how to dance in a warehouse

Last night I watched How to Dance in Ohio. For this post, I’m going to watch it again and write a running commentary. I recommend watching the movie and not sharing the politics of the movie. I think it’s telling that the Aspen Institute had a panel discussion about the movie with the head of Autism Speaks (archvillain of the neurodiversity movement), the movie’s main therapist, and someone from a defense contractor. See here. The movie depicts some very anxious young people and the adults who think they know what’s best for them.

I’ll be contrasting the movie with what worked for me. Starting with what worked, Bad Religion set me straight about how the world works, in a glorious, hyperlexic monotone that I echoed down the halls of middle school.


The news was always on at my house. My parents didn’t tell me about Santa Claus because they didn’t believe in lying to children. The Jehovah’s Witnesses tell kids all about Armageddon. I knew an awful lot about child molestation for a child who didn’t personally experience it. It’s part of popular culture that black families have “the talk.” The Jehovah’s Witnesses tell you (correctly) that you’ll be bullied like the first century Christians.


Especially watch the second of those videos and notice that the Jehovah’s Witnesses are training children to be low self-monitors. Susceptibility to peer pressure is bizarrely defined as “high self-monitoring” by normal people:

People who closely monitor themselves are categorized as high self-monitors and often behave in a manner that is highly responsive to social cues and their situational context. High self-monitors can be thought of as social pragmatists who project images in an attempt to impress others and receive positive feedback.

Conversely, low self-monitors do not participate, to the same degree, in expressive control and do not share similar concern for situational appropriateness. Low self-monitors tend to exhibit expressive controls congruent with their own internal states; i.e. beliefs, attitudes, and dispositions regardless of social circumstance. Low self-monitors are often less observant of social context and consider expressing a self-presentation dissimilar from their internal states as a falsehood and undesirable.[4] People who are unwilling to self-monitor and adjust their behavior accordingly are often aggressive, uncompromising, and insistent with others. This may make them more prone to condemnation, rejection, and the possible consequent feelings of anger, anxiety, guilt, low self-concept, isolation, and depression. Even the occasional indiscretion can make social situations very awkward, and could result in the loss of a friend, co-worker, client, or even job. Those who are willing to adjust their behavior will often find that others are more receptive, pleasant, and benevolent towards them….

Compared to low self-monitors, high self-monitors will have more dating and sexual partners, are more interested in having sex with people they are not in love with, and are more likely to have had sex with someone only once, as well as be more likely to deceive potential romantic partners.[13] High self-monitors are more likely to choose a romantic partner who is attractive but unsociable, while low self-monitors are more likely to choose a partner who is unattractive but sociable.[14] High self-monitors are also more likely to take on leadership positions than low self-monitors.[15]

It’s easy to say that the Jehovah’s Witnesses are a cult. Compare the Piraha culture, which is interesting for many reasons. From the book Don’t sleep, there are snakes:

Groups like the Piraha [I’m not going to find the Unicode character for the special “a”] offer novel, deeply useful, and alternative examples of how to deal with perennial and ubiquitous problems such as violence, rape, racism, the treatment of disabled members of society, child-parent relations, and so on. The fact, for example, that no Amazonian group that I have worked with has “motherese,” or baby talk–that is, a special, watered-down way of talking to little children–is interesting. The Pirahas’ lack of baby talk seems to be based on the belief of Piraha adults that all members of the society are equal and thus that children should not be treated any differently from adults, by and large. Everyone has responsibility for the community and everyone is cared for by the community.

Looking more closely at Piraha language and culture, there are other, equally important lessons for us. The Pirahas show no evidence of depression, chronic fatigue, extreme anxiety, panic attacks, or other psychological ailments common in many industrialized societies. But this psychological well-being is not due, as some might think, to a lack of pressure. It is ethnocentric to suppose that only industrialized societies can produce psychological pressure, or that psychological difficulties are found only in such societies.

