Companionably Autistic

It’s a different thing being around other autistics.

Well, doubtless I’ve been around other autistics before. But when we did not know we were, there was all that stress from passing (“pretending to be normal”), so generally weren’t aware of what our sensory and other needs actually were, much less how to comfortably, genuinely, be ourselves.

Now it’s different.

(1) A little morning talk over my cuppa tea. Then he says, “Well, that’s enough social interaction for a while.”
He returns to his computer work, and I chuckle as I go out the door.

IT’S LOVELY when constant conversation or chit-chat aren’t expected.

(2) Yesterday I took a day trip to London to meet a friend from the States.
We met at the train station, where (being faceblind) I texted him my location and held a page with his name so he could find me.

After he bought his sausage roll, I suggested eating on the less-crowded, quieter mezzanine level. Together again after a long absence, we sat talking about how much less stressful it was not being in the States: him not worrying about being shot at, and myself not being awoken by gunfire. Alas, we were unsuccessful at not talking about Trump and disability and healthcare and racial and social care and environmental and- and- and- US politics Bllaarrgg. (The actual convo didn’t have many paragraphs, or rather, not spoken aloud. But I flapped a little in frustration.)

Time to move on; we brushed off the inevitable puff-pastry crumbs. I geeked over riding trains and how different cities smelled, and he reminisced about subway announcements. We started to get on the first subway car but it was too claustro’, so we caught the next. En route to the British Museum, Waterstones bookstore sucked us in; he found books he was looking for. I checked out the wee toys, feeling more 5 than 55, more child than grandmother, as I checked out the shinies and tiny things and science toys.

We ambled to the Museum, pausing as needed for him to catch his breath or for my slow knees to ascend stairs. No need to apologise; no need to hurry.

Then finally at the Museum! Get maps and —
Have a cuppa tea and figure out what to see. This was not a Must See Everything tour; we both understood having to mete out our tolerances. Made a list. He suggested started and the fifth floor and working our way down — Excellent!

Oh boy. One lift out of service, and it took a bit of searching to find the other. And … the fifth floor Japan exhibit closed. Moving along … Third floor was fascinating. We took photos. SO crowded, so many languages going on, so many Auditory Processing Disorder blips for us to chat much.

By the time we got to the room with the Egyptian mummmies, it was a crush of noisy school children in addition to all the tourists. One couldn’t walk in a straight line, and hardly much take photos.

It was overstimulating. Too much noise and too much crowds and he needed a breather. Too many smell-shapes and flavoured colours and moving sounds and I needed to sit. We glanced at each other in instant agreement; he pointed towards an adjoining room and we wended our ways out. Sat and rested by the rune stones.

At the end I lost my pal in the vast space of the museum entrance and crowded plaza, so once again, I texted him my location and held a page with his name so he could find me. It being mid-afternoon, we did the sensible thing and regained our stamina with chips and ale in the pub across from the museum. Apparently 15:30 is a good time in a pub; there weren’t many there and we could hear each other speak. Recharging time: I rocked and he doodled.

That in turn meant that we were hungry for our evening meal at Café in the Crypt at St Martin-in-the-Fields during early evening. The food was hot and fresh, and we choose a table that felt secure near a pillar, instead of exposed from people surrounding our backs.

Back on the street after dinner, he announced, “I’m running low on spoons.” We stopped to rest at Trafalgar Square. Then my train was due in an hour, so parted we ways at the Northern Line.

IT’S LOVELY not having to justify eating at a particular table, or wanting to photograph the visual texture of fractured safety glass, or why subway announcements are so endearing. Or that one is getting overwhelmed and needs to rest and stim, or is running out of spoons.

Nor did it take us twenty minutes to say Good-bye; that was enough social interaction for a while.


WHO: “The Eleven Doctors”

Interestingly, the cartoon appears to have been designed by/for the faceblind — although maybe that’s just my interpretation!

I need to write a letter to my boss*


Or perhaps, just deliver an explanatory document to my boss and the HR (Human Resources) person at my second job.

My annual review was okay; very good on some things, okay on others, some recommendations (there always are — no one is perfect after all).  But something mentioned was to get to know the regular customers by name.  I have, after all, been here a year, and grocery stores have a core set of regular customers that come through once, if not several times, a week.  It’s not hard to learn names when you’re checking them out, as the names appear on their check or on the register (till) screen when they use a debit or credit card.

But of course, most people have no difficulty distinguishing or remembering faces.

I on the other hand, have that lovely invisible disability of prosopagnosia, or face-blindness.  I don’t recognize people by their faces.  I cannot easily or quickly identify people.  And, I cannot remember faces.  Sure, I’ve learned to (consciously, relatively slowly) identify a core set of the people with whom I work regularly.  I know my immediate bosses, the store manager, some of the other managers, and several of the checkers and sackers, a few stockers, and one each of several butchers, florists, pharmacists, and cooks.

But they are likely less than 25% of the total employees.  I’m not sure how many there really are, because part-timers tend to come and go, and also, to me the other employees form a general mass of generic persons, all of whom follow the same prescribed dress code.

