Friday, 28 September 2012

Throwing shapes

I have a theory that issues with proprioception - knowing which bit of your body's where and what it's doing - plays a much bigger role in autism than we give it credit for.

Personally, body awareness is a really big deal for me: I run into door frames and furniture, misjudge steps and ledges, over- and under-reach when picking things up and drop them because I misjudge how firm a grip I'll need to hang onto them. My sense of where my body ends and the way it moves is really quite limited.
Where are my arms???
When I was little, I was only dimly aware that I had a body. Of course I feel hunger and pain and the warmth of sunlight on skin, but it's somehow a background thing rather than something always in my awareness. By way of an analogy, let's say you have an ancestor who was an ANZAC. Every so often you remember and you feel proud - on ANZAC Day and Remembrance Day, maybe when you hear the Last Post or see a military vehicle. But you probably don't walk around all day every day aware of your illustrious ancestor. That's the kind of relationship I have with my physical self.

So, if I'm not properly familiar with how my body feels and the shapes it makes as I go about my day... could that be why my body language sometimes sends off a very different emotion from the one I'm actually feeling? And why I sometimes can't properly pick up or respond to the shapes that others' bodies are making?

I find it really hard to copy the shape and movement of another person's body, say following the teacher in an aerobics class (not that I do such things). But one of the cheats they teach you in Body Language 101 is the importance of mirroring your subject's posture or body language as a show of empathy and means of establishing connection. So if you have a clinical suckage at doing that very thing... maybe that's where some of the 'autistic people have no empathy' thing comes from.

There are things the proprioceptorially disadvantaged can to do improve body awareness, albeit temporarily. Deep pressure - like lying under a really heavy featherbed - helps me, and I've heard talk of weighted vests that achieve the same effect but in a more portable form. There are exercises that stimulate vestibular feedback, mostly things that involve pressure on the joints. One quick and easy one is to press one hand against the wall at about shoulder height, arm straight, and lean in so your body weight presses against your wrist, elbow and shoulder joints. Try it. The arm that's done the exercise feels different to the one that hasn't for a while afterwards, and that 'different' feeling means I'm more aware of it. Clothing choices also help; tights and stockings keep me more aware of my legs than loose trousers of jeans do.!

A lot of autism therapy and interventionney things focus on social skills. But I wonder if working on improving body awareness might not give the social stuff a better chance of success. If nothing else, it'll reduce wear and tear on the door frames.

Saturday, 22 September 2012

The Fauxspergers Epidemic

Faking Aspergers as an excuse for bad behaviour is as honourable as faking a bad back to get out of physical work, but they both happen.

This isn't about genuine self-diagnosed people.  There are reasons why many Aspies, mostly adults, are undiagnosed.  My own diagnosis was a succession of happy accidents, without which I'd probably still have an official diagnosis of "probably depression, or BPD, or OCD, or maybe some other shit, maybe you'd feel better if you lost weight?"

This is about people who claim to have Aspergers purely based on having social problems.  Back when I used to hang out on a lot of big autism-focussed online forums, I saw a lot of these people pass through.  They were usually young males who considered themselves of above-average intelligence, but who had interpersonal issues.  Obviously this was because they had Aspergers, and those useless NT sheeple just didn't appreciate their genius.

But their special interests were almost exclusively "computer games", "boobies", and "your mum", and if the conversation turned to things you have to actually be autistic to understand - sensory issues, motor skills or executive function, for instance - they suddenly had nothing to say.  They'd usually been banned by then anyway, for trolling and picking fights.  Maybe their social problems had less to to with Aspergers and more to do with being unlovely little brats.

Then I found a rather problematic question on Quora:

I don't have Asperger's, but I consider smalltalk and much of the associated politeness rituals to be a painful waste of time. Would it be better for everyone involved if I start telling people I'm an Aspie?

What possible drawbacks could there be to pretending to have a lifelong developmental disorder just to get out of a conversation?  How could there be an ethical consideration in treating someone else's life and disability like a cheap fancy dress costume for your own temporary convenience? How could claiming to have Aspergers while acting like a jerk possibly make life harder for actual people with Aspergers?

