Severe meltdown at McDonald’s

I just got back from McDonald’s, where my girlfriend’s son had the worst meltdown we’ve ever seen him have.  He was playing very nicely at the video game kiosk with a kid who was hogging it and yelling at him for taking his own turns at the game they were playing.  Then he finally left and he was playing with a MUCH nicer kid.  Everything seemed fine, but then we noticed that our Little Dinosaur had some liquid leaking out of the legs of his diaper, so my girlfriend went to change him.  As soon as she picked him up, he completely lost it.  He screamed, he kicked, he threw up, and then he screamed, and kicked some more.  Instead of take two minutes to change his diaper and let him continue playing, we had to leave.

We strapped Little Dinosaur into his car seat and waited for the meltdown to subside, which took approximately 18,000 years.  We did everything we could to stay calm and prevent the situation from escalating, and I think we did a great job.  We didn’t even consider spanking him or yelling at him.  It wasn’t a matter of discipline.  It wasn’t L.D.’s fault.  He had taken as much stimulation as he could take.  He was as rational as a 3 year old with no more patience can be.  Every eye in the place was on us.  It was quite a scene.

Once he calmed down, we got in the car and drove back home.  Little Dinosaur was asleep by the time we arrived.  Now he’s laying on the couch perfectly calm again.  We’ll have to remember this the next time we decide to take him to a noisy, crowded place.  You’d think that such environments aren’t good for aspies. :p

Aspergian empathy

So another thing I learned from a fellow Aspie at the last Houston Aspie Info gathering was that something I believed is just common sense and common courtesy is not always viewed that way by NTs.  Namely, someone shares with you a terrible experience they had and how badly they feel about it, etc.  What I do, what I think many Aspies do, is search our memories for a relevant, comparable experience that we ourselves went through that might lend insight, or at least let the other person know that we know at least a little bit of what they’re going through.

Or apparently not;  According to a fellow Aspie friend, this sometimes gets turned around on an Aspie by an NT who becomes angry that you’ve shifted the focus away from them an onto you.  And I guess are mad that you aren’t holding their hand and letting them vent and feeling that emotion alongside them first.

This just leaves me at a loss for words…the former is the natural Aspie expression of concern and empathy.  The hostile reaction described by my friend just leaves  me baffled and thinking “Wow, what a dick move to respond to my kindness that way…” and “jeeze, pity party much?!”  I had assumed that all sane, rational people would understand that someone trying to commiserate with you by sharing from their own grab bag of hard knock experiences counts for something universally.  That this would not be so is literally incomprehensible to me.

I’m not physically capable of sharing that kind of immediacy of empathy with someone that many needy NTs seem to want and can only get from each other.  And it’s wrong of them to write me off as unfeeling or uncaring because I can’t…I express my empathy in my own Aspergian, more logical way; you shared an experience with me, seems only right that I should share a meaningful story with you.  Some Aspies may have difficulty in judging if an experience is roughly equivalent or not–I don’t think that I do, but that’s a separate issue.  I think I’m pretty good at gauging comparable experiences and I’ve yet to actually experience a negative reaction like my friend describes, but I think I’d be desperately confused and upset if I ever did.  I’d probably be angry and resentful that someone whom I’m trying to help is lashing out at me.  I’d probably just give up in frustration and incomprehension and just leave.

Sometimes people need to be left alone, it’s true.  I know I do.  But probably in past relationships I’ve opted to leave someone alone when really what they wanted was my company and emotional support and they think I’m being cold & indifferent, while I’m just applying my interpretation of “The Golden Rule”, albeit with less than optimal results at times, trying to give them space because that’s what *I’d* want in their shoes but it’s not actually what THEY want.  But I do need them to VERBALIZE what they want/need, especially if our relationship is new-ish and we don’t know each other intimately well.

Anyway, just wanted to write these impressions down before I forget them.

Empathy addendum

I forgot to include this in my last post, but please consider this post an addendum to that one.

In my younger adult years, I used to abuse alcohol as a method for coping with my inherent social awkwardness.  This seems to be a common thread among many adult Aspies my age and older.

In any event, I was arrested for DWI in the 1990s and made to attend a speaking event given by the local chapter of MADD, to listen to a mother tell about her son whom she lost in an automobile accident caused by a drunk driver.  It was a wrenching story, and I teared up myself listening to it.

Looking back, and thinking about the recent lecture I attended at Houston Aspie Info….I think I can put the puzzle pieces together and better understand why.  I think perhaps because the story of this woman’s son’s death was conveyed to me in words, in language, I was better able to process it mentally, logically, and be moved emotionally to tears by the account after the fact.  Which is why I will continue to resent any implication that we autistics are somehow emotionless robots as we are sometimes (mis)characterized.

