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Wednesday, December 11, 2019

In honor of Greta Thunberg: autism re-considered

It’s weird not to be weird. ~ John Lennon

(co-authored By Andrea Crouch) 

No one thinks they are normal. That’s because there is no normal. And who would want to be normal anyway? Normal would be boring. As a kid you may think you are normal and think that people who are not like you or don’t do the things you do are weird. But then you realize that the people you thought were weird think YOU are weird because you don’t like the things they like or do the things they do. As an adult you finally realize there is no normal and that everyone is weird in their own way.

The thing about being weird is that, no matter what way in which you think you are weird because of that one thing you do or like or collect, there are plenty of other people who are weird in the same way. And some of them possibly even get together to do their weird thing as a group. Like to collect and talk about buttons? There are button clubs all over. Really. Like to reenact Civil War battles? Groups everywhere do this with great showmanship. You like Poodles? So do lots of other people. They have web pages and conventions.

And what’s interesting - or even weird - about being weird, is that what is considered weird changes. Remember when people who liked tech were weird? Remember when kids who sat inside and played on computers all day were weird and kids who played outside were normal? Now tech and computers are normal and if you don’t like them and want to actually go outside and play, you are the weird one. Plus there is no one outside for you to play with because all of the other kids are inside on computers.

Instead of embracing the weirdness among us and building upon it, schools and parents now want a diagnosis for kids they think are weird in a way they don’t understand. If a kid is weird, they are labeled as being Autistic or having Asperger’s, as if that explains why they are weird. No, they are just weird, meaning they are different from you, and possibly so different that you can’t understand them at all. What this really is, is an effort to try to get everyone to be the same. 

In school, we discover that weird is different and possibly even bad, and might lead to ridicule, so most kids try to blend in by not being weird. The system does its best to eliminate the weirdness and tries to make everyone the same, so they will all sit still and be good kids and not cause problems for the teacher. Some kids can easily sit still all day, be good, and do what they are told, because that is their personality, which seems pretty weird to me. But other kids think that doing those things is impossible, because it’s not their personality and not the way in which they are weird. I find people who can sit still all day, raise their hand calmly, and do what they are told, weird. But that’s just me.

Most kids spend their entire school years trying to fit into a mold that doesn’t exist because there is no normal. They just don’t want to be called weird because it’s the kiss of death, but in fact it’s what they should strive for. But at the same time that they are working to be uniform in school all day, their parents are telling them to be themselves and “always be you.” So what are these kids to do?

What’s even worse than labeling kids as weird and trying to get them to blend into a non-existing mold is drugging them. We give a drug to make them sit still, and another drug for the side effects of the sitting still drug. Then a third drug for the side effects of the second drug until the kid is a zombie or worse off than they were before the drugs. Doctors are prescribing drugs for each individual symptom; one to focus, one for depression, one for anxiety, one for sleep, and so on. Is anyone even bothering to ask the kid why they can’t focus? Whey they have anxiety or depression? Could it be that they are bored in school? Could it be that they are not allowed to do the kinds of things they like to do because school is making them do things that don’t interest them? Could it be that they want to shout out the answers in class but are not allowed to, so now they feel weird? No, of course not.

I’m appalled at how many kids are drugged today, many of them because they can’t sit still all day in a classroom that bores them. Instead of finding ways to engage each student in a way that works for them, we tell them they are weird and drug them into submission. Who can sit still in a classroom all day? There are kids who have the personality to do that. But what about the kids who like to shout out answers and argue with the teacher? There’s nothing wrong with them, they just don’t fit the mold. Not following what is considered standard doesn’t make you bad and shouldn’t be a trait that needs to be drugged out of you.

We do all this drugging and homogenizing in an effort to control children, but by doing this, what are we losing? What innovations are we drugging out of today’s kids? We need to stop focusing on the wrong thing. We need to stop drugging and excluding kids who are different, and instead use their unique interests as a way to get them excited about learning.

