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:


  • 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. 


  • 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".

Lacking social skills vs using social skills to hurt people

When someone is a jerk, they’re often pejoratively referred to as “lacking social skills”.

But being a jerk and having bad social skills are different problems. Learning stronger social skills won’t necessarily make someone a better person.

Jerks often have exceptionally strong social skills. Jerks use their social skills to hurt people effectively (and to get away with it.) Sometimes this involves performing stereotypes of social awkwardness — and being very careful to pick targets they can get away with hurting. If someone is hurting people on purpose because they want to, teaching them social skills won’t usually help. They have to change their values and decide to stop hurting people.

People who are jerks and want to stop being jerks may also need to learn new skills for interacting with people. But if someone is intentionally mean, lacking skills isn’t the primary problem.

At the same time, sometimes when people are hurting others, the problem *is* weak social skills. Some social mistakes can be really harmful. (Eg: Standing too close, not understanding privacy, not understanding the difference between different types of physical contact, not understanding which kinds of questions are considered sexual, saying slurs without realizing they’re slurs, etc.) When people are hurting others by accident, learning social skills can be really helpful.

Being a jerk is a different problem than having weak social skills, and it’s important to take the difference seriously. When someone is making social mistakes out of ignorance, the solution is often education and support. When someone is a jerk and wants to learn to be better, the solution often involves education and support. (A caveat here — the people who they’re hurting should *not* be expected to be the ones providing this support.)

When someone is hurting others on purpose because they want to, often the only solution is to deprive them of opportunities to hurt others. (Eg: by banning them from events or suspending their professional license or voting them out of office.). Teaching an intentionally cruel person social skills will not help, and can actually make the problem worse.

Tl;dr It’s obnoxious to use “bad social skills” as a way to insult jerks. Being a jerk is a different problem from having weak social skills. People with good intentions and weak social skills need nonjudgemental help. (From the community or a service provider; generally not from the people they’re inadvertently hurting.) When someone is intentionally mean, teaching them social skills isn’t likely to help — and being nonjudgemental is likely to make matters worse.

Being annoying is not the same as being hostile

Everyone is annoying sometimes. Some people are painfully annoying, a lot of the time.

Being annoying isn’t the same as being mean or sadistic.

Mean people are generally annoying; annoying people aren’t necessarily mean.

Sometimes it’s impossible to avoid annoying people. Sometimes people don’t realize they’re being annoying. Sometimes people know they’re bothering others, but don’t see any alternative. Sometimes the annoying thing is physically involuntary. Some people don’t have any non-annoying ways to communicate. Sometimes being annoying is a side effect of doing something else.

There are any number of other reasons people might be annoying. Sometimes people are annoying for the sake of being annoying, but often there’s something else going on.

It helps to keep in mind that being annoying is not the same as being hostile.

Inclusive education: presence, participation, and learning

There are three components of inclusive education that matter a lot, which tend to get conflated:

  • Being present and welcome
  • Access to participation
  • Access to content

Being present and welcome means:

  • A person with a disability is in the room
  • Their right to be there is not questioned
  • People want them to be there
  • They’re seen as a student and treated as a peer by other students
  • They’re treated more or less respectfully
  • This doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re being taught the material, or that they’re meaningfully participating in educational activities

For instance:

  • A child with a disability may go to kindergarten, and spend a lot of time watching other children do educational activities.
  • Everyone might be very happy that they’re there.
  • Other children might like them, and play with them during recess or free play time.
  • They’re still left out of most activities
  • They’re still not being taught the same material as everyone else

Access to participation means:

  • When students are doing an activity, the disabled student isn’t left on the sidelines
  • They’re given something to do that makes them part of what’s happening
  • This doesn’t always give them access to the content, in and of itself.
  • They may or may not actually be learning the material the activity is supposed to teach.
  • They may or may not really be welcome in the classroom with their peers

For instance:

  • A group of third graders are being taught a lesson about sorting things into categories
  • The teacher draws a few giant Venn diagrams on big paper, with topic headings
  • The teacher writes a list of words on the board.
  • Students are told to draw those words, then tape them to the place in a Venn diagram category that they think it should go in
  • Then they’re given a list of words, and told to draw pictures of the words in the place in on the diagram that they think those things go
  • A disabled student’s aide gives them crayons and tells them to draw a couple of the pictures, then give them to the other kids to categorize
  • The typically-developing kids take the pictures and decide where to put them
  • Everyone is more or less happy with this. The student is participating and they are socially included.
  • But they’re not being taught the material about categorizing things. They’re just drawing pictures.

Access to content means:

  • The disabled student is taught the same material as other students
  • They’re given a way to engage with the material that they can understand
  • They learn the material, and develop their own thoughts on it
  • This doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re given a way to participate meaningfully in educational activities with peers
  • It also doesn’t necessarily mean that they are present or welcome

For instance:

  • A disabled student may attend a mainstream class, but be pulled out for one-to-one tutoring for most of their actual academic instruction.
  • If it’s good instruction, they’re getting access to the content.
  • But they’re not participating in educational activities with their peers.
  • They also may not really be welcomed in their mainstream class; people including the teacher may believe that they don’t have the right to be there (which is a factor that can lead to a lot of pull out instruction in and of itself).

