Wednesday, March 31, 2010

The need for meaningful activities in one's life

It is very important in this world to have things that make us feel turned "on," that excite us and make us feel happy. These things give us the energy to face the more challenging parts of life.

The challenge can come when one's life is limited enough that they don't have access to enough such activities.

Maslow had a hierarchy of needs - a famous psychological theory. At the bottom, you started with shelter and basic needs - a roof over your head, food and water, basic survival needs. Next come safety and security needs - the need to be free from pain, and so on. Third is a need for love and belonging. Fourth is the need for esteem - respect for yourself and from others.

Last is self-actualization - "the person's need to do and be what they were born to do," a level of being in which you feel connected to the world and your purpose in the world. Included in that are something called "peak experiences."

For the last two years, I traveled around the country looking for a place to live that was safe for me from a chemical sensitivity standpoint. I was always on hyper alert, always thinking about where I'd live next week or next month, always worried about it. I moved many places in my search for a suitable place. You could say, then, that I was stuck in the second stage - looking for safety and security.

Now that I have found it - cross your fingers - I am finding that my mind is able to be open to a number of different possibilities that it wasn't before. My need for love and belonging is coming out. I am seeking out more social activities than I ever did before. I am more open to relationships with my family. I take pleasure in of spending time with my roommate. I am trying to find a way to respect myself. All of this is very good, but in some ways, it simply moves my angst to a different place and focus. (But hey! At least I have more highly evolved angst this time! I'm moving up!)

Why the angst? The angst comes in realizing the abilities that I do have in me and the desires I have within me, combined with the realization that, because of my chemical sensitivities and/or general contributing anxiety levels, very few of the activities that I could otherwise participate in are possible for me. I can't go into 99% of stores or office buildings, pretty much any public building, because of my chemical sensitivities. That limits my life quite a bit.

Still, I try to find ways to make marks on the world. I have my writing. I have the phone. I have two friends who I go hiking with and to dinner at Whole Foods every week or two. This Friday, I am going to Portland's downtown and handing out autism awareness cards for World Autism Awareness Day. This provides a way to (hopefully) interact with people and do something meaningful while still being outside, with fresh air. Whenever I am at Whole Foods, I smile at and usually start conversations with the clerks at the deli, meat counter and check out counter. I figure, they've been here all day, it's about time someone smiled at them. And I enjoy the interaction, too.

I love to be social (within limits, of course), and I would love to find a way to be part of the community. I would love to find a way to help others. I get a thrill out of knowing I have made a difference to someone else, but I have very few to almost none opportunities to do this. To find a way to help others would help put me in what you might call Maslow's Self-Actualization stage.

My life would feel more meaningful. One the one hand, when you have gone through as much as I have and you finally find yourself in as physically a stable situation as I have been lucky enough to be in the last few months, you feel lucky and grateful. On the other, once you're no longer focused on crisis after crisis, you have time to think about what you really want out of life. And you have time and energy to miss it when you don't have it. It's easy to be depressed sometimes, to be 26 with so much energy and ideas but able to do basically nothing but dream about it or make very, very small strides towards it.

The times when I feel more alive are when I am having a good and engaged conversation with someone, or when I feel a sense of connection with someone; when I am eating a food I like, or when I hear a song I like on the radio; when I am walking on a beautiful day, or when I hear any kind of news or information that intrigues me. I am very thankful for and am always seeking out moments like these. It's hard not to want more, on the one hand, but want is the source of almost all misery, so I try when I can to be happy with what I have. Things could always be worse.

Still, though, it makes you think. What are the moments when you feel most alive? Is there anything that you've always wanted to do that you're unable to do for some reason?

What state of Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs do you think you're in? And how long do you feel it took you to get there?

I am sure it is entirely possible to go backwards and lose mastery of a stage depending on your life circumstances. Does anyone have any stories of that happening in their own lives?

Also, is it possible that some kids on the autistic spectrum, so overwhelmed by the sensory experience of life, struggling so much with the safety and security side of things (because life seems so uncertain to an autistic child), have trouble with social activities simply because all of their brain energy and processing abilities are being used up with second level Maslow concerns?

When all you can think about is being physically and/or emotionally comfortable, when you have severe information processing deficits that make getting through a day hard, "friends" might seem like an awfully abstract concept.

Just something to think about.

Monday, March 29, 2010

The Girl in the Prom Dress

I was flipping idly through some pictures that had been posted to my Facebook account. I stopped short when I saw my prom picture. What a different world, I thought. Never again will you ever see me in a dress. Much less a sleeveless one, with long hair, a necklace an even, of all things, a handbag. Although I have to admit, the dark blue color sure did look good on me.

My friends all wore long, flowing dresses, but I stood barefoot in a simple, short, dark blue dress loaned to me by a friend only a few hours before, when I had made a last minute decision to go to the prom. Dances are not my thing, but despite my objections I decided to give it a try. My hair was long, blonde and curly, one of the few times I have had hair longer than an inch in the last ten years.

Then I flipped to a picture I had just added recently of me on a hiking trip with some friends. The picture was far from glamorous. I had on a grungy grey sweatshirt, white cotton pants and very short to almost non-existent hair. This, or some variation, is my usual outfit. The picture was less than flattering, but I didn't care, because after all, it was me. My smile was joyous, and to me that meant everything. I had captured the joy of the day with that picture.

Many times, over the years, I have been told by well-meaning people that I should change my appearance. People would like you better, they say. You'd get along better in the world, they say. People judge by first appearances, they say. Why don't you grow your hair out? Why don't you wear nicer clothes? Is that really the nicest clothes you have?

What they, or at least the world at large, often don't understand is that I don't have the luxury of looking nice. Severe sensory issues prevent me from wearing almost any piece of clothing known to man. I need soft, loose, cotton clothing to be comfortable. And even in that category, well, very few things work. I have spent several hours in large clothing stores before and came out with nothing. My dad once took me to Bloomingdale's on a New York City trip, and all I came out with was a Tamagotchi t-shirt. And that was good for me! Everything is too tight, the textures are uncomfortable, the seams are sewn in the wrong place, it sits on my body wrong, it's got buttons, and so on and so forth. And that was before I developed chemical sensitivity issues, which complicates the issue even more.

Because of this, a good clothes day for me is when I can actually wear them. Anything, that is. I'll take anything that doesn't make me want to start screaming when I put it on.
As for my hair, I can't stand the feeling of hair on my head. It just feels heavy, and when it gets too long, it is literally the only thing I can think of until I get it cut.

