Saturday, February 18, 2017

Aspergers and Driving: Should You Encourage your Teen to Learn?

Now that my kids are around their mid-teens, the question of driving is starting to come up. Not from them of course because it’s pretty common for kids on the spectrum to have little or no interest in driving - but from friends and family.

In today’s society, the means and ability to drive is very important, particularly if you live outside the inner city areas, you have tools that you need to carry for work or you have a job that moves from place to place.

Like most things, driving is a skill that’s best mastered while you’re young

Is it Safe?

One of the first questions that people ask regarding Asperger’s syndrome and driving is “is it safe?”. Since people with Asperger’s syndrome are, by definition, highly functional, they certainly can have a good grasp of the concepts and dangers of driving. They’re able to follow road rules and they’re able to devote the attention needed to driving.

In general terms and under normal circumstances, driving with Asperger’s is no more or less safe than any other form of driving. 

The Motivation to Drive

Many teens with Asperger’s syndrome lack the direct motivation to drive. There are quite a few reasons for this;

  • They’re usually happy to stay at home in familiar surroundings
  • Other family members will often give them a lift
  • Lacking deep friendships, they’re less inclined to go out anywhere with friends
  • Their meagre needs can usually be serviced by local shops (walking or public transport)
  • Many special interests; books, computer, TV, the internet & music occur at home
  • Online shopping reduces the need to travel
  • The prospect of learning; Forms, tests, costs, lessons etc, is daunting & easily avoided
  • People with Asperger’s try to avoid stress and other people - driving involves both.

Left to their own devices in a comfortable home setting, a person with Asperger’s syndrome is extremely unlikely to become motivated enough to want to learn to drive. It’s up to the parent to give them a push.  

Should you give them a push?

If your teen with Asperger’s has the ability to pass the test, at least the verbal/written parts of the test, then absolutely, you should encourage or bribe them into going for their driver’s licence. There are lots of positives, even if they don’t drive or don’t end up owning a car.

The driving tests ensure that your teen has a good understanding of the road rules and the effects of drugs and alcohol on driving. Even if your teen is a pedestrian or if they’re going to get a ride with friends, this is good information to know. There’s also the fact that job applicants with drivers licences are often looked upon more favourably than those without - even if the job doesn’t involve driving. It shows that the applicants are willing to work for goals outside of school.

Obviously there’s a difference between pushing your teen towards driving and becoming an insufferable nag. If you push too hard and too often, you’ll turn your teen off the idea of driving. Sometimes you just have to push a little and then give them a little space.

This is me, with my P Plates back in 1987

Passing the Test 

You’ll need to work with your teen on passing the written tests which these days are less about common sense and more about facts and figures. If your teen is having trouble passing, look for practice tests online and leave handy reminders for the more difficult questions around the house.

When it comes to the more practical parts of the test, you should start the lessons yourself in a deserted area, like a new estate on a weekend. Starting the lessons yourself means that you’re in the best position to gauge your teen’s anxiety levels and to “back off” if required.

Once your teen is a reasonably good driver, you’ll want to engage an instructor for a few lessons. 

Instructors are expensive but they’re also very familiar with the tests and will be able to teach your teen things that are looked upon favourably by the testers; for example hovering the foot over the brake pedal as you go over a pedestrian (zebra) crossing.

Meltdowns and Driving

The one thing that you need to stress to your teen is that they should not drive while they are in (or near) a meltdown state. 

There was one incident from my university days where the university services team mis-binded a 300 page assignment and I had to drive home in tears and at maniac speeds to reprint the whole thing on a slow dot-matrix printer in time to resubmit in the same 24 hour period.

I remember very little apart from cars pulling over and giving way to me, so I was obviously driving poorly. 

If I’d been thinking a little more clearly, I could have explained the problem to my professor, left her with the mis-binded version and probably been allowed to submit it properly the following day without penalties.  I’m just grateful that nobody was hurt that day.

You need to ensure that your teenager knows that no situation is unsolvable. If they're close to a meltdown -- don't drive. Call mum or dad!

General Driving

You can usually relax once your teen has their licence, as kids with Asperger’s often don’t have the same amount of peer pressure as those without. This means that there’s often less reckless driving. It’s not a rule though and you’ll still have to watch their behaviour around their friends for signs of unsafe behaviour.

