Category Archives: Uncategorized

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.

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

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

Autism Speaks held an Autism Law Summit in DC the other day.

And they didn’t invite ME, the world’s greatest autistic attorney???? I am SHOCKED.

Autistic Hoya, though, has a good post on important aspects of “Autism Law” that didn’t get covered.

Although I do believe that mental health/DD parity in health insurance coverage is extremely important, focusing exclusively on coverage of a particular type of therapy – and particularly one that’s denounced by so many autistic individuals who have grown to adulthood – is short-sighted. Even if Applied Behavioral Analysis helps some people, it’s not the only thing that helps (Floortime, for one), and the odds are quite high that any “state of the art” intervention will at some later point be shoved aside in favor of something else. 

Laws take forever to pass and even longer to change or repeal; they need to be designed to stay reasonable even when other circumstances have changed. The types of laws on which Autistic Hoya focuses (and on which I focus) – antidiscrimination laws – are pretty good at this. What counts as a reasonable accommodation under the ADA, or a free and appropriate publication under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, is open to reinterpretation and change as technologies and best practices evolve. The original version of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act – the Education for All Handicapped Children Act – was enacted in 1975, long before the average school even had anything that could fairly be called a computer. Now, schools might be required to allow a child to use an iPad as a form of assistive communication.

I could go on, but I don’t want to spoil the amazing talk that I’m going to give at the next Autism Law Summit. To which I will assuredly be invited. 

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Ableist Attorneys

I work at a national disability rights legal nonprofit, so I get a lot of calls from people with psychosocial, developmental, and/or intellectual disabilities who need legal help. Unfortunately, because we only have one office and there are restrictions on practicing law out of state, nearly all of the work that we do in other states has to be in partnership with local lawyers. As a result, we generally can’t get involved in someone’s case unless they’re already represented (and usually can’t get involved even then, just due to resources issues).

When I can’t help a caller directly, I usually try to refer him or her to local advocacy organizations. Each state has at least one Protection and Advocacy organization that represents people with disabilities in some kinds of cases (like institutionalization, abuse and neglect, and housing discrimination), and some sort of legal services organization intended to help people with non-disability-specific issues such as criminal matters, family law, or bankruptcy. Many states also have other nonprofits dedicated to representing people with disabilities as well.

These organizations play an important role and help lots of people, but I still all too often see situations in which people who really need legal help get turned down by the local nonprofits because they’re “difficult.” A potential client is “difficult” if she (and I really mean “she” – 90% of the people I’ve seen get labeled this way are women) is hard to keep on task, if she is “emotional” and gets upset easily, if it’s hard to explain to her what’s going on and what she needs to do, or if she has “too many problems.” Or if it’s someone who wants to complain about a previous psychiatric hospitalization – one that actually was manifestly unwarranted because they weren’t a danger to self or others – and who doesn’t believe she has a disability and doesn’t want to take meds.

It’s bad enough when general legal aid organizations refuse to take these clients, but it’s even worse when the culprits are places that are supposedly devoted to representing people with physical or mental disabilities. If you don’t want to work with people who are hard to communicate with, have “bad judgment,” or are otherwise high-maintenance, don’t go work for an organization devoted to representing people with intellectual, developmental, or psychosocial disabilities. Honestly, don’t even go into legal aid services at all. When your organization functions as a legal safety net, you don’t get to cherry-pick your clients.

This isn’t to say that every single person with an intellectual, developmental, or psychosocial disability is hard to communicate or work with. But those whose disabilities do affect their ability to communicate professionally and concisely and with perfectly even emotional tenor, and who do have impulse control issues who do frequently disagree with their doctors are often exactly the people who most need free and respectful legal assistance. They are often people who have nobody on their side and very limited ability to effectively represent themselves. If they’re lucky, they have supportive family members who will interface with attorneys and navigate the system for them – many of the same attorneys who’d turn down a “difficult” client would be perfectly happy to deal with the client’s less-“difficult” family member – but most of the people I talk to aren’t that lucky.

