Trump, sanity, and intelligence

It seems it’s time for me to address claims about Donald Trump’s sanity again. On 6 January 2018, Trump wrote this series of tweets defending his intelligence and mental stability against perceived Democratic and media attacks on his fitness as president:

The thrust of Trump’s argument, if you can call it that, is ‘I am intelligent! I am sane! Therefore I am qualified to be president and should be above criticism by either the “fake-news mainstream media” or the Democratic Party.’ This post is not about speculating about Trump’s sanity or intelligence–I am not qualified to make such a judgement and feel that it would be counterproductive anyway. I think he is wilfully ignorant, supremely arrogant, and consumed with hate for people he considers beneath him, but these qualities are not related to the constructs of sanity or intelligence. It is, however, a criticism of the idea that being considered sane or intelligent makes you an intrinsically better person. (No, it does not, by the way.)

If mental health and intelligence were conceptualised as value-neutral aspects of people’s neurotypes, then Trump would not defend himself by claiming to be sane or intelligent. He would instead defend his fitness for the office by citing specific actions he has taken that demonstrate that he is worthy to be president. Being perceived as intelligent (that is, having a constellation of abilities that correlate in many people to a markedly high degree) or sane (exhibiting no behaviours that seem distinctly out of place within a given society, and that cannot be explained by cross-cultural explanations) are viewed as more valuable forms of existence, while being considered unintelligent or insane renders a person a leper, an outcast, a debased kind of human less worthy of existence. I think that differences in neurotype exist, but that those differences do not imply that one neurotype is better than the other. This notion is disablist and harmful to people with intellectual disabilities and psychiatric disabilities.

As I have said repeatedly on this blog and elsewhere, nobody is worth more or less than anyone else because of how their mind works. People’s value is inherent in their humanity. There are ways to defend one’s ability to hold office without clinging to the notion that having an intellectual or psychatric disability reduces people’s worth.

Focussing on Trump’s mental faculties presents the risk of disablist interpretations of his mentation and furthermore serves as a distraction from his real faults. His policies and those of his lackeys and worshippers are oppressive. He is mendacious in the extreme; he lies as surely as he breathes and lacks a concept of objective truth, only ‘truths’ that are convenient for him. He is corrupt and uses his office as a means to enrich himself further. Trump’s asinine tweets reveal that he is a man entirely lacking in scruples or common sense. He engages in morally reprehensible behaviour.

Trump is a terrible man, but that need not be attributed to his apparent sanity, intelligence, or lack thereof. Our criticisms of him must be predicated on his directly observable actions, not hypothetical conditions that we cannot objectively evaluate. We cannot determine from his tweets how sane or intelligent he is, but we can more clearly determine his incompetence from the effects that his atrocious presidency has exerted upon the US and the world at large.

Les périls de considérer les intelligent(e)s comme meilleur(e)s que les autres

(version française de l’article ‘The perils of attaching value judgements to intelligence’. Toutes mes excuses pour mes erreurs grammatiques ou orthographiques ; l’anglais est ma langue maternelle.)

(Avertissement : cet article contient des mentions du racisme et du préjugé contre les handicapé(e)s)

Il n’est pas mal, bien sûr, d’être intelligent(e) ou de s’interesser à l’apprentissage, mais on ne doit pas dire que les personnes intelligentes sont meilleures que les autres. La surévaluation continuelle de l’intelligence, ou l’apprentissage rapide, en comparaison avec les autres traits comme la générosité, est dangereuse.

Comme j’ai déjà dit dans un autre article, j’apprends vite et j’étais considéré comme «surdoué» à l’enfance, mais je ne suis pas du tout meilleur que les autres. Ma valeur vient d’être humain, et mon caractère moral vient de mon comportement, pas mon intelligence, ni mes autres caracteristiques innées. C’est juste que j’apprends rapidement. C’est ce que je fais avec cet apprentissage rapide qui compte. Je veux apprendre des manières de faire le monde plus juste et plus gentil.

Je me souvenais des dangers d’associer des valeurs morales et qualitatives à l’intelligence en découvrant le site de Paul Cooijmans, un soi-disant expert sur l’intelligence. Son site est souvent cité comme une source bien informée sur l’intelligence, la personnalité et des autres traits (tous les liens sont en anglais). Il est vrai que la plupart des gens qui le citent ne sont pas des journalistes, mais les articles du Spectator et de BoingBoing sont des exceptions. Je n’ai vu personne critiquer son contenu épouvantable ; donc, je me suis décidé de le faire. Ses articles ont l’air de venir d’un discours de Hitler ou un tract américain sur l’eugénisme du XXième siècle.

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Twice-Exceptionality: Autism and Fast Learning (1)

I was identified as ‘twice-exceptional’ growing up: I was labelled both autistic (PDD-NOS; changed to Asperger Syndrome in mid-childhood after the publication of the DSM-IV) and ‘gifted’. My learning differences and my atypical way of perceiving and interacting with the world made it painfully difficult to fit in. This series of posts describes some of my experiences growing up twice-exceptional, and what it currently looks like for me as an adult in my early thirties.