True, the Pirahas don’t have to worry about paying their bills on time or which college to select for their children. But they do have life-threatening physical ailments (such as malaria, infection, viruses, leishmaniasis, and so on). And they have love lives. And they need to provide food every day for their families. They have high infant mortality. They regularly face dangerous reptiles, mammals, bugs, and other creatures. They live with threats of violence from outsiders who frequently invade their land. When I am there, with a much easier life than the Pirahas themselves have, I still find that there is plenty for me to get worked up about. The thing is, I do get worked up, but they do not.

I have never heard a Piraha say that he or she is worried. In fact, so far as I can tell, the Pirahas have no word for worry in their language…In the more than twenty isolated Amazonian groups I have studied over the past thirty years, only the Pirahas manifest this unusual happiness. Many others, if not all, that I have studied are often sullen and withdrawn, torn between the desire to maintain their cultural autonomy and to acquire the goods of the outside world. The Pirahas have no such conflicts…

The Pirahas are an unusually happy and contented people. I would go so far as to suggest that the Pirahas are happier, fitter, and better adjusted to their environment than any Christian or other religious person I have ever known.

This is not the post for handwringing about noble savage issues. On to the film…

The first thing that strikes me is a patronizing moment about 1.5 minutes into it. “This is a chance to simply face your fears and cope with the moment.” Very patronizing. They spend a lot more time being forced into uncomfortable situations than he does, with far less control over their environment, mobility, etc. They might be coping poorly, but they weren’t blank slates waiting for him to do his work by arranging daytime use of a nightclub for a feel-good charitable type thing.

30 seconds later, the place is introduced with a subtitle about “the higher functioning end of the spectrum.” Autistic people themselves have objected to “functioning labels” for a while, for reasons that the film depicts. The geography expert can’t lace up a pair of boots or wash her hair without written instructions. High academic ability could make people more skeptical of her need for services. Thanks for the compliment, labels! It’s been clear since patient HM that there are multiple independent-but-interacting learning and memory systems in the brain. Being smart didn’t change the fact that, in school, I was kind of bad at the physical acts of doing the labwork. I just couldn’t fathom how many surgeries other people were getting done in one day. I could do 4 if I pushed my endurance to the limit and my life was surgeries and painkiller injections and antibiotics and water bottles for days on end. There’d be 12-24 rats in an experiment, typically. Procrastination about that led to my advisor threatening to kick me out of the lab (and thus the program). Part of the reason I worked the last shift was to avoid people. Part of it was that I’d get too sucked into World of Warcraft or reading about something when the rats completed a run, so I’d be delayed in swapping them out for the next set, and that would delay the schedule back for everyone after me. OMG situations of having 2 different timers counting down and having to do things at the right time and the rats are fighting back and oh gawd the needle tip got bent and I only have 2 left and now I have to start a fresh line I hate local infusion studies jesus christ. My committee liked that I had a systematic, theoretical framework for my results (handwaving about “network stability”, glutamate receptors and reversal learning). The pattern of strengths and weaknesses has strongly affected my experience of employment and the types of roles I seek out.

Oh, and I wanted to kill myself and thought I only had dysthymia (sometimes “double depression”). It’s almost like there was a label the psychiatrist could’ve used that would’ve given me a way to nonconfrontationally quit animal research and study my own problem instead of its biological opposite. I sort of instinctively knew bupropion would help because it’s also an ADHD medication.

A little more than 3 minutes into the movie, the person forced to speak first about their feelings can’t. He stays silent, as the group has a discussion and concludes that he’s “quietly uncomfortable.” I’ve never done group therapy, but why isn’t the response “he’ll tell us if or when he’s ready.” It’s indeterminate how he feels about the whole thing. It’s possible he feels a very specific ambivalence that he can’t find words for. The therapist is saying the boy must feel a way that the therapist understands, and we have to know what that is as soon as possible. It fucks people up to tell them how they feel when you’re wrong.

