A blog advocating autism through my own personal experiences and insights.

Archive for the ‘Philosophies’ Category

UW’s Women’s Centre

This winter I tried a new extra-curricular activity. I have written a few posts on this blog related to the issue of feminism and gender-related issues, but now I’ve found a way to meet other like-minded people with respect to such issues and to actually advocate for them. I volunteered for the University of Waterloo’s Women Centre this term, which is a student-run organisation on campus that promotes feminism and gender equity. I submitted an application online to them in the fall and heard back at the beginning of the winter term that they accepted me as a volunteer.

I had to attend a one day training session on how to be a volunteer for the Centre. It basically consisted of explaining to us our responsibilities, such as holding office hours in the Centre and how to help students in need who come to the Centre, especially for peer support hours. Peer support hours are hours that run 5-6 everyday where any student is welcome to drop by to discuss any personal problems they have to the volunteer who’s on duty at that time for emotional support and resources. The Centre is in this smallish cozy room with a desk, a library on feminism, and a few comfortable couches and chairs. Besides holding office hours there, I’ve also found it a good alternative space to study.

Unsurprisingly, the rest of the volunteers are women. I’ve been involved with activities before where the majority of participants were female (for example, during my Zumba classes) so I was never really bothered by that. I do, however, find it a bit unfortunate that more men don’t get involved with these kinds of things, especially since gender inequity affects men as well as women and indeed affects people of all genders. I know that such issues have touched me as well as others, which further inspired me to volunteer in the first place and I strongly believe that feminism and gender-related issues need gender-diverse supports (besides being diverse in other ways) for its proper activism. The women I’ve worked with this term, however, have been very friendly and welcoming and I’m slowly making friends with some of them.

Besides holding office hours in the centre, I’ve also helped volunteer for various feminist events. My favourite has been the Poetry Slam, which was a night held on Waterloo’s on-campus pub The Bomber where any and all students with feminist poetry were welcome to read them. I loved hearing them all and will definitely participate myself at a future poetry slam event.

I’m glad I decided to get involved with the Women’s Centre and I look forward to continuing with it in the future.

Depressive Episodes

It has been a sad week for the University of Waterloo this past week. A student committed suicide. While this has created shock across the campus, I believe it shows there is a lot more work to be done on the issue of mental health and that there is still stigma against talking about it. While it is incredibly unfortunate that this suicide happened, it has inspired me to share my own experience in dealing with depressive episodes. I don’t tell everything that’s happening in my life on this blog (either because some details I’m just not comfortable sharing or too private to share), but I would like to take the time to talk about how depression has personally affected me. I do hope to help remove a lot of the stigma that surrounds these issues.

Throughout my life, lot of things have made me have periods of depression. This probably won’t surprise you if you’ve read a lot of my blog. Being diagnosed with autism has created certain difficulties in my life, which then lead to depression. There have also been other triggers for depression in my life, but again I won’t go into detail on them here. A little over two years ago, however, I ended up having a pretty bad depressive episode. I remember it like it was yesterday. It affected how much I could work and even affected my basic daily functions. Even getting dressed or getting breakfast for myself were a challenge on some days. It felt like it would never end. I went to a doctor and talked with him about putting myself on an anti-depressant. I was also seeing a psychologist at the time who I also discussed this option. with In the end, I ended up going on the S.S.R.I. (Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor) Zoloft.

While there are mixed views out there about anti-depressants and S.S.R.I.s and there’s a certain stigma against them, my personal experience with Zoloft is that it has been helpful in calming me down, removing some of the anxiety and depression. I don’t believe, however, that such medications are a permanent solution to mental health problems. Actually discussing such problems with a professional is more important. What I do believe, however, is that such medications can be very useful in soothing the healing process. For a period, I was on a dosage of 100 mg of Zoloft daily, but due to an undesirable side effect, I reduced my dosage back down to 50 mg hence reducing the side-effect, so being aware of possible side-effects is important as well. Fortunately, even on 50 mg, I’ve found the benefits are still present.

