A blog advocating autism through my own personal experiences and insights.

Archive for July, 2011

Speedy Gonzo

One thing that particularly drives me nuts on a lot of occasions is the speed with which people carry out conversations. It’s as if they’re in race cars and going absolutely speedy gonzo. Okay, maybe this is an exaggeration, but you get my point. Quite often, I just can’t seem to catch up with them. It’s like riding a mountain bike on a paved road with a bunch of people who all have road bikes with those flat tires instead with the knobs that mountain bikes have. It takes greater force for me to keep up at their speed. I try so hard at first and may be able to keep up at least a little while, but soon, they’ve all disappeared around the next bend and when I turn that bend, I’ve lost them completely. It isn’t fun and I can’t enjoy my bike ride.

When you’ve reached a fork in the road and some of them go one way and the rest go the other is the worst part though. All of a sudden it looks like you can choose which one as well. If you don’t like one way, you can come back and try another (I’m going to assume here that your bicycling friends who are going the other way will wait for you if you come back). It looks like there’s a greater chance that you can keep up this time since there are two groups instead of just one. And you don’t need to take a course on probability to figure out that the greater number of opportunities there are, the more of a chance you’ll succeed. After all if one opportunity fails you, at least you’ll have the other one to fall back on. Hence if can’t keep up with one group of bicyclists, you can always come back and try with the other group. But, hey, guess what? You can’t keep up with the second group either. Great, you’ve been given two attempts and you’ve failed at both of them. What a jolly time this is!

Okay, enough with analogy. Let me deliver the hard rock-bottom truth. I usually can’t keep up on conversations that I’m involved in or could be involved in. It takes at least a few seconds longer for me to process what another person has said and for me to generate a response. Unless I really want to put a lot of effort in to it (too much effort for what it’s worth), I’m just not going to keep up. There are, of course, exceptions. Unlike bicycling, it does require at least two people for a conversation to take place. Hence if I’m in presence of only one other person and we’re talking, that other person has no choice, but to wait for me. Now it isn’t a long wait and it’s usually accompanied by my saying stuff like, “Let me think about that for a moment” or “Ummmmm” or something to that affect. Besides, I usually respond faster when I’m in the presence of one person because I don’t feel so overwhelmed by the presence of several people.

More often than not, however, when I’m in the presence of a person, I’m usually in the presence of several people. And several people might mean several conversations happening at once. This is where when you’re with your bicycling friends at that fork in the road and several of them choose to go the other way and several the other. Whenever I’m in the presence of several people where several conversations are happening, I start trying to contribute to one conversation, but when that doesn’t go so well, I move onto another. And when that doesn’t work out right, I move onto another or move back to the first to have another go at that one. What ultimately happens, however, is that the social gathering draws to a close with me not feeling so good after several attempts of something that I can’t seem to get a grasp on.

Of course, there might only be one conversation going on. One particular example where this was a problem was in the philosophy society at university. The philosophy society was a group of students who loved discussing philosophical topics and we discussed a topic for an hour and a half each week. While there weren’t usually more than ten people at any given meeting and certainly philosophy is something I love and love to talk about, my slow response time in conversations applied all the same. And philosophy, being a subject filled with controversial issues, meant that people were arguing with each other. While this was in a polite fashion (we weren’t at each other’s throats), we were all doing our best to get our opinions and arguments for them out into the conversation. Given this, I wasn’t too successful myself a lot of the time. What particularly annoys me about this scenario is that I knew I was a great philosophy student and certainly had good ideas. Yet in the philosophy society, I either couldn’t find the words to say my ideas fast enough or I thought that if I had a few seconds I could at least come up with an idea. Sometimes I sit there and all I can process immediately are waves of emotion on what people think, but nothing on their actual thoughts themselves, except that they have to do with the chosen topic for the meeting.