Ah yes, the dress code.  The great thing about jobs I have is that the school and the grocery both require people to wear name tags.  Not only can I be sure with whom I’m speaking, but they also allow me to check and memorize the names once I have figured out how to identify that person regularly.  Whee!

But, unlike the school, the grocery has a dress code.  It’s not overly fastidious, just along the lines of slacks + collared shirt, except when we are to wear a specific color of shirt on Fridays & weekends.  Of course, there’s a down side — when I need to find say, my assistant manager to ask him a question, there’s an entire giant supermarket just riddled with people in blue button-down or polo [golf, tennis] shirts — and some of those are customers!

I cannot just glance over a crowd of people and instantly spot the person I need.  They don’t “pop out”.  (No, not even my family members!)  Instead, I must examine each person and compare their overall size, haircut, gender, and coloration to my mental gestalt.  Of course, it’s easier if I’m looking for say, a taller, brown person — that means I only have to scan each aisle for (1) blue shirts, (2) tall people, (3) brown-skinned people, and (4) the particular haircut, gait and voice that is one of the assistant managers.

That sounds fairly easy, or at least efficient, right?  But that’s still walking down some 15+ aisles and side-aisles, visually sorting each adult-size person.  And quite possibly the guy’s in the back scanning office or stock room or upstairs office or break room or in a restroom or retrieving something from the outside loading dock or where-ever-the-hell managers go when they go poof and disappear.

Thank heavens I can get on the intercom and page him to call extension 137 or whatever.  In turn, when I’m needed to be an extra checker or to meet with someone, the various managers have been very nice about paging me by my name-and-department or by my whole name.  I’ve not really bothered to explain the whole Auditory Processing Disorder thing; I’ve just said that it’s hard for me to understand the pages sometimes, especially if my head’s down in a refrigerated case  with its noisy fans, or I’m in the back room pulling stuff out of shipping cartons.

But you know, it’s difficult to explain faceblindness in 25-words-or-less.  No one’s heard of it, and the fact that I can in some manner still identify some people enough of the time makes it even more baffling to people.  And of course, there’s the old, “Oh, I have trouble remembering names and faces sometimes, too.”

Well, yeah.  But you still recognize people, in a split-second of unconscious thought.  You are aware that you know these people.  You may even know where you know all those people from. You just have trouble remembering the names that go with those faces.

I never do.  And except for the couple-dozen very morphologically distinctive customers, I’m not likely to remember any of them.

Silly people, they keep changing their physical characteristics, wearing different clothes through the seasons, changing their hairstyles, their purses, their hats or glasses, and so on.  Sometimes they have family members with them, and sometimes not.  Their children have this incredible ability to grow and morph dramatically.  And of course, the customers keep changing the details of how they interact with me, and will need my help finding something in one aisle or another, or check out at different times of day, or whatever.  Good heavens, sometimes people whom I know from other parts of my life will come through — the pharmacist will be shopping in their street clothes instead of standing behind their counter in a lab coat, my neighbor, or a former student will greet me, and they usually expect me to know them when they are out of their usual environments.  (At least my ophthalmologist understands that I’ve hardly ever seen him with my glasses on.)

Alas, the world is too full of generic people seen on an intermittent basis.  Once in a great while, somebody comes by to ask me a question, and it isn’t until they begin to speak to me that everything clicks, and I realize this is my daughter or son-in-law!

I’m really quite helpful to customers, am conscientious about getting the stock rotated and shelved with the right price tag, do a great job of setting up displays, make a point to be sure that the back stock is checked so it gets on the floor, am careful when bagging so the cold items are together and the eggs are all okay and the bread and produce doesn’t get squished, and so on.

It’s just that I will never be able to learn very many customers, or even all the employees.  And much as I would like to have this magical skill that 98% of the rest of the population has, my disability is far outweighed by all the other things that I can do well.  I’m not lazy or stupid.  It’s just that I have an invisible disability.

“Attention grocery shoppers!”

“We have a special going on in our natural foods aisle, right now!  You can get your specialty questions answered by our very own over-educated scientist-grocery stocker!  That’s right, weekends and evenings only, over in our natural foods aisle!  And THANK YOU for shopping your local supermarket chain grocery!”

Oh, boy.

It’s one thing to be helping someone find the curious location where the grocery manager decided to stock the barley.  No, not with the rice and beans — that’d be too easy; it’s with the bouillon.

And it’s another thing — but I get ahead of myself.  (Alas, when I do that I’m likely to trip over my own feet and sprain an ankle, but that’s hypermobility for you).

One evening, every other row of fluorescent lights was off, as was the canned music.  Apparently they were filming a commercial or some advertising stills. Whatever, we had a couple hours of bliss.  Why can’t the store be so calm and pleasant all the time?  Because the people who study customer behavior say that noise and lights are important.  Or maybe the grocery industry just thinks that noise and lights are important.  Or maybe old research suggested such.  Or maybe stores are following some historical misinterpretation of behavioral research. Hell if I know.  As for me, the canned music just adds unnecessary background noise, aggravating my Auditory Processing Disorder.  Did someone just page Manager to the Customer Service Desk or Andrea to the Customer Service Desk?  Did my boss just page me to dial 14 or aisle 14?  “Oops, sorry, mis-heard you with all the background noise,” I apologise to an older gentleman, as I lead him away from the [recycled paper] brown plates to the bran flakes.

