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Saturday, December 17, 2011

Solutions for the Highly Sensitive Person

Please see my earlier post, "Sounds (and Feels) Familiar," to learn more about Sensory Processing Disorder and the problems it may (or may not) cause to those with Asperger's traits. After defining the problems, I wanted to follow up with a post about some of the ways I deal with SPD (or more frequently, High Sensitivity - see this FAQ on "The Highly Sensitive Person") in my daily life. I even thought up some new tricks while I was planning this blog entry.

For auditory SPD, one simple solution is to use earplugs. They look funny, but they help. My preference is for earplugs made of silicone, and these are available at the drugstore in the ear care section. I usually don't need to rely on earplugs except at times when I am under a lot of stress, meaning times when I am facing changes and new situations that overwhelm me.

Again, an SPD crisis can strike unexpectedly, so if you have a loved one with SPD, please be patient with them if they become agitated for no apparent reason. They may have suddenly realized that the noise and excitement are overwhelming and feel the urge to escape to a quiet, private place to rest. If this "sudden escape" has happened repeatedly, then please help your loved one by either planning an early retreat from social activities or suggesting that they step aside into an empty room or take a walk away from the bustling crowd partway through the activity. "Hiding" may prevent a crash-and-burn reaction the next day after a party! Remember that overstimulated senses may affect your friend so deeply that it takes willpower not to scream, bawl, or throw things in frustration. You know and I know, that's just not appropriate, and we Aspies love doing what is appropriate until the very last moment in our fight against stress.

When I haven't brought my earplugs, one way I tough it out when the noises get annoying is to refocus my mind on my sense of sight. While taking a walk along a busy road, the traffic sounds are hideously invasive on my private thoughts. So I focus my thoughts on what I see around me, viewing objects and signs not so much for what they are or what the words mean, but as objects of art that could be reproduced on paper. With my eyes, I follow the outlines of a fire hydrant or a bicycle as though tracing them with a pencil. That exercise distracts me from the information my ears are taking in.

As for tactile sensitivity, recently it helped me to realize that I can move around in front of people more than what I used to think was "appropriate." I can stretch my arms and shoulders while walking in the park. I can rub my stomach, my arm, or my knee while sitting in church, because those places hurt a little, and they need attention. I might even move in rhythm to the music - uh-oh, noise! - while I'm shopping. It makes me feel self-conscious, but I don't think I really look like a nutcase after all. Being undignified can actually be healthy . . . I think.

I'm an Aspie who has always adored sitting still and disdained movement, because movement can precede pain. I was the kid who was tagged "it" and firmly but politely stated, "I'm not playing," because I didn't like to run and I really didn't like falling down. Ouch! Unfortunately, immobility can also cause pain. The computer, books, and craft projects I love have their own set of pains to inflict. So if pain is unavoidable, I may as well try to alleviate my boo-boos as I go along, instead of letting them build up and put me in the hospital.

For those who have a sensitivity to smells, the best advice I can give is to think of something good and pleasant that is associated with the smell. Even if you think a perfume is too strong, the lady who squirted it on this morning may be enjoying a gift from a loved one. Tobacco smoke, currently associated with lung disease, has in the past been linked to relaxation and celebration.

I recently came to the conclusion that the reason I have hated the smell of coffee for years is because I associated that smell with my beloved grandfather's kisses, and I resented the fact that he was stolen away from me by cancer when I was seven years old. I'm going to try to think of something good about the smell of coffee, such as . . . um, well . . . getting up early? Yuck! Peppy, energized, loud and nervous people? Nope! Uh . . . an industry built on addictions? No? Okay, well, I guess I'll always hate coffee, but you get the idea.

Please leave comments and let me know if these ideas help you! The comments will be sent to me for previewing so that I can approve them. That's why they don't show up immediately on this webpage. I appreciate it!


Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Please Make Christmas STOP!

What exactly did the Grinch hate about Christmas, and why? I just listened to the beginning of How the Grinch Stole Christmas read aloud. It seems that mean ol' Mr. Grinch particularly hated the noise, the feasting, and the hand-holding, singing, group-hug type stuff. What's so bad about any of that?

I'm here to state that if you've got an extreme case of Asperger's syndrome, there's plenty to complain about right there.

