Blinded by Science

A year or so ago I had the wonderful opportunity to have lunch with several people who are prominent in the field of autism.   It was great.  I found myself at a big table, tucked inbetween a famous author (who has autism and isn’t Temple Grandin) and a researcher from a big university who was conducting studies about teaching social skills to first graders.  I know, awesome, right?  It was.  I was having the time of my life, just sitting there eating my chicken sandwich and listening to everyone talk.  I mean, what was I going to add to the conversation?  Here were a bunch of people who each knew at least twenty times what I did about autism and have the credentials to prove it.  I felt like a junior high kid who accidently wandered onto a college campus and sat at the senior’s lunch table.  I was keeping quiet and trying not to sound like an idiot or dribble food down the front of my shirt.

Then I heard the researcher sitting next to me (I’ll call him Dr. X) talking to the young man to his left.  The young man had Asperger’s and had said he was interested in finding a romantic relationship.  “Hmm,” said Dr. X, “that’s highly unlikely.  After all, the amount of adaptation you and your partner would each need to make in order to sustain a relationship is quite large.”  Or, to translate his academic lingo into the kind of words you and I use, “Sorry dude, but you’re too weird for any girl to like you and even if she did, it would never work.”     

Now, I know Dr. X hadn’t meant to be cruel.  He was looking at the young man as a statistic, as a subject in one of his studies, as a member of a population he was studying under a microscope.  He didn’t see the kid as a lonely, young man who wanted a girlfriend to snuggle; he saw him as ‘subject, 22 years of age, Asperger’s/mild autism, status: seeking relationship’.  He looked at him through the lens of what he knew about autism, and it never occurred to him that he didn’t know a tinker’s darn about people with autism.

Now, I’m not saying Dr. X is dumb – far from it.  Nor am I saying that the studies he’s conducting aren’t shedding valuable light on our methods of teaching first grader’s not to spit on each other, which as the mother of an ex-first grader I consider extremely important.  I’m sure Dr. X is doing a bang-up job and that our autistic kids will be better for his efforts.  What I am saying is that if you think folks with Asperger’s/autism rarely get married, you ought to climb out of your ivory tower and go for a walk-about.  Go find some real adult Aspies and have a look-see.  Before you start making statements (especially to impressionable young men) about the ability for ASRD folks to have a relationship, go study some of the hundreds of thousands of married Aspies out there.   

It’s not like adult Aspies are hard to find.  Just go to any science fiction/fantasy/historical convention in the world, throw a rock into the crowd, then go talk to whomever yelps.  Or go chat with the folks at your nearest engineering firm, science lab or college gaming club.  (Or check universities where they have researchers who don’t have the social skills to know you don’t tell young adults that they’re too weird to get a date.)  In a time when Comic-Con makes the front page of CNN’s website every year, Aspie’s are pretty mainstream and very visible.  While by no means is every engineer, scientist, gamer or convention attendee on the Autism spectrum, Aspies show up in those areas in higher numbers than in areas like telemarketing, cheerleading, middle management and sales.  My point is, it doesn’t take a whole lot of effort to find them.

One of the first things you’ll notice once you start meeting these hordes of adult Aspies, is that a lot of them are female. Mothers, wives, grandmothers, ladies content to be single, and also a whole bunch who are looking for boyfriends.  If this is news to the folks running autism research programs it sure isn’t to the people who sell Princess Leia slave girl costumes.  They’ve known it for about 30 years now, which makes them youngsters compared to the guys who sell Lord of The Rings elf ears, Star Trek’s Yoeman Rand mini-skirts and boots, or Renaissance era bodice making supplies.  There are lot of Aspie/Geek girls out there making the best of what nature gave them in their search for romance.  

And they’re finding it too.  Take a minute to look at: www.offbeatbride.com, where you can find ideas for fandom wedding cakes (think Dr. Who, Transformers, Portal, Lego, Pacman, or mathematical equations); geek wedding favors (like personalized gaming dice, L-O-V-E computer keys, or space invader chocolates); and presents for the wedding party (like life-sized light sabers or cufflinks made from watch-parts.)  Check out Google to see what’s hot in geek wedding dresses.  Zombie brides are in, as are Steampunk, electronic-ala-Tron, superhero, Victorian gothic and the newly popular vintage carnival bride.  (Moms, take notes on all this wedding stuff – you need it one day, trust me.  And don’t be surprised when sometime after that, you’re out shopping for an R2D2 baby bonnet.  Better yet, learn to sew.  It’ll save you trouble in the long run.)  

Back to Dr. X.  The whole reason I’m telling you about this conversation is not to point out that he’s nearsighted when it comes to his research.  It’s to remind you that although our social scientists are a clever bunch of folks who are working really hard, they’ve still got a lot to learn when it comes to autism.  As far as I know, most of them haven’t even checked out the local Star Trek convention to figure out the proper protocol for picking up a Klingon chick or discovered the rules to one-ups-manship when it comes to quoting cult movies.  Until they can explain to me how leadership is determined in a Dungeons and Dragons raiding party, I won’t believe they fully understand social functioning in Aspie-land or the future of our kids.  And don’t you believe them either.  Take what knowledge you can get from them but don’t let their current understanding of autism discourage you or limit your child. 

