Category: anxiety


CBS’s 60 Minutes ran a segment about face blindness last night, and I figured I’d share some thoughts about it.

If I could add captions to the movie, that would be fun, but I don’t know how to do that.  So I’ll try writing a running commentary according to the time index of the video.

Part 1:

0:10  It’s been a while since I watched this program.  Goodness, they are being dramatic, with correspondent Lesley Stahl giving her introduction from an endless black void with a creepy picture hovering behind her!

0:45  As you might expect, the report mostly focuses on some of the most extreme examples of face blindness, because… well, that’s more dramatic!  My own face blindness is not as severe as most of the examples they will talk about in this segment.  (Also, while face blindness is often a trait of autism/Asperger’s, many faceblind people are not autistic.)

I have never had trouble recognizing my close family members or myself in a mirror.  And I was able to recognize my high school classmates right away at our reunion. But I’ve spent years with those people where I saw them on a daily basis and spent time getting to know them.  I start to have trouble with people I only see from time to time.

1:20  This is something I’ve always wondered about 60 Minutes.  Do they make sure that the stopwatch is always at the right minute and second based on when the commercial breaks come, or do they fudge things a bit?  It looks like the watch is running about 20 seconds fast here, but I think that’s because they cut the “Tonight on 60 minutes…” part out of the video.  What?  Oh, face blindness. Sorry.

2:00  I have at least some facial recognition ability, because I can recognize most of these celebrities.  And the ones I have trouble with are possibly due to unfamiliarity with the celebrity rather than face blindness.  But this is easier than real life facial recognition, because 1) I already know it’s a celebrity, and 2) the faces don’t move or start to wonder why I’m staring at them.

2:22  This camera shot is a more accurate representation of the task in real life.  All those faces going by– how can I pick out the ones I’ve seen before?  Do other people’s brains really do that automatically?  If so, that’s amazing!

3:20  There’s no “Aha!” moment for me when the faces go from upside-down to rightside-up.  It’s just the same image flipped.  Most people don’t have to turn their heads to read words that are printed upside-down, do they?  It’s the same for me with faces– if I don’t know them upside-down, I won’t know them rightside-up.  But flipping the image seems to cause instant recognition for Lesley Stahl.

4:00  Those poor people… I feel terrible for me too.  (Just kidding.)  : )

4:45  When you don’t automatically recognize faces, you use context to help you keep track of people.  If I understand what Dr. Novotny is describing, she can become familiar with a person as her current patient, but when they step outside into a crowd of people, their context is completely changed.  Now they are just one of many people visiting the hospital.  She might remember that the patient was a young woman with medium brown hair, but now there might be three other people in the room who fit that description, and if she makes an assumption, it could be wrong.

5:08  This is a nightmare scenario for me.  I would have to ask for the coworker’s e-mail address or try to text them, because even if he tells me his name, I will probably not recognize him in a different context.

Whenever I arrange to meet someone, I am usually not looking for a face I recognize.  I am looking for someone who fits the general description of the person I am meeting (age, gender, skin color, hair color, hair style, etc.) and who appears to be looking for me (by making eye contact or smiling when they see me).  Until I am sure who they are, I hedge by pretending to recognize them in a way that is hopefully also plausible as simple friendliness if they turn out to be someone I don’t know.

6:00  This exact thing happened to me with a friend who changed her hairstyle between school quarters.  She no longer had her hair in a ponytail, and that was enough to make me unsure that she was the same person until she greeted me by name!

I don’t experience quite as much dissonance as Jacob Hodes appears to, though.  If I saw a person change their hairstyle in front of me, they wouldn’t “disappear.”  I know they’re the same person because they haven’t gone anywhere.

8:00  The interview with artist Chuck Close is probably my favorite part of the segment.  I think he does a good job of explaining the thought processes a faceblind person uses to identify people, and showing how you can still be good at recognizing people by paying attention to details.  I think I also recognized the picture of Leno by the chin and of Tiger Woods by the lips.  I thought Tom Cruise was Doug Flutie, though.

