May 09

Two identical very different trips through the Alford Valley

Alford this past week was a string of turquoise days. Dry air and golden sunshine combined into a perfect backdrop for a couple of ambles through the Alford Valley.

On two different days, I took identical routes with different forms of transportation. The first was a walk with my friend Bess, as we surveyed winter damage and restored the trails to passable condition. Along the way, we treated ourselves to a visit to the Devil’s Den. The second outing was with Alice (Spot’s Mom), on horseback.

Here is a crude map of the ground we covered.

[All of the pictures here can be enlarged by clicking on them; return to the post with the “back” arrow on your browser.]

Devils-Den-+-beyond

 

The orange square indicates our starting point (Thyme Hill) on East Road. The green square has no particular significance other than to mark the point south of which I had cell coverage in only one direction. Although our routes out and back were identical, the app I was using seemed to be only approximately accurate. Still, it’s a nice picture of the ground covered that would be hard to map any other way.

I’m very appreciative of having neighbors who generously allow passage over their trails. From my house, heading north, I traverse over the land of the Haas’s, and thence into the property of Frank & Mary Wilcox. When Frank was alive, he took his small ATV out on his trails and kept them open. He was always delighted to hear that I had been using them for hiking, skiing, or horseback riding. Along the ridge (on the westerly dogleg just above the green square), we come to Ray Wilcox’s property. His is the large pasture to the west of all that. The route then jogs north into Henry Flint’s large network of trails. The Devil’s Den is above one of his trails. At the top of the lollipop, we skirted the edge of a pasture used by the Scribner Brook Farm, which is clearly visible to its west. The westernmost loop turns south along the Alford Brook, and takes an old road with an impressive stone wall, overlooking a large beaver pond. Although the beaver dam is mostly intact, we did not see any signs of recent activity.

The entire route was nearly 4 miles. On foot, what with flower-watching, wrangling downed trees, and taking a break in the coolness of the Devil’s Den, the trip took us nearly 4 hours. On horseback, the same route took about an hour to cover.

Along the way, we saw many ephemerals and other items of interest. Bess and I had the pleasure of stopping to enjoy them and to tour the cave, but the horses were not interested in any such distractions.

Here is the first trillium we saw:

Devil's Den 0001

And then, a triumvirate of trilliums (no, “trillia” is not the plural of trillium!):

Devil's Den 0002

There were many trilliums flowering on the hillside below the Devil’s Dan. There were also large patches of ramp and blue cohosh; the latter being nearly a foot tall at this point. We headed up the rocky slope to reach the hidden Den.

Devil's Den 0003

Bess admired the moist colors above the entrance, and beneath her was a large residual block of ice.

Devil's Den 0004Devil's Den 0005

As we carefully made our way down into the interior to inspect the Alter Stone, we could look back to gauge the thickness of the ice.

Devil's Den 0006

We looked back at the entrance as we turned to head back down the hillside by a different path. Devil's Den 0007Devil's Den 0008

While taking care not to slide too fast on the slippery oak leaves and hemlock needles, we noticed leavings of a porcupine winter feast. Evidently, they like to eat the tender needles at the ends of small branches, but doing that on the tree is a little tricky, so they gnaw off the branches and let them fall to the ground, where they are easy to munch on. It may be hard to tell from the photo, but this was quite a pile of such hemlock branches, with clear teeth marks where than had been cut.

 Devil's Den 0009

On the way back to the trail, we saw another trio of trilliums. We figured we could say we saw (at least) a troika of triumvirates of trilliums.

Devil's Den 0010

On horseback, it was a bit difficult to take pix. On the way past the beaver pond, I wished I had taken some on the previous trip, because we were moving too rapidly to be able to grab a photo without stopping, which didn’t seem to be the thing to do. By then, the horses realized we were heading home, and if they had shown any signs of tiring (which they really hadn’t, despite this being their first long outing of the season), that was all forgotten in their eagerness to get back to the barn.

The first shot is how the world looks to someone on Stewart’s back. He is patiently waiting for Spot to get ready. The second picture is of Alice as she finishes tacking Spot in my yard. Then come a couple of photos taken along the trail.

All in all, a glorious pair of days!

First Ride of the Season 0001First Ride of the Season 0002First Ride of the Season 0003First Ride of the Season 0004

May 09

There are 10 types of people in the world…

Those who understand binary, and those who don’t.

In my early days as a computer programmer, I studied the RCA 501, a 2nd generation computer (in the days of vaccuum tubes, before transistors). It was an octal machine. If you ever saw any of the original Startrek TV series, the console of the Starship Enterprise was actually the console of an RCA 501. Its console made for a very dramatic display, and it was for real (although I’m not aware of any 501 actually going into space!).

Our programs were keypunched into paper tape, which was fed into the machine. There was a primitive Operating System, but that did not include error handling. If the computer read a bad instruction or otherwise hung up, it would come to a halt (which was the purpose of the lighted console — to be able to read the location of the stop and what was in all the registers).

When the machine hung, the operator called the programmer to come to the computer room. Our job at that point was to figure out how to write memory to get the machine going again. Then, a patch (literally) needed to be made to the paper tape so the same thing wouldn’t happen again. We coded up the correction, had it keypunched, and in order to fix the tape, we had to hold it up to the light and read the instructions so we would know where to cut out the offending code and insert the new strip of paper tape. So I got pretty good at reading octal (which is base 8 — three binary digits strung together).

I like the joke about 10 types of people. Hadn’t heard that one before.

Apr 12

Not just attention to detail, but fascination with detail

I guess you don’t have to be autistic to collect stamps (or coins, or bills, or anything else), but I’m sure it helps.

For many years (and long before I figured out that I’m autistic), I collected stamps. More than collected, I accumulated.

In the past few years, I’ve been gradually selling off my accumulation of philatelic material on eBay. It’s been fun. What remains is not of much value, but I am still enjoying this aspect of the hobby — I think of it as reverse collecting, and I get to enjoy looking at my stamps all over again as they go out the door.

I’ve recently come across an accumulation of glassine envelopes all marked “528B” containing a bunch of carmine *2 CENTS 2* stamps that were issued in 1920, a few of which are illustrated in this picture. (Click on the graphic to see an enlarged version so that you, too, can be fascinated with the details!)

528B-3

I bought these in the hope of being able to go through them to find varieties worth more than the one I nominally paid for. There are literally 43 varieties of stamps that look exactly like this. What distinguishes them from each other are several different features of their printing and post-printing production. Without getting into all of the detail, I could mention such things as paper (whether it is watermarked or not), type of printing press (flat plate, rotary, or offset), perforation (number of perforations — if any — within 2 centimeters), released as sheets or coils, and certain engraving varieties. And of top of all that there are many, many printing errors which are collectible, such as double impressions or plate defects that are easily spotted. There are also color variations, sometimes several within each variety.

The reason I still have all of these is that I never fulfilled my ambition of closely examining them. I found that looking at each one under a magnifying glass was too tedious (even for me), and often yielded ambiguous results. So I set them aside for a future project. Well, the future is now! Through the modern miracle of digital scanning, I am able to scan these (at much greater resolution than is shown here) and determine (with some exceptions) which variety they represent. The exceptions include stamps where the cancellation obliterates distinguishing features, in which case I have to assume that the stamp is the less valuable of two or more possible varieties.

The stamps illustrated here represent but 5 of those 43 varieties. They are all offset printings, perforated 11 on both top and sides, and can be distinguished from each other by “Type” of engraving.

  • 526 type IV has a broken line at the top of the toga and the toga button looks like the letters DID, with the first D reversed
  • 527 type V has a complete toga line (as do all the other varieties here), and 5 vertical line in the toga button, with a thin/broken line in the left “2”
  • 528 type Va is the same as type V except that there are two dots missing in one of the lines of dots in the nose
  • 528A type VI is the same as V but has a very heavy line in the left “2”
  • 528B type VII is pretty much the same as V but the line in the 2 is between V and VI in thickness, and an additional row of dots has been added to the upper lip

The numbers are from the Scott catalog, which is pretty much the Bible of stamp collecting. Plate types I, II, and III were used in earlier printings of flat plate and rotary press designs.

These are not valuable stamps. The Scott catalog lists their retail prices (which assumes stamps in good condition, which many of these are obviously not) as ranging from 40¢ to $4.00. I feel lucky if I am able to sell a stamp for 20% of its Scott value. So, their worth to me is somewhere between 8¢ and 80¢. I have not discovered a gold mine. Still, it’s fun for me to go through them. And to blog about them.

On this particular page (which does not represent my entire accumulation by any means!), I found that only 11 out of the 49 here are actually the 528B stamps I paid for. I did not find any of the most valuable (526) but the other varieties are all well-represented.

How I will manage to sell all of these on eBay, I have no idea. But I’m on a mission!

Apr 08

It May Be that Young People have been Paying Attention

This interesting report by NPR challenges the speculation that we may be moving to a cashless society.

“People seem really wary of the mistakes of their parents,” Shahani says. “There is something relieving about, you know, that it’s not lost on them that their parents were deep into debt. And people seem to carry that maybe in the way that their parents’ generation didn’t.”

Many young people, it seems, prefer to use cash rather than plastic.

“The perception that young people rarely use cash is just not correct,” [Doug Conover, an analyst with the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco] says.

The Federal Reserve Bank put together a study asking people to keep a diary of their spending. Compared with their elders, young adults (ages 18 to 24) reported using cash more, for nearly half of all purchases.

In the end, of course, it’s an empirical question, not one that can be answered by anecdotes or surveys. The per-capita use of currency has been declining for many years now.* Will that usage level off, or even increase? Time will tell.

 

* [update, later in the day] My assertion about per-capita decrease was challenged by some of my fellow Georgers. I based that statement on some reading I had done lately on the new epayment systems, and articles which cited a trend to less and less currency being used.

This is something that I need to research, because it is fairly complex, but one thing that is clear is that my statement was wrong. At least on the surface. The number of bills in circulation, according to the FRB, has increased at an average annual rate of 6.4% over the past 10 years. Population growth in the US is about 1% per annum.

Apr 01

Hope for the world

At first light this morning I noticed a grazer enjoying the newly revealed fodder. Spring may be on its way after all!

20150401_071938

Feb 16

Segregation in the Berkshires in the Civil Rights Era

An article today in the Berkshire Edge reminded me of my experience in the summer of 1961. I guess my heightened sense of social justice came to me early in life. Within a couple of years, I would become a vegetarian, a pacifist, and a draft resister.

What was it like to be an African American in South Berkshire County Massachusetts in 1961? Couldn’t get a haircut in Lenox, Lee or Great Barrington.

Stockbridge is not mentioned, for a reason. I was a high school student at that time, working at the Red Lion Inn for the summer. One of my co-workers was black. Or perhaps he was a Negro. The language was starting to change. In any case, a small group of us, hearing about discrimination in nearby towns, decided to form our own sit-in at Billy Pierce’s barber shop on Main Street.

The plan was to have our black friend enter the shop, and one by one the rest of us would filter in and take up all the available chairs in the waiting area. If Billy declined to provide a haircut to our friend, we would all refuse to be next and simply take up all the space in the shop, effectively closing it down.

When the time came, Billy simply said, “Next!” and our black companion sat in the chair and the haircut started. At that point, I got up and said, “I’ll come back later when you’re not so busy!” and I left.

Jan 27

Sensory Deprivation

I just took a long hot whirlpool bath, enhanced with Kneipp rosemary essential oil, to delight the olfactory senses, with a side benefit of helping to clear the nasal passages.

It is a frigid snowy day today, with temps in the low teens. I walked through the falling snow to feed the horses, and was amazed to find that they had abandoned their shelter to stand out in the cold and enjoy the snowfall. I went about my chores in a rather perfunctory manner, which was okay with them, since they were eager for their breakfast, and evidently not in much of a mood to chat.

By the time I got back into the house, I was feeling quite at one with the cold outdoors, and even a cup of hot coffee seemed not to remedy the sensation of gelid blood flowing in my veins.

Hence the bath. Once my core body temperature felt in harmony with the bath water, I was able to turn off the jets and enter a world of sensory deprivation. I came into awareness with a start, realizing that I had been lying still with my eyes closed for an unknown period of time. It could have been five seconds, it could have been an hour. I had no way of knowing.

Obviously, my subconscious mind had been doing its thing, since I was still breathing and my heart was still beating. But I was completely unaware of the external world.

I was definitely not asleep — neither was my state of mind one of mindfulness; it was the opposite: mindlessness. And it was a blessing. My autistic brain is usually operating in hyperactive mode, and there are times when I wish I could turn it off, but that doesn’t seem to be possible. So this escape into the nether-world of consciousness was a welcome relief. Not for the first time, mind you. I have experienced this feeling countless times before; I’m reminded of the volcanic mud baths in Calistoga.

Still, this feeling is not a common one, so is always a very welcome relief. I drifted in and out of this state several times before leaving the tub. Clearly, I have discovered the “cure” for autism! Just kidding, folks!

After leaving the tub, I shaved, something I no longer do every day. My beard does not grow in with the intense blackness of my youth. I often can’t tell with a glance in the mirror how long it’s been since I last shaved. I have to run my fingers up my neck or cheek in order to “see” that.

So that completed my session of self-care. Self-indulgence if you prefer. I am grateful that we have not lost power during this storm.

Jan 10

$2 Bills and other forgotten currency

I recently came across an article entitled “The Curious Case of the $2 Bill” which was written by a student of Ancient History. I’ve long been a fan of “Toms” (as they are often called, since a portrait of Thomas Jefferson appears on the face of the bills), and judging from my experience a lot of people think they are ancient history.

I enjoy spending them, and when I do, a common reaction is, “Oh, are they still making those?” or “I haven’t seen a two-dollar bill in years!” Clearly, they are not widely circulated.

In some years, however, the Bureau of Engraving and Printing issues several million of these quaint pieces of legal tender. [The web page just linked, btw, is a bit out of date. It says (as of this writing) that “The most recent printing of the $2 note has the Series 2003 date” when in fact the latest series is 2013, and there have also been notes printed in the 2003A and 2009 series.]

The last major redesign of the $2 bill was for the 1976 series, as part of the celebration of the 200th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence. For that series, the reverse of the bill, which previously had carried a picture of Jefferson’s Monticello, was replaced with a picture of the signing of the Declaration. Beginning with that series, here are the statistics of how many have been printed.

  •  The 1976 series was printed from 1976 through 1979. About 592 million bills were created. It’s not uncommon to find examples of this series in excellent condition. In contrast, one-dollar bills of that era are quite scarce in circulation.
  • The 1995 series were all printed in 1996 (go figure!) and totaled about 155 million bills.
  • The 2003 series were all printed in 2003, and about 125 million of those were issued.
  • The 2003A series were printed in 2006, and nearly 231 million of those were printed.
  • The 2009 series were all printed in 2012. About 125 million of those were put out there.
  • So far, only about 32 million of the 2013 series have been printed.

If you add all of this up (and I did), it seems that nearly 1.3 billion $2 bills have been printed and issued to the public in the past 37 years. That’s an average of about 34 million a year. Assuming that most of these have survived (granted that many of them will have been lost, destroyed, shredded by the Fed, or placed in collections), that would be a handful per capita. Clearly, the production of these bills has been dwarfed by the more common denominations, but $2 bills are hardly rare, or even scarce. Yet that myth persists, because most people rarely see them.

Here’s a picture of the face of the bills before and after the redesign of 1976. It no longer says “will pay to the bearer on demand”…

1928G-$2-Bill

2003A-G-B-from-uncut

 

All of the pictures of bills here, btw, are notes that are, or have been, in my possession. You can click the images to see larger images of my scans.

In that “Curious” article, they talked about the lack of a slot in cash registers for $2 bills, but I don’t think it was always that way. Or, maybe they had the same number of slots but have been repurposed. I guess one could find out with a bit of internet research, but I’m not so inclined.

I grew up in a small New England town in the 1950s, and cash was King. There were no credit/debit cards in those days (if you wanted to run up a bill at a local merchant — and they permitted that — you just said “put it on my account” and that was it).

Cash registers were not adding machines. When I went in to the local IGA with my father (he brought me along because he wanted to use my little red wagon to wheel the groceries home), there was no self-service. He consulted the list given him by my mother, and pointed to cereal boxes or whatever, and Joe Galeisha would get them off the shelf. If they were high up, he would use one of those grabbers. He brought them back to the counter and with a large pencil he wrote down the price on a paper bag. When all was done, he added it up and told my father the total, which was given in cash. Joe rang it into the cash register. There was (in my memory) a slot for $2 bills, which were commonly used. There were also places for half dollars and silver dollars, also commonly used. Indian Head pennies were not common, but were not all that unusual. My favorites were the zinc cents of 1943.

If we ran out of something, my mother would send me to the store to get a quart of milk and loaf of bread, and told me I could spend the change on candy. She gave me a quarter. Cokes were a nickel. So were phone calls and cups of coffee. Nostalgia!

Another curious thing in the “Curious” article is a statement about the first of two New York Times articles that are linked (the first one is behind a paywall).

The article reported government trepidation that a bicentennial bill would also be held out of circulation as a souvenir.

That’s a bit silly. The government would love to have people stick the bills in their sock drawer and never use them. The loss of currency in circulation to any cause is called seigniorage, although that word has other meanings, too. It is basically the profit made when the public pays more for a coin or bill than its cost, and does not redeem it. So, “trepidation” that the Treasury would make a profit? Hardly!

I have many stories about spending Toms, and I share those and read others in an online forum I visit fairly regularly. I guess my favorite one was from two or three years ago when I stopped for gas, and a cup of coffee, on the Mass Pike, headed to Boston. I took my coffee to the counter and handed the young clerk a $2 bill. She smiled and handed it back to me. “I can’t take that!” she said. “Why not?” I asked. “It’s not real!” she insisted.

So watch this space for more developments. A new documentary movie is now in the final stages of production.

A fitting way to end this post, I suppose, is to show the back side of the two-dollar bill before and after the 1976 revision.

Reverse-of-1928G-red-seal-$ Reverse-of-1976-$2-bill

Oct 25

Growing Old Disgracefully: AS Connections 2014

Here is a blog-friendly version of remarks I prepared for delivery to the AANE Conference in Boston.

I have tried to reflect some of the (less stilted, I hope) actual delivery, but not including some of the shoutouts I did to individual people who were in attendance.

I have also added links to resources concerning some of the topics I referenced. For the most part, I have bolded the places where I have provided links to articles or blog posts that are relevant to the topic I mention. I did not provide a full list of resources at the end, so you’ll have to poke around if you want to see some of my source material. This was, after all, a talk that was meant to share my experiences, and not an academic presentation. Still, I’ve tried to provide further reading for people who might be interested in particular topics that I touch upon along the way.

There was a lively Q+A session after I finished speaking, with many people providing feedback, sharing their own experiences, or asking questions. Many of those participating were, like me, autistic/Aspergerian. Questions and comments ranged from education to medication and many other topics. I was pleased that the general tenor of the conversation made me realize I had stuck a chord with many of those in attendance. We ran out of time before we ran out of conversation.

I welcome further feedback or questions via email or comments on this blog.

 

Michael Forbes Wilcox

IMG_0699

mfw {at} mfw(.)us

http://www.mfw.us/blog/

20140815_130029_Richtone(HDR)

Growing Old Disgracefully

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

All my life I have traveled a different road. Sometimes, that was my choice; it was my preference, it was my comfort and my joy. But other times, it was not a choice at all. I was born different, and I had to travel as best I could, through a world that expected me to be somewhere else, to go the way that others did. But I did not know how.

Many of you know me, and have heard me talk before. I have shared how I learned, fairly late in life, that I am autistic. Nearly ten years ago, I embraced the Asperger’s label, somewhat reluctantly at first, and then with great enthusiasm. In the intervening years, I have learned much about autism and Asperger’s, and I am proud of both labels, which I use pretty much interchangeably.

I will talk to you today about what it has been like for me to grow old differently. Growing old is a wonderful thing. As they say, it sure beats the alternative.

I’d like to start with a funny story or two. At least, funny to me. Many years ago, before I knew anything about autism, I had a romantic partner. Not my first, not my latest. We lived together in the house where I still live. We parted company before I came to know that I’m autistic. But she knew that I was odd. That was part of my charm, I’m sure. In the years since then, we have remained friends, and we have laughed a lot about some of the things that transpired when we were together. We have talked about what it now means to me to be Aspergerian, and she has come to realize that during her life, she has tended to be attracted to Asperger’s men. We do have endearing qualities, you know.

So, a couple of stories that involve Joan.

You might think that the title of my talk was inspired by some meme I saw on the internet, like this one. It wasn’t, but I endorse the sentiment!

Just age disgracefully meme

No, it was something more personal.

In the years we were together, Joan and I went on some interesting vacations, and I guess she noticed my penchant for acquiring souvenir t-shirts. So, when she started going on vacations without me, she began to honor that tradition by always bringing me back a t-shirt from her various trips.

Except that they weren’t necessarily souvenirs of any particular place, but more likely oddball commentaries or things that made her think of me. Another of the things that she and I can now joke about is that she used to call me a grumpy old man, even though I am younger than she. And the truth is, I probably was; it’s one of the things about me that has changed, I think, because of my understanding of my autism and my understanding that most of the people in the world are not mean or crazy; they just used to seem so to me because I didn’t understand how very different I am.

Here is a t-shirt on the grumpy theme that she brought me from Sun Valley:

Grumpy's

And, it may very well be that she recognized and understood long before I did that my grouchiness and my aloofness, among my other endearing qualities, perhaps signified that I was a very different kind of person.

Not-an-attitude

You get the idea; there were many others. But one of my favorites was the one she brought back from a visit to her friend Lisa in Key West. It’s a t-shirt that, according to the front of the shirt, is from the Schooner Wharf Bar at the Key West Seaport. On the back, it says

20140815_130029_Richtone(HDR)

I’ll give you another example of the things we now laugh about, because I think it helps illustrate something that I want to talk more about later; sensory issues in autism.

On cold winter nights, we would often sit on the couch that faced the fireplace and read our own books and magazines as the fire blazed. On some occasions, I felt a need to withdraw into my own personal space, so I would take my hand and draw an imaginary line in the middle of the couch. “Don’t cross this line!” I would warn her. Years later, after we discussed my times of not wanting to be touched, she told me, “I thought you were kidding, but you weren’t, were you?!” No, I wasn’t.

Great Wall 100517_cartoon_074_a14961_p465

Before I came to understand that my autism explains many, if not most, of my sensory issues, I thought that I was defective in some way, because who would not want to be touched or to be hugged, who could possibly be bothered by currents of fresh air, who would cringe if someone chewed their ice, or spoke with food in their mouth, or ripped up a piece of paper, or if a clerk would fold a receipt before handing it to me? What was wrong with me that all of these things made me want to be somewhere else? And why did I have extreme, or even contrary reactions to some medications?

Now I understand, and that understanding has helped me to accept myself for who I am. I now know that I am not, in fact, defective, but that these reactions are a natural part of me and many people like me. Meeting a lot of other autistic people has helped immensely. I’ve learned that, although I may be unusual, I’m not so much of an oddball as I once thought I was.

Over the course of the past few years, I have met hundreds of autistic people, most of them in person, but also many of them online. The online world has a very different set of social rules, and it also allows for timeshifting, meaning that interactions don’t have to take place on any particular schedule, but are at the convenience of the participants. All of this can make online interactions much more comfortable for autistic people – and for others, too, I’m sure.

Mostly, I have met autistic people in realtime, and have learned a lot about autism, and therefore myself, from participating in support groups, and of course from attending lectures and AANE conferences like this one.

I have also been privileged to work with couples. At AANE, I have co-facilitated many series of support groups for what I call neuroexceptional couples, meaning that one or both partners identifies as not being neurotypical. In the course of that work, I have met dozens of couples of all manner of intriguing backgrounds, interests, and challenges.

I’ve also talked with and helped many parents of autistic kids, and I’ve given talks to autistic adolescents. I’ve taught college classes and I’ve served on many Boards and Advisory Committees. I’ve read, I’ve seen movies, I’ve been an adviser for a play – a romantic comedy in which one of the characters is an Asperger’s professor. I have even started my own tongue-in-cheek Autistic Hall of Fame on my blog, because after having met so many autistic people, and gotten to know many of them at a fairly deep level, I think I can spot autistic people from the way they are described, either as historical characters or in contemporary life.

I suspect that this kind of recognition helps good clinicians do what they do. Although I’m sure they have a disciplined way of rating people, if you’ve met and spent a lot of time in conversation with a large number of autistic people, as I have, you really don’t need a checklist to identify someone who is autistic.

In my learning of what it is, and what it means, to be autistic, I have also learned something that I never used to comprehend; namely, what it is like to be not autistic. I have been shocked to learn how very very different I am from most people in this world. I never really comprehended that before.

I wish I could say that learning about myself, and who I really am, and what I am like, has been an entirely positive experience, but it has not been. It is true that I have learned much that has set me at ease about things that used to bother me. I have made huge strides in dealing with stress and depression. I have learned to enjoy, yes! actually enjoy, small talk. Many of the common interpersonal encounters I experience in the course of the day are now a source of joy to me, and are fun, instead of producing the excruciating discomfort I endured during most of my years on this planet. I now travel through this world on a much smoother road, with a greater sense of pleasure and well-being than I have known for most of my life.

The person you see before you today is someone who is at peace with himself and with the world. Someone who is certainly not care-free, but who is not paralyzed by anxiety, either. Someone who holds, with some trepidation, the view that all of life’s challenges can be met and resolved in some way or another, to produce a satisfactory outcome.

It has not always been this way. I have seen the dark side of life. Not all of my struggles were related to my autism, but I can see now that autism helps to explain why I had so much trouble with certain things. And also, by the way, why I was so successful at other things.

And yet, there is that dark side. I also now understand that my inability to do self-perspective-taking and to read others and to see my effect on them created pain for many of the people in my life, both people I was close to and people who didn’t know me well but cared about me.

I’m not going to dwell on that dark side here today. I have told some of those stories before, and I have seen people weep, because they know my pain was real, and they can relate to it in one way or another. And I can relive all of that pain in a heartbeat when I think back on those things. I want to apologize to the world for not understanding myself, for all the meltdowns, for my withdrawal into miasmas of depression. But, at the time, I didn’t know how to do emotional regulation. I tried, but I often failed.

I didn’t understand how truly different I am, and living in this alien world was often frustrating beyond endurance. So I made mistakes, and I regret that. But I also am comforted to know that I never did those things with the intention of harming others. My actions often caused pain for others, I can see that now, but that was never my intention. I was protecting myself, reacting to a stressful world that was bearing in on me.

So, let me leave that part of me aside for today, although I can assure you it was there. All of the bad things you know about being autistic, I have experienced. Today, when I tell people I’m autistic, I often receive what I know is meant to be a compliment, “Oh, I never would have known!” or “Oh, well, you can’t be very autistic.”

What do I say to that? “You’ve got to be fookin kidding me!” or “Gee, thanks, I’m so glad I can fool you!” or “Yeah? Well, just try being me if you think it’s such a piece of cake!” but, no, I usually smile, because I know they mean well, and I say something like, “Well, I’m old; I’ve learned a lot,” which is true enough.

Once, in a talk, I described autism as a two-sided coin. My point was that you couldn’t throw away the dark side of autism without also destroying the wonderful side as well. This comes back to the sensory issues I mentioned earlier. Sensory overload is a source of confusion, slow processing, and outright pain for those of us who are autistic. But, the flip side of it is the intensity of positive experiences; the capacity to experience great joy, and to see the world in wondrous ways. Of course, generalities are dangerous. Every autistic person experiences the world in their own way, just like everyone else.

After the talk I just mentioned, I was scolded by a psychiatrist friend of mine for displaying typical Aspergerian black and white thinking. I asked him why he said that, and he explained it was because I saw only a two-sided coin. All right, then, I countered, how about this? Autism is a multi-faceted jewel that takes on a different appearance depending on how you hold it up to the light. Or a rainbow! (Think of that infamous spectrum that no one has ever been able to explain to me.) Yes, autism has dark colors, but it has many bright ones, too.

I’m reminded of Tim Page, who spoke a while back at an AANE event maybe you were there. He told the story of wondering what people meant when they told him he was an outstanding music critic because he thought outside the box. He didn’t know what they were talking about because he never saw any box.

In the years since the phrase became a cliché, I have received any number of compliments for my supposed ability to “think outside the box.” Actually, it has been a struggle for me to perceive just what these “boxes” were—why they were there, why other people regarded them as important, where their borderlines might be, how to live safely within and without them. My efforts have been only partly successful: after fifty-two years, I am left with the melancholy sensation that my life has been spent in a perpetual state of parallel play, alongside, but distinctly apart from, the rest of humanity.

And many autistic people I know joke about this expression. “What box?” they say. And, I would have to say, that was one of my features that enabled me to be successful in a creative career in finance. But not seeing boundaries can also be dangerous when those boundaries are social or legal ones.

Being autistic is not just a struggle, although it is that. Being autistic in an alien world can be frustrating and confusing. But autism is also a pathway to joy. I now know why it was that I was entranced by the poetry of Khalil Gibran when I was young.

Your joy is your sorrow unmasked.
And the selfsame well from which your laughter rises was oftentimes filled with your tears.
And how else can it be?
The deeper that sorrow carves into your being, the more joy you can contain.

Forgive me for another generalization, but it seems to me that the autistic personality is composed of such stark contrasts. Just as we have the capacity for great sorrow, we also have the capacity for great joy. We are paranoid and pessimistic, and we are also stubbornly persistent and confident. Such are some of the faces of this multifaceted jewel we call autism.

If this idea of the intensity of autism intrigues you, I recommend that you learn about The Intense World Theory of Autism, if you haven’t already. This has been proposed by a couple of Swiss neuroscientists as a way to explain what we observe in autism; an intense reaction to stimulation of all kinds. I have written a post about this theory, and there is a link there to a good explanation of the Markrams’ work. 

[As an aside, I should mention that in my writing I sometimes refer to “mirror neurons” or the “mirror neuron system” as though such things exist in the physical world. I’m well aware that there is no evidence that there are actual neurons that specialize in this function, so I use the terms in a metaphorical sense. The brain accomplishes the functions that are attributed to these mythical neurons, and, however that is done, the outcome of that process is all that matters.]

Many of the myths and misunderstandings about autism seem to revolve around a misunderstanding of the very nature of the intensity of autistic experience. One example of this is the role of central coherence. It has been a long-standing myth that autistic people are poor at central coherence, which is the ability to see the big picture, or more colequially, to see the forest for the trees.

The Kanwisher Lab at MIT has conducted some experiments that debunk this myth. Nancy Kanwisher presented their results at a research conference sponsored by AANE and others. Perhaps you were there. She talked about how autistic people see the world.

Yes, we do see the trees. In fact, we see the bark on the trees. But we also see the forest. It’s just that if you ask us to describe what we see, we will tell you about the bark, because that’s a lot more interesting to us. So, Kanwisher concludes, autistic people have a preference for detail, not a deficit in comprehending the big picture.

Another place intensity shows up is in the role of empathy and the overloaded emotional life of autistics. I’ve always been a peacemaker and a diplomat. I hate to see people in conflict. It pains me. I’m the Town Moderator in my town, something I’ve been doing for the past dozen years or so. This past week, I ran a Special Town Meeting that had only two Articles. One was not controversial, but it was complex, so I made sure that the experts were there to explain it, and I smoothed the feathers of those who were impatient and just wanted to vote. That Article didn’t take long.

The second Article was extremely controversial, and had I sought out advice in advance from my fellow Moderators in the Massachusetts Moderators Association; I conferred with Town Counsel, the Select Board, the Finance Committee, and the Town Clerk. My main concern (other than to run the Meeting in an orderly way) was to be sure that both proponents and opponents felt they were treated fairly and had an opportunity to be heard. In the event, the conversation lasted over two hours. Afterward, several people came up to me and said nice things about how I had conducted the Meeting.

Why do I mention all of this? Because it’s just one example, among oh so many, of my diplomacy skills. But more than that – it’s not just a skill, but a need to bring people together, and the pain that comes from witnessing conflict. If that’s not empathy, I don’t know what is.

Back in the 1980s, while I was living and working in New York City, I started a professional group called QWAFAFEW. Yes, it was a drinking society, but it also had a serious purpose. It was about bringing people together to share knowledge; to read and discuss academic papers, to critique each other’s work, and to develop friendships instead of rivalries, even though many of us worked for competing firms. When I moved to Boston a few years later, I brought the idea with me, and there are now chapters all over; not just in New York and Boston, but in Chicago, Denver, San Francisco, Philadelphia, and many other cities. I guess it was a good idea.

Did you see the article that appeared in the Guardian a couple of years ago, talking about Harvard’s new policy of asking its researchers not to support journals that have a paywall? I applaud that, because that is exactly in the spirit of what I was trying to promote; community and sharing.

More recently, I served on the Massachusetts Special Commission Relative to Autism. If you are at all familiar with the internal politics of the autism community, you will know that there is constant bickering over a whole host of things; causes, cures, and treatments versus the rejection of those concepts. And that is just one short list of controversies; there are many many more, as you know.

Yet, I was able to work with people who had views diametrically opposed to mine, as painful as that was at times, personally, because I knew that we could all work together toward common purpose and benefit, even if we couldn’t agree on all the details. I attended nearly every meeting of the Commission, and then I volunteered to help draft the report, which required many more meetings of a small core group. I wrote whole sections of the report, and made suggestions about most of the rest. Many of my suggestions were rejected because, ya know, I was on the radical fringe. I guess.

Along the way, I met and befriended many wonderful people. I’m especially proud of the work I did, along with my colleagues here at AANE, on the legislation to expand DDS services to autistic adults and to eliminate the IQ test for all developmental disabilities. This was truly a group effort, involving many people, but I think I played a key role in helping to coordinate getting things done. I persuaded an attorney in one non-profit to craft the legislation to my specifications, despite their initial objections that it didn’t have a chance to pass and therefore was not worth spending time on. Along with many of my friends and colleagues at AANE, where I served at the time on the Board and the Advocacy Committee (or AdCom, as we called it), there were many visits to the State House to persuade legislators to support us. I gave testimony in hearings, and the AdCom under the guidance of Chair Lucy Berrington, collected hundreds of pages of written testimony and prepared information packets for legislators. I spoke with Commissioners and Secretaries and Assistant Secretaries and receptionists and the Governor and legislative staff and just about anyone who would listen. In the end, that bill, in combination with many others, passed both chambers of the legislature unanimously.

In all of these things, I grew; in knowledge, and as a person. Ten years ago, I knew nothing about autism. Today, I don’t claim to be an expert on autism, but I sure have a lot of opinions! And, the truth is, I think you could call me an authority on what it is like to be autistic.

And I’m going to continue to learn more. Here is a list of some of the things I keep track of on Facebook, Twitter, and websites. My interest in all things related to autism, by the way, is an example of what is often derisively called a “special interest.” As an autistic friend of mine has said, why do they call it a “special interest” when you are young, as though that were a bad thing, but when you are an adult with a keen interest in a specialty, they call you “Professor”?!

List-of-Interests-Copy_0

Another myth has to do with friendship. I’ve met autistic people who have great difficulty making and keeping friends. And I know autistic people who are focused on pursuing their own activities on their own terms, and don’t seem to have much interest in collecting friends. But I don’t see this as a central feature of autism. I just returned, earlier this month, from a trip to Mount Washington, where I climbed up (and down) Lion’s Head Trail with a group of friends. Some of these people I’ve known for over 30 years. And this summer, with a different group of friends, I hiked 11 times on Mount Greylock; hikes of 6 or 7 miles each. And I did other hikes with yet other friends. Another friend and I go for 2-hour horseback rides. There’s that friend thing again! – I just have too many of them to be autistic! NOT!

With all that as background, I have left a little time to speak specifically about growth. Everything I say here today is but a small random sample of what I could say on all of these topics. Forgive the nonlinearity of it all, and welcome to the inside of a brain that thinks in concepts, not in words, on multiple tracks simultaneously at all times, and has trouble unwinding all that spaghetti into a single strand.

I have told you a lot of different stories here today, but the common theme has been growth. Growing up. And growing old. Growing old disgracefully, or any way you can. Growth means change.

You’ve all heard of neuroplasticity, the most talked-about revolutionary scientific discovery in neuroscience of the past few years. Neuroplasticity refers to the brain’s ability to change. Neuroplasticity is a fancy word for what we used to call “learning.” We learn by memorizing, or practicing a skill, and in order for us to remember what we learn, the brain has to change, by recording the knowledge or the steps in an activity. To be fair, neuroplasticity may be a broader concept, since learning implies a conscious effort, I suppose; whereas neuroplasticity also includes changes in behaviors that are controlled by our subconscious mind, as well as parts of the brain that control physical activity and other things.

Blind people, for example, seem to develop a keen sense of touch by repurposing parts of the brain that in sighted people are used to process optical information. Violinists have been found to have enlarged areas of the brain where movements in the left-hand fingers are controlled. Musicians are often cited as examples of neuroplasticity

And the autistic brain may be more plastic than most, according to preliminary findings of recent research. If so, and there are anecdotal reasons to believe this, then we can learn and change faster than the Average Person. At the opposite end of the neuroplasticity spectrum, by the way, are people with the unfortunate condition known as senility. At the extreme, people are unable to learn new things. They can remember things that happened to them years ago, but not what they had for breakfast, or even if they had breakfast. I’m oversimplifying, of course, but I only have an hour!

Wisdom comes with age. Most traditional societies revere or honor elders, and respect them for their wisdom. I think there is a simple explanation for this, and it has nothing to do with autism. Wisdom truly does come with age. When you are young, every incident is a new experience, and you have to deal with it on its own terms. As you age, you begin to see patterns, and you are able to generalize.

The difference that autism makes is that everything takes longer. The reasons for this are both physical and procedural. The autistic brain takes longer to mature, and because of the slow processing time and the difficulty of handling the information and sensory overload I mentioned earlier, insight comes more slowly, both on a day-to-day basis and over the lifetime. At least that is my experience.

And herein lies one of the dangers that confront a person who is slow to develop skills, compared with most people in this world. Social and peer pressure may create unrealistic expectations at too early an age, and under this pressure, an autistic person may develop coping mechanisms that are less than ideal. Once ingrained, bad habits can be hard to break. Additionally, as we know, one of the ways autistic people cope with overload is to rely on rituals and routines, which become mindless and remove some of the demands for decision-making from an overloaded brain. While routines can be comforting and reduce stress, they can also be maladaptive.

The good news is that, as I mentioned, the autistic brain seems to be more plastic than the typical brain, so we can learn new ways of doing things quickly. First, however, we must have the cognition that this is necessary, and the will do make the change. This is probably why Cognitive Behavioral Therapy seems to be quite helpful to a lot of autistic people. Also, any number of other techniques that invoke mindfulness. Look what came in the mail yesterday!

7 SA Medidation

Today, I have talked with you about how I grew up. Yes, how I grew up disgracefully. How I changed. How I modified dysfunctional, or nonadaptive, behaviors. How I learned to adopt a new worldview, and to think of myself in a new and different way.

All the growth and the progress that I have described to you today did not happen overnight, of course, but was a transformation many years in the making. Growth and change is a lifelong process of soul-searching and self-improvement. Some important things I learned to do many years ago, long before I knew about autism. But the most rapid transformation I have ever experienced came within the past few years. Learning that I am autistic, and what that means, has been a truly transformative process. In the beginning, it was heart-wrenching and traumatizing. As my self-delusions and misunderstandings were stripped away, my nerves were left exposed and raw.

Gradually, however, as I came to understand and accept myself, I began to be at peace with myself, and to relax more and enjoy the world as never before.

And I’m not done yet.

If you are young and autistic today, you have many advantages that I did not enjoy. Knowledge, understanding, and acceptance of autism have grown exponentially in recent years. As a consequence, the odds of your finding your way in this world are much better today than they’ve ever been. But that doesn’t mean it will be easy. And not everyone will succeed. But that’s also true if you’re not autistic. Yes, we have a disability, one that can be crippling at times, and that hasn’t changed. But the tools that are out there now are significantly better, and the support networks in place are a godsend that didn’t exist when I was young.

That said, there is still a lot of misunderstanding and prejudice out there in the world. Just this past week, for example, Newsweek published a truly awful story about a mother who murdered her autistic 8-year-old son. Here is a critique of that story, written by an autistic scientist.

So I say to you, who are Asperger’s or autistic, or who have family members or friends who are, don’t ever think that the way things are today are the way things will always be.

I speak of growing old. Funny, but I don’t feel old.

I think back to the time my father told me, near the end of his life, how he felt about going on. He knew he didn’t have much longer, but he told me, “I don’t want to die, because I’m so curious about what’s going to happen tomorrow!” I now know, with as much certainty as I can imagine, that he was, like me, Aspergerian. We never discussed this, because I didn’t know anything about autism while he was still alive. He also told me that every morning, in the nursing home, when he got the Berkshire Eagle, he would turn immediately to the obituary page to see if they had spelled his name right. He lived to be 80, and, nothing personal, Dad, but I hope to outdo you.

I’m just getting warmed up. And the future stretches out in front of me. I can’t wait to get started.

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference

Jul 15

Meet Don Berwick, Sunday, July 20 in Great Barrington

Don Berwick is a Democratic candidate for Governor of Massachusetts. All are welcome, whether you are a supporter or not yet a supporter. We hope that people will be moved to make a contribution to the Berwick campaign, but that is not a requirement.

Light refreshments will be served. Contributions of refreshments are welcome. If you would like to bring some food or drink items, please let me know so I can inform our hosts of what to expect. I would also like to have a few volunteers to help direct people to parking and to help clean up after the event.

Spread the word! Share this with your email network, and print out copies of this flyer to post and pass out.

Many thanks!

#ALLMeansALL

 


You Are Invited to Meet Don Berwick
Sunday, July 20 at 5 o’clock

At the home of Leslye Heilig and Lou Davis
32 Benton Avenue, Great Barrington

RSVP at http://www.berwickforgovernor.com/event_GB

Don Berwick will greet people at this informal gathering, where you can come to show your support, or get to know more about Don’s candidacy.

Dr. Berwick’s life has been one of service, including a stint as head of the Center for Medicaid and Medicare Services (CMS).

Top priorities in a Berwick Administration would include:

  • Job creation and economic development: key issues facing our country and our Commonwealth
  • Education: the cornerstone of a successful Commonwealth
  • Healthcare: For 30 years, Don has worked to improve care for all. Don knows what good, patient-centered care looks like, and understands the need for a better payment system. He is the only candidate in this race to advocate for Medicare for All (single-payer).
  • Environment and Energy: Don envisions a carbon-neutral world, and has come out strongly against the Kinder-Morgan (TNG) pipeline.
  • Improving the lives of people with disabilities, the LGBT community, and other groups that have been marginalized in the past
  • Ending homelessness
  • Reforming our criminal justice system
  • Casinos: Don is the only candidate to support repeal of the casino law.

Prepared by
Berkshire People Supporting Don Berwick for Governor
Outreach Committee in formation
Michael Forbes Wilcox mfw {at} mfw(.)us

For information on the Berwick campaign and to sign up: http://www.berwickforgovernor.com/

Older posts «