Friday, June 29, 2018

Worth Your Read: Burnout

This is subject that naturally strikes a bit close to home for me.  I am not doing as badly as the author of this article, but I am far from my best right now, and I'm still not managing my life the way I was a month ago.  I hope to start doing better soon, but until then, here's an account of what this person terms "autistic burnout," which is separate from standard burnout, or even social burnout. 

By the way, if you don't already follow the website Thinking Person's Guide to Autism, I strongly suggest you do.  I don't agree with everything they post there, but the articles are good, thought-provoking material.

Wednesday, June 27, 2018

Legwork and Life, week of 6/27/18

"Tired" about summarizes this last week.  It's more the new meal planning than the week's events, but it all adds up. 

The trip out with my dad for Father's Day went well.  I didn't mention it precisely last week, because he sometimes reads this blog, but we took him mini-golfing at a local off-the-wall place called Glow Golf.  It involved neon lights, black lights, and hunting and fishing themed decor.  It was, suffice it to say, interesting.  We also did dinner, of course, and the cheese shop.  I'd mainly settled on the mini-golfing because one of my strongest memories of "dad time" was of us doing that together at a fancy-ish indoor mini-golf course at a big mall.  The memories are pretty fuzzy, since that was over 20 years ago, but it was still kind of fun to try this particular course.  I'm not sure I'd go back, but it was at least challenging.  And he seemed to have fun, so that's really all that matters.

That wasn't the only social event this week, either.  My grandmother came over to the house.  She helped us buy the place, and it's nice to have family over anyway, so we broke out some beef stew and Chris made his rosemary bread.  She didn't stay for a super long time, but she saw the house, ate lunch, and had a bit of tea afterwards. 

The new meal planning I mentioned is the result of my throwing up my hands, after weeks of faithful exercise, and deciding my body is just not interested in losing weight.  I'm now adhering to a fasting diet, which has me restricting my eating to between noon and 8pm.  This basically means I skip breakfast.  It's not necessarily ideal, but I'm hoping that between the benefits of fasting and the lack of snacking in the evening/morning will mean that I actually start losing weight. 

So far it's only made me properly miserable once, when my first meal was really low in sugar/substances convertible into sugar.  I got very dizzy after that until I ate something else.  Haven't made that mistake again, and I seem to be doing okay now.  I'm not performing as well on my morning exercise, but without a ready supply of energy, who can blame my muscles for not doing as good a job? 

I may or may not get an earful about the situation from the doctor I'm going to today.  I've been wanting to know if anything unusual is up with my joints, so I scheduled an appointment about a month ago with a kinesthesiologist.  Basically, a chiropractor, but for the whole body.  So we'll see what he says, but the intake paperwork was much more interested in my diet than in my joints.  And the intake paperwork was long, bleh. 

The last interesting thing of note this week came about because a wasp (or maybe several) got into the gas fireplace in my home.  It's an open question as to why they'd do that, and why, after doing that, they'd shun the perfectly good top exit to buzz around the fireplace area, get into the house, and then proceed to smash themselves against the sliding door... but after two repetitions of letting them back out, we decided this had gone on long enough, and lit the fireplace.  We let it run for several hours, which should be quite long enough to convince the little buggers to go somewhere else. 

The end result, however, seems to be that the air is full of something that's choking and unpleasant to me.  This is a gas fireplace, so it's not like there's really... ash.  Unless it burnt a wasp nest, I guess.  All the same, something in the air is making me miserable.  I'm hoping it'll go away soon, as I keep the fan on regularly so the air circulates through the house. 

Hopefully this won't be a regular occurrence, because I kind of like using the fireplace.  It makes the house extra cozy. 

Monday, June 25, 2018

Reading the Research: An Alternate Form of Relaxation

Welcome back to Reading the Research, where I trawl the Internet to find noteworthy research on autism and related subjects, then discuss it in brief with bits from my own life, research, and observations.

Today's article talks about Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response, or ASMR.  When I was looking into various ways to relax and calm down, I ran across this brain-oddity.  While it's not specifically an autistic feature, it definitely falls under the neurodiversity heading.  ASMR is the name given to the physical relaxation response to specific things, like whispering, slow hand movements, slowly moving lights, tapping, the crackling of eggshells, or even the sounds of chewing.  People with ASMR experience pleasant "brain tingles" which can spread down their body, when exposed to a trigger.  It's an involuntary reaction, but a good one.  (Also, it is not a sexual reaction, I should point out.)

You can listen to a sampler of ASMR triggers here.  This type of video is fairly common, as are single trigger-focused videos.  If you know anything about microphones, you can tell this particular performer (ASMRtist) has a good bit of money, likely from her work making videos of ASMR triggers.  They are very popular, as you can tell by the 20 million views on the video I linked. As I did my research, I found that I do not seem to experience ASMR (or at least, not with any of the triggers I've tried so far), but it wouldn't really surprise me if a number of autistic people do.  Overall, my research into the subject made it sound an awful lot like a form of passive stimming. 