I am generally reluctant to publicly criticize members of my profession, but this is just not okay. Yes, it does take some extra effort to deal with people who need to be frequently redirected or need to have things explained to them multiple times or keep talking about how everyone’s out to get them. But there are plenty of resources available to help legal services lawyers learn how to deal with clients who have communication and comprehension issues as a result of a disability; there’s even a manual on it published by the American Bar Association that is pretty good.

Our legal system will only work if everyone has a real opportunity to enforce their legal rights. And that means everyone.

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Filed under Disabilities, Feminism, The Law as Applied to Weird People & Situations, Uncategorized

The Law of Excuses

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about a particular legal double-bind faced by people with disabilities that affect behavior and, to a certain extent, people in commonly misunderstood situations that affect people’s emotional state (e.g., poverty, abuse, and certain crises of identity). When members of these groups find themselves facing criminal, financial, or disciplinary sanctions for behavior that they feel was related to their disability or situation-induced emotional state, it may be in their interest to seek leniency in light of their disability or situation. On the other hand, because such arguments for leniency are often interpreted by the broader society as confirming stereotypes that members of these groups are unpredictable, incapable of making sound decisions, and even dangerous. These stereotypes, in turn, can perpetuate the group’s exclusion from employment, segregation from the community, and even deprivation of access to their own children.

I actually started thinking about this in the context of the trial of Pfc. Manning, who leaked classified State Department memos to Wikileaks. Defense attorneys cited Manning’s growing discomfort with being perceived as male – discomfort that had been expressed to numerous people, including at least one superior officer – as evidence that Manning was unstable and thus should not have continued to have access to classified materials. (Washington Blade). Understandably, a representative for the National Center for Transgender Equality objected to the suggestion that people in the process of coming out as transgender are inherently unstable and shouldn’t have access to classified materials, arguing that Manning’s gender identity was “totally unrelated” to the leak to Wikileaks.

Here’s another (less recent) example involving autism, since I seem to talk about nothing but autism lately: Reginald Latson, a 17-year-old boy with diagnoses of Asperger’s, ADHD, and Intermittent Explosive Disorder was convicted of assault on a police officer when he fought back (and caused pretty serious injuries) against a police officer who tried to arrest him. His attorneys pled insanity, arguing that the boy’s disabilities, combined with the stress of being forcibly grabbed by the officers (for, as far as I can tell, just being an African-American guy sitting around doing nothing), caused an “irresistible impulse” to fight back (FYI, this kid’s state, Virginia, is one of the few states that allow an insanity plea to be based on the existence of an irresistible impulse. Other states usually require much more severe cognitive impairment such that the defendant doesn’t understand the wrongfulness of their actions).

ThAutcast took issue with both the Washington Post’s reporting on the trial (which implied that violent, explosive behavior was very common among Autistic individuals and which didn’t include an interview with anyone who was actually Autistic), with the suggestion that it was autism that made the defendant attack a police officer, rather than, say, Intermittent Explosive Disorder.

Now, most likely, the reason why they didn’t focus on Intermittent Explosive Disorder either in the defense or in the Washington Post article is because, most likely, you can’t actually base an insanity defense on Intermittent Explosive Disorder. IED, like Oppositional-Defiant Disorder and Antisocial Personality Disorder, is one of those DSM-IV diagnoses that are defined exclusively in terms of the person’s propensity to antisocial behavior (yes, I’m citing Wikipedia, but you can also check the DSM-IV if you have access to it), without any particular regard to the person’s capacity to inhibit it or the underlying root of the behavior (other than that it can’t be due to other disorders like ADHD or Alzheimer’s). To courts, an insanity defense based on IED sounds a lot like saying “I’m not responsible for going off on that cop because I go off on people all the time.”

