Thursday, 1 November 2012

Autistics Speaking Day '12: Bad Advice, Part 2

So, we kick off segment deux with more... well, Iland's talking about social hierarchies in schools again, and she's still getting real life mixed up with Mean Girls.

She describes three levels of popularity: 'Popular/Elite', 'Middle/Mainstream', and 'Unique/Unusual'. I'm  going to call bullshit on 'elite' straight away- no teenager gets treated like royalty by every single one of their peers. She's also wrong about 'Unique/Unusual' equating to 'unpopular'- I've had a couple of noticeably eccentric friends who were very well liked, mostly because they were good at making others laugh. In my experience, whether somebody's weirdness has a negative effect on their popularity or not depends on multiple factors, many of which will vary by region. Plus, many of the 'unusual' people who were ostracised didn't have high opinions of some of the 'popular' people, and... oh, screw it, It'd take until Christmas to dissect everything here.

One thing I will point out though is Iland's failure to factor in the mixed-gender nature of most teenage social circles. All her advice is geared towards befriending groups made up entirely of girls, which is a bit silly, considering how most people have both male and female friends by the age of thirteen. Lisa seems to be working under the assumption that boys and girls live in separate worlds- an assumption that simply isn't true.

Basically, a real school's social network is essentially a big web. Iland seems to think it's a column.

Next, Kelsey's back for another soundbite- and she actually has some reasonable advice this time! Huzzah!

I just started saying hey to people around campus who would say it back, and now after building on that, I have friends in many different groups!

Yep, it's true that making yourself appear open to friendship is a good way to get to know people. Obviously it's not foolproof, and it isn't always possible for those who struggle with confidence, but if you're able to do this, go for it!

Of course, prior to the reasonable advice, there was a bit of waffle about starting low and working up the popularity hierarchy, because friends just aren't worthwhile unless everybody else loves them too, amiright? >.<

Understanding the structure of popularity at school is not intended to make a girl feel as though she doesn't measure up

Maybe not, but that's the effect this chapter is most likely to have.

If a girl with AS has dreams of elite popularity, she has to begin somewhere.

Again... should we really be encouraging thirteen year olds to value popularity, and give up multiple aspects of their personalities in order to achieve it? I don't think so.


This kind of advice would never be given to neurotypical girls on a platform this prominent. Books about NT girls, quite rightly, tell them to be themselves and stand against peer pressure. Why should it be any different for neurodivergent girls?

In order to potentially befriend a person from a popular/elite group, a girl has to at least be in a middle/mainstream group. Often people belonging to the popular/elite group will not befriend girls from anywhere else. 

I can sort of see what she's getting at, but when it comes down to it, no, sorry. Human interaction is waaay too complicated to be reduced down to a maths equation. Web, not column.

My Brother with AS kept asking the prettiest and most popular girls to date him... However, it was unsuccessful because he was at a different level of popularity than they were... The positive solution to the dilemma he was that he could find nice, friendly girls who were 'in his league' to at least begin developing dating skills with, and then see what happens. 

Ah... ha...

The impression I'm getting here is that Lisa Iland told her Brother to start out dating 'within his league', then work his way 'up'. Which means that his first girlfriends- probably 'unique/unusual' girls (just like you, reader!)- were essentially being used as crash test dummies. The 'nice girls in his league' weren't going to be the girls Mini Iland would date properly, they were going to be his training bras until he managed to become popular enough to get the girls he really wanted.

I hope I'm completely wrong about that, because if I'm not... Jesus. That is terrible advice. Somebody who wants to teach us all social skills has just told a young boy to use girls he's not really into as stepping stones. The last place I saw that being advocated was a PUA site- places not exactly known for good interpersonal relations.

There is a hierarchy of interaction that typical peers are finely tuned to, but that girls with AS may not be. This hierarchy is comprised of different levels of relationship. When a girl with AS is gossipped about by peers who say "I just don't know her that well, she gives way too much information, she is very odd" etc, it is because the information shared, or the action done by the girl with AS, was inconsistent with the level of relationship as perceived by the peer. 

Levels of relationship: 
5) Close Friends
4) Friends
3) Acquaintances
2) Familiar Faces
1) Strangers

Passive aggressive prod at the reader (who is definitely being gossipped about lolol) aside, there's something I'd like to point out here:

I don't like the implication that everybody else is 'finely tuned' to everything and only girls with AS struggle. This is a common assumption people tend to make when writing about autism, and I really think it's counterproductive. Those of us on the spectrum may be more prone to making social mistakes. but we don't have a monopoly on them. Acting as though we do is likely to make young autistic people feel more alienated, not less. How can they look at their NT peers and think "they're not so different" when they're being told that all neurotypicals have savant-like abilities when it comes to social skills? How can they feel confident talking to NTs when literature is framing them as almost a separate species?

