Autistic People and Imagination

When they say autistic people don’t have imagination and don’t engage in imaginative play, what do they mean? I knew I had imagination, and that was one of the biggest things holding me back from thinking I could be autistic, because that was something always stated and listed and formalized. Autistic people don’t have imagination.

I never really was into playing school or house, like other kids were (why would you be a grown-up when you could be a HORSE?). But I would play all sorts of imaginative games with my cousins and my sister and myself.

I played Orphan Kittens. We played all sorts of games with our stuffed animals and model horses. Admittedly, we often wrote out the scripts before and they were usually similar patterns that happened… but that is a trait common to children. (You notice it when you babysit or have younger siblings or really just encounter things like that).

We played Lord of the Rings and went on quests where grapefruits or a pomegranate were palantir. There was a game where we were princesses that also involved horses and we would switch roles between them back and forth. We also played a lot of complicated games involving chickens and occasionally my cousin’s goat which we were all afraid of, but those were not always imaginative games–I don’t really remember the point of them, so they are a bit irrelevant.

In 4th grade, I made snail houses and fairy houses and for one brief moment, I was a trendsetter when everyone else in 4th grade also made “fairy friends”. (Although I was a bit upset that they treated it as a game, because I at least half–probably more–believed in it). I played games where the swings were the way to outer space and the only way back was to go down the slides. I was good at coming up with games and stories, so as long as everyone else was still young enough to play stories and pretend at lunch, I had company. They grew out of it earlier, so I switched to books.

And I lived in stories and books (and still do) despite the best efforts of literature analysis to beat that love out of me. And I still half-live in a world of stories, although I read much less than my high school minimum of a book a day. (I have a lot more reading to do of other materials than I did in high school.) (Also, I don’t like going new places myself which is why I haven’t been yet to the [non-campus] library even though I love libraries.)

Anyway, on any given day, I’m about 80% sure I’m autistic and I’ve had official professional people agree with me, so I just wanted to summarize this to say that autistic people can be creative too and that is a silly requirement to say they can’t.

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And now for a bit of happiness…

I am so lucky that I had an awesome family. That I grew up very free of physical health issues. That I had only a smattering of mental health issues, but they knew depression was hereditary, so they warned us and prepared us.* I’m so lucky that when I finally told them I might be autistic maybe, they just researched a bunch and talked about it and found places near home that seemed good and safe and lovely and nonthreatening and offered to drive me to be tested if I wanted to.

I’m so lucky that my family knew I was quiet around strangers and didn’t like big crowds, and they didn’t much either, so I never was forced much into intolerable social situations. And that they were fine with my younger sister ordering for me at restaurants and talking to strangers for me, even though I was the older one. I’m so lucky that they taught me rules and usually even explained the whys. That I grew up learning the names of plants and the breeds of horses and was very thoroughly encouraged in these endeavors. That my whole family had scripts and traditions and we had whole days where pretty much everything was a quote.

I am so lucky that I have this wonderful, wonderful job (well, grad school, but they pay me, so it is sort of the same as a job), where I can do interesting useful things all day. And be quiet and have my own lovely space.

And where a lot of it is work-at-your-own-pace/on-your-own-time, so if I am having a bad, jittery, jumpy day, I can go home. I can wrap up my experiment for the day (probably) and go home. I might have to come back later and do some work on my own time or on the weekend or stay late a couple days to make up for it. But I can schedule things. I can generally be in charge of my own schedule.

And that is amazing.

And I have an awesome boyfriend who sits with me through meltdowns and talks to me. Who finds ways to understand me when I can’t talk. Who explains rules and general social-people-things that I don’t understand. Who walked me to counseling every week in undergrad when I was terrified of going because of talking and helped me figure out life. He makes everything make sense when the world is spinning out of control around me. Who has a pretty amazing family who invites me to their family events, too. Who goes on walks with me to find new food and explore things. We go to zoos and museums and aquariums and find quiet places in the city.

My life is actually pretty wonderful.

And I’m writing this while I am in lab on a weekend studying for finals for classes that are unnecessarily specific. And I still won’t be done with my rotation project until after finals, because various lab mishaps and misbehaving science stuff (and mistakes). And it is way too cold in this city right now and I have to keep pausing my lab work to sit on my hands. But you know what? I love that those are my biggest problems I am having right now. Those problems (well, except being cold, that’s just a general problem that can affect most people) are luxury problems.

My life is pretty darn awesome.

___
*It was still not-good. But that wasn’t my family’s fault that we have a genetic predisposition to depression and they told us about it and were very supportive when it happened and I told them.

Holidays and families

I love my family. We’re a great big mess of extended people with all sorts of strange traditions. For a long time, it didn’t matter that I didn’t have great friends at school because I always had cousins and sisters that I could talk to and be weird with and not be lonely. And now that we’ve all moved out to college and don’t live within 2 hours of each other, Christmas is often the only time that we can actually all be together at once. 
But holidays are still loud and crowded and not always sensory-friendly. But they also have some other great things going for them. 
Tradition.

AKA mega-routines

I love holiday traditions and our family has buckets of holiday traditions. The same foods every year, the same seating, the same place. We have the same time frames for everything. 
And admittedly, sometimes they got a bit people-busy. There are always a few random relatives and you always have to hug them. (But luckily a lot of them were from different countries where they air-kiss you on the cheeks instead, which is much less space-invasive if you have to interact with strangers/people who have maybe met you when you were a small child but aren’t positive because there were a lot of us and babies are all pretty similar.) And remember their names. And remember their faces (now that’s the tricky part). And it can get loud. 
But there was also always so many food options that I didn’t have to eat the ones I didn’t want. (And then a couple hours later, there was an entire table of desserts!) There were people to talk to and play with that didn’t require much difficulty. With cousins you didn’t really have to worry about social rules. You could be as delightfully weird as you wanted and spend the whole night talking only in quotes and not be alone. Because they would be quoting right along.
And also there were always rooms or places outside that were quiet. You could sit and read (and there always new books to read at Christmas) or just sit somewhere alone if you needed to*. You could go away from the main crowd to have small conversations if large conversations were too big.

And even the conversations… Very very very little small talk. We talked about new laws and current events and discussions on the death penalty. They were all conversations about SOMETHING. Something logical.

(Or sometimes they were stories, but they were all interesting stories about my grandparents’ lives (they are very interesting people). And I love stories.)

(Or horses. We talk about horses a lot. I am good at talking about horses. So are several of our other cousins. Sometimes we would just name horse breeds at each other. Although, now we tend towards quoting LOTR at each other instead.)

And this is why I love my family and I love holidays so much.

So have a wonderful holiday season, everyone! (and all and any holidays, or if you don’t celebrate any in particular, I hope you are just having a generally lovely day.) (I hope you are happy and enjoying yourself wherever you are, whoever you are with (or enjoying the nice quietness of being by yourself), and eating delicious food.)

Be happy!

*and it really is perfectly normal. Like I said my family definitely has autistic tendencies so it actually took me a while to realize that taking a break somewhere delightfully quiet is not something that is acceptable in general society… For years and years I probably had read at least one book during any party I went to and didn’t understand why people thought it was unusual that I brought a book with me. (It was for when I took my break!)

Some conversational strengths I have

Tonight, I had a choice. Study for midterms or write a long, random, rambling blog post. I am pretty sure from the presence of this post that you can infer all the good life decisions I am making right now. Good prioritizing… Also, I don’t know how people can do work all day from 8 or 9 to 6 or 7 and then come home and study more. I studied some in lab today during incubations and stuff so I am going to tell myself that counted instead. Anyway, grad school is all curved, right? So I just have to hope everyone else isn’t studying either… 

Small talk may not be my thing, usually. It often involves talking to strangers, which is difficult. And frequently it isn’t about all that interesting of stuff, once you get past the formulaic exchanges of general information and questions.

Except it does include talking about the weather, often. And boy, can I talk about the weather. I love talking about the weather. I can compare different weather patterns. Discuss different climates (and I’ve been hopping around universities the last four or five years, so most people have been a couple of places, so they have got things to share.) And also on how amazing lightning is. BECAUSE IT IS LIKE MAGIC NATURAL FIREWORKS. After a while, though, most people seem to get tired of discussing the weather, and the conversation will sometimes die off.

So I thought I would come up with a list of the other things that I can talk your ear off EASILY about, even if you are a stranger.

Animals. Especially farm animals. I have an unusually large knowledge of agricultural practices and different breeds of animals used for various things. Do I know all the breeds of goats in the American Dairy Goat Association? Why yes I do (admittedly, there are not that many.) (And I have strong opinions on the different breeds, too.) I used to have my Encyclopedia of Horse Breeds memorized. Chickens, too. I love talking about chickens. I gave a speech on them once for my high school speech class. It was the only speech I was not traumatized by. I think it probably helped that I have had boatloads of pets throughout the years.

These are my goat’s first batch of babies. Aren’t they cute? They were NOT eaten because these are NOT meat animals. They are dairy goats/pets and we love them all. I miss having animals.

This is an ok conversational topic. People like talking about their pets. They are usually interested in the fact that I have goats and chickens. They do not like the part of the conversation where I get into the meat part, which is why I try to avoid mentioning we had pigs and sheep, at one point, because then I tend to get into my meat-animal-explanation, which leads to interesting places.

Like this pig dressed up for a costume contest. (AKA this pig that we dressed up for a costume contest. In this case, we means my sister, admittedly. She always had much better ideas for things like this. Although, I generally had better methods for getting it to stay on the pig.)
Although, I am not talking about dressing up pigs like bikers/punk rockers/I don’t really exactly remember what my sister was going for here, I must admit. I am talking about the whole “where does food come from” especially meat thing, which can make people uncomfortable.
And then a special subset of my animal/agricultural discussion topics is prion diseases. I can talk for a VERY long time on prion diseases. Prions are so cool! I almost won our Knowledge Bowl at the county fair with my explanation of scrapies and prion diseases (they didn’t give us a time limit… they got to hear a lovely, 10-minute-plus-explanation on the science behind prion diseases and different research mechanisms and the Scrapies ID program and different molecular theories behind prions and the effect it has had on agriculture and even more… I think they may have rethought the wisdom of giving me a microphone.) (Scrapies is basically the sheep/goat version of Mad Cow Disease, btw.)
People are seldom interested in hearing about scrapies, though. And the people who are, have usually heard all of my information on it already.

Water rights. I know a lot about water rights and water regulations and drought management and irrigation to cities that don’t have their own proper local water source suitable for the number of people that live there (AKA the Southwest/Southern California).

I treated one fellow grad student to a very long monologue on this during orientation week, and he was very nice about it and acted interested and even asked questions. And maybe he even found it interesting, because people here seem to be interested in everything, which is awesome.

I also like to talk about droughts and weather patterns and water usage in different parts of the country.

Cheese. I really like cheese. I really like to eat it. I really like to talk about it. I like to discuss different types of cheese and different types of food that you can put cheese on. My friends in undergrad talked about cheese a lot, too, so it seemed like a normal thing. But maybe not.

But actually, it is probably more food in general. I like to list food that I like to eat. And things that I like to bake.

Stories.  I have lots of stories that I like to retell. Most of them aren’t my stories. They are family stories. I like to tell people how my grandparents met, how my parents met. About my mom and the quicksand. We have a lot of random stories that can come up surprisingly frequently in early-meeting-people conversation. I also have stories I’ve heard from my friends or stories boyfriend has told me and even sometimes one or two things that I’ve seen.

I have a set of stories. I don’t like to come up with new ones. I like to reuse the ones I have. They can usually be applicable, at least one.

Problems with this: I don’t remember who I have already told the story to. I also don’t always remember who the story came from. So sometimes I end up telling people stories that they told me. My friends are just amused by this, but more casual acquaintances might get upset. Also, people might not really be interested in hearing all my family history (but we have exciting stories! there’s a bank robber in there! people blow things up! someone gets stuck in quicksand!)

Dr. Seuss. I like to quote Dr. Seuss a lot. I tend to try to avoid this in small talk conversations, though because it can get weird really quickly.

Grocery shopping. I do this a lot, recently I have found. Where I start describing my grocery store routines to people. And figure out how they grocery shop. And compare grocery stores and grocery store techniques.

Or talk about different grocery store names. It’s so strange how they have such different names in different regions of the country. I’m used to Ralph’s and Vons and then all of a sudden I’m in the Midwest and I don’t even know what half of the stores people go to are called, they are just throwing out random words and how can I even tell if they are going to a store? But that amuses me, too. So I do like to discuss that.

~~~

Anyway, that’s a little random rambling from me for today.

~~~

P.S. I gave boyfriend a tour of the area I lived in, and basically it was me pointing out the bookstores and the houses that had pretty dogs. Because those were the landmarks I thought were important. (I’ve always learned the names of all the dogs I’ve walked past regularly, even if I’ve never even met their people. Over time, you tend to hear the people calling the name of the dog. And then you know.)

The Incredible Coolness of Science

So right now I am working on a grant application for the NSF GRFP. It funds the first 3 years of graduate education, and will pay me better than grad school pays me (slightly). And it’s also prestigious and would help my general career trajectory and open up a lot of new resources for me. Because of course, what better to do than work on a grant proposal for the NSF when the government is shut down (and therefore it is impossible to actually submit the grant). So while working on this grant, and specifically the outreach part, I started thinking a lot about science education. Because guys, it’s really important. And anyway, while working on it, I came up with a whole bunch of extra stuff that didn’t really fit in my application. 

So I’m going to share it here.

And also because this is a nice happy switch from some of the other stuff.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

…But I think it is important that people have a basic scientific, (and specifically biological) base of knowledge. So many world issues are based on scientific understanding. See: global warming “debate”. People really should have a basic concept of the scientific method. (It’s also just a useful thing to know! I use it all the time in so many non-scientific circumstances.)

 Furthermore, a basic idea of scientific concepts and biological concepts I believe is important in having the ability to properly make your own medical decisions. In deciding whether or not to take medications, it is helpful to understand why they work. It’s a good idea to have a general sense of where the various organs are in your body.

 But also, science is absolutely amazing and I think it is just horrifically sad that some people never have to opportunity to see the full beauty and complexity in life. The minute details of a cell. The hundreds and thousands of processes that are going on at any given time.

 Sometimes I stare at my hands in wonder. Because there are thousands of cells there. And each cell has so much machinery moving around. You have cellular respiration. Vaculuar transport. Do you know how many molecules are involved? Did you know that clathrin can self-assemble into cages.The cytoskeleton is constantly adding and deleting and growing and changing. There are thousands of processes going on even before you consider cell-cell interaction. The amazing organization of cells into tissues. How cells specialize into tubes and hearts and organs and blood and neurons.

And they all contain the exact same information.

 It is just so ridiculously amazing to think about what goes into deciding to move your finger. Multiple muscle movements coordinated. Electrical impulses released. Calcium flooding the sarcomeres. The myofibrils contracting. The actin and myosin interactions. And there is so much known about the molecules involved. And that is just at the muscle level.

Not even looking at the neural impulses. The processes involved in making a thought.

Oh my goodness guys, what even is a THOUGHT!

And that’s just humans.

Did you know that virus particles can spontaneously combine if you dissemble them? (And that they look like alien spaceships?)

(From http://www.zyvexlabs.com/EIPBNuG/2005MicroGraph.html)

Did you know that there are simple animals that can self assemble if you dissociate all the cells? The cells all know how to get back together. All these cells have the same genetic information.


Did you know there is a bug who has legs that work basically the same as gears?

Did you know that scientists have EVERY CELL DIVISION mapped out in C. elegans? They know exactly what happens when and how each of the 959 cells in the body are made. And they know how many cells are in the body.

THERE IS SO MUCH COOL STUFF!

AND even though there is so much we know is going on, there’s even more to learn. There’s just this incredible vastness of potential that exists there. These ideas and theories and processes that are yet to be discovered. There are so many possibilities.

And this is just a small tiny fragment of biology. You have the chemistry and physics thrown in there and you can look even smaller. Thinking about what each individual molecule is doing. Knowing why your desk acts the way it does. Understanding the world. (And the beauty of math, but people have a tendency not to see that.)


The world is so beautiful and I just want everyone to be able to appreciate it.

Reading

I didn’t learn to read particularly early in life (nor particularly late).

It was probably around kindergarten.

I wasn’t especially good at reading when I first started.

In kindergarten, I had a copy of Black Beauty. And I was obsessed with horses. So I wanted to read it. My mother didn’t discourage me, but she was convinced I wouldn’t finish it. Because I wasn’t a particularly stellar reader by any means. She offered it to be a bedtime story, where she read a chapter aloud to me every night. But I wanted to read Black Beauty. And I wanted to read it by myself. It took months. But I finished.

And once I started reading, well, I never stopped.

It got to the point where we had to have rules about reading, or I would never get anything done.

Reading was the only time I would sit still. And I would sit still for hours. Because I was reading.

We* weren’t allowed to read before breakfast (or else we would never get ready for school on time.) We weren’t allowed to read when guests were over for a playdate (because then we would ignore them). We weren’t allowed to read more than a chapter after we were tucked in at night (because then we would read for hours and hours and never get any sleep).

When I read, I read in blocks down the page. When I read, I don’t see the words. I just see stories in my head. (There are several circumstances where I think I have seen the movie-version of a book, but really I’m just watching it in my head).

I’ve read classics and Tamora Pierce and Harry Potter and Terry Pratchett (currently obsessed with him) and silly books and books on the Civil War and every textbook my cousin had when I visited them as my freshman year of college.

Words words words.

I will read anything with words.

One time my older cousins wanted to play “School” (which I thought was a silly game). So they gave me a dictionary thinking that would make me play instead of just reading the book. That was the day I realized how fun it can be to read dictionaries and look at all the organized, beautiful, alphabetical lists of words.

I read ridiculously fast as well. Something like reading the sixth Harry Potter book twice between 1:30am when I got home and 6 am when I went to sleep. (Because once you’ve read through a book once, it’s fun to reread it with the knowledge of the ending, to look for hints along the way.)

Reading quickly has helped me so much in school. Because I read so much faster than average, it gives me more time on the actual work/writing the answers. It adds up over multi-page tests. And it helped me with reading comprehension.

(Especially standardized tests.)

E. from The Third Glance talks about reading comprehension here.

I survived “reading comprehension” by reading and thinking about the questions FIRST, before reading the text. I would try to understand what it was they were asking in my own words. I would rephrase things I perceived as “important” parts of the question multiple different ways, so it was in my brain. Why? Because then I knew exactly what I had to look for in the text. I could then read, looking for the keywords I knew would be relevant, and answer the questions as they came up. I hated doing this, because it meant that I was missing most of the point of the text. I could understand a sentence, maybe two at a time, tops. I would be able to process almost nothing. Yet I could answer most (but not all) of the questions. Those questions of “what was the author feeling when s/he wrote this passage?” and “what value is the author trying to portray in line 12?” will always be a mystery to me. Sometimes I can guess right, but seriously, I have NO IDEA if the author was trying to tell me something or not. My absolute “favorite” of this type of question is “would the author of passage 9 agree with the author of passage 12 on some topic that is only vaguely related to either topic addressed in passages 9 and 12?” 

And these questions are frustrating. And they are ALWAYS on standardized tests. I think the only reason I did so well on these was that I was good enough at reading that I could read the passage through every time multiple times during the test, and still finish before everyone else, because I was just lucky enough to read that fast. And we had some of these during class and everything I got wrong in school, my mom would go over with me at home and explain WHY it was wrong and have me do sample problems sometimes until I knew how to do things correctly. So I learned the tricks for these problems and got much better at guessing. (But I still feel like I’m lying on things like this and still feel like I’m lying when I write English essays on topics like this, so I suppose I should be glad that I am probably done with this FOREVER). Because I LOVE stories and I LOVE facts but I do not like the essay version of interpreting them at all.

And I always read all the assigned readings for class. And I never understood why they would say to study from notes instead of the book, because it would take me less time to reread the chapter instead of my mostly illegible notes. (And even now, I still remember all the diagrams from my AP Biology textbook.)

Also, when you read you don’t have to talk to people.

And that is quite nice as well.
_____
* I use we because this applies to both me and Medium Sister.

To wonderful people at graduate school interviews

So, I previously mentioned that at one of my grad school interviews, I basically completely lost my ability to speak.

Grad school interviews are a whole weekend-long affair. You get flown out there, stay in hotels, and have a several-day mixture of formal interviews with faculty members, tours of the school, fun stuff, food, meetings with graduate students, and informal meetings with faculty. It can be fun, in parts. The food is usually delicious. It is tiring and stressful. It is a lot of dealing with people.

I was alright through the beginning of the interviews. Some awkwardness, but sometimes scientists are awkward people and I’m an awkward person, so that’s only to be expected occasionally. But my words worked, and I was able to explain my research, although I got more and more tired.

The moment my words stopped working and started heading down to complete non-verbal-ness was when I showed up for an interview, and the interviewer wasn’t there. It was a change. I didn’t melt down (which was very good). But I sat there. And I managed to find someone in her lab who told me there was a meeting. And I managed to wait. And I even managed to reschedule an interview later in the interview weekend (during the meeting, the next person to be interviewed also came and waited, so there were 2 at once).

(And I don’t really blame that professor. Because someone scheduled her to interview during regularly scheduled lab meetings. So I can see how the change in schedule would be forgotten (especially since there were two interview days), so it seems not-unreasonable to assume that the interviews were on the Friday, especially as they had been for the other interview weekends.)

But after that, I got really quiet.

I didn’t realize how much a change in schedule would affect me.

To the remaining faculty members who I had to interview with:

Most of you were so wonderful. You had someone in your offices who was just sitting there quietly. Who didn’t really have working words. Who had drawn out pictures of their research and diagrams, and whispered it to. Pointing out things.

You just asked if I wanted a cup of tea or anything else.

And sat and listened and watched. And then told me about your research, and asked me if I understood and accepted nods and shakes of the head as answers. And written out words as questions, which you then answered.

Thank you.

To the other students on the interview:

Other students on the interview, particularly that one boy whose name I have no idea of, thank you, too. You were so good at interpreting my gesturing. Thank you for giving me turns in conversation, and waiting for me to act something out and then guess it. Thank you for reading the words I wrote down in a notebook. Thank you for speaking for me, even though I had just met you. Even though you were on interview, too. Thank you for ordering for me at the restaurant when I pointed to what I wanted on the menu. Thank you for letting me follow you around quietly.

To all these wonderful people, thank you.

I didn’t understand what was happening. (I thought I was just prone to really-inconveniently timed bouts of other-symptom-free-laryngitis… not sure how plausible that actually is but it seemed a lot more reasonable than just NOT BEING ABLE TO SPEAK at that point in time). So I am sure you didn’t either.

But you were kind and accepting and talked to me normally and treated me normally. You helped me without making me feel inferior for not being able to talk. Thank you for including me.

(And yes, I didn’t get in. But it was very competitive, so who knows if I would have gotten in anyway. I know I did not do a good job necessarily of demonstrating how I would fit in your lab, or of demonstrating my knowledge. Also, all the people I interviewed with had such impressive research backgrounds. So it seemed reasonable to me.)

P.S. I wonder how this would have worked out if I knew about my autism already–had already had it as confirmed. I might have had a better way to communicate set up. (I am thinking I should get something ready in case this happens again, since it only seems to happen at really important times).