Max's shop of horrors

Warning: imagination testing site. Enter at own risk

Month: October, 2014

Special interests; the secret sauce of motivation

One of the hallmarks of autism is a remarkable focus on certain subjects that are of interest to us.

These topics are so enjoyable and intriguing that we can be intensely driven, living encyclopedias we it comes to them. For instance, if there was a pHD in Godzilla movies or Nintendo game design, I would  have smashed that like a glass iPhone dropped from orbit.

Some people on the spectrum are experts in steam trains, others in computer graphics, others in feudal Japanese history. It’s just incredible how focussed these interests can be. For many of us, we spend the majority of our conscious hours thinking about these things.

A potential problem, however, and one that I’m seeing a lot of parents of autistic children bringing up, is that when spaceships or ancient Rome are so fascinating and fun, it can be hard to get the autistic mind to concentrate on other things. Because other things are just boring by comparison. Who cares about algebra, we wanna know about the fastest and most powerful steam engine ever built!

What I’ve found is that the salad of non-interest can be surprisingly palatable when flavored with a little special interest sauce.

Speaking from my own experience, I loved English in school because open-ended tasks like reviews and short stories allowed me to write those reviews on the films and video games I had special interests in, or write stories about topics that interested me.

Say a kid hates mathematics but loves fighter jets; get him/her to figure out how long it would take for one to fly from Melbourne to Sydney at a certain speed.

Use their special interest to engage them with otherwise unappealing subjects and tasks, because once you get that part of their brain fired up, it can unlock an almost bottomless well of passionate brilliance.

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A new project

For several years now I’ve been trying to get my novels published, but so far I haven’t been successful.

This past week, however, I had a brainwave. See, in contrast to both this blog and how I am in person, my stories have always been quite dark and grim. This may be what is limiting their appeal. So it dawned on me; why don’t I try writing something more light hearted? After all, this blog has taught me that I very much enjoy writing sillier fare.

Once again, a story idea came to me in a dream, and so I’ve begun work on my next novel, and my first try at a comedy. Here’s the intro and first chapter, let me know what you think! 🙂

 

Alacoria, 4 minutes post Incursion

The Black Crab was the dingiest, dodgiest pub in Fisherman’s Rest; an achievement undermined somewhat by the fact that it was also the only pub in Fisherman’s Rest.

Its claim to dodginess was that people sometimes cheated at cards there. It was rumoured there had even been a fight there once, culminating in a spectacular bloody nose. The owner still showed off the dark stain on the bar, proud of his establishment’s notoriety.

On this particular night a snowstorm was raging. Only a few people had braved the frigid streets, so the pub was almost empty. The wind howled outside like a pack of ghostly stockbrokers.

The winters were harsh in the north, and Fisherman’s Rest was about as far north as you could go in Alacoria without a boat. The only reason anyone lived there at all was, as its name suggested, the fishing, which provided a secure livelihood provided you didn’t mind having absolutely nothing else to do.

It was the sort of town time seemed to boycott, probably out of frustration that it had about as much power there as a local councillor, and quite bit less than the guy who collected the town’s toilet buckets.

But this night was different.

George, the owner, was carefully avoiding the ageing bloodstain as he scrubbed the bar, when the door banged open and a dishevelled figure stumbled in. All eyes (eight in total, sixteen if you count the spider in the rafters) turned to the newcomer; a young woman wearing strange, form-fitting clothes. Jet black hair hung to her shoulders in windswept rivulets, and her matching dark eyes gazed around the bar in wonder.

“Are you alright, miss…?” Enquired George.

She looked at him, breathing hard, her face flushed with elation. “Ebony,” she murmured, “and I’m fine.”

A chill slithered icily up George’s spine. Something about this woman felt deeply wrong. She was beautiful, but in a dangerous way, like a swarm of colourful jellyfish, or a dazzling meteorite plunging down to earth with the force of a few trillion sticks of dynamite.

She approached the bar; George repressed a shudder as she drew near. “A beer and a room for the night please,” she said. Her tone was friendly, but her voice felt like a silk noose.

“Sure,” he stammered, taking the gold she offered. As uncomfortable as she made him, he didn’t dare refuse her.

