Saturday, 26 February 2011

Is autism the next step in human evolution?

In my opinion, no. It isn't. It really isn't.

But rather than leave it at that, let's take a closer look at this idea.

The argument is that autistic people's high intelligence and refined skills in scientific fields marks them out as a step ahead of the common herd. Our honesty, openness, tenacity, and willingness to take people at face value is also a step above the shallow backbiting and snarkiness of the general Homo sapiens sapiens.

There are two major problems with this.

The first is that this isn't how the theory of evolution works. Evolution works on the basis of survival of the fittest: those most capable of surviving long enough to reproduce get to pass on their genes, while the less capable perish.  As Wikipedia puts it, "genetic mutations that enhance reproduction become, and remain, more common in successive generations of a population."

Evolution is an ongoing process, from generation to generation.  It's not a race, and there isn't an end goal other than getting your gametes fused.  An ape or a chimp is not a "less evolved" version of a human, they're their own species with their own evolutionary pressures at play.  Similarly an elite athlete, a renowned spiritual leader, or a genius of startling intellect are not "more evolved" than some random dudebro whose life revolves around booze and boobies.  That's just not what evolution is.

If our theoretical dudebro's lifestyle of tits and tequila means he's getting more tail than the rest of the lineup from the previous paragraph, we may in fact find more of his genes in successive generations.  Evolution doesn't care if he's a douchebag - just that he's a douchebag that successfully reproduced.

For instance, I think a handy quirk in human evolution would be someone with a metabolic setup that enabled them to eat junk food and not exercise and still be trim and attractive. They'd be fitter (in both biological and colloquial senses) than the other potential mates, so more likely to pull and ultimately more likely to reproduce. I

Autism, on the other hand, can be a definite disadvantage in passing on one's genes.  Our social skills issues can hinder our ability to impress a mate and find a romantic partner.  If sensory sensitivity make going out to meet people difficult, we may not even be able to find one to impress in the first place. I know autistic people can and do form long term relationships - with each other or with non-autistic partners - and have kids.  But the odds against it are higher than for our non-autistic counterparts.

The second problem is that the whole theory is based on assumptions about autism that are simply not true. Autistic people have the same spread of skills and intelligence as the general population. Some of us are terribly clever, some are thick as bricks.  Some have plenty of brains but either can't or choose not to apply them, others didn't do so well in the genetic lottery but have have made up through hard work and ingenuity.  Some are science geeks, some are hyperliterate word nerds, some have sorting buttons by colour as our only marketable skill.  To argue that it's our cleverness or skill in areas like science that makes autistic people "the next step in evolution" completely erases those of us who aren't particularly clever, or are clever but can't apply it, or have skills outside the stereotypical maths/science area.

It also buys into the myth that autistic people are somehow different, other, exotic and abnormal. So by extension it's OK to ostracise us, treat us differently, have different expectations of us, because we're not like other people.  It's OK to not include autistic people in the regular flow of the community, because we're probably too busy solving the energy crisis with a paperclip or correcting Stephen Hawking's homework anyway. And that's not true. I'm normal. I'm human.  I just want to be treated that way.

I get the creeps when I hear the 'next step in evolution' argument coming from autistic people. Not only is it a kick in the guts to those of us who don't have the stereotypical form of autism on which the theory hinges, it also puts me in mind of the horrible phrase Master Race. So before I Godwin my own post, let's just let this idea go.

Original image from the Smithsonian Institution collection on Flickr Commons

Note: this post was rewritten in April 2013 because it's become the most viewed post on this blog by a vast margin, but I wasn't particularly happy with the original and thought it needed improvement.  While much of the wording has changed, the message and intent is still that of the original post.

Friday, 25 February 2011

Compulsion as motivation

I'm very organised, just not in any conventional sense.

Take my work desk, for instance. It's usually littered with press releases, stuff cut out of newspapers, post-its and bar coasters with notes scrawled on them, journals, business cards and other random detritus that, at some point, warrants my attention.

