Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Aspergers In My Daily Life: A Study

As I've said in a previous post, I've recently started writing a book about my experiences growing up and living as an Aspie. The support I've received for this project has been immense and really heartwarming but it has frequently caused me to wonder; am I autistic enough to write this? Aren't there those far more severely on the spectrum than I, and would they really be served by my work on this subject? Ultimately, I'm not self shaming with this; I know I'm definitely an Aspie and that this blog helps loads of people daily (as I hope the book will too!). The thing of it is though, if anything this project has made me more aware of my little "aspie moments" on a daily basis. In light of that, I'd like to share a few examples of how Aspergers influences me in my every day life:

Sarcasm: Oh boy. Let it first be said that I absolutely LOVE sarcasm! The wordplay, the double entendres...its the stuff of language geek porn! Needless to say, I am an extremely sarcastic person, and I fling it with wild abandon at both my customers and coworkers alike. I am not, however quite as good at getting it back. Like anyone on the spectrum, I have an extremely hard time distinguishing between genuine comments and sarcasm. Sure, I can read the obvious cues, but when a person is consistently sarcastic with a deadpan facial expression, I start to worry and wonder. We recently hired a new guy at work for example, and while I think quite highly of him as a human, he is a perfect example of what I'm talking about and as a result I didn't know how to take him at first. Now? My obliviousness has become a running joke among all of my coworkers and I.

Verbal Motor Skills: I am obviously a lover of language and writing, and yet there are so many times throughout any given day when I find myself fumbling over my words, unable to articulate what I know my brain wants my mouth to say. This contributes to my clumsiness and social awkwardness, and it feels as though my brain is literally running a billion times faster than what my mouth can keep up with. In many ways, this is why I've embraced writing; I can take my time and communicate far more eloquently than my verbal skills allow for. This is especially true when I'm nervous, such as when my boss is standing right over my shoulder...

Sensory Overload: I know I've already devoted an entire blog post to this, but I just wanted to reiterate it as part of this entry; sensory overload is definitely a thing. And it sucks. In my case, its very much brought on by crowds of people, loud noises, and when things get busy at work. Working in retail, you can imagine this happens all the time, which leads me to....

Anxiety: To be frank, I feel anxiety about almost everything. What should I do for breakfast? Is my friend upset at me? Am I texting too much? Am I NOT TEXTING ENOUGH? My list could go on indefinitely, and as one of my best friends is fond of pointing out, "Adam just has THINGS about THINGS." Since its tied to Aspergers, my anxiety manifests mainly in terms of social situations. Typically, my responses to these situations at work progress as follows: crowds/hordes of humans --->loud noises----> sensory overload -----> anxiety. I also have a bad habit of questioning myself on every decision I make, and then second-guessing it as well. This makes social situations interesting to put it mildly.

I know I'm missing many little examples, but I hope this serves as just a small taste of how Aspergers influences my daily life as an adult. Everyone's experiences are different, however, and your mileage may vary. We all have challenges after all, and no two people are alike. Just because someone you encounter may not seem to have challenges and quirks, it doesn't mean that they don't. Me personally? I know I'm weird, but I prefer to think of it as different. And proud!

Yours in diversity,

Adam Michael

Thursday, December 3, 2015

Autism and ADHD Comorbidity: A Journey of Self Discovery

A funny thing happened to me the other day and inspired the writing of this post. I've been working recently on writing a book about my experiences as an Aspie in the hopes of helping others embrace and love themselves, so as such I needed some research. Figuring there was no better place to start this project than with my own original diagnosis documents, I went to the school board office in my town to request my paperwork. Little did I know, however, that a surprise awaited me when I opened the envelope I was handed. As I looked through the documents, an explorer rediscovering parts of my own past, I came across a report detailing a second opinion my parents had sought out regarding Aspergers. Now, this may not seem strange at first since many people who are issued a new diagnosis often wish to obtain another perspective. What struck me here, however, is that the psychiatrist who saw me also identified in me, to use her own words, “an attention deficit.”

Wait...what? Indeed, dear readers, according to another psychiatrist, I also have elements of an attention deficit in my brain. This confused me at first; after all, I'm an Aspie right? I've always seen myself in such a light. The sight of a new, somewhat unofficial diagnosis prompted me to do some research. I downloaded the DSM-IV since it was in circulation at the time of my original diagnosis, along with the latest edition (DSM-V) so that I could compare. I also did much research into both Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder and whether it could occur alongside ASD, and what I found definitely intrigued me. According to the DSM-IV, the two could not co-occur, but so many psychiatrists and psychologists noticed overlap between the two that the new rules say that a person with ASD can most definitely also have ADHD. Fascinated, I then read the diagnostic criteria for both ASD and ADHD in the DSM-V and was stunned to find out that, in addition to ASD, the ADHD ones also fit me to a T.

