Thursday, October 30, 2008

Visual Stimming - One of the Reasons why your Aspie child is pulling faces

Stimming is a repetitive behaviour performed by aspergers and autistic children because it "feels good" or calms them. I've covered stimming before (see: What is Stimming and what does it feel like). In today's post, I'm going to cover a very specific type of stimming - visual stimming.

Visual stimming can often confuse parents and lead them in the wrong direction - to optometrists for eye examinations or to other specialists to discuss facial tics. Instead, a few well aimed questions at your child may put the record straight.

My History
When I was a child, I used to engage in visual stimming quite a bit. It wasn't until much later, after I had been doing it increasingly for years, that my mother asked me what was going on. Until that time, I was not aware that when engaging in the activity, I presented anything at all to the outside world.

In reality however, my visual Stimming made me look like I had a very bad squint or like my eyesight was very poor. Accompanying the stimming was a rocking of the head which apparently was very noticeable.

Once I had become aware of how I presented, I gradually did it less and less. These days I hardly do it at all though there are still times when I catch myself doing it subconsciously.

Visual stimming takes a lot of different forms - only some of which are discussed below;

The Squint
In this form of stimming, you half close your eyes and all the lights take on a funny appearance. Sometimes they form stars or smears and sometimes little rainbows appear within the light Tilting your head one way or another would make those those lights "dance".

It was this stimming which worried my mother most and she first brought it to my attention after church where I'd been an altar boy. You can imagine how embarrassing it must have been to have your son, a squinting, rocking altar boy sitting facing the crowd for all to see. In any case, church was a really great place for this form of stimming because there were so many bright lights around.

I also used to do this stim quite a bit in the car at night, when I was younger - obviously not when I was driving. The squint works best in dark surrounds with lots of lights.

The Fade
Unlike the squint which relies on eye closure and head movement, the fade is more of a stare. I found that if you looked very closely at an object, you could get the surrounding areas to fade to grey. It's hard to achieve a complete fadeout because the slightest movement will cause the picture to return. During this form of stimming, your eyes will gradually dry out and become itchy - eventually you find that you have to blink.

The fade presents as a child who seems to be starring, unmoving into empty space. If you find that your child is doing this often, then returning to normal without any readjustment period, then it's possible that he's doing this stim.

Locating Shapes within Patterns
This sort of stimming occurs very frequently when you have tiles on the walls or floor. The child may stare at the tiles and begin to visually draw shapes using the boundaries of the tiles. This particular form of stimming presents as a fascination with tiles but eye movement will vary considerably from one person to another. It may depend on the age of the child - whether or not they need to move the eyes around the borders of the pattern or whether they can do the entire thing in their head

Tracing Shapes.
This presents as a child who looks at objects and revolves the eyes around considerably. What is actually happening here is that the child is following the lines of the object with their eyes. Effectively, they are tracing it. I often find that I go one step further and view the world through a mentally generated wireframe. I'm not sure how this presents in me, but it's probably not a great look - as I tend to do it while walking on busy streets.

Concentrating on Movement
This is probably the most reported form of stimming. There are two types of movement. Movement where an object itself is moving, such as a ball or a spinning object and movement where the movement of the person creates the illusion of movement on objects.

Watching spinning or rolling objects is extremely common in children with all forms of autism. Watching spinning objects is more widely reported though not necessarily because it occurs more frequently. It may simply be that watching a thrown object can appear more natural to the casual observer, while the observation of a spinning object can often cause the autistic child to stare.

Movement by illusion is often accomplished by a rocking of the upper body, a classic autism stim, or by simple movements of the head. Sometimes the child will spin themselves. In more complex forms, the rocking can be combined with watching a spinning object. Note that this isn't purely a visual stim and that the aspie or autistic person may actually derive a lot of pleasure/calm from their own bodily movement.

Dealing with Stimming
I've read some articles which suggest that you should "block your child's view of the objects on which they are stimming". I'm really not a fan of this approach.

