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>No-Win Situations: What’s a Little Confirmation Bias?

April 14, 2010

>Sometimes we disagree with our friends. If they’re little disagreements, we let it slide, decide it’s not worth mentioning, and we move on. It’s there, in the back of our minds, but it’s not important enough to bring it up. Time passes, we move on, it’s all good. Other times, though, we watch our friends go further along this path we disagree with, or describe sentiments that we don’t really agree with, and we shake our heads, we weigh the importance of speaking out or letting it go again, and if we don’t speak out, we feel ourselves grow increasingly out of step with our friends, so that we’re not sure we even agree on the most fundamental of principles.


If we’re lucky, we deal with it, our feelings, all that messy stuff before it explodes out of us and the friendships are lost, demolished by our feelings, our hurt, our anger that just spew everywhere. In that way, we can focus on the issues and not on emotions, since the emotions aren’t yet in the way.


I’m going to try to do that here, to do that now, to do that with friends that I, unfortunately, find myself disagreeing with, and in such a way that, at least states my case and why I disagree with certain actions.


It’s Autism Awareness month. We’ve got mixed feelings about it. Some people on the spectrum hate it; others embrace it. Parents, well, they’re all over the place, too, especially depending on what they think caused it.


It’s getting increasingly hard to write about autism, even really positive pieces, without getting slammed by someone because the phrasing struck someone wrong. It’s getting harder to communicate experiences and perceptions without getting abused for it. 


I deal with it enough on my own posts that I’ve about decided (and psychological research into confirmation bias backs this up) that folks walk on over to my blog, read my posts and see what they expect to see. It doesn’t really mystify me any more, but it still occasionally annoys me. However, I’ve now read, what are overall, really positive pieces by family members regarding autism and seen friends slam both these pieces.


I wrote last week on one of the posts, calling mine Not Where I Once Was. The mother who wrote the piece talked about her initial desire to fix her son, and rather than calling him her autistic son, she used person first language; for these things, she took heat.  I talked about the learning curve parents go through, but maybe I didn’t talk enough about it. Maybe I didn’t make clear that if folks want to give that mother heat for her desire to fix her child, despite her evolution over time, as her understanding of autism and of her son grew, that her acceptance, her appreciation, her desire to honor her son for who he was, could have mirrored my own evolution. 


I am not where I once, nor the person I once was. I have grown and I have learned. I use person first language interchangeably with autistic as a descriptor. It says nothing about how I see autism or the person, but if you’d like to see that as somehow reflective, that’s okay. You’ve already come to this blog with your own biases and blinders, and I write this with my own on. I know they are there, even if I don’t always know what they are. I try to take that into account, and I attempt to be sensitive to others. I also accept that some people will walk away mad. And that’s okay. My children are on the spectrum. I have a greater appreciation for what that means with each passing day; my children, my husband and I, and our extended family learn more about what autism means and doesn’t mean with every breath. It seems to me that other mom has learned, too, but that appears to have been missed, or not thought important.


Another commonality that, if we’re going to hold that mom up, you should hold me up, too. My bright boy was undeniably difficult as a young child. He didn’t sleep. He had rages. He hit me. He pulled on me. If you woke him up, he’d crawl to the nearest wall and bang his head; he’d scream for hours. He wasn’t completely potty trained, even at seven. After his stroke at nine, he had to relearn that, as well. I cannot stress enough for you, that just as I am not where I once was, neither is he. I can completely relate to any mom in that kind of situation wanting to fix it. Any person who thinks that kind of situation doesn’t need to be mitigated, to be helped needs to deal with it first hand for years and tell me you wouldn’t want to help your child speak, wouldn’t want to help your child learn emotional regulation, wouldn’t want to help your child learn to use the toilet, learn to sleep, learn, grow, develop? In this sense, if you want to slam someone for wanting to fix that situation, then you need to slam me, too. I didn’t go all woo-ey, but I read everything I could get my hands on to help understand what was going on so that I could help my son grow and develop and learn. I did my best to do everything I could that was safe, that was reasonable, that respected his personhood, to help him because that’s my job.