I'm a firm believer that people should be functional in their clothing. I don't understand why people torture themselves to wear high heels that make their feet hurt all night, or squeeze themselves into an outfit that makes them feel like they can't breathe just because they think it looks good. As far as I'm concerned, if I'm not comfortable in something, I'm going to be grouchy and irritable all day or night because of it. This will
affect my interactions with others, and give them a bad impression of me. It will affect my experience of them negatively as well. The effects of these uncomfortable, intolerable clothes will send my stress levels through the roof, and make my coping abilities nil. Now, why would I choose to have clothes or hair that looked good over being able to function in the world and having a smile on my face when I interact with others?

When I looked at the prom picture of me, with my curly blonde hair and my perfect dress, for a moment I felt a stab of envy. This is the kind of girl I could be. I could look like other people my age if I wanted to. It's possible. I could look, well, more "normal." But then I remind myself how foolish this is. What did I really want when I looked at that picture? I wanted what went along with my perceived notions of what that girl's life would be like. I wanted the life of a typical 20-something. I wanted people to like me; I wanted lots of friends; I wanted a life of social ease and happiness.

It's an illusion, of course. Because that isn't me. And you don't get friends, social ease and happiness by being something you're not. My warm smile, my enthusiasm, my care and concern for others? Those will, in time, get me friends who mean something to me, and they'll do it whether or not I'm wearing a Tiffany dress or a Marshall's grey sweatshirt. Mascara, tight clothes and expensive haircuts do not a make a person into who they are. Integrity, kindness and being true to oneself do. So when I look at that prom dress now, I am glad to have it as a memory of a time when I tried something new and succeeded. But I am even happier that the real me was still waiting for me, unchanged, when I got home that night.

On "Being Normal," and Temple Grandin

One of the more difficult things about having Asperger's is the struggle to "look normal."

It can be hard when you try to do everything you can to "be normal," to act normal, to look normal, and you know that you can't. That you're going to come across as different no matter how much attention you try to pay to slowing down the way you speak, speaking more clearly, keeping your body more still and not fidgeting as much. You'll still have "that look" to you.

I wasn't really clear on how I must look from the outside until I watched the Temple Grandin HBO movie from February 2010. It is the story of an autistic woman who grew up to revolutionalize the way cattle are handled and slaughtered, finding more humane ways to do so. The movie perfectly captured her wide-eyed expression, her anxiety and over-reaction to sounds and sensory stimulus around her; the way she carried her body, the way she couldn't modulate her voice, the rapid pace at which she spoke, the enthusiasm that she had at topics that interested her, far more than it was socially "normal" to express.

She knew what she wanted in life, and she was frustrated at the barriers to access; both as a woman in a male dominated field and as an autistic person. But she could think outside the box; she kept trying until she got what she wanted. Temple Grandin is an inspiration to everyone, autistic or not.

The part that is relevant here, though, is that there is a definite way that an autistic or Asperger's person comes across. The body language and facial expressions, of course, are completely off. The body is usually stiffer and not relaxed. The eyes show anxiety or terror no matter how much the person tries to smile. The timing of the sentences comes out wrong if the person tries to make conversation. It seems that you can fake normal all you want but it never quite works. In the end, you have to find people who accept you for who you are, quirks and all, not people who will simply tolerate you or hang around you as long as you keep trying to be "normal."

No quality of life can be had by pretending. In the Temple Grandin movie, Temple was lucky enough to have mentors and other people who accepted who as she was and worked to expand her mind and mental abilities, even if she was a little socially off. Every autistic person needs support like that.

Temple's character says something like, "I know that I have problems understanding some things, but I still want my life to have some kind of meaning." To me, that was the crux of the film, and of Temple's life. She had the drive to work around her struggles, to learn how to overcome her issues enough to be able to do the work she was good at. She changed the way the cattle industry handles cows. She gave hope to millions of autistic people and their parents. I think she succeeded in her goals.

I have always said the same thing. Problems or no problems, my life has to have some kind of meaning. I can't live an empty life. I'm not the kind who can slack off watching TV all day and be content to live on a government allowance. Everything I do has to have meaning and purpose, and if it doesn't, it has to be geared towards something that will have meaning in the future. One of my biggest frustrations in life is not being able to do more, not being able to participate in the world in the ways that I would like. Not being able to make a difference in the lives of others. The only tool I have is my writing, and I try with everything I have in me to make that count for something. I will, like Temple, work to find the day when I will be able to give more to the world.

Until then, though, I find interacting with people my own age very difficult. Older people, in their 40s, 50s and beyond, seem to have a way of interacting with those who are different that makes you feel, well, less different - puts you on the same level as them, almost. Not all, certainly, but a large percentage of them.

They have a way of putting a person at ease, and making the conversation about whatever topic is at hand - current events, skiing, the dinner menu, the weather, a book you just read - rather than a judgement on the way you express who you are. They are, in a word, often more mature, more accepting and have seen more of the world; they have come to terms about certain things about themselves; and they have a different view of an awkward young person trying to get along in the world. I hate to make generalizations, but it is entirely possible that most young people have so many insecurities about themselves and their place in the world, which they are trying to hide, that they cannot bear to be with someone who expresses these fears and insecurities so openly.

Not all young people are like this, of course, and occasionally, I have had people express their vulnerable side to me. Their emotional, "I've had experiences like that, too" side. They talked about difficulties they had had with people or getting along with the status quo, trying to figure out who they were; they talked about what they wanted to do with their lives. I could relate to these people then, and felt more of a sense of connection. But in everyday life, it seems, most people put up a shield to hide their vulnerabilities. They hide a part of themselves, and almost create a persona that they present to the outside world.

This is something that is very foreign to someone with Asperger's. With AS, what you see is what you get. We have a hard time hiding any part of ourselves. Deception is a concept we can't grasp. We can't be anybody but ourselves. We say what we think, we say what we feel, and we do things we are interested in or enjoy even if it goes against social norms. We are honest and literal and see the world in black and white, and we have a hell of a time trying to understand why everyone else is not that way, too.

Others see us as intense. For many of us, it is not that we don't want social interaction or that we're not social; instead, the problem is that we want to connect on such deep levels that others are scared off. This isn't to say that people without AS don't desire deep connections, too, but they know how to "play the game" to get it. They know how to go through the small talk, the "sussing out" that comes when two people are starting to get to know each other. They have a feel for the general behavior expected, and how to "play the game" to eventually build the kind of relationship or friendship they want.