This isn’t just about children, it’s true in every educational setting, including universities, grad school, and continuing education for adults.

Tl;dr Inclusion in school has many components. Three of them are being present and welcome, having a way to participate in educational activities with peers, and having access to the content being taught. All three of these things are important. Solving one problem doesn’t always solve the other two. It’s important to keep paying attention, and to work towards making sure students are welcome, that they are able to participate, and that they are learning the content being taught.

Civility is not the same as affect

Having a civil conversation is about mutual listening and mutual respect.

Sometimes that gets conflated with affect — people act like the defining feature of respectful conversation is things like the position of your body, the volume of your voice, and whether you’re using polite words.

Sometimes things like that can be involved in what makes a conversation respectful, but they don’t define it.

The rules of politeness allow people to be dismissive and cruel. Similarly, it is possible to have a mutually respectful conversation that violates the rules of politeness.

For instance, it is often possible to have a mutually respectful conversation with raised voices and cuss words. It is also often possible to use a lot of I-statements and gentle-sounding language to have a conversation that is fundamentally disrespectful and cruel.

Conflating affect with respect ends up drowning out a lot of voices, and privileging people who are good at manipulating the rules of politeness.

(Affect matters, and it’s ok if some kinds of affect are dealbreaking for you in terms of your ability to have conversations with someone. I’m not saying that everything should be acceptable to everyone. All I’m saying is that affecting politeness is not the same as treating someone respectfully.)

tl;dr Body language, tone of voice, and affect can be part of what makes a conversation civil and mutually respectful, but they don’t define it.

Triggers aren't always rational concepts

Sometimes people talk about triggers as though as though being triggered means having an extreme reaction to something that it’s perfectly normal for most people to find upsetting.

Some triggers are like that. A lot of them are not.

Triggers can be things that make no apparent sense at all from the outside. They can be anything. For instance, someone might find teddy bears triggering. Or being spoken to in a reassuring tone of voice. Or a certain song. Or wearing a t-shirt.

They are not necessarily about concepts.

Having trauma-related triggers does not necessarily mean that someone will have an unusual amount of difficulty discussing upsetting topics.

Discussing the concept of abuse or the particular kind of trauma they experienced *might* be triggering, but it might not be.

For instance, someone might be triggered by the smell of popcorn, but comfortable discussing abuse and abuse prevention policy. Or any number of other combinations.

Knowing that someone has experienced trauma doesn’t mean that you know anything else about them. Not everyone who has experienced trauma gets triggered. People who do get triggered, get triggered by a range of different things. You generally are not going to be in a position to know this kind of thing about someone else unless they tell you.

tl;dr Trauma-related triggers can be just about anything. They’re not necessarily conceptually related to difficult or politically charged topics. Some people who have triggers aren’t triggered by discussing the relevant concepts, but are triggered by otherwise-innocuous things they associate with their experiences. Trauma can be complicated and doesn’t always fit with the prevailing cultural narrative.

Being wary of women isn't always misogyny

It’s completely normal for people who have had traumatic experiences with women to be wary of women. Or to have triggers related to women.

For instance, some people can’t tolerate being touched by women. Or don’t feel safe with female therapists. Or feel safer around men than women in general. Or need activities they participate in to be co-ed rather than single-gender. Or any number of other things.

Sometimes people with those kinds of trauma responses are told that they’re being misogynistic, or that they have internalized misogyny. And that’s wrong. Having a completely normal trauma response is *not* sexism, and it’s not a moral failing of any kind.

(It would be sexist to think that women are inferior, or inherently incapable of treating people well, or something like that. Being wary of women as a trauma response is *not* the same as thinking that kind of thing.)

tl;dr Trauma is not a moral failing, even when your trauma responses are politically inconvenient. If you have been hurt by women and have trauma responses to women, it’s not your fault and it’s ok to take care of yourself.

Taking a troubleshooting approach

Content note: This post is my answer to a scout leader who asked a question about my objection to describing things pejoratively as “attention seeking behavior”.

justmethesecond asked:

Hey, you made a recent post about attention seeking behaviors and how there are a lot of normal things that involve seeking attention.

But I have a question, as I staff at scouting and we have some kids that do demand personal attention when that is inconvenient or impossible for us to give (such as in a group activity, when you have ½ adults on 20 kids)

To elaborate a little bit further, the behavior things I am talking about are mostly kids that talk individually back at you when explaining things to a group (or in other ways, such as crying or trying to play (physical) games with you).

These types of behavior aren’t bad but they do sometimes limit our ability to explain things to a group of people.

And I was wondering how to deal with that?

realsocialskills said:

A couple of things:

There is no generalized way to deal with that. It depends on the situation.

