Wednesday, October 4, 2017

I Believe in 'Curing' Autism - A Slam Poem Against 'Cureism' By Yours Truly

As I was browsing one of the Neurodiversity pages I follow on Facebook recently, I stumbled across a post about the harm caused by promoting the disability and cure narrative about Autism. Naturally, I jumped in and commented in support, but a funny thing happened as I was writing my response; it started to sound like a slam poem! Realizing this, I decided to run with it. I mean, if other oppressed and marginalized groups can have their own slam poetry, I figured it was high time we did too! So without further ado, I present my poem - the purposely-titled 'I Believe in 'Curing' Autism! Read it and enjoy!

I Believe in 'Curing' Autism - By Adam Michael

I believe in 'curing' autism:
I believe in curing it through acceptance of Neurodiversity.
I believe in curing it by recognizing that there is no such thing as a 'normal' human brain.
I believe in curing it by stripping it of the stigma and the label 'disorder.'
I believe in curing it by helping Neurotypicals and Autistics better understand each other and their needs.
I believe in curing it by teaching kids and adults both that it is okay to be different.
I believe in curing it by healing the damage caused to many by a health care system that oppresses and tries to change people away from being who they are.
I believe in curing it by helping society see our gifts and unique abilities.
Most of all, I believe in curing us of the conformity and disease narrative that harms all of our attempts to simply be valued as people in this crazy world.

But tell me you believe in curing us of our very natures?

That we are broken somehow because we work and think differently? 
That we clearly don't understand the 'severity' of our own situations?
That our concerns clearly aren't valid, and that our anger is 'typical Aspergers/Autistic behaviour?'
That we are clearly in need of being talked down to and cared for because we are incapable of this ourselves?
That you'd like to see pre-natal screening for the fabled 'autism' gene so that we could spare future generations the existence of people like us?
That you'd rather your child get smallpox, measles or any number of vaccine-preventable diseases rather than be born with autism?
That you'd rather rewire you child's entire personality and way of being, and in so doing destroy and rebuild them, rather than live in a world where they have autism?

That is not okay.

If this is your concept of a cure? Then this is where our problems will begin.
For I am Aspie, I am proud, and on behalf of all my fellow spectrum dwellers, hear us ROAR!

As always, yours in diversity,

Adam Michael

Friday, September 29, 2017

'About A Girl' - The Orville, Allegory and the Social Construction of Disability

Like most Star Trek fans, I’ve been looking forward to the release of Star Trek: Discovery with a mix of excitement and anxiety. Will it be good? Will it tank? Indeed tensions have run high in the fan community, and it really has been an emotional rollercoaster. Thankfully we’ve at least had Seth Macfarlane’s off-brand Trek clone The Orville to keep us entertained. And while the first episode was nothing spectacular to write home about, the subsequent episode really began to find its footing as a dramedy. It was becoming a show that strove to find a perfect balance between humor and Star Trek-style storytelling, but that still sometimes missed the mark. A loveable rogue in the world of grimdark 2017 science fiction shows.

Which is why the third episode threw me for such a loop in the best possible way.

The premise of ‘About A Girl’ is a simple one; the USS Orville’s chief tactical officer is a man named Bortus, who hails from the all-male Moclan race. Among Moclans, being born female is exceedingly rare, and is often considered a disability, which is why it is all the more shocking to learn that Bortus and his mate have given birth to a female baby. What follows is a debate among all crew members and Bortus himself that eventually leads to a tribunal held on the Moclan homeworld to determine the baby’s fate. Admittedly, this plot is fairly standard fare for a sci fi, and it does come across rather simplistic with regards to the transgender issues it overtly tries to tackle by using gender as the allegory (namely, the assumption that biological sex is linked to gender comes to mind…though then again maybe for Moclans it is? We never really find out). That being said, while the metaphor is about gender identity, it succeeds far better as a commentary on pre-natal disability screening…especially as it relates to autism. You see, Bortus has his change of heart on whether to perform the procedure on his daughter while watching the 1960s Claymation Rudolph The Red Nosed Reindeer movie with two other crew mates, and it was the story of Rudolph’s assumed deformity actually saving the day that, rather humorously, makes him reconsider his entire stance.

