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

Archive for October, 2011

A Need for Structure

If there’s one thing that I would like more of in my life then it would be to have closer friends. This probably won’t come to any surprise to anyone who has been reading this blog and/or has known me for at least the past year or two if not more. My efforts to get closer and to interact more with people have been both unsuccessful and successful. I’ve gotten involved with various clubs, for example, and I have even hung out with people more in an unofficial setting. Both of these are certainly true for the last four years I have been at my undergraduate university Acadia in Nova Scotia. It seems like only yesterday when I was that quiet shy junior high school student whose only solid interaction with his peers was in the classroom, and I applaud myself on how far I’ve come since then on my pursuit for social interaction.

But in the past couple of weeks I have asked myself what more I could do and have engaged in some serious self-reflection. And what I have concluded can be answered in four words: a need for structure. Structure for me is good. Structure for me is what comes natural to me. I’m good at navigating myself around a highly-structured system. If something goes wrong, I can easily see why or at least have clear decisive steps at my disposal to correct the problem. This is why I’m very good at math and logic. These subjects rely heavily on structure. If I’m given a math or logic problem, I can rationally figure out how to do it. I might make a mistake or two along the way to obtaining the solution, but if I do, I can figure out why the mistake was a mistake and how to correct it.

So what does this have to do with my weaknesses in social interaction and making friends? The answer is almost too obvious. Because the making of friendships don’t occur in highly-structured systems. Most situations of social interactions aren’t structured (at least not to a degree I find satisfactory).

I will illustrate with an example to help explain the degree of ‘structuredness’ that I desire. The example is math club in high school. The point that I want to make has nothing to do with the fact that the club solved math problems to competed in regional and provincial math leagues. The point I want to make is that the organization itself of the club was highly structured. We all divided up into groups of four and spent a specific amount of time trying to solve each problem (I think it was five minutes). We then did relays where each group of four would line themselves up in a line and each would work on an individual problem that would depend on the answer(s) to the problems that the others in front of them in the line would have. As soon as the last person in the line was done and everything would be answered, he or she would pass the answer sheet to the proctor. If it was correct, the relay was finished, and if at least one of the answers was wrong, then the proctor would simply pass it back, not saying what the answer was. And if one of the individuals in the relay thought one the previous answers was wrong, he would pass it forward.

What do I like about this arrangement? The structure. The activities done here are highly-structuralized. Now I’m not saying that I’d desire if all communication was done this way. All I’m saying is that the communication in these activities was simple and straightforward and there was no degree of uncertainty or subjectivity of what someone was trying to communicate.

In the real world, however, the opposite is true. There’s a lot of subjectivity, vagueness, and a lot of ways to interpret something, whether it be literally or figuratively. And there’s social conventions as well. I just see a big mess. When I try to figure out how conversing works and how people end up becoming friends as a result, I see very little structure. I’ve already illustrated this point in a couple of previous posts, namely Figuring Out the Dating Game Part 1(https://acceptingdifferences.wordpress.com/2011/08/02/figuring-out-the-dating-game-part-1/) and Figuring Out the Dating Game Part 2 (https://acceptingdifferences.wordpress.com/2011/08/05/figuring-out-the-dating-game-part-2/) where I describe how over a period of years I tried to apply my logical mind to figure out how dating relationships work and how I then listed everything I found out in terms of logical rules.

As another example, I would like to take the character of Sheldon Cooper off of the T.V. show The Big Bang Theory. In an episode in season 2, Sheldon wanted to make friends with his unlikeable colleague Kripke at the university he was working at. While his reason for doing so had nothing to do with wanting to have more friends (I think it was only because he thought that Kripke only allowed his ‘friends’ to use a computer lab or something), how he went about trying to be friends with Kripke is completely illustrative of how I think. He looked at a child’s storybook in a bookstore and managed to deduce from it the rules of making friends that the storybook was conveying. He then drew those rules into a big flow chart into how he could become friends with Kripke. What ultimately happened was that he ended doing indoor rock-climbing with Kripke, though it ended up freaking him out (rock-climbing was really only the least objectionable activity that Sheldon agreed to do with Kripke).

As yet another example, I attended something of a social get-together for young people with disabilities in Waterloo. I saw a poster for it at the university, though it had nothing to do with the university itself. I contacted one of the leaders about it. While she was very pleased that I had shown interest, she warned me that since I was high-functioning autistic that the event probably wouldn’t be highly-structured. I was very touched that she had replied like this (I think it was the catalyst of me recognizing just how much I relied on structure), but agreed to go anyway since it couldn’t hurt. I envisioned a group having conversations that I would fall behind in because no rules would be in play (a situation I’ve been in many times before). As it turned out, the group was structured to my liking. Instead of random conversations happening all over the place, what happened was that we played a couple of games that made us get to know each other more. We each took turns in naming three things about ourselves where two of them would be true and the other false and we had to guess what the false one was. The other game was taking random questions out of a hat and answering them. It was through structured games like these that I was able to interact and enjoy being there.

Even in my facebook texting I show some of my love for structure. If someone’s online that I think I’d like to talk to, I just message them, saying, ‘Hi (name inserted here)’. They then greet me back and I say, “How’s it going?” unless I have something specific on my mind I want to talk about. And after texting for a while and I don’t want to anymore, I usually say, “Well, I’ll let you go now”, maybe adding a reason such as wanting to write my novel or go to bed. I’ll then wait for them respond, and then we say our goodbyes.