ADHD and Autism, on the other hand, are particularly fruitful sources of an “irresistible impulse” defense, because both are known to affect individuals’ capacity for emotional regulation in at least some situations, and emotional regulation is (in most people) a key component of self-control. It’s something that I and many disability advocates don’t like to acknowledge because we don’t want to contribute to people’s unreasonable fears, but it’s something that can’t be totally ignored. To do so would be a disservice to people with disabilities who are more likely to come into contact with the criminal justice system – for example, African-American teenaged boys like Latson – and who may not be able to meet the expectations police officers have for how a “non-criminal” would act when confronted by the police (i.e. – verbally and physically compliant even when subjected to rough physical force by the police officer). As ThAutcast has suggested, it’s perfectly plausible that the defendant in this case lashed out, not because his Asperger’s made him particularly aggressive, but because his Asperger’s made him totally panic when he was unexpectedly confronted and pushed around by a police officer.

Going back to Manning, I wonder if anyone would bat an eye if, instead of being transgender, Manning had been in the process of losing a job or becoming estranged from family and had cited these as sources of emotional instability. Both of these are pretty distressing in and of themselves, and, judging from conversations that Manning had with the person who eventually tipped off the police, Manning potentially faced both of these as consequences of coming out as transgender. Some people might say that potential job loss and family issues are not good excuses for Manning’s behavior, but few would fear that such a defense was maligning all people who faced job loss or estrangement from family.

Perhaps such attempts to “normalize” requests for leniency, by phrasing them as similar to more commonly understood phenomena such as feeling threatened or feeling overwhelmed by a difficult life situation, are the best way to reconcile the need for leniency and the need for acceptance.

For example, instead of forcing people with mental disabilities to use the “insanity defense” when they act out of a perceived need for self-defense, we actually gave them access to a modified “self-defense” plea that required only that they sincerely feel that they are in danger, and that this feeling be reasonable for a person with that disability? Similarly, what if, instead of focusing on Manning’s gender identity itself, defense attorneys had focused on the consequences that Manning anticipated as a result of coming out as transgender, many of which would, in and of themselves, cause most people serious distress? Would these arguments still risk encouraging stereotypes that members of these groups are inherently unpredictable or unstable?

These are all just initial thoughts; this issue probably deserves a much longer post. But it’s an interesting question to me and I wanted to bounce it off of people.

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Filed under Crime and Punishment, Disabilities, LGBT Issues, Race, The Law as Applied to Weird People & Situations, Uncategorized

People-First Language

This is my first entry using Dragon NaturallySpeaking. My apologies for any dictation errors that I don’t catch – if you catch any, please alert me in the comments.

Since I’ve started reading Autistic blogs, I’ve been surprised by how many posts people have written about people-first language (most recently Autistic Hoya‘s and Kassiane‘s posts). Autistic individuals prefer “Autistic people,” in contrast to most parents of Autistic individuals, who prefer “people with autism.”

It’s not that I’m surprised that self-advocates would take issue with the terminology that other people use to refer to them. This is pretty common among minority rights movements, including disability rights movements. What’s interesting is that the Autistic community has come out on the exact opposite side of the “people-first” debate than almost every other disability community.

I have been a disability rights self-advocate longer than I have been an Autistic self-advocate and have done a lot of cross-disability work, and have found that most people with mental health disabilities, mobility impairments, learning disabilities, intellectual disabilities, and other neurological disabilities generally use people-first language, and many – especially people with psychiatric and intellectual disabilities – find any other kind of language offensive. Prominent cross-disability organizations such as AAPD (which has a good history of having people with disabilities in decision-making positions), use people-first language. In fact, people-first language was initially spearheaded by self-advocates with intellectual disabilities, as is described here. Of course, no community speaks with a single voice on this or any other topic, but there does seem to be an overall consensus here. So far, the only disability communities that I have seen that actively reject people-first language are the Deaf community, Autistic community, and some parts of the Blind community (generally, the NFB hates people-first language, and the ACB apparently supports it but seems not to actually ever use it; both organizations are headed by Blind individuals, but they almost never agree on anything).

