Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Reading the Research: Twins, Genes, and Autistic Traits

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 discusses what causes autistic traits, which has been an argument pretty much since autism got onto the public radar.  After all, when you find out your kid isn't normal and probably never will be, the first thing a lot of parents ask is, "oh God, what did I do wrong?"

The answer, according to this article, is "Absolutely nothing."  This study is one of literal hundreds, if not thousands, to address the question, and the arguments have gone back and forth between "nature" i.e. genetics, and "nurture" i.e. environment, parenting tactics, diet, exercise, neurotoxins, etc.  I suspect, with sufficient research, you could come up with a docket full of studies that loudly proclaim that autism is definitely mainly caused by either side.

I'm bringing this particular study to your attention because it studied twins, and thousands of them at that.  Usually psychological studies are very limited in their sample sizes, such that a hundred or so participants is regarded as "pretty decently good." In this case, the study was able to draw a large sample size (over 19,000 pairs of twins, both identical and fraternal), but had to rely on parental perspectives and reports for its data.  While parents know their kids best, there can also be bias, which decreases the reliability of the study.  Still, a sample size of nearly 39,000 twins is pretty impressive.

The current thinking for "what causes autism" is that genetics are involved, but so are environmental factors, such as air pollution, diet, traumas, etc.  This study pins the heritability of autistic traits at over 75%, moreso for girls than for boys.  It also suggests that the same genes are responsible for girls being autistic as for boys.

As for me, I've never personally seen my own genetic records.  But if autism runs in the genes, I can point to a few family members that have or had some autistic traits.  Maybe not full blown autism, like myself, but enough that it might explain me.

Whatever the cause of autism ends up being, I'm keeping tabs on my niece and nephew.  If either of them end up being autistic, my brother and his wife might like my help sorting out what to do with their kid.  They're both highly educated, intelligent people, and I'm sure they'd do a stellar job without me, but there's nothing like first person experience to tell you what books can't.  Which was kind of the impetus for this entire blog.

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Legwork and Life, week of 8/22/17

As you can see, I got my hair redone.  It's quite short, but I mainly used this picture because it conveys how blue they got my hair.  This is actually darker than we were aiming for, but the professionals were kind of expecting me to wash it in warm/hot water a few times, and that would make the color closer to what I wanted... which was the color of my wedding dress.  Chris (my spouse) actually lent me the scrap of the dress fabric he carries so they'd have a color reference.

Other than the length and difficulties related to getting it to behave, I'm pretty pleased with this iteration of hair-adventure.  Chris seems to be also, as he's made numerous approving noises.  So it's nice that this little adventure is turning out well.  The color is quite dark and deep now, but it'll fade as I shower more and might eventually turn back to platinum blond, which was a midway step between my hair color and the blue. 

Also before they cut it super-short.
I got the hair fixing done early in the week, which gave me time to adjust to it before I actually had to go out and interact with people.  Which was nice, because I definitely needed preparation for people remembering me in the grocery store line.  I was jokingly accused of following another lady while at Meijer because she recognized me from Costco, where I had also stood in line with my groceries behind her.  I wasn't super-graceful at handling that situation, but the lady was kidding and seemed good-natured, so I'm not going to worry about it too much.

This week I also got a good hour's worth of exercise by helping out a bit at church.  I think the reason was carpet-cleaning, but I honestly forget why all the furniture in the church had to be moved around.  Anyway, I missed the "moving the furniture out" on Sunday, but did catch the "moving the furniture back" on Friday.  It's not a mega-church or anything, but my church does have a number of classrooms and offices, which each use tables, chairs, carts, etc.  So there was plenty to do.

It actually ended up being a huge ego-booster for me.  I'm biologically female, and my specific genetics gave me pathetically weak arms.  That's always been kind of a downer for me.  But the genetics sent all the arm strength into my legs, so I have these beefy doom-thighs that give me enough strength to carry most things by virtue of stubbornness.  Which is how it ended up being me and the head coordinator-person doing all the heavy lifting for the big tables and such.  The coordinator's wife also came to help, and she was more visibly muscular and in-shape than me, but I think she got busy directing the other people that showed up.  So there was that.  I stuck around to the end, got the job done, and the coordinator seemed happy about it.

The only downside was that I only half-remembered that very important rule of lifting, to lift with your legs and not your back.  So despite not being 30 yet, I did in fact anger my lower back and it has been whining at me every day since.  I put ice on it for literal hours and took ibuprofen on the advice of an older friend of mine (who used to be a physical therapist) and I suspect that's why I'm not really miserable right now, just kind of annoyed.  I'm not too worried about it, anyway.  I'll be seeing the chiropractor this week, who will give me an earful I'm sure.  But also likely be able to help a bit. 

The last thing of note is that I went to see the eclipse yesterday with friends.  I didn't travel far, so I didn't get into the path of totality or anything, but it was still kind of a fun experience.  These kinds of events, I'm coming to realize, may not be earth-shaking to me in person, but they're still rare events and it's wise to take advantage of them to see people and take a break from regular life.  I didn't manage to snag any eclipse-safe glasses, sadly (the Internet stores were all out of them, or at least the ones that are actually safe), so I only took peeks here and there and checked out NASA's barrage of cameras around the US.

I suppose it wouldn't have mattered that much if I had found glasses, though.  It was cloudy for a good portion of the time.  But between my phone and my friend's, we were able to watch the moon entirely block the sun (totality) from three different locations, one after the next.  It was pretty cool to see and hear all the people cheering, as well as actually see the corona around the moon.  The NASA announcers were entertaining, too.  Like sports announcers, but nerds and somewhat unpracticed. 

Friday, August 18, 2017

Book Review: Understanding Autism for Dummies

Understanding Autism for Dummies, by Stephen Shore and Linda Rastelli, is one of those yellow subject-based "For Dummies" books that I silently promised myself never to pick up when I was younger.  I always found the branding rather insulting, regardless of how little I knew about a subject.

So naturally now you're likely wondering why on Earth I broke this promise to myself.  Well... the first author is the reason.  Stephen Shore is an author I've run into briefly on my adventure through autism literature, and I've never read one of his specific works.  However, even the brief exposure I've had to his philosophy and work has impressed me.  So when this book came up on a search of my library, I reluctantly checked it out.

Upon actually opening the book, I was promptly flabbergasted by the first page, which was a two-sided mini-reference page.  There was lots of good info on there in little boxes, but I was most grabbed by the "Emergency ID card" for autism.  The print was maybe a little small to be handing to an upset police officer, but it did have a space for emergency contact numbers. Also important information about autism, like common behaviors.  "I may: have difficulty speaking, appear deaf, not understand legal issues." And suggested things to do, like "speaking slowly and softly," "giving me time to respond," and "warning me first if you must touch me." 

I'm not sure how I feel about carrying a card identifying me as autistic, but of course, I'm not who the card was designed for.  Usually in emergencies, I can still communicate in words.  This book is meant to be a comprehensive reference for the entire autism spectrum, despite being co-authored by a relatively well-blended ("high-functioning") autistic person.

Once I got past the first page and got to the table of contents, I was struck by the fact that this book is over 10 years old, but had a lot of "thinking about the future" sections.  Important things like "how to transition from high school to jobs," "how to make friends after school is over," and "options for financial planning."  In reading through those sections much later, I was pleased to see advice for both the autistic person, and for parents and guardians.

I was also pleasantly surprised to find a subsection on sexual relationships and sex education.  It was fairly short, but had some solid suggestions, and included a brief commentary on sensory issues.  At some point I'll be less reserved about my personal sex life, but suffice it to say that sensory issues do not politely go away just because you're trying to be intimate with someone.

Relatedly, I was also pleased to see the book strongly suggest sex education for all individuals on the autism spectrum, not just the ones likely to find a partner.  The authors adamantly proclaim that almost all autistic individuals, no matter how well they blend into society, have a sex drive.  So you need to teach appropriate behavior to deal with that, and sooner rather than later.

In addition to these things, of course, the book also covers the "what is autism," "getting a diagnosis," "how to choose treatments and therapies," and "how to work with schools to get appropriate education."  Each of those is a wide subject, and each chapter has a few books listed as recommended reading.  I was reasonably impressed with the section on working with schools, which included best practices for IEP (Individualized Education Plan) meetings.  I've attended several informational meetings regarding how best to make and IEP and communicate with the schools, and it pleased me to see much of that advice here.

The book is still ten years old, naturally, so its explanation of autism and understanding of the special diet aspect of improving symptoms is minimal.  But it does bother to have a section for that treatment at all, which makes it ahead of its time in some ways.  Unfortunately, I can't say the same for the list of resources at the back of the book.  About half the resources in the sections I looked into were no longer operational, missing, or had been moved.  That's maybe not surprising, given how things change.

