Games People Play (off and on the court)


“Nobody realizes that some people expend tremendous energy merely to be normal.”
~Albert Camus

There’s a newsclip kicking around the Web, from the CBS Evening News of February 23rd, 2006.  Normally I don’t pay attention to basketball.  Or baseball.  Or football.  Or hockeyball (joke).  This newsbite is different.  So different that CBS felt compelled to make a last-minute change in their programming plans to show this “incredibly powerful” story.

The newscaster explains, “Because he has been so devoted to the team, for the last game of the season, Coach Johnson actually decided to let Jason suit up – not to let him play necessarily, just to let him feel what it’s like to wear a jersey.”

And then near the end of the game the coach even lets him onto the court.  Finally getting to play in a game, rather than fetching water and toweling down sweaty team-mates, the basketball player made six three-point throws.  The crowd goes wild.

Gee, you’d think that a coach would want a player who could shoot like that to be on the court all the time …

View the newsclip now 

The whole situation reminds me of how I felt every year when the “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” animated Christmas show appeared on television (YouTube, (CC) Rudolph introduced at 3:56).
There was always something unsettling about the whole story of this reindeer with the glowing nose, and it wasn’t until late in my own high school years that I figured it out.

No one liked Rudolph because he was different.  In the beginning, his family tries to hide his nonconformity, covering up his nose with mud, but then Rudolph talks funny from the congestion.  Still, it is deemed better that Rudolph be perceived as talking funny, than for everyone to actually know the truth.  Eventually the disguise breaks down, and Rudolph’s glaring, glowing nose is revealed in the rough-and-tumble of playground mischief.  Everyone is horrified.  They always are when someone tries to “pass for normal” and is eventually outed.  People feel deceived, because the Other was not what they thought.

The reindeer games coach orders Rudolph away. So shunned, he leaves his North Pole village, joining up with another misfit, Herbie the elf, who wanted to be, oh horror, a dentist rather than a toy-maker.

A few years later there is a Christmas eve of such epically foggy proportions that Santa Claus cannot make his usual gift-giving rounds.  Santa realizes that he can still do so if Rudolph is allowed to lead.  Eventually everyone decides to tolerate the mutant reindeer, perhaps accept Rudolph a little bit, but only because he can be useful to them, lighting the way for Santa’s sleigh.  (Herbie gets to be a dentist, another occupation that is tolerable because it is useful to the others, rather than because Herbie has a passion for dental care.)

The program was made in the early 1960’s, coming off of the ultra-conformism of the 1950’s.  Everyone thought it was cute and sweet.  I couldn’t explain the intrinsic discomfort I felt as a child, not from viewing that particular show, or even in everyday life.  Nor could I explain why I identified so strongly with Rudolph or for that matter, the alien Spock from “Star Trek”.  When the neighbor girls compared me to the Professor from “Gilligan’s Island”, I couldn’t understand why that wouldn’t be a compliment – he was the only sensible one of the castaways!  But even the Professor, a quintessent geek (though thankfully neither of the foolish nor ugly duckling sort), was the odd one out.

The telethon poster child or “odd team-mate” is held up in the same way, but also held away at arm’s length, and Othered.  We’ll let him be on the team in an accessory manner because it makes us feel munificent, and because he might be exceptionally good at something we need.  (Were he merely mediocre, or even near or at the bottom of the list for overall skills, would he be on the team?)

But the mere fact that a team-mate is known more for being different than for any aptitude or acquired skill, and even the fact that stories about such people are circulated as ABSOLUTELY AMAZING! and exceptional shows that pity is still stronger than acceptance.

The problem with pity is that it creates division; it puts distance between people.

Pity prevents respect by implying inferiority; there is a humiliating lack of worth, because the person is defined by what they cannot do instead of what they can do.  Victims receive pity – but nobody wants to be a victim!

Pity is disempowering.  It does not decrease burdens by sharing resources and abilities. The people who see only the “broken” part are uncomfortable; that discomfort is a kind of Schadenfreude, a sense of relief that the bad thing (the disability) did not happen to you.

Pity is like magical thinking, where people want to give Fate some kind of token payment to avoid similar disaster from befalling them.

Pity is similar to both fear of the other, and to contempt for the Other; the Other must somehow have done something bad, and “deserved” their fate (as given to our social mores from the Puritan ethos).  Either way, it is dismissive of the person’s concerns, and denies their opinions, and their own personal view of reality.

Pity is not the same thing as compassion, where the other person is seen as being similar to one’s self, and is identified by who they are, is known for what they can do, and is accepted as being a worthwhile person to play with or work with, and to know and to love.

“Because he has been so devoted to the team, for the last game of the season, Coach Johnson actually decided to let Jason suit up – not to let him play necessarily, just to let him feel what it’s like to wear a jersey,” says the newscaster.


Meanwhile, too many people work endlessly hard at trying to “pass for normal”. The problem with pretending to be normal is that it gives power to the paradigm, to this concept of normalcy.  As long as the person is pretending to be whatever kind of average-normal they are not, they are devaluing themselves and allowing others to devalue them, and they are handing over their personal power to the realm of the imaginary Normal people.

Normal, average people are imaginary, because no-one is wholly average and normal.  However, the imaginary-normal people are a very real majority group.  They all pretend to be normal, and en masse they have majority power under that paradigm.

Wow, isn’t it absolutely amazing!  Autistics can play basketball.  Next thing you know, they’ll let Negroes or women play basketball …



Tailor-made, I was.
Though all my clothes hung on me
And I was awkward as hell
Shoelaces usually tripped undone
And my hair ties came loose.

Tailor-made for being the victim
Geeky, younger, smaller, four-eyed,
Clumsy, studious, totally clueless
Socially awkward, unpopular
And best of all, face-blind.

I never knew who it was that poked me with pins
Stole my purse, squashed my lunch
Took my street clothes while in gym
Groped barely-developing breasts
Slammed me against the lockers.

