Conspiracy Theories, Autism, Fear, and Life on the Crazy Train

Mental wounds still screaming
Driving me insane
I’m going off the rails on a crazy train

— Ozzy Osbourne, “Crazy Train”

I’ve been thinking a great deal lately about conspiracy theories. Or, more accurately, I’m fed up with conspiracy theories.

My fiancé and I have been discussing these theories against the backdrop of world events for the last several years. On our dining room table there is a stack of books a couple of feet tall that I’ve been meaning to read about conspiracy theories and related subjects such as the premillennial dispensationalist interpretation of the Book of Revelation and the fundamentalist Christian worldview. To be quite honest, I’m mildly fascinated with conspiracy theorists and I’m trying to understand how they think: if I’d had the time to read these books lately, conspiracy theories would have become another special interest by now.

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Bullying Awareness Week

This week is Bullying Awareness Week.  This week is dedicated to raising awareness about the problem of bullying.

A few things to think about this week:

  1. Bullying is a widespread problem and can affect anyone regardless of race, class, nationality, gender, sexual orientation, or ability status.
  2. Bullying is a common problem for autistic children. Estimates of the amount of autistic and Asperger children who are bullied run anywhere from 40% to as high as 90%. (See this story in the Boston Herald and this citation by the National Autistic Society UK.)
  3. Bullying does not only affect children. According to the Workplace Bullying Institute, around 35% of workers have experienced bullying firsthand.

I’d also like to mention some of my writings about bullying: “Workplace Bullying and the Autistic Employee” and “Why Me?“, two parts of a to-be-completed series I authored about autism and workplace bullying.

I’ve also had my own experiences with bullying, mostly encountered as a child and teenager. One of my earliest memories of being bullied is from third grade. I attended a school in the district that had more special education offerings than the rest of the schools, and I needed speech therapy due to a bad ear infection which made me mispronounce the diphthong “th” as the letter “d”, amongst other things. Oddly enough, that’s not why I was the target of bullying, and to this day, I can only guess why the kids in question chose to pick  on me. At that age, with less than average experience being around other kids (due to our frequent moves) and no other siblings, I lacked social experience with other kids. That, plus the social foibles and difficulty reading other kids that Aspie children are prone to, were likely a recipe for disaster. I was singled out as the “weirdo” and was constantly asked if I was retarded. I never knew how to answer my tormentors — I simply froze in fright and said nothing. After one disastrous incident where I was teased and provoked until I bit the kid who bullied me, I chose to play alone for the rest of the school year with the exception of one boy, Lance, who I still felt comfortable around (and looking back in time’s mirror, I half wonder if he was also an Aspie too — but that’s a whole ‘nother post).

That summer, we moved to another city, and I encountered bullying again in the schools I attended. This happened again when we moved across the country and I attended yet another new school for fifth and six grade. But the worst of it I encountered during junior high and high school. As I look back, I consider it a bit of a miracle that I not only survived, but that I do not carry more scars than I do now.

After my parents separated, my mother and I moved to Middletown, Ohio, where I attended the last half of sixth grade, junior high, and high school. It is small town with a large steel mill, a small population (I believe in the 40,000 range when I last lived there), and a rather cliquish atmosphere at the time — everyone had known each other since their youth. To make matters worse, I was a multiracial kid in a town which was rather segregated socially in terms of race — white and blacks usually did not socialize together, and the other multiracial kids simply identified as black; but I’d been used to growing up in neighborhoods where whites, blacks, Hispanics, Asians, and First Peoples lived side by side. And I had undiagnosed Asperger’s and displayed many on the laundry list of Aspie traits: social difficulties, inability to read people, narrow interests, and higher than average vocabulary.

It wasn’t long before I was the target of bullies. It mostly began in seventh grade and persisted until my senior year of high school. In my case, it was a few individuals who persisted in making my school life a living hell throughout those five or six years of my life. The black bullies made fun of me for “acting white” or “talking white” because of my vocabulary. The white bullies made fun of me because of my hair (or lack of interest in styling it), my narrow interests, and even my patterns of speech. I was shoved into water fountains and lockers; provoked to cursing one of them out in front of a teacher (which landed me into in-school detention); played tricks on; and excluded. I sought solace in my books, my writing, and my inner fantasy life and tried my best to hold on until I graduated and left.

