Friday, May 1, 2015

Issues in Independent Living – 100 Blogs

     If a fortune teller had predicted I'd write a blog called The Never-Empty Nest, with 100 posts over a two year period, I’d have called that person crazy.  How could I possibly write about issues related to young adults struggling to leave the family nest almost every week?  Surely, I’d lose interest, run out of ideas, or just become too busy living a complicated life to post in cyberspace for an infinite number of Fridays. Yet, here I go (again!) blogging onward. My twins, Sarah and Max, have (mostly) flown the coop, but that doesn’t mean their issues of living independently—along with those of many other millennials—are fully resolved (nor are the worries of their baby boomer parents).

      As I begin my 100th post, I can now see that my subject is as endless and inexhaustible as the conference I attended this weekend for the Asperger's Syndrome and High-Functioning Autism Association (AHA) at Adelphi University.  “Coming of age” is difficult and complicated enough for a neurotypical young adult. But for young people on the spectrum, “the growing up process” remains a steep, uphill journey that will be evolving for a long time, according to John Robison, the keynote speaker at Adelphi, who grew up at a time when Asperger’s Syndrome did not exist as a diagnosis. Can you imagine the stress of growing up, trying to fit in (and failing) without any idea of what was the matter? Finally, at age 40, Robison was diagnosed on the spectrum, followed by his son 10 years later. Now an acclaimed author, public speaker and educator, Robison has written the best-selling memoirs Look Me in the Eye: My life with Asperger’s, Be Different: My Adventures with Asperger’s and My Advice for Fellow Aspergians, Misfits, Families and Teachers, and Raising Cubby. A brilliant (and anything-but-shy) speaker, Robison not only describes the evolution of his own success with humor and inspiration, but also serves as a role-model for how individuals can lead successful lives based upon their gifts, instead of being marginalized  because of  their disabilities.
     Both Henry and I found him mesmerizing and thought-provoking. (Henry’s no smoke-blower, as he likes to say). Not only did Robison tell his own life-story, but he also spoke of neurodiversity in terms of “the recognition of differences as the next civil rights frontier.”  Today, he said, it’s common practice to discriminate against people with autism.  How many times, he asked, do we read about a murderer who is described as autistic? Look at the way the press debated whether the Sandy Hook shooter, Adam Lanza, had Asperger’s syndrome, and whether that contributed to his violent behavior. Such a description is perfectly legal—and not even viewed as politically incorrect—despite the fact that there’s no connection between an autistic spectrum disorder and violent aggression. I understand that some enterprising attorneys have tried to get their clients acquitted on felony charges on the grounds they had Asperger’s, but I put that in the same category as the Twinkie defense. Creative defense strategies in criminal trials don’t give the media the right to irresponsibly portray people on the spectrum as creepy or killers. No newspaper would dare to suggest that someone committed murder because that person is black, gay or Jewish, right? In fact, people with autism are much more likely to be VICTIMS of violence than PERPETRATORS.  (Duh!)
     People who look different suffer discrimination, but so do people with  less visible differences, like those on the spectrum. Robison believes that discrimination against autism now is comparable to the way gays were viewed in 1965: “Do I tell people I’m gay? Do I tell people I’m autistic?”  In the 1970s Harvey Milk, known as the ‘mayor of Castro Street,” begged gay men to come out of the closet and publicly support one another.  Martin Luther King spoke and led non-violent marches on behalf of Afro-American rights; Rosa Parks refused to sit in the back of the bus. And today most enlightened 21st century parents don’t relegate their children on the spectrum to life in an institution, or allow them to tolerate insults and mockery from people who don’t understand them or appreciate their talents.
     Due to Robison’s efforts to function in the neurotypical world, college students have accused him of metaphorically sitting at the back of the bus. Now he realizes that “faculty, students and people of all ages have to be able to say "I’m autistic.’ Only then will we get acceptance.” Isn’t he starting to sound like Harvey Milk?  Robison acknowledges that people on the spectrum—unlike other
minorities which are defined by their ethnicity—will need help and training to fit into our culture.  To fit in, people on the spectrum must feel good enough about themselves enough to speak up.

     "Isn’t it time for us to take narrative control of our culture and how we feel about ourselves?” Robison asked his audience at the conference. Thunderous applause was his answer.

     Poor self-image plagued Robison for much of his life, despite his success in multiple careers. Although his luxury car service company became one of the country’s top service centers—with Robison becoming more prosperous than many of the customers whose Mercedes and Range BMWs he serviced—he never saw himself has successful until recently. A few years ago, while working as Neurodiversity Scholar at William & Mary College, Robison asked an Afro-American professor how she’d managed to grow up with a positive self-image, despite being raised in the South.  Her answer was revealing.  In spite of bullying and racism, her parents were able to advocate and support her by providing positive role-models like Martin Luther King and explaining that racists were small-minded bullies. Robison, on the other hand, (who grew up white, male and “privileged”) did not have parents who provided support and advocacy. He was recognized for failure and bad behavior because there was no diagnosis or understanding of autism available at that time.
     So what’s the solution for kids growing up on the spectrum today?  Robison believes that people with autism must look to other minorities such as Afro-Americans and Jews as examples, and follow their lead in getting a good education. In the same way that colleges have programs with Afro-American Studies, and Jewish people have a long history of promoting scholarship and education, people with autism must also create a positive culture with strong leaders and heroes. According to Robison, there are more autistic people than Jews in the US.
     “Imagine if we could command the same respect as other minorities. . . .” Robison challenged the audience, filled with people on the spectrum and their parents. “Who are the heroes and leaders in the autistic world?  Our kids need to know autistic leaders and role models.  As parents, the greatest gift we can give them is a powerful sense of culture. If we have that, kids will know name-calling and bullying is mean and small.  We must build it! No one else builds a culture for a group except the group itself.”