The effects seem to match those of stimming, too.  Stimming in autistic people is done to calm the person, and watching ASMR videos does that for people who experience it.  Watching those videos slowed the heartrates of the viewers who experienced ASMR, as well as increasing positive emotions and feelings of social connection.  It had no effect on non-ASMR viewers, though, so don't expect to find videos of crinkling paper or tapping making their way into your next company team-building meeting.   I guess it wouldn't exactly hurt anyone it wasn't helping, since the triggers tend to be quiet sounds that aren't sharp or painful.  But we don't have a good idea of the incidence rate of ASMR, simply that it exists and there is a measurable presence of it on YouTube (over 13 million videos uploaded, in fact). 

As for me, I'll just have to keep looking.  There are probably more ways to relax and fight anxiety out there, and even if this one doesn't work for me, that doesn't mean there aren't any out there for me to find. 

Friday, June 22, 2018

Worth Your Read: Parallels

I'm still recovering, it seems, so here's another article I'd hoped to make into a decent discussion at some point.  It's by an autistic trans man, noting parallels in his life between being autistic and being transgender.  Some of his observations strike me as excellent ones, especially the thoughts regarding female socialization. 

He also talks about trying to bridge his "two ways of being: The way I present myselt to the world, and the way that I perceive who I am."  This is a struggle that many autistic people, myself included, experience.  We're expected to act, look, and sound certain ways, and those ways are not necessarily our own ways.  At this moment, I don't truly know where I end and my neurotypical act begins... I simply juggle them and try to favor the former over the latter when feasible. 

If you have time, do take a look at the numbers about transgendered people and autism.  They're remarkably common conditions to have together.  This is one of the reasons I post about LGBTQIA+ issues as well as autism/disability issues- in some ways, they are one and the same.

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Legwork and Life, week of 6/20/18

I feel a little better this week, compared to last week, but I'll probably still take it easy this Friday and give you someone else's thing to read, rather than generating content myself.  I may end up taking a few more Fridays off and building a buffer that way, and then just running with that.  We'll see. 

I had an strange encounter with the Internet on Monday morning.  I checked my emails, as I tend to, and found an email from an online vendor that I've never used, stating that I'd changed my shipping address on the website.  This was extremely worrisome to me, because that particular email has been hacked before, and if that online vendor had my email, what else did they have?  Had someone stolen my personal information and ordered a bunch of things on this online store?  Was my address compromised?  My credit card? 

So I investigated... I went to the website, changed the password on the account, logged in, and looked around.  To my befuddlement, everything on the account, right down to a credit card and address, was someone elses'.  It was just my email on the account, for some reason.  But that left me in a weird situation, a stranger having someone's credit card and address on an online vendor.  This was uncomfortable for me, so my next step was to fix that. 

After making very sure my information was safe and not on the account, I changed the password to something simple.  I then texted the phone number attached to the account, explaining the situation, and giving the person the new password.  They responded within 10 minutes, thanking me and saying that they'd just closed a case with the vendor, having had their account stolen and a bunch of things bought and shipped elsewhere.  They asked for a picture of the email I'd received, which I gave them.  And that's all I've heard from them. 

It's really odd.  The contact information was for someone in New York, so I have no idea how my email address came to live on their account information.  It has to have been done deliberately- the email address is 16 characters long, and distinctive (it includes the word "digimodify" which is... not exactly a common dictionary word).  But I have no idea why that would be a good idea in some identity-jacker's book. 

Anyway, I stepped up the security on that email account, so if this happens again, it's not going to be because some hacker has access to my email. 

Beyond that strange incident, there hasn't been a lot exciting to talk about.  I saw a couple friends, spent a lot of time at home trying to recuperate, and kept up my exercise routine.  Tomorrow I'll be taking my dad to a specialty cheese shop in the area, as well as to an additional place, for a little Father's Day present.  We didn't really celebrate on the day of, between it being a Sunday, the cheese shop being closed, and my being absent-minded overall.  But he's a good sport and doesn't seem to mind the celebration being a bit later. 

Monday, June 18, 2018

Reading the Research: Growing Up Fast

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 answers as least one question I had when I was growing up, and highlights two different trends regarding stress while growing up.  The question that this article answered was: "Why did I seem so much more mature in a lot of regards, compared to my peers?  Was it just the autism?"  Apparently, it was not.

These scientists did a longitudinal study, which is one of the very best kinds of studies for understanding people and getting good data.  It also takes a lot of time and money, because the scientists literally check in with their research participants once in a few years.  Sometimes they even repeat the entire set of tests from the very first part of the study each time they see the participants.  This particular test studied 129 one-year-olds, paying attention to life events and how much stress each child went through, at what times in their lives.

It seems that children who went through negative life events (major illness, parents getting divorced) tended to mature faster when it came to key portions of the brain: the prefrontal cortex (which is linked to our personalities), the amygdala (which helps regulate emotions), and the hippocampus (which is involved in memory-forming).  Interestingly, if the stress held off until the teenage years, the opposite was true: the brain tended to develop more slowly when that was the case.

Personally?  I remember being told, often, that I was a very mature child.  I found it easier to speak to adults than I did other children.  I remember being annoyed by the antics of my classmates.  And strongly, I remember being dubbed "the cool freshman" in my first year of high school.  Where most high school freshmen were hyper, I was calm.  Most said exactly what they were thinking without a care for context or others, I kept quiet, listened, and spoke rarely.  This was noticed, and approved of by, the small group of high school seniors that I hung out with.  When I was a high school senior, I dubbed a similarly chill freshman with the same title.

