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Podcasting

I've love doing podcast interviews. I love them because I can communicate so much more quickly than I can in text interviews. I can interact with the interviewer. We can follow the meanderings of the conversation and end up in strangely unexpected places.

That's what happened during last month's interview with Randall Hayes of Variation, Selection, Inheritance. The podcast is funded through a grant from the National Science Foundation, and is all about evolutionary patterns in unusual instantiations. It turns out that Randall is a fascinating person to talk to. We strayed far and wide from our intended topic of conversation; so much so that instead of making one podcast episode out of it, Randall made three.

Here they are, for posterity:

Episode 44: Nancy Fulda, Hugo Nominee
Episode 45: Nancy Fulda on Evolving Robots and Kids
Episode 46: Nancy Fulda on Writing with Words

Milestones

Yesterday Alex came racing toward me across the schoolyard when I picked him up -- in socks, no less, because he hadn't taken time to don shoes before leaving the classroom, and with a huge grin on his face.

"Mom! Mom! My tooth fell out!" He pointed toward the unmistakable gap in his mouth.

This would have been adorable under any circumstances, but for a mother who, four years ago, hardly ever saw her son engage in socially oriented communication, it was priceless.

When he was three, Alex's conversations consisted almost entirely of imperatives. He spoke because he wanted to effect a change in his environment. Now he smiles, giggles, and tells me things that have no pragmatic value. Such events have been commonplace around our house for years, but -- knowing where we've been -- sometimes they still astound me.

What Autism Looks Like on Alex

For years, I thought Alex was impervious to pain. He'd get hit by a stray soccer ball or bonked by an errant shovel without so much as flinching; he'd just go right back to whatever he'd been doing. I wondered, sometimes, whether his insensitivity towards other children was based in his own experience: if a klonk on the head didn't bug him, why should he imagine it would bug someone else?

Then about a year ago we were tossing a basketball back and forth and I asked "Am I throwing too hard?" To my surprise, Alex said "Yes."

It was one of those gestalt moments where the puzzle pieces line up in your head and you suddenly realize that nothing is the way you had imagined it to be.

"Then you should say 'Ow'" I said. "That way, I'll know it's too hard, and I'll throw softer next time."

Alex said "Oh," and we continued playing. In the weeks that followed, I noticed him using his new 'Ow' in social situations, usually after several seconds of careful thought. And for the first time, I saw him responding appropriately when other children said 'Ow'.

I could have whacked myself on the head for all those years I thought he was impervious. He didn't like tough games, he just didn't have an instinctive method for communicating that to anyone else. Poor kid was getting klonked too hard all the time.

These days Alex uses 'Ow!' and 'Hey!' like a natural. Sometimes it's hard for me to remember they're acquired skills. He also shows immediate sensitivity to other children's use of 'Ow'.

('Hey!' is a bit harder. He often doesn't realize that a forcefully uttered 'Hey!' by a child he's playing with might be related to whatever he just did.)

What Autism Looks Like

When we first told Alex's kindergarten teacher, nearly two years ago, that we suspected he was on the autistic spectrum, her answer was: "I just don't see it."

She had a brother with high-functioning autism who, for years, never spoke a word outside the intimate confines of his family. She mentally lined up her conception of autism against my energetic, vocal, assertive son and found little correspondance.

When Alex's Sunday School teacher brought me a picture of his class and called it "a rare picture" of Alex, I didn't understand at first what he meant. After some thought, I realized the teacher found the picture unusual because Alex was smiling. He had never seen Alex smile. Alex found structured social situations stressful. He was, at that time, either aggressive or withdrawn while at Church.

That photograph, and the conversation with Alex's Kindergarten teacher, made me realize that other people's experience with my son is nothing like my own. More specifically, other people's expectations about my son were different from my own.

Our therapist in Frankfurt perhaps said it best. She said because of media, because of our experiences and our conversations with others, we all have a mental image of how an autist "ought to behave". We're so sure we know what autism looks like that we either can't see the autism at all or we concentrate so hard on the autism that we can't see the kid anymore.

