How to Get Ready, in N Recursive Steps

(That’s N for an unspecified number.)

Thank goodness I have that extra 15 minutes built into my morning routine, because I needed all of them today. It was one of those mornings when I’m amazed that I got out the door and where I’m going without having achieved some minor catastrophe. The whole ADHD routine would be quite comical were it not so damn typical.

Of course, there are a few people who “don’t believe in” AD/HD. And there are people who believe that it exists, but can’t quite get their brains wrapped around the whole How and Why of it. You know, What could possibly be so hard about something as straightforward as getting dressed, eating breakfast, and driving off to work?

Well, it’s like this: Read the rest of this entry »

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Time to get dressed

There I am, finally dressed and breakfasted and medicated and packed for work. A storm was coming in, so it was actually, finally cold enough to wear a jacket. I pulled my leather bomber jacket and wool fedora from the coat closet, then set my purse and lunch bag down to pull on the jacket.

Meanwhile, hubby comes by from the kitchen to give me a good-bye kiss and observes, “You look like you’re in pain, or tired, or both.”

I nod; it’s both. I’ve been slow getting up and ready in the mornings, hence slow to eat and then take my meds, and the dosage on the arthritis medication was halved to see if that helps the hypertension. My HRT was also dropped for the same reason, so I’ve not had a good night’s sleep the past month due to frequent hot flashes. Kinda sucks, but life goes on.

Then I’m slowly flapping my left arm, trying to get it into my left jacket sleeve, which is absurd because normally I can reach my arm around backwards so much that I can even scratch my own back. Read the rest of this entry »

A very painful problem

When you are looking at a particular problem behaviour in a child (student), the big question is, “Is it really a problem?” “Problem” does not mean it’s unusual, or that some people are uncomfortable because it’s a “stereotypical autistic thing”. “Problem” means someone is getting hurt, or in danger, or poses a considerable social issue. Rocking is not a problem, head-banging is. Lining toys up is not a problem, biting people is.

A great many of people’s responses can be categorised as trying to get something or to get away from something. If you’re trying to get rid of a problem behaviour, then you need to figure out what’s going on. If you can figure out what the stressor is, then you can avoid or reduce it. If you can figure out what the behaviour provides to the person, then you can figure out a more suitable replacement behavior that will provide a benefit, without the problematic issues also associated with it.

Let’s say you have a student (client, child) who is hurting themself. Read the rest of this entry »

Swamped in studies

I met with a tutee last week, a fellow who is studying Human Anatomy. Of all the courses one can take, anatomy is a particular humdinger, if for no other reason than one must memorise such a load of new terms and be able to identify and name parts. It’s an especially difficult class for students who are slow to memorise things, who have trouble with spelling (so many words are orthographically similar), and/or who have trouble with recall upon demand.

He’s an extremely determined student, one who wants to very conscientiously get everything down pat before moving onto the next thing. Unfortunately, at the standard 1-semester pace of this class, he’s not going to be able to do that, unless he figures out a way of hammering things into his memory at a much faster rate. Because of his earnest desire to do well, he has been poring himself through his materials, including reading the text and studying the lab models and reviewing the quizzes from the textbook’s Web page, and doing the review worksheets, and making flashcards, and …

It’s all very exhaustive, and exhausting. Read the rest of this entry »

A Most Dangerous Question

Once Upon A Time…

I had a great counsellor. That sort that gives you unconditional positive regard, and listens to what you’re actually saying (instead of what they’re expecting), and who also asked especially good questions. Some of the questions were of the Zen-master category of counselling, the sort that jog you from your everyday running, smacking palm to forehead and saying, “OH!” or else stopped you short because you had been doing something totally irrational and then had it pointed out to you when you were at a point to heed such. Other questions were more like planting little seeds, things that seemed innocuous at first but that later proved to be much greater things.

This is the story of the little seed question. It was a very dangerous question, not in the hazardous sense, but in the transformational sense. Read the rest of this entry »

Booster Pack

Sometimes you just get so run down that you can’t even remember what-for you were trying to find your get-up-and-go. You’ve been so engulfed in the Papierkrieg, so overwhelmed by the endless supplies of idiots that fill the world, and so repeatedly halted by your own internal difficulties that trying to find yet another work-around is too much to ask. On days like that, there isn’t enough chocolate, caffeine or ale to recharge the spirit.

So I like to collect quotes. Although I’ve looked through a few quote books, I’ve found them generally uninspiring. I believe that quotes should have a gritty, piercing quality to them, rather than being merely clever turns of phrase, or blandly “morally uplifting”. I have quite the motley collection on a number of topics, and not surprisingly, they’re not the kinds of categories or quotes that Mr Famous’ Big Book of Quotations is likely to contain.

In the US, Chinese restaurants often bring with your dinner bill some fortune cookies (instead of mints). These are twice-folded crispy cookies with a small paper “fortune” (trite bits of wisdom or predictions) inside. Here’s to hoping that a few of the goodies from my quote box serve you better than those insipid cookies!

“If I didn’t define myself for myself, I would be crunched into other people’s fantasies for me and eaten alive.”
~Audre Lorde

“You may be a geek, you may have geek written all over you; you should aim to be one geek they’ll never forget. Don’t aim to be civilized. Don’t hope that straight people will keep you on as some kind of pet. To hell with them; they put you here. You should fully realize what society has made of you and take a terrible revenge. Get weird. Get way weird. Get dangerously weird. Get sophisticatedly, thoroughly weird and don’t do it halfway, put every ounce of horsepower you have behind it.”
~Bruce Sterling Read the rest of this entry »

Slices (Episode 2)

The best definition of “poetry” I’ve ever encountered is, “Poetry is life condensed”. In a similar way, cartoons condense a slice of life into just a few panels. All of these cartoons are about navigating our way through the day.

