29 Jun 2014

"Why Don't You Smile More?"

I was once asked the question “Why don’t you smile more?”. It wasn’t out of the blue, or accusatory, I believe it was out of genuine curiosity when I refused to smile at something amusing. And I thank the person for asking me this question; not at the time, though, because I didn’t have an answer then. My recent hiatus from posting here has coincided with a period of self-analysis, or what you might call “finding oneself”, so I feel more able to answer that question.

My natural reaction to something amusing or funny, or something that makes me happy is, like any human, to smile. It’s intrinsic, we’re born to it, we don’t have a choice. But of course we can control the muscles in our face (at least the major ones), so it is possible to restrain a smile once it has started. So that’s what I was doing, and that’s what got noticed. A side note: something that supports the left-brain right-brain theory is that I smile predominantly with the left side of my face, which is connected to the more emotional and less logical right side of the brain. That’s what people were presented with when I tried to hide a smile: the slight extension of the left of my mouth and a bit of a squint. Charming.

The question you might be asking is why. It’s nothing to do with social acceptability, or even the tribal instinct for group acceptance and positive reinforcement. If fact, it’s the opposite of smiling for safety, it’s ‘not smiling’ for safety. It stems from the sad thought that opening up emotionally will not only let in good feelings, but bad ones. This has some scientific basis, but is not the way to a healthy life.

Negative experience (negative feedback) is a much stronger behaviour modifier than positive feedback. So the desire not the experience a negative is greater than the desire to feel a positive. Here, drink this – it’s either vanilla or earwax flavour. Do you drink it? The optimistic would say yes, but the realist and the pessimist would say no (the pragmatist would probably say yes, because no matter what it was, it was a free glass that he could fill with something else). I suppose as examples go, there are better... Either way, I didn’t smile, so I didn’t open myself up to negative emotions.

But that doesn’t work. Take an umbrella so you don’t get wet. Oh, you stepped in a puddle? Take waterproof socks and trousers. That’s silly, and I don’t use that word lightly.

What am I saying…? Don’t wear an emotional dry-suit. And smile more, it makes you happy. Science said so.

13 Oct 2013

Avoiding Meltdowns

*All of the below is my opinion at the date of posting.

Meltdowns aren't very nice - I think that's something everyone can agree on.  But if they happen, they happen. So the question is do they have to happen?

Very occasionally will the cause of a meltdown (or shutdown) be one single event, and in these cases I have no advice or experience. Commonly, meltdowns occur after exposure to stressors (a word I am using to encompass any stimulus which causes a stress response), and then are triggered by something - the straw that broke the camel's back. There are a few possibilities when reducing the probability of a meltdown:

  • avoid stressors
  • reduce the effect of stressors
  • avoid triggers
The last of those three is quite possibly the trickiest. It relies on you being able to tell when you are at your likely to meltdown, and isolate yourself from them. I say this is tricky for two reason. First, you have to recognise when you are at your limit. It's a steep learning curve if you can't recognise it, because failing to do so will probably result in that meltdown. Thafatigue, I can recognise that in myself.

The second part is being able to isolate yourself. Isolation in itself is not hard, but if you are in a situation with an abundance of stressors, it may be difficult to remove yourself from that situation. If you are feeling overwhelmed and can escape, then it is likely you've avoided melting down, and you can start recovering from overexposure however you normally do. I'm not saying jump in a sensory deprivation tank, and isolation doesn't necessarily mean be alone, it means go somewhere 'safe'. Unfortunately this might not work, in which case it's necessary to nip it in the bud sooner.

Avoiding stressors varies in feasibility from person to person. You have to identify when and where these occur, and simply cut them out. If the flickering lights in a particular shop are a cause, find a different shop. If the noise of a particular environment, like a construction site, is a cause, find a different route. Hopefully these won't sound like running away from your problems, or over simplistic pseudo-solutions. Hopefully you will be able to see that, to paraphrase English intellectual Cyril Connolly, the avoidance of pain is the beginning of wisdom - a sentiment probably expressed by many people over time. Wisdom doesn't come with age, it comes with experience, and my experience asks me: doesn't it sound wise to avoid bad experiences?*

But what if you can't avoid them? What if you have them thrust upon you? Running away is not the answer, but retreating may be. A retreat is organised and tactical. By retreating from a situation you are taking away the immediate stressor before it can build up to excessive levels, calming yourself, preparing yourself to deal with it, and returning to it with a more resolute (even optimistic) mindset. I'm not prescribing meditation for every minor infraction, but I find some of the principles very effective at reducing the likelihood of a meltdown...