Your child will always find things to stim on and blocking an object will simply lead them to a different object - or perhaps even a worse form of stimming. At the very least, it could trigger a meltdown if they can't relax.

Unless the behaviour is causing problems, you shouldn't try to change it.

If you are concerned about how your child presents in class or to his peers, then you might want to videotape his stimming and then replay it for him. In most cases, your child probably isn't aware of how he presents.

Don't accuse your child - or hassle them about the "problem". A "buddy" approach to correction might be more appropriate. Ask your child what he is doing when he acts that way - ask him how it feels and what the effect is like. Perhaps you, your child and his teacher could agree on a particular word or phrase to remind him when he's stimming in class.

I'm sure that there are a lot of other forms of visual stimming and in particular, that there are stims related to colour. I'll try to discuss the affects of colour on aspies in a different post - that's an entire topic on its own.

Stimming is a normal thing which everyone engages in to some extent. It's just that people on the spectrum tend to do it much more frequently. Stimming does not harm the child and may in many cases be beneficial and stress-reducing.

The Blue Ball Machine
One last thing related to this post. If you want to keep your aspie occupied for hours, show them this animated gif. The Blue Ball Machine - it's the ultimate computer stim.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Article: How Far Should You Chase The "Impossible" Dream?

I was reading this article today;

How Far Should You Chase The "Impossible" Dream?
By Lynne Soraya on July 22, 2008 in Asperger's Diary

It's an interesting article about the problems aspies face when rising through the ranks (at work) to management positions.

It questions Temple Grandin's repeated statements that "people with autism or Asperger's should never allow themselves to be promoted into a management role, due to the social demands." and asks not only whether this is possible but whether or not aspies should actively pursue such careers.

The article also mentions John Elder Robison, author of "Look Me In The Eye". If you've read that book, then you'll know how John Elder had a lot of difficulties in management and that it stifled an otherwise brilliant technical career.

I think the article raises two very interesting questions;

1. Can an aspie make it to Upper Management.
The answer here is, quite obviously a resounding "Yes". As to whether or not an aspie can actually be effective in management... I'm not so sure about that. Come to think of it, I wonder if upper management itself is ever effective?

The other question is;

2. Should an Aspie try to make it to upper management?
This is a much harder question since there is pain in both approaches.

If you stay put...
It's quite painful and demeaning to be "bypassed" by younger and less effective colleagues who move to management positions while you remain as you are. Once in upper management, those same colleagues are able to impose their will upon you and may even take revenge for things which may have occurred while they were your junior. It's also quite frustrating to miss out on the salary hikes given to people who move up in the corporate world.

If you move up.
On the other hand, the route to upper management is frustrating for aspies. There's a lot more emphasis put on social skills and social situations and there's less need for technical solutions. I've found nothing to enjoy about my interactions with upper management. The positions bring considerably more stress while significantly reducing your ability to provide technical input.

I've sat in meetings steaming internally because of the mediocrity of some of the decisions being made but knowing that I'm powerless to change them. If I'd been in a lower position, I'd have been blissfully unaware of how close to "functioning", the company had become. Often, in a lower position, I'd be able to implement a change by pretending not to understand it's ramifications. In upper management however, with all of the responsibility that the positions entail, this is not usually possible.

A Happy Medium
I'm convinced that aspies should always be following their special interests. If those special interests include management, then you should move upwards. If not, then the ideal position is the last bastion of technical work and the first rung of management.

To move above this rung is to risk major job dissatisfaction which can often only be resolved by leaving the company.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Article: BitTorrent's Bram Cohen and Aspergers

Here's yet another good aspie tech story which once again demonstrates that while Aspies can make it to CEO positions, they're actually at their best working as techs. In particular, I liked the bit about how he fidgets during meetings (even taking a rubik's cube to them) and how his fellow workers learned not to sugar-coat things with him. Just tell him straight.

A worthwhile read.

BitTorrent's Bram Cohen Isn't Limited by Asperger's
By Susan Berfield
Business Week, October 16, 2008.

