Monday, October 31, 2011

Autism and "Fitting in" with Peers

A Facebook fan — and thanks to everyone following us on FB and Twitter — asked if I could address problems with "fitting in" with same-age peers. A good topic, and a difficult one.

The challenge is that there are two different "stages" I'm learning about among autistic individuals. As children, many high-functioning autistics seem to deal better with adults. As adults, the opposite seems to be the case, with autistics relating better to children. The challenges make sense, though, as I will explain.

As a child, the individual with Asperger's or any "high-functioning" ASD diagnosis is likely drawn to concrete thinking, pattern recognition, and might be an "expert" on a few subjects of special interest. Compared to his or her peers, the autistic seems "advanced" because some skills we associate with greater chronological ages appear early. These are not social skills, however.

The interest in topics and things, compared to other children's interest in play and socializing, appears "more mature" at first. This same situation occurs among gifted children, so a "twice special" child is going to be particularly prone to this "things not people" period of development.

Other children are unlikely to care about a single topic as intensely as the autistic, while adults view the specialization as an impressive sign of intelligence. Even when a splinter skill is not a sign of innate reasoning or analytical skills, adults only notice the skill or memorization is advanced beyond that of "normal" children. The autistic finds adults will indulge a special interest, especially in a young child. Adults become the safe, supportive audience for some time.

By adolescence the special skills and concrete reasoning of many autistics no longer entertains adults. The adults have become tired of hearing about anime, Disney films, space exploration, weather data, or other narrow interests. It's also no longer possible to ignore that the special interest or splinter skill is not linked to abstraction. The advanced cognitive abilities of analysis, synthesis, and evaluation likely trails the abilities of peers.

So, the autistic once rejected by children find herself or himself alienated from many adults over the years. By the late teen or early adult years, I've witnessed many autistics seeking out children as friends. The social skills he or she lacked as a child might now be in place, years later than is "typical" for development. The autistic can now relate to children — and recognizes that adults are less and less available.

Imagine being accepted by adults until your teen years, only to feel rejected as an adult. Yet, the young children who would have rejected you as a peer become more and more approachable as you learn social skills. It is as if your social circles went "backwards" from adults to children, while everyone else moved in the opposite direction.

When asked for advice on this social alienation, I generally suggest social groups and safe social settings.

Depending on the needs of your child (or yourself) you might find groups that are dedicated to autism, ADD/ADHD, and other socially frustrating challenges. I've also found groups of "gifted" people include many members with ASD and ADHD traits. You can also join groups dedicated to a special interest, from birdwatching to trains. These groups are good because being a specialist is embraced and celebrated. Social skills are secondary to the shared interests and experiences of members in these various organizations.

I have few close friends, and I know I can seem "odd" to other people. At some point in life, you accept being different is okay.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Autism and Teaching

Following a panel discussion I was asked if my autistic traits made me a better teacher.

I replied, "No. They are a disadvantage for much of what I teach."

The mother asking the question was puzzled. I don't believe I offered the answer she wanted. This led me to ponder the question and the answer further.

I teach a literature-writing course this semester, "The Study of the Essay." The course is a survey of major essayists and requires students to write personal essays and reflections weekly. The essay is by nature an author's attempts to persuade readers in a personal way. The essayist is a character in his or her own work.

Like many autistics I've met, I read a lot of nonfiction and historical fiction. There are great nonfiction writers, most of whom use the same techniques any novelist or short story author would harness. But, I don't analyze the style while reading: I'm interested in devouring facts. Literary analysis is not my strength.

If I taught programming — which I'd love to do — my perfectionism and passion for orderly, elegant code might make me a better instructor. If I taught science — which I have done — I could focus on the beauty that is a predictable set of laws and theories. There are many subjects that might suit my inherent personal quirks.

But I teach in an English department. It's as confounding at times as teaching in an art department. I love English and I love art, but teaching them is a challenge for me.

