Tag Archives: Stereotypes

Almost Alike: A Medical Cautionary Tale


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.

I am not your fairy tale miracle cure story.


But more on that in a minute.

In the past couple years, I’ve been quietly preparing to die.  I hadn’t told anyone the full extent of what was going wrong with my body, because it was inexplicable.  Whenever I aspirated and got an infection, I became much weaker than the infection should have made me.  Sometimes I became severely weakened by stress alone.  I knew that there was something going on above and beyond the medical conditions we were aware of.  But I also knew that my symptoms could come from so many different things, it was unlikely we’d ever find it, or that it would be something treatable.

In parts of the chronic illness community, people use a term called ‘spoons’ to describe how much energy you have to do basic things.  I have mixed feelings about the idea, and the Spoon Theory story that originated the practice.  But sometimes it’s a useful thing.  What happened when I got sick was that my spoons would go negative.

When I say negative spoons, I’m not just saying I really didn’t have much energy.  I don’t mean that I felt sick and tired in any way that even the average chronically ill person feels sick and tired.  I mean that I felt like my level of energy was spiraling downwards in a dangerous way.  Where the less energy I had, the less energy I had to replenish it.  At my worst, I would be lying in a hospital bed, going in and out of delirium, and in lucid moments I would notice that it took too much energy just to keep my heart going.  I’d wish that I could stop and rest.  And then I’d realize what that meant.

When I was not acutely ill, I had a constant, subtle sense of fragility.  It felt like one good illness could put me in the hospital or kill me.  And often it did.  I had four hospitalizations between late 2012 and early 2013.  More recently, I was having periods of time when for no reason at all, I’d become unable to move or stay conscious for long.  I knew something was badly wrong.  And apparently so did my doctor, because he started sending me to more specialists and running tests.

This was the result:

Results of cortisol tests, showing cortisol too low to measure, ACTH too low to measure, and cortisol rising up to 8 and 9 when my system was artificially flooded with ACTH.

Results of cortisol tests, showing cortisol too low to measure, ACTH too low to measure, and cortisol rising up to 8 and 9 when my system was artificially flooded with ACTH.

What does this mean?  When they measured the level of cortisol in my blood, it was consistently too low to be measured.   ACTH is a hormone secreted by the pituitary gland that tells the adrenal glands to make cortisol.  My ACTH was too low to be measured as well.  When they flooded my system with ACTH, I made some cortisol, but not as much as they might have expected.

And what does that mean?  It means that my pituitary gland isn’t making enough ACTH, and hasn’t been for a long time.  And that my adrenal glands have therefore not been making enough cortisol.  I have something called severe secondary adrenal insufficiency.  We don’t know the cause yet.  But the upshot is that it’s extremely treatable.  I’m on a steroid called dexamethasone, that replaces the cortisol my body can’t make.

That health crash I had six years ago?  The one I worked hard to conceal until after the worst was over, because I was afraid of being bullied for having too many medical conditions?  Where every single health condition I had took a nosedive, I ended up bedridden, and needing a power chair, and all kinds of changes took place?  We now think that was the time that the adrenal insufficiency became serious.  It may have been around for quite some time after that.  And if we hadn’t treated it, my expectation that I wouldn’t live to see forty, may well have been accurate.

On dexamethasone, I improved rapidly.

Prior to dexamethasone, I could not jump even when holding onto a grab rail.  On dexamethasone, I could do jumping jacks.  First five, then ten, then twenty, then forty.  Before, I couldn’t walk up one flight of stairs.  Now I can walk up and down eleven.  I’m walking everywhere with a cane now, and barely even needing to use the manual wheelchair I bought (thinking that it was more realistic that I’d need a manual wheelchair than that I’d start walking everywhere — I still do need it sometimes, but not that often). I can do 400 meters on a treadmill, I am starting to be able to run (my legs wouldn’t even move that way before) and skip and balance on one foot, and all kinds of other things I thought I’d lost forever.  I’m going on walks in my neighborhood.