Rather than attacking it in order of priority, though, I work from left to right, dealing with each item as I get to it. This is a really bad idea for two obvious reasons:

1. The order things happen to lying in on my desk is usually not the best order in which to deal with them.

2. It doesn't take into account the emails, digital files and web-based tasks which make up most of my work these days.

But the need is so strong that, rather than try to ignore it and use an order-of-importance list like a rational person, I've now harnessed it and am using my compulsion as a form of motivation.

I write every individual thing I need to do on its own sheet of scrap paper - we're a newsroom, there's an endless supply of the stuff - and then sort the papers, plus the post-its and beer mats and newspaper clippings, in order of priority. Then the lot goes, in order, on the far left of my desk. Then I have to deal with them. Like a vampire counting rice, I can't move on until I've cleared the pile.

I'm currently training a cat (long story) and it's the same principle. You can't just punish the behaviour you don't want, you have to work with it and find ways to slowly turn it into the behaviour you do.

Making life easier: the robot maid

I confess, I confess: an autonomous vacuum cleaner is a luxury outside a lot of people's reach. I'm very lucky in that I get paid to do something I love, and paid enough that I have a bit left over after the mortgage and the groceries to put aside for extras.

Like this:

Robomaid Review 2

It's not a Roomba but a Robomaid, which does much the same thing.

The practical upshot of the fatigue brought on by processing all the extra sensory stuff that normal brains filter out is that my house is usually a bit of a mess. I just don't have time or energy to keep it as clean as I'd like. I only have energy to do so much, and sweeping up cat hair is a fair way down the list.

But I really really really really don't like dirt. I want my house to be clean.

I thought about employing a cleaner, but just don't want to. I don't have hangups about employing someone to do something I "should" do myself, I just think that it'd be one more thing I'd have to organise and remember and another interpersonal interaction to deal with, and it'd create a new hassle to replace the one it solved.

A robot cleaner, on the other hand, works pretty well in two ways.

It literally does a good job. It produces a lovely clean floor, and a clean floor goes a long way towards making the whole house look and feel clean. But it's also helping me get the rest of the work done...

I don't trust it enough to switch it on before I leave for work, because it does have trouble finding its way out from under the couch and is frightfully confused by a five millimetre step in the lounge room. Instead, I'll set it off to do the floors while I bustle about folding laundry and putting it away, returning errant cups to the kitchen, and generally being useful. Knowing Ruby (she's red, OK?) is at work on the floors makes it easier to motivate myself to do the rest. It's like the 90 minutes Ruby runs is Dedicated Cleaning Time, and when she gives up and slides back into her cradle, I can call it a day as well.

So yes, the floor's clean. And from the skirting boards up is... well... I wouldn't say 'clean', but it's cleaner than it was.

Wednesday, 23 February 2011

Making life easier: bras

As an Aspie woman, I have dreadful trouble with bras.

They seem to be designed specifically to annoy people with sensory issues. Wires, buckles, hooks, eyes, miles and miles of rough seams, plastic bits, nasty scratchy nylon... I've often wanted to burn my bra, not out of any kind of feminist sympathy but because I think the damnable things deserve to die by fire.

Up until five or so years ago, I could get around this by using wire-free sports bras. Sadly, I was apparently the only woman in the world who used these past the age of 12, because one by one my favourites have disappeared, and now there is just one style made by one company, available through one shop.  (St Marks from Big W, in case you need to know. Pervert.)  And even they're not consistently available in sensible sizes.

This leaves me with a dilemma. Thanks to my solidly-built peasant genetics going bra-less isn't really an option, especially now the pert flush of youth is starting to fade. But even the non-laciest, non-wiriest, non-annoyingest, most-grandmotherly ones I could find were practically unwearable.

Because my body awareness is pretty shaky, I tend not to realise my physical sensory problems until they get severe enough to start manifesting mentally - panic and anxiety for auditory overload, and usually anger for tactile problems. So in the name of me not ripping my co-workers' heads off, a solution needed to be found...

