Weird or Just Different? – Reflecting on Stillman’s Autism and the God Connection

“Always presume intellect” – William Stillman

Despite my mixed feelings towards Stillman’s book, Autism and the God Connection, I’m inclined to say his main message is bountiful to share. Being a person with an Asperger’s himself, I feel even more touched and impressed by his brave decision for coming forward and clear some smokes and misunderstandings on autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Regarding spirituality and religion which are also discussed – those are separate issues and beliefs to be discussed, I suppose. There are times where I feel a bit detached reading the book but this is probably (I found out later and there was a similar experience when I read James Baldwin’s Go Tell it to the Mountain) because I’m not familiar with the bible language or bible passages.

Yet, it doesn’t stop me from admiring some of his wisdom. The above quote, in which Stillman claims to be his daily mantra, has definitely left a meaningful impact on me. The idea is basically similar to the Golden rule “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you”. It’s simple, treat others as you would want others to treat you. I’d probably say with respect because I’d want to be treated that way and as I believe, no matter how flawed I am as a person, I’d like to think I’m worth something as a human (dignity etcetc).

In this case, where autism and Asperger’s are discussed, Stillman believes that presuming intellect is the best way to do when it comes to people with ASD. He explained that some who have low-functioning autism, are not able to express verbally (they use other communication aids e.g. communication board). However, just because they’re not able to speak i.e. the common and ‘civilized’ way of communicating with people, this doesn’t mean – to put this in a plain way – they’re dumb.

Sure, they’re different from us ‘neurotypical’ people (In Stillman’s words: To those unfamiliar with autism, it is, from a clinical perspective, a neurological difference in how the brain is “wired.”) but apparently some people can’t stand the word ‘different’. Sigh, people. As if superiority and superiority in which is so highly regarded in a society, means everything to bully and abuse someone in order to claim for it. As if human’s worth and dignity can be totally measured by perceptions and a bunch of stereotypes.

Anyway, (before I could rant further) it seems clear for me that Stillman believes, whoever you are, one has a heart and has the right to be treated properly and justly. Presuming intellect is said to be the best way in dealing with ASD, I think, is because we shouldn’t judge that their ability that also significantly defines them, based on what is usually thought to be the normal methods of claiming someone as intelligent or able. There are other means where they can express themselves and establish themselves as a “person” and I think we tend to forget that and get sucked in the normal way of understanding and judging people.

What I’ve understood about ASD is probably limited. But I know that in the end, we’re all just human beings, no matter what ‘disorders’ and problems we have. The book is a good one to reflect important social issues and how important it is to understand that disability is often flaunted around when we come across something or someone different. I think beyond this, the above quote also lends me some advice on the outlook of life as well. It’s very much more liberating and healthier to think the best of people.


*Posted this before in FB but just thought of sharing here (plus I’m currently having similar feelings that I’ve stated/described here)

Cheers!

Finding the Heart of Passion – Part 1

“What do you really want to do?”

A good lecturer of mine asked me this question when I was consulting to him about my desire to pursue my Masters and several other options (I’m still thinking of academic career, nonetheless). I couldn’t reply straightaway and I just thought, ‘whoa, I haven’t heard that question from a teacher/educator for a while.’ Or at least it feels like it.

Within probably seconds, I tried recalling back what was it exactly that I liked and wanted to do in the future. I almost went back as far as the early childhood but luckily I stopped at high school. Not that I was totally sure about my goals and future plans at that time, but I think it’s a good sign that some of my interests have remained since then. Fast-forwarding to the sixth form and then uni, I thanked my flashbacks for assuring me. However, my skeptical side suddenly whispered to me: Wait a minute, are you sure this is what you want to do? Are you even really good at it? Don’t you think you have to be realistic? Do you think you can survive by choosing this?

I didn’t imagine it would be this hard to answer a simple question.

But I couldn’t make my lecturer wait any longer or let my eyes wander to his bookshelf for a long time so I started stammering some typical nervous words.

