Tag Archives: social skills

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.

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.

A bunch of stuff that needed saying

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The following stuff is important stuff I wrote elsewhere on the net. If some of what I'm saying doesn't make sense, ignore it, it's just context that I'm not able to describe right now. The main thrust of what I'm saying should make sense without understanding the full context of what I wrote. And I can't rewrite it all right now for this blog. So the following is pretty much as I wrote it. Also sorry for all caps in places, it was because where I was writing it I couldn't use other forms of emphasis. And please don't assume that this is all about autism. Everyone always assumes that everything I say is all about autism. It isn't. Most of it isn't. Not even the stuff that talks about autism is all about autism. I am fed up with just about every such assumption because my world isn't made up of only or mainly autistic people and when I talk about things I always get replies saying “This applies to people without autism too” and I want to say “no shit Sherlock, that's what I meant in the firs

This turned into a long post, and it may not apply to the people I’m replying too, but this conversation just brought up a lot of things I’ve been thinking but having trouble saying.

Thank you for writing that. It’s really important.

Also another point I want to make. There are many autistic people whose best method of communication is nonverbal. By which I mean, not speech, not writing. Some of us this is true of, can communicate well by speech or typing also. Some of us can’t. But we usually have trouble with receptive language — either some of the time, all of the time, or especially, during the early formative years of our lives. I’m one such person.

Most people don’t know this because the current theories of autism all involve us being terrible at nonverbal communication. By which people mean, terrible at one specific kind of nonverbal communication that most nonautistic people are good at. Also, most autistic people who can talk about their experiences in words, are (or believe themselves to be) bad at nonverbal communication, and their experiences get seen as applying to all of us, when this is not true.

So for many of us — nonverbal communication, and the world of things outside of words, are our best way of communicating. Whether we can also use words or not. I wrote about one such group of autistic people in my contribution (“Untitled”) to the Loud Hands anthology. Because I want people to know we exist. Because I want other people like me to know they aren’t alone, in an autistic community made up mostly of people who experience themselves as terrible at nonverbal communication. Where people even say that autistic communities are communities where people can use text or other forms of language, rather than having to deal with nonverbal communication. Even though there’s plenty of us who do better in person, BECAUSE we communicate best nonverbally, because words, whether we can do them or not, whether we are or seem good at them or not, are so hard and so difficult and so painful to keep using.

There are entire groups of autistic people out there who communicate with each other using our own unique forms of body language that are different from nonautistic body language, different from other autistic people’s body language, specific to ourselves, specific to each other. Who communicate best reading each others writing, looking for the patterns that exist between the words, rather than inside the words themselves. Who communicate best by exchanging objects, by arranging objects and other things around ourselves in ways that each other can read easier than we can read any form of words. Who share the most intimate forms of communication, outside of words, outside of anything that can be described easily, in between everything, seeing each other to the core of our awareness. Who see layers upon layers of meaning outside of any form of words.

In “Untitled” I was writing about my favorite communication ever, my video chats with AnneC (and her cats, when they show up, which Shadow absolutely loves communicating with me over video and reminds her every Friday at the right time because he loves it so much). I don’t necessarily do the best at visual stuff the way most people think of it. But I can see the patterns of movement in other people, including cats, whether or not I see them well in the usual forms of visual perception. And those patterns of movement tell me more than any word ever could.

I can even read nonautistic people fairly well at times — just not in the ways nonautistic people read each other well. That’s one of the problems with nonautistic research into autistic people’s abilities to understand nonverbal communication. Most of it relies on the understanding and use of words at the same time as understanding the nonverbal communication. And most of it relies on the kinds of nonverbal communication that nonautistic people are most aware of. This frustrates me to no end — how can people research forms of understanding that they don’t themselves have and therefore they don’t themselves understand even exists? I’ve actually told researchers ways they can research autistic people’s understanding of nonverbal communication without having to resort to the faulty methods they usually use.