Another time when I had trouble with conversations was up at the dining hall at university. I sat with some people from the residence I knew and one day we were discussing something. I forget what the topic was, but it’s not important. Anyway, I made a suggestion about the topic at hand, but the problem was when I had made it, the conversation had already changed a little bit. After I had made my comment, one of the others told me that we had already left that topic that I should keep up with the pace. It wasn’t in a mean way, just in a fun way.

I’ve actually found a post on another autism blog about a woman with aspergers who experience much of the same thing. The link for it is as folows: http://www.journeyswithautism.com/2009/06/18/when-will-i-ever-learn/

I like how she describes the experience as trying to get some cans from a very high shelf. You keep on jumping, trying to get them. Sometimes you touch them, which just encourages you to jump even more.

It can be a frustrating experience and it’s certainly good to know there are others who feel the same way as me. But like I said in a couple of posts back we all have our strengths and weaknesses. I’m in a paved world with a mountain bike trying to keep up with others who all have road bikes. Yet I can equally imagine an unpaved world built for my mountain bike, while damage is done to those smooth tires of all those road bikes on that world.

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A Question of Interpretation

A few nights ago after supper my parents and I hung around the T.V. not watching anything in particular. I asked to see if I could see the guide on the screen to see what was on and to pick something. Dad said no. I kept insisting for a few seconds and he kept on saying no. And then Mom said something like, “Oh come on, J.C., he’s only joking. Look, he’s holding it right out.” I looked at his hand and sure enough he was holding it somewhat out (although even if I saw that he was I don’t think I could’ve known he was joking).

This is just an example of a situation that comes up sometimes in my life. I can’t always tell just how seriously I should be taking people’s words. Often it’s a piece of cake because of the context, but there have been circumstances, like the one just described, where I sometimes get it wrong. It’s in these circumstances when it just isn’t clear, at least to me, from the context. In the example of the T.V., sometimes my parents are indeed trying to watch something and so I don’t get a say in who channel to watch. Another reason why I can’t sometimes tell is that there was no announcement that we were going to be joking around. It’s not as if we all decided to spend a certain amount of time not taking each other seriously. The incident with the T.V. wasn’t part of anything like that. It was isolated and had come out of left-field. And then there are the after-effects afterward, such as feeling foolish in not realising the other joking around.

And it’s not just incidents where I take people too seriously that my literal mind has a problem with. Whenever someone says something to me that isn’t to be taken in the full literal sense, there’s always the risk of misinterpretation. An instance of this is when there’s a hidden qualification. When someone says statement A, but it’s supposed to be interpreted as ‘A if B’ or ‘A as long as B’ where B is just some statement that the speaker takes for granted that applies to A in some manner.

Let me a share a couple of examples. On a bus ride up from home to university, I was at a bus terminal. I was about to get on the bus I was to take to university, when the driver asked where I was going. I answered that I was going to the town my university was in. He asked me again and I answered with the town again. He might have asked yet again, I’m not sure. Then he asked me if I was going to some specific place in the town that wasn’t the university and I answered that, no, it was the university I was going too. He seemed a bit annoyed that he had to go through all this trouble to get the answer he was looking for. He could’ve asked where it was I was going to in the town. Another example is when I was in my first year at university. In an English course that year, we had the option of doing a creative writing exercise from Stephen King’s On Writing. The exercise entailed an imagined scenario of a woman trying to hide from her ex-husband who’s escaped from jail to hunt her down. King then suggested that the reader continue the scenario, but change the sexes so that this time it was the woman hunting the man down. After I got my assignment back, even though I wasn’t deducted points for it, the professor was surprised that I changed the character names. Apparently he had expected me to keep the character names that King created in that book Dick and Jane. Not to make such a big deal out of this, I just wanted point out that nowhere in the exercise did King say to keep the character names. Yet it was assumed that I would do so.