People with AS, on the other hand, often throw themselves on someone like a bull in a china shop. They are not aware of all the social nuances that exist when one person interacts with another; and if they are aware, they have no idea whatsoever how to mimic them.

It's like an unwritten language; to decipher it feels about as likely as going to the moon. So people with AS use what they have instead; sometimes, they are hurt by the outcome, and other times, they get lucky and find another kindred soul. I have found that social interaction is all about trying, though, and realizing your boundaries; what you will and won't be able to do; what you are and aren't willing to do. Not expecting yourself to be able to create miracles at a party or feel included right off the bat anywhere.

As far as I can tell, it is about being patient, taking what you can get, and keep trying in different venues until you find someone you can connect with, without too much effort; because life is too short to feel like you are scraping your fingernails against a figurative chalkboard every time you want to have a conversation with someone. Of course, it's also about having enough social intelligence to realize what the other person's boundaries are, too, but that takes time and experience, and is something that most people with AS find quite difficult. You learn; I'm not saying having AS is an excuse not to; but it just takes time.

Feeling Understood

This was written after reflecting on the problems I had upon moving in with my Bend, Oregon roommate last July.

Despite having exchanged probably hundreds of emails over the last few months, and several phone calls, Mary and I did not exactly hit it off right away. She meant well, I knew that; and she cared about me; but I felt she treated me more like a child than a roommate. That is always a danger, of course, when a 24 year old lives with someone her parents' age, but it had never been much of a problem before.

Some people just don't mix; they're like fire and gasoline. It may be nothing in particular, or it may be a bunch of small stuff, but put them together for any length of time, and they're at each other's throats. And the harder they try to get along, the angrier they usually get at each other.

Part of the problem was mine. I was, and am, still in the midst of growing up and trying to find my identity. Part of this was trying to figure out how much of the world I could handle on my own (which I very much wanted to do), and how much I would need assistance with.

"My stomach hurts! Why does it hurt so much? What can I do? I have to do something about it. There's got to be something I can do. Maybe I can change my diet somehow," I'd say, worrying endlessly about my stomach, needing to vent those worries somehow and doing so on the nearest target, which happened to be Mary. I worried endlessly, about my back, my stomach, my diet, what vitamins I should be taking, and how I could improve my health in general. I felt so powerless over the problems I was having; I wanted to be able to do something.

But here's the key thing. What I really wanted was someone to understand the worries I was having, my anguish about life in general. I have always suffered from a feeling of being misunderstood, and because of this, I tend to assume people do not understand what I am saying or where I am coming from unless they explicitly say otherwise. Call this Asperger's or call this just the results of years of bad experiences; either way, it was something I frequently struggled with.

So, if, for example, someone replied to a statement of "I'm scared to go to the doctor's office," with, "You need to go, you'll feel a lot worse otherwise," I might flip out because I felt the person was not understanding the depth of my emotions: my fear and anxiety at the prospect. If, however, they had said, "I understand how scared you are, but it's something you need to consider, or else it will get worse," I would be calm and be able to actually hear what they were saying and consider their advice, because I felt understood. The beast inside me - the one that continuously convinced me I was to be forever emotionally isolated even in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary - would not be tamed otherwise.

Just one little sentence, but it made all the difference in the world. It was more important to me than anything. With some people, like with Kim, I could see the "I understand" part in their faces, and so words weren't necessary; it is my understanding that this is how most of the population works. They take certain things for granted; they don't need reassurance that the other person understands before they can change the subject or accept a person's advice, because they take it for granted that they are understood. This is a big problem with not reading
non-verbal messages. No matter how much I try not to, I fall into this trap every time.

When I was a kid, I had a speech impediment, and people usually couldn't understand what I said. With speech therapy, my speech got better, but it took me years to get it into my brain that people could actually physically understand the speech I was producing. It used to be that people would pretend to understand while not having a clue what I was saying, or else just look at me funny. I got used to being ignored or misunderstood. People still occasionally have trouble understanding me, but not very often.

That combined with the social isolation I felt of not having many people to talk to when I was growing up, and the social cognition impairment in Asperger's where I can't read their faces to know if they understood me or not, leaves me in the dark every single time. When I talk, I feel like I am throwing words out into a void, hoping they get to their intended destination. I feel like it is a production to say anything at all, and when I finally do, I stand there anxiously, trying to figure out how the hell they've been received. Did the other person understand the words physically? Did they comprehend their meaning? Did the words anger the person? Did they make him or her laugh? Do they agree? Do they disagree? Do they want to keep talking to me? Can they relate? Do they think I'm stupid? WHAT ARE THEY THINKING??

It's almost like I am the producer of my own theatre company in my head; to talk feels like acting, even if I am being myself. I am putting on a production when I try to communicate with others, and if the audience doesn't applaud, I don't know if the show was any good or not. Since I am driven to connect with others, this doesn't stop me from trying to interact with others, but it definitely makes it more difficult.

So you can see, then, how that one little sentence, those three words, "I understand, but..." make all the difference in the world to me. They calm my heart, my anxiety, restore my faith in both myself and the world. They restore equilibrium, let me know everything is all right, let me know that my words indeed have reached their intended destination. Then I can relax and be open enough to hear the message the other person is giving.

Without this, I am on attack mode; if I say something, not knowing how it will be received, and the other person tries to give me advice: "You should do this...." or "Well, obviously you have to do...." I explode, because to me it's obvious they didn't understand what I was saying, and they obviously disagree with what I said, and they think it's my fault, and they think I'm a terrible person! They think I'm doing X (whatever X is) wrong!
I get very defensive and angry when this happens. Not violently angry, but visibly annoyed.

Writing this, of course, I can see the logical fallacies to this line of thinking. Since I have tried to teach myself how to think like the dominant population does, I have begun to realize that this is how most people talk; that guilt and blame is not an automatic part of the deal, and offering advice is standard procedure. But understanding something logically, and understanding it emotionally, as I have found out over and over again, are two very different things.

In college, people used to tell me that I was funny, because I always tried to make them laugh. I developed a dry sense of humor that people didn't expect from me. Partly, because I feel like life is much more fun when you can laugh at it, and partly because I wanted to make others laugh. When others laugh - with me, not at me - it is the only way I know for sure that they like me without them explicitly telling me so. And that works great some of the time, but in the end, a person desires a relationship that goes deeper than just a few jokes. That takes trust, and social know-how, and unfortunately, that's not something you can really fake.

