Category Archives: Being Weird

I am Liza L.’s kid

The author, age 11.

The author, age 11.

This is a hard post to write.

It’s easy to say, in the abstract, that calls for “more mental health services” in the wake of a mass murder are stigmatizing. It’s much harder to talk about how that stigma actually feels, what it looks like, what its consequences are.

Yesterday a lot of people I know started reposting an article called “Thinking the Unthinkable,” or its various re-posts under the title “I Am Adam Lanza’s Mother.” The author of that article discusses, in detail, her 13-year-old son whom she describes as having uncontrollable outbursts. She says she feels that she is out of options for getting his behavior under control and, as a result, she is similarly situated to the mothers of the boys who shot dozens of people in Columbine, Virginia Tech, Aurora, and Sandy Hook. And, although she changed her son’s first name in the article, she published it under her full name and included a recent photograph of her son.

I hated the article. Not because I don’t sympathize with the mother but because I also, and more primarily, sympathize with her child. Even though I never, even at my worst, would have intentionally harmed another person, my mother could have written many of the same things about my behavior when I was around that age. Although actual violence is very rare among people with psychiatric disabilities, the sorts of behaviors that are described in this article – impulsive threats, verbal aggression (e.g., cursing at parents), fights with peers, and a tendency to try to escape, hit, or kick when approached or restrained during a meltdown – are not uncommon among kids with disabilities that affect impulse control, communication, and emotional regulation. As a friend of mine discussed in more detail in her blog post, “I Was One of the Scary Kids,” these kids are still unlikely to deliberately hurt others or engage in premeditated aggression, and their behavior often substantially improves by the time they reach adulthood as they gain the ability to escape from stressful situations.

As I read the article, I couldn’t help but imagine how I would feel if my mother had written something similar about me, documenting her impressions of my worst moments and comparing me to someone who had only recently killed 30 people, when I was only 13 years old. To know that that article was being shared among everyone I knew, including teachers, schoolmates, and extended family. To know that that article, attached to my mother’s full name and my photograph, would likely still be on the Internet years later, when I was applying to college or for jobs. At that age, I had a hard enough time forgiving or understanding my mother when she forced me to get off of the phone and do my homework (I had only two friends and they were the most important things in my life), and that’s the sort of thing that 13-year-olds have some  hope of understanding. How can any 13-year-old, let alone one with mental health issues, “understand” why his mother felt the need to tell the entire world that he is a potential mass murderer and that she’s run out of ideas of what to do about him?

Children with known psychiatric disabilities, especially those who also are seen as having persistent behavioral problems, already get typecast as potential killers despite the fact that there is no useful profile of school shooters and, as of 2009, most school shootings were by people with no history of mental health evaluation and no history of disruptive conduct at school. This typecasting leads to bullying at school, social isolation, and harassment by school administrators. This sort of treatment is not okay, even or even especially when the child actually has serious behavioral problems. How much worse must it be for the child discussed in this article, now that those perceptions have been reinforced, in a highly dramatic and public manner, by one’s own mother?

I would like to think I turned out really pretty well in the long run. I know what I have to do in stressful situations in order to keep myself calm and safe. I get angry a lot, but I’ve found ways to channel it into productive behavior (as I tell my friends, I’ve considered writing a motivational self-help book on how to succeed in stressful and competitive environments, which I plan to call “Do It For Spite”). I graduated high school, college, and law school. I’m now at a point in my life and my career where I have enough of a “track record” showing me to be a competent and non-homicidal person that I can admit to having a disability and having had emotional and impulse control issues in high school.

I’m not sure if I would have been able to do any of those things if my mother had, under her real name and using my photograph, written about my very worst moments in a very public way, and speculated without reasonable basis that I might someday kill people, when I was only 13 years old and still struggling. 

Kids with disabilities and their parents absolutely need support, both in the form of services and the sympathetic ear of others who’ve been there. But parents are not entitled to do things that harm their children in order to get that support. Unlike their children, parents of kids with disabilities are adults, and with that comes privileges and responsibilities their children do not yet have. Parents are far more powerful, both at home and in the public forum, than their minor children (what are the odds that a thirteen-year-old’s complaints about his mother’s unpredictable temper would have gone viral, even though it’s far more terrifying to live with a parent with emotional control issues than with a child?). Thirteen-year-olds aren’t supposed to be good at thinking about their future, but their parents are. Parents are responsible for their children’s lives, not the other way around.