The Dangers of Over-Interpretation and Over-Analysis

A reader highlighted this problem in a comment on my recent "Letter Writing in Relationships" articles. At the time, the comment was aimed mainly at letters but I feel that it applies in a lot of other areas of aspie communication.

Note: As is often the case, my initial writing of this particular blog went off-topic and instead spends most of it's time exploring a completely different aspie trait. I've decided to leave it intact though as I think it provides some interesting reading.

Its a well known fact that aspies miss quite a lot of the nuances of non-verbal communication such as tone, expression, body language and innuendo. What is often less documented is that these things can often be determined by aspies with good coping mechanisms, though not without significant delay.

Event Recording as a Coping Mechanism
One of the most effective coping mechanisms I employ is "conversation recording" where I attempt to remember an event in its entirety for later analysis.

In aspies with particularly well-developed coping mechanisms (typically, older aspies), event recording is virtually "second nature". It often occurs without any conscious decision on our part.

When an event is "recorded", a lot of things, particularly tone and body language which are not accessible at the time are retained. The funny thing about this type of retention is that although a lot of input is captured, it usually isn't available to me until I review the "recording". Something I may not do until hours or days later - and often, unless I have a reason to do so, not at all.

Late Interpretation
I'm in the habit of reviewing "recordings" whenever I get an unexpected response from people or whenever I deem that a conversation is important and could be carrying more information than is immediately obvious.

Often this works in my favour. Certainly an apology for a lack of empathy or a misguided "off the wall" remark is better being a few days late than not being offered at all.

At work a post-meeting interpretation can help me to understand exactly what is really being asked of me. It also uncovers a lot of my embarrassing on-the-spot answers.

While event recording is certainly useful in understanding relationship issues there are a few critical problems with using it in this context;

  • Over interpretation
    When people are having an unrehearsed conversation, there's a certain amount of non-verbal language that creeps in - but there's also a limit to this.

    Reinterpreting the same scene 10 times over usually won't reveal any additional information and anything new that does appear after several reviews is more likely to have been introduced by the "reviewer" than the original conversationalist.

  • Frame of Reference
    Men and women have vastly different frames of reference and will often interpret the same scenarios quite differently - particularly from an emotional standpoint. Sometimes "no interpretation" is better than a completely wrong or"insensitive" one.

  • Emotional Interference
    Where the emotions of couples are concerned, there can often be a significant difference between what someone says and what they really mean.

    Tone and body language can be an important clue here but sometimes constant replaying of the conversation can cause you to focus entirely on the words,rather than on the message.

Written Communication
often, as a way of making up for the shortcomings in our normal conversation, aspies will expend quite a bit of effort in the interpretation of written communication.

This is great when it comes to poetry which can be full of hidden meanings but it's not good when a letter is meant as a "heart to heart" because the aspie can fill it up with their own interpretations and leave no room for the writer to get their point across.

The only solution here is to try to encourage the aspie to read without interpreting but it's more difficult than it sounds.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Article: Using Lego Therapy to Help Aspergers Children with their Social Skills

This article appeared in the UK Times Yesterday

Here's how to build your hopes
Parents of autistic children need not despair. It has been proved that therapies using Lego can be an enormous help

The article doesn't say anything particularly new but reaffirms the fact that when a group of children are collaborating on a project which is of interest to them - and when there are firmly set boundaries of responsibility which enforce the need to communicate, then the children will communicate.

And of course, practice makes perfect.

You could easily adapt the instructions in the article for siblings or very small groups;
One child acted as the “engineer” and described the instructions, another as the “supplier” finding the correct pieces, and the “builder” put the pieces together. After a time, they would swap roles.
I might try this at home - it could stop the fighting over lego between my children.

Computer Games
The article hints a bit but stops short of citing other cases where such interaction would promote communication. Here's a good one I've discovered with my own children - computer games.

In particular, I've found that the "team" (co-op) games where players have to help each other, are much better at fostering communications between children than games where they compete against each other. The best of these types of games are the lego series; Lego Star Wars, Lego Indiana Jones and Lego Batman (all of which are particularly suitable for younger children). There are also good examples in the more "grown up games" like Eragon, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire and Lord of the Rings: Return of the King.