It was as official as it could get without getting professionally assessed: I have ADHD.

I can't tell you what a loop this threw me for. On the one hand, I had always identified as only an Aspie. I grant you that there are parts of my personality that are clearly eccentric yet not covered by the ASD diagnosis, but I've always dismissed those as the fact that no two Autistic individuals are alike. To learn that there is another factor at play in my mind has caused me to re-evaluate where I stood on myself. On the other hand, however, as I learned about ADHD in greater detail, I felt like I'd finally come home. While my ADHD is definitely more along the lines of the inattentive type not the hyperactive one, it still felt as though I had found the missing piece of my puzzle. Oddly enough, it felt great!

I am most definitely an Aspie; my difficulty reading social cues, picking up on the fine nuances of facial expressions and obsessive interests see to it that I will always have a home among those with ASD. Learning about comorbidity has been an enlightening experience for me though, and its propelled me to a deeper understanding of how my own brain works. I also most definitely have ADHD; I get bored easily, have difficulty doing tasks, and tend to rush through them to get them over with while only barely paying attention. While I've coped with these traits as much as I've coped with my Aspie ones over the years, they are absolutely still a part of me.

And you know what? That's completely okay by me.

I've said it before on this blog, but I'll say it again; we are not our labels. The DSM is a wonderful diagnostic tool that is helpful in qualifying the issues that a person may face in life and giving them names, but we must remember that it is merely that – a tool. It's a guidebook that can provide assistance and direction while we embark on our journeys, but it should never be used to pathologize personality types or to tell people what they can or cannot do simply based on an arbitrary set of diagnostic criteria. Yes, Adam does have Aspergers, and yes Adam does have ADHD; these are inseparable aspects of my personality as a human being and I can not simply shake them. It's important to remember, however, that I am Adam first. We are all ourselves first, and the only ones who can determine our potential contributions and self-worth are ourselves.

Never let anyone else tell you what you're capable of.

As always, yours in diversity,

Adam Michael

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Aspie Book Club Presents: NeuroTribes, by Steve Silberman

Hello all and welcome to a new installment of Aspie Book Club! Now, for those of you who have been following my blog from day one, you may remember a section I started back then with this name dedicated to profiling any and all books I come across on the subject of Neurodiversity and Autism. Well, it has been a few years since my last (and only) Aspie Book Club entry but fear not dear readers, for the section has returned from the dead! This time, I'll be focussing on a book which only came out a few months ago called NeuroTribes, by Steve Silberman of Wired Magazine.

NeuroTribes chronicles the history of both Autism and the various movements and initiatives which have risen around it throughout history. It is at once both sobering and inspiring, and though long-winded at times, it succeeds in presenting a chronicle of those on the spectrum throughout the ages, along with the responses of the scientific community to their existence. It is at times joyous and hopeful, at others dark and touching, but one thing it always is is powerful. I have always been a believer in Neurodiversity, but like most people I haven't always been aware of the history behind it all. Reading through NeuroTribes, I felt as though I was for the first time coming face to face with the history of my own people.

I can safely say, dear reader, that there were moments where I wept while reading this book, and yet others when I cheered proudly and defiantly for even the smallest victories achieved by autistics, aspies and those who advocated on our behalf. Perhaps one of the most poignant moments for me while reading this book occurred while I was working through the chapter on Hans Asperger. Silberman devotes much of the early part of his book to discussing Asperger's work with the children the author would come to refer to as “Asperger's lost tribe,” and this is done for good reason, as the good professor was working and discovering Autism during one of the darkest chapters of human history; the Nazi eugenics programs of the 1930s and 40s. In many way ways, Hans Asperger was to the Neurodivergent community what Oscar Schindler was to the Jews; a hero who saved whoever he could from the tyrannical hands of Hitler's National Socialist party.

The book also gets far darker, discussing the pathologizing of Autism by Leo Kanner in 1940s America, the cruel behaviourist experiments on autistics during the 60s and 70s and the rise of the anti-vaccination movement as a means of curing Autism during the 80s-2000s. It should be noted, however, that the night is darkest just before the dawn, and Silberman's book is no exception. The final chapters of his work illustrate the rise of the concept of Neurodiversity through such important figures as Temple Grandin and others who helped popularize the idea that autistics are not 'broken,' they merely run a different human operating system. As a result, this book is an emotional rollercoaster and an absolute page turner because of it.

