Friday, June 23, 2017

On Anxiety

If you are anywhere at all on the autism spectrum, you have anxiety. It seems to come with the territory. It's easy to find things about which to be anxious, but in truth the feeling seems to just be there, as background noise, never ceasing.

At the same time, there are plenty of things that give us anxiety. Facing new social situations is an obvious one. While we may be standing off to the side, sitting there quietly, seeming to only be listening, perhaps appearing aloof or even arrogant, the fact of the matter is that the situation makes us anxious, and it may take us a while to get used enough to the situation to come out of our shells. That probably won't happen at the end of a party, but it might happen at the end of a week-long academic conference.

One thing that causes us anxiety is not working on our project, whatever that project may be. Most of the time, we are our work, and that means when we are working on a project, we almost don't know what to do with ourselves when we are not working on it. When I am working on a project--whether it's a novel, a poem, a play, a paper, a nonfiction book, or some other project--I am always thinking about that project. I am anxious when I am not working on my project. When I am working on it, I am anxious to finish it. It drives me, but it also drives me a little crazy. I seem to be absent-minded, but I'm always thinking about my project. It never ends, until the project is over.

And then I start on the next project, and the cycle of anxiety starts all over again.

Even now, as I am writing this, Daniel is full of anxiety because he has a project he wants to do, but he can't get his younger brother to cooperate with him (or, more honestly, obey him and do everything he says--something that makes Dylan's supreme independence a perfect foil for Daniel). Because he is anxious and frustrated, he yelled at his mom, which caused me to have to stop and make him apologize to her.

These frustrations/anxieties are part of our daily experience in dealing with other people and the the world in general that constantly imposes on us and prevents us from working on our projects, which is really all we want to do. Daniel is going to have to learn that you can do more with honey than vinegar, or he's going to just stop trying to involve anyone and do work that doesn't involve anyone else to get it one.

You know, like writing.

So there are certainly many things that make us feel anxious. The fact that we identify with our work, and not working on our work makes us feel anxious to work is part of it, but it's hardly all. Sometimes, you just feel anxious. And it may not be caused by anything in particular. The fact is that most of the time, we simply feel anxious because we feel anxious. We can look for causes, but how often will that be simple justification of the feelings? The fact of the matter is, anxiety is co-morbid with autism. Sometimes it just is. It is the background noise of the world when you are autistic.

Wednesday, May 3, 2017

More Support for the Intense World Theory; Or, Why We Hear Better Than You

We may start looking at auditory signs of autism based on two recent discoveries. One is that autistic people hear more sounds than do neurotypical people. The other is that the reason for this is that inhibitory pathways in the brain are weaker in autistic people.

Readers of this blog will not find the latter to be the least bit surprising. Weak inhibitory neurons would of course create more intense experiences of sensory input since inhibitory neurons dampen out information. They quiet things down, so to speak.

With weak inhibitory neurons, the excitatory neurons are necessarily going to dominate. This creates positive feedback, which makes for a more intense experience of one's senses.

The first article also contributes to the increasing number of sources touting the positive aspects of autism. They point out that autistic people often do better than neurotypical people on visual and/or auditory tasks, spotting more continuity errors in videos and being more likely to have perfect pitch. I have little doubt that my high-level skills in proofreading have everything to do with my autism. Taking in an processing more information has its advantages.

Unfortunately, that "more information" doesn't seem to include human faces.

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

On the Double-Mindedness Developed Among the Different

In The Souls of Black Folk, W.E.B. Du Bois says that blacks have a sort of doubleness in them not found among whites. Blacks cannot just "be themselves," but must always think about how they are being perceived by whites. This creates a sense that you are always of two minds: that you are not only thinking and doing, but that you are thinking about how others perceive you, and adjust accordingly. Whites never have to deal with this. Being the majority and having the majority power, they can just be themselves without worry about how anybody is thinking about them.

Du Bois would probably not be surprised if he learned that other minorities were put in similar situations in the U.S., but it probably didn't occur to him that there were people out there with different kinds of minds, and that they too would develop such a doubleness.

I know all about this double-mindedness, because I experience it constantly. I not only have to think about what I'm going to say or do, but I have to think about how others might take it. I can either just say or do whatever I want as I want and hope that I don't do something that will set people off, or I can always consciously think about everything I say or do before I say or do it, testing against what I expect the expectations are (and hoping I'm getting those right). If it takes me a moment to respond to something, it's because I'm going through all this nonsense to make sure I don't say or do something wrong.

Now, you might expect this to take place in a 45-year-old man, but you wouldn't expect it to take place just quite yet in a 7-year-old boy. However, Daniel has lately been saying some things that shows he--on some level, at least--does understand that he has to engage in this double-mindedness.

While we all behave differently in different environments--school, home, church, work, etc.--rarely do we think these things through. However, when I asked Daniel one day if he behaved at school the way he did at home, he told me that because he has to keep it together at school, he likes to "go crazy" at home. That is, this is something he's actually thought through. Other children may do the same thing, more or less, but how many would articulate it as such?