As adults, parents need to consider the effect their public statements have on the long-term best interests of their children and others like their children. A 13-year-old child has the right to evolve and grow, and that right loses its meaning if there’s a dramatic narrative of the worst moments of their life at that age, published multiple places on the Internet, without meaningful protection of their anonymity. Parents also need to consider whether it’s worth saying things that perpetuate their child’s segregation and isolation from the community, in exchange for “better services.” Services help, but I’m not sure that any services help enough to outweigh the harm caused by encouraging people to see your child as a future murderer.



Filed under Being Weird, Children's Rights, Disabilities, Health Care, Uncategorized

Loud Hands

I’ve been pretty busy with work lately, hence the absence of posts. This post is something I wrote to help promote the Loud Hands Project; I hope that now that this one is done, I can start focusing on the other things I want to write here.

The length of time that I can “pass” as normal varies by situation. If I’m having a one-on-one conversation or engaging in some sort of physical activity like walking or dancing, I might be able to come across as relatively normal until I get tired. In any situation that involves sitting still, though, I don’t pass for long.

It’s my hands (and, to some extent, the rest of my body) that betray me: deprived of the ability to mask my movements as gestures or purposeful activity, I start ticcing, twitching, squirming, tapping, flapping, hair-twisting, and picking/scratching/biting at my own skin. If I’m in a chair during this time, it’s highly likely that I’ll end up putting my knees and feet up on it. I am in nearly constant motion.

Not everyone will recognize this as the sign of a disability; some will label me as simply nervous, hyper, immature, bored, or weird. There have even been a few times when I was accused of being on drugs. Whatever it is, it’s not normal. It’s not the way adults are supposed to behave, particularly in lectures, movie theaters, offices, restaurants, religious services, or day-long board meetings.

I was never told to have “quiet hands” as a kid. I was told to stop squirming, stop fidgeting, stop doodling, stop scratching itches (which due to tactile issues are relatively constant), sit on my hands, and get my hair out of my mouth.

Other kids were told this sort of thing too, but unlike me, they could actually do it. I on the other hand never quite stopped being the kid who spent all of class with her feet on her chair, chewing on her own hair (or, later, twisting her hair or scratching her head) while doodling and looking out the window and still managing to know what was going on. My blogging handle – Twitchy Woman – was something a friend used to call me, affectionately, in high school (meant to be sung to the tune of “Witchy Woman”).

It turns out that, in fact, I knew what was going on in class because I was doodling and looking out the window with my feet on the chair and chewing my hair. When forced to stop, my mind seemed to lose its anchor and float off into some other dimension.

Of course, I was also the kid with the weird, immature-looking walk, swaying a bit from side to side while holding my arms out in weird ways and, frequently, tilting my head to the side. When I ran I frequently looked (and still sort of look) like Orville the albatross trying to take off. I was the kid, and am the adult, who will if left to her own devices eat the same exact breakfast and lunch (and frequently dinner) every single day (If I lose this habit, I usually end up not having a clue what to eat and you don’t even want to know what I end up eating). At the office, I often have the urge to walk all around the office, trying to inconspicuously check in every office to see who’s in and in every office supply cabinet and the office fridge (sometimes twice) to remind myself what’s there. I’m the person who will with some regularity just start wandering off because I think a conversation is over when it isn’t.

These are all things that I absolutely cannot control for very long. The times that I’ve tried to inhibit them over the long term – mostly when I’ve worked in close quarters with others in very conservative office environments – tend to go badly. My productivity suffers and I end up getting sufficiently stressed that I end up picking uncontrollably at my face or head. The effort, and the knowledge that it’s not even making that much of a difference, is depressing and distracting.

So lately, as I’ve been becoming more and more “out” in various aspects of my life, I’ve been trying to not even try to control it. I walk through my apartment and neighborhood flapping, clapping, tapping my fingers, with my head turned to the side. I am a bit more subdued in the office and remain as subdued as possible in certain meetings, but overall am not spending much effort trying to suppress how I move. I attended a disability leadership conference earlier this month – which I’ve been meaning to blog about anyway but haven’t gotten around to – and spent a large part of it flapping and rocking side to side and tapping my fingers and ticcing.