     As I applauded, I couldn’t help thinking that Robison was one of those heroes.  I was sorry I hadn’t read his books or listened to him speak sooner. And for a long, lingering moment, I wished Sarah could have attended this conference and heard his speech.  Soon after I realized that she probably wouldn’t have understood his concepts, his eloquence or the inspiration that he offers to so many young adults on the spectrum.  Maybe if she’d learned about Robison (along with Temple Grandin and others) growing up in school, it would have helped her see her own disabilities in a different light, but Sarah was born too soon for that kind of education.  On the other hand, Henry and I have always believed in and advocated for Sarah.  Our whole family, including her twin brother, did our best to defend her from bullies and negative people.
     Until she graduated from Pace last May, Sarah seemed to have a Teflon ego.  Unable to find work or recapture the protective and “neurotypical” structure she enjoyed in school, Sarah has become less bubbly and enthusiastic. No matter how many times Henry and I tell her we are proud of her, she doesn’t believe us anymore.  Worst of all, she no longer seems proud of herself.
     But at least there’s a glimmer of hope for Sarah.  The short film, “Keep the Change” (Columbia University’s 2013 “Best Film” in which she co-starred) will probably be made into a full-length feature this summer.  (See "Sarah's Next Fifteen Minutes, 5/30/14 and  Oh yes, and “Keep the Change” was shown during lunch at the Adelphi conference.  Although Sarah had plans with friends, she was very excited to learn we went to see “her” movie at the conference.
     “Was my performance fabulous and wonderful?” She asks for the umpteenth time, smiling with glee. “I can’t wait to be in the full-length feature!” Her eyes light up for a moment.
     “Me too.”  My voice matches her enthusiasm. I yearn for the day my daughter regains her pride and positive-self-image. Sarah will probably never be a hero or super articulate spokesperson for people on the spectrum. Yet her appearance in “Keep the Change” can educate neurotypical people and help them see that young adults with autism are capable of love and empathy. Some people on the spectrum—like my daughter—have beautiful singing voices and can be actors too. I’m hoping that one of these days the uber-competitive and cut-throat entertainment industry will begin to embrace more performers with autism.  In the meantime, Sarah can continue to be a trailblazer, leading the way for others on the spectrum in her own Sarah-way. I’m proud of her for all of her hard-won accomplishments and always will be.  Sarah, I hope you’re reading this.


Friday, April 24, 2015

Beyond Autism and a Dead Dog on Broadway

   If you haven’t seen the Broadway play “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time,” hurry over to the Ethel Barrymore Theatre and get tickets.  This not-to-be missed show is based on the 2003 award-winning mystery novel by British writer, Mark Haddon. What starts out as an autistic boy’s determined and torturous effort to “investigate” the death of his neighbor’s dog ends up revealing deeper truths about the boy’s family and how we all must adapt to life’s chaos and disappointments.   
     As the curtain rises, the audience is immediately confronted with the startling image of a large white dog, lying center-stage with a pitchfork plunged into its side.  Kneeling next to the dead dog is Christopher age 15, wailing and rocking, holding his head in his hands. The police arrive and take Christopher away as a suspect.  All hell breaks loose as Christopher assaults a police officer—not because he’s guilty or resisting arrest—but simply because he HATES being touched.  In addition to this aversion to touch, Christopher is a math genius, who knows every prime number up to 7057, along with the capitals of every country in the world.  Yet everyday conversations are an infuriating conundrum for him.  Confused by clichés and small talk, Christopher throws terrible tantrums whenever his rigid and orderly world is violated in any way.  Played to perfection by Alex Sharp, the character of Christopher comes alive in ways that feel both mesmerizing and exhausting. Throughout Mr. Sharp’s virtuoso performance, I was not only reminded of my daughter Sarah’s meltdowns, but also—and more importantly— of all the similarities AND differences between individuals on the autistic spectrum.
     “I see everything.  Most other people are lazy,” he tells the audience.  Unlike other passengers on a train who observe houses, trees or grass out the window, Christopher can tell you exactly how many houses there are within a five mile radius. He knows how many red cars are in the street and whether or not they are Chevrolets.  However, these detailed observations come with the heavy price of extreme sensory overload.  Think you’re so different from Christopher?  This production may well convince you otherwise.  Piercing lights and sound engulf the audience as well as the characters, forcing us to understand firsthand the curse and blessing of seeing everything all at once.
     Staged within a black box grid, the play is brilliant in it use of choreography and sound effects to take you inside Christopher’s head. The audience literally watches Christopher climbing the walls; we also experience the flood of prime numbers in his head as he tries to sleep; and his extreme panic as he navigates a crowded train station, trying to find his way to London while carrying his pet rat. Choreographers Scott Graham and Steven Hogget show the cast of characters on and off the train as the writhing whirlpool of humanity they appear to be from Christopher’s perspective. I felt every bit as tortured as the over-stimulated 15 year old boy himself, watching him struggle to buy a ticket, find the correct train and contend with a smelly, disgusting toilet.
     Special education teacher Siobhan (Francesca Faridany) plays a helpful and soothing intermediary between Christopher and the audience.  By the second act, she has convinced Christopher to turn his written notebook into the play we are watching. Faridany does an excellent job of portraying a respectful mentor with a calming influence on Christopher. He trusts her, and so do we.  As a parent of a special needs daughter, I remember feeling that same reciprocity of respect and sense of calm with Sarah’s best teachers.  It’s so very important to be understood AND respected for being who we are, no matter what our strengths and challenges happen to be, isn’t it?
     “It’s going to be all right,” different people keep assuring Christopher in less-than-convincing voices.  We hear these empty reassurances from Christopher’s father, his mother, his teachers, well-meaning neighbors and strangers.  But as the play unfolds, we end up sharing Christopher’s view. Nothing will ever be “all right,” but if you’re brave and determined enough to push beyond your worst fears and overcome life’s day-to-day challenges, you—like Christopher—can find comfort and relief.

