Sunday, November 30, 2008

Asperger's and aloneness

For those of you who saw this post on my Psychology Today blog . . . there is a new story there today. For those who did not see it, I'll repost it here:

For much of my life, I've carried a burden of sadness. It started when I was three or four, with my failures to make friends with the kids around me. At that age, I was a monkey face and a retard. As I got older, the name calling faded away, to be replaced by something else. I became the kid no one chose, when choices were made. Other kids were picked for the baseball time, the debate team, the glee club, or even the journalism club. I watched it all from the sidelines, a member of nothing; an observer of it all.

All kids suffer social setbacks, but for those of us with neurological differences like Asperger's, social failure often proves to be the norm. Through it all, I paid close attention in an effort to unravel the cause of my social failure. I learned to look aloof, and set myself apart, and I made myself popular for brief moments with my practical jokes. I learned enough social skills to get along, though I never really understood other people. In that way, I made it through childhood.

School was an ugly place for me. It was an environment where my failures and disabilities were obvious, and my talents were rendered invisible or worthless. I couldn't wait to leave, and I did so at the first possible opportunity. Some of us are lucky enough to find gifts among our various traits, and as we get older, those gifts can lead to some degree of academic or commercial success. That's what happened to me, as I achieved success in the music industry and later in the business world.

Social acceptance often follows success at work. It did for me, and I found myself possessed of friends as an adult. I've observed the same thing in other Aspergians. To some extent, success breeds success. My first friends gave me confidence and allowed me to improve my social skills. That led to more friends and indeed I'm actually fairly popular today and until recently, I'd have said I was fairly successful too.

When times are good, I can derive security from my work, and enjoyment from my friends. There have been moments when life seemed pretty good. But for someone like me it's all an illusion, as the economic events of recent months brought home in a most disagreeable way.
I realize that what positive self-image I possess is founded on the things I've done. I am, to a large degree, my work and my accomplishments. My self-image certainly is not founded on who or what I am, because the worthlessness of that was made abundantly clear to me from the very beginning. Intellectually, I suspect that worthlessness is false, but I've never been able to shake the feelings. I can't really be sure. I read about positive self image, and how such a thing is desirable, but it's always eluded me.

People are full of well-meaning but useless advice. They say, You must learn to love yourself, and Happiness comes from within. How does that happen? I wonder. How does a retard who's destined for prison or a career pumping gas learn to love himself? I've heard that advice thousands of times, and the answer still remains a mystery.

Here's another bit of trite advice I've heard: You are a human being, not a human doing. You are more than what you do at work. I have a very hard time with advice like that. It's the doing where I've been successful in life. The being part places me back on the playground, by myself, at three years of age. I don't want to be there.

I've thought quite a lot about the reasons for this, and I think in my case they are probably founded in neurology. Thanks to my Asperger's, I have a remarkable insight into machines. I can see what I do with machines, and I know it's real and it works and it has value. The machines may not thank me, but I know I've made them last longer and run smoother. I've made them, in a sense, happier and healthier, and it's something I can feel good about. I feel a sense of accomplishment from my work with machines.

But I also know I am part of the community of humans, and therein lies the problem. I cannot see into people like I see into machines; like a neurotypical person. I cannot sense another person's joy or acceptance. Instead, I must deduce those feelings from careful observation. Most of my opportunities to deduce such feelings with respect to me are in the context of my work. Unfortunately, other people's responses to what I do are driven by more than just me. They are driven by a person's own emotional state, their ability to afford my work, and their own self image. All those things are unknowable to me.

Yet I want to know them. I want to be part of human society.

All I see is this: as the economy collapses, machines are neglected and many humans fade away or turn ugly. I'm fairly blind to individual expressions of emotion, but I now sense new feelings of unease, fear, and worry in the world around me. Today's humans make choices that are bad for machines against my best advice. They become critical. The acceptance that was observable six months ago vanishes. At the same time, my own economic security evaporates, and I find myself terrified and anxious in response.