Sometimes a customer will ask for something not on the shelf, so I helpfully zip down to the back room to see if there’s any in backstock. Usually, there isn’t, because by definition, backstock is the overflow that won’t fit on the shelves.  Alas, if I’m in a distracted mood, I will forget to make a mental note of what the customer is wearing, and upon my return, will have that panicked second when I realise that they have moved onto another aisle, and I am supposed to find them.  Oh, the perils of being faceblind: I can’t remember people!  Were they alone, or with another adult, or children?  Did they have a large or small cart?  Do I have any idea of whether they were male, female, or some overbundled or indeterminately-coiffed gender?  Were they were pink- or brown-skinned?  Hat? Fancy purse?  Team jacket?  Why can’t everyone be as distinctive as the fellow who dressed like Eddie Izzard’s less-chic sibling?

My other problem of course, is that I actually answer the questions about the things we sell.  Some day, someone is going to get annoyed.

Once in a while I stock groceries over in the natural foods section.  It’s pretty much like stocking groceries over in the unnatural foods section, except that omitting artificial coloring makes food more expensive.  That and the aisles are narrower, so I have to park the flatbed down at the ends of the aisles and lug more cases.  One day I forgot my knee pads, and realised with a heavy note of irony that stocking all the arthritis treatments was making my knees ache.

“Um, where do you sell the sugar?”

“The sugar?” I repeat, buying a moment’s time while I re-engage my customer-conversation scripts, and activate my mental map of the store.

“Yes, I want the sugar without any chemicals.”

Omigod.  Aside from bottled water, the bags of sugar are probably one of the purest chemical resources in the entire store.

“But sugar is just sucrose; it doesn’t have any added chemicals,”  I manage to shut my mouth before going onto explain that sucrose is a disaccharide of glucose and fructose.  Nobody cares … “Here are our organically-grown sugars on this shelf.  And we also have sucanat and turbinado, if you’d like.”  (These latter two are less-processed forms of cane sugar; they have varying amounts of tasty molasses impurities that also make them brown.)

Honestly, a “chemical” is simply a substance with a defined composition.    You already know what H2O is.  Sucrose is C12H22O11 – there are 12 Carbon molecules, 22 Hydrogen molecules and 11 Oxygen molecules.  Of course, just knowing how many atoms of each element isn’t enough – other sugars such as lactose and maltose also have the same formula.  The differences are in how those atoms are arranged.

And if you’re shopping for plant fertilizer, a nitrate is a nitrate is a nitrate, and they’re all NO3-. The plant doesn’t care where the molecules came from, nor can it tell the difference if the nitrate came from an organic (naturally-derived) source or an artificially-manufactured source.  That said, organic fertilizers are more expensive and less concentrated, but are less likely to result in a build-up of salts atop the potting soil.

But please, don’t ask me for anything “chemical-free”; the only thing that is “chemical free” is an absolute vacuum.

I retrieve random things left on the shelves, where someone has left a box of Big Name mac & cheese amongst the organic mac & cheese, a shopping list, a wee sample cup given out by the guy flogging new flavors of hummus, and a box of Airborne.

“What does that do?” asks the other grocery stocker, gesturing at the colorful box that proclaimed, “Created by a school teacher!”

“Nothing.  There’s no research evidence to support it at all.  A grade-school teacher is not the same thing as a compounding pharmacologist.”  Were I in charge of ordering, we wouldn’t waste shelf space for nonsense like that, or for things like Bragg vinegar that is supposed to “help remove body sludge toxins”.  Body sludge toxins, what nonsense!  (I suppose it’d help the lime buildup in my sink drain.)

“Excuse me, where are your all-natural gummy candies?”

Because you know, gummy candies are so natural. Wow, I’d love to have a shrub that produced gummies, especially the cherry and liquorice sorts.  Does the soil have to be aerated by gummy worms?  I hope it’s not thorny …  “They’re over here, on the top shelf.  Is there anything else for which you’re looking?”

“Attention grocery shoppers!  Are you looking for holiday candy and merchandise?  You can find it all over in aisle 14, where we have a wide selection of holiday candies in Fun Sizes, all your same favorites as the last holiday, but wrapped in this holiday’s color themes!  Don’t forget to get some holiday-themed merchandise for your loved ones, and holiday-themed party goods as well. And THANK YOU for shopping your local supermarket chain grocery!”

We Mutants

“Now remember — you’re special, just like everyone else!”

It seems that classic punch line (for all the jokes on useless self-esteem boosters) was never truer.  At the ever-entertaining NeuroLogica Blog, Steven Novella explains recent findings that everyone is a mutant.