Tuesday, 18 September 2012

Intelligent design

I've been reading up on universal design lately.  That's the practice of creating spaces - be they homes, workplaces, or public spaces - that are accessible to everyone, regardless of their level of mobility and ability.

It all started the first time I saw oversized light switches, designed to be usable if you have arthritis or limited motor control of your hands.  In the last few years they've gone from being a thing you looked at twice when visiting someone in a nursing home to something commonplace the last cheap country motel I stayed in had them.  And why not?  They're aesthetically no different from any other light switch (I actually think they're a more logical design, making better use of all the available space) and they're easier to use.  This isn't just a boon for those with disability: it also means if you've got an armful of stuff or your hands are covered in paint or dirt, you can turn the lights on with your elbow.

Accessible interior design also rated a mention on Apartment Therapy.  I love how they've described the concept: "Universal design doesn't so much refer to adding a bunch of wheelchair ramps to existing structures. It touches on the idea of designing spaces that have wide accessibility built right in - unseen and seamless with the beautiful design elements."

They featured a photo of this, or something very like it: a kitchen tap that turns on and off by touch, rather than a screw or twist action.  Apparently the accessibility test is that an able-handed person should be able to operate it with their hand in a closed fist.  That thing on the right, by the way, that looks like some sort of metallic kiwifruit ray gun, is a 'side sprayer' which is apparently for rinsing things and filling up jugs with minimal splashage.  I think in my hands it'd be for randomly shooting water all over the kitchen, though.

I personally have a detachable bathroom grab-rail, which I bought back when I lived in a house with an alarmingly high step up into the shower.  The only reason I don't use it at the moment is I'm in a less-than-brand-new rental, and there's so much paint peeling off the bathroom walls I can't get the suction cups to stick.

But a lot of talk about universal design does tend to lean heavily towards the obvious physical disabilities.  So, here are some tips of my own for universal design, mostly in regards to shops and public spaces, from an Aspie perspective:

Kill the 'mood' or 'background' music.  You might think it adds to the ambience, but I can't count how many shops I've walked out of with my wallet firmly closed because the music was making my ears bleed.  Office Works is a particularly bad offender because they have different music playing in different parts of the store. (Why?  Really specific APRA licencing?  Do people browsing laptops need different stimulation from those buying envelopes?)  If I'm in an aisle where I can hear two speakers playing two different songs, hello sensory overload, and goodbye customer.

It's not just wheelchair users who need extra space.  Because my body awareness is shady, I don't always know exactly where my limbs are and it's pretty easy for me to collide with things.  So if the shop is absolutely jam packed with stuff, with narrow, winding passageways that you have to walk through sideways (new age stores seem to be particularly prone to this, I've noticed) I'm going to feel really uncomfortable and probably bail as fast as I can.  There's also a fair likelihood I'll knock something over - either a book, a whole rack of clothes, or another customer.

Speaking of jam packed shops, having too much visual clutter bewilders me.  I'm a bit like a vampire stuck counting grains of rice - I get 'stuck' trying to process everything I'm seeing and get to a point where I just can't make sense of it.

If there's a certain path through the space that users are supposed to take (like the famous Ikea 'maze') make that path clear.  There's nothing wrong with a 'start here' or 'no entry' sign to make it explicit.  Because I can't necessarily take cues from other people as quickly as would be ideal, and I do sometimes miss implicit direction, what may be clear to you may be completely invisible to me.  So, stop with the death glares because I'm walking the 'wrong' way through your shop, and just put up a sodding sign already.

Quiet spaces are an awesome idea.  I really wish shopping centres had the occasional shop that was just left an empty space with darkish neutral walls and gentle lighting, some comfy chairs, no music, and maybe a plant or two and some magazines.  The only time I've seen spaces like this is when there's a shop they can't rent, so they stick some chairs in the harsh, brightly lit space with its undercoat-white walls, which isn't at all conducive to settling the mind.  They're also usually full of teenagers talking really loudly, but that's not the kids' fault - there's nowhere else for them to go, either.  It'd also be great to see spaces like this every so often at large flea market type affairs - I'm thinking the Byron Bay and Eumundi markets - so you could stop and have a defrag in an empty stall space if you're getting overwhelmed.  While there are tables and chairs and things, they're usually full of people eating (because that's what tables and chairs are for) and also sometimes quite a distance from the market itself, which means you have to navigate out of the stalls and find a seat while in the beginnings of a meltdown.  Erk.