There are “feel good” moments both large and small In “Curious Incident of the Dog in Night Time.”  When Christopher allows his palm to make contact with his parent’s palm, the audience feels their love and connection.  Likewise, we are proud of Christopher for taking advanced Math tests and achieving “A Stars,” the highest possible grade—despite his anxiety and lack of food or sleep. Is this really so different from how we feel when our neurotypical sons and daughters suffer through SATs and get high scores?  Like Temple Grandin, Christopher seems to have a stronger emotional connection with animals than humans. At the start of the play, we see this connection in his extreme grief over his neighbor’s dog, and later we see the tenderness and devotion he displays toward his pet rat.  And, for the ultimate “feel good moment,” (dare I say slightly over the top?) an adorable puppy dog makes a cameo appearance toward the finale of the play. There’s even an extra “special” ending to the play for those willing to wait for it (and just about everyone did).  That encore was both unexpected and, ironically, EXACTLY what the audience had come to expect: brilliance.  But I won’t tell you more.  I want you to go see for yourself.

Friday, April 17, 2015

Anti-Semitic Fever and Holocaust Remembrance Day

   Back in the 1970s, when I left my parents’nest for Vassar College, I never worried about anti-Semitism. Only a train ride from New York City, I felt safe and accepted at my home away from home. Vassar, in particular, had been welcoming to a diverse population—especially gay and transgender students—long before such efforts to diversify were considered educationally desirable and politically correct. Apparently those days are over, with respect to being Jewish—not just at Vassar but at other elite colleges here and abroad. 
     The freedom to enjoy elite colleges for Jewish Americans lasted for only a brief window in U.S. history. In my mother’s generation, many colleges had “quotas” (limited number of spaces available) for Jews. My best friend’s mom was accepted to Mt. Holyoke as part of the Jewish contingent in the late 1940s. Later, the quota system was abolished. So Jewish Americans enjoyed a temporary sweet spot in academia between the abolishment of the quota system and now.
     An article entitled “Vile at Vassar” (in last year’s New York Daily News) described how current college President Catharine Hill allowed an “anti-Israel infection” to linger for months before finally criticizing the rhetoric of anti-Israel Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP). The criticism came only after much provocation, including the Anti-Israel group display of a cartoon labelled “Liberators” that shows a monster stomping on a European city while wearing a Star of David and carrying a U.S. flag. Before that incident, SJP had hosted an “Israel Apartheid Week” in an attempt to disrupt a Vassar-sponsored trip to Israel. Even more disturbing is the fact that some faculty members participated in the anti-Semitic fever. Thirty nine professors protested after President Hill finally decided that Vassar would not join the American Studies Association’s call to boycott  Israeli universities. As an alumna, I remember receiving letters and emails from Hill trying to explain and justify the school’s position in this toxic affair. I was just happy my son had avoided most of the cross-fire by graduating in 2013.
    Vassar is not alone with anti-Semitism problems. The debate over what constitutes anti-Semitism has spilled into Stanford University student government elections, according to an article in The New York Times this week. While seeking an endorsement from the Students of Color Coalition, a Jewish student was asked how her religion affected her view of divestment from Israel. This question shifted the focus from the campus election to a fiery argument about ethnic identity and loyalty. When the Jewish candidate revealed that she opposed divestment, there was an awkward silence after which her interview ended—without gaining the group’s endorsement. I’d vote for this young woman based on her honesty alone, and I’m rooting for her in the Stanford University election.
     I am the first one to defend freedom of speech. But protesting Israeli government policy is NOT the same as anti-Semitism. The problem occurs when anti-Israel sentiment is exploited and propagandized to feed and fuel anti-Semitism. Currently, anti-Semitism on college campuses is growing at a terrifying rate, with more than half of Jewish students reporting they have suffered some form of anti-Jewish harassment, according to a recent study conducted by Trinity College and the Louis D. Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law. The survey (which included 1,157 Jewish students at 55 American colleges) found that 54% experienced or witnessed “anti-Semitism on campus during the first six months of the 2013-2014 academic year.” 
     “The patterns and high rates of anti-Semitism were surprising,” reports Ariela Keysar, an associate research professor at Trinity College who co-authored the report. “Rather than being localized to a few campuses or restricted to politically active or religious students, this problem is widespread. Jewish students are subjected to both traditional prejudices and the new political anti-Semitism.” Keep in mind that the Trinity survey was conducted BEFORE last year’s conflict in the Gaza Strip, before anti-Jewish sentiment spiked globally. I don’t know about you, but these frightening findings make me want to stay home.