Given my numerous neurological quirks, I had long assumed my mutant status to be true, and when finally diagnosed with prosopagnosia (which can result from a single point mutation), I then took it to be a given.

As Novella, points out, not all mutations give one super-powers; in fact, most of mutations are neither beneficial nor detrimental.  There’s certainly nothing exciting about hyperacussis, as I’d previously described in Can you sue your Fairy Godmother for malpractice? Some things like the are just annoying; were I graceful, the hypermobility might have enabled me to be a dancer or gymnast.  Instead, I’m just arthritic and bruised, for all it’s handy to always be able to reach that itchy spot.

100 – 200 mutations per person may be trivial in the genomic sense, but is far from trivial when considering human diversity.  Mutation is normal.  It’s ubiquitous.  Not only are there no “perfectly average” people, but we’re all mutants.  Now, can we finally lay disablism, transphobia, and the rest of the xenophobic rot to rest?

Now ‘scuse me while I go for a soak in the tub; maybe I can distract meself from this silly jingle that’s gotten stuck in my head:

I’m a mutant, you’re a mutant, xe’s a mutant, too.

We’re all alike in our differences, so whatcha gonna do?

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.

The very model of a social disability

BayDisability has begun blogging about prosopagnosia, and how it affects her life.  Because hers is an acquired case, it has affected her profoundly.  (Amazingly, it’s not some strange story she came up with to create “lesbian drama”! Oy.)

I have to say that from the self-reports I’ve read, faceblindness due to injury is much more disabling than the developmental (genetic) sort, such as I have.  I think this is probably due to the fact that for those of us who have always been this way, our brains have adapted to using auxiliary clues from the start.

We don’t know any other way of identifying people than through their overall physical shape, gait, voice, hair style, mannerisms, and favorite articles of clothing.  We do however, spend our lives in a perpetual state of background free-floating anxiety due to either not knowing why we have problems, or being aware of our problems and then trying to consciously apply what coping methods we can.

This is not to say that despite our limited coping abilities, we don’t have the typical long litanies of embarrassing moments of not recognising people, of mis-recognising people (thinking a person is someone else), of “twinning” two similar people into one, of “losing” familiar people (even family members!) in crowds, of misunderstanding movie plots, of being totally clueless about celebrities, of being stressed to the gills with learning new job tasks as well as trying to reliably identify a couple of key people, of …

However, the person who acquires prosopagnosia has a much harder time with the socially disabling aspects.  And with faceblindness, it’s all socially disabling, and the “social model of disability” is apparent to a degree that warrants billboard-size attention.  The “social model of disability” refers to Read the rest of this entry »


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.

“Mama said,

‘There’ll be days like this,’

‘There’ll be days like this,’ Mama said.”

The Shirelles, “Mama Said”

Coming down with some virus most likely, as the school nurse says it doesn’t look like strep throat (despite the sore throat that’s making it hard to lecture).  I can deal with that.

Headache, only ’bout a 4 out of 10, not so bad of itself. I can deal with that.

Ditto the tinnitus, which alas, seems to be making it more difficult to understand people, especially those students more than a few feet away from me, which is most of the time — why do the most soft-spoken students sit in the back corner?  The auditory processing glitches don’t help, either; I’m sure some of the students think I’m not paying attention, or am losing my hearing.  At least no one is going around yelling to me in the mistaken impression that volume = clarity.

Five hours sleep.  Definitely need to get to sleep sooner, and I would were it not for the class prep I have to do before and after classes.  Okay, now it’s getting really challenging.  I’m dropping words in the middle of my sentences once or twice an hour, and does that ever make me feel stupid.

I’m hungry because I didn’t eat much due to the sore throat & canker sore.

Two of the pieces of paper I really needed to have with me were not in my binder.  No, I’m sorry, I don’t remember the date of the next exam right off the top of my head.  No, I’m sorry, I haven’t memorized the ID labels to all of the slides (but I can tell you what’s important about the slide).

We were reviewing the results of the first exam.  This is the first college-level science class that many of the students have had, and some of them haven’t had a science class in years.  Bumpy ride.  It’s also the first full exam I have written, and every teacher knows the hidden hazards of writing such.

For some reason I decided to hand the graded exams out, rather than just letting the students pick their own test up.  I’m faceblind, and have not yet memorized the seating chart.  Definite planning error on my part.

My PowerPoint — that delightful gizmo that helps keep the tired, the distracted, the forgetful, the sick, and the first-time teacher from losing track of the game plan — the PowerPoint file on my flashdrive proved to be an older version that did not have the other half of the slides I needed to remind me what I was going to tell the class this evening. That too, of itself I could deal with, although the presentation was not at smooth as I would have liked, and we had to go back a few times and fill in something I had not mentioned earlier.

But all of these things together, oy vey!  I muddled through everything, but did not feel very brilliant or smooth.  I didn’t even have all of the lab equipment fully prepped because I had rushed in right before class.

And then shortly after class started, one of the professors came in to do a surprise Observation of me as a new instructor.

