Autistics Speaking Day is November 1

Autistics Speaking Day is November 1. Check out the official blog: Autistic Speaking Day. They also have an FAQ and a list of participants for the 2011 event. If you’d like to participate, there is more information on the FAQ page.

You can also follow @AutisticsSpeak on Twitter.

If you’re not familiar with Autistics Speaking Day, then here is the post by Corina Becker at No Stereotypes Here that started it all.

And I will be participating both on this blog and at Raven’s Wing Poetry.

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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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More Myth-Busting: New Autism and Empathy Website

Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg of Journeys With Autism has created the new Autism and Empathy website to “undo the myths about autism and empathy that have stigmatized autistic people for so long”. She and other writers featured on the site will be speaking about autism and empathy from personal perspectives as well as exploring the question in terms of the medical and scientific.

I encourage you to check out the site. She has already posted an excellent article which breaks down empathy in terms of its three types: cognitive, emotional, and expressed empathy. My poem, “Color (A Modest Plea)” also now appears there as well.

-Nicole

“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

The Autism Gene: What Does It Mean for the Autistic Woman?

I came across this article on Shift Journal this past Friday, which discussed the recent results of a study conducted at George Washington University about the genetics of autism. The researchers in question found that one particular gene in question, retinoic acid-related orphan receptor-alpha (known as RORA for short) may be responsible for the appearance of autistic development and tendencies in a person’s brain and nervous system.

How the RORA Gene Works

How exactly does this work? This report by MSNBC of the researchers’ results explains it this way: during the gestation period of a human baby, there is both estrogen and testosterone present in the mother’s womb. Both of these hormones affect the expression of the RORA gene, each in its own way: estrogen helps promote the expression of the gene, while testosterone inhibits it.

Why is this significant? While more research on the function of the RORA gene is still needed, what researchers do know is that the RORA gene is responsible for promoting the expression of, or “turning on”, so many other genes. For example, as the MSNBC article quoting researcher Valerie Hu said, the RORA gene “has been shown to protect neurons against the effects of stress and inflammation — both of which are elevated in autism” (which in my mind seems to suggest that the “intense world” theory of autism is correct).

In other words, too much testosterone in your mother’s womb, as the study theorizes, may well be responsible for the development and expression of autistic traits in your brain.

What About the Autistic Woman?

This conclusion at first glance sounds rather simplistic, and I believe this bears more study and exploration. But some immediate questions came to my mind…and all of them related to the autistic or Asperger woman.

First, I wondered: how might these findings be relevant to autistic women? The MSNBC article framed the results in terms of higher rates of autism spectrum disorder in boys and cited the typical 4:1 ratio of autistic men to women (I believe that women are underdiagnosed anyway, but that’s a whole ‘nother subject) and suggested that estrogen may have some mitigating qualities in terms of the RORA gene for women. Given this, and assuming that the testosterone/estrogen balance is one of the primary factors responsible for the development of ASD, does this mean that autistic girls and women may have received too much testosterone or not enough estrogen in the womb?

Then I remembered a book I’d read a couple of years ago —Why Men Don’t Listen and Women Can’t Read Maps: How We’re Different and What To Do About It by Barbara and Allen Pease. One section in particular spoke to how sex hormones affect the brain development, or “wiring” if you will, in a developing fetus and drew on Dr. Gunther Dorner, who has done research in sex-related brain differences and sexual orientation.

How does this all work? According to Pease and Pease, the basic template for the human body is female – up until between the sixth to eighth week after conception. Dorner’s research showed male hormones are the key to changing that “template”: in fetuses which are genetic boys (XY), testosterone in particular is used in the developing body to form testes and to configure the brain for masculine traits and behaviors. In contrast, little to no male hormone is typically present with a genetically female fetus (XX) and thus the body forms female genitalia and the brain remains female according to the original template; estrogen facilitates the continuation and completion of the female brain wiring.

So what does this mean? As the Peases explain it, testosterone is first used for the development of the male genitalia and whatever remains is used for sex-linked brain development. If there is not enough testosterone, then the brain may not completely develop with male wiring – he will end up with typically female thinking patterns and abilities in varying degrees according to how much testosterone was lacking during development. Conversely, if a female fetus accidently receives too much testosterone, she may end up with some male brain wiring in varying degrees, again according to how much testosterone she received in the womb.

Gender Identity and the Autistic Woman

Following this line of thinking, one could conclude that autistic women may have received too much testosterone in the womb and might have developed more male-wired brains. This conclusion lines up with Simon Baron-Cohen’s ”extreme male brain” theory of autism. While I still need to research the ins and outs of his theory, I will continue following this logic for just a moment and ask the question: so what does this mean for autistic women and their sense of gender identity?