I’ve been happier and more productive than ever. I think that maybe it’s actually impossible for me to feel happy when I’m not moving in certain ways. For such a long time there just weren’t that many times out of the day when I actually felt good, as opposed to anxious or angry or bored or something, because I wasn’t letting myself do the things that I need to do in order to actually feel good. It’s so much easier to transition from one activity to another when I let myself flap my hands. And it’s so much easier to think when I let myself tap my fingers, rock back and forth, or squirm into weird positions. I’m achieving levels of productivity that I normally only have when I force myself to stay at the office late at night when everyone has gone home, since those used to be the only times that I actually let myself move around in the office the way my mind wants my body to move around.

This, to me, is why the Loud Hands Project is important. It’s an opportunity for those of us with neurological disabilities to re-learn how to live in a way that many others take for granted: to go through our day without the constant self-policing, self-examination, and self-denial that it takes to look normal. To use all that freed-up energy for the things we want to do and the things we want to get done.

The Loud Hands Project has already raised $10,000 and will be putting out an awesome anthology on “essays, long and short, by Autistic authors writing on autism acceptance, neurodiversity, Autistic pride and culture, disability rights and resistance, and resilience (known collectively by the community as having loud hands).” But it’s still accepting money:

Here’s the deal. We’ve set three incremental benchmarks. As we meet each benchmark, we’ll be able to fund additional components of The Loud Hands Project. After all, as you can see from our description above, the anthology has always been just the beginning. The Loud Hands Project is a lot more expansive than a single book, and we have an opportunity to start putting down roots much earlier than we’d hoped. Take a look at what we’re thinking of:Benchmark 1: $15,000 “About us, without us”

“About us, without us” is a video about the Autistic community and our place in the conversation around eugenics and the prevention of autism. If we make the $15,000 benchmark, we’ll be able to pay for Julia to go on the road and collect interviews and footage, and cover production, editing, and initial distribution costs.

Benchmark 2: $20,000 “Welcome to the Autistic community”-With these funds, we can rush website development and have the Loud Hands project website complete, fully accessible, and ready to launch on April 2, 2012—Autism Acceptance Day.

-Use the website to commence the development of materials tailored to all ages and abilities explaining autism and welcoming the autistic person to the community.
-Initially, this will take the form of a letter drive, blog carnival, and pamphlet-design competition, with ongoing further refinement and eventual publication of materials.

Benchmark 3: $25,000: Connecting to Community Together

To begin, we will produce a DVD incorporating video and written content from across the history of the Autistic community, establishing our historical context. Then, to explore the state of the movement today, we will use the funds raised to establish a Conference Scholarship fund for Autistic self-advocates to use to attend Autistic and disability rights related conferences and events connecting to the larger theme of disability culture. Scholarship recipients will participate in a second video documenting Autistic community and culture.
There are still 46 days left, so please go ahead and donate at their indiegogo page!
ETA: And, of course, here’s their neat video in case you haven’t already seen it:


Filed under Being Weird

Lest Anyone Question My Diagnosis

I just retrieved from my parents a bunch of paper journals I kept as a teenager. Most of it is regular teenage angst, documented in obsessive detail, but there are also some kind of amusing gems like my account of a high school field trip to an amusement park.

I wrote for about two pages about a conversation I had on the bus on the way to the park (my friends and I made a list of the most annoying songs we knew, and the most romantic songs we knew), the decorations in the pseudo-Ancient-Egyptian food court where we ate lunch, and the arrangement of food on our lunch trays.

Here’s the full text of my food-arrangement rant:

For lunch my group and I ate at the ____ Cafe because it was inside [editor’s note: it was raining that day]. J__ and N__ both had cheesecake. They also both had red trays. A__ and I both had chocolate cake with little chocolate chips on the sides and little whipped-cream puffballs with the same consistency as Sculpey. Pretty stiff. We also both had orange trays. We also all had macaroni + cheese and garlic bread and a coke. When we were in line it was all nicely symmetrical. Red-Orange-Red-Orange. Cheese-Chocolate-Cheese-Chocolate. Then everything else was the same. Except A__ had a large coke and everybody else had a small coke. And other than the symmetry everything else was bad.

There’s an illustration, which I’ll spare you. It’s pretty clear that the symmetrical trays and weird decor in the lunch place were the highlight of the day. The only indication in the entry that I went on rides or anything was an off-hand remark that my friends and I had our picture taken while we were riding a roller-coaster.

Again, this isn’t totally representative of my journal, but it probably says something that this is one of the happiest entries I wrote.

