Interrogating Normal: Autism Social Skills Training at the Margins of a Social Fiction

Social skills training programs for autistic youths and adults exist in nearly every school district and community; these programs focus on bringing autistic people into synchronization with developmental, linguistic, and social norms. However, these norms have not been critically evaluated, and autistic people themselves have not been surveyed about their experiences of, responses to, or opinions about these programs. This study sought direct input from autistic people about these programs.

Nothing About Us Without Us (NAUWU), an anonymous cross-sectional survey study, was posted online from 18 February, 2014 to 4 April, 2014, and was open to adults (18 years or older) who were formally diagnosed or self-diagnosed on the Autism Spectrum.

Major findings from the NAUWU study are that most of the 91 autism-specific social skills programs studied are not focused on individuals or their unique sensory and communicative needs, do not recognize participants’ existing social abilities and accomplishments, do not provide age-appropriate or gender-inclusive instruction, and do not consider or support autistic ways of learning and being social.

Source: Interrogating Normal: Autism Social Skills Training at the Margins of a Social Fiction

Via autism researcher Noah Sasson:

“Interrogating Normal: Autism Social Skills Training at the Margins of a Social Fiction”

I love that title. This paper from 2014 really is prescient. Social skills programs are detached from our needs. Recent studies and polls reinforce what autistic people, and this paper, have been saying.

A friend working on experiments related to autism representation lamented the state of the field in recent correspondence.

At this point I’ve read about 80 studies related to this, and I’m so grossed out. Also furious. EVERYTHING gets done from the clinician/special ed educator perspective, with an occasional entry that includes the parental perspective for comparison. NONE of the studies include the perspective of autistic people.

Similarly, the author of “Interrogating Normal”:

In 2012, I entered the education program at Sonoma State University in order to search through the literature in education and the social sciences, and I hoped to bring together research on the enforcement of normality that would describe and illuminate the everyday dehumanization autistic people face. This dehumanization is not restricted to the exclusion and bullying that is a reliable feature of the social lives of autistic people; it is also a regular feature in clinical settings, in academic research, in seemingly authoritative books about autistic people, in media reports, in education, in social services, in fundraising narratives, and in social skills training for autistic youths and adults. This dehumanization is so widespread that it seems to be an intrinsic aspect of normality – an accepted and acceptable way to view the bodies, minds, and lives of autistic people, or of any people who consistently breach the unwritten rules of normality.

Source: Interrogating Normal: Autism Social Skills Training at the Margins of a Social Fiction

Lit reviews through the ignorant and ableist morass of autism studies are gut-punching for autistic researchers. I share the sentiments of autistic autism researcher Kieran Rose.

Perspectives that lack knowledge are often dangerously misinformed.

You would think that would be a pretty obvious statement and perhaps you might think that there are certain contexts where that should be a mantra imprinted in the brains of everyone involved.

Naively, when I was much younger, less knowledgeable about myself and much less worldly-wise, I used to think that Autism Research would be one of those contexts.

How wrong I was and how terrifying it is when I look around and see so many Autistic people invested in Autism research like it’s written in the holy scripture of [insert religion here].

Autism research is incredibly flawed in an enormous number of ways. One example of how, is the fact that the sum total of all knowledge of Autism in academia is based on the work of two incredibly flawed men, both with incredibly flawed ideas and practice from the 1940s. Everything we know professionally and societally about Autism is underpinned by their work. As I’ve said so many times in talks and trainings the whole of Autism research is built on a foundation of sand.

Why is it a foundation of sand? Well, right from day one the narrative of Autism research has been this:

  • Expert’ looks at Autistic person (usually child; usually white child; usually white boy child; usually white boy child that presents in a particular way).
  • ‘Expert’ takes notes.
  • ‘Expert’ forms opinion.
  • ‘Expert’ writes it up.
  • Another ‘expert’ nods wisely.
  • ‘Expert’ publishes.
  • ‘Experts’ applaud ‘Experts’.
  • Whole world believes ‘Expert’.
  • Services are developed around ‘Expert’ knowledge.

