Sunday, June 26, 2011

This Is Not a Review of "X-Men: First Class" ...

... if you're looking for one of those, I can direct you to this one by Neil Kapit, a fellow X-fan and author of the webcomic "Ruby's World," who pretty much says what I would say if I were to review this film.

No, I'm going to focus on something much narrower about this movie: its depiction of Angel Salvadore, a relatively minor character in the comics and a supporting character in the film.

I was very surprised to see her in this movie, because 1) she's a very recent character, and wouldn't really belong in a story about the relationship between Professor X and Magneto as young men (not that that's stopped any of the previous movies, where characters from different generations of X-Men have always been thrown together willy-nilly), 2) none of the other characters*, or plotlines, she's involved with make any appearance in this movie, and 3) she's very unphotogenic. She's half-girl, half-fly, and her offensive weapon is super-acidic barf.

Here's what she looks like using that power in the comics:Gross, isn't it?

That's why I was so surprised, before seeing the movie, when I read that she'd be in it. Female characters in movies, especially in comic-book movies, action movies and other movies aimed at a teenage-boy audience, are primarily there as eye candy; when they're allowed to do cool stuff and look pretty it practically counts as a feminist victory, but the look-pretty requirement is not negotiable.

And there's no way to make disgusting green barf look pretty; hence my surprise.

It turns out I underestimated Hollywood's ability to pretty almost anything up: I can't find any video on YouTube that includes this, but when the younger mutants are all showing each other their powers and picking out their X-Men codenames, Angel demonstrates something that looks nothing at all like what's pictured above. She strikes a pose, puckers her lips and releases a smoldering fireball about the size of a Ping-Pong ball, which arcs prettily through the air and lands on the statue's head, where it begins to corrode the metal**.
She uses this power again in a battle near the end of the movie; she's flying through the air breathing fire like a dragon. Less ladylike, but still not gross.

*Except Professor X, obviously, and also Magneto. Though the extent to which Magneto was actually involved in the events of Planet X are debatable ... the character who tried to suborn the Xavier School's "special class" into a reconstituted Brotherhood of Evil Mutants and conquer the world was apparently later revealed to be Not Really Magneto At All. I haven't read the comic where that gets hashed out, though, so I am quite fuzzy on the details. I just know that the whole question of "Does Planet X Count as a 'Magneto Story' or not is very contentious --- see the comment thread on this post.

**For whatever reason, the fireball-spewing part of Angel's power demonstration is missing from all the clips I can find.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Guest Blogging

I wrote a guest post about Charlotte Perkins Gilman's book Herland for Her Circle Ezine, a website about women, writing and art.

The post is an expansion on one paragraph in this old post I wrote juxtaposing Herland with Marilyn French's book The Women's Room*.

I expanded this paragraph into a longer essay on how masculinity and femininity are portayed in Herland, which is as complementary performances that distort human nature and interactions between the sexes, and which each depend on the other to work. (Particularly, I look at the character of Terry, and how his brand of brash, overbearing hypermasculinity works against him in the all-woman, but not particularly "feminine," society of Herland.)

Here's the link, if you want to go read it!

*Here are a couple of essays on the same blog that deal with that book; there's also another essay on Gilman, this one about The Yellow Wallpaper.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011


From Sarah's Tumblr:

In light of the recent John Elder Robison interview clusterfuck, I’ve been thinking about something that has long bothered me: the idea that autism—“Asperger’s autism in particular—is so frequently described as “coming across as a jerk without meaning to.”

I don’t doubt that some autistics do experience this, but that’s never been my reality. For me social impairments aren’t as much of a big deal as other autism-related impairments, and of the social issues that I have, I wouldn’t put “being seen as a jerk” anywhere near the top of the list. In fact, on the occasions that I do have this problem, it’s for completely different reasons than what is commonly described. Sometimes I do, yes, act jerky and even cruel—but that’s usually when I’m in the middle of a meltdown or on the verge of one. This is quite different from what JER and a lot of other autism-related material describes. (Of course in JER’s case, I’m pretty sure that a big reason why he is often perceived as a jerk is because he is one. His first book makes this abundantly clear. Hey, autistics can be not-nice people, too.) I’ve said some pretty blunt and possibly inappropriate things, to be sure, but the people who I interact with on a regular basis know that I’m no jerk. That I am in fact a generally nice and caring person. The closest thing that’s come to this was my family “jokingly” telling me that I cared more about the cats than them. But that wasn’t my doing anything possibly jerky so much as a complete misinterpretation of my need for a lot of alone time.