I’ve been talking a lot about my issues with depression with my current therapist (the one I’m seeing for social anxiety I describe a couple of posts back) and have found she is really making it easier for me to pull myself out of this current depressive episode. We’ve been going through CBT (cognitive behaviour therapy) where we examine how thoughts influence feelings, which in turn influence behaviours, which then influence thoughts and so creates a vicious cycle. She is very good at helping me break this cycle through altering my behaviour and challenging my perceptions and learning to accept perceptions that are different than mine. As such, I’ve learned how to be more accepting and less judging of myself and others.

I hope others affected by depression will also share and talk about their own experiences. We need to end this stigma and the more voices we have the more powerful our cause will be.

 

Autism: A Feminist Issue

I’ve read a few blog posts over the past few days that have really opened my eyes to an issue in autism diagnosis. They are here: https://themighty.com/2017/02/autism-feminism-and-bodily-autonomy/  and http://www.loveyourrebellion.org/intersections/autism-is-a-feminist-issue/. I’ve always known that there have been far more males diagnosed with autism than females, but after doing some reading, have discovered that this disadvantages females with autism in a few ways. Regardless of whether there is any biological or psychological explanation for this unbalanced proportion, this unbalanced proportion is unfortunately at times to be taken as encouragement for the prejudice that autism is strictly a male trait. Even professional studies done on autism often focus primarily on males with ASD (autism spectrum disorder), while not addressing the issues that females with ASD face.

Society has an easier time labeling a man as “odd” or socially challenged than doing so for a woman. One of the core defining characteristics of having autism is having social difficulties and, as such, many girls with autism go undiagnosed until their adults with many of them being misdiagnosed when they were younger. Females are somehow expected to have exceedingly good social skills. They must appear kind and gentle and not easily tempered and they can be judged harshly based on how they look and behave. Females with ASD might not adhere to American’s standards of beauty or not appearing “ladylike”. They are particularly vulnerable to such judgement because one of the characteristics of autism is experiencing difficulty in not understanding a lot of the dogmatic social rules that govern society.

I like how one of the authors of one of the post describes bodily autonomy on her own terms and relates it to having autism. One of the major issues that feminism deals with is uninvited sexual advances that many girls and women deal with, such as catcalling and rape, which feminists place under the phrase “my body, my choice”. This author, however, points out that this phrase means far more to her than just the issue of rape culture. To her it means portraying her body through her mannerisms and behaviours, exactly as she sees fit without being teased, ridiculed, or outcasted for it. Even some people who call themselves “feminists” are not true feminists; they are only advocating for the most privileged of women without giving a voice to other women who may experience different issues. Such people frustrate me because they’re completely missing the point of what feminism is all about: equality for all.

Given this analysis of these social factors that come into play in diagnosing boys and girls with ASD, I am a bit skeptical that the diagnostic rates are accurate when it comes to displaying the actual proportion of males to females with autism. I am not dismissing here the negative or unfavourable reactions a male with autism might receive in not having good social skills (a lot of this blog has been after all about my own social difficulties as a male with autism). Rather, I am emphasising how gender roles in society make this especially hard for females with ASD. And this is what makes autism a feminist issue.

On Masculinity

A couple of months ago, I saw a poster in the math building at the University of Waterloo advertising an interesting workshop. It was inviting the male Waterloo students to come to talk and discuss what it means to be masculine and to be a man. As a feminist and someone who’s very interested in the topic of gender, I was very curious and so attended. The workshop was run by a young gender equity advocate Stephen Soucie and it took only two minutes into it that I knew I had made the right decision to attend. Stephen lectured and had a discussion with us on how society (especially in our western culture) has shaped the male and female gender roles in detrimental ways and how this has promoted gender inequity and gender-based violence.

