Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Merry Christmas

Merry Christmas, everyone.

I'm not much of a holiday person but it's still a good time to think back on the year and consider everything that I (each and every one of us, really) have to be thankful for. I particularly want to recognize and thank all of you - readers and members of my online community - for making me welcome, and for giving me your support and encouragement. At the same time, I try and forget all the miserable stuff that makes me depressed . . . . and I hope for a brighter year in 2010 . . . .

I was going to put up an online form where people could sign up and join my Christmas Card Mailing list but I just did not get it together in time. Therefore, for those of you who missed my annual Christmas card by mail, I have here a hi-res downloadable version . . . And i promise to have the sign up form online in plenty of time for Christmas 2010.

I like to use my own photos for cards. This card depicts an old Buick Invicta at the Hemmings Classic Car Show which was held in Vermont in July 2009 I chose it for the vivid red and blue, which was almost as Christmasy as vivid red and green, which I did not have in my image library.

Friday, December 18, 2009

A walk in the desert

It all started with an old airplane, baking in the New Mexico desert. It could have been a scene from a movie . . . crashed and presumed lost; miles from anywhere . . . I looked at the mountains in the distance and wondered if I could have crossed them on foot . . .

Being what I am, I decided to try . . . As I got closer it didn't look so rough . . .

But as I got into it, the ground got rugged fast

Most alarming, everyone else walking the old mule paths had snake leggings and sticks. And of course there were warning signs . . . and I had sneakers and nothing else. You can see the leggings on this guy, retreating downhill . . .

Moving into the high country, I ran into last week's snow. Good thing, because I didn't have any water . . .

The road wound ever higher, and as the air got thin I imagined prospectors leading mules over these same tracks 150 years ago

I finally walked through the pass at 6,200 feet, and it felt like I could see 100 miles . . .

I was very lucky to have a guide. Here he is . . . Hal Ettinger

After walking back down, I took a cable car to the top of another set of mountains, just in time for purple sunset . . .

I loked down over the US-Mexico border. The border fence is the squiggly line through the upper right; the right lights ar eMexican, the left are Texan.

I'm short on cash. Should I rob that convienience store?

You are down to your last twenty bucks, and people are streaming in and out of the convenience store across the street. There’s money in the register and a gun in your pocket. Should you rob the store?

Most people would listen to that question, laugh, and say, Of course not! That’s because most people have enough empathy to realize that robbing someone will cause them great distress. The ability to put ourselves in the other person’s shoes – and an appreciation that other people have rights too – is enough to curtail most of our worst impulses.

We may not articulate such thoughts consciously, but they run through our minds at moments like that. We might also consider risk to ourselves or the possibility of jail, but for most people empathy stops us short. We just don’t do really bad stuff to other people, most of the time.

We say, It’s wrong to rob people! I just would not do it! And that’s probably true for most of us, but it has to be based on something. That something is empathy. You might even say empathy is the neurological foundation of the Golden Rule we all heard as children.

So did empathy take a back seat to logic, or is empathy just a “sometimes” thing?

The person standing in front of the store with a gun clearly has alternatives to robbery. He could get a job, seek a meal from a soup kitchen, apply for emergency public aid, or even panhandle. The thing is, none of those options provide the quick cash fix that walking in and grabbing the till delivers.

Empathy may act as a subtle mental push – it may even push hard at times – but we have to be willing to listen. All too often, we allow ourselves to be subsumed by greed, laziness, and the dream of winning it all without any work.

If you doubt that, look at the success of state mega-millions lotteries. Everyone who flocks to the lottery hopes for an easy score.

Our brains seem hardwired to support the empathetic moral choices. We talk about “working hard” for something, and “feeling so much better in the end.” And I think that’s true. I know it has been, for my own life. Yet the temptation of easy fixes is strong. That’s why society constructs barriers. Marriage and property division laws make it hard to blow up a relationship in the blink of an eye. The threat of prison deters some from robbing stores.

