Life on the Spectrum

Archive for January, 2014

How can autistic adults help themselves?

Today when a child is diagnosed with autism, he or she is given therapy. However, there are many of us who were diagnosed later in life who do not have access to the kinds of therapy and programs that are the norm for children diagnosed with Asperger’s or autism.

What can we as autistic adults do to help ourselves learn social skills, learn to read body language, learn to make eye contact, and learn how to make friends? There are a few things I’ve done and things that some of my friends have done that have proven to be helpful. Not every person will find every thing to be useful, but here are a few suggestions.

I took lessons in American Sign Language one summer. American Sign Language would probably not be difficult for an autistic person who is visually oriented. I am an auditory learner, so I didn’t do as well learning ASL as I did learning French in high school. ASL is a very visual language, and, contrary to popular belief, it isn’t just signs. Deaf people who use ASL also rely on reading body language and facial expressions. Those are the “punctuation” of American Sign Language. So if you want to learn to read body language and facial expressions, ASL might help you do that. A caveat, however; if you use ASL you must make eye contact. It is very important when you are communicating with a Deaf person that you make eye contact with them.

For a few years I was a member of Toastmasters. Toastmasters is an international program that trains people in public speaking. Many people, whether they have autism or not, find public speaking to be intimidating. Toastmasters helps people get over the fear of public speaking by providing opportunities to speak first in the safe environment of a club meeting and providing gentle, supportive feedback on ways to improve. Toastmasters also teaches body language and gestures and encourages speakers to make eye contact with their audience. During my time in Toastmasters I worked through a manual on interpersonal communication that included a segment on making small talk, and I still use the things I learned from that manual.

I always wanted to take drama in high school, and while I was not able to do that I did take part in a few school plays. Acting can be beneficial to those of us on the autism spectrum. Acting is another area that can help a person learn how to use gestures and how to read body language, and it can also give a person skills that they can call on if they are uncertain of how to act in certain situations.

Martial arts training can be beneficial for some adults and children with autism. Martial arts teaches how to be aware of the body. I know personally that I have trouble perceiving where my body is in relation to the physical world around me; I spend too much time in my head. The technical term for this is proprioception, and my lack of this has meant that I walk into walls, trip over things that I do not see in time, and am just generally clumsy. Many of us on the autism spectrum have trouble with fine and gross motor skills, which can be helped with proper training in martial arts. Also, learning self-defence can come in handy for someone who is being bullied or threatened.

I don’t know if you can call making friends a skill, exactly, but it is something that many of us have trouble with. There aren’t any classes you can take that teach you how to make friends — at least, not that I’ve found. The same advice that works for people without autism can work for us: join things, take classes, and/or do volunteer work. It can be easier to make friends when you are working side-by-side with another person or people on a project, a job, a task, etc., whether it’s cleaning up a public park, learning about photography, singing in a choir or building model airplanes. There isn’t the pressure to be talking all the time, and you have something right there in front of you that you can talk about, so you don’t have to search for a safe topic of conversation.

Now, the one problem that can face many people is that many of the above suggestions cost money, and employment and earning an income can be tough for people with autism and Asperger’s, who are often unemployed or underemployed. I would encourage you to contact the local employment agencies in your area to find out what is available; some programs will even pay for their clients to take certain courses or programs if they can be proved to be beneficial. It is also worth asking people who run various programs if they have any provision for assisting people with disabilities and/or people with low incomes. (A lot of this can be done through e-mail and electronic communication if, like me, you suffer from anxiety when it comes to telephones and talking to strangers, or maybe you have a friend or family member who could help with this.) It might also be worth getting together with others and pooling your resources. You might be able to get a group discount.

Even if there is little to no therapy available for those of us diagnosed with autism or Asperger’s as adults, there are still beneficial programs and services that, even if they were not designed specifically with autism in mind, can still provide useful support for us. Take a look around in your community and see what’s out there. You might find something that will help you.

