And On Into 2019

Happy New Year! I’m still here, although apparently I didn’t quite manage to post anything to this blog during the entire fall semester and beyond. (Looking back, I see I even said in my last post that I was hoping to get back to a more regular blogging schedule soon. :facepalm:) BUT! I am still here, so…here I am.

The semester went well! I took a sociology class called Social Inequality, and a class in statistics for the social sciences, and thoroughly enjoyed them both. The Neurodiversity Club I helped to found got off to a good start as well, and we have plans for a few different kinds of events for the spring. I also made a lot of progress playing the mandolin, kept up with work, and maintained a steady spiritual practice. It was a bit of a mad dash to the end of the year, but I made it through the holidays and now have a few weeks off of school before the spring semester starts.

During that time, I need to finish up and submit my application to graduate school, which is very exciting. Everything’s almost in order; I just want to take some time to go back over the paper I’m using as my writing sample and make sure it all still looks good. One of my former professors had some great suggestions for potential improvements, and I want to try to work in at least some of them. (Some will have to wait for another time, for various reasons; they were very good ideas, but I’m not sure they’re best suited to this particular paper.)

For the spring, I am registered for a class in the sociology of gender, and one in research methods for the social sciences. The sociology professor also approached me about potentially doing an original research project as part of the gender class, and presenting it at one or possibly two events late in the spring. So I’m going to be thinking more about that over the next few weeks as well, and try to come up with a project I can reasonably do in the timeframe I have. And of course I’ve loaded myself up with a whole bunch of reading I hadn’t been able to get to while I was doing classwork, so the concept of “time off from school” is perhaps a little misleading. 😉

In any case, I also plan to do some thinking about how I want to proceed with this blog. I don’t want to promise a more regular posting schedule (again) because I know things are going to get busy. But I do want to give some thought as to how I might generate some future topics for blog posts, possibly correlated with things I am reading and thinking about for school. After all, if I do get into the program I’m applying for, I’ll be diving even deeper into academia for a good long while. It would be great to have a place to share some of what’s going on with that, both in terms of the actual content of my research and my experiences as an autistic academic. Any ideas? Anything in particular you would like to hear about?

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On Masking

I’ve been thinking about the concept of autistic masking, sometimes also called camouflaging. This is the act of concealing or suppressing one’s autistic traits in order to appear “normal.” Masking may include the suppression of “stimming” movements or sounds, putting up with sensory inputs that are painful, forcing oneself to make eye contact, or following previously-practiced social scripts in order to blend in and appear non-autistic.

Such masking takes a toll on multiple levels. As Laura Hull and her co-authors found in “Putting On My Best Normal,” camouflaging is frequently experienced as mentally and physically exhausting, due to the constant vigilance required. Masking one’s autistic traits can also lead to a lack of support (or a lack of diagnosis altogether) because one’s struggles aren’t evident. Lastly, it can make one feel inauthentic, even to the point of losing touch with one’s own identity. And if you can never truly be yourself, all the connections you make with other people feel false as well.

Now, most people wear masks at least some of the time. Sociologist Erving Goffman wrote a foundational book about this back in 1956, called The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. In it, he discusses the self as a performance: we try to manage the impressions others have of us by presenting ourselves in a certain light, hoping this will lead them to treat us the way we want to be treated. To do this, we choose what information to present about ourselves, and what to conceal.

This “impression management” is, essentially, masking: we reveal and conceal different parts of ourselves in order to be accepted and seen in the best possible light. Consider, too, how we present different aspects of ourselves in different contexts; the self we present in the workplace or classroom is not the same self we show to our friends at a party. (Theoretically, at least, if you go to parties.)

So, to some degree, masking is a universal phenomenon, and it can be a valuable social skill to have. Then why is autistic masking so often draining and even damaging? I believe the key lies in that opening phrase: to some degree.

Autism is such a pervasive difference in our “wiring” that masking it is a constant effort; it’s not like simply not mentioning some embarrassing incident, or making sure you don’t have spinach in your teeth. It’s more like trying to maintain strict control over every natural instinct you have in terms of how your body wants to move, how you express yourself, and how your mind works. So in trying to appear “normal,” autistics may need to mask a lot more than someone just trying to present themselves “at their best.” So of course it ends up being much more draining.

