Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Legwork and Life, week of 10/18/17

I appear to still be alive and functioning, so things must be going well.  Or reasonably well.  It would be nice if I wasn't having to air out the apartment from another mold infestation (home made bread left too long, this time).  It wasn't that bad the last time, because it was summer and nice out.  It is now fall and a mite chillier than I'm happy in.  I should be okay to shut the door and keep it shut in an hour or two, though.  I already feel less like I'm swallowing glass shards.

Birthdays seem to have gone okay so far.  I sent my sister-in-law a couple small things and called her, but was a derp and called too late in the day to actually get ahold of her.  I'll try to do better next year.  My mother's birthday was up after that, and while normally I'd do the same basic thing, buy a present and call, this year I was able to be a bit fancier.  My parents just moved into this area, which means they don't know all the restaurants, shops, and attractions.  So I took my mother to one of the larger farm markets in the area and bought her a good armload or two of farm-fresh groceries.  She has very exacting dietary requirements, so having all this fresh food, plus knowing where the place was, served as a pretty decent present.  Or she seemed happy, anyway. 

Other than a few friends having birthdays soon, that pretty much ends the birthday-o-rama for the year.  Normally I'd have a combination birthday party with another friend, sometime between his birthday and mine, but this year I'm going to be out of town pretty much up to my birthday.  So I guess that probably won't happen.  Chris is going to be a sweetheart and give me a nice relaxing experience (hot tub, massage, good food, etc) nearish the actual day, though, so I think we can safely say I'll be sufficiently pampered.

The trip I'm referring to, for being out of town, is starting off with the wedding I mentioned last week.  I'm really looking forward to it.  One of the grooms is possibly the most adorable human being I've ever met, so getting to see him married to someone he loves is basically amazing.  I mean, it's a fancy formal occasion so it'll tire me the heck out, but I may also be so gleeful about it that I'll break/rewire some brain circuits and be happier as a person from now on.  We can only hope! 

Monday, October 16, 2017

Reading the Research: Resilience

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 resilience, which is the psychological term for the ability of some people to get knocked down by life, get back up, and be stronger than ever, even in really stressful situations.  Rather than letting failures upset them and gnaw away at their self-esteem, resilient people focus on learning from their mistakes and rising from the metaphorical ashes.  Some factors that play into resilience are optimism, a positive attitude, good emotional regulation, and the ability to see failure as a form of helpful feedback.

This is most obviously relevant in bullying situations.  Almost all kids get bullied in school, and autistic kids and other kids with special needs tend to be the favored targets because of our differences and deficits.  Often it can be hard to recognize bullying when we see it, for instance.  But even if we do recognize it, responding to it effectively is a whole different can of metaphorical worms.  And of course even once you finish school, you're not free of bullies.  They just got smarter and subtler as everyone got older.

So some people, when bullied, crumple after a while, and some people don't.  That's resilience.  This article focuses on another apparent benefit of resiliency: it protects you somewhat from bullies.  I guess the researchers theorize that the resilience serves as a buffer, insulating the person from the bully's influence somewhat, as well as making the person a less attractive target.  Ergo, bullied less often, and with less effect.

How does one get this magical trait?  Well, apparently the capacity for it is innate... but it has to be trained.  Adults can model effective strategies to deflect, dismiss, or rise above the insults and hate.  And I guess for autistic kids, maybe directly teaching them as well as modeling the correct actions would be appropriate.  Simply seeing the behavior probably wouldn't have been sufficient to teach grade-school me how to not get bullied every day...

And by that, you can tell that I was no exception from the horrifying statistics regarding special needs kids and bullying.  I like to say I got my victimization out of the way nice and early in life, starting in Kindergarten (age 5) or maybe 1st grade (age 6), and continuing through the end of 3rd grade (age 9).  It was at a small, private Christian school, for people who like irony.

I won't say the experience wrecked my life, because it didn't.  But it did profoundly change me, and not in a good way.  It propelled me into avoiding people, for the most part, because not only did some jackass boy in school tease me, literally no one defended me.  So at the tender age of 9, I resolved that no one would do that crap to me again, and set about trying to be Spock (with anger issues, and I'd never seen Star Trek to recognize the parallels at the time).

