Traditional Music and Change

My taste in music is eclectic (like so much about me), but one style I have always loved is traditional Irish music. Scottish music, too — bagpipes are awesome — but I grew up listening to Irish music with my dad, and so the songs are a lot more familiar to me. And one thing about traditional music is that while you might hear familiar songs from different artists, they’ll never be exactly the same.

It’s a bit like listening to a live version of a favorite rock song, but more so. With live recordings, there are usually changes in the delivery of the song — different emphasis on words here and there, maybe a change of speed, changes in the instrumentation or backing vocals, that kind of thing. Some artists change the lyrics slightly, but generally not by much.

I often don’t like live versions of songs I love, unless the live version was the first one I heard. I want to hear the familiar cadence that I’ve memorized, that I sing along to in the car. I don’t want to have to learn a new version or stumble along thinking I know it, only to find that it’s changed. Favorite songs shouldn’t change.

But with traditional music it’s different. I love discovering new renditions of my favorite songs, especially when someone manages to create something completely new out of the familiar. Traditional Irish songs can have multiple versions that are all just as traditional, with significant differences in both lyrics and melody. But it’s not just that there are multiple “acceptable” versions — instead, the very practice of changing the song is at the heart of traditional music. It comes out of an oral tradition, after all, with lots of regional variation.

It might seem a little contradictory to call something “traditional” when it incorporates constant change…but it works. I think that’s because there’s still always something familiar about the song that maintains continuity. It’s still that song.

And here’s why I started thinking about this last night. As an autistic person, I often have problems adjusting to change. Change feels threatening when I don’t know what to expect. But I think listening to Irish music has helped me learn how to appreciate change instead of resisting it. Maybe it’s just because I do know what to expect: I know ahead of time that this new rendition I’m listening to will not be the same as others I have heard. I know to expect change.

That may sound like I’m still resisting change, because I’m only accepting it when I know it’s coming — and there may be some truth to that. But looking at it this way does serve to remind me that change occurs everywhere, so maybe expecting an element of change in life will allow me to appreciate both the new and the familiar as simply variations on a theme.

Returning, Restarting, Reframing

I am thinking about getting back into martial arts. I am also thinking about going back to school. These two things are strongly related in my mind.

I have a black belt in a martial art that doesn’t really exist anymore; it was a single-school system, and the instructor isn’t teaching it anymore, and neither are any of the other black belts who had been teaching there (including me). Part of what this means is that I can’t maintain the same rank when I start at another school. The skill I built up while earning that black belt is still real (if a bit rusty right now), but the “credential” doesn’t really apply anywhere else.

Now, that’s totally fine with me. I’ve been a white belt (beginner) again twice since earning that black belt — and before that point, I had been a white belt several times over as I switched styles. I always let new instructors know about my previous experience — it’s usually something they ask of new students — but I make it clear that I’m not expecting to start anywhere but at the beginning. Knowing about my previous experience is helpful to them, because it explains why I often pick up techniques very quickly (if they’re similar to what I’ve done before), but also explains why there might be small details that will take some time to retrain (if a technique in the new style is close-but-not-quite-identical to a technique in the older style).

I had one teacher who was really weird about it, though. He actually offered to let me retain my black belt, but it made no sense to me since I didn’t know his curriculum. The rank would not have been an accurate representation of my skill in that style. So he let me learn at a bit of an accelerated pace instead — but constantly pointed out to the other students around my current rank that I was “really” a black belt, and that’s why I was learning faster. It made things awkward, and I think it gave the impression that I was somehow bragging, even though I was never the one to bring it up.

So I’m looking at starting a new style yet again, at a small school not far from my house. The instructor has a good reputation, and the style — though not one I’ve been particularly drawn to in the past — shares a lot of elements with past arts I’ve studied. (And I’ve definitely found that specific style matters much less than having a good instructor.) But I don’t know how this past-experience thing is going to play out this time, so it makes me a little nervous.

The going-back-to-school impulse carries some similar issues, as it happens. I have a bachelor’s degree already, so I think most people would be looking at graduate school programs as the next step. But I don’t think that’s the right step for me, and it’s similar to how I didn’t feel right coming into a new martial art and wearing the black belt from my old one. That’s because I want to start studying a completely different field, and to me it seems like studying something at a master’s level kind of implies that you’ve trained up to that level in that field (or a related one).