When Popcorn Isn't Popcorn

“I’m going to make some popcorn,” said my Newport, Oregon roommate, Kim, to me one night. “Will the smell bother you?” I automatically assumed she meant something like Orville Redenbacher microwave popcorn, which has a very toxic smell when microwaved. There are many unpleasant ingredients in microwave popcorn; even people without chemical sensitivities, which I have, have reported getting sick from it.

"The smell of popcorn doesn't bother you?" I ask.
“Well, let me ask you something first. How are you used to it being cooked?”
“In the microwave.”
“Well,” she said, “I have kettle corn, and I cook it on the stove. I put real butter on it.”
“Oh!” I said, surprised. “Of course! I should have figured you had a natural way to do it.”

This conversation was a bit of an epiphany to me. Just because something has been done a thousand times before the same way, just because every experience in your life has been the same way, doesn't mean there isn't the potential for things to change. Just because you've been hurt a million times doesn't mean there isn't the potential for happiness. Just because the only thing you ever thought existed in the world was microwave popcorn - doesn't mean you won't get lucky and find people who make kettle popcorn. They do exist in the world. Maybe I can find other "Kettle Popcorn People" in the world. Maybe I can find other people like me. Maybe, there is still hope.


This entry was written after a particularly enjoyable dinner conversation with a friend of a friend when I was living in Newport, Oregon.

My roommate, Kim, had a friend, Stan, that sometimes came to visit. Stan lived off the coast of Washington, but traveled a fair amount. He came for dinner one night, and I liked him immediately.

The more I meet people, the more I learn about what kind of people I am drawn to, what kind of people push my “on” buttons and make me feel alive and revitalized. It turns out, it’s people who know how to tell a good story. Who take relish in telling a good story. People who appreciate life’s finer details, who take interest in the details. It’s the people who can become fascinated by an odd shaped piece of lint on a chair just as easily as they can about a strawberry cheesecake, a good Beatles song or a squirrel in a tree.

People who speak with enthusiasm, joy, and spirit. With zest. These people have a zest for life and I am drawn to them like no other. Part of it might be because of my dad; my dad is a passionate person who has always valued discussion. Part of it is because that’s who I am; I love nothing more than to tell a good story; the only thing better is meeting someone who actually wants to hear it. Stan was all of these things.

“Hey, Kate, what did you say?” asked Stan in the middle of an animated discussion he was having with Kim over the fate of the local fishermen. I was startled, and my heart jumped a little. He cared what I had to say? He was making an effort to include me? No one did that. This was great.

“Well, I think they should save more fish for the public instead of giving so much of it to the tourists,” I said, referring to a local debate on how much of the limited local fish supply should go to which people.
“You have a point,” he said.

Kim brought up another topic, and we were off again. I loved watching them talk, and I loved that Stan made such an effort to include me! It stunned me. I have a very hard time with three person conversations, usually. My timing is absolutely awful. I can never think of something appropriate to say, and manage to interject it before they’ve moved on to the next subject. I just can’t break in to most conversations. Instead, I sit there getting more and more frustrated, feeling like smoke is going to come out of my ears, because I want so badly to be a part of something that I feel shut out of it.

I am hopelessly out of sync with other people when it comes to conversational nuances. This is one part of Asperger’s that makes me very frustrated, being out of sync like this. In this case, though, for some reason, I was able to break in most of the time; Kim would say something, I’d formulate a response, Stan would reply, and sometimes Stan and I would get into a back and forth repartee over some topic before it was changed again. I only wished all conversations could go this way.

Stan had a zest for food. When he talked about a dish he particularly liked, or a food he had had in a restaurant, his eyes got big; he used a lot of hand gestures; his voice was enthusiastic, and you could hear pure reverence, pure joy - complete awe and delight in the food he was talking about. It was remarkable, and fun to watch. His emotions were so familiar, it was like snuggling into a warm blanket. I was seeing my father’s face in his; hearing my dad’s words in his. I was seeing myself in him. My father is also very passionate about his food.

He mentioned flans, so I mentioned that the best creme caramel (which is similar to a flan) that I ever had was at the Fore Street restaurant in Portland, Maine: a lavender flavored creme caramel! A long conversation ensued on the use of lavender in cooking, such as in chocolate bars, like Dagoba makes, or in cookies, such as the lavender ginger cookies I used to buy at a local bakery. We talked about fish, of course, and the merits of flounder versus sole and tilapia.

I was raised to think critically about my food, and those skills have served me well. Somehow we got talking about fish of course - he mentioned sole, I think, so I mentioned Dad's flounder and crabmeat dish and how I tried to duplicate it once. We debated the merits of flounder versus sole versus tilapia, halibut so on. We discussed the merits of different kind of bottled smoothies: Odwalla, Boltwood Farms, Fresh Samantha.

Some people learn critical thinking skills as a child by doing endless reading comprehension exercised designed to "teach you to think critically." I learned how to think critically by observing my dad describing and discerning between the relative merits of different kinds of fish, meat and other foods, both at restaurants and at home. I think I like that way better. I learned how to think critically about food from an early age, and I have never regretted it since. It is an easy conversation topic whenever I find a fellow foodie.

In the end, conversation is healing. A good conversation wraps you in a protective glow. It makes you feel invincible; your problems disappear for a while. It is almost like a force field, feeling you up emotionally and protecting you from negative feelings that may lurk. I have had too little of that kind of conversation in my life. Little did I know when I sat out to find a place to live that fulfilled my physical needs, I’d also learn how to fill my emotional ones as well.

Theory of Mind: Personal Experiences

I am not positive that theory of mind is the right term to describe what I am going to describe, but I will use it anyway. You get the picture.

They call it theory of mind, to use the technical term - many people posit that people with autism have a "theory of mind" deficit, which means the inability to understand what the other person is thinking or feeling; or that other people have different perspectives from you at all.

Young kids with autism often are not aware that other people have feelings that are different from theirs, that anyone could possibly see the world in a manner different from them. When you grow up and get older, you (usually) begin to realize that yes, people think in very different ways. And that you need to be aware that people think in different ways, and try to figure out what those ways are, in order to communicate with them. And like I said, you can use logical deduction to figure out what these ways are, but it's an awfully crude method.