     Have any of you also noticed the alarming increase in anti-Semitism here and around the world? If you’re Jewish and grew up in New York City in the ‘60s, the subject didn’t come up nearly as often as it does now. If we talked about anti-Semitism, it was WWII, a cautionary tale for us kids about a time when racial prejudice and aggression ran wild. Tales of anti-Semitism were always followed by reassurances that American Jews had been safe during the war and would continue to be safe. At school and camp, I pledged allegiance to the American flag with special gratitude and passion.

     Of course, I know anti-Semitism has always existed, long before World War II. Scapegoating is an ancient and primitive human pastime, driven by emotions like envy, spite, and fear. Bigotry–against Afro-Americans, against Jews, against Asians, against whoever we cast as “other”— will continue to haunt humanity into the future. But when I headed off to college, travelled to Israel, Egypt, and many other parts of the world, I was exposed to very little anti-Semitism. Even in Arab countries where anti-Semitism became a palpable presence—when my friend’s passport with an obviously Jewish last name was stamped—I never felt personally attacked or unsafe while travelling, the way I would now.
     Henry and I used to love vacationing in France, but not anymore. Paris is still romantic; the resorts in the south are sublime in their beauty and elegance. Too bad all I can think about in Paris now is the slaughter of Charlie Hebdo journalists and the kosher butcher shop where customers were gunned down. After a long Arctic winter nestling deep into my nest, (see “Hunkering Down,”3/6/15) it would be nice to fly to one of my favorite foreign countries.  But this year it won’t be France. Did you know that last week a French soccer player, Nicolas Anelka, created a furor by publicly giving a reverse Nazi salute, the quenelle, after scoring a goal during a match?

     Where did this oblique version of Sieg Heil originate? Dieudonne M’bala M’bala—a popular French comedian who has been repeatedly condemned and fined by French courts for his anti-Semitic comments—performs the backward quenelle, and it has quickly become an internet sensation. Since its resurgence in popularity, the quenelle has been used by athletes in France, the United Kingdom, and even here in the US. Earlier this week, San Antonio Spurs guard Tony Parker gave a public apology after a photo surfaced of him giving the reverse Nazi salute  with Dieudonne.

     French authorities are considering shutting down Dieudonne’s one-man show, which has been playing to packed houses in Paris.  After a recent performance Dieudonne quipped that hearing Patrick Cohen, a Jewish journalist, makes him yearn for the return of gas chambers. (!!!)  Who is laughing at that joke? Not the 6 million Jews who died in WWII, nor the 15,000 homosexuals, 250,000 mentally and physically disabled people. Not the 25 million Russians killed fighting the war, or the 15,000,000 Chinese. In fact, the 8 million Germans who died are not laughing either.

     I’m hoping the next global generation will regard all past genocide missions –Bosnia, Armenia, Native Americans, Australian Aboriginals, Pygmies, Rwanda, and Kurds, IN ADDITION TO the approximately 72,468,900 people who died in WWII— and feel  HORRIFIED instead of amused. How would Dieudonne, of Afro-American descent, feel if a popular white comedian in New York said he longed for friendship with the Ku Klux Klan and wished he could invite them to bring a lynch mob onto his show? But that would never happen, right? Because that would be racism . . .
First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.

Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.
—Martin Niemöller


Friday, April 10, 2015

Powers of Persuasion

     Wouldn't it be great to have such a compelling personality that you could persuade people to buy your product, adopt your point of view, or follow you to the ends of the earth?  I promise I wouldn’t be a psychopath, and I’d really enjoy that kind of power.  If you’re an empty nester/baby boomer like me, there may be a growing sense of urgency about writing the next chapter of your life.  In the blink of an eye—or so it seems—children grow up, fly away from the nest, and start their adult lives. 

     Now, you see them. Now you don’t.  Poof!  Gone! 