Over the years, I've observed teachers who are much better than I am in the classroom. They have a talent for interpreting the unspoken signals of students. Somehow, they read voices, faces, gestures, and other hints. These signals help such teachers reach out to students and draw out what the students want to express. It's like being a psychologist, I suppose.

While I do know autistic psychologists, few work directly with clients. Their mannerisms, I hope they forgive me for stating, might make some clients uncomfortable. I've wondered if I make students uncomfortable. Do I seem detached at times? Do I seem distant to their needs? I have no idea.

At the end of each semester, I receive good evaluations from students. I don't understand why, since I have plenty of doubts about my abilities. As more than one colleague has said, I often wait for students to tell me that I didn't seem to know very much at all. But, I also admit at the start of every semester that I'm not a human database. That's one reason I prefer students explore and discover.

If I'm a good teacher, it is because I know my weaknesses. My autistic traits are simply what I am, so I work around them when necessary and embrace them when they help.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

When Driving is Too Much

Driving is okay when there is little traffic and I know the route by memory. I do not like driving on busy streets or highways and I hate driving on narrow roads or in cluttered urban settings. I also hate, truly despise, highways or freeways without sufficient exits and places to turn around when necessary.
I hate driving in Pittsburgh, enough so that I shake and get a headache after passing through the Fort Pitt Tunnel. I hate narrow, enclosed, claustrophobic tunnels. Two lanes, horns sounding, and tailgating. Horrible.

Today, we drove to Cranberry. I hated the last trip there and needed two days to recover. I hate the fact beautiful hills are being covered with townhouses. Narrow two-lane roads are trying to accommodate a flood of new arrivals. Yes, the economy in Butler County is doing well, but the roads and spaces were never meant to handle so many people.

We planned the trip ahead, knowing I hate the toll booths and most of the Turnpike, which is in a constant state of repair. While we made it to Cranberry in a half hour, I missed the exit because it didn't indicate it was the only exit. It implied the exit connected 76 and 79, not that it was the main route to Cranberry.

I was left angry, shaking, and barely able to function. For missing one exit we had to go through the toll booth and drive an extra 45 minutes to loop back right to where we had been. You should never, never have to drive 45 minutes after missing a single exit in a populated area. This isn't rural farmland — Cranberry is a booming shopping district. One stupid exit? Get real, Pennsylvania.

I am still angry. We had to pay to waste most of an hour? And the Turnpike is horrendous. Two narrow lanes, no exits, lots of construction, and flashing warnings that it floods easily. If it floods so easily, install drains!

By the time we looped around, I just wanted to return home. Home to California, where freeways have exits and are wide enough that the truck passing you isn't going to rip the mirror from the driver's side. Yes, I have seen cars "bump" on roads here in PA. It is insane not to have wider lanes.

Driving is bad enough. It often gives me a headache and any long drive leads to serious back and shoulder pain. I don't "like" my drive to work, but it is a lot better than living in a congested suburb. I do like the drive home — it is a relief to leave people and congestion behind me.

I am so angry that I don't want to return to Cranberry. It isn't worth the effort. I hate most of the shopping areas here. The roads cannot handle the traffic. There are traffic lights where they do no good, and signals are missing where they are most needed. Shopping near the city of Pittsburgh, the lanes to get on and off the expressway backup into the lanes trying to go straight. I've wasted 20 minutes trying to get through two lights and a stop sign that has no business being on a busy road.

You want people to shop, make it easier to get in and out of the areas. I don't mean the parking lots, either. I mean the roads to and from the suburbs are a nightmare.

By the time we reached Cranberry, I was screaming about how much I hate these roads. I was fuming at paying for the wasted time. Why isn't there a "loop back" at the toll plaza? Why isn't there a sign that indicates "Last exit before toll" as there is on the expressway? No, I'm not going back for some time. I hated the drive as much as I hate going into the city.

