Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Reading the Research: Emotional Control and 3rd Person Self-talk

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 covers a style of self-direction and soothing called self-talk, and outlines a "best practice" for using it.  Self-talk, or chatting to oneself, is used by a lot of people to help deal with various situations, from upsetting to organizational.  For example, saying, "I need to do errands today, and I should probably go to the library first and the grocery store last so the frozen food doesn't thaw."  Saying that sentence out loud helps prioritize and analyze the chosen course of action.  I believe that's because it activates more of the brain in one action, since your hearing also comes into play.  In this way, anyone can be better organized and regulated.

You can also use self-talk to help regulate emotions, and that's what this article covers.  The experimenters presented a series of neutral and disturbing images with the participants hooked up to a monitor.  Emotional brain activity was then compared as the participants used first and third person self-talk.  They found that third-person self-talk, saying, "Why is Mary upset?" rather than "Why am I upset?" allowed for much quicker emotional control, and without expending any extra effort.  The researchers theorized this effect was because it gave some psychological distance to the person's viewpoint, allowing them to view the situation as if they were talking about someone else.  And situations are usually easier to deal with if they're someone else's problem and you're just helping them think about it.

I found this kind of interesting for a number of reasons.  First, society has taught me that talking to yourself is a sign of mental illness.  Psychology slaps that myth down, as well it should.  There are a lot of kinds of self-talk, and most of it is self-regulating.  And it's just as well, because I talk to myself on a relatively regular basis when I'm alone.  I plan out trips, work through difficult decisions, and bounce ideas off myself.  Sometimes simply by hearing an idea spoken aloud, I can see the flaws in the idea. 

What also interested me is that I apparently opt for a middle ground between the studied self-talk patterns.  You see, I do not talk to myself in third person like the better emotional-regulators in the study.  Nor in first person, like the normal communicators.  I, in fact, mainly use second person in my self-talk.  I'll say, "Okay, we need to go to the store to get blackberries, flour, and salad ingredients, because we need that for dinner tonight," rather than using "I" or "Sarah." 

I don't think I do that because I view myself as a multi-part individual, though you can certainly make that argument. (I tend to think of my mind and heart as two separate entities when dealing with difficult situations.)  I suppose the closest comparison for what I'm doing would be the "royal we," where you can more or less substitute "I" for "we," but the convention requires the monarch to use "we" as a sign of their power... or something.  I've only seen the "royal we" used a few times in literature.

In my case, I think it's a compromise between first person (acknowledging that this is a problem that I am presently facing) and third person (getting some psychological distance from the problem to understand and analyze it better).  It feels disingenuous to me to use third person when talking about a personal problem, particularly since there are a lot of Sarahs out there, and why am I sticking my nose into their lives if they haven't invited me to help them with their problems?  But I guess I tend to shy away from first person instinctively in difficult matters.  I'm not really sure why, but it would make sense if it was specifically because of the psychological distance thing. 

Regardless, it's potentially valuable information for anyone that wants to be better at emotional regulation.  If you already practice self-talk, a valuable experiment might be seeing if shifting your self-talk to third person helps you. 

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Legwork and Life, week of 8/29/17

It was quieter week this week, which was good because I feel like I'm struggling again.  I can't tell if it's an internal thing, like my biology is off, or an external thing, like my circumstances are getting worse. 

The Slow Decline of an Apartment Complex

There's a good argument for the latter, at least.  I haven't made a huge stink about it anywhere, but I'm watching the apartment complex I live in slowly deteriorating.  When Chris and I moved in, the lawns were green and well-kept, though not pristine.  The buildings showed some wear, but weren't falling apart.  All the trees were alive and seemed to be thriving.  The landscaping was neat and tidy.  The neighborhood was quiet, even during the summer with the kids out of school.  People would come through with trash-pickers every month or so, to keep the place tidy.  It wasn't paradise, of course, but it was a pretty decent place to live. 

So naturally, all of that had to change.  I noticed the noise level increasing around the 1 year mark.  People seemed to suddenly consider it perfectly acceptable to yell conversations across the parking lot at midnight, blast their car stereos at any hour, and not chastise their children for howling like banshees in the morning.  This was awful for my attempts to sleep, focus, and relax, naturally.  My brain doesn't politely tune out stupid people yelling across parking lots, it considers that information just as relevant as the book I'm trying to read, or the music I'm trying to listen to.

