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."

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