Smeared clay on my chair like shit
Marked on my books, tore my assignments
Called me names, oh so many names
Or briefly pretended to befriend me
To make me the butt of a joke.

Not that I didn’t protest repeatedly
I reported the abuses properly
Told many official, protective people
Friends, family, teachers, administrators
But their responses were unilateral

“Boys will be boys,” said dad.
“You’re just being whiney,” said mom.
“If you can’t tell us who these people are,
that you ‘think’ are doing things to you,
then we can’t do anything,” said the officials.

Perhaps the real problem
Was not in what I said,
But that I was speaking up.
When I asserted myself
They redefined my reality.

Saying that what I perceived did not exist
That I was crazy, hallucinating, or on drugs
That I was just trying to attract attention
That I was making things up
When I wasn’t.

The perfect victim is someone
Who can’t identify the people that did things
Who tries to be good and please people
Who misses danger cues
Who is easy to silence.

The anger and frustration at being disbelieved
Turns into confusion and self-doubt
Maybe it’s just me
I must be wrong
Everyone says so.

Depression sinks in
I must be crazy
I keep perceiving this as reality
When everyone says it isn’t so
Isn’t that the logical conclusion?

You must trust people to help you
They are important people
They are the ones in charge
They know what’s best for you
They keep asserting you’re wrong.

When the reality is given to you by others
And they keep changing the story
It’s hard to keep your facts straight.
This is of course is only further proof
That you are crazy, and making things up.

Trust is earned, not demanded.
Funny how trust erodes
When reality is allowed to reassert itself
And I re-assert myself
Even though they re-assert:

I’m just acting out and making up stories.

Testing, 1, 2, 3 …

The other week I was typing math tests, generally a task as dull as dusting door lintels. But this time I was enthused because I was re-typing the tests in order to make them more accessible.

You see, the old tests were done in a small 10-point font, with the arithmetic problems set up in the traditional manner of stacking them in long columns and aligned rows. Many of our students have a variety of learning disabilities, and I suspected the very layout of the tests was aggravating some of the visual and/or graphomotor difficulties.

Firstly I increased the numerals to a 14-point font. This is much closer to natural handwriting size, so it’s easier for the students to write their own numbers under the columns of existing digits. For dysgraphic students, anything that gives them more room to write is beneficial. Therefore I also increased the amount of space between the problems, both within the rows and between them. This way there would be sufficient room for working out the calculations, especially the long division problems.

Another reason for giving extra room between the rows was that I wanted to avoid making the students squeeze their answers around smudged calculations. Nor did I want to have them transfer their answers to a separate page, which could incur errors involving number transpositions, correspondence between the problem and its specifically numbered answer blank, or some of the answers not even getting transferred over.

Next I put the problem numbers (enumeration) on different lines than the problems, so there would be less confusion about which was which. In contrast, the operations signs (plus, minus, multiply or divide) were moved closer to the problems to reduce any confusion about what the student was to do.

Another important step was to arrange the individual problems so they were not stacked directly above and below each other. This reduces some of the spatially-related difficulties some students have, and prevents confusion about which number is involved in a given problem. It’s too easy to pick up the wrong number or even skip a problem when all the digits are piled up in long wriggling stacks. Offsetting the problems helps isolate each one in a larger area of white-space.

The combination of offset problems plus using a larger font resulted in using two rows for five problems, rather than just one row. In turn, the tests usually grew longer by a page. I don’t consider that to be a problem; there’s a time for “saving trees” (conserving paper) and a time when that is a false economy because it creates other problems. When photocopying the tests, I did not copy on both front and back. It’s too easy to miss a chunk of problems on a test when they are “hidden” on the back. Plus, having blank page backs automatically gives blank space for any additional little calculations that the students need to do.

These mathematics tests don’t have much in the way of worded questions, although for those that were included, I doubled the length of the answer blanks so they would be roomy enough for handwritten responses.

When laying out tests with worded questions, there are some other techniques that can make test-taking less difficult on the practical end. Many things are good common sense, but we have to be aware of them to be sure of including them. These include methods such as:

• In matching questions, have the descriptions in column one and terms in column two on the same page (no run-ons to another page);
• Use numbers for one column in the matching and letters for the other column;
• Spell out the words True – False to be circled (rather than the student writing T or F or t or f and letting the grader guess which was written down);
• Avoid the use of double-negatives in true-false or multiple-choice questions;
• Use capitals in matching or multiple choice (A, B, C, D, E) instead of lower case (a, b, c, d, e) that can be confusing to the student or to the grader (a – d, b – d, or c – e can look similar), and be sure to give a blank to write the answer upon.

(As you might guess, this particular grader has her own difficulties reading small font sizes, visually tracking numbers, or sometimes distinguishing certain letters.)

The benefit to all these various techniques is that they help all the students, not only those who have particular disabilities that have been diagnosed and for whom accommodations have been established. Other students who have undiagnosed problems, marginal problems, those who are simply tired or sick, and even those in top form will all benefit from having tests that are easier to read. (Ditto the teaching staff!)

This is the joy of universal design for learning: make as much of the material as accommodating as possible for a wide group of students, and you will have fewer specific changes to make for individual students, plus everyone will be able to use the material more easily.

After all, our end goal is to assess the students’ acquisition of knowledge, not their ability to decipher tests..

Psychiatric dysaethesia

We recently rented the video C.S.A., a mockumentary about the semi-fictional history of when the Confederate States of America won Civil War/ Northern War of Aggression. It’s a profoundly (and appropriately) disturbing film on a number of levels. This isn’t a film review, so you can look up more details about it on Amazon, the IMDB, or the official film Web site. It’s a hell of a good video, in the literal sense.