The Early Years

Funnily enough, before I was about two, professionals originally thought I would have grow up to have an intellectual disability. At least one doctor declared that I would ‘never learn’ when it was clear that I showed some signs of developmental delay. This perception changed, though, around when I was between two and a half and three. I taught myself to read between the ages of two and three. This was the point at which it was clear that I didn’t have an intellectual disability in the slightest. My parents historically said I started to read at three, but I remember knowing how to do it before then. Honestly, I can’t remember not being able to read. I managed to read through my collection of Golden Books and board books and soon graduated to my mother’s cookbooks – an Oster blender cookbook and Richard Simmons Deal-A-Meal cookbooks immediately come to mind – and a book about toilet-training, as they were the only adult-level books I wasn’t forbidden to read—my parents’ books primarily consisted of Harlequin Romances, Tom Clancy thrillers and sports books. Barring that, I’d read the labels on boxes of food or shampoo bottles. By the time I was six, I read at a twelfth-grade level.

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The perils of attaching value judgements to intelligence

Content warning: references to disablism, racism, misogyny, other hatefulness

The continual valuation of intelligence, or fast learning1, over other personal traits is dangerous. There’s nothing wrong, of course, with being a fast learner or being interested in learning, but there is a problem with attaching an absolute value judgement to intelligence. As I said in my most recent entry prior to this one, I’m a reasonably fast learner myself and grew up with a ‘gifted’ label, but I don’t see myself as being better than anybody else. My worth comes from my being human, and my moral character is determined by my behaviour, not any inborn characteristic I may have. I just happen to learn quickly. It’s what I do with it that matters, and I choose to study ways to make the world fairer and kinder.

I was reminded of the perils of attaching moral and qualitative values to people’s intelligence when coming across the website of the so-called intelligence expert, Paul Cooijmans. His website is often quoted as an authoritative source of information on intelligence, personality and other traits, and he hosts a number of tests and quizzes ready for social-media sharing. (Admittedly, most of the people citing him aren’t reporting for major media sources, but the Spectator and BoingBoing articles are exceptions.) I haven’t seen anybody else criticise his awful content, so I decided to do it. Are people not paying attention, or are they so ensconced in privilege that they can afford to ignore it? His material often sounds as though it could have come straight from a Nazi speech or an American eugenics leaflet from the early 20th century.

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Fast learners are not better than other people

(CW: ableist slurs.)

It is not nice to say that fast learners are better than other people. That is because it is mean to people who learn more slowly. It is not bad to learn slowly. It is not bad to be a fast learner either. Everyone can learn something. We just need different ways to learn things. That is OK.

But some people treat fast learners like they are better than other people. That is not nice. I am a fast learner. I am not better than somebody who learns more slowly than I do. I just have different learning needs.

Some people call fast learners gifted. There are many problems with that. Gifted is not a good word. Calling fast learners gifted is not fair. That is because it feels like people who learn slowly are not as good. People also say fast learners are intelligent. Intelligent comes from a Latin word meaning reading between. That means that we see patterns quickly. Other words people use for fast learners are smart, sharp, bright or clever. People think they are nice words. Sometimes they give a message that slower learners are not worth as much. Some people use these words to say it’s better to learn fast. This is unfair.

Some people learn more slowly than others. They can learn, but it takes more time for them to pick things up. That is OK. They are people and everyone is able to learn something. They just need more time. People say that slow learners have intellectual disabilities. This just means they take longer to learn. Sometimes people use mean words about slow learners. Some of these unkind words include retarded, idiot, stupid and dumb. We should not call slower learners these words. These words are hurtful. 

I think everyone deserves to learn things in their own time. I think that people can be good or bad no matter how they learn. We are all people. We should not judge people by how fast they learn.

Fonts & Typography Infodump

Fonts and Typography Infodump!

So you’re tired of using Times New Roman, Calibri and Cambria. You’d like to use something other than the fonts that come with Microsoft Office, MacOS, Windows or Linux. Here’s what I’ve learned about fonts and typography over the years – I’m a predominantly self-taught typographer who’s learned about text layout and type choices through trial, error and a lot of reading. If there’s anything missing from this guide that you’d be interested in seeing, please let me know in either the comments or via Twitter at @phineasfrogg.

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Why I’ve rejected many American standards in my personal work

I’ve consciously rejected a number of American standards in my personal writing: specifically, date formatting, measurements, punctuation and spellings. This isn’t an attempt to be fancy as much as it is my frustration with this country’s categorical rejection of international standards. Also, I lived in Western Europe for seven years and was influenced by my experiences growing up. At one point, my online social circle was primarily Australians and their tendencies rubbed off on me too.

Of course, I’ll adapt myself for work projects! I haven’t insisted on using British spellings in my work projects because that would look weird. I’ll write in whatever house style I’m using at the time, or something close to it if I’m being edited. I’m pretty good at code-switching between different styles when I need to. But when I write for myself, I avoid these Trumpy standards.

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Taxpayers First!

…Or why Trump’s budget, DACA repeal, trans military service ban and ‘health care’ plan come from the same ethos

CW: Trump, eugenics, Nazism/Hitler, classism, disablism, racism, anti-trans discrimination

Over the past nine months of his illegitimate presidency, Donald Trump has systemically targeted marginalised people under the classist, disablist, eugenicist principle that certain people cost too much. The idea that disabled and chronically ill people’s healthcare costs too much spawned the numerous failed Congressional Trumpcare bills and Trump’s executive order gutting the Affordable Care Act. Trump justified banning transgender people from serving in the US military through the claim that the cost of trans people’s care was a ‘tremendous burden’. When the Trump regime attempted to rescind DACA, the implication was the lives of undocumented immigrants who were brought to this country at a young age cost too much. The proposed Republican budget, which Trump has touted repeatedly on Twitter and elsewhere, implies that the lives of rich people are more valuable than those of poor, working-class or middle-class people. We’re all nutzlose Fresser, useless eaters.

