A Virus Is Causing (Temporary) Autism

From my personal point of view, the most frightening thing about the response to COV-19 is, how it’s making everyone a little more autistic. While this wouldn’t always be a bad thing, not necessarily anyway, there obviously are times when it can be crippling. The middle of a crisis is one of them, unless we’re properly focused, and our concerns are properly addressed — and from what see from most Americans, we’re not, and they aren’t.

Autism is living with a constantly heightened fight-or-flight response. We can learn to tone it down, but tone it down is something on which we constantly have to focus. We are more likely than most to see any given stimulus, change in conditions, or other event as overwhelming, threatening, or attacking, and we take actions that sometimes look ridiculous to other people — anything from rocking back and forth, to singing loudly, to having meltdowns, to withdrawing, to focusing excessively on something — to fight for or to assert control over ourselves and our space.

Often, people around us, in normal conditions, become just as autistic, because we’re interfering with their agendas, and so they lose their empathy — it’s a feature of fight-or-flight — and they don’t care what we think either, and so they fight just as hard. Either the autistic feels beaten, or everyone feels beaten, and there’s resentment on both sides.
This is exactly what I see happening now, in the response to COV-19 and, more critically, in the response to the response. The experts on immunology, virology, and pharmacology are weighing in. Now it’s my turn — I think it’s fair to say that living with autism for 45 years has made me an expert on the subject, and I’m telling you, these days we’re seeing a metaphorical pandemic of temporary autism. This pandemic is making it more difficult to address the literal pandemic, and yet so few people want to address it. With all the focus on science, people are forgetting that psychology also is a science, and people are dismissing how important psychology is in cases like this, even though their goal is to motivate millions of human beings.

***

Let’s consider the recent rebellions against the decrees and restrictions various governments have imposed. People were going out in public whenever they could, and making plans for St Patrick’s Day. When governments imposed more restrictions in response, people sometimes chose to break the law, or to hold large house parties. Now we see thousands of college students keeping their Spring Break traditions, hanging out on beaches in Florida and getting drunk, as usual. We also see people going to the gym, sometimes in violation of local decrees, and doing whatever else they can to be defiant.

Whereas a war or period of civil disorder also means restrictions, at least a person has opportunities to fight actively. Here, we’re told to run and hide. That doesn’t fit well with the human psyche and, especially, with American culture, with our traditions of fighting instead of running and hiding, and of resisting excessive authority. It especially doesn’t help when restrictions come one after the other — what we got last week was supposed to be enough, but now there’s something else, and next week still something else will come along.

We also see people doing whatever they can to get a sense of control. Of course there are people who bought and still are buying various commodities, to try reselling them at higher prices. Not everyone, though, buys them for that reason. Some are trying to get a sense of control, and they even get a sense of accomplishment from it. Buying toilet paper when people see stores running out of it, there’s one example. Buying masks and sanitizer to have some sort of defense against this plague, is another.

In response, others are angry to the point of being condescending, personally belittling, and vicious. I think some of them feel a sense of strength by fighting for a cause, thereby dodging the idea that they’re largely expressing their own personal anger, whereas the defiant at least are admitting they’re at least partially upset for themselves. I’ve seen several posts about how “it’s only for a little bit”, “you really don’t need to do this and that”, “you’re being a public menace”, and even “you’re killing people by leaving the house”. It’s as if they take it for granted that anyone should do what they’re doing themselves, and they see someone else doing the opposite, and it hits a nerve, hard. Welcome to my life.

The best I can do is explain why the defiant are acting as they do. I admit that some of these opinions are my own, and I’ve argued against many of the restrictions and decrees. In this case, I’m not trying to get anyone to agree with me, but to explain why others think and act as we do, because at this point, we truly need open communication.

Much of how Americans are thinking and acting has been years in the making. News outlets have sensationalized stories and scared us into demanding action, some of which has made the country less free. Forty years ago, it was drugs — what we heard as kids made it sound as if my friends and I would be playing in the park and some stranger would come up to us and offer us free cocaine just to get our nine-year-old selves hooked. Or, kidnapping — of course there are creeps around and kids need to learn to avoid them, but there were parents afraid to let their kids walk two blocks to school or to friends’ houses. After 9/11, we were so afraid of Middle Easterners attacking us that we endorsed a war that’s still going on, and we cheerlead for government surveillance that hasn’t been relaxed even though the ringleaders are all dead.

Within the first few months of this year, the information we received about COV-19 was confusing, as one report would contradict another. Part of this is because the Chinese were horrible about addressing and informing even themselves about the progression of the disease. Another part was because many of the stats we heard left out contextual information like pollution, heavy smoking among the populace, and mixing of generations, all three of which happened in China and the last one, along with greater population density, happening in Italy. We also were told that only a small segment of the population was at high risk, and the rest of us would experience the virus the way we would, a bad cold or the flu, yet authorities started treating the virus as a large-scale and imminent threat.

From my point of view, it’s only natural that a person responds to this information with doubt, and that a person sees authorities as wanting to rule by decree, and using this information as an excuse. When most of the rebuttals consist of personal attacks, and most of the discussions of “flattening the curve”, don’t involve numbers, it sounds as if people are being dismissive and even condescending. I’m not saying others intended to be that way; I’m saying it’s the perception, and there’s a reason for that perception. People are not being stupid or intentionally reckless, at least for the most part — in fact, to us, disbelieving what we hear from the media or from the government is the intelligent thing to do.