Part of what you need to do is identify the problem more specifically:

  • Attention seeking isn’t the problem in itself
  • The problem is that the group activity isn’t working
  • Part of the problem *might* be that some kids need to learn what’s appropriate and what isn’t
  • Part of the problem *might* be that kids are being willfully disruptive and need to know that you won’t tolerate it
  • The problem might be something else entirely, and almost certainly has components that aren’t “that kid has a behavior problem” or “that kid is attention seeking”
  • There are a lot of possibilities, and I’ll get to some of them later in this post

Here’s why you shouldn’t call this “attention seeking behavior”:

  • “Seeking attention” is not an objective description of behavior; it’s a very vague theory about why someone might be doing something.
  • There is no such thing as generic “attention seeking behavior”
  • From your perspective, everything that annoys you by getting your attention when you don’t want to, can’t, or shouldn’t pay attention may feel the same
  • But it’s *not* all the same from the perspective of the kids who are annoying you
  • They’re doing what they’re doing for reasons, and the reasons are specific and individual.
  • (And they may or may not have anything at all to do with attention)
  • Eg: A child may be crying *because they’re upset*, and it might not be about you at all. They may in fact find the crying humiliating and be hoping that no one notices.
  • A child who is trying to play a game with you isn’t just generically trying to get attention. They’re trying to play a game. Which they may be doing for any number of reasons
  • A child who talks to you during the announcements might be trying to give input, ask a question, focus their attention, or any number of other things
  • Don’t collapse all of that into “attention seeking” as if it’s all the same.

Here are some troubleshooting tips:

Consider whether your expectations are age-appropriate:

  • Little children have a short attention span
  • They can’t sit and listen very long
  • They can’t wait very long for a turn to do something active
  • If you’re having problems with multiple kids, it’s very likely that you’re asking them to do something that they’re really too young for
  • If you’re asking kids to attend for longer than is reasonable for kids their age, *you’re* the one who is inappropriately seeking out attention when it’s not possible
  • (And just like you’re not doing it maliciously, kids who are disruptive are probably not doing it maliciously either)
  • It might be time to change how you do announcements and activities

Make sure the group knows your expectations:

  • It’s easy to assume that kids know the rules when they don’t
  • Things that are obvious to adults are not always obvious to children, especially young children
  • Kids are not born knowing how groups work
  • And different groups have different rules
  • Don’t assume that kids *know* that they’re not supposed to talk individually back at you when you’re addressing a group (there are actually environments where that’s allowed)
  • Don’t assume that kids *know* you’re not supposed to try to play side games or whatever
  • It can help to have a group conversation about rules
  • It’s particularly helpful if you get the kids’ input about the rules in that conversation
  • It’s likely that kids know things you don’t about what needs to be spelled out explicitly
  • And also things you don’t about what the rules need to be
  • Don’t do this as a punishment. Do this as a group conversation about rules. If it’s well into the year, you can say something like “So we realized that we forgot to set rules for the group. This week we’re going to start by setting the rules together.”
  • Many of the kids in your group will have done an exercise like this before; it’s a fairly common thing to do with kids
  • (Be careful though, don’t say things like “but you agreed to these rules!”. This isn’t really an agreement. This is you setting rules from a position of authority, and getting some input from kids about what the rules should be.


  • If you’re not saying in the moment that something is a problem, it’s important to start doing that
  • If you don’t object, some kids might be assuming you’re ok with it
  • Don’t be mean, but do speak up, eg:
  • “You can ask questions when I finish talking”
  • “I can’t play with you right now”.
  • It also helps if you can phrase it by telling them what you *do* want them to do, eg:
  • “Try and tag someone. I bet you can tag (specific kid).”.
  • If kids have trouble telling when it is and isn’t ok to talk, try having an object that someone holds when it’s their turn to talk.

Talk to the kids who are having trouble individually:

  • Talk to them about what’s going on (out of earshot of other kids)
  • Talk to them about why some of the things they’re doing are a problem
  • They might actually not know — no one is born knowing how to act in a group, and some kids need to have it explained explicitly
  • Even if you’ve had a group conversation about rules, it’s possible that they don’t get it
  • Or that they can’t follow the rules as they stand
  • It’s important to ask them what they think is going on
  • And if there’s a reason it’s not working for them
  • And if they have ideas about solving the problem
  • Kids don’t always know, but sometimes they do
  • And knowing that you care makes a difference

Parents also might be able to help you:

  • Parents (usually) know their kid better than you do
  • This is particularly true of elementary-aged kids
  • Most parents want to help their kids
  • Most parents have at least half a clue about what is helpful to their kids
  • Don’t use calling parents as a punishment
  • Do talk to parents when there’s a problem in your group and you don’t know what to do about it
  • (Be more cautious about this with older kids; teenagers have a developmental need for more privacy)
  • (Also be cautious about this if you suspect abuse. Talking to parents who are likely to be harshly punitive is not likely to make things better)
  • Say explicitly that this is not a punishment and that you’re asking for help
  • They will likely have helpful suggestions
  • (Not always; some parents are unreasonable. But a lot of parents are very helpful, if you listen to them).
  • Don’t assume parents are right; do listen to them. They often know things you don’t.