I always kind of assumed I simply had a different mindset than my peers, because I was always kind of odd.  Based on this study, it's quite possibly safe to assume my brain was simply further along on its developmental path than the brains of my peers.  I do wonder how this research plays with the research that says that autistic people's brains don't develop as quickly, or do neural pruning as much. 

Friday, June 15, 2018

Worth Your Read: To Neurotypicals on my 36th Birthday

I'm still suffering from burnout, and just trying to take care of myself while I figure out how to make it better.  But I didn't want to leave you all with nothing.  So here's an article I'd be hoping to turn into a Friday post at some point.  It speaks pretty well for itself, though, and as I'm turning 30 this year, it's more and more relevant...

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Legwork and Life, week of 6/13/18

I seem to be juggling burnout along with my responsibilities this week.  It's very distressing, because I can't seem to focus on work and can't seem to get anything done even if I do.   I talked about having vacation days a few weeks back, and I think maybe I'm going to have to do that... or to be more precise, my brain is making me do that.  I still have the rest of the week to work on things, but I feel (and am) very behind. 

I may end up needing to take a vacation day or two.  That's not the worst possible thing, but it upsets me to miss a day (or several) after having an unbroken streak of updates for years.  I guess what's most disheartening to me is that I can't seem to duck my head and suffer through it the way I have other challenges.  Part of it is probably because the only deadlines for this blog are mine, and those feel less final than someone else's imposed deadlines.  Still, I'd like to do better... but my brain simply isn't letting me.  At some point, you have to respect that a brick wall is a brick wall and won't give, rather than continuing to try to headbutt it down. 

So that said, if I miss this week's Friday entry, I'm very sorry, and I hope to get back on track soon. 

I've spent most of the last few days reading familiar books, old webcomics, and other comforting things in hopes of soothing myself and getting refocused so I can get back to work.  I may just need a whole week of that, or something.  The fact that the fabric for the blackout curtains is finally going to come in soon is probably going to help, too.  When that happens, I can finally get blackout curtains made and put up, and hopefully sleep better as a result.  It's been months, and the lack of sound sleep in the morning is probably wearing on me. 

In happier news, I'll get to celebrate another monthaversary (like anniversary, but for each month) with my spouse today.  We do a little miniature togetherness celebration each month on the 13th (the day of the month we were married, and also started dating).  We give each other small presents, or go out to eat, and just generally spend time together.  It's kind of like having a date night, but once a month.  This month we both got each other Dungeons and Dragons-themed Tshirts, but the shirts are late, so we'll go out to eat together and Chris won't have to cook today, which is kind of a double treat for him. 

Other happy news: the trip to the chiropractor was a success.  I no longer feel like my legs are on the verge of falling asleep.  I wasn't sure if the adjustment had fixed the problem at first, and was hyperfocusing on my legs, which also made it hard to tell what was going on.  But after I forgot a bit about the problem, it seemed to clear up.  I now seem to have my regular leg problems, rather than disturbing new ones. 

Monday, June 11, 2018

Reading the Research: Memory Transfer

Welcome back to Reading the Research, where I trawl the Internet to find noteworthy research on autism and related subjects, then discuss it in brief with bits from my own life, research, and observations.

Today's article is in the far end of theoretical, but had such interesting ramifications for autism and PTSD that I couldn't leave it alone.  Today's article suggests the possibility of transferring memories from one organism to another.

The experiment was done on marine snails, so you can pretty much guarantee this won't be available for humans anytime soon, but basically, the researchers found it was possible to use nervous system RNA to "transfer" a reaction to having their shells tapped on.  The researchers gathered four groups of snails.  The first two were the preliminary group.  One set in the preliminary group was left alone, the other was exposed to mild electrical shocks delivered to their tails.  RNA was then gathered from the nervous system of both preliminary groups. 

The remaining two groups, the experimental group, received the RNA.  All four groups of snails then had their shells lightly tapped on.  The normal reaction to this stimulus is to contract into their shells, but only for a second or so.  The experimental snails, though, which had been given the RNA from the group that had received electrical shocks?  Their defensive reaction nearly matched their donors' reactions (40 seconds, average, versus 50 seconds for the snails that had been shocked). 

It might be a bit of a stretch, at this point, to call that "transferring a memory," but at the very least, it did seem to transfer a basic reaction.  The senior researcher thinks this suggests an alternate theory for where memories are stored.  It's currently assumed that memories are kept in the brain's synapses, the connection points between neurons.  This researcher thinks, instead, that memories are stored in the nucleus of those neurons.  The experiment backs this idea up, since the RNA was taken in such a way that the synapses weren't involved. 

If it becomes possible to transfer reactions, and even whole memories, from one person to another, this could be an enormously useful teaching tool for autistic people, and a possible therapy for PTSD and Alzheimer's.  The latter two conditions could be treated by damping down the power of memories (for PTSD) and reminding or re-introducing memories (for Alzheimer's). 

