Monthly Archives: April 2010

Cats can use mirrors.

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Conventional wisdom goes that since, when given the classic and highly species-biased “mirror test”, cats “flunk” it, then they don’t know that their reflection is themselves, and don’t in fact know that mirrors reflect things and that they can see behind themselves using mirrors and so forth.

AnneC and I are trying to debunk a lot of similar myths about cats. The tests cats are given are often not cat-friendly and don’t reflect cats in their usual environment doing their usual things. And I’ve long known that Fey uses mirrors. In fact sometimes she uses two mirrors at once — the one over the sink and the one on the bathroom door — to make direct eye contact with people. More than one staff person who thought cats couldn’t use mirrors, have been startled, some even terrified, to see a cat looking them straight in the face using a mirror or two. One even screamed and dropped what she was carrying and just kept repeating, “Your cat looked at me in the mirror. Cats can’t use mirrors.”

Here’s a photo of her using one mirror to look at me as she hears me come up behind her with a camera:

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As to why that scares people? I think it’s the same phenomenon that has terrified many people about me. They see me going about my business and stereotype me as not being what they consider a real person. Then I do anything from looking at them to typing something and they visibly startle and begin to act scared. They respond to me as if a potted plant got up and walked around. And I see people doing the same to Fey all the time.

And why that is… I’m not entirely sure. I almost expect them to cross themselves like we are demon possessed. They think of us as something unnatural, something deeply wrong that just shouldn’t happen that way. And there’s something deeply wrong with that in a whole different way than what they think of us.

Prism lenses

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[Photo is of me with new glasses on.]

So at my last eye exam (where I also have a way stronger prescription than before) the guy finally noticed I was seeing double. I had gotten to where I really had to concentrate to tell if I was or not because it’s been that way so long when my eyes are relaxed. (I had even bought an eyepatch for days when I really wanted single vision, and other times taken to closing one eye a lot. And I had no idea you were supposed to tell eye doctors about seeing double. I said I did once when my regular doctor asked and he never mentioned glasses.) And then he did a bunch of tests to see how far my eyes swing between double and single eye vision, told me I had exotropia (eyes that point outward from where they should, in my case both eyes), and prescribed prism lenses.

He told me it would feel weird when I got them on. And it did. Things sort of converged and then diverged in the other direction and swung in and out back and forth for awhile. Rapidly. Then it got so I was seeing single except if I relaxed too much. But the woman at the glasses store said that should change in a few days.

The hardest part to deal with, though, is the depth perception. I’m used to not having that. Even my tinted lenses didn’t help it this much. But it made my trip home completely terrifying.

I never knew how high off the ground, and therefore prone to tipping sideways, my powerchair was. There were all kinds of bumps in the sidewalk and missing tiles and stuff that look huge, I used to think they were quite shallow. At one point I overcompensated and drove my chair into a position where I was sticking out into the road and my wheels were spinning on air. (Thankfully a pedestrian helped me.)

I got home very carefully and nervously. I was constantly distracted by stuff sticking out at my face, noticing relative tallnesses for the first time, and really disturbing-looking bumps in the sidewalk. I used to navigate largely by feel, using sight just for crude measurements of where to go. Now sight was so accurate it was some combination of distracting and unnerving.

They have all told me it is a terrible thing to switch between prisms and regular lenses. So I am not doing that. It is weird though to take my glasses halfway off and see that something is double outside the glasses and single inside them.

So that’s all I know so far. They say it’ll take at least a few days before I finally get used to them. I hope I get used to having depth perception because running around outside seems fairly hazardous until I do. Things that I’ve done a hundred times by feel are outright scary now that I can see the size of some of the sidewalk cracks. I wonder how many of my visual problems are related to this, and how long I’ve had it.

Imaginary Birds and Happy Cats

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None of these photos are of today. Today was far more… vigorous.

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[Photo shows Fey, a grey ticked cat with a white stripe down her belly, white paws, white chin, and a white four-pointed star on her nose, with yellow-green eyes. She is lying on her side, with one paw curled over.]

Today was one of the first days it was warm enough to take Fey out again since last fall. As usual, she was not happy with the actual feel of being lifted and put into the PetPocket. But everything else about her behavior — even including loving to sleep on the PetPocket — has always seemed to show that the good part of these walks tends to outweigh the bad (although when you’re dealing with someone whose only language is Feline, it’s always possible you’re missing something major). So I took her outside.

She never likes the elevator, and she never likes traffic although she can get used to it. But generally by the time we are out of the building and away from the lines of people flanking the entrance and going “ooooooooo kiiiiittteeeeeeee”, she calms down and starts looking around.

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[Photo shows me out in my powerchair with Fey peering out of her PetPocket.]

This being our first day out, she mostly wanted to duck down inside with widening pupils when we were near traffic. So we headed down a side road to get away from the noise (which frankly wasn’t my favorite thing either).

And then we heard it. Some kind of chittery bird noises up in the air. And Fey stopped worrying about traffic and poked her head up, ears pointy, whiskers out, eyes wide but
pupils normal, nose twitching like a rabbit. This is why we go on walks.

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[Photo is a closeup of Fey looking around out of her PetPocket.]

We found a tree with a bird’s nest in it and Fey just stared up and whipped her head around to get all the different birds in her sights. I sat around in the parking lot and tried to maneuver the chair wherever her head was pointing. After about half an hour we went home and she curled up in bed with me for a few hours.

But it doesn’t end there. This kind of thing never does. As it started to get late, I heard a “worrreeeauwwww” (and assorted other multisyllabic cat words) coming from the living room. Usually I go out and if she wants water she goes to the kitchen, and if she wants play she goes to the living room. She went to the living room.

