Blog Feed

Welcome to My Blog

I’ll be sharing what I discover as I learn to navigate and live with Asperger’s syndrome

Be yourself; Everyone else is already taken.

— Oscar Wilde.

This is the first post on my new blog. I’m just getting this going, and learning the process along the way. Updates will be sporadic, and of inconsistent quality. To paraphrase a YouTuber, “I promise nothing and deliver less.”

I Can’t Sing

For as long as I can remember I have loved musical theater. I find every layer of it gorgeous and bright with nuance, and I am dazzled by the synchronicity that happens when these talent-laden artistries are combined. I can find connection and self-identification in the lyrics of its songs, and peace and inspiration in a well-told story.

Naturally, when I was young and filled with Disney-flavored dreams of my place and purpose in life, I participated with my dreams like any protagonist would – by jumping for the spotlight.

The flaw in my plan is the title. I am hearing impaired, and majorly tone-deaf. The way my voice sounds to me is apparently not at all how it sounds to others (apparently I’m soft spoken – I always feel as though I’m shouting). So my center stage dreams hit an abrupt, and in hindsight embarrassing, end. In my few performances on stage I enjoyed the environment, the preparation, and the camraderie of backstage, but I never felt at ease in the spotlight – I didn’t know what to do with my hands, I wasn’t sure if I wanted to be seen (I knew I wanted to be appreciated, but with less focus, somehow), and of course, I sounded BAD. Not boo-the-kid-off-stage bad, just smile-politely-it-will-be-over-soon unpleasant.

So what to do when you lack the skill to do what you think you love? Revise. Through a convoluted set of circumstances and the convincing of my best friend, in high school I joined the theater’s tech crew, and that was exactly the right workaround. I’m good with tools, have an eye for lighting design, and I thrive on the mid-show banter over the headset. I was calm during notes, because I knew I could do what the director was asking- I didn’t have to stress the how, I was already writing down the sequence I would code into the board when I got back to the light booth. Lamp’s blown in bay three? Not only did I know what that meant, I swung up the rigging and did the repair before the cast gathered at intermission.

Those are probably my fondest high school memories, because I found a way to participate in something I enjoyed while my skills caused me to thrive.

So when I saw that I’m looking for a workaround in my academic and professional life, I’m not asking anyone to give me the equivalent of a leading role or make me a world class singer – though from the way some advisors and counselors have responded to me I think this is what they think – I’m looking for someone to slip my in as a stagehand, a role backstage where my skills can shine and I’ll have the opportunity to work my way up to a position of value.

Because I am not against hard work, but I know that running full sprint against a wall will get me nothing but (more) broken bones. I’ve tried, and I’m tired. No amount of vocal coaching will ever make me a skilled singer, and I’m really okay with that. It was what I thought I wanted before I knew that something just as good, and better for me, was an option.

I want to be aware that I have struggles, and hang ups, and areas where I’m weaker, and move into environments that make me strong. The trouble I’m having is that, just like at 10 when I didn’t know that there was someone controlling the lights on stage, I don’t know what alternatives exist for me. In a professional culture based around networking and salesmanship, I’m hiding in the bathroom (literally, unfortunately; I had several panic attacks at the last mixer I attended and made zero favorable impressions) thinking there has to be something else I can do because I can’t do this.

I still want to graduate, and I want to work for and with intelligent people solving problems and adding to the pool of the world’s knowledge. I want to enter a competitive field without being stressed and vulnerable to the judgement of groups that find me weird, or weak, or stupid. I want to be, as I am, and succeed in my own way.

I can’t sing, but I’m still trying to get backstage.

Aspie Hero of the Day: Seven of Nine

In preparation for Star Trek: Picard dropping soon, I’ve been rewatching The Next Generation and Voyager (not that I needed the excuse, but it’s nice to be topical) – and I’ve got some thoughts about our soon-to-return representative from the Borg collective.

I understand the concept of humor. It may not be apparent, but I am often amused by human behavior.

