The pressure to have the perfect baby: are we all a bunch of amateur eugenicists, or are we just into mother-blaming?

I consider myself pretty lucky. I have two amazing kids who have so far managed to reach adolescence without being eaten. They’re total weirdos, and do many things in ways most people around them don’t. And that’s okay. I know, though, that there are many people in the world, and maybe even in my life, who would not want my kids, because they’re not perfect.

When my oldest was first going through the diagnostic process to determine whether he was autistic, I had many … well-meaning (?) people send me links to studies on what might have caused it. Did I drink during my pregnancy? Too much access to ultrasound? Epidural? Did I eat something “wrong” when I was pregnant? Did I take medication? What did I do to make my kid less perfect than he should be? The questioning picked up again when my second child was diagnosed. I MUST HAVE done something.

The answer is, I did nothing but exist. My kids are likely autistic because I am. I have an explanation, and it’s one that works for us, but not everyone does. Parents who have children with Down Syndrome are told they waited too long, that they are at fault for their babies’ imperfection. Many are pressured to terminate pregnancies when their viable fetuses don’t fit what we’ve decided is the ideal.* Most pregnant people are policed about everything they do, and blamed when their babies don’t come out as expected. Eat lots of fish? Well, the mercury will make your kid stupid. An occasional glass of wine? Yep, your kid’s going to be a criminal with no sense of remorse.

And Gd help you if you don’t breastfeed, because WE ALL KNOW that babies fed artificial baby milk have lower IQs.

So, here’s my question: why do we care so much about the cult of the high IQ? Is being a genius a guarantee that our kids will grow up into “successful” adults? Do conventionally smart people have an easier time in the world? Probably. But not because they’re smart. It’s because the world is set up to privilege certain kinds of strengths over others. Able-bodied people are privileged over those considered disabled. They’re valued more, even as infants.

In our world, where “stupid” is still an acceptable insult, we daily reinforce that being smart is better. And if smart is better, and we have the power to prevent not-smart people from being, then it stands to reason that those who create new people would be pressured to follow very narrow behavioural rules in order to ensure they have the smartest kids possible. We have invested so much time, energy, and funding into policing pregnancy that we “don’t have the resources” to create and maintain space for those who don’t fit our norm.

I’d love to see a moratorium on campaigns designed to scare pregnant people into compliance. I’d love to see people use the words “stupid,” “idiot,” and “moron” less and less. I’d love to see more people embrace the strengths of the “imperfect” people in their lives. I’d love people to stop glorifying IQ, making it seem so much more important than it actually is.

* Because this needs to be said: for whatever reason you choose – of your own non-coerced will – to terminate a pregnancy, I will support you 100%.

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Dress code talk has gotten too close to home

I was out with my 12-year-old yesterday afternoon when I realized I hadn’t talked with her about how a school council conversation about dress code had gone. She attends a small public downtown K-6 school housed in a larger K-8, and the school itself is still quite new (5 years). Before a letter was sent home with her a little over a week ago, the only conversation parents had ever had about clothes was to express a preference for no logos, when possible. The letter my child brought home (and only Grade 6 students at the school were given this letter) listed a much broader range of rules that have never been on our radar before this: No underwear showing, tank top straps must be two fingers wide, shorts must pass the “fingertip” test, and nothing disrespectful, hateful, or connected to drugs/alcohol/smoking. The note took care to avoid gendered language, including a “What Not To Wear” illustration that showed contraband gear for girls and boys.

(I should mention, incidentally, that my 13-year-old attends the larger K-8 school, though I’ve been sadly not as connected to the community as I have been with the smaller school. Before this letter came home, a permission form for Grade 8 graduation was distributed, detailing that “age appropriate” and “modest” clothing choices were expected: “no strapless dresses.”)

Anyway, the 12-year-old said that her Grade 5-6 classmates discussed the note in class, and realized that every single child in the class was breaking the stated dress code in one way or another. I asked what she thought of the code, and her first reaction was, “It’s stupid, and it doesn’t make sense. It’s like the people who came up with these rules have never been shopping before. Don’t they get that it’s really hard to find shorts that are longer than soccer shorts but shorter than capris?” Also, as a child with very narrow shoulders, she finds herself regularly breaking the rule of “no visible underwear,” as even if her sleeveless shirts are acceptable, her bra straps often show. 

