Sunday, October 29, 2017

It takes two, two sides to every story (Relationships and Aspergers)

It seems strange to say it but I’d never heard of Katy Perry until she hit the headlines for dressing “inappropriately” on Sesame Street back in 2010. Even then it was at least a couple of years before I listened to her music properly. 

Apart from her music, which I now love, I’ve also got another reason to really like her as an artist. She’s always defending those who are different and in 2012, she did an awesome duet of Firework (an amazing and empowering song in its own right) with Jodi DiPiazza a young girl with autism. I tried to find this on youtube again but sadly the full version isn’t available now. 

Rest assured, it was incredibly moving.

Lyrics with Meaning

One of the great things about Katy’s songs is that a lot of them, though obviously not all, have deep meanings. I was listening to the song, “it takes two” recently and I was thinking about the message within it and how it applies a lot of common sense to couples in relationships.

I was also thinking that it’s a good way for people on the autism spectrum (or in a relationship with someone on the spectrum) to be mindful of their own faults as well as those of their partners.

You can see the music video for the song here and you can read the lyrics here.

It takes two to Tango

There’s an old saying that “it takes two to tango” and if you’re on the spectrum you could be forgiven for thinking that it refers to the need for a dance partner.  In fact, it means that in any relationship, there are two people “driving” - even if one of them is the “victim”.

It’s very important to realise that while victims in relationships feel trapped, they’re essentially perpetuating a bad situation by staying. If you can’t make it work, if you’re unwilling to seek help or if the help has not alleviated the situation, then apart from certain illegal situations, you can always escape.

If you’re being physically harmed, then it’s particularly important to get out of the relationship.

If you stay -- particularly if you stay and accept your partner’s bad behaviour, then you’re allowing it to continue.

"I’m not that Innocent"

One of the lines in the song is “I admit, half of it. I’m not that innocent”.  As people on the spectrum, it’s very important to realise that if things are going “off the rails” then at least part of the blame has to lie with us. Sometimes it’s our expectations which can be too high, sometimes it’s simply our poor choice of partner. Often though, without realising it, we’re doing a lot of harm to our own relationships.

Some of the ways in which people on the spectrum harm our own relationships include;

Focusing on our special interest to an extent that excludes our partner. 

This particularly applies when our special interests are to do with television, computers or gaming but it can also apply if we involve ourselves so deeply in a sport or a hobby that we’re never home or if we focus all of our conversations around our special interest.

It’s very important to remember that our partners won’t necessarily share our special interests, particularly not at the level of detail that we do.

We need to make time for our partners and for their interests, even if that means scheduling some regular activities.

Applying rules and restrictions to everything.

One of the hallmarks of people on the spectrum is the need for rules and procedures which don’t always make sense. Sometimes we find ourselves subconsciously putting things into order or straight lines. We may for example, find ourselves “avoiding right turns” or certain places because their ambience causes us sensory issues.

While it’s important to look after our senses, it’s also important to remember that our partners should not be subjected to all of our rules. They must be able to make choices for themselves.

Sometimes we have to try to deal with our sensory issues for our partner. 

Weddings, for example, can be sensory nightmares for us but they’re often very important occasions for our partners. We can take steps to reduce the impact that they have on us by wearing sunglasses, comfortable clothing or earplugs but continually cancelling all such events - or misbehaving at them is not healthy for the relationship.

Failing to listen

This is a particularly difficult problem for me. I’ve gotten so good at predicting the things that my wife, friends and work colleagues will say that too often I finish their sentences for them. It might feel like the right thing to do but it’s demeaning. It means I’m not listening properly. Right now, I’m working on this and I’m trying to improve my listening skills but so often I remember only after the damage has been done.

Your partner probably isn’t saying anything about this but that doesn’t mean it isn’t hurting them. Listen, breathe and emote “in their language”. 

Emoting in your partner's language is quite difficult, especially for those of us on the spectrum. We feel emotions strongly but we communicate them very differently. Unfortunately, our way of communicating emotion is often lost of neurotypicals so if they're the ones who are upset, it's best if we can try to convey our feelings in ways that they understand.

