How to Talk to an “Aspi” – Asperger’s, Autism, Labels, Stereotypes and Strategies

Update: After writing this, I read this great article by someone name Astrid who has Aspergers and think it’s a great counterpoint to what I said here.   I now can’t imagine this post being ‘out there’ without a link to that post.   I have no real response to Astrid except to acknowledge the tension between the perception of Aspies as ‘elite’ (in a way) and the often unfair expectations that those perceptions have on people with Asperger’s.

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My son is a genius in so many ways you cannot imagine.   He is now six years old.    He has been talking since he was barely 12 months old.    His vocabulary could make Rex Murphy feel like he needs to go back to grade school.

He can tell you the some interesting properties of many chemical elements you’ve never heard of.   He once wrote Martyn Poliakoff of the Periodic Table of Videos to ask him:

  • What do people use Beryllium for (just watch this video)?
  • What is the most dangerous element?  (there are various reasons for danger.   Plutonium is very toxic.   Fluorine and Cesium are the most reactive.)   What is the least dangerous element?  (probably Helium)
  • How do you suppose ununoctium is very small when it has the most protons?   (It’s not small, but only a very small amount has ever been made – and the experiment that claimed to have made ununoctium has its critics for sure).
  • If bananas contain potassium why do they not explode when you put them in water?   (it’s not elemental potassium that bananas contain, but potassium ions, which do not explode in water).

There’s more.   He’s gotten as far as level 8 in Globetrotter XL (a game where you are asked to pinpoint the geographic location of world cities).    He can probably describe most of the world flags and definitely all of the U.S. state flags.    He can name all the state capitals and nicknames.   (Also, he is Canadian, so he has no real education on this topic.)    When he was 3, I could rely on him to give me accurate instructions on how to drive to someone’s house after only a single visit.

When he got to school, however, we learned that he was having difficulty socially.    We are also realizing that there are some issues with some areas of his academic life too.   That’s when we discovered that he’s an ‘aspi’ – a child with Aspergers.    Whether that’s a diagnosis, a personality type or just a way for so-called ‘normal’ people to marginalize him, I’m not quite sure.   I do know that paying attention to the nuances of his learning style has been really helpful to let him deal with everyday life things.

So he must be socially awkward right?    Must be like Rainman, right?    Spock?    Temperance Brennan from Bones?    Keeps to himself, right?   He must shy away from social situations and show little emotion to others, right?    Total lack of empathy in favor of logic and detail.   It’s all obvious!

Well, no.   My child is  extremely engaging, interesting and (in a way) interested in people.    The differences are more subtle and hard to pin-point.   You’d know there’s a problem somewhere with the way he interacts with others, but you would find it hard to pinpoint what.    But, if you meet a kid that:

  • Is very welcoming and friendly.   Almost assuming right off that you are a friend.
  • Is very polite on the phone.
  • Assumes that you are interested in what he is talking about.
  • Assumes you want to participate in the things he wants to do, and maybe gets angry if you don’t.
  • Interrupts your conversations with others.
  • Gets upset over basic requests or instructions.
  • Asks surprising questions and offers amazing insight on a wide range of topics.
  • Will do a speech as if he were defending a thesis, but then fail at answering basic open-ended questions about the same topic.
  • Is surprisingly slow at getting ready for going outside etc.
  • Will repeat certain behaviors and actions over and over again.

That might be my kid.

If you happen upon a kid you might think is an aspi, here are some things you could consider:

No Surprises

Little surprises will make Mr. 6 anxious.    Simple requests like ‘go brush your teeth’ can turn into total battles if they appear (to him) to come from left field.    A better approach is to give him a list of the things that need to happen, preferably with time-limits to go with them.

Be Patient

Mr. 6 will ramble.    It’ll take him a few shots of ‘umm…  uh…  I have a question for you…’ etc. before he comes out with what he needs to say.

