Friday, March 23, 2007

Struggling Even Now

Even as an adult in my mid-30s, I am struggling as a graduate student. I can do the work, I can read the texts, but I am struggling. What is the issue? Probably the most important of all:

In eight months I have yet to form a single personal connection within my doctoral program.

My social anxiety is too high to attend gatherings. I keep thinking I'm going to attend an event, but I have only managed to attend a play -- nothing else outside of classes. I fear going to campus, much of the time. It takes a lot of energy to attend class. Sadly, I sit and shake in my classes, even though I don't hesitate to speak.

Classmates have called me "The Ghost" to my face. I'm an outsider.

The importance of connections cannot be overstated. You need to connect with classmates and with instructors.

I would tell any student that you need a mentor in a degree program. Without a mentor and a clear goal, you will struggle -- as I am doing now. A mentor helps you navigate everything from course selection to career objectives. I cannot praise the mentors from my past enough.

As a student, you need to work well with the others in your program. During school, these individuals can tell you about instructors and campus life. Your fellow students might become professional contacts, also.

In my case, I find I have neither form of connection at this moment. I have not socialized with a single student in my doctoral program. My colleagues don't know me and I don't really know them, beyond the facts I have overheard. I simply occupy a seat during courses.

Professors are lecturers, and I know they are to be respected. I wish I knew them a bit better, but I am too uncomfortable approaching them.

Clearly, I need to take action.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Telling My Story

I wasn't even thinking about writing on or talking about my story until I arrived in Minnesota. Here's one reason that changed:

"You're not really helping anyone if you become some sort of activist or motivational speaker."

I wasn't sure how to respond. A professor was suggesting I not tell my story. At the time, I was only considering whether or not to disclose to other instructors and students that I had some medical conditions that were less obvious than my occasional use of a cane. Anytime I'm told what not to do, I start to question why.

"You risk giving people false hope if you tell them anything is possible. You should instead argue for more public assistance and protection."

There it was. Silly me, I might make the mistake of being a role model and not the type approved of by this professor. I wouldn't be proving how terrible America was, how unfair life is, or whatever beliefs this professor held. She could sense I hated self-pity and bitterness.

She loaned me a book on "disability studies" that included a chapter on the "risks" of uplifting stories about overcoming disabilities. According to the author, stories of overcoming poverty, disability, or discrimination are meant to maintain the discriminatory practices of those in power. Worse, these stories make those unable to succeed feel like they are to blame for circumstances beyond their control.

To borrow a catch phrase, "Give me a break!"

Yes, stories are used to create social myths. We all know that "rags to riches" stories and tales of the American Dream are not promises that literally anyone can rise to be president or the head of a major corporation. Reading about Andrew Carnegie or John D. Rockefeller doesn't mean we expect everyone to behave like these men or that everyone can rise from poverty to extreme wealth.

If I read about a wheelchair-bound Olympic bobsled pilot, I'm impressed. I'm not thinking, "Why doesn't everyone in a wheelchair make it to the Olympics?"

We've forgotten that small steps are still valiant and worth celebrating. Instead, people complain that we need to be "realistic," which is another way of saying "defeatist." Let's just give up the notion of role models and hope.

Not me. I'm going to keep telling parents, educators, and students to work towards more than passive acceptance of fate. I'm more than my disabilities and so are the students to whom I speak. I simply affirm what they sense to be true: it takes hard work to succeed academically or professionally.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Thoughts on Depression

Many of the postings to blogs, bulletin boards, forums, and other forms of online expression I have read seem to reflect serious depression. Leaving aside the question of does online use cause depression or reflect it, I sense the postings do reveal a problem experienced by many HFA/AS individuals.
When people gather and complain, it might be that each new posting is simply venting. There is a sense that if others can complain, so can I. But I believe it is much deeper for autistic individuals.

How can you not be depressed at time when social connections are difficult? How can you not wonder what it is like to understand vocal tones and facial expressions without having to memorize pages from books on body language? How can you not feel isolated when so many people avoid you?

Put simply, when your social skills are the ones most affected by your disability, it is only logical that you will suffer some periods of depression related to the isolation we experience. Everyone feels like an outsider sometimes, but imagine being an outside all the time. Every relationship suffers, even those connections that are most important to you.

I do not like therapists, though I would listen to a psychiatrist (an M.D.) before I would a clinical psychologist. I consider depression, like autism, a medical condition; you might need medication and you might not. You definitely need a doctor who can prescribe something if you are at genuine risk of hurting yourself or others. Talking when you are right at the edge isn't always enough.

