For me, a major topic in therapy has been trying to understand and deal with normal people’s unthinking, everyday cruelty. Race has been its most prominent, inescapable manifestation. I’ve also had to lower my expectations of other people’s competence and emotional maturity. It’s bad out there in society (on purpose).
Still, it helps to understand and look down on one’s enemies. Sometimes it’s disappointing who one’s enemies turn out to be. After learning I’m autistic, encountering “autism parents” on the internet has sucked. It’s certainly not all of them, but the example I’m about to give is representative, not isolated.
I read Psychology Today for inspiration, which is to say that I spend emotional energy getting trolled by it and writing about it in my diary on the internet. I’ve been having issues getting shit done IRL, so I clicked on the title “Autism, ADHD, and Executive Functioning: Parenting Insights,” subtitle “Is teaching executive functioning skills to a neurodiverse adolecent futile?” Barb Cohen should be ashamed for writing about her daughter in this way, and I feel bad for her (the daughter).
For at least a decade I have been trying to teach my daughter Sam “executive functioning.” For at least a decade she has been failing to learn—to learn how to manage her time, prioritize her obligations over her preferred activities, organize her belonging[s], regulate her impulsivity, and plan and execute projects such as writing a paper. After a decade, one might wonder if this is a losing battle. And that’s the question.
For at least a decade, Sam has been failing to comply with her mother’s arbitrary and uncomfortable demands. This paragraph doesn’t tell us anything about how much those are Sam’s own goals, or whether Sam understands the point of the goals and agrees. If she has preferred activities and engages in them instead of doing what her mother wants to do, she IS managing her time. She decides what to do next nonrandomly. She just doesn’t decide using criteria approved or understood by her mother. Is she having trouble finding her belongings, or does her mother dislike the clutter? Is she concerned about the impulses she’s indulging, or is that just her mother? We simply don’t know enough to take this kind of description at face value (it’s the first paragraph!). I’m learning much more about Barb Cohen than her daughter Sam. I think that Barb is demonstrating impaired use of pronouns in paragraph 2:
Executive functioning strategies abound. We have tried visual strategies, including special clocks and timers, visual schedules, and homework and chore checklists. We have tried planning discussions in which we estimate the amount of time each activity will require and then factor in breaks. We have tried scripts, we have tried first/then instructions, and we have tried threats. We have tried IEP goals. We have tried me yelling that I do not care if she fails all of her classes and lives in a pigsty the rest of her life.
I have been yelled at about living in a pigsty the rest of my life, and it sucked. I read that sentence and images of fighting with my mom about my room go through my head, accompanied by stabs of the corresponding emotions. As unpleasant as fighting with my parents could be, they NEVER said anything to me like they don’t give a shit about my future out of spite because of control drama. That’s fucked up. When I try to make a realistic mental image of Barb and Sam’s home life, it’s disturbing to me. Seeing the moment of the trauma that breaks her future relationships even worse. All because her mom is a stupid bitch and it’s not her fault.
The problem is, when the cat walks in the room or an interesting picture shows up in a textbook or an unfinished sewing project peeks out of a bin, all beg for attention. The strategies derail. If Sam had to learn the word “futile” for a vocabulary test, her struggle to learn executive functioning skills would be the perfect example.
Stupid. Bitch. She’s saying it’s a problem that her daughter is spontaneously fascinated by a textbook. The knowledge that stuck with me from school is mostly the knowledge that overlapped with my special interests, or that sparked new special interests. The amount of information of whatever kind involved in debate was bigger than the whole high school curriculum. 4 big plastic tubs full of accordion files full of lists of arguments and photocopied sources, which had to be pushed around the tournament on a dolly. A significant amount of that evidence was produced over the summer, in preparation for the upcoming season. When I think about 9th grade English, I think about conflict with my teacher more than anything she taught me. Just the other day, I saw a headline for an article that explained what executive orders were in the first place. At age 16, I was arguing about “agent counterplans” and whether it was fair for the negative team to propose doing the affirmative’s plan via executive order to avoid some political fallout from doing it legislatively. PIC was the acronym for “plan-inclusive counterplan.” You could run your counterplans with varying levels of commitment, and my partner specialized in arguments about which levels were unfair (“conditional vs. dispositional counterplans”). My point is that I can remember technical minutiae from my special interest 18 years ago, but I’d struggle with other technical things like graphing hyperbolas.