I didn't stop growing, but it took four more years to find an actual friend.  I found him online, in a cesspit section of the Internet, and fortunately he was kind enough to put up with my neuroses and scars and still like me most of the time.  Also, he taught me sarcasm, to the point that I am now fluent in it.  It took another few years to find friends in real life, and they literally had to shove me across the gymnasium floor to get me to sign up for a club in high school.  Like, bodily shove, like you see in TV shows, one on each side, pushing so I skidded on the backs of my shoes toward the club's table.

I did join the club, make some acquaintances, etc.  In college I made some actual friends after a bit, through clubs and events and such.  I don't think I'm great at it, but at least I think I can manage it, and I semi-maintain a social life of sorts.  Also, I courted and married my spouse and while we argue on things, we're making it work, too. 

Am I resilient?  I'm not really sure, having researched the proper definition for it.  I didn't crumple and get eaten alive by my anxiety and depression.  But the traits I listed above?  The positive attitude, optimism, emotional regulation, seeing failure as a learning opportunity, knowing methods to diffuse or brush off bullying, etc?  I... don't have that.  Any of it, I think.  I'm only developing reasonable emotional recognition and regulation now, and I'm almost 30.  I identified as a cynic rather than a pessimist for part of high school and college.  I am... now probably just a very light pessimist.  I don't see failure as the end of everything, but I certainly don't see it as a learning experience.  Failure happens.  It's life.  And I'm autistic, bullying comes in so many flavors it's hard to recognize let alone handle properly. 

So if I don't have those things, what exactly do I have?  Why am I still going and trying to do things?  Why did I get through elementary school, middle school, high school, and college?  As far as I can tell, the answer is that I am just too stubborn to stay down.  That seems to be the story of my life.  I'm not really good at things, I'm just too stubborn to quit until I get them figured out or the situation passes.

Is resiliency not fully defined yet?  Should I count, given the eventual relative success of my life?  I'm not sure.  But either way, this article highlights one more reason to recognize and try to train resilience into people we care about, and especially autistic and other special-needs people. 

Friday, October 13, 2017

Book Review: Level Up Your Social Life

Level Up Your Social Life: The Gamer's Guide to Social Success, by Daniel Wendler, is a charmingly succinct set of steps and concepts to improve your social life.  The author, an avid video game player (gamer) and well-spoken autistic, seeks to teach you his methods for getting more practiced in making and keeping friends, and extending the limits of your world and interests.

This book seems to be marketed at people like the author himself, that is, autistic people who like video games.  But in truth, this book could serve anyone well, as long as they're willing to put in the effort to try the various "quests."  While the book references many different video games, it also takes care to explain those references in enough detail that you can understand them without playing the actual games.  In fact, I was clued into this book's existence by a non-gamer relative of mine. 

As a gamer of the female sex, before it was acceptable to be a gamer girl, I mostly kept to myself and played single-player games in short stints.  This was in large part because of my parents, who insisted that video games rotted your brain.  I was 16 when I started sneaking handheld video games into the house, and it took that long because that was how long it took me to find out that video games were fun to play with friends.  Before that, I was stuck with limited gaming time using our computer, and mainly using my brother's video games at that.

As such, I'd only personally played a third of the games listed in the book, and of those, actually gotten to spend a lot of time with 2-3 of them.  Fortunately, as I mentioned above, the games and the concepts the author draws from them are well explained.  I don't think a non-gamer would need to play any of the games in the book to understand the ideas in each chapter.

Onto the actual book: the advice and suggested courses of action ("quests") seemed very sound to me.  In large part, the book didn't have a lot of new concepts or tricks to offer me specifically, but it did offer entirely new ways of thinking about those things, and making them make sense.  Some basic things in the "quests" include going new places, doing new things, making a point of practicing social interaction multiple times a day, and practicing reading body language. 

Basically, in less than 150 pages, the author gives you a workable plan (broken into bite size pieces) for going from reclusively hermitting to being actively social and engaged in the larger world.  He doesn't underestimate how difficult this can be, either, which I appreciated.