I’ve found in another post, this time by a sister, additional areas of commonality. It is a positive piece by a loving sister. She shares guardianship of her brother, who has autism. In it, she writes that he is “not a cure that didn’t happen or a diagnosis…he’s a human being, who gets up every day and goes about his bitness.” She made the unfortunate mistake, though, of writing, “I have lived my entire life with autism.” Some of my friends, whom I respect and admire, had a problem with this. The sister doesn’t have autism, true enough, so yes, the internal experience of living with autism has not been done by her; it’s been done by her brother.  That’s fair to note. I want to know, though, if she’d said she’d lived her entire life immersed in the world of autism if that would have raised the ire, as well. If she’d said, I’ve lived my entire life with an autistic brother, would that have been okay? Is there anything she could have said that wouldn’t have set someone off?


I had a post a couple weeks ago on Autisable, and an autistic commentator wrote, in essence, that nobody without autism should be talking about it.  And I thought, okay, I give up. There are more people out there to piss off than I was anticipating. Okay. I expect a fair amount of what I write to irritate some, and I write them with that awareness in mind. And I’m okay with that. The people that are getting pissed at those posts I pretty much meant to piss off, and that’s good. I didn’t anticipate getting heat for pieces that most rational people would go, well, that’s nice, who wouldn’t think acceptance, appreciation and accommodation are good things? I suspect that the mother and the sister whose posts I’ve linked to also never thought that their loving tributes to their autistic family members would draw hostility. I imagine they’ve both dealt with worse adversity and will adjust, just as most of us do. Some of us, when we take criticism, will reflect on it, consider the source and then either dismiss it (either appropriately or not) or accept it and adjust our behaviors. Some things, we’ll decide are things we can agree to disagree with. Some not.


I weigh what I write, I take it seriously. I consider my children and their feelings. I actually consider the feelings of the people I’m writing about as well; I try hard to remember their humanity, to not see them as enemies even if we disagree on everything. I don’t think I always succeed at getting the right balance, and I try to own my mistakes. I try to be compassionate even when woo-fighting. I accept that I’m flawed and I know so little about the world and how it works. I think this works most of the time to help me correct my course when I’ve realized it’s off.  I acknowledge that snarkiness too often is at the forefront.


When we choose to single out a particular phrase or passage and view it in isolation rather than looking at the context, when we choose to attack and take umbrage rather than stop for a moment and reflect, well, we risk being wrong. We risk causing another person harm. And when we hurt someone and we don’t acknowledge it, that’s not us at our finest moment. 


That’s okay. I respect that everyone sees the world differently, that we’re all pretty much trying to do the best we can to get through the day,  and that differences are to be respected. Doesn’t mean we give bad behavior and certainly not criminal behavior a pass, but it means we hold in our minds the idea that regardless of actions there is a person behind them.


I disagree with how some of my friends saw and chose to handle these two people’s posts. And that’s okay that we disagree. Because I respect their opinions, their voices, and what they have to contribute to the world and to my personal life, I think that to not communicate how I disagree would be wrong.


If this mother and this sister deserve condemnation for their posts, then I am sure I deserve it as well, as do we all. Sometimes our blinders and our confirmation biases really, really get in the way.



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12 Comments
  1. April 14, 2010 6:47 pm

    >Very well said Kim. 🙂

  2. April 14, 2010 7:45 pm

    >Time passes, we move on, it's all good. Other times, though, we watch our friends go further along this path we disagree with, or describe sentiments that we don't really agree with, and we shake our heads, we weigh the importance of speaking out or letting it go again, and if we don't speak out, we feel ourselves grow increasingly out of step with our friends, so that we're not sure we even agree on the most fundamental of principles….It's Autism Awareness month…Yes,and a very interesting Autism Awareness month it's been for me. Last week,my father shared an email my sister had sent him recently.It seems that at some time in the past,my sister has been diagnosed as being on the spectrum.I have no idea exactly when,as she never saw fit to tell either me,or my mother.I had known for years she was diagnosed with childhood-onset bipolar disorder, sometimes a comorbidity,and I knew she had epilepsy,type1 diabetes, as well as many of the same medical,but not developmental issues,I have had,but this autism business was entirely new to me.I have been wrestling with myself as to just how much,if anything,I should tell her.About the genetic tests I have had,about biomed,and how much it helped me,but deep down,I really know it's not my place to do this,now isn't the time.However long ago her diagnosis was,she is just starting to come to grips with it.Although we have our differences,she knows I have been doing this stuff for years,she can see how improved I am,and she knows if she is ever interested in improving her lot through biomed,I am more than willing to help her.I have just learned of this last week.Sometime soon,when I have my thoughts all ironed out about this,I will be posting someting in case she ever wants to read it.I will say this however,having lived with her much of her life,up until a couple of years ago,it is now fairly obvious her autism has caused her a LOT of difficulty,and frustration over the years,and she seems to find very little,if anything about it to celebrate.

