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Archive for June, 2016

It’s a Dog’s World

Here’s an extended metaphor. Imagine a world where the only possible pet is a dog. Dogs are everywhere, and people know a lot about them, but they’ve never heard of any other kind of pet.

Imagine a family going out and getting a puppy, a cute little furry puppy to love and care for and play with and take on long walks. But they soon begin to have concerns that something is wrong with their pet. He is soft and cuddly and adorable, but…

Well, he can’t seem to learn how to walk on a leash, or sit on command, or fetch. His tail is much too long, so long it drags on the ground at times, and he doesn’t wag. They thought he was wagging once or twice, but then he growled and snapped when they tried to pet him. He’s usually affectionate, but  doesn’t like having his belly rubbed, and can even become violent when his family tries to scratch his tummy. They worry about his abnormally small size and his odd sleep schedule, and about how he stretches in ways that can’t possibly be healthy. He only picks at his food, won’t chew bones, and spends a huge amount of time licking his own fur instead. He frequently manages to get onto counters and shelves that a dog shouldn’t be able to get up to, and they are terrified he will fall and get injured. He doesn’t play well with other dogs,and is easily frightened by all sorts of unexpected things. Sadly, he’s never barked, not even once. Instead, he makes odd squeaks and growling noises.

They talk to their friends, who agree that they’ve never seen a dog act like this before. So they take him to the vet.

The vet agrees that there is something wrong. She’s seen dogs like this before, she says, and while there are some things that can help, she is afraid their pet may never be quite normal. She recommends certain foods, and intensive training in obedience school to help the puppy learn how to take better walks and tolerate tummy-rubs. They should spend more time at the park, where he can learn to be less frightened of the bigger dogs. He might never bark, she says, but he’ll probably find other ways to express when he is excited or needs to go out. They should discourage him from making those strange growling sounds, as they will confuse other people and dogs into thinking their puppy is aggressive. She knows it’s hard to have all those other families staring at their weird pet and telling them that they’ve done a lousy job training him. She assures them it isn’t their fault he turned out this way. In terms of appearance, it might help to surgically remove part of his tail, and have him wear a body brace to keep his back from sagging and bending too much.

Now, those of you from planet Earth may have figured it out by now. The problem with this dog is that it isn’t a dog at all– it’s a cat! But these people– the family, their friends, the vet, the trainers– don’t know anything about cats. They only know about dogs.

So what can this family do? Well, they can embark on the program recommended by the vet, and try to make their cat as dog-like as possible. Or they can adapt to life with a cat. They can learn that his “wagging” is actually a sign of unhappiness, that his belly is too sensitive to be petted, and that his strange growling noise– purring!– means that he is content. It’s not going to be easy– they will be the only family on the block who can’t put things on a counter or shelf to keep them out of reach, and they certainly can’t let him off his leash at anyone else’s house. Other people and dogs are often going to be frightened by his purring, assuming he’s growling at them. He doesn’t enjoy many of the activities most dogs do– swimming and frisbee and chew toys– and they worry that he will be lonely and bored much of the time. And what if he gets out of his harness and runs away? Whoever finds him will think he’s a wild animal when he doesn’t respond to “sit” and “stay,” and he might get treated as a stray even though he wears a collar. No matter how dedicated his family is to making their life cat-friendly, there will be some things that will simply never occur to them, like catnip mice and litter boxes.

It isn’t going to be easy trying to change so many things on their cat’s behalf. But the cat is never going to become a dog, either. He may learn to play with dogs, and even enjoy it, and eat their food and walk on a leash and generally fit in well enough for most people to assume he’s just an odd breed. Or he may not. Perhaps only a few people will ever think that it’s ok for him to look and act completely like a cat. But we can dream of a future where people know enough about cats to keep them happy and healthy, even in a dog’s world.

This is What “Pathologizing” Looks Like

June 21, 2016 8 comments

(The following essay is satire. It is intended to have a humorous effect. However, like other satire, it is also intended to make you think seriously about the issue at hand.)

(It is also not intended to shame anyone, neurotypical or neurodivergent, or mock their emotional needs and preferences. The topic was chosen because many people, particularly neurotypical people, engage in this behavior without needing to, and often without even being aware that they are doing so. There are also strong and largely unexamined cultural norms about these behavioral patterns, and I do wish to call those into question by describing this behavior as an outside observer might.)

*****

Paper proposed for inclusion in the Journal of Neurotypical Studies:

“Behavioral Manifestations of Perseveration on Appearance: Appearance Fixation Disorder in American Neurotypicals”

The majority of neurotypicals display obsessive behavior regarding personal appearance. This can range from moderately stubborn preferences for certain colors and hairstyles, which generally do not interfere with normal life activities, up through very expensive and time-consuming shopping, personal grooming, and other related behaviors.

Appearance fixation causes many neurotypicals to spend much of their lives wearing clothing that is at best impractical and often self-injurious or dangerous. Long-term use of cosmetics, hair dyes, and “fashionable” footwear (particularly for females on the neurotypical spectrum) can cause, respectively, skin breakouts, hair loss, and permanent injury to the feet, back, and knees, resulting in life-long pain. Underdressing in cold temperatures may lead to illness, while underdressing in summer with the goal of acquiring a “good tan” significantly increases the risk of skin cancer. Excessive time in hair and nail salons involves inhalation of potentially dangerous airborne chemicals. While no studies have as yet directly linked this exposure to any specific illness, it seems reasonable to have concerns given the dangers of inhaling many industrial chemicals. The author of this paper suggests that studies should be conducted in order to rule out the possibility that this behavior could contribute to neurological damage and autoimmune diseases.

