Neurotypical Awareness: For the Children
Apr 1st, 2013 by Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg

neurotypical awareness 2

© 2013 by Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg


Shining a Light for Neurotypical Awareness
Apr 1st, 2013 by Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg

neurotypical awareness 1

© 2013 by Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg


How to Talk to Normal People: A Guide for the Rest of Us
Jan 28th, 2013 by Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg

A lot of us don’t know how to approach normal people. It’s not our fault. We don’t have a lot of exposure to them. They’re not really suited for the kinds of work and leisure activities we enjoy, and they have enormous difficulty relating to other people. Interactions with them tend to be awkward.

I’ll be the first to admit that I’m guilty of not reaching out across the divide. Sometimes, when I see normal people coming down the sidewalk, I will cross the street. It’s not that I feel unfriendly toward them, exactly. It’s just that they’re so unpredictable. Will they be determined to overcome their challenges and give me a smile? Or will they give me a blank stare in response to my friendly hello? I’m ashamed to say that I’ve often taken the path of least resistance and simply avoided normal people altogether.

But however lost they are in their own worlds, they are part of our world, and it behooves us all to reach past our discomfort and welcome them as God’s angels here on earth. After all, we can’t consign them to endless rounds of small talk and cocktail parties, right? I know that they say they enjoy watching football every Sunday and trying out the latest local microbrew, but really, it’s just their normalcy talking. They don’t know how spare, how empty, how narrow their lives really are.

So it’s up to us to bring them out of their shells. I’ve walked among the normals and entered their world. And now I’m here to share some wisdom about how we can help them feel more included.

1. Breaking the ice

One of the easiest ways to get to know a normal is to simply walk right up to one and show how much you care. Don’t hesitate. The next time you’re walking across the parking lot at the supermarket and you see a normal getting out of his car, go right up to the person and show interest in his life.

I know what you’re thinking: How do I even begin? Start with the basics. Be straightforward. Ask him whether he was born normal.

Now, be prepared. It’s not uncommon for a normal person to respond to this question as though you’re nuts, but don’t be put off. Normal people aren’t used to others taking an interest. So be persistent. Ask a series of probing questions. I suggest the following:

Have you always been normal, or were you in some sort of terrible accident?

Did you mother take some sort of medication while she was pregnant?

Do you think your normalcy is environmental, genetic, or some combination of both?

Have you been vaccinated? Was your mother vaccinated?

Are you able to father children?

Now, if you’re talking to a well-adjusted normal person, he’ll be very appreciative of your questions, and he’ll have quite a lot to teach you about the experiences of real normal people — things you can’t learn in any book by any expert, I assure you. And he’ll give you all this information for free, so you won’t need to pay big bucks to go to a conference. After all, he has nothing better to do with his life, and he knows it.

But some normals don’t feel grateful for the attention. These sorts of normals are what we call Bitter Normals. They are angry at their normalcy and they will take it out on you. They do not care about your good intentions. They just want to make you feel as badly as they do. These are the kind of people who tell you to fuck off when you’re just being friendly. If you run into this sort of normal and you’re feeling particularly generous, you might want to end the conversation gracefully by saying, God bless you. I’ll pray for you. But if you’re not in that kind of mood, it would not be unreasonable to simply mutter asshole under your breath and walk away. After all, you’re only human.

2. Being helpful

Because normal people aren’t capable of governing their own lives — or even knowing their own minds — it’s up to the rest of us to be of the utmost assistance.

I know what’s going through your head right now: How can I possibly give these poor souls the help they need? And you’re right. The problems are wide and deep, and as a lay person, you shouldn’t be trying to make major decisions for these people. Where they live, what they do for work, and who they spend their time with are decisions best left to their caseworkers. But if you look closely, you will find a plethora of opportunities to be of service.