***

Of course, handling all this would be easier if there were outlets. Trouble is, our outlets are mostly gone. Everything that involves live human contact, including watching or playing sports, trivia nights at bars, even working out, is gone. People are stuck with their families, despite often wanting to get away from them. Church is gone except for live-streaming — and if I were a Christian, I wouldn’t participate in that, because I’d figure that if G-d wanted me to worship Him, He’d go full Thanos on that virus.

It also would help if the problem was widely perceived as an imminent threat. The problem is, it isn’t. Americans largely don’t see ourselves as becoming anything like Italy. I’m not saying that’s right; I’m saying that’s the perception, and it affects our behavior. Again, we’ve heard so many apocalyptic predictions over the years — basically, the media being The Boy Who Cried Wolf — that it’s natural and understandable to call BS even if there’s a real potential problem.

People have given me suggestions, of course. Intellectually, I know they’re trying to help, but when the ones handling out the suggestions also are cheerleading for the decrees, it instinctively feels as if they’re saying, “Don’t you what you like. Do what I like!” Taking walks and hiking do little for me, for instance. Because I want to keep working out, I’ve spent $300 — and counting — on home exercise equipment, and I’m going to have to explain to my future stepson why all this crap is taking up a portion of his playroom.

Of course we realize many people have it worse, and we do have a grasp of the science behind all the decrees. We have some understanding of how too many at-risk people sick at once would be a disaster. That said, if we don’t understand why folks don’t hold quarantining to the at-risk people instead of everyone, and if we don’t understand how difficult it is to make more medicine or why it takes so long to test a vaccine, it sure sounds as if people are trying to impose — and when fight-or-flight kicks in, we lose our empathy. We become more selfish, not because we’re stupid or malevolent, but because we’re human.

When people say, “It’s only this much” or “It’s only for this long”, not only does it sound as if people are saying, “You’re stupid for being upset”, but it sounds like a lie, given the progression of events. Think of when we were kids, and our parents said, “Just three bites of veggies. Just three.” and then, “OK, just one more” and then, after that, “Let’s do one more”. Eventually, we got wise to it, and we realized they never meant for us to stick to three bites. Maybe we even threw a tantrum and threw over the plate or bowl, at which time our parents punished us, essentially, because they lied to us and it didn’t work.

And now we hear that the restrictions are only for a month, maybe two, and the same feeling comes back. It’s only for two months, they say — and yet we hear our left-wing friends say we should keep some of these emergency measures going constantly, and we remember how it took 40 years for state governments to relax their laws on one drug, and now 9/11-inspired measures remain in effect 20 years later. We hear about how limited government doesn’t work, despite how government red tape, in China and in the United States, is a large part of why we haven’t been able to address the disease faster. We have every reason to think we’re in this for the long haul, and when we say, “Enough is enough”, people will continue to tell us we’re stupid, and we want people to get sick and die, and that will continue to do little but piss us off even more.

***

I don’t know what the solutions are, at this point. Sometimes, addressing the problem is all I have. I do know that while people are saying that stopping the spread of the disease comes first, it remains a fact that people who are fed up will continue to defy the rules, and that isn’t going to help stop the spread. Calling people stupid and ignorant doesn’t help. Telling them losing every way of coping they had, doesn’t help. Of course I understand those actions, too — those in favor of quarantining also have become temporarily autistic too, and they’re lashing out in their own way as well.

I do know that we start by identifying and understanding the problem, whether the problem is a virus or millions of angry Americans who have understandable reasons to lash out. Maybe we can start with the understanding that no one is getting up in the morning and deciding to make anyone else sick. We want to live as best we can, and we want to see a free and prosperous country after all this is over. In turn, because fair is fair, I’m doing my damnedest to understand how the other side isn’t getting up in the morning and deciding to play Mussolini.

Finally, I hope that those who read this will understand a little more of what autism is like. Again, this crisis is making temporary autistics of us all, and while we’re reading up on drugs, hospital equipment, and viruses, maybe we can use some of our time to look at how the human mind works, and use some of that to handle not only the next crisis that comes along, but whatever temporary autism happens in all our day-to-day lives.

Fifteen Years, And Counting

Not only am I celebrating my 45th birthday this week, but I’m celebrating an anniversary that may be even more significant. I’m celebrating the 15th anniversary of rebuilding myself, an effort I retroactively started calling “Project: Dubs”.

It surprises people to hear this, but September 2004 was one of the most depressing times of my adult line. Around my birthday, and around New Year’s Day, I like to evaluate what all I’ve done in the last year, and see how far I’ve progressed. Only, since this was my 30th birthday, I took a look at my entire adult life.

I wasn’t happy with what I saw. I didn’t have many friends, I had no romantic prospects, and while I had a decent job, I didn’t have many prospects at that company. Since I hadn’t been diagnosed, and wouldn’t be for another six years and change, I didn’t know what was “wrong” with me – I did have a psychologist tell me I might have Asperger’s Syndrome, but I was never formally tested, and I figured that if I wasn’t acting like Rain Man, this probably was a lousy guess on the psychologist’s part.

My plans didn’t include much of a celebration. I did ask my friends if they wanted to hang out, but I was embarrassed to tell them it was my birthday; I figured it was a plea for charity. In any event, they all had to work, or to do something else anyway. So, I probably was going to have dinner with my family, then go down to Old Chicago and drink a lot, and hope I didn’t start bawling and let it slip that no one wanted to be with me on my birthday.

