Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Autism Awareness, Acceptance... Whatever

April is autism something-or-other month, depending on whom you ask. It's all about "acceptance" or "awareness" or "diversity" or "celebration" or "pride" — and I'm sure a few other concepts.

To this, I respond with a busy, preoccupied, "Whatever."

I get that people want to find support, inspiration, connections, and resources. I'm all for helping people, especially autistic teens and adults, find ways to achieve all they can. If autism month helps people find those supports, great.

But, what I dislike is the absurdity of the news media during this annual panic-feeding month. Put the risks in context:


You want to know what "caused" my autistic traits? Birth trauma. Period. And sure enough, that's number two on the list of risk factors, right beneath an autistic twin. But, easy explanations aren't what drive autism month news coverage.

In past years, I've been interviewed by major media outlets and my answers about "causes" of autism and the statistical research are omitted. What reporters want to know is how horrible my life has been and if I blame vaccines, foods, toxins, or some other factor.

Nope. The doctor was careless. My brain was shaken (or stirred), and I have plenty of other physical reminders that my arrival was… eventful. I don't blame anyone, don't march, don't demand an investigation, don't get all worked up about things I cannot change from the past. The doctor is gone, but birth was, is, and likely long will be a dangerous event with risks.

Don't I want to take "pride" or "celebrate" my neurological differences? Nope.

Don't I want more awareness? Nope. There's plenty, as evidenced by all the ribbons, puzzle pieces, and other symbols I see on cars in parking lots. Trust me, people have heard of autism. I hear the Autism Speaks commercials twice an hour thanks to my favorite streaming radio station.

Don't I want to be accepted? Not really. That's like being tolerated.

I like where I work, now. Among mathematicians, computer programmers, engineers, and my other colleagues, I'm perfectly normal. I'm accepted by the people I respect, and that's all I need. Actually, it isn't acceptance that I value… it is their respect. I am respected, and that's good.

You want or need an autism month, that's okay with me. And if that's how you found my blog, Facebook page, or website, that's okay, too.

Autism is a daily reality, not limited to a month or year.

Plus, I'm really busy in April because it is the last full month of my school year. I need to focus on so many things this month that there's little room for anything autism-specific.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Age and Connections

When I was young, I wanted to be an adult. I related more to my teachers than to other students as early as first and second grade. I was interested in current events, the stock market, and science. I was an outsider among my peers.

Now, I relate more to young people than to my peers. It is not an intellectual connection, but I wonder if my emotionally development stalled out at the mental age of 20-something. I was emotionally 25 at ten, and 26 emotionally in my 40s. That would be an interesting phenomena.

Stuck in a narrow emotional range? Being aware that something is wrong, different about me, is a strange sensation.

Do others experience this odd out of synch sensation?

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Hanging Out with...?

Hanging out with friends seems to be something that most of my Facebook "friends" do on a weekly basis. Some seem to be hanging out nightly. They are the social butterflies I sometimes envy, because social skills matter personally and professionally.

I don't get random emails, messages, or phone calls from people asking, "What are you doing tonight?" I can't recall the last personal, non-work message, that was not initiated by me. People don't reach out to me without a reason.

Several people have said I make others uncomfortable one-on-one. Lecturing? Public speaking? Those are not a problem. But there is something "off" with my interpersonal skills.

Even if I had great social skills, I would I spend time alone so I could write and be creative. I know socially adept introverts. Wanting space doesn't mean you are socially awkward. Of course, I am so socially inept and an introvert. So, on the rare occasions when I do want to hang out, the options are my wife and the cats.

This is on my mind tonight because someone asked if my wife had any friends. "Since you don't have real friends, I wondered if she did."

The successful people I know are socially adept. We are not.

I like to get out of the house, and I crave intellectual stimulation, but I am not comfortable in social situations. My wife is my social connection. That might not be best for her.

Knowing I make others uneasy, with my intensity or whatever it is, I'd rather be alone most of the time. Being alone isn't the same as being lonely. But what if my wife is lonely? That is a reasonable concern.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Simple Games Relax the Mind

Solebon [http://www.solebon.com] was the best solitaire game for the Palm OS. When I migrated to an iPod Touch, I was thrilled when Solebon was ported to my new PDA platform. Now, with Solebon on my iPhone and iPad, I play several games a day. My favorites remain the traditional Klondike games (deal one or three) and Free Cell. Think back to Windows 3 and classic "Burning Monkey" solitaire on the old Mac System 7, and that's about all the complexity I want in a game.

I also play Columns, Collapse, Tetris, Lemmings, Supaplex, and Pipe Dream to relax. I like the simple puzzle games that I can start and stop. Sure, there are nights for chess and maybe Scrabble, but for the most part I like quick, five-minute breaks from the routine. Puzzle games clear my head so I can get back to work. The breaks help.

The appeal of realistic first-person games escapes me. I would rather play Pac-Man any day.

Anyone else enjoy the classic games as a way to relax? I'd like to imagine Tetris is being played somewhere, by someone, every minute of the day.