Putting aside the occasionally weird humor for a moment, the episode does raise the very real question of a what a disability actually is. After all, biologically, there was nothing wrong with Bortus’ daughter – she was a perfectly healthy baby girl. The ‘disability’ in the minds of the Moclans was her potential inability to partake in society as an adult, along with a host of perceived stereotypes about people with her ‘condition.’ This should ring a bell for any one of us who are familiar with the neurodiversity movement, as well as the push to cure autism through in utero screening. Bortus himself says it best when he wonders how he could possibly dare to make a decision about the future capabilities of a being he only just brought into this world. It all serves to highlight a very real fact – that disability is as much a social construct based on what is arbitrarily considered ‘normal’ as it is based on biological realities. Had Moclans been a typical race with two biological sexes and a range of internal genders, the question of Bortus’ child’s sex would never have even been an issue. Circumstances, and prejudice, determined her fate more than anything else. That ultimately, even the best arguments by Orville XO Kelly Grayson failed to persuade the court to respect the baby’s birth sex also points to a harsh reality – that true social change is hard, and often requires far more work than one trial in one courtroom can accomplish.

In the end, ‘About A Girl’ is an overly simplistic and somewhat problematic allegory when taken on face value as being about the struggle for transgender rights. It still succeeds in that respect mind you, but not nearly as well as it does when considered as a metaphor for disability and autism rights. The fact that, at the end, the court still forced the baby to go through with the procedure was painful to watch, and it damn near brought a tear to my eye, but it did so in the best tradition of Star Trek shows of yore. When one considers the arrogant pride with which some countries have recently proclaimed to have ‘eliminated’ Down Syndrome through selective abortions and in-utero testing, the profound, powerful message of this episode is all the more needed. After all, there really is NO way to know what kind of value someone will have, or what kind of contribution they will be able to make until they’re given a chance to develop and grow. So is The Orville the best science fiction show I’ve ever seen? Definitely not…and in fact I very nearly stopped watching it after the horrible writing of the pilot episode. But had I done that I’d have missed out on a show that, while often ham-fisted, also manages to  write decent allegories of important issues like these.

And you know what? Any show that can make a commentary about in-utero genetic screening and the social model of disability while also showing a gelatinous alien flirting with a human doctor within the same 45 minute run time is a-okay with me!

As always, yours in diversity,

Adam Michael

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

'Atypical' - When Having One's Heart In The Right Place Just Isn't Enough

As any long-time reader of this blog will know, media representations of Autism are a tricky thing. Everyone wants to be progressive it seems, and they all want a piece of the neurodiversity pie – which, I should say, is awesome because more allies are always welcome! The problem is, however, that such people are often not fully aware of exactly what ASD really is. Because of this, many (not all – I’ve already mentioned in the past how awesome both Pidge Gunderson and Billy Cranston are as positive representations of autistics and aspies in media) shows that try to present a nuanced, positive view of life on the Spectrum fall flat on their faces while passing through stereotype land…as though they were Sideshow Bob stepping on a thousand rakes one at a time yet still not learning from the experience. This is exactly where Netflix’s new series ‘Atypical’ finds itself, and if I’m being honest, it is a show that has conflicted me to the core.

The thing about a show like ‘Atypical’ is that – contrary to what you might read on several Neurodiversity blogs – it’s not ALL bad. If it was, this would be far easier. The fact is, I actually found quite a bit to like about this show. As autistic main characters go, Sam may be problematic, but he’s far from unlikeable. He’s an awkward, nerdy, isolated teenager lost in his own rich inner world, and who connects with real life through the lens of his own intense special interests – an approach to life which is intimately familiar to me, and to which all of those on the Spectrum should be able to relate in some form. When we first get to hear Sam’s internal monologue and realize that he makes sense of his dating life through his understanding of the mating life of penguins? I was smiling ear to ear, remembering all the times I’d done that myself with video games, computers, Star Trek and Star Wars. The fact that he has such a supportive and accepting best friend throughout the run of the show – one who never once makes a big deal of or points out Sam’s autism as a failing – adds to the list of things I found impossible not to like about this show. On some level, it’s charming and you can’t help but smile.

