Monday, July 18, 2016

Tips for managing one Asperger's athlete

Both #1 and #2 are physically active. This is very much by design and lifelong persistence. #1 often enjoys team sports and personal bicycling, but these activities are also agitating, disturbing, and anxiety provoking. He’s very sensitive to criticism, very insensitive to advice and feedback, and by nature macho and blunt. That is a hard combination, but #2 is harder.  I think #2 may be more typical of the active Asperger’s athlete.

#2 does not like exercise. He does it because it helps him psychologically as well as physically and because he wants to please me. I encourage it because it’s critical to his mental health. He is poorly connected to body signals — so I have to remind him to drink water, to eat, and adjust clothing to temperature. He dislikes this advice and when he’s stressed he reacts badly — but he is learning to use “I don’t want water” as a signal that he’s moving into a difficult mood zone. He does best on a full stomach in cool or cold weather and poorly in hot conditions.

#2 dislikes some activities less than others. Special hockey works for historical reasons and because his brother does it. It helps that the ice is cool. Currently he least dislikes mountain biking, cross country skiing and inline skating. He has liked climbing in the past but climbing gyms are a poor location for a meltdown (which still happen). He does all these things at what I consider a novice pace; far slower than he could manage if a bear were after him. Only hockey triggers bursts of impressive speed. His pacing doesn’t change even when he becomes skillful; he handles inline skating terrain with aplomb, but always slowly.

Unsurprisingly I’m almost always his one-on-one coach. There can be other coaches around though; such as on the High School Mountain Biking team he rides with. I sometimes think about what tips I might give those that are interested in helping people on the spectrum. In order of decreasing confidence I came up with…

  1. Ask parents/guardians what works and what to avoid.
  2. He won’t remember your name or that of any other riders. He won’t recognize your or anyone else if you see him on the street. He won’t remember you without cues. If you see him in a social setting say “Hi, I’m X. I am one of your coaches. It is good to see you. See you at practice. ” That’s about right.
  3. His limits are psychic, not physical. He very rarely approaches any kind of physical limit, long before that he feels emotionally exhausted. At the very best he can do about half of what a novice can do.
  4. He thinks social interaction and manners are a very good thing. He also finds them exhausting. This frustrates him as he wishes he could do them. He likes a short greeting, but dislikes any questions. He is temperamentally unable to engage in typical social conversation; for him insincerity is a crime. (He’s very sympathetic to people in distress if he recognizes the distress. He loves counseling people by letting them vent.)
  5. Give intermittent low key positive feedback. Understated, brief, positive. “Nice climb ___” is good. Minimize enthusiasm.
  6. Avoid any criticism of the form “you’re doing x, you should do y”. He has a wildly exaggerated response to well intended criticism; he plunges into despair.
  7. Give feedback in the form of “It’s ___ I’m going to ___”. For example: “It’s hot - I’m taking off my jacket.”, “I’m thirsty, I’m going to drink water.”, “I’m going to go fast down this bit so I can quickly climb the other side."
  8. He can be unexpectedly talkative. Polite responses are good. You don’t need to contribute much, just occasional topic related verbal prompts.

Thursday, July 14, 2016

Besides this blog: Facebook page for my book project

My posts are always intermittent, but they’re a bit less frequent as I’ve been posting on my book project in a Facebook Page: I’ll create some ‘check it out’ posts in future for people who don’t do Facebook, but if you’ve been assimilated there you might “Like” that Page.

Here are some recent posts of possible interest to people reading this blog. You don’t need to login to Facebook to read them, just dismiss the annoying dialogs that might appear:

Special needs urban bicycling - what streets are safe?

A few weeks ago I wrote about trying residential-urban (Saint Paul, MN) bicycle commute with #2. I realized he wasn’t ready, so we’re focusing on his mountain biking. He rides with a team I manage. It’s hard work for him, but he keeps persisting. I now do a scaled practice with him — about 50-70% of our novice rider practice routine. I got the scaling idea from my own CrossFit hobby — where I’m about 50% of the male athlete standard.

At that time I wrote that #1 was doing relatively well with his bike commuting. He has quite different cognitive traits; the two boys have complementary strengths. 

Then, on a family outing, #1 took off on a 4 lane (2 each way) 50mph+ roadway. I’m pretty sure he knew I would not approve, but he wasn’t just yanking my chain. He was also showing off how fast he is, specifically much faster than his father. (I already knew that!). I didn’t say anything at the time, but his bike was grounded when we got home.

It took a while to figure out a good approach to letting him ride streets again. I started out investigating local traffic skills classes; I thought I’d adopt that curriculum for him, maybe do a hands-on course together. I decided it was the wrong fit though. Many of the skills he already did well, some of the curriculum wasn’t relevant to real world commuting, and many of the topics were too abstract.

I realized we had two issues that were relatively unique to #1. One is long term hard. He has had words with people in bicycle trails/paths [1] and, as is typical when he experiences conflict, he now avoids all bicycle paths.[2]

The other is a simpler problem. He can’t easily classify roads into relatively safe vs. relatively dangerous. This isn’t obvious — try making up the rules! It took me a while to come up with a set of ‘safe riding places’. The current list with some familiar examples is:

It has a bike lane - like Fairview or Summit
It has a bike path - but you have to use the path (Shepherd bike path)
It is a "bike avenue" with bike pictures - like Jefferson
Speed limit is 35mph or less (NOT 45, 50, 55) AND has one lane (on each side if two way)

We’ve been over the list several times; he sometimes forgets the magic speed limit. It has helped to go over how few people survive being hit at 40mph (basically nobody, not that 35mph is so great). I put these rules, together with a checklist of essential ride items [3], into a note on his iPhone (using a browser interface to his iCloud account, as described in my Smartphones for All book).

Being as he is, it doesn’t work to get a simple agreement on these things. I keep his road bike locked, before I unlock it, he has to show he’s carrying the necessary gear, then he has to review the safe ride place rules (using is iPhone if needed). Only then do I unlock and wish him well.

He’s starting to transition to a routine. That’s a good sign; once he has a routine it tends to stick. 

Wish us luck.

- fn -

[1] I suspect this is mostly his fault, but addressing that is part of a long hard slog
[2] It is annoying to have pedestrians in the dedicated bike trails instead of the neighboring walking trail, but well tempered adults know to live and let live. #1 perseverates about these conflicts, I think they replay visually like a tape loop he can’t purge.
[3] He has quirks about carrying things. Nothing can be attached to his bike. He can’t explain why he dislikes taking his ID card or something with my number on it. His iPhone has his medical info, emergency contact and the like. I’m going to get that information written on back of his “must-carry” State ID. His iPhone shares his location using Apple Find Friends so we can track his long rides.
[4] As a teen and even as an middle-aged adult I’ve ridden more dangerous roads than the one he got grounded for. One of the unfair features of a monitored special needs adult is that you don’t get to do the stupid things your father did.