I don’t take everything I see at face-value. I just seem to take more at face-value than what a non-autistic does. And given that it only happens once in a while, I don’t feel a great motivation to do much about it (if anything can be done about it). Besides, I think trying to improve it isn’t what’s important. Or at least it isn’t nearly as important as getting others to accept that misinterpretation can occur. There’s no reason to get annoyed like that bus driver. As soon as we’ve managed to understand each other, we can all go on our merry way.

It’s All a Matter of Strengths and Weaknesses

As I go through life I can’t help but observe that a lot of what I’m good at is not typically what the average person is good at. Also, what I’m not good at is not typically what the average person is not good at. Of the former, I’m talking about such things as my innate talents in math and philosophy and academia in general. Of the latter, I’m talking about such things as finding it difficult to make and maintain friendships and having a lack of social intuition. Also, while my autism has contributed much in the way of the weaknesses I don’t think autism is anything more than that. My autism is solely a contributor to my own sets of strengths and weaknesses and most of all to my own individuality. I don’t view it as a disability.

Let me elaborate. While I certainly think autistic people do need help with certain life tasks that non-autistic people won’t need help with, I don’t think this is any reason to view autistics as being any more deficient than the rest of us. It is only a different way of being and thinking. The problem lies in the fact that autistics are in the minority and so the world isn’t properly designed for them. In other words, autistics really only need help because they aren’t designed for the world as it is and not because of any intrinsic characteristic. If the majority of us were autistic, I think the world would be a rather different place. For example, social norms would be different. You’d probably be expected to talk in a straightforward literal sense with no chitchat or talking simply for the sake of talking. Conversations would have more logic involved and go about three times as slowly. Face-to-face communication wouldn’t involve body language or at least body language that wasn’t explained by what you say. Loud crowds of people at places would be a lot less common. In such a world, those who weren’t autistic would be the outliers and hence they would be the ones who would be labeled as having a disability, not the autistics.

If you think I’m somewhat too extreme in my view here, feel free to comment. It’s just my personal philosophy. I’m no psychologist, but I think the above explanation as to why we label people autistic would apply to a number of autistics, maybe depending on how severely affected one was with it.

There are a number of autistics, however, who have many admirable talents, such as me, and if an autistic individual has a talent that is quite admirable and rare as to be called a gift, they are called an autistic savant. Of course, there have been a number of famous individuals throughout history who while they had great gifts, they lacked a lot of everyday skills that the majority of people seemed to have. Albert Einstein, for instance, was one of the greatest scientists who ever lived, but he couldn’t tie his shoes and had difficulty in leaning to talk as a child. What is more, very smart talented people who lack everyday skills has become a fascinating characterization to use in the entertainment world. For example, Sheldon Cooper on the popular T.V. show The Big Bang Theory is a prodigy who’s a gifted physicist, but can’t seem to relate to people in a neurotypical way.

In bringing up the concept of such characterizations I only want to point out that no matter what your strengths are and no matter what your weaknesses are they are natural to you. They are part of what makes you a unique individual. How you compare to the rest of society isn’t nearly as important. What is important is self-acceptance and the acceptance of others. You embrace your strengths and your weaknesses, as well as the strengths and weaknesses of others. Being open in this manner requires you to drop any preconceived notions you might have about what combinations of strengths and weaknesses are ‘normal’ or ‘abnormal’. The concept of what’s normal simply can’t be applied. As my aunt likes to say it would be good if everyone understood that everyone, autistic or not, is odd in their own way. It’s why she likes my poem A Foreign Autistic World so much that I shared in my second post. We’re all ‘a little queer’.

Yes, I suppose I do fit the characterization of the stereotypical introverted mathematician with no social skills at least a little bit, which I think is fun to joke around a bit, but you can’t lose sight of the big picture. I’m human with my own sets of strengths and weaknesses, which come natural to me regardless of whether anyone thinks them normal or weird to have. In this way being autistic isn’t a disadvantage. It’s a blessing.