This is not to imply that the Autistic community is somehow wrong about the terminology that it wants to use. But it does mean that this isn’t just about a bunch of “allies” who think they know better than Autistic individuals what terms to use. They got the idea from other people with disabilities who strenuously and consistently object to the use of any terminology other than “people-first.” I’m not defending any particular person, but you can sort of understand how it would be confusing for people to hear different groups of disability self-advocates making diametrically opposing demands on what language to use.

This confusion can be pretty easily resolved by simply concluding (as I have) that the correct approach is to assume that, to the extent that there appears to be a mainstream consensus within a community of people with disabilities, that community is correct about the language that is most respectful. Thus, when speaking generally, we should say “Deaf people,” “people with mental illness,” “Blind people,” “people with intellectual disabilities,” “Autistic people,” “people with Tourette’s Syndrome,” etc. (Moreover, if one encounters an “outlier,” their choice should also be respected; if someone makes known that they want to be called a “person with ASD,” then call them that when talking to or about them.)

It would help, though, if we could come up with some sort of coherent explanation for why the Autistic, Blind, and Deaf communities come out differently from other disability communities. Assuming that each group is actually correct about which language makes them feel respected as human beings, why does “intellectually disabled person” offend people with intellectual disability and “person with autism” offend Autistic people? If Autistic people’s interpretation of “people-first” language is to be believed, you’d think that people with intellectual and psychiatric disabilities really like thinking of their disability as an unfortunate, incidental affliction that should be ignored where possible; if people with intellectual disabilities’ interpretation of “disability-first” language is to be believed, you’d think that Autistic, Blind, and Deaf people don’t really think of themselves as people and really want to be seen as only Autistic/Blind/Deaf without any other relevant features. I doubt either is (entirely) true. What’s the actual difference at work here?

I am sure that I’m not the first person to ask this question, but in the limited time that I’ve been reading Autism blogs I haven’t seen any accounts of this phenomenon that, in my opinion, actually explain it.

One proposal, for example, is that other disabilities are acquired later in life, and the people with those disabilities have a sense of who they are “without” that disability and may even hope to be cured. But this doesn’t describe all of the disability groups that prefer people-first language: most people with intellectual disabilities have had their intellectual disability all their lives, and all of the self-advocacy organizations of people with intellectual disabilities that I’ve seen focus entirely on access, self-determination, and independent living, not on “curing” intellectual disability. In fact, very few disability rights organizations say anything about “cure,” especially if they’re controlled by actual people with disabilities (notable exceptions include disabilities that have the potential to be fatal, like diabetes and cancer, and disabilities that are extremely unpleasant to have, like depression). And many Blind and Deaf individuals acquired their disabilities later in life, yet those communities tend to reject people-first language. So overall, whether a disability is late-onset and whether people with that disability want to be “cured” seem not to be correlated with whether people with that disability like people-first language.

Another theory is that, unlike other disabilities, Autism is inseparable from one’s identity. It’s true that people with disabilities who are advocates of people-first language do tend to say things like “we are people first and our disabilities come second,” thus implying that they are somehow separable from their disabilities. Yet it’s not entirely intuitive which people will argue that they’re separable from their disabilities and which will argue that they aren’t. For example, intellectual disabilities intrinsically affect how people think and are present from birth; however, people with intellectual disabilities started the people-first movement and frequently see their disabilities as a secondary part of who they are. On the other hand, deafness is often acquired later in life and has no direct effect on the brain, but many Deaf people will say that Deafness is a core element of their identity, in large part because the Deaf community has its own language and culture. The National Federation of the Blind, for its part, doesn’t seem to have an opinion on whether blindness is a part of someone’s personality and mostly just thinks “people-first” language is gimmicky and pointless.

It may also help to look at terminology in its historical context. In my experience, the communities that focus most on people-first language are the intellectual and psychiatric disability communities, so it’s reasonable to conclude that there’s something about the experience of having those particular disabilities that makes people-first language particularly appealing. (There is also a rather strong cross-disability opposition to the use of mass nouns (such as “the disabled”) and adjectives-as-nouns (e.g., “quadriplegics,” as opposed to “wheelchair users” or “people with mobility impairments”) (here again, the Autistic community is pretty much an outlier in their general acceptance of the term “Autistics”).)