Some Positives
The article goes on to say a few positive things, including one thing I've been saying all the time about the importance of obsessions;
“In the past, it was believed that obsessions got in the way of learning. Now, if a child is preoccupied with a system of learning, like maths, music or Lego, we say they should take it as far as they can, because they might be the passport to a job or a friendship. So we're turning that idea on its head and using the interest or obsession to help the child,” he says.
You really need to be building on the child's strengths and obsessions (special interests) to overcome any weaknesses. Sure, a lot of obsessions seem useless at first;

For example: Star Wars
It's fiction, so what could a child possibly learn from it?

  1. English : Have the child write about Star Wars; eg: "How would Luke have felt when he returned to his homestead?"

  2. Maths: This can be much more than simply "count the spaceships" - in later years, you can adjust a child's work to do trigonometry

  3. Science: More than simply space. You can teach about ecology (what would grow on tatoonie), chemisty, geology and physics.

  4. Art: Drawing spacships, people and landscapes.
There's a lot more you could do but since this is only an example, I'll leave it there.

Am I suggesting that schools change the curriculum for one student? No, of course not. However teachers and parents can suggest to children that they look at things differently - particularly when the child is struggling or disinterested.

To ignore the obsession is to ignore the greatest source of potential in the child.

Monday, October 6, 2008

More on Aspergers versus High Functioning Autism

I was just reading a summary of the (unfortunately pay-per-view) article;

Social Anxiety in High-functioning Children and Adolescents with Autism and Asperger Syndrome published in the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders.

on the following blog post;

High Functioning Autism vs. Asperger’s: You say tomato I say tomahto

It had a few interesting things to say - so please, have a read.

What I found particularly interesting
I've stated before on this blog that the only difference between Aspergers and High Functioning Autism is a language delay but I've always had this problem with my youngest child, who is diagnosed with HFA but is doing a lot of speech therapy. You see, he's rapidly gaining language skills to the point where he's now certainly much more able to tell us what went on at preschool than my older (aspie) son did at the same age.

I keep thinking - what happens to the HFA diagnosis when the language delay disappears? My wife correctly surmised that it meant more than a simple "delay" in speech but I still couldn't quite get my head around the problem. Did it mean writing? conversation?

It was this paragraph (from the translating autism blog mentioned above) which really helped me to understand the problem;

In regards to their social interactions, in my clinical experience and interaction we colleagues, we see a difference in their ‘relative’ need for social companionship. In general children with HFA seem to just want to be by themselves without an explicit desire to interact with peers. They interact when necessary and when such interaction is functional, but not for the “intrinsic joy” of having social interactions. On the other hand, children with AS tend to desire close relationships with peers and explicitly talk about wanting more friends, but their social uniqueness make the establishing of such relation more difficult.
This, I think, makes it very clear that the "difference" isn't so much about a "language delay" as an interest in friendship.

An Example
My youngest has certainly made massive gains in his language skills and is a better talker than his older brother was at the same age. He doesn't however have many friends - the few he has are mostly acquaintances.

To illustrate this;

Recently, we had an incident at preschool when my wife was dropping him off. Another boy called out to him and she said - "oh look, that boy knows you - what's his name". My son responded with "I don't know".

Unfortunately, the other boy's mother was standing nearby and she burst into tears saying "How could he not know my son's name? They've been playing together for over a year!".

My wife was able to gloss over things by suggesting that he was just mucking around and that "he always does that" but it was nearly an incident.

Some thoughts on Social Anxiety...
There's one other thing that the post says about aspergers which I'm sure you can already infer from the definitions above.

It suggests that if both HFA and Aspergers children have difficulty with social interactions but that HFA children don't care anyway. Then Aspie children would be expected to have higher stress levels (social anxiety) than HFA children. Their trials however don't bear this out.

In tests of social anxiety with HFA, AS and NT children, both the HFA and AS groups had more or less the same levels while still being considerably more anxious than their neurotypical peers.