I loved the discussion and completely agreed with Stephen throughout. He started by asking us what expectations society holds on males. We brainstormed a lot and came up with several, including stoic, unemotional, hypersexual, strong, aggressive, etc. and then brainstormed ways in which men are ridiculed if they do not live up to these expectations to a sufficient degree. For example, men who do not fit this stereotype are more prone to bullying. They are often called things like “pussy”, “faggot”, “gay”, “bitch”, or “little girl”. Not only is such name-calling hurtful to the targeted men, but they are also harmful to women because they carry the implication that women are somehow inferior to men. These expectations, however, are a product of society and there is no rational basis for them. One could argue that these expectations come from the biological sex differences between males and females, but as Stephen pointed out, western society has overemphasised such differences. Moreover, male and female aren’t even exhaustive categories when it comes to either gender or sex, giving another reason why these gender roles need to be abandoned. Both gender and sex do not just consist of two categories, but both exist on a spectrum with male on one end and female on the other with a great variety in between.

Earlier in this blog, I mentioned how some of my social desires would be classified as feminine, such as cuddling with platonic friends. A little over a year ago, I did attend a Cuddle party once in Toronto (this is a social gathering where people can physically touch each other such as through cuddling in non-sexual ways) and I always find it fascinating that the majority of the attendees are male. I believe this is because society find platonic cuddling between women to be acceptable, but if a man or men are involved in this act, then it’s automatically classified as sexual and two men who cuddle are automatically labeled as “gay”. Society wouldn’t bat an eye if two women were crying in each other’s arms over a romantic movie, yet try replacing those two women with two men and you get something that’s completely unheard of. Our heteronormative society does not encourage homosocial bonding between men, which has a tremendous impact on men’s emotional and physical health.

These gender roles also promote gender-based violence in our society. Often, gender-based violence is portrayed as a women’s issue, often associated with the phrase “Violence against women”. You hear stories, for example on the news or in the newspaper, “Woman raped” or “Woman murdered”, failing to mention the perpetrator in the title (usually a man). But who the perpetrator is is just as relevant and stopping this gender-based violence takes way more than simply informing girls that they need to be careful, or to tell boys they need to behave properly. These, in my opinion, are just band-aid solutions, if they are even any kind of solutions at all.

Who are the perpetrators? Mostly men. Why are so many more men (many with horrible pasts, psychological problems, etc.) than women committing these horrific crimes? This is what the rest of the discussion with Stephen was about. These men weren’t born as killers or rapists. The rub is that it was fed into them starting from an early age, regardless if it was intentional or unintentional. They came to learn that to be a man, you must exhibit certain characteristics. They feel they need to be tough, aggressive, hypersexual, stoic, etc. and it often gets to the point where they feel that the only way they can measure up to these expectations and let out all the negative emotions they are feeling is by committing violence, especially against women. These societal expectations placed on men have affected their well-being very negatively and, as such, gender-based violence is just as much as a men’s issue as it is a women’s issue.

I am not trying to excuse the crimes that men commit here because men happen to be raised in a certain way. Crimes such as murder, rape, and domestic violence and abuse are horrible and should carry a heavy sentence regardless whenever they are committed. Instead, this analysis of the issue should be used when we’re asking what needs to happen for this violence to be resolved. In order to have equality for women, we need equality for men as well and indeed for people of all genders.

Since the workshop, I have stayed in touch with Stephen, and we have talked about these issues further and exchanged books and movies on the subject. One movie that I borrowed from Stephen was called Tough Guise 2 and it’s about everything I’ve written in this post and I highly recommend it.

The world is rife with inequity, and gender is definitely a prime example. I remain optimistic, however, that we as a society can correct this. Simply talking about it and advocating this issue is a definite first step.

A Switch in Passions

I have experienced a change in myself over the last half year that has caused me to reassess my life and where I’m headed with it in terms of goals, ambitions, etc. As I have elaborated throughout this blog, I have three large passions that I’ve rather built my life around: math, philosophy, and fiction writing. In the last half year, however, I have found that one of these passions has intensified, but that the other two have waned. While I am unclear as to why this occurred and whether this is anything temporary or permanent, I do feel the experience is worth sharing.

