Friday, July 30, 2010

Book Review: "House Rules: A Novel" by Jodi Picoult

I'd be lying if I said that I didn't get any enjoyment out of Jodi Picoult's House Rules.

It's a novel and it's supposed to be fictional so I can't expect it to remain entirely faithful to the truth about aspergers.

The book is a mainly a courtroom drama which centers around the use of "aspergers" to suggest that a defendent was "legally insane" at the point that a crime was committed. What makes things worse is that since that the boy with aspergers has a special interest in forensics, his reactions to grisly court room proceedings tends to be one of glee rather than remorse. The fact that he takes questions at face value and gives minimalist answers only to direct questions compounds the issue.

This novel is a slow read with very little direct action. It's written from the point of view of several characters including a boy with aspergers, his brother, his mother, his lawyer and a detective. The fact that each of these persona uses a different font certainly makes the novel easier to read but the transition from chapter to chapter is still a little jarring at first.

The book does have some great characterisation and because of its multiple perspectives, you do tend to get into the heads of the characters.

Although the book contains a lot of detail on aspergers, it doesn't attempt to make the distinction between the truth and fiction. At first, I found this really irritating, particularly when a doctor takes the stand and launches into a tirade about how immunisations cause the condition and how we're all slaves to the pharmaceutical companies.

It's only later when other characters contradict her that I realised that the novel was attempting to model the sorts of conflict of opinion that occurs in real life. My own opinions went from irritation to admiration at that point. The book makes similar points about the gluten and casein free diets making the confusion and confrontations between parents and doctors quite obvious.

The book also demonstrates that several routines have little or not affect on the well being of the person with aspergers yet are followed to the letter regardless. This is quite typical of today's crusading moms who sometimes become convinced of an unusual "truth" and alter their entire lifestyle around it refusing to accept that there isn't actually any evidence that it works. Interactions with teachers are also highlighted. For parents of children with aspergers, it's an unnecessary reminder of the pain we go through for our children every day. It's reassuring to know that at least some of that pain is being communicated to a wider audience.

Unfortunately, where the novel falls down is in its depiction of aspergers. Jodi has done some research and has interacted with a few people with aspergers but the protagonist of the book comes across as a mix of the very worst aspergian sterotypes. I don't know any teenage aspies who have all of the symptoms displayed by Jacob Hunt or who are affected as deeply by their condition.

Most of the time, his behaviour is much more like a primary school child. Jacob doesn't have any other co-conditions which in itself is unusual but his impulsiveness and at times, quite violent behaviour seem to tell a different story.

At one point Jacob has a meltdown because he won't wear a shirt with buttons to court. I understand that, like me, he has texture issues but this is an eighteen year-old we're talking about. Most mothers of children on the spectrum would have figured out which types of shirts their children could wear by this point in their lives and they would also have found ways around the problems.

In fact, Jacob's mother comes across as overly protective and way too accepting of his routine. I can appreciate the fact that sometimes weird aspie rules simply create themselves over time. (In the book, each day of the week is allocated a specific colour). I really can't accept the fact that a mother would still be cooking colour-coded meals for an eighteen year old. Mine certainly wouldn't have.

Similarly, some of the phrases that confuse Jacob are ones which I'm sure he would have encountered frequently in an eighteen year lifespan. I just have trouble believing his interpretations to be the responses of a teenage aspie particularly when his character at times talks about much more oblique phrases and explains why they mean something entirely different.

The book also makes some fairly outrageous claims, suggesting that aspies are always self-focussed and putting emotions and empathy well out of their reach. I'd accept this as part of the novel's depiction of "real life reactions" except that these sentiments are repeated and reinforced constantly - even by the aspie character. In the end, they tend to erode the reader's sympathy for the character and paint him as heartless.

The novel tends to plod along fairly predictably (well, I thought it was obvious) and while there are moments where it shines - such as the parts discussing Henry, the aspie's father - it ultimately leaves me with the feeling that had the mother actually talked to her son properly she would have gotten the answers she needed within the first few chapters instead of 400 pages later.

I hate to have to give a negative reaction to a book because after all, it's got a good story but...

If you're the parent of an aspie child who hasn't grown up yet - then you need to avoid this book like the plague. It's only going to give you "wrong-feelings".

If you're an aspie, you may enjoy it because at least some of the feelings will be familiar.

Of course, if you love courtroom drama and you're not the parent of a young child on the spectrum, then this book is for you.

