Saturday, February 26, 2011

Empathy

It is said people on the autism spectrum have no empathy. I think it's more a case of not being able to, or knowing how, to show empathy.

When I see pictures of natural disasters, hungry children, grieving parents, and other heart-wrenching scenes, I am affected. In fact, I often feel overwhelmed. My impulse is to help in some way, but often the scale is too big, or fixing it is impossible.

When I walk into a room, and a co-worker is crying (as happened last week), I care, but I don't know what to do. There are expectations in such a situation, but I don't know quite what they are. Do I hug her? Are we close enough to do that? How long do I hug her, if I do? What do I say? What if she's crying about something that's her fault--and what do I say then? These are many more questions race through my mind. Yes I care, but while I'm standing there, another co-worker sweeps in and applies a hug, and I'm left feeling awkward.

I would not describe myself as 'warm and fuzzy'. I've found 'warm and fuzzy' people are often not genuine. It seems people tend to like warm and fuzzy more than they like genuine, but I don't, so there's another thing that makes me different.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Learning from experiences

What a week it was! At the beginning of the week, I was feeling very low about my job. I had taken Thursday and Friday off from the week before to take a break from all the drama in our room and the other special ed room next door. I hoped a 4-day break would provide enough cooling down time for everyone.

But I wasn't even aware of all the gossip and attempts to pull me down that had been going on for weeks until the Wednesday before I took my days off. I was clueless, as usual--the last, literally, to know what was going on. I think part of it was because I don't read body language very well, and part because I don't expect professional people to behave this way. I think everyone thinks the same way I do. Wrong!

A lot of the resentment came because I use sign language and go to classes all day with my student, who everyone admits is a wonderful kid. The others have to push wheelchairs, do heavy lifting, feed students, and change diapers most of the day. However, I spent $3000 of my own money, and spent a great part of my summer studying, and then attended a 2 week intensive 'boot camp' ASL course. I don't gloat, but I have earned myself a 'cushier' position. I also have seniority on everyone in both rooms.

I came back Monday all braced up to treat everyone kindly, even if they didn't treat me that way. I am an Orthodox Christian, and I believe we should treat others the way we would want to be treated, even if they don't reciprocate. The co-worker in my room only had one thing to say to me all day, and that was to interrupt my break to inform me that my student's DVD seemed to have 'frozen', and walked away. I found out later she and the other aides resented that I took my breaks, among other things. She avoided eye contact more than I ever do. She wouldn't even look in my direction. I felt like a pariah.

Then, I happened to overhear the teacher I work for telling an aide from another room that someone had come to him and complained that she had seen me sitting at my desk last Tuesday at 2:45, 'doing nothing.' I had been taking my last 15 minute break. The teacher wouldn't divulge the name, but did say he told her to bug off, and that I deserved my breaks.

After that, I really began to feel picked on. My brain went the same route and tapped into the same feelings that I felt back on the play ground when a girl would say, "I want to play with you, and you and you and NOT you (which was me). I wondered, who would dislike me so much that she felt she had to go and tattle on me. She didn't act professional and bother to ask me what I was doing. No, she assumed the worst.

Laying awake that night, I figured out who it was...the speech therapist who keeps trying to insert herself into our classroom and tell everyone what to do. So, I didn't feel so bad. She hasn't liked me since I blew up at her for messing in something I was trying to accomplish with students. I also decided to treat the other aide in my room with all the courtesy and respect I wanted out of her.

By mid-Tuesday, my spirits started lifting. The other aide couldn't help but respond, and maybe she realized all the conclusions about me from the gossiping she did with the aides from the room next door were wrong. I don't know.

I kept doing my job with my students to the best of my ability, avoided the gossip and drama, and tried to keep a positive attitude. By the end of the week, the teacher I work for informed me that the speech therapist is not allowed in our room anymore (and not just because of me) and that everyone has been told to leave me alone and quit complaining. He said I was the best aide in the school, and that I do my job well, and I won't have any more interference. He and the vice-principal won't listen to any more griping.

I'm wiser, now, about people. I had regarded the aide in my room as a friend. I think that made me feel betrayed by what she had done. Now I regard her merely as a co-worker. And that's how it was all along. We never had contact outside of work hours. It was my mistake.

As an Aspie, I naturally avoided the gossip and drama, and kept focused on my work (except for great anxiety that robbed me of my sleep). That won me the respect of the teacher and vice-principal. I can continue to do my job with my deaf student and not be forced to spend time changing diapers and feeding students in the severe/profound room.

All is well.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Looking at old report cards

In my quest to ferret old and useless things to throw or give away, I came across a dusty, unlabeled plastic tub in the storage area above the stairs. I had totally forgotten what was in it. When I opened it, the first thing I saw was an old, over-stuffed, brown envelope with "Mom's early years" written on it. I'm 'mom'. I guess I labeled it that way so when I'm dead and buried, my children would know it might be something they want to keep.

