All in a Sub Day’s Work

I have the pleasure of being a substitute teacher’s aide in the school district where I was taught to read, write, add, subtract, and other such things.  I was writing this at the end of another school year.  It was hard to tell just who was more ready for the bell to ring for the last time of the school year – the grown-ups or the pint-sized ones.
Play Day is held by the schools around Memorial Day holiday.  It is usually an all-day event unless there’s interference such as rainfall or three-digit temperatures.
Several schools had their Play Day on the Friday after Memorial Day.  One of the schools did not have their best Play Day compared to years past.  The bounce houses were a no-show.  That’s like all the roller coasters at a park like Six Flags or Disney being out of order.  The company couldn’t deliver them on time since they overbooked and didn’t have enough workers to carry out all their obligations that day.  Just an example of the supply not equaling the demand.
I was at another Play Day that Friday.  I was subbing in a special ed class for a teacher who I consider one of my dearest friends.  She had a story to tell on one of her students who has a “stubborn streak”.  You won’t find this term in a medical dictionary, but I’ve heard teachers use that term.  Now stubbornness is a trait that anyone on the planet can have.  It’s just this youngster has maximum strength stubbornness.  Maybe it is worse of late because he’s approaching the pre-teen age.
The teacher escorted her student to the water slide.  He made it to the top and what did he do?  He just sat at the top and wouldn’t budge so much as an inch!  His teacher shouted and pleaded for him to slide down.  NOPE!  She told the other kids to go around him and slide down.  Before she lost her voice, she told the high school boys who were helping out to grab his legs and pull him down.  This took more than one boy since the student is a growing boy big-sized for his age.
Image result for school water slides
In the back of her mind, she was hoping there wasn’t a parent videotaping this on their cellphone commanding teenagers to pull a kid down by his legs.  Finally, he came sliding face down all the way.  He looks up with a smile on his face, spitting water right in his teacher’s face.
I did not witness this myself.  The teacher told me and one of her two aides about it later.  She was laughing as she told it.  I doubt it was funny at the time it happened though, especially the spit part.
The following week, the last week of school for me, I was subbing for a P.E. aide.  When one of the older classes was lined up to leave the gym and head back to their classroom, a boy raised his hand and I went over to see what in tarnation he wanted.  I had him repeat it four times since I couldn’t understand what in tarnation he was asking me.  (One of my autism traits is verbal communication.  It isn’t so much hearing that I ask someone to repeat something, but more about giving me time to process what I am hearing).  He finally spelled the word “r-i-g-h-t” before I realized he was asking me, “You are a girl, RIGHT?”  I found out he and a female classmate had been debating about whether I was a boy or girl.  I told the girl, making direct eye contact which I don’t often do, that she guessed wrong.
I have been asked this before and it won’t be the last time.  I assume my short haircut is responsible for this question.  I like my hair short so I can spend less time with the hairbrush that I am sensitive to.  This does make me wonder what else the students say about me in their chit-chats.  Some things I am better off being in the dark about and this is definitely one of them.
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Dyspraxia and Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD)

According to the United Kingdom’s Dyspraxia Foundation:

Although Dyspraxia may occur in isolation, it frequently coexists with other conditions such as Aspergers Syndrome, Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder (ADHD), Dyslexia, language disorders and social, emotional and behavioural impairments.

Those of us who have an Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) have a marked difficulty with social relationships, social communication/language skills and imagination. These difficulties are often accompanied by repetitive patterns of behaviour and interests. We who have Asperger’s Syndrome (AS), a subtype of Autism, are at the higher end of the autism spectrum and have difficulty with the non-verbal aspects of social communication such as gesture and facial expression. We also have difficulty adjusting our language and behavior to different social situations.

Some of us struggle with motor skills.  In theory a formal diagnosis of dyspraxia should not be made if a child has a “pervasive developmental disorder” (including autism). However in reality children are sometimes given both diagnoses, especially if their motor coordination is significantly affected. Where the autism is severe this should be given as the main diagnosis.

Most with AS and High-Functioning Autism (HFA) have a history of delayed acquisition of motor skills (e.g., hand writing, pedaling a bike, tying shoe laces, catching a ball, opening jars, climbing monkey-bars, etc.), which is called “motor clumsiness.” This statement brings back many a childhood memory of learning later than my peers of how to tie my shoes. When I finally did, it was a crowning achievement and goodbye to just wearing shoes with no ties.  As for monkey bars, I was never caught near them.  Now that I am approaching the age of 60, I wouldn’t enter a contest of being the quickest in “opening jars” since my odds of winning would be slim and embarrassment high!

Dyspraxia is a disorder that affects motor skill development. AS and HFA children with Dyspraxia have trouble planning and completing fine motor tasks. This can vary from simple motor tasks (e.g., waving goodbye) to more complex tasks (e.g., brushing teeth). Dyspraxia is a lifelong disorder, and its severity and symptoms can vary from child to child. Also, it can affect individuals differently at different stages of life. Dyspraxia can affect many basic functions required for daily living, and is often broken down into the following categories:

  • Constructional Dyspraxia (i.e., establishing spatial relationships, being able to accurately position or move objects from one place to another)
  • Ideational Dyspraxia (i.e., multi-step tasks such as brushing teeth, making a bed, putting clothes on in order, buttoning and buckling)
  • Ideomotor Dyspraxia (i.e., completing single-step motor tasks like combing hair and waving goodbye)
  • Oromotor Dyspraxia (i.e., coordinating the muscle movements needed to pronounce words)

Dyspraxia often exists along with learning disabilities (e.g., dyslexia, dyscalculia, ADHD, and other conditions that impact learning). Weaknesses in comprehension, information processing and listening can contribute to the difficulties experienced by children with Dyspraxia. These young people may also have low self-esteem, depression and other emotional and behavioral issues.

AS and HFA kids with Dyspraxia may experience several difficulties.

Younger kids have problems with:

  • Being sensitive to touch (e.g., being irritated by clothing on skin, hair brushing, nail-cutting, or teeth-brushing)
  • Bumping into things
  • Establishing left- or right- handedness
  • Learning to walk, jump, hop, skip and throw or catch a ball
  • Moving the eyes—instead, moving the whole head
  • Pronouncing words and being understood

School-aged kids have problems with:

  • Doing activities that require fine motor skills (e.g., holding a pencil, buttoning, cutting with scissors)
  • Phobias and obsessive behavior
  • Playing sports, riding a bike and other activities requiring coordination
  • Poor pencil grip and letter formation and slow handwriting
  • Sensing direction
  • Speaking at a normal rate or in way that can be easily understood

Teens have problems with:

  • Clumsiness
  • Cooking or other household chores
  • Driving
  • Over- or under- sensitivity to light, touch, space, taste, or smells
  • Personal grooming and other self-help activities
  • Speech control (i.e., volume, pitch, articulation)
  • Writing and typing

Early identification and intervention can greatly help an AS or HFA child with Dyspraxia. Depending on the severity of the disorder, therapy from occupational, speech and physical therapists can improve the child’s ability to function and succeed independently.

Autism and Gender

It has been my experience since subbing as a teacher’s aide in autism classrooms that the number of boys to that of girls is lopsided. It’s not unusual to walk into such a classroom where there is one girl, if any, with a half a dozen or so male classmates. That’s the typical gender setup. I can’t recall being in an autism unit where the girls outnumbered the boy and certainly not an all-girl class.

In addition to the unequal number, there are differences in behavior. In the case of the class of one girl, the teacher, the other aide, and myself spent far more time keeping an eye on each of the five boys than the one girl who was on good behavior. Unlike the boys, she worked well on her own with little instruction or reminders. I could easily see her moving into the general ed population but the boys? Hopefully, they will, but they have more hurdles to conquer and I pray they will.

I suspect as many others do that girls are harder to diagnose because they seem to behave in ways that are considered acceptable as opposed to boys. For example, girls appear to be passive, withdrawn, uninvolved, or even depressed. They may become passionately and even obsessively interested in a specific area just as the boys, but generally speaking, fewer girls have a passion for technology or math.

Girls with autism are less likely to behave aggressively than boys. I can certainly attest to that on my job. I’ve witnessed girls having meltdowns, but few and far between as compared to boys. I look back at my own childhood and I wasn’t aggressive in the school classroom, but I definitely had bouts of aggression at home. I usually took it out on my poor siblings or items I could toss like my beaten pillow. I will steer away from confrontation like a deer would with a hunter in its territory. In other words, it takes a lot before I’m backed into a corner and my aggressiveness comes out.

Girls are more likely to choose interests (such as TV stars or music) that appear more typical than, for example, many boys’ perseverative interests in schedules, statistics, or transportation. Again, I know that all too well. I was obsessed back in the day with teen music stars.

While boys’ social communication issues become challenging very early in their lives, girls may be able to manage the social demands of early childhood but run into difficulties as they enter early adolescence. This was the way it was with me. I recall being sociable in 1st grade but by middle school, I was more or less socially disabled.

Research suggests that autism may look quite different in girls—so different, in fact, that it can be difficult to diagnose. I was in the dark about my having autism until the age of 58.  My story is a similar one to that of many women, men as well, who found out well beyond childhood of their autism companion for life.

How Does One Know They Are Having an Autism Meltdown?

Of all the symptoms I deal with living on the Spectrum, the meltdowns are the toughest. They are the volcanoes. Sometimes they just produce a rumble; but oh, my goodness, there are those that spew out lava (aka tears).

I don’t always know what the trigger is. Before I learned I was on the Spectrum, I used to have peculiar and frightening meltdowns at night. This went on for many years and I didn’t know what was behind them. They would come on me suddenly and overwhelm me.  I know this sounds strange but it felt as if the bed pillows and sheets were conspiring against me. I would get up out of frustration and throw the pillow down as if it was my attacker.  I’d throw the sheet/bed cover on the floor as if it was my worst enemy. The picture that came to mind was behaving like a cat with its tail caught underneath a rocking chair.

After this happened enough times, I knew it was something I had no control over and I just had to “rock” my way through it. The rocking was “stimming” but I didn’t know what stimming was at the time. As surely as it came over me, it left me after minutes passed. The minutes, however, seemed much longer than that. Fortunately, I haven’t had one of those in a couple of years.  The last one was before I started taking my antidepressant medication which has tremendously helped me to the point that I don’t dread nighttime like I used to.

However, I do still have “daytime” meltdowns. Those haven’t stopped paying me visits. Sometimes they come upon me without any obvious trigger, but most of the time there is one. It can be a sound or smell that rises the tension in my body. It may be a pet peeve and my reaction is way out of bounds with it. If I can walk away from the annoyance, the odds improve of a lighter meltdown or not having one. If I can’t, it’ll be Mount St. Helens all over again.

No High IQ Here

I often see the question on a question/answer website:

Are people with Aspergers always higher intelligence? Can they be average too?

Those with Asperger’s Syndrome (AS) must by definition have suffered no cognitive delay during their first 3 years of life.  This means they will usually have at least a “normal” IQ. In some cases, their IQ may be very high, even in the genius range. There are, however, different kinds of smarts.

Dr. Barbara Lavi, a clinical psychologist from University of Massachusetts, states that the IQ of people with AS is by definition at least average (90-109). It may be even higher. There is a lot of variation between various subsections of IQ test. So in some areas those with AS may be above average while on others below average IQ.

I have Asperger’s Syndrome (AS) but I don’t have a high IQ to match.  I made good grades in school and often made it on the honor roll. But if I had been graded on my social skills, I would have flunked. One’s IQ can go through the roof but one can still have an impaired ability to read the social world, so much so that one struggles to navigate the social mine fields in school, workplace, or community.

Now I am thankful to have a normal IQ. It is a gift, permitting me to learn and pursue the upmost of my intellectual ability, to rejoice in the pursuit of some realm of knowledge. I have enjoyed achievement in both school and my career.  I am also thankful to be currently working in my hometown school district where I often assist students who have similar challenges as I have. My areas of strength have helped me to cope with AS by giving me ways to compensate for my areas of weakness.  For instance, I was miserable at answering phones or working with the public, but I delighted in the task of working with metadata.

Having an average or high IQ can be a double-edged sword for us with AS. It is both a gift and a curse. Even with my being popular with my school teacher’s, I was not with my peers. I had and still do have a difficult time making friends. My 20’s was a turbulent decade of moving from one job to another until I finally landed a job that matched my skills. We tend to be more prone to depression and despair than a less aware person with a lower IQ. It has indeed been found that children with both high-functioning autism and Asperger’s suffer from depression and anxiety more than their typical peers.

One of the biggest challenges for me and others with Asperger’s is to convey the true extent of our challenges to others, to counter the instant assumption that “high IQ” equates with no syndrome. Many of those with AS are socially-emotionally far behind their chronological age, and may seem, despite intellectual achievements, very young, naïve, and unaware of the complexities of social reality. They are not intellectually, but socially, at a disadvantage. I just say I have a social deficit. I get along better with the children of millennials than millennials and my fellow baby-boomers.

I work with children who have learning and behavior disabilities in addition to autism. Helping them helps me. Although AS can be a pain sometimes, I don’t feel like complaining when spending time with these students, some of whom haven’t yet said their first word.

Special Interests

According to the DSM-IV diagnostic criteria for Asperger’s Syndrome (AS), having an “encompassing preoccupation with one or more stereotyped and restricted patterns of interest that is abnormal either in intensity or focus” is a core symptom of AS.

That’s a mouthful!  In plain English, they are unusually strong interests. They’re obsessions. We think about them day and night. We can focus on them for hours, forgetting everything around us.  Personally, I really, really like mine!

A special interest can be anything from reading to a preoccupation with a whole host of things such as sharks, automobiles, vacuums (a former vac collection owner myself), etc.  I worked with a student whose special interest was calendars.  During choice time, he would bypass the games and I-pads for the box of calendars the teacher saved for him. 

It can be a broad focus such as dancing, or be narrowly focused on only one particular type of dancing.  They appear to be the same as people’s hobbies.  But what makes it a “special interest” in the autism criteria is the focus and intensity.  When it affects every aspect of one’s life, or is sought after with strong intensity to the exclusion of everything else, it is considered a “special interest”. 

My “special interest” when I was growing up was soap operas.  I spent most of my winter, spring, and summer school breaks in soap opera land consuming hours of soap sitting on my couch potato.  I recall once having a meltdown because I had to miss a critical episode of my favorite soap.  We were to visit relatives and socializing was my least favorite thing to do.  You’d have thought the world was coming to an end with the way I was carrying on shedding buckets of tears.  

Overall I think most of us view them as a positive thing.  Electronic gadgets, such as computers, tablets, voice-activated assistants, smart phones/watches, and virtual reality glasses is one of my special interests I have long held.  Shopping for and getting absorbed in my gadgets recharges my batteries. If I feel one of those awful meltdowns is coming on, sometimes spending quality time with one or more of my gadgets will help me avert one.  Sometimes, that is.

 

specialinterests

Another aspect of autism related to special interests is the monologue.  I am high as a kite when someone asks, for instance, about any of my latest gadget buys.  I dare say more thrilled than the one who asked me.  The person was NOT asking for a 60 minute commercial.  I may not notice that the person is disinterested. If I do, I will reluctantly end my monologue apologizing for overtaxing the person’s ears.

Special interests are specific to the autism spectrum. Not all Autistic people have them but I think most do. Some people have one special interest while others have multiple. Some people have the same special interest(s) throughout their entire life while some people’s change over time.

While most special interests are “harmless,” if an interest involves behavior that is illegal, taboo or a threat to your or someone else’s health or wellbeing, it may be necessary to seek help in redirecting your attention to a safer alternative. 

I have to curve one of mine down myself!  My obsession with exercise began when I added to my gadget collection a smart watch that counts my steps among other things.  Once I got in the routine of stepping up my step count, I over did it!  So much so it has taken a toll on my health.  I’m the only patient my doctor has instructed to “let up on exercise”.  So I am making a good pitched effort to cut down on exercising which I know sounds strange.  Well, they don’t call it AS for nothing.  I am different from neurotypicals, no doubt, but not less.  

 

 

Short Timers

I was asked for my opinion of why many of us who live on the Autism Spectrum do not stay on a job for the long term.  I have often repeated in my blogs of a nugget of Autism wisdom:  if you’ve met one with Autism, you’ve met only one.  There are short time job keepers who do not live on the Spectrum; whereas, there are those on the Spectrum who have spent their entire years in the workforce at one place.

I don’t know the statistics for what is the average job length for those who have Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). I was a job hopper in my 20’s.  So much so that I consider that decade as being my turbulent years.  Whenever I am wishing I didn’t have as many birthdays to celebrate compared to my younger counterparts, I think of that decade and decide I’d rather keep my near-60 status.

Stability came when I finally landed a job in my hometown’s police department where I stayed for five years which at the time was a record for me. The reason was I landed in a job where my strengths matched the job.

I believe there is a strong connection between my strengths and weaknesses with my ASD. My tendency to hone in on details instead of the big picture was an asset to my once held favorite job as a library cataloger.  I held that job for 10 years.  My favorite job when working for the federal government was that of a records analyst. Both jobs were detail-oriented that didn’t require as much social interaction as other jobs. I still fondly recall the one who taught me cataloging telling me, “You’re a natural.”

There are jobs I wish I could delete from my memory like I do computer files.  My ASD diagnosis reveals why I hated those jobs.  For example, I held a job in retail and I lasted only three months before they laid me off after Christmas.  In truth, it being laid off was an after-Christmas present because I was so awkward at it.  It required a lot of social interaction and being quick on my feet with customer’s questions and service. It’s not that I don’t like people. I am not anti-human.  It’s just I don’t like being around them much.

As a substitute teacher’s aide, I am around people, staff and students, all day long.  But there’s compensation.  I have the privilege of often working with children who are growing up on the same Spectrum that I travel on too.

The Self-Talk

In early December 2016, a 12-year-old girl caught my attention in an autism unit class where I was subbing for one of the aides. The student was doing the “self-talk” in the middle of the classroom. She paced the floor while doing it and a few times skipped across the room.  Although I couldn’t make out what she was saying to herself, I knew it was possibly a story with a cast of characters and dialogue was unfolding in her mind.

Watching the child that day was a life-changing moment. It was the light bulb that led me to my own Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) diagnosis.  The difference between me and the child is I know there are places and times that I should not do the self-talk. I try not to do it in public but it wouldn’t be unusual, for instance, to be caught talking to myself while taking a walk in the park. If there were a video camera in my bedroom, one would see a lot of me doing the self-talk. I reckon if I saw myself on camera, I would be “weird” to me.

The following are some questions I’ve been asked and my answers.

Is talking to oneself stimming?

I don’t think talking to oneself is stimming since by definition stimming is repetitive movement. Sometimes when I am doing the self-talk, I am pacing back and forth. I especially did this as a child when I would go outside to the side of the house and pace; or do so in my bedroom. The pacing is repetitive movement or stimming. So I sometimes stim while doing the self-talk but not always.

How important is self-talk to me?

Well, to ask me to stop doing it would be like telling me not to breathe. It isn’t going to happen! Even if I made an effort to stop, I predict I would fail at every attempt. It’s not really a choice. It’s just something I do living on the Spectrum.

How do you deal with an autistic person who talks to themselves?

Respect what they do as being something they just do. If they are doing it in an unsafe place or situation, then that’s different. But if not, just leave them be. And above all, don’t think they are crazy. It is just what we do and more likely than not, it isn’t something we outgrow. If I should live to be 80 or more, I’ll still be a talker to myself. Some of my best conversations are with me, myself, and I.

 

My Friday the 13th Meltdown

My living on the Spectrum includes hearing some things more loudly, tasting some things differently, smelling some things more strongly, and feeling some things more strongly.

It was supposed to be an ordinary afternoon assignment subbing for a teacher’s aide in a special education pre-school class. It turned into an unordinary day with a few sentences. It is easy to remember the date because it was Friday, the 13th. I’m not superstitious or anything, but that Friday, the 13th, will go down as memorable because I spent the afternoon in meltdown country while trying to pretend I wasn’t in one.

While I was watching three of the seven students in the play section, I was told to put something away. I wasn’t yelled at, but it took me back in my mind to 1st grade when the teacher had me stand in a corner.  I imagine to a neurotypical, it would have been no big deal. Something that fell off one’s back.  I so wish it could have been that way for me, but living on the Spectrum includes feeling things strongly.

