Sunday, 31 October 2010

On growing up as an alien robot among humans

Since tomorrow there's an awareness campaign about autism spectrum disorders running, it seems an appropriate time to write about my own experiences with ASD.

As a young child, I didn't really notice much that I was different. I didn't hang out with other girls much - they were given to playing games like 'house' and whatever that I didn't understand, whereas the boys played hopscotch and tag and hide and seek, which had rules. I played by myself a lot, too, and read books in the library. Looking back, for a child, I was pretty self-directed.

By the time I was around 8, it was becoming increasingly obvious that whatever I was, it wasn't normal. My reading level had reached an adult level the previous year, although obviously some concepts had no real meaning for me. My language development reflected the fact that I read far more than I spoke - I pronounced words oddly, and my word usage was often very formal and structured. I didn't really have normal friendships - I was already being fairly heavily bullied within my own grade, learning early the lesson that people are cruel and untrustworthy, especially children. I looked to adults and older children for companionship. My choice of reading materials varied between science fiction (Isaac Asmiov), fantasy (Tolkien - the Silmarillion was my favourite book), the encycolpedia britannica, and dictionaries. I also liked reading about dinosaurs, especially palentological taxonomies, and physics.  Looking at the wikipedia article on characteristics of Aspergers - I ticked all the boxes to a greater or lesser extent. I was feeling increasingly out-of-place at school.  Add increasing issues at home due to financial stresses in the family, and I began the long fall into depression and anxiety that have since characterised my life to some extent.

The first formal diagnosis was around age 11. High functioning autism, of the particular variety that would probably, today, be called Asperger's syndrome. This was around 1992 - Hans Asperger's definitive work wasn't really accepted as mainstream until about two years later, and certainly didn't hit the paediatric and psychological professions on Australian shores until perhaps 1998 or thereabouts. The doctor's recommendations were to get a cat, encourage social interaction, and don't let me be by myself too much. As we now know, that last one is a recipe for madness. My parents were doing what they thought was right for me - it was not their fault that best practices at the time were very, very bad for me.

I retreated from the world. I would speak if spoken to. I went to classes. Although I kept up my non fiction reading (graduating to simple chemistry, quantum mechanics, and black hole cosmology), my choices also increasingly became escapist - more fantasy fiction, much, much more. I would hide in the book cases in the library during school lunchtimes. At least, until I discovered computers - then I hid in the computer labs instead, getting there when they opened in the morning, and only leaving when I had to. I was constantly buffeted by the consequences of my lack of understanding. Imagine, if you will, a world where the only communication was the spoken word, and that word had all the emotional emphasis of plain text. Where allegory and metaphor were entirely abstract concepts with no basis in reality. Where words meant only their literal meanings to me, which had the effect of making the English spoken by everyone else a foreign language. I had technical proficiency in this language, but I couldn't make myself understood, neither could I understand the messages that were being given to me. It was much later that I gained this understanding of what was going on - at the time, I literally couldn't grasp the concept of what was going on. A bit like asking a blind person what colour is like, I imagine.

At age 13, I first became suicidal. I was intensely lonely, as well. There was quite literally no-one in the world who I could talk to - the school counsellor seemed to think that I didn't have any friends because I didn't make an effort. I was rejected by every social group except the real weirdos, and the international students. I did well enough academically, but the only real friends I thought I had were my teachers, and by the end of high school, one or two of my peers, who had similarly troubled states of mind. The only thing that kept me alive during those years was the fact of my brother's illness - I knew for a fact what happened when people around him were very sick or died, he ended up in ICU with a near-death experience. I didn't want to be responsible for his death as well as mine, so I didn't try. I also convinced myself that I was a bad person and didn't deserve such an easy way out. I must be bad, because people didn't talk to me, and shunned me, and that's what you do to bad people. In such a state, I graduated high school. I estimate my social skills were, at this time, at the level of most 4 to 5 year olds.

