Thursday, June 30, 2011

Movie Review: Temple Grandin (2010)

Links: IMDB / Rotten Tomatoes: Rating 100%
Director: Mick Jackson
Starring: Claire Danes, Julia Ormond, David Strathairn, Catherine O'Hara and Stephanie Faracy

I'd been avoiding Temple Grandin until about a month ago when I was asked to review the latest edition of her excellent book. Temple is arguably the foremost authority on Autism and Aspergers in the world - and as such, I guess that she's the "spoiler queen".

I guess I approached the Temple Grandin movie expecting a typical Hollywood sob story. I certainly wasn't expecting the depth of concept and directness of story that I got. This is a movie that tries to take the viewer and put them in an autistic person's shoes.

In this endeavor, the movie largely succeeds. When Temple walks into a room, we know what scares her. We hear the sounds which overwhelm her and we see the images which flash before her eyes. Her motivations are clear to us and parents of children on the spectrum may find themselves looking at their children's behavior through new eyes. You'll be thinking about the movie long after it ends.

Claire Danes has done an excellent job and is completely unrecognisable as the girl from Romeo+Juliet or Terminator 3. In this film, she IS Temple. She has the voice, the mannerisms and look and the walk. It's an impressive and brave performance which takes the viewer far from the glitz of her previous work.

The story starts more or less as Temple leaves school. It covers some of her early life via flashbacks and moves forward only a few years with only glimpses of the future. This makes for a strong and coherent narrative but in some ways it's also a missed opportunity. I'd have loved to have seen more of Temple's childhood and in particular the ways in which she overcame her inability to speak.

Some of the most amazing parts of this movie document the impact
that her mentor, Dr. Carlock had on her life

Ultimately, like Temple's real life, this is a story about being the best that you can be, about bravery in the face of adversity and the power of positive parenting.

Everyone with any connection to autism simply must watch this film. It's an inspiration not only to parents and to people on the spectrum but also to teachers. It clearly demonstrates the power that positive teachers and mentors have to inspire and to change lives.

Temple Grandin (2010) is available from Amazon and other good movie retailers.

The real Temple Grandin meets Claire Danes

Honesty clause - I wasn't asked to review this movie but chose to get it, watch it and review it. I'm very glad that I did.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Aspie Kids and Lying: The Fantasy World

One of those inexplicable myths about adults and children on the spectrum is that we can't lie but I assure you that we can. I've discussed it before (see: Do Aspies Make Good Liars)

There are different types and levels of lying though and my previous discussions focussed on deliberate misdirection. Today, I want to talk about embellishment.

Everyday Experience
Everyone embellishes stuff and it would be a pretty boring world to live in if we didn't. When someone tells us that they saw a rat as big as a cat, we know that it's crap. (That is; the less literal-minded of us, know that it's crap) but we don't point at them and call out "liar!". We accept that it's a nice way of saying (as Sam L Jackon would say; "It was a huge m.....f... of a rat").

We use these lies casually all the time; "It rained all day", (the whole day, really?), "every time my back was turned, Jack had his hand in the cookie jar", (every single time huh?). "What are you complaining about, it only took a minute" (more like ten).

Our aspie kids are listening to us, soaking up our conversation like sponges and trying to figure out what makes our social world work. It's pretty clear early on that lies are a big part of it but what are these lies for? They're not deception, they're exaggeration, they're "good storytelling". Even our childrens books contain dozens of examples of exaggerations and deliberate misdirection by the most honest of characters.

Is it little wonder that they pick up that untruths are part of the social scene?

Now as our kids start to try to interact socially, they attempt these small lies and are rewarded. "Mom, that car was going so fast that it's wheels weren't even touching the ground", says little Johnny. Of course, every parent is proud that their child has strung together such a good sentence, and we reward them by paying attention and talking to them. It doesn't even cross our minds to say, "well, actually Johnny, you know that cars can't actually fly". We assume that our children have grasped the adult concept of embellishment but what they've really grasped is... lying.

