Thursday, April 22, 2010

Going back to School: Some things I learned about myself in Recent Adult Education

About a month ago, I attended a Scouts "Basic Leadership 2" course and last weekend I finished off "Basic Leadership 3". The courses are a mix of written and practical work with a lot of group and "bonding" activities thrown in for good measure.

It was an interesting exercise for me because I got the chance to "return to school" but this time with full knowledge of my aspie condition. It enabled me to make some rather profound observations about myself.

More importantly though, I find myself wondering if this is what my son is going through at school.

Group Work
Although the course ran from Friday to Sunday, a lot of people didn't turn up until Saturday morning. My group started off with three people and grew to five.

I coped really well with three people and I was able to participate in group discussions without feeling left out and without accidentally talking over the top of people. I mostly seemed to know when conversations ended and when it was safe to change the subject.

When the group expanded to five, I felt myself having to struggle more to hear and to be heard. It wasn't that the volume was wrong but that conversations tended to get away from me. I simply couldn't keep up.

My group discussion participation dropped to a minimum. I still knew the answers to all the questions and had no problems understanding the question - it was written down. My group was full of very friendly people who were eager for me to participate but I simply couldn't function with them all talking at once.

In the end, I started simply writing down my answers and my teammates would talk for a while and when appropriate, copy my answers. I was able to make non-verbal contributions.

I found myself wanting acceptance from others on the course but I felt so inept in conversation that I quickly fell back to the old staple; the class clown. I was by no means the wittiest person on the course but I can proudly say that I got our instructor to leave the class twice in tears (of laughter).

At the same time, I'm not quite sure if my humour was entirely appropriate or it it was irritating to anyone. Once or twice, I'm sure I overstepped the mark.

If I wasn't bobbing my knee, I was twirling my pen, drumming my fingers or flicking my tongue constantly on the back of my teeth. Sometimes several things at once. I felt much more secure and relaxed while stimming but I knew that there was a good chance that I was annoying people around me.

Eventually, I managed to stopped stimming - or so I thought. It was only after the course, when I looked at my course notes, artfully decorated with pictures of... "Rabbit Baden-Powell", a pack rat being teased by a safety badge on a mousetrap and various representations of our tutors that I realized I was stimming by drawing.

One of my many pieces of doodle-art. This one filled an entire A4 page.

While other people doodle, I produce artwork. I certainly don't draw at any other time. I need to draw and despite appearances, I am listening. Thinking about school and that oft repeated phrase; "put your pens down and listen!", I wonder if we're doing our aspie children a disservice? Maybe they too need to doodle in order to listen more effectively?

Fringe Friends
On both courses, the people I got on with the best were people with obvious disabilities. I'm not sure why. I didn't consciously pick these people, I guess I just found them more approachable. That's not to suggest that anyone on the courses was "unapproachable". They were a group of the friendliest and "down to earth" adults I've ever met. I just think that it's interesting that I should mix best with people who were anything but neurotypical.

Strangely, all of my best school friends were also "different" in various ways.

And the point is...
I think I learned just as much about myself as I did about scout leadership on the courses. Perhaps as parents, we need to try to remember what it was like to be students. Maybe then we'll be better placed to understand our children.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Movie Review: Mary and Max

Mary and Max 2009 (80 Minutes Claymation Animated Rated PG)
Featuring the voices of; Toni Collette, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Eric Bana, Barry Humphries, Bethany Whitmore, Renée Geyer and Ian 'Molly' Meldrum

I'm not quite sure what I was expecting from this claymation adventure when I sat down to watch it with the kids. Somehow I think I was expecting the sort of slapstick associated normally associated with Wallace and Gromit.

I certainly didn't expect the serious, emotive and thought-provoking material that was eventually delivered. In fact, the film was so serious in parts that I began my "30 second censorship countdown".

The Plot
In Short, the story concerns a little girl who lives in Australia and who has domestic issues which affect her circle of friends. She selects an unlikely pen-friend named Max, who lives in New York and who has aspergers with severe anxiety issues. The film deals with how their letters and thoughts affect each other and the right and wrong choices they make.