At the Intersection of my Autism and Writing

In my last post I told about my hobby of writing novels. I would now like to elaborate more on it, especially how my being high-functioning autistic has influenced it. First I’ll tell a little bit about my books. They are currently part of a series of four books where the protagonists are a teenage couple Ray Malay and Lucy Nelson. The setting is in Nova Scotia, Canada, which is where I live. The first novel called Love and Photographs is a short novel spanning about 50,000 words. It starts with Ray who lives in Sydney, Nova Scotia having three stolen photographs from his family album. At about the same time Lucy and her family move from Toronto, Ontario to Sydney only to discover their new house is vandalised. Ray and Lucy meet and ultimately investigate into these strange happenings, which ultimately leads to a connection between their families. They also have to watch out for a few antagonists who are a nasty old woman Mrs. Palo and an evil couple called the Tomkens. The second book is about a murder of a family friend of the Nelsons down in Lunenburg, Nova Scotia where the Nelsons take Ray to their summerhouse.

One thing I would like to point out is that neither Ray nor Lucy nor anyone else in the novels is autistic. Yes, I have thought about the possibility of using an autistic protagonist in a novel like in The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon and I will certainly write at least a few novels of my own with this feature, but no one in the Ray and Lucy novels is autistic. This doesn’t mean, however, that my autism hasn’t influenced the novels to be what they are.

The first instance I’ll use of this is through my writing style and voice. Every author out there has a unique voice for telling their stories and mine is no exception. I think of my writing voice as very simple and very logical. For example, if I have Ray and Lucy go visit someone, I’ll have the house somewhat described, then I’ll have them be greeted at the door and shown into the living
room. Then I describe the living room, and then I have the characters sitting down and begin talking. Also, the descriptions that I use are quite simple in structure. As an example, here is how I once described a house:

Lucy ignored her, and they walked the rest of the way to Hannah’s house in silence. Her house had two floors with yellow siding and white shudders on windows arranged in a symmetrical way on the front of the house. There was a garage off of the house that was the same shade of yellow as the house. A cement pathway led up to the front door from the driveway. They went in and found themselves in the kitchen.

It’s kind of like the way description is put in Mark Hadden’s novel A Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time. Simple, plain, and logical. It’s one of the reasons why I like this novel so much. It means that I shouldn’t have to “fix” the way I tell my story because of my autism if I am to be successful as a writer.

The second way that autism has influenced my writing is through the characters even though none of them are autistic. If you’ve read my previous posts, you know that my social life in high school, which is when I started writing the series, wasn’t that good. This motivated me to give Ray and Lucy something that I never had in high school (and not even to this point in my life): A loving relationship. I decided that since it was very difficult for me to have any close friends, I’d at least give Ray and Lucy close friends, as well as a dating relationship that develops between the two of them to boot. Since Lucy was a new girl in town and would be going to a new school, I wanted to characterize her as an extravert, be very pretty, and be easily likeable. As a result, she would have a great social life as the novel unfolded. Ray, however, is probably closer to me when it comes to taking risks and social interaction. I still gave him, however, a few classmates he’s friends with and likes to hang out with. And as the story unfolded, I got him to know Lucy and eventually to have the courage to ask her out, which she accepts. This way I could still experience the joy of having more of a social life. Don’t get me wrong. It’s in no way a substitute. Just a way to keep me happy, while still trying to improve my own social life outside of my writing time.

Of course, it can be tough to write about a dating relationship between two other teenagers when you’ve never been in one yourself. When I started writing about Ray and Lucy my knowledge of how such relationships work was more than somewhat limited. And when I picked up the novel to revise it again a year ago and scanned through it, I had to wonder what on earth my 16-year-old autistic brain had been thinking. The revision I did last year included a more realistic approach to how I could get Ray and Lucy together instead of a simple “Hey, Lucy, I love you. Let’s go out” (and believe me I actually thought dating was that simple when I was 16). When I revised the novel this past year, though, I made their relationship develop at a slower and more realistic pace and the only time one of them told the other an “I love you” was when a cunning evil man had gotten Lucy drunk.