Using this for autism would be a more complicated story.  Might one be able to teach a person, by another person's memory, how to tell whether someone is lying?  Perhaps some memories of the appropriate level of eye contact would be a good reference to have in one's brain.  Or a "standard playbook" of things to say in specific social situations, as shown in a set of memories, might smooth our way to handling those situations in our own lives.  (Things like "I'm sorry for your loss" when told someone's family member has died, for example, or small talk about the weather). 

Heck, I've often envied my doctor's ability to take in the details of a person from head to toe, recognizing signs of inflammation, depression, anxiety, and other conditions.  Might that, with sufficient numbers of memories to compare by, also be transferable?  We don't, as of yet, have any idea what the human brain's maximum capacity is.  Things that are forgotten are never truly gone, they're simply misplaced and the brain can't find them any more. 

It'll be interesting to see if this research can be replicated, and if it'll take off and become something remarkably useful to humans.  Even with the advancing rate of technology, I'll still probably be 50 before that happens, but if Alzheimer's is still around then, I'd love to not worry about losing my most important memories should I develop it.  And future autistic people might not have to struggle so hard with social situations. 

Friday, June 8, 2018

Sensory Processing Difficulties: Sight (Part 3)

This is part 3 of a series on Sensory Processing Difficulties.  Part 1 was on touch, and part 2 was on the proprioception and vestibular senses.

Brain-Eyeball Communication

So, usually when people think of their sense of sight, and things going wrong with it, they think about the physical eyeballs, glasses, eye charts, etc.  Perhaps red-green colorblindness comes to mind, or cataracts.  While those are certainly important, when I say "visual sensory processing difficulties," these are not what I mean.  There's nothing physically wrong with my eyeballs (well, besides some nearsightedness): the rods, cones, and optic nerve are all just fine.
Instead, sensory processing difficulties are:
  • disorganization in the muscles the brain uses to control how the eyes focus
  • oddities in how the brain itself processes the data sent to it.  
One or both of these can affect a person, and because vision is such a basic sense, people tend to take it for granted and assume that others see the exact same way they do.  Particularly when the eye doctor tests come back with no significant problems.  But, like me, just because the eyeball and optic nerve is in good health, you aren't guaranteed to not have problems with your vision. 

Brain-Muscle Miscommunication

A normal person can follow the path of a bouncing ball down a driveway, for example.  A person with muscle-coordination visual processing difficulties might not be able to do that.  Their eye muscles may not track the movement properly, and as such, the ball escapes their field of vision and is gone.  They might also have difficulty keeping their eyes on an object as they move, find it hard or impossible to read lines of print in order, or find it difficult to change between looking at a blackboard and looking at a book on their desk.

The end result of these problems can include tons of headaches, regular squinting, frequently losing your place while reading a book (and continuing to resort to using your finger as a guide), trouble copying information from a blackboard, difficulty reading signs or your dashboard while driving, avoidance of stairs, and even avoidance of groups of people due to the dizzying difficulties of keeping track of them all. 

Again, this is not something special glasses or surgery can fix. It's a oddity in the brain itself.  The brain itself can be trained by a specialist, and accommodations made so the person can slowly work toward more normal visual processing. 

Visual Hypersensitivity

This comes in all kinds of exciting flavors. 
  • Light sensitivity: oversensitivity to LEDs, sunlight, fluorescent lights, camera flashes, other bright lights, and/or glare from light sources.
  • Contrast sensitivity: separating black text on a white or off-white page is easy to most.  Not to these folks: the letters can seem to blur into the white page rather than being sharp and defined, which makes it very hard to read.  
  • "Tunnel reading" or restricted span of recognition: difficulty reading groups of words or letters together.  This can make it hard to move from line to line in a book or article, read for the content as a whole,  and even copy words from a page. 
  • Impaired print resolution:  in which the letters on a page or a computer screen are unstable, shimmer, or even move.  Again, makes for bad times when needing to read books, reports, or blog posts written by snarky autistic adults on the Internet.
  • Environmental distortions: like impaired print resolution, except with whole objects moving, shimmering, or changing.  Stairs, the faces of family, and even the floor itself can become  anxiety-provoking.  
Light sensitivity is by far the most common vision complaint I hear from fellow autistic people, and I myself suffer from it.  You can find yourself overwhelmed quickly in otherwise normal situations, even to the point of feeling like the light is stabbing your eyeballs or brain.  This is particularly true with LEDs, which have gotten more and more popular in headlights and even regular lightbulbs.  There's something about the quality of the light that makes it harsher and brighter than incandescent bulbs.  The constant glare can make people tired very quickly, or even become dizzy and develop headaches.

Things like "walking into sunlight," "looking at clouds in the sky," and "looking at snow" can all hurt my eyes.  Even on an overcast day in winter, the whiteness of the snow can reflect enough light to cause stabbing pain.  Headlights at night are awful, particularly if someone's forgotten they turned on their brights.  I usually have to resist the urge to shut my eyes entirely while making rude gestures at the thoughtless jerk.  And that's assuming those headlights aren't the newer LED ones, especially the blue-tinted ones.  If LED headlights are involved, chances are I'm going to suffer if I'm anywhere near them.  

