be trained to think of that as sexual and inappropriate behavior, so if he's doing that, it's almost an act of violence and it's definitely disrespectful. I don't know if, out of that context, it is inappropriate.

And besides, my example of Adam shows that an intellectually disabled person can be creepy as fuck, so then can't the opposite also be true? Why does Zach have to be intellectually disabled for this to be okay?

I know it seems like I'm weirdly invested in arguing that it's okay for Zach to hug me. I think it's because platonic physical affection is a major part of my life and my identity. I used to call myself "heteroaffectionate," meaning I fall in love with guys (I'm not sexually attracted to guys, for those keeping track). Basically, I've had several male friends with whom I'd hold hands, spoon/sleep in the same bed, and just do sort of semi-ironic things, like kissing each other on the top of the head, being each other's Valentine, etc. And I can be really intense about these guys.

I'm not really heteroaffectionate to be honest; it's not like I actually don't have any romantic feelings for girls. That's kind of a joke. But because I don't really date, I've had to figure out that there are a lot of other ways of being close to people and caring about them, and I really don't like the idea that you can only be close to someone you're in a sexual relationship with (which is an impression I get from some straight girls I know). It's really weird for me in the early stages of friendships, sometimes, because I might not know if the guy knows I'm gay, or even if he does, I'm afraid that when I do things that are seen as too romantic, he might not know what to make of it. So I guess this is why I sort of jumped on my reaction of "oh shit, I don't know if Zach should be hugging me"--because I know from experience that lots and lots of kinds of affection are not about sex.

I mean, yeah, he may be a creeper (or an unconscious creeper, who doesn't get that he's being creepy, but is nonetheless hugging me for a sexual reason). But he also might not even like girls, or like anyone. Or maybe I'm not the kind of girl he's attracted to. There are all kinds of nonsexual reasons for Zach to try to get me to hold him--sensory needs, platonic affection, a desire to feel more high up and secure like he does in his wheelchair.

This may be an unpopular opinion, but I sometimes feel that assuming disabled people are always being sexual doesn't make any more sense than assuming that we never are.

P.S. I got to see Shawna, who is a little girl with autism and mental illness who I met two years ago, who was one of the first DD people I ever met. Well, she's not so little anymore, she's eleven, and she's really tall. She was just standing around near the gates of the gym so I went up and talked to her and put out my hand, and she held my hand and reached out and touched my collar, which I recall she does a lot. She was saying something she maybe used to say, that sounds like "walking, walking, walking" or maybe "wanting, wanting, wanting"--but after a minute one of her teachers told her to come away from the gates.

1 comment:

  1. Argh, I know what you mean! The kids I work with can be very physically affectionate. And it's a very fine line. With the oldest, for example, I am very comfortable saying "no thank you" and moving him away, because he really doesn't discriminate who he's affectionate to and he's at the age where he will get in trouble if he walks up to some random and wraps ou in a hug.

    But the youngest, on the other hand, in addition to being absolutely ADORABLE, is also less...oppressively affectionate? I don't know the word. But it seems like, whereas the oldest is invading your space and not really attempting any sort of connection, the youngest really wants to communicate with you, or attach to you, and does that physically. And it's much harder to say no. I mean, it's not appropriate for him to be kissing people. But playing around, or hugging, feels fine to me. And often, when you're holding his hands, he seems more focused and communicative, which is our goal.

    So I don't know, but I agree that it's frustrating and confusing.

    (And the point that ID people can be creepers too! is very important.)