Monday, November 12, 2018

Reading the Research: DIY Brain Stimulation

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 addresses an up-and-coming issue in academia, special needs, and other circles: brain stimulation.  John Elder Robison wrote about experiencing a particular type of brain stimulation, called transcranial magnetic stimulation, in his book Switched On, which I reviewed at one point.  He noted improvement in what some people term "autism symptoms" after undergoing the treatment.  

Various types of brain stimulation have also been used to treat Parkinsons, depression, and anxiety.  And naturally, if it can be used for a medical purpose, somebody's going to try it on healthy people and tout the results for improved academic and professional performance.

I, personally, am treated with a particular type of brain stimulation called LENS.  It's non-invasive, like most types of brain stimulation, and has no chemicals to pump into your bloodstream and potentially mess things up in your biology.  I receive it once every two weeks.  It's helped with my anxiety and depression, and possibly with organizational and self-management skills as well.  I was paying less attention to those at the time I started the therapy, so it's hard to say for sure that it's helped.  But a less anxious, depressed brain also probably performs better overall.  

It's a little alarming to me that people would A) decide brain stimulation should be administered to everyone, and B) that they're more likely to demand other people get "fixed" rather than fixing themselves.  Though admittedly, if I was sure the treatment wouldn't damage our politicians, and was also sure it would increase their empathy and decision-making skills, I'd probably opt to have them "fixed" also.  

Either way, it's a major question, and seems like one that's going to be relevant in the next decade or so.  Some academic fields and areas are very competitive, and people with the means to do so may use brain stimulation in hopes of getting an edge on their competitors.  I worry that these unregulated usages will lead to brain damage on a very major scale.

They may also pave the way for brain stimulation to be used in an insurance-covered medical setting, which would be good for autistic people and other sufferers of depression, anxiety, and related things.

Time will tell.  

Friday, November 9, 2018

Mouth Care with Sensory Sensitivities: An Electric Toothbrush Comparison

Today we'll discuss oral hygiene, how sensory sensitivities factor in, and compare two electric toothbrushes side-by-side.  

Oral hygiene is a basic part of personal hygiene, which is important for being presentable to people, especially neurotypical people.  If your breath smells bad, people won't want to be near you or speak to you, because they can smell it and can get grossed out by it.  Brushing your teeth, and also your tongue and mouth, combats bad breath.  It also fights tooth decay by decimating the responsible bacteria.  

The problem with all this is that brushing your teeth can be a really unpleasant sensory experience.  Having bristles scraping against your gums and teeth can be torturous for people with touch sensitivities.  Especially if you go the extra step and invest in an electric toothbrush, which does a much better job than manually brushing.  The electric toothbrush vibrates in addition to your brushing, which polishes your teeth and under your gums much more effectively... but now you're pressing a buzzing object to your gums in addition to the brushing sensations!

Essentially, oral hygiene can be a really unpleasant nightmare for people with sensory sensitivities.  A nightmare that has to be repeated daily, or cavities and fillings and crowns and so many expensive trips to the dentist will result.  

The Toothbrushes

Therefore, making the process as painless as possible is important.  One way to do that is to choose your toothbrush carefully.  Our two toothbrushes are below:

On the left side, my spouse's Phillips Sonicare toothbrush.  His is a basic model, but the company is well established in the electric toothbrush market.  I've borrowed this toothbrush and used separate toothbrush heads for a couple years now.  With it, I've stopped having any cavities whatsoever in my teeth.  

This is particular impressive because it's despite: A) I'm sometimes unable to make myself do any toothcare at all for an entire week (thanks to depression and sensory sensitivities) B) I have bad genes (my dad has had many cavities despite brushing and flossing religiously, and I have had some problems as well), and C) I eat way too much sugar overall, which heftily accelerates how quickly your teeth decay.  

On the right is a Quip toothbrush, a relatively new arrival on the mouth care scene.  The toothbrush is actually only one piece of their oral health recommendations, which include letting you do a subscription plan to have new toothbrush heads and toothpaste sent to you every 3 months.  Other than floss, it's essentially everything you need to care for your whole mouth.  My in-laws generously gifted the Quip toothbrush to me for my birthday, and I've just gotten the chance to try it out, which is what prompted this blog entry.  Thank you!

You'll notice immediately, as I did, that the Quip toothbrush is much smaller.  It's also lighter by a good margin.  What's not obvious from that first picture is that both toothbrushes have detachable heads.  The Quip is simply built more seamlessly.  Below is a picture of the brush heads, along with a manual toothbrush.