Obviously my experience isn’t representative of all autistics any more than JER’s is. But I’ve met a lot of autistic people, very few of whom can be fairly described as jerks by any definition. And I would be very surprised if a significant number of autistic people listed “being mistakenly seen as a jerk” as one of their top problems. Yet so much of the literature treats this as a central defining feature of being on the spectrum! It’s befuddling, and most likely the product of incompetent, allistic-centric researchers such as SBC fixating—yes, fixating—on the social aspects of autistic impairments to the exclusion of all else.

I meant to include this in my last post, but there got to be so much just about the bit I quoted from that interview that I figured I'd save it for another post.

Anyway, I've been similarly unaffected (well, most of the time --- I can't say that no one has *ever* assumed I was being rude when I was actually having difficulties stemming from autism, like incipient overload, language-processing issues, or whatever, but it is not really a recurring theme in my life) by this thing where people think I must be very rude, or mean, or aloof, because of the way I speak (or don't speak) or act. Some of this may just be because I am a young woman, rather than a middle-aged man, and candor in a young woman might be read as "innocent" or "naive" rather than "rude" --- because I do share some things with Robison, and unthinking candor is one of them --- but it's also because I have other things going on that just social cluelessness. (See: language-processing issues, uneven ability to produce speech, sensory overload, etc.)

Those other things usually mean I get read as stupid, not as a jerk. (Again, that's not to say I absolutely never get read as a jerk --- I might sometimes! That's just not what always happens, or what happens most of the time).

Apart from sharing that, my other motivation in reposting this was to say I very much agree with Sarah's notion that (many) autism researchers zero in on our social difficulties, to the exclusion of other aspects of being autistic that have more of an impact on what we're able to do, and what our lives are like, and how our particular cognitive styles work.

John Elder Robison Disappoints in Interview

John Elder Robison may be the second-most-famous autistic person alive now --- Temple Grandin, of course, being the most famous --- and, as such, is treated as something of an authority on autism. He sits on a 30-person scientific review board at Autism Speaks, which makes recommendations about which research to fund, and he is also a bestselling author (Look Me in the Eye, and now Be Different) and speaker.

(In this interview with NeuroTribes blogger Steve Silberman, Robison says that part of the reason he wrote his second book was because people kept asking him how he was able to be successful, and whether he had any advice or wisdom to impart that would help other autistic people achieve similar success).

So I was quite disappointed when I came to this part of the interview:

Silberman: Are there any ways that society could be reformed to make it a more comfortable and supportive place for autistic adults?

Robison: I don't think that's a realistic question, Steve. We represent one percent of the population. Asking what 99 percent of the world should do to make it a better place for that one-percent member --- that's verging on science fiction and fantasy. People who get into that way of thinking become militant about demanding their rights and thinking about what the world owes them. Frankly, I don't think the world perceives that they owe us one single thing.

If you're a guy with severe autistic disability and you can't talk, you cry out for compassion by your very existence. It's obvious when people look at you and listen to you. If you're a person in a wheelchair, nobody can reasonably argue that you should just get your ass across the street. But when you're a person like me and your disability is principally with social functioning, and at the same time you have good language skills, people are going to dismiss you as a jerk if you don't learn to fit in. That's the hard truth. To suggest that someone like me should ask for accommodations is, in my opinion, setting that person up for failure. Because when your language skills are good, there's no external sign of disability, and you act weird --- and then you make demands on people for how they ought to change to accept you? That's a non-starter.

It looks like Steve Silberman was also taken aback by this answer, because he actually starts arguing with Robison about it for a while:

Silberman: But other minority groups have demanded reasonable accommodation from society, such as laws against discrimination in the workplace. Black folks did it by launching the civil rights movement, many other disabled groups have done so, and gay people --- like your brother Augusten [Burroughs] --- have done it, too.

