Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Legwork and Life, week of 9/20/17

I'm definitely keeping this update schedule.  It feels much more balanced and less rushed.  I'm still struggling at the Friday entries, but I feel like I have more time to handle them now.  I assume this is all in my head, but it's my head, I have to work with it.

Because I don't have enough going on already (sarcasm), Bible study has started up at church.  I'm going to attend, as I have the last three or so years.  It's a Thursday morning affair, which unfortunately means it's basically retirees and the odd person that doesn't work a normal 9-5 schedule.  Naturally, I'm the latter category, and depressingly, I'm the youngest person that attends.  That does give me lots of interesting things to say to the group, especially since I've disclosed my diagnosis to my small group. 

This year's study is going to be on Psalms.  I haven't dealt a lot with Psalms, as it all started sounding the same to me when I read them all at once.  Some of the individual turns of phrase were interesting, but those have been replicated in a dozen or three hymns or other songs.  So I'm not overly enthusiastic about this particular study.  I guess we'll see what happens.  I do think it's important to study the Bible and spend time learning about the context and proper meaning of the various books and words.  Otherwise you get people justifying slavery using the Bible, and justifying oppression of minorities, and paying lip service to loving your neighbor while taking away their healthcare, rights, and happiness. 

I'm a little disillusioned with the Christian Right.  Can you tell?

In less crabbity news, my mother uncovered a little decorative fountain that my brother gave me years ago.  She asked if I wanted it, and I opted to take it, so I've been experimenting with having it on.  The sound is relaxing, somewhat.  I also dug out an old addon I had on my computer called Elmnts, which basically plays the sounds of rain, ocean, a river, crackling fire, birdsong in a forest, and/or a busy coffee shop.  You can mix and match which sounds you want, and I'm particularly fond of the rainfall one.  It comes with distant thunder.  I'm not sure why that's so soothing to me.  My inclination is that my brain recognizes it as "rain means less activity, thunder means bad weather elsewhere, we should be still and quiet because nothing is going to happen." 

But really, I'm grasping at straws.  I was trying out the rainfall sounds in conjunction with the river sounds a couple days ago...sitting at my computer, next to a sliding door, with stark, brilliant sunshine streaming in.  Somehow, that didn't mess up the calming effect.  So I have no idea.  But hey, something that soothes my frayed nerves, at a time I really need my frayed nerves soothed?  Awesome. 

I just need to find something like that for my tablet/phone device (Elmnts no longer exists on the Internet, apparently), and then perhaps I can relax a bit on command.  The concept would be utterly absurd and impossible without this re-discovery, so wish me luck with that. 

Monday, September 18, 2017

Reading the Research: Recognizing Faces

Welcome back to Reading the Research, where I trawl the Internet to find noteworthy research on autism and related subjects, then discuss it in brief with bits from my own life, research, and observations.

Today's article describes an advancement in how we understand facial recognition in people.  According to the article, it's been assumed that the ability to recognize a familiar face was innate.  Kids were born with it, and by association, autistic kids and people who have major issues with it just... weren't. 

Apparently, at least one scientist didn't think so.  So they tested that theory.  Since it's highly unethical to do most kinds of human testing, especially if babies are involved, they went to the next best thing: monkeys.  They raised two groups of monkeys, one group normally (the control group) and the other... well, abnormally (experiment group).  Basically, they raised the second group of monkeys with only human handlers, and the human handlers wore welding masks the entire time.  So, "faceless" parents.  Nurturing parents, but that group of monkeys never saw a face until they had grown up quite a bit. 

Then the brains of the monkeys were scanned using an fMRI.  The part of the brain on the "experiment" monkeys that normally deals with facial recognition wasn't developed.  And they didn't intuitively look at the faces of people and monkeys, when tested.  They preferred to look at the hands of those pictures, and the corresponding recognition section of their brains was "overdeveloped."  In short, the experimental monkeys had learned to differentiate individuals using hands instead of faces.

The researchers concluded this finding could be important for autism and developmental prosopagnosia (the complete inability to recognize faces, including one's own face).  For autism, the researchers theorized that some of the social difficulties involved with autism might stem from lack of practice looking at faces, rather than necessarily some kind of innate disability.