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Dehumanization and the Brain

Here’s a great article, via the Situationist:

A Brain’s Failure to Appreciate Others May Perpetuate Atrocities.

No, it’s not about how Autistic people are responsible for genocide. Although the actual published journal article is behind a paywall, from what I can tell the researchers (including Susan Fiske, on whom I have a huge intellectual crush) are not really talking about autism at all but rather the general population.

The study showed that Princeton undergraduates (that is, not a representative sample of the whole population, but also not a sample of only people with a particular mental disability) systematically shut off the social processing centers of their brains (the centers generally associated with empathy and social reasoning) when looking at or thinking about people whom they considered disgusting and less-than-human: people thought to be homeless, addicted to drugs, immigrants, or poor. The social areas lit up normally when participants looked at pictures of other individuals.

This suggests that bias isn’t just about thinking some people are bad, but in at least some situations it’s about thinking of people as not human. This, of course, is something that activists have been pointing out for a long time, but it’s cool to see that their phenomenological, introspective description of what’s happening matches up pretty closely with the neuropsychological data (see also the same researchers’ findings that men who scored high on “hostile sexism” turned off the social centers of their brain while looking at scantily clad women).

What’s more, when participants looked at pictures of dehumanized individuals, their brains showed activity in the areas known to govern disgust, attention, and cognitive control. The researchers suggested that disgust may play a role in the shutdown of the “social” areas of the participants’ brains.

The fact that disgust is part of the equation here is particularly interesting, because it suggests (in my mind) that the underlying cognitive process evolved as a response to contagious disease or vermin. Although most people at least intellectually understand that people with contagious diseases are still people, societies historically have shunned individuals who appear to have a life-threatening contagious disease (most notably people with leprosy), to prevent the disease from spreading throughout the population. Of course, doing this was to some extent against human nature because we naturally want to be kind to others who are suffering, so it was necessary to develop a way for disgust to trump empathy.

The discovery of sanitation has made this tactic totally unnecessary (although people perceived as having a life-threatening contagious illness are still frequently subjected to serious discrimination), but the same mechanism is still being applied to people who are considered unworthy of empathy for some other reason, particularly outsiders (the immigrants), people who are perceived as “diseased” (the substance abusers and to some extent homeless people, who are widely presumed to have some sort of mental illness), and people dealing with unjust situations that are perceived as intractable and not worth trying to fix (poor persons).

The possibility that people are more likely to dehumanize a person when they associate the person with the idea of disease has important disability and human rights implications. For example, it may explain why promoting “medical” explanations of mental disability can paradoxically increase stigma while decreasing blame. It explains why, whenever people try to distinguish “high-functioning” Autistic advocates from the “really autistic” people who are not-quite-human and need to be cured, they invariably end up talking about gross things the person does, like playing with poop.

At the risk of over-interpreting this study, I’d say it supports the arguments of activists who object to medicalizing terminology that characterizes a long-term disability as a “disease,” “disorder,” “illness,” or “epidemic,” especially when the “disease” in question is considered severe and “incurable.” While medicalizing terms may discourage society from blaming the disabled individual, the individual may also be considered less than human and thus less deserving of human rights such as self-determination, bodily autonomy, and full participation in the community.

It would also be interesting to see further research on exactly when this dehumanization response occurs and when it doesn’t, so that we can think of ways to prevent it. I suspect that people will show less of a dehumanizing response when the “disease” is perceived as either mild (such as the flu), presently curable (such as malaria), or the result of an injury and not a disease. This coincides with findings that people are more likely to empathize with individuals with mental illness if they are told that the person’s distress is caused by adverse life situations (that is, an “injury” model rather than a “disease” model). Moreover, one of the pictures used in the present study was of a “disabled” woman (they don’t say what the woman’s disability was), and this was apparently not a picture that elicited a dehumanizing response. My guess, without seeing the article, is that this woman’s disability appeared to have been caused by an injury (for example, a person who looks “normal” except that she is using a wheelchair) rather than a disease.

By analogy, would people be more likely to, say, view homeless individuals as fully human if they were told that homelessness is often a temporary life situation and that many people who experience homelessness ultimately find housing and have stable, fulfilling lives? Would people be less likely to dehumanize poor people if they were told that poverty arises from external social forces that can be changed? Or if they saw poverty as an injury caused by some sort of injustice?