House Rules is available from Amazon and several other outlets.

Honesty Clause: This wasn't a review copy, my sister suggested that I read it.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Article: On the Matter of Empathy

I just want to draw your attention to the following post on the "Aspie from Maine" blog.

It's called;

On the Matter of Empathy

It's a really interesting article because it not only talks about an aspie experiencing a profound moment of empathy but it also talks a bit about what that particular aspie wants from neurotypicals. I found this part fascinating because often I just don't know what I need.

Interestingly, the post talks about the possibility of empathy being a learned skill for people with aspergers. It's something that I agree with. My empathetic capabilities have increased significantly as I've gotten older mainly due to repeated prompts from my wife but also as a result of reading and understanding other people's positions on empathy.

Sometimes I'm so busy that I forget the most basic things.

For example, this morning, I drove to the bus stop but forgot to release the handbrake on my car. It's not the first time I've done that and I'll wager that it's probably not going to be the last. I thought the car felt a bit sluggish and made a mental note to check the tyres when I stopped. Of course, I forgot to do that too.

For me, lack of empathy is a bit like forgetting.

Apart from the most powerful raw emotions, like extreme anguish, love, hate and sadness, I often forget to consider other people's emotions. I'll see something and think of my own feelings but won't necessarily look beyond them. Examples being at school when I'd get good grades, I'd be happy about myself but wouldn't think to feel bad for a friend who didn't pass.

Sometimes it takes someone else to snap me out of this. I'll see someone else responding "weirdly" to another person and wonder why... then it will hit me and I'll realise why they're feeling bad. Sometimes the lateness of my empathy or the intensity of it is simply out of place. I will go and talk to someone and be empathetic hours after the problem. This can often make things worse because I'll be reminding them of something they've tried to forget.

Even worse, sometimes I'll have talked to that person about something else, work for instance, several times between the "incident" and the time I've actually offered empathy. It sometimes "weirds them out" and I'm sure that sometimes they think that I'm actually being insensitive but it's just that it sometimes takes me a long time to realise that empathy is needed.

At other times, my empathy is all wrong. I try to do the right thing but totally put myself in it. Once, several years back, a girl I knew got seriously embarrassed to the point of public crying. Public crying always gets me. It's a sure sign that something is wrong. In fact, often people have to cry before I realise that they're sad. Long faces and doleful looks (whatever they are) just don't do anything for me.

In this instance, I pushed my way through the crowd and had a quick talk to her, told her that nothing had changed and that nobody would think any less of her and gave her a quick hug - and I'm not a huggy person.

As I turned away, my wife was "starring daggers at me". How dare I offer someone else empathy! She didn't talk to me for hours later. It took me a long time, several days in fact, to understand what I'd done wrong. In all honesty, I'm still not sure if I've got the right answer.

Finally... sometimes when my mind is clear, my empathy appears out of nowhere and I find that it's my NT colleagues who are without empathy. This happened once at work when a lady was unexpectedly retrenched. My colleagues were all grumbling about how she didn't do a whole lot of work anyway and for some reason, I was the only one who thought about how she must feel. I went up and talked to her and I gave her a hug - and she burst into tears. It was only then that my colleagues started to fuss over her.

There's a pretty good chance that empathy can be learned.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Improving Employment Prospects for Aspies - Part 3 (What the Employer can do)

In part one of this series, I discussed the lack of employment services for aspie adults and in part two, I looked at some of the things that aspies could do to improve their chances of being employed. I now want to look at some of the ways in which employers could improve their "game".

Stop Focussing on the idea of "giving" jobs to the disabled
I'm always a bit skeptical of the phrase "we don't need your charity" particularly when it's uttered by someone who quite obviously does.

Heck, if someone is throwing money your way... catch it. Unless you're already a billionaire.

Of course, this phrase isn't saying that we don't want your resources. Poor people always want money, hungry people always want food and aspies always want jobs.

What we don't want is sympathy? Is it really called sympathy? I'm not so sure.

I guess that what we don't want is for employers to go around saying that "the only reason he got the job is because he was aspie and I thought it was a good idea to give him a job - because nobody else will".

That's really not going to do our ego any good is it.

We don't want to be the "token aspie" in anyone's production.

I really want to hear an employer say. "He seemed like the best person for the job" or "Well, he probably wasn't the best person but he was affordable and he's interested so I figured, why not give him a shot".

These are ok.

