Thursday, December 29, 2011

Chapter 10: Asperger's and Rationality and Faith (Part 1)

Holy Cow. Chapter 10 already?

This post is an introduction to a 2 part series about the things mentioned in the title. This post's purpose is for me to air out some ideas and thoughts I had a few weeks ago, preparing your for my more focused ideas in the next post.

I often play with LEGOs with my younger brother; we come up with stories we call "episodes" with all the little minifigures and vehicles he builds. I can't remember exactly when we started - but I think it stretches all the way back to when we lived in England, somewhere between 2002-2005. As brothers do, we often clash on the plot, which in retrospect is silly - and we usually work through it.

So today we're making Camp Half-Blood - full of demigods, knights, wizards and Jedi - team up with all the non-Star Wars villains (the Romans, Death Eaters, and orcs) to besiege the Separatists. Mega Mordred accidentally created a black hole, and only the Green Mountain can be used to draw it into space and safely away from Earth. The Separatists, however, want to take the Green Mountain with them to a galaxy far, far away and use it to defeat the Republic, so all the other characters must unite against them to save the world.

We have very active imaginations. Of course, this intricate plot did not create itself. This is the brainchild of much innovation and heated argument.

The two Sith and General Grievous have just slain Ben Kenobi (that is, the Episode IV version - we couldn't kill the Clone Wars version because that would create a time paradox) and are planning to retreat with their droid army to the Green Mountain. Assajj Ventress calls for her troops to follow her -

"Wait," I say. This has to be the fifth time the episode has been interrupted today. "The Separatist base is surrounded. How can they flee?" My brother furrows his eyebrows.

"But you said the whole army would retreat," he says.

"No," I reply, "I said these three -" I point to the Sith and General Grievous - "could escape. It doesn't make sense for the droid army to escape if they're surrounded; these three could easily sneak out, though."

"But we agreed that they would all fall back," he says.

It usually goes back and forth like this, with us disagreeing on who said what, until I realize that I'm arguing about LEGOs and it's silly for me to worry too much about the plot making sense.

"Okay," I say, "the Separatists can fall back. But -" and here I revert to rationality - "they somehow have to create a hole in the good guy army." I don't mean this to shoot him down; now even I'm trying to figure out a way to make it happen. Then my brother grabs a minifigure -

Assajj Ventress suddenly has an idea and force pushes a Republic Cruiser away, creating an exit point for her droid troops -

"Wait," I say. "They can't do that." After all, if they could just force push Cruisers around, why didn't they do that before?

"Sam," my brother says quickly, "why do you always poke holes in my ideas?"

There's a pause.

"I..." I have no idea what to say. "I don't try to poke holes in your ideas," I say lamely.

"You always make holes," he says.

"I don't make holes," I respond quickly.

"But you always find them. Why do you have to mention them?"

"I find holes. That's the way I think." This is true. "I don't mean anything by it -"

"But why do you always mention them?" he asks, making me think. This throws me. Sometimes it's good to mention holes - but during our episodes, where we're breaking the laws of physics to create black holes and use magical mountains to pull them into space?

I reach down for a minifigure -

Assajj Ventress suddenly has an idea and force pushes a Republic Cruiser away, creating an exit point for her droid troops. She turns to General Greivous. "Why didn't we do that before?" she asks.

And so the episode continues, and the Separatists escape to fight another day, extending the Black Hole story arc for at least a few more episodes. And I'm left to wonder about this strange tendency of mine I never considered before - why do I seek to poke holes in things?

***

I don't know when I started my tendency of trying to find holes. I think at some point I developed a sense of skepticism, questioning most things I learned. This is especially true in math and physics, which I've mostly taught myself over the years. When I encounter a new idea that is not intuitive to me, I brush it aside and try to derive my own method or idea, usually only ending up back where I started, having learned why the nonintuitive is really the only way about it. I don't regret this tendency; I think I have a better understanding of math and physics than most other students my level, because I don't accept the what until I know the why and how.

There's almost certainly a dash of Asperger's hidden in this tendency - whether it's due to the nature of Aspies to be "logical" or due to our obsessiveness over small discrepancies, it plays a large role in the way I think. Anything that might be wrong becomes wrong in my mind until I can find a way to prove it - because I can't justify knowing something without understanding it.

Notice the wordplay - not mine, but from whoever put the word "understand" into our language. To stand beneath. To get under the surface and find out how it ticks. This is also why, when I find a classical song I particularly like, I try to play it on the piano, even if it's beyond my skill level - because when when I play the piece, become the sub-stance (Latin wordplay), I understand it better.

Keep that theme in mind; it may become important later.

Now, there's a few exceptions to this rule of proof- much to my discomfort. Firstly, there's the areas that I don't have enough obsessive interest in to worry about proving. I love history, but not that much. And literature is more like music, in that there isn't much to prove, but much to understand.

Then there's God. You may have seen this coming due to the title, but I'll have to ask you to wait till the next post before I deal with it.

And finally, there's imagination. Because at times you just have to make an assumption or two to get anywhere, in writing and reading and playing/listening to music and even in math and physics. Albert Einstein's favorite words, with which he began many groundbreaking thought experiments, were, "Now let us imagine..." I try to harness my creative power as much as possible in coming up with explanations for things, or in figuring out ways to accomplish a goal.

All of this comes back, though, to my brother's question - when I find something foolish or full of holes, why do I feel the need to point out the holes? I didn't even know I had this tendency until my brother mentioned it. In fact, I think I mostly have this tendency around family, because I usually try to be very sensitive to others' ideas. For some reason my family gets the short end of the stick in that respect. Perhaps that's only natural; perhaps someone has to get the short end. But I think I can find a way to balance it out, if I try.

The funniest thing is - to both close this post and begin the next one - as pious as I try to be about my rationality, even to the little extent I apply it to imagination, God, and other less interesting subjects, I'm horribly irrational in other ways. This is a trademark of Asperger's that we aren't always aware of: we tend to pride ourselves on our logic (to compensate for our lacking in social skills, likely), but we forget those times that we are very illogical in our obsessions. And I'll tell you more about those next.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Chapter 9: Giving Forward

Just a cool moment that I decided to share. I can't think of any connection to Asperger's, but hey, a blog is a blog is a blog.

Today

"Oooh!"

T recoiled from the blow of the soccer ball to his nose, covering his face with his hands. It's never fun to watch a seven-year old get nailed in the head, and I immediately rushed up to him, along with my fellow babysitters and a number of the kids we were babysitting. Perhaps soccer wasn't the best idea, I thought.

"You okay?" I asked T, kneeling down to his level. I saw him shake his head, but his hands remained firmly clenched on his face. "Do you want to go sit down?" I couldn't interpret his response.

"T," his brother said, walking up and holding his shoulders. "You need to let us see your face, so we can see if you're bleeding." I hadn't thought of that. T moved his hands just enough so his brother could see him. "OK, you're fine," he said, patting T on the shoulder. I repeated my question.

"Do you want to go sit down?"

"I think he should go sit by the church," my fellow babysitter J (not J from Chapter 4) said, which seemed reasonable to me.

"Do you want to go sit by the church?" I asked. T shook his head.

"I wanna sit on the curb," he said. His hands were slowly spreading apart.

"Okay," I said. I started to lead him to the curb, which was a challenge as he couldn't see through his hands. I set him down on the curb, and then decided to just stay there and keep him company. There was about half a minute of awkward silence in which I wondered if he just wanted some space. Then he started to speak, lowering his hands and mumbling something about how he's gotten hit in other games before, but never in the face.

"And people say, it's just hitting you on the nose, but it hits you in the whole face," he said. I nodded and told him of some times I've been hit in the face in games before. I thought by relating I could cheer him up, but he didn't seem to be any happier for it.

J walked over and joined us and asked T how he was. T recapped what he told me and began to talk about a lot of insecurities he has when it comes to sports, particularly soccer. I related very well to this, but decided not to share all of those stories. As the tears clear up, he looked up at the sky.

"I saw the first star tonight," he said, pointing. "That one."