On the other hand, there’s a far uglier side to all of this. Shockingly, I don’t even necessarily mean Sam’s mom – a character who built her entire existence around Sam’s autism and protecting him from the world. In her case, I was surprised to realize after the first few episodes that she was essential as both a commentary on the excesses of parents’ groups and as a foil for Sam – a barrier he could overcome and grow because of it. Even his father – despite some ball-dropping on his part – manages to be extremely likeable. He pushes Sam to try things even when his mother doesn’t believe him capable, and despite his many personal failings, he always tries to bond with his son as a human being – something I really appreciated seeing. The problem isn’t with either of Sam’s parents individually; it’s with when they come together as a familial whole. Taken as a group, the show definitely communicates that Sam’s Autism is somehow a burden to his family – his mother is driven to an affair because of his autism and how invested she became, his father laments the son he never had, and his sister feels as though she can’t live her own life because of him. While true to life in that this is a sad reality that impacts many  families, it is also an unfortunate message to be sending in a show that is supposed to be about raising consciousness around the lived experience of neurodiverse individuals. If Atypical truly wanted to make a statement, it would present a family that didn’t consider Sam to be a burden, and instead focussed on all of the hilarious misadventures and challenges that affect those on the Spectrum. Trust me, there’s enough material there alone to write a compelling and funny series about.

On that note, Sam’s characterization is also slightly problematic…mainly due both to how inconsistently he’s written and how one dimensional he sometimes comes across. As I’ve mentioned above, when Sam is written right, he’s a loveable, awkward weirdo and dork who I couldn’t help but find endearing and relatable as one spectrum-dweller to another. When he’s written wrong, however, a whole host of unfortunate implications ensue. He displays sexist behaviour towards women, treating them more like objects than people, and has creepy tendencies (like breaking into his therapist’s house to proclaim his undying love for her). Many would make the case that there are in fact autistics who display these traits, but I would counter with the fact that – yes, there may be – but they are learned behaviours not intrinsic of people on the spectrum. Including them in a character that is supposed to represent the human side of autism, if anything, just makes the rest of us look like disabled monsters. I also question the intensity with which Sam manifests autistic traits. While yes, there are many autistics who do have Sam’s experience of the world, that is not true of everyone’s lived autism experience. Sam is overly stereotypical, which is understandable in a way since the show is trying to help people grasp autism better, but I can’t help but feel this would have been served better with greater nuance. The fact that Sam’s girlfriend tries to shut him up about his interests and makes him feel badly about them rather than letting him explore them is also problematic. We all need to learn the lessons of the world, and I distinctly recall being taught not to talk too much about the same thing socially myself, but that doesn’t make it any less cringe-worthy to hear her talk about him having three pass cards after which he can’t talk about penguins any more that day. I mean – what is he? A well trained monkey?

At the end of the day, I’m willing to concede that shows like ‘Atypical’ are part of the very early consciousness-raising efforts surrounding neurodiversity. In that sense – as an early ‘alpha’ if you will – it is essential. It naturally will make lots of mistakes and fall flat despite it’s best efforts because, quite frankly, people still don’t know a lot about Autism outside of the stereotypes. That, however, is where show needs to do its most growing. I can’t deny that the showrunners mean well with how they’ve put things together, but if anything, I think they themselves would benefit from immersing themselves in the Neurodiversity scene. The lack of any autistic writers on the staff, the fact that the only source consulted in the project was a medical autism researcher, and the fact that the lead wasn’t played by an autistic actor, combined with the problematic portrayals of Sam’s family and his own character make this a deeply flawed show. It has heart, a loveable (if problematic) main character, and genuinely tries – things I can’t take from it – but in this case, simply having one’s heart in the right place isn’t enough.

I have no doubt that ‘Atypical’ will help raise acceptance and awareness of the real human stories on the spectrum for many viewers. For that it should rightly receive praise. I WANT to love it, even. But the fact remains, for a show about promoting Neurodiversity, it needs A LOT of work.