The Audience
I'm quite relaxed with censorship around my kids (aged 6 and 9). They've watched some fairly gory stuff (Aliens, The Passion) and some things with adult concepts and language (South Park - the word-censored tv version, not the movie). One of the few things gets me thinking about censorship is repeatable dangerous behaviour (the sort of thing you see on Jackass). The 30 second countdown says that if I feel uncomfortable and the situation doesn't change within 30 seconds then it gets turned off.

I initiated the 30 second censorship countdown but the disturbing scene was over long before I completed it.

Make no mistake. This is no "Wallace and Grommit" film. The characters have real emotions, some of which (depression) are quite strongly realized. Watch this film yourself before deciding whether to let your kids watch it.

The Comedy Factor
The humour in this film is mostly slapstick plus a bit of narrative contradiction. The narrator says one thing and the characters do the opposite.

It's certainly a laugh-out-loud film at times but not consistently. The comedy gives way to the story and at times it gets quite serious. Weirdly enough, my kids found their biggest laughs whenever Max's goldfish died. Some of the more obvious aspie humour, such as the "take a seat" example, went completely over their heads.

The film is mostly done in greys though every now and then a bright colour, generally red, breaks through.

What the Film Says about the Spectrum
(beware - possible spoilers in this section)
Probably the most amazing thing about this film is the way it covers aspergers. It kept surprising me. Initially I just expected Max to be an aspie-like character without any sign of a formal diagnosis (like Napoleon Dynamite) but the film goes on to not only say the word "Aspergers" but also give a potted explanation of what it means.

Later in the film, it takes a drastic turn in a direction which will horrify viewers. I really wasn't expecting this but the point that the film makes is a very good one and it's well worth sitting through a bit of unpleasantness for.

Mary and Max is an interesting, funny and thought-provoking film about Aspergers, isolation and chocolate and it gets a very high recommendation from me. Go see it!

Links to the Film
What the Rotten Tomatoes Critics are Saying: 90%
Internet Movie Database Entry
Amazon Entry

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Cactus Hour and Anti-Meltdown Shopping

Cactus Hour
It's school holidays right now in Australia. In theory, the disappearance of the whole mum's taxi "rush-rush" to school and after-school activities should mean a reduction in my wife's stress levels - and consequently, my own.

Instead, "cactus hour", that uncomfortable first hour when the husband comes home from work hoping for rest but instead being lumped with all of the day's domestic problems, is worse than usual.

Freed from the daily routine of school, my wife and kids instead fill their hours with unstructured "free time" and "surprises" both of which are problematic for the aspie mindset.

I'm not criticizing the way they do things. Far from it, after all, they're entitled to a break and they seem to be having fun. I'm simply making an observation. The changes to routine, while providing freedom, also tend to unsettle my kids making domestic and disciplinary problems worse.

In my own annoying way, I've already pointed this out to my wife who replied, "but I love surprises...". She's right of course, surprises can be fun. She's also right to allow "surprises" into our otherwise cosy and routine little world. These surprises provide challenges for our children. After all, too much routine and predictability could lull our kids into a false sense of security. It's best that they learn to cope with at least some of life's surprises.

Anti-Meltdown Shopping
All of this (temporary) new stress in our lives means that the kids are somewhat on edge and that the slightest little provocation is enough to push them over - and into a meltdown.

This leads me neatly into my current problem. Scouring the shops in search of a replacement whoopie cushion. Sydney isn't well known for its magic/joke shops and the four I visited had all been shut down. There were no whoopie cushions in the eleven newsagents I visited either - nor in the three department stores.

All this shopping means that there's no lunch for me either. I'm too busy searching for a trinket - and it's not the first time that something like this has happened. In fact, it only seems a couple of weeks ago that I was desperately searching for a Spongebob book, when nothing else would do.

It doesn't matter that I specifically warned my son, the previous night, not to jump on the cushion. I knew what would happen you see. Nothing else will calm him except dad promising on the phone (at work, during an important meeting), that I'd bring a replacement one home for him.

In any case, it was his brother who popped the cushion and my emergency shopping spree isn't just to satisfy my son - it's also to protect his brother.

To Give In or Not to Give In?
I'm sure that any grey-rinsed neurotypical grandparents out there would love to tell me that all this child needs is a good spanking (I'm stereotyping rudely here - my apologies in advance) but I'm not so sure that this is the answer.