For example, suppose you are in the supermarket, and you see a normal woman in the produce section, trying to decide what kinds of apples to buy. Under no circumstances should you say to her, You know, I can never decide between Macintoshes and Granny Smiths myself. What do you think? How do you decide? A normal person is ill-equipped for that kind of conversation. It’s far too complicated and demanding. Instead, you must be proactive and take it upon yourself to choose the apples for her, based on your own best judgment. Do her teeth seem solid enough for Granny Smiths, or would she be better of with the softer Macs? Can she afford the Granny Smiths, or should she economize? Once you’ve made your decision, simply put a nice bag of apples in the woman’s shopping cart, give her a friendly pat on the shoulder, and be on your way. It will be a story she’ll tell for years to come.

3. Showing appreciation

A lot of us work with normal people, and good working relationships require mutual respect and expressions of support. Sometimes, we can feel a bit shy about expressing how inspired we feel by the ways in which normal people carry on with their lives, but we need to overcome our reticence. We need to express just how much normal people mean to us.

It’s not difficult in a work situation to express this sort of appreciation because, in contradistinction to the Bitter Normals who just want to drag us down into their misery, workplaces are full of people known as Super Normals. These are the people who have worked their asses off to overcome their normal deficits. They seem almost exactly like you and me. In fact, until you really get to know them (or read their ground-breaking and courageous books), you can’t even tell that some of them are normal at all.

These people make it easy. Choose from among the following expressions of goodwill:

If you hadn’t told me you were normal, I never would have guessed!

The way you walk across the office on your way to the coffee machine is so graceful! How do you do that?

Way to work that copier, dude! You’re an inspiration!

I’m sorry that your parents died in that terrible normalizing accident, but you’re a credit to their memory.

4. Welcoming your child’s normal friends

It’s inevitable. With normalcy approaching epidemic proportions, your child is going to have normal classmates, and these normal classmates will want play dates with your child. I know that your tendency will be to try to protect your child from being held back by some of the habits and behaviors of the normals, but embrace this opportunity. It has the potential for deep personal and spiritual growth for yourself and for your child.

Arrange a play date around the needs of the normal child. Your child may want to stay home and read a book, and he may not understand why little Johnny wants to play outside and pretend that every object he finds is a pretend gun, but use this experience as a teachable moment. Explain to your child that people are different, that little Johnny can’t help who he is, and that we must be accepting. You might even consider having the play date at a family-style restaurant at which little Johnny can be disruptive and draw the ire of the other patrons. When confronted, you can calmly explain that little Johnny is not your son, but that you are trying to broaden his horizons and give him the opportunity to circulate amongst regular people. The other patrons will either be ashamed of their own selfishness or think you an utter fool, but either way, you’ll be laying up treasures in heaven.

5. Sharing your knowledge

It goes without saying that normalcy is a tragic and pitiful state, but science is making new breakthroughs every day. While we don’t know the causes of normalcy and there is no cure, a number of excellent treatments are available.

Keep an eye out for news stories that mention the latest science, and make certain to send links to all of them to all of your normal friends. The proper form is to always use the subject header Did you see this? I thought it might help you! It doesn’t matter that multiple family members and friends will send the same links about the same junk science to the exact same people. What matters is that you show that you care.

Because this is what normal people want — to know that they’re not alone, to know that we want to help, and to know that we are thinking of them.

Just don’t let it take over your life.

© 2013 by Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg


More on Making a Mockery of Disability
Oct 27th, 2012 by Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg

I was planning to move on from the issue of Tony Attwood’s mockery of disabled people, but in the comments section of my last post on this issue, Karla provided more details about other parts of his presentation. One in particular grabbed my attention, because I think it’s such an excellent example of everything that is wrong with mocking disabled people. Karla writes about Attwood’s words:

He made 1 joke about Britts and 2 about NTs. Other than that it was all out laughing at autistic people….