Read This Book If

You are relatively new to the autism world and need a general overview on everything.  Whether you're an individual on the autism spectrum, a parent with an autistic kid of any age, or an interested professional of any stripe, this book does serve as a pretty effective across-the-board reference.  After attending conferences, advocating, and reading dozens of books, I personally didn't find a whole lot of new information to learn.  But it's the most comprehensive "guide to autism" I've run across to date. 

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Reading the Research: Disabilities and Crime Rates

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 discusses the vulnerability of the disabled population, and the crime rate associated with it.

This is usually common knowledge among most adults with disabilities, but the population in general seems entirely oblivious of it: disabled and mentally ill people are not the perpetrators of crime, they are statistically its victims.

Popular media (looking at you, The Amazing Spider-Man 2) likes to depict the mentally unstable as time bombs, or unhinged menaces.  In The Amazing Spider-Man 2, a quirky, downtrodden, "not-quite-all-there" electrical engineer falls into a vat of genetically engineered electric eels, causing him to become able to generate tons of electricity himself.  He proceeds to use his newfound powers to rampage through the city, causing blackouts and chaos.  In the end, he is outwitted by the hero and killed.

This mirrors the framework I've seen portrayed in newspapers, time and time again, about shooters in schools.  While the truth is that we don't know a singular cause for why people take guns into schools and shoot their classmates, teachers, etc, the media loves to point fingers at any diagnosis that shooter might have had.  Several of them in the last few years might have had autism.  Should we then be wary of every person with autism?  Should we then expect those people to eventually turn up in a school with guns?

I shouldn't have to actually answer those questions, but the correct answer is a resounding NO.  We are no more dangerous than any other person.  Statistically, even less so, because we tend to have less power and less access to things like guns.  Instead, we are three times more likely to be robbed, assaulted, raped, and shot.  And 1 in 5 of these victims were specifically targeted because of their disability.  Human predators, like any other predator, go for the weakest-seeming individuals.  Except humans are supposed to be more moral than animals...

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Legwork and Life, week of 8/15/17

A lot of good things happened this last week, which is a nice change of pace.   It wasn't all sunshine naturally, but my little list of stuff to write about is 1 bad thing to 4 good ones, so y'know.  Not too shabby.

The one bad thing was that all the Self Advocates meetings I was involved in ended up being a bust.  I entirely forgot the Tuesday meeting last week that I was supposed to run and the Executive committee didn't meet. To top it all off, the problem member I've been complaining about got her act together... for two weeks.  Then apparently she opted to change to a different committee, which leaves me shorthanded and excessively frustrated.  I'm seriously considering just dropping the whole obligation.  It doesn't make me happy, it doesn't pay, and it definitely detracts from my sanity.  Unfortunately, it's also extremely important to changing the state and the country.  Ugh.

On the other end of things, I'm proud of myself for consistently playing DDR (Dance Dance Revolution, the jumping/walking to music game).  I've been doing 2 days a week for 15-30 minutes, but I'm upping that to 3 days a week because my Wednesday walking partner is going to be out of town for about a month.  I think I'll be able to make the transition to 3 days a week easily enough, and I figured out that I could use "Endless Mode" to make for a more seamless aerobic workout.  Normally when you play you have to choose each song and difficulty.  On Endless Mode, the game chooses for you automatically, stringing five songs back to back, but you can preset the difficulty ahead of time so it's not too hard.

Another happy thing this last week was Chris and I reaching our 9 month date since getting married.  We haven't killed each other, obviously.  It ended up being on a Sunday, and we had a little check in with the premarital counseling person at our church.  The counselor basically wanted to know how things were going, if we had any concerns, etc.  We brought up the chore list issue, which has been a stumbling block for us, and he's offered to be a mediator for when we decide to rework the list.  So we might take him up on that.  Chris and I both hate chores, but they do need to happen, so it's not exactly an issue that's going to go away.

After we did the counseling, we went home and started work on one of my favorite dishes these days: beef stew.  In general, my meat consumption is fairly low, and is mainly chicken and ground bison, so steak, stew meat, and other less common meats are a real treat.  So Chris has started making beef stew on occasion, using stew meat from a local farm with the Animal Welfare Approved certification.  The meat is therefore cruelty-free and extra-delicious.  However, the stew itself requires a lot of prep work, particularly since when he makes it, it tends to be a double and triple recipe. So Chris redeemed one of the "give me a hand with this" coupons, and I helped him chop a whole lot of fresh vegetables.  Carrots, onions, potatoes, green beans, and celery all went in, much of it from a local farm market.  The result was exceedingly delicious, and I may have eaten a bit too much of it when it was done.  The rosemary bread Chris had baked the day before was a really tasty complement, too. 

It was a lot of work, but it paid off nicely.
The last happy thing is the most recent: I'm getting my hair cut and colored again.  Brighter blue this time, but still a relatively dark blue.  Sapphire-esque, I guess?  Rather than the dusky bluish purple it was before.  Chris actually has a scrap from my wedding dress, which I'm going to bring to match the color with.  Should be a fun experience.  I need to make sure to play DDR extra long before I go, though, because apparently your hair should be kind of oily for best coloring results.  And I sort've left my shower until the day before, and my hair was full of lint and bits along with the oil.  So I gotta grease my hair back up again so the color will take nicely.  Much DDR shall ensue!

Friday, August 11, 2017

Pokemon GO, DDR, and WiiFit: The Evolution of Exercise

I was doing my Monday's exercise this week when it occurred to me that my views on exercise and gaming might make an interesting explanatory Friday post.  You see, if virtual reality catches on, I fully expect a nice big armada of exercise-based video games to sprout forth.  In present day, there are only a few options.  Depending on who you are, you may have heard of none of them, so let me explain some of the biggest ones briefly.

Pokemon GO

An exploratory walking game, Pokemon GO ties into the popular series Pokemon, first introduced in the late 90s.  

You may recognize parts of this, perhaps.
The idea of Pokemon was that all the animal species in the world are fantastical monsters (called Pokemon), from electric rats (Pikachu) to adorable fire lizards that grow into dragons (Charmander to Charizard), to various kinds of birds, bugs, and other fauna.  As the main character in the Pokemon games, it is your job to go meet them all, learn about them, befriend them, and become the best Pokemon Trainer in the world.  There are a lot of ways to play, but the original games had two versions: Red and Blue (Green, in Japan).  That was so you would play with a friend, and have fun together.  

Pokemon GO takes that same concept, puts it on your smart phone, and bids you go explore your neighborhood and town.  You find Pokemon everywhere, from your front porch to across town at the library.  In short, the game rewards you for getting off your couch and walking or jogging around town.  You don't get credit if you drive, because the game tracks how fast you're going and nobody walks at 40 mph.  

I played Pokemon GO for over a year, but they made a lot of mistakes when they launched the game and over the months since.  They're only now getting their act together, but it was too late, I ran out of patience.  It's a shame, because I explored a lot of parks and parts of downtown while I was playing.  

Dance Dance Revolution

If you were relatively young in the 90s, this entry needs no explanation.  However, for everyone else.... Dance Dance Revolution (DDR) is a competitive dancing/movement game.   Unlike Pokemon GO and most other video games, it uses a controller for your feet instead of your hands.  

Yes, really.
To play, you stand on that, listen to the techno music and press the arrows as they get to the top of the screen, which can look like this:

The arrows, as you can see, scroll up to the top, at which point you're supposed to hit the corresponding button on the controller.  Do so in time with the music, and you'll get a better score.  "Perfect" means you were spot on.  "Great" means you were just slightly off, "Good" means you were a bit off, etc.  The people playing in this video are far from perfect, as you can see, but in some circles in the 90s, perfection was an art form with this game.  There were literal competitions that paid prizes and even money.  

If you're still confused as to what this actually looks like in practice, I took a crappy video of myself doing a relatively easy song. Unfortunately, Blogger apparently doesn't like my crappy video, and it's not playable, so I found you a video of a couple playing instead.

If you don't want to watch the whole minute and a half, they're doing a middle-fast song, which involves plenty of steps at a reasonable pace.  It also involves jumping in place to hit two arrows at once, sometimes in quick succession.  The guy shifting his mat halfway through the song?  Very legitimate, though really experienced players usually try to simply adjust for it until the end of the song.

Basically, this video game goes from "gentle walking in place" to "hop at crazy speeds 'til you drop."  It tests your fitness and your balance at the same time.  Each song on the CD comes in three difficulties, which gives you replay value and the possibility of learning how to play.  Also, Dance Dance Revolution is an entire series of video games, so when you get tired of one set of 30ish songs, there's approximately 15+ more games you could buy and play.  