As a teen, I found that my driving was quite good when I was mucking around but it wasn’t so good when I was driving normally. This is something to do with my general alertness levels. I still probably would have been okay but because I had very little experience, I was unprepared for unexpected issues such as wet roads and people parking in unexpected places.

Once my kids are driving, I’ll be putting them through defensive driving courses to help them handle those unexpected conditions.  It's expensive but it's safer and far less costly than repairing cars and property.

Saturday, January 21, 2017

How the Fitbit can help people with Special Needs

Only a few years back, I remember saying that I'd never need to wear a watch again because the date and time was on my phone, which I carry everywhere. About two years ago I picked up a Fitbit Charge HR on a whim and it's been my faithful companion ever since. 

Recently I had an issue with it and I was without the device for a couple of weeks. I was surprised by how much I missed it while it was gone. 

It got me thinking about how exactly it was adding value to my life.

What I Use

The fitbit I use is one of the smallest and cheapest devices, the Fitbit Charge HR. I got it because I was interested in a fitbit and because my family has a history of heart disease. I chose the model just above the base because it supported heart rate monitoring.

The device is paired to my home computer and to my apple iPhone (I personally prefer android but my work phone is currently apple).

We also have a phone system at work which can be set to ring your mobile and desk phone at the same time. That's turned on for me permanently.

Benefits for the Hearing Impaired

One of the most unexpected benefits of the fitbit was to do with my hearing loss.

I can't hear my mobile phone ringing and often I'm so absorbed in tasks at work that I can't hear my desk phone ringing either. I used to miss a lot of phone calls. I ended up putting the phone on vibrate only since there's no point in annoying my co-workers with sounds that I can't hear. Of course, unless I have the phone in direct contact with my skin, I usually don't notice it vibrating on the table.

That all changed once I got the fitbit. What I discovered was that when I paired the fitbit with my iphone, it vibrates on my wrist whenever the phone rings. What's more, it displays the identity (name or phone number) of the caller. It means that I don't miss calls now and on the odd occasion that I do (like when my phone is buried under a pile of paper somewhere), I usually know who called me because their name displayed on my wrist.

Even better, since my desk and mobile phones ring at the same time, I now find that I pick up my desk phone seconds before it actually rings because I've felt it on my wrist.

It's a feature that I really can't live without now. 

The other feature I love are the silent alarms. You can set the alarm to go off (vibrate) on just specific days of the week. In my case, I have an alarm in the mornings but only on weekdays. I love this feature because sometimes I sleep through the noise of my alarm.

My wife however is the biggest fan of this feature because it means that she doesn't get woken up by a super-loud alarm designed for my poor hearing. 

Benefits for people on the Autism Spectrum.

The fitbit has a lot of benefits designed for everyone but I feel that a few of these are particularly suitable for people on the autism spectrum.

I love the way the device provides encouragement and rewards to exercise. It makes exercise fun and challenging without necessarily making it a team effort. Given that many people on the spectrum are loners, having a way to get rewarded for individual behaviours is good.

Being able to set five day exercise goals as well as daily goals is good too because I find it gives me something to strive for. If I have one bad day, I feel like I can try to make it up on the other days. 

People on the autism spectrum often get so absorbed by their special interests that they forget to exercise. The fitbit counters this nicely.

Then there's the band. It's rubber but I find it (and the clock-face) much lighter than other watches. I'm also less inclined to bang into things or get it caught on things as I walk - I have killed a lot of watches in the past just by misjudging the size of entryways.

One thing that isn't too clear in the manuals is that you're not supposed to wear the fitbit tightly. You're supposed to give your skin room to breathe. Like many people on the spectrum, I've got a high sensitivity to touch and this looseness works particularly well for me. 

The silent alarms feature means that you can trigger alarms while in busy areas.  This means that they good for reminders, for example; to take medications or even as "reminders to concentrate in class".

If your child on the spectrum has a "sleepy period" in the afternoons, consider setting a silent alarm to remind them wake up and concentrate. 

There's a lot of other things that you can do with the fitbit, such as tracking food and water consumption. It all meshes quite nicely with the phone and internet control panels.  For the most part, I don't personally use those extended features but it's good to know that they're available should I need them.

Why Fitbit?