NeuroTribes, by Steve Silberman, is therefore one of the best books I've ever read on the history of Autism and Neurodiversity. It was not only thoughtful and thought-provoking, but it also treated its material and the people being discussed with a sense of hope, love and respect that is so hard to find among many others who write about autism. Here is a book that, rather than portraying autism as a tragedy for parents and caregivers, tells the untold story of autistics themselves. While it's an emotional and at-times difficult book to read because of it, it is also powerful and optimistic. More than any other book I've read on the subject, this one made me feel like I'd come home. It was the story of my neurotribe, writ large for the first time. Silberman's book is a masterpiece, and has the potential to serve as the perfect manifesto for Neurodiversity as a whole.

Well done Steve! (Can I call you Steve? Mr. Silberman?)
Yours in Diversity,

Adam Michael

Sunday, November 1, 2015

Sensory Overload: A Survivor's Story

Today, I'd like to take a break from the political and activist sides of this blog and focus on something more practical. I'm sure we are all quite familiar right now with the stereotype that autistic individuals lack empathy and appear detached from their environment in any but the most specific (and often ritualized) ways. While there is no denying that this may appear to and even be true for some, I would like to share today my own personal experience in this regard. You see, far from lacking empathy and attachment, I have found that quite the opposite is true. In fact, I would argue that those of us on the spectrum feel and sense others and the environment TOO MUCH.

I'm going to tell you a story that will hopefully explain this a little better. I've said it before, but I'm a manager at a small Canadian telecom company who works in a retail kiosk environment during my day job. We happen to be the busiest and most profitable store in the company, so naturally such an environment is often stressful and busy. I won't say I have an easy time with that normally as an aspie; the amount of people, the multitasking and constant demands on my attention tend to get to me fairly easily, but after long enough working in people-oriented jobs, I've developed coping mechanisms for it. The other day, however, pushed the limits of my tolerance. We were crazy non-stop busy, the customers were getting grumpy from waiting in line, we were short staffed and I had to accommodate breaks for my team, and to make matters worse, we had received a massive product shipment that I had to work through receiving! My coping mechanisms were pushed to the breaking point and I could feel the spectre of sensory overload setting in. My anxiety was building, and all I wanted to do was turn inward and curl up in a quiet ball with not a sound to be heard. Were it not for the fact that I had to make frequent trips to our back room to sort and put away the already received equipment, I don't know how I would have done it. My stress and anxiety was that crippling.

Now, imagine that level of stress. That “go away world and leave me alone!” level of overwhelming anxiety developing over something as simple as caring too greatly for someone, or being unsure how to respond to the affection of other people, and you start to have a rough idea of what it must be like for those autistics and aspies who are more severely on the spectrum. Simply put, the appearance of emotional detachment doesn't necessarily mean these individuals are emotionally detached; it can be representative of feeling and perceiving the environment in too much detail, and needing to take a step back from it to process things. As another example of this, my sister loves blasting music loudly in the car while either one of us is driving. When it's in my car, however, I find it so grating when she does it! While she may enthusiastically hear her favourite song drowning out her other senses and wrapping her in a familiar melody, I hear each note as a punctured audio nail being driven into my conscious mind with the stabbing and piercing clarity interfering with my thought processes and cognitive ability. It is simply too much!

I'm not going to say that there isn't a certain amount of difficulty understanding emotion inherent in ASD; far from it. I myself have difficulty reading the subtle differences in facial expression between, for example, angry and serious, and it usually takes my brain a split second to register sarcasm, sudden emotional changes, or big, tragic events. Even so, however, I wouldn't call this a lack of empathy. In fact, I can assure you that my empathy for others and capacity for love each run quite deep. If anything, my emotions run hot and strong right beneath the surface of my being. What Neurotypical society interprets as a lack of empathy is really just the obliviousness towards emotional nuance in others' outward reactions that comes with a place on the Autism Spectrum, while the environmental detachment is simply a coping mechanism for the taxing sensory experiences overwhelming our highly attuned nervous systems. In either case, it isn't due to a lack of ability to feel; its that those of us with ASD are so acutely aware and sensitive that even a minor sensory experience such as a scratchy shirt can be pure and utter hell.

All of us, whether Neurotypical or otherwise, experience sensory and emotional overload, and none of us are good at reading every situation perfectly. The key isn't dismissing anyone as being incapable of something because of it; rather, we should be encouraging and teaching methods of coping with the crazy realities of the world. Next time you meet someone who seems to be hiding in their own mental world, remember; it probably isn't because they don't want to come out and talk, they just find every day life overwhelming and need to recharge and re-center themselves. This is all part of learning how to speak the languages of other neurotribes, and it is something which must happen if we are to move forward as a species.

As always, yours in diversity,

Adam Michael

Sunday, September 20, 2015

I Am Aspie, Hear Me ROAR!

