Social Lessons I Learned At School
“For elementary school children on the higher functioning end of the autism spectrum, I usually favor mainstreaming because it is essential for them to learn social skills from typically developing children.”
—Temple Grandin, The Way I See It
[If this is too long for you, scroll down to the final sentence. It’s bolded. Also I just realized people might think I don’t like nondisabled people, or think disabled people can’t bully. Not true. I’m talking about general social trends and hierarchies, not each and every specific person.]
Not singling out Temple. I hear this all the time. But it’s wrong on so many levels. Before I start be aware I’m not advocating special schools. I would rarely advocate any schools.
What exactly are the “social skills” that children learn when forced into artificially age-segregated situations where children are learning social skills almost entirely from people as inexperienced as themselves, in an environment of powerlessness? From everything I’ve seen this leads to incredibly brutal situations.
This is one reason that contrary to popular belief, unschooled kids have better social skills than kids who go to school. They interact with a wider range of people in natural everyday situations and they totally benefit from it. I can’t even fathom the full extent of the damage that forced currently-typical schooling does to a society.
(My dad to this day talks of the trauma of going from a tiny one-room schoolhouse with a wide age range where everyone helped everyone else learn, to regular, more institutional type of school. “Hall monitors? HALL MONITORS?”)
Meanwhile… far from it being that autistic people are the main ones who need to learn social skills. There was an experiment where nondisabled children were taught how to respectfully interact with autistic children. This resulted in sudden “social gains” among the autistic children, that approaching it the usual way (where autistic ones are socially defective and are the ones who need to learn the social skills) wouldn’t work.
Besides all that, what’s all this crap about it being better for disabled kids to learn social skills from nondisabled kids? And what exact social skills are talking about?
From nondisabled kids I learned lots of social lessons.
I learned if you’re different you’re fair game.
I learned you can fit in a little bit by joining in the bullying. I only did this a handful of times and it tore my heart apart.
I learned to hate myself so thoroughly that the first time I saw another autistic kid I felt a loathing and horror unlike any other. I recognized myself in her, different though we were, and being around her consequently made me feel like my emotions were being rubbed with sandpaper.
Put it this way: I understand why a woman with Williams syndrome, mentioned in one of Dave Hingsburger’s books, tried to bludgeon and tear her own face off every time she either saw another person with WS, or saw her own face in any reflective surface. Her face was permanently and obviously bruised, swollen, and damaged all over. When she died, she died terrified and screaming. She said it was because she was going to meet God, and God was the one who made her this way.
She was a product of aggressive mainstreaming. Never ever was taken to any event with other disabled people or people with Williams syndrome. Never had a chance to, at the end of the day, talk with people like herself about the horrific things they were enduring from their classmates. (Dave Hingsburger points out that DD children who attend mainstream school are integrating a school system that doesn’t want them there with virtually no emotional support.) Never saw anyone who looked like herself in a positive context ever. So she learned the social lessons of nondisabled kids well: That she shouldn’t exist and that she should try to destroy herself.
I learned that lesson too. I repeatedly tried to kill myself throughout adolescence. Many of my reasons had to do with never, ever seeing anyone else in my particular position. For a couple short years I thought I’d finally got the knack of making myself invisible. (I hadn’t but that’s beside the point.)
Then the floor fell out from under me. I began losing every skill that made me at least marginally closer to being a person that mattered. I had to stim in public. I had to lose speech and movement and receptive language. I had to experience the world as chaotic swirls and tatters of sensory information virtually all the time.
And having never in my life seen people who looked like that. Except sometimes being led in lines down the sidewalks by institution staff going on “outings into the community”. (Later it was me in those lines.) And realizing where people like me go in this society when we exist at all. I took all the self-erasing to the highest possible level and attempted suicide.
I talk to disabled people all the time who had the same experience. (And don’t anyone kid yourself that among autistic people all our suicide attempts are among the “high functioning”. Not all those “wandered into traffic” deaths are accidental, and most people considered LFA have plenty of awareness of the hatred people have for disabled people.) That’s one reason we freak out about euthanasia: It’s promoted as a rational choice for disabled people (not just terminally ill, not even close). Erase ourselves from humanity — they’d want to in our place. And with all the pressure to do just that. Such tremendous pressure every day of our lives. And with the way we are frequently expected to live and the living conditions we are supposed to just accept as our natural fate.
It becomes so, so easy to just tell a doctor we want to die and make it sound like a perfectly rational response to our “suffering”. Which is all innate to our disabilities, never forced upon us from the outside. All we have to do is talk about the “indignity” of our lives (frequently a code word for incontinence, one of the leading reasons people ask for euthanasia believe it or not) and the “suffering” that we have to endure in having to be forever cared for by others. They won’t question it, even if we are grieving the loss of a relative and have just been left by a spouse and all the other things that can drive nondisabled people to suicidal thoughts just as easily as us. Hell, some doctors even suggest suicide to us and a few outright try to manipulate us into it.
