Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Stuffing a turkey

I had a good conversation with my counselor the other day, and I brought up a situation in which I was frustrated and my husband was frustrated, and in which my frustration was fueled by thinking it was a fault of mine that the whole thing happened in the first place. I'm talking about stuffing a turkey.

I've noticed I think in a number of layers. For example, when someone makes a request, I can think of several interpretations for what they asked. My difficulty is, I often pick the wrong one as the meaning of what the person said.

To give you a little background: my husband and I divided up the cooking duties for Christmas day. His job included cooking the turkey. One of my jobs was to make the stuffing. So, my husband asked me, "Are you going to stuff the turkey?" Simple enough, right?

Does that mean:

A) Literally putting the stuffing in the turkey, and only that?
B) Preparing the turkey to be stuffed, which includes washing it (gross!), and then putting the stuffing in?
C) He is asking whether I want to stuff the turkey, but I can say no, that I'm just making the stuffing?

This all hit my brain at the same moment. I grabbed meaning B, when all he meant was A, or maybe C. The real problem wasn't that I grabbed the wrong meaning as much as my reaction to it. In my mind I'm thinking, "What? I've got lots of other work I'm doing on the meal, and anyway, I HATE touching the raw turkey, doesn't he know that? That's what lead to everyone's frustration.

Next time, I'm advised to take the literal meaning and ask questions to find out whether they mean more, without being defensive. Now, I'm aware that I ask lots of questions already, but I should at least ask a few more before defaulting to frustration and self-reproach.

But on the positive side: my counselor said being able to think in layers is a gift, and that's why I'm able to teach the special needs students I work with so ably. I can see a thing or an idea and explain it in several ways, one of which will click with the student.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Once upon a time

I haven't read enough research, yet, to find out whether my thoughts on people with Asperger's in the past is just so much hogwash. I mean, this gene (or genes) came from somewhere, right? So, if, say, my grandfather, or his mother had AS, why wasn't this identified before now? Or did this spring up only in the past generation or so?

I have a few thoughts on this. My main idea is that in the past, many people were farmers. I know my ancestors on my mother's side at least were, and that's the side I suspect those crazy genes came from that makes me such a square peg in a society of round holes. The farmer had his routines, and he often worked in solitude. He didn't have to multitask in a brightly lit, people-filled, noisy environment that was constantly changing. In the rural setting, he worked year after year in a predictable cycle (okay, there were droughts and such, but everyone was worried then). His neighbors knew him from babyhood, and the extended family was near by. He encountered very few 'new' people. If he was an Aspie, people just thought of him as a quiet, reserved person, or maybe somewhat eccentric. Life was slow. The fastest thing that happened was going to town on Saturday night and church on Sunday, and he probably knew everyone he saw very well. So, he didn't stand out--his daily environment didn't 'out' him.

Another idea I had is that something has changed in the physical environment that has altered our genes. Could it be the kind of prenatal care our mothers had? I know my mother was the victim of medical idiocy that dictated a pregnant mother should not gain ANY weight (even when the mother was not anywhere near overweight to begin with). She often told me horror stories of how her pregnancy with me was a time of starvation. I think she found a better doctor when she was having my sister, who is 100% neuro-typical. Then our mothers were told nursing her baby was 'dirty' and something only 'poor' women did. Wouldn't that mess with a baby's neurology?

Or perhaps we've just come up with labels to describe every possible variation on human personality. Maybe once upon a time, differences weren't so important, and more tolerated. Today, the pace of life is so fast, and things change quickly. Kids spend more time in social settings with age peers, supervised by people other than their parents.

Friday, December 24, 2010

My ideas for a low-stress Christmas...

1. Live far away from your relatives, and have no close friends to invite over. Sounds kinda harsh, but there's no stress over getting the house super-clean for company and fancy food fixed. It's just my husband, my last child at home, and me.

2. Decide whether that special Christmas bread is worth the trouble making. Last year we threw half of it away. It was lost in all the other goodies.

3. Have a complete list ready BEFORE going in to any store. That way you don't have to think on your feet with the Christmas music blaring, the lights glaring, and the other shoppers bumping into you.