Actually, this is quite a good question for which I have no answer. I bought the device to encourage myself to do more walking. I chose the fitbit because two years ago, it was probably the best known of the cheaper brands of device.

As far as I'm concerned, it's a great product and it works extremely well. I haven't tried devices from other vendors but I'm very happy with Fitbit and with their support team who helped me when I had problems.

Would I buy a fitbit again?  Absolutely. I'm eyeing up the waterproof models already.

Saturday, January 14, 2017

Elastic Style Asperger’s and Neurotypical Relationships

Early relationships with people who have Asperger's syndrome quite often take on some very “elastic” properties. Sometimes they're really close and at other times they're quite distant. Sometimes it seems that the closer their neurotypical partner gets, the more the partner with Aspergers pulls away.

In this post, I want to look at the reasons for this behaviour.

Establishing the initial relationship 

For the most part people with Aspergers tend to be more introverted or at least, less comfortable around others. This makes it very difficult to establish the relationship.

Dropping hints generally won't work and person with Aspergers is likely to either completely miss any “signals” or alternatively, interpret literally everything as some kind of signal.

The best way to get the attention of someone with Aspergers is to “say what you want”. State your intentions clearly and concisely, leaving no room for error or misinterpretation. If you find it difficult to be open and honest about what you want in a relationship, write it down. 

The Honeymoon Stage

All relationships tend to start with a glorious “honeymoon period” which is when everything is new and interesting - and where both partners put everything that they possibly can into making the relationship work.

The honeymoon period is a very important part of any relationship because it lets both partners see what is possible under the very best of circumstances.

Of course, if things don't go well in the honeymoon stage, it's a good sign that the relationship isn't meant to be. Relationships settle but rarely show drastic improvements after the first few months - at least not without significant personal change.

In Aspergers relationships, the honeymoon period is doubly important because despite the “fakery” which is common in neurotypical relationships, this is often the best, and sometimes only, glimpse that their partners get of their “true selves”.

That's not to suggest that there's no fakery involved. The partner with Aspergers is usually doing their best to be as “social” as possible and it usually takes quite a bit of effort. It's not a level of social activity that they can maintain for long periods but it is the time when they’re the most communicative.

When Reality Takes Hold 

After the honeymoon period is over, both partners will usually be deeply in love and the relationship will seem to need less work. It's common for all partners to back off a little and the flaws in the relationship and their partners become more visible.

If your partner has Asperger’s, this is the time when they will be trying to recover from “social overload”. It means that they may completely “back off” and may try to avoid all social contact.

Often due to the stress of maintaining the relationship, they will lose confidence in their ability to continue. This is mainly because they're unable to find a way to meet their partners expectations due to exhaustion.

One of the big problems here is that they're generally responsible for the unrealistic expectations of their partners due to their “pretense” during the honeymoon period. Of course, their partners might be more understanding if they knew what was going on.

Unfortunately it's rare that people with Asperger's fully understand the reasons for their own defensive responses. It takes many years of experience and inward focus to really understand how Asperger’s affects oneself. It's very unlikely that a partner with Asperger’s could explain these feelings and motivations to someone else.

Solidifying the Relationship 

The way forward in the relationship is via discussion, compromise and understanding but it's a journey that only works if both partners are willing to adapt and change.

One of the first things to do is to establish regular and open relationship communication. There are two important things here;

  1. Regular communication: You must communicate regularly. It doesn’t have to be daily but it certainly should be at least more than once per week. If you both lead busy lives, then set aside some time when you know that both of you will be available, for example, 7pm - 8pm Monday, Wednesday and Friday.  Make sure that you take it in turns to be the one to initiate a phone call during that time and make sure that you are available. Don’t take other people’s calls or commitments on during your “couples time”.
  2. Open communication. You must be open to any kind of discussion during your communication period. If a sore topic comes up, you must be able to at least say why it’s a sore topic and why you don’t feel like talking about it.  Remember that you can also reschedule topics that you need time to think about, (for example, “can we discuss this one on Friday?”).  If you find verbal communication on some topics to be too scary or embarrassing, then agree to write a love letter or email instead. 

You need to also be thinking about your partner and your own role in the relatonship and you need to be willing to adapt and change and compromise.  For example, if your partner wants more social contact with you but you don’t feel that you can “face the world”, agree to have a “quiet night” where you go to their place (or they come to yours) and you have take-out and watch a movie at home. This is good quality couple time but it’s also low stress.