Usually our play is pretty predictable. Nearing 11 years old this year, she doesn’t run all over as much as she used to. She likes to sit or lie on the couch while I wave a Cat Dancer back and forth in wide sweeping motions that come near but don’t touch her head. She bats at it for awhile, sometimes more enthusiastically than others. If she catches it, I give her some fish flakes (she loves them so much she’ll eat them out of my hand) and then wait for her to finish grooming herself. Then we do it all again if she wants to. I know most cats like to act as if the toy is prey, but she has made it clear she generally prefers the slower pace of trying to hit it as it whizzed by her.

Well, this time, I got out the Cat Dancer and started to wave it back and forth. WHAP. She hit it on her first try, which is unusual.

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[Photo shows Fey delivering a WHAP to the Cat Dancer.]

Then she got me to move it all over the couch while she chased and scrabbled and leapt into the air like a kitten. Her accuracy was way beyond usual and so was her interest. She stood on her back legs and whapped it again and then worked her two front paws in a rapidfire back and forth motion until she had to sit down. Then she did it again. And again. And flopped onto her back to scrabble at it from that position and just kept going.

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[Photo shows Fey on her back following the Cat Dancer with her eyes while her two paws are bent into different stages of grabbing at it.]

When I offered her the second round of fish flakes she nipped me (with a “HEY don’t stop now!” sort of look about her) and went back to chasing the toy everywhere until I was finally the one who had to stop from exhaustion.

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[Photo shows Fey lying on her side and attacking the Cat Dancer with her claws out.]

When I first bought the PetPocket I had figured it would be better than sitting at one particular window all the time, and that maybe it would fuel her imagination for future play. But I never expected it to be this extreme. Her play suddenly got far more complex, lively, and strategic. And I could tell she was saving up imaginary small animals in her head to hunt back home with the cat toys.

And today has made it clear things still work that way for her. She was nearly doing backflips and probably would still be playing if I weren’t worn out. She hung out in the living room for awhile hoping for more, but has come in and curled up next to my head now that she realizes I’m not going anywhere.

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[Photo was taken seconds after the previous photo. Fey is lying on her side. The Cat Dancer is near her belly. She is reaching for it with both front paws, and has her mouth open to bite it with her fierce white fangs showing.]

If you want more cat blogging, AnneC has done a great post on finding out why Nikki (an 8-year-old Siamese) was doing a bunch of things that seemed to make no sense. I am already liking her new cat blog Felines Are Wonderful a lot.

Feline Ethics, Part 2: Avoiding Arrogance

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This is the second in an ongoing series of posts about feline-human ethics. The first post is Dealing with cats, part 1: What is Respect? The current post is on the topic of avoiding arrogance. The post that’s currently planned as the next post will be about the power humans hold over cats.

Human arrogance towards cats frequently goes two apparently opposiite directions.

1. Cats are like miniature humans in every way. They understand every word of what we say, are motivated by exactly the things that motivate us, and if they don’t respond exactly how we expect another human to respond then they are just being stubborn, callous, cruel, manipulative, etc. Any attempt to say otherwise relegates cats to the realm of dumb animals.

2. Cats are totally unlike and inferior to humans. They do not understand a single word of what we say, cannot love, cannot reason, are not self-aware, etc. They see us as food sources and nothing more. Any claim otherwise needs to be rigorously proven in a laboratory setting, and is probably a misunderstanding of basic instinctual behavior.

The first approach is arrogant because it comes from a tendency to view the world, and especially cats, as a reflection of humanity. So it views respecting cats and seeing them as human as if these two things are synonymous. The second approach is arrogant because it views certain traits as exclusive to humans (or at least to “advanced” animals). It also, like many false ideas about cognitive disability in humans, views it as “scientific” to start from the assumption that cats lack certain abilities and demands absolute proof of the presence of those abilities before it will believe in them. Whereas for “normal” humans the preesumption is that we have those abilities.

From my standpoint those views are two sides of the same coin. The idea they both stem from is that humans are superior in certain ways. It’s just that one solves the problem of respecting cats by giving them traits identical to humans, and the other just doesn’t bother respecting cats and assumes that only humans have traits that are common among many species, cats included.

Often someone who holds one of these beliefs will assume that the other belief is the only other one possible, so that if you doubt one you must believe the other. If you doubt the first one someone will think you believe cats are nothing like humans and are overly wedded to the biases of many scientists, and if you doubt the second one someone will believe you’re engaging in overly sentimental anthropomorphism.

When most people think about cats, they see them as having a life that is simpler than our own. A little life that can be contained inside the bigger concepts that humans have. Emotions are like ours but fewer of them, thoughts are like ours but less complicated and not as many, and so forth.

This is not a useful way to look at the lives of cats. They are not miniature humans, and they are certainly not like humans but with certain aspects blunted, removed, and simplified. They are cats. They have their own complex way of relating to the world and each other. They have their own emotions which they feel according to their own values. They have things in common with us, but it’s dangerous to assume either identicalness or that they are just limited versions of us.

So when you think of cats, have some humility. Understand that there are more aspects to their way of doing things than humans can even perceive, let alone understand. This doesn’t make cats innately mysterious, it just means that we are working with different bodies, sensory organs, and brains. Even humans with the best sense of smell have nothing on cats. Our visual system is set up totally differently, not only can we not see in low light levels but our perception of motion is nothing like a cat’s. These are not little differences, they shape cats and humans into very different beings. As humans trying to understand cats, there are just flat out things we will only comprehend the vague shape of, and others we will never guess.

Be excited over these differences rather than trying to think of cats as inferior or even simpler beings. This is not to diminish what we have in common either, just an attempt to avoid making them into lesser beings just because they are different ones.