Turn Open-ended Questions into Multiple Choice

No matter how many times I ask Mr. 6 ‘what does he want for dinner’ he will always reply ‘i don’t know, what is there?’    And he’s a picky eater – he only has a few things that he enjoys eating!    On the other hand, if I hand Mr. 6 a menu, he will be able to give me ideas even if nothing on the menu is appealing to him.    So if you want to ask Mr. 6 why he is angry, you should say ‘I think you might be angry because:

a) you are disappointed about not getting candy

b) you are a mean grouch

c) someone called you a mean name

d) someone ate your lunch’

Even if all of these ideas are absolutely wrong, Mr. 6 will be able to take one of options and give you some insight into how he is feeling.

Act Like a Librarian

There may be no actual evidence to support this assertion, but sometimes it’s like Mr. 6 has a Library of Congress in his head with no retrieval system to find the right information at the right time.    If you are able to help him out with a little subject classification, he may be able to find the right book in his head and recite its contents in detail with amazing analytical capability.

Get Ready to Have your Mind Explode

When I explained my little ‘act like a librarian’ technique to a doctor, Mr. 6 corrected me and said ‘it’s like I have to build a tall building and I don’t know what materials to start with.’    That doctor is probably still cleaning up the grey matter from her office after that insight.

Model Behaviors

Mr. 6 will always be better at imitating the positive behaviors he sees in other than understanding how he is annoying you.    If he can come up with a rule about what to do at the right time, he will do it.    He understands that people get annoyed at him, but he doesn’t always understand why.   Show him an example of how he could behave when certain things happen and he’ll be happy to oblige.

Is Something Else Bothering Him?

Mr. 6 hates loud sounds.    It might not be you, but where you are standing that is bothering him.    If an environment is complicated or noisy, it might be causing problems for Mr. 6.

It’s About Learning Difficulty, Not Emotional Problems or Intelligence

If you are the sort of person who just likes to label and ignore people with learning trouble, just listen to Temple Grandin for a few minutes.    People on the Autism spectrum have the potential not only to be productive members of society, but to transform society for the better.   Like the way a wide range of overachievers just so happen to be dyslexic, there’s a comparable list for people with Aspergers (grain of salt needed for both lists, however).

So there’s my contribution on the challenges that go along with the gift of having an ‘Aspi’ in your life.     Mr. 6 makes me smarter.    He also breaks a wide range of assumptions I have about people learn, teach, ought to behave, and so on.

In My World…

I need to just rant more.    Obviously, I am not keeping up with my blogging very well, although my Twitter account is doing ok.   Anyway, maybe the occasional asinine opinion piece will help me get back into the blogosphere somehow.   Because I miss it.  Truly, I do!

I’ve been noticing quite a few things about the world that really just rile me hard.    So here is a list of thing that would happen if I owned the world:

If I owned the world:

  • Kids under 12 would not be allowed to wear clothes they are not allowed to get dirty.   Their ‘good’ clothes would be as affordable as second hand clothes.
  • ‘Prorogue‘ would be delicious dipped in sour cream and sriracha.
  • Most conferences would be un-
  • Jane Siberry would come to Halifax more often.
  • People would see debate for what it is, and get a life accordingly.
  • Anonymity would be used to benefit humankind, rather than mere internet cowardice.
  • Internet and Tech knowledge would be seen as ‘regular business’ rather than ‘something for techies to do.’
  • Curiosity would trump complaining (yes, yes, I know that I am undermining everything I’m saying here).
  • People would realize that I am actually a technophobe with a sense of responsibility.

That’s it for now.  I don’t want to complain too much on this blog.   Hopefully I’ll get around to putting out something useful and wise.  Until then – what rules would you make if you owned the world?

A Little Teamwork Helps Reach Some Big Goals

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Originally uploaded by maritimes online.

I am passionate about librarianship and social media, but when it comes down to the wire, I really truly madly deeply love playing sports with kids. And make no mistake, this crowd looks like they are just a bunch of kids with hockey gear on, but I can guarantee a few things:

– You cannot score on the big goalie in the center.
– You cannot keep the young man dead centre from scoring top corner on any goalie.
– The little girl in the front will have the ball away from you, passed on and in your net before you even know what happened.
– You cannot thank the two guys on the left enough. They are from Old Navy and they gave us new equipment and Jerseys so we can keep playing hard.
– You need to drop lots of money into Salvation Army kettles this year, because they are what keeps this program running.

