Category Archives: Communication

Reviving the concept of cousins.

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Someone decided this was going to be Autistic History Month.  I had another contribution I was going to write.  In fact, it’s already almost written.  But I ended up writing this instead.  At first glance, it seems to be specific to autistic people.  But while it applies to autistic people, it also applies equally well to a lot of other disabled people, so it’s not necessary to ignore it because you’re not autistic.

There’s something the autistic community⁠1 has lost.  And I think it’s high time we got it back, possibly in an improved form.  It’s the concept of cousins.

It started with a man who had hydrocephalus.   I met him once, after the events I’m going to recount were already in the distant past.  But I’m leaving his name out in the interests of privacy, given that when he wrote about these events in Our Voice⁠2 he used a pseudonym.  Anyway, I think he came to the autism community, and later the autistic community, because he was a professional whose job involved autistic people somehow. But I don’t know for certain.

What I do know, is once he discovered the autistic community, he stuck around.  While he always made it clear that he wasn’t autistic himself, he found that he identified with autistic people a good deal due to his hydrocephalus.  Autistic people, likewise, found that they could identify with him.

At one point, there was an autism conference where a lot of autistic people attended.  Including Kathy Grant (now Xenia Grant), one of the co-founders of Autism Network International.  Jim Sinclair, another ANI co-founder, was there as well, along with several other ANI members.

To understand the tone that all of this took place in, it’s best to understand a bit of Xenia’s personality.  She is possibly the friendliest person I’ve ever met.  She’s also one of the most unapologetically autistic-looking people I’ve ever met: She looks autistic (in physical actions, in conversational topics, in what parts of the world she reacts to and how), she knows she looks autistic, and she has no problem with this at all.  And she has such an infectious exuberance and enthusiasm for life that it’s hard not to be cheerful when she’s around.  All this adds up to the fact that I’ve never met or heard of anyone who didn’t like her.⁠3

So anyway, I’ll let Jim Sinclair tell the story, since xe was there and I was not.  This is excerpted from xyr long but important article, Autism Network International: The Development of a Community and its Culture:

Another development during the 1993 conference was the recognition of a new segment of the ANI community, and the adoption of a new term to refer to it. One of the people who had been corresponding with ANI members online, and was attending this conference to meet with us in person for the first time, was not autistic. He had hydrocephalus, another congenital neurological abnormality. In our online discussions he had been noticing many similarities between his experiences and characteristics as a person with hydrocephalus, and the experiences and characteristics of autistic people. At the conference he met Kathy, who was not online at the time and did not know who he was. He introduced himself to her, explaining that he was interested in exploring similarities between himself and autistic people. He briefly summarized the effects of hydrocephalus in his life. Kathy considered this for a moment, and then warmly exclaimed “Cousin!” (Cousins, 1993). From that time on, the term “cousin” has been used within ANI to refer to a non-autistic person who has some other significant social and communication abnormalities that render him or her significantly “autistic-like.” The broader term “AC,” meaning “autistics and cousins,” emerged soon afterward.

The term AC is further documented on Jim Sinclair’s personal website:

Cousin refers to a person who is not NT, is not quite autistic, but is recognizably “autistic-like” particularly in terms of communication and social characteristics.  Some conditions that may lead to cousinhood include Tourette syndrome, hydrocephalus, Williams syndrome, and some learning disabilities.

AC stands for “autistic and/or cousin.” “AC” and “cousin” are sociological terms describing status within the ANI community, rather than clinical diagnostic terms.

[from A Note About Language and Abbreviations Used On This Site by Jim Sinclair]

As I’ve noted many times before, the online autistic community often has a very short memory.  I can remember when ‘cousin’ was a well-known term and used widely, even outside of ANI-related circles.  And then, gradually, its use died out and a lot of people seemed to forget — or not know in the first place — it had ever existed.

I only ever saw one criticism of ‘cousin’ that made sense to me.  And that was more about the way people used the idea, rather than the idea itself.  This was, that people used ‘cousin’ in a way that made it sound like autism was the one central way to be neurodivergent, and everything else was judged by whether it was similar to autism or not.

If the ‘cousin’ idea is brought back, I hope that it won’t be seen as exclusive to autism.  It can be used for practically any form of neurodivergence or similar experience of the world.

For instance, I experience delirium pretty regularly if I get sick enough.  This is because, as far as anyone knows anyway, delirium leads to brain damage, which leads to further susceptibility to delirium.  This is especially true for severe or prolonged delirium like the type I’ve experienced at times.  Delirium is a set of cognitive and perceptual changes brought on by a physical illness or injury of some kind.  The part about being directly linked to a physical problem is important.  The cognitive problems can range from mild confusion or disorientation, all the way to hallucinations, delusions, and large chunks of time lost altogether.

On a purely medical level, there are important differences between delirium and psychosis.  Some of those differences are subtle, and some are pretty dramatic.  Failing to distinguish them medically, could lead to death in extreme cases.  But experientially?  When I talk to people who have experienced psychosis, their experiences are closer to my experiences of delirium than any other group of people I’ve met.  So you could say delirium is a cousin of psychosis — the differences may be important on a medical level, but when it comes to understanding my experiences and how to deal with them, people with psychosis are the most likely to understand.

I’m going to quote one part of what Jim Sinclair said above in xyr definitions of AC and cousin, again, just to emphasize it:

“AC” and “cousin” are sociological terms describing status within the ANI community, rather than clinical diagnostic terms.