Recognise Aspie Strengths
If I were employing someone for computing or library tasks, I'd probably prefer to choose someone who displays aspie qualities over someone who doesn't. Aspies often have very desirable qualities for specific types of jobs.

Attention to Detail
Over the years, I've employed and/or supervised people who have appalling attention to detail.

I used to have a SOE (that's just business/computer speak for "how to set up someone's computer") which covered the process in "600 easy steps". The process was simple and covered pretty much every detail yet I couldn't find any staff members to follow it. They all lost interest after step 20 or thereabouts and decided to "wing it" from there. Unfortunately the problems always eventually came out in the form of user support calls.

On the other hand, if I get the right type of aspie with OCD to do the job, I often find that every step is followed precisely. The same goes for organising books on a library shelf or categorising them by subject. An aspie can often do those sort of tasks far better than a neurotypical.

Focus and Memory
My short term memory for names and faces is pathetic. I forget names before their introductory sentences are finished. On the other hand, get me to recall a wireless access point ID, specific IP address, product activation key or even a chunk of code and I'm your man.

This sort of focus considerably improves my productivity in IT. People can swarm all around me and I'll not notice - not if I'm busy coding. I get the job done.

I guess that employers need to realise that there are some cases where aspies aren't just "capable employees". Sometimes their condition actually makes them more suitable for a role than a neurotypical. In a perfect world, employers wouldn't be so worried about how many interview and resume hoops a candidate can jump through - they'd be more concerned with their suitability for the role.

Be Flexible
Your newly employed aspie is bound to have some needs which are different from his/her colleagues.

Some things can be fixed and some can't. As an employer or supervisor, you need to decide which acomodations are acceptable and you need to be flexible enough to implement them.

For example, many aspies have issues with fluroscent lighting. Sure; you could have all the lights ripped out but we all know that's not going to happen. That's an accomodation you'll have to knock back.

On the other hand, there are some things that you can fix. For example, at my workplace, the building is open plan. I have lots of issues with that. Not only do I have issues with distractions but even worse, my own behaviour is terribly distracting to others. I tend to move a lot, talk to myself and speak at entirely the wrong volume.

I'm the only person at my workplace who actually has an "office". I can close the door if I need to and I can mostly be myself in there. Being less distracted helps me to get my work done and at the same time prevents me from impacting on the work of my colleagues.

I'm not saying that you need to get your aspie an office but it might be good to let them know that there is a place where they can take "sensory breaks" if they need to.

The things that help the most will vary considerably from one person to another. As an employer, you need to be flexible enough to find these opportunities and offer them.

Be Mentoring
The main thing that gets aspies into trouble at work is (unsurprisingly) our poor social skills. The best way for us to overcome these difficulties is to have someone that we know and trust who can provide useful "on-the-spot" advice and can redirect problems if we seem to be getting agitated.

In every job I've been in, I've found someone to fulfil that role. Note that they don't sign up to be mentors. They just are friendly and the relationship develops informally. Most mentors are considerably older and usually they're co-workers rather than supervisors.

Mentors need to genuinely care about their colleagues. They need to accept them for who they are and they need to earn their trust. This means that although it's really important for mentors to correct aspies when they make a social blunder, it needs to be done discreetly and sensitively.

My mentors at work will often step into my view and give me a hand signal that means "shut up - end the conversation and get away". They do it in a manner that (hopefully) doesn't attract the attention of other people and it often saves me from saying things that will sound unemotional and callous.

Be Accepting
No matter what happens, an employer needs to be accepting of the quirks of his employees. Obviously employers have their limits. They can't be accepting of people who just don't show up for work or people who work in a butcher shop but can't stand the smell of meat.

They can be accepting of the fact that some of their employees will flap a little or that they'll have difficulty taking indirect instructions - for example; "gee it's warm in here" does not automatically translate to "could you please go and put the air conditioner on".

Everybody has their quirks, aspies and neurotypicals alike and if we're going to get on, we need to be accepting of them.

There are plenty of jobs that are suitable for aspies and some which are more suitable than others. Employers not only need to make sure that they offer equal opportunities but they also need to recognize that, with the right accommodations, sometimes the qualities of aspergers actually make a person more suitable for a role.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Article: A Father's Day Interview

Caitlin Wray, over at the amazingly named "Welcome to Normal" blog ( has just posted an interview I did with her for Father's day.

