Wednesday, December 30, 2009

PBS Series: This Emotional Life

PBS is airing a new documentary called This Emotional Life. It’s being shown January 4,5,and 6, 2010, at 8 p.m. I haven’t seen the show, but the previews talk a lot about emotional connection as it impacts our well being.

A portion of the documentary looks specifically at Asperger’s and a young man named Jason who’s dealing with the issues surrounding Asperger’s and connecting socially. For those who follow this blog through the Autism Hub, you’re probably already familiar with Jason, but others might want to check out his blog, Drive Mom Crazy.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

How Sound Impacts Humans

TED is a website that presents fascinating short talks by experts on many different topics. I like to go there and browse around and see what interesting ideas come up, as well as to look for presentations on topics I’m especially interested in.
Julian Treasure, who advises businesses on how sound effects people, gives a brief but interesting discussion on the Four Ways Sound Affects Us. Treasure discusses and illustrates how sound impacts our physiology, psychology, cognition and behavior. This is true for all of us, but the impact of sound is even more intense for those on the spectrum, where sensory issues are so much more common. Treasure talks about how the noise level in open plan offices is so distracting that productivity drops tremendously. Not surprising for anyone who spends time in an office cubicle!
I know that sound impacts mood, and I often work with clients on identifying calming sounds. Treasure’s suggestion of listening to bird song is an interesting idea that I’ll have to try out, both for myself and for clients.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Get That Final Paper Written

Now is the time of the school year when those big assignments loom in front of high school and college students. For those who struggle with executive function, such as individuals with Asperger’s, autism or ADHD,  getting the paper written can be especially daunting. Here are a few tips to get the assignment written. Depending on what’s keeping you from completing, or starting, the work, you may want to try just one tip, or all of them.

Organize Your Ideas

Putting things on paper can make your thoughts clearer. Don’t turn this into a big additional project! Grab a scrap of paper and a pencil, and jot down phrases.

Change How You’re Working

Typing and handwriting utilize the brain differently. If you’re stuck in one mode, try switching to the other. Even a different pen, color of paper, or new font can help rejuvenate your work.

Change Your Sensory Inputs

Your surroundings can impact how well you can focus. Sometimes music can distract you just enough that your brain focuses a bit better. Or, try chewing gum or drinking water. A quiet bedroom may be too quiet, and too easy to fall asleep in. Move to the family room, the student lounge or a coffee shop.

Explain Your Paper

Find someone to discuss your paper with. This can be a classmate working on a similar topic, or even a friend who knows nothing about your material. Putting ideas into actual spoken words can be an effective means of getting them in order.

Start with a Shorter Version

Long papers can be intimidating. Just remember that even a PhD thesis is only a group of pages, written one page at a time. If the assignment is for a 20 page paper, try starting with a 5 page paper. As you work on it, new ideas will come to you and the momentum will keep things going.

Another way to do this is to consider your long paper as a series of shorter papers. Devote a few pages to each idea and then put them together.

Start in the Middle

That first line can be the most intimidating of the whole project. You want it to grab attention, hook the reader. That can be a tough challenge when your ideas are still taking shape. So, put off that first line. Remember that you don’t have to write the paper in order. Of course you’re going to read it through to link your ideas and explain things clearly. If it’s easier to start in the middle, that’s fine.

Start With a Rough Draft

Managing spelling, vocabulary, grammar, writing sentences, organizing paragraphs and putting the whole project together into a brilliant composition is a lot to do a one time. It may be easier to break that down into single steps. Organize your ideas, then write the sentences, then tweak the paragraph structure, then punch up the vocabulary. Do a final check for spelling and grammar. Different parts of your brain are called into play in each task so breaking the job up can be more effective.
Just Do It
Finally, the best way to get that paper done is to just start it. Stop reading, stop researching, stop surfing the internet, definitely stop the video games, and just start writing. Right now!

Continuing to Grow and Develop

Maturing and learning don’t stop at 18, whether you’re on the autism spectrum or not. As any parent of a college age student can attest, there’s a great deal of maturing that takes place after high school. As we move through adulthood, that continues to be true. I think this continued development is especially true for those with autism and Asperger’s.

Neuroplasticity, the ability of the brain to reorganize and restructure itself both physically and functionally, is now known to be possible at any age. Although young brains seem to be the most capable of gross reorganization, a growing body of research is showing that the brain continues to be plastic throughout life.
An informative, as well as entertaining and very readable, discussion of neuroplasticity and new discoveries surrounding the topic is presented in Train Your Mind, Change Your Brain, by Sharon Begley. Begley, a science writer for Newsweek, and before that, the Wall Street Journal, presents some of the new research and discoveries about neuroscience. The data is presented against the backdrop of Dharamsala, India and the 2004 Mind and Life meeting between Western researchers and the Dalai Lama. Begley explains numerous examples of how animal and human brains are impacted and changed, both in function and structurally, through our experiences, sensations and even thoughts.

The idea of a primate generating new neurons is interesting, but what does it mean in practical terms? Plenty. Right about the time I was reading Begley’s book, the 10th anniversary issue of Autism Asperger’s Digest (November/December 2009) came out. The entire issue is available online, and there are a number of interesting stories from individuals looking at their progress over the years. The one that most elegantly illustrates this idea of lifetime neuroplasticity is Temple Grandin’s The Way I See It column, "Learning Never Stops". Grandin talks about how she and others on the autism spectrum continue to learn how to communicate, behave, and expand their minds, not just as children, but throughout their lives.
When I work with young adults and college students with autism and Asperger’s, I’m continually reminded of this concept. I think parents sometimes worry that their high school age children aren’t on track for transitioning to adult independence. Certainly, in some cases, that’s true, but so often, these young adults are continuing to make rapid advances in their social skills, executive functioning and emotional management. Kids who aren’t ready for a job or college right after high school can continue to mature and learn and be ready a few years later. As Grandin and Begley both illustrate so clearly, the key to this growth is continued exposure to new experiences, new challenges and the opportunity to keep learning.