I really like this sort of research. Understanding how people think about marginalized groups is a great step toward getting to think about them better. And I’m not self-deluded enough to think that anyone can truly understand how people think without doing some actually good research on the topic.

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Filed under Being Weird, Disabilities, Experimental Psychology, Health Care

Self-Disclosure Angst

I just spent a long weekend up in Cambridge, MA, where I participated on ASAN’s symposium on the Legal, Social, and Ethical Implications of Autism Research. It was a great experience and I enjoyed the opportunity to meet some old and new friends. Discussion topics included bias in interpretation of research, issues in allocation of research dollars, ethical implications of genetic research and interventions designed to make individuals more compliant and less “autistic-looking,” and approaches to underdiagnosed populations such as adults and women. The symposium will be posted online soon (both transcript and video).

This was the first time I actually stated, in front of an audience, that I was Autistic (and, I think, only the third time that I said, at a public event, that I had any sort of disability). I was nervous at the time and am still nervous now. I don’t think I knew, when I signed up for this, that the whole thing would be webcast and put on YouTube for all posterity to see. That means I can’t really take it back. I had no plans to, but the finality of it is sort of frightening.

Moreover, for political reasons, like everyone there who was on the Autism spectrum, I referred to myself as “Autistic” (because, once people reach adulthood, it’s often very difficult to tell the difference between Autism, PDD-NOS, and Asperger’s, and making distinctions can create perceived hierarchies among diagnoses). But the rest of the world does think that there’s a significant difference between “autism” and “Asperger’s,” and might either:

  1. Think that I’m way less capable than I am, even more so than if I’d told them I had Asperger’s;
  2. Think I’m totally exaggerating or making up my disability because they think I’ve got “mild Asperger’s” and that autism is “way more severe” than that.

Finally, I am very self-conscious about how much I was fidgeting and stimming throughout the thing. I basically can’t sit still for more than about 20 minutes before I start fidgeting in some way. While I have some strategies for making this less noticeable in professional situations (like if I’m in a courtroom), I didn’t inhibit it that much while on this panel because, hey, they already know I’ve got a disability so it seemed silly to spend lots of effort concealing it.  That said, I tried to keep it from showing up on the webcast because I didn’t want potential non-allies seeing it. I had a laptop in front of me that was showing the live video feed and I tried to only fidget when the camera was not on me, but the feed was on a bit of a delay so sometimes it was a few seconds before I realized I was again visible on camera.

I understand that I am lucky in that I can conceal my disability somewhat, or at least the nature of my disability. Others can’t. Still, any possibility of losing that advantage is scary. I was particularly unnerved by the (Autistic) participant who kept asking how I could possibly be an attorney with “all of your social skills problems.” I don’t think I had any notable social issues at the conference (besides acting nervous when people were being very chaotic and loud while milling around, something I felt entitled to do given the context), so his assumption that I was horribly socially incompetent probably just came from the diagnosis itself. If that’s what my own community assumes about me, what can I possibly expect from everyone else?


Edit to above: I should acknowledge that it also really felt good to be able to speak openly about my disabilities and still have my opinions heard, and to be able to sit on a panel without having to worry all that much about fidgeting, tapping, scratching, or whatever. If I didn’t find it somewhat rewarding, I probably would never have done it. Especially when I was there, and surrounded by awesome people who actually got it, it felt great to be authentic and open. Nevertheless, it was (and is) also pretty scary.


Filed under Being Weird, Practicing Law While Weird

More on language

Putting aside for a moment the controversy over “person-first” language, I wonder if we can at all agree that the following expressions should be banished:

  • “The disabled”
  • “The mentally ill”
  • “The homeless”
  • “The poor”
  • All other uses of mass nouns to describe minority demographics that are seen as the object of care and concern.

Even worse is the use of such mass nouns with possessives, like “the nation’s mentally ill.”

To me, these phrases turn groups of individuals into an undifferentiated blob that is to be somehow “dealt with” or otherwise cared for by the rest of the population (“population” is also a mass noun, but since “population” includes everyone in a particular place, it doesn’t come across as demeaning to me).

I can imagine cases in which that connotation wouldn’t be there. For example, people tend to view certain kinds of social movements as masses (“the Army,” “Anonymous,” “the resistance”). If you’re saying something like “the disabled should riot in response to proposed Medicaid cuts,”  that seems relatively fine because the use of mass nouns is based more on perceived cohesion than on lack of agency.

