Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Frequencies of communication (1/10/15)

I spent a lot of time around people I don't know very well this holiday season.  Not very relaxing.  But it did remind me of an observation I've made about people.  There seems to be a spectrum of frequencies that people communicate over.  This is a personal theory, so it may not be all that scientific or coherent.  Bear with me.

One end of the spectrum is emotions.  Body language, tone of voice, and expressions matter most here.  It's not so much what the person says as how they say it.  The other end is logic.  Word choice is everything on this end, and the other facets serve to support or underline the point.  

To give an example... Let's say Bill really wants to go clothes shopping with Jenny*.  To communicate on emotions, Bill might say, "Jenny, I'd love to go clothes shopping with you.  It'll be fun!"  On the other hand, if Bill was communicating with logic, he might say, "Jenny, let's go clothes shopping.  I'd like your input on my outfits."  The former is interested in Bill's enjoyment of clothes shopping and wanting to share that with Jenny, whereas the latter is more interested in the functionality of Jenny's approval of his clothing choices.  

To decline the offer of accompanying Bill on his shopping trip, Jenny might say, "Oh, I wish I could, but I promised Lisa I'd see her today, and she'll be so mad if I don't."  Or she might say, "I can't right now.  I'm scheduled to see Lisa in a half hour.  Could we go tomorrow?"  Again, the main difference here is the focus.  Jenny expresses regret and the wish to go in the first one, along with an aversion to Lisa's anger.  In the second, Jenny is more focused on the specific details of her schedule.  

I think most people fall between these two points, hence I refer to it as a spectrum.  I've noticed that logic-oriented people seem more detail-oriented and accurate, while emotions-oriented people are more personable and big-picture people.  

If you ever meet me, you'll find I fall very heavily on the logic-oriented side of things.  

*Yes, I did purposely invert this stereotype.  I'm female and hate most kinds of shopping, but I bet there are guys out there that love shopping, and more power to them.  

Friday, March 27, 2015

Health insurance + holidays (1/4/15)

Man, this holiday season kicked my butt.  I got basically nothing written between the last entry in early December and today, an entire month later.  Oops.  

Also oops, I didn't have healthcare for a couple months last year.  Getting healthcare is easier than it used to be, but it was still very daunting.  I just aged out of my dad's insurance plan (but thanks Obama/Congress, the extra years were really helpful).  So now I had to get my own, and good gravy, healthcare is expensive.  However, I recently attended a lecture on healthcare law (from these fine folks) and found out that my income falls under the poverty line.  Triple oops.  That does, however, qualify me for Medicaid.  So I signed up both on the state website and on the federal healthcare.gov site.  My first responses were not promising.  They were, roughly paraphrased: "We don't believe you, give us scads of information and photocopies of documents in the next ten days" and "BS, you make 38 thousand per year, you don't need our help."  (I've never made that much, even at 40 hour a week salaried work in IT.)  

To these I sighed, got paperwork together, and prepared to pursue the first response.  And then I promptly forgot to take it with me when the holidays hit, meaning I didn't get it sent out in time.  So I sighed some more, and prepared to contest the second response.  When I got home, I had three pieces of mail waiting from the state government.  The first said (roughly paraphrased, again), "hey, if you're going to get Medicaid, you should consult with your doctor and see if they take that."  The second said, "Congratulations, you get to have healthcare!"  And the third said, "Here's your insurance card and information about it, go nuts."  That was New Year's Day.  I decided that this year, unlike 2014, was starting out pretty well and perhaps it would continue in that vein.  We'll see.  

The holidays were a mishmash of stress, socializing, and frustration, interspersed with good food and presents.  People on the spectrum often like to stick to a schedule, and may get upset when that schedule fluctuates.  Well, I'm flexible but not infinitely so.  This year's holiday plans got settled right after Thanksgiving, stayed settled until about a week before, and then proceeded to change every day until today, which was when the last of my out-of-town relatives departed.  Naturally, I go back to work tomorrow, meaning I have no time to relax, breathe, and decompress.  So it goes.  