It all gets bigger and better too because when these kids go to school and tell other children that their parents have a Ferrari, they suddenly become a little more popular. Lying provides them with social inroads. Exaggerates storytelling generates laughs and makes them feel like they fit in with a group.

Is it any wonder that the lies become bigger and more frequent?

Damage Control
What do we as parents do as damage control for lies? Well, there are a few options with the most common being;

  1. Confront the child with the lie and prove them wrong.
  2. Ignore the lie
  3. Tell the story of the boy who cried wolf
  4. Force the child to apologise and tell the truth to whomever they lied.
It's difficult because on the one hand, we're correcting our child for telling lies while on the other, we're lying right in front of them. "Babies are delivered by storks", "if you keep eating sweets, you're going to turn into one", "eat your beans, they'll make your hair go curly" etc...

Instead, we need to find a way to explain to concepts of white lies and exaggerations to our children. They need to know what is acceptable and what is not. Lies can be dangerous and sometimes they have real world consequences.

At the same time, the parents of children on the spectrum need to remember that our children aren't lying to be naughty. They're just trying to figure out our complex social customs.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Emotional Reciprocity

This last weekend has been a really tough one for our family. We had to have our dog of nearly twelve years, Panda, put down last Saturday.

To make matters worse, nobody was expecting it. One day, she was "chirpy" and seemed to be in perfectly good health and the next she was gone. She was in our family for longer than our kids and she has left a huge hole in our family heart.

I was going to talk about emotional reciprocity today anyway but last weekend's events have put a whole new spin on things.

Dealing with Strong Emotions
We all deal with strong emotions, such as love, anger and grief in our own ways. My wife tends to cry things out but I often internalise them and take them on board as stress and at times, self-harmful behaviour. In the kids, these emotions can manifest as meltdowns or as general destructive behaviour. Sometimes there's nothing to see on the surface at all.

The point is that although we each feel these emotions and we feel them at similar strengths, our reactions vary widely both in intensity and visibility.

Quantifying Emotions
For some reason, our society seems to think that it's okay to quantify emotions based on visible reactions. If an event occurs to two people and the woman is crying while the man is not, then the woman needs the most care and attention because "she's the one who is really hurt". The solution is to talk in a quiet voice and bring lots of cups of tea and chocolates.

The man, by contrast isn't bawling his eyes out, so he's obviously not hurt. There's nothing that you need to do for him. There's no need to tread lightly because "he's not even upset".

In fact, if the event is of an appropriate level, for example the death of a loved one, then anyone not outwardly grieving is "fair game". You can take things out on them and you're more or less expected to say "what's wrong with you man?". The words "you don't care" should also be used in conversation to him.

Sound familiar?

It's something that many neurotypicals do and yet so few realise how wrong it is.

Pain on the Spectrum
What if I said that this wasn't really about men and women? It's about everyone in general and people on the spectrum in particular.

We use our own perception of other people's emotions to determine our response; our emotional reciprocity.

Too often, I hear of neurotypical women describing the husbands as uncaring, unemotional and cold. Autism research shows us that people on the spectrum sometimes feel less physical pain than others (based on their reactions) and even children on the spectrum are sometimes considered to have an almost psychopathic disconnection to the pain of others.

What if all of the reasearchers are just reading the signs wrong?

There's strong evidence in the online community that this is exactly the case. That people with autism and aspergers syndrome lack facial expression and tone but don't lack emotions. That in fact, we are very empathetic beings - sometimes even more empathetic that neurotypicals in terms of what we feel. Our problems are with the interpretation and the display of outward signs.

One Last Example
The day after the Panda died, there was a conversation right in front of me about how useless I am at doing "manly things" around the house. It's ok, I'm fair game and I really am useless at fixing things around the house. I didn't react badly and I obviously wasn't sad, so there's no need to hold back.

It was hard to keep those black suicidal thoughts out of my head for the rest of the day because that's how I deal with pain. Fortunately, I know that I'm needed here and I know that depression is part of aspergers. I can reject those dark feelings because I know they're part of the condition - and they're not real.