Until I read about face blindness, I thought this was how everyone recognized faces.

10:00  I can echo what these people are saying.  The idea that most people have a mechanism that instantly and automatically “labels” faces for them seems as weird and unexpected to me as face blindness appears to be to Lesley Stahl.  Half the people I know say they are bad with faces, so I just figured I fit into the same category.  Maybe I do, and it’s a spectrum like autism rather than a sharp divide between “normal” and “not normal” the way the segment makes it appear.

11:05  Thanks, Ms. Stahl.  What a cheery thought!  (sarcasm)

12:00  I haven’t had the experience of not recognizing my own face, but I don’t really need to recognize it very often.  I mean, when I look in a mirror, the person in the mirror is going to be me, right?  Other people stay on my side of the mirror.

Moe by Michael Firman (click to visit webcomic)

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Let’s go back to the scene in the carriage from early in Order of the Phoenix.  After getting off to an awkward start, Hermione tries to recover the conversation by commenting on Luna’s necklace.  “It’s a charm, actually,” Luna responds, then leans forward.  “It keeps away the Nargles.”

There are a few seconds of silence that seem uncomfortable for everyone but Luna.  Finally, she pronounces, “Hungry.  I hope there’s pudding.”

The scene that just unfolded is actually a good example of what a conversation with an Aspie can be like.  (Or at least, I can certainly remember having conversations that went that way with classmates my age.)  It may not seem like it, but I think Luna is trying her best to politely participate in the conversation in this scene.

It can be a challenge to keep a conversation going with an Aspie.  Hermione actually started out really well by commenting on something literal and specific, Luna’s necklace.  The intense focus on details that tends to come along with Asperger’s means that, as long as the topic is something I have “data” about, my mind almost instantly brings up a catalog of information to answer with.

It’s a lot trickier to come up with an answer to a question that’s more open-ended, like “What’s going on?” or “How is your day going?”  (First, I need to remind myself that these questions usually don’t literally mean that the other person wants to know everything that’s going on in my life.  Then, I need to select an answer that matches the level of depth the other person actually wants.)

Assuming I’m not stumped for something to say, there are still a couple of pitfalls that can derail a conversation at this point.  One is to give a response that answers the question but doesn’t suggest anywhere for the conversation to go.

For example, suppose someone messages me on my computer asking “Hey, what are you doing?” and I respond “I’m going to watch a movie.”  I have answered their question directly and fully.  If it were a question on a test, I should expect full credit.

But look at it from the other person’s point of view.  Now they don’t have anything specific to respond to!  They could try again with a different question, but at some point they will start to wonder whether my closed-ended response really means “I don’t want to talk right now.”

A better response might be something like “I’m going to watch Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix.  Have you ever seen that one?”  Providing more information (and especially asking a question) tells the other person that I want the conversation to continue.

The other extreme can happen if the conversation turns to a topic that falls under an Aspie’s specific area of interest.  “Finally, we’re talking about something I love!” I think, and a ten-point lecture begins spilling out in a burst of enthusiasm.  This has a tendency of scaring the other person away.

Getting back to the scene, Luna’s special area of interest is magical creatures, particularly ones that most people don’t know about or don’t believe exist.  She spends a lot of her time thinking about them.  In explaining the purpose of her necklace, she brings up the topic of Nargles, which she could surely spend quite some time talking about.  (She suspects they have been stealing her possessions.)

If I had to guess, Luna has already discovered that most people aren’t interested in hearing about creatures that they think are figments of her imagination or made up by her father’s silly tabloid.  It’s part of why they tease her.  Even though she could surely regale Harry, Ron, and Hermione with all sorts of fascinating facts about Nargles, she holds back from saying more.  I think this is either because she has been made cautious by previous experiences of trying to share about her strange obsession, or because she is trying to be polite by not dominating the conversation.

In either case, Luna’s caution proves justified, as none of the others is interested in hearing about more creatures that quite possibly don’t exist.  They’re uncomfortable saying any more because they don’t want to hurt Luna’s feelings by letting her know how strange she seems to them.  And so the group falls silent.

