Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Shadow Dancing for Mars and Venus

We get bullied more than average. We're also lonely more than average. I'm very lucky to be married, but I met Emily only when I was 29 1/2 - and she became my very first girlfriend.

We may be able to meet people. Getting from meeting to dating is a very different kettle of fish. Asking somebody out, or letting the other person know you want to be asked out, involves vulnerability. If the other person says no, you've been rejected and of course that stinks. You may also feel foolish in the eyes of anyone who might know about it. You might not even be able to stay friends. Alternatively, the other person may decide to string you along and get some of the benefits of a dating "relationship" without actually feeling for you.

So, people tend not to ask others out just because they feel like it, or say straight out that they want to go out with you. It happens maybe once or twice in a blue moon.

On the other hand, the last thing you want is never to show interest in someone who just might want to go out with you and see him/her run off and marry someone else. Memories like that tend to haunt you the rest of your life. As the saying goes, nothing ventured, nothing gained.

So how do you show someone you're interested without showing that you're interested.

We've learned about shadow dancing to defend yourself. Let's see how it can help here.

The idea is to drop some delicate hints in word or deed that might show interest but could easily be explained away as something else. For any one such hint, the odds are low that someone is interested. String several together and the odds go up. (Tossing a coin once and having it come up heads is, well, a 50-50 shot. Tossing it three times and getting heads each time, on the other hand, is less than a 13% chance.)

So, let's look at a conversation that seems to be going well - maybe you and s/he have some common interests, you like to read the same things, you feel the same way about a public figure for the same reasons. You can casually mention that you've gone to the movies for the last several weekends, or concerts, or the theatre, or out to dinner. Each time by yourself. That's not a common pattern for people who already have significant others.

That in and of itself does not mean you are necessarily interested in the other person. It doesn't even necessarily mean you're unattached; maybe the love of your love happens to be working late the last few weeks, or even lives across the country. But it will cause the other person to prick up his/her ears: Since people know that people pick up on hints of not already having a mate, the other person will figure that you, knowing this, intended him/her to think you may be unattached. And if so, why would you want him/her to think that? Likely because you're thinking of wanting to go out with him/her.

The other person may casually mention a boyfriend/girlfriend, or even a sexual orientation which precludes interest in you. Or on the other hand, s/he can pick up the thread and run with it. S/he may ask you when you expect to catch the next performance by so-and-so. That could mean s/he's going to match your answer against his/her free-time schedule and see if there's an overlap.

Or on the other hand if you show a trait the other person deems undesirable (say, the wrong political views or a bad taste in music), s/he could always be busy that day anyway.

Showing one's possible unattached status and asking about the other person's schedule are two common hints of possible interest. Others include questions about which neighborhood one lives in or where one works or goes to school, because they imply possible interest in opportunities to see and talk with the other person again. Asking questions where the answers would likely reveal the other's attached status (eg, "Next time you go, are you going to try to get two seats? I know it can be tough if that group's really popular") is a strong hint.

NB: The other person giveth, and the other person can taketh away. Both you and the other person can change direction at any time.

This is shadow dancing for Venus as well as Mars: keeping it all normal on the surface, keeping plausible deniability until the other person's intentions become obvious and delicately responding to one another's moves.

Also check out what Marc "Animal" MacYoung says about the bonding process.

It's an art that people spend their lives perfecting, and we start out behind the curve.

Just like Franklin Delano Roosevelt found himself way behind the curve when he first came down with polio.

What do you think?

Sunday, December 28, 2008

The Aspie and Autist Guide to Self Defense, Part IV: Shadow Dancing

We need to be able to defend ourselves from physical as well as social threats. As Woody Guthrie famously sung, some rob you with a six-gun and some rob you with a fountain pen.

Meanwhile, as Sun Tzu famously wrote, the greatest victory comes from a battle that's never fought.

And sometimes, the only way you can avoid fighting is to show the other person that while you have no desire to start anything, if s/he does you will finish it. As self-defense expert Marc "Animal" MacYoung puts it, the aggressor is in effect "interviewing" you for the "job" of victim. S/he's testing your willingness and ability to resist. You "pass" the interview by showing you're not prepared to fight back.

As we've learned, however, if you just go around issuing threats - whether in word or manner - you will attract the very things you're trying to avoid. Most of the people you'd threaten would previously have had no interest in attacking you. Some of them, however, will look on your actions as a challenge to their status - and we've learned how they'd respond. Most of the rest will just think you're a fool.

And of course, even someone who was planning to attack you now has the perfect excuse - after all, who was getting aggressive first?

Whether the attacks in question would be physical attacks on the street in a seedy part of town or in a biker bar or attacks on your credibility in the workplace, the basic principles are the same.

You need to prepare yourself, and issue the appropriate warnings, in ways visible only to a likely aggressor, clearly geared toward meeting a particular act of aggression and no more and plausibly deniable (yes, this means a bit of selective description of your motives) to everyone including the potential aggressor. MacYoung calls it Shadow Dancing.

If someone comes to, say, your place of work and looks like s/he may want to start something with you, you can drop what you're doing and move to a nearby location with a heavy tool nearby. Officially, all you've done is change your tasks and location within the limits of your job. Unofficially, you've let the other person know that you're alert, you know what s/he may be planning, you're confident (since you're not making a deal of it - it's "all in a day's work") and you're prepared to seriously hurt him/her if s/he tries anything.

An attacker will likely be deterred, not only by your being near a weapon but also by your demonstration of alertness ("I'm not sure if I can catch him/her by surprise anymore, and maybe s/he's well-coordinated enough to turn me into bloody hash if I try anything"), your confidence ("What does s/he know that I don't? Maybe s/he's tougher than I thought!") and resolve to possibly use the weapon if need be ("Talk is cheap, but it looks like this person is serious about using that on me if s/he has to.")

Of course, someone who's not looking to attack you won't be offended by, and may not even notice the significance of, what you just did. And if s/he or anyone else actually calls you out on it "Hey - what are you doing going for a weapon?" you can just say "Hey, I'm just shelving boxes here now - so what if that big hammer (which I'm not even touching) just happens to be here?"

If one of your co-workers is thinking of trying to make you look bad, you can shadow dance. Say you're both at a meeting with your boss. You're both rivals for the boss' attention and you suspect the other person may want to make you look stupid so the boss trusts him/her more. So maybe the boss asks about a topic you know something but not a whole lot about, say financial management. Your co-worker may ask about expense account reporting procedures...and include a seminar s/he's attended that s/he wants reimbursement for. A financial management seminar.

If you turn around and say "I know why you said that! You're just trying to impress the boss!" you will look foolish and actually do yourself in. The co-worker can say "What are you talking about? I was just asking about expense accounts." Meanwhile the boss is thinking "Well, your co-worker is certainly doing a good job of impressing me with regard to (1) knowledge of the topic - which you haven't refuted - (2) savoir-faire and (3) perspective."

Instead you say something like "Hey, that must have been an interesting seminar? Did the instructor mention Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Financial Management But Were Afraid to Ask?" If the co-worker says "Yes," you can show you're on the same plane of knowledge as s/he is, especially when you mention a few topics from the book. If s/he says "No," you can go on with "Oh I can understand that - it just came out six months ago. I'm sure they'll be talking about the chapter about the new techniques in place since Sarbanes-Oxley...." And you've shown you not only know financial management, but you also have the very latest knowledge - important in a business setting.

You've shown your rival and your boss that not only do you know about financial management, you sense challenges before they can become big problems and you can respond with proportion. Those are important qualities for serious responsibility.

In any case, you may have to carry out a few more rounds of move and countermove before the would-be aggressor is convinced that you know the score and backs off.

In a nutshell, Shadow Dancing means: Move yourself into position to fight back. Block the other person's moves to more advantageously attack you. Make it all look normal and force the other person to out-and-out attack you - without the advantage of surprise, weakness on your part or the ability to blame you - if s/he wants to start anything.

What do you think?

Saturday, December 20, 2008

The Aspie and Autist Guide to Self Defense, Part III: When Not in Rome....

We know we need to adapt to the implicit rules around us. We also need to understand that "around us" means wherever we happen to be at a particular time, not just where we were born or raised.

Self-defense expert Marc "Animal" MacYoung points out that different social settings - different cliques in school, different neighborhoods, different kinds of workplaces, even people of different educational levels, different ethnic groups and different socio-economic levels - mean different norms about what makes for respect and status and how violations are punished.

Step on someone's toes in one part of town and you could get a raised eyebrow, be snapped at or yelled at, maybe not get invited to a good club or party, maybe even lose out on a good deal or a promotion. "Dis" somebody in another part of town and you could get a fat lip and a shiner...if you're lucky. Or maybe a broken bone or two or a cracked skull. Or even your very own slab at the morgue.

One important difference is that some kinds of people abhor physical violence. You can get arrested and even put in jail just for grabbing someone. Other people consider physical violence a perfectly normal, even necessary, way to redress insults. They may also consider, say, sexually molesting or even raping a young woman who has passed out at a party acceptable. You could say that the former are much more civilized than the latter.

MacYoung himself would agree with you. Noting that there's some correlation between high socio-economic status and being civilized, he calls those who live by more civilized norms "Romans" and those who don't "barbarians". Problems arise when Romans - especially young Romans out for a good time - stray into barbarian territory while expecting Roman rules to still apply.

