I’m asking you because you are a good person. My brother has dyslexia and all his life he was bullied to think he was worthless, a mistake of our mother. I admit I have my parcel of blame in this, but I too was raised to think of him of a lesser being by our grandmother. These days he’s being bullied by his teachers, expecting him to get higher grades, again, like mine. He asked me the other day what he would do with his life, because he really thinks he is unskilled and is a big waste of time and space. He asked me what he is good with, because from his eyes, he can’t do anything right.
I honestly don’t know what to say to him and I know this is pretty much because I was born resembling my grandmother with my father’s memory while he resembles mother in almost everything, whom grandmother hated until she died.
I don’t know what to do, please help us.
I don’t know your brother and I don’t know what he’s good at, so I can’t address that directly, but, here’s what I can suggest:
Talk to him about the abuse
- Tell him that what you and your grandmother did to him was wrong
- Tell him that what his teachers are doing is wrong and disgusting
- Tell him that he shouldn’t be treated like that and that it isn’t his fault
- It’s not because of his grades, or anything about him. It’s because of prejudice and hate
Be honest about your part in it, and do what you can to treat him right from now on
- Tell him that you’re sorry for your part in it, but don’t make it about you trying to feel better or get him to reassure you
- Be specific about things you’ve done to him that you think were wrong
- Don’t do those things
- When he points out that you’re still doing those things, apologize and stop
- Don’t expect him to trust you just because you’ve realized it was wrong – you have to stop doing it, over a long period of time, before it’s likely that you will seem safe
- Listen if he wants to talk, but don’t push the issue
And here are some things I’d say to him directly, if I was talking to him rather than you:
It’s ok not to know what you want to do or are good at:
- Doing stuff is awesome, and life gets better when you find good stuff to do
- Everyone has worthwhile things they can do
- It takes time and work and exploration to figure out what they are and get good at them
- School isn’t conducive to this kind of growth for everyone
- School is actively harmful to some people.
- Having school and an unsupportive family undermine your ability to find things to do is really, really common for people with learning disabilities
- It isn’t your fault that this happened to you, and struggling in that environment doesn’t suggest anything bad about you
- You don’t have to be a super accomplished superhero to have worth as a person. Don’t hold yourself to that standard.
Spending more time on things you like helps:
- People who struggle with school are often taught that anything they like is a waste of time, and that they should stop doing it and spend more time banging their head against impossible or barely-possible assignments
- That’s really bad advice; you can’t develop your interests and abilities by renouncing everything you like
- Finding stuff you like and are good at is more important than faking normal at school.
- If you like video games, play them
- If you like TV shows, watch them
- If you like cooking, cook things
- If you like talking to people online, find people to talk to
- Etc etc. These are just some examples of things some people like, not necessarily things you do or should like. Do things that *you* like.
- Doing things you like is important. Even if they’re activities other people don’t value very much. You have to explore to find out what you like and can do well. And you need space to do that in. So, take some space.
Acknowledging limitations creates abilities
- People with disabilities are often taught that if we don’t acknowledge limitations, we won’t have any
- And then we are forced to spend lots and lots of time and effort pretending that this is true
- We spend so much time pretending that we can do things and forcing ourselves to do things that are barely possible, that we don’t have much available for anything else
- If we acknowledge limitations and stop doing that, then all that time and energy becomes available for doing other things
- And then we can actually start doing things well and succeed at things
- Acknowledging and understanding disability is one of the most important life skills anyone with a disability can develop.
Connect with other people with similar issues:
- Special ed teachers and other alleged experts often don’t know what they’re talking about
- They will often advise you to do actively harmful things
- Peer support from other people with related disabilities helps, because they often know what they’re talking about and have strategies for dealing with it.
- In any case, judge for yourself and do what you think will help you. No one else gets to tell you what your coping strategies have to be.
I recently got a job offer to be an in-school aid for a gradeschooler I know with aspergers and I’m genuinely afraid to take it because, while I have teaching experience, I’ve never been an aid before. I’m afraid I’ll do something wrong and mess the kid up for the rest of his life. Do you have any advice for me?
Several piece of advice:
First, shift the way you’re thinking about this.
The problem before you is how to do right by a kid in your care. Thinking in terms of wanting to avoid doing something wrong and messing the kid up for the rest of his life is going to make it harder for you to do right by him.
You’re going to do things wrong (you’ve done things wrong in every teaching job you’ve had, it comes with the territory); and it’s going to be important for you to acknowledge and fix your mistakes. Making possible mistakes, even serious ones, a referendum on whether you are a good person, makes it a lot harder to do right by others. I’ve written about that before, here.