But more often than not, mass nouns are instead used to portray a group as a passive object of concern and charity. Consider, for instance, a line from this story on the warehousing of people with mental illness in nursing homes:

“As states have closed down mental hospitals, they’ve struggled to find housing for the mentally ill. In Florida, assisted-living facilities have become the de facto solution.”

Here, “the mentally ill” appears to be defined as people whose long-term residence was, until now, “mental hospitals.” It doesn’t include the large numbers of people with psychiatric disabilities who were living anywhere else, either independently or with their family or without permanent shelter. This kind of attitude makes it harder for people to “come out” as having a mental illness because they’re afraid of this sort of stereotype: “if you’ve got a mental illness, why do you have a job? Either you’re not really mentally ill, or you shouldn’t be working and living independently.”

Moreover, “the mentally ill” aren’t having trouble finding housing with help from the state, the state is having trouble finding housing for them. Overall the question the article seems to be asking is “what should be done about the mentally ill?”

It’s telling that, despite the fact that the reporter actually came into contact with one of the residents of the facilities mentioned in the article, the only quotes from her that make it into the article are a banal conversation in which she asked her son how her grandchildren were doing. The only reason I can see for including that conversation in the article at all are as an attempt to “humanize” her (“she has a family and even knows that they exist!”). But she wouldn’t have to be “humanized” in such a way if the journalist had actually discussed her as if she was a human being all along, including by allowing her to have an opinion. Imagine if he’d instead asked for her opinion about the place she lived and she complained about it in the same way that anyone else would complain about a similar living situation. Wouldn’t that make her seem even more “human”? You can program a robot to ask polite questions about people’s kids; it takes a living, feeling being to complain.

This is exactly the kind of attitude that I tend to associate with use of mass nouns: “the mentally ill are people just like us, except totally helpless. We should do something about them so that they have a place to be and are protected from abuse and mistreatment.” Not “it’s horrible that people with mental illness are forced to live in violent neighborhoods and facilities where their lives are controlled by abusive people. We (i.e. a coalition of people with mental illness and allies) should pass better laws to ensure that people who need housing assistance and services as a result of mental illness aren’t deprived of the right to live in a safe place and exercise control over their own lives.”

I don’t really care that much if someone says that I “have ASD.” I will correct someone if they call me “mentally ill” instead of saying I “have a mental illness,” but overall I won’t mind. I get a bit distressed if someone calls me “disabled” instead of saying I “have a disability,” since to me “disabled” sounds like I can barely do anything useful (like being a “disabled vehicle” or “on the disabled list”), but again, I can get past that if it’s sufficiently clear that that’s not what the person is trying to say. But I really hate when people use mass nouns.

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Networking for Aspies

I just spent two hours at an alumni event hosted by my law school, to see an old professor and partly to network.

It should not come as a surprise that I hate traditional “networking,” particularly in the context of social events. I am okay with talking to people one-on-one, but mixer-type events are sensorily overwhelming and most people’s approach to these events appears to be to scan the crowd, identify people to approach, and engage in short conversations with person after person, all while juggling both a drink and hors d’oeuvres and simultaneously scanning the crowd for people to approach next. Not a particularly disability-friendly environment.

All the same, it’s extremely difficult to advance a legal career without attending  and navigating these kinds of events. Even if you’re not trying to meet people, you can be sent to events like this just to provide a token presence for your organization. So I’d like to be good at it, to the extent that I can be.

There are a lot of books on networking, but there aren’t very many books on how to network if you’ve got a psychosocial or communication disability (including anxiety, Autism, whatever) or even if you’re just an introvert (and don’t even get me started on how inaccessible these things are to wheelchair users!). It’s not that I don’t understand the advice that mainstream books are offering, it’s that they tend to offer strategies that play to strengths that I don’t have, and don’t offer ways to use strengths that I do have. It’s like a human reading a book on swimming that’s aimed at seals – we can do it, we just can’t do it the way that seals do!

