Max's shop of horrors

Warning: imagination testing site. Enter at own risk

Month: September, 2016

Force of Habit

The weekend before last, I worked on my sixth camp for youth on the spectrum, with I CAN Network. I hadn’t been to this particular camp site for a year and a half, and that time gap made me realize something.

Last time I was there, I was too scared to use the dorm toilets, and used the staff ones instead. I started this latest camp expecting to do the same. But to my surprise, when I decided to push myself and brave the dorm toilets, I discovered they were nowhere near as scary as I expected.

See it wasn’t just fear that was holding me back. It was habit. Avoiding certain stimuli had become second nature, to the point where I was still shying away from confronting them even though I was now capable of dealing with them. I didn’t realize how far I’d come, because habitual avoidance meant I’d been letting some of my fears go unchallenged.

It’s worth revisiting our demons from time to time. You might now be strong enough now to overcome things that seemed insurmountable a few years ago, but you’ll never know unless you try.

Predators and Parasites, Spectrum and Susceptible

This is one of those topics where my usual lens of silliness feels a little out of place, like a documentary on the black plague narrated by Kermit the Frog, so as much as it pains me to do so, I’m gonna take my jester’s hat off for a sec and play this one straight.

In my experience, as someone on the spectrum myself, who knows many others on the spectrum, and whose job is working with people on the spectrum, romantic relationships can be one of the more challenging aspects of life for us.

The difficulty we can face in forming and maintaining such a partnership is a widely covered subject, and one I’ve addressed on this blog multiple times. But another issue that’s less well covered, at least in my experience, is that people on the spectrum are particularly vulnerable to becoming ensnared in abusive relationships.

One of the reasons for this is that people on the spectrum are often people pleasers; years of being punished for social faux pas we didn’t realize we were committing can lead us to go out of our way to please others, and to assume that anything that goes wrong is our fault. This can make us easy targets for manipulative predators who see this as a way to control us.

Abusive partners often weaponize our autism against us. For example, they may claim that we’re misinterpreting their abusive behaviour because of our autism, or that it’s our fault and our autism is the reason we can’t see that. This is a called “gaslighting”, a form of psychological abuse where the perpetrator makes the victim doubt their own judgement, perception, and sanity. The challenges people on the spectrum can face in understanding social cues makes us highly susceptible to this.

To make matters worse, many people on the spectrum may have found it so difficult to attain a romantic partnership in the first place that we’re extremely reluctant to end one, even after it has turned abusive. We can often feel as though, “nobody else would want us”. This is something an abusive partner will often pick up on and turn to their advantage.

The tricky thing about gaslighting is that when it is done effectively, the victim may not even realize it’s happening. Generally, if those who care about you, such as close friends and family, don’t like the way your partner treats you, that’s a fairly strong indicator that something is wrong.

Another thing to remember is that relationships are not supposed to make you feel like crap. If being with someone makes you feel guilty and inadequate, that’s not a sign of a healthy relationship. And if you ever find yourself feeling afraid of your partner, that’s the mother of all red flags.

Being on the autism spectrum does not mean you have to settle for a partner who does not respect you. Don’t put up with a relationship where you feel worthless and live in fear. You deserve better.

My speech at the Victorian Autism Conference

Aloha fellow humanoids!
I know a few weeks back I said I’d try to get a recording of my speech at VAC2016 to show you guys, but unfortunately I haven’t been able to. Sorry about that.

Instead, here’s the next best thing; the official script! I know it’s not quite as impressive, but hopefully it gets the job done. Enjoy!

Good morning!

Like the giant screen says, I’m Max, I work for the I CAN Network as a classroom mentor and editor in chief, and I’m here to talk about video games, autism, and how neither is quite as scary or negative as a lot of the media would have us believe.

In the interest of disclosure, I’m on the autism spectrum myself, and yes, video games are something of an interest of mine, just as they are for many others on the spectrum who I know and work with.

So let’s start with the medium itself. Video games as we know them originated in the 1970s, and at the time, they were basically electronic toys. And that’s an image that has stuck, even to this day.

