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

Archive for the ‘Communication’ Category

New Therapy for Social Anxiety

Well over a year ago, I had unfortunately slipped into one of my loneliness phases. I was rather dissatisfied with my social life at the time and sought out further help in this aspect of my life. I heard that the Centre of Mental Health Research at the University of Waterloo was putting on a program for people dealing with social anxiety. Knowing that this applied to me, I was instantly curious and contacted them. Their program was being primarily run by PhD students in psychology under the supervision of faculty members who were professional psychologists. These students would run therapy sessions in both group and individual settings, depending on the needs of the clients.

After contacting them, they gave me a couple of phone interviews with me, wanting to know my background and what specifically my needs were. I told them everything, such as being diagnosed with high-functioning autism and my social difficulties, pretty much all of which I have written about in this blog. They said they would get back to me soon to let me know if I was suitable for the program. A week or two later, they did come back and decided to take me on. They said I would benefit most from individual therapy sessions, instead of a group setting, which was completely fine with me. It would be good to have their undivided attention. Unfortunately, however, they also said they had no time for me at that moment, but that they could put me on a waiting list where they would get back in about a year. That was just fine by me. I would still be here at Waterloo and understood the high demand for their services.

Back in September of this year, they did indeed contact me again to let me know that a spot had opened up for me if I still desired to be part of their program. I was pleased they had gotten back to me and of course I said yes. I would meet with someone once a week. I certainly appreciated this frequency, especially since in my past meetings with psychologists and counsellors at Waterloo, I would be lucky to meet with someone every other week, given the size of the university.

I was paired up with a PhD student in psychologist who would be my therapist. Our first few sessions were spent on her to getting to know me and my areas of concern through interviews and filling out questionnaires. Once that was over with, we started on the social anxiety therapy itself.

I have gotten help for anxiety before when I went over to the Students Success office at Waterloo in preparing for my PhD comprehensive exams in How Anxiety Works For Me. There are similar techniques in overcoming anxiety in social situations. For example, you can run a social experiment where you plan to put yourself in a social situation that is a little out of your comfort zone. You first write down how you feel and what you expect to happen and give a percentage on the chances of a certain outcome happening. Then you list your safety behaviours that you must abandon in the experiment, which are detrimental behaviours that one uses in coping in anxious situations without avoiding the specific situations altogether. For example, one of my safety behaviours is thinking a lot before replying in a conversation. By doing so, I am not avoiding the situation that is causing me anxiety entirely, i.e. having a conversation, but I am still using a behaviour that hinders my enjoyment out of having the conversation. Then you go and do the social experiment and come back and jot down what you learned in challenging your anxious thinking, to what extent the initial prediction was true, and put down a new percentage of the chances of the initial prediction happening in further situations.

It is strategies like these that are helping and will hopefully continue to help me as I continue to push the boundaries of my comfort zone to combat social anxiety. I will also add that it is indeed very nice to see someone on a weekly basis to help guide me through this. She gives me strategies to try every week like the one above, which helps keep me motivated and accountable. It’s absolutely wonderful that Waterloo set up such a program and recognised the demand for it. Hopefully as time goes on, more places will recognise this demand as well.

 

Learning How to Teach

Having laid out my plans to continue on in academia after my PhD, I have become aware that there is another set of skills besides good research ability that I need to have and that is teaching ability. Back a few years ago, it was common for potential professors getting their PhDs to not get any training in teaching at all, but simply to learn as they went along. Some succeeded in this way, while others not so much. There is a big difference between being an expert on a certain subject and having the skills necessary to teach it effectively. Fortunately, however, more and more universities today are recognising that actual training in teaching and not just becoming knowledgeable in a subject area is a good idea to set up for future potential university professors. The University of Waterloo has certainly recognised this need and has set up two programs for graduate students to take if they wish to make teaching part of their careers. One of the programs, The Fundamentals of University Teaching, I completed this past summer and the other, The Certificate of University Teaching (CUT), I have just begun this fall. These programs are run by the Centre of Teaching Excellence who greatly encourage any graduate students to take them if they wish to continue in academia. The former is a program that any graduate student can enter into. It requires attending at least six workshops where we learn different teaching methods and styles. It also requires giving three microteaching sessions.

