Thursday, July 19, 2012

How to Teach Anything to Someone on the Autism Spectrum

Yesterday was the very first time in my life that I've ever cooked actual raw chicken.  How did I manage to make it to 29 without doing that?  Well, I've always lived at home and, given that in addition to me I have two other siblings with disabilities, my mom quite frankly had more important things to worry about than making sure I knew how to cook and took a turn doing it.  Which really isn't a huge deal in the grand scheme of things - sure that means that I'm having to learn now, but it isn't rocket science so I'm figuring it out.

Though a part of the problem is that I've always been more than a little reluctant to learn how to cook at all - there are so many different individual tasks an experienced cook takes for granted that they know how to do, which for a newbie like me can seem like a bit of a challenge.  Like tonight's adventure: browning hamburger.  I've actually done that one before, but it's been years - though I do remember that if it's pink it's not done yet and that's the important part so I was fine.  What makes it hard though is that an experienced cook sees such a task as so basic and simple that they figure that they can just gloss over an explanation on how it's done.  Which is probably actually sufficient for teaching a neurotypical teenager or young adult how to do it, but it definitely isn't enough to be sure that someone on the spectrum is competent or confident that they know what they're doing.  There are many reasons for this, which I'll touch on during my explanation.

Two notes before I begin:  First, as the title of this post suggests it really applies to teaching anything at all.  Actually, it applies to people off of the spectrum too, but it's even more important if they're are.  Second, this will assume a certain degree of functioning on the part of the learner - I know it would work very well for my brother with much more severe autism, but it assumes that the person your teaching is able to understand and follow basic directions and is being cooperative.  While I can probably understand how someone on the spectrum who isn't is thinking, I wouldn't know how to solve those problems myself.
  • Step 1 - Prepare a suitable environment.  The key here is to make sure that it's as free from distractions as possible.  Many people on the spectrum are hypersensitive to one or more sense, and learning anything can become nearly impossible if the environment is overwhelming.  And even if they're not oversensitive, distracting surroundings are distracting.
  • Step 2 - Make sure that the learner knows that you're teaching them something.  For me, learning something is a completely different mental gear than interacting with someone.  I can either pay full attention to all the social cues a person is giving me, or full attention to learning something, but never both at the same time.  If it's not obvious to me that someone is trying to teach me something, as opposed to them simply wanting me to watch them do it, I'll probably learn nothing when they show me.
  • Step 3 - Don't assume they know anything.  Take my knowledge of cooking chicken, for example.  I've probably watched my mom handling raw chicken literally thousands of times in my life.  Does that mean I learned anything?  No.  All I can recall is that my mom was doing something with chicken and a cutting board... a knife was involved...  People on the autism spectrum have a lot fewer mirror neurons - that's essentially the part of the brain that learns by observing others.  And I've noticed that I seem to pick up on the finer details of what people around me are doing a lot less than the neurotypicals do unless I'm purposely paying attention to it.  Thus, after 29 years of being in the kitchen while my mom was cooking chicken I learned nothing about cooking chicken.  Therefore, it's best to assume that you're going to be starting completely from scratch.
  • Step 4 - Cover all of your bases with your teaching methods.  I've heard somewhere that there's three kinds of learners: those that learn best by seeing, those that learn best by hearing, and those that learn best by doing.  I've also heard other people divide up learning styles in different ways.  Thing is, it's better just to teach to teach in all ways at once - learning by hearing is probably my best method, but that doesn't mean that it isn't extremely helpful to see it and try it myself.  The best way is to show the learner how you do it, explain what you're doing while you do it, and then help guide them as needed while they try it themselves.  When someone teaches me that way, I can move forward with confidence that I'm doing it correctly, while if someone only tells me I find myself uncertain that I'm doing it right unless it's extremely similar to something else I've already done.
  • Step 5 - Explain the big picture, if you can.   While your focus when you're teaching someone to do something is obviously going to be on making sure they now how to do it, explaining as best you can why it needs to be done is extremely helpful.  When you know how what you're doing fits into the big picture it's a lot easier to remember how it's done and know when you're doing it right.
  • Step 6 - Include the importance of exactness.  For some things it's vitally important that you do it precisely the correct way, while others it isn't.  I've observed in myself and in others on the spectrum that we have a difficult time distinguishing which situation we're in unless we're specifically told.  Result: either a lot of stress about getting something perfect that doesn't need to be, or not being careful when we need to be.
  • Step 7 - Include alternative methods.  Similar to not being able to figure out how important exactness is, I've noticed I have a hard time of recognizing when an alternative method would work just as well for a task.  You wouldn't believe how many times someone has taught me their method of doing something, commented that it could be done another way, and the other way made a lot more sense to me or was a lot easier for me.  So if there's more than one way to do what you're teaching someone, be sure to let the person know their options.
  • Step 8 - Include how to know you've finished.  Usually the problem I've had with this one is that the person teaching me to do something seems to think that knowing when you're finished and if you've done it correctly is so blatantly obvious or can be summed up by some variant of 'do it until it's done'.  This might be because of the problem I and others on the spectrum have of taking things too literally - I don't know what 'done' looks like.  I need to be told very specifically.  For example, the counter is not done being wiped once I've wiped a rag across the whole thing, nor is it done when it 'looks clean'.  It's done when my mom thinks that it 'looks clean'.  (There's a huge difference!)  Therefore, be sure the person understands how they can tell that they're done and did it successfully.
  • Step 9 - Do your best to make sure that they learn the right way the first time.  In a previous entry I explained about my rules for doing things and how difficult they can be to change.  And in teaching someone on the spectrum how to do something, you are also helping them create their rules on how to do it.  Therefore, they will probably do it that way every single time that they do it and will have a hard time changing that routine if you later have to clarify or modify what they're doing.  For example, while I was volunteering at a horse stables, one of my duties was to blow the dust out of the seating area by the arena.  When I was taught to do it, I was instructed to make sure that I got the concrete floor, the bench, and the low wall connecting to the arena.  When my boss later asked me to also get the top of the light switch box and a couple of other little things while I was at it, guess which part of the job I could never remember to do?
So, in summary, teaching someone on the autism spectrum is pretty much exactly like teaching anyone else, except that you can't assume that they'll be able to learn it if you're haphazard about it.  But if you use a solid, systematic teaching method that gives the learner the best possible chance of understanding, that amounts to pretty much everything I've described above whether the learner is on or off the spectrum.