4. Try to shop early in the morning to avoid crowds.

5. Keep the Christmas dinner menu simple so you can actually enjoy the holiday.

6. Take a prophylactic nap, especially if you go to a church that celebrates Christmas in the middle of the night.

7. Just because it's 'traditional' doesn't mean it's worthwhile. We don't like fruitcake, for example, so I don't make or buy any.

8. Don't stress out over everything being perfect. In later years, the children's memories won't be marred by mom weeping and gnashing her teeth. The real spirit of Christmas isn't attainable that way, anyway.

9. Realize you can't do everything. It it begins to feel as if you're pushing yourself, stop and ask yourself some serious questions. Whatever it is you're trying to do is likely not worth it. Next time either start earlier or leave it off the list of 'to-do's'.

10. Shop online. For me that's been a great discovery.

I haven't attended any Christmas parties this year. I realize now that they just add stress to the season and I don't really enjoy them anyway. As an Orthodox Christian observing the Advent fast, I don't eat meat or dairy for 40 days up to Christmas, so that's another reason to avoid parties. And I don't have the worry of trying to lose all the weight I would have gained had I gone to those parties.

I still have a lot to learn about relaxing and avoiding stress, but this has been one of the calmest Christmases for me, yet. Now that I know I have a problem with this, I can work on making the season more enjoyable for me and everyone else around me.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Thinking about how I'm thinking

I had a strange experience yesterday. I've had it before, but I've never taken time to analyze it. However, since my diagnosis and all the reading I've been doing on the subject, I've been stepping back and thinking about the way I think. One thing I've discovered is that I think visually, and that not everyone else does. My counselor says he's noticed a pause in my responses, because I'm having to take the time to process it. And indeed, I'm watching a movie in my head. I hadn't noticed that I take longer than anyone else to respond.

What happened yesterday was that my son and I were running errands all over town. I was high on frustration and low on blood sugar (they seem to go together), but I hadn't realized how that was affecting my thinking, other than it always makes it hard. My son started describing the location of the copy shop we needed to go to. I couldn't comprehend what he was saying. Because of the way I was feeling, my brain didn't make the pictures I usually get. So, when he was saying "the bank with the red roof..." he might as well have been speaking Turkish.

"Red" as a word is meaningless to me unless I visualize the color red. On top of that, he was giving a series of locations, and I've discovered I can't visualize the map well enough for it to make sense. I have to see it drawn or written down. Somehow, by the time someone gets to the end of a series of directions, I've lost track of some of the steps along the way, so it doesn't make sense. Maybe that's why math is so hard for me, too, and I can't begin to do calculations in my head, especially if someone is waiting on me to do it, as at a counter where I'm trying to figure out how much is 15% for a tip to write on the receipt. Add pressure and the game is off! Maybe my 'picture maker' in my brain can't get it all together.

I also tend to grab the least likely interpretation (a picture in my head) of what someone is saying, and after a second of confusion, maybe correct it. I've had awkward situations where I'm operating on the wrong interpretation and don't realize it until it becomes embarrassingly obvious. It seems I'm more of a literal thinker than I thought I was. Being aware of this helps, but in a normal conversation, with distractions all around and the need for quick thinking, I often stumble.

This tends to be isolating. At least I know now it's not because I'm not trying hard enough.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Memories

I didn't at first attribute my troubles in the ASL immersion class to Asperger's. I thought that somehow, I had just failed, or maybe the instructors didn't like it that I was a hearing person working with a deaf boy (while being such a lousy signer), or that the other students had had more exposure to the Deaf social scene and therefore were more fluent and at ease with it. At that point, I only thought maybe I was an Aspie, mainly because of my social and communication difficulties.

