Asperger Syndrome, Social Interaction and Christmas Cards

 

Christmas cardPeople with Asperger Syndrome— Aspies— have a great deal of difficulty with social interactions. That is, with making friends, and maintaining friendships and other social relationships that already exist. Sometimes it seems that the rest of the world is playing by a social-interaction rulebook that we Aspies aren’t allowed to read!

At ‘this time of year’, one easy social interaction that even Aspies can easily get right is the Christmas card custom. Yet many of us, perhaps out of poverty, haven’t kept up with the Christmas card habit. But it’s a great way to let other people know that we like them, that we are not indifferent to them, that we want to keep up the social relationship.

Here are some hints to doing Christmas cards:

  • Christmas Card List: Who should you send cards to? Family members, for one thing. Close family members must make the list. If you have cousins you don’t see every year, send to them if you want to keep up that relationship. Send cards to your friends, even if they are the kind of friends who think of you as just an acquaintance. Send cards to people like your therapist, your pastor, and the guy you buy your hay from. It’s OK to send cards to almost anyone you know in the sense of ‘have actually talked to on several occasions’. Pen pals are also OK. If there are people you’d like to be friends with, or ‘more than friends’ with, and you have never actually talked to them and are not sure they even know your name, don’t send a card. You are really only a stranger to that person, and Christmas cards from strangers can be seen as strange, or even creepy. Don’t be that guy.
  • The Cards: ideally should be relatively ‘normal’. Something like the ones other people send. Don’t send cards in Chinese to people who don’t speak Chinese (especially if you don’t either). And remember Christmas is a Christian holiday. It’s okay to send ‘Happy Holidays’ cards if you are not Christian, but please avoid creating your own angry-atheist holiday cards with a pro-atheism message inside. Whether you agree with that or not, the social rule is that this isn’t appropriate in Christian cards. Hard-sell evangelism messages also violate the social rules about Christmas cards, though cards with Bible verses and gentle Christian messages are tolerated in most circles from Christian senders.
  • Hanukkah Cards: If you are Jewish, why not send out Hanukkah greetings to everyone on your list? As a Christian, I can assure you, I would love to receive a Hanukkah card! It would not offend in the least. If you are worried, write ‘Merry Christmas’ inside cards for non-Jewish recipients.
  • Signing the card: you can just sign (or print) your name. Some people have the name printed on their cards, but signing it yourself shows that you care. You can also add a greeting of up to, say, five words before the signature. Such as: ‘Sincerely, Nissa Annakindt’ or ‘Love, Nissa Annakindt’ or ‘May God bless you and yours, Nissa Annakindt’. This is OK in a Christmas card to any person on your list.
  • Signing cards to close family members and friends: when you are signing the card to your mother or to a best friend you see every day— people you have a very close relationship with— you can add a bit longer greeting to your card-signing. Up to three sentences, say, of friendly greetings. Like: ‘Dear Uncle Odo, It was great seeing you at Thanksgiving. I hope your hip is better. Have a happy Christmas.’ Don’t mention sad things like Uncle Odo’s son being arrested again, or overly personal things— remember that anything you write in a Christmas card should be things it is OK for the recipient to show to other people.
  • The Christmas card letter: there is a custom of sending out a mass produced Christmas card letter each year. This can be a problem for Aspies as we may have difficulty figuring out what to write that is appropriate. My advice is to skip it for now. If for some reason you feel you need to do it, read other people’s Christmas letters, and get a normal (‘neurotypical’) person to read over your letter to see if it falls within the social rules for Christmas card letters.
  • Enclosures: Some people send a family picture out, or even a picture of their pets. Religious people might send a religious bookmark or a holy card if it is of general interest. Don’t send religious tracts or political pamphlets to your list, this breaks a social rule of Christmas card sending. (There may be gentle religious tracts aimed at Christmas card season that are not intense enough to be rule-breakers, but even those may offend.)
  • Reciprocity: The social rule is that if a person sends you a Christmas card, it is polite to add them to your Christmas card list. If they don’t send you, and if they didn’t omit it for health reasons, it’s OK to cut them from your list if you like. (Lonely elderly people who can no longer write Christmas cards any more might be looking forward to your card— visit or call them as well if you can.) If your relationship to someone you added to your list is not very close, and they don’t send you a card back, perhaps it’s best to cut them from your list. If you want to not exchange Christmas cards with a certain person— your neighbor from when you were in fifth grade that you haven’t seen since— just don’t send them a card this year.