What makes good satire and mockumentary is the admixture of fiction and reality. Fiction (especially science fiction) provides the distance of unreality for us to be able to think about and discuss things that are often too difficult to deal with in full-blown reality. Reality-Lite, as it were. Not that there is anything “Lite” about slavery and the numbers of other issues woven into the story line.

But on blog-related matters, this flick gave me yoin, which is a Japanese word referring to the ongoing internal reverberation you get from something, even after the moment has passed. They made mention of Drapetomania, and apparently this was one of the reality-nuggets. There it is on Wikipedia:

“Drapetomania” was a psychiatric diagnosis proposed in 1851 by Louisiana physician Samuel A. Cartwright to explain the tendency of black slaves to flee captivity. As some slave owners felt they were improving the lives of their slaves, they could not understand the slaves’ desire to escape.

There’s not a great deal of discussion of this; the entry also explains,

The diagnosis appeared in a paper published in the New Orleans Medical and Surgical Journal, where Dr. Cartwright argued that the tendency of slaves to run away from their captors was in fact a treatable medical disorder. His feeling was that with “proper medical advice, strictly followed, this troublesome practice that many Negroes have of running away can be almost entirely prevented.” Cartwright proposed whipping as the most effective treatment of this disorder. Amputation of the toes was also prescribed.

Cartwright also described another disorder, Dysaethesia Aethiopica, to explain the apparent lack of motivation exhibited by many slaves, which he also claimed could be cured by whipping.

Wow. So here we have this doctor ascribing a natural human reaction to having a psychiatric condition, and also prescribing the “appropriate” treatment for such. We can easily imagine some alternative history where drapetomania is a regular entry in the DSM. After all, homosexuality used to be included in the real DSM.

Not every reaction or experience in the human condition is a psychiatric problem, syndrome or disorder. The DSM is useful as dictionary — it’s difficult to discuss things when people aren’t even talking about the same things, so some kind of mutual definition is necessary for a start. We also have entries that go from descriptions of the problems people have in life into the realm of Named Conditions.

Take ODD: Oppositional Defiant Disorder. Yes, there are people who are short-tempered, argumentative, annoying, refuse to follow rules, blames others for their problems, are tetchy and so on. This is a definite set of bad behaviours, and there are some people who seem to be entrenched in acting these ways to the point that it seems to be a regular part of their personalities. Do real people act like this? You bet; some of my students act like this. But is it an actual disorder? Some kind of neurophysiological problem?

That I’m not so sure about. There may well be some kind of, or several kinds of actual conditions that can result in a person acting like this, but that’s not the same thing. ODD is a good description of someone who is handling themselves badly (for any number of very real reasons), but I wouldn’t classify it as an actual “thing”, a neurophysiological problem. (Then again, we may find some kind of weird dysfunction in the brain caused by genetics or some yet-nameless virus or prion. Life has a way of throwing us curve-balls on a regular basis.)

Is every reaction to problematic aspects of life worthy of being identified as a morbidity of some sort, and assigned a billing code for the benefit of insurance companies?

The other disturbing part about “drapetomania” is the telling politics of power. You see, only Negroes were afflicted with drapetomania. Only gays and lesbians were afflicted with homosexuality. Once homosexuality is removed from the DSM as a disorder, then we suddenly have millions fewer patients with “mental illness”. No one was “cured” — they just weren’t considered ill any more.

When we find that we can’t understand why someone does what they do, does it really mean that they gone ’round the twist in some way? Or are are they just reacting to what might be an intolerable condition that we’re not properly recognising?

Dividing We Stand

So there I was mulling over how to approach long division with one of my seventh-grade students. There are several difficulties involved in his learning of the process, and I’ve only identified a few of them. One thing I do know for sure is that he has a low frustration threshold, and that mathematics is neither an easy nor an interesting subject for him. (Last week he had a meltdown after just a few problems and wouldn’t do any work for the rest of the hour.)

I thought back to yesterday’s class. A large part of the problem is that he doesn’t have his multiplication facts memorized. This could be from problems with rote memorization, and it could be also from problems with retrieval of information he already knows. Either or both gives the same result behaviorally. I have to be able to sift through what I observe and what he says, to determine what’s happening. After watching him remember most of what we went over the previous day, and watching him have to stop and calculate 22 minus 18, I suspected that it’s probably more of a rote memorization issue than a recall problem.

He also needed a more efficient method of calculating. I showed him that instead of going through the whole rote process of subtracting 8 from 12 by borrowing the 1 from the tens column, he could count from 18 to 22, and (looking at his fingers) see that there’s a difference of four. That sped up his working pace and reduced the cognitive load. It also helped him see that subtracting is finding the distance between two amounts, rather than just cranking through stacks of numerals.

He can calculate his multiplication facts (every single time he needs one) because he understands them as adding by multiples, and he figures the product by adding, “4 …. 8 …. 12 … 16” with each group of four on one finger, then look at his fingers and know that 4 times 4 is 16. Doing all this arithmetic with every step (such as figuring out how many 6’s are close to 37 for the first value of the quotient) places heavy demands upon working memory, and thus reduces his ability to learn and recall the larger process. All that work makes it hard to keep the data in short-term memory, and without that, it never makes it to long-term memory.

So a couple of days ago I brought out a multiplication table, but he didn’t understand it. Time to backtrack and get a better grip on multiplication! I got some manipulative cubes, and we built up a partial table, setting up 2 sets of 3. He counted each cube, “That makes six,” and then 3 sets of 2, “That also makes six,” and he wrote 6’s in both squares. We went over 3×4 and 4×3, and he wrote 12’s in both squares. Ah-ha! The order you multiply doesn’t matter. “That’s called the Commutative Law,” I explained. “It doesn’t matter if you multiply 4×5 or 5×4, whatever order you multiply them, you still get 20. That means you only have to learn HALF of the multiplication table!” Then we went over 3×3 and 4×4 and 5×5 and learned why a number multiplied times itself is called a square – the blocks stacked up into squares. Finally he understood how the multiplication table is built and what he can do with it, so we decided to use it in his long division problems.