With us Aspies, yes, you really to have to spell it out for us, explain it in language.  We can’t read your (NT) minds telepathically, our ability to read body language and eyes and facial expression is much more rudimentary and basic.

 

My adoption, and a few more thoughts on that empathy thing

I am adopted.  I love my mom & dad, could not have asked for better parents.  My adoption took place and was processed in South Carolina in 1971.  During the last year, I filled out the paperwork for and obtained all the legally available documentation pertaining to that adoption.  While so-called “identifying information” (proper names of persons, institutions, etc) have been redacted, basic descriptive information on my birth parents were included.  I know that my birth mother was a college freshman.  I know my biological father was a college senior about to graduate.  I know (from the documents) that he did graduate and go on to graduate school in Florida and was the son of a doctor, though it is unclear if what is meant is a physician or PhD.  He is described as “very intelligent” but also it is noted more than once that he is a “nervous”, “anxious” man.  It is little clues like this that lead me to believe my biological father was probably an undiagnosed (and for that day and age, undiagnosable–as he evidently did not qualify for the full-on autism diagnosis of that era) Aspie.

I must have been conceived some time in the summer of 1970.  According to statements given for the record, both persons had been under the influence of alcohol (presumably at a college party) and neither in full command of their faculties.   Immediately after their congress, my biological father reportedly professed his love for my biological mother…again, this strikes me as very impulsive/immature and “Aspie”-like and offered to marry her, but she rebuffed him, as the feeling was not mutual.  Without the social lubricant of alcohol, I can only further assume–based on the assumption that my biological father was indeed an Aspie–that with both being stone cold sober, my father’s inherent social awkwardness could not be so easily hidden and that without “beer goggles” his attractiveness as an actual prospective mate fell off markedly.  Documents show he was a relatively handsome, tall blond haired, blue eyed man.  Based on the physical description of my birth mother, it seems I mainly inherited my looks from her.  She was relatively short, with brown eyes, athletic (well, ok, didn’t inherit that), and had brown hair with a reddish tint.

Before I knew all of this, I had grown a quasi-van dyke beard/mustache combo while I was still married which I’ve subsequently shaved off.  I was quite shocked at the time to note among my facial hair not only the expected dark brown hairs but some bright red and even blonde hairs that were mystifying to me at the time but make perfect sense now given what I now know of my biological parents.

My biological father evidently married another woman and was pursing a Masters-level graduate degree when my biological mother discovered she was pregnant by him and contacted him.  He offered full financial support, though he was constrained by the fact that his current wife was evidently unaware of this situation initially and it might put incredible strains on his marriage.  He was subsequently unable to follow through with financial support, despite his good intentions, owing to his own strained circumstances in Florida (even in the best of circumstances, it’s not like graduate students are exactly rolling in the dough, then or now).

All this exposition is a long winded way of getting around to the point of noting that I received on my birthday a genetics testing kit from the organization 23 AND ME, which is a genetics testing lab that is collecting samples of cheek cells in saliva samples in order to conduct DNA testing on the samples.  While it won’t give me direct information that I can use to identify my birth parents, it will give me more abstract information such as my general ethnic background, what part of Europe my mother and father’s respective families came from, etc.  It can also potentially identify more distant relatives, which could lead to clues tracing (eventually) back to my birth parents maybe.  This was my atypical 42nd birthday present that I asked for and my (adoptive) parents endorsed.  Yes, on Friday I turned the same age as the Answer to Life, The Universe, and Everything. (“Six by nine equals forty two? I always knew there was something fundamentally wrong with the universe.” –Arthur Dent).

23 AND ME requires users to register their kits with their website.  Unregistered kits will not be processed.  I have done so.  23 AND ME also has surveys that users are allowed to take at their leisure.  One of them was an Empathy quiz, evidently designed (or made with input or inspiration from) Simon Baron-Cohen.  I took it.  I was largely unsurprised by the result, which indicated I have “below normal” levels of empathy.  I still have problems with Simon Baron-Cohen’s thesis and methodology, and I still assert that Aspie empathy is different than NT empathy, that measures of empathy are not some objective quantity that NTs have and Aspies simply lack, full stop.

Some of the questions definitely made me think, however.  It made me wonder why seeing an animal in pain & suffering is more upsetting to me than seeing a human who is a stranger to me crying in the street or on television, say.  I do remember I cried very much when my paternal grandfather died, as I was very close to “Pa” and missed him dearly.  I was very young, and it was not long after we’d first moved to Houston in 1979.  With the much later deaths of my maternal grandmothers and great aunt, which were also far less sudden (the proverbial writing had been on the wall, so to speak such that all knew it was only a matter of time) and less of a shock…while I did feel a general sadness, I was not moved to tears by those deaths in my adult years.