Ask for advice from a teacher:

  • Teachers spend all day working with groups of kids
  • Not all of them are good at it; but some of them are
  • Good teachers will know things you don’t about how to make activities and announcements work
  • If you know a teacher who you respect, ask them for advice
  • Ask these questions specifically:
  • “I’m having trouble with some kids in the scouting troop I’m running. Could I ask you for some advice?”
  • “Is this something that’s reasonable to ask of kids this age?”
  • “Do you have any advice about how to manage this problem in a positive way?”
  • “Do you know about something else that works well?”
  • Listen to what they say and consider why they’re saying it, but ultimately trust your own judgement. You are the one working with kids directly, and you’re the one who is ultimately responsible. Don’t do something that you think is wrong.

Google resources for teachers:

  • There are a *lot* of resources for teachers on the Internet
  • Most things that are relevant for teachers are also relevant for scout leaders
  • You can google activities for kids the age you work with, then consider which things on the lists are likely to work for kids you work with
  • Positive classroom management is also a good thing to google (particularly for the age you work with)
  • Not all teacher resources are good; seek out information, and use your own judgement about which advice to take

Consider the possibility that your environment is causing pain:

  • Scouting often takes place in physically uncomfortable outdoor environments
  • That may be intolerably painful for some of your kids
  • Are they being painfully bitten by bugs? If so, do they have bug spray? Are they using it? Is it working?
  • Are they getting sunburned? If so, maybe you need to change the procedure for making sure that all kids put on sunscreen.
  • Is the sun shining painfully into their faces?
  • Are they inhaling campfire smoke?
  • Are they sitting in a painful position?
  • Sitting cross-legged on the ground or floor is physically painful for some kids
  • (Likewise sitting on benches with no back support)
  • It might be that they’re trying to do things that will get them out of that position
  • If you suspect that this is a problem, try having kids sit in chairs and see what happens
  • Or try sitting around a table kids can lean on and see what happens
  • This is particularly likely to be the case for older kids or heavier kids
  • Positions often become intolerable as kids get bigger
  • It also might help to alternate between sitting activities and standing or moving activities in shorter intervals so that kids aren’t sitting as long

Are they hungry or thirsty?

  • Often when kids are disruptive, it’s because they’re hungry or thirsty
  • At certain ages where kids are growing rapidly, they’re hungry a *lot* of the time
  • Kids won’t necessarily realize that enough to ask
  • And they also may have been taught that asking is pointless because no one cares whether they are hungry or thirsty
  • Being proactive about this might help
  • Try making water easily available without kids having to ask for it (eg: by requiring them to carry water bottles)
  • If you’re not already doing a snack at the beginning of the meeting, try doing that
  • If you are already doing that, try making it something more substantial
  • Low calorie snacks suitable for adults who are trying to lose weight are *not* good snacks for the purpose of feeding hungry children
  • (Eg: celery sticks are not a good snack to get growing kids through a scout meeting; celery sticks with peanut butter might be. A handful of pretzels is not a good snack; cheese sticks might be.)
  • If you’re on a camping trip or something, you may need to feed the kids more often than you realize
  • If this is a problem, it’s probably *also* a problem for the kids who *aren’t* disruptive, so don’t just do this for the disruptive kids. Assume that all of the kids may be hungrier and thirstier than you realize

Don’t be mean:

  • If something feels mean, don’t do it
  • If you’d think it was mean if someone did it to you, don’t do it
  • If something is humiliating toward a kid, don’t do it
  • Don’t punish kids in front of other kids
  • It’s ok to say something like, “Not now” and redirect
  • It’s not ok to yell, or say something like “I’ve told you this over and over, why don’t you get it?”
  • (If you need to take a kid out of an activity and talk to them about it, have the conversation out of earshot of other kids)
  • Don’t have a big reward event and exclude some kids from it

Some kids need 1:1 support:

  • Some kids need a lot of help to do some things
  • If that’s the situation, the problem isn’t that they’re misbehaving
  • The problem is that they need more support than they’re getting
  • This may or may not be a problem you (or their parents) can solve
  • But it is something that should be on the table as a possibility for some kids
  • A caution about that: Sometimes people leap to the assumption that any kid they’re having trouble with needs a 1:1, and it’s usually not true.

Sometimes the solution is to change the activity.

