So, When Does Presuming Competence Start?

a mug of artwork human bodies are congregated on a light blue background. it is sitting upon a cookie sheet atop a white gas stove, pan in background, as well as a knife block in front of striped wood panelling.
Here’s a heat-reacting naked artwork mug. For the offended, when the tea gets cold, everyone does put their clothes back on. But for the offended, get over it. I’m 32 and past the point of giving a crap, and there’s no use stigmatizing the human body as gross and wrong anyway. Today’s flavor: Darjeeling (I need something powerful for this stay-inside reclusive bitter-cold weekend snow-day anyway.)

cw: sexuality, expectations, control tactics, alienation, infantilization, bullying

One quick question.

I was talking to a mom of a 20-something who was unsure if her son was ready to drive. I inquired if there was anything preventing him from driving whether it be epilepsy, sleep issues, untreated adhd, and so on. She then told me that she feels uncomfortable with the idea because of how he drives in a video game. *head-desks*

At this point, you might be thinking “oh for fucks sake”. You may also be thinking “well, that’s what she has to measure his capacity of ability from.” Here’s some problems with that idea.

Video games require a lot of fine motor coordination. At least from my experience driving, it’s mostly gross motor coordination. I can drive, but let me tell you, I’ll be the first to tell you that I’m pretty rubbish at any driving game on any console. It doesn’t matter if it’s mariokart, or if it’s an actual racing game. I’m rubbish. Probably the only game involving cars that I’m somewhat good at is the Road Rage category in Burnout, which actively involves running other cars over and wrecking into them. Not exactly the best metric to work from. Also: because I stink at the whole unlocking cars via racing thing in that game series, my boyfriend unlocked them for me. Probably the only video games I’m legitimately good at are puzzle games, although I love animal crossing too, as well as final fantasy (it doesn’t mean that I’m not going to butcher something that has a sequence of buttons to slap though, like Auron’s Bushido limit break— also note that in final fantasy 8, my Zell laid on the ground dead for damned near most of the final boss battle because he was weak, also from this distinct lack of ability to sequntially mash buttons).

I also find it really odd and suspect when parents fail to presume comptence of their children by very arbitary measures…. i.e. how he plays a racing game as an indicator for being ready to drive and that’s just one arbitrary “measure of readiness”. Let me put it this way: If my parents waited forever for me to “conquer” something that was a distinct non-ability, in order to open up access to new things, I wouldn’t have access to anything. And nobody wants that soul-sucking experience of being denied avenues to learn new things. Some people may not be cut out for whatever activity. They’ll learn that they’re not. But, they’ll never know if their parents are failing to presume competence of them.

Also, say for instance, if a person is denying their kid’s opportunities because of something they are struggling with, that is also a soul-sucking experience. Let me say something: I’ve struggled to keep a clean living space for as long as I’ve been alive. If my parents took away my toys every time I never cleaned my room, or refused to allow me to do anything, I would never get to do anything or have anything. My very poor executive functioning pretty much would have me locked out of access to anything. Think about this. I’m very tired of being reminded of this every single time a parent thinks that a messy room = lack of caring and/or willful disobedience.

This is also a problem when you have two things that are nonlinear or do not follow and it is posited as a “You must conquer this to unlock access to that” This isn’t Xbox achievements. It’d be one thing if it was math where one math skill builds on top of another, but this is where expectations get borked with “arbitrary measures of readiness”.

Another good example of “arbitrary measures of readiness” and failure to presume competence is when strict parents don’t think their kids should receive through adequate sex ed and all information they need about birth control. “well, billy bob boo as a teenager doesn’t seem interested in relationships right now” = Not a good enough reason to not know about their bodies, “how do I presume competence that my teenager will use condoms anyway or even presumed competence that they might have sex, when jimmy boo boo doesn’t even shower every day and doesn’t pick his socks off of the bathroom floor?” = NOT a good enough reason. “Jenny boo boo ruins her phone a lot from being cattywompus and clumsy, she doesn’t need anything about sexuality, it’s not like she can remember to take a pill anyway” = NOT a good enough reason, especially in this day and age when other contraceptives like IUDs exist if she wants birth control. Not to mention that by denying autonomy, those parents are basically sabotaging their efforts because their kids will just learn how to be sneaky because of anxiety and fear.

This is also a helicopter parent problem too. More hovering = less presuming someone competent for fear that they will make mistakes. If a kid knows that a parent is always watching over their shoulder, will they live their life as a “well adjusted” (gah I hate that problematic phrase) person? Or will they question EVERY THING THEY ARE DOING like it’s an out of body experience, obsess about whether or not they are perfect or good enough, only to hit a wall in their 20’s, and start to struggle once they reach adulthood and don’t know what the hell to do once their strict hovering parent goes from hovering anxiously and not allowing personal growth for their kid, to assuming that their kid doesn’t need help or should already have something figured out in life through osmosis. As a result, that kid is reaching adulthood with severely lacking tools to advocate for oneself and feels ashamed every damned time they do so? (It’s the latter). Growth is not going to happen if a person is not allowed room to grow. A potted plant will be angry when its roots run out of room so it needs to be cared for and replanted where it can have more space to be the plant it needs to be. That lack of space, will make people wither. That box is suffocating.