The one nice thing that happened was, I went though my head looking for something to live for, and I realized that the day after my birthday was the Steelers’ season opener. So, I wanted to keep living, because of the Pittsburgh Steelers. People still think it’s a bit weird that I wanted to live because of football, but at times like that, I figure, a person ought to go with whatever works. This, by the way, is one reason Week One still is special to me today.

Things began to turn around the week before I turned 30. A co-worker, Brooke, made a cake for me, and a co-worker and I re-created the Eddie Izzard “Cake or Death?” monologue. My sister let me piggyback onto the birthday party of her boyfriend at the time, who had the same birthday as mine, and her friends all were wonderful to me. Then, of course, the Steelers won their season opener that year, beating the Raiders in the last whole game quarterback Tommy Maddox ever played before Ben Roethlisberger, still the quarterback today, took over.

Most importantly, another co-worker, Mark Hendricksen, started teaching me basic social skills and, some time later, recommended a few therapists to me. I called one because she counseled gay men who were coming out of the closet, and I figured I had the same kind of problem they did, in that I, too, had to figure out how to be true to who I am and try to fit in with folks around me. Mark became one of the first recipients of my Stopwatch Award, and to this day, if I ever ran into him and his husband, I probably would get choked up.

Project: Dubs has been a crazy ride since then, with plenty of sudden, jerking shifts within the last 15 years. There was the time I lost my job, moved to Pittsburgh, and came back, literally all within the course of one year. There was the time I got diagnosed and, at long last, got a little medicated too. There were jobs that came and went, and girlfriends who did the same thing, and there was a lot of learning and training along the way.

Usually, when people tell stories like these, they come with a positive or inspirational message. Personally, I hate those almost as much as I hate platitudes, and I mean I hate both taking them and dishing them out. Fact is, I still have problems, I still make mistakes, and I still have room for improvement, just like everyone else. The saying “Progress doesn’t go in a straight line” most certainly applies here; I go forward, backward, sideways, and sometimes in a direction it takes me a while to figure out. It’s kind of like driving somewhere in Pennsylvania.

Fact is, though, I’ve had plenty of great things happen to me in the last 15 years. These days, I have an amazing girlfriend and a really supportive network of friends and family. I have a job I like most of the time, and it pays for the community college degree I’ll be earning, if all goes well, this coming Spring. My head is a lot clearer, and I’ve been able to take care of some physical issues as well as mental ones.

Even my birthdays have been nicer. Yes, September 11 isn’t the greatest day to have a birthday, but I usually have a quiet dinner on the day itself and dinner with family or a party the weekend before or after. These last couple of years, I’ve had either a legitimate date or a female friend come to dinner with me, and when I turned 40, over two dozen people showed up, which I thought I’d never pull off.

I also have been able to turn my difficulties into a positive, in that I coach autistics and ADD-ers, and their parents – I figure, their parents work with them every day, so teaching the teachers is the way to go. I don’t blog as much as I used to, but I probably should, given that people keep telling me I need to write a book.

Meanwhile, that amazing girlfriend has become my coach, and her latest project is teaching me how to give myself more credit. It’s been rough going, but as a result I’ve been able to look at the last so many years and come to the conclusion that overall, I’ve done all right. I’m hoping Project: Dubs goes just as well, or better, for the next 50 years or so.

Of Mermaids, Reboots, and Reactions

The recent reaction to the recasting of “The Little Mermaid” brought to mind an aspect of autistic behavior I wanted to discuss, partially to avoid misconceptions in this or other situations.

As many people know, we are creatures of habit. Sometimes we get bored with one thing, and we look for something new. Other times, we live by the rule “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” One aspect of living in modern times is, how much easier it is to keep things the same. Recorded audio and video means we don’t have to hear songs played different ways by different people, and we don’t have to see the same plays performed by different casts, each with a unique interpretation or angle. We watch or listen to the same thing, the same way, every time.

The trouble, of course, is that when things do end up being different, the reaction is stronger. Sometimes, the cover of a song can disturb me, ironically more so if it’s too close to the original – same basic sound, but a different key or different inflection by the singer. TV and movie reboots often bother me, or a movie version of a TV show that’s different enough from the show – I was so upset at the 2009 reboot of “Star Trek”, for instance, that I haven’t seen any new “Star Trek” shows since then, because that’s not what the show is all about, in my view.

Of course, I understand, intellectually speaking, that in the scheme of things, these aren’t large crises. At the same time, a song sometimes can get us through some rough times, or a TV show or movie provides stories that inspire us or characters to whom we relate when relating to real people around us is difficult. Sometimes, for better or worse, we honestly do love an entertainment franchise the way most people love their relatives. When others ask us why it’s such a big deal, it can be difficult to answer, because an honest one might get us derided for being too nerdy, or might lead someone to feel insulted if we tell them a TV character was more inspirational to us than they were.

The hardest part, though – this applies to when I was a child – was being unable to express what I thought without being what I saw as attacked. Adults who might have meant well, or might have wanted to tease me, cross-examined me by asking, “Why does it have to be like this? Can’t we make something up a different way? Why? Why not?” In my view, it was the most obvious thing in the world that things were as they were, and what might have been an honest effort to give my brain a little elasticity, I saw as them saying, “YOU’RE WRONG!”. This was especially so, since they had an advantage, with more words and mental dexterity than I had.

