Sunday, July 26, 2009

Social Skills Do Matter

The "look at me" approach to reading humans is painful, literally, for me -- and I know I am not alone. Considering many cultures dissuade direct eye contact, it must be assumed individuals in those cultures concentrate on intonation, gesture, and other non-verbal signals. Even personal space varies culture to culture, so the signals are not universal.

When I discuss this with other adults, including the non-verbal (which I am only under stress), it seems many of us focus on the mouth to compensate for "hearing too much" background noise and distractions. If I'm in a public space, I have to concentrate on the mouth to make sense of the spoken words even though I have excellent hearing. I simply end up confusing conversations around me with what is being said in front of me.

I end up finding myself reading journal articles and wondering why the conclusions of other researchers is often so far from my experiences and those of others I know. I often think at least interviewing adults with various deficiencies would alter the conclusions being reached.

My own research has centered on pedagogical concerns at secondary and post-secondary levels, where the social interactions are often as important as any course content. I have to resist the urge to remind other researchers and experts that getting me to "mimic" and "appear" more like everyone else is only a coping strategy. Its definitely a reminder that I am different and "deficient" that I must adapt to make others comfortable... but it also matters if I want to be successful.

I don't mean to sound like a radical on the matter. I simply want to remind others that simply because I can learn to outwardly do something doesn't really make me any more content or improve my self-image. In some cases, quite the opposite.

So, I do think decoding skills matter. They matter a lot in society that values "personality" and "charm" as much as knowledge or skills. I certainly appreciate the value of such skills. I simply wish some experts would not confuse successful mimicry / "faking it" for actual, internalized experience.

I'm quite good at reading faces 90% of the time, now. I've also memorized how to respond situationally. Example: Student looks confused during lecture (raised eyebrows, tilted head, tight lips). Reaction: Ask the student a question or prompt to confirm comprehension of lecture materials.

Good skill to have. No question about it... but it has always required analysis and conscious thought. I'm 40, so that's a lot of practice at it. Still, the delay in processing is and always will be noticeable to some people. That's okay, because that's who I am.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

The Occasional Gathering

While I do write about some issues, this blog was started mainly because I would misplace notes to myself. I could shift to Google Docs or another online setting, but some people do seem to find the posts useful or interesting. I don't go out of my way to be an activist or to promote events. I simply write what I think I might use later, thought for self-reflection.

I was recently asked why I "don't care more" about various causes. Why don't I attend various meetings and support groups? After all, the logic went, I should be active in organizations because they fight for my rights and promote social justice, etc., etc., etc.

Honestly, I'm not that interested. Maybe I should be, but I don't like the negativity, the complaining, and the unhappiness at most meetings -- or on many online sites.

I do not define myself by any particular limits. I don't dwell on the negative. I write complaints, deal with what I can, and move ahead. If I'm around negativity, it's almost contagious. I'd rather not "catch" the negative vibes of other people. I'd rather do things that are fun and relaxing with my spare time.

Sure, some people get something from gatherings and groups. I tend to get... depressed. It's better for me to do other things.

If you do enjoy getting involved in particular causes, that's good. I don't think groups are wrong for everyone. They just aren't right for me.

I don't mind speaking to groups, answering questions, and doing some things to volunteer with events. What I don't want to do is let myself be defined by a label and its associated "radical" elements.

When people ask, I can't easily explain why, but I just don't think about my physical or intellectual differences very often. Not that important to me. What matters to me are things I enjoy doing: writing, music, gardening, hiking, and more. I define myself by what I enjoy, not what I overcome.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Expression and Autism

For those not familiar with my research focus, I study the communications skills of teens and adults with autism. My particular interest is original compositions by those diagnosed with autism. This research leads me to study language, neurology, psychology, and more. Neurolinguistics are important, for example, but I never assume that "composition" must refer to written or spoken language. We have elevated the printed word far beyond what seems reasonable to me -- most communication is non-textual.

This summer I have a funded project to study online expression created by and/or for people with autism spectrum disorders.

I have studied at least 100 sites, now. Many of these are blogs, a major form of online self-expression. Others are communities with online forums. I will be writing about my findings in August, after I generate statistical reports on my observations. Ethically, it would be incorrect to discuss any "findings" until my research is complete and reviewed.

However, I wanted to discuss a personal observation that is outside my research.

Several of the communities has forums to post writing, photography, or other forms of artistic expression. When anyone doubts the emotional, creative capacities of individuals with ASDs, I suggest we point to these online examples.