So, those are my rules for Christmas card sending for Aspies. Because, as an Aspie, I don’t always send off the right non-verbal clues that I like people and want to be around them, sending out cards may, I hope, let people know that I really do value the relationship.

Are you an Aspie? What experiences have you had sending out Christmas cards? Did you send cards out this year?

Are you a non-Aspie? Have you ever had trouble figuring out some of the social rules regarding Christmas card sending? Do you think sending Christmas cards is a good way to keep up with family and friends?

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The Asperger Writer and Executive Function Deficit

Look, Serbian cattle!

Look, Serbian cattle!

‘Writer’ is one of the careers mentioned for people with Asperger Syndrome in one of my books about the disorder. Yet why don’t I have more success in getting my writing projects finished? Executive function deficit, AKA executive dysfunction.

Executive dysfunction is a fancy way to describe some traits we Aspies have. We can be chronically disorganized, easily distracted, have difficulty making and carrying out plans to get a complex task done, we are constantly ‘a day late and a dollar short’ as my Dad used to say…. Much like people with AD/HD, we can have severe problems in getting tasks done. And the world is none too tolerant of this deficit— one reason that around 80% of Aspies are unemployed.

Workplace accomodation: Employers don’t expect their wheelchair-bound employees to run up and down a staircase during the course of their workday. They don’t expect their blind employees to sort objects by color or other visual cues. In the same way, employers should be prepared to accommodate Aspie employees by limiting the amount of tasks requiring high levels of executive function that the employee must perform (and giving him extra tasks of the sort he’s good at), and by breaking down complex assignments into smaller  parts. (It is of course legitimate for an employer to not hire an Aspie with poor executive function for jobs that are nothing but executive function tasks, just as they needn’t hire the blind man to work in the color-sorting department.)

I believe that we Aspies can become excellent writers in spite of our executive dysfunction. Because our brains work in a different way, our stories can have unique qualities. We can use our obsessive Special Interests to master topics related to our stories, making those stories richer. (Think of Herman Melville, the Aspie author of Moby Dick. His Special Interests in whaling and the sea made Moby Dick what it is today— a book well worth repeated reading, if you haven’t had it spoiled for you by being forced to read it in school.)

Each Aspie is different, and our executive function deficits are different. Here is my assignment: grab a writing instrument and something to write on (I recommend paper and pen over chisel and stone wall, but whatever works for you), and write down some issues in your writing life that may be affected by executive dysfunction. To help you get started (and to give my page trolls something criticize me about), here is my list:

  • My messy writing area. I have had a pile of papers on the left side of my desk for years, that I dare not disturb, because then I won’t be able to find stuff. I haven’t looked at the bottom of that pile in over a year, and there may be some paper in the pile that ought to be thrown out. There are books on my writing desk. Some are urgently needed reference books, like my thesaurus and my KJV Bible and my Strong’s Concordance and my Esperanto dictionary. Others were part of long-abandoned projects, and one or two should even be given to Goodwill rather than cluttering up my home.
  • Disorganized way of handling writing project related papers. A writing project generates papers— notes, print-outs of internet research, lists of characters or story events. For my most recent project, I have papers in three places, and some stuff still in my computer that needs printing out. I have in the past lost important notes about a writing project and never found them again.
  • Mental disorganization about the steps to writing a novel, novella or short story. Poetry is easy. I can hold all of a short poem in my head. In some cases I’ve done two or three revisions of a poem in my head before I ever wrote the poem down. But longer writing projects can’t be held in the head like that. My story writing is wildly disorganized and I often generate tons of character lists, scene lists, and actual scenes to the point that I’m paralyzed at the prospect of organizing it into anything resembling coherent fiction.
  • Everyday life disorganizations. Or, how can you sit down and work on your novel when the sheep have escaped? Being disorganized about your essential daily tasks means those tasks take longer than they need to, and this will cut into your writing time.

Once you’ve made your own list, how do you fix things? Don’t do it all at once. Just identify one little thing that you could do to improve your performance, and do it.

What if you don’t know what to do, or the things you’ve tried don’t work? You might try reading books aimed at adults with AD/HD, particularly ones on organizing. I’ve found some great suggestions that help, sometimes. (I let the new organizing systems get cluttered over time— I must schedule weekly cleanups and cleanouts to keep this from happening.)

Do you have an executive dysfunction, whether from Asperger Syndrome, AD/HD or some other cause? What problems does it cause in your writing life? What methods have you used to cope? Drop me a comment and tell your story (briefly, if possible).

