Tuesday, May 27, 2014

My Wife's View of the 'Autistic Me'

A reader asks, "If you don't think about the autistic traits, what about your wife? They tend to notice what husbands fail to see in the mirror."

Is my wife be more aware of my "autistic" traits than I am? Probably. I suppose the above is true of all friends and family in our lives. The people observing us probably do see us for whatever we are, more clearly than we can see ourselves.

She knows how annoyed I get with myself, which might help her tolerate me a little more. I dislike how locked in I get to thoughts, how much I worry constantly about failing at things, how tense I get in various situations. She knows I don't like my sensitivities, my fears, and my general anxiety.

My wife reminds me to accept my limits, though I hate those limits. She tries to maintain order and calm, knowing how much I hate disorder in my life. I don't like to be told the obvious though: my mind doesn't let go of things, even when I wish it could. She'll tell me to ignore something or try to forget it, but I cannot. And the reminder doesn't help — it makes me more stressed, more upset with my feedback loops.

Every week I worry that I'm not doing enough, not successful enough, not social enough, and on and on and on.

If she can add her thoughts and observations, that might help others.

From Susan:

  • Your sensory sensitivity is definitely autistic -- you can hear things most people cannot, and they can cause headaches. Unfortunately, I don't always know when you can or cannot handle some noises. You need to speak up more to prevent problems.
  • Stop stressing about not doing enough. You are doing plenty. 
  • You need to accept, and consider, your physical and neurological limits more often. It may prevent some downward spirals that take you days to recover from. However, now that I know yard work and planting hostas is one way to reset you, you might be doing more yard work in the future. That's why we live in "the country."
  • I maintain order and calm not only for you, but also for me. I like structure, order, and routines, and breaking my routines can stress me out a little, just not to the downward spiral and meltdown point that it stresses you to. Also, the more calm your life is, the less stressful my life is.
  • Every time you think you are abnormal or hard to live with, consider some of the "normal" people you live and work around. They are much more demanding, unreasonable, self-centered, and psycho.

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Friday, May 23, 2014

The Pain of Memories

I don't generally speak of it, but driving on the shortest Interstate between Pittsburgh and our house upsets me most times. But, it saves about 20 minutes if I'm in a hurry to get home. I need to decide between the emotional stress, the memories it triggers, and the convenience of getting home quickly. (The "quick" route is only fast when driving toward home — it is the worst imaginable path into the city.) Usually, I'll opt for the circuitous (and less stressful) drive that takes me on three different Interstates and two state routes.

The problem is, there's no way skip around the symbols (and traffic signs) that upset me if I want to go to the best grocery store, bookstores, music store, restaurants, and a good mall. So, I feel lousy getting to whatever I want to do. That's hard to explain to other people.

If I could clear my mind, and ignore the signs that upset me, that would make life more comfortable.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Cities and (in)Sanity

Now, for some paradoxes about where we choose to live.

Greater Pittsburgh, as a community, has proved to be a great place for my wife and me. The region, which includes parts of West Virginia and Ohio, offers excellent opportunities for people like us. But, those opportunities come with a cost.

Before reviewing the toll I pay for working in Pittsburgh, I wish to list the amazing benefits of the Steel City:

  • I teach at a top-ranked research university, among the best in the world;
  • My plays have received public readings (and, soon, stagings) by some of the most supportive actors, directors, and crews possible;
  • I can walk large sections of the city, after I find parking, avoiding mass transit; and
  • My office is a short walk from one of the largest urban parks in America and the Phipps Conservatory.

But, cities still exhaust me. As a result, I commute an hour or more each direction so we can live in the exurbs. People consider where we live to be "country" though I consider the country to be what we see as we enter Ohio: open fields, rolling green hills, and cattle.

A recurring theme of this blog is my deep distaste for dense urban environments. I hate cities. It is no mere dislike; cities leave me physically and emotionally traumatized. It can take me weeks, not hours or days, to decompress from the sensory overload of a commute into the urban core where we live.

One reason we had to leave Minneapolis was the dense nature of the urban neighborhoods. Although the neighborhood in which we lived features single-family homes with small patches that pass for yards, the density was too high for my nature. I have detailed the misery of that experience.

Pittsburgh is worse. Much, much worse. It is an old icy, dating back to pre-Revolutionary days. The row houses resemble New York or, with the steep hills, the core of San Francisco. Driving in Pittsburgh is a nightmare, unlike anything I've experienced anywhere else. Walking is also more difficult.

As I approach the city, my anxiety increases. My stomach churns. My head aches. I dread the city.