I'm not going to disagree outright, because it's certainly going to make it more difficult to understand the nuances of a conversation if you're missing a basic component of that conversation.  But of course it's not as simple as rounding autistic kids up and making them look at faces in conversations as a rule.  There's a reason we sometimes avoid eye contact or looking at faces. 

In my particular case?  It hurts.  I tend to avoid eye contact with random goers at the grocery store or the library.  Not all the time, because people tend to think that's rude.  But a lot of the time.  I've explained why before, but essentially... it's like getting hit upside the head with a baseball bat.  I don't know many people who would purposely sign up for getting hit in the head repeatedly, so perhaps it's no real surprise that I'm not overly interested in making casual eye contact. 

So, if you mix that pain into the equation, you get a person that, as a rule, doesn't look at faces nearly as much as they could.  If learning to recognize faces is a skill that requires lots of practice, I am very far behind in my practicing... which is perhaps why I am kind of abysmal at recognizing faces and putting names to them.  Well, that and my shoddy visual processing.  But that's probably an entirely different can of worms. 

Friday, September 15, 2017

Book Review: Been There, Done That, Try This!

Been There. Done That.  Try This!: An Aspie's Guide to Life on Earth, edited by Tony Attwood, Craig Evans, and Anita Lesko, is a 300ish page book of advice from autistic mentors on how to deal with the toughest challenges we face in life.  I was initially very turned off by this book's cover, I suppose because I confused "editors" for "authors."  It seemed like the people listed as editors weren't autistic, and so were making the assumption that their neurotypical lives were sufficiently similar to mine that they could offer advice.  Much as I respect Dr. Attwood, that assumption was a bit much to stomach.

I was quite incorrect in my initial reaction.  The book is in fact mainly comprised of short essays from people on the spectrum.  These are organized by topic, and the topics were chosen by asking autistic people which issues cause the most stress to them.  The end result is that these topics are generally the most relevant to the widest population.  In fact, in my personal case, there were only two of the seventeen chapters that weren't relevant to my immediate life and needs.  Included in this book are suggestions on managing anxiety, self-image, sensory issues, bullying, career and job advice, depression, and personal organization.

Each chapter begins with a short introduction to the topic, like "Making and Keeping Friends," and then proceeds right into the essays by the contributing autistic authors.  Most of these are between a half page and three pages long, so not intensely involved reading.  At least four essays appear per topic, sometimes quite a few more than that.  After the essays finish, editor Tony Attwood has a say on the subject, based on his extensive experience with autistic people. 

The back of the book lists the "Aspie mentors," or the sources of the various essays that begin each chapter.  I was pleased to see that most of them hail from what I call "The Lost Generation," or the generation prior to the introduction of Asperger's Syndrome and the idea that being autistic didn't mean you had to be intellectually disabled.  I call it "The Lost Generation" because many of the autistic people that lived and died in those years never knew they were autistic, and in a lot of cases, got shunted into institutions with incorrect diagnoses such as schizophrenia.  I hate being near old mental institutions for that reason.  It's almost like I can hear the anguished screams and the misery.  All of which would have been preventable with a little more knowledge and a large dose of human empathy. 

The very youngest contributor of this book is only two years older than I am, but a number of the authors were born in the '40s and '50s.  Many of the authors talk about only getting their diagnosis in their 50s and 40s.  Also of note, these authors aren't all from the US.  There is a smattering of authors from Australia, the UK, and even one from Pakistan.  The editors kept the "British-isms" and other non-US grammar styles in the book, so I kept noticing words like "learnt" instead of "learned," and other minor differences.  I had no trouble understanding what the authors were getting at, though.

Finally, I can safely say that much, if not all, of this book is useful, relevant, and helpful.  Between the efforts to make the topics of discussion as widely relevant as possible, and the care put into choosing the essays, I think this is a fine book, and quite useful.  I am seriously considering putting it on my wishlist for my birthday and Christmas, which would be a first for any of my book reviews.