As always, yours in diversity,

Adam Michael

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Being an Ally - A Quick Primer On Supporting The Marginalized In Your Life

“I’m an ally.” It’s a phrase those of us in activist communities hear all the time. Sometimes, it describes us personally – perhaps we have friends or family members who are part of certain oppressed groups and we want to show solidarity and support – while at other times, it describes those who associate with us and want to provide support to our own struggles. In either case, it’s a politically charged and complicated term, and its so very easy to be a progressive person who means well yet falls flat when trying to do this properly. Recently, I came face to face with this myself when, while having the best of intentions, I accidentally invalidated the identity of a transgendered girl I had been talking to on OK Cupid by speaking too much about reproductive parts. Granted, that was far from the only thing we talked about, but it was the topic of conversation between us quite a few times. Were you to have asked me in the moment, I’d have defended myself by saying that I was only being honest with myself and her to ensure that we were compatible in every way. Truthfully, I’m not even sure she felt invalidated because she never seemed offended and in fact appeared to be more than willing to talk openly. And yet, I couldn’t help shake the feeling that I was failing in my attempts to support the rights of the Trans community. I spoke with a trans friend, explained the situation in more detail to him (including that I was willing to keep an open mind and did everything I could NOT to be reductionist, but couldn’t help but feel that I had been anyway), and he explained to me how tricky a situation it was. That by some definitions, what I’d done WAS wrong, but also that it appeared that I’d tried everything I could to avoid falling down the slope before I finally succumbed. He ended our conversation by saying that my attempts not to invalidate, coupled with my reaching out to find out how I could do better, in fact made me a good human being and ally, which I appreciated. And yet, the entire situation both rattled me and made me realize how very easy it is to slip up and fall down the slippery slope into normative privilege land.

So how do we avoid it? How, as both members of oppressed groups and allies of others, do we do everything we can to be the best allies we can be while avoiding the pitfalls on the way? I don’t have an easy answer for you (and I say that as both a spectrum dweller and someone who tries his hardest to be an ally to others), but after much thought I’ve come up with a list of things that can at least point us in the right direction:

“Leave the War Outside!” Checking Your Privilege At The Door and Recognizing That Everyone’s Truth is Different

I won’t lie, the title of this section reminds me of the cliché World War Two-era bar where patrons – both German soldier and civilian alike – were encouraged to “leave the war outside” for civility’s sake. The funny thing is, we can actually learn from this example and apply it to privilege. Essentially privilege is, among many things, the assumption that our personal life experiences as members of a group with social power are applicable to everyone (including marginalized and oppressed people). “Leaving the war outside,” in this context, means to take a momentary step outside your life circumstances, and try to see what it would be like to walk in someone else’s shoes. It’s the very important realization that your life circumstances are as genuine to you as those of someone else are to them. The sad reality is, we all need this reminder on occasion as even the best of us have the tendency to forget this by virtue of human nature. After all, the easiest perspective for us to understand as humans is our own, as it is the only concrete experience of consciousness we have at our disposal. Any time we look at, say, a member of the trans, LGBTQ, Neurodiversity, or hell even furry community and think ‘well that’s weird,’ because it doesn’t jive with our internal narrative of normalcy, we are doing this. Sometimes, we don’t even realize we’re doing it – that’s how deeply engrained this tendency within us is. Every time someone calls for a cure to the ‘terrible’ disease that is Autism Spectrum Disorder, for example – no matter how well meaning this call may be – they are engaging in this kind of behaviour and invalidating the existence of those of us on the Spectrum. Likewise, fat shaming “out of concern for their health” and countless other such micro-aggressions do the same thing. The best solution to this problem? Adopt a live and let live philosophy when it comes to others – after all, people in marginalized groups don’t NEED you to understand the details of what they’re going through as much as they need your acceptance of the validity of their existences. Even if you think it’s strange, remember this; no one asked you. Just go with it.

Don’t Police The Tone of Social Justice Conversations!

This is another common one on the internet, and one I’ve come across countless times online myself. A member of a marginalized group expresses genuine anger at some injustice or another perpetrated against their group. Not long after, a chorus of sheltered, privileged voices are screaming out about how aggressive this person was, and how they should ‘tone it down’ and ‘be more open to a reasonable discussion’ since, after all ‘you get more bees with honey than with vinegar.’ The thing is, this one is complicated because strictly speaking, it IS true that people respond better when being talked to than when they’re faced with anger and aggression. It’s even understandable that people would strive for this – after all, in an ideal world, this WOULD be the best way to engage in such conversations. The key thing to remember here, however, is that we do not in fact live in that world. Those who call out for calm, reasoned conversations often have privileged life circumstances that make it easy for them to step back and treat social justice issues with a calm, theoretical eye. Not every one has that ability, least of all those who face racist/sexist/transphobic/homophobic/ableist microaggressions each and every day. The fact is, when you face constant comments denouncing the legitimacy of your life experience, you will be angry. And most often, when in this situation, you also won’t have an outlet because society will be against you (funny thing about living in a society where certain groups are more prized than others). When you have your back up against the wall, are facing discrimination on one side and lack any forum for legitimate expression on the other, you WILL lash out in anger. To deny oppressed and marginalized people this anger under the guise of ‘keeping things civil’ is to silence their voices. I’m not saying you CAN’T be someone who prefers reasoned, level-headed discourse about these subjects – certainly calm quiet activism has its place and is effective in its own way. But if you are one of those people, go back, re-read the first section and remember; your way is not everyone’s way. Remember that everyone deals with these things differently. They aren’t any less valid.