Yesterday, I was tired after the previous day of editing (my part-time job), then volunteering at church that morning, then sitting at a park bench trying to relax. But I needed new shoes and decided to push myself and go right then, instead of heading home for a soak in the tub. Guess what greeted me at the two shoe stores I entered? Christmas music!!!! And not even peaceful, classical music, or cheery, childlike music. No, this was more like grate-on-your nerves, annoy-you-to-tears, get-me-outta-here Christmas music - what I would call poor quality. But I needed shoes. So, like the Grinch did for 53 years before he made up his mind to put a stop to Christmas, I endured the noise, noise, noise, noise, NOISE, all to try on lots of shoes that pinched my feet in every possible place.

Ironic, isn't it, that Dr. Suess suggested that the Grinch's sour attitude might be because his shoes were too tight . . . I can understand that.

And the feasting the Grinch abhorred so much? Is that so negative to an Aspie? Um, yes. What is the exact purpose of feasting, my friends? Is it to make people feel bloated, stuffed, fat, and slothful? Because we usually do . . . don't we? Yet most people think feasting is a social activity that must not be skipped! They think gulping down cookies and brownies the size of soap cakes has to be done for the sake of dear old Grandma, who baked four dozen too many. For me, an Aspie who can reason her way out of the tightest mental maze, this being-nice-to-Grandma stuff just does not compute. Grandma is not that easily hurt by anything her grandbabies refuse to do. Besides, this Aspie is full already, and if she eats anymore, she will be - oh, no, not that! - UNCOMFORTABLE. Mr. Grinch, you have my empathy!

Then there's everybody's favorite part of Christmas - the Christmas programs! Yay! During the month of December, let's make a worldwide pact to place the highest, most stringent, most grueling and "rewarding" of expectations on our choir members, musicians, actors, and ESPECIALLY - ooh, Grammy and Gramps can't wait for this part - our children. This year's Christmas program will be better than last year's . . . or else.

Let's get together and stand in our too-tight shoes, hour after hour, rehearsing on weekends and weeknights, singing our hearts out to Jesus, while all the moms meanwhile try to remember if they forgot to buy a present for cousin what's-his-name whose likes and dislikes have changed forty times since last year. Let's insist on perfection from our children and call it "musical training." Oh, yeah, that sounds like perpetual fun. I vote we do that again next year!

Can you hear my sarcasm, y'all? Thought I'd better check to make sure the Aspies don't take me literally.

So! Solutions for the Grinch in all of us may include:
1) Thanking the Lord that December is only 1/12 of the full year.
2) Making sure our shoes fit right.
3) Cutting back on those social obligations. I really hate to disappoint my friends, but I'll hate it worse if I turn into a grump-a-lump for my family after one party too many. And in December, what with all that NOISE, one party is definitely too many for me. Come spend time with me one-on-one if you miss me, folks. :)
4) Participating in programs? Yeah, it's fun, but I've been there, and I've done that, and I'm done. Lord willing, I'll never sing in a Christmas choir again. Bad things happen. Things like car accidents the night of the second Christmas banquet because I was too tired to pay attention . . . and trips to the hospital in January because I overdid it performing in two plays and a piano recital during the Christmas season. I'd prefer to learn from my mistakes.
5) Realizing that people probably won't hate you if you don't give them a present or three or seven. If they stop being your friend after you accidentally/on purpose forgot their Christmas present, hey, who wants friends like that, anyway? Give them just-because-you-love-them gifts throughout the year, and see if that doesn't touch their hearts more!
6)Remembering that what Jesus taught about the Sabbath could very well apply to the holiday season as well. People were not made for the sake of Christmas, but Christmas was made for the sake of people. It's the time when we are supposed to be celebrating God's love for us, like the Whos down in Whoville, who liked Christmas a lot. It's good to like Christmas if Christmas truly brings you closer to Jesus and closer to the people Jesus came for.




Friday, September 9, 2011

Sounds (and Feels) Familiar

 Now that I am writing this blog, I am becoming more aware of terms that relate to Asperger's syndrome and autism. One of these terms is Sensory Processing Disorder (formerly referred to as Sensory Integration Dysfunction). I stumbled onto this term while completing a medical questionnaire, and found out that it's an experience I am very familiar with--only I always described Sensory Processing Disorder with these words: "I can't get comfortable."

For me, though, the intensity of SPD is generally on a lower scale, more along the lines of High Sensitivity. I discovered a long time ago that I am what is termed a Highly Sensitive Person. My normal daily experience fits the HSP profile better than the SPD profile (thank God). For an explanation of the difference, see this FAQ on "The Highly Sensitive Person."