Try to cut them a little slack, listen to their ideas and praise them. Give things a try even if you think they might not work. Sometimes it’s more important to be supportive than it is to be right.

Most of all, try to resist problem solving everything. Sometimes people just want a little empathy from you.

Being aggressive

Meltdowns can be a big problem for people on the spectrum, particularly if they have specific hang-ups. In my case, I hate trying to be a handyman because my skills are so poor in this area that I always feel I do more harm than good. In the early days of my marriage, I'd get "cornered into doing jobs" that I didn't feel confident with and something would often get smashed, chipped or crushed because of my temper. My angry shouts and finger-pointing would also do a whole lot of damage to the relationship.

It’s something that I had to work very hard on to find ways to stop the meltdowns from affecting me so badly and to ensure that my partner knew how best to help me.  I also needed to learn how to say "No" when I didn't feel confident. 

"I point my finger but it does me no good"

Of course, the whole point of “it takes two” is that you can only be responsible for your half of the relationship. You can most certainly blame your partner for their actions but unless it leads to change, it’s pointless.

Neurotypicals in relationships with people on the spectrum can cause a lot of problems too. 

For a start, a lot of neurotypical behaviour is too “loud” for us, particularly if we’re introverted. I have a lot of problems when I go to restaurants with my wife. If the food is bad, she’ll get annoyed and let them know. For me, that destroys the mood and ruins the experience.

We’ve talked about this and she’s made a few changes. She still challenges poor service or poor meals but she’s willing to let a lot of things slide. If she does feel the need to “raise hell” then sometimes we’ll collaborate on a bad review and sometimes she’ll confront the management without making things quite so confrontational for me.

There’s a lot of other ways in which neurotypicals harm relationships. Treating their Asperger’s partners like second class citizens is one, as is telling them that they have no emotions or no empathy.

It’s surprisingly common to see neurotypicals discussing the failings of their partners online without even considering how their partners may feel when they read those posts. The same goes for mothers or fathers who discuss their children’s failings. One day they’re going to find them online -- are you sure that you’re keeping your comments respectful?

"Let me be first baby, to say I’m sorry!"

I could go on about the things that neurotypical partners do that affect our relationships but the sensitive places differ from one couple to the next. It’s far more important to learn how to say sorry … and how to actually BE sorry.

Sorry is a very powerful word in every relationship but you have to mean it otherwise it quickly loses its effect. The key to nearly every relationship problem is communication. If your partner is making you uncomfortable or is not meeting a need, then you need to discuss it openly and without blame.

Instead of trying to blame each other, try to find a solution that works for both partners. This means that you have to compromise and sometimes one partner will have to give up something they love. It's important to take turns in compromising so that one partner doesn't always have to give in.

It’s not too late to change.

Monday, October 16, 2017

Do People with Asperger’s syndrome feel pain?

In movies and television shows, characters with Asperger’s syndrome are often portrayed as feeling very little emotionally or physically. It’s also quite common people to suggest that a character who shows little emotion or sensitivity to have “Asperger’s-like” traits. 

In Star Trek, there are characters like Spock, Data, Seven Of Nine and the Doctor who, while not "Asperger's" as such are often referred to as "Asperger-like" in their behaviour.   In the big bang theory, Sheldon has the most “Asperger’s-like” qualities and of  course, there’s Doc Martin.

While for the most part, these characters aren't immune to physical pain, they're shown to have increased levels of tolerance -- and when it comes to mental pain, they're often depicted as "unaffected".

There’s clearly a perception out there that people with Asperger’s often feel “no pain” or “reduced pain” but how accurate is this?

Nobody feels “No Pain”

To be clear, nobody feels “no pain” unless they don’t have a fully functional nervous system. Some people clearly feel physical and/or emotional pain more acutely than others and some people respond more loudly to such pain.

Much like a child who reacts loudly to a needle which has yet to prick their skin, a loud response doesn't necessarily indicate actual pain. By the same token, a quieter response should not necessarily indicate less pain.

Some individuals feel certain types of pain more acutely than others, while other individuals may feel it less. It's not uncommon for a person with a Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD), a common co-condition with Asperger's, to have both reactions to different stimulii, perhaps feeling the pain of a loud noise while not feeling the pain of a pinprick.