I’m sure a lot of you reading are still thinking about that young man in the beginning of my story.  You want to know if the poor kid went away thinking he was a mutant who’d never find a sweetheart.  (And you want to kick Dr. X in the shins.)  Don’t worry, I set the guy straight.  It wasn’t hard.  I just pointed to the folks on my right, the famous Aspie couple who’ve made a living the last several years on the lecture tour, talking about their lives together and their relationship.  That boy has got a lot of examples of happy couples out there for inspiration.  Don’t worry, somewhere out there a cute little nerd-girl is waiting for him, Pokemon costume and all.

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Why Your Child Needs to Learn How to Talk Like a Pirate

I apologize, but I really blew it.  I have failed you all big time.  I forgot to let you know that every year, September 19th is International Talk Like A Pirate Day.  Now you’ll have to wait a whole year before it comes around again.

Some of you might not be all that upset about missing International Talk Like A Pirate Day.  You may feel that you can get along just fine in life with never learning how to exchange basic pleasantries with your neighborhood swashbucklers.  That’s fine.  It’s your life and you can choose how to live it.  But it’s not fair to our children if we don’t encourage them to learn.  Our kids have enough social problems already, it’s just not right to impair them further.

After all, if you child has Asperger’s/high functioning autism, he or she is a Geek.  (If you don’t believe me or aren’t exactly sure what a Geek actually is or you think the word “Geek” is an insult, go read my post “Your Child is a Geek (and That’s a Good Thing)”.)  As a Geek, when he grows up there’s a good chance he’ll end up surrounded by other Geeks.  If he goes to college, he’ll probably end up in a Geek major (like biology, chemistry or art.)  He’ll have Geek classmates and once he gets a job, he’ll have Geek co-workers (like computer programmers, musicians or engineers.)  Hopefully by that time your child will have the appropriate social skills to make friends in his Geek environment.

Unfortunately, while a lot of research has gone into figuring out how to teach our kids how to get along in the typical world, not much has been done to determine which skills are necessary for them to survive in the Geek world.  Which is too bad, because while it’s certainly important for them to know how to interact with “normies”, it’s probably in the Geek world where they’ll find their friends and spouses.

Think about it – most folks make friends with people who have similar interests.  That’s true for typical people and it’s true for those with autism.  We like having other people around who are into the things that fascinates us.  For typical folks that might mean cars, sports, quilting, gardening or riding dirt bikes.  For Geeks it’s more likely to be Ham radio, astronomy, World of Warcraft, Pokemon or building an historically accurate life-sized castle using only the tools available during a particular time period.  (Yeah, for real: http://ozarkmedievalfortress.com/.  Larry the Cable Guy helped, too.)  Whatever our kids’ areas of interest, they’re going to find other folks who share those interests.  Our job as parents is to make sure they’ve got the tools to interact with them once they do.

Like I said, not much research has been directed toward helping our kids develop those skills, which means you’re just going to have to take my word that I know what I’m talking about.  (Is this a great gig or what!)  In my extensive research (developed by successfully working as a computer programmer on a variety of multi-person teams and hosting some kickin’ poker parties for coworkers) I’ve learned the following (listed in order of importance):

1)      Geeks don’t like stinky people any more than anyone else does.  Therefore, we need to teach our kids good hygiene skills.

2)      In order to fit into a Geek group, one has to have knowledge about whatever the group’s main interests are.  However, knowledge in other typically Geek areas of interest can carry a lot of weight, too.  The guy who’s into making chain mail is going to be more interested in listening to someone talk about how to build a functioning light saber than the guy who’s into football will.  Geeks attract Geeks, not matter what their affiliation.

3)      The status of any particular person in a Geek group is measured by his knowledge about interests shared by that group, modified by any tendency he has to act like an arrogant jerk or ignore social rule #1.  Geeks like smart people unless they’re arrogant or they stink.

4)      There are a few Geeks who feel anyone who isn’t as knowledgeable about their areas of interest as they are is stupid.  These guys are the arrogant jerks.  Often they stink.

5)      If someone can make a bunch of Geeks laugh by making intelligent jokes about that group’s areas of interest, he’s totally in, even if he isn’t the most knowledgeable guy in the room.  Geeks have a great sense of humor.   Okay, jocks may not get their sense of humor, but other Geeks do.

What all these social rules boil down to is, the more our kids get into Geek areas of interest, the more likely they are to have friends.  While the typical rules of society will still apply to them (they can’t call people stupid and they have to bathe), their knowledge is going to play a big part in their social acceptance in the Geek world. 

And that’s why your kid ought to learn how to talk like a pirate.  So that one day when Talk Like A Pirate Day rolls around, he’ll be able to talk to that cute girl who sits next to him in Computer Programming 101 and he’ll sound like a suave, charming knave instead of a doof, and then there will be a courtship marked by trips to the Renaissance Faire and the gifting of duct tape roses, a wedding complete with a minister dressed like Yoda, and eventually, the pitter-patter of little Geek feet.  Or to simplify: you want to be a grandparent one day, don’t you?

– Cassie

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