When overstimulation strikes out of the blue, I may start behaving in a strange way, because my discomfort is absolutely intolerable. Finding relief may be the only thing I can think about, and sometimes I can't politely and patiently explain why I burst into tears, hurry out of a crowded room, or get that sudden pained expression on my face.

This is how auditory sensitivity feels in a public restaurant: stressful. Understanding one person's words can be very hard, when my brain is fighting to screen out the sounds of customers chattering, silverware clinking, water being poured, chairs being scraped, music crooning across the sound system, the footsteps of the servers, the central heating / cooling system, doors opening and shutting, racket from the kitchen, laughter, chewing, and slurping. My heart rate is up just from defining all those sounds! And, no, I'm not in a restaurant listening right now. These sounds are memorized from long exposure, and I hate them. I hate them because they are too loud. They make a fun time with friends exhausting for me. 

I think I'll go back to bed.

Oh, yeah. Bed can be exhausting too. When I used to tell my dad and mom, night after night, "I can't get comfortable," I was in bed! Who thinks bed is uncomfortable, huh? Only a highly sensitive person, I'm thinking . . . .

I am blessed that SPD does not affect my enjoyment of hugs, as it does for so many autistic people. Tactile sensitivity strikes in peculiar ways. There are those who hate the feel of a tag in an undershirt and have worn their undershirts inside out for decades. There are those who put off haircuts as long as possible, simply because they don't like to feel the barber touching their heads. There are those whose family laughingly call them porcupines because they wiggle out of any embrace. It's not being weird. It's being on the autism spectrum.

Light and smells can also be overpowering to many Aspies. Chronic headaches can be triggered by hypersenstivity to perfumes and air fresheners, etc. as well as bright lights. My first headache ever came while "enjoying" a drive-through Christmas lights display.

More on the Christmas season later - and prepare your minds, because I seriously suspect that the Grinch had Asperger's traits. After all, even Dr. Suess wasn't 100% sure why the Grinch stole Christmas. But let me remind y'all that Mr. Grinch changed for the better as a result of his experiences. Christmas and the New Year can be times of change for all of us, so let's make sure we're changing for the better.


Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Rules to Socialize By

Social skills are learned, and therefore social skills can be taught. Babies start learning social skills from day one. Babies know little else than that crying can result in their needs being met and that smiling and laughing can make their entertainment continue longer. People who have a personality defined by Asperger's traits often struggle throughout their lives to get a handle on social skills.

On the plus side, Aspies tend to be very good at learning by direct instruction. That's why so many Aspies are successful at work, likeable among their peers, and able to avoid "getting into trouble." The Aspies who have a moderate-to-good understanding of social conventions probably learned them, not by observation and mimicry, but by an intellectual understanding of culturally determined rules.

For example, when I was little, my mom told me over and over to look her in the eye. She had to know whether I was paying attention to what she said. Now to an Aspie, listening is for the ears, not the eyes. At times when my mom was scolding me, I thought that being forced to look her in the eye was part of my punishment!

Many years later, when my mom approached my doctor about the possibility that I had Asperger's syndrome, the doctor said Asperger's syndrome had never crossed her mind while she interacted with me, because I consistently made eye contact.

We Aspies can change outwardly if (1) we know what society's expectations are (2) we are motivated to change (3) we practice until it becomes comfortable for us.

So here's a write-up of a few rules that Aspies may not automatically know about. They are pretty safe to follow in any situation. Most of these habits took a lot of coaching from my family and friends before I got used to them - or even before I was convinced to try them! I am including the reasons for the rules, with the hope that it will motivate those Aspies who like their social skills as is. Many times, I have decided to change, more because I wanted to make the people I love more comfortable around me than because I was uncomfortable myself.