Friday, July 13, 2012

Problem Solving

In pondering over my life so much while writing this blog, I've come to realize more and more just how much I've grown over the past couple of years in particular.  While I've been pretty independent as far as my thought processes are concerned for several years now, it's only been relatively recently that I've been more able to translate that into reality by actually behaving more independently.  And I think that the real key change that happened somewhere is that I've been learning to think my way through problems a lot better.

It used to be that if I had a problem, especially a big one, and the most obvious solution wouldn't work for whatever reason, I would get stuck there and be unable to figure out what to do about it without getting help - help that I often couldn't get myself to ask for if someone didn't see the problem and offer to do it for me.  I'm actually not really sure why I had that problem in the first place, though I'm sure that both the Asperger's and the anxiety are factors.  What I do know is that I would, and sometimes still do, end up getting myself into a situation that would be really easy for someone else to figure out but for me is impossible.

But one of the things that my therapist has been helping me with is learning how to problem-solve without ending at that dead end.  She's done this by, whenever I complain about a problem that seems unsolvable, helping me work my way through it step by step.  A lot of it is actually learning to have confidence that I'll be able to figure it out from the moment I begin - the moment I start to get too anxious about the fact that I have a big problem and that my first idea or two won't work my ability to think drops to almost nothing.  Or sometimes I come up with a solution, but the process of finding that solution was so stressful that actually carrying it out seems overwhelming at that point.  But as I've learned to have confidence in my ability to find my way through a problem - which, given my I.Q. score, is plenty high enough that I ought to be laughing at the idea that I could fail - I'm finding it easier and easier to be able to brainstorm alternatives until I hit upon one that will work, even if the solution is to ask someone else for help.

And this has been a big enough deal for me that I still remember very clearly something that happened nearly two years ago, as it was one of the first times I managed to think my way through a pretty big, distressing problem without panicking and with far more finesse than usual:

I'd only had my bike for about two months at that point - it's a really nice street bike that I got to make it easier for me to get around since I can't drive.  I'd decided to go to the library and some stores in the middle of the city, which is quite a trek by bike unless you're in some sort of shape.  However, when I was most of the way there something came loose between the handlebars and front wheel - neither fell off, but the handlebars and front wheel turned independently from each other and that made riding the bike completely impossible.

It was at this point that I realized that not only was my bike unrideable, the little multi-tool kit that I got for the bike had never made its way onto the bike and was thus uselessly sitting back at home.  But then I realized that I'd remembered my cellphone, only to remember that my parents were out of town at the time and would therefore be unable to come rescue me.  It was about at this point that I wanted to give up, sit on the curb, and cry or something.  Yet perhaps because I knew that this was not a problem that I could just give up on, I forced myself to remain calm and ponder the situation further.

That's when I realized that, while I was still a ways away from where I'd been going, I could still push my bike the rest of the way there and that would be an improvement since I'd be in the middle of the city and would have more options than staying on the random residential street I was on.  And while I walked there, I remembered that not only did I also have my older brother's cellphone number, I also had enough money for bus fare in my purse and there's a bus stop near the library that could also take me home.  Both of those ideas were very stressful; the buses around here have a rack for bikes, but I've never used one before so that sounded really daunting yet I also didn't like the idea of leaving my really nice bike behind.  Asking my brother was also rather daunting since I didn't know if he'd be available and... well, it's complicated to explain, but long story short I have a really hard time asking that brother in particular for help.  But again, pressed by necessity and lack of other good options, I decided that calling my brother would be Plan A since it was somewhat less daunting than the bus, and riding the bus would be Plan B if he wasn't available.

