Whose Planet Is It Anyway?

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Poo Humor: It's the Context

Kim Stagliano, who believes that she was un-doo-ly criticized for blogging about her autistic daughters' toileting problems, has written a follow-up post in which she argues that many parents tell humorous stories about their children and that there is nothing wrong with that.

Indeed, there's a whole genre of parenting humor that consists of anecdotes about messy, inconvenient, and embarrassing incidents in daily life with the kids. And it's not unusual for such stories to involve toilets. After all, toddlers often have bathroom misadventures, and older children sometimes do. I don't object to poo humor, when it's in the general context of parenting humor.

Unfortunately, poo-smearing has become part of a very ugly stereotype that characterizes autistic people as something less than people—as pitiful, disgusting, subhuman creatures, incapable of ever holding jobs or contributing anything of value to society, not worth the expense of educating, not entitled to human rights or even life itself.

I don't mean to suggest that Kim Stagliano had anything to do with creating this stereotype; to the contrary, she has made it clear that she strongly opposes eugenics. But when dangerous ideas like that are floating around in the social ether, we need to be aware that words and humor that may appear perfectly harmless in some contexts can be seen as highly offensive in others.

Here's a brief scenario to illustrate the point: Let's suppose that a grandparent living in the Southern United States decides to have a family picnic. The grandkids stuff themselves on the food served at the picnic, which includes fried chicken and watermelon. The two youngest grandchildren are particularly messy. After the picnic is over, the grandparent writes a blog post humorously describing their eating habits, calling one of them the Fried Chicken Fiend and the other the Watermelon Queen.

Looks like just an ordinary, affectionate family story, doesn't it?

Now let's add a few more facts. The Southern grandparent is white, and the two youngest grandchildren are adopted black children. The blog entry mentions their color more than once while making those fried chicken and watermelon jokes, and the author also suggests that black skin is comparable to cancer because black skin can come in darker or lighter hues, just as cancer can be more or less severe.

Even if such a post was written with the best of intentions, and with genuine affection for the two grandchildren, it's clear that the author would soon be flamed to a crisp.

One could say that this scenario is different because autistic people are not a race. But really, it doesn't matter. Whether we look upon autistics as a race, or a tribe, or a social minority group, or a part of the disability community—stereotypes and negative analogies are just as damaging.

I'm not arguing that we all need to be poo-litically correct and avoid poo jokes toot-ally. Butt we doo need to be caca-gnizant of the social environment in which we make such jokes.

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  • Ah that's good. I was worried that by watching Ren & Stimpy was I playing into Autistic stereotypes. j/k

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 10:27 AM  

  • My older son smears, he has weeks where he doesn't do it and then the urge to start painting falls upon him for a few days. It's just one tiny, tiny aspect of who he is.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 11:38 AM  

  • I was never a smear-er as a kid (I was afraid of poop, IIRC!) so I don't have any real insight into why a person might do such a thing. But some guesses come to mind: (1) That, well, the stuff is there, and the person wants to get it off themselves (and consequently uses any available surface to do so), or (2) That maybe there's some kind of sensory thing going on, where the person might benefit from being given non-toxic clay or finger paint to play with.

    All that aside, yeah, your analogy makes sense...people really do need to learn to realize that it isn't "harmless" to speak in pejorative stereotypes.

    By Blogger Anne Corwin, at 11:59 AM  

  • An Aspie sensory therapist told me that poo issues usually indicate need more more sensory stimulation.

    She advised letting the child run their fingers thru a pan of rice, putting items like marbles in a bucket and letting them run their feet over them. More fun if water is involved.

    Hmmmm, my mom did finger paints, made homemade playdo for me, and did rice and beans in pans for me to run my hands and feet thru. I also had a sandbox. I had a tiny rocking chair which I wore the rockers off of. Then I had a bouncy horse and I broke three of them. They always bought me another one tho.

    I never messed with poo. I did flush a cloth diaper in the loo and my mom had to get it out and she was maaaaaaad. I have never never ever flushed anything inappropriate down the john since.