Note that I said "physical violence". You and I - especially if we're Romans - might consider that a redundancy. Many others, especially barbarians, don't. We Romans feel that whatever happens, violence is never acceptable, and we expect to never be hit, kicked, stabbed, sexually molested, etc.

Well, as MacYoung puts it, barbarians see violence as more of a continuum. In other words, suppose you get into an argument at the deli about who was next in line, and you call the other person a rude moron, complete with not-ready-for-prime-time language, maybe right in front of his friends. He just might decide that a right uppercut to your kisser is the perfect repartee. And he'll be sure as he knows his own name that you started it with your (verbal) violence. Why should you be immune to punishment when you attack others? Are you some kind of privileged character, that no one can touch you?

We don't have to agree with this view. We do need to understand that certain kinds of people do - and they act on it. They may not show it when they're sweeping our office floors, ringing up our purchases or serving our dinners - that is, on our turf. On their turf, their rules count - not ours. And as MacYoung has made clear, if we explore terra incognita, we need to learn the prevailing rules, the subtle signs of respect and status, the warning signals that someone is ready and (about to be) willing to inflict serious retribution on our hides and the best ways to escape while there's still time.

What do you think?

Friday, December 12, 2008

Happy Anniversary Emily

My darling NT wife, Emily, has been a lawyer for two years today.

Emily went to Georgetown University Law Center on a 3/4 time basis, and at the same time was a full-time law clerk at the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority as well as a part-time online producer for the Washington Post, managing their home page on weekends (which she still does) and an intern for CQ (Congressional Quarterly) Press covering US Supreme Court cases. She also published articles on privacy law and spyware/malware. Last but not least, she managed to maintain a relationship and begin a marriage with me.

Emily passed the Maryland State Bar, held in the last week of July 2006. (Even though she had graduated from Georgetown Law and we lived in Virginia, she took the Maryland Bar since she was due to start a one-year clerkship in October for now Chief Judge Peter Krauser of the Maryland Court of Special Appeals, which is like a Court of Appeals in most other states. Appellate clerkships are given only to the best law school graduates, and generally are springboards to the top.)

When we found out in October that Emily had passed the bar, of course we were both ecstatic. Her mother and I were proud to see her sworn in as a Maryland lawyer on December 12, 2006 at the Maryland Court of Appeals (the highest court in Maryland, like most other states' Supreme Courts).

After a successful term at the Maryland Court of Special Appeals, Emily has moved on to the Board of Veterans Appeals in Washington, DC as associate counsel. She reviews veterans' appeals of decisions on their benefits claims and writes draft opinions for the judges. Just about six weeks ago, she finished her probationary year with flying colors and was immediately promoted. (In fact, the judges made that decision ahead of time; everyone just had to wait for the anniversary of her hiring to make it official.)

Emily just co-authored an article in the seminal issue of the Veterans Law Review about the importance of new media in veterans benefits. She has also taught Constitutional Law at Anne Arundel Community College. She was chosen for a special assignment in Waco, Texas all this week, helping veterans there with their claims.

Happy anniversary of becoming a lawyer. I miss you and love you, Emily.

Possible Bullying Scandal at Miss Porter's

While we're discussing bullying, you might be interested to know that Miss Porter's School, a classic "ticket to power" boarding (and day) school much like Andover, Exeter and Hotchkiss, is being sued by a girl, Tatum Bass, who claims she was bullied there by many of her fellow students. Not only is the school itself being sued, but also the headmaster, Katherine Windsor, is being sued personally.

Miss Bass claims, among many other things, that she was scorned and called "retarded" because she has ADD/ADHD (Attention Deficit Disorder/Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder).

I have no idea whether Miss Bass was bullied or if so by whom, what happened or what the school could (or could not) have done to prevent or stop it. But if wealthy, privileged and powerful girls at one of our most respected traditional institutions can bully, who and where do we know is immune from bullying?

No one and no place.

What do you think?

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

The Aspie and Autist Guide to Self Defense, Part II: Stopping Bullies

No doubt about it, bullying is a serious problem. Especially for us Aspies and autists, and those who love us. For example, Tanya Savko feels it necessary to homeschool her 14-year-old autistic son, Nigel, because some other kids bullied him. Meanwhile, Sharon daVanport - herself an Aspie - discusses what happened when her Aspie son Ty was being bullied. I myself was bullied until maybe 9th or 10th grade, and it only stopped because I proved I was willing to fight back.

Marc "Animal" MacYoung, whom we met in my last post, gives a wealth of advice on how to avoid being bullied. Let's look at the dynamics of bullying:

To start with, many people end up getting bullied and assaulted due to the very behavior they hoped would prevent it. Confrontational tactics disproportionate to the situation, or even before there was any situation, combined with obvious nervousness (especially repeated quick glances at the bully), make clear to a bully that you are all hawk and no spit, and that you can start fights easily enough but you can't finish them.

As MacYoung points out, people who really are confident they can take on a bully don't go out of their way to try to show it. They either ignore him/her when s/he walks in, or give him/her a single momentary glance and then go on about their business. "Heavy hitters," as MacYoung terms them, do pay some attention to the bully moves - subtly; they devote the majority of their attention to what they were doing and keep their observation of the bully under wraps. And they know how to look at a bully in a way that really shows him they can wipe up the floor with him/her if need be - and that if not need be, that is if the bully doesn't start anything, there will be no confrontation and everyone can go about their business.

Whereas victims may bluff, may force a confrontation...and show weakness. Any bully who knows his (or her) business can sense whether you really believe you can take him/her on, and whether s/he's having an effect on you and if so what kind of effect. Remember that bullies enjoy scaring people: that's why they do it! If you were, say, a coin collector, wouldn't you be able to figure out quickly where to find coin shops and fellow collectors? Bullies can figure out victims just as quickly.

Bullies (and criminals, and many other folks) understand that most people have a very good idea of whether or not they can take them on, and that their behavior reflects that. Really confident people show their abilities without trumpeting them. Blowhards show their weakness. This is true whether the bullying is physical, emotional, political (as in either government politics or workplace politics, apartment-building politics, etc) and so forth.

Btw, when I say take on a bully, I don't just mean defeat the bully. If a bully figures there's a significant chance of actually getting hurt, s/he's going to find someone else. That's why many periods of bullying end with a climactic fight between the bully and the erstwhile victim. Win or lose, the victim can likely get rid of the bully after that since there are always easier targets.

Easier targets provide endless fun for bullies by showing how scared they are even before a blow is landed. Scared people don't resist since they don't think in terms of being free of the bully (although of course they would like that) so much as avoiding the worst possible treatment the bully can possibly give them - and bullies love to let their victims intimidate themselves by letting their imaginations run wild. It takes confidence, calm and short-term guts (not to mention pain tolerance) to stop a bully.

Bullying, like crime more broadly, generally doesn't start out of the blue - though it may seem that way to the victim who didn't see it coming. Bullies usually test potential victims, much like criminals, in MacYoung's word, give "interviews" - that you want to fail. The idea is to test you, starting out with very small impositions, things that can easily be denied or explained away if need be - maybe repeated "accidental" pokes, or jokes about your name or other nasty teasing, or a little kick to the shins when the teacher's back is turned.

If you give a measured response, the bully knows that you know the rules, you may well have the self-discipline and coordination which translates into good fighting skills and in any case you probably have the social competence to have friends who will help you out. S/he's likely going to decide there's no percentage in trying to mess with you, and move on.

If you overreact - or don't react at all, or cringe and beg, or ask the bully why s/he's doing this - the bully has hit pay dirt and will keep upping the ante to see just how much s/he can get away with.

This process might sound familiar. As MacYoung points out, acquaintance/date rapists do the same thing. So do blackmailers and extortionists - "[I]f once you have paid him the Dane-geld, you never get rid of the Dane". The victim, thinking only of the here and now, sees only the small imposition compared with the much worse things the bully/criminal could do, and misses the not-so-long-term effects of signaling that s/he's afraid - namely much greater impositions. And of course giving in once makes it easier to do so again the next time.

When I was young, I read a magazine article about a child pornography - really teenage girl pornography - scheme. The girls had originally agreed to model, fully clothed, for money. How did the criminal get them to perform sex acts on camera? Not by coming up to them one fine day and saying "Here, now take it all off and do it with these boys while I take pictures." They would have been out of there like nobody's business. And just using physical force would have taken more muscle than he probably had - just putting guns to their heads would likely have resulted in their calling the cops as soon as they got out of there, unless he could somehow have either held them captive or kept them under surveillance to credibly threaten them with harm if they called the police.

Rather, he started out by offering to pay more for bikini photos - after all, what their parents didn't know wouldn't hurt them, and what teenager can't use some extra money?

After some bikini photos, he would suggest nude shots - perhaps first without full frontal nudity, then with it. The girls (that is, those who had accepted his offer instead of heading for the door) had shown they were willing to break the rules for money and that they didn't have a good sense of their boundaries and a willingness to defend them. Perhaps most important was the threat of blackmail - what if the photographer sent their parents the bikini shots?

And of course, the pressures were multiplied when it came time for actual sex on camera. The girls (the ones who remained, that is) had compromised themselves, both under the threat of blackmail and in their own minds; turning back now would also mean admitting to themselves how deeply they had fouled up. Also, they had been desensitized to sexual overtures from the pron kingpin. They were too demoralized to resist any longer.