I meant to do another episode much sooner (back in June) but then Stuff Happened. The summer was full of tutoring chemistry, and microbiology. We squeezed in some vacation, and then just hours after our return, wham! school started up again.  Here are  four fun cartoons: Read the rest of this entry »

Syd

This sucks. It’s one of those problems that has gone from intermittent to nearly-constant. There’s really nothing to be done about it. I ask my doctor every few years, just in case. But no, there is no cure. There’s not even much to do about tinnitus. When at home or in the car, I mask it by playing music. At school, our students are generally noisy enough to drown it out.

My tinnitus is usually a high-pitched squeal, about 14-17 kHz, like a mosquito that whines for long periods, seemingly next to my left ear. The whine gets louder or softer, but rarely goes away. When it does, it returns with a sudden *pop*, as though someone turned on a radio. Once in a great while it’s stereophonic buzzing static in both ears, or even a fluttering sensation like a butterfly stuck on my left ear, but those are pretty rare. I know that I’m not just hearing actual machinery because I’ve heard it when standing surrounded by hectares of prairie, without a single operating machine in sight or earshot.

The good news is that I have no reduction in my general hearing. The problem did make itself known after I’d been working in noisy labs for several months. Well, I thought they were noisy labs. Read the rest of this entry »

Adore-a-bowl

The perfect bowl.

Neither too shallow, nor too wide. The matte glaze is neither too rough nor too slick. Both the shape and dimensions are just right to hold in my large hands. Lovely to hold when eating, and even warming my hands.

It’s the very quintessence of “bowl”.

Any kind of food looks more attractive contrasting against the black glaze. It’s big enough to hold an adequate amount of food for one meal. Because of its appropriately semi-spherical shape and ceramic composition, it keeps the food warm while I’m eating it. The sides are steep enough to collect tidy lumps of rice with my chopsticks. The curvature of the bottom perfectly matches that of my Lexan tablespoon. (Like lacquered wood, this high-density plastic don’t annoy my teeth the way metal flatware does).

It’s a pleasure to eat from. I look forward to using it every day at lunch time.

Any meal is automatically better with my bowl, be it curry, chile, or cold cereal. I care for it and guard its well-being, as my first one got chipped on the rim from careless handling through the dishwasher. I don’t leave the bowl knocking around the countertop at work, where it can risk being damaged, broken, or permanently “borrowed”.

Doubtless this seems over-meticulous to some people; to them it’s “just a bowl”. For those inclined to labelling, it borders on Read the rest of this entry »

10 things to do ^DIFFERENTLY when on holiday: Redefining vacationing

“Hey, this is the first vacation you haven’t gotten sick,” declared hubby cheerfully. I wanted to protest that I don’t always get sick, meaning coming down with something prolonged and viral, but then I realised that he meant that I wasn’t out a day or two feeling crappy from something or another. Indeed, aside from accidentally eating some fudge made with wheat flour (whoda thunk?!), I have been in good shape. A lot of that comes from more careful diet, and the rest from knowing how to pace myself.

David is in charge of the next Disability Blog Carnival, and he came up with the theme of “Top 10 Lists”. After having read everyone’s vacation experiences here in the previous post, it occurred to me that a lot of us are quite conflicted about taking trips. Too often they seem more trouble than they’re worth. Okay, when people dread doing something that’s supposed to be fun, you know that things are really Screwed Up. Something has gone terribly wrong. We need to take our assumptions and dump them, like icemelt from the picnic cooler.

You are hereby relieved of having to follow “scripts” about what people are “supposed” to do regarding vacation activities. Real life is not a sitcom or a Hallmark greeting card. A vacation is meant for fun, relaxation, and a break from the daily grind. There’s no “right” way to have a vacation, because people have different interests and needs. So here’s my Top 10 List for how to actually enjoy a vacation: Read the rest of this entry »

Small Comforts

“You know when you have a few good days and you begin to wonder whether the bad days could have possibly been as bad you imagined they were and then you have a few bad days and wonder how on Earth you ever were able to do the things you did on the good days? No? Well, I do.” ~ The Goldfish

It’s a pain. No, it’s many pains.

I’m getting over a migraine, which makes me just generally tired and gives me brief flashes of visual auras, pain twinges, inconsistent light sensitivity, and word retrieval problems when speaking. This rather much overshadows the arthritis business. I’m also trying to get a bunch of errands done and phone calls made prior to packing for a trip, which unto themselves are stressful activities. I also forgot to take my ADHD med this morning, so I’ve been in a what-was-I-going-to-do? fog all day long as well, above and beyond everything else. “Ain’t we got fun.”

But after I tracked down two cats and took them to the vet (putting the suddenly-hexadecimal cat into the carrier is always entertaining — picture here ), I went for my semi-annual tooth cleaning. I have no idea if I’ve had this particular dental hygienist before, having no memory at all for faces not seen daily, but she was nice enough to shut the window blinds for me on account of my migraine “hangover”. I was also due for some dental x-rays (roentgenograms), so the she draped me with the lead apron. Although having the bite-wings stuck inside my mouth is less than fun, I always enjoy the comforting pressure of the lead apron.

In fact, years ago when I realised that a lead apron was such a fabulous deep pressure aide, I got one from a retired dentist. When I stagger to bed with an incipient migraine, I compose myself in the dark room and drape it across my thorax. I’ve also used it on nights when I just can’t seem to settle down because I feel twitchy on the outside. The lead drape is one of several small comforts that I have found useful. Everyone deals with stress in their life, both the eustresses (the good sorts that help “push” us in beneficial ways) and the distresses (the bad sort, which need no further introduction). But we all differ in the things we are stressed by, and how those stresses affect us. My distress-reduction is accomplished by several means. Read the rest of this entry »

Bridge Load Limit

“I try to take one day at a time, but sometimes several days attack me at once.”
~Jennifer Unlimited

PART THE FIRST: THRESHOLDS AS VARIABLE MAXIMA

Sometimes it’s hard to explain why things get overwhelming, or why something I could tolerate just find one day becomes overwhelming on another day. I look “normal”. I earned university degrees, hold jobs, have a family, converse like an intelligent person … and then I’m standing there dumbly like a deer in the headlights, or am staggering down the hallway flapping a hand, or am seated away from others and rocking in agitation. I’ve turned into a “not-normal” person, and transgressed that invisible boundary marking staff from students / clients, or have shifted from upstanding citizen to crazy-looking person on the street.