I’m currently completing a PhD in pure mathematics. When I entered the PhD program, however, I was fully aware that my other academic passion in philosophy was just as strong, if not stronger. As such, I considered doing a second PhD in philosophy after being done with the math PhD. I knew I had to make my applications as strong as possible to go for a graduate degree in philosophy. I had, after all, only done philosophy as a second major in my undergrad and did one graduate philosophy course during my master’s in pure math and wasn’t sure how this atypical philosophy background would be looked upon. As such, I made plans for making time to take some philosophy courses while completing my math PhD. I first, however, wanted to complete the major requirements for the math PhD including the course requirements and the written comprehensive exams before I attempted additional work in philosophy. It took two years for me to complete these requirements and afterwards, during last summer, I made plans to take another graduate philosophy course.

The strange thing about this was that when I signed up for a graduate philosophy course I felt I was only taking the course to strengthen my application. I wasn’t sure how passionate I was with philosophy at the moment, but I also knew my chance in taking philosophy courses was limited and so I signed up for one anyway. While the course was good and interesting in its own right and I did quite well in it, the more the course went on the more I realised I was no longer feeling passionate about it the same way I used to. The experience was rather surreal. It’s hard to describe, but I didn’t and still don’t, feel like the same person I was when I was very much into philosophy. I know for sure I was still passionate about it a year ago, and it’s hard to explain why the passion waned. During this third year in my math PhD, however, my mathematical research has picked up and I’ve made a lot of progress on two separate projects, both of which I’m very excited about and that I feel has led to an increased passion in math. As such, I ended up deciding to continue on in math and try to obtain a post-doc position in math afterwards, rather than going for another degree in philosophy.

My passion for writing fiction has also unfortunately waned. Like philosophy I cannot explain why this would be so and that I certainly felt this passion a year ago. In fact, I was feeling it up until last September. Last summer, I was doing a bit of research and plotting for a novel I was going to write. Yet, when October came around, it unexplainably vanished. Of course, I was busy not only with my PhD then, but also with the philosophy course I mentioned above. I therefore thought that it would be pointless to try pursuing writing at such a time regardless and thought I would attempt writing again this winter.

Winter has come and gone and very recently I tried to see if my passion for fiction writing really had waned. Even though I still didn’t feel like it, I forced myself to sit in front of my computer for on average half an hour per day for two and a half weeks to see if this passion could be recovered. I was coming up with a lot of good ideas for my current novel and didn’t think I was experiencing writer’s block. Unfortunately, much like with the philosophy, I felt the passion in plotting a novel had just been stripped away. After two and a half weeks was up, I thought it pointless to continue since I had hardly been feeling it for the time I wrote.

Again, I cannot explain why a 10 year old writing passion would suddenly disappear. My mind could just very well be caught up in my math PhD research for the moment and sub-consciously casting these other endeavours to the side or it could be something more permanent. If, however, I feel that philosophy and fiction writing are not suitable to pursue at this point in my life, then I won’t be pursuing them, at least not right now. If, later on, they come back, then I will act appropriately. For example, I could pursue a graduate philosophy degree later in life or somehow squeeze my way into a philosophy department after becoming a math professor. There have indeed been a number of philosophers who have started off their careers as mathematicians. As for writing fiction, that is something that has almost no constraints. All I need to do if the passion comes back is to pull up Microsoft Word on my computer and write. It all comes down to trusting your instincts to tell you what’s right for you and to be prepared to have regrets along the way. People change, people switch careers and endeavours, and have interesting life paths. As I have learned from this experience, even a passion that you can have for a long time and feeling that it has defined who you are can change.

I do miss my philosophy and writing passions and do wish I still had them. It is like having a desire to desire something. It took a bit of time to accept that this happened, but I also feel it has led to a new level of self-acceptance for me. Also, it has currently made time for other things, such as reading, doing Zumba, planning things with friends, which are things I still enjoy.