It’s also been my experience that I am capable of flashes of empathy while watching Anime characters…especially when I’m watching alone, in the dark, and let myself fully participate in the fiction of the story on screen and develop an emotional bond with the characters.  I have winced when a favorite character was slapped, insulted, punched, etc, or hit with an emotionally shocking revelation, etc.  I have cried watching emotionally impactful anime stories.  I recognize that I often feel more emotional connection and concern for these fictional characters than I do for real life co-workers, casual friends, etc.

The survey also reminded me of situations like being with my former in-laws, that is, my then wife’s family, when my former father-in-law was dying in the hospital hospital.  I remember them all crying when he died, embracing and hugging.  I remained respectfully quiet, but did not tear up myself.  I really didn’t know the man all that well, and actually, he was not a particularly nice person, only “slightly left of the KKK”, as it were.  I had no direct emotional connection to this man and thus was not moved to tears despite all the crying relatives around me.  I remained clearheaded and sober and after a brief silence, began to ask his ex-wife (my mother-in-law) about funeral arrangements and other business that would have to be taken care of.  NTs can react with shock and call this “lack of empathy” if they like, but they should be thankful for Aspies who, in crisis situations, are not overwhelmed by emotion and can still think and act logically and rationally.

I have experimented with watching Anime and trying to remain as emotionally detached and objective as possible…and wind up surprising myself after a tear splashes down on my cheek involuntarily after a particularly sad or emotional sequence.  I then let up on the emotional “brake” lever in my mind and allow myself to feel the emotions generated.  It almost feels like my body has rebelled against my mind in instances like that.  I don’t know what it means, I’m merely reporting the results of my experiment.

I recall reading in John Elder Robison’s writings that with emotional situations, it seems to take the Aspie longer to process an emotional event, but it’s not as if we feel absolutely nothing…but because we are not immediately “in synch” with our NT colleagues, oftentimes we are “written off” as lacking empathy, full stop.  We are processing the same emotional content a bit slower and sometimes reaching different conclusions and responses.  Plus, all people on the spectrum are not only at variance with the NT population, but with each other as well.  I realize that Simon Baron-Cohen is trying to be as scientific as possible by making the assumption that empathy is like a zero sum game, as an easier way to quantify data and come up with more manageable metrics,  but I still question the downsides to this approach.  Good first effort, but in the long run I think this approach will have to be replaced with more nuanced, more holistic and qualitative measures.

The Answer To Our Biggest Problems

The best treatment for our deepest issues as aspies is not for us to try harder to fit in or modify our behavior.  Much better than a treatment, we have a cure, and that’s to understand that there is nothing wrong with us.  We are different, not defective.  We can do things that neurotypicals can’t even dream of, and our value to society has been demonstrated on numerous occasions throughout history.  We are an elite class of human being, and we should be proud of what we can do.  Once we accept ourselves, we no longer have to tolerate others trying to “cure” us, and they will have no choice but to accept us as well.

If I hear this one more time…

I recently updated my Facebook status with words to the effect of: “If I hear one more professional Anime (or Anime Fan) reviewer go off on a rant about ‘autistic anime fans’, I’m going to reach through my iPhone and punch you in the face. I have Asperger’s (a mild form of autism) and you are being a bigoted asshole. It’s not cool, it’s not funny, and you’re insulting a large (and quite diverse) swath of your own listners, many of whom are on the autism spectrum (and huge Anime fans). Please knock it the fuck off.” I may not be quoting myself precisely correctly from memory (and I’m too lazy to go cut & paste from my FB profile), but it’s close enough.

I posted this still in the grip of quite a bit of rage and passion, remembering precisely just such a slight from an anime reviewer I listened to just this morning. At the time, I simply winced and kept listening. Generally speaking this reviewer is interesting, deliberately provocative, and yes, sometimes funny. He seems to delight in taking very edgy, contrarian positions. Sometimes I found myself agreeing, other times disagreeing. But his extended rant on “autistic anime fans” which he equated with people who like/obsess over genres in Anime he strongly dislikes and whom he characterized with the usual stereotypes (single men in their 30s living in their parent’s basement with no social life or job), etc…really stuck in my craw. And it’s not as if I haven’t heard this kind of rant or expression of exasperation before even from more “professional” reviews and reviewers (looking at you, Anime World Order) using the term “autistic” as an insult rather than description.

I won’t deny there are individuals out there in Anime fandom that may be judged to be creepy or strangely obsessive or even goddamn annoying online when arguing with people who disagree with them in even one iota. Sure. There are individuals, even fellow autistics, who creep ME the fuck out. It’s legit to criticize specific tastes one disagrees with, or call out particularly egregious behavior, say. What is not legit is to demonize an entire and quite diverse class of people (those of us all along the vast Autism spectrum) as a lazy shorthand for all the specific little things that annoy you.