I read a lot of books when I was a kid. I mean, I read probably five books a week. First kids' books like the "Babysitter Club" books, but I graduated to adult books pretty quickly. I read mostly mysteries, since that's what my mom read, but I read really anything I could get my hands on. I was addicted to the Chicken Soup for the Soul books. Sometimes, I think the only way I learned about human relationships and how to interact with others was from all that reading I did.

An example of a theory of mind deficit that I remember from my own childhood occurred when I was in elementary school. We were going around in a circle, and everyone was supposed to tell a secret about themselves. When it was my turn, I said very shyly, thinking I was revealing a big secret, "I like cats." The whole class burst out laughing. "We already knew that," they gently chided. Of course they knew that. I was obsessed with cats. I talked about them all the time. I talked about nothing but cats. I had calendars, cat themed books, cat magazines, and cat figurines. It was probably the most obvious thing about me. But I had so little self-awareness, or rather, so little awareness of how other people saw me, of how they perceived me, that I literally, at that time in my life, had no idea they knew I liked cats. I really thought it was a secret! I was so embarrassed.

That little slip-up, as minor as it seems, was emblematic of communications problems I've had all my life. I simply can't understand when other people understand me. I have very little sense of how people perceive me. On the one hand, you could say it's kind of freeing; I don't feel bound by social norms that others often find so constricting. On the other hand, not having this understanding means there's a persistent space between me and everyone I interact with. I feel like I am missing half of the available information. It makes me feel lonely, frustrated, and occasionally, filled with despair, because I feel as if I will never be able to connect with people.

One time in college, I walked into a college dorm room; some people I knew were having a get-together and watching a movie. I walked in without saying anything. "Kate, relax," said a girl I knew, "You don't have to be so nervous." I was astounded. How did she know I was nervous? I hadn't said anything! "You could tell I was nervous?" I asked. "Sure," she said. If I couldn't tell someone else was nervous just by looking at them, how could they figure that out about me, I thought. I didn't know you were supposed to be able to do that. Think about it: if your only knowledge of how the outside world works comes from the way you experience it, how are you supposed to know anything different? How are you supposed to tell someone you can't do something that you didn't even really know existed?

Another example is also a childhood memory; I was at the eye doctor's. I was trying to explain the itchy feeling in my eye to the doctor. "It feels like a foggy, itchy feeling in the right hand bottom corner of my eye," I said, and went on to use several metaphors and add more details. When I was finished, my mom was staring at me.
"What?", I said, scared I'd done something wrong, and slightly frustrated. After all I had said, they still didn't understand what I was saying?
"Nothing," said my mom, "it's just that you described that so well."

I got an inkling then that most people did not use so many words to describe what was on their mind. I would learn that I was great at describing things in words, but horrible at using words in a "social" way that meshed with what other people were used to and could understand. I couldn't use or understand the body language other people used to communicate things more subtly, so I only get about, what, 20% of communication? It is frustrating beyond belief. It feels like you have every word in the English at your disposal, but you still can't get your point across. You can have a functional conversation with someone without having any idea what they're really talking about, without feeling their emotions, without being aware of the subtext involved. You can get through life that way, but I wouldn't advise it. It's not very much fun.

Does anyone have any examples of this phenomenon in their own lives or in their child's?

Thoughts on Aspie Communication

In college, my rule for when I wanted to try to "Play the NT game" and try to (as as this is to remember) fake my way through a conversation with someone I didn't know well, at least when I was lonely and desperate enough to actually want to try to do so and put myself into such a compromising position, (compromising because even if they talked to me to for 10-20 minutes it would never turn into anything more, and that hurt always) was "Think of something general that might be of interest to a college population or this particular person. Strip it of all enthusiasm, passion and details. Try to say something without really saying something. Try to say it as if you don't care whether you say it or not."

Sounds pitiful and pointless to me too. But it almost always worked. The few times I could actually modulate my voice and body posture and so on to seem "casual" and seem like I literally did not care about what I was talking about, the person would usually talk to me for a good while. Or at least several minutes, I don't know. As long as I could keep the demeanor up. The SECOND I STARTED CARING, and couldn't keep it up and got to be more of myself, and got to sound the least bit excited about something, the conversation would end. Come to an abrupt halt. See ya later hasta la vista baby. And I would be standing there thinking 'What the hell did I do wrong? Why again? Why always?'

I was as I said able to deduct a pattern as I laid out above. But what I couldn't figure out and still can't, although luckily now I get to stay away from most college students, is: Why the hell are people scared of people who show emotion? Who are knowledegable or passionate about what they talk about?

Why do you have to pretend to be a know nothing to get anyone to listen to you? I just hate it.

I was raised to believe knowledge and intelligence were good things. Passion and excitement were good things. Enthusiasm was good.

I seek out people like that now. I seek out over the top people who have enthusiasm and passion in their voice. Who talk with excitement and overt enjoyment about every mundane subject in the universe. I almost never find them, but when I do I enjoy it more than you could possibly imagine. I savor it.

A disporportionate number of these people seem to have ADD or some other neurological difference - I wonder why? Is it really a matter of differently wired brains? Can being enthusiastic and passionate really be considered a mental illness? I certainly hope not.

I seek out people who disregard social norms, who say it like it is, who are not put off by my enthusiasm and manner of expressing myself.

I talk in a dramatic manner a lot of the time, my friend said today. I agree. It just seems to be who I am. I don't do it purposely; but it is how I see and feel the world; in a somewhat dramatic fashion. If things are good, I express that fully; if things are bad I also express that fully as well. I see nothing wrong with it, except, well, most people don't expect it or understand it and are frankly often put off by it.

Why don't you change, then, you ask? Well, it's not like changing a pair of socks. You can change a lot of things about yourself, learn to follow social rules you might not have been aware of, learn to be more polite, more considerate of others' feelings, and so on, but changing the basic way your nervous system and emotional cognition center reacts to the world: not so easy. Even, it seems, with drugs. (Prescribed, not illegal!)

Suppress it? Very difficult. Very difficult if not impossible to supress the need to be very verbal about things, to express my feelings, to seek out people to reinforce and identify with my feelings, to seek an emotional connection with people in the only way I know how. And would I want to do it? No. I lose a part of myself, a BIG part of myself, if I do that. If I am going to interact with other people at all, I want it to be genuine. I want it to be meaningful. I want it to count. I want to enter the interaction coming as MYSELF - because otherwise, they're not liking me; they're liking a fabricated version of myself that I can't even reliably replicate. Why bother? My self is all I have; I'm not going to sell out a part of it to make others happy. THAT, I know for sure. Bending to meet others' needs? Fine. Meeting them half way? Fine. But changing the basic way I communicate? Not fine.

