Thursday, December 5, 2019

Being a Good Dad to Kids on the Spectrum

Man with baby

One of the frustrating things about the fathers, particularly fathers of kids on the spectrum is that for various reasons, they're not always "engaged" in the family. Fathers are often used as the "bad cop" in parenting but many fathers go completely in the other direction, permitting anything and ultimately disengaging from their child's development. 

In this post, I want to look at the reasons why fathers don't engage, how you, the dad, can parent on your own terms and how to become an important part of your child's life. 

Why aren't fathers engaged?

Fatherhood today is very different to what it was like in the previous generation. As GenX, our parents were likely baby boomers or traditionalists. Fathers in our day didn't spend a lot of time on things like child-rearing. They were always too busy with work and chores. More importantly, fathers in previous generations were encouraged to bury their feelings and to toughen up. This has led to many issues dealing with "opening up" that confront today's generation of fathers. It's hard for the men of today to break with all those years of "training".

When babies are born, it's not uncommon for the mothers, grandmothers and grandmothers-in-law to overwhelm everything with feminine care. This is not a bad thing because babies need all the motherly love and attention that they can get but it can be a little daunting for dads -- and in some cases, it can disrupt the all important dad-baby bonding.

Taking things a little further, sometimes mothers become so possessive of baby that they won't let dad change nappies, nurse, settle or bottle feed. It's little wonder that in these cases, fathers start to opt out of their parenting duties (and eventually their relationship).

Duck and Ducklings

Overprotective mothers are particularly common in cases where the mother or child is on the autism spectrum. Babies and toddlers will sense their mother's reaction to others and if there's reluctance to part with baby, it can cause the baby to grow up seeing their father as a negative influence. I've heard of loving fathers who have done nothing wrong but who still can't touch their babies because their smell, voice or roughness of skin will cause the baby to cry until it is returned to its mother.

Sometimes other factors, such as Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) can have a similar effect. SPD can be lessened with exposure but unlike biological mothers who babies seem to instinctively accept (after nine months of getting used to sounds in the womb), fathers have to work very hard to get their babies to accept them.

Mothers frequently adopt more nurturing roles while fathers often have more focused interests such as sports and hobbies. This is particularly common in fathers who are on the autism spectrum themselves as their special interests can take over everything. These interests will compete with work, sleep and family time. Men who previously enjoyed plenty of sporting or hobby time need to either reduce their hours with their interests or reduce them with family. Unfortunately, many men choose the latter. This is not a good choice.

We all want to spend as much time as possible doing the things we love rather than the things we need to do but treating your child like a chore to be postponed is a recipe for disaster. in order to be a good dad, you need to start prioritising family needs over your personal wants.

Another common reason for dads not being engaged in their children's lives is the idea of being forced into negative roles. Mother who say to their kids "just you wait until your father gets home" are trying to use the fathers as a means of punishing their kids. While it's understandable that mothers often do not possess the strength to give our physical punishment to children, it's not acceptable to pass these things onto a partner -- particularly not a partner who wasn't there when the transgressions happened.

Good cop, bad cop?

Unlike mothers, dad's generally get to be automatic heroes. It's not fair but there are good reasons for this.  In general, it's usually the moms who stay at home to look after the kids in their early years. The moms are there for the tears and the firsts but also for the punishments.  Dads, particularly those with long commutes to work, tend to miss all that.

When fathers walk in the door at the end of the day, the kids are generally starved for attention. Mom has been with them all day and she is tired. Dad is like a shiny new toy coming out to play. It's little wonder that the kids are all over him or that they are forgiving of his general grumpiness, lateness or failure to say the right things at the right time.

To be fair, the parent who misses out on all of the day to day things because of work deserves a little time with the kids and it's important that the other parent gives them space to spend that time.  After all, there will be plenty of time for adult discussion once the kids are in bed.

Unfortunately, many moms use "dad" as a weapon and expect him to dole out the punishments. They'll shout at the kids and then when dad does nothing, they'll say "why am I always the bad cop?"
The answer is simple. The "bad cop" is the bad cop because that is who they choose to be. There doesn't need to be a good-cop / bad-cop relationship in the house. Joint positive discipline will work wonders. Always remember, discipline means  teaching -- not punishment.

Don't allow yourself to be pushed into a role. You need to choose how you want to motivate your kids based on what works for them and what works for you.  You also have to remember that eventually your kids will grow up and will start to copy your disciplinary behaviour.  Do you want them to learn to react to issues with rules, rewards and sanctions or with violence and shouting?

How to become a part of your child's life

In order the be a good dad, you need to make sure that you're a part of your child's life. This means that you need to be both a dad and a friend. Sometimes you need to give work a back-seat to your kids. This means that if work prevents you from making it on time to special days, such as their concerts, special sporting days or IEP meetings, then you need to take those days as leave.

Sports and hobbies also need to take a bit of a back seat. It's great to keep up with them but unless they actively involve your kids (and the kids want to be there), they're an indulgence.

Being there for your kids means that you take time to play with them on the floor, that you get actively involved in their activities, for example; helping out with scouts (or even becoming a leader), helping with the sports teams (or even taking a manager or coach role).  It means reading books to your kids in bed and listening to them doing their reading. It also means to be fair with your kids and spend just as much time with your daughters as you do with your sons - and to not unnecessarily restrict activities by gender.

