Prompt Critical Excursions in Autistics

In nuclear physics, a nuclear reaction is said to be “prompt critical” if the splitting of one atom causes the release of immediate neutrons that cause an additional atom to split. An excursion in a nuclear reactor or experiment occurs when the nuclear reaction rate exceeds the desired rate. Typically, this is a bad thing – Chernobyl, for instance, was a prompt critical excursion. Now, I’m not a nuclear scientist, and have only taken two freshman level physics courses (nuclear fission was not covered), so I’m probably using these terms wrong, so I beg forgiveness from any readers that actually understand nuclear fission!

Autistic people – and likely other people under extreme stress – are subject to a similar type of excursion. I’m not talking about a meltdown that is traumatic to the parent of an autistic, but something more innate and troubling to an autistic person – and something that can often be prevented.

I can explain it best with a story from my past. I’m mowing a lawn as a teenager to earn some money when I accidentally run over the hose. Now that’s not the end of the world, but it’s definitely not a desired outcome of lawn mowing! Maybe my attention was elsewhere, maybe I misjudged where the hose was, maybe I just didn’t realize it was there under the tall grass – but regardless I did something you most certainly don’t intend to do while mowing the lawn. But, I move the rest of the hose out of the way and keep going.

Of course the hose is still on my mind – how am I going to explain that I did that? What will happen when I tell the adult? How can I replace the hose? Suddenly, I realize that I’m plowing through the vegetable garden with the lawn mower, murdering scores of carrot plants. Shit! How could I be so distracted?

Now I have to explain how I ran over the hose and the vegetables! Nobody is going to believe that I ran over the carrots accidentally after I just ran over the hose! I should have been more careful, that’s what you’re supposed to do when you make a mistake. But I made things worse, as now the I have to explain the hose and the vegetables. And you can’t replace the carrots in the middle of the growing season – it’s not fixable. Fuck!

But while I’m thinking of this, I finally realize I’m hearing an awful sound from the mower! How long has it been doing that? I shut it off, hoping I didn’t destroy anything. The engine sure looks hot. I check the oil – only to find it doesn’t seem to have any. Shit! Now what? I go find the oil and add some to the mower, hoping that solves my problem – but I can’t even pull the cord now. Shit, the engine is seized! Fuck! I murdered a hose, carrots, and a lawn mower! Why didn’t I check the oil level?

Unfortunately it’s not my mower, carrots, or hose – I’m mowing my neighbor’s yard with her mower. So I walk up to her porch, so I can knock on the door and face what I have coming. As I ring the doorbell, I step to the side, to be clear of the door. What am I going to say? What are my parents going to say? As I do this, I feel something brush my leg, then, too late, I realize that I just knocked her garden gnome off the porch, five feet to its’ death. It’s smiling, decapitated head seems to be laughing at me. Nothing is going right – I even killed a garden gnome. I don’t know anyone who has killed a garden gnome. I don’t even know what the penalty for garden gnome murder is. Maybe I an claim gnomeslaughter, because I didn’t intend it. But of course the neighbor is going to think I wanted to destroy all her stuff. Shit!

This was a slightly modified story of real events – I did murder a mower, carrots, and hose, as well as a chunk of fence, but the mower was killed in a different way, and, thank God, there was no gnome on the step! But I imagine at this point, I was in tears, even as a late teen, and probably just couldn’t handle any of the world right then – everything I touched turned to shit.

I suspect most autistic people can relate to this – one thing goes wrong, and, like a prompt critical excursion, that causes the next thing to go wrong which causes the next thing to go wrong, until the cycle runs out of things to go wrong.

I will say one thing: The wrong thing to do in this circumstance, if you’re on the other side of the door while I’m standing on the porch, is to say, “Why weren’t you more careful after the first mistake!” The right thing to do is what you do to stop a nuclear reaction: you separate the atoms (or, in this case, the many possible things that could go wrong), preferably with something that absorbs the neutrons. Ideally, you recognize what happened as someone trying to do right, making an honest mistake (the innocent hose), and then that knowledge of a mistake screwing up the coordination and thinking ability of the person, so that, naturally, something else went wrong. Sure, someone else probably would have recovered enough after the hose, but not everyone reacts the same way to things.

