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

Archive for the ‘Friendships’ 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.

 

On Masculinity

A couple of months ago, I saw a poster in the math building at the University of Waterloo advertising an interesting workshop. It was inviting the male Waterloo students to come to talk and discuss what it means to be masculine and to be a man. As a feminist and someone who’s very interested in the topic of gender, I was very curious and so attended. The workshop was run by a young gender equity advocate Stephen Soucie and it took only two minutes into it that I knew I had made the right decision to attend. Stephen lectured and had a discussion with us on how society (especially in our western culture) has shaped the male and female gender roles in detrimental ways and how this has promoted gender inequity and gender-based violence.

I loved the discussion and completely agreed with Stephen throughout. He started by asking us what expectations society holds on males. We brainstormed a lot and came up with several, including stoic, unemotional, hypersexual, strong, aggressive, etc. and then brainstormed ways in which men are ridiculed if they do not live up to these expectations to a sufficient degree. For example, men who do not fit this stereotype are more prone to bullying. They are often called things like “pussy”, “faggot”, “gay”, “bitch”, or “little girl”. Not only is such name-calling hurtful to the targeted men, but they are also harmful to women because they carry the implication that women are somehow inferior to men. These expectations, however, are a product of society and there is no rational basis for them. One could argue that these expectations come from the biological sex differences between males and females, but as Stephen pointed out, western society has overemphasised such differences. Moreover, male and female aren’t even exhaustive categories when it comes to either gender or sex, giving another reason why these gender roles need to be abandoned. Both gender and sex do not just consist of two categories, but both exist on a spectrum with male on one end and female on the other with a great variety in between.

Earlier in this blog, I mentioned how some of my social desires would be classified as feminine, such as cuddling with platonic friends. A little over a year ago, I did attend a Cuddle party once in Toronto (this is a social gathering where people can physically touch each other such as through cuddling in non-sexual ways) and I always find it fascinating that the majority of the attendees are male. I believe this is because society find platonic cuddling between women to be acceptable, but if a man or men are involved in this act, then it’s automatically classified as sexual and two men who cuddle are automatically labeled as “gay”. Society wouldn’t bat an eye if two women were crying in each other’s arms over a romantic movie, yet try replacing those two women with two men and you get something that’s completely unheard of. Our heteronormative society does not encourage homosocial bonding between men, which has a tremendous impact on men’s emotional and physical health.

These gender roles also promote gender-based violence in our society. Often, gender-based violence is portrayed as a women’s issue, often associated with the phrase “Violence against women”. You hear stories, for example on the news or in the newspaper, “Woman raped” or “Woman murdered”, failing to mention the perpetrator in the title (usually a man). But who the perpetrator is is just as relevant and stopping this gender-based violence takes way more than simply informing girls that they need to be careful, or to tell boys they need to behave properly. These, in my opinion, are just band-aid solutions, if they are even any kind of solutions at all.

Who are the perpetrators? Mostly men. Why are so many more men (many with horrible pasts, psychological problems, etc.) than women committing these horrific crimes? This is what the rest of the discussion with Stephen was about. These men weren’t born as killers or rapists. The rub is that it was fed into them starting from an early age, regardless if it was intentional or unintentional. They came to learn that to be a man, you must exhibit certain characteristics. They feel they need to be tough, aggressive, hypersexual, stoic, etc. and it often gets to the point where they feel that the only way they can measure up to these expectations and let out all the negative emotions they are feeling is by committing violence, especially against women. These societal expectations placed on men have affected their well-being very negatively and, as such, gender-based violence is just as much as a men’s issue as it is a women’s issue.

I am not trying to excuse the crimes that men commit here because men happen to be raised in a certain way. Crimes such as murder, rape, and domestic violence and abuse are horrible and should carry a heavy sentence regardless whenever they are committed. Instead, this analysis of the issue should be used when we’re asking what needs to happen for this violence to be resolved. In order to have equality for women, we need equality for men as well and indeed for people of all genders.

Since the workshop, I have stayed in touch with Stephen, and we have talked about these issues further and exchanged books and movies on the subject. One movie that I borrowed from Stephen was called Tough Guise 2 and it’s about everything I’ve written in this post and I highly recommend it.

The world is rife with inequity, and gender is definitely a prime example. I remain optimistic, however, that we as a society can correct this. Simply talking about it and advocating this issue is a definite first step.

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?

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.

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.

Getting out of my own “Head Space”