Unless we are the individual in question, our general comprehension of their level of pain is based purely on our perception, which in turn is based on what they say or do and our ability to read any non-verbal cues.

Of course, if you’re dealing with a person who is introverted, then all communication, including a lot of emotional communication, from that person is suppressed in comparison to an extrovert.

People with Asperger’s often don’t express emotions in the same way as neurotypicals. Sure, the "ouch" response is more or less the same but sometimes the facial expressions simply don't match the message. 

Emotional Pain

People with Asperger’s syndrome seem to suffer a great deal of emotional pain. There is evidence to suggest that the levels of depression and suicide amongst the Asperger’s community may be higher than it is in the overall neurotypical community.

People with Asperger’s often find it difficult to communicate with others under normal conditions, much less under deeply emotional ones. They often display conflicting body language and struggle to be understood. It’s also quite common for people with Asperger’s to fail to realise that the emotion is affecting them -- at least, not until it’s too late.

For this reason, it’s important to keep tabs on yourself if you have Aspergers -- or your dependents if they are the “aspies” in your life. It’s difficult but you need to talk about emotions and the best ways to express them. If a person you know has been involved in traumatic circumstances, you may want to check how they are feeling.

You’ll need to do this more than once as their feelings will change as they put distance between themselves and the circumstances. The responses won’t always improve with time.

The best way to do this is to ask very direct questions; so, instead of “How are you feeling?” try;

  • Are you feeling a little overwhelmed?
  • Do you feel like you need some help, is there something I can do?
  • What do you think would cheer you up? 

People with Asperger’s experience emotional pain just as much, often more, than neurotypical people.  It’s just not so easy to detect. 

Physical Pain

Physical pain and Asperger’s is a strange thing. It’s not that people with Asperger’s can’t feel it but rather that their preoccupation with special interests or general daily life can blind them to the sensations.

It’s quite common for a person with Asperger’s syndrome who is obsessed with the computer or computer games to sit there for days at a time oblivious to cramps, muscle pains and tendon issues. It’s also one of the reasons why they often fail to seek medical attention before problems get out of hand.

When people with Asperger’s get involved in sports or exercise, they often put so much time and effort into training that, while they become very good at it, they also find themselves increasingly being injured due to muscle overuse.

Pain is an important sensation which alerts our body that we need to take a break from a stressful activity. If you continue to push past pain or if you ignore pain, you significantly increase the risks of a worse injury. 

Give attention to Pain

People with Asperger's most certainly feel pain but for various reasons, they are less inclined to dwell on the pain or to communicate about it.  Untreated mental and physical pain can be damaging.

People with Asperger’s syndrome and those who care for people with Asperger's need to monitor their levels of pain and regularly question whether or not they are actually feeling pain in order to take better care of themselves. 

Sunday, October 1, 2017

Life Rules: Behavioural Phrases to Live By

Kids with Asperger's work best with rules and lists to follow. This applies in more or less every aspect of their lives. It's major part of their development and as a parent, it's up to you to help your kids to learn how to make rules and lists for themselves. 

I've spoken about lists before, particularly in an article over at Special-Ism and of course, I've talked about rules here on LWA before.

Today I want to talk about more general rules that you can use to help your kids get more out of life. 

Life Rules

To be effective, life rules need to be general. For example, "Always look both ways before you cross the street" is a great life rule, while "Remember to look both ways before you cross from the bus to school" is not. It's too specific.

Life rules also need to be concise because even with repeated drilling, your kids aren't going to remember long and convoluted rules.

Finally, life rules need to be self-explanatory -- or at best, you need to constantly go over the definitions. For example, the life rule "Don't talk to Strangers" isn't very self-explanatory and it's a problematic rule for kids with Asperger's. 

How do you determine who is a stranger?  Why is it acceptable sometimes?

I can remember experiencing a whole lot of issues with the "don't talk to strangers" rule when I was a kid. I remember trying not to talk to strangers and having them get quite frustrated with me. This was particularly problematic when an elderly person would approach me in the street for directions or help. I'd often help them out, but would do so in complete silence.