Recently at work, where I operate at a genteel, almost leisurely, pace, I was given much more responsibility. This would interrupt what I saw as my regular duties, and put me in situations I was not comfortable with. Also, I was asked at the last minute to have a personal development type meeting. And also I had to train someone on something. And someone wanted me to check if I had made mistakes in a lot of my work (I hadn't). And I had something very time-sensitive given to me. And I had get something else right because it was being sent to the head of the organisation.

All of this took place in under half an hour, which you may understand put a little bit of pressure on me (if you don't understand why this build to meltdown feelings, don't be afraid to ask in the comments). So I waited until everyone had stopped making demands (while telling myself "calm down, breathe, get through this next minute") and isolated myself in a quiet room. I closed my eyes and took deep breaths, concentrating on nothing else but my breathing for several minutes. I then tried to order the events in my mind into a pattern that was manageable. When I returned, I started work on the first thing, then when I had finished, I started the second thing. Each thing one at a time. It worked out fine.

This may not be applicable to everyone, but it is transferable. If you can, do the wise thing avoid the causes of meltdowns. If you can't, do the wise thing and briefly retreat from them, using any coping mechanisms you have. You don't even have to go anywhere to retreat, just figuratively push the issue to the side for a moment (if you can - I know it's quite difficult with noise-based stimuli). Try not to escalate or magnify the stimuli by focussing on them. So far I haven't covered one contributing factor - fatigye or tiredness. Why? There is only one solution. Sleep.


*Some bad experiences are necessary, but repeated meltdowns are not

23 Sep 2013

Look Me In The Eyes

A phrase which, if you read some of the literature, is thrown at us daily. Bypassing why this may be a fruitless exercise (vis-à-vis, repeating the same process and expecting different results), why is eye contact deemed so important? Is it a requirement of communication, a forced social protocol, or an indicator of a person's attitude?

Almost every source on the importance of eye contact states that it is key to fully understanding social interactions(at least with humans). Some suggest it's normal, natural, and that not maintaining eye contact is a sign of disinterest or distrust. On the other hand, eye contact is considered impolite in some cultures. Surely this in itself is proof that the necessity of eye contact is mostly a social construct.

But let's look more in depth at eye contact. If we first accept that the eyes are the window to the soul, then by maintaining eye contact during conversation, a person is seeing someone else's innermost self. Even the most vapid of us is a massively complex individual with layers of thought, intent, beliefs, perceptions, preconceptions, and sub-conscious compulsions. How can even the most empathetic and quick thinking of us absorb all of this information, find out who someone truly is, when concentrating on what words are coming out of their mouth. Would anyone be expected to notice a fly against the vastness of the universe?

Of course, this argument has now reached a level of absurdity. So if eyes do not broadcast the intimates of the soul, then is there another reason to stare so intently at them? Well, the musculature around the actual optic spheres is used by most, albeit subconsciously, to display meaning. A raised eyebrow or two, a furrowed brow, raised cheeks. So the eye may in fact be a centroid to all of the moving parts. But hang on... What about the lips? They should be given some credit when it comes to conveying meaning. The eyes may be aligned centrally on the head, but are certainly not the focus of the face. That would be the pointy, or bulbous as the case may be, bit sticking out the front. Look me in the nose.

So the eyes are simply a focal point on which to base your disinterest, as opposed to the nose. I'm suggesting it's because the eyes are interesting. Surely, at publicly acceptable conversational distances, no one can tell if you're looking at an eye, or an ear, or that interesting painting just over their left shoulder. Do you have my undivided attention? Therefore, provided the face is visible, is it not irrelevant which specific area is focused on? In fact, is it not more polite to observe, with a slight air of disinterest, a person's least spectacular facial feature?

Up to this point, these arguments have been pertinent to all, neurotypicals included. I don't look at people's faces. At least, not often, and not people I'm not well acquainted with. This may partly be because seeing someone is one step away from acknowledging them, which is one step away from greeting them, which is one step away from a brief and probably halting exchange - a situation I don't want to deal with. That aspect at least I have covered before (probably), and will likely cover again (made more likely by the thought processes fired off by this post). I know I can't read faces too well - better than some, but it's not done fluently and instantly, and I'd give myself a 6.5 out of 10 on that score - which may add to the anxiety of an unplanned interaction.

To those who don't understand: imagine talking to someone, hearing their words, then they give you a funny look, you feel bad, and they leave shortly afterwards. What went wrong? You missed half the conversation because you didn't know it was there, or you did, but it was like a foreign language to you. And that's your fault, you wierdo.

So if you are focusing on a face you don't understand, and not on the words you do, it's possible you'll miss something. A verbal nuance. I always turn to the side, to get a better hiew. I'm coining that phrase - a view for your hearing. I'm not distracted by either an ugly or attractive face (or any face between), and I am giving you as much attention as I can spare. I don't need to look in your eyes to hear you. The deaf don't. A metaphor to end on, perhaps? I like those almost as much as Dr. McCoy from Star Trek does. Don't tell someone to juggle, then set their shirt on fire - it's distracting. That's also good, literal advice for any social situation.

29 Aug 2013

You're An Effort to Deal With

It's not a uncommon view that people on the spectrum are hard to deal with. I accept that this may be true, especially as you go further along the spectrum. Neurotypicals have to "deal" with people with milder ASDs because we are, to them, unconventional. Trust me, there are books on it.

Well here's something - I find NTs hard to deal with. Twice recently, this has been brought home to me. Like any introvert, I like my own time to 'recharge'. As someone  with Aspergers, my sympathetic nervous system is 'on' more than that of a physiologically normal person. What does that mean? My parasympathetic nervous system is less effective at relaxing and recharging me. In real terms, it means I genuinely need time after work, or after a social gathering, or any situation with stressors, so I can be prepared for the next day. Twice recently, I have had guests from the moment I walked in (and one basically until I went to bed).

I enjoy seeing these people. But when I have company sprung on me without time to recharge or mentally prepare, I feel out of sorts. I'm not disturbed that my routine is upset (or upset that my routine is disturbed, take your pick), and I'm not put out that they want to see me. It purely is that I was trying to wind down, and someone accidentally dropped a spanner in the works.

This is true for many Aspies, and possibly, to some extent, everyone else. There doesn't need to stereotypical stress, and it doesn't have to have been a hectic day. I might post again about the nervous systems (as I have done about the brain), but for now let me say this: everyone is hard to deal with for a lot of Aspies, and it gets tiring, so it may seem like boredom or disinterest or anything else, but it can genuinely be that we've had enough socialising for today, so please go away.

30 Jul 2013

Ego. Again.

Some time ago, I posted about the importance of ego. Or at least, the importance of the appearance of ego. The ego is what makes you think you are important. If you have a big ego, you think you're more important than everybody else, and if you have not very much ego, you think you're less important than everybody else. Well here's the thing: autism. Self-ness. The name implies focus only on the self. But is this really the case across the spectrum?

I can only really speak of Asperger Syndrome, and within that, myself. It is not uncommon for Aspergians to feel something akin to paranoia. Why akin to? If a person has made more than a couple of social faux pas, they may be justified in believing that they are being watched or spoken about. So, not exactly the irrational belief that they are being observed or are the centre of secret discussions. But a large portion of that feeling is added by the person themselves: I'm not being included, it must be about me. And this is how people with low self confidence, introverts, and some people with AS suffer from an excessive ego.

But being so self-centric can be detrimental to social relationships. No one likes the guy who's a bit of an arse, but it's accidental offenses, rather than the self-interested egotism, that most of us are worried about. The 'oops, they didn't take that right' moments. The 'oh, that's why they're acting funny' moments. You can't change human nature, but you can change your own behaviour. If it upsets you that you've upset someone, you can learn from that. All you can do is learn.

But is this behaviour inherent, or is it learned as self defence? Assume the worst, and everything's an improvement. Not really the best philosophy for life, but getting over the emotional hump, the Wednesday of you ego, is the trick. By no means am I saying change yourself to make people like you, but I am saying try to curb the behaviour that you've found has upset people, because in the end, it's upsetting you. Be selfish in that respect. So, at the risk of sounding pseudo-philosophical, think of yourself and think of others.