  • No amount of clarifying rules and expectations will help if you’re asking a kid to do something they’re not capable of doing.
  • Or if you’re routinely asking them to do something that is extremely difficult and only barely possible for them
  • Or if you’re asking them to routinely do something they find actively distressing
  • If there are insurmountable barriers to a kid participating in an activity, then the activity probably needs to change
  • Some kids need to be actively doing something in order to pay attention
  • Some kids need attention in order to pay attention
  • A kid having these needs is not a behavior problem; it’s a support need

Thoughts on changing activities:

  • Some activities require a lot of turn-taking, passive listening, and waiting
  • Those are not great activities for kids who need a lot of feedback in order to know what to do
  • They’re also not great activities for kids who need to be actively participating in order to focus
  • If you have kids in your group who have that need, it is likely a good idea to switch to doing activities in which everyone is actively doing something most of the time
  • For instance:
  • Red Rover probably won’t work well with kids who have trouble with passive waiting
  • And a circle activity in which only one person at a time does something is likely to be even worse
  • Games in which everyone is actively playing, like tag or Simon Says, are likely to work much better
  • This is also true of group conversations:
  • Long conversations with a big group require a lot of passive listening. That’s a problem for kids who need to be active in order to focus
  • Having kids discuss things in small groups or with a partner might work better

Sometimes you can change an activity by creating a way for kids who’re having trouble a way to focus:

  • Eg: Kids who have trouble in groups might be able to focus if they take notes
  • Or if they have a fidget toy to fidget with
  • Or if they have a specific task (ie: if everyone is supposed to be preparing a campfire and they’re climbing on you, it might help to ask them to gather wood from a particular area)
  • A caution about this: Don’t use this as a reward or as a punishment.
  • Don’t assume any particular approach will work. Don’t single a kid out over their objections. (eg: If a kid doesn’t want to take notes or use a fidget toy, don’t make them just because someone on the internet says this helps some kids)
  • Sometimes minor modifications work; sometimes they don’t. When they don’t work, it’s time to try something else.

This isn’t an exhaustive list — there are a *lot* of things worth trying and thinking about. The important thing is to take a troubleshooting approach and to keep trying to identify and solve the actual problem.

tl;dr Sometimes when you’re responsible for kids, they do stuff you don’t like. This is often treated generically as “attention seeking behavior”, but it shouldn’t be. Kids have much more diverse and complex motivations than that. Instead of calling it “attention seeking”, or ignoring them, adopt a troubleshooting approach to the problem. Taking a troubleshooting approach is much more likely to enable you to identify and solve the actual problem. Scroll up for some specific troubleshooting suggestions.

Attention ≠ respect

Respect and attention get conflated a lot. They’re not actually the same thing.

When someone isn’t paying attention, it’s often assumed that they are either intentionally avoiding listening, or refusing to put any intentional effort into listening. And that, if they just respected the speaker more, they’d be paying attention.

Sometimes that’s true. And sometimes, the reason someone isn’t paying attention has nothing to do with respect. Often, it’s a neurological, psychological, or psychiatric issue. Or the result of pain or fatigue.

For instance, respecting a speaker and wanting to listen to them doesn’t cure ADHD. Cognitive attention problems caused by ADHD have to actually be accommodated and worked around. (For instance, taking medication, learning organization techniques, using captions to focus attention, collaborative note-taking, etc.)

Addressing values only helps when the problem is values. When the problem is disability; you have to address and accommodate disability in order to make progress. No amount of education in respectful attitudes will help if respect isn’t the issue.

tl;dr Please stop assuming that failure to pay attention is always a sign of contempt. Sometimes it’s just a sign of an attention problem.

Everyone gets blamed for their condition

People with depression and other mental illnesses get told that they can get over it with diet, exercize, and positive thinking. They also get blamed for having it, and told that it’s their own fault. This is wrong.

It’s also a common experience of everyone with every condition there is. This is not unique to mental illness. 

Everyone with a disability, illness, or other condition gets blamed for it. People with every condition get told that it’s their fault, that they caused it by eating wrong, sleeping wrong, thinking wrong, or not being sufficiently careful.

People with every condition get told that medical treatment is toxic and wrong, and that if they just stop believing big pharma, they’ll recover. Even people with cancer. 

People with every condition get told that they’re causing their own problems by being too negative, and that they’d get better if they’d just think positively. Even people with spinal cord injuries.

People with every condition get told that they will be healed if they just have faith and pray hard enough. Even people whose condition is obviously genetic.

People with every condition get told that they’re imagining things. Even people with unmistakable visible physical conditions. 

People with every condition face this kind of prejudice. It’s not unique to any group. We should stand together and acknowledge that we all face it, and that it’s wrong to do to anyone.

tl;dr People with every condition get blamed for it and told that things like positive thinking and rejecting big pharma will make everything better. It isn’t unique to mental illness. It’s wrong to do to anyone.

Some people don't celebrate Thanksgiving

In the United States, some people think of Thanksgiving as “the holiday everyone celebrates”, in part because it is celebrated by many people who don’t celebrate Christmas. But not everyone in the US celebrates Thanksgiving, and it’s important to acknowledge this. 

Some reasons some people don’t celebrate;

  • Thanksgiving has racist origins and is still used to teach racist ideas about Pilgrims and Indians.
  • (United American Indians of New England holds an annual Day of Mourning protest against Thanksgiving)
  • Some people follow religions that prohibit celebrating holidays, or that prohibit celebrating non-religious holidays
  • Some people have eating disorders that make food-based holidays triggering or unpleasant
  • Some people are alienated from family and find celebrating holidays unbearable
  • Some people just don’t like it, or don’t want to
  • Or any number of other reasons

If you celebrate Thanksgiving, don’t be a jerk to people who don’t. They have their reasons, which are their business and not yours. Don’t try to insist to them that everyone celebrates Thanksgiving, and don’t complain to others about their practices.

