Monday, November 26, 2012

Holiday Decor (Scrapes and Bruises)

It's that time of year: Christmas trees, wreaths, lights, and stockings by the fireplace.

I enjoy the decorations, but also like the fact my wife and I get to sit at home with the cats on Christmas Day. I like a nice, quiet holiday together. This time of year, I avoid the malls, try not to stare at blinking lights, and generally sit at home and enjoy the warmth.

Holidays can be painful, apparently.

While stringing the lights above our garage, I managed to skin both knees. Shingles are rough. I wonder why, since there's really no need for them to be sandpaper. My wife wonders how I skinned my knees through jeans. I don't know. I'm also unsure how I bruised my legs in two places. At least I do know the origin of a bruise on my right am — I slammed into a doorway, missing the opening by two or three inches.

Despite the injuries, I am pondering buying and hanging another string of lights. Maybe some "icicle" lights would look nice over the garage door.

We need something in the yard, but I dislike those inflated things. There are many tacky decorations we don't need in our yard. A house not far from us has hundreds of plastic things in the yard. These aren't an organized, planned arrangement. It is as if the owners purchased one or two of every tacky lawn ornament at a discount store and stuck them in the grass. Maybe they visited garage sales and thrift stores, too.

I might write an essay about the plastic flamingo I saw at Walmart. It had a "Santa cap" — which I suppose makes it a Christmas lawn ornament.

We like order and tradition. Our two trees are color-coordinated and classic. No strange colors or tacky decorations based on movies or television shows. Why does anyone want a talking Darth Vader ornament on a Christmas tree?

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Water Allergy?

For the last two weeks, I have turned red and "splotchy" after washing my face. Taking a bath is worse — red dots cover my body for an hour or so. My eyes swell, as does my throat.

I'm allergic to our water. It might be a child's dream to be allergic to bathing, but I sure don't like this situation.

What in the world could be causing such a strange reaction to the local water supply? I've never liked the smell or taste of our local water, but now my body is rebelling against it.

My wife is going to try to find out what the local water district is doing differently. Maybe we'll have to install a water filtration system for the house. I'm sorry, but water shouldn't make your skin tingle and eyes swell.

Has anyone else had a reaction like this? I'm wondering if it is a reaction to chlorine or another chemical.

At least we'll conserve water as my showers get shorter to spare me the rash-like splotches.

Friday, November 16, 2012

College Students with Autism: STEM Geeks?

A new study seems to support the stereotype that autistic students and scholars are drawn to the STEM disciplines. Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) Participation Among College Students with an Autism Spectrum Disorder, by Wei, Yu, Shattuck, et al, indicates I am not alone in being drawn to the STEM fields.

While I love writing, and consider myself a "writer" before most other roles I might have in life, even my writing tends to embrace my "geekhood." I am a geek. When I'm not writing, I'm experimenting with programming tools, new hardware, and reading all I can on websites like Slashdot and Ars Technica. My bookcases reveal my split-personality: books on art theory sit above books on database programming. I tell myself that programming is simply a special form of writing, but few of my colleagues in English or communications would agree. The idea of a programming poet confounds people, especially in an academic world with traditional disciplinary divides.

Some of my colleagues suggest they understand that coding is writing, but too many then say things that are (unconsciously or unintentionally) dismissive of fields beyond the humanities. They view technology with suspicion, at best, and at worst as taking over higher-education at the expense of humanistic values. A few colleagues in the humanities have told me, paraphrasing, "Computer programming is vocational." This overlooks mutlifaceted research in technology, including research that has and will influence the humanities.

Too often, I feel like an outsider while working in an English department. I've written on this blog and elsewhere that I sometimes wonder if I would have been more "successful" and feel more "content" working in a STEM discipline. There are personality differences that I perceive. I feel more at ease talking to people in science and technology departments, as if they can understand me.

Here is what the research published in Journal of Autism Developmental Disorders suggests:
Findings suggest that students with an ASD had the highest STEM participation rates although their college enrollment rate was the third lowest among 11 disability categories and students in the general population. Disproportionate postsecondary enrollment and STEM participation by gender, family income, and mental functioning skills were found for young adults with an ASD.
Research suggesting I'm not alone is reassuring. Normally, I don't care about belonging, but the last year has been difficult for me. I've felt not merely isolated, but even rejected to some extent. I've found comfort at the keyboard — writing and coding. If I could somehow obtain an information technology degree or something else computer-related, I would. What if that is an autistic trait?
The STEM major rate (34.31 %) for young adults with an ASD was not only higher than their peers in all 10 other disability categories, but also higher than the 22.80 % of students in the general population that declared a major in STEM related fields in postsecondary education (Chen and Weko 2009). In addition, this study found that young adults with
an ASD in STEM fields were more likely than the general population to concentrate in science [12.12 vs. 8.3 % (Chen and Weko 2009)] and computer science [16.22 vs.
6.6 % (Chen and Weko 2009)].
Computers are nicer than people — because they cannot be mean. Computers are predictable, even when you are exploring ideas of "chaos" and "randomness" via software algorithms. In STEM fields, you are judged by the code, by the science, by what you accomplish. You can be "strange" and do well within the STEM disciplines. I've met plenty of "quirky" scientists.

