Autism, ADD, & Hyperfocus

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“Hyperfocus” is the ability to zero in on an activity with ultra-intense concentration, often for hours at a time. Neurodivergent individuals often experience this, for example people with autism or ADD. It is a common misconception that people with ADD are simply unfocused. During a period of hyperfocus the world can fade away and individuals may experience greater concentration, clarity, and productivity on their task. Autistic individuals have described similar experiences, especially when the task is related to one of their areas of expertise. I can’t speak to what it is like for everyone, but I can at least describe how hyperfocus manifests for my son and me.

My son is *autistic and vacillates between low-focus and hyperfocus, and I share all this with his permission. He has a hard time concentrating if there are any distractions (like noises, smells, or something else he finds interesting going on around him), if he is tired or unwell, or sometimes simply if he isn’t interested in the task at hand. Then there are other times that he can zone in and gets so lost in what he is doing that he won’t even hear someone if they call his name. When he was a toddler the way I confirmed my suspicions about his unique neurology was by sneaking up behind him and banging a pot while he played. He didn’t even flinch, didn’t even process the sound. This tendency towards hyperfocus and tuning out auditory stimuli can both help him in school and present challenges. It helps him because he can work quickly, efficiently, and often with a greater depth of creativity. Problems occur when he is so focused that he doesn’t notice what is going on in the classroom around him and misses instructions. His teachers are aware of this, however, and try to accommodate accordingly.

When my son was about eight years old he told me that often after he came out of a period of intense concentration at school the world “didn’t feel real”. He said he would have to get up and move around so he could feel like himself again and feel right in his own body. It seems that he was disoriented and also needed to regain his sense of proprioception. When my son told me about those experiences I was astounded that he was able to articulate himself so well about such an abstract feeling. Thankfully there are accommodations in his IEP for pacing and stimming, and he is given the freedom to move around the back of the classroom when necessary.

(*If any of you cringed at the term “autistic” I would encourage you to research the “Identity-First” movement or the neurodiversity paradigm. The concept behind Identity-First language is described as such by the page “Identity-First Autistic”: “As autistic people, we see our neurology as an integral part of who we are – not a separate or negative add-on.” Saying “autistic” or using similar terminology acknowledges the effects that unique neurological wiring or disability has in shaping a person’s identity and the way they interact with the world. Autistic or neurodivergent people hope for acceptance and accommodation.)

Then there’s me. I am a 40-something woman who has known for decades that I am neurodivergent, but it took years to get a proper diagnosis (mis-diagnoses are common for women). When I was in my 30’s I was finally identified as ADD, even though in my 20’s a psychologist insisted I wasn’t. Then about a year ago a therapist affirmed my suspicions that I also displayed characteristics of being on the autism spectrum.

For me hyperfocus means that it is all about The Thing. The Thing is whatever I find most interesting or important at the time. All I can think about is The Thing. All I want to do is The Thing. I get irritated at anything that keeps me from doing The Thing, even if that something else is actually important.  Continue reading

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Holocaust Remembrance and Nazi Eugenics

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Many years ago I had the privilege of meeting a Holocaust survivor during a chance encounter in the store. She was a gracious, gentle woman who had been imprisoned as a child. The numbers on her arm were a painful reminder of the dark acts of which humans are capable.

What stayed with me the most was that the hand-inked numbers on her arm started out uniform, but then became more and more uneven and jagged. My heart wept as I pictured that small child fighting against the torture of each new number with increasing intensity. It broke my heart to know that someone so young had experienced such horrors.

When I became a mother those images took on new meaning. I learned that Nazis not only targeted Jews, but also waged a eugenics campaign against those with disabilities. The evils of the Holocaust somehow seemed even more horrifying with the realization that my own child could have been a target.

Is he more safe in today’s world than he would have been back then? Is society more accepting, more caring, more unified?

Let us strive to be better. Let us not forget the evils of the past, or we risk making the same mistakes again.

I reflected upon these things when I first wrote a post about that life-altering encounter, and I thought it seemed appropriate to revisit on Holocaust Remembrance Day :

On this day I stop to remember, and ponder, and listen. I reflect upon the atrocities committed by a group of people driven by greed and a lust for power, blinded by prejudice. I pause to hear the voices that cried out, yet were silenced too soon. I will not forget them.

Many do not realize the expansiveness of the list of groups targeted by the Nazis. It included not only Jews, but also “Gypsies, Poles and other Slavs, and people with physical or mental disabilities.” During their quest for racial purity the Nazis strove to eliminate the “unfit” as well as any who would oppose their quest for domination. Continue reading

Our Talk with Christopher Ulmer of Special Books by Special Kids: A Seriously Not Boring Interview

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My youngest son and I recently had the opportunity to talk via Skype with Christopher Ulmer, aka “Mr. Chris,” of Special Books by Special Kids. Usually Chris interviews other people, so we thought it would be fun to turn the tables and be the ones asking the questions to learn more about him and his students. For those of you who may not know who he is,  Chris is an exceptional education teacher in Florida. His unique and affirming teaching style as well as his extraordinary class of students has captured the hearts of many and become a viral sensation. The first video to gain widespread attention showcased his “compliment time” with the students at the start of each school day, and it was featured first at “The Mighty” and then in an article on ABC News. From there the message spread all over the mainstream media, reaching far beyond the typical “Awareness” circles, and Chris even made an appearance on Rachel Ray’s television show. The messages from Mr. Chris and his students continue to spread all over the internet, and the page has even been mentioned on unexpected sites like MTV, prompting Ashton Kutcher to say, “Mr. Chris, you’re a great teacher.”