Sequencing is definitely a difficulty; he’s having problems remembering when he’s dividing and when he’s subtracting. He’s also getting confused on whether to put a number down as part of the quotient or as a product. That could also be a spatial processing issue. Some of our students have problems with their columns of numbers wandering about, which plays extra havoc when they get to decimals (I liken it to “getting decimated”), so I have them turn lined paper sideways and write their numbers in the columns between the lines.

One thing I had noticed yesterday was that he could describe the process to me verbally more easily than he could write the problem. He might very well be an auditory learner. This might also be a fine motor coördination issue (he writes his numeral 4 with three separate strokes) so we’ve been doing the problems with a whiteboard and marker. This makes it easier to write the problems down and also erase errors, in contrast to doing them with pencil and paper. The marker glides more easily, and the numerals are naturally larger. It’s also easier for me to see what he’s doing without breathing down his neck, which is more comfortable for both of us.

Today I started him out by asking him what his favorite sport is. Yes, that’s an odd way to start math class, and there was a few seconds of delay before he answered, “Baseball.” Tying the subject to his special interest makes it more interesting and relevant, and thus be more likely to “stick”. Starting with something that he likes also helps reduce his aversion to the subject. In this case, we needed to learn the names of the different parts of the division equation. Previously he’d been telling me to, “Put the 2 over the 3,” but knowing how to do one problem by rote process doesn’t always help when you get to a different kind of problem. He also needs to be able to understand that all the problems are built of the same types of pieces. So I explained that just as baseball teams all had the same kinds of positions (catchers, pitchers, basemen, outfielders and so on), so did division problems (divisor, dividend, quotient, product and remainder). Just as each team has different people playing those positions, different problems had different numbers playing different positions. Well, that made sense.

With this base of understanding, we began reviewing the process he’d mastered yesterday. Because of his low frustration tolerance, I wanted to be especially sure of emphasizing his achievement. Then we did four problems together, with me correcting errors and also doing the scribing. Having refreshed the process, for the second quartet of problems I had him tell me what do write, and he was nearly soloing. For the third quartet I had him tell me what he’s doing, and he did the writing as well. Then after all that achievement, we looked at the two different ways of writing the same problem, with the bracket or the dotted sign.

Of course, the big questions are whether or not today’s understanding made it into his long-term memory (if he can retrieve that process after a day or a weekend or a month), and if he understood what it is actually about.

Tomorrow we’ll go over again what a division problem means. 295 divided by 36 describes, “How many sets of 36 can we make from 295? Do we have any left over, or does it come out even?” I’ll also have him describe to me the overall process of long division, which I will type up for him to keep. Having the student explain something in their own words requires a higher taxonomic level of learning than just shuffling around a bunch of numbers. Using verbal description also ties the learning to another part of the memory.

The problem with learning rote processes without conceptual understanding is that the students will then stumble in pre-algebra. They will need to use abstract reasoning to evaluate which method to use when. Part of that abstract reasoning simply comes from the maturation of the brain, and part of it comes from creating that deeper understanding of different methods.

I can sympathize with our students’ mathematical difficulties. It took me four years to learn my multiplication tables, and even in statistics and calculus I still have pauses in recall. (Calculus concepts are a breeze, but I can’t memorize a formula to save my life.) I had also flunked a number of math tests when attending this very same school building, and now here I was teaching it to students. (The irony!) But I take that understanding of the frustration with me every day, and express it as patience. I apply everything I have learned (and continue to learn) about cognition and learning, and everything I have learned about observing people, and put them together in my work as a paraprofessional and as a college tutor.

All told, this student successfully completed 13 long division problems today. The whole process is making much more sense, and he persevered with the work through most of the class period. I told him that since he’d stuck with it so well (even when he got a bit frustrated) he could take a break for the last ten minutes of class. He commented that it was kind of fun. “Yup,” I agreed, “Math is like games or puzzles once you understand the process!” This is a good sign. It may not last – one good day after unknown months of difficulties isn’t enough to turn around a student, but it is part of a good start with a new teaching relationship.

Stuff, Stuff, Stuff

I’m one of those people who is always working on several things at once, and I have to have all of my task components out where I can see them.  This means that like millions of people out there, I use the famous File By Pile system.

The obvious problem with that method is that one always has a constant supply of messes.  And alas, one invariably loses Important Things under other Important Things, which can lead to the frantic I’m-On-A-Mission hunts to locate whatever.  (I have gotten smarter over the years; we now own about eight pairs of scissors, which means we can usually find two or three at any given time.  Of course, no one else ever borrows my lefty scissors, so they remain nicely sharp, but then I can’t blame losing track of them on anyone else, either.)

Another end result is that some tasks will take more than a day, and when stuff sits out for any length of time, it simply becomes part of the scenery and is no longer noticeable. You can physically see the stacks of papers laying atop the books in the bookcase, but you don’t notice them as things out of place because they are in a semi-permanent “temporary holding place”. This is how AD/HD people have terribly cluttered houses and offices: lots of ongoing projects, the tendency for things to become invisible to awareness, and of course, the inertia of task paralysis when it comes to cleaning things up.

Actual cleaning isn’t hard. It’s not the running the vacuum across the floor, nor swiping things with a tacky dusting cloth, nor wiping down tables, nor mopping floors. Rather, it’s getting to these surfaces, because first one must put a gazillion things away!

