Thoughts and illustrations on living on the autism spectrum.

Friday, January 29, 2010

The Elephant Whisperer

Here's a story of a 10 year old autistic boy in Oregon who tends the elephants at the zoo. And go fig, he's really really good at it! He feeds them, gives them a bath, and even cleans up the dung. Now that's commitment.

Temple Grandin has written extensively about how autistic people can bond with animals. Kudos to the safari park for letting this kid live out his special interest. And his family says it's helped his communication skills. Go Wylie!

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Simply Be

I’ve just finished reading Donna WilliamsSomebody Somewhere and enjoyed it a lot. I’ve been working my way through the autobiographies of spectrumites – Robison, Grandin, Willey, Shore, Sanders… and just by coincidence, Williams ended up on the bottom of my pile. But it turns out I connected with her style of writing much more than the others. She takes it to whole 'nother level of honesty and intimacy. Her writing is not simply descriptive; it’s as if you, the reader, are there in her head, in real time.

There are so many wonderful ideas in this book I can relate to, but perhaps the most important is what she calls “simply be.” A state of awe and bliss she shares with her companion, a fellow autistic person, as they experience nature, the environment around them. An alert, childlike state, like seeing everyday objects for the first time.
“We were able to ‘simply be’ within company. We picked leaves and gave them to each other, velvety ones to feel and dead ones to hear as they crackled. We snapped twigs near each other’s ears and were tickled by the sound. We picked grass and snowed it over one another and laughed as we let it drift into the wind. We looked at the way light played upon things and sometimes laughed if we noticed the inexplicable strange reactions of people who stood so clearly ‘out there’ in ‘the world.” (p.196)

‘Simply be’ immediately reminded me of what Eckhart Tolle calls “presence,” and I’m convinced the two concepts are intertwined. That elusive state where you feel wholly yourself, that you’re “all there,” in absence of worry. Self-acceptance, and in Donna’s case, acceptance of autism as a part of her self. But perhaps the best thing about “simply be” is that it can be shared with another. A level of communication without words.

I think many of us are looking for that in our lives, and in our relationships. Freedom to be our authentic self without putting on an act. Whether we call it “simply be,” or “presence,” or another name. Have you experienced it?

I think maybe, “simply be” is the Snoopy Dance.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Battling Bakugan, and Social Anxieties

It’s Friday night and we’re sitting on the floor underneath a sign that says “Neuroscience” in big block letters. I’m being given a crash course in Bakugan by a boy about 12. It’s teen/tween Aspie game night. The kids come to work on their social skills. We volunteers come to model appropriate behavior. But sometimes, it seems the roles get reversed.

I’m mystified. My young opponent has explained the rules, and he’s done quite a thorough job of it. Yet, I’m not picking it up. Cards with numbers, colors, symbols, something called G-power, and the little transforming action figures/game pieces, each with its own personality, folded up neatly into a sphere or other geometric shape. The cards are dealt, the pieces chosen; it's time to battle each other. My move. But clueless me, I still don’t know one piece from another or what my cards mean.

Here's where a neurotypical would ask questions. When you don’t understand, ask, right? But where to start? My own social skills come and go, and tonight I know I’m having “an off night.” It’s been a long week, and my brain hasn't been able to shift from work into play mode. So far, I haven’t managed much more than “oohs” and “ahhs” as my half of the conversation. I feel rather like a Bakugan myself, tangled and twisted into knots. Meanwhile, this boy has been patient, articulate, and eager to share his favorite activity. I can’t quit.

“I’ll roll this blue one,” I finally say. He looks at me, genuinely concerned. “I’m sorry to ask this, but, are you color-blind? It’s gray, not blue.” Oops. Well, the thing is clearly a blue-gray, but no need to argue the point, and I correct myself.

Next, time to play a card. I’ve got a red one and a bunch of green ones. Sensing my continued bewilderment, he comes to my rescue. “If you let me see them, I promise to help you!” I gratefully hand over my cards. “You want to play this one. It makes your guy stronger.”

So we go several rounds in this fashion, he doing the decision making for the both of us, me trying my best to follow along. I keep waiting for him to quit this hopeless game in frustration. But he doesn’t. My guy beats his guy. And then again. Before long, I have a pile of three cards in front of me. “You won!” He puts out his hand to shake mine. “Good game!” “Thank you for teaching me,” I say. Left unspoken is the thought in my head, “Thank you for not quitting on me.”

The game over and the pressure off, topics of conversation finally pop into my head, and we talk a little while about how many Bakugan there are (hundreds), how he learned to play (the Internet), and which ones combine to make a giant one. He stands up, ready to scan the room for the next activity. Then, to my surprise, he grabs my hand again, and with a strong tug, helps me up to my feet from the floor. Grinning, I say thanks once again. Anyone who says Aspies aren’t well-mannered, I’ve got a kid I’d like you to meet.