True; according to my definition of a meltdown, my son has too much control. It's more like "temper". The thing is though, that unlike controlled temper tantrums, he doesn't have a specific objective in mind. He doesn't know that I can (hopefully) easily replace the cushion. All he knows is that his "world" has collapsed (he was focussing on the toy) and that his brother is to blame.

For this post, there are none. The main point that I'm making is that we, as parents need to pick our battles. There's no sense in attempting to apply behaviour modifications to an upset autistic child in a meltdown. We need to take the "moment" into account. We need to recognise when our children are subject to additional stresses, even those of our own making - and we need to make allowances.

BTW: While I was creating the graphic to go with this story, I was informed that the "popping" happened on the trampoline.

Friday, April 9, 2010

Getting Empathy (Back) into Your - Relationship - Part 4 (Final)

In my last post on this subject, I talked about getting to the stage where you really feel empathy. This is sometimes quite difficult to achieve - and sometimes, it's just not possible at all.

Sadly though, many aspies reach a stage of real empathy but are unable to effectively convey it to the real world.

Some Examples of Aspie Expression
I was going to start with an example of my own but I've been meaning to talk about Bev's videos for a long time and this seems to be an excellent opportunity.

Bev's videos are clear and to the point. They explain in a matter of minutes, things which take me hours to explain. They're also often just a little amusing and are always heartfelt.

Have a look at this video on Empathy. (

I can see myself in this. When I make a serious social mistake, I just want to get out of there. Sometimes I try to fix it but I usually just end up making things worse. It's common for my "solution" to involve a quick escape followed by a bizarre act of random kindness later.

in order to truly understand the video, you need to realise how much the parrot means to Bev. The parrot is a friend and a comfort. By offering the parrot, Bev is offering comfort. I guess it's like a child offering their comfort blanket to someone else.

Of course, although this is a particularly selfless, empathetic and kind act, the neurotypical reaction is a WTF? moment. The problem isn't that there is no empathy but rather that its particular form of expression isn't understood by NTs. It's over their heads though and they'll simply decide that the aspie has "no empathy".

Other Examples
Once, when I was at work, a good friend fell over and ripped the knees out of her suit. She arrived at the office in a flurry of tears, some of pain but mostly of embarrassment. I remember poking my head in to find out what all the fuss was about, finding myself overwhelmed by the crowd of sympathetic people and making a quick withdrawal from the situation.

I didn't go back to my desk though, I went out to get her some chocolate. She received it with thanks and I think, a bit of puzzlement. Years later, I'm asking myself the question - Why did I do that? Why did I choose such a bizarre form of expression? I guess it's because to me, chocolate is often a comfort food. I never considered what was appropriate for the situation, I just went for what seemed "right" for me. What would probably help me to take my mind off such a situation.

Another time, after asking a woman (who I'd never met) and who was returning from maternity leave "why would you come back to this place when you've got a beautiful baby to play with at home", I was told that the baby had died. I made some hasty apologies (and probably made matters worse) but I went back and made sure that she got our newest computer and gave her top priority IT support for the next three years, She eventually left the company to have her second (and third) babies.

Again, it begs the question - why such a bizarre form of empathy? To be honest, I really don't know. I didn't have a lot to offer her at the time. The other thing that's worth noting is that it carried on for three years. It's rare that I see NT empathy lasting more than five minutes.

It's clear in all of these cases that the aspie is not only feeling empathy but is also responding in an extremely empathetic manner. Unfortunately, those responses are too deep to be accepted and appreciated by the neurotypical mind.

Giving NT-Compliant Empathy Responses
Ultimately, the only empathy that matters to most NTs is personal empathy. Personal to them, not to you.

In my chocolate example, the empathy would be correct if the colleague in question had chocolate as a comfort food but in most cases, they really just want a bit of fussing over.

To give NT compliant empathy, you need to have listened to the other person and taken particular note of their grievances and psychological needs.

Sometimes, good empathy is just a matter of being a good listener. Sometimes it's telling them what they need to hear; "ie: You were right to do that...".

It's a very rare thing indeed when the need for empathy is a search for a solution or a request for resources.

Giving Empathy to Your Significant Other
My wife and I would raise our kids entirely differently. She tends to have a playful, unstructured and spontaneous approach while I'm rigid, timetabled and more prepared.

Both approaches are valid and while a structured approach makes handling children with aspergers much easier, spontanety prepares them for the challenges of life. Neither approach is better than the other, they're just "different".