Ever since entering my PhD, I’ve always known I would like to be an instructor of a course before graduating. I have spoken of this desire with the pure math department, and one of my supervisors has let me step in for him as a guest lecturer in two undergraduate classes he’s teaching in the past couple of weeks. The experience was a little anxiety provoking since I’ve never taught a full class period before, but it went reasonably well both times. The first time I did it, he supplied me with the notes that I would teach from. He sat in and provided me with great constructive feedback afterwards. The second time he only gave me a topic with which to teach the class and let me write up all the notes. He reviewed them the day before I would be lecturing and said they were all right. My second supervisor then attended the lecture and said afterwards that my teaching went really well and that I had improved on a couple of things that my other supervisor had noted about the first time, such as my use of whiteboard space. I asked a lot of questions to the students during the lectures to help keep the class engaged, which seemed to work each time. I also experimented with a learning activity that I learned in the teaching programs, which is called a one minute paper. This is where at the end of the lecture I got the students to write down anything confusing on the topic. I also made the second lecturing experience part of my CUT program in so far that I got a staff member from the Centre of Teaching Excellence to supervise my teaching as well.

While still no concrete plans are in place in my teaching a whole course, I know I’m on my way to making this happen. I have proven myself as an excellent researcher within the department and I am now proving myself to be good at teaching as well. I just have to be patient and let things unfold.

The Pitfalls of Social Media

A theme that I have used throughout my blog is how to cope with feelings of loneliness when they arise. Loneliness is a prevalent feeling a lot of us experience, not only to those of us with autism, but much to the general population as well. There are several ways to try to cope when these feelings of loneliness and/or depression arise. Last summer, I went through a bout of loneliness and depression and, as such, I was looking for techniques and strategies to cope with it. For example, I was seeing a counsellor and browsing the internet for resources. Then I stumbled upon a bit of advice I found on one internet webpage that gave me pause. Mainly because the idea was so simple, yet I hadn’t heard of it before.
The idea was to take a break from social media sites, such as Facebook, Twitter, etc because they don’t really help social relationships. People can be cruel on these sites and seeing people report doing fun activities by “updating their status” can give rise to a lot negative thoughts, feelings, and emotions, such as jealousy, sadness, depression, etc., especially if you’re currently going through a difficult time already.
As soon as I read this advice, I knew that Facebook (which is the social media site I use the most and the one I’ll be referencing for the rest of this post simply because it’s the one I’m most familiar with) was indeed having this effect on me. For the time being at least, I felt taking a break from it would indeed be a good option. I stated my proposed break as a status, which included alternative ways to contact me if anyone I had on Facebook wanted to do so. I also stated that I would be back in September, which was a month and a half away. I felt that would be ample time to give me a chance to recover.
I also started doing some other internet searching to see if there was anyone else who felt the same way I did about sites like Facebook. It turned out a lot of people actually felt the same way and some had posted, for example, youtube videos describing this problem with social media. I even asked a couple of people I knew about how I was feeling, and they actually confirmed that they had similar stories regarding Facebook. I also believe Facebook gave rise to these feelings before, but I never really acknowledged them. For example, I can be a perfectionist so it would make sense that I would be prone to such feelings as jealousy and so I didn’t give those feelings validation in the past. Seeing other people comment on exactly the same thing, however, made me see and feel it wasn’t just me and that I wasn’t alone with this issue.
I also feel it’s worth pointing out that you don’t even have to be addicted to Facebook or be an extreme Facebook user (posting statuses every day and having 1000’s of Friends) for it to be easy for these feelings to get to you. I’ve always been a pretty moderate user. It took me 3 years to become interested in posting a profile picture and to post statuses on a regular basis I only currently have 200+ Friends. Once I started posting statuses, however, I really grew to liking the idea of posting something on the internet that automatically everyone could read. It was like having celebrity status. Of course, not only was Facebook allowing me to do this, it was also allowing others to post as well. It made it very easy to treat Facebook like a popularity contest. All you have to do is compare the number of likes and comments to different statuses.
Another thing I’ve learned from this realisation is that what people’s lives are really like and how they’re portraying them on the internet is often very different. When I talked to a friend about this issue with social media, she agreed and said she had interacted with friends who were having a lot of problems with their jobs, yet they would always post on Facebook how happy they were. The rub is that when you look at someone’s Facebook wall (which is where they’re posting all of their statuses) what you’re seeing more often than not is just one shade of reality or one side of their life. People aren’t generally going to post their own problems with their lives on sites like Facebook. This observation also helps explain why the negative feelings arose in the first place. You’re comparing what you know as your life to how someone else wants you to see their own life. This, however, is a false comparison. The other person will have much more control over how they portray their life on social media than how their life is actually going. A lot of the time, this isn’t even the person’s fault. It’s very easy to sub-consciously post something that makes it look like you’re happier than you really are. Even I’m guilty of this. I’ve looked through some of my old posts and sometimes I’ve thought, wow, I certainly wasn’t that happy at that particular time. Of course, however, our thoughts can be irrational, even when we’re rationally aware of the falsity of this comparison.
While I have spent the majority of this post examining the negative aspects of social media, I feel I should at least end with a positive note. After my break from Facebook, I did return to it and still have an account. I still post a status every once in a while, even if it’s not as regular as before, and I use this feature wisely. In other words, I use it for the convenience to, for example, let people know I wrote another blog post and to post big news such as getting through an academic milestone or to post my grandmother passing this fall (my uncle didn’t realise she had passed until he read my post and was very grateful for it). I take advantage of such positive aspects of the site, which also includes planning events with friends and talking to multiple people simultaneously on the message feature. Currently, at least, this is all how Facebook is serving me best.
Different people will also use social media in different ways. While a good number of people will treat it like a popularity contest, there are some who mainly use it to stay in touch with family who are far away, to talk to several people simultaneously (both of which happen to be a contributing factor to why I stayed on), or to play the games that are on that site. As my other grandmother likes to say, “Everything in moderation.”
Regardless of one’s relationship with any social media site, however, it is often a good idea to ask yourself the question: are you controlling it or is it controlling you?

