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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Problems With Solutions

Students will fail to succeed, or outright fail a subject, for a variety of reasons. Sometimes they have learning disabilities, sometimes they have health issues, sometimes their underachievement results from motivational issues. Oft times there are sticky combinations of these causes. In any regard, there’s a long and sadly-familiar road trod by the triad of parents, student and school staff in the effort to rectify the situation.

Unless the underlying causes are obvious (such as health issues), the common cause assigned to the student’s underachievement is usually motivational problems. This is especially true if the student did okay in the earlier grades, but their marks gradually slip lower with succeeding years, or their marks are irregular within the same subject. Which is not to say that there might not also be various learning difficulties that are exacerbating the student’s motivational issues – it’s hard to keep applying yourself when you can’t understand why your results are so erratic. When students can’t understand the cause and effect, they tend to assign difficulties to external forces, and feel they they have little power over the results of their efforts.

Unfortunately, the first impulses of the dyad of adults in these situations, those solutions for tracking the student’s progress and ensuring their successful completion of school work, can often end up making the situation worse. Alas, in the end, everyone ends up more stressed than before. The solutions create more problems instead of rectifying them …

Although assignment books or pages are meant to enhance communication between school and home about what the student needs to do, they often end up creating an even tenser situation. (Here we are talking about those that are ongoing missives between the adults, not simply a resource for the student.) These are theoretically carried to and fro by the student, keeping everyone apprised of what has been assigned and has been completed. Unfortunately, the focus of this exercise frequently turns to what the adults need to “make” the student do, and upon what the student has not done. (Note: it’s nearly impossible to “make” someone do something; you cannot “make” a child fall asleep or eat or learn.) The frustrated adults become angry at the student, repeatedly reminding the child of how they have failed yet again. Blame-assigning sets in, and each half of the adult dyad accuses the other of “not doing their part” because obviously, were the other set of adults doing their job, the student would be getting the work done and turn in promptly!

Amazingly, all this tension and attention does not improve the student’s performance. Indeed, the student now feels pitted between two large forces, wanting to please everyone but instead having their incompetence repeatedly confirmed. Instead of empowering everyone to help the student, everyone has instead become disempowered, frustrated, and adversarial.

Sometimes the adult dyad will resort to behavioral report or the daily or weekly progress reports for the student. These can suffer many of the same issues as the assignment book, by focusing entirely upon negatives. When poorly structured, the reports end up being little more than tallies of daily sins. It is very disconcerting for anyone to be under the microscope all the time; slight transgressions and ordinary human weaknesses become quantified and magnified. The child become identified with a bad score, even the hollow nothingness of “being a zero”. The student may also end up in the trap of false dichotomies, seeking to be perfect, and failing that, falling to utter failure. Here the student is expected to take responsibility for their behavior, but then simultaneous loses more of the control and personal power of the situation.

Focusing only on a student’s weaknesses creates a heavily biased view of the student. Everyone has weaknesses, but successful students learn how to lead with their strengths and how to accommodate or compensate for their weaknesses. A good plan needs to focus upon how the student is improving. The student needs help to learn how to plan ahead and effectively deal with inconsistencies in achievement that are simply part of the human condition. They also need to learn how their successes are derived from what they have done, rather than from random outside forces, and how they are not only responsible for their behavior (in the sense of receiving its consequences) but also capable of effective positive changes in it as well.

When many people are faced with noncompliant underlings (students, children or anyone lesser in the hierarchy), their first impulse is to punish them: “When people are bad, they deserve to be punished. When people are good, they deserve to be rewarded.” Rewards in such cases are simply the flip side of punishments. The problems with punishments are complex and not immediately apparent, because the system of punishment and reward (including the heavily-marketed “logical consequences”) is so heavily entrenched in our culture.

The problem with punishments is that they change the focus from the activity itself to those punishments and rewards. They also change the focus from a person’s internal, intrinsic pleasure at doing something, to something extrinsic: the avoidance of pain or the attainment of pleasure. Any activity (even one that is naturally interesting to a person) can lose its natural appeal under such conditions, and people do not work as effectively or as imaginatively. Instead of improving work ability, such external systems actually end up reducing it.

Furthermore, placing punishments and rewards into the situation takes the responsibility from the person doing the work, and places it in the hands of the people handing out the punishments and rewards. It’s no surprise that students end up focused on what they will get for doing something, rather than simply doing it because it needs to be done. Success thus requires an outside system to ensure that the jobs are done. Sometimes the rewards are so far in the future (a month or a semester away) that the cause and effect linkage cannot be made at the simple behavioral level – there’s no relevance to what is happening today, and how the student feels at the moment. Reward inflation also occurs, where ongoing jobs or more complex jobs need bigger and bigger rewards to ensure their completion. Punishment inflation can also occur, because the student may decide that the punishment is not nearly as bad as the fear of failure or other dismotivating state. Ultimatums like being grounded for a month (the parental version of house-arrest) or sending children away also do not work. Either the child knows that the parent won’t follow through, or if they do send the child off to someplace dreadful, the child learns that their scholastic achievements are more important to the parent than their love for the child as a person.

Assignment books, progress reports, or punishments and rewards rarely have good long-term benefits because they are poor teaching tools. They work on the assumption that fear or bribery are good teachers. Not only do they teach the wrong things (fearing and hating authority, or needing to be bribed to do things), they also do not teach the right things.