So just because I was able to remain calm and think, I went from having a problem I couldn't handle, to having two solid solutions.  It was all very incredibly difficult to both think of and carry out, but I was extremely proud of myself for being able to do it.  As it turns out, my brother was able to come get me and my bike, so all was well.  And I like to remind myself of that incident as frequently as I can, especially when I've got a stressful problem, because it reminds me that the difference between being helpless and being capable can be as little as remaining calm and having a bit of persistence when I'm problem solving.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Life Lessons

Lately I've been thinking a lot about how far I've come - in the past month, in the past year, in the past decade or two...  If you've read the page with my timeline you can see that I didn't have an easy time of growing up.  It was really, really hard for a very, very long time.  I've been saying lately that I feel like I'm 18 - that's the 'normal' age when people start to do things like move out of their parent's house and learn how to live independently, which puts me at about a decade behind.  But I wasn't ready to do all of this a decade ago; if pressed, perhaps I'd have managed a year ago...  I think...  But not long before that I don't know how I'd have coped.

And though a decade is a very long time - about a third of my life at this point - I can't say that I'm very bothered by that.  I don't really look at it as lost time even though I could easily do so.  I see it as more that I've taken the scenic route through my life: it's not very fast or efficient, but I've experienced so many things and in a different way because of the course my life took.  And though that means that in many respects I'm very behind (though in many ways I'm starting to catch up), and I've picked up some unpleasant baggage along the way, there have also been a lot of good things that have come out of it:
  • I am extremely, extremely empathetic and compassionate.  I've experienced a lot of things that not everyone has, and whenever I meet someone else who has had the same or similar challenges I can't help but feel for them.  Do you have a problem a lot of people don't understand?  Do people assume that your problem is actually laziness, a lack of discipline, and/or that you should just 'get over it'?  Do you feel alone?  Are you asking 'Why me?'  Do you wonder if you can possibly get past what happened when you were a child?  If you answer 'yes' to even one of those or any number of similar questions - I can relate!  And I feel for you!  Even if your experience is so completely different from mine that I can't fully empathize, I know how to be compassionate and non-judgmental.
  • As pretty much this entire blog demonstrates, I'm very, very aware of my own mind.  I may not be in control of it, especially when it comes to many of my emotions, but at the very least I know exactly what I'm thinking and feeling at any given moment and usually why.  It's something that I had to learn by necessity, really, in order to learn how to overcome many of my challenges both past and present.  But it comes in handy in many situations beyond that.  Being able to identify what you're thinking or feeling is step one to figuring out what to do about it, and while the steps beyond that are often more challenging for me than normal, I've also seen a lot of people stuck on being unable to figure out what's going on in their own heads.
  • Amid all the struggles of my life, I've found that I've grown spiritually in a way I wouldn't have otherwise.  I'm a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (aka Mormon), and if I had not had such a hard time in my early life I doubt that I would feel anywhere near as close to God as I do today.  It's not something I necessarily want to talk about in any great depth in this blog; the way my religion helps me is pretty much the same as it is for anyone facing any sort of a major challenge in their life so there's many other blogs one could read on that subject, and given how personal many of my experiences are I don't know how much I'd want to share in so public a format anyway - it's better as a one on one conversation instead of a long rant like these posts, at least to me.  But it's an important part of my life that I'm not sure I'd have if I'd had an easier life.
  • The often intense and deep emotions that I have had or continue to have are reflected in my narrative writing when I start to describe feelings.  I don't often show that writing to people outside of my forum - I get really self-conscious about how good it is - but when I've gotten feedback on it I've frequently been told that my descriptions of emotions are very vivid.  (Perhaps that's why people like the way I play Poison Ivy - she's a rather moody woman!)  I do have a significantly easier time writing things that I can relate to my own experiences, and given just how much experience I've had feeling many basic emotions - both the pleasant ones and the unpleasant ones - I don't seem to have much trouble writing about someone else feeling the same.
Of course, even all of that can't be all of it.  That list is simply what has come to mind over the past few days.  But my experiences made me the unique person I am today, and even if I did have the opportunity to go back and change what happened I don't know that I would.  I'd be a different person without them and I like who I am.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Desire and Ability

So, it's been about two and a half weeks since I started going to the gym.  During that time, I have not failed to go there on a day that I planned to go even once.  When I go, I ride my bike so I'm not getting any help getting there or back.  And even though I have a personal trainer, I've arranged to meet with her only very rarely since it can get pretty expensive.  So I'm pretty much doing all of that without much hand-holding or prodding by other people.

Now, as anyone who works out knows, getting yourself to go do it is the really hard part.  Once you get started on a workout it actually feels good, and especially afterward there's that glorious sense of accomplishment, but actually getting started is what kills you.  One advantage I have is that my schedule is so flexible - I'm not getting up at 5:30am so I can get there before work.  If I find myself lingering in bed much of the morning, that does not prevent me from getting to the gym that day.  Given how hot it's been getting in the middle of the day lately that does make the idea of saying 'can't go: it'll be too hot on the ride home if I do' rather tempting, but given how short it is I know that's just an excuse.  But then, there's always going to be excuses for not working out, no matter what your situation is.  So how am I doing it?

