October 15 – The Care and Feeding of Introverts

Yesterday’s post discussed the current thinking on introverts and extroverts and how introverts are people who lose energy being around people for large periods of time and recharge with time alone. So if you have an introvert in your life, how can you support them? FYI: I find many of the introvert suggestions work very well for those with Aspergers. (Extroverts, I will get to you on October 16th).

Here are a few suggestions…

One: Don’t immediately tell them ‘Hey! I know you are an introvert!’ Great, just what they wanted, another label. Keep your knowledge to yourself unless they bring up the subject. Few people enjoy being psychoanalyzed..

Two: Give them prior notice when moving from one event to another. We used this suggestion frequently when my son was small (and even now do it as a courtesy) to avoid explosions. Going to Grandma’s at 4pm? Notify people at 3:45pm that the car is leaving in 15 minutes (the amount of time you need to provide will vary). My son could not handle just getting up and leaving what he was doing in an unfinished state.

Three: In new situations or places, don’t push them to just run off and play, instead let them watch first. Another good idea for my son. New playground, he would watch and see what was there, what other people were doing. I still do this: when I start a new job, I observe more than I talk until I know how things are run there.

Four: Don’t interrupt. Nope, just don’t do it. More arguments have been launched in my house by someone NOT waiting to speak than any other reason I know. Now this can be hard since Aspergians often talk and talk and talk, either about their topics of choice or what bothers them, so you don’t know when they really are done. But try. I have someone at work who is normally a team player but interrupting him sets him off. He stops talking and participating completely. Yes this is a grown man, but an introvert.

Five: Provide notice of changes in their world BEFORE it happens. Is Monday usually spaghetti night but this Monday you are serving meatloaf? Let them know. Yes they should be flexible, yes, it shouldn’t matter, do you want an explosion at dinner? You decide.

Six: Don’t expect instant answers to a question. There are many possibilities to your question and all of them should be considered. If time is of the essence, try providing two or three options and asking them to pick from one of them. It may not work (but I don’t want A or B or C, why didn’t you offer D?) but it’s worth a try.

Seven: Respect their privacy. They probably do not want you to discuss their condition, diagnosis, failings, etc., where others can hear. If they failed at a task, let them know in private. If they need additional help in an area, provide it without an audience. I always think that my son (and many others) who love video games do so in part because they can practice again and again to get it right in the privacy of their homes with no judgement and the computer never scolds.

Eight: Give the the space to recharge alone. They need it. It may consist of going to a nature center, knitting a winter hat, chilling with a comic book. Give them that time so they can regain what dealing with the world drains away.

Nine: Don’t expect them to like being in large groups of people. Even though YOU may want to go to that Fall Festival in the park, with large crowds of people, and loud music, don’t be hurt if THEY don’t want to attend. Compromise, go to the festival at a time when the crowds are smaller and the band isn’t playing. Or go with people that enjoy crowds.

I find introverts are like geodes. You cannot tell the beauty inside just by a cursory look at the outside.

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October 14 – Are all Aspie’s Introverts?

The next three days I am exploring the topic of introverts, extroverts, and everyone in between. Today’s thoughts are about the definition of the terms and some real world examples.

When I was growing up, the theory was that there were two types of people: introverts and extroverts. Introverts were people that were shy and didn’t like social interaction and extroverts were people that were outgoing and did like social interaction. So it isn’t surprising that people would think that all Aspergians are introverts since they have such troubles with social cues and situations.

Recently, research has rewritten the definitions of introverts and extroverts. Current theory suggests that Introverts are people who lose energy being around people for large periods of time and recharge with time alone. And Extroverts gain energy being around people and lose energy being alone. So with the new research, what does this mean for Aspergians? Really nothing new, but maybe an easier time not being pegged automatically as introverts.

I think many Aspergians appear to be introverts due to their lack of recognition of social cues and lack of comfort in groups of people. The fact that they may have had BAD experiences in groups of people may have more to do with the discomfort than being introverts.