That album helped me growing up but I had to get it twice because my mom destroyed the first copy on account of the bad language and blasphemy. Trent Reznor validated my feelings, but other people disliked those feelings.

A minute later: “Over the years we’ve designed activities that are incredibly challenging for them.” My question is why the answer is directly forcing people into uncomfortable situations. The basic tasks of therapy are challenging, just trying to communicate and be honest with yourself when it’s painful. Hence, people avoid therapy when they know they need it.

On the other hand, around 17 or 18 minutes in, one of the girls is meeting with a government disability worker and saying that she’s trying to be more independent and her parents keep babying her. That is, she has a natural growth instinct that’s being thwarted and forced into a distorted form. She has no control over her life, so of course she’s always anxious. She can’t drive, so it has to be a production that bothers other people every time she goes somewhere, and then that makes her late, and she knows she’s not supposed to be late and she tried not to be late and some she can never do anything right no matter how hard she tries and now they’re disappointed and pulling her aside and I don’t want to dance when they’re looking at me I’m trying to work these things out for myself in a safer way using romance novels thanks. When she does express her own idea of what she needs, an apartment with a roommate or a helper, she starts rocking and looks around. “Is that OK?!” Her parents were already settled in the belief that she’d be a child forever, and this drive for independence at age 22 is unsettling for them. How will everybody know that they’re autism super-parents if she lives somewhere else? The silence and unresolved issues in the marriage stretch before them like a vast wasteland in their imagination.

Her desire for independence is deferred, instead of focusing treatment on strengthening her self-advocacy. The only way to become a grown woman is to do the puberty ritual. There will be no exceptions. “I don’t know about independence, with all that anxiety she has…” Presumably other people see this movie and that last sentence is not ironic for them.

The therapists are sending questionable messages about consent. Roughly 5 minutes in: “I don’t like touching people.” “Well, we’re gonna break you of that.” Later in the film, the kids are told that they’re obligated to dance with anybody who asks at least one time, because rejection hurts. Elsewhere in the movie, parents fret about creeps and their daughters. The therapists are specifically training the kids to be more vulnerable to creeps. Their whole approach to the kids is to try and break their wills.

“Part of connecting with other people is to move in similar patterns.” Very insightful! I’ve seen autism described as a movement disorder, and I’ve seen neurodiversity writers (e.g., in Loud hands) point out that a lot of “therapy” consists of making children stop moving autistically. The blog Just Stimming calls this the grabbers vs. flappers problem.

The hands are everywhere.

They’re at our chins. “Look at me,” with a face pressed in so close to yours that you count the pores until they force your gazes to meet. They grab our hands, “don’t do that, people will think you’re retarded.” They smack away picking fingers, because our foreheads must be pristine and easy-to-look-at for them. You turn away, pull away, try to put some distance in so you can breath, and they grab your hands, your hips, your shoulders and twist you back. You bounce your leg—surely you are allowed this?—and they press a hand to your knee, stilling you. Everyone taps their pencil, but when you start their hand closes over yours and won’t let go.

“Please let me go!”

But protesting just means you need to be grabbed more often, with harder and more insistent hands, until you realize that the way you move is fundamentally wrong, as wrong and deficient and disturbing and dangerous as you are, and if you want to be counted as a “you” at all you must let them grab you until you can stop your self. The most basic human thing is just existing in space, and you quickly realize that you do even this wrong. Is it that you take up too much space, or just that you do it too differently, moving in an entirely alien way and triggering some sort of dormant xenophobia?

“Executive function” is just highly-elaborated motor planning and rehearsal, to the extent that it depends on prefrontal cortex. There’s a back-to-front “abstraction hierarchy” in lateral prefrontal cortex (exact spatial arrangement controversial). Basically, each region of prefrontal cortex is in its own loop with basal ganglia and thalamus. Parkinson’s and Huntington’s disease are movement disorders of the basal ganglia, but they have cognitive aspects. Likewise, skin picking and getting fixated on a special interest are the same thing happening at different levels of motor abstraction.

