Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Social Skills: Parents and Autistics

When parents try to understand autistic children, they make a simple mistake: they assume social desires and needs are universals. A parent recently said something that puzzled me. "When I think about how lonely my child must be…"

Has your son or daughter said he or she is lonely? If not, that's a big, big assumption.

I'm taking some liberty, but a recent email from a parent serves as a good illustration, too. I am reworking this slightly:

"Trying to imagine my son's thoughts, I tear myself to pieces over what must be going on in there. I worry that he might be experiencing great emotional pain. I keep asking him, and he assures me he is not."

There you have it. Trust the autistic or the introvert (or both) if he or she is content being alone. You can be alone, and not lonely.

The problem for parents it that most people do define success and happiness via relationships (and a job). My best relationships are with my wife, my sister, and my mother. I suppose those women do have a choice in the matter, but so far they tolerate me better than any other people could. I do not have a wide group of friends, and only a few acquaintances. But, I do love my wife and family. I'm content with those good relationships instead of a dozen less meaningful connections.

Now, the job issue is quite real and serious in any society. It might not be about money, but in any community members aspire to a valued role. Not everyone aspires to being a social leader, granted. What we want is to know our daily work is appreciated. Money is only one way to recognize value, so don't base your self-worth on dollars or euros or yen.

Yet, I've met autistics quite content to think nothing of if they have social value. I admit, I write and want an audience. Maybe the readers, viewers, or listeners to my words won't know my name, but there will be a value associated with what I create. That means something to me, too. Having an audience gives my work value, whether they see a play for free or pay several dollars for a book. It would be crushing if people walked out of a play during the first few minutes or never finished reading my columns and blogs.

The problem with wanting my work to have value is that workplaces require social skills and social connections. I've written several times that my poor social skills have led to problems in the workplace. I have no great answer for overcoming that challenge. It isn't that I want to have friends at work, but not having those friends can be a problem.

I am not charming, not socially engaging, and generally do not care about my coworkers. That doesn't mean I lack all empathy, but at work I need to focus on… work. That's a problem, and I don't have a solution.

In the end, this goes back to not assuming that "autistic" perceptions and desires are universals. Parents talk about "friends" at work because they assume friends help in the workplace. I'm sure I could unravel all the reasons if I thought about this, but I really find maintaining friendships at work exhausting. Trying to maintain social connections and work might be more than I can do.

If your autistic child says he or she doesn't want friends at work, or doesn't have any, that might not be a "problem" to the autistic person. Yet, I do know not having friends at work means you don't have defenders or mentors. Why should I need alliances at work? Because adult life is like junior high, sadly.

We constantly hear and read that autistics have trouble imagining what others feel and experience. It turns out, others cannot imagine our perspectives. Ironic, I suppose.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Relationships Ruined by Esteem Deficits (Autistic or Not!)

People are curious about relationships and autism; the questions asked most often when I appear before groups are about relationships. I've attempted to answer a few questions on this blog, but I never feel like I'm offering many insights.

In a world in which most marriages fail and relationships seem to be transitory, I don't believe we can "blame" autistic traits for relationship issues. What we can do is recognize how autism and other forms of atypical neurology/personality do affect us and our relationships. Still, I caution readers that what I am offering is more general than "autism" and probably applies to every relationship at some time.

Caveats stated, I believe the greatest challenge in my relationship with my wife is the sense that I'm unworthy of her friendship, loyalty, and companionship. The Susan is calmer, quieter, more focused, a faster reader, a better student, a much better employee… and on and on when compared to me. She has a lot of traits I wish I had. As a result, I often feel inferior to her, realizing I cannot achieve the same types of success that she has earned.

When you feel inferior to someone else, you end up sabotaging the relationship.

First, I've always thought my wife deserved better than me. When you start with that perspective, part of you feels guilty for holding the "better" partner back in life. I've always wondered how much more my wife could accomplish without me. I've also wondered if she would be happier.

The notion of "setting her free" leads to another emotional conflict: I want her to be more, but I also realize I am a better person with her. I don't want to lose her friendship, but I don't want to be a barrier to her success. You can imagine the internal turmoil.

