“So what would make it better for you?”

Ah, the dreaded “small talk”! Learning scripts to use for small regular transactions isn’t hard (e.g. waiting for coffee to brew or cashier transactions, as described in this post).

It’s the chit-chatting with coworkers and strangers that’s hard.

I like this page because it gives concrete details on how to successfully initiate and participate in chit-chat — not just a bunch of fluffy vagueness. People who understand the fluffy vagueness already know how to chit-chat!

“How to Break Through Small Talk and Turn Strangers into Friends”


I’ve role-played in various capacities over the years, from the “acting-out student” in a staff safety seminar, to the novice thief in a D&D game.  But the other week I was asked to try out a far different rôle:

“If you were Melba Toast, where would you be hiding?”

Melba Toast … gee, were I a small box of cardboardy toast slivers, where would I be hiding?  Hmn …

Such queries fill chunks of my life now, as I am working two and three jobs for 65-70 hours a week, which should explain the general lack of bloggery.  It’s not a lack of interest, nor a lack of subjects worthy of blathering about.  (The sad part is that I still have plants sitting around in pots that I bought back in June. That, and another goal is to finish my grandson’s quilt before winter sets in; he’s nearly three months old already!)

These oddball encounters always hit me out of the blue, when I’m otherwise preoccupied with squinting at the shelf tag UPCs to figure out which peg the -48699 fancy chandelier light bulbs should hang upon, or am trying to line up a stack of shiny toothpaste boxes without knocking over its companion rows.  (Why do we have to stack all those wobbly boxes three tiers high?  Because the boss like them that way, that’s why.  But hell if I’m going to try stacking up some of those styles of maxipads, because even single packs don’t want to stand upright.)

Melba Toast … The problem of course, is that every store has a set of random products that are difficult for customers to find.  So there we are, grocery stocker blinking and trying to remember to smile and make eye contact and parse the unexpected conversation from the background noise, and customer trying to find the right person for help.

“Do you work here?”

[No,] says the tired-and-cranky part of my brain, [I just like standing around the local market wearing a dress shirt with the corporate logo, knee pads, compression gloves for my arthritis & Raynaud’s, and a box knife holstered to my waistband.  I sure as hell better work here, because I’m getting so nearly OCD about “facing” groceries that I’m starting to pull forward and straighten out merchandise even when I’m just shopping for my own groceries.]  Working two shifts a day doesn’t make me as cranky as going two weeks at a stretch without a full day off.  Damnit, I want a life.

Savvy customers ask me, “Do you work for the store?” because they’ve learned that the burly guy stocking cola works for the cola-distribution company, or the little old lady giving out food samples works for a food conglomerate or a temp agency, and neither of these people knows where our market stocks the sun-dried tomatoes, oat bran, or tiki-torch oil. Actually, we don’t stock tiki-torch oil, which is why that customer couldn’t find it.  You’re shocked, I’m sure.  Or maybe not; we get all kinds of crazy-ass seasonal shit to sell.  Maybe we did have tiki-torch oil once-upon-a-time.  By my 13th work-hour of the day, tiki-torch oil sounds perfectly reasonable, and I can just about hallucinate bottles of sunset-gold tiki-torch oil by the tins of cigarette-lighter butane or the blister packs of Tropical Paradise air freshener candles.  Blarrrg.

Sometimes the senseless placements are simply accidents of history, like the display of snack cakes that migrated inward from and aisle “end cap” and are now juxtaposed to the tinned soups for no particular reason other than some space existed there once, and no one’s since bothered to move them over to the sweets aisle.

Sometimes the senseless placements are just that, like the forlorn bags of barley that are slumped against the soup powders, instead of with the rest of the dry grains and beans. (Well yeah, people put barley in soup, but people put damn near everything else in soups, too; so what?)

Customers are usually so apologetic when they can’t find something;  they don’t want to “be a bother”. 

“Oh, now I’m messing up your nice display,” frets the gentleman as he fumbles to remove two packs of liquorices.

“No, no, that’s okay!  If you don’t buy it, then I can’t re-stock it, and what would I do for a job?  You’re keeping the economy running!”  Seriously.

They worry that I’m going to think less of them because they can’t find something that’s staring right back at both of us, which is also silly, because sometimes we’re both staring at the shelf, leaving me mumbling,

“I know I saw it right around here the other day, unless it got moved the day I was off …” 

“Oh, here it is!” exclaims the customer, who actually has a “search image” for a product, unlike this store employee who neither stocks the item nor buys it.

“Ayup, I remembered seeing it around here … is there anything else for which you are looking?”

Of course, there’s the person stalking up and down an aisle because they too have that feeling of it’s-right-in-front-of-me, and they finally break down to ask me as I’m passing by with a trolley artfully crammed full of cartons of chocolate bars and thirteen flavors and sizes of toothpaste, or a handtruck heaped high with bags of charcoal. (Nothing says, “Working Hard” like having coal schmutz on your cheek.)

“Um, have you seen the — Oh!  Here it is.  Sorry,”

“No worries — we do that at home all the time:  ‘Hey Mom, where’s-the-nevermind’.”