Putting stuff away can lead to terribly recursive bouts: taking the socks from the living room to the laundry and starting a load of laundry and going to the bedroom to get hangers for the dried clothes and picking up the full waste-basket while in the bedroom and dropping off the hangers atop the washer and finding a pair of undies stuck down between the washer and dryer and setting down the waste-basket to go fetch the yardstick to retrieve the garment and reaching underneath the hutch to grab the yardstick that has fallen down and finding some pieces of junk mail and another stray sock that have gotten kicked under there but not finding the yard stick and throwing away the junk mail and taking the sock up to the laundry and then realising that you still haven’t found the yardstick and then looking for it in the coat closet and having a basket of gloves and hats fall off the shelf and picking them up and …

Getting around all these endless loop-de-loops requires temporarily putting a laundry basket at the bottom of the staircase. All the stuff going up gets dumped in there to be distributed after I’m done vacuuming. That way, all the assorted dirty clothes are dropped off in one trip, all the hair elastics are returned to the bathroom cup in one trip, and so on. The basket interrupts the loop-de-loops by collecting things, and then allows me to visit each of the upstairs rooms just once.  With any luck I won’t find a newsmagazine I’ve not yet read and get sidetracked by the editorial cartoons.

We also have a series of stacking drawers in the kitchen, one for each person. When I’m picking up, I just drop the miscellany in each person’s drawer for them to deal with. “Can’t find it?  Did you check your drawer?” I have also put a waste paper basket right by where the mail lands, so the junk mail gets tossed immediately instead of defaulting to the “get around to that later” that rarely happens.

Of course, there’s a pile of paper on my desk.  It’s mostly stuff I’m working on right now, and stuff I mean to be working on.  Back when I was a freelance writer for magazines and newspapers and worked from home, I finally realised that I would have to implement some traditional office procedures.

No, I didn’t make myself clean off my desk at the end of each day.  However, I did start my Friday mornings by going through my pile and sorting it out.  (Initially I tried to do this on Monday mornings, but I really don’t have that much self-discipline or masochism, so it got bumped to Friday mornings.) That’s when I forced myself to do the filing – I hate filing papers in file drawers, but even I finally realized that putting away a few pieces of paper once a week was much less tedious than waiting until the pile was thicker than the Sunday newspaper.

That’s also when I rediscovered bills I’d had to postpone paying due to cash-flow issues, bank statements to balance, little scraps of paper with cryptic notes to myself about new article ideas, magazines I meant to read, catalogs I could probably toss, and other workaday ephemera including an occasional mislaid paycheck that wanted depositing – I’m not brainy like Einstein, but we do have that in common …

Now if you’ll excuse me, I must go vacuum the living room while I still have half an impulse to do so, and it remains visible.

Coping With the Inertia of Task Paralysis

Both AD/HD people and autistics can easily find themselves paralysed by tasks, for a variety of reasons. These include the dreadful issue of being able to plan out a process (especially if it’s a new kind of task, or one that is fraught with many fuzzy or unknown variables), and then performing the whole series of steps, from remembering to do the task, finding the necessary materials, and staying with the task long enough to complete it (or at least a significant stage of it).

All of these issues fall under the realm of “Executive Function”, which includes planning, prioritising, initiating, being aware of what one is doing, assessing what one is doing, correcting actions (troubleshooting), and inhibiting wrong actions or distractions. Doing all these things at once requires juggling a lot of thoughts in short-term and active processing memory; they use up a lot of cerebral RAM.

It’s really hard to remember everything I need to do, not only in the big time frame of things to do today and during the week, but also what I’m meaning to do within this particular hour. There are usually two dozen things that need doing, all vying for my attention, but floating in and out of consciousness. Years ago, before I or anyone else had heard of AD/HD (decades before it hit the DSM), some witty book author had described a situation as being “like sorting confetti in a wind tunnel”. Alas, I’ve yet to find that particular line again to identify the author, but the analogy is apt.

Because the activities I’m doing and trying to do and meaning to do and needing to do will flit in and out of my radar from one minute to the next, and because I know that I simply can’t keep all the necessary information there in my frontal lobes, I rely on accessory ways of organizing and checking myself. I rely upon my highly visual mode of operation, which means it’s easier for me to work things out on paper where I can see them all at once.

There are several parts to this:

WHAT I need to do
WHERE I need to do it
HOW I need to do it

The What part turns into lists. I keep an index card in my pocket where I jot down things-to-do as they occur to me. It’s a maxim that one never thinks of things in the right places – you remember errands to run while stuck at an office desk, or office tasks while in the bathroom at home, and so on. The back of the index card usually ends up with the ongoing grocery list. I have to make a new index card every few days as jobs get done and scratched off. Heaven forfend I should lose my index card; it takes me about two days to reconstruct one, and that period of time has little flecks of terror as I wonder what important thing I might be forgetting to do.

The Where part is what results in those infamous File-By-Pile messes. Since I’m a visual person and have trouble with both remembering to do things and with finishing things, I am prone to having everything I’m trying to work on sitting out . Not enough surface space means that the piles end up atop each other, thus hiding some of the tasks from view, and thus from conscious awareness. They also create difficulties in housekeeping, but that’s another situation to deal with.

Part of the “Where” issue is remembering stuff at the right times and places. It’s not the remembering that’s hard, it’s the remembering-to-remember, such as remembering to check my list of things to do at the right times. So I’ll leave myself reminders, like setting my car keys atop the thing I need to take with me, or putting a sticky-note saying “pick up cat” on my steering wheel, or leaving myself reminders written on the bathroom mirror in dry-erase marker. One of the things I like about my new Beetle is that it will beep at me when it’s getting low on gas, and beep me again when I start it back up and it’s still low on gas. This is a good design feature!

The How part is a big problem for many of us. It isn’t that we don’t know what we need to do, in the general sense of things. The inertia results from being overwhelmed by a large job and not knowing where to start. We have trouble breaking down what have what need to do step-wise. Part of this issue is that many large projects are riddled with the dreaded But-Befores: preliminary actions that must be accomplished before doing the next step.

In any kind of big project it helps to break things down into concrete, discrete, manageable steps. I usually start brainstorming with an ordinary piece of paper, with GOALS written at the top, followed by two columns, the HAVE and the NEED.