Digression: All throughout my childhood I met kids who said "Hey! I just saw the first star tonight!" What in tarnation do they mean by that? Sure, it's the first star you saw. Doesn't mean that there's not another star over there, or over there. Maybe you just have bad eyes. Goodness.

But this was not the time to digress, so I went along with it.

"That one?" I asked.

"No, that one."

"That one?"

"The one in between," said J.

"Oh, that one."

"Yes."

Well, that went nowhere. If anything, he was only more frustrated now. T then turned and looked at the moon, which was very bright.

"Did you know that the moon is bright because the sun is behind it?" he asked. "That's what my friend told me." I looked at J, and we decided to tell him the truth about Santa Claus - I mean, the moon.

"Actually, it's backwards," J said. "The sun is behind the Earth, and its light shines on the moon." T looks confused.

"Like, right now, the sun is up in China," I said, "and its light comes all the way around the earth to the moon, to light it up." Sorta. Comprehension began to dawn on his face.

"It's like..." J stood up and stepped in between T and I. "I'm the Earth, and you're the Moon, and Sam's the sun." I struck a glorious pose as T giggled. "His light comes around me and shines on you."

"Oh, I get it now," T said, whether in truth or just to get these two strange people to stop trying to explain science. We all laughed and T decided to join in the soccer game again. I look up at the star T pointed out and see it flickering.

***

Childhood

"And you can see a planet because it doesn't flicker," my Dad said. This happened so long ago, all I can remember are his words. I want to say we were inside or in a car, because I wanted to apply this new knowledge soon, but couldn't at that time. Later, though, I would point out different stars that seemed to flicker less than others and ask if they were planets.

"That one?" I'd ask.

"No, it's flickering a little bit," my Dad would say.

"See? Watch it," said one of my grandfathers, who I think was there.

I remember being a little awestruck at having the ability to tell a star from a planet. After all, there were some pretty bright stars out there, and some dim planets, so brightness alone doesn't account for "planetness." I can't remember if I'd ever seen a planet with my own eyes before - I think my Dad had pointed it out to me once or twice. I wondered if I'd ever see a planet close-up with my own eyes.

There's not much that I remember about that entire incident, except what was said and the effect it had on me, one of many that planted seeds in me which would later grow into a love of astronomy and science. It's always been a treasured moment to me, and almost every time I look up at the stars I check to see if they're flickering.

***

Today

About ten minutes afterward, I noticed T sitting on the curb, outside of the game. He looked a little down, so I went to go sit next to him.

"What's up?" I asked, and he sighed.

"I keep trying to be the guy who throws the ball back in when it goes out of bounds," he said, "but they never call it out of bounds." Well, of course not. They're just trying to have fun.

"Well, it's all a part of having fun to them," I said. "They're not worried so much about it, though they do want to win."

"But I can't ever get the ball," he said.

"I'm never able to get the ball either," I said. True story.

"You got the ball, like, three times today!" he said.

"Well, today's a good day," I said, as someone else passing by interjected, "More like one!" Thanks for that. We talked a little bit more about soccer, occasionally interrupted by people asking if he's okay, and telling him to get back in the game. I looked up at the sky and saw a star that didn't flicker. I had an idea, but I wasn't sure how well it'd work. It could be either helpful or disappointing.

"Wanna see something cool?" I asked. He turned to me.

"What?"

"Look at that star right there," I said, pointing towards a random star. He found it quicker than I found his earlier. "Look at it. Can you see it flickering?"

"Yah," he said, sounding a little disappointed with this "cool thing." Well, I had more up my sleeve.

"Now look at that one," I said, pointing at the planet. "It isn't flickering, is it?" I decided to use the power of suggestion to my full advantage, as I didn't know how good his eyesight was.

"No," he said, his curiosity a little piqued. Maybe this would work.

"Why do you think that is?" I asked. He pondered.

"Is it because it's brighter?" he asked.

"No," I said. I could give him a few more guesses or go straight to the punchline. I decided not to waste what attention I currently had. "It's a planet." A moment of anticipating silence.

"Cool," he said. "I don't think I've ever seen a planet before." He looked at it for a few more seconds.

"And you can always tell," I said, "by whether or not it flickers."

"Cool." And he sounded like he meant it. That probably did more for me than my little factoid had done for him - that I had interested him, perhaps cheered him up a little bit, with something I myself hold dear. It was a splendid payoff.

"You wanna get back in the game?" I asked, as another barrage of kids arrived to pull us back into the game.

"Sure," T said, finally relenting.

***

Eighth Grade

"And now," the observatory director said, stepping out of the way of the telescope, "this is Neptune." He mentioned some tidbits of information about where the individual planets were at that point, then allowed us to start stepping up to look.

When it was my turn, I was not surprised by what I saw - more by how it affected me. A great blue orb, hovering in empty space. That blackness behind it - it's not just a convenient background; that's truly the emptiness of the cosmos. And this planet, like a shining blue ornament, hovers there, alone but not alone.

As we drove home, I learned something even more surprising.

"Neptune was my favorite part," my dad said. "I've always wanted to see it with my own eyes, but I never have."

That's another treasured memory.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Chapter 8: The Three Deadly P's

I feel like I owe an explanation for why I'm taking so long to write new blog posts. It really comes down to three simple factors, which I like to call the three deadly P's. Unfortunately, they're the reason I don't usually get a lot done. Let me list them out for you:
  1. Procrastination
  2. Preoccupation
  3. Perfectionism
I don't know how much of my weakness for these P's can be attributed to Asperger's; I'd say that Procrastination is more a teenage thing than anything else. Preoccupation (a.k.a. obsession, but that doesn't fit into the P scheme as well) is something that I think occurs much more commonly among the Aspergian population - basically, we get focused on one particular topic or idea and thus have difficulty focusing on anything else. It's also the reason we tend to talk a lot about certain subjects, but when it comes to anything else we're dead silent. Perfectionism is something that I can't attribute to either Asperger's or adolescence; I think that's just a personality trait.

Procrastination

This one trait is common to almost all teenagers, and we all handle it in different ways. I sometimes like to think of procrastination not as a fault, but as a different way of doing things. That way of thinking ends when it's midnight on deadline day.

A number of factors, for me, contribute to procrastination. First and foremost is the common "I can do it later" thinking, even though we know we're not going to do it later. I often wonder why we even bother to tell ourselves things we know are lies. I won't digress here, but I just personally think the ability humans have to lie to themselves is psychologically fascinating.

Another factor that may not be as common is the "dead eyes," so named because of what I imagine my eyes look like when I'm in that state. There are points in life where I just don't feel like I want to do anything. The things I do want to do I can't seem to do right (seePerfectionism) and nothing else seems to grab my attention. Usually, once I become aware I'm in that state, I jolt out of it, but sometimes I have an incredibly aggravating inability to put words on a page. It's worse than writer's block, because I know where I want to go, I just can't get the words out and it doesn't feel right in my mind. I wonder if "dead eyes" is something that's specific to me (as in, not teenage or Aspergian). Part of me theorizes that it has its roots in television. My generation grew up on tuning out a certain number of hours in the day. Maybe now we're suffering the consequences of that.

Procrastination, surprisingly, has sometimes led to my best work. I tend to freak out under pressure, but I also paradoxically work much better under pressure. Big projects completed on the last day tend to take a sudden turn in the opposite direction as I suddenly figure out what I want to do and how I want to do it. It's a dangerous gamble though, like someone who speeds heavily and says it's okay because they've never crashed. Procrastination has its rare benefits, but if I'm going to accomplish anything I have to learn to overcome it.

Preoccupation

I'm working my way through a novel right now - it's the third time I've read it. My creative writing teacher has told us to find a book and list out all the key plot points in it - I chose to use this one because its plot is so full of events, without becoming convoluted. It's called My Name is Asher Lev, and I'm entirely convinced that the main character has Asperger's. It doesn't say it anywhere in the book, but... it's pretty obvious, in my opinion.

The main character - Asher Lev - is a Ladover Hasid living in Brooklyn. He's got a great gift for drawing and painting, which upsets his father, who is a highly orthodox Jew who thinks art is a waste of time. Asher Lev, however, just can't stop drawing. Every spare moment he's sketching or doodling. He doesn't pay attention when his parents speak - not because he's a rude child, but because he's trying to figure out how to improve the drawings he just made. He's entirely, totally obsessed and preoccupied with his work.