My canned joke, with its carefully-honed wee bit of wry camaraderie, usually prompts a reciprocating expression of familiarity.  Small talk is hard for me, so after I’ve had the same type of experience a few times, I make myself up some scripts to add to my standard lists of “Grocery Stocker Small Talk” or “Grocery Cashier Small Talk”.

But of course, there’s the inevitable ad-libbing.

“Melba Toast … you know, I don’t think I’ve ever role-played bread before,” I replied.  Fortunately, my off-beat attempt at levity worked, which bought me some time as I stood there, staring up into space to access my mental store map.  “Well, let’s go check Aisle 5,”

We get there, cruising past the peanut butter and jelly selections, in our grocery manager’s dual homage to cheap sandwiches and suggestive product placement.  “I already looked in the bread aisle,” volunteers the customer, but we’re both familiar with scenario of missing something right in front of us, so we give it a look-through just to be sure.

“Okay, another likely place would be in the cracker aisle,” I offer, as we pass the end-cap display for the other brand of snack cakes (located in another part of the store, naturally) and make a U-turn to cruise fruitlessly past the chips and crackers.  Before my customer gets too dispirited (or embarrassed),  I offer an explanation, “The problem is, there are some things for which there are several perfectly logical places to keep them … and every store has its quirks.  Well, if it’s not down here, we’ll look in the Import Foods section by the Dutch rusks,”

“I already checked there,” says the unusually diligent shopper.

“Wow, most people usually miss — ah-HA!  Here they are, next to cereal and the toaster pastries.”  Hooray, this mystery is solved, and I can go back to fighting with the Halloween bags of Twizzlers candies, which are refusing to stack neatly and have taken to suddenly slumping off the shelf and slithering onto the floor as I get halfway down the aisle.  It would take no less than five episodes of this before I finally got the heaps stabilised.  Such repeated incidents of fruit-carting would be funny later, but there are only so many ways you can stack and re-stack and re-stack and re-stack and re-stack bags of individually-wrapped cherry-flavored twists before getting utterly twisted, too.


Every now and then someone asks a question that helps you define an issue in life.  Recently a nurse asked me, “Do you have days when you’re not in pain?”

I considered this for a few seconds and replied, “I have periods during the day when I’m not in pain.  Usually because of my meds.  But I haven’t had any days without pain for a long time.  Since … I can’t remember when.”

I fidgeted thoughtfully for a moment, then remembered to make some conversational eye contact and added, “The thing that’s hard to explain about ‘pain management’ is that it’s not that I ‘get used to the pain’, but that I get used to ‘being in pain’.  It makes it too easy to overwork, and not get enough rest, and get sick easier.”

We chatted a bit more about other stuff in life, and bid our farewells.  Alas, she had nothing to offer by way of remedy for the situation, aside from reminding me to get some sleep.  She’s not my medic; she’s my student.

But she did me a favour anyway by asking me a question that gave me the opportunity to re-assess and get a better perspective on my life.

“All we want are the facts, ma’am.”

Sergeant Joe Friday of the old American cop show, Dragnet, was famous for asking witnesses — in characteristic deadpan delivery, “All we want are the facts, ma’am.”

Sounds good to me.  Not just facts (albeit they’re tremendously useful, especially when you have them in variety), but also the focus upon transmitting information, without a lot of accessory fluff.

“I don’t know how to put this,” my ex-husband would hedge.  He was always loathe to break negative news, and would put off doing so for long stretches of time before tiptoeing around the subject and throwing up paragraphs of waffling pseudonyms.

“Then just say it.  Spit it out already!”

Bluntness when it’s simply being straight-forward is not a social crime in my world.

Furthermore, I don’t go inventing insults where none are intended. Unless you are calling me (as some of my students with behavior disorders do) a “fucking bitch” or something equally blatant, I’m not going to assume that speaking plainly is meant to be an affront.

I will confess that (even into my late 40’s) I am still sorting out the reasons why people say the things they do:

  • There’s the “social noise” that is meant as non-confrontational space-time filler, to promote social ease in a sort of verbal grooming behavior or stress-displacement behavior.
  • There’s the exchange of opinions and veiled insults meant to establish or maintain odd social status arrangements. (I understand what those are, but I really don’t understand why they exist, aside from the practical necessities of organisational status for allocating responsibilities.)
  • There are the jokes, compliments, and stories meant to promote inclusion and establish group identity by creating a culture of common experiences, affirmation of values, and recognition of effort.
  • There’s the philosophical or creative exchange of ideas, including word play, humor, and problem solving.

Then there are the murkier forms of communication that I have trouble fathoming, even when I can (after a few minutes or days’ consideration), identify what is going on.  These include the more oblique types of flirting, the affective persuasion of political campaigning (including the sort that happens at work and other organisations), and other mysterious interchanges that involve even less emphasis on word choice, and more upon paraverbal and nonverbal delivery.  (“Paraverbal” is how the words are said, the inflections; “nonverbal” is the accompanying body language.)  I’m actually not sure what these are, but sometimes I can sense that something more is going on, and I’m not sure just what it is that I am missing.

