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Autism and Bullying

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Bullying seems to be a hot topic nowadays. I’m not sure why all of a sudden EVERYBODY is all up in arms about this. It’s not like bullying is something new that kids just came up with this year, like listening to crap music like Lorde. Bullying has been around for quite a while. The first recorded use of the word “bully” occurred in 1530 (yes, I looked it up; I don’t spend all day making up fake facts for this blog, I’ll have you know), but the concept goes back way before that. There were even bullies in the Bible, for Christ’s sake.

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Jesus likes!

Because of the nature of bullying behaviors, children on the autism spectrum at at a higher risk of being victims of bullying. Bullies often single out those who are weak or socially outcast and make an example of them. It’s not always about physical violence. The main motivation is an attempt by the bully to feel superior to others and to be looked at as being in a position of power. Due to the characteristics of autism (weak sensory perception, social awkwardness,  etc.), children with autism or aspergers are juicy targets for the bully to get what he or she wants.

A parent of a child with special needs is then faced with a difficult situation. Very often, children with autism will have difficulty communitcating to the parents that they are being bullied. The emotions that come with being pushed around are hard to understand; the child may claim to feel sad, tired, or simply hide their feelings in order to avoid them. It is the parents’ job to keep an keen eye on the child’s temperment and watch for any changes that may indicate that something is wrong.

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Or just outsource the job to the Chinese.

Bullies prey on fear; they count on their targets being to afraid to report them or do anything about it. Children with autism are already scared and anxious to begin with. A bully doesn’t even have to work hard to intimidate these kids; half the job is already done for them.

Another reason why it may be hard for parents to detect when their child is being bullied is that the child may not even realize that they are being mistreated. To children with social deficits, a bully may seem like a friend. After all, it’s someone who is talking to them and giving them attention. That’s a friend, right? Doesn’t matter if that the “friend” is taking their stuff, slugging them in the arm, and calling them names behind their back. That must be what friends do!

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“Mom! Tommy and I are gonna go play ‘Get Beat Up By Tommy!’ “

Now, it’s clear that special needs children are especially vulnerable to bullying. However, all of you special needs parents shouldn’t jump up on your high horse and think your child will always and forever be free of blame when it comes to bullying. Remember all of that anxiety and fear I was talking about before? Well, a funny thing about those negative emotions – they tend to send you child’s self esteem crashing faster than Healthcare.gov.

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Obama no likes.

These drops in self esteem can lead to children with special needs becomingthe bully. If the child has trouble understanding how to address social situations, the chance of inappropriate behaviors evolving into bullying is higher. We can’t just look at our children as wonderful little angels and allow ourselves to be blind to the other side of the coin. If you don’t want you child to be bullied, you have a responsibility to make sure your child doesn’t turn into one.

It’s clear that bullying is a critical subject that should be discussed with our children. We need to teach our children to be respectful of one another no matter what the situation. Remember, kids grow up to be people; the last thing you want to be responsible for is letting you kids turn into assholes when they are older.

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This Is My Aspergers

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I have written in previous posts a little bit about the history of my Aspergers and what it was like for me growing up, but I haven’t really gotten into it in great detail yet. Every aspie is different, comes from a different background, and has a different story to tell.

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This is my Aspergers. There are many like it, but this one is mine.

I only became aware of my Asperger-ish tendencies a few years ago when my daughter was diagnosed, but the roots go back to when I was very young. When I was in preschool, I remember bouncing back and forth between friends, trying my best to connect with whoever was within proximity of me at the moment. I tried my best to mimic in order to be accepted; this works pretty well as a child, however I can remember not really having a sense of who I was. I would absorb the traits of those around me in order to blend in.

The defining moment in my young childhood came at age 6 when I was hospitalized for a severe kidney condition. I got sick on the first day of school, was rushed to the hospital, and nearly died. I was in the hospital for 6 weeks, subjected to blood draws and regular dialysis treatments. My family was devastated that I was so sick and scared of losing me.

The thing I remember most vividly is all the cool toys I had in my hospital room.

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Coming up next on Pimp My Pediatric ICU…

Granted, I was only six, so my memory of the experience shouldn’t really be picture perfect. But don’t you think it’s a little strange that I have absolutely NO memory of the horrible medical procedures that my mother tells me I had to endure, yet I can remember with great clarity the Lego kits my dad and I worked on and the inflatable Superman doll that hung in the corner during my entire stay? I think my brain decided that it wasn’t going to connect itself to what was going on, and I must have checked out and gone somewhere else mentally during the rough parts. I still use this skill to my advantage from time to time. I don’t know if the stress caused my brain to adopt an overall emotional disconnectedness – virtually “causing” my Aspergers – or if it was my aspie brain that allowed me to get through it. All I know is that the experience had a profound effect on me and my mental processes. It’s like my super hero origin story.