Amanda wrote a pithy blogpost on 6th May, 2006, making the excellent point that what constitutes a sensory overload threshold for one (autistic) person may be quite different for another. This is relevant to all sorts of types of inner and outer functioning; as she points out, Read the rest of this entry »

Social Captioning

Hubby & I were taking a walk down the neighborhood park pathway. After several “hundred-year-advent floods” that happened within the same decade, the diverse planning committees finally realised that the streamway areas will flood and that it’s easier to work with nature, therefore, they shouldn’t allow building permits in these zones. Instead, they created public use areas that can more-or-less withstand periodic flooding, turning them into neighborhood parks with extensive pathways connecting them like green arteries snaking across the county. The pathway is tarmacked, following the winding curves of the steam, and nicely shaded. Bicyclists, rollerbladers, pedestrians, children seeking adventure, and dog-walkers all use these trails.

Shade also means increased cover, so what one gains in relief from sun exposure one loses in breezes to cool the skin and disperse personal clouds of gnats. I keep forgetting how this obnoxious part of summer affects me personally. Unless most people, I don’t quite have that marching gait where I swing my arms when walking, but am more inclined to hold my free hand(s) near my chest. This means that the insides of my elbows get obnoxiously sweaty and uncomfortably sticky because the tee shirt sleeves don’t reach that far (perhaps I need to apply a couple extra dabs of antiperspirant). On the other hand, it’s easier to reach over and gently nab my husband’s elbow and pull him close to me, which I do a number of times.

The first time, he protests, “I’m on the right side of the middle!” Indeed, he is more capable of walking in a straight line than I am. Every now and then I trip over my feet, running into curbs or wobbling onto turf.

“On your left!” announces an approaching bicyclist behind us. Read the rest of this entry »

The Words

They lied.

One sentence; two words. Together, two very powerful words.

As the beginning, those two words beg more questions than they answer. Who lied? What about? To whom? When, where, and why? Read the rest of this entry »

Oops. Ouch.

Here’s one of those quandaries: Which is worse, accidenting one’s self frequently, or not responding well to anæsthetic?

It’s not that I react badly to local/topical anæsthetic, just that I don’t react to it much at all. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Which is not unusual because I’m often unsure of where I am in space.

Being chronically uncoördinated is technically known Read the rest of this entry »

Typecasting

While at work last month, I thought for a second that I was having double vision.

Then I realised that the silhouettes were not identical, and that the background was not duplicated. So, no double vision. Our school custodian did appear to have a Doppelgänger. I was seeing two slightly overweight, middle-aged white men, both of whom had the same short haircut, chin-beard & mustache. I think they both wear glasses, too. They’re about the same height, and neither has a very distinctive stride or voice. And of course, they both wear the same school custodian uniform.

Oy vey; I’ve worked there for over a year and never realised that we had two male custodians! This is one of those crushing faceblind moments, Read the rest of this entry »

System Overload (Error Messages)

CRASH!

Some of us are old enough to remember the Ed Sullivan Show, which was a variety show on television. One guest was a man who would spin plates on sticks. He’d prop a dowel onto a stand, and get a china plate spinning atop of it (the top of the dowel inside the lip around the base of the plate). Then when this one was going, he’d start up another plate, and another one, then have to rush over and give the first plate a fresh spin because it would be getting wobbly, re-spin the second plate, add another plate or two, re-spin the third plate, and so on, until his time was spent rushing back and forth re-spinning all his plates.

Of course what made this act popular was that it wasn’t just a parlor trick; it was a metaphor for all the things we have to juggle in our lives and sometimes cannot. You know what happens when you have too many plates spinning; one is likely to get away from you (crash!) as you devote time to another …

Some days everything runs pretty well. I compensate for various difficulties. I feel smart, converse appropriately, don’t get overly sidetracked, and get things done. No one notices that I am having to work as hard as I really am to “spin all my plates” and keep them in the air.

Other days are bumpy and uneven; I do well at some activities, but less well at others. I can spin all my figurative plates with varying degrees of efficiency, but it is obviously a strain and I don’t try to keep the intensity up all day. I might drop a plate or two, but manage to pick it back up and get it going again.

Then there are the days when my plate-spinning skills suck. I get too overwhelmed by the quantities of novel inputs I am trying to sort out, or the numbers of simultaneous inputs that all require high-level cognitive work, combined with my internal processing glitches. Days like this are not unlike switching from a high-speed cable internet connection on a new computer with a GHz processor, to a low-speed dial-up connection on an old computer with a low-MHz processor. The slow internet connection makes the Web pages load s-l-o-w-l-y frame by frame. Trying to run more than one program at once makes all of them process in an anxious, halting manner. Every now and then an error message pops up, a program will abruptly close, or the entire system will freeze up and the computer has to be force-quit and rebooted.

When my processing gets overloaded, my perceptions of things around me are reduced. Objects are not individually distinct, but can erratically devolve into indistinct patterns of color and lighting. I cannot identify people by my usual gestalts of nonfacial characteristics, and sometimes I don’t even perceive them as people but just as moving objects. Some kinds of visuals, such as high-contrast vertical stripes or flashing things derail my attention completely, leaving me frozen and entranced.

My reading ability gets dyslexic – I interpret a newspaper headline as “Stove Jar Bunk” (instead of “Star Drove Drunk”), and I mix up 2 and 5 or 7 and L. Grading multiple-choice assignments with all those b and d answers is dizzying, especially with so many of our students also being dysgraphic. My own writing ability gets erratic, and I spell things inside out, drop entire words, have to focus on forming individual letters, and at worst writing only works at the level of “autofill” where I’m mostly writing or keyboarding by kinesthetic memory.