This is a rant about Neurotypical Privilege. I’m not even going to try and sugar coat that. It’s a screaming declaration from behind the tiny bluetooth keyboard I’m using to write this, a fist-pounding exclamation of a desire to be taken seriously for being who I am, without having to hide any part of myself. For I am an Aspie; hear me roar!
Recently, I found myself voluntold to house sit for my parents while they were out of town, helping my sister get settled in for university. I woke up one morning and, my eyes groggy and clouded with sleep, proceeded to check my Facebook news feed as is my usual morning ritual. What I found there, however, incensed me to no end. One of the pages I follow on Facebook posted what can only be described as a fear-mongering piece of propaganda decrying the rising rates of autism as some sort of vaccine-induced epidemic.
I was livid.
See, normally when I come across this level of stupid, I dismiss it as being a symptom of the internet and leave it at that. I know all too well that it is often useless to try to engage in meaningful discussion and argument online, where people’s usual response to a well-structured and thoughtful forum post typically amounts to “Durr, u r gay! And Obama iz teh antichrist” (I am actually a big ally and supporter of the LGBTQ movement and I mean no disrespect at all...but this is typical interwebz stuff. Seriously, don’t ever read YouTube comments if you at all value your mental sanity.) This one was different however. I, as an Aspie, felt that the legitimacy of my very existence was being called into question, and I am nothing if not a fighter. I took a stand, wrote an angry, righteous comment on the thread then, satisfied that I had fought the good fight, proceeded downstairs for breakfast and gave it no second thought.
The responses I received to what I wrote were incredible! All day, comments and likes kept piling in, threatening to overwhelm my phone screen with so many Facebook notifications and red dots. Almost all of them were supportive and encouraging, and I can safely say I’ve made many new friends through this political action of mine. If anything though, it made me realize how prevalent Neurotypical Privilege is in our society. While I am eternally grateful for the supportive community I discovered entirely by accident online, it is telling that for every person who praised me, there were so many others who had already posted prior to my comment who were seemingly content to perpetuate fear and ignorance by treating ASD as a tragic disease destined to ruin humanity.
I hate that. I hate it so bloody much.
I want to pose a question to some of the more ignorant Neurotypical people out there. Now, I personally have nothing against anyone’s brain wiring or any other condition of their existence; we are all human after all, and we’ve all got our strengths that we want to brag about and our weaknesses that we would rather hide. Such is life. That being said, however, have any of you ever been afraid to reveal a certain side of yourself, whether at work or among friends and family for fear that you would suddenly be thought of as somehow less than human? I can guarantee that almost every member of the human race has experienced this in some form or another, but it happens among those of us who are neurodiverse far too often as well. I am an assistant manager at a medium-sized Canadian telecommunications company, and I can tell you straight up, that not a day goes by that I don’t fear someone among my superiors finding out that I’m anything but Neurotypical. The problem is, the mainstream media and society have built up an idea that anyone who is neurodiverse is either to be pitied and helped at best or feared at worst. I’ve always struggled with that, and as a child and teenager, I didn’t want to associate with the label of Aspergers for quite some time. What I didn’t realize then but do now is that this was born from wanting to be judged by my merits, not by my label. In short, I was the victim of privilege.
So I’m going to take the opportunity in this rant to spell out what I want, as someone who is Neurodiverse. I recognize that this isn’t comprehensive or reflective of everyone’s distinct experiences, but hopefully it will help shed some light as someone who actually lives with Aspergers:
  1. I want to be judged not by my neurology but by the content of my character.
  2. I want recognition that I have weaknesses yes, but so does every human. It doesn’t define them, so it shouldn’t define me.
  3. I want people to realize that along with those weaknesses come immeasurable strengths and talents. I am a writer, activist, creative person and all around geek, and there are many others with equally diverse talents and abilities.
  4. I want people to STOP TRYING TO CURE US! Seriously, I recognize that there are people on the spectrum who are severely hindered by their conditions, and they should absolutely receive assistance in maximizing their strengths and working on their weaknesses, but ASD is a spectrum for a reason. From low functioning to high functioning, the whole aim of the Neurodiversity movement is that we all deserve to have the same respect and dignity as everyone else for existing AS WE ARE. ASD is an integral part of who we are as can’t cure it without killing the patient in the process on a fundamental level. We need support and love, not smug superiority and a desire for neurological genocide. (Because wanting to wipe out a whole personality type just because its inconvenient and doesn’t comply with the norm? That’s what that is!)
  5. I want people to recognize that diversity is okay, and that having a variety of neurological variants of the human brain can only be a good thing for the human race.
  6. Finally, I want people to see us as HUMAN BEINGS. FULL, EQUAL HUMAN BEINGS! I don’t want to be pitied for having Aspergers, or to have to hide it from others and try to pass as neurotypical lest someone assume I am incompetent and stall any attempts at career or social advancement I make. We ALL have a right to have our common humanity recognized, loved and respected.
Privilege hurts us all, even those who benefit from it, because it divides us as a species and trains us to see the world in terms of “us and them.” No viewpoint could be more harmful, as it diminishes the fact that we are all in fact one species. Autism, Aspergers and any other condition considered to be neurodiverse are as natural in terms of human variation as skin colour, sexual orientation, gender, eye colour, hair colour, body size and any other characteristics which ensure that each human being is unique. None of these would exist had they not provided some evolutionary advantage to our species, and ASD is no different. Rather than attempt to change those we do not understand and force them to fit into a tiny neurotypical box, lets instead throw the box out all together, hold hands and help each other along. For we are all human first.
Yours in Diversity,