Source: Autistic Masking: Kieran Rose a new Academic Paper

This is a depressingly regular occurrence.

A fellow late-diagnosed autistic summarizes the state of things well.

The tyranny of the norm, thoroughly institutionalized and instrumented against us:

This ableism follows a long tradition of devaluation of disabled people in regard to their deviations from the norm. As educator Thomas Hehir (2002) writes,

ableism uncritically asserts that it is better for a child to walk than roll, speak than sign, read print than Braille, spell independently that use spell-check, and hang out with non- disabled kids as opposed to other disabled kids, etc. In short, in the eyes of many educators and society, it is preferable for disabled students to do things in the same manner as nondisabled kids (p. 3).

In nearly all media accounts, and throughout much of the research literature, autistic functioning is portrayed in thoroughly ableist terms as a medicalized deficit that requires extensive correction. For many autistic toddlers and young children, the requirement to do things in the same manner as non-autistic kids often means that months and years are spent in some form of intensive behavioral training meant specifically to make them appear less autistic. Educator Lennard Davis (2010) calls the ableist enforcement of normality onto the bodies and minds of disabled people “the tyranny of the norm,” (p. 6) and states that “the ‘problem’ is not the person with disabilities; the problem is the way that normalcy is constructed to create the ‘problem’ of the disabled person” (p. 3).

This problem-focused and medicalized approach to autism, which is devoid of autistic voices and autistic agency, leads to treatments, therapies, and educational approaches that do not respect the humanity, autonomy, or dignity of autistic people – and this is especially true for many of the treatments that are focused on autistic toddlers and young children.

Source: Interrogating Normal: Autism Social Skills Training at the Margins of a Social Fiction

Yes.

To get off this foundation of sand, listen to us, respect NAUWU, and reframe away from the tyranny of the norm.

understanding the perspectives and experiences of autistic children and adults in particular was essential. Time and again I found that issues aired say, by teachers, would be completely reframed when the autistic adults discussed the same points.

Source: Inclusive Education for Autistic Children: Helping Children and Young People to Learn and Flourish in the Classroom

Previously,

Normal Sucks: Author Jonathan Mooney on How Schools Fail Kids with Learning Differences

I’m a big fan of Jonathan Mooney’s neurodiversity advocacy. So much of the work of neurodiversity and disability advocacy is getting folks to reframe from the medical and deficit models to the social model. Mooney is good at this reframing.

Here are some selected quotes from a recent interview with Mooney at Longreads where he shares his journey through school and reframes deficiency as difference.

Reframe these states of being that have been labelled deficiencies or pathologies as human differences.

The ultimate thing we should be fighting for is to not have to pathologize yourself to get your individual needs met. Something’s wrong with a system that requires parents and children to say, “I am sick or defective.”

We need to have universally designed systems designed around the reality of human variance opposed to the myth of human sameness.

We privilege some brains over other brains. We privilege some bodies over other bodies. And that gets embedded in our institutions.

There is conscious and unconscious bias about people with a whole continuum of atypical brains and bodies. And when we judge someone’s intelligence based on their spelling and we rule out their capacities as a human being because of their bad handwriting…,we are participating in a subtle and yet very powerful form of institutionalized ableism.

Accommodation is fundamentally about not changing the person but changing the environment around the person.

It’s going to be not fixing what’s wrong with them that changes their life, it’s gonna be building on, celebrating, and scaling what’s right with them.

When we say that somebody “overcame” dyslexia, cerebral palsy, whatever it is, we imply that that state of being is inherently deficient and it’s a problem inside of them.

I didn’t overcome dyslexia; I overcame dysteachia.

It’s not a problem in the person; it’s not a problem with the difference; it’s a problem in the interaction between a difference and a context built for the myth that we should all be the same.