Sounds get intermingled, and the audio processing track gets stutters, repeat loops, and blank spots. The tinnitus gets worse, and goes from mild background mosquito-whine in one ear to louder buzzing noise or two-tone noises in both ears. Sometimes when people talk to me I don’t realize they are speaking, or that they are speaking to me, so there’s additional decoding delay. When I talk I am more likely to stutter, drop certain phonemes, substitute some random word, or stop in mid-sentence because I have suddenly lost the rest of the words I was about to say.

The number of texture sensations I feel are reduced to just one or two, but frequently switches from my socks, my glasses, the chair, my shirt, or something in my hand. Sometimes those sensations become magnified, where much of my world becomes filled with the annoyance of socks drooping down my ankles. When I try to focus my attention to one sensory processing channel, then I can’t pay attention to the others. The tics get more pronounced, I shake one hand repeatedly, and my proprioception is off, making me trip or drop things or walk in a somewhat spastic manner.

I’ve heard that outwardly I appear clumsy, stupid, drunken or sick. Random people ask me, “Are you okay?”

It takes so much effort to realise that (1) the noise is people talking (2) the person is talking to Me (3) who this person might be (4) what the words are (5) what the words mean (6) that they are asking a non-rhetorical question that requires some kind of answer (7) trying to self-assess: am I okay? (8) what would “okay” be? (9) does someone else need to do something for me?

Coming up with an answer that is both functional and is bracketed with something close to the appropriate “social noise” (polite fluff) is a bit much to expect from me at this point. It’s hard to think of a suitably informative reply, but of one thing I am certain: please don’t make me go sit in tiny places painted institutional pea-green. I’m not sure where I’ve encountered those before, just that I know it was a not-good situation and I don’t want to go there again.

The best answer is an “I’m okay,” pulled from the mental drop-down menu of stock social phrases. Most people don’t really want to get involved; they just want to be reassured that an ambulance is not required. Even if I’m not making eye contact and my delivery sounds flat, this seems to be an adequate answer. Sometimes I’m mentally stuck on that drop-down menu, and deliver an additional, “Thank you,” or “Excuse me,” but apparently this is okay because the value of social noise currency is in the act of exchanging, not in the specific coin.

Getting too overloaded means I have to shut down for a while, slumping numbly in a chair and rocking without being focused upon anything. Unless of course I get snagged by one of those shiny, glittering or flashing things, such as the glowing blue light on an electronic mechanism, or slips of sunshine flickering through tree leaves. Even so, I’m not entirely “there”, and am probably still rocking a bit.

The trick is noticing when I am at the beginning of getting overwhelmed, of noticing the buzz that’s swamping my nervous system in transmission noise. The problem of course, is that by then I have even less mental processing for self-monitoring to realise what’s going on!  But I’ve figured out that experiencing tingling-numbness, really loud tinnitus, or pronounced difficulty in reading or writing are useful cues that I need to take a good break from whatever I’m doing.

Otherwise my plates wobble and start crashing.

Centenary Retrospective

“This process of the good life is not, I am convinced, a life for the faint-hearted. It involves the stretching and growing of becoming more and more of one’s potentialities. It involves the courage to be. It means launching oneself fully into the stream of life.”
~ Carl Rogers

Wow. The other day I was looking at my blog stats, and it said that I had 22,000 hits. I have also recently written my 100th post since June; that’s close to thrice a week, for the mathematically disinclined. So I thought I would take a step back and review what has gone by, to see what kinds of topical trends emerge, and pull up some of what I think are the better posts, for those of you who are newer visitors.

Bloggers are usually loquacious and opinionated, a description I do not fail to meet. But why do I blog? Some bloggers just natter about their lives, others blog as an outlet for kvetching, some are pushing a specific agenda, and still others like to analyse what they see. I do a little of all the above, but mostly I like to analyse. I am less concerned about persuading you than I am about giving you something to think about. After all, if we all believed the same things, the dialogues would get pretty dull!

Now that there is data from which to draw a pattern, what kinds of things do I blog about? In a way it is hard to sort posts into single categories, because topically there is an n-dimensional hypervolume of intersecting sets. But as an approach, I like to explore themes from personal experience or news events, and also from philosophical perspectives. I feel that philosophy loses some of its significance without grounding it in the phenomenal fields of people’s lives. And telling stories of lives without examining the what and wherefore of those events falls short of the ultimate value of storytelling: revealing the patterns in human relations, and learning from them.

Some of the greater categories revolve around education, from both student and instructor perspectives, and they revolve around the politics of disability and advocacy. In contrast, there are some themes that connect those categories. One of the most important themes is taking the traditional understandings of how social systems work, and taking those apart to reveal very different perspectives on what is happening.

These systems include how we communicate, such as when the language of “choice” is really just a distractor, or doublespeak meant to transfer the apparent (symbolic) power to the one person who in actuality has little power over the situation. These systems also include power paradigms, including how we “help” people, how people miss the mark when trying to create “inclusiveness”, and why pity is such a evil force because it creates distance between people. (There is no need to congratulate me for having “bravely overcome” the insults and artificial obstacles that people put in my way.)

I also look at how the assumptions we make determine how we define groups of people, from the way that we create diagnostic labels, to the sometimes-absurdities of “person-first language”, and concepts of “tolerance”.

In the end, we don’t need better ways of “beating” the system, because we are all part of the system, and the beatings must stop. (They haven’t improved morale yet.) What we need are ways of overhauling the system by sidestepping these terrible games and introducing different ways of working together.

Our perceptions of the world influence how we act, including how we view and understand others. Sometimes people mistake better identification or newer kinds of identification with “epidemics” of autism, AD/HD et cetera. But I bet if we’d had these kinds of identifiers decades ago, a lot more of us would have been better understood. Hyperactive kids are kind of hard to miss, even those who otherwise do not misbehave. (You wouldn’t believe how many ways there are to sit inappropriately!) More boys than girls are diagnosed, but I have to wonder if that isn’t due more to diagnostic criteria than actual prevalence rate. Why didn’t we see kids with these kinds of “needs” in previous decades? Partly because some of those kids didn’t even go to regular schools — they were kept at home or in institutions. Those who did go to regular schools just had to struggle along. They rarely had IEPs and such because their parents didn’t – couldn’t – ask for services that simply did not exist.