It takes long-term thinking - the ability to see it coming and to make short-term sacrifices - to prevent bullying and to stop it in its tracks if it does occur. Among other things, you need to show self-restraint in how you interact with others. You also need to be willing to obey the rules (both the rules other people impose on you and the ones you set for yourself) as much as possible. If and when you do break them you need to be able to reverse course and admit to yourself - maybe even to other people as well - that you were wrong, and take your lumps. You may need to be able to actually fight once in a while.

What do you think?

Sunday, December 7, 2008

The Aspie and Autist Guide to Self Defense, Part I: Introduction

No, this isn't how to karate-chop ten ninjas into oblivion and finally get the girl. And no, we won't be putting Jackie Chan or Chuck Norris out of work anytime soon.

Self-defense, rightly understood, means not getting hurt or killed. And what's even better than presence of mind in front of an assailant? Absence of body. As I once overheard a young woman summarize her self-defense class' three main points: "Don't be there. Don't be there. Don't be there." If you don't get into a fight in the first place, it's kinda hard to get hurt in one.

As Sun Tzu, author of The Art of War, pointed out in essence: The greatest fighter is not the one who wins all his battles, but the one who subdues the enemy without fighting at all.

Does this mean peace at any price? Of course not. Once in a blue moon (a bit more often in certain lines of work which seem a lot more glamorous than they are), you may actually have to fight. But most fights - like most traffic accidents - are avoidable.

World-renowned self-defense expert Marc "Animal" MacYoung understands this. He teaches fighting techniques, for when you have to fight, and conflict-avoidance techniques for the other 99% of the time.

And these days, we're going to have even more trouble. The economy is going downhill fast. And as MacYoung points out, when times are bad and people are either losing their jobs, businesses or portfolios or afraid of that happening, more people react badly to stress. When times are tight, there's more tension in the air, more people start fights over things they'd have otherwise ignored and more people are going to get hurt. (And yes, this goes both ways - you could just as easily end up reacting badly to someone else's [perhaps innocent] provocations as the other way around.) We really need to learn how to de-escalate situations before they explode.

MacYoung emphasizes a nuts and bolts approach; he doesn't just say "Trust your gut" or "Be Careful," but rather tells us what specific things to look for and how to deal with them. That we can appreciate, since it's difficult for us to pick up on cues until we've been trained to look for them - then our attention to detail serves us well.

For example, he warns that if you see several toughs leaning against a wall at not-too-wide intervals, either walk back the other way (and call the authorities) or choose a different path. Do not go right past them - if you do, once you pass the one closest to you he will follow you and block your escape and the one furthest out will step into your path too. Of course, any toughs in the middle can then set upon you right then and there. You'll be surrounded and that's a recipe for being beaten, mugged...or worse.

The attack on Pearl Harbor was a surprise on this day 67 years ago - but it didn't just happen out of the blue. And neither do most assaults and fights. In this series, we'll learn more about how to see them coming in time to stop them. As the Latin saying goes: praemonitus praemunitus - forewarned is forearmed.

What do you think?

Friday, December 5, 2008

Before You Yell or Curse at a Child (Or Anyone Else), Please Check This Out

Megan Bayliss, mother of an Aspie, knows how frustrating it can be sometimes to deal with Aspies (especially the small fry). They interrupt you when you so obviously (at least obviously to you and to others around you) are busy. They are blunt and can sound disrespectful. You sometimes have to hear complaints about them.

But please don't curse or scream at an Aspie anymore than you would curse or scream at anyone else. As she's learned, once the words are said (or yelled), you can't unsay them. Sticks and stones may break one's bones, but bones heal faster than many minds do after tirade upon tirade from angry or just impatient adults - and the children they implicitly encourage.

Ms. Bayliss' message, in effect: Count to ten if you have to, but make not the children suffer.

Please, set the example.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Aspies, Autists and Relationships, Part V: An NT Perspective


My good friend Sam has posted about a defining episode in her past relationship with "Adrian," who was diagnosed with AS while they were dating.

Sam brings the empathy of a hard-core medic, the wisdom of experience and the skill of a creative writing major. As far as I know, this is a true story, involving the NT-Aspie relationship she previously told us about.

Keep in mind a few Aspie traits which raised challenges in their relationship. Aspies sometimes have problems understanding things, especially feelings, which aren't spelled out in so many words. People can discuss events and we will understand the events themselves.

It will be more difficult for us to understand how those things make people feel - especially if the feelings are expressed through nonverbal cues like body language, facial expressions and tones of voice. Those feelings may be rooted in past events which we may actually know about, but if the connection is not explicitly made it may not occur to us.

We need to make as great an effort as possible to understand how people are feeling. At the same time, we should ask others, especially NTs, to make themselves as clear as possible. We need to understand that we must ask NTs to go beyond their tacit understanding of "clear," which often includes figures of speech, hints, euphemisms, understatement, gestures, facial expressions and the like.

In making these requests, we need to model what we need them to do - ask in so many words. We need to explain that if something is not put in literal, verbal terms we are much less likely to understand it.

What do you think?

Sunday, November 23, 2008

To Pee or Not to Pee, That is the Question....

StatMom has given us an interesting discussion on child-rearing.

Specifically, she's conflicted about therapeutic interventions for her young Aspie daughter Reese. Among other things, Reese has trouble finding her way to the bathroom at night - if there is more than one light, she's not sure which light to follow and may go off in the wrong direction. And sometimes she just doesn't like having to get up and go to the bathroom. So, her will effectively paralyzed, she shifts and bounces around in bed and sobs and someone has to take her to the bathroom.

Reese also chatters and shows other verbal/vocal tics. StatMom loves her more than life itself...and worries that others may not react to Reese's behavior as benevolently as she does.

Decision-making skills are one thing: everyone would benefit from building the self-discipline to make and carry out good decisions, such as when to go to the bathroom. Other behaviors, which don't harm the individual but which others may dislike, are a different kettle of fish.

StatMom - an Aspie herself - faces a nasty dilemma: To what extent does she encourage her children to be who they want to be, including offending some people, and insist that society accept Aspies and autists for who they are as long as they abide by the law and don't actually harm anyone? And to what extent does she accept the fact that there are things that an NT-dominated world simply will not accept - even though she, her family and others like me might feel they should accept them - and train her children accordingly?

Sharon daVanport - another Aspie - wrote about this same dilemma she faced with her Aspie son Ty while he was in middle school. To what extent should be focus on being himself, and to what extent should he conform?

This comes down to how we view autism, AS and the rest of the spectrum itself. Is it mainly just a difference in the way we're wired, like left-handedness, or a set of disorders which should be cured if that ever becomes possible, like multiple sclerosis? (Wrt left-handedness, keep in mind that not too long ago, left-handed children, including my own father, were "trained" - including through corporal punishment - to switch hands. In fact, the very words "sinister" and "gauche" - and the latter's opposite, "adroit" - were based on the idea that left-handedness is evil. Just for the record, I'm a northpaw myself.)

It also comes down to how each of us deals with it. To what extent do we select the people we befriend, love and do business with partly based on their acceptance of our traits, and ask society to accept us the way we are, and to what extent do we change our behavior to conform to NTs' expectations?

There's no single answer to that. Aspies and autists disagree among ourselves about that and probably always will. The raison d'ĂȘtre of Building Common Ground is that the right approach takes the best of both sides. Accommodation has to go both ways.

These considerations also shape what kinds of accommodations we ask for. To some extent we do need to ask people, especially our mates, friends and people in our workplaces, social groups and the like, not to take certain things personally from us - including bluntness, lack of eye contact, desire to limit the extent of social contact, etc. - that they would from most other people.

One thing I've also done is ask one or more people in each setting to be a mentor for me. I recognize that most people are - rightly or wrongly - extremely reluctant to give, let alone volunteer, detailed criticisms, especially about personal matters. So I approach someone I've come to trust, explain my situation and its behavioral implications - including that I have difficulty reading situations and people, have grown up without the complete knowledge of informal social rules that most people take for granted and have developed my own nonconformist habits which by now I may not even recognize. Thus, I may offend people and not even know that I'm doing it.

I emphasize my strengths, including attention to detail, ability to keep promises and follow the rules...and ability to take detailed criticism even about unpleasant things.

I go on to ask that if I do something which people just can't tolerate, would s/he please take me aside privately and spell out, in detail, what I'm doing or not doing that causes problems, and I promise to do whatever I can to remedy it. I wrap up by making clear that in any case, if this group is not one which can accept significant differences in behavior, please let me know so I can go elsewhere.

(I typically put this request in writing so the person can take time to absorb it.)

This is a different kind of accommodation: it helps us satisfy the NT world's standards. As the saying goes, it's "a hand up, not a handout". Most people would be happier to give that kind of accommodation than to (simply) just accept behavior they find weird or offensive. In fact, I think many people would be happier to give both kinds of accommodation than just the latter, since we'd be meeting them halfway.

What do you think?

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Aspies, Autists and Relationships, Part IV: Relationships with Parents of Aspies and Autists

One thing I've found out since I started blogging is that there are a great many single parents of Aspie and especially autistic children. Serious conditions like that will strain any marriage, and some marriages don't survive the pressure.

