Tag Archive | women

A year in the life….

Wow. It’s been nearly a year since I last posted.

But it’s been a good year. The Cipralex continues to do its good work — I only wish I’d known about it sooner. Stuff still happens, but I handle it so much more easily now. It’s a kind of feedback loop: the calmer I am, the better things go, and the better things go, the calmer I am. And so on.

Ballantine books. Just a sample...

Ballantine books. Just a sample…

I’ve also been spending many fun weekends hunting around in antique markets and used bookstores with a childhood friend whom I’ll call “The Falcon” here for his uncanny ability to zero in on the exact books we’re looking for (Ballantine WWII history editions) from 500 paces. It’s really spooky. We take turns driving, and spend the day on our various routes around Southern and Southwestern Ontario. Book dealers and model shops have gotten to know us, as have the staff at our favourite Vietnamese restaurant in Kitchener. Mmm. Noodles.

Many happy returnsss of the day.

Many happy returnsss of the day.

Boyd, my beloved ball python, is nearly three years old now, and almost four feet long. He recently escaped (my fault — I left his cage door open overnight) but was recovered safely the next morning from his hiding spot in my hall closet.
Sophie the cat is now 18 and a half and slowing down considerably. It’s hard having an aging pet, and sometimes the yowling and clingy behaviour get on my nerves, but we have both found solace in a) anti-anxiety medication and b) her little grooming comb. Grooming is calming for both the groomer and the groomee, and this is how we get along.

I did two levels of improv classes at Second City here in Toronto in order to tackle my lifelong stage fright (yup, it works!), filled in on my pub quiz team for a guy who was overseas for six months, saw a lot of good shows at the Art Gallery of Ontario (the David Bowie one was my favourite — I saw it twice), and visited the Butterfly Conservatory in Cambridge.

Her Majesty.

Her Majesty.

I swam a whole lot in my friend Ann’s pool, drank more of her excellent G&Ts, saw some excellent films and some not-so-excellent ones (yes to The Theory of Everything; HELL NO to Boyhood), read lots of good books, got hooked on Game of Thrones, did quite a lot of work for good new clients, and spent much less time dealing with the crappy ones.

This is five minutes from where I live. Seriously.

This is five minutes from where I live. Seriously.

Ate lots of sushi and Ethiopian and Korean food, went for countless long walks on my beloved Don Valley trail, rode my bike a bit, did NOT get sick over Christmas for the first time in years, and just generally had a pretty decent year.

…and that, really, is that.

Life is good. More later. Hopefully not a year later this time. 🙂
~ AG

Advertisements

Vitex: my ticket off the hormone roller coaster

I believe this is a first for me, but… TMI Alert! In this post I will be talking (tactfully but forthrightly) about Women’s Things, namely periods, hormones, and menopause. I will pause a moment and let any gentlemen and uninterested folks leave the room.

Girl talk -- run away! Run away!

Girl talk — run away! Run away!

<Muzak… doo doo doo… Richard Clayderman… dingle dingle, la la….>

OK, everyone ready? Good.

For the last few months I’ve been riding what can only be described as the Roller Coaster from Hell. Or possibly TO hell. Or maybe a combination of the two, endlessly looping from misery to mania to misery and around again.

I’m not known, in the first place, for being even-tempered — this may be partly due to Asperger’s and partly just my nature — but this was beyond the pale. Everything, and I mean everything, was upsetting me — work, leisure time, pets, chores, TV commercials, get-togethers with friends, traffic jams, scary movies, specks of dirt on the hallway floor. Anything at all would send me into either a towering rage or a prolonged bout of gut-wrenching sobs. Often both.

Welcome aboard the Hormone Express.

Welcome aboard the Hormone Express.

For a while I thought I was just having more meltdowns (“Asperger tantrums”) than usual. But it was the sobbing that finally clued me into the fact that there was something else at play here. I am infamously not a crier, except in rare cases like when I watch the episode of Little House on the Prairie where Laura’s dog goes missing, or when I hear the “Humming Chorus” from Madame Butterfly.

I began to wonder if I was seriously depressed, and was considering making a (rare) doctor’s appointment and asking for a course of antidepressants. But as I see her rarely, I knew she’d do a full history, which always (for us girls) includes “When was your last period?” (Guys who are snickering here: may the Gloved Finger of Probing sober you up in a big hurry!)

And so I had a look at my calendar and, to my horror and dismay, noted that the worst “brain hurricanes” seemed to coincide with the significant bits of my menstrual cycle — the actual period, and mid-cycle, or ovulation.

I also noticed that my once regular periods (my doctor used to joke that I could set my watch by them) have become a bit unpredictable — sometimes every 22 days, sometimes 40.

I have been blessed my entire life with periods that are no trouble at all — negligible PMS (easily managed by Evening Primrose Oil), no hemorrhaging half to death or migraines or cramps or any of the myriad miseries many women seem to suffer with the arrival of “Aunt Flo.” My hero, Temple Grandin, suffered terribly with the ups and downs of hormones throughout her life, and I know hormonal cycles are often extremely troublesome for other Aspergian women. Thankfully, not for me. Until now.

