Balloonacy and Me in the Chronicle of Higher Education

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. In fact, in a private email, he admits that though he works with children on the spectrum all the time, it hadn’t occurred to him that the play would be perfect for them. I’m certainly pleased that he was touched by my words, even as Daniel was touched through his play’s lack of them.

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Balloonacy — A Play Good for Children with Autism

Several years ago (April 2015) my family went to the Dallas Children’s Theater to watch Balloonacy, a cute mime play about an old man who lives in an apartment by himself and is celebrating his birthday alone, when a balloon comes in through his open window and becomes his friend. The Dallas Children’s Theater has special showings of certain plays for children with sensory issues, and we have been going since their first such show. The sound is not as loud and the lighting contrast between the stage and the seats is not as sharp.

Although this was not our first play we attended at DCT, and although Balloonacy was not specifically written for children on the autism spectrum – it is a pretty standard mime play in the French style with light slapstick – I decided to write a little about this play because of Daniel’s reaction to the play, and because I think that this play is particularly good for children on the spectrum to see.

The story is about an old man who lives alone and is trying to eat a spaghetti dinner he warmed up in the microwave and to celebrate his birthday. A red balloon flies in through the window, and the old man tries to put it out – only to have the balloon return again and again. Finally, he slams the window shut, smashing his thumb – which causes him to put a band-aid on it. The balloon is magical – appearing out of the trash and out of boxes, including a birthday present left at the front door. The old man grows fond of the balloon when it appears out of the birthday present, and he begins interacting with it and playing with it. At one point he is playing with a fork, and he accidentally stabs the balloon. The balloon starts to lose air, and it slowly deflates. He puts the balloon in a box, puts the band-aid from his thumb onto the balloon, and the balloon reappears fully inflated. After more shenanigans, the old man tries to eat his birthday cupcake, and the balloon smashes it into the old man’s face – as the old man wipes off his face after putting the cupcake down on his seat, he sits on the cupcake. He gets angry at the balloon and throws it out the window, but quickly regrets doing so. He tries to show hearts out the window, then draws a big heart on a piece of newspaper, creates a paper airplane out of it, and flies it out the window. The balloon returns, and the balloon and the old man leave together. The play ends with the old man flying into the distant sky, holding the balloon.

One of the main attributes of autism is high orientation toward objects. Autistics are more comfortable interacting with objects than with people. They even relate, in a certain sense, to objects. I have used this knowledge to help socialize Daniel by making the Matchbox cars he’s obsessed with talk to each other. He’s then been able to transfer the emotions from the cars to people to a certain degree. Lately he’s started to demonstrate interest in getting things for his brother and/or sister when we go to the store, rather than just think about getting a car for himself. But he still prefers objects over people.

Balloonacy has two characters in it. The old man, and the balloon. Daniel identified with the balloon. He is also a fan of slapstick comedy (I have read that this is not uncommon for people on the spectrum), but there is little doubt he identified more with the balloon than the man. He was utterly delighted with the balloon and its antics (all children are, but not in the way Daniel does, identifying with the balloon – most children are delighted with the balloon the way the old man is). But then something interesting happened. The balloon popped. And Daniel began to cry. And the old man got upset. And Daniel began to cry a bit more, wiping tears away. Daniel was sad the balloon popped, and then when the old man was also sad, he saw the man feeling the way he did, and empathized with the old man.

While this may seem a normal thing to do – because, for a neurotypical person, it is – for Daniel this is major. Not only did Daniel feel sad for the balloon, which is something that we might in fact expect from him, but Daniel also felt sad that the old man felt sad. The feelings he had for the balloon was transferred to the old man. It was obvious from his body language and the ways he reacted to first the balloon and then the old man reacting to the balloon. Daniel hugged up on me to get some comfort when the old man was visibly upset, and had merely slumped in his seat when the balloon popped.