It is also important not to think of yourself as a Cat Expert. If all the stories you tell others or yourself contain phrases like “good with cats”, “a way with animals”, etc., then you are headed in the wrong direction entirely. You may have an affinity with cats — I have always found them easier to relate to than humans — but the moment your self-image depends on being right about all matters cattish, you are doing the cats a grave disservice. Because once you enter that frame of mind, you will begin to delude yourself and forget that you can make mistakes. The moment you forget that you can make mistakes, you are able to do great harm to the people you base your ego on understanding. And ‘people’ there includes cats.

Whenever someone meets Fey and begins by saying they are ‘good with cats’ or similar, I try to convey enough watchful alarm in my body language for Fey to pick up on it and get on the alert herself. (Such people never notice this body language in either one of us.) Some things I have seen such people do:

1. Grab her and find a way to hold her where she knows she can’t fight. At that point she gives up (but looks terribly uncomfortable) and they tell me, “See she likes being held after all if someone who is good with cats does it”.

(I have even seen mention of that one in a better than average book about cats. But most cat books don’t mention it or other ethical issues at all, except sometimes to reassure humans that whatever decisions they make for cats are the right ones.)

2. Try to do whatever I just told them not to do. If they succeed in doing it without provoking a major response, they assume she is okay. If they do provoke a major response (hissing, spitting, tail lashing, ears back, clawing for instance) they go “awwww what a cute playful little kitty cat” and make me want to go at them with my claws out.

For example, Fey has some kind of condition affecting a particular nerve going to her back right leg. The vet said she had never seen a cat so thoroughly indicate that the problem is a particular nerve and not others. I tend to tell people to avoid her entire back end. On good days she will initiate touch in that area, on mediocre days she will allow touch but stiffen and look uncomfortable, and on bad days she will indicate pain in every possible way and defend herself by any means necessary.

Some really egotistical people will, upon explanation of this, proceed to grab her by the exact body part that hurts in order to try and prove they are Special People Gifted With Animals who can touch her there without provoking a response. And even if she responds by mauling them, they Dont Get It. At all. No matter what happens, they especially don’t get that causing another living being intense physical pain on purpose to prove that they are a special good kind of human only proves that they are an especially terrible, insensitive, and cruel kind of human who ought not to be allowed within a mile of a cat.

(I have also seen these sorts of people at the animal shelter. Fortunately they get thrown out pretty quickly because, among other things, if an animal scratched someone they have to be put in isolation for a long time which is horrible for the animal and everyone wants to prevent it. And because the people who work there actually care about animals.)

3. Read all sorts of bizarre and obviously false things into her behavior because they just can’t possibly handle the idea of not knowing what some action on Fey’s part means. Which in turn leads to really pissing her off eventually.

4. Use their “knowledge” about her as an ego trip or power play with me or other people.

5. Do any or all of these things to me as well, because lots of people who view themselves as Good With Cats also view themselves as Good With Autistics (or sometimes Good With Nonspeaking People). And they especially love to do it in situations where I can’t do anything about it. Such as get me in a situation where I can’t respond well and then harangue someone for ‘upsetting me’ or something when nothing of the sort has even happened.

Viewing yourself as Good With an entire category of people opens you up to massively egotistical mistakes that lead you down the road to outright physical and emotional abuse. It doesn’t matter if everyone around you comments on your gift with cats, your way with cats, your being a cat whisperer, whatever. I ignore such comments if I get them. I have a close relationship with a cat. Not special powers. You should never ever let praise go to your head. No matter who you are, your ability to make grievous mistakes when trying to understand another species is an absolute given. Until you understand this, avoid cats.

And if you have either thought “This part of the post doesn’t apply with me because I am too good with cats to make serious mistakes,” or if you respond to other cat lovers admitting to serious mistakes by either thinking or uttering “I am so good with cats that I could never make that level of mistake”? That goes double for you. I have a deep and rewarding and loving two-way connection to Fey that is more detailed in our understanding of each other than any other relationship, human or cat, that I have ever had. And we both make mistakes and have misunderstandings every single day. If you think that doesn’t happen you are fooling yourself and setting yourself up to harm the cat.

The other direction arrogance can go is in assuming there is no actual harm in making massive mistakes because it’s just a cat. Or worse, that because the cat can’t tell anyone what you do, it is really okay. I have only ever got one person to admit that last one. But as someone whose ability to communicate in standard ways can come and go, I have watched what I thought were decent people transform into assholes many times the moment they thought I was either unaware or unable to tell anyone what they had done. And if it was bad for me it would be worse for cats.

I don’t really know what to say to all that. I know people who think if someone purportedly can’t understand what’s happening then cruelty isn’t wrong. I know some peopleonly care about being caught doing wrong, not about doing wrong itself, because such people have done awful things to me when I either couldn’t tell anyone or wouldn’t be believed if I did. But I know that each time people play out such attitudes on cats, the cats suffer.

Cats also suffer when treated like humans in cat suits. They end up being punished in ways that feel like a random attack from nowhere for no reason. People do things that are polite to humans but terribly rude to cats. And cats also suffer when people assume that things like love are too human for cats to fathom. Working across species is even harder than working across cultures in many respects, it’s hard to know what’s exclusively human and what we share with other animals. And there are things we may never know.

The best way to approach learning about cats is with a combination of respect and humility. Know that you’re going to mess up, but don’t focus on it so hard that you don’t even try. Be alert to signals that the cat doesn’t like what you’re doing, and don’t laugh them off with “awwww aren’t we feisty today”. Treat the cat as an individual and conscious being that you are getting to know, not as a human or a mindless automaton. Keep your ego out of the way. And above all, be aware that despite differences in species, you are dealing with someone (not something) who is capable of feeling love, physical and emotional pain, anger, joy, fear, and many other things. Treat them accordingly.

