Just Stimming…

A land we can share (a place I can map)

Archive for the ‘personal’ Category

The Talk

with 15 comments

There’s a new person in my life, so we’re having the how-my-body-works talk.

It’s a conversation I don’t think nondisabled people have. It goes like this: this is my body. This is how it works. It moves this way. These parts of can feel, and these can’t. This will hurt me, and this won’t. I want you to know these things. This is my body, and this is me.

“We should have the conversation about physical contact, but I don’t know how it goes,” she said.

“Well, fortunately, I’m really good at this conversation,” I said. “I have it all the time.”

I’ve been thinking a lot about the kinds of intimacy my disability forces me into. Most people don’t have to brief half the people they meet on what they can and can’t see. But the truth is that my body works like yours right up until it doesn’t, and if you aren’t ready for that, you could get hurt–or I could. So I have this conversation with dates, new doctors, friends, coworkers who are filling in and giving support. I have had this conversation on the grass, in bed, in exam rooms, on kitchen chairs. It goes like this: I have autism. That means my brain and my body have a hard time talking to each other.

Sometimes I give examples: I move funny, and I can’t always control it, and maybe most importantly, I can’t always start moving when I want to. Sometimes my skin can feel things; sometimes it can’t. Usually it comes and goes in patches. A lot of the time, I can’t figure out how to move. Sometimes I notice pain, and sometimes I don’t. Sometimes my body tries to pull itself apart. Sometimes I know in advance when I’m going to have a bad body day, but usually I don’t until I’ve dropped something all over the floor.

Some of the conversation is important: I feel pain differently, but I do feel pain. I can’t feel my body and use words at the same time. Being around other people is physically painful, always, every time, but sometimes it’s worth it. I don’t always realize I’m hurt or sick, but every time a doctor has found a part of my body shredded to bloody pieces by my own fingertips, it’s meant that there was something seriously wrong happening underneath–my hands knew before my brain did. Before I can stand up, I have to find my legs, but sometimes I get stuck. Here is how to prompt me. Here is what kind of power having those passcodes means.

Some of the conversation is weird: my body language doesn’t work like yours because I may or may not be able to move those muscles at any time–so I need you to look at me and make different assumptions. I move typically, until one minute you look at me and you see the way my hands hold a cup like a toddler, until my body twists and jerks back in joy, until I don’t move at all. I was born functionally blind, and then I gained a lot of vision, and then I lost some of it again, and now there are a lot of things I can’t see, for two different reasons. If we go into a new room, I will need you to tell me where to sit. I will ask to borrow your eyes, your hands, your brain.

It’s not a big deal, I say, and I need it to not be a big deal to you.

These are conversations I am good, or at the very least practiced, at having, but they still make me want to crawl out of my skin. Insisting on having these conversations, instead of pretending my body works in all the standard ways, means taking up space and focusing attention on myself as a disabled person. We aren’t supposed to do that. And because my disabilities aren’t necessarily visible, are easy to miss or to misinterpret at first as something else, my conversation partner might not understand why I want to have this conversation in the first place. It can be awkward and fraught–please understand this thing about me, please understand me–and there’s not much precedent. There isn’t a standard social script for this. There’s a temptation to just learn to avoid the need for the conversation entirely–just blend, just let yourself get hurt, just avoid other people entirely, rather than subjecting them to a litany of all the things that make your body different.

I still feel that way, sometimes, and sometimes I think I can get away with not having the conversation. And I can, right up until someone reaches out to me, and in the time it takes my brain to process what’s happening, decide to reciprocate, and send the necessary signals down and out to my body to start moving, the other person has paused, seen my lack of movement, and withdrawn, shuttering.

“Here is the thing about me and hugs!” I write, later. Here is the thing about me and touch. Here is the thing about me and my skin. Here is the thing about me and my eyes, me and my hands, me and my disability, me and my body. Here is the thing about me.

It’s a weird conversation. But I wouldn’t trade it for the years when I didn’t know how to have it. There were whole years when doctors and parents knew that I couldn’t see, that my leg muscles were knotted and my torso was floppy and my body didn’t listen to my brain, but no one told me, and so I thought I was bad.  My body didn’t work, I thought. I didn’t work. But that wasn’t true–it’s just that no one had taught me how my body worked, let alone how to talk about it. You shouldn’t have to be a stranger from your body. And I’m not, anymore, and I don’t want you to be, either.

This is my body, I say. Look what I found out. Look what I know now.

I want to share this with you.



Written by Julia

January 17, 2015 at 6:01 pm

Confession Of A Woman In A Refrigerator (Speech Without A Title 2.0)

with 27 comments

lol conflating disability and DEATH so casually that nobody but disabled ppl notices.

So the thing is, most of this belongs at the bioethics conference, but, but, jesus.

I remember being in high school and not being sure why, exactly, college had to be a thing, because I was going to be dead by the time I was thirty.

(Two-thirds of the way there and I still can’t see more than ten years down the line and maybe, maybe a small part of what I’m doing is motivated by now or never, I’ll do this right.)

Why would I be dead by the time I was thirty? Well, every other girl like me never seemed to make it to womanhood, it only stood to reason.

