Join 3,572 readers in helping fund MetaFilter (Hide)

Tags:

What my autism classes didn't teach me
April 16, 2014 3:25 PM   Subscribe

“Right before I went into high school, my parents enrolled me in a couple of social skills classes to prepare me for the change,” she tells me. “They taught me how to behave in certain social situations, like when girls go into the washroom together, or how to behave when you get invited to a party, or when you want to ask someone on a date. That’s where I think the classes switched from being useful to being controlling.”
posted by Mistress (20 comments total) 40 users marked this as a favorite

 
I agree. I am autistic, female, but decidedly gender nonconforming in terms of behavior and clothing. I place comfort above all else, and my clothes are almost always "male." I loathed social skills training for all the reasons named in the article. I decided that if those were what were important to people, then I'd rather not waste my time with those types of people. By focusing on what I liked to do rather than worry about others thought I should do, I became a lot more confident in myself. As far as dating, well, I've been on dates with both men and women, and I learned I just don't like dating no matter what gender. No social skills class I ever went to said anything about any of that being ok, but it is ok. I like friendships over any other sort of relationship. I am alone, I guess, but not lonely, and I am glad I ignored what my social skills classes were telling me.
posted by awesomelyglorious at 3:40 PM on April 16 [56 favorites]


“It wasn’t until I met my wife that I really understood and accepted the fact that I was queer,” she tells me. “My love for her is more real than any other feeling that I have ever experienced. That’s when it clicked for me — the moment when I realized that I was in love with her.”


Thank you so much for posting this. I'm currently in a relationship with a queer autistic lady, and it's sometimes a struggle to interact and communicate with her. But, it's stories like this that make me feel hopeful about us and how we might overcome the issues we have.

Hmm, speaking of which, can anyone recommend any blogs or other web resources about that topic? Neurotypical people and their relationships with (queer?) autistic individuals? maybe I should ask askmefi...
posted by and they trembled before her fury at 3:45 PM on April 16 [12 favorites]


Interesting article and perspective.
posted by zscore at 3:58 PM on April 16


Fascinating piece. Thank you for posting.

And, awesomelyglorious: No social skills class I ever went to said anything about any of that being ok, but it is ok. Right on! Good for you for figuring this out.
posted by rtha at 4:05 PM on April 16 [2 favorites]


As a guy with aspergers(or i guess they're not calling it that now anymore for the past few years?) i, too, hated this kind of stuff.

The best training i got was summer camps, and after school programs. Just being allowed to be around other kids and getting to act however the hell i was going to and figure out on my own what was expected of me.

I recognize that there's an entire other, thick, storied, and at times problematic web of social expectations for women(and specifically for young women)... but one of the main things i learned in middle and high school is that kids are going to be mean and fucked up if you're different at all. And i also get the feeling that these sorts of classes just teach you to be some leave it to beaver 1980s family sitcom person that no one actually acts like. Like seriously, this bit

“I wish I had a wife!” She chuckles and adds, “Not a modern wife, a good old-fashioned wife who would cobble my shoes and straighten my desk.” I feel extremely uncomfortable with her pointless joke.

I mean this article focused on the aspect of how heteronormative they are, which is a huge problem i'm not trying to minimize, but they're also just generally normative and make a lot of stupid assumptions about how teenagers act based on how the people teaching them acted, and saw others act around them when they were teens...or... something(i experienced a lot of that same kind of garbage in alternative school) So either you get made fun of and hurt for acting like a class taught you to, or you get made fun of and hurt for being yourself.

And at least if you're being yourself, you have the chance to meet some other weird ass people just being genuine who think you're interesting, awesome, and fine just the way you are.

The one common thread of the vast majority of people i've met like myself is that they had essentially no friends from 6-12th grade. Maybe 3 total, and usually only 2 or 3 at a time in any time period. Then, after they broke free from the groan-inducing educational system they made plenty more friends like themselves.

I think if this sort of class was to have any value, some of the teaching staff would need to include sucessful, adult, non-neurotypical people. I myself, as a nerdy computer dude have consider multiple times going in to that line of work just to be that person i never saw working with those kinds of kids/teens.

We, by which i mean progressive lefty online internet people in general, talk a lot about how there needs to be more diversity LGBT and racial minority wise in teaching people from those groups in quite a few articles that have been linked and discussions i've followed here and elsewhere. I think that's absolutely a critical part of this kind of thing.

And yes, i read the article. This bit was positive

“Social skills classes are very important for people on the autistic spectrum,” says Maggie, who didn’t mind her early instruction. “They taught me how to interact with others, how to hold a conversation with confidence, how to get a job, and how to feel proud of myself even though I’m autistic.”