Two electric toothbrush heads held in a hand.  One has a scrubbing surface, the other does.  Above them, a manual toothbrush with a scrubbing surface.

As you can see, the Quip toothbrush head comes with a scrubbing surface on the back.  This is actually a feature I'm rather fond of, to the point that I invested in a manual toothbrush like the green one so I could continue to have one available to me.  Having the feature built right into the brush head saves me annoyance, counter space, and money.  

What about the accessories, and the innards?  

Quip electric toothbrush parts and accessories: handle, toothbrush head, motor, a AAA battery, and a plastic cover for the top half of the toothbrush

Sonicare electric toothbrush charging base, handle, and a toothbrush head with plastic cover.
As you can see, the Quip disassembles a lot more than the Sonicare does.

The Sonicare has the handle (not meant for the user to be able to take apart), the toothbrush head (with plastic cover), and the charging base.  The Quip breaks down into the toothbrush head, motor, battery, plastic handle, and sliding cover.  The cover fits either end of the toothbrush.  Due to the sticky tape (not shown) on the cover, it serves as both a travel cover and holder.  You can literally just stick it to the counter or to your mirror and put the handle into it for easy access.

The Quip uses a standard AAA battery, whereas the Sonicare uses a rechargeable battery pack.  I have no information on how long each lasts, but I can safely say the Sonicare battery pack has lasted like 5 years.  I suppose one could always use a rechargeable AAA battery in the Quip as well.

I'll be heading out of town for Thanksgiving soon, so another question arises: How do they handle for traveling?

Quip and Sonicare electric toothbrushes, packed for travel.  The Quip packs into one piece and is much smaller, while the Sonicare's toothbrush head detaches from the handle and needs a clear plastic case.

As you can see, the Quip packs into a single unit.  The white plastic cover slides over the brush head and locks into place.  The Sonicare is better packed in two pieces, with the brush head separate from the base.  The brush head then needs to be covered with a clear plastic case.  One of those comes with every toothbrush head, which means a lot of those little plastic cases build up over time.  

And now, most importantly for people with sensory sensitivities: how do they handle?  I got a couple videos of turning them on.  

The Sonicare makes a medium buzzing sound.  When pressed to your mouth, it also buzzes your teeth, gums, and jaw.  Again, this is the toothbrush I used for years.  The experience of using it is not even slightly enjoyable, and I have to shut my eyes and keep anyone from interacting with me while I use it.  This is in part so I can remember to get all parts of my mouth, and in part because the sensory experience is painful and frustrating, and best managed with my full attention.  

The Quip runs a lot quieter, and vibrates my hand a lot less.  This has the added bonus of not making my hand slightly numb after using it.  It does also vibrate the teeth and gums slightly, but not nearly as much as the Sonicare.  This does make me wonder if its cleaning efficacy is as good as the Sonicare, but time alone will tell that.

Another note on using the toothbrushes.  The brush heads my spouse and I use with the Sonicare are "extra soft."  This is because gum erosion is a possibility with the intensity of electric toothbrushes, and the idea of tooth care is to clean the gums, not destroy them.  I don't know what the Quip's brush softness is, but it's definitely not "extra soft."  I'd guess "soft," not "medium," judging by the manual toothbrushes I own.

It makes sense to me that the Quip perhaps makes up for its gentler vibrations by using "soft" rather than "extra soft" bristles, but I have literally no formal education in dentistry, so I'll double-check that idea when I next visit my dentist.

Both toothbrushes run for 2 minutes.  Every 30 seconds, the toothbrushes stop buzzing for a split second, which tells you to move on to the next quadrant of your mouth.  In this manner, you spend half a minute on each quadrant and get a more thorough cleaning.  This is a good feature, which I'm guessing is standard these days.

The Winner

At least for me, Quip wins this comparison hands down.

It's smaller, lighter, has more functionality, is more portable and travel-safe, and most importantly, its vibrations don't upset me nearly as much as the Sonicare toothbrush's do.  With the Quip, I could see myself brushing my teeth twice a day, as the dentist recommends, rather than once a day as I do now.  Once a day has been enough to keep me cavity-free, but if the Quip doesn't clean as vigorously as the Sonicare, then twice a day would definitely be a wise idea (as well as what the doctor ordered...).

I'm also extremely impressed that they designed a toothbrush where every single one of the parts is easily replaceable.  If the Sonicare's motor ever dies, there won't be any option but to replace the whole handle, which is kind of a waste of perfectly serviceable plastic and the rest of the toothbrush.  If the same thing happens with the Quip, I need only buy a new motor.  Or handle.  Or sliding cover.