Handrails are awesome for balance issues, but keep them clean.  Toowoomba has the most disgusting handrails I've ever seen.  The ones outside the big shopping centre in the middle of the CBD were covered in used chewing gum and other unidentifiable but possibly biological material, and the ones on the building I worked in were covered in sharp, flaking paint and rust.  Obviously they were just there for the sake of disability lip service, and nobody had considered actually using them.

Photo credits and where-can-I-get-it info:
Oversized light switch from Independent Living Centre NSW which has a massive list of stuff to make life easier.
Touch-operated tap with side sprayer from Delta Faucet.  No, it's not cheap.

Saturday, 15 September 2012

People like me

One of the things about belonging to a minority - any minority - is that you tend not to see people like you, people you can identify with, in mainstream pop culture.

La mejor calidad de imagen 
When I was growing up there were no Aspie characters, or otherwise neurodiverse characters, on the TV shows I watched.  In fact, I can only recall ever seeing one disabled character of any sort: the girl from Degrassi Junior High who used a wheelchair.  Two if you count Harpo Marx's professional non-verbalness, which is kind of a stretch.

I also didn't know any other Aspies in real life.  So there wasn't really anyone I could look up to who was like me. Whose mind worked the way mine did, who stimmed like I did, who had problems with the things I had problems with, who understood.

So, without any people like me in my small sphere of childhood consciousness, I turned to strange places for role models.  Harpo, for instance.

Even these days I tend to identify with unexpected people.  While other women I know look up to Leigh Sales, Ronni Anconda or Kate Miller-Heidke, I'm kind of aspiring to be James May.

James May - férfi a háznál

Wednesday, 12 September 2012

How you end up friends with people you don't like

When you've got no friends and your're lonely, your standards tend to drop.  And if you've been ostracised and socially rejected time and time again yourself, you tend to be reticent to do it to others.  Even if they're a complete creeper, or their politics clash badly with yours, or they're emitting rays of body odour so strong they're visible to the naked eye, or they're selling something.  You're too kind to pull away, and you're so desperate for some human contact you're prepared to swallow your principles, block your nose, buy their Avon, and put up with them.

So, that's how you end up "friends" with someone you don't don't even like.

  Dog and cat, Hanson, Mass. 

This cannot end well.

There are the obvious risks. Sure, some people who come off as creepers are just nice, misunderstood souls.  But some are actual creepers  And, as Aspies, we're less likely than most to be able to tell when someone is genuinely dangerous and we need to get out immediately.

Then there are the less immediate but just as dangerous potential outcomes.  Being scammed out of money, time or services by someone with no intention of paying them back.  Being stuck in conversations or situations you have no interest in and maybe even find distressing.  And, of course, the inevitable let-down when the 'friend' shows their true colours.

There's another risk, too, more subtle yet able to do a lot of long-term damage to our ability to make other friends with actual nice people we like.  Unsurprisingly, you become associated with your associates.  So if you hang out with a bunch of creepers, shysters, bigots or smelly folk, people are going to assume that you're either like that yourself, or you're OK with it.  So even if you're a genuine, kind-hearted, non-smelly person, your personal brand is going to take a hit.

The whole 'better alone than in bad company' thing is on my mind at the moment, because I am in the midst of a conscious, planned campaign to make friends.  To that end, I've started going to a couple of local club-and-society type things, which will remain unidentified to protect the innocent.

The first time I went to one in particular, it was great.  The people seemed friendly, the atmosphere seemed relaxed and accepting, and I felt if not at home at least not explicitly on the outer.  This week, though, things were different.  There was a different mix of people, and that made the mood of the group very different.  Things were more cliquey.  There was a lot of talk of politics in the tea break.  And it seemed we were graced with presence of the resident 'let me show you how awesome I am' guy.  I ended up talking to nobody, spending the break reading the most boring noticeboard in the southern hemisphere and bolting as soon as it was over.  