At one point Tony talks about a married ASD couple. He talks about how they are in their house at night quietly reading and the neighbor stops by to bring them some nice snack and introduce himself (<—- here the NT neighbor is set up as the “good” guy offering gifts and introduction). Then Tony gets into his “acting mode” and gets wild eyed and starts to freak out as he explains… The ASD couple are quickly running through the house turning off the lights and ducking behind the chairs. Tony ducks behind the podium to act out the bit. (<—— sets ASD couple up as the assholes at worst, a stereotype at best) At this moment the entire room is laughing validating that this behavior is NOT okay by any sort of social standard.

Let me be clear: Attwood does good work on other fronts, but this kind of performance, coming from a person in the center of the culture about people at the margins of the culture, is offensive.

Let’s look at what’s being mocked here: a need for quiet and rest. For an autistic person to be quiet at night, after a long day of social pressure, sensory stimulation, and overcompensation, is an adaptation to a disability and a form of self-care. A lack of this kind of self-care results in stress, physical pain, exhaustion, burnout, meltdowns, and depression. I can attest from long experience that it is an absolute necessity to have time alone and in quiet to recharge. It is exactly the same as a diabetic needing to test his or her blood sugar regularly, or a person with cerebral palsy using a wheelchair in order to conserve energy.

How is the exercise of self-care in the face of disability something to laugh at? Should able-bodied people make fun of diabetics testing their blood sugar? Of people with CP using a wheelchair? Of people emptying their catheter bags? How is any of that open to mockery by those who are not disabled?

Let me put it to you very simply: My senses and my neurological system work hard, every day, doing things that “normal” people take for granted. Going into a crowded store is work. Walking in a noisy downtown area is work. Hearing is work. Speaking is work. I barely even notice how much work it is, because it is my normal. I have always worked this hard at it. It’s my reality. It’s not a question of willpower, of mind over matter, of somehow taking a deep breath and making it less work. It’s the nature of my disability. So wanting to be left alone after a long day of more sensory and neurological work than any able-bodied person can possible imagine is not a sign of willful selfishness or an act of social deviance for an able-bodied professional to mock at an autism conference. It’s a sign of understanding how to take care of my mind and body. And that’s all it is.

My husband understands these things. When he wants to chat and I say, “I’d rather not talk right now, because I’m spent,” he doesn’t laugh at me. If the issue can wait, he says, “No problem.” If it’s an emergency, of course, all bets are off. Most people will push past their limits in an emergency as much as they can. But wanting to chat about the presidential debates, like a new neighbor wanting to chat over a snack, is not an emergency.

How people can defend or rationalize mocking such things is beyond me. I’ve understood how wrong it is for as long as I can remember. But then again, I’ve been a minority person all my life. I’m not sure that a lot of people in the majority, who take respect for granted and haven’t had to face this kind of treatment, can understand it as easily.

But that’s no excuse for not listening when we speak our minds on it. It’s no excuse at all. When minority people say, “Stop mocking us,” you just stop, even if you don’t completely get it, even if you need to think on it, even if it’s inconvenient. You stop because you’re potentially hurting people, and the people you’re talking about know a great deal more than you do about what your words mean to their lives.

© 2012 by Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg


Making a Mockery of Disability
Oct 21st, 2012 by Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg

My friend Karla Fisher is a Senior Program Engineering Manager at Intel, an autism educator, the General Manager of a professional sports team, the mother of two thriving adult children, and the owner of the excellent Facebook resource Karla’s ASD Page.

On October 17, Karla attended the Autism & Asperger’s Syndrome Conference in Eugene, Oregon. Karla had worked with the sponsors of the conference and, as a successful autistic woman, had written a piece for one of their books. She was especially excited about the prospect of attending the talk given by Tony Attwood.

I’m tempted to say that Karla was disappointed in Attwood’s talk, but disappointed doesn’t begin to cover it. In fact, what Karla saw and heard that evening was deeply offensive to her. Following is her narration of the events; the speaker she refers to is Tony Attwood.