And one researcher told me, when I asked, that every parent of an autistic child she ever met said that their child picked up easily on things like stress in the household, but that SHE ACTUALLY DISREGARDED IT UNTIL I ASKED HER, BECAUSE SHE’D BEEN TAUGHT THAT AUTISTIC PEOPLE COULDN’T READ BODY LANGUAGE. I’m totally serious. If researchers are that biased themselves, how can they possibly hope to even notice that we can understand things they assume we don’t understand?! I taught that researcher a bunch of very simple ways to test that without relying on the painfully stupid research methods that guarantee researchers will find only what they expect to find — relying on us to use and understand words, relying on our understanding of actors and stage conventions rather than real people’s real nonverbal communication, relying on nonautistic people’s limited ability to read autistic body language, all sorts of other flaws that seem obvious but that researchers themselves seem never to notice. So hopefully she will set up some real experiments that show our real abilities.

Anyway. Back to what I was saying. There’s entire subgroups of autistic people out there _ not just my own — who rely on nonverbal means of understanding the world, and nonverbal means of communication. That’s one reason I usually put myself in my videos — because I know that certain other autistic people will be able to read me like a book, even if nonautistic people usually can’t. And that nonverbal communication is a crucial part of my videos. (See why the entire first half of “In My Language” has no words in it. I was trying to make a point about the best way I communicate, the best way many people communicate, autistic or not, verbal or not. Mostly lost on people, who think it’s a video about autism. It’s not. It’s a video about communication and understanding and personhood, that happens to be made by an autistic person. Big difference. I told CNN why I really made the video, and they left out that part of the interview in favor of putting their words in my mouth. I think my real intent was too political for them.)

Anyway. I may be a writer, but my real best form of communication has nothing to do with words. I use words because I have to. Because most people won’t understand me if I don’t. I don’t use them because I like them, or because I “can’t do nonverbal communication so text is best for me”, or any of the usual reasons most people assume. If I could never use language again, spoken or written, I would be really happy. But the world won’t let me do that, so I carry on using a means of communication that is outright painful for me.

I don’t know the people in the video, but I know that the way their bodies move makes intuitive sense to me and communicates things whether they intend it to be so or not. (The forms of nonverbal communication I understand best are unintentional, in fact. That’s one reason tests using actors don’t work on me. I know an autistic woman who failed a test of nonverbal communication because it used actors and she kept describing their real feelings instead of their acted ones. What this says about nonautistic people’s understanding of nonverbal communication is… interesting.) Whether they are able to use spoken language or not, the video would lose a lot if it only relied on showing them speaking or typing the words.

And I really dislike a lot of the self-advocacy movement for relying mostly on the self-advocacy that happens through words, written or spoken. This leaves out people who can’t do either but who are nonetheless quite capable of advocating for themselves through their actions and movements. If I hadn’t spent a lot of my life forcing myself to do words, I might be such a person, so I am always aware of this. Words are not natural to me the way they are to some autistic people. They’re difficult and my development could have gone either way. There are also people who, no matter how much effort they put in, could never have used or understood words, and they are also extremely important, and they are also capable of self-advocacy, and they are still capable of communication that is more full of meaning than the communication of many people who use words.

I wish there were videos using their communication — which by definition wouldn’t involve words. Both people who would have been able to use words had they put in a crapload of effort at critical times in their development, and people who would never be able to use them no matter what. Such people exist. I sometimes wonder if they are too inconvenient for some autistic people to remember. I hate when people tell parents, “If you just gave your child a communication device they would be able to type words (or use picture symbols) and everything would be solved.” You don’t know that. You just can’t possibly know that. I hear that a lot, this idea that autistic people would all be able to communicate in words if only they were given a means to type them instead of speak them. And it’s so not true that its utterly ridiculous. I hear it both from people whose main way of communicating is speech, and also from people who use typing, and people who use both. It’s wishful thinking and it’s not true. There are people whose understanding of the world is just like a typical “aspie” except they couldn’t speak for motor reasons, and they are the most likely of those who use typing, to believe this myth.