This strikes me as more environmentally friendly than the Sonicare, though the question of whether the AAA batteries will add up over time is relevant.  You can somewhat offset that by using rechargeable AAA batteries yourself, I expect.  But each toothbrush head with the Sonicare toothbrush comes with a little plastic cover, and I'm fairly certain Quip's refills won't.  So it's at least a tie, given a conscientious consumer, I expect.

I'll start using the Quip instead of my spouse's toothbrush immediately, and try to add an evening brushing into my oral care routine.

If you're interested in checking out the Quip, I saw it at Target recently on an endcap in the tooth care section.  You can also get your first toothbrush from them for only $25 on their website.

Extra: The Rest of My Mouth Care Routine

Like most children, I was taught how to brush my teeth young.  Unlike most children, I continued to have difficulty adopting that routine and sticking to it into my college years.  I can't remember having a specific reason why I didn't like the experience, but it wouldn't surprise me if the feeling of brush and floss on gums and teeth was just so unpleasant that even 2 minutes was too long to manage.  

After a series of very expensive dental bills, I forced myself to establish a tooth care routine, which I try to do every morning.  I've had multiple oral hygienists tell me it's a pretty good routine, so for completeness' sake, I'll include it here.
  1. Scrub tongue with tongue scrubber.  My tongue tends to build up bacteria, especially in the morning.  Scraping off the buildup makes the clean taste from brushing last longer and reduces the overall amount of bacteria in my mouth.
  2. Floss.  I use two types of floss.  A braided, thicker floss is the staple for between most of my teeth.  It's quite gentle, doesn't cut into my gums, and catches more food and plaque than the regular floss.  A thinner, waxed floss goes between my lower front teeth and their neighbors, which have a metal wire across the back side of them due to orthodontics.  
  3. Brush teeth (and gums).  I use an electric toothbrush with baking soda toothpaste.  There are about 3 bajillion toothpaste types, but my dentist commented to me that my mouth tended to be more acidic than most.  Baking soda toothpaste helps offset that.  I also try to switch brands after each tube.  I read somewhere that the bacteria in your mouth get used to a toothpaste formula after a while, so it's best to do that.  I also try to focus more on the gumline and the back of my mouth rather than the teeth directly.  When the toothbrush's timer ends, I brush the roof of my mouth, then brush my tongue again with the remains of the toothpaste.  
  4. Mouthwash.  This keeps my mouth feeling clean a lot longer, even though it can really sting and tastes quite strong.  Listerine's a good brand.  There's been some back and forth about whether alcoholic mouthwashes are a bad idea, since alcohol can dry out your mouth (which leads to more bacteria).  I brush in the morning, so it's not as much of an issue as it would be if I was using it at night.  If you can't stand the flavor of alcoholic mouthwashes, or you tend to do your tooth care at night, there are several kinds of non-alcoholic mouthwashes that still definitely help.  

Wednesday, November 7, 2018

Legwork and Life, week of 11/7/18

The makeup shopping trip with my friend the cosmetologist happened.  I am now more prepared for my trip to DC, and also have a better idea of what I'm doing with it.
A set of makeup laid out: two brushes, a blush palette, lip gloss, eyeliner pencil, mascara, and an eye shadow palette.
Two makeup brushes (that should last forever with proper care), eyeliner, blue mascara, lip gloss, a blush palette, and an eye shadow palette.
These got added to my tiny collection of no-name makeups that I basically never use, in part because I had no idea how to actually use them properly.  Makeup was just kind of a thing that was annoying, I didn't like, didn't know how to use, and made it so I wasn't allowed to itch my face.

I still mostly hold those views, but thanks to my friend, I now better understand how to use makeup.  She kindly taught me the very basics of how to use it, and then was good enough to summarize those basics and text them to me.  I'll note those basics here for future reference and also so any interested parties who happen to want to learn as well.  Or y'know, anyone who thinks the way I phrase things is funny.

You start with foundation, if your skin needs it.  That goes over most of your face to even out your color.  Then you focus on your eyes.  These are where the brushes come in.  You use a palette of colors for the eye shadow, currently.  It's in fashion to use a lighter color on the inner third (near your nose) of your eyelid, and a darker color on the outer 2/3s.  You then blend the two colors together to have a spectrum.  I favor blue, in case the picture of the hair from last week didn't make that blatantly obvious.

After you've done the eye shadow, you break out the eyeliner pencil.  Apparently a common mistake is to insist on making straight lines on the skin above your eyelashes.  The better course is to use short, smudgy strokes, which is a more striking look.  I didn't entirely understand why this works, but fashion and beauty really aren't my forte.