We visited both sides of my family and Chris' (my boyfriend of over two year) as well.  I find my own family reasonably easy to get along with, but Chris' still gives me issues sometimes.  The immediate family (his parents and brothers) aren't so much a problem, but the extended family I don't know as well.  I think that got me into trouble with one of the uncles.  There was a discussion of colleges and teaching styles, and he teaches at a college.  I assume I said something that offended him, because he eventually started cutting me off mid-thought until I lost any desire to continue the conversation.  Though not before pointing out the fact that I wasn't being allowed to finish my point.  The conversation ceased after that.  With any luck, his poor manners ashamed him once they were pointed out.  I had to go upstairs a few minutes afterwards to have a good cry about it.  I hate when people won't give me a fair hearing.  And I really hate it when they only listen long enough to formulate a cutting response.  Hopefully my absence wasn't too noticeable, but I guess I don't know the family that well.  The household seemed more chaotic than my own, people getting up and moving about and such, but that doesn't mean they're not perceptive.  

In any case, the general shape of the holiday was: drive down to CT, visit Chris' family, visit my immediate family and my mom's side of the family, drive back to Michigan and visit my dad's side of the family, drive home and visit a little bit more with my brother and sister-in-law, and finally, go to work tomorrow.  The driving was okay.  Not glorious.  Driving across Pennsylvania is exceedingly boring.  It costs you eternally popping ears and $10 less in tolls than driving through New York, though.  We could have opted to drive through Canada, but at least on the way back, that would have been courting going to jail. 

While I was in CT, I picked up a number of humanely raised meats.  Things like whole hams, bacon, chicken nuggets, bison stew chunks, and bison steak.  They frown heavily upon taking food across borders.  I don't know precisely why.  In any case, I wasn't interested in making apologies or losing my cache of delicious protein to the vagaries of government.  And it all made it home frozen solid, despite the long car trip.  (Thanks, winter?)

So I'm home now, trying to relax for a few hours before bedtime and work tomorrow.  Maybe I'll succeed.  Or maybe I'll just add another tick to the "I'm running myself ragged please give me a break" tally.  

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Proactively reactive (9/24/14)

There are two basic styles of dealing with problems, to my understanding: proactive and reactive.  Proactive people go out of their way to think up what problems might ensue from a chosen course of action.  They then plan how to deal with those problems before they happen.  Reactive people choose a course of action and then deal with any problems that actually crop up, rather than taking the time to plan for problems that may never actually occur.  

For example, a proactive person may say, "I'm going to a meeting with Steve, Jimbob, and Leslie.  The meeting is about fire hydrants, so I should be prepared to talk about fire hydrants, but I also work with Jimbob on electric pink paint, and Leslie on sirens, so maybe I should bring materials for those things as well."  They then do so, and are hopefully prepared for any eventuality at the meeting.

A reactive person might say, "I'm going to a meeting about fire hydrants.  I should be prepared to talk about fire hydrants."  Then when they get to the meeting, Jimbob might want to talk about electric pink paint.  The reactive person may well be able to talk about electric pink paint as well, but they won't have materials to show.  

You'd think being proactive, then, would be the best course of action in all cases, for all people.  Being prepared for reasonable possibilities is wise, after all.  Well, it may be wise, but it isn't the best option for everyone out there.  Let me explain.

There's a thing in psychology called mental energy.  It's rather like the body's energy, but not as easily measured.  A mother who has to deal with four screaming children will have much less of it than a person who's spent their time watching TV, or reading a pleasant book.  It's related, I think, to one's store of patience, but not directly comparable.  You spend a small amount of energy every time you make a decision.  What to say next in a conversation, how to drive to work (and other drivers in traffic), how best to proceed on a project... all of these take mental energy.

Planning for many possibilities takes a lot of this mental energy.  You have to use your imagination to decide what might come up at the meeting about A, based on who will be there.  This is a relatively small amount of energy used in a single decision, but if all your decisions throughout the day are planned in the same way, you use up a lot of energy fast.  

The more economical way is the reactive path, which takes less imagination beforehand and only uses the mental energy when needed.  I think some people have larger pools of mental energy to draw on than others, but everyone is familiar with the feeling of being mentally exhausted.  You don't have to do physical exercise to be tired out, after all.

My path is a blending of the two approaches.  I mostly react, but after the problem is dealt with, I use my imagination to prepare for other, similar probabilities.  So if I were going to a meeting about fire hydrants, I would be prepared to talk about fire hydrants.  But if Jimbob wanted to talk about electric pink paint during or afterwards, I would remember that and plan accordingly next time.  Perhaps I simply don't see Jimbob that often, so he snatches any opportunity to catch up, or perhaps Jimbob is a very communicative person and constantly wants updates.  Either way, now I know to prepare for Jimbob next time.