I’m sure it feels hip and trendy to praise the stuff you like while condemning “those people” in Anime fandom who are “ruining” Anime as a whole in your opinion. But slinging around the word “autistic” as a broad insult is bigoted and wrong and needs to be called out. I’m autistic and just as revolted as you by certain familiar trends in Anime that get under the skin of many North American viewers. I also resent it when others suggest untoward things about my sexual preferences based on the kinds of Anime artwork I happen to like.

One anime reviewer/commentator I recently listened to speculated that sometimes there may be projection going on, too; A concrete example: Someone else looks at Anime images of young females and feels aroused then disgusted with themselves and then projects this disgust (unfairly) onto others who view the same image much more innocently. That could easily happen because of an Aspie/NT divide in worldviews.

Yes, sometimes I think there are certain images that go too far in Anime. There are sometimes certain animated sequences in certain shows that make me squirm and laugh uncomfortably, even avert my eyes. But other times there are images I sometimes post to Facebook that I view as innocent and aesthetically pleasing and it is *other* people who sexualize their interpretations of these images and project that back onto me by insinuation and god fucking damn does that piss me off so very, VERY much. I tend to suffer such unjust slings and arrows stoically, keeping tight lipped. But I do burn with anger on the inside at this.

I’m bothered/disturbed by certain Anime fetishes like incest themes, and anything that skirts into “pedo” areas disturb me as well. I am not aroused by underaged individuals of any sort, animated or real. I value a potential partner’s mind and values as much as their physical appearance. In Anime/Manga, I’m far closer to “Ecchi” preference than outright “Hentai”. And I decidedly prefer stories with mainstream romantic relationships between consenting adults to anything outside those norms, which quickly go outside my comfort zone. What people want to enjoy in the privacy of their homes is their business, but it may not be for me. It bugs me how Japan draws characters a certain, very adult way yet lists the official character ages as something ridiculously less than their appearance would suggest. In such cases I privately ignore the canonical age often derived from Manga source material and mentally re-assign the character a more believable age in my head that I stick with.
I’m also not overly fond of depictions of characters that are supposed to be High School age but are drawn more to look like children.

I also understand there are just some profound cultural differences between how Japan views things and how Americans view things.  And I’ll be the first to admit that I could be wrong/prejudiced but that I also think there are some pretty f*cked up/disturbing things in Anime that are there because of the peculiarities of Japanese culture but also recognize that not even all Japanese agree on these things, and many of these disagreements and questions are borne out in the motivations and actions of different characters in Anime and Manga.  It is bound to be true that there may be certain topics or views where Americans and Japanese will never quite see eye to eye on, too.  But there’s also obviously some universal themes we DO agree on or Anime would not be the worldwide phenomenon that it actually is.

But getting back to my main topic, I do have to praise ANNCast generally and host Zac Bertschy specifically for his careful sensitivity in focusing specifically on behavior in online forums that annoy him and not reaching for the broad brush labeled “autistic”. Would that other reviewers and critics of Anime & related fandom followed Zac’s example and showed the same level of sensitivity and restraint…

This was a difficult post to write, but I feel some of this just had to be said.

Aspie Superpower: x-ray vision

I don’t mean that we can literally see through objects. (That part is a secret.) I mean that we can see through situations and social facades once we learn how to cognitively interpret a person’s unspoken language.  I think this is because our emotional detachment makes us objective, and we are able to analyze the situation more clearly than someone who is being affected on a more emotional level by the other person.

For example, when a person goes on about how his religion gives him hope and strength, we can generally see that the person is clinging for dear life to anything that makes them feel better.  We can tell that devoutly religious people are actually desperately unhappy and aware on some level that their beliefs are just made up, but they have all kinds of ways to trick themselves into going on with the farce that, on a conscious level, have them completely convinced that they really believe what they say they believe.  I’m sure there are religious aspies, but I would guess that the percentage of aspies that are atheists is much higher than the percentage of atheists in the general population.  I would even go so far as to say that many neurotypicals are incapable of breaking free from games of pretend that they play with each other in order to maintain their sanity on a day to day basis.

I’m not saying that all NTs are like that though.  I just think that aspies, for the most part, have an awareness of reality that doesn’t allow us to be swept away by glamour spells cast by people in the NT world.