[An edited version of the pro-eugenics 'Neues Volk' Nazi advertisement that says 'Steuerzahler Zuerst: das neue Budget der republikanischen Partei', or 'Taxpayers First: the new Republican Party budget. I made this back in May back when the Republicans' budget was posted online.]

[An edited version of the pro-eugenics ‘Neues Volk’ Nazi advertisement that says ‘Steuerzahler Zuerst: das neue Budget der republikanischen Partei’, or ‘Taxpayers First: the new Republican Party budget. I made this back in May back when the Republicans’ budget was posted online.]

Trump’s policies recall those of repressive governments whose entire goal is to inflict harm on vulnerable people. The Nazis come to mind, though I’m speaking of the early Nazi years, not the more recognisable late regime that fell in 1945. Remember that the Nazis didn’t start off with death camps like Auschwitz, Bergen-Belsen and Treblinka. They started off by instituting policies that ostensibly allowed people they thought inferior to live, but that restricted their ability to participate in public life. When they did start killing people, again, they didn’t start with Auschwitz. Hitler’s first killing campaign was Aktion T-4, the ‘euthanasia’ programme that targeted people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. Hitler targeted ‘degenerate’ art and research like Magnus Hirschfeld’s transgender studies. The Nazis slowly stripped Jews of their civil rights before Hitler sent them to death camps.

A set of US posters promoting eugenics. Many of them combine racism along with disablism.

In turn, the Nazis picked up many of their ideas about eugenics from precedents set in the United States. There’s a long American tradition of persecuting disabled people. American eugenicists used IQ tests to segregate, sterilise and marginalise people considered disabled according to their test results. Lengthy genealogies of ‘degenerate’ families like the Jukes and Kallikaks connected disability to crime and poverty. Pro-eugenics posters claimed that disabled people cost too much to keep alive. Sterilisation of people deemed intellectually disabled was upheld by the Supreme Court in Buck v Bell.

Trump may not think of things in strictly ideological terms, but he has surrounded himself by people who certainly do.

  • Trump has affiliated himself with white nationalists, some of whom I’ll list here – Steve Bannon, Sebastian Gorka, Stephen Miller, Jeff Sessions and others. He has also associated with Religious Right ideologues like Jerry Falwell Jr, Paula White and James Dobson. These right-wing Christians come from a variety of theological positions. Some are classic hard-line fire-and-brimstone fundamentalists, whereas others are prosperity preachers. All of them, however, advocate against the civil rights of LGBTQ+ people. Many of Trump’s anti-trans policies are drawn straight from the playbook laid out by the Family Research Council, a Religious Right lobbying organisation and hate group.
  • Steve Bannon, Sebastian Gorka and Stephen Miller, all current or former official White House advisers, are ideological fascists. Fascism exists in ideological contraposition to disability rights. Fascism values the strong and disparages those they consider weak.
  • Mike Pence is an extremist evangelical Christian. Right-wing evangelicals like Pence believe that people who do not follow their religion’s strictures deserve to suffer. Pence may not be as shouty as Trump or as blatant as Bannon, but he is dangerous and needs to be watched. When listing out the dangerous people who increase the danger the Trumpocalypse presents, never forget Mike Pence.
  • Paul Ryan, the Speaker of the House, is an Ayn Rand devotee who would prop up Hitler himself if he could still slash benefits for poor and disabled people. Ayn Rand’s philosophy valued strength over weakness, and thought that people she found weak didn’t deserve to live. Though Rand wouldn’t have called herself a Nazi, many of her thoughts on poverty and disability are compatible with fascist ideology. Ryan’s transatlantic analogue is Iain Duncan Smith, the UK Member of Parliament and former Secretary for Work and Pensions who oversaw draconian budget cuts that caused the death and suffering of many British disabled people. Like Pence, Ryan knows how to couch his hatred of vulnerable people in socially acceptable rhetoric, but he’s just as dangerous as Trump is.
  • Attorney General Jeff Sessions is on record as claiming that the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act is a burdensome imposition on teachers. He has also scaled back disability rights enforcement in comparison to Barack Obama’s Attorneys General, Eric Holder and Loretta Lynch. He has also pushed Trump to withdraw Obama-era guidance on trans protections in schools. As a Republican senator he consistently supported the needs of the rich, white and powerful over the needs of vulnerable people. Sessions is a predator. He’s more affable than Trump, but Sessions’ zeal in reversing the strides made under the Obama administration reveals the danger he presents.
  • Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch – a Trump appointee – also has a record of minimising and restricting the rights of marginalised people, including disabled people and LGBTQ+ people.
  • The House Freedom Caucus is full of Tea Party Republicans. Like Ryan, Freedom Caucus members are fixated on tax cuts and benefit cuts.

Related Reading:

  • Kit Mead’s Paginated Thoughts blog often discusses the history of disability, eugenics and bioethics.
  • At Shakesville, Melissa McEwan has written extensively about Mike Pence’s toxic history as a governor, congressman and vice president.
  • @EbThen on Twitter has tweeted quite a bit about the Nazis’ T4 programme and the American inspiration for many Nazi atrocities.

The scourge of Trumpiness

Despite the title, this post is less about Donald Trump, the man, and more about a form of American nationalism that he exemplifies. Trump is loud and obnoxious and obviously objectionable to decent people, but he’s a symptom rather than the cause. 