I would argue, however, that in 2016, this is an obsolete stereotype, and that to pigeonhole all video games as toys is a bit like saying that all food is nothing but cellular fuel, with no other purpose than to keep us alive. Because just as food plays a myriad of social, cultural, and even medicinal roles, video games as they exist today encompass a wide range of forms and functions, from complex storytelling, to artistic expression, to shared social experiences.

Now, I’m sure most of you won’t be surprised to hear that people on the spectrum very often have an affinity for gaming. Among both my colleagues and students, it’s probably the single most popular “special interest” that comes to mind. So why is that? By the way, just so I’m covered, this gentleman, who you may recognize, is property of Nintendo.

Well, first of all, gaming can be a great way of relieving stress. A virtual world can be a “safe space” of sorts. School or the workplace can be frightening, chaotic, and it just seems to make no sense sometimes. Games, by contrast, have a degree of predictability and logic than can be very comforting.

In real life, you never quite know how people will react, or what will happen next, and that uncertainty can be terrifying. There’s that constant anxiety, that feeling that at any moment things will go pear-shaped. Video games allows us to take a break from that, because in a video game I know that if I press this button, this happens, or if I flip this switch, that happens.

Games can also be a welcome distraction from unpleasant thoughts. I think it’s fair to say that most of us have that thing we do to take our mind off things that upset us, whether it be a good book, music, television, or a glass of wine. Such diversions can be very valuable coping tools, as they can act like the scab on a healing cut, providing a sort of temporary protection to give our bodies and our minds time to recover.

A person on the spectrum may come home from school or work, and they might be like a pot that’s boiling over, just bubbling with stress that’s been building up all day. What they may need is something that can take the pot off the boil for a bit, so that it can cool down, and for a lot of us, video games do just that.

Another potential benefit of video games is that they can provide an outlet not just for one’s stress, but also one’s creativity. There are many games today that instead of ushering the player through a predetermined obstacle course, instead act as a canvas for the player’s own creative expression. They provide you with the tools, and then let you loose to do what you want.

Perhaps the quintessential example of this is Minecraft. Personally, I’d be very interested to know what proportion of Minecraft players are on the spectrum, because I suspect the number would be very interesting. For those of you who aren’t familiar with the game, (I dunno, maybe you’ve been on Mars for the last 5 years) it’s basically a sophisticated virtual Lego set, where the player harvests materials then uses them to build whatever they want. And some of the things I’ve seen people build on it are just amazing. I know this one kid, this really gifted young guy, and he loves Steam Trains. And he actually built a working steam engine in Minecraft, in his spare time.  It’s a lot like building physical models or Lego sets as a hobby, except it’s considerably cheaper.

Sometimes, it’s not a specific game, but rather the medium itself that can serve as a creative canvas. The software tools for building a video game have never been more accessible and easy to use as they are today, and many people on the spectrum now make their own games, in much the same way as others might write a book, or a paint a painting. Not only is this a way for them to express their creativity, but in a world where video gaming is now a bigger industry than Hollywood, those coding skills could come in very handy someday.

Gaming can also be a socializing aid. One of my favourite stories in this regard is a young lady I know, a friend and colleague of mine, who really struggled with how to connect with other kids when she was in primary school. Not only was she very shy, but she just couldn’t seem to find any common ground with the other kids. Then one day, during the lunch break, she saw one of her classmates playing Pokémon on their Gameboy. And suddenly, there it was, that mutual interest, that common ground that they could bond over. That broke the ice, and that’s how she made friends at school for the first time.

And there’s multiplayer, where people can play together, either competitively or cooperatively, turning the act of playing itself into a shared social experience. A recent example of this is something you may have noticed happening in public parks over the last month or so. I’m talking, of course, about Pokémon Go; which for those of you who weren’t born in the 1990s, is a mobile game, which encourages players to get outside, explore their neighbourhoods in search of Pokémon, and along the way, meet other people who also play the game. Several people I know have already made new friends this way.

Basically, gaming can provide a familiar and comfortable environment in which to develop one’s social skills.

So if you have a kid on the spectrum who’s really into gaming, for example, a great thing to do is see if there are some games they play where you could join in, and play with them. Now, naturally, a lot of time they’ll want to play alone, because gaming can be their escape from having to deal with people, (and, let’s face it, their parents) but by offering to come into their world and participate in something they enjoy, on their terms, you can kind of meet them halfway, and spend time together in a way that’s comfortable for them.