Initial Impressions of a lecture

I attended a very interesting talk at our monthly Houston Aspie Info meeting that gave me a lot to think about.  The speaker is a family therapist who also has Asperger’s, and though highly technical in nature, I found the talk very interesting and relate-able to my own life and work experiences; Deeper insights, for example, into why I write technical manuals and procedures in the peculiarly thorough way that I do, for example, mapping out multiple contingency scenarios and rational responses to said contingencies, however remote in actual probability.  Deeper insights into why I experienced so much frustration at my penultimate boss’s training methods and my attempts to cope with them.  The problem of overcompensating for unreliable sensory input which tends to push us to absolutes in modes of thought.  In my case, tending to push me to a general pessimism or outright cynicism in the worst cases, regardless if actually factually justified or not.  Overcompensations such as because harsh experience has taught me I cannot reliably trust if my interpretation of flirtatious behavior from a female subject is genuine or a figment of my imagination, I tend to assume automatically that all such impressions are incorrect and shut myself off from all such stimuli…which includes ignoring the occasionally genuinely intended flirtation that is often only visible clearly in hindsight, at a remove in time, when the actual opportunity to act is long past.  I tend to assume any perceived flirtation is an error on my part unless a girl is so forceful and interjects herself in such a way that I can’t possibly discount or misconstrue her intentions.  It’s an overcompensation I’ve devised to avoid the pain of rejection, especially rejection that comes about from a misinterpretation of intent from the other party.  There’s no good way I can see to parse this by asking direct questions the way one potentially could in differently charged emotional scenarios.

My first girlfriend in High School seized the initiative.  She not only invited me to her house, she initiated our first kiss.  One woman in my adult life whom I eventually had a one night fling with…she invited me to her place; we put on a romantic movie that we both knew we liked.  But when I sat there quietly and respectfully watching the movie, it was she who grunted with impatience at my lack of initiative; she turned the movie off, and led me by the hand to her bedroom and started kissing me.  My most recent girlfriend after my divorce actually asked me out to have drinks with her out of the blue.  I initially declined because I was unclear on her marital status, but that information later gave me the courage to ask her out once I clarified that she was also a divorcee like myself.

Primarily in the case of my ex-wife (and maybe partially in the case of one previous girlfriend) did I actively court and woo her…in the case of my ex-wife we watched a movie at her apartment and I worked up the courage to simply hold hands with her.  She thought this was very innocent and nice rather than overly aggressive and responded favorably…though she had insecurities of her own to wrestle with and overcome before we could become a committed couple.

Just wanted to get these thoughts down in writing before bed;

Also, mostly unrelated to the above…I feel that, sort of like how “gaydar” supposedly works, we autistic people can sort of “sense” our own. A particular person in my social/work world has been pinging my “autisticator” (?) as a possible hit for some time now; I confided my impressions with a third person whom I know for sure is autistic, and he confirmed he’s had the same thoughts about this individual for quite some time as well. It’s reassuring to get some partial external confirmation from an independent source. Nice to know we have the same impression, at least.

For us, Social Media is a double-edged sword.

While my co-author resoman517 asserts that Facebook has been a great boon for him overall, and I do understand his reasoning, it is my view that contemporary social media (Facebook, MySpace, Twitter, even e-mail) constitutes a double-edged sword, metaphorically speaking.  Yes, it can allow us to connect with other Aspies, or even NTs who share our interests and pet foci…but they are also media where we can be bullied, harassed, persecuted, etc.  We can get drawn into arguments, flame wars, etc, that are emotionally anxiety-inducing and frustrating.

Especially in times of great national controversy or crisis, I often find that I retreat from Facebook altogether, for days or even weeks on end…not least because my quirky, often unconventional views are unwelcome or treated with outright hostility, and I am so conflict-averse that I’d just rather avoid the linguistic combat involved until things cool off and subjects can be examined more dispassionately and objectively with the distance of time.

I also know fellow Aspergians who go to the extreme of leaving Facebook altogether, deleting their accounts and staying offline for extended periods before slowly coming back, re-creating their accounts, and slowly re-building their severed connections.  I know of at least one Aspergian who has abandoned Facebook completely and refuses to go back and has decided to camp out on Google+ indefinitely.  This seems to work for him, but I admit I do miss his company on Facebook.  Even when I communicate with him via the Googleverse, he is slow and seemingly reluctant to respond.  He points out that he’s reluctant to participate in blogs like this unless we can guarantee we police the comments section to weed out potential bullies, trolls, etc.  I understand his concern and implemented these protections on some of my personal blogs on the Blogger platform.  We currently leave the policing/editing functions up to Ankh here on our main WordPress platform, our de-facto webmaster.