I know many people do change fields between their undergraduate and graduate work, so it’s not impossible. But when I look at master’s degree programs in the field I’m interested in (I’m going to be vague for now and write about it in more detail later), it looks like there’s a lot of ground work that I haven’t done. I could do that coursework first, I suppose, but to me it makes more sense to start at the beginning.

There’s also the question of the cost of education, and for me that includes the logistical costs of getting to classes while also continuing to work — so the availability of programs within a close driving radius was a big factor. And frankly, I’m really not sure whether this area of study is going to give me what I need for the plans I have, so starting small seems to make more sense, too.

So what I have come up with is the idea of working toward an associate’s degree at my local community college, as a way of getting my feet wet. That way I’ll get a lot of preliminary exposure to this new field, and afterwards I’ll have a basis for transferring into a bachelor’s degree (or combo bachelor’s/master’s degree) program. It’s close, it’s affordable, and the program I’m looking at has a lot of cool classes.

But I’m curious as to how the previous-experience question will play out there, as well. And not just at the school, but among my family and friends. Most people seem to think of education as a ladder of sorts, with the only valid path being further “up.” They would see my plan as a major step backward — but I look at it as a natural process of starting over as a white belt again. I still acknowledge the strengths that my past training has given me (and I will take advantage of course credits that can be transferred), but I am fine with being a beginner again in a new field.

I’ll be writing more about both of these (potential) new starts in the future. But I thought it was interesting how clearly related they seem to me, and I wonder how my growing new understanding of myself as autistic will affect how I proceed.

Thanks, But It’s Just Tuesday For Me

I don’t really do Valentine’s Day. In fact, my husband and I tend to forget about it completely. (The day after, though, is our dog’s birthday, and she gets spoiled. Can’t forget that.) I know some people really enjoy having a special day to celebrate their relationships, but we just haven’t felt a particular need for one.

But my lack of affection for the holiday goes beyond that. It’s not just because the modern celebration of Valentine’s Day is marked by persistent advertisements for sparkly jewelry, mass-produced chocolates and cliched greeting cards, although that consumeristic element annoys me. And don’t get me started on all the gendered expectations around “dating” traditions, which seem to get thrown into high relief on this holiday. No, mostly it goes back to my memories of Valentine’s Day in grade school, and how much I hated it.

In the early grades, V-Day was a whole-class thing; everyone made cards for everyone, and placed them into little folded-paper “mailboxes” that we hung at the front of our desks. This wasn’t terrible, but it was awkward. I never knew what to write to anyone, and the cards I got were equally as vague. It never felt like any of the cards I got were actually written to me (and, to be fair, the ones I wrote were probably just as devoid of connection).

Later, of course, when kids were starting to pair off, Valentine’s Day at school started to take on the qualities of the romantic holiday adults celebrate. In junior high and high school, kids could buy candies or roses to have delivered to their “sweethearts” during class. I was always torn between terror that one of those deliveries would be for me — thus bringing me unwanted attention — and despair that no one would ever think of me in that way. To my memory, my first wish remained intact; I never received a Valentine’s delivery in school. But every hour of that whole day, each year, I would feel torn in half by those diverging desires.

None of this is meant to elicit sympathy; it’s not meant as a “poor, lonely me” story. It’s an illustration of the larger pattern of how I see this holiday playing out for large swathes of the population. Even as adults, people are bombarded with messages about how people are giving their loved ones gifts in a celebration of romance, and isn’t it wonderful that everyone’s so happy, and…aren’t you pathetic if you’re left out. I mean, isn’t that the flip side of seeing the holiday portrayed as if everyone is happily (and heterosexually, I might add) partnered up?

At least the public display of Valentine’s-worthiness that marked Valentine’s Day in school (I think some students even did these kinds of gift-delivery things in college, too) segues into something more private in adult life — but to me the holiday is still tinged with this worthier-than-thou feeling that leaves out so many people. And once I started to have my own romantic relationships, it never felt right for me to abandon my standing critique of Valentine’s Day and wholeheartedly embrace the gift-giving spectacle. It felt like that would be a sort of “too bad for those suckers, I’ve got mine now” attitude.

