Note For Anyone Writing About Me

Guide to Writing About Me

I am an Autistic person,not a person with autism. I am also not Aspergers. The diagnosis isn't even in the DSM anymore, and yes, I agree with the consolidation of all autistic spectrum stuff under one umbrella even though I have other issues with the DSM.

I don't like Autism Speaks. I'm Disabled, not differently abled, and I am an Autistic activist. Self-advocate is true, but incomplete.

Citing My Posts

MLA: Hillary, Alyssa. "Post Title." Yes, That Too. Day Month Year of post. Web. Day Month Year of retrieval.

APA: Hillary, Alyssa. (Year Month Day of post.) Post Title. [Web log post]. Retrieved from

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Educational experiences interview

Today (October 9 as I write this) I participated in a follow-up interview for a study some folks at my university were doing on the educational experiences of students with disabilities.

The interviewer defaulted to person-first language. Which, whatever, I don't actually care what you default to as long as you can handle the part where some people in the population you're referring to will have a different preference, and even for reasons! Those reasons tend to relate to the particular ways people have dehumanized us, as well as with community identities.

However, what I found interesting was that one of the things he said was, "You said last year that you identified as a person with autism--"

I don't know where he was going with that because I interrupted him. No, I guarantee you that I did not say that, because I didn't... a year ago I already had quite a few posts on my blog about why I don't identify that way. Since one of the big things from the interview is how we identify and I have literally never identified that way, that was an important thing to get right. Nope, nope, nope.

I identify as Autistic. I identify as an Autistic person. I didn't say this one in the interview, but when I'm feeling particularly snarky, I'll even sometimes call myself an "autism whose life experiences coincide with the diagnostic label of personhood."

Since the general focus was educational experiences (as opposed to identity as a big sub-focus, but still a sub-focus) that bit was a fairly short part, but it's one of the things that stuck out to me.

He also asked me about how I handled the not-always-able-to-speak deal, since I'd mentioned that I can't always speak and that it's mostly a logistics issue for me. As long as I still have a good way to communicate and do what I need to do, I really don't care if speech is working or not. (I''m still working on the logistics for classroom teaching with large, face-to-face classes, but as a student and as a tutor it's definitely not an issue.)

For my two graduate math classes this semester, I sit in the front row on the right side so that I can reach the side board in the room from my seat, and I carry a whiteboard marker with me. That way, if speech stops working but I want to say something, I can write on the board and everyone can see it.

Another bit I noticed is that he (like most people) seemed a bit surprised by the extent to which I will joke about pretty much every aspect of my disabilities. Pattern recognition tells me that most people, especially enabled people, are going to be surprised by that one, but it always sticks out to me just how much people expect disability to be so serious, all the time.

Nah, I'll crack jokes, because a lot of the issues either genuinely amuse me and because many of the ones that don't fall under laugh to keep from crying territory.

The way one of my teachers this semester, who I'd had a couple times before, reacted the first time he saw speech go kaput on me was one of the genuinely amusing ones. (He refers to it as being "offline," which isn't my word but as long as we're clear on it just being speech that's offline I think it's as good a word as any.)

See, I corrected all of the typos he made on the whiteboard... from my seat, without speaking because I couldn't. He'd written the "element of" symbol instead of the "subset of" symbol a few times, if I remember correctly. Anyways, after I got them all, he told me to "be quiet!" He was laughing, so I wrote on the side board, "But I'm not talking!". So he said I knew what he meant (true.)

The next day, I went to check in with him since he'd never actually seen speech give out on me before. His one question? Whether or not he'd been too hard on me about it. I'm not actually sure what he did where he'd worry about that, since I'm fairly sure I'd have gotten a laughing "be quiet!" type reaction had I done the same thing while speaking... but that's a whole lot better a concern than whether or not I'm OK to be in class when I can't speak (yes...)

Finally, I thought it was interesting (and definitely good) that he asked what advice I had, both for students and for educators. For students I said to remember that smiling, nodding, and doing what you want anyways is absolutely an option, and also that when people are talking about evidence supporting various strategies, look closely at what the evidence is of: no matter how much evidence anyone has that they can get you to a particular goal, it's not relevant you don't share that goal.

For educators? I said to remember that students at least sometimes not doing what they're told is totally expected, because 1) students are people with potentially different goals than you, and 2) sometimes we are literally not capable of doing the thing. When it's the first, that's not a disability issue, and when it's the second, consequences won't make us magically gain abilities. 