I tend to let my wife drive the interactions with our children most of the time because she's with them when I'm at work. My approach tends to be reserved for weekends or for when I'm on holidays.

Quite often I'll come home to stories about how one or both of the kids did something particularly destructive or how their behaviour was appalling and caused major embassment.

My wife simply wants a sympathetic ear and usually I'll oblige but it's very difficult to stop thinking that such behaviour wouldn't occur under my rules. Similarly it's hard to stop myself from pointing out obvious solutions particularly if I've talked about them before or set them up only to have them remain unused.

Sometimes I fail. Sometimes, particularly when I'm tired, I give her solutions instead of empathy. When I do that, I know that I'm not being a very good husband. Solutions are things that I personally like to hear when I've got issues with the kids but they're not expressions of empathy that my wife appreciates. As I mentioned before, to give proper empathy, you need to give the other person what they need - not what you need.

Whenever you're giving empathy to your significant other, take a moment to think about what they really need. You'll find it changes a lot of things and improves your relationship.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Article: Interview with a Wonderful Nonverbal Autistic Adult

I just wanted to draw your attention to an interview I read this morning.

Interview with a Wonderful Nonverbal Autistic Adult
by Tammy from Autism Learning Felt

If you have non-verbal children, you really need to read this interview. It's a great testament to the fact that non-verbal people can lead very productive lives.

Even more interesting, the interviewee talks about what non-verbal children want from their parents and friends.

Well worth a read.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

FTF: Post 3: "Write It Down" by Jennie Linthorst

The Third Article in the First things First series is now available on "Hartley's Life with 3 Boys".

The article is called "Write it Down" and it's by Jennie Linthorst whose story is featured in the documentary film: Autistic-Like: Graham’s Story (check out the official movie page and trailer here).

Jennie's article touched a raw nerve for me. It's one of the main reasons I started blogging (back on my original family blog). I wanted to write things down so that I'd remember them. So that they wouldn't get lost in the messy and hectic chaos that my life that had become since I had kids.

Of course, Jennie goes much further and talks of courageously documenting her own feelings, failures and successes. It's certainly something that I want to take further. It's something that I should be doing - and I can see how it would put me much more firmly in touch with my own feelings.

Please, have a read of the article - The "first things first" series is all about taking care of our own needs as parents and recognition of our own feelings is a major step along the right path.

Friday, April 2, 2010

Getting Empathy (Back) into Your Relationship: Part 3

Last time I started on a four step process to empathy. The steps were;
  1. Receive
  2. Explore
  3. Feel
  4. Respond
In my last post, I discussed receiving communications. I was actually quite amazed at how many people responded by telling me that they couldn't feel any empathy and how they couldn't process the data. It's worthwhile covering this a little before I move on.

Wrapping up Receiving
In my first post of this series, I talked about modern society and the way in which time has been taken away from us. It's clear that unless you can find a clear block of time, you'll never be able to feel empathy properly. It's no good being a listener when you're really thinking about other things.

If your mind is preoccupied with making lists or thinking about tasks that you need to be doing, you'll never have time to process the signals which come from an empathy discussion. You need a clear head and a clear timetable. You need to simply "give yourself to the speaker" and be a listener only. Think only on what they're saying and try to take in as much body language as you can.

Since you're not really engaged in a two-way conversation, you don't need to worry about the speed of conversation. You should be able to process things at more or less your own speed. It's clear that aspies do tend to take a lot of non-verbal information onboard during conversations but that we don't have time to process it under normal conversational rules. To do so would result in massive pauses.

Don't worry about not being able to process all of the body-language signals. There will be quiet times during the discussion when you can reflect on the signals you've seen.

Remember; Just listening isn't empathy. It is only step one of the process.

Exploring the Feelings and Issues
I had a lot of trouble deciding what to call the second step on the road to empathy. I finally decided on "explore" because essentially, you're exploring the issues and the person's feelings to try to "discover" the truth of the matter. Note; this isn't necessarily the real truth but the truth as it appears to the person doing the speaking. It's the truth of their feelings.

You may be surprised to know that in an empathy discussion, you're not being asked to solve the problem. In fact, quite the opposite. You're being asked to, firstly, show a little sympathy and secondly, to actually feel the pain (or other emotion).

