Wednesday, May 28, 2014

You, yes you, need Autistic friends.

Intended audience: parents of Autistic kids. Though obviously everyone needs Autistic friends.

So your child was just diagnosed with autism. Breathe. Breathe deeper. Relax. It'll all be ok. But you have some work to do.

The first thing you need to do isn't find therapists. It isn't commiserate with other parents. It isn't become an AAC expert (though all of these things have their place!). It's something not in the autism introduction packet: you need to connect on a human level with adults like your child. You need to go make some Autistic friends.

I don't mean a mentoring relationship, though those are extremely important and I am a big fan of mentoring (and mentoring your child & being friends with you are not mutually exclusive). I definitely don't mean "translate my child to me" (which is not a friend thing particularly). I mean find local Autistic adults with whom you have common interests and connect as equal human adult people.

There are a whole lot of reasons this is the best thing you can do for your child:

First, and possibly most importantly but mileage varies: your child is noticing things. If you go through a mourning phase, or a difficult adjustment phase, your child will notice and possibly blame himself. Your child may not have the vocabulary for it, but at some point he will figure out that he isn't the son you planned for and dreamed of, and he might blame himself for that. We figure it out when we're a disappointment, even if you do your best to hide that you're having a hard time. Many Autistic children get in our heads, accurately or not, that our parents only tolerate us because they're stuck with us.

Your child needs to see you choosing to be around people whose minds work like his. It's much harder to think your parents hate you and hate your brain when they seek out the company of people who think like you. Seeing the adults who are dearest to you--and like all children, Autistic youth default to loving their parents--seeing them find someone who reminds you of you? That's supremely important. Do not underestimate the effect this can have, just knowing that your parents would choose to be around you even if they weren't "stuck" with you.

Another reason: many disabled children never meet an adult with their disability. You might be surprised, and a bit saddened, at the conclusions we come to. Some folks come to the vague idea that we'll outgrow our disabilities (and when there's no sign of that, we're reminded that we're disappointing, because you can bet we're getting that message from someone in our lives). Or, I have friends who concluded that their disabilities were fatal. That's a recipe for severe anxiety, thinking that you're dying but you feel fine and no one has felt the need to talk to you about your inevitable demise. We need adults like us; this anxiety is completely unnecessary.

Your child also needs role models. She may not be able to fill your shoes, or Uncle Bob's or Auntie Bev's or her teacher's or those of any adult in her immediate sphere. But my shoes may fit, or those of another adult Autistic. All children need people in their lives who they can realistically emulate, & Autistic children are no different. I was pretty young when I knew the adult-woman things being modeled for me were just not going to happen ever--and alternatives were never presented. I was surrounded by folks who were similar to each other and not much at all like me. This is stressful. Making your own make is hard, and it's harder when everything you do is wrong (the premise of somewhere between many and most autism therapies, and a message also sent by peers, random strangers in the store, other adults, etc). Once again, anxiety. It's easier to believe you aren't Doing It Wrong when you know happy adults who took similar trails. Knowing options for the future? Seeing unconventional but fulfilling adulthoods? So important.

If you have culturally connected Autistic friends, your child also will have a head start on a connection to the community. As he grows older, he will have a life apart from your family. This is a good thing and an essential part of growing up. The Autistic community is his birthright. We as a general rule (can't speak for everyone) welcome friendly parents, but your child is one of us. It's wonderful but also overwhelming and scary to discover a place where you're "normal" when you've never been, especially all alone. Even good overwhelm is unpleasant when it gets too big. You can make this less of a shock by having Autistic friends. "I'm not alone" doesn't have to be an adulthood revelation; it can be a given. Your child deserves to grow up knowing that he isn't alone, that there's a whole community that will embrace him because he's one of ours. The gift of growing up with this knowledge? I cannot imagine it having anything but good effects.

