Please Don’t Touch My Wrists

Today I was a SpEd substitute teacher in a class with a nonverbal student who is a known biter. I have subbed in this class before, and so far I have never even witnessed him bite anyone, let alone try to bite be, but that’s certainly no reason not to be cautious around a known biter. Especially when the biter is 18 and almost twice your size.

So when, after this young man started getting a little overly excited, the paraprofessional in the class broke out the forearm guards, I put them on.

Understand something. I wear short sleeve shirts almost exclusively. This past week when it was in the teens and twenties, I wore short sleeve shirts. I’m fine wearing a coat because it fits loosely on my forearms, and the cuffs touch my fingers, but long-sleeve shirts with cuffs tight on my wrist drive me crazy. A watch? You’ve got to be kidding me! Before we started carrying around clocks in our pockets as part of our phone-internet-texting-clock-calendar system, I carried a pocket watch. Well before the hipsters made it a thing.

So when the para broke out the forearm guards that slip up to your elbow, fitting tightly across your entire forearm, with finger holes, I can only imagine the look I must have given her. What?!? Why are you handing me this Medieval torture device!?! Then she reminded me that one of the students was a biter, and he was excited. So, choosing between anxiously wanting to crawl out of my skin to escape those horrendous things and having protection from being bitten by a nearly 6-foot-tall man, I went for the protection.

And all I could think about was escaping those hideous things. They caused me so much anxiety I got a headache. Even after I was finally able to take them off, it took me an hour to get past the anxiety they caused me.

These are the sorts of things that no neurotypical person can possibly understand. Even if you tell them, since they have nothing to compare it to, they simply cannot empathize. So they don’t take it seriously. And we learn that they don’t take it seriously. So more often than not, we just grin and bear it when we are touched in a way that makes us highly anxious. But by doing so, we allow ourselves to be exposed to further anxiety-inducing contact. Of course, if the choice is to have so much anxiety it gives you a headache and getting severely bitten, you’ll probably just have to do like me and go with the anxiety.

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Learning and Boundaries

There’s a phenomenon in people where your location or mental state affects what you remember. This creates a problem in the realm of education because, if learning is context-dependent, what you learn in school may be easily recalled in the classroom, but it may be less able to be recalled outside the classroom (some things, like reading, are obviously retained, but learning to read is a different thing than learning science facts). Another example, perhaps most appropriate for college students, is that if you study while drunk, you’ll remember what you studies while drunk, but you may not remember is sober–and it’s probably a good idea to show up to your test sober. This is also why homework does absolutely nothing whatsoever to improve your grades at school, or your test scores. What you learn at home stays at home.

This phenomenon is likely why children don’t learn anything from TV. All of the educational programming–such as PBS Kids–tends to be for naught because the children don’t recall the information in other settings, such as in the classroom. Within our classrooms, they are discovering that what children learn on iStation doesn’t transfer into the classroom itself. Math that children learn on iStation, for example, is recalled when taking a math test on iStation, but is not recalled when the same math is tested on a paper test. As a result, children doing well on iStation hasn’t translated to children doing well on standardized tests.

This phenomenon is actually much broader than learning and recall. People also tend to behave differently at work, at home, at church, among friends, etc. If someone saw you at work, they might not recognize you if they are familiar with how you behave among friends, for example. People compartmentalize their lives–and, as it turns out, their memory also gets compartmentalized depending on those varying contexts.

One of the issues autistics run into is our tendency to behave the same way no matter what the social context. That is, we have a hard time compartmentalizing. We tend to treat people the same for that same reason, ignoring social hierarchies others find important. If you want to find out how egalitarian someone really is, see how they react to the way an autistic person treats everyone the same. You’ll find few people who believe in egalitarianism to quite that degree.

I believe this also translates into learning for autistics. One of the things we noticed about Daniel is that, despite having read that children didn’t learn anything from education television, Daniel has learned a lot from watching his favorite shows on PBS Kids. I also suspect that what Daniel is learning on the computers and iStation travels with him outside of those contexts. I suspect this because he spent the evening telling us all about what he learned on his school computer learning games. So it’s at least transferring to our house. It seems his learning is decontextualized, which is actually a very good thing overall. That means what he learns will more easily be retained outside the context of school.

I believe this to be the case because I know that I retain everything I learn and can recall practically everything in practically every context. Of course, this means I can talk to you about my very well-researched obsessions whether I’m at home, at work, in a school, on a plane, at a party, or anywhere else you may be unlucky enough to be with me when I decide to tell you absolutely everything I know about the topic. My mind never ceases dwelling on my interests no matter where I’m at. But anything I learn I can recall–and apply–in any context.