At school, I spend all day surrounded by people who are constantly negotiating with each other to get what they want or feel they need at the moment (what in Functional Behavioral Analysis is described in the dichotomy of providing a means to Get/Obtain or Protest/Escape/Avoid).  A lot of the interpersonal transactions are fairly simple to understand, as most of the students lack subtlety.  At the garden center, the focus of my interactions revolve around the transmission of factual information, and the curious scripts of commerce that combine both “cheerful servant” and “autocratic cashier”.  The latter set is usually easier, and I’m even beginning to pick up on the “Thank you,” that really means, “I don’t need any more information now”.

But after interacting with people for twelve hours a day, I find that my brain turns to mush from the burdens of doing my physical jobs with focusing lots of working memory on perceiving, analysing, and replying to all the heavily-coded and loaded talktalktalk.

Sometimes I miss the simplicity of working in a lab, where one could spend their day simply transmitting facts.

Of course, I later found that even that was a misperception.  There was all the office politics going on just at the edge of my radar, and there was the inevitable problem of others assigning meanings to my para/nonverbals that I was not really intending to transmit, and there was the third problem of others being annoyed or dissappointed because I had not picked up on their para/nonverbals and thus missed a large chunk of what they “really meant”.

Life would be so much simpler if people would just mean what they say, and say what they mean!

Gone Bananas

A few weeks ago …

“4011 !” I exclaimed to my daughter.

She looked up from her Mac where she was composing her latest essay. “What?” she asked in confusion.

“They started me on cashiering today at the grocery.  4011 !”

And then we both broke out laughing.

“4011” of course being the PLU (Price Look Up) code for bananas.

shipping cartons full of bananas

shipping cartons full of bananas

When she started as a grocery cashier the other year, my daughter had commented in amazement at how many people came through with bananas.  So many in fact, that she too had learned that number the first night, just from sheer force of repetition.

I would have thought that apples would be the most-commonly purchased fruit.  But no, endless bunches of bananas came through.

Not only bunches of bananas, but also bunches of people with similar behavioral patterns, which I found to be rather interesting:

  • People with a large bunch of greenish bananas.  (I wondered if they were feeding a lot of people, or simply don’t care about the stage of ripeness when eating them.)
  • Customers trying to balance their fruit bowl with a couple each of greenish and yellow bananas.
  • Parents herding several small children, with bunches of bananas that had the requisite number of stickers for each child to have one. These were difficult checking assignments — not because of the parents, but because as a cashier I was also trying to keep track of the assorted tots with regards to alerting their adult to their safety, or asking their adult if the candy or toy items coming down the conveyor belt were approved purchases.
  • People with bunches of the organically-grown bananas (PLU 94011; all the organic produce starts with a 9).
  • Tired working folks picking up a sandwich from the deli, a banana, and an energy drink for their meal.
  • Frazzled parents rushing through with bananas, applesauce and bread. ( = “BRAT diet”: bananas, rice, applesauce, toast, a menu for dealing with diarrhea via dietary intervention.)
  • Frequent shoppers with just a few yellow bananas — I heard a lot of apologetic explanations about not being able to plan ahead for weekly menus and shopping lists, and wondered why some people felt the need to explain their purchase choices, unbidden.
  • A few elderly shoppers who explained that they couldn’t carry many grocery bags, or used frequent shopping as a means of getting out of the house.  After a while, I realised that such explanations were probably a curious form of chit-chat.

Although I began to develop my own “scripts” for appropriate cashier dialogs, I found that cashiering is a more challenging position than I had anticipated.  This is because there are a number of different kinds of simultaneous cognitive demands, involving spatial handling, operational sequencing, data entry, calculations, communicating in a noisy environment despite my auditory processing issues, struggling to identify numerous coworkers despite faceblindness, and socialising with the appropriate amount of eye contact and proscribed chit-chat.

Cashiering doesn’t just mean scanning groceries and making change.  I am not only trying to scan accurately and quickly, but also:

  • performing subtle security checks to make sure that no one is walking off with unchecked goods on the bottoms of their carts or pocketing the candy and other small goods near the register racks;
  • sorting the goods as I move it down towards the bagger courtesy clerk in whatever organisational method that person prefers;
  • querying the customer about coupons and whether they wanted the gallon milks bagged and if they want candy and greeting cards handed to them instead of bagged
  • explaining discounts and how gift cards work;
  • looking up endless PLU codes for the numerous types of untagged produce;
  • watching out for children’s safety;
  • greeting the next customer in line so they didn’t feel neglected during the wait;
  • trying to remember who the manager is that night for when I need to call them to void a mis-scan;
  • and of course, bagging while I check when the regular courtesy clerk has switched from my lane to another with greater need.

When bagging, bananas are a tricky item.  I can put vulnerable loaves of bread atop the fragile egg cartons, but aside from soft packs of sugar, toilet paper or maxi-pads, there are few items that will co-exist happily with bananas when packed in limp plastic bags.