What do I do about it? I cannot derive comfort from other people in the way neurotypicals can, because I can't read their emotions or share my own. That's not totally true - I can share them in writing, here, but I can't exchange them in the ebb and flow of actual personal interaction. Some people say, take antidepressants, but medication does not change the issues for me. Rendering me senseless won't bring me acceptance and it surely won't bring financial security.

It's times like this that I realize how truly alone some of us really are. I see my friends support each other, and as best I can tell, it works. But it doesn't work for me, because Asperger's prevents me from receiving or exchanging the messages of support that keep the others going. It seems unfair at times, because people tell me that my calm and logical demeanor is comforting to them, yet there's no comfort for me. Suspecting that people like and support me is not the same as feeling it, when times are bad. I wish it were, and I hope it all works out ok.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

The search for a compatible mate

I wrote about Asperger’s and rudeness last week on my Psychology Today blog. At the end of that story, I advanced an idea about compatible mates. I said,

Sometimes people ask me, "What kind of person should a guy with Asperger's look for?"

I can't speak for you, but this is an answer that's worked for me:

People with Asperger's have very weak sensitivity to other people's thoughts and feelings. But we often offset that with exceptionally strong logical brains. Therefore, we are wise to seek a mate with exceptional emotional sensitivity and less logical brainpower. Then, our mental abilities compliment each other's. One of us has great emotional intelligence, and the other has great logical intelligence. Individually, we're each weak. Together, though, we are very strong.

The whole post is here:

That leads to a big question . . . how do you find one of these mates with exceptional emotional sensitivity?

If you’re looking for someone aged 25-35, you could look for an obviously caring and empathetic mom. Empathy abilities are very observable when moms deal with small children. In fact, human empathy probably evolved – in large part - to help mothers take care of helpless nonverbal babies.

When I think of compatible females with exceptional emotional intelligence, all the examples that come to mind are moms. If I were in that age range, searching for a mate, that’s where I’d look.

The only problem with that suggestion, is that a majority of the moms with small children also have pre-existing mates. What if a fellow wants to start his own family? What if you’re younger and looking at prospective mates who don’t have any kids? What if you’re older, and the kids have grown up?

And the biggest problem of all . . . what if you’re not even looking for a female? What if you’re looking for a guy? How do you pick out exceptional emotional intelligence then?

What are some clues one could pick up on at a casual meeting or even on a date?

I have pondered that at length, and it’s tough to answer. At least, it is for me. Perhaps some of you with greater emotional insight can help point me toward a solution.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

A night to remember

Book engagements are all different. I’ve been to events with five people, and then had five hundred a day later in another city. You just never know what you’ll find. The people are the same way . . . sometimes they just make an impression on you, like they did last night.

At the big events, you can’t really connect with the audience like you can at small ones. There are just too many people. When you sign books, you are always aware that there are a hundred more people in line, so it’s rushed. And when the line ends, you’re tired because it was so long.

At a big event, you never get to find out about the audience. You tell your story, answer questions, but there are so many people that you just can’t have individual conversations. Last night’s event was different. It was at the Enfield B&N as part of WGBY Public Television’s weekend campaign.

The crowd was small. We had a mom and daughter, a mom, son and husband, three moms, a teacher, and a mom and her mother. A total of eleven people. There was no stage or podium, just us sitting in chairs toward the back of the store.

I didn’t actually read from the book at all. We just sat there and talked about their kids, my kid, my childhood, and their hopes for the future. It was more like an Asperger support group meeting, really. Before I knew it, two and a half hours had passed.

I invited everyone to my December program at Elms College where they could meet teachers in the graduate autism program, and learn more. I also suggested some local resources like the Asperger Association of New England. One of the moms said, “I’m not from this area.”