But I love the challenge. Even if I find myself stuck in some social gathering and I’m lost for words (which happens quite often), I stop trying to contribute anything to any conversation and just watch like a fly on the wall. It gives me ideas as to how I can get my characters to interact. In fact, I can pretty much find inspiration in any part of my life. I like to think of my own life as a story itself, filled with twists and turns and suspense. Which is partly why my passion for writing increased about a year ago. The more drama that occurs in my own life, the more inspiration I have. There is something to be said about the drama of my own life wearing me out, but leaving just the right amount of energy left for me to create dramas of my own.

A Developed Passion

I would like to share with you all both as a human being and one who is high-functioning autistic an extraordinary passion that I have acquired. It is my hobby of writing fiction, specifically novels. I’ve already showed myself as a writer in sharing my poem A Foreign Autistic World in an earlier post (I’ve also written three more poems, which I’ll share in future posts), but my main writing goals are novels. I actually started seriously writing 6 years ago at the age of 16, although I contemplated writing a novel since I was 12. Could I actually write a book? As to why at the time I guess you could say there was a “because it’s there” appeal to it and that I would’ve just loved seeing my name in print crediting the work of a book to me. Today, while those are certainly contributing factors to why I still write fiction, they aren’t the most important motivations to why I do it. I will elaborate on this in my next post.

When I finally sat down to actually begin writing 6 years ago, I had picked out one potential plot idea to write upon and I had also decided to specialize my genre of fiction writing to mystery and thrillers. I picked this genre for two reasons. One is that a mystery is like a puzzle. You’re trying to see how much you can solve or at least guess at before all the parts are laid out for you before the book is finished. Another reason is the high-level of suspense and tension that’s involved throughout the story. A lot is in the balance in such a story and a lot of characters have a lot to lose including their own lives. It’s this drama that attracts me to wanting to write fiction with this high-level of suspense.

As to how often I write, it’s always been a challenge to actually find the time to write. In high school, it wasn’t so bad and I managed to turn out two novels in my final two years in high school, working 1-2 hours per day on average. It became more tougher in university. If you’ve read my last post, you know I was an academic perfectionist who put in 75-80 hours per week of study in his first year. The amount of time spent on writing dropped by about half so I was only spending 5-7 hours a week. The next couple of years I wrote on and off. And just when I thought I was almost finished my third novel, the harddrive crashed with no backup! I lost the revisions I had made to my third novel, leaving only a first draft of it. Then just before I entered my fourth year, my passion for writing increased. And in my fourth year I probably spent about 10 hours per week writing, revising my first two novels that I wanted to try to improve (I’ve completely redone the first one at this point and am working on the second one). And I managed to do this, while keeping my academic perfectionism at bay, writing an honours thesis in mathematics, being part of three clubs, working as a teacher’s assistant for the winter term and a tutor for both terms, applying to go to graduate school, volunteering at a cat shelter in the winter term, and working at improving my social life. It’s a lot to juggle and I don’t expect things to get any easier when I go to graduate school in the fall and I know some of you are probably wondering how on earth I found the time to do all these things.

But I love doing these things. Quite honestly, I’m about as far away as a “party animal” you’re going to get. And I love to focus on challenging activities I love to do. While my passion for fiction writing takes away some potential time that could be used to form closer bonds to acquaintances, my great focusing and time-management abilities, which my autism probably influenced, have allowed me to keep both writing and a social life.

In my next post, I’ll share what my writing is about and how being high-functioning autistic has influenced it.

On the Difference Between Friend and Acquaintance

In my first post Settling for What I Had I discussed a lot about how autism has influenced the social aspects of my life, particularly with my peers. I would like to continue that discussion in this post. If you’ve read the first post, you know that it was easy for the majority of people in my life to like me. The hard part was, and still is, turning any acquaintance-ship into a deep and a meaningful
friendship.