Here's a passage from the book that I resonated with completely (though I'm not an artist, the way of thinking is familiar):
I looked away from her at the painting. The square shapes of the boxes of matzos intrigued me.

"Asher, look at me. What should I tell your father?"

"I'm trying, Mama."

"Your teacher says you're not trying. The mashpia says you're not trying. What should I tell your father?"

"I don't care."

"Asher."

What if I tilt some of those squares? I thought. Won't that make it more interesting?

"Asher, I have to tell your father something. What will I tell your father? I will have to tell him the truth. Asher, what do you do in school? Isn't there anything you'd like?"

"Yes," I said. Suppose I tilted one row of boxes one way and another row of boxes another way. What would happen?

"But you can't do that all day and all night, Asher. You can't go through school not learning."

"I'm learning, Mama."

"I don't know what to do with you," she said. She got up off the bed and went from the room.

I'll try it, I thought. And maybe I'll tilt Yudel Krinsky's body a little in different directions, too. That might make it really interesting.

I scraped off the paint and started again.
- My Name is Asher Lev, Chaim Potok
Notice how he's talking to his mother - giving her answers - but his mind is completely engulfed in the painting. And it's not exactly little things his mom is trying to talk to him about. His father is currently working in Vienna, working himself to death in order to get Jewish families out of antisemitic Europe, and wants to make sure his son is keeping up in school. Surely no child in his right mind would blow his father off like that!

Preoccupation is something that is characteristic of Asperger's, and I don't consider it a virtue or a vice. I think that it enables us to do very well with certain things, but it can also be a hindrance when other commitments stack up. It's something that has to be controlled, like everything else in our lives.

Perfectionism

In another part of My Name is Asher Lev, the mashpia (something like the principal of the school Asher goes to) asks Asher to draw some pictures for him. Asher does so, drawing a number of pictures of the first things that come to his mind.
I was filling the pages with beings and shapes and textures, trying to feel the rain on the windows and on the trees, trying to feel cold and snow, trying to feel darkness and night, and getting none of it on the pages, and finally I threw the pencil down on the desk and slammed the sketchbook shut.
-My Name is Asher Lev, Chaim Potok
Surprise, surprise, Asher Lev is a perfectionist when it comes to art! Of course, when we're preoccupied with something, it's easy to get perfectionist about it. I have perfectionism when it comes to anything I do of my own free will. Obviously, deadline assignments must be turned in on time (that's another kind of perfectionism) so I just do my best and cross my fingers. But I have not posted a single blog entry without regretting it afterwards, thinking about what else I could have done. That's partly the reason for the big break; though there was so much I wanted to write about - and a lot of it time-specific - I couldn't tell it the way I wanted for some reason, and so I just didn't tell it at all.

Perfectionism is also the reason why I don't think I will ever complete a NaNoWriMo, and why the teacher-sponsor of the high school literary magazine always has to press me for stories when I'm not in his class. But as he has said so many times: "Don't get it right the first time: get it written." I guess the same law applies to everything. You'll never get anything right the first time - so just go ahead and do it, and fix the mistakes later. When I do math, I don't wait until I've done it all in my head to write it down. My math doodles are harder to follow than the LOST finale, because I just do it. I'm going to have to start applying that same kind of thinking to writing if I'm going to keep up with this blog.

So I want to apologize for taking my sweet time with my blog. I plan to start doing this weekly, but it'll take a lot of discipline. Today I began an idea that will either take off or die within the first few days - I'm writing down things that I need to get done in a little notebook. It's a little more high maintenance than an agenda, because I also plan to use it when someone asks me to get something done by the end of the day, or by the end of the class period (as often happens in my Independent Study of Theatre first period). Theoretically I check things off as I go along and I make sure everything is checked by the end of the day. I doubt it'll work exactly as I plan it - but hopefully it'll help keep me from procrastinating, getting preoccupied, and being too perfectionist.

Remember: watch out for those three deadly P's!

Sunday, October 9, 2011

P.S. Coverage in West Virginia

Just to demonstrate how obsessive I can be, I'd like to draw attention to something from my previous post.

In my post about Organ Cave, I made the following statement:
"There's no reception in Organ Cave (much less in West Virginia)."
I worried and worried over this little jest, wondering if it might offend some people. So I decided that if I would jest, it would be well-founded. I looked up a reception map of the United States.


I don't know what I've convinced you of, other than the fact that I'm insane. But that doesn't bother me as long as I'm well-foundedly insane.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Chapter 7: Virginia Double-Feature, Part II

Greetings from Organ Cave, West Virginia! I'm your host, Sam Loomis, greeting you in the Throne Room of this historic site.

OK, I'm not really in Organ Cave, West Virginia as I'm writing this. There's no reception in Organ Cave (much less in West Virginia). We stopped by Organ Cave last week on the way home from the Virginia Tech trip. I had been looking for a tour that would stretch my comfort zone a little, and would allow me to see some of the more beautiful parts of the caves with my own eyes. As it happened, I got everything I bargained for and more.

We're walking along this trail into the cave - having entered through an enormous mouth and walked suddenly into a much smaller tunnel. Now, when I say "much smaller" don't get the wrong idea; this tunnel wasn't that small in itself - just the entrance itself was so large it made this tunnel seem smaller. We've been behind a rail the entire time, as our guide points out formations along the opposing cave wall and interesting historical facts. We come to a point where the path veers off into a lantern-lit tunnel that apparently leads to the "Hopper Room," while the majority of the not-so-small tunnel we're in trundles on into darkness. I point in the direction of the darkness.

"Does the tunnel go much further in that direction?" I ask out of curiosity.

"Yup," our guide says. "That's where we're going."

"Oh." That's an interesting bit of news. I had expected to go off the path, but for some reason not here. A little bit of excitement started to brew within me. I'm briefly reminded a phrase I had come across in one of the many science books I'd read before - the author himself was interviewing a scientists who was recalling a comic he'd seen long before, where a man is repelling into a dark hole, and a reporter asks why. The man replies: "Because it isn't there!"

"Now," our guide says, interrupting my reverie. "Do any of you have any fears or anything, like heights or enclosed spaces?" My dad and I look at each other. We both know the answer to this, though answering completely honestly might raise some complications.

"Well," I begin, wanting to explain that heights and I aren't best friends but also wanting to do this trip without the guide having to worry about me and my fears.

"Nah," my dad says. Short and to the point. Our guide begins to walk around the fence as we follow, and as he leads us into the darkness our headlamps reveal a hidden world to us.

***

"Now this right here is the Big Straddle," the guide says, pointing to a narrow tunnel without a floor. He had explained the nature of the Big Straddle to us earlier - the best way to walk across it is to support ourselves with our hands, while our legs are spread out over the chasm, finding footholds. He explains that there's no real danger. "It's so narrow you won't fall too far," he says, "but we might have to carry you out on a stretcher." This guy is either too honest or has a nasty sense of humor.

He begins to cross the tunnel, leaning with his back against one wall and his feet against the other. He shimmies across the chasm in this fashion for a few meters; we follow, copying his method. I kind of like it; it's easier than I thought it would be. He then stops and adjusts his position - he now has a hand and a foot on each side of the tunnel, holding himself in position with his arms and swinging his legs forward to the next footholds - then adjusting his arms for balance and repeating.

I continue using his old method, which feels much more comfortable. I can feel the weight of gravity pulling me down and have the sensation that if I move from my current position at all, I will fall down and keep falling. I try to switch over to his position a first time; after attempting this and failing to find footholds I feel comfortable with, I revert to the old method.

"It's really much easier this way," my dad says behind me. I look and he's straddling the chasm like a pro.

I try again to get into the straddling position; the guide is up ahead giving me some advice, telling me to support myself with my hands and that if I can move a little higher up I'll find better footholds there. They both explain how I want to swing, not step, but I don't see how on earth I'm supposed to manage swinging across this thing. And in the middle of all this awkward walking and trying to trust their advice, the guide's hand reaches out.