Also, we're awesome. Autistic people are loyal and hilarious, among other things. We're good friends. We might provide insight to things about your kid that you never thought of, completely on accident. Your way of looking at the world may accidentally clarify things for us, too. But in my experience, Autistic people are the funniest people on earth, and the most dedicated to making sense and to fixing things that are not right (admittedly, my sample might be skewed, but I also have a very large sample size). That's how the people I hang out with roll. Making friends with us isn't just good for your child. We're good for you, too, and you can be good for us. A true friendship is a mutually beneficial relationship. We have a lot to offer each other.

So breathe, put down the pamphlets about all the different therapies, breathe again, and look in your networks for some Autistic connection. It'll make your life, your child's life, and some local Autistic's life, better.

Crossposted from Radical Neurodivergence Speaking Radical Neurodivergence Speaking

Sunday, May 11, 2014

A checklist for identifying sources of aggression

One of the most frequent and difficult parental concerns that we see in the autism community is that of aggressive behavior on the part of a child or teenager.  Caring parents are often frustrated at not being able to discern the source of their child’s distress, or worry that while they can handle the physical outbursts of a small child, they won’t know what to do when a child is older and larger.

Several of us at We Are Like Your Child have personal experience with anger and aggression, or with children who do.

The following is a checklist of questions to address when trying to identify the source of and alleviate aggression on the part of an autistic child or adult.  It does not necessarily include every possibility, but is a preliminary checklist of, in our experience, some major primary issues that are likely to be related to behavior observed as aggression on the part of an autistic person.  (To some extent, many of these issues can be related to self-injury as well.)

These are presented in no rigid order of likelihood or importance—they are all important factors to consider and investigate, and may affect different individuals in different ways and different combinations.

1.  Make sure that they are not being abused or mistreated in any way—At home, at school, in therapy or other activities…by parents, by teachers, by classmates, by siblings (including what might seem like “normal” taunting)…physically, sexually, emotionally or psychologically.

1a.  If they are being subjected to therapy intended to normalize their appearance, behavior, or mannerisms, to extinguish stimming, or ensure compliance or indistinguishability, they are being abused.

1b.  Do teachers at school engage in group punishment for the misbehavior of individual students?  If so, it can feel like there’s no point to behaving well or not lashing out, since they’ll be punished anyway for what they didn’t do.  Extreme anxiety can also result from feeling like you can’t ever know what the right thing to do is, since punishment is seemingly random.

2.  Do they have a reliable and safe mode of communication?  If not, what is being done to address that?

2a.  Is gaining speech being prioritized over developing a mode of communication that works better for them?

3.  Is their communication, in whatever form it occurs, being acknowledged as such and honored?  Do people take seriously what they say, in whatever way they are able to say it?  Can they get their needs met by non-aggressive means?

4.  Is their competence being presumed?  Is their autonomy and right to self-direction being honored to the greatest extent possible?  Is their right to bodily autonomy or personal space being violated?  Are they being forced, pushed, tricked, or coerced into activities or modes of social interaction that they are not ready for?  Are they being put into situations where they feel unsupported or unsafe?  Are they being allowed to do academic work at their level of capability?  Are their strengths being recognized and supported?  Are they trusted to know and assert their own limits?  Are they being included to the greatest extent possible in plans regarding their welfare, education, and activities?

5.  Is something wrong in their sensory environment, whether at home or at school?  Is their home or classroom environment too loud, chaotic, claustrophobic, or unpredictable?  Are they trapped in an environment with other kids they find overwhelming, hostile, or threatening?

5a.  If they are intense sensory seekers in any way (and remember that someone can be sensory-defensive in some regards, and also sensory-seeking in others), do they have an outlet for intensive physical input and focus, such as a martial art, sport, hiking, swimming, or horseback riding?

6.  Are they allowed to say ‘no’ and have it mean something?  This does not mean that they never have to do something they don’t want to do (like go to the doctor or dentist), but if the matter at hand is not a matter of life, health, or immediate safety, are they allowed to refuse activities or situations that they find uncomfortable or have no interest in?
If an unpleasant situation is truly unavoidable, is everything possible being done to identify and address their discomfort?