When she came home with this letter, I had already been researching dress code policy from school board and provincial levels for a friend whose Grade 4 daughter (yep, grade 4) came home one day a few weeks ago after being told her top and shorts were unacceptable. In my research, I discovered that Ontario’s Ministry of Education states that it is the majority of parents in a given school who decide the dress code, not a given school’s administration. Now, there are more specific policies, like the Toronto District School Board’s, which outline that anything depicting gang affiliation, violence, and oppression are unacceptable, but the TDSB has a section D (“Add any other types of Inappropriate Dress”), which is the part parents decide. 

In theory, parents could choose to leave section D entirely blank. There’s nothing in the TDSB policy that states that a dress code must include anything other than sections A through C. This document also clearly states that students must be surveyed for their opinions and understanding of the function of any proposed dress code before it is passed.

With this understanding of policy in mind, I asked for dress codes to be discussed at the last school council meeting of the year. During this meeting, I learned that the letter my daughter and son were sent home with was distributed to all students in Grades 6-8, but that the younger students were supposed to pay the most attention to the section of the letter that dealt with scooter and bike safety. The dress code “reminder” was specifically because there have been a few Grade 8 “students” who were taking risks with their attire: bandeau bras, side boob, exposed bellies, extra short shorts.

“Students,” eh?

The explanation continued: several male teachers felt there was a risk of liability in suggesting that “students” were dressed inappropriately, particularly those “students” who were far more developed than their peers, and wanted to have clear written limitations on dress code that they could refer to so that they would be safe from harassment claims.

I asked if “students” who were less developed would fly under the radar and wear rule-breaking clothes without being challenged, and the person describing the situation agreed that this would happen. It’s only the “students” who have something to show that shouldn’t be showing it.

Now, I talk and write a lot about gendered expectations of appearance, but I’ve gotta say, I was speechless. I just could not respond. The end result of this part of the discussion was that the bigger school’s parent community had drafted and agreed to the current rules, the smaller school currently had no formal dress code, and we should take a closer look in the new year at what we’d like our K-6 code to include.

While I couldn’t figure out where to even start with what I was hearing in the moment, it was important for me to touch base with my daughter. So, yesterday. I told her what had happened and what had been said. Her reaction was what I would expect from a student her age:

“Girls. Are wearing clothes. That male teachers can’t cope with. Is that what you’re saying?”

“Is that how you understand what I’ve said?”

“Yeah. And that’s really stupid. Girls have to change the way they’re dressed because adult men can’t cope? That’s sexist.”

We’re not going to be part of the school community when September comes, so my child’s opinion won’t be heard by the parent community, but I’m so glad that she recognizes that this particular set of rules and the reasons for them are so unbelievably messed up and damaging. She recognizes that this isn’t because her body is dangerous, but that it’s adult perceptions of her that are the danger. She also already understands something that took me years to figure out: her clothing, her body, and her appearance are not responsible for potential acts of harassment and violence against her.

I just can’t stop talking about dress codes.

I’m still thinking a whole lot about this dress code situation. I’ve gone down the rabbit hole and read many comments on newspaper articles and blog posts, and I feel I need to address a few of the ones that keep coming up. 

School is a place of business.
The school as an institution serves several functions. First, it’s a place families can send their children for child care that their taxes pay for. This is even true for adolescents. We have a collective need to know that our minors are supervised for the majority of the day, and schools provide this. Second, schools are places of learning. Literacy, numeracy, arts, humanities, social sciences – schools provide space to facilitate this curricular learning. They also provide social learning. After all, isn’t the biggest (fallacious, incidentally) argument against homeschooling the lack of peer socialization? Children learn at school (and at home) about social and cultural expectations for behaviour. Finally, schools are used to replenish the workforce. In a 21st-century context, that’s exactly what schools are for. As students progress through the grades, they get slotted into the spaces deemed most appropriate for them: at its most basic, doers and thinkers. 