The Wise Way to find your 1000 True Fans

majmun

My Number One Fan.

They say an indie writer can have a nice career with only 1000 True Fans. Perhaps the same is true for other people who need public support, from musicians to artists to would-be school board members. But what is the wise way to recruit those fans?

Some people beat the bushes of social media to recruit people to buy their book and hope that some of those will become their True Fans. They Tweet book promos to a batch of Twitter followers who only followed in order to up their own follower count. They start Facebook author pages and have a few readers of their book join, but they get discouraged when they don’t get thousands of Facebook fans for their page that they can blast out their book promos to. They join forums and Facebook groups for the purpose of posting book-spam and get all upset when they get reminded of the forum’s no-book-spam rule.

Stop! That’s not what social media is for. You use social media— including your blog— as a way to interact with your True Fans and other readers/consumers of your work.

How do you find those 1000 True Fans? Or even the first 3 True Fans? Number one, you have to keep working. If you are a writer, write books. Write short stories. Write novellas. Write poetry chapbooks. Heck, write individual poems and get them out there. It’s not enough to write one novel and try to promote it until it sells well. Most first novels never do. If you are an indie writer, you need to remember that most first novels never even got published in the pre-indie-fiction days. An author’s ‘first novel’ was usually the third, fifth or tenth that he’d written.

When a reader reads one of your books, let him have many other books/stories by you available as a follow-up. That’s considered the success secret of many indie authors such as Hugh Howey, and I believe that it also helps traditionally published authors as well.

But there is another bit of wisdom about finding your 1000 True Fans, and it is perhaps best expressed in the words of Jesus Christ: ‘Do unto others as you would have others do unto you.’ That’s the basic mathematics of wise human relationships. What it boils down to for the 1000 True Fan seeker is that if you want True Fans, you must be a True Fan to others first.

And by True Fan, I don’t mean something like being a Twitter follower of someone, like so many are, purely in the hope that the someone will do good things for you. That’s not being a True Fan.

To understand the True Fan concept, you need to look at your own favorite authors. I have a list of them myself. Some of my favorite authors, I kind of like something they wrote, a little. I’m probably willing to try something else of theirs when I’m hard up for reading material. But my liking never gets to True Fan level.

There are some authors where my liking gets to the much higher level of True Fan. For many years, I was a True Fan of Stephen King. Now, I’d read Carrie without any particular desire to become an obsessive King fan, and I believe I also read Salem’s Lot (and didn’t like it). But one day, in the book section of Angeli’s Supermarket in Menominee, (upper) Michigan, I was looking for a book and came up with misery. Stephen King’s Misery, to be exact.

I loved Misery. I re-read it many times, and then haunted the used bookstores in the area (Bookworm Exchange in Marinette, Wisconsin) to pick up Stephen King’s other works. I read and re-read them. My original copy of The Stand fell apart and I got my dad to buy me the expanded hardcover edition one Christmas.

Now, my Stephen King phase came to an end over King’s loudly expressed intolerance of Christians and of political conservatives— when my favorite authors are bigots, I don’t want to know it. But I was still a big fan when I first started being active on the internet, and went to Stephen King’s website early on (where I found some of the stuff which lead to the loss of my True Fan status).

These days, being a true True Fan involves things like visiting author web pages, reading/following author blogs, ‘liking’ author Facebook pages… One could even become a Twitter follower although I tend to regard Twitter as such a sinkhole of self-centeredness that it’s hardly worth doing.

One question: how many authors can a person be a True Fan of? Perhaps on the highest, Annie Wilkes level of True Fandom you can have only one true author-obsession at a time. But most True Readers have a collection of True Fandom Authors at any given time.

I don’t think it’s possible for the author seeking 1000 True Fans to be a True Fan of, say, 1000 other authors. Or even 1000. But I think that 10 is a good number, and 5 is a good starting point. What are the 5 living authors you like best? Are you a True Fan of all or most of them? What can you do to be a more loyal fan?

In my own case I have a dilemma. Many of the authors that I have been a long-term True Fan of were selected when I was not only not a Christian, but I was sadly all too open to authors who had nothing good to say about Christians. I’d rather like to replace some of these by Christian authors, but too often the Christian authors I read don’t write quite the kind of books I like best.

My solution is to go on loving the authors that I love, but to read some of the Christian authors who are almost-right in the hope of awakening an obsessive-fan love for some of them. I read the blogs of such authors and ‘like’ their Facebook pages, and once in a while I encounter a Karina Fabian or Jill Williamson who actually makes it on the list of authors whose books I obsess about.