You also need to be human. Talk about your own childhood experiences and let your kids know about the times when you were naughty or disobedient. Talk about how you felt and any mistakes you may have made. Most of all, talk about how you made up for those things. If you give your kids something to relate to, they'll feel confident in approaching you with their problems.

What not to forget

I did talk about making work, sports and hobbies take a back-seat for the family but of course you can't simply drop these things. They're important. You still need to earn an income, you still need your space and you still need to pursue your interests.

You'll also need to ensure that you give your partner space and opportunities to do these things -- and that you give yourselves time to be together. It's a balancing act but it's one that will improve with time and effort. 

Monday, November 18, 2019

Strategies for when your Autistic Teenager needs help with Math

There's no doubt about it, mathematics is a very important skill. It's a skill that you will use throughout  your entire life whether it's for checking your expenditure and change, doing quotations for work or simply measuring up the garden in order to buy supplies for home. Math is critical. 

The media would have us believe that mathematics is an automatic "savant skill" for people with autism and that kids with autism, even non-verbal ones, are all capable of amazing feats of mathematics. If only this were true.  Unfortunately, this is yet another area where autistic people are just the same as everyone else. Some people are very good at math but most are not. 

Russell Crowe in a Beautiful Mind
Russell Crowe in "A Beautiful Mind" - A great film but not one that
helps the wrong perception of Savant skills

Sometimes it's all about practice

Math teachers often suggest that the best way to learn mathematics is to keep doing math problems over and over. There's certainly some truth in this approach.

If you already understand the theory then doing a lot of problems will usually do wonders to improve your speed and accuracy.  What it won't do is help to improve answers to text-based questions or teach you to use mathematics to solve real-world problems.

One thing that often works well for kids with autism is to help them to see patterns in math. 

Math is full of amazing patterns and helping your kids spot them throughout their times tables and basic addition and subtraction will make a world of difference in the formative years.

Sometimes it's all about the theory

Some teens struggle with numbers and this is particularly true for kids with dyslexia or dyslexic leanings. Years ago, my son used to bring home math papers with big zeroes on them. I'd look at his answers and they'd be things like;

9 x 9 = 18   and  7 x 8 = 65 

At first glance, I'd say he's adding the two nines but then as I'd progress through his paper, I often realised that he had all the right answers but his numbers were completely the wrong way round. Unfortunately, I could never convince his math teacher at the time that this was the issue.

Getting him to start showing his working made a bit of a difference and his later teachers began to see the issue.

Calculators aren't evil

If your teen is struggling with math and performs better with a calculator then it's worthwhile  allowing them to use one rather than trying to force them to do without.  It's far more important that they know how to solve a problem than it is to be able to do the math in your head.

I can remember my parents saying "you won't always have a calculator handy", as a way of excusing the need for math in the head. Well, that was then, this is now. Everyone has a calculator built into their smartphone today and even if you don't, there'll always be someone around with one in the event that complex math is required.

Lady using an iphone calculator with her laptop

In any case, we never stop learning and simple maths abilities will continue to grow with use throughout their lives. Just because your kids are using a calculator for everything now, it doesn't mean that they'll continue to do so for the rest of their lives.

If having a calculator will give your teen less stress and more time to concentrate on mathematics theory, then it's definitely worth a shot. 

Sometimes it's not about the numbers at all 

Sometimes mathematics isn't about numbers or even theory. Sometimes it's as simple as kids who find it hard to parse words into a sentence or to visualise a scenario.

For example, many math problems are in the form of;

Johnny has five green marbles and four blue ones. He loses one while playing and his friend Sue gives him two more green ones. One day he finds another three blue ones. He now has seven green and six blue ones.  What colour was the marble that he lost. 

Some kids on the spectrum find it difficult to visualise these stories and the best way to help them to learn is to get them to draw them out. 

Unfortunately, drawing takes a lot of extra time particularly during exams, so if drawing is helping, you'll need to approach your child's teachers and see if your child can get extra time in exams.

Sometimes the issues are social

Sometimes, you'll have a teen who is very good at math but who suddenly begins to slip behind. This can happen when the work has gotten more difficult but sometimes it can be due to social issues, such as a change of teacher, issues with classmates or changes at home or in their environment.

Kids on the autism spectrum are particularly sensitive to change, so be sure to talk to your teen if you find a sudden issue. 

Ask them what they think of their teachers, about the room, distractions, their friends etc. Also, keep a look out for disturbing electronic devices. Many schools are moving onto computers and tablets which can easily be switched to instant messaging or games.

Distracted Student watching spider-man during a lesson
Technology can be distracting
Kids on the autism spectrum can sometimes have difficulty staying on task and sometimes this new technology is a little too distracting for them.

Even Savants have Problems

While I mentioned earlier that savants are rare, they do exist and surprisingly, they also have issues with math. It's not uncommon for a savant to jump directly to an answer without necessarily being able to explain how they got there. If your child is gifted, you'll still need to spent time teaching them how to show their working.

Wherever you teen fits on the spectrum, if they're struggling with mathematics, consider approaching the issue differently. Perhaps a change is needed. You'll also find that sometimes you'll get better results if you change the teacher, or perhaps engage a tutor. 