     Since my children are adults (or trying to be), I’m forced to recognize that I've become (gulp!) an older adult.  More time is behind me than ahead of me.  Better write the blog, publish the book and travel to unseen parts of the world with my husband, before I’m TOO old.  In other words, hurry up and live your dream, become a new—and hopefully MORE compelling—person before it’s too late.
     What are the qualities of compelling people that catapult them to success?  Answering that question is the subject of Compelling People –The Hidden Qualities That Make Us Influential, by John Neffinger & Matthew Kohut.  Using cutting edge research along with their own work with businessmen, politicians and Nobel Prize winners, the authors reveal how people judge and persuade each other. If you want to learn the ins and outs of succeeding at everything in your life—whether personal or professional—this book is an informative and interesting (dare I say compelling?) read.
     Before I share my reactions to Compelling People, let’s start by looking at some of the definitions Compelling People for tips on how to become more charismatic.
of “compelling.” According to Google, “compelling” means “evoking interest, attention or admiration in a powerful or irresistible way.”  Other synonyms offered are: “enthralling, absorbing gripping, riveting and spell-binding.”  Sounds great, right? Who wouldn’t want to be riveting and spell-binding? Google’s definition is probably nearest and dearest to Neffinger and Kohut because it covers all the successful people in their book, from Martin Luther King, Robert Kennedy and Oprah Winfrey to successful salespeople, journalists and spies.  However, not EVERY definition of compelling describes positive or desirable human traits.  Let’s take “tending to compel, as to force or push toward a course of action.”  (This is sounding more like the psychopath version.) Or how about Merriam-Webster’s definition: “strong and forceful: causing you to feel that you must do something.”  Not bad, but it sounds awfully close to bullying, depending on the ethics of the compelling person. Hitler, Osama bin Laden and Jihad Johnny are compelling AND evil.  Hopefully, future terrorists and criminals will NOT be reading
     According to Neffinger and Kohut’s analysis, compelling people possess an abundance of two simple (but often conflicting) qualities: strength and warmth.   Strength, they say, is the province of people who “get things done” and the measure of how much an individual can “impose their will on the world.” Warmth, on the other hand, refers to empathy, familiarity and love.  Achieving the perfect balance of strength and warmth is a much more complicated endeavor than you might imagine.  It’s much more difficult—surprise, surprise—to be viewed in a positive light if you’re a strong woman. (Witness the ups and downs of Hillary Clinton).  And, of course, it’s trickier to show warmth as a man without being perceived as weak.
     What’s best about Compelling People is that it leads to self-examination.  What moments in your life have you been most successful and compelling?  How did you display strength or warmth in the past, and how might you do so more effectively in the future?  I found myself remembering my campaign  for kindergarten rep at my son’s elementary school. After giving an impromptu speech to an auditorium filled with hundreds of parents I’d never met before, I got elected!  Why did they vote for me?  Maybe because I was lucky enough to speak last. I’d had the opportunity to hear the other candidates and learn from their mistakes. By the time it was my turn, I figured out the best way to deal with my nervousness: a little self-deprecating humor and a convincing riff about how my years in public relations would make me a diplomatic and effective advocate for their children. 

     An even better example comes to mind when I recall the way Henry managed to get our daughter, Sarah, accepted at a special education school where she’d been wait listed.   Henry employed the perfect mix of strength and warmth.  Unable to reach the school directors on the phone to plead for our daughter, Henry showed up at the school without an appointment.  

     “Both directors are in meetings,” he was told. “They won’t see you without an appointment.”

     “I’ll wait,” he assured the receptionist, settling into the waiting room and beginning to read legal briefs.

     An hour later, my husband was reluctantly ushered in, if only to clear the waiting room. Armed with adorable pictures of Sarah (warmth) and a promise from a prominent child psychiatrist to offer their teachers a workshop if they accepted our daughter (strength), Henry pitched a compelling plea. The result? Our daughter got the first available opening.

     Perhaps the best and most enjoyable examples of compelling people offered in the book are Ayn Rand and the Beatles.  These two are considered polar opposites.  For Ayn Rand and her followers, strength is everything.  Her view of the world is bleak: “The strong do what they can, and the weak suffer what they must.” The downside of this philosophy is that power alone can get things done through force and coercion.  That’s not the world we want to build, is it? People who are all strength and no warmth may inspire fear and obedience, but they’re unlikely to earn much affection and love.  At the other extreme, are the Beatles, who rose to fame with songs like “All You Need is Love,” in opposition to the Vietnam War.  While the Beatles are perhaps, the most successful musical group of all time, plenty of people still believe nice guys finish last.  Alas, I can’t carry a tune, and I’ll NEVER win the prize for Miss Congeniality. But maybe I can add a tablespoon of assertiveness and smile more often.

     Small gestures count. Many ingredients contribute to people’s perceptions of strength and warmth, including: verbal strength, voice, smiles, head tilts, handshakes, eye contact, and gestures.  Even hormones contribute to the impression we make.  More testosterone makes us seem stronger; oxytocin pumps up warmth.  I particularly liked the observations about Clint Eastwood’s “flinty smile” as a successful balance of strength and warmth. 

     As a baby boomer, still learning (and struggling) to manage technology and social media, I found the authors’ suggestions on how to courteously conduct these “conversations” with people in cyberspace especially helpful.  I will certainly keep their ideas in mind as I continue to blog and tweet.  I also particularly appreciated Neffinger and Kohut’s brief discussion of disability. As a mother of a young woman on the autistic spectrum, this quote was music to my ears:  “Adversity builds character. Someone who manages to project even a moderate level of warmth and strength in the face of it is someone we can all admire.” Bravo, to Sarah and all her friends, who bravely go out into the world with their heads held high. The powers of persuasion sometimes transcend words.