And especially, don’t suggest that not celebrating Thanksgiving means that they are somehow opposing broad values like gratitude, togetherness, delicious food, love, or peace. It just means they don’t celebrate Thanksgiving for whatever reason.

Some people don’t celebrate Thanksgiving, and that’s ok. You can connect with them at other times. Don’t be a jerk about the fact that there’s one day of the year where your practices are different than theirs.

Don't treat a jerk problem as a conflict skills problem

Conflict resolution training only helps when the problem is that people’s communication skills are weak in ways that cause them to escalate conflicts unnecessarily. In that situation, learning better communication (and especially listening) skills can make a big difference. But, not every problem is like that.

When someone is intentionally cruel, it’s not a problem with their social skills. It’s a problem with their values.

Teaching a cruel person communication skills will not cause them to become kinder or teach them to respect others.

Similarly, teaching victims of intentionally cruel people conflict resolution skills will not solve the conflict. It just teaches both parties to blame the victim. Cruelty happens because of choices cruel people make, not because their victims lack conflict resolution skills.

Putting abusers and victims together in a conflict resolution training *especially* will not help. All that does is send the message that no one is really in the wrong, and that there is just a communication problem that needs to be worked out. 

Sometimes, conflicts are not mutual. Sometimes, one side is in the wrong in all of the ways that are important. Sometimes, people are choosing to be mean. Treating a cruelty problem as a social skills problem makes everything worse.

"You're not willing to accept criticism!"

Accepting criticism is important. Everyone’s wrong about something, and it’s important to be open to the possibility that you’re wrong about things. If you’re never persuaded by something someone says that you need to change your actions in some way, something is going seriously wrong.

But sometimes, when people say that you’re not open to criticism, what they really mean is that they’re angry because you don’t agree with them. Or that you’re refusing to change in a way that you want them to change. And sometimes, you will be entirely correct to disagree with them and to refuse to change.

For example:

  • “You’re a terrible writer and should not ever write anything ever again” is not criticism you should listen to
  • “If you’d just try a gluten free organic diet, you’d be cured” is not worthwhile criticism
  • “No one is ableist, you’re just imagining it because you want to feel special” is not worthwhile criticism

And there’s any number of other examples, many of which are far more complex and subjective. Everyone gets criticized in ways that it’s completely ok to reject.

And sometimes, it’s ok not to want criticism, even if there’s nothing inherently wrong with the criticism, eg:

  • It’s ok to make art without wanting to go through an art school style critique
  • It’s ok to write a story, post it somewhere, and decide not to read the comments about it
  • It’s ok not to want to discuss the problematic aspects of a show you like
  • It’s ok to not want your father’s input on who you should date

It’s possible to be insufficiently open to criticism, but that doesn’t mean everyone who accuses you of that is right. No one is, or should be, open to all forms of criticism from all people.

Sometimes people who criticize you are wrong. Sometimes they’re so wrong that they’re not worth listening to. Particularly when they’re saying the same thing over and over that you’ve long since considered and rejected.

It’s important to be open to criticism some of the time from some people. It’s also important to be selective about who and what you listen to, and when. You do not owe everyone who thinks that you are wrong your unconditional attention.

clueless creepiness vs skillful creepiness

There are two kinds of problems that get conflated a lot but aren’t actually that similar:

  • People who do creepy things because they have trouble understanding boundaries
  • People who do creepy things because they understand boundaries well and have highly developed skills at violating them with impunity

People who are good at violating boundaries and getting away with being creepy sometimes seem socially awkward, and sometimes don’t. Sometimes they get away with it by getting people to think things like “Oh, that’s Bill. He’s just awkward like that. He doesn’t mean anything by it,” and sometimes it’s more like, “I can’t believe James would do that! He’s like the nicest guy ever, and he does so much for this community. Don’t you remember the awesome party last month?”, and sometimes it’s more like, “Steve is really sensitive right now. Did you really have to turn him down like that? Couldn’t you have given him a chance? Don’t you understand how much courage it takes to approach a girl? What harm could giving him your number have done?”. 

People who are inadvertently creepy *care* when they’ve violated boundaries, and try to fix it. Saying, “oh, they’re just awkward” isn’t doing them any favors, because people who are inadvertently creepy don’t *want* to trample all over other people’s boundaries. They want to know, so that they can stop doing it. This doesn’t mean it’s the job of victims of their creepy actions to explain it to them – it isn’t, particularly since most creepy people are doing it on purpose, and calling skillfully creepy people on things tends to go badly. I am mentioning this because skillfully creepy people often convince others that being “just awkward” means that everyone else is obligated to refrain from objecting to their creepy actions.

