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

APA: Zisk, A. H. (Year Month Day of post.) Post Title. [Web log post]. Retrieved from

Thursday, March 31, 2016

Transgender day of visibility

Apparently today is transgender day of visibility. I have a few thoughts.

  1. Visibility, much like "awareness" is never enough and not necessarily positive depending on how we do it. Knowing a group exists and hating/stigmatizing that group isn't strictly better than being unaware, and you could argue that it's worse.
  2. For people who can SAFELY be visible (or who CHOOSE any risks for themselves), being known/out can help with acceptance type stuff. Don't out people though, it's very much not your call if someone else can safely be out or if any risks are worth it for them.
  3. That said, I'm nonbinary (not a lady!) and so either everything is drag or nothing is. I'm going with everything. Thanks to a random and slightly silly conversation with a classmate for this one.
And yes, 1) and 2) apply just as well to the upcoming Autism Hullabaloo month. 

Thursday, March 24, 2016

MIT Candidates Visit

I applied to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Health Sciences and Technology (HST) program for my PhD. I made it to the interview stage, which was cool. (Spoilers: I did not, in the end, get accepted to the program.)

And now I am blogging my visit, about a month after said visit because that's how I roll with remembering to do things I wanted to do.

My roommate for the visit was great. We're totally staying friends after this. I made friends with a few other candidates too. We got time for one on one visits with faculty whose research interests were similar to ours, and both of the people I talked to about autism stuff jumped in the direction of "personal insight is useful!" instead of the "but you can't know anything meaningful about autism because of the impairments caused by autism!" nonsense I sometimes see. Yay!

Also, on the initial application, there was a gender question that had check boxes including "nonbinary" and "other." That was cool. (They also had a legally designated sex question, which... erm... at least they get that those are different questions but actually why do we need to ask?)  Despite the nonbinary and other options on the application, and despite my checking said boxes, they totally assumed I was an Ms. and a woman. Nope! I am not, I am not, I am not. And I wound up telling them so, because seriously no. They're ditching the "Ms" and "Mr" on the name-tags at the dinner next year, too, partially due to my feedback. Also on the gender front, they totally said they were pairing us with roommates of our same gender. This... is not what happened. My roommate and I do have the same legally designated sex (and why are those even a thing ugh) but we are not the same gender.

The formal interview process was a bit scary. I had a one on one interview with a current student, which was cool. A wild Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy reference appeared, with my interviewer asking me what I thought a neurotypical (hearing) person would hear if they had a Babel fish in their ear and an Autistic person were doing the flap-grunt thing with the occasional word that sometimes happens under stress. And I'm not actually sure what they'd hear, but since people can learn to interpret such communication, I figure machine learning+machine translation can eventually reach a point of interpreting it. Also, I want to encourage it to get to that point, because people affect research priorities and do research. Which is what I told him. (I totally brought up the cognitive interpretation software idea.)

Then I had two panel interviews. That's the part that was actually intimidating, because I was getting grilled by four people at once: generally two professors, an alumnus, and a current student. I don't remember much of what I was asked in these, because forgetting things that happen in high stress is a thing. I know I got asked a bunch of times and a bunch of different ways why I wanted the health sciences and technologies program in particular (as opposed to brain and cognitive sciences was one of the ways I was asked.)

After that current students took us to dinner, in a few different groups. My group went to the same place Splash and Spark tend to have the teacher dinners, so I knew the place. It's one of those Chinese places that also has an assortment of other (mostly East or Southeast) Asian food, and I got to try stingray! Yum.

Long story short, the candidates visit was mostly good and I totally wish I'd gotten in. I'm excited for the program I'm going to join (yay Interdisciplinary Neuroscience Program) but do wish I'd gotten in at MIT or Berkeley.

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Isn't it time to leave your comfort zone?

I get asked this... sometimes. Most recently, I got asked this when I said I planned to stay in the same housing I'd had for undergrad through my doctoral program, since I'll be staying at the same university for it. (My housing is technically program-specific undergraduate housing. The person in charge of the house has said she does not care that I'm not an undergraduate anymore.)

And yes, it is time to leave my comfort zone! I'm moving from mathematics, which has been a bit of a home to me since ever, and mechanical engineering, which I studied as an undergraduate, to neuroscience, with major professors who are both biomedical engineers. That's a departure from my comfort zone. I'm walking a bit into the lion's den to be on a project designing technology for autistic people, likely working with parents and autism professionals in addition to my major professors. (I'm pretty sure I'm going to need to talk to parents and professionals, actually, since, as per usual, folks are thinking about children and since I'm apparently the autism expert on the team in addition to the technology and neuroscience know-how I'll be picking up during my studies.) That's an even bigger departure from my comfort zone.

My living arrangements are not the way it's time to leave my comfort zone. There's a few reasons for that.

Reason the first: Too many things changing at once is really hard for me! If I'd gotten into, say, MIT or Berkeley or some of the other schools I applied to, I'd have had to change my living arrangements in order to attend those schools. Since it would have been necessary, I'd have done it, but since it's not necessary, change for the sake of change and leaving my comfort zone is not going to be happening. I stick to changes that have good reasons, because change is hard.

Reason the second: My needs in terms of daily living might not be particularly complicated, but if they are not being met, bad things happen. I need easy access to food without needing to think much about how I'm getting said food or what I'm eating. That means I need a meal plan. My current housing comes with a meal plan, which is good. I also need to be able to avoid loud, bright places full of people. The main dining halls are definitely loud, bright places full of people, and we're not allowed to take our food out of the dining hall. Like many others, I know how to smuggle food out of the dining hall anyways, but when I am overloaded enough that I need to take my food out, the extra steps involved in doing so are going to be a problem. That means I should really be on a meal plan where I can take my food out of the dining hall. My current housing's meal plan allows this! So my current housing meets those needs, and finding other ways to meet those needs is effort that I don't need to make right now.

Reason the third: I don't drive. I passed my road test recently, so I legally can drive, but over in reality-land I don't drive. Driving tends to knock out my ability to speak, often for an hour or two after I'm done driving. (Even though I have no issues with going to class, work, or practice while non-speaking, I won't intentionally do things that make me lose speech for class, work, or practice.) Given that public transportation around the university is extant but not great, that means I should be living on campus. 

In combination, these reasons mean I should stay put. It's tricky to find housing on campus as a graduate student, and the on campus options for graduate students don't come with meal plans at all. It's possible to buy individual meals at the main dining hall (or at my current housing, though we don't get to take food out when we're buying individual meals as non-residents.) However, having that as "one more option" as opposed to "the default I don't need to think about" won't increase the probability of my eating meals. 

So yes, I should leave my comfort zone sometimes. I should also think carefully and critically about when, where, and how I leave my comfort zone. I want to take care of myself, and not just so I have a reasonable chance of completing my doctorate!

Saturday, March 19, 2016

Autistic Development: It's a Thing

I have three main points when I say that Autistic development is a thing (as opposed to neurotypical development.) None of them are that all, or even most, autistic people are going to have the same developmental trajectory. There's definitely patterns, like "autistic people are way more likely to go from no speech to sentences really fast than neurotypical people are," but that's not the same as "we all do it."

Point the first: Autistic people are not going to be stagnant in the absence of autism-specific interventions. Environment is absolutely relevant, in that I'm not going to pick up speech in an environment where no one is talking, and I'm not going to pick up reading in an environment with nothing to read. We don't learn to swim without getting in the water. We don't learn to cook without at least observing it done, and probably getting explicitly taught. But! None of those are autism-specific therapies designed to make me less autistic. (And yes, these are all skills that I have. I don't have the executive functioning to consistently keep myself fed despite knowing how to cook, but I can usually speak, consistently read and write with terrible handwriting, swim, and cook.)

This means that even if you are doing therapy of some sort, you can't know for sure if a skill was gained because of the therapy, because our development reached the point where we got/were ready for the skill, or a combination of the two. (Unless your therapy is some sort of dangerous quackery like, say, chelation for autism. Then it was definitely our development. #Sorrynotsorry.)

Point the second: Just because we're "late" or "out of order" to a specific skill by neurotypical, able standards, that doesn't mean we're not going to pick it up later (even without autism-specific interventions.) I couldn't jump with both feet leaving the ground at the same time until college. That's a skill that occupational therapists apparently help autistic kids with sometimes. (Really? That's our focus?) Anyways, I eventually learned it on the Frisbee team. Not in therapy. I did not get my learner's permit when I turned sixteen, nor did I get my drivers license quickly. I tried driving my senior year of high school, but I wasn't ready. I didn't get my license until last Saturday. I'm still waiting on the piece of plastic to arrive. I'm twenty-three, by the way, and I was on my third learners permit. Autism-specific therapy is not how I learned to drive. Driving school was.

This means that even if you are doing therapy of some sort and we're "late" to a skill, you can't know for sure if a skill was gained because of the therapy, because our development reached the point where we got/were ready for the skill, or a combination of the two. (Unless your therapy is some sort of dangerous quackery like, say, chelation for autism. Then it was definitely our development. #Sorrynotsorry.)

Point the third: If we're developing differently from the neurotypical norm, it'd make sense that we end up somewhere different. I picked up a lot of skills at unusual times, and not all "late." Part of why it took as long as it did for me to be recognized as autistic was my learning to speak really early. Like, a six month old is saying "want more noodles" with terrible pronunciation kind of early. However, there are times that I can't speak at all. Or for some sports-related examples that don't matter much but do illustrate the point: I was on swim team and did racing dives for three years without being able to jump so my feet left the ground at the same time. My feet always left the starting blocks asynchronously. Also, on Frisbee team, one of our warm-ups involves skipping backwards, so I can skip backwards fairly quickly and not fall over. I can't walk backwards, though. Only skip.

This means that Autistic adulthood, which doesn't look like just one thing, is not the same as neurotypical adulthood. Trying to measure Autistic adulthood by any of the yardsticks we use for neurotypical people is going to go badly. I don't mean badly in that we're going to measure up poorly, though that could happen too. I mean that the way we do adulthood may not even be measurable. Where do you put someone who teaches classes, is a published author, is a graduate student, and can't keep themself fed or safely live alone without supports? What if they're known to throw themselves into walls and bite themselves? That's me, by the way. It's the sort of thing I'm talking about in "Growing up into an Autistic adult" and it's the sort of thing I wish they'd be talking about, or at least acknowledged, at the autism and sign language conference that listed "unique developmental trajectories" as a topic.

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Thursday, March 10, 2016

But... you wear skirts?

I'm nonbinary. Folks who see me will pretty consistently (and correctly) guess that I was designated female at birth. I wear skirts, and fairly frequently. (I often wear them with button-down shirts or polos from the men's section, because what even is finding a decent shirt in the women's section?)

And odd as this may seem, my wearing of skirts hasn't got anything to do with my nonbinary gender. Nothing. It's completely a sensory thing. I wear loose clothing. I have to wear loose clothing. I can not cope with leggings or tights, not even a little. I don't own a single pair of jeans, and I haven't in years, because even the supposedly loose ones... usually aren't. On most days, dress pants that "fit" like they're supposed to are too tight for me to wear comfortably. I teach, therefore, in loose black athletic pants. Once the pants are black, most people seem less inclined to check if they're actually dress pants.

However, there are times when the black athletic pants aren't formal or fancy enough. I need to wear something that's dressier than that, and I can't always manage dress pants. Skirts, though. Skirts can be tight, but they can also be loose while still being formal. (And I totally had to learn how to sew for myself, because pockets aren't exactly optional and if I'm going to wear a skirt, it needs to be a long skirt, long enough that I don't need to worry about how I sit.)

There are also times when I don't want to wear pants... just don't. (Seriously, who always wants to wear pants?) Skirts to the rescue!

And I am still nonbinary. Just putting that out there.