If I liked dinosaurs, my parents got me dinosaur stuff. The ZooBooks (children’s biology magazines) I was reading weren’t coordinated with the school curriculum in any way, but I later found adult employment (grad school) teaching biomedical stuff to other people’s children. Sometimes I even proctored for the students with disability accommodations who got extra time and a smaller setting to take their tests. I love to go on and on about biology! Buy your kid ZooBooks. Come to think of it, I have fond memories of waiting at the salon with my mom to get haircuts, because they had a huge collection of National Geographics.
Parents develop overly-rigid ideas of what education is. Maybe if she gave her daughter all sorts of everything about cats, she’d decide on her own that she wants to be a veterinarian or a wildlife biologist, and then nobody would have to give her bullshit justifications for schoolwork. It would clearly be one of the steps to being a vet. If she still didn’t understand, how much more helpful it would be to have a “list of steps to achieving your self-decided long-term goals!”
Using her daughter’s struggle to direct her own life to illustrate the meaning of “futilty” is also very fucked up. Without question, her daughter picks up this attitude in her mom, and it’s painful for her.
Then last weekend Sam was working on a paper for English. It was, I am slightly embarrassed to admit, the first paper she has ever attempted by herself. She completed a “pre-write” which involved composing paragraph-long responses to a series of questions. Next she asked me to sit with her, just to keep her company as she wrote the essay. When I noticed that she was hunting and pecking the identical words to those in her pre-write, I suggested she cut and paste the passage. She scrolled back up, highlighted the words, and then stopped. I assumed her mind was wandering to another topic until, after a minute or two, she said, “I think maybe these answers are supposed to be the different paragraphs.”
Holy cow. Ten years of graphic organizers, outlines and pre-writes, and she never knew why; she never realized how they connected to writing a paper! Did we all assume she knew? Did it just take a while to sink in? Or did we explain it repeatedly, but her brain was not ready to process it? In other words, was the last ten years just a waste of energy?
The answer, for now at least, seems to lie somewhere in the intersection of neuroscience, intuition, and a parent’s own needs.
I have a very different interpretation of that situation: her daughter spontaneously noticed something about how school assignments build on each other the very first time she had the opportunity to notice. This is an important pedagogical point: school assignments are supposed to prompt students to engage in particular thought processes. If you think for someone, is it obvious to them why they should think for themselves, if being passive is what they’re used to?
“Did we all assume she knew?” is also a telling question. I think it means Barb Cohen had never stopped to think through the point of individual homework assignments, so she didn’t think to explain it to her daughter. The waste of energy was the last ten years they spent apparently disabling Sam.
I remember getting explicit instruction about “brainstorming” and writing rough drafts. I get it, though. It’s a late-life realization how many things I’m annoyed other people can’t do were taught to me. I very much read a lot of philosophy in chronological order in high school, and I thought I’d be a philosophy major until I was 17 or 18. There’s a specific thought pattern of looking for implicit assumptions that it turns out isn’t natural at all! From John Michael Greer’s awesome recent essay on philosophy:
To help make sense of what follows, a concrete metaphor might be useful. If you’re in a place where there are windows nearby, especially if the windows aren’t particularly clean, go look out through a window at the view beyond it. Then, after you’ve done this for a minute or so, change your focus and look at the window rather than through it, so that you see the slight color of the glass and whatever dust or dirt is clinging to it. Repeat the process a few times, until you’re clear on the shift I mean: looking through the window, you see the world; looking at the window, you see the medium through which you see the world—and you might just discover that some of what you thought at first glance was out there in the world was actually on the window glass the whole time.
That, in effect, was the great change that shook western philosophy to its foundations beginning in the seventeenth century. Up to that point, most philosophers in the western world started from a set of unexamined presuppositions about what was true, and used the tools of reasoning and evidence to proceed from those presuppositions to a more or less complete account of the world. They were into what philosophers call metaphysics: reasoned inquiry into the basic principles of existence. That’s the focus of every philosophical tradition in its early years, before the confusing results of metaphysical inquiry refocus attention from “What exists?” to “How do we know what exists?” Metaphysics then gives way to epistemology: reasoned inquiry into what human beings are capable of knowing.