Perhaps most amazing is the way I feel after exercising.  In my entire adult life, I have never felt this way:  When I exercise, I feel invigorated afterwards.  I feel more energetic after exercising than before.  This is entirely different than before, when even minor exercise made me throw up, collapse, or both, and could leave me sick and with my body temperature running high and low for weeks.

And this is amazing and magical and wonderful.

But every time I try to talk about this with a nondisabled person, or even with many disabled people, I run into a very ableist way of thinking about this:  The miracle cure story.

It runs sort of like this:  A disabled person has been hanging in the balance between cure and death (because what other possibilities are there for a disabled life?).  Hope means finding a cure, despair means not finding a cure.  They do find a cure and everyone rejoices and everything goes back to how it should’ve been (with them not disabled, of course) and things are great from there on out.

So I run into a lot of people suggesting to me that I’ve “found hope” (I haven’t).  Or that I’m “cured” (I’m not).

Here’s the reality:

I will be on steroids for the rest of my life, according to my doctors.  If I don’t take them, everything goes back to how it was and I would eventually die.

I have to keep injectable steroids around, because it’s that important that I get them every single day, even if I have a stomach bug or a clogged feeding tube.  I don’t have any other meds where it’s so important that the doctor has insisted on injectables.  Even meds that are dangerous to go off quickly.

A bottle of injectable hydrocortisone, Solu-Cortef.

Any time that I become stressed out or sick, my symptoms come back and I have to take more steroids.  This puts me at higher risk when sick, hospitalized, injured, or severely stressed out.  To give an example, when I found out my mom had been in the ICU, I went from feeling great, to too weak to breathe easily, in a matter of seconds.  And when I run down my stress hormones like that, I don’t make new ones, so I have to put them back artificially, it’s called ‘stress dosing’.

I have to be constantly aware of my body and of my stress levels and other factors that affect how much steroids to take.  And I have to largely play it by ear.  There is no blood test to tell you if you’re on enough steroids or not.  You have to learn that yourself.

I’m still autistic.  I still have a variety of other conditions, although some of them are much less severe now that I’m on steroids.  I still need a feeding tube.  I still need to communicate by typing.  I still need a wheelchair sometimes.  I still have stamina problems, just not as severe as before.   I still have severe chronic pain, which is getting worse as I try to train my body to move around instead of lying propped up in bed all the time.  I still have autonomic dysfunction.  I still have hypermobility syndrome.  I still have gastroparesis and bronchiectasis and the hellish interactions between them.

And even though it’s under control, I still have severe adrenal insufficiency.  Having something controlled by medication is great, but it’s not a cure.  A cure would mean I wouldn’t need to take medication, wouldn’t need to watch my stress levels and illnesses very carefully, wouldn’t need to be constantly alert to changes in my body.

This is wonderful, but an inspirational fairytale ending it ain’t.

Blogging Against Disablism Day, May 1st 2014

A bunch of stuff that needed saying


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.”


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.”

Communication page I used to handle that invasive woman I met.


It’s been quite some time since I posted my letter to the woman who accosted me on my way to the para transit van. But I wanted to update people on how I handled the situation when she approached me the next day. Which was a success.

I knew that I have trouble coming up with new language of any kind in high stress situations, especially involving people with bad boundaries. So I spent most of the night creating a new page for my communication software.

I use Proloquo or Proloquo2Go for most of my communication these days. My super-expensive, clunky Dynavox has been collecting dust in a corner ever since I first got Proloquo2Go years ago. Proloquo2Go has two separate sections. One where you type and it speaks out loud. Another where you can say something by pressing on one or more pictures.

I created a page where everything was about boundaries in one way or another. These are things I’m often unable to say in real time. I have a hard time remembering its possible to say these things. And coming up with words. And monitoring my emotions in response to situations. And communicating around invasive people. And pushing words past what feels like a barrier between my mind and everything else. Let alone all this and more at once.