Adam Michael

Sunday, September 6, 2015

"OH MY GOD WHAT IF...???" A Few Reflections on Generalized Anxiety Disorder

By Adam Mardero

Truthfully, this is a post that I’ve wanted to write for some time now. It’s been a topic that has been on my mind a lot lately, and has prompted me to reflect deeply on how my own life has been impacted by anxiety. The truth is, Aspergers itself often comes with elements of anxiety baked in like one of so many ingredients in a neurosis pie. I’ve always felt the sting of social anxiety, and I firmly believe that it comes as a result of social mores not always being easy to least for me. Anxiety can be a debilitating condition to any who have even a twinge of it in their lives...a fact I can attest to.

Even so, this blog post is not about me...not strictly anyway.

This entry of Differently Wired is, if anything, a love letter to all those in my life who struggle with anxiety in any of its many forms. It is a shout out to friends, family, loved ones and anyone else I hold near and dear to my heart. Anxiety is something which has always affected me, whether directly or otherwise, and I know many people for whom it is a constant struggle. This is even a love letter to those I don’t know well or at all; to the faceless masses of humanity, any number of whom struggle with anxiety, depression or countless other mental health conditions. The overarching message I want to convey to all of these people is a simple one, although it is one which is remarkably easy to lose sight of.

You are not alone.

I know, it seems silly to say. The thing is though, to many people struggling with anxiety, it can feel incredibly isolating. Speaking from personal experience, it can often feel as though I am the crazy person for being irrationally nervous about some trivial thing or another. It’s important to remember that you are not. Anxiety may be a condition, but there is nothing wrong with who you are and how you are. You also don’t have to fight alone. I recognize that often times, there really isn’t much of anything that any one of us outside of a panic attack can do to help, and that too is a difficult lesson to learn. Even so, I can say with certainty that even knowing someone you care about is there can help, no matter how helpless they may feel. Having a support circle of people who love you and understand what you are going through (or want to and are willing to learn) can be a lifesaver.

So if you are someone who doesn’t have anxiety, or has it to a lesser or different degree from someone you know, what can you do to help? Based on my own personal experiences, and my own desires from other people, there are a few things:

1)     Be patient. It sounds like a given, but I can’t stress this enough. There will be times where neurosis will kick in. Where I, or example, may stress about the stupidest little thing (whether I remembered to fill the printer at work before leaving my shift, for example). I grant you, it can be frustrating to constantly reassure someone with anxiety, but believe me it is appreciated.

2)     Learn. Educate yourself about anxiety. This has to be one of the most important things that any loved one of someone with anxiety should do. As those kitschy 80’s G.I. Joe ads always proclaimed, “Knowledge is power!”  

3) Look after yourself too. I know it's going to sound selfish, but its totally true. I long ago realized that I tend to act as a conduit for the emotional energies of others, which would then drain and drag me down. Remember, its noble and admirable to want to help someone you care about, but not at the expense of losing your own mental sanity in the process. Balance is key!

At the end of the day, like with every other condition under the sun, having an anxiety disorder does not define someone as a person. As with everyone else, there are moments of laughter and moments of tears, days when the sunrise fills you with hope and joy, and others where you don't want to crawl out of bed. In other words, we are all human beings first, and we all have our challenges to face. Hopefully, this entry has helped some of you out there who have been impacted by anxiety, depression or any other condition.

Remember, there is only one unchangeable thing which should define us, and that is our common humanity.

Yours in Diversity,

Adam Michael

Sunday, May 31, 2015

"With Great Power Comes Great Responsibility" - Understanding Privilege and Guilt vs Responsibility

I'm sorry.

Anyone who knows me knows I utter those two words far more than is probably humanly healthy. Ordinarily, it tends to be about stupid things that I needlessly beat myself up over (since apparently while self love comes easily to adult me, I still have a tendency of holding myself to a ridiculously high standard). Tonight however, I'm saying it because I think I've finally had the concept of social responsibility driven home for me.

