Wednesday, April 25, 2018

Guest post by my daughter Allison Prinsen: Ten Myths About Autism

April is Autism Acceptance Month, and last April on this blog I featured a guest post by my daughter Allison about how to be an autism ally.

Today I'm pleased to have another post from Allison; this time she's exploring ten common myths about autism.


Ten Myths About Autism

Hello everyone. This Autism Acceptance Month, I am going to discuss some of the myths surrounding autism and autistic people. My aim is to increase people’s understanding of the diversity of the autism spectrum and the various ways in which autism can present.

1. Autistic people lack empathy
This myth seems to stem out of confusion about what constitutes “empathy”. Because of difficulty reading body language, autistic people may have trouble knowing how someone is feeling unless we are told outright. Our social impairments may also result in trouble knowing how to comfort someone who is upset. But we are capable of caring about others and showing compassion. Some autistic people may not be emotionally affected by others’ feelings, but they can still show kindness and support to them. Also, some autistic people are hyper-empathetic, meaning that they feel others’ pain so intensely that it overwhelms them. It is inaccurate and hurtful to assume that autistic people do not care about others. 

2. All autistic people are savants or geniuses
When an autistic person is portrayed in fiction, it is often a savant—a person who has a genius talent in a certain area, such as math, music, art, or memory. Some autistic people are savants, but they represent only a minority of autistics. Our skills and intellectual abilities vary widely: some are brilliant at a particular subject, some are good at certain things but not to genius level, and some may feel like they don’t have any real talents at all. Additionally, there are autistics who struggle with subjects that we are stereotyped as being good at, like math and spelling. Though many autistic people may be strong in specific areas, we are not all geniuses. 

3. Autistic people prefer facts to imagination
Similarly to the above, autistic people in the media tend to be obsessed with facts, often revolving around specific scientific subjects. There’s also a stereotype that autistic people aren’t imaginative or don’t like fiction. But we can actually be very creative, sometimes more so than most people. Personally, I’ve always enjoyed being “in my own world” and coming up with imaginary characters and scenarios in my head. I just preferred to engage in this on my own, and was shy about sharing my daydreams with others. Many autistic people’s special interests—the topics they are extremely passionate about—involve something creative, like a specific TV show or book series. We don’t all fit the archetype of the hyper-logical science expert.

4. Autistic people aren’t interested in relationships with others. 
Again, this depends on the person, but many autistics do crave close friendships with others. We just have trouble connecting with others, and may be overwhelmed by too much socialization. Often, we find it easier to make friends online, where we don’t feel as much pressure to respond immediately and don’t have to worry about eye contact or facial expressions. Some autistics are even extroverted and love socializing, but have trouble following social rules and may be awkward or overbearing. The same goes for romantic relationships: autistics can date, get married, and have kids, though it may be more difficult for us. And if an autistic person doesn’t want to date, that’s not necessarily because of autism; some people, whether autistic or not, just aren’t interested in romantic relationships. But in general, autistic people have the same need for love and companionship, whether platonic or romantic, as anyone else.

5. Autistic people are unaware of social norms. 
As autistic people grow older, we generally gain a better understanding of social rules, and improve at skills like making conversation, interpreting body language or non-literal statements, and knowing what is and isn’t appropriate to say. Of course, we still make mistakes, but those mistakes help us learn. Also, even though we may understand what the social norms are, we may have trouble following them in certain situations. If overwhelmed, we may behave in ways that seem odd, such as covering our ears or rocking back and forth. Even if we realize our behaviours are unusual, we may be unable to control them when stressed. Or we may behave in unusual ways just because we enjoy it and don’t care what others think of us. This can apply to stimming, a term for the repetitive motions that autistics often exhibit. Stimming is generally pleasurable for us and hurts no one, so we may not care if it seems strange to others. But it’s not true that autistics are always unaware of what is socially normal and what isn’t.

6. You can always tell if someone is autistic. 
Some autistic people have a good enough understanding of social norms to pass as neurotypical, at least in some situations. (A neurotypical is someone without any mental disorders.) Sometimes we suppress our autistic behaviours to fit in or avoid bullying, or we learn to mimic others to appear “normal”. In fact, some autistic people aren’t diagnosed until adulthood, or not at all. This is often said to be especially true of women. Autism can present in a variety of ways, and not all of them are obvious.

7. Autistic people take everything literally and don’t understand sarcasm or humour. 
It’s true that autistic people do sometimes take things literally, because of difficulty with understanding tones of voice and the intent behind words. But we can learn the meanings of idioms and slang terms, and many of us do understand and use sarcasm. Many of us are extremely funny in a quirky way. And autistic people aren’t the only ones who take things literally. Sometimes, an autistic person will make a joke and have it taken literally by others because we don’t deliver it in the “right” tone or they don’t see us as the kind of person who would make jokes. Though our senses of humour may be different from the usual, we do have them. 

