Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Encouraging Someone to Get an Autism Eval

From the "Ask a Question" in box:
…I have been married for 12 years to a man I suspect has Aspergers. Whenever I suggest this to him he scoffs. I would really like for him to be assessed for [Asperger's Syndrome] as it may help me be more tolerant of some of his inappropriate reactions / statements. Do you have any suggestions to help him be more open to the idea? Your insight is much appreciated.
[Note: I have taken the liberty of moving this question, allowing the visitor to remain anonymous.]

There isn't one best, right answer for this question. For some autistics and their families, a formal diagnostic evaluation opens doors: school supports, occupational therapies, and insurance coverage. But, as you get older there is less measurable benefit to the autism diagnosis. The benefits for adults receiving a diagnosis rest in how they use the information.

Though this visitor writes that a diagnosis of her husband would help her be tolerant, I've found that if a partner or friend has problems dealing with specific behavioral traits, the diagnosis only causes a temporary, conscious effort, tolerance. And tolerance isn't acceptance. Maybe some situations are different, but it is nearly impossible to stop being bothered by something a person does on a regular basis.

Now, if the diagnosis encourages the partner with an ASD to get help — that makes things better. Maybe the partner can address behaviors that are affecting relationship negatively. But, that means the partner has to recognize the need to change and then seek assistance changing.

When autistics tell me that they don't need to change, I remind them that plenty of "neurotypical" people seek help with medical and behavioral challenges. The entire, "Autism isn't the problem, acceptance is" can lead some people to dismiss every issue in relationships or with sensory integration as an "autism" issue that not only does not but should not be "fixed" with outside help.

Sometimes, being blunt is the last, best resort: Get help or this relationship might end.

I don't know when a couple or a working relationship reaches that point of intervention, but when it does… being honest is everything.

Someone has to want help. For some people, the only way to make them "want" help is to make it mandatory. When faced with such an ultimatum, maybe the partner will make the wise choice.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Back to School… Yeah!

Last week, I started preparing for the fall 2013 class I am teaching at a local university. Working on the syllabus this week has been a "good thing" because it justifies, at least a little bit, the time, money, and energy invested in the doctorate. The school routine has long been comfortable, a familiar grounding for my mind. The "year" to me remains the academic year, with August marking the start and June marking the end. I'm not sure what July is, other than filing the last year away and preparing for the upcoming year.

School was not fun or enjoyable for me as a student. I was just another student, neither one of the popular people nor a complete social reject. I wasn't part of any clique, not even among the honors students. I had friends and people with whom I shared interests.

As a teacher and professor, I enjoy the classroom. The workplace remains a challenge, but I anticipate it being much, much better at the new university. In part, that's because the new university takes pride in being dominated by "geeks" — the best of the best in their fields. I've always been more at ease among techies and geeks.

As school approaches, I expect to be more and more at ease. Not relaxed, but much closer to it. I'll have an excuse to read and learn, right alongside my students. What could be better than learning new things?

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Relationship Questions: Autism from Friendships to Romance

English: Romance icon
English: Romance icon (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
The Autism Society conference, recently concluded in Pittsburgh, PA. During the conference, I appeared on a panel that dealt with general life issues. After the panel, parents and young adults approached me with questions. Every question, without exception, dealt with relationships. Nothing about education, careers, or life skills. No, every question was about relationships, from friendships to dating and beyond.

Though a great number of books have now appeared, including several on dating, love, and sexuality, there seems to be an endless demand for answers. If not answers, families and individuals at least want to discuss these issues.

As I've written before, I'm not sure what I can contribute to these discussions. I still believe some basic guides to dating and relationships are better than the "autistic" guides. Relationships are complex for everyone, or those bookshelves wouldn't be packed in every bookstore and there wouldn't be thousands of websites dedicated to love and romance.

One of my colleagues pinpointed a communication and understanding challenge we need to address among many young adults with ASDs: confusing sex with love. While plenty of young adults conflate love, infatuation, and sex, with some of the autistic students we meet have much deeper confusion.

I've had young men with Asperger's Syndrome tell me, bluntly, "I want a girlfriend so I can have sex."

That "dating = sex" equivalency indicates far more than a little communication problem. I've met too many young autistic people with this confused notion of dating. There's no understanding of the relationship aspects of dating and intimacy. Consider the following composite discussion, based on my own experiences and those of two other colleagues working with autistic college students:
Mentor: What do you want in a date?