If you've ever dated a single parent, you know you need to build a relationship with not only your boyfriend or girlfriend, but also the children. If one or more of the children has AS or autism, that's a special kind of achievement if you can make it work.

Tanya Savko, whose 14-year-old son Nigel is autistic, recently interviewed her boyfriend Rick for our relationships series. Note his message of acceptance and love, culminating in "Don’t worry about him being out in public and disturbing people; let him spread his wings a little more."

Here's to a long life together - Tanya, Rick and Nigel.

Anniversary Roundup

To celebrate our 10-year anniversary, Emily and I went to Annie's Paramount Steak and Seafood House, where we've been before.

This time, I'd been able to top off my social fuel tank, and my manner showed it. I was much more chatty with the hostess and the waiters. I even branched out, from steak - my normal restaurant favorite - to pork, which I also enjoy. (Yes, I was raised Jewish.)

When you see an Aspie trying something new - especially on the spur of the moment - that's a good sign the fuel gauge is right up around F.

A few things that helped:
  • Our hostess was well dressed, including nice shoes. (I do not like casually dressed hosts, hostesses or anyone else at non-casual restaurants.)

  • The place had a very pleasant color scheme - red and pink (which the hostess was also wearing). I'm attracted to bright color patterns, especially in red, pink and purple.

  • The waiters, Aaron and Dave, showed that they recognized me; in fact, Dave was surprised I hadn't ordered steak this time.
We had a great time, and hopefully we'll do it again soon.

Anyway, if you're in the Baltimore/Maryland Eastern Shore area, try Annie's!

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Aspies, Autists and Relationships, Part III: Reflections

I'd just like to reflect a bit on what Sam said:

First off, Adrian seemed to have trouble empathizing at times. That's true of many but not all or even most Aspies. Empathy can grow with age; note that Sam said that past experience helps. I know I empathize much better than I did a decade ago.

When I say past experience, I mean of human beings in general and experience with relationships in particular. The good news is that once Aspies and autists make our first real friends and romantic partners, we can go up the learning curve quickly - especially if our friends are not only kind and helpful in general but also understand AS and autism and can communicate well with us. (Also, please check out Tanya Savko's excellent post on the subject.)

Sometimes, an Aspie or autist may look to others like s/he can't empathize, when it's really a matter of not being sure how to express one's feelings appropriately. Bear in mind that probably most Aspies and autists have been chastised time and time again for what they thought was perfectly reasonable ways to express their emotions. Unfortunately such chastisement is not often accompanied by instruction in more appropriate ways, since it's supposed to be something everyone should know anyway. The chastisers probably (1) assumed that the mistaken behavior was intentionally rude and (2) were very uncomfortable about the matter.

So it's not surprising that Aspies and autists can go a long time knowing that we express ourselves inappropriately, but not knowing how to do it better.

Also, as the famous TV counselor Dr. Phil has pointed out, people tend to live up to their labels. Sometimes people actually accuse us of being unempathic, or even sociopathic. Especially when we are young and still forging our identities, such labels can seem appealing in a back-handed sense.

(Not to mention that it's difficult to actually want to empathize with a society many of whose members - especially those in authority - yell at us, call us names and otherwise reject us.)

Last but not least, Aspie and autistic brains tend to take time to absorb new things, especially of an emotional nature. It takea a good deal more hard work and skill for us to think on our feet than for NTs, other things being equal.

So we tend not to trust our judgment, especially on the spot. We tend to defer reacting whenever possible, even in urgent situations.

If you feel that an Aspie or autist is having difficulty empathizing in a particular situation, note what Sam said and do what you may do with anyone else who is having difficulty understanding something: try to relate it to his/her experiences. Please assume that it's a matter of understanding and not morality: s/he probably wants to understand and just needs some help.

On the same plane, note that Sam advises Aspies and autists to ask for clarification if there's not enough verbal information. That is certainly a good idea. It's very important to be able to ask for help when you need it; people generally respect others more when they honestly admit that they don't know something.

At the same time, if you're the NT in a personal or other relationship, follow Sam's advice and be as explicit and detailed as possible. You may need to think of things that an NT would naturally infer but an Aspie or autist may not - and may not ask about.

Keep in mind that by definition of the situation, we may not know that there is "more than meets the ear" and thus not know what, if anything, to ask about. Also, most of us have had experiences with people being downright unsympathetic to our questions about things others viewed as obvious. Those things were left unstated precisely because the other people didn't want to explicitly discuss them. One thing I've learned is that many people's pet peeves include spelling things out - and apparently even being courteous to those who ask them to do that.

It really helps if you and the Aspie or autist can trust each other enough that we can ask you even about "obvious" things and you will give an informative answer.

So, this is where we and NTs can meet each other halfway. We can learn to ask questions where we don't understand something, or where experience has told us there may be an important figurative or other subtle meaning.

(We also need to learn not to give others a hard time when they ask us things, like what year World War II ended or who had American baseball's highest batting average and in what season, that we've come to consider "obvious". We absolutely must set a good example here.)

In turn, NTs can proactively map out possible pitfalls for Aspies and autists, and prepare detailed explanations.

Sam said something else that I found very interesting: Her interactions with Adrian were mainly one-on-one.

That's exactly how I am. I only meet friends, and would only date, one-on-one. I do join clubs like the Asperger Adults of Greater Washington and sit and listen or speak to the group, but I am very uncomfortable talking in small groups. I have on multiple occasions asked a third person to please leave, in so many words, when the person I was meeting unthinkingly brought him/her along or s/he wanted to join us. I understand that the third person may not have felt good about it, but I considered it, and continue to consider it, my right to do so, and I believe any considerate person would not hold it against me.

I only do things with Emily in small groups because I know her well and vice versa.

I think that while it can be a matter of individual personality, my being an Aspie has a good deal to do with it:

For one thing, we are much better at focusing on one person, topic or thing at a time. People have told me that I am very good at making the other person feel listened to, and feel like s/he's the only person I'm thinking about at the time - because generally that's true.

On the other hand, if I were to have to keep track of two or more people at the same time, my social fuel gauge would run to E that much more quickly.

Also, as I mentioned, we tend to absorb and respond to things better over time (which also explains why we often do better discussing things in writing when that's appropriate). That's much easier to handle when we can keep the conversation at a pace we can handle and in a direction we can predict, which in turn is infinitely easier when each of us has only one conversational partner.

In addition, we can much more easily handle the routine and the planned than the unexpected. The more people in a situation, the exponentially greater the odds that someone will suggest something new to talk about or do, which itself will pose difficulties whatever the merits or demerits of the suggestion itself.

Of course, any conversation and any get-together or date needs to develop over time. One-on-one settings enable us to better accept change because with only one conversational partner to deal with, we can make sure it doesn't overwhelm us.

(For that matter, I think most people accept change better when it can come at a stable pace. That may explain why countries like the United States can enact lasting social change much more quickly, such as racial, ethnic, religious and sexual integration, precisely because we do it through enduring institutions like Congress, civil society, churches, etc. Revolutions, like the French Revolution, tend to turn reactionary as people, fearful of the next round of changes which could leave thousands dead and thousands more poor and homeless, demand some sort of security at any price.)

(Today is also the 209th anniversary of Napoleon Bonaparte's overthrow of the Directory in France, effectively ending the Revolution - after years of radical Jacobin policies culminating in the Reign of Terror - and ushering in a military dictatorship. In fact, even before Napoleon took over, the famed Thermidorian Reaction was established because people were just too afraid of what might happen next.)

So, we Aspies and autists tend to do best in one-on-one conversations. Public speaking can also develop our skills (and this can work for NTs, too).

Sam noticed that Aspies and autists sometimes need time alone, because too much social interaction can be draining. This goes back to the concept of a social fuel gauge. Unlike with an engine which can convert its own exhaust back into fuel, at any given moment we have only a limited amount of mental and emotional energy for socializing. When that energy starts to run low - when the fuel gauge starts edging toward the E - we might be able to re-fuel a little on the spot but we likely need to leave soon.

So, please don't take it personally if the Aspie or autist in your life suddenly wants to leave early, declines to talk with yet another individual or declines an invitation. It's probably not personal.

Last but not least, Sam found that the techniques she learned with Adrian - especially explaining things in explicit detail - have also helped her with NTs. That may be the most important thing to keep in mind when working with Aspies and autists: many if not most of the things that help Aspies and autists deal with you better will also help many other people in general.

Many of the accommodations we ask for, and which help us do more for you, are versatile - you can also use them to improve your relationships with others. Explaining things in detail is a broadly applicable skill.

What do you think?

Aspies, Autists and Relationships, Part II: How the Other Half Loves

My good friend Sam, an NT who happens to be especially sensitive, kind, intelligent and mature, used to date an Aspie. (To protect his privacy, we'll call him Adrian.) I was lucky to be able to interview her about her NT-Aspie relationship (though not as lucky as Adrian was!); her answers here are verbatim.

1. Could you please describe the relationship briefly, especially where his Aspie-ness was pertinent?

Adrian and I dated for a few months. It was a typical college relationship; nothing too serious. I knew he was different from anyone else I had dated, though, but I couldn’t quite put my finger on it. He listened to what I said very intently, but unless he could relate based on past experiences, he couldn’t empathize.