It's a good lesson to friends, parents and spouses everywhere. Maybe your child or husband doesn't display a lot of emotion (that you can detect) but everything you say is being noted. If you know that there is good cause for emotion, there's no reason to assume that simply because you personally can't detect it, it isn't there.

Treat everyone in a possible emotional state carefully and you'll reduce the likelihood of a meltdown.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Book Review: "The Way I See It" by Temple Grandin, Ph.D. (Second Edition)

I have to say that I've generally (and quite successfully) avoided reading anything by Temple Grandin until now. It's not that Temple is bad, quite the contrary, she's arguably the most influential and inspirational person on the spectrum.

My reasons for avoiding her work have all been about trying to stay "spoiler free" and figure things out for myself.

The first thing I have to say about this book is that it looks like an autobiography. When reviewing books, I usually don't read the back cover or anything past the title and subtitle on the front cover. I skip the table of contents and go straight to the book. This enables me to judge the book by its cover - and then by its contents. I felt that the book looked like an autobiography but I was very pleasantly surprised. This book is a collection of Temple's essays and interviews and it covers a much broader area of study that any biographical work could.

The fact that the essays are grouped into categories helps too. They seem to follow a logical progression and they feel like they naturally go together. It helps that the essays are short too because this means that they stay on topic and that you, the reader, will often feel ready to start a new chapter without a break.

There are 63 essays, 14 of which are new in this second edition. The average length of each essay is about five pages. They cover the broad areas of diagnosis, education, senses, non-verbal autism, behaviour, social functioning, medications, research and adult issues including employment. I don't think that I've seen another book which covers the spectrum so comprehensively.

The book contains some amazing discussions including; choosing a guide dog for individuals with autism, the evaluation of medications, different styles of thinking in autism, bullying, perfection issues, the similarities between autistic and scientist brains (really) and choosing a college.

Occasionally Temple's age shows through, particularly when she's discussing manners or video games but even so, many of her points are quite true and well argued. There's also a feeling of TMI (too much information) when she discusses her own health experience but again, the positive is that you know that she's holding nothing back. Even Temple's thoughts on medications are interesting. There seems to be no ulterior motivation here and Temple doesn't hold back on condemning certain medications while praising others. It's all very interesting.

I was totally blown away by this book. I was amazed at how often Temple's own experience and feelings echoed my own but at the same time she opened my world to possibilities that I hadn't even considered. In one chapter for example, she talks about the problems that many people on the spectrum have with Menieres disease (tinitis). I have a major issue with ringing in my ears but I'd always assumed that it was to do with my deafness - maybe it isn't.

There's absolutely no reason why everyone on the spectrum shouldn't have this book. It's the best I've seen. Truly. In fact, the only reason I can think of to not read it is my own... being "spoiler free". Of course, now that I've more than scraped the surface of autism and aspergers syndrome, Temple's book has given me a whole lot of new directions to explore.

"The Way I See It" (Revised and Expanded 2nd Edition) by Temple Grandin, Ph.D. is available from Future Horizons and Amazon. It's the most comprehensive book about the spectrum (from inside) that I've ever read and it covers everything from babyhood all the way through to adulthood.

Honesty Clause: I was provided with a review copy of this book free of charge.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

DVD Review: Aspergers, Autism and Girls Presented by Tony Attwood

Aspergers, Autism and Girls
Understanding & Appreciating the Female Perspective!
Presented by Tony Attwood

Running time: 90 minutes approximately

This DVD comes in a neatly presented cover which provides very little detail, not even the running time. It certainly provides no clue that this is simply a recording of one of Tony Attwood's speeches at a conference.

After the initial shock of realisation that this is a conference video, things take a little while to settle down. The first ten minutes are almost unbearable as the camera has been placed at the back of the conference room and it's clear that the operators don't know how to zoom it.