Given that bananas are nutritious, don’t require refrigeration or heating, and can be eaten quickly, they have recently filled my lunchbox, er, meals-box that carries both my lunch and third meal.  I drive directly from one job to the next, with just 10-15 minutes for a snack to tide me over between 11 a.m. lunch and clocking out again at 8 p.m.  (I usually have a fourth meal when I get home; call these breakfast-lunch-tea/supper-dinner or whatever, but the third meal is usually rather minimal.)  So what’s the best way to transport a banana safely?  I drop it into a tall plastic drink cup.

Thankfully, I spend most of my time at the garden center end, rather than endless hours of checking. But in this latest addition to my repertoir of work roles, I have literally gone bananas.


For the first time in months and months — far longer than it should have been, but there we are with the insane busyness of life — a friend and I got together at her house for dinner.

“You look like you’re finally relaxing,” she said after I’d been there a little while, and we decided to not wait in conversational limbo for the third person (who never did show).  “You were so stiff when you came in,” and she made reference by some expression (that now escapes memory) of how I was indicating being relaxed by behaving more normally.

Not “normally” in the er, Normal (neurotypical) sense, but me-normal, where I felt comfortable enough to sit and rock slightly, to not worry about making eye contact, to get a bit flappy at funny events or when agitated, to shed the pent-up motor tics.  To just be me. To “let my hair down” and to set aside unnecessarily restrictive social norms.  To eat my chicken and rice with a fork, and the still-crisp cooked green beans neatly with my fingers (as one does with fries or asparagus), because her table was Nicely Set for our aesthetic enjoyment and yet we weren’t standing on formality.

We talked about typical stuff, like the foibles of spouses, the concerns for college-age kids, the drudgery of eternal home repairs, the quirks of cats, of temperamental computers and the thrills of new mobile phones, of career changes, and the vicissitudes of economic times.

We also talked about atypical stuff, like the difficulties of college education and employment when dealing with various educational/neurological disabilities, of managing arthritis pain and joint issues, of the wonders of TMJ bite blocks, of dealing with the profound cluelessness of the general public for the extreme pain of migraines and how hospital Emergency (A&E) is a horrid place to physically be when in the throes of gut-wrenching-head-splitting pain and the snarkiness of some medics therein.

Crip chicks like we don’t diss on our disabilities, we diss from our disabilities.  It’s not poor-pitiful-me whining but the healthy pitch-a-bitch whining from someone who understands, even when our respective glitches are not all issues shared in common.

I need more social life, but there’s so much of ordinary socialising that I find enervating.

I’m not antisocial; the interest in socialising is not a binary form, where one either does it or doesn’t do it.  But over the years I have learned what I actually enjoy (as opposed to what one is “supposed to” enjoy).  My intro/extroversion levels vary wildly because some kinds of social interaction are nothing but draining, while others leave me (if not physically) at least spiritually recharged.

I’m not fond of socialising by large quantities of people all chattering with each other in the same room, where the conversations get all blenderized from my Auditory Processing Disorder, to where I end up trying to tease apart sequential fragments of half a dozen unrelated conversations, fruitlessly trying to follow just one voice or two, and reasoning out from fractured context what some of the mis-heard words could possibly be.

I’m not fond of socialising where the content gets watered down to less-consequential subjects of chit-chat, by dint of less privacy and some unwritten code of how long one is “supposed” to entertain time with another guest before moving on, and by the other unwritten rules of conversational quid pro quo, where my monologuing to fully deliver a story complete with back-explanations and thesis statements delivered at the end is discouraged in favor of witty repartee.

I like the time to mutually share and analyse our respective news, and the real, content-laden answers to our mutual questions of, “How are you?”  The real “How are you?” question, not the fluff of “How-are-you?” or “How-was-your-day?” that is the social minefield trying to distinguish between polite interested query of acquaintances and polite disinterested query of associates (that latter social coin that is all form and no content), or the mental quagmire of trying to answer “How-was-your-day?” when the question is so vague and our answers are so experientially linear and tangential instead of whatever the hell others were expecting.

I was comfortable — we both were comfortable — because together we had created a social environment that enabled our mutual comfort.  It was an agreement that had been developed by long familiarity and by various conscious decisions over decades, to create a friendship that fulfilled our individual needs over the culturally-proscribed forms.  True friendship enables positive interactions, and supports needs and affirms and enriches our lives.

Here’s a toast to real friendships!

That old social bugaboo. Again. Still.

So, recently I was observed while teaching an evening class, and a couple weeks later had the opportunity to meet and discuss the professor’s observations.  Except for one problem, most everything else can easily be resolved.

I was able to explain how the combination of illness and exhaustion were affecting me, as well as how accessory issues like Auditory Processing Disorder and tinnitus and prosopagnosia meant that I had to either work harder or do some things differently.  I explained how I took notes during the classes of what I wanted to do differently, to keep improving my teaching. I think that overall the discussion went well.

The prof had some really good suggestions, such as repeating questions, or asking students if I had answered their question.  He reminded me not to mutter to myself when looking for something, as it was distracting to the students.

Since the observation, I decided to have the students pick up their returned papers from a pile, instead of trying to pass them out. That had not worked out well.  Due to my faceblindness, I was carrying around my seating chart and asking each person if they were so-and-so before handing them their paper. Students can accept that the first week or two of school, but even though I have mentioned my problem more than once, the concept is really hard for most people to get their brains wrapped around.