The session began well with the speaker talking about ASD versus NT as a culture. I was happy to hear this opening. I also know that I had some influence on this perspective as I had given this to him privately in email and also through at least one of the clinicians that he works directly with. From there, however, the cultural perspective thing sort of went downhill. The speaker was dynamic, quick, fluid and exceedingly witty. Humor was his main way of reaching his audience and he delivered well judging by the audience who was laughing several times each minute. He was very good overall as a speaker. The problem was that he used humor about autistic people primarily and he spoke ONLY to the NTs in the audience despite the fact that he knew we were there.

An example of this is when he talked about how he knows when a Mother (or Father) of a child is autistic during the session where he delivers the message about autism diagnosis for their child. He said, “I have a good picture of how it looks when an NT Mother hears this message…” (and here he does NOT describe what that looks like but assumes that I will just know so I sit there with a blank picture) Then he goes on to say that he knows the parent is autistic when he sees the following… He stiffens his body up then and puts on his robot voice and he says, “Okay, so let me see if I got this. I need to see about OT, ABA, understand about sensory integration….etc…).” As he is going through this I am thinking to myself that YES, this is the good way to approach the information that there is a diagnosis. Facts will help the child and this person was seeking facts… But my thoughts are disrupted by an audience who is in full belly laughter at this person’s imitation of an ASD person. I found myself wondering what was so funny. Then I wondered if I said anything if it would not be turned around on me as not having humor. My heart grew heavy as I realized that these people were supposed to understand and accept me. That these are the people who are committed to making my life better.

Ironically, I was wearing the same black hoodie that I wore earlier in the week when I was interviewed and accepted into this key job at one of the largest high tech companies in the world. And yet the goodness of my new position and all the praise and accolades by my coworkers and friends was completely lost in the moment that the room burst into laughter when this professional speaker made fun of the “ASD uniform” (the one which I was clearly wearing).”

If I may summarize: Attwood was mocking autistic people at an event for parents and professionals who wanted to learn more about how to help autistic people. To put his statements in the proper context, Attwood knew that Karla was in attendance. In fact, he made specific reference during his talk to the fact that there were several autistic people in the room. He knew they were there. And yet he engaged in such mockery anyway.

I know what some of you are thinking: “Oh, Rachel. You’re overreacting. Mockery is much too strong a word. It was just good-natured fun.”

No. Good-natured fun is between people of equal social and political power. When you have a position of greater power and privilege, and you satirize people who comprise a stigmatized, vulnerable, and misunderstood minority, it’s not good-natured fun. When you parody the speech and the body language of people who are considered social burdens, walking tragedies, and quasi-humans, it’s mockery, and it drove a tough 50-year-old woman who plays contact football to tears. You don’t do it no matter who you are or where you are — especially when you are making fun of people whom the world feels it perfectly acceptable to laugh at anyway. With your power, you put the imprimatur of respectability on such behavior. In this case, not only does Attwood have all the privilege that comes with being white neurotypical man; he also carries a great deal of authority in the world of autism. So when he makes fun of autistic people by grotesquing a stereotype, he sends the message that autistic people are here to be laughed at, to be mocked, and to be parodied simply for being who we cannot help but be.

By way of analogy, could you imagine what would happen if a well-known Protestant minister, in a public religious forum, satirized the difference between Christian prayer and Jewish prayer? What if such a minister gave as an example of Christian piety the Lord’s Prayer, delivered in a sober and restrained voice, and then, in contrast, put on a yarmulke, tzitzis, a fake beard, and sidecurls, and started rocking back and forth madly, mumbling incomprehensibly in a sing-song voice, in order to elicit raucous laughter from the congregation? He’d never hear the end of it. The Anti-Defamation League of B’nai Brith would be all over it. The network pundits would hold forth. Internet memes of every variety would appear. Someone would start a petition demanding an apology and his immediate resignation.