It doesn't end there though. The nature of relationships are that they are constantly changing as people and their environments change. In order to survive in the long term, relationships need to be re-evaluated regularly. They need constant work, communication and compromise.

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Book Review: Social Engagement and the Steps to Being Social by Kathleen Taylor and Marci Laurel

Social Engagement & the Steps to Being Social: A Practical Guide for Teaching Social Skills to Individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorder by Kathleen Mo Taylor, OTR/L and Marci Laurel, MA CCC

I was quite looking forward to reading this book, assuming from the title that it would be a handbook. As it turns out, it's a textbook which means that it targets a very different audience.

As a textbook, the material is not aimed at parents and aides but rather, at academia. It's a well written book which covers a lot of ground in terms of establishing and improving social contact between people on the autism spectrum and others.

The early chapters cover topics including the getting and retention of attention. There are also some exercises which are designed to increase attention span.

The four sections of social learning are;

  • Self Regulation
  • Shared Space
  • Shared Focus
  • Shared Pleasure

These categories contain many sub-categories which move your child from noticing that they're someone else playing beside them, through to parallel play, joint attention and exchanges though to group co-operation and friendship.

There's a section explaining the details of each of these in groups of four... the lower, middle and upper four.

Throughout the book, there are various case studies highlighting particular techniques which have worked and in the later parts of the book, there are numerous checkboxes and surveys to help you to determine the stage that a given child is at in their social engagement.

I found the book a little too academic for family use but it is certainly useful in academic circles and I expect, also with professionals,particularly in speech and occupational therapy.

Social Engagement and the Steps to being Social by Kathleen Taylor and Marci Laurel is published and available from Future Horizons and is also available from Amazon and Booktopia. It appears to be only available in paperback at the moment, though there are hints that an eBook is on its way.

I'd recommend it for professionals and academics.

Honesty Clause: I was provided with a PDF copy of this book free of charge for review purposes.

Friday, December 2, 2016

Book Review: Stressed Out! For Parents: How to Be Calm, Confident & Focused by Dr Ben Bernstein

Stressed Out! For Parents: How to Be Calm, Confident & Focused by Dr Ben Bernstein with Michelle Packard, author of Family Ever After. 

Stressed out is a bit different to the books that I normally review on Life with Aspergers, particularly because it has no direct connection to autism.

Nevertheless, stress is something that most parents are very familiar with, particularly parents with children on the spectrum. Stress is also something that people with Autism, Aspergers or Anxiety experience a great deal.

Throughout the book, it sets up scenes of parental stress ranging from bad behaviour to unmet expectations and full-on family disputes. In those early chapters, I kept expecting the information on calming down to be followed by alternate and workable solutions.

There are no solutions to parenting problems in this book. It's simply “not that kind of book”.

This book aims to make you a better parent but not because of solutions to specific problems. Like the serenity prayer, this book helps you to find your calm centre through the recognition and acceptance of the things that you cannot change.

For example, you want your daughter to clean her room and you become stressed when it doesn't happen. The book doesn't teach you how to motivate or coerce her into doing the work but teaches you to recognise that the stress and the expectations are coming FROM you. You’re bringing those to the table, not your daughter. 

At the end of the day, it’s better to have a messy and happy family than one that is stressed.

The book covers three major concepts and presents three “tools” to help with each. I'm not personally sold on every single one of the concepts in the book but that doesn't mean that they won't be more effective in the hands of people with a less cynical point of view.  Certainly the main stress reduction concepts are valid.

With acceptance out of the way, the book concentrates on empowerment, giving parents the tools to boost their personal confidence and the confidence of their children. It’s the second part of the serenity prayer; the courage to change the things you can.

As it turned out, my review copy of Stressed Out! arrived during a particularly stressful time for me (actually, the last three years or so have been super stressful). I found it very helpful and I'm now approaching my oncoming stressful "event horizon" in a much calmer manner. 

I'd recommend this book to anyone who is feeling overwhelmed by the stress in their life, regardless of whether or not it's "parenting stress".

Stressed Out! is published by familius and is available from Amazon in Kindle, Paperback, Hardback and Audible formats. It's also available from Goodreads.