Not all Life Rules are Good

You're probably already familiar with life rules from your own upbringing but not all of these are good ... in particular, many of the rules from my childhood were poor and even sometimes downright dangerous.

It won't bite you if you don't annoy it. 

This was a terrible life rule from my childhood. We live in Australia where just about everything bites or stings you.

It certainly helps if you don't annoy animals but it doesn't guarantee safety. Over here we have sharks and stingers which few people actually try to annoy.

A good life rule should be about you and your behaviour, rather than a prediction of the behaviours of others.

It Costs Nothing to be Nice

This is my absolute favourite life-rule and it's probably the main piece of advice that I'm constantly reiterating with my kids. Essentially this rule is in place to remind my kids that being nice to people should be their "default state" even if the person they're interacting with is not nice.

Of course, there are still Grinches in the world and sometimes, though in my experience rarely, this backfires. I've found that angry people often back down if you're nice to them but some people are always angry - I'm still nice to them. It's a win-win situation.

There's nothing that riles up an angry person more than the idea that their angry attitude is having no effect. Smiling at an angry person will always affect them more than shouting back. 

Usually being nice to others will mean that they'll be nice to you in return. Sometimes you can change a person's entire day with just a few kind words particularly if a person is struggling with depression.

I've reminded my boys that people are generally more attracted to people who are smiling. Anyone thinking about a future partner is inclined to think, "he looks happy, that's what I want in my future".

It also means that occasionally shop-keepers will give you better service.

If you're not convinced that this works, try buying an ice cream whilst being angry to the server and one while you're being nice -- and compare the size of the ice creams.

I also use this rule to teach my boys how to look after other people, for example opening the disabled access for people on the bus and helping others with their shopping trolleys.  It's not about seeking reward, it's about brightening the days of others and making the world a better place to live in moment by moment.

Everybody is Different - and that's Great

This is another of my favourite life-rules. Essentially I encourage my kids to embrace individuality and diversity with open arms.

I'm not saying "and that's okay", I'm saying that it's great. 

For me, it's important that my boys don't shy away from the idea that people are different but that they also go further than simple acceptance.

I want them to think nothing of having friends who are different and openly approach a person with visible differences without fear or prejudice.

What a boring world it would be if everyone was the same. 

Everyone should be treated Equally and Fairly

This life rule goes more or less together with the "everybody is different" rule. You'll notice that I haven't said "all men are equal" because that could lead to gender misunderstandings.  I've also not said that everyone IS equal because we're talking about what should be which isn't necessarily what "is".

Finally, I've added the word "fairly" to the end because equal treatment isn't always fair treatment. For example, equal treatment would mean that a short-sighted person would get the same seat at an event as everyone else. Fair treatment would mean that they get a seat which gives them an "equal chance to see".

Smaller Everyday Rules

I could go on forever with these rules but I'm sure I've given you the general gist of the idea. I just wanted to touch on some of the smaller life rules that relate more to specific interactions.  

Don't turn up anywhere empty-handed 

This is a life rule that my wife instilled in me when we were just going out. Somehow it got missed during my transition to adulthood. Essentially it relates to visiting people, regardless of whether it's at home, in a hospital or at an outing.

If it's a planned visit, bring something; food, wine, flowers or some other small form of appreciation.

Remember that the host has usually gone to a lot of trouble to have you over and their job doesn't end when you leave, there's still the post-visit cleaning to be done. Make an effort to show them that you appreciate their "efforts".

Everyone is entitled to their Opinion and you can "Agree to Disagree"

What a wonderful place Facebook would be if only people could follow this simple rule.

Of course your opinion matters but at the end of the day, life and friendships come first. It's not necessary for you to force others to your way of thinking.  It's possible to disagree with someone and still be their friend. Sometimes you just have to agree to disagree and then "drop the subject".

Of course, it's not always possible, particularly if you're disagreeing with something that restricts the freedoms of others but that's the price we pay for freedom of speech.

People with Asperger's thrive with lists and rules, so take the time to make a list of "life rules" and start instilling them while they're young.