Sometimes people ask if those of us with Asperger’s are blind to such things, because our empathy isn’t triggered by the same factors that work on nypicals. In situations like those I described, I actually think we Aspergians may act more empathetically, because our social blindness – our difficulty reading other people – often causes us to consider our moves more carefully and logically, and that gives more chances for us to make a good or right choice.

We are also more likely to be swayed by logic, and in most cases the logical arguments for getting a job over robbing a store are strong. Sometimes, the same is true for keeping the guy or the girl.

There is no doubt in my mind that Asperger’s has helped develop my sense of right and wrong, because I am such a reflective and logical person as a result of it. At the same time, I acknowledge that my morality may have been slow to develop because it took many more years for me to develop a true awareness of other people, due to the Aspergian weaknesses in my sensory apparatus.

Will society and your mind’s barriers hold you back this holiday season, or will you go robbing and shattering? This holiday season, I hope for the best for you. Think carefully before you act and be mindful of the increased stress at this time of year. January will be here before you know it.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Brain Plasticity and TMS

Here I am in the TMS lab at Boston's Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, with Lindsay Oberman, Phd holding the TMS coil over my head. I'm wearing a cap that has 32 EEG wires in it for brain wave monitoring. And the wires on my hand are picking up tiny electrical signals from the nerves in my thumb and forefinger. It looks kind of nasty but it's actually not uncomfortable at all. There are no holes drilled in me.

You can see the TMS machine behind Lindsay. There's a camera system and monitor out of sight in front of us, telling Lindsay exactly where to place the TMS coil. Behind us there is another computer monitoring brain wave activity throughout the test. In the corner there is a wet or dry shop-vac, in case my head explodes.

Yesterday I went to Boston to participate in this new TMS study. TMS (Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation) uses powerful focused magnetic fields to induce tiny signals in the brain. These TMS signals can cause permanent changes in our brains by showing us new paths between the neurons in our heads. TMS is currently used to treat depression, and it shows tremendous promise for autism, epilepsy, and a number of other conditions.

Perhaps one day it will even fix me. However, today’s study was not aimed at repairing the way I think. Rather, the goal was to evaluate the plasticity of my brain by measuring the circuits that operate my hand. That may seem mundane, but it’s actually really important. Studies like these are showing that people on the autism spectrum have more plasticity than neurotypicals, and that difference may be instrumental in shaping our lives.

Plasticity is the brain’s ability to form new paths. You might say it’s an essential component of learning any new skill. For example, when you learn the way up the stairs and down the hall to your room, you are using plasticity to make a path in your brain that tells your legs what to do to go from the front door to your nest.

The scientists in the TMS lab believe unusual plasticity is the reason I can learn things so fast. There have been many times that I’ve focused intently on some bit of arcana and become an expert so quickly that other people thought it was unbelievable. It’s kind of neat to hear an explanation for that, because I lived so much of my life with people dismissing my abilities as “lucky guesses,” or “getting away with something,” just because they could not relate.

To hear that greater-than-usual brain plasticity makes that possible is kind of neat. But I’m afraid it’s not the whole story. Sure, if I get fascinated by something I devour all I can about my new interest overnight, but there are plenty of topics that don’t interest me much, and plasticity does not help me one bit if I have to study them. Is plasticity a kind of fair weather friend, something that only helps with things I like?

Maybe. I don’t know, and I’m not sure that anyone else knows either.

It’s also not clear why plasticity would give me a great gift – speedy learning – while totally disabling other people on the spectrum. The scientists theorize that excess plasticity may leave some autistic people in a state of permanent confusion because the paths in their heads are constantly shifting. Nothing stays the same.

Why would some people be disabled by this, and others gifted? No one knows. Perhaps we’re totally wrong, or perhaps there are other factors at work. The more I learn about this work, the more I see how unfathomably complex even the simplest brains are. Today's science is far from unraveling the mental secrets of a mouse; they are just scratching the surface with creatures like me.

All brains have some amoount of plasticity, since it's essential to learn new skills. It's just a matter of degree. It’s possible that some parts of my brain are exceptionally plastic, and others aren’t. So maybe the distribution of plasticity makes a difference or explains why some parts of me are really smart wile others are pretty oblivious. Future studies may help answer that question.