“Um, well, I like History and I like Social Science in general too so I’m not really sure…yet what I really want to do but – but, I’m open to learning things – anything related to those things, so yeah…”

Oh God, I’m so going to criticize myself later on. Wasn’t there any way to express your uncertainty in a much more poised way? You’ve graduated and you’re still so clumsy with words? What about all those essays you’ve done, eh? Okay, stop now, you self-conscious human being.

Like the super supportive lecturer he was, he nodded to that and said:

“Good, that’s good”

After that, my lecturer went on talking about his past experience as a student and while I was still beating myself up internally, I did catch some useful things that he shared.

He stressed that:

1. If I decide to do Masters, it would be wise to do so if only I have the intention of doing PhD.

2. I should have some specific idea of what I want to do since it’d be easier for him to give me further tips and advice & for me to find a good uni.

3. Try to reach out to people e.g. who have gone through the state I’m in.

4. Just continue researching about the field I’m interested in, fellowships, opportunities etc.

He was such a nice fellow that I feel I don’t deserve his advice. (Mostly, because of the late essays I’ve submitted to him.) He gave a lot of suggestions as well – practical ones – which I really appreciate and need at the moment, especially with the current society (budget, budget and budget). Of all things though, the one thing that remains in my mind even up till now, is the no.2.

I thought I knew myself pretty well, I definitely know which food I like and dislike but four and a half years is quite a long time – and a lot of things happened in that period. Good stuff, CONFUSING stuff, weird and random stuff. There’s always the bad stuff, of course, but nothing that doesn’t teach me more about life. So, with all these stuff going on, I didn’t realize how much I’ve changed in terms of my mind and my perspective. I realized that I took the thought of my ‘present self’ for granted.

Interestingly, a friend has told me that I basically have a good sense of self and that I’m lucky because I seem to know where I’m going.

Wellllll.

I spent some time afterwards thinking about the question that triggered back to the memory of childhood (I couldn’t stop myself. Childhood is precious) and moments where I found myself enjoying doing the things that I loved, my passion. Eventually, I was grateful that I gave that reply to my lecturer. It was true that I was still searching for something more and it’s not necessarily a bad thing.

History was not even one my choices when I began my first year in the uni. (It was either Literature or Sociology initially) I’ve taken history before in the sixth form, and it was pretty torturing mainly because I had no idea what I was doing. I believe I managed to survive and pass because of a substitute teacher who turned out to be the best history teacher, past year papers and the less/no expectation that I was even going to pass the subject. Basically, it was like gambling back then and I was confident that I didn’t want to go through that anymore AGAIN.

Things, however, weren’t that predictable though.

What happened was that I…had what you call a change of heart. I gained my interest, or actually, renewed my interest in history somehow after taking Literature and Sociology classes. During my second year, I changed my major to History.

(There were a lot more happening before that but this is the simplest version I can tell, for now. It’s one of those memorable moments and to some extent, a life-changing decision story that I’m hoping to save for another day.)

Let’s just say I had a new understanding and a new perspective on the subject that I forgot about the horrifying experience during the sixth form because that memory became a new one. It wasn’t an excruciating memory anymore, it changed to a now-I-knew-why-I-didn’t-enjoy-history-memory-because-I-never-understood-it. Simple.

Despite that, I wouldn’t say I didn’t suffer anymore after changing my major. I was quite insecure in the beginning of my History major days, feeling that I was still a newbie history nerd and the books, ohmygod, the books. It really took a while to get used reading them. It was, however, more bearable because I actually found myself enjoying being a History major.

To start off, I like that the idea that the past shapes the present is being explained in so many ways. The more I read about the things that I wouldn’t have dared to before, the more I realize it makes so much sense to me. It filled some of the missing spots that I didn’t know were missing. History was a challenge that I didn’t know I would accept because of the misunderstanding/lack of understanding I had of what it was.