That means the important part of cousinhood isn’t what your diagnosis is.  It’s whose experiences you identify with and gain meaning from.  I’m not sure it’s a coincidence that at the same time that ‘cousin’ started disappearing as a concept, large parts of the autistic community became less focused on being a community of people who support each other, and more focused on being as exclusionary as they could get away with.  To the point where I’ve run into people who worry that they’re not ‘autistic enough’ to flap their hands when they’re happy, and that flapping their hands would be the equivalent of cultural appropriation.  Because people have told them that, or said things like that in their presence, enough that they’ve completely internalized it.  As if autistic people have some kind of monopoly on hand-flapping.

I’ve said this many times before, about concepts like autism itself:  These concepts are only useful inasfar as they help people.  That can mean:

  • helping you understand yourself better
  • helping you understand other people better
  • helping you meet people who are more likely to resemble you in ways that are important
  • helping you obtain services you need in order to survive, get a job, get an education, get legal help if you’re discriminated against or targeted for hate crimes, etc.
  • helping you advocate for yourself if you run into accessibility problems
  • helping you learn skills that you would otherwise find too difficult to learn, as well as skills you may never have heard of without meeting other people like yourself
  • helping you in all kinds of other ways, the point being, these are good things in your life, rather than destructive things in your life

On the other hand, these concepts can hurt us, and that’s where they become dangerous.  This can mean:

  • people becoming snobbish about being more autistic, or less autistic, than other autistic people
  • people defining the boundaries of who counts as autistic and who doesn’t, for reasons that have entirely to do with their own egos and insecurities
  • people trying to put limits on what you are allowed to be able to accomplish in your lifetime, and still be counted as autistic
  • people excluding you for no other reason than that you’re autistic
  • people treating you as subhuman, an unperson, because you’re autistic
  • not believing yourself to be fully a person, because you’re autistic
  • limiting your own ideas of what you’re capable of, because you’re autistic
  • forcing yourself, or being forced by others, into fitting certain stereotypes, because you’re autistic
  • feeling like you have to pretend that certain stereotypes don’t apply to you, even if they do, because you’re autistic and you feel like you “shouldn’t” be too stereotypical
  • feeling like you have to defer to professionals who have studied people like you, in describing your own life, because clearly they know more about autism than you do, which means clearly they know more about you than you do
  • harming you in all kinds of other ways, the point being, these are destructive things in your life, rather than good things in your life

And you can substitute nearly any other category of person in place of autistic up there.  The basic pattern works the same:  Pretty much any label that defines a group of people, has the possibility to do good and the possibility to do harm.  The only times there’s any point to using the label in question, is when it’s doing something good for you or other people.

Bringing people together with words like ‘cousin’ allows people to identify with autistic people, without putting pressure on them to figure out instantly whether they are actually autistic or not.  It allows people to acknowledge that most skills and difficulties autistic people experience are not totally unique to autistic people.  It allows people to acknowledge the vast grey area that is both outside of standard definitions of autism, and outside of neurotypical, but that resembles autism in important ways.  It allows people to acknowledge that the boundary between autistic and nonautistic is fuzzy at best.  And it does all that while contributing to people understanding more about themselves and each other, and bringing people together into friendships, communities, and other relationships they might not otherwise have.

So I really believe that it would not only be a good thing to remember the word ‘cousin’ and what it used to mean, but to revive it and expand its use for more than just autistic people.  It allows for so much more flexibility than people are currently given about a lot of different identity groups, and that’s important.  So if you like the idea of cousins, by all means, use it and adapt it as much as you want, for whatever groups of people in your own life you think it would best apply to.




1 For the purposes of this article, ‘the autistic community’ refers to relatively mainstream online self-advocacy and sociial communities made up mostly of autistic people.  There’s a lot of different autistic communities out there, both recognized and unrecognized, online and offline.

2 The newsletter of Autism Network International.

3 Actually, come to think of it, I’ve heard of exactly one person who didn’t like her.  It was a self-loathing person with autism who said they were embarrassed by her.  That’s an unfortunate but common reaction that those of us who are visibly “different” get from other people who want to forget their own difference, and who find that we remind them too much of parts of themselves they’d rather forget.  But for someone as social as Xenia, to have heard of only one person who disliked her for her unusual mannerisms and reactions to the world is a testament to her extremely friendly personality.  Ordinarily, if I mention Xenia to anyone who’s met her, they sort of light up inside just remembering her.  I don’t think it’s coincidence that someone that friendly is the one who thought up the concept of a ‘cousin’.

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Almost Alike: A Medical Cautionary Tale

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Blue medical bracelet with a medical symbol in white and the words "Adrenal Insufficency" on a metal plate.

Medical bracelet that says “Adrenal Insufficiency”.

I’ve been thinking about medical stuff a lot lately, so apologies if my posts tend towards the medical for a little while.  It’s what happens when you suddenly realize how lucky you are to be alive, and how close you came to death.  My father’s cancer has me thinking about life and death and medical care a lot, too.

In my dealings with doctors, I have found that they like the solutions to their problems to be neat and tidy.  In particular, they want there to be one diagnosis that explains all the symptoms they’re observing.  They want their patient to have that one diagnosis, and if their patient shows signs of more than one thing, it fouls up everything the doctor wants.

Case in point:  I had this neurologist at the headache clinic.  I told him that they strongly suspected my mother of having myasthenia gravis, or hereditary myasthenia.  Both are neuromuscular junction diseases that cause specific muscles to wear out quickly as you use them.  So for instance my eyes start out tracking the same object fairly well, but as time goes on, they drift outwards leaving me seeing double.  I had told my neurologist all about this, and about other muscular problems I’d been having.