Neurotypical people can be socially awkward. They will fuck up occasionally. They can feel uncomfortable and get confused, and accidentally offend people, and make misjudgements. I've met a few who've managed to put their feet in their mouths in ways I could never manage. Even the most socially brilliant people get it wrong from time to time. When it comes to socialising, nobody's perfect.

The next few paragraphs are basically just more detailed descriptions of the levels of relationship. They work quite well as guidelines I suppose, but they do oversimplify a lot. For example:

A close friend might not mind hearing about Star Wars for 30 minutes, but it could mean the end of an Acquaintanceship.

... Unless, of course, the acquaintance also likes Star Wars.

A close friend who wants you to change the subject for whatever reason may just say so. Strong relationships are often more direct.

A girl with AS should practice retelling stories, or talking on a subject, based on whom the listener is. A trusted adult or peer mentor can discuss and establish what time limits are appropriate. 

I understand that techniques for improving social skills are highly subjective, but I'm not so sure about this one.You can't predict how an entire conversation will go, so diligently rehearsing one with notes and a stopwatch seems a bit pointless. I mean, you could decide to spend a minute telling your casual friend about your holiday (the example given by Iland), and then get to school and find that your casual friend has been to two of the towns you visited, and has always wanted to visit the theme park you went to, and is curious about the world war one trenches her family didn't get round to seeing, and wants to know if you had thunderstorms too... and next thing you know, you've been comparing notes for an hour.

aaand Lisa pretty much admits this in the next paragraph, which begs the question as to why she wrote that particular instruction in the first place.

Sometimes girls with AS may mistakenly believe that they are friends or close friends with an acquaintance or a familiar face. This can cause social upset and potential humiliation in front of peers. In order to be socially successful, a girl with AS needs to practice taking perspective, and although Theory of Mind makes this difficult, she will have to practice imagining what the other person thinks of her, possibly using visible data from her interactions if the idea is not concrete enough.

I'm not sure what the current stance of the Theory of Mind, er, theory, is, but I'm not too comfortable with Iland's blanket assumption that girls with AS don't have it.

The Sims is then suggested as a teaching tool. The idea is that observing their interactions could help an aspie teenage girl understand what's appropriate to say to whom. The Sims... isn't a game I associate with realistic human behaviour (surrounding somebody with plastic garden ornaments= killing them, for instance). I'm not sure it could help people with much more than the very basics, which most girls will already have by the time they're teenagers.

If enough friendship mistakes are made, a friend could go back to being an acquaintance. 

I do wish people would stop trying to tell young people on the spectrum that making friends is like keeping a tamagotchi happy. Teaching somebody that s/he has a level of control over other people's thoughts and feelings that s/he, in fact, does not have and can never have, can cause problems for them further down the line. For instance:

-  If you've been raised to believe that other people's reactions correspond perfectly to your behaviour, you're going to immediately seek to blame yourself if something goes wrong.

- Thinking you have to keep other people completely happy at all times in order to remain friends with them may cause you to start discarding your personal boundaries.

- It makes you catastrophise minor mistakes- thinking a friendship is going to end because your friend didn't understand a joke you made.

Other people's thoughts and feelings are dependent on lots of things. If they're in a bad mood, don't instantly assume it's your fault and don't take it as a personal failure if you can't make them happy.

Yes, this is coming from personal experience.

Girls travel in packs and have a group mentality

People =/= wolves. Or elephants. Or lions, or sheep, or any other kind of herd/pack animal. Teenagers often conform to their friends wishes, but they're not mindless drones.

Rosalind Wiseman, author of Queen Bees and Wannabes, has taught hundreds of teen girls and has come to see patterns in the roles that teen girls play in their group structures. 

Wiseman classifies them as:

7 Common Roles Girls Play in Cliques

Iland then lists Wiseman's seven roles. All but two are negative. You have the Queen Bee, a shallow manipulative type who lords it over everybody else; Her sycophantic sidekick; her sycophantic sidekick; a gossipy type who manages to extract everybody else's personal information whilst still appearing innocent; and the person the others pick on. There's also the morally neutral 'torn bystander', who often goes against the cliques' wishes. The only 'positive' role is the floater or drifter- a person who has friends in different groups and divides her time between them.