So, yes. ONE of the purposes of school is to prepare children for the world of work. That means that learning about and internalizing workplace conventions is part of what students are expected to do. Does this necessarily mean, though, that a “professional” dress code is the right across-the-board choice to accomplish this? Some of our children will grow up to be tradespeople. Others will be gardeners. Some will work in offices, others in design studios. With the ever-changing world of technology, a significant chunk of today’s 8th graders will be working from home. Some will be performing or visual artists. And some will work in positions that come with a uniform. We have no real way of knowing what a given student’s workplace appearance expectations will be when they hit adulthood. We can guess that for some, “appropriate attire” will be health-and-safety-based, while others will quite legitimately wear their pyjamas while they work. 

Here’s one suggestion for how to incorporate the conversation of “work-appropriate” clothing into the school environment: Careers class. Every student is required to take a half-credit Guidance course in Careers before graduating. Would it not make sense to incorporate direct instruction on workplace expectations into this course?

Next suggestion: add a co-op work term to graduation requirements. Reduce the number of electives a student needs to take to graduate, and add in a two-credit co-op work placement so that students have on-the-job opportunities to learn about workplace culture before officially entering it as adults.

Both of these steps involve real-life applications of “appropriate” workwear, at age-appropriate times.

We need to teach modesty so young people don’t see themselves as only sexual beings.
Many believe it is the school’s job to foster self-worth and self-esteem, particularly in young women. Part of this fostering is insisting that young women (and, really, girls, as dress codes are a k-12 phenomenon) fit within requirements that are sometimes arbitrary, often gendered, and enforced unequally (with curvy bigger girls getting much more negative attention from teachers and administrators than their less busty classmates). Here’s the thing, though: how many of these kids are actually thinking, full-time, that they’re selling themselves sexually? Adolescence is a funny time: they’re trying to figure out who they are outside of the definitions of adults. They may have a bit more autonomy to play with. They definitely have new bodies that are a mystery. How do you dress such a body? Through trial and error, really. Tweens and teens are trying on identities as much as they’re trying on clothes. To dismiss this need for experimentation by labelling it as “attention-seeking” or “hypersexualizing” is, I think, missing the greater point. As they play with appearance, they also play with social fit: clothes and accessories may signal particular interests, and act as connectors between students who may not have otherwise crossed paths. When left to their own devices to figure out what’s comfortable, most students will settle into clothes that make the most sense to them to be comfortable and physically active. I would argue that the attention we give clothes we as adults deem “too sexual” extends the period of time in which they’re worn. Rebellion is a significant element of identity construction: the more something is outright hated by the authority figures in an adolescent’s life, the longer that something will stick around.

I know it when I see it.
I’ve read through more than my share of school dress codes, and I’ve noted that many of them have lines that say “…etc.,” or “appropriate as deemed by the staff.” While there are other more specific elements to each of these codes, the ambiguity of these two examples gives me pause. How do we know what is and isn’t appropriate, to whom, and for what reasons? “Appropriate” carries with it an undeniable level of subjectivity, and that subjectivity can create enforcement procedures that disproportionately target people based on gender, race, and body size.

You’re a bad mother for supporting your child and not teaching her better.
Yep. Those of us who have young daughters and who speak out against arbitary dress codes have been called bad mothers. We’re not protecting our daughters from harm if we’re not teaching them that dressing like – how did an Ottawa Citizen commenter phrase it – “tarts” is unacceptable. I am not a fan of respectability politics. I’m also not a fan of telling my daughter that wearing modest clothing will keep her safe from violence. It’s not true. No matter what my child wears, she is at risk of harassment and abuse at the hands of men, simply because she lives in this world as a young woman. I refuse to be one more person in her life imposing a fear not based in reality on her. Instead, I support her in the development of her self image as a strong and powerful young person who is capable of choosing activity-appropriate garb. She may occasionally need reminders that it’s a gym day (so maybe skinny jeans aren’t the best option) or that it’s going to rain (so take an umbrella), but really? Aside from making sure her clothes are clean and in relatively good shape (I don’t care about knee holes, for example), I trust her judgement.

And maybe that’s the crux of it. I trust young people. Mine, yours, strangers I haven’t yet met. That’s a revolutionary statement for a parent and a teacher to make, and an important one. I trust them.

What happens when autistic young men meet up with pick-up artists? Pretty much what you’d expect.

I’m taking a big risk writing this post. I recognize that it may be misinterpreted as an agreement with concepts that go completely counter to my intention. It’s time, though. 