Friday, October 9, 2015

And then I played sports

No, really.
I'm not good at sports, but I play on my universities ultimate (Frisbee) team. I have every year I've been on campus, except the semester that I had a broken foot.

I am also a part time AAC user, because I'm not always able to speak, and I'm also dyspraxic, and I tend not to process movement as quickly as my teammates.

This year, because the incidence of injury has been increasing (I broke my nose playing this sport in high school, but the worst that's happened to me in college is getting cleated) all of the players had to do a concussion recognition training. I actually think this is a good idea, but I needed to clarify a few things for my teammates and coach because the training assumed a neurotypical player for their baseline.

This is pretty much what I told them, shared in case it comes in handy for any of my fellow autistic athletes. I know more of us exist.

  1. Changes in speech: If speech is completely gone, or if it's slow and halting, this means very little. These could happen as a result of a major injury, but these could also happen because I am tired, hungry, thirsty, hot, cold, sore, stressed, or because I made actual eye contact with someone. 
    1. HOWEVER, if my speech is slurred, that is a sign of something unusual. My regular language issues don't include slurred speech.
    2. HOWEVER, if I'm also having trouble writing or typing beyond the expected difficulties doing so in the current level of cold, that is a sign of something unusual. My normal-for-me instances of speech going kaput leave typing and writing unaffected.
  2. Appearing to move clumsily: I'm dyspraxic. Any way of moving that I haven't done many times, and recently, is going to be clumsy. Flapping my hands is also TOTALLY NORMAL, along with rocking.
    1. HOWEVER, if I'm clumsy at something I normally do smoothly, like throwing a flat forehand, that is a sign of something unusual.
  3. Appearing confused on the field: I process movement a bit slower than most people. My pattern recognition is good enough that I can cover for this when everyone is moving in patterns I recognize, at which point I can even appear to have faster than average processing and reflexes, but I don't.
    1. HOWEVER, if I'm showing confusion about plays I've mastered, that is a sign of something unusual.
  4. General overload (same causes that lead to my losing speech) can reduce the threshhold for clumsiness or confusion. So if I only recently mastered a way of moving or only recently mastered a new play on the field, and then I'm overloaded, me falling apart at those isn't actually surprising.
  5. I will show behavioral changes that indicate (nearly all) injuries before I am aware of being injured. So if I seem to be favoring an injured leg but haven't said anything about an injured leg... ask me. If you get me thinking about the leg, and it's injured, I might be able to tell you that I'm injured, even if I hadn't noticed it before.

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Computer Assisted Translation and Cognitive Interpretation

This semester, one of the three classes I'm taking is a programming class meant for scientists, rather than for computer science majors. (I'm only taking three classes! What is this?)
This is pretty cool, because it means I'm with other graduate students, and also everyone realizes that they need more programming skills than they have.

Our final projects are all supposed to relate to our research, if at all possible. As a masters student in math, I don't have official research with my department currently, but I do have research interests through the disability side of things. I'm interested in cognitive interpretation, like what Neurodivergent K is describing here, and in treating disability-related communication barriers as translation problems. (Sign interpreters totally already do this, so this is not a new idea, not on its own.)  In full generality, this would be a huge project and nowhere near appropriate for a semester, but by taking a smaller project, like applying one already existing translation-related technology to communication barriers similar to those I face, I can hopefully get somewhere this semester.

I'll be looking at Computer-assisted Translation (CAT), which already has software to support it. The idea behind computer assisted translation is that sometimes you need to translate a sentence, phrase, or communication similar to one you've needed to translate before. The software that is assisting the translation finds similar phrases that have been translated before, finds what their translations were, and suggests those translations.

Because the translation or interpretation that a cognitive interpreter is doing is between a "standard" dialect and the (non-standardized) communication patterns of a disabled person, we can't really draw on most already existing translation histories. However, relevant translation histories could be created. It may well be possible to give the software some translation history based on the interpretations of a human interpreter, and because certain communication traits are more common among people with particular conditions, it may be possible to create "starter" or "default" translation histories that come with the software. I think that including translations or explanations of common internet language uses would make sense, as one example -- many Autistic people, including myself, are echolalic, an plenty of us tend towards code mixing rather than code switching, which means we may well use internet language in contexts where it won't be understood.

I could also try to bring in comparable corpora, which is something I've been reading about in Comparable Corpora and Computer-assisted Translation. The idea behind comparable corpora is that when people are writing or speaking on a given topic in their own language, this reads and sounds different than translations from other languages do. By using texts on similar topics which were originally in different languages, we can have translations with less "translationese" in them. I think bringing in comparable corpora is unlikely this semester, but that I do want to incorporate it eventually.