If you're interested in reading it, the link is here.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Improving Employment Prospects for Aspies - Part 2 (What the Aspie can do)

In part one of this series, I "lamented" the lack of services aimed at helping adults with aspergers find financial independence. There are plenty of services available to help children on the spectrum at school. Indeed neurotypical society tends to be quite tolerant of children with differences. Unfortunately society seems to have forgotten that children eventually grow up and that adults on the spectrum still need help.

I ended my post with a couple of vague lists, one talking about what aspies can do to improve their job prospects and another dealing with how society can improve the situation. In this post, I want to look at what aspies can do.

Beware of Fake Jobs
Before I get into the lists from my last post, I just want to talk about a nasty employment problem that I've encountered on several occasions.

The phrase; "it's not what you know, it's who you know" sums it up nicely.

It's a sad fact of life that aspies with their limited social skills and fewer friends (compared to NTs) will often find themselves passed-over in job opportunities by people who either have a more engaging personality or who simply know one or more people who are in positions of power at the place you're seeking employment.

In fact, you'll find that many advertised jobs don't really exist at all. Some are just job agencies "fishing" for people to put on their books but others are much much worse. A lot of interviews are simply "box-ticking" exercises so that management can pretend that proper employment procedure has been followed before they give a job to someone they already know.

It's happened to me several times in my career. A position directly in my area of responsibility becomes available and a new CEO who doesn't know me particularly well contacts a friend, to offer them a position they haven't even interviewed for. A series of fake interviews is then arranged and "surprise", the new person gets the job.

It's a painful experience which if you understand what has happened will make you feel under appreciated and "used". Of course, most of the time (if you're seeking a new job, not a promotion), you won't even know what has happened. In those cases, it's simply a big blow to your self esteem.

You need to recognise that this is very common behaviour. Quite often, your failure to secure a job won't be your fault at all. It will simply be that there was no job available. Don't blame yourself for these failures if you've given it your best shot. You shouldn't take an esteem hit from shady management. Of course, that's much easier said than done.

Limit Your Education
This was always bound to be a controversial topic, so I apologise in advance for everyone who may be offended.

It's often assumed by people (aspies in particular) that good grades and higher levels of education guarantee good jobs. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Aspies need to learn that higher levels of education do NOT guarantee good jobs. In fact, they can often significantly reduce your chances of being employed.

Here's my recommended education rule. It's an aspie rule and not one that I'd want to see implemented by any organisation. I'd just like individuals to take it onboard for their own benefit.

You're allowed ONE degree only before you have to get a job. If possible you should do your degree part-time. You're allowed to change your degree part-way through ONCE.

That's it. Simple. Now I'll explain my "stupid rule".

When you start work, it customary to start at the bottom regardless of your level of education. I don't mean that a fledgling IT person has to start in the mail room but I do mean that you'll probably start somewhere below the normal level of operations, for example in testing or in first level support.

Employers like to pay low-level employees minimum wages. This usually isn't possible if they have higher level qualifications hence employers may look for people without them.

Assuming for instance that you have two prospective employees. One has a Computing Degree and a Doctorate while the other is only in their third year of a computing degree part time. Now assume that the job is a helpdesk role.

It's almost guaranteed that the person doing their degree part-time will get the job. The more "qualified" person will be tagged as "over-qualified". Even worse, employment agencies will often decide that the over-qualified person has other issues if they don't have a lot of experience. They may decide for instance that the person must be difficult to work with. They'll try to find a reason why they're not already employed in a good job - and if they find none, they'll make one up for themselves.

The other thing to be aware of is that people don't like to employ people who they think may be smarter than themselves. If you're better qualified than your prospective supervisor, then there's a pretty good chance that you won't get employed - or that the supervisor will make your life at work hell.

The other half of my rule says that you can change degrees once. That's because most people don't know exactly what they want to do when they start their degree. It's accepted that you'll probably want to change once you figure this out. Changing several times though doesn't indicate that you're still thinking. It suggests that you're confused.

If you're really confused, then it's time to get a job and worry about education later.

Further Education
I'm not ruling out further education. You can still get your doctorate if you want. That's ok. Aspies are capable of just about anything. I guess that I'm saying "just get some work experience behind you first". Even better, try to stay employed and do further qualifications part-time. That way, you don't leave any gaps in your resume.

Limit your expectations
Most people go to work to earn money. They don't necessarily enjoy it.

When I first started in computing, I assumed that the entire computing department went home on weekends and did development in their own time like I did. I didn't think that maybe they wanted to spend time with their families.