Tribute to my Nazzer Grandparents

This fall has been quite an eventful time for me. For starters it has been one of the rougher school terms for me, but I still made quite a bit of progress in it (more on that in the next blog post). On the other hand, however, one of my grandmothers passed away, which happened at the end of October. My family was able to fly me home for a memorial service we had for her in early November and I got to see a lot of family I didn’t normally see regularly growing up (everyone on my mother’s side of the family lives quite a distance away). It still seems only yesterday that my maternal grandfather passed away in Summer 2005. My Nazzer grandparents lived very near us and, as such, they were an important part of my childhood. I gave speeches at my grandfather’s memorial service when I was only 16, then at my grandmother’s 90th birthday party 4 years ago, and then again at her service this fall.
My relationship with my grandfather Don Barkeley Nazzer was a really good one. For one thing, we both had intellectual minds and we would talk about math and stuff (he was a civil engineer). When I was 12, for example, I started exploring my grandfather’s books and he ended up giving me quite a few intellectually stimulating books. In one of the books he gave me (if you really want to know what the book is it’s Mathematics: A Human Endeavour by Harold R. Jacobs) he even wrote inside the cover
“This book is now the property of John Charles Saunders. From his grandfather, Don Nazzer Dec. 26, 2000. Enjoy it!”
Looking at this handwritten note today is what helps keep his soul alive inside me and knowing how proud he would be of me if he could see where I was today. Back then, as well, I was very interested in antique calculators and I started to collect slide rules. I was fortunate enough that my grandfather had two of them that I got and still have in my possession. I also had other fun times with him. When I was a kid, my grandparents had bought me a lego set for my birthday. I wish I could say that we had built it together on that day, but I actually just let him build it first and I sat behind him, occasionally looking over his shoulder. Also, when I was a teenager he taught me how to use a ride-on lawnmower for mowing the grass at their summer place.
I also look up to him, as well as my grandmother, for their healthy lifestyles as well and how independent they both were until each of them passed away. My grandfather’s passing was very unexpected even at his age of 86 ½ and when he was in the hospital from multiple heart blockages the doctors were very impressed with how healthy a man he was. The only possible sign would be that my grandmother had gotten a little more dependent on people during the last year of her life, but she was still living alone inside her own house even up until her passing two months shorts of her 94th birthday (which would have been today and more amazing still my other grandmother who’s still around is still living alone inside her own two-storey house at 97 so I certainly have some very good genes!). I feel it’s the way we should all go, living life to the fullest until it’s time to go.
My relationship with my grandmother Margaret Irene “Sunny” Nazzer was also good, but it was a little different. She certainly loved me just as much. I’m glad she lived long enough to see me now and was always proud of my accomplishments and my intellectual mind. Unlike my grandfather, however, she was an extrovert (which I like to think is at least partly where I got my own extraverted qualities from so it looks like I inherited something good from each of them). When I was little and my parents brought me in to visit them, she would try to get me to talk more than I naturally did, even though it was like pulling teeth sometimes. My parents would also have my grandparents look after me and my sister sometimes and one time when my grandmother was tucking me into bed she would sit by my bedside and listen as I told her stories based on childrens’ movies I had seen. After my grandfather passed, she attended my high school graduation, my undergrad university convocation, and even convinced my parents (who were initially a bit hesitant in allowing her) that she should fly out to see my masters’ convocation even though she was 91 at the time!
Since my grandmother’s passing, I have inherited a few more of their belongings too. My grandfather has this neat mouse pad for his computer that looks like a rug with a complicated rug pattern on it and I also got a lot of his cuff links. As well, I also inherited a rug and a large wicker chair and a wooden case that my grandfather had since he was younger than me.
Both have been cremated and their ashes are now buried in a cemetery near where their summer home is. My memories of them will be life-long cherished.