Until then, we can just ponder how it is that plasticity can confer both genius and profound disability, perhaps even in the same person. I told you how scientists at the lab attribute much of my learning ability to plasticity. At the same time, they blame my social blindness in part on plasticity too. Dr. Lindsay Oberman – the scientist conducting this study – explained.

Neurotypical people might have one path in their heads to recognize facial expressions. By the time they grow up, that path is well worn and familiar. People with high plasticity (referring to me) might have a hundred paths, or a thousand, and they are all smaller. So plasticity has put a lot more options inside our heads, but they are so complex that they don’t run fast like an NT person. The result – a social disability.

What a paradox.

And now we get to the good part . . . plasticity may be changeable. Some brand-new studies have suggested that TMS can change the plasticity of parts of the brain. And other studies are exploring the possibility of using drugs to change plasticity. So we may be on the brink of being able to reduce plasticity in people who have too much.

But what will that mean?

If plasticity is the explanation for my social disability and exceptional focus and learning, I’d stay just the way I am, thank you. However, not all autistic people share my gifts. If I saw myself as more disabled than gifted, I might well make a different choice with respect to plasticity. If I could take a pill and watch my disability fade as my brain build strong pathways that would be almost magical. But would it play out that way? No one knows.

It’s possible we’d have to change plasticity in early childhood to make a dramatic difference. In that case, parents would have to make a life-changing treatment decision before they really knew the extent of their child’s future gift or disability. And by choosing less plasticity, they might be saying “NO” to the possibility of exceptional skills or creative genius. Or maybe not. Again, no one knows.

Parents and doctors may be facing some really tough choices soon, if these drugs and therapies pan out. For the only way to know what will happen is to try them on kids. Are you ready to line up?

That’s got to be a really hard choice to face. Especially when no one fully understands what may change. I guess that’s what science is about; hunting the answers to these questions.

Here are some of my other TMS autism stories:

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

The School Bell Rings!

I’m pleased and proud to announce details of my first class at Elms College in Chicopee, Massachusetts. This course will be held on campus from 8:30-6 in one long day on Saturday March 20. Save the day!

My classes will be under the umbrella of the College’s graduate autism program. The course number is ASD671 for continuing ed or professional development credit, or ASD771 for grad students. Costs are $175 for continuing ed or $294 for graduate credit, plus a $20 registration fee.

Here’s the catalog description:

In this course, participants will explore the three essential components of Asperger’s syndrome – social impairment, speech affect, and physical issues. Participants will learn how minor brain differences lead to unique and even alien thought processes, and how they shape the lives of people with Asperger’s. Differences can be disabling or empowering; participants will get a sense of this scope and discuss how young people can be helped to see their gifts in the face of sometimes significant disability.

Participants will learn how individuals with Asperger’s evolve over time, seeing how Asperger’s presents in children, in adolescents, and in adults. Within each of these four components both lecture and discussion will take place. Embedded in the lecture and discussion will be concepts from Look Me in the Eye and Geeks Rule, two books written by John Robison. Participant will be required to read Look Me in the Eye prior to the course in order to be prepared to engage in productive discussion. An out of class assignment will be required.

Participants will receive both teaching guides for Look Me in the Eye as part of the course material. Recommended for speech pathologists, teachers and mental health and counseling professionals who deal with young people with Asperger’s. This is a standalone course that is also recommended for parents and family members seeking insight.

I know that quite a few of you have asked about online courses. We are working on an online version of this class right now, and we are also working on online and classroom courses for the use of Look Me in the Eye and its sequel in middle and high school classrooms.

The material in this class is based on my own study, my life experience as a grownup with Asperger’s, my experience parenting a now-grown Asperger kid, and my exposure at workshops and speaking engagements nationwide.

Elms College The online registration is not up yet but you can sign up by phone at 413 265-2314


Tuesday, December 8, 2009

A visit with my bankers . . .