So, I hit the shops.

If you're lucky, you'll be able to get something called a 'post surgery bra'. They're designed for women who've had mastectomies and even have a little flap to hold a prosthetic breast, but more importantly for our purposes they're soft, cotton, wire free, relatively seam-free, and have clasps on the front AND back so you can chose how best to get into them. They're great. They're also pretty rare - I have seen them in the usual department stores from time to time, but I've not seen them more often than I have seen them.

I even invested in something called an Enell sports bra, which was not particularly expensive by lingerie standards but certainly more than I'd usually pay. It's also relatively seam free and front opening, and holy hell does it support well. Unfortunately, Enell has its own sizing system, and there's a mismatch between the sizes they offer and my body - possibly because they cater to sportswomen, who tend to have a different muscle to fat ratio from lounge lizards like me. The practical upshot was I had to choose between one that was the right cup size but a bit too small around the band, or a good band fit but slightly too-big cups. It also covers a lot of real estate, meaning you can't wear it with a strappy dress. Or a V-neck. Or a scoop neck. Or a boat neck. Or anything other than a polo shirt, really.  But since they're designed for people who climb mountains and toss cabers, it's unreasonable to call that a flaw. I'll probably get my money's worth out of it, but it's not an everyday solution.

In the midst of all this experimentation, I'd also bought half a dozen 'normal' wire-free non-lacy bras, but the seams and tags and scratchy fabric saw them banished to the back of the drawer.

Then I realised the solution...

Wear them inside out.

It's not a long-term solution, but it's enough to tide me over til I figure out something better.

Because aesthetics seems to be more important in a bra than comfort, most are nice and smooth on the outside. So if you snip off that stupid little bow in the centre of the cleavage and wear the outside on the inside, it gets rid of most of the sensory problems. The only potential issue is the clasp at the back, because now the flap's on the wrong side. I haven't found a way around that yet, but I'm working on it...

For more helpful advice on structural support for your verandah, check out Epbot's fantastic guide at Everything  You Never Knew You Needed To Know About Bras.

Wednesday, 16 February 2011

Let's get vestibular

Late last year I did the rounds of occupational therapists and physiotherapists, to sort out my dodgy body awareness and motor skills. I've been building on what I learned, so it's time for a status report...

My body awareness has always been dreadful. I don't really know where I begin and end. My body's more a vague shape I go about in, of indeterminate shape and volume, than something that feels intimately part of me. My balance is woeful.  I tend to grip things too tightly and get a cramp, or too loosely and drop things.  I consistently over- and under-reach because my arms are never the length I think they are, and I stumble over steps and obstacles because my legs aren't either.

My poor body. I've treated it dreadfully, really, but it still does its best. It's in surprisingly good nick, all things considered, and I really do intend to start treating it better. But it's hard. I have all sorts of hangups about exercise, which date back to sport at school for reasons you can probably imagine. Plus with my poor balance and lack of spatial reckoning jogging is a recipe for disaster, or at least skinned knees.

So part of it is psychological, and part of it is because if I try to exercise like a normal person I'll genuinely hurt myself. So I avoid it, and lack of practice makes it even worse. And, as I discovered from the OT, weight bearing exercise like walking, jogging, weights and press ups provide vestibular feedback that helps with body awareness.

I came out of that with some exercises using those enormous exercise balls, which are quite different from the ones you see on the box.  There are lots of variations on waving one's arms and legs around while perched on the ball, and while it's too soon to say quantifiably it's having any effect, I feel better after doing it.

I also acquired a pilates balance pad, which is like the ball except flat rather than spherical, and is used in the business of wobbling around trying not to fall over.

closeup of feet standing on a pilates balance pad
Say hello to my little toes
I love this thing. It's great fun, and has a bumpy side and a smooth side depending on whether you're up for the extra sensory input of prickles or not.
It's inflated so that when you have one foot on the pad, the top sinks and your foot touches the floor. But when you add the second foot, your weight's spread over a greater area, so the top sinks less and you're left hovering. The beautiful people probably do weights while perched atop them, or cardio arm exercises or needlepoint or something. I'm happy just to wobble around.