  • What are my goals?
  • What do I already have towards that?
  • What major things do I need to get that?
  • How can I get those things? What sorts of minor, preliminary things (the But-Befores) do I need to get each of those things?
  • What information do I still need? From whom or where can I get that?
  • What are the timeframes for each of these steps?
  • When there are deadlines, how much buffer needs to be built in for difficulties in getting things? (This is important – we frequently underestimate how long it will take to get things. I usually double how much time I think an unfamiliar task reasonably ought to take. Yes, double! Life is thick.)

Once I have these lists of tasks and sub-tasks, I then put them into a timeline, including that doubled amount of time in the estimates. This gives me necessary buffer room – recall that there is the “Shit Happens” clause in your User’s Guide to the Cosmos. I can then put this information onto two master documents, a Project Calendar and a Checklist. With those two, I can see my progress, and how the process will occur over time.

A smaller part of the inertia is the plain old getting started on things. Oft times getting started is hard because it involves so many steps that require finding or purchasing a diverse set of things, and then having to run errands to finish the task.

Mailing presents is a prime example: you have to think of what to buy, find it at a store, track down all the necessary wrapping materials, look up the address, and then take the parcel to a postal station. My ADHD friends and I are content to receive gifts from each other a month past our birthdays simply because we know that getting the things mailed at all was an achievement. (Plus, getting a gift on a random day is an especially pleasant surprise that those super-organised, date-conscious people out there likely haven’t experienced.)

A good way of dealing with inertia is to remove those situations from your life whenever possible!

Unfortunately, creditors aren’t so sympathetic. I’ve circumvented most bill payment by having the regular bills automatically deducted from my bank account, ditto the paychecks automatically deposited – I work three different jobs! Electronic Fund Transfer saves millions of financial butts every year, and is something that nearly everyone should make use of. (Trust me; I used to work in customer service at a bank, helping people straighten out their checkbooks.)

But for those remaining jobs that need attending, I have several ways of dealing with the inertia. Doing these involves figuring out in what parts of the process you are getting stuck, so you can reduce or remove as many barriers as possible.

Firstly, I try to never put things down to “deal with them later”. No one ever wants to deal with things later, and tossing them onto the pile only adds to the chaos. When I open my mail, I immediately trash the advertisements and outside envelope so I’m left with a tidy set of bills and return envelopes.

Secondly, preparing the bills for mailing back has a whole set of issues, so I have everything I need to complete this job right at hand and I don’t get stuck on the finding-things part. This means that the mail pile itself lands next to 1) where I like to set down my purse when I get home 2) a wastepaper basket for the refuse and 3) a rack with address stickers and stamps. Then as soon as I’ve finished processing those bills I take them right back out to the mailbox again. Running out of postage can be an issue, so I either try to buy large packs of stamps, or else put “buy stamps” on my To Do list when I’m only halfway out, so I will have bought more before I’ve completely out. (I think that’s what they mean by “older and wiser” — knowing how to work around one’s difficulties.)

One thing that’s often left out in coaching is the feedback process. How will you know when you’ve accomplished your task? This may sound obvious, but in some ways it’s not. Merely getting the thing done is not enough. If you recall, part of the executive dysfunction issues are the monitoring and troubleshooting facets. Some ADHD people end up in high-risk or high-excitement jobs because that stress is what gets them over the inertia factor and keeps them focused. (Frankly, we need people who can do such jobs; not everyone is cut out to be an air traffic controller or a firefighter.) But we don’t want to repeatedly end up blazing our way through tasks in crisis mode. This doesn’t do anything for reducing our overall stress levels, or for improving how we approach and resolve problems.

Part of completing a task is self-evaluating:

How did it go? Did all of it get done to satisfaction, or were you just squeaking by?

Were there things you needed but didn’t have? What can you do to acquire those for next time?

Did it take longer than you thought it would? This is a big question; AD/HD frequently underestimate real working time. I’ve taken to mentally adding 50% onto what I think familiar tasks ought to take, and that usually gives me time to not only complete them, but also to do those “tweaks” that improve them.

What happened that you didn’t anticipate? Is it likely to happen again? The correct answer is nearly always Yes – the world goes as it will, not as you or I would have it. How do you want to prepare for that next time?

And the most important question of all is, How will you implement these additional needs into the task the next time? It’s not enough to say, “Oh yes, I need to do thus-and-such,” because for the AD/HD person, merely knowing that on the cognitive level is not enough. You have to imagine yourself doing the task with these added improvements to make it part of the new routine. You also have to figure out how you will remind yourself to change what your process is the next time; nothing is so obvious it can’t be forgotten it in five minutes. As ever, it’s not the remembering that’s hard, it’s the remembering to remember!

Getting Stuck

I hate getting stuck.

Everyone does. Hate it, that is. And, everyone gets stuck too, although some of us get “stucker” more than others. Everyone has moments of indecision when they just can’t figure out what to do, thus losing momentum. For most people that just leads to the ordinary sort of stuckness, where one doesn’t make any active decisions for a while, but otherwise continues with the rest of their lives. Or sometimes there’s the “paralysis by analysis” where one dithers endlessly about the problems, analysing and re-analysing them without being able to just settle upon a choice.

Then there are the more obnoxious kinds of stuckness that are familiar to autistics (and to others), those moments of paralysing stuckness. There you are, toodling along in ordinary daily business, when something goes dreadfully awry. Generally we have routines, and we have Plan B’s for when those routines get glitches. But what happens when the Plan B’s fall apart? Or when some kind of glitch comes along that is so novel that it doesn’t fall within any previous parameters?

I can handle a flat tire. I know how to change tires. I have road service on my mobile phone plan for someone to call if there’s a major breakdown. But when I had a major flat and needed a new tire and I was in a new town, and discovered that none of the familiar service stations sold tires — I got stuck. Looking in the phone book didn’t help because I couldn’t tell which businesses were in my new town (or where in town they would be) or whether they were in far, neighbouring small towns.