The media is currently abuzz with the planning and execution of Friday night’s murders at the University of California, Santa Barbara campus. He must have been mentally ill, people argue, to have written a 100+ page manifesto explaining his motivations. No one sane would have uploaded a YouTube video detailing his plans for retribution against the women of the world who refused to date or have sex with him. While most mainstream media outlets gloss over the inherent misogyny of his actions (and the clear connection between his choices and those of Marc Lepine in Montreal in 1989), the speculation of the role of mental health is high. Described as disturbed and unstable by people who claim to have known him well, the preferred focus appears to be on demands for greater gun control in the US as a way to prevent this from happening again. 

The other media focus has been (as with many mass murders committed by white men before Elliot Rodger) on his status as an autistic person. He had Asperger’s, folks say, so this is obviously why he hated women, killed his roommates, and planned to slaughter every woman he encountered. Because autism makes you disconnect, socially isolated, a dangerous loner. Because autism means you are incapable of empathy or of seeing other people as human beings. Because autistic people are volatile and unpredictable.

You do all realize that’s bullshit, right? 

Here, however, is where I may lose a few of you: while autism does not make someone more likely to be a misogynist, autistic men are definitely disporportionately more vulnerable to the messages of pick-up artists (PUA)  and men’s rights activists (MRA). The reasons for this are complicated, and deeply tied into our ableist, sex-negative culture. 

As a culture, we traditionally do as little as we can get away with when we discuss sexuality with children. We describe the mechanics of puberty in technical terms, we talk about how to prevent pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections in as abstract ways as we can, and we avoid avoid avoid as much as possible, with the assumption that kids grow up and figure most of this out as they go along, or that they don’t need the information because it won’t be relevant to them, or we hope, as parents, that the school will do the awkward work for us. I’m just talking about kids who are perceived as able-bodied in this description. Disability compounds the conversation. As parents of autistic kids, we’re told to lower our expectations. We’re indoctrinated with the idea that our children will grow up to be asexual misfits who are incapable of making intimate connections and partnerships. 

For young autistic men who are seen as “high-functioning” (as I’m going to assume Rodger was), the two scenarios combine: we assume that they’ll probably not be interested in dating and relationships, but if they are, they’re smart enough to figure it out when it’s time. 

It’s not about being “smart enough.” The common understanding of how autistic people learn is that direct instruction is integral to comprehension. A lot of us are not so good with abstract concepts and figurative language. We are often concrete thinkers who benefit from step-by-step explanations. Guess who’s really good at offering young men step-by-step explanations on how to get a girlfriend? 

Pick-up artists. They demystify a terrifying process. While social skills groups and parents go around the idea of dating and sexuality, PUAs jump right in and offer concrete steps on how to get exactly what you want. They give advice on appearance and approach, and offer praise for attempts at contact. They acknowledge that autistic young men are capable of and interested in being sexual with other people (in this instance, women) – validation few others in their lives are willing to consider. 

So, yeah. Autistic young men who are interested in women are definitely at risk of embracing MRA philosophy, and of emulating misogynist pick-up artist practice. There. I said it. It’s out there. Now, what do we do about it? Simple answer, more complicated execution. The short answer is that we ensure that every young person has access to comprehensive sexuality education that’s based in respect, mutual pleasure, and consent. We humanize sexuality, and include the emotional parts of it in our conversations with youth. We acknowledge that sexual interest lies on a spectrum. We reinforce the idea that no person on this planet is owed sex by another person, for any reason. 

For autistic youth*  in particular, we incorporate dating and sexuality into social skills curricula. We talk frankly about dating behaviour, about what’s acceptable and what isn’t. We study examples from popular culture and role play how to talk to women respectfully. We model concrete ways of interacting with romantic interests, and provide young people a tool box of strategies. We provide a space in which they can talk freely about their feelings of frustration and isolation, but also about their successes. We replace the PUA step-by-step approach to getting laid with our own step-by-step approach to building confidence in interacting with attractive-to-us people. 

Yes, the fact that Elliot Rodger was SEEN AS autistic matters. The fact that the only people he felt took him seriously also actively encourage men to hate women matters more. 

* Throughout this post, I’ve spoken exclusively about young autistic men who are sexually attracted to women. I have not talked about men attracted to men, nor have I talked at all about autistic women’s experience of sexuality. I am in no way ignoring that comprehensive sexuality education needs to include a concrete approach for young women, nor am I overlooking sexual orientation as a piece of this educational approach. For the context of this particular piece, however, men who want to have sex with women are my target audience, for what I think are obvious reasons. 