8. Autistic people are unemotional. 
It’s more accurate to say that autistic people generally express emotion differently from others. Some autistic people may have a flat affect and not express a lot of emotion outwardly, though that doesn’t mean they’re not feeling anything on the inside. Others are very emotional: they have meltdowns when upset and dance with joy when excited. Autistic people may also be emotionally affected by different things than most people: we may get very upset at something that doesn’t bother others, or not react to something that does upset others. A lot of autistics also have alexithymia, which means they have trouble labeling and expressing their feelings. But in general, autistic people can feel all the same emotions as others, though we may show them differently.

9. You should always say “person with autism” instead of “autistic person”. 
The “person-first” movement states that people should avoid using the term “autistic”, and instead use “person with autism”, to imply that the person is more than their diagnosis. However, much of the autistic community rejects this insistence on person-first language. Many of us do see autism as part of our identity, and do not want to be separated from it. Saying “autistic person” doesn’t imply that autism is all the person is; we would describe people as “female” rather than as a “person with femaleness”, even though being female is not their whole identity. Though different autistic people will have different preferences, there is no need to avoid the word “autistic”. 

10. Autism is a linear spectrum from high-functioning to low-functioning. 
Some people view the autism spectrum as a sliding scale. On one end, there are the people who are fully verbal, highly intelligent, and capable of living independently, and on the other end there are people who are non-verbal, intellectually disabled, and need constant care. But it isn’t as simple as that. Some people may be non-verbal but have high intelligence, or intellectually disabled but very verbal and social. These functioning labels can be used to discredit the capabilities of autistic people who need more day-to-day support, and to undermine the struggles of those who can blend well into society. It’s preferable to think of the spectrum as having many different components, such as verbal ability, intellectual ability, social skills, emotional management, sensory sensitivity, and so on. A person can be at a different level in all of them, and their ability can vary depending on their mood and the situation. We don’t all fit into the neat categories of “high-functioning” and “low-functioning”.

You may have noticed that most of these myths have something in common: they assume that all autistic people are a certain way. Generalizing about all autistics will usually be inaccurate, because we are all different. We can be loud or quiet, artistic or scientific, nice or mean. Basically, we are people like anyone else, who can feel pain, anger, passion, and love. We deserve to be respected as unique and complete humans, not just as a collection of stereotypical traits. 


Saturday, April 21, 2018

Five Minute Friday: TURN! TURN! TURN!

Today I'm linking up with Kate Motaung and the Five Minute Friday community, writing for five minutes on a given prompt.

This week's word: TURN.

To everything (Turn! Turn! Turn!)
There is a season (Turn! Turn! Turn!)
And a time to every purpose under heaven.

This is the chorus of the song "Turn! Turn! Turn!" written by Pete Seeger and popularized by The Byrds. Except for the "Turn!" part, the words come (with minor alterations) from the King James translation of Ecclesiastes 3, the passage that says there is a time for everything:

A time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted;
A time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up;
A time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance;
A time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together; a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;
A time to get, and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to cast away;
A time to rend, and a time to sew; a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;
A time to love, and a time to hate; a time of war, and a time of peace.

We have this passage on an embroidered wall hanging in our house, and I look at it and think about it often. I draw comfort and reassurance from these words, from the suggestion that everything, even things that appear to be bad, have their time and place. 

This list of opposites reminds me of the verse in Colossians 1 that says Jesus is "before all things, and in him all things hold together." 

Somehow there is room for birth and death in our lives. Weeping and laughing. Loving and hating. I don't understand all those paradoxes, yet I sense that they all have a role to play. They are all things Jesus can use in making us, and this world, new again.

The "Turn! Turn! Turn!" part of the song isn't in the Bible, of course, but I imagine it as a call to attention and action:

- Turn away from seeing yourself as the centre of the universe; instead recognize that you're part of the human community. Rejoice with those who rejoice; weep with those who weep.

- Turn away from patterns that are enslaving you and others. Recognize when it's time to enter a new-more life-giving season.

- Turn away from black-and-white thinking, and recognize the gray areas, the in-betweens, the transition times when the old is dying but the new hasn't been birthed yet.

Turn. Turn. Turn.

Oh, and here are The Byrds singing the song:

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Writing prompts: Light at the End of the Tunnel, and Random Acts of Kindness

Each time our writing group meets, we share our own work and give feedback to one another. Then at the end of the meeting we do a ten-minute freewriting exercise based on a word or phrase as a prompt. It's always fun to see where the prompt takes us and how different our responses can be.

Now and then I share a couple of these freewrites here on the blog; below are two I wrote recently. I hope you enjoy them!

And if you're interested in reading some of the ones I've posted in the past, here are the links:

An outing with Mommy; choosing baby names
Empty pockets; park bench
Cats and phones
Hardware store; train station


The prompt was "Light at the end of the tunnel." 

Susie's parents were as different as night and day.

 If her father said the cup was half full, her mother would say yes, but it had coffee in it, and she wanted tea.

If her father brought home roses for Valentine's Day, her mother would say they were pretty, but roses lasted such a short time; carnations were really more practical. 

If her father said, "It's been a long, cold winter, but I think we're finally seeing the light at the end of the tunnel," her mother would say, "That's an oncoming train, dear, and we're going to collide with it."