    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 2:37 PM  

  • Tom loves playdough and finger paints, so we always have them in the house, but I didn't know about the rice. Thank you Sarah.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 3:15 PM  

  • The autism/cancer analogy seemed gratuitous to me. It's as though she's intentionally trying to, um, stir up shit. She has to know it's a point of contention because she apparently reads ND blogs, as she referred to them more than once. And after reading the original posting of hers, "The Crappy Life of an Autism Mom," where she comes across sounding like another autism hater, I'm more inclined to question her motives in drawing the inflammatory autism/cancer analogy. I'm also inclined to wonder if she actually understands the ND blogs she apparently reads.

    By Blogger Chasmatazz, at 11:02 PM  

  • Poo-litcally correct is fab! Good writing indeed. I am completely against eugenics and I thank you for making that clear. That the major dollars are going toward genetics and not helping families galls me to the core. What has knowing the genetics of Down done for that population? And by helping families I mean with insurance issues, schools, adult living, respite care for parents, training doctors not to blow off our kids attributing real pain to "autism" and more.

    The crapisode is an analogy. And when I write on HuffPo I'm speaking to a wide audience, not just those of us in the trenches. I use a lot of irony and plays on words and even sarcasm in my writing, which may be innately difficult for some readers to process.

    Don't forget to buy John Robison's Asperger's memoir tomorrow. It's a great book. You can see a video of him on my blog. And his blog is fantastic.

    I'm off to work and write and clean. A mother's day!



    (PS) I adored Ren and Stimpy and am often referred to as the "keeper of the cheese" in our house. I even had huge R&S slippers that scared the kids to death as toddlers. Funny show.

    By Blogger Kim Rossi Stagliano, at 7:58 AM  

  • Hi Kim, thanks for the compliment on my writing, and I agree with your comment on where the major dollars ought to be going. More money also needs to be spent on efforts to combat prejudice and bring about equal employment opportunity.

    On the subject of cognitive differences in processing words, I think you might enjoy Joel's latest post on words and multiple meanings.

    It's not just processing differences, though. The life experiences of autistics and non-autistics often are very different as well, and this can lead to misunderstandings. That is to say, when people have gone through their entire lives being treated like crap (as some autistics have) they're going to take negative analogies much more personally than those who have been more fortunate.

    Of course, this reaction is not unique to autistics; other minorities who have been targets of bigotry and discrimination often feel the same way, as I discussed in my post.

    I'm very enthusiastic about Barack Obama's candidacy. He is an outstanding mediator and community organizer with an instinctive grasp of how to bring about consensus by listening to all sides, and he understands the importance of the family and community issues regarding autism. If he is elected, I think we'll see a lot more funds being spent on useful services, and a lot less political posturing.

    By Blogger abfh, at 11:11 AM  

  • What I see is Kim Stagliano mocking the "neurodiverse" on Huffpo, demeaning her daughters and then brushing it off as nothing, and then going out of her way to cultivate "friendships" with ND that she think will come out and say, "oh there's been a hideous epidemic caused by vaccines."

    It looks very cold-blooded and like a scheme.

    But the weird thing is that she is pushing the Ralph Savarese book (trying to cuddle up to Savarese 'cuz he's an auther and Kim has a book "Autism is murder" or something that she wants to get published... she's also cuddled up to Susan Senator who has cuddled right back, and she seems to think that Kristina Chew will join the group hug with her... Kristina also has a book planned... see a pattern here?)

    But the Savarese book promotes Amanda Baggs as a significant person in autism advocacy, and with respect. But Where Kim blogs on the Rexu post, Amanda has been a punching bag and Kim has apparently approved of comments where Amanda was used as a punching bag for hatred toward the ND.

    Kim said on a mercury mom list that the Crapisode part doo blog was directed at me, trying to get me angry. Hence the additional use of the cancer analogy.

    I think Kim is an example of the worst of the parents out there. She acts like an exhibitionist (offering to have sex with any scientists who would cure autism in her girls, like they'd take her up on that). Who knows how autistic her husband is, she has three girls blames their autism on vaccines, but the youngest is unvaxed. She's too dim to realize awful her writing is and could care less about offending autistic adults, in fact she gets a kick out of it. She's too dim to realize that all the biomed in the world is not going to make her daughters normal.

    She said her daughters' autism is dog poo/ear wax/vomit flavored.

    She thinks that's funny.

    She says that anyone who has a blog and says they are autistic has root beer and rasperberry cream flavored autism (no autism related problems at all, apparently).

    She thinks that's funny.

    What is that? Borderling PD? Megalomania? Something like that.

