Archive for June, 2009


Blog break 2

Once again, I’ll be taking a break from the blog for about a week.  Maybe someday I’ll get organized enough to have a backlog of posts to add automatically during times like this, but as Aragorn in Lord of the Rings might say, “It is not this day!”

Right now, I’m celebrating:  the Pittsburgh Penguins just won the Stanley Cup!  It was a historic final series, a rematch against the amazingly talented Detroit Red Wings that came down to the last game, and literally the last second.

I honestly did not expect the Penguins to win this series (and I don’t say that about everything; I thought the Steelers would win the Super Bowl this year, and they did).  So I’m truly amazed– tonight the Penguins played the best I’ve ever seen them play.

And so Pittsburgh becomes the first city since 1952 to hold the NFL championship and the Stanley Cup in the same year.  The celebration there is going to be wild, I imagine.

I plan to make a post in tribute of the Penguins at some point; maybe after this break is over.  The Penguins have a history that is stranger and more improbable than any fiction you might come up with for a pro team.

Once again, thank you, everyone who has been reading my blog!  It’s great to be able to reach out to others in this way.

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Someone in a local autism group shared this fascinating article by Michael Booth from Britain’s The Independent about an unusual Danish company:

Better, faster… and no office politics:  the company with the autistic specialists

Specialisterne (The Specialists) is a company in Denmark that employs adults on the autistic spectrum to test software and other systems.  It was founded 2004 by Thorkil Sonne, who became familiar with Asperger’s after his son was diagnosed on the spectrum.

A couple of excerpts:

“Five years on, Specialisterne employs 60 people, has a turnover of almost £2m, and works with Microsoft (it tested Windows XP Media Center) and CSC, among other major international companies, helping them to check information systems, databases and other highly demanding, often repetitive, number-crunching tasks. Specialisterne has won numerous business and industry awards, and now has two offices in Denmark. If current plans pan out, a new branch will open in Glasgow later this year. It is a shining model of how to turn a highly skilled yet misunderstood and underexploited element of the population – around one per cent have a diagnosis of autism, but other related ‘invisible disabilities’, such as ADHD (attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder) for instance, may account for as much as 3.5 per cent of the population – into productive and integrated members of the workforce.”

The company is not just giving people with autism and Asperger’s a place to work, though– it is apparently doing quite well!

“Leading UK software-testing consultant Stephen Allott of ElectroMind has been acting as an unpaid adviser to Specialisterne as the company prepares to enter the UK market where, currently, only about six per cent of people with autism are in full-time employment. He is very clear on the advantages of using them: ‘Simply, they are better, faster and do higher-quality work than the people we can currently get from the labour market in the UK or India,’ he says. ‘One of their guys can read a technical document the size of a book and spot inconsistencies between something on page three and page 37, which is incredibly useful. I already have clients in the UK who are interested in what they have to offer. The only thing we need to be careful about is their working environment. I know lots of companies with noisy, chaotic, open-plan offices, where the work is like fire-fighting most of the time, and people from Specialisterne wouldn’t be able to work there. That said, the environment they need is the kind of environment we should all be working in anyway.'”

What a great idea!  I hope it catches on.  : )

In my last post, I wrote about how I had a very logical, rule-oriented mind from an early age. One of the things I’ve been thinking about for a while is how much that tendency has both influenced and been shaped by my faith in Christ.

I grew up in a Christian family, and I went to the same small, conservative Christian school from 1st-12th grade.  As with any environment, the one I was brought up in had both positive and negative aspects.  I was protected from many potential pitfalls, and at the same time I became more susceptible to others.

I’d like to write about examples of both on this site, partly to help me organize my own thoughts as I continue to learn more both about Asperger’s and about God– and partly in hopes of relating to other people who are interested in Asperger’s and religion.

I’ve seen many discussions about faith and religion on Aspie discussion sites, and one thing that I find fascinating is that, while it seems common for people to describe the experience of having Asperger’s as playing a role in how their beliefs developed, there seems to be just as much variation in religious beliefs among people with Asperger’s as there is in the population in general.

One person may say that her orderly way of thinking made the idea of a God who establishes absolute standards of right and wrong make sense.  Another may say that his concrete thinking leads him to search for natural explanations for the world and to treat the idea of God or the supernatural with skepticism.  Both may be surprised that a similar way of thinking has led the other to a vastly different conclusion; I’ve seen threads asking “Are most Aspies religious?” and threads asking “Are most Aspies atheists?” on the same discussion board!

(Incidentally, the same phenomenon seems to occur with politics; people with Asperger’s can be anywhere on the political spectrum.)

Overall, this makes sense to me, and I’m actually glad that being an Aspie doesn’t mean I am exactly the same as every other person with Asperger’s.  It’s really important to remember that a syndrome is just a useful label and every person is unique.  Even people who share similar experiences can end up very different from one another.

Well, I was originally going to try to cram a lot more into this post, but I think I’ll save that for later!

One of the things that learning about Asperger’s syndrome has helped me to recognize about myself is how rule-oriented my mind is.  It’s been that way for as long as I can remember– I have sought clear instructions, and have felt extremely uncomfortable and unsure whenever I didn’t have them.

I have a vivid memory of my introduction to the game of kickball in recess in first grade; I was probably six years old.  (In case you aren’t familiar with it, kickball is similar to baseball, except with a big red rubber ball that you kick instead of using a baseball and a bat.)