What writers are you a True Fan of? What qualities attract you to an author enough to make you a True Fan?

Zombies as the Perfect Enemy

WalkerThis past Sunday I watched the season finale of The Walking Dead, and, yeah, I cried when A Certain Person got killed off in the last few minutes of the show. But it also inspired me to do some thinking about zombies and the zombie apocalypse theme, and why it is so popular.

A major factor is that the zombie, as he has been developed since ‘Night of the Living Dead’, is in many ways a perfect enemy figure for modern fiction, for the following reasons:

  • The zombie isn’t human. The zombie is someone who has died, and whose corpse has been reanimated by anything from micro-organisms to demons to alien forces. The human essence or soul of the person reanimated is gone, just as surely as if he’d been died and then been buried or cremated. The zombie-creature that results from reanimation is nowhere near at the mental level of a human. The zombie brain can barely ‘drive’ the human body it possesses— hence the stumbling zombie gait. The zombie functions at the same mental level as a poisonous snake or a plague-carrying rat. Killing a zombie, therefore, does not have the moral significance that killing a human, even in self-defense, does. You can exterminate one hundred zombies before breakfast, and not even have to go to confession.
  • The zombie has a human aspect. The zombie isn’t human, but he looks like a human. In fact, he looks like a specific human— the one who died and was reanimated as a zombie. As humans, we may need to kill dangerous animals, but we don’t consider them as an enemy. True enemies, for us, need to be human (or human-like, as in alien invaders). Zombies look like shabby, poorly groomed humans, and so therefore the idea of a zombie as ‘the enemy’ is possible.
  • Zombies are our family members. One thing that humans find frightening is the idea of an enemy infiltrator— someone who is passing as a member of our community but is actually a deadly enemy. The zombie apocalypse scenario stimulates that fear by positing that any friend or family member that you have can be transformed into a zombie who will then try to kill you. In ‘The Walking Dead’ there was the episode in which a young man died of an illness during the night, was reanimated as a zombie, and started attacking people in their sleep. The lesson— during a zombie apocalypse, don’t close your eyes. Ever.
  • The zombie scenario leads people to redefine human life. And redefining human life is scary. Think of Nazi Germany. First they redefined human life to exclude the ‘useless eaters’— institutionalized people with mental or physical handicaps. At first the Nazi euthanasia project killed the severely disabled— the first victim being a retarded child who was both blind and deaf. Later, people suffering bouts of depression or temporary shell-shock got euthanized. Finally, Jews, gypsies and political opponents of the Nazi regime were declared subhuman. In much zombie fiction, it’s not just the reanimated who are considered non-human and killable. Just being infected, or being bitten or injured by a zombie and being presumed to be infected, is enough to make you killable in the eyes of others. But what if you are one of the few that know that zombie bites can be survivable?
  • The zombie apocalypse causes people to reject Christian values. It’s funny. Christianity— and the related religions Judaism and Islam— quite clearly explain that though God is good, very bad things can be expected to happen to humans. But in secular society, bad stuff from the AIDS epidemic to earthquakes to serial killers are held up as proof that Christianity (and other religions) are wrong. In secular zombie fiction, the existence of zombies is often considered the ultimate proof. But Christian values (and related Jewish and Muslim ones) have a strong survival value for humans. ‘Thou shalt not kill’ and ‘thou shalt not steal’ prevent a great many conflicts, and the Biblical calls for charity on the poor and on widows and orphans have kept a great many vulnerable people alive. When people reject these established moral values to do what is right in their own not-well-informed opinions, people suffer.
  • The zombie apocalypse causes people to prey on other people. If you’ve watched ‘The Walking Dead’, you may remember the case of the Termites— the inhabitants of Terminus. They started off as a refuge, but after encountering some bad guys they decided to start being bad themselves, by killing other humans to butcher them for meat. (Remember what they did to Bob?) In a less extreme way, people in a zombie apocalypse situation start to look on one another as competitors for the limited supplies of food, medicines, and ammo.

In the real world we currently live in, we go to war (or attempt to) without defining our opponent as ‘the enemy’ as a group, but as victims of their Evil Leader (Saddam Hussein), and then get all surprised when those ‘victims’ don’t enjoy being ‘rescued’ from that leader. The zombie gives us the ability to create a fictional war in which the political correctness rules of our day no longer apply, and we can hate the ‘walkers’ as an earlier, more innocent generation hated the ‘krauts’ and ‘Japs’ of World War Two.