Weird is not a condition; it’s just what makes up your personality. When someone is weird we now say “oh, they’re on the spectrum” when in fact it’s just the way in which they are weird. Personality is a spectrum and we’re all on it. Weird isn’t bad and we need to stop thinking it is. The fact is, we are all weird in our own way. And that’s good. Weirdness is needed for innovation and diversity. Imagine where the world would be if everyone were all the same; we’d have no out-of-the box thinking, no creativity, no art, no challenging the status quo, no growth. 

We see stories of weird adults in the news every day, but if the person is rich or famous we give them a pass. Instead of calling them weird or crazy we just call them eccentric, curious, or quirky. Why don’t we do this to kids? 

Look at reclusive heiress Huguette Clark. She owned numerous mansions around the country, and had the homes and their grounds meticulously maintained by staff for years in spite of the fact she never lived in any of them. Caretakers of her properties hadn’t seen her in decades. Sounds weird and like a huge waste of money to me. But since she’s rich and enigmatic, she gets a pass.

Or Howard Hughes, the billionaire aviator who spent most of his life trying to avoid germs. So much so that he wore tissue boxes on his feet to protect them and burned his clothing if someone near him became ill. Later in life, he lay naked in bed in darkened hotel rooms in what he considered a germ-free zone. Again, he was rich and famous so he’s called eccentric or arty, and people made movies about him. If a child did these things today we’d drug them.

Some of the greatest innovators or artists we’ve ever seen are - or were - weird, and many are long speculated to have been on the Autism Spectrum though never diagnosed. They had weird interests, didn’t fit in with the other kids, didn’t like other kids, were fixated on things others didn’t understand, were bored in school, acted strange, and some even had delayed speech. If they were kids today I wonder how many of them would have been drugged and labeled for their weirdness. Let’s look at a few.

Elon Musk, innovator and entrepreneur
As a child Musk often drifted off into a trance and didn’t respond when people spoke to him. It was so frequent his parents thought he had a hearing problem so they had his adenoids removed to improve his hearing, but nothing changed. His mother said he would go into his brain, and you’d see that he was in another world. Kids teased him about this and also bullied him about his name. Around age six he started being able to block out the world and dedicate all of his concentration to a single task.He read compulsively from a young age, sometimes 10 hours a day, and memorized the encyclopedia. When he got his first computer at age 10 he stayed up for 3 days and did the entire lesson book, which was supposed to take 6 months. 

At age 12 he wrote code for a computer game that was published in a trade publication. The game wasn’t the best game ever, but it far exceeded what most other 12-year-olds could create. As a teen he had a full existential crisis at which time he arrived on his mission statement of “The only thing that makes sense to do is strive for greater collective enlightenment.” 

Musk did pretty well for himself, I’d say. Sure, he’s weird as an adult and some say he’s intense with reported 100 work weeks and rumors of treating employees poorly, but it’s ok because he’s rich and famous and can be charismatic, gives money to charity and is trying to create cool new stuff that could make our lives easier and save the planet. His parents were so worried about his weirdness that they had surgery performed on him! Imagine what those same parents would have done today. If a kid today went off into trancelike states, no doubt his parents would take him from doctor to doctor until he got labeled and was given some pills to make him normal and responded to adults who spoke to him. Some parents might even think their child needed an exorcism. Did anyone ever ask Musk whyhe ignored people who spoke to him or what drove him to think so intently? Or why he didn’t like other kids? Probably not. 

Bill Gates, Microsoft Founder
As a kid Gates was always in his room reading or thinking, and he had the ability to retain almost everything he read. He was so interested in reading that his parents let him buy all the books he wanted. He even read the encyclopedia from front to back. He had access to a school computer at age 12 and was better at using it than the teachers were. Around the same time he became very strong willed and started always wanting to be in charge and make the decisions. In high school he became so difficult that his parents allowed him to take time away from school and work. In his senior year of high school he worked full time as a programmer. He became addicted to programming and was obsessed with writing software.