One Aspie friend who has retreated from Facebook completely in the past describes a scenario that is parallel and familiar to my own…it goes a little like this…you make new friends and interact…the more you feel comfortable the more you let loose and be your “real” self, but eventually this causes friction and pushback, as NTs discover they have objections to the real you that they do not accept…they push back; we, averse to conflict, pull back or withdraw altogether.  In the most severe cases we disengage entirely.  We then wallow in extreme loneliness and depression for a length of time.  If we don’t commit suicide first, we tentatively return back to the social world…logging back onto Facebook after a long hiatus, say, or re-creating a previously deleted account…or friends decide that the “not-on-speaking-terms” probation is over and interact with us again…we re-join the world, but furtively, with our guards up, keeping our “real” personalities hidden, played close to the chest, as it were, until we once again feel comfortable to let our guard down.  Our most constant friends are the ones to whom we’ve let our guard down completely yet still accept us in all our awkward glory…these are few and far between.  To the others, we let slip selectively bits and pieces of our best selves, constantly checking if the bonds of acceptance still hold or are starting to fray.  Social media can be a great tool of connection, but it does have its down sides, its dark sides, etc.  It’s not for the faint of heart.

There are times when I would have, basically, a classic “aspie meltdown” (but not recognize it as such) and compose a really angry email to someone.  And I would refrain from sending it until the morning.  But this self-check often would not work, as, upon reading it with cold and sober eye the next day, I decided that yes, that’s exactly what I meant to say and I still mean it and I’d still hit send….

The most frustrating thing is writing and re-writing a composition, bending over backwards to not give offense, taking elaborate care with one’s wording—and at the end of the day STILL YET offending someone such that one should’ve just gone with one’s original snarky impulse, if only to gain the emotional satisfaction of it, since the consequences end up being more or less the same.  Goddamn, it’s like why do I even try!?

Facebook is the current social media that’s “in” right now.  It used to be MySpace, but I myself admit I’ve not logged into MySpace for months now.  LiveJournal even less often.  I do not think that Google+, despite its own hype, will supersede Facebook, but I also don’t believe that Facebook is forever.  It’s just incredibly convenient in the present moment.  I’m only just now starting to explore Twitter, but I freely allow that I don’t really understand Twitter nor its protocols at the moment.  I like to follow it during Rockets home games, and sometimes send out my own Tweets, but I don’t fully get it, at least not yet.

I’ve heard mixed things about dedicated Aspie/Autistic social sites like Wrong Planet.  Some of my co-authors report negative experiences with it.  I tried it but lost interest.  Others swear by it.  I know that it has improved recently with new authors like Kirsten Lindsmith, the then girlfriend of the son of John Elder Robinson of Look Me in The Eye fame.  There are also a lot of autistic individuals (diagnosed and undiagnosed) in Anime/Manga fan culture, too, as well as in the atheist / freethought community.

On the one hand, the internet does provide a social outlet to home-bound autistic individuals who otherwise cannot get out and interact with the real world at all.  On the other hand, it can potentially inhibit less impaired individuals from going out into the real world to “practice”, as it’s in many ways easier than dealing with the complex social web of the “real” world.  Having grown up in the pre-internet world, I can attest that part of what made me as well adjusted as I am currently is not having the capacity to spend all day “online”, but disconnected from the immediacy of face-to-face interaction.  I participated in Cub Scouts, YMCA baseball, etc.  I went out for NJROTC in High School; I played videogames on my Apple II+ but also made friends with people who played the same or similar games on their PCs.  Most of all, I played D20 RPGs with friends, specifically Advanced Dungeons & Dragons.  I tried to stay connected to “nerd culture” up through college and beyond. 

I like this blog, I like Facebook, but I won’t pretend they don’t sometimes have downsides for ASD individuals, too.  They can help, but they can also hurt.  I like writing for this blog, but at the same time I feel self-conscious in putting myself “out there”; but I do so in the hope that I can help others, despite some personal risks to myself I may invoke in the process.

(Mis)adventures in Academia

I freely admit that my first foray into Graduate School was my vain attempt to forestall dealing with the dreaded “Real World” for as long as possible.  While I had been overall a mediocre High School student, I thrived as an undergraduate in college, even earning a place in the National Freshman Honor Society my first year at Texas A&M, and earning a modest Sul Ross Scholarship from Texas A&M University itself, and 3-year NROTC scholarship from the United States Navy, based on my academic merit.   I would later lose the NROTC scholarship owing to physical disqualification based on my abysmal eyesight at the time, in those pre-Lasik days.  Back then RK was the only eye-corrective surgery available, and it was new, experimental, had unpredictable side effects and was firmly NOT accepted by any of the Armed Forces at that point in time (post-Cold War, Bush Senior and early Clinton years).  Since my primary motivation for going to college had been to become an unrestricted-line Navy officer, I was left rudderless for a brief time, but quickly found new motivation in wanting to emulate a new cadre of adult professionals in my immediate social environment, namely the German Studies faculty of Texas A&M.  I really admired the wisdom, intelligence, and cultivation and learning of these men and women.  I also enjoyed the subject matter (German history & culture) that was the focus of their academic study and teaching and decided quickly that I wanted to follow in their footsteps and become one of them.