While I realize the actual “Mermaid” controversy was inflated somewhat – though I have seen people post malicious and bigoted reactions – I do know what when any franchise makes a big change, there’s a lot of derailment, and it often hurts even worse when people don’t see themselves as being allowed to express it. Disney wanted to create a new dynamic with the more recent “Star Wars” movies, but to some, it was such a departure from what they knew and loved, that it hurt – but those who said anything often found themselves accused of being sexist or old-fashioned.

Of course I don’t condone bigotry as a human being or as a coach. If I had to explain changes to a client, I explain why they occur. In the case of “Mermaid”, I’d explain that Disney felt they hadn’t had enough minority heroes, and they wanted to have a hero who looked like another group of their fans, and they wanted to teach Caucasian girls that it’s OK to have a hero of another race. In the case of some of the reboots, I explain that the studio wanted to cater to a new audience, one who didn’t know much about the original show, but might like a different version.

At the same time, I teach that it’s OK to be upset about a change. This is especially so if you imagine a character one way, in terms of either looks or personality, and then someone tells you to throw it away and think of something a whole new way. Not all of us think of “different” as something new or exciting. Most importantly, it’s important to wait until someone has calmed down before teaching the other point of view, and to show sincere understanding when change bothers someone.

Of course it’s important to make sure we express ourselves in a manner that isn’t too easily taken the wrong way. At the same time, I do hope others understand that when we are upset at various reboots, shifts, changes in casting, or something else, it has nothing to do with hating other people, individually or as a group. Sometimes, the only thing we hate is change – and that’s something I want to heal, not to ridicule.

When Plans and Promises Go Awry, So Do We

Over 230 years ago, Robert Burns wrote a line which, translated to English from Scots, reads: “The best-laid plans of mice and men often go awry.” To us on the Spectrum, the way plans go awry can cause us a great deal of distress. We often like to make plans and to have assurance about the future; it’s like writing a play we get to act out afterwards. When things don’t happen the way we figured they would, it can be a kick in the gut.

As a coach, I like to spend time talking to clients about plans and promises, and about how important it is to be ready for things not to work out the way we want. It helps when I teach them to form a Plan B, for instance, and to look ahead at different factors that may get in the way of plans taking shape – such as, looking at the weather report a few days before a planned trip to watch baseball, to see if it might rain.

The most difficult part of teaching clients about plans and promises is, teaching them how the spirit in which we receive promises can be very different from the spirit in which others make them. Human beings, including us, can make promises in the heat of the moment, then forget or disregard later, or folks can make them to keep the peace temporarily. People might make a statement when they really wanted to express an idea, or might be expressing a dream or goal, or might add the unspoken caveat, “…if things go well”, meanwhile assuming the listener has added that same unspoken caveat.

In all these cases, we on the Spectrum have taken those promises literally, and in some cases, people haven’t talked to us about why things sometimes don’t work out, except when we’re agitated and, consequently, not in any kind of shape to receive what others have to say. Because we often become especially emotional when we receive a promise or make plans, and because we become that way when a promise is broken, we often remember those moments or, at least, we remember how we felt. If we’re not careful, the way we handle plans and promises can add to a general sense of anxiety or pessimism.

While I obviously have to focus on lowering the bar, so to speak – in other words, to prepare clients to be realistic about things not working out – I also have to ask my clients’ loved ones to be very careful and conservative about what they plan and what they promise. Oddly, that can be a tough exercise for parents, possibly because of how our culture might see plans and promises.

Most role models teach kids the value of keeping one’s word. I can think a few children’s stories, offhand, in which a character either keeps their promises and prospers for it, or when they break promises and suffer terribly. Role models often tell their kids they have to finish a project at work or for community service, because they said they would.

At the same time, I’ve noticed that our culture shows lesser value toward promises in other ways.  I’ve read articles about how even events as formal as weddings have people promising to appear, then pulling a no-show – which often means someone spent serious money on people who didn’t show. Others might see plans as confining and, consequently, don’t give promises much weight. Still others might feel burdened already with the promises and plans they have to keep at work, and don’t feel as motivated to keep them elsewhere.

Sometimes, people make promises for pragmatic reasons. A promise is a really convenient way to pacify someone who is agitated. A parent, for instance, can say anything from, “We’ll go to the playground Saturday, and we’ll have a lot of fun” to “We’ll get you this for Christmas” to “Someday I’m going to take you to Disneyland, I really will.” Telling someone things will get better is very powerful, as any politician will confirm, and so parents who don’t have much money might promise their kids they one day will be rich, or the parent of one of my clients might say that one day, they’ll make lots of friends and meet a fine spouse.

In much the same way, people often make promises in order to head off confrontation. I teach male teenage clients, for instance, that women don’t like saying “No” to a man directly, because so many men have had real attitude problems on hearing that – and so, women make plans in the moment, fully intending to cancel them or stand the man up later.

How we receive plans and promises determines what we hear when those around us tell us they won’t come to pass. I personally have had people tell me that plans change, and I hear them saying, “I lied”. People might say we have to be flexible, and we might hear, “Shame on you for expecting me to keep my word”.

If someone repeatedly says things come up at work or elsewhere in life, one of us might go into what I call Garbage Mode, because we hear the message: “All these other people are more important than you.” A person doesn’t have to be autistic to hear that, either. I’ve advised multiple friends who have especially busy jobs that sometimes they need to make appointments with their families or good friends, as if those friends or relatives are important clients – in other words, set aside time and, come Hell or high water, keep it.