Skillfully creepy people who boundaries boundaries on purpose come up with excuses about why it was ok, and try to make you feel horrible for objecting. (Eg: “I was just being friendly! Learn to take a compliment!”, or “I know that if you were in your right mind, you wouldn’t have said that you didn’t want to spend time with me. I forgive you. We can still spend time together.”, or “Wow. Harsh. I guess girls really don’t go for nice guys. Have fun dating assholes.” or just getting a lot of people to laugh at you, or any number of other things.)

As a culture, we shouldn’t tolerate creepy behavior from anyone. Part of not tolerating it means assessing when people are being cluelessly creepy, and when people are being skillfully creepy. 

If you are a supervisor/teacher/community leader, or otherwise someone responsible for intervening and keeping things safe, it’s important to respond appropriately. Communities need to help cluelessly creepy people understand how to act, and to expel skillfully creepy people so that they can’t keep preventing the people they hurt from being part of the community. 

On "feeling unsafe"

Sometimes, people in power use “feeling safe” in a manipulative way. They shift the conversation away from whether or not you actually are safe, and into a conversation about your feelings. Sometimes people in power who do this have a kind affect and seem to really care about helping you to feel better. This can make it hard to know in your own mind what the problem actually is, and hard to keep hold of your understanding that something is wrong and needs to be addressed.

It helps to keep in mind that these things are different:

  • Feeling unsafe in reaction to something even though you actually are safe
  • Seeing something as evidence that you are actually unsafe
  • People in power will often try to confuse you about which thing you are experiencing, but it’s important to stay mindful of the difference.

It’s also possible to have a feeling that you are unsafe, and not be sure whether it’s reasonable or not:

  • It’s important to take that feeling seriously
  • And to think through what it means, and whether there might be a real danger
  • Sometimes when you feel unsafe it will be an irrational reaction, but don’t be quick to dismiss it as one
  • If you think it’s an irrational reaction, make sure you have a concrete reason for thinking that it’s irrational and that things are actually ok

People can feel unsafe around someone for all kinds of reasons other than being unsafe:

  • Being bigoted against another group (eg: racist fear of black people)
  • Being triggered by something (eg: feeling afraid because seeing men wear hats is triggering)
  • Forgetting to take medication and having strange reactions to things as a result 
  • Taking a new medication with unexpected side effects that complicate your ability to perceive things accurately  
  • Misunderstanding something someone did or said (eg: taking something literally that was not intended literally)
  • Hallucinations
  • Being exhausted
  • When it’s this kind of thing, sometimes the external situation still needs to be addressed, but often it can be dealt with by processing things yourself 

But sometimes the problem is that you’re *actually not safe*, and sometimes this is in ways that it’s hard for other people to see, eg:

  • If you are being pressured to share private information with people who can’t be trusted to keep things confidential
  • If you are being pressured to use a ramp that is too steep to be safe, or allow people to carry you into an inaccessible building
  • If people around you are bigoted against you in subtle, but constantly corrosive ways
  • If people are intentionally triggering you in order to confuse and disorient you into doing what they want
  • If you’re being triggered in a way that makes it impossible for you to understand what is going on well enough to keep yourself safe, even if no one is doing it on purpose
  • If there is no food available that you can safely eat for an extended period
  • If you are experiencing executive functioning problems in ways that make it hard or impossible for you to do things that are necessary for survival, and no one is willing to help you
  • If you’re spending a lot of time in a environment is physically overloading in painful ways
  • If you have medical problems and doctors refuse to communicate in a way you can understand, or if you only have access to them in an environment that prevents you from communicating
  • and any number of other things

All of these things are the kind of thing that apparently well-meaning people will often try to address by trying to get you to process your feelings so that you will feel safe. That’s a dangerous reaction, and it’s important to notice when people are doing it, and to learn how to insist that they address the actual safety issue.

Sometimes the feeling is the problem.

Sometimes the problem is that you’re *actually not safe*.

If someone’s trying to manage your feelings rather than the actual threat to your safety, it’s important to remember that they’re doing a bad thing. And that it’s ok to want to actually *be* safe, even if all they want to do is make you *feel* safe. 

Cooperation with feelings derails is one of the hardest anti-skills to unlearn. But it’s also really, really important.

Listening to friends vs listening to clients





I have a question and don’t know if you already answered something like it. How can you show support for someone without making it about yourself? like *someone talking about a crap thing that…

offsettheshakes said:

this so much. Taught in my Social Work classes. I approve. People learn this.

realsocialskills said:

Yes, this is a really important skill for social workers. That said, I think sometimes people see this as a social work skill, or a therapy skill, or otherwise professional in nature. I think that seeing it that way is kind of misleading.

There are all kinds of relationships in which it’s sometimes important to listen more than you talk, and to create space the other person can fill with what they need to say. Most of those relationships aren’t very similar to social work.

The listening method is the same, but the power dynamics and appropriate boundaries are often very different.

In a social work setting, you have some degree of mandate to respect autonomy, but push come to shove, you also have clinical goals, and it’s very likely that you control access to resources they care about. That matters. It affects how the dynamic plays out. It affects what you can and can’t offer.