It’s also important to note that many aspects of masking can cause stress directly. Making eye contact is very uncomfortable, even painful, for many autistic people, but many of us do it to meet social expectations, or to make others more comfortable. Stimming movements such as rocking, finger-flicking, or tapping are often a way of relieving stress and/or burning off energy that has nowhere else to go, so restricting those behaviors then causes stress to increase in an already-uncomfortable social situation. Similarly, forcing oneself to put up with—or even pretend to enjoy—a sensory situation that is causing distress (but which no one else seems to mind) will increase stress as well, and can easily lead to a meltdown or shutdown later.

There is also a difference between voluntary masking and coerced masking. When someone is making a choice about how to present themselves in order to appear at their best, this is a voluntary decision. Sure, it’s stressful to put on your best social presentation during, say, a job interview, but that’s a choice you make to give a good first impression. When, however, you have been told over and over (explicitly or implicitly) that who you are is not acceptable, and yet you still wish to be accepted, your subsequent masking of those unacceptable traits is essentially coerced. In other words, when not masking is met with ridicule, bullying, and ostracism, you end up masking out of fear. So of course this will have negative effects.

This kind of coerced masking can even be completely unconscious, as it was for me before I learned about autism. I simply grew up absorbing the norms other people expected me to follow, even though they were often painful to follow (and when I was younger I probably didn’t follow them very well). Eventually this caused some serious burnout, because the exhaustion and constant vigilance mentioned above were just as real even though I didn’t know I was masking anything. Scratch that: I knew I was masking something, I just didn’t know it was autism. Ultimately, I was simply masking myself.

It’s really hard to get out of the habit of masking, though. For one thing, it does get to be a habit, especially after decades of doing it. For another, it’s sometimes hard to know the difference between the well-adjusted sort of social presentation that everyone does in order to keep good boundaries and maintain professionalism, and the self-negating camouflaging that capitulates to social norms that see autistic traits as inherently deficient. It’s a tricky position to be in, especially when you also want to be able to navigate the non-autistic world while still being true to yourself. And I don’t have a ready answer for how to do that; it’s still a work in progress.

Short Post, With Snakes

I’m tired. I’ve had a busy week with a lot of frustrations, and every time I start writing something I keep second-guessing whether I really want to say that, and wondering if it will invite conflict that I am not up to dealing with. And it’s not just events in my life that have exhausted me this week; it’s also the endless drumbeat of bad news and worse news and downright horrible news that keeps filling my inbox and my podcasts and my social media feeds. So many people are marginalized and under attack, and it just feels…relentless.

At the same time, I don’t want to completely disengage, because I want to stay informed and able to contribute, in whatever ways I can, to the efforts to make things better. I have also realized that I am fascinated by the research I have read around prejudice and stigma, and while my main focus for the paper I am writing is the stigma surrounding autism, I am drawn to read more broadly about stigma. This doesn’t make my reading list any sunnier, of course, but there is something about approaching this subject in a systematic, sociological way that helps me think more clearly instead of feeling like there’s nothing to be done about it. Understanding a problem is the first step toward addressing it.

So I am going to dive back into that for now, and leave this blog post short. And here’s a photo of a nice little garter snake I met today—snakes are stigmatized, too, after all.

Slender garter snake next to a small rock on a dirt road, in mixed light and shadow

Autism, Sex, and Gender

Over the last couple of days, I watched all of the available recordings from a conference titled “Intimate Lives? Autism, Sex/uality, Gender and Identity.” It was organized by four doctoral students–Marianthi Kourti, David Jackson-Perry, Kirsty Allenby, and Daniel Bendelman–and funded by the British Sociological Association. It took place on May 18 at the University of Birmingham in the UK. Overall I thought the presentations were excellent, and while I’m not going to write up a play-by-play of each one, I wanted to share some of the content that particularly resonated with me.

Preliminary note: I have tried to use the proper preferred pronouns for each speaker, but if I have gotten any of them wrong, I sincerely apologize. Please let me know so I can update the post. In addition, if I have mischaracterized anyone’s statements or opinions, please let me know as well. I have done my best to accurate represent what was said, but misunderstandings happen, and I don’t want to attribute anything to anyone that they didn’t mean.