Read This Book If

You think your social skills could use some improvement, especially if you're autistic and love video games.  This book is full of good advice in reasonable, bite-sized portions, and I have no doubts that following its advice will result in improved social skills.  At less than 150 pages, it is quite readable and written in easy-to-understand language.  I highly recommend it. 

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Legwork and Life, week of 10/11/17

I made it home safely, as you could probably tell from the Friday entry last week.  I have since been spending the time recovering, which, annoyingly, has not taken a couple days, but may end up taking a whole week.  A week to recover from a week and a half trip.  And, I suppose, the vast amounts of stress that build up prior to that week and a half.  Still annoying.

I think I might be doing better now that I've started a different computer game.  I like to be good at something on a regular basis, and since I am not good at life, socializing, music, or most other subjects, I often sink my metaphorical teeth into computer games.  This particular one is a text-based game, somewhat like Zork, but multiplayer and with a small, helpful community attached.  I actually played this particular game in college for a good while, and developed some player resources (specifically, a wiki) for it.  Then I graduated, became a ball of stress looking for a job, and then became a ball of stress with a job that kept me too busy to play.  Now I'm a bit less of a ball of stress, so perhaps I have time to play again.  Also, the playerbase and the staff of the game welcomed me back with open arms, so that was both gracious of them and gratifying to me. 

The challenge of updating the wiki (player resources) for the game is a daunting one, but I should be okay if I take it slowly.  It's not like the game has upended itself in six years, but some of the information I'd put down has changed, and some of it is now entirely inaccurate.  And also, when I made the resource, I did it rather crudely rather than making a real wiki, so that bugs me now and I'll have to fix it.

In other news, it's October, the month of all the birthdays forever in my immediate family.  We're two down, two to go, for that.  My mother's birthday is upcoming, as is my own.  I actually have several friends who were also born in October.  The finances are a bit stretched due to upcoming events, but a few small presents might be in order. 

Upcoming next week is a trip out to Connecticut (again), but for a more festive occasion: a wedding.  Two of our wedding guests are tying the knot this month, and they kindly invited us in return to their wedding.  It'll be lovely to see them again.  They're good people, but the distance (over 700 miles, 12+ hours by car) is kind of ruinous for most visits.  While we're out there, Chris has endeavored to visit family and friends.  The initial idea was for a mini-vacation, but the resulting schedule is so full of people, I can't realistically call it a vacation any more.  It will, however, be good to see people.  And unlike the last trip down to CT, I should be able to isolate myself a bit more during and after the day. So it'll probably be all right. 

Monday, October 9, 2017

Reading the Research: Visualizing Biological Sex

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 is about biological (individual) sex, and how it can be best visualized.  Because this subject touches all lives, and stuff like this can really complicate dealing with autism, especially as you appear more "normal" to strangers, I think this merits some publicity.

While common knowledge is that you are either male (genetically XY) or female (genetically XX), this is actually inaccurate.  I can't count how many stupid jokes I've heard on the subject when people don't understand trans people, or the third biological category, called intersex.  Turns out that third category has an astonishing amount of variety, some of which generally goes undetected because it's so subtle.  You yourself might have hormonal differences or slight genetic differences, entirely undetected because you've never questioned the category your physical parts put you in.

I found this article and its accompanying chart, published in Scientific American, fascinating.  I knew intersex was a category, but like most laypeople, I made the assumption that if the parts were all one thing, you must be that thing.  This, despite knowing full well that genetics are often subtle things, and that hormone imbalances don't necessarily have a lot of outward signs.  After all, my own hormones are clearly somewhat imbalanced, given my period schedule and this one, stupid hair that grows on the underside of my chin.  And all my parts seem to be "female."

But I'd guess, looking at this chart, that I probably qualify as slightly intersex, given those hormones and that stupid chin hair that wants to be a beard hair.  Without getting my genes tested for the specific abnormalities, and my hormone levels tested, I can't be sure, of course.  But if I found out today that I was technically intersex because of those characteristics, it wouldn't upset me. 