In fact, quite apart from the heads bobbing around at the bottom of the frame and the grainyness of the picture, distorted sound and a few nasty bumps, you can see couple of attempts to zoom the camera.

Fortunately, after 10 minutes, they get it right and they zoom into a clear head and shoulders frame of Tony as he gives his speech. Strangely, it's around this point that they get the audio right too.

Things go along fine until about 50 minutes when some wag decides to pull the camera out to get a profile shot of Tony, distorting both the picture and sound at the same time (and worse than at the start) for a full five minutes.

Luckily, this only lasts for five minutes and then the camera returns to normal and the cameraman leaves it alone for the rest of the film. I get the feeling that he was told to "go sit in a corner".

Camera issues aside, Tony Attwood is a magnificient and engaging speaker who talks about his subject with a passion. He covers quite a bit of ground in 90 minutes and is helped by powerpoint slides with quotations from famous females with Aspergers Syndrome and other ASDs.

Aside from the 15 minutes of distortion, Tony's voice is clear at all times though the absence of subtitles is criminal - they're not that difficult to make and would have added a lot to the DVD especially given that so many people on the spectrum have difficulty interpreting speech.

Luckily, the fact that many sections of the DVD are direct quotes from powerpoint slides (which are shown on the screen) helps. If you have any hearing issues, you can at least, read along with Tony.

If you can't make it to any of Tony's conferences and you have a daughter or female student on the spectrum, then this DVD is certainly the next best thing. It's also a great thing to have handy for repeat value as your child grows up.

I had a bit of a laugh in places where it hit too close to home - it seems that male and female aspies aren't all that different after all.

If you're not much of a reader, then this DVD will save you the trouble of reading books about females with aspergers. Tony's coverage of the topic is comprehensive and he talks about all aspects from growing up, to exploring their feelings, to bullying and to dealing with boys. It's truly the sort of video that the parent of a girl with aspergers will want to refer to time and time again.

Given that there's not really much action in the video, it isn't really something that needs to be seen. It could just as easily be listened to as an audio only experience. This is good because it means that you could listen to it in the car or the kitchen without missing out on anything.

I'd recommend this DVD to all parents and teachers of females with Aspergers Syndrome or other Autism Spectrum Disorders. If you are an adult female with aspergers, the video is probably not going to tell you a lot that you don't already know about yourself but it might clarify a few things. If you're a female child with aspergers however, it's a different story. This video is going to help you to understand yourself and why people react the way they do around you.

Aspergers, Autism and Girls: Understanding & Appreciating the Female Perspective is available from Future Horizons publishing.

Honesty Clause: I was provided with a review copy of this DVD free of charge.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

The Media - What are we really trying to censor?

This post is a best of the best post on the topic of; the media as it relates to kids with special needs. Don't forget to check the BOB Site when it goes live on the 15th of June to read different perspectives from other blog authors.

** Parents please note - there are some concepts in this post which may offend or may be unsuitable for children **

Long time readers of this blog will know that I'm firmly opposed to censorship even in children but in some cases, it's in the child's best interests. If the child has special needs or issues which impact their understanding, then media censorship takes on additional meaning.

The bad effects of media on children can range from social gaffes all the way up to life-threatening behavior. Of course, like everything, media has a flip-side too and it can have many beneficial effects particularly for children with different learning styles.

How do you figure out what to block and what to allow through? How do you draw the line between providing a safe versus a sheltered environment? Can the media really be of benefit to your child's education or is it just a babysitting service? This post aims to address some of these questions.

What are we really Censoring?
It is hard to think that human bodies are such ugly things that the mere sight of reproductive organs could cause irreprable damage to a child and yet that's a view that many people hold. My own children aren't ashamed of their bodies and are not prudish in any way but they're at least beginning to understand that it is not OK for them to "flash around". At the same time, they understand that in order to get changed or have a shower, they will be naked at some point.

Logically, it doesn't make a great deal of sense to attempt to hide such a scene from a film. It's as natural as making ones own breakfast cereal. Add sex to the mix and suddenly it all changes - but why? What are we trying to stop?