I feel the need to say at this point that I’m mainly talking about the cultural trappings of Valentine’s Day — the advertising, in particular, and practices like those I saw in school, where public displays of relationship status are encouraged in a way that (I think) is alienating to others. I don’t have a problem with anyone’s personal celebration of the holiday, or happy feelings on receiving gifts from a loved one. I like gifts, too. 🙂 But I also want to say that it can be a really crappy day for people who are feeling lonely, or who aren’t lonely but don’t fit the mainstream sexual/romantic relationship mold and are tired of having people think they should. Ultimately I just think it’s ironic that a holiday supposedly about love can feel so mean.

So a happy Tuesday to everyone who isn’t into Valentine’s, for whatever reason. And tomorrow you can celebrate my dog’s birthday instead. 🙂

Wrong Model, Wrong Research

I was going to write a long, detailed post directed at MIT about their announcement of a new Center for Autism Research, which will be focused on lifting the “burden” of autism and developing “methods to better detect and potentially prevent autism spectrum disorders entirely.”

I was going to talk about how, scientifically, any approach to a complex problem requires using the correct model, and explain that I think they’re using the wrong model of autism — a pathology model rather than a neurodiversity model. I was going to pull quotes from articles about this new center (as well as the existing autism research going on at MIT, which is already along the same lines) and contrast them with quotes from MIT’s president about inclusion and respect for students of all backgrounds.

But I’m just tired of it all.

I understand that our whole society pathologizes difference: there are still people who argue that darker-skinned people are genetically inferior, and people who claim that LGBT folks need to be cured. It’s no surprise that differences in brain “wiring” are also treated as defects to be eradicated — but just because it’s no surprise doesn’t mean I’m not angered by it.

Never mind that the real “burden” of autism is the burden that society places on the different — a burden that often leads to anxiety, depression, and other co-occurring mental health issues. Research to lighten that burden would be welcome. Research could also alleviate symptoms of other co-occurring physical conditions common on the autism spectrum, such as epilepsy and gastro-intestinal problems. This sort of research could do a lot to benefit autistic people directly, rather than playing into a conception of autism as an epidemic, as some sort of blight on society.

I would welcome research that would help me understand the details of my particular neurology, and that could, for example, help create strategies for managing sensory overload. Or we could have research into technologies to help autistic people who don’t communicate in standard ways — or whose sensory systems are perpetually on overload — to better have their needs met. Research like that, based on understanding the experience of autistic people, could also go a long way toward dragging the rest of society into a new understanding of both our strengths and our struggles — and maybe help create a place where we could fit in without trying to fit ourselves into the wrong mold.

The problem for MIT, I think, is that many of these are likely to be social fixes, not technological ones, and MIT is all about the technology. It’s right there in the name, you see. But some things don’t have technological fixes, they only have societal ones. We don’t, for example, try to solve white supremacist racism by genetically “fixing” all skin color to be the same shade — we recognize that the problem lies in the prejudice of others, not in the individual’s possession of dark skin.

<deep breath>


None of this is likely to change the course of autism research, at MIT or elsewhere. But as an MIT alum myself, I’m disappointed that they can’t seem to see beyond the mainstream view of autism. And as an autistic person, I’m dismayed that they see something so intrinsic to me as my entire way of thinking, and of experiencing the world, as nothing but a burden on society. I haven’t felt particularly connected to my alma mater in the time since I graduated, but I surely feel more alienated from it today.

Now riddle me this:

Is that alienation due to my neurological deficits? Or theirs?


I just want to be seen.

All of me, not just the parts I carefully choose to show you. That “me” is based on your preconceptions, my fears, and our history (or lack thereof). I just want to be seen.

I don’t want to be seen.

Let your eyes slide right past me, my words go unnoticed. When you ask me a question, I panic, fearing to reveal too much. I don’t want to be seen.

There is no contradiction here.

I just want to be seen…and loved for what you see. I don’t want to be seen…and rejected, ridiculed, reviled. Which direction I go depends on your reaction, and the reactions of all who have come before you, whether you know them or not. It depends on how much risk I want to take, to gamble that this time will be different. And you should know: the odds are not even.