1. Smile at people when people look at you. This makes people feel that you welcome their presence.
2. Smile when you're getting your picture taken. That way, it looks like you're having a good time--which, hopefully, you are!
3. Look at people's faces when they are talking to you unless you're sure they don't mind if you listen while doing something else. People want to know you are paying attention, and they can read the expressions on your face even if you struggle to read their expressions.
4. When someone calls your name, respond quickly, preferably by answering out loud. If you don't, people will never know if you are ignoring them, didn't hear them, or were listening all along.
5. Make culturally appropriate eye contact. To the average American, anyone who doesn't look a person in the eye while speaking must be either rude or deceitful. An Aspie may avoid eye contact for other reasons: being distracted by other things to look at . . . feeling confused / embarrassed / tired . . . or just forgetting the importance of eye contact!
6. Say hello (or an equivalent greeting) when you enter a room, and say good-bye (or an equivalent greeting) when you exit. It's good manners. That's why. <grin>
7. Listen for feedback about your appearance. If people seldom compliment your clothes, haircut, or accessories, well . . . they are probably following the rule, "If you can't say something nice, don't say anything at all." Check with a trusted friend in private to find out what people really think about the way you dress.
8. If you can't think of anything worth saying, say something anyway! This is called "small talk," and it shows people you care about them. Disclaimer for the literally minded: It's okay to be known as a quiet person, as long as you at least ATTEMPT occasionally to make small talk when you don't want to. Sociable people don't always want to make small talk either, but they try anyway because being friendly is really important - especially if you want to make friends.



Thursday, July 7, 2011

For a Real Challenge, Try Playing!

The turning point in my jump-rope skills was not merely the day I put the rope over my head backwards. It was the day a friend gave me very specific how-to instructions. In fact, years later, when my mom wanted to teach me double Dutch (jumping two ropes at once), I begged her to explain in words when and how I was to jump in. "Just jump in! Just try!" she told me over and over, but I'm convinced that I would have learned faster if she had told me how in words.

I remember how relieved I was to find out that Red Rover was not such a complicated game once it was explained in detail. Neither was 4-square, though I hung back from 4-square until my fourth-grade teacher took pity on me and coaxed me to join. Once she told me what was going to happen next in every possible 4-square scenario, I was good! (Not good at playing 4-square, but good at participating.)

For some of the simpler playground games, I somehow guessed what to do to join in, but not without exerting far more brain power than it took me to read aloud from a book. I was 6. Which should have come more naturally to me? Playing simple games with children my own age or reading children's classics unaided? We're not talking picture books. We're talking books like The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, Ramona the Brave, and the Nancy Drew series.

Many 6-year-olds are still learning that /ph/ makes the /f/ sound, and playing dodge ball with the best of them. But I still hate dodge ball, and my one cheerful experience with kickball came in 11th grade. I considered myself blessed to learn that many Asperger's people have poor coordination combined with a perfectionistic streak that makes athletic games tedious instead of fun.


Perfectionism Plus

My second-grade teacher thought that a student who does not finish her work on time must be kept in from recess to finish her work. Sounds reasonable, right? Until a perfectionistic Aspie joins the class! I took so long doing my seatwork to my 100% standard that I was missing out on playtime with other kids.

Ah, perfectionism! How I love thee and how I hate thee! One day, my teacher found me agonizing over a worksheet about koalas that asked me to name another animal from Australia. I had never studied animals from Australia, and the answer was not anywhere on the worksheet. But I just knew that if I racked my brains long enough, I would know what to write in that blank! At long last, my teacher practically ripped the paper out of my hands and put it in the basket of papers to grade. That was the day I learned that handing in an assignment with a space left blank was acceptable - under the most dire circumstances, at any rate.

My mom insisted that recess itself was why she was sending me to school instead of continuing to teach me herself. So my teacher started sending me outside to play at recess, finished or not. This change did not affect my straight A average in the least, but it did improve my jump-rope skills!

My teacher loved to call people over to watch me jumping rope backwards. "Sharon Rose learned to jump-rope backwards first," she would brag. Why was jumping rope easier for me when I couldn't see the rope coming? Because I listen better than I watch. I'm an auditory learner, and I needed to hear the rhythm of the rope hitting the ground in order to know when to jump. Seeing the rope approach my feet just threw my timing off.

I want to emphasize this point, because there seems to be a common assumption that autistic or Asperger's people are all visual learners. I recently watched a movie about the life of Temple Grandin, and it proved to me the similarities between low-functioning autism and Asperger's syndrome. However, one of the few ways in which I could not identify at all with Temple's limitations and talents was that she thinks in pictures. Like Dr. Grandin, I observe the most detailed of details, but I memorize dialogue instead of visual scenes. While Temple Grandin's visual learning skills exceed her auditory learning skills, I am the exact opposite. We are both on the autistic spectrum. Great movie, by the way!

Please click: Synopsis of "Temple Grandin" played by Claire Danes



Second Grade Misery

Culture shock struck me full force when I started second grade at a Christian school. I had just turned 6 and, up until then, I had lived a homeschool lifestyle. I didn't even have a sibling to interact with at home, so fitting into a classroom full of children was hard to begin with.