Not all personal-appearance preferences are pathological, of course. Having “favorite colors,” and “wanting to look nice,” for example, are experienced regularly by most people. And while many neurotypicals choose to dress in uncomfortable fabrics, this may be  understandable, given their frequent undersensitivity to texture. The concern, however, occurs when the neurotypical child or teen persists in attempting to wear clothing that restricts movement or blood-flow, or presents health and safety concerns, as do “high-heeled” shoes and temperature-inappropriate outfits.

Antecedents to Appearance-Fixation Disorder:

Appearance fixation disorder is extremely common among neurotypicals, although it tends to have an earlier onset age and be more severe in girls than in boys. This disparity narrows during the teenage years, when social conformity behavior among both genders is generally at its peak. In adulthood, many men, particularly those in the “white collar” workforce (notice how even the terminology refers to appearance!), develop an increasing obsession with social status, which leads to more appearance-related behaviors. Adult women (again, particularly professionals) are often under extreme social pressure to conform to complex and incomprehensible appearance-related norms set by their peers of both sexes.

It can be difficult to predict the areas of appearance-fixation that any one neurotypical will develop: one may show a primary obsession with hairstyle, another with the newness of their attire, and another with achieving a certain “look” (such as “professional,” “hipster,” “preppy,” “goth,” or “laid-back”). However, exposure to mainstream media (television, magazines, and other advertisements) seems to contribute strongly to the fixation, and parents are recommended to limit their children’s viewing of these media as much as possible during formative years. Perhaps in part because of deficits in their ability to make logical decisions, neurotypical children are particularly vulnerable to harmful messages about the role of appearance in “social status” and “fitting in,” which fall under the category of another symptom set: the neurotypical tendency towards hyper-socialization.

Symptoms and Consequences of Appearance Fixation:

Neurotypicals, particularly from the “tween” years onwards, often display signs of extreme emotional distress when seen without their chosen apparel– shame, embarrassment, fear of rejection, and lowered self esteem have been observed in many cases. Female neurotypicals are even known to refer to their chosen pattern of cosmetics as “my face,” suggesting a worryingly deep emotional attachment, even to the extent of identifying oneself solely by physical appearance. Given these factors, we can perhaps begin to understand why neurotypicals will choose “fashion” over comfort, convenience, practicality, and even safety.

Not all neurotypicals display appearance fixations to the same extreme. The financial and time burden of strong appearance preferences is usually something that a family can accomodate with minimal difficulty, although many families seek care because appearance-related behaviors can be very time-consuming and make it difficult to get children and teens ready for school on time in the mornings. Very few neurotypicals are comfortable wearing identical or even similar outfits on a daily basis, unless the outfit is specifically dictated by a current “fashion trend.” In a related concern, children whose appearance fixation includes an obsession with the “social status” of clothing can end up costing parents exorbitant sums on “brand name” merchandise and frequent requests to replace clothes before they are outgrown or worn out, due to the child’s concern that the apparel is “outdated.” It is estimated that adult neurotypicals also spend shockingly large amounts of their income on appearance-related purchases, sometimes purchasing entire outfits solely for use on a single occasion, and frequently going into debt in order to “keep up” a certain appearance. Distressingly, many appearance fixations seem to involve both a desire to replicate as closely as possible the appearance of figures from popular culture and a phobia of wearing the exact same apparel as one of their peers. Imagine the amount of time and energy this must cost them!

Treatment and Recommendations:

Very little has been studied so far in the way of treating appearance fixation disorder. Many elementary and high schools have attempted to address this problem by instituting uniform dress codes, but this seems to serve only to increase the obsession with displaying visible signs of social status. Additionally, as these uniforms are almost always chosen by neurotypical school officials, they are invariably just as uncomfortable, impractical, and temperature-inappropriate as the attire that neurotypical children select on their own. Other places that require appearance-uniformity (the military, jobs that provide a uniform, or even office dress codes) are likewise problematic, often increasing the “social conformity” behaviors that most neurotypicals suffer from.

As noted before, parents may wish to keep their neurotypical children and teens away from mass media and other sources that encourage problematic behavior, such as shopping malls and the make-up aisles at grocery and convenience stores, as these can often trigger an outburst of appearance-obsessive behavior. Impractical clothing and footwear may be reserved as an occasional reward for good behavior, but should not be used on too much of a regular basis. Footwear, in particular, is an area where parents need to be firm, as inappropriate footwear can cause damage to the developing feet (and in the case of “heels,” to the knees and lower back as well, not to mention the increased risk of serious falls, twisted ankles, or other injuries). Neurotypical children may also benefit from regular exposure to social stories and other media that explicitly outline the importance of not judging others by appearance. We remain hopeful that further treatments will be developed that can reduce the heartbreaking impacts of appearance fixation disorder.

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If you are a neurotypical, or non-autistic adult, and you find yourself laughing at this piece, please take a moment to step back and imagine, with all seriousness, growing up (and living as an adult) in a world in which this paper was meant to be taken seriously. A world in which your preferences and choices (from those made casually and unconsciously to those made with serious deliberation) were subject to this kind of scrutiny. Where the majority of people discussed the “weirdness” of your tastes and moods, where articles trying to explain those things were published in serious medical journals, where your parents debated openly and publicly about whether or not to let you do many of the things you enjoy, and where entire professions (medical researchers, specialist therapists, and innumerable practitioners of alternative health care) were devoted to changing those aspects of your life and personality.

No, on second thoughts, maybe this essay isn’t so funny after all.