It’s ruthless, but it’s also profound. Like the realization I had when I took Sociology and Philosophy courses (‘Why did I just discover this stuff?’), it appeared like a riveting light bulb that glows pervasively in a good amount of space. The passion and the respect I have for this subject kept on increasing as I got to learn more about it.

Remembering all this is truthfully a bit difficult because it forces me to seriously consider my real passion which would and should help me to take another step in the world. The reluctance, I think, is because of the idea that I have to choose just one thing and forget about the others that I equally love.

Though it may be inaccurate to think so but there’s the dilemma, I suppose.

The Social Sciences/Humanities area is something that I hold close to my heart. My thirst and curiosity in knowledge is much largely owed to them. Unfortunately, the times that I had enjoyed misusing back in the younger days had made me miss the chance to learn their pre-requisites. So I guess I’m very much on the side of ‘I’m still learning’ than ‘I know what I want to do and I want to do it’.

[To be continued]

Confessions of a self-proclaimed bookworm

“I’m quite illiterate, but I read quite a lot” – J. D. Salinger

One of the things that I learned to realize after studying in the university, is that, I am not as literate as I thought I was. It took me about a year or perhaps more (an F grade did help me to see that, ouch) to accept that fact, as painful as it might be.

Some of my concerns:

#Confession 1 – Help, I’m an illiterate bookworm

#Confession 2 – Goodbye fast reading days, I’m now a slow reader

#Confession 3 – How the heck did I ever get called a bookworm?

#Confession 4 – Dear dictionary, sorry for ignoring you for a long time

First of all, I love reading and I think it just started ever since I was taught how to read. The meaning of ‘read’ at that time simply refers to the way people can spell, pronounce and understand some words, meanings and sentences. According to the society, if you can do that, it’s enough to call you literate. The meaning of ‘read’ when I get to university, however, has a lot more weight and the gap is freaking huge. The academic level is no joke. It’s more than just a formal language, it’s critical!

Especially when you’re in the Social Sciences Faculty, where you cannot run away from tons of reading tasks and assignments. And because I like to experiment and enjoy suffering, I took English Literature, Sociology, Philosophy and lastly, my major, History courses in my uni years and I’ve tasted similar pains that led me to question my grammar and how the heck did I manage to get in uni again and again.

Some of my friends and peers did have similar experiences (thank God for that) and it was a comfort to know that I wasn’t alone in that. We’d complain every chance we got about how crazy and heavy the language of the articles was. Fortunately, some of us were quite literate and some were talented in bluffing so the class discussions went alright. Then there were not so alright moments, when the awkward silence reigned over and most of us became suddenly interested in looking at anywhere but the lecturers. Those were some fond memories.

Yet, the discussion of the issue itself never really came to light. We would talk about it, yes, but hardly ever delve into it. Frankly, I don’t blame anyone. With the daily routine, it was hard to do so. Assignments were always piling up – usually approaching the mid-semester (but sometimes even earlier) and the only thing that people were mostly worrying about was surviving, not excelling! Well, excluding a small number of people maybe, super human beings…I think.

Anyway, by my second year, I would tell myself to learn how to read properly again. I had already taken the compulsory communication skills (teaching academic skills) and didn’t realize how utterly important it was, especially for someone who wants to continue studying after degree. I’m ashamed to say, that the memorable memories I had in that class, consisted of me enjoying the cool air-conditioner and meeting my childhood buddies. I was totally guilty of treating the class as another GP class. Sigh.

After a while though, I would soon forget the task I’d put myself to do. My poor time management swayed my momentum (if there was even one) and procrastination always came in the way whenever I wanted to perform well in every class. Sorry mum. Not to say there weren’t some achievements, I did manage to finish some assignments, but I’d often feel guilty for the inconsistency that was repairable. By my fourth year, I continued to suffer and tried my best compensating the skills that I thought I should have attained even pre-university. Thankfully, I graduated and my wish of going back to basics still hasn’t disappeared and in fact, is stronger than ever.