It seems to me that Balloonacy is a fantastic play for children on the spectrum precisely because of how Daniel reacted. There was an object the autistic children could relate to, and a person on whom they could transfer their feelings toward the object. This is empathy development, and people on the spectrum need a certain degree of empathy development. This play is a fantastic vehicle for this kind of transference and the redirection of the autistic child toward human emotional responses and interactions.

Employing People on the Spectrum–Good for Business

Word is starting to get out that it makes good business sense to hire autistic people. Apparently, Microsoft is making a push to hire more people with autism. They have discovered that people with autism have capabilities neurotypicals do not, and that those capabilities are great for the bottom line. Who, after all, doesn’t want someone who can find 10% more coding errors than can the average population? (This, by the way, is why I’m a good editor and proofreader.)

It turns out that people with autism seem to have increased perceptual awareness, which makes us appear distracted or not able to pay attention, but which in fact means we are taking in more and more and more information. If this is also what is happening with ADD/ADHD, this would suggest that ADD/ADHD is on one side of Asperger’s like autism is on the other side of it. In any case, this would suggest that there is a group of people we have pathologized, but who are simply hyperperceptual. Such people are taking in and processing more information than are neurotypical people. Which would go a long way to explaining why so many people on the spectrum (especially if we expand the spectrum to include ADD/ADHD) are scientists, artists, and creative types.

While processing extra information does cause sensitivities — to touch, to light, to certain sounds (like the high-pitched screech from my son that overwhelmed me for a few seconds while I was trying to write this) — and background noises becoming foregrounded, making hearing conversations in a crowded room difficult, it also means strong attention to detail, high degrees of pattern recognition, and a strong ability to differentiate sounds. Different people will have different skills, meaning there will be some better with sounds, others better with language, and others better with math and programming. And there may be combinations. I’m not sure how good I may be with sounds, as I never learned to play an instrument, but I am a poet in no small part because I am obsessed with the sounds of the words — I love alliteration, and I used it even before I started writing with regular rhythm and end rhyme. I am equally obsessed with patterns — which is why I study complexity (love of patterns also is important in writing poems and studying literature).

Despite all of these benefits, people on the spectrum are woefully underemployed. I have read that people with Asperger’s have about a 20% unemployment rate. The linked article reports that in the U.K., only 15% of people on the spectrum have full time employment. But 60% say they want to work. That’s a terrible situation. And it’s one I’ve been familiar with myself. In truth,

employers need to be better educated about the value autistic employees can bring. Businesses need to know about potential difficulties that autistic employees might experience, the simple adjustments that can accommodate them and the wide range of skills and interests that they can bring to the workplace.

One adjustment that needs to be made, as I have pointed out elsewhere, is that employers need to decide whether or not they want good workers or good people with whom to socialize. I would also note that people on the spectrum are probably not going to mention during the interview that they are on the spectrum — and as a result, give an interview that they will think is fine, but which is, in the view of the interviewer, a disaster with someone whom they would never hire. Who would hire someone who won’t look at you and rambles on and on? In my experience, very few.

Polymath or Know-It-All?

It is apparently not uncommon for people with Asperger’s to be thought of as “know-it-alls.” But what, exactly, is a know-it-all?

I have been called a polymath, a Renaissance man, extremely knowledgeable, and, yes, a know-it-all. What is the difference among these things?

A polymath is someone who knows a great deal about a great many things. I have published on economics, sociology, literature, theater, philosophy, psychology and neuroscience, networks, complexity, organizations, spontaneous orders, and morals. I have a B.A. in recombinant gene technology with a minor in chemistry, and I have two years of grad school in molecular biology; I have a M.A. in English; and I have a Ph.D. in the humanities, the dissertation for which was titled Evolutionary Aesthetics. I am also the author of Diaphysics, a book that covers all of those topics as well as physics.

A Renaissance man is a polymath who is also an artist. I write plays and poetry.

Obviously, “extremely knowledgeable” is a general term for polymath.