The Pitfalls of Social Media

A theme that I have used throughout my blog is how to cope with feelings of loneliness when they arise. Loneliness is a prevalent feeling a lot of us experience, not only to those of us with autism, but much to the general population as well. There are several ways to try to cope when these feelings of loneliness and/or depression arise. Last summer, I went through a bout of loneliness and depression and, as such, I was looking for techniques and strategies to cope with it. For example, I was seeing a counsellor and browsing the internet for resources. Then I stumbled upon a bit of advice I found on one internet webpage that gave me pause. Mainly because the idea was so simple, yet I hadn’t heard of it before.
The idea was to take a break from social media sites, such as Facebook, Twitter, etc because they don’t really help social relationships. People can be cruel on these sites and seeing people report doing fun activities by “updating their status” can give rise to a lot negative thoughts, feelings, and emotions, such as jealousy, sadness, depression, etc., especially if you’re currently going through a difficult time already.
As soon as I read this advice, I knew that Facebook (which is the social media site I use the most and the one I’ll be referencing for the rest of this post simply because it’s the one I’m most familiar with) was indeed having this effect on me. For the time being at least, I felt taking a break from it would indeed be a good option. I stated my proposed break as a status, which included alternative ways to contact me if anyone I had on Facebook wanted to do so. I also stated that I would be back in September, which was a month and a half away. I felt that would be ample time to give me a chance to recover.
I also started doing some other internet searching to see if there was anyone else who felt the same way I did about sites like Facebook. It turned out a lot of people actually felt the same way and some had posted, for example, youtube videos describing this problem with social media. I even asked a couple of people I knew about how I was feeling, and they actually confirmed that they had similar stories regarding Facebook. I also believe Facebook gave rise to these feelings before, but I never really acknowledged them. For example, I can be a perfectionist so it would make sense that I would be prone to such feelings as jealousy and so I didn’t give those feelings validation in the past. Seeing other people comment on exactly the same thing, however, made me see and feel it wasn’t just me and that I wasn’t alone with this issue.
I also feel it’s worth pointing out that you don’t even have to be addicted to Facebook or be an extreme Facebook user (posting statuses every day and having 1000’s of Friends) for it to be easy for these feelings to get to you. I’ve always been a pretty moderate user. It took me 3 years to become interested in posting a profile picture and to post statuses on a regular basis I only currently have 200+ Friends. Once I started posting statuses, however, I really grew to liking the idea of posting something on the internet that automatically everyone could read. It was like having celebrity status. Of course, not only was Facebook allowing me to do this, it was also allowing others to post as well. It made it very easy to treat Facebook like a popularity contest. All you have to do is compare the number of likes and comments to different statuses.
Another thing I’ve learned from this realisation is that what people’s lives are really like and how they’re portraying them on the internet is often very different. When I talked to a friend about this issue with social media, she agreed and said she had interacted with friends who were having a lot of problems with their jobs, yet they would always post on Facebook how happy they were. The rub is that when you look at someone’s Facebook wall (which is where they’re posting all of their statuses) what you’re seeing more often than not is just one shade of reality or one side of their life. People aren’t generally going to post their own problems with their lives on sites like Facebook. This observation also helps explain why the negative feelings arose in the first place. You’re comparing what you know as your life to how someone else wants you to see their own life. This, however, is a false comparison. The other person will have much more control over how they portray their life on social media than how their life is actually going. A lot of the time, this isn’t even the person’s fault. It’s very easy to sub-consciously post something that makes it look like you’re happier than you really are. Even I’m guilty of this. I’ve looked through some of my old posts and sometimes I’ve thought, wow, I certainly wasn’t that happy at that particular time. Of course, however, our thoughts can be irrational, even when we’re rationally aware of the falsity of this comparison.
While I have spent the majority of this post examining the negative aspects of social media, I feel I should at least end with a positive note. After my break from Facebook, I did return to it and still have an account. I still post a status every once in a while, even if it’s not as regular as before, and I use this feature wisely. In other words, I use it for the convenience to, for example, let people know I wrote another blog post and to post big news such as getting through an academic milestone or to post my grandmother passing this fall (my uncle didn’t realise she had passed until he read my post and was very grateful for it). I take advantage of such positive aspects of the site, which also includes planning events with friends and talking to multiple people simultaneously on the message feature. Currently, at least, this is all how Facebook is serving me best.
Different people will also use social media in different ways. While a good number of people will treat it like a popularity contest, there are some who mainly use it to stay in touch with family who are far away, to talk to several people simultaneously (both of which happen to be a contributing factor to why I stayed on), or to play the games that are on that site. As my other grandmother likes to say, “Everything in moderation.”
Regardless of one’s relationship with any social media site, however, it is often a good idea to ask yourself the question: are you controlling it or is it controlling you?