(edited to clarify that we don’t actually know if he was autistic, only that it’s been reported.)

Dress codes, redux

It’s that time of year! It’s finally starting to get warm enough to put the winter coats away for good, and the summer clothes are starting to make their way into our weekly rotation. After a long cold stretch, it’s such a relief to be able to feel the sun and breeze on our skins in the time we have outside every day.

It’s also a contentious time of year: though we know it happens throughout the year with yoga pants and leggings scandals, school dress codes hit their biggest enforcement times as the warmer layers are peeled away, even at the primary level. It seems like every day over the last week or so, someone in my Facebook feed has posted an article or blog post involving one more tween/teenaged girl who has been taken aside for dress code violations. Arguments go back and forth:

Schools are places of business, where students are supposed to be learning how to dress appropriately.

Schools are places where teenaged girls should feel safe to try on different identities without fear of being targeted for harassment.

It’s too hard for boys to concentrate when girls are dressed in ways that draw attention to their bodies.

Dress codes are enforced haphazardly, primarily target girls and young women, and those students who are more physically developed are targeted more often than those who are not.

Students should be learning how to follow the rules, and parents agreed to send their kids there knowing the rules. Flaunting a disregard for the rules of the space shows a lack of respect for authority.

Dress codes that are gendered are a symptom and a reinforcer of rape culture.

This is just a handful of the arguments I’ve heard from both sides of the fence. As with most arguments, everyone believes they are correct about their own perspective. I understand all of these sides. I’m sure it can be distracting if a young woman is wearing a tank top and shorts in class. I also think that everything on the planet acts as a distraction for many teenagers (girls as well as boys), and I am far more interested in supporting students as they learn how to self-moderate and control their responses to the world around them than I am in shielding them from having to ever figure this out.

I also recognize how some would see value in having universal rules from K-12: if 5-year-olds are expected to wear longer shorts and belly-covering tanks with thick straps, it won’t be so hard to convince them to do so when they’re 12 and it “matters” (and it only matters when our bodies hit that point where adult sexualization comes into play). We’re teaching modesty, in theory, from a very early age, so that adolescents will embrace this as a value when they start to make their own decisions about how they want to be seen in the world.

I hear the argument. I get it. I don’t agree with it, though. I think that when little girls are told from early childhood that they have to cover their bodies, they internalize the message that something about their bodies needs to be hidden. Whether this is for social conventions of modesty or personal safety or any other reason, shame becomes associated with appearance very early.

I’ve written previously about my experiences of sexual objectification in high school, and how much shame I felt about my changing body both before and after it received unwanted attention. This experience has informed my current thinking on dress codes. I don’t entirely believe that it’s the distraction of the young men we’re focused on. I do think that top-down enforced dress codes include an element of adults sexualizing children and youth, and may lead to a feeling of tacit permission by adults for young men to provide unwanted attention to the young women in their classes – regardless of appearance.

I’m actually not against dress codes. I think, however, that we do everyone a disservice when we don’t include all the stakeholders in the decision-making process. A major focus in the Ontario curriculum, at all grade levels, is critical thinking. We expect students to learn how to think critically across all subjects. Does it not make sense, then, to have them apply these skills in practical, hands-on ways? Have a conversation with students:

Why do we have dress codes? What’s the function of a dress code in our school?

What helps you learn? What gets in the way of your learning?

What are the safety issues that go into certain clothing choices? How do we define “safety?”

You want to create a dress code you don’t have to enforce? Get the people most affected by it to be your primary stakeholders.

Happy World Autism Day

Yep, happy. 

April is Autism Awareness Month, and there’s nothing wrong with being aware of something. The question is how, though, are we celebrating autistic April: the way we would Women’s History or Black History Month? Or are we mourning the loss of the children we thought we had before diagnosis, wishing things could be different? A little of both, maybe? Maybe. 

Do we talk about the accomplishments of famous and everyday autistic people in April? Do we list the strategies autistic people have used successfully so that parents of younger autistic children can learn from real experts what works for us? Or do we highlight scientific or pseudoscientific interventions that have been experienced as traumatic or dehumanizing by those who were once autistic children? 