At some point, and I’ve told this story so many times and it never stops making me want to cry, I started hearing about other disabled people. People who were older than me, people who weren’t about this thing is going to kill me one of these days, people who weren’t about living with, living with, living with, not dying from disease, people who were disabled and alive and not sick, not dying, but raising hell and building lives and screaming, screaming, screaming when we were being killed. 

People who used words like we.

I thought, we, yes. We. Okay. We can make this work.

lol conflating disability and DEATH so casually that nobody but disabled ppl notices.

When you are disabled, when you are traumatized and vision-impaired and autistic, even and maybe especially when you haven’t been given those access codes yet, you learn to see yourself as the walking dead. You are vast swathes of nonexistence, cut off and left for dead at every missed milestone and swapped pronoun and bruised shin and scar on your face. There are Other People, Normal People, People, and then there is you,  and you are defined by the parts of yourself that match to everyone around you, and then the vast swathes of nothing. Disability is absence, disability is inability, disability is death, and you are a woman in a refrigerator. 

It takes you a while to learn that you aren’t the one who put you in the refrigerator. 

It takes longer to learn that it wasn’t your body, either.

A lot of us never get to the point where we can say it was you, you tried to kill me, you made me think I was dead, you screamed about the injustice of putting me in a refrigerator while you, you were the one killing me.

lol conflating disability and DEATH so casually that nobody but disabled ppl notices.

And you made me think it was my fault.

One day, I will write a speech that isn’t this one, this choked and untitled remixed stew of you tried to kill me, and you made me think it was my fault, and now you will listen.

When you’re disabled, you see death everywhere, and it isn’t because your body stands out or doesn’t stand at all, it’s because everyone talks about you like you’re in a refrigerator, like you’re not real, like you’re dead.

And it kills you.

They kill you.

lol conflating disability and DEATH so casually that nobody but disabled ppl notices.

What I am trying to say is that of course, of COURSE, of fucking course we notice, because we can’t not, because the bioethics conference has one day for beginning-of-life issues, where they try to cut us out, and then a day for end-of-life, for those of us who slipped by, because last week twins in Belgium asked the state to kill them because no one ever told them that they didn’t have to go into the refrigerator. 

What I am trying to say is, my friend has a friend who uses a wheelchair and didn’t get screened for breast cancer because she’s already dead, right? 

And you, you, every single one of you who said we are helping, we are saving you, something cruel and unjust has been done, and then you made disability mean death and shoved us into the fucking refrigerator. You killed us.

I didn’t know how to die until you taught me.

lol conflating disability and DEATH so casually that nobody but disabled ppl notices.

Question: if nobody but disabled people know that disability and death are distinct and not overlapping concepts, does anyone really know? Or are we just trees in the forest, falling (well, growing, would be the point,) with no one to hear?

What I am trying to say is, I am now Someone Who People Meet, and I know that there is a vast we out there, and I know that I am living and a woman and disabled and that none of these contradict, and I dragged myself out of the refrigerator by the skin of my teeth and said you will listen to me now, and this evening I felt sick when some friends offered to transcribe something for me, and I still can’t see myself making thirty.

And what I am saying is, this thing is going to kill me one of these days, and what is going to kill me isn’t going to be my back screaming at me or my eyes turning off or my head going through a wall, it’s going to be everyone who says we’re just trying to get you out of your refrigerator

I pulled myself out of the refrigerator you put me into the day you started grading people into people and cripples. I pulled myself out the day another woman in another refrigerator told me, like passing on a secret, we aren’t dead yet. Someone let me out of your refrigerator, and you can never put me back in there again.

lol conflating disability and DEATH so casually that nobody but disabled ppl notices.

I’m disabled. I’m not dead. I’m not in a fucking refrigerator. I am living, living, living, and I am screaming, screaming, screaming. 

And, just in case you should care…

Yeah. I noticed.

Written by Julia

January 24, 2013 at 5:39 pm

A Fifth Is Two Sine Curves

with 57 comments

(This post could be seen as a self-narrating zoo-exhibit with bonus spot-the-theory-of-mind. I hope you’ll take it as a follow-up to The Obsessive Joy Of Autism, as equally about the experiences of visual processing impairments and synesthesia as about ~autism, and as a case study in the inadequacy of traditional verbal language. If I’d been taught earlier that experiences which exist independent of words are still meaningful and sufficient, I never would have had to write this.)

(This whole essay represents a dozen years of heartache, a fractured self-image knit back together, and the entire reason why I will never, ever talk about the instinctive simplicity of video editing.)

(Note: as is typical of my writings, pieces are rarely finished in the same day they are started. The voice lesson I refer to as “today” is in reality long past; in fact, due to circumstances regrettably beyond my control, it turned out to be my last. I have been unable to further explore the discovery my voice teacher and I made, and it aches.)

(This entire piece is written in a voice I don’t very much care for. My apologies.)

(I can either keep apologizing in parentheses for a lifetime, or just tell it to you.)

A fifth is two sine curves, and this is the most beautiful thing.

I’ve had a dozen years of classical musical training, and I’ve been playing with calculus for about the same amount of time. I don’t talk about either of these things with much frequency. I don’t like to sing in front of people, and I have a passionate love affair with math but hated and barely passed my classes in high school. I drink up geometry videos on youtube, and once a week I go to my voice teacher’s house and sing for the best hour of the week, and these things are secrets. Very few people know how important music and math are to me, and that’s been a deliberate choice on my part.