Leaving the city is as stressful as entering. Paths in or out require navigating bridges, tunnels, and left-hand exits. People honk their horns and gesture, believing my 65 to 70 mph speed in the left lane is merely to annoy them. I have witnessed the shock of these drivers as they realIze the "fast lane" is actually a short, 20 mph hairpin exit to another freeway. The sounds of screeching brakes sticks with me. One woman in a white compact car flashed her lights, used her wipers, gestured, and was definitely screaming at me, and then realized we were in a left-hand exit to a busy suburban street. She skidded into the middle lane.

The city itself is noisier than Minneapolis. The abundance of hospitals explains the endless sirens.

Once in the city, I do much better because I'm learning how to avoid the very things that make it urban. I like the park, the conservatory, and the quiet pockets that resemble small towns within the city. I do not like the financial district or the entertainment district. I'd rather stick to the quieter spaces.

But, I am a playwright and a professor — both of which require traveling through and working within the urban core at times.

At least I know that at the end of any day in the city, I get to return to the peace and quiet of our "country" home.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

What Titles Mean

Hamerschlag Hall is one of the principal teach...
Hamerschlag Hall is one of the principal teaching facilities of the Carnegie Institute of Technology (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
For the 2014-15 academic year, my title will be "Visiting Assistant Teaching Professor of Business Communication." Reading this long title on my contract, I considered how labels and titles, beyond "disabled" and whatnot, shape how people view us.

And so, an analysis:

Visiting: not expected to remain; a guest; a traveler heading elsewhere.

Assistant: working to aid others.

Teaching: responsible for educating, with any research duties subordinate.

Professor: respected for past academic accomplishments.

Business Communication: specializing in workplace communication, instead of academic discourse.

The full title implies my role is to teach classes in the business school so other professors can focus on research. It is a temporary post, one that many scholars hold at an institution before locating a permanent position.

Thankfully, teaching is not dismissed or undervalued at the institution where I work, but that is a problem at many research universities. True, dedicated researchers often earn more money, but many "Research Professors" find themselves like "Teaching Professors" — without the promise of tenure or job security. The "Tenure Track" represents that mix of teacher-scholar that I enjoy. But, if asked to choose between research and teaching, I'd go with the teaching as my job. I enjoy working with students and watching them make discoveries.

Job titles convey meaning not only to others, but to the holders. The title helps me understand my role on campus. It's also valuable to understand that titles are bureaucratic, used to comply with rules, regulations, and traditions.

Outside academic settings, people use the title "professor" without the various rank and responsibility modifiers. To my neighbors and family, I'm a professor of communication, and that's it. Trying to explain academic rank resembles explaining military ranks.

As readers know, I like "writer" as my primary label, but "professor" can only increase the writing and public speaking opportunities.
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Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Am I the Autistic Me or Not?

Every few months, online or in real (physical) life, I hear the skeptical, questioning, puzzled phrase, "You're not autistic. You can't be." I've addressed the question here many times, and I still lack a single good response.

The "positive" versions:

  • Because you are successful, self-expressive, driven, and have a career, it is hard to believe you are autistic.
  • Because you are considered intelligent…
  • Because you did well in school…
  • Because you have a wife, good relationship with family, and seem to lead a "normal" life (especially for an introvert)…
  • Because I've never seen a meltdown, non-verbal day, shaking, stereotypical behaviors…

The "negative" versions:

  • You must be lying to get attention.
  • You played the neurologists for suckers.
  • You are merely an awkward geek, like other smart people.
  • You are using autistic traits as an excuse for being lazy.

The reality is more complex, as it always is. Here's my current, as of this moment, take on if I am "the autistic me" or not:

I do not consider myself "autistic" 98.99% of the time. I simply don't think about it. That puts me at odds with many self-advocates, especially the most vocal and engaged advocates. "Autistic" is not an identity that's deeply ingrained, maybe because it is a relatively new label or maybe there's some other reason.

As I have written here in the past, I want to be considered successful based on my works as a writer, teacher, and tech. Judging me by a different scale because I happen to have physical and neurological challenges bothers me. It might be unavoidable, but I'd rather be a "good writer" than a "good autistic writer."

But, to the claims that I am "not autistic" there is another, more complex aspect that I have also addressed in the past.

Today, "autism" refers to a lot of things, some of them I doubt are as closely related as the single label suggests. I do not view "autisms" as one thing, and I'm not sure it is useful when others try to group every "autism" under the same umbrella.

I am not "autistic" by genetics, toxins, or whatever else some people associate with autistic traits. My birth was complex, there were serious injuries, and those seem to have effected my neurological and physical existence. That's it. Nothing sinister, nothing to rally against. A breech birth, in the 1960s.

There's no "regression" in my history. No sudden "change" that led to a diagnosis of autism. So, I am not the "autistic" many parents recognize. I have traits, and those traits have been grouped together on a checklist that some psychiatrists decided to call "autistic."

I'm just whatever I am. As I wrote earlier, I simply want to be the best at what I enjoy doing. That's probably not being the best "autistic" — that's not my goal.
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