Concerning the Processing of Emotions…

I haven’t written here in a long time, and it’s because I’ve been buried under a mountain of emotional pain. Recent events have allowed me to recover somewhat, but have also led me to believe that this is an important topic for me to discuss. I don’t really see a way to ease into this, so let’s all jump in the deep end together…

It takes me a long time to process emotions. I think the best description is that it is like handling an unstable explosive, such as pure nitroglycerin. Mishandling such a thing can make a big mess and cause great injury. It also goes more smoothly with help. I’d like to point out here something that needs to be very clear: I did not specify negative emotions. Handling positive emotions can be just as dangerous. That said, from this point forward, let’s assume I’m taking about negative emotions unless I specify positive, since there are some differences.

So how do we handle such a dangerous thing? Very carefully. Nitroglycerin tends to explode if you drop it, shake it, or bump it too hard. This means it needs to be moved around slowly. Cooling it tends to make it more stable, and thus easier to handle. We can apply the same concepts to emotional processing. Cooling improves stability, which can be accomplished by separating me from the emotional situation. I can generally do this myself. I’m a big guy, and few people would attempt to stop me from taking my leave. Kids like me, on the other hand, often don’t get this luxury, so keep this in mind. Also, even though I can do this myself, help is beneficial. Sitting with me quietly is very helpful. The biggest issue I have is that it seems people generally seem to want to move to a resolution quickly, which means I have to move the explosives around quickly and risk detonation in the form of a meltdown, or I have to deal with being left behind without any help. Either way, I end up with a new source of emotional pain to add to the original. The best help you can give me is to slooooooooooooow down and work at my pace, which actually ends up being a lot faster with the right help.

What does the process look like? Well, I need to start by defining the issue. This applies to both positive and negative emotions. I am very detail oriented, so I will want to talk about specific incidents and things related to those incidents. In the case of positive emotions, sharing in my joy and excitement over the situation is generally enough to file it away under “happy things” and move on. Positive experiences go bad when I share them and people respond negatively to my excitement. My dad used to always say he wasn’t interested and didn’t want to hear it. Boom! Happy things become sad things just like that. Telling me that I shouldn’t be so excited is equally damaging. From that point, positives are handled the same as negatives, so I’ll move on with negative emotions. As with positives, I will want to get into the details and define the problem. Acknowledging my frustration as understandable, given my perception, is what I’ll need to move forward. It’s really that easy. If you are just helping me process, that’s pretty much the end of it. We can hug or something after, but there you go.

What next? How do we move from acknowledgement to resolution? Notice I just said that I need acknowledgement that my frustration is understandable with a specific condition, which is that we are assuming my perception is complete. From here, I need one of two things. We need to either develop a solution to the problem that makes sense to me (this is very important) or we need to figure out where my perception was incomplete. An example of this might be something that was said that hurt my feelings. I know what was said, but perhaps not what was meant. If we work together until I understand what was meant, then we will have fixed my incomplete perception.

I think I’m going to stop at this point and see what discussion comes up. I’d like this to be a conversation so that we can achieve true understanding.

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Filed under About Asperger's Syndrome

Please help me! (a guest post from Kristen King)

“Please help me!” ….something my husband has asked for since he was a very young child and still pleads for, to this day, as an adult. There is a lot of communication and help for adolescents with Autism Spectrum disorders, but where is the help for those kids who grew up with no assistance, understanding or help at all?  Those kids that grew up with so much pain from lack of understanding, from being rejected all their life and from never quite understanding where they fit or why they even exist.  Where is the help and understanding for the spouses, the families that do their best to “help”.  My husband says that your family is the people that walk with you through the bad times..those that help us carry the cross we have been given to bear.  The bible tells us to “carry one another’s burdens” and yet, it seems even the church is lacking in helping these people. How many of us go through daily life with disregard for God’s mandate to love the least of God’s children, to laugh with those who laugh and mourn with those who mourn?  Where is the community, the family that joins together to truly help those in need?  I’ve come to understand that my husband doesn’t say anything unless he has something to say.  So, when he says he’s in pain and needs help, he’s held it in for as long as he can and we are in desperation mode.  I feel so helpless, so very inadequate and alone at times.  But, the truth is, I have never felt so alone, so worthless that I wanted to end it all, as he has.

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The right question…

A week ago, my wife and I were the guest speakers in a counseling class. The topic was the impact of disabilities on the family, but when the students learned that I also have Asperger’s syndrome , they decided they would rather talk about that. It was a great discussion and the students asked very good questions, but then one student asked the question that has stuck in my mind all week: “How can we, not as counselors, but as friends, best reach out to those with Asperger’s syndrome?” I think this question is worthy of a book, which I may attempt to write. Until then, I’d like to share my thoughts from this week.

Hans Asperger wrote:

These children often show a surprising sensitivity to the personality of the teacher. However difficult they are, even under optimal conditions, they can be guided and taught, but only by those who give them understanding and genuine affection, people who show kindness towards them and yes, humour. The teacher’s underlying emotional attitude influences, involuntarily and unconsciously, the mood and behaviour of the child.

I believe this applies to any relationship. Certainly, a friendship requires some learning as we get to know our friend, and I think we are all far more likely to be interested in getting to know someone who shows us understanding and genuine affection, especially if we can laugh with him or her as well.

If you would be a friend to someone who struggles socially, whether you know they have Asperger’s syndrome or not, you have to be willing to show understanding. Especially when I am stressed or uncomfortable, my body language and facial expressions may seem to convey messages that aren’t necessarily accurate. I’ve had several friends say to me that they feel I look angry or like I just want to be left alone. Many of my high school classmates have recently told me that I always seemed like I wanted to be left alone. (Perhaps it was because high school was terrifying to me.) Try asking me if I’d like some company, even if I don’t look very open to it. I’m often unaware of the signals I give off, and I can tell you that I will usually be delighted to meet a new friend. Give me room to be a little different as we get to know each other. I can assure you that I will be whether you let me or not, and I’ll be much more comfortable if you are ok with it. I think you will find that I’m often willing to laugh at my weirdness if I know you love me no matter what.

Speaking of love (and I’m talking about the kind of love shared between friends), my wife often likes to say that I need people to “love out loud.” By this, she means that I need my friends to demonstrate affection in ways that I can “hear” and understand. Different people like to be loved in different ways, and people with Aspergers syndrome are as unique as all others. One thing that we do have in common, though, is that we have difficulty understanding the non-verbal signals that other people use when they interact with each other. I’m not able to see that you love (or like) me by the way you look at me. Especially early in the relationship, I need you to be a bit more verbal. At first, you might tell me that you’d like to get to know me or that you’d like to be my friend. My closest friends often tell me that they love me and show it in other ways as well. In short, try to express clearly in words where the relationship stands. In some cases, that may be as simple as addressing me as “my friend,” or perhaps some funny nickname you and I come up with.

Stephen Bauer wrote, “The common belief that [persons] with pervasive developmental disorders are humorless is frequently mistaken.” My wife and closest friends can assure you that this is very true. Yesterday, I nearly made a good friend spray her drink through her nose and I even got some giggles out of her son. Most humor relies on a shared context in order to be funny. Non-verbal signals often communicate that context. Consider, for example, how you might tell that someone is being sarcastic. I often miss those signals, but that doesn’t prevent me from enjoying humor. It just often takes a different form from what you are used to. I’ve noticed that my humor often gets a delayed reaction because it takes a moment for people to get it. Keep an open mind and let’s learn to laugh together.

My psychologist told me that Asperger’s syndrome leads to social dysfunction, which leads to social anxiety, which leads to depression, which leads to further social dysfunction. By giving me understanding and affection, and in sharing humor with me, my friends have helped me slow down, then stop, and then reverse this vicious cycle. Succeeding socially leads to confidence, which leads to further successes. I won’t say that I no longer struggle, but I’ve come a long way from the deep depression I’ve struggled with. You could make a huge difference in someone’s life. Even better, you could make a friend for life. I love my friends dearly, and I thank each of them for taking the time to ask the right question.

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Filed under About Asperger's Syndrome, Autism, Empathy, Encouragement, Relationships, Social Interaction

Concerning direct and indirect communication…

When I explain to others the communication difficulties I have because of Asperger’s syndrome, it seems people understand fairly quickly that I might have difficulty with irony, sarcasm, or other forms of humor that rely on context or body language. It’s not uncommon for me to just say to a friend, “I don’t get it,” and for my friend to explain what was said. Such misunderstandings are rarely an issue unless someone is actually making fun of me, but they are related to a much bigger issue – indirect communication.

Direct communication is communication in which the meaning is contained primarily in the words. As a parent, you might say to your child, “Tom, please stop hitting your sister.” This is very direct, as the entire meaning is contained in the words. On the other hand, indirect communication relies on mutual understanding of the context. In the above example, the parent might say, “We don’t do that.” The child then has to figure out whom is being addressed, who “we” are, and what “that” is. The process of analyzing this is probably second-nature for NTs (neurotypicals or non-autistics), but it is much the same as sarcasm to me and sorting it out can often take me quite a while.