Trumpiness is the pervasive – and incorrect – assumption that American culture, people and politics are intrinsically more valuable than those of other countries. In short: ‘America First!’ It is about how one sees oneself in contrast with people from other countries. It is about how one believes foreign policy ought to be conducted. Trumpiness is an aggressive small-mindedness that arises from national solipsism. It is self-absorption to the point of wilful ignorance about the rest of the world. It’s the chauvinistic ‘America First!’ mindset that Trump crows about, even if the individual practitioner of Trumpiness doesn’t realise they sound like him.

I should emphasise that I’m not talking about people who are focussed on national politics because of Trump’s hateful policies. That’s not chauvinism as much as it is self-preservation. People can be marginalised within powerful countries; see: Flint, Standing Rock, Grenfell Tower, Tory disability cuts, French banlieues or the persecution of the Ainu people. Trumpiness is an expression of centrality, not marginalisation. 

Trumpiness can be either intentional or inadvertent. Sometimes people don’t even register that they’re doing it. That’s almost scarier than the people who deliberately adopt this mindset. I’ve pointed out Trumpy things and some people don’t see the problem, possibly because they’ve become so inured to it that it doesn’t register to them. 

What does Trumpiness look like in practice? 

  • CNN reporting on 10 Americans dying in a plane crash, but neglecting to talk about the 40 other people who died with them, or the impact of hurricanes on Texas and Florida, but not Barbuda or Haiti.
  • Thinking American things are objectively better just because they’re American.
  • American software companies neglecting to add spellcheckers for any dialect of English used outside the United States, or referring to their dialect as unmarked English in opposition to British English, Canadian English and Australian English. Yes, Trumpiness can be used to exclude people in influential imperial or colonial countries who are comparatively privileged on the world stage. 
  • Newspapers covering very little news about anywhere outside the 50 US states – not even Canada, Mexico or US territories like Puerto Rico, Guam or the US Virgin Islands. 
  • Destabilising the Middle East to get cheap oil.
  • Withdrawing from the Paris Agreement because you think climate change is ‘fake news’ and a hoax invented by the Chinese government to make US manufacturing non-competitive. 
  • Using an American flag to represent the English language. (You shouldn’t use flags at all.) 
  • Not following international standards on weights and measures and not realising that very few other countries use your particular standards. 

One of the saddest things about the entire thing is when non-Americans absorb Trumpiness. I’ve seen Trumpy attitudes from people who may not be American themselves, but are strongly influenced by American culture and fail to question certain assumptions they may have inadvertently absorbed from their American counterparts. I’ve come across cases where British or Australian writers contort themselves to write like Americans because of the Trumpy assumption that Americans cannot tolerate seeing or hearing other kinds of English. Developers in non-English-speaking countries (or even non-American countries, for other native English-speakers) are rarely able to work primarily in their own language. 

America, naturally, isn’t the only country guilty of its own kind of Trumpiness. Britain, for example, has its Brexit-supporting, Daily Mail-reading ‘Little Englanders’. They are convinced that leaving the European Union will bring sovereignty and prosperity. Brexit will instead bring economic and social decline owing to their wrong-headed idea that isolating one’s country from the rest of the world will restore the ‘greatness’ of the British Empire. These are the people who fetishise pounds and stones, inches and miles, and old-fashioned blue passports. The same could be said about French people, Japanese people, Chinese people, Mexicans or anybody else who pushes the ideology that their culture is intrinsically superior or more important than others’. It’s just that American chauvinism is the loudest and most powerful right now; there’s nothing intrinsic to Americans or any other group of people that makes them automatically more chauvinistic than others. Nothing is better just because it’s American (or German, South African, Russian, Chilean, Thai, Ghanaian, etc). 

For all that is good in the world, please don’t be Trumpy. Be aware of your biases. Watch for chauvinism, especially since it’s part of what brought us Trump and Brexit in the first place. 

50+ Autistic People You Should Know!

I recently published 50+ Autistic People You Should Know on NOS Magazine! I admit that the list is a bit US-centric, but that was mostly because I was listing people I knew personally or whose work I was reasonably familiar with. I didn’t just want to get a bunch of names and put a list of people there without vetting them. I’d actually like to work on a second follow-up list that’s less US-centric, since US-centrism is one of the things I make a concerted effort to try and avoid.

The trials of being a ‘good’ neurodivergent person

Sam Dylan Finch wrote about being a ‘good’ mentally ill person for The Establishment a few days ago. Though we have different diagnoses, I can still relate to the article rather intensely. My entire life has been a struggle to be the ‘good’ neurodivergent person. I’m autistic and have generalised anxiety disorder and depression, along with a few other brain things. I’ve been trained since early childhood to pass as neurotypical, starting with my early years in a preschool specifically for kids with disabilities and a speech and language pathologist I saw once after starting mainstream preschool.

Self-awareness has become a double-edged sword; on the one hand, I appreciate being able to understand myself more fully, but on the other, I struggle with intense self-consciousness. Growing up, I had every conspicuous neurodivergent trait scrutinised constantly by parents, teachers and other adults. I was told to have quiet hands, to stop dancing in the hallways, to stop twitching, to stop talking to myself. I was pressured into giving near-perfect eye contact even though it felt as though people’s eyes were boring into my soul when I looked at them. Everything was part of a concerted effort to make me indistinguishable from my peers. ‘Don’t do that! People will think you’re crazy.’ ‘Don’t do that. Other people don’t do that.’ I internalised a fear of People, with a capital P, and what they would think of the way I presented myself in the world. It grew even worse when I was a teenager and my parents started attributing some of my differences to Satan after they got involved with fundamentalist Christianity.