Many people with psychiatric and intellectual disabilities – including myself – are particularly concerned about is the fact that, once you were labeled as “a schizophrenic,” “retarded,” or “mentally ill,” it was assumed that every opinion or desire you expressed was simply a product of your mental disability and therefore invalid. Linguistically separating the disability from the person through people-first language seems aimed at undermining this assumption. So it’s not that intellectual/psychiatric disabilities don’t influence how you feel and think – by definition they do – it’s that people feel the need to minimize this fact in order to be seen as having valid feelings and opinions.

Of course, the Autistic community experiences the exact same problem: people are constantly ignoring Autistic people’s opinions and feelings based on the fact that they’re Autistic. But for one reason or another, the Autistic community seems to be fine with saying “of course I only think that/want that/feel that way because I’m Autistic. So?” while people with psychiatric and intellectual disabilities have a harder time challenging the idea that their disability is about not understanding things, thinking things that aren’t true, and feeling things that aren’t appropriate (the notable exceptions, such as MindFreedom International, also tend not to use people-first language, preferring terms such as “Mad” or “psychiatric survivor”).

This is more or less borne out by my experience as someone on the autism spectrum who also has been diagnosed with psychiatric disabilities. My OCD diagnosis is based on many of the same things – love of repetition, distress on being interrupted, and need to move about in order to think -that underlie my identity as Autistic. Regardless of whether you consider them “OCD traits” or “Autistic traits,” they’re just as much a part of my personality.  And I still identify as having OCD and being part of the psychiatric disability community, based in part on those traits. But I hate being called “mentally ill” as opposed to “a person with a mental illness/psychiatric disability,” because I feel like it automatically devalues my feelings and opinions.

But still… why, given the fact that people devalue the opinions of Autistic people as well, does it feel awful to be called “mentally ill” and not “Autistic”? It may be relevant that while almost everyone – with or without a psychiatric/intellectual disability – has the experience of being called “retarded” or “crazy” by someone who didn’t want to listen to what they had to say, it’s much less common for the ideas of non-Autistic people to be casually labeled as “autistic” by people who don’t like what they think (one exception that I’ve seen is people’s use of the term “autistic economics” to refer to economics that doesn’t take into account economic actors’ feelings and experiences). But I’m not sure that’s the whole difference.

I really want to see what other people think about this, particularly people who prefer people-first language for some or all of their own disabilities. What makes people-first language preferable in some contexts but not in others?

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More on Misinterpretation of Social Psychology

I sort of briefly mentioned in my last post how people (including the researchers themselves) tend to misinterpret social psychology. Here’s a pretty good (and only tangentially autism-related) example:

Researchers at the University of Nebraska recruited seventy-two undergrads to participate in a study. The undergrads were told to look at a little picture of a face at the center of the computer screen and not move their eyes from that point. Periodically, a little black circle would appear either to the right or to the left of the face, and the undergrads were told to press the spacebar as soon as they saw the circle. The eyes in the face randomly alternated between looking to the right and looking to the left, but the undergrads were told that the direction of the eye gaze was completely unrelated to where the circle would appear.

After this test, the undergrads were given two questionnaires designed to elicit information about the subjects’ political beliefs. The questionnaires asked the students for their opinions about abortion, gay marriage, and statements like “it is better to follow authority or it is better to question authority.” Students were also asked to identify themselves as either liberal or conservative. The researchers used an algorithm to rank students along a liberal-conservative axis based on their answers to these questions, then put the most “liberal” half into the “liberal” category and put the most conservative half into the “conservative” category.

