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 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 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?