Robison: The race thing is completely different. You can look at someone and right away know if they're black or white. There's been a huge gay rights movement, but look at what there is already for gay accommodation. I don't think there was ever an issue of people refusing to hire gay people in most workplaces.

Silberman: Well, that isn't true. I'm not trying to argue with you ---

Robison: In the autism world, people look at your behavior and say, "He's acting like a jerk, I'm gonna treat him like a jerk." If you're a gay guy and you're acting like a jerk, people think you're a jerk; but if you're a gay guy and you're nice, people think, "He's a nice guy."

Silberman: Not always, but I hear what you're saying. [changes subject]
I think Robison misses the point about a lot of things in this exchange. When he's trying to explain how the neurodiversity movement is fundamentally different from, and less reasonable than, past liberation/civil-rights movements, he greatly overstates mainstream society's willingness to do what those past movements asked of it.

He also overstates the degree to which racism and homophobia aren't still entrenched in mainstream (white, straight) society today. Obviously things are better than they were, but Robison is flatly wrong when he says that today, a gay man can be confident that he'll always be judged according to his personal merits, and not by the fact that he's gay (or a black man by the color of his skin). He's also flatly wrong when he says that gay people were never barred from any form of employment because of their sexuality. (What does he think "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" refers to, one wonders?)

I also have serious problems with this:

If you're a guy with severe autistic disability ... you cry out for compassion by your very existence.

The poetry of this image aside, I find its implications --- that autistic people (or other people with severe disabilities, however we're defining "severity" today) don't need any more rights, legal protections, etc., because other people will automatically take pity on them and give them whatever they need --- disturbing.

They disturb me because I know differently. And it makes me angry, given the extent to which abuse and neglect by caregivers is A HUGE PROBLEM for people with disabilities, to hear that we cannot possibly be abused, neglected, impoverished, or anything else bad because our mere existence appeals so urgently to the better angels of human nature.

Anyway, apart from that, it also bothers me that his argument is essentially, "But it's too hard to change society! We can't ask *THAT* of them!!" and then, when faced with examples of other minority groups who've done just that, and achieved some success, he seems to think ... I don't know what. That society has already adopted those reforms, and since it hasn't adopted the reforms neurodiversity/disability activists are pushing for, that those reforms must be less reasonable than the reforms already (grudgingly, laboriously, slowly, incompletely) adopted?

There's also the fact that his whole "the 99 percent cannot be expected to change the way they do things for the benefit of the 1 percent" essentially amounts to, The Devil take the hindmost! Which is pretty much the way we do things here in Capitalismland, but which I think is a really horrible way to run a society. Horrible for everyone, not just autistic people.

Which brings to mind the last big, philosophical thing that bothered me about his answer. He assumes that the reforms neurodiversity activists want would only be beneficial to autistic people, and would either do nothing for, or actively inconvenience, everyone else. I don't think that would necessarily be the case; I think lots of people would benefit from a more flexible, accommodating workplace or an improved system of caregiving or more walkable communities or whatever else. People who aren't disabled might be able to stay afloat in the current social/economic arrangement; that by no means implies that they're thriving under it, or that their lives couldn't also be improved by tweaking said arrangement. After all, "society" isn't this immutable thing like the laws of gravity or thermodynamics; it's something people make, and can remake as needed.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Beyond Good and Evil: Does Simon Baron-Cohen's E-S Theory Help Us Understand Why People Do Bad Things?

I found out from browsing Sarah's Tumblr (which I do not regularly read like I used to read her blog, because I find Tumblr annoying, confusing and unreadable with its text-overlapping-text and other format wonkiness*) that Kim Wombles, who writes Countering Age of Autism, has interviewed Simon Baron-Cohen for a website called Science 2.0.

The occasion for this interview is that Baron-Cohen has apparently written a new book, one that extends his ideas about empathizing and systemizing from their usual territory (autism, psychological sex differences) to relatively new ground (explaining the human capacity for antisocial acts).

The American edition of the book is called The Science of Evil: On Empathy and the Origins of Cruelty, and it's reviewed at length (also by Kim Wombles!) here.

I haven't read the book, so I won't bother critiquing it without knowing what it actually says, but I will reproduce some of Wombles's Q&A with Baron-Cohen.

