Beware of charisma mirrors

There are people who look much better than they actually are. They trick other people into admiring them for virtues that they do not actually possess. Sometimes they do this by using their charisma like a mirror. 

It works along these lines (I’m using ‘he’ here both for ease of reading and because this is *often* male-coded behavior, but there are also people who do this who aren’t men):

  • Charisma Man is a bad leader. He talks a lot about important causes, but doesn’t do any effective work on them. 
  • Mostly, Charisma Man insults all the leaders who are doing serious work on those causes for not having fixed it yet.
  • Idealistic people see that the problem hasn’t been solved yet, and assume that it’s because the other leaders don’t care as much as Charisma Man does.
  • They are sincere, and they think Charisma Man is too. 
  • They will tell everyone that Charisma Man is kind and wise and good.
  • None of this is actually true. There is wisdom and kindness and sincerity and goodness in the room, but it’s not coming from Charisma Man, it’s coming from his followers. 
  • When they look at Charisma Man, they see their own good qualities reflected back, and then give him credit for them.
  • Charisma Man is wielding his charisma like a mirror in order to stop people from noticing what he is actually like. 
  • People don’t notice all the ways that Charisma Man is failing at leadership because they’re seeing their own reflected goodness instead.
  • They also don’t notice all the ways that they are good and competent and valuable because they are attributing everything good they notice to Charisma Man.

If you are admiring a leader in an unbounded way and losing sight of your own worth, you might be looking at a charisma mirror rather than reality. It’s worth asking yourself: 

  • What does this leader do that I think is admirable? 
  • Do they actually do those things?
  • Is it unusual to do those things? Who else does them?
  • How is this leader helping others to be effective?
  • How is this leader valuing other people’s work?
  • When there is kindness and wisdom and sincerity in the room, where is it coming from? Is it from the leader, the followers, or both?

If a leader is making you feel like the only valuable thing you can do is follow them, sometimes is seriously wrong. Everyone, including you, has their own good qualities and their own contributions to make. Good leaders don’t want you to depend on them for your own sense of self worth, and they don’t want you to see them as the only person with something to offer. Good leaders don’t want unbounded admiration from their followers; good leaders collaborate and show respect for other people’s strengths. 

 

 image description: "beware of charisma mirrors" written on a vaguely mirror-like shape, next to a cartoon mirror with a cartoony mask face, on a background that's shiny reflective water

image description: "beware of charisma mirrors" written on a vaguely mirror-like shape, next to a cartoon mirror with a cartoony mask face, on a background that's shiny reflective water

"But it will confuse the children!"

When marginalized people exist unapologetically in public, some bigoted people say things like “But it will confuse the children!"

This is about as ridiculous as saying “Don’t pour water there! It will get the fish wet!”

Most of the world is confusing to children, because they haven’t had time to learn very much about it yet. Kids have to learn even really basic things. Some examples of stuff kids aren’t born knowing and often find confusing:

  • Door open *and* close.
  • Light switches can turn lights on and off.
  • Some things belong to you and some things do not.
  • Not everything that looks appealing is edible.
  • When you’re in public places, you have to wear clothes.
  • Some people are relatives and some people aren’t.
  • Everyone has a name.
  • People like different things.
  • Holidays exist.
  • Not everyone celebrates the same holidays.
  • It is possible to read books.
  • If you let go of a ballon outdoors, it will almost always float away.
  • Even when you are very upset, it is possible to communicate without screaming or hitting anyone.

You’re not going to break children by existing in public as a marginalized person. Even if they are confused, nothing terrible will happen. Children are good at thinking about things they don’t understand and learning new things. Kids are confused a lot; that’s part of being a kid. They are learning, and it’s ok.

 Image description: "Telling marginalized people "your identity will confuse the children" makes about as much sense as saying "that water will get the fish wet". between two photographs of fish.

Image description: "Telling marginalized people "your identity will confuse the children" makes about as much sense as saying "that water will get the fish wet". between two photographs of fish.

Two ways in which representation matters

There seems to be a major disconnect about what it means for a conference to have disability representation. I’ve seen a version of this happen a number of times:

  • A panel on diversity or social justice has no disability representation. 
  • No panelist talked about disability as a justice/diversity issue, or even alluded to disability experience.
  • A disabled person points out the problem to the organizers. 
  • The organizers say something to the effect of “Actually, one of the panelists has [some disability or other]”.

Organizers are sometimes genuinely confused about why this isn’t a solution, and I’m realizing that this is in part because “representation” means at least two different things:

Sometimes representation just means diversity of panelists, ie: 

  • There need to be panelists who are disabled (and in many context, there need to be panelists who are *openly* disabled). 
  • This is important in part because when there are no openly disabled people on a panel, this is often a sign of disability discrimination.
  • (Especially if there are no disabled people on *any* panels at a conference, or there are only disabled panelists on disability-focused panels.)
  • In some contexts, diversity of panelists is enough.

Sometimes representation means literally being a representative of a community or movement: 

  • Sometimes it’s not enough to have diverse panelists. Sometimes it’s necessary to have panelists who can represent other disabled people by speaking on behalf of an organized disability community or movement. 
  • In many contexts, there need to be panelists who can speak from a position of expertise about disability issues.
  • For instance, if the topic of the panel is intersectional activism or collaborating across movements, you need someone who can represent at least some part of the disability activist community.
  • Diversity of identity is not enough in this case, because having an identity is not the same as representing an organized advocacy community.
  • Being disabled does not in and of itself make someone a well-informed representative of the organized disability rights community.

Sometimes conferences forget that disability is a justice issue, and neglect to book anyone who can address disability as a justice issue, eg:

  • A conference holds a panel on intersectional advocacy called “Showing up for each other: Owning our privilege and leaving no one behind”.
  • The panel consists of an LGBTQ group, an anti-racist group, an economic justice group, and a feminist group.
  • None of the panelists are disability rights leaders.
  • None of the panelists talk about disability rights issues.
  • None of the panelists even talk about their own disability experiences.
  • On a panel about intersectionality and showing up for each other, disability issues are completely overlooked. 
  • Even if one of the panelists happens to have a disability or medical condition, this is still a problem.
  • (Especially if the organization holding the conference has a consistent pattern of overlooking disability issues.)
  • In this case, something has gone badly wrong and the conference needs to make an immediate plan for making sure it doesn’t happen again.

 

Sometimes conferences forget that diversity still matters when the topic isn’t disability or general intersectionality:

  • Not all disabled activists are disability rights activists.
  • Some disabled activists are focused primarily on other issues.
  • Eg: Some disabled activists are leading LGBTQ rights projects; some disabled activists are leading anti-racist organizations.
  • If disabled activists presenting about disability are the only disabled presenters at your conference, something has probably gone wrong.
  • If there are no disabled people presenting on any other topics, it’s important to think about what they is and what could be done to fix that.

Sometimes conferences forget that the disability community is diverse:

  • Many disability rights activists are also marginalized in other ways.
  • Many disability rights activists are also women, gay, trans, black, poor, Jewish, Muslim, immigrants, several of these, or otherwise multiply marginalized.
  • Eg: If all of the disability rights activists presenting at a conference are straight white Christian men, something has probably gone wrong.
  • If the range of disabled presenters at a conference doesn’t reflect the diversity of the disability community, it’s important to think about why that is and what could be done to fix that. 