Don’t Know How Best To Be An Ally? ASK! (But Don’t Assume)

This is probably one of the most important ones on this list, because it respects the agency of oppressed and marginalized groups. To borrow a phrase from my own cause in the Neurodiversity struggle, there should never be anything about a marginalized group without input from said marginalized group. (“Nothing about us without us!”) It is not the place of an ally to assume that they know how best to be of help to an oppressed group, no matter how well intentioned that assumption may be. If you aren’t sure how best to be supportive to those of us who need allies, then please ask! Odds are, we’ll be happy to talk to you about it. Be careful though; while it’s a matter of practical reality that, at least in the Neurodiversity struggle, it falls on us to educate others about our needs, don’t ever assume that it’s our RESPONSIBILITY to do so. There are lots of great resources out there – educate yourself, bring what you have to the table, and ask us for clarification. If you do your homework, I for one will be happy to help!

Understand The Difference Between “Guilt” and “Responsibility” (And Don’t Take It Personally!):

This is one that hangs lots of people up online, especially as it regards both racism and sexism. After all, when taken out of context, hearing things like “everyone’s a racist/sexist” can sound downright discriminatory. I mean, we were all taught not to lump people into groups right? Likewise, saying “all white people are responsible for racism” seems very accusatory. When faced with this, remember; there is a very significant difference between guilt and responsibility in this context. I don’t think there’s an activist alive who would say (unless you are an ignorant pig) that you’re personally guilty of any racist/sexist/classist/etc. actions unless you show yourself doing such things on a daily basis. If you’re a good person who doesn’t do these things, then you are absolutely right that you aren’t guilty of them. However, if you are a member of a privileged group (white, male, cisgendered, straight, neurotypical and so on) then, as someone whose life has been made better by institutionalized systems of power based on oppression, you ARE responsible for trying to level the playing field. A good way to look at this is in the context of working at a retail job. You aren’t personally guilty as a lowly peon for any of the crappy policies your company may have towards its customers, but as an employee (and therefore a representative of your organization) who deals with the people affected, you are responsible for trying to mitigate the situation as best you can for all involved. The same logic applies to social justice situations when it comes to dynamics of privilege and oppression in society. So despite how inflammatory it may FEEL to be told you’re responsible for any form of discrimination, think back to this and remind yourself; you aren’t guilty of being a jerk, but as part of a group that has historically been made up of jerks, you have the opportunity to use your social power to make things better. You can be a super hero! And who doesn’t want that??

Be Patient With And Forgive Yourself (But Don’t Rest on Your Laurels Either):

This is probably the hardest one for anyone who prides themselves on being a progressive, accepting person. Let’s face it, if you’re anything like me, your first instinct when being called on an unintentional micro-aggression is “What? Me? I’d NEVER!” followed by copious amounts of self-shaming and beating yourself up when you realize that you did in fact break one of your cherished values and act in an unbecoming way. I get it, believe me I do, but it’s important to remember two things; you’re a flawed, imperfect human, and our society conditions in us the worst responses. It’s far easier to be ignorant of one’s own privilege than it is to battle it every day, and when you do engage in this fight with your own subconscious, it often isn’t a far slide into self-loathing once you realize how deeply engrained social programming truly is. It’s important to always forgive yourself for your unintentional micro-aggressions, and in so doing treat them as opportunities to educate yourself and do better. We will ALL make mistakes, because to err is human, but as the best teachers would say, a mistake is a teachable moment. Only the ignorant fool, when faced with the opportunity to learn and do better, embraces his mistake proudly. Likewise, the definition of insanity is knowing that something doesn’t work, but continuing to do it anyway hoping for a different result. Don’t be this person. Learn from your mistakes; they don’t define you, but they can help you be a better human and ally.

