A Down-Under Politician Looks Down on “Those People”

Pauline Hanson Australia

A troubling report from Down Under. Have a look at this article about Pauline Hanson, a senator from Queensland, Australia. In it, she argues, quite inelegantly, for students with autism to be separated from their peers and placed into self-contained classrooms. Why? Because these students are “holding back” the other students who want to learn.

Below are three quotes from her address on the matter, followed by three comments—all of which should be painfully obvious, but apparently are not. At least not yet.

  1. “Most of the time the teacher spends so much time on them they forget about the child who wants to go ahead in leaps and bounds in their education, but are held back by those.”

As if children with autism don’t want to get ahead or are incapable of making leaps and bounds of their own. They deserve more than to be “looked after.” Please don’t assume they are incapable of anything more than this. They’re not burdens needing routine maintenance or looking after.

  1. “It’s no good saying we have to allow these kids to feel good about themselves and we don’t want to upset them and make them feel hurt.”

What a cruel mischaracterization! This comment reveals an ignorance that is both embarrassing and unacceptable in a public official. I have no doubt that parents of autistic children want more for their kids than that they feel good about themselves. Like all parents, they want their children to receive an education, to develop their skills and gifts, and to know they can make a real contribution.

  1. “We need to get rid of those people because you want everyone to feel good about themselves.”

Well, at least her office later clarified that “those people” referred to “do-gooders” demanding autistic children remain in mainstream classrooms. But my sigh of relief was cut short when I realized that she was still talking about “getting rid of” some nuisances and who may be threatening the status quo. Again, the condescending language of exclusion, elitism, and overweening power. As if you can get rid of any parent.

 

It’s Not the Disability, Stupid

trump-mocks-disabled

Well, the disability community’s Interwebs were lighting up again yesterday. This time, it was about Meryl Streep’s acceptance speech for the Cecil B. DeMille Award at Sunday night’s Golden Globes. For those who haven’t heard, Streep embedded in her speech a bit of criticism of one of Donald Trump’s more embarrassing moments on the campaign trail:

This instinct to humiliate, when it’s modeled by someone in the public platform, by someone powerful, it filters down into everybody’s life, because it kind of gives permission for other people to do the same thing. Disrespect invites disrespect, violence incites violence. And when the powerful use their position to bully others we all lose.

She was referring, of course, to Trump’s criticism of Washington Post reporter Serge Kovaleski, especially his mimicking of Kovaleski’s disability.

In response, as he has asserted many times previously, Trump told The New York Times, “I was never mocking anyone. I was calling into question a reporter who had gotten nervous because he had changed his story.”

The Data? The Argument? Or the Person?

Many people will find Trump’s words hard to swallow, but I wonder if something else isn’t going on here. I’m tempted to believe him when he says he wasn’t mocking Kovaleski’s disability. It’s likely that, to his mind, that’s not what he was doing at all. To his mind, he was simply rebutting something Kovaleski said. Full stop.

That’s where the problem lies.

It seems that Trump makes little distinction between the words that offend him and the person speaking the words—every aspect of that person. So if Kovaleski has offended him by implying that Mr. Trump wasn’t telling the truth about seeing thousands of Muslims celebrating the Twin Towers’ destruction on 9/11, then Kovaleski himself, in his totality, is fair game. And when he looks at Kovaleski, he sees the disability as a defining characteristic, one that is available to him as he pursues his retribution.

This tactic is similar to the way Trump responded to Meryl Streep’s address—tweeting that she is “over-rated.” As if her acting talent (or supposed lack thereof) disqualifies her from offering a considered opinion on any other matter. She’s a washed-up actress, so she must be wrong. About everything.

You see, it’s not enough to engage the argument; you have to destroy the person making it.

“We Create Our Own Reality.”

I don’t think Donald Trump is a pioneer in this area, either. He may have put his own personal stamp on it, but it’s been around forever. Especially on the political stage, but in other aspects of life, many assume that the best way to win an argument is to paint the one making that argument in the most insulting of colors. So anyone who supported Hillary Clinton is an abortion-loving, traditional family-hating liberal. Anyone who supported Trump is a heartless, uneducated, white knuckle-dragger. Opponents of Obama are racists, and pro-life people hate women’s rights. Truth and facts be damned, it’s all about the character of the person. Destroy the person, and you destroy the argument. And push aside the facts.