Elevate ableism as one of the injustices of our world.

I’m tremendously optimistic about the broad cultural movement around equity, diversity, and inclusion. And I think we need to hold on to that as a culture. And we need to demand that that core philosophical and ethical commitment to having a world that doesn’t just work for some, but works for all, starts to come into our systems and we to some real difference in our systems. I think we have to fight for that. It ain’t going to happen on its own.

Source: Normal Sucks: Author Jonathan Mooney on How Schools Fail Kids with Learning Differences

Mooney is an engaging and inspiring talker. Give the entire episode a listen.

More from Jonathan Mooney:

The Spectacle of Cruel Laughter

“We can hear the spectacle of cruel laughter throughout the Trump era.”

Source: The Cruelty Is the Point – The Atlantic

That line has been in my head the past couple days.

The cruel laughter of Kavanaugh.

Ford testified to the Senate, utilizing her professional expertise to describe the encounter, that one of the parts of the incident she remembered most was Kavanaugh and his friend Mark Judge laughing at her as Kavanaugh fumbled at her clothing. “Indelible in the hippocampus is the laughter,” Ford said, referring to the part of the brain that processes emotion and memory, “the uproarious laughter between the two, and their having fun at my expense.” And then at Tuesday’s rally, the president made his supporters laugh at her.

Source: The Cruelty Is the Point – The Atlantic

The cruel laughter in response to Trump mocking a survivor.

Tuesday the president of the United States, his crowd cheering him on, mocked a citizen who has come forward to claim herself as a victim: of violence, of misogyny, of laughter itself.

And so Donald Trump has managed to find yet another way to say the quiet thing out loud: This is a moment, for some, in which cruelty and comedy have become indistinguishable. This is a moment in which a vote for a Supreme Court nomination has become a proxy battle in a far greater war-one whose skirmishes, it seems, will be fought through petty jokes and easy mockeries. A moment in which so much comes down to the question of who will get the last laugh.

The cruel laughter from ICE when they drive people to suicide.

“One detainee told us, ‘I’ve seen a few attempted suicides using the braided sheets by the vents and then the guards laugh at them and call them “suicide failures” once they are back from medical,’” the inspectors said in their report.

Source: Inspectors Find Nooses in Cells at Immigration Detention Facility – The New York Times

The cruel laughter from Trumpist family members that shatters your heart.

The sadistic glee directed at everyone not them.

There were the border-patrol agents cracking up at the crying immigrant childrenseparated from their families, and the Trump adviser who delighted white supremacists when he mocked a child with Down syndrome who was separated from her mother. There were the police who laughed uproariously when the president encouraged them to abuse suspects, and the Fox News hosts mocking a survivor of the Pulse Nightclub massacre (and in the process inundating him with threats), the survivors of sexual assault protesting to Senator Jeff Flake, the women who said the president had sexually assaulted them, and the teen survivors of the Parkland school shooting. There was the president mocking Puerto Rican accents shortly after thousands were killed and tens of thousands displaced by Hurricane Maria, the black athletes protesting unjustified killings by the police, the women of the #MeToo movement who have come forward with stories of sexual abuse, and the disabled reporter whose crime was reporting on Trump truthfully. It is not just that the perpetrators of this cruelty enjoy it; it is that they enjoy it with one another. Their shared laughter at the suffering of others is an adhesive that binds them to one another, and to Trump.

Source: The Cruelty Is the Point – The Atlantic

The foolish and destructive sadopopulism of it all.

These are policies that are deliberately designed to administer pain, to add to the total amount of pain in American society.

If you hurt people you create a resource of pain, of anxiety and fear which you then direct against others.

If, in the long run, the way that you govern is by hurting people who don’t mind being hurt because they think other people are hurting worse, what you will tend to do is take the vote away from people who expect more from government, what you will tend to do is try to suppress the vote and keep the vote down to the people who accept that government can do nothing except for administer pain. And then that moves you away slowly from democracy.