I still have a headache. I'm still tense. Though we "bought" $56 or so in office supplies for nothing but "rewards points" from OfficeMax, it wasn't worth the stress. Sadly, the only large bookstores are in these suburbs from Hell, too. If you want a decent dinner, you're stuck traveling into the Asphalt Abyss.

I've lost most of my day trying to regain focus. The idiotic notion that a short trip would help me recover from days in front of the computer? No way. The trip has left me in agony. Two painkillers didn't reduce the pain, but did upset my stomach more — and it was already in knots from the drive.

The traffic engineers in PA (if there are any) are in the direct employ of Mephistopheles.

Recovering from driving will take most of the next two days. So much for wanting to escape the house. I'm trapped, just like I was in Minneapolis. That really, really angers me.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Another Long Week

I knew when I accepted my new job that it would not be a 40-hour work week. Last night, I had a work-related call just before 10 p.m. — a dedicated instructor caught in something of a jam thanks to scheduling conflicts. Tonight, I was working until after midnight on multimedia content for an online course. I barely had the first week's content loaded before the "official" start of the course. It has been one of those weeks.

I keep telling myself I'm doing better than expected. I do seem more organized than many other instructors, and I'm working hard to prove myself in the new position. But, I am also exhausted.

As readers know, my wife and I have been dealing with the damage from a flash flood. It was the fourth time water had taken over the lower-level of our house. I spent much of the last week worried about the new appliances (washer and drier) as well as calculating how expensive repairs are going to be. The good news is that the appliances do still work. The bad news? I need to work even harder if we're going to get the repairs and preventative maintenance done in the next two to three years.

My wife and I make lists. I have a list of the work that must be done on the house, work that should be done, and projects we'd like to have completed someday. The must-do list deals with structural and safety issues. Unfortunately, the flood drew attention to more of those costly must-do items.

Work pays for repairs. It seems simple enough. But, the reality is that we cannot pay for the repairs, so we'll have to use a home-equity line of credit. I hate that. So, I will be working on other projects to quickly settle the debts.

I've wondered why most people I meet don't seem to be nearly as "stressed out" as I am over the costs of home ownership. Do I worry more than most people? I'm paranoid about delaying repairs and ending up like we did with the water in the family room. Delays don't seem to be wise.

At some point, maybe not far off, I'll be working so much that I won't be working well. I worry already that my work isn't the best it could be because I'm trying to do too many things before the end of this year. The list of projects and the timelines I had hoped to meet are overwhelming. But I know homes do not fix themselves.

I always thought I was okay with time management and planning, but so far I've been way off when estimating when I could finish projects. Too many projects aren't being completed on time, while too many new projects are appearing on my to-do list. Telling people "I'm sorry, but I cannot do that" is difficult for me. I want to do all I can. The problem is, I'm reaching the point when I can't do many more tasks in a week.

The irony is that I tell audiences to plan and then double or triple estimated time requirements. I advise people to worry more about their mental and physical health than things. Yet, here I am worried about my house. With the worry leading, indirectly, to 50-hour work weeks, I'm starting to feel I'm not going to keep up much longer.

It doesn't help that I am still ill, either. I'm hoping the latest cold or whatever this is passes quickly so I can be more productive. Or maybe there's no way I could be more productive and remain sane.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Flooding Again, Medical 911, Forming Plans

Our lower-level flooded again last night. We ended up calling a company dealing with such emergencies. A neighbor also helped me as I frantically tried to move important paperwork from filing cabinets downstairs to our dining room. Without my wife here, I did what I could on my own and it wasn't enough. Unfortunately, I lost some notes and research I was hoping to use in coming weeks.

Thoughts cannot be replaced, while furniture and appliances can be.

Earlier in the day, I had driven past our insurance agent's office. I had intended to obtain flood insurance this week. It probably wouldn't have been in effect, but I feel horrible.