I don’t talk about the most sacred things, because it’s the fastest way to destroy them.

I have an intense and embodied relationship with music. Music is a lot like people, and songs are linguistic and therefore social exercises. Music teases and tells and remembers and reflects and transforms and encodes and transmits. I experience music kinesthetically, emotionally, and intimately. It is shattering.

I know a lot about music. I hate talking about it, because the things I know aren’t the same as the things you know.

My left hand doesn’t have enough coordination to permit me to play any instruments. I can, and do, sing, and I’ve spent 12 years learning to do so with surgical precision. I can’t sight-sing–I can peel apart the layers of a piece for theory, no problem, but identifying pitch and tempo and dynamic and a note’s place in the overall piece, and integrating those elements, factoring in timbre and placement, and singing them, in realtime, is simply not possible with my visual processing impairments. I rely on an ear I’ve spent years training–if there’s one other singer, or a pianist accompanying, I can do a passable imitation of first-time sight-singing even pieces I’ve never heard before.

Ever since I first joined an (auditioned, highly-selective, then-prestigious) youth choir at age eight, I’ve known that I do music wrong. At first, that took the form of being shamed for moving when I sang–music shouldn’t be a physical, embodied, tactile experience. In later years, my inability to process visually rapidly enough to sight-sing, and my difficulty holding a harmony, made rehearsal a living hell. Yet I was never kicked out, because I could still sing circles around 2/3 of the other singers, and it wasn’t that I couldn’t harmonize, just that I might sing any one of a range of acceptable harmonies and not necessarily the one I was arbitrarily assigned (or the one the composer had written,) and as long as I didn’t talk about it, no one knew I couldn’t sight-sing. (I did, of course, talk about it; lying didn’t occur to me until later years.) I trained my ear, led the 1st sopranos because the melodic options are necessarily restricted and usually sensical, kept my joy at things I had the wrong words for to myself, and kept singing.

(My life goes on
in endless song
how can I keep from singing?)

It destroyed me. I loved this, I was so good at it, it felt good and right and perfect, and yet any attempts to communicate about this were miserable failures. Singing is the only time I ever feel at home in my body, and yet I felt like a fraud; sure I could learn a new song faster than anyone using only my ear, but I couldn’t sight-sing. Clearly this was some elaborate hoax I’d engineered, clearly I didn’t have any real aptitude, and clearly, my decision not to pursue college or career in music or performance was the only ethical option.

Despite this, despite the guilt and shame and confusion, I’ve kept going to weekly lessons. It’s an hour, just me and my teacher and a piano, and as we pull songs apart and test what my throat can do, the songs resonate between my ribs. It is, essentially, an hour of breathing exercises, so it’s the most effective therapy I’ve ever had. And I’ve kept going, and today, finally, after 12 years, we figured it out.

There were signs. The music teacher at my high school had almost worked it out; he’d play two notes, and I’d hear a third, and not every student could. He talked about harmonics and melodic structure; I listened, and adored him, but had trouble talking to him. With my voice teacher, I complained that the standard system of music notation was nonsensical, bearing no correspondence to the way music actually worked, and relied on a flagrant disregard for basic arithmetic. I struggled with the idea that a fourth is supposed to sound “smaller” than a fifth, and though I could sing any note back perfectly, I couldn’t tell you which notes were higher or lower. None of the language used to communicate about music made any kind of sense to me. The spatial metaphors simply would not map. I had my own rich, dynamic, embodied and visiospatial experience of music, I could feel and see the music move, and sheet music couldn’t come close.

I’ll tell you what my teacher and I learned today, but first I need to give away my other secret: math.

My history with mathematics is, if possible, even more tortured and rapturous and bewildering than my relationship with music. As a small child, I was in love with arithmetic; my mental calculation abilities are noted on my earliest evaluations (and dismissed, of course, as splinter skills.) One of my earliest memories is of not being able to explain to a concerned teacher why 2+3=5. “Because it is,” I said. “And it’s beautiful. It just fits.” Manipulatives were meaningless for me–my eyes couldn’t process them easily, and they didn’t bear any relation to the ladders and scales of numbers in my head. I simply had to close my eyes, and think of an equation, and I would feel myself swing from number to number, landing effortlessly and securely on the answer. Easier than walking.

(There’s a hint to the eventual reveal, there.)

While I had some small troubles learning the language for arithmetic (especially for fractions, which are fun and clever enough as pointless rituals but beautiful when you realize that they actually signify multiplication and division, that you are performing meta math,) mathematics was an easy joy. Note, please, that I am talking about the art of mathematics, not the drivel and formulas we’re drilled on in school. Mathematics really is an art, and it’s inherently playful. It’s a game of “what if” and “how can I.” And when I was eight years old (and still now,) what I wanted most to figure out was how I could model, and therefore predict, events in the world around me. In particular, I was fascinated by the rate at which raindrops crossed and accumulated on my car window as my mom drove me to therapy.

So I invented the fundamental theorem of calculus.

I didn’t know I was doing this at the time, of course. I didn’t know what algebra was yet; if I’d heard of calculus, I thought it was about calculators, which I found woefully inefficient. I’d never heard of Liebnitz, and Newton had only been hit on the head by a terrifying apple, as far as I knew. I didn’t use the greek alphabet or sigma notation; I didn’t use any notation at all. I just ran some dimensional transformations in my head, checked my model for accuracy, and had a nice visual to keep myself comforted when my hands needed to be still.