This crowd is seriously tough, folks. Given a little teamwork from the community, they will make big things happen. Consider doing the same thing in yours!

Four Gaming Sites to Destroy Your Social Life

I love online flash games.    The last time I owned a gaming console was back in the early 80s with Atari.   Seriously (though I would occasionally rent Supernintendo in the late 80s).

Finally, I am going to share the sites I know and love:

Kongregate

Maybe not always appropriate for small children (the chat has some potty-mouthing by 13 year olds, and some of the games are a tad violent), Kongregate is a standard site where budding and professional flash gamers strut their stuff.   As a bonus, the site offers “achievements” that you can perform (eg. get a certain score, pass a certain level or defeat a certain boss) to earn points that increase your “level” which in turn gives you additional street cred.

Games I like:  Music Catch ,  Gemcraft Level 0, Morningstar

Miniclip Games

Definitely more kid-friendly than kongregate, although I find some of the games a little bit too “advertisey” – meaning that they appear to have a specific commercial interest in mind.   There also seems to be a trend toward sprite-style games with neo-16 bit graphics.   Still, it is a standard and a good number of my favorite games are here.

Games I like:  Raft Wars, Bloxorz, Extreme Pamploma

Popcap

Popcap is unique in that they offer downloadable versions of their games – trial versions for free and then full versions for sale.   You can also just play their games online.    In general the focus seems to be around puzzle-style games, but they are very well designed and fun for just about everyone.

Games I like:  Bookworm

Newgrounds

This site is definitely not for small children without parental supervision, but it has definitely been one of my favorites for a long time.   Tom Fulp started the site with some rather riske flash animations and games (the site was very popular for a game that was a parody of the Columbine shootings), and grew up into a portal for Flash Games and movies showcasing the amazing creativity of internet users.     Make no mistake, many of the entries to the Flash portal still keep the spirit of Tom’s old site (parody, violence etc), but there are also ratings to help make sure you know when the offensive material is going to appear.

Games I like:  Portal Defenders (Ages 17+), Little Wheel (all ages), Exmortis 2 (Horror Game 17+)

What gaming sites do you like?

Treading on the Commons: Book Recommendations and the Wisdom of the Crowd

I love the idea of recommendation services like LibraryThing, Bibliophil and Books iRead. The main reason I like these services is because of their potential to identify items for me that I may never encounter on my own. You have to accept that I am a) a busy parent with little time to read, b) a busy parent with even less time to find a book to read, c) a librarian who spends too much time on his computer and d) someone who likes pleasant surprises and who has tolerance for entropy.

As I add books to these recommendation services, I am becoming increasingly aware of a problem, similar to the ever-present “Tragedy of the Commons.” The problem is this: with all the classics in my collection I have a hard time getting useful recommendations.

I like classics. As someone who enjoys classics, I put some of my favorites into the database. Things like William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury. I have it in my personal collection, largely because it is the sort of thing that my kids might enjoy reading when they are older. If I’m going to do ‘trash’ reading, or popular reading — I’m not going to buy, but instead I’ll use the library. I enjoyed A Spot of Bother, for instance, but I have no desire to read it twice. That’s why borrow-and-return works for me.

In the world of book recommending algorithms, this is a problem. It came to a head today when I searched for a recommendation using Books iRead and of the 10 recommendations I trudged through, 8 were in the “obvious classic genre.” 3 were Shakespeare. 1984 showed up, as did To Kill a Mockingbird, Oliver Twist, more than one Harry Potter, The Grapes of Wrath, Alice in Wonderland, The Lord of the Rings and so on. I could have asked any English-speaking (and maybe a few non-English speaking too) 17-year-old on earth to come up with these books as recommendations.

But that’s not the real problem. If I want to keep 1984 from showing up as a recommendation again, I need to add it to my collection as a “Read It, Reading It or Want to Read It.” But if I add it to my collection, it’s all the more likely that some other person is going to have to suffer the same ordeal. So I’m stuck in a conundrum: do I add it and save myself some misery, or do I ignore it and continue to grumble everytime I see it on my list.