This reminded me of a conversation that journalist (and, incidentally, autism dad) Ron Suskind had with George W. Bush advisor Karl Rove. Here’s Suskind describing their exchange:

[Rove] said that guys like me were “in what we call the reality-based community,” which he defined as people who “believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.” I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. “That’s not the way the world really works anymore,” he continued. “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors . . . and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.”

This, I think, gets to the heart of Donald Trump’s (and many other people’s) way of dealing with inconvenient facts. Take the focus off of that which can be documented, and put it on the more subjective and ephemeral. Create a new reality, and create it loudly enough, and you’ll outshout the data.

Truth, Power, and The Art of the Deal.

I’ll close with one more quote. This time from Peter Steinfels, one-time editor and now occasional contributor for the Catholic magazine Commonweal.

Mr. Trump does not appear to see public discourse as a process of establishing a state of affairs and drawing conclusions from them.  He sees it as a process of negotiating—a negotiation that is ultimately a power struggle. As The Art of the Deal advises, you open this struggle with an extreme position, or in public debate the most exaggerated, inaccurate, even preposterous pronouncement available and then, if necessary, you ratchet down.

Discourse is not, in effect, about truth. It is about power. In this respect, Mr. Trump has a quintessentially postmodern mind. The stricture against lying is about as relevant to this understanding of public discourse as the infield fly rule is to backgammon.

So no, it’s not the disability, stupid. It’s just that: calling people stupid, or lame, or losers, or has beens, or wannabes, so that you don’t have to reckon with facts.

“We Are Not Diseased”

Famous Autistics Word Cloud 5

I’ve been feeling pretty good lately, and I’ll tell you why. My oldest daughter (14) did something that impressed me no end. Her Health class has been studying mental illness for the past couple of weeks. You know, the usual teenage awareness stuff: depression, anxiety, anorexia, suicide. It was all going pretty well, too. No negative blowback from my girl, even though she’s keenly aware of her own diagnoses.

But then the class turned to ADHD, and this happened. Introducing the lesson, her teacher said something like, “Now let’s look at another disease, ADHD.” This prompted my daughter (who has ADHD along with autism) to raise her hand. “Excuse me,” she said, “but ADHD is not a disease. I have ADHD, and I’m just fine.” The teacher, caught off guard, apologized for having misspoken, and then moved on with the lesson. Pretty impressive, wouldn’t you say? She definitely deserved an attagirl for advocating like that.

However, when she told us the story that night, I could tell she was more upset than she let on at school. Because she tries hard to be good in class, she kept her response there short and polite. But she let it all out at dinner. “We’re not diseased,” she declared, pounding the table with her fist. “We’re different, not less. Why do people do this to us? I can’t believe he said this. And he’s a Health teacher. He should know better!”

I couldn’t agree with her more, and I told her so. I also told her how proud of her I was. It was wonderful to see that my daughter has her head screwed on straight and doesn’t tolerate nonsense. She gets that ADHD—and autism, for that matter—is nothing to be ashamed of. She gets that she’s not diseased or locked in to a life of limitations. She has hopes and dreams and ambitions, and she’s determined to accomplish them—no matter how much BS she has to deal with along the way.

A Quick Pivot.

All of this got me thinking about recent events, especially the mass shooting at Umpqua Community College in Oregon. News of that attack seemed to be a kind of tipping point in the gun control debate. With President Obama taking to the podium yet again, this time sounding exasperated and even disgusted, people are talking about gun violence more seriously. And that’s a good thing.

But all this attention has its down side. For every time another mass shooting occurs, talking heads on TV and the radio pivot almost instinctively to the topic of mental illness. They decry the sorry state of mental health care in the country, and suggest that if we only did better at this, massacres like these wouldn’t happen. And when I hear stuff like this, I cringe. 

Stigmatizing the “Other.”

Of course, I’m all for improved mental health care, but there is no real science linking mental illness to mass shootings—or to shootings in general. In fact, those with mental illness are far more likely to be the victims of such catastrophes than the perpetrators. As The New York Times recently reported, “Fewer than 5 percent of gun crimes are committed by people with mental illness; fewer than 5 percent of people with mental illnesses commit violent crimes.” And so I cringe every time mental illness enters the conversation. I can already feel the damage that it will do to people with mental illness.