Tribute to my Nazzer Grandparents

This fall has been quite an eventful time for me. For starters it has been one of the rougher school terms for me, but I still made quite a bit of progress in it (more on that in the next blog post). On the other hand, however, one of my grandmothers passed away, which happened at the end of October. My family was able to fly me home for a memorial service we had for her in early November and I got to see a lot of family I didn’t normally see regularly growing up (everyone on my mother’s side of the family lives quite a distance away). It still seems only yesterday that my maternal grandfather passed away in Summer 2005. My Nazzer grandparents lived very near us and, as such, they were an important part of my childhood. I gave speeches at my grandfather’s memorial service when I was only 16, then at my grandmother’s 90th birthday party 4 years ago, and then again at her service this fall.
My relationship with my grandfather Don Barkeley Nazzer was a really good one. For one thing, we both had intellectual minds and we would talk about math and stuff (he was a civil engineer). When I was 12, for example, I started exploring my grandfather’s books and he ended up giving me quite a few intellectually stimulating books. In one of the books he gave me (if you really want to know what the book is it’s Mathematics: A Human Endeavour by Harold R. Jacobs) he even wrote inside the cover
“This book is now the property of John Charles Saunders. From his grandfather, Don Nazzer Dec. 26, 2000. Enjoy it!”
Looking at this handwritten note today is what helps keep his soul alive inside me and knowing how proud he would be of me if he could see where I was today. Back then, as well, I was very interested in antique calculators and I started to collect slide rules. I was fortunate enough that my grandfather had two of them that I got and still have in my possession. I also had other fun times with him. When I was a kid, my grandparents had bought me a lego set for my birthday. I wish I could say that we had built it together on that day, but I actually just let him build it first and I sat behind him, occasionally looking over his shoulder. Also, when I was a teenager he taught me how to use a ride-on lawnmower for mowing the grass at their summer place.
I also look up to him, as well as my grandmother, for their healthy lifestyles as well and how independent they both were until each of them passed away. My grandfather’s passing was very unexpected even at his age of 86 ½ and when he was in the hospital from multiple heart blockages the doctors were very impressed with how healthy a man he was. The only possible sign would be that my grandmother had gotten a little more dependent on people during the last year of her life, but she was still living alone inside her own house even up until her passing two months shorts of her 94th birthday (which would have been today and more amazing still my other grandmother who’s still around is still living alone inside her own two-storey house at 97 so I certainly have some very good genes!). I feel it’s the way we should all go, living life to the fullest until it’s time to go.
My relationship with my grandmother Margaret Irene “Sunny” Nazzer was also good, but it was a little different. She certainly loved me just as much. I’m glad she lived long enough to see me now and was always proud of my accomplishments and my intellectual mind. Unlike my grandfather, however, she was an extrovert (which I like to think is at least partly where I got my own extraverted qualities from so it looks like I inherited something good from each of them). When I was little and my parents brought me in to visit them, she would try to get me to talk more than I naturally did, even though it was like pulling teeth sometimes. My parents would also have my grandparents look after me and my sister sometimes and one time when my grandmother was tucking me into bed she would sit by my bedside and listen as I told her stories based on childrens’ movies I had seen. After my grandfather passed, she attended my high school graduation, my undergrad university convocation, and even convinced my parents (who were initially a bit hesitant in allowing her) that she should fly out to see my masters’ convocation even though she was 91 at the time!
Since my grandmother’s passing, I have inherited a few more of their belongings too. My grandfather has this neat mouse pad for his computer that looks like a rug with a complicated rug pattern on it and I also got a lot of his cuff links. As well, I also inherited a rug and a large wicker chair and a wooden case that my grandfather had since he was younger than me.
Both have been cremated and their ashes are now buried in a cemetery near where their summer home is. My memories of them will be life-long cherished.