When we make these changes in understanding systems and in our perceptions, they can be outwardly expressed by seeking to become a better advocates. Being able to create a new rôle for one’s self includes being able to learn about the various rôles that others have played. (But just try to find sources on disability studies at the local bookstore!) Advocacy requires overcoming inertia and moving into commitment, and moving into commitment and inclusiveness. We also have to be able to recognise our own sources of ability and power, especially if we’ve been convinced otherwise.

Advocacy is complex, and the concerns of parents for the futures of their disabled children is an important part of that. Unfortunately, people whine about how hard it is to have an autistic child, or any kind of exceptional child. All too often there are terrible news reports about parents who have killed their handicapped or autistic children because they were such a horrid burden. Even more horrifying is when the press perspective or quotes are full of sympathy for the murderer because killing your own child is “understandable” because a person can’t help but be insanely stressed from dealing with the child’s abnormality.

It’s hardly not a new trend. But this millennia-old attitude does a terrible disservice to disabled people everywhere to be cast as either devils or angels. It is dehumanizing, and removes us from our humanity, and thus our basic human rights. In light of the fact that many things have a genetic basis, then hating disabilities in our children involves a curious kind of denial and self-loathing.

Distraught parents also need to understand that there is a difference between getting cured and being healed. The unresolved grief leaves parents susceptible to errors of judgment, and these well-intended but scientifically ignorant people who buy into these things are being duped by charlatans, sometimes with loss of life as well as with great monetary expense. Then the problem is propagated because those well-intended but scientifically ignorant people become meme agents, earnestly spreading the false gospel. Meanwhile, the rest of us are left to weed out the “Astroturf” of faux grass-roots efforts.

Advocacy efforts include those in our schools, and involve administrators, educators, parents, and the students themselves. Sometimes teachers and parents worry about school accommodations because they fear it will leave the students unready for when they have to venture into the “real world”. Or, by misunderstanding the differences between equity, equality and need, teachers fear that giving accommodations “wouldn’t be fair” to the other students.

Parenting our students with learning difficulties is not easy – the traditional methods do not work, which is often why the students end up in “special” education. In turn, the students also get frustrated, and attempts to deal with the unmotivated student can sometimes create further problems. We also have to be careful to distinguish between challenging our students, and just making things more difficult for them. Distinguishing between cause and effect in misbehaviour is important – we need to address the causes to resolve problems.

The teaching end of things can also be rife with issues, and college professors can sometimes fall prey to pedagogical myths. Equally absurd is how learning difficulties are often not recognized until the student has been failing or near-failing for a while, thus allowing the student to get further behind and more entrenched in negative mind-sets. On the flip side, we identify exceptionality by contrasting it to what’s common for the group, or by how well a person functions. But what if our sampling group is far from average, or if the environment is less disabling?

Tutoring and teaching is another means of engaging in advocacy, and one of the best means I have is to share with my students the tools for how they can solve new kinds of problems in the future, for themselves and by themselves. It also gives me the opportunity to constantly learn from my students. During this co-educational process, we often need to figure out where in the learning process they are getting stuck, then come up with different ways of helping them learn new information, and different methods for studying. Sometimes the educational changes we make can be as simple as the way a test is typed up, making it more accessible to all the students. The way the audio-visual equipment is set up also makes a significant difference, including the kinds of computer monitors and lighting used. As a tool for engaging your students’ attention, novelty can be a big help. It can also backfire in unexpected ways…

On the more personal scale, I’m always seeking better ways of dealing with my own challenges of “Executive Functioning”, like dealing with all the stuff, stuff, stuff that piles up, losing something in the Dreaded Safe Place, coping with the inertia of task paralysis, or just getting “stuck” when the Plan B falls apart or I unexpectedly get engrossed in something. In worse cases, this means pulling myself out of an awful case of the Betweens, which condition you won’t find listed in any manual, but one that any ADD or autistic person will surely recognise. Regardless, it still helps to remember that strategies for compensating are just that – and that when there’s too much load on the system, those strategies won’t all succeed. That makes it difficult for me, but sometimes others’ lack of understanding is the greater problem.

When I sat and contemplated my place in the grand scheme of things, I found myself wondering just how it was that I could be “doing things the wrong way” and yet still be producing the right results. Were the processes really as important as the results? Doing things “normally” is very important to the general public. People with a wide variety of differences go to extreme effort trying to “pass for normal”, but this can be perilous. Some parents spend great effort to ensure their autistic children learn how to do “good eye contact”, but this may be a poor goal for some unexpected reasons. People can get hung up on developmental timetables, or they worry and wonder why their child likes to spend lots of time lining things up (it’s a good thing, really).

Adults can come up with some pretty off-the-wall assumptions about what is, or is not, going on in a child’s head; we cannot always assign mental processes to the results we see. Then there’s the situations that an earnest-yet-clueless ADHD or Aspie kid can find themselves in, such as failing to cheat. The really scary part is how these children who have difficulties socialising with their peers will fall prey to bullying and abuse, and general depression. Then we grow up into adults, and there’s the whole sticky territory of trying to make Small Talk, and the repercussions of just having a different sense of humor.

On the lighter end, a few posts are just for fun; about once a month there’s a “Recess”. Recess means we take a break and play – it’s important to do that once in a while. During dinner our family discusses why “resistance is fruitile, and how to be “underly pedantic”. Meanwhile, I have fun with repeating words, and enjoy taking photographs of improbable things.