More negatively, Daniel has complained that his "brain is rotten." He understands that the way his brain works is not the same as everyone else. While we would certainly prefer him to think of his brain as merely different and not as "rotten," we get what he, as a 7-year-old, is trying to articulate. When he most recently complained about this, we pointed out to him that I have autism, just like him, and (because the kids happened to be watching Ghostbusters II at the time) that Dan Akyroid has autism. We suggested that someone with as much education as I have and someone who is a successful and funny actor couldn't really have rotten brains, but that rather our brains were just different.

Unfortunately there is the too deeply human belief that "different is wrong," and Daniel will have to learn otherwise as he matures. Because I hardly thought of my brain as rotten (everyone always said how smart I was), I thought that everyone else, being different from me, were wrong. The way that they thought was stupid, as far as I was concerned. Now, knowing what I know about myself, I realize that it is my way which is divergent and different--but that doesn't mean rotten and wrong.

Daniel also insists that nobody likes him, that he has no friends. When we ask his teacher, she keeps insisting that he plays with the other kids all the time, meaning that there is some sort of disconnect between what others see happening and what Daniel seems to perceive. I think it's pretty clear that Daniel understands that the other kids all think he's "weird," which he interprets as them not liking him. It probably doesn't help that Daniel directs play more often than not, and can get upset when people aren't "playing right." Most kids aren't going to like that, and Daniel, not understanding why they wouldn't want to be his pawn pieces, interprets that as them not liking him or wanting to play with him. So there is likely some combination of awareness and ignorance at play, though both are driving Daniel to develop this dual awareness.

It's probably a bit much to expect neurotypical people to allow us to just be ourselves. After all, viewing neurological differences as positive is a recent development, and it's going to take a while to catch on. Maybe there will be a day when people with different neural structures or different cultural backgrounds can just be themselves without having to think about how they will be perceived by the power majority. We don't know what will be gained, or possibly even lost, if and when that happens, but it would be interesting to at least find out. Daniel's double-mindedness is already being developed; perhaps his own children won't have to go through that.

Monday, February 6, 2017

Dallas Symphony Orchestra's Sensory-Friendly Performance

Last night my entire family attended a special concert for families with autistic children put on by the Dallas Symphony Orchestra. This sensory-friendly performance was the second annual performance, and it is the idea of the conductor himself, Jaap van Zweden. The linked news story is from last year, when the first one was put on. We only learned about it this year.

As it turns out, conductor Jaap van Zweden has an autistic son. It is actually not that uncommon for creative types such as Zweden (or myself---I am a poet, fiction writer, and playwright) to have children on the spectrum. Silicon Valley is famously full of autistic children (and their mildly autistic parents). It should perhaps not be surprising that a combination of strong pattern-detection, strong visual memory, strong long-term memory, weak censor, and weak tendency to follow the crowd (or even be aware of the crowd) is associated with artistic creativity.

Now, I wish I could report that the symphony had the same effect on Daniel as did Balloonacy, but perhaps because there is so much music in our house and perhaps because Melina is taking piano lessons, so he has heard this kind of music before, he didn't seem all that into it. Of course, it may have been just that he was in a new place and was therefore uncomfortable. He mostly slumped in his chair, but then he also sat in my lap for a bit, during which time he seemed to be paying more attention to the orchestra.

Of course, his lack of complete focus may have been because he also had something on his mind about which he was primarily concerned, and therefore was barely aware that there was interesting music taking place. The day before, he had bought a solar system to hang up in his room, and I told him we were going to put it together when we got home from the symphony. And that, of course, is precisely what we did the minute we walked through the door. Because when Daniel prioritizes, he prioritizes hard.

On the other hand, he did say he recognized one of the pieces. J. Strauss, Jr's. On the Beautiful Blue Danube Waltz, Op. 314. It's sometimes hard to tell when he's really paying attention to something. Things in the periphery are often what people one the spectrum are really paying attention to. Maybe he'll be more into it next year.

Regular readers of my blog know that I have written before about the sensory-friendly performances at the Dallas Children's Theater, particularly Balloonacy, which was turned into a video. I am happy that these sensory-friendly performances are starting to spring up in Dallas. They allow autistic children to get exposure to culture, and they allow families such as ours to be able to go out to places without our worrying about how Daniel will behave or react.

Thursday, December 8, 2016

Neurodiversity and Group Selection

Humans are hypersocial, but hypersociality doesn't necessarily mean acceptance of diversity. And yet, humans do manage to be both hypersocial and accepting of difference. Recent research suggests that the acceptance of diversity occurred about 100,000 years ago, and allowed for more general accepting of such diversity as autism.

Why is this important? Well, if wider acceptance of neurodiversity, meaning diverse ways of thinking and behaving, were to be adaptive for groups, we would expect humans expressing such acceptance to have come to dominate. What was later developed as specialization and gains through trade likely started with a general acceptance of different kinds of human behaviors within the tribes.

Why is acceptance of neurodiversity important? Well, neurotypical people are great at copying what everyone else is doing, but it turns out that as a result, they are actually pretty poor at coming up with new things. Autistic people in particular tend to try to solve things without relying on how things have always been done. This results in innovations that improve the material conditions of everyone in the tribe, and which everyone else dutifully copies. As a result, there is a balance between stable copiers and unstable innovators that keeps human populations on the edge of order and chaos, known as criticality. This is in fact the most creative space a self-organizing network process can be in.