Eight years later, my AP Calculus/Physics class was asked to prove the relationship between derivatives and integrals, and I got up and drew the model, and not a single one of my classmates understood. After a moment of studying what I did, Mr. Morris said, “spoiler alert, Julia just skipped to the end of the lesson and proved the fundamental theorem of calculus.”

I can’t draw it for you now; I lost the image, along with some of my more unusual human-calculator prowess, when my psychiatrist put me on the anti-psych medication regimen that ended in me dropping out of college. But I could then, and before that day, I hadn’t realized that my classmates couldn’t see that basic, innate relationship, the reason why calculus is beautiful enough to ache. I didn’t have the language for it, had never even heard of the fundamental theorem until my teacher told me that was what I’d done. I’d just been amusing myself with models and transformations, when I should have been paying attention in class.

See, that’s the thing. I struggled in math class from Algebra 1 on. I never actually took the AP calculus exam–Mr. Morris thought I’d do fine, but since I was technically auditing his class, I didn’t want to try and sit for it. And this is where the agony comes in.

Much like music, the way I experience and represent mathematics cognitively is fundamentally different from the conventional language we are taught for it. With arithmetic, this difference only really caused difficulty when new terms were being introduced. But 2+3 is always 5, and I had enough innate understanding and motivation to preserver through even the most ridiculous name choices.

This all fell apart when I got to algebra. It’s not that I lacked understanding–I’d been solving for the missing number since I was nine, and the only hardship I’d had there was, again, in comprehending the linguistic absurdity of mixing letters and numbers and shifting the missing piece to the left side of the equation. As soon as I got over that, I immediately started attempting to teach the game to anyone around me, including my four-year-old sister. Algebra wasn’t the issue. The way we represented it, modeled it, and talked about it? That was a nightmare.

Graphs on a cartesian plane have a lot of meaning for me–for another purpose (clue.) They also bear absolutely no relation to the kinesthetic and visual models I see when I craft algebraic equations. Zero. None. And I couldn’t articulate this in high school, anymore than I could make myself care about pitch or slope whether the equation came in point-slope or some other form. I didn’t understand why we were talking about graphs at all. It wasn’t until algebra 2 that someone explained to me that all of our equations were supposed to be models for those lines.

I was enraged.

I still am, thinking about it. What a stupid waste of my time. Who the fuck cared about lines? I wanted to know how to model the age distribution of my peers around me and how it shifted in relation to me as we moved through the grades, how to fit equilateral triangles with a side length of 2in inside a hexagon with 6in sides as efficiently as possible, how to predict prime numbers. Why on earth would I make an equation for a line I couldn’t even make my hands draw reliably half the time?I wouldn’t! This possibility had never occurred to me! I had better things to do!

So I didn’t care about graphs. Later, in college, my math major friend would teach me the theory behind linear algebra in half an hour, and I would concede that graphs were pretty fucking intense, but in high school, all I knew was that I was being asked to humor, to indulge teachers who were never sure if I was a genius or in the wrong class in their fetish with graphs that my eyes, more often than not, couldn’t even process as a whole.

It did not go well.

There were parts of algebra, of course, that I loved. I enjoyed modeling numeric patterns (“series,” I was told, and “summations,” I just called it numbers) like 2n + 7, and there were moments when the graphs for these, or for my favorite exponents, lined up with the stacks of numbers I saw in my head, and the graph became, fleetingly, meaningful. (It was argued that graphs themselves were by definition simply visual models of numeric patterns, and therefore should have been my favorite thing. I defy anyone to look at something like THIS

graph of 2n + 7

and honestly tell me that they instinctively see either 2n + 7 or 9, 11, 13, 15, etc. in that.) Systems of equations were a game that made me laugh and resembled the way I’d play with numbers in my notebook margins when we were supposed to be caring about matrices. Matrices were for our calculators; I was a human calculator, insulted by their existence.

My first three algebra teachers understood none of this. I did well in algebra one, as long as I wasn’t asked to graph anything; as far as I was concerned, I was doing slightly fancier arithmetic and then humoring Mr. Morris by labeling things as he wished. Algebra 2 was all about graphing though, and it made me want to die–and now, in an exciting plot twist, the equations had gotten long enough, and the graphs complex enough, that my visual process started undermining me, scrambling letters and transposing numbers and fragmenting graphs, and with it, my grade. But I passed, by the skin of my teeth, and had a brief reprieve in geometry, and then got a better teacher for precalculus who, in the last two weeks of class, realized I had a language processing problem. We stayed after school one day and hacked enough accommodations that I could FINALLY start to use the conventional vocabulary and start training my eyes to read equations like stories again, the way 2+3=5 is, and then graph the story out accordingly. Just in time for the bonus unit on calculus.

I looked at a derivative for the first time, and my models and raindrops and joy came rushing back, and I was in heaven.

Derivatives and integrals made sense because the transformations they undergo are multi-dimensional, just as the ones I assign my models are. But I didn’t ace calculus. I took an introductory course at Stanford the summer before my senior year of high school and passed on sheer intuition despite missing 1/3 of the classes, but the first few tests I took in my AP class came back with failing grades.

