Thursday, 1 November 2012

Autistics Speaking Day '12: Bad Advice, part 3

Well, here we go with Segment Three, 'Meeting Social Expectations'.

White lying is an important friendship skill to have in maintaining the fragile self esteem of teenage girls. 

OK, I agree that white lying at times, and being able to phrase certain criticisms diplomatically are good skills to have. I'm just finding it quite amusing how Iland says this right after spending most a chapter happily being as blunt as possible to teenage girls.

Let me get this straight:

Neurotypical girls are uber-delicate sugar paper creations who'll go to bits the second they hear an implication that they're anything less than perfect. Girls with Aspergers are tin men who can never be seriously upset by anything you say or imply about them, because 'reality'. Nobody's just a person who can take some kinds of criticism well, but not other kinds.

An example Lisa gives of white lying is always answering 'no' to the question "Do I look fat in this". Again, very good as a guideline, but there are always going to be exceptions, even to this 'universal rule'. When it comes to other people, the answer is always no except for when it isn't.

The rest of this page is list of communication methods. It's self-explanatory, I'm going to skip over it.

Seeing (other) friends leaving each other comments on Myspace can cause a girl to feel left out.

To say something positive for a change, this is actually a good point that a lot of people overlook.

A girl with AS should know how to show interest in these ways and work with a peer, parent or professional on knowing the right things to say in each medium of technology. 

... and they won't be able to tell her much- especially if they're a parent and she's asking about social networking sites.

"What do I say on the phone/Facebook/by text" is one of those "How long is a piece of string" questions, in that there is no concrete answer. What you say depends on who you're talking to, not the gadget you're using to talk to them. Just a glance at Facebook will tell you that there isn't one definitive way to type, or a list of acceptable things to say.

Most girls don't want to talk about science or Star Wars. Find something to contribute to what girls talk about.

Still ignoring the existence of aspie girls who are interested in mainstream things, I see.

There are a couple of solutions to this. One, find some friends who share your interests... oh, no, wait, you've got to make friends with 'popular' girls, and nobody can like science and be popular! OK, how about you find something you both like and talk about that... oh no, wait, Aspie Girls and Popular Girls are different species who don't have anything in common naturally! But you have to choose the Popular Girls to make friends with because... reasons.

So, what do the girls in your world talk about, Lisa?

Boys, fashion, shopping, movies and music will always be teen topics of conversation.

Most teens watch hours of MTV. If you want to do some research on popular music and teen culture, watch MTV's Total Request Live and see the ten most popular music groups of the moment as deemed by America's teens. 

Watch the TV Network E! to find out about what is going on with celebrities and fashion, another popular girl topic. 


Question: Where are all these girls who only care about boys, clothes, shopping, and pop music? Because I haven't met many. The idea that they're the default girl belongs in Saturday morning cartoons with Basher Johnson.

I think that if you're having to actually do research just to be able to talk to your friends, they're probably not the right ones for you. Taking an interest in aspects of a friends life that you may not be interested in is good, but the idea is that it's reciprocal- that is to say, you ask them about the One Direction concert they went to even though you don't really like that group, and they ask you about your day at ComicCon even though they don't understand see the point of it. What Iland is proposing here is completely one-sided: The aspie girl forfeits all her interests and adopts those of her friends. Her friends do nothing in return.

There seems to be an attitude that young people with Aspergers don't really feel attached to their clothes, interests, hobbies, favourite music etc. That we have mainstream interests only because we want to fit in, and non-mainstream interests only because we don't know any better. This has already cropped up in Iland's work back in segment one, and it's resurfacing here. The idea that constantly having to talk about things she has literally no interest in, but never being allowed to share her own interests, may make an aspie girl unhappy is never really acknowledged.

Oh, and this is probably a bit of a nitpick, but I'll say it anyway. Boys are a perfectly good topic of conversation... provided you're a) into them, and b) into them in the same way your friends are. Iland spends a lot of time instructing girls who don't share their friends' tastes in music, but seems to take it for granted that boy talk is accessible for everybody. It isn't. If you're a Lesbian, or asexual, or even if you just have a different taste in men to the rest of your friendship group... those conversations aren't going to be easy to navigate.

Lisa then tacks on a paragraph about how she knows that not all girls are interested in fashion and pop culture. Good. I'm relieved.

Most high schools allow for students to start their own clubs, and that is a good way to find other like-minded specialists on the subject.

What's this? Good advice, described in proper detail? **Falls out of seat in shock**

Next, we learn that it's helpful to be good at small talk, and get some examples of scripted exchanges ("Hi, how are you?" "Fine, thanks!"). It's fairly bland and standard, and while a lot of it would be better aimed at younger girls, there's nothing really wrong with it. I'll move on.