I grab it and he helps me off the Big Straddle and on to the ground. I've crossed it. I turn around and see my dad straddling around the corner. The tunnel looks just as intimidating from this side as it did from the other, but there's something different about it now - I've crossed it, and now it is subdued. As soon as my dad finishes crossing the Straddle we continue on our way, climbing down the boulders to the cave-river below.

***

We're stopping for a break, sitting down on a huge slab of rock to get drinks and some food. As my dad pulls our water bot

tles out of our bag, the guide tells us to look back. We look over at the tunnel behind us - though I thought it small compared to the cave entrance before, I can't imagine thinking of it as small now. Our headlamps only shine so far, and the distance we walked before is now pitch black. It strikes me that all the light in these caves came from our headlamps. We are sitting in an bubble of light, surrounded by an ocean of shadow. As I look out into the dark cavern behind us, I also realize that there isn't much tunnel ahead of us.

After we've eaten our snacks and gotten up, our guide gestures to the pile of rocks that seems to be blocking our path.

"Now," he says, "if you were trapped in here, where would you find an exit?" My dad and I look over the pile of rocks. There seem to be a few holes in the tunnel that we could follow. I see one in the back of the pile.

"Over there?" I ask, pointing. The guide answers without indicating if I was right.

"Why don't you go and see?"

My dad and I walk over to the hole - we shine our headlamps into it, and see that it leads to a dead end. My dad sees another hole to the side.

"How about over there?" he asks. We don't need the guide's prompting to go and check it out as well. We see that it quickly narrows off to a very uncomfortable width.

"Nope," I say, hoping desperately that I'm right. Our guide's silence confirms.

We check a few more exits, all failing. An excitement builds up inside of me - a mystery. Which tunnel is the way out? And where do all the narrow tunnels we can't fit through lead? Part of me wants to give up the tour and just begin on an expedition, squeezing through these crevices to find the other side. "Because it isn't there."

Finally, we give up. Our guide points up along a steep pile of boulders, which leads up to a small hole near the ceiling.

"We'll have to go up," he says. He leads the way up the steep pile, and we follow carefully, leaving this cavernous tunnel and all its offshoots behind, in darkness.

***

After much more exploring, we enter into a large room. The floor consists of large, flat boulders and there appears to be only one other exit. We sit in the middle and decide to take another break. As my dad passes me an energy bar to eat, he and the guide decide to turn off their headlamps. Once I have opened my energy bar, I do the same. From that point till now (as I'm writing this), I have had an extremely different view of vision.

The room immediately goes black, and I have never known the color black till now. The phrase "can't see my hand in front of my face" comes to mind. I hold my hand as close to my eyes as I can, and nothing - nothing - changes. In most dark rooms, proximity aids vision, because the light has less distance to travel before fading. But there is no light here. The darkness becomes a very tangible thing, closing up over my eyes, suffocating me. But I don't turn the light on. I'll wait till the others decide it's time.

My dad makes a comment about color. After all, if the "natural" state of the caves is pitch black, what color are the rocks really? Are they the dark brown I've been seeing this whole time? And in the end, what is my vision but an interpretation my brain makes of my surroundings? I would find later that if I just adjusted my point of view, being able to see makes me feel enclosed - trapped in an illusion, a filtered box through which I see the true world.

My dad and the guide are talking about something. I don't pay much attention. Though it makes me feel worse every time, there's a thrill to lifting my hand up and not seeing it. Some side of my brain gets more and more excited while the other tries to shrink back from the dark, but has no place to go. Still I don't turn the light on - after all, I can stand this. I can survive it.

My dad decides to take a picture with his phone to see what the lighting's like without our helmets. He aims randomly,
inadvertently photographing the far wall. There's so little light in the room his picture comes out black. He turns to a nearer wall and tries there. In the camera flash, I can swear I see something animal-shaped. I tell myself, though, that it can't be anything. I take a few deep breaths and try to admire the picture my dad's taken.

Soon we turn our lights back on. After my eyes adjust to the light, I look back at the spot my dad took a picture of. There's a vaguely animal-shaped rock there. I'm struck again by the illusion of vision. We leave the room, returning it to its state of blackness.

***

We toss our backpacks up onto a ledge above our heads.

"I assume we're going up there?" I ask.

"That's why we tossed the bags up there," the guide says. Good point.

I look around this little room. We've entered it through a tunnel in the floor. There's a narrow rock formation along one wall leading up to the ledge, and a tunnel leading out of the room, sloping upward. On the ledge a second tunnel leads out of the room. I figure that we're walking through the first tunnel, and coming out the second onto the ledge to get our backpacks.

Not so.

"You just come up along here," the guide says, pointing along the wall at the narrow rock formation. A strange stone jutting from the wall makes a little hole we have to squeeze through. "You'll want to come through here feet first, then stay up against the wall, because that rock's gonna want to pitch you forward." He climbs up, shimmies his way into the hole, and slides through feet first to the other side. I begin to follow.

Immediately I feel apprehensive. His phrase "that rock's gonna want to pitch you forward" resonates with a familiar sensation - though I may be perfectly balanced on the ledge, the absence of a wall to one side makes me feel like I'm leaning over. This makes it hard for me to get into the proper position to go feet first into the hole. I try to get my feet in the right position - but every time I adjust I slip a little and quickly revert to my original stance. It isn't a far drop, but if I fall wrong... For the first moment in the trip I consider turning back. This thought is quickly rejected and replaced by a determination to succeed.


"Try backing in for now," the guide suggests. Relieved, but hoping he has a plan, I lift myself up and sit in the hole. "Now just try and turn around here," he says, and I begin to spin on my butt so that I am now curled up in the hole. Unfortunately, my kneepads cause my legs to get jammed along the rock and now I'm stuck.

"Now you're stuck," says my dad, laughing. I laugh too. The only other way to respond to such a situation is
to freak out, and that's not going to help at all. The guide starts telling me how to move - wiggle up, twist to the left, right, slide down - I end up feet first in the wrong direction again, but as
my hands reach back I find a tiny, tiny ledge behind where I'm sitting and lift myself up, placing my hands on that - this gives me enough room to finally twist around and get my feet in the right direction. Now I have to drop onto another narrow ledge to get to the big slab on which our packs are sitting. The guide sticks his foot out to act as a foothold. I use it graciously and stumble over to the backpacks. My dad soon follows behind me.

Once we all get settled, the next phase of this passage lies ahead. We must cross over what must be a ten-foot deep gap between our ledge and a long jut of rock. As always, the guide goes first, crawling, using his kneepads to get enough friction to stay on the jut. I follow nervously - I lean over, put my hands on the rock, and now must bring one leg forward to rest my knee on a corner of the ledge - and here I sit for a moment. The next step is to left my other leg, so that the only things keeping me from falling into the gap are my palms and one knee. I know, however, that the kneepads change the game enormously. Taking a step of faith, I lift my leg from the previous ledge and hold my breath - and I don't budge. The friction between the gloves and kneepad and the rock is enough to hold me completely still.

I crawl hastily along the jut, trying not to slip off the edge, and meet the guide up at a narrow path along the wall. We must travel along this path, staying close to the wall, for the rest of the room is an 80-foot or so pit. I shine my headlamp down there. I can barely see the floor. The guide makes a comment about wanting to drop a measuring tape down there to see how deep it is. I agree. "Because it isn't there."

***
We walk slowly along the path and into another tunnel. From here on out, we walk mostly through narrow passageways until one point where we have to take an 8-foot drop, but that's easy compared to what we've done before. Soon we cross through another straddle-esque tunnel and come out back in the tunnel with the river. We're on our way out.

As we cross through the tunnels again, in the opposite direction, I'm struck by the difference. I don't recognize it at all - some landmarks I notice are the same from before, but the room just seems different.

Along the way, our guide points out a small twig lying on a rock. Its roots have grown out over the stone, searching for water and nutrients. I don't know how long it's been here, but it certainly has put up a fight. I feel a great sense of mystery as I realize that life will find a way anywhere - even in the most desolate places. Look closely at the picture - it's hard to see. Just a few white roots among the fallen rocks.

