Bridging the communication gap between high functioning autistics and neurotypicals.

Driving While Aspie…

Learning to drive was not easy for me. I took Driver’s Ed in 10th grade in 1984-85. I learned to drive in a city much bigger than Oklahoma City which was not laid out like graph paper (Charlotte, NC). Then, I spent most of my driving years in a city of 5.5 to 6 million people (Atlanta, GA). While taking Driver’s Ed, I found that I scared everyone in the car that rode with me but I didn’t know why. I failed the driving portion of the test the first time I took it. My mom was frustrated and so was I. I didn’t know the reason I failed then. To get me prepared to take the test again, friends of our family would ride with me and give me pointers on my driving. I remember scaring them as well. I would turn left abruptly too close to oncoming traffic. My tutor was white-knuckling it and screaming at the top of their lungs through the turn.

Years later, I was still being told that I was a scary driver. Just a year ago, my sister reminded me that I was always cussing and flipping off other drivers whenever she and I went somewhere together. Recently, my mom told me that I have always been a terrifying driver. She said I was horrible to ride with. Over the twenty years of our marriage, my wife has done most of the driving. Whenever I have had occasion to drive with my wife as passenger, she tends to experience my driving more as a ride in an amusement park, somewhat akin to a roller coaster or a tilt-a-whirl!

The examples above show, as an Aspie, my driving abilities have TERRIFIED those who have ridden with me. But the examples aren’t really the point of this article. The following are reasons why I drive like this.

  1. Aspies have trouble driving because we are not as aware of our surroundings on the roads. A disciplined awareness is necessary in driving to evaluate road conditions and traffic situations. Training Aspie student drivers to be more aware is simple. Have them watch movies of traffic situations or observe actual traffic at an intersection and then explain what they saw. Then ask them how they would deal with each situation. Keep training them until they seem comfortable and satisfactory results have been achieved.
  2. Aspies aren’t very physically coordinated so our motions in driving a car tend to be abrupt and jerky. Getting us to be graceful in our movements just requires an NT driver to observe us and to help us adjust by small degrees. Instead of yanking the steering wheel to make turns, we can be taught to turn the wheel using the hand-over-hand technique.
  3. The Aspie’s single-focused mind can cause overwhelm when required to multitask. Because of this hyperfocus, managing the multiple tasks involved in operating a car can be overwhelming for new driving students. Even at 45, I drive an automatic transmission because it requires less from me, mentally and physically, than a standard transmission. The key is allowing the Aspie to master each of the major functions of driving one at a time and then putting them together into a final product.
  4. There is a lot of fear built up in us because many of us Aspies have a perfectionist streak that will not allow us to make mistakes. To counter the perfectionism and fear of making mistakes, the Aspie driving student must be continually reminded that mistakes are perfectly acceptable. The Aspie driving student can be taken to a large empty parking lot, and with supervision, be allowed to drive at leisure until they are comfortable with the basic operation of the vehicle. Strong emphasis needs to be placed on creating a ‘safety net’ which consists of getting across to the Aspie driving student that ‘mistakes are perfectly acceptable’ and that ‘whatever happens is okay’. Once the ‘safety net’ is in place, the above three factors can be addressed starting with awareness.
  5. Aspies require more time to learn something, especially when that task requires physical/mental multitasking. The more complex a task is, the more our brains analyze it to comprehend the information. This analytical process requires more time than is usually given for mastering something. By breaking down the process into smaller tasks, the Aspie student can easily master each piece of the project.

Even though driving is a complex task for Aspies, following the above guidelines can make the process of learning less stressful and easier to manage.

~Mark

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There have been many changes for Mark and me since moving to Oklahoma almost 3 years ago. An autism diagnosis for Mark is one of them. Something you might imagine would explain many difficulties, one being communication. Mark had plenty of trouble with that in Atlanta, but Oklahoma has proven to be almost impossible.

I’m not an official anthropologist doing research, but in my own experience, I know I did not feel free to express myself emotionally in the East. When we got to Oklahoma, I would go to a grocery store and the checkout person would tell me their life story with emotions attached. I’d be getting gas and the person next to me would start talking to me as if I were his long-lost friend. (I was afraid I was going to be hugged.) I’d be walking along the canal in Bricktown and passersby would see my Braves t-shirt and ask if I was from somewhere else and then proceed to tell me about all of their trips through Atlanta, with emotion attached.