I found all of my report cards from kindergarten through high school, with only the middle school ones missing, for some reason. I was curious to see if there was any sign of my being 'different' as a child, long before they had the label "Asperger's".

The overall impression, from reading the grades and the teachers' comments is that I was outstanding in reading and art. I didn't like to participate in P.E. (no comment as to why). I tended to be unorganized, didn't listen for directions or necessarily follow them, I needed to slow down, and to be more patient with the other students, and I was a little perfectionist. They all adored me, with the exception of my 5th grade teacher. The comments always mentioned more drill and work needed in arithmetic.

I still remember my 5th grade teacher as the low point of my school career. Mean Mrs. Green! She didn't like me, and was always trying to send me to the nurse or the speech therapist. She said I talked funny and too fast. She commented on the report card that I often didn't seem to feel well. I'm guessing now it wasn't physical. When you know the teacher doesn't like you, and you are not hitting it off socially with the other students, you very well might not seem as if you feel well. I don't remember being sick that year, other than what everyone else suffered with.

I do remember trying to stay in the room from recess. I wouldn't have considered it punishment to be sentenced to sitting in the classroom during recess. Alas, I wasn't cunning enough to bring such a sentence down on my own head. Instead, I just asked--and was refused. Recess was a bore, and I didn't have any reason to go out and socialize. I would rather read a book.

I didn't expect to see a comment: "Referring this child for evaluation for Asperger's". I can see traces and hints, though. A girl can almost go unnoticed, and even today, that's true for Aspie girls. Good thing I told the other grandmother of my granddaughter, who is raising her, about my diagnosis. With that knowledge, and the way D is behaving, she's been referred for evaluation for Asperger's.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Friends

All my life, close friends have been hard to find, and easy to lose.

I think I would be the most loyal of friends. If everyone is putting my friend down, I would stand up for her. If she told me something in confidence, I would never reveal it. If I saw a chance to take advantage of her, I would spurn the thought.

I get wistful when I see a hanging on someone's wall that says, "Friends Forever". I've lived 52 years and have never received such a gift. On the other hand, I would feel it presumptuous to give such a gift to someone else.

I've always wondered what was 'wrong' with me. Do I even understand what friendship is? Do I have unusual and unrealistic expectations? Would I recognize a friend if one were to present herself?

I have friends...195 of them on Facebook at the last count. Obviously that's not what I mean when I say I don't have a friend. I don't have a 'close' friend.

A close friend can't be long distance. A close friend can't be unaware of what I'm hurting over, or what I'm really and justifiably worried about. I can't find out later they had a crisis and I was the last to know.

I have a coworker I talk to at work, mostly about the job. We vent our frustrations to each other, but when quitting time comes, I know I won't have any contact with her (other than FB) until the next working day. Should she move to another position, which is her current goal, I will probably never see her again, unless I should run into her at Wal-Mart.

I'm not big on social gatherings, but I would enjoy someone to go to get coffee with, someone with whom I have an ongoing relationship, someone who knows the current goings on in my life (and visa-versa). Someone who won't settle for "I'm fine" when she asks me. Someone who won't think I'm being nosy when I won't settle for 'I'm fine' from her, either.

I can imagine what such a friendship might be like. I've written hundreds of pages of stories about characters who are friends. It's fantasy. Does anything like that actually exist?

And then I read that the older you get, the more unlikely it is a person will gain a close friend if they don't already have one. That's depressing.

My Aspiness must make people think I don't care for them. Or maybe I come across as weird. I don't like to look deeply into someone's eyes. I don't care to gossip with them. Sometimes I don't know what to say next in a conversation. Sometimes I'm distracted or anxious. Often I can't discern their body language.

But there's a loyal, devoted, caring friend inside me. Someday, maybe, I will have an opportunity to let her out.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

The Challenges of the Workplace

Blog neglect! Mea culpa.

Back to work after Christmas break means being gone most of the day, and being tired when I get home. By the end of the week I fall asleep on the couch very early in the evening. It's not because I have bad health, or that the job is all that physically hard. I just don't have much energy to think about blogging, although I enjoy writing.

I think the challenges of the workplace for an Aspie takes a lot of energy. For starters, I have to cope with a level of noise and lighting that everyone else seems to enjoy. On top of all the chatter going on in the special education classroom, my coworkers enjoy listening to the radio. They crank it up to hear it above all the other noise. I don't know how they can even think! Fortunately, they have cleared out a room adjacent to the main room, and I have set up to work with my students in there. By the end of the day, I'm not interested in hearing any music, even my own favorites.

And the lighting...old home movies show me squinting and putting my arms up over my eyes and turning in circles to block the rack of lights they used back then to make filming possible. Bright lights 'hurt' somehow. If I'm the first into the room at work, I only turn on half the overhead lights. When everyone leaves for the day, because I'm the last one to go, I turn off the radio and the lights and let the sun illuminate the room for me.