I’ll guarantee the autistic is mortified, embarrassed, and very sorry. This wasn’t what they set out to do. And they know they fucked up without you scolding them. The self punishment is plenty to negatively reinforce.

But, to someone who hasn’t experienced this, it looks like someone throwing a tantrum, taking out aggression on everything nearby (or, in the case of a social criticality, everyone nearby). But this isn’t aggression, even when it triggers socially inappropriate responses to other people – its incredible stress as a world the person is trying to live in falls apart around them, with everything they try to do to respond (such as think of the script for telling someone they messed up, like a responsible person would) causes yet more problems.

So, if you see this, look at that first event – could it have been an accident? Was it perhaps not done intentionally? Could the following events possibly be explained by the stress on the autistic after doing the first one?

Even as an adult, I run into this cycle. When things go wrong, they really go wrong for me – and people just can’t understand that perhaps I wasn’t trying to be an asshole, but made an honest mistake that created more honest mistakes. Give me some space away from the problem, let me know you recognize that I’m having a bad day and didn’t mean for things to go to hell. Encourage me, but don’t pressure me to try again later (you don’t want more excursions!), showing confidence I can do it, giving me space and time to make sense of the world again. It’s not defiance, it’s an accident.

Learn Karate and Social Skills to Become Either a Victim or “Above The Game”

When I was a kid, I took martial arts lessons (not actually Karate, but something similar). I think my parents thought it was a good idea for two reasons – they wanted me to participate in something with other kids and they wanted me to learn to defend myself.

It didn’t work. Now, granted, I only did this for a year, so I suspect I lacked much insight or experience, and certainly learning from one instructor in one dojo doesn’t imply anything about any other instructor or dojo. But I do think I can talk a bit about why it didn’t work for me, at least with my limited experience.

First, the easy one: I didn’t bond with the other kids. Kids in the dojo, just as kids at the playground, recognized I was different. I didn’t fit. And I never would with them. Putting on a special outfit doesn’t change that. It ignored the problem by simply changing the setting – I don’t get along with kids in school, so maybe somewhere else I’ll get along with them. But it never addressed the root of the problem, just the setting where it occurred. But that’s not what I’m trying to write about today.

For the self-defense aspect, that didn’t work either. Sure, I learned a few blocks, kicks, and punches. I learned to stand one foot in front of the other. So I learned a bit of the basics. But even if I learned the advanced stances, blocks, kicks, and punches, and could perform them well, that wouldn’t have helped. I was missing something: the application. Memorizing muscle moves (even making them part of muscle memory) isn’t the same thing as being able to quickly analyze a situation and determine how to respond. I was smart enough to know that, even when being attacked by other kids physically, most of my moves would end up getting me beat to a pulp even quicker. Running was a better tactic – and I already knew that before class!

Now, I’m sure that plenty of people have used martial arts in self-defense, and that’s good. And maybe I should seek out a better instructor and dojo and learn now. So I realize the limitations of what I’m saying. But the key is that I wasn’t taught how to dynamically respond to a real-life situation, just how to statically respond to a scripted situation. There’s a huge difference between what the “attacker” might have done in the dojo and what he might have done behind the wall at school.

Did you see that? I told you the problem with social skills training, too – learning to respond to a scripted situation isn’t helpful.

Too much of today’s social skills is focused on the same stuff. Seriously. To be honest, I think the training methods may be why autistic guys too often think there is a magic set of steps to essentially get to have sex with a girl. They’ve spent too much time learning formulas, techniques, and scripts. We saw on Kickstarter this week when a “seduction guide” entitled Above the Game that sought funding. Among many problematic parts, the guide told the message that guys don’t have to listen to the girl, they can basically force themselves on her. Fortunately, Kickstart has since removed the guide and attempted to make amends. Kickstarter eventually recognized that the guide is standard “if you want sex, be an asshole” garbage.

The book is appealing to a certain subset of sex-craving men (now I’m not saying this group is generally autistic people or anything similar – although autistics, neurotypicals, and plenty of other groups all have these men in their midst). After all, it says that all the standard dating advice (you know, stuff like “don’t force her to engage in sexual contact without consent”) is wrong. That’s important – it’s appealing to a group of guys that haven’t had the success they want, and they may have even tried (or thought they tried) the “standard” formula. So this is a new-and-improved formula, one that “actually works” (Uh, until you do find a woman that can defend herself – you might end up rightfully having a coffee mug shatter against your own mug; But, sure, rape will get you sex if you’re able to overpower her).

The underlying premise of this seduction guide and all other seduction guides (besides for teaching people to be assholes) is promotion of the idea that there is a formula that you can follow to make – overpower if you will – people do what you want them to do. Give them the right input, you get the output you crave. Maybe it’s sex, maybe it’s something else.

That’s also the premise for much social skills work. You want someone to listen to your special interests? Pretend to be interested in them for a bit. Then you get what you want. Simple. You have control.

One fairly popular – but fairly ineffective – way to teach social skills is “social stories.” It’s ineffective for the same reason my Karate lessons were ineffective: a bunch of techniques or responses to scripted situations doesn’t teach the improvisation necessary in dynamic social situations (you know, like the…uh…”real world”). While it doesn’t have the formality of formal social stories, a variation on this is talking through a make-believe situation and doing role-playing to figure out how to respond. The problem is that this teaches someone a make-believe situation, not the real-life. In real-life, the other person (or group) is going to veer “off-course” pretty much immediately, leaving you lost if you’re expecting scripts to get you through things.

I’ve also seen this with AAC (augmentative and assistive communication). One of the first things people learn when they use (or see someone use AAC) is that it’s slow – painfully slow sometime. The obvious, but wrong, solution is to create a system that stores sentences or thoughts as a whole unit. There’s just one problem – it turns out that even things you think you say all day long are actually unique to the situation most of the time. Sure, sometimes some stored phrases in an electronic device have use, but if you expect more than 1% of your communication to be accomplished that way, you’ll be in for a big surprise when you try.

Karate, seduction guides, social stories, and stored-sentences all have this in common: they work great in a make-believe, scripted situation. And they’ll cause you pain and hurt if you don’t also know how to handle course changes and improvisation.

Another problem with Karate, seduction guides, social stories, and stored-sentences is that they may just plain be the wrong thing, even in a situation that is very similar to the scripted situation. For instance, an example PDF of social stories includes:

Stethoscope –
The doctor will listen to my chest with a stethoscope.
This helps him/her hear if I am breathing properly and my heart is working well.

The doctor will lift up my shirt, put the stethoscope against my chest and ask me to
breathe in and out.
The stethoscope will feel cold and may tickle but it will not hurt.
I can do this for the doctor and he/she can tell I am ok.
The doctor will be happy and mum will be happy.

Really? It won’t hurt? How does the writer of this story know? They might know it doesn’t hurt themself, but they have no idea about someone else, particularly if that someone else has sensory differences! Certainly it would be better to talk about how the stethoscope may be uncomfortable or cold, but won’t cause lasting hurt them even if it feels like it will. Maybe it’s better to explain “it will be over quickly.” I’m also not a fan of the outcome where the kid is okay – maybe he is, maybe he isn’t – maybe the doctor actually finds something going on. Maybe he/she can tell me if my heart and lungs sound ok. And, no, mom and Doctor better not be happy if he does find something, but they should be happy they found it and can provide medical help.

Is there value in the above? Certainly – you can explain what things someone might expect before a situation. But, once you start making assumptions about how they will experience sensations, or once you start (like most social stories) expecting things to follow a script, there are problems.

There’s tons of other criticisms from autistic adults on many social skills training programs – I won’t go into things like how they may be making an unreasonable demand on an autistic person (“don’t stim” or “look at the person talking” come to mind) that may be counter productive.

What’s a better approach? I’m not entirely sure. But I know we (autistic people) need accurate information. We need accurate information about how to appropriately satisfy our sex drives (hint: it’s not through raping women), deal with the doctor’s office, or defend ourselves from bullies. But, in addition to being accurate, the information needs to teach flexibility and thinking, not just a bunch of memorized sentences, techniques, or scripts. There’s no magic method here – it’s hard stuff for anyone to learn (and even harder to teach). People aren’t tools I use to get what I want. I treat them decent not only because that might help me get something I want, but, more importantly, because it’s simply the right thing to do.