KW: Do you think readers will potentially ... get confused as to why you've placed the ASDs in a book titled The Science of Evil?

SBC: ... [Z]ero degrees of empathy does not necessarily lead to acts of cruelty. In the case of people with autism spectrum conditions, their low empathy usually leads them to avoid other people because they find other people confusing. Their low empathy doesn't lead them to commit acts of cruelty any more than anyone else in the population, but it does often lead them to feel socially isolated, with the added risk of depression.


The key difference [between autistics and psychopaths] seems to be that in psychopaths the 'cognitive' component of empathy is intact but the 'affective' component is not. In autism, both components may be impaired, or just the cognitive component. But their strong systemizing leads them, through powerful logic, to develop a moral code based on 'fairness' and 'justice'. Psychopaths lack the moral compass that most people develop using their empathy, and lack the moral compass that people with autism develop using their strong systemizing. People with autism spectrum conditions often end up as 'super-moral', developing a set of rules they expect people to live up to consistently (such as honesty), arriving at the conclusion that one should 'treat others as you would have others treat you' because it is the most logical approach.


KW: The online autism community is very vocal (and fairly well in agreement, considering the wide divides usually tearing it apart) that you are incorrect in your belief that autistic people lack empathy (and theory of mind). How do you respond to that charge and what evidence do you have that people with ASDs have zero empathy?

SBC: The online autism community is just one sector of the autistic population: namely, those with at least average intelligence, who can therefore use the internet. They are sometimes referred to as having "high-functioning autism" or Asperger Syndrome. This sector of the autistic population may not have zero degrees of empathy, but they do tend to have below average levels of empathy on different measures that research[ers] have used. These include (but are not restricted to) the 'Reading the Mind in the Eyes' Test, or the Empathy Quotient (EQ).

Many people with autism in the remainder of the spectrum may well have absolutely zero degrees of empathy, as shown in failing the False Belief Test (theory of mind) that even a typical 4 year old child can pass, but which is failed by many children with autism with a mental age above 4 years old. Many may not even show 'joint attention' that even a typical 18 month old toddler can show, such as spontaneously following another person's gaze. A meta-analysis review of false belief studies by Francesca Happe in 1995 found that most children with autism take until the age of 11 years old to pass this test, which is a 7 year delay (see attached graph and the recent paper by Senju, 2011). Even among children with Asperger Syndrome or high functioning autism, delays in 'social sensitivity' (such as detecting faux pas) are seen, despite their average or above average IQ.


So why might people with autism in the online community challenge this view? One possibility is that it is in the nature of empathy that people who are low in empathy are often the last people to be aware of it. ... An analogy might be with colour blindness. Many people who are colour blind are the last people to know about it, until they are given a test of it by an optician or vision scientist. They simply assumed that they were seeing the same colours as everyone else.


In my experience whilst even adults with Asperger Syndrome may have difficulties figuring out why someone else's remark was considered funny, or why their own remark was considered rude, or may judge others as liars when they simply are inconsistent in not doing what they said they would do, they may nevertheless have a highly developed emotional empathy, caring about how someone feels and not wanting to hurt them. If they do hurt them it is often unintentional and they feel mortified when it is pointed out, and want to rectify this. In this respect, they do have some of the components of empathy.

Many people with autism also form very strong emotional relationships with their pets ... whilst they struggle to 'read' human behaviour and human intentions, they can read the arguably more predictable behaviour of a pet.
Right now, I'm going to restrict myself to a few brief, superficial comments: first, in response to Professor Baron-Cohen's contention that everyone who says they are autistic on the Internet is a highly verbal, high-IQ computer geek with Asperger's --- no, we're not. There's a wide variety of autistic people on the Internet, including people with all sorts of functioning labels. The format of the Internet itself actually makes it easier for the less verbal, likely-to-be-called-low-functioning autistics to participate, since they don't have to produce speech. We might not be represented on the Internet in the exact proportions that we exist in the real world, but neither do we all belong to the same narrow subcategory of autism.

(And yay for him pointing out the difference between cognitive and emotional empathy, and also for pointing out that autistic people can be very emotionally empathic! That often gets lost, even in his own previous discussions of this subject.)

