Wednesday, January 28, 2009

How Not to Ask for Accommodations

Cranky Professor, whom I read occasionally, has given us a very interesting episode about a possible Aspie who went about asking for accommodations the wrong way. People are still talking about it (and yes you'll see my input there too).

In a nutshell, he self-"diagnosed" via the Internet, took no steps through his college's disability offices (specifically Academic Special Services and Counseling at that school) and just approached his professor demanding to be exempt from some of the work (specifically group projects). He said he just "can’t learn in groups ’cause people get in [his] way and piss [him] off," among other things.

Cranky Professor pointed him to the above-mentioned offices and sent him on his way. Good for her!

There's a widespread perception that Aspies, autists and other folks whose differences and disabilities aren't apparent to the naked eye are lazy, whining weaklings who need to learn to cope with life like the rest of us. Folks like this guy make matters worse.

Yes, we sometimes need accommodations. There are much better ways of asking for them:

  • Whenever possible, get an official diagnosis. I realize that it's not always an option, especially if you're unemployed and/or don't have insurance (or a partner who does). Please keep in mind that some providers operate on a sliding scale. A diagnosis really helps because it gives you credibility.

  • In school or in the workplace, follow the rules. For example, pretty much every college and university has an office dedicated to students with disabilities. Whether or not you consider your AS or autism a disability, if you want accommodations you need to follow the disability procedures. That includes disclosing your situation to them and presenting your written diagnosis; also any ideas you may have for reasonable accommodations may help. Beyond that, do what they tell you to do. Let's put our rule-following abilities to good use. In K-12, work with your parents or guardians and present your diagnosis and request for accommodations together. Either way, you and the appropriate people will put together an IEP (Individualized Education Program). Your IEP will be passed on to your teachers and professors and will shape how they treat you. On the job, the processes are probably much less formalized; you can disclose to your boss or to Human Resources (unless there is a separate office for that purpose). You should cooperate as much as possible there too.

  • As one knowledgeable commenter pointed out, there's a difference between accommodations and modifications. Accommodations are ways that you can do the same work, held to the same standards, as the others. Modifications mean you do less work and/or to lower standards. Ask for accommodations whenever possible. Preferably including some that have you putting forth a good bit of effort; try not to make everyone else do all the extra work.

  • Don't say you can't before you've tried. We Aspies certainly have difficulty with things like group work, for example. That doesn't mean it's impossible. It means we should ask for things like some understanding from our group fellows (and a blunt heads-up so we can correct ourselves) in case we come off as blunt or aggressive sometimes, and for meetings to be planned in advance whenever possible so we're not flustered. (We should also do stuff like get a good deal of sleep the night before each meeting so we're in top form.) That way, people will know that we do want to do the work and that we're not lazy.

  • Be as polite and accommodating as you can possibly muster. We're asking people to bend over backwards for us sometimes, and tolerate more of certain stuff from us than they would from most other people. Do everything possible to understand and then allow for their concerns. For example, if you want them to keep things predictable as much as possible, be as predictable as you can yourself. If you want people to explain things in detail to you, don't complain about their being "condescending" if they explain something you happen to already know backwards and forwards. Set the example.

One thing I've heard is that Aspies like to be either the first or the last to do something (eg, be the first or the last in line). I always thought that was just a personal quirk of mine. For example, I took a bit of pride in being the first on line when the George Mason University dining hall opened for the first day of my first semester there.

I also like to be quite early for social events. I've found that gives me time to collect my thoughts. And for me, being late is the worst.

Meanwhile, I like certain "lasts". For example, yesterday evening I got a job application - whose due date is today - in to the Post Office just in time before it closed. I was the clerk's last customer of the night. And then when I went grocery shopping, I got the last seven Weight Watchers frozen lasagnas with meat sauce, plus the last two bottles of Ocean Spray Light Cran-Grape Juice. I don't know just why I get a little thrill out of these things, but I do.

What do you think?

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Comply, then Complain

Bev/Asperger Square 8 has started an interesting discussion on a recent unfortunate incident in which a young Aspie girl in Idaho was arrested for assaulting her teachers.

In a nutshell, Evelyn Towry, an 8-year-old girl with AS, tried to attend a holiday party on Friday, January 9 (it had been postponed) wearing a "cow costume" - a hoodie with cow ears and a tail. She was told she wasn't dressed appropriately, and led to a different classroom. She was asked to stay in the other classroom; she not only refused verbally but also physically tried to leave. Her teachers had no choice but to hold her there if they expected her to obey.