At least I didn’t have my trouser zip left undone, or have a strip of toilet paper (loo roll) stuck to my boot!

Mama said there’ll be days like this …

Cartoon: “Efficiency”

This cartoon is composed of four pages,

each of which bears a caption at the bottom of the page.

What, weighting scores?

Andrea’s Buzzing About: “Efficiency” A female Geek and older female User are seated at a desk, where the Geek is giving the User some instruction in how to use a program. A male Techie stops by the door. Geek to User: "... so you need to set up a user file with the ID 'foo@farble'; save that before moving onto the next step. --Yes?" Techie to Geek: "Here is the report doc." Geek to Techie: "Did the update load?" Techie replies: "Good-for-go with 3.0; included in the backup." Geek replies: "Excellent, thank you." The Techie leaves without further ado. Geek continues to User: "Now, the next step is to set up the database; you can do this with weighted or unweighted scores, the former being used for --" User: "How rude!" Geek: "What, weighting scores?"

Read the rest of this entry »

Bits and Pieces

I’ll never earn a Good Blogkeeping Seal of Approval* if I don’t get around to mentioning these diverse pieces of news!

I am remiss in mentioning Greg Williams’ wonderful cartooning work; he does a weekly piece called “Blogjam” for the Tampa Tribune (Florida newspaper), where he illustrates people’s stories as described in their blogs. Recently he did one based up my prosopagnosia page, “I’m Strange, You’re A Stranger”.

There are updates on my Hypermobility page for the curious, including handy-dandy medical information links for those who “Need more input!” (An “Ooh, shiny!” for whomever can name that movie reference?)

The latest Circus of the Spineless is up at the Seeds Aside — my antennae are all a-quiver with excitement. Such great reading for wasting time relaxing after a long day’s work, especially if you are also “feeling sluggish” like some of us.

My mum used to tell the tale that as a mere tot I tried to check out (shoplift) a book of dirty limericks. Of course, everyone assumed that I couldn’t read them … those limericks came back to haunt me when Akusai produced the 87th Skeptic’s Circle: Dirty Limericks Edition.

And just for fun, the connection with Asperger’s has been made before, but A. A. Gill does it best of all.

* No, I don’t think there really is a GBSoA — and I certainly wouldn’t apply for a housekeeping seal with the amount of clutter everywhere from these three dozen ongoing projects!

Clonal antibodies

“Clonal antibodies” was the phrase that came to mind. Which really had nothing to do with the news image I was seeing, it was just my brain doing the AD/HD-randomizer trick again.

Or, maybe the words did have something to do with the photograph. I was looking at an AP Photo by Tony Gutierrez, one of many recent photographs of the mothers from the The Fundamental Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, as they stood in front of the courthouse:

Clonal was in a sense true. All nine of these white women are garbed in nearly identical frocks, a rather loose-fitting style that the press is referring to as “prairie dresses”, made of plain pastel blue, lavender, teal or green fabric, with long sleeves pleated at the shoulders, bodices buttoned all the way up to the collars, and reverse-pleated ankle-length skirts. Not only that, but Read the rest of this entry »

Three strikes and you’re Out!

My first job was scooping ice cream. Normally someone would come up to the counter, tell me what they’d want, and then would stay there until we traded money for cone. The system worked fine most of the time. I could keep track of my customers fairly easily because the shop did not have high volumes of traffic, and the narrow store-front meant both limited seating for customers (most of whom promptly left) and that the servers stayed behind the counter.

At the time, I had no idea how much difficulty I really had recognising people. It had never occurred to me that there was a reason why I hardly knew anyone at school besides a few teachers. Because I didn’t really go anywhere around town, I had not really encountered the issues of not recognising familiar people outside of their familiar contexts. The narrowly-defined social worlds of my life was an effect of the faceblindness, and perpetuated my continued unawareness. I’d had inklings on previous occasions when I could not find or identify people, but lacking any way of comparing my inability to others’ abilities, my faux pas were considered to be rudeness or stupidity on my part, rather than an organic problem.

There behind the ice cream counter, I unwittingly kept track of my customers by their position at the counter, and by their shirts or hair style … which if the shop was not crowded, worked pretty well. There would be the tall guy with the crew-cut in a white cowboy shirt, the skinny girl with the afro in a glittery tank top, the big mom in a pink muu-muu with two little kids in tow, and so on. Of course I knew who got which kind of ice cream, no problem.

And then one day a softball team came in, some dozen white girls, all wearing the same jersey, and they all seemed to have their blond hair up in pony-tails. It was the most queasily-disorienting sensation, as though the same person had been multiplied (“cloned” was not yet in the public vernacular). Of course, all the girls were bouncing around changing positions to see the different flavors of ice creams, and going back and forth chattering with each other. They wouldn’t even stay put in the queue for me to keep track of them!

By the third serving, I had absolutely NO idea for whom I had just scooped, and just stood there with the cone held up in my trembling hand, “Who wanted the praline on a sugar-cone?” They all look at me with disdain, and the gal flounced up and grabbed it, and re-joined her giggling mates.

