Sunday, September 23, 2012

Learning the culture of autism

Still on vacation in Autismia, trying to learn the ways of the native culture.

Already our little excursion has borne fruit.

Anita reported that when our "big guy" with ASD became agitated last week she was able to see his behavior for what it was, and knew all to well from experience where it was going. Instead of trying to reason with him, she just said, "Hey, buddy, would you like to play a quiet game of checkers with me in another room?

"Sure would, bud," he replied. The time spent was more than worth it and, needless to say, Anita got whupped at checkers!

Last week we began watching a dvd by Carol Gray, who pioneered the use of "social stories" to help people with autism spectrum disorders (ASD).

Creating social stories can help a person with ASD "see" the situation he or she is struggling with in a non-threatening way.  People with ASD frequently experience a lot of anxiety due to their inability to read social clues and decipher what is going on with the people around them.  People with optimally functioning social skills swap non-verbal social cues with lightning speed, on the fly, without thinking about it.

Why the anxiety?  Well, do you feel anxiety when you come home from work and your spouse or significant other has put on the stone face and you have no idea why? Suppose you went to work one day and everybody there was like that.  You'd surely expect to be fired by noon. Would you feel anxious?

Think about Kafka and the "faceless" bureaucracy.

No, on second thought, don't.

The point is, if you can't read faces, they all look the same. 

When I began to get the gist of where Carol was going, a small light bulb went on:  Oh, yeah--that's what I'm doing when I journal!  I'm literally stepping outside the whirling stream of human interaction and putting things down on paper so that I can look at my situation objectively.  I'm lucky enough to be able to do that for myself.

Jesus told social stories and we call them parables, and so did Aesop when he wrote his fables.  We NTs (Neuro-typicals) have had our social stories forever.  Ours, though, rely on intuition, metaphor, and imagination to make their point, so they don't always work too well for people with ASD.

Social stories for people with ASD are like the old Dragnet TV shows:  "Just the facts, ma'm."  They seek to present information that a person with ASD is not able to intuit or deduce from the whirlwind of sensory information swirling around him.  They help work around some of the common traits of ASD, like tactile defensiveness (not wanting to be touched).

Here's an example of a social story written to help a child who needs to get a haircut:

When my hair gets long I need a haircut.
It is important to have a haircut so I look good.
I will look different with my haircut. Looking different is ok.
My hair will grow back again.
When I have my hair cut we will go to see (name of hairdresser) - insert photo
I will sit in the chair quietly.
The haircut may tickle but it will not hurt
When the haircut is finished mum will say “finished now” and I can get out of the chair.
Mum will be happy, the hairdresser will be happy.
My hair will look different and it will look good.

This week we start writing social stories of our own.  First we'll write them for one another, and then next week we'll explore how to write them for our Ranchers.

Photo courtesy:

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

From Mexico to Autismia...journey continued

OK, so today's our first autism training class we've had for quite a while.  In planning our session over the past week, my mind kept going back to an experience that got me in trouble that I'd had in Mexico as a graduate student in Spanish & Portuguese at the University of Colorado many years ago.

I'd learned Spanish in the university, beginning in my mid-20s, with no "in-country" experience.  I was adept at discussing Don Quixote, but stammered and struggled in conversations that wandered outside the realm of academe and literary criticism.

So I signed on for a semester as the Assistant Director of the university's study abroad program in Xalapa, Mexico in order to gain fluency and expand my linguistic horizons.

I preceded our students by about two weeks, during which time I worked with the Directors of the program securing housing in local homes, setting up curricula, and making arrangements with the Depto. de Humanidades of the university for classes our students would be taking.

Though I'd travelled extensively in Mexico and Central America, the difference between life as a tourist and trying to work in the native culture was enormous.  I literally could not "read" my hosts' intentions and concerns, and they could not read mine.  I was repeatedly "stood up" by colleagues with whom I was certain we had firmly agreed on a specific place at a time and date certain.

"Ay, Choo-thee," my Mexican Director would laugh, "They didn't really mean it when they said they'd meet you but they didn't want to be impolite and tell you so!  Once you learn more, you'll figure out how to know when they mean it and when they are just being polite."

"Polite!" I'd sputter, "What's so polite about telling somebody you'll meet them when you know you can't or won't!?"

Leticia just smiled.

Later in the semester, my cultural cluelessness created big trouble for one of my professors.

Memo (short for Guillermo) was a charming young professor of English language and literature at the university.  He taught a course in which many of our University of Colorado students were enrolled for credit and I was assigned to be his teaching assistant.