My teacher and I worked it out. It was, as always, a visual processing issue: permitted to solve an equation on a white board, standing up, with more space than I could possibly use, colored markers, writing as large as I needed, and only one problem presented at a time, I could earn 100%. Give me the same test, after I’d already taken it on the whiteboard, but this time package it as a two-page test on an 8×11 inches sheet of paper, and I’d get a 40%.

It seemed easy enough to accommodate: let me take my tests on a whiteboard, with my teacher dictating each problem to me one at a time, and I could be the best in the class. The beauty of reasonable accommodation! But it wasn’t that easy; the teachers were working to contract in protest of their current salary, so my teacher couldn’t stay after school or come in early to test me. If I’d had an IEP I would have been protected, but my parents were told that students with IEPs weren’t permitted to take AP classes. The solution, the administration declared, was that I would audit the class. I could sit in on every class, do every lab and homework, receive no credit, have my motivation and self-esteem destroyed by a year of failing every test but doing any in-class problem on the board perfectly, teach my class the fundamental theorem of calculus but be humiliated every day by my inability to correctly read and copy equations off a sheet of paper, and everybody won.

I don’t remember much of the class. I was an anxious, humiliated, depressive mess, unable to concentrate, still haunted by graphs. It was a combined calculus/physics class: I loved the modeling, but my language processing made the word problems we were given for physics exhausting. There are bright memories, of course–drawing out the fundamental theorem, hacking labs, solving problems at the board, practicing integrals with Tommy for fun, tutoring a classmate over Facebook chat for a test that I failed with a record- breaking amount of transcription errors but she got an A+ on. But I hesitate to call myself mathematically inclined now, and that needlessly hellish year is why.

Math and music are some of the most sacred and meaningful things in the world to me. I don’t talk about them, because that requires a 12-year trauma history and interfacing with a language that treats these two things exactly opposite of how the should be.

(Do you know the secret, yet?)

This is what I learned, at the last music lesson I ever took: I see musical compositions as the graphs I spent years being tortured with perversions of, and I move through numbers like a song.

The spatial metaphors we traditionally use for music (notes are higher or lower; a second is a whole step, a third is two whole steps, etc.) fall apart for me not only because of their flagrant disregard for basic mathematics, but also because my primary concept of music lies in harmonics: in the spaces between tonic and supertonic, in the beats of the frequency of a given pitch, and all the different ways we can stretch and collapse and layer and color them. This is what I see, this is what I hear (and the two are, in this instance, the same,) every time music plays. Sheet music is as pale an imitation of this as a graph of y=3x is of the multiplication table. And yet, the transformations I drag my models through, the process of solving an equation (and I’ve never been much of one for solving, really; just give me a model and I’m happy, and maybe that was the problem with algebra all along,) is actually perfectly encapsulated by the language and metaphors musicians use to interpret sheet music.

And I just wish that once, at some point, just once during those long twelve years, someone said to me “this language isn’t working for you. Let’s find a new one.” Because then I could have told you, at eight years old, before I could even conjugate reliably or deviate from my scripts, that:

this is what C sounds like:

sine curve

this is what G sounds like:

sine curve

this is what a fifth sounds like:

two overlapping sine curves

and this, Mrs. Lowenthall, is why 2+3=5:

sheet music

Written by Julia

October 31, 2012 at 10:02 pm

Someone who moves like you

with 55 comments

Buckle up kids, because this gets long and personal.

So, a long time (~7 months) ago, in a galaxy far, far away (rural New Hampshire,) there lived a sad little girl (or KICKASS ADULT,) named Julia who just so happened to have a friend named C. C and Julia had spent the past several months talking too much altogether about Glee, and C had begun to push for Julia to add a second show to her plate. Some brightly-colored sitcom about derelicts going to a community college.

And Julia was skeptical, but C was persistent, for she knew that if Julia liked the first two minutes, Julia would have a new favorite show. See, C knew something that Julia did not.

C knew that Abed Nadir existed.

Now, there are a couple of things you, gentle reader, must know about Julia in order to appreciate what happens next. First, you must understand that, ever since she had been born and maybe even before, Julia had been autistic. And second, you must understand that, because of this, Julia had spent her whole life watching and learning stories where she had no part, no point of entry, and no value. Julia was trained to imagine herself in stories as someone she was not and could never be, and to define the story of her own life in terms of how it failed to be reflected back to her. And sometimes, most of the times, Julia forgot that she was a person. Stories are important, and she didn’t have one. You are a mistake isn’t a story. It’s barely even a sentence.

I must warn you now that this is not a story of how C or Dan Harmon or Abed Nadir or even Julia herself saved or healed Julia. It’s in the script, but Julia wouldn’t have a voice in any of those stories, either. No, gentle readers and vicious tumblr-ers, this is a story of what it means to start a new story and see on your screen, for the first time, someone who moves like you.

Do you understand what that means?

It’s probably not something you’ve ever really had to think about. But how someone moves is the first thing telling you whether or not they might be able to be you, and you them. And for the first time in Julia’s life, she looked at a character on television and saw a yes.

Abed Nadir walked onto Julia’s laptop screen, and nothing and everything changed.

For the next seventh months, there was a lot of CAPSLOCKING IN GOOGLE CHAT at C about Community and Abed Nadir, but very few words elsewhere. Which was odd, because when Julia liked things, she tended to talk about them too much. This was one of many things she and Abed had in common.