This has been fun but I've got to scream now!

This has been fun but I’ve got to scream now!

Needless to say, this turn of events was a huge — and unhappy — surprise. I had always hoped to sail unbothered through menopause, which I’d always looked on as being a somewhat “Western” construct cooked up by Big Pharma (marketing opportunity!) and by women with too much time on their hands and a tendency to whinge.

(On the other hand, Temple Grandin, always a pragmatic thinker, says in her most recent book, The Autistic Brain, that she was  relieved to finally hit menopause and say goodbye to “all that nonsense.” I love that.)

But, alas, it seems “sailing through” is not in the forecast for me. I am, after all, creeping up on 50, and it seems I am not to be spared the joys of perimenopause, which is the precursor to actual full-on menopause and the start of the whole shutting-down-of-the-baby-factory process.

(For those of you with a penchant for languages, peri is from the Greek word meaning “around” or “about,” and menopause is from the Greek meaning “I am homicidal and will rip the limbs off anyone who approaches me.”)

Currently my only issue is the mood swings (“only” as in “only a sucking chest wound”) — although I presume that as time ticks along, my body will begin to go through other changes, such as the notorious hot flashes (currently being enjoyed by my friends J and W, who can now almost literally fry eggs on their foreheads).

Perimenopause forecast: scattered storms and a chance of destruction.

Perimenopause forecast: scattered storms and a chance of destruction.

Long story short, I said “Enough, already!” to the yelling and crying, and headed down to my local wholistic dispensary (yep, I live in that kind of neighbourhood) where I pleaded with them to give me something to help me. The nice man smiled knowingly and said the magic word — Vitex — and sold me a bottle of same.

Vitex sounds like a brand name, but it’s actually from the Latin name of the plant, Vitex agnus-castus, otherwise known as Chasteberry. And the word “Chasteberry” refers to its use centuries ago in monasteries to keep the monks’ sexual drives under control. (I am not making this up!)

There is loads of information about Vitex and its uses, side effects (few), and history on the Internet, and I strongly suggest that you Google the heck out of it before ingesting this — or any other herbal supplement  — and talk to your doctor first. Although herbal supplements and naturopathic remedies are only loosely regulated here in Canada (and thus not taken terribly seriously yet), many preparations have very potent and well-known side effects and interactions, and can really mess you up if you take too much or mix them with another drug you’re on.

For Aspergian women who are taking any sort of anti-anxiety or antidepressant medication (even herbal ones like St John’s Wort), or any kind of hormone therapy — even the birth control pill — it is essential that you speak to your doctor first before considering taking Vitex.

The star of our show.

The star of our show.

Anyway, I’ve been taking these little nuggets of Happy for about three weeks now and they do seem to be helping. I’m familiar with the placebo effect and this is definitely not it: try talking yourself out of a murderous rage or 30 minutes of bawling along to an episode of Roseanne and you’ll see what I mean.

For the first time in months and months, I feel “together” enough to do a bit more socializing, and it’s been more than three weeks since I smacked the crap out of my laptop or the vacuum or that cupboard door that won’t stay shut. I can focus on my work again (honestly, at one point I wondered if I’d had a stroke because I couldn’t hold a thought in my foggy, soggy brain for more than … hey, look! a puppy!). I can watch Star Trek TNG (or the news, or a commercial for lawn fertilizer, come to that) without a box of tissues in my lap (seriously…).

Vitex apparently takes about three months (!) to get fully into your system and be truly effective, but (fingers crossed) so far so good.

Stay tuned for the first week in August, when I’ll crack out the Little House on the Prairie DVDs and perform the ultimate in field testing.

~ A.G.

Field testing: Bring out the big guns, baby.

Field testing: Bring out the big guns, baby.


Diagnosis and Beyond: My Story (because you asked)

Since I started this blog, many of you, and many of my “in real life” friends, have asked how I came to be diagnosed with Asperger Syndrome.

It was a long process, with many steps, and so, in the manner of my recent post in my other blog about my bomber-pilot Grampa, I will write about this one using bullet points as well. I find it easier to keep it short(ish) that way, and I know my Aspie friends often find bullets easier to follow.

Disclaimer: Let me say at the outset that I am a HUGE believer in getting things properly diagnosed by a professional. Self-diagnosis, or “self-DX” as these folks like to call it (whether the DX be Asperger’s, allergies, whatever), is dangerous on any number of levels: you can misdiagnose yourself with something that is actually masking something far more serious, and self-treatment can be a recipe for disaster (e.g., cutting out foods you decide you’re “allergic” to can lead to serious malnutrition). Don’t get me started. If you hate doctors, go to a wholistic practitioner. But don’t self-DX.

Buckle up -- here we go.

Buckle up — here we go.

So now that that’s out of the way, here you go. Buckle up. 🙂

1. When I was quite small my parents became increasingly concerned with my odd behaviour: toe-walking, hand-flapping, echolalia (repeating things from radio or TV, or what people said), terrible tantrums/meltdowns, hating to be touched or held, preferring to play alone. Off I went to the local children’s hospital for testing.