They don’t teach the person how to persevere when frustrated, or how to solve their own inner difficulties, or how to monitor their own efforts, and how to adapt to new situations. As a result, they don’t help a student become a more independent learner and worker, or how to think critically and problem-solve. In short, they leave students very poorly equipped to be independent adults. (Guess what happens when the student then goes to university …)

We don’t want to assign blame to various people, or to punish our children and students for having problems. Instead, we want to help them learn to problem-solve, and acquire the skills they need so they can figure out how to solve future problems.

This means stepping outside of these established defensive and offensive modes of interaction. It means listening to the student’s frustrations without denying the validity of the feelings (even though the premises upon which they are based may be faulty). It means demonstrating how to break down overwhelming jobs into smaller tasks, and how to create organisational structures that are self-enabling. It means initiating work by starting from a place of competency and asking the student what they do know, rather than telling them what they ought to know. It’s not something that is accomplished quickly, especially when the poor mental habits have taken a long time to become established. It takes a while for the student to re-frame their self-perception, and to install more effective work habits.

Parents and school staff also assign blame on each other, and get defensive when one side asserts that the reason for the student’s difficulties lies in the other’s incompetence. This ends up putting the adult dyad into offensive-defensive modes as well, thus blocking positive change.

We don’t need parents who are better warriors at IEP meetings, when in fact they really want to be helping the teachers understand how neat their children are, and sharing their insights about the child’s strengths and interests.

We don’t need school staff who are better at defending the Local Education Authority’s policies, when in fact what they really want to be doing is sharing their enthusiasm for various subjects with the students, but in fact end up cornered by employers that create systems that interfere with imaginative teaching.

We do need team members who can collaborate with each other and with the student, and who can teach the knowledge and tools they will need to be better masters of their own destinies. That is what education should ultimately be about, rather than about creating more compliant student masses.

Whining From Another Hysterical Female

Don’t get me wrong — I’ve actually had good results with most of the professionals whom I have seen. It would be rather a fallacy to broadwash a whole bunch of specialists on account of a few fools. But boy, when you run into an fool, it’s usually a doozy!

It’s been a long few years getting various difficulties sorted out and identified. Over a year ago I saw someone who was touted at being an expert on learning disabilities, to investigate ongoing scholastic difficulties and possible auditory processing difficulties.

Well, I saw Dr S. (a PhD, not physician) when I was otherwise free from the bulk of my work and school activities, as at the time I’d been having a number of health problems, including insomnia, migraines, worse tics and stuttering, hyperacusis & tinnitus et cetera.

I brought in with me documentation including previous test results, transcripts, and descriptions of my difficulties. This was because I can often get tangled up and forget stuff when trying to explain things, especially to doctors. (Hey, I’m an organism capable of learning — over time I’ve realised that remembering stuff is a problem, so now I take in a list or hand over a page of notes. My new primary physician does great with this, because in the couple of minutes it takes her to read a few paragraphs, we can fast-forward through a lot of rote questions, without omissions.)

Dr S. had me fill out a couple of online tests, and then had someone else administer some more tests to me. Oddly, one of the tests he gave me was for ADHD, for which a coöperating team of a psychologist and psychiatrist had already evaluated me. In fact, he said I had no ADHD and no real problems, except a little figure-ground discrimination hearing things in noisy environments. He had no recommendations, except that I needed to see a psychiatrist for psychosomative disorder.

Well, hell. Was I bordering on depression? Yes, and I knew that and was working actively against that — half a year of chronic sleep-deprivation and pain will do that to a person. Was I having difficulties with my husband? Yes, my health problems were requiring me to take a semester off school and work, and he was wanting to know “when I was going to be a productive member of society”. I already knew about these things, and had explained to Dr S. that I was working to deal with them. But that wasn’t why I was seeing Dr S. — I was trying to address learning and hearing comprehension problems. I even paid a few hundred dollars out of pocket for all that.

There’s a big problem here, and it’s not mine. Nor am I the only one with it.

The word “psychosomatic” has gotten warped or twisted. It literally acknowledges the interdependency and functionality of brain/mind and body, but now has come to mean that problems are “all in your head”, as in imaginary and/ or self-inflicted.

They used to call women “hysterical” and thought it due to having a uterus that “wandered around the body”. Holy cows. Obviously I’m not hysterical. (Hell, I don’t even have my uterus or ovaries any more, due to cysts and endometriosis.) So now they say that women who have problems have “psychosomative disorders”.

The issues with my husband were not seen as his difficulties in accepting my disabilities, but as evidence of my mental disorder.

The near-depression I was facing was not from months of chronic insomnia and pain, but rather caused by my mental illness.

The documentation I had brought with me to aid the man in his understanding of my problems was not data, but symptoms of my mental illness.

I was seen as “attention-seeking” rather than as solution-seeking.

Shit like that can drive a person nutz.

The good news from all that was that I got a referral to a CAPD specialist who said that Yes, I definitely do have such problems, and could even recommend some concrete ways of dealing with the problem and gave me documentation for such. But it makes me wonder, if Dr S. couldn’t really diagnose such, why did he put me through tests for APD, and tests I didn’t need for ADHD?

Has it ever occurred to clinicians that many of their clients don’t exhibit stress symptoms due to having psychosomative disorders, but rather than having various (unacknowledged) disabilities will make a person stressed?

It’s all ass-backwards. Shit like that can drive a person nutz.

