Thursday, 1 November 2012

Autistics Speaking Day '12: Bad Advice. Part 1

Four years ago, when I was about fifteen, I was given the Tony Attwood book Aspergers and Girls by the head of my school's Learning Support. She told me to look at a chapter called "Girl to Girl, advice on Friendship, Bullying and Fitting in", and explained that, while she doubted that it would appeal to me, she thought it was worth having a look at.

This chapter was written by a neurotypical woman called Lisa Iland, whose knowledge of Aspergers comes from one Brother and an unknown quantity of friends. The main gist of her advice- aimed at teenage girls- was "conform as much as possible". Being a stubborn babybat with no doubt in my mind that completely changing myself wasn't something I wanted to do, I handed it straight back with a "thanks but no thanks". However, while I was certain that Iland's advice would be no use to me, I didn't have any problems with it from an objective standpoint. Hey, maybe Miss Congeniality-esque personality transplants genuinely help some people. This advice probably has merit for someone out there.  

I'm not sure exactly when that opinion changed. All I can assume is that, at some point in the last two years, I found myself looking back on the book with a slight feeling of unease. I remember searching out reviews of the chapter to see if anyone else found Iland's advice somewhat... questionable, and was relieved to discover that they did.

Obviously from there the only sensible thing to do was to plan to publically rip the chapter apart one day, and, well, what better day than Autistics Speaking Day? This is Girl to Girl, advice on Friendship, Bullying and Fitting in- the dissection.


Iland's chapter begins with a long preamble about what makes her qualified to give Aspie teenage girls friendship advice. To be fair, it's not the worst set of justifications I've seen. She isn't aspie herself, but has had enough school-based contact with aspies to have a fairly good idea of what our educational lives are like. I'm not convinced that she understands things quite as well as she claims to, but I'm willing to give her the benefit of the doubt. The only bit that raises my eyebrows is this:

I hope to explain the teen scene that a parent of professional may need to know about to help their child or client be successful, with rules that a teen girl with AS could use herself. 

OK, I may be going off on a slight tangent with this criticism... but I'm not sure making parents the primary audience is the best idea. Hardly any teenagers tell their parents absolutely everything, so it's unlikely that a parent will know every detail about their child's life at school. Even if they do, there's only so much they'll be able to help with. A thirteen year old's problems generally can't be magicked away by Mum and Dad like a three year old's can.

Anyway, preamble out of the way, Lisa moves on to the actual advice.

The Four Essential Areas to Know in order to fit in:

- Creating appeal and image 
- Understanding where to fit in
- Meeting social expectations
- Overcoming Bullying and Mean Girls

Already this sounds a little clinical. You 'create appeal and image' for products, not people.

Lisa starts by listing the qualities she would look for in a friend. Her word choices are the kind everybody would make- after all, who wants friends who are not 'kind' and 'friendly'? The problem comes with the subjectivity innate in some of these words. For example, one of the personality traits which would turn Lisa off a person is 'obnoxious hyperactivity', but hyperactivity is one of those things everybody has different tolerance levels for. One person's 'obnoxious and annoying' is another person's 'fun and lively'. Sometimes one person's tolerance levels for hyperactivity can vary depending on their mood, so that they find their manic friend funny one day and overbearing the next.

Another one of the traits Lisa insists on is 'appropriate volume of speech'. Now, correct me if I'm wrong here, but is this not one of the thing aspies often have legitimate problems maintaining? I know I do- I talk too quietly when I'm nervous and too loudly when I'm enthusiastic about what I'm saying. I don't do it deliberately- in fact, I'm often not aware that my tone is 'off' unless somebody points it out to me. On more than one occasion, I've been shushed whilst hearing my own voice as barely more than a whisper, or told to speak up when I think I'm being perfectly clear. I also have problems with auditory integration, in that conversation becomes impossible to follow if there's too much background noise. I'm sure I've often raised my voice to talk over a distant vacuum cleaner, or a nearby conversation, without realising that the other person does not need me to do this.

Vocal control problems aren't limited to Neuroatypical people, either. I have one NT friend who is also prone to 'getting loud' at times on account of being partially deaf, and I can think of at least two others who start shouting when they're in a hyper mood. None of them do it on purpose.

The point I'm making is that controlling speech volume can be genuinely hard for some people for a variety of reasons. I'm not convinced that Lisa understands this, and I'm not convinced her request for aspie girls to eliminate vocal weirdness is a reasonable one.