The basal ganglia also have to do with “sensorimotor gating.” A problem with filtering out contextually undesirable thoughts is analogous to a problem filtering out movement patterns of the rest of the body. Thinking is sort of like movements of your speech muscles that don’t get executed. This system also has to do with starting and stopping movements. Hence, difficulties switching tasks, getting stuck in thought loops, repetitive echolalia.

Rhythms and oscillations at many time scales seem involved in what the brain is doing. Breathing, walking, dancing, music, and stimming are rhythmic things. Hand movements are not unrelated to ongoing thought processes. Normal people make a big deal out of eye movements. Since I started watching video footage of autistic people, I’ve noticed that they’ll start rocking or picking at something or fiddling with an object, as the topic they’re discussing shifts. Flapping your hands is different than unconsciously scratching one of your cheeks. Do normal people use information like that, or do they just want us to stop? I thought they liked automatic nonverbal communication. Impossible conflicting demands.

The relationship between motor and cognitive abnormalities is similar to the relationship between visuals and what psychedelics are doing to non-visual parts of cortex. Speaking of which, by the time I was 22, the age of the oldest main subject in the film, I’d figured out for myself that I wasn’t into clubbing except maybe the occasional psytrance party. At the age of the people the movie, my personal growth dance experiences happened at rave-ish events. Because everybody was so high, nobody was going to bother you for stimming out just how the music made you feel. The drugs make the normal people do it too! So much fun!

Etards feelin’ the PLUR. You could totally do this alone in your room to the same song on a loop for hours and it would make you cool at parties:

Of course, I’m not suggesting that the people in the movie dress up in their favorite cosplay/kandy kid outfits (spending hours on the beads), go to an underground all-night dance party and take strange pills with cartoons on them. Their parents could die of a heart attack.

To be clear, MDMA and ketamine for mental health are now respectable topics. The people who came up with the ideas were NOT respectable:

Ketamine is also considered a model of psychosis, so notice the audience member talking about how ketamine makes it “increasingly hard to believe you’re not God,” while Timothy Leary is praising the way it makes people say “It’s OK.”

23 minutes into the movie, it’s hilarious when the kid without facial expressions raises his eyebrows and is amused that “people think you’re interested when you go like this.”

About 30 seconds later, they’re filling out worksheets about what obstacles they expect and how to overcome them. There’s a brief shot where you see that “don’t go alone” is written under expected obstacles, with an arrow pointing to the correct place on the form (overcoming them). This is a problem with worksheets, standardized tests, etc. Forcing the thoughts into a specific order preselected by the normal people makes it harder to express yourself.

Around 24:50, the slight clumsiness with the clipboard. In the car ride on the way home, the father nags the girl about whether she’s going to spend the evening on her computer, and she’s using headphones to tune him out in the backseat. Can you blame her? Are you held accountable for how you decompress after expressing your feelings in a group of people?

I remember having some difficulty learning to tie my shoes, but not learning to tie my shoes wasn’t an option once Velcro ones became harder to find. I really liked these little monster things that clipped onto the shoelaces. I was inconsolable when they broke. Today, as an adult, I’ve been into climbing for years and I only boulder because the ropes stress me out. It’s not the heights. Bouldering can be more dangerous because every fall is a ground fall and you could miss the crash pad and the ground could be fucked up. It’s the knots and the don’t-drop-anybody.

She abruptly walks off to escape when she’s done eating, but they call her back. Voiceover about they want her to understand the importance of other people. Next thing out of her mouth: can we go to an Indian reservation? Later in the film, she’s amused by the idea that they have English class in Mexico. A spontaneous display of perspective-taking compared to the stereotypical American who goes around the world expecting everyone to speak English. Cultural anthropology is actually a naturally interesting topic when you need social rules to be explicit. It helps me understand that the dance is a puberty ritual and that’s why the adults care so much.