When I first signed up for personal training, I met a man named Mike who I gather is in charge of all the personal training at the gym.  He's the one who paired me with Melanie, which seems to be a very good match since she seems to understand my fitness needs.  Mike himself, however, definitely does not understand me.  To help him figure out who to pair me with, he asked me what kind of personality would be best for me to work with.  The best answer I could give him is 'the opposite of a drill sergeant'.  Because there are two types of people: those who respond to pressure by working harder, and those who respond to pressure by becoming stressed - and the latter usually end up working slower because they're trying to relax themselves.

I'm very extremely the second type, and Melanie is a good match for me because rather than ordering me around she simply provides direction and encouragement.  I get the feeling that if I showed up to a meeting with her and said that I hadn't done a thing since the last one, she would go 'Oh, well what do we need to change?' or something like that instead of getting angry.  If I'd been paired off with someone who applied a lot of pressure, on the other hand, I'd probably quit and never go back to the gym again due to the stress.  In fact, my mom commented on that point while I was talking to Mike.

But Mike, like I said, does not seem to understand.  The day I applied for a personal trainer, I remember that when we talked about what personal trainers do for you he mentioned that one of their jobs is to motivate you.  My immediate thought was 'people do not motivate me'.  Which isn't fully true: the thought of disappointing Melanie, my mom, and everyone else rooting for me if I fail does help motivate me, but at best that motivation accounts for approximately 10% of the reason why I drag myself to the gym, combined.  Definitely nowhere near enough to get me there.  I am also not really that afraid of wasting all the money I spent on this.  So motivation is not really to be found in anything external to myself.

No, the reason why I get to the gym is because I want to.  If I didn't, it would not happen.  And that's the case with pretty much anything hard that I've done for quite a while now.  I do recall that there was a time when I would do hard things that other people wanted me to do if they prodded me along hard enough, especially my mom.  At the time I knew that they wanted what was best for me and therefore I wanted to please them.  However, though I think this is how I accomplished a few good things like making it through high school, I also found that it made me extremely dissatisfied with my life.  The thing about trying to please other people is that it's impossible, except in the extremely temporary sense.

So I learned to stop caring about what other people want me to do, in a way.  When someone tells me they want me to do something, I listen but I also decide if it's something that I want to do too.  If I don't, I don't do it.  That's not to say that I don't do things for other people anymore - in fact, sometimes simply knowing that someone wants me to do something is enough to make me want to do it - but that means that I often refuse to do things outright if what someone else wants does not match what I want.  And since I started following that rule, my personal happiness skyrocketed.  Now that I'm doing everything for myself, even if I'm doing it for someone else too, I don't feel miserable if I fail to please someone because at least I'll please me.  I feel a much greater sense of pride and accomplishment since, even if I was inspired by someone else, I'm the one who made the decision to actually do it and I'm the one who got it done.  I own what I do now - it's wonderful!

And one of the best rewards of this is that all of the hard things that I've been tackling are made easier by the fact that I'm extremely self-motivated.  I want to go to the gym because I know it's good for me, I enjoy pushing myself, I love that feeling of accomplishment after every workout, I enjoy the extra energy I seem to have to do other things, I like the comments people make about it, I know that it's incredibly good for me to be getting out of my apartment on my own most days a week, it improves my mood, and does many other awesome things for me.  And knowing all this, not just in an academic sense but through experience, means that keeping motivated to continue doing it is not a problem.

Of course, I've known all of this for many years and yet have not gone to the gym before.  That's because having the desire to do something is only a piece to getting something done.  The other piece that fell into place more recently is that the combination of moving somewhere that was a bit closer to the gym and my recent growth as a person made the whole idea a lot less daunting.  There came a point when I looked at a map and saw how far away the gym was and said to myself 'this is something I can do'.  Similarly, when I had the opportunity in both high school and college to attend a weight-lifting class I did so, since it was easy enough to take a PE class alongside other courses.

You can have all the desire in the world, but if the other logistics of the situation are more than you can handle then you won't get it done.  Before I moved, my mom would often comment that she could give me rides to places where I could work out, but it was too much for me to handle the idea of having to coordinate things with her.  I also had the option of a longer bike ride, riding the bus somewhere, or even working out at home doing calisthenics or using the treadmill.  However, all of those options seemed too hard to me for one reason or another, especially since I'm very aware of how regular you have to be with exercise in order to get good results.  We might have possibly worked out a solution if we'd tried to problem-solve the situation, but that's why it didn't happen.

Now, I don't know how much of any of the above is pretty standard for everyone on the planet, how much of it is my Asperger's traits, how much of it is anxiety, and how much of it is my own personality, but that's how and why I'm personally motivated to do what I've been doing lately and why if I'm not doing something it's often not a matter of motivation.  But I do think that the real essence of it applies to everyone: accomplishing anything is a matter of desire and ability.  Where I'm different is that, largely due to the Asperger's part of me, I can be a lot more clueless than a neurotypical person about why I should want to do something sometimes.  In those cases I benefit most from someone sitting me down and explaining in detail to me why I should want it, though in cases where I understand but simply disagree there's just no hope for it.  On the other hand, the anxiety can make my ability to do something I want to do appear to be too difficult even when your average person would think that it's doable.  In those cases the best thing is to carefully analyze why it seems so difficult and try to fix or work around the problems until it's cut down to size, perhaps starting with taking a small step in that direction rather than going all the way, though in some cases it can simply be that I'm not ready to do that thing yet.