Reality is that there are lots of people who will either never be able to use words, never be able to understand words, or both. Or whose use or understanding is so limited that they will never be able to use words as their primary means of communication. But they do communicate, whether the communication is intentional or not. And they do matter. And they are capable of self-advocacy. And they should be included in self-advocacy movements if those movements ever expect to represent autistic people, developmentally disabled people, cognitively disabled people, disabled people in general, whatever group is trying to represent itself in that movement. And in order to include them, you have to show their movements and their sounds and all the things they do that aren’t words.

It’s true that many people who are thought not to be able to use or understand language, actually are. And it’s terrible that they are overlooked. But in their desire not to overlook such people, many people claim that all disabled people who can’t communicate through speech fall under this umbrella. And that’s simply not true. In order to communicate with people who will never use words, you have to learn their language. (And surprise, that’s one thing that “In My Language” was actually about. And it would be about that whether I used typing or speech to communicate — either one would be my “second language”, and as such I can easily, easily envision a situation where I never learned and never would learn to use speech or typing, both of which I used at different points in my life.) And each person has one. Sometimes several people have a language that is in common but is not words. Sometimes each one has a separate way of communicating that is not words. But either way, you have to learn how they communicate, not force them to either communicate how you best communicate, or else be considered “non-communicative” for the rest of their life. And yes it’s possible to get consent to use their communication, it’s just sometimes harder work than asking a yes or no question in words.

And a community that doesn’t include such people isn’t my community. The developmental disability community is far better at including such people than the autistic community is, even though not all of the DD community manages it either. One reason I’ve spent a lot of time communicating with people who can’t use words in any form is because I’ve been in the developmental disability system for pretty much my entire adult life and have spent a lot of time with a wide variety of people. And I’ve spent a lot of time communicating with people who can’t and may never use speech or typing or even picture boards. And that’s something that certain segments of the autistic community are sorely missing. Even parts of the autistic community that involve people who don’t use speech, are often made up of only those people who were able to learn typing, and often put forth the (false) idea that everyone could learn typing if only they tried hard enough or were exposed to the proper teaching methods.

The response someone made is true: Some of the people in the video use typing, so they could never be shown speaking the words in the video. But I’d like to go further than people who use speech and people who use typing, because unlike a lot of people, my social world is made up of a lot of people who can’t do either one. And also made up of a lot of people who, even if they can use speech, typing, or both, those are not their best means of communication, and it would be better to show us using our best means of communication rather than merely the form of using words. Not everyone has words but everyone has a voice and a means of communicating. And not everyone who uses words sees words as their primary voice or their primary means of understanding things, and that needs to be respected. And I’m sick to death of spending time in communities where most people seem to miss these facts, and automatically see having a voice as the same as using speech or at least using language.

“I don’t know that person’s program.”

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That's a sentence I've heard a lot. And when they don't say exactly that, they say things that mean the same thing. Usually in the developmental disability system, for some reason, although I can easily imagine it in other contexts.

What it really means:

“DD people aren't like regular people. When people do things to them that would be horrible if they happened to other people, there's always a logical reason that justifies whatever is happening. Staff and case managers rarely if ever abuse power. All of their decisions have the best interests of clients at heart. So if something looks terrible, chances are that there's a reasonable explanation behind it. I just don't know what that explanation is. And I likely never will, so I'm not going to judge.”

They say this when staff scream at an old woman with an unsteady gait every time she falls, and refuse to help her get back up or allow her to hold onto things for balance.

They say this when staff publicly humiliate a man who clearly has trouble moving to avoid obstacles, when he accidentally bumps into someone.

They say this when staff do their best to keep a boyfriend and girlfriend apart. Or when staff are okay with boyfriend and girlfriend, but balk at the idea that two women with intellectual disabilities have fallen in love. As if it's even their job to decide who can love who.

They say this when parents simultaneously put on a big public show of wishing their son could move out on his own like he wants to, but sabotage his every attempt to do so. Because they had planned out a whole life for him in the group home they run, and can't handle the idea that he doesn't want to live under their control the rest of his life.