I don’t remember why myasthenia came up, but I told him I was going to start on Mestinon, a medication that treats myasthenia.  His response was swift and a little annoyed:  “It’s not going to do anything.  I don’t think you have myasthenia.” 

“Why not?”

“Because people with myasthenia have trouble with specific muscle weakness. You have generalized weakness.  It’s not the same thing.”

He explained it as if I didn’t know this.  But he also explained it as if I hadn’t told him time and time again about the specific weakness, that was separate from the generalized weakness.  As if I hadn’t told him things were more complicated than he was expecting.

He offered to run an EMG but told me the results would be negative because “You just don’t have myasthenia gravis.”  I declined the testing.  I don’t like to be tested under circumstances where the doctor has already determined what the results are going to be.  Plus, I’d just been through an invasive procedure that left me in horrible pain for weeks, and I didn’t feel like being poked and prodded again.

But I did try the Mestinon, and it did make a difference.  It was subtle at first.  I could walk around my apartment without falling.  My eyes tracked things better, and for longer, before the double vision kicked in.  It was things like that.  The more Mestinon we added, the better those things got.  So it seemed my headache doctor was wrong, and there was something real about the effects of the Mestinon.

But in other areas, I was getting weaker.  In fact, as far as I could tell, I was dying.  I was hesitant to tell anyone this fact, because it felt like a fairly dramatic thing to announce.  But I’d known terminally ill people who had more energy than I had at times.  And I have instincts that tell me when something is going badly wrong.  Something was going badly wrong, and it went along with that more generalized muscle weakness.

I’ve already told the story of how I got diagnosed with severe secondary adrenal insufficiency.  And that’s what happened.  They found no measurable evidence of cortisol or ACTH in my blood.  When they flooded me with ACTH, I made cortisol, but not as much as expected.  Meaning my pituitary gland is not making enough ACTH to tell my adrenal glands to make cortisol.  And this was the reason for, among many, many other symptoms, my severe muscle weakness that affected my entire body.

I went into treatment for adrenal insufficiency and everything seemed to be looking up.  No longer bedridden.  No longer required to use a wheelchair for anything.  Not that I minded these things so much when they were happening, but it’s nice to be able to get up and walk up and down a flight of stairs when you want to.  It feels good to be able to exercise, after six years of bedrest.  Dexamethasone makes me feel alive again, instead of waiting for the next infection to kill me.   I feel strong, and sturdy, and robust, in a way I haven’t in years, and my friends sense the same thing about me.

The only problem?  Not everything went away.  I still had weakness in specific muscles.  I’d been referred to a new neurologist at the same time they were testing my cortisol.  This neurologist never pretended he had any answers.  He was simple and methodical in the way he worked.  He would come up with a list of every possibility, no matter how remote, and then he would run tests for every possibility.  This made me trust him in a way that I didn’t trust my migraine neurologist.  So I let him do any test he wanted to do.

Many of the tests, he came in and did them himself, which is unusual for a doctor.  Usually they delegate that stuff.  He did a regular EMG that turned up nothing, and I thought “See, my mother didn’t have an abnormal EMG either, so whatever we have isn’t going to show up on tests.”  Neither of us showed up as having the antibodies, either.  I began to think this was going to be one of those things that we never solved.

Then he called me in for something he called a single fiber EMG.  He was going to stick a wire into my forehead and measure something about the muscles.  I remember that on that day I had a lot of trouble even holding my head up on one side, and that I was seeing double.  He stuck the wires in, made me raise my eyebrows and move my eyes around.  There were a lot of electrical noises.

At the end of the test, he told me he wanted to see me as soon as possible because the result was abnormal.  The muscles were firing asynchronously. 

I didn’t know what that meant, but a week later I was in his office being told that I probably did have a neuromuscular junction disease after all.  Probably myasthenia gravis, possibly a much rarer hereditary form of myasthenia.

And to think that literally a couple weeks before I got the single-fiber EMG, my regular doctor and I had been discussing whether I really needed to be on Mestinon anymore.  We thought maybe my only real problem had been the adrenal insufficiency all along, and that my response to Mestinon might have been some kind of placebo effect (even though I don’t seem very prone to that effect even when I want to be).  Even I was starting to fall prey to that idea that a diagnosis is just one thing.

Right now, we don’t really know what exactly my diagnosis is.  We know for certain that I have secondary adrenal insufficiency.  And we are pretty certain that I have a neuromuscular junction disorder, and the most common one of those is myasthenia gravis.  (I’m just going to refer to it as myasthenia gravis for the rest of this.  Because it’s shorter than saying “the thing we think is myasthenia gravis maybe”.)

But the important thing — the thing a lot of doctors miss — is that there is not one diagnosis here.  There are at least two diagnoses, possibly more.  This is not the first time, and it won’t be the last time, that I’ve had doctors miss something fairly obvious because they thought that the simplest explanation is always a single diagnosis. 

I still remember back when I was dealing with three different diagnoses that affected movement in different ways:  Adrenal insufficiency, myasthenia gravis, and autistic catatonia.  And any time we’d try to bring up a symptom of one of them with a doctor, they’d bring up a “contradictory” symptom from a different one of them, and that would mean that… it couldn’t be myasthenia gravis, because sometimes I froze stiff instead of limp, because I also had autistic catatonia.   And it went on like that for years, where every condition I had was ‘contradicted’ by some other condition, so many of the doctors refused to see the complexity of the situation.

