Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Send in the Idiots

Today has readily become a good day. After a week and a half of being seemingly cut off from the rest of the world outside Santa Cruz (except for online interaction), I finally located my cell phone charger (which was mysteriously in my desk drawer the entire time). I thought I had left both it and my garmin charger in tahoe after unsuccessfully locating it while unpacking. I had just given up today and was looking up directions to a cingular store to buy a new charger when my glance fell into an open drawer and found both cords! I'm also excited to have the garmin back, as I just like knowing distance :) So, after being disconnected from friends and family for almost two weeks, I can finally make contact once again!

Another reason it's a good day is that I finished the book that I've been reading, Send in the Idiots: Stories from the Other Side of Autism.

It was actually a book recommended for me by a teacher that I gave to my mom because she teaches some autistic children in her sixth grade classes. However, after she finished it, she let me borrow it to read for myself, and I must say I was really taken with it, and a lot of the ideas. The author, Kamran Nazeer is autistic himself (though, some might argue, recovered to a certain extent since he can now cope much better with day to day activities and do things like give lectures that would be difficult for many autistic individuals) which adds a very thoughtful and interesting perspective. One thing that I thought was interesting was that I often found myself identifying with some of the autistic individuals in certain ways, which made me aware, I guess, that some traits, in more mild forms, can be present in individuals without autism.

Nazeer notes that, "Striking up conversations with strangers is an autistic person's version of extreme sports"(30). As someone who used to be quite shy (and still is in some regards, despite how I seem within the running community) I found this to be quite an interesting perspective. Nazeer presents conversation as a kind of performance, in which the participants are each acting and speaking in a way that attempts to reach some aim, whether it be to entertain, or to create some kind of relationship (feigned or otherwise), but that it generally is, in its very nature, an insincere interaction since you're almost always acting in reaction to the other person rather than individually. There is, then, an inherent risk in the art of conversation because the outcome or flow of the interaction is not fixed, but rather dependent on the reaction of the other individual. I would think that many of us feel and understand this risk to a certain degree, though for most, not to the extent that some autistic individuals experience.

As a way of dealing with the tension created in situations like this, and in others, a key coping method that came up was that of local coherence, which Nazeer describes as a compulsive activity that "effects a narrow, uncomplicated purpose, [where the individual is ] in control"(40). Essentially, by engaging yourself in something unthreatening and uncomplicated, you no longer have mental space to focus on the upsetting issue at hand, and so can deal with the situation without increasing stress. For Nazeer this is playing with an alligator clip in his pocket when things become stressful, and for one of the other autistic individuals within the book, it is speaking through a puppet. So, there can be a wide range of what one uses to provide local coherence.

My question is, how many of us, who are not autistic (I don't think anyone reading this is autistic? Perhaps I'm wrong) but how many use our own forms of local coherence to get by? I feel like this is a coping stragegy that is effected by more than just those with autism. For instance, I notice that I've always played with my jewelry when I get stressed or nervous. It used to be a necklace that I wore (and actually broke during a particularly stressful interaction) and now I generally will play with either my earrings or my ring. The feel of the metal under my fingertip helps distract me when I have to talk to someone I'm uncomfortable with or give a presentation.

I think having something uncomplicated that you can control is an important coping mechanism to attain, and in a loose way is connected to running, in that this action that we all enjoy can also be defined in those terms. Generally you aren't running while simultaneously having a stressful encounter, so it doesn't fit perfectly, but, at least for me, I feel that in running I can close my mind off to larger stressors and focus on this uncomplicated task in which I choose the speed, the distance, the time out there, the place. And while it isn't always compulsive, it does seem to have become that way for many of us. Without the daily/weekly running schedule, how many of us suddenly find ourselves more stressed, more overwhelmed by the world?

Anyways, this is a post a little more on the academic side than normal, but I'd be really interested on all your opinions on this subject.

And, if it isn't obvious, I'd recommend reading Send in the Idiots as I've found it thought provoking.

Oh, and the title might not be exactly what it seems to you right now. Read the book to learn the real meaning!


mcewen said...

Well thanks for the recommendation - there's been such mixed reports and my nightstand is already groaning!

Very impressed to hear that your mum is a spec ed teacher too.

best wishes

runningtwig said...

Addy, I found your blog through Jessica's and I really enjoy reading about all that you are doing...I'm a teacher and a runner also. I went through what sounds like the same grad school about six years ago...I now teach 11th grade history. I'm glad your first 50K went well...I'm running my 1st one in Ocotober. Good luck with school and running!

Addy said...

mcewen- I'd be interested on your thoughts if you ever in up reading it, or hearing about what the negative side to the book has been. Obviously I have a much different perspective from you, as I've had limited interactions with autistic individuals, but I had nothing but postive remarks about the book. Your blog seems like a great read, so I'll definitely be checking it out more!

twig- Thanks for coming over! I'll definitely be over to return the favor soon :) How great that you teach as well! Though I was an english major, I also love history, so that sounds like a fun subject and age to work with. How exciting that your first 50k is coming up! Which one is it?

Jessica Deline said...

very through provoking!

runningtwig said...

Most of my friends at school teach English - we have a great English department.

I'm running the Stumpjump 50K in Chattanooga, TN. If it goes alright, my husband and I are talking about heading west for an ultra next year. We'll see!