Sometimes people with AS have a harder time distinguishing responsiveness. A typical peer's claims of being "stalked and smothered" are a sign that a person with AS has a difficult time telling when interactions with a peer are responsive or avoidance behaviours. 

Going by the number of times "smothering and stalking" has been mentioned so far, Lisa seems to think that all aspie girls are hopelessly clingy. Some are, but there are just as many who do not have this problem, or who struggle with the exact opposite and distance themselves unnecessarily. I know that throughout a large portion of my tween and teen years, I was terrified of appearing clingy and took ages to feel comfortable approaching a friend first, even just to say hi.

It is important for a girl with AS to brainstorm with a parent or professional a list of ways that teens show disinterest.

Uh, are you sure this is a good idea? By asking somebody thirty years your senior about how your peers behave, surely you risk creating more confusion than you solve?

Next, we have more bland advice about entering circular conversations and choosing somewhere to sit at lunch. Mostly bland, that is.

Find out what teens in your town say.

Probably one of many things. Idiolects exist.

Younger teen girls generally equate being seen by peers without friends as being momentarily friendless. This accounts for their desire for their friends to accompany them everywhere. Being alone= being a-loner... girls who spend lunchtime by themselves should practice looking content and busy in being alone. No typical peers ant to befriend a sulky 'loner'. The only legitimate reason teens accept for being alone at lunch is because of school obligations.

I know I've asked this question, oh, a thousand times before, but one more time won't hurt. "Should we be encouraging this?"

For people who don't sit alone at lunch by choice, this advice is just going to add insult to injury. For people who do prefer to be alone by choice, this advice is going to seem patronising and annoying.

It also reinforces the fact that, according to Lisa, you don't get time off. You have to worry what your body and face are doing all the time, even when you're on your own. The fact that this is exhausting for most people, and therefore an unreasonable expectation, doesn't seem to have registered with her.

In conversation (a girl) should nod her head to show she is listening and casually make eye contact every 10 seconds and look away for 5-10 seconds. 

... and then lose track of the conversation because she was too busy counting.

New rule: If it requires a stopwatch, it's not necessary. 'Don't stare' and 'Try not to avoid eye contact completely' are enough, Lisa.

Kelsey used to hunch her back in her chair and dart piercing stares at others around the room. "I didn't know that I was frowning a lot and had an angry look on my face. When you look mad, nobody wants to talk to you or be friendly. 

Fair point, but it's important to remember that there are often reasons why people look closed-off or hostile. Serious reasons, in many cases. You can't expect people who feel the exact opposite of happy and comfortable to hide it perfectly all the time. It's not 'realistic'.

4: Bullying and Mean Girls:

Final segment! We're on the home straight! **vuvuzelas etc**

Facing bullies is really intimidating and unfortunately some girl bullies are relentless. Gossipping, rumour spreading and cattiness are so prevalent that popular movies such as Mean Girls have been made in response. 

Lisa, you do realise that Mean Girls wasn't a documentary, right?

I suppose this explains all the 'Queen Bee' business.

I agree that passive-aggressive bullying like that is common, but it's far from the only way girls bully. In my experience, direct bullying- that is, saying and doing things directly to the victim- is much more common. Also, as with friendships, bullying isn't gender-segregated. Boys bully girls too, and they do pretty much the same things. The only real difference is that boys bullying girls often use sexual harassment as a form of humiliation; girls bullying girls do not.

Next, we have a few quotes from Queen Bees and Wannabes, describing bullying. Only stereotypically 'girl' forms of bullying, though. Violence, theft, throwing insults, racism, being deliberately patronising... none of these things were mentioned.

Author Rosalind Wiseman suggests to parents ways that a girl can solve a situation involving gossip or rumour spreading:
- Your daughter can confront the Mean Girl...

Like most anti-bullying advice, this is good for an isolated instance of bullying, but completely useless for systematic bullying, where there are more than a couple of bullies involved.

Mind you, Lisa does understand that there are a variety of reasons for bullying, ranging from insecurity to a desire for power. This is good- a lot of people generalise when it comes to this subject.

Her comeback advice isn't too bad, either. If an insecurity is pointed out, calmly and confidently agree with or shrug off the insult (depending on what it is). When it comes to bullying, no response is guaranteed to work, but this one stands a better chance than most.

However, she also suggests ignoring the bullies, which sometimes works and sometimes just makes them press harder for a reaction. It's worth a try, but don't depend on it, in other words.

Some of Lisa's non-aspie friends share their experiences with bullying. Their advice ranges from pleasant...

You may not get along with everyone, but there are other people like you somewhere that you will get along with. I was lucky enough o find them in choir and theatre. It's people that are like me. 

... to accurate, if short-sighted

"(Bullies bully) because it's easy to pick on people who don't defend themselves. In a way, picking on people protects the person from being picked on themselves."