That refocusing happened in Greek philosophy around the fourth century BCE, in Indian philosophy around the tenth century BCE, and in Chinese philosophy a little earlier than in Greece. In each case, philosophers who had been busy constructing elegant explanations of the world on the basis of some set of unexamined cultural assumptions found themselves face to face with hard questions about the validity of those assumptions. In terms of the metaphor suggested above, they were making all kinds of statements about what they saw through the window, and then suddenly realized that the colors they’d attributed to the world were being contributed in part by the window glass and the dust on it, the vast dark shape that seemed to be moving purposefully across the sky was actually a beetle walking on the outside of the window, and so on.
I think people are mostly taught to understand the meaning of a text in terms of answering a multiple-choice question on an exam. I was taught about deconstruction per se, as a philosophical thing and an approach to reading. So I had a unifying framework for thinking about English papers, Critical Legal Studies, queer theory, there is nothing outside of the text! Debate tournaments were judged by college debaters who’d just recently had their first postmodernism experience.
Reflecting on things, a lot of my interests were abstractly autism-relevant. The concept of “the death of the author” really resonated with me. The idea that the meaning of the symbols used by an author aren’t 100% controlled by them, and that a text’s meaning also emerges from an interaction with the reader. “That’s not what I meant!” I loved Paul de Man’s “Every interpretation is misinterpretation.” My point is that “death of the author” is a perspective-taking issue. It’s also a crucial insight for understanding structural racism and what “social justice warriors” are complaining about.
Once you’ve read enough science papers, it becomes intuitive that you can make facts flip from “true” to “false” and back by moving statistical goalposts. I MUST be underestimating how hard that concept is because of the persistence of the idea that there’s an “autism epidemic,” when in fact the threshold for what counts as autism was lowered (in keeping with scientific evidence). It was only theoretically possible to diagnose me with Asperger’s once I reached age 12 (I was really verbal…). The concept of autism and my dad were born around the same time.
If you count the diagnosed cases of autism in the 1980s or 1990s, I’m not included in those statistics. I just got diagnosed at age 34. However, autism issues were fucking my life up more in the 1980s and 1990s than they are today. Overall, it probably would’ve been good to know much earlier in life. Therefore, it’s good that it’s getting identified in more people. Believing in an “autism epidemic” comes from taking statistics at face value without knowing where they come from in detail. Comparing across decades is apples-and-oranges, because the definition of autism shifted over time.
I don’t know why that’s hard to understand, but I have to logically infer that it is, because the epidemic idea persists.
It gives me a Twilight Zone feeling to think, what if all of these frustrations are a manifestation of weak central coherence? Maybe my approach to texts is affected by a detail-orientation superpower, somehow. I think I have an unusually “line-by-line” way of responding to things, which is sort of a carryover from debate. Another way in which debate is competitive autism: you lose any point of contention you forget to address in your speech. The other team has to point out that fact to win the point. The topic has to be continuously carried from speech to speech, without getting “dropped.”
It’s counter-intuitive that my patience with other people should be improved by imagining that I’m special and they’re retarded in some way. It’s true that, in general, normal people are bad at the kind of thinking I’m doing here. The point of the neurodiversity movement is that society would be improved by matching people’s roles to their preferred thinking styles.
Anti-intellectualism is a serious problem, because there REALLY ARE problems that require extreme attention to detail to solve correctly, no exceptions. The complexity is inherent to the universe. Some problems really are so complicated that they’re only comprehensible to specialized experts. That’s a property of reality itself and the limits of human mental abilities. Anti-intellectualism is the belief that there are no important details. Anti-intellectualism is ascendant.
Anti-intellectualism alone can’t run a society, as we’re witnessing. As Guy McPherson puts it, “nature bats last.” It’s possible to ignore details catastrophically.
Ethically speaking, a lot hinges on whether other people can think right or not.
USING EXECUTIVE FUNCTION TO GET BACK TO CRITICIZING BARB COHEN. Free associative perseveration was happening, or something.
Even in cognitively sophisticated people, the PFC [prefrontal cortex] does not operate optimally until the third decade of life. And adolescents with autism or ADHD exhibit significant, though distinct, abnormalities in the amount, direction and distance traveled by the two neurotransmitters seratonin [sic] and dopamine as they send messages from the PFC to other parts of the brain. It’s a double whammy of executive functioning not functioning well. But we need to remember that inefficiency in neuronal activity is different from an absence of such activity. New pathways do develop and old pathways are pruned, even in the most atypical of brains.
