Tag Archives: Autism

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.


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


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.


Filed under Admin, Practicing Law While Weird

Bankruptcy court overlooks predatory lending, discharges student loans based on debtor’s autism instead.

On May 17 in Todd v. Access Group, Judge Robert Gordon of the Bankruptcy Court for the District of Maryland issued one of the most offensive (despite being ostensibly benevolent) decisions I’ve seen in a while, in which he forgave a woman’s massive student loan debt in light of her Asperger’s Syndrome.

I can’t quarrel with the overall outcome. This woman had amassed over $300,000 in student loan debt that she couldn’t possibly repay. She had started amassing the debt pursuant to her Rehabilitation Plan at 39, having never held a long-term job in her entire life. While education is often helpful, it’s unclear why Rehab Sevices would encourage a woman who’d never held a job in her life to go to law school, a profession that has a remarkably poor employment rate and high debt load, then drop out of law school and get a masters degree from some random place and then a PhD from an unaccredited online university, is just beyond me. All of these seemed practically calculated to saddle this woman with high student loan debt in return for utterly worthless degrees and no prospect for post-graduation employment. And, indeed, the debtor had not gotten a single job despite getting a Masters and a “PhD.” This is student loan abuse and ANYONE in a similar situation should have their student debt forgiven.

In addition, it appears that Ms. Todd lost many of the supports that had made her few past employment experiences possible. Despite having a significant disability that made it difficult to live independently, she received no housing support, no vocational supports beyond funneling her into overpriced educational programs, and no independent living supports. She was basically set up to fail.

That said, the opinion itself focused less on the inequitable actions of the lenders and rehab people, and more on how her “eerie disconnectedness from a comprehensive life experience” as a result of her “incurable ailment,” i.e. autism. Here are some choice quotes:

Notwithstanding the good intentions of all involved, Ms. Todd‟s and the DOE‟s collaborative mission to integrate her into the work force turned out to be a lost cause (outside of its purely academic benefits) due to her Autism and its utter negation of her ability to ever hold down a real job that paid significant wages.

The Court concludes that to expect Ms. Todd to ever break the grip of Autism and meaningfully channel her energies toward tasks that are not in some way either dictated, or circumscribed, by the demands of her disorder would be to dream the impossible dream.

And, rejecting to the defendants’ argument that Todd’s academic success meant that she could work:

[I]t is certain that however demanding her classroom experience was, Ms. Todd had the benefit of significant accommodations and the [Department of Education’s ADA and Rehabilitation Act] enforcement power behind her as she made her way through school.

So basically, receiving ADA accommodations mean that your degree doesn’t count as much of an achievement.

As bad as these quotes are, the quotes from the plaintiff’s expert are even worse:

A person with intellectual disability may be able to bus tables at McDonald’s but after 10 minutes the person may walk out the door and do something else unless the supervisor standing there telling them you can’t go outside to look at the birds, you need to bus the tables and this is how you do it.

So a person with Asperger’s syndrome cannot focus on a task and execute an eight hour day of something productive in order to be paid for doing it or producing something that is of less importance to an employer.

Yes, he did just say that Asperger’s is an “intellectual disability” that renders one liable to just wander off of the job site for no reason (keep in mind that this woman had no history of wandering off in the one job she’d had previously, and in fact had testified that she almost never leaves her house).

That this sort of catastrophic description of disability is extremely common among lawyers representing people with disabilities, especially those who are seeking some sort of benefit tied to the person’s ability to prove they can’t work. Lawyers aren’t really programmed to think much about how perpetuating stereotypes like this can hurt others with disabilities, such as those who may lose access to educational opportunities that actually will lead to work or those who are trying to combat employers’ perceptions that people with their disabilities aren’t valuable employees (and this case has already elicited delightful comments on the the ABA Journal’s article on the case, complaining that the ADA shouldn’t force lenders to lend to people with disabilities, and schools shouldn’t be admitting them).

That said, I’d like to think that a different litigation strategy could have gotten Todd the student loan relief she needed without forcing her to testify in court, and present expert testimony, that she was inherently unemployable and all of her academic achievements were meaningless. This sort of strategy can actually harm clients’ ability to deal with having a disability in the long term. Unfortunately, lawyers also aren’t really programmed to think about the effects that a litigation strategy will have on their clients’ lives beyond whether or not it will help the client win a particular case.


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