In fact, solving a problem in an empathy-discussion is exactly the WRONG thing to do. Resist the temptation and just don't do it - even if you think you know the solution.

The exploring phase consists of asking questions, not so much about the problem but about the person's feelings. You should be asking (gently), "how did you feel about that?" and "what happened next?". You'll want to clarify on detail a little but keep in mind that the discussion is less about the problems and more about the feelings.

Of course, there are plenty of questions that you shouldn't ask;
  • Why didn't you just do .....?
    Many of the worst wrong questions start with this. It's bad enough that statement is very patronizing but it also sends clear signals to the person that you think they did the wrong thing. If they're having doubts of their own, it's going to make them even more depressed or angry.
You'll also probably want to mix a few statements into your responses to highlight points where you agree with the other person's viewpoint, such as; "oh, that's outrageous..." or "yes, he/she is a b...." or "oh, you poor thing, you've been through so much".

One thing to remember though, you're not going to agree with the speaker 100%. Sometimes people say and do crazy things based on their own interpretation. If their interpretation differs from yours, then so will their reaction. If you want the other person to trust you, then you really need to mostly agree with their interpretation - and generally, keep your mouth shut about the bits you don't agree with. There's bound to be a more appropriate time for that conversation.

You might be able to throw in a couple of statements which cast doubt, such as; "Oh, I'm sure they didn't mean it that way..." but too many of these kind of statements destroy any support you're trying to give.

Certainly any statements which make it clear that you disagree;
  • "oh, that is just complete rubbish"
  • "He wouldn't mean that, you're just not reading him right"
  • "you should have thought about that before you walked in"
will work against your empathy.

Feeling the Empathy
Now we get to true empathy. You have to feel it. You have to be able to see it from the other person's perspective.

Contrary to popular science, I personally don't believe that neurotypicals give good empathy most of the time. I think they're just so good, and so fast, with their stock-standard responses that they give the impression that they care.

True empathy needs you to appreciate the feelings, even if you can't actually feel them yourself.

In some cases, this is easy. For example; If someone has lost their partner or child temporarily or permanently, it's often easy to say to yourself; "how would I feel if I lost my partner or child?". "How would I feel if it happened to me?".

Difficult Empathy
It becomes very easy to let feelings wash over you when the examples are extreme and concrete. When you can relate wholeheartedly to them. Unfortunately, in the majority of cases, the situations are considerably less real.

For example, I'm often involved supporting people with self-esteem issues. I've personally got plenty of issues but self-esteem is definitely not one of them. I don't care what people think of me - I know in my heart who I am, and nobody is more qualified than I, to make judgements about me.

My ego in this regard makes it very difficult for me to show empathy to people who are having such issues. I'll often tell them that nobody has the right to pass judgement and I'll suggest that they simply "don't listen" but I'm really not convincing. In any case, those words are "offering a solution", not offering empathy. If someone has spent most of their life being bullied and has lost self-esteem as a result, then I'm really at a loss to put myself in their shoes.

In fact, the only way I can do this is to "grow up with them". I have great empathy for characters in movies and in books because I can see the whole picture. This technique works in real life too but it requires imagination.

I need to imagine myself as a child and imagine years and layers of abuse. Sometimes I have to close my eyes and try to imagine the exact scenario that the "victim" is describing. Only then can I really see the world as they see it - and even then, I suspect it's quite inaccurate.

Of course, this isn't always possible during the conversation and sometimes it takes me a few days to actually prepare myself enough to feel the empathy. I'm getting better but I can't always do it.

No matter what you do, there will be situations where you just can't feel any empathy at all. When this happens, you just have to "wing it". You have to try to say the right sort of supportive things and hope that the other person doesn't notice that you're not 100% sincere.

Empathy can only work when you have a decent frame of reference.

Next Time
In this post, we internalized our feelings. We talked about taking the input from an empathy conversation and trying to extract the emotion from it. We then looked at ways to relate to and if possible, feel that emotion.

Although we did discuss some of the sorts of responses which keep the empathy conversation going, it may surprise you to know that most people won't realize that you're actually feeling the emotion.

Many aspies can already reach this point in a an empathy conversation but can't adequately convey their feelings. The result is that the outside world simply assumes that they have no empathy.

In my next post, I'll look at some of the ways that you can respond to let the person who needs empathy know that you're providing it.