Here’s the page I created:

[Description: A communication page arranged as a grid with one sentence per square. Each one has one word or sentence. Words in parentheses are what the previous sentence is an abbreviation for: Back off. Don’t patronize… (Don’t patronize me.) Don’t talk to me. Don’t touch me. Don’t want talk about. (I don’t want to talk about it.) Fuck off. Get out of my face. Go away. I am not a child. I don’t care. I don’t do eye contact. I’m not kidding. I’ve a right to be mad. (I have a right to be mad.) it’s not funny. Leave me alone. Now. Please. Stay away from me. Stop it right now. Stop. That hurts my brain. You put me in danger. (You’re putting me in danger.) you’re hurting me. You’re too close to me.]

I tried to make it so that I could use various levels of politeness, forcefulness, and rudeness depending on the situation. One way I did this was with different icons. Obviously, “leave me alone” and “fuck off” are very different. But another way I did it was by adding icons for “please” and “now”, the two squares outlined in blue. This made it so, by hitting two buttons in a row, I could say “please leave me alone” or “leave me alone now”. So I have a pretty good variety of intensity I can use.

I was expecting her the next day. She had said she wanted to meet me in the morning. So I prepared myself. I tried to stay connected and aware of my surroundings. She sat down at the table next to me. And she watched until my staff person had to leave me alone for a minute. Then she approached.

Because I was expecting her, I was prepared for the onslaught people like her carry with them. That thing where when they get close to you, it almost feels as if they are overlapping with you. So in my head I made sure to mentally separate us, which made it easier to communicate. I hit “please” and “stay away from me”. She yammered some sort of explanation and went back to her table.

I maintained deliberate mental distance the rest of the morning that I was anywhere near her. My case manager later made an effort to find her. She’d heard the story from a guy who witnessed it, and she wanted to report this woman. But we never found her. And things went just fine the rest of the day.

In any alternate universes where I didn’t make this communication page, the likely outcome is much worse. I would have been pretty much trapped around this woman, and that would have done a kind of emotional damage that takes time to recover from. It’s nothing that has any kind of official name, it just leaves me more vulnerable to other people like her until I can reverse it.

Another important thing I did besides create the communication page, was to rehearse everything many times beforehand. If I don’t do something like this, it’s hard to use the communication icons. Contrary to popular belief, just having the ability to type or use icons, doesn’t solve every communication problem.

And without rehearsing, there’s a big chance I’ll never use a page like this. My fingers won’t know where to go. My mind won’t remember it’s possible. My eyes won’t remember to look through the page to find possible things to say. My will won’t be able to push through the barrier between experience and expression. And much more. That’s a lot of places for communication to break down.

It is absolutely vital that people who use communication devices, have ways to respond to violations of our basic boundaries. Disabled people are far more likely than others to have others behave invasively with us, ranging from subtle to violent. People teach us from our earliest years onward that such invasion is normal, natural, and something we should accept without complaint. We have to have the means to say no.

And we have to have the means to say no forcefully, even rudely. We need to be able to use cuss words, even if we have the kind of personality that would never use them. Sometimes the only reason that we appear unnaturally even-tempered is because we’ve never been allowed to be otherwise. We have the right to say fuck off, but people don’t always give us the ability to do so.

Of course, even if we say things like that, there’s no guarantee anyone will listen. Some people’s reactions when I get mad, remind me of the way people giggle at my cat when she swipes someone who touched her in a way that hurts her. It’s like she and I aren’t real enough to them, so our anger is cute and funny.

I’ll also never forget the time someone made an asinine comment when I was out in public. I typed a response and stuck the speaker up to his ear so he could hear it. All his friends burst out laughing. One of them said “Dude, that guy’s cussing you out using a machine!” Which is… so much not the response I was going for.

But still. We need to be able to have the full range of responses that other people can have. To do otherwise smacks too much of that idea that we should be passive and sweet all the time. Being able to say no, being able to cuss, being able to tell people to go away and leave us alone, these are some of the most important things people with communication impairments can learn to say. But often people don’t teach us that stuff, they don’t want us to know it.