Why didn't I stop? Because I was coming from a medical appointment, which led to a referral to a surgeon. I'm losing a lot of blood. As readers of this blog might recall, I was hospitalized over Christmas Eve a few years ago with blood loss. I needed a transfusion. We're near that point again.

http://theautisticme.blogspot.com/2008/12/hospitals-smell-funny.html

After having the sort of exam I required yesterday, I wasn't in the mood to stop and deal with insurance. There was a fair amount of discomfort and exhaustion after two hours in a medical clinic.

Ironically, the doctor had told me to limit exercise, not to lift heavy objects, and to take it easy until I am able to schedule surgery. Mother Nature had different plans for me. I carried two fire safes, a huge dehumidifier, and stacks of documents up the stairs as quickly as possible. I had to work a garage door that is broken and deal with doors that wouldn't open easily.

By 3 a.m., blood was running down my legs, but I didn't realize how bad it was until I looked down and saw a red "cloud" in the flood water. I came close to passing out, but I had to keep moving things. The bleeding stopped about 5 a.m., with me curled up on my side on a bed while more than dozen large fans and two monstrous dehumidifiers roared away in the basement.

The rain didn't stop.

Our driveway has been ruined by the storms. A wall between our garage and a basement room shifted with a ear-splitting "boom-crack." Two other walls started to bulge, allowing water to flow, but thankfully only at a trickle by this morning.

I'm exhausted. I'm shaking badly, pale, and still bleeding slightly. I've emailed my boss to let him know I might fall a little behind on projects this weekend. I really need some time to get my mind back on track.

Right now, my plan is to let the demolition team do their job and remove the walls that absorbed water. I'll also wait to see if the new appliances can be dried out enough with dehumidifiers and fans to work properly. This is heartbreaking for me, since the appliances were a gift from my family. Right now, I know they need to be re-leveled and inspected before I try to test them.

I'm assuming most of my tools are okay. Tools seem to be built to handle disasters as long as you dry them quickly. I'd hate to lose any expensive saws, the air compressor, or the lawnmower. I'm 99 percent certain the lawnmower will be okay, even though it was floating. I hadn't realized a metal lawnmower could float until I saw it drifting through the garage.

Right now, these are the plans:

  1. Dry out the house, before the next storm.
  2. Schedule my emergency surgery, so I don't end up hospitalized again.
  3. Have the driveway repaired, ASAP, so we can direct as much water as possible away from the house during storms. Also, the driveway is impassible for a car because the gravel and dirt moved into deep ravines and tall mounds. A total mess for now.
  4. Repair the walls that shifted, probably waterproofing as well as anchoring.
  5. Make the minimal number of repairs necessary beyond flood-prevention. 
  6. Sell the house.

We might relocate before we sell the house. In fact, that seems to be the best plan so the house can be repaired without anyone (or any pets) living inside.

Moving is a high, high priority for me. I need to focus on my job, not pumping water out of a basement or chasing after my garbage cans. I do not want to see a lawnmower floating ever again. I'm going to talk to my boss and my coworkers to find a better place to live. We have to stay here at least for six years, somehow. But this move has been lousy so far.

I'm disgusted, tired, and frustrated.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Writing Instruction Blogs, Twitter Feeds, and Facebook Page

My wife and I maintain two blogs, Twitter feeds, and a Facebook page dedicated to creative writing instruction. I have discovered that readers prefer to choose how they receive updates and blog feeds, so we've tried to offer the most popular options.

First, a reminder to visit the Tameri Guide for Writers (http://www.tameri.com/) if you are interested in creative writing. The Tameri website is not an academic writing website, though it includes some resources for teachers of writing.

Our blog on creative writing and mass market fiction:
http://www.tameri.com/wordpress/

My blog on using technology in writing instruction:
http://poetcsw.blogspot.com/

The two blogs are featured on our Facebook page:
https://www.facebook.com/pages/Tameri-Guide-for-Writers/239305212783049

You can find "Follow Us" links for Twitter on the blogs and on the Tameri website. Please consider following us using the social networking method of your choice.