Except, here’s the funny thing. Abed said “I just like liking things,” and it wasn’t just not-punished, it wasn’t just okay—either of which would have been remarkable and unbelievable—no. It was good.

And Julia, who had endless words for a great many small and unimportant things, couldn’t say anything more about Abed beyond he moves like me.

Abed Nadir, you see, is an autistic character.

There’s a difference between TV Autistics and autistic characters on television. TV Autistics—Bones, House, Sheldon, Sherlock—are caricatures, and, not coincidentally, all fan-diagnosed. They are socially awkward/anti-social/socially maladapted, eccentric geniuses free of any serious adaptive functioning limitations, motor issues, sensory sensitivities, or language differences, able to manage independently in all major areas of daily living, with a bonus side of savant skills and the empathic range of a rock. They’re awesome, but they’re a stock character, and they manage to simultaneously hint at the autistic experience without actually meaning it. It’s like that poster about gay subtext in popular that was going around a while ago

the irony being, of course, that for a show that is “so gay,” it’s actually not gay at all. The people in charge have found the perfect ratio of homoerotic subtext (all of it) to actual gay characters (none of them) to keep the fangirls creaming their pants and the money rolling in. No one involved has any intention of meaningful inclusion or exploration. You avoid any potentially unpleasant consequences, because the choice to have a gay character was never actually made.

It should be noted that autism isn’t the only reason Julia grew up without People Like Her on television, and it’s not even close to the only reason she has a Thing about stories. And that’s the curious thing about these TV Autistics—someone who’s watched one of them in action is much more predisposed to assume that since Julia is autistic, and since she’s got this extended metaphor (bonus points if you say perseveration) about stories going on, stories must be her Special Interest, the framework through which she filters the world, the poor half-human thing.

And they are, but that’s because Julia is, shockingly, a person at her core. And people need stories.

Which brings us back to Abed.

It’s entirely possible Julia over-identified with Abed, just a tad. Which struck her as first a bit odd—they’re nothing alike, Abed thinks The Breakfast Club had a plot and likes falafel and his mom had the decency to leave— and then as more than a bit precarious. This wasn’t supposed to happen.

(Somewhere, fiddling with her contacts, C arched an eyebrow and said “it wasn’t?” and Julia cyber-kicked her.)

Abed Nadir walked around like a bird or a giraffe, and he couldn’t do thumbs-up and he talked too fast and knew too many things and he was sharp and suspicious and easy and trusting. He did things that were simultaneously uncanny/creepy and sweet/thoughtful, and he couldn’t do bills or read clocks but he could tell psychiatrists to fuck off and he could fight with his best friend when his best friend tried to take charge, and he was jealous and sharp with his crushes. He had friends and private worlds, and all the scars that come from growing up a mistake, and things were imperfect and messy and painful and visceral but he always emerged okay.

Abed Nadir said “please don’t do a special episode about me” and Jeff Winger promised he “wouldn’t dream of it.”

And then he told Abed to pick one reference, and Abed picked 16 Candles, so they sat on the counter and ate chicken.

(And Abed didn’t mind who he was kissing so long as he got to be Han Solo, and also he delivered several babies and got to be the good cop and the bad cop and used his diagnosis to get rid of an unfortunate lab partner and took advantage of a stranger in a bar’s patience so he could talk about Farscape.)

And stories are a scary and messy business, full of magic and demons, taunting possibilities and rules-that-aren’t, things we can’t have and altogether far too many opportunities for a sad little girl’s heart to be ripped out of her chest, and Julia kept watching, every week. And you must understand that asking Julia to pick one Abed moment is liking asking Abed to pick one reference.

You must understand that one story is infinitely bigger than zero, and it may still be very small and nowhere near enough, but it’s something.

And yes, her heart was eventually forcibly extracted when Dan Harmon broke his promise and Virtual Systems Analysis was the dreaded Special Episode. And Julia remembered how to breathe, and stitched herself back up, because she hadn’t really needed that heart, anyway. And when it turned out that someone else would be in charge of Abed next year, she remembered what she had always known to be true about happy endings and said goodbye, mourned more than she had for any corporeal person (which was still not very much,) and folded away that part of herself and went back to not existing.

But for seven months.

For seven months, she had.

Written by Julia

June 4, 2012 at 12:44 pm

Posted in media, personal, stories

Truth Is

with 21 comments

Author’s note: Yesterday in the blogosphere there was an Autism Positivity Day Flash Blog, sparked by one author noticing that someone had found their blog by searching “I wish I didn’t have Asperger’s.” Due to my own situation, I couldn’t participate, but today is Blogging Against Disablism Day, and I still have something to say.

Sometimes in the morning I am petrified and can’t move
Awake but cannot open my eyes
And the weight is crushing down on my lungs
I know I can’t breathe
And hope someone will save me this time

Dear “I wish I didn’t have Asperger’s,”

I want you to know that I understand.

That’s the first thing. This isn’t going to work if we aren’t honest with each other, so, let me be honest. I’ve thought a lot about that mythical cure, and there have been days, many days, when I didn’t have to think at all–when I knew that, if I had a chance, I’d take a cure in a heartbeat.

I need you to know that I understand.