Halfway into the semester, I’ve finally sorted people out with regards to my prosopagnosic identification crutches, but I’m still working getting the names attached to their individual gestalts.  The other week I was entering grades and finally realised that there’s a student who is in both of my classes!  That this student is rather generic looking, quiet, and sits in the back of the classroom doesn’t help, faceblindness-wise.

But after the whole review experience had passed beyond the anxiety level into the stage of applying the information positively, I am still sighing over one point.

I thought I had gotten past this. I thought I had it down pat. But apparently, I still need to work on making eye contact.

Talking to Strangers

So, the Kid is easing into classes at the local community college, with plans for taking the fall semester part-time and working. The inevitable What-To-Take? question came up, with the idea being that a couple of classes should be general-education requirements, and the third something personally interesting. Well, I said, you should see what courses are required for an Associate’s Degree. (A 2-year general education diploma, which can transfer to a four-year degree elsewhere).

This is all well and fine, and various categorical listings are perused until realisation set in: some kind of Oral Communications credit is needed, such as Interpersonal Communications or Public Speaking classes. Oh noes!

Why do I have to have a speaking class? complained the Kid.

To be sure, many people dread taking their college Public Speaking class. Psychologists tell us that a dread of speaking to large groups of strangers is common, right up there with a fears of heights, spiders, or thunderstorms. Then again, the average citizen did not have a preliminary diagnosis of Social Phobia.

I remembered the teacher’s comments on the Kid’s earlier oral presentations in school: Need to make eye contact. Remember to speak up. Use gestures, interact with the audience. Those comments had stuck in my mind, as about that time in history I was beginning to put things together and wonder if my own kid didn’t have a bit of Asperger’s. Sure, there was eye contact with family and the couple friends. But the general hanging quietly around the edges of large family gatherings was long ingrained, and by secondary school the strong reticence for striking up conversations with strangers or for joining school or civic clubs, was both inhibiting and inhibited by social interaction.

I also remembered these same types of comments on my own class presentation grade sheets, back when I was in primary and secondary school. I offered up some personal history, I remember taking Public Speaking when I was just a clerk, and I could not imagine when I would ever have to give a talk, much less who I would give it to, or what I would talk about. Of course, I have since given presentations to groups of hundreds, and been doing public speaking for over 15 years. Life has a way of zig-zagging and putting one in unexpected situations, where any previous skills may suddenly be useful.

But teens don’t find such parent comments to be useful; they’re always stories from Long Ago And Far Away, and have no conceivable bearing on the teen’s own future life. Such are the limitations of teen perceptions of both personal histories and of the possibilities of Life in general.

The Kid looked through the rest of the general education requirements, and under the Social Sciences section, came up with an introductory course in Economics. (I had always considered Econ to be within the realm of Maths, but I wasn’t the one making these lists up.) Econ was full of equations and would be easier for the Kid to digest conceptually than all those inscrutable sociological subjects. Okay, I replied, Econ is good; it will transfer anywhere. And for the personal interest course?

The introductory computer game design class, came the answer.

Of course; silly question. What else has the Kid been focused on for years now, but all flavors of card and video and online gaming, including working up the algorithms, character weightings, and testing of a home-made card game.

Then I had a brain-flash, You know, if you’re taking this class, why don’t you see what Associates degree program it goes with? You don’t have to do the whole program — you can try it and see if that’s what you want. But it would make sense to see what the requirements are for the program, so you don’t take stuff that doesn’t work toward it.

This made sense; who wants to take extra classes they don’t need? We noodled around and found the program, and looked over the requirements, noting that this class was one of the prerequisites necessary before even applying for the program, and —

OH! Hey, look! I pointed out to the Kid — There are no oral communication course requirements!

Someone out there realised that geeks are not going to want to take such classes, and found other courses more suitable to their future careers. Oh, happy day! Further examination of the requirements meant dropping and adding various classes, until a workable combination of time slots and still-open sessions was created. We also toured the bookstore to see how bad the damage to the pocketbook would be, and were delighted to find that the three classes would require no more than $100 of books, which is about half of what most courses require. At last, the Kid had enrolled in classes for the fall semester, and even found a career goal to try out.

And a class in Public Speaking is not even required.

Welcome to the first ring of Hell

I’m going to send in a couple of job applications for biology teaching positions at community colleges. With some 200 credit hours of college education, I’ve been exposed to enough teachers to know that I teach better than some of them. I’ve had a course in college teaching, over a decade of teaching continuing education (designing my own courses, content, handouts & my own photography), and have been tutoring biology for several years.

But of course I’ve not actually applied for such a job before. So here I am re-doing my teaching philosophy, checking over my resume, chewing over application letter drafts and whatnot.

Like everyone, I’m really nervous about the prospect of interviews. Unlike a lot of people, I have particular difficulties with interviews, such as the prosopagnosia. This means not recognising people from one day to the next, at least not until I’ve been around them a while. I hate it when people drag you around a building and introduce you to a gazillion people. I can barely mentally file away some vague identification characteristics for one interviewer, and even then I never know which details will prove to be the useful ones for recognising them in the future. Yes, I know … I spend an hour talking with someone, and then (aside from the name on the business card) I truly can’t remember who the hell they were the next day. It’s awful.