Communication is a topic almost too complex for words. Functional versus semantic communication: that is what it all boils down to. I am great at functional language. But I suck at semantic language: using nonverbal body language to communicate and understand nuances in communication. And my literalness can get me in trouble more often than I would like. People see my intelligence and assume I couldn't have any communication problems; that I am just being a smart aleck, or acting superior, or much, much worse.

Has anyone had similar experiences or thoughts on this matter?

Floortime: A Promising Model of Autism Therapy

I just read a story in the New York Times Magazine about autistic teenagers that was very profound to me. In all the years I have been researching autism, it seems I am still able to be surprised and amazed by new information once in a while; I thought I had read everything there was worth reading on it!

The article can be found at

The NYT article was about floortime and a school for ASD teens. Floortime is a theory pioneered by Stanley Greenspan that says you should connect with an autistic person on the level they're at, using their interests and abilities to create a relationship. Once you create a relationship, this connection will enable them to better able to connect to, be a part of and interact with the world. I really like that theory.

It addresses the relational deficits in autism, which are of course some of the prime deficits in the disorder.

From the article:

"What does this have to do with autism? A child born at risk of an A.S.D. has cognitive and sensitivity issues that inhibit engagement. Pleasures enjoyed by a typical baby can upset him: a mother’s face seems too close, so the infant cranes away; the father’s tickles may produce fear reflexes rather than laughter. Meanwhile the sunlight is burning his eyes, the diaper scrapes his skin and the baby begins avoiding interaction with people at the cost of normal brain development.

I begin to picture the brain metaphorically as a tangled ball of Christmas lights. When you plug it in, there are strands that light up perfectly and there are dark zones where a single burned-out bulb has caused a line to go out. If the bulb for Exchanging-Smiles-With-Mother doesn’t light up, then Empathy won’t be kindled farther along the strand, or Playfulness, or Theory of Mind (the insight that other people have different thoughts from yours). The electrical current won’t reach the social-skill set, the communication skills, creativity, humor or
abstract thinking.

According to the D.I.R. perspective, emotion is the power source that lights up the neural switchboard. D.I.R./Floortime’s goal is to connect autistic students with other people as a way of fueling their cognitive potential and giving them access to their own feelings, desires and insights. The latest findings in the field of neuroplasticity support D.I.R.’s faith in the capacity of the human brain to recoup and to compensate for injury and illness. “Early intervention is optimal,” Dr. Greenspan told me, “but it’s never too late. The areas of the brain that
regulate emotions, that sequence ideas and actions and that influence abstract thinking keep growing into a person’s 50s and 60s.” "

This is a theory that makes a great deal of sense to me. People with autism have relational deficits not only because their brain is hard wired that way, but because of the way their brain is wired, they miss out on early opportunities for connection and learning emotional regulation due to their sensory issues. This is not the fault of the parents; it is merely the fault of the way the person's brain works. When a child does not learn emotional concepts when they are young, they have a much harder time understanding them later on.

That is why a relational, emotional approach to working with autism seems so important. Help a person with autism work through their feelings, help them problem solve step by step, help them learn how to ask other people for help and interact with others in a meaningful way, and you are giving them the skills they need to succeed in life.

This brings me to the most profound quote in the article; really, you need to read the whole thing to grasp the context, but I tried to summarize it above. This paragraph sums up basically everything I have been trying to articulate in four years, everything I believe to be at the root of most of my problems or the problems of most people with autism, and it stuns me that something can still do that four years later.

"“If we can keep Ty engaged with us, it means that he is harnessing and organizing his energies in order to interact,” Nelson told me later. “By keeping him connected, we won’t let him be kidnapped by random fragmented thoughts. If you aren’t engaged with other people, then you are completely at the mercy of your own regulatory system. Think about a
situation where you were overcome with distress and how being able to tell someone helped you avoid becoming uncontrollably distraught.”

That is so profound to me because it speaks to an absolute truth. If you have nothing but yourself to turn to, you really are at the mercy of whatever coping system your brain has developed to deal with problems: some good and some definitely not. You can get lost in a problem and become considerably distressed over it, left to your own devices. But if you have someone to walk you through the problem, redirect you, someone who you feel a connection to, that feeling of emotional connection will probably override most of the distressed and despairing feelings and bring a sense of calm; and the other person's helping you to problem solve will ground you and remind you to look at the problem in perspective, in a reasonable way.

More than anything else, it is the emotional connection that seems to be missing with people in autism. People who are not autistic probably know - or perhaps they don't since they know no other reality - how much a sense of connection to others has helped mute some problems in their life and generally made them feel more confident and secure in their ability to handle life's problems. People with autism, however, generally know nothing but their own feelings and emotions, and find it extremely hard to feel a sense of connection to others, especially an emotional one. This lack of connection leaves them floundering and can cause many to regress into many of the inappropriate behaviors often seen in autism.

So what to do about this? Well, the article explains how one school is doing it; but basically, it seems, people need to just try to reach the person with autism at the level they are at, understand the way their brain works, and try to reach them and connect with them on a level they will understand. That is obviously a simplistic way of looking at it, and the real answer would be far more complex, and more research needs to be done on this matter, but that is a good start.

Does anyone have any experiences with or thoughts on this model of autism therapy?

What is Normal, Anyway?

Another previously written essay to serve as intro material on my blog.... after I post old stuff, I will do all new stuff.

What is normal, anyway?

I might have been the only one who didn't sleep over at Mallory's sleep-over birthday party in fifth grade. No matter, it was a miracle that I had even been invited. It was one of very few birthday parties I ever attended. When I arrived, all the other girls were sitting on their sleeping bags on the living room floor, talking excitedly. I felt a million miles away. I had no idea what to talk about. My few attempts at making conversation were painful, and I soon gave up.

When it was time for cake and ice cream, I was grateful to leave that small room and go outside. I grabbed a piece of cake and ran off to be by myself, breathing in a sigh of relief as the pressure of figuring out how to be around others was suddenly relieved. I gravitated to an old tire swing in the barn, and it is there that I smiled for the first time, laughing even. I relished the way the swinging motion of the tire felt.

Mallory appeared in the front of the barn. "What's wrong?" she asked, wondering why I wasn't at the party.