Seven of Nine, Star trek voyager: Revulsion

It isn’t even a stretch to say that Seven has autistic coding. Her main character arc is learning the idiosyncrasies of human social interaction, and discovering her identity both in relation and opposition to these norms. She has trouble relating to her peers, despite an expressed and genuine interest in connection, and has to navigate dramatic differences in communication styles.

She approaches new situations with a researcher’s critical eye. When she is frustrated or intrigued by a pattern of behavior she doesn’t understand, she questions it bluntly. If those answers prove unsatisfactory (because those to whom the behavior feels normal have never questioned it), she observes and documents (as she does for Paris and Torres’s – admittedly very confusing – relationship). She tries to help her coworkers, pointing out inefficiencies or emotional blind spots in their work. When these logical “fallacies” cannot be corrected, or when there is pushback against her approach, she seeks help and adapts. She receives coaching and aid mainly from Janeway, who patiently and clearly explains the murkier reasons for some personel’s behaviors, and The Doctor, is himself a student of human behavior – and who in one episode created a holodeck simulation for her to practice small talk.

Although she and her crew at times fall into the trap of thinking of her as robotic, she is far from. She holds herself to a high standard, and is frustrated and disappointed if she fails to meet it. Repeatedly she expresses confusion or impatience when her performed behavior, under someone else’s direction, still fails to “pass” as a desirable action (again, her egregious failed attempts to small talk).

Further evidence of coding is the hostility with which she is initially met by the crew. Over her first season her Borg and Human qualities are set up as a duality between which she must choose, and her acceptance is based on performing the “right” (human) actions. Failure to meet, or even frustration expressed against these expectations earns suspicion and resentment from her peers.

Yet what makes Seven amazing is that she refuses to take these assertions at face value. She takes in all the ideals and advice of voyagers crew, examines them, tries them, then keeps what works for her and rejects what doesn’t. She maintains her Borgeque manner through the series, but by understanding and approaching the human side of herself with empathy she is able to strike a balance that is uniquely herself, and gains respect and friendship in the process.

Seven challenges the Voyager crew’s conception of “humanity” and broadens it. Star Trek is a show about encountering the widest spectrum of life, and Seven reminds us that assimilation my be the Borg’s way, but embracing individuality does not need to mean the sacrifice of collectivist values, or that one stops questioning the silliness of behaviors most people take for granted. She’s strong, brave, capable, and honest when she’s confused – I think those are qualities we should all admire.

Well, I’ve gotten to know her a little better. I don’t think most people realize she’s not just some Borg automaton. She’s actually very complex…. She’s even got a sense of humor. It’s offbeat, a bit subtle, maybe. And, she’s incredibly intelligent.

Harry kim, STV: Revulsion

“I’ve never made fun of someone for being autistic.”

It was recently brought to my attention that members of my acquaintance, who had formerly antagonized me, hold staunch – and frankly self aggrandizing – “supportive” views against bullying. Very few people recall their adolescence with overwhelming fondness, and I am no exception in this. If you will permit me, I have a words to say.

To preface, I feel I should clarify that the instances of menace I faced were mild; there was no single group or ringleader, I wasn’t the only target, and I never feared school or became all that upset over a single incident. But I was conscious daily that I could expect hostile peer relations, and that something about me – me fundamentally – induced it.

Allow me to set the stage: in elementary school some of my “quirks” were noticed, but for the most part no one cared. Even if I chose most days to stay spend recess inside using the kinetic science and arts stations when they were finally quiet, on other days I could step into the lines for four square and tether ball without harassment – or any notice, so far as I am aware. At this time I didn’t think of myself as weird; I could always vocalize at least enough of my concerns that the adults had let me do my thing (“It’s too loud to read in there” was always a favorite getaway line at family functions), and no peers had ever asked an explanation or made a derisive comment.