Remember: In a class of 24 students with 5 hours of math per week, your teen will be receiving, at most, 13 minutes of one-on-one attention. A single tutor session can provide 30-60 minute of quality time.  It's worth it. 

Sunday, August 18, 2019

Our Partners and Autism Acceptance

Last week, I read a post from a lady who didn't feel accepted by her partner. The interesting thing was that while she knew what she wanted to say, she felt that she couldn't talk to him about her autism. 

She was considering the next steps in her relationship but was going into it without the tools to communicate effectively. 

Until quite recently, people with autism tended to fall into two broad categories; 

  • Those who were diagnosed with autism because they exhibited behaviours to such an extent that they were unable to get into long term relationships, and
  • Those who went undiagnosed into a relationship. 

These days however, it's much more common for people entering a relationship to know that they're on the autism spectrum.

In this post, I want to look at the benefits of disclosing autism to prospective partners.

Why is it becoming more common?

A couple of decades ago, it was relatively uncommon for people to get married with the knowledge that they were on the autism spectrum. After all, the people getting married for the first time in 2000 would need to have been diagnosed around 1980.

Although Asperger's and Autism were researched in the 1930s and 1940s, Asperger's syndrome wasn't even a diagnosis until 1994 and the diagnosis of "autism" tended to be reserved for the more extreme cases most of whom were not expected to marry at all.
The media often talks about the "explosion of autism". It's not the case that autism is becoming more prevalent but rather that we're getting so much better at detecting it.

As a result of our improved diagnostic abilities, couples getting married today, particularly older couples are much more likely to know that autism is part of the package before they tie the knot. 

Is disclosure necessary?

While disclosure isn't absolutely necessary, it's certainly an important consideration. If you disclose autism too early in a relationship, chances are that you'll scare your partner off.  If you disclose after the wedding, they'll feel like you lied to them.

Ideally, the best time for disclosure is when the relationship is very solid and engagement is becoming the likely next step. 

The real question is, whether or not you should disclose your differences. After all, your partner already knows you well and loves you for who you are. It's not as if having autism prevents you from having children, though there's a higher than usual chance that your children could also be on the spectrum.

One of my favourite moments last week was when actress/commedienne Amy Schumer was asked how she could cope with the possibility that her child will be on the spectrum. Her response was beautiful;

"how I cope? I don’t see being on the spectrum as a negative thing. My husband is my favorite person I’ve ever met. He’s kind, hilarious, interesting and talented and I admire him. Am I supposed to hope my son isn’t like that?"
- Amy Schumer

I feel that disclosure is important because you need to know if you partner is willing to accept you, even with a label. You need to be able to talk to your partner about autism, traits, stims and sensory difficulties if the relationship is to grow and develop. There's also the importance of being honest in the relationship and the fact that the truth will always come out eventually. 

Can disclosure help?

While there's always the risk that disclosing your autism to a potential partner may cause them to leave the relationship in a hurry, or worse, may give them a handle with which to bully you, this won't happen with a good partner.

A good partner will listen to your issues and will learn how to predict them, how to work around them and how to make you feel more comfortable in difficult situations. A good partner can be your co-pilot for life.

A good partner isn't going to take your news and suddenly be an expert on autism. You'll need to coach them through your needs and teach them how best to help you. Over time however, the disclosure will help and a good partner will begin to anticipate those needs -- sometimes even before you do.

How do we talk about autism?

The best way to talk about autism is both factually and positively.  Autism already has enough stigmas without adding to it. Try to avoid blaming your partner for things and try not to have the conversation when you're stressed.

Instead of telling your partner all of the things that they do wrong; "you don't do this" or "you don't care" or "you always criticize", try telling your partner what they can do right.  For example, explain that getting organised is something that you struggle with and ask for help.  Explain that places with loud music or strong smells can make your sensory systems go into overload. Agree on signals with your partner that will allow them to understand how you're feeling.  For example, if you say "this place is a bit overwhelming", it might be a signal to your partner to help you make whatever apologies you need to and get out.

Let your partner know how you want your autism disclosed. Are you comfortable with others knowing or do you want to keep it limited to a few individuals.

The right sort of partner, a truly loving partner, will do whatever they can to help you. Letting them know how they can help you is a critical first step. 

What should you expect from your partner?

No partner is going to be perfect and understanding autism isn't easy for someone who is not on the spectrum. You'll need to accept that sometimes your partner will do or say the wrong thing. It's fine to be a bit annoyed about this but unless they're deliberately trying to upset you, forgiveness and gentle correction will always be more effective than negative reinforcement.

If you're autistic, then you've had autism all of your life. It's part of you. It's amazing how many things (positive and negative) we autistics take for granted that neurotypicals don't share. 

You can't expect perfection from your partner but provided that you're considering their needs too, you should be able to expect them to keep trying to make the relationship the best they can. 

Sunday, August 4, 2019

Being an older adult with Asperger's Syndrome

A couple of weeks ago, I officially hit the big 50. I guess that makes me an "older adult" now. Nothing much has changed but I thought it would be worthwhile looking back over 15 years of diagnosis and talking about what it's like as an older adult on the spectrum. 

The Words

I still tend to use the word Asperger's to describe myself. It's not because autism is necessarily a bad word, it's more that this was what I was diagnosed with. Obviously I haven't gone back to the doctor to seek a wording update. There's really no point as I already know what it would be.

