Category Archives: Practicing Law While Weird

If you really care about mental health…

I’ve been thinking a lot about disability in the wake of the recent school shooting in Connecticut. I am sad that so many people’s reaction is to blame mental illness or autism. It especially bothers me when people call for “more services for mental health.” The implicit assumption that mental health problems make people violent, and that mental health services are mainly  there to help protect non-disabled people from those of us with mental illness, actually hurts people with mental illness. These calls for services sound so benevolent that it’s hard to call people out on it. But one of the main barriers to accessing services is stigma. Another barrier to services is the fact that many programs were created in the wake of violent tragedies like this one, which means that they’re (1) coercive, and (2) only available to people who are seen as likely to become violent.

After I posted these thoughts on Facebook, someone asked me which organizations I’d recommend to people who are interested in donating to a mental health/autism advocacy organization that focuses on actually helping people with disabilities AND helps oppose stigma and discrimination. Here’s a short list of organizations I’ve actually worked with and would wholeheartedly endorse:

  1. Autistic Self Advocacy Network. Run by and for Autistic people, this organization has proven amazingly effective at advocating for policies that improve services AND decrease segregation and discrimination against adults and children on the autism spectrum, including people with a wide range of support needs.
  2. Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law. This organization focuses on the rights people with psychiatric disabilities and has been doing great work advocating for children with serious behavioral needs. They help fight discrimination and advocate for supports and services to help people remain in the community.
  3. Trauma and Learning Policy Initiative. This project of Massachusetts Advocates for Children focuses on helping children who have experienced trauma (such as the children who were affected by the school shooting). They focus on improving teachers’ understanding of the emotional effects of trauma and helping schools become “trauma-sensitive environments.” This helps traumatized children stay in mainstream school environments where they have a better chance of academic success and long-term recovery. Although they’re a project of Massachusetts Advocates for Children, they do nationwide public education and advocacy to help children across the country succeed in school. This is a really small project and it gets limited publicity, but it does a lot of good.
 I intend to post something more personal about this issue today or tomorrow. But it’s hard to write, and I figured in the meantime it would be good to offer people some options for advocacy/donations if they were interested.

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Filed under Children's Rights, Disabilities, Health Care, Practicing Law While Weird, The Law as Applied to Weird People & Situations, Uncategorized

BigLaw

I never got around to mentioning it on this blog, but a few months ago I took a dive into the world of “BigLaw” (i.e., large, for-profit law firms). My fellowship at the mental health law nonprofit came to an end, and, seeking more litigation experience, I landed a job at a global law firm in an office that focuses largely on patent law (I purposefully avoided law firms doing disability law, as they’re usually on the side of corporations defending against discrimination claims,  which would in many circumstances make me uncomfortable).

It’s been an awesome experience so far, and a bit of a culture shock. I’m certainly not “out” at this new place, as I’d like to give people the opportunity to come to their own conclusions about me and my skills before I disclose a disability (when disclosing, there’s always the risk that people will interpret every mistake you make or every quirk you have as a “symptom” and come to negative conclusions). Being in the closet requires a certain amount of complex maneuvering, which so far has included: (1) disclosing single aspects of my disability without disclosing the actual full diagnosis; (2) taking decompression breaks in my office with the door closed, which luckily most people interpret as me being really busy; (3) coming up with really creative sensory toys that “pass” as athletic equipment or normal desk toys or jewelry (I even have started a tumblr blog about this, Sensory Squids).

That said, patent litigation is really fun. I’m a bit of an autistic stereotype in that I greatly enjoy math and technology, and many of the other lawyers have advanced degrees in science and are therefore used to dealing with geeks even if they aren’t geeks themselves.

So with that, I give you perhaps the most ridiculous patent ever granted:

Method of swinging on a swing.

I’m pretty sure what happened here is that a patent lawyer was very amused by his child’s innovative technique of swinging on the swingset, and decided to try to patent it. The fact that this patent was awarded is truly amazing. I wonder how they’d ever collect royalties on it.

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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?

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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.

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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.

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Fixating

I know that the ability to get really absorbed in a topic of interest can be adaptive and that non-Autistic people tend to exaggerate how problematic our interests are, but…

I actually kinda hate my episodes of hyperfocus. I don’t like how they feel. I lose track of time and my daily obligations. I don’t eat when I should. I can’t attend to the things that I actually have to attend to. I have a really hard time carrying a conversation during these periods because I can’t attend to what the other person is saying unless it’s about the thing I’m focused on.

Admiral Ackbar: "It's a Trap!"

Admiral Ackbar says "It's a Trap!"

I don’t like that there is so little middle ground, for me, between “not paying attention” and “trapped in episode of laser-like focus.” I hate that all the ADHD medications I’ve tried simply make me more likely to end up on the “laser-like focus” end of the spectrum, without actually widening the middle.