In situations like those I don’t stay stuck for very long; I’ve learned to shove myself beyond the decision paralysis and ask others for ideas.

The worst sorts of stuckness are the kind that make one look like they’ve been caught in a game of Freeze Tag, or are suffering some odd form of seizure. Sometimes I start and stop repeatedly, beginning and reversing a motion in repeated changes of intent. Sometimes I just halt entirely because my train of thought has become entirely derailed and suddenly I have no idea what I was going to do. This isn’t the ordinary sort of staring confusedly at the interior of the refrigerator and humming idly, wondering what you were going to get, but rather stopping in the middle of my tracks, frozen in mid-gesture.

Getting stuck isn’t always about the paralysis of indecision. Sometimes it’s the paralysis of entrancement. My pal David calls it SES: Sudden Engrossment Syndrome (he’s both a psychologist and prone to naming things in a rather tongue-in-cheek manner).

I was at the hardware store getting greenhouse supplies yesterday afternoon, and it’s that time of year when they’re putting up the Christmas displays. One of the faux trees there was an entirely white one, for which I have a nostalgic retro fondness. (I’m not one for church holidays, but I do appreciate all the shiny bits to be found this time of year.) This one had no ornaments, but was pre-wired with little sparkly blue lights. I absolutely ADORE blue lights! After a couple minutes I realised what I was doing (or rather, not doing — I’m supposed to be an adult at work), and had to drag myself away, feet-first. There was a mental echo of my mother hollering at me, “Andrea! Quit staring at things and come on …” Some things never change.

As you might imagine, stuckness could have the potential for self-endangerment. I know that I have to come up with Plan B’s, and will sometimes do so to such a nearly-obsessive level that it can be a different kind of stuckness. I also know that I can’t admire the passing scenery when driving, neither the neon nor the street decorations nor the cloudforms.

And yet, once in a while Life will throw something at me that trips me up.

“Ooh, shiny!”

Jump For Joy

So there’s the aspie kid, frustrated about a sophomore English writing assignment, a persuasive essay. It wasn’t coming up with the topic or the supporting details, but rather, figuring out why there needed to be any explanation about how the evidence supported the assertion. It was perfectly obvious! Well, at least it was to the author, and complaints about the explanation being “redundant” resulted in my having to explain, “It’s obvious to you, but you have to explain it to someone else.”

I remember having these slight “mindblindness” issues myself. It’s an inability to construct an imaginary understanding of another’s comprehension based solely upon their reading of your written material, because in any writing, you always can assume that the reader does know some stuff. It’s what you can assume the reader doesn’t know that is the tricky part. To build up that “Theory of Mind” (which really everyone does have, including autistics) you have to be able to build a set of common patterns about what different people know and don’t know, based upon their ages, genders, backgrounds and such. To create that you need a trend, and to create a trend you need multiple sets of data, which arrive from much conversing with people. Spending your lunch periods doing math homework is efficient for reducing homework (and backpack) loads, but certainly reduces the opportunities to socialise. Then again, it also gives one necessary time to de-stress and recharge for the rest of the school day. Everything is choices!

In this situation with the essay, our student doesn’t understand the difference between the data and the analysis (which frankly, some graduate students don’t), or rather, between the analysis and the discussion. “Here’s the opinion,” I explain, “here’s what the evidence is, and here’s why it supports that opinion.”

Hmn … finally aspie kid is getting frustrated with maternal explanations; the fact that I tutor college students in composition isn’t impressive — in this sphere, I’m still just Mom.

So when faced with these kinds of frustrations, there’s that tried-and-true solace: the trampoline.

I’m tickled that for someone who has never been into organised sports, aspie kid has become progressively more coördinated and agile over the years, especially with the not-inconsiderable adolescent growth spurt. In fact, I’m more clumsy than the kid is. This improvement is very reassuring, because during toddlerhood this child accidentally broke a number of things, including a window. I was in fact, amazed that no bones ever got broken.

I think much of that is due to the trampoline. It certainly seems to have improved the vestibular & proprioceptive organisation, meaning the sense of balance, and understanding where the body is in space and the relationships of different body parts. We bought it for fun, but this play equipment has (in retrospect) proven to be rather therapeutic.

Our giant backyard trampoline has gotten plenty of use over the years. During more hyperactive days, this ADHD child was sent to go bounce out excess energy in order to have enough focus for doing homework. Or even for sitting through dinner.

Aspie kid is no longer hyperactive. But the trampoline still gets used just for the sheer joy of bouncing, and for working through assorted mental knots, like this business of the persuasive essay. After the workout, our student returned to finish up the persuasive essay with the required elaborations.

When compared to equally atypical peers, our child’s difficulties have been not nearly as noticeable, most likely due to having had an enabling sort of childhood environment. The trampoline helps with the hyperactivity and coördination. The closed-captioned television (for hard-of-hearing dad) helps with the auditory processing disorder. The household routines are set up to be as ADHD-friendly as possible, lest Mom totally fall apart organisation-wise. This means that various mental quirks aren’t seen as being extremely odd, but rather as things that one simply deals with in stride, because everyone has different needs.

Irony Thicker Than Peanut Butter

This is so painfully stupid I can hardly say anything functional right now; I’m pulling out a few quotes.

“Alton Verm’s request to ban Fahrenheit 451 came during the 25th annual Banned Books Week. He and Hines said the request to ban Fahrenheit 451, a book about book burning, during Banned Books Weeks is a coincidence.”

 The newspaper story.