Also, camera flashes.  Can I just say that they're basically the worst?  Most people like taking pictures, and that means nobody gives a second thought to whipping out a camera and telling you to smile.  If it's a smartphone without a flash, that's one thing... but some people still like their old fashioned cameras, and being told to smile while being metaphorically punched in the eyeball is just adding insult to injury, in my opinion.  I used to never be able to smile for cameras, in part because smiling was hard, and in part because really, who wants to smile if you know you're going to be hurt?  As an adult, I try to be graceful about being metaphorically punched in the eyeballs, especially around holidays, but it doesn't ever not hurt. 

Fluorescent lights are a whole different kind of suffering.  Did you know that fluorescent lights actually flicker?  They do so at twice the rate of the electrical supply, but most people can't see such a quick change, so the light appears to be uninterrupted.  Except to people who can see it, at which point, well... ever been stuck in a room with a flickering light?  Did it distract you from what you were trying to focus on?  Maybe annoy you somewhat?  Possibly, the longer you sat there watching it flicker, the more annoyed you got?

Yeah, now imagine that's every light in every room in your workplace.  For many children, it is exactly that.  Fluorescent lights are very common in schools.  If the person has auditory sensitivity, they may also be able to hear the flicker as well as see it.  Needless to say, this is immensely unhelpful to learning and focusing.  If you had to try to take notes or learn in a strobe-light room, you'd do poorly and dislike being there, too.

I don't suffer from any of the other types of visual hypersensitivity, but you can imagine, just from reading what they're like, how much they'd get in the way of an average person's life.  If text or objects in your field of vision warp constantly, or even occasionally, recognizing faces or reading reports would become far more tedious, or even impossible.  

Not Listed Above, But Apparently a Thing

What I do have is something that doesn't really fit into any of the categories.  

This is an overly complex line figure.  It is also a psychological test.  You have a person look at this thing, then give them a pencil and have them try to draw one by looking at it.  Then you take it away and have the person draw the figure by memory.  Most people get the general outer shape, then fill in what details they remember.  You can then tell how good their visual processing and attention to detail is.  

When I tried to make this drawing from memory, I drew it clumsily as a series of boxes, with most of the details in the correct places, but the overall shape was off.  I didn't remember how many boxes they were in total, and didn't consider that the whole shape could be construed as "a big rectangular box with some extra stuff on the edges."  I got a decent number of the fiddly details, but the overall reproduction was significantly poorer than average for my age, due to lacking the general structure of the drawing.  I did somewhat better when I was told to try again but instead try to draw the figure as a whole, and then add the details. 

From this, the professional recognized that I tend to see parts of things and not the whole of things, and that it's hard for me to take in lots of visual detail.  This is particularly true when it comes to art and visually complex maps or pictures.  I don't get a whole lot out of most fine art, as such.  I think this probably also explains why it takes me so much longer to see things in video games, and why it was so complicated for me to learn to drive.  In some video games, especially the one I play, you're supposed to be looking for small details in amidst the terrain, and then reacting to them quickly.  This is hard if you have trouble finding those small details amidst all the other details.  Kind of like looking for a very specific bit of hay in a haystack.  

Driving is very visually complex.  There are other cars, road signs, traffic signals, pedestrians, bicyclists, your dashboard, and animals... just to name the things that are relevant to the driving experience.  There's also all the scenery: the buildings you pass, flowers and plants, people in your car, billboards...

Part of learning to drive, for me, was learning where to look for things, and what to look for.  The scenery seems pointless to look at, but sometimes it has road signs, so you can't ignore it entirely.  Not all road signs look the same, particularly street signs in cities and towns.  Then, too, the problem is multiplied by movement.  All these things are passing by, which means you have a limited time to process them before they're gone.  If you missed them, too bad/hope you didn't need that information. 

The precise diagnoses that went with this brain-eyeball communication oddity were Attention-Deficit Disorder (specifically, I was more impulsive than usual when it came to visual processing), and Cognitive Disorder: Not Otherwise Specified (concerns in visual processing and complex visual-motor integration).  These can both be summarized by saying, "She sees stuff weirdly."  


This week I've described visual processing, what it is and isn't, and most of the ways it can go wonky.  I've also included a description of my particular oddities when it comes to vision, which include light sensitivity but continue right into something not described in my book on sensory processing disorders.  Next week I'll get into the taste and smell senses, which are so intertwined it'd be silly to try to separate them entirely. 

Wednesday, June 6, 2018

Legwork and Life, week of 6/6/18

I feel kind of off this week.  Maybe it's the fact that my legs constantly feel like they're on the verge of getting pins and needles.  Maybe it's that I had a really exhausting Monday. 

I went to bed on Monday night, very stressed and upset from the day I'd had.  It was one of those "I can't possibly meet these deadlines" kind of days, where you beat yourself into trying to meet them anyway.  Then your boss comes and yells at you for not doing something perfectly while you're struggling along, and you just kind of feel awful.  (The actual situation is a bit too complex to describe properly here, so I'm giving an equivalent instead.)   When I finished for the night and went to bed, I noticed that one of my arms and both legs felt kind of like they were just about to fall asleep on me.  I guess kind of fuzzy?  But not a nice comfortable fuzzy, an uncomfortable "you're going to have pins and needles soon" feeling.