Wii Fit

If you've ever thought having a personal trainer might do you good for keeping up with your exercise, the folks who made Wii Fit agree with you wholeheartedly, and set out to make you an electronic one.  There are actually a number of video games out there like Wii Fit, some less video gamey than others, but since this was the most popular one, I'm opting to explain it.  

Like Dance Dance Revolution, Wii Fit comes with a special controller. 
I always kind of thought it looked like a scale, which I hated for some reason...
 Unlike DDR, this game is not particularly competitive.  You stand on that controller, which acts like a computerized balance board.   The game features yoga, balancing minigames, and even aerobic exercises.  The game coaches you in how to do the exercises, how to improve at them, and how well you're doing at them as you play.  Because the controller tracks where your balance is, it's capable of telling if you're off balance, how you're moving, etc.  

Here's a video of a single minigame, with a side-by-side of the actual human playing it.


 You'll notice he doesn't actually jump off the board while he plays, which personally makes me prefer Dance Dance Revolution.  But I've historically been terrible at physical activities, especially balance-related ones.  

So What?

These three games, and knockoffs like them, are a few in the thousands of video games that have come out in the past decade.  However, I think they are the future of exercise for a number of reasons.  

First, inertia and lack of mobility is a factor.  Your average Joe or Jane might want to be more fit, but may not have easy access to a gym, hiking trail, or safe area to walk in.  After a long day at work, most people aren't interested in driving another 15-30 minutes to go to the gym, tire themselves out further, and then go home.  They would rather go home, and maybe exercise there, maybe just crash.  With an in-home exercise station, the option is available whenever.  

Second, if you don't already love exercise, or don't consider it fun (which is the state I'm in), trying to get into shape is an excruciatingly boring and painful enterprise.  I didn't love exercise growing up, and year after year of abysmal yearly school fitness test reports merely solidified my distaste for the subject.  I don't hate gyms, but since people drain my energy, I tend to prefer not going to one.  So a more solitary, yet safe alternative is needed.

Lastly, psychology.  Research is showing more and more that "game-ifying" your workout (and literally everything else) is very psychologically rewarding.  People love seeing progress, earning rewards (even simple ones like a message on the screen saying, "You achieved 45 jumping jacks in a row!") feeling like they've accomplished something, and even competing with others.  

If full virtual reality becomes viable, the market for this sort of thing could only improve.  After all, why pedal a stationary bike looking at the other gym-goers, when you could wear some fancy glasses and be seeing some high resolution beach scenery?   Instead of jogging on a track and seeing the same thing over and over, you could be looking at a virtual simulated hiking trail, complete with different trees, shrubs, bird sounds, and wildlife.  All the while, the game will track how long you've exercised, how hard you're exercising, how far you've gone, and congratulate you after you reach a set goal.

For someone like me, who is not inclined to fitness but does love video games?  It might be the ticket to less effortful, more rewarding fitness.  

Notable Mentions

Not included in this article specifically, but worth knowing about:  

Fitocracy, which is a personalized fitness coach on your phone, but requires you to go exercising yourself.  It tracks the exercises you do, letting you log your goals and activities, and also provides gameified quests and achievements to prod you into doing more, or doing similar exercises.  In addition, it works as a social networking site, kind of like Facebook, so you can compete (or commiserate) with your friends. 

Zombies, Run!, which puts you as the main character in a post-apocalyptic storyline, written by a published author.  The world ended, zombies are everywhere, and the survivors have banded together to form settlements safe from the zombie menace.  You are Runner 5, one of a very necessary group of individuals who retrieves supplies from the wilds so that the enclaves of survivors can continue to exist.  You go running (jogging, walking briskly), and the game paints the story around you.  And the zombies are only the beginning.  As you go, you learn about the world, the people of your community, and what happened to cause the zombie apocalypse.  The game was hugely successful, and is now into its 5th "season" of story.  This app was actually successful in motivating me to go jogging for a time, merely because I wanted to know what happened next. 

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Reading the Research: Day-to-Day Activities are Harder for Women with Autism

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 the results of a series of tests measuring executive functioning across girls and boys with autism.

For those of you not familiar, executive functioning is basically a person's ability to prioritize, regulate, and monitor their behavior and actions.  Your ability to plan your day, step by step, is one use of executive functioning.  You use executive functioning to decide what thing on your to-do list is the most important, the second most important, etc.  Your ability to focus on a single task despite distractions and other tasks is also part of executive functioning.  Needless to say, executive functioning is important for leading a stable, independent life.

This study is somewhat unusual in specifically looking at both boys and girls on the autism spectrum.  Much noise has been made, and most research done mostly on boys, since there are statistically so many more boys with autism than girls.  The thing is, it's beginning to become clear that autism simply manifests different in girls than it does in boys.  So research like this is important. 

So, onto the actual results.  The study showed that while girls with autism displayed better social and communication skills, they tended to struggle more with day-to-day functioning.  This flies in the face of current assumptions, which have it that autistic girls are overall better at managing life and its pitfalls despite their autism and challenges.

This is interesting to me because A) it's valuable to have data on how autism affects the two basic sexes, and B) because it makes me wonder about my own difficulties in school.  I don't think I would have ever qualified for a diagnosis of executive dysfunction, but it wouldn't surprise me if found I that I have more difficulty with it than most people.

I talk myself through a schedule for the day.  For example, this morning, unlike most mornings, I needed to run out for errands.  I put together my plan out loud: the library to return books, then a grocery store (for ingredients), then the fabric store (for blackout curtain materials).  I rehearsed that three times, visualizing the driving route I'd have to take, to make sure I'd remember it, then realized I needed to add the post office to the list.  So then I had to rehearse it a couple more times, adding the post office into the list, before I actually left to do the errands.

It's not that I have trouble going places.  I have my car, which I am comfortable with, and I have GPS if I get lost.  It's that I wanted to make sure I did the errands in the optimal route, and that I didn't forget any of the stops.  It would annoy me a lot if I missed a stop and had to go back. Talking to myself, and rehearsing the steps of my trip, helps me remember and make sure not to miss any stops.

I'm not sure how much other people direct themselves in this manner, but I do know that talking to yourself is popularly considered a sign of mental illness.  That's a load of bullcrap, by the way.  While there are some mental illnesses that manifest that way, there are plenty of other self-talk conversations that, like mine, are simply methods to promote self-regulation and effectiveness. 

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Legwork and Life, week of 8/8/17

 Alas, the internet issues from last week continue.  It's not as bad, at present, as it has been.  But of course they seem to happen when we need the Internet the most.  We missed a group activity thing again this week...  Chris is going to call again, to see what can be done.  Since they already rewired our part of the building, I hope there's something they can do...

In happier news, a friend from my first high school messaged me a few days ago, and we've been chatting.  I'm patently awful at keeping up with people, so occurrences like this are rare.  Seems like he's still around Pittsburgh, where is where that high school was, so that's cool.  I've been having some nostalgia trips and doing a lot of mental calculations to try to help him out with his life.  It's been keeping my brain a lot busier than I expected.  

Which is part of, but not the major reason why, my blog's buffer is now all gone.  I have been a bad writer, and haven't been reading and reviewing books at the rate I should be.  The latest book has been dense and difficult to get through.  So I do not, at this very moment, have a Friday book review for you.  Hopefully I'll get my head straightened out in time to manage that by the end of the week, and get to working on the next book too.

Really, the greatest part of the problem was that I was having to fight my own brain for at least two weeks.  I'd been having a major resurgence in a particular artifact of depression, which I call Boomerang Memories.

I've linked to the post where I explain what those are, but basically, they're bad memories that come back to haunt you years after they happened.  If you did something embarrassing in high school, and it bothered you at the time, it might come back to haunt you 10+ years later, as if it was happening again at that very moment.  If that sounds like kind of a bummer, you're correct.  Now imagine these boomerang memories come back to haunt you every hour.  Then every half hour.  Then every 10 minutes.  Each time, you have to take a couple minutes to shake off the boomerang memory.  So you end up wasting a lot of time, and your day gets steadily worse as time goes by.  It's like having your own personal anti-cheerleader.

I figured I was just having a bad week or so... maybe getting sick, given the scratchiness of my throat and nose.  Turns out, I was quite wrong.  No, turns out we were accidentally growing mold in our cupboard, and it'd been making me quietly ill for weeks.  That's a thing, and I now believe my mother's insistence that mold can mess you up, even moreso than I did after my experience with the moldy chapel back in mid-May.  We cleaned up the mold, aired the place out, and now I haven't noticed a boomerang memory in the last two hours.  I still feel terrible and anxious about losing my buffer for the blog, but I no longer feel like I'm incapable of managing to straighten out the situation. 