Then, there is the desire to improve myself and earn her respect and friendship. Yes, I realize that friendship is "earned" by being there for someone, for supporting a friend's efforts and dreams. The reality is that our culture emphasizes professional success — either financially or via status achieved. You don't need to be wealthy to be successful, but you do need to earn recognition in some form.

Social failure reinforces low self-esteem — and autism is associated with social skills "deficiencies" in a culture that emphasizes charm and non-verbal cues. Social failure can, and often does, lead to professional failure.

Since graduating from college in 1990, I've only had one job (not counting self-employment) last more than three years. That job, however, was as a graduate instructor during my doctoral studies. My corporate and higher education jobs have been either eliminated (not my fault, thankfully) or social minefields that other people might have been able to navigate.

Workplaces are all about relationships — I can't seem to master those complex work relationships. Work relationships are political, especially in higher education where tenure is awarded by committees with their own agendas. Like-minded and charming people do better than someone like me in these settings.

I just want to be left alone, without penalty for being alone. Ironically, I do well collaborating as a playwright. Recognizing that relationships differ by profession, I should recognize and remember that relationships between individuals also differ. My wife and I have "geek" personalities.

I don't consider myself a "nerd" for a variety of reasons. See: http://www.sparknotes.com/mindhut/2012/12/18/the-4-main-differences-between-geeks-and-nerds

But, what about the "nerd" qualities others see in me? When you aren't "cool" in some way, you shift from being a mere knowledgable geek to being an awkward "nerd" (and an outcast). To theatre people, I'm just another theatre geek. Within other settings, I'm a nerd — an outcast.

Being an outcast, something many autistics experience, is frustrating. It isn't that I want to be liked — which is hard to explain — but it is the knowledge that I'm being dismissed or devalued in the workplace. I end up defensive and annoyed. I end up wondering how I can fail so often, when I am supposedly so smart. If other people don't like me or value my work, how could my wife value me?

While I have failed in workplace after workplace, career after career, my wife is able to quietly do what needs to be done. She is successful, by my definition, working for employers as long as she wants. She's never lost a job, and probably never will. She "fits in" with other people, even though she is an introvert. I'm not merely an introvert — I don't "mesh well" with people.

Curiously, I'm more willing to do social things, but I'm worse at being social. Why in the world does my wife tolerate me when so few other people do?

My constant pursuit of "success" and a string of failures reinforced my perception that my wife is superior to me. The self-esteem hit of each failed effort to integrate into corporate or institutional settings harmed our relationship as a couple, and as friends.

But wait, some friends and family will say, we know you have an ego! Yes, I do. About my writing, my computer programming, and my knowledge in general. I do not think well of "me" — I think well of my works. And even then, I often doubt if my works have enough "value" to earn the respect and companionship of my wife. I'm trying to accept the path that's best for me, so I can be a better person.

I'm working on the self-esteem issue, but it will be an unending challenge. When you feel like an outsider, without traditional measures of success, building self-esteem takes effort.

I know why my relationship with my wife has been a struggle, but I haven't yet learned how to overcome the challenge of low self-esteem. She's a great person. I'm not sure I am.

As I warned, I offer no great insights.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Writer: The Label I've Always Embraced

There is one label I have embraced since the second grade:
Writer. It is the one word I know describes me now and always has described me. I currently write plays and poetry, both of which I think are best heard, not read, by others.

I write. Not a few pages here and there, but often thousands of words in a week. There have been times when I have written complete manuscripts, over 100 pages, in two weeks. I find that complete stories often come to mind, and I "see" these like films playing in my mind. The biggest challenge is writing to capture the story before my mind has moved ahead to the next project.
— C. S. Wyatt, personal website
When people ask why I don't "do more" for autism advocacy, or disability issues in general, I respond that I am first, second, and third, a writer. I write first to entertain, then to persuade. Then, I'm a teacher and a half dozen other things. But, I am a writer first. While I wish I could be everything, and curiosity compels me to read on dozens of topics, creative writing continues to be how I define myself. A curious creative writer, exploring human nature and other topics of interest to me.

Allow people to pursue their interests and goals, without demanding that everyone be some sort of crusader for "the cause" behind your personal passions. I understand that parents, educators, and caregivers want me to be some sort of role model. But, isn't the best way to be a role model for young students to be good at what I love?