Interfaces could also be modified to better match with use by people whose disabilities affect communication and who might not be experienced at translating documents between "standard" languages. (I have some translation experience for personal use, so I do know that this sort of experience is not mutually exclusive with communication disabilities.)

I found one computer assisted translation program, Virtaal, which is free and open source, written in Python, the language we're learning in the programming class. Because Virtaal is a many-file program with a graphical user interface, there's a lot going on in that program that I don't understand yet. My project is going to be based very heavily in learning to understand the code for this already existing program, which I'll then try to make some modifications or additions to over the course of the semester. I'd like to do even more with it later -- I want this software to exist already, and I want it on my laptop, fully functional, now. That's why I'm trying to build it!

Friday, October 2, 2015


Apparently my presentation at Autcom is the part that I'm able to write about. For the ways things were done wrong (and were they ever done very, very wrong) you can read Neurodivergent K's post, Turtle is a Verb's post, Mitchell's post on a blog I think he might have created just to be able to write this mess up, Beth Ryan's post, Expectedly's post, or the ASAN New York statement.

Let's just say that Neurodivergent K was my roommate and one of my co-presenters, and that Beth Ryan was our other co-presenter. And by "our other co-presenter" I might mean the one who got the panel organized? I'm not sure beyond "it wasn't me."

Because of what happened the Friday afternoon and early Saturday morning of the conference (see the posts I linked at the start,) my ability to speak was cutting in and out most of Saturday morning. I know from experience as a math teacher at my university that so long as I have speech when I go "onstage," I will retain speech until I go "offstage." I put the onstage/offstage in quotes because it's not exactly about a stage, at least not a literal one, though it is about a sort of performance.

However, what I did not know was what would happen if speech was already gone when I went "onstage." Since I put in some effort towards making sure speech is still around when I start teaching math classes at my university, and since that effort had always worked (it's not that hard to avoid things that'd cause speech to go kaput on me for the first 3 hours of the day when I have a single room and am just working on lesson plans and/or grading,) I had no reason to know.

Now I know. Thanks Autcom. (That's sarcasm, by the way. I am not actually grateful for this knowledge.)

If speech is already gone when I go "onstage," it doesn't necessarily come back. It didn't for my presentation.

I had brought my laptop with me for the slides, so I'd already been planning to hook my laptop up to the projector. This was good, since I was then able to open up Open Office on my laptop, make the font bigger, and present by typing into a text document. I switched the screen back and forth between the text document I used to write to the audience and the slides my co-presenters and I were using, as relevant. If I had something to say, I had the document up, and if my co-presenters were talking about something to match a slide, I had the slides up.

Before presenting, but after I had hooked up the laptop, I was working on a piece for The Autistic Exchange, which is a fanfiction exchange by and for Autistic people. I won't claim it was my best work, but the people who were in the audience waiting for my panel got a bit of a preview. If you want to read it, the authors for the collection have been revealed so I can tell you which one it was. Here it is!

The presentation went well, and we tied some examples from the Autcom mess into what we were talking about on the panel, which was how partnerships between parents of autistic people (who may be autistic themselves) and autistic adults (who may also be parents) can work. The Autcom examples were not the positive ones.

I also cracked jokes while presenting. I told people about how I got a teacher to tell me to "be quiet!" when I wasn't actually able to talk. Without context, this seems like it'd likely be bad, but with context, I was amused and I think the teacher was too, considering that he was laughing while telling me to be quiet. I was correcting every single board typo and that the teacher would have been treating my writing to communicate differently from other student's speech had he not told me to shush. He was just imprecise with his terminology, in a math class where he talks about how important precision is. Therefore, I found him telling me to be quiet most amusing.

Post panel, Neurodivergent K and I were kind of cornered together by this Sandi person. I wound up typing to her about stuff that would have been an OK conversation if it weren't for the part that she was totally trying to pretend everything was cool without actually doing things to fix the things. That made it a very stressful conversation instead.

After the panel and cornering were both over, I found out that I "inspired" someone. Before you do the spit-take and wonder who is about to get verbally eviscerated, the answer is no-one. This was one of the few examples of "inspired" where I totally agree with the word choice. I apparently inspired another Autistic adult who would benefit from using augmentative and alternative communication part time to do so, and more openly. I'm cool with serving as that sort of inspiration.