Here’s an example of representation in both the diversity sense and the community representative sense:

  • There’s a writing conference or a comic conference or something.
  • Access needs are met in ways that make it possible for disabled people to go to the conference and present at the conference (without facing insurmountable or humiliating barriers).
  • General panels about diversity have disabled panelists knowledgable about disability issues.
  • Panels that are specifically about disability are lead by disabled panelists.
  • Many panels about topics *other than* disability have panelists with disabilities on them, in numbers that reflect the fact that disability is common.
  • Some disabled panelists on panels about topics unrelated to disability/diversity talk about disability and some don’t.
  • (Because not all disabled people are or want to be disability advocates.)

Tl;dr Representation on panels means at least two things. Sometimes it means a diverse range of panelists; sometimes it means panelists who literally represent a diverse range of communities. Scroll up for reasons this matters, and what problems can be caused when only one type of representation is considered.

 Image description: "Sometimes representation means speaking on behalf of a community or movement" on top of a photo of a microphone.

Image description: "Sometimes representation means speaking on behalf of a community or movement" on top of a photo of a microphone.

Care Bear stares do not work in real life

In the Care Bears movies, the heroes could solve just about any problem by speaking truth to power. Whenever a handful of bears cared enough to act, they could get together and give the villain the Care Bear stare. Their intense caring made the villain care too — at least until the next episode. (And in the movies, it was sometime permanent.) Whenever they weren’t solving a problem, it was because they were failing to care about it. The real world does not work that way.

In the Care Bears world, caring is magic. In real life, it’s not enough to care about something — you also have to have power. It’s not enough to know what needs to change — you also have to have a strategy for changing it. Sometimes speaking truth of power can be a source of power; sometimes you need other kinds of power. Sometimes you need to vote, get out the vote, build coalitions, wait for the right moment, make compromises, fundraise, reach out behind the scenes or otherwise find another source of power. Most real-life power is partial, most real life change is not fully satisfying — but it’s real, and it’s worth pursuing.

People unfamiliar with advocacy sometimes cause problems by expecting Care Bear stares to work in real life. They assume that any group of activists who cares about something should be able to get together, speak truth to power, and change hearts and minds with the sheer power of concentrated caring. As a result, when they see that a handful of activists who say that they care about a problem have not solved it, they angrily assume that this means that the activists just don’t care enough to be willing to do the Care Bear stare. When people aren’t solving a problem, it’s important to ask *why* they’re not solving the problem. Sometimes it’s because they don’t care, but often it’s because they don’t have the power to make all of the change they want to make. Often, they’re doing the best they can with the resources available to them.

This also happens in politics: For instance, people sometimes ignore the implications of the fact that the Democrats are the minority party in Congress and that there is a Republican in the White House. They believe, implicitly, that if the Democrats just *cared* enough, they would be able to stop the Republicans from passing bad laws and appointing awful people — and that they could pass the laws that we need without any Republican support. They sometimes reach the dangerous conclusion that Democrats don’t really care and aren’t worth voting for. But in real life, Democrats don’t have the option of using the Care Bear stare — they need power. If we want the Democrats to have the power to protect us from Trump and pass better laws, we have to vote in more of them. 

People also sometimes expect *themselves* to be able to use a Care Bear stare. People stuck in this mindset feel a lot of shame when they notice problems that they don’t know how to solve, because they it must mean that they don’t really care as much as they think they do. It is much more helpful to understand that caring about problems does not in and of itself create the ability to solve problems.  In real life, you won’t have the power to fix everything you want to fix, but you will have the power to fix something. When you accept that caring doesn’t create power by itself, it can enable you to find the things that do — including solidarity with other advocates who are doing the best they can.

T;dr Care Bear stares do not work in real life. In real life, caring about a problem does not in and of itself create the ability to fix the problem. In real life, you also have to have power. When people ignore power and expect caring to fix everything, it creates a lot of problems in advocacy.

 Image description: A carton person throwing off-color rainbows in the general direction of a sign that says "Care Bear stares do not work in real life"

Image description: A carton person throwing off-color rainbows in the general direction of a sign that says "Care Bear stares do not work in real life"

Women exist

Approximately half of all adults are women. (Sometimes more, sometimes less, depending in part on how gender is constructed in a particular culture.) Despite this, many of us have been socialized to forget that women exist when we’re trying to understand why things happen or how society works. 

This is particularly striking in historical scholarship. Before female historians were common, most history books were written as though only men existed in the past. Historical theories that account for the existence of women are a fairly recent development. The gaping holes in older theories can be really shocking when you’re more accustomed to remembering that many people are women.

Implicit bias against noticing women isn’t just a problem in history, and it’s not just a thing of the past. Even now, many people (of all genders) forget that women exist when they’re thinking about “people”. If you want your theory to make sense, it’s worth explicitly checking yourself for implicit bias. 

Some questions worth asking:

  • Am I assuming that everyone is male?
  • Does my theory account for the existence of women?
  • Does my theory account for the fact that around half of all adults are women?
  • Where are the women in my theory? Where are the women in the world I’m imagining?
  • How might this issue affect men, women, and nonbinary people differently?
  • How might men, women, and nonbinary people be playing differing roles in this issue?
  • Are all of my examples men? Are any of my examples women?
  • If I add some examples involving women, does the issue start looking different?

Tl;dr Women exist and make up around half of the population, but we’re often socialized to mentally edit them out. When you’re trying to figure out a theory about how society works, make sure your theory accounts for the existence of women.

 

 Image description "women exist" between two female symbols.

Image description "women exist" between two female symbols.

What disability professionals say 'tell us your story' and mean 'tell us we're wonderful'.

If a disability professional asks you to come and address their professional group, be very careful — especially if they ask you to "tell your story". Sometimes disability professionals are prepared to learn from disabled people, but more often than not, it’s a setup for humiliating emotional exploitation.

Most disability professionals form their professional consensus on The Enlightened Approach to Disabled People without many or any disabled leaders in the room. Having already decided what they will do to us, disability professionals then bring in disabled people as validation fairies to help them feel the way they want to feel about it.

Even if the person approaching you seems nice, it’s worth being cautious — don’t trust a smile; look for evidence about whether or not they are prepared to take you seriously as an expert. Most disability professionals don’t want to learn from our expertise; they want us to help them feel good about themselves. What they usually want from us is an emotional performance that validates their self image and the approach they’ve decided to take to disabled people.

They want to feel inspired, without facing difficult truths. They want to feel moved, without changing. They want to say “I learn so much from you!” without reconsidering their worldview or professional practice,  and they want to say “You have such a unique perspective!” to every disabled speaker, while treating us as largely interchangeable. (Disability professionals who are actually prepared to learn from us acknowledge gaps in their expertise, and seek out disabled experts to teach them what they need to know.)

