Wednesday, January 28, 2009

The value of neuro-psychological testing

Just the other day, a middle aged fellow approached me and said, “I think I might have Asperger’s. Do you think there is any point to my getting tested, or am I too old?”

I looked at him as I pondered the true meaning of his question.

“You do look pretty old,” I said. “But I’ll bet you could still take a test. Maybe they even have a simplified version you could try.” I tried to look encouraging, but I’m not too good at stuff like that.

“That’s not what I meant,” he said with an annoyed tone. “I was wondering if getting tested would serve any purpose!”

Now that his meaning was clear I gave his new question a bit more thought. Why do people get tested for neurological differences like Asperger’s or autism?

Kids get tested when they don’t do what’s expected. For example, a tyke who doesn’t talk when grownups think he should gets tested. A kid who never looks at people gets tested. There is this presumption in our society that all kids should talk and look at people, and woe to the toddler who fails to comply.

Later on, kids who fail or struggle in school get tested. There’s another presumption in our society that all kids should pass school. So a kid that fails must have something wrong, and the school shrinks test until they find it.

At least, that’s what some parents hope. In today’s economic climate, schools may resist testing because they don’t have any money to provide the services suggested by the tests. But those battles are the subject of another story; another day.

It’s probably fair to say that most of the kid testing is initiated by observant grownups. But what if it’s not fair? It’s still true . . . and that’s how it comes to pass, 99% of the time. Kids do not start the process on their own. I have never once heard of a three-year-old saying, “Mommy, can you test me for neurological differences?” In fact, I think it would be nothing short of remarkable to hear a question like that from a kid, even in today’s enlightened times.

There are some who say, “There’s no such thing as normal!” To those people, every single kid has a diagnosis waiting to be found. I don’t know that I fully agree with that, but I do think knowledge is power, and the more you know about yourself, the better off you are.

So then the kids become adults, and the idea of grownups looking out for them goes away. If a kid escapes the test/diagnosis cycle through toddlerhood and his school years, he’s pretty much on his own. There is a societal presumption that all teens should pass high school, but there is no presumption that those same teens should pass work, once they are out of school.

If they don’t act right at work, they get fired. There’s no talk of testing and evaluation. There’s no plan for success. There’s just depression, anger, and a search for a new job.

Some adults solve their problems, and settle into adult life, career, mate acquisition, kid raising, the whole American Dream routine. Others lose their way, to one extent or another. I am a member of that latter group.

When everyone around me made friends, I was the loner. I was the one who never knew what to say, or how to act. People called me all sorts of names, none of which felt right. But they all had a corrosive effect on my psyche. Why couldn’t I fit in?

When you find yourself at loose ends as a grownup, on the street, and it appears that life is unraveling all around you, there is a natural tendency to ask . . . . what’s the matter with me?

For some people, that’s meant to be a rhetorical question. But for others, it’s very real. There truly is “something the matter.” How do you know which group you are in?

You get tested.

As I said earlier, knowledge is power and that statement is most particularly true with respect to self-awareness. In my case, the knowledge that I was a perfectly normal Aspergian male (and not a freak) changed my life. Actually, “change” is too mild a term. Understanding of Asperger’s, and what flowed from it, turned my old life right on its ear and set me on a new and brighter path that I’m still following today.

If you are an adult, and you have a significant neurological difference (Asperger’s and autism are the most common, but there are others) the insight you can get from testing may be the best thing to ever happen to you.

Have you always felt like you were different? Do you always seem to say and do things in a different way? Do you struggle with things others master instinctively? Do you have strange fixations or interests? Have you ever wondered why?

Maybe you are just nuts, but perhaps there’s a more useful explanation, like the one I received some years back. I didn’t learn about my own Asperger’s until I was 40, but the changes and growth I’ve experienced as a result of that insight are just beyond words. And the same thing could happen to you.

There is no downside to being tested. No matter what the test results show, you will know more about yourself, your mind, and how it works. It’s a tool to improve your life and make yourself more successful. And you don’t have to be scared – the testing doesn’t hurt much. There are no side effects.

You know you’re different. We’re all freaks inside. Get tested today. Keep your local mental health workers employed, and improve your life at the same time.

I wish I had my own testing organization, so you could send me money. But I don’t. I’m not even a mental health worker. I’m just a believer in the value of self-knowledge.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Snow light in Vermont

I actually took that gallery name from an old Frank Sinatra song, Moonlight in Vermont,

Pennies in a stream
Falling leaves a sycamore tree
Moonlight in vermont
Gentle finger waves
Ski trails down a mountain side
Snowlight in Vermont

It was first recorded fifty years ago, and last recorded on the Duets album Phil Ramone produced a short while before he died.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Watch me on CBS Sunday Morning tomorrow at 9

They'll be running a story they filmed last summer with me, my brother, and Erin Moriarty.

Stop by here or Facebook and tell me what you think!

According to Erin, it will run just afer 9 Eastern time

I have added some new talks and events to the schedule

For those of you who subscribe to the Look Me in the Eye blog via a feed or reader, I'll repeat my schedule updates here. You can always find my schedule on the right sidebar of the main blog,

And if you'd like to book me at your school or event, contact Sally Itterly at the Lavin Agency

Feb 4, Chicopee, MA
I'll be participating in Mike Rice's 4:30-6:30 psychology class at aElms College. We do have space for a few guests, write me if you want to attend.

Feb 7-9, Orlando, FL
I'll be attending the First Year Reading Experience conference at the Rosen Centre Hotel on International Drive in Orlando. I'll be signing books and meeting people at the Random House booth on Saturday, and I'll be featured at the Random House lunch on Monday

Here's a link to Random House's Freshman Year catalog

And here's the contact info for our publisher:
Michael D. Gentile
Academic Marketing Random House, Inc. Tel. 212-782-8387

Feb 10, WGBY TV 57, Springfield, MA
I'll be appearaing on the Doctors on Call show with two of the autism specialists (a psychiatrist and a psychologist) from River Street School. This is a live call in show

Feb 18, Concord, MA
Join me for a fund raiser for AANE at the historic Scout House. I'll be introducing bestselling author Michael Palmer and his latest book. We'll have other music, authors, a book signing, and a generally good time. All proceeds benefit the Asperger Association of New England.

Feb 21, Boston, MA
I'll be at a private dinner celebrating Riley's Dog. The dog will be honored, not eaten. for more details.

March 10, Wellesley, MA
Join me at Wellesley College at 6:30 for a presentation that's open to the community. I'll be signing books and answering questions after.

April 7, Easthampton, MA
I'll be the keynote speaker for the 2009 Autism Resources conference at the Log Cabin

Sunday, April 19, New York
I will be the keynote speaker for Mt Sinai School of Medicine's Annual Seaver Center Symposium on Autism.

April 20, St Louis, MO
Join me at an all-day program at the Thompson Center for Autism and Neurodevelopmental Disorders

May 7, Denver, CO
Join me for an 11:30 talk and q&a at the Sewall Child Development Center
I hope to set up a Boulder appearance the same week

May 16, Amherst, MA
Join me at 6PM for a talk and Q&A to benefit Cutchins Center for Children at the Amherst College Museum of Natural History

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Supermoms and mom empowerment

Back in December, blogger friend Jess Wilson asked if I’d donate a few signed books for a raffle. Now, Jess is a mom with two grade school kids in Newton, Massachusetts. Ten years ago, I’d have figured she was doing a raffle for some event at her local elementary school. That’s how it was when parents asked for donations when I was young.

Moms like her volunteered locally, to support the causes her kids were involved in. Mom power supported all manner of things in town, like soccer team bake sales, haunted house fundraisers for Scouts, and silent auctions for the Band.

The amounts of money were relatively small, but collectively they had a powerful impact in their local communities.

Boy, has that changed!

Thanks to the connectivity and community of the Internet, the power of moms like Jess has been multiplied many times over. Instead of raising fifty bucks, Jess led a group that raised twenty times that sum to benefit a kid almost a thousand miles away. And most remarkably, she raised the money from people who have never met in person. The whole thing was virtual, but the money and its effect was real.

And the impact was more powerful, too. Instead of financing a trip for the band, her group helped buy a $12,000 service dog for a kid with autism in Cleveland. Instead of making life a bit more fun for a group of kids, she helped acquire a service dog that can truly change the life of a single kid. That’s amazing on several levels.

I was proud to play a small part, but that’s not the point of this story. Today, I’d like to ponder the larger meaning of mom empowerment and the Internet.

At first glance, you might think that moms like Jess have simply refocused their volunteer efforts nationally instead of locally, thanks to the power in the Internet. But conversations with Jess and other moms like her suggest that’s not the case. Many if not most of the “Internet moms” are also very active in their schools and local groups.

That continuing local involvement is obvious if you read their blogs.

In some cases, the Internet has also driven a reorganization of family roles. For example, using Jess as an example, her husband has assumed some of the “local mom” responsibilities, thereby allowing Jess to expand her “Internet mom” presence.

However it breaks down, the parenting power of Jess’s family unit has been greatly magnified, thanks to the Internet.

If the “Internet mom” activity is more productive than the “local mom” activity, wouldn’t you think that would empower the moms, thereby changing their lives in other ways? I think it would.

One example would be the way moms share treatment strategies for illness, or teaching strategy for kids who struggle in school. Moms even discuss getting the kids to bed and other aspects of parenting that might previously have been discussed only with their own mom or a best friend.

Somehow, the Internet created an environment that fosters all that discussion. That seems to me like a good thing, but are there downsides?

I hear people speak of today’s supermoms, and all the things they do that moms of yesteryear did not do. When I first heard that talk I dismissed it as another “grass is greener” kind of story, but I now see that it’s real. Some of today’s moms – thanks to tools like the Internet – truly are doing far more.

That leads to some interesting questions, which I throw out to you readers for comment.

I have written and spoken before about our diminished sense of local community. Today’s families are isolated as never before in their homes. In many places, kid packs are a thing of the past. Yet these Internet supermoms are building a strong virtual community, and kids have their own communities online. But they are not the same. Over on my Psychology Today blog, I asked if the internet was actually making kids a bit autistic in a December essay.

How does a shift from “in person” to virtual friendship and community participation affect grownups like the moms? Perhaps it’s not a shift; perhaps it’s an expansion. I don’t know.

Does this Internet empowerment for moms foster or perpetrate that physical isolation, or is it merely an outgrowth of a larger trend?

How does the empowerment of a mom change the family dynamic? Surely the balance of power between husband and wife is altered. Is that good or bad?

It’s natural to think a person would focus their efforts where they derived the greatest result. If I were Jess, I might well spend my time on $10,000 online fundraisers rather than $500 local ones. But is that good? Is the local community suffering for that?

Has the empowerment simply sped the pace of life for the moms even further? Will we just burn ourselves out as a result?

Or does everybody benefit from this mom empowerment?

As moms, are you happier with your life thanks to these changes?

How about your kids – are their lives better now?

And finally, how about your mates?

Monday, January 19, 2009

The world of high end prostitution

Last night, after the news, I was surprised to see that CNBC had a much-advertised special on high-end prostitution.

The prices for some of the girls were impressive. $10,000 for a night. $25,000 for a weekend. Wow. And to hear them talk, there’s a steady flow of business in all the big cities.

There are even websites where johns rate the hookers. Only they aren’t johns and hookers anymore. That too has moved upscale. The guys are hobbyists, and the girls are providers.

Anyway, on these sites the guys rate the girls on various features. Some, like looks, are to be expected. But the biggest rating factor in the high end was a total shock to me.

It’s called G F E. What’s that, you ask? It stands for Girl Friend Experience. Here’s what the show’s producers say: “The most popular item offered by escorts today is called the Girlfriend Experience, known by the acronym, the GFE. The definition varies but most agree that it involves some facsimile of real romance.”

These johns (hobbyists) are rating hookers on the quality of a fake romantic experience?? Are they nuts? Wouldn’t you think any guy who could afford twenty five grand for a weekend with a hooker could get the real thing, not a bought imitation?

It seems like everything today is some kind of “experience.”

You can go to Disney World and Busch Gardens for a jungle experience, or a scuba diving experience, or whatever else you see. The thing is, they are nothing like real jungles or real scuba dives.

You can go to Aspen and buy a log cabin, and live the pioneer experience for two million dollars. But nothing could be father than the experience of living in a log cabin in the Colorado wilderness 100 years ago.

Somehow, our society has embraced the concept of “experiences” – sanitized, glorified, or stylized versions of some real thing. I can understand that for something truly exotic or dangerous. But dating and romance? Isn’t something wrong with that picture?

I am sometimes struck by fake displays of emotion in other people. It seems like this is sort of the ultimate fake . . . going though life with a string of bought “fake” romances. What happened to searching for the real thing? Are these people that lost of clueless?

I would have thought that most people who could afford the rates shown in the show would have developed the ability to attract a desirable mate. I guess I was wrong, or maybe it’s them that are wrong.

It’s a pretty sad state of affairs when people are buying romantic experiences and then rating how “real” they feel. If they have to buy them, can they even know what real truly feels like?

One of my friends suggested that the focus on a "girl friend experience" might be an attempt to make the overall behavior feel less shameful to the guys. Perhaps there is some of that going on. But if they are sensitive to that, why wouldn't they seek more conventional relationships?

Do these people really believe they can have a good life plugging in bought "girlfriend" time amidst bought time at the personal trainers, or at work, or elsewhere that money and people's time change hands.

Maybe they can. Maybe it's me who's all wet. There is no shame to paying a personal trainer to be your friend and whip you into shape; few people would criticize that. So maybe society should not be condemning this either. But it just feels like there's something missing.

I should say that I am not personally opposed to prostitution. If people want to exchange sex for money, I don't see any reason to outlaw it. I don't feel an urge to try it, but if you do, I would not criticize you for it. What I question is the "paid girlfriend" concept, and the idea that any guy who could afford those rates should have more conventional relationships available. I wonder what's going on behind the scenes in these people's minds.

The producers go on to say, “Many high-end escorts today consider themselves to be modern day courtesans, carrying on a role popular during the Italian Renaissance. Historically, courtesans were described as “a higher caliber of prostitute -- a woman who was not only young and beautiful, but who could grace with wit and charm.”

I always thought wives or girlfriends performed that function for most people. Do they mean to say these guys have wives at home but they pay a provider ten grand to accompany them to a party for their wit and charm? Could that be for real?

Did these people all make profound errors in mate selection originally or something?

And how do the providers feel about the whole thing? Are they fake too? You have to wonder how all these people feel about the whole thing at the end of the day. Could it really be all great and rosy like they say, or is it really kind of sad and shallow?

Saturday, January 3, 2009

The Acquisition of a Mate, redux

Almost a month ago I posted a short story titled “The Search For a Compatible Mate.”

In that post, I suggested that those of us on the spectrum may be drawn to people who are like us, but we may benefit from being with an opposite, because that person’s skills would complement ours, rather than match strength for strength and deficiency for deficiency.

To my surprise, that post continues to draw comments and emails, so much so that I’d like to expand upon some of the original ideas.

First of all, I would like to thank those of you who sent me encouraging emails, saying I would find a mate one day. I am touched by your support, but my post was in answer to questions I get at speaking engagements, not my own situation. At this moment, I am not seeking a mate.

But on behalf of all the people who ask this question at events . . . I AM seeking the answer to the question because there are many lonely Aspergians out there who would like to find the right mate, and they feel a bit lost about how exactly to do it.

The premise of my post was rather simple, and I’ll restate it here. Let’s say you’re an Aspergian who wants to find a mate with a lot of emotional insight to complement your own blindness to non verbal signals. How do you do it? How does someone with a weakness in that area recognize someone who’s strong?

Anna made a good case for having a mate like herself; an Aspergian-Aspergian pairing. I pointed out the advantages of opposites, and she countered with the advantages of like-kinds. They included:

Being able to talk al lot about math and science; seeing the crazy world outside in the same way; building a safe haven against the outside world; and understanding one another in a different or deeper way. I touched upon the "deeper understanding" and how we Aspergians sometimes feel apart from the nypical world in my post on loneliness, last month on Psychology Today

I have no argument with Anna. For some, like-like mating that works. For others, it leads to disaster. But you could say the same for opposite-pairs, and who can say if one is statistically more successful than the other. Perhaps a PhD candidate in psychology will do a dissertation study on that and tell us the answer.

Barbara is another Aspergian who echoes Anna’s enthusiasm for a mate who’s on the spectrum too.

Stewart is a fellow Aspergian who wants to know more to help in his own quest for a mate.

Shiny Monkey raised a good point. She asked, in essence, what about the other person? She said:

I also have a fairly logical mind, so I bought into the "logical" side of things... only to realize that that approach always ended up with him getting his needs met (i.e. an emotionless relationship that revolved around machines and code) and me feeling like chopped liver 95% of the time.

What she points out is that both people enter a relationship looking for something. Clearly, in this example, even if Shiny Monkey was just what the guy was looking for, her own needs were not met and it didn’t work.

The significance of her post is to point out that both people have to get their needs met in a relationship for it to work. That said, I still believe in the concept of people who complement one another. Tipping my hat to Shiny Money I’d like to add that we Aspergians have to make a special effort to make sure our partners are getting what they need from us, because we may be partly or totally oblivious to that issue until it becomes a big problem, and by then it may be too late.

Samwick reminded us that Aspergians really need social skills more than anything else. In other words, we have to learn how to behave so that we don’t drive potential mates away. That covers everything from basic manners to saying strange things to invading personal space to farting loudly at the movies. That is certainly an essential truth that I skipped over. So thanks for pointing it out.

Anastasia, Chumplet, Jess and a few others chimed in to remind us that there are plenty of emotionally sensitive people who are drawn to sweet logical folks like us. It’s encouraging to think there are more out there.

Kanani points out that physical attraction is essential, too. I can’t argue with that.

ThereseC pointed out the things she felt made her second marriage work. They were:
Her mate treats her with respect
Her mate treats her kids (from the first marriage) like they were his own (presumably, in a good way!)
She and her mate have similar money management styles
Finally, she and her mate have similar parenting styles.

Reading all that, I am struck by one thing . . . this mate acquisition stuff is really complicated!!
But I will try to sum it up.

1 - We Aspergians need to learn how to behave, so as not to drive people away and indeed to make ourselves interesting to others. That is step one, in mate acquisition.

2 - We Aspergians need to place ourselves in the path of potential mates. For some of us, that may be the Science Fiction Society, for others it may be the church social. Some of us want people who are like us, while others want people who are different.

3 - When we meet someone, we have to recognize that we may not be the only “blind” one entering the relationship. We may be blind to nonverbal cues, but our potential partner may see us through rose colored glasses and thereby be blind to something equally important about us. And that “something” could be anything at all, so we have to be doubly vigilant about what both parties need and whether both can provide what the other person is seeking.

4 - To do that, we need to figure out (by various means) what the other person needs, and ask ourselves if we can provide it, as well as asking if they can meet our needs. Before that, we need a sense of what our needs are. Perhaps those things can only be answered by life experience, but we need to be aware of their importance. At the same time, we need to feel attracted and drawn to the other person.

5 - As a relationship develops, we need to sense whether we are compatible in the big things. As Therese pointed out, shared spiritual values, life philosophy, mutual respect, kid management and money management are biggies for most, but there are others that vary from person to person.

So how do we do those things, and what else do you add to that list?

I think steps one and two are really under our control. We absolutely have the ability to teach ourselves how to behave, and we can place ourselves out there in the flow of humanity, where passing potential mates can spot us.

But getting from there to step three takes a bit of luck, or divine intervention, or whatever else you believe in. There’s really nothing we can do to MAKE someone else like us. It has to happen naturally. Still, I believe luck favors those who are prepared. The better a job you do with 1 and 2, the better your chances of attaining step 3.

Friday, January 2, 2009

The Founder's Indian

I know that some of you are coming to my blog for the first time, having received my book for Christmas. If you’re looking for Asperger posts, just scroll down; there are plenty. There are also more Asperger essays on my blog at Psychology Today.

However, I like to think there is more to me than Asperger’s, and my blog reflects that.

Those of you who’ve followed the blog a while know that I was hired to appraise a collection of Indian motorcycles that was given to the Springfield Museum here in my city. One of the oldest bikes in the collection is described as “1903 Indian.”

Any 1903 Indian is a historic machine. The first Indians were designed by Oscar Hedstrom, who is considered by many to be the father of today’s motorcycle. Indian was the original American motorcycle company, being founded some years before Harley Davidson. Indian stopped building motorcycles in 1953, but their legacy lives on.

They made that particular model for a few years, so I figured I’d have a fairly easy time finding comparable transactions. As it turned out, though, I could only find three:
A 1908 sold for $60,000 in September 2008.
A 1906 sold for $47,000 in May 2008
And finally, a 1901 sold for $165,000 in 2006.

Why was the 1901 worth so much more? The production figures tell the story. In 1901, Indian built 3 bikes. They built 143 the year after that, and 350 the next year. Production kept doubling. By 1913 they were up to 32,000 motorcycles per year.

Judging by the production numbers, the museum’s example should be worth something between the 1901’s value and the value of the later examples. But for that to be true, I had to make sure it was really a 1903. Armed with a table of serial numbers I went back to examine the old bike.

There were no serial numbers to be found.

I pondered several possible explanations. Maybe the engine crankcase was replaced. Maybe it’s stamped somewhere I can’t see. Maybe. Whatever the reason, I did not have numbers to support the age. What to do?

I decided to visit Esta, the collection’s 94-year-old founder. She in an assisted living facility about ten miles from me. I started out with a direct question. “Can you tell me where you got the 1903 Indian?”

That didn’t get me anywhere. She didn’t remember. I tried distraction, asking about her childhood. That got her going with memories of long ago. Like a detective, though, I kept sight of my goal. After half an hour, I tried again.

“Where did you get the collection’s first Indian?”

“Oscar gave it to me!” This time, she didn’t hesitate for a moment. I about fell off my chair. She kept going. “Did I tell you my father was a Johnson outboard motor dealer? He loved to hunt and fish and Oscar did too. After he retired from Indian, Oscar and my dad went hunting and fishing all over New England. When I told Oscar I wanted to have an Indian museum he gave me one of his prototypes.”

I was shocked. That was the motorcycle equivalent of visiting an old lady and having her say, “I have this prototype car Henry Ford gave me when he was designing the Model T”

And she wasn’t done. She had a picture of herself, 50 years ago, with Oscar’s Indian. And letters. And cards. It’s actually quite remarkable, what she remembers.

In a moment, everything had changed. The museum didn’t just have an old Indian. They had The Chief Engineer’s (as he was known) Indian. A bike that was never sold, and never had an owner other than its maker and the museum.

So what’s it worth? We may never know, because it’s not for sale. But it will be on display, with 50 other bikes, starting this Columbus day.