I haven't even mentioned the social aspect. I get along okay with my coworkers. Some of them even know about my Asperger's. I can't say I'm friends with any of them, at least in the sense that I have anything to do with them outside work hours, or that if any of them were to leave, we'd stay in contact. Just trying to make sure I understand what they mean when they talk to me is tiring.

My student is autistic, and I understand him. Some might say it's like the blind leading the blind, but I think it's an advantage. Everyone thinks he needs to socialize, socialize, socialize, and hold and maintain eye contact. I think he needs a little social time, with a lot of time in between to have some down time. Some outside our room are offended when he walks right by them without acknowledging them. I try to explain he's not trying to be offensive, but that he probably didn't even see them. I find myself being the child's advocate, and finding out a lot of people out there are blazingly ignorant. They think he can just 'snap out of it'. I have to bite my tongue, because I've thought of a lot of untactful retorts. I get no where when I try to explain when I'm in a calmer mood.

My student has a routine, and I have my routine around his routine, and we're both happy that way. I don't know why people all the time seem to think they need to change it. I call it 'rocking our boat.' Once they wanted my student to go on an outing at the last minute. I knew he wanted to stay and go to his classes. They insisted, he reacted. They expected me to intervene. I tried to explain in sign language, he still resisted. At that point, I told everyone I wasn't going to be the one to force him, and walked out of the room. It might have been unprofessional, but I couldn't handle what they were trying to do.

Days like that are especially draining. Sometimes I can't tell the difference between when I'm getting a virus and when I'm just tired from the challenges. I recently failed to recognize I was coming down with a GI bug until it hit me because of that.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Bullies and mean girls

One seemingly universal characteristic of people with AS is that they were bully targets as kids. I think being a girl made my experience a little different. In fact, when I first read about AS and bullies, I thought I might be an exception to the rule. My picture of bullies was someone strong arming you for your lunch money, literally. The picture of a squirrelly little guy being slammed against a locker was what I understood bullying to look like.

Then I got thinking. How about the tough girl who rummaged through my purse and took what she wanted, while I could only look on helplessly? Then there were a few years in middle school when I was the target of a couple of girls who threatened me with "kicking my a.. after school." Maybe they were just teasing, but I took them seriously, and even faked sick a few times when the threat seemed especially real. And there was the time when another girl threw a lunch tray milk carton, still full of milk at me, and then stood up and asked me in a threatening way what I was going to do about it. I ran away.

Less physically, but still hurtful were the 'socies', those girls with nice clothes, good looks, money, and popularity. Their sniggering remarks and sometimes demeaning questions, which I actually thought I must answer honestly have done a lot to shape how I feel about myself today, and how I relate to other people. Or the couple of times I was told I was a good dancer, and they wanted me to show them. Now, looking back, I know I wasn't a good dancer, it was just another opportunity for them to laugh at me.

I was a very smart kid. I was not ugly, although I thought I was. My clothes were homemade, back when mothers stayed home and sewed, and store-bought clothes were too expensive. Other kids had homemade clothes, and were not very pretty, yet they had friends. I always wondered what was wrong with me. I had never heard of Asperger's, nor had the rest of the world.

But the Asperger's had everything to do with the bullying. I didn't have a circle of friends, so I ate lunch alone, and walked through the halls alone. That was like having a target on my back. There was no one to speak up for me, to be a witness to other kid's baseness, perhaps to encourage me to stand up for myself.

And now, as an adult looking at reshaping my thinking patterns, I can see the imprint of all those years on my core beliefs.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Anxiety a la Mode

I met with a therapist today about learning strategies for dealing with anxiety. That's stressful in itself. Add to that an assessment the district wants to do on my ASL skill level on Thursday that I just learned about. Now, add to that the phone call I got just after meeting with the therapist that a neighbor's house is on fire and my husband is gathering our valuables and papers and is preparing to go to a safer place...and I'm still 45 minutes away from home!

Not my best of days, by far. But, the fact that I'm sitting here at home writing this (and not in a Red Cross provided motel room) shows that the worst didn't happen. It smells bad, and I feel sorry for the neighbors, who I really don't know. My clothes may smell like burnt vinyl siding and electronics, but at least I still have them. Hey, it might even serve as a conversation starter at work tomorrow. "Sorry I smell like a burnt house, you see..."

I'm eager to get my hands on some information and strategies that would help me not react so physically to everything that happens. My blood pressure ramps up any time a stressful event happens and takes a few days to come down.

Since I can't get through life without stressors large and small, I have to take steps. The therapist suggested bio-feedback. That's my homework for the week.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Second Guessing

I'm sitting here wondering whether I did the right thing today...did I make a mistake in standing up to the vice principal of the school where I work?