After being here for a while, despite the friendliness and good heartedness of the people, I find it is very difficult to get into their inner circle. There are mazes of massive walls that have to be negotiated before you may enter. Many of the walls are emotional and you have to guess or intuit how to go round. The difficulty is that even “professionals” communicate in more emotion than words. Entire concepts can be shared without a word spoken. I have experienced feelings of people AFRAID to say words. How does one get information since telepathy hasn’t developed to a level required to know, say, the time the concert starts?

I say all this to bring you back to the point of Mark’s autism. From the beginning he has called this place a “freak show” and a “circus”. Please understand that this is coming from autism with no way to negotiate in such an emotional climate. He can ask a point-blank question and still not get a verbal answer. This has been infuriatingly frustrating for him.

How does this emotive response affect autistic kids in the school system? Autistic people canNOT learn via emotional teaching. Are Oklahoma teachers taught to teach verbally to these children? Are Oklahomans capable of being verbal? I think so, but it needs to be brought to their attention.

Let’s look at the word “propaganda” for a moment. I met with a lovely Aspie who uses this word for the pamphlet that comes with her tea. We all laughed because it was a funny use of the word. She told me that she uses the word because it makes people laugh, but she didn’t understand why. I told her she didn’t understand because she doesn’t know the emotional message behind the word. Her reply was, “Oh”.

All words have an emotional definition. When communicating with an autie, one must spell out these emotional definitions in the form of words. Yes, this is a tedious way to teach, but that is the ONLY way to teach autistics. We must learn to verbalize our emotions if we wish to communicate with the autistic culture. Are there classes on this in college? I doubt it. I learned through trial and error and a steely determination to get my point across.

I’d say, in the case of Oklahoma vs My Autie, My Autie loses. We, in the Oklahoma autism community and beyond, need to make sure our communication is as clear and concise as possible and we must spread the word to others. We all want our Auties to win!

~Michelle

Illness in Aspies Part II

As an Aspie, I remember working through illnesses such as strep throat, colds, even viral gastroenteritis until the gastroenteritis actually did catch up with me. I could work double time or even triple time for hours then go home and come back to do it again then next day. Rarely did I need to call out from work. I even worked a straight 33-hour shift and was only tired enough to sleep for just 8 hours to recover.

This past week, however, I was WOEFULLY unprepared for being sick as a newly-minted NT. When I was sick as an Aspie, I almost never complained about it. Most times, Michelle didn’t even know I was sick.

BUT, as a new NT, being sick is a whole different drag. I actually could feel more pain. I had pain in joints and muscles. It wasn’t strep throat, but my throat felt as sore and scratchy as if it were strep. Michelle used to comment, in years past, at how sweet I was when I was sick. She used to say that most people are grouchy and testy when they’re sick. And, they complain all the time but why wasn’t I? I didn’t know the answer then.

This time around, however, I was totally out of it. And, not Aspie unaware. But, I didn’t even know that my personality had changed to one of testiness, contempt and downright rudeness. Michelle got upset at me and I couldn’t figure out why. Now, I realize that I was being overwhelmed by all the emotions that come with pain and sickness. I realized that I was out of control in my mood. I didn’t like that at all. I don’t like not being in control of my thinking and perceiving. The sickness really warped my perception. I didn’t even know I was skewed. But, sure enough, no matter how much I thought I was seeing things in perspective, I finally saw that I was being difficult, something I rarely was when sick as an Aspie.

This diet has been one interesting experience after another. My autism is definitely on the down turn, hopefully, for good. I think life will finally be a lot more interesting, effective and realistic than the previous 45 years as an autie.

~Mark

Illness in Aspies

Every day is a new experience for us since we started the Gaps Diet. This time it is illness.

As an Aspie, illness didn’t seem to affect Mark as much as it did me. One year, we both got the flu. I was dying in bed and he was able to get up to cook and medicate us both. He rarely complained about his symptoms.

