Thursday, March 27, 2014

Night-blooming Flowers: Sudden skill acquisition and extreme context-dependence

There was a graphic that went completely viral in both the autism parent and theater communities of Facebook a while ago, which makes occasional reappearances.  It’s a performance report note from the stage manager of a popular children’s show.  In one matinee performance, there had been some chattering from the audience at one point.  Afterward, the stage manager had learned from one of the teachers what the source of the commotion had been:  an autistic little boy, who had, as far as anyone knew, never spoken before, had suddenly started talking to the teacher sitting next to him all about what he was seeing.  No one had even thought that he knew his teacher’s name.

A couple of parents who commented were skeptical of the account.  While I resented the incident being passed around as inspiration porn by many, it was entirely possible, I argued, that under new and unique circumstances, a kid had displayed an ability for language that he’d never demonstrated before.

I was indignantly lectured by one mother about how autism is a neurobiological condition that can’t be cured by the magic of theater.

But being able to do something suddenly for the first time, or under specific circumstances, or gain in speech abilities, isn’t recovery from autism; it’s a really common experience, if not usually that dramatic. Autistic people can possess extreme sensitivity to environmental detail, patterning, and circumstance, and it can affect our abilities in any given moment.  Hadn’t they ever had something similar happen?  Was this really not a thing that non-autistic people experienced?

They didn’t know what I was talking about.


We do gain skills without necessarily being drilled or pushed, just in ways that might not be apparent to observers.  Just because progress or learning aren’t being displayed to others does not mean they aren’t happening.  An ability probably wasn’t learned or gained at the moment it was first displayed, but has been “under construction,” internally, for a long time.  Things that are intuitive and easy to typical people can require long periods of interior fermentation and distillation in order to develop, and then for us to feel safe or comfortable enough to use them.

And then seemingly suddenly, when the time or circumstances are right, there they are, like a night-blooming flower.

That uncertainty about whether they will ever show themselves doesn’t make it a miracle when they do; it means it took the time or circumstances it took for that to happen.

I’ve also said before that I feel that very few of my autistic traits are, themselves, positive or negative.  They’re all double-edged swords.  Disabling or painful in one context, necessary or pleasurable in a different context. 

Amanda Baggs has characterized autism not as a specific set of permanent deficits, but as a particular way that the brain allocates cognitive resources. 

That an autistic person might suddenly display an ability they’d never outwardly demonstrated before, or be able to do something under extremely specific circumstances or specific kinds of stress that they can’t do under typical, everyday circumstances, is neither magic nor miraculous.  It’s a common aspect of being autistic, and it’s one of my favorite parts.  It’s part of how being autistic works that distinct skills can develop at atypical times, and seemingly in isolation from other aspects of development, or are usable in extremely specific contexts when they aren’t normally.
Part of presuming competence is maintaining awareness that just because a skill has never manifested itself yet, does not mean that it never will.  And that just because someone might, in fact, never gain some particular skill, does not mean that they won’t gain others.


Once, in the first summer I lived in my apartment, I planted some pots of morning glories out on my fire escape, where they could trail up the railings.  I saw their long, spiraling buds form, and anticipated their blooming.

Then something strange started happening.  I would get home from work in the afternoons, and the buds that had looked healthy and ready to burst that morning would be withered and dead looking.  I thought that somehow they were dying before they ever bloomed.  I couldn’t figure out what could be happening to them.

On a rare day off, I went to take a book and cup of coffee out to the fire escape to enjoy the mid-morning sun.

All the morning glories were in gorgeous, bright pink bloom.  I realized they must only open their buds at a certain angle or intensity of sunlight.  Once they did, the flowers only lasted for few hours before wilting.  Nothing was wrong with the plants.  That was just what they did.  They weren’t the same as marigolds or tulips.

-Moonflowers bloom only at night.
-Four o’clocks bloom only in shade or late afternoon; you can trick them with an umbrella.
-Nasturtiums flower only in arid conditions; they never will if they get too much water.
-Giant corpse blossoms can bloom only once every several years, or even several decades.  That doesn’t mean they don’t, just because someone could watch one for years and never see it happen.

-The seeds of some native prairie plants can germinate only after exposure to the intense heat of a wildfire.

As a kid, I didn’t pick up bike riding at the same age as everyone else I knew.  It just didn’t work for me the way it apparently did for everyone else, and I couldn’t stay upright without training wheels for much longer than was socially acceptable.  Discouraged and embarrassed, I gave up and threw my bike into a corner of the garage.  Months or years went by, and I didn’t look at it or touch it or attempt to practice.  I couldn’t ride a bike.  That was it.

Then one day when I was 8 or 9, I just felt like I probably could.  I dug my bike out of the garage and on the very first try, started riding in perfect circles around the driveway.

For a long time, I couldn’t summon the coordination necessary to blow my nose.  Then one day I just could.  I was 17.  (I was driving before that.  I could drive before I could blow my nose.)

One day I just understood how to make my bed.  I was 31.

Gain in abilities, even when sudden and seemingly inexplicable, is not recovery from autism; the fact that we learn very differently from other people is intrinsic to autism, and one of those differences seems to be, very commonly, that immense periods of internal processing, combined with specific circumstances, can be necessary before a skill can be externalized.

There’s nothing wrong with that, nor is there anything particularly miraculous about it.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Writing to ask for a job

Yeah, I know, even the neurotypical folk don't like doing this. I'm fairly sure that hours spent staring at a blank word document because I don't even know how to start, followed by staring at the scaffold someone gave me having no clue how to build on it, then finally getting somewhere when a friend who gets my cognitive issues asked me questions one by one to help me build on it and then walking me through editing is more than most people need.

Qualitative differences, they are a thing. Also, "I have a cognitive issue that means I can't actually do this independently" is different from "I really don't like doing this."

But with help, I got it done-ish (yay!) and my friend was cool with my putting the results of the help here, so here it is.

First off, here's the scaffold that's pretty much what he gave me.

my name is flap
you do research
it's actually a lot like the research I wrote my final paper on.
I want do research.
I have done research before in US.
Hire me.

Then he asked me a pile of questions that he knew could get me to elaborate. It's still not really a letter, but there's content now!

my name is Alyssa.

you do research and development of dye-sensitized solar cells.
it's actually a lot like the research I wrote my final paper on: quantum-dot sensitized solar cells. It uses similar properties, just using a different tiny particle.I talked about improving the efficiency of quantum dot sensitized solar cells.A lot of the research in the quantum dot ones uses the research on dye ones as a starting point!but not everything is the same. dye likes high temp, not so much quantum dots. 
I want do research. SCIENCE! I want to do nanotechnology research long-term, and this is pretty much doing nanotechnology research now.
I've been interested in nanotechnology since I was ten or so, reading Science News. Took longer to figure out that I can  do nanotechnology research myself, but yay cool thing!
Making solar cells better is specifically important because saving the environment is important.
Combining "important research" and "this is just REALLY COOL" makes a good combination as far as things I want to do go. 
I have done research before in US. I worked on making gold-coated liposomes. I worked under [professor] in mechanical engineering @ [school] and [another professor] in chemical engineering @ [school]. 
I applied for and got a small grant from the universities undergraduate research initiative.Another undergrad is currently working on the project while I'm away.
We took pictures using an electron microscope and we do seem to have shells.
Um... the shells are applicable to a bunch of things potentially, including targetted cancer treatment. 
I've done research before and was good at it, see above.
I can read a lot and there's a lot of reading involved in doing science. I am good at numbers and computers and following written directions, and I have experience in writing the directions for experiments as well 
Science is a thing I'm generally good at.
Complementary language abilities is a thing, but [current program] might get pissy at me for pointing it out. (Both of us can read the relevant stuff in English or in Chinese, but English is my native language and Chinese is his, so that's potentially useful? Hire me.

Finally, he helped me connect and edit stuff. This is the step where I came closest to doing it myself, but I did need some help.

Dear Professor Wang,
I am writing to ask about doing research in your lab this semester regarding your work in dye-sensitized solar cells. It's in a similar area to my final paper topic from your class, improved efficiency for quantum-dot sensitized solar cells, and much of the reasearch I looked at mentioned relationships between the two. I'm interested in research within nanotechnology, and have done research before at [school] under [professor] (Mechanical Engineering) and [other professor] (Chemical Engineering.) There, I worked on growing a gold nanolayer onto liposomes and successfully applied for the undergraduate research initiative grant. The early results have been promising and I have been asked to return to their lab upon my return to [location of school]. As an experienced research assistant, I think I could be helpful in your work on nanocrystals and their applications. The fact that I am bilingual in English and Chinese may prove useful in that I can read research in either language. I hope to hear back from you soon about this research opportunity and am happy to provide references upon request.
Alyssa [last name]
The last step was to translate it into Chinese... that never actually happened... but my program made the contacts and found me another person to do research under, who I'm meeting with tomorrow compared to my writing this and about a week ago compared to when this posts.

Language proficiency is not the reason this didn't get translated, by the way. I'm not 100% sure what the reason set was, but language proficiency is not the issue. I've translated tougher stuff before, and I've written tougher stuff directly in Chinese as well.

Saturday, March 1, 2014

Languaging Differently

Reprint from Yes, That Too, closely related to the previous post here.

This is a thing I was thinking about, after my fun times with my teachers saying I don't use formal enough language when I write and speak in Chinese class. I'm actually way more formal in my writing and oral reports for Chinese than I ever was in classes conducted in English, since our classes have basically been “here have more formal words and here's how to use them” for the last few years. That said, I'm still nowhere near as formal in my speech as my classmates. I've been studying the language for sometimes twice as long, and I'm definitely more fluid with the words I'm comfortable with, but formality? Ha. That's basically not a thing.
And here's what I realized:
People still think I'm a good tutor and a good teacher. They do. In fact, what they usually say is that my explanation was the first one that made sense to them. Now, what's different about the way I explain stuff? Oh, wait. It's that lack of formal language again, isn't it? Yes, that's right, the same thing I'm getting in trouble with in my Chinese classes, the same thing that's gotten my essays marked down since at least the seventh grade? It's what makes me a good teacher.
Now why are we trying to change the weird language usage that makes me a better teacher? What is the advantage of changing it?
I've heard several things from teachers who are trying to change it.
“No one will take you seriously if you write like that.”
“It's not formal enough.”
“You need to learn to code-switch.”
“The words you're using are too simple.”
“Your sentences are too simple.”
“What will you do when you're writing about complicated things?”
Here's the thing. I have written about complicated things. I've used the technical terms when they make more sense, and I've used simple words when they are better words, and it works. Isn't the sign of a good teacher that they can take a complicated thing and make it simpler? Make it make sense? It seems to me that using simpler words to the extent that we can is a better idea, if the goal is to make people understand instead of being to show off how much you know.
My sentences aren't always simple. Sometimes they are. I don't understand why complicated is an end in it's own right, so “too simple” is something I'm just going to keep throwing out.
I do have some ability to code-switch. It's not much of a much, but it exists. I need a reason to use this ability, though. I'm not going to tire myself out code-switching for no good reason.
Formality is a social expectation. It really is. As such, if it has negligible effect (or maybe even helps) with functionality, fine, I'll go with it. When it actively impedes function, that's not cool. In this case, demanding formality does, in fact, actively impede function. It does this in multiple ways.
One is that it makes it harder for me to communicate the meaning I want to communicate. Sometimes that's because the more formal word doesn't have the same shade of meaning the less formal one does. Sometimes that's because I just can't think of the more formal one. Sometimes it's because nitpicking my vocabulary slows down my ability to come up with sentences to the point that my brain is way ahead of my speaking or writing and then I lose track of what I'm thinking. This leads to The Sads.
The other time formality causes a problem is when I'm teaching. A good teacher explains things in ways that their students will understand. That's not the same thing as explaining in the most formal way possible. In fact, my experience as a tutor and teacher tells me that those things are often opposites. The simplest, most conversational explanation is the one that my students tend to understand. At that point, yes, formality is impeding function. That means formality needs to go away.
Finally, the first reason. “No one will take you seriously if you write like that.” Is this my problem? I'd argue that it's other people having a problem with the packaging of an idea and therefore ignoring the idea itself. I'd also argue that it's a load of nonsense. If it were true, I wouldn't have readers who take my writing seriously. I certainly wouldn't have had a blog post of mine cited in an academic journal. I wouldn't be presenting at conferences and workshops. I wouldn't be getting pieces accepted in books. I am getting taken seriously while writing like this. I'm getting taken seriously by people who realize that not everyone is going to write the exact same way, and that that's fine. I'm getting taken seriously by people who care more about ideas being communicated than they do about how smart I can make myself sound while in the writing.
I really don't care how smart I can make myself sound in the writing. It's not the point. I care how well I can get the idea across. If my natural mode of speech and writing is one that works well for teaching beginners (I'm going to take beginners words for it over that of “experts” who might say it doesn't work,) I'm hanging on to that. I don't want to be the person who learns the fancy codes and finds that they've lost their personal voice. I don't want to be the person who needs to be re-taught to use words people know.
If the way my brain tends to bounce off jargon-heavy and meaning-light writing makes it harder for me to write that way and then I keep writing to explain, I'm honestly OK with that. (I'm fine with technical terms, but when they are strung together in ways that don't mean much or when the terms themselves are too broad, my mind starts bouncing. Academic papers tend to be bad, even when I understand the concepts. Being written by someone whose first language isn't English is generally OK- some of their issues are similar to my own, even. Not always picking the word that best suits the situation, even if the meaning is right? They'll do that, and I'll do that.)