If your child doesn't know about sex, then clearly we're trying to preserve our own "stork" or "cabbabge patch" mythology. If the concept of sex is familiar to them - and lets face it, they seem to be learning these things younger and younger from friends at school, then the censorship must be for another purpose.

Stick a mild sex scene under a blanket in front of children who know about sex and you're most likely to get a comment like "oh no, not boring sex! when are they going to get back to the car chase?". Sex which doesn't show any of the mechanics is simply just another boring "kissy" scene. To get defensive about it is to draw attention to it, better just to let it slip on by.

Show the mechanics however and that's where things begin to get problematic.

The fact is that most pre-children who "know all about sex" simply think that it's about naked cuddling. That's a good thing. Too much knowledge of a method makes it repeatable - and at that age, it's not a good thing.

It's easy to say; "this is a movie, the police don't really go around shooting people - so you can't do it in real life or you'll end up in jail".

Can you say the same thing about sex? Nope, not if you have children you can't. Apart from certain laws, consenting overage sex is legal but most parents don't want their children engaging in such activities as soon as it's legal.

In that respect, we're censoring two things, the concept and the mechanics - and we're censoring for a reason - to prevent our children from doing what they see.

Scare Tactics
Censoring repeatable acts makes sense but we censor a whole lot more than that both as parents and as a society. It's easy to suggest that an illegal event must not be repeated and that "it's only a story or it's only pretend". Usually experienced children will understand this.

Ask any child if it's alright to shoot someone and you'll generally get the right answers; No - yes, if it's a war or yes if they're trying to shoot you first. It's clear that past early ages, children seem to understand these concepts. If your child doesn't, then you need to make sure that they do before you allow them to see things that are repeatable.

The question is; should we censor "scaryness"?

Scaryness by itself is a good thing and people love to be scared. It's one of the reasons that horror films have always been so popular, it's why we have amusement parks and it's why Halloween is such an attractive concept. In Australia, we don't have halloween and yet my kids crave it because every kid in Australia knows about "halloween". On the other hand, no kid in Australia ever asks why we don't celebrate thanksgiving. Horror is fun. People love to be scared when they're safe.

There's a point however where scaryness tips over from "scary" into real life fear. That point is reached at different times by different children of various ages depending upon their previous exposure to fear.

My children have watched scary movies for years. It's common for us to watch "the making of" after a movie to see how they achieved certain effects. They've learned to spot actors and will cheerfully remind me that Mrs Doubtfire is also the dad in Hook, the guy in Flubber and the guy from Jumanji. This is good. They understand the separation between fiction and reality.

We've watched lots of different and scary films together, Zombieland, Bram Stoker's Dracula, Aliens, Predator and more.

You'll note that Halloween, Jaws, Poltergiest and Elm Street are not on that list. That's because I can't tell my children that murderers, sharks or even ghosts and dreams don't exist. Not 100% anyway. Those films could impact on their real lives and could cross the boundaries of fiction into real life. For that reason, they're no-go areas until my kids are old enough to feel safe.f

That's what we're really protecting, the child's general feelings of safety.

The Value of Media
Lots of people will try to tell you that fiction doesn't provide any benefit for children but they're wrong. Very, very wrong. Fiction provides some great "what if" scenarios and the best fiction teaches us moral lessons about ourselves. As a child, I learned a great deal of science and history from Doctor Who on television and in books. It served me well in class and I never had to refer to any of those "a day in the life of..." style non-fiction books. Children often learn more from fiction than from non-fiction simply because it's more engaging.

If you have a child with special needs, you'll find that they are often described as "very visual" or "picture thinkers". That's a sure sign that you should be exposing them to more television and movies. These kids learn by seeing and the visual aspect of TV will teach them better than any other teacher.

There are other types of special needs children too and some are described as "verbal thinkers". These types of thinkers learn better from books than from standard teaching methods. A third type of thinker is the mathemiatical/patterns child. These thinkers learn by patterns and problems. For them, it's possible that computer games are a better solution. I'm talking about complex computer games like Age of Empires - not Tetris.