I was stunned to find she and her daughter had driven three hours from Bergen County, New Jersey, and they planned to turn around and drive home right after this event. The dedication of some of the parents I meet is amazing, as is their determination to make their kids lives better.

I sure hope whatever thoughts I had to offer were worth the ride. Families like those last night are really why I wrote Look Me in the Eye. I wanted to show people that Aspergian life does get better after childhood, and one can build a decent life as a grownup.
“Always remember you’re special,” I said.

I suggested some books last night. I’ll list them again here. First, I recommended Shyness, by Dr. Phil Zimbardo. Second, for recent insights into mirror neurons, which may be a key component of Asperger’s, I recommended Mirroring People, by Dr Marco Iacoboni. Finally, for insight into why male and female brains are different, I recommended The Female Brain by Dr Louann Brizendine

And of course I always recommend parents read Tony Attwood’s Asperger Syndrome and Temple Grandin’s stories. Her stories have a special relevance if you have or are a girl with Asperger’s or autism.

This evening I will be at the Barnes & Noble at Holyoke Crossing, also for Public Television. We’ll see what happens tonight.

I'm also guest blogger on today, so stop by there if you have a chance.

Tomorrow I'll be at B&N's Hadley and Pittsfield stores as we conclude the WGBY Public Television weekend.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Join me at the Debutante Ball

It's my first time as a guest blogger.

I'll be at the Debutante Ball later tonight, with a contest and prizes . . . stop on by and leave a comment!

I'll be doing that Public Television gig this weekend, so I'll be popping in from time to time to check the comments . . . see you there . . . !

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Your chance to support Public Television has arrived

Once again I have volunteered to appear at local B&N stores in an effort to draw unwary shoppers into stores, where they will be parted from their dollars by skilled merchandisers in smart uniforms. All for a good cause.

On these days, a percentage of the money you are relieved of will go to public television. The rest of it goes to the merchant. None of it goes to me; I am strictly a volunteer.

These are your opportunities:

Tomorrow, Friday, at 6PM at the B&N in Enfield, CT

Saturday, 6PM, at the B&N in Holyoke, MA

Sunday, lunchtime, at the B&N in Hadley followed by 3PM in Pittsfield.

Some of you - the dedicated ones - will come to several events. But what's most important is not the number of events you attend, but the total dollars you spend. Three hundred dollars spent in one store will count for more that ten dollars each, in all four stores. Sad but true.

If you prefer, you can simply call or log in and give money.

I hope to see you all this weekend.

Monday, November 10, 2008

A change in my corner of the blogosphere

I have been invited to share my Asperger essays on Psychology Today's site. The first one can be seen here:

Are Aspergians really rude and inconsiderate?

Meanwhile, I remain here at work, rude and inconsiderate as ever.

Friday, November 7, 2008

A summary of my TMS posts

Every day, I get questions about the TMS project I’ve gotten involved in at Harvard’s Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. TMS stands for Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation. What’s that? It’s the use of high power magnetic fields to induce tiny electrical currents in the brain that can change the way we think.

TMS has been in the news recently because it just got FDA approval as a drug alternative for depression. Dr. Alvaro Pascual-Leone, the director of the TMS lab in Boston, was one of the pioneers in the research that led to that approval, fifteen years ago.

Today, Alvaro remains on the cutting edge of neuroscience research with his work in autism. His scientists are using TMS on different areas of the brain to unravel some of the secrets of autism and how we think. It’s a remarkable journey.

I am often asked if I the stories I’ve written about TMS are in one place somewhere. Well, as of today, they are. Here you go:

This is my first blog post on TMS, from March of this year:

Here’s the story of my first actual TMS experience:

Here's the second:

And the third:

Here you can see some changes in me:

And finally, here’s a sort of summary of where we are this October:

There is a story, "seeing with a different eye," that one of the program participants wrote and allowed me to post.

Here are two more stories from the blog of Michael Wilcox, one of the other participants in the study.

The official site of the TMS lab is