Another important thing: Communication pages like this are not just for people who absolutely can’t ever speak. They are for anyone, anywhere, who for whatever reason would be unable to say things like this in situations where they need to be able to say it.

I’ve run into too many people lately who desperately need something like this, but are afraid to use it because they don’t fit the popular image of someone who needs a communication device. Some of them have even been told that it’s horrible or disrespectful of them to even consider using a communication device. But my position on it is that having the most effective communication method possible can result in better emotional and physical health, in some situations it can even save lives.

So given all that? If something like this can make your life better, for any reason at all. Whether you can’t ever speak, can only sometimes speak, can only speak about certain topics, can speak but it isn’t what you mean, can speak but typing or using picture icons works better or uses fewer mental resources. Or anything else like that. Do whatever works best for you, and screw anyone who tells you different.

Anyone who feels the need to act as the supreme gatekeeper of all things assistive technology… not only do they have too much time on their hands, but they are letting ideology get in the way of real people leading better lives. And that is just plain wrong, and fundamentally unfair to people who could benefit from a communication aid.


What I just told someone who didn’t match current autism stereotypes.


It’s not really that you contradict what autism is, it’s that descriptions of autistic people came about like this:

Kanner saw a bunch of people and grouped them together. He observed some things about them. Some of the observations were accurate. Some were more conclusions than true observations. Then he came to conclusions based on both types of observations. Many of his conclusions were false. (Note: Most of Kanner’s patients would today have a high chance of being diagnosed as AS and all but maybe one or two fit at least one definition of high functioning. Several went on to college. There are many modern myths about who these people were.)

The next person came along and put more people into the category of autistic. These people included people who appeared like Kanners patients appeared, people who were like Kanners patients were, people who appeared like Kanners conclusions, and people who were like Kanners conclusions.

This has been going onin many iterations for generations. And since 1980 it’s been happening to Asperger’s patients and conclusions too. (His patients were roughly the same as Kanner’s, but he drew different conclusions.)

This means that people who get called autistic are an incredibly diverse group of people and that virtually nobody matches the conclusions. And yet those who either match the conclusions, think they match the conclusions, pretend they match the conclusions, or may or may not match but other people can force fit them to the conclusions — those people will get called more typical or more autistic. Even though they are neither.

So knowing all that I’m never surprised when people don’t match the conclusions. The conclusions come from generations of faulty observations, faulty logic, and faulty science. And then no matter what the conclusions are, people who match them or who think they match them or can be said to match them by others, suddenly start getting diagnosed more. It’s a disturbingly tangled thing and I wish more people noticed.

Adding on to what I said before: I am extremely disturbed by the amount of people, autistic and otherwise, who actually believe in the various tangled threads of the idea of autism. Why don’t they notice how these things inevitably have to come about? Why do they take people’s word for it that “This is so because someone with authority says it’s so”? Why do they put stock in tangles on top of tangles on top of the flimsiest foundations? Why do they believe whatever the latest thread of the tangle that is descriptions of what autism is, and then privilege those of us who (say we are/think we are/pretend we are/really are/aren’t but don’t have the power to resist being represented as if we are) the same as the ideas in that thread? Why don’t they notice the difference between being that way, thinking we are that way, force fitting ourselves and saying we are that way, pretending we are that way, and having those with more authority insist we are that way? Why are such people considered “more typical” even when they’re a minority? Why is it that people read Kanner or Asperger and believe their conclusions and value judgements as if they are true unbiased observations? Why don’t people see the contradictions between their observations and their conclusions?

It really harms people when people don’t question all these abstractions piled on top of more abstractions piled on top of still more, for generations now until they are steep towers reaching into the clouds, rather than on or near the ground. (Is it my inability to climb that high that makes it easy for me to question these things?) It makes me feel vaguely ill when I see the various consequences of autistic people themselves believing these abstractions so intensely — whether it’s people thinking there’s something wrong when they don’t fit a stereotype, or acquiring more status because they (do/think they do/say they do/pretend they do/have others with more authority convinced they do).

Cats can use mirrors.


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

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

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


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

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