This is by no means an exhaustive list on how to be the best ally, nor is it (as I mentioned earlier) intended to be. Because I hope it’s become obvious by now; constantly resisting our own internal privilege and social conditioning isn’t easy, nor are we going to be perfect and never slip up. That doesn’t mean, however, that the struggle isn’t worth pursuing. Fighting for both our own rights and the rights of others as full human beings in this society is a moral obligation we all share, whether one does it softly or loudly. By following these five recommendations, we can all be both better allies, and better humans overall. And trust me, as a member of the neurodiversity community, I’m far more likely to respect someone who tries to be a good ally, follows these tenets and occasionally stumbles than I am to respect a proudly ignorant bigot any day. The same, I suspect, is true of members of many other oppressed and marginalized groups. We all make mistakes, but come to us humbly with the genuine desire to be a good human, and it will amaze you what we can accomplish together.

As always, yours in diversity,

Adam Michael

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

The Big Bang Theory and Aspergers: Why Dr. Sheldon Cooper Does Not Represent Me

It was 2007. A simpler time. I had only started university a year before, nerd culture as we know it was only beginning to gain mainstream social acceptance, Windows Vista had pushed hordes of people into the open arms of Steve Jobs, and both Lost and Battlestar Galactica were the shows that had people talking week to week. It should therefore come as no surprise that, in the midst of that pop culture universe, the premiere of The Big Bang Theory made waves. After all, here was a show about nerds, for nerds, and oh, it also happened to have a neurotic, socially awkward lead with a supposed heart of gold who was an Aspie in all but name – Dr. Sheldon Cooper. Fans ate it up! It was a hit! And on some level, it made the concept of an Aspie nerdy intellectual both mainstream and normalized. It brought Neurodiversity to the masses.

Except it didn`t. Not really.

I could give a laundry list of reasons why BBT is a problematic show from a social justice standpoint, but such lists are a dime a dozen on the internet these days (trust me…in the lead up to writing this article, I checked). Instead, I`d like to focus solely on Sheldon, since he`s the one I`ve come to have the most issues with. I should also be clear; I haven`t watched the show in quite a few years – I started to find it boring, hackneyed and superficial. In light of that, it`s entirely possible that I`m off the mark and that Sheldon has received a great deal of character development since last I watched. I highly doubt it, but it`s possible. Sheldon has also never explicitly been identified on screen as an Aspie, but even despite that it’s a commonly accepted idea in the fan community that Sheldon Cooper has Aspergers. Even though the show has never made it ‘canon’, it’s basically the case, and it comes with a boatload of unfortunate implications because of it.

So why exactly is Sheldon a bad representative of the Aspie community? It all comes down to one word; stereotypes. Dr. Cooper’s behaviour is chock full of them. Don’t believe me? Think about what comes to mind when you ponder the words Aspergers and Autism. I’m willing to bet descriptors like ‘socially awkward’, ‘aloof’, ‘neurotic’, ‘emotionally distant’ and ‘lacking in social graces’ come to mind, don’t they? Now, consider how many of these apply to Sheldon. All of them you say? Gold star for you! Sheldon is a walking textbook example of the DSM definition of Autism Spectrum Disorder, and this couldn’t be more harmful to the public perception of those of us who are on the spectrum. While the neurodiversity community has worked hard to encourage the idea that knowing one person on the spectrum literally means knowing only one, and that everyone is different whether on the spectrum or otherwise, Sheldon’s popularity in the mainstream has led people to consider him the defacto mascot for Aspergers. You can see why this is a problem.

Contrary to Sheldon’s portrayal of a man with Aspergers, we are not all aloof, nor are we all self-centered jerks. In fact, many of us feel our emotions far too deeply and truly, and while we may be neurotic, it is often a neurosis born of our deep-seated emotions coupled with our misinterpretations of the social world. Granted, we can at times be arrogant with our own knowledge, and we can talk far too much about the things that interest us, but for the vast majority these aren’t harmful to our lives or our friends. The way Sheldon treats people, coupled with the way viewers just assume he’s Autistic based on a stereotypical definition of the term, presents a view that it is okay to treat people badly simply because one has Aspergers. As Glee taught us when they lampshaded this with Sugar, this is not okay.

