Voices for All: Sam Krus – An Interview Discussing Gender Diversity

First off, let’s talk about gender identity.  How do you identify?

I identify as floating between more of a masculine view and a gender-neutral view. If I was going to put a label on that, the closest I’ve heard is demi.

Now of course, gender identity is different than gender expression. Can you tell me a little bit about your gender expression?

I’d say my gender expression comes more with whatever accessories I have with me or how I decorate my house. Clothing-wise, I dress for practicality and male clothing is more designed for practicality rather than decorative purpose so I generally dress more “male.” But I have some feminine-tinged decorations around the house. My big aesthetic is horror, folklore, and mystery (not violence).  [Sam turns the camera to show me a well-organized closet and shelving system filled to the brim with a bright assortment of costumes.]  I have a lot of things based around ghosts and creatures. I’m interested in strange anatomy, not the act of doing harm. How bodies move, the forms of a body, the wings, the features. 

I also carry a lot of toys in my car for work, like child-appropriate things that I feel like anybody could play with; I like to have these items with me. It makes me feel like I’m passionate about my job and also, I can zone out and [play with] them. That’s how I establish my aesthetic more than what I wear. 

One thing [about my gender expression] that’s my actual body is my long hair. It’s partially a feminine thing but also a gender-neutral thing. On me, it doesn’t look feminine, so it’s blending both. My gender expression is how I surround myself with objects, and I pick objects that are not specifically gender coded…but if they are gender coded, they’re more coded toward feminine. Like the fashion dolls, but those have a component of horror and mythology, which I don’t view as being a gender-coded subject.  

How does being gender-expansive affect your life?

It affects my life mostly in my interests and how open I am. I feel like I have to pick and choose what parts of myself I’m going to share; whether that’s going to be welcomed or not. It only affects me fairly mildly, I know for other gender diverse people it affects them more. For me [the question is], “this is something I like, is this something I keep to myself or something I share with somebody else?” 

I have interests that are not considered masculine. For instance, in the other room, I have a shelf full of dolls. That’s something that I used to feel was inappropriate. 

These barriers are fading with these new generations, but there are autistic adults that have things that are not viewed as age-appropriate interests. There are these set boundaries of what is appropriate for you to be interested in that you transgress. Your interests and the boundaries that you transgress go hand-in-hand with being gender diverse and being autistic. 

How did you first recognize that you were demi, or gender-diverse?

A big thing that made me realize that I was gender-diverse was that I watch a lot of cartoons, a lot of shows with younger people. I like shows where there’s an all-girl cast; I identify with them a lot more than shows where there’s an all-male cast. [How an all-girl cast relates to each other is] how I want to talk to people. Because that’s more of an intimate, caring viewpoint. I wonder if that’s going to come off as weird or especially because I’m a man, is that going to come off as sexual and therefore threatening. I wonder how to approach people, because I want to approach people in a very caring way; but do I need to stamp that down? Sometimes, I’m meaner than I feel like I should be in terms of jovial insults to balance it out. I think, “I’m being too considerate, too genuine, I have to call you an idiot now. Oh, wait, was that too harsh to call you an idiot?” 

Can you tell me more about your fashion dolls? 

As a kid I liked dolls. Getting a toy from McDonalds, if the choice was the car or the Barbie, I wanted the Barbie. I liked that they had arms and legs that I could manipulate, I was more of an action figure person. Besides McDonald’s, I was never interested in them on my own, but as an adult in 2014, I came across Monster High dolls. The idea is that they’re based on monsters from folklore as teenagers and they each have something with their body they have to deal with. The Frankenstein girl, her body occasionally falls apart. The doll from the black lagoon has a skin condition where she constantly has to moisturize or she dries out. They all have an inconvenience that they have to deal with, they’re just accepted for who they are. For me that’s a very autistic narrative, very living-with-a disability narrative. 

Tell me about being a gender-diverse BCBA:

And then when it comes to gender diversity, that comes into effect more with interests…. If my kid likes vacuums, I will bring my vacuum…. If my kid likes fairy tales, mythology, or magic, I will go to the library and get 11 books on fairies, and we’ll just go through them together and pick out our favorite creatures. There have been a couple of times where parents have wanted their kids to stop being interested in what they’re interested in and be interested in something more “gender appropriate.” I had to think about how I would approach this to defend my client without revealing too much about myself. I’m a man working with children and there’s a stigma about men working with children, with queer people working with children, with homosexuals working with children. I feel if I’m revealing too much about myself or not enough, there could be a misinterpretation, they might view me as a danger to their child when I’m just trying to defend them. Fortunately, I haven’t had to deal with it too much.

Tell me about being an autistic BCBA:

Primarily, being autistic is what comes into play when I’m working with the kids, and more often, with the parents when I don’t necessarily come into conflict, but I come in to decisions that need to be made, and how I approach things. When that comes in as a general rule, I never let any parents know that I’m autistic because I don’t want to set myself up as an example of what their kid is going to be or create the illusion that I’m an expert in autism. 