Rush Hour Traffic

No one likes rush hour traffic. But the reason it exists is because thousands of people feel that they have to take the same road at the same time. Then they get upset because they can’t all do it fast.

Rush hour traffic is highly over-rated. So are developmental time-tables.

One of the important points is that a lot of the “developmental disorder” end of things is developmental slowness or unevenness – it takes longer to get certain skills, and they may not necessarily be reached in the same manner as most. Comparing a child with such to the standard developmental timetables may only serve to increase stress at the seeming brokenness.

So many schools are trying to fast-foward children, expecting kindergarten social, cognitive and physical skills from preschoolers, and gradeschool social, cognitive and physical skills from kindergarteners.

Children between the ages of 2 and 6 are integrating a humongous amount of information in a variety of spheres, including receptive and expressive language, physical skills ranging from gross and fine motor to bodily functions, single-interpersonal skills, group interpersonal skills, acquiring subject knowledge in concrete things in their lives, cause-and-effect stuff, abstract stuff like numbers and reading and time (seasons, special events etc), and a bunch of other stuff that’s not even coming to mind right now.

Then we throw in things like developmental variability in sensory realms and proprioception and language processing and …

I couldn’t tie my shoes until I was in 3rd grade. Bike riding was even later. I didn’t know all of my multiplication tables until 8th grade. I required speech therapy in primary school, and that was back in the 60’s when most kids didn’t get anything.

Sometimes I think that too many people turn all these developmental timetables into bare minimums, when in fact they are simply averages, which means that some kids do things sooner, and some kids do things later. Given how uneven our kids are, they think that everything should be as advanced as our kids’ best skills. They also spend too much time evaluating how well children participate in herds, when in fact most toddlers and preschoolers really aren’t so much herd animals yet.

School is not about racing to the finish. Nor is it about everyone taking the same path to get there. Despite what people say.

But people get Terribly Concerned because their children are not learning things at the proscribed rates. They become afraid that their children won’t learn at all, that somehow they will be “stuck” at whatever stage they are in. So there are children who spend 40 hours a week in a variety of programs for speech, for movement, for scholastic tutoring, for mimicking social interaction …

Once upon a time, long ago in a galaxy far, far away … we didn’t have all these “programs” for things. Which is not to say that some kinds of programs might not have been helpful. It would have made 40+ years easier if people had known about my considerable Auditory Processing Disorder difficulties, instead of saying I “wasn’t paying attention” or was lazy or whatever.

But people get Terribly Concerned that their child “doesn’t know how to play”. This boggles the mind – how can a child “not know how to play”? But what people are really meaning is that their child is not playing the way they expect them to, i.e., not the “right way”. It’s pretty sad when children are graded on whether or not they play correctly. Play is a personal exploration of the world, for one’s own learning and delight.

One of the things commonly ascribed to autism is a “lack of imagination”, because autistic children don’t always play with the same toys that neurotypical children do, or don’t engage in make-believe games the same way that neurotypical children do. This is really ironic, because Hans Asperger himself said, “It seems that for success in science and art, a dash of autism is essential.” Hmn … And indeed, you’ll find autistic people in most every sphere of endeavour.

If the child doesn’t show an interest in typical toys, then they are simply not interested in them. Let them be available — they may later, or they may end up using them in different ways than other children. (Toy cars are for lining up, right? <grin>) It may be also that other things not generally considered to be toys will be more interesting to them.

For example most kids of all sorts find a manual eggbeater to be fascinating. But an eggbeater is not considered to be a “toy”. Nor is graph paper or a weight scale or a Latin dictionary or an Army Corps of Engineers building manual for national parks structures, although I found all of these fascinating as a child. I still do, and they gave me background useful for my degree in horticulture — you never know how those particular fascinations can be useful.

You may not see the same style of role-playing activities as more socially-oriented children engage in. Those are called “imaginative” play, and many people assume that a lack of engaging in them is a lack of imagination. Rather, it’s a lack of role-playing, and imagination can take many other forms. I played with dollhouses — but spent hours arranging the furniture, not acting out stories with the dolls themselves. To this day I can remember what the furniture looked like, but not the dolls that were supposed to go with it. I have a superlative mental “CAD” type program in my head for arranging and manipulating elements in space, and if I tell my husband that the sofa is six inches longer than the wall, by gum it is six inches longer than the wall. I can re-arrange stuff and pack more into a dishwasher or suitcase or packing box than anyone else.

Let your children have time to explore their worlds by giving them a wide range of experiences, and letting him take those in, in their own manner. Give them what they need by way of therapies to help him deal with things that make their lives difficult, but please, don’t fill their days with them. Children do develop, and some of them do so on different time tables.

Uncommon Parallels: Gossiping And Stimming

In an article from the Social Issues Research Centre (out of Oxford), Kate Fox describes in her article, “Evolution, Alienation and Gossip” the functional rôle of mobile phones for promoting community by aiding gossiping. Apparently my text messages are rather humdrum and atypical, as they relate mostly to grocery expeditions, dinner attendance, and doctor appointments rather than gossip.

However, a particular paragraph caught my eye:

“Gossip is the human equivalent of ‘social grooming’ among primates, which has been shown to stimulate production of endorphins, relieving stress and boosting the immune system. Two-thirds of all human conversation is gossip, because this ‘vocal grooming’ is essential to our social, psychological and physical well-being.”

Grooming-talking (“phatic communion” for the psycholinguistics word buffs out there) is the verbal equivalent of grooming other apes.