We run into another tour group, and visit the hopper room which we had skipped before. Then we follow the group out of the grand entrance to the cave. There we get someone else to get a picture of us with our guide. Soon after we're changing into clean clothes and parting ways. Part of me hopes to meet our guide again sometime; he was a very pleasant man, and helped me get through some of the tougher points in there by continuing to give me clear instructions, patiently working me through my fears.


This was an experience I won't forget for a long time. It was entirely new and strange to me, and at many points I worried about if I could make it through the whole tour. A number of different fears threatened to rear their ugly heads and obstruct my path, but with the help of my dad and our guide I managed to defeat them and continue on into the unknown. And why would I want to do that?

Because it isn't there!

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Chapter 6: Virginia Double-Feature, Part I

Hello, everyone! I'm sorry I haven't posted in a while; I've had a lot to keep up with and fell behind on the blog. But never fear, I'm making up for it with TWO posts in one day!

Recently my dad and I went up to Blacksburg, Virginia to visit Virginia Tech, the last stop on my quest to determine which college I plan on attending next year. I'm still evaluating my opinions, though I've got a pretty clear idea of where I'll decide to go in the end (not gonna ruin the surprise yet).

As a part of our tour of the physics department, the astrophysics professor took us to see another professor, who would give us a tour of the labs. However, we had no luck in finding this other professor, so instead the astrophysics professor introduced us to an undergraduate student of this other professor. I think his name was Michael or something like that.

Michael came up to us and reaches out to shake our hands, bowing a little as he does so. There was something a little fidgety about the way he spoke which peaked my interest. I continued to pay attention to his mannerisms as he led us to the neutrino lab.

So the first question he asked us, before elaborating on the lab, was: "You guys know what neutrinos are, right?" We nodded our heads. I knew a bit about them; I don't know how much my dad actually knew, but we had discussed the recent neutrinos-faster-than-light experiment previously, so I figure he understood a little. Michael continues. "We've set up some blah-blah-blah with some iridium in it and blah-blah-blah..." (I don't mean to be rude in my depiction, but a lot of what he said went over my head and I don't remember much of it.) My dad asks the question we're both wondering.

"So what's iridium?"

"Oh," Michael said. I think he realized that while we may know neutrinos, we didn't understand everything else he was talking about. "Well, iridium is an element. It's kinda rare, but when neutrinos hit its atoms, it turns to tin and releases some electrons, which we can detect." I nodded as things became clear. Somewhere they've set a block of iridium and they've got sensors to see when it changes to tin and releases electrons. Probably a little more complicated in practice, but it has a wonderful simplicity in theory.

As we left the lab, I looked around. I still had no idea what half the stuff in that room did, but I didn't worry about it too much. Now he was taking us to his current lab. We entered and he started to point things out - their computers, desks, the boxes left by the last group to use the room, and his partner, who had stopped working on some computer model but wouldn't make eye contact with us. Michael began to explain things again, but I still had a lot of difficulty understanding what he was talking about, so I had trouble focusing. My eyes drifted over to the computers. One of the monitors had been set on its side. Did the user need a more vertical screen for some reason?

Michael was talking about where his professor was now. "He's down in the mines, over in..." Some town. I found this interesting.

"So when you say mines, you mean..."

"Still active limestone mines. We get to send people down there to do experiments; they have to..." He describes the process of going down into the mines. "Then you get on an elevator which takes you 1400 feet down." Impressive. But after all this information, one question still remained...

"So why do you need to go down 1400 feet?" my dad asked. "What's the purpose?"

"Oh," Michael said. "Well, down there, you don't get a lot of radio noise or cosmic rays, so the interference is minimum." He then continued to describe a few more things before we finally left that lab, saying goodbye to his quiet partner and heading out. He led us down to one of the administrative people; shaking hands again, we thanked him, he said "You're welcome," and left.

***

As you can see, my memory of this even which only happened last week is not entirely clear and there are many holes where I likely delved into my own thoughts while Michael spoke. I feel terrible about not paying as much attention to him as he probably deserved, but I may be able to redeem myself by using this story to highlight an important lesson which I always thought was obvious.

To start with, while I don't like to make snap judgments, from the moment Michael began to speak I knew he was on the spectrum. The way he shook our hands, his occasional stuttering, his rambling thoughts, and his obliviousness to our confusion all pointed to Asperger's. Now, as you know, I have Asperger's too. So if we both have Asperger's, why didn't we connect more easily?

It all comes down to this fundamental, often frustrating fact: that Aspies, while thinking in different ways than everyone else, don't communicate in different ways than everyone else. We just suck at communicating. Communication is an external and social activity, and internal and awkward people like Michael and I just don't have the natural ability to communicate smoothly.

The reason I find this important to address is that there does seem to be a misconception that if you take a bunch of struggling kids with Asperger's and put them together, they will easily get along. I'm a theoretician, and I will tell you right now to not even try. It will not go the way you expect. If you're an experimenter, however, feel free to give it a shot. I'd be interesting in seeing what the actual results are.

Another way I like to think of it goes back to the connections I talked about last time. Most neurotypicals have a large number of connections in the social section of the brain, which not only gives them more communication skills but a common social ground - they can see body language and hear tone of voice and infer all kinds of information from it. Aspies, on the other hand, have a large number of their connections elsewhere. There is no guarantee that two Aspies will match up on their connections, and so the structure of their conceptual network will be different enough that it's almost like they're talking to neurotypicals - the only difference being, a neurotypical might be patient enough to guide the conversation in one way or another, while two Aspies will hit an awkward pause right off the bat which may last for the duration of the conversation.

So if you're thinking your kid might feel more at home among other Aspies, all I ask is that you not push it. It's fine to introduce your kid to other kids "like him(/her)," but don't expect positive results (though if you get positive results, by all means, follow them!). I don't mean it in a depressing way - it's just how things are. Your child will benefit more from interaction with his/her peers - though it may be a while before either side is mature enough to let the other in. A parent's most important role in these situations, I believe, is to be supportive, while not allowing their child to fall into total isolation. Try to keep them involved with others their age somehow - but not necessarily with others their "type."

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Chapter 5: On the Game of Freeze and Multivariate Extrema (or, Why Asperger's Kids Suck at Conversation)

Warning: this post contains both scientific and mathematical content which may be boring for some readers. Read at your own risk.

During rehearsal for the play the other day, our director wanted us to get used to the feel of acting "in the round" - that is, acting when the audience circles the stage, rather than sitting on one side. To get used to the feel, she had us play an improv game called "Freeze". The game starts with two people acting out a random scene. At any point in their scene, another person may shout out "Freeze!" and, predictably, the current actors freeze wherever they are. The person who froze them must take one of their spots, and then take the scene in an entirely new direction. For example, the scene could be two people walking, and as one of them leans over to pick up a quarter, I shout "Freeze!" - take the quarter person's spot - and now the scene is us working out, and I'm trying to stretch and touch my toes. The other person must adapt to the new scene as quickly as possible.

So I'm in the middle of a scene where I'm a psychic, giving a customer messages from his dead grandma, when someone shouts "Freeze!" At this point my hands are on my temples and my partner is looking very sad. The girl who shouted takes my partner's spot, and begins the scene - "Come on, it's just the Springfield High Dance!"

I pause briefly to try and interpret the scene. I didn't quite register the name of the dance yet - my first reaction was that she was talking about some kind of dance routine, like the Macarena, which apparently I don't want to do.

"Do you just not want to dance with me?" she says, waiting for my reaction. So I figure, I obviously don't want to do this strange dance - perhaps it's one of those like Soulja Boy that I just hate - so I say:

"Just... the thought of it..." - I make use of my hands, conveniently placed at my temple - "Ugh!"

There is a brief silence. Then all the girls in the room go "Oh!" in a sad, pitying way. My new partner has a look of hurt on her face. I know we're just acting, but I get the feeling I have misinterpreted something. My reaction was not at all expected by the audience, or my partner.

Then I figure it all out. The Springfield High Dance is an event, not a routine, which she wants me to take her to. And evidently I can't stand the thought of taking her to an event, judging by my own reaction. I quickly try to readjust, find a way to get the scene back on track, but apparently the scene is perfect for someone else to shout "Freeze!" and take my spot. I go to my seat, feeling bad - though I knew it was just a scene.