Even though I’ve long since rejected the idea that it is better for autistic people to pretend not to be autistic, it is still difficult for me to interact with people outside the disability community or my close friend circle without feigning neurotypical. I don’t judge other people for not ‘passing’, but I do judge myself terribly.

Even around people who do know I’m autistic and will probably expect less eye contact and more stimming, I still don’t feel right doing those things.

I feel as though I’m under constant scrutiny for my race, disability and queerness. It’s already hard to exist when you hear stories of yet another black person being shot by the police, new efforts by far-right governments to kill disabled people slowly through Social Darwinism in the form of budget cuts, or social conservative bullies trying to scare trans people out of existence through bathroom bills and constant barrages of hate speech. In order to be a respectable, credible advocate, I have to be performatively sane. I’m terrified of being institutionalised. I’ve never been in a psych hospital, but I’ve been threatened with it. I worry that dropping some of these performances will hurt my advocacy. Some of this is admittedly irrational and borne of anxiety; I know of other disability advocates who talk about their mental health neurodivergences with much more candour than I can muster. With so many intersecting forms of marginalisation, I feel there’s something I need to cling to in order to be heard. I reject respectability politics on principle, but have thoroughly imbibed it in my daily life because I feel I have to.

When I drop the mask, I’m much more conspicuously different from non-autistic and other neurotypical people. I talk to myself to keep my thoughts straight. I flap, I roll, I twiddle and spin. In fact, there isn’t a coherent, centralised ‘I’ here, but a number of different ghosts in this pain-ridden, fatigue-beset machine. I can make a good simulacrum of a centralised self, though. All these things take work to suppress. It’s exhausting. All that energy being used when it could be going towards things that would actually help me get through day-to-day life. I just want to relax, but I feel I can’t. Even at home I try not to do these things too often, even when my door is shut and nobody is watching. Though I’m crazy, I don’t want to seem too crazy. I support open neurodivergence in theory, but the praxis is daunting. I wonder: how much of this is necessary to survive, and how much of it will ultimately kill me by making me too exhausted to exist?

Book Review: Autism’s Stepchild, by Phyllis Grilikhes

Though there are many narratives about children on the autism spectrum told by professionals and specialists, Phyllis Grilikhes’s Autism’s Stepchild (2016) stands out because of its historical perspective on the interpretation of autistic traits before the diagnosis became commonplace. Grilikhes’s narrative tells the story of a young girl, Jean, who would be diagnosed with autism nowadays, but in the 1940s and 50s was treated as a psychological oddity, a medical curiosity to be examined and scrutinised with no conclusive explanations for her seemingly abnormal behaviour. Jean’s story is told primarily through her mother, Dora, whom Grilikhes interviewed to capture her perspective as a mother navigating a frequently baffling and hostile medical system in order to secure appropriate care and education for Jean. Dora’s fight is interwoven with Grilikhes’s account of her personal relationship with Jean; Grilikhes worked as an aide for Jean for some years in Berkeley, California, before losing touch with the family after changing careers. We find out about Jean’s relationship with the famed psychologist Erik Erikson; her experiences with institutions and specialised schools that were entirely at sea when faced with somebody whose disability profile did not match the common diagnoses of the day; her abiding friendship with Grilikhes, who nurtured her creativity; and her tumultuous transition from childhood to adolescence and adulthood. Grilikhes has an engaging prose style, effortlessly drawing the reader into her narrative. One gets the sense that one knows Dora’s experiences intimately through Grilikhes’s retelling. Jean, however, is portrayed as mysterious – something of a black box, really – and this comparative lack of insight into Jean’s interpretation of the world may stem from Jean’s struggles with expressive language and Grilikhes’s own prejudices regarding autism.

Though Grilikhes is well-intentioned and seems to care genuinely for Jean and her family’s welfare, Autism’s Stepchild occasionally reflects common—and misguided—cultural tropes about autism and other disabilities. Some of these errors can be explained by the time in which the narrative takes place, but when Grilikhes is speaking in the present tense, it is glaring and mars an otherwise sympathetic narrative. She routinely refers to autistic people and other people with developmental disabilities as being ‘disturbed’ or having ‘mental illnesses’, showing a surprising ignorance of current language used about and by people with developmental disabilities. This would be somewhat more understandable in a layperson, but Grilikhes is a psychologist with years of experience working with people with disabilities and should be aware of changing terminology. She also falls prey to the ‘puzzle of autism’ narrative, in which autistic people are treated as inscrutable oddities—she even uses the word ‘inscrutable’ towards the beginning of the book—rather than fully ensouled people.

Most gallingly, Grilikhes cites the work of Ivar Lovaas – a research psychologist and the creator of what is now known as Applied Behaviour Analysis – as a positive, humanising figure who helped autistic people come into their own and navigate the world more adeptly than they would have without his treatment. According to Grilikhes, Lovaas played an instrumental role in helping Jean adapt to her environment more successfully than she had before. The laudatory treatment that Grilikhes gives Lovaas whitewashes the cruelty that he often inflicted on his patients. At the beginning of his career as a behaviourist, Lovaas used cattle prods and electric shocks to ‘correct’ his students’ behaviour. Though he later shifted to less physically harmful methods, there is no evidence that he fully recanted. Lovaas also collaborated with the disgraced George Rekers, a Christian Right therapist, on ‘conversion therapy’ that used electric shocks and other abusive methods to make gay and gender-non-conforming boys seem straight. The abuse that Lovaas inflicted on generations of students does not merit applause. What was done to these young people was cruel and inhumane, and it is morally irresponsible to ignore his record of maltreatment.