I'm already autistic and identify as transgender (gender neutral, i.e. please keep your gender assumptions away from me), which pretty much kicks me out of the "normal" category forever.  Adding intersex to the list wouldn't really affect my quality of life much, beyond making me automatically more sympathetic to any intersex person I find out I've come across.  (I say "find out" because it is not appropriate to ask about someone's sex parts, regardless of how they look or present themselves.)

I do think it's important to know and understand how wide the intersex category is, though, in light of the sheer amount of ignorance in society.  I've seen an actual pastor (at a church I was visiting) make the, "You don't know what gender the kid is?  Well, uh, did you check?" joke, pointing at his junk.  I found that kind of horrifying, even back when I only knew intersex people existed as a very small population, with a mix of sex parts.  I asked him how that policy would work with intersex people.  I'm not sure he took me seriously.  But I hope so. 

Friday, October 6, 2017

Dissociation: A Stranger to My Life

I've just gotten home from my week and a half trip out to Connecticut to help my parents move.  Now both in their 60s, they're politely and thoughtfully moving themselves into an independent living facility/retirement home.  The place is such that if they should become unable to maintain independent living, the management will provide helping staff for them.  If that becomes too little help, they may be moved into an assisted living unit, and eventually, if necessary, into an intensive care area.  Basically, they've made it so that I, their closest child, will not need to worry about their living accommodations and care, right up until they die.

To facilitate this, though, they had to embark on a major stuff-downsizing campaign.  So my mother spent almost the entire summer pruning the various things she'd collecting in her years of life.  Old art projects from my childhood, scads of paperwork, sheet music, odds and ends, etc.  This was difficult for her, because her natural impulse is to keep everything for the memories and nostalgia and the "in case we need this" impulse.  However, she's been working on reversing this tendency for at least a decade now, and she's gotten much better at letting things go.  By the time I showed up, there were less than 30 boxes left to go through, at least ten of which were partially or entirely mine.

So I spent a lot of time in the basement this trip, with my head full of half-remembered memories as I sifted through years of my life stored in battered cardboard boxes.  I threw out or donated most of what I found, but as I did, I must have absorbed some of my high school mindset.  The various notebooks I went through contained some of my high school dilemmas, rants, and miseries.  And of course I was staying in my old room, with its peculiar odor, in the old house, with all the same noises and quirks.  I soon even reached a familiar state of sleep deprivation, which plagued me through late high school.

In short, it's sort of like I was transported partially back to my high school years, sans that I knew I was autistic and that sudden sharp noises and anxious people hurt and wore on me.

So maybe it's not surprising that when I finally got home to my apartment, I only half-recognized the wood flooring.  And my computer's mouse and keyboard felt unfamiliar, despite that I do most of my work on it.  And most upsettingly to me, that I only half-recognized my spouse's face, even as I did recognize his voice and demeanor.

It's not that I hadn't seen him during the trip.  We'd used a video phone system to chat for a half hour or longer every evening I was gone.  I was pretty worn out every night, though, especially towards the end.  Maybe I wasn't looking as much as I could have been?  Either way, when I arrived back and was summarily confused by my lack of complete recognition, I don't think he noticed or cared.  He was happy to see me and helped me carry my luggage back, which was why I was able to contemplate the flooring in the foyer, and my keyboard and mouse later.

I guess what floors me about this whole experience is that it was only a week and a half.  I really wasn't gone long.  But now my normal life feels strange.  A book I read recently suggested that autistic brains are much more plastic (changeable) than neurotypical brains, so perhaps my brain was already shifting to accommodate the stressful circumstances I put it in?

I've had this kind of dissociation in small portions before, where I'd left off playing a computer game for almost a year.  When I came back to it, the game interface and mechanics were simultaneously familiar and unfamiliar.  But I don't think I've ever had the dissociation on such a grand scale.  My fingers are unerringly typing out this post on my computer's keyboard, and it no longer feels so unfamiliar now.  So the confusion will pass, I'm sure.