This was kind of uncomfortable for trying to fall asleep with, so I kept shifting my legs, but the weird feeling didn't go away.  Eventually I slept... and woke up with the legs still acting like that.  I felt a little clumsier overall yesterday, but went biking as usual and my muscles performed fine... but later that day I talked to a friend of mine and he seemed worried by my description, which alarmed me more than I was already.

So I ended up calling the chiropractor.  They didn't like the sound of what I described, and had me come in the same day to make sure I was okay.  Apparently my spine felt like being tetchy and rebelling against the the chiropractic work I'd had done on Monday, so they did another adjustment to hopefully put it back in line and make my legs stop feeling weird and gross.  But then I had to ice my back for a half hour, because vertebrae get less and less graceful about handling chiropractic adjustments the quicker you do them. Inflammation tends to result.  So, ice pack... or to be more precise, big bag of frozen peas.  I'm to keep an eye on the numbness situation, and if it's not better by this Monday, check in there again. 

In happier news, my old hairstylist-person is back in town!  I complained about her leaving several months ago, after she graduated her school and went off to pursue her dream job in Chicago.  This was in part because I hate change, and in part because I had gotten very fond of her and she's a very remarkable person.  She went off, though, and was gone for several months.  I'm... not really sure what specifically happened to bring her back here, but I couldn't manage to handle travel plans to visit her in Chicago, and I guess now I don't have to.  I suspect it's not a happy story, so this is not entirely happy news, but I'll be seeing her tomorrow for coffee and will be able to celebrate and/or commiserate with her.

This actually also brought up the awkward question as to what to do about my hair maintenance now.  She's still working, and still in the hair-beauty business, but while I'm happy to support her and be a customer to her new place, I also don't want to just... disappear on the student I've been having work on me since she left.  Fortunately, this problem has a time limit on it.  The student graduates in August, and is going back home to find a job.  Her home is over an hour away from where I live.  That is a very long way to drive when the process of making my hair blue takes 4+ hours.  So probably when the student's graduation happens, I'll simply bid her farewell and wish her luck, but not make plans to show up at her new workplace.  I feel kind of bad about it, but that's a lot of gas and time, and she personally knows that all too well. 

Lastly, thanks to a friend, I ran across a helpful website I'd forgotten about.  It's called myNoise, and it lets you listen to all kinds of sounds, from plain white noise to rain under a tent to a sailboat creaking in the waves while a thunderstorm rolls around you.  When I was in college, I ran across a very simple app for a web browser that did something like this, but only had six options.  I think it was around finals time, and I was so stressed that simply turning on the rain noise was a wonderful relief, like plunging a burning hand into a bucket of water.  They had a donation button, and the donation limit was $2.  I think I threw like 10 bucks at them (I donated 5 times) before I finished calming down from my fit of gratitude.

This site is a great deal more complicated, as you can kind of tell from the lengthiness of that last noise generator.  I'll probably donate to this website as well, now that I've downloaded the app on my tablet and will be able to bring the sound of the ocean, rain, and chimes with me wherever I go.  The app seems more limited, and most of the generators are locked behind in-app purchases, but you can buy them all for $12, so I'll probably do that.  Part of being an adult is recognizing that other people have to eat and pay rent also.  If you love something, you have to support it, or it might not be there any more someday.

Now if you'll excuse me, I'm going to go flop in bed and listen to the magical invisible rain that will never get me soaking wet, and give my anxiety disorder a pass for a few minutes. 

Monday, June 4, 2018

Reading the Research: Transgender Brains

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 explains the existence of trans people a bit better.  (Because a large percentage of autistic people, including myself, fall into the category of "gender nonconforming," this piece of research strikes me as rather important.)  Transgender people, most commonly, are people whose physical bodies don't match their gender identities.  So, a person born with ovaries and breasts (born with female sex parts) might feel, deeply, that they are a male person.  Their masculinity is a major part of their identity as a person, despite their biological parts.

This is a very uncomfortable place to be, and can cause severe distress, known as "gender dysphoria."  From the article: "Although GD (gender dysphoria) is rare, gender identity is an essential part of psychological health, and if unaddressed can lead to serious psychological issues."  Gender dysphoria is usually helped along by people who don't believe that it's possible to have a parts-brain mismatch, and insist that whatever parts you were born with, that's who you are and you should just deal with it.  Well, as it turns out, it's not that simple. 

Scientists in Europe did brain scans on teenagers who reported suffering gender dysphoria (as well as a control group of non-dysphoric teenagers).  The teenagers were exposed to stimuli and psychological tests that cause different reactions in typical male and female brains, and their brains' reactions were tracked with the scans.  The results?  The trans teenagers' brains tended to act like their preferred gender-identity's typical brain.  Apparently, the brain trumps external genitalia when it comes to gender identity. 

It is not yet known how soon in a child's life these brain differences become apparent to a scan, but I personally know of a child who recognized their sex/gender difference prior to the age of 10.  So there's a good chance it's a lot younger than the teenage years.  From the article, it sounds like these scientists will continue to follow this line of research.  I'll be curious to see what they discover, because I am also, by some definitions, trans. 