I felt so betrayed by the US Navy and so ambivalent about the First Gulf War that I turned my back on all things military and national-security related (FBI, CIA, NSA, etc).  And because the Republican Party in 1992 was openly embracing the Religious Right and because I was definitely an atheist, I jumped ship and declared myself a Democrat, voting for Bill Clinton in 1992.  I proudly wore t-shirts saying “Aggie Democrat”, precisely because of the glares and looks of disbelief it got me.  I had had half a mind to transfer out of TAMU and just head to Austin to join friends at UT to finish out my undergrad years;  I might very well have lead a happier life had I done so, but I’d already put down roots of a sort at TAMU and decided to stick it out as quirky, counter-culture liberal quasi-hippie in College Station rather than blend into the generally more liberal mainstream at UT-Austin.
I freely admit to abusing alcohol in College, including indulging in underage drinking.  I did it partly because I’d been such a squeeky clean goody-goody in High School and wanted to try some riskier things and live a little on the wild side…and I continued to drink throughout my initial years in Higher Education because it was a way to self-medicate and to overcome my inherent (but not yet diagnosed) Aspergian social awkwardness.  It blunted my inhibitions to the point where I no longer cared if I sounded weird or was awkward and forced myself to interact with others in spite of ordinarily being shy, etc.  I also managed to find genuine friends in the TAMU German and TAMU Russian clubs, where (heavy) social drinking was very much part of that milieu anyway, owing to those respective European cultural traditions.  Drinking allowed me to hone my German and Russian foreign language speaking skills, and as they say, practice makes perfect.  I won a modest speaking role in the annual Spring German play as a Sophomore, which was a rare thing for one so young.  I did a 6 week summer abroad in 1990 and a full academic year abroad from 1992-1993.  I can’t explain why fully, but I felt so utterly at home in orderly, by-the-book Germany.  It was a perfect place for an Aspie like me to live.  Alas, I could not find a way to stay beyond my allotted one year, as much as I really wished I could.  Two of my life-long yearnings have been to either 1) return to living in Germany or 2) barring that, return to a sheltered life in Academia….and for the time being content myself with life as an under-employed staff member in a Public library system.

I had wanted to attend UT-Austin for graduate school–not least because of the recognized prestige of their graduate program in German–it was in the national top 10 at the time–but also because my best friend(s) were also still living in Austin.  But I also applied to Rice University’s Graduate program in German Studies as my back-up.  Rice interviewed me first then offered me a full fellowship.  UT kept dithering.  Rice pressed me for a response one way or the other.  UT still hadn’t made up its mind whether to even accept me into their program or not, much less whether or not any financial aid of any sort would be forthcoming.  I felt I had no real choice and told Rice I would accept their offer and so packed my bags and returned to the greater Houston area.