As I wrote in a previous posting, I think we need to separate "real" medical conditions from normal emotions and experiences. Being depressed after a family member has died is normal. Being unable to go to work or school for two weeks is not normal. Crying every night is not normal, but crying after a single bad day might not be clinical depression. You need to be careful to recognize what is likely normal from the abnormal.

When emotions are already overwhelming, I suppose it is easy to slip into a state of inactivity. When things that upset you lead to screaming, a bad mood is extreme no matter what other people try to tell you. I know what it is like to be upset for days over a single incident, but I also know that it isn't clinical depression.

What worries me is that depression might always be a single event away. Think about how cyclical that could get.

Reading negative blogs and visiting online chat rooms populated by depressed individuals is not a good idea when you are already upset. The irony is, online is the only place some of us feel connected to the world. I wish I knew how to break free and avoid the paradox completely.

Saturday, March 10, 2007

Too Many Disorders and Syndromes?

There are people I consider mental health hypochondriacs. They read a list of "symptoms" and self-diagnose themselves with everything from attention deficits to autism disorders. If there's a way to excuse a lack of success, self-control, organization, healthy relationships, and general contentment, these people will find it in a book or on a Web site. Worse, we have parents and teachers labeling students in ways that might end up doing real harm to future generations.

I'll offer the standard disclaimer: I do believe there are disorders and conditions affecting a lot of students. I also admit that some might be more common than in the past — might be, but not necessarily are.
What qualifies me to say this? Aren't I being a hypocrite if I'm accepting the label of "autistic" and writing about my experiences? Blunt answer: I was seriously injured during birth. I do not doubt my medical history is being overlaid with current trends in psychology.

However, let's be honest. There are too many children being treated with psychopharmacology instead of good parenting and classroom management. I wasn't on medications in elementary school, wasn't seeing a psychologist, and wasn't pampered by my parents. Now, the parents of students are also on medications. They view medicating as a normal, acceptable way to deal with life.

I fear that "normal" has become a disorder. Boys squirming in plastic chairs after 40 minutes? Must be hyperactivity! A girl who likes to sit and read for hours? Could be introversion from ADHD with OCD tendencies! Mood swings and foot tapping? Maybe it's Asperger's Syndrome. Anger management issues? Clearly that's a disability we need to treat, not punish. In some classes, a third of the students are on medications -- and those are "normal" classes, not special education.

Let's hope we aren't numbing creativity or teaching our children they aren't responsible for their own actions. I wish I knew how we can separate genuine disabilities from our desire to subdue every "flaw" in our children.

Never Being Normal Is Better

As I compile my notes for essays and a book, I realize how much easier it is to be considered "different" your entire life versus a late-in-life diagnosis of Asperger's Syndrome. The more I read about and communicate with AS students and adults, the more I appreciate their unique experiences. I was never considered normal, so my eccentricities were tolerated. Independent study was offered more than once, which I loved.

When you are perceived as perfectly normal, I imagine things must be more difficult. No one believes you when you complain about sounds, smells, textures, or colors. You're considered moody or depressed. Any difficulties in class are confused with learning disabilities or ADD.

At least no one expected normalcy from me.

Friday, March 2, 2007

Disclosure

Probably the most difficult decision anyone with a developmental disorder can make is who to tell and how. I certainly do not have a good answer for either question, since I resist the labels experts have offered.

There are benefits to disclosure, based on the experiences of others. First, you have "official" recognition, which includes various protections legally. If I have a problem related to my physical limitations, it helps to have some legal basis when seeking corrective measures. Second, the reality in my field (education) is that a disability can be an asset, increasing your value to a university.

The obvious negatives to disclosure relate to the biases and even fears people have regarding neurological conditions. Most of us know that a palsy is not contagious. Tremors do not spread from me to my students or classmates. My long list of behavioral glitches are also not going to spread throughout the classroom. Yet there are those who cannot deal with difference.

Obviously, as a writer, students, and teacher I cannot hide from the world. In the past, I chose to avoid disclosures because I felt there weren't any problems. I recognize now that there are clear issues with my interpersonal skills. My personality quirks have never been hidden from others; I simply didn't notice that I annoyed other people much of the time.

When you decide you have to make peace with who you are, disclosure can become a part of the process. Honestly, I would rather slink away from human contact most of the time, but that's not a realistic approach to living. It seems easier to at least explain some of my differences and hope for tolerance.