Over that summer between high school and first year university, I was finally told what was wrong with me - what the diagnosis I had received many years ago was. Not being told 'until I was old enough' was also a recommendation from the doctor. It was like a nuclear warhead going off in my skull. The first thing I did was read everything I could lay my hands on that had the slightest relevance to Autism, and it was a revelation and a relief. This is what I had been missing all those years. This is what I lacked - and, given sufficient effort, what I could surely develop. The next few months, using the internet, some very sympathetic and patient friends, and a great deal of energy, I slowly observed and learnt to mimic normal social behaviours. The process involved many discussions on why exactly people acted how they did - what prompted a particular behaviour, what thought, what emotion, what associations. I was - and still am, at times - incredibly distressed by the lack of literal meanings in human interactions, by the lack of straightforward relationships between thought and action, and by the sheer inconsistency from person to person. I would estimate that I spent upwards of 40 hours a week focussing on this, and working to improve my imitation of humanity. I have often described it as developing a giant look up table in my head of 'behaviour -> response', and that's a pretty accurate description of how it feels.

It's twelve years later, and I'm now 29. Even to the professional eye, I generally no longer present as having an autism spectrum disorder. It is perhaps ironic that it is the obsessive focus on minutiae that is a characteristic of the disorder that has allowed me to develop these skills. It has, to a large extent, become reflex to act this way. However, there is still large swathes of social programming that I have simply missed out on, and don't see value in adopting. I'm more comfortable in being slightly sideways from most of humanity, and on most days, can see myself as being human. I believe I have established solid relationships with other people, and that most of the time, I'm not too difficult to be around, or too opaque. Still, I'm always trying to improve.

Study vs life, and the difficulty of answering questions.

Life's been winning lately. In some ways, this is a good thing; I've been, in general, pretty happy and upbeat of late. I've been concentrating on me-stuff - getting to know my job and my workmates, exercising, playing games, and generally not taking on any stress.

However, the bill for that is just about to come due. I've got an exam on Tuesday, and since I effectively haven't (and haven't effectively) studied since early August, I'm not rating my chances of doing well on this exam particularly highly. Wine is a complex subject, and I don't have quite enough chemical background to really easily understand the wine chemistry I'm doing at the moment. If I had a week, and no other distractions, and my focus was working, I'd be confident. As it is, I have about 48 hours, a focus shot to hell, distractions left, right and centre, and a sprinkling of other things to do.

It doesn't help that what I'm trying to study and understand is so dry, and the resources given to me to help me understand are, in my opinion, quite insufficient. For instance, a question that I'm currently trying to answer: Hydrometry cannot provide an accurate measure of the sugar content of a fermenting wine. Why?

I think the answer lies somewhere in the following chunk of text:

The absolute density of any substance, expressed in units of grams per cubic centimetre, or grams per milliliter, is defined as: Density of substance = (Weight of substance / Volume of substance). Direct measurement of volumes may present a problem, especially where gases are concerned. As a result, it becomes convenient to use the ratio of the density of a substance to that of a recognised reference such as water. This relationship, known as specific gravity, is expressed as: Specific gravity = (weight of * mL of substance) / (weight of * mL of water) .
The density of water at 4degC is, for all practical purposes, 1g/cm^3. Because the weight of any substance will change as a function of temperature, any complete definition of specific gravity must include the temperature at which the determination was made, as well as the reference temperature for water. The temperature of the measured sample is noted above that of the reference. For example, the notation 15deg/4degC indicates that the specific gravity of the solution in question was made at 15degC relative to water at 4degC.
The concentration of dissolved substances in solution is related to the specific gravity but one should know, however, assume a simple and direct correlation between observed specific gravity and concentration in all cases because molal volumes of substances in solution may vary in a complex and unpredictable manner. Tables are available that relate concentration of dissolved substances to apparent specific gravity; those most commonly encountered in analysis of wine are for Brix, Baume, degrees Oechsle, and alcohol.
Tables usually reference only one or two standard temperatures; one must either measure the specific gravity at the defined temperature or, alternatively, employ a temperature correction factor. For the most accurate work, it is recommended that the solution be brought to defined temperature prior to measurement.
Hydrometric determinations are based on the principle that an object will displace an equivalent weight in any liquid in which it is placed. The volume displaced by an object is inversly proportional to its density. Hence a solution of high density will show less displacement than on of lower density. This relationship defines the basic principle of hydrometry.
A hydrometer consists of a calibrated scale within a glass tube that is usually constructed with a mercury or shot-filled terminal bulb to maintain it in an upright position. Hydrometers are available to read either specific gravity or the concentration of some component in solution. Examples of the latter include the familiar saccharometer and the salinometer.