A sample size of two is of course not enough to establish a general principle. But it would make sense since we don’t distinguish contexts in any other area of life (this inability to distinguish contexts is also why we on the spectrum have very high rates of interracial/intercultural marriages, since what would be too-wide cultural differences for neurotypicals are all the same to us). Anyone else notice this phenomenon of cross-contextual retention of knowledge? What may that imply for education for both neurotypical and autistic students? What may that imply regarding the tendency for autistics to be highly creative (I find it strange that autism researchers claim we’re not creative, but all the autistic people I know are highly creative–but that’s perhaps another topic for another time)?

6 Things That CEOs Will Use to Weed Out an Autistic Candidate

I would like to use this wonderful list of 9 Things That CEOs Look For In a Job Candidate to demonstrate the problems we on the spectrum have with even getting a job.

  1. Intelligence This is usually not a problem with people on the spectrum who can look for a job. Here we’re good.
  2. Attitude — Oftentimes people on the spectrum come across as negative. Or over-enthusiastic. Or both. We very often come across as having some sort of “attitude problem.” We don’t, but we also don’t necessarily know how to appropriately communicate our actual attitude.
  3. Motivation — One certainly wishes that this were gotten to in interviews, because the motivation of pretty much every autistic person is to work. We are dedicated, focused to the point of obsession, hard workers. We have a great deal of intrinsic motivation.
  4. Experience — We often don’t have a lot of experience because nobody will hire us.
  5. Cultural fit — Unless the culture is “autism,” we almost certainly won’t fit into your current culture. But there’s a good chance that we will change that culture. Or get fired because of it. We want to work, not fit into a social environment.
  6. Commitment — Hire us and you won’t get rid of us.
  7. Personality — There’s a good chance that we won’t be particularly likable in a first impression, and there’s a good chance you won’t get our sense of humor–or experience it in the interview. If you experience mine, it’s because I’m nervous. Let’s face it, we on the spectrum don’t come across as amiable people, and our personalities can be off-putting.
  8. Good references — If the references are from teachers, especially graduate school professors, we’ll probably do well. If it is from co-workers or former employees, we probably won’t.
  9. Ability to admit failures — Hire us so we can have some failures to learn from. Further, our failures tend to come from external sources and don’t involve our work. Or our failures stem from things we literally cannot help and which we necessarily will repeat over and over and over again.

We’re good on 1, 3, and 6. Two-thirds of the list will result in our never getting hired. Notice how many of these involve social considerations. 5 and 7 are pretty much purely social considerations. Nobody on the spectrum is ever going to be able to get through this list and be hired. As our insanely high unemployment rate shows.

This of course is how you get hired through the front door. And it’s why if you want a job, you ought to stop bothering with the front door. Get to know people doing what you want to do, then impress them. Sooner or later, one of them will offer you a job. The back door, the side door, the roof–any entrance but the front door is how you will find work. In other words, autistics will only get hired if they network. But that requires social skills . . .

Food

I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone with an autistic child whose child wasn’t picky when it comes to food. In that sense, we’re somewhat lucky in that Daniel isn’t all that picky. In fact, our 11 -year-old daughter is the pickiest one. It’s for her that we have to often make “other meals” than the main one.

That being said, there are two people in this household who are gluten-free, and it’s the two who have been diagnosed ASD–Daniel and me. We are gluten-free because anything with wheat in it causes us to get severe stomach aches, and has more than once caused Daniel to throw up (usually, it’s a combination of birthday cake and driving home from the birthday party). Daniel won’t even ask for cake anyplace else any more.

There’s also some Type-2 diabetes in the house, so there’s an increasing avoidance of anything with carbs.

But we can’t just get rid of carbs, because our daughter won’t eat anything except bread, tortillas, spaghetti, butter, cheese, milk, cereal, bacon, fried eggs, or pepperoni pizza (how is the taste of everything else too strong, but not pepperonis, which she’ll eat plain?). If we got rid of carbs, she’d starve.

To round things out, Dylan will at least eat almost anything.

Most of my pickiness comes out of certain textures being “wrong.” And Daniel seems to go back and forth on some things, like fried eggs. I made him over-easy eggs, but he wouldn’t eat the yolks. So I started making him fried egg whites. Then he said he didn’t want, “baby eggs,” meaning he wanted yolks. He ate over-easy eggs with yolks for a few weeks, but this past weekend he ate only the whites again. My guess is he’s torn between the slimy yolk texture and the desire to not be eating “baby eggs.”