In case anyone’s interested, here are a few of my strategies. Some elements are pretty common strategies for these things, but others are sort of idiosyncratic:

  1. Psych self up beforehand. Mentally rehearse what I will do upon arriving at the event, ways I’ll cope with anticipated issues, people I want to say hi to, things I’ll try to talk to them about.
  2. Unless I end up in a conversation immediately upon entering, I go more or less straight for the food and drinks. Having a goal in mind helps me to deal with the sudden sensory overload. Here is where it’s important to have already scanned the room beforehand, because while traveling to the food and drinks you still have to be able to keep head up in case people are trying to get your attention. I do stop and talk to people if they say hi while I’m on my way to the hors d’oeuvres, but once conversation slows down I just mention I’m on my way to get the food and excuse myself, giving them an opportunity to either come with me or not.
  3. #2 is particularly helpful because my favorite time to start conversations is in the food and drink lines. I’m dealing with a more limited number of people and there’s a more limited set of places they can be, constant eye contact is not expected, and the process of getting food can serve as a conversation starter (“What are these? Oh, those look good! Did you like those? I’ll have to try some. What’s your name? Where do you work?”).
  4. Once I get my food and drinks, I like to find a table to sit at (or stand at, if it’s one of those places with standing-height tables). This is not what most people do – they usually like to stand and mingle. But I’m at my best while sitting. Sitting allows me to stop juggling my food and drinks and somehow makes it easier to deal with the noise, making it easier to hear and attend to what people are saying. It does usually mean that I will not end up talking to as many people, but the quality of the conversations will be much better, so it is all overall worth it.
  5. When locating a place to sit, the ideal table is one with a few people I know and a few people I don’t know. Two to five people is best for me – it’s manageable, but ensures that there is already a conversation going when I sit down and that I can move on to talking to  Person #2 when your conversation with Person #1 dies down.
  6. I talk shop. I’m sure this may not be the best way to reach some people, but fortunately, there are a whole lot of people out there who will be way more impressed by someone who talks shop intelligently than people who make scintillating small talk. Once you’ve established that you’ve met some minimum threshold requirement of pleasantness, extra pleasantness is no longer particularly important, so focus the rest of your energy on appearing intelligent. Talking shop doesn’t necessarily mean droning on and on about what you do; it can (and should!) also mean asking intelligent questions about what the other person does and showing real interest in their response. In fact, I try to talk to people more about what they do than what I do, unless they seem extra interested in my work for some reason. I’ve really hit it off with some people at networking events this way!
  7. Dressing well, with only one or two “interesting” accessories, actually helps a great deal (obviously this advice is a bit gendered, but I imagine that it translates to the men to some extent as well). I actually think this step is more important for people with social issues than it is for people without social issues. Although knowing exactly how to dress for a given event can be difficult for a lot of Autistic people, but I’ve pretty much gotten the hang of how to dress for these things (thanks, Corporette!), and it’s the most effective thing that I can do in advance to make things go more easily for me once I get there. My perceived social skills are about 150% better when I actually bother with jewelry, makeup, and a well-put-together ensemble (with real  attention to both detail and gestalt effects, like choosing earrings to match one of the colors in the outfit) as opposed to just something acceptable (“some suit or skirt plus some shirt that kinda goes with it”). People smile more and are more friendly, making it easier to keep a conversation going and alleviating anxiety; even when I have a semi-visible tic, they actually seem less likely to notice if I otherwise look very professional. Plus, having one or two interesting accessories can help start conversations (but having too many appears to start more conversations about you than with you).
  8. Despite #7, I avoid clothing that is uncomfortable or shoes that are hard to balance on if it will interfere with my ability to talk to people effectively. I never wear things that are itchy or uncomfortable no matter how good they look, because they will be distracting and make me shift around awkwardly. I often err on the side of nice flats or chunky, low heels because the advantage of wearing stiletto heels (which are the norm, apparently) is completely outweighed by the potential embarrassment of falling down. People respect women who dress practically; nobody actually seems to notice or cares that I’m not wearing heels, and if they do notice they tend to assume that I have a good reason (such as a medical issue that prevents me from wearing heels) and consider me sensible for prioritizing health over fashion.
  9. I force myself to follow up and email people whose contact information I got, just to say that I was happy to meet them and hope to see them again sometime. This can be hard, but it’s important to people. It lets them know that “let’s keep in touch” was not just something you said to be polite as you left the conversation.

What do you do? Have you read any books on this that are helpful? I think it would be great to compile a resource on networking and other professional tips for those of us who have a hard time with this sort of thing. Not the sort of tips that explain in great detail what the “rules” are (although that can be valuable to people as well, I can usually figure out the rules by reading mainstream materials on the topic), but actual ways to compensate for weaknesses and play up strengths.


Filed under Being Weird, Practicing Law While Weird