But in middle school, as so many contemporary writers high above my caliber have observed, hierarchy and perception becomes everything. For awhile I remained blind to this, since I was still content with my activities and interests, and most of those were solitary, it didn’t seem all that relevant that the schoolyard mob was breaking into smaller segments. Besides, I had three friends to sit with at the lunch times I didn’t spend in the library or the art room, so the only meal in which I remember experiencing significant stress occurred when we joined a table of strangers to try to figure out if one of their group returned the interest from a member of ours (I didn’t know the goal at the time, I confess, and I never learned if the outcome was successful).

I couldn’t say when the teasing started, but remember the day I noticed. In seventh grade I often got singled out in class often for over participating (there’s a reason I idolized Hermione Granger, yet I had not internalized the cautions of her character), and on this occasion I was asked not to raise my hand for the duration of the period. It was a regular request (middle school teachers deal with so much, and deserve infinite respect), so I started working on something else on my own – reading or other homework, I don’t remember, but I was was bent over my desk. It’s relevant, because I began to notice tiny, infrequent taps against my head. I turned around to quickly hidden smirks, and touched my hair to find torn specks of eraser stuck in it, along with about a dozen tiny wads of paper I hadn’t noticed hit me.

What else to say? At the break I brushed them out, cried for a minute, and went to my next class. After that I began to notice mocking comments, ingenue questions, and consistent exclusion. I became better at dodging (there was one instance where I was hit with a carton of chocolate milk at lunch, but everyone agreed that that had been too far on the thrower’s part), and I tried not to be a “weird know it all.”

It was all so mild, but it was consistent. There wasn’t one perpetrator, there wasn’t a group of ringleaders – in fact I only remember the architects of a few occasions, and I doubt they remember at all. After all, it was only a bit of fun. To this day they can believe nothing they did was wrong.

There is a distinct type of bullying that is spotlighted in television and anti-bullying media: an individual or small group antagonist launching a targeted campaign against an individual with conscious malicious focus the quality that makes them “other” (for instance: wealth, sexuality, or race disparity). This is natural; it is easy and obvious to villianize and critique this behavior, and PSA’s are not known for the subtly or nuance. But as a result, smaller or infrequent infractions come to seem less significant. Our TV bullies are the popular athletes who (almost ritually) throw a student into a dumpster each morning while using known and pointed slurs, and are never victimized themselves. They aren’t uncertainly placed middle men who occasionally target a weaker child for a moment’s step up the mudhill of their higherarchy. In fact, they’ve probably had moments of experiencing it too.

The difference is the frequency and duration. When you are “other” in a distinct way, you are the most popular target, and that wears you down. It makes you believe that you are defective, worthless, or inhuman – as testamonies from marginalized groups have increasingly shown as the internet provides platforms.

And I am angry that those who hurt me can claim moral superiority in adulthood. Naturally, people change and grow beyond their adolescent selves (I have to believe that’s true), but just because the wrongs committed did not match the TV villain shouting “retard” at a half bus does not mean no wrong was done, or that no bias existed.

They never made fun of someone for being autistic – but they called me “weirdo” and “freak” for my interests, shamed me when I was stemming, and mocked me when I failed to blend in.

Middle, high school, and even part of college was miserable for me because I didn’t fit with my peers. I think it’s worth considering that expanding “normal” would help a lot of people, particularly those who are young and vulnerable. I hope that counts as a positive takeaway, because I’m afraid this post is comprised of more emotions than thoughts. I want this blog to be constructive, but I’m afraid that’s difficult when writing from a place of frustration.

Aspie Hero of the Day: Amelia Bedelia

There is a series of books intended as a fun way to introduce young readers to the incongruities and irregularities of the English language by poking fun at the ways that we do no say exactly what we mean, or mean exactly what we say.

Image result for amelia bedelia

The vessel for these lessons is our hero: Amelia. This beautiful gem of a housekeeper interprets every instruction she is given exactly literally, and gets into some very silly situations as she strives to do as she’s been asked.

With her solitary personality, unusual and creative approach to problems, and struggles to effectively communicate with those around her, Amelia can easily be read as having a high-functioning form of ASD. It’s even implied, by the way that she expresses her confusion in some of the instructions (“In my family we always un-dust the furniture.”) that her home is dominated by neuro-divergent communicators.