At that point, Evelyn became violent, spitting at and hitting her teachers and even pinching a teacher's breast. The school authorities called the police, who arrested her and led her away in handcuffs. Prosecutors have said, however, that due to her age (she's not even old enough for juvenile detention) and the fact that she's an Aspie, they will not charge her at this time. She has still been suspended from school, and her mother is arranging for her to change schools.

Some people have protested the school's actions, saying among other things that Evelyn should have been allowed to attend the party with her cow costume, that Evelyn suffered bruises from being restrained by her teachers (which I have no doubt is true), that Evelyn could not have intended to pinch the teacher's breast but was only wildly hitting out in an attempt to get away (which I'm sure is also true) and that the arrest was overkill.

From my own experience, both as a student and later as a teacher in the public schools, I'm perfectly willing to believe that sometimes school officials use the iron fist in place of a supportive hand. It's also quite possible that this was one of those times.

That doesn't mean that what happened later on was necessarily brutal or an overreaction.

Let's put aside the fact that every school has a right to set standards of dress, and stricter ones for events like parties - though the standards definitely should be spelled out for the students and possibly parents.

I'm sure it would have been nice if the school had felt able to let Evelyn wear her cute cow costume to the party. I myself would likely have done that - if that decision belonged to me. But it wasn't - it belonged to the teachers and other school officials, who might have had to deal with things like disorder caused by overly informal dress (some schools, including where I've taught - have uniforms for a reason).

They might also have had to deal with accusations of inconsistency, if Evelyn were the only kid allowed not to "dress up" for the party. I don't know what, if any, connection the cow costume had to Evelyn's AS. Even Aspies have just plain personal whims, not all or even most of which should be satisfied. If the cow costume did objectively help her due to her AS, that would be a different story - and presumably would have already been documented in the appropriate IEP (Individualized Education Program).

But let's assume the teachers were just being power-drunk jerks, bureaucrats and/or control freaks. It wouldn't surprise me, given some - not all, not most, but some - of the teachers I've seen.

However, one thing they probably weren't was lawbreakers (unless costumes like that had already been specifically permitted under Evelyn's IEP).

The next question is: what are duly authorized, responsible and knowledgeable officials supposed to do when their orders, which obviously they consider to be reasonable, and which in fact are within their authority and not forbidden by laws or regulations, are disobeyed? Just throw up their hands and say "OK, well I can't impose my views on you"?

There's a name for the kind of place where that happens: anarchy.

Given that the teachers had ordered Evelyn to leave the party and stay in an adjoining classroom, once she not only protested but also forced the issue by trying to physically leave the room, the teachers had no choice but to keep her there by force.

I'm sure she got bruises from that - according to Evelyn's own mother, they were thumb-sized bruises. The teachers were just trying to hold her, not hurt her. You try holding a small, violent child in place and see if you don't leave any bruises.

And violent is the operant term. She spat at and hit the teachers, including pinching a teacher's breast. I'm sure she wasn't cold-bloodedly trying to hurt anyone - she was just trying to get away.

But once she became violent, the school officials needed to call the people who are trained to handle violence - the police.

Now, could the police have calmed Evelyn without arresting her? Possibly. We don't know yet and we may never be sure.

We do know that had Evelyn accepted the decision that she stay in another classroom and not go to the party, she would not have been touched, let alone bruised, and certainly not arrested. She could do it the easy way or the hard way - teachers and other officials generally mean what they say and in a physical contest between her and they, she would obviously lose. Her choice was between staying in the other classroom without violence, or getting violent and being forcibly restrained and then taken away. Either way, she wasn't going to the party no matter how much she felt she should be allowed to.

Maybe the original decision wasn't fair - like I said it's one I likely wouldn't have made. But we all from time to time encounter decision-makers and policies which we consider unfair. We know that the difference between society and anarchy is that in society, when duly authorized people ask us to do something that request is supported by rewards and punishments. And all decisions (including everyone's rights - such as the rights of Aspies and autists) must ultimately be backed up by physical force.

Now, let's be perfectly clear on one thing. The operant term is "duly authorized". If a request is outside the maker's sphere of authority, or is illegal under law (including the Constitution) or regulation, the maker has no authority and need not be obeyed. In fact, the maker him/herself is the one who needs correction - by force, if necessary.

But otherwise, if it's "just" a matter of reasonableness, fairness, proportion of means to ends, prudence, etc., we all have to comply sometimes with things we disagree with. After all, that's what impels everyone else to comply with things we consider only fair but they don't. If we're able to persuade the person in authority to make an exception for us, interpret the rule differently, make a different decision, etc., great. Otherwise, "comply, then complain".

Not only is it right, but you look better because that way you've done everything possible to avoid a conflict. When your opponents can show your spittle on their faces or clothes, and places where you hit them and even pinched their breasts, that kind of muddies the waters to say the least. And then you get to be the target of a complaint.