When I'm writing, I'm increasingly trying to use "autism" but that's mainly to help me connect with my audience. If I talk to an older person, I use Asperger's and if I talk to a younger person, I use autism.

In terms of "whichever first" language (person with autism vs autistic person) is mostly irrelevant to me. I'm actually a "Person with Gavin" or a "Gavin Person".  In fact, If I was talking to someone techy, I might say Person.Type=Gavin

There are lots of different labels and while it's true that some (retard) are offensive regardless of who uses them, the offensive nature of most of the words are determined by their context and the intent of the person who uses them.

At this point, I've transcended the simple labels of autism. I have a name and I have a much deeper understanding of what it means to be an individual. I tend to use the labels interchangeably but only in a positive way and never at the expense of the individual. 

Who I am

Upon being diagnosed at 30 I spent about a decade processing the news and re-evaluating most of the key decisions and conversations in my life. It wasn't a choice that I made, it just happened. I was simply unable to stop thinking about it.

It was a long and at times painful process but I've accepted that I'm responsible for some truly cringeworthy moments due to my lack of understanding of the feelings of others. I also understand that many of the things that happened were out of my control, so I've been able to forgive myself for them and let go of the past a little.

I've also realised that people did "use me" over the years and that a lot of jokes and cruel things happened at my expense. Since none caused lasting physical damage, I'm able to take those lessons to heart, forgive and move on.

I don't hate anyone for taking issue with the fact that I was different. It was a very different and less tolerant world forty or so years ago. 

I do however keep watch on the younger generation and try to help them out with encouragement, opportunities and a little positive push every now and then. Things that I needed myself when I was younger.

I'm trying to pay forward the help that inspirational people in my life gave to me. I'm increasingly accepting people for who they are and I'm loving the understanding and colour that comes from embracing diversity. 

Working Life

In my working life, I've stopped the self-centred acts of trying to push for better things, higher things or more responsibility.

I'm enjoying my place on my team and being with people who truly care for me.  I've realised that caring for my colleagues is so much better than being the boss. I no longer get bothered by people at work who have things that I don't or who are offered opportunities that I'm not.

Let's face it. At 50, I'm one of the lucky ones because I've still got a job. I just concentrate on doing it as well as I can and helping those around me to do well too.  At the end of the day, I'm happy to be able to leave my stress at work and come home to my family. 

My Parents

Anyone who's 50 has parents who are 75-80, perhaps older. Increasingly, the focus drops away from looking after your own kids and draws towards looking after your parents. We already lost my entire grandparents generation some years ago, and as generations are only 20-30 years apart, it's clear that time is not on my side.

It's become important to learn who my parents are in order to preserve their memories, words and love for future generations. I guess that's why it's so common for fifty-somethings to take up genealogy. 

My sister and I with my parents a few years ago

It's also important to tell your parents how much you love them. In my case, I find it really difficult to approach these subjects and to acknowledge what I was like as a child. My meltdowns back then were frequent and uncontrollable. If I didn't hit things and break them, then I said words that I regretted. Some of the words I said, particularly to my mother and my nana still burn today. I don't want to even acknowledge that I said them but it's hard to apologise if I don't.

Then there's my father. Every single kid seems to have father issues. Sometimes it's because dad's are rough, don't cry and give no quarter. Sometimes it's because those dads are also on the spectrum and don't know it. Sometimes the problems are with you and not your father. My dad certainly had his fair share of issues and differences but he was also the hero that I really looked up to.

I was abrasive with him well into my thirties but if I think back on it now, most of that anger was because he was simply too good. Too untouchable. He was the pinnacle to which I aspired but could never reach.

At fifty, I've well and truly made my peace with that. I know that I'll never have some of the skills that he has but I equally acknowledge that I have a different set of equally untouchable skills. We're very different he and I but at heart, we're also very much alike. He was never a very emotional man and I'm still working up the courage to tell him how much I love him. Eventually I'll get there. 

My Kids

My kids are now more or less fully grown into young adults. They are only a few weeks off being nineteen and sixteen. I've had to accept that in some ways they're not entirely like me, one of my kids is messy as hell where I was a clean freak. In other ways, they're very similar and this annoys me at times. Sometimes we feel too similar for comfort.

I want them to stretch out their wings and explore possibilities but I have to accept that modern life seems to move slower these days. 

I used to say to them when they were in school, "you'd better hurry up, at your age, I'd already kissed the girl I was going to marry". These days, my plans for them are less about kissing people than just getting off their computers an leaving their rooms every now and then. Parenting keeps changing and every generation seems to have a different version of the same old problems to solve.

On the plus side, having the kids grown up means that I can spend time reconnecting with my wife and going out. The only issue is that at 50, health issues prevent you from doing everything you want to do. 

My Dreams

Despite my advancing age, I still feel like a kid trapped in an adult's body. I have conversations with people and I feel as if they're suddenly going to realise that I shouldn't be sitting with the adults. Sometimes it's hard to imagine that my grandparents probably felt this way too. Everything was so prim and proper and serious back in those days.

I've had to let go of my impossible dreams, things like "making it big in IT" or becoming a famous writer, scaling mountains or doing things that are no longer safe in this older body. The thing is, I now recognise these things for what they were, simply "dreams".  My notions of what is important and what is not have changed so much over the years.