I want to make it very clear that I’m not against the media trying to represent neurodiversity (and indeed any marginalized group) fairly and decently on TV or in any other format. We NEED representation, as it’s the only way that differences get normalized and accepted by greater society. The problem is, it’s not often done very well. All too often (as is the case in Big Bang Theory), writers fall on tired old tropes to help them write such characters instead of developing fully three dimensional human beings with their own complexities. Even well-meaning shows such as Scorpion face this problem (centering a show on hyper-intelligent, almost autistic stereotypes with names who need a ‘normie’ to help them function is so problematic on so many levels). I can literally count the amount of well-developed, well-written autistic characters I’ve seen in the media recently on two fingers; Pidge Gunderson of Voltron: Legendary Defender, and Billie Cranston from the new Power Rangers movie. I know there are more out there, but the fact that we have a visibility problem in the media remains.

What can we do about it? Well, besides boycotting shows that embrace these kinds of characters, we can speak out. Engage in meaningful discourse and think critically about the things we watch and the types of people they portray. Media is, after all, a business…and businesses will embrace any progressive social value as long as there is money in it and a demand for it. I mean hell, it took a while, but even the fact that we’ve received this level of representation is an improvement over where we were even a decade ago when BBT began. Talking about things and demanding them from our service providers works, and it’s a tactic we need more of.

Because I may be an Aspie, but I am not Dr. Sheldon Cooper. I refuse to be stereotyped that way. And so should all of you.

As always, yours in diversity,

Adam Michael

Monday, March 27, 2017

Go Go Power Rangers! How Saban Knocked It Out Of The Park With Autistic Representation

I was a big fan of the Power Rangers when I was young, as I think most kids who grew up in the 90s were. Despite that, however, the series has not aged well at all, and when I went back to watch it for nostalgia’s sake, my rose-coloured goggles shattered rather painfully (oh god! The glass! My eyes!). In light of this, I really didn’t expect much from the newly released reboot movie. After all, if the original series was that bad in retrospect, it really had nowhere to go but up, right?  With that in mind, a friend of mine and I went to the movies to watch Saban’s Mighty Morphin Power Rangers remake, and I have to say that while the movie was more or less exactly what I expected, one thing threw me for a happy loop; it had one of the best, fairest and most positive representations of Autism I’ve ever seen in a big-budget Hollywood movie.

Billy Cranston, AKA the Blue Ranger, has always been a geek. That was part of his charm in the original series; he was the loveable nerd that you couldn’t help but see yourself in (if you were anything like me in the 90s). In his new iteration, however, he takes this to a new level. When you first meet him, he’s obsessively ordering pencils in a certain way on his desk in detention, has a fixation with technology and explosives, rambles on tangents that touch on every topic under the sun in a train of thought that most assuredly only makes sense to him, and for the life of him doesn’t seem to understand social mores, despite knowing details about everyone in school and who they associate with. In short, Billie is Autistic, and even admits it at one point in the movie (he very bluntly tells Jason that the reason he’s a little odd is because he’s on the spectrum), and while at first I cringed, bracing myself for the inevitable autistic stereotyping which usually follows, in this case I have to say that – much like the whole movie itself – I was pleasantly surprised.

Through Billy, we as moviegoers get to see all the positive traits of being on the spectrum, and even some of the endearing neurosis. He uses his formidable intelligence to figure things out before anyone else on the team, and is the only one super interested in learning everything he can about Zordon, Alpha-5 and the advanced technology they brought with them to Earth. He’s also the most human; when all the other rangers jumped off a cliff at one point in the movie, Billy was the only one pacing back and forth nervously, weighing the pros and cons of how safe it would be for him with his new powers, coupled with what would happen to his family if he did die. As someone with Anxiety and Aspergers, I knew all too well what he was going through. The best part of it all though, is that Billy is never shown as anything but a fully capable and contributing member of the Ranger team, and the others rely on him and his friendship as much as he relies on theirs. As an Aspie, I saw so much of myself in Billy, and his character arc in the movie was one of the best-yet-unexpected parts of this movie for me.