Social inappropriateness is considered acceptable once a girl is an established friend.

True, to a degree, and I'm pleasantly surprised that Iland mentioned this. However, facts like this all too often call the need for 'rules' into question. I often wonder how wise it is to raise aspie kids with the belief that there are strict right and wrong ways to do absolutely everything, when this is not the case.

Option 1: Mainstream your image... Option 2: Stay within the unique/unusual rankings of the social hierarchy. 

These are the headings of two paragraphs. They're fairly self explanatory. In the first, Lisa says that looking like everyone else will get you more friends. In the second, she says that looking like everyone else isn't compulsory, but warns that you may be less popular if you choose to continue in your unfashionable ways. She then says that even 'unfashionable' girls follow certain standards, and we get some slightly dodgy, 1984-ish commentary about school social hierarchies that makes me wonder whether Lisa's basing her advice on Teen Movie schools instead of real ones. I'm open to the possibility that this could be down to some cultural difference (Iland's American, I'm British), but I doubt it.

Iland also seems to have ruled out the existence of aspie girls who follow fashion of their own accord, for some reason.

Peers will be less judgemental if there's less to judge.

Surely it's better to raise children to be more accepting of differences than it is to make everyone the same? All the latter is likely to do is make life harder for those who can't help but be different, whilst creating teenagers who can't deal with people who aren't exactly like them. Where are the benefits there?

Updating and Improving Image:

... and here comes the questionable.

Girls with AS do not necessarily need to buy the most high fashion clothes, but should wear clothes that are attractive and viewed by peers as acceptable.

See that word, 'should'? Lisa, you were kind of admitting that this is all optional a moment ago. Why are we suddenly talking in shoulds?

The 'attractive' requirement is pinging a couple of alarm bells, but in and of itself it's too general to justify complaining about. Got my eye on you, sunshine.

Iland mentions self esteem and confidence building. Right after talking about how nobody wants to be associated with unfashionable people. Because nothing makes you feel good about yourself like being told you need to change your entire wardrobe in order to become likable.

And to round off the image segment, one of Iland's aspie friends, Kelsey, makes a cameo:

Some people say "If I change the way I look I am not being true to myself. You should like people for who they are on the inside." While this is true, it is not reality. People are friendlier when you look more mainstream. And you are still true to yourself even if you change something about the way you look. Girls with AS should ask themselves: "Is this really who I am, or am I willing to change it for success?" 

It's closer to reality than Kelsey is making it out to be. Everyone makes a few base assumptions on the grounds of clothing (and mainstream clothing is not immune to negative associations), but most people are also open to the possibility that these assumptions could be wrong. Maybe teenage girls are, on average, more judgemental than adult women, but is that something we should be encouraging? I don't think so.

And if the girl asks herself that question and comes to the conclusion that yes, this is really who she is? I take it that's allowed?

Oh, and Kelsey's point that changing something about your appearance needn't be a big deal would stand up much better were it not for some of the advice you'll be seeing later on. More makeup and trendier clothing isn't all Lisa wants from you. By a long way.

By the way, Kelsey used to be a 'tomboy' who dressed casually. If this needed to be changed, the boundaries of acceptability are worryingly narrow.

For a few final thoughts on this chapter...

Aside from the whole 'policing girls' appearances' aspect, I feel there are quite a few things Iland has just plain overlooked. For one thing, many people on the autistic spectrum are sensitive to particular types of fabric, which may mean they are unable to wear certain trendy items. Others are averse to tight clothing, and therefore need to stick to loose T-shirts, trousers and skirts. This, like vocal control, is not an easy thing to control. If rough fabrics hurt, they hurt, and why should be people be made to feel that they have to wear clothes that cause them discomfort?

Religion has been ignored too. It isn't mainstream to wear a hijab... so should Muslim girls with AS take theirs off? Should Christian girls in secular areas remove their crucifixes? Should Sikh girls cut their hair? Iland's spent a lot of time telling everybody to make themselves look as mainstream as possible, but she hasn't really balanced it out with reassurances that the individual gets to decide where the line is. You don't get to the end of this segment feeling as though your boundaries or individuality matter much. I can see girls reading this and feeling obliged to make changes they shouldn't have to.

Although Iland talks briefly about aspie girls being tomboys, the possibility of them seeking to take part in alternative subcultures is left completely off the map. I'm not sure quite why... sure the existence of non-mainstream sources of social inclusion is relevant?

In part two, more on Social Structures! Joy.

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