I have repeatedly encountered other autistic women who have reported that they do not feel like a typical girl or woman, or that they found themselves not exhibiting behaviors typically expected of a girl or woman. For example, in her list of female Aspergian traits, Rudy Simone mentions that Aspie women “may have androgynous traits despite an outwardly feminine appearance; thinks of herself as half-male, half-female (well-balanced anima/animus)”. And Liane Holliday Willey documents a little of this in her book, Pretending to Be Normal in the following passage:

”I designed myself for comfort and convenience, not trends. This drove my girlfriends beyond distraction. They were forever advising me to pay more attention to my appearance. They would take me into the bathroom to and give me hints on how to wear makeup and how to fix my hair. They would remind me how gross it was for me not to shave my legs or tuck my shirt in or wear the same outfit several times in one week.”

And this is true for me too. While I am biologically female, I have never felt at home in the world of women. I have trouble understanding and socializing with most neurotypical women, and I am not interested in the same things that they are: I’d rather talk about the Enneagram or philosophy than about the latest gossip in the mill. My sense of fashion and style has come from years of observation, developing my own color palettes (I find that black, purple, blue, red, gold, and silver are each to match with each other), finding comfortable fabrics and shoes, and making a lot of mistakes, and it did not come natural to me; you are looking at the girl who was more interested in Greek mythology and African-American poetry than fixing her hair, which used to drive the aunt who raised me to distraction. And as I have mentioned before, I have empathy but lack the ability sometimes to decode the signals of what people are feeling and what they might need. Truthfully, I do almost feel half-female, half-male as Simone described above – for example, I have a primary male alter-ego who finds himself as the speaker in about a good third of my poems.

Back to Brain Wiring

The Pease’s book discusses a great deal more about how gender affects brain wiring and breaks down specifics between typically male and female characteristics. I plan to address these differences in a later post, and examine whether autistic women exhibit more specific characteristics related to male-wired brains. At least right now, I am beginning to think that maybe there is a correlation between hormones, brain wiring, and autism. I think this needs more study, and it would be interesting to assess what kinds of gender-related brain wiring that autistic women exhibit.

So…what do you think? Is the conclusion too simplistic? Might there be a correlation between hormones, brain wiring, and autism? As an autistic woman, do you find yourself thinking and acting in ways that are either not typically feminine at all or even are more typically considered masculine? I would like to hear from you.

Until next time,

Nicole

Why Me? More About Workplace Bullying, Office Gossip, and the Autistic Employee

First off, I want to thank my readers for being patient with me during my hiatus from the WWA blog due to illness and other personal issues. Rest assured, readers, I am back and here to stay. On that note, I’d like to pick up where I left off with this series on workplace bullying and the autistic employee.

Last time, I discussed the basics of workplace bullying: what it is, why bullies do what they do, and the effects that bullying has on employees. This time I’ll be talking about how bullies select their targets, why they may target autistic individuals, and the role that office gossip can play in both bullying campaigns and the everyday work life of an autistic employee. Continue reading

Workplace Bullying and the Autistic Employee, Part I: The Basics of Bullying

In my ongoing research, I recently found an article from the Workplace Bullying Institute about self-defeating stigmas held by adults bullied in the workplace. While reading the article, I began to think about my own experiences with workplace bullying and recognized some of my own shame about it.

Then, I thought about autistic adults and workplace bullying as a whole. According to a 2010 survey by the WBI, 35% of workers have experienced bullying firsthand. With estimates of autistic children being bullied as high as 90%, it’s not hard to imagine that many autistic adults have been bullied as both children and adults. And if what the WBI call a “silent epidemic” is distressing to neurotypical employees, you can imagine what kind of pain and distress it might cause for an autistic employee.

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Speech (A Poem)

Listen carefully. Hold your ear to the page
and hear the speech of hushed silence, how words
can rip a page apart if they are not careful. These little
black crispations carry swords and scissors – you just don’t know it
yet, and you won’t until you wake up the next morning and find
a small continent of blood, soaking in as a pillow stain
where your ear was resting all night.

There is a nook in the neck of the k where it
creased a crick while searching for a kiss, or for the end
of a bottomless ocean – that singular syllable made out of German slang
that I am very fond of using. But I will spare you X-rated fricatives
and give you the nectar from the nook instead. There is
also the curled come-hither of the c that looped itself
through the a hole in one of my earlobes after it snuck out of
my brain, and an n that strives to know how to fashion
the curve of its front leg after the curve of my nose. Every letter
is an escape artist – they all existed
as pictures projected onto the thick drive-in theater screen
made out of bone that stands behind my eyes. Everything
gets filed under vision.

This is what happens when speech becomes futile. You see,
I have three mouths – one on my face, one below my belt, and the
last one existing in the center of my brain. It grows teeth
as the words come, busting through bloody gums that eventually
send speech down the nerves of my arms and into my fingertips. Magically,
the teeth turn into type, this hushed silence
that you are reading right now. My brain is wired

to be a picture bank, a sound disc dictionary
that spins as the track to a thirty-four year-long movie
that has not yet ended or sent to the cutting room floor. It was
wired for me by invisible Asperger fingers that snuck inside my mother’s womb
while cell and soul were being knit together. And it is
wired for sound to be received through your eyes. Listen carefully. Don’t
read my lips. You won’t find anything there today.