So when does presuming competence start?

Or will this kid walk on eggshells afraid to make mistakes for fear of what their parents reaction will be? (even if their parents made worse mistakes and are flippant about it, but suddenly their kid gets held to a stricter standard?) Will this kid grow up being embittered from not having room to grow personally?  Will they struggle when they reach adulthood because they didn’t see their life a certain way, pigeonholed themselves from the lack of presumed competence? I for once thought I was going to be forever alone, and spent my early teen years consistently wanting to die because of how bullied and alone I was. I didn’t know I was going to meet my love when I was 17. I didn’t think I was worthy of even knowing anything about sexualilty as a teenager because any time I wanted to talk about my mom was judgey and shamey about it (cue chanting horseshit phrases like “the safest sex there is is none at all!” as well as the bazillions of diversion tactics of shaming and redirecting the conversation to not have to talk about it), as well as the idea being reinforced by the church to “be a good pure christian girl” (as if that helps, not!). One interesting thing is that so many people think that autistic people are “static and unchanging” but honestly, this failure to presume competence only serves to endorse that idea by infantilizing us and discouraging us to go against the tide of being assumed the same things.

Sometimes, its an unmet need that stands in the way. With driving, that was my severe sleep issues, anxiety, as well as untreated adhd (all of which were either addressed and not addressed after bad experiences, or even not addressed at all, like sleep issues). Once those were addressed I was finally able to start learning to drive at age 29. I’ve been licensed to drive since age 30, and only had one accident a few months into having my license (which I still have trouble with beating myself up over it, but that’s that’s the effects of behaviorism right there, other people who aren’t subjected to it get past it move along, while behaviorism’ed people beat themselves up over it and devalue themselves for not being perfect) Other than that have been a relatively good driver. Before I learned how to drive, it was just assumed that I wasn’t ready to drive because they asked me a grand total of one time when I was 17. At that point in my life, I was so in over my head that I couldn’t take on one more thing in my life without crumbling. Because my parents assumed that I was static and unchanging, they failed to ask me if I wanted to learn ever again, or even look into the issues that was preventing me from learning how to drive. They assumed the status quo, and told me in bewilderment that they thought I was out of line every time I bucked that status quo (and alternate that with a “why didn’t you tell us sooner”, as if I had a good vector to do so, as if there weren’t other issues that needed addressing, or even predicting which of the two outcomes it was going to be any time I went against the grain of “static unchanging behavior”). I was stuck in a box of lack of presumed competence, until I lost all grip on life at age 28, and basically told them how much i hated being in that box and wanted to die. My boyfriend brought me a driver’s book for my state, and I started reading it from there.

To those moms reading this, try not to be too offended, a lot of people frankly struggle, but definitiely keep a mindful eye on the ideas you’re feeding to your kids. If any of them follow these “arbitrary measurments of readiness” type of ideas, try to see where one activity does not actually follow the other activity. Deficits are not “achievements to unlock”, they’re legitimate life-long things we deal with. Assuming that one must “unlock the achievement” behind whatever deficit they have is denying that they exist to begin with, still exist, and are not one-and-done conquerable but something that is ongoing and deeply rooted in our neurology. This is not a static snapshot in time. Autistic people are fully capable of changing, as our needs don’t always stay the same over the course of decades, and even who we are as people can change all over the time. This is our lives we’re talking about. Past expectations set up future expectations, and your kid will be following what your patterns of expectations are to attempt to decipher some kind of trajectory to their lives (especially those that are either deliberately or inadvertently taught behaviorist ideas will be looking for cues trying to read into a pattern of being good enough–problematic in of itself. Pattern recognition is mostly used to figure things out though, what works and what doesn’t). If they don’t meet those expectations, they will be apathetic. If they don’t meet them and then are denied opportunities, they will be actually be bitter, especially if people have unrealistic expectations, they don’t meet them, then they close off opportunities as a result.