I didn't know. I had no idea what was wrong. All my life, I knew something was wrong, but I didn't know what it was until I was 21.

At recess, I would sit outside on cold, hard ground reading a book. When I did bravely venture out to the playground to go on my beloved swings, it was never with a friend. I felt like I existed in a different world from all the kids around me.

In junior high, for the first time, I became aware that everyone around me was coupled. That almost no one ever hung out alone. I wondered, why don't I have any friends? In eighth grade, I was bullied relentlessly and became the queen of crying when no one was looking.

High school involved endless entreaties to my school counselor, the therapist I was seeing, and everyone else around me about why I was so different. "You're just a quirky, a little nervous" they would tell me. I made lists upon lists of why I felt different from every person around me. I agonized over my choice of clothes, my choice of music, my lack of friends, the way I talked, what I talked about.

But I never got any answers. Not in college, when I would frequently become extremely upset when I started comparing myself to the 18-22 year
olds that I lived with 24/7; instead, I tried finding other interests to throw myself into, and I made friends with the professors, who were so much easier to talk to than the students.

Until the day I flopped down at the student union couch to watch TV, and randomly found a Lifetime movie about a boy in a residential school with autism. Fascinated, I researched the subject later online, and came across Donna William's books. I ordered them, as well as books by Temple Grandin, Stephen Shore, Valerie Paradiz, Liane Willey Holliday and many others. I could not stop reading books about autism and Asperger's Syndrome. For I saw in them something I had never seen anywhere else in my life, something that I didn't imagine was possible to find anywhere else: I saw myself.

A year and a half and two dozen autism-related books later, I was finally diagnosed with Asperger's Syndrome. At last, I could find other people who thought like me, who spoke like me, who acted like me. I could recreate the image I had of myself into someone who actually belonged to a group, who could have friends and connections with people.

My diagnosis came right before my senior year of college. Before heading back to school in Baltimore, I came across a support group for
adults with Asperger's in nearby Washington, DC. I contacted the group leader and made arrangements to attend when I got back to school.

I ended up going to every meeting they had that semester. In this group, I found a place where I felt accepted, even wanted. I could
have long, involved, meaningful conversations with group members. I could share experiences with them and have them understand, see myself
in everything from the stories they told to the way they talked to the sensory issues they shared. We could laugh about our social issues,
our literal-mindedness and naivete; talk endlessly about our social issues, and not feel judged. I felt at home, and no longer felt like an alien.

That semester, I wrote an article about Asperger's that appeared in the Baltimore Sun, and got invited to speak at an autism conference in Philadelphia about what it was like to be an adult on the autism spectrum. During my winter break that year, I travelled to six different cities where I had family, and met people from Asperger's message boards who I knew from online in every city. I was astonished how easy it was to get along with them. The glass wall had been removed, at least when I was with my Asperger peers.

Today, while I still have my problems, I am happier and more content than I have ever been in my life. I no longer have to feel the piercing pain of wondering why I am the way I am. I have accepted myself, my strengths and my weaknesses. I am a far more confident, outgoing, enthusiastic young woman. I realize now that the goal of everyone's life is to realize their limitations and gifts and a find a way to live fully within them. Every person has value, every person has something they are good at. I am proud of who I am, and want to do everything I can to help other people understand about autism spectrum disorders so that other people don't have to go through the difficulty that I had to. I want to support others with AS, and help create a world where, as a friend of mine says, normal is just a setting on a washing machine.

Accepting Asperger's

This is an essay on Asperger's I wrote shortly after I was diagnosed, about five years ago.
I think I may have gotten it published in a magazine in 2007 but at this point I don't even remember for sure, lol.

101 Uses for Body Lotion

Bleeping horns. The sound of someone eating an apple. A ticking clock. Hurried conversations. All around us, in every day, we are subjected to a barrage of sensory messages that most of us ignore without even thinking about them. Every day, most of us interact with the world around us without giving much thought to how we are doing it; it just comes naturally. This is not, however, the case for the person on the autistic spectrum. Specifically, for the person with Asperger’s Syndrome. Asperger’s Syndrome is a very high functioning form of autism that was not officially recognized and put into the DSM-V until 1994. There has been a huge lack of public awareness and knowledge of this disorder, although it has gotten more attention in recent years. As a result of this knowledge gap, many kids, teenagers and adults are walking around every day carrying feelings of extreme isolation and difference from those that surround them but never quite knowing why.

I have been one of these people. I am twenty one; a college senior at Goucher College in Baltimore. I have a 3.7 GPA in my college and always did well in school, but all my life I have lived with the knowledge that something was “different” about me, something I couldn’t quite figure out. I kept to myself as a kid. I entertained myself and lived in worlds I created for myself. I was happy enough until about the seventh grade, when an unsettling realization hit me. I realized for the first time that I had no friends. I had never had any desire for them before, but I wanted them now.

I observed other people pairing up and doing things together. I noticed them talking and laughing and walking to class together. I suddenly felt lonely. For the first time in my life, I wanted friends. But I had no idea how to get them. I had always regarded people as targets to avoid, inscrutable objects that could be potentially dangerous to me. Now I felt a desire to relate to them. It seemed, though, that I did not speak the same native language as them. I had no idea what to do with them.

I was the target of quite a bit of bullying and harassment my eighth grade year. I shrank away from people much more after this. Still, I wanted friends. In high school I got my first taste of this. My junior year and senior year, I was befriended by a few girls from my classes. For the first time in my life, I experienced what it was like to “hang out” with people, to go to their houses or just have conversations with them. Despite these burgeoning friendships, though, I still felt troubled. I wanted to know why it was so hard to make friends with my peers. I wanted to know why I still felt so isolated, like there was a thick wall between me and other people. I had a pretty good life: I had things I was interested in, people to talk to when I wanted, a family that loved me, all the things I could really want. But I became more and more desperate to find out the answers to the question of my differences that had always plagued me.

I wanted to know why I didn’t dress the same as others my age, always placing comfort high above fashion. I wanted to know why I didn’t have any of the same interests as my peers and why “friends” seemed to be like the seventh class in my senior year schedule. All very intangible things, and I was reassured over the years by therapists, guidance counselors and family that there was nothing different about me, that I was just like everyone else. That I was maybe a little anxious around my peers but that IÂ’d find friends. All I had to do was meet people with similar interests. I knew this wasn’t true. I knew that I was different in some essential way, some way that I had absolutely no words for but that I felt in the deepest recesses of my heart. I knew it in the way that I felt so cut off from people – the feeling that no matter how many interests I shared with a person, we somehow had two completely different ways of communicating and would never be able to connect on the level that I needed. People tried their hardest but nobody had any answers for me, so I learned to cope. I shut out the outside world as much as possible and learned to take pleasure in my own world, in things that I found enjoyable.