It was about then that I ran across Dr. Tony Attwood's book, The Complete Guide to Asperger's Syndrome. I was enthralled, because in page after page, he was describing me. Things about me that I thought was just me were really traits of AS. I could see it clearly:

  • When I would whine to my mother (who at least has Aspie traits) about being left out and excluded at school, she would say something like, "Well, you're really too smart for them, and they don't appreciate it, but when you get to ___________ (6th grade, or middle school, or high school...) they will appreciate you."
  • How I was always last chosen for softball in PE. (How I hate that game!) I couldn't catch, throw or hit, and the strategy was unfathomable to me. I was supposedly smart, but I caught the name "retarded" more than once on the ball field.
  • How the elaborate series of stories I dreamed up starting in 6th grade, and eventually started writing down were a result of my longing for friendship that was never fulfilled. The main character is my invention, Mr. Spock's sister--a female version of him, half-Vulcan/half-human, an outcast from both worlds, who finds a true and loyal friend on earth.
  • I loved cartoons like "Prince Planet", "8th Man", "Astroboy", and "Gigantor". All had themes of the bully getting his just deserts.
  • I was a bully target, especially in middle school. I tried faking sick a few times to avoid going to school. Also, I as naive enough that on several occasions I recall being offered friendship by girls, if I would do such and such, or meet them at another location at another time...I didn't see the insincerity in their offers.
  • I was great in all subjects but math. I am a visual thinker, and abstract concepts don't come across. I remember in 1st grade crying over my math. Carrying and borrowing numbers was incomprehensible, until one day a teacher got out some bundles of little sticks and demonstrated it. Then the concept was mine. However, math has always been hard for me to grasp.
  • A 'friend' in high school was always telling me how gullible I was, and how she could "read me like a book".
  • My 5th grade teacher really didn't like me. Now, looking back, I can remember peppering her incessantly with questions, because I really wanted to understand. She probably found me annoying. I openly challenged her pronunciation of "Missouri". Both my parents were born and raised there, whereas she was from Iowa. When she insisted Missouri was pronounced "Mizz-UR-ah", I objected, and stubbornly insisted on pronouncing it "Mizz-ER-ree. To me, it was dishonest to say it any other way.
  • By 6th grade, I started working hard to be a people pleaser, especially to the teachers. And they loved me, even if the other kids didn't.
  • It was more enjoyable putting my Colorforms pieces back in their spots precisely than actually playing with them.
  • Encyclopedias were for reading pleasure.
  • In high school, I did my uncle's geology college homework for him (for pay!). That was when I became entranced with Plate Tectonics theory. I knew more about that than anyone in my school, even the teachers.
  • Shopping malls, fashions, celebrities, parties, etc. bore me, and always have.
If I could wave a wand and not be an Aspie, would I do it? No, because it is part and parcel of who I am. I wish I knew how to relate to people, and make those connections they have. I'm like a person born blind, who knows about the concepts of color and the ability to perceive objects that can't be touched, but can't actually experience them or relate to them herself. I don't really want to change, but I do want to learn some things that would add to what I am. That's where my journey seems to be leading.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

American Sign Language and Me

I'm one of those people who like to study and learn new things, and when I take a class, I mean to get an A. I won't settle for a B if it's possible to get an A. (We won't discuss math, which is an altogether different story).

This story begins about 7 years ago, now, when my then 12 year old daughter and I decided to take an ASL (American Sign Language) class. My husband, who is losing his hearing, wanted us to learn, and I was ready to take a class after being out of school for many years. This was pre-diagnosis. In fact, it was before I was aware of anything called Asperger's Syndrome. It was a fun experience, learning the alphabet and a few hundred signs. I couldn't always follow what the teacher was signing, but I thought I would, if I practiced at it. An older daughter, who had taken ASL 1 a year or so before, told me you have to have a lot of eye contact when you sign. That disturbed me, but I was able to get along just fine in ASL 1 without looking in anyone's eyes. After awhile, I forgot she had even said that.

My 12 year old daughter and I never took ASL 2 together. First it was her schedule, then mine. Years passed. The daughter left home, I had another daughter's children for 6 months. After they left, I was ready to do something fun, and the teacher I work with wanted me to learn more sign in anticipation of a deaf autistic boy coming into our room the following year. This was last year at this time. By now, I highly suspected I had AS, but I didn't understand the part about not being able to read facial expressions and gestures. I thought I understood them just as well as anybody...

Still, ASL 2 was fun. Again I didn't understand much of what the instructor signed, but I caught the gist, and often someone in the class would fill me in. I just thought I wasn't concentrating enough. Once the instructor said she had held a conversation with someone using only her eyes. I dismissed that as being an exaggeration. After all, I thought, how can people communicate with only their eyes? As for me, I shudder even to think about doing it.