Perhaps stimming fulfills many of the same functions, to “stimulate production of endorphins, relieving stress and boosting the immune system”?

I realise the comparison sounds really odd. Instead of being a social kind of functioning, it is a typically autistic kind of functioning. I mean, gossiping is a social activity of the highest sort. Rather than communicating in the sense of exchanging necessary data, it is passing along information as a means to promote peace and solidarity between people in the same “tribe”.

In contrast, stimming is an emblem attribute, the very archetypical sign of the autistic. It is pretty much a self-involved activity; one might stim upon something they’re seeing or hearing, but it’s not a social interaction per se.

Of course, nearly all people gossip to some extent, and nearly all people stim in some manner or another. People are people, whether autistic or neurotypical, and it would be erroneous to assert otherwise.

Nor am I asserting that gossiping and stimming are dichotomous states. Rather, that they are two activities that despite being other- or inner-directed, fulfill much the same psychosomatic benefits.

What is also interesting is that both gossiping and stimming are activities with negative connotations assigned to them. Fox brushes away some stereotypes by asserting that men gossip as much as women, about much the same subjects, and as often as women do (albeit more often with work colleagues). It’s not that men don’t gossip, but rather that they don’t like to own up to it because it seems trivial.

Fox says, “Whatever its moral status, there is certainly some evidence to suggest that gossip is a deep-seated human instinct … This would indicate that gossip, far from being a trivial pastime, actually performs a vital and socially therapeutic function.”

Stereotypical stimming activities like hand-flapping, rocking or finger-flicking have historically been actively discouraged and “trained out” because people don’t want to own up to the fact that they are or someone else is autistic. I am willing to bet that a lot of stimming actually still goes on under private cover, or has been translated into more socially-acceptable fidgets. It is too essential to the human condition to do what one can to reduce stress, one way or another. As a cautionary note, when people cannot use benign ways of dealing with stresses, they will sometimes end up using other stress-releasers that can sometimes be ultimately addictive or self-destructive.

In would be very interesting to run physiological testing to measure some of the state changes in stress levels that occur before, during and after someone engages in a bout of stimming. If we find that these activities do indeed aid people in reducing stress, we may then have further proof that attempting to stop or limit these behaviours is literally harmful to autistics (and others).

Just as people with Tourette’s should be able to function in everyday life without having to spend great amounts of energy trying to suppress their tics in order to pass for normal, autistics should likewise be able to function in everyday life without having to spend great amounts of energy trying to suppress their stims. (Of course, I’m not purporting that highly disruptive tics are going to be acceptable everywhere, nor that injurious stims are a good thing. Such blanket, extreme statements are merely strawman arguments.) As long as the tics or the stims are not going beyond someone else’s personal boundaries, then they ought to be considered acceptable.

Common, polite society needs to realise that not everyone moves, talks, interacts or waits in the same standardised manner. Spending enormous efforts to pretend that one is the same as everyone else does nothing to advocate for diversity and does nothing for one’s health. Disabilities and physical differences are a normal part of life, and so are neurological differences.

The Perils of Passing

“Third Rock from the Sun” television show:
One of the human characters, Mary, was explaining to Dick (one of the aliens trying to impersonate humans), her reservations regarding dating him.

Mary: “It’s as if you were out of sync with every other person on this planet!”
Dick: “What do you mean? Every day I go out of my way to do things that appear normal!”

There’s a lot of attention placed upon trying to make people with various differences appear to be “normal”, everything from in-the-ear hearing aids (that often are not as useful as behind-the-ear aids), to prostheses, to training autistics to mimic NT social behaviour. Not all of these are bad things necessarily. Given the current popularity of going around wearing a Bluetooth mobile phone on one’s ear like some kind of of cyborg, I can see hearing aids turning into equally high-tech decorative bits.

Unfortunately, emulation works against the overall health of the autistic, for a number of reasons.

Emulation is not a viable goal because it creates additional stress.

Spending extra energy to appear normal is stressful. Spending time trying to make eye contact and worrying if it is being done enough, and suppressing little mannerisms or tics adds to the work load of existing. Spending mental energy attending to these things means having less to devote to other activities, such as decoding speech or organizing and monitoring the visual environment.

Even if depression has a partly genetic basis, extra environmental stress worsens that.

Emulation is not a viable goal because even if the social rituals like eye-contact are performed, that does not mean the autistic will gain the same information from the activity.

Whether or not emotional perception on the part of the autistic is due to less eye contact and facial observation or vice versa, may be a chicken and egg question that will doubtless take more neurophysiological study to unravel. However, the result is the same, because even if the autistic attends to facial observation, that does not necessarily mean the same information will be perceived.

Emulation is not a viable goal because an impaired ability to do so results in ostracism from the community.

If it isn’t done well all the time, people feel fooled. Trying to normalize me or make me “indistinguishable from my peers” isn’t going to work. I don’t do it well. My little weirdnesses aren’t that noticeable at first, but they pile up like snowflakes obscuring the scenery. Then people get annoyed at me because they feel betrayed and fooled, thinking I was a one-of-them normal person.

Emulation is not a viable goal because it devalues the inherent qualities of the person.

Lack of acceptance for who or what one truly is leads to additional stress, depression, increases and/or aggravates the types of stress-related health problems. Lack of acceptance for who or what one truly is leads to increased self-esteem problems and increases the difficulties in social interaction.

