Friday, February 15, 2019

Autistic Children and Toilets: Misunderstanding the Difficulties

A disorientating digitally altered photo  looking down into an empty toilet cubicle
Photo © Ann Memmott
[image: A disorientating digitally altered photo 
looking down into an empty toilet cubicle.]

Ann Memmott

Many autistic children sense the world very differently from how many parents and teachers expect.

Above, an example of how an autistic child may see a room with a toilet and hand basin in it. A tiled wall, a patterned vinyl floor surface. Would you put your feet on that floor? Could you work out what it was? Could you even reliably find the toilet?

Now let's add in the 'smellscape.' Perhaps air fresheners. Toilet cleaners. Hand soaps. Wee. Poo.

Then, let's add in the soundscape. Noisy pipes. The jet-engine-like flush. The deafening smash of wee or poo hitting the water, and the terrifying prospect of freezing water splashing up.

Let's then add in the elements of freezing cold toilet seat, ice cold taps or boiling hot taps, the ice-cold metal of the toilet handle, the taps. The searing rough surface of the hand towel, or the further deafening roar of a hand drying unit perhaps. Then, of course, the pain of dragging clothing down in order to use the toilet.…coping with the complexities of the toilet paper and what to do with it, where to put it. Dragging clothing back up again, like someone using sandpaper against your skin.

Toileting can be the most terrifying experience imaginable for a child whose experience of the world is turned up to 'max.'

For others, each noise and smell, texture and feeling is a fascination and a puzzle which needs exploring, and they may seek out those experiences over and over, trying desperately to make sense of them.

Some may experience difficulties with balance and co-ordination, or with internal signaling to say they need a loo until it's too late. Or with the ability to point or signal that they want the loo.

To their credit, many autistic children endure all of this and actually do use the loo, politely, over and over again, and continue to do so for life. No-one questions whether it's hell, or whether we could design such spaces in ways less exhausting to use. So, let us bear in mind that most autistic children do manage to cope with this ridiculous scenario.

But how easy it is for some adults to misunderstand why an autistic child may avoid using a toilet.  Some children are so desperately afraid of these spaces that they will only wee or poo in a quiet, safe corner. Often on soft material that disguises the noise.

Yet some adults still say, "They're just animals—they just don't care—this is deliberate challenging behaviour—we must find ways to force them…" We even have playwrights writing a horrible play which portrays autistic children as animals, using this theme and dehumanising puppets.

Oh my. No.

Always, always presume competence. Presume that the child wants to learn. Always, always show respect and caring. Take good advice from autistic advisers and our allies, who are experienced and expert. Many are parents, many have vivid memories of their own of the challenges of such spaces.

If you are designing such a space, take good advice on that design. Think about minimising the pain and the disorientation.

Instead of assuming that, since it's OK for you, it must be OK for an autistic child…think differently. Because the solution isn't the child being forced into that hellish toileting space. Instead, we should be working with the child to find answers to each part of their toileting nightmare. Thinking about making the visual experience understandable. Minimising the smells. Minimising the noise. Using soft towels, soft paper. Using clothing that doesn't cause terrible pain when it is pulled up or down.

Work together. Learn from one another.

Thank you for listening.

Monday, February 11, 2019

The Meaning of Self-Advocacy

Black and white photo of a person with long dark hair holding their arms straight out towards the camera, with palms facing outward protectively.
Image © Gioia de Antoniis  | Flickr / Creative Commons
[image: Black and white photo of a person with long dark hair holding their arms
straight out towards the camera, with palms facing outward protectively.]

Mel Baggs

Too often people define self-advocacy in narrow terms. They define it in terms of formal groups like People First or Autism Network International. They define it in terms of the ability to use standard language in a specific set of ways. They define it in terms of a specific method of going through the legal system, or other usual channels, to get specific kinds of things done. These are all valid kinds of self-advocacy, but they set people up to believe that only certain kinds of people could ever become self-advocates.

When one inmate in an institution fights back against the staff in defense of another inmate who is being brutalized, this is self-advocacy. I have only seen this happen once. She was brave and heroic in the genuine senses of the words, and she paid the price for trying to protect me.

When an autistic teen without a standard means of expressive communication suddenly sits down and refuses to do something he's done day after day, this is self-advocacy. When his initial peaceful methods are ignored in favor of restraining him and violently shoving him into a car so that staff can meet their schedules rather than listen to him, his decision to bite the driver is self-advocacy. I was there in the car with him.