Thursday, 10 February 2011

Making life easier: paper bags

Yep, that's just what it looks like. A bulldog clip's worth of paper lunch bags hanging from a hook. How could something so simple - and admittedly something that looks like it belongs in a 1930s grocers - be making my kitchen and bathroom much, much cleaner with so little effort?

I've never been quite sure what to do with kitchen scraps. I grew up on a farm, where they went in a bucket on the sink that was hurled into the chook pen every evening. These days I have a compost bin, which I tend without any real enthusiasm.

Scraps. Chuck them in the bin, they'll smell. (And also, it's not good environmental sense.) Leave them lying around the kitchen, that's even worse. Eurgh. Compost them straight away, as if I've got the time and organisation to do that. So they've always been a bit of a problem.

Enter the paper bag. Thanks to the bulldog clip and a massive bulk box under the sink, I've always got one to hand. I even found a clip that matches my kitchen decor. Anything compostable goes in the bag, and thence into the freezer. When I get around to it - which is usually when the freezer's full - bag and all can go straight from freezer to compost bin, because the paper is biodegradable.

I have two cats, one of which lives inside, and I use a similar system for FryKitten's litter tray. Another clip full of bags (this one purple to match my bathroom) is on hand so I can put the cleanings straight from the rake into the bag. I clean it every morning before work, and then dump the lot into the big outside wheelie bin on my way to the garage so the cleanings aren't stinking up the house.

So, partially it's about the bags. But mainly it's about the system. Having a system that works for you is invaluable. My precise system may not work for anyone else in the world. But it might give you some ideas for improving systems of your own.

Making life easier: the blender

One of my goals for 2011 is to make life easier for myself.  If I can save time and effort on the minutiae that doesn't really matter - like housework - I'll have more to spend on the things which do, like improving my health.

The first step was a new blender.  My old one was the usual 'bowl with blades in the bottom' arrangement, and came apart for cleaning. Sounds fine, but with my ropey motor skills I usually cut myself on it while trying to pull it apart and put it back together. There was also some knack to making it go together properly which I never mastered, which meant sometimes I'd get half my ingredients in and realise the damn thing was leaking.

No more. I've binned it in favour of a stick blender.

It's much easier to wash - just give it a quick 'zzzt' in a sink full of suds and a rinse under the tap, and it doesn't take up the whole drying rack, either. Paired with a thick glass jug it has made blending a lot easier.

So what?

Well, when things are difficult (or painful, in the case of my cut fingers) by and large we avoid them. If you have the nagging feeling that the world and everything in it was specifically engineered to cause you discomfort or pain anyway, that tendency can be even more pronounced.  For me, avoiding the beastly blender meant fewer smoothies and less soup, which in turn meant a reduced fruit and vegetable intake.

I really struggle with fruit and veges. Even things that are generally considered to be yummy, like strawberries, I usually find quite bitter and unpalatable. But through smoothies loaded up with bananas and berries, and pureed soups full of vegetable goodness, I can manage something vaguely approaching the recommended daily dose of vegetation.

One of my favourite soups recipes isn't really a recipe at all. It's just an assemblage of whatever vegetables I happen to have handy at the time, fried up until caramelised and then blended with chicken stock.

This particular batch is more substantial than most, often it'll be little more than onion, capsicum, garlic, and other condimentish things that you wouldn't usually use as the base of an entire meal.

Once it's all nicely cooked up (note - those big chunks of carrot will take forever!) then the lot heads blenderwards with some instant stock...

And there's dinner sorted. This is one of the simplest fixes I've made, yet it has made a genuine improvement in my life. It wasn't expensive, either - it's just a cheapie which cost less than $40. So for the cost of a restaurant meal, I've made a real improvement to my day to day diet.