Then it's mascara time.  The mascara I have in the picture is blue, but most are black or brown.  Putting on mascara is kind of weird, but essentially you put the brush close to your eyeball and blink your eyelashes through the brush.  This can be really challenging because eyeballs aren't supposed to have stuff right next to them.  Fortunately, I've had practice with that, because I sometimes wear contacts.

Once that's done, your eyes are done.  Then you do the blush, which you apply with a cotton ball or a special brush I don't have.  You blend the colors if you have a palette, or use a single color if you have one you really like.  It goes from the point of your cheekbones back toward your ears.  It's basically just to make it look like you have more color in your cheeks.

Finally, you do your lips.  I was told by a different person that you always start with a layer of lip balm before you apply color.  No idea if that's true, but I'm usually wearing lip balm, so it works just fine.  Atop that, you apply the lipstick or lip gloss.  To avoid leaving lipstick marks everywhere, you can take a tissue and blot your work when you're done, then reapply a bit more, and repeat until you're happy.  And apparently, if you really need that stuff to stay, you can put some of the powder from your blush makeup on top of it.  She said that makes it feel weird, but it makes the stuff stay approximately forever.

Beyond the makeup shopping, the last celebration of my birthday happened this weekend.  My parents and grandmother went to a fancy-ish restaurant, where we ate very good food, chatted, and had presents.  It was a pretty good time.

The only other majorly notable event was that my spouse and I voted yesterday.  I expect I won't be terribly pleased with the results of the election, but since I did vote, I have full right to complain when things don't go as I'd like.  The way I see it, if you don't vote, you don't get to complain.  

Monday, November 5, 2018

PSA: Please Vote

Hi there!  This is your reminder to vote.  Our democracy only works if every citizen votes for the candidates and ideas they believe will best serve our country.

If you, like me, find the whole process very daunting, then rejoice!  There's several online websites that will help you sort out the information overload, starting with showing you your ballot ahead of time.

This website:
  • shows you your ballot ahead of time so you know what you're voting on.
  • gives you information about the various candidates and the positions they're running for, with information provided BY those candidates.  (This includes links to their campaign websites if provided, so you can look at those and do your own homework as well.)
  • lets you run through your entire ballot, making your choices, then emails or texts those choices to you.  Then you can simply pull out your phone at the polling place, quickly fill in your choices, and get on with your life quickly.  
All in all, a fantastic service to make voting as simple and easy as possible.  

Please vote.  Our democracy lives or dies with you.  

Reading the Research: The Morals of Autonomous Cars

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 talks about a technology of the near-future that will serve as assistive technology for autistic people (and other people with special needs) as well as the general populace.  Self-driving cars are currently in existence, but US infrastructure in general isn't designed to support the widespread use of them.  Should that be possible, though, groups of people could buy into having a single self-driving car, or into a service that maintains those cars, and not have to worry about qualifying for a driver's license.  

It's a documented fact at this point that autistic people have a harder time getting our driver's licenses than the general populace.  Whether that's because the training programs simply aren't geared to us, because of brain differences that make the demands of driving challenging, or because of other side effects, the numbers are hard to ignore.  1 in 3 autistic people, versus roughly 90% of US adults.  So there's definitely a need for autonomous transportation.

The main sticking point for this technology has been how to handle crashes.  In cases where the automated system can't avoid probable fatalities (which won't happen often, but absolutely will happen), ethicists and programmers have to grapple with the question of who the system will sacrifice:  the pedestrian bystanders?  The driver and passengers in the other vehicle?  The passengers in the autonomous car?  It's not a pretty question, suffice it to say.

This study aims to quantify what the human answer to that question would be.  Using an online website, they made an online game with various situations and asked participants worldwide to answer them.  (You can participate here if you want to!)  I was kind of surprised to learn that humanity apparently only widely divides into three basic philosophical groups: Western, Eastern, and Southern.  But even then, the differences weren't super major.  Personally, that's encouraging to me.  Also encouraging, people weren't all that much more eager to sacrifice a jaywalker (mildly illegal) than they were a perfectly law-abiding pedestrian.

One would think you could just write the AI to make choices based on the vast majority of humanity's opinion of the situation, or the regional portion of humanity the operator is in.  But unfortunately, it won't be that simple, because at least in the US, people sue at the drop of a hat and no matter whether the decision was the most moral or most agreed-on decision, somebody will disagree.  Lives may be lost due to the decision.  The issue will inevitably end up in court.