The most underrated part of the changes I ask parent-clients to make is, not to make what I call “secondary promises” they don’t fully and literally intend to keep. If a parent has to work late and cancel a movie night with the kid, they might be tempted to say, “We’ll do it next week” or “We can do that any time!” If they do, though, and they don’t follow through, it will hit us on the Spectrum twice as hard.

As a coach, I do not make blanket promises that the future will get better. I will tell my clients they’ll become more knowledgeable and conditioned – in order words, I promise only that my clients will change themselves. I’ll tell them they’ll have more opportunities and chances, and any more than that would be ridiculous and the mark of an infomercial pitchman, not a competent coach.

In the long run, expressing a wish, a goal, or a dream in the form of a promise might do little more than convince us that efforts ultimately are futile. If children grow up hearing big promises that go unfulfilled, it’s going to be a tough sell when parents try to convince them things will be better for them in the future if they work really hard in school today.

It’s always important for me to teach my clients, in a phrase I adapted from some of my military and veteran friends, to “make peace with the stink”, or to learn to handle when Mr Burns is right, and things go awry. At the same time, it’s up to all of us, I think, to meditate on how we handle plans and promises, especially how we convey them. I think most folks will find the result fascinating, though I cannot promise anything.

 

A Primer for Autistics and Their Neighbors

When I discuss autism or living with autism, my first lesson is very simple. I could go over different development in the frontal lobe, or I could go over various behaviors, but I like bringing things home to what other people know, and I like keeping it simple at the beginning. My first lesson is: Living with autism is like having a heightened fight-or-flight response, all the time.

It’s simplistic, but as a primer, it’s better than anything else I’ve heard. It explains a lot about what we do and why. Best of all, it answers the common question: “What’s it like to be autistic?”

That question, “What’s it like?” is tough for most people to answer, in any context. For most folks who have lived their entire lives one way, it’s tough to understand what it’s like not to be that way. In this case, it’s reasonably easy for me, after an amateur-level but careful study of human behavior. When people ask me what it’s like to be autistic, I generally answer, “You already know.”

In his book Blink, Malcolm Gladwell noted that people under a certain level of stress act a lot like autistics. He used police officers dealing with hostile citizens, but I’ll use some everyday examples. Parents whose children are acting up in public is a good one. They feel attacked by their children’s behavior, they feel or imagine scorn from others around them, and they simply want to get out of the situation as quickly as possible, but sometimes cannot, because they’re almost done shopping and they can’t just come back later. So, they lose all empathy, and they start firing back. Damn the consequences, they will make their kids shut up or regret it, and they’re going to get through the line, and they’re willing to inflict Hell on the kids when they get home. The parents have become what I call temporarily autistic.

There are plenty of other examples. We all have felt pressure from multiple angles, felt overwhelmed from excessive demands from others, felt uncomfortable in unfamiliar situations and, to top it off, have been even more stressed because the obvious and simple solution would be to withdraw ourselves or to tell people to get off our backs, but we can’t get away with either one. Sometimes we beat ourselves up, withdraw into ourselves, or lash out at people because we cannot take any more. At that point, even if we’re Neuro-Typical, or NT — the technical term for “normal” in this case — we’re temporarily autistic.

Without going into the neurological information — in a reverse of the Dr McCoy maxim, “Damn it, I’m not a doctor; I’m a coach” — autistics have a certain degree of brain development that gives us an unusually high fight-or-flight response. Or, to put it another way, we have sensitive alarms. We have an unusually high tendency to perceive any given stimulus or situation as an attack or threat, or to be overwhelmed or overloaded. Even if we know, on an intellectual level, that we’re in a safe, familiar, or comfortable situation, our alarms might go off.

Even worse, once our alarms go off, we put up our guards — I could say, “raise shields” in a science-fiction metaphor, but I usually use a boxing one instead — and trying to explain things to us becomes useless. We’re more likely to see further advice as a further attack. Tell us there’s nothing to be upset about, and we hear: “You’re stupid for feeling the way you do.” Tell us to stop crying or to get over it, and we hear: “You’re wrong for not wanting to get hurt.” Laugh it off, and we hear: “I think it’s funny that you’re hurt.” Often enough, we counter-attack, and those who often are making an honest effort to help find themselves verbally attacked, and they usually end up becoming temporarily autistic themselves.

Most of our quirks exist for the purpose of finding some control or stability where we don’t perceive that we have any. We might rock back and forth, we might sing loudly, or we might want to be left alone because we want to meditate, to assume control over our own bodies and minds, which to us is all the territory we have left at the time. We might love working with machines or playing video games, because the rules are generally rigid and easy to learn and to master. We might want to stick to a strict routine or to do what we do the same way every time, because it provides order when we perceive chaos around us. It often confounds us when people not only want to do something different all the time but, in a gesture we often perceive as a taunt, deride our precious habits as boring or anal-retentive. The way we cope is so precious to us that our biggest meltdowns or other strong reactions often come not from stresses, but from depriving us of the ways we handle them.

To be sure, what I’ve described mainly is a starting point, or our natural inclinations. While I ask for help and accommodations from others, sometimes for myself and other times for fellow autistics, I think we on the Spectrum have a responsibility to learn about our NT neighbors and to train ourselves to show respect and polite deference to others. In the words of Joe Friday: “That’s where I come in.” While our fight-or-flight responses are unusually high, we can train ourselves to turn them down somewhat, and that’s one thing I do. While we don’t understand customs or procedures around us, we can learn — to what extent depends on the individual, but most of us can learn at least a little — and that’s another thing I do.