When I attempted suicide, I was prevented from doing so and put in mental institutions. I don’t approve of the kind of things that happened there. But I know that if people knew I had a progressive condition that would one day require me the supports I need now, they’d quite possibly have treated me differently. Today they could also quite possibly treat me differently, especially if it were legal to help me die. But some people would try anyway, legal or not. Kevorkian, a death-obsessed serial killer who switched from wanting to study state-executed prisoners to promoting euthanasia because the latter was more socially acceptable… some of his patients were both non-terminal and would be considered less severely disabled, and in less physical pain, than I am. (Hell, I have a pain condition nicknamed “the suicide disease” by doctors.) So this isn’t hypothetical. There are doubtless doctors who would much more quietly help me die if I sought them out, legal or not.
That’s why so many disabled people justifiably fear euthanasia. We know that even with “safeguards”, it becomes an acceptable and rational thing for a disabled person to want to die, but nondisabled people get suicide prevention. We know that in places where it’s legal and widespread, disabled people often have to go through huge contortions so that they’ll actually get medical treatment in certain emergency situations. Because it’s just assumed we wouldn’t want it.
Even in America, it’s hard to write a living will that allows you to remain alive at all costs in all circumstances. And your wishes can be overturned by a hospital “ethics” committee. Living wills were created to help people die, not to help people live, and that bias shows. And should you change your mind about wanting to die, after you become sufficiently disabled? (Which lots of people do. The fear of disability in the abstract often makes people think they’d be a whole other person they’d never want to live as. When they realize they’re still themselves, they usually discover their will to live is intact.) They may kill you (“allow you to die”) anyway. Like what happened to one woman after brain damage. She actually ended up being tied to her bed because otherwise she would get up and try to find food and water. They deemed food and water “medical treatment”, and refused to give her any because her living will said if she became cognitively impaired she wanted to die. This is far more common than most people realize, and is done both officially and unofficially depending on if they think it will get them in trouble.
All that to say: Disabled people who fear euthanasia aren’t dupes of the Religious Right. Our fears are horrifyingly justified. Today, with it illegal most places, it happens all the time in the medical system both overtly and covertly, both with and without the person’s apparent consent. And it happens in ways that are disguised as lots of other things. Remember the girl who can’t receive a transplant, even with a donor available, explicitly because she is DD? Don’t kid yourself that it’s not the same thing.
But then what is consent when we live in a world that bombards us day in and day out with the message that we are worthless wastes of space, who cost money and take up resources that rightfully belong to real people? Where other people’s suicide attempts are treated as medical emergencies that must be averted at all costs, while ours are “perfectly rational” and may even be aided by others, even if our reasons are the same as those deemed mentally ill? This is why so many disabled people baffle the rest of the world by freaking out over this rather than responding how others expect us to — “Oh thank you so much for protecting our individual liberties by helping us make death accessible, even if you’re not making life accessible first!”
I’ve come a long way, seemingly, from the topic of the social skills autistic kids learn from nondisabled kids. But I haven’t really. Because one of the biggest social lessons is to die. Both emotionally and physically.
That conference I talked about in my last post, where I saw Dave Hingsburger… it was the only large disability-related event where I had even a sliver of feeling belonging. It was a completely accepting atmosphere. When I told people of having people tell me I should never have kids because they might turn out like me. I expected to be patronized like usual and told this is normal and good and right. Instead, more than one disabled person came up to me afterwards and said “That’s not okay. That’s never okay.” I think it also helped that it was general DD and not autism specific. The DD community has a lot more maturity as a community, as well as fairly uniform kinds and levels of oppression that focus us on ending that, rather than falling into the worst habits of the autistic community. It has its problems, but not the same kind or scope. And this particular community was amazing.
After I got home, I cried so much. And one of the dead parts of me started waking up. This was a part of me that died long before disability-institutions got hold of me. It died when I became aware enough to get a full taste of the hatred that society has for people like me. I was maybe seven or eight. And it wasn’t an easy death, it marked the beginning of severe emotional problems of all kinds.
Before it woke up again, I often believed that my emotions lacked depth and complexity, even though they didn’t really. I still identified with Temple Grandin’s view of her emotions, even though deep down I knew better. And after that conference, the ice began to thaw, and I discovered many things:
I have a tremendous range of depth and complexity in my emotions, and I am a highly emotional person.
Having that depth myself, I could now recognize such emotions working in others. And I had been all along, the dead parts just prevented me from feeling it as intensely.
And that yes — some of the emotion-reading problems that had been attributed to autism, were actually the results of severe emotional damage. And the emotional damage was related to abuse for being autistic.
And that most likely I was not the only autistic person who is believed to have stunted emotions (and difficulty recognizing complex emotions in others) due to autism, when it’s really the result of being up against intense hate as a disabled person.
That, in fact, an an intensely disablist society where autism is often among the lowest in the usual disability hierarchies as seen by nondisabled people. There is literally no way of knowing how much of our social and emotional problems have anything to do with our brains work at all. I know plenty of autistic people with similar experiences so I know it’s true of some of us. But virtually nobody seems to want to go there.
But to sum it up: From typically developing children at school, I learned to die. From other DD adults, I learned to live.