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Able to create soul-crushing social awkwardness in a single sentence! 

As I got older, I began to show more of what I realize now were classic autism/Aspergers traits. I memorized the bus route home from school, including street names; I even helped a substitute bus driver find the correct route on one occasion. I had a very rigid tv routine, watching my favorite cartoons every single day; I knew by heart when each was on and in which order. I would spend hours “racing” my Hotwheels cars, which actually meant lining up 30-40 of them one behind the other and moving them one at a time for a few seconds each. I would throw tantrums if I didn’t win while playing board games with my sisters. I would play ball in the living room by using a mini-bat to hit a foam ball aroud the house, completely oblvious to the risk of breaking things. I often played 2-player sports games by myself, switching between controllers to play both teams; I even kept stats and charted out seasons that I scheduled myself, long before games like Madden featured their own season modes.

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The list goes on…

I actually hid the social aspects of my Aspergers pretty well during school. With the benefit of hindsight, however, the cracks begin to show. Bullies were constantly trying to get to me, only I was so socially clueless that I didn’t even notice. Eventually, thye pretty much gave up and moved on. One of my best friends (even to this day) was with a group of kids who would brutally make fun of me on the bus. One day the other kids weren’t there, so he invited me to his house to hang out. Oblivious Aspie Me said, “Sure!” I continued with my “blending in” strategy, getting along with many types of people but never really connecting to any of them. I had a small group of close friends, but even they were distanced from me; I very rarely hung out with any of them one-on-one.

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“Thank God you guys are all here! I’m terrified of each of you individually!”

When I went to college, my isolation became official – I’m not exaggerating when I say I did not make one new friend during my four years in college. I tried a few times early on, but I just couldn’t make it work. In my mind, I had nothing in common with anybody at all. I had already figured myself as an outcast. Most of my social interaction came via the internet – where I could be whatever I wanted to be, take my time to measure my responses, and avoid the intensity of face-to-face contact. I actually met my wife over the internet during this time, and somehow she wasn’t completely turned off by my behavior when we met for the first time.

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It was slightly less awkward than this was.

At the time, it wasn’t so obvious to my parents that something was up with their son. Autism spectrum disorders weren’t featured as prominently in the news as they are nowadays. But looking back now, and with the benefit of the knowledge I gained while working to get my daughter diagnosed… it’s pretty clear. My childhood is no doubt different from the stories of other spectrum children, but I’m sure it also runs parallel to them in many ways. I worry about my daughter a lot – will she have friends? Will she be happ? Will she be successful? Looking back on my story gives me a sense of peace. If I made it this far in the face of this challenge, then the potential of my daughter is limitless.

Aspie Attachments

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A funny thing happened the other day. Our family is in the process of transitioning from our family van to a smaller, more fuel-savvy vehicle. My wife and I were talking about our plans for selling the van when my aspie daughter piped up from the backseat, asking if we were really going to get rid of the van. I turned to see her on the verge of tears.

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Incidentally, this is the same face she uses when she wants ice cream.

She was extremely upset. She didn’t want us to get rid of the van; she didn’t know how else we’d be able to drive around! “I don’t want to have to walk everywhere!” she cried. She was so attached to the van that she couldn’t even imagine having another car instead. And understandably so, I might add – we’ve had the van for pretty much three quarters of her lifetime. That would be the same as me getting rid of something I had for the last twenty five years.

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I can’t get rid of those. Those are my good pair!

I notice that I, too, often have strong attachments to inanimate objects. I’ve always felt compelled to say goodbye to every car I’ve traded in. I’ve named keychains of mine in the past… and present, actually. I get a little twinge of sadness when my click-pencil runs out of lead. The remarkable thing is that I feel so attached to these objects, yet I can’t get close to living, breathing people.

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Emphasis on “living” and “breathing.”

I’m pretty sure my Aspergers factors in here, big time. I’m simply more comfortable with objects over people. Interactions with objects don’t come with the same stresses that interactions with people do – social anxiety, fear of judgement, rejection, etc. It’s easier to deal with the simplicity of objects that the complexity of the person-to-person social exchange, And, perhaps, there lies the solution…

Treating people like objects.

I’m a genius!

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I absolutely love my new rain coat. It’s name is Todd.

My Autism Theory

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I’m currently reading The Panic Virus, a book that explores the history and development of the false link between autism and vaccines. It’s fascinating to see how people can develop theories about just about anything based not on data, but on their own personal perception of reality.