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(Sorry about the long delay between posts; I had a great deal of this one written a few weeks ago, but I forgot to save my work before my computer’s batteries ran out, and whenever that happens, it takes me a while before I feel like writing again.  I am also planning to get back to posts that deal more with Asperger’s syndrome again once I’m done talking about my class trip.  Anyway, thanks for reading my story; let’s go on!)

On Monday, we got on a bus and set out for Munich, which is about 350 miles south of Berlin.  Some of my classmates were excited about the prospect of seeing the Autobahn, Germany’s famous highway system that has no speed limit under certain circumstances.  (The speed rules on the Autobahn have gotten more strict in recent decades than they once were; it now uses electronic signs to adjust the speed limit and number of open lanes based on the amount of traffic and to warn of accidents blocking the road.)

As one might suspect, riding a bus on the Autobahn is not very different from riding a bus on a highway in the United States, except that the speed of the cars passing us may have been faster.

I talked with some of the other football fans in the class, sharing the results and scores of the games I could remember seeing the previous day.  I observed that while obviously soccer is the most popular sport in Europe, Germany seemed to be the country most receptive to American football, based on the fact that all but one of the NFL Europe franchises had ended up moving to Germany.  (NFL Europe no longer exists, though, so obviously it didn’t catch on that much.  The teams were all pretty terrible anyway, being made up of players who were trying to make it onto an actual NFL roster.)

About 50 miles out of Berlin, we stopped at the smaller town of Wittenberg.  It was there that Martin Luther, a priest and teacher of theology at the university, published his Ninety-Five Theses in 1517 and started the Protestant Reformation.

I saw the church building where, according to one of his students, Luther nailed his document to the door so that everyone could read it.  There was a paper printout of the Ninety-Five Theses stuck to the door still.  Of course, it wasn’t the same door as was there in Luther’s time.  In fact, the entire building had burned down and been rebuilt at some point over the intervening 500 years.  I was reminded of the old story about the farmer proudly declaring that he owned the very hatchet that had once belonged to George Washington– only the axe head had been replaced three times and the handle four times.

Still, it was amazing to see the spot where such an influential moment in church history (and world history, really) took place.  I thought about the story of Martin Luther’s life.  After surviving a terrifying thunderstorm in which he cried out to God for help, he vowed to become a monk.  But he found that nothing he could do– hard work, sacrifice, even punishing himself– could take away his fear of having to answer to a perfect, holy God.  Every selfish thought, every careless word, every wrong motivation was an offense against God, who required perfect obedience arising from pure love.  Luther would spend hours confessing his sins until his fellow monks were weary of him. He was terrified that he would leave some forgotten sin unconfessed, and the more closely he scrutinized himself, the more sinfulness he found.

Luther found comfort in reminding himself of Christ’s sacrifice for his sins.  A Bible verse that greatly influenced his thinking was Habbakuk 2:4 (which is quoted in multiple places in the New Testament), “The just shall live by faith.”  Luther could never earn salvation by trusting in his acts of repentance; rather, God had provided the perfect sacrifice in Christ and called Luther to look to Him in faith.

Years later in Wittenberg, a traveling friar named Johann Tetzel was raising money for the church by selling indulgences.  For doing the good deed of donating money to the church, the purchaser of the indulgence received a guarantee that the punishment for his or her sins would be lessened.  People could also purchase indulgences on the behalf of relatives or friends who had died, in order to shorten the time their loved one would need to suffer for their sins in order to become fit to enter heaven.  Tetzel was a fiery preacher and a good salesman, and he was very good at stirring the emotions.

In his Ninety-Five Theses, Martin Luther argued that Tetzel’s preaching was in conflict with the teaching of the Bible.  He didn’t disagree with the importance of repenting of one’s sins– in fact, he stated that “the entire life of believers” should be “one of repentance.”  But Tetzel’s promises were leading people to trust in their own deeds and the effectiveness of the indulgences he was selling rather than in Christ’s sacrifice on the cross.  Luther quite boldly took the leaders of the church to task in his document, accusing them of allowing Tetzel to preach these things because it was an effective way to raise money.  His stand caused him to make enemies in the church, and it would end up putting his life in danger, but Martin Luther continued to write about trusting in God’s grace for the rest of his life.

