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.


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.


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.