Thursday, March 26, 2009

Teenage Sexuality and Aspergers

Please Note: This post may contain material which could be considered offensive. If you are squemish? Please do not read further.

This topic was suggested by one of my readers and given that it's not only frequently a source of parental concern but can also cause major social issues, I thought it was well worth covering.

The Extremes
Like all aspie traits, the ones described here don't necessarily apply to everyone. People with aspergers are individuals too and there's no reason to expect that any generalisations hold true.

One thing that I've noticed with many aspies that I've come into contact with is that they tend to cling to the extremes of permissiveness more than their neurotypical counterparts.

For example; most NTs learn that nudity isn't socially acceptable from an early age and will generally avoid it. By their mid to late teens however, many NTs push at the boundaries of social acceptance without crossing them in any major way.

In this situation, there are two extremes and you often find aspies clustered at both. On the one hand, there are the shy, prudish aspies who consider it a big deal to unbutton the top button on their shirt, or to wear shorts. At the other end of the scale, there are aspies who think nothing of nudity and aren't concerned who sees them. Surprisingly, there are also a number of confusing individuals who constantly flip between the two extremes.

Causes of Concern
Both types of aspies create social issues with the "prudish" type often being subjected to bullying over their appearance. They also often have problems attending gym/P.E. classes. These aspies often face longer-term life and relationship issues because social rejection in the teenage years can often have lasting consequences. All too often, these people have major issues with dating and with meeting people. In this regard, some of worst problems stem from their conservative dress sense and the fact that they would never set foot in many of the places where social/dating activities are conducted (pubs, clubs, dances etc).

Unsuprisingly though, it's the more "relaxed" types of aspies who tend to get themselves into the worst trouble. There's no mistaking the problems that females who are just a little too forthcoming when talking about adult issues or who flirt inappropriately attract amongst the less controlled members of our society. Male issues tend to be more likely to involve the police, or violence.

Growing Up Permissive
Your aspie's tendencies will generally start to become obvious from an early age, typically around 5 or 6 years. My children for example are sent outside fully clothed to play but frequently when I look out of the window, I see the discarded piles of their clothes on the ground and find them happily jumping around stark-naked on the trampoline where all our neighbours can see them. No amount of correction seems to get the message through.

Even worse, they seem to have an unhealthy fascination with their organs and with "potty talk" when their peers have mostly outgrown this. The big problem with this delay is that it brings us uncomfortably close to puberty. When such frolicking and talk ceases to be innocent and becomes altogether more dangerous.

Like all children, aspies are curious about their bodies and those of others around them. It's fairly normal for children to show themselves to others ("You show me yours and I'll show you mine"). Unfortunately, this is where the sexual and social delays and fascination with the wrong subjects can cause big problems. It is not uncommon for an aspie child to remain focussed on the "show and tell" stage for much longer than their peers.

I remember this stage myself and I remember how my friends had outgrown such things and I eventually asked a child who was several years younger to show and tell with me. It was all innocent but you can imagine the social implications had that other child's parents caught me. I hadn't grown out of that stage by the time I stopped but I had started to fear the punishments that awaited me if I got caught. I'm not keen on negativity as a deterrent but in this case, it was pseudo-fear that did the trick. Certainly I'll be impressing on my children that such behaviour past a certain age will involve the police.

The other issue affecting teenagers with Aspergers is obsession. Aspies are well known for forming fixations on objects, concepts and even people. These obsessions need to be monitored carefully lest they get out of control.

Again, it's not at all uncommon for aspies to develop sex obsessions, even without a partner. Most of these obsessions are perfectly safe behind closed doors but if they are even discussed openly, there could be social problems. Aspies have a tendency to say just a bit too much.

I think that it's much more critical that the "birds and the bees" be discussed with aspies than with NTs as aspies have more naievity and greater scope for trouble. Of course, I'm still not sure what the right age for this discussion should be.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Change Resistance and House Moving

If my posts have been a little sporadic of late, it's because I'm in the midst of moving house. We've just done a knockdown and rebuild. A project which has taken almost two years from concept to completion. Well, partial completion at least, there's still the gardens, blinds, driveway, pool etc to do yet.

During that time, I've learned a lot about myself and my reactions to stress and change as well as lots about how my kids handle change.