She drained her beer in one long swig, and sighed in satisfaction. “Can you show me to my room, please?” She asked. “I’m really tired.”

The thought of spending time alone with this woman was about as appealing to George as a romantic moonlit swim with a tiger shark. “Second door on the left,” he said, handing her key over with a trembling hand. She took it, thanked him politely, and retired to her room.

In her wake, an ominous silence filled the barroom. None of its denizens realized the true significance of what had just occurred. They were like tropical birds witnessing the arrival of nuclear physicists on their island paradise.

 

Earth, 2054

Thursday

The International Institute of Quantum Cocooning attracted two kinds of people.

The first kind grew up in bedrooms with glow-in-the-dark stars stuck to the ceiling and posters of the solar system on the walls, raised on a high lactose diet of sci-fi B movies.

The second were just an unlimited fortune away from being James Bond villains.

Alexandra Jeffries was both.

One thing she wasn’t though, was a morning person. As she leaned against the wall at the back of the crowded off-planet elevator, she sipped a coffee strong enough to induce mania in most terrestrial mammals.

Technically, no liquids were allowed on the elevator, but the security guards weren’t paid enough to care.

The IIQC was located 200 kilometres above the earth’s surface for “insurance reasons”. According to repeated statements from its lawyers, this had nothing to do with the experiments performed there, which “posed no plausible threat to the earth”.

It took an hour for the elevator to make the trip. In a horrendous oversight, the designers had failed to include toilets. As a result, the round titanium capsule often became a torture chamber that, in Alexandra’s opinion, violated several sections of the Geneva Convention.

She checked the glowing display on the wall, and saw to her relief that they were almost at the Institute. She desperately needed to fart, and doing so on the elevator would guarantee a day of vengeful interruptions to her work.

At 34, Alexandra had long since given up trying to fit in socially, and preferred the easygoing flexibility of quantum strings to the tedious minefield of smalltalk. Her dark hair was tied back in accordance with laboratory regulations, her grey uniform was neat and tidy in accordance with workplace protocol, and she wore no makeup because she couldn’t be bothered.

At last, the elevator docked with the Institute, and the doors slid open to reveal a dazzling maze of metallic white walls and glass panes. Alexandra waited for the others to board first, to avoid being caught in the sweaty crush, then walked through the maze to a heavy door marked “Experiment Module: Authorized Personnel Only”, dumping her empty coffee cup in a garbage chute and discreetly releasing the fart she’d been holding along the way. The camera in the centre of the door whirred as it scanned her iris, then it opened with a hiss, and she stepped through.

Beyond was a long corridor, lined with more reinforced doors, spaced about ten meters apart. Two doors down, a woman in her late twenties looked up as Alexandra appeared. “Hi Alex,” she said, with a brightness as piercing to Alexandra’s fatigued brain as a smoke alarm during a hangover.

“Hi Michelle,” responded the older woman, in a tone of what she felt was heroic restraint.

Michelle Kozukata was tall and athletic, with a perpetually cheerful demeanour and almost radioactively blue hair. In the dichotomy of IIQC employees, Alexandra placed her firmly in category A; an overgrown kid still giddy with excitement about how cool her job was. She’d worked there two years compared to Alexandra’s ten.

The older woman didn’t dislike Michelle, but she did find her exhausting to be around, and headed straight for her lab in the hope of avoiding further conversation.

“How’s your project going?” Michelle asked as she passed.

“Great,” said Alexandra, genuine pride leaking into her tone. Better than great actually, she thought with a smile, but that’s nothing you need to know about.

The door to her lab was just as heavy as the security door, but opened with a simple lever instead of a retina scan. She’d always found it amusing that once you were passed the entrance to the Module, there was no further security. Apparently it hadn’t occurred to the Institute’s designers that intruders committed and crazy enough to break into a facility that could bring about Armageddon might be able to trick or force their way passed a single security door.

The reinforced slab of token resistance opened into a small booth, with a control panel of touch screens lit up like a firefly rock concert. Above these, a single window overlooked a chamber the size of a house, where what looked like a glowing blue bubble two meters in diameter hovered above a spinning metal ring.