Getting acquaintances I find especially easy. Whether I’m at school, university, or being employed or volunteering somewhere, they are easy to come by and make. They would be my classmates, fellow students, or other employers. All I have to do is smile and say hello and maybe ask how their weekend was or day is going. And if they greeted me the same way, I would answer politely. Turning any such day-to-day correspondence into a friendship on the other hand, requires something more than being a nice person. You have to open up more, treat the other person with priority, and in general you have to be with them more. Yes, it is all right if you wind up getting busy. After having spent four years in university, I know how tough this can be, especially in mid-term periods and periods right before exams. We can be up to our necks in papers and in study material. Given this it’s obviously ridiculous to expect friends to be with their friends all the time. That just isn’t doable. They should, however, be there for each other on a regular basis even if they do not see each other for the odd couple of weeks. At least that’s my impression. Feel free to comment if
you think I’m mistaken.

While I did improve on my relationships with my peers in university, it really was only the beginning for me. The time element that I mentioned above was a main obstacle in my path (though certainly wasn’t the only one). I was a perfectionist with my studies. In my first year, I put in 75 to 80 hours a week on my school work. I backed off that amount for my next three years and put in about 30 hours less each week. And my straight A average stayed the same. Yet even for those three years, perfectionism did manage to creep in a good bit of the time.

And the clubs and societies I was involved with too. Even though I was at a small university that had only about 3000 students, there were quite a lot of activities to join, and I often signed up for more than I had time for from Improv to Ultimate Frisbee. More clubs meant, of course, more acquaintances, but less time outside to spend with potential friends. I’ve heard the advice at least twice that if you want to get more connected with people, get involved more with what’s going on. This may be true to a point, but speaking from experience, you can go too far. It’s always good to make sure there’s enough time outside of ‘anything official’ to develop strong friendship bonds with acquaintances you know. It’s this commitment to time outside that is a key separating factor between an acquaintance and a true friend. Again, if you think I’m mistaken, feel free to comment. I’ve managed to do a few such things with fellow students at university, which helped make me feel less lonely. Watching a movie with someone, going up to the dining hall together when in residence, and going to see a play with a fellow student were a few things that I did. For the last of these, I actually organized with someone I met at the Improv group to go see a play in a nearby town. This was just before I graduated this spring. I organized the taxi rides and we split the fair. Another thing that I did that I’m equally proud of is telling peers about my autism. This is certainly another step forward and shows what I believe to be another key factor in what separates a friend from an acquaintance. You have to be prepared to open up more. For the first time in my life I was actually starting to open up to who I truly was. It is these small changes in my behaviour that I’ve been able to manage that has given me much hope for the future.

A Foreign Autistic World

Here is a poem I wrote a couple of years ago on what living with autism is like. Any comments you have for it are well appreciated.

A Foreign Autistic World

Let me introduce you to our kind
We may seem alien or foreign at first
Or maybe just a little different
So listen and do not expect the worst

I live a life full of solitude
I cut myself off from those around me
Working alone, playing alone
This is how my natural life works you see

To you I’m classified as a loner
Social interaction is a weakness
Especially when it comes to new people
For some of us, it is a life of bleakness

And let’s not forget the other characteristics
That may be our symptoms of this condition
Routine, sameness, and language delay
And living in a world of complete self-absorption

You see some of us rocking and saying nothing
You also see some of us at university
I hear you ask what connects us
I answer the spectrum is wide in its unity

I will always be like this you know
I was always like this and there is no cure
Treatment I suppose can help
But I will always be at least a little queer

Do not take this as a negative, however
I can assure that in it there is joy
In being different, in being unique
It is what I truly enjoy

So I now ask you a question
Would you like to be my friend?
I’m sure things will work out between us
Anything that goes wrong will mend