When disability professionals *mean* “come make us feel good about ourselves”, what they usually *say* is some version of “we have so much to learn from your unique perspective” or “my colleagues need to hear your story”. When disability professionals ask a disabled person to “tell your story”, they generally expect us to follow these unwritten rules:

  • Tell the audience horror stories about your childhood that allow the listeners to feel righteous because We Would Never Do Such Things.
  • Make sure that the stories are graphic, but not too graphic. Horrify the audience enough so that their pulses raise a bit and they feel brave for listening to you, but be careful not to horrify them so much that they have nightmares.
  • Make sure that you tell the story in a way that doesn’t make them feel ashamed or responsible for any of it.
  • Give them someone to identify with so they can feel like excellent people. Usually it's either "my mom never gave up on me!" or "there was this one awesome teacher who showed me how to believe in myself!"
  • Don’t talk about the lingering harm done to you, or how it’s affecting you in the present. Don’t make them think about harm done to disabled kids who are facing lifelong consequences of that harm. Don’t talk about present-day injustice, discrimination, or violence.
  • Tell your story as a tragic misunderstanding. Don’t talk about discrimination or systematic injustice. 
  • Allow your audience to laugh at you. Tell self-deprecating jokes. Don’t insist on respect.
  • Don’t describe solidarity with other disabled people, and don’t attribute any of your success to other disabled people who you regard as equals. 
  • Don’t describe fighting with a professional and winning, unless you can attribute your victory to someone they can identify with. 
  •  Don’t be angry, and don’t describe other disabled people’s anger as legitimate. (Under some circumstances, it may be permissible to describe it as understandable, but only if you’re appropriately condescending and give the impression that the therapy provided by the professionals in the room would fix it.)
  • Don’t talk about disability in political terms. Say that “times have changed”, without giving any credit to disabled people who fought for those changes. 
  • Do not mention organized groups of disability activists, especially organized groups of disability activists who exist in the present and clash with disability professionals. 
  • At the end of the presentation, open the floor for Q&A. When audience members presume that it’s ok to ask you intrusive personal questions, smile and give them an answer that makes them feel good about themselves. 
  • When you’re in the audience of their presentations, do not expect this intimacy to be reciprocated, and do not expect them to show similar concern for your feelings. 
  • Understand that you’re here to validate them, and they’re not there to validate you. Pretend that what they’re doing is listening and learning.
  • Don't break character, and don't drop the mask. Don't acknowledge the unwritten rules or the unwarranted emotional validation they want from you. Accept compliments about your "honesty" and "authentic first hand perspective" with a straight face.
  • Above all, do not talk about being harmed by disability professionals who there’s any chance your audience would identify with.

When disability professionals expect you to be their validation fairy, this is a form of ableism and emotional exploitation. They should not be treating your life as a story about their benevolence as disability professionals. They should not be treating you as existing for the purpose of making them feel good about themselves. They should be treating you with respect as a real human being — and if you are an expert, they should be treating you with the professional respect due to a colleague.

I am not the validation fairy, and neither are you.

 Image description: Text "I am not the validation fairy" next to a line art drawing of a fairy casting a spell with a magic wand.

Image description: Text "I am not the validation fairy" next to a line art drawing of a fairy casting a spell with a magic wand.

Not all parents are mothers: A reminder to programs for kids

Sometimes camps, schools, and other programs for kids think “mother” when they should be thinking “parent or guardian”. In addition to being sexist, this kind of bias can cause a number of other problems.

When programs for kids think of “mother” and “parent” as synonyms, they often end up forgetting that other parents and guardians exist. When they think of “mother” and “primary caregiver” as synonyms, they often fail to contact the appropriate adult. 

For instance: 

  • Susan, an eight year old, just fell off the jungle gym and needs to be taken to the hospital.
  • Susan’s teacher, Ruby, calls 911. 
  • Ruby thinks “I need to call Susan’s mother to let her know that Ruby was just taken to Hypothetical Hospital”.
  • Susan’s mother, Melissa isn’t reachable during the day because she works in a secure building without access to a phone.
  • Susan’s father, Christopher, *is* reachable. He works from home, and always has his phone with him.
  • Although Susan’s emergency contact form has a note saying to call Christopher first, it doesn’t occur to Ruby to do so, because she’s thinking “I need to call Susan’s mother”, and looking at the “mother” line of the form.
  • Ruby keeps trying to reach Melissa. 
  • It takes an hour before it occurs to anyone to call Susan’s *father*.

Or:

David is a twelve year old who has food allergies. He also has a mother, Miriam, and a father, Fred.

  • Katie, who runs the kitchen at Camp Hypothetical, has some questions about what he can and can’t eat, and whether the plan for an upcoming camp out will work for him.
  • Katie tries calling Miriam, David’s mother. She doesn’t reply. Katie tries again and again, over the course of several days.
  • It doesn’t occur to her to try calling David’s *father*, even though she knows he has one — because she thinks of mothers as the parents who keep track of that kind of information.

When you’re working with kids, it’s really important not to treat “mother” and “primary caregiver” as synonyms, and to remember that:

  • Not all children have mothers.
  • Not all mothers are primary caregivers.
  • Not all children who have mothers live with their mothers.
  • Not all mothers should be given information about their children.
  • Fathers are parents.
  • Nonbinary parents are parents.
  • When a kid has more than one parent, it’s often best to contact both/all parents (especially if contacting the first parent doesn’t work.)
  • Some kids are raised by people other than their parents (eg: grandparents, a sibling, foster parents).

Tl;dr If you’re working with kids and you need to contact their parent or guardian, don’t assume that their mother is the right person to contact. Look at the instructions on their emergency/parent contact form, and follow those instructions. And if you try calling a kid’s mother and don’t get a response, check to see whether they have another parent you should try calling.

 Image description: "Not all parents are mothers" written on a chalkboard

Image description: "Not all parents are mothers" written on a chalkboard

The internet is real

The internet is real. The internet exists in the world and it affects the rest of the world.

I’m a person all of the time. I don’t stop being a person when I log on, and neither do you. It matters how we treat each other, and it matters what kind of culture we build through online interactions.

Further, no one can opt out of being affected by the internet. The interactions that take place online impact the whole culture, not just those who are directly participating online. For instance, whether or not someone ever uses a smart phone or takes a selfie, if they spend any time in cities, they’re going to encounter others doing so — and if they go to events, they’re likely going to encounter backdrops made for that express purpose. There’s no way to opt out of being affected by the existence of selfies and selfie culture.

There’s also no way to opt out of the way the internet can be used to attack people. For instance, for over a decade, ratemyprofessors.com had a hotness rating, and female professors couldn’t opt out of being affected by the way that encouraged sexual harassment. Similarly, Monica Lewinsky and others who have faced internet-aided attacks could not have made them go away by logging out.

Online interaction is even being used as a form of warfare. Most notoriously, Russian intelligence agencies successfully used Facebook, Twitter, and Tumblr to interfere with the United States presidential election in 2016. Even if I logged off today and never touched a computer again, I could not opt out of being affected by the fact that Donald Trump became President of the United States in early 2017.

At the same time, marginalized people are also using the internet to build forms of power and solidarity that we didn’t have before. Before I found disability selfie culture online, the only images of people like me I’d ever seen were all illustrating tragic stories about our parents. Connecting with other disabled people online made it possible for me to realize that I could be fully human without being cured — and that I could be taken seriously without becoming normal.

Similarly, not everyone uses Twitter or hashtags, but everyone lives in a culture in which #BlackLivesMatter, #YesAllWomen, and #MeToo are uningnorable. Privileged people have lost some of their power to silence and isolate people — and marginalized people have gained a lot of power to find and support each other.

The internet is real, and the things we do online matter. We can make better choices when we remember that what we’re doing is real.

 

 Image description: Text "the internet is real" typed on a cartoon computer screen

Image description: Text "the internet is real" typed on a cartoon computer screen

In defense of distracting fidget toys

One problem with the way stim/fidget toys are discussed is that there’s often a false dichotomy drawn between good fidgets that help people to focus, and bad fidgets that distract people. Focus is not the only legitimate reason to use a stim toy.  

Further, being focused on your surroundings isn’t always a good thing. Sometimes, the main reason a stim toy is useful is *because* it is distracting.  For instance, some people use stim toys to distract themselves from trauma triggers. When an environment is triggering, it can be really helpful to have a way of temporarily ignoring it. 

Some people use stim toys to distract themselves from pain or sensory overload. Distracting stim toys can be a way to take a break without having to leave the room. Fidget spinners in particular often work really well for this.

There are any number of ways to use stim toys. Some uses, like holding a rock in order to remind yourself where your hand is, have little or nothing to do with focus one way or the other. They serve a different purpose. 

We shouldn’t let “they help with focus” be the only use of stim toys we acknowledge as legitimate. The other ways they are used also matter. And sometimes, getting distracted is the whole point. 

You can be autistic and have a sexual orientation at the same time.

glittery-cyan-skies asked: 

Me identifying as Demisexual and being on the autism spectrum goes hand in hand for me sometimes. Some days I feel like I'm completely valid because I often exhibit traits of being Demisexual, such as only truly experiencing sexual attraction at least once with someone I had known for a very long time. Then other days I feel completely unsure again because I remember that my autism means that I often only like people after knowing them for a long time. So am I demi or am I just being autistic?

Realsocialskills answered:

I can’t tell you what your sexual orientation is — you’re the only one who can answer that question. Whatever your sexual orientation is, it’s valid. It’s also ok not to be sure. Some people know what their sexual orientation is from a very young age; some people take longer to figure it out. Everyone has the right to be who they are. 

Just about anything we experience as autistic people will be influenced by our autism, including sexuality. That doesn’t make our experiences any less valid — it just means that they’re autistic experiences. Different autistic people fall different places on the gender and sexuality spectrum — we have the same range of sexual orientations that anyone else does. 

Some autistic people find that their experience of sexuality is somewhat different from nonautistic people who share their sexual orientation. For instance, if you’re demisexual, you might find that there are some differences between the circumstances that can lead to attraction for you and the circumstances that seem to lead to attraction for nonautistic demisexual people you know. That doesn’t make you any less demisexual, it just means that having a disability that affects how you relate to people sometimes affects how you relate to people. It’s ok when it turns out that autism matters.

You might find that your experiences with sexuality are somewhat different from those of nonautistic people who share your sexual orientation, or you may not. If your experiences are different, that doesn’t make them any less valid. It’s sort of like language: As an autistic person, you may communicate differently from others, but that doesn’t mean you’re any less of an English speaker — and it *definitely* doesn’t mean your question was actually written in French. You are who you are, and it’s ok that autistic difference is sometimes part of that. 

One way to think about it might be to keep in mind that you’re only one person. Don’t try to separate out a part of you that’s autistic and a part of you that’s valid. Your whole self is valid, and you can be autistic and have a sexual orientation at the same time.

 

 A cartoon protest sign on a pride rainbow background with the text "you can be autistic and have a sexual orientation at the same time"

A cartoon protest sign on a pride rainbow background with the text "you can be autistic and have a sexual orientation at the same time"

Babysitting a nonspeaking four year old

Question from an anonymous reader:

I regularly babysit a 3 (almost 4) year old who has Autism. He does not speak, and he doesn't yet have a reliable alternative form of communication like signing or AAC, though he probably will soon.

 I have a lot of friends and two cousins who have Autism, but they all speak or sign. I find it difficult sometimes to understand what the kiddo in question is thinking, or wants, and I wondered if you or any of your followers have any first hand tips or advice on how I could better understand him? 

I know everyone is different, and I'm learning to read things like his body language, but I wondered if you/any of your followers who don't speak or spoke later than most remember anything that helped them get across what they meant when they were younger, or things adults did that were especially helpful. He doesn't have the coordination to sign or draw what he wants yet, being so little. I want to help him feel less frustrated and to be as good a babysitter as I can be.

Realsocialskills answered:

For the sake of readability, I’m going to call your cousin Anthony in this post. 

The first thing I’d say is: Listening to Anthony matters whether or not you succeed in understanding him. You may not be able to figure out what he is thinking, he may not yet be able to tell you — but you *can* treat him as a person who has thoughts and feelings worth listening to. That matters in and of itself, and it also makes successful communication much more likely.

Learning to communicate is really hard, even for typically developing kids. (Which is a reason why two year olds have so many tantrums, and why older kids usually grow out of that.) In early childhood education, a lot of what kids learn is that it’s possible to communicate in ways that others can understand — and that words are usually a better option than freaking out. One of the main ways early childhood educators teach kids these skills is by listening to them, and by supporting them in understanding the feelings they’re having. 

Kids with communication disabilities have more trouble learning to communicate in ways that others can understand — and they also often have more trouble learning that communication is even possible. Disabled kids need *more* exposure to adults who want to listen to them, and *more* support in understanding their feelings — but they often get less of both. Their feelings are often ignored, and their communication is often treated as nonexistent. 

All too often, kids with disabilities learn young that no one wants to listen to them. They often try their best to communicate, only to have their attempts interpreted as random meaningless noise or deviant misbehavior. When nobody listens, it becomes really hard to keep trying. One of the best things you can do for Anthony right now is help him not to give up.

It’s important to keep in mind that Anthony is a person with a perspective of his own. Our culture socializes us to see people with disabilities as having needs, but not thoughts or feelings. That implicit bias goes really deep for almost everyone, including AAC experts and long-time disability rights activists. Be careful to treat Anthony as a person with thoughts, feelings, and questions. This is a profoundly countercultural attitude. You can’t assume that it will happen by itself; you have to do it on purpose. (I did a presentation on this for medical providers a while ago which may be of interest.  )

Some specific things you can try:

Say explicitly that you’re trying to understand, eg:

  • “I don’t understand you yet, but I’m listening”.
  • “I’m not sure what you mean, but I do care”.
  • It doesn’t go without saying — and sometimes saying it makes a big difference!
  • Look for actions that might be intended as communication:
  • Does he point at things? Lead you to things? Flap differently under some circumstances?

Make a guess about what you think he might mean, and act on it.

  • It can be worth using words to describe what you’re doing, eg:
  • “I think you want the book because you’re looking at the book. I am getting the book”.
  • “I think the light is bothering you because you’re covering your eyes. I am turning off the light.”
  • He can’t read your mind, so it might not be obvious to him that you’re acting on what you think he’s doing — so tell him!

Name feelings you think he might be having, eg: 

  • “Susan took your truck. You are mad.”
  • “You like the marbles. You are happy.”
  • “Jumping is so fun!”
  • “You don’t like that texture.”
  • (Nb: Telling *adults* what they are feeling in these terms is usually *not* a good idea, but it’s a pretty common method used to help little kids learn about feelings — *if* you know with reasonable certainty what their feelings are.)

Ask questions, and offer choices, eg:

  • “Do you want the red shirt or the blue shirt?”
  • “Should we read the princess book or the truck book?”
  • “Should we go to the swings or the sandbox?”
  • Even if he can’t respond, being asked matters — it shows him that you care what he thinks, and that there’s a reason to try to communicate.