The purpose of that first lesson is to give people a general idea, first of what not to do — avoiding obvious mistakes is 90% of learning, I like to say — and then of how to determine what to do. While there really isn’t a way to make us NT — though some of us are able to mask our condition to a remarkable extent — constant long-term training can go a long way toward giving us the means and ability to live in a manner we might call “normal”.

I work more with parents of autistics and ADD-ers, or with their teachers or other caretakers, because if I can’t be there for my autistic clients every day, I find it more sensible to teach those who are with them every day. My first rule for “everyday coaches” is: Teach only when their guard is down. This includes learning to tell when their guard is up, and understanding that when it is, the first thing to do is to bring it down. It could mean saying, “I’m here for you”, it could mean listening to a rant, it could mean helping them go somewhere to decompress, and it could mean recognizing and helping them stay out of situations in which they may become overloaded. It sometimes means justifying various rules we might consider stupid or nonsense, and it could mean teaching us — again, when our guard is down — that there are times when we have to hold ourselves together until a situation passes.

My first rule for my autistic clients is: Accommodate yourself without stepping on toes. This sometimes is difficult, because there are people around us who might take offense because we don’t participate fully in a given ritual or occasion. But, it’s a good start, in my experience, to make sure we leave others alone if they haven’t deliberately offended us. Withdrawal generally satisfies that, though I do encourage learning to meditate while sitting still. I also encourage finding ways to slip out unnoticed — and while I don’t encourage people to smoke, as I do, I find that one advantage of being a smoker is the way most folks are understanding of someone’s desire to step outside for a cigarette. I teach that we still are going to have others make fun of our quirks, and I teach polite ways to tell them to mind their own business.

As with anything, being the everyday coach of an autistic or ADD-er is difficult at first, but becomes easier once one establishes habits and otherwise is used to the demands. The coaching even is rewarding for several reasons, mainly a glimpse into human nature. As I’ve said, the only way mild autistics really are different from NT’s is the way we’re more sensitive to various stimuli and, consequently, more likely to react strongly to them. As everyday coaches teach us to understand or to adopt the customs and point of view of our NT neighbors, they learn a little of our point of view. Maybe they’ll understand why they feel a little disturbed at what they see as nonsense, even if they handle it better than we do. Maybe they’ll understand why we see an imposed rule or responsibility as ridiculous, and maybe they’ll come to agree with us. Maybe they’ll understand how their rituals are as important for them as ours are for us.

As for me, my favorite part of coaching both fellow autistics and their everyday coaches is the way I build bridges between people who previously thought they were so different and at odds. I’ve had fellow autistics thank me for helping them understand why people weren’t as hostile as my clients perceived, and I’ve had NT parents tell me I’ve done more to help them comprehend their children than some of the professionals with whom they worked. In both cases, I keep in mind the words of the band Think: “Things get a little easier, once you understand.”

Addicted to Innocence

(Author’s Note: Two weeks ago, I wrote a blog post on the same subject. I read it again, and thought it was awful, and there was a much better way, albeit a more controversial way, I could discuss the subject. Here it is.)

I’ve read about how children sometimes have real problems because of things meant to make their lives more comfortable and pleasant. Most of the time, I hear about this on a physical level. I’ve heard about kids who spend so much time breathing filtered air that their immune systems don’t learn to cope with all the dust and pollen outside. They either develop lifelong allergies or have a hard time developing the immunity later. The same principle goes for not enough exposure to various viruses and bacteria — yes, too much exposure obviously has harsh effects, but so does not enough.

In my experience, a mental immune system works along the same principles. Just as parents often want to keep children away from the slightest hint of a germ, so others — or the same ones — want to keep kids from learning harsh truths about life. While the harm isn’t always obvious, and of course the level of harm is different for different kids, I take the same attitude toward a mental immune system that I do towards our physical immune system, or any other system for that matter — to be strong, it needs exercise.

Human beings always have had some preoccupation with innocence. Judaism, Christianity, and Islam all say something about the Garden of Eden from the Book of Genesis. The story goes, of course, that human beings were set to live there, just lounging around nude for eternity, until our distant ancestors lost their innocence, and the plans for lounging around went south. We were innocent at the beginning, the stories say, and if only we could become that way again!

Modern life has allowed people to keep themselves innocent to what I think is an alarming extent. I like to say we have a “Peter Pan culture”, because of how preoccupied we are with being as childlike as we can be. As our ancestors wished we could go back to the Garden of Eden, even those who don’t literally believe in it have the same sort of wish, often posting memes or notes about how they wish they could go back to being children. This wish even has resulted in the use of the word adult as a verb meaning, “living everyday life” — as in, “I paid a bill and washed dishes. Yay, I’m adulting!”

I think parents like to give their kids what they wish they themselves could have back. I think they like to watch kids live in all innocence, because those kids are living the way the parents wish they could live now. To that end, parents often like to keep their children as naive as possible. In some cases, they’ll deflect conversations, tell their kids fibs, or even try to control what others say and do around them, all so their children will learn less about how this world works. On behalf of their children, parents are addicted to innocence

***

Living on the Nebraska-Iowa state line, I have several friends who grew up on farms. I was surprised when I first met kids who watched farm animals reproduce before they started school, who learned to hunt when they were old enough to hold up a rifle, and who learned to operate machinery along with the adults around them. Having grown up hearing I wasn’t ready for that knowledge until a certain age, it was a surprise to me that kids could learn about all this and, in many ways, be more well-adjusted than those who grew up without that knowledge. They also were better acquainted with the harsh concepts like death — yes, they cried more at first, but soon learned to understand that part of life is its conclusion — while I remember my maternal grandfather dying, and adults telling me he “went to Heaven” in the same tone adults used when they said one of my parents went to the supermarket.