And i understand and agree with that. It's just the rest that falls off the rails, and i feel that even the early part she had respect for could be greatly improved by having people like well, her, teaching the classes. Because as it is, it feels like... i don't know. Straight people teaching a class on how to deal with being gay in modern society or something. Which is getting a bit meta in and of itself, since her main issue was that the class was teaching her not to be gay. Still, the entire "being normal is like this within these bounds" is the wrong way to frame this sort of stuff. I really feel like it needs to be more "These are things you really shouldn't do, these are things you really shouldn't do unless you have someone elses permission or they tell you they want you to, the rest? well uh, be weird and see what happens"

It feels like the entire model of this kind of education is broken to me. Far more valuable would be a few classes, and then just some sort of talk therapy type meeting you could come to a few times and week and go "Hey so uh, this stuff happened and i was really confused" and just process shit.

I don't know, i could write a lot about this. I have written a lot about this. It's a Big Deal to me because i myself, and every similar person i've met had a hard childhood and went through a bunch of bullshit, quite a lot of it from adults, about how we should be presenting ourselves and acting, and what was ok for us to dress like, and all manner of other things.

It's not really a coincidence to me that a lot of the ASD people i know/have met have pretty wild flamboyant style in their 20s.

And yea, the last bit about the clinical psychologist running the classes was good, but i have a hard time believing all or even most of the shitty things out there that happened/are happening are in any way circling the drain.

I'm just kind of bitter i guess. I know a lot of people who seemed to have a pretty good idea of who they were in a lot of ways i didn't early in college, or even in high school. It took me until i was in my 20s to even start figuring that out. And i feel like a lot of that could have been helped if i had a less shitty experience growing up. And i hear the same story a lot, including, at least in abstract, from this article.
posted by emptythought at 4:08 PM on April 16 [19 favorites]


I mean this article focused on the aspect of how heteronormative they are, which is a huge problem i'm not trying to minimize, but they're also just generally normative .

Isn't the point that they're generally normative, though? Aren't these classes to teach kids how to fit into the normative culture *specifically*? I'm not trying to advocate for the status quo, which is much more exclusionary and oppressive than I wish it were -- but, when the chips are down, kids have to also be prepared for the world that is, not the world as I happen to wish it were.

On the one hand, we have so many threads where people openly discuss that poor people don't know how to dress "properly" for various situations or that it's embarrassing/difficult to date someone who grew up poor because s/he's not going to know how "things are done," etc, and on the other hand, we're saying that it's too restrictive and stigmatizing to teach people how to do things like that in the way that the normative culture rewards? I know the people talking about what a shame it is when middle/upper class culture doesn't seem "natural" to someone and the people saying these social skills classes are too restrictive aren't necessarily the same people, I'm not saying anyone is being hypocritical -- my point is that the consequences of *not* knowing how to fit into the normative culture are real, and many, many, many (even otherwise progressive) people *will* make judgments of people who don't know how to fit into it (because they figure "not knowing" = "not wanting" I guess?), and giving someone the *choice* to fit in, if they want or need to, by teaching them how to fit in, is worth something on its own. The alternative to not teaching people how to fit into normative culture isn't necessarily that the mainstream will welcome them how they are, it's often that they'll be stigmatized and suffer material consequences and flail around trying to learn those things on their own. If an individual makes the choice willing to suffer those consequences in order to be more true to his or her personal identity, that's fine, that's a great choice -- but I'd prefer to at least teach people how to fit in, so that they can make that *choice,* that's not just what they're forced into.

Not trying to be Booker T. Washington over here. On a conceptual level, it's unsatisfying at best to advocate that people be taught to fit into a culture that's essentially unfriendly to them. On the individual level, though, everybody just has to get along in life as best they can, and life is tough. Culture can be taught, why make people suffer the effects of not knowing it rather than just teaching them?
posted by rue72 at 5:36 PM on April 16 [12 favorites]


Perhaps the distinction between "here are some common social norms that you should be aware of" and "this is how you should be" seems like an important one here.
posted by eviemath at 5:49 PM on April 16 [14 favorites]


Yeah, I think there's a continuum of "how to act" stuff, and some of it falls closer to the "you must be like this 'beep-boop'" end of things and some of it falls closer to "it's not polite to speak to people you don't know in suchandsuch way" end of things.