At fifty, I can look back and say that while I felt at times I was on the wrong path, the truth is that nearly everything I've been doing has been important - and I can draw strength from this realisation. Being happy with who you are is the most important thing of all. Sometimes it's not the easiest thing to do but with effort you can get there. 

Saturday, July 27, 2019

Some thoughts on Cups, the extreme male brain theories of autism and genderless society

Recently, I was unpacking the dishwasher and putting cups away while thinking about how we chose the cups and mugs and how my wife and I have very different thought processes when it comes to buying them.

I was wondering if this was a male/female difference, an autism/neurotypical difference or just a Gavin/Joanne difference. Somehow, I got to reflecting on the whole "extreme male brain" theory of autism and why I dislike that model more than ever.  ... and then of course, I started thinking about how people escape these gender stereotypes.

The art of choosing a mug

My wife used to choose cups in sets of four or preferably six. They'd all have the same pattern (or at least they'd all be related in some way).  Often this pattern would match the walls or benchtop in our kitchen.

Sometimes the mugs she'd choose would come with their own stand which meant that they annoyingly took up space on the bench or they'd have a set of special hooks on the wall which needed to be mounted.  If one of the cups was broken, the set would never be the same, there'd always be a missing space on their stand.

When I choose cups, I like to get things which are completely different, indvidual. If I do get a set, for example a doctor who themed set, they would be collected one by one and (and yes, there's plenty of gaps).

Things aren't missing because they're broken, they're missing because I haven't found them yet -- Somehow I feel that's more inclusive.  There's room to grow and become part of the family but it doesn't mean that the family is incomplete. 

I get cups that contain statements that make me smile or pictures that I relate to. The cups I buy generally belong to someone. Coffee cups that is.

As for tumblers (glasses), my concerns are in the areas of strength, stackability and dishwasher fitting (tall cups do not fit in the dishwasher).  If a cup is plain, then it needs to be functional. -- and of course, if a cup is part of a set in which each cup is a different colour, then they need to be stacked in proper rainbow order.

Venus and Mars

One of the more common theories about the differences between men and women is explored in John Gray's book "Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus".  It's a great book and I've referenced it many times in this blog over the years.

In a nutshell, it states that;

  • Women are more emotive while men are more tactile
  • When it comes to problems, Women prefer to talk about things (and emote) while men simply want to fix them.

You can see this approach in our collections of cups. My wife is concerned with overall harmony, how the cup fits into the "family" of the house and how it becomes a part of the collective. I, on the other hand, am much more concerned with purpose, stackability, usefulness and even signage.

In a perfect world, where we respect each other's opinions and differences, these different approaches are complimentary and can significantly improve our decision making. Unfortunately however, most relationships are dominated (at least in certain areas) by one member of the couple; and this can lead to conflict instead. 

Male brained theories. -- Simon Baron Cohen

It makes sense that clinical psychologists, such as Simon Baron Cohen would have looked at these differences in neurotypical people and applied them to people with autism. He would have found that the special interests that many people on the spectrum have, tend to skew our decision-making process.

The sensory hoops that we often have to jump through; for example considering the crowds, smells and noises at a shopping centre before we decide to go out, also affect our decision making. Ultimately, these challenges make snap decisions quite risky for people on the spectrum.  It leads us to make decisions which are more considered and logical.

To an observer, they might appear more "male-brained" - but they're not. 

Why is the male-brained theory problematic?

The main issue with the male-brained theory is that it's far too simple and that it only looks at visible surface attributes. In classifying activity by gender, it also becomes offensive to both men and women.

The extreme male brained theory supposes that men are stronger when it comes to mathematical and spatial reasoning and that men are more able to see the details in complex systems.  It suggests that women are better at emotive concepts and multi-tasking day-to-day chores and children.

It's easy to see why the male-brained theory is offensive to women, it promotes the assumption that unless you're a geeky/nerdy female (ie: on the spectrum), you're not cut out to be a scientist. It supports traditional views the females belong at home with their families and in emotional support roles.

Essentially, the naming of the male-brained theory pushes women back into the corner they've spent the last few decades trying to escape from. 

While these pictures are amusing and sometimes feel accurate, they're ultimately unhelpful in that they promote and reinforce gender stereotypes.

It's harder to see why this theory is problematic for men. After all, most men would be happy to be identified as "men".  Unfortunately, the damage is once again in the definition of the stereotype. Not only does the theory promote the idea of male savants and mathematical prowess but it also assumes that people, particularly men, on the autism spectrum are hamstrung in terms of empathy.

This is not true on a number of levels. For a start, it's very clear that not everyone on the spectrum is great at maths and science. Even males who are quite competent academically, may be competent in English, religion, geography or computing without necessarily being good at maths.

More importantly however, the male-brained theory pushes men (and women on the spectrum) back into a corner in which they've been trapped for decades; that of the unsympathetic, unfeeling male who cannot empathize with those around him. 

The Rise of Ungendered People

One of the more interesting developments of modern times is the rise of "ungendered" people. I can't pretend to know a great deal about this -- there are plenty of much more expert people out there, but from what I can gather, this isn't always happening for sexual reasons.