Being an Atypical Extrovert

I sometimes surprise myself when doing some self-reflecting into who I really am and how I would characterise myself. One thing that I discovered really only now about myself is that I am an extrovert. In the past, I never really associated myself with that term despite knowing about the terms introvert and extrovert for over six years. In fact, when I first heard of the terms, I immediately went for the term introvert. And until about a month ago, I never really about it further until I made comment to my family about it to which my mother said, “No, I think you’re an extrovert.” I believe this is because I’m a rather atypical extrovert.

I first heard the terms when I was in the middle of my undergrad at Acadia. I was discussing with a counselor I was seeing then about my difficulties in social interaction, which brought about. I forget the original definitions we used for introvert and extrovert, but whatever they were they led me to believe that I was an introvert. This was probably because I have a few qualities that introverts typically possess. For example, I tend to think before I speak and I like to work on my academic work alone with few interruptions. I think I made the error that introversion and extroversion rely heavily on how one behaves when alone or with other people. In my mind, I was thinking “this person talks a lot so they’re an extrovert” or “this person talks very little so they’re an introvert”. It really only dawned on me now that, while that reasoning may be true in many if not most cases, neither implication is true. It’s very possible to be a quiet extrovert or a loud introvert. They aren’t oxymorons.

For example, (as in my case) a person who is quieter than average isn’t necessarily quieter by choice. Due to other characteristics they possess, they find being quiet easier, more comfortable, more convenient, etc. I’ve discovered this is the case for me. I’m not as loud spoken as a lot of extroverts are, but this is due to circumstances that are quite challenging for me to control if not out of my control altogether. I didn’t choose to have a different perspective when it comes to socializing due to my autism (not saying that’s a bad thing!), or to be shyer than other extroverts, or to have social anxiety. I will admit I often get envious and even jealous of extroverts who don’t have these roadblocks in the way and who follow their natural desires without showing much sweat. However, I am taking steps to address such things, which I will tell about in a future blog post.

Trust me, if it weren’t for these things, and I believe I would be striking up conversations with people (new and old) every which way I turn at social gatherings, striving more forcefully for attention and to be in the spotlight and trying to be the life of every party. Since coming to this realization, I’ve done some research on the internet to see if anyone felt the same way. It turns out quite a few people do. Physical behaviours actually have very little to do with where you are on the introvert/extrovert spectrum. What really defines introversion and extroversion is your natural preference.

In growing up, I was always known in school for being the quiet one and even I was convinced then that my desire was to be in solitude. It’s difficult to distinguish what you want to do and what you find easy to do when you’re still growing up. I was always an extrovert. It just was (and still is) easier to act more introverted than I actually am.

Becoming Closer with my Sister

Last winter, I was dealing with a problem. It’s too private to even post on this blog, but in any case what it was is irrelevant and it was quickly resolved anyway. Like I usually do when a problem arises in my life, however, I normally talk to people about it to help find solutions and also since my perfectionistic mind can often distort a healthy perspective hearing someone else’s perspective on it can help combat it.

One of the people I ended up talking to about it was my sister Carolyn. She was sympathetic and told me to keep her updated about it and, in fact, she said she wanted to communicate with me more anyway. My relationship with Carolyn throughout our lives has probably not been the closes in the world. There might have been a little bit of sibling rivalry, but we certainly loved each other even if we didn’t express it in the closest of bonds.

We’re also different in a few ways, which most likely caused us to grow a little apart. For example, I’m much more of an academic than she is. I’m in my third year of a PhD while she after high school took a year off and didn’t really know what she wanted to do at the time. Since then, however, she’s found her dream passion in cooking and got both a culinary arts degree and a hospitality management degree and she’s now working in hotel management and eventually wants to become a chef. While her path in life might have been a little more disconnected than mine, I never believed that this was because I was more intelligent than her or anything like that. In fact, I sometimes feared she was intimidated. I just see her path as demanding a different (but certainly not less) kind of intelligence. I’m sure that the meals I make in my home can’t hold a candle to what my sister is capable of in the kitchen. I also sometimes wonder what it must really feel like to lead a slightly disconnected path in life (this is actually something in general that graduate students sometimes do, positing ‘what if’ scenarios since graduate school is quite demanding and “delays” your entry into the “real world”).