Read This Book If

You're autistic and want some good advice, on important subjects, from people who are like you and know what they're talking about.  A parent or professional could also get an idea of how we think and what tactics actually work for us by giving this book a read, but it is very much geared toward aiding autistic people in their lives.  If autistic book clubs exist, or an autistic social group is looking for a book to read together, I highly recommend this book for your reading list.  Tackling a chapter or two per week would likely provide invaluable discussions about some of the most challenging and important subjects in an autistic life. 

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Legwork and Life, week of 9/12/17

So far I'm liking this new update schedule.  It feels more relaxed for the same amount of work, and makes my Monday less of a panic-fest.  Friday will be just the same, of course.

I'm sufficiently annoyed with the whole Self Advocates of Michigan thing to skip explaining how the meetings at the start of the month went.  Suffice it to say the work is unrewarding and stressful thus far.  We'll see if the meeting at the end of the month, where I have to stand up and talk to a bunch of other self-advocates and interested parties, is anything besides torture. 

Before that, though, my dad is going to be in town very briefly, so I'll get to have dinner with him and my grandmother.  I'm looking forward to it, as I don't see him that often and missed my last opportunity to visit with him.  Chris is probably looking forward to it also, because the dinner falls on one of his days to cook, and that means he can skip cooking that day.  I made some efforts to try to nail down what restaurant we'll go to, but didn't get much response.  Such is life.

This isn't the last time I'll see my dad this month, too.  At the end of the month, just after I exhaust myself trying to run an in-person meeting with a bunch of people I've never met before, I get to hop an airplane and fly down to CT.  My parents are finally on the tail end of moving, and I have a decent amount of stuff still left in my closet and in the basement.  Naturally, anything I can toss out is one less thing they have to move.  I'll also lend them a hand in the moving process as best I can.  It's little enough that I can do, but it's better than nothing.

I just hope I'm not a grumpy snarl-bucket when I get there.  I have yet to restore my blog's buffer, and I need to do that before I head off on this particular adventure.  While the airplane trip will give me plenty of time to read a book or a half-dozen science articles, it will also try my patience and my sanity, which will likely make it difficult to write any reviews.  And that's assuming I have any hardware that can manage a keyboard.  I haven't had a laptop for years, and Chris' old laptop has broken hinges.  That damage makes it very unpleasant to try to carry around, as it can't be closed properly or opened with anything but the most painstaking care.  I might make do with a bluetooth keyboard Chris got me years ago, if I can get it to link up to my tablet.  That would be awkward, as it doesn't actually attach to the tablet.  It's hard to look at the screen and line up the keyboard at the same time. 

In happier news, I have another haircut coming this week. I haven't, as a rule, looked forward to haircuts in the course of my life.  But I guess maybe it's a different story when the haircuts come with a hand massage and a scalp massage.  And the hairdresser person is a reasonably cool person that doesn't make excessive small talk.  I don't really love having to drive downtown for each of these visits, but it tends to be worth the time.  This visit is just a haircut, too, so I should be able to get the scalp treatment I had a couple trips ago.  The one that made my head and hair less dusty for a few days.  It was nice while it lasted, so I'm looking forward to it again. 

Monday, September 11, 2017

Reading the Research: Why Do Some Autistic People Hate Hugs?

Welcome back to Reading the Research, where I trawl the Internet to find noteworthy research on autism and related subjects, then discuss it in brief with bits from my own life, research, and observations.

Today's article deals with a phenomenon in autism I've mostly only seen in Temple Grandin's movie: the innate dislike of being touched.  If you watch the movie, she shrugs off hugs or outright rejects them.  This is not because she hates people, it's because those hugs are downright painful to her.  It's actually a major point in the movie when she's able to "lean into" a hug from her mother, rather than jerking away. 

I haven't personally experienced hugs as unpleasant, unless they're unpleasant for more standard reasons (like the person being dripping wet, or not being comfortable being close to that particular person).  But it's a common story, with autistic kids rejecting hugs or other forms of social touch (handshakes, light touches on the shoulder or arms, etc).  This naturally causes conflict all around, with the neurotypical people feeling hurt that their affection and connection-gestures have been rejected, and the autistic person on the defensive because of the sensory overload. 