I did well in ASL 2. I practiced and practiced making the signs, and I memorized all the dialogs in the text. It was only because I had memorized the dialogs that I could understand the "receptive" part of the exams. I thought that was what everyone did. I wouldn't have understood most of it had I not done that. When the instructor signed anything I hadn't studied, I could only get the gist. I kept telling myself to keep working at it. Someday it would all click.

By the end of the school year last year, it was confirmed that the deaf autistic boy would be coming to our school, and that I was selected to work with him. The Deaf Ed teacher suggested I go to a full-immersion course being offered in Sacramento during the summer. It was a 2-week 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. class. I would be able to get a certificate for ASL 3 & 4 upon 'successful completion' of the course. I decided to combine that with a visit to my mother and sister in southern California. The school district would pay the tuition after I successfully completed the course.

Here's where I wish I had known for certain I had AS and what that means when it comes to understanding a gestural language such as ASL. Remember how I said I always get A's? I put everything I could into this course. They recommended a month of study before going to California. I studied for THREE months, faithfully, every day. I passed all the vocabulary quizzes. Of course I did...the signs were given one at a time, on a DVD that could be watched over and over. That did not prepare me for signs given one after the other with facial expressions that tell at least half the story, done by Deaf instructors. It took me all of a day and a half before I realized I was in over my head. I understood maybe 10% of what was being signed, whereas everyone else in the class seemed to get much, much more.

Another thing I should have known, was that 12 hours of constant contact and interactions is very wearing, along with being in a new place, and staying with people I had never even met before. I established my routines, including eating lunch alone (I would disappear before anyone could suggest we eat together), and hiding out again after dinner. The whole thing was a disaster. The instructors said I "lacked facial expression". I thought I was being overly expressive. I guess I can't fake something I'm not actually feeling, because when I am feeling something, everyone else seems to be able to read that quite clearly. In fact, I can't mask my feelings. I'm an open book, which I would like to be able to close, but so far, no luck with that one.

I think I can read facial expressions in a photo just about as well as anyone. It's a moment, frozen in time, and I have time to look at it and process it. In conversation, often with other distractions going on around, it's another story. There's something I'm missing and most often, I don't even know I'm missing it, but it all adds up to explain how I often miss meaning and make wrong interpretations. I suppose it's a form of multi-tasking. The more I'm trying to do at once, the worse I do at it, until I finally can't even think anymore.

The instructors said my signs were jerky and harsh. Part of that, I'm certain, was being constantly on alert. I couldn't relax, and I have anxiety problems anyway. And the more critical they got, the worse I did. I spent some time crying in the bathroom. They said I "didn't seem to know where to look"--that eye contact thing I had so conveniently forgotten.

So, in the end, I got a D and an F. I got the F for ASL 4 because I walked out. I had had enough. The day before the exams, which were very high-pressure, some students in the lab discovered they could get their grades for ASL 3. I looked up mine. Upon seeing I had a D, I immediately stood up, announced to everyone in there that I was finished, took my stuff and walked out. I had not "successfully completed the course" (I needed at least a C for the certificate. No certificate, no reimbursement of the $2,400 from the district--that's still hurting my pocketbook) so I decided I didn't need to subject myself to the torture of the exams just so I could get another D.

I thought I was a failure until a counselor told me that in my case, I couldn't have succeeded. I was trying to do something it was impossible for me to succeed at. I had studied extra before going, I studied before class and after class during those two weeks, I gave it everything I had. Retrospect is so clear. I followed up by e-mailing Dr. Tony Attwood about this. He said:

"...from my extensive clinical experience and research studies, we have recognized that those with an Autism Spectrum Disorder are not very good at reading body language, but that includes not only facial expressions, but also aspects of tone of voice and gestures, especially hand gestures.

...Thus, the expectation would be that learning a sign language would be particularly difficult for someone with Asperger's Syndrome.