    Anyway, go to the "Look me in the eye" blog jerobison.blogspot.com and see in the comments how she's sucking up to the poor John Elder Robison. It should be interesting to see if Kim can get him to turn on the "ND" and declare the horrors of the epidemic caused by vaccines, the wonders of chelation and the expound on the need for a cure for the "low functioning" while he himself doesn't want to be cured.

    I for one won't be buying his book. Not until I know if he's going to say, "Chelation is an option for curing the otherwise ruined and worthless to have around low-functioning atuistics." or "Yes, there's been an epidemic, guys like me, pre-epidemic ASD adults are very rare."

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 5:11 PM  

  • I don't have a book in the works, or any useful contacts among publishers of autism books, so it would be a complete waste of time for anyone to suck up to me!

    By Blogger abfh, at 6:52 PM  

  • Reading the reviews and John Robison's posts on the Amazon site for his book, he seems pretty ND to me. Go John!

    By Blogger Anne, at 8:12 PM  

  • ...Unfortunately, poo-smearing has become part of a very ugly stereotype that characterizes autistic people as something less than people—as pitiful, disgusting, subhuman creatures, incapable of ever holding jobs or contributing anything of value to society, not worth the expense of educating, not entitled to human rights or even life itself. ...

    It's funny that you brought this up. As the white (adoptive) father of two bi-racial African American/Caucasian kids, I often see parallels between racial discrimination and discrimination against those with developmental/behavioral differences.

    I have been doing some reading over the last few days in preparation for a post comparing the historical denial of equal access to education for blacks to present voices saying that education dollars are wasted on autistics.


    By Blogger Club 166, at 11:25 PM  

  • Well, that could certainly backfire on a person!


    By Blogger Attila the Mom, at 1:25 AM  

  • I'm with Ms. Clark on this one. Does Kim S. really believe that coming to this blog and implying that maybe "people like us" just don't get her very advanced sense of humor, irony, analogy and whatnot is going to win her any friends? I doubt it. She just adds one insult to another with this...um...crap.

    By Blogger Bev, at 7:59 PM  

  • My son smears and i have mentioned this in my blog.
    So i will have a think on this one.

    By Blogger Casdok, at 6:31 AM  

  • Bev: Although it's possible that I may be giving Kim S. too much of the benefit of the doubt, I didn't take the comment about irony and sarcasm as a personal insult to me or to autistic bloggers in general. Rather, I thought she meant that some of the people who criticized her previous post might have taken it more literally than it was intended.

    Of course, autistics aren't the only ones who have difficulties in processing unfamiliar styles of humor; it's fairly common for non-autistics to misunderstand our humor, too, as I think you've mentioned in a few of your posts.

    By Blogger abfh, at 10:50 AM  

  • To clarify, I didn't mean to suggest that Ms. Clark or anyone else actually did misunderstand anything. I didn't think the vomit-flavored bean joke was funny, either. But the reason it wasn't funny, IMHO, was the social context rather than the nature of the joke itself.

    If you substitute some other non-stigmatized neurological trait for autism in that joke, such as talkativeness, I expect most people wouldn't have a problem with it.

    By Blogger abfh, at 11:31 AM  

  • I found this comment while searching out references to myself on Google . . .

    "I for one won't be buying his book. Not until I know if he's going to say, "Chelation is an option for curing the otherwise ruined and worthless to have around low-functioning atuistics." or "Yes, there's been an epidemic, guys like me, pre-epidemic ASD adults are very rare."

    I would like to clarify my position with respect to that statement and a few other issues.

    1) I do not know if there is an “autism epidemic.” There is certainly a surge in cases, but some of that surge is due to changes in diagnostic criteria (I’m an example of that) while other cases may result from newly emergent causes.

    With respect to alleged causes such as vaccine . . . I have no idea if vaccine is causing autism. I firmly believe that we as a society do not understand the overall impact of the chemicals our industrial society puts into our food, in our air, and in our water.

    There are so many examples of “good chemicals” going bad, how could a responsible person think otherwise. DDT . . . PCBs . . . asbestos . . .lead paint. Do some of today’s chemicals combine and act to cause brain damage that’s diagnosed as autism? Who can say? It certainly sounds possible. But I don’t have the knowledge to know where to look for specific causative agents.

