Category: computers


In my last post, I wrote about my headphones, a piece of technology that has helped me to cope with my brain’s difficulty screening out distractions to focus on a single task, which I see as one of my Asperger’s traits. (In fact, I’m using those headphones to listen to movie soundtracks right now as I write this post!)

This time, I want to write about another technology that I used to find very helpful in allowing me to make and hold on to social connections: social media, specifically Facebook. Unfortunately, while my headphones have gotten better over the past several years (they’re wireless!), Facebook has steadily gotten worse, to the point that I made a decision to simply stop using it in 2016, when it became clear that the negatives outweighed the positives.

One of the effects of my Asperger’s syndrome is that I have always lagged behind my peers in developing social skills. I want to form friendships and connections with people, but participating in a conversation is an exercise in interpreting the nonverbal signals that others seem to pick up and give off naturally, while trying to orchestrate my own behavior so that I approximate the correct nonverbal signals myself. It can be exhausting, and it can leave me frustrated, when I finish a conversation and realize that I didn’t talk about anything of consequence, and I don’t even remember the other people’s names.

Communication on the Internet is a godsend for people like me. I can plan out my words before saying them, with no body language or tone of voice to interfere. Social media puts the person’s name right there along with a picture of them, allowing me to learn to recognize people in a way that fits my learning style. On Facebook, I was able to form connections with other people close to my age at our church– once, we got together to go to a local folk music festival, and I had a great time. I still think of it every time I hear Sierra Hull’s music. I was able to hear from the people at my church throughout the week and get an idea of the things they enjoyed, cared about, and prayed about.

I was able to stay in touch with acquaintances from college– from Cedarville, Texas Tech, and Cincinnati. They had moved on to all walks of life– farmers, professors, social workers, bloggers, mothers and fathers. Some went into the ministry, and some now looked back at the teachings we’d received in the name of Christ with a critical eye. I was enriched by both.

Probably the neatest thing that Facebook allowed me to do was to reconnect with my friends from Bloomsburg Christian School in Pennsylvania. I’ve written about how I’ve come to realize what a special group of kids they were. Almost everybody I meet or read about who grew up with Asperger’s syndrome recalls middle and high school as a time of bullying they just had to endure and eventually heal from. I was a weird kid– I sometimes did off-putting things, not even realizing I was doing them. A lot of the time, I didn’t seek out friendships because I wasn’t ready to expand my world beyond what made sense to me. But rather than pick on me, my classmates actually protected me from bullying. They let me be myself. And when I finally did begin to open up, they accepted me and included me.

I really enjoyed getting to see where God had led many of them, and sharing in their trials and joys by praying for them. It was also only because of our reconnection on Facebook that we ended up planning our 13-year class reunion, which I wrote about on this blog.

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I’m enjoying the new headphones I ordered online last week!  I’m using them right now to listen to music as I work on this post.  It occurred to me that they are suited to me for a couple of reasons related to my personality as well as my Asperger’s syndrome.

The first thing you have to understand about me is that music helps me concentrate.  I’m hypersensitive to all of the sensory input that distracts me from focusing on a task, whether that’s my copyediting work or a project I’m trying to complete for my own enjoyment.

These headphones are the kind that cover my ears, muffling outside sound and allowing me to listen to a soundtrack of music that I know and enjoy.  (They aren’t noise-cancelling like the ones my brother has, both because I didn’t want to spend that much on headphones and because if I wore noise-cancelling headphones, my parents might never be able to get my attention when they need me to help with something!)  ; )

But being able to listen to music makes a huge difference to me in my ability to work.  (I find it also helps me to concentrate when I’m driving.)  It’s like it drowns out all of the noise I normally have to deal with, allowing me to keep a narrower focus on what’s in front of me.  The only limitation I’ve found is that when I do editing, I usually need to limit myself to music without lyrics, because otherwise the lyrics of the songs slow down my ability to think about the sentence structure and wording of the article I’m editing.

The second reason I’m loving these headphones is that they are bluetooth-enabled, which means that I don’t need to use a cord.  And that’s perfect for me, because I’m clumsy.  Which I prefer to blame on my Asperger’s syndrome, although it could be that I’m just naturally clumsy anyway.  : )

There’s plenty of evidence.  About a year ago, I managed to crack the bones of each of my elbows in the space of six months– one when I slipped walking down a single step into our garage, the other when I tripped over my own feet trying to walk up a single step from a parking lot onto the sidewalk.  The belt loops on many of my blue jeans are torn because I managed to get them caught on the knobs of kitchen drawers.

And a major factor in needing new headphones was that I kept getting the cord caught on things, causing damage both to the cord itself and to the port where it plugs in to my computer.  My desire to use the music as an uninterrupted soundtrack led me to carry my laptop around with me when I needed to go to the door to let the dogs in or out.  And my clumsiness ensured that I would get the cord caught on a lamp, yanking the headphones off my head or pulling the plug out of my computer.  Now I don’t have to do that anymore!  I can leave the computer on a table and walk away, and the headphones will keep on playing!

They say that one of the ways we grow is by understanding and accepting our weaknesses as well as our strengths, and planning for them.  I guess I’m happy to be doing that in some small way by using my new cordless headphones.

shuri1

King T’Challa (played by Chadwick Boseman) and Princess Shuri (Letitia Wright) in Black Panther.

This is a post that my girlfriend Megan suggested I make after I told her about one of my favorite characters from Marvel’s Black Panther film, which I saw a few days ago. Both Megan and I have the Asperger’s trait of having extremely focused, almost obsessive interests in learning about technical things. Even when I was little, I loved to collect and categorize information about geography and astronomy, while Megan would study a specific period of history or the grammar and syntax rules of an unfamiliar language. We both enjoy video games and working with computers.

When I was growing up, I had the niche of being “nerdy” to fit into. I didn’t know anything about Asperger’s, but I knew it wasn’t that unusual to be nerdy and into technical things. But until recently, the “nerd” stereotype seemed to only be applied to boys. There wasn’t much of a “niche” for Megan to fit into aside from being the “shy girl.”

But that seems to be changing! I’ve noticed a number of examples of technically-minded girls in recent popular movies and other media. I think that’s a great trend– hopefully examples like these can inspire more girls to have fun learning about the technical side of things.

 

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I recently watched a playthrough of the computer game To the Moon, which I knew nothing about except that it was independently made and that a lot of people were impressed by the depth of its storytelling.  I found it to be a gripping story that managed to use the genre of a video game to draw the player into a tale that was both tragic and beautiful at the same time, while giving the player a lot to think about.

To the Moon screenshotI really can’t talk about how the game does this without giving the story away, so if you want to experience it the way I did, you can download it for Windows computers at http://freebirdgames.com/to_the_moon/ for $10.  Or, you can look for a playthrough of the game on YouTube, preferably one without anyone talking over the game, such as this one.  I was so impressed by the playthrough that I bought a copy of the game to play myself.

There’s actually enough to talk about in To the Moon for a whole series of posts, and I’m afraid I will need to reveal most of the story in order to talk about it.  So I’ll just start with this post for now, and include the following spoiler warning:

If you are the type of person who wants no spoilers at all, then I’m afraid you have to stop reading here and play the game!  Be prepared for tears, though– it’s an emotional story.

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I was watching this online commercial about how Google pictures its Project Glass working:

 

If this kind of technology became common, one of the positive effects I could see would be for people who struggle with face blindness.  It wouldn’t be a very big leap to create a way to “label” people with their names.  The names could even follow them around like the labels hovering over characters in video games like Minecraft:

My brothers and I exploring the uncharted seas together. (The name labels are too small to read, but you can see they are there.)

 

That’s certainly what I would do with it!  It could also help with executive dysfunction by providing a framework for keeping an organized schedule, kind of like how the guy in the commercial uses it as a dayplanner.  I truly believe that the technology of the Internet has been and can be a tremendous help to people with Asperger’s if it’s used wisely.

 

At the same time, though, I can also see lots of potential drawbacks.  One, of course, is the fact that you have to wear the Star Trek-like headset that might make you look a bit like this:

Did Google make Geordi's VISOR?

 

Or, at least, like this:

Major Kira tests another Google prototype?

 

Of more concern is the fact that other people would have the advantage of using this information too.  A salesman could use it and say, “Oh, here comes a guy named Nathan; my records say he just visited a Star Trek site.  I’ll try to sell him my Star Trek DVDs.”  That would be annoying.

Even more likely is that Google could sell ad space, so if I used this as my dayplanner, it would be yet another way to advertise, this time literally right in my face!  The commercial, after all, is not just targeting ukelele-playing boyfriends– it is also catching the notice of businesses like the bookstore, the concert promoter, and the coffee truck, which all get business from the guy in the commercial thanks to Google’s invention.

It’s also interesting to ponder how such a device could affect the way people think.  One commenter on the news article announcing this project said something like “Goodbye spontaneity.”  It’s true– what might seem freeing to people who struggle with organization and socializing could be very restricting to people who are social by nature.

And if you have a guide to help do something for you, it might cause you to stop exercising the muscle (or in this case, mental facility) that allows you to do it yourself.  The idea is a little amusing to me– could reliance on technology like this make everyone think a little more like an Aspie?

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.

Since I quoted Carly Fleischmann in my post yesterday, I wanted to share the video I saw about her online.  She also blogs and posts on Twitter.

One of the things I thought was interesting about the video was that writing was not an easy process for Carly, even though she had plenty to say.  The first time she tried writing, she threw up after it was done.  It took months for her to write again after the first time she tried it.  The video shows how excruciatingly slow it can be even now for her to get the words out.  Honestly, I wasn’t expecting that, but it makes perfect sense.

If this had been a movie script instead of a real-life story, I’d imagine it would show someone who had never been able to communicate in words before being incredibly relieved and suddenly writing great volumes of words.  But this isn’t a movie script.