Certainly there is a flood of teen-angst poetry, but that points to the fact students with ASDs are like other teens. There are also refined poems and stories written by adults who have more experience with written language. Everyone, with or without an ASD, has to master an art over time. Even savants get better with practice. The photography is often focused on patterns. I love such images and find them fascinating. Other forms of art are also quite compelling and reflect a desire to connect with larger groups. The musical compositions reflect two diverse groups: derivative works and stunningly unique scores.

The creative expressions by people with autism might be different. Some suggest poetry by individuals with autism is more about the self. But, photography? Painting? Musical compositions? I'm simply impressed there are so many artistic individuals online -- challenging assumptions that people with autism are not creative and don't seek audiences.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Gatherings Missed

This week there is a major national conference on campus, sponsored by the academic department in which I (in theory) reside.

However, either I missed the announcements or didn't understand them earlier this academic year. So, while other graduate students and instructors are meeting administrators from across the nation, I will be doing other things. I'm not sure if that's a positive or a negative.

Honestly, I wasn't sure about my schedule this summer, so I probably would not have volunteered to help at the conference or registered to present a paper. In fact, I did have a medical procedure last week that included minor surgery and a biopsy. I knew that summer would be busy.

On the negative side, I do realize networking and making contacts is important. The problem is that I am never comfortable in social settings. I do much better with a formal interview than trying to make a good impression in an unstructured setting. Since I am looking for a professorship next year (2010), contacts will matter.

Also, not participating in a national event that is hosted locally means I am, once again, isolated from my peers. That's not necessarily a bad thing, but it does emphasize that I have never quite "belonged" in the department because my interests are slightly different from those of the majority. That's okay, but it does mean I am taking my own path. I am more focused on technology and creative writing than my colleagues. It bothers me slightly to be apart, but I am also more uncomfortable when I try to fit in.

Learning to master the social aspects of any profession is a challenge. All organizations and professions have social aspects.

Certainly, I am responsible for missing any announcements or misunderstanding their value. I have to pay more attention to event announcements, and I should probably ask my wife or a mentor if a particular announcement is important to me.

As it is, I am sure this is a minor oversight on my part. I did attend a national conference in June and will be speaking at several other conferences before the end of this year. I'm sure my career path will be unaffected, as long as I do pursue other networking opportunities.

The lessons are: (1) pay attention to e-mail announcements, (2) try to network when possible, (3) if you miss an event, there will be others.

I'm just not good at the networking thing. I am learning to compensate with "virtual" networking.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Research Project

I am currently analyzing online spaces dedicated to issues of autism spectrum disorders. I am also including spaced created by and/or for individuals with ASDs.

This is a funded project, sponsored by my university, to help determine how we might design online courses to better accommodate students with special needs. It is a tedious process, but one that should pay dividends over the coming years as more students with diagnoses of HFA, AS, and PDD-NOS qualify for university admissions.

Though there are a great many sites dedicated to autism, the thing I still notice most is the "tribal" nature of the spaces. There are clear divisions within this small universe of individuals with ASDs, families, advocates, researchers, and so on. The tone of many sites is aggressive -- not at all inviting. I do understand how this has come to pass, but it is a shame.

Anyway, I'm concentrating more on design issues and accessibility than the rhetorical methods employed. At least design is my focus for now. Later, much later, I'll delve into the rhetorical analysis of autism communities.

(Or I'll opt for an entirely more peaceful pursuit and watch birds at the local parks.)

Another Medical Moment

Monday I have yet another (not so exciting) medical procedure. Yet, it isn't the medical procedure I am about to have that annoys me. No, what is annoying me are my eyes.

While I'm about to have some internal issues checked and verified, it is the pain of my eyes that distracts me each morning. I have strange, curling eyelashes over my left eye which keep getting lodged under the eyelids. I then have to flush the eye with sterile cleaner. My right eye just hurts. A lot. it is the familiar pain of the "erosions" I have had for the last year or so. The eye tears, as in rips, not drips, causing excruciating pain and sensitivity to light.

I'm already "hypersensitive" to the world around me. Having my eyes hurt like they have been makes sunlight unbearable. Even though internal issues can be serious, there are few things that hurt as much as a scraping sensation in your eyes.

In general, I see doctors too often. As a result, I'm not exactly ready to call the eye surgeon to have the obvious said. The erosions are just painful. There's not much else to do but let them heal and have my vision checked annually. Oddly enough, I see with near 20/20 vision. Ironic, since the eyes hurt so much.