However, using the wrong method to help someone who isn't doing something is intensely frustrating to the other person, and so is continuing to use what would be the right method in situations where what you want is just not going to happen.  If the problem is that I don't want to do what someone wants me to do, whether the problem is that they haven't convinced me yet or I'm not going to be convinced, it's the same feeling anyone gets when a salesman comes to the door offering something you don't want to buy: not interested, leave me alone.  If the problem is that I want it but it seems too hard, someone trying to explain why I should want it or trying to help me do something I'm not ready for merely makes me that much more saddened by the fact that it seems too hard to get.  And sometimes the problem is that I'm lacking both the desire and the ability at the same time.

Fortunately for me, I'm generally self-aware enough to figure out which of these problems is present for any given thing that I'm not doing, whether or not I'm possibly close to doing it, and even the specific details of what's standing in my way when I don't already know but do a little pondering on the question.  But even though it's not usually the case, I sometimes do have mental blind-spots when it comes to a particular problem so I still have to figure it all out the hard way every once in awhile.  But if it's important, the reward of doing so is usually well worth the effort.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Fear of Success

The fear of failure is something that every human being on the planet can relate to.  Without exception we all try, we all fail, and hopefully we pick ourselves up and try again even though we fear a repeat experience.  Sometimes we even fear failing the first time we try something because of failures in the past in completely unrelated things.  And I'm certainly not immune to that - I've had to stare that fear in the face a lot lately in order to make a lot of the recent changes I've made to my life.  But I can go on and on about the fear of failure, but then again so could pretty much anyone else.  About all I can say on that topic is that what makes it easier for me is to consciously have a solid 'Plan B' in place just in case I happen to fail so that I know it won't be too terrible if I do.

But now that I'm in a place where I'm not really making any new changes to my life but simply trying to keep up with the ones that I've recently made, I'm facing a different fear: the fear of success.  Given how many jokes I've heard about it, I can only assume that people are less familiar with this one.  And I can see why - if you're successful then you should be happily victorious rather then worrying about it, right?  Oh, but there's so many things about success that can be scary!  I don't think I have a problem with one of them even though some people do; I'm not afraid that I'm undeserving of success.  I've largely conquered many of the self-esteem issues I struggled with throughout my teens, and while I try not to make the mistake of arrogance, I do feel like I deserve success as much as anyone else making an honest effort to get it.

On the other hand, the other reasons are currently plaguing me like you wouldn't believe right now.  The hardest one is probably my fear that success will be temporary.  I know on a very logical level that life has it's ups and downs.  Currently I'm on an 'up' since I've been making lots of rapid progress over the past few weeks, but it's been going on for long enough that there's a very strong part of me that seems to just be waiting for what seems to be the inevitable crash.  It's probably all linked to the many times I've tried to do something that was perhaps a bit too much yet was able to stick with for quite awhile even though I eventually had to stop.  A perfect example was my last job as a custodian: I knew pretty much from the beginning that I wouldn't be able to hang onto it permanently, even though I eventually lasted there an entire year before the strain got bad enough that I needed to quit.  And that's happened to me in one form or another often enough that I begin to anticipate it - a part of me is suspecting that something is bound to happen that will reduce my recent success to nothing.

However, though I have that feeling I know that I shouldn't put much stock in it this time.  Unlike most of the times I've had that sort of crash in my life, this didn't really happen suddenly.  I've been slowly growing for awhile now, especially over the past couple of years, and changing as a person.  I think that I've been close to doing these things I've been doing lately for awhile now without quite realizing it.  The only reason why I've been able to take all these good steps lately is because moving out seems to have given me that last push I needed.  I haven't been suddenly thrust into a new situation but have taken a few steps forward that looked manageable.  More likely this 'up' in my life is more a matter of moving the regular pattern of ups and downs to a higher level where the average is better than it was, or at least that's the hope.

Of course, like any of my more negative emotions, my fear of success doesn't listen to my logic very well.  I can sit here and tell myself how extremely unlikely it is that I'll just suddenly lose all of this progress all I want, but that won't make me feel any differently.  Though I hope that if I'm able to maintain all of this for awhile then it will seem more solid, especially if I don't feel any stress build-up.  I'm actually hoping that things will level off into a nice, smooth plateau for awhile instead of adding in more big steps for awhile - that would make me feel more secure about taking more big steps in the future.

But that's actually another aspect of the fear of success - the fear that because I'm having success other people will then expect more from me than I'm ready to do.  Seems like every time I hit a new high, someone always comes along and notices that I'm just a step away from something else and tries to hurry me along to it.  This doesn't work very well because I usually have a good sense as to when I'm at my limit and have gotten good at not being pushed - but it's still stressful not meeting other people's well-intentioned expectations.  Especially people you care about, like you're family.  Seems like they always start to push me right when I'm ready to sit back and enjoy my victory for a bit - but it's one of those 'they do it because they love me' things.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

My Forum And Its Place

While I believe that I've mentioned my forum in this blog before, it's a big enough part of my life that neglecting to explain its place in my life more thoroughly would probably give anyone an incomplete picture of what I'm doing with myself.  But though its effects can be somewhat subtle, I think that it's played a major role in a lot of the more obvious recent growth I've been experiencing lately and is helping me prepare for even more.