I remember one instance specifically, where I was quite upset over something. I was unable to donate blood because the Red Cross had said my veins were too small. It was my first attempt, and it had been a lifelong goal of mine to give my blood so that others could benefit from it. It was really one of my first attempts at saving a life. When they told me I couldn’t donate, I was crushed. I remember crying while he sat next to me. He was trying to understand why I was so upset, but he just couldn’t empathize. I was perhaps more upset about that than the actual event; but this was before I knew he was an Aspie.

2. Was he diagnosed before or after you began dating?

He was diagnosed during the course of our relationship, maybe a month after we started dating.

3. How did his diagnosis affect how you saw him, and how did it otherwise affect your relationship?

It didn’t change how I saw him, except to say that I understood him a little bit better. I could attempt to understand things about him that had previously escaped me.

4. Did he behave in ways that caused conflict with any of your friends?

Honestly, we didn’t really spend that much time with my friends. Perhaps that was part of his Aspie-ness, but we spent most of our time just with one another. Whether it was walking the nature trail, watching a movie, or just sitting and talking, we didn’t spend much time with others.

5. What do you think you taught him about relationships, especially relationships with NTs?

I think he definitely saw how frustrated I could get. He tried to understand where I was coming from, and he definitely worked to not offend me by some comment he made offhand.

6. What do you think he has taught you about relationships with Aspies?

He taught me about patience, and about being explicit. When I wanted him to “get” something, I had to be very clear with what I wanted. I had to say things very obviously, because he didn’t pick up on my nonverbal communication. At first, this was quite frustrating and taxing for me, but I’ve carried this on to my relationships with other NTs, and it’s been beneficial there as well.

7. What do you think Aspies should keep in mind about relationships, especially with NTs?

While the differences between NTs and Aspies shouldn’t keep us apart, they’re certainly important. I, for one, use a lot of nonverbal communication. If an Aspie suspects that they aren’t getting something because of a lack of verbal communication, or something like that, they should be sure to bring it up. I often don’t even realize when I do, or do not, communicate effectively. Above all, though, be patient. Talk about the things that are going well and the things that aren’t.

8. What do you think NTs should keep in mind about relationships with Aspies? In particular, what do you think are Aspies' likely relationship strengths and challenges? What misconceptions do you think NTs might have about Aspies that could hinder relationships?

NTs should know that if an Aspie says he or she will do something, this will most likely happen without any problem. NTs can really appreciate this; an attention to detail can be so refreshing! However, Aspies may want NTs to return that. If an Aspie remembers the day you started dating, they may wish the NT did as well. Try to be accommodating. Remember that interacting with others for too long can be draining, and that sometimes Aspies need time alone to recover from a lot of social interaction. Perhaps instead of inviting an Aspie out to a big party for Halloween, the NT could suggest spending the night watching a favorite scary movie. It’s important to know that if the Aspie turns down an invitation (like the Halloween party example), it probably isn’t because they don’t want to spend time with the NT, but because they don’t want to be overstimulated. Once again, if there is effective and open communication, most issues can be worked through!

Aspies, Autists and Relationships, Part I: What a Difference a Decade Makes....

November 9 is a momentous day for us Germans.

The Berlin Wall came down on November 9, 1989.

Adolf Hitler (alongside General Erich Ludendorff and some associates) tried to seize power by force in the Beer Hall Putsch, which was crushed on November 9, 1923.

That in turn was the 5th anniversary of the abdication on November 9, 1918 of Kaiser Wilhelm II - who had just lost World War I - and the proclamation of the German (later known as the Weimar) Republic.

None more momentous to me than that fateful day ten years ago, November 9, 1998, when I met Emily Woodward. She was sitting on a table in the vending machine room of Robinson Hall A at George Mason University, reading Tennessee Williams' A Streetcar Named Desire. I smiled at her, and she smiled back.

A little later on, I ambled down the hall and went into one of the computer labs, to put the finishing touches on my dissertation before I submitted it to the graduate office. I saw Emily at one of the PCs. I struck up a conversation with her - I've long since forgotten about what - at the end of which she offered me her email address. We corresponded a bit afterwards; I included my phone number in one of my emails, and she called me and left her number on my answering machine.

We talked practically every night; in fact Emily made a note of it after we'd talked for several consecutive nights. We made a date on campus. She told me she wouldn't be offended if I kissed her, so I did and she wasn't.

Emily was a local girl; she lived with her parents in Alexandria, Virginia. She was on a one-year leave of absence from the College of William & Mary (from which she subsequently graduated), taking courses at GMU.

By December, we were an item. One of my fondest memories from back then is sitting next to Emily on the couch in her parents' den, watching the CNN coverage of the Clinton impeachment hearings and vote in the House of Representatives.

Our relationship has survived some pretty strong up and downs, including some separations. Emily didn't like my going to Beijing for the fall of 1999 and winter of '99-'00 to teach Economics, but thanks to email, IM and even the Postal Service, we kept in touch. After Beijing, I lived in New York (where I'm from) for a little while, then moved back down to Washington, DC.

Sometime in 2003, Emily told me about Asperger Syndrome. Apparently, she had researched some aspects of my behavior and come up with AS as a likely cause. She urged me to read some books and articles about AS, which I did.

We became engaged on March 9, 2004, and took our vows on January 20, 2005. It's been a long haul.

I've worked to accommodate Emily as an NT. I engage her as much as I have energy for, including watching a few of her favorite shows with her (often on DVD) such as The Sopranos and vintage episodes of Saturday Night Live.

I go to some events with Emily as a couple. Events which I've agreed to ahead of time with full knowledge of what's going on and who will be there. I make sure to get plenty of sleep the night before (a good night's sleep is like topping off the social fuel tank, especially - but not only - for an Aspie or autist), and I stay civil to everyone. If I sense my social fuel gauge creeping too close to the E, I leave and take a walk.

Meanwhile, Emily understands my nature...probably better than anyone else. She understands how I need to spend time decompressing by myself in front of my PC. She knows that I do enjoy conversing with her but often in 5-10 minute segments, often on predetermined subjects. When I ask her questions, she tries her best to give me answers that are direct, to the point and whenever applicable (eg, how long, how soon, how much, how often) have a number in them.

We could both do better, and we're working on it. I'm working on reducing the time I spend with my PC to spend with her instead, and on going out with Emily more as a couple. Meanwhile, she knows that she needs to cut out her cracks about my employment and job search and her angry outbursts about my bluntness.

Tonight, we're going out for (probably) crab of some sort (Emily) and steak (me). (Remember, this is Maryland; crabs are everywhere!)

I recently sent Emily an e-card. Of course, I'm not going to reproduce the whole thing here, because some parts are just too personal. With her permission, here's part of it:

I love and need you so much for:

  • The way you understand me - better than anyone else on Earth

  • Your understanding the way I'm wired in the most literal sense - for that matter, your having researched it and told me about it in the first place

  • The interests we share, including law and politics and also the Sopranos interest you inculcated in me

  • Your having had the courage to make the first move with me in the first place

  • You really are a beautiful woman

No, physically you're no Anne Hathaway or Renee Zellweger or other big screen siren. That doesn't matter to me. I didn't marry a big screen siren.

[See - honesty is well received! You just have to word it right.]

I chose to marry you. And I choose to stay married to you...yes, even after you turn 30 - and 40 - and 50 - and so on. Until death do us part.

Friday, October 31, 2008

The Internet: A Safe(r) Harbor for Aspies and Autists

Eric made an interesting point in his comment here, saying that due to enforcement efforts against Internet stalking, harassment and sex crimes the Internet is a less safe place than before for Aspies and autists.

He's certainly right...in an absolute sense, that is. Due to these enforcement efforts in the world at large, face to face socializing can have even more dangers. The Internet is quite a bit safer now - relative to face to face socializing - for Aspies and autists. Here's how:

For one thing, with regard to sex crimes against minors - face to face you are conclusively presumed to know how young the other person is. You don't even get a chance to prove you didn't know or even couldn't have known the girl was, say, only 15 and not 19 as she said she was. The law just doesn't care.

Statutory rape and similar proceedings are cut and dried: Did these acts occur? Yes. Was she actually born on or before (the day the acts occurred minus 17 years or whatever the age of consent)? No. Were you born on or before (her actual birthdate minus whatever years you have to be older than her - not even applicable in all jurisdictions)? Yes. Verdict: Guilty.

Over a computer, it's different. You can't look at the other person, so the laws specify that you actually have to believe (or have good reason to believe) that the other person was underage. That's why Operation Innocent Images and similar Internet stings, in which police officers and others pretend to be young girls to lure sex criminals to try to meet them, have the officers actually state "their" ages, and generally not just in a passing remark either. The idea is to make crystal clear, in a written record, that the pervert actually knew the "girl" was, say, only 13.

Speaking of written records, that also makes things easier for Aspies. We tend to write well, and to be at our best when we can focus on what's in front of us. So, we can craft our emails, bulletin board posts and even chat room lines so as to reduce problems. There is no mutual misinterpretation problem with regard to tone of voice, body language, appearance and the like.

We also face less of a "he said she said" problem - very important since especially for offenses involving children and sex offenses (especially against young girls and women), all too many people tend to dispense with that pesky old "innocent until proven guilty" stuff.