Here's the story: The powers that be didn't see fit to provide a substitute aide (they are supposedly hiring someone for this position) for a one-on-one student today. So, the current staff has to fill in. It's like the ancient Egyptians telling the children of Israel to make the same quota of bricks as before, but they aren't going to provide the straw anymore. If we manage to cover this student, then why hire anyone, right?

So, the class goes on their Thursday outing. I usually stay behind with my deaf student, so he can go to ASL class. This other student is also in ASL. That went okay, but then I had to eat my lunch with both students. I usually don't mind doing that with the deaf student. He watches a movie and leaves me in peace. The other kid...

Therefore, I DID NOT have a duty-free lunch. The folks who usually cover the students were on the outing. I ate, but I couldn't even leave to use the restroom, not with both kids in there. So fine, I figured I just take at least 15 minutes back at the end of the day, after the students were gone, plus my usual 15 minute break.

After the students had gone for the day, I spent the first 20 minutes tidying the room. Just as I was about to take my break, the vice principal walked in and said they needed help in the front office with grade cards. I instantly could visualize the frantic activity and bustle of many people working in the front office, plus donating my lunch and break to an ungrateful district, who, as I said, would only be too glad to let me cover for the employee they don't seem to be able to get around to hiring. Plus, plus, plus I wan't planning to do that, and I really needed some down time.

So, I basically said, "No. Can't do it." I even explained the reason (i.e. I didn't get a duty-free lunch). I don't read faces, so I don't know what he might have been thinking. He didn't say anything. And now I'm wondering whether I have jeopardized my job, or at least an important person's good will.

Part of me says, "You stood up for yourself. You know what you need," while the other part says, "Nice work! You could have sacrificed a little time to stay on the good side of the vice principal." I don't know though. Had I gone to the front office, I know I would have been seething with resentment...and I'm not good at hiding how I'm feeling.

Monday, January 3, 2011

Communication

I listened with interest to a keynote speech a few years ago as part of a professional development day for the school district. The speaker was a Russian Orthodox priest who is probably the only white guy in the world who can speak fluent Yu'pik Eskimo. He works with Yu'piks and is married to one. The main point of his speech was how difficult communication is, especially across cultural lines.

He told a story of how a Yu'pik victim in court said, "And he [the defendant] let me into his car." The jury wound up convicting the defendant on a lesser charge. What the victim meant by these words was, "And he forced me into his car." What a difference it would have made had the jury understood what was meant by the words, rather than what they actually heard. For the victim, English was a second language.

The speaker drew a couple of circles on the white board. They overlapped like a Venn diagram. He said that even in the best of circumstances, when the cultures are the same and the people have the similar educational backgrounds, communication isn't precise. What is said, and what is heard don't always correlate.

He went on to say that when people of different cultures try to communicate, the circles overlap even less. That's what happened to the Yu'pik crime victim. I think that's what happens to us Aspies, as well.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Star Trek

Is being a Trekkie an Aspie trait? I would love to see the statistics. However, I loved Star Trek long before I, or anyone else for that matter, had ever even heard of Asperger's. I started watching the show when I was 9 years old and it was on NBC (channel 4 in the area I grew up in) at 8:30 pm on Friday nights. How I reacted when we couldn't be home to see it (in the dinosaur era of no VCR's, video tapes, DVD's or other recording methods) is one of many clues that lead me to my diagnosis. I mean, if somehow we were out and we couldn't be back in time, I thought I was truly going to die. And I cried lots of tears when the series was cancelled.

When Star Trek came on in syndication on channel 13, one of those channels that featured commercials by Cal Worthington and his dog, Spot, I had to be there every day to see it. My mom questioned the rationality of anyone who could watch the same shows over and over. We even traded insults. She made fun of Spock's ears, and I made fun of her soap operas. Alas, on channel 13, they cut out hunks of the show to make room for the commercials. I was really bothered by that. I would have been in kid heaven had all this taken place in the last 20 or so years, when recordings were easily available.

I was a trivia expert, too. Later, in college, one of my favorite past-times between a couple of my classes was to sit outside with another student or two and try to stump each other with Star Trek trivia questions. I didn't often lose. Come to think of it, they were probably Aspies, too.

Around the time I was in 6th grade I invented my own auxiliary characters and started thinking up short stories. I wasn't able to get inside the head of a grown man (Spock), but I could with a young, female character. My isolation and social difficulties even then brought me to the point of identifying with someone who was half-alien and didn't fit in no matter which planet they were on. Then, of course, there had to be the ultimate friend, the person who understood my half-Vulcan character and accepted her for who she was. Thus T'Pring (I know, I ripped the name off the show, but it's not the same character) and Lorraine were born. I have continued to refine and write these stories over the years, adding more characters, including an Aspie human character, who really is just another aspect of me. I find writing these stories to be cathartic.