Dinner, Panel Appearances in Western PA

I will be participating in two upcoming events this month. The first event is for students and faculty at the university where I work. The second is a panel roundtable at a high school in Pittsburgh, PA. If your school or organization would like me to discuss autism, special education, or literacy issues, please do not hesitate to ask.


AHEADD Panel on Autism and Higher Education
Monday October 17th
Central Catholic High School 
4720 Fifth Avenue, Pittsburgh, PA
5:30-7 p.m. Room 108/109


Please contact AHEADD for more information:
http://www.aheadd.org/
Phone Toll-Free: 1-877-AHEADD-1

The AHEADD Panel is open, but you do need to contact AHEADD to RSVP.

Campus-Only Event
The RMU event, which is tomorrow night, gives me hope that faculty and staff might be interested to learn more about ASDs and higher education. I'm hoping some faculty might see this announcement and consider attending:


Services for Students with Disabilities Dinner
"Autism and Higher Education"
October 11, 2011
4:00-5:30 p.m.
Sewall Dining Rooms B & C
Robert Morris University


Following the dinner is a screening of the HBO special, "Temple Grandin."

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Autism, ADHD, and Creativity

I have always been fascinated by the need for some people to redefine disabilities and differences as gifts, blessings, and strengths. When I was struggling with graduate school, the educational psychologist suggested the book Driven to Distraction. Instead of recognizing attention deficit disorder is a problem, a barrier to academic success, the psychologist was convinced that I had attention deficit and it explained my creative writing and other artistic interests.


I am doubtful of such associations, such as popular myths connecting depression, substance abuse, or other mental health issues to artistic genius. I wonder if statistically there truly is a significant correlation between talent and difference. Although we know the many famous stories of depressed or addicted writers and artists, what about the numerous artists no more or less challenged / impaired than the rest of the population?

When asked if I believed that my autistic traits contributed to my creativity, my reply is that every person's traits contribute to that individual's success in a chosen field. It is plausible that my sensory issues affect how I write about experiences, but that does not make my writing better or worse than anyone else's writing.

Practice, even if one has what might be called natural talent, is key to mastery of any artistic or intellectual pursuit. Practice, practice, and more practice. When you are passionate about an activity, it is easier to practice that activity. No one has to tell me that the more I write the better my writing will be. It is true that some autistics focus on an activity. Individuals with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder also focus intensely on favorite activities.

However, I know many autistics unable to focus on a skill or activity. These individuals focus on remembering facts or observed details. Only a small fraction of the autistic adults I have met are creative artists. Yet the reality is that few people are professional creative artists. I have not met a higher percentage nor a lower percentage of autistics with unusual, superior creative abilities.

When I speak to groups, parents often ask how they will discover the savant skills of their autistic children. Statistically, fewer than 10% of autistics have splinter or savant skills. A splinter skill means that one has unusual aptitude performing a task, but not a creative form of the skill. For example, being able to play music after hearing a song once is a splinter skill, not savantism. Being able to copy, mimic, or re-create is not the same mental process as generating new insights and connections.

Many individuals in my family are creative. My sister and father have artistic talents, and I consider them creative individuals. My mother enjoys many craft hobbies, such as sewing. Therefore, I do not consider my interest in arts and crafts to be related to anything unusual about me. I believe all children are interested in creating, but throughout school we tend to dampen the innate creativity of the human mind. Thankfully, my family never discouraged my creativity.

Instead of asking if people with atypical neurologies are uniquely creative, we should wonder why we are not better at nurturing the creativity of all individuals.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Autism, Health Issues, and Family

Tonight my wife told me that she has been experiencing stress, worrying about my health from afar. I have been having some minor health issues for the last month or so. Experience has taught us that I am not good at recognizing how serious an issue is or is not. I did go to a "minute clinic" after a week of coughing, and was diagnosed with bronchitis. However, other health problems have continued and I am set to see a doctor next week.