But none of that happens in the world of disability. Because the average person does not think that anything is wrong what-so-fucking-ever with making fun of disabled people. Because the average person thinks of disabled people as broken and therefore worthy of scorn. Because it’s still acceptable to laugh at physical and cognitive difference. Because disabled people are considered damaged goods ready for the trash heap, and anyone who thinks they’re worthy of reclamation and respect ends up having the same mockery cast upon them.

One of the most telling things about Karla’s description of Attwood’s performance was that he did not satirize what happens when non-autistic, neurotypical (NT) parents receive an autism diagnosis for their child. There is a stereotype of what happens, and since he was in the business of exploiting stereotypes for cheap laughs, he would have been free to exploit that stereotype as well. He could have parodied the NT autism parent as becoming hysterical, as believing the world was ending, as losing all hope. That’s the stereotype. But he didn’t. And do you know why he didn’t? Because the NT parents in that audience would have risen up in all their glory and shouted him down. And rightly so. No one wants to see their fear and pain for their disabled children mocked, even if they have journeyed past that fear and pain. People would have been irate, and some of them would have stomped out of the conference hall in protest.

And yet, somehow, it didn’t occur to him that the autistic people in attendance would feel the same way. He didn’t think about the fact that Karla Fisher would be sitting there in her favorite black hoodie, driven to tears.

But you know, this isn’t about Karla’s hurt feelings. It’s not about one person. It’s about her hurt being a signal that something in that room was very, very wrong — that the power relations were awry, and that the flow of empathy and respect were going in directions that favored some and mocked others. It wasn’t just about that room and it wasn’t just about Karla. It was about a world in which it is still acceptable to mock disabled people, in which it is still acceptable for people to laugh uproariously at it, and in which it is still acceptable for people to dismiss it by saying it’s just all in good fun and there was no harm meant.

Perhaps there was no harm meant. It doesn’t matter. What matters is that harm was done. Harm is done by such behavior every single day — on school playgrounds, on television, in workplaces, in families, on buses, and in classrooms — for public amusement and for the infliction of private anguish. And when someone with authority engages in it, it only empowers people to go out and do it some more.

It’s not just autistic people who care about this. It’s disabled people. It’s the parents and friends of disabled people. It’s all of us.

This disrespect in the thin guise of humor has to stop — for the disabled people who are now here, and for the rest of humanity vulnerable to becoming disabled, through illness or injury, in the blink of an eye.

The fates may ordain that one day, Dr. Attwood, you are the person with a disability, struggling against the ignorance and prejudice of the world, and that you have to sit in a room and listen to someone mock your voice, your movements, your perspective, your pain, your struggle to speak. I hope you never have to go through that kind of disrespect. I wouldn’t wish it on anyone.

But imagine how you would feel. Just imagine it. And then stop contributing to a world in which it happens.

© 2012 by Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg


Inclusive Humor
Jun 19th, 2012 by Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg

Source: Facebook

I love this graphic. I really do. Here are the top ten reasons:

10. The pink wheelchair. Seriously.

9. A disabled person is (okay, was) participating in a social gathering with (gasp!) able-bodied women.

8. The table appears to be octagonal, rather than rectangular, which means that everyone is seated in an equal position to everyone else (i.e. no one is left isolated at the end of the table).

7. The room in which this social gathering took place was likely wheelchair-accessible.

6. Was everyone really naked, or did their clothes disintegrate over time?

5. The graphic implies that, just like the able-bodied women at the table, the disabled woman desires sexual relationships and can participate in them.

4. The disabled woman has enough self-respect to set her standards high (okay, a little too high), rather than being grateful for the first guy who pays attention to her.

3. The disabled woman’s presence implies that disabled people have dreams for the future — with other people, no less.

2. The disabled woman’s presence implies that, in dreaming our dreams, we make the same ridiculous mistakes as able-bodied people.

1. Rather than following the conventional approach and making only the disabled woman the symbol of vulnerability, lack of control, and death, the graphic reflects the undeniable truth that life is fragile and brief for everyone.

© 2012 by Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg


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