One day well along in the semester, I was also asked by our American Director to proctor an exam for him the hour following Memo's English lit class.  This was a bit problematic as Memo seldom began or finished his class on time.  I thus explained beforehand that I would probably need to leave our class early in order to begin administering the exam for Tony, who as a true American insisted on beginning his classes precisely on time.  No problem.

So far.

As usual, Memo arrived for our 3:00 PM class at about 3:25, and began lecturing on an American novel (alas, the name escapes me) with the word "You" in the title.  At some point he mentioned the Spanish translation, using the formal word for "you" in the title.

"Ah, Memo," I corrected him in English.  "I've seen that in the bookstore and the translator used the familiar you."  This mattered, because if the students went to the library and wanted to find the novel, they'd need to know whether to look for tu or usted in the title.

"For certain?" Memo inquired. 

"Absolutely, I'm sure," I replied.

Then, noticing that it was almost time to be at Tony's class, I gathered up my belongings and slipped out the door.

That night there was a cultural event in the student center, so after supper I returned to campus.  Entering the center, students from Memo's class began coming up to me.

"Oye, Choo-thee," they said.  "Estabas bien enojada con Memo hoy, verdad?"  Hey, Judy, you were really ticked off at Memo this afternoon, no?

"Oye, Choo-thee.  Es verdad que Memo realmente no sabe ingles?"  Horrors!  True that Memo didn't really know English?

I spent the whole evening quelling rumors that I Memo had offended me, that Memo was a bad professor, that Memo didn't really know English at all and was just faking.

Where could all this have come from?!  Where did they get these ideas!?

I rushed home to Leti and poured out my story.  She laughed and asked me exactly how I'd left Memo's class to go to Tony's.

I told her I'd just quietly departed the premises.

"That's it!" she exclaimed.  "Here it's rude to leave one group to go to another one and nobody would ever do it unless they were angry or upset."

"Even if they were expected elsewhere?" I pleaded.

"But the students didn't know that!" she said.

"What should I have done?  I didn't want to disrupt Memo's class."

"Oh, you should have," she assured me.  "You should have slapped your forehead and said, 'Oh my God, it's almost time for Professor Lozano's class and I have to give a test for him today in Contrastive Analysis!  Memo, I'm so sorry to leave, but you know Tony, he's got that crazy American thing about starting everything on the dot!' 

You should have apologized to the students for having to leave the class to teach for that crazy American professor. 

Ay, Choo-thee, you should have made the really big deal about the whole thing," she concluded, as if by now I hadn't figured that out.

And so I spent the remaining five weeks of the semester singing the praises of that fine professor of English, how I had rarely witnessed such grasp of the English language anywhere in Mexico, how I wished I could switch programs and study myself under his expert Memo was the best prof in the department!

And Professor Lozano?  The students were agreed that Professor Lozano, though he was fair and knowledgeable, and his Spanish was absolute perfection, was nonetheless cold, aloof, unreadable, and strange.

Sounding familiar? 

Sunday, September 9, 2012

On the road

I spent last evening watching Asperger's Syndrome: A Guide for Parents and Professionals by Tony Attwood, a British psychologist who has studied and written widely on the subject.  This in preparation for a series of trainings we are undertaking with our staff to learn more about Asperger's and autism.

While I like to joke that I speak fluent Downs, I can't claim the same about the autism spectrum.  If anything, the whole subject, especially when it gets into the areas of anxiety and social cluelessness, is uncomfortable for me--not surprising, since I have struggled my whole life with these very issues. 

Most cerebral people, I find, when they really sit down and look at the spectrum, are able to locate themselves on it somewhere.  If you know me well at all, I have probably inflicted upon you more than you ever wanted to know about certain subjects.  (My apologies, but really, in your heart of hearts, how can you not share my horror at the loss of the pluperfect subjunctive in everyday English usage?  I'm just saying.)

And so I have struggled to do justice to our Ranchers on the spectrum.  Anxious people push my anxiety buttons.

But last spring, in the daily struggle with my own anxiety disorder,  I discovered a simple relaxation ap for my IPAD.  I've tried so many things, read so many books, taken so many pills, usually with some marginal degree of relief but not really much help when push comes to shove. 

(I sympathize with the character in a famous New Yorker cartoon: "I garden, I meditate, I take bubble baths.  Why do I still feel like I want to slug somebody?")

These simple little aps (, lo and behold, for whatever reason, taken like medication for 15 minutes, after lunch, in the midst of my busy, stressful day--amazing.  Within weeks I was able to sleep through the night and get through the day without the host of symptoms that have plagued me since I was a teenager.

Therefore I was not surprised to see daily relaxation prescribed on the Attwood site for people on the spectrum. 

It's a step to take at the beginning of a long journey.