Some will argue with this, but based on my experiences, the humanities disciplines are more personality and politically driven. The "scholarship" is often nothing more than opinions on what might be the "right" way to teach or the "right" positions to take. English, composition, and rhetoric are the realms of "Social Justice Pedagogies" and "Activist Scholarship" that you won't find in most STEM peer-review journals. Being political — in the "correct" way — is part of what helps with the journey towards tenure. I simply want to study how people learn to write; I'd rather not be an activist in my classroom or in my scholarship. Isn't teaching itself contributing to society?

Being a student or a scholar is social, no matter what. The social skills required to succeed in college were difficult for me and are an obstacle for many autistics. I attended at least five institutions on my path towards a doctorate. The social barriers do force many autistics out of higher education, and that's sad: those of us with the skills and knowledge lack the social skills demanded by the setting.
While the STEM participation rate of young adults with an ASD appeared to be high, their postsecondary enrollment rate was the third lowest of all the disability categories.
As advances continue in the early identification and treatment of children with autism (Hart et al. 2010), these enrollment rates are likely to increase and, consequently, STEM participation among individuals with an ASD may also continue to increase over time.
I'm not sure what is ahead of me. If I remain in higher education, I know it will never be easy for me to navigate the humanities. One option would be to teach writing courses at a STEM-focused institution. Another option would be to teach at a research institution that embraces the "nonpolitical" research I favor (which is still advocacy for disabled students). Sometimes, I feel that I am being forced out of education because I'm in a discipline that doesn't accept my personality or my mix of interests. Being autistic has been a problem, at least in English departments.

My interests are needed, though. Autistics with passions for STEM disciplines are needed in this economy and will be valuable well into the future. It is nice that the researchers consider autistics "a resource" for society.
In an era where a world-class science and engineering workforce is needed to remain competitive in a technologically advancing global economy, it becomes imperative
to discover previously untapped sources of STEM talent. This study confirms that individuals with an ASD may indeed have the potential to become such a resource.
How can I be one of those resources? How can I find my "home" in academia?

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Discovering the Right Path

As I've revealed on this blog, I'm back on the job market and find myself again wondering what the "right" path is for me. My students are half my age (okay, less than half) and are on the same journey of self-discovery and purpose-seeking.

The reality is that we are limited not only by our skills and knowledge, but also by our personalities and social abilities. It might be that the right path for me has more to do with my personality than my interests. How to balance the intellectual and the social aspects of a career is a question I've never been able to answer.

When you love people and love business, being in sales is a natural path. If you dislike social interactions, but love medicine, then being a pathologist or medical researcher is a good path. It's easier for me to consider hypothetical combinations and present those to my students than to come up with a good combination for myself.

I've met autistic adults with dreams of careers that aren't realistic. I have told parents that if a student doesn't like noise, chaos, and over-stimulation, the dream of being a nurse might be impractical. If you don't like pressure and time limits, then a lot of careers are illogical to consider. Sorry, but that's the difficult truth we have to tell students. Then, we need to help young people find the right combination of interests, abilities, and tolerances so they can better aim for what might be the right path ahead.

Any socially active workplace is a struggle for me. Knowing my limitations doesn't make it any easier to confront them. Many of the careers I would like to pursue are too socially driven.

By the summer of 2013, I hope to know the next path I will be taking. As I face the decision of which paths to consider and which to eliminate, I'll need to be honest with myself about the environments that are best suited to my personality, not merely my interests or skills.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Spectrum of Relationships 2.0 in Progress

Last night I returned to work on A Spectrum of Relationships. The first edition is available on Amazon and Barnes and Noble, and I thank people for having purchased the book. Like most authors, though, I've never been satisfied with the text. It needs to be expanded and improved, so I have resumed revising what will be version 2.0 of the book. It won't be done for another six months or more, unfortunately.
If you have questions or suggestions that might be incorporated into the second edition, please let me know. Parents, students, educators, and caregivers have sent me some questions that will be addressed in the updated version. Of special interest to some readers were the sections on work and dating.