I was born into a body possessing XX chromosomes, and my body developed nearly flawlessly in that sense.  However, I have no idea what would occur if you put my brain into the same tests these teenagers took... because I'd personally be happiest if gender identity didn't ever apply to me.  I am what's sometimes termed "agender."  I don't consider myself particularly male or female.  I really don't fit well into feminine stereotypes: I don't like clothes, makeup, most kinds of shopping, accessories, socializing, home-making, or cooking.  But I also don't really fit most male stereotypes, either. 

I am... basically, just me.  And I'd pretty much just prefer people to just judge me by who I am, not what I look like or what parts I happen to have.  Perhaps if they put my brain into those scans, I would test as a combination of male and female, or maybe even not follow the patterns of either.  I am, after all, autistic, and that makes my brain unusual to begin with.  That being the case, it doesn't really surprise me that so many autistic people also identify as one or more of the letters in "LGBTQ+."

Friday, June 1, 2018

Sensory Processing Difficulties: Proprioception and Vestibular Senses (Part 2)

This is part 2 of a series on Sensory Processing Difficulties.  Part 1 was on the sense of touch.

Part 2 will cover the two senses we aren't taught about in school: proprioception and the vestibular sense.  These two senses, while not waxed about in any kind of poetic fashion by philosophers and artists of the past, do serve very important functions.

Just FYI...

A note, which I'll paraphrase from part 1 and then explain a bit more:

While I'll talk about these senses separately, you should keep in mind that a person can't process these senses separately, or turn off one if it's being bothersome.  All people experience all these senses at once.  The only reason you're not regularly overwhelmed by feeling where each of your limbs are in space, while smelling the odors of your house, hearing the shrieks of the neighbor's children playing outside, smelling the soap you used to wash your hands, tasting the last thing you ate, and feeling both the pull of gravity and the texture of whatever you're sitting on... is because our brains filter out all but the most relevant details.  Sometimes this filter doesn't work very well, but I'll explain about that later.


Proprioception (such a weird word) is your sense of where your arms, legs, and body are in space, and it relies on being able to understand feedback from sensors in your joints, ligaments, and muscles.  These sensors tell you what angle your arms and legs are at, whether any force is being applied to any of those areas, and where your limbs are at any given time.  When you reach behind you to shut a door, or move yourself through a dark area, you are relying on this sense alone to not bang your arms and legs into themselves, and any objects you remember in the area.  You also rely on it to use the correct amount of force to shut a door rather than slam it or leave it ajar. 

When this sense goes amiss, a person can't locate their arms and legs in space without looking at them.  You could find yourself regularly sliding out of your chair rather than sitting solidly in it.  Or tripping over your own two feet as you walk or run.  You might also grab things too roughly or softly, thus either breaking them or dropping them.  Children with difficulties in this area might avoid (or crave) jumping, crashing into things, pushing, pulling, bouncing, and hanging.  An otherwise mild-mannered child that always seems to be banging into others might not be aggressive, but rather lacking proprioception's body awareness.

About a year ago, I reviewed a book called The Reason I Jump, by Naoki Higashida.  I didn't comment on the title at the time, because I didn't want to spoil the answer to the implied question.  But in light of this particular topic: the essay that explained this answer involved this sense.  Mr. Higashida pretty clearly suffers from lack of body awareness.  His particular description was extremely poetic and very impressive, and I still recommend you read that book.  If nothing else because it gives you another viewpoint on from the autism spectrum, and one that doesn't overlap a whole lot with my own experience.

Pencils, Skates, and Origami

As for me, personally?  I think maybe a lessening of this sense might explain some of my innate clumsiness.  As a child, I tended to always look down when I walked.  This was because I tended to trip over my own feet, on apparently flat surfaces.  I knew this, and knew I'd have a better chance of placing my feet optimally if I simply looked where I was putting them.  This came with the added bonus of being able to see where to catch myself when I inevitably tripped anyway. 

As I grew, I got better at not tripping, and became more adept at catching myself before I fell.  This was in part due to taking up roller skating.  I started in the beginner's class, with lots of little children, but with time, effort, and many bruises, I became adept enough to skate on one foot, cross my feet over each other to do fancier tricks, and even perform simple jumps and spins.  I was eventually informed that I should be in the adult class, which helped me refine and stretch those abilities.  My instructor was a retired professional skater, whose high school daughters competed in the state competitions.  So while I would certainly never have made it into any of those competitions, I can safely say that his instruction was excellent.

Another proprioception-related task I had to learn to overcome was my fine motor clumsiness.  I think I still suffer some of that, particularly when I'm not paying attention.  I do seem to drop things and break things a great deal more regularly than my peers... But it's not as bad as it used to be, I think.

As a child, I tended to hold my pencil with a death grip.  This was noticeable because my hand would tend to cramp up, but also because I held the pencil wrong.  Children are taught to hold a pen with three fingers... 

To this day, I hold mine with four.

This is, as a rule, an inferior grip to the first, as it strains your hand more.  But for someone with clumsiness issues, adding the fourth finger stabilizes the pencil and allows for more control and accuracy.  So that was how I wrote, despite teachers trying to teach me otherwise, and it's how I write to this day.  The end result was darker marks on the paper, with occasional tears from pressing too hard.  (This is actually also a sign of a messed up proprioception in children, by the way.)