But let me start by explaining exactly what the forum is: it's a Batman-themed roleplaying forum.  And if that has you scratching your head, don't worry - I'll explain it more simply.  Usually I compare it to writing a book.  Except that this book has a very large number of authors, so each author is put in charge of one or more characters that they are solely responsible for.  The authors, called players, take turns adding to each scene by writing the actions, thoughts, and perspective of their character.  And while sometimes the players will get together and plan ahead portions of what will happen next, more often each player will only determine what their character's future plans are rather than deciding a firm storyline.  What actually happens is determined by each player describing what their character does, receiving replies from other players describing what their characters do, and back and forth until the entire scene is complete.

For example, in one scene I'm currently in the middle of the character I play, Poison Ivy (a major villainess), has stolen something from the Wayne Botanical Garden and is attempting to escape with it.  However, Nightwing (a vigilante trained by Batman), who is played by someone else, is attempting to capture her or at least not let her get away with what she stole.  So his player keeps on writing things about Nightwing dodging Poison Ivy's attacks, throwing various gadgets at her, and his determination not to let her get away.  And I keep on writing replies about Poison Ivy trying to keep Nightwing busy so that he can't attack her very effectively, attempting to deal with all the hurdles he's already put in her way, and how displeased she is by the fact that he's doing a much better job trying to stop her than he did the last time they ran into each other.

Now there's a lot of rules and customs we follow, especially when fighting is involved, making sure that we try to be fair to each other.  Especially since we haven't preplanned the ending: I'd like for Poison Ivy to get away with the loot, but I also wouldn't mind it if she was caught and sent to Arkham Asylum because I could have a lot of fun with that.  On the other hand, I'm not about to make her take a dive to Nightwing, so the ending is up in the air.  Which of them succeeds will depend on which of them manages to outmaneuver the other first as we write back and forth about what our characters are doing.  And this is a lot of fun - imagine reading a book or watching a TV show where you are able to tell one of the characters what to do rather than watching it all passively.

I first began to roleplay like this about 13 years ago, and have continued to do it off and on since.  Often I'd be an administrator as I really hate sites that are poorly run and it's difficult enough to find a good one with a theme I like that it's often easier for me to just make my own.  And I hear people say that I do a really good job of it, as I try very hard to both be nice but firm about enforcing the rules.  This particular site was not actually made by me, however.  I met Nat at a different place a few years ago.  She is an awesome player, but seems to have a hard time doing the same thing for more than a few months before something else catches her interest.  But she started the forum I now own just over a year and a half ago, but then she lost interest about a year ago as is her habit, so she offered the site to me since I was the only member of the staff left that was both able and willing to take it over.  And I've been running it ever since, with a few other players helping me with some of the details.

But pretty much everything I do on this site is helpful to me in some way.  Because, first of all, I'm not just a player on this site but the head administrator.  My duties include reviewing the applications of people wanting to join the site and accepting or rejecting them, enforcing the rules and altering them if I need to, maintaining the forum by clearing old accounts and archiving old threads, helping players come up with plot ideas if they're having trouble, and overall just making sure that everyone has a fun environment to roleplay in.  The number of individual players tends to hover around 20-30, with the number of characters usually in the area of 30-50.  And by being in charge of this site, I've learned and continue to learn a lot of leadership skills.  I know how to tell someone that their application is absolutely terrible without insulting them, for example.  I know how to tell the difference between someone whose complaints should be addressed and someone whose complaints should be ignored.  I know how to manage when two of my players decide that they hate each other and both refuse to change their minds.  Those and many other things I couldn't currently learn otherwise since I so rarely end up in any other situations where I'm in charge - though if I did then I'd have a much easier time of it from what I learned in my forum.

Secondly, while I interact with people a lot on my forum, my interactions because of my forum are definitely not limited to my forum.  Many of the people on my forum also use AIM, which is an instant messenger service, to chat with each other.  And while we do talk about my forum a lot, we often branch off into topics including life, the universe, and everything.  Or in other words, we socialize.  And I've gotten to know a lot of people this way.  While it would perhaps be even better if I could get to know more people in person, I find using AIM to be a lot less stressful than face to face interactions.  And some of these players I know well enough that I'd consider them to be my friends, never mind that I've never met them in person.  Even though I usually don't know their real names and faces, and for all I know that they're lying about details like their gender or age (even though it really isn't that difficult to tell after you get to know them for awhile...) does any of that really matter in a friendship?  Nope.  And I wouldn't have met any of them if it weren't for my forum.