(True, but chances are, if somebody's not defending themselves, it's because they can't. Maybe they're outnumbered, maybe they've already tried several methods and found none of them really worked. Nobody refuses to stand up for themselves because they don't want to.)

... to motivational

Building confidence and skills in a sport, club, or activity helps. They could pick on me all they wanted but when I stepped on a softball field I was the best and they could never take that away from me. 

... to questionable.

I was definitely picked on for being fat. Although I was bullied a lot, I never let it get to me because I was a stronger person than that. I think that people who get made fun of tend to keep the mean comments with them and start to believe them because of the repetitive nature of bullying... The way I overcame being bullied was I changed myself, and got healthier, not for everyone else, but to make myself happier. 

If you're able to shrug off bullying and not let it get to you, brilliant! But people who don't manage to do that aren't weak- different people respond to stimuli differently, and individual circumstances can have a huge impact. For example, if a victim of bullying doesn't have a close family or many friends, the bullies' opinions are the ones they'll hear the most. In this kind of circumstance, it's very easy to start believing you are ugly/stupid/worthless, because you never get told anything to the contrary.

Also, this person's end advice is "change yourself to stop bullying", which is awful for two reasons: One, not everybody is capable of changing the thing that they're being bullied over. Now, I'm not naive enough to think that losing weight is just a matter of calories in- calories out. For many people, it's nowhere near that simple. However, I think we can all agree that most people do have a degree of control over their body size, making "stop being fat" a possible option. The same cannot be said for, say, gender identity. Or disability. Or height. Or nationality. Some people even get bullied because of a rumour, or because they have a certain reputation. If you're in a position like that, "change yourself" is completely useless advice.

Secondly, even people who can change themselves shouldn't be expected to. If you're being bullied over something you can alter, such as weight or clothing, it doesn't mean you brought it on yourself and are now obliged to change to suit the bully. The bully is the one whose behaviour is harmful and unacceptable, so the bully is the one who needs to change. Telling the victim that they need to act as though the bully's right is not good advice.

And to round it all off... cyberbullying! Iland mentions anonymous bullying (huzzah!), but also places the responsibility squarely on the victim's shoulders (getting a new account is a good idea, but the victim shouldn't have to take all the evasive action).

It is important to teach girls with AS online safety, never posting an address, last name, or telephone number online; only giving information over the internet to trusted real-life friends, not people met online; and never meeting an online friend in person, at least without her parent being present. 

Most of this is fairly sensible advice, I'm just amused by how quickly it's outdating. I remember being younger and having my parents warn me against meeting people from the internet, who were inevitably fifty year old truckers with dodgy motivations. These days, many people make friends online, and a great number of meet-ups are organised that way. "Never meet an online friend in person" just doesn't apply any more.

Lisa then says that girls with AS should be careful who they befriend (why us specifically?), then brings in her friend Megan to explain in more detail.

It is important that you are careful who you choose to be friends with, they could be using you or get you into trouble, or even involved with drugs and alcohol. Don't fold into peer pressure or get in dangerous situations. 

So, after spending countless pages detailing the many ways in which girls with AS should bow to peer pressure, we're now being told not to. I... actually have no idea what to make of this. "Don't fold into peer pressure". Wow. Have you read your chapter, Lisa?

This also skips over the fact that plenty aspie teen girls who've tried drugs and/or alcohol didn't need encouragement from anybody else. We're not all completely straight edge, and even those of us who are don't generally recoil in horror when hearing anecdotes from friends who are not.

The final paragraph starts like this:

"Girls with AS are bright and beautiful and have intellect, talents and skills that many typical peers wish they had." 

Lisa, it's all very well saying that now, but after spending an entire chapter talking about how we're all clingy, miserable, stalkers who never get anything right, the damage has probably been done.

It's interesting how Lisa oscillated from describing aspie teen girls completely negatively to completely positively. Why can't we just be people? Actually, I'd pose the same question about neurotypical girls, who have been described throughout the book as shallow, bitchy, unintelligent, and manipulative. Teenage girls, of any neurotype, are not caricatures.

So... final thoughts: Girl to Girl has some reasonable and even good advice in places, but that's dwarfed by the sheer amount of unwise, impractical and unfair advice that gets given out. It shows no respect to anybody's boundaries or individuality, expecting aspie girls to sacrifice themselves for popularity whilst simultaneously reducing the 'popular' NT girls down to walking tropes. Iland doesn't seem to have any respect for teenage girls as a group, and shows little understanding of the negative effects her words could have on an already insecure aspie teenager. She never fully explains why she expects aspie girls to place so much importance on popularity and conformity. She claims to be realistic, but much of what she says is anything but.

Final conclusion, this chapter is probably best skipped.

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