  3. April 14, 2010 7:55 pm

    >I've posted my comment over there. The real core of what I have to say was this:" …for a nice syllogism: I can say, legitimately, that I live with autism every day because I live with my children every day. We "autism parents" (quotation marks theirs) are undoubtedly allowed to say that we live with our children every day, right? And many autistic people (rightly) assert that if you call autism a disease, you're calling them one, because they are autism. So,if the argument is that autistic people are autism and autism is autistic people, then how is it wrong for me to exchange "autism" for "my children" or for you to exchange "autism" for "my brother"? It isn't. I live with my children every day. And, I live with autism every day."It can't be both ways–you can't argue that someone doesn't live with autism if they live with an autistic person and autism is the person.

  4. April 14, 2010 8:14 pm

    >" …for a nice syllogism: I can say, legitimately, that I live with autism every day because I live with my children every day. Because then the language suggests that you have autism…and you don't. Bottom line. Funny enough Kim Lurker finally posted on my blog, I didn't keep the post because even though it was lovely passive aggressive stab. I wasn't in the mood to have an eyesore on my blog. I am gonna probably post again this week or tonight and see if he shows up again if he does you are free to have at it. Freedom of Speech does exist on my blog, you have the freedom to say what you want and I have the freedom to delete it.

  5. April 14, 2010 8:19 pm

    >"My bright boy was undeniably difficult as a young child. He didn't sleep. He had rages. He hit me. He pulled on me. If you woke him up, he'd crawl to the nearest wall and bang his head; he'd scream for hours. He wasn't completely potty trained, even at seven. ".How could a mother's heartfelt desire to cure a child in this condition ever be wrong?Or ever deserve condemnation?

  6. April 14, 2010 8:48 pm

    >@Emily: "It can't be both ways–you can't argue that someone doesn't live with autism if they live with an autistic person and autism is the person."I know many people who have literally said this and said this myself. What they mean by this is that autism is a disability, but that it is an inseparable part of them. Autism affects and is part of the person, but their family members do not directly live with autism. What really got me was not just that she said that she lives with autism, but the way that she said it: like it was about her and her experiences with her autistic brother. Not only this, but when Kowalski and I both commented on the blog, she dismissed both of us. Sharon of The Voyage had this subtitle on her blog: “life with autism in Northern Ireland,” but it's about her life with her family and she describes her son and actually listens to autistic people. Kowalski's words on the subject sum it up so well: "Also, your blog is wonderful, it’s odd, but your subtitle is one of the rare instances where the “life with autism” never left a bad aftertaste in my mouth, because you always describe your family life and your son and talk to autistic people. It’s a stark contrast to what Shark-Fu is doing."

  7. April 14, 2010 10:36 pm

    >The language does not "suggest" that to anyone familiar with that very common idiom. "I live with cancer." "I live with Alzheimer's." "I live with ADHD." "I live with depression." "I live with cerebral palsy." "I live with fillintheblankhere." It's an extremely common idiom to anthropomorphize many a thing/disease/disorder/condition, and it beggars belief that anyone would be attacked for using it.As for whether or not I have autism…I'm curious as to how you can be so sure I do not because I'm certainly not sure of it.

  8. April 14, 2010 10:41 pm

    >Sadderbutwisergirl…I know exactly what is meant when autistic people say that they are autism and it's inseparable from who they are. It's something I believe and know to my very core. It didn't seem to me that she dismissed you, but that you and she (and Kowalski) were having a big headbutt over vernacular. I think that you were trying to educate her, but her whole point of that essay was to write from a non-autistic sibling point of view, so of course it was about her and her autistic brother. The way that you and Kowalski have come in so angry and strident simply puts up hackles instead of enhancing knowledge. I'm the first to admit to an overabundance of bluntness, but if the goal is truly to increase understanding or enhance knowledge, triggering defenses isn't the best plan.