Sometimes that resulted in situations that were almost funny, but other times it could turn deadly.  There was a time I was hospitalized for aspiration pneumonia connected to gastroparesis, and my doctor refused to treat me for anything other than the pneumonia.  So I had collapsed in my bed after vomiting so much that all the muscles involved had gone limp and I was starting to have trouble breathing.  In retrospect we think it was the start of an adrenal or myasthenia crisis, and that I belonged in the ICU.  But at the time, the hospitalist simply refused to treat anything that wasn’t pneumonia.  So I had to lie there totally immobilized, delirious, and hallucinating, wondering whether I was going to survive, for days on end.  All because a doctor was only willing to think about one condition at a time.

Over the years, I’ve picked up an impressive collection of diagnoses.  Many of them are based on symptoms and my response to treatments.  But some of them are based on hard-core medical tests like high-resolution CT scans — things you can’t confuse for anything other than what they are.  I’m going to list the ones that  were diagnosed by those hard-core medical tests, and understand I’m listing them here for a reason:

  • Bronchiectasis (high-resolution CT scan)
  • Frequent bowel obstructions (x-ray)
  • Central sleep apnea (sleep study)
  • Obstructive sleep apnea (sleep study)
  • Early-onset gallbladder disease (ultrasound)
  • Exotropia (eye exam)
  • Gastroparesis (gastric emptying scan)
  • GERD – reflux (barium swallow)
  • Esophageal motility problems (barium swallow)
  • Dysphagia (barium swallow)
  • High cholesterol (blood test)
  • Hypermobility syndrome (Brighton criteria)
  • Myasthenia gravis or related condition (single fiber EMG)
  • Secondary adrenal insufficiency (cortisol test, ACTH test, ACTH stimulation test)
  • Urinary retention with spastic urethra (urodynamic testing)

So this is fifteen different conditions right here, that there is no possible way that I don’t have them.  They’ve been tested for, the tests are valid, there’s nothing unusual about the tests I was given, they exist.  I’m diagnosed with a lot of other conditions, but even if we pretended that those conditions turned out to be misdiagnosed because some of the diagnosis was subjective… I’m still left with fifteen conditions here that are very much real.  Some of them are more serious than others.  But many of them are difficult and complex both on their own and in combination with each other.  (Also, many of them went years misdiagnosed because doctors refused to even test me for them, believing that a person with a developmental disability or a psych history couldn’t possibly be telling the truth about their own symptoms.)

Now imagine you’re a doctor, and I’ve walked in your door, off the street, with no medical history.  And I’ve got the symptoms of all of these fifteen conditions.  Some of the symptoms are severe enough to be life-threatening.  And your very first instinct is to try to find one condition that accounts for all of these symptoms.  You’re going to be looking for a very long time, and you’re going to be lucky if I don’t die before you figure it out.

Of course, it’s still possible that there really is one condition that explains all this.  Or at least, a small handful of conditions.  There are many genetic conditions that can cause problems all over your body, and they can be notoriously difficult to pin down.  But for the moment, we’ve had to diagnose all of these things separately in order to get a handle on how to treat them. 

It may be there’s some genetic condition that causes neuropathy (my mother and I both have symptoms of autonomic and sensory neuropathy), which could in turn cause the gastroparesis and esophageal motility problems (and dysphagia, and other things that aren’t listed above), just as one example.  But right now we don’t have that information.  Right now we just know I have gastroparesis, and that it doesn’t play well with reflux and bronchiectasis, and that if I hadn’t gotten a feeding tube in time it probably would’ve killed me.  There could also be something behind the adrenal insufficiency, but that damn near did kill me a number of times before we even knew enough about it to put me on dexamethasone. 

And that’s why it’s important that medical professionals not restrict themselves to a single diagnosis when they’re looking at what’s going wrong with someone.  If you see symptoms that look contradictory, then you ought to be wondering if you’re looking at more than one condition at once.

If there’s one thing I have noticed, having been in and out of hospitals for a long, long time… it’s that my roommates are usually people like me.  They’re people with multiple medical conditions all at once.  They’re not textbook illustrations of a single condition in all its pristine glory.  They’re a mess, just like me.  Like my roommate who had both Lesch-Nyhan and myasthenia gravis (and was a woman, which is rare for someone with Lesch-Nyhan in the first place).  They really treated her like crap, too — they wouldn’t believe a word she said about herself, unless they could verify it from some outside source, which they always did, but still never trusted her.  Sometimes I heard her crying after they left.  At any rate, I can’t remember a single hospital roommate who had only one condition, unless they were in there for a routine surgery.

Which tells me that those of us who end up in hospitals on a regular basis, at least, are people with complicated medical histories.  Not people who just have one simple thing that can be figured out.  Which means that no hospitalist should ever do what one of mine did and say “I’m only treating the pneumonia, nothing else matters, no matter how bad things get.”  I’m really passionate about this issue because I’ve seen how close to death I’ve come, how many times, just because everyone wanted my body to be simpler than it was.

Maybe the problem is that we train doctors too much on textbooks, and on the people who most resemble textbooks.  We don’t want to confuse them with too much, all at once.  So they grow to look for the one explanation that will explain it all, instead of the fifteen or more explanations that will explain it all.  And in the meantime, their patient could die while they’re waiting to get properly diagnosed.