Honesty clause: I was provided with a copy of this ebook free of charge for review purposes. 

Friday, November 18, 2016

Book Review: My Wonderful Fran: The Biography of an Amazing Girl by Paul Spelzini

My Wonderful Fran: The Biography of an Amazing Girl by Paul Spelzini

My Wonderful Fran is a touching memoir of a very talented girl by her father.

It covers her life in a very natural and straightforward way, covering her likes and dislikes, family relationships, holidays, school and sports.

While the word Aspergers is used a lot in the book, it's really much more a study of how schizophrenia can quietly enter the lives of families and how powerless we can be without appropriate support networks.

If you're the parent of a child with schizophrenia or chronic depression or if your child has been behaving suspiciously with possible intentions of suicide, then you need to read this book.

Ultimately, My Wonderful Fran is about how even the brightest and most gifted of us, with the best of families, can stumble in difficult circumstances.

My Wonderful Fran; The Biography of an Amazing Girl by Paul Spelzini is available in hardback, paperback and kindle formats from Amazon,

Honesty Clause: I was provided with a copy of this book free of charge for review purposes.

Friday, November 11, 2016

Trump, Depression and Looking After your own

So, it's happened. Donald Trump is now the President of the United States. There's been a media frenzy and amongst it all, barely even acknowledged, a wave of suicides.

So, whose fault is it? Trump's? ours? The media? The victims? More importantly, what can we do to protect our own?

The Trump presidency is a macrocosm of the microcosm I currently find myself in. Yeah, it's all about me…. it's a similar microcosm to what many people, particularly those with differences, find themselves in every day.

...and the answers are just as simple, and elusive.

It's not the end, we're still here!

Despite all his pre-election rants, no president has the authority to take away basic human rights. They can't launch nuclear weapons simply because they don't like somebody and they're not going to wander through homes deporting or imprisoning people simply because of where they were born or what their sexual preference is.

To suggest otherwise is “fear-mongering” and it's very harmful.

The Microcosm of Depression 

I've worked in the same place for sixteen years. I'm quite comfortable there. We have taken our specialised IT systems at work to levels of complexity that the original designers never dreamed of. The stability has worked wonders for me, for IT and for the company in general.

A few months ago, my boss of 10 years left the company. He was replaced by a new one who doesn't have the time or the interest to understand our current systems but simply wants to “rip and replace” them with things that he is familiar with…. regardless of effort, security or record keeping.

My once-trusted advice is now being ignored and I'm going from a position of deep expertise to a relative “newbie” in these systems. It's all very depressing.

Of course, there are rumours flying everywhere, will I be replaced? Demoted? Rendered obsolete?

It's been affecting me badly. I've hated going to work these past months and I've found myself pondering how nice it would be to just die.

Fortunately, I'm an old hand at dealing with depression and when I reach that point I know “it's the Aspergers talking” and I have to make changes in my life and thoughts.  I have responsibilities to my family and no stupid job is worth a life.

Things are a little better now. Nothing has changed except my attitude. At this point I'm going to follow the new boss into the abyss and accept the change for what it is and see what I can learn from it. All going well, I'll be an expert in the new technology in no time.

I'm not going to keep trying to rescue the company from management stupidity. It's not up to me to rescue people who don't want to be rescued. If they fail, it's on them. If they succeed, I will have learned some valuable lessons and will probably develop new respect for the new boss.

There's no need to go burning bridges but I'll be keeping my eyes open for other jobs just the same.

The Macrocosm - It's only four years 

Back to Trump. He's the president for four years.Many of his policies might sound terrible and they may have a short term negative effect on the country but then again, they might work- even if it's not for the reasons that he intended.

At the end of the day, America will still exist in four years and you'll all have another chance to vote. In the meantime, the different management style is an interesting learning opportunity (not just for America but for the rest of the world too).

Looking After Your Own

As I mentioned earlier, it's an easy slide downhill from depression to suicide and that's a real problem. Now, more than ever, we need to be protecting our vulnerable people.

Protecting people means reassuring them that you love them, that they're not alone and that they're valuable members of society - and valued FOR their differences, not “in spite of them”.

It means that we need to think twice before forwarding on yet another fear mongering meme about Donald Trump.

Sure they're funny but they're clearly affecting our vulnerable, special people - and like jobs, no stupid politician is worth a life.