Before I continue, I'd like to reiterate that I have always had an understanding of this concept on an intellectual and moral level. I've always understood that it is the responsibility of those who do well by society's various standards to help those that do not. On a moral level, I've also always believed that while an individual member of a traditionally oppressive group may not hold any personal guilt in how the oppressed are treated by his or her peers, they do hold a responsibility as a representative of that group to at least attempt to make things better.

The thing much as I say truthfully that I've always understood this, I don't think I've gotten it more than I do tonight.

My lovely girlfriend this weekend embarked on what I've been told was an epic trip to the small northern town she calls home for the annual Pride festivities. As a fellow activist and believer in equality, my thrill at her going was only matched by my disappointment that I could not also be there fighting the good fight. The weekend was filled with fun and inspiring celebrations of diversity in all its forms, but one speaker in particular gave me knots in my stomach and almost made me tear up when my partner told me about it.

The speaker in question was a transgendered individual who transitioned from female to male. Anyone familiar with such things knows how difficult that can be, and how unaccepting society can still be to what many consider the most misunderstood and misrepresented members of the LGBTQ community. Apparently, the man spoke with much courage and light about his dark past and the difficult journey he faced in coming to terms with who he was. One period he mentioned that was especially dark was his time in middle school. Now, as I've said before, I also had dark times during that period of my life, but nothing I or many have been through can compare to the challenge of coming out as transgendered. This speaker mentioned how he had been bullied not only by peers but also by the administration at the particular one principal who made his life a living hell.

The kicker here is, he went to middle school at one of the schools a certain family member of mine was principal at, during the very time she worked there.

When I realized this, my stomach contorted in disgust and I proceeded to apologize profusely to my girlfriend. For her part, she was amazing and consoled me, telling me I could not control the actions of my family members. It was at that point that I came face to face with the concept of social responsibility. The fact remained that while, yes, I could not be held personally responsible for the actions of a member of my family (and thus could not and should not share the guilt), I do share in the responsibility for the situation because we are both representatives of our family.

I know what you are going to say dear reader, because its an argument that has been used time and again in similar situations involving racism, sexism and countless other judgmental isms. “You shouldn't take the blame for something that someone else did because you didn't do it yourself!” The thing is, this statement is both correct and incorrect. To understand how that's possible, one has to understand how we are all impacted by privilege in various forms. If you are a member of a traditionally privileged group, whether it be being male, straight, white, or any other state of existence that gives you an elevated status in the eyes of society, then while you are not guilty for the crimes of your fellow members of that group who may lack your level of enlightenment, you are nonetheless responsible for their actions.

Consider this example. I work for a medium-sized telecom company. Like most companies, the cost-service ratio is a mixed bag, and we naturally don't do well by 100% of our customers. When someone comes up to me at my workplace with a ridiculously high bill or another beef with some policy instituted by my superiors, the first thing they see is yours truly wearing his company uniform and standing behind the counter. In that moment, while I am not at fault for the particular policy that the customer has called into question, I am still responsible for at least attempting to help the customer in some way since I am still a representative of my company. Many people intuitively understand this in a retail or employment context, but find it more difficult to apply the same reasoning to issues of social justice because quite simply, it hurts to think that someone we may be connected to did something bad, and we don't want to be saddled with the guilt because gosh darn it, we are good people! This, dear friends, is emotion talking. Logically, the same argument applies in both situations.

So, to the awesome-sounding transgendered man who gave the truly inspiring talk at small-town Pride, I am terribly, humbly sorry from the bottom of my heart. In fairness, I don't know exactly what happened during those years, nor could I ever hope to understand how it must have felt. I will say that the member of my family in question is by no means an evil person, and has made great strides in terms of acceptance and belief in equality, but we are all of us human and prone to making mistakes and letting the dark sides of our nature through. I will not make excuses for her or anyone else, but I will take responsibility as a privileged member of the same family and say that I do apologize for what you may have gone through. While I have no doubt that the awesome person you have now become is due to both good and bad times, as is true for all of us, no one should ever have to endure that. You are awesome and beautiful just by virtue of being a human on this planet, and the fact that you have come through with such light just enhances your awesomeness by a factor of a billion. One human to another, even if I've never met you, I just want to say that dude? You rock!