And that’s the part that worries me.  I’m very lucky to be alive.  My doctors know I’m very lucky to be alive.  And I have a pretty amazing team of doctors.  I have a great GP, a great pulmonologist, a great neurologist, and a great endocrinologist.  These are doctors who are willing to listen to me when I know more than they do, but also willing to argue with me when they know more than I do, it’s the perfect combination. 

My GP has been here since I moved to Vermont, and he is known in the area as one of the best doctors around.  We have our disagreements, but he always explains his decisions to me, and I always explain my decisions to him.  We respect each other and that makes everything work.  He has done his best to stand up for me in situations where my social skills have caused problems with other doctors.

My pulmonologist is amazing.  She always anticipates situations where I’m going to face discrimination, and she’s always ready.  When she knew I was heading for a really bad pneumonia, she had my lungs CAT scanned to prove the pneumonia was there, because she knew nothing less than that would get me admitted to the hospital.  And even then it took all she and my GP could do to get me into the hospital and keep me there long enough to get me a feeding tube.

I’m new to my endocrinologist, but he’s clearly really good too.  He’s been helping me through the first stages of being diagnosed with adrenal insufficiency, including things as difficult as when to stress-dose and how much.  He’s given me the confidence to figure out on my own the amount of steroids I need to give myself in physically or emotionally stressful situations.  That’s a key skill you have to have to avoid adrenal crisis, and I think I’ve finally got the hang of it.

My neurologist is also new, but he’s clearly highly competent.  There’s nothing flashy about him or anything.  It’s not like he has some kind of flashy swagger like you see on TV shows.  He’s very quiet.  What he has is the ability to be mind-bogglingly thorough.  He listens to everything you have to say, he asks very careful questions, and he takes very careful notes.  Then he thinks up every possible condition that could result in the symptoms you have, no matter how rare or improbable it seems.  Then he figures out which ones are the most important to test for first.  And then he pretty much tests you for everything.  If there were two words for him, it would be methodical and thorough.  And it’s paid off — we now know I have something similar to myasthenia gravis, even though all the signs were pointing away from it for awhile.  Like my GP, he’s one of those doctors that other doctors hold in very high regard.  I can tell by the way they talk about him.

I wanted to make a point of talking about these doctors, because the point of this post is not to bash the medical profession.  These are people who have saved my life.  These are people I have built a relationship with over the years, or am in the course of building a relationship with now.  I’ve had plenty of truly awful doctors, but I’ve had a surprising number of truly great ones as well.  Most are somewhere in the middle.  But the great ones are the ones I owe my life to, many times over.  They have done things for me that, I am sure, they have never even told me about, and probably never will.

But all doctors, no matter how great, need a reminder that medical conditions don’t come in neat, orderly packages the way the textbooks make them sound.  Most disabled people and people with chronic illnesses have multiple conditions, not just one.  Often, these conditions have symptoms that can seem to contradict each other.  And even when there’s one overarching condition that causes all of them, there’s a good chance you’re going to need to find all the smaller conditions before you can put the puzzle together.  Many times, finding all the smaller conditions is a matter of life and death.  People simply can’t wait around to find the perfect most elegant answer when we’re going into adrenal crisis or myasthenia crisis on a regular basis.  Maybe there’s a reason I have adrenal insufficiency, and maybe one day they’ll find it, but for now I need to be on dexamethasone so I don’t die in the meantime.

Unfolding

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Me with Fey sitting on my shoulder, and a brown and yellow afghan in front of me.

Me with Fey sitting on my shoulder.

Sometimes I want to unfold
The beauty of the world
As if it was the most intricate
Origami flower
That had ever seen the light of day

Then I want to wait
And wait
Until the flower blooms for real
Until its velvet black blossoms
Tinged with purple edges
Grow fuzz that you can run your hand over

And I want to hand it to you
And watch you rub the fuzz
Against your cheek
Against your lips
Against your nose —
The yellow-black stamens tickle

And then fold the flower
Back into paper
And put it in my pocket
For safekeeping

I would make more of them
And write secret notes
That only some people could read

They would say things like:

“The most beautiful things
Are concealed all around you.”

“You are a flower and
This is how you become real.”

“You are unfolding
Just like this.
Don’t hurry,
Don’t wait.”

I would hide them in plain sight
And I would hide them in places
That only the curious and observant
Would bother looking

I would hide them in places
That can only be found
When doing shit work
For 22 cents an hour

I would hide them so that each person
Stood a chance of finding at least one
Just one
That told them what they needed to hear
Right now
Just then

Unfold them, they become real flowers
Fold them, they become folded paper
You can do this as many times as you need
Because they are magic flowers

And if you get good at looking and listening
With more than just your eyes and ears
You will find these creations everywhere
Left by someone
With far more magic
Than I will ever possess

You know when you find one because
Suddenly something ordinary
Becomes extraordinary
Suddenly you’ve been let in on a secret
About something you’d seen before
But never seen before

It can be anything from
A spray of mud on your pants
To a pair of decorated crutches
To a butterfly

It doesn’t have to be pretty on first sight
Many times it isn’t
Many times it seems horrible
Until that flash of inspiration
When it unfolds into a flower in full bloom

And then every texture is like suede
And every color is like the deepest blue before dawn
And every taste is like boiled collards with butter
And every smell is the fur behind a cat’s ears

I wish I had the magic necessary
To make these things myself
To fold reality into paper
And leave it everywhere for people to find

As it is, all I can say is
Someone has already done it

You can find these magic folded papers
On the inside of a zero
In the yawn of a kitten
In a feeding tube
In a wadded up rag
In a tangled old root
In a leaf that skips down the sidewalk

And all of them are flowers
And all of them are there to tell you
There is more in this world than you can ever see
There is more love
There is more light
There is more beauty

And you are part of it
Always
Even
(Especially!)
When everything seems to be
Crashing down around you

Can you accept
This magic spell
This gift
From the world
To me
To you?