If you're accused of, for example, talking dirty, whatever you're accused of having "said" will be there in black and white. Whoever judges you will see the same words your accuser did. There may be a log at the site itself, to deter forgery on the accuser's part. Meanwhile, you can keep your own records, so you can respond better to any official inquiries.

So, I would say that in the current environment, we Aspies and autists should try Internet socializing in its various forms all the more.

What do you think?

A Case for Full Disclosure


Roia Rafieyan made some interesting points about social sheets in a previous comment here.

My firm belief is that people, whether employers, friends, lovers or others, are generally much more understanding and accommodating of Aspie behaviors, including bluntness, if they know about them in advance and know what they mean and don't mean coming from an Aspie.

That's because people tend to judge behaviors - and especially judge people based on the behaviors - at least partly according to the perceived intent behind those behaviors. NTs operate from NT perspectives, which generally attach feelings to facts. In other words, for example, NTs interpret critical remarks about food served as an attack on the host, since NTs generally think of their own feelings about - not to mention the feelings of - their hosts before remarking on the food.

Aspies, due to our one-thing-at-a-time perspective, may think about the food, about their feelings about the host and about the host's feelings...but not all at the same time and likely not even two at a time.

Also, due to our verbal emphases, we tend to put into words what we are feeling, and have a difficult time saying one thing while feeling another.

Someone who understands that about us is likely to receive our blunt remarks very differently, because s/he will hopefully attach a different meaning to them.

Love relationships obviously vary widely, but I don't think it's too much different for lovers as opposed to friends and others, to say nothing of the fact that hopefully love relationships should have substantial friendship elements.

Also, I would think that writing out a social sheet in advance would show that the Aspie is gracious enough to work to understand the possible effects of his/her behaviors on others and also to try to mitigate them (both by attaching a different meaning to them and also by minimizing the behaviors themselves wherever possible).

Meanwhile, Roia has an interesting point. We do indeed evolve as people, especially in the course of a love relationship. Companies' financial situations change too and therefore they revise their prospectuses. That's an important example to follow.

I do believe that AS and autism, being permanent conditions (barring unexpected medical breakthroughs), shape our personalities permanently. We may fall in love, but despite perhaps the fond wishes of our NT (or even opposite-sex Aspie) mates, certain things about us - like our bluntness - aren't going to change very much.

Putting aside AS and autism, here's a bit of relationship advice. People do evolve in some ways, especially in a love relationship or marriage. But the person you start a relationship with is going to be basically the same kind of person you end it with. I know darned well that there are certain things about me that Emily would like to see change that aren't going to - and vice versa.

What do you think?

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Aspies, Autists and the Internet

I received my first Internet account 17 years ago today.

Ah, yes, the Internet.

Back when spam was only a food, back when anything in your emailbox was probably something for you personally. Back before blogs, before the World Wide Web, before even gopher (a menu-driven system for looking up information; gopher sites did not connect to one another and websites do, which is why it was never called the World Wide Gopher).

Back then, if you wanted to make files available to people, you had to put them in a special directory, and the seeker would use "anonymous ftp" (File Transfer Protocol) to download them. (It would ask for a password, and the recipient was expected to give his/her email address.)

Back then, we had Usenet - a set of protocols among independent sites to agree to set aside space for specific forums. Anyone could post to them - without even putting fake characters in our email addresses! (Like I said, back then spam was a food.)

Back then, the general public had yet to hear of "The 'Net". Most people with Internet accounts were students and professors of Computer Science, Computer Engineering and similar fields, and computer programmers, engineers and the like. Not every student could just walk into an office and get an Internet account - that would have to wait another couple of years.

(Tracy Holt at George Mason University, thank you wherever you are.)

The first thing I did with my Internet account? Play games online. Specifically, play MUDs (Multiple User Dimensions, or Multiple User Dungeons). Those are text adventure games, loosely based on Dungeons & Dragons. As in "Wield sword," "wear armor," "kill troll," "take all from corpse" and so on.

It was more than a game for me. It was a social lifeline.

Finally, after 22 years, I found an arena in which I could relate to people, where I could organize my thoughts before presenting them and where my writing skills would be an advantage. I found friends and even romantic interests that way. (Yes, more than a few people have married IRL - "In Real Life" - after meeting on a MUD.)

I might add that I also met many people in computer labs, including several women I've dated - including Emily - and a few friends with whom I keep up to this day. Computer labs are good places for technically literate people to socialize face to face.

MUDding can be addictive. Not for nothing is it also called the "Merciless Undergraduate Destroyer". I spent long hours on it at first, precisely because I was having great difficulty in graduate school. I found a sense of achievement, and friends I could turn to. Also, I used email and Usenet to great advantage socially, in much the same ways.

The Internet may actually have saved my sanity. Pretty good payoff for a little bit of computer time, I'd say.

I tapered off MUDding as my social and other competencies improved. Still, I use the Internet on a daily basis, and I can't imagine a social life without it.

Anyway, the Internet is a great place for Aspies and autists. We can connect with like-minded people, and meet potential friends and lovers anywhere - and not just on dating sites, either.

Use it, don't abuse it!

What do you think?

Transparency, Investments and Relationships

My friend Lorin Neikirk recently posted on the abstract side about transparency in relationships. That's gotten me thinking.

At least in the U.S., transparency in business investments has been a major issue. (Have you checked out the Dow, or your portfolio, lately? Like maybe in the last few hours?)

Relationship investments are often just as important as any financial matter. (How many songs have you heard lately mourning falling stock prices or 401(k)s?) Yet we don't have a Sarbanes-Oxley Act equivalent for personal relationships.

(Let's be honest - that's what we autists and Aspies do best - how many of us would still be walking free if there were? Raise your hand....*crickets chirping*)

Wouldn't it be nice if we had, say, personal prospectuses we could give others we were considering being friends with, or dating, to let them know a bit about what makes us tick? Especially if we react to certain things differently from the majority of people? That way, not only would we be treating the other person fairly, but also we may be able to avoid people's misinterpreting our words or actions. Letting people know our unique strengths and challenges in advance is what people call "self-interest rightly understood".

Each of us can write a "social sheet" detailing our particular vulnerabilities. We should also add our special strengths, so it doesn't look like we're just seeking accommodations and special exceptions. Strengths that are intertwined with our vulnerabilities count for double.

For example, if you tend to be blunt - like probably most of us - you should let that be known in advance and explain that it's not personal, but just a focus on the facts. That way, a potential friend or date will be less likely to interpret a mere statement of fact (like "This food stinks" or "I didn't really have a good time tonight") as a personal attack. At the same time, emphasize how honest you are - we've all had enough of pathological liars and truth-twisters, so many people will appreciate that at least they'll always know how things are with regard to you.

(Also try to minimize the impact as much as you can, like "This food stinks...a real contrast to the company!" or "I didn't really have a good time tonight...so I'd like to try again some other time and I'm sure we'll have fun" - with disclaimers that are true expressions of opinion, that is. The idea is that you don't want the other person to think that your having a problem with one thing means you have a problem with them if it's not true.)

If you feel comfortable doing so, start off by saying you're an Aspie or autist. Be prepared to explain a bit about what it means. You might even group your characteristics according to the Aspie traits they stem from, such as short-term memory issues, difficulty multitasking, honesty/bluntness, etc. Again, if at all possible try to have strengths as well as vulnerabilities in each group.

Now, do use caution. Don't reveal too much to someone you're just starting to know. Remember, acquaintances, dates and friends can turn into strangers and even enemies. If and when that happens you don't want them carrying around too intimate a portrait of your thoughts.

Meanwhile, Sharon daVanport - an Aspie herself and mom to an Aspie teen - has given us an excellent listing of Resources for Aspies, Families & Educators. Not everything on there is for everybody, but if you're reading this there's probably something there for you. Check it out!

What do you think?

Friday, October 10, 2008

Reverse IEPs


We know about IEPs - Individualized Education Plans. These are ways we customize education to a student, including an Aspie or autist. We provide accommodations like frequent breaks, allowing stimming, allowing the child to clutch a favored object that brings him/her peace, etc. These are ways we try to get the child to integrate into society better.

One of the most important aspects of integration is learning to get along better with others as much as possible. An Aspie or autist child may best be persuaded to "get with the program" by showing appreciation for the accommodations s/he's been given. In other words, s/he can think of it as accommodating them in turn. That also helps everyone understand that to be autistic or Aspie is not to be inferior, just different.

Just as we ask blacks to be culturally sensitive to whites and vice versa, we can ask autists and Aspies to be sensitive to the distinctive needs of NTs. For example:

  • NTs tend to attach emotions to words. It's a bit like a clock which is five minutes ahead so you mentally turn the time back five minutes. In the same way, think of what you want to say, then mentally make it softer. For example, maybe you want to say "This food is really bad." NTs feel better if you instead say "This food is basically good, but could use just a little more seasoning, and it might be better if it had a bit more sauce."

  • NTs aren't as sure that you like them, and they want to reassured when you talk to them. So, you might be too busy to talk to an NT right now, but also add something like "But I'd love to talk to you later...say, after math class?" Be specific about liking them and that will help them feel better.