In some cases I'll take my reaction a step further.  Say a rampaging turtle has gotten into the meeting room and is upsetting the proceedings.  The simplest solution is to remove the turtle, of course, so the meeting can proceed.  That can be the end of it.  But a better solution is to remove the turtle, then patch up the hole in the wall by which the turtle got in.  That way no more rampaging turtles will disrupt the proceedings in the future.

This approach took time to develop, and it's not perfect, but it does get me through the day.  Every day can be exhausting for a person on the spectrum.  As I understand it, neuraltypical people have an intuitive sense of what to say, when.  Things like knowing to start a conversation with small talk, or asking after a person's family even when you've never met them and don't care, or what comments and reactions to express when someone tells a story.  Obviously no one is perfect, and even neuraltypical people have off days, or are bad at small talk, or just can't figure out what to say for some conversations.  

For me, every conversation is a complicated decision tree, where the tree keeps changing as the conversation progresses.  I can mostly assume my boss wants to talk about work, and passersby in the grocery store want to talk about the weather or some other inane topic.  

Even with conversations that simple, though, I have to watch my eye contact (don't stare, but don't look away too much, the percentage is about 75% eye contact to 25% looking away).  And I have to watch my tone of voice, because how you say things can make people think you're bored, interested, faking, or sincere.  I can sound like a machine if I'm not paying attention.  What's worse, I'm not an actor with a library of tones, accents, and facial expressions to choose from.  I stumble through each and every conversation I have, trying to express what I mean with word choice and whatever clunky body language I can pull together.

I think my stumbling has become more adept as time passes, but I often end a conversation seemingly calmly and politely, then spend the next five minutes suppressing the desire to flee the area immediately.  When that amount of effort has to be spent on each conversation, and there are many conversations throughout a normal day... the stress builds fast.  

I'm not sure whether I simply have very little energy to draw on, or whether living my life is simply that exhausting, but I usually end up pretty tired at the end of the day.  Or even in the middle of the day.  It's functional, mostly.  And mostly, it's the best I can do right now.

Friday, March 20, 2015

LENS, or Educated Brainpokes (11/25/14)

When you boil it down and strip the technical terms off of it, LENS (Low Energy Neurofeedback System) is really just a way of nudging your brainwaves until they fall into healthier patterns.  It's done gently and carefully, more light prodding than anything else.  The results, however, can be remarkable.  Presently there are conflicting clinical studies on the effectiveness of LENS, but a truly staggering host of positive case studies in the ten years the system has been in use.  

The basis behind LENS is fairly simple.  Through the course of their lives, people experience traumas: both physical impacts to the head and mental and emotional traumas.  The loss of a loved one, or a divorce, or losing your job.  All of these things hurt people, putting a strain on their minds and functioning.  In the brain, this can be seen in the form of depressed brainwaves.  If you imagine brainwaves as a wavy pattern, depressed brainwaves are much shorter, smaller waves. 

                                                            A sample EEG of a brainwave.

LENS nudges those brainwaves toward more normal functioning.  It's interesting to note that the brain will adjust to a more positive brainwave pattern, but not a more negative one.  The body heals itself, or at least tries.  

My personal experience with LENS so far has been mixed.  Over three sessions, I've had a reduction of anxiety and an improvement in overall mood.  Both these things have been unrelated to anything in my life changing.  My job is still what it was, my living situation hasn't changed, nor have my bills and the amount of stress leveled on me by life.  So to my understanding, something is clearly happening.  Not everything is positive, though.  I've had a marathon headache over Thanksgiving weekend, an oddity in my vision for a half hour or so, a night where I couldn't sleep very much, and a short-lived spike in my temper.  All the bad side effects have gone away, given time, leaving the good ones for longer periods of time.  

After each negative side effect, the doctor has adjusted the nudges to my brainwaves, so as not to provoke the same response.  So far I've had no repeats of any bad side effects.  I'm hopeful that the good effects will continue, and as we get to understand how my  particular brain functions, the bad side effects will stop occurring.  

I'm outwardly open and cautiously positive about this therapy.  