When an autistic person who has been told both overtly and otherwise that she has no future and no personhood reacts by attempting in any way possible to attack the place in which she's been imprisoned and the people who keep her there, this is self-advocacy. That was me and too many others I knew.

When inmates of institutions (both traditional and those that masquerade as community), including those who are said to have no communication, devise covert means of maintaining communication and friendship in spite of staff's attempts to stamp it out, this is self-advocacy.

When people generally said to be incapable of communication find ways of making clear what they do and don't want through means other than words, this is self-advocacy.

When inmates and 'clients' devise both small and big ways of sabotaging staff's attempts to control our lives, this is self-advocacy.

In the book First Contact, Dave Hingsburger describes how people with significant developmental disabilities, normally believed to be incapable of self-advocacy, can and do engage in it:
Helen is her own self-advocate in that her "self" "advocates" that we adapt the world for how she experiences it. This is self advocacy at the grandest level. Why? Because it is immediately apparent that if Helen's personhood can liberate her—our understanding of the personhood of people with disabilities should do the same. Her statement of joy, of self awareness, shows that people who think that she would be better off dead—are simply bigots who choose not to know her. Helen is a radical person. Her message is about radical acceptance. Her life is radically her own. For those labeled "profoundly retarded," emphasize the word "profound."1
Then there's the question of things that get called self-advocacy, but aren't.

When a non-disabled person gets full of ideas about what disabled people should be saying and thinking about our lives, and holds us lockstep in his control while pretending to teach us all these revolutionary ideas, that is not self-advocacy. Nor is it self-advocacy when someone is constantly telling us that our existing methods of advocating for ourselves are wrong, that we need to ask permission to have a voice, and that self-advocacy can only be accomplished once we learn to behave and go through "appropriate" channels. Or when an institution sets up a "self-advocacy group" that it keeps busy doing meaningless work to siphon off the frustrations of inmates and prove to others that they're really about "empowerment." These things often get passed off as self-advocacy, though. Real self-advocacy involves respect and listening to us.

When a disabled person decides to disenfranchise entire categories of disabled people on the basis that they're not as worthy or capable of self-advocacy as her kind of disabled people, that is not self-advocacy. When people run around saying "I can make decisions of my own, but 'retarded' people shouldn't," "People with developmental disabilities shouldn't live in institutions, but can you please tell me how to lock up my crazy brother?" or even "It's perfectly natural for people like me to hate ourselves, that's just how we are..." that's more like oppression than self-advocacy.

There's also a common practice of getting a bunch of disabled people together for a recreation program and calling it a self-advocacy activity. Real self-advocacy involves getting the tools for real power—not bite-sized pieces of power, but the real thing—in the hands of disabled people. Too often people in these 'programs' are punished as showing inappropriate behavior if we engage in real self-advocacy.

Self-advocacy doesn't always look good on paper. It doesn't always stay within the sensibilities of people who want everything neat, orderly, pretty, and civil. People who declare a certain category of person to be uniformly incapable of self-advocacy are usually the same people who view that category of people as people who must be controlled rather than listened to. Self-advocacy doesn't mean staff get to pat us on the head, use the right buzzwords, tell us what wonderful little self-advocates we are, and then chastise us or put us on a behavior program when we get angry at them about their controlling behavior.

Self-advocacy is fundamentally about true equality, respect, and power, and about recognizing and changing the current imbalances in all of those things. Whether it is going through the legal system to close an institution, fighting back physically against intolerable surroundings, talking back to staff, sabotaging the power of staff over the lives of disabled people, being listened to when we communicate in non-standard ways, learning that it's okay to have a voice and make decisions, or passively resisting the dominance of others over our lives, real self-advocacy will always upset the status quo in some way.

No matter how legal and proper it is, self-advocacy won't be comfortable and cushioned. It will not give the people who are used to having power over us a warm fuzzy feeling of helping us, nor will their viewpoints on what we should be doing be able to dominate us and speak through us. They will not be able to pretend away the power inequalities between us and live in fairyland where everyone's the same and that's what counts. It will frighten them and force them to examine themselves. This will be true not only for non-disabled people, but to disabled people who are used to feeling superior to other kinds of disabled people.

I was once told by a surprisingly renowned "parent-advocate" that I only have a voice because Gunnar Dybwad gave me one, and that I should sit back and let parents and professionals do all the work towards closing institutions in my state. I beg to differ. Self-advocacy was not born with Gunnar Dybwad, no matter how much of an ally he was. It was born the first time a suspected changeling tried to run away before anyone could kill him. And the first time an inmate of an institution resisted staff power. The first time someone without a standard system of communication devised one of her own and tried to communicate basic things to other people.