Whatever your child's learning style, you'll often find that the media provides a better means of learning than the classroom can.

Defining safety
So far, we've defined safety as the removal of repeatable undesirable acts and the removal of fear which is too close for comfort. Is that enough? Probably. Does it mean that the media is safe? Definitely not.

When I was young, there was an excellent science programme called "the curiosity shop". It was like a kid's version of mythbusters and they often did experiments. One of their shows demonstrated an exciting experiment where baking soda was used to pop the cork off a bottle or jar. It encouraged me to go looking for the details in other kid's science books. All very safe huh? Of course, a few weeks later when my neighbour and I ran out of jars and built our next experiment in a full-size and half full cholorine drum it was very different. We survived but needed treatment and did a fair amount of property damage.

Is that the TV's fault? Probably not but it's clear that the concept came from there.

The Parent's Role in Relation to the Media
The media is a great distributor of ideas which and it plays a critical role in the education of children with special needs. Your child will learn much more from TV than they will from any of their teachers.

The way to make TV safer is not simply to pick and choose television viewing habits. It's also to make sure that you, as a parent are open and willing to discuss what you've just witnessed. Television, books, comics, songs and computer games should not be babysitters. You need to be present - at least occasionally.

The media is a gestation point for ideas - your job as a parent is to censor the dangerous ideas while ensuring that the morality and safety of the remaining ideas is well understood.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

University Life - Part 2

Returning to University
After my first stint at university (see part 1) I was very reluctant to return.

I had established a comfort zone at work and although I had plenty of ambition, I lacked the drive to uproot myself and go through change again. This is a fairly common theme in the life on an aspie.

My mother however was very keen on the idea that a university education is a requirement of modern jobs and much as it pains me to do so, I have to agree. Sure, there are plenty of jobs that you can do without needing to go to university but most of the higher-paying ones require you to have skill with your hands or decent muscles. I had neither. My brain was my best asset and it had failed me miserably on my last attempt.

Eventually, I decided that one of the main reasons for my failure was that I had taken on more subjects than I could handle. I had discovered this towards the end of my earlier university venture when I was complaining about being unable to keep up with eight subjects and I discovered that my fellow full-timers were only doing four. Had I been more socially adept, I might have found that out earlier when it could have made a difference.

Making Appropriate Choices
I went back to university but this time, I only went part time - at nights after work. My workplace was surprisingly supportive of this and even recognised my chosen course, telling me that they would pay half each sememster - but only if I passed. That was a great little incentive to keep me going.

The other important thing that I did was choose a course which lined up with my special interest. I chose Bachelor of Applied Science (Information), a course which could apply equally to libraries or computing. It was my way of keeping a foot in both of my special interest camps (reading/writing and computing).

I found that going part-time was much better for me because most of my part-time peers were adults and I related better to them than I had to people my own age. I still didn't make any lasting friends there but at least everyone was pleasant and mature and included me in conversations.

I also found that the part-timers mostly had families and for the most part would arrive, learn and then leave. I didn't seem to miss out on as much of the social scene because there were so few social activities going on. People tended not to notice my social ineptitude as much and when they did, they were much more adult about it.

Organisation and Change
I still almost missed my first assignment but after that, I learned to get organised in my own way. I couldn't handle schedules but I'd generally start assignments on the day I found out about them and finish them a few weeks later - even when we hadn't actually covered the work. I was well known for handing assignments in several weeks early but it wasn't because I was "showing off", it was because I simply couldn't handle deadlines. I still do this at work.

I never left home during my university days but commuted to work and to university. I don't think that I would have been able to handle the changes associated with living elsewhere. There were enough changes in my life without introducing more.

The Highlights
My course ended up being a brilliant choice because it included a wide range of topics such as psychology, communications, marketing, classification, statistics, sociology and publishing as well as some fairly in-depth computing electives and the mandatory information science topics. Talking to people years later who did Computer Science (my other choice), I realised that I'd received a much more rounded and "human" education.