Friday, March 14, 2014

Overload Wins Some Days

Naps and extra sleep help a little, but after too much social interaction and too much stress, I need some time to compose myself and prepare for yet more socializing. I'm not alone: most introverts experience this same need to recharge alone, in a quiet space.

For me, the quiet space isn't silent. It's walking around the track with my wife. It's sitting with a cat in my lap. It could be baking, writing, or engaging in some sort of activity. People confuse my need for "less input" with a desire for "no input." Those are not the same.

I actually relax more with my wife and my cats than when I am alone. But, I don't want to be around crowds or in loud spaces. I want to be able to decompress, not experience isolation.

This is an incredibly busy year. Teaching two courses, working on three new plays, revising five plays that are in development, and trying to maintain my other to-do items. It's a lot for me, and maybe too much at this moment.

Add in some anemia, a little palsy, and I do need a nap. It's about pacing myself, too. Down time is needed to be productive later.

Today, I'm doing some basic tasks, sitting in my comfy chair and not thinking too much. That's a break from the overload, too. Simple tasks let you feel like things are getting done, and they are, but without stress.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Empathy and Writing

Writing for stage requires some understanding of the motivations and emotions of the characters that appear before an audience. Sometimes you also have to appreciate unseen characters that either shaped or continue to shape events and other characters. Writing, therefore, is exercise in empathy and more.

If you cannot imagine how others feel, you cannot write effective dialogue. You must think like another person, and that person might be "good" or "bad" in ways the writer is not.

My writing process includes research, interviews, and working with a dramaturg. I recognize that I miss things, especially when what people say isn't what they mean. By working with collaborators, I learn more about people and writer better stories.

I was asked if my autistic traits make me a better, or worse, writer. I have no idea. What makes me a small success is that I listen to people and try to incorporate the best suggestions I receive into my works. I listen to the actors, director, dramaturg, tech crews, and audiences. I learn what I have overlooked and try to improve my craft.

It isn't autism that makes me a better writer. It is knowing my limits that makes me a good craftsman and maybe an artist.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

A Little Bit of Activism

In January, 2014, I was elected to the board of directors for the Advisory Board on Autism and Related Disorders (ABOARD), Autism Connection of Pennsylvania. For information about ABOARD's Autism Connection services, visit http://autism-support.org/.

Readers know that I'm not a rally or march type of activist. My activism is quiet, personal, and usually through engagement with students and educators. I speak to groups whenever asked, providing my perspective and offering advice when possible. This one-on-one and small-group activism is more comfortable, and I believe the most effective use of my skills.

Simply doing my job is a form of activism. I don't claim to be a role model and I don't intend to inspire others. What I do is demonstrate that those with various physical and neurological challenges can be, and should be, productive members of our communities.

ABOARD supports individuals through education, job training, and social skills supports. The purpose of the Autism Connection is to connect those needing services with support providers and experts.

I look forward to contributing to the success of the Autism Connection of PA in whatever ways I can.

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Life is Busy, and That is Good

It is possible that all two or three of my regular followers have noticed the relative inactivity of this blog. Though I have tried to consider if there's anything of value to share, the simple fact is that nothing is compelling me to write about autism, autistic culture, autism causes, or anything of the sort at the moment.

In a week or two, I'll have a real post about autism activism and a new role I am assuming, but I want to wait until things are a bit more formalized. As readers know, I'm not as outspoken or passionate about some issues as other autism activists, preferring to work quietly on issues of training and support for autistics.

Our lives here have been busy, and when I am busy I do let the blogging slip. This is especially true when life is busy in a good way and I don't have a need to complain, gripe, or criticize the world around me. Quite simply, life is busy in a good way.

Okay, good in all ways except for a cold I also gave to my wife.

The cats are healthy, we're alive and well, teaching is going well, my creative writing is going well, and the snow is melting outside.

What this all leads me to is something basic in life: when you are busy in a good way, any challenges and problems in life don't vanish, but they become far less important.

Being busy has helped me get over the loss of my grandfather. It has helped me dwell a bit less on the loss of a beloved cat, the third we've lost to old age since moving two years ago. It has helped me dwell slightly less on the job I left, because I love my new job so much. It has helped me not spend quite so much time on some other matters, too.

Being busy reduces how much I annoy my wife. It means I don't mope around the house, feeling like I am not accomplishing enough. Right now, I'm rather certain I have accomplished something good as a creative writer.

And so, I want readers to know that keeping busy might be the best possible way to deal with life. When you are doing things, you aren't living in the past or worrying about the future. You have to be in the moment, to do things well. I'm glad I am busy, though I'm sorry it means I'm not blogging much.

More details on all the busy-ness in coming weeks.
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Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Executive Function

From the "Ask a Question" area…
My son has Aspergers and he is very bright. However, I think what is difficult is that he has difficulty in Executive Function and I feel this will affect his learning as he grows older. Did you have the difficulty in EF and how did you cope with it? Any suggestions would be appreciated.
Executive function (and, therefore, executive dysfunction) refers to one's ability or inability to organize daily routines required to function optimally in relationships, at school, at work, and within any community. When someone lacks impulse control, focus, and the ability to prioritize tasks, that individual suffers from impaired executive function.