Next, the grass started getting worn and dying.  The edges of the yard areas got more and more ragged and bare.  Several of the trees between the buildings died in the windstorms, and began tottering dangerously.  Only one of those trees has been removed to date, though a couple more are marked for removal.  The outsides of the buildings have gotten shabbier, the roofs missing shingles in places.  One really nasty windstorm dropped a massive tree branch onto our neighboring building, which we dutifully reported.  The branch proceeded to sit there, ignored, for weeks, until it was replaced by... a tarp.  The tarp has now been there for months. 

The latest and perhaps most telling sign... is that the apartment complex people apparently no longer care about the lawn at all... because there are weeds everywhere.  Most species of grass aren't excessively hardy, and so lawns have to be carefully maintained and herbicides used to keep other plants from invading.  This has apparently not occurred anytime recently, and the weeds are taking advantage, popping up everywhere, including in the stony, grass-free area. 

I'm really not sure how the apartment manager thinks she's going to get more tenants with things in this state.  Especially at the prices they're asking for these units.  I can't wait to leave... 

A Trip to the Movies

In happier news, I got to go see a movie with Chris last week.  We decided to have some together time mid-week, in lieu of my usual Wednesday evening walk with a friend.  Due to the kindness of a friend of mine, we only frequent one particular theater, but get free tickets.  (We do try to buy concessions, though, since that's mainly where theaters actually make their money.)  So we caught an evening showing of The Dark Tower, which is a movie based loosely on a novel series by Stephen King.  I was unfamiliar with King's writing and the novel series, so I was able to enjoy the movie somewhat.  (Apparently the movie, like many book adaptations, ticked off the book's fans.)

Chris mainly wanted to see it for the gun-kata (fancy gunplay tricks and fighting).  There was some of that, especially at the end of the movie.  But it wasn't really over-the-top, and the movie itself, while set in a fantastic world, was somewhat grim.  It did end "happily" at least, so we didn't walk out of the theater bummed and crabby.  Well, I did, but that's because one of our fellow movie-goers thought it was a good idea to vape inside the theater.  Turns out even if the smoke is pretty-smelling and presumably non-toxic, it still makes my throat close up.  I am now firmly of the opinion that you should always smoke outside, regardless of what you're smoking, and I will literally miss part of my movie to not experience that again.

The movie itself mostly left me with a curiosity about that fantasy world in general.  I picked up the first book in the series after a couple days, but it read like a fever dream... and a vulgar one at that.  I'm unsure of whether this book is indicative of the rest of Stephen King's books, or whether it was merely one of his early works that... perhaps didn't get enough polish.  Or perhaps this is simply a writing style I flatly dislike and thousands of other people love.  Either way, the movie made for an interesting night out together. 

Chris noticed my unhappiness with the smoke and decided we should get drinks to help my throat at a nearby restaurant.  So we sat for half an hour or so and ate an appetizer and sipped water and other things, and that was a nice place to discuss the movie and just be together.

Supporting the Parents at ASK

The last event of note this week was my monthly trip to the parent support group for Autism Support of Kent County.  It's not that I'm a parent or am likely to be one, that's not why I go.  It's that going through the difficulties of raising a kid on the spectrum can really narrow your focus, making you blind to viewpoints other than your own.  And it can make you lose hope, with things being so difficult.  So the parent support group is there to help develop connections between parents, educate all attendees on various local services and options, and in general be a supportive, safe place for parents of kids with autism to talk about their problems. 

I attend this group in order to provide what I tend to see as "the missing perspective" in these discussions... that is, the kid's perspective.  If you don't have autism, you are going to have a hard time understanding what's going on with your kid, even if you document what's going on, read tons of books and research, and try your best.  And your kid can't necessarily tell you, either.  I suspect that I was fairly uncommunicative growing up, and I was seemingly fully verbal.   (I say "seemingly" because while I could absolutely read a book and tell you what it was about, I was extremely more dense about what was going on in my life, what my emotional status was, and what things would be "fun.")