Even if you make your own complaint after that - Evelyn's parents say they are thinking about suing the school - you look much less credible. If she had just made a single protest and then stayed in the other classroom and waited to give her parents the bad news when she got home, maybe the incident wouldn't have made the national news but many more of those who did know about it would side with her against those inflexible teachers. As things actually went, the control freaks in the schools now get to pose as defenders of order against rampaging children.

What do you think?

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Happy Anniversary!

Emily and I have been married for four years today!

We celebrated at Annie's Paramount Steak and Seafood House, where we've been more than once before. The food is good, and so is the color scheme...lots of red and pink and some purple - on the tablecloths, the napkins, even the hostess' shirt and the waitress' tie. As I've noted before, those colors tend to help top off my social fuel gauge.

(In fact, it doesn't seem to be just an Aspie thing. The color pink, in particular, seems to have a calming effect. That's why some jails, for example, have come to "think pink" - right down to the cell walls and prisoners' jumpsuits.)

I told the hostess and waitress that this was our fourth anniversary. So in our honor we also got some nice beautiful balloons, including pink and purple (and we took them home, too).

Among other moments...

Emily: "Does this jacket make me look fat?"

Jeff, after a moment's thought: "It hides your slenderness. You really should take it off and show off your figure."

(At the end of the meal - which for me was a couple of rolls with butter, two substantial pork chops [minus a couple of chunks for Emily], a few beet slices and as much of the baked potato as I could swallow:)

Waitress: "You look satisfied."

Jeff (reaching over, holding Emily and looking into her eyes): "Yes, I certainly am...oh wait, yes, the food was good too." (If I can't always be first on the uptake, I can be good on the rebound. :-})

A good time was had by all.

Meanwhile, here's an excellent post on how many Aspies' minds work: we see only our own set of information and our own paths of reasoning, and all too often assume that everyone else knows the same stuff we do (no more, no less) and thinks about things from our perspective. If we think "Hey, if I know this, then everyone should know it," it can make us look haughty.

We need to understand and then counteract it. Payback is a monster at the hands of NTs who see us bumbling through social life and other people's feelings like a bull in a china shop - not picking up on subtle cues and unwritten rules that they may think are too obvious to discuss.

H/T: Miss Aspielicious.

Second-level H/T: Ms Behaviour, who commented here recently. She carries Miss Aspielicious' Twitter feed in addition to her own.

What do you think?

Sunday, January 18, 2009

The Aspie and Autist Guide to Self Defense, Part V: Animal Planet

I've had the pleasure of interviewing self-defense expert Marc "Animal" MacYoung on violence and other forms of conflict and AS, and getting a look into his world.

Q: How do you know about AS?

A: I am familiar with Asperger Syndrome both from knowing people who have it (or are raising children with AS) and having dealt with the conflicts that commonly arise from Asperger.

Q: When dealing with a conflict from the perspective of, say, a security person or someone else in charge who has to intervene, how do you assess the possibility that AS is involved?

A: When you're called in to handle a situation where one person said or did something that set the other off, asking "Does anyone here have Aspergers?" can totally change the dynamics. If both parties look at you weird, then it's a non-issue.

If one looks surprised and says "yes," then it's [time to say] "Everybody hold it. Time to start over. He didn't do it on purpose." Then you negotiate a working compromise.

Q: So knowing someone's an Aspie is a game-changer.

A: [Yes.] When that happens you know to change tactics -- basically you become an advocate, a mediator and a referee. The plus side is from that moment on the person with AS is usually trying to help you. If not get what he wants, then at least keep things from blown up.

Q: Even these days, not every Aspie - especially among the older set - knows s/he's an Aspie. How might you be able to pick out an Aspie?

A: Mostly the speech patterns, not reacting to warning cues and obsessing on a part/aspect of the incident.

Overall though, for the lack of a better term, it's the sense of confusion. There's a legitimate sense of "what's happening?" They honestly don't understand why the comment or action they did would cause such a reaction. It's different than someone who made an emotional or prideful decision to say something hurtful and is surprised by the unintended consequences.

Q: Quite interesting, especially about the speech patterns. Do you mean formal and stilted, somewhat condescending-sounding and "Little Professor"-ish?

A: Yes. And...this is a trait shared with geeks. Who may or may not have AS.

Q: Really - so this goes beyond Aspies and autists?

A: [Yes.] Realize that I have a LOT of experience dealing with geeks and nerds. These people are poorly socialized and tend to be obsessive. I would intervene between a [non-nerd] and a nerd and I would just know, this guy "doesn't get it." What I would see is the "geek" giving off the wrong signals and often getting revved up in a totally different direction. And the [non-nerd] was freaking out because his [conflict behavior] wasn't working. And a common reaction to this is to escalate the same behavior.