To describe me as "scattershot" would be generous. Finishing projects requires Herculean efforts, and I admit that more often I fail than succeed when it comes to my to-do list.

Projects end up almost done, and I have the boxes of work to prove it. Getting through the day can be a challenge, especially if I want to do something other than what I must do.

When something interests me, other tasks end up ignored, sometimes with negative consequences.

How do I succeed then? How is it that someone with so many "incompletes" in life can have any professional stability?

Well, if only I could describe myself as truly "successful" in the traditional sense. I teach part-time, having been unable to adapt to a situation that didn't suit my needs. I write plays because I couldn't type the novels in my mind without getting bored — scripts are shorter and faster to type.

The simple reality is that without my wife, I'd be working part-time somewhere, trying to survive, forgetting when I have appointments even though they are in my calendar and I set alarms for them. I'm not self-sufficient, as she can attest. Even when I've had to manage the house alone, she will call me and message me to remind me of tasks I need to complete.

I must approach my life like a business management problem. I use calendars, and was an early adopter of the Palm Pilot, and then an iPod Touch. I need alarms and lists. I keep lists, and I print them. I also print my calendars, since I might forget to look at a smartphone screen.

Technically, you could call me a successful playwright. That's only possible because I track submissions, registrations, acceptances, and so on. Okay, my wife actually handles that side of things. She also makes sure I don't forget deadlines. But, I do try to help by printing things to the printer in her office, so she can file papers and add events to calendars for me.

No, I'm lost without supports. I panic and collapse without someone to make sure I get from A to B on a daily basis. I have a teaching assistant at the university, and she's amazing. (Let us hope the next TA is good, too!) I have another assistant helping with theater projects. Again, others are helping me succeed.

Maybe this isn't the best answer for parents and autistics to read, but my situation is that I need someone to be those executive functions for me. I need a good managing partner. Without friends, family, and assistants, I'm not certain what would be possible.

I'm from a modest background, so my parents sacrificed a great deal of their time and energy to ensure my success. My failure to focus and my inability to deal with lousy situations often cost my friends and family, not only time and energy, but sometimes money.

The fact that I did complete the doctorate is something owed to my wife, a support specialist, and a handful of administrative faculty at the university. It was not easy on me, or on them. I came close to not finishing the degree, exhausted by the negative experiences and the conflicts common within graduate programs.

It isn't easy, and success isn't accomplished alone.
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Thursday, January 16, 2014

Day One, Survived!

Each new semester begins with anxiety, doubt, fear, and insecurity. Teaching means standing before a group of people, trying to convince them you are going to say and do something worthy of attention.

This was difficult teaching at a mid-range state university, a land-grant research university, and even a small private college. I don't care where you teach, you know that part of the job is rhetorical — persuading an audience to follow along.

Now, I teach at one of the top universities in the world, in a top-ten program. These students are the best of the best. These are not only the perfect SAT/ACT scores, they are also the student council presidents, drama club stars, musicians, and more. They are so talented it is often beyond my comprehension.

And I'm expected to help them learn about writing, public speaking, and general rhetoric.

Surviving the first day without a panic attack or meltdown? That's a victory. By week three, I'm fine, but those first two weeks are a learning period as I try to evaluate the audience and adjust my strategies. I can't relax until I know the first assignments have gone somewhat smoothly.

I love teaching, but it isn't the easiest thing for someone like me. I doubt it is easy for any introvert. But, once on the "stage" I do okay.

People ask if I would recommend academic careers to others, including autistics with passions for learning. Here's my answer:

Teaching is not for everyone, from the kindergarten classroom to the university lecture hall, each grade is a "calling" that requires the right emotional and intellectual fit. I could never teach the K-6 level, and I admit that.

Being a professor works for me, but it works because I'm at a place that respects my personality and my strengths.

You might love the idea of being a researcher, studying and writing on a specialized topic. However, being a professor includes teaching. It is an inherently social job. You must be engaged with your students, the staff, and your faculty colleagues. Your career will depend on being liked and known in your specialty, at the local and national levels depending on your career path.

When someone suggests "Academia is ideal for autistics" I cringe. That's a simplification focused solely on the research aspects of being a professor. If you teach at a community college, you'll likely need to teach four or five courses a semester. It is not a research setting. The rewards, and the demands, are social in nature. If you teach at a research university, the emphasis might be on publications and citations, but it is still a social situation. Teaching is secondary, though more universities do have "teaching" and "research" lines with job security.

Just as I cannot say that "computers" are a good field for autistics, I cannot say that of teaching or being a professor. We need to move beyond stereotypes and simple dichotomies.

I love teaching… and it causes me extreme anxiety with every new group of students. That constant change is not for everyone.