Some of the highlights included Psychology where I told the lecturer right at the start that I thought it was a "pretend science". She accepted my challenge and set tasks aimed at getting me to prove otherwise. By the end of the year, I was a true believer and I thanked her for an amazing contribution to my education.

My computing lecturers were also good. Actually they started off terribly with my first lecturer being an eighty plus (or so it seemed) old man who told us that we were lucky to have keyboards because he did his programming using a soldering iron. Things got better from there and I ended up with an open-minded lecturer who was happy to let me abandon the course's text-based 4GL langauge in favour of writing our final application (an artificial intelligence system) to run in the "new" Windows system. Windows 3.0 was only a year or so old when I did this, so it was pretty exciting for me.

I also got a lot out of marketing and my lecturer told me that he was sad that I was choosing computing as a career instead. I loved marketing and was very good at it but I really didn't have the people skills to deal with real-life (non-paper) scenarios.

The Low Points
My worst subject was sociology in which I attemped to do the same thing as psychology but I remained completely unconvinced. I was failing the subject despite citing a whole lot of evidence in my essays. I think that my problem was that being aspergers, I was less emotionally attached to subjects and I would always write what was in the best interests of the state. My essays were logical and were well backed up by statistics and facts but I never took human feelings into account.

At the end of the semester, I tried a last-ditch experimental attempt to resurrect my failing grades in the subject. In the exam, I told them exactly what I thought they wanted to hear; I discussed oppressed people, discrimination and other emotive social issues but didn't provide any evidence to support my claims. I passed but at the same time, I completely lost faith in sociology as a science. It's not a good subject choice for aspies.

Perfection and Group Work
My worst experiences were all related to group work. I hated group work and would always try to be the last one picked in the hope that I'd be forgotten about. It usually didn't work but at least I tended to be put into smaller sized groups. I found that I couldn't communicate my ideas properly to the group and my "bottom up" (details first, then the overview) approach would often completely bamboozle my peers. On many occasions, I was told by my group that they didn't understand what we were doing but that they were glad it looked great.

I also had big issues with perfection and would tear up my own work over a spelling mistake or a minor printing blemish. In fact, on several occasions I had meltdowns over mistakes in my assignments which I discovered too late to correct. In those days, an assignment could take several hours to print and in one case, I took it to the university to get it bound and they dropped it and bound it with pages upside down. I melted down badly and drove extremely dangerously all the way home to reprint it. Looking back, I'm amazed that I survived that trip home.

With all of my perfection issues, you can imagine that I was less than grateful when group work colleagues would give me hand-written papers or typed pages with pen corrections on them. I'd end up having to retype them.

In one assignment, we were developing a computer system. I built the system and another boy wrote the manual. His manual ended up being 25 pages, mostly filled with screen shots. I knew that I couldn't simply dismiss his work but at the same time I considered it to be seriously sub-standard. I ended up including it as an appendix in my 300 page manual. At the time I didn't realize how insulting that was.

I was also involved in a video project with a girl. I couldn't understand why we were always going off to her parents house or her sister's house or going out for lunch and wasting time. I just wanted to shoot the video and get it over and done with. To this day, I still don't know if I was supposed to be picking up some kind of subliminal messages there.

In any case, we shot the video and had a lot of arguements in the editing booth because I simply didn't understand what we'd shot - it was images and sound but had no script and didn't tell a story. On the day that our videos were to be "screened", I was asked by other people what it was like to work with her and I told them how it was - directly. As it turned out, she was standing right behind me and never talked to me again. We did however get an "A" for the project which ended up being (apparently) a feminist piece about women relaxing and being themselves without feeling like they had to be a stereotype. I'm still not sure how it said that but I was happy to get an A anyway.

Friday, June 3, 2011

University Life - Part 1

I was recently asked about how aspergers affected my university experience and I realised that I haven't talked about it at all. This is my attempt at correcting the oversight. It will probably take a couple of posts but hopefully I won't bore you too much with my past.

