How a man on the Spectrum learns to live

Posts tagged ‘human habit’

Let’s Keep Moving!

"I've Got to Keep on Moving!"-Matthew Wilder

“I’ve Got to Keep on Moving!”-Matthew Wilder

In previous posts, I’ve mentioned how being active has alleviated the worst parts of my Asperger’s Syndrome and helped me eliminate the need for prescription anti-anxiety and anti-depression drugs. I’m very happy to say that I’m not only maintaining this lifestyle, but I’ve found new ways to keep myself healthy and vital. It’s a gradual process because I still need to take small steps to change my established routines, but I have a variety of activities that don’t feel like chores at all.

I believe it all starts with perspective. Some people still don’t realize how Aspies can be very sensitive to disruptions in routine. Generally, the lower functioning the person, the more likely they will act out in nonverbal, hard-to-understand ways. Even though I have High-Functioning Autism, I’ve still had my moments of vocal protest.

Can you imagine being so sensitive to disruptions in your surroundings that you become gripped by paralyzing fear and heart-pounding stress? Think of a high-stress, no-relief day with no end in sight and no way to communicate how you feel! This is what can happen to someone living with Autism on a daily basis!

Fortunately, with years of counseling, specialized therapy, and a strong support system, I developed coping skills like using different activities that not only boost my physical health, but also improve my mental health and well-being. I feel like physical fitness starts with improving the body and evolves into strengthening the mind and soul. Everyone including those on the Spectrum can benefit from variety, it just takes time to find out what works best.

Some activities I learned to enjoy with time, and others I took an instant liking to. I’ve written about the different exercise tapes and DVDs that got me started on my fitness journey. Since then, I’ve also utilized my membership at a local gym. One of my favorite activities is playing the Dance Dance Revolution arcade game and the different dancing games for Xbox 360 and Kinect. They give me a fun workout and an adrenaline rush that lifts my spirits to new heights! I’ve talked about this extensively in a previous post entitled “You Should Be Dancing

In the past two years I’ve developed an interest in hiking, which used to be out of character for me, I didn’t really consider myself an outdoor person. There is such a centering, affirming quality to hiking. Looking for different trails and walking a path in the midst of nature is a great way to clear my mind. When I focus on where I plant my feet, I’m reminded of the spiritual strength that comes from walking meditation. I regain a clear perspective on life, and that’s worth feeling tired at the end.

At the gym, I take advantage of the special classes that are offered. I’ve found the most energy, excitement, and sweat equity in cycling and kickboxing. Doing the early classes helps my day to start off in a positive way, and that’s something, considering that I never used to be a morning person!

I participate in several runs for charity each year: perfect opportunities to test my fitness level in the real world. I’ve also discovered farmer’s markets, museums, parks, and outdoor festivals are great not only for walking, but for socializing as well. It may not seem like much, but I enjoy living in the moment.

I’ve come a long way from the boy who was afraid of P.E. and ate junk food to hide his insecurities. I’m more alive and youthful than I was in high school! Now, what kind of activities keep you in motion? How long have you enjoyed them, and do they lift your spirits? Everyone’s at a different place in their journeys, and I’m just glad to be in the place I am today with the ability to keep moving!

Today’s musical inspiration is a fun little ditty from the 1980s by Matthew Wilder: “Break My Stride

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The Gift of Time

Every day is a gift.

Every day is a gift.

With many holidays approaching, I’m just like a lot of people wondering about what gifts they’re going to purchase for whom. Truthfully, I have a pretty short list of people I’m closest to, but I love feeling like it’s the quality of the relationships rather than quantity. Like many people, I’ve puzzled over what to purchase as gifts. However, thanks to my growing self-awareness and my advances in intuition and empathy, I’ve learned how to give something valuable to the people on my list. What I’ve learned to give them…is time. What do I mean? Well, I mean quality time and an opportunity to connect.

There’s no denying that today, we live in an age of distraction. Electronic devices, jobs, family, and friends all compete for our attention and drive so many of us to nervous insanity; this is nothing new to me. I believe that when I was very young, my heightened sensory perception, a common side-effect of Autism, led me to being more prone to distraction and subsequent frustration afterwards.