Self-advocacy has been and is still often labeled intransigence, non-compliance, treatment resistance, lack of motivation, behavior issues, violence, manipulation, game-playing, attention-seeking, bad attitude, bad influence, babbling nonsense, self-injurious behavior, inappropriate behavior, disrespect, disruption of the milieu, catatonic behavior, social withdrawal, delusions, septal rage syndrome, and even seizures or reflex activity. Self-advocates have been tortured, intimidated, locked up, separated from our friends and lovers, and killed for our actions since before any organized movements existed. To say that the parent-advocacy movement or any other group of people created our voices is arrogant and shows real disrespect for the price many of us have paid for using our voices. We have always had these voices, in many forms. It is others who have shut us out, shut us up, and refused to listen.

1First Contact, Charting Inner Space: Thoughts about establishing contact with people who have significant developmental disabilities, by Dave Hingsburger. This book is available from Diverse City Press. It talks extensively about how to get to know and listen to people without controlling and projecting your values all over them, and about the roles all people can play in the self-advocacy movement.


Originally published at

Saturday, February 9, 2019

Starting Points for Understanding Autism


Photo courtesy the author
[image: Photo (light-painting) by the author: a spectral outline
around a hand and arm, raised as if to flap.]
I believe that the best way to understand autistic minds is in terms of a thinking style which tends to concentrate resources in a few interests and concerns at any time, rather than distributing them widely. I wrote in some detail about how this explains the observed features of autism in Me and Monotropism: A Unified Theory of Autism. Here, I want to distill what this means for living and working with autistic people, expanding on the six starting points for understanding autism that I identified in ‘Theories and Practice in Autism.’

I’m writing in the first person here, as a late-identified autistic adult who has worked and talked with many other autistic people in various contexts over many years. I believe that everything I describe here is a common experience for most people on the spectrum, but not necessarily universal. Many will be shared to various degrees by some non-autistic people—there are very interesting questions about the extent that different thinking styles overlap; brains really are very diverse, and psychological classification is a messy business. References, reviews of research and further resources for each section appear at the end.

1. Coping with multiple channels is hard

This can be sensory channels or other information streams.

This shows up in many ways; some of the most obvious ones are social. If my attention is focused on something else, I may not be able to take in what you’re saying. If I’m focusing on what you’re saying, I may not be able to do anything else (or I may need to do something else to absorb excess attention).

Most people assume there are multiple channels of communication going on in any conversation: words, tone of voice, gesture and eye contact. They also assume an ability to hold various other things in mind while talking: social context, social rules, relevant background facts. This works most of the time, for most people, but causes endless confusion in conversations between autistic and non-autistic people. Be prepared for misunderstandings where someone missed out on one or more of the channels you thought were conveying information.

Be aware that autistic communication styles tends to be different, too, for much the same reason. We are expected to maintain multiple channels of communication in socially acceptable configurations at all times, despite missing a lot of non-verbal cues throughout our lives. It often takes conscious effort to emote ‘appropriately’, display expected body language and suppress urges to regulate ourselves with motions people might find weird… all while trying to make sure not to say anything daft. Learning to do all this can be a valuable social skill, but it takes a lot out of a person, and it just doesn’t always work. If you want someone to be able to relax, they need to be able to feel comfortable being themselves—even if that looks odd to you. Learn to read our body language as best you can, but be aware that most people often get it wrong.

2. Filtering is tricky and error-prone

Sometimes I can’t tune things out, other times I filter them out completely.

Filtering is an active process, and it becomes much less effective when our resources are consumed elsewhere. That means our filters tend to be at their wonkiest when we’re worn out or having to keep up appearances. Any work done filtering out unwanted stimuli leaves less energy over for anything else.

Being unable to filter can be intensely uncomfortable, especially if it’s keeping you from something you want to focus on. Please take care of the sensory environment: too much noise and clutter and stimulation can be exhausting, painful and impossible to work with. Sometimes it helps a huge amount to be able to spend some time in an environment where we can control our sensory input, and not have to filter anything for a while.

Some of the most satisfying, relaxing and productive times are when we can enter a flow state, our attention completely absorbed in an activity. At those times, we may filter out almost everything else. If we can’t get rid of enough distractions to begin with, it becomes impossible to enter that state.

3. Changing tracks is destabilising

Task-switching is hard, and new plans take work.