As an adult, I have tried my best to heal from both the bullying at school and the bullying/abuse I experienced at home. Sometimes, thinking about these memories is like pulling shrapnel out of my skin — it hurts, and I can see the visible wounds that each piece leaves behind. Writing about this pain is one way I try to reckon with it. I am slowly healing, but it has only been recently that I have been able to begin *truly* conquering my suspicion and fear. My goals are to be less paranoid about what people think and say about me and less likely to wonder if tricks or plots are being executed behind my back; these fears generally fall into the “disconnection and rejection” domain of early maladaptive schemas that I discussed in this post (part of a continuing series on stress and anxiety), which include beliefs that the world and most, if not all, people are generally untrustworthy, cruel, and will only purposely hurt or reject.  Unfortunately, the kind of bullying that autistic and Asperger children encounter commonly help form and/or reinforce these kinds of negative core beliefs and the distrust, fear, and paranoia that accompany them.

I offer this poem, “High School Jungle“, as an impression of my experience of having been bullied. I sincerely hope that during this week and beyond, awareness can continue to be raised about the problem of bullying. Too many hearts have been broken and too many lives have been lost to bullying, and it needs to stop.

-Nicole

The Empathy Question, Revisited: Theory of Mind, Culture, and Understanding

The recent opening of Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg’s new Autism and Empathy website has started me thinking about the whole empathy question in regards to autistic people again. In my first post about autistics and empathy, I mentioned Theory of Mind issues as one of the possible reasons why there is a perception that autistic people lack empathy. With what I had read about Theory of Mind at the time, I’m now reexamining the concept and wondering if I had gotten it slightly wrong, especially in light of the recent challenges that other autistic writers have made to the prevailing ideas about autistics and Theory of Mind.

The Sally-Anne Test

The Sally-Anne Test

The prevailing idea about autistics and Theory of Mind goes something like this: having good Theory of Mind means that a person is able to determine the contents of both one’s own mind and the minds of others; conversely, autistic people are unable to determine or reflect on the contents of other people’s minds. In short, the idea is that autistic people are unable to understand other people’s minds and know that others think differently than they do. This idea was put forth in Simon Baron-Cohen’s 2001 paper on the subject, and I’m sorry that I didn’t unpack it a little further before writing my first post about empathy and autistics. Now that I have, I again have to say: what a load of bullshit.

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Aspie Obliviousness: A Good Thing?

Head in the Clouds by Wings of Dust
Head in the Clouds by Wings of Dust

How many times have you been told that you don’t pay attention enough, aren’t aware enough of your surroundings, or even worse, that you have your “head in the clouds” all the time? I heard this quite often, especially as a teenager and coming from my absolutely favorite aunt (NOT!). If you remember my post from a while back that talked about EMSs (early maladaptive schemas) and negative core beliefs, you’ll remember that sometimes we form these beliefs based on negative feedback from significant figures in our childhood – parents, relatives (well-meaning or not) and the like. So as a result of her negative comments, I developed a sort of hypervigilance which basically required me to pay attention to everything in my environment. Literally.

You can imagine that for someone on the autism spectrum, this would be downright tiring. And it was. I was constantly scanning my environment for details, dangers, etc., especially when I would move from one environment to the next. It would take me a while to get comfortable when I arrived into a new room, got out of the car and went into the house, and so forth (you don’t want to even know how taxing it is to try to notice EVERYTHING – including passing scenery – when you’re in a moving vehicle as a passenger). When I was in my early twenties, I dispensed of this habit: unfortunately, some events in my mid-twenties reactivated a healthy (again, NOT!) dose of post-traumatic stress disorder that I had mostly gotten rid of with help from my fiancé – the same PTSD I’ve mentioned that I am battling right now. And with the PTSD came the hypervigilance and the environment scanning. The only good thing that has resulted from this is my tendency to store visual details, which I can access later for my writing.

I recognized near the end of last week that this practice was downright exhausting and no longer worth my time, so I decided to stop completely. I decided that I was only going to pay attention to what was important, or what caught my notice. And couple of days later, this new approach paid off. Continue reading

“Of Spice, Epicureanism, and Masochism” Republished at Shift Journal

Hey folks!

My most recent post, “Of Spice, Epicureanism, and Masochism” was republished over at Shift Journal on Thursday. Woohoo!

So, go check it out. :) And while you’re at it, check out the rest of Shift Journal as well. You’ll find some readworthy contributions from folks on the spectrum exploring what an autistic existence means as well as it being a “legitimate way to be in the world”, according to the website.

-Nicole