I could see the writing on the wall, and I knew something had to be done. I knew I was different before I was diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome at fifteen, and I wanted to explain myself, but I couldn’t. After my diagnosis, I chose not to believe that I was a “typical” case in any way. I was determined to overcome the challenges and find a way to use my gifts to embrace who I am at heart.

It hasn’t been easy or fast in coming. I had to learn a lot about patience and understanding before I gained the confidence to be present and happy with myself. Personally, I think multitasking is overrated and I couldn’t do it to save my life! By trusting the process, I learned that I was ahead of the curve when I gained a new coping skill for daily life and was better prepared when new technology and jobs made the world both more connected and more distracted. I trust such things as blogs and social media, but my life is not defined by them. For me, human connection is too precious to take for granted; I welcome all opportunities to test my ever-evolving social skills.

An added bonus I gained was an ability to be observant of people’s needs and desires and to take action with them when possible. This enabled me to buy gifts that were sincere and from my heart. I enjoy giving people a chance to reconnect and just be present with one another. Whatever the situation and relationship is, in my heart, I find a way to make it work. What matters most is that I made a difference in people’s lives and my greatest satisfaction is their gratitude and appreciation.

I’ve come a long way since my diagnosis. It’s not common for people on the Autism Spectrum to relate to “neuro-typicals” on a deep level. I have been blessed to be able to find a way to be socially competent while staying true to myself at the same time. To give something to a friend or family member that is from the heart is like being the vessel for a small blessing from God to reach the hands of someone in need. I’m blessed and grateful to give such precious gifts to those I love. For me, this is what the holiday spirit is all about.

The Man in the Mirror

Michael-jackson-quote

One of the best things I ever did was to look in the mirror with a critical eye. This was difficult for me, being born on the Autism Spectrum, because I didn’t want to admit my own faults. But somewhere along the way, I found the courage to really look inside myself and use the critical thinking skills I was developing in college. When I finally was able to admit that I needed to improve myself, but didn’t know what to do or how to do it, I received a lot of support and encouragement that was essential for me to feel validated. I discovered that I was in the process of doing something that not many people, let alone Aspies, have the courage to attempt. That is, to admit weakness and faults, and become a better person because of them, not in spite of them. This is exactly what Michael Jackson asked people to do in his groundbreaking song “Man in the Mirror”. His words have great meaning because I was learning to live by example before I even understood the song. Knowing that I had to start changing myself to have a more positive outlook was one of the best lessons I ever learned from music.

When the song begins, Michael tells the world what he’s doing and why he’s doing it. “I’m gonna make a change for once in my life. It’s gonna feel real good, gonna make a difference, gonna make it right! As I turn up the collar on my favorite winter coat, this wind is blowing my mind. I see the kids in the streets with not enough to eat. Who am I to be blind? Pretending not to see their needs“. I needed to learn empathy for other people, which is very difficult for someone on the Spectrum. Of course, I also needed to not to become depressed or overwhelmed by the world’s problems. The best thing I could do was to find out where I could make a difference in my own community and be happy that I changed at least one person’s life.

The bridge then leads to the famous chorus. “That’s why I want you to know: I’m starting with the man in the mirror. I’m asking him to change his ways. And no message could have been any clearer, if you want to make the world a better place, take a look at yourself, and then make a change!”. It was Ghandi who said it best when he said “be the change you wish to see in the world“. These lyrics were telling me that I needed to admit my shortcomings and not be ashamed of them anymore. By focusing more on my abundance of certain skills rather than my lack of other skills, I could be more positive and aware of the world around me.

The second verse and bridge feel like they were written for someone on the Spectrum, like me. “I’ve been a victim of a selfish kind of love, it’s time that I realize…that there are some with no home, not a nickel to loan. Could it be really me, pretending that they’re not alone? A willow deeply scarred, somebody’s broken heart, and a washed-out dream. They follow the pattern of the wind, you see, ’cause they’ve got no place to be. That’s why I’m starting with me!” I was guilty of being self-centered, desperately wanting people to notice me. Even when I was at my lowest points and wanted to take my own life, I was still thinking in a selfish way, not realizing how much I would hurt my loved ones by doing that. Today, I feel that no matter what happens, I can love myself enough to give back to others. I learned to love who I am and I’m able to share that joy with others and not keep it hidden inside. When the chorus repeats and goes into the breakdown, the song ends with Michael’s important final words: “Make that change”.