I often see dating/relationshipfilter questions on the Green where it seems obvious that a class for all kids on social skills stuff could be useful - like, teaching kids explicitly that no one is psychic, and it's okay to ask someone out, and it's okay to set boundaries, and no, no one can tell you if that person in your class *really* likes you like that except that person in your class, and if someone makes you feel terrible about yourself on the regular you should probably break up with them.
posted by rtha at 5:56 PM on April 16 [9 favorites]


I really wish we could invest considerably more time and effort into making places in the culture for people who aren't normal, rather than trying to get everybody to be normal no matter how uncomfortable and fake it is. Because that's really the root of it: they're trying to teach people how to fit in. Queer people do not, in most parts of the US at least, "fit in" that way. There are a million ways a person can be weird, autism is one of the more distinctive ones but not even the most severe, and yet we're still so fixated on how to get people to pass without objecting to the fact that we live in a world where you can be denied a job that has nothing to do with shoes for wearing the wrong shoes to the interview. Like, shouldn't that be seen as a way bigger problem?

Which is not to say it's not worth drawing attention to this one, on the part of people who have to sit through bullshit like this in classes designed to help them do better, but ugh. It seems to tie in with how, yes, we could tell all the queer people to behave in gender-normative ways and get involved only in monogamous relationships and buy SUVs and have children, and yes we'd all fit in better, but we don't all want those things. We need to start wrenching the world out of this rut of allowing so little diversity of thought and behavior, for all our sakes.
posted by Sequence at 6:01 PM on April 16 [7 favorites]


I work in accessibility from a Disability Justice perspective, and I think an important concept here is the social model of disability, which states that disability is something that is created from social environments which center around a narrative of a normative "able-bodied" human experience, rather than a medical pathology. The practical application of this model is a change in how we consider inaccessibility - when someone finds something inaccessible, the onus is not on the individual but on the social structure itself to consider how it needs to adapt to become more inclusive and to widen it's scope of abilities and bodies considered when designing environments and structures. So this is an interesting idea in application to people on the spectrum because instead of presenting them with rigid rulesets that will allow them to "pass", we question our own social norms to see how they may be oppressive.

And it can be done. I'm on the spectrum as well, and because of my early immersion into Deaf Culture and consequent rejection of disability as pathological, I pretty much chased out and refused to listen to every therapist sent to me to impress social training. I had the good fortune to have a number of intersections in identity that worked for me - I'm both Deaf and queer, and these are both communities that are highly radical, progressive and committed to challenging ideas of normativity - in other words, they are much more socially accessible than mainstream environments. I have absolutely no trouble in these communities despite not being neurotypical because of the mindsets they bring to challenging ableism.

So I think the way we need to advocate for better inclusion of people on the spectrum is to start pushing for these ideas of acceptance of neurodiversity. As mentioned, the current pathologized model of autism comes with a lot of sacrifice and struggle - you're absorbing a lot of internalized ableism, you're sacrificing a lot of your individual being, and on top of that, you're still barely going to pass by following all of these rigid rulesets because human interaction doesn't work like that - it promotes superificial relationships. Accessibility can't just be an individualistic all-give situation - we need to demonstrate that we are willing to meet people in the middle on a cultural level.
posted by Conspire at 6:10 PM on April 16 [27 favorites]


Yeah, but...as rue72 says above, "kids have to also be prepared for the world that is, not the world as I happen to wish it were". What Conspire and Sequence say are good and laudable, but we do live in a culture where, say, how you're dressed can really mean getting a job or not.

It's a bit chicken and egg but people not learning to have the ability to conform to prevailing social norms while they still exist will be seriously, seriously disadvantaged. If they're okay with the consequences of not conforming, that's their choice, but they should be given that ability if they want it.
posted by Sangermaine at 7:52 PM on April 16 [5 favorites]


It seems to me that this kind of thing would be a lot more useful if it were coming from an orientation of "This is a place for you to learn about about societal expectations, not because there's anything wrong with you and you need to conform to them, but because it's a lot easier to navigate them if you're aware of their existence and are choosing not to confirm than it is if you don't know what they are."
posted by Lexica at 8:11 PM on April 16 [16 favorites]


And i understand and agree with that. It's just the rest that falls off the rails, and i feel that even the early part she had respect for could be greatly improved by having people like well, her, teaching the classes. Because as it is, it feels like... i don't know. Straight people teaching a class on how to deal with being gay in modern society or something

My girlfriend is on the spectrum and works with autistic kids and their families. It's awesome to watch. However, she is not out at work because even working in a place where everyone is an autism expert, she fears the stigma and believes people would see her as less capable.
posted by not that girl at 8:17 PM on April 16 [1 favorite]


The thing is that there is a lot of usefulness in *some* social skills classes, or in learning some social rules in general. But what isn't useful is the sort of programming of good/bad right/wrong rigidity that goes along with those classes and rules. You can dress appropriately and still be gender nonconforming. I can wear a suit and tie and look awesome and feel awesome, or I can wear a skirt and nylons and look uncomfortable and feel uncomfortable.