During the actual interview process, I’m running mental circles around the auditory processing difficulties, fidgety-scatterbrained ADHD issues, unconsciously suppressing little motor tics (I shouldn’t have to theoretically, but it’s ingrained habit under such situations), concentrating on trying to make “enough” eye contact (whatever the hell that is), concentrating on speaking clearly and avoiding stuttering, ignoring the tinnitus and joint aches (and hoping against migraine). And being nervous is bad enough without those damn menopausal hot flashes!

Of course all that detracts from the amount of energy available for composing brilliant answers. So my usual interview plan is to anticipate interview questions and then prepare and practice answers. I spend days ruminating over and practicing my short “scripts” while in the car. Fortunately, I can never remember my answers verbatim, so they don’t come off as sounding “canned”.

Unfortunately, for all I have a large vocabulary and am a well-practiced writer, I’m less able to produce clear, concise answers to unexpected questions. It’s not that I can’t think of what to say, but rather that all the details of things come to mind at once, and I can’t prioritise and sequence them easily, nor compose paragraphs and then remember them all the way through.

So … anyone out there have specific tips for teaching interviews? (I’m good on basic interview stuff like professional wardrobe.) But this is a new kind of interview situation, and I don’t know what sorts of questions are likely to be asked, nor what sorts of unspoken conventions are typical for such a process, or what committees look for.

Attendance Required

Earlier this week I had to sit still in one place and pay attention for a longer period of time than I’ve had to do in ages. Man, I’d forgotten how utterly difficult that is to do! I had to not just sit, but “sit appropriately” on a hard wooden pew, and stay seated for three hours solid, and also pay attention to what a bunch of people were saying. I was part of a panel of jurors that had been randomly selected to go through voir dire for jury selection. Of the 24 people who showed up, 8 were finally selected to be the jury. However, all of the extra panel members (including myself) had to pay attention to all the voir dire questions to have our own answers ready in case any of us were to replace a dropped juror.

Sitting there all that time made me aware of how frequently I had little shoulder or head tics. And how much I wished I had a “fidget widget” to have something to do with my hands. And how much I jiggled my foot, and repositioned myself. And how much I wanted to sit there and rock from side to side, but feel inhibited to do so in public (even though I probably do rock a bit when I’m not aware).

There were some expected bad parts and unexpected good parts to the experience. Read the rest of this entry »

Accommodating the Normals

In your place of business, educational institution, or public service area, you will have to make certain accommodations for the “normal” (“Temporarily Able-Bodied”) patrons. (Please note that within Normal culture, it is considered appropriate to refer to them as “normal people” rather than as “people with normality”.) Normal people will usually succeed in schooling, and will apply for jobs that they can do, presuming that they are given accommodations. These needs are diverse, and such accommodations include, but are not limited to, the following items: Read the rest of this entry »

Slices (Episode 1)

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 four of these reflect different aspects of dealing with the social world, from blocking off unwanted interaction to the absurdity of Read the rest of this entry »

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!


Failing to Cheat

My fourth-grade teacher Miss V is standing at the front of the classroom, writing something on the board and announcing the next assignment to the class. I am bobbing and straining to see around the four ranks of students in front of me, watching her gracefully stroking the chalk along the board to produce words in her perfect penmanship. The capitals swirl impressively, and her near-lack of spacing turns the words into ribbons of elegant loops and curls. I blink at it several times, and my focus finally shifts; pop! the calligraphy resolves into the vocabulary words “Huron” and “Michigan”.

I realise that today’s social studies lesson must be about geography, and we are studying the Great Lakes. I bet she’ll ask who remembers all of them, so I am mentally scrambling to remember all five lakes; there are always one or two that escape my mental list, as I don’t know any mnemonics for them. (Then again, remembering mnemonics can be even more difficult than remembering the original names.)

Wait a minute! Didn’t we color a map last week? I’d better pull that out to have it on hand. I feel proud for having thought of that, and know that Miss V will be very pleased that I’d been able to anticipate that part of her teaching strategy. Humming contentedly, I scoot my chair back so I can rummage around the inside of my school desk. In this classroom the school desks are solid metal shelves underneath heavy tabletops. I have what will decades later be known as ADHD, and not surprisingly the interior of my desk is a chaotic tangle of pencils, crayon bits, mashed-up assignment pages in various stages of completion, cool rocks, a forgotten/unsigned permission slip, well-worn erasers including one with thumb tacks (push pins) stuck in to turn it into a car, text books, treasured bits of shiny colored foil, pages of stories and drawings, Matchbox cars, and other débris.

I finally find my map and some of my colored pencils and slap them triumphantly on the desk. Then a pencil rolls off the edge and whilst retrieving it I lean over too far and crash into a neighboring student. Feeling foolish, I concentrate on finishing my preparation by smoothing out the crumpled map. Then I make yet another effort to refocus myself and sit up nice and straight to take a deep breath, responsibly looking toward Miss V – I am ready!