Another factor that shouldn’t be overlooked, role that gaming can play in one’s social identity. A lot of kids on the spectrum can feel undervalued because they may not be the great at sports, or conversation, or a lot of things that denote social status in the schoolyard. They can often feel as though they’re not good at anything, that they have nothing to offer. But if they’re great at a video game, especially one with a multiplayer component, then among those who play the game, they’re a rock star. Everybody wants to have them on their team. Instead of always getting picked last in PE, people are fighting over who gets to have them on their side. And that sense of being valued and respected for their abilities can be an immense boost to one’s self-esteem.

Now, as with a lot of really awesome things, when it comes to gaming, moderation is key. I mean, broccoli is generally good for you, but if all you ever eat is broccoli, probably not a great idea. Similarly, it’s fine to have a best friend, but if you only have one friend and base your entire social life around that one person, again, it might not work out so well.

Gaming can be one avenue of social connection, but it should not be the only one. It should be a supplement to offline interaction, not a replacement.

Also, and this may sound a bit old school, but if we’re talking about kids, I think it’s important to set boundaries. For example, they can play games, but only for two hours a day. Or they can play games for an hour after school to calm down, but if they want to play for longer, they have to earn game time by, for instance, doing their homework.

A common question is, where do you draw the line? I would answer that by saying that it becomes a problem when it becomes a detriment to other areas of one’s life. One way this can be nipped in the bud is to ensure that does not become a dependency; for example, schedule a day out that’s technology free, so that they learn to cope without it. They can play when they get home, but for now, we’re here at the zoo to see the animals, not to play Candy Crush.

To return to the broccoli analogy, gaming should be treated like one food group within a balanced diet.

The media likes to portray gaming as something of a brain drain; a negative, corrupting influence, kind of like how television and rock and roll were portrayed when my Mum was growing up. I’d argue that reality is not so black and white, that almost everything in life has its positive and its negative aspects.

And while it’s certainly important to manage and minimizes the cons, I think it’s also very important to leverage the positives. Video games are here to stay, and so is autism. And I know from personal experience that the two can get along magnificently.

Thank you.



Surviving Public Transport

4 years ago, asking me to travel by public transport was a bit like asking someone with a fear of heights to do a bungee jump from the International Space Station.

The timetables confused me, I was terrified of missing my stop and getting lost, I didn’t like being close to people, and sitting still for so long gave my brain way too much time to catastrophize and come up with elaborate self-sabotage worthy of a Looney Tunes villain.

I could mostly avoid it while I lived on campus at University, but once I graduated, moved out to a suburban flat, and started work, it became something of a necessity, since I find driving even more petrifying.

Like my OCD, I figured that I could gradually build up an immunity to it through a combination of practice and palliative coping techniques. So I started small, travelling short distances, and only via a single train/bus/tram line. I’d use an online travel planner to plot my route, write it all down on a piece of paper to take with me, (though I suppose it’s easier nowadays to just do it all on your smartphone on the go. Pen and paper, some Millennial I am) and ask the driver or other passengers if I was ever unsure. (I was nervous about talking to strangers at first, but once I actually tried, I got nearly entirely understanding and helpful responses)

Next, I started reading books en route, as a way to keep my mind off the anxiety. This worked very well, and had the added benefit of making the journey seem to pass more quickly. For those of you who aren’t into reading, portable gaming, music, and spoken word books are viable alternatives.

As I became more comfortable with the whole process, I started taking longer and more complex trips, such as taking a train, then a bus, then another train. To be honest, trips like these where I have to change transport a lot still stress me out a little, but years ago I would have just put them in the “too hard” basket and not even dared to attempt them, so I’ve come a long way.

For a lot of people I know with anxiety, driving and public transport are a big challenge, and this can interfere with their ability to work or attend social events. If, like me, you’re one of these people, I really do recommend trying to gradually acclimatize yourself to public transport the way I did. I know it might seem impossible, but if you start with very short and simple trips, and build yourself up gradually, I’m sure you’ll get there, just like I did.