So the question is always "why?"  Why can't autistic people enjoy hugs? 

At least according to this study, it's because we literally experience anxiety, like that of a phobia, at the prospect of hugs.  The study had people watching pictures while their brain waves were analyzed.  The autistic participants responded with anxiety to pictures of social touches, like hugs and handshakes, but not to pictures of non-touch-related social interactions.  The researchers noted a positive trend between the severity of the autism and the strength of the reaction (ie: the "more autistic" the more intense the negative reaction). 

The way this article is worded, it kind of feels like the authors think the anxiety-reaction is the reason we don't do well with social situations, or at least with hugs.  Which is backwards, if you ask me.  Say that tomorrow, you attend a family get-together.  The first ten hugs you receive feel like you're being crushed and simultaneously rubbed vigorously with sandpaper.  After that tenth hug, aren't you going to be hesitant about going for an 11th hug?  And if this continued, wouldn't you get anxious about any future hugs?  I would. 

So it seems to me like the researchers are mixing up cause and effect.  The comparison of the neural reactions to phobias is interesting, and one of the researchers suggested that the anxiety-reaction could be treated in perhaps the same way that phobias are treated.  I'm uncertain as to whether that would work, since generally a phobia is specifically a mind thing, rather than a mind thing with a repeated sensory component.  Desensitization therapy works for phobias because phobias don't reinforce themselves via your senses.  If you experience hugs as crushing and sandpaper, you're not going to be able to train yourself out of being anxious about crushing and sandpaper. 

I also somewhat doubt it's as simple as "more autism, more anxiety about social touch."  Autism is a spectrum, with a lot of different components and facets.  Having severe sensory issues with touch does not necessarily mean you have severe motor skills deficits, or severe executive functioning issues. 

Friday, September 8, 2017

Book Review: The Essential Guide to Asperger's Syndrome

The Essential Guide to Asperger's Syndrome: A parent's complete source of information and advice on raising a child with Aspeger's, by Eileen Bailey and Robert W. Montgomery, PhD, is one of those "complete guide" book ideas that are relatively common on my library's book shelves.  They're meant to be one-stop shopping for parents, especially parents that are new to the world of autism.  I have, at this point, probably read at least ten books written in this fashion. 

This one is better than most.  It's also a little more focused than most.  Specifically, it focuses on Asperger's Syndrome, or high-functioning autism.  The authors were aware this classification was going the way of the dinosaur with the current edition of the DSM, but released this book anyway in case it would help people.  I think it well might.

The first thing that set this book apart from other "complete guide" books for me was that it took the time to have a section for autistic women.  It has, in the past, been assumed that autism is mainly a masculine disability, because the diagnostic rate is so much higher for boys than it is for girls.  There's even a researcher out there that postulates that autism is a disorder that involves a "hyper male mind," which is to say that all autistic people are more masculine and have more stereotypically "male" traits than the average person.

I, personally, do not find that line of research terribly accurate or helpful.  Neither does this book, because it takes more than ten pages to explain how autism can look different in girls as they grow up.  It also explains how symptoms can take longer to show up in girls with autism, sometimes only becoming obvious in preteen and teenage years.

Another section that set this book apart from most "complete guide" books I've read is that it included a section on social skills, and how to teach them.  I found the section a little short and bare bones, but it seemed accurate enough for a start.  And it did catch most of the major pitfalls: taking turns in conversations, personal space, the problem with telling the absolute truth, avoiding being the "rules enforcer," personal hygiene, etc.  I would've liked to see a section on making small talk, as that was a major stumbling block for me, but perhaps the authors assumed the parents already knew how to handle that.

I was pleased, also, to see a section on bullying included.  Bullying is a huge problem when it comes to autistic people.  While most people experience a little bit of nastiness in middle school, autistic people are much more prone to being a favorite target, or even getting hit with it much younger, like me.  I was a favorite bullying target starting in either Kindergarten or 1st grade, I can't remember which, and that continued until my family moved away after 3rd grade.  I was easy to wind up, and predictable.  Also, no one would come to my defense.  And this all happened before cyber-bullying took the stage.  Today's kids have even more ways to be psychologically abused.  So unfortunately, the subject merits a lot of discussion and information. 