My conversations with them were all about computers. I was stunned to find that several of them didn't even have computers at home. It took a long time for me to get my expectations down to a manageable level and by the time I had, I'd insulted most of the team without realising it.

The other thing to watch out for is the fact that because your work and hobbies can sometimes be inseparable, you'll naturally get better and better at your job. Eventually you'll pass your supervisor's level of expertise. When this happens, they usually won't be proud of you, they still won't appreciate contradictions and corrections and they'll probably be more than a little jealous.

In one of my jobs, I slowly took the manuals home to read (there were about 36 of them) for the AS/400 system. I went from not knowing what an AS/400 was to feeling very confident with them. I expected my colleagues to be happy about this but one of my work-mates stopped talking to me. I'd made him feel insecure.

Be very careful about your assumptions and expectations. Not everyone is the same as you. Other people have different things which are important in life. They don't like being corrected and they don't like to feel threatened.

Be less picky about your initial jobs
It's common to leave school or university with a whole heap of great plans only to be turned down at job after job after job because of lack of experience. Sure, there are jobs out there which don't require experience but they're low-level and menial. They're below your interest and you obviously don't want to do them.

Unfortunately we all have to start somewhere. You wouldn't be the first person to take a job well below your mental capacity and to know much more than your supervisor. It might surprise to know that this situation almost never changes. It doesn't matter how high you rise in a company (unless you make it to CEO) there's always going to be someone above you - and they're almost always going to be less talented or have less vision.

There's not much you can do about this. Just start low and try to gain a lot of experience. If you've got talent, you should be able to find some time to do things which interest you and which don't get you into too much trouble.

In my first computing job, while I was supposed to be babysitting a room-sized "mini-computer", I was also doing quite a bit of PC development. My boss was less than impressed but so long as I did what I was supposed to do, he let me continue. Eventually, as my applications began to have obvious positive effects on the business, he loosened the reigns and allowed me to follow my natural urges.

Choose suitable jobs
So now, after telling you to be less picky, I'm telling you to exercise restraint when selecting jobs. It sounds crazy but I often find that people choose jobs on the basis of salary or recommendations from friends and family but it just doesn't work that way.

One of my friends kept telling me that he wanted a job in IT because he'd heard that it was good money. That's entirely the wrong reason to choose a career. You need to choose things that you're interested in and things that you're naturally good at.

After all, you could be stuck in that career for a long time.

Choosing suitable jobs isn't just limited to a sphere of interest though. You also need to consider yourself as a person with Aspergers. What things push you to the point of meltdown? What things are socially uncomfortable? What issues do you think you could improve on with work and what issues can't easily be changed?

If you have massive social issues, then don't take a job which puts you into constant direct contact with members of the public.

My first real job (after a stint of making dog food) was in a library. It's a common job for aspies because it offers reduced sensory conditions. You do have to be careful though because often library jobs involve connecting with the public. In my case, I slowly improved on my social skills because of my work at the library - but not without a whole heap of embarrassing social faux pas.

Once we had a staff meeting where we were told that our staff toilets were off limits to the public unless it was an emergency. A few days later a lady came up to me and asked if she could use our toilets. I asked her how badly she needed to go - and the head librarian got very upset with me.

Try not to make waves
Wherever you work, there will always be the office b****. The person whom everyone else refers to as "the dragon". You'll find that the office tends to polarise around that single person with a few people supporting them and the majority of people complaining behind their back.

Office politics are almost impossible and there's only one solution - "duck and cover".

Usually the "dragon" wants to promote themselves by stepping on the heads of everyone else. They like to hand blame for their failures down the line.

When you first start a job, you hate being blamed for someone else's failings. It's the sort of thing that tends to get you riled and often you find yourself lashing out. Don't! You'd be surprised how easy it is to accept blame and move on. Bosses usually know exactly how the "dragons" on their team work. If you're a good worker then they tend to know who really is at fault. You don't need to fight these accusations. Just let them be - unless of course it looks like your job is on the line as a result.

In my jobs, I've always gotten on well with dragons because I don't fight back. I just accept and get on with the job. If you fight back, the dragon will always win. They're usually in positions of power and they are usually conniving and sly enough to get you caught on a technicality.

Don't make waves. Just let things be and you'll find that the dragon will actually begin to support you.

Consider your interests
The most powerful thing in the aspie world is the special interest. Take advantage of it!