At that point I can see what the students around me have been doing for the past five minutes, and crushingly, I realise that I am totally off task. They aren’t doing anything at all with maps or colored pencils. The other students have some purple mimeographed worksheets out, and are writing on them. The class is quiet, or at least what the Miss V refers to as “quiet”; for me the room is still abuzz with scratching pencils, stuffy breathing, creaking chairs and desks, the ticking clock, playground noises, and the arguments of crows fighting each other for something that had fallen out of a lunch sack. Uh-oh … I freeze, feeling clammy and prickly, and my focal field tunnels down to encompass no more than a swirl in the desktop laminate.

Oh no, what am I supposed to be doing? What had I missed when she was talking towards the chalkboard? I’m stuck in short focus – I have peripheral vision but am not making any sense of it, so anything written on the chalkboard on the other side of the room has just become totally inaccessible to me.

This isn’t the first time I have gotten distracted, or have had an auditory or visual processing blip, or simply haven’t been able to see around the older-and-bigger students and thus misunderstood an assignment. So I know that if I once again ask the teacher what she just said I would get in trouble for “not paying attention”, and if I once again ask a nearby student what the Miss V said I would get in trouble for “talking out of turn”.

I need to do something to figure out what I should be doing … I will just check my neighbor’s page to see what the subject is, and what we are supposed to be doing. Having already annoyed one student by nearly falling on them, I graciously lean the other direction – thus unintentionally managing to annoy two students in as many minutes.

Suddenly Miss V is there looming over me, and her reprimands swirl around in my mind, the sentences weaving together and echoing in broken chunks. She is glaring at me, and once again I am unable to make eye contact so am staring at the ruffles on her pink blouse, stammering as I try to explain, “I was jus’JUST looking at oowwwhat she was doing …”

And that is why I appeared noncompliant and dishonest, and how I got into trouble for cheating on the reading worksheet about the Huron Indians.

Sometimes what looks like cheating isn’t. Rather, what we have is a student who is utilizing other environmental sources to get needed information. The distinction here is that the student is looking at another’s materials not for the answers to the assignment, but rather answers about the assignment, such as which pages or problems are assigned, or how the work is to be performed (e.g. in the book, on a piece of paper, writing out the questions or just the answers, putting spelling words in sentences or just writing them multiple times).

After all, it’s generally thought a child with perfect hearing should be able to understand directions. Included in this are the assumptions that in addition to basic sensory hearing, “hearing” includes being able to maintain attention (listening), being able to understand what is heard (decoding), and also knowing what is meant by those words (interpreting).

Corrective lenses should also mean that the child can see the board as well as anyone else. Included in this are the assumptions that in addition to basic sensory vision, “seeing” means being able to maintain attention from the beginning to the ending of the writing process (watching), being able to orient and select what is seen (discriminating), and also being able to decode what is meant by partially-written instructions (inferring).

Lastly, it’s generally thought that an intelligent child should be able to put it all together, to integrate the sensory information, and then turn around and express that processing appropriately, in task performance (planning and execution), in verbal responses (articulation), and in nonverbal responses.

Sadly, many people have never considered how many steps there are to processing sensory information. Next time you have a student who appears off-task, noncompliant, willful, rebellious or deceitful, don’t automatically assume that the student is misbehaving on purpose. This is too simplistic. It’s not always about the student trying to aggravate you – it may not be about you at all. Sometimes won’t is really can’t. And sometimes can’t is really can’t always.

Small and Medium-size Talk

For me, “small talk” is analogous to cola. People all over the world dig these fizzy, sweet drinks. It makes their day, sometimes repeatedly, all day long. Every now and then I will re-sample some Coca-cola or Pepsi. Yeup, I still hate cola. I am not fond of carbonation, it is too sweet, and the flavor I simply cannot enjoy. Why do people love this stuff? They even enjoy the caffeine-free or sugar-free sorts, so that cannot be it. I have no idea.

So there I am stuck in some social occasion, with my tea or water-no-ice-please, or the hard to find ginger ale, holding it with an occasional swirl, hoping it quickly goes flat. I have those dire mental questions about this conversational dance:

Is it my turn to contribute something?

What would be appropriate to say?

Am I talking too much or not enough?

Don’t forget to make a little eye contact.

Are they really done talking? Whoops no they weren’t, oh dear.

Okay, that IS a pause … now it is a very long pause; am I supposed to say something, and if so, what about?

Are we done with small talking?

Should we move apart?

What kind of transitional comment am I supposed to make then?

The very-small talk of passing and greeting in the hallway, or waiting for a turn at the microwave, or for the coffeepot to finish brewing, is not so hard. One acquires a battery of general phrases to adapt to the particular day.

The big talk — actual conversation as exchange-of-information with persons whom you know or with whom you have things in common — during lunch time or at a meeting is okay.

It is the middle-size talk, the chit-chat, that is difficult. This is the sort one finds at dreaded office parties, dinners with fellow convention attendees, mixers with guests visiting the department, weddings, and such. These people often have some thin connection to one’s self, but for a topic of discussion it is too meager, and if we are near the end of the day there is nothing new to add, and besides by then people want to chit-chat about something else.