I'm hopeful that we can manage to put together the infrastructure, court rulings, and such needed to make this technology a reality for everyone... but I'm not counting on it within the next 10 years.  Maybe 20?  Maybe longer.  Hopefully within my lifetime, anyway.  

Friday, November 2, 2018

Worth Your Read: Why Autistic Employment is so Hard

Employment is a messy, complicated issue when it comes to people with disabilities and special needs, like autistic people.  While it sounds like the author has a physical disability, any disability drastically reduces your chances of being hired.  Like the article's author, I too spent much of my time pretending I wasn't disabled in hopes of getting and keeping a job.  My colleagues rarely, if ever, knew I was autistic, and my bosses only knew it as a matter of legality, rather than actually understanding it. 

This caused me a lot of stress, because it really does take a lot of energy to pretend you're somebody else.  And it sapped my energy and creativity, which should have been spent on my job.  The formalized work environment has never been terribly friendly to me or my disability.  Perhaps due to these things, I didn't keep any of my jobs for very long. 

Would having predecessors in the work place, other autistic people with their own problems, have made it easier?  I'm sure it would have.  But it will never be as easy for us as it is for neurotypical people.  It's a simple question of numbers.  Neurodiverse people are a minority, and what works for one person won't necessarily work for another.  Having people to talk to and share experiences with is certainly helpful, particularly if the person is within your workplace and already understands many of the details...  but that's unlikely overall, sadly. 

That's likely why the author says he grapples with feeling like he's the first disabled person to do his job.  He's accurate that of course he's not the very first, but he is probably the first person with his particular disability to do those things within a certain mile radius.  I had similar issues when I worked in the formal job industry, and like the author, it didn't go terribly well for me.

This difficulty is why autistic people often do better in running our own small businesses or as consultants.  We make most of our own rules and work environments this way, and that allows us to spend much less energy "making up" for our disability and more on the job at hand.  It also lets us leverage any hobbies or special interests we might have.

Wednesday, October 31, 2018

Legwork and Life, week of 10/31/2018

Happy birthday, me, it's the 30th one.

Chris took the day off for it, and I rescheduled most of the day's events away from it so I could enjoy the day.  Plans are to go out for dinner, sleep in, and spend time together.  Not sure what else we'll do.  Maybe a movie.  Probably a bath.

This year, like every year since I went off to college, my birthday presents have trickled in over the last week or so, rather than all being presented in a pile as they were in my childhood.  I kind of miss the simplicity those days, not having to watch for packages, and having a single pile of cards and gifts to focus on, but it's completely unreasonable to expect my far-flung family and friends to all coordinate their gifts and well-wishes.  At this age, it's wiser to be simply grateful when the occasion is remembered, even if it's late.  I'll have plenty of years to practice that gratitude, I expect.

In the meantime, I've gotten into the habit of buying myself small things to make the month of October seem a little more celebratory.  Most of the things are $5 or less, such as the bath bomb I bought to use in the bathtub, or a small but tasty edible treat.  These things make the grind of early to late October seem less stressful.  My birthday comes at the end of October, which is after my mom's birthday, my dad's birthday, my sister-in-law's birthday, and several friends' birthdays, all of which need cards or presents or at least recognition by way of a text message or verbal greeting.

This year I shelled out for a somewhat larger gift to myself, which came in the form of making my hair blue.  Not the usual blue, this blue's more sapphire in shade: lighter and brighter.  I'll have that color in my hair for when I go to DC for the government work, which is fun.  She offered to also dye my eyebrows, which I thought was hilarious, but it's a pleasure deferred until after the trip is done, I think.  Probably going to raise enough eyebrows with the hair, without matching my eyebrows to it.

The hairstylist, who is now a friend of mine, has also agreed to accompany me to a makeup store and help me choose out some good cosmetics.  I despise the deleterious effects of the beauty industry, but I recognize the importance of appearances, unfortunately.  And the place I'm going, I remember from last year, most female people dressed nicely and wore makeup.  I found it annoying at the time, but it's best to look professional and competent when you're dealing with people who matter, but you may never see again.

She'll also probably end up giving me a lesson in how to use makeup, because I never properly learned.  But it's a skill I should probably have, given the body I have.  I don't intend to start wearing makeup all the time, or even regularly.  To me it's an investment, just like fancy clothes.  Uncomfortable, unnatural, but unfortunately essential.

Anyway, before I head off to DC, there's today to enjoy, and a dinner a few days later with family at a nice restaurant.  So that'll be pleasant.  A little reprieve before the DC trip and Thanksgiving.