I hate hyperfocus episodes so much that I have spent most of my adult life desperately trying to avoid things that I’m too interested in, unless those interests are somehow “useful.” I avoid looking at or touching jigsaw puzzles. I refuse to ever even try MMORPGs because I am afraid of how long I’ll spend playing them. I am pretty obsessed with a particular singer, Morrissey, but when a friend of mine gave me a book about him I had to put it down only a little bit in because it was interfering with my ability to think about anything else. I refuse to pick it back up, ever again.

I like my most recent blog post, but I hate that I just spent four hours writing it.  I didn’t have anything else that I needed to do today, but it’s not what I wanted to do all day, and I hate sitting in a chair for that long when I don’t have to.

I understand that my hyperfocus can be adaptive – I can sometimes switch them on on purpose, which has helped me do well in school – but I would still like to have more control over it. I sometimes find myself procrastinating on tasks because I know they’ll trigger my hyperfocus and therefore take too long and I don’t have that much time. I avoid things that I like for the same reason. One of my biggest challenges at work is increasing my ability to write things quickly and concisely, and increasing my ability to switch back and forth between tasks. I’ve actually gotten pretty good at it, but today seems to have been a “bad day,” and that is frustrating.

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Social Psychologist Admits Faking Results

Diederik Stapel, a prominent Dutch social psychologist, has  admitted to fabricating data for dozens of published studies, as has been reported by New Scientist and Nature.

The full report on the extent of Stapel’s fraud is in Dutch, so I can’t tell exactly which findings of his were tainted; nevertheless, according to New Scientist, at least one of the affected studies includes a widely reported one finding that disorder in a person’s environment exacerbates racial stereotypes. I first read about this study when it was picked up by the Situationist (“The Disorderly Situation of Stereotyping“); others may have read about it at i09 (“Urban Decay Causes Ethnic Prejudice“).

Given the usual state of the desks of most public interest lawyers – including mine – I guess I’m pretty thankful that these results were fabricated. I’m also thankful that the damage to the field of social psychology from this one person’s fraud is probably not too severe (according to the Nature article linked above, Stapel wasn’t yet sufficiently prominent that his work appeared in major social psychology textbooks, although he was widely cited and worked with a lot of people in his field).

Still, I’m concerned that this was not an isolated incident. To me, the fact that the extent of this this fraud (in terms of the number of papers affected) exceeded that of other similar incidents in other fields (New Scientist mentions similar incidents in electronics and cancer research) just means that the field of social psychology took longer to catch on than the fields of cancer and electronics research did. If your fraud detection system is not too robust, then for every fraud you do detect there are probably numerous frauds that you haven’t yet noticed.

This is especially problematic to me because, if you’re interested in legal systems design, social psychology is the most pervasively relevant field of scientific inquiry. Judges and policymakers almost always base their decisions on how to structure legal systems at least in part on how they think people will behave in response to that structure. However, people’s intuitions about how they, or others, will act in response to any given situation are often dead wrong (see, for example, my recent post about institutional abuse). When practiced responsibly, social psychology can give policymakers a better understanding of the likely effects that their policies will have on people’s actual behavior.

And on a more personal note, as an Autistic person, I’ve used cognitive and social psychology research to get a better understanding of how people work – frequently a much better understanding of how people work than you can get from someone trying to explain their own feelings and behavior through introspection. Luckily, “people get more bigoted when the room is messy” was never a big part of my model of  human behavior, and the parts of my model that are most significant (such as an understanding of social signaling and people’s tendency to understand themselves in terms of their intentions while understanding others in terms of their actions) are pretty well-established and widely replicated.

None of this can work if a significant portion of social psychology data are downright fabricated. It’s hard enough to deal with the pervasive over- and misinterpretation of results that actually exist (I’ll save this for a later post; in the meantime, you might want to check out the critiques of autism research over at the Autism and Empathy Blog to see an example of what I’m talking about). But people can critique studies for over-/misinterpretation just by reading them and observing that the experimental design and results lack conceptual validity. Since most studies don’t include raw data reports, and it’s hard to recognize fabricated data just by looking at a scatter plot, people have to just take on faith that the experimenters aren’t downright lying about what they did during the course of the experiment and what happened as a result.

I hope I’m overreacting, but it seems to me that the field is going to have to fundamentally change its peer review process to prevent this type of fraud from happening. They’re going to have to insist on reviewing not just a thorough description of how experimenters collected and analyzed their data, but also the raw data themselves, right down to any forms or computer programs used to collect it. They’ve got to put more of an emphasis on replicating results in different labs, with different researchers. They might even have to have random visits by the Institutional Review Board to the actual sites on which experiments are purportedly being held to make sure that they’re actually conducting them. It’s going to add a lot of paperwork, and it’s going to be a huge pain, but I can’t really see another option.

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I’m very high-functioning

Although I think of myself as having a single, neurologically-based disability with a variety of manifestations, I’ve collected a variety of different diagnoses.

The first one I remember receiving was “Tic Disorder NOS” in high school, after my parents finally brought me to a neurologist for my neck tics (which were the inspiration for my current pseudonym and were severe enough that I now have degenerative disc disorder in my neck, although they’re currently well-managed with medication).

