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Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Rules to Socialize By

The Asperger's traits addressed in this post include:
*Getting misunderstood
*Too quiet or too talkative
*Difficulty expressing emotions appropriately
*Difficulty learning to relax
*Difficulty communicating
*Rule-bound behavior

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.

How this topic applies to Christian living:
1 Corinthians 13:4-5
Love . . . does not behave rudely (NKJV).

Proverbs 18:24
A man that hath friends must shew himself friendly: and there is a friend that sticketh closer than a brother.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

For a Real Challenge, Try Playing!

The Asperger's traits addressed in this post include:
*Detail orientation
*Anxiety and depression
*Difficulty learning to relax

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.

How this topic applies to Christian living:
Psalm 139:14
I will praise thee; for I am fearfully and wonderfully made: marvellous are thy works; and that my soul knoweth right well.

Perfectionism Plus

The Asperger's traits addressed in this post include:
*Sensitivity to sensory input

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

How this topic applies to Christian living:

Psalm 101:2
I will behave myself wisely in a perfect way. O when wilt thou come unto me? I will walk within my house with a perfect heart.

Psalm 18:32
It is God that girdeth me with strength, and maketh my way perfect.

Second Grade Misery

The Asperger's traits addressed in this post include:
*Difficulty expressing emotions appropriately
*Sensitivity to sensory input
*Rule-bound behavior
*Getting misunderstood

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!

How this topic applies to Christian living:
James 5:8
Be ye also patient; stablish your hearts: for the coming of the Lord draweth nigh.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Lights Off

The Asperger's traits addressed in this post include:
*Difficulty regulating attention
*Rule-bound behavior

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.

How this topic applies to Christian living:

1 Corinthians 14:40

Let all things be done decently and in order.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

What Comes After Hello?

 The Asperger's traits addressed in this post include:
*Rule-bound behavior
*Anxiety and depression
*Too quiet or too talkative

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.

How this topic applies to Christian living:

Romans 8:26

Likewise the Spirit also helpeth our infirmities: for we know not what we should pray for as we ought: but the Spirit itself maketh intercession for us with groanings which cannot be uttered.