In my son’s high school class were several Aspergians, some who were extroverts and others who were introverts. One of my son’ s friends loved people. He thrived meeting new people, hugging them, talking to them and the longer he was with his friends, the wider his smile. You couldn’t keep the smile off of your face when you were around him. Then there were other kids who were clearly uncomfortable in a group of people, who would not make eye contact or do more than mumble. But when you talked to them one on one on a topic they enjoyed, they blossomed.

My son and I are actually in the middle of introverts and extroverts, a third kind called in one article, ambiverts. Which I am sure meant ambivalent or in the middle, but kinda sounds like we couldn’t decide on WHAT we really were. Each of us like to interact with people in small to medium size crowds, of people with similar likes to our own. And each of us gets to a point when we have had enough of everyone and we step away.

For example, when my kids were small, we always went to my father in law’s for Christmas. There were many people there and my son would be overwhelmed by the sensory overload. He would go into his grandfather’s bedroom (with permission) and hang out and watch tv and come out ever so often to visit and then return to the safety of the room. He was in control of his conversations and activities. This control made him feel better and we experienced less meltdowns. Not all of the relations understood but the important part was that he got to be at the family gathering on his own terms.

My favorite story about me and human interactions was told by my father. When I was about 3 years old, my mother left me with my father at his job. He managed a dime store on a local main street. Near his office was a white and gold vanity (bench and table with mirror) and he left me there to play while he stepped away to deal with something. Soon, a little old lady stopped him, and demanded he deal with the hooligan in the back of the store and stomped out. From what he could piece together, that old lady had seen me at the vanity playing, and asked me who I was and where was my parent and so forth and so on. I finally turned to the old lady and shouted ‘Go away! I’m busy!’ and returned to my play. My father always ended that story saying ‘He never feared that anyone would kidnap his daughter’ and smiling. I was always embarrassed when he told it. Nowadays, I am proud that I had that spunk even at an early age. But I don’t know if it was the introvert or extrovert in me talking that day…..

Tomorrow’s topic will be introverts and how to be supportive of their way of interacting with the world.

October 13 – Why can’t I work with you?

Having completed the friendship series, I was at a loss on what to write about for the blog. So I asked my family about possible topics and my next topic is: Why do Aspergians have troubles working with others / on teams?

Living in the science and technology world, I have experienced many times working with someone who has the brains and ability to do the job very well but cannot function on the team. But why?

As I explored this topic and many, many anecdotes about it, I found issues in three main areas: Social, Focus, and Sensory

Social

Aspergians often have issues in the workplace due to their inability to notice and process social cues such as facial expressions or body gestures and many Aspergians do not look people in the eye. For NT’s, they may feel disrespected by the Aspergian. My son’s elementary school principal made a BIG deal that he would not look her in the eye. She interpreted it as he was up to no good. I didn’t realize at the time what it meant. (Honestly, she was a martinet who couldn’t handle new ideas so no surprise she had no clue what Aspergers was and the indicators for it)

Aspergians are often blunt. Yes, utterly and completely. Why should I have to add extra words when I can describe it simply as bad or worthless or crap? You can either find that bluntness refreshing or painful. Guess what many NT’s think?

Voice control is another area where many Aspergians have issues. Often they talk too loudly or they sound angry when they are excited, but when the volume/tone is discussed with them, they don’t understand. My son talks louder than necessary and the volume increases as he gets excited or upset. I often need to indicate to him (via a hand signal) to reduce the volume.

Small talk? Many Aspergians don’t need no stinkin small talk. At least you won’t get much from them. And if you do get some, it will probably be about some obscure topic.
In summary, for social issues, many Aspergians are hard to work with if you have standard NT sensibilities. They may not know last night’s baseball score (but they might, it involves numbers…). They will not notice that they grossed you out with a discussion. They may be too loud in their speech, or most impossible to engage in conversation at all. And if that shirt makes you look fat, they will tell you.