So where did it go wrong?

Primary and secondary education didn’t help?

Were the books I’d read in my childhood weren’t that great?

Am I really illiterate and not capable enough?

And some more questions roller-coasting in my mind~

My take?

1. The role of EDUCATION

This, I believe, is the most important thing and even more so after reading Dorothy Sayer’s The Lost Tools of Learning. However, since I’m planning to review her speech-essay, I won’t go into the details too much here. One thing that I’d like to mention is one of the questions she’d so wonderfully raised:

“Has it ever struck you as odd, or unfortunate, that today, when the proportion of literacy throughout Western Europe is higher than it has ever been, people should have become susceptible to the influence of advertisement and mass propaganda to an extent hitherto unheard of and unimagined?”

It’s amazing how this was in 1947 when she made that speech and can still be made so relevant today. The point she made here, as I understood it, is that we might trick ourselves into thinking that the literacy rate accurately shows how far we’ve progressed our minds, skills and abilities when in fact, many people have been easily influenced by the mainstream media. She’s suggesting that if we were better equipped e.g. with reasoning and critical thinking, we would’ve been less vulnerable and less persuaded by those ridiculous ads and implicitly negative messages in movies etc.

Brunei is one of the countries that experienced an increase in the literacy rate, it jumped from 1981 (77.83%) to 2015 (96.66%). Of course, statistics don’t always tell us anything but I do feel there’s a parallel to Sayers’ point there. A lot of us are exposed to the media, particularly social media and tech stuff. I’m one of them and I’m realizing more and more how dangerous it is that everything seems so convenient and easy these days. It’s not challenging and it’s not healthy that our source of entertainment and leisure activities do not depend much on our brain.

This is why, education is important in nourishing the kids from the early age – not by teaching them what to learn/read but how to learn/read.

More points next time, hopefully in my next post!

2. I forgot to mention that English is not our first language, so, English is not our first language but I think the problem lies with LANGUAGE itself

One of my lecturers who was not a local, had kindly pointed out that the fact that English was the overall standard language in the uni might be a disadvantage to a lot of us. It was, but not exactly the way he thinks. He thought that we were more fluent in our native language and we would have performed better if the essays were done in Malay. Well, I’m not sure about that.

The problem is that, though, the idea of being bilingual is great, a lot of us are struggling towards achieving that. Most of us who are fluent in our native language, are not necessarily fluent in the standard native language aka the formal language, especially written.

English is made the official language in most public schools and that means, most subjects are taught in the English language. That could explain how some are poor with the standard Malay language. Yet, some of still struggle to grasp the most basic English. I remember that one of my lecturers (different one) complimented how well Bruneians speak English here generally (hello to American tv shows), but he couldn’t say the same for our written English.

So here are the things that I frequently hear that we’re lacking of generally with both Malay and English: Grammar, structure, format. Efforts, definitely, yeah we need to do a lot of work.

3. To a lot of us, the university is the first & real INTELLECTUAL institution

Like I said before, there’s a huge gap between the university level and the previous education. When I first started university, one of my modules was a Philosophy course and I couldn’t forget that experience. It was probably an indirect introduction to critical thinking and reasoning (it was actually an introduction to Islamic Philosophy class) to me. I realized then that I’ve been missing a lot of prerequisites in my life!

Since Philosophy deals with rational thinking more directly than other courses that I’ve taken, it came to me how fundamental it was to have these instruments – logic, thinking skills – before getting to the big league. Even if you’re not from the Social Sciences Faculty and even if you’ve read Descartes or al-Ghazzali or every Shakespeare’s work at a young age, you’d need them not only to survive, but excel in the academic field.

I’m realizing now that I’ve been writing this stuff as if I was talking to my past self. Despite everything though, I’ve enjoyed my uni years overall. It was rough, but it was worth to know the things I couldn’t do and am capable of doing in the future.

For one thing, I really need to read more.