As a longtime volunteer, it’s happened to me before, and I find it to be true wherever I go. I catch myself wondering who is the mentor, and who is the mentee.

Photo credit: Flickr creative commons by Neeta Lind

Saturday, January 16, 2010

"Dude, I'm An Aspie!" On Sale in Paperback

I am excited to announce the original "Dude, I'm An Aspie!" cartoons have been published as a paperback book. Now you can get your very own copy in yer hot little hands!

This 38 page book is on sale now for $5.89 at! It includes a new introduction, a quick list of AS resources, and a few words about yours truly. Here's a blurb:

Hey! Looking for a way to explain your Asperger's traits to others in a way that's clear and fun? Do what I did! Just say, "Dude, I'm An Aspie!" and give 'em this book. My cartoons helped my friends understand where I'm coming from. I hope they do the same for you.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Special Interests: The School Bus

Special interests. An essential component of Aspiedom. But what are they? What makes them more than a hobby? What makes them “special?” And for the NT’s out there, no, it’s not cause my interests are any more special then yours. OK?

Tony Attwood says, “An essential component of the interest is the accumulation and cataloguing of objects or the accumulation of facts and information about a specific topic.” To be “special,” an interest must also have one of the following: “Exclusion of other activities, repetitive adherence, [or] more rote than meaning.” (The Complete Guide to Asperger’s Syndrome, pp. 172-173)

When I was 5 and started kindergarten, I was fascinated by the school bus. I didn’t know why. Maybe it was going away from home by myself for the first time, easily an anxiety-inducing prospect. But somehow, the bus made the idea of plucking little children from their homes and sending them into the big, wide, chaotic world, an orderly, and even comforting thing.

Yellow is even a friendly color, don’t you think? Would the kiddies get on board a blue bus as eagerly? Or brown, or red? I think not.

The first thing that stuck in my mind about the bus was the door. I could not get over how the door worked. So cool! It would fold up onto itself, roll along a little track, and collapse against one side of the doorway, in a motion so smooth it seemed futuristic. Then it would reverse itself seamlessly back into place.

The bus driver controlled it with a little handle she would crank from one side to the other and then back. I would watch the door operate at each stop. Open, Close. Why couldn’t all doors be like that? The closest I could find was our fireplace doors at home. I used to play with them a lot. A thing of beauty.

Before long, I memorized the route of my bus and the order of the stops. I learned everybody’s name and had a mental picture of their house, even if I’d never spoken to them directly. At the time, I could recite the list in order, and probably in reverse, too.

I used to ride my bike down the street and pretend I was a school bus. I had a fixed route I would take, every day, forward and back. Up the driveway, cutting across the lawn behind the bushes, down the sidewalk. Every now and then, coming to a stop. Turning my front wheel to the right, as if it was the door opening, and picturing the invisible kid getting on or off. Always at precisely the same places. Until I got to the “school,” which I think was the sandbox. I may have even had names for the “streets” and the “students” in my head.

I didn't have to venture too far, either. I remember there was one stretch where I would actually ride down the same part of the street twice, but the first time it was a neighborhood street, and I would go slow, and the other time it was the interstate and I would go fast!

I’m not sure what the neighbors thought to see me dutifully performing this complex ritual, punctuated by stops and starts, day in and day out. To me, it was fun, something to feel responsible for and to lose myself in for a little while. I never shared my activity with anyone else; it wouldn’t have been the same. Sure, I would ride bikes with my friends, but that was riding bikes. This was driving my bus route.

I used to wonder why I did such a thing. Now that I’ve learned about special interests, I can see I was fascinated with order and routine, to the point of repetitive adherence. Neighbors might have seen a peculiar boy tracing a overly consistent path with his bike, but in my mind, there was grand purpose to every twist and turn. If I didn’t follow my route, “my kids” wouldn’t get to “school!” Just like the real bus driver who picked me up every day. She got me there and back, safe and sound. Out of chaos, order.

And so I breezed through the childhood milestone of starting kindergarten, not with trepidation, but with wide-eyed curiosity. My Asperger’s was an obstacle in other ways, but here, it was an asset. It allowed me, through the guise of an intense interest, to concoct a coping strategy for a life transition. Now that I’m older, I hope this approach continues to serve me well. Perhaps in the face of uncertainty, instead of reacting with fear, I could embrace life’s changes as if gazing through the window, with my nose pressed up against the glass.

Photo credits:
Flickr creative commons by ashe-villain
Google Maps

Sunday, January 3, 2010