And let’s be honest, I also hate having this conversation, but it needs to be said. There are times that I see parents trying this tactic, and it’s very gross and damaging. Some parents believe in artificially inflicted “consequences”, which are actually damned embarrassing and humiliating enough piled on top of the shame a lot of us lug around from the stigma people give us. I have vague memories of my mom threatening to put bandaids on all of my fingers that I was chewing (to the point of bleeding) as a pre-teen in order for me to be humiliated into not chewing my fingers. Only problem is: that was directly related to my anxiety, and just compounding the issue of being anxious of being subjected to further bullying and humiliation for being anxious (it was recursive anxiety turtles all the way down basically). (because, let’s be honest, as a pre-teen, I was being bullied on the regular, and to use those traumatic experiences as a way to attempt to manipulate your kid is just gross. Also: parents, NEVER EVER EVER do this to your kid, but I’m pretty sure you knew that, if not, then here you go.). The only thing that solved the issue was doing something about the damned anxiety causing the problem, and actually addressing the issues that were causing that anxiety.

Another incident that follows this damaging and humiliating artificially-inflicted consequences, was that time  my parents didn’t presume my younger sister and I to be competent of removing chapstick out of our pockets before laundry day, since my sister washed grape chapstick in the family load of laundry. My parents then banned all chapstick from the household. Even my entire collection of chapstick, even though I never washed a tube of the stuff (we’re talking a 15-tube collection of everything from very amazing flavored flip-gloss to at the height of glitter mint chocolate and dr. pepper bonnie-bell chapstick). This was really embarassing to explain this to my friend Bill, as I was, um, 15 at the time and in high school! Even asking to do my own laundry didn’t result in her giving my chapstick back! Yeah. Nevermind that mom didn’t ban dad from pens or chewing tobacco (which thankfully he later quit) even though he’s washed that in the load and that ended much poorly than greasy chapstick stains. It’s just absurd (and absurd enough that my 2nd older sister disbelieved me and started gaslighting me since she was away at college when all of this was going on, considering she’s the most typical and they didn’t do these weird “consequence” things to her).  And for the record, even after I learned how to do laundry, I still didn’t get my chapstick collection back until I was 19! Also, those artificially inflicted consequences aren’t good at teaching people things either. They will just remember how fucking absurd they were. Also: for the record: I still have yet to wash a chapstick, but I still wash kleenex on the regular. I try to remember to check pockets, but, thankfully in the comfort of my home (which has kleenex boxes in every room, mind you), nobody is punishing me in absurd ways over it. (it’s annoying enough to get the bazillion tiny pills of kleenex off of your wet slacks anyway, isn’t that enough punishment?)

Above all, when opportunities for growth are denied, it also has an isolating effect of alienating people. Which, if you know autistic people, we deal with enough problems with being isolated from peers as is. To add another layer of alienation on top of that in the form of not presuming competence just makes it even harder to connect and relate with your peers (as if I needed any help in that category). I couldn’t relate to my peers as a teenager because I was being kept in a box that stifled my development. Hell, while a lot of them had their relationships, I was contending with the house-wide chapstick ban and being told that I couldn’t own any makeup, lest it make me look “slutty” and other shame things (once we were allowed to own makeup, it was throughly critiqued as if a person can magically learn to put on makeup right the first time using it). How weird is that. While a lot of people moved out, I was at home, not really being engaged with and not really being encouraged, and still being told by my parents to “keep the door open so we can see you” while you’re in the same room with boyfriend, even well into my later 20’s (as if I couldn’t make choices for myself in favor of a controlling nanny state. I wonder how that infantilizing dynamic would fare in your personal relationships…). How weird is THAT? You may not realize what the effects of not presuming competence have, but when you start applying it to your life experiences and seeing the glaring differences on all of the things I was denied and missed out on, you should realize by now how fucking absurd those standards are, and that it isn’t just a standard case of FOMO (fear of missing out) but something so much worse. Sometimes I feel like if I could, I would want to live a hermit life on an island away from all of the expectations of the NT narrative, the narrative that I never once related to in my entire life, not just neurologically but also because of all the absurities in how I grew up and how that fed into the massive alienation I experienced.

Thank you for bearing with me through this hard post, and If I can save one more person from going through what I did, then this post will have been worth it. I really don’t want people to go through what I went through.

So, when does presuming competence start?

One thought on “So, When Does Presuming Competence Start?

  1. I think competence starts at the very beginning. Our society likes to think we need to decide everything for a child, starting with how often and how much an infant feeds, whether they’re crying about a ‘real’ thing. Invalidating feelings and physical sensations for many people starts from the very beginning, and it’s a major source of anxiety and disconnection with yourself.

    We tell older children they can’t do this because it’s dangerous, they have to do that because, well, adults don’t need to give reasons now do they? Just do as I say! I know what’s best!

    And of course sometimes adults do know best, but then you can explain why. I think we should give children a lot more credit, they are capable in many ways. And when they’re not, and it’s relatively safe, they should get a chance to make their own mistakes. And not made to feel bad about it. Because it takes trying and hits and misses to learn things.

    Feeling distrusted makes it really hard to trust yourself. And that can be a real problem, because in so many things in life you’re the only one who can decide what choice is right for you.

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