7.  Is sadness, grief, or anxiety being expressed as anger or irritability?  (This is VERY common in autistic people.)  Have they experienced a loss of a family member, friend or favorite classmate, pet, or member of their support staff recently?

8.  Have their plans, routines, or need for ritualization been disrupted?  Has something changed recently in their environment, family life, or social milieu?

9.  Have they had a full medical checkup and blood panels recently?  Is it possible that they’re in pain or discomfort from a treatable medical condition or food allergy/sensitivity that they lack verbal means to communicate?  (Even in verbal individuals, alexythymia, body awareness issues, effects of compliance training, and atypical pain perception can make communication about illness or pain difficult.)  Nutritional, dietary, and metabolic issues can also wreak havoc with our ability to self-regulate.

10.  Are they being allowed sufficient down time and privacy?  Or does their school and therapy schedule mean that they’re working the equivalent of two full-time jobs?  Is their ability to multi-task or process being overwhelmed?  We are very vulnerable to sensory, information, and emotional overload.  Do they have truly free time to spend as they choose or be alone?  Do they have a space that is their own?

Finally, something that we very strongly recommend, if you are looking for further guidance or input, is to find an autistic adult or mentor local to you, who can meet you and your child, observe their environment and interactions, and give feedback on what kinds of changes or interventions might be helpful.

Monday, May 5, 2014

I Am a Pushmi Pullyu

[image description: a pen-and-ink drawing of an animal that looks like the front half of two llamas, attached to one another at the waist. This is the "Pushmi Pullyu" creature from the Doctor Dolittle stories, an animal that gets nowhere because it wants to go in two directions at once.]

Like the famous creature from Doctor Dolittle stories, the Pushmi Pullyu, I am pulled in two different directions and, as a result, have a hard time getting anywhere at all. I have two strongly conflicting elements to my nature and only as I approach fifty years of age am I beginning to understand both elements enough to start finding a balance between them.

One half of me is an extravert. Yes, you heard that right. I am an Autistic extravert, the creature some would assure you doesn't exist. The official definition of an extravert is someone who gets their "juice" from being around people. I do love to spend time alone -- reading, writing, drawing, composing. Most extraverts are not "allergic" to spending time alone. But I deeply crave the company of people, their smiles, their thoughts, their play. I love group activities like dancing and drum circles. I love community events, especially colorful ones like Rainbow Gatherings and pagan festivals. I crave a large and diverse circle of friends. I want to be in the thick of things.

The other half of me is both sensory defensive and has C-PTSD. That half can't bear to be around people in numbers of more than 2 or 3 or for very long at a time. Bright lights, flashing lights, temperature highs and lows, strong smells, high-pitched noises, unexpected touch, rapid movement (think gaggles of children racing back and forth) are just unbearable for me. Crowds are a sensory nightmare. I simultaneously crave the press and chaos of a crowd and recoil in horror when I actually experience it. As a small child, I wanted to play with the other children but most often ended up hiding under the table from all their dashing about and squealing and stressful unpredictability.

On top of the sensory issues, years of brutal bullying and abuse have left me jumpy, suspicious, afraid of people, untrusting. I have a deep hunger to be part of a family, a circle of friends, a community, but when I find myself in the midst of people, I freak out, I snap, I react, I run away and hide. I just can't handle being around people and the sensory issues and C-PTSD build on each other in an ever-cycling feedback loop.

For years, these two halves of me were at war, just like the two halves of the Pushmi Pullyu battle over which direction to take. It didn't help that others would say things like, "toughen up," and "just give yourself time and you'll get used to it." I blamed myself for my dual nature and took it as a sign of weakness and inadequacy. If only I could just toughen up and stop being troubled by my senses! Or, conversely, if only I could drain away this childish need for others and be strong and adult enough to be truly happy alone!

But I wouldn't allow one half or the other to win and so I was living in a war zone. And every stress that came from forcing myself to endure emotional and sensory distress, waiting to "toughen up" and get used to it, added to the invisible wall between me and community. I began to live vicariously through movies and television shows. The Big Chill. Northern Exposure. Buffy the Vampire Slayer. I drank up those scenes of community, togetherness, chosen family. I hungered deeply for that sort of connection myself, but whenever I tried to find it, I would just end up a trembling ball of anxiety and tears.

Admitting that I am a Pushmi Pullyu was at least half the road to recovery for me. I am working on the emotional issues, but the sensory issues will not go away -- they are neurological and hard-wired into who I am. I will always be a person who needs quiet, gentle, short contact with only a few people at a time. My goal now is seeking balance -- finding a middle path between the crowds I wish for and the solitude my nervous system requires.

It's a delicate balancing act and one I'm still working on. I wish I had known and understood these dynamics when I was a child. As a child, I was a bit like the "painted bird" -- the bird who is painted a different color from the rest of the flock. The painted bird has a strong instinct to fly with the flock but the flock does not recognize it as one of their own, so they peck and peck at it, even unto death. The poor painted bird just keeps flying back for more because it needs the flock and it doesn't understand why everyone keeps pecking it. It dies confused and bloodied, still struggling to rejoin the others.

That was me as a child, striving again and again to be part of the community that was bullying and torturing me so harshly. No matter how hard they pecked me, I still kept trying to be one of them. The end result of years of this dynamic is Complex Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder: I have been "shell shocked" by bullying that sometimes became so violent that my life was at risk. And still, all I wanted was to belong.

There are many children out there like me. If you are parenting a painted bird child never say anything that could lead them to feel the blame for the abuse they are getting. I was told that I was bringing the abuse on myself and that belief was every bit as harmful to me -- a harm that still lingers with me today -- as the abuse itself. Protect your little painted bird. People will say "it's just good fun. All kids go through bullying. Yours just needs to toughen up a little." Say, "no! My beautiful, gentle child does not need to become tough and hard." and do everything you can to protect your child and find a safe place for them to grow and flourish.

And if your child also has sensory issues that are also causing them to be a Pushmi Pullyu -- eager to participate but melting down from sensory onslaught when they do, gently begin to explain to them, in ways they can understand at whatever age they may be, the idea of seeking balance. Help them to learn that they can't have everything or be everything but that they can find their own middle path that lets them get the most they can of as much as they can. Help them to learn to stand strong against those who would push with threats or guilt to try to force them to step out of balance with themselves. I have learned to say no when I need to protect myself and your child can learn it, too. (And hopefully your child will not require the nearly 50 years it has taken me to learn it!)

A Pushmi Pullyu is not an easy creature to be, but when the two front ends learn to co-operate, the Pushmi Pullyu can get twice as much accomplished. Being of two, conflicting natures has been stressful for me, but as I learn to find that place of balance -- a place that no one else can prescribe for me; I have to find it on my own and trust my own process -- I am coming to love the insights I gain from living with two halves pulling in opposite directions. I am coming to value who I am and where it has brought me in life.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Night-blooming Flowers: Sudden skill acquisition and extreme context-dependence

There was a graphic that went completely viral in both the autism parent and theater communities of Facebook a while ago, which makes occasional reappearances.  It’s a performance report note from the stage manager of a popular children’s show.  In one matinee performance, there had been some chattering from the audience at one point.  Afterward, the stage manager had learned from one of the teachers what the source of the commotion had been:  an autistic little boy, who had, as far as anyone knew, never spoken before, had suddenly started talking to the teacher sitting next to him all about what he was seeing.  No one had even thought that he knew his teacher’s name.

A couple of parents who commented were skeptical of the account.  While I resented the incident being passed around as inspiration porn by many, it was entirely possible, I argued, that under new and unique circumstances, a kid had displayed an ability for language that he’d never demonstrated before.

I was indignantly lectured by one mother about how autism is a neurobiological condition that can’t be cured by the magic of theater.

But being able to do something suddenly for the first time, or under specific circumstances, or gain in speech abilities, isn’t recovery from autism; it’s a really common experience, if not usually that dramatic. Autistic people can possess extreme sensitivity to environmental detail, patterning, and circumstance, and it can affect our abilities in any given moment.  Hadn’t they ever had something similar happen?  Was this really not a thing that non-autistic people experienced?

They didn’t know what I was talking about.


We do gain skills without necessarily being drilled or pushed, just in ways that might not be apparent to observers.  Just because progress or learning aren’t being displayed to others does not mean they aren’t happening.  An ability probably wasn’t learned or gained at the moment it was first displayed, but has been “under construction,” internally, for a long time.  Things that are intuitive and easy to typical people can require long periods of interior fermentation and distillation in order to develop, and then for us to feel safe or comfortable enough to use them.

And then seemingly suddenly, when the time or circumstances are right, there they are, like a night-blooming flower.

That uncertainty about whether they will ever show themselves doesn’t make it a miracle when they do; it means it took the time or circumstances it took for that to happen.

I’ve also said before that I feel that very few of my autistic traits are, themselves, positive or negative.  They’re all double-edged swords.  Disabling or painful in one context, necessary or pleasurable in a different context. 

Amanda Baggs has characterized autism not as a specific set of permanent deficits, but as a particular way that the brain allocates cognitive resources. 

That an autistic person might suddenly display an ability they’d never outwardly demonstrated before, or be able to do something under extremely specific circumstances or specific kinds of stress that they can’t do under typical, everyday circumstances, is neither magic nor miraculous.  It’s a common aspect of being autistic, and it’s one of my favorite parts.  It’s part of how being autistic works that distinct skills can develop at atypical times, and seemingly in isolation from other aspects of development, or are usable in extremely specific contexts when they aren’t normally.
Part of presuming competence is maintaining awareness that just because a skill has never manifested itself yet, does not mean that it never will.  And that just because someone might, in fact, never gain some particular skill, does not mean that they won’t gain others.


Once, in the first summer I lived in my apartment, I planted some pots of morning glories out on my fire escape, where they could trail up the railings.  I saw their long, spiraling buds form, and anticipated their blooming.

Then something strange started happening.  I would get home from work in the afternoons, and the buds that had looked healthy and ready to burst that morning would be withered and dead looking.  I thought that somehow they were dying before they ever bloomed.  I couldn’t figure out what could be happening to them.

On a rare day off, I went to take a book and cup of coffee out to the fire escape to enjoy the mid-morning sun.

All the morning glories were in gorgeous, bright pink bloom.  I realized they must only open their buds at a certain angle or intensity of sunlight.  Once they did, the flowers only lasted for few hours before wilting.  Nothing was wrong with the plants.  That was just what they did.  They weren’t the same as marigolds or tulips.

-Moonflowers bloom only at night.
-Four o’clocks bloom only in shade or late afternoon; you can trick them with an umbrella.
-Nasturtiums flower only in arid conditions; they never will if they get too much water.
-Giant corpse blossoms can bloom only once every several years, or even several decades.  That doesn’t mean they don’t, just because someone could watch one for years and never see it happen.

-The seeds of some native prairie plants can germinate only after exposure to the intense heat of a wildfire.

As a kid, I didn’t pick up bike riding at the same age as everyone else I knew.  It just didn’t work for me the way it apparently did for everyone else, and I couldn’t stay upright without training wheels for much longer than was socially acceptable.  Discouraged and embarrassed, I gave up and threw my bike into a corner of the garage.  Months or years went by, and I didn’t look at it or touch it or attempt to practice.  I couldn’t ride a bike.  That was it.

Then one day when I was 8 or 9, I just felt like I probably could.  I dug my bike out of the garage and on the very first try, started riding in perfect circles around the driveway.

For a long time, I couldn’t summon the coordination necessary to blow my nose.  Then one day I just could.  I was 17.  (I was driving before that.  I could drive before I could blow my nose.)

One day I just understood how to make my bed.  I was 31.

Gain in abilities, even when sudden and seemingly inexplicable, is not recovery from autism; the fact that we learn very differently from other people is intrinsic to autism, and one of those differences seems to be, very commonly, that immense periods of internal processing, combined with specific circumstances, can be necessary before a skill can be externalized.

There’s nothing wrong with that, nor is there anything particularly miraculous about it.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Writing to ask for a job

Yeah, I know, even the neurotypical folk don't like doing this. I'm fairly sure that hours spent staring at a blank word document because I don't even know how to start, followed by staring at the scaffold someone gave me having no clue how to build on it, then finally getting somewhere when a friend who gets my cognitive issues asked me questions one by one to help me build on it and then walking me through editing is more than most people need.

Qualitative differences, they are a thing. Also, "I have a cognitive issue that means I can't actually do this independently" is different from "I really don't like doing this."

But with help, I got it done-ish (yay!) and my friend was cool with my putting the results of the help here, so here it is.

First off, here's the scaffold that's pretty much what he gave me.

my name is flap
you do research
it's actually a lot like the research I wrote my final paper on.
I want do research.
I have done research before in US.
Hire me.

Then he asked me a pile of questions that he knew could get me to elaborate. It's still not really a letter, but there's content now!

my name is Alyssa.

you do research and development of dye-sensitized solar cells.
it's actually a lot like the research I wrote my final paper on: quantum-dot sensitized solar cells. It uses similar properties, just using a different tiny particle.I talked about improving the efficiency of quantum dot sensitized solar cells.A lot of the research in the quantum dot ones uses the research on dye ones as a starting point!but not everything is the same. dye likes high temp, not so much quantum dots. 
I want do research. SCIENCE! I want to do nanotechnology research long-term, and this is pretty much doing nanotechnology research now.
I've been interested in nanotechnology since I was ten or so, reading Science News. Took longer to figure out that I can  do nanotechnology research myself, but yay cool thing!
Making solar cells better is specifically important because saving the environment is important.
Combining "important research" and "this is just REALLY COOL" makes a good combination as far as things I want to do go. 
I have done research before in US. I worked on making gold-coated liposomes. I worked under [professor] in mechanical engineering @ [school] and [another professor] in chemical engineering @ [school]. 
I applied for and got a small grant from the universities undergraduate research initiative.Another undergrad is currently working on the project while I'm away.
We took pictures using an electron microscope and we do seem to have shells.
Um... the shells are applicable to a bunch of things potentially, including targetted cancer treatment. 
I've done research before and was good at it, see above.
I can read a lot and there's a lot of reading involved in doing science. I am good at numbers and computers and following written directions, and I have experience in writing the directions for experiments as well 
Science is a thing I'm generally good at.
Complementary language abilities is a thing, but [current program] might get pissy at me for pointing it out. (Both of us can read the relevant stuff in English or in Chinese, but English is my native language and Chinese is his, so that's potentially useful? Hire me.

Finally, he helped me connect and edit stuff. This is the step where I came closest to doing it myself, but I did need some help.

Dear Professor Wang,
I am writing to ask about doing research in your lab this semester regarding your work in dye-sensitized solar cells. It's in a similar area to my final paper topic from your class, improved efficiency for quantum-dot sensitized solar cells, and much of the reasearch I looked at mentioned relationships between the two. I'm interested in research within nanotechnology, and have done research before at [school] under [professor] (Mechanical Engineering) and [other professor] (Chemical Engineering.) There, I worked on growing a gold nanolayer onto liposomes and successfully applied for the undergraduate research initiative grant. The early results have been promising and I have been asked to return to their lab upon my return to [location of school]. As an experienced research assistant, I think I could be helpful in your work on nanocrystals and their applications. The fact that I am bilingual in English and Chinese may prove useful in that I can read research in either language. I hope to hear back from you soon about this research opportunity and am happy to provide references upon request.
Alyssa [last name]
The last step was to translate it into Chinese... that never actually happened... but my program made the contacts and found me another person to do research under, who I'm meeting with tomorrow compared to my writing this and about a week ago compared to when this posts.

Language proficiency is not the reason this didn't get translated, by the way. I'm not 100% sure what the reason set was, but language proficiency is not the issue. I've translated tougher stuff before, and I've written tougher stuff directly in Chinese as well.

Saturday, March 1, 2014

Languaging Differently

Reprint from Yes, That Too, closely related to the previous post here.

This is a thing I was thinking about, after my fun times with my teachers saying I don't use formal enough language when I write and speak in Chinese class. I'm actually way more formal in my writing and oral reports for Chinese than I ever was in classes conducted in English, since our classes have basically been “here have more formal words and here's how to use them” for the last few years. That said, I'm still nowhere near as formal in my speech as my classmates. I've been studying the language for sometimes twice as long, and I'm definitely more fluid with the words I'm comfortable with, but formality? Ha. That's basically not a thing.
And here's what I realized:
People still think I'm a good tutor and a good teacher. They do. In fact, what they usually say is that my explanation was the first one that made sense to them. Now, what's different about the way I explain stuff? Oh, wait. It's that lack of formal language again, isn't it? Yes, that's right, the same thing I'm getting in trouble with in my Chinese classes, the same thing that's gotten my essays marked down since at least the seventh grade? It's what makes me a good teacher.
Now why are we trying to change the weird language usage that makes me a better teacher? What is the advantage of changing it?
I've heard several things from teachers who are trying to change it.
“No one will take you seriously if you write like that.”
“It's not formal enough.”
“You need to learn to code-switch.”
“The words you're using are too simple.”
“Your sentences are too simple.”
“What will you do when you're writing about complicated things?”
Here's the thing. I have written about complicated things. I've used the technical terms when they make more sense, and I've used simple words when they are better words, and it works. Isn't the sign of a good teacher that they can take a complicated thing and make it simpler? Make it make sense? It seems to me that using simpler words to the extent that we can is a better idea, if the goal is to make people understand instead of being to show off how much you know.
My sentences aren't always simple. Sometimes they are. I don't understand why complicated is an end in it's own right, so “too simple” is something I'm just going to keep throwing out.
I do have some ability to code-switch. It's not much of a much, but it exists. I need a reason to use this ability, though. I'm not going to tire myself out code-switching for no good reason.
Formality is a social expectation. It really is. As such, if it has negligible effect (or maybe even helps) with functionality, fine, I'll go with it. When it actively impedes function, that's not cool. In this case, demanding formality does, in fact, actively impede function. It does this in multiple ways.
One is that it makes it harder for me to communicate the meaning I want to communicate. Sometimes that's because the more formal word doesn't have the same shade of meaning the less formal one does. Sometimes that's because I just can't think of the more formal one. Sometimes it's because nitpicking my vocabulary slows down my ability to come up with sentences to the point that my brain is way ahead of my speaking or writing and then I lose track of what I'm thinking. This leads to The Sads.
The other time formality causes a problem is when I'm teaching. A good teacher explains things in ways that their students will understand. That's not the same thing as explaining in the most formal way possible. In fact, my experience as a tutor and teacher tells me that those things are often opposites. The simplest, most conversational explanation is the one that my students tend to understand. At that point, yes, formality is impeding function. That means formality needs to go away.
Finally, the first reason. “No one will take you seriously if you write like that.” Is this my problem? I'd argue that it's other people having a problem with the packaging of an idea and therefore ignoring the idea itself. I'd also argue that it's a load of nonsense. If it were true, I wouldn't have readers who take my writing seriously. I certainly wouldn't have had a blog post of mine cited in an academic journal. I wouldn't be presenting at conferences and workshops. I wouldn't be getting pieces accepted in books. I am getting taken seriously while writing like this. I'm getting taken seriously by people who realize that not everyone is going to write the exact same way, and that that's fine. I'm getting taken seriously by people who care more about ideas being communicated than they do about how smart I can make myself sound while in the writing.
I really don't care how smart I can make myself sound in the writing. It's not the point. I care how well I can get the idea across. If my natural mode of speech and writing is one that works well for teaching beginners (I'm going to take beginners words for it over that of “experts” who might say it doesn't work,) I'm hanging on to that. I don't want to be the person who learns the fancy codes and finds that they've lost their personal voice. I don't want to be the person who needs to be re-taught to use words people know.
If the way my brain tends to bounce off jargon-heavy and meaning-light writing makes it harder for me to write that way and then I keep writing to explain, I'm honestly OK with that. (I'm fine with technical terms, but when they are strung together in ways that don't mean much or when the terms themselves are too broad, my mind starts bouncing. Academic papers tend to be bad, even when I understand the concepts. Being written by someone whose first language isn't English is generally OK- some of their issues are similar to my own, even. Not always picking the word that best suits the situation, even if the meaning is right? They'll do that, and I'll do that.)