Lisa's opinion of teenage girls doesn't seem to be too favourable, and she seems to buy into the idea of female friendship as a silent battle ground in which nobody truly likes or respects anyone else. Is she sure she's the best person to be giving advice to teen girls?

I'm really starting to wonder what school Iland went to by this point. I've never met anybody who fits her definition of a Queen Bee- a snobby, conventionally pretty, manipulative person who everybody else worships as a God. I've met popular girls, pretty girls, girls who look down on others... but not too many who fit all three categories, and nobody who got treated like Royalty by everyone around her.

Queen Bees are like gangs of bullies with leather jackets, crew-cuts and names like Basher Johnson. Caricatures hardly ever seen outside fiction.

Most teenagers don't belong to 'cliques' either. Even the tightest friendship groups have a degree of fluidity, and hardly anybody's friendship circle is limited to just their main friendship group. I've found it's often hard to tell where a friendship group ends, as people who are friends with only one or two members will often temporarily join it, or hang around on the fringes.

And once again... by the age of thirteen, most people have both male and female friends. Where are the boys in all this?

When a new person is brought into the group, the existing structure has to shift

This happens all the time. Most of the time, it doesn't cause much conflict.

When a girl with AS is not 'clicking' with a group of girls, she should analyse what possible reasons, other than her own actions, could have caused the lack of success.

This wouldn't be bad advice, were it not for the fact that Iland's encouraging girls to classify their new friends as 'pleasers', 'targets' and 'sidekicks'.

The next segment of advice actually isn't too bad. It's about best friends, and how becoming a third wheel in a pre-existing close friendship can potentially unsettle things. It only starts to go off the rails slightly at the end, when Iland starts describing girls as 'claimed'.

Disclosing Aspergers Syndrome to friends:

Ohh... this one's going to be, er, fun.

Disclosing Aspergers Syndrome is something that requires planned and careful consideration. Girls should consult trusted adults for guidance, and discuss what to say. Disclosing can lead to many different outcomes, and often depend on who the peers are as individuals, and how the information on Aspergers is presented. 

I'm on the fence about this. I think it's up to the individual how they disclose any information about themselves. Carefully planning a 'coming out' speech is a perfectly valid option, but it shouldn't be a requirement. Some people prefer to be open from the start; others are more comfortable casually mentioning it should it come up in conversation.

I personally follow the "if you don't treat it like a big deal, they won't treat it like a big deal" school of thought. The only time I've planned was when applying for a voluntary role that required high levels of empathy- something many people still think people with Aspergers don't have. Even then, my plan was simply "Don't tell anybody until you've proven you can do the job". I've never made an elaborate ploy.

A girl with Aspergers should be very sure she can trust a person before disclosing to him/her.

Once again... not necessarily.

 Sometimes it is hard to tell if letting your friends know that you have AS will help socially. Will it make it easier to fit in? 

Yeah, like that's the only potential variable.

Other reasons why you might want to tell a friend that you have AS.

- They keep making jokes about disability that you find hurtful, and you need to be able to explain why you're not laughing.
- They have a lot of misconceptions about what AS is, and you want to put them right.
- They've asked directly.
- They're feeling insecure about their disability, and you want to tell them about yours in order to let them know that you understand.
- You're feeling insecure about a problem relating to your AS, and would like your friend's support or advice.
- They keep calling out/making fun of something you do that you, due to your AS, have limited control over (for example, a strong aversion to a texture or noise) . You'd like to explain this to them.
- An opportunity for mentioning it just comes up in conversation, and you decide to take it.

... you get the idea.

And to round off this (very long) segment... here's Kelsey with a personal anecdote I'm not sure what to make of.

When my friends are upset at me and I don't know what I've done, I ask another person, "Did I do something wrong? What social error did I make?" I have to work on being receptive and listening to their feedback. 

I'm torn. On one hand, trying to understand what you did to upset the other person so that you can apologise is infinitely better than shouting "Fuck them! They need to grow a backbone!" and storming off. However... is taking this much responsibility all the time such a good idea?

Next time, parts three and four. Meeting Social Expectations and Bullying. Eep.

1 comment:

  1. Wow, what a horrible chapter!

    It's funny, I'm actually finding it hard to discern which group she's failing more miserably to understand, because *none* of the NT girls/women I've known throughout my life has been anything like what she seems to think all NT girls are!

    One assumes she has BEEN an NT girl, too ...

    I think you're right that she must be taking her cues from '80s movies about high school.

    (Also, I'm American, and her advice looks just as bizarre, stupid and counterproductive to me, so I don't think it's just cultural differences.)