This week, Mark has called out twice with a common cold. He has never felt symptoms to this extent and is definitely complaining about them. In fact, he seems a bit bewildered by them.

What part do the molecules of emotion play in feeling symptoms of illness?

~Michelle

I had an autistic trumpet student whom we will call Joe. Joe frequently walked into his lesson in a foul mood, mumbling obscenities, and griping about hating trumpet lessons. He was in 6th grade and was the most difficult student I had had up to that point. Most of the time I coerced him to play for at least 20 minutes of the 30 minute lesson. I remember his utter disgust when he discovered that I didn’t have perfect pitch – this woman is teaching ME?? Autistic children can be very difficult to take when one is an extra sensitive neurotypical*.

One day Joe walked in screaming. His dad looked at me, shrugged his shoulders, and walked to the waiting room. “I hate (expletive) trumpet lessons! I (expletive) hate you! I want to kill you! I’m going to burn this building down! Don’t talk to me! I hate you!” This went on and on. -This dad expects a lesson from this??- I had no idea what to do.

It suddenly occurred to me to do what he said. Don’t talk to him. So I didn’t. After 10 minutes of ranting vehemently, he began to slow down. After 15 minutes he started looking at me and wondering what I was doing. After 20 minutes he finally asked, “Why aren’t you talking to me?” I said, “Because you told me not to.” A few more minutes went by and he said, “Ok. I will play now. What do you want me to do?” I was FLOORED! He had become a sweet, malleable person. We had a productive 10 minutes and never had another lesson that horrid again. There were times he would come in grumpy and I’d ask, “Do you need me to not talk to you for a bit?” He’d always say, “No, I’m ok.”

This scenario made me aware of how my emotions affect an autistic person. I didn’t just stop talking to Joe, I turned off my emotions. My autistic husband explains that any emotion causes confusion and overwhelm. That confusion leads to obsessively trying to figure out why they are confused. Then when more emotion is thrown in (whether positive or negative), it short circuits the brain, causing rage, stimming, meltdown, withdrawing, etc. In the situation with Joe, it was very difficult for me to pull my emotions inward, but I chose to find a “happy place” and leave that “room” for a while. This shut down the emotional feed to Joe and he was able to regain his non fight-or-flight brain.

Most of us think that our emotions ARE us, but it is a learnable skill to separate from our emotions. Like learning a musical instrument, it just takes time. If you would like to try this with your autistic loved one, but have no idea how to separate yourself from your emotions, contact us here or at happyrobotcoaching@gmail.com.

~Michelle

*Neurotypical: “a term coined in the autistic community as a label for people who are not on the autism spectrum.” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Neurotypical

Getting It!

Okay, well, kind of… Let me explain. I’ve known I’ve been different since I was very small. I just didn’t know why. I started kindergarten in Michigan in 1974. I don’t remember anyone’s face or any of the kids. I didn’t play with anyone. I usually just sat and read books. It didn’t occur to me then that I was different. I thought life was going to be fun! You know, with all the reading and learning and being alone. To quote a Bible verse, I “was cut off out of the land of the living” and didn’t know it and didn’t care!

So, by my late thirties, I started noticing that I was feeling only two emotions, fear and anger, and only then when they were extreme. I heard other people talk about all of these other emotions that they were feeling but I had no clue where these emotions lived, died or had their being. All these humans I worked around positively gassed on about feeling this way and that way but I never really wondered about it. To me, this was some fictive reality that they conjured up for their sanity. Speaking of fictive, not being able to feel emotions is why I don’t like fiction. There’s just no draw for me in fiction. Even science fiction is drama-less unless it’s a movie. Enough about that now.

Okay, so, being in love and being married. I meet this woman who seems to have an instant attraction to me. The only reason I know there is an attraction is because she tells me, “Hey, I like you! You’re interesting!” I never had that happen to me before. Notice I didn’t say I felt anything. I said that I heard someone say, “I like you!” That’s all I had to go on. To keep this story from being longer, I’ll let you know the punchline now. We got married!