In “Walking through Treacle: The lived experiences of autistic students in FE and HE,” Deborah Philip talked about research she has been doing into the experiences of autistic students. This wasn’t specifically focused on gender and sexuality, but it was very interesting to hear how her research has changed directions because of her interactions with autistic people. She had initially been interviewing autistic people, parents, teachers, and other professionals, but then she noticed that the autistic students themselves were telling her quite different stories than their parents and teachers were. So she changed her plans and began using only input from autistic people themselves, and focusing on the issues that came up as being important to them.

Deborah brought up the idea of “learned helplessness” to suggest a reason why the students often pretended to agree with what their parents were saying, but then told her otherwise afterwards. (Learned helplessness is a psychological phenomenon that occurs when an individual is repeatedly subjected to painful conditions that they cannot escape. Later, when escape is possible, it is still not attempted because the individual has previously learned that they are helpless, so they don’t even try.) I thought this was a particularly poignant way of describing the experiences of people who are constantly talked over, their own experiences and viewpoints subordinated to other people’s.

One more thing I want to say about this presentation was what Deborah said about person-first language. (If you regularly read this blog, you’ll already know that I’m not a fan.) She said that while professionals tend to insist on person-first language, the autistic people she worked with preferred identity-first language. At one point she also invoked the phrase “living with autism” by saying, “I guess a society that wants to ‘live with’ something, would like to live without it.” I thought that was very powerful as well.

In the second panel, Lexi Orchard presented “Winning at Sexuality: A personal reflection of passing in a hypersexualised world.” They started with an overview of some of the ways in which autistic people attempt to pass as non-autistic, including suppressing our natural behavior, impersonating more typical behavior, and scripting. They also had their own term for another technique, which I found incredibly relatable: they called it “precog.” This involves attempting to foresee all of the possible directions a social encounter might go, following all of the potential branches and preparing scripted routines for each of them. This was so familiar to me, and I love the term “precog” (short for precognition, I presume) to describe it. I actually think this strategy really needs to be talked about more, because it is one of the things that makes social interaction so draining and exhausting for me.

Lexi also talked about how masking, scripting, and other techniques are done out of self-defense. They are survival skills that (hopefully) allow us to avoid painful encounters and also get access to social resources. But there are heavy consequences to passing, too: it takes a physical toll, and eventually makes it hard to even know yourself or your own preferences. At one point, Lexi said, “If somebody says, ‘What do you want?’, my brain suddenly goes into this passing mode where I attempt to figure out what you want me to want.” This, too, was painfully familiar.

As part of panel three, Jake Pyne presented “Narrating Autistic and Transgender: Implications for the Gender Clinic.” He talked about the ways in which autism and transgender identity are assumed to be non-overlapping, and the many barriers autistic people face if they want to transition. Jake also brought up the entwined history of applied behavior analysis (ABA) and so-called conversion therapy, which is aimed at gay, bi, and transgender people to “fix” them; Ole Ivar Lovaas and George Rekers worked together as they created these parallel behavior conditioning programs—one to eradicate autistic behavior, and one to eradicate gender-nonconformity. But while conversion therapy is starting to be banned in more and more areas, ABA is still considered best practice for autistic kids.

Olivia Astrid Pountney also talked about the barriers to transitioning that many autistic people face, in “Transitioning in a neurotypical world: A critical autistic analysis on gender identity services.” She talked about the typical narrative expected by gender clinics, and how it doesn’t always fit the trans autistic experience. For example, she talked about the ways in which people are expected to perform stereotypical gender roles in order to be accepted as being “really” their gender, but for autistic people those social norms are often nonsensical. They can also clash with sensory needs, which leads to the dilemma, for her, of choosing between wearing sensory-friendly clothing that isn’t stylish, or wearing more stylish clothing that conforms to gender expectations in order to be accepted as a woman (while being uncomfortable). She pointed out that there is no universal experience of being trans, autistic, or both, and emphasized the need to depathologize both trans and neurodivergent identities.

In “Spanking my sensory needs? An understanding of myself as a human, a sexual being and an Autistic,” Jennifer Layton talked about the ways in which BDSM practices allowed her to inadvertently meet her sensory needs before she learned she was autistic. After a late diagnosis, she was given various recommendations for her sensory diet, and she came to realize that they were things she had always enjoyed through BDSM. For example, she was given the recommendation to wear tight clothing and/or wear a weighted backpack for a feeling of pressure…which is precisely the experience of being tightly bound in rope and/or rubber. Similarly, a recommendation that she swing back and forth was mirrored by her enjoyment of suspension play. Because kink is so misunderstood and pathologized, she had felt ashamed of her enjoyment of it, but she is starting to overcome that, in part through this recognition that it has allowed her to meet her autistic sensory needs before she consciously knew she had them.