What came before.

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If I could reach through the computer screen…

I want to hand you a lapis lazuli ball

So you can lose yourself in the deep blue

And be dazzled by the gold specks.

I want you to roll it over and over in your hand

Gently nose it to feel its texture

And weigh it in your hand.

I want to hand you my black tourmaline egg

So you can feel that unique texture

I want you to hold it while you sleep

And wake up to it, warm and slick in your hand

I want to hand you my amber ring

So you can watch the sunlight turn it into fire

And watch the sun set inside it glittering red, orange, and yellow

I want to do these things

So that I can say

We share these sensory experiences

And nothing can take that away

I want to hand things back and forth

And clack them together to hear their sounds

And rub them on our cheeks

And brush them against our fingertips

Then I want to hand you things too big to pick up:

The warmth and smell of a granite mountainside as the sun heats it up all day long.

The liquid sunlight melting across the coat of a cat who embodies sunlight well.

The whole cycle of life that takes place in the soil of a redwood forest. And the smell of that soil.

The deep rumbling sound of the Mother Tree when you’re curled up against it, surrounded by its invisible amethyst glow.

The feeling of lying in bed, but at the same time, being surrounded by a deep, glowing blue sky, as if pre-dawn or post-dusk. And listening to the music of the forest. Listening with my skin, listening with my eyes, listening with my fingertips, listening with my nose. Listening with everything more than my ears. Being wrapped in the song of the forest and the stars and the trees and the soil and the fungus, all singing, all singing inside me.

I know you can feel the layers of sensory experience. The layers of meaning that come before the meaning of mind. The things we were meant to forget, when we learned to think their way. The things we didn’t forget, the things that we retained no matter what we were told to forget. The stillness, the silence. The music in the silence, the growth and death and birth cycling endlessly.

I would hand you these things, if I could reach through a computer screen. And I would take whatever you handed back, and listen to it sing its unique song. And we could communicate the way we are meant to communicate. By what came before thought, by what came before sight and sound, touch and smell, by the resonance in what came before.

Your politics have a problem when they contradict the real-life experiences of the people they’re supposed to be about.

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Your politics have an even bigger problem when the people they’re supposed to be about, become afraid to describe our real-life experiences, for fear of angering the echo chamber.  And when we become afraid to describe our real-life experiences, that reinforces your idea that or real-life experiences don’t actually exist.  Which reinforces the idea that you’re right.  Which makes you feel even more justified in attacking anyone who happens to contradict you for any reason at all.

I hate this.

I hate it because I am afraid to say certain things about my life.

Because I don’t know if I have the strength to handle the consequences if I do.

Because I understand, I more than understand, why the echo chambers believe as they believe.  I understand what’s at stake.  I understand why it’s so easy to believe that contradiction is a threat to your life, because in some areas, it almost, sort of, can be.

And yet I also understand what’s at stake when all of us little people on the ground aren’t allowed to talk about our lives.

And there’s more at stake there than you think.

When we can’t have a conversation.

When we can’t bring our little packages of our truth from our lives to the table, and unwrap them together, and look at them, and learn from each other, without judgement.

Then something is dying, and something has died, and something is dead.  And your entire echo chamber smells of rotting flesh.

But we are still alive.

And we still pass around our little packages to each other.

But instead of doing it in the full light of day, where everyone can see and benefit from it.

We do it furtively, at night.  We look around, make sure nobody is looking, tiptoe to the neighbor’s house, sneak in through the back door so nobody sees us coming.

We send each other packages in the mail with no return address.

We write our stories in invisible ink.  We write them in code.

You should know all about this.  This is what it was like for all marginalized people, before your movements got started.

But now, instead of just hiding from the oppressors, we are hiding from your movements.

You might want to take a really good, long look at why that is.

I once took part in a disability studies group we called Disability Studies Prometheus.  Because we were people traditionally left out of disability studies.  We were cognitively disabled, or too sick to make it to class, or other things.  We called ourselves Prometheus because he stole fire from the gods for the benefit of humanity.  We were stealing the fire of knowledge from the mainstream disability studies programs that wouldn’t let us in — our IQs too low, our behavior too wild, our bodies too unreliable for the university setting.  So we stole what we could from them, and we made the fire our own.

Don’t for a moment believe that this isn’t happening everywhere.

There are disabled people stealing fire from the mainstream disability communities.  Trans and genderless people stealing fire from the mainstream trans communities.  People of color stealing fire from the mainstream PoC communities.  Poor and working-class people stealing fire from Marxist and other anti-classism echo chambers.  LGB people stealing fire from the ivory towers that theorize about queerness all day.  Women stealing fire from mainstream feminism in all its incarnations.

More than that, there are marginalized people stealing fire from the marginalized people who have gained power.  And the ones stealing the fire don’t always stick to the communities we’ve been taught to stick to.  So you have nondisabled trans women of color stealing fire and bringing it back to cis men with profound multiple developmental disabilities, and both of them learning to tell their stories together.  And you have elderly gay white rich healthy men stealing fire and bringing it back to children of color living on cancer wards.

All around you, in the night, where you can’t see us.