Whenever possible, choose jobs which lie along the special interest - even if they're menial. It's sometimes better to start at the bottom and work your way up than to choose something you don't enjoy and then try to change jobs later.

Just remember that not everyone will share your special interest.

Next Time
I'll look at some of the things that employers need to do to address the aspie employment issues.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Improving Employment Prospects for Aspies - Part 1

This article appeared on the Columbus Dispatch last Monday and I've been pondering its deeper meanings since then. It highlights an important problem and is well worth a read.

Young adults with Asperger's syndrome struggle to find jobs
By Rita Price

The article raises important points which I think are worth discussing but it also uses some language, terminology and concepts that I'm not overly fond of. In some ways, it leads the reader to believe that while aspies are generally quite smart, their social issues get in the way so much that it becomes a "favour" when an employer gives them a job.

Employers already have enough power over their employees without us making out that it's a privilege to even be considered for a job. It's not a privilege. It's a right. An equal opportunity right.

In this series, I want to look at the aspie employment issue and suggest some ways it could be improved.

An Imbalance of Services
There are plenty of Aspergers Services for early intervention but not much for after-school assistance.

To be honest, I don't think this is a problem that is confined to Aspergers Syndrome. I think that this is also often the case for the better known disabilities such as blindness, deafness and downs syndrome. People are always much more willing to provide support for children than they are for adults. It's mainly a cute-factor thing but there's also a sense that adults can fend for themselves.

The problem is that many adults on the spectrum really can't fend for themselves. Sure, they sometimes seem very capable but the problem is that academic and social capability are entirely separate things.

It seems silly to think that someone who holds a masters degree in language or communication may actually be unable to communicate socially but it happens. The same goes for people who hold excessive qualifications in business studies but are fazed by simple forms - that's right, it's not just a social issue. Then there are sound engineers with aspergers who have sound tolerance issues. It's true, I've chatted with some.

"We weren't Ready!"
The other thing that the afforementioned article says is that society just wasn't ready for the influx of individuals with Aspergers;

"This wave of what used to be preschoolers with autism is moving on, and we're really scrambling to meet that need."

This is all based on the idea that Aspergers and Autism in general are on the rise. It seems to suggest that there was an "aspie boom" about 15 years ago similar to the post-war baby boom and that suddenly a whole bunch of autistic children appeared.

It's not a theory I subscribe to.

It's my belief that autism rates have risen due to a number of factors, mostly increased tolerance and changes in the nature of our society. Children who, in the past, would have been institutionalised at an early age now live full and healthy lives. Aspie adults can now (sometimes) find appropriate work or government support. Either way, the aspie generation now has a much better chance of passing their genes onto their offspring. It's clear that there are a lot more "carriers" around today but that in itself doesn't account for the "aspie boom".

I think that the other factor is simply recognition.

Have you ever bought something that you thought was fairly unique and taken it out of the shop only to start noticing that other people already seem to have your "unique" item. I believe that label of aspergers is similar.

Once you have a word for the condition, you start to notice more and more people who fit the description. Their numbers aren't necessarily increasing, it's just that we're now much more perceptive about their condition.

My point being... not being ready isn't really a good excuse.

Moving Forward
So, how can society start moving forward from this? Not surprisingly, the answers aren't entirely simple. There are things that aspies need to do and there are things that employers/society needs to do.

Aspie Tasks
  • Limit your education
  • Limit your expectations
  • Be less picky about your initial jobs
  • Choose suitable jobs
  • Try not to make waves
  • Consider your interests

Employer Tasks
  • Stop Focussing on the idea of "giving" jobs to the disabled
  • Recognise aspie strengths
  • Be flexible
  • Be mentoring
  • Be accepting

Next Time
Both the aspie and the employer tasks deserve exploratory posts of their own, so I'll be exploring them in more detail in my next posts.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

The Neurotypical of the Family

Long time readers of this blog would know that I'm married with two sons. No girls. I've suggested jokingly to my wife that we're even now because the dog - and both of our guinea pigs are female.

It doesn't help.

It's a sad fact of our lives that my wife will have nobody to go "girly shopping" with or pass her jewellery onto.

It's not too late. We could have more but much as the idea of having a little girl appeals to me, the thought of having THREE boys on the spectrum does not.

If it wasn't hard enough being the only girl in the family, my wife is also the only neurotypical (we're not counting pets anymore). That's right - the most "normal" person in our house is in the minority.