My thanks to you for stopping by, and please to leave comments!

andrea

Running With the Red Queen

Everyone in life has to compensate in some manner or another, because no one excels at everything. If you are not mechanically inclined, you take your car to a shop to get the oil changed, and you call a plumber to fix leaks or replace worn faucets. If you’re not comfortable with arithmetic calculations, you have a tax specialist do your annual return, and you arrange for automatic payroll deposits and bill payments with your bank. These are ways that ordinary people deal with ordinary difficulties, and no one thinks any less of them. In fact, the economy depends upon people’s interdependency — earning your living doing things for others is important to the Gross National Product, is important to a town’s sense of community, and is important to a person’s self-worth from feeling useful.

It is curious that people who have others do everyday things for them because they are rich are envied, whereas people who have others do everyday things for them because they are unable to do them are looked down upon. People with ability sets that are different than the “average” person’s run into problems because they are being “inappropriately incompetent”. Some of those “should be able to” things are related to sex-rôle stereotypes: a man should be able to fix a leaky faucet, a woman should be able to sew her own shirts. Among more traditional or conservative populations, a person is not faulted if they are incompetent at a skill that is reserved for the other gender. However, when someone cannot do something that is expected of everyone, or cannot do it well, or cannot do it consistently, they are then open to derision.

The Austrian psychologist Alfred Adler noted how people compensated and even over-compensated as ways of dealing with perceived incompetence and avoiding feelings of inferiority. Not all “incompetences” really are gross difficulties — they may merely be assigned as such by others around us.

I’ve mentioned before that my life is a mass of compensatory strategies. I compensate for auditory processing problems, and the tinnitus that increases the background noise problem. I compensate for prosopagnosia (difficulties recognising people from their faces). I compensate for all those organisational, time-sense, and executive-functioning issues related to ADHD and Asperger’s (planning, executing tasks including the getting-past-the-inertia stages, self-monitoring). I compensate for the hyperacusis, and my general clumsiness, tics and stuttering, and migraines. Generally speaking I compensate fairly well. So much so that most people don’t realise that I am working much harder to achieve nearly as well. I “pass for normal” most days, so people can’t understand why I’m having problems when I’m ill or stressed or simply trying to compensate for too many things simultaneously.

Adler would probably say that I over-compensate.

I had to go through Driver’s Education class twice to acquire the necessary motor skills. I did eventually learn to drive stick shift (manual transmission) and have even driven in both the UK and US. The day that I parallel-parked in front of my high school to request a transcript to be sent to a college was indeed a threshold moment in my life. (Even the transcript part was a highlight, as assaying higher education was uncertain due to my previous academic difficulties.) My husband once asked me, “What, can’t you drive and talk at the same time?” and I did not feel that it was unreasonable to answer, “No, I can’t.” I cannot drive a stick shift vehicle through city traffic, trying to find a business I had never been to, and talk on a cell phone. (I have Auditory Processing Disorder and he has a severe hearing loss — talking on the phone can be inherently confusing in its own right.)

There are classes when I struggle to keep my attention focused on the instructor, and also to understand what they are saying, especially if the classroom is mechanically noisy, or if the instructor mumbles or talks while facing the whiteboard or doesn’t present information in a clearly-defined format or use supplementary visuals. Because I am very good at being able to distinguish the important material in an educational presentation and record those details in sensible paragraphs, I have been a note-taker for dysgraphic or hearing-impaired students. But I have only been able to do that in those subjects where I was already familiar with most of the information — I could not be a note-taker for others if I was still learning all the vocabulary and concepts myself.

Mathematics presents special difficulties for me because of problems with sequencing, slow working speed, and occasional transpositions. It took me four years to memorise my multiplication tables, and I have flunked a number of tests over the years, and nearly had to take a class over. In university I dropped a course that I was getting D or F grades, to try it again later on to get C, B or A grades, and did that with more than one course. It was slow, difficult work slogging through college algebra, trigonometry, calculus, statistics, physics, and four semesters of chemistry. One of my current jobs is working as a special education paraprofessional. I help in the science classroom, but my main assignment is in the math classroom. The extremely ironic thing is that not only am I helping students with mathematics, but also that I am doing so in the very same school I attended years ago, in the same classrooms where I had once sat flunking math tests. (My first work week was not only difficult from the prosopagnosia-aggravated new-job disorientation, but also from “post-traumatic school disorder” as I had ongoing flashbacks.)

I actually did flunk a semester of secondary English and had to re-take that portion of the course. I have also written a book and hundreds of articles (on a variety of subjects) for magazines and newspapers. I tutor college students in composition classes.

Given these examples, it might sound as though my difficulties were all in the past, and have been made up for by my recent successes. That isn’t quite true. What I have done is learned how to work around some kinds of difficulties. With others I simply have to work harder to puzzle through consciously to figure out those things that most people do easily and without conscious effort. Some days I feel like Alice Through the Looking Glass, running as fast as I can just to stay in place.

The problem with over-compensation is that although I have at times felt that I had vanquished my personal demons of incompetence by having overcome various failures with landmark achievements, those successes do not mean that I cannot or will not have future problems! What helped more than those moments of personal glory (exhilarating though they were, despite lacking exciting soundtrack music), has been finding out why I have problems, how those problems manifest in my daily life, and how to work with them. Self-understanding improves self-image because it gives me tools for those ongoing and future difficulties. Self-understanding means that the next time I fail something (not “if” but “when”, because everyone does fail periodically), I will have the necessary cognitive and emotional tools to handle the disappointment. I will be able to handle defeat graciously, because it is a failure of task-specific achievement, not moral failure. Furthermore, I can extend that same grace to others, because we all have such problems, even though the details differ.

Out in our various communities, we need to be able to not only acknowledge that Yes, not everyone can do the same thing, but also destigmatise that fact. One of the tragedies with the current paradigms in the helping professions is the disdain and depersonalisation from “care-givers” to that people who need personal attendant services or other forms of assistance. We can’t all do the same things. Needing someone to change your diaper should be no more stigmatising than needing someone to change the oil in your car. There’s really something sick about people who feel superior those whom they serve — there’s an element of self-loathing transferred from one’s self to one’s job to the client. It is overcompensation of the soul-eating malicious sort. Service to others is about sharing strengths, not about bolstering one’s damaged self-worth at the expense of others’.