My recommendation:

Quit trying to forcibly mold autistic children (and adults) to emulate neurotypical behaviors. Focus instead upon working with the person rather than against them. Work with their skills and aptitudes, work upon stress-reduction techniques, and work on methods for interacting with others that are natural for both the autistic and neurotypical people. Work beyond denial or tolerance toward acceptance and appreciation of diversity in schools, work places, medical care settings, and other arenas of social interaction.

Coping With the Inertia of Task Paralysis

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

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

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

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

There are several parts to this:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Part of completing a task is self-evaluating:

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

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

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

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

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

Jump For Joy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tying the Knots

A series of vignettes strung on a chain, now broken.

My mother just wanted a “normal” girl; maybe it was that entrenched social conformism. By 5th grade she kept stressing this idea, so I observed what girls were interested in, which was horses and romances. Therefore I ordered one each of horse and romance stories from the Weekly Reader book club, and found them to be profoundly disinteresting. I could not fathom either the attraction or the point! When I was a high school freshman, Mom decided that I lacked femininity and grace, so enrolled me in a “charm school” held at Sears & Roebucks, where we were taught the proper way to apply makeup, walk with a book on our heads, kneel to pick up an object from the floor while wearing miniskirts, sit down in a dainty and discreet manner, curtsy and such. Somehow this failed to make me more normal.

Shopping for my clothes invariably provoked more complaints; I was “so picky” about clothes, meaning there are many fabrics I cannot stand to touch or wear, not to mention the collar tags (which I now remove). I remember getting overwhelmed at the department store as a child, one of those seriously old-fashioned places with an elevator operator, glass display cases of merchandise, multiple floors of merchandise, and pneumatic tubes slinging upstairs to the cashier’s cage. One department, or maybe the dressing rooms, had high-contrast vertical striped wallpaper that gave me slithery-jangling-willies. Sometimes the floor seems to ripple; busy surfaces like speckled/tweedy commercial-grade carpeting or color-streaked linoleum or striped wallpaper acquire a quivering aspect, like wavelets upon great bodies of water. I know from repeated experiments (done as a child) that these surfaces do not really ripple or undulate, so I generally ignore the effect, but sometimes it takes me by surprise. I get vertigo and things seem to spin around, or close distances yawn far away from me. Mom hated dragging me with her, because I’d want to hide in the center of the circular coat rack, muffling out the noises and smells and colors in the darkness and comfortingly-heavy pressure of yards of dense fabrics. I was just trying to cope with the sensory overload, but all she could see was that I was being disobedient and an embarrassment to her from by attracting attention to my weird behavior …

Unfortunately, in the long run my mother seemed more concerned with assigning blame than resolving problems, and she decided that my long-standing academic difficulties were due to rebelliousness; I was just “acting out.” One day in high school, after I handed over the dreaded report card, she grounded me with the fierce proclamation that “All children rebel, but you are doing it ALL WRONG!” For her, there was one way things were supposed to be, and I did not fit her expectations: granted I didn’t drink or do drugs, but I also didn’t date, didn’t drive, and didn’t excel in school, sports or social activities.

There I was trying to rationally understand how people thought and interacted, and instead I had someone who was (alcoholic and) inconsistent, inexplicable, and unpredictable. I kept trying to wrap my head around making sense of what she said and did, and kept getting my mind tangled up in Laingian knots. What I needed was access to strategies that would allow me to learn how to meet my own needs. Instead, what I got was a denial that those needs existed. She could not, or would not understand that my needs were different than hers. Her denial, disbelief, or dismissal caused me to doubt my own self-understanding, and thus prevented me from helping myself. Years later I finally understand her actions as being narcissistic, for all she asserted that she was only trying to prove to others how hard she worked to “help” me. It wasn’t just about her “not understanding” that I was different, it was about my not being able to give her what she needed. It was all about what she needed. Repeatedly, the scenarios played out, as she:

  • Told me how I “really” felt emotionally or physically, or told me that I could not possibly be feeling something, that indeed I actually was feeling.
  • Discouraged questions, saying that they were either stupid, or that I didn’t need to know such things, or that everyone knew about ((whatever), and that I was foolish for bothering her to ask about things.
  • Asserted that I must be either crazy, lying or on drugs when I described experiencing colors while listening to music.
  • Said I was being “too picky” because I could not stand to wear some kinds of fabrics, or got sore spots on my neck from collar tags, or could not stand to have my bedroom curtains open on sunny days, or could not stand the noise when some kinds of woodshop machinery were being used.
  • Delivered me curious “compliments” that did not feel like such, “You know, if you just wore a little makeup, you might be kinda pretty.”
  • Denigrated my interests as being stupid because they were not “normal”; I should be buying cute hair ties or makeup instead of a Latin dictionary or an antique volume on structural design & engineering by the National Park Service.
  • Told me, “Don’t listen to what I say, listen to what I mean!” (This to someone who misses out on so much unspoken dialog?)
  • Took to red-inking my personal diary and creative writing efforts for grammatical errors, ridiculed my social concerns as being absurd, and the story plot ideas as being stupid.
  • Periodically would go through my locker, purse, notebook or bedroom contents in an effort to find something incriminating (drugs I did not use, or notes from non-existent boyfriends), and then accused me of being devious because she could not find anything.
  • Would not admit when she was wrong; I was obviously confused, or lying, or making things up.
  • Accused me of stealing clothes when my Spanish teacher gave me one of her used blouses, then changed her story and said I had been lying to the teacher and misrepresenting myself as poor and neglected.
  • Considered my expressing frustration as being “rebellious.”
  • Disbelieved my scholastic problems when I tried to explain them to her, but then turned around and saying that I had been “hiding” problems when teachers or my school counselor told her about bad grades from unfinished tests, missing assignments, jumbled math homework, bad spelling and such.
  • Asserted that my problems from bullies were all because I had “brought it upon myself” and was causing the bullying, and simply being “whiny” and “just trying to get attention” when I told the problems to various teachers and the school principal.
  • Ridiculed my concerns about scholastic problems, and demanded good grade results but would not accept the fact that I needed help to achieve those goals, saying that my lack of results was due to merely being lazy and not trying hard enough.
  • Convinced others that that my problems were burdens that I created intentionally for her out of rebelliousness.
  • Denied my problems or belittled them as being much less important than any of her own problems.
  • Complained about the cost/ shopping effort/ need for basic school items (such as a required style of gym socks or graph paper for geometry class) as though these were unusual demands I had invented just to make her life more difficult.
  • Assigned guilt by association – badmouthing my father (her ex-husband) saying I was just like him.
  • Curtailed contact with others (my teachers or counselor, interest clubs) and discouraged me from doing things on my own, then said I couldn’t do things because I had no experience or skills.
  • Gave me responsibility and consequences of things getting done, without giving me the means to do them effectively.