Around this time of year, I always get a certain amount of flak when I express my honest opinion that it’s wrong and unnecessary to teach children that Santa Claus is a real person. I recently posted, with approval, a story in which a Catholic bishop told ten-year-old children, in a Catholic school in Chicago, that Santa wasn’t real. Parents were livid — apparently, it’s an awful thing for a bishop to teach the faithful what the Church has to say on the subject, but perfectly OK to teach your kids a myth that actually is contrary to what they’re supposed to believe as members of that faith. It also is OK, I gather, to let them hold that false belief, even by Church standards, until or beyond the age of 10.

I know parents who taught their children, from the start, that Santa wasn’t real, and they had just as much fun on Christmas morning as those who thought he was legit. On the other hand, I lost one social-media friend because she wanted to commit violence against this bishop for telling kids the truth — I did add that for her sake, she’d better not try that in front of a proper Chicago nun, but that’s a different story.

When I bring up the concept of innocence, many people start their rebuttal, “When you have kids…” Of course I understand that there are some things it’s hard to explain to someone who hasn’t “been there”. For reasons involving ordinary politeness, I also don’t go around telling all my friends’ kids a bunch of harsh truths. On the other hand, I don’t believe it’s justifiable to keep young men and women in the dark until they turn 18. Knowledge is an important tool for making the right decisions in life, and withholding knowledge until a human being turns 18 renders them incapable of starting their adult life with everything they need to live it.

Parents sometimes use “It’s my kid!” as an excuse to control their children beyond the time they reach the Age of Majority. Some parents insulate their children so they won’t hear any message contrary to what their church teaches — this renders the kids incapable of living in the outside world and causes them to cling to their communities as adults instead of making a conscious, informed decision to remain within the community. One friend was so bent on making sure her kids all joined the military right out of high school that she didn’t teach them how to live on their own or to apply for financial aid to go to college or trade school instead.

Kids don’t always feel damaged or robbed as a result of all this, and they don’t always lose trust in authority figures who withheld knowledge in the name of innocence. But, the effects exist nonetheless. If nothing else, this leads adults to have the same longing for a more innocent time and to push that same longing onto their children, rather than seeing the gaining of knowledge as a temporarily hurtful thing, but something that gives them strength and resilience in the long term.

***

As a coach, I often have to negotiate a tough path. Often enough, most kids will pick up at least some of what their parents don’t want them to know — but because of our social difficulties, that’s a lot tougher for us, and we don’t pick up knowledge in the form of hints, being more literal-minded. So, it’s important for my young clients to learn various truths, including various harsh ones, explicitly. On the other hand, passing on too much knowledge against the wishes of the parents not only is rude, but can lose me clients. So, I generally negotiate the ability to teach kids as much harshness as possible, in the most humane possible manner.

My parent-clients understand that some of this harshness is necessary to keep their kids from becoming spoiled or hurt. They know their kids need to learn that what people think of the kids, and whether they want to deal with the kids socially, is their business. The kids need to learn to protect themselves from those who might take advantage of them, that sometimes the only way to prevent folks from using force against them is to be willing and able to use it in return, and that there are people who will use lies and the withholding of information to take advantage of them.

My goal sometimes becomes to lead folks to understand that innocence and naiveté, in general, are overrated. I teach my clients that adulthood is difficult at times, but it overall is better to become wiser and stronger that to remain in a state of helplessness and sterility. Author Robert A Heinlein compared sheltered kids to lab mice who were raised in such sterility that they cannot leave the lab — because if they do, the common cold will kill them. As a coach, I think, and I do what I can to persuade others to adopt the idea, that the less people worry about innocence for their kids, the more opportunity the kids have to grow and to thrive.

Crushed by Crushed Energy

“And Jesus said unto them, Because of your unbelief: for verily I say unto you, If ye have faith as a grain of mustard seed, ye shall say unto this mountain, Remove hence to yonder place; and it shall remove; and nothing shall be impossible unto you.”
(Matthew 17:20, King James Version)

The power of faith has been a part of Christian doctrine for so long that it’s an integral part of Western thinking, even in matters that have nothing to do with the church. Teachers, parents, and other motivators tell us that we can have whatever we like if we only want it badly enough. People often are likely to take for granted, that whereas the body can grow tired and need rest or recovery, the mind and the will has a limitless source of energy to those who know it. While people don’t necessarily believe we’ll be able to move mountains, they do believe we’ll be able to do whatever we have to do, if only we have enough faith in G-d or in ourselves.

This makes it especially difficult, at times, for me to coach people who work with autistics and those with other issues that cause what I call crushed energy. Crushed energy is what I call the tendency of a person to become mentally unable to perform certain tasks that are physically simple to do, and very routine. It turns mundane or necessary operations into what some mental-health professionals call “the Impossible Task”. Something as apparently simple as checking one’s mail, paying a bill, doing homework, or washing dishes feels gargantuan — and a list of chores looks like the mythological Twelve Tasks of Hercules.