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The Purple Aspie thinks about buying a home

I have been a renter for the past ~25 years, and I had believed I would always be a renter, because my income has never been sufficient to buy an actual house. I have never had the desire to buy a condo because of my sensitive hearing. If I had a noisy neighbour, there would be no building manager to complain to. To me, almost any neighbour would be considered “noisy” as long as I could hear them on my side of the wall, and I can hear almost everything on the other side of the wall. So if I couldn’t buy a house, I figured I would just rent for the rest of my life.

In January of this year I got an unexpected eviction notice from my landlord. Normally this would fill me with anxiety, but I’d been through this situation before and I knew I’d paid my rent. In fact, I had proof of it from my bank. So I was annoyed rather than worried. I sorted it out with the landlord, but I was still annoyed because it turned out that the management office sends out the eviction notices automatically if the landlord does not deposit the rent into their bank account on the second day of the month. My landlord deposited my rent on January 3, so the computer sent out the notice on January 2. Because this was not the first time I’d received an unmerited eviction notice, it made me want to move to a new place.

A few days ago a friend suggested I look into mobile homes. That way I would have my own home, and while the neighbours would be close, they would not be on the other side of the wall.

I did a search on the web, and I found what looks to me like the perfect home. So I scheduled an appointment to take a look, and then I called a real estate agent. However, I got the husband of the agent, because the agent wasn’t in her office at the time. I have to wonder if the husband has Asperger tendencies himself, because he went off on what sounded like a script and would not let me get a word in until he was finished. He went in to a lot of unnecessary detail about the history of mobile home parks in my region that I did not need when all I wanted was an agent to represent me if I chose to buy this mobile home. This would make sense if he has Asperger’s.

I didn’t like that he told me I would not be able to find a place because I have cats, and he didn’t like that I told him I’d already chosen a place without consulting the agent first, so I decided not to choose that agent. Because of my phobia of telephones, however, I was afraid it would be difficult to find another agent.

For a usually detail-oriented Aspie, I don’t always do a good job of looking at details when I’m trying to decide whether to buy something. I tend to get stuck on the minor details instead of the important ones. In the case of the mobile home I looked at today, I became obsessed with how I would fit my furniture into it, because there are heating vents in the floor that might be covered by my couch or bookshelves, and I kept bringing it up over and over again. “Where will I put the wall unit? Should I get rid of it and just buy a TV stand? Where should I put the armchair? Maybe it would be better in the bedroom instead of the living room. Will I be able to fit both computers into the office or only one? Should I use the spare bedroom as an office instead?” Unlike the usual stereotype of autistic/Aspie people ‘thinking in pictures,’ I’m not a visual person, so I was unable to “see” how things would be arranged, and this bothered me.

This is why I take my partner with me when I have a major purchasing decision to make, whether it’s a new bicycle or, in this case, a mobile home. I made a list of questions to ask the agent showing me the home and went over them with him while my partner looked into every nook and cranny in all the rooms and asked questions about things I hadn’t thought of myself.

The process of buying a new home has stirred up a lot of anxiety for me. When my partner showed up five minutes later than I expected him today, I was anxious. When I didn’t see the road sign for the turnoff to the mobile home park right away, I got anxious. When I realized how much money I would be spending over and above the purchase price, I got extremely anxious, even though I can afford it. When I couldn’t see the house number on the mobile home (even though it was obvious that this was the right one, since the houses on either side had easily visible numbers) I got anxious. “What if I move in here and I get sick and have to call an ambulance? They won’t be able to find me!”

I’m pretty sure I did not make eye contact with the real estate agent the entire hour we were looking at the place. I don’t think he noticed; if he did, he didn’t say anything. I could not tell you what he looked like if I had to describe him.

I’m sure I will have a lot more anxiety before this process is through, and I’ll have a lot more details to get through. Fortunately, one thing I am good at is paperwork. I also may have found a real estate agent without having to make phone calls, because the one who showed me the mobile home gave me his card and told me to e-mail him and he can represent me, so that’s one load off my mind.