We should not have to overwork ourselves to over-compensate just to earn other’s acceptance.

Losing Something in the Dreaded Safe Place

I’ve done it plenty often. Likely you have too. You have a Very Important Object, be it a button to a blazer, a spare key, a refund to deposit, a passport, et cetera. (Heavy on the et cetera.) Einstein mislaid a paycheck as a bookmark, if I recall correctly. So why don’t we feel as brill as Al?

Of course, the problem with the Dreaded Safe Place (DSP) is that for all it seems terribly obvious at the time, it’s not. Later on we can’t remember where we put the Very Important Object (VIO). Hell, after a while, we can’t even remember what the VIO was, just that we had put a VIO in a DSP, and there we are standing there quite vexed because it needed attending to. Or will need attending to shortly. Quite likely something financially, socially, or professionally terrible will happen if we don’t remember the VIO and DSP soon. ::sigh::

There are Safe Places (such as safe deposit boxes at the bank, which are quite safe, especially when we put our key in a DSP), and there are Safe Places that are so safe we can’t find stuff ourselves. This latter kind of situation is what my Home Economics teacher used to call a “False Economy”: something that only seems like a good deal, but really costs you more in the end.

Meanwhile, Yours Truly (who seems to be afflicted with a major case of Title Case) has succumbed to pacing recursively about the house in a perseverative frenzy because searching for the VIO has become a Quest, and she can’t rest until she has found it. Doubtless you know how that goes, too.

Once the object is found (either from brute-force tenacity and thoroughness, or from some sideways manner of recollection), there is the “Ah-HA!” followed by the “DUH!” followed by the usual lines of self-recrimination about “Not-doing-THAT-again” yadda-yadda-yadda.

The reason that DSPs are such is because there are too many possibilities, and not enough parameters. Where does one keep a blazer button? On the hall mirror shelf? In a dish on the dresser? On the kitchen window sill? In a drawer so a cat doesn’t play with it? In the sewing box? In the desk drawer at work? At the bottom of the briefcase? Any of these are DSPs, but none of them have the two necessary qualities of being rational and inescapable. Meaning, you can figure them out again later, and your search actions should naturally default to them.

Rational and inescapable is tied in with the behavioural concept known as “incompatible behaviours”; meaning, if you are doing A, then you can’t be doing B. It’s one of those brilliant, obvious-in-retrospect things. The best kind of SP involves putting the object in such a location that completing the necessary action will require you to encounter the object. Bonus points if you can figure out how you can make yourself remember to do the activity!

When I go on a trip, I will definitely want my bathing suit in case I stay in a hotel with a whirlpool tub. Therefore, I keep all of my trip things in the best Safe Place of all, my suitcase! (I also have a note to myself reminding myself of those things I keep forgetting to pack, namely my kimono and woolen slippers, emergency flashlight and a belt for my slacks.) This way I can’t pack my suitcase without the necessary items.

A good rational & inescapable Safe Place for the button would be a blazer pocket. Of course, when Our Hero has ADHD, remembering to sew on the button at some other time than getting-dressed-running-late is another issue. This is why a dry-erase marker lives next to the toothbrushes, so I can make myself a note “blazer button” on the bathroom mirror for when I return home.

Just don’t ask me where to put books. There are so many of them around here that they become naturally camouflaged! I’m just glad they don’t require feeding.

My Off-and-on-and-off-and-on Love Affair With Computers

At work there’s a computer room that I take great pains to avoid spending much time in (to erm, avoid great pains). Don’t get me wrong – I love computers, in general. It’s not so much the noisy CPUs (which in this case are tolerable) but rather the old monitors which flicker, every last one of them. If I have to spend more than 20-30 minutes staring at one, I am setting myself up for risk of a migraine. What’s curious (if not outright frustrating) is that not everyone understands what I’m talking about when I mention that I can’t really spend much time working with some computers because of the screen flicker. Either people can see it, or they can’t.

The whole issue of monitor flicker is due to the Refresh Rate setting, which I used to know how to change in old Windows OS, but not in the current one. Whether or not you can see the flickering depends upon the way your brain is wired. But regardless of your ability to vouch for this phenomenon, there is some basic science that is commonly accepted in the computer industry (and elsewhere), so you don’t have to take my word for it!

The annoying/tiring flicker of monitors and fluorescent lights is related to Flicker Fusion Frequency (FFF). You have seen and hopefully played with “flip-books”, little booklets of cartoons, when you flip the pages, at the right speed of flipping the pictures appear to get animated. This works just like a motion picture (movie) film is a long serious of still shots that are run quickly by, giving the illusion of motion. The “flicker-fusion frequency” is when the stills flicker by at a speed fast enough that your mind fuses them together.

This kind of action is measured in Hertz ( Hz ); 1 Hertz is one cycle per second. For example fluorescent light fixtures run at a rate of 50 Hertz in Europe and 60 Hertz in the US. Fluorescents, unlike incandescent lights (ordinary lamp bulbs) do not emit continuous light. Rather, they flicker

OFF-ON-OFF-ON-OFF-ON-OFF-ON-OFF-ON-OFF-ON-OFF-ON-OFF-ON-

Each OFF-ON is one cycle. But because the off-on is a sine wave function, they go off and on 100-120 times per second.

Most average people cannot consciously discern that flickering, because the “average” human FFF is only 25 Hz. (I should note that although nearly all humans with adequate vision have the sensing ability, not all have the perceptual ability to discern the flickering — perception is how the brain interprets the sensory inputs.)

The flickering effect is most noticeable outside the corners of eyes, where the rods (light sensing) parts are most sensitive; the cones (color sensing) are most sensitive in the middle. That’s why you notice movement or faint stars outside the corners of your eyes. Theatre movies run at a slower rate of speed (24 Hz) because they are shown in dark surroundings. When something is brighter, it requires an even faster flicker rate to not be noticeable.

