Tuesday, August 18, 2015

School - Better or Not?

School must be better today than in the 1970s or 80s, right? Especially since we know so much about autism.

Probably. Maybe. Or it is bad in different ways.

As students, teachers, support staff, administrators, and others head back to campuses across the United States, I anticipate the annual questions about what to expect. Unfortunately, there are no good or easy answers that apply to everyone.

Be sure you know what your rights and your student's rights are, and are not. They vary by age, type of school, and state. Remember that federal regulations are only minimums, and states can have stricter requirements for providing supports to students with special needs.

Learn what you can about the alphabet soup of legislative requirements and federal programs. IDEA, ADA, IEP, OSEP, OVR, and so on.

Work with teachers and administrators, not against them. Start by asking how to help them help you and your student. What documentation does the school need? What is or isn't acceptable documentation of a disability? What services are available in the district? Take notes and do your homework.

You can know all about the American's with Disabilities Act, the Rehab Act, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Acts, and all the other "mandates" and still run into barriers in school, at all levels.

Autism affects communication and social interaction, and many autistics have interests and passions outside the norms for their social groups.

Other students, and plenty of teachers, might try their best and still not understand how to deal with the autistic in a classroom. In time, someone so different is either avoided or pushed aside. Personally, I'd rather be left alone and avoided than bullied. I've seen both reactions to autistics in classrooms over the last few years; things have not changed in human nature.

There isn't a good solution for the challenges arising from how autistics interact with others in a classroom. At best, I can offer only the advice to listen to the autistic and communicate with teachers. At the college level, this is complicated by FERPA limitations on teachers, limiting the ability to discuss a young adult with his or her parents. FERPA (the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act), for all its good intentions, can create barriers to helping students with special needs — which goes back to the value of communicating directly with the autistic student.

My university experiences since 2004 have not been great. My social skills have improved, yet not nearly well enough to avoid alienating others. I'm still "odd" enough make others uncomfortable, though I doubt most people could say why. Social skill deficits cannot be legislated or regulated away, and people aren't going to always overrule their instinctive reactions to difference.

I'm sometimes asked how I feel about making autistics act "more normal" through various therapies. I'm ambivalent. Being different has negative consequences in school and at work. Personally, I'd like to be a lot more normal, but what is the best way learn that normalcy?

Maybe the best lesson school taught me: I was, am, and will be an outsider. It was the lesson of the 1970s elementary schools and the lesson of twenty-first century universities.

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

(Not) Being Consumed by Activism

Autism advocates I admire have recently shared their "burnout" with online followers. These advocates are not seeking sympathy, nor are they wallowing in self-pity. Sadly, they must anticipate negative reactions before taking a break from online and real life activism.

I separate online from real life because the online world can be more exhausting and far more negative than the physical spaces in which advocates operate. Online statements are easily misconstrued, taken out of context, and magnified both intentionally and unintentionally by readers. Trying to maintain civil discourse online can be an impossible task.

In the physical world, what I still consider the real world, people pause before speaking. Rarely can they hide behind anonymity before being cruel. Public cruelty can at least be exposed in many settings. Online, different rules seem to apply to human behavior. Decency is lacking.

When I fail to follow a particular Twitter account, like a Facebook page, or refuse to blog about a particular cause, people take it personally. If I liked, followed, and blogged about every cause that every visitor suggests to the Autistic Me, I could add dozens of new inputs to my already cluttered social media streams.

It is perfectly reasonable to separate my life from nonstop activism. Thankfully, I have never had a problem with taking a break to enjoy dining out, taking drives, visiting gardens, and doing other things with my wife and my family to remain healthy. I make no apologies for putting my family and myself ahead of general activism. If I am not well, I cannot be an effective teacher or activist for others.

The advocates I admire have too often placed the needs of others ahead of their own health. Great men and women have exhausted their minds and bodies because others expect them to do so. If you are asking an advocate to support your cause, to add to your page, to follow your Twitter campaign, or making any other requests, you need to consider that the individual from whom you seek help might also have special needs… Or simply be a tired, overworked normal human being.

Please, if you are an advocate, take care of yourself. If you rely on advocates, remember that they have needs, too.

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Blogging Cycles

In 2011, there were 169 posts to The Autistic Me. That number has steadily declined, by almost half every two years. For 2015, only 17 posts have been composed. (The blog started in 2007 and took some time to grow.)

The blog activity is a feedback loop, or an incentive cycle. As readership and responses fell, so did my impulse to post new content. With less new content, there was less reason for readers to stumble upon the blog. The decline of RSS readers, the decline of various Autism portals, and a general shift to social media contributed further to the decline in activity.

How many times can I post about…
…the challenges of living in or even navigating urban settings?
…the sensory overload of mass transit?
…the exhaustion that follows social events?
…the (un)employment situation for people with physical and neurological challenges?
…the insular nature of academia?

The posts here simply aren't that varied. The same topics repeat.

I pulled the "Ask a Question" link because the tone had descended and the content wasn't useful.

I'm not sure what I can or should post anymore. The old issues are tired and worn. I'm not interested in most of the current debates online and dislike the tone of posts (and comments) I read.

Maybe I'll come up with something fun and new. For now, I admit that the blog has been slow and boring. Let me know, via Facebook or Twitter, if you have any good ideas. Suggestions might give this blog new life.

Thank you, to my followers, for sticking around for so many years.

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Music and Life

Music is important to me. It's not quite an obsession, and I'm not a scholar by any means, but music occupies a significant part of my life.

When I work at my computer or write at my desk, I like to listen to music. It's in the background, blocking all those other sounds that distract me. Music is my "white noise" while I work on projects.

Sound quality matters to me.

Recently, I reimported my favorite CDs into iTunes because, back in the day, 128kbps was what my hard drive could hold, and I skipped so-so tracks back then. But, the tracks sounded "tinny" to me with better headphones, earbuds, or via the home stereo. At 256kbps I can't tell the difference between the CD with these tracks with headphones. (Maybe it is my age, but I doubt anyone could tell the difference unless sitting in a silent room.)

I opted against ALAC / AIFF for now because of space. Yes, I have that many CDs and I'm not always connected to the interwebs. If we someday buy a RAID system, I'll migrate my music library to lossless files formats. Even then, I'd only reimport the music I listen to on a regular basis, as I come across discs that I liked a lot.

Completeness matters, too.

I don't like "holes" in my music library, not even if an album by a favorite band was only okay. There's something about missing a CD that bothers me, like missing a book from a series. Bands and musicians evolve; if you're missing one album, you're missing part of the complete story of that musical evolution.

My Collection

My tastes are not that unique for someone born in the late 1960s. Being raised during the 1970s, I appreciate what might have been the most varied period popular music. Give me the Beatles, Stones, Grateful Dead, and Pink Floyd. I also appreciate surf rock, with the guitars and drums. There's a uniformity even researchers have identified within 1980s pop that lacks the complexity the previous three decades. Yet, I admit that 80s pop with its synthesizers and drum machines is comfortably familiar. The "New Wave" and "Post-Punk" sounds of The Smiths, The Cure, Depeche Mode, The Police… everyone knows the 1980s KROQ playlist.

Celtic, classical, jazz, techno, pop, and metal — I own a bit of everything.

Music reminds of people, places, and events in our lives. Each CD I own means something, a connection that compelled me to add to my collection.

Thursday, July 2, 2015

Writing as the Only Choice

In response to several queries from friends, a bit more elaboration on my plans.

I applied for a number of teaching posts and have now received the standard letters proclaiming an "overwhelming number of highly qualified candidates" for each opening.

The decision to not teach part-time as an adjunct, at least for now, was best for me. I'm too tired to drive two hours (or more) to teach one class in the fall for 80 minutes. Also, teaching part-time where I wasn't renewed full-time wasn't going to be comfortable. (The hiring process still angers me.) The pay was fair, but the situation would not have been healthy for me. If I teach again, it will be somewhere more welcoming.

My passion remains creative writing, and the rhetoric of stage and screen — followed closely by the visual rhetoric of page design (including digital "pages"). Give me scripts, sets, and camera angles. I'll ponder what makes a great play vs. a great movie, and how both are evolving in our saturated media experiences.

Give me histories of printing technologies and digital type. I'll passionately debate why "hinting" isn't as good as designing font data for visual sizes (Display vs. Body vs. Captions, for example).

In the university teaching interviews I've had since 2009-10, most have asked if I would rather teach writing or be writing professionally. I've argued that teaching informs my writing, making it better because you constantly learn through teaching. Told to choose, though, I always answer that given no choice, I would rather write and hope my audiences learn from my words. Isn't that still teaching? (Trying to "thread the needle" as most writers I know also have to teach or have other careers.) I'd argue academic writing is creative, but not how we currently teach it. Maybe I don't interview well when I do get that far in the process, at least in academia.

This is why I am writing primarily, and taking on some non-profit work on the side. Teaching is important, and I will teach through my words (sometimes, teaching that someone else is smarter than I am via my mistakes).

I will miss teaching. I might teach again, someday.

But, when forced to make a choice, that choice was what it now is… creative writing in all its forms.

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Emptiness and Paths Ahead

I completed my doctorate in June 2010. It is now June 2015. Five year after earning the doctorate, there's little to show for it.

I have taught, but at my last post I was not on the tenure track and that is unlikely now. I might be a lecturer or adjunct here and there, but that's not the career I imagined. It's also not the path my wife had imagined, and certainly not the path that we went into debt for, yet again.

Yes, I've applied for teaching jobs. No, I don't really want them, but teaching is the only thing I seem to be able to do, in part because of the schedule. Unfortunately, my degree choices weren't the wisest. The doctorate was an accomplishment, but to what end I don't know anymore.

My wife needs stability. She likes routines and order as much as I do. We both hate any reminders that we are powerless. We organize our spaces, because that is something we can do. Unfortunately, we can organize books and things, but not my career.

We won't know for some months if I have another teaching job. I (might) need the job. I dread the job. It comes too late to transform our lives into what I dreamed of for her and for me.

We have a decent life, but it feels incredibly incomplete. Empty. And I don't have a good path forward right now. A path, but nothing certain and nothing stable. The lack of certainty and stability… that familiar dread that we have no security.

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Never a Good Autism / Autistic Scholar

Years ago, when I entered graduate school, I imagined helping students and teachers connect via technology. I wanted to study "writing across the curriculum" and online writing labs. These interests led me to a doctorate… but by the time I completed the degree I recognized that my career was already off my planned course.

When I decided that writing about autism and education would be beneficial to someone, beyond myself, part of that decision was based on the (yes, we should admit this) trendiness of disability studies and all things diversity-based. I could do some good, and the topic would be desired by other academic scholars. It was a win-win.

Instead, I found myself drifting back and forth between what I love (creative writing and the rhetoric of fiction) and what I believed I had to do to secure a teaching job (something autism-related). Not that I don't care about autism, but it isn't nearly the interest for me that it is for some other autistic scholars in writing and rhetoric. I care… sometimes. Most of the time? I want to study what makes a story effective.

My one "autistic" role is as a board member for a regional autism charity that helps connect people to services. I attend two-thirds of the board meetings, schedule permitting, and offer some ideas, but I'm not an active volunteer like many of the parents of autistics manage to be. I'm not involved in ASAN (Autistic Self-Advocacy Network) or any other autistic-centric group. I have no desire to attend "Autreat" and I cannot recall the last time I looked at the online autism communities (probably when I was in graduate school).

When I read about autism as a topic at writing conferences, I don't celebrate this as a "good thing." For all the slogans such as, "When you've met one autistic person, you've met one person," the reality is that the autistic scholarship seems to convey there is a commonality, beyond sharing a diagnosis.

The "autism community" these scholar-advocates know is not that large. It is not universal. The "supportive academic homes" they have found are not the norm. Their experiences of being accepted and celebrated in academia are not mine. And they are not the experiences of so many autistic [former] students I have met.

Academia is not a wonderful, loving, supportive place that stands apart from other workplaces. No. Schools are workplaces. They can be great and they can be lousy. And my experiences have generally been pretty lousy.

At these conferences at which scholars in the audience will congratulate themselves for embracing and celebrating autistic scholars, I find myself an outsider. I don't enjoy the social events, the small talk, the need to schmooze to become familiar and eventually land a tenure-track job.

I'd be the one limping about, wanting to scream at the sensory overload, trying desperately to present one or two papers here and there to prove I am a scholar. And I hated it. I hated trying to read social cues, say the right things, and engage in discussions that didn't appeal to me.

My goal? Teaching writing as effectively as possible.

There is nothing "political" in my pursuits, and I have no grand scheme to promote Marxist critiques or to engage in some sort of social justice. I just wanted to learn how to help students master the dominant American Standard English (sorry, the Anglo-Colonial Dominant Language Tradition). (Yeah, yeah, teaching is "political" by nature… so I taught at two business-centric universities.)

You want to help students? Teach them to communicate effectively within their families, communities, workplaces, and so on. To teach effectively, I don't need to know about the social construction of ablism or what the latest neuroqueer critical theory might be. I need to know how can I help first-generation students and non-native speakers and those with cognitive difference engage clearly and effectively with the world in which they exist here and now. Does that world stink? Maybe. But, if you can't communicate, you can't change things.

So, I wanted to teach writing and teach it well. I wanted to use technology to help teach writing. That's what I wanted to do.

I didn't want to study which dead authors might have been autistic, unless that was going to help me teach Hmong- and Spanish-speaking students the difference between who and whom in a business document. I don't have time to address the rhetoric of social media unless that helps me teach first-year composition students the value of proper citation formats — which they must master for other courses in college.

Nope, I'm just not an "autistic" scholar.

Nobody expects autistic professors in the STEM fields to focus on autism and physics or autism and robotics. (Though there are some very cool projects using robotics to help people with special needs, those are applied projects, not the theory common the doctoral research.) No, it was my choice of field that somehow came with the mandate to be a disabilities scholar, if I wanted to remain and rise in the discipline.

Do I believe there are areas of study that overlap writing and disability? Absolutely, especially in the usability and user-experience areas that I am willing to research. I do care about accommodations. I want to solve problems of writing and reading, so I am eager to use technology to solve challenges. But, I don't care about so much else that seems to be the majority of "scholarship" in my field.

Since I do not have a teaching post and might not pursue another post, I have been reflecting on how strange it is that colleagues assume I should be interested in questions that don't interest me and seem disconnected from my life. I'm sure those scholar believe they could (and have tried) to explain why I need to care about the deconstruction of disability in discourse communities. (Uh… whatever?)

I just want to know if technology X will help person Y communicate ideas and concerns A, B, and C to the world. If that wasn't a good fit for any tenure-track post, so be it.

Now, I have some plays and movies to write. And more people will see any play that is produced than would be touched by the scholarship I have produced. See? I'm not wrong to care about the rhetoric of fiction. The successful stage adaptation of Mark Haddon's The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time has more people talking about autism and autistic experiences than all the autism scholarship ever published. I know some autistic advocates have used the play to rally against the lead role going to a "neurotypical" actor. I'm not that passionate about the actor cast in the role, since I thought the book was only okay.

As readers of this blog know, I'd rather be a good creative writer if I had to choose between general audience creative and academic writing. And if that means I also don't teach full-time at a university again, that's life.

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Driving is a Pain

Driving has been causing back pain, which leads to headaches, and some of those headaches become migraines. A migraine is not merely a bad headache, either.

I don't mind driving on fairly flat, smooth, un-congested routes. The problem is that the roads where we live go over and around hills. The weather creates potholes that are small craters. Traffic is heavy, on streets never designed for the number of cars. Basically, driving in and around the city is a nightmare for my mind and body.

By the time I reach work, I'm exhausted. Getting home, after a long day, I'm ready to sleep.

On the way home, I celebrate the moment I cross from one county to the next, because the roads improve. The road noise decreases and my head hurts a little less.

Someday, I want a luxury car just for the reduced noise.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Needing a Job... Again...

If I could, I would write full-time. That is what I want, and what I have dreamed of since first grade. To be a professional writer. 

Teaching seemed like a good way to support writing. But, no luck with that approach. 

Under-employed or unemployed, whatever I am about to be is everything I've hated about life since I left my undergraduate college in early 1991.

Each time I dream of a stable, "normal" future, one with a career that allows for some order in life, the job goes sideways and my plans disintegrate. Attempts to create my own career have ended badly, too, for various reasons. No excuses: I simply am not good at the soft skills needed for success. I've worked on those skills, but they never develop. I am lousy at understanding people, and I lack the superior tech skills or proper degree to overcome that shortcoming.

I can program, manage databases, configure Web servers, but I'm not the next app wizard. I never mastered OS X / iOS programming, but I wish I had. Coding still feels like where I belonged, but I also keep resisting that path because my creative writing takes so much time and energy.

I turn to coding because it is a real skill. People pay programmers and techs. I'm not likely to pay many bills with my writing. Coding would be a better fit than teaching writing courses. Or maybe teaching about tech was the best path. I'll never know.

Teaching about writing isn't a good fit for me, because I am not like other teachers of writing. I am different. I love writing and language. I don't appreciate the views and biases of writing instruction. My success as a writer contradicts much that my discipline assumes about good writing.

Last summer, four of my plays were produced and two had public readings. That meant I had to focus on the scripts. But, those works do not provide income. I'm a sort-of-successful regional writer, but that's not a career. Not a job.

Having completed a Ph.D. in the "digital humanities" (lacking a better, trendier name), with a focus on educational website design, I thought I might end up teaching somewhere. I've taught, yes, but I've never managed to land and keep the full-time, long-term, tenure-track post that is necessary for security. I've been in writing courses, trying to fit in with writing teachers.

What's next for me? I'm tired of flailing about, searching for whatever I can find, only to be miserable and desperate.

I'm a good teacher. My reviews state this. My course evaluations state this. And yet, I cannot master the back-office, beyond the classroom aspects of academia. Outside my classroom, I fail to connect with colleagues. And I find myself moving on, again and again. Not one teaching job has lasted, nor has any job other than a programming and consulting gig I had as a student worker in the late 1980s.

I would like to sit at home and write. That's what I seem to do well. But without financial security, I'm forced to turn to the acceptable tech skills I do have.

My dream was a job. A career. A house. A family.

Life didn't work out the way I wanted. I kept chasing the idea of having a career. That's why I went to graduate school. I completed a degree hoping it might help me as a writer. It was a stupid idea, looking back. I should have completed something technical, because I get along with technical people — at least within academia. It isn't that I don't enjoy teaching writing (I do), but outside my classroom, the colleagues I relate to are the technical faculty, the scientists and technologists.

I'm tired. I'm back to where I was in 2010. Where I was in 2004. Where I was in 2002. Where I have been so many times, on such a regular schedule. Unemployed. Stuck. Feeling like the only path is to create my own path, knowing that doing so hasn't worked out in the past.

It's hard to explain, this cycle of job loss: attempts to escape, returns to school, and the constant failures. I know I'm a good teacher. A good writer. An okay techie. And I'm forever chasing the elusive career as something, to help pay the bills.

What's next? Not a clue, but I'm ready to stop trying to "invest in my future" because there's no more time or money to invest. I'm out of options and tired of draining the one person close to me.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Moving Ahead, Staying Sane

Companies, non-profits, and educational institutions should hire me as a consultant (or others with expertise in accommodations and supports for cognitive difference) because too many organizations do not know how to hire, support, and develop talented people with personality traits outside the accepted norms.

Readers of this blog know that my experiences in the "tolerant" world of academia demonstrate that "tolerance" is not acceptance or support. I don't want to be "tolerated" (you tolerate bad weather, you tolerate an annoying relative). People with cognitive difference want to be appreciated, listened to, and supported.

This post uses the first-person "I" but it likely represents the "we" of many people with differences society hasn't embraced.

I'm not going to settle for being tolerated. No thank you. Like many advocates, I do not want your pity or your tolerance. I want to be an equal, not a token.

Moving on from a difficult situation seems to be a recurring theme in the lives of many people. For autistics, moving on isn't always a choice so much as the result of being nudged and pushed out of workplaces and organizations.

In late March, I learned that my employment would be reduced from full-time status to part-time for the 2015-16 academic year. Technically, I was a temporary visiting professor this school year following a retirement and a resignation — someone had to cover the courses on short notice and I was available. I did interview for the 2015-16 post, but another applicant was selected and life goes on.

Did my autistic traits contribute to the decision of the hiring committee? I believe they did.

The interview process was a complete puzzle to me, and I considered several aspects unfavorable to my nature. I knew following the interviews (one-on-one and group), if not before, that the odds were against being offered a contract extension.

Hiring has little to do with job skills. Hiring is about cultural fit and some, generally pointless, "behavioral" interview techniques. Plenty of research exists to demonstrate that silly pseudo-psychology exercises seldom result in better hiring.

Word association games? I'm sorry, but what a waste of my time. And I'm sure the professor (not a psychologist) was relying on some text he read to determine what a "good" candidate should answer. Whatever. How about asking me how I teach my courses?

Telling me how great your students are and asking me what makes them special? Get over yourself. I'm not going to tell you why "you" (a graduate of the university) are great, by way of praising the student body. And did you need to insult state universities? My wife and I attended respected state universities, unless you somehow imagine the University of California system and the University of Minnesota are not great research universities? Yes, I also did attend a California State University, in a program that featured nationally and internationally respected poets, essayists, and novelists.

Don't tell me how important you could have been. You sound petty and bitter. Don't tell me how much money you could have earned. Don't whine to me about how much you gave up because you work for the university. If you don't like it, LEAVE. Leave now and make the university a better place.

If these are more "behavioral tests" to see how I reacted, they are dumb. Do not lie about what you think of a workplace. However, since I have heard some of the committee make similar comments in other circumstances, I assume you were being honest. You hate a lot about your jobs, but are proud of where you teach. Status is everything to at least some of the interview committee, or they wouldn't have mentioned rankings and money and famous people they know.

Telling me how much you dislike the university where we work? Stupid. Just plain stupid. How can I respond to that, before or after the interview?

Scheduling my interview for mornings, when I told the committee I was having motor control issues? Whatever. I gave up and accepted a morning interview, knowing I would be in severe pain and have to "fake" my way through the formal process. I threw up afterwards, from the pain. Thank you for listening closely to my needs.

Don't ask me if I'm up to a job I have been doing for much of a school year. Obviously, I am up to it — despite any physical discomfort or limitations. You are crossing a line with this question, and you should know that it isn't a proper question.

Don't tell me that I need to be flexible. You think I don't know that good workers need some flexibility? Telling someone with cognitive differences to be flexible is inherently insulting. After explaining my need for routines, you then insult what is a neurological difference? Thank you for (not) listening to what I tried to teach you.

Don't ask for copies of my research, which is auto-ethnographic and addresses cognitive and physical challenges, and then say you didn't realize I had special needs. Seriously, if you read even the introductions of the two papers, you knew my physical and cognitive limitations. If you didn't read my papers, then I'm even more disgusted by the hiring process.

There's more, but readers will get the idea. It wasn't a good process.

And yet, I love the university and its students. It was the first place in many years where I felt like I belonged. The students are wonderful. Most of the academic programs are outstanding. I love the campus, however weird it can be and hard to navigate for someone with mobility issues. It is a special place, overall, and most of the people with whom I've interacted have been professional and supportive.

But, the interview process was horrible.

Not accepting the part-time offer for next year was easy. I tell my students, if the people interviewing you don't like their jobs, don't seem interested in you, and have negative answers to your questions, don't accept a job offer. Walk away.

Did I want the job, even after the horrible interview? Sort of. I wasn't sure I would accept, if an offer to renew was made, but I also know I'm going to miss teaching the courses I designed.

Disclosure didn't help. Asking some colleagues for help didn't work. I should have contacted human resources and disability services early in the semester; I didn't because I was sure that doing so would be viewed as putting the interview committee in difficult position. Getting HR involved in my situation earlier would have been awkward, certainly.

And so, I am moving on. Maybe I'll never have a tenure-track or full-time teaching job again. Time to move forward by moving back to writing at home for a time.

Yes, writing this blog post violates basic advice I would give my own students and other people with special needs: never talk ill of an employer or coworkers. But you know what? The system is broken. It needs to change. People need to change.

I'm tired of having to pretend to be someone I'm not and I'm tired of stupid "tests" in workplaces. If I have to be anything and anyone other than myself to succeed in a workplace, that isn't the right place for me.

When an organization does more than tolerate difference, it benefits a much larger community.

So, if you want to be part of a better organization, listen to self-advocates and experts. Hire us to help you become better employers. Listen to us.