It can help to make the options more concrete, eg:

  • He might be more able to tell you which shirt he wants if you’re holding both of them. 
  • Or if you’re holding one in one hand and one in the other.
  • Or if you put them down in front of him.

If he responds to your question in a way that you think might be communication, respond to it as communication: 

  • Eg:  “You pointed to the dragon book, so we’ll read the dragon book”.
  • Or it may make more sense to just start reading it. Sometimes that works better than inserting too many words. 
  • Eg: “Ok, we’ll go to the park”.

You can also try yes-or-no questions:

  • “Do you want to go to the park? Yes or no?”
  • “Do you want to read the dragon book? Yes or no?”
  • “Is the dragon scary? Yes or no?”
  • “Is the king silly? Yes or no?”
  • Again, even if he can’t respond in a way you understand, trying matters.

You also might be able to teach him to point to things:

  • Pointing doesn’t require motor skills on the same level that writing and drawing do.
  • Again, in the two book example, you can ask him to point to the one he wants.
  • You can also show him pointing by doing it yourself, eg:
  • Take two books, and say “I choose the dragon book”, point to it, then read it.
  • Take two books and ask him “Which book do you choose?”
  • (Etc: It can take some time and trial and error to figure out how to teach this in a way that sticks, but it’s often worth trying.)

If he has a way to communicate “yes”, and “no” or choose between options, you can also check your guesses more directly:

  • “I think you said park. Am I right?”
  • “Did you say park, or something else?”
  • “Are you trying to tell me something, or are you playing?”

Remember that words can be communication even when they’re unusual: A lot of autistic people use idiosyncratic language to refer to things, or repeat phrases they heard somewhere else – in a way that they may or may not mean literally. Here’s a method for noticing when repetition is communication , and some thoughts on listening to folks whose speech is unusual.

Give him time to process and respond:

  • The standard teaching advice is: When you ask a question, wait at least seven seconds before you say anything else.
  • This feels a little unnatural — it can feel like a *very* awkward pause, and it can be tempting to jump in and say more stuff to clarify.
  • But if you say more stuff to someone who is thinking and formulating their answer, it tends to just give them *more* stuff to process. 
  • So give him time to respond — and be aware that autistic people often need longer to process and respond.

If you have an iPad you’re willing to let him play with, iPad use can really help some kids with motor skills and learning communicative cause-and-effect.

  • Most kids learn pretty quickly how to scroll through select the app they want, and that skill often transfers.
  • Most kids that age like Endless ABC, a really fun pre-literacy words-and-spelling app. https://www.originatorkids.com/?p=564
  • (That app also builds an association between interacting with a touch screen and making meaningful sounds)
  • You can also try the Toca Boca apps — a lot of kids like those, and some, like Toca Hair Salon, don’t require particularly strong motor skills.
  • Often, the best way is to play with the app together — eg, you show them how to drag the letters around, then offer them a turn.
  • Or help them out when they get stuck, without taking over.
  • Or say things like “which color should we pick? How about purple?” and see how they react.

Don’t expect AAC to fix everything:

  • Everything in this post still applies once he gets a device or a system.
  • An AAC device is just a tool. It’s one mode of communication, which might be useful for him under some circumstances.
  • Having an AAC device will not make him instantaneously able to communicate using words in the way that typically-developing kids his age do.
  • While some people learn to use an AAC device fluently very quickly, that is rare. 
  • Most people who use AAC because of a childhood speech delay take a long time to learn it.
  • And in any case, giving someone a tool doesn’t cure their disability. 
  • An AAC user with a communication disability still has a communication disability, and disabilities that interfere with speech sometimes also interfere with language. 
  • Even people *without* language disabilities tend to take a while to learn, for all the same reasons that typically-developing kids take a while to learn how to use words to express themselves. Communication takes practice.
  • (And also, all existing AAC technology has significant limitations and difficulties. It’s easier for typically developing kids to learn to speak than it would be to learn to use AAC, and having a speech disability doesn’t magically make AAC use easy.)
  • AAC implementations can also end up treating AAC use as an end in itself and forget that the point is to support communication. 
  • For most AAC users, AAC is one communication mode among many they use, and it’s not always the best one in every situation — eg: pointing to a banana can be a *much* more efficient way to communicate than scrolling through a device and finding the “I” “want” and “banana” buttons.
  • If Anthony gets an AAC system, he will still need you to put effort into listening to him, and he will still need you to take all of his communication seriously.

Remember that disability isn’t bad behavior, and don’t be mean:

  • Don’t ignore his communication in order to force him to talk or use a system.
  • The best way to encourage communication is to listen!
  • He’s not struggling to communicate because he’s lazy; he’s struggling to communicate because he has a disability.
  • He’s doing something really hard, and he’s in a hard situation, and that needs to be respected and supported.
  • You don’t need to introduce artificial difficulty; he is already experiencing more than his share of the real kind.

Anyone else want to weigh in? What is helpful for effective communication with a nonspeaking four year old? You can answer using my contact form.

 Tl;dr If you’re babysitting a kid who has trouble with communication, the most important thing you can do is listen to them. Scroll up for some specific options. 

 Image description: Text "Kids with communication disabilities need to know that you care about listening to them", next to a picture of a young child and a picture of some plastic duplo-style building blocks.

Image description: Text "Kids with communication disabilities need to know that you care about listening to them", next to a picture of a young child and a picture of some plastic duplo-style building blocks.

One reason to tell your kids about their disability

Kids eavesdrop. No matter how hard you try to keep things from them about their disability, they will eventually succeed in overhearing you. 

The time kids are most likely to succeed in eavesdropping is when you are the most upset about their disability — because being upset and overwhelmed takes a lot of energy, and it makes it harder to pay attention to keeping kids from overhearing.

Further — kids these days have access to Google. When kids overhear adults talking about their disability, they are likely to investigate by googling it. The first result for their disability is probably *not* what you want your kid to believe about themself and their future.

Talking to your kids about their disability is much better than letting them find out about it from googling what they overhear. 

 Image description: "Talk to your kids about their disability" next to a drawing of an adult holding hands with a child.

Image description: "Talk to your kids about their disability" next to a drawing of an adult holding hands with a child.

Don't order people to feel safe.

Social justice workshops often open by demanding that everyone consider the space safe and put absolute trust in the person leading it. For instance, workshop leaders will often say things like “This is a safe space. No one will feel unsafe here — but you might feel uncomfortable confronting your privilege. Understand the difference between being uncomfortable and being unsafe.”

“Everyone will be safe” is a promise we can’t keep. “Everyone must feel safe” is a demand that we have no right to make.

No workshop is actually safe for everyone. Sometimes, people are going to feel unsafe. Sometimes, people are going to *be* unsafe. People who feel unsafe need to be welcome in our workshops — and all the more so, we need to welcome those who are taking significant risks in order to learn from us. 

When we tell people who are feeling unsafe that it must just be their privilege talking, we make the space much more dangerous for everyone in the room. Sometimes, people who feel unsafe are responding to real dangers. If we demand that participants who feel unsafe ignore the possibility that they are right, we are demanding the right to hurt them. That’s not something we should ever do.

