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.