Also, in a social work context, you have a mandate to maintain professional distance and avoid getting too involved. The way you listen as a social worker involves, in part, making sure that you’re always maintaining an appropriate distance. When social workers are taught the listening skills I am talking about, they are often taught simultaneously with distance skills, and for a lot of people these end up conflated.

So, to be clear, I am not saying that friends should act more like social workers. Friendship is different. Friendship is personal, and reciprocal. Between friends, the basic context of the conversation is that they *are* personally involved in the friend’s life. Some of the methods of listening are still the same, but some are really different, too.

Friends should not treat friends like therapists or social workers. But friends *should* listen to friends.

It takes more than etymology to make a slur

Do you think words with etymologies based on oppression (like “idiot” or “hysterical”) but are no longer used that way now should be considered slurs? Do you think most people consider them slurs? I’ve heard some compelling arguments for why they should be treated like slurs, but I’ve also heard some good reasons for why they shouldn’t be, and it’s all very confusing.
realsocialskills answered:
I don’t think etymology is important. I think what’s important is how a word is used.
If something is used as a slur, then it’s a slur even if it has a neutral etymology. (People try to argue that the r-word isn’t a slur because it literally just means slow. Those people are wrong.)
If something is not used as a slur, then it’s not one even if it has an etymology based on oppression or hate. (For instance: “autism” has an etymology based on dehumanizing autistic people, but it’s not a slur.)
This gets complicated because sometimes people will claim that something “isn’t a slur anymore” even when it clearly is. If people the word is used against think it’s still a slur, then it’s a slur even if some people think they “don’t mean it that way”. (The g-word is a good example of this.)
I think that there are also words that are somewhat tainted by oppressive etymologies or connotations. It can be worthwhile to personally try to avoid using those words. (I avoid some, but not all, tainted words for that reason). But it’s dangerous to treat these words as actually being the same as slurs. One reason it’s important not to do this is that it causes serious problems for people with language disabilities. This is a good example of the importance of understanding the difference between personal piety and basic morality.


These two conversations are not the same:

Person A: I’m being bullied!
Person B: You you belong to [group] and/or have [trait]. This might make you a target for bullying, but this does not make it your fault.
(Person A might already know this.)
[Sometimes there can be further dialogue about bullies and how people react to them here.]

Person A: I’m being bullied!
Person B: You should expect that because of [group affiliation and/or trait]. Grow a thicker skin.

A lot of people think they’re doing #1 when they’re actually doing #2. A lot of people already know the first conversation and don’t need it repeated.

#2 also shifts the pressure off the bully and shifts it onto the person being bullied, and makes their reaction the problem, not the existence of bullies. This tells someone that if they didn’t care about being hurt there would not be a problem. This isn’t true. Bullying is a behavior that is a problem, even if not every person targeted by it feels hurt. (There is a lot of variation in how people react, and in this case the focus is on a person who is expressing upset as a reaction. But know that there are more.)

Basically, stop treating these conversations as the same. They’re not, and the differences matter.

Rhetorical might doesn't make right

Not knowing how to articulate something doesn’t mean you are wrong.

Being elequoent doesn’t mean you are right.

Making someone look stupid doesn’t mean you are right.

Words are tools. They aren’t everything. They aren’t all of knowledge either.

So if someone tells you something that sounds plausible, and they’ve articulated it well, you still might know they are wrong even if you have no words for it.

They might try to intimidate you into agreeing by insisting that if you can’t give a clear explicit answer, then you must just be too irrational to accept a valid argument. But, it doesn’t work that way. Knowing something is not the same as knowing how to use words to describe that thing.

Words are very useful tools for communication. But being good at words just means being good at words. Don’t conflate it with being right, being insightful, or being exceptionally rational. Those are separate issues.

Being dependent on vs being limited by

This isn’t quite the right concept but… these things are different:

  • being dependent on something
  • being unpleasantly or destructively limited by something

Being dependent on something can be really good. It can make things possible that weren’t before it. We’re all dependent on technology in one way or another (for instance, heating and air conditioning. Shoes. Large-scale agriculture.).

Sometimes people object to dependence because they think it will impose an unpleasant limitation. Even when it would actually make more things possible. 

Like, someone thinks they (or someone in their care) shouldn’t use a wheelchair because then they’ll only be able to go where a wheelchair can go. They won’t be able to use stairs and such anymore. And sometimes this is true.

But often, this can mean that someone can only go as far as they can walk, and can only stay out for as long as they can stand. So they have trouble leaving the house, or going places for long periods of time. And are much more limited than they otherwise would be. Dependence isn’t bad, if it makes you able to do more things. 

AAC can be like this, too. Verbal speech is more flexible, in principle, all things being equal. But all things aren’t equal, even for people who have some verbal speech. The important thing is for someone to have as much communication as possible. For people who get more communication from relying on things other than speech, dependence isn’t a bad thing. It’s good. It makes life better.

Getting more ability to do stuff you care about should be the goal. Not a particular way of doing it. Not judged against a theoretical ideal. Judged against what actually works best for you (or your child).