I do. I do. I want the things a cure could give me. I want to have the leading role in my own story, and parts in others’. I want to be able to do the same things everyone else can do in the same way without any extra effort. I want to not feel like a freak. I want to feel safe. I want to be someone my parents can love. I want to know I have a future, and I want to not have to blaze that trail by myself. I want to have worth. I want other people to not think they have a right to me and my space, or else I want it to stop bothering me. I want my words and experiences to make sense to other people, and I want their words and experiences to make sense to me. I want to have to work just a little less hard. I want to have a college degree, a job, and a house of my own, and I want to be able to live wherever I want. I want to be able to assume I’m a person. I want to not have a month out of the year dedicated to my brokenness. I want to be able to assume that it’s not me, it’s them. I want to wake up and not be terrified or already tired.

I want a lot of things.

It’s not a bad thing, to want things.

Check in: can you see, now, that I really do understand? I hope you can. I get a couple of visits from you, or someone with the same keyword search, every week, and I want you to know that you aren’t alone, and you aren’t wrong.

Okay. I’ve been honest with you. Now I want you to be honest with me. Can you look at the list of things I want, and tell me if you see a pattern?

I’ll wait.

While I wait, I figure, I might as well tell you some other things I’d like to stop being. In addition to no longer being autistic, I’d also like to be cured of

-being a lesbian
-being female
-being so obscenely tall

Really. I’d like to get be able to get married to someone I love in every state. I’d like to be able to walk down a dark street without fearing for my safety. I’d like to be able to sit in a chair designed for someone of my height. And none of those things are happening right now, so I guess I can either fight for them to change, or try to change myself.

Okay. Did you find the pattern? It’s okay if you didn’t. It took me awhile to understand it. It’s subtle.

Every single one of those things I want?

Have nothing to do with being autistic.

Really. Not a single, solitary one.

I should have a leading role in my own story. When I don’t, it’s because other people aren’t treating me like a person. That is not my fault. Pretty sure the one in the wrong there is the one who thinks that a disability means you aren’t a person.

Why do I want to be able to do the same things as everyone else? Why is that important to me? If I lived in a world where it was recognized that there are multiple ways to do something and that this is okay and the things I do and the ways I do them are valid and important, would I care? Would I even realize this was something to care about at all?

I would know that I have a future, and that it’s a bright and near and real one, if I knew growing up that autistic adults existed. Guess what–they do, they have for thousands of years, and on the whole, they’re doing just as well as anyone else.

I want to have worth–okay. See, if I had a friend who felt worthless, I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t tell that friend “you’re right, you’re pathetic. Please change everything about yourself.” I’m pretty sure I would tell that friend that the people making her feel worthless were abusive assholes, that she was good at plenty of things, that she was a fantastic person I was lucky to know, and that human worth isn’t some tangible thing we can gain or lose. And if I can say all of that to a friend, and mean it…why can’t I say it to myself? I’m not special. I work by the same rules as everyone else. And that means I am worth something, whether I believe it or not.

I can keep going through these. I do make sense to a few people, who take the time to listen to me the way I need to be heard, and they make sense to me. That is how relationships work, and there are lots of different ways to communicate. I can have a job, a living situation I am in charge of, and all the education I want, with the correct supports, just like everyone else. It is not my fault that the supports I need differ from the majority, and that is not an excuse or invitation to mistreat or discriminate against me. Etc etc etc.

In the end, there are really two things I want when I say I wish I wasn’t autistic or I want a cure. I want to not feel like a freak, and I want to feel safe. Those are hard, scary things to feel and to admit. And, because I’m being honest, I have to ask something even scarier.

What if being cured didn’t fix those things?

Because ultimately, if I took a cure, I’d be surrendering. Instead of fighting for my right to be treated and valued as a human being regardless of disability, I’d be letting go, giving in, and letting myself be changed into someone easier, someone acceptable, someone convenient. And I want to be clear–there is nothing wrong with wanting things to be easier or wanting to feel safe or accepted or just being done fighting. That just means that you’ve been asked to be much, much stronger than everyone else for much, much too long.

But if, in order to be safe I have to stop being me?

Then I’m really not safe at all.

As long as being disabled means being unsafe, then no one is safe. Not really. Disability is a natural part of the human experience according to the ADA. Most people will experience some form of disability, for some period of time, at some point in their lives. So long as we as a society keep permitting exceptions to rules like everyone is a person and treat people like people, none of us are safe. Safety earned by staying within acceptable margins isn’t safety at all.

I promised to be honest. Part of being honest is looking at what my words actually mean, what lies beneath them, what ideas are controling what I say. And underneath every I wish I wasn’t autistic is a I wish people would stop hurting me or a I wish the world had room for me or a if I blame myself, I can feel like I’m in control.

And it’s okay that I feel this way. Well, it’s not okay that anyone ever has to feel this way, but I’m not bad or wrong for feeling it. Neither are you. But feelings aren’t the same as reality, and in the end, if we weren’t autistic anymore, there would still be people hurting others just because they can and just because no one ever told them to stop, and we’d still know that it takes only the slightest deviation before we’re vulnerable again. A cure won’t ever be able to change that.

What will change that is something a lot harder than a magic pill. What will change that is enough people saying enough is enough and doing the hard work of making our world one where everyone is welcome, all communication is honored, and everyone is safe and valued. And that is going to take time, and there are going to be days, still, as we work to make that happen, where you, where I, will wish we weren’t autistic, because sometimes it just hurts.