Also, I'm just going to express my skepticism at the idea that most of the abusive state employees described in the New York Times stories I referenced in this post had any psychiatric diagnoses, much less diagnoses that would explain their startling lack of empathy for the developmentally disabled people in their care. While Baron-Cohen does mention that failures of empathy can occur in people whose faculties are theoretically intact, he doesn't go into detail about how this happens. I guess I'll have to read the book to see what kind of case he makes that there is an "empathy circuit" in the brain that is bypassed or otherwise disabled when a person acts in a nasty way toward other people.

Finally, the "moral code[s] based on 'fairness' and 'justice'" that autistic people are supposed to develop through our amazing abilities to reason logically and think abstractly, sound a lot like the "mental widgets" that are so baffling to Amanda Baggs, and to (what seems to be) a significant subset of other autistic/non-neurotypical people! So I very much doubt that *all* of us are intellectualizing our way toward a system of ethics, even if I were to grant that some of us do that.

*I am a living refutation of the common stereotype that being autistic automatically makes you technologically gifted. Oh, how I wish!

Saturday, June 11, 2011


That's what we call the things that are so awful, so heartbreaking, they stop the words in our throats and the thoughts in our heads. Sometimes they even stop the tears in our eyes; the sadness we feel is so heavy it will not be cried out.

For me, the abuse, neglect and murder of people with disabilities* by the people who are supposed to be taking care of them calls up this heavy sadness.

From Leah Jane's blog:

A lot of my neurotypical friends don't understand why I am so paranoid about going to an institution. They think, for one, that it could never happen to me, because I'm intelligent and express myself eloquently, and secondly, they don't think it could be all that bad for someone like me, who is mostly able-bodied save for troubles with my back from scoliosis, since I could feed myself, ask for private time, and go to the bathroom alone. There is also often this assumption that goes unchallenged that the disabled have it made in the U.S., that we're lucky not to be living in a country where we'd be kept in cages or denied food and water. So I often end up shoving stories like this in their faces, reminding the world that being cognitively, not physically, disabled, or living in America is no guarantee of your human rights being respected.

From the news story she links to:

Jonathan Carey did not die for lack of money.

New York State and the federal government provided $1.4 million annually per person to care for Jonathan and the other residents at the Oswald D. Heck Developmental Center, a warren of low-rise concrete and brick buildings near Albany.

Yet on a February afternoon in 2007, Jonathan, a skinny, autistic 13-year-old, was asphyxiated, slowly crushed to death in the back seat of a van by a state employee who had worked nearly 200 hours without a day off over 15 days. The employee, a ninth-grade dropout with a criminal conviction for selling marijuana, had been on duty during at least one previous episode of alleged abuse involving Jonathan.

"I could be a good king or a bad king," he told the dying boy beneath him, according to court documents.

In the front seat of the van, the driver, another state worker at O.D. Heck, watched through the rear-view mirror but said little. He had been fired from four different private providers of services to the developmentally disabled before the state hired him to care for the same vulnerable population.

O.D. Heck is one of nine large institutions in New York that house the developmentally disabled, those with cerebral palsy, autism, Down syndrome and other conditions.


But the institutions are hardly a model: Those who run them have tolerated physical and psychological abuse, knowingly hired unqualified workers, ignored complaints by whistle-blowers and failed to credibly investigate cases of abuse and neglect, according to a review by the New York Times of thousands of state records and court documents, along with interviews of current and former employees.


Similar problems can be found across the state. The Broome Developmental Center in Binghamton has been cited for repeatedly failing to protect residents from staff members. One employee there was merely reassigned after encouraging adolescent residents to fight one another.

Patterns of abuse appear embedded in the culture of the Sunmount Developmental Center in the Adirondacks. Last year, one supervisor was accused of four different episodes of physical and psychological abuse of residents within a span of two and a half months; another employee bragged on Facebook about "beating retards."

The most damning accounts of the operations come from employees --- thwarted whistle-blowers from around the state --- and the beleaguered family members of residents.


For the Careys, the journey to O.D. Heck was a last resort. ... [They] raised Jonathan until he was 9, but became worried that they could not teach their son basic living skills, like toilet training. They enrolled him at the Anderson Center for Autism, a privately run school in the Hudson Valley overseen by the state.