I still seek social instruction when I am aware of a need to learn a new guideline. For example, I recently interviewed for a new job. The invitation said "business casual." I had zero idea of what that meant, and the Google wasn't being particularly helpful, either. So I asked a trusted friend and we worked it out. I am aware of social expectations about professionalism, and I work with those while staying true to myself.

The same goes for dating. There was a very rigid binary system for dating and dating behavior that I never grokked because it didn't fit my own observations of dating and relationships. I saw and read about all sorts of people in all sorts of relationships, but what I was being told was "the right way" only encompassed a very small part of what I knew existed. Therefore, the only logical conclusion I could draw was that these "social skills" that were "right" were very incomplete and probably wrong, and I stopped paying attention to them.

That is, I think, what the article is saying. It's not that social skills classes are bad, it's that social skills taught in a rigid gender binary and heteronormative way are bad because they fail to take into account the wide range of what actually is, and by doing so cause harm.
posted by awesomelyglorious at 8:29 PM on April 16 [5 favorites]


Not trying to be Booker T. Washington over here. On a conceptual level, it's unsatisfying at best to advocate that people be taught to fit into a culture that's essentially unfriendly to them. On the individual level, though, everybody just has to get along in life as best they can, and life is tough. Culture can be taught, why make people suffer the effects of not knowing it rather than just teaching them?

Well, i touched on this in my post anyways, but basically what Lexica said above.

We can teach people these things without being incredibly prescriptive and paternalistic. It should be like cooking, for someone who has never really used a stove or most kitchen utensils before. A few things can be gone over in a "do not put your hand on the burner" sort of way, but outside of that you can go "these are the normal things" and teach basic skills, but pretty much the entire concept of "This is how you have to do things" needs to die.

"This is the way a lot of people do things, some people will expect you to do things this way" is cool. That should be the default position that this sort of stuff is launching from.

I mean, if you're going to tell someone that they need to do something, or that they have to, or even that it's a good idea treat them like they have some damn agency and tell them why. "You probably want to dress something like this or this or this if you want to do this, because it's what people expect and they'll treat you badly if you don't. for some more examples of what this looks like look up this or this" kind of shit.
posted by emptythought at 9:52 PM on April 16 [4 favorites]


What Conspire and Sequence say are good and laudable, but we do live in a culture where, say, how you're dressed can really mean getting a job or not.

That includes showing up at an interview female in a menswear-style suit with short hair. That includes people who are limited in clothing because of poor options in plus sizes. Or whatever--what I mean is, those same things apply in huge ways to people who are not on the spectrum.

Again, I'm not saying there shouldn't be some assistance on these matters, but a major part of the problem is that we lack sufficient legal protections for job-seekers and yet this is getting labelled as a deficiency of the job-seeker (you should have worn the right shoes!) and not the employer (what are you doing refusing to hire this person for wearing orthopedic shoes). Teaching oppressed persons how to survive is fine... if you're simultaneously teaching them that the expectations they're trying to pass under are oppressive, in some cases illegal, and so on, and trying to lobby for social change on these issues. Instead, the general vibe with autism in particular seems to be very supportive of the status quo.
posted by Sequence at 2:26 AM on April 17 [6 favorites]


Great post.

@and they trembled before her fury, I liked that quote from the article too, and probably for the same reason. I wish you and your lady all the best.

I have unfortunately and by necessity lived much of my life isolated in places where I am not accepted as I am, taught by rejection and exclusion that I was created defective in sexuality and mental presentation/function. As a result of that I've lived for a long time under internalized pressure to change and conform to a social model into which I tried desperately and repeatedly to fit, and failed over and over at it. This isn't just about autism spectrum folks, or women/girls, but about the entire disability community and the system of supports for people with nearly every disability conceivable (particularly youth, but not limited to).

We are different, and judged for being so, and in places like I am now where many of us have to live and cannot easily escape for financial reasons we can easily become separated from ourselves. It can be devastating. It can feel like a curse.

