So, it seems that I am probably done with autism-Twitter and shortly will be unfollowing a to-be-determined number of people for the sake of my own well-being, in an act of self-care.
First it was an overblown kerfuffle over use of the comparative terms “objective” and “subjective” when discussing trauma, and now it’s a misread of an old psychoanalysis paper about Asperger’s patients and ants.
In this article, we expand a prevailing emphasis on behavioural–educational treatments, by presenting an approach that focuses on psychodynamic factors, nonverbal communication, and animal-assisted psychotherapy. We describe interactions between patients and therapists on a procedural, verbal, and nonverbal level that further the therapeutic process with increasing affect. The treatments of an adult and a child both presenting Asperger’s syndrome illustrate the bridging from their nonhuman world to the world of feelings and people.
Or, as someone on Twitter would reconstruct that last: “The treatments of an adult and a child both presenting Asperger’s syndrome illustrate the bridging from [the autistic] nonhuman world to the world of feelings and people.”
Those injected brackets are doing a lot of work, framing the paper and its authors as straightforwardly dehumanizing autistic people.
Except that I read the paper online (thanks, Multnomah County Library online research tools!), and that’s not even remotely what it says, or what it’s about. It’s about two Asperger’s patients, each of whom tended not to engage in much interaction with other people, through psychotherapy managing to experience ants as a bridge to more social engagement.
(I’m not going to get into the matter of what the goals or methods of autistic psychotherapy should or should not be, here. I’m just going to stick to the matter at hand, which is what the paper does and does not say.)
In one case, Sam, this bridging happens as a result of a dream he has about an ant farm.
Then for the first time Sam brought in a dream with something alive. “It was a dream about an ant farm. The ants were under a glass dome. It dawned on me to provide water for each of the ants. But they were living in dirt and doing just fine.”
I was struck by the living things he had depicted. I acknowledged his depiction of communal life and felt very encouraged by this shift in imagery from the inanimate world to the animate world. And an ant colony is an extraordinarily busy, lively place. My commenting on the living things he had depicted for the first time also conveyed to Sam that he now had the rudimentary resources for an emotional life with people.
A few weeks later, Sam brought a dream that concerned a baseball game and led to some new material. Sam was a member of a virtual group that organizes imaginary baseball teams that are made up of players from various existing teams. Each week, on the internet they get together to compare scores based on the players they had chosen for their team, and their team’s performance. Sam spends a considerable amount of time in adding, trading and deciding who plays on his team each week. This was Sam’s main social connection. Once in a while the various “team managers” would get together but actually that was quite rare. The dream about the baseball game was part of a progression, as we could see in retrospect. It led from the ant farm to increasing engagement, on his terms, at his level of comfort, into the human world.
In the other case, Carl, the bridging happens through a longer series of exposures to an “antquarium” his therapist brings to his sessions.
From Sam’s ant dream, I (E.-M. T.) derived the idea of adding animal assisted psychotherapy to Carl’s treatment. As found in her study of behavioral patterns of children with social-behavioral problems, autistic children tend to distance themselves from a therapy dog. They tend not to caress or even look at the animal. Based on what Frank told me, I decided to work with insects, ants. I bought an Antquarium, where ants can be observed. These animals are extraordinary social. Bidirectional touch, movements, and smell serve as avenues for communication and information. Most important, they do not demand interactions with humans. In fact, they don’t even look at humans, nor do they need to be looked at. They function on their own. I hoped that observing social behavior for Carl might add to a deeper understanding of the how and why of social interaction than any verbal explanation.
When Carl came to his next session the Antquarium was on the table, in front of his seat. We were now a Quartette, Carl, his mother, the ants and me. Carl sat down and, it appeared to me, facted as though there was nothing unusual on the table. As in the past, he waited for some suggestion. I, too, waited a little and finally asked him, “Well?” In his metallic voice, Carl responded, “Ants!” He had clearly noticed the ants. So far as I could tell, there had been no sign of recognition on his face. This had been a common occurrence with Carl. He already “knew” something, but others did not expect him to know it. No doubt, he experienced adults as constantly trying to tell him things that he already knew. He provided no clues as to what he already did know and other remained unaware of his participation in this dilemma.
Carl later “could not only pay attention and listen, but could convey to the speaker that he was listening [and these] interpersonal skills were generalized to his classroom behavior.” He asked for pets at home, and become more engaged in school and socially.
Neither of these stories are dehumanizing, and in fact during Carl’s story more disdain is had for his inattentive mother who would fall asleep during Carl’s sessions.
The language in the paper’s abstract which was bastardized on Twitter is echoed in its conclusions, and I’ll share that here as, for me, the final nail in the coffin of autism-Twitter.
Carl and Sam both fulfilled the diagnostic criteria for Asperger’s syndrome. In addition to verbal communication, with these two patients, our approach included attention to gestural, facial, nonverbal, symbolic, and vocal displays. Specifically, we used the insect imagery in one treatment to further that patients awareness for his growing emotional repertoire and in another treatment as insect cotherapists, to engage nascent affective resources. For both patients the ants as either a symbol or a concrete presence moved the treatment towards a dynamic relational perspective. Both found a transition from their rigid and stereotypic non-human world to the world of feelings and people.
We speculate that for both, Carl and Sam, emotional life began on an ant farm. The ants presented each patient with a simple nonthreatening social structure that did not call forth terror or feelings of shame about their lack of comprehension about social relationships.
Neither the paper’s abstract nor its conclusions speak of autistic people as non-human.
When the former speaks of “bridging from their nonhuman world to the world of feelings and people” and the latter of “their rigid and stereotypic non-human world to the world of feelings and people” the authors are describing the world of these autistic people, not the autistic people themselves.
Sam and Carl both tended to operate in a world without people, a non-human world; then Sam dreamt of an ant farm, and Carl was excited by an antquarium.
Through these non-human worlds, either devoid of people or enlivened by creatures who weren’t people, Sam and Carl—consistently described in effusively-human terms by the authors–each found ways in which to form new connections to other human beings.
This sort of misreading of intention and language isn’t limited to autism-Twitter. It’s something I get angry about in political discussions there as well, but my daily well-being really is only directly impacted by what I expose myself to when it comes to discussions about autism.
There are plenty of insidious ways in which autistic people are discounted and disparaged by the medical and mental health professions, as well as by neurotypical society as a whole. I don’t need to watch autistic people invent false examples, or attribute to malice what can be explained either by lazy or unclear language on the part of professionals or by misreadings by autistic activists.
Twitter, and for short while Medium, have been instrumental in my figuring out how to navigate my midlife diagnosis.
Like so much other spaces on Twitter, however, it appears that autism-Twitter is becoming too toxic a place to be. There are real fights to be fought, and I can’t anymore watch the ones that seem to have been ginned-up for maximum engagement.
Or is that just another example of attributing to malice what instead can be explained by something else.