Back in January, I failed my first PhD comprehensive exam. I already wrote a post about this and how I was strategizing on preparing myself for the next exam and my next attempt at at the January one. My preparation for my next comp continues to go well so I’ll have to wait to see what happens. One of things that I thought was contributing to my failure was academic anxiety, especially exam anxiety. As such, I made contact with a psychologist in the area to see if he could help with this issue. I’ve had two sessions with him so far and I’m very much happy with the progress I’ve made (and not just for academic reasons either).
Our first session together went well enough. We spent about half of it just him getting to know me and then we began strategizing about how to lower the anxiety, such as learning how to replace negative thoughts such as “What if I get kicked out of the program?” with thoughts like, “I know I’m smart, I can do this work” and to talk with someone right before the exams to come whose voice would help calm my nerves (I have at least a couple of people in mind).
At the second session, things went a little differently than what I had expected. I thought that we would just strategize more about how to overcome my exam anxiety, but at the beginning we somewhat shifted gears. I brought up my social life with him as it was one of the last things we had discussed at the first session and one of things that can impact good academic performance. Of course, I had told him already at the first session about my autism and how it impacts my social life. He then passed a little booklet to me, which was a photocopy of half of a real book. It was called “A survival guide for people with Asperger syndrome” and was by Marc Segar (who I was told has Asperger’s himself).
He gave a copy to me and we looked inside. There were headings on the pages and after each heading, several bullet points after each was sentence or several sentences. One of the first pages was titled Worrying, which was certainly appropriate given the context. The first bullet point was:
One thing autistic people are often good at is worrying.
Another read:
Another problem you might face is that achieving things by half does not feel like enough. You may be an all or nothing person but remember, this might be the autism speaking.
Well, what do you know, my autism itself might have more of a role in all this, than I had previously thought. There were several other bullet points that I could certainly relate to. We talked about both of these, which certainly made me feel better. Then we looked inside the book some more. One other point that I could definitely relate to was under a subheading called “General Knowledge”. It was about how general everyday knowledge can be very challenging for someone with autism to obtain. One of the bullet points that I could relate to was the following:
Getting absorbed into one’s own head-space every other moment can make it extremely difficult to “learn things on the trot” which is the way most non-autistic people are used to doing it.
It certainly made sense to me. I have to admit that the way my own thoughts come and go throughout the day are very much thoughts in my own head-space. I find it quite challenging to focus, without at least one “head-space thought” pass through my mind and distract me every few seconds. When I’m learning things on my own through my own motivation, such as reading a book, my “own headspace thoughts” do come and go every few seconds, but the fact that I’m motivated to actually learn what I’m trying to learn and the fact that I can learn it at my own pace accommodates this self-absorption.
Unfortunately, such accommodations don’t come with everyday social interaction or any other situation where you have to “learn things on the trot”.
So we talked about this as well and way to learn things about the “outside world” and paying attention to the outside world, which would contribute to a more enjoyable social life. One of the exercises that I was given at the end of the second session was to be part of conversations, but to now contribute anything for the first few moments, but to simply listen and then join in later. He was offered the encouraging words that it would get better soon the more times I practised. After I had left the psychologist’s office I knew that the successful of my social interactions depended greatly on my ability to not let my own thoughts consume me. So I came up with a supplementary exercise for myself. Besides, listening in on conversations where I was part of a group, that evening, I would actually write down as much as I could about what I had listened to this day. I hoped that this exercise of my own would motivate me enough to be able to keep my own thoughts at bay.
Well, I’ve done that exercise for about a week now. I’m as of yet not talking any more in these conversations than I previously did, but I am keeping my own thoughts at bay thought both the psychologist’s and my own exercises. I’ve written up more than half a computer page single spaced each time I’ve actually gone through my own exercise. My own “head space” thoughts do keep coming up when I’m with others, but with less intensity. It also helps to say in my head, ““Not now. You can think about your thoughts in your own head space later when you’re alone.” I believe I’ve created a healthy social program for myself and that I can pass on to others (for example, the members of my Waterloo Autism/Asperger’s Support Group).
In way, I can’t but feel somewhat grateful now for failing that comprehensive exam back in January. It brought out ways to further improve myself not just academically, but socially as well (and the two are certainly very much dependent on each other).

A Helpful Social Resource

I have posted a lot in this blog already about my difficulties and overcomings with regards to social interaction; especially given it’s this area of life that autism has affected my life in the most and probably the defining feature of the disorder itself. I am yet again dedicating another post to describing a further development in my life with respect to this.

I recently started looking around again for resources to describe any new strategies I might employ or anything else I would find helpful. That’s when I found this interesting website written by someone with Asperger’s, the link being:

www.improveyoursocialskills.com.

I started going through the pages and I must say I was really impressed. Here was someone with Asperger’s who had not only gone around mapping out the territory of the social world, but had done so on an incredibly thorough basis and had written it up on it in such an explicit way that would be useful to others who have autism/Asperger’s.

For example, I really liked how he described conversations and how he compared it to his “Deli Metaphor” of a sandwich being slid down the table between two people where the person doing the talking was the one who had the sandwich. Also, it looked like he had categorized the process completely. He uses the terms invitation and inspiration to categories two types of responses you can give in conversation and proceeds to categorize the further concept of inspiration!

I seriously felt like I had stumbled upon what looked like the Holy Grail of how socializing works and how both camps (the autistic’s and the non-autistic’s) perceived it. Maybe that’s a bit of an exaggeration, but it’s certainly at the very least an excellent overview of it. None of the advice is really overly complicated, but gets right to the point and is very explicit (and a lot of us autistics love that word!). I have also purchased a the year long membership to gain access since I was so impressed with his advice (only cost $15), and as far as I can tell the author certainly deserves it.

Based on the advice I have gotten over the years I feel like this has to be one of the best things yet. The gap between how the autistic population and the non-autistic population learn social interaction is certainly hard to close, but it’s good to know others too are trying to bridge the gap, while taking into account the needs and desires of those involves whether they be autistic or not autistic.

It is after all one of the chief reasons why I advocate for autism awareness.