Let's skip a little further into the day. I'm in my Calculus III class at State, and we're working on finding the extrema of multivariate functions. To translate, take a function of two variables f(x,y) - in other words, it takes two input values and gives one output value - and find the points where there are maxima or minima to the function. For example, take the function f(x,y) = x^2 + y^2. This function has a minimum at x=0 and y=0, because it is the lowest value of the function in its immediate neighborhood (f(0,0) = 0). Given a random function, how do you find the maxima and minima?

Every multivariate function has what is called a gradient, which is a measure of the rate of change of a function as its many variables change. It turns out that when there is a maximum or minimum at a point, the gradient is zero there. So we just have to find out the equation for the gradient, and find where it equals zero, and we have all the maxima and minima - that is, in a perfect world. Because we still need to find a way to tell which is which, and there are other points - called saddle points - where the gradient is zero, but there is no maximum or minimum. So now we also have to distinguish between saddle points and extrema.

So as the professor is explaining this, I'm playing a game I often do in Calculus class - I try and find the solution before he finishes deriving it on the board. Using some intuition, I remember that we used second derivatives in Calculus I and II to find the extrema of single-variable functions, so maybe I needed some kind of second gradient to find the extrema of multivariate functions. I began examining some way to do this and, unfortunately, did not finish before the professor. However, I did notice that his method looked nothing like mine. I did not see how he had derived it, so I just scribbled it down for future reference, and planned to perhaps derive it on my own time. I still had to finish my method, however.

Eventually I worked out the second gradient concept, but it seemed to have reached a dead end. Over the course of the next day, however, I gradually saw where I had gone wrong, fixed it, and derived my new method for finding extrema. It worked, and it still looked nothing like the professor's solution. His solution had been short and simple, while mine was complicated. His involved a few terms derived from the function itself, while mine involved a few terms derived from the function as well as a few extraneous variables that seemed to have no effect on the whole, but I didn't know how to remove. Intuition told me that if they didn't contribute to the final result, they could be pulled out somehow, and so I continued to stare at it until I saw I could turn the equation into a quadratic and pull out the extraneous terms that way. My result was exactly the professor's method. Relieved that I had finally solved the problem my own way, I set my notebook aside and moved onto other things.

***

You may be wondering what those two stories had to do with each other. You may also be wondering what the heck half the stuff I said in the second story was. I don't fault you if you only skimmed over it; I only ask you to consider why it was so much more difficult to read the second part that the first. I personally find the second story more interesting, but I realize that it may seem monotonous, boring and opaque to others.

The two stories highlight a key aspect of Asperger's, and that is our apparent genius to non-Aspergian people. How is it that we can understand things like what I mentioned above, with the ease with which we understand them? I will answer that question with another question: how is it that you non-Aspergian people can pick up on social cues so well? How can you look at a person's face and body language and know exactly what to say and what not to say, before even a word is uttered?

I have a theory about how the mind works. I think that our minds are just an organized collection of concepts - the ideas from which more thoughts are built from. Car is a concept. Sam is a concept. Concept is a concept. Some concepts are connected to other concepts, and when one is triggered, it triggers all those concepts it is connected to with proportionate strength. For example, if I say President of the United States, what pops into your head? Perhaps President Obama. Perhaps the Secret Service. Perhaps a feeling of anger, or a feeling of joy. Whatever appears in your head is connected to the concept of President of the United States.

Perhaps these concepts can't be indefinitely connected, however. I think that our minds have the ability to build strong connections between certain concepts with ease in some areas, and more difficulty in others. Think of it like this - your brain has a "budget" of connections it can make, and so it has to allocate them. Will it put a large number of connections in social interaction? If so, you're likely to be very good at social communication, intuitively navigating your way through conversations. Alternatively, your brain might put a large number of connections in the section of your brain devoted to math. Then you'll be able to intuit your way through complex math problems, while struggling to understand the social world. You may have difficulty in a game like "Freeze" where intuiting your situation from a few social cues is key. Or maybe your brain won't allocate most of your connections to society or math, and instead to something else, like music. And so on.

Of course, just because we have difficulty in something due to not having the right number of connections in a certain area doesn't mean we shouldn't work on it. I decided a long time ago that it would benefit me to work on my weaknesses, and so I have given it my best try to make friends and be social. I've learned a lot through practice, and made a few mistakes. My friends have been very patient to stick with me through all my failures. One key thing I've learned about living a social life with Asperger's is to not say too much. I can keep control over what I say if I speak less. When I really get talking, however, is when I start to say stupid things. I hope I haven't offended anyone by being abnormally quiet around them. It's nothing personal; I just can't think of anything worth saying at the time. It's only later when I think, "Oh! I could have said that!" I think that's a better thought than "Oh! Why did I say that!"

So, if you have Asperger's, take the time to work on your weaknesses. Find things that you don't intuitively understand and try to learn through practice. Continue to pursue the things you do well, and get good at the things you don't do well. It will only make you stronger. People without Asperger's - I give you the same advice. Try to appreciate new things. Especially math. Seriously, I've heard people talk about math like it's some sort of religion only the elite priests can understand. That's simply not the case.

I hope I haven't bored you with this awfully long post. I think it's important for everyone to realize that for all our differences, we can be quite similar on the inside. I think we all have, for the most part, the same resources - just how our brains make use of them is different.

Friday, September 2, 2011

Chapter 4: How Theatre Began (Part 1 of Good Things)

Just to get it out of the way - yes, I will insist on spelling it theatre. Even though Chrome says it's wrong, theatre is the proper way to spell it, and that's what I'll stick to.

I went into my high school the other morning and walked down to the drama room, as we call it. Everyone else calls it the dance room out of habit, but us theatre geeks have long since claimed it. I walked over to the corner of the drama room where there is a small office. Usually it is shut, and the only indication you have of its use is a large poster on the door that says "Save the Drama for your Llama." Welcome to the Cary High Theatre Department.

I walked through the door and saw a few fellow theatre geeks. I don't know what they were talking about when I walked in; my mind was on the looming auditions. The day before I had to move my audition time from 3:00 to 6:25; later I realized that I had Calculus class at State around that time, and I would be unable to audition then. So the first thing I asked the drama teacher when I saw her that morning was:

"Did someone take my 3:00 slot yet?" I held my breath in anticipation.

"Yup," she said. I cursed in my head. Now I was a man without an audition. I explained my predicament to her - how all the time slots I could do were taken - and she said the best I could do was wait and see if someone else dropped out.

The play we're putting on - And Then They Came For Me - breaks a few records for the Cary High Drama Department. For one, it's the smallest play any of us can remember putting on. It's also the most dramatic play we can remember ever doing. It's about the Holocaust, focusing on the story of Ed Silverberg, Anne Frank's first boyfriend. It has about four male parts.

Four.

In every other play I've tried out for, I've felt slightly confident in getting some role, be it major or minor. But in this play I have no room to just slide in due to its size. I have to nail the audition if I want to get in at all. It's that fact that's got my nerves on edge; this mess I had made of my audition time slot has done nothing to help.

So I'm sitting in this office, contemplating what the future will hold - whether this will be the first semester since freshman year that I'm not in the production - when another friend of mine walks in, who I will call J out of respect for his privacy. J comes into the room and immediately draws all attention towards himself (it's not his fault, it's his personality). We joke around for a while, and J notices a tape sitting on a nearby desk titled "How Theatre Began" and starts painting with words a mental image of 2001: A Space Odyssey, where instead of the monkeys learning how to use tools they learn how to act. Soon after the bell rings and they all walk out to go to class, while I'm left contemplating how theatre began for me.

***

I don't remember why my Dad was home that day. Perhaps my brother was sick. Whatever it was, if it hadn't happened, I don't know what life would be like for me now. Would I have ever gotten involved in theatre? Would I be anywhere near as social? I can't know the answer to those questions; all I can do is be happy Dad was home that day.

I had gotten off the bus and walked home, going up to the front door and inside. My Dad was sitting doing work at the computer and asked me what I was doing home so early.