Feeling unsafe isn’t always privilege talking. It’s always a possibility, but it’s never the only possibility. Sometimes, presenters aren’t actually as knowledgable and perceptive as they think they are. Sometimes, presenters get things wrong in ways that make the space unsafe for the most marginalized participants in the room. Sometimes, participants are so used to being unsafe that they need a lot of evidence of safety before they’re willing to risk trusting someone. 

One way this can happen is that sometimes participants are marginalized in ways that the presenter doesn’t understand. For instance, people presenting on white privilege don’t necessarily always understand the significance of ableism, people presenting on sexism and misogyny don’t always understand the significance of racism and antiblackness. No one has a perfect understanding of every form of marginalization, and we are better presenters when we keep this in mind. When marginalized people are taking risks in order to learn from us, we need to respect the risks they’re taking and not write them off as a privileged affectation.

This can also happen in other ways. We have power as teachers and presenters, and it is possible to abuse that power. Even when the people we’re teaching are more privileged than we are in every relevant way, it matters how we treat them. Being privileged in society is not the same thing as being safe in a classroom. We are all capable of making mistakes that hurt people, and when we make those mistakes, it matters. 

People have the right to manage their own safety. Our students have the right to decide for themselves whether or not they trust us, and how far they trust us. They have the right to revoke that trust at any time. We do not have the right to demand that they make themselves vulnerable, and we do not have the right to demand that they allow themselves to be hurt.

People have the right to make up their own minds about how safe or dangerous something seems to them. Calling a space safe does not make it safe, and it does not give us the right to order people to feel safe. When we present, it’s never ok to demand that people trust us. Trust is always earned. 

 Image description: A yellow caution sign next to text "Don't order people to feel safe".

Image description: A yellow caution sign next to text "Don't order people to feel safe".

Disability is not an abusive roommate

Nondisabled storytellers often seem to think of disability as an abusive roommate coming and imposing its will on a disabled person. When they think about wheelchair users, they don’t think about the mobility that’s made possible by assistive technology. They think about how they’d feel if someone chained them to a wheelchair and forcibly prevented them from walking.

This misconception is dangerous. When people see disability-related limitations as similar to violent restraint, they don’t know know to tell the difference between the innate limitations of someone’s body and limitations being forcibly imposed on them by others. When people don’t understand the difference between living with a disability and living with an abuser, they assume that abusive experiences are inevitable for people with disabilities. 

In reality, there’s nothing inevitable about abuse. Coming up against the limitations of your body is fundamentally different from being forcibly restrained by someone else. Whether or not you are disabled, having physical limitations is part of having a body. Being disabled means that you have a different range of physical limitations than most other people do, but they don’t come color coded ‘normal’ and ‘disabled’. When you’re used to the way your body works, the disability-related limitations feel pretty similar to those that aren’t disability-related. 

Using assistive technology is pretty similar to using technology for any other important reason. Everyone uses technology to do things that their bodies alone would be too limited to do. Most people use cars to go further than they could walk; some people also use wheelchairs to go further than they could walk. Some people type or use communication tablets to say more than they could with their bodies alone; some people use musical instruments; some people use both. People with disabilities have different limitations, and as a result, often benefit from technology that wouldn’t be particularly useful to nondisabled people. 

When technology is associated with disability, people tend to have the dangerous misconception that using it is the same as being restrained. This can very easily become self-fulfilling. When people prevent disabled people from doing things, their inability to do it is often misattributed to their disability. For instance:

Wheelchairs as restraints:

  • Anthony lives in a nursing home.
  • Anthony speaks oddly, and most people interpret most of what he says as meaningless. They say ‘Anthony doesn’t communicate’.
  • Anthony can walk and wants to walk, but the nursing him staff don’t let him. 
  • George, the supervisor, tells Sage, another staff member, ‘Anthony wanders. We need to keep him in his wheelchair to keep him safe. Just lock the seatbelt. After a few minutes, he stops resisting.’
  • Every morning, Sage puts Anthony in a wheelchair that he can’t move, and ties him down so he can’t escape.
  • Sage tells Marge, a new volunteer, ‘That’s Anthony. It’s so nice to have a volunteer - he’s been spending most of his time in the hallway lately. He doesn’t walk or talk, but he loves visiting the garden! Can you take him there?”
  • Marge and Sage don’t know what Anthony actually wants, and it doesn’t occur to them that it’s possible to ask.
  • Anthony actually hates the garden and hates being pushed by other people. He prefers to spend his time in the library or with children in the children’s wing.
  • Marge assumes that Sage is the expert on Anthony, and assumes that Anthony’s disability prevents him from walking and communicating.
  • Marge doesn’t know that Anthony has stopped talking because he’s constantly surrounded by people who refuse to listen to him. 
  • Marge doesn’t know that Sage is tying Anthony to a wheelchair against his will to stop him from going where he wants to go.
  • Marge doesn’t know that she’s doing something to Anthony against his will.
  • When people see disability and restraint as the same thing, they fail to notice that people with disabilities are being violently restrained — and often unwittingly participate in physical abuse of disabled people. 

The disability-as-restraint misconception also causes people to fail to understand that when they deny people access to assisstive technology, they’re preventing them from doing things, eg:

Mobility:

  • Beck is an eight year old who can’t walk.
  • Beck has a wheelchair, but he’s not allowed to bring it to school.
  • At school, he’s strapped into a stroller that others push around. 
  • His classmate Sarah has *never* had a wheelchair that she can push herself.
  • At a staff meeting, Lee, their teacher, says “Because of their disabilities, Sarah and Beck can’t move around by themselves. Even though they stay in one place all day, they’re so fun to have in our class!”
  • Lee is missing the crucial fact that the reason Sarah and Beck are immobile is because they’re being denied access to assistive technology. 
  • When people see disability and externally-imposed limitation as the same thing, they don’t notice limitations being imposed on disabled people. 

Communication:

  • Rebecca types on her iPad to communicate.
  • Clay takes away Rebecca’s iPad.
  • Clay tells Sophie, ‘Rebecca is nonverbal. Her disability prevents her from communicating, but we’re working on improving her speech.’
  • Sophie sees that Rebecca can’t talk, and assumes that it’s her disability that’s preventing her from communicating.
  • Actually, it’s *Clay* who is preventing Rebecca from communicating.
  • When people see disability and abuse as the same thing, they don’t notice abuse of disabled people.

It’s important to be clear on the difference between disability and abuse. Disability is not an abusive roommate; people with disabilities are only abused if someone is abusing them. When people with disabilities are restrained against their will, this is not caused by their disabilities; it’s caused by the people who are restraining them. Restraint is an act of violence, not an innate fact about disability. When wheelchairs are used as restraints, the wheelchair isn’t the problem; the violence is the problem. When people are denied access to assistive technology, it’s not their disability that’s limiting them; it’s neglect. When we stop conflating disability and abuse, we’re far less likely to see abuse of people with disabilities as inevitable.

 Image description: A photo of gloomy-looking stairs next to the text "Disability is not an abusive roommate".

Disability vs special needs

I’m sometimes asked “Why do you say “disability” instead of “special needs”?

Here’s the most basic reason:

When people say “special needs”, the next word is usually “kids”. 

When people say “disability”, the next word is often “rights”.

I’m an adult, and I want equal rights. For that reason, I’m going to keep using the language that has room for adulthood and power. 