Friday, April 3, 2015

World Autism Awareness Day

   What a difference a year can make!  Remember when I wrote about April being devoted to “autism awareness” last year?  (See “April and Autism,” 4/4/14).  I shared my conviction that a single month of “awareness” was absurdly insufficient to resolve the complex issues of a growing epidemic that currently affects 1 out of 68 babies.  Year-round awareness—and more importantly, ACTION—is essential if we are planning to help the current tsunami of young adults on the spectrum find their place in the world.
      “World Autism Awareness Day,” a “Call to Action—Employment for Persons with Autism” was at the UNITED NATIONS, and I of course, I attended.  What could offer better solace to a mother whose young adult daughter on the spectrum has been unemployed for almost a year, after graduating cum laude from Pace University,(!)?  (Of course, an actual job offer would be better than solace.) In the meantime, it was still gratifying to hear the Secretary General of the United Nations, Ban Ki Moon, assure his audience that worldwide employment of people on the autistic spectrum was a “high priority,” for both him and his wife.
     Keynote speaker and governor of Delaware, Jack Markell, remarked that only 30% of people with disabilities are currently included in the workforce, and only 50% of individuals on the spectrum have EVER held a job. The governor pointed out that employing people with autism is a “win-win.” (Be still my beating heart!) We must stop “taking care of people with autism, and embrace their diversity,” he remarked, causing more hope to well up in my chest. Do you want to hear my favorite line from the whole event: “Let’s not make this someone else’s problem to solve.”
     For a full three hours, I listened to 27 thought leaders from different areas of the autism world talk about how and why individuals on the spectrum should be hired.  Business people from Specialisterne, Hewlett Packard, Microsoft and SAP all argued that training and hiring people on the spectrum will actually benefit organizations, instead of being an act of charity.

     What are the benefits of hiring people on the spectrum?  

     1.  Demonstrating leadership in addressing the unacceptably high unemployment rate among adults on the autistic spectrum (about 80%).

     2. Improving the quality of products by tapping the special talents of people on the spectrum, which include superior pattern recognition and attention to detail.
     3. Achieving a better understanding of the customer base by employing workers who more accurately reflect the general population.

     4.  An autism-friendly work environment generally creates a better place for all employees to thrive.

     During the conference, many great ideas and much good will were offered. These quotes were high points for me:
    “Come as you are.  Do what you love.”  May Ellen Smith, Microsoft VP,Operations.
      “Businesses need people capable of thinking differently to get out of a rut.”
     “It’s time to make autism sexy.” Merry Barua, Director, Action for Autism & National Center for Autism, India.
     “My dream is to have 1 million jobs by 2025” (for people on the spectrum). Dad and employer.
     “I’m committed to employing people with autism for three reasons: their honesty, passion and loyalty.” Tanja Rueckert, Executive VP, SAP.
      "People are disabled by perception and the environment.  Both of these can change.”
      "If you've met one person on the autistic spectrum, you've met one person. Each one’s unique.”
     The most moving speeches of the day were given by young adults with autism, describing their experiences in the work force.  The first—and saddest— graduate student, Emily Brooks, told us how she’d been forced to publicly disclose her autism at her workplace.  Treated like a child, she was denied any helpful accommodations as a result of her disclosure and was repeatedly excluded from social functions.  Both articulate and passionate, Ms. Brooks implored the world to "end discrimination and stereotypes that restrict our job fields, opportunities and career paths.” Amen!
     The second speaker, John Hartman, an accomplished artist, jewelry maker and woodcarver, has also worked as a delivery man for a kosher deli for 10 years. Beaming with pride, he told us how much he appreciated that job.  Tears welled in his eyes as he spoke of the love and support from his parents who had always believed in him. (And yes, my eyes grew moist as well).
     Randy Richardson, the third speaker, is an assistant paralegal with Mayerson & Associates, the first law firm in the country dedicated to people with autism.  Happily, he spoke of a supportive work environment where there were “always people around to answer his questions and help him out.” Even more happily, he added that he “just got a raise after two years.”
     Will this one day event, filled with hope and encouraging words help my daughter Sarah to find a job any time soon?  Maybe if she was a computer geek, or if she wanted to work in a corporate office, Sarah could send her resume to some of the employers who spoke.  Unfortunately, my daughter’s talents and interests lie elsewhere— working with young children, singing, and acting.  No one from the entertainment or education field was present at the UN to offer any opportunities to young adults with autism. Once again, Sarah and I find ourselves pioneering new territory.  Still, it does my heart good to hope that the two mothers sitting next to me— both with fourteen year-olds on the spectrum— will reap the benefits of the ideas presented at the United Nations this year,, as more and more people gradually open their minds and hearts to the next generation of young adults on the spectrum.