See, I was supposed to go to this cast read-through of Wizard of Oz, the musical I had miraculously made it into despite the fact that I bombed the audition. I had tried out for the play at the urging of my friend J, who at every point made sure I'd do the musical no matter how much I wanted to back out. He even signed me up for auditions when I had decided not to. There was no way I could have passively backed out trying out. I told my parents the day of the audition, and they drove me up to the school in utter confusion. I got halfway through my monologue, asked to start over, and sang horribly out of key. But despite my failures, the play's size meant that the director couldn't be too picky, and I got in.

But there were many reasons not to continue. For one, I was planning on taking Greek classes every Tuesday afternoon during the next semester; the play would interfere with that. In general, however, it was something new - something uncomfortable - and something frightening. It would be much easier to just not go to the mandatory read-through, and silently drop from the play.

My Dad wouldn't hear it. This was an exciting new opportunity to stretch myself and I probably wouldn't make it through another semester of Greek anyways (this was not an unreasonable statement; I had struggled with juggling Greek with my other classes last semester). Who knows what could happen if I just gave it a shot?

Despite all the conditionals that led up to that point - what if J hadn't signed me up? - what if the director hadn't let me in? - what if my Dad hadn't been home to refute my decision? - I found myself finally having to make an active choice. Because I couldn't passively give this opportunity up. Inaction is an action itself. Though I greatly feared stretching myself into a world alien to me (I had acted in church before, but this was a new level) I couldn't ignore that world's existence.

So I decided to go. At least I could give it a shot. So my Dad drove me up to the school. I walked into the building, went down to the chorus room where the read-through was taking place, and opened the door.

***

And Then They Came For Me is as far from the Wizard of Oz as one can possibly get. It's got a tiny cast, which meant I couldn't slide in with a bad audition. That was okay; I had gotten much better at auditioning since my first try. It's also dark and intense, stretching my horizon beyond the comedic (though I never thought I was that good a comedian anyways).

I would not passively slide out of this audition. I probably worried too much about having a time slot, moving from inconvenient time to inconvenient time. Far from the boy who needed his friend to sign him up.

I would not mess up the monologue. I practiced it a few times every day, and performed it in front of friends, family and teachers, seeking their advice. There would be no restarts.

And today, at the end of school, there wasn't even a question of whether I'd go to the mandatory read-through. Having received the role of Mr. Silverberg, the main character's father, I began the long trek along campus.

Whether you like it or not, life is full of decisions. I think decisions can be especially difficult for people with Asperger's. If we care about the decision, we obsess over the possibilities and can't see a clear winner. If we don't care... why make the decision? It's easier in the end to be blown about by other people's choices, and passively achieve our goals. But this doesn't work - because in the end, we must all make a choice. I can't remember the exact quote, but I recall a statement from the movie Temple Grandin along the lines of life being full of doors waiting for us to open them.

So today I walked all the way across campus to the drama room, where the read-through was taking place, and opened yet another door.

Chapter 3: Stay Zipped Up (and Other Lessons)

There are many parents of children with Asperger's who fear that their child might not be able to manage him or herself when left alone in the world. I'm here to tell you that those fears... are entirely well founded.

The other day, I was heading over to NC State (wolfpack!) to attend my Calculus III class. I had taken the two previous Calculi last year, but my high school does not offer any higher levels of math, so I enrolled at State to continue my mathematical education. In order to get to State, I walk up the street and take a Triangle Transit bus up to the outer edge of State, then board the Wolfline bus (route 7). This particular day I was getting dinner at the Brickyard, and so I wanted to get off at the Brickyard stop. All of this I knew and had visualized in my head. It should have been very straightforward.

Which, invariably, meant it wasn't.

I waited for about twenty minutes at the Triangle Transit stop for the bus to come. And waited. And waited. While I waited I listened to the first movement of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony and thought about the homework I would have to do for creative writing class later. Then the bus appeared over the horizon... zoomed toward me... passed me... zoomed away... I stood dumbfounded for a few moments as I tried to figure out what had just happened. Then I called my Mom, who drove me up the the Wolfline stop. Okay, so a small detour. At least it wasn't my fault.

So I was standing on the corner where the bus was supposed to come and, conveniently, the Wolfline did come. A little early, too. I got on and showed the driver my pass, noting that it was a different driver than before. Oh well. I sat down on the bus, which was much more packed than normal, and put my headphones back in. I tried for a while to do my creative writing homework, but the bus was too bumpy.

At some point I looked up and realized that I had no idea where I was. Well, not quite... I recognized the landmarks and stuff, I just had no idea why I was passing them and where I was headed. I regret to admit that I started thinking mean thoughts about the bus driver, who didn't seem to be following the route. At some point I looked at my map and decided that things could only get worse if I stayed on the bus, so I got off. As I watched the bus drive away, I noticed that it was route 2, not route 7.

Oops.

So I walked (with orientational aid from my parents over the phone) up to the Brickyard. By chance, the route 7 bus happened to pass me while I just happened to be standing at a bus stop. I got on. Same driver as usual. Same number of passengers as usual. Though no one on the bus knew of my stupidity, I still sat down awkwardly and tried not to make eye contact with anyone. I got off at the next stop at the Brickyard.

I walked over to the food court, grabbed some Chick-fil-A, and went up to the checkout line. When I walked up to the cashier, another employee walked up to me, pointed at my box which contained a char-grilled chicken sandwich, and said, "Do you know what that is?" Inwardly, I was indignant. Sure, I don't know which bus to get on, but I know my Chick-fil-A. I said, "Yes." She laughed and says, "No, not you." She was talking to the cashier, who was new on the job. I laughed with her, though I realized that everything about the scenario indicated that she wasn't talking to me. The fact that she was looking at the cashier, for starters. My self-esteem did not improved.

So I got my meal and I walked over to a table - just my lonely self - and began to eat my sandwich when I briefly glanced down. I noticed that my fly is down. (And it's one! - two! - three strikes you're out...)

I backtracked. When was the last time I went to the bathroom today? Just before the Drama club meeting. In which I addressed a room of thirty people on how to join Thespian society. Apparently with my fly down. I stood on a street corner listening to Beethoven for 20 minutes with my fly down. I rode both the wrong bus AND the right bus with my fly down.

I looked to either side, then discreetly pulled my zipper up and kept eating.

In the end, everything turned out fine. I finished my dinner and got to class on time, learned a few new things, and then went home.

I imagine any of these scenarios I went through could happen to anyone; but these situations can be much more common for someone with Asperger's. Us Aspies often don't like to admit that we end up in some pretty embarrassing situations - we like to focus on the aspects of Asperger's that make us look intelligent. But it's when we least expect it that we miss a bus, or find ourselves in an awkward social situation, or simply realize that we've had our fly down the entire day. I think it is important that people with Asperger's, when in unfamiliar situations, should try and be as aware of their surroundings as possible. It's fun to get lost in thought, and find a refuge deep inside our heads, but it's better to do that on our own time.

And I probably would have been in much more trouble if I didn't have my parents to help me when things went horribly wrong. It's important for parents to be accessible, though not embarrassingly accessible. If my Mom insisted on driving me there so that this never happened again, I'd tell her "no" and not discuss it anymore. I have to keep my dignity somehow.

Hopefully I've learned my lesson. Just yesterday I went to class again, and everything went smoothly that time. Only time will tell if I can remember to check for the right bus, what social cues to watch for, and most importantly, to keep zipped up.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Chapter 2: Good Things (Part 0)

I've had a quote stuck in my head for a while now, from a source I never thought I'd find a good quote. It's from the most recent season of Bachelorette. One of the final two guys proposed to the girl, but she turned him down. He didn't take it well and began to storm off. She followed him, saying she didn't want it to end this way, when he stopped her and asked her how she thought it could end well. "Good things don't end," he said, "unless they end badly."

My final year of high school - of grade school - began last week. I wish I had a word with which to describe the emotions that accompany this thought; the best I can manage is bittersweet, but that doesn't quite do it justice. Bittersweet is a word that implies some kind of oxymoronic conflict, but also comes with some form of consistency. To me, it evokes the taste of grapefruit. It's touching on what I'm feeling, but it's not there yet.