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

But I can't do the thing!

Yes, another reprint from Yes, That Too.

Trigger Warning: Heck if I know but it's the product of me being triggered so... school stuff, generally?

My study abroad program has language utilization reports they want us to do. I can tell from the descriptions they've given that they think these are supposed to be easy. Like, 5 minutes of a multi-day orientation was given to this and I said then that I didn't think the questions were accessible to me. It got brushed off, because I don't know. Maybe because they can't understand how such a thing would be brain-breaking. But it is.

No, asking me what a language interaction I had trouble with in the last two weeks and what resources I think I need to solve it isn't going to get you anywhere. It's just not. There is an assumption that I'll remember an interaction like that. I actually probably would, if I got reminded of the interaction, but... the question they asked is one that brain-blanks me, not one that brings up information. So I'm not going to have an interaction. If we're lucky, I'll come up with a vague general thing that I remember a teacher told me I had a problem with. In this case, what I could come up with was a teacher telling me that the language I was using is too informal. Which, um. Yeah.

That's something people have been complaining about in my English essays since at least the seventh grade. I got marked down on my MCAS essay that year for overly simplistic language. I remember that. No, I don't know what linguistic resources will let me fix it. Frankly, I've got a wee bit of a moral issue with the idea that it needs fixed, since the point of language is to say stuff and people writing the way they want me to be able to tend to break my brain too. I'm actually OK with technical terms as long as they are technical terms as opposed to wide-broad-not-actually-meaning-anything buzzwords. I'm OK with complex ideas. I'm OK with complex sentences for complex ideas, generally, but when people start making stuff more complicated in the name of formal it tends to make my brain hurt.

And of course, I think a good teacher is someone who can make complicated stuff understandable, not make complicated stuff sound more complicated. So yeah. Just a wee bit of a moral issue with that. Also the fact that I prefer to be able to understand my own writing, and yes, when I give in and write in the extra-complicated-formal-academic voice that people like to praise I can find myself not understanding my own writing later. Not worth it. Really not.

So that's the issue that I can remember, and it's not one that I'm entirely comfortable with the idea of solving.

Plus the other questions don't get along any better with my brain than that one does.

And I just sent them an email saying this stuff doesn't work well with my brain. That's scary because this is a heavy-duty smart-people impressive-people-doing-impressive-things program and I'm going in and saying that yeah, the thing that you wrote to be a simple easy data collection thing is actually one of the hardest things you're asking me to do because it is breaking my brain. That's scary to admit. It's risking becoming Not A Really Real Person in their eyes and that is scary. It is a lot of scary. And yeah. Help. Except don't, because I can't deal with people right now. No, really. If we are friends on Facebook: DO NOT MESSAGE ME ABOUT THIS. IF I WANT TO TALK TO YOU ABOUT IT, I WILL START THE CONVERSATION. NO EXCEPTIONS.