Fey on my bed

The photograph is of Fey, a grey cat with ticked fur and some white markings. She is lying curled up on a foam mattress on top of a hospital bed tilted slightly upward. Her face is at the top, in profile. You can see the dome of her eye, with a large black pupil underneath, her eyebrow whiskers pointed straight up, and a big triangular ear pointed directly at the camera. The focus becomes fuzzy towards her tail, which is curled up and around. You can also see the shiny bedrail with some notebooks behind it. The mattress she is laying on is yellow memory foam with a pale green bedsheet part on and part off it. The foam is roughly the same shade of yellow as her eye.

On growing up with strange sensory reactions, and the difference between passing and being passed off.

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In discussions with other autistic people about how other people have reacted to us our whole lives, I recently realized another thing that makes me different from some other autistic people (I honestly have no clue whether it’s most or only some). Which is in my reactions to my surroundings.

A lot of autistic people who, like me, were assumed (rightly or wrongly) to be anywhere from somewhat to highly capable by many people during our childhoods, seem to have something in common that I don’t have: They were most of the time a combination of several of… stiff, unusually formal, considered “dweeby”, reserved as far as interaction with their physical surroundings yet obviously “engaged” to a certain degree, and in general… lots of similar things I don’t quite have words for.

I was considered some of those things some of the time. But I’ve noticed some people assume that’s how all autistic kids who were regarded as highly competent tended to act. And they leave out of their calculations a lot of things that were true of me.

Yes, I was socially awkward, had meltdowns and shutdowns, and lots of other stuff. But I was most of the time very, very involved in my physical environment in all kinds of ways that made me stick out in totally different ways than many other autistic kids did. Note that it wasn’t all of these things all of the time. It was at least a few of them most of the time at minimum, and when I wasn’t hiding as well it was more than a few nearly all of the time.

I would sniff things. Books, pencils, wood of all types. If I saw a cat I would get down on all fours and politely (in the cat world) sniff their noses. I would sniff rocks, tanbark, metal, rubber, computer and TV screens, and many other things I came into contact with. Not to mention picking my nose and sniffing the contents (no I have never been able to stop no matter how much teasing or reprimands happened or even injury to the inside of my nose by peeling the lining off, it’s like trichotillomania, it’s not that easy).

I would also grab things and stick them really close to my eyes, or wave them around in the vague vicinity of my eyes (I have good peripheral vision so this means anything from just in front to on the sides). I would wave my hand in front of computer monitors. I would do things with my fingers just to watch them. I would spend hours watching ants or water (which I might also get my hands involved with) or lots and lots of other things involving getting things really close to my eyes. And chasing dust particles. Not to mention doing a very intense purr-like noise that jiggled my eyesight up and down.

I also did elaborate things with clothing, hair, and jewelry. Not for the purpose of decorating myself for the sake of others, but for the sake of being able to carry around things I could either grab and look at, or see anytime I had a mirror, or (in the case of braids) run my fingers over. This stuff wasn’t an enactment of a social ritual (which is good because sticking earrings and pins throughout your hair doesn’t get you anything but laughed at) or for any reason external, it was entirely so I could have lots of portable stimtoys. I could grab the necklaces and stare at them or suck on them, ring my bell necklaces in my ear, stare at, smell, or suck on my paisley shirts or busy-patterned skirts, run my fingers over coiled braids or other jewelry, or stare at the whole mess in the mirror.

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(The photo shows me sitting in between my two brothers, in my brother’s room, with lots of jewelry on, staring at one necklace or similar object.)

I also had some visual phenomena I would get really absorbed in. I see various patterns that probably range from retinal lights and afterimages to migraine auras (both my parents get migraine auras without the headache) to the occasional seizure. But I would get totally lost in that stuff, and find patterns in it the way people do with clouds. I got sent to at least two separate counselors (one in an academic summer camp and one in my brief attempt at high school) for staring at walls in my free time in order to watch that stuff. Other kids just used that as an excuse to do things like wave their genitals in my face to try to get me to stop (it’s amazing what people will do to you for the crime of not appearing to pay attention to them, even when they make it clear you’re weird enough they don’t want your attention).

I was constantly sticking things into my mouth long after that phase is over for most people. Not just pens or pencils either. I chewed sets of rubber jacks balls to the point of really embarrassing my mother once when someone caught me sticking several in my mouth on video. I did this the most often before puberty but I did it after too. I was really happy when someone gave me different lengths of aquarium tubing when I was nineteen for the express purpose of chewing. I chewed and sucked on my own skin, too, hard enough to leave marks. And my hair. And ran the outsides of my tongue over my molars over and over to create a sour taste. And had a metal necklace I sucked on and spat out over and over until the outer gold-colored metal wore off.

I also liked textures like velvet, cat fur, varnished wood, anything large and cold and flat, etc. and pressed anything from hands to cheeks to large amounts of my body onto them, or rubbed them.

I had a weird thing I did in chaotic environments like school dances where I would frequently stand right by the speaker because even though it was earsplittingly loud the music was more orderly than the crowd noises. (At first I’d dance if asked to, or outright find someone to dance with if the song was “Stairway to Heaven”, but later I found it easier to just spin in circles.) I also hummed, whistled, and sang, sometimes all in rapid succession, and had a single toned hum I would do by keeping my ears clicked so internal sounds were loudest and then humming to drown out other chaotic noise. Got pulled out of school assemblies for clapping my hands over my ears over and over to create a rhythmic pattern to people’s voices or music. Played single songs until I wore out several tapes and tape players.