At any rate, in response to my sister’s request to remain in contact, I sent her another email and we’ve since had a couple of email correspondences since then. I feel I was more open with her about what is going on in my life. Doing so in writing like in an e-mail was a great method for me to achieve this since I could make sure it was exactly what I wanted to say and I could take my time with it, which helped combat perfectionistic thoughts in the process. Making yourself vulnerable in describing your short comings, your struggles, and your weaknesses I believe is a key component for any relationship to become closer. I’ve talked to Carolyn about how we’re corresponding and we both agree it’s making us feel closer to each other.

Carolyn also has a great philosophy on life, which I completely agreed with it when she told me. She said that everyone’s life sucks in some way or another and that if people though all their problems into a pile and actually saw how big the pile got, they would see that their life isn’t as bad compared to everyone else’s that they’re making it out to be. She also said it was okay to be unhappy and to let out your misery (so long as it was in private).

In a world like today where often family members may not be particularly close, I count myself lucky to not be in such a situation and to be close to a lot of my family including my only sibling.

The Value of Femininity

I again haven’t posted anything for a while. I will admit that I’ve been reading up and thinking about certain things. And I thought it would be worthwhile to make a post about it. In particular, I’ve been thinking about how the opposite sex perceives and interacts with the world and the role that gender norms play in our lives. Two thought provoking books I’ve read up on the subject are Self-Made Man by Norah Vincent and Whipping Girl by Julia Serano. Norah Vincent is a woman who disguised herself as a man for a year and interacted in several places as a man. In her book, she describes this adventure and uses it to contrast a man’s life with a woman’s life in this world. Her underlying message is that even in a “man’s world”, the male gender is far from free and is constrained even with the advantage of “male privilege”.

I found her observations to be pretty insightful. She goes through her adventure, for example, by hanging out with guy friends in recreational activities, getting a job and working as a man, and dating women as a man. None of the people she interacts with ever suspect she’s really a woman (she disguises herself so well) and even when she admits to being a woman with a few of these people some of them don’t believe her at first and she has to take off some of her disguise to prove it.

For example, she goes bowling with some guys who welcome her as one of their own and she describes her relations with them to be much less intimate than when she interacts as a woman with her usual female friends. For instance, their greetings are pretty mundane, consisting of only simple handshakes and “hellos”. One of the guys brought his kid son along for what was supposed to be “father-son time”, but it was really supposed to a mens’ night out and the guys tease him when, for example, he rambles on too much about facts he learned in school. Norah rightly interprets this behavior as letting him learn things the hard way by “toughening him up”. She does, however, see some good in interacting with the guys. She occasionally will have a couple of seconds of intimacy with one of the guys when, for example, she scores at bowling and she shares a smile with one of the guys and actually sees this as greater than any bonding she has had with any of her female friends.

Reading about Norah’s adventure kind of reminded me of my own feminine desires and what I desire in pursuing my own friendships through the difficulties of having autism and how much intimacy is important to me in friendships. I can certainly relate to her experiences. Two years ago, for example, I developed a yearning to cuddle, not just with a romantic partner when one came along, but also among platonic friendships, as described in this post: My Developing Social Desires. It is a kind of intimacy that women often share as friends, but platonic cuddling involving a man is often stigmatized by society.

The other book Whipping Girl is by Julia Serano who is a transsexual woman. She tells of her experience in recognizing her desire to be female and in transitioning to female as an adult. She tells of the stigma that society holds against transsexuals, which is due to the general attitude that males and females are opposite sexes stigmatizing the idea of any kind of gender variance. She also argues that trans* misogyny contributes further prejudice in particular to transsexual women since they are seen as wanting to demote themselves from a superior gender, i.e. male, to the lesser gender that is female.

One key theme in her book is the value of femininity and feminine expression. She tells how it’s important to incorporate such things into the promotion of feminism. The problem is that a lot of feminists want to behave like men, i.e. to be masculine especially in expression, while casting aside their natural femininity because they believe it’s frivolous. The real way to promote femininity is to value feminine expression. Only in this way will femininity become masculinity’s equal.

Her writing style is also very engaging. I love, for example, how she goes on a rant of how men tend to distance themselves from feminine items, such as barrettes, as if such items are dangerous to any man who comes within the vicinity of one. She even promotes men wearing one in their hair even to work.

Overall, both books were pretty thought provoking and helped me reflect on my own life. Being socialized as a male has provided me with both advantages and disadvantages. And with the valuing and promotion of femininity, the disadvantages will disappear.