 

Autism stereotypes and Not Autism Syndrome

People who have rare developmental disabilities are often misdiagnosed with autism.  This happens in part because a lot of disabilities look similar in early childhood. When kids with undetected rare genetic conditions start ‘missing milestones’, they are often assumed to be autistic. 

When people are assumed to be autistic, autism stereotypes get applied to them. They’re often assumed to be uninterested in people and communication, and they’re often put into ABA programs prescribed for autistic people. They face the same kind of degrading and damaging misunderstanding that autistic people do.

When advocacy organizations address the issue of misdiagnosis, they tend to say some form of “It’s important to distinguish between autism and Not Autism Syndrome, because demeaning autism stereotypes only accurately describe autistic people.” 

Here’s a Rett Syndrome example: “The child with RTT almost always prefers people to objects, but the opposite is seen in autism. Unlike those with autism, the RTT child often enjoys affection.”

And a Williams Syndrome example:

“Unlike other disorders that can make it difficult to interact meaningfully with your child, children with Williams Syndrome are sociable, friendly and endearing. Most children with this condition have very outgoing and engaging personalities and tend to take an extreme interest in other people.”

Statements like these suggest that the problem with autism stereotypes is that they're applied to the wrong people. The thing is, demeaning autism stereotypes *aren’t true of anyone. We all have feelings and thoughts and the capacity to care about things and relate to other people. Accurate diagnosis matters, but not as a way of sorting out who is and isn't fully human. We're all fully human, and no one should be treated the way autistic people are treated. We shouldn't pass around stereotypes, we should reject them.

Breaking writer’s block by being willing to write posts that don’t feel good enough

I have had writer’s block from hell lately, largely because I’ve been too attached to getting everything right. 

This blog was easier to write when I posted every day, because it meant that I didn’t get trapped in perfectionism-driven writer’s block. I just wrote things that were as good as I could make them in the time I had available, then posted them, then posted more things.

Now that I don’t post every day anymore, my posts tend to get indefinitely delayed. Nothing I write lately feels good enough to post, and I want to just keep working on things until they feel done — but the thing is, there is *always* room to improve posts. Wanting to wait for things to be better isn’t resulting in better posts, it’s resulting in *no* posts.

So, I’m trying to keep in mind what I know: If I want to write good posts, I have to *actually finish posts*. Waiting for posts to be better will not get them written; being willing to write them will get them written. And if I write some bad posts along the way, that’s a step towards writing the posts I want to be writing long-term. Silence will not help. 

With that in mind, I’m planning to post every day between now and Friday. I will most likely hate most if not all of this week’s posts, but they will be written and they are a step towards getting my blog voice back. 

Beware of collectors

There are people who I think of as collectors. Collectors like to maintain collections of people who they can manipulate. Often, collectors target marginalized people — especially activists and advocates who are growing into their own voices and power.

Collecting often works like this:

  • The collector will find someone who is starving for respect or struggling to be seen as a human being deserving human rights. 
  • They will give you something that feels like an unusual amount of respect or allyship.
  • Often, this comes in a the form of expressing an opinion that it’s unusual for privileged people to have.
  • Eg: An autism professional might express opposition to ABA, or the opinion that communication should always come before behavioral intervention.
  • They might talk a lot about centering marginalized voices, and give you some access to space that people like you don’t normally have.
  • Eg: They might be a man who refuses to speak on all male panels and proactively gets you invited to speak at male-dominated conferences.
  • This support comes with a heavy price. In return, they expect you to act like part of their collection and avoid doing anything to upset them.
  • (And somehow, everything you do that shows power or independence tends to upset them.)

Once you’re collected, it tends to feel like this:

  • They make you feel like they’re “one of the good ones”, and there’s a constant implicit threat that if you fail to please them, they might stop being so good.
  • They make it clear that you’d better make them feel good and validate their self-image, or else they’ll stop.
  • They’ll do all kinds of things you’d normally object to, and say all kinds of things that you’d normally be offended by.
  • One of the most sure-fire ways to upset them is to point out the threat, or to make it clear that you’re acting out of fear in any way.
  • It gets harder and harder to say things that you know will upset them. It gets harder and harder to express opinions that you know contradict theirs. It gets harder and harder to even have *thoughts* that will upset them. 
  • It gets harder and harder to realize how much you’re acting under duress, because noticing the threat will likely result in emotional retaliation. 
  • They might put you in a position in which all of your options feel blatantly unprofessional in one way or other. 
  • (For instance, they might make you choose between violating the professional ethics code in your field or else withdrawing from a project you’ve publicly committed to in a way that will cause the project to collapse.)
  • They might harshly criticize everyone else you’re allied with, and every community you’re part of. It can feel like you’re supposed to separate yourself from everyone but them. It can be difficult to resist, for the same reasons it’s generally difficult to resist deferring to their views.
  • It gets harder and harder to trust anyone else, or to have positive opinions of people who would treat you better than the collector does.

 

Collector manipulativeness tends to be excruciatingly confusing, in part because they also keep offering you things that feel important and rare, eg:

  • They’ll often tell you how important your work is, praise it effusively, and help you get access to professional opportunities. 
  • They’ll often keep expressing unusual good opinions that make you feel like they must be on your side, deep down, because hardly anyone ever agrees with you.
  • You’re usually not the only one in their orbit. They’ll often be tolerated and praised within your community, even though they blatantly do things that would normally be seen as horrifically unacceptable.
  • (Eg: Maybe they argue for autistic rights but also express graphic sympathy for parents who murder autistic children. Maybe they get women onto panels but also make gross sexual comments and mansplain to everyone who contradicts them.)
  • They’ll often be involved in projects that get publicly praised as a major step forward, despite major flaws and despite the way that they treat marginalized people.
  • Often, open they say and do things that your community normally finds unacceptable, but are perceived as an ally and a friend.
  • (Or even a uniquely valuable and indispensable ally and friend.)
  • It can get really hard to trust your perceptions of right and wrong under those circumstances.
  • Collectors are confusing and it can be hard to extract yourself from them.

When you’re trying to extract yourself from a collector, the most important thing is to find ways to stay oriented. Collectors gain power by confusing you, and they become much less powerful when you’re able to notice what they’re doing. 

Some ways to stay oriented:

Notice when your opinions are shifting in ways that might not be coming from you:

  • When you have conversations with the collector, do you tend to feel ashamed of yourself for disagreeing with them or questioning them?
  • Do you tend to go out of conversations feeling like you were wrong about everything and that they’re right?
  • Does the change in your opinions make sense to you, or does it feel like the ground is shifting underneath you in incomprehensible ways?
  • If you’re finding yourself confused after conversations, it can help to have a policy of not making decisions about what you’ve discussed until you’ve been away from the collector for at least for hours (or a day, or however long it usually takes for the effect to wear off.)

Making things explicit can also help:

  • One way collectors confuse people is by shaming you with innuendo instead of using direct language to discuss what they want you to believe and do.
  • They know that if they came out and said it, you would likely disagree with it — so instead of saying it, they manipulate you into losing the ability to contradict it.
  • (Eg: They might not say “it’s ok for parents to use electric shocks to control behavior”, but instead go off on a rant about being understanding every time you mention the issue. 
  • Or they might not *say* “we should tolerate men who grope women when they’re also major donors”, but instead talk about how important fundraising is to your organization every time you say that the groping needs to stop.)
  • If you notice what, exactly, it is that they want you to do and think, it can make it *much* easier to figure out for yourself whether or not you actually agree.
  • Some questions worth asking (either to yourself or in conversation with someone you trust):
  • What do they want me to believe? 
  • What do they want me to do?
  • What are they suggesting without coming out and saying it directly? 
  • What do I think about this? Why?