Treat him as a person
- Almost universally, autistic people are treated as though they aren’t quite real, especially by caregivers
- Often, they think of this as looking past the autism to see the real person
- But the autism is part of who he is.
- Don’t attribute some things to him, and others to the autism. He is real all the time.
- He is a real person. Already.
- Your job is not to cure him. Your job is to support him and help him to develop his abilities. Learning to do more things will not make him any less autistic, nor should it.
Do not try to make him indistinguishable from his peers
- Because, seriously, what kind of a goal is that?
- He’s worthwhile as a person, and he’s different from most other people, and it’s ok.
- He has better things to do with his time than fake normal.
- Being able to do awesome things is way better than being able to look normal while doing pointless things
- It’s ok to be different.
- Don’t pretend that he’s really just like everyone else, or that he will be when he grows up.
- One of the most important things you can teach an autistic child is that it is ok to be autistic
Forget everything you think you know about the difference between autism and Asperger’s syndrome:
- People whose diagnosis is Aspergers syndrome are autistic
- Autistic people who can speak are disabled
- There isn’t actually any fundamental difference
- Except that people considered autistic are often seen as incapable, and people considered to have Aspergers are often seen as faking their difficulties
- Assume disability and ability, and that you will have to figure out how that works for the person you’re working with
Learn how he communicates.
- All autistic people have some sort of atypical communication
- Some autistic people are really good at hiding it, and looking normal at the expense of understanding what is going on.
- Autistic children, particularly boys, often pretend to be acting out in order to mask disability. Be mindful of this possibility.
- A good percentage of the time, when autistic people repeat things over and over, they are trying to communicate something and aren’t being understood. Be aware of this, and learn how to make communication possible in this situation.
- If he seems not to understand something, do not get angry and assume he’s just being defiant or lazy
- Some things are really really hard to understand, even though they seem simple to people with typical development
- For instance, an autistic child who has been isolated might find fiction other kids their age understand completely incomprehensible because they can’t relate to the experiences and relationships it describes
If he makes repetitive motions, assume they are important:
- A lot of autistic people rely heavily on motion to think well
- Or to communicate
- Or to understand things
- Or to find words
- Or to regulate themselves.
- If you prevent an autistic person from making repetitive motions, you’re probably also preventing them from doing things like understanding what’s going on, communicating, and learning self-control and interaction.
- Do not value a typical affect over learning and communication.
- Do not say “quiet hands” for any reason ever. (Unless you’re saying something like “people shouldn’t tell you ‘quiet hands’”)
Do not make him follow rules the other kids are allowed to get away with breaking
- Because that’s unfair, and humiliating
- And it also prevents peer relations
- It also prevents him from learning how rules actually work, which is a vitally important skill, especially for people who are likely to spend large parts of their life subject to arbitrary decisions made by people with too much power over them
Do not confuse him about consent, and help him learn what consent is
- If something is an order, do not phrase it as a request. Doing so teaches people to be incapable of saying no.
- Ask a lot of questions that actually are requests, and go with what he says, even if it’s not the answer you wanted.
- If he always says yes when you ask him things, assume this is because he has been taught to be incapable of saying no
- Ask questions in ways that remind him that saying no is possible
- Or questions in ways that don’t seem to create a compliant option and a defiant option at all.
- For instance “do you want to stay inside today, or would you rather play on the swings?”
- But questions that are real. Not forced choices in which each option is basically compliance.
Support him in navigating the difficult and often hateful world he lives in
- Do not make him play with kids he dislikes, even if this means he doesn’t play with anyone
- There are worse things than being alone. Being surrounded by people who everyone insists are nice and your friends, but who actually don’t think you’re real or treat you well is much worse than honest loneliness.
- It’s possible, and likely, that there are very few kids, or even no kids at all, in his group who it is a good idea for him to spend time with
- And even if you think he’s wrong about this, it’s a decision he should be making for himself (and his judgement is probably better than yours)
- When kids or adults do bad things to him (and they will), you usually won’t be able to make them stop. You should tell him that what they’re doing is wrong, and that it’s not his fault.
- Knowing that it’s wrong, and that others know it’s wrong, helps a lot.
Some things you should read:
- Ballastexistenz From the beginning. Every post. It has a lot of fundamentally important things about power, and dehumanization, and about seeing people as real. This blog has a lot of the best things that have ever been written on this topic.
- Rolling Around In My Head is also a really good blog, written by a disabled man whose professional work is supporting people with disabilities. He says a lot of things worth knowing. Also his book Power Tools is important for understanding how this power dynamic works – and your environment and training will put pressure on you not to understand it.
- Loud Hands: Autistic People Speaking is a really important book about autism and the world written by insightful autistic people. Buy it and read it and understand it, and it will help you to do right by this boy and others