The last presentation I’ll talk about is Sonny Hallett’s “To Hug or not to Hug: physical affection at the intersection of autism, culture and gender.” There were several fascinating aspects to their talk, including the experience they shared of growing up partly in the UK and partly in China with their grandparents. The two cultures have very different expectations about physical contact (and eye contact), especially between strangers, and Sonny found their autistic traits more normalized in China. They found the social environment harder to navigate when they returned to the UK, including knowing when physical contact would be welcome.

The main dilemma that Sonny conveyed was that, while they felt starved for physical affection, it was also often uncomfortable, and they didn’t know how to seek it out when they wanted it. On top of that, they mentioned how Westerners tend to sexualize everything, starting at an early age. Casual touching, or giving someone a hug, is quickly seen as a sexual overture, so knowing how people will interpret things becomes important. For an autistic person who has trouble reading social cues, this becomes even more difficult, and Sonny said they eventually ended up taking a passive approach to physical affection. But simply allowing physical contact whenever it comes your way can quickly become dangerous, because you don’t learn how to set boundaries. They described what they called “anxiety confusion thought-cycle paralysis,” which is when you’re trying to read a situation that is getting uncomfortable, going around in circles about what’s going on, and then ending up deciding that you’re overthinking it and not saying anything. This, too, felt very familiar to me.

All in all, this was a great conference, and I don’t want to give the impression that the sessions I didn’t write about weren’t interesting—all of them were, and together they offered a wide variety of research, observations, and personal experiences that centered autistic experiences of gender and sexuality in a way that was very encouraging. I hope to see more events do the same.

Academic Aspirations

So I’ve decided to take the leap. I’m going to start making preparations…to apply…to eventually enter graduate school. It’s a slow-motion leap, since the application deadline is all the way in January of next year, and I’ve got several things to do to get ready. But I’m hoping that after one more year taking undergraduate classes, as well as taking the GRE and preparing a solid application, I’ll be a good candidate for the program I’m looking at.

And that program? It’s a doctoral program in sociology. Gulp. I had initially discounted the idea of aiming for a PhD, feeling that it was too long a road to start down in my forties, and unsure how I would be able to pay for such a thing. But this department offers assistantships and tuition credits, so not only could I have my studies paid for, I could essentially have paid work in the department while I study. Sounds like heaven to me.

So, yeah. Sociology. I’ve been realizing that I am strongly drawn to social science research and writing, and I would love to explore sociological theory as it applies to the autistic experience, as well as areas related to disability, gender, and stigma. And this particular sociology department sounds like a very socially-conscious one that seeks to use its research to influence public policy in various areas, and that sounds like a great combination to me.

But it’s going to take some work to get there. I’m hoping to take the GRE this summer, which will take some preparation; I’ve always been pretty good at test-taking, but a lot of the relevant knowledge has atrophied since my original college years. And I want to put together a really great writing sample that showcases my interests and writing ability; I actually have an idea for a project that grew out of some planned blog posts that kept growing in scope until they really deserve to be a longer piece.

And that brings me to my current academic advisor, who is awesome. I had a meeting with him last week to register for next semester’s classes and discuss my eventual goals. He’s always been very encouraging of my plans, and after actually having me as a student in two of his classes this semester he has become even more enthusiastic about my plans for grad school. So when I told him about my plan to produce this research project as my writing sample, he offered his advice and support in refining it, and proposed that I work on this project in place of some of the future assignments for one of his classes.

So I am off and running on putting that together. And I’m very excited to be moving forward with a plan. I’m still very nervous about several things, of course. What if I don’t get into the program? Or what if I do, and it all ends up being too much to handle? But I’m remembering how much I really love academics when I’m studying something I’m passionate about, and I am very passionate about this.

And autistic passion can make things happen.

Doesn’t Feel Like Spring Yet, But…

My spring semester starts on Thursday of this week. I’m taking two in-person classes this time; I didn’t really like the experience I had with an online class last semester, and I found two I wanted that meet back-to-back on Tuesdays and Thursdays. I’m really looking forward to both of them, for different reasons.