True, a larger than average portion of ungendered people seem to show bisexual, gay/lesbian or even transgender tendencies. I don't think that this necessarily equates with being ungendered. People become ungendered for a variety of different reasons. 

I believe that there's at least a reasonable social component to being ungendered. That some of the rules and stereotypes perpetuated in our society have left people feeling like they can't belong to either of the main descriptive genders.  That by trying to force others to fit into a set of traits that don't apply to them, we've essentially ostracized them from society.

It's especially concerning to me because the proportion of ungendered people on the spectrum, seems to be noticeably higher than it is among neurotypicals. We need to be doing more to help our people to feel accepted in society. 

What can we do?

There's a few things that we can do to make this world a better place for everyone;

  • Educate ourselves: I've deliberately written this post "off the top of my head" without looking up the language of the LGBTQIA+ community. I've since realized that I should have been using Non-Binary instead of ungendered (I think).  I also have friends that I could have asked. I'm hoping that my choice of words makes it clear how new I am to this (and I'm very happy to be corrected in the comments).

    I'm not alone. It's okay that so many people don't know the right words to use. We're going to make mistakes. Hopefully as the new words filter through society, we'll all start to learn and improve. It's up to our LGBTQIA+ friends to teach us patiently and it's up to us to make the effort to listen, learn and improve.
  • Stop trying to put everything into neat little boxes: Just as the male-brained theory is no longer relevant to autism, so too, my cups theory is not about gender. It's about differences between individuals. Labels and boxes are perfect for getting treatment or funding (and sometimes for getting a bit of respect due to numbers) but they alone can't describe everyone. Instead of arguing about identity-first language, (person with autism vs autistic person), we should really be pushing for individual-first language; "fred".

    The same goes for gender labels, we keep labeling people in extreme terms; talking about hot and cold without allowing for various degrees of warm.
  • Stop making it all about Sex: I've learned that a transgender person isn't necessarily gay and that people who become non-binary don't simply flip once from one gender to another but may lean towards one gender one day and another gender on a different day. 

    For some reason, whenever I see a person who isn't on board with these modern ideals (usually bible or equivalent "holy book" in hand), they're overly concerned with sex and genitalia (or toileting, or the effects on parenting) instead of the individual and their thoughts and feelings. 
We've obviously got a long way to go but I'm pleased to feel like I'm taking my first steps towards a greater understanding. True equality between the sexes means letting go of our preconceived notions of male and female traits. Being gender neutral doesn't have to be the answer but it's okay if it is.

To all my LGBTQIA+ friends, I'm grateful for your understanding and continued teaching. I'm learning so much from you. Hopefully I haven't offended you all with this post but if I have, my apologies are unreservedly offered. 

Sunday, July 14, 2019

Forget "Normal" - Set Personal Goals for a Happier Life

There's no doubt about it, autism, Asperger's syndrome and all of the associated co-conditions including ADHD/ADD, anxiety, OCD, ODD, Bi-Polar disorder and BPD can really make it difficult to live "normally".

People seem to be obsessed with living a "normal" life instead of trying to live a happy one. Sometimes these things can co-exist but most of the time they do not.

In this post, I want to go over some of the ways you can adjust your life goals to find happiness.

The Trouble with being "Normal"

Unless you fit a certain restricted set of cultural, racial, sexual, economic and medical criteria, you're not "normal". This is a sad fact of life and one that's usually beyond our control to change. I'm not here to talk about most of these restrictions. I acknowledge that they're important but I'm just here to talk about the neurological part of being "normal".

These neurological differences make it difficult to find work and keep it. To build relationships and keep them and to find happiness and keep it. It's not impossible but sometimes the amount of work required to do these things is so insurmountable as to be too difficult for everyday living.

Often it drives us to the edge -- and sometimes it drives us over. 

While it's clear that society itself needs to change, history has shown that these changes can take several lifetimes to have the desired effect.

Source: Bloomberg This is how fast America Changes its Mind (2015)

Personal change however is something that you have much more control over. It's achievable and if done with care and purpose, it can lead to a happier life.

Define the new "Normal"

Advocates love using the phrase "normal is just a dryer setting" but what does it really mean?

It means that "normal" is as individual as the self.  You need to stop worrying about what is "normal" for other people and work out what is normal for you.

If you ask them, most people will define "normal" lives in terms of a bunch of stages;
  • Birth
  • School, High School
  • College / University
  • Work
  • Marriage and Family 
  • Retirement
  • Death
Apart from the first and last of these stages, there's nothing that says that these steps need to be your personal life-goals or that they have to occur in the order that's specified.

As a general rule, I'd start by amending these goals to simply;
  • Birth
  • Happiness
  • Death
You'll want to flesh out what happiness actually means to you but now at least the pressure is off and the main goal in life is to happy. 

Be Realistic about your Goals

Happiness by itself is a great thing to strive for but as a lifetime goal, it's a little too vague. You need to determine what it is that you need in order to be happy.

We all have similar overall "needs"; education, relationships, housing, work, assets and leisure.


Education is a fairly common need and most of us will have completed at least the basics in the "normal" way, at school. Depending upon socio-economic circumstances and academic prowess, you may or may not have advanced beyond this. It doesn't matter. Throughout our lives, we never stop learning. You can pick up new skills at any point during your life. You really can teach an old dog new tricks. 