  • NTs don't always like to acknowledge all of what's on their minds, so even if they're thinking one thing, they may something they think you'll like a little more. Here the clock is going in the opposite direction. Try to add more meaning to what they say. For example, if an NT says "You might want to spend a few minutes more on your science studying" s/he is probably thinking - and wants you to think - "You definitely need to spend a good deal more time studying science because you could be in serious trouble otherwise".

  • NTs like to spread out their thinking to cover several different things at the same time. They like to "multitask," which means they try to pay a little attention to their homework, a little more to IMing, a little more to their music and a little more to the TV - all at the exact same time. That means many things. One thing is that if you want to talk to an NT, s/he is more willing to talk to you even if s/he's busy. But if you want the NT to only talk to you for a few minutes - like if it's really important - you'll need to ask for that.

  • NTs aren't always very good at exact details. Many NTs like to look at things in general. For example, they may know we fought a war against Nazi Germany and the man in charge there was named Adolf Hitler, but they may not know that, for example, he first wanted to be an artist. It's good to want to let them know these facts, and it helps if you can show how it relates to NTs' general knowledge: "Did you know Hitler first wanted to be an artist? He was rejected from the Vienna Academy and that's part of why he seemed so angry at the Austrians and conquered Austria first when he got into power." NTs will appreciate that more.

Obviously, this is a partial list. What would you want to add?

And now a few hat tips around the blogosphere....

First off, I'd like to give a shout-out to Tanya Savko, who shared with us her victory in helping an autistic teenager learn responsibility. Good for you, Tanya and double for giving us the example!

Secondly, StatMom wants to give the world a message of peace and understanding, straight from her kids. Read it now (please).

Thirdly, JoeyAndyDad points out here how autism - especially in a child - can be a valid reason for a handicapped parking placard. We know how many able people abuse handicapped parking spaces. One of the reasons why it's so bad is that it especially hurts autists and Aspies, whose situations are not as easily visible as, say, crutches or a wheelchair.

Good night, and have a pleasant tomorrow!

Thursday, October 9, 2008

In-Flight Refueling

We know about social fuel gauges. When we're full, we're fine and dandy; when we're running on empty, we need to run.

I'm thinking we may have ways to recycle a little fuel, like some science fiction stories of mechanisms that recycle exhaust back into gasoline. Or we can think of it as a UPS (Uninterruptible Power Supply) - a source of temporary extra power used by computers when the power goes out, so the user can save the work, exit all applications and then shut down in an orderly manner.

A computer that's shut down in that way, rather than abruptly turned off, will take much less time to turn on next time, since it won't have to scan the hard drive and otherwise work through all the stuff which wasn't saved and wasn't exited appropriately. Similarly, if we can pick the right time and the right manner to exit a social interaction, we can do so with much better consequences and later on pick up where we left off much more happily.

If you enjoyed Dr. Strangelove (one of Emily's and my favorite movies), you probably remember the in-flight refueling scene in the beginning. The heavy bombers on patrol use a lot of fuel, and since they're on constant alert they can't go back to base to refuel. So the fuel, packed in large airborne tankers, comes to them so they can refuel while staying where they're needed.

I got to thinking about that the other evening, when Emily and I were having dinner out. (Hint: when ordering steak at a place that specializes in seafood, ask for it one level more done than you normally do - like medium when you normally want medium rare - since they tend to undercook it.)

Anyway, it occurred to me to tell Emily that my fuel gauge was between 1/4 and 1/2 full. Sure enough, the waiter picked the very next moment to come up and try to start a detailed conversation, which even normally I'm in no mood for. The way I see it, the server is doing it for my comfort, not his/her own, so s/he should understand if I just want to get back to my food, conversation or whatever.

So, Emily kindly took up most of the slack, and I limited my responses to one word, and in any case words of one syllable. I thought I controlled myself rather well. Still, she thought I was being abrupt. I begged to differ, especially since they are not friends, potential friends or business associates, but people paid to serve me and make me feel comfortable.

If I were yelling, abusing them or threatening them that would be one thing; if I sound a little cold and uninterested in conversation IMHO that's a horse of a different color. In any case, the one thing I remember doing was looking forward, not at the waiter to my side, as I answered him that yes, I would like some bread please.

Still, I know this affects Emily, so I do what I can to minimize it even when we're paying to eat out.

I do remember feeling a bit more bubbly later in the dinner. One thing Emily's observed is that the way to my heart truly lies through my stomach. The steak was very good and the baked potato and fries were fine as well. (Those of you who enjoyed the original Heartbreak Kid (the 1972 version) will understand when I say I love good honest food. By which I mean simple, one taste per food item and familiar...qualities that appeal to us Aspies.) So maybe good body fuel means good emotional fuel too.

Also, Emily and I exchanged a few jokes and I let off a little humorous steam. Maybe that helped too.

What do you think? What kind of UPS/in-flight refueling mechanisms can enable you or your Aspies and autists to stay engaged for at least a short time until they can disengage more easily?

Save the Date!


One thing we Aspies and autists often do well is remember details. The numerically minded among us, including yours truly, can often remember dates very well.

That's an underrated relationship skill - especially for guys. The popular stereotype - justified or otherwise - is that men forget anniversaries, birthdays and the like. Women really care when we remember things like that.

Emily and I have not only annual, but also monthly anniversaries. Among other things, we first met 119 months ago today, and we became engaged 55 months ago today. And we remember that every month...usually it falls to me to observe it. It's our special day of the month.

So, AAs - especially those of us who regale our friends and mates with endless trivia till they're ready to start snoring and wear them down with arguments over (what they consider to be) trivia - let's put our knowledge to good use.

Remember their birthdays, anniversaries (of you together or of important past events in their lives), important holidays of theirs and the like.

Any questions?

PS: Remembering the dates is necessary. Remembering which birthday it is - especially for a woman over, say, 25 or so (use your best judgment) - is not.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

AA Code of Ethics


We Aspies and autists have our strengths and our challenges. Of course, every individual has his/her own strengths and challenges too, but we have some common attributes.

As we all know, we have adjustment issues between Aspies/autists and NTs. Not only do we find it frustrating to deal with the NT world - but also, vice versa!

We have reputational issues. Some folks think we're sociopaths. A lot of folks think we're just plain pedantic, rude and obnoxious.

Yes, as individuals we may have few (or no) friends, bad reputations and difficulty finding and keeping jobs.

Collectively, especially as AS and autism become better known, we've got an image problem.

The fact is, many of the things we tend to do cause problems for others.

We can do three things about it: minimize the things that cause problems, show compensating attributes that make others happy and model the attributes we need to ask that others show to accommodate us. For example, we can learn to speak more tactfully, show how we're definitely more likely to be honest and faithful and show that in turn we can handle honest feedback.

So, as a group we need to bolster our image. I hereby propose a Code of Ethics, which if we adhere to it will make NTs more willing to deal with us.

Right now, I'm going to focus on the third objective: modeling what we need to see in others. The worst thing we can do is be hypocrites and punish people for going out on a limb for us.

In particular:

  • Accept and embrace honest (and reasonably civil) feedback. Not necessarily agree with it - though we should give it every benefit of the doubt, especially given that we likely won't have the same understanding of the social environment as the person giving the feedback. If someone tells us that we need to do or stop doing something, s/he likely knows what s/he's talking about. Even if s/he's wrong, we can always say we'll give it serious consideration - because we should. We should also thank him/her for having the guts to do that - because it does take guts to confront someone privately about a sensitive topic.

  • If someone tells us something we already know, maybe let him/her know we know it - but still give strong positive reinforcement. Once NTs realize they need to spell things out for us, they will likely do so for pretty much everything. Yes, we Aspies know quite a bit - but they don't know what we know or don't know and they certainly don't want a repetition of whatever situation caused them to be willing to go the extra mile in the first place. For that matter, maybe we can sometimes (not always, but sometimes) give up the credit for a particular insight or fact in order to encourage the NT to do it again. Also, if it's an idea - or related to an idea - we've been thinking of for some time, such as a way to enable everyone to work together better while accommodating us, we should give the other people credit so they know it's their idea that we're helping to carry out, not them accommodating our request. Trust me, that will make them a lot happier about doing it. It also shows we recognize good ideas in others and thus aren't insufferable prigs.

  • If at all humanly possible, do not lie or break a promise. One of our most important gifts is our honesty, sincerity and loyalty. It's closely connected to certain things people find less appealing. The last things we want to inflict on people who have to put up with our occasional tactlessness and inflexibility are the opposite downsides. Do not give people the worst of both worlds or they will hate you. They will feel - and probably rightly - that you have few principles and tend to just do what benefits you in a given situation. That makes them think you might be a sociopath.

  • Be consistent in the accommodations you request, especially if they tend to be absolute. Do not refuse someone's request to change a picnic lunch to a rock concert outing one weekend on the grounds that you like to keep plans the way they are and then, an hour before an art gallery tour, call them up and ask if they'd rather visit the circus that just came to town. See above. The Golden Rule really is a great place to start.

  • Do not look down on people who don't know things that you do, no matter how obvious that knowledge may seem to you. If you do, you are begging for a smackdown at the hands of people who know a lot more than you do about social interactions. Besides, the more you're willing to admit you don't know something, the more they'll respect you and the more they'll be happy to teach you.

  • Think twice - maybe three times - before denying requests for special accommodations for others. Yes, there certainly is a line to be drawn in every situation. For example, we don't let vision-challenged people drive. But we need to keep firmly in mind how often we implicitly and explicitly ask things of NTs that they don't have to even consider when dealing with the large majority of people. We need to set the example. If we don't, we are begging for a smackdown.