And this is not to mention the spinning, which I did at every dance starting just after seventh grade instead of running up to the speakers or trying to dance with people. And which I also did plenty of without dances as an excuse. And the pulling out all the paper towels, and all the soap, from dispensers, then smearing the soap all over mirrors. And climbing things. And assorted other things that were more actions than any one sense being explored.

And doing something kind of hard to describe. In new situations my sensory input seemed more and more chaotic. (Been planning a post on something related to that too.) And after awhile instead of panicking, I’d started embracing a sense of total randomness. This is the same sort of thing that could make a person really lose it in new situations, but it’s sometimes possible to sort of ride it out like some kind of funhouse ride instead of becoming tense or fearful. (Or as an autistic friend of mine puts it, “As long as there are shopping malls, I will never need LSD.”) This is yet another thing you never hear about because it’s assumed “resistance to change” is just The Way Things Are for all autistic people instead of being one of many possible responses to a more central experience of having things become really confusing the more change or new or unexpected input there is.

And when I did talk about my special interests they were about things like fractals, chaos theory, alternate realities, and psychedelic rock bands. Or any and all kinds of surreal or nonsensical things (including going around saying weird things in several languages that I couldn’t actually speak except to say weird things in). (The embracing of nonsense being one more way to deal with the speed of things changing around that time.) This… did not help.

Then there was… the other stuff. The ways I seemed cut off from the world instead of overinvolved in the wrong parts of it.

Part of that was due to my being heavily tuned into internal sensations. Like when I would sit down cross-legged, pull my skirt across my lap, stare at it, and proceed to vividly replay in my head scenes from Red Dwarf or Star Trek (other times it was listening to white noise and picking out single frequencies to replay songs I had memorized). Other times it was just something like pulling my hair over my face like Cousin It (wonderful to stop seeing lots of overloading stuff), or sitting around with my eyes shut. Or what my parents just called “Staring” with a capital S, where I’d basically sit there and appear to be staring at nothing at all (which could range from overload to replaying things in my head to just some coincidence of my eyes and facial expression, or could even be getting lost in various visual oddities I discussed before).

The point of all this? When many people picture an autistic kid who went undiagnosed until early adolescence, they seem to picture the formal stiff thing going on. They don’t picture the kid who involved herself in all kinds of supposedly inappropriate sensory activities, and seems physically pulled towards these things as if by gravity. But that was me.

I didn’t do these things every second of every day. But I did them enough to attract all the wrong kind of notice. While some people called me a nerd or a computer or those usual insults, much of the teasing I got revolved around being very, very attracted to physical sensations of all kinds, or else looking very, very tuned out. There’s a reason my mother insists on comparing me to Luna Lovegood rather than a more stereotypical nerd (or to, say, Ernie Macmillan, who was so formal he sounded pompous).

Yeah I did get called a nerd But mostly I got other things. When you’re younger and you behave this way, you become a weirdo, alien, psycho, crazy, tard, space case, elf (yes that whole fantasy started because someone called me one — if I could pick a Tolkien creature to compare myself to I’d be an Ent) etc. When you get a bit older you get called even crazier. And then eventually everyone and their dog thinks you’re on drugs.

This is one reason that I question the entire concept of passing. I rarely spent five minutes around other children before they figured out I was different. Often it was more like five seconds. Kids weren’t generally picking up my intellect or nerdiness (they might pick that up later but not immediately), they were picking up my strangeness. Much of the time they said so quite openly and as we got older they were trying really hard to explain why I was strange. But I was always strange, there was never a point even when I did my best attempt to “behave” that this was ever in question. Even when neuroleptics drastically tamped down on my ability to explore my environment in those ways I could expect to wait seconds before I was pointedly and often out loud judged as some kind of Other. Even among kids in mental institutions where the rate of neuro-atypicality was higher, I only very occasionally connected with anyone and it was always their doing, others just either shunned me or found ways to do harm to me.

Weird thing is even though I heard all about being strange my whole life I always underestimated my strangeness. I rarely connected all the dots in others’ reactions to me. I knew I was different but since I couldn’t imagine how all the things I did looked to others, I assumed I was “normal enough” largely because of that and because I was always around myself and therefore found myself… not boring exactly, but like I was used to me. The same way I never knew my autistic brother stood out that much even though he did (although more in the stiff/nerdy way than the sensory/strange way, we are very different people).

But once I put the dots together? Passing doesn’t make sense. What happened was people saw every single thing I did and then since they didn’t know about autism they formed other explanations. So I was crazy, or on drugs, or wanted attention (why do so many people accuse others of wanting attention when the actions prompting it are entirely not focused on other people at all, while they don’t tell people that starting conversations is attention seeking even though it is???) or any explanation at all they could come up with. Sometimes several at once.

As I’ve discussed before, the drug assumption meant I have been both asked for (???) and offered pot, acid, shrooms, DMT, ketamine, speed, mescaline, harmaline, and assorted really obscure “natural” hallucinogens (I did not take more than three on that list, and only after being accused of it got me curious). This took no effort on my part, especially when attending a school so well known for drug use that it made a top five list of drug schools. All people saw was a strange girl dressed like a hippie who did lots of odd things, looked spaced out, and reacted to all kinds of sensory input in a very raw sort of way that often made me respond more to texture and pattern and color than to the socially agreed upon nature of the object. Plus I was fun to get stoned because it made me have even more sensory processing trouble and ratcheted up my anxiety so much that it was easy to manipulate me into doing amusing things like jumping out windows so people could laugh. (One of my support staff has another client who has a very severe cognitive
impairment. I was telling him about this and he told me she gets the exact same crap from her neighbors.)

