Saturday, 2 April 2011

She who laughs last, thinks slowest


One of the most frustrating thing about the way my brain works (or doesn't) is how long it takes me to process things.

Simple example: Today my folks came around for lunch. As they were leaving, Mum called something from the car. I couldn't understand it, so I called back "pardon?", thinking I just hadn't heard it. But almost as soon as the "pardon" passed my lips, the words Mum had said assembled themselves in my head. I didn't need to hear it again, I just needed an extra few seconds to process it.

Think about it like a person who's just starting to learn to play a musical instrument. They see the score on the page, but have to think consciously about what note that means, and where to put their hands and what to do to make the sound. So they're going to be a bit slow and clumsy. It doesn't mean they don't know how the song's supposed to go, they just can't quite make it happen yet.

My brain's a bit like that sometimes. It's not that I'm having any trouble understanding the concept you're communicating, it's just that I literally can't understand the words. Give me a moment to turn those grunts and squeaks into language, and I'll be fine.

This is deeply annoying, because one does not always have a few extra seconds to spare. You come across as a bit dim, as a snob who gives the speaker a look up and down before deigning to reply, or a complete ditz whose mind isn't on their business.

I don't really have any answers. My processing speed drops if I'm overstimulated, but with my folks today I was utterly chilled and still managed a sudden brain-spasm.

I'm not stupid. But I can be slow.

Say what? The terminology of the autism spectrum

Aspie.  Aspergian.  Spergy.  Autie.  Autist.

Autistic person. Person with autism.

Can we get some standardisation going on here, people?!

Any niche has its own specialised jargon, and autism's no different. But autism's complicated.

"Autistic person" and "person with autism" aren't just two different ways of saying the same thing. The latter - person first language - is a means of emphasising that the person you're talking about is a person, not just a medical history on legs. A lot of social workerey types love it, and when I was working in the media it was the terminology we had to use.

But many disabled people - not just in the neurodiversity movement, but in wider disability circles as well - don't like it at all.  They see it as an attempt to erase an important part of who they are, and reduce an essential part of their identity to an optional bolt-on extra.  It's like telling me I have to call myself a "person with Australian citizenship", because by calling myself "Australian" I'm letting my nationality define me.  Of course it bloody does.  And so does being an Aspie.

There are a also a rich variety of slang words to describe people on the spectrum.  I personally don't mind "Aspie", but feelings about the term are fairly mixed.  Some people feel it's a bit cutesy, or don't like the way it appears to distance Aspergers from the rest of the autism spectrum . I've seen "Aspergian" used too, and very occasionally "Spergy".  There's at least one person who prefers "Asp".  Then there's Autist, Autie, Spectrumite, and no doubt dozens I've missed.

"Neurodiverse" is a collective term for people whose neurology differs from the standard.  It encompasses not just the autism spectrum but seizure disorders, ADHD and related conditions, dyslexia, acquired brain injury, and anything else that affects the layout of your upstairs rooms.  But a person can't be "neurodiverse" or a "neurodiversist".  The point of diversity is that it encompasses a whole bunch of different ways of being.  One person can't be diverse, any more than a slice of tomato can be a sandwich.

The final say in who gets called what should always rest with the individual concerned. They get to decide if they identify as Aspie or Spergy or Autist or headcrip or a person with Aspergers. It's nobody else's business but theirs.

Quite a few times, I've seen online discussion about autism get derailed when someone starts telling someone else what they're 'supposed' to call themselves. I've found it's usually an indication that they're not really listening, and that continuing the conversation's probably a waste of time. If they won't even respect the way you choose to describe yourself, can you really expect them to listen to or respect your point of view?

Friday, 1 April 2011

How Aspie literalism really works

It's one of the stereotypical Aspie traits, isn't it? A tendency to take things literally. As though we hear the phrase "raining cats and dogs" and look up expecting to see furry quadrupeds hurtling out of the sky.


Photo by b1ue5ky. "Hurtling" not shown.

But, especially for adults like me who've had a lifetime to get our heads around the concept of figures of speech, it's actually a lot more subtle than that. Unless you grew up in a cultural vacuum you soon learn that "raining cats and dogs" is just a saying, and while you may think it's a ridiculous turn of phrase you don't actually think it's true.

However, that doesn't mean literal thinking goes away. It just means one learns, on a case by case basis, to avoid the usual traps.

I had an absolute gold-plated honking doozy of a literal moment while I was at Uni. I was studying Bliss by Peter Carey, and had to write an essay on a prompt that went something like:

Bliss charts a family's downfall into a chaotic world of drugs, sex, madness, illness and death. Discuss.

(It was a very long time ago, so I can't remember exactly how it went. But that was the general gist of what they were asking for.)

Now, as an older, wiser Aspie, I understand that they were looking for a discussion of the family dynamic and how it changed and disintegrated over the course of the book. But at the time I took it - wait for it - literally: I basically did up a list of events in the book involving drugs, then events involving sex and so forth, demonstrating how each vice became more frequent and extreme as the book progressed. Instead of addressing the overall theme they were after, I picked out the individual components of the question and addressed them. Couldn't see the forest for all those damn trees.

Two things strike me about this, the first being embarrassment on behalf of my younger self that I missed the boat so badly. Especially since this essay was the one I ended up having to present as a presentation to the rest of the class, who probably followed the long-standing tradition of assuming I was a bloody-minded berk who was deliberately going out of her way to be different and difficult.

But the really, really odd thing about this?  Even though I completely misinterpreted the question completely, I got an HD for the answer.