Reading the encyclopedia from front to back is weird. But again, it’s Bill Gates so it’s ok because we see that behavior through the lens of the intelligent and successful man he became and all the charity work he does around the world. But if a kid today stayed in their room for hours reading, their parents might start to worry and start banging on the door demanding the child come out. And when that kid becomes an unruly teen, a lot of parents today may turn toward drugs or some kind of therapy to help them be able deal with the child’s headstrong nature. 

Steve Jobs, founder of Apple
Jobs liked to keep to himself as a child. He realized at a young age that he was smarter than his parents, and they knew it also. His mom taught him how to read before he went to elementary school so for the first few years of school he was bored and got into trouble. He said school came close to beating the curiosity out of him and he was sent home many times for disrupting. His father told the school that if they couldn’t keep him interested, it was their fault. In 4thgrade he tested at a sophomore level and it was suggested he skip 2 grades but his parents only let him skip one. 

In middle school Jobs was often bullied. In high school he overcame boredom by playing pranks. As he matured hedeveloped compulsive dieting habits, such as only eating fruits and vegetables.He also learned to stare at people without blinking.While in college he got bored so he dropped out, not because he wasn’t interested in learning, but because he wanted stop paying tuition and taking classes he thought were stupid.

Job’s father Paul worked on electronics in the family garage and taught Jobs how to take things apart and put them back together.Jobs also had a neighbor who worked for Hewlett-Packard and liked to tinker with electronics in his garage, and Jobs spent many hours learning from him. Many speculate that being allowed to take apart and work on electronics with his dad and his neighbor led Jobs to develop his interest in computers and developing products.

No doubt that Steve Jobs was weird as an adult. He wore the same clothes every day and ate a very strict vegan diet. And it’s pretty clear he was weird as a kid, after all it’s not very common for parents to acknowledge that their kid is smarter than them.

If Jobs were a child today and was disruptive in class and sent home multiple times for acting out, he’d most certainly be drugged and reprimanded and put in a special program to help him learn to behave and act “normal.” And no doubt he’d be labeled as something terrible. For Jobs – and possibly many other kids– his “bad behavior” stemmed from a mix of boredom and high intelligence. The way in which he was weird went against the grain of what was “normal” but innovation that changed the world was the result of it. Plus if he were a kid today his parents would probably call the police about the man spending so much time alone in a garage with their son. Sure it was a different time them, but Jobs’ parents knew that tinkering with electronics – and eventually digital chips – was what he enjoyed so they gave him the freedom to do it. Did they know he’d eventually develop the iPad and iPhone and MacBook that millions of people around the world would use every day? Doubt it. But they probably didn’t care because their son was doing something he enjoyed and they were happy to see him happy. 

Mark Zuckerberg, founder of Facebook
Zuckerberg started with computers at a young age. He created computer games while in middle school and at age 12 programmed the computers in his father’s dental office and the computers in their home to send messages to back and forth. He called it ZuckNet. In high school he created Synapse, software that monitored the songs you’d play on your computer then make a playlist for you based on what you liked. Microsoft and others offered Zuckerberg a job while still in high school, but he went to college instead.

Zuckerberg’s kind of weird has become mainstream today: kids spending countless hours creating things on computers. But not that long ago this kind of obsession was odd. Normal kids were playing with other kids in their neighborhood or watching TV, and the weird kids were on computers playing games and writing programs. But again, now that we know he is successful and rich and giving a lot of his money to charity, we accept his weird as normal. (Well, maybe not. I doubt anyone thinks Zuckerberg is normal.) But, why aren’t we giving kids today a chance for their weird to become something great? Zuckerberg began creating software programs as a kid and that started him down a path that eventually led to Facebook, which – like it or not – changed the world by presenting a new way for people to connect and share with each other. 

Nikola Tesla, inventor of the AC electrical current
Tesla had a very vivid imagination as a child. After his brother died in a horseback riding accident, he began having nightmares and out-of-body experiences. His experiences were so strong he often had to have his sister confirm what was real and what was just a manifestation. At age 12 he developed peculiarities such as an aversion against earrings while at the same time being pleased by bracelets. The site of a pearl would give him a fit. He wouldn’t touch anyone’s hair and got a fever when looking at a peach.