Another thing that happens when people form these explanations is they begin picking up on irrelevant details that confirm their explanations while blocking out information that conflicts with their explanations. Because of my reputation for drug use, people would claim to smell marijuana coming out of my room whenever I burned incense (I never did that in my room). Have allergies that make your eyes red? Must be stoned. Have naturally large pupils? Must be on acid. Have trouble bathing or washing clothes? Drugs make people not care about that. Have fluctuations in your abilities? Must be based on when you’re high and when you’re not. You can’t win around this kind of fallacious thinking.

Kids who pass don’t get accused of being on drugs by everyone from children to teachers from the age of twelve or thirteen onward. Kids who pass as nerdy or “just gifted” don’t get ostracized and accused of being both on drugs and crazy, or sent to the counselor, when they go to a summer camp filled with nerds who are mostly classified as gifted. Most “just gifted and nerdy” kids thrive in those environments and tease the kids like me who are clearly odd for other reasons. My best friend met me in such a place when we were twelve after seeing me spinning by myself, asking someone who I was, and getting “That’s Amanda. She’s crazy.”

Nor do kids who are passing really well have it assured that they will be only given single rooms from a certain point on so as not to alarm their roommates with their strangeness (yes my roommates complained about rooming with a “crazy person” or “weirdo”). Even in mental institutions. (And kids who pass really well certainly don’t get singled out as strange in those places.) This is not passing. This is being flagrantly strange and having it bother people enough that they try to think up all kinds of reasons to explain it to themselves.

When most people explain things to themselves, odd things happen. They don’t see what you’re doing. They see their explanation. They see “crazy”, “high”, “stupid stunt”, or whatever they have explained things as in their minds. And if they have to have their expectations disturbed enough to explain things to themselves, then you are not passing.

I know a lot of people that things like this have happened to. Even people with purely physical impairments. A woman I know has muscular dystrophy and when she began hanging onto the walls for balance, people explained it away as attention seeking or anxiety induced. That’s the exact same sorts of explanations (with the addition of the ever present drug thing) that I got with a much lesser known autism-connected progressive motor impairment that caused me to freeze in place, be unable to cross certain barriers easily, or lose the ability to speak.

I once froze for a solid ten minutes, with (as I heard those around me noting) fixed dilated pupils pointed straight at a bright light, on a high school field trip. Nobody told my parents. People figured it was drugs or anxiety, and everyone was sort of pointedly avoiding the subject (and avoiding me) the rest of the trip, treating me like I had done something unspeakable. I frequently had the same thing happen in college and was said to be on drugs (never happened when I was actually on them). Happened in the psych system and was called psychotic or dissociative or just left unexplained. Happened around new agers and they insisted I was either astral projecting or somehow being very spiritual. The same thing happened to me at an autism conference, and someone with the same movement disorder told me the journal articles to send to my doctor. I did and he recognized it immediately and diagnosed me with that condition.

Is that “passing”? No. It’s “being passed off as”. It’s people seeing a thing, being uncomfortable, deciding on an explanation, and coming to remember the explanation more than the thing itself.

Similarly, now that that and other conditions have me using a powerchair full time, all the traits that had people who just saw me walking around thinking I was either autistic (if they knew anything about it) or intellectually disabled, the powerchair has become their explanation for all those traits. So now I’m back to being considered purely physically disabled by some people, which has led to overestimation rather than underestimation of my cognitive abilities.

I can do one particular thing throughout most of my life and have it explained in different ways depending on age, clothing (hippie clothes, school uniform, “regular” clothes, sloppy clothes), location (regular school, college, special ed, institution, apartment, at home with my parents), haircut (messy, combed, long, short, parted in different ways, nonexistent), range of deliberate facial expression (less or more limited due to the motor impairments), and a zillion other factors. But I’m the same person and my reasons for doing whatever it is have remained constant my whole life. I have seen kids doing things like eating paper or lying on the floor, and if they’re considered “gifted” then it’s eccentric or attention seeking, if they are considered druggies people figure it’s the drugs, and in institutions or special ed it’s because they don’t know better. But I bet the reasons for doing it are the same regardless.

But as someone who was a strange kid, and paid the price for being a strange kid, I am really uncomfortable with the concept of passing. Passing would be if I never did the things I listed in the first part of this except in private. Something I only ever managed in part. Having people constantly bugging you and making things up about you because you do these strange things is not passing. It’s having people pass things off as something else. It’s having teachers accuse you of drug abuse until everyone believes it and you become curious. It’s freezing up and having other kids laughing and jumping up and down on top of you and going “see she doesn’t feel it”. It’s being singled out for bullying even among other “gifted” kids and “crazy” kids. It’s having “crazy” or “druggie” or “does weird things for attention” be the first words people use about you when strangers ask who you are. It’s having even people you thought were your friends comment gleefully and frequently on these topics as if you are more a source of entertainment than a friend. It’s having people shake you, kick you, wave their hands in your face, and make loud guesses about what’s going on, every time you lose speech. It’s that one guy who likes to come up to you and tell you what “everyone’s saying” about you. But it’s definitely not, ever, even when doing your best acting, being treated like everyone else. Which is what passing would be. Passing has its own set of problems. But “passed off as” is not passing.

The other point of this post is that I’ve talked to even a lot of autistic people who assume that there’s only two general appearances that autistic kids can take: Sort of awkward and stiff and nerdy or dweeby, or else completely cut off from people and constantly rocking and doing other stuff like that. And while I sometimes did both of those sorts of things, I think I was usually something different from either stereotype. Much of what made me stand out and get both teased and “passed off as” various things, especially both before and after the few years I reined it in a bit, was the way I related to objects around me, and sometimes appeared zoned out. Most of which has to do with how I process information in the first place. And while I know many others who were and are like this, it seems like even many autistic people can’t resist having their imaginations constrained by the main couple stereotypes. And I almost never hear this particular appearance discussed. Lest this become a third stereotype, I should point out that there are lots and lots of different ways we can appear, and that a single person can appear different ways at different times. It’s just important to avoid stereotypes. They don’t help.