I realize this post is not directly related to neurodiversity, but I think the underlying message is an important one for us all to consider. Every word, action and thing that comes from us directly impacts those around us. We must be vigilant and remember that, in the words of Uncle Ben from Spider-Man, “with great power comes great responsibility.” I am sure that my family member never intended to have such a negative impact, just as I am sure than many who are part of a privileged group do not intentionally want to seem arrogant as they attempt to wash their hands of the mistakes of their ancestors and fellow members. Unfortunately, it is rarely that simple. If it was, we would not have many of the complex social justice issues we now face as a society. While we do need to move onward and upward and leave the past behind us, we must also recognize that moving past the guilt often does and should involve embracing the responsibility of cleaning up the mess and putting the pieces back together. It's not an easy journey to make, but one I believe every member of our species capable of doing.

After all, if we want to build that better world, its where we need to start.

Yours in diversity,

Adam Michael

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Autism in Hell's Kitchen: Disability and Neurodiversity Rights in Marvel's Daredevil

Good evening to all of you out in internet land! Recently I, like many of you, have become a huge fan of the various movies and TV series published under the Marvel banner and based on their comic books. The stories are great fun, and after all, who doesn't remember growing up with the adventures of Spiderman, Thor, Captain America, The Hulk and other such mighty Avengers? In particular, Marvel recently released their Netflix original series Daredevil, and strangely enough it sparked some thought in my brain about how disability and neurodiversity tends to be portrayed on TV and in other media.

Surely, none of us are strangers to it. While watching a favourite TV show or movie, or reading a book or magazine, a character is presented who has a visible or invisible disability. Who doesn't love that? After all, its nice to see marginalized groups represented in mainstream media, isn't it? Indeed it is, dear reader, but there is of course a dark side to this. More often than not, media portrayals of things such as the autism spectrum tend to present aspies and autistics in one of three lights; negatively (the character lacks any humanity whatsoever), sympathetically, yet condescendingly (“Aww the poor dear, he struggles so much with that tragic condition!) or proudly, yet condescendingly (“We're so proud of him! He's come so know...for someone with his condition!”) The point is, while media coverage is good, typically, mainstream presentations of autism and aspergers (and indeed any condition which differentiates people from the crowd) tend to reinforce prevailing stereotypes against those who are different rather than shatter them.

I could come up with a laundry list of fictional characters who fall victim to this trope, but thankfully one show's characters I could not lump under that group are those of Daredevil. Indeed, it feels as though the entire show is one big love letter to disability pride. Matthew Murdock, the lead character of the show and alter ego of the titular character, is an attorney working in New York's dangerous Hell's Kitchen neighbourhood, attempting to make things better for the people of NYC's impoverished areas. He is also blind, having lost his sense of sight due to a chemical spill at nine years of age. While in most traditional disability narratives, Murdock would probably be afforded sympathy by viewers and writers alike, this is not the case in Daredevil. As a result of losing his sight, Murdock has honed his other senses to a razor sharp degree, and uses them to effectively see without use of his eyes. This enables him to fight crime and bring justice to the people of Hell's Kitchen by night, while using his intellect to do the same thing through the legal system during the day. What I like most about Murdock's story is that it very much parallels the developmental path of many mild aspies and autistics (including yours truly). Essentially, while certain aspects of being on the spectrum are in fact a disability (seriously, being able to distinguish between angry face and serious face? Ugh!), it is never a black and white thing and also comes with many gifts. I can testify that in my own admittedly mild case, while I was slightly handicapped in reading emotional cues based on facial language, I developed my ability to analyze other aspects of a situation and so almost make up for it. I have my moments where I fail, but heck, even Matt Murdock still needs to read brail right?

And I haven't even gotten into the series' big bad yet...

If the positive commentary on disability starts with the Daredevil himself, it reaches its next level with series baddie Wilson Fisk. Portrayed in the comics as the big, muscular bald and highly intelligent leader of New York's biggest criminal empire, the series' version of him follows almost the exact same path. Played by Vincent D'Onofrio on the Netflix series, the live action version of Fisk is also a recluse, one who is visibly uncomfortable in social settings and who, besides his close friend and assistant James Wesley and lover Vanessa, has no expansive social network and a very regimented daily routine.

In short, Fisk is on the autism spectrum. And I couldn't be happier about it.

Now, before any of you start screaming that making a villain autistic effectively ruins the reputations of anyone with any Autism Spectrum Disorder, hear me out. Yes, Fisk is a recluse. Yes, he is visibly uncomfortable in social settings, and yes he has a small circle of close associates, but these are never portrayed as any form of impediment to him. In fact, These traits, when combined with Fisk's clear and shrewd intellect, and his inner conflict between the moral and ruthless sides of his soul serve to make him one of the most interesting and, dare I say, human villains currently existing in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. In the end, Fisk has both good and evil in his soul, just as we all do. Whether neurodiverse or neurotypical, blind or able to see, we all have the conflict between two metaphorical wolves within us; one of good and the other of evil. The fact that Fisk is presented (though never announced on screen) as an autistic with the same inner turmoil and complex character development normally reserved for non-disabled characters is a beautiful testament to the fact that, whatever else we may have to deal with in life, we are all of us humans first.