Then the researchers performed a statistical analysis examining how the response time (how long it took the students to press the spacebar after the circle appeared on the screen) was related to the direction of the cartoon face’s eye gaze and the students’ political beliefs. They found that, overall, students were faster at detecting the circle when the face was looking in the circle’s direction than when the face was looking away from the circle; this makes sense since people generally instinctively follow eye gaze (even when, as in this case, they are explicitly told not to and that the eye gaze is irrelevant). However, they also found that people categorized as conservatives were much less influenced by the eye gaze of the cartoon face than liberals were; in fact, they showed no statistically significant delay in seeing the target when the face was looking away from it.

This is a neat result, and – assuming that the data aren’t falsified – there’s clearly something going on there. But scientific experiments are really only as useful as the theory that explains their results; otherwise, all you know is the not-very-useful fact that students at the University of Nebraska who respond a certain way to a questionnaire are more or less likely to be influenced by the eye gaze of a cartoon – which they were told was irrelevant – when trying to detect a circle on a screen. We’d like to be able to say that this says something about how one’s political orientation influences your thinking, or vice-versa.

In this case, the researchers suggested that conservatives’ ability to ignore eye gaze (and, since they were explicitly told that eye gaze was irrelevant to their task, I’m going to call this “ability to ignore eye gaze” rather than “failure to follow eye gaze”) was evidence of their “individualist” temperaments (interestingly, they considered the possibility that conservatives may have had more autistic traits overall than liberals, since Autistic individuals tend not to have as strong an instinct to follow eye gaze, but rejected this because there were more women on the conservative side than men and men are more likely to show “autistic traits” than women!). They concluded this even though:

  1. As noted above, the subjects were explicitly told that the eye gaze was irrelevant, so it’s not like they simply chose to ignore it on their own;
  2. The researchers cited absolutely no evidence that conservatives were more “individualist” than liberals, other than the fact that conservatives are more likely to like Ayn Rand;
  3. They didn’t include, in the experiment, any questionnaire designed to directly detect individualism; and
  4. In two of the three items in the questionnaires that are explicitly mentioned in the paper, the “conservative” answer is not the more “individualist” answer but rather the one that affirms the importance of prevailing social norms (for example, I can’t think of an “individualist” reason to oppose gay marriage, and I’m guessing that the “conservative”-coded response to “it is better to follow authority or it is better to question authority” was “yes”). For the third question they mention, which concerned respondents’ feelings about abortion, you can at least imagine a person giving the “conservative” answer on individualist grounds (for example, that the fetus is an individual with rights), but the “liberal” answer is just as likely, if not more, to be based on individualist thinking as well.

Overall, it just baffles me that anyone would try to explain this sort of experimental result based on the supposed “individualism” of one group of people even when part of what got them placed into that group is their anti-individualistic responses to a political questionnaire. Based on my read of the study, it’s just as likely that “conservatives” were able to ignore eye gaze because they were less individualist: they heard the researcher (an authority figure) tell them that eye gaze was irrelevant, and they believed it, so they ignored eye gaze.

Or you could conclude that conservatives have more self-control when it comes to following directions than liberals do. Or, if you wanted to go way out there, it’s even possible that this effect actually does have something to do with where people fall on the autism spectrum: maybe in Nebraska, autism doesn’t correlate with political beliefs among men, but does correlate with political beliefs among women, such that all of the women with autistic traits affecting gaze following were clustered in the “conservative” category and threw off the results. This seems pretty unlikely to me, but it wouldn’t surprise me if someone found it plausible.

Hopefully I’m not the only person who find these researchers’ proposed explanation pretty weak. The paper that the University of Nebraska published on its web site (“The Politics of Attention: Gaze cuing effects are moderated by political temperament” (text-encoded PDF)) appears not to have been published in a peer-reviewed journal yet, and it’s possible that peer reviewers would make them tone down their conclusions before publishing. Nevertheless, it’s not unlikely that the researchers deliberately publicized their findings before going through peer review so that they could come up with an “exciting” spin on their findings and get publicity from popular science bloggers (see, e.g., i09‘s post about this).  These days you don’t even have to get peer reviewed before going to the news with overblown descriptions of your research findings.

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