The schism between the way I experienced and related to the world and the way that all of my peers experienced and related to the world kept growing and growing, and I felt more and more torn. I wanted desperately to be a part of the world around me, but found it so difficult, so cumbersome. It took so much energy. It was so much easier to retreat into my world. Yet, I knew this would lead nowhere I wanted to go; the isolation was becoming unbearable.

And then, at age 21, I learned of Asperger’s Syndrome, and for the first time in my life could fit my behaviors and way of experiencing the world into an already established pattern. I fit somewhere. There was a perfectly logical explanation for my difficulties. Now, instead of spending all my energies trying to shut out a world that did not understand me, I could find a segment of the world that did. I could start to forgive myself for all the transgressions I had so painfully made over the years without knowing why. I could find other people who "spoke Aspie.”

Thinking back over my life up until now, I am amazed by the sheer amount of effort those with AS must make just to get through each day, by the amount of coping techniques we must intuitively come up with and practice. We are bombarded every day with so much overwhelming sensory information. Our clothes are too tight, making eye contact can literally hurt, the sounds of everyday conversation, of a clock ticking or someone tapping a pencil against the desk can drive us out of our minds. Certain smells can overwhelm us, the lights are too dim or too bright, we just don’t feel comfortable in our bodies. It’s very hard for us to actually relax, because there always seems to be a threat lurking somewhere.

Every interaction we have is like solving a five hundred piece puzzle before the time is up. When we see a person we would like to interact with, first we must decide if we have enough energy to go through with the interaction. Whereas a large segment of the population gets energy from interaction with others, for us it can be sometimes dangerously overwhelming and depleting. It is like a forbidden fruit that we would like to enjoy but must weigh the consequences. Then we have to figure out, often in just a few seconds, what we’re going to say and how we’re going to say it and try to double check it before we say it to make sure, to the best of our knowledge, that it might be something that could flow reasonably into the conversation. We have to call up old scripts and decide which is most appropriate for the situation. And on top of all that, we have to make it sound as natural as we can.

If you were a native English speaker with some background in the French language, and you spent a month in France, you would find yourself trying to translate your thoughts in English to French before you spoke them. This is very similar to what happens when an AS person must talk: they have to translate their Aspie way of thinking to a more neurotypical format. This can be a difficult task if you don’t know the language well; slip-ups are bound to happen. It ends up being a very time consuming and exhausting process to continuously go through.

When I was growing up, I constantly felt like I was speaking a different language from everyone around me. I would have such a hard time conveying what seemed to be the simplest of things, and felt like I was constantly being misunderstood. What a relief it is later, then, to find in so much of the literature on Asperger’s those same very words: “People with Asperger’s speak a different kind of language than their peers.” This is, of course, due to the fact that we do not understand nonverbal language. We do not pick up on those small signals, those nuances in the way you say words that are supposedly meant to carry so much meaning. We wonÂ’t see the reassuring look in your face because we can’t read your face. We only hear the words. When we talk, we might over-explain something due to the fact that so much of what people take for granted as being understood, we have no way of knowing is understood; we are awkward and clumsy because we are trying to put words to emotions and feelings that most people are able to communicate nonverbally.

We are creatures of habit and have a great need for structure and routine; disruptions in our routine can wreak havoc on us. There are so many things that can make us feel off balance and it can be very difficult to recover from this. I think the hardest thing for me as a person with AS is the feeling of always being on the edge. The feeling that yes, I’m coping now, but at any minute I could loose my hold and become completely overwhelmed by the world around me. This is terrifying in so many ways and something I deal with so much every day. I try to structure my days and my routines in such a way that I feel as calm and stable as possible, and I am always making sure I am engaged in some activity or another so that I give myself as little chance as possible to succumb to the terror of the unknown – but it creeps up on you during every down time that you have, and you fight it as best as you can, promising rosier visions of the future, promising that there will come a time when you aren’t so scared. You learn to focus on the one or two things that made you happy in any given day and fixate on them, hold on to them for as long as possible, using them as your reason to keep fighting.

There are many little things we do to cope with all of the pressures we feel. I personally carry lavender lotion around with me everywhere; I find the scent and feel of it calms me down when I’m approaching an overload quicker than just about anything. The feeling of water against my skin is also a stimulus that is very calming to me. Recently I’ve figured out that water fountains tend to have much colder water than some public sinks, so I’ve taken paper towels and put them under the spray of the water fountain to make them as cold and reviving as possible. There are so many little things like that that we notice that no one else would, so many things that we must intuit to do to help ourselves function in this world.

So many people are apt to pass off people with AS or any of a number of other disorders as somehow less intelligent or someone not worth getting to know. If they’re clumsy socially, they must be clumsy mentally, right? But the fact of the matter is we have to be quite intelligent to figure out a way to deal with the foreign world in which we live. At any given moment, we are planning out everything that will happen the rest of the day so that we are not taken by surprise by anything. We are thinking ahead to try to figure out if a proposed activity will be safe for us and not contain too much sensory overload; we are figuring out how much downtime we need to program in to anything we schedule ourselves to do.

I explain all of this just to give the average person an idea of what it is like to live on the autistic spectrum, and especially an idea of what it is like to live there without knowing about AS. While it is a struggle, it is not an impossible one. There are benefits that go along with it, too: the ability to remember large amounts of information related to your interests which could be helpful for those who manage to get a job in a field of interest to them; the ability to focus single-mindedly on a task to get it done; and a great deal of honesty, loyalty, and perseverance. AS employees are much more likely to stick to the rules and do exactly what you have told them to. People with AS won’t tell you one thing one day and change their mind the next; they are unfailingly honest. They’ll tell you what they mean; you wonÂ’t have to play guessing games with them.

It is only by learning about each other’s struggles and challenges and really trying to understand them that we can build a world that is safe for everyone to live in. A world where its inhabitants don’t have to live in fear of being different, but can instead embrace it. A world where we can truly grow and improve because we are taking advantage of everyone’s strengths, not just the strengths of a selective few. That is the kind of world that I want to live in. It’s the kind of world that we all want to live in.