Mortified, I stared down at the lines of ice cream tubs, trying to remember the next flavor and focusing on scooping it out into a perfect ball.

I couldn’t put my finger on why, but I knew that I was uncomfortable with trying to keep track of which customers had which orders. Worse, I couldn’t figure out how everyone else knew the “regulars”, those customers that came by frequently and always got the same thing. I just figured that somehow the other ice cream shop employees knew those people from other parts of their life — that they knew them in other capacities than simply as frequent patrons whom they recognised.

It never occurred to me that it was odd that I never noticed anyone I knew when I was out shopping or running errands. When I couldn’t recognise the neighbors my mom chatted with in local shops or restaurants, I just assumed they were part of the vast horde of adults that my parents knew but I didn’t — I didn’t realise that they were people whom I should have known. I never “ran into” anyone when I was out, partly because I knew so very few people, and partly because I could not recognise them if they were “out of place” from where I was used to seeing them.

It was only a summer job and I didn’t get into social trouble very often by just keeping track of people by their shirts and haircuts. But the experience did serve to keep me away from employment in food service or retail from then on.

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.

Rare sightings

A few weeks ago I was teaching one of my gardening classes when a student came up to me during break and identified herself to me again. I’d already taken roll at the beginning of class by way of having the students tell me their names, as no one ever mispronounces their own name. Despite having heard her say her name and also seeing in print where I’d checked it on my roster, I hadn’t made that connection.

I know her. Or, knew her — we’d had a class together about eight years ago. Once she pointed that out, I recognised the name as being familiar, and excused myself by way of saying that I’m really bad at remembering faces. Read the rest of this entry »


I went in to get my driver’s license renewed. Part of that ended up getting my name entered correctly into the system; convolutions on my name seem to follow me everywhere! And of course, there’s always the ordeal of smiling for the photograph. This involves a story in two parts.

No one looks good in their identification photos, or at least that’s the impression I get from hearing people’s comments. They complain that the picture “doesn’t look like” them. Sometimes people feel compelled to pull out their new license or employer ID tag or school ID card and show it to me, which leads me to shake my head sympathetically and say something blandly supportive, like, “Yeah, what can you do!”

Truth be told, I can’t really recognise people from their ID pictures. I don’t even think that the pictures look necessarily lousy, aside from obvious annoyances like having a “bad hair day”, crooked clothing, or less-than-steller compositional framing. True, identification photos always have that flat, full-front angle that removes distinctive profiles, and the artificial lighting saps the natural color from most everyone’s skin tones. I’m sure those are some of the reasons why people don’t like their ID photos.

But one part that I’m missing is the, Read the rest of this entry »

How hard can it be?

A few years ago I had the pleasure of providing the annual Inservice training session for a university’s tutoring department. One of the themes I explored in brief was how tutees, especially those with various learning disabilities, may have processing difficulties. We have to take information in, make sense of it, retrieve information, and then be able to relay information back. Various kinds of learning disabilities interfere with steps in this process, and the interference can happen at more than one step, especially when a person has more than one kind of difficulty. (Learning disabilities and other physiological issues are often co-occurring, technically known by the dreadful-sounding term of “comorbid”.)

The upshot of all this is that any “speed-bumps” or “road-blocks” in the processing will result in slow processing (it takes longer to do things), or uneven processing (some days it’s more difficult to do things, not always for apparent reasons), or intermittent or chronic inabilities to do things (being able to do things on some days or in some hours, but not others, can be more frustrating than never being able to do them).

There are a variety of disabilities out there, but instead of describing how each one can affect a person’s ability to respond in educational efforts, I’m going to describe how processing works in general, and at which steps some disabilities become apparent.

Whenever we interact with the world, there is a whole series of steps that has to happen. Let’s take the subject of, “Answering a question asked of you”. Most people assume that this is really simple, and thus, easy. Hah! 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 »

New tools you didn’t even know you needed!

For all of the philosophic ruminating about words and language and the uses of signifiers, there is yet a power to creating words, to naming things. Once we create a word, we now have yet another handy mental place-maker for retrieving that information. Once we create a word, we can share it with other people, thus giving ourselves a tool for introducing ideas and discussing them. Naming is a kind of power, for it can help create something de novo, and “give flesh” to nascent ideas.

When we find or create and use words, we can spread these new ideas and discuss them. Just as disciplines need their specialised jargon, and new disciplines need new specialised jargon, other fields of human endeavour need their jargon. Although the jargon of a group can be used badly to outgroup, it can also be used constructively to serve as a tool for unifying dissimilar people and sharing ideas, and it can also “legitimise” groups by giving them something of a more “real” or “solid” presence.

Sometimes I make up words because they don’t exist, but I still need them. Frequently I borrow somewhat obscure words from various disciplines. And sometimes people borrow words from other languages. One of my favourite word-nerd books is, They have a word for it: a lighthearted lexicon of untranslatable words & phrases by Howard Rheingold.