Two videos from our conversation are embedded at the bottom of this post. In the first video he talks with my youngest son (his older brother decided not to participate because this isn’t his kind of thing 😉 ). Noodle Dog makes an appearance, there is some Minecraft talk in the middle, and an eyeball crossing contest at the end. Chris described his teaching philosophy and what influenced his decision to become an exceptional education teacher. I was also finally able to ask something I have long wondered about; it seems, when watching the SBSK videos, that teaching in a private school setting allows a level of flexibility in the classroom that wouldn’t be able to occur in a public school setting (for many reasons). He addresses that, as well as whether or not they have any sort of standardized testing. He also recalls an excellent and entertaining musical concert performed by his students, and all the work that went into it. You will have to watch the video to hear the fun story.

Update: here is the short “highlights” version of just the silly parts. 🙂

 

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Love is the Sweetest Gift: Williams Syndrome, Unconditional Love, and Acts of Kindness Week

 

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It is still Acts of Kindness Week! Today we have a guest post from Claire, who is the mother a young man who spreads joy all year long to those he meets. Kannan also has Williams Syndrome, which seems to help him look past the things that may cause others to make assumptions or have feelings of prejudice. Instead, Kannan has the ability to look right into someone’s soul and love them unconditionally. This year he received a very special Valentine’s gift from an unexpected source; two admirers and new friends who wished to show their appreciation for his enthusiasm and acceptance. Here’s what Kannan’s mother has to say:

Kannan has always had an effect on people. I’ll never forget the day my doorbell rang and I opened it to find a lady standing at my door with a box of red popsicles. I recognized her from my son’s school and I knew red popsicles were my son’s favorite treat. My son, Kannan, was in early elementary school at the time. Apparently he had made quite an impression on her! A year or so later my doorbell rang again, and I opened it to find a man standing there with a wrapped gift in his hand. He also worked at Kannan’s school, and was bringing him a birthday gift. It was a digital watch and he explained he thought it would help Kannan learn to tell time.

Kannan is now in middle school and recently he came home with an unexpected gift; Continue reading

Why Accessibility Matters (and why this picture of snow piled in accessible parking spaces makes me so angry)

 

 

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This image of an accessible parking space mostly covered with piles of snow is what greeted me when I recently went shopping with my children. I drove around and discovered that FOUR out of the six accessible spaces along the front of the parking lot were blocked. Winter Storm Jonas had recently finished slamming a large portion of the East Coast with huge amounts of snow. Many of the areas affected were overwhelmed by the cleanup, and had trouble keeping up with the plowing and treating of surfaces. That does not change the fact that a scene like this, especially when it occurs multiple times in the same parking lot, is completely unacceptable. It is also potentially illegal (more on that later). And it made me incredibly angry.

My anger stems from several issues. One: I have seen this happen year after year, although this is the most egregious example I have ever seen. Two: I have experienced firsthand what sort of problems this can cause. I have driven endless circles around a parking lot with a companion in a search for a parking space that would allow them to have space to get their wheelchair out of the car. I have seen the frustration and even pain in their eyes when we have to simply leave. Three: I see far too many instances in life of those with different abilities being marginalized by the general public. They are told time and time again, whether in word or deed, that their needs don’t matter. And this parking lot is currently not meeting the needs of those who have mobility challenges.

Here are pictures from two of the other spaces.

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What if someone couldn’t travel very far? What if a van with a wheelchair lift pulled up? Even if someone parked in the diagonally lined area of the second picture there’s not enough space there to both park the van and deploy the lift. There would hardly be enough space to park and place a wheelchair in between cars.

Now, who is to blame for this? In this case I do not know whether it was the snowplow operator or the property manager who was responsible for the decision to put the snow here. Efforts to contact someone to discuss the problem have failed. The main point is that this should not happen.

I took to Facebook to discuss the problem and hopefully help raise awareness. The fact is, it is a situation that a lot of people don’t think about. People don’t realize all the things that can create accessibility issues. The post and pictures received some interesting and enlightening responses.

Why does something like this happen? Ignorance? Some people may not fully comprehend the problems that a scene like this can cause. They may also be unaware that ADA laws dictate that this NOT happen. Exhaustion? This storm dumped multiple feet of snow on some locations. Snowplow operators worked almost around the clock this weekend and were scrambling to keep up. Or is it money? I have heard from a snowplow operator who says that some property managers struggle with the price of snow removal and that it is more expensive to properly clear the accessible spaces. I have heard from a property manager who said that they have at times been taken advantage of by snowplow operators who pile snow in accessible spaces when they are not supposed to.

Again, in this situation I don’t know who is to blame. Sometimes people make mistakes, or people take shortcuts. But there are also conscientious property managers and snowplow drivers who understand why it is important that this NOT happen.

It would be a shame if someone wasn’t able to enter a store and get what they needed simply because of the lack of accessible parking. No one should be made to feel unaccommodated or unwelcome. Even worse, what if someone was injured because of these unsafe conditions?

And then there is the issue of the law. Continue reading