Why I almost didn’t paint.

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This is one of those subjects that I have gone back and forth on whether to be public about. On the one hand, it’s a big part of my life. On the other hand, after so much unexpected media scrutiny, privacy is vital to have in at least some areas. But after believing myself alone in this regard for so long and then finding out it’s more common than I thought, it seems like one more thing that trips the switch in my head that goes “You know what, if one of your goals in writing is to show others they’re not alone in the same way others have done for you, then you may want to think about writing this.”

So… okay. I was absolutely sure as a kid that I sucked at art. Painting in particular but also art in general. I was usually one of the slowest kids in art class (where we had to exactly reproduce someone else’s technique and subject matter) and in one of my art classes it was worse than that.

The art teacher made us paint things she had already painted in exactly the same way she had done it. And aside from being crappy at that kind of art in general, I was incredibly crappy with paintbrushes. The art teacher got so frustrated with me that she would paint my paintings for me and pass them off as my own. My parents would ooh and aah and I would be mortified. It took me a long time to figure out words for what was happening to me and even longer to overcome my terror of that teacher. She was always treating me like I was completely stupid and if she was yelling at anyone it was me for screwing up another painting or sitting around stimming on the paintbrushes (“AMANDA BAGGS WEREN’T YOU LISTENING I JUST TOLD THE CLASS YOU CAN GET LEAD POISONING THAT WAY PUT THAT DOWN THIS INSTANT!”).

The rule was you started with landscapes. If you were good at those you could do flowers. If you were good at those you could do animals (we were told we had to paint every single hair). If you were good at animals you could do humans (every single hair too). And original paintings were not okay. I wanted to paint cats and I was terrible with a paintbrush. I very much did not fit into this arrangement.

So I took to hiding in the bathroom, a strategy I had already perfected out of overload. I would pull every paper towel out of the paper towel dispenser, pull all the soap out of the soap dispenser, then play with the soap for awhile. When I was done with that I would lock the door behind me on my way out, which for some reason I found very interesting as a concept.

One day the art teacher told us that it was criminal to lock doors in this manner and that she could call the police. She said that she knew exactly who was doing this and would talk to them after class. But she never talked to me and she never called the cops. I kept locking the doors.

Anyway with that and copious other similar experiences in art class, I was absolutely convinced I could not paint. I did one crappy painting (using brushes) after that and it only confirmed to me that I was a terrible artist and an even worse painter.

For the three months when I was in high school, I had lost even my previous thin pretence of not stimming on stuff. (I was not a stiff formal autie, I was a chase after dust particles and stare at moving colored objects autie. More on that in another post, but suffice to say I was more like Luna Lovegood than Ernie Macmillan.) After I backed into a corner screaming when a math teacher changed a routine on me, he threw me out of class and publicly accused me of drug abuse. An art teacher brought me into her class instead and told me, “I don’t care if you move around or behave strangely. I don’t care if you sit under the tables. All I care about is that you produce art.” So I would go into her nearly empty classroom, sit under the table, and draw. I was more comfortable than any previous art class but I still knew I wasn’t like the other art students. I received no instruction at all.

Next year I was in college way too early considering my level of overload. Because of that (good) teacher I chose mostly art classes and did okay in them. (The most painting they required was filling in the lines of something, and I could mostly do that.) After that I did a few attempts at crappy paintings with brushes in some of the art programs I was in within the psych system over the next several years after my spectacular burnout. But again it was too much somebody else guiding me.

After I got out of all that and ended up on my own in adulthood, I basically considered myself terrible at art and even worse at painting. All of the encouragement I got was too little too late to get that one terrrible teacher’s voice out of my head. Plus, whenever I dared think of myself as an artist, there was always someone else who took that role, and for some reason in people’s heads there could only be one person who was The Creative One in any group. For instance in special ed (after my attempt at college — I’m the only person I know who this happened to in that order), there was a boy who was The One Artist in our class. He got to participate in a program for disabled artists. I got nothing. Repeated situations like that convinced me even more that I didn’t have what it took to paint.

By the time I started getting these ideas in my head that maybe, just maybe, if I decided to paint on my own terms rather than the terms of others, then things would work better… it was three or four years ago and I was already getting more attention than I wanted for my writing and videos online. I felt like the world was a big eyeball and it was pointed straight at me — exaggerated, but I hate that feeling. The absolute last thing I wanted to be was “an autistic artist” instead of an artist (something similar happened in my teens with a local newspaper and some of my crappiest art), or to have the world confirm to me that I was terrible and stupid for even trying.

So quietly in private, telling only one person, I began to paint. I used acrylics. I painted with my fingers. I painted lots of things but mostly I painted cats and very abstract scenes. And when I dared to show a few more people, they liked it. Not because an autistic person did it but because they liked it.

Still I was terrified to let anyone find out I did anything, you know, (horrors) creative. Because I’m not creative, that’s what other people are.

But the other night, I told someone about the music teacher who chastised me for playing the wrong chords and convinced me I couldn’t be musically creative until I learned chord theory. (I am very easily intimidated when the charge is that everyone else is better than me at something because they can do something I can’t. And I can’t do chord theory.)

And the other person, who knows more about that teacher than I mentioned here, told me he sounded like the kind of teacher who believes music is more about technique than about passion and creativity, and who themselves hasn’t succeeded because they lack passion and creativity, and who therefore has a chip on their shoulder and tries to stomp into the ground anyone who shows more passion and creativity than orthodox technique. She told me if John Cage had tried as a child some of the piano stuff he did as an adult, he’d have been grounded for weeks and never allowed near a piano.