 Presently there is not a lot of acceptance of neurodiversity, at least not in the U.S. There is some anecdotal appreciation of a few people who people think may be on the spectrum, but these people are typically seen as outliers rather than a healthy part of our social networks. So much emphasis is put on everyone being the same and acting the same and thinking the same (lip service to "thinking outside the box" notwithstanding) that people who are in fact different in the ways they think and act and experience the world are held in contempt.

In fact, it is this contempt in which we on the spectrum are generally held that I try to focus on many of the positive aspects of being on the spectrum. We need to have healthier attitudes toward neurodiversity precisely because groups that don't have such diversity stagnate at best. And really, nature abhors stagnation, meaning there is either growth or death. Dynamic tensions create growth; eliminating those tensions results in equilibrium, or death. A healthy society is a diverse society.

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Shakespeare and Autism

There is a new autism therapy based on the works of Shakespeare called the Hunter Heartbeat Method. The initial results seem extremely promising. The theater games all make a great deal of sense to me, at least. Even better, from my perspective, is that theater and, especially Shakespeare, the greatest of all playwrights, is being used to help socialize us. He's teaching us to be human all too human.

Monday, September 5, 2016

Literary Interests on the Spectrum -- Fantasy, Comics, and Perhaps SciFi

Of course, reading NeuroTribes means recognizing patterns repeated in me. There's something I share with practically every case study mentioned (Wittgensteinian "family resemblances" to be sure!) But sometimes I recognize patterns found in others. One such pattern is the recurring patterns of people on the spectrum reading comic books, fantasy, and fairy tales (I suspect SciFi is also in there, but that hasn't been mentioned in the book--yet, at least). I've never read a lot of comic books (though I have a small collection), and little fantasy or SciFi (I'm a fan of such movies, though).

One has to wonder what the fascination is with SciFi and fantasy among those on the spectrum. These are magical worlds, different from the world in which we live and experience, but surely such escape is not exclusively autistic. And yet, given the strong connection between the two, what may the popularity of SciFi and fantasy suggest about the true prevalence of autism, broadly understood?

Of course, I may be simply over-extending here. Autistics' interest in SciFi and fantasy hardly means the causation runs backwards, that interest in SciFi and fantasy means autism/autistic traits. But it would be worth researching.

Sunday, September 4, 2016

We Meritocrats

I am currently reading Neurotribes, which I am sure I will continue to comment on as I continue to read it. Today, however, I want to bring up something I keep seeing in each of the autistic cases Silberman mentions, which is that each of them seem particularly focused on merit.

I definitely believe in meritocracy, and I always have. It was only reinforced when I read Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged, in which Rand (who was almost certainly a fellow Aspie), provides a epic celebration of meritocracy. Indeed, her primary argument against socialism or even the interventionist state is precisely that people are rewarded for things other than merit.

It is perhaps not surprising that people who identify with their work and who aren't particularly social would think that the best system is one that recognizes people for their actual accomplishments than for their social/political skills. Of course, social skills and political skills are practically the same. Which is perhaps why many on the spectrum I have met have been particularly anti-politics if not outright libertarian. To us it seems a pretty stupid way to get things done, since nothing is getting done while everyone involved get rich and powerful while producing nothing of worth to anyone.

We thus have a tendency to respect creators, inventors, and other such entrepreneurs but not the kind of people who get what they want because of their personalities or their social skills or who they know. We appreciate the artists and the scientists and the inventors but not the social butterflies and the politicians and the demagogues.

But let's be honest. We creators need the kind of people who can promote our work, if we're not natural promoters (and we on the spectrum definitely are not). We autistic creators in particular need a promoter in our lives, someone who will make sure our things are published, sent out, or marketed to the right people.

Sunday, August 28, 2016

More on the Positive Side of Autism

I really do not think that enough attention can be given to the positive side of autism. There are jobs and situations out there where "I am autistic" ought to make people light up. Attention to detail and obsession with a topic to such a degree that one rapidly becomes an expert in a field ought to be popular traits. Of course, our different world view is often a deal-breaker, when it ought to be considered one of our strongest traits. But let's be honest, nobody really wants to deal with anyone who truly sees the world in a new or different way. Until and unless people actually learn to appreciate creativity and different ways of thinking rather than merely giving them lip service while actually demonstrating their overwhelming preference for the same old thinking that they're used to, we on the spectrum are going to continue to have a hard time of it.

Sunday, August 14, 2016

Balloonacy, Again

I have been mentioned in the Chronicle of Higher Education in a piece on the author of Balloonacy. Scroll down to the second piece, titled Work as Play. They specifically mention my involvement in this video, based on what I had written on this blog about Daniel's reaction to the play.

It turns out that the playwright, Barry P. Kornhauser, had in fact written the play to reach children who were either deaf or couldn't speak English--meaning, he had disabilities and language difficulties in mind, even if it wasn't specifically autism. I'm certainly pleased that he was touched by my words, even as Daniel was touched through his play's lack of them.