Inside the Wittenberg church, our New Testament professor led us in singing Luther’s most famous hymn, “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God.”  “I’ve always wanted to do that,” he said.

We made it to Munich that evening after stopping for dinner at a restaurant that had something similar to a buffet.  The bread in Germany is so good!  I used my nonexistent German skills to ask for food by pointing to it and saying “Das, bitte”.

I think I was trying to say “This, please,” but I may have been saying “The, please.” and I probably wasn’t even using the correct form of the article.  My phrase book basically said “der, das, die— use whichever one you want.  People will still know what you mean.”

Also, they will probably not confuse you for a native speaker of German!  The servers were very kind, smiling when I would say “Danke schön.”

“Before you came along, we Bagginses were very well thought of.”
“Indeed?”
“Never had any adventures or did anything unexpected.”
“If you’re referring to the incident with the Dragon, I was barely involved. All I did was give your uncle a little nudge out of the door.”

— Frodo Baggins and Gandalf, The Lord of the Rings

Ten years ago today, I was a college junior on a plane heading across the Atlantic Ocean to Europe with a class of Cedarville students and our two Biblical Archaeology professors.  I was excited, nervous, and tired all at once.  I wasn’t the sort of person who went on trips like this, I thought.  I found it intimidating just trying to cross the street in tiny Cedarville, Ohio.  Whenever I could, I drove home to my parents’ house for the weekend.  So how did I end up setting off on a two-week tour of another continent?

It started with a course I took my sophomore year about the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Old Testament: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy.  We studied the organization and major themes of these books as we also learned about their historical and cultural background– the ancient civilizations of Mesopotamia and Egypt.  What made the class special was our professor, Dr. B., who taught with great enthusiasm for the subject matter.  He summarized the prevailing opinions of scholars, along with his own theories on questions like which Pharaoh was the ruler of Egypt during Moses’ time.

It was a demanding course– struggling with the final essay had me in tears at one point– but there were two things about it that I really liked.  One was our weekend field trip to visit the museum at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.  Both museums had 4000-year-old artifacts from the civilizations we had been learning about.  One of the students would ask Dr. B. a question about one of the artifacts, and as he answered it, a small crowd would form.  Before long, we had a large group of people following us, but Dr. B. wasn’t fazed at all.

Being from the New Jersey area himself, Dr. B. seemed at home in a city environment where a little boldness is necessary in order to be noticed.  He made sure we saw all of the major New York landmarks, taking us on a ferry ride and eating at a little restaurant that specialized in New York-style cheesecake.  I decided to be “bold” myself and order a slice, even though I was pretty sure I wouldn’t like it, since I didn’t like cheese.  It turned out to be one of the best desserts I’d ever had.

I also found that even though I didn’t know what to do with free time, most of my classmates did, and it was a lot of fun following them, listening to what they talked about, and laughing with them.

The second thing I really enjoyed about the Pentateuch class was working on a Powerpoint presentation for a group project.  I hated written assignments, but this was different.  I found myself pouring a lot of work into making a set of timelines showing the reigns of various rulers and the rise and fall of civilizations.  I could plan out every aspect of the graphic:  One pixel horizontally represented one year.  I used different color combinations for the different civilizations– sandy yellow for Egypt, clay red for Mesopotamia, blue for Israel that matched the color of their present-day flag.  It was more work than I needed to do for the assignment, but it didn’t feel like work.

So, anyway, I finished the Pentateuch course and went on with school as normal.  Then one day I saw an e-mail announcement about a spring course in Biblical Archaeology taught by Dr. B. along with a New Testament professor, Dr. H.  This course would focus on the historical and archaeological record for the entire Bible, and it would include a repeat of the New York trip from the Pentateuch class.  But the big deal was that it led into a trip to Europe at the end of the summer to visit museums in London, Paris, Berlin, and Rome!

My initial reaction was “That sounds neat, but I don’t think it’s for me.”  Two weeks was a long time to spend so far away from home.  What if I hated it?  The trip wasn’t cheap, and it would be a waste if I didn’t enjoy it.  I never did things like this, but for some reason, I printed out the e-mail and showed it to my mother.  She told me that it sounded like the opportunity of a lifetime, and if I had any interest at all in going, I should consider it.

The deadline for signing up for the trip came and went, and I was fine with that.  Other people went on this sort of trip, not me.  And that seemed like the end of the story until Dr. B. called me to his office.

“Nathan,” he said, “why didn’t you sign up for the Biblical Archaeology trip?”  I told him I just wasn’t sure I wanted to go.  He told me that he didn’t want affordability to be the reason I couldn’t go, because he had a job for me that would allow me to come along as a teacher’s assistant.  He told me that he was really impressed with the PowerPoint presentation I had done for the Pentateuch class, and he wanted me to help him put together the PowerPoint files for the new Biblical Archaeology course.  He also wanted someone to come along on the trip to take digital photos of the artifacts in the museums so that they could be incorporated into the course material.  I could do that instead of the paper the students would have to write on the trip, he said.

With an invitation like that, how could I say no?  Some people talk about God “opening a door” for them to make a decision– well, this seemed to qualify if anything did.  I decided to be bold again and give it a try.

So that’s how I ended up meeting the rest of my classmates (about forty in all) in a Cedarville parking lot in the very early morning on August 31, 2001.  We sleepily rode the bus to the Columbus airport, caught a connecting flight to Newark, New Jersey, and finally took off for Heathrow Airport in London.

At the time, all I could think about was how good it would feel to get home after it was all done.  And it was!  But I’m also glad I had the experience.

If this sounds interesting, be sure to check back here tomorrow; I’m planning to add a new post every day about my memories from each day of the trip!

I drive from Danville to Bloomsburg, along the same path the school bus took me for twelve years. The trees crowd in beside the road, and it feels so quiet– I’m amazed at how little traffic there seems to be. I guess I’ve gotten used to Cincinnati. But this definitely still feels like home.

I’m going to the park for my 13-year class reunion. Why 13 years? Because we’d never had a reunion before, and we wanted to have one. I worry a little that I won’t recognize some of my classmates. That could be embarrassing.

But as they arrive one by one, I know them instantly without a doubt! This so rarely happens to me anymore even with people I know well. It really feels nice.

Eight of us were able to make it out of a class of 26. I’d say that’s pretty good, considering how many of us have spread out all over the country and how many are busy with family and job obligations.

I get to meet their spouses and children, and I do my best to remember their names, but it will take me a while. I’m thankful that I’ve had the chance to learn some of them from Facebook.

We talk while the children play on the playground– there are so many stories to tell. I stand in between two conversations, listening to both and smiling. My friends are so very much the same people I knew from school. They’ve been to some amazing places and lived through some tough times, but God has preserved what is good in each of them.

I don’t think I have a lot to add myself. My experience is still mostly as a student. I’m still trying to find a career, still hoping to start a relationship with someone.

I probably seem a lot like I did when we were all in high school. I lagged behind socially then– at a middle school or elementary level– and as a result, I didn’t interact much with my peers. Now, I’m probably up to a college or high school level socially, but I don’t always feel fully a part of the adult world.

When someone asks me what I’m doing currently, I stammer and pause for a bit as I try to answer. A nasty part of me is telling me “You don’t belong here. You don’t have anything to talk about,” but I know that’s not true. We go out for drinks, but I haven’t developed a taste for beer or wine, so I order soda. I hope they don’t think I’m looking down on them by not sharing a drink– it’s such a symbol of friendship.

Before I came to the reunion, I was worried a little about negative thoughts like these, but they are no match for the joy I feel. I sit and listen to all the stories as my friends share– about meeting their husbands and wives, about funny or sad things at work, about pregnancy and childbirth and picking names for children and the unpredictability of two-year-olds. I imagine that my parents had conversations like this about me when I was little. I hear how God has blessed each family and prepared them for the things He brings into their lives. Everyone’s story is different, but also the same.

I realize that I have grown in thirteen years. When I was a senior in high school, I was afraid to drive a car. Today I made two trips by myself, and I enjoyed them. Even though social interaction is tiring, I am seeking it rather than avoiding it– planning my weekend around it and learning how to get enough rest in between so that I can be fully present and part of the conversation.

I wonder if my classmates know what a blessing they have been to my life– both those who are there and those who could not come.

At times, others find it hard to believe that I have Asperger’s just from observing me. I think some of this may be due to personality– my strong desire to avoid confrontation has likely kept me from clashing with others.

But there was another big difference in my life, the people around me. In so many of the stories I read online about people with Asperger’s, their years in school are not remembered fondly. Stories of bullying seem almost universal, and in a lot of cases, the best advice people can offer is “Wait until you graduate; it will get better.” I read about people who still deal with the effects of bullying decades later.

I wonder if my classmates know that they are proof that it doesn’t have to be that way– that kindness can have just as much of a positive impact on a life. None of us knew about Asperger’s, but anyone could see that I was different in some ways, lagging behind in others. But I wasn’t given grief for it. I was just given friendliness, time, and a safe place to grow.

I hope they know.

I finished up the courses I was taking for my Web Programming certificate last week.  Overall, I really enjoyed my classes– it was nice taking courses with no writing assignments to stress over.  The programming was fun; I actually had to be careful not to try to do too much in my projects, which was a new experience.  Best of all, I made several acquaintances and at least one friend.  : )

Now I’m faced with a task that I find a whole lot more daunting, though– searching for a job.  I know how to do school, even though it has often majorly stressed me out.  It’s like walking a path, one step at a time.  Trusting God as a student meant trying my best at the tasks immediately in front of me and not worrying about the future.  It wasn’t easy, but I was glad to be able to leave the big uncertainties in God’s hands.

But it seems like it doesn’t work that way once school is done.  There is no clear path to walk now.  I have to make the decisions, or nothing will happen.  And that really scares me a lot.  But when I try to put the decision in God’s hands, he keeps giving it back to me.

I’ve been looking at job postings, but with each of them I have to fight the fear that I won’t be able to do what the job asks for, or that I’ll find it to be completely different from what I thought I had prepared for.

Especially with the way many job postings are written.  Some of them seem to be looking for a superhero.  “We are looking for the best and the brightest web developers in the world.  We need innovative, self-starting, energetic people who communicate well without asking dumb questions.  Should have 2-4 years experience doing this job before starting.”

Others are written are written vaguely enough that the job could conceivably be almost anything:  “The web developer position uses technology, electronics, and/or computers to actualize the company’s three core values in line with its mission statement, taking into account the views of all major stakeholders.”

(Those quotes are exaggerated a little.)

I’ve heard that I shouldn’t take job postings literally because they have to be written in their own sort of language.  For instance, maybe some job postings are unspecific so that if the supervisor needs to ask the employee for help with another area, they can’t say “That’s not in my job description” and refuse to help.  Others may name their imaginary best employee possible knowing that he or she doesn’t exist in real life; they just want to see how close they can get.  So they are actually expecting people to apply without meeting all of the “requirements.”  Very confusing.

As I said, this is a different challenge.  The other times I’ve been faced with it, I fled back to school, but I can’t do that forever.  I’ll see what I learn and post about it if I can.

Jonas and me

Jonas and I sitting on the back of a giant turtle. Jonas is two years old in this picture, and I'm almost four.

When I was 20 months old, my younger brother Jonas was born.  In a lot of ways, we’re similar.  People in my family tend to be quiet and introverted.  We both like to study things in great detail.

But in other ways, our personalities have always been different.  After my tumultuous first few months, Jonas seemed like the happiest baby ever; he was a lot calmer than I had been.