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This poem was one of the two specifically written for Autistics Speaking Day. The other, “Back Door Blues“, is over at Raven’s Wing Poetry. There is a list of other poems I am sharing today here. And hats off to everyone participating in Autistics Speaking Day.

 -Nicole

Autistics Speaking Day Is Tomorrow

As you probably know, Autistics Speaking Day is tomorrow, November 1. Many of us on the spectrum have chosen this day to speak out instead of shut down, and The Coffee Klatch will be hosting a 24-Hour Chat on TweetChat tomorrow for Autistics Speaking Day. Also, other events and stuff may be happening too: feel free to check out the Autistics Speaking Day event page on Facebook for more info.

And I will be doing what I do best — poetry. I will be sharing some new poems I have written just for Autistics Speaking Day on here and Raven’s Wing Poetry, as well as sharing some other poems I’ve written in the past. I will post a list tomorrow of all of the poems here as well (so you don’t have to go a’diggin’) as well as Tweeting and posting on FB as much as possible. I look forward to joining everyone speaking out tomorrow in the Interwebs and Blogosphere and am honored to be part of such an event. Be LOUD and be PROUD on November 1!

-Nicole

Thank You, ANCA

Last night was the 2010 Inaugural International Naturally Autistic Awards ceremony, held in Vancouver, British Columbia. This was the first time that the ANCA Foundation had opened up its Naturally Autistic event to those outside of Canada, hence why it was an inaugural event. And ANCA, its supporters, and the award recipients made history last night.

The honorees at last night’s ceremony, both in the adult and child categories, did the Autistic Community PROUD. With autism, the focus has oftentimes been on our limitations, and this has sometimes given rise to assumptions and myths that we cannot create artistic works of value. The winners of this year’s awards stand as a testament that those assumptions and myths are wrong.

Here is the list of last night’s winners, courtesy of Blog Talk Radio show host Scott Jackson:

  • Adult Visual Painting Arts: Maria lliou, Long Island, New York, USA
  • International Literary Award: Nicole Nicholson, Columbus, Ohio USA
  •  Performing Arts: Scott Siegel, California, USA
  • (Children) Performing Arts Award: Gina Marie Incandela, Florida, USA
  • Judge’s Award, Performing Arts & Visual Arts Awards: Kristie Dix, Australia
  • Judge’s Award, Performing Arts Award: Michael van Houten, B.C., Canada
  • Arts Award: Dani Bowan, California, USA
  • Award in Theatre: Tammy Australia
  • Mentor Award: Tim Mueller of Autism Rocks in Eugene, Oregon, USA
  • Achievement Award: Joel Anderson, California , USA
  • Community Leadership International Award: Debbie Mkye, Queensland, Australia

Yes, you read the list right – I won an award in the Adult International Literary category, for a collection of poems that I submitted in mid-July to the foundation entitled “Novena”.

I am honored and happy to be among such talented, professional, and exceptional individuals as the above honorees at last night’s awards. Unfortunately, my fiance and I were unable to attend the ceremony – however, at the request of ANCA founders Leonora Gregory-Collura and Charlie Collura I sent in a pre-recorded acceptance speech as well as a pre-recorded reading of a poem from the collection, “You Don’t See It”. Both videos were played during last night’s ceremony; they are embedded into this post below.

 

(You can read the original poem on this blog or Raven’s Wing Poetry.)

I also had the privilege to call into Ralph Watley’s KXBG show on Blog Talk Radio last night and speak to callers, Leonora, and the other award recipients and attendees of yesterday’s event remotely from my home: you can listen to the archived broadcast here. I was flabbergasted, honored, humbled, and touched by a lot of the responses I heard to my work – at one point, I was told that the video of “You Don’t See It” which was played at the ceremony moved people to tears, and Kelly Green of AutismHWY mentioned that my poems helped her understand what was going on in the mind of her own son, who is also autistic. This was probably one of the first times in my life that I really understood how poetry can reach people, and that I really felt that my work moved listeners. And for that, I feel truly happy and blessed.

Thank you’s go to Leonora, Charlie, and the rest of the ANCA Foundation for such a historic event and opportunity to recognize artistic talent of both adults and children on the autism spectrum. Also, Kelly Green and AutismHWY were instrumental in getting the word out about the awards, both during the art submission period (which is how I found out about them) and promoting and publicizing last night’s ceremony. Last night’s event was truly historic and significant, and I am honored to have been a part of it as an award recipient. Continued blessings to ANCA and all of its friends and supporters, as well as my fellow award winners. This upcoming year looks to be truly promising.

Saludos,

Nicole

P.S. You can read last night’s program as a Uniflip document.