Focus

In the original Star Wars movie, there is a scene near the end of the movie where the rebels are attacking the Death Star. They are overwhelmed with Empire ships chasing them, Empire guns shooting at, and when one of the rebel pilots begins to unravel his commander says “Stay on target”. At my job, this phrase is OFTEN used to rein people back into the work they should be doing.

Aspergians often have issues keeping focus on a topic. At work, it is necessary to be able to integrate what you see, hear, remember, and what is documented to do your job. At this point, multi-tasking isn’t just good, it’s required (ADHD people take heart, your multiple thread skills can actually help as an adult).

Many Aspergians tend to focus on one idea at a time. So if the project is to create a new application for a cell phone that allows you to find a restaurant and order from that restaurant’s menu, the Aspergian may focus on one issue: inaccurate map data. Even when informed that map data is a lower priority and will be resolved later, the Aspergian may continue to work on that issue. There will be an argument/discussion.

Aspergians often like to have all of the information they need at the start, and many times, what you know at the beginning of the project is NOT everything you need to know. So motivating them to begin work, noting the holes, is hard.

Aspergians often need prioritizing which task to perform first.

And of course, many Aspergians resist change. For all of the latest technology many of us use, often it is very hard to convince an Aspergian to change how they get to work, what car they drive, what foods they eat, let alone to make changes to an existing function/application/you name it.

In summary, successful working with Aspergians could include a list or board listing specific tasks that need to be done and a way to document progress on the task. The Kanban scheduling system, which consists of small tasks or stories moving across a board as they are worked on, works well for many Aspergians. And be prepared to answer why: Why are we doing this? Why are we doing it THIS way? Why, why, why. Somedays, it is like working with a group of three year olds. That Super Bowl commercial with the cowboys herding cats? My life – daily.

Sensory

Many Aspergians have sensory issues. They find work environments too bright, too loud, too smelly. To the NT, Aspergians appear very touchy or childish in their wants/needs. From the Aspergian point of view, they are inundated with sensory information, just too much of it, and they need ways to filter it out.

Some people may work with some lights off. I know that when I was small, I could HEAR the ballast in fluorescent lights, especially when they were about to burn out. I asked my parents about it, they hadn’t a clue. My sister didn’t hear it. I was sure I was an alien left here by mistake. Thankfully as I have aged I do not hear that sound anymore as most workplaces have fluorescent lighting. Unfortunately, when the same lights start to flicker as they die, that gives me a headache.

Some people use headphones at work to filter out the conversations. I use them often.
Many people have issues with smells. I try NOT to eat in my work area and certainly do not throw away food in trash cans in my work area. Burnt popcorn and fish smells are the worst.

In summary, a work environment that accommodates sensory issues is great. Encouraging people to get up and walk around, take a real lunch, etc., does help to diffuse sensory issues.

At my current job, many of us have Nerf guns, and when it just gets too much, a mini battle rages, we run around for a few minutes, collect our spent ammo, and refocus.

Overall, working with Aspergians can be more difficult, especially for the NT’s in the group. Jokes told may fall flat, food brought in may be disliked, minor issues overblown. Extra work is needed so that everyone is comfortable. The Aspergians AND NT’s all deserve a comfortable place to work.

October 12 – Again and Again and Again

Often, people with Aspergers do the same thing repetitively. Like watch a certain show or movie. One of my favorite movies is Star Wars. Yes, original Star Wars, later renamed Part 4 – A New Hope. It’s just Star Wars to me.

Pre-VHS or DVD, I would catch it when I could on broadcast TV. I enjoyed watching it and could quote whole phrases from it. When I married my husband, he was amazed (or aghast) how often I watched the movie. He would ask me ‘Why are you watching this AGAIN?!’ I really didn’t know, I just liked it.

When I am sad, I have two go to movies: Casablanca and Star Trek – The Wrath of Khan. I like Casablanca for the actors and storyline and the quotes, some of the dialog between Rick and Captain Renault is wonderful. And ST – TWOK, well, I have always like Star Trek, and to me, that movie epitomizes the best aspects of the TV show, especially friendship and giving of oneself for others.