I had a relationship for a while with a guy who had Asperger's. It ended not because there was no spark there, but because of his church (Jehovah's Witness) and parents who had deeply indoctrinated him into believing that he always had to obey authority, to be a "good boy" or he would be abandoned. The tension this introduced into his life and his sense of identity was a terrible thing. Everything he did was evaluated in the light of whether or not Mom or other authority figures would approve. That hung like a shadow over everything we did together. All the years before we met he was taught to be something he was not, and sadly those things were presented along with some things that he did need, like ways to relate and connect to others and be friendly and get by in the world; things that are necessary to live independently. He is a sweet, kind and gentle man and it is sad that he has to live always fearing disapproval. It's even sadder that we are separated from each other because of this. There were people in our lives who we dealt with professionally as our providers who were vaguely understanding and supportive of our relationship, but many of them could not quite comprehend it. I was told it was fine to have a fling with him, but that I should not expect to have anything more because his intellectual capacity was judged to be less than mine... so he and I proceeded to talk about our movie and music likes, have political conversations and the like. I have never connected with anyone like that, ever. Discovering this was like being shot up in a rocket. He was not by any means a shallow guy, and we could talk for hours. I think we were both surprised as we had both been told we should expect none of that. We couldn't stay away from each other; if either of us were out of touch we went looking for each other. I moved away last year, and although I wanted to take any pressure I could off him, I told him that no matter what I would always find a way to help if he needed anything, and that if he showed up at my door I would always make room in my life for him. I will always miss him.

I work inside a drop in community for folks with mental disorders, and the things that people say and do that are judgmental toward those of us who are different amaze me sometimes. A dance was planned for the community, and when the event was announced the peer that made the announcement to the group said "and the men will dance with the women, and the women with the men". There is little or no support for us there. It is assumed that we are broken, and set aside on the shelf even in the disability community here. Remarkably, even staff people who are GLBTQ don't seem to get this around here. Even hetero-normative relationships are often judged for "appropriateness" and managed in the drop in center for staff convenience and according to their comfort level.

I asked for the organization of a community GLBTQ support group here using clinic staff to refer folks who might be interested to it. We now have the group, but the clinician who is facilitating it doesn't seem to know what to do with it, or how it might be useful to us. I have deferred to her because of her position, but I will probably start making suggestions. I will probably print the article from Autostraddle and pass it out to the members. Obviously I will need to be careful because I am just now becoming employed there, but if I or someone doesn't bring stuff like this up things will never change.
posted by cybrcamper at 5:31 AM on April 17 [3 favorites]


At my school after we had done reproduction of rabbits, various sea creatures and amphibians we turned to humans. I kept the worksheet for a few years afterwards and once I had got enough knowledge to realise what an appalling effort it was. Essentially a man and a woman meet and fall in love and get married (picture of heart above two faces poking over the top of a duvet) then the man gets an erection and puts it in his wife, then a baby grows inside the womb. What to wear on a date does not seem so controlling to me.

The only upside of the AIDS epidemic that emerged in the 80s was that at least someone (the telly) told us about condoms; they hadn't featured in sex education at all, and neither had any other contraception or information about its use. This is despite one girl in my year getting pregnant at least once a year for most of secondary school.
posted by biffa at 6:15 AM on April 17


Teaching oppressed persons how to survive is fine... if you're simultaneously teaching them that the expectations they're trying to pass under are oppressive, in some cases illegal, and so on, and trying to lobby for social change on these issues. Instead, the general vibe with autism in particular seems to be very supportive of the status quo.

My priority is equipping my profoundly-autistic son to have a chance at something that resembles a normal life, and that means equipping him to face the world as it really is. This already consumes 150% of the energy available to us as parents, which makes it particularly obnoxious to hear that trying to create a life for our son isn't enough because we're not also simultaneously trying to fix the world.

My family is already drowning; I don't need you and yours telling me that I'm also required to make the beach nicer.
posted by DWRoelands at 8:08 AM on April 17 [8 favorites]


> Essentially a man and a woman meet and fall in love and get married (picture of heart above two faces poking over the top of a duvet) then the man gets an erection and puts it in his wife, then a baby grows inside the womb

It's gotten much better, at least where I live (near Seattle). I went to the parents' orientation before my son's class started sex ed, so we'd all be on the same page in terms of vocabulary, etc. The video we watched, the one the kids were going to see, had so much diversity in it, one person pointed out that there weren't any two-straight--married-biological-parent families in it. The worksheets he brought home were so detailed that I had to look up some of the terms to make sure we got them right.

Yes, it's called FLASH. Why? Why?
posted by The corpse in the library at 10:24 AM on April 17 [1 favorite]


« Older Last month, Beverage Industry published their 2014...   |   Combat Juggling is a thing? Ye... Newer »


This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments