Wednesday, November 14, 2012

I Need Feedback

The last post I did, Meditations on Behavior Policing, brought up the problems that I have had, and that I believe many other people have probably shared, with being "corrected" without being taught. The responses to it have been great, and I'm happy to see how many people both here and over at the Thinking Person's Guide to Autism have seen themselves in that post.

When I wrote it, I wasn't completely sure that I wanted to post it. Bringing up past pain is always difficult, and while I do it a lot, it doesn't get any easier as I keep going. I think that's part of the reason why I wrote a fictional story about a boy (like me) with undiagnosed Aspergers in the 1980s, and not a literally true memoir of my life.

I also hesitated to post that article at first because I felt like I was just using this blog to complain, and I see so many other blogs by autistic adults that have messages that are uplifting or joyful or hopeful, and I feel like I'm the Eyore of adult autism writers. In the end though, I had to take the plunge and put it out. Not just because I'm trying to be more public and more honest, and not just because I feel the need to air my past. I put it out because the truth is that I'm still grieving for years that I lost before I was self-aware and for friendships and relationships that have fallen apart due to my own lack of social skills. I'm grieving both for the things that are slipping through my fingers and for the things that I feel were taken away from me by a lack of intervention when I was a child.

I'm trying my best not to lash out with blame, and not to hate the people that I feel were responsible for my care, but some days it's not that easy. And on those days, the best thing I think I can do is to sit down and write it out, and then to make myself revise it until the vitriol is combed back and the real, thoughtful expression of my grief can show through.

There is a next step, though. It's good to take my past pain and to help people understand what caused it, because that helps them to avoid inflicting it on others. It's just not enough. The next step has to be discussing what I feel I need, what I feel I needed back then, and why it would have helped. That's what I'm here for today.

While behavior policing is a major problem, it is important to remember that autism is marked by a profound self-consciousness that is punctuated by blind spots. We want to be good and to do things right, but some of the areas where we need help are areas that allow other people to self-monitor. Difficulties with processing other people's emotions in real time lead us to not realize when we're venturing into hurtful territory, which can make us seem rude or hurtful. Frustration, embarrassment, and the inability to just speak* sometimes makes us lash out with anger, and that can trash friendships.

Developing scripts doesn't really work, either. They cover most situations, but when we encounter a situation where our scripts fail us, it can be even more stressful than encountering situations where we simply have no idea what to do.

What we need is feedback. What I need is feedback. Not judging. Not condemning. Not being told that what I'm doing is "wrong". Just feedback. Workshopping. Explanations that are formatted like this:

I see you did ______________ (description of process). I also noticed that ___________ (unexpected problem) happened. If you did _____________ (replacement behavior), then you would get _________ (goal) without ________________ (unexpected problem) because ________________ (process analysis of where the autistic's original approach went wrong).

It's a lot of work. I know that, because I teach, and I approach teaching writing to my (mostly) neurotypical class in the same way. Writing is a special subject to me, because it is a way to have words that come easily, at the same speed as my thoughts, and without the sudden loss of the physical ability to articulate when I'm overwhelmed with emotions. It's also something that I've noticed people have a lot of stress about. When it doesn't go well, their self-esteem is pretty severely affected by it, and being able to write well is (for some reason) more closely associated with being intelligent than being able to speak your mind is.

That means that when I teach writing, I'm facing a bunch of anxious people with communication blind spots that are terribly afraid of doing something wrong and looking stupid. I understand that problem. I also think that the same solutions I use to solve that problem are useful for people with my problems.

Like a beginning writer, I need pretty constant feedback in new situations. I need someone who is going to workshop my ideas with me and show me when I'm wrong in a non-judgmental way. I need to constantly correct myself, in order to be better in a lot of ways, and not just social ways--I have issues with executive function (time management, attention span, decision-making) outside of my professional life, and sometimes inside it.

It took me a long time to find someone who was willing to give me that kind of feedback, and even longer for me to accept that it was necessary and to value it. Now that that has happened, though, I am able to communicate that need and to model that kind of feedback other members of my family and peer group, which means that I have a lot of people that are willing to help me to understand why some of my behaviors are not productive and to change them.

The key here is the explanation. I don't do well when I'm corrected or punished. I really don't respond to discipline. I respond to information, and to instruction. I have an innate need for understanding, and if I can achieve that understanding, I am perfectly willing to change my behavior.

Change is not the challenge. Understanding why it is necessary is the challenge.**

*I can only speak for myself, but part of the reason why I hate "high functioning" as a term, or Aspergers as a separate diagnosis, is that there seems to be a divide along the line of verbal/non-verbal. I've never been truly non-verbal in my life, but I have had many, many incidents where I literally can not speak. Not where I don't know what I want to say because I've been stumped, but where the thought is there and I can not make it come out of my mouth.

Sometimes, I feel strong emotions, and I think it's like when other people say "I'm too mad to speak." Other times, though, I don't feel particularly strong emotions. I just feel blocked. It tends to go away when I stop trying to express that thought, or when I just resort to yelling. Like people who overcome a stutter by singing, I feel like I can overcome my inability to speak with either volume or broadly-defined profanity sometimes. As I get older, I've learned more to wait for the moment to pass and then to move on to a new subject instead of doing that, though. What I have not experienced is any decline in my problems verbalizing.

**I don't think there's an "autistic personality", because I've seen too many different perspectives on the spectrum to believe that. This is a personal statement. If you identify with most of what I say on this blog, take it as a recommendation. If you don't and you're reading me for diversity, take it as a statement of what works for me. If you're a Myers-Briggs nerd, I did the test and I got INTP in the following breakdown: I (95%) N (90%) T (97%) P (90%). I've seen some people at WrongPlanet who like to debate whether or not there's a correlation between Aspergers/Autism and certain sub-groups on the Myers-Briggs. We'd need a real broad-based survey to generate the kind of evidence that makes that conversation into anything worthwhile.