Life as a grad student at Rice University was incredibly fun.  I enjoyed my classes (though I suspect my professors enjoyed me a bit less than I did them).  For the first two years, it was the happiest time in my life.  Even though I found the formal curriculum and reading list tedious and boring, I supplemented my study with stuff I actually cared about and wanted to read, which was considerably more interdisciplinary.  I loved being able to be paid to spend my days lost in thought and reading and writing.  True, in the cold light of hindsight I was more of a dabbler and dilettante than genuinely talented scholar…but I still had fun.  I wrestled with French post-structuralism but eventually chucked the lot of it as incomprehensible.  While I loved German literature, film and culture, I did not seem to love the same books, films, authors, etc, that my professors did and that they wanted me to study THEIR material that I found boring and I felt constantly like they sucked all the joy and life out of this field of study…I felt like I’d made a mistake and should’ve held out for UT-Austin after all.  I alienated my first thesis adviser, though I’m glad to say we later reconciled and he turned into my staunchest defender at my actual oral defense.  I realize looking back that most of my relationships with my professors with only a few notable exceptions were often quite rocky and difficult.  Understanding my Asperger’s now sheds new light on the difficulty of those interactions, and why I chafed so hard at the constraints of the Rice U. graduate program in German Studies.  I developed severe writer’s block when it came time to actually put pen to paper and complete my MA Thesis.  I failed to complete it within the allotted time (2 years) and also got into GPA trouble and went on academic probation.  Luckily the newly incoming Department chair took pity on me and took me under his wing and guided me towards pulling up my GPA and towards writing a passable Thesis…I look at it now and find it to be dreck and utterly trite, but it managed to pass muster at the time.  Alas, though, I was declared a “Terminal Masters” and this meant that my funding dried up completely, I had to take out loans to complete my studies, and worst of all had to move back in with my parents.  No more consciousness-expanding long nights in the campus pub and stumbling back to my dorm to sleep it off at night and rising at my leisure for mostly afternoon classes.  I met a lot of very interesting, super-intelligent individuals during my years at Rice; some of them in class but about half of them at either Willy’s Pub or Valhalla, hailing from the “Greater Rice Community” of alumni, and just local academics from other institutions that liked to spend their off hours at or near Rice U. My intelligence grew exponentially in this fertile environment, exposed to so many intelligent, well-read, articulate individuals.  I knew I would sorely miss it if i ever left academia (as a student or post-doc) or found myself unable to find gainful employment as an academic later.  Moving back in with my parents to finish my MA thesis was a dark and depressing time for me, not least because of how it killed my social life based in the campus community there, which initially only worsened my writers block and lead me to the brink of despair.  Somehow I managed to power through and excrete my thesis into presentable form…the mental equivalent of passing a kidney stone (something I’ve never actually had to do and hope never to have to do in my life!!) or uncommonly hard stool.  I was at a complete loss as to what to do next, and my parents kept breathing down my neck, hounding me with the question of what I intended to do with my life to earn a living…?  I was stunned by their vehemence and sudden seeming unwillingness to indulge my intellectual endeavors any longer after so many years of seemingly unquestioning support.  Casting about for something to do…to this day I couldn’t tell you why I ruled out something like Law school…I opted to try becoming a High School German teacher.  I actually enjoyed my graduate level education classes at the University of Houston.  UH was not Rice University, but it had its own charms that I grew to love.  It was at UH that I first encountered and read the works (yes, going outside the prescribed curriculum–again!) of Michael Berube and Cary Nelson, who were writing on the collapsing job market of newly minted humanities PhDs being unable to secure good Academic jobs after graduation…the field of endeavor I’d wanted to pursue but had been forced to abandon temporarily owing to being declared a Terminal Masters by Rice.  Perhaps I’d dodged a bullet.  But High School German teaching turned out to be a disaster for me and I quit after only one year on the job.  The stress was just too much and I found I had a splitting headache by the end of nearly every workday.  I read Lit Crit theory books on weekends and longed for and planned once again to lay siege to the Ivory Tower, seeking admittance yet again.  While I did not go immediately back, and actually landed the best job I’ve ever had–with AIG International Services–I never quite got rid of my Academic itch, and although part of me still dreamed hazily of earning a PhD and securing a position as a tenured professor, safely ensconced in Academia, away from the pressures and concerns of daily life, I decided that my best route back into the Academic world lay through the road to professional Librarianship.  I swore that I would make my headway first as a successful Academic Librarian in a University setting, and then someday perhaps earn a PhD in Culture Studies or Film Studies or even Library & Information Sciences–then leave the world of Librarian practitioner and go back to being a full-time Academic, giving lectures and writing books, enjoying the rarefied cultural air of Academia, safely removed from the stupid everyday world, talking late into the night having intelligent conversations with very smart people while getting slowly smashed drinking snooty, expensive imported beer.  

Two failed attempts at making my way as an Academic Librarian in Library Technical Services later, the actual trajectory of my life has been far less satisfactory.  It’s still a beautiful dream, but I’m a bit more realistic about my actual prospects going forward.  My yearning for Academia was in actuality a yearning for general social acceptance as an Aspie.  Only now do I actually “get” that.  I still think, in a different political economy in a different time and place with a far more better funded and supported Academia that I would make a fine Academic myself, with the adequate requisite financial and social supports.  Ah, to have been a wealthy Vicar in the Church of England, say, circa 1780 or 1830…rich with lots of free time on one’s hands…I’m currently reading Bill Bryson’s latest work At Home: A short history of private life and let me tell you, I’m quite envious of that strata of English aristocrats.  I’m also reading the delightful (late) David Rakoff’s Don’t Get Too Comfortable…both books I’m consuming in audiobook format–otherwise I’d not have the spare time to actually read them in print.  Having a new car that finally has a CD player on board has been such a gigantic boon to me, allowing me to at least partly revive my active reading life of previous years, and this gives me some measure of solace.  I feel unhappy when I’m not able to exercise my mind with intelligent nonfiction that makes me think, that has the capacity to transform my consciousness, etc.  It’s joyous to be able to do that again, in whatever limited capacity.  Most ideal would be having interlocutors of comparable levels of education and intellect to bounce new ideas off of afterwards, but what I’ve got now is good enough, and definitely an improvement over where I’ve been lately.