Chance Encounters

Posted: March 21st, 2017 | Author: | Filed under: Autism, Personal | Tags: | No Comments »

This weekend my father-in-law was in the hospital again. His memory care facility thought he might have had a stroke. It turned out to be something else, but they kept him to observe his cardiac telemetry and have it reviewed by a cardiologist. Decades of work have trained my system so I tend to wake early and function best in the morning, so I tend to take that part of the load for my wife. Since that’s also when doctors often make their rounds, I tend to handle a lot of the interaction with them as well. While being ‘on’ and interacting with strangers is draining for me, hospitals are a setting where hyperfocus and alexithymia function as a clear advantage. I also never get ‘bored’ the way people describe it, so I’m able to take the long stretches of tedium mixed with bursts of activity in stride. It can be a challenge for me to make sure I ask all the questions that need to be asked and remember all the verbal information that’s shared, but somehow that’s always been easier for me when it’s about someone else than it is when it’s for myself.

Draining as the hospital experiences are, I’m often better equipped to handle lengthy periods in that setting than my wife. I have less emotional involvement when it’s her father, but even when it’s my father in the hospital, I’m able to set that aside and deal with the emotions later. I can even do that to a degree when I need to focus and process when it’s been my wife in the hospital. I never had a name for it until I was diagnosed and discovered a high percentage of autistic people are also alexithymic. I think I can see now why people are always asking how you feel in those situations. For most people, the emotions overwhelm everything else. It’s not that I don’t have emotions and often quite a swirling mess of them. In fact, if I allowed my emotions free reign, they would likely overwhelm me too. It’s more that it takes real effort for me to perceive those emotions as anything more than an undifferentiated tangle of energy. And I can turn that focused effort toward something more productive in the moment and simply use the energy to keep myself moving forward. Identify what needs to be done. Do it. Identify what needs to be done next. Do it. Rinse and repeat until the crisis is over. And when no action is required, wait. I noticed this time in particular, though, that my redirected focus apparently does alter my affect and makes those who know me well, like my wife, uncomfortable.

On the last day, my father-in-law had a student nurse working with him as well. And she’s the one who helped take him downstairs with me when he was discharged. Along the way, she asked what I did and I told her I was a programmer. (Although that’s not, strictly speaking, what I do on a daily basis anymore, it will always remain my primary occupational identity. And it’s a lot easier to explain to someone who isn’t technical.) She asked what I did, which is a massive question, especially with my 30+ year history with computers and technology, so I kept it general. She then told me that her 12 year old son really enjoyed the snippets of access to programming he had in school, but there wasn’t a full class focused on it at his age and she wanted to know if I had any recommendations.

Of course, as anyone knows, that’s a huge question and with no idea where her son’s interests were focused, a tough one to answer. Then she added something to the effect that her son was on the autism spectrum, but he was “high functioning”. In the moment, I simply responded, “I am too. I was just diagnosed last year.”

She didn’t skip a beat and went on to explain that programming seemed to really interest him, but she didn’t even know where to look for resources. None of my kids have ever been interested in technology and computers the way I am, so I’ve never had to think in terms of what would help a preteen and young teenager. Nor did I have time to ask many questions. I mentally ran through modern programming options and decided that an autistic kid who had shown enough interest in the topic that his mother was asking strangers for advice would likely want to dive into a real language. At the same time, it would need to be one that was accessible to a beginner and for which there were a lot of tutorials and resources online in multiple formats since I had no idea how he best absorbed information. So I recommended that she search for python tutorials. It’s a language with which you can do just about anything you want and it runs on pretty much any modern platform. Moreover, there are free tutorials and classes available online in written text, interactive formats, and videos. (And probably other formats as well.) It should be possible to find something that fits his learning style.

And then it was time to take my father-in-law back to his facility. Will that brief encounter end up helping the woman and her son, even a little bit? I have no idea. If her son does have an interest in programming, python is a pretty accessible language. Will disclosing that I was autistic  to her help? I hope it does, but again I have no way to know. There’s very little representation of autistic adults out there today. And 51 year old adults, autistic or allistic, are rarely much like they were when they were 12. Experience and age do make a significant difference. I know parents today hear a lot of frightening stuff about autism. Given that, I hope it helps the mother that the random person she approached for advice was also autistic.

I’m not sure if I’m having more chance encounters with autistic children or parents of autistic children since I was diagnosed or if I’m just noticing each encounter now. Were these encounters off my radar before and therefore didn’t stick in my memory? But now each such encounter stands out as significant to me? Or are people disclosing to me now more than they did before? I truly have no idea, but it’s not like I have an autistic sticker on my forehead.  For whatever reason, though, I’m certainly aware of more encounters now.


Fighting First Impressions

Posted: March 18th, 2017 | Author: | Filed under: Autism | Tags: , , , | No Comments »

I ran across an academic paper that reviewed research into “thin slice judgments” of autistic people by neurotypical people. (It can also be downloaded and saved as a PDF for those who might prefer to do so.) For those who might not have encountered the term before, thin slice judgments are the ones we make very quickly and with minimal exposure when encountering another person. They represent our ‘gut feeling’ about someone or what we often describe as our ‘first impression’. It’s often an unconscious reaction rather than anything we consider. And the results of these studies were pretty telling. Neurotypical thin slice judgments of autistic people tend to be negative. The studies were constructed differently, but all revealed the same underlying bias.

Specifically, we are viewed as people our allistic peers are less likely to speak to, sit near, or spend time with. We are perceived as more awkward, more unapproachable, less dominant, and less likable. It’s important to recognize that the nature of thin slice judgments is that they are based on extremely minimal input. They are, however, powerful. It’s those very early judgments that determine how likely we are to interact with someone at all or for more than a few seconds. The first study even included different modalities and the only one that didn’t show a difference was when the participants were reading a written transcript.

I very much doubt that’s exactly a surprise to any of my autistic peers. We know we are treated differently. We’re familiar with all the social barriers we face. And for those of us who were late diagnosed, that was true long before we had any idea we were autistic. However, this study illustrates that it’s not as simple as autistic “social deficits” on our part. Thin slice judgments are not based on any actual social interaction. These are the unconscious judgments before any meaningful interaction or even any interaction whatsoever occurs.

As a result, autistic people are constantly fighting an uphill battle against those negative first impressions. Since some of those judgments are whether or not someone will even sit with us or speak to us, it’s an ongoing struggle just to engage with our allistic peers. We’re fighting against their thin slice judgments.

For me, that helps explain why all my work learning social rules, practicing verbal tone and inflection, rehearsing facial expressions, and studying acting has always been insufficient. Thin slice judgments come into play before any of those can be brought to bear. A lot of the time I never even get the chance to employ the varied social skills I’ve developed. It’s not unusual for me to be in a crowded social setting and have nobody speak to me at all. Sometimes I’ll make an effort, with varying degrees of success, to initiate conversations with people. But I can also go a whole evening with nobody in a crowd of strangers or almost strangers ever interacting with me.

I found this paper personally helpful. It’s good to know that it’s not just my imagination. And it’s good to know that it’s based on their judgments rather than anything I’ve actually done or said. But it’s also somewhat discouraging. I’m already at a disadvantage when actively interacting and engaging with the larger neurotypical world. I also have to climb out of a hole dug by their negative first impressions before I can even get to the starting line. And there’s no learned skill or strategy that can alter thin slice judgments. Extended interaction always gives you the chance to overcome and reverse them. But the nature of thin slice judgments is that they have a lot to do with whom people choose to interact in the first place.

I find this search of research helpful. Your mileage may vary, of course.