As an adult, I tried the three-finger grip out, and can now manage it without losing too much by way of speed.  But it's not comfortable or how I'm used to doing it, and since writing has become far less common, I see no need to change my habits.  I did work to overcome some of my fine motor difficulties, though... with another hobby: origami.

I'm almost 30, so it bears pointing out that when I was learning, you couldn't simply pull up videos on the Internet to teach you how to make this fold and do that technique.  Instead, I had books.  These books had the words "mountain fold" and "valley fold" and "bird base" and all manner of other artistic-not-immediately-helpful-to-a-small-child vocabulary.

So learning was a bit of a struggle, but I'm extremely stubborn, so after accidentally tearing, smashing, and otherwise destroying probably hundreds of squares of paper, I did actually learn the basics of the art.  Origami is an art of precision, particularly when you're working with specialized paper.  The closer your folds are to their destinations, and the thinner the creases, the better your final product.  This means you can manage to follow all the directions, yet still have a final product that doesn't look that great.  But it also means that practice really does make perfect.

I can now boast of being able to teach anyone how make a traditional Japanese crane, so long as they're patient and willing to put in the effort.  Also, I once pranked my second high school by scattering a thousand of these cranes, along with the wish that the place would become less of a toxic hellhole.  I kind of doubt I got my wish, but at least the prank was fun, and I really doubt they've found them all unless they've renovated their ceilings...

Vestibular Sense

The vestibular sense is also involved with movement, but instead of your joints, it's instead linked to your inner ear.  It's your sense of how fast you're going, whether you're accelerating, and the pull of gravity itself, which in turn affects your balance. Apparently this is registered by... what amounts to little hairs with protein crystals suspended on them, inside your inner ear.  It sounds really weird and random, but when you turn your head, the hairs move, pulling the crystals after them, and that movement is gauged by sensors inside the inner ear.

When you lean over to pick something off the ground, you're using your vestibular sense to counter-balance yourself so you don't tumble to the ground right after the object.  You also use this sense to figure out what position you're in, related to the pull of gravity.  After all, a standing position is relatively similar to a lying-down position... at least if you're in space.  With gravity, your inner ear tells you which way is down.

When this sense goes awry, all kinds of exciting and unfun things can ensue.  Your balance can go entirely out of whack.  Without the ability to sense the pull of gravity, you can over- or under-compensate for it, resulting in uncoordinated and clumsy movement, if not outright falling.  Stairs, ladders, and slides can become your worst nightmare... or your best friend, if your body craves that sensory input.  Motion sickness might be your constant companion, or you might never ever get motion sick even in circumstances that would make pretty much anyone else ill.

Most interestingly to me, apparently the vestibular sense also factors into your vision.  When a neurotypical person jumps or bounces up and down, their field of vision appears to remain relatively stable.  With a wonky vestibular sense, that is not the case.  So you can have a child perfectly able to read the blackboard or a computer screen, but not able to walk across the school room without banging into desks and classmates.  I guess, something like that accursed "shaky cam" technique that keeps making me miserable and confused while watching movies.

Personally, I think I mostly lucked out when it comes to this particular sense, sans the motion sickness aspect.  I don't particularly suffer oversensitivity to movement, and my vision complications are brain-related, not inner-ear-related.  I usually don't fall while leaning down to pick something up, and my sense of balance is remarkably good considering my proprioception-related limitations.

The motion sickness, though...  I don't recall getting very motion sick, ever, as a child.  I could even watch those enormous IMAX 3D screens in reasonable comfort (but my mom couldn't).  I didn't adore theme park rides, especially not roller coasters, but I could tolerate them.  If it got too bad, I'd simply shut my eyes, thus eliminating the most dizzying form of sensory input, and huddle until the ride was over.  It was still uncomfortable, but not intolerable.

Now?  Now I can get motion sick from things as simple as "riding in the back seat of a car."  It helps if I'm hungry.  Something about being hungry makes it exponentially more likely I'll get sick on a theme park ride or a car ride.  However, that naturally makes the fix just as basic: get off the ride or out of the car, and eat something simple.  I have no idea why this works.  Even with food freshly in my stomach, though, I no longer care for IMAX 3D movies, and tend to avoid most theme park rides. 

It's notable that this particular sense (in conjunction with others) is also used by some autistic people for calming down.  Dr. Temple Grandin, the foremost autistic speaker, includes spinning and rolling as forms of comfort.  There's a clip from the HBO movie where the actor playing her explains exactly this.  I... am not like that.  I don't really like spinning or rolling, and get dizzy at a regular rate, if not faster than usual.  This actually made learning those skating techniques a great deal harder, as a dizzy person is more likely to fall down than a stable person.


This week I've described the two "ignored" senses, proprioception and vestibular sense, and given you a basic idea of how they work, what it looks like when they work, and what it can look like when they don't work.  In addition, I've given you a few examples from my own life as an autistic person as to how these specifically play out.  Next week, I'll get into vision, the sense almost all of us take for granted.  I have a unique brain-eyeball communication problem that makes this sense extra fun.  Should be interesting!