One of the serious issues facing families of adults with autism is how to help an autistic person recognize and deal with health related issues. Because I am always in physical pain and discomfort is a constant in my life, it is challenging for me to recognize when a pain is something important. I have severe back pain and was even in a back brace as a teenager. I also have other injuries dating back to birth which cause shoulder and hip pain. For as long as I can remember, I have had headaches and migraines.

With my complicated physical situation, a few years ago I failed to recognize my vision was failing due to base membrane dystrophy. I thought the headaches were the familiar migraines. Once I had eye surgery, I thought pain and dizziness were the aftereffects and ended up hospitalized for internal bleeding instead. Over the years I have failed to recognize broken bones, bruised ribs, and even a serious hernia. Too often I cannot pinpoint the source of pain or its original cause.

It is understandable that my wife worries about me and she is not nearby. I know that I am not able to analyze my physical well-being. I do not understand why I am not feeling well and what actions I should take to solve problems. It turns out that aspirin does not solve every problem.

As I consider my own experiences, I do not know what the best advice is for other families. I rely on my wife, my mother, and other family members to help me recognize when I should see a doctor and even which type of doctor I should be calling. I doubt I could maintain my health living on my own if I did not talk to my wife on a nightly basis. Admittedly, even talking to her I have probably made some mistakes over the last few months.

Last night my eyes hurt a great deal. I had to decide if the pain was a response to lights at night, a physical tear in the eye, or the start of a migraine. I cannot easily determine when eye pain is a result of the membrane tearing because lights can actually hurt more than a physical injury. That seems to be impossible to explain to the ophthalmologist. All I know is that my eyes really hurt.

Truly independent living scares me. I believe I will always need someone to help determine when I should seek expert help. Thankfully, I have a wonderful life. If I did not, I believe it would be necessary to hire a personal assistant simply to have a "normal" person present who could help analyze situations. As it is, coworkers often point out when I am walking unsteadily, trembling, or in some other way seem distressed. It is as if I am unaware of my own physical limitations or what my body is experiencing at any given moment.

Some experts claim that autism is the inability to understand the internal thoughts of others. I wonder if my autistic traits include a failure to understand my own experiences, especially an inability to interpret pain and discomfort.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Academic Discomfort: An Autistic Trait?

Many of the comments I receive regarding the blog are sent to me directly. For some blog posts, the majority of comments are not posted to this blog, though some might appear on Facebook or via Twitter. I have wondered why some topics lead to fewer public replies. Last night, a question asked concerned my previous post on being uncomfortable among writing and rhetoric professors at a conference.

Did I believe the discomfort was related to autism? Is it an autistic trait to be uncomfortable in some academic situations?

That's a good question. I know my personality and I know what autistic adults told me during my doctoral research: I do fit the stereotype of preferring academic subjects that are "apolitical" and "objective" in nature; the STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) subjects are comfortable. I'd add to that list business, architecture, film production, and similar fields that stress applied knowledge over theory.

Though I am a writer, and I'd like to believe I'm a decent writer, people focused on fields with "studies" affixed to their disciplines don't think in the same manner I do. I include the soft "social sciences" in the studies group. These fields are often more interested in advocacy politics than rigorous scientific research methods. This is openly admitted in "writing studies" and its related network of disciplines.

At the conference I attended, the "pedagogies" (teaching theories) were "grounded in social justice" and "embrace[d] the pragmatism of Cornel West, Alinsky, and Dewey." I'm sorry, but the "scholars" listed are not scientific, objective thinkers. This approach to teaching embraces a political ideology first, and then seeks to find ways to implement that ideology. That's not educational research in my mind, but instead something entirely different.

I'm not a social conservative, but I do not like the fact an academic discipline is anything but disciplined and rigorous.

Every conference I've attended on writing instruction has had the same deficiency. I've never sat through a presentation or panel that included something like the following statement: "Our methods improved writing and reading comprehension by X based on the standardized measure Y." I have heard statements like this: "My students seemed to like writing more at the end of the semester." One of the stranger things I've heard, "I know my students care more for each other at the end of the writing course." Neither of these conclusions is a quantifiable statement based on rigorous measures.