Student: It should lead to sex. Everyone wants sex.

M: But what about the other aspects of dating?

S: Kissing? Touching?

M: No, the friendship, companionship, and romance.

S: But I want sex. I have friends.

M: Someone you date is going to want to be friends. Dating means doing things you like together.

S: Maybe she'll like sex.
You might imagine that's a parody, but it isn't. The direct nature of many autistics means they say exactly what they mean. If the goal of dating is sex, that's what the autistic student will say. I've met young men "on a mission" — focused entirely on having sex, because that's what they want.

One student compared it to his video game obsession. He has to complete every game he buys, even if he decides he doesn't like the game. You never quit playing until you're done, he has explained to me. I've asked why he doesn't just return the game and find something he likes. "My father said quitters are losers." Somewhere along the way, this young man internalized this parental advice into a personal law.

He said movies, television, and friends (though I'm not clear on how close these friends were to him), taught him that dating is sex. "Don't you know that's why people date?" he asked me, incredulously.

I'm not sure a book on autism and relationships can explore all the variation of such single-mindedness. I've met young women sure that "sex = love" meant they had to have sex to keep a boyfriend. The boyfriends might have been using these young women, but the women lacked the ability to determine if this was the case. As one young woman told me, "He is my boyfriend, and I want a boyfriend."

As you can tell from these examples, the issues of autism and relationships are difficult to address. They are individual, not easily generalized. Some autistics don't care about sexuality, while others are obsessed. The range of needs and desires are likely the same as in the general population, but there are extra challenges related to sensory sensitivity, concrete thinking, and social skills.

If you have questions, you can post them to the blog and I'll try to answer in future posts. I'm also considering working with a colleague to develop a better relationship guide than those we've found already in print. I believe it will help if a woman (my colleague) and a man (me), research and write on these matters so we can adequately address the range of issues.
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Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Friends I Don't Have

A colleague recently mentioned that I don't seem to have typical friendships. I asked for clarification, and the explanation offered makes some sense to me. I suppose my wife and I don't have the same types of social connections as many of our acquaintances.

This colleague asked me several questions to illustrate his point:

  • When is the last time someone asked me/us to join that person/group, personally for no real reason? Facebook and Meetup groups don't count.
  • When is the last time you had dinner with someone, just to be with him or her?
  • When is the last time a friend was in your house?

My wife and I have dinner out just to spend time together. We obviously live in the same house. But, I can't think of the last time I just had dinner with someone. I think it was about two months ago that we had dinner with a local business owner and it was almost four months ago that we met up with two friends for dinner out.

I don't have random lunches with any friends. I cannot recall the last phone call that wasn't with a family member. What would I discuss with someone, other than work-related things?

We had a friend visit a year or two ago. He stayed with us in our previous house. Other than that, nobody just "drops by" and visits. About as close to that as we get is stopping to chat with neighbors while taking our walks in the evening. That's not quite the same.

Do other people really have chatty friendships? I do go out to see local plays. But, I also go alone and sit alone.

Am I "missing something" that helps others in life and business? Probably, but I like sitting here with my cats, writing.

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Panel at Autism Society Conference

I am scheduled to participate on a panel at the 2013 Autism Society Conference:

Friday, July 12, 2013
3:30 PM - 4:45 PM
David L. Lawrence Convention Center
Pittsburgh, PA.

The topic is broad: life. That's a lot to cover in the 15 minutes each of four speakers will be granted. I don't know what I can say in 15 minutes, but I'll give it a shot. The moderator has offered the following ideas:

  • What did family do for you?
  • What were your school experiences?
  • What was a help and what was not helpful?
  • How has your adult life developed?
  • What are you doing and what would you like to do?
  • What are your sensory issues?
  • Do you have friends or relationships?

The quick answers, if I choose to tackle these topics in the short amount of time allotted:

Family, especially my mother, did whatever they could to guarantee a "normal" childhood. School was a miserable experience, even through graduate school. That's how many people would answer, including those without any disabilities. People telling me I need to change and need to be more "charming" annoy me. You want me to do my best work, leave me alone. Adult life has been a lot like high school, and sometimes worse. I'm teaching and writing, doing what I like and wishing I had more time in every day to do more. My senses are always overwhelmed. I'm married to my best friend.

