Some Insights from Autcom

I won’t write about all of the insights at Autcom that impacted me, but I will say that one part in particular Melanie Yergeau‘s presentation was creepy. Don’t misunderstand – Melanie gave a great presentation that was really insightful and interesting. She illustrated one of her points about how some uninformed outsiders “hack” autism by playing this video:

Of course any video that starts, “Autism Speaks wanted people to experience how this must truly feel for parents…”  Of course I could comment on the choice of an Asian child that looks unhappy as the example of autism by a group of almost-exclusively white upper middle class people viewing it – there are definite shades of racism and cultural bias. But even ignoring that, again, our parents are what is important. And apparently the problem isn’t that the girl seems unhappy, it’s that she doesn’t make eye contact. To make the parent feel good.

I didn’t actually think anything could lower my opinion of Autism Speaks as an organization. That was insight one: they are capable of new (to me) and surprising things.

You can look forward to me someday creating an autism simulation using a creepy white kid to stare you down no matter how you try to move out his creepy gaze.

Another insight was more personal, from Suzanne Oliver’s presentation. She’s a music therapist in the US who talked about the importance of rhythm in creating, stopping, or transitioning movement – and how some rhythms could enable an autistic person to move easier, while other rhythms might serve to trap a person in a sort of loop, and yet others might make it hard to move. She presented some research, which I wasn’t able to evaluate, so I’m not going to speak about the scientific basis of her theories – as I really don’t know one way or another about them.

What I will speak about is my personal experience, as an adult with autism. During her presentation, it “clicked” why I use my tablet-based AAC device so much less than my older keyboard-based devices. Certainly, being able to type at 100 WPM or faster makes me prefer keyboards, but there is more to that, and I think it’s applicable to other autistic people too. I set my tablet to provide a short vibration when I tap a key, but not to provide auditory feedback which I believed would disturb other people (probably true).

However, after listening to Suzanne’s presentation, I had an “Ah Ha!” moment. I learned to type on a real IBM keyboard – the kind you could hear three classrooms down the hall when the strong, real, “click” was heard.  Like this video:

This was when keyboards were keyboards.

I’ve never been able to type as fast on newer keyboards, but I never really thought much about why. But I think I know – for whatever reason, the clicks provide that feedback to get the next button pressed.

Sure enough, I tried it at Autcom – I turned on key clicks on my tablet, and sure enough I found not only could I type easier, but I could also think of my next word and thought easier. I could communicate better.

Is it placebo effect? Maybe. Is it something where the keypress rhythm is stimulating my mind in a better way? Maybe. I don’t know. All I know is that I was able to say what I was thinking again, using typing, in a way that I can’t as easily with speech. And I thought I had lost that when I converted to a tablet device. That’s pretty exciting. Being able to say what you think again is exciting! And I think Suzanne is onto something real.

It was also great to see some of my online Facebook friends and people whose writings I really admire.

So, overall it was a good time. Sure, there were moments that weren’t so good, but I won’t get into those right now. Right now, I’ll focus on how to build my creepy staring child simulator and how I might be able to actually use AAC again!

Mugged by Sound – from NPR

A Facebook friend shared an NPR story (and the video I’m commenting on) about a fictional autistic boy dealing with the noise of his city.

I’ve linked the video here as well:

I’m sure there are a lot of autistic people who can’t relate to that video, but I definitely can relate to some of it.  That said, I do think my own audio processing difficulties are a but nuanced and that an overly simplified view of this can confuse people who expect it to be a simple matter of noise.

It’s not about noise, or volume.  It’s about energy levels.  It’s about what I’m doing at the time.  It’s about whether or not there is “information content” in the noise.  It’s about whether or not I’ve had a break or have a sanctuary from the noise.

I don’t mind noise.  I do some noisy things, like riding a motorcycle.  I don’t mind power tools or a load air conditioner – at least most of the time.  But I do need a place that is safe to retreat to, which means less noise.  Even routine noises – like those depicted in the video – can drain people (and, from research and observations of others, I don’t think autistic people are unique here, even if the magnitude of our drain is different).  I can deal with noisy crowds in cities or airports with earplugs – that extends my energy significantly.

I can also deal with short-duration noises.  Someone running water for 20 seconds is fine.  Someone running water for 10 minutes can, if I’m not ready for it, or if I’m trying to do anything (such as read, watch TV, etc), is overwhelming.  The same with noises like that of a spool scraping against a bowl – a few scrapes are no big deal.  But if there is 10 minutes of scraping and I’m crawling up walls.

