Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Executive Function

From the "Ask a Question" area…
My son has Aspergers and he is very bright. However, I think what is difficult is that he has difficulty in Executive Function and I feel this will affect his learning as he grows older. Did you have the difficulty in EF and how did you cope with it? Any suggestions would be appreciated.
Executive function (and, therefore, executive dysfunction) refers to one's ability or inability to organize daily routines required to function optimally in relationships, at school, at work, and within any community. When someone lacks impulse control, focus, and the ability to prioritize tasks, that individual suffers from impaired executive function.

To describe me as "scattershot" would be generous. Finishing projects requires Herculean efforts, and I admit that more often I fail than succeed when it comes to my to-do list.

Projects end up almost done, and I have the boxes of work to prove it. Getting through the day can be a challenge, especially if I want to do something other than what I must do.

When something interests me, other tasks end up ignored, sometimes with negative consequences.

How do I succeed then? How is it that someone with so many "incompletes" in life can have any professional stability?

Well, if only I could describe myself as truly "successful" in the traditional sense. I teach part-time, having been unable to adapt to a situation that didn't suit my needs. I write plays because I couldn't type the novels in my mind without getting bored — scripts are shorter and faster to type.

The simple reality is that without my wife, I'd be working part-time somewhere, trying to survive, forgetting when I have appointments even though they are in my calendar and I set alarms for them. I'm not self-sufficient, as she can attest. Even when I've had to manage the house alone, she will call me and message me to remind me of tasks I need to complete.

I must approach my life like a business management problem. I use calendars, and was an early adopter of the Palm Pilot, and then an iPod Touch. I need alarms and lists. I keep lists, and I print them. I also print my calendars, since I might forget to look at a smartphone screen.

Technically, you could call me a successful playwright. That's only possible because I track submissions, registrations, acceptances, and so on. Okay, my wife actually handles that side of things. She also makes sure I don't forget deadlines. But, I do try to help by printing things to the printer in her office, so she can file papers and add events to calendars for me.

No, I'm lost without supports. I panic and collapse without someone to make sure I get from A to B on a daily basis. I have a teaching assistant at the university, and she's amazing. (Let us hope the next TA is good, too!) I have another assistant helping with theater projects. Again, others are helping me succeed.

Maybe this isn't the best answer for parents and autistics to read, but my situation is that I need someone to be those executive functions for me. I need a good managing partner. Without friends, family, and assistants, I'm not certain what would be possible.

I'm from a modest background, so my parents sacrificed a great deal of their time and energy to ensure my success. My failure to focus and my inability to deal with lousy situations often cost my friends and family, not only time and energy, but sometimes money.

The fact that I did complete the doctorate is something owed to my wife, a support specialist, and a handful of administrative faculty at the university. It was not easy on me, or on them. I came close to not finishing the degree, exhausted by the negative experiences and the conflicts common within graduate programs.

It isn't easy, and success isn't accomplished alone.
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Thursday, January 16, 2014

Day One, Survived!

Each new semester begins with anxiety, doubt, fear, and insecurity. Teaching means standing before a group of people, trying to convince them you are going to say and do something worthy of attention.

This was difficult teaching at a mid-range state university, a land-grant research university, and even a small private college. I don't care where you teach, you know that part of the job is rhetorical — persuading an audience to follow along.

Now, I teach at one of the top universities in the world, in a top-ten program. These students are the best of the best. These are not only the perfect SAT/ACT scores, they are also the student council presidents, drama club stars, musicians, and more. They are so talented it is often beyond my comprehension.

And I'm expected to help them learn about writing, public speaking, and general rhetoric.

Surviving the first day without a panic attack or meltdown? That's a victory. By week three, I'm fine, but those first two weeks are a learning period as I try to evaluate the audience and adjust my strategies. I can't relax until I know the first assignments have gone somewhat smoothly.

I love teaching, but it isn't the easiest thing for someone like me. I doubt it is easy for any introvert. But, once on the "stage" I do okay.

People ask if I would recommend academic careers to others, including autistics with passions for learning. Here's my answer:

Teaching is not for everyone, from the kindergarten classroom to the university lecture hall, each grade is a "calling" that requires the right emotional and intellectual fit. I could never teach the K-6 level, and I admit that.

Being a professor works for me, but it works because I'm at a place that respects my personality and my strengths.

You might love the idea of being a researcher, studying and writing on a specialized topic. However, being a professor includes teaching. It is an inherently social job. You must be engaged with your students, the staff, and your faculty colleagues. Your career will depend on being liked and known in your specialty, at the local and national levels depending on your career path.

When someone suggests "Academia is ideal for autistics" I cringe. That's a simplification focused solely on the research aspects of being a professor. If you teach at a community college, you'll likely need to teach four or five courses a semester. It is not a research setting. The rewards, and the demands, are social in nature. If you teach at a research university, the emphasis might be on publications and citations, but it is still a social situation. Teaching is secondary, though more universities do have "teaching" and "research" lines with job security.

Just as I cannot say that "computers" are a good field for autistics, I cannot say that of teaching or being a professor. We need to move beyond stereotypes and simple dichotomies.

I love teaching… and it causes me extreme anxiety with every new group of students. That constant change is not for everyone.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

(Lack of) Sleep Schedule

Until the last year or so, I fought insomnia on a weekly, even nightly, basis. Stumbling into a regular sleep schedule for the last year has been nice. And now it seems to have ended. I'm back to a shifted, annoying, non-sleep schedule.

I've tried wine, coffee (yes, it puts me to sleep), various teas, and watching Murder She Wrote mini-marathons on the Hallmark Channel. Nothing seems to work.

School starts in a week, and I need to be on a regular schedule. While I do not teach until noon, my office hours start at 10 a.m. and I need to leave for campus an hour earlier. That means waking up by 7:30 a.m. each morning… and I am not a morning person. Four hours of sleep, maybe less, won't be enough.

We did join a gym, so I am hoping that regular exercise helps. By this weekend, the weather should be nice and we'll be back to walking three nights a week and three trips to the gym. I know that I won't be able to maintain a perfect schedule with the exercise, though, because I also have a lot of evening projects and meetings this spring.

Writing and coding at night has always been my most productive time. At least I'm getting a lot done. However, I need to balance my creative energies and my work responsibilities.