Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Do Aspie Children know at they are Different? - Part 2: Early Childhood Perception

Last time, we looked at the influence of parental perception on the child's "view of themselves" and established that normal parent reactions are often enough to let the child know that they are different.

In today's post, I'll be looking at the primary school years and how interactions between children make these differences obvious.

Deaf but Still Different
When I was in preschool, it was discovered that I was very deaf - the result of an uncontained ear infection. It would have been easy for me to wrongly attribute my differences to this problem (as I did with many of my social issues in secondary school).

In primary school however, I was fortunate because our next door neighbour had a son the same age as me, who went to the same primary school and who was also deaf - albeit a much worse case.

This gave me a benchmark for my social performance and it was obvious from day one of kindergarten, where he made instant and lasting friendships while I made none, that there was some bigger difference. When I was little, I thought that the difference was that he was "more deaf" and getting more sympathy. I'd often find myself wishing that my own condition was worse.

Of course, there was much more to it than that. He knew how to make conversation, could join in their pretend games, could read faces and didn't have meltdowns.

Social Empathy
I can remember several occasions when he'd stop me in social situations and tell me how I should be feeling. One instance, when we were aged about 7, a boy put a live witchety grub (a huge Australian worm that was famously a delicacy for Aborigines), in a girls hair. Everyone gathered around and laughed but then the girl became upset and the laughing had to stop.

The problem was, that I didn't understand the change - why were we not laughing anymore? Had it stopped being funny? Would it be funny if we put it back? In someone else's hair? Another boy, who in later years became a good friend, continued to laugh too and we talked about how the girls curls would have made such great tunnels for the grub. My best friend had to come up to me and explain how we needed to feel sad for the girl because she had been scared. I acted that way because it was required but at the time I couldn't understand the girl's feelings. After all, it wasn't scary to me.

Friendships and the Special Interest
By third grade, my best friend's deafness was making it difficult for him to learn and he had to leave and go to a special school. For me, this meant that my entire group of friends had left the school. Anyone who'd ever talked to me had only done so because I was a good friend of a popular boy. I was totally alone.

After a while, the boy who'd laughed with me about the tunnels started playing with me. Star Wars had come out and I was hooked. I had a couple of figures and I had been playing with them constantly by myself. It turned out that he liked Star Wars too. We became best friends.

Then suddenly one day, my friend's interest switched to trucks. I wasn't interested in trucks. I only liked Star Wars. He tried in vain to make we switch but I just wasn't interested and we started to play separately. Eventually, he left the school and I was alone again.

Playing with Girls
By year four, the boys games were all sport orientated. I was no good at sport. My co-ordination was abysmal and I couldn't even catch a ball. I had trouble kicking a ball without falling over. A girl noticed that I was lonely and wandered over to talk to me. I spent the rest of the year (indeed, the rest of my time at that primary school), in the company of the girls much to my parents annoyance.

Of course, since I was leaving at the end of year four, and going to an all boys school, there was zero chance that any of my friends would be coming with me. Once again, I'd have to start out by myself.

Playing at Home
At home, I had a sister to play with, as well as the deaf boy next door. In the early days, I pretend-played (something that they say aspies can't do), with my sister. Unfortunately, the game was usually Doctor Who, with the Tardis being an upright clothes dryer. My poor sister could never follow our games and I'd often get annoyed with her for not following the rules.

Aspies have great imaginations and can pretend-play by themselves for hours. Our main failing is that we don't communicate the plan or even the events, to our co-players. My game could go on for hours without me speaking a word to her but I'd be unaware that she wasn't able to follow what was going on.

Eventually, my sister found some girls in our street and I rarely saw her from then on because she spent all her free time with them.

My best friend in my childhood was my dog, Spotty. He and I spent ages exploring and playing. We accepted eachother totally. It's not called solitary play when you've got dog with you.

Uninentional Comedy
My early school years were marked by a lot of unintentional comedy, some of which is worth covering here as it demonstrates obvious aspie traits. My mother was told at several parent teacher meetings that I was the class clown.

One funny moment, was when I didn't realise that our sports teacher was female. I didn't pick up the differences in her voice and she had a male haircut. She had been taking us for sport for about three years when I called her "sir" and was corrected by one of the kids. We had an arguement about it, with me forcefully arguing that she was a man. Needless to say, she was not happy when she discovered what we were arguing about.

Another comedic moment occurred when I borrowed the highly reserved book "Blue Fin" by Colin Thiele, from our school library and forgot to return it the next week. The librarian was particularly upset and didn't observe the "silence in the library" rule when telling me about it. She must have shouted at me for a good minute and a half. She tailed off at the end into something unintelligible having decided that her message had gotten through. Being polite and knowing that I hadn't gotten the entire message, I waited until she had finished, paused and then followed up with "I beg your pardon?". She threw her hands up in the air and stormed out leaving the class in uproar behind her.