But WHY do many Aspergers watch the same shows/movies repeatedly? It’s Sunday morning and the boy has a cold but was up to offer some answers. For him, there were two main answers:

  • Watching the show/movie repeatedly brings back the good feelings that were experienced the first time it was watched
  • Watching the show/movie repeatedly allows the viewer to notice details they missed the first time (almost an Easter Egg feature)

Myself, I have noticed that watching certain shows/movies repeatedly can have a bonding feature to it. Think of the NT’s who enjoy ‘The Rocky Horror Picture Show’ movie. They dress up like the characters in the movie, bring water guns, toasted bread, toilet paper to the theatre, and interact with the screen and each other as the movie plays. Everyone thinks that’s fun (and some people may think it a little odd). How is that different than those of us who can quote from ‘The Princess Bride’ or ‘Monty Python and the Holy Grail’ or a host of other movies? Probably the depth of the repetition or the type of movie that is watched again and again and again?

At my house, we limit the time for electronic devices, including TV/DVD Player, which helps to cut down repetition. Also, having a set of chores to be done before electronics use helps as well.

At my current job, it is a good way to fit in to be able to quote from movies such as the Star Wars Trilogy, Star Trek, Monty Python, and Marvel Universe movies.

So, what should you do if you live with a movie repeater? Have patience, offer to watch one of their favorites IF they watch one of your favorites, and buy lots of popcorn and snowcaps.

October 11 – Not all Friendships should remain

The topic of the death and active shutting down of friendships was going to be included in a previous post about friendships but once I got started I realized that it deserved its own day.

I have a problem with the death of friendships. I know that friendships die. Often fading away due to a lack of common interests, or time, or attention. But when I lose a friend, it hurts so much. Maybe because I have never had that many friends, maybe because I wonder when I will find another friend, maybe because there is a kernel of self doubt in me that wonders WHAT DID I DO WRONG? Like Midas, I want to hoard my friends and never let them go. Unlike Midas, I don’t have that many to begin with.

Sometimes the hardest part of the death of a friendship is the apparent lack of concern from the other person. Was I the only person who cared? I experienced this one myself and it still troubles me. I graduated college and moved 1000 miles away to a job with the government. I met many wonderful people there and had a roommate for two years. She was beautiful, from Boston, very NT. I was her Matron of Honor at her wedding. She was nice to me in a reserved Bostonian way. I moved back to my hometown, she a variety of places following her husband’s job, and then west. The friendship has wilted to once a year holiday newsletters where I read about how wonderful her life and her children and her charity work is. She was even in the same state as I (90 minutes away) since her eldest son is at college now near me. No calls, no personal letters, nothing.

Now logically, it makes sense. Our lives diverged greatly.

  • We live in different parts of the country
  • She quit her job after the second child, husband makes pots of money, does charity work while I continued to work, husband makes a decent wage but not enough to quit (and I don’t know if I would completely if I could), and my charity work directly involves my son
  • She has a stereotypical perfect family: everything normal while mine is everything but.

So it makes sense that this friendship would not last, the connection may not have been that close to begin with and the necessary care and connections did not or could not happen. I don’t think its anyone’s fault but still, I wonder. I wonder if I talked too much about my son’s issues to her when we still talked on the phone, or how things were tight, or didn’t realize how much her charity work meant to her. My aspergers brain appears to be blaming myself for the failure even though it probably was inevitable.

Then there are the friendship that should die. Put a stake through their heart kind of friendships. There is a danger in not accepting that some friendships are not healthy and should not continue. The best example I have is from my son’s early teen years. At his school was a classmate with similar interests in computers and martial arts and he lived near to us. I shall call him Shamus. Shamus and my son would talk and play at each other’s houses. It was heartening to see my son with a friend. Then my husband and I started to notice things that concerned us: Shamus had a hair trigger temper, he mocked my son to his face and in front of us, he caused trouble at school. When we would talk to my son about these issues and whether my son should move away from the friendship, my son became very agitated.