Tesla’s interest in electrical inventions was  inspired by his mother, who designed small household appliances to aid in her household chores. Perhaps seeing his mother take improving her life into her own hands is what inspired him to tackle redesigning generators.

Can you see weirdness here? Likes one kind of jewelry but not another? Gets a fever from looking at fruit? Can’t tell reality from a dream? These are all things that would today be thought of as symptoms of autism or possibly even mental illness. Yet, Tesla went on to be one the greatest innovators of all time, creating the AC electrical system used across the world today. Today’s Tesla would probably be on multiple medications or be institutionalized.

Daryl Hannah
As a child, she rocked herself to self-soothe, and was so shy that once she began acting she refused to give interviews or even attend her own premieres. As a young child, Hannah was emotionally isolated and struggled in school, and was very shy. She was subsequently diagnosed with autism, and medical professionals urged her parents to have her institutionalized. Instead, her mother decided to relocate with Hannah temporarily to Jamaica, in hopes that the change in environment would help her daughter. 

She is not a great innovator, but Hannah is a well-known actress who has publicly admitted being diagnosed with autism. So being shy, struggling in school, and being emotionally isolated is now something that requires a diagnosis? Why is being shy a bad thing? Maybe she struggled in school because she was bored. Maybe she was emotionally isolated because that is just her personality. People can be annoying so there is nothing wrong with not wanting to be around most of them. Why do these traits need a label?

Albert Einstein, theoretical physicist
He was a delayed talker, only speaking a few words by age two.His difficultly with language led his parents to think he would never be able to learn.He thought his slowed verbal development allowed him to observe things most others took for granted. This allowed him to think deeply into problems ordinary children wouldn’t.He developed a quirk that prompted his family to dub him “the dopey on” and other family members called him backwards.When we wanted to say something, he would first whisper it to himself softly until it sounded good enough to be said out loud. He was rebellious toward authority, and one school master kicked him out of school, saying he’d never amount to much. As a child, he avoided boisterous games with children his own age and instead occupied himself with quieter things. He was prone to temper tantrums. Despite being Jewish he went to a Catholic grade school and was bullied. In high school instead of spending time with friends, he would sit alone for days on end, , immersed in the search for a solution, not giving up until he found it.

Einstein’s delayed speech and ability to think deeply led his family to call him dopey and deduce he would never learn. Many kids today who are given an ASD diagnosis have delayed speech and have families who wonder if and how they will learn, and many are fed drugs to help them. Einstein also didn’t behave in school and didn’t like other kids his age. Today he’d probably be given one drug to sit still and another drug to counteract the side effects from the first one. And he’d be forced to play with other kids his age to be “socialized” and probably given yet another drug to offset the anxiety of playing with annoying kids. Had that all happened, what would the world have missed out on? Dr. Temple Grandin, who is a renowned professor of animal science and also identifies as being on the autism spectrum, has said the Albert Einstein of today would be diagnosed and drugged.

Isaac Newton, physicist
His father died before he was born and when his mother remarried the agreement stated that Newton could not live with his mother and her new husband. His grandmother moved to the family farm to take care of him. He was always looking for answers to questions.At a young age he began making sundials and wrote notes on how the sun and moon moved through the signs of the zodiac. His mother’s new husband died a few years later and she came back to the farm, but when Isaac was 12 she shipped him off to school.He was much older than most of the other entering students.He began in the back of the class but worked his way to the front by doing better than the other kids.He began to spend countless hours thinking about how objects behaved when they were hurled through space. He would ponder the notion of comets and planets, and wonder about the forces that governed them.While in school he lived in the attic above an apothecary workshop and was mostly alone and not included in the family of the apothecary owner.Living above the apothecary led him to wonder about how one substance could be transformed into another.