    2) Recognizing that chemical poisoning adds an unknown dimension, I believe there always have been and always will be people “born” on the spectrum. Having examined my own genealogy I believe I am such a person and I can point to numerous people with similar traits in my ancestry.

    I don’t know enough science to render an opinion as to the similarity between someone like me (born this way) and someone who’s been rendered autistic via chemical poisoning.

    3) I myself do not want any “treatment” via medication. That said, I recognize the enormous value of insight into my own mind (which led to my book) and I recognize other people may make different and valid choices in their own lives. For example, I am aware that many people feel a need for antidepressants or medicine to calm panic attacks. While I don’t want those things myself I am not critical of those who do.

    I strongly believe that insight into our own minds is one of the best tools for any reasonably functional person on the spectrum (or anywhere else, for that matter.) I believe that to be true whether or not a person chooses medication or other treatment. Knowledge is always power, in our own lives and elsewhere. My book expresses that sentiment.

    4) That brings me to treatment for lower functioning treatment – situations where parents or guardians choose actions for their charges. I sympathize with those people. All the choices are hard. But I don’t know what to do. I am not in that situation myself, and I have no medical or chemical knowledge. I have nothing to offer regarding mercury, chelating, or anything to do with that controversy.

    5) And that brings me to my final point. I believe one thing we all need – high and low functioning alike – is greater understanding of our diversity, and greater tolerance within society. Some want cures. Some want treatment. Some want to be left alone. Some want to join the party. The world is a big place, and there should be room for everyone.

    Calling someone “otherwise ruined and worthless to have around” is hurtful and does not benefit anyone in our community. I recognize that many people on the spectrum (me included) were bullied and tormented throughout our lives. But we have to move forward, and look up, rather than dwell on past hurts. And we should not spread such pain ourselves. It just diminishes us all.

    Feel free to visit me at http://jerobison.blogspot.com any time

    John Elder Robison

    By Blogger John Robison, at 6:54 PM  

  • Hi John, I'm glad you stopped by to comment on your views. You may be interested in reading a post I wrote last year, which addresses the issue of how parents and caregivers should make decisions when science offers little guidance:

    First, Do No Harm

    By Blogger abfh, at 11:04 AM  

  • ABFH, that was a good post you sent me to. One thing I am seeing is . . . how do we know what does "no harm?"

    Sometimes, doing nothing is harmful. Other times, doing nothing and letting time and nature work is all that's needed.

    It's so hard to know, and it's more and more clear to me that - at the low function end of the scale - one autistic person's cure may well be another's poison.

    Luckily, I have not yet seen any downside to the kinds of self-knowledge I advocate in my book, but of course one must be in a position to read and act for it to be beneficial.

    And even that may have a downside that I just haven't seen.

    It's a complex world.

    By Blogger John Robison, at 6:20 PM  

  • Indeed, it's not always easy to determine what course of action will be least likely to cause harm. And I agree that self-knowledge usually is a good thing — provided that we're talking about actual discovery of one's strengths and weaknesses, rather than changing one's self-image to fit a stereotype, as some people do after the diagnosis.

    However, I don't believe in separating autistic people into different groups based on functioning labels because these distinctions are often arbitrary and based on social value judgments.

    A person who does not speak fluently or who has self-care difficulties is not necessarily any less intelligent, able, or entitled to self-determination than anyone else.

    By Blogger abfh, at 7:31 PM  

  • Well, ABFH, I agree with you. My book is available in both audio and print forms, and even large print (in 2 months) so that my own message is available in as many forms as possible.

    In my book I think you'll see that I make a distinction between changing one's self image (which I don't do) and learning to act different in subtle ways while remaining the same at the center, to achieve social acceptance.

    By Blogger John Robison, at 7:36 PM  

  • Here's a link to a video that describes how many people in India are making themselves appear different to achieve social acceptance.

    I'm more interested in changing society's prejudiced attitudes.

    By Blogger abfh, at 8:33 AM  

  • I posted on this in my blog in Feb '07. I hated her entry. Just read her update. Whatever. She is missing the point completely. I like your comparison of those 2 children of a different race. That would never fly, with all those stereotypes, now would it?

    Wanted to let you know--after an 8 month hiatus, I am back & blogging again. I changed my blog around, including the name (was "Me By The Sea" is now "Stop.Think.Autism."). Great post as usual. Take care!

    By Blogger S.L., at 3:49 PM  

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