Life that is rarely known

If I were to begin talking about Brunei, I have a pretty solid idea what to talk about but not exactly what it is. Generally, our history is told through textbooks during primary and secondary schools and is passed down orally from generation to generation (at least that’s what I think). The recorded past has definitely shaped our minds and our identity, whether we know it or not.

Of course, our surroundings have probably played the major role in doing that. Personally, from my own experience, there are 4 important things that also help to define the Bruneian identity: Family, friends, culture and religion. The internet’s a pretty big deal as well. Food is, needless to say, loved by everyone. (I don’t know anyone who hates sambal) I haven’t forgotten MIB but that’s already been mentioned frequently, I assume.

But this is my surrounding, my experience and my thoughts. Outside the sphere of this ‘solid idea’ of what my world looks like, I do believe, is so much more. Like a lot of people, I’m quite comfortable in my own position, quite privileged and (alhamdulillah) I never really starved. A typical Bruneian? Somewhat. A real Bruneian? Well, I passed my O level Malay but I don’t know. An alien? Only if you’re an immigrant or a foreigner.

This is not an insightful piece towards understanding the Bruneian identity but more of a vague realization on being a Bruneian. I sure hope I’ll be able to write more about this issue in the future. For now, though, I’ll give you something that I’ve been pondering about in the past years – life that is known and rarely known:

Where do I start?

The people, the places, the jobs, their faces, their thoughts, their conversations, the problems, the daily occurrence, the wisdom, the burdens, their dreams and ambitions.

The commonplace

The ambiguous

The marginalized

The history – the origin – the other truth

The locals

The immigrants

The ordinary

The unusual

Different minds, different goals

Different priorities, different stereotypes

Different cultures, different beliefs

Different lifestyles, different standards

Different behaviours, different leisures

Different wardrobe, different design

Different salaries, different manners

Different way of thinking

What do I know about this life?

That I know so little about?

The name of the trees and plants found only here

The name of the roads and streets

The reason why the river flows so slowly here and the sea roars so gently

The family tree

The attire

The wedding

The food

The rules and laws

The worn-out office workers

The relaxed privileged people

The mountains that the ‘aliens’ have to climb

The smiles of the immigrants

The arrogant speech (where the citizens are unaware/unconscious of)

The elders

The high local servants

The wondrous

The determined students

The strange villagers/locals

The confused, educated people

The cynical 21st century thinkers

The uncaring people

The rude, obnoxious civilians

The defensive speakers

The quiet observers

The happy, pleasant optimists

The never-ending penny seekers

The doting, responsible adults

The obedient workers

The educated but narrow-minded officers

The strict but hopeful teachers

The westernized but still yellow-card citizens

The madness of the uncivilized people

The protests of some westerners

The westernized and modernized authors

The things we should be grateful for

The things we complain

The things we don’t see

The things that we take for granted

The white people

The other

The business expertise

The small fortune

The centre of the place

The things that attract the population

The entrepreneurs

The benefactors and the ones who benefit

The factory workers

The repetitive messages

The town

The music

The survivors

The living-loving creatures

The adventurers

The influenced children

The irritated wanderers

The bills that we pay

The intolerant waiting

The yawns of the receptionists

The diligent yet limited space

The sighs of the labourers

The fears of the newcomers

The spontaneous fellows

The friendship of the unlikely

The chaos of the misunderstood and miscommunication

The aimless

The curious

The obvious but manipulated words

The faces and crimes

The apparent truth

The green

The comparison

The fortunate and unfortunate youngsters

The average and simple people

The opinionated columnists

The small region

The laid-back environment

The ambitious activists

The creative, modern artists

The hybrids

The assimilated and comfortable settlers

The insensitive opportunists

Family

The hidden

The helpless

The worsened teenagers

The tradition-keepers

The literary world

The money-counters

The ignorant

The indifferent

The responsible and capable adults

The dependable, future leaders

The dreamers who crave for space

The ordinary who wants the best