I soon discovered that comedy was a good way of covering up my deficiencies. This would come into it's own once I changed schools.

The Next School
In the days when I went to school, we changed schools for year 5 - 12, so although years 5 and 6 are still primary school, I'll leave them to my next post.

A Summary
I'm aware that these posts are more autobiographical than anything else, so I apologise if I'm boring people. My main aim here is simply to show that the differences that aspergers brings were obvious to me, and to others around me - even if the condition itself was largely unknown at the time.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Do Aspie Children know at they are Different? - Part 1: Parental Perception

The Aim of this Series
I'm often asked by other parents for my thoughts on telling children about their aspergers. Will knowlege of the condition help or hinder them? In fact, taking things one step further... will the knowledge of aspie characteristics actually cause the differences between the aspergers and neurotypical children to become exagerated?

To know the answer to this, we must first examine adults who were diagnosed with aspergers late in their lives to determine whether they felt "different" as children.

Having been diagnosed at 37, I guess I'm as good a subject as any.

Parental Perception
There's no doubt that my parents knew that I was different from a very early age and there were lots of things that I did which were considerably different to other children.

One of the most obvious differences was that I formed an unnatural bond with a blanket which lasted far longer than it should have. My mother still tells stories about how she couldn't take me shopping without the blanket, how it took up most of the space in her shopping trolley and the emotional anguish that blanket separation, and even wilful damage by other children, would cause.

The blanket fascination lasted far longer than my parents ever suspected. I went through several blankets, all of them with names, and often with an imagined "blanket pedigree". That's right, most of my blankets were "related" to eachother in some way.

Long after it was "shamed" into hiding, it continued way into my teenage years. In winter, I would often be wearing it in front of the television and in summer, when it was too hot to have it on me, I'd often fall asleep with my entire body hugging it like a body pillow.

Truth be told, I still like to keep a blanket and can often be found to be watching TV with one wrapped around me - even in the 30 degree (celcius) heat of Summer. It's that feeling of being tightly wrapped (hugged) without being stroked or tickled, that a blanket can do much more effectively than another person can. Of course, these days I'm not so possessive and the kids often take it off me with no complaints. At least all the stuffed animals are gone. (I've got my wife for that - just kidding).

Above: A picture my parents snapped of me sleeping in the hot Australian summer aged about 10. Note that there are six stuffed animals sharing the bed as well as a blanket.

Knowing I was Different?
In terms of the behaviour described above, the fact that I hid it from my parents in my teenage years suggests that I knew that there was something "wrong" with it. I certainly perceived a difference but whether that detection was entirely due to my parent's complaints or whether I genuinely understood that other children didn't have the same fascination remains to be proven.

There's much more "damning evidence" in my early interactions with my peers.
I'll cover this in my next post.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Article: Focus on Hyperfocus

I'd like to draw your attention to a good article on Hyperfocus on Additude, an ADHD site. Hyperfocus does come into play in ADD/ADHD but I think it's even more applicable to Aspergers.

The article is:

Learn About ADHD: Focus on Hyperfocus

Information about ADHD symptom of hyperfocus -- a common symptom that explains why many attention deficit children and adults can concentrate so intently at times.
by Royce Flippin

The article covers the good parts of hyperfocus, which is something I've already done but it then goes into detail on the negative points too.

Relating to the Article
I can certainly relate to a number of points in the article, having had to be fetched from my office on various occasions when alarms have sounded without my noticing them. It might be possible to write some of these down to my deafness, but not the problems where we've lost lighting power (without wall outlet power), or air conditioning and I've kept on computing when my outside environment has become unbearable to my colleagues.

At home, sometimes I decide to do some work, check my mail or play a quick game just before going to bed. These activities often cause me to hop bleary-eyed into bed for a quick couple of hours sleep before work the next day. The passing of time during hyperfocus is beneath my focus.

After Work Focus
It's not good to do too much personal stuff on company time, so I often wait until after work hours to complete personal things, like blog entries or reading non-work web sites. Sometimes I get so focussed on these that I forget to go home. I'll look up, feeling like I've done five minutes of solid work and realise that it's been thirteen hours since I left the house. Naturally, I get into a lot of trouble when I get home - and it's well neigh impossible to explain how I lost my focus to my NT wife.

RSI Focus
The other big problem that I have with hyperfocus is RSI. If you spend 12+ hours on the computer 5-7 days per week, you'll soon develop RSI problems. Once you've had the problem the first time, it recurrs for the rest of your life. These days, it doesn't take too long for my hands to start hurting.

Luckily (or unluckily), my Aspergers tends to make it easy for me to ignore pain up to a certain point. I'll often complete a task and snap out of hyperfocus only to discover that my hands are masses of pain - or even worse, have gone completely numb.