I think that the best way to describe how I feel is to take bittersweet and extend it to the far end of the spectrum, both ways. Devastatelating. Mournjoyful. Terrixcited. All to try and demonstrate the extreme dissonance within my soul as my years of grade school draw to a close.

But why should there be a dissonance? Doesn't everyone love to finally leave school? To get out of that miserable, repetitive existence and finally move on to do what you want to do? We've spoken all our lives about what we'll do when we grow up. After this year, we can stop speaking and start doing. All of this is true for me; it will be a relief to leave the negative aspects of school behind, and I feel ready to start accomplishing things. This is the excited part of my terrixciting feeling - I'm finally ready to say I'm grown up.

But growing up is more than going out and seizing the day. There comes a point where one must accept that things come to an end - that to move on means to leave things behind. This is the difficult, scary part about senior year for me, because it means the end of many good things, and the fading away of others. I pray that the person on the Bachelorette was wrong - that good things can end well.

Many famous physicists and mathematicians have had what is called a "miracle year" where they make their most significant accomplishments. I'm proud to say that I have had three miracle years at high school so far, for I have done things I never thought myself capable of - and they're not things people would expect from a mathematician with Asperger's. The things I have accomplished include: 1) Writing stories and editing for a magazine, 2) Trying out for a school play (and getting in!), 3) Kept myself organized enough to pass all my classes with an A, 4) Survived 10 days in the Dominican Republic, 5) Joined a chorus (and sung solo in front of that chorus (not a public audience, though)), 7) Asked someone to prom, and much more. I could not have done any of these things without the help of very good friends who I am indebted to.

And at the end of this year, I will be leaving them.

They say a friendship never ends, but the truth is that they fade. When I go off to college, our paths will diverge, and we'll see each other less and less often, and soon not at all. It's the natural order of things.

And it terrifies me.

Despite the sadness of the occasion, however, I must say this one thing (and this is the main point of this post): I would not trade my miracle years for Newton's or Einstein's, or anyone else's. In all my intellectual dreams I never once imagined that I would find joy in the things I now find joy in. If it is true that when a mind has been stretched, it can never shrink back to its original state, then I will never see the world in the same light again.

Kids with Asperger's - step outside of your comfort zone. Try to make friends; be willing to conform to social norms, even if they don't make sense; take up some kind of hobby outside of your main interests. I used to want to just be a physicist or a mathematician. I'm still aiming for something like that, but now I'm also an amateur in writing, acting, and music. I have more friends than I thought I could have. Take it from me, I've tried loneliness; it doesn't compare to the immense joy of friendship. (Keep boundaries of course; don't do bad things just to make friends. Those aren't the friends you want.)

You may have noticed that this is post is labeled Part 0. I want, at some point, to go through the many new experiences I've had, giving significant attention to certain ones - if not just to elaborate, I can have the joy of sharing my Aspergian views of the social world. I hope it will also function as a first step in expressing my undying gratitude for the friends who have supported me all these years. Jesus once said that only God is good. John said that God is love. And the love between my friends and me are the best "good things" I've experienced in my short life. I am eternally grateful.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Chapter 1: Not a Destination

Let me tell you a story about a young brother and sister.

There once were two young children, a brother and a sister, who hardly ever tried new foods. Their parents brought them to a seafood restaurant, and while there, the father offered a bowl of circular French Fries to his children. The siblings, loving all forms of fries, began to devour the delicious appetizer at great speed. At some point the sister, though enjoying the meal, noticed a strange texture to the fries, calling them "squishy." The brother noticed this too, but his hunger outpaced his curiosity and he continued to eat. The sister decided to ask her father, "Why are these French Fries so squishy?" Her father victoriously replied, "They're actually squid!" The sister immediately recoiled from the bowl, repulsed at the thought of having eaten something so gross as squid. Her brother, while intrigued by this revelation, continued to eat.

Like many stories, this one has many levels. On the surface, it's actually a true story, I being the brother and my sister being the... well, you can guess. On yet another level, it's funny because it's a real-life occurrence of a situation often played out in sitcoms. On a further level still, it is an allegory meant to highlight a fear that I imagine many parents have over telling their children that they have Asperger's.

The food represents life, and the siblings are two people who have received a similar lot: Asperger's (squid, as opposed to fries). One child grows up knowing that something is different, and is concerned by it. Upon realizing that they have Asperger's, they take it as a horrible revelation. They may feel more isolated than before, become withdrawn, and actually succumb to the symptoms of Asperger's more easily.

The other child, however, grows up knowing something is different, and while they may be concerned, they go on with life. Upon realizing they have Asperger's, they accept it as an explanation for the differences and continue on as before. They will work to not succumb to the negative sides of Asperger's, and they will enjoy all the positive sides. They'll still do what they can to socialize, when they want to socialize, and they'll find time to be alone when they want to be alone. It's never easy to have Asperger's, but I don't think life is easy for anyone, regardless of disorders. You just take what life gives you and make the best.

Obviously, every parent wants their child to be the second kind when it comes to telling them they have Asperger's. They may feel, however, that they have no control over that and so they'll wait as long as they can to tell their child. This is a grave mistake. The fact is, parents do have a small amount of control over how their child reacts, and they should utilize it to the fullest extent.

The biggest difference between the siblings in the story above, I think, is age. One child was old enough to have some kind of stigma against squid. The other was young enough to think of squid as squid, and if he had a little stigma, that was wiped away by experience. Parents, don't treat your child's Asperger's like a secret. Let them know while they're still young enough to form their own opinions on what Asperger's means. If you wait until they're older, then their reaction to hearing they have Asperger's will be based on everything they'd heard in school, on TV, and everywhere else about it. And I can almost guarantee you that what they hear is not reassuring. The best way to help your child cope with Asperger's, and really any Autism, is to let them form their own opinion on it before someone forms it for them.

I can't remember the time I first learned I have Asperger's, but I remember that it was a new word for me when I heard it. It explained a lot, and my parents helped to make it clear that Asperger's wasn't a destination, but a direction. It doesn't tell me who I have to be, but it changes the course I'll have to take to get where I want to be. It may not always be easy - but then again, no one has it easy. And knowing all that is why I'm perfectly comfortable saying that I have Asperger's.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Foreward

Hello. For those of you who don't know me, my name is Sam, and I have Asperger's.

I don't know what those three words mean to you. For me, they can be a sight for sore eyes - giving me the feeling that I can connect with this charming guy who's talking. But that's my (somewhat biased) perspective, and one thing I've had to learn in my life is that other people will not see things the way I see them.

Our pasts define how we view everything, allowing us to compartmentalize the meanings and implications of names, phrases, and looks. It's a possibly evolutionary feature that allows us to survive in the real world - but survival, unfortunately, is often cares little for the survival of others. The sins of the first impressions are visited upon the second, third and fourth impressions, and without conscious intervention our minds will show no mercy in judging those we meet.

So I'm going to ask one thing of you - to make a conscious intervention. No matter what your reaction was to those three words, I want you to set it aside and give me my chance to tell you what those three words mean to me (obviously, my opinion is not the final word, and I'd love to hear what those three words mean to you). I can't guarantee that I speak for all with Asperger's - in fact, I can guarantee that I do not - but I hope that my experiences in high-functioning autism can apply to people affected by all levels of Asperger's and autism.

In this blog, I plan to explain my understanding of Asperger's through example. After all, it is something that impacts my everyday life, and I can think of no better way to help others see all the fine points of Asperger's than to explain my experiences. I hope you will not find my experiences dull; my adventures are rather low-key in nature. I don't sneak out, I don't go to many parties, I've never done drugs, etc. During the school year I essentially go to school at around 7 in the morning, get home around 3 in the afternoon (unless I'm involved in a play), and procrastinate. If you only read exciting things like Harry Potter, I might not recommend this to you. If you read things like Twilight, however, then this blog may be slightly less boring.

So there you have it. I hope you enjoy reading my blog, and can learn from it. I'll try to update it on a quasi-regular basis, but no promises. I tend to procrastinate on these kinds of things. After all, I have Asperger's.