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Marketing and Autism (11/11/14)

While on the phone with a concerned parent a few days ago, I was told about a website run by two men on the spectrum.  Their idea is basically, "We live with autism.  We're experts in it.  Pay us lots of money ($1300) and we'll tell you exactly how we coped with growing up, and give you 5 hourlong sessions of personalized counseling and advice."  The website is very clearly the work of someone with a marketing, attention-grab-now-give-us-money mindset.  Y'know, clickbait like "One Simple Rule" and "Are you making this critical mistake?"  To their credit, there are videos and a blog and those sorts of things, and some of those are free.  But the site as a whole kind've puts a bad taste in my mouth.  (not linking the site, but those of you with Google-fu can probably find it with this information)

Perhaps it shouldn't.  I, too, am going to try to make a living using my diagnosis and skills, after all.  I want to go to conventions and speak on autism, try to help people understand what's different about us and why, and how they can help.  And conventions are not cheap.  I can't go to any on my own right now, because of how expensive even one day can be.  I understand conventions are pricey things to run, but it's out of my spending range by a lot.  Especially the large conventions.  I do intend to offer my blog for free, and my book will hopefully become an inexpensive eBook and available at libraries as well.  

I think my distaste stems from my dislike of marketing.  For every good person in marketing who just wants to get the word out about some cool product or service that could better lives, there are at least 5 that are only interested in your money and getting it any way they can think of.  Needless to say, I've been subject to much more of the latter than the former, and you can bet I resent every psychological trick I recognize.  As if it's not hard enough already to lead a healthy, disciplined life.  As if any of the gazillion flimsy disposable goods in the world could solve even one of my problems.  Will the latest and greatest knife block or a new online RPG change the fact that I have autism?  I think not.  Yet listening to advertisers, you'd think world peace could be achieved using only a piece of jewelry.  I'm pretty sure that only worked in Lord of the Rings, and only after a lot of people hacked each other up.

I don't buy it.  I don't like having my chain yanked, either.  It takes energy to set someone's arguments and words aside, and energy to write a person off as "not worth listening to."  I have very little energy to spare for such things.  And admittedly, I perhaps resent having to do so for other people on the spectrum.  

But it concerns me, this apparent similarity between my plans and these marketer-autistics.  Everyone needs to eat, of course: that's why I won't be doing everything I do for free.  I do wonder about my impact, though.  I need to reach more than the people who can afford to attend conventions, or expensive social coaching.  Will this blog be enough?  Will my book?  Some of the people who come to my workplace barely speak English.  I can try to educate the teachers and professionals, and that will help, but what of those parents?  Will it be enough?  

Friday, March 13, 2015

Phone Calls (11/6/14)

I came home yesterday utterly exhausted and burnt out from stress.  Several times a week, I sit up, scowl, and frantically rummage through my bag.  These two facts are related, in that both of them involve using the phone.  I despise using the phone.  I've felt that way long enough that I think I can't write it off as hormones or fits of pique (to which I'm not prone anyway).  

The reasons might be severalfold, really.  First, my concentration is rather delicate.  The phone going off shatters my focus on what I was doing.  That's annoying to pick up later, because I'll probably have lost my train of thought.  Second, the phone going off heralds that I'm going to have to talk to someone I probably don't know, about whatever it is they want.  My phone doesn't have the ability to tell me who's calling, and from where.  As such, every conversation is a wild card.  Also, unfortunately, people don't always leave their names and numbers on the voicemail box, and even if they do, I still have to call them back.  The whole thing just spikes my anxiety levels.  

Finally, phone calls are at an uncomfortable midpoint between textual communication, like email and instant messaging, and in-person communication.  With text, all I need to worry about are the words.  With in-person communication, I have lots of redundant forms of data with which to analyze the conversation.  A person's words, tone, body language, emotional state, and expression all factor in.  Granted, as a person on the spectrum I can only process a fraction of each of those.  Still, given enough data, even I can piece together a general impression of the situation.  

Phones give tone of voice, emotional state, and words without the rest of the contextual information I rely on to translate those things.  I always feel like I'm floundering during a phone call, even if my voice and demeanor are perfectly professional.  Multiply that times 40, then stuff it into the space of a few hours, and that's my workday.  

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Therapy incoming (10/28/14)

Nerves nerves nerves.  I'm scheduled for my first ever visit to a place of therapy.  I went to a different place, once, to get my diagnosis, but that was just to test what already exists.  This, and the subsequent visits, will be to change the seemingly delicate, hard-earned mindset I've developed over the years.  We're not playing with prescriptions, but we are playing with electricity and my brain.  It's a therapy called LENS.  Experimental evidence behind it is conflicted, but it seems to either do something good or nothing at all.  There are scads of case studies supporting it, with beneficial effects in up to 70% of those who try it.    