Then I realized I’m capable of the same exact thing.

I have tons of theories. I have a theory about how our universe is just a microscopic part of a much larger plane of existence, and that we are a much larger plane of existence for another smaller microscopic universe (and so forth). I have a theory that centers around how early human evolution still continues to shape many of our decisions inour modern day world. I have a theory on why my car’s “check engine” light is on.

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I’m pretty sure it’s the fuel injectors.

The important thing for me to mention is that they are just theories. I’m no expert on particle physics or automotive mechanincs. I have no hard evidence to base these theories on, just some observations coupled with feelings that I have. I’m not going to argue that I’m “right” in any of these cases. They are just ideas that I put forth as interesting things to think of. With that said, I have a theory on what autism is and what actually causes it.

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You’ve been warned.

My theory started growing in my mind when I started looking at my own stimming behavior – biting the skin on my fingers. There were times where I could go for quite a long time without biting, but then I’d get stressed out and tear the shit out of my fingertips. I started thinking that maybe my stimming was a hyper-intense stress reaction. Could this apply to other autistic stimming behaviors?

Another little factoid that contributed to my theory was the difference between my two children. My daughter (the aspie) was conceived using fertility treatments and hormone therapy, while my son (the NT) was conceived naturally. My daughter suffered from severe GERD as a baby, my son did not. I also noticed that a fair portion of the women my wife was in contact with from various support groups (both IVF and GERD online support groups) had children that were on the spectrum in some capacity. Where, if anywhere, does this factor in?

My mind also wandered around the fact that there seems to be a genetic component to autism spectrum disorders. The gene has not been pinpointed, but it has been shown that autism seems to run in families. Genetics are pretty straightforward – simply put, either you have a gene for a specific trait or you don’t. So why does it seems to get wishy washy when it comes to autism?

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Ok, so my theory is basically this – autism spectrum disorders are, at the core, anxiety disorders that manifest themselves into social and physical symptoms of varying severity.

Why does this make sense? Because it brings together all of the aforementioned details, quite nicely I might add.

According to my theory, autism starts at the genetic level as an inherited predisposition for abnormally heightened anxiety. Perhaps the genes that regulate stress hormones produce abnormal amounts, or perhaps the receptors for these hormones are tuned to be overly sensitive. Whatever the mechanism, these are the children who are at higher risk to develop autism.

The next step occurs during pregnancy – during early development, the child is subjected to some sort of “triggering stress.” This could come from a number of different sources – exposure to elevated maternal stress hormones in utero (possibly in reaction to fertility treatments), metabolic stress due to medications (an explanation to the perceived link between autism and vaccines), or physical stress to the child itself (chronic pain, GERD, etc.).  The triggering stress conditions the child to adjust his or her baseline level of stress higher than a neurotypical child’s baseline would be.

The symptoms of autism (most notably stimming and tantrums) are physiological responses to perceived stress. The fact that the levels of stress are extremely subjective leads to the wide range of severity of symptoms; a child with Aspergers may only be moderately affected by stress, while a child with severe autism may find the slightest stimulus to be crippling. The social aspects of autism spectrum disorders (parrotting, echolalia, isolating, flat affect) correlate with social anxiety.

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Skeptical reader is skeptical.

Autism as an axiety disorder makes some sense. It explains why treatment with anti-anxiety meds helps improve behavior. It also explains why children on the spectrum tend to function better when set routines are in place, reducing the anxiety of the unknown. I’m not sure how one would go about proving this theory to be true, nor am I sure what good proving the theory true would accomplish. Perhaps better treatment strategies could arise, approaching autism from the “stress reduction” angle that one would use when treating other anxiety disorders.

I’m curious to hear opinions on my theory, as well as any other theories that you readers may have. Fire away in the comments section!!!

When Aspie Brains Attack

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In general, people with Aspergers love to learn. Many Aspies find themselves bored in school, simple because the flow of new information is too slow for their brains to maintain focus on. Some parents choose to homeschool their Aspie children; very often these children end up one or even two grades ahead, simply because once they start learning they DO NOT WANT TO STOP. There’s no better feeling for me personally than learning some weird obscure fact or understanding a concept that has eluded me for a while.

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Oh, I get it now! You remove the Pop Tarts from the foil package BEFORE putting them in the toaster!

The one thing that us Aspies hate about learning – it’s work! It’s hard. We don’t like it when things are hard. Being challenged is one thing, but we want to be challenged in a way where success is guaranteed. Unfortunately, in the process of learning it’s very common for people to get things wrong. Being wrong sucks. Sometimes the prospect of being wrong is so scary and overwhelming that it can launch an Aspie right into what is known as the “Failure Cycle,” shown abpve.