The first one is Introduction to Human Services. I’ll admit this initially sounded a bit bland to me, but it’s the prerequisite for most of the other degree-specific classes I’ll need, so I wanted to take it soon. And I figured that at the very least it would give me a wider overview of the field I’m potentially looking to move into. But after I met with the professor and saw the syllabus, I started to get really excited about it. He’s got some very interesting projects incorporated into the coursework, and I think I’ll really learn a lot.

The second class is Social Psychology. After falling in love with sociology last semester, I was psyched (hah) to see this on the schedule, because it feels like a logical complement to that. (Does it make sense to say something “feels logical”? Makes sense to me, but it just occurred to me that it’s an odd formation. But anyway.) According to my preliminary understanding of how they relate, sociology focuses on the large-scale social structures that exist outside of the individual, while social psychology looks at how the individual navigates that social world. Both are particularly interesting to me as an autistic person, because the social world has never made intuitive sense to me, but studying it analytically has helped me understand it better.

I also think that being autistic is actually an advantage in this area of study, because I think I take less for granted as “just the way things are.” The “way things are” often strikes me as utterly bizarre and nonsensical, and therefore I treat it as something that needs to be analyzed and explained, rather than taking it for granted. I think most people navigate social norms like the proverbial fish in water—it’s a comfortable, familiar environment, but also entirely invisible. In that case, it can take some work to learn to see the details of that environment, much less question why they are the way they are. But I feel like I’ve been questioning aspects of social interaction all my life, which is why the systematic study of social life has really appealed to me.

That’s got me seriously wondering which direction I want to be moving in. I went back to school with the idea of eventually getting a Master of Social Work degree, with the aim of working with other autistic adults in a professional capacity. There is such a disconnect between the lived experience of autism and the attitudes and beliefs about it held by most clinical professionals, and I am interested in helping to bridge some of that disconnect. But there is also a disconnect between the autistic experience and the attitudes and beliefs of autism researchers, and that is also a possible direction for me. My previous scientific training would assist me in that realm, too.

But, for now, I am continuing onward with these two classes. I think they will combine well as a way to continue to test the waters to learn what I might like to do; one will give me an expanded sense of the options available in the human services/social work field, and the other will continue my education in the social sciences to see if my education should bend in that direction instead. To be honest, I kind of expect I’ll end up with some hybrid approach; I never have been able to decide “what I want to be when I grow up,” mostly because I have never wanted to be just one thing. I’ve gotten to be comfortable with that, though, so for now I’m willing to just keep studying and see what happens.

It’s All Already Strange

Apparently I love sociology. I’ve never formally studied it as a discipline before, but I’ve read a lot of sociological writing, so I expected to like it…but I am loving this class. And it has occurred to me that it is specifically because I am autistic that I love it.

I’ve always seen patterns in things, and sought to understand other people’s behavior by looking for the patterns in that. Finding those patterns helped me to figure out social expectations that didn’t come naturally to me. So the idea that we are not only individuals, but are also shaped by social forces external to us (the “social structures” I wrote about earlier) makes perfect sense to me. And then taking the time to actually tease out what those structures are and how they work, using the scientific method? My analytical, connection-making mind is in heaven.

Beyond that, I have always felt like I was on the outside looking in when it comes to social interaction, a position that will likely sound familiar to other autistic people. But this is exactly the right vantage point from which to study it! My professor suggested that the role of sociology is to “make the familiar strange” by pointing out the things in society that most people take for granted — but often enough, they’re already strange to me, and it is glaringly obvious that these things have an influence most people overlook.

It is also glaringly obvious to me that these structures are not necessarily inevitable; in other words, they do not have to be the way they are. I think most people believe social behavior patterns are inevitable because they just seem “natural,” so they don’t realize that they’re just so ingrained that they’ve come to feel natural. But a lot of these things don’t feel natural to me, so I naturally (heh) want to look at them in a more analytical way.

So, I love it. And there are huge benefits to studying something that is already a “special interest.” For one thing, I am excited about the reading assignments for each class, and tend to finish them early. For another, class participation is fun — it doesn’t make me nervous, and I actually look forward to discussion times. I wasn’t sure how I would feel being back in a classroom, but at least in this case, it’s a breeze.