When I listened to this song critically, I discovered that I was doing the right thing all along and didn’t even know it. It was a beautiful moment when I realized that one of my musical idols was telling me exactly how I needed to grow when I was in the middle of doing so. I feel like I can look at myself and say that I have come a long way from being completely unaware. I am proud that I can tell people, especially other Aspies, how I learned to live passionately and engaged and that they can do the same. In order to change the world, I needed to change myself first. So, what do you see when you look in the mirror?

Today’s musical inspiration is Michael Jackson’s “Man in the Mirror”: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PivWY9wn5ps

Behind the Armor

The life-size Iron Man armors at San Diego Comic-Con 2010. (Photo taken by me.)

The life-size Iron Man armors at San Diego Comic-Con 2010. (Photo taken by me.)

Who knew that pop culture could play a big part in my “Aspie” life?  I remember the first time I saw an iconic character on film; it really stuck with me.  The truth is that I’ve had more than my share of insightful moments in pop culture and I could continue speaking about them unabated, but that would turn most “normal” people off.  My point is that there are fictional characters that I’ve been able to relate to in some way.  One of the most famous in the “geek-centered” world of comic books, video games, and superheroes is one whose humanity made me look at myself in a whole new way.

The character I’m talking about is Anthony Edward Stark, better known as Iron Man.  Of course, the first thing I noticed was that he shared the same first name as me.  Now there may be a tendency for some men to turn into fan-boys when talking about someone as famous and possessing of swagger as Tony Stark, but my admiration for him comes from the way he became more human & less egotistical after the incident that made him into Iron Man.  When I read about his origins in the different permutations written in different decades, I could see the meaning between the lines.  I first learned about Iron Man when I was in high school; as I was embracing my geeky side I looked into his story a bit more.

He used to be the ambitious, brilliant, but self-centered head of Stark Industries, founded by his father.  While visiting a war zone he is the only survivor of an enemy ambush that kills his escort of American soldiers. Tony is taken prisoner by the enemy, who force him to build a deadly weapon with his knowledge.  He discovers, with the help of an imprisoned professor, that the explosion that killed the Americans has left pieces of shrapnel in his chest that threaten to pierce his heart.  The professor helps Tony construct a life-saving device that enables him to finish his creation: the first prototype of the Iron Man armor.  Even though the professor sacrifices himself in the process, his death enables Tony to destroy the enemy and escape back to American-held territory.

From then on Tony becomes an advocate for science that brings health and abundance to the world.  It is then that he discovers that this brave new world has both challenges and rewards.  While battling villains around the world and within his own life, he begins to slide into a state of denial about what he uses to cope with pressure.  For me this was a pivotal moment in his story: he was a textbook alcoholic leaning on liquor, desperately hoping to forget the pressures of his life.  Only the intervention of his closest friends and family enables him to get the help he needs to gain control of his addiction.

It was this story about Tony Stark’s insecurities that made me respect his character even more.  As I grew older I speculated about him having Asperger’s Syndrome.  He has an almost genius level intelligence and a natural skill for electronics and engineering.  These talents cannot disguise his tendency towards addictive behavior and a sharp tongue in social situations.  How he gained his well-deserved reputation as a womanizer is still a puzzle to me, but what really changed my perspective was the story arc of the early 1980s entitled “Demon in a Bottle”.

Several different events would push Tony towards drinking liquor very often.  When he slumps into his desk chair, pouring over scrapbooks and newspapers, the look of bitter reflection over a life that he once held together is a look I’ve seen my own mirror.  Just to know that there are factors in life that cannot be controlled is enough to make someone used to being in charge of their own life feel like caving into pressure.  That feeling can be even more pronounced in people on the Autism Spectrum.  You know the feeling you get when your life is so out of your hands you feel powerless?  That is a constant, nagging problem that can take hold of someone on the Spectrum and last for long time without support.  When the moment came for Tony Stark to be confronted with his alcoholism, it was done in such an honest and personal way that I’ve read it over and over again.

When his girlfriend tells him about how she lost her first husband in a car accident after months of him abusing prescription pills Tony says that he’s sorry for what happened. She rebuffs Tony and tells him that she doesn’t need his pity, she just needs him to listen.  He was going down a dark path; the same one that led to the death of her husband, only Tony’s choice of a slow death was alcohol instead of prescription drugs.  He may have been carrying the weight of the world, but he had forgotten about his closest friends and employees who could help him carry that weight.  All he had to do was to remember that he could lean on the people he loved instead of using liquor as a crutch.  It was a moment that stays with me today: Tony Stark made the decision to put away the alcohol and be vulnerable for once in his life.

Every time I read that story arc, it is a sobering reminder of my own humanity.  When I look at Tony Stark’s face as the pressures of his life and the words of his girlfriend collide in his mind, I can feel the desperation as he holds the half-full glass of liquor in one trembling hand.  Even as setbacks start to jeopardize his journey to sobriety, Tony becomes strong enough to put down the bottle and begin climbing out of the hole that his addiction had dug for him.

Watching the agony and terror overtake him as he stands at a crossroads is reminiscent of the times when I could not seem to find hope in my worst moments.  It’s a sickening feeling when you realize how out-of-control an addiction has made your life.  My own problems with poor diet and video games were definitely addictions; it took a lot of courage and insight to admit that I inherited the gene of addiction that runs in my family.  For someone on the Spectrum, it’s easy to be self-absorbed while not necessarily being self-aware.

Seeing Robert Downey Jr. cast as Tony Stark in the Iron Man and Avengers movies was a well thought-out move.  Using a skilled and versatile actor with his own real-life struggles was a great way of keeping Iron Man relevant and bringing new life to the franchise.  Apart from enjoying the movies, I was impressed at how human Tony was when played by Robert Downey Jr.

The power and humanity of Iron Man has had a significant impact on my own self-awareness.  It’s taken me a long time to open up to my friends and family about my own struggles, but the strength I gained from doing so made the effort worth it.  I feel like “Aspies” such as myself are forced to put on an armor of our own making to protect ourselves from a world that doesn’t understand.  However, it takes real courage and vulnerability to be open and honest so that the world can see the person behind the armor.

The History Boy

“We are not makers of history, we are made by history”-Martin Luther King, Jr.

“We have a history together”, “It’s just history repeating itself”.  There are many sayings that apply to the subject, but what does the word really mean?  Dictionaries have multiple definitions such as “the aggregate of past events”, ” a past notable for its important, unusual, or interesting events”, “the discipline of recording & interpreting past events involving human beings”, and “all that is preserved or remembered of the past, especially in written form.”  Now let me ask you: how do you define history?  Does history define you?  Have you understood and accepted large and small events of the past?  Do you ever feel like you could make history in your own way?

Personally, I feel like the subject is divided into two categories: External and Internal History.  External History is about a group of people, a country, or the entire world.  Internal History relates to a person, place, or a person’s family.  In my own life I have had many dealings with both kinds; it has taken me a long time and a lot of challenges to understand completely, but I believe that everything happens for a reason.

If you think about it academically, history was one of my best subjects in school.  I have a knack for remembering details, dates and locations.  I can remember people’s names very well and why they are named in the history books and I can also remember the context.  I feel like it’s a human habit to forget the reasons why something took place.  However, I have the ability to look at something holistically and see the bigger picture.  This allows me to see the full array of historical context.  It was these abilities that allowed me to earn good grades in school.  However, it was events outside of class relating to my personal history that contributed the most to my understanding of human and global history.

You may know already that I was bullied in elementary school and part of middle school, what you don’t know is how it affected my worldview.  After the worst of the bullying ended, I tried to put it behind me and focus on school.  When I studied some of the wars throughout history, my conclusion was that belligerence and insecurity, the main issues with people who bully, were at the core of many of these conflicts on a grand scale.

I also discovered the same behavior patterns in cruel acts of slavery and prejudice.  The crossing of cultures created a wave of insecurity about the unknown.  The more powerful and arrogant of the cultures took it upon themselves to build systems of slavery in order to use the “conquered” people as labor to build their new societies.  Under the guise of “civilization”, social structures and caste systems were created as a means to define humans by the station of their birth.