  • On the same note, be quick to stand up for despised minorities and unpopular individuals.

  • Recognize the virtues behind the things NTs do even when we ourselves have to do, or ask to do, things differently. For example, even though it may confuse us when NTs use understatement, innuendo and euphemism with us, recognize that they may have reasons for using it with each other based on how their brains are wired. As long as they let us know straight out what we need to know, and don't judge us either for missing a point or for communicating in the way we do (and the closer to halfway we can meet them the more it would help), what they do with each other is their business. Heck, maybe we can even learn a thing or two from NTs. Stranger things have happened.

  • In general, make it as easy as possible for NTs. For example, if we happen to know something such as what someone means by a hint, or that someone may be unhappy based on body language, don't pretend to be ignorant in the name of consistency (or worse motives). Show that we're trying the best we can to communicate with them, and they'll be more likely to understand when we miss the point sometimes. Also, put as much of the burden of accommodation as possible on your own shoulders - for example, if you want to meet only one-on-one with someone who also wants to meet another friend at some point that same day, and if your schedule is very flexible, offer to let the other person decide when to meet you in case his/her friend is on a tighter schedule.

What do you think?

Monday, September 29, 2008

Aspies' and Autists' Gifts to Society


We Aspies and autists sometimes have to ask for accommodations. We shouldn't make a habit of it where we can avoid it, but there's no shame when it is necessary. Remember that accommodations, when they work best, help us contribute more to society and to those we love, work, live and play with.

On the other hand, the way we're wired also gives us unique strengths. Among other things:

  • We can often focus better. Among other things, that helps us become knowledgeable in important subjects, because we take the time and effort to know all about something.

  • We have good eyes for detail.

  • Because of our dedication and focus, we are often the most loyal friends and partners. According to at least one study, Aspies are much less likely to cheat than NTs. Consider this: we tend to be strictly rule-abiding, we tend to say what's on our mind so deception is very difficult for (most of) us, if we have any sense we're very happy and appreciative of our partners, we hate change and we may not be inclined to do the socializing necessary to rack up paramours!

  • We tend to especially make friends with people from or in other countries. For example, a good friend of mine from Washington, DC studies in Rome, partly because she believes that social errors would be minimized because she's an American. I have been a Russophile since high school, and have had multiple pen pals and acquaintances from Russia and other parts of the former Soviet Union. Communicating across cultures is not much more difficult for us than communicating within our own culture - and it may be less difficult because social slip-ups can be attributed to cultural differences rather than personal traits. (Also, we may have less to unlearn since we're not as deeply embedded in our own culture. We're used to taking an outsider's eye view of our own society.) Therefore, we tend to have a comparative advantage in global relations. We get to know people from other countries and cultures more easily.

  • Once we learn how to understand people better, we tend to empathize with outsiders and minorities. That flows partly from our intercultural abilities and partly from our own experiences.

  • For closely related reasons, we tend to be more self-aware, and able to ask for what we want in a relationship (of whatever type), and more aware of the other person's needs.

  • More broadly, we tend to be more articulate and have better developed verbal skills, at least in writing. We may be able to translate our skills to oral communication as well.

  • On the other side, we may be able to better take clear, honest, direct, specific but fair criticism. We don't automatically attach hostile undertones which aren't there, and we know the importance of giving the specific facts and telling the unvarnished truth even when it hurts.

  • We can find our own creative solutions to problems, because we're used to looking at things our own way, and we're used to persevering in the face of social disapproval and worse.

  • On the other hand, certain environments call on people to accept routines and be willing to do the same thing day in and day out. We thrive in such settings.

Of course, we should never discriminate against or scorn NTs simply because they tend to be less likely to do these things as well as we do. Everyone has different talents, and there are some things that NTs do especially well, too.

Indeed, it will help our efforts to adapt to an NT-dominated world if we think of what we're doing as accommodating them and their unique strengths and weaknesses, just as we ask they do for us. That approach may help us better understand their needs. As Stephen Covey points out in his Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, we need to seek first to understand, then to be understood.

One Aspie I know, Eric, sees society as like a chessboard:

Pawns are Aspies, which move forward but attack diagonally, one square at a time (except for their first move when they can move two squares). As a result, they are stymied by obstacles that other pieces can brush aside (capture), but they offer unique solutions and "think outside the box".

The King is an Aspie with extensive social skills and other training and adapts well to NT society. It can move and capture pieces in any direction, but only one square at a time.

Rooks are NTs. They can move all around the board and capture pieces, but only along predetermined lines - ranks and files. They can be blindsided by diagonal approaches - including from pawns.

Bishops are autists. They can move all around the board and capture pieces too, but only in their own direction - diagonally. They add their own unique approaches, but have difficulty dealing well with conventional approaches - vertical and horizontal.

Knights are dogs and other pets. They don't have to conform to societal expectations on how to move, so they move in L-shaped patterns and jump over other pieces. Since knights are often first brought into play (or "developed") with pawns guarding them, it can be said that Aspies can have a rapport with animals in ways that others find more difficult.

That's certainly true in my case. Literally from the day I was born I've had dogs. I was the first child in my house, but from Day One I had to coexist with a big dog. That probably has much to do with why I'm very confident around dogs, understand their body language well - and make sure to act around them so they understand me well - and as a result have rarely been bitten.

Sometimes I wonder if to some extent AS is species-specific, so I'm an Aspie with humans but much more like an NT with dogs. Certainly many of us know folks who get along much better with animals than with people. Emily is exactly the reverse.

The Queen, which can move in all directions throughout the board, is God or any other higher power you may believe in.

What do you think?

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Who Ya Gonna Call?

Over at Backboards and Band-Aids, we've got an interesting discussion about public safety. EE, the host, recently saw a guy on her college campus offering free hugs. She just felt uneasy about the situation and called a campus police officer about him. He turned out, not surprisingly (at least to me), perfectly legit. He just wanted to, well, give free hugs to anyone who wanted one.

She's defended her actions, saying the guy just seemed creepy and that we should always trust our guts. Basically, better safe than sorry.

Now, EE's no crackpot, at least as far as I can tell. I'm not sure if she's old enough to drink, but she's already happily married with a baby on the way, in charge of EMS at a hospital and attending college on her own, studying pre-med. She's accomplished a heckuva lot more than a large majority of folks her age (when I was her age, I hadn't accomplished as much as she has either), and has my respect in general.

Reluctantly, I beg to differ with EE on this one. Simply appearing or acting "weird" is no reason at all to call the authorities.

People do indeed behave suspiciously, and sometimes their behavior needs to be checked out by police and maybe others. I myself have posted previously about how certain behaviors, however much you or I personally may mean no harm doing them, can definitely be cause for suspicion. My message has been - Put yourself in other people's shoes as much as possible, look to see if what you're doing could give reasonable people cause for concern, and if so minimize it or stop it as much as you possibly can.

For example, following a woman walking alone at night and approaching her in a dark, deserted area definitely gives her reason to wonder if you intend to beat or mug her - or worse.

Looking inside a parked car that isn't yours? Or multiple parked cars? Especially while acting furtively like you don't want to be seen doing it? Definitely suspicious.

A simple feeling that someone is "creepy" - or, as EE put it - weird? That's a horse of a different color. In a free society, people are going to do things and generally live their lives in ways that some other people are going to find creepy or weird. In fact, there are some free spirits, offbeat characters, call them what you want, who do this more often than others. Many other people find it much more comfortable to blend in and not do anything unusual - and of course that's their right - and so maybe nobody will feel they're being weird.

Let me make one thing perfectly clear. Anyone has a right to avoid anyone else for whatever reason. If you feel someone is weird and you don't want to be around him, feel free to give him a wide berth. If he approaches you or contacts you, tell him to get lost. If at that point he persists, go ahead and call in the law.

The point is, in a free society where we pride ourselves on respecting diversity, simply not understanding someone's behavior or feeling uncomfortable around someone isn't a good reason to call the cops. At that point, you cause other people inconvenience, upset and perhaps worse, and I think it's only fair to have something definite - what the police like to call "specific articulable facts" or "reasonable and articulable suspicion" - before you do.

It also gives the police something definite to investigate. If all they can say is "Someone felt uneasy about whatever you were doing," how is the person going to respond to that? S/he may not even know who felt that way, let alone why.

It certainly is important to minimize murders, rapes, robberies, burglaries and other crimes. It's also important to keep our society a welcoming place for individuals and communities of all types, including - no, especially - those who like to do offbeat things and introduce the rest of us to new ways of living. I think the above approach is a good balance of our needs.

You might say "But what does this have to do with Aspies and autists in particular?" Good point. We have no specific reason to believe that the "free hugs guy" was an Aspie, for example. Plenty of NTs find themselves in such situations.

However, we Aspies and autists are disproportionately likely to be stigmatized as "weird" based on our mannerisms, staring or not holding eye contact, an uneasiness in our body language which simply means we feel we don't fit in but could be taken as sneakiness or even guilt, etc. We really need to help lead the fight for fairer treatment, because if we stand by and watch while NT nonconformists are hassled because of how they "make" people feel...well, what are we going to say when it happens to us?

What do you think?