Old computer monitors and CRTs (Cathode Ray Tube — those old TV-like green print on black screen terminals) ran at 50 Hz, too. If you happen to recall getting CRT headaches that would be why. In contrast, LCD panel monitors have a refresh rate around 200 Hertz!

When a visual input goes higher than an organisms FFF rate, it has reached the Critical Fusion Frequency (CFF) and is no longer perceived as flickering, but as steady. The human CFF is about 50-100 Hz. Apparently some people (including many people with ADD and autistics) have a higher CFF threshold than the neurotypical human. So things like fluorescent lights are more bothersome. (Insects have an even higher FFF than humans; flies have a FFF of 300! You gotta wonder what it does to insect colonies kept in incubators under artificial illumination.)

A Swedish ergonomic study found that individuals with a higher critical fusion frequency experienced more stress and decreased accuracy under fluorescent light conditions. Their recommendation was better ballasts, rather than using incandescent or natural lighting. ::rolls eyes::

To prevent this problem on your computer, either get a plasma screen, or if not budgeted for such, then set your refresh rate to its maximum capacity — German researchers recommended 70 Hz for the general population (sorry, reference link now broken).

UPDATE:  The older fluorescent lamps had magnetic ballasts, and those seemed to be the problematic sort.  Newer fluorescent lamps have electronic ballasts, and fewer issues – they also seem quieter!

The Taxonomy of Mess

“If a cluttered desk is a sign of a cluttered mind, of what, then, is an empty desk?” ~ Albert Einstein

Not all kinds of “messiness” are the same.

Some kinds of mess are the healthy, happy exuvia of just living and doing lots of things. It’s the pieces of the ongoing sewing project, stacks of references for a writing assignment, travel guides and ephemera to trips past and future, and lines of shoes and piles of jackets ready by the front door.

The surfaces are visual storage and reminder areas, helping us organise what we are thinking and working on. They are ergonomically useful both cognitively and physically (think of all the time and effort that would be wasted repeated putting things away and taking them right back out again hours later). If I can find things on my over-full tabletop that serves as my desk, that means it is a workable working-system.

The surfaces are also visual synthesis areas – having a variety of things out helps jog the creative process. There’s a reason why the blank white page or canvas is so daunting! Clutter can incubate creativity; it’s a serendipitous substrate. One of my favorite microbiology stories is how Alexander Fleming discovered the antibiotic properties of Penicillium notatum because he’d left culture plates sitting around, and a spore had floating in through the window, set up housekeeping, and was doing battle against the previously-colonized bacteria. Winnie-the-Pooh author A. A. Milne noted that, “One of the advantages of being disorderly is that one is constantly making exciting discoveries.”

Some kinds of mess is just overflow. It’s sports equipment dumped in a box because the coat closet is full of coats, books piled on floors and random surfaces because the bookcases are full of books, cooking equipment sitting clean-and-ready on counters because the cabinets are full of ingredients and less-frequently-used equipment, and the bottles of lotions and magazines and library books and the bottles of medicine that clutter my bedside because I’ve neither a bedside cabinet to put them in nor space to put that piece of furniture.

Some kinds of mess is just hyperconnectivity. It’s not that there isn’t a perfectly rational place to put something away, but that some things don’t easily resolve to single locations. Does my book on growing and cooking ethnic vegetables belong upstairs with the gardening books or down in the kitchen with the cookery books? Do I keep this roll of string with the office supplies, the cooking gear, the gardening equipment, the craft materials or the cat stuff?

Some kinds of mess is just hyperactivity. There are crocks of cooking utensils and chopsticks on the kitchen counter, a test tube rack of markers on my desk, and a jelly jar of pens and scissors on the kitchen table because we use these things all the time and putting them away somewhere would slow down productivity. It really is impossible to play with Lego blocks without dumping the bin to see all the pieces (we have a floor cloth for dumping the Legos onto to facilitate picking them back up again, so the vacuum sweeper doesn’t eat them).

Speaking of bins, it’s not that I don’t appreciate good storage concepts. I love big plastic bins for storing flower pots, Christmas tree ornaments, train set pieces, sorted quiltmaking scraps, camping gear et cetera. In fact I’ve decided that clear bins are far superior to opaque ones because you don’t have to go digging through the bin to see what’s in it, and also because this bit of visual contact with materials helps remind me that I already own it, so I will be sure to use it again. (They’re also fabulous when moving house because a bin of stuff is pre-packed.)

These are good messes, the stuff that distinguish real homes from unrealistic designer showcases and sterile hotel rooms.

Some kinds of messiness is just clutter, the leftover bits of things since forgotten. It’s out-of-date phone books, pieces to broken things that someone meant to fix months ago and never will, snow mitts scattered about in summer and the bathing trunks left out in winter, decorative holiday tchotchkes that weren’t packed away and have since become part of the scenery, and hobby materials left in desuetude. These are the sorts of useless messes that interfere with good messes because they get in the way and thus use up functional spaces.

Other sorts of messiness are just sloth, and have no redeeming qualities.

Some kinds of messiness is just trash. It’s junk mail and newspapers and adverts and magazines that everyone is done reading, empty shopping bags and packaging materials, expired coupons and old fliers. It makes it hard to find the useful things for which one is looking, and it makes it hard to clean surfaces.

Some kinds of messiness is just dirt. It’s crumbs on tables, and crud on carpeting, toothpaste slugs dried on the sink basin and loose hair around the bathroom, “squissues” (used, squished-up tissues) strewn about, snack wrappers and used dishes piling up, dirty socks and bath towels dropped about, and expired food in the fridge and on the counters. It’s very bad mess, and not only from a health standpoint, but also because it creates and aggravates the despondency and inertia.

The important thing to remember is that it is entirely possible to clean up the clutter, trash and dirt and leave intact the creative messes. In fact, it is important to do so for mental well-being, especially if some residents are prone to depression.

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!

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.

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