We are all around you.  We are carrying little packages around.  Packages wrapped in plain, nondescript, brown paper.

Those little parcels will overturn the world.  They will overturn everything you’ve ever worked for.  And they will make it better.

Because each little package contains the story of one of us.  And it is a story untainted by ideology.  It is a story untainted by who you say we should be.  It is a story that says who we are.

And our stories.  Our stories as ourselves.  Our stories without someone to look over our shoulder and tell us that it can’t be the way it actually was.  That the way it actually was, will automatically hurt someone else.

And we put our stories together.  Even if we have to do it in the dead of night.  Even if we have to do it in code, whether low-tech ciphers or high-tech encryption.  Even if we have to send it to each other anonymously, one by one.

We are cautiously, furtively, forming real communities.  Communities that are about helping each other, not about tearing each other apart, or about finding new people to tear apart.

You can even join us… if you learn to resist your impulse to jump down people’s throats the moment we don’t comply with expectations.

But the bottom line is: We are out here.  Nothing you can say or do will stop us from carrying around our little packages, handing them out to each other, reading them, discussing them.  We are being.  We are being joyously and cautiously, furtively and with abandon, but we are being.  We are handing out manuscripts and poems, index cards with recipes on them.  We hide them, we bury them, we slip them into our bras, into the back pockets of our briefcases and false drawers in our luggage.

And then we pull them out.  And we show them to each other.  And we read them.  We read them understanding each person as an individual, without judgement except where absolutely necessary.  And we find ways of making connections.  We find ways of making communities.  Not based on shared individual traits, so much as on a shared desire to understand and protect one another.  Shared understanding, based on learning about each other.  Even the parts of each other that would seem inconvenient at first glance.  Even the parts of each other, perhaps especially those parts, where our stories seem to contradict.   Because it’s those parts that show us where we most need to grow, and understand, and learn to see each other in new ways.

But we form communities because that is what people do, when we begin to understand each other in depth.  To understand each other enough to care what happens to each other.  And when we form those communities, we do so because we’ve learned so much about each other, on a deep enough level, that we can’t avoid caring about each other.

The most important part about communities formed in this way?  They’re not about ideas.  They’re about people.  Every single community member counts, and every single community member is the reason that we have come together in the first place.  Those packages we have exchanged are our stories as people, our experiences in the world, our lives.  And everything that happens in these communities are based around that.  Not around ideologies, not around constructing the perfect set of ideas.  Not around making sure that everyone’s thoughts are pure and free from dissent.  But around making sure that each human being is valued to the fullest extent possible.  Even if our stories seem to contradict each other.  Even if our stories seem to contradict the ideologies we remember from before.

This is another way to do things.  This is already happening, right in front of you.  I am doing this.  My friends are doing this.  We are doing these things because we are being harmed so much by ideologies, that there has to be another way, there has to be a way that we can change the world and survive doing it without selling our souls.  So if this seems like a far-off utopian dream, know that it is happening all around you.  It’s happening offline, it’s happening online, it’s happening right under your feet.  I’m doing it right here, right now.

It’s scary to let go of words, when you’re trapped inside them.

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Because there’s a moment when you’ve let go of the words
And you realize that once you let go, they won’t come back
And you’re hanging in the air between the words and the ground
And you don’t know how high you are in the air
And you don’t know how hard you’ll hit the ground
Or how many bumps and bruises that will cause
Even though you always feel better with your feet on the ground
And you desperately, desperately want to be on the ground smelling the earth
But you’re afraid to fall
And you’re afraid to hit
And you’re afraid how much effort it will take to get back in the air
Or whether you can get into the air at all
So you cling and scrabble
Until your fingers break
And you hit the ground fifty times as hard
And stay there fifty times as long
Too stunned to take in
Everything you normally appreciate
About being on the ground

My worst social trait.

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One of the things I feel the most guilty about is my inability to stay connected with people I care about.

Generally, I can actively have between 1 and 3 friends, at most, at a time.  I may have other friends who are my friends, but I don’t communicate with them.  I don’t even remember, half the time, that they exist.  It’s gotten so bad sometimes that I live right down the hall from one of my closest friends in the world and I have sometimes forgotten that she exists for over a month at a time.

People who are not tied to me closely in a way where I have to communicate with them regularly, don’t stand a chance unless they are able to keep up the lines of communication, themselves.

I try as hard as I can to change this.  I feel horrible about people that I feel like I’ve picked up and then abandoned, so many times over the years.  And then, to make things worse, it can get to a situation where I only contact them when I absolutely need something out of them.  So then it becomes “I can’t even contact you most of the time when I just want to talk to you, but I can contact you when I need something from you.”  That feels horrible.  I know that it’s not the case that I’m just “using” them, I know this is all tied into autism and executive dysfunction and movement disorders and memory problems and inertia and a million other things, but it still feels like this is what’s going on, and I can’t help wondering if they secretly resent me for it.

Sometimes, to make matters worse, there are people I think about all the time, but I can’t write to them.  I get writer’s block every time I try.  I may somehow manage to think about them every day, but I can’t write.  And then the guilt builds up and only makes it harder to contact them.  I haven’t gotten into this cycle with very many people, but when I have it’s been almost impossible to get out of.

And then I try to explain these things to people I’m “supposed to” have ties to, people who are very different from me both socially and cognitively.  There’s one person who’s repeatedly said things to me like “I know you don’t like to write to me” and no matter how many times I explain what’s actually going on, they still say things like that, a lot.