Non-Verbal Resistance to Change
When we first started the project, my youngest was three. He was quite a late talker and not particularly verbal at the time. We tried as best we could to explain the situation to him and he'd talked about it back to us, so we figured that he'd gotten the message. As the moving out date approached however his behavior became more and more destructive.

When you're a busy parent, you're often too overwhelmed by the current day-to-day situations to pull back and look at the big picture. My wife and I would simply talk about what the little so-and-so had destroyed today. We tried positive reinforcement but it got us nowhere. We tried negative, and that only made us feel sore, guilty and ashamed. Worse still, the preschool hadn't reported any of our son's behaviors and apart from separation anxiety every morning, he seemed quite calm and settled there.

It was only when I posted a bit of a whinge about his behaviors on a forum and got a question in response that I started to think about things. The response simply told me to stop looking at what he'd destroyed recently and try to imagine his world. Had anything changed from his point of view?

Thinking about it I realized that while I'd been thinking that his behaviour had worsened with age, it really hadn't come to a head until recently. Until we started reacting to the knockdown/rebuild. I'd been so concerned about making sure that he understood what was going on that I'd forgotten the most important thing to consider - how did he feel about it?

Looking through the eyes of a child...
Let's just pretend to be three years old and mostly non-verbal. We can't read anything and we can only interpret a fragment of speech. We can't make any judgements based on past experience - because we've had none. Moving house could mean anything from putting wheels on the house to getting out and pushing it down the street ourselves.

So what can we detect in our world? Our parents have told us that the house will smashed down by trucks. What if I'm in it? Will I be alright? Where will I go to sleep? I've been shown the new house but how will I know how to get there or when to go?

Then of course there's the immediately observable things. My world is being dismantled piece-by-piece. My toys are being put into boxes and are being taken from my room. This is also happening to my stuffed animals. All I see are people grabbing my possessions and taking them away from me.

Finally, there's the change in focus on the parent's part. A toddler won't understand time restrictions and obligations; My parents aren't spending time with me. They're leaving me alone - without toys. They don't understand my talking and if anything they react angrily when I ask the same questions repeatedly. There must be some other way to be noticed. Perhaps if I'm naughty?

A situation like this is almost impossible for a neurotypical toddler so you can imagine that an aspie toddler who has late language skills and almost no ability to pick up on non-verbal cues, such as tone and expression, is likely to be completely lost.

Restoring Balance
In my younger son's case, his behavior didn't really come right again until we'd been in our new temporary accommodation for a little while. Before that, he did quite a bit of damage there too.

The recent move back was much better because we changed a few things. We actively involved him in visiting the new place as it was being built. He knew which was his room even when the house was only frames. We talked about how things would be, how we'd unpack all those toys in boxes that he'd not seen for a year. We didn't use pictures, but the way they were repeated made them into social stories. We let him carry his favorite toys from the temporary house to the new one himself - not in boxes.

Of course, the fact that it was like Christmas with all those old toys returning coupled with the fact that he was older and considerably more verbal made a lot of difference too. Then there's the benefit of hindsight - he's done a move before, so now he knows what to expect. Nevertheless, we've been watching carefully for signs of anxiety.

Last week at school, he apparently tried to bite someone. This time, we're not going to be so quick to put the bad behavior down to "naughtyness". We're considering his anxiety levels too.

Adult Non-Verbal Stress
Moving stress isn't just limited to kids, I know mostly what's going on but I've still been pretty tough to live with these last few weeks. It took almost a meltdown to realize what one of the big problems was. I'd taken one and a half weeks off to sort out the move and almost every waking hour had been spent engaged in moving activities. All of my "free time" was spent talking with my wife. At work, I've got my own office where I can retreat when I feel a bit overwhelmed. At lunchtimes, I go for a walk outside on my own. This I find soothing. The whole moving experience had made me feel "crowded" and I really needed to balance it out with some space. The fact that I had my parents staying (and helping enormously) was great but it also meant that alone-time was even more difficult to find.

The other thing about work versus home is that most people at work ask me for help or do as they're requested. There is usually a firm plan for me to read and although I often find myself fixing other people's mistakes, nothing is quite as unstructured as getting hen-pecked about furniture locations while doing things that your body isn't that well-adjusted to doing. I'm cerebral, most muscular.

Then there's the stress of the unstructured, the unexpected. I'm used to having everything organized exactly where I want it. Even the fact that the bookshelves were new (and of a less book-friendly design) was stressing me out. A well-adjusted (older) aspie's world is often about structure and order but moving has none of that.