It takes time and effort to get going, to change direction, or to stop. In other words, autistic thought tends to have a lot of inertia: it resists a change in state.

This can be great for working through complex logical puzzles, learning large collections of facts or just getting intensely absorbed in anything, but it can be very inconvenient all the same. Pulling all our tendrils of thought out of one thing and directing them towards another takes much longer than it does for a lot of people, and sometimes it’s hard to make them go where we want them—let alone where other people want them. Give us warnings, give us time, let us recover.

Don’t expect an instant transition from one thing to another, especially if it’s unexpected. It’s hard enough changing tracks even when we know what’s coming. A sudden change of plans means we have to completely reset and work out how to deal with everything about the new circumstances.

4. I often experience things intensely

Usually things that relate to my concerns and interests.

When my attention is fully focused on something, my brain seems to throw everything it can get at that thing. I credit this with my senses often seeming to be more intense and detailed than most people’s. I seem to get more than most people out of being absorbed in my interests, in general; I think this relates, again, to flow states.

On the other hand, unexpected input sometimes really shakes me. This might be something sudden, or just something that doesn’t seem to fit; either way, I can’t ignore it. It’s been suggested that the main difference with autistic brains is that they just have their ‘surprise’ setting turned right up; I wonder if our tendency towards intense surprise comes from having fewer interests or filters active at any given time, and finding the unexpected more jarring because of the intensity of our focus.

Incidentally, one of the side-effects of being surprised a lot is that you do sort of get used to it. I’ve often known autistic people to seem less surprised by things other people seem shocked by.

5. I keep looping back to my interests and concerns

It’s hard to let things drop.

It’s in the nature of interests and concerns that you loop back to them. If you’re interested in something, things are likely to pull your attention back to thinking about it. Monotropic minds tend to get pulled back to the same loops of concern again and again, especially when they have unresolved questions. People are terribly confusing, so we often have lots of unanswered questions. Sometimes a question might have been adequately answered really, but it still doesn’t quite feel like it, so we need to ask anyway. Other times, people are just impossible to predict, and there is no way to lay those worries to rest. These things can haunt us for years, and carrying them around can really sap your energy.

Still, I like how things are so interesting. Fascination is a fun thing, and I’m glad people have hardly ever tried to talk me out of my fascinations. I like working stuff out, and learning new things, but I also like to just get lost in things sometimes. Sometimes people are baffled by the sorts of things I like to do and learn, but really it’s their loss.

6. Other things that drop out of my awareness tend to stay dropped

I may need reminders.

I really need some kind of system to make sure things I’m supposed to think about come back to my attention. It’s so hard keeping tabs on lots of things at once, I’m bound to drop some of them if I don’t get reminded at the right time. This is complicated by the fact that if I’m in the middle of something, I really don’t want to let myself get pulled out of my attention tunnel for anything I can possibly put off.

This means there are all sorts of things other people might expect me to be thinking about, which I might not be unless I’m getting the right prompts. That includes things I genuinely care about, by the way; I hope nobody assumes I’m indifferent to things just because I fail to think about them. I just have so much else going on in my head!


I understand all of these features as manifestations of a monotropic thinking style: the more a brain concentrates its resources in a few interests and concerns, the more we should expect these to be true. Other theories can predict and explain many of the same features (see below) but I’m not sure that any other single theory leads us to all of the same predictions.

All of these taken together add up to a world that can be very difficult to deal with. It is no wonder so many autistic people experience so much anxiety, confusion and overwhelm. Our capacity for joy and focus can be some compensation for this, but it is often difficult to navigate a world dominated by people with relatively typical brains. If people can’t or won’t understand and accommodate our needs, problems accumulate. Discomfort can get ramped up higher and higher, until we have to escape or else we’ll melt down or shut down. This can last for a long time, and it is so often avoidable. I hope what I have described gives you some good starting points for working out how.

With the right strategies and understanding in place, most autistic people can thrive. Without them, life can be incredibly difficult, and much of what we have to give to the world gets lost. I wouldn’t change very much about my brain — I mostly like being who I am. I would, however, like to change many things about this world and how it deals with people who think differently.


If any of this helps you make sense of things, or changes how you relate to autistic people you know, I would love to hear about it. More important than that, please let me know if there’s anything here that doesn’t ring true for you! These ideas are being actively developed, by myself and others. There may be things we are getting wrong, and there are certainly things we haven’t fully worked out yet. One of the things I am especially interested in working out is what this all means for teachers, and I may soon produce a tailored version of this piece augmented by examples from educational practice.