What I would do was set myself in between the two people as a mediator. I would explain to the nerd that he was upsetting the [other person]. I would explain to the [other person] that the geek just didn't get it. I got it, but that it was going over the nerd's head. That instead of getting upset, he needed to tell me what he wanted and I'd tell the nerd. I told the geek to explain to me what -- for example -- the problem was with the [other person's] 'request' and why it wasn't going to work. That way both parties got what they wanted and didn't have to directly deal with each other.

Back then I ascribed this to him just being a geek and worked from there. When I learned about AS, it was like a light got turned on inside my brain: HOW many of these people had AS?

Q: Why is it very important to be able to spot an Aspie/geek/nerd in situations like that? What do you think leads to misunderstandings as to how to handle a conflict?

A: Unfortunately there are a lot of people who don't have AS, but are basically selfish [aggressors] who display many of the same behaviors. They do this because they've found this strategy "works" (at least in the short term).

So you kind of have to be able to judge on the fly. If [when you ask if he has AS] the guy looks at you and says "what the [he]ck are you talking about [dumbass]?!" odds are good he's one of these, not an [Aspie].

Back before I learned about AS, I'm not sure how many of the incidents that blew up were someone with Aspergers (and me not understanding) vs. the guy was just being an [ass].

Q: If you were talking to an Aspie, how would you advise him or her on self-defense?

A: Well before it gets to the point of self-defense, my first big bit of advice is GET AN ADVOCATE! And most importantly LISTEN to that advocate's advice about dealing with [NTs]. This especially goes for the workplace....I'd recommend to Aspies not to try to fix an escalating problem. Know when it is time to call in outside help.

Q: More broadly, how would you summarize self-defense?

A: 95% of 'self-defense' is non-physical people skills. If it gets to the point where it goes physical, you've lost control of the situation and you're not "fighting to win," you're trying for damage control.

Q: Suppose, heaven forbid, someone actually gets to the point where it goes physical. Not a cop or a bouncer or anyone like that, but a "civilian". What would you advise?

A: Just so you know, I go out and give lectures on personal safety. The number one thing I HAVE to do is "give people permission to run away."

In the same way someone with AS can get fixated on routine, have a hard time adapting to change in his/her environment and easily get overwhelmed by stimuli, "civilians" ([NTs]) can get obsessed with the idea that they have to be able to handle a situation. The "smarter" they are, the more competent in their lives they are...the MORE this is the case.

The simple fact is that when confronted by these kinds of situations people's "monkey brains" take over and they are NOT all those things they believe about themselves anymore. Basically they're a freaking-out monkey. More specifically a monkey that doesn't know what to do. They believe in their hearts of hearts that they can take care of themselves, but they really can't. If there's a motto for a lot of people who get raped, robbed, beaten and killed it would be "But I'm smarter than he is!" This is what their monkey brain is screaming as they are overwhelmed.

This "belief in their mental superiority" over the violent person is what tends to interfere with them successfully countering what is happening. This is a BIG problem. And it is why I have to give them permission to run. Their monkey brain is going to lead them into trouble that they can't handle.

Q: Excellent takeaways! Number one, learn to get along better with people; the best way to win a fight is to avoid one completely. Number two, if you learn to run away, you can live to fight another day.

You really seem to have a great deal of insight as to what Aspies go through, feeling like, maybe, Ben Roethlisberger thrust onto a cricket field. Does this resonate with your personal experience?

A: As a ADHDer I can tell you you guys aren't the only ones who were ditching class when the "rule books" were handed out.

Q: Interesting indeed! Does ADD/ADHD mean that you have difficulty learning the general unwritten rules, difficulty spotting situational cues or both?

A: Actually it's more of a kind of "Why?" problem. When you are surrounded by people who when they come to a hallway intersection -- [NTs] automatically "turn left." When you ask "why" they best answer you can get is something along the lines of "because there is no other way to go." It is a kind of mental blindness. It isn't just that they can't explain why, but they can't see the three other ways you can go.

Whereas a person with ADD sees not only the left turn, but that he can go straight, turn right or go back. But there is no automatic sense of the left turn is the "best" way. (Which incidentally ISN'T what the [NTs] have, they really don't realize there are other ways to go.) So the person with ADD, tends to go down the other hallways to see what's down there.

This tends to get people who believe the left is the only way to go...a wee bit upset with us.

Q: I know the feeling! In fact, many of us get the double whammy, since many Aspies also have ADD/ADHD.

Thank you very much for offering all this insight, Mr. MacYoung. You've done Aspies, autists and lots of NTs a world of good.

What do you think?