I haven't ever missed a post since I committed to the schedule I'm on, and that's a bit of a point of pride, so wish me luck with playing catch up!  Also, maybe wish me luck in trying to be more conscientious about similar changes in my psyche.  In retrospect, that's the sort of thing I should've caught onto eventually... 

Friday, August 4, 2017

Book Review: Drawing Autism

Drawing Autism, by Jill Mullin, with a foreword by Temple Grandin, is a book full of art made by autistic people. 

I've seen several books that featured photos of families with autism, and one book that specifically focused on the pictures, and had accompanying text.  But I had not, until picking up this book, seen an art book that specifically focused on showcasing art made by autistic creators. 

Now, anyone who knows me in real life also tends to know that I am very much not an artsy person.  My drawing skill is "passable for an average middle schooler" and everything goes downhill from there.  I also have a distinct lack of patience for most visual art, which made me a great annoyance to my parents when they tried to visit art museums.  I got bored very quickly, and instead of looking at the art, I'd read my book and/or whine until we left. 

It's academic as to why that was the case when I was little.  It could have been a short attention span, low tolerance for things I didn't care about, or something else entirely.  But one explanation for the present state of things might be that it's visually overwhelming to look at artwork, just as it's visually overwhelming to look people in the eyes, and at peoples' faces, and I haven't the patience to bother with it most times.  It's a real shame eye contact is required for regular social interaction...

Anyway, this is relevant to this book, because the vast majority of this book is art.  I had to make a great effort to examine each piece in the book.  The kinds of art vary widely, as there are literally dozens of artists represented here.  There are pieces that I could've drawn in elementary school, and pieces I will literally never be able to replicate if my life depended on it.  The styles of art include whimsical 3D models, near-photographic renditions of natural landscapes, comic strips, and dizzyingly Picasso-like works. 

Accompanying each piece is some information about the artwork or the artist, as it was available.  Not all of these artists are verbal, so sometimes the caregivers answered for the artist.  I found it interesting to read these things and try to get a sense for each artist's mentality and life.  Really, though, those bits of information are the sideshow to the art. 

This is mostly not my kind of book, but it was an interesting experience, and for anyone that appreciates art, probably a valuable addition to your journey in learning about autism.

Read This Book If

You like art, and want to see autism in action through art.  There's some explanation of the various artists and the pieces included, but mainly the art is meant to stand on its own.  There are all kinds of art represented, from 3D models to markers to paints to crayons.  It seems to my uneducated eyes to be a very unique collection of works. 

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Reading the Research: Is Prejudice Innate?

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 a new finding about infants and their preferences for people.  

It seems infants innately prefer people that speak their native language over people that don't.  They expect pro-social behavior (giving, positive behavior) of speakers of their native language.  But perhaps more tellingly, they had no negative expectations for speakers of different languages.  They didn't fear them, or have any dislike or discomfort about them.

Previous research had focused on three-year-old children, and found that they had the same positive expectations for native speakers.  However, the three-year-olds also had negative expectations for speakers of different languages.

This study, then, suggests that humans are born with an innate positive prejudice towards their own groups (English-speakers prefer English speakers), but that negative prejudices may be learned (English speakers do not necessarily dislike Spanish-speakers).

Why is this important?  Well, if negative prejudice is strictly a learned behavior, then society can be improved so that differences, like autism and other developmental disabilities, are embraced and celebrated rather than shunned.  Parents can teach their kids that people are different, and that's okay, and expect it to stick rather than be shot down by genetics.

In short, if this study is correct, all racism, sexism, classism, homophobia, and other forms of negative discrimination are preventable.  If that's not important and worthwhile, I'm not sure what is. 

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Legwork and Life, week of 8/1/17

I'd posited last week that I might actually have an entirely good week.  My hope was dashed when, Tuesday afternoon, our Internet service started fluctuating and dying, to the point where I couldn't do anything online.  Since I rely rather heavily on the Internet for both work and play, I was pretty upset. 

Internet Troubles...

I managed to write out a couple things for the blog that day, but didn't get much else done and wasn't able to relax by playing video games.  The problem got worse and worse, despite buying a new modem and checking all the wires and such on our end.  By Friday, when Chris and I both needed to be online for a group activity in a video game, the connection was so bad that it cut out for 45 minutes straight, disrupting the activity and frustrating us and our friends. 

After that, we couldn't get it to work for more than 2 minutes at a time... so on Saturday we called the ISP (Internet Service Provider).  That's always an obnoxious experience, because these tech support systems are designed to weed out the idiots first, and this particular ISP...  I believe it received the "You have the crappiest customer support in the US" award at least twice.  In a row. 

Because Chris is a sweetheart, and knows exactly how much I hate using the phone (hint: so so SO very much), he fielded the call and dealt with the customer support.  We got a real weasel this time, too.  Wanted to charge us $60 to send out a technician with an installation kit, to install a new modem instead of our modem, after which they would then charge us for using their modem.  Chris and I weren't have any of that, so we asked for other options.  When there were none, it was time for a supervisor.  The weasel left the phone on hold for like 5 minutes, told us the supervisor was busy, and tried to sell us the same crap.  He kept trying to tell us the supervisor was busy, and that we wouldn't get any different of service from the supervisor, but eventually, after repeated requests, the weasel transferred us to a different supervisor that wasn't busy. 

And naturally, the supervisor did in fact have different options.  He was able to send a tech out to diagnose the specific problem the next day, without an installation kit and modem, and without pre-charging us the $60.  This ISP being what it is, if the problem had been our fault, they would still have charged us... but at least we wouldn't have to call the billing department to yell at them until they reversed the charge. 

It was an entire day before the technician could make it to our apartment complex, so we were out of luck and connection for a while.  Chris had the bright idea of linking our phones to our computers, to use the phone data plan in lieu of having Internet.  This is often called "tethering" in the computer world, if it's done with a cord.  For playing a full-blown computer game, it's a horrible plan normally.  However, the game we play together has made low-bandwidth use into an art form.  It uses literal bytes per second of gameplay.  That's like sending a short sentence via text message, once every 5 minutes or so.  I have no idea how such an expansive video game, which millions of people play every day, can manage such a low rate of data transfer.  But I saw it, so I believe it. 

When the technician made it here on Sunday, the modem had been working for a short time.  I was worried he would just look at the modem, say "you don't have a problem," and leave.  Stupid as that would be, it would be in character for this ISP.  But I was to be pleasantly surprised.  The tech, a relatively reserved but thoughtful black man, took us at our word, and only stopped to check one "dummy fix."  I say "dummy fix" because we had already checked our end pretty thoroughly.  But he saw we had two other (old) modems out, and checked to be sure we had the correct one set up in the system.  After that, he went to check out the wires... whereupon he found a rat's nest of wires, apparently.  By the sound of it, the wiring in this place is very, very screwy.  When he disconnected our line of Internet, we did not, in fact, lose Internet.  So he had to go through the entire box and find which one was ours, the poor guy.  When he did, he routed it correctly and gave us everything we needed to follow up on the problem, which was not fully solved according to him.  Basically, this guy was completely amazing and I'm kind of sorry I couldn't fill out a survey or something that said so. 

Water Woes

In addition to the Internet woes, we've also been having another issue over the last few months.  Our toilet leaks.  Specifically, the cold water piping going into the toilet leaks.  This has been exacerbated by my desire to have a bidet on the toilet, to use less toilet paper for bathrooming, but the leak has basically been a problem since we moved in.  A lot of stuff in this apartment complex is old, and it shows. 

So we've had towels on the floor, and a tupperware container underneath the piping.  Some months it's unnecessary.  Some months, the tupperware fills up every day.  Between the apartment changing hands so much and the intermittent nature of the problem, it simply hasn't been addressed.  That will hopefully change soon, since this company seems to be keeping a hold of the apartment complex, at least for now.  We've put in a maintenance request, and are keeping the water line at the toilet turned off unless we need to use it. 

In the meantime, this is the second bidet I've tried.  I'd originally gotten interested in them after traveling to a foreign country and running into a couple.  They seemed smart, if odd to me.  Save paper, clean yourself off, and there are even ones that have a separate nozzle for cleaning lady parts.  The first bidet I tried didn't have any hot water hookups, which probably would have been okay if it also hadn't been far too strongly pressurized.  I didn't really appreciate cold and ouch at the same time.  Fortunately, the new one was relatively inexpensive and has a hot water hookup for the sink, so other than worrying about causing water damage to the apartment below us, it's been pretty easy and pleasant to use. 

More Self Advocates of Michigan 

The last thing that's been on my mind is the upcoming SAM committee meetings.  You'll recall, I'm sure, from last week where I was pleasantly surprised that I survived the hours of in-person meeting for the organization.  But I've also been complaining over the last month or two about a particular person in my committee who hasn't been doing their job.  That situation was hopefully resolved at this last meeting, and I expressed cautious hope that I wouldn't have to oversee things any more.  That hope has, thus far, been rewarded.  The person seems to be updating on the correct day, with acceptably good content.  So I'm relieved. 