It’s also worth paying attention to contradictions. Sometimes when you notice that someone is contradicting themselves, it becomes much easier to feel ok about disagreeing with them. It can help to think about these kinds of questions:

  • What things do they want me to believe? What am I supposed to believe about them? About myself? About my community? About other marginalized groups? About privileged people? About my field? About the world? About other things? 
  • Do those things contradict each other? 
  • Is it actually possible to believe all of those things at the same time?
  • If so, what would be the likely result of pointing out the contradiction? Would they be interested in figuring out how to reconcile things, or would they be angry at me for noticing?

More generally speaking, it’s easier to figure out what your own opinion is when you notice fear. Questions worth considering:

  • What do I think about the things they want me to believe? Why? 
  • What do I agree with? What do I disagree with? What do I have questions about? 
  • What questions am I afraid to ask? Why? What do I think the answers to those questions might be?
  • What opinions am I afraid to express? Why?
  • Am I saying yes when I really want to say no? Why?
  • What do I think when they’re not in the room? What changes when they are?
  • What would be the likely result of expressing uncertainty, asking questions, or saying that I disagree about something? 
  • Would I be able to say what I actually believe without having a fraught emotional conversation in which I have to praise them and struggle to find ways to say that I agree with them after all?
  • What I am I afraid they might do to me? Realistically, could they do that? Would it be worse than the situation I’m already in?
  • Is there any way to mitigate the threat?

It can also help to ask yourself concrete questions about their actions and how they are percieved:

  • Collectors typically act in ways that blatantly contradict their reputation.
  • Then they manipulate people into not noticing, or they manipulate the conversation to prevent people from having language to describe it.
  • It’s worth asking: *Why* do they have a good reputation? Is it based on anything they’ve actually done to earn it? 
  • Does their good reputation depend on excusing an awful lot of statements and actions that would normally be considered dealbreaking if someone did even *one* of those things?
  • If you feel like they’re great and worth putting up with despite the way they treat you, why is that?
  • What’s the best thing they’ve done for you? What has letting them do that for you cost you? Is it worth it? If so, why?
  • Do they really mean the good things that they say? If so, why aren’t they acting like it more consistently?

You’re not as alone as you might feel:

  • Collectors are really good at looking much more powerful and influential than they really are. 
  • They may be giving the impression that everyone in your community is ok with what they’re doing, but it’s almost certainly not true.
  • Often, a lot of the silence and praise is because people are afraid to contradict the collector, not because they actually think everything is ok. 
  • The collector may be manipulating the conversation in ways that silence others, but you’re not the only one who notices what they’re doing, and you’re not the only one who sees it as a problem. Connecting with others who think that the manipulation is wrong can help, a lot.

It also helps to remember that the world is bigger than the collector is making it seem:

  • Collectors aren’t God, and they’re not the source of all good things.
  • They are not the only ones who will respect you or work with you. 
  • There is a whole world out there that is not about them, at all.
  • There are people who don’t care at all about the collectors opinion. There is work being done and art being made that they’re not part of.
  • The world does not revolve around collectors, and your life shouldn’t either.
  • You’re a real person, and you deserve respect in your own right.

Tl;dr Sometimes people build creepy collections of other people they’re manipulating. If a collector collects you, the world can end up seeming like a tiny and terrifying place, and it may seem like they’re a refuge. This can be very disorienting. Scroll up for some thoughts on how to notice when you’re being collected and some methods for getting your perspective back.

Allyship does not mean seeing yourself as worthless

There are people who like to make others feel worthless. Some of them use the language of social justice to get away with it. 

Often, this comes in the form of proclaiming to hate allies and then demanding unbounded deference from allies. This is typically conflated with accountability, but it’s not the same thing at all. 

Hatred and accountability are different things. Accountability as an ally means, among other things:

  • Listening to the people you’re trying to support instead of talking over them.
  • Making good-faith efforts to understand the issues involved and to act on what you learn.
  • Understanding that you’re going to make big mistakes, and that sometimes people you’re trying to support will be justifiably angry with you.
  • Accepting that your privilege and power matter, not expecting others to overlook either, and taking responsibility for how you use both.
  • Facing things that are uncomfortable to think about, and handling your own feelings about them rather than dumping on marginalized people.
  • Being careful about exploitation and reciprocity, including paying people for their time when you’re asking them to do work for you.
  • Understanding that marginalized people have good reason to be cautious about trusting you, and refraining from demanding trust on the grounds that you see yourself as on their side.

When people use the language of social justice to make others feel worthless, it’s more like this:

  • Telling allies explicitly or implicitly, that they are worthless and harming others by existing.
  • Expecting allies to constantly prove that they’re not terrible people, even when they’ve been involved with the community for years and have a long track record of trustworthiness. 
  • Berating allies about how terrible allies are, in ways that have no connection to their actual actions or their actual attitudes.
  • Giving people instructions that are self-contradictory or impossible to act on, then berating them for not following them.
  • Eg: Saying “Go f**ing google it” about things that are not actually possible to google in a meaningful way
  • Eg: saying “ shut up and listen to marginalized people” about issues that significant organized groups of marginalized people disagree about. https://www.realsocialskills.org/blog/the-rules-about-responding-to-call-outs-arent
  • Eg: Simultaneously telling allies that they need to speak up about an issue and that they need to shut up about the same issue. Putting them in a position in which if they speak or write about something, they will be seen as taking up space that belongs to marginalized people, and if they don’t, they will be seen as making marginalized people do all the work.
  • Giving allies instructions, then berating them for following them:
  • Eg: Inviting allies to ask questions about good allyship, then telling them off for centering themselves whenever they actually ask relevant questions. 
  • Eg: Teaching a workshop on oppression or a related issue, and saying “it’s not my job to educate you” to invited workshop participants who ask questions that people uninformed about the issue typically can be expected to ask.
  • More generally speaking: setting things up so that no matter what an ally does, it will be seen as a morally corrupt act of oppression.

Holding allies accountable means insisting that they do the right thing. Ally hate undermines accountability by saying that it’s inherently impossible for allies to do anything right. If we want to hold people accountable in a meaningful, we have to believe that accountability is possible. 

Someone who believes that it’s impossible for allies to do anything right isn’t going to be able to hold you accountable. If someone has no allies who they respect, you’re probably not going to be their exception — they will almost certainly end up hating you too. If someone demands that you assume you’re worthless and prove your worth in an ongoing way, working with them is unlikely to end well.  

If you want to hold yourself accountable, you need to develop good judgement about who to listen to and who to collaborate with. Part of that is learning to be receptive to criticism from people who want you to do the right thing, even when the criticism is hard to hear. Another part is learning to be wary of people who see you as a revenge object and want you to hate yourself. You will encounter both attitudes frequently, and it’s important to learn to tell the difference. Self-hatred isn’t accountability.

Tl;dr If we want to hold allies accountable in a meaningful, we have to believe that accountability is possible. Hatred of allies makes this much harder.

 Image description: A sign with text "allyship does not mean seeing yourself as worthless".