I want to learn how we can teach writing skills most effectively to students with autism and other different ways of perceiving and relating to the world. My goal is straightforward. After using method X, does a student demonstrate improved writing skills? I can't relate to the goal of teaching "social justice" and "tolerance" in the writing class because I don't think that way. I want to be able to express myself, using words. I assume the parents and students with whom I work want the same thing: the ability to communicate.

When I attend a conference at which at least half of the sessions address practical, evidence-based ways to teach language to students with special needs, then I will be impressed and feel like I'm part of a serious academic discipline. Instead, I've heard about teaching a lot of beliefs to students, and beliefs are not related directly to writing. Politically motivated instruction risks overlooking the role we play in education: preparing students to write.

I had a colleague talk to me about his new writing class. He was excited to include a long list of progressive political theorists in the course. The course was "College Writing and Research" — not "The Progressive Era." I asked him, bluntly, "How do the assignments address writing skills?" He looked at me and said, earnestly, "I'm teaching the students to think. Writing will just happen when they are inspired to call for change."

And we wonder why our disciplines aren't taken seriously? Too many of our students don't learn to write. I know my colleagues would challenge that, but ask employers and their instructors in other disciplines if the writing skills are acceptable.

Maybe it is my "autistic" nature, but I want writing instruction research that is practical. I want to be a better writing teacher. Why can't being a great teacher be the sum total of my "activism" in the classroom? Trust me, knowing how to write will change the lives of my students.

I know I'be more comfortable in a scientific field, but I want to teach writing. So, I have to learn to navigate around the current state of my chosen field. It isn't easy, trust me, because when I ask about instructional methods and research, I'm accused of not caring about social justice. My colleagues have confused their desired outcome (social change) with the best way to achieve that outcome for some student populations (teaching writing skills).

Helping adults with autism realize their goals of independent living and success is my activism. I do that by focusing on skills. No, that's not "critical thinking" that leads to an oddly homogeneous worldview. It is skills and I'm not ashamed to call what I do skills development. Thinking has to be built on a foundation, and my students are still working on that foundation.

Last week, a colleague said, "We should grade thoughts, not writing." But I'm a writing specialist! I need to grade writing to help the student improve his or her writing. I asked how students would improve their writing without grades, which do motivate young adults more than intrinsic idealism does. "Good people think clearly and write better."

I've always taken the opposite view: learning to write, like learning to solve math problems, helps develop clear thought and reasoning skills. Silly me, I believe you learn skills before you can apply the skills creatively. I had to learn the notes and play other people's music before I could improvise on the clarinet. Skills come first.

Maybe I won't last in academia, at least not within a writing or English discipline. Maybe I belong somewhere else that uses more "scientific" methods to test instructional theories. A discipline in which "theory" doesn't mean "critical theory" or "social justice."

I don't know. Clearly, my goals are not exciting and political enough for some in my field.

Two Conferences, Too Different

A few days ago, someone commented that I looked exhausted. I was asked if this was the results of the ongoing bronchitis battle and the flooding issues with our house. Most people would have agreed or said something simple to dismiss the question. The problem with being exhausted is that I end up answering questions bluntly.

"I'm tired of being around so many people," I answered. "I need some time to recover."

I had attended two conferences, one on Friday and another on Saturday. That meant dealing with people — and trying not to mess up too badly. I'm sure the second conference went poorly, since I was too tired to monitor myself effectively. The first conference, however, went relatively well because I arrived, spoke, and left. That's always the best way for me to deal with situations. Leave before I have to deal with too many one-on-one interactions.

Speaking to a group, as I did on Friday, is relatively easy. I don't have to be polite, because people are listening to me speak. I don't have to know how to deal with the flow of conversation because there is no flow. I speak, the audience listens. When I speak, the reviews are generally positive, even when I don't feel great about the presentation.