So this Thursday I'm going to be needing to run an hour or less meeting for the committee.  It... probably... will just be a series of status updates on everyone's work, but I guess we'll see.  I've been dragging my feet on various side-projects that would be beneficial to the organization, so perhaps I could hand one or two of them off.  Also, we might have a new member or two, for the committee, depending on how things go.  The board recently added 4 new members, and I'm hoping at least one of them will opt to join my committee.  More hands, especially ones with initiative, would be wonderful... 

Friday, July 28, 2017

Book Review: The Best Kind of Different

The Best Kind of Different: Our Family's Journey with Asperger's Syndrome, by Shonda Schilling (with an introduction written by Curt Schilling).

As the title says, this is a "my family and autism" story.  What the title doesn't clue you into is that this is a "sports star dad" story, similar to Not My Boy!  I'm never quite sure, reading these kinds of books, whether to envy or pity the autistic child in question.  Because yes, the child never needs to worry about food or shelter or schooling or medical treatment being unavailable.  But the thing about professional sports is that they basically eat your life for months out of the year.  This book, written by the wife of the sports star (Curt Shilling, for anyone not familiar, pitched for the Boston Red Sox), gives a better picture of exactly how out-of-the-picture the dad can be. 

It's honestly to the point where the home in question is all but a one-parent home for most of the year.  That's brutal for the remaining parent, and also bad for the kids.  On top of that, though, professional sports players tend to move around a lot.  I don't think I've detailed exactly how detrimental it was to my social life and connections when my parents moved.  And naturally, given how the business world was, we moved three times during my childhood.  I didn't quite count up how many times this family moved, but even once destroys your social connections and automatically relegates you to "permanent outsider" in the school pecking order.  I made that work for me when I could, and suffered it when I couldn't.  I suffered far more than I benefited.

Perhaps a somewhat mitigating factor for this autistic kid was that he had siblings relatively close in age range.  He may not have been able to take his friends with him to his new schools, but at least he kept his siblings.  Siblings can support each other sometimes, since they go through the same things.  I lacked that when I was growing up, unfortunately.  It's not that my brother didn't care; he absolutely did.  It's that he was nearly six years older than me.  We had few common interests and even less shared perspective.  He could conceive of the future while I was still figuring out how to conceive of the past.  Also, he likes tactical games, and I have no patience or focus for those. 

At least my personal history and worst childhood moments aren't recorded in a book for thousands of strangers to read...  I recognize that the younger generations are more accustomed to having no privacy, their every moment documented with photos, blog posts, and tweets, and all of it traceable back years and years on the Internet... but I shudder to imagine that being the case for me.  Bad enough I had to live all those moments and remember some of them, far worse to have all of them on record so people can know all the trying and difficult things I've done in my life. 

My last thought on this book is that the narrative stops before the autistic kid hits his teenage years, on a happy-ish note.  Which is just adorable to me because that is naturally when things tend to go horribly trying again for a half decade or so.  It makes it a very incomplete story to me, and not at all the end of a "family journey" as the title puts it.  The only complete bit about it to me is that the dad finally retires from baseball and comes home to help with the kids, so the family is then complete. 

Just in time, as far as my experience tells me.  This book was published in 2010, so here's hoping the author and her spouse braved the trials of having four teenagers (one of which is autistic) with grace and patience.  I wasn't able to locate any further books regarding the family's status, beyond a brief article about one of the older brothers. 

Read This Book If

You'd like to read about how a household like this one (sports star dad, mom, four kids) can work out, or you're interested in this mother's particular mentality on the experience.  I personally think the narrative is weighted much more towards explaining the trials and hardships of the life than celebrating the positives espoused later in the book.  If you're a Schilling fan, this book may be for you, though. 

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Reading the Research: Consistency in Autistic Adults

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 notes and replicates a trend in autistic adults regarding decision-making: Adults with autism make more consistent choices

The article describes how autistic people tend to be more detail-oriented, less context-sensitive, and also tend to be less influenceable when given psychologically "leading" multiple choices.  The specific methodology is described, but essentially, you can present a series of three products, and depending on their placement and details, influence people to choose one over the other.  

The authors suggest their results may indicate a certain tone-deafness (my words) to marketing gimmicks and tricks.  Speaking from personal experience, I tend to notice and resent those marketing tricks and gimmicks, but I always assumed that was my degree in psychology, rather than any particular effect of my autism.

I do think I tend to be more consistent in my choices than many people, but that's often presented as a bad thing, not a good one.  It can indicate a certain inflexibility of thinking, and while I'm prone to that, I do try to mitigate it.  I try new foods.  I eat foods I know I hate when visiting other people for politeness' sake.  I make efforts to interact neurotypically with neurotypical people.

The last thing about this article I wanted to note was the apparent re-branding of ASD (Autism Spectrum Disorders) into ASC (Autism Spectrum Conditions).  This is... interesting to me, and most likely driven by the neurodiversity movement and increased communication between researchers and proponents of that movement.  I wouldn't expect a re-printing of the DSM (psychology's manual of diagnoses) anytime soon, but it's promising to see things like this slip into research.  Hopefully, it's a sign of progress, and viewing autistic people as more than simply a diagnosis. 

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Legwork and Life, week of 7/25/17

Woo, I survived!  And without going to jail for strangling anyone.  Truly, a red-letter day.  Maybe even a red-letter week?  We'll see how the rest of it goes. 


The thing I'm celebrating is surviving the latest Self Advocates of Michigan board meeting.  While many of the board meetings are virtual, and only a couple hours long, the in-person meetings, like this one, tend towards full days.  This particular meeting opted to be a day and a half, meaning I had to drive down to Lansing in the evening, sit through 4-5 hours of meeting, sleep restlessly in a hotel room, and then get up bright and early for another 8+ hours of meeting.  In addition to all that, I was starting to get sick. 

That evening actually started the meeting out very poorly, as I was in a bad mood going in, and was then required to sit still while needing to be positive, awake, and intelligible.  In terms of Spoon Theory, I was borrowing spoons from the ether, pretty much from the start.  After the actual meeting concluded, people naturally (unnaturally to me, I just wanted to crawl into bed) opted to be social.  So I spent a small amount of time doing that, but I also needed to help the support staff register the domains for the website.  After doing that, I'd promised someone to help them with their email, which they said was buggy or something.  And it was one of our new board members, who I wanted to make feel welcome and included, and specifically, it was the board member I'd opted to mentor.  So, much as I really wanted to just curl up in bed, I went and helped them sort out the email thing. 

Only after all that was done was I able to go to my hotel room, close the curtains, and try to wind down for the night.  As is my tendency when I dread the next morning, I stayed up about 45 minutes longer than I should've. 

Fortunately, the next morning wasn't nearly as bad as the evening before.  I didn't wake happy or anything trite like that, I woke up neutral, tending towards grumpy, and with the knowledge that I had a lot to do to be ready for the meeting.  So I packed up, moved things out to the car, ate breakfast, and got settled before the meeting actually re-began.  Taking care of myself helped, possibly, and I'd been pretty religious about taking the elderberry/zinc immune system boosters my doctor had recommended.  It's kind of interesting, actually.  You're supposed to take them every three hours, so I kept track of the time, but I was able to tell about when I needed to take the next one regardless.  My nose and throat would start to feel icky.

Beyond taking care of myself and the zinc boosters, I suspect it also helped that the meeting almost proceeded on schedule.  In past times, the agenda items would be handled all out of order, and people wouldn't stop talking, and everyone got off on tangents, until I basically wanted to start throttling people.  There was still some tangents and people-that-won't-shut-up, but in the end, the meeting only ran over a bit, as opposed to hours.  So I guess this won't be the month that the word "meeting" starts me foaming at the mouth.  Always next month, I guess.

Hair Improvements

In other news, I got my hair re-cut, or whatever the correct word for that is.  It was supposed to be just maintenance, since short hair gets shaggy and grows quickly.  But on closer inspection, Aynsley opted to change the style into something even easier to maintain.  I now barely need to touch a comb to my scalp in the morning, which is completely amazing.  It is very short now, and can be styled in about four basic ways.  My head seems to prefer one in particular, so I've been letting it do that.  I think it looks decent.  People more fashion-savvy than me think it looks good.  It's less work than either of the two previous hairstyles.  I'm going to say that my stylist-person is awesome, and everyone is winning here. 