So what about “know-it-all”? It is obviously intended as an insult. In my experience is it wielded by those who have lost the argument to my superior knowledge on a topic or who feel overwhelmed by my unrelenting barrage of facts on the topic at hand. That’s when you get slammed with the epithet “know-it-all.” Those who are accused of such ought to take comfort. Receiving the accusation is an admission of ignorance and defeat by the person delivering it.

Autism and the Questioning of Cultural Conventions

Cultural conventions border on the arbitrary. They are “real” only in the social sense of reality. They are meaningful only because we give them meaning. But that doesn’t mean that they don’t evoke real emotional responses from people when they are violated.

One example of a cultural norm in the U.S. is the removal of price tags on gifts. We all know to do this, because we were told by our parents to do that. But why do we take off the tags on gifts? It’s a cultural convention. There could be a culture in which one leaves them on in order to make sure people know the value of the gifts. There were plenty of gift cultures in the past which emphasized the size and value of the gifts which could have evolved, in a modern context, to giving gifts with the price tags still on. In each case, people practicing the cultural norm would be offended and appalled at violations such as leaving the price tag on, or taking it off, respectively.

I have always been able to see through cultural norms and conventions such as these. And I suspect this is a general trait of those on the spectrum. It would explain why people with Asperger’s marry people from other cultures at a much higher rate than the general population. If cultural norms are merely conventions, they aren’t “real” in the physical sense, and therefore one can easily adjust to different norms. If you are on the spectrum, at least.

This ability to see through cultural norms as merely conventional is also one of the things that gets autistics in trouble with neurotypicals, who do not think them conventional, but take them seriously. This would create a great deal of social awkwardness, some interpreted as rudeness, if autistics are constantly ignoring social conventions because, seeing them as merely conventional and arbitrary, they don’t think them all that important. They fail to take into consideration the fact that everyone not on the spectrum does take them seriously. Sometimes deadly seriously.

Yet, for there to be cultural change, there have to be people around who question the cultural norms, pointing out that they are in fact social constructs. Thus, people on the spectrum could contribute to cultural evolution; they would keep things changing by always questioning. As such, they are an important part of any society, even if this role is utterly unappreciated and often outright disdained.

After Boy Scout Camp

This past weekend, the entire family went on the Boy Scout camp out. Daniel is a Wolf, and this is the second year, and third time, camping. The first year it was just him and me, but the last two times the entire family came.

Daniel loves Boy Scouts. He participates in everything, from the styrofoam boat and wooden car races to the projects they do in their meetings or at camp. He also is much more comfortable with his fellow Boy Scouts than he seems to be among his classmates at school. My guess is that it’s because of the small den sizes, but there may be other aspects to it as well.

On Saturday evening, after dinner, the Boy Scouts do skits and tell jokes. Daniel lined up to tell a joke, but Daniel is not actually very good at telling jokes. The punchline tends not to have anything to do with the opening of the joke. And indeed, when it was his turn, he told a joke that didn’t make the least bit of sense. However, while Daniel had been in line, he had heard over 20 correctly told jokes. And that’s what mattered.

It mattered because, the next day, at home, Daniel decided to tell a joke:

What time is it when the diver feeds the shark a pizza?

It’s dive-o’clock!

I asked him where he heard that joke, and he said, “It’s from my brain.”

So it seems that the experience of hearing other children tell proper jokes helped. At least with that joke, anyway. And, more, it seems to have been an original!

Also this week, though, Daniel realized there was a problem.

Daniel: “Dylan can’t join the Boy Scouts.”

Me: “Why not?”

Daniel: “Because, where will we camp if he’s in Boy Scouts?”

You see, each den tends to camp together. Meaning, we camped among the other Wolf Scouts. Next year, when Dylan joins, he’ll be a Tiger and Daniel will be promoted to Bear. Daniel decided Dylan couldn’t join the Scouts because we couldn’t camp in two places at the same time. Of course, the entire troop is in the same general location, so it’s hardly an actual problem. Just one of those things Daniel figured out and found a problem with. We of course had to explain to him that it wasn’t a real problem, and that therefore his solution to exclude Dylan from the Boy Scouts wasn’t necessary.