I also have to make two batches of chili, one with all the vegetables, one with just meat and beans. Melina won’t eat any chili, of course, but the boys will. And the boys will eat things that are hot and spicy, but complain if there are too many things like onions, chunks of peppers, or spinach/chard. Of course, part of this is simply that children simply refuse to eat their vegetables.

Our pickiest eater, though, is one who hasn’t been diagnosed with autism. She does have the pickiness and the clothes sensitivities (and fashion sense) that typically comes with autism, though. At least she doesn’t have the wheat allergy, though, or I don’t know what that girl would eat. As it is, with pickiness, gluten-free, and diabetes (and I have slightly low blood sugar, so I have to have carbs), I’m practically a short order cook when it comes to dinner. Doesn’t everyone make 3-4 different meals at dinner time?

The Autistic Brain is a Different Kind of Network

Scientific American has a blog post covering recent understandings about autism. The author points out that

Studies have found that long-range connections between different brain regions are weaker in people with ASD. Complex behaviors such social interaction and language depend on the precise coordination of distant brain regions. Some studies have found that people with ASD have enhanced short-range neural connections, which might explain why ASD can be associated with exceptional skills in specific domains, such as visual memory.

This would also go a long way to explain why concept-formation is slower and more bottom-up. If concept-formation requires connections among widely-separated areas of the brain, a strongly connected brain would make them more quickly, while a less connected brain would take longer. Processing would also take longer. But note that the short-range connections are stronger, which suggests why it is that the slower-processing autistic brain is also often a specialized and highly intelligent brain.

The autistic brain is thus less global and more local, with information spreading more slowly through the brain. It’s like having a city the size of Los Angeles without highways through it, but only city streets. Yes, you can get through LA, but slowly.

Hayao Miyazaki

The animated films of Hayao Miyazaki came highly recommended to me by one of my Ph.D. dissertation committee members, the philosopher-poet Frederick Turner. As a result, many years ago, before I even had children, I bought Ponyo. Ponyo is a retelling of The Little Mermaid, and when I showed it to Daniel, he became obsessed with the film. He has watched it probably dozens of times.

Because Daniel loves Ponyo, I decided to get him three more Miyazaki films for Christmas: Spirited Away, Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind, and Princess Mononoke. He likes the movies in exactly that order. He likes Princess Mononoke the least because, I think, there are neither clear-cut good guys nor bad guys; rather, practically everyone is somewhere in the gray, and the main character is primarily seeking to reconcile all parties. Daniel in no small part loves all the Star Wars movies precisely because there’s no question who the good guys and bad guys are (though he does love Darth Maul, Darth Vader, and Kylo Ren the most). Princess Mononoke doesn’t provide him with that kind of clarity. Nausicaa is much less ambiguous. There is a good princess and a bad princess–both warriors–and a clear set of problems. Spirited Away is a very complex film set in a fantastical world that drives Daniel to question, question, question.

Today Daniel is watching Nausicaa for the third time. Before I pushed play, Daniel said to me, “Please don’t tell any of my friends that I like a princess movie.”

I of course told him it’s okay to like a “princess movie.” But the fact that he’s even remotely concerned about how people might think of him is a significant development for him. Still, he’s not concerned enough to not want to watch it and to not like it. Which makes him quite different from his younger brother who, when it comes to things like “princess movies,” is a pretty hard-core chauvinist (he’s only 5, but we’re working on that). In that sense, Daniel is going to like whatever he likes. And let’s face it, that kind of freedom is one of the best things about being autistic.

Taste and Texture

Have you ever noticed that spaghetti and fettuccine taste different? Probably not. Unless, that is, you’re on the autism spectrum, in which case it’s not impossible that the differences in texture between spaghetti and fettuccine result in the experience of different flavors for those two otherwise completely identical foods. The result is that I love spaghetti with meat sauce, and I love fettuccine alfredo, but cannot stand spaghetti alfredo or fettuccine with meat sauce. They’re wrong.

Also, scrambled eggs are terrible, but boiled eggs or over-easy eggs are great. Texture makes all the difference among those ways of preparing eggs.

Cooked peas are terrible–nasty squishy, poppy things. But peas in pea salad are fine. The texture gets improved with the boiled eggs and diced pickles. (My wife replaces the pickles with cheese, which is also texturally wrong, but tolerable.)

If you have a child (or significant other) who seems to be oddly picky about things that shouldn’t matter–“How can you like macaroni and cheese with elbow noodles, but not with spirals!”–the reason is almost certainly texture issues. The textures of foods matter as much as the textures of clothing on our skin. And you may not be able to tell any difference, but we most certainly can.