Thursday, January 19, 2012

What If?

Let's pretend, neurotypicals, that you're high-functioning autistic. How would your day change? Would you be able to work, eat lunch at a restaurant, go grocery shopping, make phone calls…or even converse with your friends? How many things did you do today that required interaction with other people?

Say you're going grocery shopping. You don't need a list; it's been memorized at home. As soon as you walk into the store, you notice a light is flashing on the ceiling. Someone has a cart with a squeaky wheel. The cheese bar and the cosmetic section have filled the store with a smell: half old socks, half fake roses. You start filling a basket with produce, but the onions are missing. It's alarming; you have a map of the store in your brain and you should know where everything is. An employee walks by and says "Are you looking for something?"
You are, but he popped out so suddenly you don't have any time to figure out what to say. He's halfway across the aisle before you know how to ask where the onions are. "That display, to the right." But you don't know which way right is. You'll have to go first one way, then the other.

At the checkout line, someone is right behind you. You keep twisting around to check for some unknown danger; everyone stares oddly. When the cashier asks what kind of bags you want, you announce "A light is flashing on the ceiling", before remembering it's bad to say random things.

In the parking lot, someone honks and you drop your bags in surprise. The oranges roll out and some innocent passerby stops to help, inadvertently making everything worse. You don't know what to say to him. He has a loud alarming voice. You squawk at him, flap your arms like a chicken and put your sweater over your head, where it stays until you get home, imagining that the strange man will go home for dinner and tell his wife about the mentally disturbed person at the store.

But at home, things are much better. Nobody is going to honk a car horn. You don't have to look behind you. At home is a good place to work. And once you start working, a bright blue elephant could walk by and you wouldn't notice. As an autistic, you can focus on one thing for hours at a time. If the computer crashes and you lose your progress, you can remember what you did and redo it. This is the positive side of being mentally different.

Monday, January 9, 2012

The GIANT Marine Isopod

Q: What's 1 foot long, has 14 legs and reflective compound eyes?
I really don't know where my current fascination with the giant marine isopod came from; one day the word just popped up in my head and stuck. I've heard of them before from the Internet but never thought much about them until recently. Now, apparently, I perseverate on that topic, and drive everyone crazy with wonderful, useless facts about isopods. Did you know that the Giant Isopod can roll itself into a ball? That it's compound eyes are extremely sensitive and exposure to sunlight permanently damages them? They live on the ocean floor all around the world! And guess what? It's related to the (much smaller) parasitic isopod which lives in the mouths of certain snappers and replaces the unlucky fish's tongue! (This is also worth Googling; just search "tongue eating parasite".) Why doesn't anyone want to hear about how the Giant Isopod has the largest invertebrate eggs in the world? Or how it incubates them in a pouch…?
But what makes giant isopods so interesting? I think it's partly the word…some words have a nice sound to them, inviting me to repeat them over and over. Words like diaphanous, haywire, mulligrubb and, my favorite, pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanoconiosis*, are almost musical sounding and I say them at any opportunity. Isopod is one of those words…can't you imagine it as part of a song?
Another thing about isopods is their appearance. They're allegedly considered to be quite disgusting; I think they're cute in a strange way. They have those large eyes…and they look perpetually worried…and they have 14 feet! (Maybe they're more funny than cute; I don't know.)
In addition to those attributes, giant isopods are a good thing to perseverate on because there are lots of facts to collect about them. Anything encompassing a large amount of information is a good candidate for becoming a special interest**.
And now that I've explained the appeal of the Giant Isopod, I will sign off to go and search the Internet for instructions on how to make an isopod plushie. When and if I find them, I will post a link and anyone who has become newly fascinated with the Isopod can sew their very own.

Photo: Gwynzer

Disgusting? Or cute? This unlucky isopod came up attached to a deep-sea robot and is the largest ever measured at 2.5 feet!

*Pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanoconiosis is a respiratory ailment caused by tiny particles of silica dust. If you've studied root words, you can figure that out yourself and you can remember how to spell it.
**The word 'special interest', unlike it's cousin 'obsession', does not carry a negative connotation. My parents say I'm obsessed with Pokemon; I say it's one of my special interests.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Interesting Topics Are Pragmatically Inappropriate

"Hello! Oh, I was greeting the mites in your eyebrows! Did you know that there are two species; one which lives in hair follicles and one in sebaceous glands?"
What would you do if someone said this to you? If you said it to me, I would probably say "Yes, I did know. Did you know that there are about three pounds of friendly bacteria in your intestines?"
 However, when I actually said this, the response I got was more like "Eew! That's so disgusting! I'm going to rewind my brain so I'll have never even heard that!" It was obviously a social mistake.
I suspect the lesson learned is 'don't choose conversation-starters based on what you yourself would say in response to them'. Especially if one of your favorite things is collecting alarming facts about microorganisms…

But what is a good conversation-starter? Certainly not: "Did you know you can get flesh-eating bacteria from a pinprick?" or "Watch out for parasites in the water!" or "You'd better watch where you're going, because there's an invisible Klingon warbird somewhere around here." All those are considered inappropriate.

 It seems to me that neurotypicals start a conversation by boring each other with obvious comments about the weather. Then they compliment each other. Then they ask each other "How was your day?"* Then they bumble around for a bit before finally getting to whatever point they need to discuss. This makes no sense to me. Everyone can see if the weather's nice, and nobody really wants to hear about my day. And what if it's urgent? Wouldn't it make more sense to start a conversation with "Hello. We need to discuss [subject]"?

 When talking, neurotypicals don't stare around to see if someone's sneaking up behind them; they look at the other person. How will they know if someone is about to sneeze behind them and propel germs 10 feet into the air? Everything I do makes sense to me, although it may not make sense to you. But we're even in that respect; neurotypicals do things that seem absolutely pointless. So pay attention neurotypicals; you're just as strange to me as I am to you.

*I learned these things at pragmatic speech therapy, but I never remember them at the right time. And if I did, I probably wouldn't use them because I can think of much more interesting things to say.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Autistic Language–Strange Words and Stranger Meanings

Chirp! Chirp! Squeak!
Every time I chirp, my mother gets frustrated and says I need to stop. "No college professor will accept a student who chirps!"
What she doesn't understand is that the word 'chirp' is just as real to me as the word 'stop' is to you. It can mean a number of different things.
Chirp! means: "I'm happy" or "I need your attention" or "I don't know what else to say". Sometimes it's an expression of distress. A very loud, screechy chirp means "Turn off the teakettle!"¹ A very, very loud, nonscreechy chirp means "I don't know how to say something and I need to write it on the laptop."² It's always clear to me what sort of chirp is meant, (they're all slightly different in intonation and pitch), but not to anyone else. I suspect they think I'm imitating a bird…
There are other words as well. The word 'cactusing' (which is not really a word) means 'to sew and leave needles and pins around'. The squeak is another sign of distress. A 'fluffy' is anything good, likable, pretty, useful, etc.
Another category of words I have are the ones I use to describe emotions. These are, unfortunately, Pokemon noises which I picked up from watching the Pokemon anime. (In case you're confused, the only word a Pokemon says is its name.³ They still manage to communicate by changing the intonation and pitch, and I find this fascinating.) 
Many autistic people have their own words for things. Some are made up, and others are regular words that have grown an extra meaning. (Some of my words are animal noises…I hiss at people who I wish would go away.)
I don't know why certain words, in addition to their regular English meanings, gain a special connotation. Some form by association. I squeak when I'm upset because my friend told me that's what rats do. Others are unclear. But however they're formed, they all mean something. Here's a sentence that at first glance is a bunch of gibberish but actually makes perfect sense. "Squeak! Who's been cactusing! There's pokys ominousing around!" Translated into Neurotypical English, that would be "Yikes! Who was sewing; there are pins everywhere!" (I should probably add that a poky is anything sharp, and to 'ominous' (a verb) means to be lurking, possibly hovering overhead. Inanimate objects can ominous only if they're hazardous such as giant scissors or a hedge lopper.)

¹Our teakettle is so loud I can't approach it to turn it off.
²Occasionally, I can't say something, usually the answer to a big, awkward question about my feelings toward something/someone. Sometimes I just can't pronounce the word I want to use. In all cases, it's easier to write.
³I would like to add that some Pokemon, such as Dialga and Palkia, make nondescript roaring sounds.