I felt a thrust of panic shoot through me landing in the pit of my stomach.  I can’t begin to guess how many times I’ve lived through similar experiences and it’s just as painful as it was when I was a child. I immediately responded in a socially acceptable way without showing any sign of my panic button going off. I didn’t want anyone to know I was falling in meltdown country.  I had a job to do and had to keep what was going on in my inner being a secret somehow.

Shortly thereafter, I was assigned to assist one of the students who was severely autistic. Try to imagine this picture: A 58-year-old woman with autism trying to calm down a 5-year-old child with autism while she is fighting back tears as she is melting down inside. It is sort of like the blind helping the blind.

The thinking part of my brain was telling me, “All you need to do from now on is…  It is no big deal, stop thinking about it, etc.”  That was logic talking and there’s nothing logical about my hypersensitivity.  There were no shortcuts. I had to weather through all the stages of fear, shame, guilt, and anger before I would ever feel any peace about it.

Then, it came time for gym class. The activity was video dances and the lights were out while the kids danced. Thanks to the lights being out, I was relieved of having to fight back the tears. I let them stream down my face. I wanted so much to retreat to a corner, rock myself silly, and cry my heart out.

One thing that replayed over in my mind was the school day would end and I could make my escape back to my safe place at home.  I had been looking forward to the weekend but I knew a cloud would hang over it by reliving the afternoon episode of my Friday, the 13th.

The tears had dried up by the next morning but there was anger brewing. I went to the tennis range and hit the ball against the wall. My game of tennis was off because I took my frustration out on the ball. I was whacking that ball as if I was hitting what brought on my meltdown. If the ball could have talked, it might have said, “Hey, I didn’t do anything!!!”

Prayer without ceasing was a constant as I weathered the turbulence. The Lord’s Spirit spoke to my heart that it will pass and I knew it would. A verse that came to mind was:

2 Samuel 22:29
You, LORD, are my lamp; the LORD turns my darkness into light.

I didn’t lose my sense of humor. No meltdown has ever taken that; at least, not yet. I chuckled at my thought that come the next Friday the 13th, I should spend it in hibernation.

I’m one of those on the Spectrum who takes a long time to get over even a small slight. I predict I will have a conversation a decade from now if I should live so long in the shower about what I might have done or said differently on that Friday the 13th.

The Mystery of Compassion on the Spectrum

Someone on the Autism Spectrum asked me: Can people with Asperger ‘s feel compassion? I have the impression that I can’t.

This was a question I had been dwelling on pretty much since I learned I had Asperger’s Syndrome a year ago. I responded to the question saying to my fellow “Aspie” that it is a mystery to me as to the moments I feel compassion and those I don’t.

There are times I hear a story or see one on the news or witness one in person that pulls at my heartstrings. But yet, when one would expect me to shed a bucket of tears I do not. If I could turn on the tears at will, they would be fake.

Years before I learned I was living on the Spectrum, I worked with a colleague who had a son diagnosed with Autism. When my co-worker’s Dad passed away, his son, who I believe was around 10 at the time, told his Grandmother he just couldn’t feel sad, or cry, about his Grandfather.  The Grandmother, knowing of her grandson’s autism, knew the child was being blatantly honest, but it still took a swipe at her heart.

I remember feeling stunned and sad at the time that this boy did not experience grief. However, if I had taken an in-depth look at my own past experiences with death, such as my own grandparents, I would have had a clue then that maybe I was autistic myself. If I had known then what I know now, I could have told my colleague I understood where his son was coming from.

I have a friend who lost her husband years ago. I cannot understand her going to visit his grave as often as she does. I don’t judge her. She’s not doing anything wrong. I haven’t ever married and so how could I understand losing a spouse. I care about my friend but I just can’t feel as her family and other friends do as far as having compassion and understanding for her ongoing grieving.

It seems I have more compassion for those in my outer circle than in my inner circle. I have gotten more teary-eyed over the death of someone’s pet than a relative or family friend. I don’t have an answer as to why I shed tears or why I don’t. I just have to accept it as something I can’t change. I am capable of caring; of compassion; it’s just in some situations I can and others it just isn’t there. I wish I had a sincere “compassion button”.  Then I could just turn it on and off, but there’s no such button.