They say this when a staff person kisses a grown man's leg and says “I kiss you boo boo aww betta!” in baby talk.

They say this when, in the name of integration, staff prohibit disabled people from speaking or socializing with each other. I just saw an instance of that last one, which is why I finally remembered to write a post on the matter.

They say this when we get outright tortured. Tied down. Skin shocked. Slapped. Pinched. Made to smell ammonia.

I wish I could upload the scenes from real life that play out vividly in my head. But like as not, people likely to say these things wouldn't consider me a reliable observer. They never do, when you start pointing out the truth. When you see yourselves as people. With all that this means.

Suddenly you are either too severely disabled to understand what's happening, or you're not disabled enough to grasp why treating people like dirt is necessary. Or both at once. And they'd much rather you were highly submissive, maybe even the really cool type of client who helps staff out by giving them information about other clients.

All of this requires seeing DD people as less than. It just has to. There is no other way to justify these actions towards us.

And I know how people see us. As in, I know what we look like inside their minds. Sometimes we're human — almost, anyway. Not quite. There's something vitally important inside every real human. And to them, we either don't have it, or are missing large chunks of it. So we go around in human bodies but there's pieces missing in our minds and our souls. Even people who don't believe in souls in any religious sense, still perceive something inside us as only partial.

I know this because this is one of those viewpoints that isn't content to stay in the minds of others. It tries to force its way as deeply into us as it can manage. Until many of us look in the mirror and see only part of a person.

I can't describe the violence that involves. It's horrible. And a whole system of relating to us, forces its way into our lives. It tells us that we are taken care of, that we can relax, go to sleep, almost. And then it suffocates from inside. There's no words for it.

I suspect the drive to say this about people comes from several places at once.

If you work in the system, there's not wanting to see yourself or your coworkers or people who could be you, doing something horribly wrong. Much less on a regular basis.

I also suspect a strong desire to trust the society they live in, not to do horrible things to people. Or at least, not to do horrible things to certain kinds of people.

A member of my family once told me that it took him a long time to believe what happened to me in mental institutions. He said that in order to come to terms with the reality of the abuse, he had to destroy a strong desire to believe that the society he lived in was safe and just. Him telling me that was far more honest than a lot of people are.

That desire to trust society gets in the way of understanding every kind of injustice. I am amazed that people trust a society that does its best to shut out and destroy all but a handful of people. But they do.

And not seeing us as quite exactly people, is the one thing that you can't avoid if you think like this. Because if you see us as people, you have to see what happens to us as dreadful. And you don't immediately, upon being told of the latest awful thing, say any variant on “I don't know that person's program.”

How to solve “behavior problems” without having to learn self-control.

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Many years ago, meetings with my case manager tended to involve shouting and cussing. Mainly on my end. Today, our biggest problem during meetings is whether I'm physically and cognitively capable of holding a serious conversation at that time during the day. I would love to take credit for this by saying I learned a lot of self-control between then and now. But I suspect that even if I have, that's not what really changed things.

Like a lot of cognitively disabled people, I am not capable of keeping track of the dozens of things that have to happen for my basic needs to be met. And I really mean basic: Food, water, clothing, bills, hygiene, shopping, and medical care. Unlike a lot of states, the DD agency here only serves cognitively disabled people — you have to have an intellectual disability or autism, cerebral palsy doesn't count. So you would think they'd require case managers to be organized enough to meet those needs. You would think, but you would think wrong.

My case manager back then was a nice enough guy on a purely social level, but he was not an organized person. At all. So he was able to do a few things, but other than that he gave staff very little direction on how to consistently do what I needed. Meanwhile I was unable to even know most of what needed to happen. So stuff. Very necessary stuff. Lots of it. Wasn't getting done.

This meant that I pretty much lived from crisis to crisis, discovering a different gaping hole in my care each week. My case manager, having lots of power and being unwilling to face his role in these matters, kept telling me that these things were not his problem.