Source: Timothy Snyder Speaks, ep. 4: Sadopopulism – YouTube

In conditions of oligarchical impotence, you shift the task of government from doing anything to affirming identity. Government is no longer about doing, government is about being.

What you end up doing as an oligarch is deliberately hurting your own followers and asking them to applaud you.

Source: Timothy Snyder Speaks, ep. 3: What is Oligarchy? – YouTube

The sitcom misogynist plays for cruel yucks.

There’s been a lot of talk, of late, about laughter. Laughter as power. Laughter as luxury. Laughter as empathy. Laughter as beauty. Laughter as philosophy. Laughter as complicity. Laughter as division. The current political moment has been in one way a lesson in how easily jokes can be weaponized: Jokes can win elections. Jokes can insist that, despite so much evidence to the contrary, lol nothing matters. Jokes can contribute to the post-truth logic of things. They can lighten and enlighten and complicate and delight; they can also mock and hate and lie and make the world objectively worse for the people living in it-and then, when questioned, respond with the only thing a joke knows how to say, in the end: “I was only kidding.”

Source: Trump Mocks Christine Blasey Ford; The Rally Loves It – The Atlantic

And the cruel feel closer.

Their cruelty made them feel good, it made them feel proud, it made them feel happy. And it made them feel closer to one another.

Source: The Cruelty Is the Point – The Atlantic

In their stunted normal.

Normalization: The cultural process by which a particular attitude, ideology, or behavior becomes established and entrenched in social life. It’s the cultural process through which we come to expect and accept something as natural and normal.

Source: Donald Trump: The Sitcom Misogynist

But…

Suddenly, even the most powerful people in society are forced to be fluent in the concerns of those with little power, if they want to hold on to the cultural relevance that thrust them into power in the first place. Being a comedian means having to say things that an audience finds funny; if an audience doesn’t find old, hackneyed, abusive jokes funny anymore, then that comedian has to do more work. And what we find is, the comedians with the most privilege resent having to keep working for a living. Wasn’t it good enough that they wrote that joke that some people found somewhat funny, some years ago? Why should they have to learn about current culture just to get paid to do comedy?

Source: The price of relevance is fluency

But in the course of the hour-long set, which was filmed at the Sydney Opera House (Gadsby has also been performing at the SoHo Playhouse, in New York), “Nanette” transforms into a commentary on comedy itself-on what it conceals, and on how it can force the marginalized to partake in their own humiliation. Gadsby, who once considered Bill Cosby her favorite comedian, now plans to quit comedy altogether, she says, because she can’t bring herself to participate in that humiliation anymore. Onstage, Gadsby typically speaks in a shy, almost surprised tone, playing jokes off of an unassuming, nebbishy demeanor. She clutches the mic with two fists and speaks softly, forcing audiences to listen closely to hear her. In “Nanette,” she seems to slowly shed that persona, becoming increasingly assertive and, at times, deadly serious. Her set builds to include more and more disturbing accounts of her own experiences with homophobia and sexual assault, and broader themes of violence against women and male impunity. But for every moment of tension, Gadsby gives her crowd release in a punch line-until she doesn’t. When the jokes stop, the audience is forced to linger in its unease. “This tension? It’s yours,” she says at one particularly upsetting moment, toward the end of the show. “I am not helping you anymore.”

Watching Gadsby, it was impossible not to think of the many women who’ve come forward in recent months with stories of abuse that were years or even decades old. You could consider the #MeToo moment itself as a kind of callback, a collective return to stories that women have been telling one way—to others, to themselves—with a new, emboldened understanding that those past tellings had been inadequate.

Source: “Nanette,” Reviewed: Hannah Gadsby’s Netflix Standup Special Forces Comedy to Confront the #MeToo Era | The New Yorker

Via: Hannah Gadsby on Shame, Power, and Comedy