Research, References, Resources

There is empirical work to be done to establish how well most autistic people feel these descriptions apply to them—beware anecdata, and all that. So far the best direct evidence for Monotropism as a theory of autism is probably Julia Leatherland’s unpublished PhD thesis, Understanding how autistic pupils experience secondary school, which found that Monotropism accounted for more of pupils’ reported experiences than any other single theory. I believe the basic features I describe here are all well-supported both by psychological research and the accounts of autistic writers, but Monotropism as a theory is still crying out for experimental work.

Notes for each of my starting points follow.

  1. Although it took until DSM-5 for perceptual differences to be included in diagnostic criteria, difficulty dealing with multiple sensory streams is attested since early autism research. Lovaas et al were not the first to record it in 1971, and see Marco et al (2011) for a systematic review. Mongillo et al (2008) found that difficulties with speech processing—perhaps unsurprisingly—were associated with social difficulties, and includes the fun fact that autistic people are much less susceptible to the McGurk Effect.
  2. It is well known that filtering is an active cognitive process, keeping the conscious mind from being overwhelmed with too much data. In the Predictive Coding model of the mind, much of what our brains do can be seen as filtering: non-conscious processes work on predicting the input coming in, and only what they fail to predict makes it through to conscious awareness. See Friston & Kiebel (2009) for a technical account, and Van de Cruys et al (2014) for more on the idea of autism as being a manifestation of excessive surprise. Karl Friston’s video on embodiment and Andy Clark’s book Surfing Uncertainty are both excellent introductions to this general approach to cognition, with a bit about how it currently seeks to account for autism.
        It seems natural to expect filtering to take energy, in the sense of both requiring and exhausting cognitive resources. So far I have only found research exploring the former, and not in an autism-specific context: Drummond et al (2012) found that sleep deprivation reduces visual filtering ability; Hasson et al (2013) found that a combination of emotional exhaustion and stress reduced tolerance for loud sounds.
        The National Autistic Society has a pretty good page on autism and the senses in general. On flow states in autism, see Milton (2017) and this video, also by Damian Milton.
  3. This is normally talked about as an aspect of executive function, which has been extensively studied with reference to autism—see e.g Hill (2004), and occasionally posited as an underlying explanation for all autistic cognition—see Russell (ed.) (1997). As I wrote in Autism and Executive Functions, I find it unconvincing as an overall theory of autism, and a bit of a blunt instrument for describing particular difficulties, but it remains an important idea.
  4. Intense experiences are at the very heart of the Intense World theory of autism (Markram et al 2010) which has important points in common with the Monotropism account. Its proponents are oddly reliant on a rodent model of autism, however, and see Remington & Frith (2014) for some very cogent criticisms, including the fact that unlike monotropism, it only seems to account for hypersensitivity in autism, where hyposensitivity is also commonly reported. Mottron et al (2006) write of enhanced perceptual functioning in autism, backing up the impression of sensory input often being both richer and more detailed in autistic people.
  5. Despite ‘restricted’ interests being a feature of accounts of autism going right back to the beginning, the nature and role of autistic interests has been chronically under-researched, and is very poorly accounted for by most theories of autism. However, see Grove et al (2018) for a study demonstrating the shock finding that pursuing their passions is a positive thing for autistic people’s wellbeing. The focused interests of autistic people are often called ‘special interests’, which is fine as long as you think along the lines of Special Interest Groups in tech, but not so much if you think of them as some weird, incomprehensible autistic thing, probably best suppressed. Mostly I prefer the term ‘passion.’
        On the anxiety front, Wigham et al (2014) found intriguing links between anxiety and repetitive behaviours. Both can be seen through the lens of perseveration, as can the way we keep returning to our interests. The idea that autistic anxiety is often associated with social difficulties is well studied—see e.g. White and Robertson-Nay (2004).
  6. This is another thing that’s usually discussed under the heading of ‘executive dysfunction’, not all that informatively. Mazfinch on Twitter has a handy list of possible reminder systems.


My partner Sonny Hallett has contributed greatly to my thinking about all this, and coined the useful phrase ‘loop of concern.’ That’s also them in the photo at the top wearing an excellent dinosaur jumper. The underlying concepts were largely formulated by my mother Dinah Murray, with Mike Lesser and Wenn Lawson. Damian Milton, Nick Chown and Richard Woods have all also contributed notably to my understanding.


This essay was previously published at Medium.