Age is no barrier to education
There are two very important factors to keep in mind with regards to education;

  • Education isn't simply a career step:  If you're doing a class simply because you think it will "get you a job" then think again. If your heart isn't in it, you won't do well. Education does not guarantee work.  If work is a critical goal, then consider trying to get work before worrying about further education.
  • Certifications aren't always important: Don't let worries about your performance in exams prevent you from trying new things. The end result is not as important as the journey. If you're open to this, you'll find plenty of FREE education online and plenty of low-cost courses at community colleges. 
Find your special interests and study the things you love.  It may not make you rich but it will make you happy.


In today/s society, there's a lot of pressure on young people to get boyfriends/girlfriends and to pass through the various stages of relationships which ultimately end up in procreation. What people don't tell you is that not everyone needs to be a parent. Not every relationship needs to be between a boy and a girl and that not being "with someone" is not the same as being unable to have a relationship.

Some people, particularly men, place far too much emphasis on the sexual side of relationships to the point where they become so "needy" that they're actually dangerous to others.  A good example of one of these dangerous groups is the "incel" group; the "involuntary celibate" group who don't seem to realize that the "creepiness" of their nature and intent is the very reason why they can't find a date.

Groups like this can be very dangerous.

Be clear about what you are seeking. If you're looking for sex, you may not actually be looking for a relationship. Instead of focusing on what everyone else has, or on what a group of others think is an idea, concentrate on what you as a person want, how much you're willing to contribute to a relationship and whether your goals in this area are realistic. 

You'll find that people who are generally happy and fun to be around will attract others who are seeking happiness.

Housing and Living Conditions

Housing is one of the basic needs of life. Everyone needs a place where they can feel safe, store their belongings and sleep without worrying that they'll suddenly have to defend themselves against attack.

Basic housing and living is a human right -- and in most (western) circumstances, it should be achievable depending upon the amount of government support available in your area. Unfortunately, you can't control other people in sometimes other residents do not respect your boundaries.

While many people dream of living in a giant spaciously furnished house, the reality is that this lifestyle is often completely out of reach. Your goals in terms of housing should start off simple;

  1. Safety for you and your possessions, 
  2. Access to things you need, such as power, water, communications, transport, food and shops.

If you're living anywhere in the western world, chances are that you're already living a more comfortable life than most of the world's population. 

Group homes can be a good option for people on the autism spectrum who find that they can't fully support themselves but they need to be selected carefully. Individuals who don't respect the privacy and possessions of others should not stay in these places and there needs to be someone who can oversee and resolve any of these kinds of disputes before they get "ugly".


There are two major reasons why we work. The first is to earn enough money to support ourselves in life and the pursuit of our interests. The second is to get the feeling that we're contributing back to society.

"Normal" work is not always possible for people on the spectrum. Sometimes the various social or sensory issues that come with autism get in the way and sometimes there just aren't enough jobs to go around.

One of the most common challenges of work in the western world is the issue of being "over-qualified". People with autism can sometimes be particularly skilled in their special interest areas but may find it impossible to get a job. It's very important to realize that qualifications alone will not get you a job. You can however significantly increase your chances of getting a job by working in the field while you're doing your degree or certificate.
It's been widely reported that people on the autism spectrum often find employment impossible. In the western world, where there's a degree of government support, this will place a cap on your lifestyle but will not make life impossible. In other parts of the world however, the consequences can be more severe.

If you find yourself supported but without paid employment, don't let this stop you from contributing to society. People without employment who retreat from society risk making their other issues unmanageable. You'll feel much better if you have a regular routine, contribute and feel valued by others. 

To do this, follow your special interests and where possible join local groups which in some way border on your special interests. Volunteer work will go a long way towards giving you a feeling of purpose and it may lead on to real job opportunities.

Assets and Leisure 

The last needs which drive happiness are the freedom to do things that you enjoy. This may be in the form of assets, such as collecting or owning items that you desire or in the ability to do activities that you want to do.

Once again, the problems of autism can reduce your capabilities in this area. This may be because you don't earn enough to buy what you want, don't have a safe place to store it or can't go to places because of various sensitivities or executive functioning issues.

It's important that you don't strive for things that are obviously far out of your reach (strive for a car, not a Porsche) but that you continue to strive for things that you want. The more you strive, the more you'll find your reach will extend and the closer you'll get to your goals.

Be flexible and allow for those goals to change -- and remember to celebrate the little victories too.

Keeping Happy

The things that give you happiness will change over the years, so you'll want to revise your goals accordingly.  In your younger years, you might be more concerned with assets but you may find that this shifts towards family as you get older.

Think about what you can achieve rather than what you can't and try to take opportunities as they arise. If you miss a good opportunity, don't berate yourself. This happens to everyone. Just make a deal with yourself to jump on the next opportunity when it arises.

If you find that general life stories are getting you down, you'll discover that it helps to shield yourself from bad news. Personally, I find that reading news stories about social injustice only makes me annoyed. If I'm already in a bad mood, I avoid the news entirely. 

Remember that this is your path, not the path of others. You must walk it differently and not try to compare your progress with your peers. If you find that the good fortunes of others weigh upon you heavily, consider getting off social media like Facebook as people mainly post positive (and fake) news about themselves there. Sometimes it can become very distracting.