Meet Bill Wagner, the president of Chicopee Bank. Readers of Look Me in the Eye will know Bill and the bank from my stories. Today's I've photographed him so you can put faces to the names . . .

Things were tough in 1990, when Bill and I first met. I had quit my last real job to start a new business fixing cars in my driveway a few years before. Unfortunately, it took more money that I realized to start a company, and I’d lost all my savings getting going. Then the economy tanked, and the cars I had for sale were suddenly unmarketable. At the same time, I had a wife and a new baby to support.

But I had a plan. And it was working. My business – Robison Service – had grown from zero to several hundred thousand in revenues. But the question was, could I sustain the growth, or would it fail?

More than 90% of new businesses fail in the first few years. The odds were against me. Yet I had some unique traits, unproven though they were. I also had a bank breathing down my neck.

My home had been purchased with what was called a “balloon mortgage” which the bank was supposed to renew. But the bank was bought by a bigger bank, and the bigger bank failed and was taken over by a still bigger bank, and now they had sent me a notice asking for $45,000 I did not have. I applied for a new loan at the bank, and they turned me down. So did the folks at BayBank, the other big bank in town. Like many people, I assumed the big banks were the best place to go, and they have declined. What now? I had no idea . . . .

I asked everyone I knew for advice. I’d recently made friends with an aspiring accountant – Gene Cassidy – and he suggested his friend Bill Wagner, at a place called Chicopee Savings. I had never heard of them; they were certainly not a household name like Citibank, nor did they have branches in every shopping center, like BayBank. But I called him anyway, and he said he’d come see me. This is Gene, seen tonight. He's the guy on the right. The fellow on the left is Bob Greeley, one of the Kings of Springfield Real Estate. We're all a bit older. Gene runs finance now at the Eastern States Exposition, one of the biggest Fairs in the country. And I am still here at Robison Service. And writing stuff like this, of course . . .

I didn’t know it at the time, but that’s how commercial lending works. And that’s what I was – a guy with a small business is a commercial customer, no matter what he wants to borrow. Consumer loans are decided today by formula; by machine. Commercial lending is all done personally, by bankers like Bill.

He drove out to see me, and he looked at what I had. He looked over my list of customers, and he looked at my operation. I thought it was pretty impressive, and he said he was impressed, but looking back . . . it was just a tiny two-bay garage, me, and some tools.

Yet at the end of his visit, Bill said, “Welcome to Chicopee Savings. It will take a little while for paperwork, but you are all set.” In the space of a brief visit, I had been measured up, evaluated, and approved. I was amazed. I had a new mortgage for my house, and a small loan for my company. Just like that.

Successful commercial lenders rely on the ability to judge people. And I guess he saw my drive and determination. Whatever he saw, it was enough. I’ve been with the bank ever since.

In the 20 years since, I can’t tell you how many businesses I’ve seen ruined by big banks. The bank gets into trouble, and they start calling commercial customers and saying “Pay up or else!” Banks can’t do that to consumers, but most commercials loans can be “called” in that manner, and if it happens, it can be ruinous for small business. But the big banks don’t care about their communities. They may say they do, but their actions belie their words.

Banks like Chicopee are what really support our communities. They also keep America’s small business running, through good times and bad. The big banks got greedy and sank billions into questionable mortgage securities, leading to the biggest government bailout in history. Smaller banks like Chicopee were wise enough to stay clear of those securities; they were not blinded by greed like the big banks. As a result, most small banks are fine today. They did not take those risks, and they remain strong. I’m proud to be a customer of Chicopee Bank.

Every year, the bank has a Christmas Social for its friends. It’s become the “in” Christmas party for greater Springfield. I almost missed this year’s event, because I had a speaking engagement at the Wilton Library in southern Connecticut today, and I have to speak at noble and Greenough in Dedham tomorrow. But I swung through Chicopee out of respect for my old friend Bill Wagner.

Hard times have come to my town again. But I’m still here, and so is my bank.

I’ve put a gallery on my Facebook page; I hope you’ll stop by and leave a comment or two . . .

My Bank's Christmas Gallery