What's worse was that;
The anxiety problems tended to decrease with age in typically developing kids, but these problems increased with age in the children with HFA/AS.
In my discussions with teenage and adult aspies, I've seen a high incidence of "lonliness" and other forms of social anxiety related to the inability to make friends. I haven't really noticed this as much in autistic adults. This could be a perception thing on my part or the fact that I talk to many more aspies than HFA's.

I'd really like to see what the results would be if this study were to be redone with adult aspies and high functioning autistics.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Article: Positive Traits of Asperger's Syndrome

I've been thinking about doing a post on the positive traits of aspergers syndrome for a while now because sometimes it's all too easy to focus on only the negative aspects. So, I did a quick search to see if there was anything I'd missed in my list and I found this article - it's better than what I would have written, so I've linked it below;

Positive Traits of Asperger's Syndrome
Beneficial Characteristics Associated with “Autism Lite”
© Jennifer Copley
Aug 15, 2008

I'd like to have seen a bit more detail in the areas of intelligence, special interest and focus but otherwise I don't really have a lot of comments to add on the article since I feel that it's very good.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Letter Writing in Relationships - Communicating in Aspie (Part 3)

In parts 1 & 2 I covered how letter writing is a great leveller which removes non-verbal cues from the communication. I also gave some tips for effectively communicating emotions and affection.

I now want to look at how letter writing can be used to solve relationship problems.

To do this, I'm going to refer to some training which I received from Marriage Encounters several years back.

A Quick Plug for Marriage Encounters
Worldwide Marriage Encounters ( is an initiative intended to give couples the tools they need to effectively communicate in marriage.

It is not merely for marriages which are in trouble - in fact, it works best on marriages which are going well. The cost of an "encounter weekend" is very low there is usually a single low upfront fee with a request for private donation at the end. "However, no couple is denied the opportunity of a weekend because of financial hardship."

The initiative is supported by the Catholic Church but please don't let that stop you. They don't try to peddle religion on the weekend - it's all about couple communication.

One last thing. The weekends are hard work (a lot deep of one-to-one couple talking) but you are not expected to share any details of your marriage with outsiders. The discussions are strictly between you and your partner - privately. The ME team simply provide training in communication, and suitable questions to ask each other.

Problem Solving using the ME Principles
Note that this is a very simplified version of the ME technique. It's impossible to cover in a single post, all of the things that they cover over the course of a weekend.

Formulating the Question
First of all, agree on a single topic to be tackled. We are problem solving here after all. If you have more than one problem, start with a general question which covers everything (see example 2 below). You can always ask more specific questions later.

Sometimes it helps to try to ask the question in a way that says - "how do I feel" - this often gets an emotive response.

Here are some example questions for practice;

  1. How do I feel about our marriage so far?
  2. What do I think are the 5 biggest problems in our relationship?
  3. Are we in a rut - and if so, what can we do to get out of it?
  4. How do I feel when we are together?
  5. How do I feel when we need to discipline the children?

There are lots more questions you could ask and in fact, you might want to take it in turns to ask questions or, for a bit of fun, write them all down and select one at random.

Some questions like, "what do I need when you/I walk in the door after work" will probably give you great insights into how both partners can satisfy each other's needs and will lead to practical solutions which you can immediately implement. Other questions will give you more abstract answers.

Choose questions which will add value to your relationship.

Why write when you can talk?
Sure, you could simply blurt out the answers but the key here is to make sure that both partners are thinking about both sets of answers.

The problem with "talking out an answer" is that while Person A is talking, Person B is only half listening and half trying to work out what they're saying in response.

So... Don't try talking.. write.

Start by getting yourself an exercise book or pad each. This will help you to keep your correspondence together and will allow you to re-read old letters to see if you've changed your opinion or if you've promised things you've forgotten to deliver.

Now, for the actual writing.

It's not an essay, you don't need to use a lot of supporting arguments, cite references or anything. If it's anything, then treat it as a love letter.