Layers of noise are a problem, particularly when there is information content in the layers.  By “information content,” I mean that there is some sort of meaning – it’s not just noise.  Music and talking have information content.  The sound of traffic generally doesn’t.  So, a restaurant with loud music and tons of people talking to each other is horrible.  But another restaurant with the sound of loud traffic – even if it’s the same volume – is not.  There’s something about the information trying to grab my attention, so when there is multiple sources of information – even sources I’m not particularly interested in, my attention is yanked every which way which is simply exhausting.

I need breaks occasionally.  When I’m listening to, for instance, a lecture, I can handle this if there’s some back-and-forth, some delay, something to give pause between points.  I probably am very similar to someone with ADD in this regard – short, clear points are fine, but a long complicated point without a map can be a problem.  A large part of this is my very poor working memory – I simply can’t hold much in that working memory  so hearing 200 details together to synthesize the whole in a lecture isn’t nearly as effective for me as hearing about the whole first, then hearing each of the 200 details individually.  You want me to do well in your lecture class?  Give me an outline before the lecture!  I suspect that’s one reason I don’t have the ability to keep up with social dynamics in groups – it’s all about the details and you’re left to your own to somehow juggle thousands of individual details to synthesize a whole.

Certain sounds when I make them are fine, but not when others make them.  When I make them, I can stop anytime.  I’m not trapped by the sound.  I can escape.  But that same sound made by someone else, doing nothing differently than I did, can be extremely overloading.  The keys are duration of the sound, my energy level, what I’m doing at the time, other sounds simultaneously occurring, and my ability to escape the situation.  Volume level has relatively little to do with it, although certainly the louder the sounds are, the worse this is.

Some examples – I already mentioned motorcycle riding.  Hearing the wind noise at 80 MPH is no big deal, even combined with traffic and maybe some music.  I encounter few things in life that are this loud.  But I can handle it fine, even enjoy it.  The only information content is the music (note I’m not saying the traffic noise doesn’t cue me into what is going on around me, but it doesn’t have the same type of information content).

I can operate power tools all day, even loud ones.  That doesn’t bother me in the least.

Every year at Autreat – an environment where people have a greater understanding of sensory issues, however, I face challenges.  This proves the point that one autistic’s differences don’t necessarily match those of another autistic.  Inevitably, there’s a crowd gathered near the sign-in table.  Typically there are several groups of people, all very (understandably) excited to see each other, so there’s typically a lot of volume in the side-conversations – sometimes even nearly (or actually!) screaming.  It takes every bit of my strength and self-control to walk through the room to the table, say my name, and get my registration items.  The reason is that there is information content in those conversations.  Even though I very likely can’t hear the conversations well enough to understand the words, my mind tries – whether I want it to or not.  This is pretty much the sound that is the absolute worst for me, and every year I experience at Autreat one of the worst assaults on my senses!  Of course there are other things going on too – typically there’s a bit of chaos rather than order (the registration might be late, or something may be missing, or someone at the table might not know how to do something).  I might also want to say hi to people and greet them, so I’m trying to do something different than what I’d normally do in such a situation, and I stick around.  And, importantly, I’m typically rather worn out after traveling, so I’m “out of spoons”.  Together, this makes it a huge, overloading, draining, exhausting, and painful time (I would definitely prefer a root canal as far as pain level!).  But clearly not every autistic feels that way, since typically it’s other autistics making the noise!  We are all different, after all!

In the Autreat case, another factor is not being able to escape.  There are two parts to this – firstly, I can’t escape because I need to register to attend Autreat, something I very much want to do.  So I want to get it over with – it’s not going to be easier in an hour, so I want to get through the stress as soon as possible.  Second, escape isn’t just hindered by external requirements or environment.  It’s also hindered by internal desires and feelings.  In some situations, escape may draw unwanted attention to me – probably not at Autreat though.  At Autreat, the motivation is still internal: I want to interact with people, I want to see people, I want to meet people.  And if I escape to my room, that’s impossible.  Sometimes I get lucky and someone there who knows me already recognizes what is going on, and we leave the room together somewhere at their suggestion – then I get the human contact I’m seeking and get to escape!  But of course asking for this is something that also hits internal barriers, which is why it needs to be at the other person’s suggestion – simply asking “can we go talk somewhere quietly” is expressing the very thing that makes me vulnerable.  When you grow up abused, you learn not to speak your vulnerabilities.

So it’s not about Autreat being a horrible environment or anything like that.  It’s about the complex interaction between the environment at Autreat and my characteristics, some of which are autistic, some of which are part of being an abuse survivor  some of which are energy and ability level at the time, some of which are internal motivations, some of which are just plain the way I am.