“I suppose that writers should, in a way, feel flattered by the censorship laws. They show a primitive fear and dread at the fearful magic of print.”
~John Mortimer

“Censorship reflects a society’s lack of confidence in itself. It is a hallmark of an authoritarian regime.”
~Potter Stewart

“The first condition of progress is the removal of censorship.”
~George Bernard Shaw

“If this nation is to be wise as well as strong, if we are to achieve our destiny, then we need more new ideas for more wise men reading more good books in more public libraries. These libraries should be open to all—except the censor. We must know all the facts and hear all the alternatives and listen to all the criticisms. Let us welcome controversial books and controversial authors. For the Bill of Rights is the guardian of our security as well as our liberty.”
~John Fitzgerald Kennedy

“Good Sitting”

“ ‘Four on the floor’, please,” I ask one of the students, meaning sit with all four chair legs down on the floor, rather than balancing on the back two. Then by way of explanation I add, “I’ve seen what those poor chairs have been through, and wouldn’t want you to get hurt if it breaks.”

And that’s the truth. I’m not hung up on “good sitting”, and I really don’t want to see a student who weighs over 200 pounds/90 kilos to be leaning back on the rear two legs of a cheap school chair. (Or for that matter, sitting on a desk that’s been screwed back together an uncounted number of times due to being pitched by a student having a tantrum.)

One reason why I’m not terribly concerned with sitting properly is the fact that like myself, a good number of our students have AD/HD and sitting still and neatly is simply impossible. Sitting bolt upright is really only necessary if you’re playing a musical instrument. Furthermore, when I was young, I really hated hearing orders to “sit right” or “sit appropriately”, as given by my family or by my teachers. (Thankfully we weren’t a church-going family, as I can guarantee that sitting still during a service would have been damn near impossible.)

Most of us know that sitting appropriately means both feet on the floor and “good posture”. Granted, good posture is important to maximize aerobic capacity when playing music, and to reduce mechanical (physiological) stresses when typing/keyboarding for long periods of time. However, enforcing “good posture” to have a classroom of children all lined up like robots or like soldiers on parade is nothing more than an exercise in creating and enforcing conformity and sheep-like docility.

But perhaps you’re not an irrepressibly squirmy sort yourself, so you might ask, How do you “sit inappropriately” anyway? If you’re sitting, what’s the problem?

Let’s see…

  • you sit on your desk and put your feet on your chair seat, or worse, on the chair back with the chair balanced on its back feet and the chair seat against your calves;
  • you straddle your chair like a cowhand (facing backwards), draping your arms over the backrest;
  • you slouch way down so your buttocks are nearly hanging off the edge of the seat and your chin is resting on your chest;
  • you lay on the floor and prop your calves and feet up on the seat of the chair;
  • you sit perpendicular on a chair by draping yourself by laying your stomach across the seat, reading a book on the floor;
  • you bend one leg akimbo, and sit atop your foot that’s on the chair seat, causing you to wobble all through the lesson (or mealtime);
  • you constantly jiggle one leg while leaning on a table, thus making the table vibrate (this earns you many disparaging remarks when it results in rattling crockery at dinner time);
  • commanded to “Sit still already!” because of the constant fidgeting, you wind a foot around a chair leg and lean on top of your desk, leaving hardly any room for the arithmetic worksheet (and thus get eraser crumbs and pencil smudges on your shirt);
  • you shift nearly constantly in a hard chair, trying to hold yourself aloft by pressing palms-down on the seat, because some fool decided to dress you in “rumba panties” (little girl’s underwear with rows of lace across the butt), and the horrifying corrugated itchiness makes it impossible to get comfortable;
  • owing to the fact that your shoelaces have come untied again (shoelaces are “the work of the devil”!) and by treating the combination of school desk and seat like a Roman couch, you are stretched out on your side with one leg stuck out into the aisle between the school desks, and your toes swivel back and forth in the heel end of your shoe;
  • you lack the anchor of a back-rest while sitting on the stool in art class, and so end up rocking side to side and quietly humming and staring at the pile of paper or clay while mentally flicking through a panorama of 3D images as you plan out your project.

Outside of the classroom:

  • you sit perpendicular on a rocking chair, legs draped over one of the arms, rocking the chair by grabbing the shelf of a nearby bookcase with the toes of one foot;
  • you pretzel up on the end of the sofa, one knee bent to your chest and the other foot once again jiggling – sometimes that foot is raised with the leg straight and the ankle resting on the top of the sofa back as though it were a ballet barre;
  • you slouch down in the padded theatre seating in the school auditorium or on the school bus, and prop your knees on the back of the seat in front of you;
  • you wiggle underneath a beanbag chair (to feel the pressure) while leafing through a book on a particular interest of yours;
  • you spin around-and-around-and-around on the doctor’s examination stool;
  • you stare out the window at the clouds or at a lazily-spinning ceiling fan or at a knot in the furniture veneer, or lay your head on the desk and “drive” your finger along the patterns in the laminate, or pick compulsively at the remnant of an old price tag on the back of a text book. In short, you look at anything but the person speaking to you, because you are concentrating on what someone is saying, rather than concentrating on making eye contact.

Amazingly, for all I received a number of comments in class, none of my teachers ever commented on this on my report cards. I supposed that was because I was a quiet, otherwise generally obedient child.

Come to think of it, I still find myself sitting “inappropriately” at times. It’s less of an issue now, not because I don’t still have the impulse, but rather because I’ve found other ways of venting energy, or getting more proprioceptive input, or simply creating more opportunities for getting up from my seat on a frequent basis.

Back in my current classroom, the student mumbles at me, a mere formality of acknowledgement or perhaps token resistance, as he lets the chair drop to a more stable position. “Thank you,” I reply. (No way would I ever commend someone with “Good sitting!” as though they were a dog.) I have no personal need for my students to “sit right” – my concern is that they are able to interact with their peers and the staff appropriately, and to be able to achieve their personal educational objectives. I recognize that some of them will end up doing so orbiting their desks (or other work surfaces) in a number of postures. And that’s okay by me.

(Addendum: we might note that during the writing of this I sat in my rocker in a number of postures, including both legs folded on the seat with one knee up by my shoulder. More conventional postures are engaged in only when one of our four cats requests a lap to sit upon.)