Alexandra closed the door behind her, then stepped up to the glass, gazing at the luminescent sphere the way a mother might gaze at her sleeping baby.

The field of Quantum Cocooning had emerged in the early 2030s, when a brilliant physicist and Burger Palace employee named Chen Zhou had posited that the universe was like the surface of a body of water, and that where there was turbulence, bubbles formed; self-contained “cocoons” of existence isolated from the outside universe.

The problem was, these bubbles decayed very quickly, usually within a few billionths of a nanosecond, so studying them was extremely difficult. Frustrated and out of ideas, Zhou found himself explaining this dilemma to his four year old daughter. The child thought for a moment, then told him to wait there, ran to her room, and returned with a bubble blower. “Why don’t you use something sticky to hold them together, like this?” She suggested, blowing a stream of iridescent bubbles.

Zhou’s search for “something sticky” eventually brought him to quantum strings. When aligned, they acted like a subatomic mesh, holding the membrane of the cocoon together. Using this technique, he was able to keep a cocoon intact for a full nanosecond. Then for almost a microsecond. Then four and a half hours.

Alexandra had long since put this and all other previous records to shame. Her self-contained universe was over three years old.

Like all the cocoons at the Institute, it had started as basically a sophisticated test chamber. As far as the laws of physics were concerned, cocoons were a blank slate. Alexandra and her colleagues could tinker with them like programmers tinkering with a virtual world; playing with the fabric of existence to see how it worked.

This was why the Institute attracted the Bond villain type; it was the perfect job megalomaniacs.

People like Alexandra.

But there were three important differences between her and the other trans-dimensional overlords at IIQC.

Firstly, she was smarter. A lot smarter. She had the kind of mind that looked at spinning froth in a coffee cup and saw a simulation of a rotating galaxy, or looked at the swirling clouds of Van Gogh’s Starry Night and saw a mathematical l model of turbulence.

Secondly, she had ambition. Building a universe that was merely a high tech physics simulator wasn’t enough for her.

That was where the third and most dangerous trait came in; imagination.

Alexandra looked down at the control panel, and swiped across one of the screens, bringing up an image of a town covered in snow.

“Good morning, Alacoria,” she murmured. “How are we today?”

My first autism conference speech

Phew, so I survived giving my speech at Wednesday’s autism conference at La Trobe University. My nerves were like guitar strings being strummed by a spider monkey on meth, but somehow I got through it.

For those of you who weren’t there, I thought I’d share it in text form, so you can tell me if I’m full of it. 😉

“Kind of interesting being back here, I think the last time I was in this room I was trying not to fall asleep during a lecture on Marxism. Not the lecturer’s fault of course, it was the day after Eagle Bar night.

For me, autism can be a lot like having my own personal poltergeist. He follows me everywhere with a giant bag of epipens.

Sometimes, when someone sneezes near me or a stranger touches me, he’ll shoot me up with a cocktail of adrenaline and ice water.

Other times, when I think of an idea for a short story or I’ve just gotten some good news, it’ll be an epipen full of espresso, and I’ll be so full of energy I have to dance and flap around to let it out, and I can just sit down and blast through an article or an assignment in one sitting.

Everything is raw, uncensored, straight into my veins.

I wasn’t diagnosed with autism until I was 19, a year before I started University. During my childhood, I was labelled as “gifted”. And that gave me a very positive sense of identity. I knew I found some things more difficult than other kids my age, so it was reassuring to know that in other ways I was ahead of the curve. It gave me something to be proud of.

I was aware of the poltergeist back then, but I just thought of it as part of me.

Once I was diagnosed, a lot of things made sense, but I also externalized the poltergeist, I thought of it as this foreign influence trying to sabotage my life. A disease to be cured.

It took me a few years to get to the point where I realized I’d been right as a kid; that this was just a part of who I was, with just as many pros as cons.

My first three years at University were very difficult; I struggled to make friends because socializing didn’t come naturally to me, I’d miss classes because of my anxiety, I suffered from depression. 