So I got a little bit braver and told her about the art teacher from hell. She told me it was the exact same type of person and that such people single out someone who wants to do something out of bounds, and proceed to treat them like crap. And that my troubles getting paintbrushes to do what I wanted would have only made it easier to do that.

She also told me that my fear of scrutiny was understandable, but that if I let it control me I would be as bad as the people who do whatever they think will get them the most scrutiny and attention. Because either way you’re letting other people control you. And that makes sense, this is a particular area I have a lot more cowardice in than shows openly — I hate being singled out for attention and once you’ve had CNN and Wired and the CBC in your home, that’s enough attention to leave me shaking in a corner when they leave. I only ever agreed because someone pointed out it would also bring attention to the self-advocacy movements and that I shouldn’t let my fears control me. And I’m good at pushing myself to do something terrifying and only freaking out afterward. (After CNN left I barely ate for weeks.)

So I guess this is my declaration that I’m an artist, not just an autist, and have been doing my own thing in this regard for years once I got the idea in my head that it might be permissible for me to produce art of my own kind, in my own technique, and in my own way.

I don’t know why I’m so easily cowed by people telling me that I’m no good at something, that I’m downright stupid, and that my lack of ability in one particular area means that not only shouldn’t I (paint/write music/etc) but that I shouldn’t even try. (See Why I never expect to be right.) But I am. I’m also intimidated in situations where I’m in a group of people and only one person there is called The Artistic One, The Musical One, The Creative One. I once even saw that happen where one girl was called The Musical One even though there were five other musicians in the room, one of whom had been paid for it. But even knowing it was illogical, it still made me feel like I had no right to call myself a musician, or an artist, or whatever. Combine the two plus fear of being singled out and I do it all hiding in a corner somewhere and then wig out every time I have to tell someone.

So I’m not only happy that those teachers were full of crap, but also somewhat mourning the fact that I spent over a decade too scared to defy these people that I thought immeasurably above me. Only to find out they were just people acting out their own insecurities on me. I’ve been told art and music teachers do this to people all the time, and here I thought it was just me.

The thing is, though, that creativity feels like this force inside of me that needs to have some kind of outlet or it will burn me to a crisp. But I’d been making do with writing. And even though I was writing, I’d still feel like there was this white-hot thing inside of me trying to force my body to let it do something, anything other than just sit there. And writing and painting and music all still feel like something doing me instead of me doing something, and like my consent is only a formality on the way to these things happening.

Oh, and last year someone said they’d like me to do a painting for them and that they’d pay for the materials. I wanted both to paint something and to create something that would be interesting to sit around looking closely at. So here it is. The photograph is really bad because of the flash.

catspainting

Could anyone summarize this? I’m really bad at summarizing things, all I can say is it’s three cats on a glittery and somewhat busy background with objects stuck to it.

Edited to add. Littlewolf has written a really good summary in comments, read that and my comment after hers if you can’t see the picture.

Joy

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Urocyon recently wrote a really impressive series of posts on the topic of happiness: 

Happiness part 1: What are we talking about anyway?
Happiness part 2:  In which reality is twisted
Happiness part 3:  The personal is indeed political
Happiness part 4:  Seeing beauty

I am not going to go into the amount of detail she went into, but I had a few thoughts. 

I am reminded of two poems I posted on this blog in the past because I have always found the standard metaphor of depression or sadness as “down” to be terribly misleading:

Rising Into Sadness

When the world is a graveyard
Of dusty skeletons falling apart
And the sky cannot be seen
And even the pines are no longer green
I know that there have been
Too many words

Falling into Joy

Tossed for moments into living color sky
Ever falling back to a cushion of drabness
This is the way of the world, we said
Watching our eyes adjust to the dimness
Gravity works funny ways, said the world
For those who trust in words
Laughing to itself
As the ashen floor crumbled
Knocking the wind out of us
Smelling the soil as sky blinded our eyes
We had landed on solid green

I was thinking about this today, because of my current experience of joy. The thing that has really surprised me going from depression and terror to happiness, has been that joy — combined with love, beauty, and other such things — is built into the world on a very fundamental level.

This means that instead of learning to feel an emotion, my journey towards that joy has involved removing both internally and externally imposed obstacles that were pulling me away from the joy that exists everywhere. 

There is nothing easy about it. I’m not telling people with depression to snap out of it. My experience of depression was that it is incredibly effective at finding many ways to sort of infiltrate my mind and make me totally exhaust myself by getting stuck in thought loops that have the effect of making me always run the exact wrong direction.  It’s nasty and totally effective at confusing a person until they have no idea which way to go. 

But as I untangled the knots in my head, I found gravity pulling me downward towards joy. Sometimes it has been terrifying. This kind of joy can be almost unbearably intense, and allowing gravity to work instead of running away from it can require giving up aspects of yourself that are really painful to let go of. (The mind is a very strange thing.) But because of various circumstances in my life the alternative to giving these things up has been deadly. So every now and then I’m dragged (sometimes kicking and screaming) through the process of allowing that joy to dissolve one more problematic part of how I think. 

And I suspect I am no different than other people in this regard. It’s an aspect of the human condition I’m dealing with and we all have to face such things regardless of neurology or any other personal trait. And I’m not sure it’s ever over, because growth is never over until we die. Or should never be over anyway.  So the road to this joy seems mostly to involve removing barriers to it rather than having to generate it like an emotion.  

But it’s very reassuring in a way to realize that gravity doesn’t pull us down into sadness, despair, or depression. Gravity pulls us to a place where we realize that every single part of the world no matter how small is absolutely saturated with an almost intolerably intense level of clarity, joy, love, and beauty that can’t be destroyed, only hidden.