There was a final incident concerning a fall festival in our community. Kids loved to attend and eat bad for you foods from the stalls and play games. Parents liked it since the kids had fun and the parents could gather together to talk while the kids ran about. My son loved the fall festival and wanted to attend with Shamus and talked to him at school to set up where and when to meet. After school, my son was sullen and withdrawn. When I finally got him to talk, my son told me that Shamus had told him that they could go to the festival at the same time, but Shamus didn’t want to be seen with him, that my son would have to pretend to be there on his own.

At first, my son was willing to do just that. He didn’t want to lose his only friend. His father and I (and even his sister) talked to him and helped him realize a) Shamus isn’t your friend if he is ashamed to be seen with you b) my son deserved better. My son told Shamus what he was asking for was wrong and Shamus dropped him like a hot potato. It was a bad time for my son as Shamus treated him badly at school.

Shamus would have troubles in the school in following years, especially concerning his bad temper. He would be suspended for hitting a classmate. With time, my son would discuss how he was glad he had nothing to do with Shamus anymore.

But the message I would stress is that, for many Aspergians, they may not understand what makes a good, healthy friendship. That their loneliness and past failures in friendship may make them more likely to stay in relationships that are not good for them. Sadly there have been stories in the news of NT’s befriending autistic people and mistreating them and the autistic people not wanting to end the relationship. And it is hard to read of the humiliation and disrespect and not wonder, ‘Why do you put up with it?’ Maybe, because loneliness hurts too?

October 10 – Friendship viewed thru an Aspergian Prism

In the movie ‘The Princess Bride’, one of the characters utters the line ‘You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.’ I thought of that quote when sketching out today’s post about friendship. Perhaps part of the problem with friendship and those with Aspergers is that Aspergians think friendship means something different than NT’s.

I asked my son his definition of friendship. He stated that friendship was a relationship between people who are not related by blood or law. That friends were people you can trust and do things with. I think Aspergians and NT’s would agree with that basic definition.

So I dug a little deeper. In my own experience, many NT’s have a variety of friends at a variety of levels of involvement/trust. There are job friends that interact mostly at work but not elsewhere. There are common interest friends (sports, exercise, etc.) that gather together at bars, stadiums, gyms to watch and/or perform. There are neighbors that share experiences living in the same area. And there are close friends that share personal information and experiences good and ill. So one could have friends that they went drinking with but didn’t reveal intimate details of their life. I think of those kind of friendships as analog ( I am an electrical engineer after all), for the friendship can have a variety of levels and strengths.

I find that many Aspergians see friendship as digital: on or off. A person is either my friend or they aren’t. If they are my friend, I trust them and want to do things with them and expect that they want to do things with me. This kind of intensity is hard for many people to handle who are accustomed to a variety of levels of friendship. There is this person telling them all kinds of intimate details and they really didn’t think they were that close of friends.

One place the difference in the perception of friendship can be a problem is at work. When people work together, they often overhear pieces of information about each other. Over time, information about people’s families, eating habits, cars they drive, etc., are discussed. An Aspergian with a good memory and attention to detail will collect that information and mentally file it away. To them, these are details about their friends. And you pay attention to your friends. The problem is that one day, talking with a co-worker, the Aspergian will discuss an item from the filed information, not realizing that they shouldn’t. Even though that information was in the clear, so to speak, it is considered a faux pas to discuss if it wasn’t said directly to the Aspergian. That subtle point, that what you hear is not open to discussion except under specific conditions, is confusing. To the Aspergian, if you don’t want it discussed, don’t talk about it where anyone could hear it.

Another work issue is the confusion between acquaintances and friends. In the NT world, if I work with a group of people daily, they are my acquaintances. If I build trusted relationships with some of the people at work, they are friends but friends that may not continue to be my friends when we are no longer at that job. In the Aspergian world, I work with you, I talk to you, we are friends. Why do you go out to lunch with that group of co-workers and never ask me?