(Remember this: there’s always a third option. I removed the application from my [rarely used now] Facebook account and went elsewhere).

Now, I am picking on Books iRead, but the other applications have similar problems. At the heart of the matter is the nature of social information in the first place. Our world is full of influences — both traditional and commercial — that hit on our collective ability to coordinate our interests. When I want to know how I am similar to the crowd, simple algorithms work fine. If I want to know how I’m different, there’s a problem.

The Solution:

The solution is empathy, understanding, broad-thinking, letting people help computers think rather than the other way around. That is why I am going to put in some love for LibraryThing over its competitors.

Library Thing is not about its algorithms and that’s the difference. You can tell by its attempts at making the website human. Yes, their “people with your books also have. . .” search gives me the usual suspects like Henry James, and D.H. Lawrence — but then I can just switch to a tags or “special sauce” recommendation. There’s also a neat “easy linking” tool and api, that will try to guess titles from keywords in a URL. For instance, here is the result for “http://www.librarything.com/title/hanky panky/“. Currently I am using this service as part of a Library Thing/Twitter mashup. (It’s vaporware right now, except to people who have followed me on Twitter). There are more surprises coming that direction as well.

But the real secret of Library Thing’s success has little to do with the range of services it offers, but instead in Tim Spalding’s understanding of what libraries are and how they work. For one, he tapped the quagmire that is Z39.50 and took his service one step beyond what just a re-hash of what Amazon has to offer. He added a “talk” section to his website, because he understands that books are one way we connect with other human beings. And he hires librarians too.

So, there’s no wonder Tim Spalding is in Library Journal’s Movers and Shakers. But forget that, give him the freakin’ Reader’s Nobel Peace Prize. Or better yet, howzabout an “I Love You” subscription to the Library Thing service. He deserves to be sitting on a pot of gold, and you’ll be sitting on the (ahem) pot with lots of good reading. Maybe we could also get him a better set of data than that Z39.50 stuff we’ve been handing him too, eh?

And you know what? I also think the same kind of understanding is what makes MetaFilter successful as well. Jessamyn West is revered as a near goddess there, and I can see why. There’s a good mix of the social and the authoritative — which is what librarians have been all about for, like, 100s of years.

In the end, I think librarians rock. The main problems we have occur when we get in our own way — as in insisting on complicated standards where more simple and flexible standards will do. Viva Libraria!

Swimming the Web

I am a great fan of Judy Blume.   So much so that I have started reading her books (somewhat prematurely) to my four-year-old son.   The most recent entry is Otherwise Known as Sheila the Great.  It was timely, since my four-year-old is now learning to swim.

If you don’t know the book, then suffice it to say that a major part of storyline involves a young girl who is dragged kicking, screaming and punching to swimming lessons.   More importantly, it highlights how water can instill extreme and irrational fear in a person; and extreme pride when this fear is overcome.

I get asked about Internet Safety alot too.   One of the things I cover, fairly flippantly is that in order to protect their children from the risks on the Internet, parents have to learn about technology.   Now, I realize that swimming may be the most important analogy.    If you want to protect your children from drowning, you ought to 1) know how to swim yourself  2) teach your children to swim well and/or 3) force them to take swimming lessons.  Why wouldn’t we see the same being done for Internet Safety?

Of course, there are fairly specific differences here.   Beaches have life guards to protect young people from drowning, and drowning is a much, much more likely cause of harm or death in young people than anything having to do with Internet safety.   Libraries cannot expect governments to put the kinds of resources into Internet safety as they do for swimming lessons.

On the other hand, school libraries, public libraries and I daresay, even academic libraries have a role here.   The trick is that we may or may not be seen as the source for training in online safety.   And a series of moral lessons on the hazards of online surfing is not likely to attract a lot of attention.

Perhaps we ought to say, “if you have kids, and surfing the web isn’t your thing, you ought to at least know how to swim the web.”   After that, we should offer technology training focussed on the ability of parents to understand what the web does, how people connect on the web, and what, if anything, they can do to prevent anything from cyber-bullying, to media-stereotyping, to having the RIAA go after them.

Here are some potential modules for the training:

  • What’s free and what’s not on the web (copyright and creative commons)
  • Surfing with your clothes on (privacy and attention-getting on the web)
  • Going from digital to real life (how to meet safely meet an online friend in the real world)
  • Walking the Troll Bridge (discussing controversial issues online)
  • Internet Ninjistu (maintaining anonymity on the web)

But, most importantly, libraries need strategies to encourage parents to swim on the web.   They need to take a little water in their lungs to keep their kids safe.   Yes, on the web you may encounter ads that will promise to enhance various body parts.  You may even find porn or violence (although it’s a bit harder to find that stuff if you are not looking for it).   The point is, as adults, parents ought to be able to cope with these issues — particularly if their kids are using it.

In With the New; In With the New.

Ten more ideas about how I can make my life better, in libraries and elsewhere:

  •  Plan an unconference — somewhere, somehow.

The field needs more unconferences, and I’d like to host/organize one for local librarians this year — probably in the summer sometime.

  •  More controlled and productive computer time.

No, this has nothing to do with social software.   I just found that the end of last year turned my computer into a television/gaming system.    I have nothing against gaming or entertainment, it’s just that my kids are growing up, and I definitely want to spend more time focussed on friends, family and physical fun.

  • Two good books a month.

I want to start tracing my reading just like Jessamyn does.   It’s been a good start though.   I just finished Evelyn Waugh’s Men at Arms, which is a great book and the first of the Sword of Honor trilogy.

  • 12 Beers (or other favored beverage) for 12 Librarians

Librarians deserve a beer.   12 librarians will get a beer from me.

  • More blogging, but with more citations and reading to go with it.

One of the most satisfying posts from my point of view was my review of Margaret Somerville’s The Ethical Imagination.    I disagree with many points that the book makes, I truly felt that Somerville gets a bad rap around town undeservedly for her views on same-sex marriage.   Further, I am glad Somerville is out there with the guts to say the unpopular thing that she believes needs to be said.   True ethics may just about the opposite of being popular, in my view.

Anyway, even though my online survey (there’s going to be a results post soon!) has suggested that book reviews are not really a priority for my audience, you’ll just have to accept my indulgences here, ‘k?

  •  More fiction/poetry writing, published or not.

I used to love writing fiction and poetry.   I even won the Clare Murray Fooshee poetry prize (first place) once.    I’d like to get back to some of that.   It was a great hobby and it brings back my memories of the rec.arts.poems usenet group (which, like many usenet groups, is a mere shadow of its former glorious self).

  • Pare down the social with social.

Libraries weed books that have lost their relevance over time.   I think I need to think about the relevance of my “friends” and look at doing some serious weeding as well.   Of course, I mean “friends” as in “Facebook friends,” which, in the end, can be likened to a reference source more than it can to a “real” friend.

If you can be of use to me, information-wise, I’ll read your blog.   If I can be of use to you, read mine.   If we have some mutual co-sharing thing going on, you will make my Twitter list.   And, honestly, I’m just about finished with Facebook.

  •  Less money waste.

It’s crazy how the local coffee shop will just eat away at my wallet.   And for what?   It’s not like there is a ton of nutrition there — and it’s not like I couldn’t just drink water.   That’s all money that could go to my kids’ RESPs or some of my favorite charities.

  • No gifts please, and clutter-free-me!

Another one that is just wasteful.    Please, no gifts.   None — except maybe a book I don’t have, or a donation to a charity in my name.

I do not want anything that will end up in a landfill within a year.   I do not want to pay to store stuff that I never use.  Whenever Big Brothers, Big Sisters asks me if we have any used clothing, furniture or appliances to give them, I will say “yes.”

  •  Increase my code-fu.

It’s coming along, and I want to learn more.   At this stage, however, it’s about doing — developing skills versus learning syntax.

That’s 10 and that’s enough.   I look forward to re-visiting this list next year to see how well I did/didn’t do.

What’s on your self-improvement list?