Most of the time at recess, I kept to myself and played on the swings or paced around the playground thinking.  But on this day, we were doing something different.  The teacher told my class to line up and split us into teams.  I was gripped with fear– this was a sport, with rules!  My classmates seemed to know where to stand, which way to run, and what to do if the ball came near without being told.  How would I know what to do?  I knew nothing about sports; it didn’t help me at all to be told that it was “like baseball.”  By the time the game started, I had completely disintegrated into tears.  “I don’t know how to play!” I wailed over and over.

Looking back on that situation now, I realize several things I didn’t know then:

  • There was nothing wrong with not knowing how to play kickball.  I was only six years old, and I had never played it before!  It was nothing to be ashamed of; I was not disappointing anybody.
  • I was surrounded by people who could teach me how to play kickball!  My teacher offered to, as did some concerned classmates, but I was inconsolable at the time.
  • It was only a game, and the point was to have fun.  (I think this point only comes with the perspective of age; when you’re six, playing a game is serious business!)

My panic over not knowing the rules made me too much of an emotional wreck to actually learn them.  Thankfully, within an hour or so, I had forgotten all about my meltdown (the day seems really long when you’re a first-grader).  And I did eventually learn to play kickball, and I had a lot of fun doing it.  (It helped that I was one of about ten outfielders and didn’t have to worry about the ball coming my way very often!)  🙂

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Evgeni Malkin amazes

Not much has come to mind to write lately, so I thought I’d share an athletic feat that I think even those who aren’t fans of hockey will appreciate.  The Pittsburgh Penguins are on a run deep into the Stanley Cup playoffs (and they actually have a huge game with Detroit coming up tonight!).

This video is from the second game of the Penguins’ sweep of the Carolina Hurricanes.  Evgeni Malkin appears to make use of non-Euclidean space to score a goal without even looking:

This was Malkin’s third goal of the game, an accomplishment that is celebrated by the throwing of hats onto the ice– that’s why a three-goal game is called a “hat trick.”

I thought I would make a few posts about some of the specific sensory and perceptual issues described by Olga Bogdashina as going along with Asperger’s or autism, since I think she does a good job of describing a lot of them.

In some cases, I can speak from experience about the sensory difficulties she mentions, though many of them I’ve never struggled with.

One thing that I can definitely identify with is what Bogdashina describes as “Inability to distinguish between foreground and background,” or “Gestalt perception“:

“There is much evidence that one of the problems many autistic people experience is their inability to distinguish between foreground and background stimuli (inability to filter foreground and background information). They are often unable to discriminate relevant and irrelevant stimuli. What is background to others may be equally foreground to them; they perceive everything without filtration or selection.

As Donna Williams (1996) describes it, they seem to have no sieve in their brain to select the information that is worth being attended. It can be described as ‘gestalt perception’, i.e. perception of the whole scene as a single entity with all the details perceived (not processed!) simultaneously. They may be aware of the information others miss, but the processing of ‘holistic situations’ can be overwhelming.”

I tend to experience this the most with sound.  For example, if I’m in a restaurant, I can’t help but listen to the music they play as “background” noise– meaning that I try to figure out the lyrics and tune and evaluate whether I know the song and whether I like it.  But if I make a comment about the music to one of the people I’m eating with, it often goes like this:

“The songwriter must have gone on strike halfway through this song!”

“Huh?”

“This is a pretty repetitive song.”

“What is?”

“The song that’s playing right now.”

“Oh; I wasn’t listening to it!”

Not listening to the music isn’t usually an option for me; if I notice it, my brain automatically pays attention and tries to make sense of what I hear.  The same goes for all of the conversations among people at the tables surrounding me.  I am not trying to eavesdrop, but my brain is taking mental note of each word it is able to recognize.  As different conversations overlap, I am unable to follow just one, but I might hear five words at a time from one table, then three from another, then a loud outburst of laughter from another, and so on.  It’s not useful information to me, so I discard it as soon as I hear it, but my brain is still working to decipher as much as it can– all while trying to listen to the music and hear what the people at my own table are saying!

I think this is one reason why it can be so tiring simply to be in a crowded room– it overstimulates my brain with all of the auditory information.  I’m actually amazed that people’s brains are able to decipher as much as they are when it comes to sound.  The sound we hear is transmitted by compression waves in the air of the room; the air is full of signals overlapping signals overlapping signals– as though fifty people were using the same line on a piece of notebook paper to write fifty different messages.  But our brains are able to sort through and even choose which information to listen to and which to discard.  For whatever reason, though, this process seems to be something I do consciously; whereas it’s not for a lot of other people.

I find it pretty amusing that restaurants play music for the benefit of those who don’t listen to it– I think it’s intended to have a subconscious effect; the room would certainly sound “dead” without it– but most of the time people don’t keep track of the songs or even notice that music is playing!  When I talked about this with my family a while ago, my Mom said that the music simply faded into the background for her, but my Dad said that he tended to keep track of it the same way that I did.

I have noticed that if I get really engaged in a conversation, such that I am actually participating in it and thinking of things to say, I will lose track of the music for a while (for instance, I will lose count of how many songs have played since I sat down at the table).  It’s really nice whenever that happens, because I can participate more naturally and it doesn’t feel quite as tiring.

I’m curious whether other people with Asperger’s or without it experience anything like this when it comes to background noise.