Autism’s Stepchild is worth reading to understand historical approaches to autism identification and treatment; however, Grilikhes’s uncritical treatment of Ivar Lovaas’ therapeutic methods, the inaccurate language, and the ‘puzzle’ stereotype of autism make it difficult for me to recommend it without reservation.

(Disclosure: the author sent me a copy of the book to be reviewed.)

Evangelical Authoritarians and their Angry God (cw: religious abuse, rape, incest, anti-LGBTQ discrimination)

For people who don’t understand how the evangelical, usually Protestant, far-right exerts its influence on conservative Republican politics: let me explain, from the perspective of a social scientist and as a survivor of an evangelical Republican household who held these kinds of beliefs. If you’re unfamiliar with how authoritarian evangelicalism works, it seems utterly ludicrous that Republican politicians continue to pursue their anti-woman and anti-LGBTQ political agenda despite increasing public opposition. Marriage equality and legal abortion enjoy the support of a majority of Americans, but Republicans continue to oppose it steadfastly.

The God of these evangelicals is an authoritarian God who brooks no dissent from the party line. People who disagree with them are members of The World, working to advance Satan’s mission and subvert the will of God. Politics is not merely about competing policies and legislative priorities; it’s spiritual warfare. When conservative Christians battle against marriage equality, transgender rights or abortion, they literally believe that they are using political positions to battle against Satan and his legions of demons. And the stakes couldn’t be higher: if you don’t follow your denomination’s rules exactly, you’re going to hell. Permanent separation from God and his kingdom, and eternal torture as punishment. They’re inculcated with a visceral fear of going to hell, and they don’t want you to go there either. This results in conservative evangelicals encouraging theology and public policy that mandates conformity to their moral and social code, or ostracism for those who don’t. Persuasion isn’t enough for authoritarians. They want you – and the rest of society – to comply. It’s like the Borg from Star Trek; they want you to be assimilated.

Acts 10:34, a Bible passage often misused by conservative evangelicals to justify their position, states that ‘God is not a respecter of persons’. Within a more progressive Christian practice, God’s not being a ‘respecter of persons’ means rejecting partisanship, ethnocentrism and humanity’s foibles: our pettiness, our need for approval instead of doing what is right for those around us, our selfishness, our wantonness, our indifference to others’ suffering. For authoritarian Christians, however, this passage means rejecting the humane in favour of the inhumane in the name of God.

Evangelical Protestant preachers also teach that salvation comes not from good works, but through unalloyed faith in Jesus. It doesn’t matter whether you hide away in a gilded tower, hoarding wealth and treating poor people with disdain, or if you devote your life to helping your community. What matters ultimately is your devotion to Christ. Good works are encouraged by some evangelicals, but they are secondary. Naturally, devotion to Christ means adherence to all the legalistic rules that the authoritarian right considers necessary for entrance into the Kingdom of Heaven. It’s easy to support laws that starve poor and disabled people when acts of decency are secondary.

This is why Republican governors like Mike Pence and Pat McCrory push through regressive laws attacking reproductive rights and LGBTQ rights in their states, or why the Republican National Committee produced the most anti-LGBTQ platform in their history during the 2016 Republican National Convention, or why Republican politicians like the supposedly ‘moderate’ Marco Rubio and John Kasich support abortion bans without exceptions for rape or incest. They literally do not care about equal protection. Caring about equality means that they reject authoritarian Christianity. Worldly stakes don’t matter in comparison. They won’t budge because they’ve been conditioned to believe that changing their minds about marriage equality, abortion or trans rights means that they’re going to be roasting in hell after they die. This is why authoritarian conservative evangelicalism is so dangerous: it promotes social inequality and discrimination under the guise of devotion to a loving God, and it inoculates itself against dissent by promising eternal torture to everyone who strays away from the straight and narrow.

Can we put ‘economic anxiety’ to rest?

One month after the election and there’s still people with their hot takes about Why Hillary Lost, Why It Must Be Economic Anxiety! If Bernie Had Won, He Would Be President!

So Steve Bannon, Richard Spencer and David Duke must be economically anxious. People saying stuff like ‘Trump That Bitch’ are economically anxious. People who’ve been calling Obama the N-word for 8 years must be economically anxious. The Ku Klux Klan celebrating Trump’s ‘win’ must be economically anxious. People waving Confederate flags at Trump rallies must be economically anxious. Two Trump supporters beating up a homeless Latino man in Boston in Trump’s name must be because of economic anxiety. People trying to ram through unpopular anti-LGBTQ laws like North Carolina’s bathroom bill must totally be economically anxious.

No, no, no, and a million times, fuck no. This is bullshit. This is an attempt to dismiss what’s being done to women, people of colour, Muslims, Jews, LGBTQ+ people and anyone else who’s at risk under Trump. Basically Trump got ‘elected’ because of a perfect storm of reasons and you’re going to say that it’s just because Hillary Clinton was a bad candidate and she should’ve ignored PoC and women in favour of the ‘Reagan Democrat’ white rust belt voters?

Look, I voted for Bernie. But this is bullshit. It’s dangerous, specious, racist garbage that I’m really fucking tired of hearing from a bunch of entitled white dudes who will be just fine under Trump. I know these guys won’t lift a damn finger to help people who are more vulnerable to what Trump, Pence and the rest of the Republicans are going to do.