  9. April 15, 2010 4:45 pm

    >I've been just observing the argument about the "living with autism" parents/siblings/family members thing. I think I understand the point that the "for" group has: that having an autistic family member effects everyone. I also understand the point that the "against" group has: that if someone isn't autistic that they don't live with autism. currently, I haven't made up my mind which group I support, because both are very valid points. However, I believe that this sort of issue can be approached in a way that won't alienate both sides. Cause honestly, do we really need more dissent in our community?About the person-first language thing: I tend to structure my language to suit situations. I prefer autistic (aspie when I'm being silly), but I understand the political-correctness reasons for person-first language. It's to emphasize that we are referring to people, that there is a valuable person with a certain diagnosis. By emphasizing the person first, it's harder to demean the person with slurs and slang. For example, in Ontario it is considered improper to refer to a person with a developmental disorder or with an intellectual disability as a "retard". So, when I'm out doing official work, I'll either say autistic or person with ASD, depending on whom I'm talking to (and which is the easiest to say at the time), and I'll let first-person language slide, because most of the people I'm talking to honestly want to be respectful and treat people as people.

  10. April 15, 2010 6:33 pm

    >Corina,I guess what I'd want folks (on the spectrum/off the spectrum/stepping right up to the tippy toe line of the spectrum) to take away from the unfortunate miscommunications relating to the two posts I linked to in general is that we really do, family members and autistic individuals alike, need each other.And if we're going to let a nitpicky attention to language usage (where it is apparent that no ill intent is meant) obscure the overall message, then we will grow more divided. If we cannot move through to real dialogue amongst ourselves, then there is no hope of communicating to the wider world all the varieties and vagaries of autism, as well as the impact that autism has on the lives of those who are somewhere on the spectrum, as well as those who love them. We're certainly not going to get any closer to appreciation, acceptance, and accommodation, let alone any action.Two positive pieces were effectively derailed because they were not considered in their totality. We have gotten so used to making knee jerk reactions that taking the time and attempting to reflect on where the other is coming from is often not taken.And even when dialogues are attempted, rather than actually discussing the point of confusion or contention, one side or the other will move the goal post and no real accord can be reached, even if it's to disagree. We've seen this time and again amongst the family members who think their autistic loved one was damaged by vaccines and those of us who are more than willing to admit we step right up to that ever shifting autism spectrum line and occasionally do more than toe over into it.Now we see this even among individuals we feel ourselves to be generally in accord with in that we want the same goals. And it personally leaves me feeling damned if I do, damned if I don't. I think we have to listen, should want to listen, to those in the community, that we should be sensitive to others' feelings, and that we should be willing to step up and say that we're sorry if we've communicated clumsily. We should be slow to condemn others. We should ask first. Far too often we don't. And we divide ourselves further and rob each other of the warm shoulder and the willing support we all want to offer. And we should always be willing to offer our sincere regret when we have caused harm, regardless of whether it was intentional or not.Or, in short, drama usually wins over support and harmony. And that truly sucks for all of us, because there ought to be a way to communicate honestly and with compassion with each other. we ought to be able to cut each other the slack we wish were offered to us when we stumble with how to say something.

  11. April 15, 2010 7:22 pm

    >Hi Kim,My Mom sent me the aricle on parent dish – and I clicked over to your blog from there. I have Aspergers, and I have five childen on the spectrum. High- functioning Autism and Aspergers. My husband has traits also. I think your blog is a breathe of fresh air. I have very strong opinions about Austim that don't match most people's – and I made my family blog private as a result. I was told enough times that my thinking was wrong and offensive growing up – I don't have to take it as an adult. I dont care if we don't agree – your honest – and not stuck in some "I hate the world – becuase of Autism " rut. I will be back if you don't mind.

  12. April 15, 2010 7:31 pm

    >Shantel,Thank you. I look forward to getting to know you. 🙂

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