But it will change. It’s changing now. And you shouldn’t, and don’t, have to. You are amazing and sufficient and lovable just the way you are, and I really, really hope you’ll stick around so that one day the rest of the world can know it, too.

Written by Julia

May 1, 2012 at 4:48 pm

your dreams will be reduced down to breathing, and you will be grateful

with 27 comments

The thing about not-being-a-person is:

They will say those people and the price of being a person is to nod and agree that yes, those people aren’t people at all.

They will have no idea who they are talking to.

You yourself will start to forget, too.

They will say a million small things that sow the seeds for violence done against you, and you will smile and let them.

You will do math, constantly.

How much do I want to be a person today? How much do I want this project to succeed? How much honesty can I afford? How much dishonesty will kill me? What is the cost of coming out? Is there a way to delay, soften, transmute? How long can I survive as half a person?

Your dreams will be reduced down to breathing.

And you will be grateful.

And no one else will know. And so it won’t be real.

You will become an expert at folding away pieces of yourself, quietly and automatically and with perfect obedience.

And you will forget that, forget all of it, forget yourself, and then come back to yourself violently as someone smiles and talks, academically or hatefully and there’s no deciding which is worse, about those people.

And you will remember that you are not a person. And you will have to decide, all over again, how much longer you can take that.

Written by Julia

March 4, 2012 at 4:35 pm

Metaphors Are Important: An Ethnography Of Robotics

with 12 comments

First, a story. (A little Christmas story. I call it: the story of Schmuel. Tailor of Klimovitch.)


(The best part of the story is what I leave out.)


I met a mini!Kurt the other day. He was very blonde, with intense brown eyes, but he was very particular about his hat, and his dad was Burt Hummel in all the ways that counted. I’d guess he was about four–his voice was still all exclamation points.

“I’M MATT!” he said, hiding his face from me, and then trying to run out of the waiting room. It was cool though–I don’t know if I even managed ahi.

He was at the stage where he was still mainly echolalic, but he was learning how to store and recombine and modify phrases to work for him. I was excited for him, and almost proud, because he’d mastered two essential skills for that–swapping pronouns, and prompting other people to remember their lines. His dad, trying to bundle him into his coat, was not playing along at first.

“I’M SO CUTE!” mini!Kurt reminded him, trying to make his arms go into the right sleeves. “I’M SO CUTE!? I’M SO CUTE?”

“Yeah,” Dad sighed, wrestling with the zipper. “You’re cute.”


“So cute, that’s right.”

Mini!Kurt, satisfied that everything was going according to plan, was ready to leave. “BYE!” he called, waving his hand backwards at me, a perfect mirror image.

I waved. Had my mind been more together, I would have flapped.


Echolalia is metalanguage.


Echolalia is an unexpected treasure hunt. You can be watching a bootleg musical you never thought would be any good, but turns out to be beautiful, and suddenly they’re going up the scale singing hot hot hot hot, and you’re back with Kimba, and he’s saying hot hot hot hot–only he’s got this elaborate metaphor about fire and anger going on right now, and here it means I think you’re mad at me, so I’m mad at you, don’t touch me.

And then you’re back at your laptop, wondering when he started watching musicals and rethinking half the things you thought you knew.


Echolalia is what you use when language is too much. It’s just also what you use when it’s not enough.

These things are not opposites.


Walt knows my name, but he’d rather call me Mulan. We’re on the swings, trading movie titles.

“101 Dalmations?” I offer.

“Mulan no thank you!” He chides. Considers. “Rio, with Jesse Eisenberg?”

I grin. I’d only said that once, but he’d picked up on my crush, and he offers it back to me when I am having a hard time with the conversation. I try to remember his favorite, as a peace offering. “Kung Fu Panda II, in theaters now?”

I get it right.

Months later, it will still be the best conversation of my life.


Echolalia, from Echo, of Greek mythos, cursed to speak only through the words of others.

We make it work though.About the cursed: opinions aren’t the same as facts, and no one ever asked Echo.

To be fair, no one would have listened, either.


As much as I can hate words, I delight in them, too. When I’m echoing, referencing, scripting, riffing and rifting, storing and combing and recombining, patterning, quoting, punning, swinging from hyperlexic memory to synesthetic connection, words are my tangible playground.

Make me talk like you, and you’ll get a bunch of syntactically sophisticated nonsense. Let me keep my memories and connections, my resonations and associations and word-pictures, and if you slow down enough, you might hear something ringing true.

These are the words I’m using right now. It’s okay if you can’t see the picture yet; I can’t either. It’s coming together though, the more I practice them.

Ethnography of robotics.


Girls like you always get to see Ireland.

Send my love to the leprechauns.

Please don’t special-episode me.

Why don’t you trust me? Because, honey, you keep setting things on fire.

The first rule of tautology club is the first rule of tautology club.

I think they might be four separate pieces. The joy is how they come together.

The bestworst part is no one ever knowing.


(The best part of the story is what I leave out.)


I don’t trust my words on my own.

That’s not why I echo though.

I know it’s tempting, but, listen.


Or maybe I’m lying, because I’m not brave enough to explain.

Don’t worry though. I know that Kimba loves musicals now, and Walt named me after a warrior.

We’ll get there.

Written by Julia

February 16, 2012 at 1:33 am