Newton was pretty much left to his own devices and, instead of getting into trouble as many young men do, he spent hours thinking about objects hurling through space. Keep in mind this is the 1600s and I’m pretty sure no one else had a thought like that. How many people even understood space or even gave it a thought. He was probably viewed as an isolated loner and maybe even weird, yet he ended up being a key figure in the scientific revolution. So why is being a misanthropic loner so bad? 

Andy Warhol, artist
Warhol like to talk so he used a lot of lists and repetitions. He didn’t want to go to school and instead wanted to stay home with his mother. In preschool a girl hit him one day and he was so traumatized he didn’t go back to school for a year. When he eventually returned to school he then got an illness that kept him out of school for months. He had uncontrolled shaking possibly due to contracting chorea. He only made friends with girls. Because of the chorea his sense of touch was altered, so he preferred not to be touched and as an adult would recoil when people attempted to hug him or shake his hand. He was 13 when his father died and during the 3 days where his father was laid out in the home, he refused to pay his respect and even hid under the bed. He failed out of his first year at Carnegie Tech not because he couldn’t master the work, but because he wouldn’t write anything down. 

I don’t think anyone would say Andy Warhol wasn’t weird. He looked weird, acted weird, dressed weird. But that was who he was, and again, we see with 20/20 hindsight that all his childhood quirks and oddities led him to be the pop culture icon he became. Sure he was eccentric and a “tortured artist” but he did pretty well for himself and brought a lot of joy to millions of people through art. Is it really that bad that he didn’t like to be touched or didn’t want to write things down or didn’t like school? That’s just the way in which he was weird. A lot of people don’t like to be touched, especially by people they don’t know. And don’t get me started on the “hating school” thing. If school were so great, kids wouldn’t squeal with delight when they got a snow day and got to stay home. 

The bottom line here is that all these people who were/are each weird in their own way ended up being ok. They found success, family, friends, and, in many cases, fortune. No one drugged them for being strange or tried to get them to fit into a mold. Instead they were all free to follow the things that made them weird and see where it led them. (Granted we don’t know if some of their parents sought treatments.) If anything, their parents leaned into their unique attributes and encouraged them.

Gates’s parents spent untold dollars on books for him because he liked to read. They didn’t tell him to put down the book and go play basketball with the neighbor kids. They even let him to go work while in high school instead of forcing him to stay in school where he was probably bored. They gave him the freedom to do the things he liked to do – which was read and program computers – instead of forcing him to do the things they wanted him to do or thought he shoulddo. They encouraged him,  listened to him, and recognized where he had passion and interest and let him pursue those things. They knew he had a headstrong nature so they let him be him instead of trying to fight him. And they didn't try to drug his strong will out of him, either. They just went with it and that strong will combined with his interest in computers got Gates to where he is today.

Jobs’ parents knew their son was brilliant and told the school to engage him more instead of sending him home to be punished for his disruptions. Jobs’ parents supported him so much they moved to a different city when Jobs said he would no longer go to school because of how much he was bullied. And his father encouraged him to fiddle with electronics and teach himself things, even though computers and electronics were not common interests at the time.

Warhol’s mom let him stay home from school and work artistic things, maybe because she was an artist herself. Maybe she saw that he thrived better when left alone. Today he’d been put into a social skills group and probably be drugged so he could be forced to attend school every day. Warhol wanted to avoid the world, so his mom let him. Is that so bad? Lots of people like to avoid the world and stay home, which is why Amazon sells everything, multiple food delivery services exist, we have cyber schools, and a large number of professionals now work remotely part-or full-time. Should we all be drugged for preferring to shop online and stay home to watch movies instead of going to a crowded theater?

Einstein’s parents let him sit and think for hours on end without forcing him into 19thCentury play date equivalents, and this is in spite of the fact that he was a late talker, his family thought he may not be able to learn, and a school master thought he’d never amount to anything. It’s possible they didn’t know what to do with him back then so they ignored him. But hey, it worked. He was left to be what he was and he flourished with his gifts and interests. He found his own way. If he were a child today, who knows what he would – or would not – achieve.