It's funny how people on the spectrum often understand each other better than a neurotypical would but let's face it. If we're all sitting around taking things literally or jumping into detailed discussions on our often "mutual" special interests, it's obvious who will be left out.

There's not a lot I can do about it. We try to accomodate but ultimately, we're going to fail. My wife is never going to be able to keep up with our "aspie-powered" conversations.

I don't have a "fix" for the problem so this post is simply a "shout out" to the most special woman of our family to let her know that we do think of her. That sometimes when we go weeks without any empathetic response, I know that it's my failing - and my responsibility to "fix it".

Most of all though, to reassure her that I still love her with all of my heart despite the fact that my body language sometimes suggests otherwise.

It's school holidays in Australia now - and I'm at work. My wife is as usual doing her best to look after our children and to cope with their meltdown-inducing teasing and sensory infractions on eachother while simultaneously trying desperately to keep them entertained enough to prevent them from getting up to destructive mischief.

It's a thankless and often unrewarding task.

Then I come home, late as usual, with a handful of grass for the guinea pigs (nope - not flowers for my lovely wife) and I'm greeted by the dog, pigs and kids like a hero returning from the battlefield. The kids are clamouring for me attention and just because I'm clear on the differences between an AT-AT and an AT-ST, they launch into a detailed discussion of droid battlefield mechanics interspersed with what they did and how they felt during the day.

It's not fair.

My wife works so hard for our family. She does so much for the kids and me - yet on the face of it, she seems so "undervalued".

When being hugged, she has had to introduce terms like "chicken wings" to get the kids to put their arms around her and terms like "I can really feel the love..." just to make those hugs a little more responsive.

It's sometimes a little difficult to simply stand there and watch the kids interact with her without showing "enough" affection - particularly when other kids around you are putting on massive displays for their parents.

It's even more discomforting to realise that you, as an aspie adult are probably just as guilty of this as your kids.

So, if your neurotypical partner might be in a similar position, why not take some time out to show them some of the appreciation they deserve.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

The Danger of Allowing Aspergers to Excuse Wrongful Behaviour

Aspergers, it seems, is permanently in the news these days. Unfortunately, it's usually for the wrong reasons.

It seems that many people consider aspergers to be a great excuse for poor behavior.

For every great "suspected aspie" like Bill Gates or Albert Einstein, it seems that there are several "Gary McKinnon's", "Martyn Bryant's" or John Ogren's and for every positive generalization (like Savant), there's several bad ones (like Sociopath and emotionless).

I'm not here to debate whether the schools, parents or special education did enough to help these people. Nor am I here to say whether or not they should have been allowed to read Stephen King books, watch X rated films or even be allowed near computers.

The fact is that in all three "bad" examples mentioned above, Aspergers has been used as an "excuse for bad behavior" when it is clear that there are other forces at work. The perpetrators had other conditions such as bipolar and sociopathic disorders but these get ignored and aspergers takes the rap.

There are two things that I want to cover in this post;
  • Maintaining a Positive view of Aspergers
  • Not Accepting Aspergers as an Excuse for Bad Behavior

Maintaining a Positive view of Aspergers
Regardless of what happens around the world, our children are stuck with the aspergers label (or, with DSM V, autism). The label loosely "describes them" but it does not dictate their actions. They are all individuals with freedom of choice. They can choose to be good and they can choose to be bad - and they do know the difference between right and wrong.

Articles and false claims (because many of them are false - Martyn Bryant's diagnosis was eventually revoked) don't help anyone. All they do is make people wary of the label. Wary of our children and wary of us. They take away from individuals with aspergers the concept of being innocent until proven guilty.

As such, I feel that it is the duty of every parent of an aspergers child and every advocate of aspergers to correct these negative viewpoints as and when they arise. I'm not talking about walking around with placards or defending serial killers - though if you can respond in comments to news articles and highlight other issues, other conditions, environmental factors and wrong choices, I think it helps to take the focus of aspergers.

This time however, I'm talking at a personal level. I'm talking about other parents, work colleagues, doctors and teachers who repeat the myths of aspergers. These myths need correcting.

Not Accepting Aspergers as an Excuse for Bad Behaviour
The other half of the problem is that we often accept aspergers as an excuse for bad behaviour. Sometimes we even do this automatically. It's something that we need to stop doing.

A Visitor Example
It's a well known fact that a lot of social contact is uncomfortable for people with aspergers. This becomes even worse when the aspie is put into a noisy crowded room. At home, in a controlled environment, things are quite different. If things get too uncomfortable, your child can always retreat to the comfort and safety of their room.