That’s part of what makes this hard for people to understand.  It’s not as simple as “Joel is autistic and dislikes noise.”  It’s “Joel has sound sensitivities which are subtle and unique, and not just like that autistic boy in your kid’s school.”  Because it’s unique, and because it’s seemingly contradictory and manipulative.  For instance, if someone is talking during a church sermon, it can be very overloading, even if they are very quiet.  But the reaction I get, even if it’s not spoken so plainly, if I express this is, “You don’t mind hearing that power tool, but a little bit of whispered conversation in church causes you to go into overload?  You just want to control the situation!”  Yes, control is part of it – control makes things easier to handle, for sure.  Because with control, there’s the removal of the stress of not knowing how to escape.  But this gets mistaken for manipulation:

This gives us one of Joel’s Laws:

 Any difficulty someone has that is not immediately understandable by another person is called “manipulation.”

Sure, autistic people can be manipulative.  Of course!  But just because someone wants something changed doesn’t mean they have a sinister motive.  They really might be suffering in a way that you don’t understand.

Volume vs. Pitch – A Test

I’ve seen a lot written about sensory issues.  I wrote about the difficulty I have with pitch differentiation when combined with volume changes.  This is something I wrote about years ago, and I’m reproducing again, since I still haven’t seen much written about this type of sensory interaction.  It’s not pitch or volume I have trouble with.  It’s the combination of pitch and volume.  I suspect this is a pretty significant issue (not necessarily pitch and volume, but the idea of combinations of sensory stimuli that are difficult for autistic people, compared to neurotypicals, to process) but one without much research behind it.

Volume and Pitch Difficulty Test

I have trouble determining if a given note is higher or lower in pitch then another if the volume is also different. To me, pitch and volume are seen as the same thing to my conscious mind, although I can  appreciate music and tell when something is wrong with a musical piece. To explain this to my musical friends, I put together some sounds that describe what can’t hear consciously. If you want to test yourself, follow along with my directions, below.

All tones that I link to are in MP3 format. Your computer will need to be set up to play MP3 files for this to work. Unfortunately, I won’t be able to provide support on how to get MP3 files to play properly, although most computer people should be able to help.

Also note that I suspect most autistics hear these tones fine. In fact, some autistics excellent musical abilities. However, I know I don’t hear these tones the same way neurotypicals do.  (Update: informally, most of the autistics I’ve talked to have no problem with these tones)

Calibration Tones

Click to Listen – Calibration Tones

I hear these tones in the same way I suspect an NT does. This file (you can play it by clicking on the above link) consist of six  different tones. The tones are the low volume versions of the low, medium, and high pitch tones that I use, followed by the high volume
versions of the same tones. If you can’t comfortably hear all six  tones, the below links won’t work. I can easily tell, within the first three tones and the second three tones, which one is the highest and lowest pitch – if I was what is usually considered “tone deaf”, I wouldn’t be able to do this.

Test Tones

These are the test tones. Click each one ONCE and try to guess which tone has the highest pitch (the first, second, or third tone). None of my neurotypical friends have any difficulty telling the highest pitch, although I find it very difficult. The first and fourth sets of tones are the most difficult for me – the first time I heard either set, I couldn’t tell which notes were highest in pitch – they all sounded like the same pitch to me, although the other two didn’t have a high degree of certainty for me.

There are two links in each bullet below – first, the “Test Tones” link is the tones themselves.  The “Answer” link will pop up a new window with information about which tone had the highest pitch.  Remember, you’re listening for pitch, not volume.  So, it might be the quietest, the loudest, or the tone that has a volume in between the quietest and loudest that is the highest pitch.

Can you do it?  Does anyone else have similar auditory issues to me?

Peace…it’s not a bad thing

Okay, not about autism today either.  But I wanted to write something after watching the news from Libya and watching reactions from politicians and religious figures.

I have deep Christian beliefs.  That’s one of the reasons I’m so sad when I see the perversion of my religion made into a hateful, judgmental, legalistic thing.  My religion is living to me, not a bunch of rules.

Yet too many Christians want to condemn all Muslims for the attack against the American embassy in Libya.  Which is exactly the same thing that the extremists did in Libya when they lumped all Americans into one category.  We can argue about the right to offend people versus the right to not be offended, but at the end of the day I can’t believe that we’ve got a future as a species if we’re going to go around trying to piss each other off and show how right we are -or- if we are going to murder people of the “wrong” nationality in retribution for offense (note that I’m not saying offending someone is morally equivalent to murder, as clearly it isn’t, at least to me).

But some can’t seem to handle people not believing the same things they believe.  From my standpoint, It’s almost as if people want war.  In the name of their God.  Yuck.

My hope is that some of us don’t, and eventually we’ll find better ways of disagreeing with one another.