If you are standing or seated next to the spouse or “significant other” of the actual attendee, then you have nothing in common, at least nothing than can be perceived in a couple of minutes. Now, it may be that both of you have visited the same place, or have a passing interest in some obscure topic, but without some kind of handy visual “Index Of Interests” pinned to the lapel like military ribbons, who is to know? Perhaps in an hour’s time you will have discovered that spider-thread of connection, but meanwhile, there are countless bits of the dreaded small-talk to pick one’s way through.

And of course, there is the trap of somebody accidentally mentioning something that is a special interest of mine, and unless I am being especially self-aware, I am likely to data-bomb them with more information than they wanted. And of course, I usually cannot tell when “enough is enough already”. ::sigh::

Of course, my additional problem is that I have super-acute hearing for all the accessory noises in the environment, yet sometimes have difficulty understanding what people are saying. Or near the end of the day I am so over-stimulated with sensory input that I am beginning to blank out. The edges of my brain have the sparkle and wit of a bowl of oatmeal; there is the nearly overwhelming urge to crawl under the table drapes, or find a solitary chair and stare out the window at the clouds, or just put on my headphones and rock. And yet, this is the part of the event when I am supposed to be both engaged and engaging.

Chit-chat is deadly!

Going Through the Motions

“I’ve been making a list of the things they don’t teach you at school. They don’t teach you how to love somebody. They don’t teach you how to be famous. They don’t teach you how to be rich or how to be poor. They don’t teach you how to walk away from someone you don’t love any longer. They don’t teach you how to know what’s going on in someone else’s mind. They don’t teach you what to say to someone who’s dying. They don’t teach you anything worth knowing.”
~ Neil Gaiman

“Pay attention!” my mom would command, “Look at me when I’m talking to you!”

And then I’d wonder to myself, (Which? Pay attention to what she was saying, or look at her eyes when she was talking to me?)

Eye contact among autistics is a funny thing; some can do it easily, some situationally, some rarely, a few never at all. Interestingly, how well someone can make eye contact has no bearing as an indicator on how well one can socialize, the verbal-communicative abilities or other-communicative abilities, intelligence, sensory sensitivities, or any number of other traits sometimes associated with autism. (I also work with children with other developmental disabilities who can make excellent eye contact, but have great difficulty with verbal communication and other kinds of social interactions.)

Eye contact is also a cultural thing, as such is considered to be rude in other parts of the world, meaning that gaze aversion is not necessarily a problem elsewhere.

So basically, one’s ability to make eye contact when interacting with people doesn’t mean squat in regards to other abilities. It just means that making eye contact can be difficult.

Personally, it’s something I have to make a conscious effort to do in job interviews, doing public speaking, and in some conversations. This conscious process distracts from other mental efforts, such as the extra work required by my Auditory Processing Disorder, and making the eye contact is also distracting in itself because it detracts from my ability to retrieve and process information needed for the conversation. Some of my perceived “making eye contact” is really just me doing a little lip-reading when there’s background noise getting in the way of auditory filtering and decoding.

And yet, in this part of the world the eye contact issue is a big deal for some people, or so you’d believe from reading various kinds of autism resources. People spend great amounts of time ensuring that their autistic children learn to do this when they are expected to do so.

Like teaching a Deaf child to lipread and use speech, some kinds of social training are emulator processes. The perceived improvements in communication can be deceiving because the Deaf person is not necessarily getting the same quality level of communication from the process, and is working many more times harder than anyone else to get what they do.

Recent research by Dr Gwyneth Doherty-Sneddon and others at Stirling University has shown that gaze aversion reduces the cognitive load (amount of mental processing required), thus enabling both adults and children to better recall information and to better formulate responses. Requiring eye contact actually reduces the factual quality and the verbal complexity of responses.

So when we teach and require eye contact, what we must ask is, Who really benefits from this? Does it help the autistic? Or does it mostly just make the neurotypicals (NTs) feel more comfortable? Is the autistic really getting the same results (of being able to discern the non-verbal communication), or are they just going through the motions?

This is important – it’s not just window dressing designed to put others at ease – if the autistic person merely appears to be conversing typically, then the NT half of the dialog assumes that the rest of the communication is also happening. And of course, when something isn’t perceived by the autistic, the NT is frustrated and may erroneously attribute rudeness or lack of caring. And/or, the NT is confused because the non-verbal signals the autistic is giving off don’t jibe with what is “supposed” to be going on.

In any regard, if one is not getting the real or perceived benefits, then it’s just play-acting. It’s an elaborate social lie and a misrepresentation, and ultimately benefits no one. Furthermore, trying to stamp out gaze aversion makes various kind of mental processing more difficult, and for crying out loud, no one needs more mentally-taxing work!

Parents, therapists, educators and clinicians are focusing on the wrong thing (pardon the pun). Eye contact or gaze aversion is merely a sidetrack issue. What people are really concerned about is whether or not the individual of concern (child or adult) is truly engaged in the communication process. Is there mutual participation, comprehension, and the ability to share understanding and information? These are the real concerns that we need to be looking at.