I came back to the same neurologist in college, complaining that I was still having issues with compulsive skin-picking and hair-pulling and that I would occasionally get “stuck” in certain activities for hours even when I had other things to do. That earned me a diagnosis of OCD.

Parents and educators had been trying to get me evaluated for ADHD since at least middle school, and I rather clearly had it, but I refused to submit to an evaluation or take medication until law school, when many of my academic self-accommodation strategies (such as participating extensively in class to keep my mind from wandering) stopped being available. Finally, in Spring 2008, I finally caved and went to a neuropsychologist to be evaluated for ADHD. I also suspected Asperger’s by that point, and told them to the evaluator, including a pretty comprehensive description of what I was like as a child. She agreed, and diagnosed me with both ADHD and Asperger’s.

When I mention pretty much any of my diagnoses other than Asperger’s, people mostly just nod and accept it. Of course it’s possible to be a successful human being and also have ADHD, OCD, or tics. But whenever I mention the Asperger’s diagnosis, the response is frequently something along the lines of “really?”, “I find that hard to believe,” or “maybe, but it’s very mild.” After all I have excelled academically and have a job at which I’m competent, and not even as a scientist or programmer or one of those other jobs that people on the autism spectrum are supposed to be especially good at. How can you even BE a lawyer and have Asperger’s?

This sort of response is exactly why I haven’t explicitly disclosed this diagnosis to more than two people whom I know professionally. I want people to perceive me as a competent employee or co-worker, so I can’t exactly respond to their skepticism by listing all of the things I can’t do or have significant trouble doing. I’ve spent years learning essential career skills, often to the exclusion of general life skills, and consider myself highly competent at activities relevant to my work performance. But if I start listing all of the non-work things that I have trouble doing, there’s always the risk that someone will have a hard time believing that I can’t do those things but can still work.

Discussions about social skills are particularly problematic. The main symptom that people associate with Asperger’s Syndrome is serious social deficit – the stereotype is of a person who absolutely can’t understand the feelings of others and is constantly committing social faux pas and ranting about boring topics. However, I actually think that, when you define “social skills” appropriately, I now have at least average social skills and higher-than-average social self-awareness. Although I had serious social problems in childhood, my usual response to those problems was to spend tons of energy trying to figure out what I was doing wrong and fix it. I read books on human behavior, studied psychology, and pestered my friends for detailed analyses of their feelings.

When people describe me as “high-functioning” and doubt my Asperger’s diagnosis, they’re usually thinking mainly of my ability to carry on a natural-seeming conversation for a short period of time, including making eye contact and reading facial expressions. It pleases me that they think I’m good at this, since I worked hard at that skill, and I have absolutely no interest in convincing them that I am actually less socially skilled than they think I am. At the same time, there’s usually a reason that I told them that I had Asperger’s, so simply letting them believe that I don’t – or that its effects on me are negligible – is not an acceptable option.

So far, I’ve settled into the habit of saying something along the lines of “thank you, I worked hard on that skill, and actually Asperger’s involves a range of sensory and attentional differences aside from social conversations. In fact, I was mainly mentioning my Asperger’s diagnosis to explain xyz,” where xyz is usually a past experience, a sensory or attentional issue that I’d like to be acknowledged or accommodated, or a very specific “social” issue such as my extreme difficulty remembering people’s names or faces (incidentally, I do recognize faces well enough to tell that I have met someone before, but I have difficulty remembering their name or where I’ve met them and frequently have to “reconstruct” this information from contextual cues. I would rather people know that this is a neurological issue than think I don’t care about them enough to remember them).

I have to say, even this hasn’t entirely worked. I am even in a bit of a war with my cognitive-behavioral therapist (whom I see to treat my social anxiety and compulsive skin-picking) on whether my Asperger’s diagnosis is even relevant to my treatment. And I’m constantly worrying that my one co-worker who knows I have Asperger’s is now underestimating my social skills and judgment. I desperately wish that I could tell some friendly colleagues about my diagnosis so that they can give me advice about networking, which is a significant lacuna in my social skills repertoire and has the potential to dramatically interfere with my career (I am currently looking for a new job), but it seems like a dangerous move.

The world needs more professionals who are open about being on the autism spectrum. I know I am not the only Aspie in the legal profession – I am pretty sure I wasn’t even the only one in my law school graduating class (not by far). As far as I can tell, this is the only way to make the profession (and other similar professions) a bit more friendly to people on the spectrum, and I can’t exactly count on others to do what I’m too scared to do myself. Someone has to blaze a trail. But being an autistic trailblazer, especially early in my career before I’m well-established, is daunting. Even if I’m socially “high-functioning,” disclosing a disability – especially one as stigmatized as autism spectrum disorder – is a minefield even for people who are highly socially competent. I hope that talking about it here will help me sort through how to act, what to say, and what to expect.

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