I tried using a desktop timer to interrupt me on a regular basis. It worked for a couple of years but unfortunately, I got used to it - particularly when it kept coming up in the middle of important work. I started closing the application without even realising.

Fortuantely, I work with a very understanding group of people and they frequently take it upon themselves to "hassle me out of my office" for breaks, meetings and morning tea. Even better, there's no disabling them.

Sometimes I wonder if aspies need permanent baby sitters.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

The Differences between Aspie and NT Conversation

A little while ago, I was asked to explain what the main differences were between aspie and NT Communication, specifically in terms of what each party receives.

We're always being told that Aspies miss non-verbal cues and that they're distracted but do aspies actually pick up more or less elements in conversation?

Here are a couple of lists for comparison based on a normal office desk conversation.

What the NT Gets

  • Voice
  • Facial Expression
  • Verbal Tone
  • Body Language and Posture
  • What the person is wearing
  • Any sufficiently loud or disruptive intrusions

What the Aspie Gets
  • The Voice
  • Non-verbals in a single swoop (discussed below)
  • The books on the bookshelf behind the talker
  • Other people in the room
  • The Flashing lights on their hard drive
  • Traffic outside the office
  • Nice (Groovy) Patterns on the person's tie
  • The Logo on their glasses
  • Scuff marks on their shoes
  • The Screen Saver on the PC behind them.
It's my belief that aspies generally pick up much more of the surroundings regardless of whether or not it is relevant to the conversation.

In fact, I don't believe that this is limited to conversation. I have also noticed it while driving.

When I am in the car, regardless of whether or not I am a passenger or a driver, I seem to notice much more of the surroundings than my NT wife. Strangely enough, I will pick up all kinds of interesting but irrelevant details which she will miss even though she is looking out of the window and directly at them.

Picking Up Non-Verbals in a Single Swoop
The question remains as to whether or not aspies get non-verbal cues in conversations. I think that we do actually pick them up but that we are unable to interpret them in a timely fashion.

It's funny but when I am in the conversation, I usually find that I am struggling to keep up just with the words and that I don't have a great deal of time to think about anything other than what has been said.

It's only when I am going over the conversation back in my office or writing minutes for it or thinking about it on the way home, that I start to go over all of the non-verbal cues. Sometimes it's then that I realise the person wasn't really interested in what I have to say or that they seemed to have trouble accepting an idea.

It is far too late for this new information to have any bearing on the conversation at this point but I will often take that feedback on board an attempt to not discuss the same subjects or the same amount of detail with that person again. One thing that I don't often do however is go back to the person with my new interpretations and attempt to redo the conversation. As far as I can tell, if something wasn't well received once, it's not a good idea to attempt a follow up.

In a sense, we are getting non-verbal cues unfortunately however we are not able to process them in time to make use of them during conversation. This leads outsiders to believe that we are missing them entirely.

Strangely though, one thing that I don't often get (and this could be a male thing rather than an aspie thing) is clothes. Unless someone is wearing an interesting pattern, I'll usually have absolutely no idea what they were wearing. It's like my mind drops that as "irrelevant".

Saturday, January 3, 2009

Article: Sensory Overload - An Insider's Perspective

Hi and Welcome to 2009.

There was a great article on Sensory Overload posted yesterday that I feel I need to draw your attention to;

The Post in Question is;

Sensory overload: An insider’s perspective
and the Blog itself is called Asperger Journeys.

I'd highly recommend it.

This post says a lot about sensory overload that I hadn't really given much thought to. For instance, the words Sensory Overload had always triggered the notion of "shutdown" in me.

Since I very rarely experience shutdown, my natural extreme reaction is generally meltdown, I figured that I didn't experience Sensory Overload. From the description in this article however, I'm beginning to wonder if I do. Perhaps it doesn't have to reach boiling point before it's called an overload.

Certainly, I often find myself in a crowded place with my skin tingling and my head racing like I've got a fever. In those environments, a touch is extremely irritating and uncomfortable. Surprisingly, even loud (and sometimes soft) noises affect me - and don't forget, I'm deaf.

I can only ignore these feelings for a short while before I need to get outside alone - or somewhere equally isolated in order to calm down.

Another really familiar thing about this post is the notion of mental blanking. I find that this happens to me too during periods of "sensory overload". We watched a DVD last night which was defective and in one part, the conversation was stilted (people were talking in part words it.. al...m..o..s.....t impos...ib..le to follow).

That's sort of how my thoughts become in an overstimulated environment. I can't even follow one conversation, let alone the multiple ones in the room. Funnily enough, I don't have this problem in meetings, only at unstructured gatherings like parties and (sometimes) during shopping.