2. The diagnosis was “emotionally disturbed,” the same diagnosis Temple Grandin was given as a child. It was a bit of a catch-all for a lot of conditions, but top of the list was autism. I actually was totally unaware of any of this on any kind of meaningful level until I was about 14 or 15 — see Step 7.

3. Unlike Temple Grandin, however, I talked and had some friends. The ultimate decision was to leave it alone & see if time & social pressure faded out some of the weirder behaviours. In large part, yes. My mum tolerated some of my behaviours (she didn’t mind me lying on the floor listening to the fridge motor, for example) but forbade some of the others (like flapping). (This was in stark contrast to my dad, who enjoyed my intelligence — I was reading by 2 and a half — but hated the rest of it & used to beat the bejesus out of me.)  At school, I used to jump up & down and squeak if I was excited; my schoolmates mocked that out of me pretty fast. Another friend taught me how to walk properly when I was about 12. She told me “you’re doing it wrong,” showed me how to land heel-first, and there we were.

Welcome to the Mother Ship.

Welcome to the Mother Ship.

4. When I was 8, I was streamed into the Gifted classes at my school — talk about Asperger Heaven. 🙂 We were all kind of weird. In many ways, I fit in like I’d been called home to the mother ship.

5. But I still knew I was pretty odd: my public behaviour was OK but it was a struggle. I was “eccentric,” you could say. As Asperger’s expert Tony Attwood says, the double-whammy of Asperger’s is that we’re weird — and we KNOW we’re weird.

6. While other kids were starting to notice the opposite sex, I was quietly reading medical textbooks and trying to figure out what the hell was wrong with me. And then when I was 12, Reader’s Digest published an excerpt from a book called “For the Love of Ann,” which was a father’s account of raising his autistic daughter. I read it and knew immediately what was wrong with me. But FFS, why had no one bothered to tell me?? I did not ask. I was increasingly scared of my parents, who (like John Elder Robison‘s parents, oddly enough) were travelling

No, you go ahead & swoon over boys. I have some research to do.

No, you go ahead & swoon over boys. I have some research to do.

down their individual roads to hell: alcoholism (dad) and mental illness (mum). No point rocking that boat.

7. When I was 14 or 15, I overheard my mum talking to a friend on the phone about me: “Well, of course, she’s emotionally disturbed, you know.” My “inner DVD” blinks off again right after that, but (as the designated scapegoat of our family) I remember feeling intense shame and anger: sure, try to pin your adult problems on me.

8. I begin to read avidly, secretly, about autism — anything and everything I can lay my hands on. I am eventually placed in a group home (after my parents implode completely) but no one there picks up on my struggles either. I am doing fine in school, after all, and there are 10 other kids to keep an eye on. And “autism” doesn’t quite fit: the kids I read about mostly don’t talk, and are really, really disabled. Maybe I’m just making shit up. Ultimately, since I already know how to toe the line & do chores & keep my mouth shut, I simply do more of the same until my “release” to university.

9. Fast forward thru university, relationships, jobs. I am hitting all the “marks” in life, but just barely. I have a kickass academic record, a really good CV, and some relationships under my belt. I look great on paper….

10. … but my social skills and decision-making are appallingly immature and I am floundering as I try to figure out the increasingly complex world of adult life. I make increasingly stupid, disastrous decisions regarding work, relationships/dating, living arrangements, anything involving the “big picture.”

What Asperger's feels like while you're trying to look normal.

What Asperger’s feels like while you’re trying to look normal.

11. I try psychotherapy. Having had quite a bit of social work/therapy as a teenager (see “group home,” above) and going on my now habitual assumption that I’m broken, sick, “not trying hard enough to fit in with others,” I think therapy is What You Do If You’re Screwed Up. One therapist manages to get through to me that my childhood was actually pretty abusive on every level and I now focus on trying to “heal” from that. Hell, maybe that’s the root of all these wonky emotional problems after all. Yeah.

12. No. It’s not working. I change therapists and try Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, concerned that I’m becoming OCD and that my private temper tantrums and constant misanthropic irritability are becoming worse. Surprisingly, CBT is more helpful than I’d ever imagined. It is very intellectual in nature, focused on solving problems in the here-and-now. I get some much-needed relief.

13. But not enough. Fast forward again to October 2008. Yet another ill-starred relationship crashes and burns. I’m living in another apartment I hate, above another nutcase neighbour (pothead mother of two), and struggling along in another job I’m not suited for. The meltdowns (which I call “rage attacks”) are worsening, I hate everybody and everything, and most of all myself. I feel like a massive washout, a loser, a colossal fuckup.

There is no Ground Control...

There is no Ground Control…

14. I go back to therapy with my regular/familiar therapist. She’s some help but I seem to be entering “total systems failure.” I stop talking to people or looking at them. I go into work at nights so I won’t have to encounter humans.

15. I start thinking about suicide. I actually have a plan. It falls apart when I realize that I don’t know what to put in the note — how can someone so “successful” and “smart” and “talented” and all that crapola be such a lost puppy, such an underachiever, such a bloody failure? Did I just not try hard enough? Do I just need more/better/different therapy? Am I copping out?