Do we seek out success stories – and not the big names, but the small-scale, people in your neighbourhood successes, or do we look only at the tragic family breakdowns that we blame so often on autism? 

Here. I’ll start with an everyday success. Hi. I’m 40. I was diagnosed at 38 with Asperger’s Syndrome. It took a long time for me to know for sure in part because of my age, in part my gender. Believe me, though. It fits. So, here I am. I’m an extreme introvert, but that hasn’t stopped me from being successful in caring professions. I’m also really good at retail, for what it’s worth. Right now, I’m a teacher, and I think I’m pretty good at it. I’ve managed to have had effective enough social skills to make two humans. I have a few close friends, several casual friends, and a strong complex romantic relationship. I’m raising two children by myself. I pay the rent. I sometimes have three or four jobs at a time, and generally manage to stay on top of things. I’m starting a PhD program in the fall. 

That all sounds pretty successful for anyone, really. I have a good life, as an autistic adult. My friends and partner are understanding, and when something doesn’t make sense, they ask. 

Do my words sometimes stop coming when I’m stressed or overwhelmed? Yep. Do I say the wrong thing and make people really angry with me? It happens. Do my special interests sometimes take over my life? Um, see the above PhD reference. Do my sensory impairments make things harder? They make things hard, yes. But I figure it out, and I keep going. 

Parents of autistic kids, please listen to autistic adults. A lot of us are also parents of autistic kids, and we have a lot to offer you in terms of support and understanding. We can also be remarkably practical. And we want to celebrate the kid(s) you have, with you.  

Your semi-annual reminder: autism isn’t the problem.

A friend just asked if I’d read what was happening on Gina Crosley-Corcoran’s The Feminist Breeder Facebook page. (as an aside, the question referred to The Dentist Breeder, which made me kind of scared, because, well, breeding dentists sounds terrifying.) I went to check it out, and I’m left with a lot of feelings. I too am feminist, and a breeder, and the autistic mom of autistic kids. So when self-identified feminist breeders say they wish they could wish away something like autism, I pay attention.

I get why so many parents of autistic kids wish their kids weren’t autistic. I’ve been there myself, more than once. I’ve supported parents who have gone as far to say that if they had it to do all over again, they’d rather not have had any child if an autistic child were their only option.* To be clear, that’s not what Crosley-Corcoran has said (though maybe she has said it somewhere, I haven’t come across it).

Yes. I have wished that my kids weren’t autistic. I’ve wished that I wasn’t autistic. When things are dark and hard and nothing feels good, I dream about the greener grass many tell me comes with neurotypicality. Is the autism what I need to hold up as the cause of my distress, though? Sure, sometimes. There are definitely parts of being autistic that I would consider impairments that need support. My executive functioning goes out the window when my stress levels get high, and it takes much more energy to stay on top of everything that needs doing. I’ve had some success with reducing that feeling of shut down by cutting gluten out of my diet. It’s a treatment strategy that works for some of us, and is completely useless for others. As a lovely side effect, the absence of gluten in my life has also reduced a lot of my chronic pain issues. I also see a psychotherapist on a regular basis, as well as a massage therapist. I don’t take medication for my anxiety and depression at this point, but I’m not against it, either.

Are my kids gluten-free? Nope. Are they dairy-free? Not even a little. Do they see any specialists related to their autism? Nope. Might they benefit? Sure, they might, but at 13 and almost 12, they do have a fair amount of sovereignty over their bodies. They have the right to be involved in decision-making over how they want to make things work better for them.

I should mention something about my kids. I was talking to them about the IEP process, as I think it’s important they know when I’m talking about them with the other adults in their lives. I explained that it’s a document that’s mostly for kids with a number of different disabilities, to ensure that their learning needs are met well in the classroom. My 13-year-old’s reaction was telling:

“Wait, what? I have a disability?”

He’s known since diagnosis (at 3.75) that he’s autistic. We started off with All Cats Have Asperger Syndrome, which I cannot recommend strongly enough. Seriously, if you have a child in your family who has recently been diagnosed, this is a great introduction to what it means (though I get frustrated at all the male pronouns, given that there are two people in our household who do not use them).

But I digress. Where was I? Oh. Yes. There are times I wish I weren’t autistic, or that they weren’t autistic. When I ask myself what it is I wish was different, though, it’s almost never the autism that’s the problem. It’s the world that’s the problem.