Thirdly, the actual process of interacting with other players as a player myself (as opposed to my administrative duties) can require a lot of interaction that goes beyond idle conversation.  Sometimes I want one thing for my characters, someone else want something for theirs, and while sometimes those things are compatible there are times when they aren't.  Working with other players can require a lot of negotiation, compromise, standing your ground when you need to, or putting the needs of the group over your own.  All of these skills are absolutely vital when working with people in any situation, but are a lot easier for me to practice in my forum than they would be in person.

Fourthly, each and every one of my characters has taught me and continues to teach me things about people and life that I wouldn't have been able to learn so easily otherwise.  Of course, I probably knew all of these things logically already, but they helped to sort of cement these ideas as facts and helped me learn it on an emotional level too:
  • Poison Ivy has taught me what I don't want to be.  She's selfish, cruel, and has given up on people.  And though the other players tell me that I play her extremely well and it's fun to write for her, I know that I wouldn't want to be like her.  But she's also taught me that caring deeply about something can make a person more powerful.  And she's also taught me a lot about how to flirt - even if I don't think that I ever want to be as obnoxious about it as she can be.
  • Nina has taught me a lot about relationships - she was in a rather twisted one for a very long time and thus I learned a lot about what a healthy one isn't.  But she also taught me to be a lot more comfortable with the idea of being attracted to guys and have guys be attracted to me (haven't had a lot of real world experience with that one yet...), and about how to be a good person in very bad situations.  And she's also taught me a lot about remaining calm and stopping myself from becoming over-dramatic.
  • Hawkgirl has taught me a lot about what it is to be strong and bold, and that just because one is afraid or uncertain doesn't mean that you should let that stop you.  This touches right to the core of what my main struggles are so playing her didn't make more than a dent in that problem, but every little dent helps.
  • Force has helped me relearn innocence, but also that having certainty and security is not a matter of being able to control everything outside of you - it's in the inside.  She's also taught me the importance of being aware of all the gray areas in life and that black and white thinking can be extremely hazardous.  She's also taught me the difference between how a child and an adult think - which is a very important point given that most of the trauma that I've experienced happened when I was a child.
  • Heather has taught me that it's possible to be weak and vulnerable in even the worst situations and still be okay.  She's also taught me the power of words, the power of fun, and just how terrible Nina's relationship was.  And she's also taught me a lot about the role that fear and anxiety play in a person's life - how the emotion can be both harmful and helpful.
  • Iris hasn't taught me much yet since I haven't been able to use her very much yet.  But thus far she's been teaching me that you can learn an awful lot about a person if you simply pay close enough attention.
And that isn't anywhere near everything I've learned from my characters.  Yet I doubt I could have learned anywhere near that much from other things that I could be doing with all my free time.

Of course, even though I feel like my forum is hugely beneficial to me, I'm not explaining all of this because I think that everyone with Asperger's and anxiety should be in one like mine (even if the number of people I've met in such places is far higher than the number I've met elsewhere).  Actually, I have a completely different point to make with this post entirely.  Because though I've been roleplaying for quite a large portion of my life, it was never with the encouragement of my mom.  And this in spite of the fact that she wants nothing more than for me to grow and do better in my life, and has usually been the first one to encourage me to do anything that might help me.  To be fair, she has several good reasons to be extremely wary of the idea of roleplaying, but it's only been more recently that I've become braver about talking to her about why her fears aren't necessary in my case - especially given how extremely helpful roleplaying has been to me.  In fact, given that she has a link to this blog, this post is another big step in that direction.  But this whole roleplaying thing has always been my idea.

And it wasn't until I met my new therapist that I really started to realize just how important my forum is to me.  I've always kind of known that by writing about a character interacting another character I was practicing being social, but she was the one that helped me understand the full scope of it.  Before I started working with her I perhaps listened too much to what my mom had been saying: I had the idea that what I was doing was all fake, that the people I was interacting with weren't real friends but at best 'practice friends', and that in general it was nice but didn't really 'count' for anything in the 'real world'.  I did it somewhat apologetically, with disclaimers, feeling as if I ought to be doing something 'better' with my time.  It was my therapist that showed me that I was wrong to think so.  The internet is simply a buffer of sorts, making all the things I do online feel safer, and all I really need to do in order to translate all these skills I've developed online into my daily life is to learn that it's safe to do all those things without that buffer.  If I hadn't done all this roleplaying and other related interacting with other people, then I would not only have to learn that it's safe to do them, but also how to do them in the first place.  And that would have been a lot harder!  But since I don't need to take that extra step, that probably explains why I can make such rapid surges in progress sometimes.

But the point I want people reading this to get is that if someone has any sort of a problem that puts them outside of the norm and they find something that seems to help, then both they and anyone else around them should be very, very slow to argue with that idea.  Of course, there's some things that help some problems that are still probably bad ideas, but you want to be sure of that before you say so.  Because if my mom had ever succeeded in talking me out of roleplaying, I would be minus one very good tool for dealing with my problems.  And roleplaying being helpful seems far less of a stretch than Temple Grandin's squeeze machine, at least to me.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012


I've been trying for most of a week to figure out another blog post, but inspiration just hasn't been striking very much.  Though that should largely be seen as a good thing, as it's when things get extra difficult that I start thinking about things that are likely to snowball into an idea for a full post.  And by way of update, I'm still keeping up with going to the gym - met with my personal trainer again today, in fact - and yesterday I went to the grocery store for another few things, mostly some fresh produce.  And my forum is being pleasantly active recently too, so I've got nothing to complain about.  But I've noticed a bit of a theme going on in my thought patterns lately: the idea of acceptance, both in the broad sense and the narrow sense.