I write comedies and young adult fiction. I do not want to write "autistic" stories. What would those stories be? Episodes of Touch or screenplays like Rain Man? Not that I wouldn't enjoy telling a good story that happened to include someone with a disability, but I don't want to write with a checklist of causes to support on my desk.

Celebrate the programmer, the scientist, the teacher, or the writer. If you need to prefix "autistic" for some reason, I suppose that's okay, but I want to be known as a good writer, not a good autistic writer or a good writer with a palsy. Simply the writer of good and entertaining stories. If I am not as good as or better than other aspiring writers, I don't want special recognition or honors. I want to be judged by the words I write.

Friday, June 7, 2013

Asking the Autistic Me Questions Directly

A parent posted a question to the "Ask a Question" area, but then asked me to respond directly instead of via this blog. The problem is that Blogger doesn't provide the poster's email address to me, only a Blogger ID.

If you'd like to ask a question directly, you can contact me by visiting:

http://tameri.com/csw/autism/

I try to answer questions promptly, but I am extremely busy as of late. Please give me a few days to respond, in case I am traveling.

Sometimes, I will rephrase and address questions on the blog. Most questions I receive are important to many families and individuals.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Writing and Autism: How We Teach Writing

As I've been blogging about writing and autism, I have encountered a few books on the same topic. To be blunt, these don't strike me as particularly insightful. In fact, some of the articles and books on autistic students and writing only further the rote memorization of patterns (the dreaded "Five Paragraph Essay") that are used to assess writing for various standardized tests.

I'll be the first to suggest that I use patterns and guidelines when I write. But, when the emphasis is on the patterns instead of the content, the wrong lesson is being taught to students. I appreciate that students should understand the genre conventions; grades and test scores matter. Yet, we are letting the conventions become checklists for grades, instead of rewarding creativity and insights.

Yes, autistic students have insights and are creative. All students should be striving for creativity and new insights. The problem with inflexible grading rubrics is that students start to produce what meets the metrics, no matter how often teachers claim to want something more. Students are smart, and they will tailor their efforts to precisely what they assume will earn an "A" grade or passing test score.

We teach writing badly, and we get badly written papers as a result.

The books about autistic students and writing skills fall right in line with the rubric-obsessed, test-centered focus of education "reform" at the moment. Memorize the rules, mimic the models, pass the class. And the sad reality is that this approach will be successful for many, if by "successful" we only care about the grades and test scores.

I do believe in grades and organic, assignment-specific, rubrics. I do believe there are "A" papers and there are "D" (or worse) papers. But, as a writer I know that I could never apply the same rubric to a Shakespearean play and a modern screenplay. I could not apply the same criteria to Jane Austen as I would to Hemingway. I would not grade a science paper by the same criteria as a literature paper. Yes, it is a cliché, but good writing teachers can recognize good writing when they read it.

Do I grade grammar and mechanics? Do I insist on at least modest adherence to formatting conventions? Yes, I do, because students need to succeed in other courses. But, I also reserve the right, as a writing teacher, to shift my grading to the student and to the specific assignment. I do not want my students to write in a single, dry, academic style.

Autistic academic success in some fields has been attributed to our pattern-based skills. As concrete thinkers, many autistics do well in math, science, and technical fields. But the best writing isn't formulaic (and academic writing, in my view, is often horrible prose). The sole question shouldn't be how to apply patterns to the writing process, but we should ask ourselves how to help all students, including autistic students, harness their inherent creativities.

We cannot avoid teaching conventions, but maybe we should ask how to expand the teaching of writing to challenge these same conventions.

It's all much more than a single post can address, and there seemingly are contradictory ideals for writing teachers. In a book chapter (or more), I might be able to elaborate. For now, consider this metaphor: Composers learn music by first memorizing notes, scales, and common chords. Memorizing the foundational skills for writing is analogous. But, eventually, a composer moves beyond what has been done to create something new. Writing, called composition in our schools, needs to allow and encourage those moves beyond the basics. The problem is that taking chances, bending the rules, might not "score well" on standardized metrics.

In the end, this challenge goes back to audience analysis. We have to teach students to recognize when to adhere to the rules, and when to ignore them and embrace their creative impulses.