Hopefully soon.  I have adulting to do: bills to pay, car registration to finalize, passport to renew, blog to keep up with...  And soon, I'll need to incorporate my various personal items from my parents' house into this apartment, too.  I think the process may take longer than it would otherwise.  Normally I have more structure to my life than I do right now...  because of the extreme amounts of stress, I stopped playing my usual computer game (and won't be returning to it; it eats too much time) and quit one of my volunteer jobs.  I'm going to have to find some other things to do.  In the meantime, I guess things will feel strange for awhile.

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

Legwork and Life, week of 10/4/17

Gee, I'd thought this whole trip down to help my parents was going to be a break from the stresses of my life.  I was right and completely wrong, simultaneously.

Technically, the stresses I'm experiencing are not normal stresses for my life.  So in the most literal sense, I'm getting a break.  That said, the spirit of that phrase "break from the stresses of life" tends to mean "a break from stress" and that I most definitely am not getting.

I think I've actually been miserable pretty much since I arrived.  I've mostly not paid attention to it, since there's been lots of work to be done.  But in the moments when there isn't work, and more and more recently as I've run out of patience and energy faster, I am definitely miserable.

Maybe this shouldn't be surprising.  I'm away from my spouse and my apartment and my bed.  I haven't been sleeping well due to the change in beds.  The house my parents lived in has almost no insulation from noise, meaning I could hear people going up and down the stairs, doing dishes in the kitchen, going out to the garage, talking... and my dad gets up at 5am relatively often.

This meant I didn't sleep well... but it also meant that I was constantly subjected to noise abuse.  Anytime someone touched dishes or cupboards, I suffered.  And because they were moving and they eat three meals a day, that was often.  So I spent a lot of energy dealing with that, with the poor sleep giving me an ever-decreasing supply of energy.

This trip also lacked a decent place for me to be alone and isolated from other people.  Normally, at home, my apartment is reasonably sound-proofed.  Not perfect, but okay.  And when Chris is at work, I have the place to myself, which gives me plenty of time to recharge, focus, and get work done. Not so here.  There was work to do from sunup to sundown, and the only reasonably quiet, alone time I was able to get was around 1-2am, after both parents were asleep.  And I quickly stopped taking advantage of that, because my mother would be up by 8am or earlier.  So I was basically trading sleep for sanity.  I figured out pretty quick that it was a bad tradeoff.

I've sort of deteriorated over the last week.  I arrived a reasonably cheerful, smiling daughter with ambitions to help.  As the days passed, I sort of slowly lost the ability to smile and make eye contact.  Which was kind of distressing, but given how tired and emotionally worn I was, is also maybe not surprising.  I'm kind of down to "put one foot in front of the other and someday this will end" mode.  I've mostly stopped making eye contact, and retreated into being selectively mute (I don't talk unless I'm asked a question or need to say something important).  It's felt bad, though, because even without making eye contact and checking the facial expressions, I know I'm not doing the neurotypical act properly, and there are consequences to that.  Mostly slightly hurt feelings in people I'll never see again, thus far, though.

I've complained about this trip a lot, dear reader, but you should keep in mind that it's not really anyone's fault, except maybe mine for signing up for it.  Moving is a stressful process no matter who you are, and this particular move was fast-paced and stressful even for my parents.  Also, they had never been told how much their cupboards and dishes and such hurt me, and it had never been a problem for me to simply stay in my old room before.  Presumably I wasn't self-aware enough in high school to explain it to them.

Today finds me holed up in a hotel room for another half hour or so, after which the driving begins.  Every day prior to Monday was packing/sorting/etc.  Monday was when the movers came to pack up the furniture, boxes, etc.  I was basically useless that day.  The sound of tape ripping, all the time, every time, was so painful that I wore earplugs most of the day, and eventually left the house entirely.  Yesterday was spent cleaning the house now that all the stuff was gone.  I made myself somewhat useful there, as I had some experience with cleaning residences from a summer job.  We then drove about 4 hours to this hotel, where I spent the night.

Which leaves today, the last day of the trip, where we'll drive 10-12 hours to get my parents and their remaining stuff to Michigan.  My spouse will be waiting with a hug, some cuddles, and my own bed.  I'm looking forward to that.  Not the drive, so much, but definitely the stuff after the drive.