At first, the school seemed a good fit, until Jonathan, who was always thin, began losing weight. During one visit, an employee told the Careys to take home a duffel bag they had never used. They discovered a logbook inside the bag detailing startling changes to Jonathan's treatment plan. Among other things, the school was withholding food from Jonathan to punish him for taking off his shirt at inappropriate times.

"They literally planned to withhold my son's meals," Mr. Carey said. "And when that was not working, then they began to seclude him in his bedroom for an extended period of time. He missed eight full days of school."

So, to save him from possible death by starvation, Jonathan's parents removed him from that school and tried to take care of him at home again, but his problems had gotten worse. He had tantrums, he would run away, and Mr. and Mrs. Carey didn't think they could keep him safe, so they were referred to O.D. Heck. There was maybe a year and a half between Jonathan's admission to that school and his death in the back of the van. During that period, he was hospitalized three times with unexplained injuries.

It should be obvious from what I've quoted of this (lengthy) article that this is systemic.

It should be equally obvious that this sort of abuse is not restricted to any one kind of institution: the New York Times investigation found that the same culture of abuse detailed above, at the nine large institutions, also pervaded New York's 2,000 smaller group homes. Nor is it just restricted to New York --- last fall, the Chicago Tribune investigated thirteen deaths at a single nursing home, Alden Village North, that occurred over the past ten years. Similarly, stories of people with disabilities being abused, neglected or killed in their homes by family members appear in the news with some regularity. (Most recently, in my area, a young woman was sentenced to eight years and six months in prison for confining her six-year-old son with Down syndrome to an attic and starving him. The boy survived, and is now in foster care with his two sisters).

I think there are a lot of factors that work together to make this such a ubiquitous thing in our culture; the two biggest ones I can come up with now are 1) horrible societal attitudes toward disabled people, and 2) horrible societal attitudes toward caregiving. It's easy to see how the first one would contribute to a culture of abuse: it's always easier to abuse someone if you don't see them as a person. But I also think the undervaluing of caregivers plays a role, too --- the institutions in those news stories wouldn't have hired people with criminal convictions (or previous dismissals from other institutions) if they'd really thought caregiving was an important task that can't be entrusted to just anyone. The chronic understaffing of institutions is another symptom of this undervaluing --- caregiving is hard work, with long, irregular hours, and the pay is low, so they're always short on people who are willing to do it. Then, because of the perennial labor shortage, the people who run institutions are unwilling to fire people even for serious offenses.

I'm also starting to think that "unspeakable" is precisely the wrong word for such atrocities. Unspeakable means something we never talk about, something repressed. It means we can sweep it under the rug and pretend it doesn't happen, or that when it happens it's an aberration. And people want very much to believe institutions are safe, that their children or parents will be happy there.

*I feel similarly about abuse of children or animals by their guardians, or of women by the men they love. But this post deals with issues specific to people with disabilities, so I'm going to restrict my discussion to that.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Link Roundup

Here's a bunch of stuff I've read that I think my readers --- or, at least, various subsets of my readers --- might like:

Neuroskeptic on the murky relationship between genes and mental illness

A couple of posts --- one from Peter Daou and the other from David Roberts, writing for Grist --- on climate-change denialism

Environmentalist Bill McKibben (author of Deep Economy and Eaarth) writing for the Guardian's Comment Is Free about Barack Obama's environmental policies

Leah Jane at her new blog, nominatissima, on children's rights, why she doesn't see a conflict between being pro-choice and also pro-disability rights, and two posts on sex and romance for autistic people

Amanda Baggs (whose blog has also moved) on animal consciousness

Urocyon on eating disorders, food, gaslighting, colonialism (including a four-part series deconstructing the concept of race based on skin color and a link to this post at Womanist Musings), and how learning about her disabilities has helped her stop thinking of herself as incompetent and weak

Finally, on a blog I just discovered called Sasha Said, two posts on rape, a post on "Poverty in America and the Emerging Slave Class," and a wonderful, eye-opening post on "What Children Learn When They Don't Learn About Patriarchy" --- how children learn to account for male dominance of society when they're being told that men and women have equal rights.