In my last post I discussed a lot about accommodating myself, though I’m still trying to come up with ways to accommodate myself for this need for structure. I will, however, be pursuing social interactions regardless (of course). One guarantee that this recognition for a need for structure has done for me, however, is that it has led to far more self-appreciation than I ever felt. Now that I’m aware of what my main obstacle is when it comes to social interactions and it’s really built into me by the way I’m designed as an autistic individual, I no longer feel all that depressed of not having that many close friends. Instead, I love myself for wanting to have closer friends and doing the absolute best that I can do to try to obtain them. I feel more complete. And I think feeling more complete and self-appreciation is indeed a firm step forward in obtaining friends to begin with. In order to love others, you must love yourself.

Learning to Accomodate Myself

I realise it’s been almost three weeks since my last post, but I’ve been really busy in my first month of graduate school. I also had a cold last weekend and partly because of it I procrastinated on my first math assignment (though I still managed to hand it in on time). I’ve also been meeting new people and have slowly been adapting to a new location to the new environment of graduate school in general.

I would like to elaborate on a new technique I’ve been using to help with my autism. In its entirety, this technique is very general and I’m sure can and has been applied no matter what weaknesses or disabilities one has. Here it is. In order for one to cope with a weakness or disability that marks him or her in a minority group, they basically have two options for coping with something they find difficult that is actually second nature to those who lack the disability or weakness. They can either push themselves to complete the difficult tasks to their best ability or they can find another way to attaining their goal without completing the difficult task, which at first glance may seem necessary to attaining a desired goal. In other words, they try to find ways to accommodate themselves.

I’ve had such accommodations. One example is taking extra time on school and university tests and exams. Since having autism has decreased the speed with which I process information in general, extra time on tests and exams is one way that I have been accommodated. While I can’t be sure how much my marks would fall if I didn’t have this or how much I could unnaturally increase speed simply by trying to think harder, such tasks are completely unnecessary once the accommodation has been made. By allowing the accommodation, I don’t have to push myself any harder or get any more stressed out (not on average anyway).

This is an example of an accommodation I have had for over seven years. Since coming to Waterloo, however, I have managed to get myself accommodated even more. For example, when I was an undergraduate student, I had a hard time paying attention to what was going on in class, while simultaneously taking notes. This was especially true in my math classes. Since a lot was written on the board for these classes, I was so busy just writing away that it was often difficult to understand the content of what I was writing down. Mathematics can be a deeply abstract subject and as I started graduate school in the subject just down, it’s just getting more abstract and thus I have to pay very close attention to it in class. I then decided that I needed a different tactic and
decided to start photocopying classmates’ notes. Luckily, in one of the classes, the professor actually posted a booklet of the notes online, which was very helpful since I didn’t have to photocopy anything in that class. I even explained the situation to one of the administrators in the pure math department and she sought out to increase the limit of the number of images I was allowed for the department photocopier without charge to which I’m very grateful.

What is really funny is that I after I decided to go ahead with this plan, I got an autism assessment in the mail that was done four and a half years ago and that I was to present to disability services to receive test and exam accomodations. And in it the assessment, the psychologist had written down that I may benefit from having notes photocopied or having a scribe so I could concentrate on learning the material in class. Go figure.

This isn’t the only thing that I’ve been accommodated for in the last few weeks. I’ve also been accommodating myself in a couple of other small ways. For example, a lot of the food courts on campus can get overly crowded around lunch time. I like to go to one of these places to get something for lunch, but being autistic I don’t like crowds all that much. Luckily, I’ve managed find a spot or two on campus where lunch is served and doesn’t get overly crowded, which is where I usually go for lunch. They’re a lot calmer and quieter, which is what I like. A third example, which I will present, also deals with being surrounded by people. The pure math department hosted a welcome party just over a week ago at the Graduate House (a place where students and professors can hang out), and I, of course, attended. The first couple of hours were actually quite good as I talked a little bit with other students. I gradually felt, however, a feeling of being overwhelmed and I felt like I needed a break from trying to socialize, even it was just few for a few minutes. So what did I do? I left the Grad House and just wandered around outside. I felt the quietness, the calmness, and the outside fresh air touch me. I only stayed outside for a few minutes (less than ten minutes I think), but it was enough. I entered the Grad House again and the feeling of being overwhelmed had gone.

And I managed to stay with some other students for the next several hours.

It makes me feel good that I’ve applied this general technique of accommodation in ways I never really thought of before. It has also led to greater self-appreciation since I’m learning to live with more comfort in making more realistic plans to achieve my goals (which consequently helps with my perfectionism issue as well I think). The only warning about learning to live this way, however, is that you can go too far. We all need to rise and do difficult tasks sometimes (though not too difficult). It’s foolhardy to automatically play a weakness or a disability to excuse yourself from every difficult task that you encounter. What needs to happen is that a balance needs to be struck between how much energy you’re willing to put into something versus how much you should be accommodated for it. I certainly don’t automatically use my autism as my ‘trump card’.

I just like to think very carefully before I act and I think all of what I’m doing to accommodate myself more is just getting me closer to the balance, not further away from it. In my next post, I will share a new insight I’ve had into my autistic life and something, which has both radically increased my self-appreciation and why I find it so difficult to interact socially.