Excerpted from Zoecklein, B. W., Fugelsang, K. C., Gump, B. H. & Nury, F. S. (1995) Wine analysis and production, Aspen Publishing, Gaithersburg.

The answers I'm coming up with here are musings along the lines of the way temperature tends to vary in a ferment, the fact that ferments are complex beasties, with lots of different things doing their own dance, and that gas (specifically, carbon dioxide) is given off as part of the fermentation process.

But I'm not sure that's correct, or complete. And I don't have anything that says 'this is the answer we are looking for'. And, due to the joys of distance ed and a really small degree program, I don't have any classmates to ask. And I don't want to be wrong. I guess I'll just skip that question - like I have about half the questions - and move on, hopefully to something I can be confident that I can understand. I may be overthinking my answers to these questions, but that's the thing: I don't know, and I have no way of finding out. Well, except by having a question on it in the exam, and getting it right or wrong - if I get the marked exam back. Which, incidentally, I didn't last semester, so I still don't know where I gained or lost marks there.

Basically what this adds up to is I'm stressed, anxious, worried - although not yet depressed. If there's anyone out there that feels like answering this and other questions for me, or if you can point me at resources which I can read and hopefully understand the processes going on, that'd be great. If not - well, wish me luck. I feel like I'm going to need it.

Friday, 29 October 2010

Working out at full intensity is good for you, my ass.

I did a session with a Personal Trainer on Tuesday. This, while in theory a good idea - get fit, get strong, etc, yay - has turned out to be less than entirely positive. As my workmates can attest, I've since spent most of the subsequent days being unable to walk or function normally due to severe muscle pain. This morning, Saturday, 4 days later, most of the muscle pain is gone, but enough of it has remained to trigger a spasm in my neck and shoulder. I pushed myself during the session, a bit, but I'm pretty sure I could have gone a little harder on certain exercises.


I know all the fitness whatevers everywhere say that for maximum benefit, you should train as hard as you possibly can without making yourself ill at the gym. They also say that you should do it about 3 times a week. Those two aims seems to be ... incompatible, at least with respect to my body and its quirks. I think I'd rather take longer, train with less intensity and train more often than put myself out of commission entirely once a week.

Is there anyone out there that can tell me why I have such a protracted recovery time - even when I'm not pushing myself as hard as I can go? Is it just that I'm that numb to my own body's signals during training? Is there something dietary I can do to make myself recover faster? I already eat a lot of protein as part of my daily diet. Is it just that when I push myself, I don't hold anything back, normally? For me, full intensity is just short of injury. Is it something different for other people? Also, what the hell is wrong with me?

I suppose I need to learn restraint. Not one of my stellar qualities in general, really. I tend to go full out at whatever I do.

Pictures ..

Once in a very great while, I get the urge to photograph things. I use my phone, since that's generally what I have on me at the time. I suppose I could get more into it, actually understand what I'm doing, get the equipment, etc whatever, but I really already have plenty of hobbies I don't get time for. Still and all, I liked these photos.

A cup of coffee, from before I had to give up milk. I don't get latte art in long blacks, strangely enough. I miss it - but not as much as I don't miss sleeping most of the day and feeling sick for the rest of it. So it goes. Someone have a nice chunk of Brie for me, please?

Sydney Harbour Bridge with interesting clouds. I took this when I was down in Sydney in March. I was wandering around the rocks taking photos, doing the touristy thing, because I had a few spare hours. This is my favourite photo from the trip. This was taken near sunset, around 5.30pm, if I recall correctly. I really just loved the way the wind had spread out the clouds into feather patterns, and the way they were highlighted by the light from the setting sun.

A flower from a plant Steve bought for me when I was feeling really down. I lost it when we moved house, but it stayed like this for a couple of months. Amazing thing, flowers. I love the colour of this photo, and the shapes of the petals.

My favourite of the experiments I did while up in Toowomba doing my Chemistry pracs for the semester. Fluorescent dye! And then we made slimy stuff that's basically silly putty but much more toxic. That was great fun.

This photo was taken at the Royal Queensland Wine Show, where I was a steward. A week of very long (7am-6pm) days, 1800ish wines, and a lot of Reidel glassware. It was a fantastic experience, and despite the sore feet and exhaustion afterwards, I'm very glad I did it. I have a few nice shots from this, actually, but this is my favourite.

That's pretty much all the photos I've taken this year that I like. I know that as a photographer, I'm severely deficient in skill. I'd like to be able to capture textures and colours more often, but sadly, I seem not to quite get it far too often - and when I do, most of the time my phone doesn't cooperate much. Not to worry, one of these days I'll find the time to get the hang of it.

Thursday, 28 October 2010

Status quo

An easy thing to write about is updating where I'm at at present, in various aspects.

I'm studying. That's freaking me out a bit, because I haven't been keeping up with my studies at all, and I have an exam on Tuesday 2nd November. That is stressing me out a lot. I'm going to be spending the next few days buried in wine chemistry, which should do interesting things to my brain.

Speaking of november, that's NaNoWriMo! My plan is to write that long-awaited DnD campaign. I have no idea if there's 50k words in it, but I do know that I can probably get most of the way there, especially as many of my workmates will also be doing NaNo, so I'll have a lot of peer support and encouragement. I'll write more about the project as it evolves.

I'm on the get-healthy-lose-weight-get-fit kick again. I'm cycling to and from work a few times a week (when weather and health permits), using the cycle2city centre as my work terminus. I'm eating a mostly-Paleo diet, with a few slipups. I've started seeing a personal trainer again, and I'm working on my upper body strength mostly, which is currently in an entirely woeful state. I'm hoping to be a fit, strong, healthy size 10 by my 30th birthday in May. Mental health wise, aside from a few incidents here and there, I'm doing well. No major depression, no major anxiety to talk about aside from the occasional spike, and usually for cause. I have my off days, but by and large, I'd say I'm almost normal, for just about the first time in my life. And it's been long enough like this that it feels normal, which is wonderful.

I'm working fulltime, as a Content Author at RedHat. I'm enjoying the work and not finding it overly challenging at present. It's nice not to be stressed out of my mind while working for a change.

I'm still a committee member for Linux Australia. We're working on some pretty useful, although possibly not exciting things that should be good for the org in the long term. I'm enjoying it quite a lot, especially the bit where I get to work with awesome people. I'm looking forward to LCA, where I will not be volunteering (I hope) and actually get to enjoy the conference. I probably won't be speaking; I can't think of anything to actually speak about that either hasn't been done to death, or might possibly be relevant. Seriously, most of my tech stuff these days has to do with wine production, and whilst that's very interesting, I'm pretty sure it doesn't have a place at an IT conference.

I've also been doing a fair amount of volunteering and participation in various wine events. I stewarded at the Royal Queensland Wine Show at the RNA and the Courier Mail-Mecure Queensland Wine Show recently. I'm heading down to a Purple Palate event, Juicy Fruits, next week on Thursday evening, and really looking forward to it.

In my clearly obviously copious spare time, I'm playing World of Warcraft, Fallout: New Vegas, going to lots of #btub events, and painting my nails interesting colours.

So. That's me at the moment.

Wednesday, 27 October 2010

It's allliiiiiiiveee!

I'm resurrecting this blog, for a few reasons.

I have thoughts I want to express that don't fit in 140 characters.
I want to talk about my fitness journey, and how my life's changing.
I want somewhere to talk about my wine experiences and learning.
I want to talk about NaNoWriMo, and how I'm going with that.

I aim to post at least once a week, possibly more. We'll see how we go.