For me, this problem is compounded by a few factors. In general, indirect communication is viewed as more formal, and its use is often expected between strangers or in more formal relationships. In such cases, when it becomes apparent to the other person that I’m struggling with the communication (either because I have told them or I just look confused), such people often repeat themselves more slowly or more loudly. The conversation usually declines from there and I leave it feeling confused and stupid, even when I ask direct questions or express a need for direct communication.

I think this explains why I communicate well with people after they get to know me, because the relationship is less formal and direct communication is more acceptable. I just wish I could find a way to help those that don’t know me so well understand that I need communication to be more direct. I’m open to ideas…

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Filed under About Asperger's Syndrome, Communication, Relationships, Social Interaction

I just wanna go home…

Some time ago, a young friend of mine wrote an article for a Florida newspaper. She wrote about a grocery shopping trip with her brother. At one point, he started screaming, which drew stares from all in the immediate vicinity. She had been in the same situation many times before and didn’t feel like explaining it all again, so she simply pointed to the button he wears that says he has autism.

Families have to eat. That’s just a fact of life. My friend will continue shopping for groceries. Sometimes, her brother will be with her, and this will happen again. All too often, though, families with children who have hidden disabilities won’t go to church because they experience the same thing there. It’s stressful, parents worry that others view them as bad parents, and they feel that no one likes their children. They already experience the stress of the grocery store and other things they have to do. They don’t want to add another stressful activity if they don’t have to. I know many families in this situation. I’ve also been THAT kid, and even as an adult, I’ve had many of my fellow Christians tell me how different I am.

I recently listened to my favorite song ever for probably the millionth time (I’ve listened to it 14 times today alone), and a part of the song really touched me in a way that it hadn’t before. I’d like to ask a favor of my Christian friends. I’d like you to read these words, and the next time you see me or someone else being a little different, try to imagine that person saying this to you…

I hope you stare just long enough to see
The heart that’s beating here inside of me
Beyond all of the things you may think you know
I’m just a kid trying to make it home, that’s it
No more, no less

– “No More, No Less” by MercyMe

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“I’m not trying to hide anything. I wear it on my sleeve.”

Those words are from one of my favorite songs, “No More, No Less” by MercyMe. These words are true of me in more than one sense. Two years ago, I decided to get a tattoo on my left arm as a way of mourning the loss of its use…

"But he said to me, 'My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.' Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me." - 2 Corinthians 12:9

The cruciform sword serves to remind me of Christ’s death on the cross for me and that God’s word is “sharper than any two-edged sword” (Hebrews 4:12).  The reference to 2 Corinthians 12:9 reminds me that  God’s grace is all I need and that His strength shows through my weaknesses.

Today, I got a new tattoo, but this one is a way of celebrating the progress I’ve made and the changes in my life over the last few years…

"Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ." - Galatians 6:2

I’d like to thank my friend Mike Munster for his most excellent artwork.

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Filed under Autism, Disability

Concerning disabilities and being human…

In this post, I’d like to examine some of the things people say about disabilities and the attitudes behind them. I may ramble a bit, so bear with me…

In my previous post, one of the things I wrote is that I need my friends to believe me when I say I can’t do something. That seems to bother some people. They view such statements as defeatist. I’m not afraid of challenges. My left arm is paralyzed. Sure, I can ride a motorcycle, but if you tell me to clap my hands, I’m going to have to say “I can’t.” I’m not a defeatist; I’m a realist. Please understand that an ability in one area does not imply a lack of impairment in another.

Upon learning that my arm is paralyzed, people often say something like, “I don’t see a disability; I see a person,” or “You seem quite normal to me.” I understand that this is usually in an effort to be polite, but I argue that not seeing the disability means not seeing the whole person. Experience shapes us; we change as we adapt. My disability affects my life experiences, so it has had a significant role in forming the person I have become. Another thing to consider is that these statements rely on the assumption that disability makes one less. This is called “ableism.”

The Oxford English Dictionary defines “ableism” as “Discrimination in favour of able-bodied people; prejudice against or disregard of the needs of disabled people.” Fiona Campbell provides a more academic definition: “A network of beliefs, processes and practices that produces a particular kind of self and body (the corporeal standard) that is projected as the perfect, species-typical, and therefore essential and fully human. Disability is then cast as a diminished state of being human.”

A supervisor once said to me, “Disabled people don’t ride motorcycles.” He was well aware of my disability. He continued on to make his point, which was that, since I don’t “act disabled,” I can’t ask for the accommodation I was asking him for. This stems from the same kind of thinking as the more polite comments I mentioned earlier. In essence, he was saying that disabled people look and act differently from “normal” people, and because I look and act in ways that fit his standard of “normal,” I can’t be disabled. It seems pretty silly when I put it that way, doesn’t it?

I am fully human AND I have a disability. Let’s start with that…

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Filed under Disability, Discrimination, Work