I’m not saying Clinton was a perfect candidate. But she got almost 3 million more votes than Trump. There were things that hurt her towards the end like certain partisan Republican FBI agents like James Comey and the NY office that was close with Rudy Giuliani. Russia was out there trying to swing the election for Trump and there’s growing evidence that Trump’s campaign knew about it. Republican voter suppression was a thing in a lot of states, including swing states like Michigan, Wisconsin and North Carolina that would’ve helped Clinton. This was the first general election without the full protections of the Voting Rights Act.

And you’re going to say that it’s just because of economic anxiety. Do you know how I read that? ‘Shut up, minorities, we don’t care about you, and we will gladly throw you under the bus.’ You basically want a left-wing Trump-centred entirely on white interests and continuing to marginalise women, POC, religious minorities and LGBTQ+ people. Fuck you, and fuck the racist Cheeto you’re making excuses for. You are not helping.

Fascism’s at the door. Vladimir Putin’s just threatened our sovereignty. The Klan is marching in the South. And you’re still whining about Bernie Sanders? Give me a fucking break.


The United States has gone in the direction of other Western countries that have allowed right-wing white nationalism to infect their countries via the election of Donald J Trump.

Don’t tell me that Trump voters chose him because of mere economic anguish on its own. White Trump voters chose racism, bigotry and the systemic oppression of women, people of colour, LGBTQ+ people, disabled people, Muslims, Jews and anyone else who doesn’t fit into the idealised cisgender, white, straight, Christian, abled, male mould. It’s the Southern Strategy in its grossest form, originally perfected by Richard Nixon and continued by the Reagan and Bush administrations. Would Bernie Sanders have beaten Trump? Probably not. As much as I liked his advocacy for decreased income inequality, voters of colour didn’t choose him in the Democratic primaries. Trump’s specific appeal is the racism. It’s the sexism. It’s the hatred of marginalised people. Even if individual Trump voters may not be stereotypical Confederate flag-waving, slur-using, racists, they are insulated from racial oppression. Trump’s highest margins came from the whitest regions in the country. These people live their lives without interacting with PoC, or Muslims, or people whose political views are drastically different from theirs, and so they can vote for Trump without thinking of the consequences.

If it were truly about economics, those people would have turned out for Bernie Sanders in the Democratic primary. They would have supported Elizabeth Warren. Instead, they went to Trump, who promised in his words and actions that he would restore blatant white supremacy in the United States. The backlash against a black president, and the strong likelihood that a woman whose policy was based on inclusion would succeed him, sent them running into Trump’s arms. Never mind that Trump is an inveterate liar, a craven opportunist, an abuser of women and an amoral con artist. He said he’d make America white again. He fed right into fantasies of the old order before the Civil Rights Movement and the Obama presidency.

This man hasn’t even taken the oath of office yet, and his supporters are already emboldened. There have been numerous reports of people of colour, women, LGBTQ+ people, disabled people, Muslims and Jews being physically and emotionally assaulted by Trump supporters who feel that his election gives them carte blanche to exact revenge on everyone they consider Other. This is similar to what happened in the UK after the Brexit vote–again, they thought the vote gave them licence to abuse and marginalise others.

If you voted for Donald Trump, you are complicit. If you enabled Trump by stressing ‘economic anguish’ over the hatred he promulgated for the past year, you are also complicit. If you reported on Trump dispassionately without condemning his behaviour, you are also complicit. I will not go out of my way to empathise with ‘poor, suffering Trump supporters’, since most of those Trump supporters had higher incomes than the Clinton voters. If you voted for Trump, you told me and people like me that our lives are worthless.

Dark days are ahead. I’m struggling. I know people reading this may be too. As long as I’m here, I’ll keep writing.

Toxic masculinity in the autism community

(content warning: sexual harassment and assault; misogyny)

I have come across incident after incident in which women, femmes and other people perceived as women find themselves being bombarded with unwanted sexual or romantic propositions, sexual harassment and outright sexual assault by cis men on the spectrum in spaces that are either by or for autistic people, or in online communities for autistic people. I know several women and femmes who have experienced harassment from men who think they’re entitled to their affections or their bodies, including lesbians. I’ve seen guys being creepy towards women in person, and have reported them to event organisers. Before I transitioned and started being perceived as male by the general public, I had a man propose marriage to me online as a way of getting me out of my parents’ abusive household. I was 19. He was in his 40s at the very least–more than twice my age.

Being autistic does not exempt you from the forces of toxic masculinity, compulsory heterosexuality or other forms of gendered hostility. Autism may make people internalise society’s messages differently from other people, but that doesn’t mean that we don’t internalise those messages. We are people and people are a product of the societies in which they are brought up.

I believe some of this is attributable to the systemic desexualisation of disabled people, including autistic people, during childhood and adolescence. The assumption is that we won’t be interested in romantic or sexual relationships anyway–or shouldn’t be–so we are not taught how to approach relationships in a healthy, positive way. It’s also the case that a lot of autistic people struggle with learning social norms that are seen as simply arbitrary. There may be some social norms that are simply arbitrary, but respecting people’s romantic and sexual boundaries goes beyond simple social niceties. When those developmental factors are blended with cultural messages that promote male entitlement and rape culture, some autistic men end up with attitudes that both reflect their difficulty approaching women or people they perceive as women, and the idea that they’re entitled to a romantic relationship or sex because they’re men. This results in situations where men in autistic spaces will do things ranging from awkwardly asking people on dates because they’re both on the spectrum and they think the other person is pretty to full-blown sexual harassment and assault.