No matter what happens, we only get one shot at life, so if you experience a little failure, keep trying and remember, there's always someone out there who's willing to help but sometimes you have to ask before they realize that they're in a position to give it. 

Monday, June 10, 2019

Teaching Responsibility to kids with Autism

When you have kids at school, it's fairly common for them to go on overnight excursions and come home with many of the wrong items in their luggage or without phones, chargers backpacks etc. 

This sort of behaviour should be well and truly disappearing by about age 15 but some kids particularly those with autism, may carry it on much later in life. Sometimes into their twenties and beyond. 

In this post, I want to look at some of the techniques for reducing this behaviour.

The Three Categories

When travelling, kids generally fall into three broad categories;

  • The ones who never actually unpack their bags
    These kids will live, sleep and sometimes even swim in the same clothes while on an excursion or camp. They're usually oblivious to the smell and will say that their mother forgot to pack items without ever having unzipped their bags to check.  They rarely leave anything behind.
  • The ones who are excessively neat
    These kids will fold everything sharply and put it back into their bags. On paper, they sound like the best kids in the world. Unfortunately, this excessive neatness can often be a warning sign of other neuroses.
  • The kids who throw their gear everywhere
    These kids make a giant mess and it's little wonder that their clothes eventually end up missing under the bed, tangled up in blankets or in the luggage of other kids. They don't actually know or care about which clothes are theirs. When packing, they simply shove everything in sight back into their bags. These are the kids who always lose clothes and who always bring a whole heap of clothes home which aren’t theirs.

Losing Clothes

Regardless of behaviour modification, putting your child’s name and phone number on everything will significantly increase the return rate but there’s also a few things you can teach your kids so that things don’t get lost in the first place. 

It’s in your best interest to drum into them, a procedure for getting changed at an early age. At home this is easy, you simply put a washing basket in their bedroom and teach them to put clothes in it when they take them off. It sounds easy but it's at least six months of daily teaching.

When they're on a camp, it's not so easy but if you've already got the basket concept working, you can lean on this by providing a small bag that is brightly coloured and telling them that this is their "washing basket" when they're away from home. It's even better if the bag can be attached to their bed where it's in plain sight all the time.  It's somewhat more difficult in tents.

If you can, switch to the coloured bag at home for a few weeks before their trip just to get them used to the idea. 

Losing Objects

When kids go away camping, they tend to lose objects like phones, watches, chargers, torches, video games, scouting gear such as compasses etc.

Obviously again, putting their name on everything is the very best first step.

Aside from that however you need to ask yourself what they really need.  If you child is going on a school or scout camp, it’s best NOT to let them take phones, games or expensive watches. Not only are these usually unsuited for rough, wet environments but they also tend to interfere with the development of social skills. You'll also find that on well-run camps, the program is so active that it leaves little time for playing with technology.

Unless it’s specifically a technology camp, try to leave the technology at home. 

Of course, you still have to teach your kids to look after technology and their general non-clothing items on a day-to-day basis. One of the techniques that seems to have worked with my son is to teach him that the phrase “have you got everything” means “instant audit”.

The Instant Audit

If we say "have you got everything", it means do a check for;
  • Wallet, Watch
  • Phone/Tablet and chargers
  • Hats, sunscreen, glasses etc. 

If you find that your kids are automatically saying “yes” when asked “have you got everything”, then the next question is; 

What should you have?

They should respond with a list;

  • My watch, which is on my wrist.
  • My wallet which is in my pocket.
  • My phone which is in my hand,
  • The charger for the phone which I put in my bag just before I put it in the car today. 
  • I didn’t bring my tablet, so I don’t need to pack it. 

You may need to prompt.

Parent: "Do you have your watch?"
Child: "Yes"
Parent: "Where is it?"
Child: "On my wrist, see"

Parent: "Do you have your wallet?"
Child: "Yes"
Parent: "Where is it?"
Child: "I don't know. It might be in my bag."
Parent: "Well, that means that you don't have it do you?"
Child: "Er... No"
Parent: "Go and find it."

The teaching process takes a long time. Sometimes years.  I you persist however, it will work.


The final component in teaching kids about being responsible is to teach consequences. For example, if they left their phone at Grandma’s house, you don’t go back and get it -- especially if it’s miles away. They’ll have to get it at the next opportunity, perhaps next week.

This will lead to tantrums however it will also ensure that they don’t forget again. 

The same goes for kids who take their electronic devices on camps when they’ve specifically been told not to take them.  If the devices are damaged, don’t go out and replace them immediately, even if they’re insured or needed for school.  In particular don’t replace them with a newer/better model. You’ll only reinforce the bad behaviour.

If the device is insured and/or a new model is a possibility, introduce delays or penalties.  Perhaps they need to give up some pocket money or do some extra chores to earn the “excess”.  Whatever you do, it can’t be a smooth transition and it needs to be memorable.

You won’t be there to save your kids in every situation so it’s very important that they learn that being irresponsible has consequences -- even if the damage wasn’t strictly their fault. 

If you make a mistake and there's consequences for you, be sure to talk to your kids about it. Make sure that they understand that you're not immune to either mistakes or consequences. It's important that they see good behaviour in the way that you handle these issues.

Results in this area are not easy and they certainly aren't "instant" but over time, with age, love and persistence, it’s possible to change behaviours to make kids more responsible.