As we endeavour to create new paradigms in the world, we need extra tools and new tools in our toolboxes. So here’s my first installment for you (I’ll add some words of my own eventually-soon). Here’s a list of words you didn’t even know you needed, many with my own (necessarily briefer) definitions, and my own pronunciations: 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 »


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 »

Who Owns It?

“It’s not about YOU,” I explained, although I had that dreaded sinking sensation that although the words flowed by her ears and pinballed through the processing areas of her brain, that although she was hearing and listening and understanding the verbiage, the other staff member was also not really understanding what the hell I meant. Meanwhile, the children around us were bouncing around in various levels of happiness, impulsiveness, mild disobedience, and general obliviousness to rules. As long as no one was getting hurt, the minor details of behaviour didn’t matter; this was yet another day at the city pool, in a long line of such overly-hot summer days at the city pool.

“It’s not about what you’re doing,” I tried in vain to rephrase, although my efforts were getting to be pretty lame by this time in the afternoon, what with the combination of summer heat, the impact of children’s high-decibel noise aggravated by hyperacussis, and the strain of trying to track a dozen children despite mild faceblindness. “I mean, how you handle it does matter, but …” I stared into the distance, as one of our charges was wandering around with her bathing suit bottom halfway up one buttock. I kept track of our children by remembering what bathing suits they were wearing, so I was predisposed to notice such. “But it’s not about you.” I finished, flapping my hands a bit in agitation as those words were still in my verbal buffer, but I was instead needing to formulate some kind of sentence directed to another staff member closer to our wayward girl.

“Oh, he’s just being defiant, and I’m not going to let him,” she replied in the self-assured manner of the barely-twenty-something, and left me to go refill her cup of iced cola. I heaved a big sigh at the idea of “letting” someone be defiant, and went to intercept one of our autistic boys so he wouldn’t toss bits of paper into an air conditioner fan.

There are some children who are just explosive in temperament, for any number of reasons. Handling such children is always tricky, because it’s all to easy to get sucked into the whole situation and end up aggravating the dynamic instead of damping it.

Some children get angry because they are being defiant, and are pushing you into a power struggle. We’re familiar with how this works with toddlers who return instruction with a, “NO!” The best approach for such is to give them choices that are acceptable to you – the toddler feels they now have some measure of immediate control over their life, and yet you are still in ultimate control by being able to select options that are appropriate. Teenagers are sometimes like toddlers-with-hormones, and frequently benefit from similar tactics. In any regard, you shouldn’t respond to the power struggle, but rather respond to the situation and help the child understand the options they have available to them, and how to anticipate the results of their choices. (Sometimes I hate to use the word “consequences” because it has gotten so laden with meaning punishments.)

This particular staff member was predictably playing into the power struggle, and was determined that she was going to “win” by proving something or another to the child. However, this child wasn’t really being defiant in the volitional sense. The defiance wasn’t premeditated or consciously malicious. This was just one of those children who didn’t have sufficiently well-developed mental “brakes” to be self-aware, anticipate things, and stop himself before he reacted to situations. Such children frequently have low frustration levels, which are also a result of this kind of dysfunction.

The issue here was many-fold. For one thing, the staff member was reacting to the effects of the problem (the blow-ups) instead of the cause of the problem (the child’s processing dysfunction, plus the ongoing presence of situations that fed into the blow-ups). For another thing, the staff member believed that she had a lot more ownership of the solution to the problem than she did. She probably also likely believed that the child had a lot more ownership of the cause of the problem than he did. But although the child rarely meant to get so upset or angry, he still had to have some responsibility for what he did, otherwise he would end up reneging on most of his personal responsibility and go from being a child with a problem to being a brat with a problem.

It’s one of those weird little subconscious glitches in our brains that leads us to make fundamental attribution errors – our own lapses are caused by environmental reasons (“I of course couldn’t help but be incoherent as the heat and noise was making me tired”), but other’s lapses are caused by their moral failing (“but she was being foolish”). Staff members, teachers and other people usually assign successes to themselves, and failures to the children.

But in real life, education “takes two to tango” – both the teacher and the student need to work at the process. So does engaging in arguments – the second person has to continue to give the first person enough responses that reinforce all the hollering and carrying-on.

Diffusing these explosive situations is difficult. We have to figure out just when a child is being truly manipulative, and when it’s some kind of cognitive dysfunction, and when it’s a child with some kind of cognitive dysfunction that on that day is just being manipulative – life is messy! Sometimes we can identify what kinds of situations tend to spark these meltdowns, and then during a good time, discuss with the child what ways we could work with them to change things so they would be less problematic. We can also defuse or at least reduce those meltdowns by not giving into the power struggles. We have to remain compassionate, but detached. Be calm, remove extra people from the situation, give plenty of personal space, have open and friendly body language to reduce the feeling of threat, even be silent sometimes to let the argument fizzle out. After the child has calmed down then we can reflect with them in an objective manner about what happened, what needs to be done to rectify the problem by restitution to the others who were involved, and work proactively to reduce such future events.