They're just kids, folks. Some of them talk, some of them don't. Many of them are anxious, especially in unfamiliar situations. Many of them are angry, because they're stuck growing up in a world where none of the rules make any sense. Many of them are scared, because they know they're doing things wrong and they can't figure out how to make it right again.

But in the end, they're all still just kids, and they need the same things every child needs: love, understanding, someone who trusts them to grow up in their own way and find their own path, and who's willing to help them take the first steps.

What does autism look like? I don't know. It's like a coat that changes shape depending on who wears it. It's like a wind that blows different trees into different shapes. Sometimes it's easy to spot.

Sometimes it's not.

Magic Phrases

Around our house, you have to be very careful how you say things. Our oldest son has a preliminary diagnosis on the autistic spectrum. He communicates wonderfully, but every once in a while we stumble over phrasings that just don't compute. (This is true of every person, I suppose, to a varying degree.)

As an example: Asking him to throw balls more softly or play games less roughly seldom had any effect. Asking him to throw or play more slowly worked wonderfully. He'd slow down the physical muscle movements, resulting in a softer throw and gentler play. Similarly, asking him to speak more quietly seldom works. He says, "Ok," willingly enough, but then continues speaking at full volume. However, if I ask him to reduce the amount of air he's using when he speaks, his volume drops immediately.

This focus on the physical mechanics of an action, rather than on the subjective effect of an action on nearby people, seems to be fundamental to his thought process. I wish I could figure out a mechanics-based way to help him understand personal space. He tends to find the shortest path from point A to point B and bonk shoulders with everyone he passes on the way.

Salvaging

Six-year-old Alex has developed a keen interest in all things electrical; especially in taking them apart. So far we have dissected a flashlight, a hand microscope, a remote control caterpillar, and an electronic alien-in-a-car with a broken wheel. He squealed with glee when we connected the caterpillar motor to a battery and it started spinning.

I find I enjoy both the time spent together and the excuse to get rid of items that I otherwise would have kept. It's hard for me to throw away electronic toys even if they have stopped functioning. This way, I can chalk their destruction up as a learning experience.

Alex is carefully collecting circuit boards, LEDs, battery mounts, and motors from each dismantled object. He wants to use them to build a robot even better and cooler than the Wowee Robot Uncle David sent us for Christmas several years ago. He plans to do this in stages, taking each robot apart to re-salvage the parts into an even better model.

Today I picked up a soldering iron at the hardware store. Tomorrow the real fun will start.

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nancyfulda
nancyfulda

Publications

Nancy Fulda -- Hugo and Nebula Nominee

Web Site | Twitter | Facebook | LinkedIn | Google+






That Undiscovered Country
Jim Baen Memorial
Award Winner


paperback | kindle | nook | PDF | Other





Movement
2011 Nebula Nominee

Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine, March 2011

paperback | kindle | nook | smashwords





The Breath of Heaven
Stories from Distant Worlds

paperback | kindle | nook | smashwords






In the Halls of the Sky-Palace
Jim Baen's Universe, June 2009

kindle | nook | smashwords





Backlash (novelette)
Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine, 2010

kindle | nook | smashwords





The Man Who
Murdered Himself

Phobos Award Winner

kindle | nook | smashwords





Dead Men Don't Cry:
11 Stories by Nancy Fulda


Paperback | kindle | nook | smashwords | DRM-free






Nothing This Fun Could be Good for You (article)
Available at:
Clarkesworld Magazine





Like Rain From Silver Skies
Available at:
Basement Stories





Knowing Neither Kin Nor Foe
Available at:
Beneath Ceaseless Skies


Nancy Fulda is a 2012 Hugo and Nebula Nominee, a Phobos Award winner and a Vera Hinckley Mayhew Award recipient. She is the first (and so far only) female recipient of the Jim Baen Memorial Award. Her fiction has appeared in a number of professional venues.

Nancy Fulda is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.com

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