Like everyone else, these guys need to be told that nobody is entitled to romance or sex, but that there are ways that they can learn how to build healthy relationships to the people they’re attracted to. Build bonds based on common interests. Don’t treat autistic space as nothing but a dating opportunity. Work on how to make friends first. Value women and people perceived as women as human beings, not just as opportunities for dating or sex. Respect the boundaries of people who say they aren’t interested in going out with them or sleeping with them.

We need to stop tolerating this kind of behaviour in autistic space and be absolutely clear that harassment and assault are unacceptable. I have been in way too many spaces where guys like this are routinely allowed to come back. Being autistic should not absolve you from common decency, and common decency includes respecting the sexual and romantic boundaries of other people.

Intersecting Selfhood: Trans Identity, Autism and Mental Health Disability

Here are the notes for the presentation I gave at the Disability & Intersectionality Summit yesterday, ‘Intersecting Selfhood: Trans Identity, Autism and Mental Health Disability’. They’re a bit long, so I’ve put them all under a Read More tag so you’re not faced with Massive Wall of Text. I’ll also link to the PowerPoint (well, really Keynote) slides later. 🙂

(Content warning for racism, transphobia, religious abuse, brief mention of police violence, disablism)

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Why I’m not supporting Jill Stein

Like a lot of other young progressives and social democrats, I voted for Bernie Sanders during the Democratic primary season, mostly because of his enthusiasm for addressing income inequality, mass incarceration and the militarisation of US police forces, and student debt. The majority of Sanders supporters ended up supporting Hillary Clinton after she won the nomination, but a few ‘Bernie or Bust’ holdouts have moved on to Jill Stein of the Green Party, under the impression that a vote for Stein would reflect Bernie’s progressivism more closely than would a vote for Clinton. Unfortunately, there are a few problems with that logic: Stein has supported causes that don’t dovetail well with progressive ideals, and voting for her will also make it easier for Donald Trump to win the electoral votes he needs to become president by splitting the left-wing and moderate votes (since Stein doesn’t have the infrastructure in place to win any states and therefore deprive Trump of electoral votes).

Stein’s views are particularly questionable when it comes to disability, the Brexit vote, Julian Assange and WikiLeaks, Russia and the Vladimir Putin regime, and race. She’s said horrible things about autism and autistic people. She’s praised Russia, which has one of the worst human-rights records in Eurasia. She praised Brexit immediately after the vote, calling it a victory for self-determination. She’s called Julian Assange a hero without reservation. These positions have made it impossible for me to support her as a progressive alternative to Hillary Clinton. I’d rather vote for Clinton and hold her accountable than a) vote for a candidate who’s supported Brexit, Putin and Assange, and b) make Trump look more popular by reducing Clinton’s margin against him.

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Typography for Academics 1: The Reference Sheet

I’m a big fan of Matthew Butterick’s Typography for Lawyers and Practical Typography. I’ve long thought that the principles in Typography for Lawyers should be applied to other disciplines that are writing-heavy, like academia.

On the top is a standard formatted APA references page, using the guidelines listed on the Purdue Owl website. On the bottom is one that I’ve done with improved formatting.

The example reference page I’m using is based on APA (American Psychological Association) format, mostly because it’s the format I encounter the most often in my field. That’s not to say, however, that these problems are limited to APA–I’ve seen them in other academic formats as well, including MLA (Modern Language Association) format.

The main problem with the default layout is its relative lack of visual hierarchy. ‘References’ is centred, but there isn’t any other formatting to distinguish the title from the rest of the content. No bold, no italics, no size changes. References are separated by second-line indents, but with no indication of where references start and end otherwise. Every element is flush with the other, making it harder to distinguish different sections. And, of course, it must be in Times New Roman, because that’s apparently the only font that exists on computers.

A screenshot of a reference sheet in APA style. A reference list, still in APA format, but with clearer headings and sections.

There really isn’t any reason why this layout has to be so flat. Drawing attention to headings makes sense; clear headers help readers identify important sections, rather than being faced with a massive wall of text. Multiple professional typefaces are available on modern computers, either as system fonts or for sale on professional font sites (or occasionally free ones, though the quality is much more variable). A layout like this would have made sense in the era of the typewriter, when formatting options were limited or non-existent, but it no longer makes sense and hasn’t for at least twenty years.

There’s a reason why professionally designed books, magazines, websites and other works don’t look like this: these academic layouts are more difficult to read, they don’t distinguish between different kinds of content well, and they’re downright ugly. Of course, plenty of academics will say that it’s fine just because it’s what they’re used to. But it’s really not, for the reasons I’ve given above.

With the second layout, it’s easier to see the title, as well as the content. References are now numbered to make it easier to identify each one. It’s easier to see where each reference starts and ends. I’ve also used a different font (Lyon Text), mostly because Times New Roman is dreary.

For more on research paper layouts and typography, read the ‘Research Papers‘ section of Practical Typography.

Association for Autistic Community Presentation Slides

I was honoured to be able to present on participatory action research, data collection and autistic people’s rights at the Association for Autistic Community (AfAC) conference today!

As part of my work with ASAN Boston, I’ve been collaborating with a team of researchers from the Human Services Research Institute and the University of Massachusetts Medical School on a project to create recommendations for data collection of autistic people by state agencies. The project involved creating a ‘citizen’s jury’, where people directly affected by a policy can get together, listen to ‘expert witnesses’, hold small group discussions and create recommendations for policy based on the ideas they evaluated during the Citizen’s Jury process.

Here’s a link to the slides in PDF format if you’d like to find out more. 🙂