Coming out of the theatre, I was impressed by how good Power Rangers actually was. Sure, the movie itself won’t win any awards for originality, but the writers clearly knew their source material, had a good sense of humour, and didn’t take themselves too seriously. Most importantly, however, the creative team at Saban gave us the new version of Billy Cranston – who in my opinion is right up there with Pidge Gunderson of Team Voltron in the “positive representations of Autism in media” category. For this reason alone, this movie will have a special place in my heart as a Neurodiversity activist. Simply put, the world needs more positive portrayals of Neurodiversity in general and more characters like Billy and Pidge in particular. We’re fortunate to live in a time where writers seem to be waking up to this idea, since normalizing it is so very important. Even still, however, more needs to be done.

Despite that though, I’m happy to report that, no matter which team of pilots who operate mechanical beasts that combine into a massive robot you prefer, those of us on the Autism Spectrum will always have a place on it.

Not saying I want Emperor Zarkon, Lord Zed or Rita Repulsa invading this planet anytime soon mind you, but still….

As always yours in diversity,

Adam Michael

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

"You Don't Own Me": Reflecting On Workplace Abuse One Year Later

Long time readers of this blog will recall how, around this time last year, things were not going well for me at work. I was being bullied by my manager, as I had been for years up to that point, and I’d reached a breaking point. Things came to a head, and my time with that company reached an end rather unceremoniously. At the time, I was both glad to be gone and terrified for what the future held in store for me. What if I wasn’t being bullied? I mused to myself. What if I actually did suck at my job? Who would want to hire someone as clearly incompetent as me? How long would it take for my new employer to realize the kind of person they’d hired? These were all thoughts that swirled through my mind as I faced the uncertainty that came with a significant chapter of my life ending.

It’s almost been one year since all of that happened, and I’m the happiest I’ve ever been.

During the past year, I’ve found success at work, and experienced the appreciation and praise of my managers. I’ve made new friends, and even been promoted to a higher-level sales position complete with office, desk and 9-5 Monday to Friday schedule. By all accounts, leaving my old job was the best decision I made in a long time, and it frankly amazes me how far I’ve come in the time its taken Earth to complete one full rotation around the sun. There is one thing, however, which still gives me pause; why has everything that happened back then still stuck with me? And why did I put up with it for as long as I did?

My therapist has told me that, when faced with any abuse situation, the human mind focuses solely on surviving and doesn’t let us realize how truly bad a situation is. It’s only in retrospect, once the fog clears, that we come to see the truth. I can safely say that this was exactly what I’ve experienced over the past year. If I’m being honest with myself, I’m annoyed that I put up with my old boss’ abuse for as long as I did. Logically, I know that the years I spent there helped me gain the experience I needed to achieve my current success, but somehow that feels like cold comfort.

I think, more than ever, I now understand what abuse victims go through, because in so many ways I was one. My boss controlled my livelihood and finances, along with my prospects for career advancement, and never hesitated to use those to dominate me. He was a narcissist and an asshole, and the scariest part of it all is that I actually started to internalize the things he said. I genuinely began to believe that I was incompetent and pathetic, which is part of the reason I stayed in that job as long as I did. If this company had so many problems with me, I thought, how could I honestly expect to go anywhere else? It’s only now, after having moved on as much as I have, that I see this for the insidious bullying tactic that it was.

I may never fully get over what was done to me. When I look back on it, it’s clear to me that I would have experienced a breakdown had I stayed. At the same time, the scary thing about abusive situations like these is that, when faced with the prospect of leaving, I was both scared and not even sure I had it that bad to begin with. Even now, I keep expecting the other foot to drop; for my new boss to come into my office, screaming and berating me for making a mistake with a client. Despite the fact that I know he would never do such a thing, it’s taken my brain a while to re-order its expectations of managerial behaviour. My old boss’ actions were so normalized in my mind that I still find myself having to re-learn what it means to be part of a healthy team. On some level, I know this sounds ridiculous, but that’s what it feels like to have survived workplace abuse. The anxiety he gave me still haunts me, though I do my best to not let it rule me.

At the end of the day, I not only survived, but thrived, and I like to think of every new success as a stab against the man who, for so long, kept me down.

You don’t own me Steve. You never did, and you never will.

As always yours in diversity,

Adam Michael