The cruel joke, however, was that Michelle spent the next few years realizing that she was married to a strange, eccentric brick wall of a human being. I had trouble figuring out why Michelle liked me so much. I would constantly ask her, “Why do you like me so much?” Her answer was usually something platitudinous like, “Because you’re interesting to me!” or “Because you’re you!” What I wasn’t realizing was that she was communicating through words her feelings about me to explain why she was attracted to me. I DID NOT understand that emotional attraction alone could be enough to hold someone’s attention. I would continually bug her with the query, “Are you going to leave me?” because I couldn’t and didn’t ‘feel’ her attraction.

In July of 2011, I started suspecting that something was wrong enough to explain my lack of success in life. After taking the Adult Autism Quotient test, I scored 37 out of 50 (74%). In July of 2012, I got diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome and Obsessive Compulsive Personality disorder. After getting a proper explanation from the psychologist of both of those things, life started to make a little more sense, past and present.

So, I think I’ve made my point clear here. I didn’t get any emotional cues, signals or messages across the course of my 45 years. I could see people acting emotionally but I never could ‘feel’ the necessary emotions that conveyed the rest of the message they were trying to get across to me!

ENTER (from stage left): JULY 2013….

In July of 2013 (too much happens in July, dang it!), Michelle reads about the GAPS diet. While I was initially skeptical, I read the pages she had been reading. I knew from all of the biology coursework I had taken that the intestinal lining was where 99% of all our nutrition was absorbed. So, I knew that fact was right. From Molecular and Cellular biology, I also knew that most any important chemical compound in cell-to-cell communication in our brains was made out of proteins. Finding out that if our intestines were damaged by what we had been eating or taking as medicine, then we weren’t getting the proper nutrition for our brain cells was a no-brainer, (Ha!). This diet’s theoretical principles made a lot of biological sense to me. Notice, here, that I was logical about my decision. I didn’t base my decision on emotional considerations at all. I just thought to myself, “Logically, this makes a lot of sense. If I’m not getting the proper nutrition because of a damaged intestinal epithelium then, of course, my central nervous system won’t be in optimal health either”. So, we started the diet.

Being a professional cook for most of my working life made putting together the required broths easy. No problems there. In fact, it was a piece of cake. I even made a pate of liver since organ meats are on the diet that was phenomenal! I even showed a handful of people how to make the broths themselves. They have discovered the benefits as well!

But, enough about that. Does this diet cure autism?

What I’m gonna ask is “Does this diet cure MY autism?”

If autism is a social communication disorder characterized by the inability to ‘read’ other people, the inability to initiate and maintain relationships, the inability to capitalize on social networks and interactions, then, YES!, I am autistic. If autism is also characterized by stereotypical repetitive behaviors such as rocking back and forth whether sitting or standing (like I always hear from people “Stop that, you’re making me seasick!) or compulsively arranging things in a certain order (like arranging books in order of color according to lowest to highest wavelength of the visible light spectrum like I used to do and still do) then YES!, I fit those traits as well.

Now, however, I have seen CHANGES! The most important one is this. Since about three weeks after starting the diet, I have been able to feel a transaction of energy between myself and other people. Usually, when this happens, it changes my own emotions about what just happened or about the person I just interacted with. When this exchange happens between me and Michelle, I usually am COMPELLED to smile! Even the thought of Michelle FORCES me to smile! Before, that thought was almost always a simple acceptance of Michelle existing. In other words, a fact. That’s all. When this exchange happens between me and another person, it all depends on how the interaction goes. For instance, when someone yells at me now, I immediately feel my own anger at the injustice (instead of two days later) and immediately respond in kind instead of overboard! That means I can defend myself now after 45 years of running and hiding! That’s awesome!

Michelle can now actually read me! Before, I was very unpredictable to her. She never could tell how I felt or thought about a particular subject. She had to ask me every time. Now, with just the slightest sensing on her part, she can immediately tell how I feel. And, I actually immediately put across enough emotion so that she can read me. That’s strange! Very strange!

But, there have been hitches in the git-along. At this stage of the diet, any deviation from the prescribed foods can send me into relapse. It can take three to four weeks to get back out of it. What’s frightening about it is that the autistic symptoms come back even stronger than before. They make my life very difficult when I have relapsed but the good thing is I can come back out of it with the right foods, probiotics and motivation (which I’ve rarely had before).