Marvel's Daredevil is therefore a show that hits a lot of the right notes. While my inner geek is jumping for joy at its tie-ins with the greater MCU, my disability rights activist is also doing the same mental fist-pump for all of the positive portrayals of disability that lie within. It's a great show in its own right, and I seriously can't wait to see where the series goes (I haven't finished watching it yet!). Even still, there is something super compelling about the concept of a blind super hero with highly developed senses fighting the good fight for the poorest of NYC against an autistic villain who is brilliant, evil and a cunning crime lord while also being oh so human.


Friday, January 23, 2015

Curing Autism: Kindness or Judgment?

This blog entry is one that I've wanted to write for a very long time, I've just been a bit hesitant to do so. In fact, so deep has my debate over writing this entry been, its taken me several months to organize it into some semblance of an article in my head. Before I get into it though, I'd like to state as I have before that the content of this blog is my opinion alone. I recognize that neuordiversity and autism awareness are murky waters, filled with many diverse opinions on what exactly is the best way to provide love and support for those on the spectrum. We are all, after all, deeply concerned about aspies and autistics getting the fairest and best treatment possible.

That being said, the topic I'd like to talk about today is an important one for anyone living with aspergers, autism or any other pervasive developmental condition:

The cure.

Wait, what's that you say? There is no cure to being on the spectrum? That may well be true, but it is equally true that science is consistently researching the potential existence of one. There are many out there in autism awareness circles who, led by misguided yet good intentions and the media, are concerned with finding a cure for autism. Now first off let me be clear; I recognize that that there are many challenges faced by those on the autism spectrum. Ranging from mild to severe, problems with socialization and communication tend to be present in almost everyone with a diagnosis. Treatment for these is good and should be pursued; it can assist in bringing someone out of their shell and finding their voice and confidence. Many times, to those who are parents and caregivers of autistics, good-natured love makes them want to secure a better future for their children. This kind of love should be cherished and celebrated. We should, however, be selective in which kinds of treatment we seek out, as some can be downright damaging to autistics. The idea of curing autism and aspergers in particular is misguided at best and potentially destructive at worst.

As a civilization, our concept of medicine here in the west is very mechanical. Problem arises, expert analyzes and diagnoses, and medicine is assigned to remove it. The truth is, in terms of approach and philosophy, the way I treat my asthma is not all that different from how I fix my computer on those occasions when Windows decides Windows. There is nothing in theory wrong with this; through this lens, we have cured a great many diseases and made much progress in terms of extending lifespans and increasing quality of life. We need to remember, however, that not everything is so clear cut. Autism is, after all, considered to be a pervasive developmental condition. By its very nature, it is so completely intertwined with who someone is, that fully removing it would completely change the person at a fundamental level. More concerning, a cure would raise a difficult question; if autism's presence gives a person a unique personality type, then by seeking a cure are we not making the case that certain personality types which do not fit with social standards should be eliminated?

Perhaps the most concerning contributor to this pathologizing of personality types is the anti-vaccination movement. Specifically, I'm concerned with their misguided assertion that vaccines cause autism. While I recognize that it is good to be aware of the ingredients and side effects of anything one decides to put in themselves or others, and that this claim is born from a place of love, there are certain facts which must be contended with. Not only has the vaccine-autism link been thoroughly debunked in hundreds of independent studies, but the claim itself is extremely damaging as it further fuels the fire behind the idea that there is somehow something very wrong with someone on the autism spectrum. There is, in fact, far more evidence to support the idea that autism and aspergers arise from a combination of genetic and epigenetic factors rather than from vaccines. As long as people believe anything to the contrary and cling to the idea that vaccines are bad, then not only will we continue to see the resurgence of diseases exterminated long ago, but we may actually see an increasing desire to exterminate what in my opinion is a natural variation of the wiring of the human brain.

In short, my message to all neurodiverse people and their supporters is the same as its always been; love yourself and be proud of who you are! There is nothing wrong with any of you; in fact, many of the brightest individuals in human history had something about them that set them apart. What, for example, someone had never given Beethoven a chance due to his degenerating sense of hearing? What if Bill Gates or Steve Jobs (two men who, in my opinion, were aspies without even realizing it) had been put in a box and considered defective instead of having been allowed to kick start the computer revolution? History is filled with examples such as these, but at the end of the day, no one has the right to decide for another what their potential is and to prune traits from them deemed to be “undesirable.” To do so is to ignore everyone's – aspie, autistic, neurotypical – fundamental rights as human beings.

After all, to thine own self be I right?

Yours in diversity

Adam Michael