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And shown below, more delicious breakfast pastries.

It’s all part of the Aspergers Decision Tree, which basically covers everything from “I love learning! This is so cool!!!” to “I HATE BEING WRONG, THIS IS THE WORST THING THAT COULD EVER BE!!!” And, yes, it’s that extreme. Some Aspies can be so intimidated by the possibility of failure that they get stuck and refuse to make a decision for fear of making the wrong choice. Others will deliberately make a wrong choice – because, hey, if you’re gonna be wrong, might as well be wrong on your own terms, right?

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No matter what you say, Mom, I’m sure the knives belong here instead of the kitchen drawer…

As parents, caregivers, spouses, etc., it is our job to help the Aspie escape the cycle by prompting them to make a choice… any choice! We Aspies must learn that it’s okay to make the wrong choice, as long as we learn from our mistakes. It’s one of the most important lessons anyone must learn. It just takes Aspies a little longer to accept it.

Don’t Sweat the Incredibly Large Important Stuff

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It’s kind of funny how my brain processes stress. I don’t know if it’s my Aspieness or just the way I am, but I seem to be somewhat immune to the rising pressure of a life or death situation.

This actually comes in handy at work. In my job, one mistake can literally kill a person. Sure, there are quality checks in place to prevent this from happening, but the checks are not perfect. The fact remains – I could seriously harm or kill a person with a mistake as small as a typo. And, oh yeah, I almost forgot… in certain situations, if I don’t work quick enough, someone might die as well. So pretty much every day, lives depend on my ability to be fast and accurate with my work. Can you imagine if every time you got the wrong order at the drive through window, you ended up dead?

Now here’s the funny thing: it doesn’t bother me in the least. I actually find myself strangely energized when I’m thrusted into those types of high pressure situations. I excel, I succeed, and dare I say it… I have fun. It’s not that I don’t understand the severity of the events. I just know I’m that damn good at my job to handle even the heaviest situation.

Ironically, it’s the smaller things that tend to drive me crazy. Situations that would seem insignificant to you end up tying me in knots: if my wife sends me to the store to get a specific item and it’s sold out, if I misplace something and can’t find it, or if I start to cook something and I’m missing an ingredient. Just the other day, I threw a tantrum because I couldn’t get the Food Saver to work properly while trying to prep meat for the freezer.

IT’S THE END OF THE WORLD!!!!

But seriously… I find it fascinating that I can keep it together at work when someone’s life hangs in the balance, yet completely lose my shit in the face of freezer burn.

A Mighty Roar

It can be very difficult for parents of Autistic children to deal with, but this is a fact: tantrums are unstoppable. And in the case of children with Autism, the tantrums are SO MUCH MORE INTENSE.

If you are a parent of a child on the spectrum, I am about to tell you something you won’t want to hear: the tantrums don’t go away with age. I’m a full grown adult (sort of), and I still throw tantrums when I lose my keys.

The good news is that it’s not your fault. You may feel like you are causing the tantrums by either using discipline or holding firm to boundaries, but it’s not that. Sometimes it can be the smallest thing that sparks a tantrum. For me, it’s losing something. For someone else, it can be an uncomfortable setting (too warm/too cold/too loud/too quiet/etc.). Some kids can throw a tantrum over a broken toy. Some can go off because they didn’t get the right amount of chocolate chips on their cookie. It’s different with every Spectrumite.

So, how to deal with the tantruming child? Well, let’s start with what not to do. First, don’t tell the child to be quiet or to not be upset – this will only make the child feel alienated and “wrong” for being upset. Second – and trust me on this – do NOT let them “cry it out.” Tantruming Spectrumites very often get physical during tantrums and can cause harm to objects and themselves. If you just let them get it all out, you may end up with a broken lamp or a broken body part.

The best course of action is to hold the child tight and let them know everything is going to be okay. This is where wrestling skills come in handy. Your youngster is going to fight back; don’t take it personally. But, BE CAREFUL!!! Remember, you are trying to prevent harm, not cause it. So make sure your child can breathe and nothing is bending at any weird angles. Also, do your best to soothe. Speak in a soft voice; tell him you love him, that it’s going to be okay, or sing a lullaby she likes. Don’t expect an immediate response, but it will sink in and they will feel more confident in their bond with you. When your child (FINALLY!!!!!!) begins to calm down (AFTER 19 HOURS OF SCREAMING!!!!!), reinforce the fact that everything is okay, and s/he shouldn’t feel bad about going off.

Tantrums can be scary, especially for parents of Autistic children. But when you know how to handle them, you can get through them with at least some of your sanity intact.