This continued to hold true as we both grew.  One day when I was three or four, Jonas and I were in a room with a door that had a mirror fastened to it (not very securely, as it turned out).  Jonas grabbed the mirror, and it fell off the door, shattering with a loud crash!  Mom came running to find Jonas standing nonchalantly by the door with a cut on his finger from the mirror, and me crying and shouting hysterically.

“How many times have I told you not to do that?” I yelled at my brother again and again.  The answer to that question was zero– I had never mentioned it before– but it was something I had heard people say when they were angry, and I was mad at Jonas for making such a loud noise and a big mess!  It took longer to console me than it did to bandage Jonas’s hand.

Most of the time, though, I think Jonas and I got along very well.  It was a lot more fun playing and learning when I had someone to share the experiences with.

Jonas grew faster than I did– it was very common for people to ask my parents if we were twins.  I heard “No, they’re 20 months apart” so many times that I still often think of the age difference between us in months rather than years.

As we grew, Jonas tended to be more adventuresome and willing to try new things than I was.  He was usually the first to try an unfamiliar kind of food or a new activity.  In some ways, I suppose, he has been like a big brother to me, though he has never looked down on me as if I were a little brother.  Looking back now, I think there are a lot of experiences I wouldn’t have gotten the chance to enjoy if Jonas hadn’t been there to get me to try them.

four days old

Four days old.

I was born in Pittsburgh in May 1980, when the Steelers and Pirates were both defending champions.  My parents were younger then than I am now.  I asked my Dad once if he was nervous about becoming a parent for the first time, and he said, “Not really.”

You see, my father was a pediatrician, and my mother was a nurse, both of them very smart, caring people who had taken care of many children.  They always knew what to do when my brothers and I would get hurt or sick.

My mother has told me that I cried a lot.  All babies cry a lot, of course– what else is there to do?, but I cried a lot even for a baby.  Apparently, I was often uncomfortable.  My skin was easily irritated.  In general, I was overly sensitive– a description that would fit me all my life.

My mom would hold me for hours, trying to get me to stop crying.  At times, she was in tears, wondering how, with all of her training and experience as a nurse, she could seemingly calm any baby but this one.

I have no idea if my restlessness as an infant had any connection to Asperger’s (a term that hadn’t even been coined yet).  I did find it interesting to read of a similar experience in Daniel Tammet’s autobiography, Born on a Blue Day.  Tammet is autistic and experiences vivid synesthesia (perceiving things like words, numbers, and days as having colors and shapes).

When he was a baby, Daniel cried at all hours of the day, and his parents would calm him by making a sort of hammock out of a blanket and swinging it back and forth, each of them holding one end.  It does make sense to me that a baby with autism might experience the world with more sensitivity and take a longer time to adjust to that than a non-autistic baby, but I don’t have any real evidence to back that up.  I would imagine that experiences vary quite a bit depending on the individual.

But whatever the case, I am so thankful for my mother’s patient love.  Before I was even aware, I was loved unconditionally by my parents.  I think that my parents have been the most powerful testimony in my life about the love of God.  It’s because of that reflection that I have a concept of what God’s love is in a world that usually doesn’t reflect it clearly.  It’s why I can have hope even in the most painful or distressing times that all along, I have been resting in the arms of my heavenly Father.

Why do so many of us on the autistic spectrum have trouble making eye contact?  Lack of eye contact seems to be one of the traits most often named as going along with autism and Asperger’s syndrome.  Maybe that’s because eye contact is such an automatic thing for most people, they notice when it’s missing or brief, even in a young child.

Think of how often people attach significance to eye contact or its absence:  “I could see it in his eyes.”  “She couldn’t even look me in the eye when she told me.”  “He looked nervous; his eyes were constantly darting back and forth.”  These sorts of conclusions aren’t always right, particularly with an autistic person, because it’s very possible to be sending out a signal you don’t mean to without realizing it.  Someone might think I am looking down because I’m embarrassed by what I’m trying to say, when I’m actually just trying to concentrate on what I’m saying.