But, the second conference, which was an academic conference, was tough. I sat in the back row of the meeting room for presentations, but  the luncheon and the reception after the conference required dealing with people and social interactions. Even though I sat alone in the meeting room, people sat on either side of me at the luncheon. Not good.

I am not good at "couching" my statements in the obtuse and polite language of chit-chat. It is best to avoid conversations, but I was too tired to force myself to disengage. It is frustrating that I didn't walk away from people or avoid interpersonal moments. I make that mistake when I am exhausted, and then I compound the mistake by not keeping quiet.

The Friday conference was a gathering of authors. Some of the men and women were openly hostile to formal writing education. I enjoyed the panel I moderated in part because the participants were not afraid to criticize how our schools and universities teach writing. I always find it interesting that popular writers hold writing programs (especially MFA programs) in some disdain. Of course, some MFA programs hold popular fiction in disdain, too.

The Saturday conference? It was a gathering of writing professors and graduate students. I don't belong in the group, no matter what my job is or my title. I enjoyed being among writers, I didn't enjoy time with academics.

I know the professors are smart. I know they are well-intentioned people. I also know I disagree with them on nearly every topic they discussed. The right thing to do is listen silently. Yet, I can't keep my mouth shut when I should. Normal people learn to be silent or to express themselves in ways that aren't entire "honest" in these situations.

Like most people, I want to fit in with my colleagues. I want to be "normal" in academic situations. I want to seem less disagreeable and less annoyed with the views being expressed than I am. I want to sit there, silently if necessary, and not be compelled to speak up on some topics. I want to be able to walk away and recover before I say the wrong things. I don't deal well with the attitudes I encounter at academic conferences. I'm also certain the academics have no idea they are so different from the people I meet at other conferences or within other groups.

Don't get me wrong: I love teaching and I love my university job. I just feel like an outsider much of the time.

I should have skipped the luncheon on Saturday and I should have left immediately after the last presentation. If I hadn't been tired, I would have been able to force myself to leave. It is strange that when I am tired is when I end up engaging with people more than I should. You'd imagine that when I am tired I would want to leave and relax. Instead, my ability to evaluate situations fails and I don't recognize that I need to get away from interactions. Yet, I also know things aren't going well — so I am aware of my failings even though I don't act to remove myself promptly.

Social networking, which is a career skill, is not a skill I possess most of the time. I have to be well-rested and able to mask my personality if I want to make a decent impression on others.

How am I going to coordinate writing programs without too much exposure to academic gatherings? It is going to be difficult, but I do need to develop a strategy for dealing with my colleagues that will not offend them or seem too evasive. I need to be good at this job. That means not being myself, and when I can't control my mind it means not being present at all.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Sale on A Spectrum of Relationships: Autism and Social Connections

If you haven't purchased A Spectrum of Relationships, this month is a great time to do so. Following the surprise flooding of our home's lower level, we had to spend a bit of money. While I know my little eBook isn't going to cover more than a fraction of the surprise expenses, I figured it couldn't hurt to try a BIG SALE approach to help out a bit.

$0.99 SALE: A Spectrum of Relationships

Kindle Owners, Click for Amazon.
For Nook Users, use Barnes and Noble.

That's right, for less than a dollar you can learn about one autistic adult's experiences with relationships at school, work, and beyond. I offer advice on how to deal with various situations and how friends and family can support an autistic teen or adult struggling with interpersonal relationships.

I'm only going to keep this price for a few weeks, and then the price will return to $2.99 per copy.

I want to thank everyone who has purchased copies of A Spectrum of Relationships over the last few months. We've had some pretty challenging months while moving for my new job and I am forever grateful for how supportive my readers are.

Another Book is Coming
I am working on another book, this time an autobiographical examination of our schools and how they often fail to meet the needs of high-functioning autistics. Because the upcoming work is from my perspective, I cannot address the needs or challenges facing the entire autistic community.

I'll be speaking twice this month on autism and higher education. If you'd like more information on events in the greater Pittsburgh area, please visit the websites of AHEADD and ABOARD.