Zuckerberg’s parents let him create computer programs and even used his ZuckNet to connect their home and business, which displayed great trust in his abilities even though he was only a child when he developed it. Without that support – and we can only assume help and encouragement – would he have kept at it? Would he have keep seeing a need and creating a product to fill it? Who knows.

So why can’t we do this today? Why can’t we let kids be who they are? We see from the examples here what is possible when weirdness is allowed to percolate and unique personalities are buoyed. And while these may be exceptional examples, every weird kid out there is capable of something. We may not even be able to comprehend the innovation that is now an idea in a kid’s brain that could someday revolutionize the world. It happens. 

Kids all show us from early on who they are and what they like and dislike. They show us how they learn and how to teach them. Our job as adults, teachers, parents, and friends is to provide experiences and exposures so they can keep trying new things to see where their true interest is and how it might be applied to a career and/or a hobby. Then when we see that, we can guide them toward more of those things. As we’ve already talked about, this is what parents regularly do outside of school: your kid likes trains so you buy them trains, watch train movies, learn train lingo, and take them to ride on trains. And if they want more, you provide more, even if it seems weird or crazy or obsessive to other people. You see how happy and engaged your child is, so you keep at it. 

On the flip side, if you have a second child who hates trains and you take them to all these train activities they are going to act out and make your life miserable because trains don’t speak to them and they are showing you just that. Where many people fail in this situation is not asking the first child whythey like trains so much to dig deeper and possibly wider into their interest. Also, people fail to ask the second child why they don’tlike trains and what they might like instead to uncover the things that speak to that child, the things that make them weird. Often people will just assume the second child is just a brat and likes to complain. Then if the child complains too much, their parents seek out drugs for them.

So why can’t we find a learning path that speaks to the weird in each kid and engages with them in the individual way they need? Let’s take the uniqueness each child is presenting to the world from day one and develop it, instead of drugging it out of them. Let’s make more of an effort to understand personality and realize that personality is a spectrum that should be allowed to flourish in any and every way. Let’s see how their weirdness could develop into greatness, or at the very least a normal for them. Maybe a normal for them isn’t at all what is considered normal for the masses, but that’s ok. Everyone’s “normal” is different. Maybe a normal for them is staring at a computer screen for 36 straight hours looking for cyberattacks or maybe their normal is working part time at a store. Or many their normal not being able to work at all. That’s ok, too. The point is that there is a place and a job for everyone, no matter what their skill level or type of weirdness. We just need a better way to help each child get to their place and feel accepted, appreciated, and valued for who they are, no matter how weird others may think they are.

I’m tired of the categories and tired of the labels. We are brainwashed about school. We have all been taught that we all need to fit into the traditional school mold yet is seems each year there are more and more kids who don’t fit that ideal. The problem is that teachers don’t know what to do with these kids or how to start making the changes needed to have education fitstudent needs instead of having students fit into the education model. School officials also lack the resources and gumption to initiate such sweeping changes.

We need to create a way to learn that suits all personality types, allowing kids to exploit their differences by pursuing their own interests and helping them see how their interests can map to careers and jobs and fulfilling lives. Those whose weird is too far outside of the norm, don’t need to be made to feel crazy or diagnosed with something because they don’t fit in. “Fitting in” isn’t a valid concept because there is no normal in which to fit. 

The interests of kids who are being diagnosed as being on the autism spectrum are not being developed, which is a shame because we have no idea what kind of greatness they are capable of. We should use their fixation and their weirdness to motivate them and find an education plan that works for them. Then we’d have kids demand to learn more instead of dreading going to school day in and day out. And we’d have young people with actual skills and passion who are employable in lots of existing jobs or can create their own jobs – and possibly whole new industries - using their weirdness and skills. We need to find a way to start letting all the weird shine instead of trying to make people conform to a non-existent idea of normal. Think about what we might miss out on if we don’t.

They tried to squash Greta, but failed.