Imagine that you have an early-teen child and that an important family visitor is coming. You may find that your child wants to stay in their room. Maybe they'd rather be reading or playing computer games than talking with this visitor. Sometimes they'll use your sensitivity to their aspergers difficulties as an excuse to get out of social contact.

Don't let them do this. Social contact is important and the more practice they can get, the easier they'll find it to adjust to. Allowing them to run from the problem all the time might actually increase their social anxiety.

Now, don't get me wrong. Sometimes your child really will be overwhelmed. You need to learn to recognize the truth in your own children. You can't force what doesn't come naturally and if they show serious discomfort, you need to allow them to retreat. Whenever possible though, you should try to get them to spend a just a few uncomfortable minutes practicing social skills before letting them off the hook.

Not being welcoming to a visitor is bad social behavior. We spend so much time teaching our kids good table manners, to say please and thank you and to wait their turn for things. Why should social lessons be any different.

Adult Examples
Then there are the adult examples. It feels like hardly a week goes by without me reading some kind of sob story about someone who is in an unhappy relationship with an aspie. They often talk about the lives that they've had to give up and the emotional abuse that they're subjected to.

This is not simply an aspergers problem.

The fact is that aspies who are capable of getting into a relationship are usually quite capable of communicating at least rudimentary emotions. Sure, it's hard work and sometimes we just want to be lazy but it was our choice to be in a relationship - so it's our responsibility to do our share to keep it working. It's also the responsibility of our partners to not accept anything less and to make sure that time is set aside for work on our relationship.

Finding Balance
My relationship with my wife would be much worse if she didn't pull me up every now and then and remind me that I need to be paying more attention to her, spending less time on the computer and spending less time at work. If she took the pressure off, our relationship could easily degenerate into a hotel-style relationship where we all become so self-obsessed that we seem not to care about each other.

She understands that aspergers can sometimes make these things difficult but she doesn't accept that it will make them impossible - and consequently, neither do I. She won't push me too far and we both know that I have social boundaries. Sometimes places are too overwhelming for me and I can't stay long.

For example; when we go shopping, we usually "split up for an hour" and shop separately because it gives us the freedom to shop without stress. We will still get back together for the important bits, like lunch and furniture shopping but it means that I don't need to hang around sensory nightmares (like the perfume counters) and it means that I don't bore her to death going into bookshops.

I know some people on the spectrum who can't (or won't) go shopping at all. Sure, there is sensory overload but there are ways to reduce it. Headphones are one of the best ways to overcome noise overload and dark sunglasses can often reduce the social problems. We have to be on the lookout for our issues (and those of our partners). Sometimes they'll need to do things alone but to do everything alone because of aspergers is to allow the condition to excuse bad behavior - and that is not acceptable.

Friday, July 2, 2010

FTF: Post 6 "Support Groups 101" by Carrie Fannin

This month's First things First article is by Carrie Fannin, founder of Sensory Planet, a resource for parents of children with SPD (Sensory Processing Disorder).

Her article is called;

Support Groups 101 and as usual, it can be found on Hartley Steiner's blog.

Please read it.

In her article Carrie looks as the role that support groups play in supporting the parents of special needs children. It would be easy for me to say that I don't need such groups because being aspie, groups of people really don't work all that well for me but I do know that they help my wife.

The thing is, that Carrie says; "Find a support group, whether it's online or in your local community, and join it. Commit to surrounding yourself with parents who understand what you are going through".

I think the key here is that the group can simply be an online one. For me, particularly when I was first coming to grips with Aspergers, that group was WrongPlanet ( I'm not on there very often these days simply because I can't keep up with the new posts - and if I start reading, I'll be there for hours. I do still get on there occasionally, when I need the group or when I feel like a catch up. It's good to know that it's always there waiting for me.

WrongPlanet is a group which has significant ups and downs as everyone on there has an opinion and since many of the posters are aspies, they are often expressed in a less than tactful manner. Of course, there's no denying however that without WrongPlanet I'd be in considerably worse shape than I am now. It gave me the tools I needed to understand myself and to begin to understand my kids. I also made quite a few good friends there.

One thing is for certain. Whenever I spend too long talking to the parents of "perfect kids", I just have to get back to WrongPlanet to be amongst like-minded and like-experienced people. It's calming. Carrie's right - get into a group.