And sometimes I wonder whether everyone except me knows all this about me.  Like whether there’s conversations like “Yeah, she says she likes you, but then she disappears and forgets about you and never talks to you again, except maybe if she needs something.”  I hope not.  But I don’t know.  I always feel like I have to warn my friends up-front that this happens, because it’s so hard for me to stay in touch with people no matter how much I actually care about them.

And it’s hard to deal with this in a world where people measure how much you care by how much you think about someone and stay in touch with them.  I have the problem that I can care very much about someone, and in fact have a very close relationship with them, yet forget about them for weeks or months at a time, and fail to communicate with them for years at a time.  If my friends want to maintain a relationship with me, then they have to put in a larger amount of effort staying in touch with me than they normally would with someone who is more easily able to stay in touch, and this doesn’t seem fair.

And it still doesn’t seem fair even knowing that this is related to specific cognitive limitations.

And I still feel like a failure as a friend, because I can’t communicate with people as much as I want to, or think about them as much as I want to, or both.  I still don’t know what makes the difference between people I think about all the time but can’t communicate with, and people I forget even exist.  It certainly isn’t how close a friend they are, nor is it physical proximity.  There’s someone in particular that I think about frequently, but who I have not written to in probably seven years.  They wrote to me once a few years ago and I badly wanted to write back but no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t.  It was like bashing my head against a brick wall.  And this person is someone I once had daily contact with, someone I owe my life to.

As far as I know, there’s a few things that overlap to cause this problem.

One of them is a memory problem where unless a memory is specifically being triggered all the time, I’m not going to remember it.  I have a very good memory for things that are triggered in a specific way, and a lousy memory for everything else.  I have been known to be unable to eat because my cupboards were closed and I couldn’t see the food so I didn’t know food existed.  I have the same problem with people.  If the person is not actually there, or not actively communicating with me right at that instant, then I don’t remember they exist.

Another of them is a form of inertia, where actions have to be triggered in specific ways in order to happen, much like memory has to be triggered.  This means that simply thinking about doing something is not enough to make me able to do that thing.  I have to be in a situation that triggers the right reaction.  And writing to people is not an action that is easy for me to trigger into existence.  So even if I remember you exist, I’m not necessarily going to be able to write to you.  This also explains why I’m more able to write to someone if there’s something I need — the need triggers the action.  Although need doesn’t always trigger an action, it all has to align correctly (so there’s someone I needed something from for years and I never could write to him because it wasn’t exactly aligned right to trigger the action of writing).

Another of them is a trouble with multitasking.  Staying in touch with people is not a simple action like picking up a ball.  It is a complex action that involves many different cognitive and physical aspects all at once.  This means that in order to happen it’s not enough for one thing to be triggered by one other thing.  Everything has to line up perfectly.  If even one part of this large chain of events is out of place, then I’m not able to do it.

The multitasking problem is also evident not just in the amount of parts it takes to make the action happen, but also in terms of paying attention to multiple things at once.  There’s a reason that I am able to stay in touch with one or two people, but not more than that.  One person takes up all of my attention, then I have very little attention left over for anyone else.

And this is all besides the fact that I’m pretty introverted by nature and I don’t automatically spend my time thinking about people.  I think if I were extroverted I would still have trouble keeping in touch with people, but it would be less trouble because my mind would be more drawn to thinking about them all the time.  I can go a long time without thinking about people at all.  Even when I write for my blog, it is easier for me to pay attention to what I am saying, than it is to pay attention to all the people who might be reading it.  I am always genuinely surprised how many readers I have, and sometimes alarmed by that fact.  Even though I feel like I am someone who cares deeply about people in both the general and the particular, my mind is not automatically drawn to thinking about people, as a topic.  Right now I mostly think about crocheting.

I’m sure there’s other things, many of them autism-related, that play into this as well.  And it doesn’t just affect friends, it affects family.  I have a horrible time staying in touch with my family, and I feel constantly guilty about it.  (Worse when I get letters from relatives that contain assumptions like “I know you don’t like writing to me”… ouch.)  Especially since I get a lot of support from my brothers at times, but never ever talk to them, rarely talk to my father, and only sometimes talk to my mother.  It doesn’t matter how much I care about or love someone, it can’t overcome all these difficulties.

So if you ever notice this pattern in my communication with you (this includes my inability, sometimes, to respond to blog comments), try to understand that it’s not personal.  I only have one person in my life that I’m in consistent contact with right now, and another person that I’m in semi-consistent contact with, and that’s usually about my limit right there.  Three people happens sometimes but it’s rare.  Right now it’s one and a half people — one very consistent contact (Anne), one less consistent contact (Laura), and a lot of very, very scattered contact with other friends and family.  And I can even forget Anne exists, even though that doesn’t happen as often as it would with other people because of a type of connection we share that as far as I know is completely unique — I can’t form that connection with people on command, it just exists, and I’ve never had that type of connection with anyone else.  And even with that deep, intimate connection I can occasionally forget her for a week or so.

And I’m very sorry, to the 15+ people I’ve cared deeply about and almost entirely lost contact with over the years.  If I could change anything about myself socially, this would be it.  But I’ve never been able to change it.  It makes me feel like I’m not capable of “real” friendship, even though I know I am.  I am lucky that I have some very tolerant friends.  People who take such lapses in contact personally, won’t do well in a friendship with me.  Not that I judge you if you do take it personally on an emotional level — we just may not be compatible if you do.   But do try to understand that my level of contact with you is not at all related to how much I love or care about you.