As ever, she was more concerned with finding faults and assigning blame than with resolving problems, because it was all about “saving face” on her part. It was my fault; she was trying so heroically to help me, but I was just being stupid or stubborn or rebellious. “Damnit Andrea, you know what your problem is? You don’t have any self-confidence! That’s just so pathetic!”

Although I now understand the essential errors in this denial, disbelief, and dismissal, these kinds of statements are still things I run into once in a while, from other people. It is a shame, really. Once I began to make sense of the world, I kept trying to change the family dynamics, to improve things, to help her understand, but she actively resisted change, even on those rare occasions when she would acknowledge that things were not right. But, you cannot make people what you want them to be.

You can’t change the past, but you can change how you react to it.

What’s So Damn Funny?

“Humor is emotional chaos remembered in tranquility.” ~James Thurber

or more technically:

“Humor can be defined as surprise that softens our perception of adversity to a psychologically maneageable level.” ~Edward O. Wilson

Why don’t autistics “get” jokes? Do they lack a sense of humor as some people assert?

Humor is a reaction that developed to defuse rage or stress in a situation. It allows groups of individuals to continue coexisting by laughing together, rather than by attacking each other. It is also for defusing embarrassment/ shame, and thus allows an individual to “save face” (not lose their ego/ status) and not risk isolating their self. There is a big difference between laughing at someone, and laughing with someone. The latter is a functionally constructive adaptation.

If you are laughing, you cannot simultaneously feel stressed, angry, depressed, anxious or resentful at the same time. It maximizes positive feelings and reduces negative feelings and thus promotes overall personal health, in addition to promoting group cohesion rather than disharmony.

SOURCES OF HUMOR: LAUGHING WITH SOMEONE

Humor can occur when we feel relief at a situation that was originally perceived to be a stressor, but at second look is not (e.g., discovering that a “snake” was in fact a dead branch).

Humor can occur when we “make light of” another’s (negative) action or comment by failing to accept it is intended importance. This “Teflon” quality is a form of self-defense, but can also promote group harmony by preventing hostility from progressing by reducing the power of the aggressor, especially if others also deflect the hostility in this manner. There are some kinds of power that only work if both parties “go along with” their roles as the aggressor and the suppressed.

Some humor is simply the delight in witticisms, e.g. puns, word play and such. Those people who are really adept at, and enjoy this sort of humor, often feel that it is rather not the “lowest form of humor”, but the highest, because it does not occur at the expense of another’s ability to “keep face” (maintain their ego/ status).

SOURCES OF HUMOR: LAUGHING AT SOMEONE

Some humor is “slapstick”, where the amusement is derived from the perceived/ potential, “fake” quality of actors pretending to hurt each other. The audience laughs partly from a sense of schadenfreude when something bad happens to someone else and the observer’s sense of (embarrassed) relief that is felt because it is happening to someone else rather than them. This stems from a sense of insecurity (if the action resulted from another person) or from general anxiety (if the action resulted from an impersonal, environmental act, such as my neighbor getting hit by a falling tree limb). The audience also laughs from a sense of superiority to the victim of the action, as derived from their own insecurities in being able to deal with problems and people in life (“Ha-ha, I am not that dumb!”)

Slapstick is “humor derived from pain”; it is personally not a form of humor that I enjoy. I did enjoy slapstick to some degree as a young child, but once I actually understood the dynamics of what was going on, it lost all potential for entertainment. I do not see anything funny in the “humor” of hurting others either physically or verbally. (Perhaps this is why many people find clowns scary, rather than funny, in addition to the whole generally strange appearance, and the inability to read emotional intent due to the face-paint?)

This humor from schadenfreude can sometimes be positive. It rarely is, being the humorous version of car-wreck carnage that everyone feels obliged to gawp at. But I think that some of the “I Love Lucy” episodes could be considered in this vein. We keep laughing as Lucy digs herself deeper and deeper into a hole, but fortunately she never gets truly hurt. Even as we shake our heads and think that we would never do anything so absurd as Lucy does, we also realize that in other situations, we too could end up behind that conveyer line, trying to cram chocolates somewhere, simply because we were too proud or too embarrassed to holler, “Stop the line, I cannot keep up!”