16. Something, somewhere deep in the recesses of my brain, whispers  “Asperger Syndrome,” and for whatever reason, I listen. As I did when I was a teenager, I start reading obsessively about autism again. Asperger’s, which entered the public/therapeutic lexicon circa 1992, is now on my menu as well, although mostly I’m still thinking, “Nah, not me. Stop being such a drama queen and just learn to fit in, fergodssakes.”

17. Monday March 9, 2009. I watch a film called “Autism: The Musical.” One of the scenes shows Steven Stills’ little son Henry, who has Asperger’s. I sit up sharply: there, on the screen, is me as a child. The exact, eccentric — and surprisingly charming — way of talking, moving, laughing. I sit there completely stunned — and oddly filled with compassion and understanding. Fuck me. Maybe I’ve got Asperger’s after all.

The little guy who made my "Aha!" moment.

The little guy who made my “Aha!” moment.

18. I take a couple of online Asperger’s tests over the next few days. This is the Internet age, after all. I score surprisingly high, no matter how many times I try to skew the tests to what I think of as “normal.”

19. March 20, 2009. I gather up my courage and call the Asperger’s Society of Ontario, which refers me to the Redpath Centre. I leave a message. One of their counsellors calls me back at work. I take my cellphone out to the parking lot and stand in the snow talking to a gentle, soft-spoken man about what I think, maybe, might be my problem. And for the first time in my life, someone else is speaking my language: I don’t have to struggle to make myself understood. Everything goes very calm and quiet in my head.

20. March 30, 2009. I go in to the Redpath Centre for my “assessment” with the Nice, Gentle Man. It is the most gruelling afternoon I can remember in a long time: this guy asks questions about parts of me, my behaviour, that I thought were only mine to know. At the end, heart in my mouth, I ask, “What do you think?” And he says, “I think it is very probable that you do have Asperger Syndrome.”

I phoned home, apparently.

I phoned home, apparently.

21. The next few days pass in a sort of stunned haze. My diaries from that time are sparse. “I have no idea what I’m feeling,” crops up several times.

22. April 2, 2009. I return to the Redpath Centre and meet with the Nice, Gentle Man to hear about my results. I’m afraid of both Yes and No. If “No,” it means I really am just weird and broken and “Not Trying Hard Enough,” and will probably be spending the rest of my life in therapy trying to figure out why I refuse to get with the program — or just killing myself. If “Yes,” then… well, I actually have no idea.

23. It’s Yes. I take notes as the Nice, Gentle Man talks about his findings (i.e., me) and we talk for a couple of hours. To my horror, I begin crying uncontrollably. I am not a crier. The nearest I can come when Nice, Gentle Man asks what’s happening is “Oh my god, how is it that NO ONE EVER KNEW AND HELPED ME WITH THIS???”

Life with undiagnosed Asperger's.

Life with undiagnosed Asperger’s.

24. I spend the next few months talking about this, and other bits of fallout, with the Nice, Gentle Man. His approach is that Asperger’s has definitely left a trail of destruction in many areas of my life, but that it has also given me many gifts. My job, he tells me, is “to change what you want to change, and keep what you want to keep.” My reading of Temple Grandin and John Elder Robison, in particular, confirms that this is a good solid approach that is, oddly, do-able.

* * * * *

And so ends my Diagnosis Story. At time of writing, it’s been nearly four years now since the last bits of it — the ultimate diagnosis — took place, and I have to say it’s been quite a ride. For the first time in my life I’m OK-ish in my own skin. I know what the “monster in the closet” is, finally, and have thrown some light on it, looked it right in the eyeballs, and learned to more or less work with it.

Not to say it’s easy, obviously (the other entries on this blog would be testament to that), but there is something to be said for living authentically. It’s like having the correct eyeglass prescription for the first time in my life. It has taught me to look fearlessly — and with surprising compassion — at myself and my life. I have made apologies to people where that’s been warranted (one treasured boss, for example, who experienced some of my “backsplash”), and I have slowly but surely been putting safeguards in place to avoid making Asperger-related “operator errors” in future, if at all possible. Knowledge is, indeed, power.

I will end this here, because this is getting horrifically long. If you’ve stuck with me for the whole thing, I thank you for reading and for your interest.

And one last time — if you think you or someone you know has Asperger’s Syndrome, go for an assessment. No matter what, the Monster in the Closet is not nearly so scary when you switch the light on.

Any questions, just ask.

Cheers,

Asparagus Girl

PS. There was no good place to put this, but after I got home from Diagnosis Day, I fell into a dead sleep for two hours. When I woke up, CBC Radio was playing this song, “Everything is Moving So Fast“, by the Great Lake Swimmers. I went straight out and bought the CD, and every time I hear that song I think of Diagnosis Day.

It's often not as bad as you think.

It’s often not as bad as you think.

I can has Asperger?

(With sort-of apologies to I Can Has Cheezburger?, one of the funniest websites around.)

