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Thoughts on Dan

January 29, 2009

I had held off writing anything about the recent Action For Children ad campaign, here in the U.K., because I didn’t think I would add much to the discussion.

Having just read through Anne’s original post over at Existence is Wonderful, and Shiva’s thought-provoking one at Biodiverse Resistance, one theme kept popping into mind: GIGO. My first reaction was that I wished I could hug Dan, and help him find a less destructive way to think about his own life and self.

Anne’s description of what it’s like to try to make sense of what is happening in your life, while you’re being fed a steady diet of faulty assumptions, looked all too familiar to me. She could have been describing my life, ages 7-27 or so. When the information you are offered is mostly bad, you are liable to put some similarly bad interpretations on your own behavior and thinking. It upsets me that AFC has chosen to add to the flood of bad information.

Though she has modified her approach in a followup, I still don’t agree on the subject of coercion, however. Even before you throw in the charity and the advertising agency, just being in an institutional environment is coercive enough in itself.

I know, because as part of the GIGO cycle, I was subjected to several jaunts in adolescent psych units. Everyone involved–my parents, the institutions, and me–were working off bad information at the time. The first discussion I had with the other kids had to do with “playing the game” in order to get out of there. I resisted the idea at first, but was pretty quickly willing to do or say absolutely anything to get out of there, much less to avoid going back. There was enough emotional danger there that I probably still would.

Unlike some kids in similar situations I encountered, I kept up the resistance for a good long while, having trouble believing that this treatment could possibly be for anybody’s “own good”. I did keep feeling like I was being punished for my innate badness, however. And, eventually, enough people had been questioning my thoughts and motives for long enough, that I did not trust them myself. I did start feeling crazy and as close to evil as made no difference, falling into at least partial Stockholm Syndrome, as Shiva mentions. Even if you don’t think the situation is fair, you are still going to start believing–at some level or another–that there is some reason that nothing about you suits other people, and try to change accordingly.

I, too, tried to change my outward behavior, based on faulty interpretations of it. That worked about as well, even in the short term, as one would expect. At the time, I probably would have said how much had been done to help me, and how much I had improved because of it. Even when I was suicidal (a.k.a. “selfish and bratty”), from having my mind threatening to rip apart.

Now I have the knowledge and vocabulary to describe what is really going on in my life, or at least to come up with a much more realistic approximation. It makes me angry and sad that so many other people still do not. They have little alternative to describing their own thoughts and behavior in the only terms they’ve been exposed to.

That, to me, is the worst thing about this ad campaign. It’s just another brick in the wall, but one that already contains enough bricks to crush the life and spirit out a person.

6 Comments leave one →
  1. February 3, 2009 3:08 am

    You make some really good points here. While I was not actually put into any residential facility growing up (though certain relatives did attempt to wrangle that at one point; luckily they were thwarted) I am definitely familiar with the “say anything to get out of the situation” thing.

    For me (and several other autistic people I know) it was made worse because of how I approached/learned language in the first place — for a long time I didn’t understand what conversations were for or how they worked well enough to know that the goal of a discussion was *not* always “complete the word-pattern in the right way and they’ll let you leave).

    And – in looking at the “Dan” ad — I was very much reminded of that mindset and the situations that went along with it (some of which I described in my post(s)).

    My reticence to presume that Dan was obviously coerced into his supposed point of view as expressed in the ad was based on the fact that I didn’t have any actual objective proof or evidence I could point to that this had happened. It can be frustrating to see signs of a familiar pattern in something (as I did in the ad) but not actually feel justified in pointing out the definitive existence of that pattern.

    But I feel I have to remain sensitive to this because of how often I’ve seen people presuming that whenever an autistic person says something they don’t agree with, the autistic person is probably being controlled by others (whether intentionally or not). Generally this occurs when the autistic person is saying things other than “oh woe is me, hark at my tragic autistic life!”, but I do not want to fall into the trap of thinking that only viewpoints I agree with need protection.

    I do think that Dan’s situation was very likely exploitative and I most certainly think it’s awful that he was institutionalized and taught to view difficulties he experienced as being the result of “errors in his behavior”. But I also think the ad itself is most properly viewed as a *symptom* of that sort of thing.

    It is indeed wrong to demonize autistic children, and the ad’s marketing people had a serious fail in that department — however, in my opinion, the *real* problem is that Dan (and other kids) are essentially encouraged to — not just by charities and schools but by pervasive discriminatory social attitudes — say and think those sorts of things about themselves in the first place. In other words, I really hope that people don’t decide that merely getting the ad taken down has addressed the problem; the problem goes a lot deeper, and will surely require more than one victory to address.

  2. urocyon permalink
    February 3, 2009 6:11 pm

    Agreed. I may not have expressed it as well as I’d have hoped, but my main trouble is with this sort of thing being a symptom of a larger, overarching problem. It’s easier to frame objections to a specific incident than to a whole way of thinking, but the incident is just a symptom.

    In other words, I really hope that people don’t decide that merely getting the ad taken down has addressed the problem; the problem goes a lot deeper, and will surely require more than one victory to address.

    Indeed. On one hand, I can see why so many people find it tempting to focus on the specific incidents, but getting one ad yanked will not do much about the overarching problem.

    But I feel I have to remain sensitive to this because of how often I’ve seen people presuming that whenever an autistic person says something they don’t agree with, the autistic person is probably being controlled by others (whether intentionally or not).

    I can definitely see your point. I just had to point out some related things to DH, recruiting him as an interpreter for going to the doctor. Too many people are just looking for an excuse to dismiss what autistic people have to say. I am still concerned about medical personnel deciding that my behavior looks “bizarre” enough that I couldn’t possibly know what’s really good for me.

    My point, in the post, was closer to “it’s hard to get away from all the voices trying to drown out what we want to say”. I didn’t mean to suggest that Dan could not possibly have had agency here, but have personally seen how hard it can be to (a) formulate what you mean, and (b) get it heard, in the face of other people’s expectations of what they are going to hear.

    If that makes any sense at all.🙂

  3. February 4, 2009 12:50 am

    “in the face of other people’s expectations of what they are going to hear”

    It makes a great deal of sense.

  4. March 7, 2014 3:27 pm

    “When one is named as being ‘defective’, the person doing the naming thinks of the one named as ‘an objectified tool’.”
    The purpose of coercion is to teach one his or her place – which is where said tool’s BETTERS think to put him or her. Note that they do this for THEIR reasons – which seldom make sense to the target of their abuse.
    Those reasons can be summed up as ” 1) because I can; 2) because doing so pleasures me; 3) because it makes me look good to my peers (and especially my betters).”

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