The irony of the conversation around 35:30. How will she get to where she’s going tomorrow? By bus or by getting a ride? With a ton of anxiety in her voice, she speaks up and says she’s been thinking about it and maybe she’d feel a lot more comfortable not dealing with the bus. Her mom insists on sticking to the plan, but it’s OK, because “If you’re getting on the bus and start to not feel safe, you can change your mind and get off.” The person with impaired planning and flexibility tried to update her plans on the basis of changing internal feelings. She spoke up when she was in the middle of being quizzed about how to make a pizza and how will it look in the future when there’s a visual guide to making the pizza? There’s a camera following me and this is really getting to be a lot and I’m pushing myself already and I don’t know if I can tomorrow and can I please just get a ride? No, honey. A ride made sense to you 3 days ago.

It’s painful to watch a lot of the interactions in this movie. It’s very impolite to tell people that are trying so hard that they’re hurting their children. “We teach you to be nice and respect authority.” The mother recognizes that she’s raising her daughter to be a target, but doesn’t think to raise her differently. Every real life situation becomes associated with being quizzed and pressured to come up with the right answer on the spot, while you’re trying to learn how to make a pizza, because your mom cannot STFU and stay on task.

I remember feeling a tremendous amount of frustration with adult hypocrisy as a child. The underlying problem is that the adults have unresolved issues they can’t deal with. Babying the children is all about them.

The job training program is a whole issue unto itself. Boss lady asks her to answer the phone while she’s wearing gloves. She says no, she doesn’t know what to do. You can tell she knows that’s the wrong answer, because she starts explaining herself. She gives her understanding of the scope of everyone’s responsibilities, to show that the “no” followed logically from it and she wasn’t being “insubordinate.” She doesn’t want to mess up anything to do with the money, which she correctly understands is Serious Business. The lady mispronounces “collegial” and explains that “can you…?” is “just a nice way of saying do it.” Again, she can’t do anything right, except that she did exactly what you’re supposed to do when you KNOW you’d fuck up a work task before you get started. You’re just bad for not innately knowing the mysterious ways of normal people and their things you never practice.

Next, her job coach tells her to dump an entire package of something into a mixing bowl, but the written instructions say to do it in two steps, measured out. She says “I’m just going to stick to the instructions and do it my way.” No, it probably doesn’t matter HOW you add the stuff to the bowl when you’re going to mix everything together. It’s not like a chemical reaction will happen that blows up the room. It’s needlessly ritualistic, but it gets the job done and will every time because it’s The Instructions. Is the job coach annoyed because this is delaying her break? We don’t know, but the irritation is palpable. Jesssica explains that it’s making her nervous, and now she’s in Big Trouble.

She needs to Work On Her Attitude, because she’s Acting Superior To Others And It’s Very Disrespectful. To me, it looks like she lives in a state of feeling like her existence is a mistake, desperately trying to explain her inadequacies, only to get punished for THAT. The “therapist and bakery owner” is a mean old hag who makes mentally disabled people cry for no reason. How much is she paying them? If only there were some alternative economic system where she could do her best and get paid the same…

“I don’t need to understand you because you’re an employee and your function here is to work.” She just lays the objectification right out, doesn’t she? A previous post discusses the fact that this is actually a structural way of ensuring that the powerful people are the least in touch with reality.

“But if you don’t understand me, how can I work?” Yes, that’s one way of explaining the point of ADA accommodations. In countless ways, work makes it impossible to work with its poor mentalization skills. She’s expressing a profound observation, but has no confidence in herself. She definitely wasn’t taught to debate.

She starts crying. Doesn’t know what to do. “Well, then you have to look to us for guidance?” “OK,” she sobs. Actually, she did what reasonable, mature adults do in cases of misunderstanding: simply explain her thought process to overcome the other person’s Fundamental Attribution Error. The “therapist” is the one behaving autistically in the situation: rigid, uncaring about other minds, harsh, lacking empathy.

I could keep going, but that’s about halfway, and the point is made.