Friday, March 27, 2015

Reinvented Lives

It is never too late to be what you might have been. –George Eliot 

     Isn’t it encouraging to know that even if you’re 50, 60 (or possibly older), you still have time become successful in a new career?  According to The New York Times, “Finding Success, Well Past the Age of Wunderkind” (3/21), you can succeed as writer, artist or even an athlete (!) considerably later in life than most people imagine. If you’ve never had time to write the great American novel or swim the English Channel, don’t assume you’re too late.  As an empty nester in my 50s about to publish my first book, I was delighted (and relieved) to read about 80 year old Lucille Shulklapper, who published her first book of poetry at age 60. How many 80 year old women do you know who are featured (and photographed) in a Times article— unless it’s an obituary? Happily, Ms. Shulklapper—a widowed grandmother of six—has already published four chapbooks and will publish her first children’s book, Stuck in Bed Fred early next year. (Bravo!)  Like me and many other women, Ms. Shulklapper had put aside her literary aspirations decades ago, when she got married, raised a family and took a steady job to pay her bills.
     “I am living beyond my dreams,” Shulklapper told the Times from her home in Boca Raton, Fla. “I feel as though it’s my baby.  A long pregnancy and now its delivery, all 10 toes and fingers.” That’s EXACTLY how I feel about publishing my first book.
     Most people believe that if you don’t write like Shakespeare, paint like Picasso or hike the Himalayas by the time you’re middle-aged, the odds are you’ll never do it. (I remember feeling tremendous anxiety about going to my FIVE year Vassar College reunion, because I hadn’t written the great American novel, climbed the corporate ladder (OR met Mr. Right).  And—truth to tell—I never attended a single reunion after the fifth because I didn’t feel accomplished enough to hold my own while chit chatting with successful classmates.  But now, like many other people my age, I’ve changed my mind about what it means to have a successful life. 

     Why now?  First, people are leading longer, healthier lives. The number of Americans age 65 and older increased tenfold in the last century, and the elderly are living longer, in more comfort and better health than ever before, researchers report.  Second, “retirement” has started taking on a new meaning. Increasingly, more people are reinventing themselves by starting new careers or recreating old ones which had been abandoned because of family obligations. In recent years, much has been written about the benefits of continuing to be active mentally and physically. Becoming an empty nester (but not yet decrepit) helped me see that kids DO (finally!) grow up; and, yes, time really DOES run out, even for us upbeat baby boomers.  So if not NOW, when?  What about embracing the idea that life can be just as rewarding—both creatively and emotionally— (if not more so) in the second half of our journey than the first?
     Later-in-life triumphs are plentiful, according to numerous examples cited in The New York Times and on Google.  At age 56, Ernestine Shepherd started bodybuilding and running marathons. John Pemberton didn’t invent Coca Cola till he was 55.  (Thanks, John! And who came up with the formula for Diet Coke? Thanks to that person too!) Golda Meir was 70 when she became the 4th Prime Minister of Israel. Dyana Nyad swam from Cuba to Florida at age 64.  Harland Sanders didn’t build his KFC empire until his 60s.  Author of “Little House on the Prairie,” Laura Ingalls Wilder published her first novel at 65, while Frank McCourt, author of “Angela’s Ashes,” won his Pulitzer Prize at age 66. And let’s not forget about Grandma Moses, who started painting at 75.
     A round of applause for late bloomers, please!

     Karl Pillemer, a Cornell University professor of gerontology, says “we absolutely have to revamp this idea of a linear pattern of accomplishment. There are simply too many examples of people who bloom late, and it’s the most extraordinary time of their life.” Pillemer has interviewed more than 1,500 people age 70 and older for the Legacy Project at Cornell. Many respondents said they had embarked on a fulfilling endeavor after age 65.  “There was this feeling of somehow ‘getting it right’ at 50 or 60 or older,” he said, remarking that this conviction applies to creative efforts, relationships and work.

     Of course there are age limitations for success in some fields.  According to researchers, crystallized intelligence (general knowledge) tends to grow over a lifetime, whereas fluid intelligence (problem solving) weakens after a person’s late 20s. Becoming a mathematician or a chess master after age 50 probably won’t work, because these fields require a lot of fluid intelligence from the outset, according to Dean Keith Simonton, psychology professor at the University of California, Davis and author of “The Wiley Handbook of Genius.” (Thankfully, I never liked math or had any interest in chess). However, Mr. Simonton remarks that “often people don’t even discover what they really want to do with their lives—or even where their talents might lie—until well past middle age. Grandma Moses is the proverbial case.”
     What about the issue of peaking in a given field? According to David Galenson, author of “Old Masters and Young Geniuses: The Two Life Cycles of Artistic Creativity,” there are two types of thinkers in most fields: conceptual and experimental. Conceptual minds are usually younger and better with abstractions, while experimental thinkers work by trial and error, spending more time on gestation.  Such distinctions explain why Pablo Picasso—a conceptual artist—created his best work at age 26, whereas the experimental artist, Paul Cezanne, produced his greatest painting at 67.
     To “peak” in a given field has a different meaning depending on who you ask.  Most people—at any age—will NEVER paint like Picasso or build a multi-million dollar corporate empire. On the other hand, Marjorie Forbes was a retired social worker who began studying the oboe at 68. At first she was happy “tootling away” in her Manhattan living room, but as her skills improved, Ms. Forbes had higher aspirations. After taking a music course at Oberlin College, she joined chamber ensembles at the 92nd Street Y and Lucy Moses, a community arts school in New York.  Now 81, she considers herself a “medium good amateur.” Ms. Forbes acknowledges that she “can’t make money doing what I’m doing, but I think I’ve reinvented myself to do something I’ve always wanted to do.” She adds, “I never dreamed I’d get to be as good as I am.”
     How successful can you become at whatever it is you’ve dreamed of doing?  If you don’t try, you’ll never find out.  That’s why I finally started writing in my 50s, sending out my essays and stories to hundreds of (mostly obscure) literary magazines. After hundreds (yes, hundreds!) of rejections, my work has appeared in five publications.  Two years ago I started this blog, and I recently completed (the millionth draft of) my memoir. I don’t expect my book to make the Times best-seller list.  But if I can help some of the families struggling with kids on the autistic spectrum hold onto their hopes and not give up when the going gets tough, I’ll consider myself successful. And, by the way, yes, I’m planning on going to my next college reunion….