OMGWTF. Serotonin and dopamine are released by cells in the brain stem, some of which send axons to PFC. The serotonin and dopamine themselves don’t need to travel great distances to cross a synapse or reach an extrasynaptic receptor. If the PFC sends messages to other parts of the brain, it does so with axons it grew to reach them, generally using glutamate as a neurotransmitter.
She then points out that we’re not lacking in brain activity, i.e., brain dead, because that’s necessary. Even I could become human one day.
This is the most honestly revealing thing she writes:
We have all seen our children learn things we never thought they would master.
And finally, we parents need to feel like we are doing something. We need to feel proactive, even if we are proactively stepping back to let our children learn from failure. Especially for those of us who live in dread of phone calls from teachers, we need to prove that we are neither oblivious nor lazy. So even if the lists, schedules and threats are futile, we at least have the effort on display.
When I take these three considerations together, I do not believe the last decade of failed strategies has been so clearly a failure. Every once in awhile, we see glimmers of success, such as Sam’s epiphany about pre-writing.
The logical implication of what she’s saying is that she THREATENS HER DAUGHTER and disrupts her flow just for the sake of…what? Her need for approval and keeping up appearances? Is that a good and loving use of her daughter’s time?
No, it’s not. There’s a LOT of “proactively stepping back” she needs to do. Real science from 2014:
Executive functions (EFs) in childhood predict important life outcomes. Thus, there is great interest in attempts to improve EFs early in life. Many interventions are led by trained adults, including structured training activities in the lab, and less-structured activities implemented in schools. Such programs have yielded gains in children’s externally-driven executive functioning, where they are instructed on what goal-directed actions to carry out and when. However, it is less clear how children’s experiences relate to their development of self-directed executive functioning, where they must determine on their own what goal-directed actions to carry out and when. We hypothesized that time spent in less-structured activities would give children opportunities to practice self-directed executive functioning, and lead to benefits. To investigate this possibility, we collected information from parents about their 6–7 year-old children’s daily, annual, and typical schedules. We categorized children’s activities as “structured” or “less-structured” based on categorization schemes from prior studies on child leisure time use. We assessed children’s self-directed executive functioning using a well-established verbal fluency task, in which children generate members of a category and can decide on their own when to switch from one subcategory to another. The more time that children spent in less-structured activities, the better their self-directed executive functioning. The opposite was true of structured activities, which predicted poorer self-directed executive functioning. These relationships were robust (holding across increasingly strict classifications of structured and less-structured time) and specific (time use did not predict externally-driven executive functioning). We discuss implications, caveats, and ways in which potential interpretations can be distinguished in future work, to advance an understanding of this fundamental aspect of growing up.
Patterns: notice that they played with thresholds.
More importantly, notice the implication that helicopter parenting probably actively harms the development of executive function, for the sake of narcissistic bullshit. Then it blames the child and THREATENS them for not having initiative the parents themselves punished. That is fucking crazy-making.
Barb Cohen desperately needs therapy to figure out how to have an identity that’s not based on making her child sorry for existing. How would anybody feel if this was how their mother talked about them to the entire world? Isn’t that, like, what abusers do? Publicly degrade loved ones?
The worst part is that she makes a living advising others, spreading her toxic attitudes. Matter-of-factly, there was no doubt in my family that education was important because ancestors on both sides had been denied it. I read books and liked intellectual stuff for its own sake because my parents read books and liked intellectual stuff for its own sake. They thought it was important to know about the world. It made my dad happy that I could read and speak in a way that he couldn’t. It wasn’t subtle how stressful it is that my dad’s employment was threatened by his literacy problems. I didn’t need threats-spoken-in-parental-frustration to see the power of language.
My childhood idea of education had nothing to do with IEPs. By 9th grade, I understood it was stupid that my English teacher was making us watch the movie of Fahrenheit 451. Hypothetically, if Sam came into conflict with a teacher, who would Barb Cohen side with?
I need to stop obsessing over this topic. I got home last night and saw the article then. I knew approximately what I wanted to say, but I had to sleep. It’s now 11 AM the next day and I’ve been at this for hours, now. My forearms are tired from typing so much, but I “need” to finish the thought.
I didn’t especially seek out this negativity. Clickbait:
We have tried visual strategies; we have tried planning discussions; we have tried scripts’ we have tried first/then; we have tried IEP goals; and we have tried threats.
I would’ve preferred something like this, instead: