Q&A: Dolphin Therapy

Q: Can dolphin therapy be used to treat autism?

A: Dolphin therapy? Ehh. It’s okay, I guess.

There’s no really persuasive evidence for it, but it’s one of those therapies that generally won’t harm the child. Interacting with animals is usually pretty enjoyable, and some autistic people do find it easier to communicate with animals than with other humans. Many autistic people love water, as well.

Of course, some autistics hate water and some autistics wouldn’t enjoy interacting with dolphins. Everybody is different.

Dolphin therapy, like other animal-based therapies (horses, cats, and dogs are popular), can be used to help keep up the morale of an autistic person who’s having problems with anxiety or depression. It can be a source of safe, low-pressure social interaction. Some autistic people just feel better when they’re in contact with an animal. Interacting with animals can lower one’s stress level and make learning easier. That’s not because animals are magical or anything like that—it’s just that having contact with another living creature helps with anxiety and gives you a little more brain space to learn with. Most of the time, autistic people who have a strong response to animals will have an assistance dog.

Dolphin therapy is not useless, and it usually does no harm. Even a typical child would probably enjoy it and benefit from it. The question you have to ask yourself when you go into these expensive therapies is: “Is this the best use of my money? Could my child benefit more from something else?” There are many things that will make an autistic child’s life better, and dolphin therapy is one of many options. Personally, as a child, I would have preferred a cat to a dolphin; I’ve always loved cats and enjoyed interacting with them. And if I couldn’t have an animal, I would have loved to have more books to read.

Q&A: Half-Autistic Brains

Q: Could you have a brain that is only half autistic–like an autistic right side, and a neurotypical left side?

A: Autism is a syndrome—a collection of traits that come together, but without a known cause, or perhaps with multiple causes. As best as I can tell, it’s an emergent property of the whole brain, rather than something like Parkinson’s where you can look at the microphotographs and say, “Ah, here’s how this happened.”

What I mean by “emergent”:


Here’s a close-up shot of a painting. You can’t see what the whole picture is, because there’s not enough information in this bit of painting to tell. In fact, this bit of painting could be part of anything. A boat on the ocean? A mushroom in the forest? You can’t tell. You need more information.


Here’s the entire painting. It’s done in an art style called pointillism; on a small scale, pointillism is just dots of color, all mixed up together. It’s only when you look at the whole thing that you can understand the image.

Autism is like that. Autism is what happens to a whole brain; autism is the whole picture that comes out of all those little neuronal dots. Even if only half of the brain is different from neurotypical, if the behavioral result is the syndrome we call “autism”, then the whole brain is considered autistic.

Q&A: Managing special interests

Q: How do I control my Aspie obsessions?

A: Yeah, I’ve been there. When I get an obsession, I jump into it headfirst. I get obsessed with something as trivial as a random flash game, or something as complicated as how the body controls blood pressure, and suddenly I’m eating, sleeping, and breathing that thing, and nothing else seems important.

It doesn’t seem to do much good to resist. Your brain’s going to get stuck on things; that’s just how it works.

What has helped me stay functional through the more intense obsessions is maintaining a daily routine that includes the necessities. My routine currently includes eating, sleeping, showering, and keeping my apartment clean. Those are the things I do “automatically”. I use a lot of reminders—alarm on my computer, two alarm clocks, a couple of white boards, notes posted in a few places, and so on. I mastered showering regularly around age 23; just last year (age 33) I managed to establish a regular sleep cycle. Eating is still a bit irregular, but I get enough to drink at least. The more I can remember to do the necessities, the less my obsessions affect my life.

My variety of autism is a sort of moderate autism without developmental delay, so I’m semi-independent. There are autistics who are lots better at coping than I am, and others who aren’t nearly as good at it yet. I’m much better at taking care of myself now than when I was a teenager and I expect to continue getting better at it as time passes.

Try to establish a routine, a schedule, that will make it easier for you to fulfill the basic responsibilities of your life—taking care of yourself, going to class, fulfilling other commitments. Let yourself obsess for the rest of the time; that’s just the way your brain works, and that’s okay.


Q&A: Levels of support

Q: What is the significance of the “levels of support” for autism in the DSM V?

A: Levels of support are a guide for clinicians, especially those trying to organize large numbers of autistic kids or adults—say, in a school or at a therapy practice. A kid with a higher level of support may need a one-to-one aide in a classroom, whereas a kid at a lower level may just need to have their mainstream teacher briefed on their needs.

There’s no way to determine what a client needs sight unseen, but at least with levels of support you have a rough guide of mild-moderate-severe that’ll tell you how many man hours each client is likely to need. A classroom of fifteen kids with mild autism is a different animal from a group home for five adults with severe autism.

The only drawback I see to “levels of support” is that they’re too easily conflated with “functioning levels”. Functioning level categories are generally damaging to the welfare of autistic people, because of the connotations that come along with them. People labeled “high-functioning” are assumed to be not very disabled and therefore not to need help, and then blamed for failing when they don’t get help. People labeled “low-functioning” are assumed to be a lost cause, and when they display talents their talents are written off and they aren’t allowed to develop them.

The fact is that people who need a high level of support can be talented, just like people who need only a low level of support, and I worry that professionals will forget that. Being at the moderate level myself, I get both ends of the spectrum—I’ve been told, “You’re not that disabled; shape up,” and I’ve been told, “You shouldn’t attempt that; you’re too disabled, you’ll fail.”

Levels of support are cool, but please let’s not let them backfire like we did with functioning levels.

Q&A: AS & FB

Q: Should someone with Asperger’s have a Facebook account?


Depends on the Aspie. In general, I would say that it’s no more dangerous than any other form of socialization, and maybe a bit more Aspie-friendly than most.

Every time we step out of our bedroom doors and communicate with another living creatures, we risk that we will be embarrassed, overwhelmed, or confused. We risk bullying, harassment, and social ostracism. We risk hurting ourselves, or other people, when we make a social faux pas; and though we add those to our lists of things not to do every time they happen, there always seem to be more of them to learn the hard way.

Autistic people can’t simply stay in their bedrooms and away from the rest of the world. Sure, we can adjust our communication style to make it easier. We can ditch the people who treat us badly. We can stay away from situations where our skills fail us (like large, noisy parties for sensitive introverts) and seek out those where we can use our strengths (like a back-and-forth exchange of e-mail for a word-focused Aspie). But we can’t isolate ourselves completely.

If someone with AS wants a Facebook account, they should have one. If they’re kids, or if they’re not used to communicating online, they might need to be given a few pointers by someone more experienced—especially an older person who’s also on the spectrum. They should be taught what a troll is and how to deal with one, how to recognize harassment and stalking and how to get help, and the basics of online etiquette. Being on Facebook is not problem-free, but when it comes to autism and socializing, online or offline, it’s never problem-free.

We’ve Emigrated!

If you’re here, welcome to my new blog. Same me; different platform.

The reasons should be obvious, but in case you don’t know: LiveJournal has become rather unfriendly to free speech lately.

When I logged on to LJ last week, I was hit in the face with a new “Terms of Service“, which came along with LiveJournal’s migrating their servers to Russia.

LJ has been owned by a Russian company for a while, but with the servers in the US, I didn’t feel like I had to worry about censorship. Now? Not so much.

Notably, they say that “User shall be subject to Article 10.2 of the Federal Act of the Russian Federation No. 149-ФЗ if more than three thousand Internet users access the Blog (the Blog’s page) within 24 hours.”

I’ve surpassed that limit several times. Which means that, according to Livejournal, I’m now subject to Russian law, with all its political policing and anti-LGBT nonsense. Apparently they won’t even let you swear.

I can’t say “No, thank you”, loudly enough. Sorry, Russia, but I’m not into the 1984 vibe.

Also, gay people are awesome, and Russia should stay the hell out of Ukraine. So there.

It took me a while to migrate from LJ. At first I tried to use import tools; no dice. It’s no wonder most LJ emigres are moving to Dreamwidth; their platforms are compatible enough that Dreamwidth’s importer can be used, even though the queue is days long. In the end, I used a macro recorder to manually copy and paste every single post from one Web site to the other–more than ten years of blogging. Needless to say, this took multiple days. And, unfortunately, comments weren’t transferred, which is a real shame. I’ve had a lot of good discussions with commenters.

I also moved my two memorial sites, which are now located here:

Autism Memorial

And here:

Memorial Annex

What a hassle. But worth it, I hope, as long as my own country doesn’t drift too far into the totalitarian range. If that happens, I’ll be emigrating in more than just the digital sense. I just hope there are places in the world where refugees are still accepted. (Germany? Still got any room over there?)

Q&A: In which I feed the trolls and explain why I am ugly.

Q: Why are disabled people so ugly?

A: I feel like I ought to be insulted that you asked this question, which presumes that disabled people are indeed ugly, because in general, we’re not; we’re just ordinary-looking, some not so good-looking, some gorgeous. It’s down to luck whether we look pretty or not—well, luck and a talent for style and grooming.

I’m one of your “ugly” disabled people.

This is a photo of me at a recent protest against repealing the Affordable Care Act; the sign says “Don’t Let Us Die”. (Disabled people like myself are at risk of dying if we can’t get health care, and that’s not an overstatement.) We’re wearing party hats because the ACA turned seven years old, so we’re holding a “birthday party”. This is a candid photo taken by a news reporter, so it’s not a posed picture.

Let’s analyze this. Why do I look “ugly” in this picture?

  • Loose clothing. I have autism and related sensory processing disorder, which means I wear clothing about two sizes too big. Anything tight gets on my nerves, and takes energy I could be using to deal with something else.
  • Buzz cut. The hairstyle is all about comfort. I could look “prettier” if I had long hair, but I cut it off because otherwise it gets in the way, and because I have to take extra energy to take care of long hair. So it goes.
  • Big, clunky wrap-around sunglasses. Not a highly stylish choice, but absolutely necessary for my sanity. My vision is very sensitive, and I’d get a migraine if I didn’t wear sunglasses outdoors, even on rainy days.
  • No make-up. I could look “prettier” if I wore some, but having stuff smeared on my face would take up energy I don’t have. Are we sensing a theme here?
  • Overweight. The clothes may make me look fatter than I am, but I’m still carrying about fifty extra pounds. This is unrelated to my disability, other than that because I am low-income, I am unable to afford the expensive, nutrient-dense food that would give me the nutrition I need with fewer calories. Because of my disability, it’s hard for me to cook for myself; I eat mostly prepared food, which can be quite low on nutrition.
  • Clothing. The newest piece of clothing I’m wearing is more than five years old; this is down to my low income. Due to my disability, I wear a “uniform” of black pants and polo shirt every day, which helps save energy.
  • Androgynous, but not good at fashion. I don’t look stereotypically feminine, probably because I’m not really female, nor really male. This is a sociocultural thing, a gender identity, that has little to do with disability; but because of my disability, I am unable to spend money or time on perfecting an androgynous style that “looks good”. Suits cost money. Tailored anything costs money. And all of that outfit design would take a lot of energy.

Why am I so focused on saving energy? Because I need it to do things like going to to that protest. If you’re disabled, you’re on an energy budget; you have only so much of it, and if you go over your budget, the debt catches up to you in a massive way—physical illness, breakdowns, or just plain being unable to care for yourself for a while. And if I want to do anything other than just keeping myself alive, I have to cut some corners. I simplify everything. And because I do, I can splurge on things like standing on a street corner, yelling at politicians as they go into a fund raiser, because I’m aware that there are a lot of other disabled people who could never, no matter how hard they saved up their energy, make it to a protest like that even at the cost of being exhausted afterwards. And they’re at an even greater risk of dying from losing health care than I am.

But there’s something behind this, something we all should be aware of, because when we’re aware of it, it causes much less harm. It’s simply this: Humans have a sort of evolutionary survival mechanism that tells us to stay away from disease, and to mate with those who are healthy. That’s where the concepts of “ugly” and “pretty” come from; they’re just stand-ins for whether or not you’re healthy and fertile.

So once you know that, once you know that that’s just how your primitive, animal self reacts to people, you can gauge your reaction with a bit more wisdom. Your lizard brain just looks at somebody and goes, “Are they going to give me a disease? Could we have healthy babies together?” and doesn’t care about anything else. In reality, that “ugly” person could become your best friend for life; or you could find that their personality and their mind are so charming that you fall in love with them despite what your primitive lizard-brain is trying to tell you about their looks. Because there’s so much more to a relationship than that early “ugly/pretty” reaction.

Some disabled people look “ugly” in this lizard-brain way because they are ill, or because their faces are not symmetrical. Those are indications that if you mated with them, your babies might not be as healthy. However, even for the purpose of judging whether you could have healthy babies, “ugly” is a horribly imprecise standard. Nowadays, if you wanted to tell whether you could have healthy babies with somebody, you would just go to the doctor and get check-ups.

But “ugly” is something your primitive self sees. It’s not something invented by your humanity or your compassion or your ability to communicate and empathize. “Ugly” is a concept that’s been around since our ancestors were laying eggs. We’ve gone long past that now, and so should you.