  • I see the way it stigmatizes them.
  • I see how it turns them into a class of “others” who are alien to “normal” people and inferior to them.
  • I see how, intentionally or not, this kind of talk stirs up fear, which makes it harder for the people to find the acceptance and help they need.
  • I see how it presents them as weak and out of control, when quite often they’re stronger than their peers—with the strength that comes from adversity.

Something else troubles me about this conversation, though. Whenever mental illness is brought up in the context of a mass shooting, autism follows fast on its heels.

Mental What?

I commented on this back in 2012, when MSNBC host and former Florida congressman Joe Scarborough insinuated that James Holmes, the Aurora, Colorado, theater shooter, had autism, and that this was a major reason for his attack. Scarborough’s comments prompted a huge outcry, and he later issued a semi-apology. But it was too late; the damage had already been done.

But now it has happened again. Not long after the Oregon shooting, a Facebook page popped up called “Families against Autistic Shooters.” It was vicious and hateful—and more than a little ill-informed. Fortunately, the page didn’t last very long. But the fact that it showed up at all demonstrates that we still have a lot of work to do.

The speed with which people glide from mental illness to autism is as confusing as it is disheartening. ASD is not a mental illness. It just isn’t. It is a neurological difference (disorder if you must) in which the autistic person’s brain is wired differently from the typical person’s brain. But it’s not an illness. You can’t control it with medication, as you can control OCD or anxiety. You can’t shock it away with electrodes as you can do to severe depression. You can’t “overcome” it through talk therapy or yoga or meditation. You can’t even pray it away. It just is, and the best thing you can do is make room for it.

Words Matter.

I’m not saying that everything is rainbows and unicorns for autistic people—especially those with more severe manifestations of the condition. But let’s not call it an illness or a disease. That’s where the word cloud at the top of this post comes in. It’s a list of famous, successful people, all of whom are autistic. Ask any one of them, and I doubt any one of them would call themselves mentally ill. And they shouldn’t.

Words matter. They tell you what something is—and what it isn’t. If you call a cat a fish, and try to put it in a tank full of water, you’ll be doing an injustice to the cat. (You’ll also end up a bloody, scratched-up mess.) If you call autism a disease and treat it like a disease, you are doing something very similar—an injustice to autistic people. For calling it a disease naturally opens the door to discussions about cures. And that can get pretty dangerous. Just ask the people who have been subjected to bleach enemas and chemical castration in the name of a “cure” for autism.

If you accept that autism is a difference and not a disease, you’ll treat it differently. Instead of spending your time and money looking for a cure, you’ll try to help autistic people navigate a neurotypical world. You’ll dedicate yourself to educating the public about the gifts and talents that autistic people have to offer, as well as the challenges they face. You’ll make it easier for others to accept autistic people for who they are, and you’ll work to eradicate stigmas and bogus information related to it. And that’s how you make autistic people’s lives better.

Lighten Up.

So lighten up on the autism stuff. People with autism already have enough to deal with. Don’t make them scapegoats as well—unless, of course, you want to deal with my daughter.

“I’ll Miss the Kick-Ass Bitch”

jail-cell-bg

The following depiction of a homeless woman with mental illness was posted by my brother on Facebook a couple of days ago. It was so moving that I thought I’d share it with all of you.

A bit of background: My brother is an attorney in the public defender’s office in the suburbs of Baltimore. He acts as legal counsel for those who cannot afford their own lawyer. A good portion of his clientele are drug offenders. Many of them are homeless. Many also suffer from mental illness. And he’s there to make sure they get the legal counsel that is their constitutional right. It’s a job he has had for decades, and he relishes it. Anyway, here’s his story. I dare you to read it and not be moved.

“I Need Help!”

A long-time client of mine who became a dear friend was killed in a hit and run homicide. She was chronically mentally ill. Her illness eventually forced her mother to put her out. She kept coming back to see mom. After a few days, things would get out of hand. Her mother, understandably, had to get a protective order to keep my friend away.

She was on disability, but that paid only enough for her to rent a room in someone’s house. That always ended badly. The police were called. She went from one shelter to another. Again, it would work out for a while, then she would run out of her meds or lose them or have them stolen. She’d be asked to leave. They would eventually ban her because of her behavior. No medication always led to bad things. So my friend would eventually end up homeless. Alone. It was hard for her to be around people. But when everything was under control, strangers liked her. She had a genuine and open smile.

Not too long ago, I was visiting a client who was housed in the same unit as my friend was. She had to be locked in her cell because she had acted up. I heard her screaming louder than anyone could bear to hear, “I need help.” It went on for so long that I had to cut my visit short.

The last time I saw her, in a holding cell just before she was released, she told me that all she wanted to do was hug her mother. Just once. Now, my mother isn’t here to hug. I can’t imagine knowing that mom is not far, but she genuinely needs the law to keep her daughter away. Only one hug.

She died alone. The coward who hit her just kept on going. She was homeless. She was disposable. She was invisible. She was so funny that tears would literally stream down my cheeks when she got on a roll. She told me that when I needed help, the kick-ass bitch (her) would straighten things out. She was a human being. She was my friend. She was a human being.

She died alone on the street.

She was killed early last Monday morning. I found out about it Tuesday afternoon. Wednesday morning, it hit me like a cyclone. Spun me around. I remembered that a friend always says Mass on Wednesdays near my office. I met him in the parking lot, sobbing. He asked the people there to pray for her. They are a small group of retired nuns. Some in their eighties, a few over ninety. They will pray for her. I will pray for her. I’ll miss the kick-ass bitch.

Homeless, Hopeless, Helpless.

It is a sad fact that many people with mental illness end up like this woman—homeless, hopeless, and helpless. Disposable, as my brother said. So many end up in prison because they have nowhere else to go. In fact, there are those who purposely commit crimes so that they will at least have a shot at food and shelter. That’s how low they have fallen. That’s how much society has failed them.

I have written before about my children having comorbid conditions along with their autism: OCD, anxiety, and the like. These are mental illnesses, plain and simple. The only difference between them and this woman is demographics. I make a decent living. Katie and I are able to provide a stable, loving home environment where they can grow and thrive. We make sure that they receive the medical and psychological care they need so that they have a good chance of living independent, self-sufficient lives. Of course, none of this is a sure-fire guarantee, but the odds are significantly better.

Many, many people are not so lucky. They are the forgotten, the ignored, the abused, the ragged people living on the margins. Thank God for people like my brother—true advocates and servants who are committing themselves to helping these people as much as possible!

Words from the Unwise

Lawsuit-Officer-handcuffed-elementary-school-students-with-ADHD

So this bit of news has been making the rounds the past couple of days among autism and other special-needs parents. It seems that in two unrelated incidents, a police resource officer in a Kentucky grade school put an eight-year-old boy and a nine-year-old girl in handcuffs in order to restrain them—cuffing them around their biceps because their small hands would slip through the cuffs. Both students have ADHD, and the girl also had a history of some kind of trauma.

The school was aware of the children’s diagnoses, as was the police officer who cuffed them. Both students had been removed from their classrooms because of disruptive behavior, and when the principal was unable to contain the situations, the officer took over, employing the handcuffs. (Note: watch the video at the top of the article at your own risk. It’s very disturbing.)

According to the report, the girl was especially upset by the situation, to the point of needing psychiatric treatment in a hospital. Understandably, both sets of parents are suing the officer involved.

This is a very sad story, especially in a time when attention has already been focused on police officers abusing their power and mistreating people who live on the margins. These incidents may not rise to the level of Freddie Gray or Michael Brown, but they come pretty darned close.

I don’t want to say much about the incidents—I don’t like stating the obvious or dwelling on people’s stupidity. But I do want to look at the article that described the situation. Actually, not the article (although it does have a couple of really embarrassing typos), but the utterly irresponsible headline that was assigned to it:

Lawsuit: Officer handcuffed mentally disabled kids as punishment.

Disabled? Mentally? What does that even mean? The report only talks about ADHD and some unspecified trauma. It’s not as if the kids had been lobotomized or anything. There’s nothing in the report that indicated the students were “disabled” in the sense that most people understand that term.

It doesn’t take a genius to see how this terminology places a kind of perception filter over the whole story.

“Oh, the kids must have been truly and deeply disturbed.”

“I can understand why the principal let the officer shackle the children.”

“These are mentally disabled kids—it’s not as if they were ‘normal’ kids. I guess it’s okay.”

It may not seem like a huge deal—just a matter of poor wording. But in this time when the Americans with Disabilities Act is celebrating its twenty-fifth anniversary, we don’t need to be going backwards. Remember, it was the ADA that ushered in the era of person-centered language. So we talk about a man with schizophrenia rather than calling him a schizophrenic. We talk about a woman who can’t walk instead of calling her a cripple. And we talk about a child with ADHD rather than calling him mentally disabled. Or at the very worst, we call him a child with a disability.

It shouldn’t be rocket science at this point in our history, and yet here we are. We’re still using hurtful, discriminatory words. Words that justify abuse, fear, and marginalization.

ADHD Hall of Fame.

But that’s not all. Terms like “mentally disabled” give the impression that the kids are slow learners or are academic underachievers. It puts them in a category of “less than,” when there is absolutely no evidence in the article that this is the case. For all we know, these kids could be total freaking geniuses who happen to have ADHD. It’s not uncommon, after all for this combination to occur.

Here, for instance, is a list of some well-known, very successful people who also have ADHD:

  • Virgin Airlines CEO Richard Branson
  • Quarterback Terry Bradshaw
  • Musician Justin Timberlake
  • Pulitzer Prize Winning Journalist Katherine Ellison
  • Comedian Whoopi Goldberg
  • Actress Michelle Rodriguez

Would you call any of them “mentally disabled”?

Words from the Unwise.

It’s possible that the editor who created this headline thought the article would get more views if he or she used a provocative title. Or maybe the editor was trying to allude to the recent police brutality stories. But it was a very poor choice of words. It’s deeply offensive, and it did a huge disservice, both to the story and more important, to the kids.

But hey, I guess we’re making some progress. At least the headline didn’t call the kids retarded.

A Wibbly-Wobbly Ball of . . . Stuff

Wibbly-Wobbly Ball

Before we start, take a look at this very short clip from Doctor Who, in which The Doctor explains the true nature of time. Trust me, it does relate.

That was pretty good, wasn’t it? Now for the explanation.

In a recent blog post, ASD guru and Aspergers role model John Elder Robison tackled the use of terms high-functioning and low-functioning when it comes to describing people with autism. Here’s what he said:

Much has been written about calling people high functioning or low functioning. With all respect to you and your situation, I don’t do it anymore and I suggest you don’t either.

It’s not accurate, and it’s degrading. . . . Suggesting that “you’re a real high functioning autistic” feels to me a lot like “you talk pretty good for a retard.” People say the former to me all the time today, and they said the latter to me quite a bit 50 years ago. I didn’t like it then and I don’t like it now.

Robison then goes on to talk about how dividing people up based on their “functioning” status misses the point of how autism works:

We now know that our functional level changes with time and other factors. As bright and capable as someone like me can seem, I can have meltdowns during which I become essentially nonfunctional and have no more usable intellectual capability that someone with an IQ of 70. It’s true that is not a lasting condition for me, but it happens, and when it does I would just as soon not be stigmatized for it.

As I said in my last post, my kids are showing me that autism can shift and swirl over time. Not for nothing is it called a developmental difference. It’s a matter of how and when a person develops social, cognitive, and communication skills. Some people develop more slowly or more unevenly than others. Some have persistent, nagging glitches in their development that affect them throughout their lives, while others overcome some challenges as they mature—only to find new challenges crop up. For many, it’s a mixture of both permanent and emerging attributes. So it’s awfully simplistic to reduce such a complex thing as autism to a question of high or low functional skills.

Forget the Spectrum.

But I want to go one step further. I want to suggest that along with abandoning the high- versus low-functioning distinction, we should scrap the image of a spectrum altogether. When we use this term, we evoke a kind of linear gradation, with some people lower down, or farther back, on the scale than others. But one problem with this approach is that people are assigned their place on that spectrum according to different criteria. Is it IQ? Is it verbal communication? Is it eye contact? Social skills?

Someone with limited verbal skills may well have an off-the-chart IQ. Or someone who can appear gregarious and outgoing in public may be masking significant social struggles, only to melt down in private. Where would you place each of these people on the spectrum? How would you decide? And most important, what purpose does it serve?

The Autism Ball.

Rather than talking about a spectrum, I’d like to suggest we talk about a sphere—a big ball of wibbly-wobbly, autism . . . stuff. There’s no low or high end. There’s no up or down or forwards or backwards. You just happen to be somewhere on that sphere, and your fellow autistics are somewhere else on it. No one is farther along than anyone else. No one is of greater value than another because he or she is “higher functioning.”

This is why I like the Doctor Who clip. It paints the picture of time, or in this case autism, as something that isn’t static but full of life and energy. And that makes it unpredictable: wild and mysterious, wonderful and dangerous.

So let’s imagine a ball that contains all the possible symptoms and manifestations of autism, all wibbling-wobbling around. Things like hand flapping, mind blindness, rigid thinking, sensitivity to loud noises, toe-walking, perseveration, narrow focus of interest. Imagine that ball also containing the comorbid conditions connected to autism: OCD, depression, ADHD, ODD, etc. Finally, imagine that this ball contains the positive traits of autism: laser focus, attention to detail, unflinching objectivity, a quirky imagination, a strong sense of justice, and an innate innocence.

Now, imagine your own ASD profile as a line running through the ball in one end and out the other end. As that line travels through the ball, it intersects with the various ways your autism manifests itself—not all of the traits, just the ones particular to you. No two lines are in exactly the same place, and no line is in a better position than another. They’re just there, marking out their own individual quirks and challenges, strengths and gifts.

High? Or Low?

All of this theorizing has a point. In an earlier post, I described how misleading the term “mild autism” can be. I gave some examples from my own kids of how difficult things can be for them, even though they would be considered high-functioning. As Robison said, people with high-functioning autism still have autism, and it still affects them profoundly.

We recently went through a rough patch with one of our kids, in which we saw just how much he keeps things hidden inside of himself, especially his awareness of how different he is and how hard it is for him to feel like he fits in. But on the outside, he presents as a clever, quick-witted, amiable boy. So while he seems very high-functioning, a lot of “low-functioning” stuff is going on underneath the surface: depression that can keep him in bed for two days straight, lack of empathy, misunderstanding of other people’s emotions, learning glitches, and an inordinate need for physical stimulation. He can navigate the outside world, but only for a time. Then he shells up when he’s home or alone. Where would you place him on the spectrum? Is he low-functioning or high-functioning?

Then there’s another one of my boys. You need only five minutes with him to “see” the autism: his odd gait, his lack of eye contact, his unusual speech patterns, his stimming, and his tendency to disappear within himself for a time. But hidden behind all of these quirks and tics is a very intelligent, sensitive child with keen insights into his own behavior and the people around him. Where does he fit on the spectrum? In the higher-functioning part of the line? Or the lower? Why?

Get on the Ball!

Mind you, most of this is irrelevant to me. I just look at them as my kids, with all of their strengths and weaknesses, their beauty and awesomeness, and work with each of them based on who they are. But it does make a difference in the universe outside of our home. It makes a difference when I attend IEP meetings or when I have to explain some unusual behavior to a friend or neighbor. It also makes a huge difference in the way society treats people with autism. If you’re a Bill Gates kind of autistic, you are given as many opportunities as you want. But if you’re nonverbal or if you’ve got some other trait that people might call low-functioning, you’ve got fewer chances to show just how awesome you are and what you can accomplish. And that’s sad, because you risk accepting a bleaker narrative about yourself and your potential than if you were given the opportunity to shine.

If we can get away from defining people based on their so-called levels of functionality, we can get closer to seeing each person as a precious individual with his or her own unique set of talents. We will stop assigning each person a value based on what he or she “contributes” to society. Each person is a gift, and you don’t assign a value to a gift based on its usefulness. You treasure it for what it is: a token of love from the One who gave it to you.

So get off the line and get on the wibbly-wobbly ball!

Dude, That’s So Intense

iPad Boy

Isn’t this a cool picture? That’s our eight-year-old boy playing Fruit Ninja on the iPad. This is quite a common sight in our home. It’s just one of many contortions this kid does. He’ll fold himself backwards over the back of the sofa. Or he’ll have his legs crossed, yoga-style, and suspended in the air while he rests on his shoulders. Or he’ll curl himself up in a ball, with one leg sticking out at a highly improbable angle. Or a combination of many different poses. He’s never in the same position for more than a couple of minutes.

When he’s not twisted up, he’s like a perpetual motion machine—hopping, dancing, mock-battling, wrestling with his reluctant little sister. Dinner is always difficult for him. He’s usually the first one out of his seat (within three to five minutes), running around or hopping up and down. Even taking a walk can be an exercise (sic) in unique movement.

A Fun Walk

He’s not the only one, either. His next-oldest brother is very much the same way:

Upside Down Buddy

Now, this is a marked contrast to his younger brother who will, at odd times, simply plank.

Plank BoyKatie and I think he does this as a coping mechanism when he gets overwhelmed. He just shuts down for a few minutes, presses his internal reset button, and then he’s back at it again. He’s just as hyperactive as his brothers, but he has a different way of dealing with overstimulation.

Funny enough, though, if you put any of these kids in front of a computer on Minecraft, they can sit still, absorbed, for hours. They may be at odd angles again, but they’re still.

Isaac Newton Explains.

So what’s going on?

Katie and I think it’s related to something called Intense World Theory. Pioneered by a pair of neuroscientists in Switzerland, Intense World Theory posits that people with autism are hyper-aware of everything going on around them and within them. ASD folks feel everything so intensely—both physical and emotional—that their attempts to compensate need to be just as intense. It’s like an autistic version of Newton’s Third Law of Motion: For every action, there has to be an equal and opposite reaction.

So our armchair contortionists are merely reacting bodily to the busyness around them and in their minds. Their world is so intense and so full that they react to it in a similarly intense, involved way. Or it’s so intense that they need to shut it out at times, as our little one does, so that they can press their internal Reset button.

This also explains their ability to become so absorbed in the world of video games. It can be very loud and frenetic, but it is also limited and contained. Just a small screen (okay, small-ish) that they can turn on or off. And as noisy as it is, it’s also pretty predictable. So there’s an element of safety and comfort there. Of course, engaging in the virtual world doesn’t really help them get out their pent up energy. It only helps them suppress the need for it and, therefore, suppress their need to (over)react to it.

It’s Just Too Much!

All this can be kind of cute, but there’s another, more troubling, side to it.

Take my oldest son, for instance. He likes to go to Teen Gamers, a monthly gathering of middle- and high-school students hosted by the local library. It’s a place where kids can hang out, play video games, and have pizza, all under adult supervision. I don’t mind that it’s all about video games. Considering his social anxiety, it’s a golden opportunity for him to expand his social circle.

But as much as he enjoys himself there, as soon as he comes home, he hurries up to his bedroom and spends the next couple of hours in virtual seclusion. The same can happen after a long day at school or after we all go somewhere as a family. In fact, after just about any situation where he is out of his comfort zone, the boy high tails it to his room, turns off the lights, and burrows under the covers with his 3DS or his iPod Touch. The outside world is too much for him to handle, and he needs time to decompress.

Something similar happens with my older daughter, although with her, the reaction isn’t always delayed. She is just as likely to melt down right in the middle of a store or restaurant as she is to wait until we get home. That’s why we’ve come to expect her to spend a considerable amount of time in the bathroom at church on Sundays.

That’s how intense the world can be for these two. It can actually hurt to be engaged in it for too long.

Silly? Stubborn? Sullen?

I like this explanation a lot. It helps me see that my kids are not being antisocial—at least not on purpose. It also gives me some more insight into the way their brains are wired. And most important, it helps me adjust my plans and expectations.

I know, for instance, not to expect them to be able to handle a marathon day at Disney World. I should be happy to get three hours out of them—and that’s with one or two breaks so they can regroup. It also helps me understand what school is like for them. They spend six hours trying to maintain an ordered exterior while everything around them (and within them) feels like it’s set on overdrive. Of course they’re going to need some serious decompression when they come home—whether that means time on the trampoline or some mini-hibernation. There’s no way we should expect them to do anything productive like homework right away. And on days when there’s a lot of homework, we know we need to break it up into smaller chunks—or tell their teachers that they’ll finish it the next day.

Now, I know that they can’t expect this to go on forever. They’re going to have to find other ways to cope when things get too rough. There aren’t too many workplaces that have yoga mats or dimly-lit quiet rooms for decompression. And God help you if you take too many breaks! So we are trying to teach them how to increase their tolerance and find other, less obvious, ways to deal with all that frustration and overstimulation. It’s all part of living with ASD. They’re not being silly or stubborn or sullen. They’re just trying to survive.