But one thing I did get right is that from the beginning, I was upfront about the fact that I had autism, and because of that, I was ultimately able to get the support I needed. The University were able to explain my condition to my teachers, so they’d understand if, say, I needed to leave the room for a few minutes, or needed a few more days to finish an assignment.

I think if I had to give one piece of advice to young people on the spectrum who are going through University, it would probably be to be open about your challenges. People can’t help you if they don’t know what you’re going through, and bottling it up only makes it worse. Trust me, you’ll be surprised how understanding people can be.

Over time, things got better. I learned to manage my challenges, and I was able to graduate with a bachelor in social sciences and a postgrad in journalism.

I was lucky enough to be on a disability support pension, which I used to pay for food and accommodation at Uni, but once I graduated, this became a bit of a conundrum.

On the one hand I didn’t think I’d be able to cope with full time work, but on the other, I felt guilty for living off welfare without giving something back to society.

I looked into volunteer work, and signed up to do meals on wheels. A few months later, Asperger’s Victoria read a blog article I’d written, and invited me to help run a support group for young adults with autism. From there, I got involved with the I Can Network, which is an NGO that focuses on the strengths and talents of people on the spectrum.

Now, these are all volunteer positions, and technically I still live on welfare, but this way I can contribute something, which as well as doing wonders for my self-esteem, also helped me get out there, meet people and make friends. Since all three are part time jobs, they’re divided into shifts of around two hours here and there, which I can usually handle without stressing out. I tried 9 hour shifts while on placement at Uni, and I went to bits like a gingerbread man in the blender.

Honestly, my biggest fear right now, regarding my future, is that I’ll be forced to leave these part time positions for a “real” job. I love the work I do now, and honestly, but I feel I’m doing more good delivering meals to the elderly and helping support people with autism than, say, flipping burgers.

Not that there’s anything wrong with jobs like that, but it’s a round hole, and I’m a square peg.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned about having autism, it’s that it’s not just about minimizing the negatives, it’s also about maximizing the positives. I don’t see myself as disabled, I see myself as differently abled.

I don’t want to be cured, I want to be supported and accepted. 

People with autism are so much more than just their challenges. I know people on the spectrum who can tell you where they were, what they were doing, what the weather was like, and what day of the week it was on June 10th 1997, or who can solve a Rubik’s Cube in less than 30 seconds.

And yet, despite having these remarkable minds, 66% of adults with autism are unemployed. 66%. That’s huge. That’s higher than the unemployment rate for people with physical disabilities. And it’s not just a loss for these adults on the spectrum, but also for our economy and our society, because this enormous reservoir of talent is going unrecognized.

Maybe, instead of trying to force square pegs into round holes, we should be making some square holes, so that people with autism can flourish to their full potential.

We may have our challenges, but when we leverage our autistic talents and passions, the sky’s the limit.

Thank you.”

Laughter is the best medicine

First off, my apologies; I won’t be able to do the big piece I had planned for this week as I’ve been asked to give a speech at an Autism Conference at La Trobe University tomorrow, so I’ve had my hands full writing that.

As a result, this is a quick one about an anti-stress trick I neglected to mention in last week’s post: comedy.

The funny thing (hardy har har) about laughter is your body can’t tell the difference between real and fake laughter. If you pretend to laugh or long enough, you will actually start laughing for real. Try it, it works! Another trick is to try to look at the same person for five minutes without laughing or smiling. Trust me, you almost certainly won’t make it to the 5 minute mark. 😛

One of my hobbies is collecting Dad jokes, so I’ll leave you with some of my favourites. Enjoy. 😉

– Why was the scarecrow promoted? Because he was outstanding in his field.

When asked about it, the scarecrow said, “this job’s not for everyone, but hay, its in my jeans.”

– Did you hear about the guy who drowned in his muesli? A strong currant pulled him in.

– Last night, my brother and I watched three movies back to back. Luckily I was the one facing the TV.

– Birthdays are good for you. Studies show that the people who have the most live the longest.

– Sex in an elevator is awesome on so many levels.

– I tried a career as a gold prospector, but it didn’t pan out.

– Newspaper headline: Tornado rips through cemetery, hundreds dead.