Did you see that?

It’s the world that’s the problem.

Do I want to change some fundamental parts of me, of them, to fit the world better? Or do I want to work to changing the world to fit us better? That’s the question we all have to ask ourselves, disabled and able-bodied alike. As a feminist who does her best to see the world through an intersectional lens, I can tell you that my understanding of where disability fits into my identity is inseparable from where woman, queer, mad, and white fit. I’m not sometimes only a disabled person any more than I’m ever only white. I am all of these things, and just as I wouldn’t de-queer myself (and I chose this one because it came up as being particularly contentious on Crosley-Corcoran’s page) because it’s easier to be heterosexual in the world, I will not choose to eliminate my identity as disabled person. It’s not my autism/queerness/madness/femaleness that creates disadvantage, after all. It’s others’ interpretations of what that all means. It’s not skin colour that creates disadvantage – it’s racism. It’s not autism – it’s ableism.

Do I have privilege because my kids and I are (most of the time) verbal, because we don’t have any intellectual impairments, because two out of three of us could easily pass (and I often do, and feel a lot of ambivalence about)? Yep, I sure do. I’m raising two kids entirely on my own, generally hold down at least two jobs at a time, have never bounced a cheque, and I have many complex and wonderful friendships. I’m the effing poster girl for what high functioning looks like, and lots of people have it harder. I will never tell anyone that their parenting load isn’t as heavy as they think it is, because who the hell am I to do something like that?

What I will say is that your kid is your kid, and please be careful that they don’t grow up internalizing the message, “We love everything about you except your autism.” If parents of autistic kids could say (and believe) “We love our autistic kid, and we’re working to help them love all of themselves,” that would be so great. And you know what? Loving your kid doesn’t mean not looking for ways to make some things easier. Fight for access. Help your kids develop good coping strategies. Love their quirks, and reassure them that we’re all a little different in our own ways. Help them learn to self-advocate to minimize the impact of their impairments on their school and work and independent lives.

Reassure them (and yourselves) that autism isn’t the problem.

*By “supported” I mean offered emotional support, not agreed with, in case that isn’t clear.

Advice for teachers: do this.

As I was rushing to work this afternoon, I missed a call from my son’s school. I had the usual reaction I do when I see the name on the screen: I held my breath.

Anyone who’s a parent of a kid in school has probably had that reaction at least once. When they’re little, our thoughts turn to vomit or bleeding, or for some, anaphylaxis. As they get bigger, those medical things are still on the list, but they’re joined by fears of fights, poor grades, or that our kid just didn’t show up that day.

I started to breathe again, and called my voicemail. I heard the boy’s teacher’s voice, and my heart started to beat a little faster. A little part of me was sure he’d just poked his eye out. A bigger part of me worried he’d hit someone (er, again.) (Long story). But I listened. And I’m so glad I did.

He called to tell me how great my kid’s been doing since returning to school after the holidays: He brought his high school enrolment forms in today, and handed them in. He admitted he hadn’t finished an assignment due this morning, asked for another copy of the rubric, and stayed in at lunch to complete it. He asked for another copy of the rubric for an upcoming presentation.

If you’ve got kids who often have not so good days, hearing about the great ones is an incredible gift. I think my kid is amazing, and I worry so much that the rest of the world doesn’t get to see him the way I do. When someone takes a moment out of their day to tell me that they see him, they like him, they get him? I win the jackpot of feels.

I send this tall gangly piece of my heart into the world every day, hoping for the best.

Today, that hope was met.

Thoughts as I wait for the light to change at Yonge and Wellesley

Every day, I wear my sexuality as a weapon
In your face to keep me safe
Tits out
Short skirts
Femme ’cause it’s me and also fuck you
Overflowing with ferocity
Expecting your looks
Defying your expectations of
Proper

I will not hide
It makes no difference
If anything
I get catcalled less when I’m
In your face

I’ve had your eyes on me for thirty years
I’ve felt shame
Fear
Rage
And now, resistance

But now I’m back to rage
Because you aren’t only looking at me

Your new target
My fierce
Shameless
Confident
Imperfectly perfect
Barely pubescent
Child

I don’t know if she heard you
This morning on her bike
At the stop light
When you said

Oh that’s a cute one
But wait I think she’s still a bit young

You don’t get to break this one
To create shame where there’s none
To instil fear
You don’t get to have this one

Not only will I not let you have her
She won’t let you either.

