Editor’s Note: This article was written in 2012, soon after the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting and was published on OpEdNews.com. In response to the Oregon school shooting recently we felt it necessary to publish this piece again. Largely because the insights and truths it speaks of are necessary and vital. But also because it is not okay to have to dust this off, if even, indeed, there had been time for dust to accumulate. It is not okay, and it is avoidable. Please read and share. And please reach out to the strange, lonely misfits in your neighborhood. They have much to offer and are waiting for acceptance.
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Way back when in neuro-anatomy class, I remember listening to my instructor go through the issue of operant conditioning and understanding the degree to which we – as people – were being conditioned by our environment. The teacher was talking about a rat in a maze and explaining that if the rat receives food for turning right in a maze, but not for turning left, then the rat’s entire being–from digestive system to social behavior– becomes conditioned to pay more attention to cues on the right. In fact, the rat begins to follow the maze and make predominantly right turns only, even when it isn’t hungry. I felt like I was being shown something special something that explained who we are and why we do what we do … because in truth … I think we are very much like rats in a maze.
The final shocker was when I learned that due to something called drive reduction, people/animals will accept almost any amount of torture or control as long as it’s done incrementally. Incremental change is hard to notice and easy to adjust to, thus if the imposed changes are of a sinister nature animals can twist and warp into someone they would rather not be, yet have no understanding of the fact that it has even happened. In my opinion as we’ve tried to make our lives better, with cell phones and microwaves, TV and gaming systems, we’ve actually slowly and incrementally made our lives smaller and more horrendous. Perhaps that is why when I go into homes and meet families with children on the autism spectrum I almost always meet a family with many diagnosis’ strewn about the parent generation. The same was true in my home, until I noticed.
In 1992 I started rebelling the use of television in my home and became unplugged, for a very specific reason. Having my children sit and watch whatever show or commercial that came across their vision meant that they were like leaves in the wind of societies salesmanship. They could be sold drugs, partying hard with a bottle of beer in their hands, violence as cool and strong, fast food as healthy and a multitude of other erroneous ideas. I wasn’t going to be able to control that. So we unplugged and I allowed only movies in the home. However, I had a lot of children so there were plenty of older siblings (and older sibling friends) to indoctrinate and influence my younger ASD children and their strangely perceiving minds.
Thus, it was necessary for me to really pay attention to what came into the house and how the children were receiving the information that they were getting as they went into the world. My children were half/half, I had eight all together and four of them were on the spectrum of autism. All four of my autistic boys were unable to logically process or understand the subtleties of what they were watching. So it was important that I teach them how. I sat and paused movies frame by frame and explained what was on them. I explained the thinking behind each scene, and I explained the message. The problem is that – as I inferred – I was a little bit crazy myself so for me to guide my children it meant I had to heal me. This has turned out to be a blessing. But when a family does not choose this path, they advocate responsibility to the government, to the educational system and others, losing touch with their instincts. And then they blame the others who are not doing the job that they have trusted them to do.
Unfortunately, the educational system, the government and the pharmaceutical companies do not know how to do this job. They are not to blame for trying. They are not to blame for not knowing how. We are all complicit as we choose to put (or allow) a video game or a television channel in front of our children and not sit down and engage. We are complicit, as we are too busy and they are left alone.
This is made even worse by the fact that the presently accepted method for helping people with brain disorders—especially autism– is to control them and treat them as though they don’t have the ability to learn or understand social subtleties, and to therefore create coping techniques and visual prompts rather than sophisticated thinking. We give up on them before we begin. We set them up and we reinforce at every turn their disability. We say things like ‘they are anti-social’ and they are uncomfortable in other peoples presence, and we make it so.
Maybe they did or do feel uncomfortable in people’s presence, but we help to make it bigger and bigger and bigger until the very act of being in public is so uncomfortable that one wants to demolish it. It is not the governments fault for not knowing. It is our fault for constantly yelling and screaming and finger pointing and wanting to blame. We should be listening and thinking and looking to ourselves and our children, and saying how can we refuse to accept the status quo, stop believing in the idea that life is hard, that life is scary, life is angry? How do we insist upon life feels good, I am happy, my children love me?
As long as we believe in labels above feelings, pain will be the result.
I saw a (fictional) movie, We need to Talk about Kevin, wherein it was mentioned that the child was possibly autistic or Asperger’s (though he is never diagnosed as such) and he ends up killing an auditorium full of children, as well as his dad and sister. When I saw the movie I was extremely moved by the way it was put together and tried to invite the director to be a guest on my podcast. I did not connect with her and I am sorry. I’m sorry that I didn’t try harder, because maybe if I had spoken we could have created a different societal shell, and turned the tide on this. Because I do believe that we are all connected. Our thoughts create each other’s thoughts because we do these subtle things that reinforce the problem or heal the problem. When people are brave enough to speak out, like Joe Scarborough of MSNBC’s Morning Joe did when he suggested that the problem was how we handle mental health in this country, they are brave enough to say something that we don’t want to hear. We have choices. Take a deep breath and listen, searching for potential gifts that we can help our kids with, or ignore it, analyze it talk about it with others– but yelling and screaming at each other and ourselves is a distraction. Handing your kids to these educators who don’t really know what they are doing is the distraction. The only person who can really help is you. And you start by becoming happy, healthy, loving yourself and your child and their disability. That’s how it’s done.
And I know this because I have walked this journey with my own children. I have watched them go from confused and anti-social to violent to kind. At this moment in time we are dealing with the fact that one of my sons who made that very journey was recently attacked and raped at gun point in his own home by a random man. I am not sitting in anger because anger is a luxury. I am not running to save him without a plan for the future. The whole family has come together to support and help him. And we have tried to keep him from anyone who would tell him that he has no control and no power, because that will just make him feel more afraid. We are skillfully turning lemons into lemonade, even in this situation, because at the end of the day I want him to feel happy, healthy and independent. So he is looking for all the ways in which he may have signaled this sort of action. Not because we made him feel guilty. Not because he thinks this is his fault, but because he sees that as the method for recovery.
Finding a way to walk differently in the world so that he attracts a different kind of attention is what he sees as his possible power and a way to lead himself into a better future. My son was raped at gunpoint in his own home—he escaped through a bathroom window—and he is finding a way to turn that into something healthy. I challenge you to do the same. I challenge you to shift and recreate your own generation before you try to shift and positively influence the next one.
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CONCRETE TIP: Meltdown mode. If you have a child who is having a meltdown, who is screaming and hitting himself, do not run and give attention to the meltdown, do not yell at the child for the meltdown. Do react, stand in their presence and say, “when you are finished with that I would love to help you.” If they are hitting themselves offer them a squeeze, but do not do it as though you are saving them. Do it like you are teaching them how to help themselves, and then walk them through, logically, whatever lead them to the meltdown. Fear, anger and sadness are luxuries that lead to catastrophes.