This happens to me, too, and this is especially so when I try to spend some time without taking the meds I take for ADD, depression, or anxiety, in order to avoid building up a tolerance and asking my doctor for stronger stuff. Taking out the garbage is an awful headache to me, even though I walk right by the dumpster on my way to my car, every morning. The thought of homework makes me cringe — in fact, I think one reason so many people procrastinate so badly is because, in order to become motivated, they have to be terribly afraid of what will happen if they don’t start working.

When people discuss privilege, in the political context, they often make a valid point — that when a person has lived long enough with any given advantage, they assume their advantage is a part of normal human existence, and the concept of someone without that advantage, is foreign to them. Of course this is part of why Neuro-Typicals don’t understand autistics — because they don’t understand what it’s like to live without the social savvy and natural mental toughness we have to spend a lot of effort building. But it’s true in other aspects of life. Someone who is able to stay in good physical condition often doesn’t understand why others cannot last as long walking around or performing physical tasks as they can. In the same way, someone who has the mental energy to accomplish everything they want to, even if it’s difficult for them, often doesn’t understand a person who doesn’t.

When people attribute mental energy not to natural ability, training, or a mixture of the two, but to faith or belief, the effect is hurtful to those without the mental energy. I’m going to explain why from a logician’s point of view. Let’s look at two statements:

  • If someone has enough faith, they can do what they have or want to do.
  • If someone cannot do what they have or want to do, they don’t have enough faith.

Those two statements, in logicians’ terms, are contrapositives. In logic, if a statement is true, so is its contrapositive — in fact, one roundabout way to prove a statement as true is to prove its contrapositive. If someone accepts the first statement as true, the second statement logically follows.

This, in fact, happens all the time, and it helps those with that attitude that not only is this an easy fallback, but centuries of religious doctrine support it. When someone with mental energy, a “have”, encounters someone without it, a “have-not”, they often say, “You just need to want it” or “You just need to believe you can”. This sort of thinking doesn’t just come from simpler people, either. I once had a professional educator with a PhD and experience handling students with learning disabilities tell me, while I was in the middle of a nasty breakdown, that I could become motivated the next day if I only chose to do so. He told me, up front, that the mind never ran out of gas, so to speak. Then he wondered why I never listened to his advice again.

Of course I understand why human beings honor and admire those with plenty of energy. Evolution favors those who do, and those with that kind of energy usually are good for those around them, whether it’s because of their positive actions or because of how they often inspire others to do a little more than they might have done otherwise. At the same time, just as it’s possible to cheer for one team without booing another, it’s very possible to honor those with metaphorically unlimited willpower and motivation without dismissing those who have a little less energy to work with.

***

The first thing I do as a coach, when explaining how to handle a lack of mental motivation, is ask my clients to accept its existence. For some, it almost is like asking them to adopt a certain religious belief — understandable, since I admit I’m asking them to believe in something they cannot see. Fortunately, there are certain comparisons I can use. For instance, many of us know someone who has a handicapped parking sticker because of a heart condition or other condition that doesn’t require them to use a wheelchair or cane, but that affects them nonetheless. If we can accept at least the probability that a total stranger who gets out of a car with a handicapped permit, but walks normally, really has a legitimate condition, so we can accept that someone who looks normal, as the beholder sees “normal”, might have a mental condition that gives them a low battery.

To those I coach, I sometimes say, “Do what you can”. I often teach people to do chores in micro-increments — while some folks might spend hours cleaning, I tell clients, “If what you can do is pick up five pieces of trash, do it. If you can clean off one countertop, do it. If you can throw all your junk into one box, do it. Do what you can.” It won’t make their homes and lives squeaky-clean, but at least in the short term, it will keep things from getting worse.

When people are on a budget, financially speaking, it’s reasonable to teach people both how to increase their income and to work better with the income they have. The same principle applies when dealing with mental energy, to the extent that stimulants can act like credit cards — they give a person energy for now, but there eventually will come a time when the person will have to pay it back by resting or doing little or nothing for a while.

The hardest thing for a person with low energy to accept, whether it’s a client or me personally, is the way low energy might come at any time, and might have a physical cause. We might get sick at any given time. This year, allergies have been a massive problem for me personally, and one reason why is the way they take away from my mental energy, and they not only take away my ability to account for what makes me depressed and anxious, but magnify that crushed energy I often feel. At times, there’s no way to coach a person out of it — a person has to say, “Stuff happens”, to make as much progress as we can while we have some energy, and to be prepared to lose some of it and to have to rebuild whenever our breakdown or illness is over.

***

While I honor the right of a person to believe whatever they choose, I point out that it’s no service to others, to tell us having the energy we want or need is as simple as a thought. Along with being harmful — we’re likely to become even more depressed if we hear that often enough — it’s also inaccurate.

I promise, I’ve never gotten up in the morning and decided to get behind on bills or homework, to leave my apartment or car in a state of squalor, to stay overweight instead of exercising off the adipose tissue on me, to cry my eyes out because I had so much to catch up on but couldn’t, and so on. I realize it’s my responsibility to figure out how to handle my business, and I’m learning all the time, but it has never been a conscious decision to blow things off, and it never will be.

I will say this much: Though I’m not sure how possible this actually is, I certainly hope to get to the point where, in fact, I can have the mental energy I need to get everything done, or to set things up well enough that I don’t have to worry too much about coming back from major problems. It sounds like a really nice state of affairs. That said, I’ve learned to handle crushed energy, to the extent that I have, by training, therapy, medication, and the support of understanding people. I did not learn to handle it by believing or saying it doesn’t or shouldn’t exist.