The first thing I learned at school was that the more I cried, the more the other little girls would ask me what was the matter. So I stopped crying, because I didn't know how to explain why I was crying. It could have been anything from confusion to disappointment to loneliness. Big words for powerful feelings - but a lot harder to describe than, "I fell down."

The day I caught a stomach bug, I followed the rule, "Sit still in your seat and pay attention in class." Now, I knew of three times when it was appropriate to raise my hand. (1) To answer a question during a lesson. (2) To give a suggestion, such as a favorite song. (3) To get permission to go to the potty - I mean, the restroom. Nobody said anything about raising your hand if you felt sick - not until after I turned green, belched, got escorted to the nurse's office, and was picked up and taken home. Then my mom suggested that next time I felt sick, I should tell the teacher.

Great idea! I thought. I will tell the teacher every single time I feel sick. I liked talking to the teacher so much that I "felt sick" every day after lunch. After several months of these complaints, inevitably, I did catch a flu bug. My poor second-grade teacher dealt with my vomit and promptly told my mom that sandwiches would be a much better lunch for me than yogurt. All the other kids ate sandwiches for lunch.

"But she won't eat sandwiches!" my mom declared. "She hates mayonnaise, hates lunchmeat, hates lettuce. She will eat yogurt!" Nobody told my teacher that people with Asperger's often are hypersensitive to discomfort and sometimes hypersensitive to flavors and textures (AKA picky eaters). Nobody told my mom that I might have Asperger's syndrome. No wonder that, between the two of them, they didn't know what to do with me!


Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Lights Off

The rule at my school was, "Turn out the lights when you're leaving the restroom." I had only recently learned that the potty was not called the potty at school, but the restroom. I didn't catch on to that until a kind friend, age 7, spelled it out to me!

Well, potty or restroom, I was determined to keep the rule and turn out the lights after I left, because there was no one in there but me, and they would know that I had been the one to leave the lights on if I forgot. "Turn out the lights. Turn out the lights," I chanted in my head while I washed my hands and dried them. I flicked off the light switch.

A gasp of protest rose up behind me from a group of first-grade girls who had entered the restroom while I was in the stall! I was horrified by my mistake and quickly flicked the switch back on.

I don't remember the name of the teacher who was supervising the other little girls, but bless her heart for not being hard on me. "Please leave the lights on when other people are in here," she told me calmly. I nodded and made my getaway, never to make that mistake again . . . until I was 19 and turned off a reading lamp in a living room when I was finished reading, never noticing that the lady of the house had joined me and was using the light herself.


Sunday, July 3, 2011

What Comes After Hello?

I firmly grasped the telephone receiver and dialed the number of my carpool for elementary school. What was I supposed to say? I knew what the message was, but what would I say exactly?

After a few rings, my classmate's mom answered. She said, "Hello." Oh, of course--Hello! I couldn't go wrong with hello. So I said it--and waited.

"Hello," the voice replied.

Now what? I repeated hello, repeated it again, and got no further instructions. Then I decided she couldn't hear me. "HELLO!" I hollered, to make sure it wasn't a bad connection.

"Who is this?" she asked.

Finally, she had asked a question, and I knew the answer.

The words spilled out. "This is Sharon Rose, and my mom told me to call and tell you that she's going to drive me to school herself tomorrow morning, so you can go ahead without me, and I don't need a ride."

"Okay. That's fine. Thanks for calling and letting us know."

She had said, "Thanks," and therefore, I ought to say, "You're welcome." I did.

The next thing she said was, "Good-bye." What a relief! Not only did I know the appropriate response to good-bye, but once I said it, I could hang up, and the ordeal would be officially over.


True story. And a cute story, I think--if I had been 4 years old when it happened. But I wasn't. I was 9 years old and in 5th grade.

How is it possible that a girl who studied a grade above her age level, got straight A's, and won the spelling bee that year didn't know what to say after, "Hello"? It's very possible when that same girl has Asperger's syndrome.

Why did making a phone call on my own make me nervous? (1) I had never tried it before. (2) I had not gotten specific instructions.

Nearly 20 years later, I have made innumerable phone calls and have a mental file folder stuffed with openers, or "scripts," if you will. One of my favorite openers when calling up friends who might be busy is: "Do you have time to chat?" In fact, recently, a friend called and asked if I had time to chat, and I felt almost indignant that he stole my line! It certainly works better than repeating hello, so I guess I can share.