Evil. Insane. Mentally Ill. Autistic.

Every time I read or hear about another violent multi-victim crime, I hold my breath, and I wait. How is this crime going to be described? Who are the victims? How are they painted? Do we hold up the most seemingly innocent first, as a way to make the crime seem that much more obscene in the eyes of those watching from afar?

And the perpetrator – what do we hear about him (because, for whatever reason, they are almost always men)?

Evil. Insane. Mentally ill. Autistic.

This. This is what I wait to hear every time. And almost every time, I hear some variation of the above. We are still, as a culture, feeding the stereotype of mentally ill people as being possessed (“evil”). It can’t possibly be a medical condition, or a result of decades of abuse, or something that can be socio-scientifically understood. It is a character flaw, and something that comes from not being strong enough to withstand the temptation of the devil. And people with mental illness are uncontrollably violent and dangerous.

And then there are the autistic people. They’re so unpredictable. They show no empathy, so you just know that they’re capable of something like a mass murder. They wouldn’t feel anything after such an event. They’re volatile, and heartless, and already pretty much psychopaths. Is it any wonder when they’re accused of horrible events?

I live with mental illness.

I am autistic.

One of my children lives with mental illness.

Both of them are autistic.

None of the three of us is going to suddenly snap and kill everyone in our wake. In fact, all three of us are at much higher risk of experiencing violence as victims than we are of committing acts of violence ourselves. Media and cultural focus on mental illness and/or autism as a significant risk factor for violent acts puts the three of us at even higher risk of experiencing violence at the hands of those trying to protect the rest of the world from us.

I have seen some in the autistic community speak out, separating autism from mental illness in relation to yesterday’s tragedy. This is a shortsighted move, and a dangerous one. Claiming that the shooter (whose name I will not share) was mentally ill and that autism had nothing to do with his actions indicates agreement with the idea that mental illness was the cause. Given that over 2/3 of autistic individuals will also experience a significant mental illness over the course of a lifetime, this lack of solidarity does none of us any favours.

How do we shift the discourse? I had a conversation with my 12-year-old last night about the incident. Here is his (autistic) feedback:

His first question upon hearing about the incident: “Where did he get the gun?”

Pretty practical question, no? Doesn’t delve into motivation, mental health, or what he may have eaten for breakfast. Killings were accomplished with a gun, so let’s trace the origin of the weapon. Sounds like a logical starting point.

I explained that the culture of guns in the United States is very different than that in Canada, mostly because of the Second Amendment.

His response? “Think about it this way. If the Second Amendment were never made then people would not need guns for self defence because nobody would have guns in the first place.”

Uh, yeah. The US has created its own internal arms race with the Second Amendment as its justification. Pretty astute observation.

When I told him that it was reported that the shooter was autistic, he got a confused look on his face: “Who says his doing it had anything to do with autism?”

He could not fathom how anyone would connect autism to mass murder. It just didn’t compute.

He ended the conversation with,”Walmart sells semi automatic guns?”

I am not arguing that some people aren’t more likely to commit acts of violence. I’m not even saying that it’s impossible that psychotic or schizophrenic people can’t be compelled to do these acts. I know it’s possible. I also know that the compelling voices aren’t an across-the-board symptom of either of those conditions. I know that one can only be compelled by one’s brain to do something if one has access to the tools to carry it out. I know that one’s risk factors increase if one does not have access to affordable and appropriate mental health services.

You want to put an end to this kind of violent crime? Don’t lay it at the feet of “the insane” or “the autistic.” Question your cultural values: is having ready access to guns made specifically to kill multiple people in a short period of time a legitimate interpretation of the Second Amendment? Is the “Gd-given right” to protect yourself from tyranny worth the lives of the people who were murdered yesterday? Is the philosophy of pulling oneself up by one’s bootstraps more important than a country prioritizing funding for excellent accessible mental health services (and don’t think Canada is doing much better with mental health – especially for children)?

The cultural/media slant of yesterday’s incident has put my entire family and so many others at increased risk of stigma and physical violence. Change the conversation. Make all of us safer.

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