Attendance this month was pretty slim, with just a couple parents, a visitor from the YMCA program, and one of the regular ASK board members.  The board member gave a presentation, roughly themed around, "What I've learned in 30+ years of being a parent to my autistic son."  It had a heavy emphasis on dealing with the government, Medicaid, Supplemental Income, and various Michigan-specific laws meant to help people with disabilities earn money and save money.  This was helpful for the parents that did show up, both of them quite new to the autism world, and both struggling to get Medicaid and the services that come with it.  I'd personally heard most of it before, but was able to add in a few tidbits here and there. Sometimes I learn things about the parents' struggles, or new and interesting options for treatment, and that's almost as valuable as being able to help out the parents directly. 

This coming week's events include lots of preparation for Labor Day weekend (I'm going to run an extra long game of Dungeons and Dragons, most likely, which means lots and lots of preparation), dinner with visiting family, and the monthly Chore-palooza.  Chris and I tend to save the larger chores for the first day of the month, or the Saturday nearest that day, and then do those chores together.  This is much more to his preference than mine: I tend to believe you should just do the chores ASAP, without requiring other people to help you or work alongside you.  But Chris' upbringing was very different, and so I've had to compromise between my optimal work schedule and his.  It's working, mostly. 

Friday, August 25, 2017

Book Review: Autism and Alleleluias

Autism and Alleluias, by Kathleen Bolduc, is a series of spiritual reflections and faith-inspiring incidents in the life of a family with autism.  The author is the mother of the family, as is often the case.

This is a short book, less than 150 pages, but it's a very emotional one.  Some of the chapters are poetry, written by a thoughtful, deeply involved and spiritually alive mother and Christian.  Most, however, are short stories with reflections of how her autistic son, Joel, brought her and the people around them closer to God.  Each non-poetry chapter comes with a prayer at the end, somewhat reminiscent of those "daily devotions" books my parents read at the dinner table after the dishes have been cleared away.

Each and every one of these stories are written in the perspective of the mother, letting you have a glimpse into the trials she faced and overcame in the course of raising her son from birth to high school graduation, and beyond.  Those trials are not insignificant.  Unlike me, Joel has an intellectual disability in addition to his autism, and he developed some extra challenging behaviors as he grew up.

I mostly read this book soberly, saddened by the hardships and frayed nerves and miscommunications, but this book is not a sad one.  Each chapter is a separate alleluia to God for his guidance, her son, and sometimes other people involved in the story.  Many of the stories start out, or at least middle with, a groan, which at the end turns to the alleluia.  Perhaps I'm too inclined to depression to pick up the joy and thankfulness.

I did note, with some amusement, however, that Joel and I did have something in common.  We both hated sitting through church services.  I had it a bit better under control than he did, as the author bemoans and recounts the general pattern of the church services, with Joel eventually losing interest and patience and declaring church to be over midway through the prayer, and that it was time to have doughnuts.

I personally chafed at sitting through the sermons.  That dislike lasted clear into my sophomore year of college, and while I resumed going to church, I continued to tune out the sermon.  I've come to understand that's partially because of the content of the sermons I was exposed to.  Current events were not addressed.  Instead, the preachers my father favored liked to elucidate particular passages of the Bible, in great depth and with multiple points to each sermon. That's very well if you know the source material, and have enough patience to sit through 30-45 minutes of fine-toothed combing.  If such a child exists, I was not them.

My favorite book of the Bible when I was little was Revelation, full of fantastical (and evil) beasts, fire from the heavens, mythological overtones, angels, and a great and beautiful city.  Revelation reads more like a story than a history book or a lecture.  I liked the mental pictures, which captured my attention more thoroughly than any lecture could.  Besides, I'd read the Bible cover to cover before I turned 9.  Some of the books bored me half to death, and wouldn't you know, it was usually those boring books that became sermons.

Read This Book If

You need a renewal of your Christian faith, or want to read one mother's faith experience in raising her son with autism and an intellectual disability.  The stories seemed genuine and approachable to me, the poetry interesting and thoughtful.  It's a short read, but a powerful one. 

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...