Writing the Answers
First of all, take pen and paper and go somewhere truly by yourself. It's possible to do this in the same room as your partner but you should not be facing each other. You need to write as yourself - not as you think your partner wants. Looking at your partners expressions while writing the letter can be very distracting.

Start your letter, as you would any other letter, with Dear... This helps you to start on a "loving" note, no matter how angry you may feel at the time. Even more important - make sure that you end with a declaration of love and sign your name.

The bulk of your letter should be about the problem and how you feel. Remember not to say things like "you made me do xxx" or "you made me feel like xxx" because nobody made you do anything.

Instead, say "when you do xxx, I feel like xxxx because.....". This gets the point across without pointing the finger.

Also, remember to concentrate on your feelings. This is the one thing that your partner is guaranteed not to know. This is particularly true (on both sides) in any relationships involving an aspie. Your partner doesn't just need to know your emotional state but also how strong the emotion is. I covered this in Letter writing part 2, so have another look if required.

Be candid and explicit in your letter. If you have something to say, it must be written down. Don't leave hints, metaphors or anything that suggests reading between the lines.

The End of the Letter
I said earlier that you need to end with a normal (loving) letter ending but the aim here is not to end your letter with a contradiction...

"and I think you're a complete idiot!

Lots of love..."

You need to end it appropriately, to show that you are willing to work at things and to show that you are willing to make compromises;

For example, try things like;

"I know we've had our differences but I'm willing to work with you to patch things up. I think that if we start by ... and perhaps you're right about .... Let's give it a shot,

Lots of love..."

Reading the Letters
When you've finished your letter, wait for your partner to finish and then swap letters.

Separate again, or face the other way and quietly - without any comments - read the letter twice.

On the first reading, don't attempt to make any judgements at all. Simply try to "be" your partner and to feel what he or she is feeling (hopefully the letter will be all about what he or she is feeling). Read what the letter is telling you but don't try to read between the lines. Accept only what has been written down - otherwise, you'll be putting your own interpretation onto your partner's feelings/behaviour.

When you've finished reading the letter the first time, pause for a minute or so and try to understand what you've been told. Chances are that if you're a chatterbox (like me), then this is the first time you've heard your partner's entire feelings on the issue.

Now you can read the letter a second time. This time, you need to be thinking about how you feel. You should not be trying to think of counter-arguments, slanders or dismissive comments but simply trying to see how you feel about the letter, whether you agree or disagree, whether you can understand how your partner could be feeling the way they are and how you and your partner can reach an acceptable compromise.

For example, if you've been given the impression that you're doing something selfish, then the answer is not "I am not selfish". Your partner has written that from their perspective, you've done something selfish. They're the expert on their own perspective, so it's right - and not for you to challenge.

Instead, your reaction should probably be one of the following;

  • Acceptance: You feel that you probably do come across as selfish. In this case, you probably already know what you can do to rectify the situation.
  • Denial: You didn't think that you come across as selfish - this is news to you. If your partner thinks that you're being selfish, then you need to think of specific examples (if your partner has cited them) and how you could handle these better. In your view, you're not selfish, so it means that it's a perception problem instead. Is there another way you could get your point across? How do you change your partner's perception of you? Are there other ways in which you could share?

Discussing the Problem
Now that you've both considered the problems, you're ready to talk. One partner will go first and will be allowed to talk about their letter and yours.

You must listen and must not interrupt. Your turn will come. Other expressions, such as rolling your eyes, shaking your head, deliberate yawning etc are also forbidden. Just listen and be ready to compromise.

If you're the partner doing the talking, remember to focus on the problem, how to fix it and how to avoid similar problems in future. Love is all about compromises, so keep thinking about what you and your partner could do to meet "somewhere in the middle". Above all else, do not use your talking time to slander or otherwise offend/criticise your partner.

If the problem is centred on one partner more than the other such as in the "selfish" example I used earlier, then the partner who can change should probably go first. This will allow them to propose a solution/compromise up-front and therefore bypass most of the discussion of the problem itself.

When it's the other partner's turn, they can either accept/reject the compromise or propose an alternative.

Good luck.