Another cool thing that happened during that appointment was a free scalp treatment for my dusty head.  I get these haircuts and such done at a school for beauty, so the students invariably end up throwing in free "etc." into your haircut for practice.  For instance, I've gotten a hand massage all three times I've been there, and a scalp massage nearly as often.  This visit, I asked after something I'd heard mentioned in conjunction with my hair-dust problem, and they opted to try it on me.  It's... basically a specialized scalp massage, using a special brush, and then a special shampoo and a scalp treatment afterwards. 

It's not that I have dandruff, precisely, since there aren't giant skin flakes, I don't ever have "snow-capped shoulders," and I haven't needed a special shampoo.  My head just seems to produce a lot of tiny dust motes and lint, which then sit in my hair and get into my combs and brushes.  It's been an irritant to me for years.  I can definitely say their treatment has helped, at least temporarily.  I bought and took home one of the special brushes.  Instead of bristles for straightening your hair, it has loops so the hair isn't really involved and you can just focus on the scalp itself.  I've been using it every time my scalp itches, and in the shower to help with the scrubbing.  I'm hoping that with regular use, I can say goodbye to the problem entirely. 

Friday, July 21, 2017

Book Review: The Prodigy's Cousin

The Prodigy's Cousin: The Family Link Between Autism and Extraordinary Talent, by Joanne Ruthsatz and Kimberly Stephens.

Somewhat of a departure from my usual fare, but definitely an interesting read, this book explores the idea that child prodigies and autism are linked, and perhaps even two facets of the same phenomenon.  The focus of the book is very much on the child prodigies, rather than also interviewing autistic individuals with special interests (or "enthusiasms" if you prefer).  But that's the initial bridge between autism and prodigies: the single-minded focus on a subject that allows them to excel.  In autism, that's specifically called a special interest, and I hear parents consider it as much a hindrance as they do a help.  In prodigies, that's their gift, and it's viewed much more positively.

The book's focus makes their group of study very, very small.  There aren't that many known child prodigies.  In fact, this book follows only 11.  I say "only," because while that's a lot of people for a single book, it's a pitifully small sample size for any kind of scientific experiment or study.  The authors don't deny this, pointing it out themselves several times.

They systematically investigate their claim, using the information they have at hand.  This includes facing down the notion that autistic people are devoid of empathy.  Gentle reader, I hope you're rolling your eyes with me about this theory.  But if you're not, and my blog hasn't made it abundantly clear...  I have empathy.  I have a lot of it.  I have theory of mind, and it annoys the tar out of me when people look at me like I'm a broken and potentially dangerous subhuman creature.  Sometimes, it really begs the question of who should be investigated for lack of empathy...

My kvetching aside, these authors push the Intense World theory, or the theory that autistic people do not lack empathy, but instead have too much of it, and other senses.  The world is too loud, too bright, too fast, and overwhelmingly emotional, hence "Intense World."  Some of this can be blamed on sensory processing disorders... but I also read somewhere that outcasts and people who don't fit in very well tend to have more empathy than people that do fit in.  And that can make other peoples' emotions overwhelming.  You'd want to hide in your room all day too, if you had to suffer your emotions on 100x magnification and others' emotions too.

The Intense World theory, then, hypothesizes that autistic people are overwhelmed by all the light and sound and emotional fury, and to stay sane and regulated, we withdraw from life and shut down.  I find this highly accurate.  While I'm partly shielded by my incredible lack of visual processing efficiency, I find others' emotions very trying and difficult, never mind my own.

An example would be a funeral I went to relatively recently.  It was for Chris' grandmother, a lady I'd met perhaps five times in the entirety of my life.  She was very gracious to me and gave me a very nice pair of slipper-socks, and she liked tea.  And that sentence describes pretty much everything I knew about her going into that funeral.  So not exactly a strong emotional connection.  I went to the funeral to support Chris, and especially his mother and the family.  It was a nice service, which I spent sitting quietly and listening to the proceedings... until the Family Remembrances section came up.  Most of her surviving children had a turn at the microphone, and while only one of them was having to talk through tears the entire time, I basically just sat there and sprouted tears and boogers because of all the pain I was hearing.  I literally cried my way through all but maybe 5 minutes of the family remembrances section.

I was, suffice it to say, mortified.  Other than the people speaking at the microphone and the daughter closest to the deceased grandmother, no one near me was crying very hard.  Except me.  I commented later, sheepishly, that sometimes having autism is like having no skin.  I have no real ability to shut out or filter other peoples' pain in situations like that, so I just suffer and feel awkward and bad while I do it.  But sure, people, you go ahead and believe I don't have empathy.

Speaking of me being crabbity, this book also kind of grumped me out.  I've not seen the statistics, but a percentage of people on the autism spectrum do not have a special interest or drive to master a particular subject.  I am one of those people.  I have skills and talents, yes, but nothing singular that I truly excel at.  In this age of uncertainty, where people can and do search for years for a job they can enjoy and make living with... it's envy-inducing to know that people like me discover a true and abiding calling in their lives.  At least at the time, they seem to have few doubts about the trueness of that calling, and if they're young enough, the unusualness of it is enough to bring the money and publicity out of the woodwork.  And in all prodigy stories listed here, that was very much the case.

The rest of us, myself included, have no such luck and have to find what things we like and can tolerate slowly, painfully, and sometimes even unsuccessfully.  The idea that I might've been a few genes off from early artistic greatness, or scientific excellence, or something similar, and not have had to spend a decade or more trying to figure out what I'm good at and like doing... is really frustrating.

My last side comment on this book is in reference to another oddity of prodigy children, and a supposed difference between them and autistic people.  The book terms it "the mystery of prodigy benevolence," referring to the tendency of child prodigies to work on the behalf of others, even non-family, using their talents and networking capabilities.

I don't find this phenomenon particularly mysterious.  Child prodigies are children.  They've found something they truly love doing, which is then, in these stories, supported and praised by their families and those they love.  When money and praise starts rolling in, they're still kids.  They haven't necessarily been introduced to the fear-frenzied demon called greed, and their own needs are satisfied.  So why not help others?  It seems simple enough to me.

Someone once said: the grand essentials of happiness are: something to do, something to love, and something to hope for.  They have something to do (their fields of study), something to love (their families, friends, their work), and something to hope for (advancement in their field of study, the ability to meet more people, growing up, etc).  Is it really so surprising to people that these children display such benevolence?

Anyway, in the end, the book doesn't make a definitive link between autism and child prodigies.  It does paint a compelling picture, though, and if the 42 page long list of references is anything to go by, a reasonably well-cited one.  If nothing else, it's an interesting take on autism and its potential benefits.

Read This Book If

You have an interest in child prodigies, or want to read an interesting theory regarding them.  This book is well written and engaging, but is definitely not a self-help book or a cookbook for making your child a prodigy.  Rather, it's a set of slice-of-life stories woven together with scientific research and theory regarding the subject. 

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Reading the Research: Translating Sarcasm

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 details an achievement in translating social language, specifically sarcasm, into "plainspeak" as I'd call it.  System detects, translates sarcasm on social media

This is notable, according to the article, in the main because it's the first system to directly translate, rather than simply mark or note when a sentence is sarcastic.  So it would translate something being "the best" sarcastically into "the worst" unsarcastically, leaving the rest of the sentence untouched.  This is promising, but also somewhat worrisome to me. 

It's promising, because it's a possible starting point for autistic people to learn sarcasm.  Getting a start on flipping that mental switch from one extreme to the other can be difficult for people who automatically take things literally.  But it's worrisome, because it does not, in fact, allow for any learning possibilities. 

I do not recall precisely how my first real friend, a British citizen, tutored me in sarcasm.  I suspect it was probably more via excessive amounts of examples than actual direct teaching, but whatever the method, I am now quite fluent in speaking and translating it (unless I don't know the speaker at all). 

If I had been equipped with this translation technology, it would merely have translated every sarcastic sentence he typed, leaving me entirely unaware that he was being sarcastic at all.  At which point, I would never have learned this particular style of communication and would been poorly equipped to handle the real world, where sarcasm is readily and often used in verbal communication. 

I recognize that not everyone can simply pick up sarcasm via repeated exposure, but it worries me that there isn't even the possibility of learning with this technology.  I would favor an increasing difficulty model, starting with a direct translation like this provides.  After that, you could move to marking the sarcastic sentence, perhaps side-by-side with the original sentence, and then simply marking the sarcasm and letting the autistic person do their own "inversion of meaning" and try to understand it without help.  Eventually, you could leave off the sarcastic markers and hopefully people like me could simply get along by ourselves. 

Unrelatedly, the article calls the translated sarcastic sentences "honest" sentences.  I hope that's a translation eccentricity, because I rather resent the implication that I'm being dishonest by being sarcastic.  When I say things sarcastically, I do not intend to mislead people, but instead express my sentiments in a humorous, boomerang-like fashion.  So I hope the translation for the non-sarcastic sentences could also be "direct." 