April 2 is World Autism Awareness Day and unless you’ve been living under a sheet of plywood since the 1980s, it’s probably safe to say you’re already “aware” of autism, per se.

But what you may not be aware of is the number of adults with Asperger’s, or so-called “high-functioning autism,” actually living and working among you.

In the last few years, there have been loads of news articles, research breakthroughs, movies (like Adam) and books (like Stieg Larsson’s trilogy), about Asperger’s and autism. But despite all this, most people still have no clear idea what Asperger’s looks like when it’s out and about. They picture Rain Man (who was actually an autistic savant), or a lonely train-spotter on a railway overpass. Or they just say, “How awful.”

Lucky for you, I love nothing more than smashing stereotypes to smithereens, so I’ll walk you through the basics. Besides having Asperger Syndrome myself, I happen to know a couple of others who have it, and in honour of Autism Awareness Day, I will tell you a bit about us.

A caveat here: as Asperger expert Tony Attwood says, “Once you’ve met one person with Asperger’s, you’ve met, well, one person with Asperger’s.” Not all people with AS will have all the symptoms; there are some core difficulties, namely with communication and social interaction, but the rest is really the luck of the draw, dependent on circumstance, upbringing, age, experience, and a pant-load of other factors that researchers are still investigating. (“Pant-load” is a scientific term meaning “bucket.”)

First up is my friend Chris. If you passed him in the street you wouldn’t look at him twice. Actually, you might – he looks like Woody Allen. He’s absolutely brilliant, although he did poorly in school because, like many kids with Asperger’s, he has trouble with authority figures and with following rules and instructions. However, he taught himself Latin (I’ll give you a moment to digest that) and if you want to know how Julius Caesar would have ordered his supper, or are unsure of the wording of a particular scene in Monty Python’s “Holy Grail,” Chris is your guy.

Like Chris, my friend John did poorly in high school – again, the problem with authority, rules and instructions. But he is a whiz with a guitar and taught himself to play so proficiently that he was accepted to the graduate studies program at the Royal Conservatory of Music in Toronto. He’s travelled all over the world and currently teaches in Asia. He is soft-spoken and thoughtful, full of ideas about Buddhism (he stayed at a monastery in Thailand for a month last year), and when he comes to Toronto his social calendar is so packed that he struggles to slot me in.

I’m actually the odd one out, here: Asperger’s is unusual in girls, although researchers are now taking a closer look at the different ways that girls show – or hide —  the symptoms. Unlike Chris and John, I did very well in school, and had no trouble with authority – typically, girls seem to be a bit more adept at pretending to fit in. A very strict upbringing helped, something Temple Grandin, arguably the most famous person with autism on Earth, agrees is a must for kids with Asperger’s: knowing the rules and how to interact politely with others helps to provide much-needed structure and lay the foundations for social and eventual work-related interactions.

(I previously published this last year in another part of the blog under a pseudonym. It was only about a year after I’d been formally diagnosed — although I’ve known it for decades — and I was worried about the effect it would have on my career and my friendships if people knew I was an Aspergian. Now I’m a lot more comfortable with it, and most people who know me have either been told or figured it out anyway.)

Anyway, as with Chris and John, you probably wouldn’t notice me in a crowd; as an astute friend and teacher of mine said a couple of days ago, Asperger’s is a “hidden disability” in that we don’t have canes or crutches or a guide dog.

It’s only when you get to know the three of us a little more closely that you realize we’re a bit… different. We’re all uncomfortable making eye contact and tend to look off to one side, or gaze into the distance, as we listen to someone speak. And for that matter, we probably wouldn’t be caught dead in a crowd at all since we all prefer to spend time alone. We’re conspicuous by our absence from office get-togethers, after-work drinks or lunchtime chatter.

We tend to start sentences with “Did you know…?” and are impatient with small talk, meaning they’re uninterested in, or left out of, the informal networking that goes on in the workplace; we’d rather talk about facts, or socialize based on a shared interest or activity. Sometimes we are mistaken for snobs, know-it-alls or showoffs.

All three of us are pretty bright; like many others with AS, I belong to Mensa, whose unofficial motto is “If you’re in Mensa and you don’t have AS, then someone else wrote your test for you.”

Someone once said that talking to someone with Asperger’s is a bit like shooting the breeze with Dr Spencer Reid from Criminal Minds; our brains are like search engines. Need to know about the breeding habits of wrasses, or whether a number is prime? Just ask Chris, or me, or John. (Another friend of mine works with disadvantaged kids, one of whom has Asperger’s. At their office, people say fondly, “Forget Google – just ask Ryan.”)

And all three of us have other quirks that often come with Asperger’s. Some are a plus:  like Daniel Tammet, for example, I have synesthesia, meaning I see music, numbers, letters and days of the week in colour. John is gifted in music, and Chris is a language aficionado.

Some are not a plus, and this is where Asperger’s can really knock the stuffing out of those who have it: fear, frustration and anxiety are a constant in both Asperger’s and autism, meaning a person’s “stress-meter” is constantly over in the red.

Hypersensitivity to sounds, lights and textures are a given. I once wrote in my diary, “imagine being in a small room with a shrieking smoke alarm, a blaring radio, flashing lights, a screaming baby, marbles clattering off the walls, two movies running, fiberglass down your shirt and cold water spraying in your face. Now try ordering your dinner or explaining that flow chart – or chilling out. Welcome to Asperger World.”

And because people with AS tend to have trouble reading body language, facial expressions and subtle social cues, communication can be a minefield. Folks with Asperger’s are often underemployed because they have trouble with the social and interpersonal aspects of a job — we’re the super-brains working in the mailroom, or sorting files. Quite often we have difficulty making or keeping friends, or maintaining a romantic relationship.

But Chris, John and I agree that our AS has gotten better as we’ve gotten older. The hypersensitivities that made us scream or “stim” as children are less “loud” now. Peer pressure and life experience help fade some of the socially unacceptable behaviours – for example, I walked with a strange gait till a friend in grade eight showed me how to place my feet correctly. Anxiety revs up to a roar in puberty (as it does in all adolescents) and then tends to ratchet down again in young adulthood.

Where challenges persist, science and research have stepped up to the plate: anti-anxiety drugs and behaviour therapy, and the understanding of Asperger’s itself, havecome a long way since John, Allison and Chris were kids.  Many workplaces have “quiet rooms”; some companies make less-irritating clothing for people with sensory difficulties; and increased public understanding of autism means that people like me are treated less and less like freaks or outcasts and given opportunities to put our considerable talents to use.

Regardless, Asperger’s will always be a hard diagnosis to hear, and I would be doing all of us – and you –  a grave disservice indeed if I said life with Asperger’s or autism was anything but an ongoing challenge. If your child has just been diagnosed, or if YOU have just been diagnosed, you have a long road ahead of you.

But thanks to “autism celebrities” like Temple Grandin, Daniel Tammet and John Elder Robison; to the thousands of researchers working to understand autism; to John, Chris and others who share our stories and don’t let Asperger’s hold us back; and, perhaps most importantly, to people like you who are simply reading this article, there are more and brighter lights and signposts along the way—for all of us Aspergians who walk among you.

Additional links & resources:

What is Asperger syndrome? (Asperger Society of Ontario)

Doctors are failing to spot Asperger’s in girls (Guardian, UK)

More than just quirky: girls and Asperger’s (Newsweek)

Daniel Tammet’s website

Temple Grandin’s website

John Elder Robison’s website

Online Asperger’s test

National Autistic Society (UK) TV ads about autism:

Morning Commute

Misunderstanding

Crash

Socially awkward

Yoga / Squeeze machine update

Well, I’m pleased (and pretty surprised) to say that the “yoga effect” is still with me. (Sometimes I wonder if this is what junkies feel like, seeking out a specific good feeling!)  All kidding aside, though, I’ve noticed that I am much calmer and less easily rattled since starting my “experiment.” Traffic (my biggest challenge, as a commuter) doesn’t drive me nearly as crazy, and my brain feels a bit less “noisy” and hyperactive now.

The effect comes and goes in waves, strongest right after a class and diminishing the next day, but it is unmistakeably there: a classic case of “the brain that changes itself,” I think.

And this week, I took the bull by the horns and went back for another class with the Other Teacher. Thankfully, it was just fine.

(One good thing about Asperger’s is it gives you a persistence that other people find astonishing. I was determined to overcome my terrible phobia of spiders, for example, and over the last several years I have managed to dial it back from about a 15 out of 10 to about a 5 or a 6, depending on the size of the arachnid involved. Not that a yoga teacher is in any way like a spider, mind you!)

How is a yoga teacher like a spider? Discuss.

Anyway, this persistence has served me well in this case: I am very motivated to continue with yoga, and that means trying out all the teachers, rather than just sticking to the one. Otherwise I wouldn’t have as many classes to choose from, and my experiment would be skewed because I wouldn’t know how much of the effect was simply due to the teacher.

So, once I had made up my mind to learn from Teacher Number Two, everything went much better: I even made jokes in her class (and she laughed — bonus!) and maybe she noticed me cringing in her spin class a few times because the music there is less loud now.

Either that or my hypersensitivity to noise is being reduced in this “experiment” as well. A friend of mine said it would be interesting to do an FMRI (Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging) of my brain as I continue this process; I agree. Alas, the four titanium screws in my right knee have ruled this out; my devotion to science ends at having shards of metal shooting out of my leg!

There are a couple more teachers I haven’t tried out yet, so I will give them a whirl as well. I have a sneaking feeling I know what the results will be, already.

That’s all for now.

 

Yoga is my Squeeze Machine

Many years ago, when I first started reading Temple Grandin’s books, I was fascinated by her “squeeze machine,” which she modelled on a cattle chute she first saw as a teenager at her aunt’s ranch. Like many people on the autism spectrum, Temple longed for human touch but couldn’t bear it. Instead, as a child she used to lie under the sofa cushions and ask people to sit on them, which provided the “deep pressure” that calms so many people with autism. And as a teenager, after observing how cattle calmed down in the squeeze chute, she built her own “home version” of this contraption, which she used (and still uses) to calm herself down.

In the BBC documentary about her life, called The Woman Who Thinks Like a Cow, Temple demonstrates how the machine works. It really is extraordinary; she climbs into it, operates the levers so that the sides press in and squeeze her firmly, and in a matter of several minutes you can see her relaxing and hear her voice slow down and become deeper.

(If you’re interested, the documentary is available on YouTube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=46ycu3JFRrA.)

She explains this feeling in her book Animals in Translation: “My squeeze machine… gave me feelings of kindness and gentleness towards other people – social feelings. It also made my dreams nicer. … I think the squeeze machine probably also helped me have more empathy….”

People have often asked me whether I would like something like this; my answer is “absolutely not” because I don’t like the feeling of being confined.

But last week, I accidentally stumbled upon my own version of the “squeeze machine”: yoga.

For almost a year now I have been taking spin classes and I decided I also needed to work on stretching and using some different muscles. I was very nervous to try yoga, as I’m quite self-conscious, and I also had a bad experience once in a yoga studio where the teacher kept touching and “adjusting” me without warning me or asking my permission.

So I talked to one of the instructors beforehand and asked whether I’d be comfortable in this class, which was geared more towards athletes and cyclists. They had asked me months ago whether I wanted to try yoga and the answer has always been a flat “no” so I think they were very surprised! Anyway, the instructor, Lea, was very helpful with my (nervous!) questions, and I agreed to give it a try.

We did a 40-minute spin class first to warm up our muscles and then moved into the yoga studio, where we began some gentle stretching exercises. I was very nervous at first but after a few minutes I calmed down and (to my surprise) began to enjoy the experience. The lights were kept low (a bonus for me since I hate overhead lighting) and Lea happens to be very good at explaining each move (also a bonus for me, since I am rather uncoordinated sometimes and have trouble figuring out where my body is in space!).

And suddenly, about ten minutes into it, I felt something “shift” in me, like a gear changing. My exact thought at the time was “wow, all the aggression has just drained out of me.” One of the hallmarks of Asperger Syndrome is anxiety, which often manifests itself as anger, irritability or aggression.  And suddenly that disappeared, which for a normal person would probably feel like someone suddenly shutting off a really loud television show.

The calm feeling continued through the rest of the class. Afterward I went and thanked Lea for keeping an eye on me, and was surprised that my voice seemed slower and calmer, and I had less trouble making eye contact than I usually do. And on the drive home I was astonished to discover a strange feeling of being “connected” to the people in the cars and on the sidewalks around me.

When I woke up the next morning, the feeling was still there – I was amazed. I have taken Ativan (an anti-anxiety drug) from time to time, to help me sleep, and it felt like I had taken a dose of that; absolutely nothing bothered me. Even on my drive in to work, through the “rush hour hell” of Toronto, I was calm and happy. I almost laughed at myself.

It has long been known that deep pressure and firm touch are preferable to people on the spectrum — light touch activates the  undesirable “flight response”.  Now researchers are also looking more closely the use of yoga to help people with autism and Asperger’s. They suspect that it activates the opiate and dopamine receptors in the brain, which are thought to play a part not only in pleasurable sensations but in empathy and social behaviour.

There’s also evidence that yoga helps people on the spectrum to focus their attention and become more aware of where their bodies are in space, and thus more coordinated. Personally, I’m a rather clumsy person and not often aware of where my arms and legs are at any given moment (they’re usually knocking things over, dropping things or tripping over themselves), and yoga helped me “feel” where the outlying parts of my body were, and focus on balance and stillness. For a while I felt almost graceful, which is not my usual state of mind!

For comparison’s sake, I went to a class last night with a teacher I don’t like as much (the music in her “spin” portion of the class is way too loud, and she always looks unhappy or angry to me — although I confess that facial expressions are not my forte!). Anyway, I didn’t like this class as much as last week’s; there was too much “yoga jargon” for my liking (I don’t know the names of the poses or how to do complicated things like a Sun Salutation) and I got very frustrated. But I know that it’s rude to leave in the middle of the class so I reluctantly stayed, and as soon as we switched to some poses that were familiar to me from last week, I felt the relaxation start again a little bit. However, there was not that “aggression release” that I felt last week, and I think that was because I didn’t trust the teacher & was not able to relax fully and pay attention to what I was doing.

So my two lessons are this:

1) yoga is VERY good for some people (like me) with Asperger’s because it helps with coordination, balance, calmness and feelings of kindness & empathy; and

2) much depends on the teacher. Pick one that you like and trust, and this should help you relax and concentrate on what you’re supposed to be doing.

I will be going back to another class tomorrow night, and hopefully more after that. I will keep you posted on my findings.

 

Stickshift

Having Asperger’s Syndrome is like driving a car with a stickshift transmission: it means that everything most people do automatically, I have to do manually.

The Asperger brain.

When you drive a vehicle with automatic transmission, you barely have to think about driving, other than keeping your eyes on the road: the vehicle shifts gears without you knowing it, moving you smoothly from first to second and so forth as you travel.

When you drive a stickshift, though, not only do you have to pay attention to the road, but you need to listen to the engine, feel the vibration in the gas pedal and watch your tachometer (the dashboard instrument that tells you how many RPM your engine is turning) to determine when to change gears. Then you need to push in the clutch pedal, press the gearshift into the new position, and release the clutch again.

Similarly, for “neurotypical” people, or those without Asperger’s, things like conversations, business transactions and day-to-day social interactions are conducted more or less seamlessly.  You call the hairdresser to make an appointment, you stop off at the grocery store on the way home from work, you get through a day of meetings and office work or whatever it is you do, and maybe you meet your mate or some friends for dinner or a drink afterwards.

And you do it all without really having to think about how you’re doing it.

When you have Asperger’s, most of what you do has to be broken down into bits, analyzed, and a decision made about how next to respond. When I have a conversation with you, for example, I am watching your mouth and the space between your eyebrows and the muscles in your face to see whether you’re happy, sad, angry or upset. I’m also watching your hands and certain aspects of your body language, and trying to listen to the tone of your voice to determine whether you’re being sarcastic or not. It’s sometimes easier to do this in groups because if other people are laughing, for example, that’s usually my cue to laugh too.

Asparagus One, you are cleared to laugh. Over.

When I’m doing the talking, I remind myself every so often to look at you and determine whether or not I’m boring you to death or being irritating — again, it’s a “binary”, “if-then” sort of thing: Is the person leaning away from me, crossing her arms, looking at her watch or sighing? If so, then stop and say “Well, that’s enough about me…” and ask her something about herself.

In a business situation, or one that’s more challenging that just day-to-day interaction, I do something I call “templating” — if I don’t know how to respond to something (say, a criticism of my work, or an unfamiliar person coming to the office) I think of someone I know who does these things well, and imitate them. In my case, I have two “templates” — they are both managers I’ve worked with in the past, who dealt wonderfully with difficult people.

So now, for example, if my current boss tells me he didn’t like my work, I can’t just tell him to go soak his head (the way I might do, jokingly, with a friend who was being a pain). I’d be fired. So I take a breath, remind myself I’m in a business environment, and then respond in the way Lisa or Lillian would probably respond to him, even using their words.  It takes a LOT of practice (because AS impedes your ability to put yourself in someone else’s shoes) but it really works, and a lot of psychologists and AS specialists teach this technique to help people improve their social and business skills.

Hungry. Mmm, buzz-click….

Over the years I’ve learned to do all of these things more or less seamlessly, the way you get better and better at driving a stickshift (well, unless you’re really crap at it). When I first learned to drive as a teenager, I popped the clutch almost every time I attempted to drive the car. It was terribly frustrating.

Similarly, I have bored a lot of people to death, or annoyed (or puzzled) them by talking on and on about something I love (cats, for example, when I was small), or talking in a cartoon voice. (I spoke like one of Roger Ramjet’s “Solenoid” robots for years… “Mmm, buzz-click…I would like a sandwich, mmmmm, buzz-click!”) I did it because I was nervous, but had absolutely no idea that I was being irritating or inappropriate. These are the sorts of things you learn over the years, sometimes the hard way.

(When I was in Grade 7, I actually got in a whole lot of trouble one day because I completely misread a teacher’s tone of voice. He was a popular teacher who also happened to be the vice-principal, and a small group of us were clustered around him out in the playground talking and having fun. A friend told me to show him my “Donald Duck” imitation, which I had just learned to do, and — stupidly — while I was quacking away I threw in a naughty word. He was not amused, and told me to come see him after school for detention. But he was smiling as he said it, and my friends were laughing, so of course I thought he was joking.

Crap. Shouldn't have said that.

I was also a very well-behaved kid who had never, ever gotten in trouble at school, so I suppose that was part of the reason I didn’t think he was serious. So imagine my mortification the next day when I was summoned to his office, via the classroom loudspeaker, and bawled out for skipping detention!)

Anyway, to finish with the “stickshift” analogy, if you drive in a car with me now, you probably won’t notice me shifting gears (unless that’s the sort of thing that interests you). Likewise, if you’re having a conversation with me, you probably won’t notice me “computing” what to do or say next, or working the “clutch” in my head. It comes more or less naturally now, although it’s still exhausting — my engine is usually a bit overheated by the end of the day and I need to go home and put my brain in “park” for a while.

The important thing to remember is that Asperger’s is a syndrome that largely affects how a person communicates.  Genetics plays a role in how things pan out as you get older, as do circumstance, education, upbringing and motivation. And like most things, the ability to communicate, or “drive,” improves with practice — this goes for “Aspergians” and non-Aspergians alike, of course. (And isn’t it ironic that one of the most memorable lines in Rain Man, which was about a man with autism, is “I’m an excellent driver”!)

Me, I like to think that I started out lurching along in a 1969 Volkswagen bug with a burned-out clutch and holes in the floor, and am now sailing along in something much nicer and shinier. Every so often I grind the gears or take a speed bump a bit too fast, but for the most part I get where I need to go.

And maybe some day I’ll be driving that Mercedes convertible I’ve always wanted….