My University experience falls into two categories; full time and part time.

I started university full time at UTS Sydney doing Civil Engineering but it wasn't exactly "my"career choice. To be honest, a year or two prior I had no idea of what an engineer was - and even while doing the course, the details were pretty sketchy.

There were a couple of reasons for the choice. First of all, I was in a group of six boys at school and five of them were going on to do engineering. My father, a naval architect, was keen on engineering as a career and almost nobody thought it would be a bad idea. I say almost nobody because the school librarian thought it was the wrong choice and she knew me better than anyone.

As it happened, I got the marks I needed to get in, so I chose the path. Along the way I did a bridging course in Physics and Chemistry to pick up some subjects that I had missed - that was the first obvious warning sign.

Motivation and Organisation Issues
I'm always stressing the importance of the special interest to the life and career choices of aspies. My engineering life was a perfect demonstration of this. If an aspie isn't interested in a subject, they'll have trouble understanding it, spending any time on it and retaining information about it. That was the case with me and engineering.

I was able to do the work, aside from the maths which I found pointless and dull but a week or two after studying a particular body of work - it was gone. Totally gone.

Then there were the organisational issues. I had gone to a Catholic school which constantly reminded students about assignments, homework and study. At university, there were no such reminders, no clarifications - nothing. I missed all of my deadlines without knowing that they were there. In fact, I was so disorganized that I missed more than half of my exams. I can remember sitting on a train station and realising that my mathematics exam was half over. It wasn't a great moment.

The only thing I enjoyed about engineering was the computers. I used to visit the lab frequently but not to play games. I just loved playing with the applications - it was my special interest. In fact, I quickly began writing applications to open back doors in their system to give me more access to other programs. I didn't realize that it was a "bad thing" at the time.

I had no friends - I can't remember a single classmate's name or face and in the end I only lasted one semester (half a year).

I got a report card in the mail and it said that I failed everything - everything that is, except computing. For that I got a distinction.

The Aftermath
I had never failed anything in my life before so the failure triggered massive bouts of depression which lasted for months. I sensibly refused to give things another go and my mother, more sensibly refused to let me lay around the house - insisting that I get a job.

My mother arranged interviews for me for various jobs and made me do things with my life. In the meantime, I enrolled in a community typing course (which I've never regretted). The typing course was all on electric typewriters but it got my hands correctly positioned for the keyboard.

More importantly though, the other people doing the course with me were "everyday" people off the streets. They weren't teachers, they weren't students at a Catholic school doing everything according to strict rules and moral codes and most importantly, they weren't all academics or engineers. I learned more about general life and people in a couple of months at the course than I had in years of school and sport.

I never managed to finish the typing course because my mother got me into a temp agency which quickly allocated me a job. In the meantime my mother was constantly searching the newspapers and coercing me to find a permanent job. I remember my mother putting me through the bank tests (a whole day of maths and English testing) and interview process and I would have gotten the job but I suddenly realized that I didn't want it. I literally awoke to the realization that I needed to follow my special interests during the interview process. I "threw" the interview by telling them that I wanted a high-level computing position but that was just so they'd let me out.

Then I started looking for jobs around my interests, of computing and reading and my strengths of sorting, categorizing and searching. When a library assistant position became available, I jumped at the chance.

Things to Take Away
The most important thing to take away from all of this is, once again;
  • Aspies MUST follow their special interests. That is the only path to a successful career.
Other critical things to note:
  • University life is significantly different from school life. Aspies will not automatically adapt to the changes (such as; shifting timetables, lack of teacher interest in students and lack of reminders about assignments). Parental intervention/teaching is required. (You need to go through your grown child's things and teach them how to look for deadlines).

  • Organisational skills are expected by university. Parents, make sure that your aspie has a calendar and is using it. Make sure that they have other organisational tools and know how to use them.

Next time, I'll look at my second attempt at university.