Discovering this pattern left me with a feeling of disgust at the way humans treat each other sometimes.  It was strong because I had already experienced my own kind of prejudice when I was bullied.  I eventually felt that all systems created by humans, national, political, social, and religious, had to be taken with a grain of salt.  They were originally built to bring order and understanding to the world, but I soon realized that no one system can hold a monopoly of truth on human existence and God’s creation.

It was around this time that I noticed changes in my family; this is when I began to take notice of my personal history.  When my grandfather was in failing health, I began to notice things about my extended family.  I could hear them speaking with such hurt and insecurity.  This was something I hadn’t seen before, I was confused and I felt bombarded with all the emotion.  It was later that I realized what I was seeing.

For years I used to think that I was the only one who could feel so much mental and emotional pain, it was a lonely feeling.  Then I saw the relatives that I idolized were acting just as unsure and hurt as I would feel at times.  I was shocked and I didn’t know what to think.  So much regret for past events, so much fear about the future, it was beyond my comprehension.  However, the more I matured, the more I understood.

Living with autism is like living with a heavy fog over your head.  You can’t see outside of yourself and without awareness, you think that your own small world is all there is to life.  The truth is, my family wasn’t changing, I was the one who was changing.  I was coming out of the haze that isolated me from the outside world.  My awareness was growing, and one of the first things I learned was about my family.

I was becoming aware of how human they really were.  I was seeing all of their frailties and imperfections; I was also seeing how they tried to compensate for them.  Learning that was one of the best things that could have happened to me.  I needed to see them as real people trying to make sense out of their lives in order to develop a new respect for them.  I discovered that as long as they worked on themselves and still loved me, I could learn from their examples by trial & error of how I could deal with my own issues.  Thus began the process of reconciling my family history.

During college was when I learned the most about the history of my ancestors and what previous generations have had to deal with.  I took some classes in Mexican History and learned about the tumultuous and wonderful stories that have dotted the North American continent for hundreds of years.  This was when the worldview I developed in my childhood would really come into play.

For years I poured through all the records of history.  Each lesson contained everything I needed to know about where my ancestors came from and where they wanted to go: the powerful native tribes and their amazing cities, the 300+ year rule of the iron-fisted Spanish Empire, the revolutions and the birth of the republic, the love/hate relationship with the United States, the cross-border fights for human rights, and the possibilities for the futures of both countries in a changing world.

The first things I felt were bitterness, disappointment, and a seething anger at injustices that were committed.  I soon came to realize that what I was feeling was historical pain.  This refers to the crippling, negative mindset of a people who have been badly affected by events in the past and continue to express the symptoms of that pain in very negative ways that often result in false assumptions, troubling statistics, and stereotypes.

Coming out of the fog that hung over my head, the truth about the past used to give me nightmares about what kind of future I had to look forward to.  The worst feeling I experienced was that my life was completely out of my control and I had no means of shaping it.  I began to question whether or not I even had a place in the world, but I soon discovered that the same ugly truth about the past was also the beautiful truth that would set me free.

I have now learned to model my worldview on the historical figures who sought to create a better life for humanity.  Every generation has its visionaries as well as destroyers.  By reading about the influence and conviction of people who stood up for freedom and justice, I have been guided in the direction of being a force for good, by becoming a voice for people on the Autism Spectrum.

Today, I feel like my history does not define me, it is showing me where I’ve come from, and how far I have yet to go.  I record parts of my history and my personal convictions on this blog, and I continue to do historical research for the novel I am working on.  My place in this world is one of creation, and my vision is that of a world where ignorance and assumptions about Autism and Asperger’s Syndrome are replaced by enlightenment, knowledge, and respect.

My understanding, passion, and sense of purpose have never been clearer.  I must be an example of a person who defies the odds against them and sets a new standard.  I proudly accept my internal and external history as well as the so-called label of Autism.  I have a commitment to define how I make history by making a difference in people’s lives.  The hope I have for humanity and myself will not end until my last day on Earth.  I must make a difference, and in my own way, I am.