My university students are interested in these same topics: they want careers and families. These seem to be the two basic components of the "American Dream" — and probably the dreams of people everywhere. We want vocations that have meaning, while providing a livelihood. Most of us also want companions, with whom to share experiences and dreams. 

There are many books on autism and work. There are fewer good books on autism and romantic relationship — a topic that probably needs a series of books instead of a short chapter or two. Maybe after I complete the second edition of A Spectrum of Relationships my future projects should include specialized texts on work and romance. 

Monday, November 5, 2012

Less Stress Ahead

There was simply too much change in the last two years, and lots of stress. I changed jobs — and am on the job market again. We moved — twice. We lost our dear friends J.C. Kitty and Mimi, each passing while we were moving, not even a full year apart. We dealt with flooding and lots of tree branches. My health was its usual adventure, which added to my exhaustion and stress.

Finally, as 2012 nears an end, things are starting to feel a bit more organized and sane. Even looking for a new job is less stressful than the first post-graduate hunt because I know we are staying in our new house, in a little Western Pennsylvania township I like a lot. It's a nice place to live, reminding me of the foothills back in Central California — except these hills are green!

It appears my wife and I will be able to sell our first Pennsylvania house thanks to a decent market here. If the house sells before Christmas, as seems likely, it will be a huge relief to us.

Moving was stressful enough, as it is for everyone, but that house didn't agree with me or the furry kids. Our new house is, for many reasons, simply better for us. The new house still doesn't feel like "home" but it should in a year or two as we finish the major projects. The first house wasn't going to feel "right" without a substantial investment and lots of effort. It could be a great house, understand, but it needed a new kitchen, new driveway, and several significant updates to make me comfortable. We were living in the office, where we worked, watched television, and spend most of our time.

We did a good job fixing up the house to sell it. It looks much better than when we moved into the house. But, the kitchen alone was reason to consider another move.

I like our bigger, newer kitchen. We do something unusual: we cook our meals at home. No, we don't prepare gourmet meals, but at least we try to eat at home far more than the national norm. The kitchen needs space to prepare meals. We have blenders, mixers, food processors, and lots of gadgets. When two people are in the kitchen, a little space matters. Making cookies was difficult in a kitchen without counter space.

The new house feels better to me because it is so roomy. We used to live in a 700-square foot apartment. That was tough because there wasn't room for anything. Our kitchen was our office. There were two bikes in my small bedroom, along with a computer desk. We somehow survived in a space that felt more like a self-storage locker than a household.

After living in an 1128-square foot house in urban Minneapolis, I knew I needed space. Now, we have lots of space. There's still some clutter until we get the spaces organized and some basic furniture, but there is room in the new house for us, the cats, our books, and our home office equipment.

Next spring, we plan to start landscaping projects. That will make the house feel more like ours. I liked what we did in Minneapolis, though the yard was small and we should have made the planing beds much wider. I look forward to flowers, ornamental grasses, and some small trees. I also hope we can terrace the yard, making several planting beds for different types of gardens.

It feels good to know we have a clear plan and place we can call home.

Having a "normal life" is a good thing.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Communication Problems Among Others

People don't get along. Sometimes, their "communication styles" simply don't correspond well enough. Different personalities attempt to communicate in such varying ways that conflicts seem inevitable. Sometimes, these are cultural differences and I'm not sure how to help an adult realize he or she seems "aggressive" or "passive" because of a cultural difference.

This isn't an "autism" thing, either. I'm from California and was raised in a culture that doesn't seem as "aggressive" to me as the urban cultures I'm experiencing on the East Coast. My wife and I notice that some stereotypes seem to be grounded in reality. We were in a New York shopping mall and the people really do talk loudly, in short choppy sentences. They insult each other, even among friends and family. It is a different form of communication.

There are times when I completely miss communication problems. As a teacher, this can be frustrating, because university students inevitably have a few conflicts — in the classroom and beyond. I try to "read" the students to the best of my abilities, trying to recognize when there might be an issue that I need to address with a student (or students) before it affects classwork. The same situations arise in workplaces and any other social groups, from church congregations to city-league sports teams. Communication failures are part of life.

At universities, we have students not only from across the nation, but from around the world. The communication norms are so complex that it would be nearly impossible to master the subtleties. The best I can do is ask students to be polite and hope they learn to interpret each other. Learning to interact across various communication norms certainly improves your ability to analyze audiences and situations.

This semester, I've seen how complex cultural and even generational differences are for students. Watching the students helps me appreciate that everyone has to navigate interpersonal communication carefully and with an open mind.