Friday, March 13, 2015

Birthday Bounty

     Birthdays have been coming at breakneck speed these last few years.  Time flies—not necessarily because I’m having fun—but because I realize there’s so much less time left for me in the future than the past.  (See “Fast Forward Birthdays," 3/8/13).  Each year I ask myself:  “How is it even possible that I’m fifty-something?” Before I know it I’ll be entering—gulp(!)—a whole new decade. I shudder to think what it will feel like to punch in TWO new numbers on an elliptical machine. If I want to reinvent myself—as all empty nesters must—then NOW is the time.  No more postponing, no more saying “there’s always next year.” Turning middle-aged dreams into reality takes time and planning.

     My latest ideas are a lot more complicated than converting my son’s childhood room into a den. For the past five years, I’ve been gestating a memoir, writing and rewriting the story of raising my unusual twins.  Now it’s time to hatch the book: “My Picture Perfect Family.” Coincidentally, the launch began on my birthday; I met with my editor, publisher, and marketing expert to brainstorm about the book’s release. Writing my memoir was daunting enough. But now there are more unfamiliar tasks to be tackled and decisions to make.  What should the cover look like? (Yes, you CAN tell a lot about a book by its cover, ESPECIALLY if you believe, as I do, that a picture is worth a thousand words.)  What is my “brand?”  What about a subtitle that clarifies the book’s purpose? Should there be an endorsement on the front cover? What’s the difference between a prologue and an introduction?   Which copy editor is cost efficient? Which publicist has the right area of expertise?

     What started as a relatively insignificant birthday turned into a brainstorming session about the ins and outs of birthing my book in proper form, and sending it out into the world with a message of hope for people raising children on the autistic spectrum. There’s a lot of work to be done—some of which I was secretly dreading—but now I see that it’s actually going to be a lot of  FUN.  Writing is a wonderful creative release, but it can leave you feeling isolated and alone.  On the other hand, publishing is a collaborative process, and equally creative in its own way. Oddly, I find myself enjoying the launching process more than I’d ever thought I would.  Maybe I’m just excited because I’m involved in publishing my very FIRST book. Writing has always been about my relationship with the empty page; now I have a supportive and enthusiastic “team” behind me, which includes my best friend.  And sometime this coming year, I’ll finally share my story with the world. Stay tuned. . .

     This year I had a bountiful birthday.  Not only did I receive a lovely gift and roses from Henry, but my son and his girlfriend also sent flowers.  My daughter gave me a beautiful card with hearts painstakingly drawn on a pink envelope.  What more could a birthday Mom want?
       After two weeks of blogging about dismal headlines decrying discrimination against women (and especially women with disabilities), finally I want to tell you some good news.  This week there was an open house at Felicity House, a new Community Center dedicated to—can you believe it—women on the autistic spectrum! Better still, my daughter, Sarah’s film, “Keep the Change”(winner of the 2013 Columbia University Film Festival) was shown. (See Sarah's Next Fifteen Minutes," 5/30/14).  Director Rachel Israel and female lead Sarah were invited to speak about the film and answer questions. Maybe just maybe somebody will be moved to invest in the full-length version of “Keep the Change?” In fifteen short minutes, this extraordinary film shows that two young people with disabilities can struggle for romantic and emotional connection and succeed.  What could be better proof of this ability to connect than my real-life daughter Sarah and serious boyfriend of over a year?  There MUST be parents out there who dare to dream that their sons and daughters on the autistic spectrum will find love and someone to care for them after we’re gone.

     The hopes and dreams of women on the autistic spectrum matter.  Although 80% of people on the spectrum are male, that does not excuse marginalizing the 20% female minority.  Sadly,  50% of the world’s population (neurotypical women) are still not treated as equal to males, so what hope do women with disabilities (a double  minority) have of finding a productive and respected place in the world?  Answer: Not much, and that’s why I’m SO grateful  to each individual and every event that shines a spotlight on women who—like my daughter Sarah—have already exceeded most people’s expectations. For me, that’s the best birthday gift of all.