Will this cure my high-functioning autism? I have to wait another 18 months or so for the healing process to complete to know whether I can be well enough to say that I have been cured. However, the changes that I’ve seen in myself and the abilities I have in reading others on a very basic level have finally let me know that I’m not alone in this life and I can now tell that other people actually care a great deal about me.

I will keep posting about my progress as I go along. You will know how I’m doing. Michelle and I are here to serve the autism community in the ways that will benefit us all the most. Please look us up here at Happy Robot Coaching. We’re always happy to help!

Happy New 2014!

~Mark

Curing Autism?

A diet that cures autism? Yeah, right. I heard about it on an obscure interview and then looked at the web page. I had never read anything like it before in my many searches for wellness through diet. It looked impossible to me. You have to cook. Restaurants are out of the question when doing the first few stages of the diet. For maximum healing, the diet has to be followed upwards of two years. Despite these supposed negatives, the diet kept coming to my mind.

Gaps stands for Gut and Psychology Syndrome. The idea is that the gut is damaged by out of control pathogens. These pathogens create small holes in the lining. The holes keep food from being digested properly, nutrients from absorbing, and sends undigested foods into the bloodstream. In turn, the brain is affected in many ways: learning disabilities, autism, mental illness, etc. Dr Natasha Campbell claims that the “leaky gut” also creates problems such as arthritis and autoimmune diseases. She lists many health problems in her book.

The idea behind the GAPS Diet is to heal the intestinal lining. Consuming a diet low in simple and complex carbohydrates and high in proteins and fats is the crux of the diet. Appropriate probiotic and fatty acid supplementation, proper stress reduction, and a change in sleep habits is also required.

In July 2013, Mark and I decided to jump in and try it. So what’s the worst that can happen? We feel better? Mark will be a healthier Aspie?

It is a dramatic dietary change. The most important healing food in the diet is the bone broth which you drink as if it were water. How weird to suddenly be buying pig feet and beef bones. It’s pretty hard on the conscious when you see feet in your stew. The diet also includes organ meats. We have not yet acquired a taste for these. Of course, there are “normal” foods, but the afore mentioned are the staples.

The changes I began seeing in myself were remarkable. Relief from many pains, including the incessant jaw pain I had learned to live with, uncomfortably. But what Mark was experiencing was beyond comprehension. Miraculous to those with Auties in their lives.

For the first time in Mark’s 45 years of life, he started experiencing other’s feelings. He also started expressing his own feelings. It was as if he had awakened from a coma.

It has not been a mostly pleasant awakening. One bite of “wrong” food sent him back to autism worse than he had experienced before. In 10 minutes, all the good food was null and void and it would take weeks to get back to “feeling” again. This roller coaster ride led him to wanting to be “normal” so badly that he has been able to avoid “wrong” foods through a desire to be well. This is quite a feat since he works in a kitchen.

Imagine the overwhelm of feeling emotions suddenly at the ripe old age of 45. He had always SEEN that some people at work were grumpy, but now he was feeling their very down vibe. It made him feel so bad he thought they were mad at him. They were actually just grumpy people. We have talked about creating filters and only allowing energies in that you choose. A very difficult concept.

Imagine an emotionless, 19 year old marriage, suddenly awakening from a deep sleep. There were many walls I had put up to survive in an emotionless marriage. Walls I didn’t know were there until he awoke. Walls that affected my entire life, making me less than what I could have been. Walls I’m working on as soon as they are recognized.

The scariest part was wondering if the marriage would stay together. “What if he doesn’t really like me? What if he married me just because I offered and no one else had? What if he doesn’t like who I am emotionally? What if he starts feeling something for someone at work and decides I’m boring?”

Guess what! It turns out that even though I couldn’t feel him all these years and he couldn’t express all of these years, every choice he made was on purpose, meant something to him, and he has no regrets! In fact, I feel like I’m having an illicit love affair with my own husband.

This diet has changed our lives immeasurably. We hope to use this experience to even better help others within our sphere.

Happy 2014!

*For more information on the diet see http://www.gapsdiet.com. We are not Gaps practitioners, but if you would like support starting the diet or with recipes, we are available.

Michelle Hedges