I've been very slowly reading through a book for the past few months that my mom gave me, wanting to know my opinion of it.  I've not been reading it very fast though because I very rarely remember that it exists when it's a good time for me to read something.  But it's a book meant for high-functioning people on the autism spectrum and explains how the strengths of being on the spectrum can be used to overcome the particular challenges of it.  I'm not far enough into it to be sure what I think of the whole book yet, but the chapter I just finished was on emotions.  The part that stuck out to me most is that there's a tendency for people on the spectrum to have 'all or nothing' emotional states and a difficulty in regulating them.  This can obviously be problematic, but I loved that the book also pointed out that there's the advantage that if the intense emotion happens to be a good one then it's actually a positive thing - someone on the spectrum who is feeling happy is probably feeling a lot happier than someone who isn't.

But unregulated, intense emotions are more trouble than they're worth.  And there's two things that solve that problem.  The first is to simply learn a lot about emotions: this is what 'angry' feels like, this is what causes it, and this is what you should do when you're angry.  But I think that the second thing is to learn acceptance.  While learning about emotions helped me to regulate them, acceptance has been key to curing most of my emotional states that become problematic due to other people.

For example, like many people on the spectrum I can have the problem of wanting to talk about the same subject for extended periods of time - long past the attention span of any poor neurotypical I come across.  Fortunately, I'm very aware of this problem and try really hard not to do that.  The unregulated, intense emotion in these situations is enthusiasm.  And talking about whatever it is that you're enthusiastic about seems to only increase the emotion; it's like a hydra from Greek legend - if you share one thought about it, two more take its place.  And even though enthusiasm is a largely pleasant emotion, it's also somewhat uncomfortable - like you might explode if you don't get it out somehow.  Which is why it was so hard when it got to the point that the person I was talking to verbally told me that they didn't want to talk about it anymore - probably for their own sanity.  It made me want to scream in frustration every time!

But once I learned to accept the fact that other people just aren't as enthusiastic about whatever my current obsession is as I am, and that no matter how much I try to explain just how awesome it is that won't change, I learned to cope with that problem a lot better.  Accepting that people are just that way was the first step to learning that in order to carry on a pleasant conversation with someone I also needed to accept talking about subjects that I'm less enthusiastic about since that leads to conversations that are more fulfilling to both people involved.  To this day I find myself extremely disappointed when the person I'm talking to changes the subject off of something I really like, but since I accept that people do that I keep that feeling to myself, allow the change of topic to happen, resist the temptation to swing the conversation back to the old topic, and even make sure that I give the other person opportunities to change the topic or do that myself when I think that they might be getting bored.  As a result, I'm able to hold a conversation just like any neurotypical person would.  When I'm remembering to pay attention, anyway...

And that's just one example of the key role that acceptance plays - it helps me with a lot of other emotional reactions with others.  Once you accept what you can't change, you see more clearly what you can and changing other people is usually on the 'can't do' list.  Only sometimes can I use my influence on someone else that way, and generally speaking the more I want someone to change the less likely it is that it will happen.  So instead I have to accept the reality that other people are outside of my control and figure out what changes I need to make in myself to compensate for that - usually a matter of tailoring my expectations to what I can actually expect of them.  Each of my friends and family members all have their own quirks and personality traits that I just have to deal with, but as soon as I accept that each of them will be themselves (whether I like it or not) they all become a lot less frustrating and a lot more loveable.

Of course, it's not enough to accept other people, I've also had to learn to accept myself.  No matter how well I learn to mask and manage the symptoms of Asperger's syndrome, I will still have it.  Accepting that is hard because it means that my life will differ, sometimes significantly, from the ideal I had in my head.  And though I refuse to accept that my anxiety problems will get in the way of me having a happy life, that's only because I can do something about that.  But I can't do anything about the fact that anxiety will probably always be a part of my life at some level, or the fact that it stopped me from doing several things today, so I accept that.  When I first started accepting these things about myself it was agonizingly difficult - I had to let go of the dreams of becoming the person that I'd like to be but never will.  But when I let go of that fantasy, I became a much happier person - pleased with who I am now even though I've still got a long way to go to reach my new dream of being the person that I'm not yet but could be.

Now I know that a lot of things I just said apply to people both on and off of the autism spectrum - learning to accept other people and yourself is a universal.  But I think that it's even more important for people on the spectrum to make that a very conscious thing because it comes a lot less easily to us.  And the day I started to really accept that I can't 'fix' anyone (and they're probably not that broken to begin with) was the day I started to learn how to fit myself into this world instead of uselessly complaining about it not fitting itself to me.  It's still an ongoing process - I can't say that I'm not butting heads with anyone or anything that I just need to learn to accept, but I'm a lot further down that road than I used to be and a lot happier as a result.