So…you are autistic and work to support people who are autistic…but you don’t consider yourself an expert in autism?

The thing is that when I was younger, I tried to be an expert in autism, and I realized how much pressure I was putting on myself, undue pressure, because autism is such a wide thing. I tried to make myself a representative and I realized that it was kind of out of guilt for being autistic, where I was like, “I’m sorry I’m this way, let me be as easy to understand, let me be a lesson.”  Only in my adult life did I kind of realize that, so I’m trying to un-do that pattern of behavior.

Because it took a toll on your mental health?   

Right. And because it’s stressful. And because it’s not true. No doctor, people assume that an expert knows absolutely everything. And nobody knows everything about autism. We barely understand it.  There’s like 400 genes that affect it, and we don’t know how they affect it, they just do. And we know some techniques that we can use to help people learn what they normally would not be able to learn, we know some of the symptoms, but the definition is always changing. Autism is that something you can’t really be an expert in, you can just be knowledgeable. 

Sam Krus is a BCBA in Waukegan, IL who practices in Kenosha and Madison, WI. Sam enjoys fashion dolls, podcasts, making costumes, role-playing games, board games, and reading when they have the time and energy. 

Voices for All: Ash Franks Talks about Supporting Autistic People While Being Autistic and Her Role on LEARN’s New Neurodiversity Advisory Committee

In September 2020, LEARN convened a group of neurodivergent staff to form our Neurodivergent Advisory Committee. The committee reviews and gives feedback on matters relating to neurodiversity and other person-centered ABA topics and was instrumental in the content, messaging, and visual design of LEARN’s Neurodiversity Values Statement. We asked Ash Franks, a member of the Neurodivergent Advisory Committee, to share her thoughts with us.   

 

HI, ASH! FIRST, I’D LIKE TO ASK YOU WHAT IT MEANS TO YOU TO BE AN AUTISTIC PERSON SUPPORTING OTHER AUTISTIC PEOPLE? 

Supporting other autistic people while being autistic means listening to what they have to say, however they communicate it, whether it be through an AAC device, sign language, PECS, or verbal language. It also means giving them breaks if they need it, and allowing them to use tools to cope (e.g. stuffed animals, headphones, weighted blankets, etc.). Looking back on my experiences as an autistic child has been very helpful in trying to help children who are at AST.

HOW DOES BEING AUTISTIC INSPIRE YOUR WORK IN ABA? 

Being autistic allows me to see different perspectives and ideas compared to neurotypical people, as they tend to think differently than I do.

TELL US A LITTLE BIT ABOUT THE NEURODIVERGENT ADVISORY COMMITTEE AND HOW IT WORKS. 

Basically, we are trying to re-vamp ABA materials through a more neurodivergent-friendly lens, so we can make our treatment as effective as possible. Having autistic people and other neurodivergent people look at ABA therapy through their eyes allows them to explain what works and what doesn’t work. This way, we can work to have treatment be as effective, safe, and as fun as possible for everyone involved. Having BCBAs see the autistic perspective is important because we have direct experience with what worked for us growing up versus what didn’t and might be able to help streamline the treatment to be as effective as possible.

CAN YOU GIVE ME AN EXAMPLE OF SOME FEEDBACK YOU HAVE GIVEN IN YOUR ROLE ON THE COMMITTEE? 

I tend to give feedback on the more artistic and creative side of things, as I am very geared towards having an eye for creative things in the world.

FROM YOUR PERSPECTIVE, WHY IS IT SO IMPORTANT TO INCLUDE AUTISTIC PERSPECTIVES IN OUR FIELD? 

Including autistic people in ABA is super important because we need to account for neurodivergent perspectives to make treatment as effective as possible. Since I am autistic, I can give a firsthand account of what has personally worked for me throughout my life, and what hasn’t. I myself was never in ABA therapy growing up, but I did other types of therapies that I also have found helpful from time to time.

WHAT ARE SOME OTHER PLACES IN OUR SOCIETY THAT YOU THINK IT WOULD BE HELPFUL TO LISTEN TO THE AUTISTIC PERSPECTIVE?

I think listening to autistic perspectives in the workplace would be very helpful. I think having a quiet room for staff that has sensory toys specific for staff would be very helpful, also maybe including a comfy place to sit with a weighted blanket would be good too. Another place it would be helpful to listen to autistic people is when it comes to shopping at malls, since malls can be overwhelming for most autistic people. I know some stores have “quiet” shopping hours where they reduce the lighting and turn off the music, and I really wish more places would do this.

ASH, THANK YOU FOR YOUR THOUGHTS AND FOR THE EXCELLENT WORK YOU’RE DOING ON THE NEURODIVERGENT ADVISORY COMMITTEE!

Ash Franks is a Behavior Technician for Learn Behavioral. Ash works in AST’s Hillsboro, Oregon location. Outside of work, she enjoys photography, cooking, video games, and spending time with family and friends.