Writing isn’t easy, and I think it can be even tougher if you’re accustomed to your thoughts going a lot faster than you can write.  I can identify with the experience of being stuck in front of a blank screen for hours, or erasing and rewriting the same sentence again and again, and I don’t experience the painful physical sensations that Carly writes about.  One of the most interesting things to me about the video is how it shows her perseverance.

I hope and pray that the video will help people to understand autistics a little better; I think it has done so for me.  Another thought that occurs to me is that I also hope parents of autistic children don’t expect them to be exactly like Carly.  There’s only one person like her in the world, just like there’s only one person like me, and only one person like your child.  Everyone has their own personality, strengths, and weaknesses.

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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In my last post, I talked about some of the things about being an “Aspie” that can be depressing.  In this one, I want to talk about one of the things that’s awesome about it– and that is the enjoyment I get out of doing something related to my “special interest.”

The past couple of weeks, I’ve been working on writing some code in Javascript for my football Web site that will generate a graphical record of every drive in a football game from a set of numbers and names.

For example, the code will create this image…

… if you enter this data:

[[“kick”, 30, “S.Hauschka”], “pit”, 14, “G.Russell”, 34, 84, 7, “3:38”, [“FG”, 34, “good”, “J.Reed”]]

The image represents a kickoff from the Baltimore 30 to the Pittsburgh 14, returned to the Pittsburgh 34.  Pittsburgh drives 50 yards in 7 plays to the Baltimore 16 using 3:38 on the game clock.  Finally, Pittsburgh tries a 34-yard field goal, which is good.

All of the data comes from the list of numbers and names.  (In case you’re wondering, the player names would show up in info boxes when you move your mouse pointer over one of the lines in the image; I didn’t demonstrate that in this example.)

There are typically 25-35 drives in a football game.  If I tried to make images like the one above manually, I could do it, but it would take me days to create the image for a single game, and I’d never be able to keep up with all the games I’d like to cover for my site.  But if I can use Javascript to generate the image automatically, all I will need are the numbers and names.
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I’ve really been enjoying the classes I’ve been taking in Web programming this year.  We’re starting to get into material I’m less familiar with, like more advanced Javascript, SQL, and Unix, but a lot of it seems to make sense to me intuitively.  It’s great not to have to struggle with writing essays or even worry about being assigned one.

Though I’m sure the material seems boring to a lot of people, I’m actually finding the classes exciting– I’m learning the codes and commands that lie behind the scenes and create this place called the Internet that we are using right now.  This is goofy, but I sometimes feel a little bit like I’m in a class from Harry Potter.  I mean, just the other day we were learning about were-claws.

Okay; actually, it was a “WHERE clause.”

There has been one class that has been causing me some stress, though, because it’s been a bit unpredictable.  It’s a class in Javascript, a programming language that allows you to make the content of a Web page change based on what the user does (within certain limits).  The material is very challenging, but I was actually enjoying working on the homework because it was like trying to solve a puzzle.  It took a while, but I was able to figure it out.

A lot of the other people in the class had trouble even getting started on it, though.  Everyone was pretty negative about our textbook.  So our teacher changed the homework assignments to group projects.

In general, I don’t like group projects.  In this case, it’s especially hard because there is no opportunity for my group to meet outside of class, and the class time is entirely taken up by the lecture.  It doesn’t lessen the amount of work I have to do to make the homework a group project, because I have to do the whole assignment if I want to learn the material anyway, and figuring out a way to divide the work up fairly is more work.  The big project for the end of the quarter was already going to be a group assignment, so all this does is introduce uncertainty into something that was originally fun.

I didn’t want to say anything because it would have been rude.  Yet again a scene from a Harry Potter movie comes to mind.  (Sorry– My mind easily gets stuck on things; wait a while and it’ll be something else.)  There is a cute moment at the end of The Chamber of Secrets when headmaster Dumbledore announces to the students that all exams are canceled.  Everyone cheers wildly, except for young Hermione Granger, who looks shocked and then starts to pout.  She lives for the exams.

Of course, it’s very likely that it’s better for me to have to deal with something I am weak in– group projects– rather than getting to do something I enjoy because it comes naturally.  Our teacher said that employers are more interested in your ability to work and communicate with other people than your knowledge and skills.  This is often intended as an encouragement to students who are struggling with a topic, but I’m afraid it’s just the opposite for someone with Asperger’s.

It would be easier if I were better able to help others who are struggling.  In the last class, one of my classmates asked me how I approached the material, because she was finding it difficult to learn what she really wanted to know about Javascript.  The book gave her the lines of code to enter in order to create a specific program, but that wasn’t the same as understanding why the program worked and how to use that knowledge to make your own program.

I tried to explain how I read the book and thought about each part, but I wasn’t able to come up with anything she could do that she wasn’t already doing.  I want to help others understand things they are struggling with, but I felt pretty useless in this case.

It seems like this is a case where I have an unfair advantage because of the way my mind works; I sometimes wish it wasn’t that way.