It occurred to me, as I was reading the article, that this technology is still very much a proof-of-concept.  Their system would not, for instance, pick up my sarcastic use of the word "charming" to describe behaviors in people that are distinctively anything but charming.  For instance, any rendition of archaic viewpoints on women, including the irksome "make me a sandwich" or any reference to women being confined to the kitchen or being silent, tends to elicit that particular comment.  Particularly if I don't feel comfortable calling the person on their offensively repressive crap.  This translation system would miss that, as it seems to focus on superlatives like "best" "worst" "awesome" "awful" etc. 

Lastly, the article comments that this translation technology could be useful for communicating with computers.  I find this quite appropriate, since computers presently lack a sense of humor and the ability to take things figuratively.  That may change in the future, but for the time being it seems wise to research such applications for tech. 

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Legwork and Life, week of 7/18/17

Well.  I feel like shredded lettuce.  I think I've been overextending my multitasking abilities too much... 

This week I'm cat-sitting for some friends of mine, again.  They call on me sometimes and since I have no pets of my own, it's always nice to visit, even if one of the cats almost invariably hides in the basement when anyone comes, goes, or moves more than 10 feet.  The other is more aloof and less terrified, but yesterday she spent an hour or so flopped on my stomach while I tried to read a book.  She doesn't generally purr when she's petted, but she'd leave if she was annoyed, and she was warm, so I let her flop. 

In other news, I was supposed to have a dentist appointment, but apparently my health insurance changed dental providers, and so I can no longer even attempt to use Medicaid at my dentist's office.  So I guess it's probably time to finalize getting myself kicked off Medicaid and get onto my spouse's insurance from work.  I hate paperwork and insurance and fiddly bits like the plague, which is part of why this has taken so long.  But ugh.  I strongly believe in preventative care, and unfortunately this counts. 

In happier news, I get to see Aynsley, the student who cut and dyed my hair, again later today.  Apparently the haircut I have requires maintenance every 4 weeks or so, so it's now time to get it trimmed so it's not shaggy.  At this point the color has faded somewhat, and I can see bits of my regular hair color at the roots of the hair, but I'm actually not due to re-dye my hair for another 4 weeks or so. 

In the meantime, I was promised some kind of complimentary experimental scalp treatment, which might help with the fact that apparently my scalp produces dust at an alarming rate.  I do not have dandruff in the classical sense, but the sheer amount of skin bits, fuzzes, and oil that seems to build up strikes me as unusual.  It's to the point where, when I comb my hair after a shower, I get skin and oil combined on the comb even though I've carefully washed my hair.  I've noticed this tendency of my hair and scalp to produce dust, but it wasn't really obviously terrible until I chopped off most of my hair.  There's less scalp-fuzz to hide the evidence now. 

They'll probably try to sell me a bottle of shampoo at the salon, which I'm not thrilled about but might have to take them up on, in the interests of preserving the hair color and combating whatever's going on with my scalp.  But I'll run the problem by Aynsley first.  She's lovely, thoughtful, and doesn't immediately ram product sales down my throat when I explain my problems and limitations. 

Last but definitely not least, the clock is ticking on my membership with the Self Advocates of Michigan board.  I have not, thus far, seen anything but words on the issue of the website and people being responsible about solving those problems.  The in-person meeting is this weekend, and while I am not even slightly looking forward to it, it's probably where stuff will either get solved or shoved under the rug indefinitely.  If it's the latter, I'm fixing up their website as best I can, then handing the reins over to someone with more patience.  While I strongly believe I have a lot of skills to offer an organization like that, I will not do so forever if no one will work with me to solve problems.  I have my own life to manage, and I'll do so in a more limited range if that's what it takes to keep my sanity. 

Friday, July 14, 2017

Article: Inside a Depressed Person's Head

Depression is a rather poorly understood phenomenon, even sometimes by those who suffer it regularly.  Most people's experience with depression is at the loss of a loved one.  That's a normal thing to be depressed about, but unlike major depression, it goes away simply with time.  Major depression is not so polite. 

I have, to my knowledge, suffered dysthymia for the majority of my life.  Which is also not major depression, it's a minor, long-lasting, greyness to the world.  It's why I get grumpy quickly.  It's why I'm often negative rather than positive.  It's something I'm trying to fight. 

However, I have also had an episode of major depression.  At least one, but only one I can easily see in retrospect was definitely major depression.  I was in college, and it was finals time in sophomore year.  The stress of so many projects (all of which seemed above and beyond me) combined with poor eating, combined with the uncertainty of the future and a sense of crushing loneliness (I'd recently broken up with my second boyfriend, who had then gotten together with his future wife).  All of this came together into a cognitive tempest of emotional pain.  Inside of it, everything was my fault, nothing was ever going to improve, and life was literally pain. 

Please understand that I was firmly convinced of those facts: everything was pain, and it was my fault.  Unlike many sufferers of depression, I had very little support.  But also unlike many sufferers of depression, I had also spent most of my memorable childhood either miserable, angry, sad, or highly focused.  So when my life became pain, it was simply a ramping up of what had already been. 

The golden sun shone warmly down upon the college campus, bringing out the deep emeralds of the carefully tended plants and brilliant shades of sapphire sky, and none of it touched me.  I like colors, but within the grey haze that my life had become, everything was merely theatrical scenery, flat, transitory, irrelevant.  I didn't notice that change, either.  I've never claimed to be particularly observant, but intense pain tends to make anyone's observational skills worse.

So I didn't recognize it at the time. despite literally studying it that very semester, and only long afterwards did I go, "oh, wait... everything isn't my fault, why did I think it was?  Was... was that major depression?"  Instead, I did what I've always done when my life is hard and miserable.  I put my head down and kept plugging along, one step at a time.  As far as I understood, I had no other alternatives. (Suicide didn't really occur to me, I guess.)

Like all finals seasons, it eventually ended.  I can't honestly remember if I kept that fact in mind, that the finals would end, and it helped, or if I lost track of it entirely in the slew of due dates and projects...  but it did end.  I shipped myself and my stuff back home, and with the main source of the stress and pain over, recovered over the course of a couple weeks. 

Besides the points this article makes, I'd like to point out that depression is quite literally emotional and cognitive pain.  The brain handles pain differently than the rest of the body does, but it is still pain and cannot be fixed by simply "looking on the bright side" of things.  If this idea is new to you, please read the "Support for People with Depression" and "What Loved Ones Can Do" sections of this article very carefully, and commit it to memory. 

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Reading the Research: Targeting the Gut to Treat Autism

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 research is less focused on the brain side of things, and more on the intestines: Treating Autism by Targeting the Gut

Why?  Well, as it turns out, the various organisms that live in your gut have a major impact on your mind, mood, and metabolism.  If you have a good balance of many kinds of bacteria, you'll feel good and function well.  If not, you'll function much more poorly.  This is particularly obvious in people on the autism spectrum, since we tend to be very sensitive to changes in diet and environment.  (Some people call autistic people "the canary in the coal mine" for this reason.)  However, the diversity of the gut bacteria in the whole US population has been declining since fast food and sugar became major parts of our diet. 

This study was apparently done in China, which makes me wonder what the researchers in the US are doing instead... but from my personal experience, the link is sound.  Eat better food, take good quality probiotics, and my gut will be healthy and my mind less stressed, anxious, and depressed.  At this very moment, I have two kinds of probiotics in my refrigerator, which I'm using to rehabilitate my gut.  Once I've managed that, I'll go back into more of a holding pattern, with one of each per week. 

While the article here suggests a direct link between changing the gut bacteria and sociability/social behavior in autism, I think that's a mite simplistic.  Most likely, restoring the gut bacteria to healthy levels and balances increases that person's energy and reduces the anxiety and depression, which then allows them to devote more energy to social pastimes and behaviors they wouldn't otherwise be able to manage.  While this can be reduced to "good gut bacteria = more sociability" I think it's important to know why that occurs, so if it doesn't, you know what things to try next.  Like, say, social skills training, or increasing personal agency and locus of control. 

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Legwork and Life, week of 7/11/17

I'm alone this week.  Or most of this week.  Chris generally comes home promptly after work, but this week he's on the other side of the state, attending a conference for work.  Like many conferences, this one goes for three days, during which all the attendees will be kept busy.  My work day isn't going to change much, but I do kind of wonder how well I'm going to manage the evenings.

I've got meetings with friends planned, and of course plenty of work and virtual "company."  Ever heard of people that like to have the TV on for the background noise?  It's kind of like that, apparently, for some of my friends and podcasts.  I personally don't think it's really the same, but there is a certain comfort in hearing other people talking.  Particularly if the subject they're talking about is pleasant, or at least funny.