Any number of things might have happened.  I might have got lucky the first time, or unlucky the second.  I might have been having an 'off' night which coloured my perception.  I might have inadvertently sat near some people who had their own issues going on and weren't up for talking to new people, and had I been four seats over it would have been altogether different.  There's been a lot on in politics this week, so it's understandable things came up which usually wouldn't.

So, I'll give them a few more goes before I make up my mind.  But I no longer feel obliged to hang around if it's not for me.  For one, I've got other groups on the go so it's not the end of my social circle if I pull out of one.  And two... sometimes you really are better off with your own company.

Tuesday, 11 September 2012

Creating an Aspie-friendly habitat

I live alone.  This does sometimes get lonely and it means I'm the only one here to do the dishes and attend to the kitty litter, but there are also a lot of advantages for the solo-living Aspie.

For a start, it means I can stim and pace as I please, watch My Little Pony or listen to the same song over and over again without disturbing anyone else.  It also means I'm guaranteed peace, quiet and solitude when I need it.


Here is a very interesting article about "autistifying" one's home - a magnificent word and a fantastic concept, both of which I plan to adopt.  I particularly approve of the 'if I can't see it, I won't remember it' school of checklists and reminders stuck on walls in unmissable places.  It's something I use, too, and have done ever since my high school physics teacher recommended we stick up our formulae list beside the bathroom mirror and memorise one every night as part of our revision.  I barely scraped by in that class, with a final mark in the mid-forties, so the value of sticking things to walls is possibly the only concept Mrs Smith managed to get into my non-mathematically-inclined head.

I'm particularly fond of refrigerators, because not only are they large and oft-looked-at objects, but their shiny white surfaces also work very well with whiteboard markers.  Over the years I've used my fridge to plan the renovations of my first home, record shopping lists, keep frequently-used phone numbers at hand in the days before our phones remembered them for us, and these days I keep a colour-coded checklist of household chores.  They're broken up by how often they should be done - green, at the top of the list, is daily things like washing up, litter tray cleaning, and putting dirty clothes in the laundry hamper.  From there it works its way through vacuuming and sheet-changing to 'whenever' stuff like window cleaning and picture rail dusting.  (This being a rental, that's likely to get done exactly once - by the cleaners at the end of the lease.)

I use it at work, too - I have all sorts of checklists and things that go 'ping' to remind me to do stuff.  It might seem overkill, but I need all the help I can get.  And if that help's free and easy in the form of a whiteboard marker or a Google Chrome app - why not take advantage of it?

Sunday, 9 September 2012


Calendar.  Diary.  Reminder service.  Maps.  Notebook.  Camera.

These are all things that come in handy every day if you're an Aspie trying to get stuff done.  Calendars and diaries to keep track of where you're supposed to be and what you're supposed to be doing in the face of executive dysfunction, and reminders to keep you on track.  Maps so you can find your way around if your sense of direction or internal map is unreliable.  A notebook for jotting down extra things that need remembering which crop up through the day.  A camera for taking a photo if you haven't got time or a pen for a written note - a photo of a flier on the noticeboard to remind you of an upcoming event, of your breakfast cereal box so you remember what sort to get when you go shopping, of your car's licence plate because you can never remember it when you're filling out forms.

But that's a lot of stuff to carry.

Fortunately, you can get the lot in one handy device.  You can even make phone calls with it.

people using iphones
Smartphones and tablets have great potential as pieces of adaptive technology - they come with various useful applications already installed, and the range of other apps you can download is staggering.  Here's the story of how they're helping some Autistic folk in the workplace.

What they also have going for them is that they're discreet and ubiquitous - many people have touchey swipey phones, so a person using one doesn't stick out.  This is a big deal, because a lot of adaptive technology (devices designed to help make life easier for people with disability) is kind of conspicuous, and does mark you as an outsider.

Being able to use a common, everyday and (relatively) cheap item as a specialist disability assistance device?