The more time went on, the worse things got, and the less he was willing to take responsibility for what was happening. So he blamed me. Nobody could possibly keep track of this many medical problems and appointments at once. I was unreasonable to expect basic care. There was no possible way to meet the needs of someone like me. I was the problem.

I kind of wanted to survive. So the more time went on, the more often I chewed him out for not doing his job. And the more frustrated I got, the more he treated me as if I was the one doing something wrong. Because hurting his feelings was worse than him forcing me to live in perpetual crisis mode. And it was perfectly reasonable to simply deny I had needs rather than work to meet them, right?

Towards the end, he began to get snippy and snarky. If I brought up anything he wasn't doing, he'd get this twisted smile in his voice and say, “Well maybe your new case manager will be able to do this.” Even I could pick up the implied meaning: that it was unreasonable and demanding of me to expect anyone to do these things, and I would soon find this out when I got a new case manager who would be just as incapable of keeping track of these things as he was. Then I would be forced to admit how impossible it was to meet my needs.

Except it didn't work out like that. At all.

My new case manager was a young woman. She was organized and efficient. And within a month or so, she completely turned my life around. I could finally rest, because I no longer had to keep a constant lookout for things going wrong.

And my reputation changed. Suddenly they considered me reasonable, polite, and civil. They acted as if I was the one who had changed. But I wasn't. What changed was my situation. It's hard to be nice — hell, literally fatal to be nice — when it's your life on the line, when there's a different crisis or three every week.

Yet that's exactly the position a lot of agencies force disabled people into. They don't provide adequate case management, and the outcome becomes our fault. We are forced to fight for basic necessities. When we do fight, they take that as evidence that we are capable of keeping track of our own needs without any extra assistance. We become not their problem.

From what I've seen, a lot of disabled people die this way. With help from friends, I've been able to catch situations like that. But not all the time, and not before the situation becomes dire. The amount of emergency room visits I used to have due to dehydration alone is astonishing compared to what I have today. It used to be routine for me to get fluids in an IV on a regular basis, because nobody was helping me drink water or Gatorade.

So the situation becomes this: If we don't speak up, they presume everything is okay, because if it weren't, someone would say something, right? If we do speak up, they presume everything is okay, because speaking up proves we are competent to track these things and direct support staff on our own. Plus,if we spoke up in one instance, then our failure (inability) to speak up in other instances means nothing's really wrong, because if it were, we'd say something. “You're such a good self-advocate,” they say, when they really mean “If there was another problem, you'd say it.” If we routinely end up in severe medical trouble, that's only to be expected given how many medical problems people like us have.

Needless to say, my being alive at the moment owes a lot to coincidence.

They also take signs of desperation as just happening, with no context attached. So our justified terror and anger become behavior problems, or psychiatric disorders. Or it's just part of who we are to be demanding or nasty. I'm still not certain my agency perceives the change in my behavior as a response to a change in context. They probably think I mysteriously learned self-control, or finally matured past being demanding.

No. My needs got met. That's a huge difference between that, and some kind of change on my part. If they went back to screwing me over and blaming me for the consequences, I'd probably go back to yelling at them.

A useful link

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When Allies Fail

Something I would add is that when these sorts of things come up for any group of people (autistic people are far from the only ones, there is much culture and class-based stuff in there as well) whose normal way of interacting has been considered by those with power to lack “proper” social skills… when we get angry at people who perpetuate some form or another of prejudice or oppression is NOT the time to start lecturing us on how our social skills are atrocious and we need to calm down and be polite before anyone can listen to us. That is just adding a whole new layer of fail on top of whatever the original one was, and trapping us into a situation where we need to communicate in the same way those in power do before those in power will listen. (Which is false anyway. When we do manage to communicate in that manner we are usually ignored. Which means the insistence that we all communicate in that one way is just another way of not listening. Which is why it pisses me off so much when I see so-called allies demanding perfect decorum from those they are supposedly allied to. It’s really just another twist-and-turn of power play and will doubtless just cause a feeling of impotent rage in anyone it’s applied to.)

Still working on the cat posts. And right now lying back to back with a cat in yet another mode of cuddling.