The book also includes a much-needed section on taking care of your family as a whole, making sure the siblings also get attention, self-care, and advice for handling family outings.  This is excellent, because these subjects tends to get ignored in the mess of handling the "autism crisis."  Unfortunately, ignoring your own well-being for the sake of others eventually wears you out, which is counter-productive.  A sad, stressed out family makes for a sad, stressed-out autistic person.  Happily, I'm starting to see more workshops and such available for siblings of special-needs people, and more for the parents as well. 

My last comment on the matter is that my original diagnosis was Asperger's Syndrome, rather than autism, as defined by the DSM-IVR.  So I did see a lot of myself in the pages of this book.  While I don't particularly think Asperger's Syndrome should be distinct from autism as a whole, I do think this book has an eye towards a specific section of the autism spectrum, and perhaps that section has mannerisms, tendencies, and behaviors in common.  The book would probably have been improved by having an actual autistic person review its contents, as I became miffed on a couple occasions by some apparent oversights in understanding our point of view, but it does fairly well even without that.

Read This Book If

You have an autistic child, especially one that blends better with their peers ("high functioning"), or seems to adhere to the "Aspie" stereotype.  Some of the advice in this book is fairly basic, but some of it I hadn't seen before.  All in all, I think the authors did a pretty good job putting this book together, and while it's certainly not everything you'll need to raise an autistic child, it's a pretty decent starting point. 

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

Reading the Research: Autism and a Lack of Surprise at the Unexpected.

Welcome back to Reading the Research, where I trawl the Internet to find noteworthy research on autism and related subjects, then discuss it in brief with bits from my own life, research, and observations.

Today's article deals with how neurotypical and autistic people react to sudden, unexpected changes.  The researchers had about 50 individuals, half autistic, half neurotypical, follow patterns of audible tones and images.  They made the patterns very predictable, right up until they didn't.  Then they measured the surprise reactions of the individuals. 

Apparently, the autistic people were less surprised in general when the patterns were broken, and the more heavily affected they were, the less surprised they were.  After running the data through computer processes, the researchers decided this meant the autistic people were expecting a more unpredictable (volatile) environment.  So when the environment was suddenly not following the previous patterns, they weren't as surprised.  The head researcher commented that if autistic people are expecting an unpredictable environment, they'd tend to rely more on their senses and less on their prior understanding of patterns, and that might explain why sensory overload is so common.

I do kind of wonder if that researcher doesn't have it backwards.  Or at the very least, a two-way street, or a self-reinforcing cycle.  So, for example.  I have sound-sensitivity.  That means that sudden noises, something falling off a shelf, a child shrieking outside, unexpected fireworks, etc, tend to freak me out and hurt me.  My poor spouse trips over himself to try not to cause noises like that, because he knows that.  When I'm at home, I can usually assume things won't fall off shelves, and there won't be fireworks... but there do seem to be children at many hours of the day, and sometimes things do fall or fireworks go off.  My environment, you see, is unpredictable, or volatile.  These things wouldn't bother other people, but they do bother me. 

In addition to that, my sensitivity isn't predictable.  A child shrieking won't necessarily bother me a lot some days, but other days I have to restrain myself from going out onto my porch and screaming at them to shut up.  Verbosely.  And very impolitely.  So not only is my environment volatile, it's unpredictably volatile.  So it seems silly to me to say, "Oh, these autistic people aren't building their expectations properly, and that's why they're expecting a volatile environment."  I'd be more inclined to say, "the environment, as the autistic person sees it, is volatile, therefore they are less surprised by sudden changes."  I'm sure there's still some decent research that could branch off that idea. 

I think the basic results, that autistic people are less surprised by the unexpected, are probably about right, though.  I don't react normally to sudden emergencies in traffic, and once, I dropped my laptop while I was chatting with an acquaintance.  He shouted in surprise at the sudden impending damage to the expensive machine.  I, on the other hand, went stone-faced, picked up my laptop, and kept talking while I examined it for damage.  He commented on how unusual that was, which is partly why I remember it.