“CLOBBERED BY THE PUNCH LINE”

Likewise, there are some jokes that I simply do not get; I am “clobbered by the punch line” because I stand there looking confused (perhaps with a weak, apologetic smile) because I do not understand why others find the joke funny. Sometime this is due to my not understanding/ knowing the popular culture reference that gives it the necessary perspective. Of course, if you have to have this kind of joke explained to you, it loses all of it is “funny” because it is the element of surprise or incongruity that provides the funny! The other times I miss the punch line is when this is due to one of those peculiar social interaction “games” that (nearly) everyone else intuitively understands, but I am oblivious to. Once again, the joke is funny because it is the element of surprise or incongruity of what the others expect to happen, versus what actually happened in the story of the joke.

These are cultural jokes. Some of these cultural facets are common throughout most of the western societies, and because of this seemingly pervasive quality, are thought to be “universal”, even though the joke would, even if adequately translated, still fall flat in other, very different cultures. Likewise, there are some jokes that are only funny if you understand the cultural context, but because the cultural context is limited due to smaller population numbers (e.g. Deaf culture jokes), the joke serves an additional purpose of helping define cultural qualities by contrasting what “outsiders” would expect versus what the cultural “insiders” expect.

Autistics who sometimes feel a bit outside of the common cultural spectrum have these feelings of estrangement/ alienation reinforced because we do not “get” some of these culturally-based jokes. Once upon a time, I was accused of “not having a sense of humor” because I do not enjoy/ understand the humorous value of many of the jokes on the television show “Everybody Loves Raymond”. Many of those jokes were based upon characters insulting each other and other forms of personal pain. Indeed, I do not find these kinds of jokes to be humorous. However, I do enjoy the humor of word-play, or of people in painful situations who make jokes to confound the pain or turn the situations upside-down and break the potential pain of the situation (e.g. the television show “M*A*S*H”). In other words, I enjoy shows about people being clever, but not shows about people being mean or stupid.

I also love humor derived from absurdity. The joke is funny because of the element of surprise or incongruity of what the others expect to happen, versus what actually happened in the story of the joke. Absurd humor sometimes reveals something about ourselves, because it makes us aware of some familiar aspect of our social/cultural lives, and look at it in a way that we had not thought about it before.

For example, in Monty Python’s “Holy Grail” movie, the squire is making cloppity-cloppity sounds with coconut halves while the knight is skipping down the lane, and this reveals to us a set of nested incongruities … we know that on old radio programs, this was the way the “galloping horse” sound effect was made — but this is a moving picture show! There is initial surprise, followed by incongruity: we can see the sound effect being made. The joke gets funnier because the other characters in the scenes act as though this is normal — they are asking us to perform the “willing suspension of disbelief” (a fancy term meaning “just pretend”) for something on stage that is normally only done off stage, which is a further absurdism, or more incongruity.

The same also applies to sexual innuendo. In this case, the “pain” being thwarted is the frustrated desire (and/or sometimes the loss of face). In the movie “Young Frankenstein” there is a scene where a wench asks a guy if he wants to “roll in the hay.” We all know that this phrase is a very old euphemism for having sex. The joke is that when he indicates his interest, all the girl does is to … begin turning over in the haypile saying, “roll, roll, roll, roll…” taking the figure of speech literally. The humor lies in what the character and the audience expected (hoped) would happen, versus what unexpected event actually happened. How the character reacts to this frustration is also a bit of sympathetic farce — most guys can relate to having gotten their um, hopes up, and then totally dashed because the situation with the girl did not turn out as hoped. The humor is thus secondarily derived from coping with the pain of frustration.

Much of the humor in sexual innuendo comes from the innuendo part of it and seeing how far one can stretch a bit of word play. The British comedy “Are You Being Served?” is chock-full of this in the dialog of Mr. Humphries and Mrs. Slocombe.

The likewise supposed “lack of empathy” ascribed to autistics is rather either a lack of being able to identify other’s emotional responses, or a lack of understanding of the motivations that cause other’s emotional reactions. Indeed, I have great sympathy for the victims of slapstick or insulting humor (having often been the victim of such situations) and this is why I do not find it to be funny.
Another tangent to the psychological perspective of AS, is that sometimes others view this lack of understanding cultural humor or the lack of enjoyment of insulting humor, as being “lacking a sense of humor” altogether. The flippant comments about my perceived humorlessness reflect this: some of the incongruous things I find to be funny, others find quite strange, stupid, or humorless. But it is not a lack of a sense of humor on my part, but sometimes finding humor in different things.

WHEN “HUMOR” IS NOT A LAUGHING MATTER

Secondly, there is a big difference between laughing at someone, and laughing with someone. Attacking someone and then saying, “Oh it is just a joke; whatsamatter, can’t you take a joke?” is not true humor. This is “humor” derived from a feeling of superiority, using shame and derision.

Whether or not something is “truly” funny has to be evaluated. It is really interesting to watch old programs and then you realize that some kinds of humor do not age well. Political satire can be so topical that it is no longer funny or even intelligible a couple of decades later. Tastes in humor change, mostly due to evolving senses of what is appropriate for being laughed at. There are racial and sexist jokes that are only painful to hear, because it is embarrassing to realize that someone could have found their humor in the ridicule of others. When the “Jokes you cannot tell in mixed company” end up as “Jokes you wouldn’t even want to tell in any kind of company”, you get some hope that maybe society is growing up … just a little bit.