I used the word 'impossible'. I should say I mean learning sign language in a full-immersion, fast-paced, high-pressure setting would be impossible for me. Knowing that it's otherwise simply 'particularly difficult' for me doesn't mean I'm not still trying. I'm using it at work with the deaf autistic boy. We're neither one of us very good at it, but we get through the day just fine.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Christmas Break

One good thing about working for the school district: about the time I think I can't take any more, along comes a break. I don't know how people in other kinds of jobs cope without Christmas, spring and summer breaks. I am poorer for it, at least financially, but I think I'm richer when it comes to sanity.

This blog is a result of Christmas break. I can actually stop to think. Thinking is hard on the go. The classroom I work in is a sensory overload nightmare. The only thing that keeps me going during the day is my break times. Often in special education classrooms, there is no time for breaks, and often the staff never really gets breaks or their contractual 'duty-free' lunch. I've always insisted on getting mine, even when my NT co-workers shrug it off and say they don't mind giving it up. Up until very recently, I've felt very selfish taking my regular break times when others can't or won't. Now, I realize, I'm doing as much for the students and my co-workers as I'm doing it for me. If I can't disengage from the constant interactions, if I can't get away from that radio they INSIST on playing over the top of all the other noise, if I can't sit by myself for awhile, I won't be nearly as good at my job as I could be. I've come to realize most people thrive on constant interaction, music always playing, and lots of company. I'm trying to educate them on my needs, and I've gotten some understanding (at least they don't insist on both sets of classroom lights being on at all times). And if they don't, at least I don't feel as if I'm selfish anymore. I'm surviving.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

What difference will it make?

So, I have the official diagnosis...

Now what? My first impulse was to feel sorry for myself because I had concrete knowledge that something, indeed, was "wrong" with me. My second impulse was to start using it as an excuse or a crutch. Well, I thought, why try? I'm hard-wired this way, so I might as well quit trying to change anything.

Now I'm working on what the difference is between learning how to fit in, or blend in, or connect and being a fake person, acting out a role that is not me. Do I even know who I am? And who I think I am often doesn't jibe with what others are perceiving me as, because now and then, someone will tell me. So, am I rude, thoughtless, unfriendly, or am I sensitive, meek, caring? I've been told I'm all those thinks at different times by different people. When I stop to think, though, the people who have told me the latter actually knew me much better than the people who told me the former. Everyone agrees on one thing: I'm somehow different.

I'm blessed to have a husband of 33 years. He is somewhere above me on the spectrum. We compliment each other. I'm great at spelling and writing. I can spot an error in grammar or spelling on a page in an instant, but I've always cried over math. He's just the opposite. He was the first kid in our high school to have a calculator, but he struggles with spelling and writing.

I have few friends, though, and no one who I would call a 'best friend'. I don't think I ever have had a best friend. I wonder whether I'd recognize a close friend. It seems presumptuous on my part to identify someone as my 'close' friend.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Do we need yet another AS blog?

Maybe or maybe not. I'm doing this to help myself. If I can help anyone else along the way, may it be blessed.

I'm a newly-diagnosed Aspie with 52 years of living under my belt. I'm from a generation that grew up without hearing about Asperger's Syndrome. I felt the need to get an official diagnosis because 1) I like things to be definite and official 2) I needed an explanation for 'everything' and 3) If it's official, maybe I can disclose to others and they can't say I'm just imagining things, or I'm just making up lame excuses and that if I wanted to, I could be warm and fuzzy and 'normal' like everyone else.

I work as a special education assistant in a high school. I'm really too smart for this job, but it seems to be common for Aspies to work beneath their potential, at least potential as a high IQ and creativity seem to suggest. I have worked with autistic children (along with Down Syndrome, FAS, etc.), and that's what gave me the first clue to the possibility that I might have something similar. I've always been different, have always had a hard time fitting in and feeling as if I don't belong. I don't connect with people. I tend to grab the wrong interpretation of what someone is saying and either run into trouble because of it, or find myself grasping for what they really meant. I've had no end of problems with this one. Well, I could go on and on...but I gather people get tired of that. :)

I'm on a journey, metaphorically. What difference will knowing about AS make in my life? Will I connect with other Aspies along the way? (They seem to be few and far between in Alaska). Will I be of help to someone like me who has lots of unanswered questions? I don't pretend to have any answers, much less all the answers. All I know is what my own life has been like, and that's what I'll share. If you wish to join me--Welcome!