Personally, I don’t like work environments where a subset of people have their own lunch club and attending is by invitation only. I understand certain people sometimes just want to get out and rant or chill and want to control who will be there. What I don’t like is the environment where there is a distinct clique that controls the social climate at the job. Probably due to the fact that I am normally on the outside of the clique. ;.)

I was going to continue and wrap up the friendship mini-series tonight, but I want to continue it one more day and discuss the death of friendships and those relationships which should be allowed to end.

October 9 – Keeping Friends When You Have Aspergers

Yesterday’s post concentrated on how important friendships are, and yet how hard it is to make those friends when you have Aspergers. Today’s post is about keeping friends. For many of us, we can make friends but the friendships are shallow, don’t last long, and don’t bring us much support.

Googling the phrase ‘how to keep friends’ returned many lists of helpful hints and the hints could be summarized as follows:

  • Stay in touch
  • Talk about personal things
  • Hang out together
  • Listen, don’t talk all the time or dominate all conversations
  • Have common interests

Again, a simple list of basic rules to keeping friendships healthy and alive. And again, full of issues for those with Aspergers. I brought my son into the discussion again (he actually asked today if he was offering advice – a good sign) and we came up with the following:

Stay in Touch  – These days with cell phones, email, texting, etc., it should be easier than ever to stay in touch. Distance isn’t a concern like it was in the past. According to my son, it wasn’t the ability to stay in touch that was the issue, it was the possibility of causing trouble. My son was/is nervous about contacting someone and getting them in trouble about the contact itself, when it occurred (too late), or people wondering who was making the contact. At first it seemed a bit of too much worry until I realized that the specter of past failures of interacting with people was causing him to over think all of his actions and to not make the effort anymore.

Talk about Personal Things – Many people are hesitant to share personal details of their lives, it can be painful, it can leave you open to emotional blackmail. According to my son, he finds it hard to talk about or listen to personal matters except for close family members. He also stated that he feels knowing those personal details puts a burden on him to not discuss those matters. And that by discussing personal details of his, he would be burdening the listener as well.

Hang out together – Being together in the same place, my son agreed this one is a good idea. But for him, since he doesn’t drive, it is hard to do. He is mastering the mass transit system in our area, which will help.

Listen, don’t dominate all conversations – The give and take of conversations does seem to equalize relationships. My son agreed with that, but added that it takes patience to listen and converse and he often doesn’t have the patience or make the effort.

Have common interests – Similar interests does make it easier to have things to talk about. Again, my son agreed that common interests help and make him more willing to make an initial contact and give him stuff to discuss. However, in his words ‘it’s a roll of the dice’ if the person really shares his interests.

Overall, what I picked up from my son about keeping friends is that it is very hard for him. Years of friend failures haunt him and make his first reaction often to withdraw and retreat. Why go through that pain one more time? Since he has never had a positive experience with a close friend, he doesn’t have a clear idea of what it will be like, what he can get from it, why he should go through the effort to get and MAINTAIN it. There is also a great concern with how his actions will be interpreted and if he will offend someone in his attempts.

Keeping friends is confusing to me too, especially female friends. I have only 2 close female friends. These friendships occurred when I was an adult or elder teen. I have to remind myself to take the steps outlined above to keep the friendships alive.

I have the hardest time determining when the friendship is fading and what to do with it when that happens. I really don’t want too much from friendships: just a welcome ear, confidentiality, and support and will gladly offer that in return. But I am not an exciting friend: I don’t drink much and never did the bar scene. I am more logical than emotional. So think about it, would you rather go clubbing with Mr Spock or Scotty? Yup, Scotty everytime. But you would call Mr Spock to bail you out of jail. And I do agree with my son, the idea that someone who I don’t completely trust knowing personal things about me makes me nervous.

But there is hope for all of us, including Aspergians. Just remember, in the end, Mr Spock had Kirk AND McCoy as his close friends.