And this is what makes her stories “Aspierational” in my eyes: she is never ridiculed for her misunderstandings. The people around her are confused and sometimes frustrated by errors, but at no point in the books do they criticize Amelia or make her feel less than for the way her mind works. She is valued for the skills she has (namely, her exceptional baking and enthusiastic attitude), and after it’s clear that she’s misunderstood a new task or instruction, changes are made so that she can get it right in the future.

In fact, there is mutual adaptation. Amelia developers new skills and expands her understanding of the fluidity of language (chickens are “dressed” with strings, not clothes), and her employers change their language to be more exact and approachable to their housekeeper (Mrs. Rogers learned to ask her to “close” rather than “draw” the drapes).

When the reality is that the burden of breaching gaps in understanding is placed almost exclusively on differently-abled people to change their language and communication styles, it is really encouraging to see an example of someone’s contacts working with them to create clarity. The Rogers’ efforts to accept and accommodate Amelia, and to see her as an asset and a person of value, speak well to the potential that can be reached when someone is seen for themselves and not thought of as lesser for it.

And after all, the world would be a far less fun and interesting place if there wasn’t occasionally someone who thinks the most reasonable interpretation of someone’s words is to put a chicken in lederhosen:

Image result for amelia bedelia dress the chicken
Author's disclaimer: In case it isn't clear, this post is all in fun. Of course Amelia Bedelia is never explicitly stated as being autistic, and the author's intention was probably not to portray her as such, but for the sake of fun, and because it feels good to relate to a character accepted and celebrated for her difference, this is the reading I chose. Please feel no obligation to agree.

My Broken Leg

Content warning: this post contains drawn out metaphors that may confuse rather than illuminate the issue.

I was diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder at the age of 23.

It was summer, and I had been living with my parents again after leaving college in the middle of winter term in a non-functioning vegetable state.

I was seeing the forth therapist to whom I’d been referred in as many years, desperately searching for answers to why I was failing to function in life and school when I was, on paper, doing everything I was supposed to be.

In the months prior the school psychologists and the psychologist from my parent’s insurance had stamped me with “Severe Recurrent Anxiety and Depression,” and spent our sessions going over positive association and mindfulness – and I won’t knock those skills, they are valuable – but it never felt like the right help. I didn’t know what I needed, but it wasn’t this medication, or these journalling exercises.

It was like I’d taken a bad fall, and the nice people helping were cleaning and bandaging the cuts, but I couldn’t find the words to explain that the problem was that I’d actually broken my leg- I needed someone to put a splint on that, and then I could take care of the rest myself, but thank you for the antiseptic.

These friendly, well-meaning people were listening to my words, but I could never quite grab the right ones.

Then came doctor number four. (Let’s call her Diana, I expect she’ll come up quite a bit in this self-examination project.)

She came armed with bandages, but had the flexibility to set them aside when I said I needed something else, but I wasn’t sure what. She listened, and she worked in analogies too, and kept throwing out suggestions until one worked, but only kept it so long as it was helpful. We could locate the deeper problem, and one day she pulled down DSM and some tests and said she thought we had a match.

That’s a tidy narrative for a blog post, but of course that’s not all. I’m still walking around on a broken leg, trying to pretend it doesn’t hurt. I still don’t know what ASD means in my life, but I am clinging to the moniker “Aspie” with palpable relief that I’m not alone, and I’m not weird, and I’m not a failure. I’m adjusting to telling friends and family, with mixed responses and acceptance.

And I am extremely lucky. I have support in my life while I’ve fallen, and access to a medical team with experience with mental health issues. I am also lucky that Diane is able to translate to my frequency, and that I can ask her for resources and help with advocacy.

I’m high functioning and highly intelligent, and I’m starting to believe that I can be highly successful. My goal for this blog is to track that journey, to get my thoughts in order, and, if there’s ever anyone reading it down the line, to encourage them as others have encouraged me: you’re not alone.