Susie knew the expression "Opposites attract," but she wondered if it always went both ways. She could understand her mother being attracted to her father -- he was cheerful and handsome and lively. But what did he see in her mother, for whom every silver lining had a cloud?

She put her hand on her father's. "Dad, they're about to close the casket."

They got up and walked to the casket. Her mother lay in stiff, cold repose, her lips firmly pressed together.

Her father touched the cold, lifeless face. "My sweet grumpy-pants," he said.

He turned, teary-eyed, to Susie. "I'm the balloon, and she was always holding on to my string, keeping me close to the earth. Close to her. Now I think I might just float away without her."


The prompt was "Random act of kindness."

It was "Random Acts of Kindness Day" at Kristy's high school. As she rode the bus, she tried to think of some kind deeds she could do for other people. Which, when she thought about it, meant they really wouldn't be random at all. Maybe they should call it "Carefully Premeditated Acts of Kindness Day."

When she got off the bus and headed up the school steps, Kristy saw Mitzi Moorehead standing outside the door with a huge tray of fresh baked cookies. People were grabbing a cookie as they passed by.

Right ahead of Kristy was a very dweeby guy named Randolph Smithers. "Not you, loser," said Mitzi Moorehead to Randolph.

"Hey," said Kristy. "This is supposed to be Random Acts of Kindness Day and you're telling somebody they can't have a cookie and calling them a loser."

Mitzi shrugged. "You can have a cookie if you want one. Just he can't." Randolph just stood there red-faced, looking humiliated.

Kristy wanted to slap Mitzi right in the face. Instead she lifted her hand sharply underneath Mitzi's tray, and the cookies went flying in the air. Mitzi screamed. A couple of football guys grabbed several of the cookies off the steps -- "Five-second rule," one of them said -- and walked away eating them.

Kristy's heart was pounding. She couldn't believe what she had done. Yet somehow she felt she had aced Random Acts of Kindness Day.


Saturday, April 14, 2018

Five Minute Friday: OTHER

Today I'm joining Five Minute Friday, writing for five minutes on a given prompt. This week's word is OTHER.

I have been having a hard time getting much creative writing done lately. It has been a very busy term with the online course I instruct, and I've had quite a bit of marking to do, so that when I finish putting extensive comments on 15 assignments, I don't seem to have much creative juice left. 

I'm making very slow progress with the piece of fiction I've been working on -- I've written only about 4 pages in the past month. And the poetry muse has been a no-show for the past few weeks. 

I didn't even write a Five Minute Friday post last week!

The worst thing I can do at these times is to start comparing myself with what others are doing. 

So-and-so posts that they just finished their 1,000 words for the day. 

Another person just got a poem accepted. 

Someone else claims that they're a writer because THEY MUST WRITE; THEY CANNOT NOT WRITE -- and I think, "Uh, but sometimes I can not write (that's the problem). Maybe I'm not a Real Writer. Maybe I should just give up on this writing thing altogether..."

But comparison with other people (whether with writing or anything else) never helps. I have to do what works for me and not force myself to keep up with someone else's achievements or techniques. Everything has its rhythms and seasons, ups and downs, ebbs and flows ... and writing is no exception.

I need to take it easy on myself -- trusting that when the time is right the words and ideas will flow, and making space in my life for the joy that fosters creativity.


Monday, April 02, 2018

A review of Kate Motaung's A Place to Land (launching today!)

Today is the launch day for Kate Motaung's memoir A Place to Land: A Story of Longing and Belonging. Kate is the coordinator of our Five Minute Friday community, and I have thoroughly enjoyed reading her memoir.  

In touching prose, Kate writes of her upbringing as a child of divorce in Michigan, her calling to mission work in South Africa, her marriage to a South African man, and her mother's devastating cancer diagnosis. 

Throughout the book, change and challenge constantly stretch Kate's sense of "home." It is heartrending to read of how torn she is as she tries to support her mother from a distance while raising a family and trying to obey God's calling on her life. But as she brings her questions and doubts to God, she is constantly reminded of God's faithfulness despite upheaval and loss, and that her (and our) true home is in God's presence.

The description of her mother's illness and death was the aspect of the book I related most strongly to, having lost my own mom to cancer in 2014 and knowing something of that struggle to provide support -- and to grieve -- at a distance. In an interview, Kate has said, "Writing about my mom’s death [was the most difficult part]. My eyes tear up just thinking about it ... But they were therapeutic tears, and I’m so glad I’ve documented the experience, since the memory does fade. You don’t think you’ll ever forget something like that, but the details do fade."

When asked "Who is this book for?" Kate has said, "Hopefully A Place to Land will resonate with people with a wide variety of experiences and backgrounds, but I think especially for those who are familiar with:
• Divorced parents
• Moving frequently
• Feeling unsettled
• Longing for more
• Dealing with cancer
• Grief
• Loss of a mother (or loved one)
• Living cross-culturally"

I hope you'll consider reading this moving book. (It can be ordered here, by the way.) As Kate describes it, "It is a heavy book, but my prayer is that readers will find it therapeutic to reflect on their own difficult situations (even if it involves tears in the process), and that eventually they will land in a place of hope."