Funnily enough, as I started putting my books on the shelves, I started to feel calmer. I think it was the fact that I was "rebuilding a familiar landscape". This is akin to lining the walls of a new accommodation with pictures that remind you of home.

I've always been quite good with change - in particular, rushing out to use newer computing systems or different brands without too many problems but moving is a completely different type of change. Even when the target house is so much more attractive than the source, moving is a change I find myself resisting.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Article: Reflections on Being an Aspie Parent

I discovered this post via RSS today. It's probably the best post I've ever read on aspie parenting and it needs to be read.

Reflections on Being an Aspie Parent

So often, I find people asking on forums whether people with Aspergers should be able to have children. I hear questions about the worthiness of aspie traits in today's society and worst of all, I hear these questions coming from Aspies themselves.

In this particular article, Rachel talks about the strengths that she, as an aspie brings to parenting using real life examples. It's one of the most comprehensive and uplifting articles on Aspergers that I've read in a long time.

Well done Rachel!

Friday, March 13, 2009

Social Anxiety Every Day

Good Morning
For me, mornings at work are the worst. It seems like everyone wants to indulge in some meaningless, idle chatter.

Everyone I walk past says "good morning" in some falsetto cheerful voice when, to be quite honest, it's too early to tell exactly how the morning will turn out. Perhaps the server will crash and I'll have to spend the entire day fixing it. There have been days like that.

Perhaps the "good morning" is an echo of hope? Maybe people think that by saying the phrase, they'll stave off some unwelcoming morning news. Regardless of the reason, I've quickly learned that to say nothing in reply is considered the height of rudeness.

My hearing problem doesn't help either. Sometimes I'm not sure if someone has spoken or not, or even if they were talking to me. I'm not certain how often I miss their greeting entirely but I'm sure that it happens quite frequently.

So I mentally fumble out my pseudo-happy mimicry of "good morning" but the most I manage is a quietly mumbled "...morning..." or perhaps, "hi".

Then there's the CEO's morning greeting. If there's one person in the whole of my workplace that I should be trying to impress with a morning greeting, it's him. He strides by, oozing power and confidently states his greeting of "good morning, Gavin". An extra-powerful greeting because it includes a name. My own inaudibly squeaked reply of "...hi..." Just doesn't cut the grade.

Sometimes I try to be quick off the mark and reply "Good Morning + name" but invariably, my nervousness makes it come out all rushed and it doesn't do me any favours.

Social Issues, Not Shyness
You'd think that with this particular social difficulty of mine, that I'd be awful at public speaking. Instead, it's quite the opposite.

I've been a computer teacher at an adult education college. I'm frequently a trainer at work, in one to one situations and in classrooms. I've also been called upon to be a presenter many times on all manner of topics from computer security, to workplace policies and the introduction of new systems.

I've always been told that I've excelled in these roles.

I think that so long as the lines of conversation stay rigidly on-topic, I'm ok. It's the small-talk that causes me issues.

Skin Thickness and Survival
Compared to many aspies, I've got rather "thick skin". I can ignore most comments, corrections, "sour" glances and criticism. My general take on this is that I'm the expert on myself. Everyone can hold opinions on whatever they like but nobody else will have a more correct opinion of me than I do myself.

Sure, this probably makes me rather pompous but it also provides excellent protection. I have a friend who is quite sensitive about these sorts of things. He's generally afraid to approach people altogether now and he feels that everyone is attempting to attack him.

Avoiding Social Paranoia
It's a short road from social anxiety to social paranoia and the worst way to push an aspie along it is to be critical of their attempts to socialize. This is one of the main reasons why parents need to be "on top of things", such as bullying, teasing and exclusion when their child is at school. The school years are critical formative years.

In the case of my friend, I've found that you can't protect your child by shielding them from the issues but instead must lead them to confront them and return with their self-worth intact (or preferably strengthened).

My anxious friend was over-mothered during those years. If there was as problem he'd rather not face, his mother simply kept him home for the day. He didn't have to worry about being teased after school either - his mother would drive him to and from school every day. The problem was that as a result, he never learned to defend himself - and not just physically, but mentally as well.

If your mental defenses aren't strong, then you quickly find yourself believing all the negative things that others are saying about you. This leads to depression and also makes you less likely to want to socialize in future - in case more bad things are said about you.

It's a vicious circle.