Thursday, September 24, 2015

"Can't" is Actually Important

All these thoughts were brought up again in the context of sports, because one of the coaches for my ultimate team said that we weren't ever supposed to say "I can't," at practice. I'm fairly sure that was supposed to be empowering, and I'm just as sure that for me (and probably for a whole lot of other disabled people) it's actually terrifying. Thankfully, I was able to explain to the coach and have her understand why no, I really do need that sentence in my vocabulary, and I need it taken seriously when I use it. Bad things happen otherwise.

Part the first: What I find easy vs. hard vs. impossible doesn't line up very well with what most people find easy vs. hard vs. impossible.

This is the part where "differently abled" is a technically accurate description of my abilities, and the existence of societal factors putting values and expectations on certain abilities is why I still refuse to call myself differently abled. I wrote a post about that a while back.

However, this is mostly the part where the failure of my easy, hard, and impossible to line up with that of anyone else means that my abilities are apparently incomprehensible to a significant portion of the world. The idea that I can do calculus but not organize my own locker (not actually related skills in any way, shape, or form) or that I can be decent at Ultimate but not able to jump such that my feet leave the ground together and land together (therefore not actually a prerequisite skill, but I can at least understand why people assume so) is apparently incomprehensible.

This means that when I say I can do one thing, but not another, people are too busy being confused to accept this, and cognitive dissonance leads to my can't getting ignored.

Part the second: What I find easy vs. hard vs. impossible doesn't even always line up with what I find easy vs. hard vs. impossible.

That is, my abilities vary over time, and hugely so. Speech is the big example here, that on my best day I can win a face to face debate in class without preparation by explaining why my opponents evidence actually supports the position I was assigned, and then there are also times when I can not speak at all. There's also a huge amount of middle ground, where I spend most of my time. That middle ground includes things like how much I can say that's not scripted, how quickly I can get words from my head to my mouth, how obvious it is that my prosody is weird, and whether or not I can initiate a conversation.

The way my abilities get prioritized also doesn't match with that of most people, so the way my ability variation happens can confuse people. For most of my classmates, the ability to concentrate on graph theory homework or measure theory assignments would go long before speech did. For me, I have repeated evidence that speech goes long before my ability to pay attention in class, write papers, or do homework does.

Part the third: Not recognizing "I can't" is used to deny access needs.

This one is common. A person has an access need. I have an access need. We all have them, but sometimes when they're statistically less common, the fact that it is a need is ignored. No, I can't depend on always being able to speak. That's why I carry pen and paper, and that's why I carry the iPad. No, I can't tell people apart by their faces. That's why it takes me so much longer to learn people's names. No, I can't organize my own locker or desk or room independently. That's why I need help organizing my space. No, I can't consistently remember to eat three meals a day without reminders. That's why I need some sort of reminder system.

For some of these "can't"s the access need is that I have a work-around and just need people to get out of the way while I use it. However, when the people or institutions around me refuse to recognize the "I can't" as legitimate, either because can't is generally not accepted (hi, sports coach who had no clue what kind of disability issues sat around the issue of "can't") or because the specific inability is one that I'm not allowed to have for some reason.

Part the fourth: Deciding that a "can't" is actually a "won't" leads to very ineffective and very scary discipline.

When I was in school, some of my teachers recognized that I actually couldn't independently keep my locker organized and not full of piles of papers. So, once in a while, they'd pull the trash and recycling bins from their classrooms after school, sit down with me next to my locker, and help me deal with the mess. Together, we were able to get my locker back to a semblance of order.

I also had teachers who thought I just didn't care, and if they were smart about choosing the consequences I'd magically get my locker clean. This ranged from sitting me down and telling me I couldn't leave until it was done (ended with my crying in the middle of a pile of my stuff in the hall until one of the teachers who had figured out it was a couldn't found me) to having my enrollment in an appropriate math class held hostage to my "getting organized." That one ended when my eighth grade teacher finally realized that this clearly wasn't working, and that this was not an acceptable consequence to use anyways. It turned out that there actually was no appropriate class to enroll me in at the middle school, so they gave me an independent study that year. The idea was that I'd use the independent study to learn what was left of geometry and to do whatever math-related things caught my interest, and that I'd test out of ninth grade geometry when I got to the high school, taking Algebra II with the tenth graders instead. I actually tested out of two years of math and took Precalculus with the eleventh graders -- even when they realized that an appropriate math class meant grade-skipping me, they underestimated how far ahead I really was.

And remember, this is me getting off easy. No one hit me. No one tried to prevent me from accessing the mainstream curriculum (the mainstream just happened not to be appropriate for me in one subject.) No one decided I wasn't really ready to be a legal adult. I was "only" left to cry it out and I "only" had the stuff I could do held hostage to the stuff I couldn't do.