This is just a guess, but I don’t think that things like eye contact or body language are innate, because it is possible to learn them and improve throughout your life; it’s just that learning to make “normal” eye contact usually seems to take a lot more work for autistics than for others, and it often needs to be a conscious effort rather than something that we absorb automatically.

But what is it about the way our brains are wired that causes such a difference?  One theory comes from observations of brain activity in both autistic and non-autistic people as they performed a task involving face recognition.  Each hemisphere of the brain has a bundle of neurons deep inside it called the amygdala, and several studies have indicated that these parts of the brain behave differently in autistics than they do in non-autistics.

Here’s where it gets confusing.  I was all set to explain how experiments showed activity in the amygdalae for non-autistic people when they looked at human face to identify it or tried to read its emotions, while autistics showed little or no activity in the amygdalae.  That’s what a study in 2000 found.

But then I found a 2009 paper that reported the exact opposite!  This study concluded that there was actually more activity in the amygdalae of an autistic brain than there tended to be in a non-autistic brain.  When it comes to how the brain works, there’s a whole lot we don’t understand.

But anyway, the theory I’d heard before was that, for whatever reason, the part of the brain that most people use to process human faces as a special category of information doesn’t operate the same way in an autistic person.  Because of this, faces are processed the same way anything else is– a collection of visual information without any special “markers.”

So maybe autistics don’t tend to make eye contact because our brains don’t “latch on” to human faces as different or more significant than their surroundings in the way that neurotypical brains do.

When I heard this explanation, I thought it was interesting, but something about it didn’t seem quite right.  It wasn’t until I saw an ABC news segment about a remarkable girl named Carly Fleischmann that I was able to put it into words.

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Hello again!  I decided to try out a different blog theme for this page.  All of the content is the same still.  What do you think?  I like the colors in this one, but the old one had a less complex background and may have been easier to read.

In general, people usually don’t like changes that aren’t necessary, but sometimes people on the autistic spectrum can be bothered by changes that others barely notice.  A couple of months ago, I read a blog entry posted by a mother whose little girl is on the autistic spectrum.  It was about a time she found her daughter struggling to hold back tears, telling herself “Sometimes things change, and that’s okay” in a method she had practiced to calm herself down.  The cause for her distress was that the TV show she was watching had changed its opening sequence for a new season.  She had been expecting the familiar opening that had been there every time, and something different was suddenly in its place.

I found that post very moving, because I can remember going through some of the same things as a young child.  One time, I was watching an episode of Sesame Street that somehow involved a marching band visiting the show.  I can barely remember the episode itself, but I do remember that as the credits rolled, they had the marching band perform the theme instead of using the piano and harmonica recording that had appeared every other time.  I was caught totally unprepared and burst into tears!  On a half-conscious level, I was familiar with each note and time interval in the song, and not only was the band using totally different instruments to play it, but they weren’t hitting all of the notes exactly right!  I just wanted to get away from it.

I had a similar reaction if I was listening to a song and the record or tape speed got messed up and the sound got distorted.  I always found it very disturbing to hear something familiar distorted into a grotesque form, with the essence of the original still there, just… twisted.

I am thankful that, as I have grown up, I have become less sensitive to that sort of sensory input.  I’m not entirely sure what has helped me besides experience, but I suspect that my love of science fiction may have helped me in this area.  Science fiction often uses a distorted or unfamiliar point of view to show readers or viewers something about human nature.  It can use a creature from another world as a mirror for ourselves, or it can show the consequences of our ideas by removing all limitations and showing what kind of future might result.  I’ve come to appreciate how storytellers use the weird and unsettling at times to tell a story of great importance and beauty.

Like anyone, I still worry about unwelcome changes in my life, of course.  But I still have the same thing to cling to as I did when I was a child– God never changes, and he has promised me that I belong to him.  Despite all the things in life that can scare or worry me, God is over them all, and he will not break his promises.

“I the LORD do not change. So you, the descendants of Jacob, are not destroyed.”

— Malachi 3:6

Hmm– I think I’ll keep this background for a while.  It seems to be helping me to start writing again.