What do people want to know? Why would my answers matter?

Friday, July 5, 2013

Unable to Relax, Travel and Project Overload

It is 1 a.m. as I write this first sentence. I am unable to relax because I need to pack and plan for a week-long trip later today. The idea of not being in my own house leaves me anxious. I like things familiar and easily navigated.

Some trips are easier than others. Once in Dallas, I learned to navigate the area in a day and quickly appreciated how familiar Dallas was to me as a California native. I've also enjoyed trips to Jacksonville and Orlando, Florida. But, I didn't do well in several other cities. The more "vanilla" a city is, and the closer it is to a grid, the easier for me to navigate.

This week, I'll be in Naples, Florida. I've already studied maps and located familiar stores and restaurants. It isn't that I don't like to try local fare, but I like knowing where the Target, Walmart, Starbucks, Panera, and Dunkin' Donuts are for emergencies.

Sunday to Saturday is a long trip for me. I don't like to be gone that long, unless I'm with friends or family. This trip is entirely work-related.

While in Florida, I have to manage the client project for which I'm there, a new play I need to write, an existing play I need to revise, a client screenplay I need to finish this summer, several academic conference and journal proposals, and several other projects with impending due dates. So, in additional to trying to deal with a unfamiliar place, I'll have the standard anxiety of too many projects and not enough time. Focus will certainly be an issue.

Also, I will worry about the kids. Mutt, one of our two oldest cats, is not well. He is in his final months, so I want to be with him as much as possible. I hold him several times a day, and feed him treats. I'll miss that while I am gone.

Will I complete all my projects? I don't have much choice with some of them! Will I enjoy the trip? Probably not, but I will tolerate it and be as professional as possible. I will need time away from people, to decompress and to be productive.

And when I return, I will need a few days to recover.

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Being Awkward vs. Being Shy

I am not shy, as most people who get to know me soon realize. I am, however, something of an introvert and selective when it comes to interactions. If I am interested in a person or a topic, it's easy to recognize that I overcome any social anxiety and engage. I narrowly focus, though, often to the point of ignoring other people or social niceties.

If I'm talking about anything of interest to me, I am consumed by that topic at that moment. Nothing else registers.

Yes, I like to hide in corners and avoid crowds. But, that does not mean I am shy — it means I know my limitations and how uncomfortable I can make people. I can be intense when discussing my interests, so it is often best not to talk to anyone in a new setting.

I find it safest to avoid public gatherings and group situations; they are seldom enjoyable or of interest to me. When they are of interest to me, I don't navigate the social aspects well at all. I miss the non-verbal signals of when to move on, when to stop talking — and when to leave.

You might describe me as socially awkward. Great on stage, good teaching a class with a clear structure, but lousy one-on-one or in smaller groups.

As I write this, I am preparing an outline for a conference paper on collaboration. The challenge in school and at work for autistic students is that groups are inherently social. Whether the autistic is shy or socially awkward, the results are similar: you remain an outsider.

I recall studies that suggest autistics respond micro and milliseconds slower to some social cues. A mere half-second or less can make others in a group extremely uncomfortable. It's hard to imagine, but humans respond instantaneously to each other. Raise an eyebrow, lower your voice, flinch a muscle, and people react. Micro-expressions are real, and often analyzed unconsciously. What happens when your mind doesn't process the micro-events at standard speed? Other people sense you are awkward, even if they cannot explain why.

I'm awkward. That's why I avoid many situations. This leads to people assuming I am anti-social, asocial, or have severe social anxiety. But, none of that is accurate. I'm not shy, and I don't have social anxiety or I couldn't speak in public as often as I do.

When you are awkward and know it, you simply try to avoid situations in which that awkwardness is impossible to ignore. And yet, my impulse to engage some topics of interest means I often forget the safety of sitting in corners or standing on the margins of gatherings.

Humans don't realize how much conversations and relationships are either entirely non-verbal or based on the moments between the words, the pacing of our interactions. Consciously, you might not be able to explain why someone makes you uncomfortable, but you know something about how that person interacts seems "weird" or "off" in some way. That's me… the awkward person with whom you don't really want to be forced to spend hours.

Knowing this, I know (sometimes) to stay home when I'm too tired to consciously monitor my interactions. When I forget, I also have a wife who can tell me when it is a good day to stay away from people.

Those awkward days are days best spent writing alone.