But as I redirected the boy from flicking bits of paper to flicking pool water, I realised that I would not be able to “make” the other staff member understand something until she was ready to look beyond the necessity for “not letting” him do something. I could not control her need to “win” the argument any more than she could control his need to not quit an activity when it was time to leave.

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!


No Eye for Beauty

Let me set the stage with a visual here:

Flight attendant: “Would you like a copy of People magazine to read?”
Me: “Er, no thank you. Do you have Scientific American or Popular Mechanics?”

Why on earth would I want to read People magazine? I don’t know who most of those people are, even though they’re supposed to be famous actors or beautiful models or important politicians. My teenage daughter says that the same famous actor was in both the Lord of the Rings and Pirates of the Caribbean movies, and I’ll have to take her word for it; I certainly can’t tell! Furthermore, I don’t care about fashion models or makeup. Although I understand why others do, from a strictly intellectual (anthropological) basis: celebrities are important figures in the greater tribe, therefore it behooves us to be able to recognise them.

Among the faceblind there is the concept of “Gorbachev effect” – even the faceblind person can recognize Mikhail Gorbachev because of the distinctive port-wine stain birthmark on his head. (Well, assuming that the guy isn’t wearing a hat …) It’s much easier to recognize someone who is highly divergent from the mean. The more striking people are often either “ugly” in some way, or very distinctive from the local group by virtue of ethnicity or body feature.

This may be one reason why I gravitate towards environments such as graduate school with all the international students, or special education with all of the physical differences. Unfortunately, identification is by distinguishing characteristic — one Indian woman among fifty very “vanilla” North Americans stands out, as does one boy with Down’s Syndrome in a regular classroom. Put her in a family wedding party or him in a Special Olympics tournament, then to my horror I find that they have suddenly disappeared from my visual horizon and I can no longer find “my” person by facial exception. Then I must rely on the slower and less certain factors of gait, voice, mannerisms, or overall body form.

In studying animal behavior, Ron Prokopy came up with the idea of a “supernormal stimulus”, meaning a behavioral sign stimulus that is larger-than-life, something even better and more exciting. For an entomology example, when controlling apple flies we can hang a sticky-coated red ball in an apple tree that still has small, green fruits on it. The apple fly females see this ball that is larger and redder than all the other fruits, and are (fatally) attracted to it as an optimal resource for laying their eggs.

People who are considered to be exceptionally beautiful exhibit a kind of supernormal stimulus: their features are more optimal by being more regular and symmetric than the average person’s. Their features are not just normal exemplars (models) of what a desirable human should look like; they are supernormal, hence they are supermodels.

The ultimate causality for being attracted to “beautiful” people is that even, normal features suggest both good genes and good health. Even though there are various fads among cultures and time periods about what is considered to be “sexy” or “attractive”, there are still some basic qualities that are universally perceived as beautiful because they suggest a healthy, young adult that would be a good mate choice.

From a proximate standpoint, the faceblind person may prefer the faces of people who are distinctive, because they can be more easily recognized, and thus are associated with less stress of identification, and because they increase the likelihood of repeated identification. As you might expect, faceblindness plays hell with dating. (It also has more insidious effects, such as playing hell with one’s ability to network on the job scene — even the person that one can eventually learn to identify on the job won’t necessarily be identifiable in another time and place, plus the faceblind person simply doesn’t build up that large number of interpersonal connections that the neurotypical person does.)

My husband is not extremely different in appearance, albeit when dating he had a beard and wore his hair longer than most men at the time. Alas, he no longer does, and when he’s barbered in an everyday manner I have mananged to lose him in plain sight multitudinous times in our 25 years of marriage. When I misplace him yet again, I stop to try and remember what he was wearing, which is usually a blue shirt (he is very fond of such) but unfortunately so are hundreds of other people. While otherwise focused on taking photographs of plants at a botanic garden, I eventually realised that I’d been absentmindedly tracking the wrong “person in a blue shirt and khaki shorts” (a surprisingly common subspecies of Homo sapiens — even the male of the couple we were visiting was dressed identically, so the guys appeared twinned). Although I can spot a single Viola pedatifida in a prairie, I can’t find my husband in a crowd, so I had to call him on his mobile to arrange a meeting location, whereupon he naturally spotted me first and semaphored dramatically so I could notice him standing there 50 feet away. And so it goes!

In smaller environments, I listen for him, for his asthmatic breathing pattern and his distinctively heavy tread. It’s a good thing that he can recognise me, because he’s hard of hearing, and besides, I have what others have described as an alarmingly light tread (I “sneak up on” them) when I’m not clumsily crashing into objects.

Although there is an innate preference for certain kinds of symmetric beauty among all humans, it would be interesting to see if developmental prosopagnosics are able to distinguish among sets of faces those that are generally considered to be more attractive, and if they are personally more attracted to distinctive faces than those that are generally considered to be more attractive in the normal or supernormal sense. The further purpose to such a line of enquiry would be to explore how much of the concept of “beauty” is innately bound to the process of facial integration and recognition!

Personally I suspect that most faceblind people could identify someone as being classically pretty, but would have different qualifiers on whom they personally find attractive.

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