I've been monitoring my behavior since Chris left, and I'm not overly pleased with the results thus far.  My diet has deteriorated, my productivity is down, I'm disregulated, and I'm spending lots of time doing "comfort" things rather than doing useful or important things.  I even managed to entirely forget an appointment yesterday, and now I'll have to call today to apologize and reschedule.  I'm setting a special alarm tomorrow to make darned sure I don't forget tomorrow's meetup with friends, and I shouldn't have to do that. 

Also, my metaphorical skin feels very thin at present.  Some of that is Chris not being here, but I suspect some of it is also due to the sheer amount of shredded sanity I'm experiencing, courtesy of my thoughtless neighbors.  I talked a bit last week about how I like fireworks, as a whole, and why.  I have since found out that I only like fireworks when I have voluntarily chosen to be near them.  In the weeks prior to the 4th, and even up to today, I've been subject to the sporadic, spontaneous whims of my neighbors and their extremely large supply of explosives and fireworks.

I tolerated it, somewhat, around the actual 4th, because fireworks and the 4th go together.  But each explosion made my heart stop, then restart with a huge jolt of adrenaline and the occasional comic flailing of limbs and distressed "meep" sound.  I've resisted the increasingly strong urge to call the police, as apparently my city has a noise ordinance that begins at 10pm... but only for fear of police brutality.  My neighbors are overwhelmingly non-white, and sometimes don't speak English that well.

Much as I absolutely despise any human being that thinks it's acceptable to throw explosives around at 1am when people work the next day, I didn't want the possibility of dead neighbors on my conscience.  Though admittedly, I keep telling myself that if they do it one more time, I will call the cops and be it on their own thoughtless heads whatever results.  Every firework and explosive they throw is an assault to my sanity and willpower.

At least the number of explosives seems to have tapered off lately...

Friday, July 7, 2017

Autism at Jury Duty

It's been more than a decade since I registered to vote, and only just recently has the country finally managed to call me to jury duty.  While my experience was a very short one, and I did not end up on a jury, I did manage to make some observations which I hope will be useful.

First, the experience was very disruptive to my schedule.  I was required to present myself before 7:45am, downtown at the courthouse.  This essentially required me to get up at 6am to beat the rush hour traffic.  This is much earlier than I am used to, and very unpleasant to boot.  I tried to mitigate the annoyance by laying out almost everything I needed beforehand: messenger bag, filled with snacks, books, water bottle with hydration aid, supplements, blanket, noise-canceling headphones, etc.  I stocked my tablet with episodes of the funny podcast I've been listening to, and made sure I had several time-waster phone games installed.  I then drove downtown, where the process of getting there was made smoother by their accommodations for all jurors, which included free parking and a free bus ride to near the courthouse.  Unfortunately, I hate city driving and I was completely unfamiliar with the bus line.

With the help of another potential juror I met near the parking lot, I was able to get to the courthouse, where they promptly started me through security.  I had to leave part of my keychain with security, unfortunately, as it had a multitool with an inch-long blade on it.  I... honestly think I'd have a lot of trouble hurting anyone with that, but I guess rules are rules.  I had to pick it up on the way out, and the fuss kind of upset me.  But I tried not the show it, because this day was going to be long enough without me crying at the door...

Once through security, I was directed toward the juror waiting room, which was an off-white, somewhat dilapidated affair with hundreds of chairs, a few side tables, a projector screen, and dozens of humming fluorescent lights.  (Exactly the kind of light that drives some autistic people to distraction and causes migraines, oh joy...)  Other than the side tables, the room could have passed for a lecture hall in school.  Prior to walking in, I was directed to check in and compete a survey by a polite but warm staffer.  She would turn out to be our general guide and information source.

I committed some civil disobedience with the survey.  It asked for my zip code and my gender.  I was fine giving them my zip code, but they only had two boxes for my gender, and I identify as neither, thanks.  More importantly than my personal preferences, though, this was an opportunity to stand up for a minority group.  So I wrote my own box on the survey, checked it, and identified it as "Third Gender."  It would perhaps have been most correct to write "Neither" or "Other" in my case, but as there are so many gender identities, I opted for the most easily understandable objection.

(For any confused parties, there is a huge difference between sex (one's physical parts) and gender (one's identity).  While my sex is female, as I have breasts and other female organs, my gender is "agender."  Effectively, I would like you to take all your stereotypes about male and female and keep them far away from me, thanks.  I am myself, the concepts and stereotypes of "female" and "male" shouldn't enter into it.  Generally I just handwave this fact and concept, but in such a staple part of our country's judicial system, I felt it best to stand up for other trans and third-gender people.  What's the government going to do anyway, waggle a disapproving finger at me?  Insist I take it again?)

After turning in the survey, I snagged one of the side-table seats near an electrical outlet, figuring I'd be happiest if I could make disgusted expressions and smiles at the wall, and not annoy or confuse any other jurors.  I could also thusly limit my visual input, which would help increase how long I could stand being in a room with hundreds of other people.  Unfortunately, this seat was also near a wall, so I got to experience how poor the soundproofing of the room was.  I kept hearing thuds, bangs, and possibly someone hammering in a nail somewhere.  Out came the noise-canceling headphones, which helped somewhat.  They helped even more as people filtered in and the noise level increased.

This was alongside much more patriotic things, like an explanation of the great seal, and a story about a Supreme Court justice going to jury duty. 

The room, as I mentioned, contained a projector screen.  Onto this was projected a looping slideshow, which contained a number of useful pieces of information, most notably the bathroom locations, the options at the kitchenette, the location of a snack shop, and the wifi password.  I snagged pictures of the wifi password, because this was a very slow slideshow.  At least 15 seconds passed in between slide transitions, maybe as much as half a minute.  And there were many, many slides.

Starting with this one. 

While some of the potential jurors (probably the more awake ones, thinking about it), clustered together to chat with all these strangers, many others, perhaps excessively tired, simply spaced themselves slightly apart and got out their phones and books and such.  I was somewhat surprised by how uncommunicative many of them were, but I guess being woken up early for a job you don't want to do might have something to do with that.

The official court business referred to people by their numbers, not their names.  At number 117, I'd assumed I'd be one of the last people called for attendance, but I was very wrong.  All told, the numbers went up to 450, each person raising their hand and saying "Here" loudly when called.  In some cases there were discrepancies, with multiple people having the same number due to scheduling conflicts.  And in quite a few cases, people simply missed their number called, and responded promptly when their name was called.

After attendance finished, there was a video for jury orientation.  It started off very well, by threatening the choir instead of preaching to them.  Apparently you can be jailed or fined for not showing up to jury duty.  The rest of the video was basically a crash course in the judicial system.  The video guide person was of African American heritage, which I appreciated.  I was also amused to note that apparently some courtrooms use TV screens to help the jurors see evidence, and the deliberation room may include a microwave for convenience.  Also, "enpaneled" is a word, apparently.

After the movie, I started getting really cold.  It's July, it's hot outside, but this room started to resemble a refrigerator after a couple hours.  I got out the blanket I'd brought and wrapped it around my legs, and that helped some.  Our guide told us that there were two judges in attendance, each with a relatively short load of cases.  Most cases are settled outside of court, so jurors aren't always (usually not) needed.  After an hour or so, the guide-staffer informed us that one of the judges had gotten through his queue without needing a jury, and she would keep us posted on the other.

Less than 15 minutes later, she returned to tell us that the other judge had also cleared his queue without the need for a jury, so we were clear to leave for the day, and did not need to report back tomorrow or any other time in the week.  So basically, I got very lucky.  I was able to go home within 5 hours and get started on my routine for the day. 

While I do not particularly look forward to this happening again, I also wasn't overly worried I would be drafted for an actual jury, either then or in the future.  The reason for this is my bachelor's degree in psychology. Apparently the general trend is to choose jurors with less education, and especially ones without any background in law and psychology.  "The better to influence you with, my dear," I guess.  My father has told me this, but so did the section on the court system in my classes.  I think that knowledge helped me be less stressed about the experience as a whole.  That, and if the poor suckers did choose me for a jury, I have the knowledge to avoid falling for some of their tricks, and the fluency to explain those tricks to my fellow jurors.  I wouldn't mind being on a jury so much, but it was a fairly stressful experience overall, and one I'm not eager to repeat.

My general takeaways from the experience:
  • Definitely prepare ahead of time like this time, and pack a second blanket in my bag.
  • 10+ 45 minute podcasts to listen to is not enough if jury duty is going to involve actual juries, bring more next time.
  • The court system is surprisingly civil to people that aren't accused of crimes.
  • Leave the multitool at home next time.
  • Jury duty is super boring when it's not being super stressful, and not autistic-friendly in the slightest.