It's not the most promising start, but maybe it'll do something.  My problems are less "needs immediate fix" and more "improving the quality of life" related.  Essentially, I operate under a perpetually pessimistic, even cynical, mood, with a healthy dose of "everything makes me nervous."  I hold down my jobs, I see my friends, I pursue hobbies... But I don't really have fun doing so.  Fun is honestly kind of a foreign concept to me.  If I've had fun in an evening, I usually don't realize it.  If I do, it's right before I get home.  Not exactly useful.

So the LENS therapy may improve my overall mood, reduce the anxiety, and maybe help with sound sensitivity.  It'd be nice.  I'm almost 26, and I'm only getting to this now because I shouldn't ignore it any longer.  Just because I didn't get started with therapy early doesn't mean I can't benefit from it.  I hope. 

Friday, March 6, 2015

Why so angry? (10/28/14)

I get calls at work from overwhelmed parents.  Their kids are troublesome, at home and at school.  Maybe they're even violent, verbally or physically.  Why is that?  Why are some kids, on or off the spectrum, so angry?  I've been thinking about it, because I am also angry.  I was troublesome as a child.  I suspect there are a lot of different reasons.  One of them may be this:

We were promised a fair and equal chance at school and life, and we experienced that that promise was a lie.  Few school systems are equipped to handle all aspects of autism and related disabilities.  A person on the spectrum may have to attend additional classes and do extra work while their peers go to recess or play at home.  That's if they're lucky enough to have help at all.  Unaided, the person may struggle over every homework assignment, dread dealing with their peers, and even fail out of school entirely.  All this happens while the person's peers seem to effortlessly accomplish what's asked of them, like it's nothing.  Can you see why someone might be frustrated?  And dealing with that day after day, month after month, year after year?  Kids might lack knowledge, but they're not stupid.  

People on the spectrum can be particularly frustrated by inequalities like this.  Because we lack the innate knowledge of informal rules, we cling to the formalized rules like lifelines in a stormy sea.  Formalized rules are easy, simple, cleanly laid out in binders or corporate emails or handbooks.  Informal rules are mushy, word of mouth, subtle things.  Blink, or miss half a sentence in an overheard conversation, and now you're missing a vital piece of information about how a workplace or school operates.  To make matters worse, the concept of informal rules isn't really taught to us.  It's just assumed you'll learn.  Is it any wonder then, that when a person on the spectrum completes an assignment according to the formal rules, only to get it back and be told it's wrong, that person gets frustrated?  It's like the world expects us to be mind readers.

A couple months ago I started a new job.  I've had enough experience with people that I didn't bother with the corporate handbook and its pretty black and white rules.  I sat through the corporate training and did the required assignments, but didn't start internalizing the rules of my new job until I actually got there.  I've learned that while people like having formal rules set down, in reality they often don't bother following them.  Sometimes that's for good reasons, sometimes bad reasons, but I usually don't have time to sit in judgement of each system as I live in it.  I'm too busy trying to adjust to it, and constantly updating my mental handbook of How Things Are Done.  

This is not to say formal rules are never followed anywhere.  It's generally more a tangled mishmash of formal and informal rules that govern any given environment.  Knowing the formal rules can help you in understanding the environment and those parts of the system that fall under its governance.  But I have yet to find a place where the formal rules are all you need to know.  There's always at least one "and don't make a fresh pot of coffee until all the previous pot is gone," or "be sure to walk on this cleaning pad before leaving the warehouse" or "also, your otherwise non-janitorial position involves cleaning up yesterday's overripe diapers."

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

To blatantly shatter the illusion of normalcy? (10/14/14)

I've been tempted, more than once over the years since receiving my diagnoses, to brandish a sign proclaiming my autism.  Just to make people aware that we exist.  That we're not crippled, just different.  Maybe even to prove something to myself, I'm not sure.  I envision awkward questions, quiet stares, and perhaps even arguments with ignorant people.  Would the reality be any different?  I'm not sure.

I suppose if I did decide to do it, I'd need multiple signs.  One on each shoulder, one on the front, one on the back.   They'd need to be more detailed than "autistic."  Perhaps the front and the back could say, "self identifying for Autism Awareness Day" or mention something about the hidden population of semi-functional people.  After all, many people struggle with depression, but few tell others about it.  Either way I should probably include, "curious?  Please ask me whatever questions you have."

I'd have to pointedly spend the day outside in the public.  Go shopping, maybe go to a museum, go to work, a coffee shop, a restaurant.  Eek.  This day might end up being very expensive.  It might be worth it.