Making fun of someone and laughing at their expense is not funny. Although some forms of humor involve pain, but true humor is derived from averting or deflecting pain, rather than from inflicting pain. The ultimate (evolutionary) purpose of humor is to provide a coping mechanism and to reduce stresses (replacing negative feelings with positive ones) by reducing the importance of an event and it is perceived negative quality, and also to improve group dynamics.

Our feelings result not from situations, but from the positions we take or the values that we assign to situations. Likewise, it is often not particular situations that stress us, but the meanings or positions or values that we assign to those situations.

Humor enables us to change our perspective on situations, and thus how we can react to them. We laugh to keep from crying. We laugh because when we are powerless to act upon a situation, we are faced with either certain depression, or with using the one act of power left to us, the power to laugh at it.

Being able to laugh at situations improves our emotional and physical well-being (aerobics for the cardiopulmonary heart and spiritual heart both), and allows us to more successfully interact with and enjoy other’s company. When life gets too heavy, learn to lighten your load by shrugging off some of the pain. You cannot always prevent things from happening, but you can often choose how you will react to them.

Besides, the person who can laugh at their self will never run out of source material!

A, B, C, D and F

“I, myself, was always recognized . . . as the “slow one” in the family. It was quite true, and I knew it and accepted it. Writing and spelling were always terribly difficult for me. My letters were without originality. I was . . . an extraordinarily bad speller and have remained so until this day.”
~Agatha Christie

“I was, on the whole, considerably discouraged by my school days. It was not pleasant to feel oneself so completely outclassed and left behind at the beginning of the race.”
~Sir Winston Churchill

How bad does it have to get?

At what point does a student’s difficulties with schoolwork demonstrate that they are having significant problems, and therefore need help?

Should a student have to fail classes before someone realizes or decides that there is a problem?

Why do we rely on failing – or near-failing – to signal academic difficulties? By the time a student has slid that perilously low in achievement, they have been struggling for a long while, and are getting further and further behind, thus making it even more difficult to catch up and succeed.

Furthermore, all that time spent struggling and generally not understanding why they are having problems, only creates even greater frustration. Stress doesn’t always push students to rally and succeed – too much stress rather, just serves to flatten their spirits.

Being told (directly or indirectly by all sorts of adults and peers) that they are simply “lazy” or “not trying hard enough” or “stupid” or whatever, only serves to further mangle the esteem and create greater frustration. It’s a recipe for depression, for withdrawal, and/or for acting out.

Bright students apply their natural intelligence and create coping strategies around their various difficulties. Oft times this is an unconscious process; it’s sheer adaptation to the world because they are expected to be able to do what everyone else does, and because in many ways, they have to approach tasks differently.

But coping strategies can only compensate so far. When the student is tired, or is sick, or is overwhelmed by other events in life, or is having to spread not enough compensation over too much difficulty, it breaks down. And then the student “suddenly” can’t do what they’ve always been able to do. Teachers, parents and others can’t understand why the student isn’t performing well. It’s easy to make those dread attribution errors: “You just need to focus. You just need to try harder. You just need to pay attention.”

For the student, sometimes they can’t even understand how or why it is that they can do things some days, but not others. Or why they can only sometimes do things well. It seems irrational. It’s easy for the frustrated student to make attribution errors of their own: “The teacher hates me. The work is too hard. The subject is just stupid.”

Students who are both very bright and have learning disabilities or learning difficulties or even marked learning style differences, face a terrible Catch-22. For years they will get by on sheer brains, compensating for their problems in ingenious ways. But eventually the complexity of the subject materials, the increasingly higher taxonomic levels of assessment, and the increasing study load all combine to bog down the effort. (The distractions of adolescence certainly don’t help, either!)

These “twice-exceptional” students may do well, but struggle to achieve what they could do. The learning problems, which affect both the acquisition and demonstration of knowledge, can cancel out the exceptional qualities. What everyone sees, instead of a bright student with learning problems, is just an ordinary student with erratic and scattered abilities.

Once someone finally cues into the fact that there is a problem, it’s the disparity between ability and achievement in test results where the learning problems are diagnosed. But even before that, it’s the erratic results in the grades (even in the same subject!) and the uneven scatter of abilities that should send up flags.

It’s not uncommon for students with learning disabilities to be uneven — the “easy” things may be difficult (such as taking 4+ years to learn multiplication tables) and the more advanced stuff may be easy (e.g. physics or calculus concepts). If people insist that the student “master” the preliminary steps before they can move on, the student will be bored and not reach their academic potential. Bored students can act up, either withdrawing, being class clown to get attention, or getting frustrated and angry.

Even after testing, there can be confusion all around. None of the test results may show a severe problem of any one kind. But we have to remember that problems are cumulative. On good days, various problems may merely be additive; on bad days they can be multiplicative. So a student with some ADHD organizational problems and some Auditory Processing Disorder problems and some Asperger’s socialization problems and some difficulties in reading and some periodic tics and some depression and occasional migraines … doesn’t have any “major” problems. But what that student does have is a major conglomeration of interacting problems. It’s no one thing – it’s everything!

One school person said this student didn’t need an IEP because they were “coping so well”. Drr? the last report card ran the entire gamut of the alphabet, from A through F.

Yeah, right.

How bad does it have to get?

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