Saturday, July 19, 2014

Cubing in Public, Neurology Edition.

I haven't talked about cubing that much since I've been excited about PS3 and WiiU things the last few months, so I probably have a few too many things saved up to talk about.

I discovered that there is someone at my local drugstore that can at least solve two layers of the cube, and he says that he had learned in middle school but had fallen out of practice. It's nice to see him at the register now, since I have something to talk to him about other than just random chit-chat stuff.  The first few times I encountered him he was on the late shift, so with fewer people in the store we had a chance for him to demonstrate what he could do. I just saw him a couple of days ago but I couldn't find out if he had been practicing because he was getting a fairly thorough talking-to by the store manager about several things but thankfully none of those things were about why you shouldn't operate a Rubik's cube on company time.

About a month or so ago, I was at an event where there were various vendors present, some of which were giving away various trinkets and things for kids to do which included one of those slightly oversize cubes made of rather soft plastic. You can see the kind I'm talking about here from one of my old YouTube videos, it's the same as the largest one. Instead of regular stickers, it has very eye-catching shiny laser-cut stickers with circular patterns on them, so one of my kids grabbed one for me. Since we got it for free and those are usually pretty cheap to start with, I didn't feel bad about taking it with me to work and leaving it out at the sales counter for people to mess with. What I didn't realize was that it wouldn't take much abuse, so someone managed to shear the foot off of one of the edge pieces within a few days of it being out at the counter. To me, it's just hard to turn and I know to ease up on the softer pieces.  You can still place the piece in such a way that it looks like it's together, so now it's just fun to leave it at the counter and see who thinks that they broke it. The guy that actually did break it has become interested in cubing, and got himself a GhostHand cube and learned how to solve it. The only other person that I usually see at my counter that can solve a Rubik's Cube (that I know of) has started working on larger cubes, and he's been practicing on the 4x4x4 and the 5x5x5.

The cube has been a good icebreaker for me at work, even to the point where my boss will put me up to it in an attempt to showcase me to certain customers that hadn't dealt with me yet. I'd like to think that it allows me to make a good impression as someone that may have talents that are not immediately apparent, and that I can demonstrate fluid competency on something that most people would struggle with. What was surprising to me was that he used it to re-introduce me to our division vice president when he stopped by this last week. During the introduction phase of the meeting, my boss asked me to get a cube so I should show the group my particular talent.  I grabbed my GhostHand and my DaYan that I have out at the counter and gave the group my usual demonstration, and tried to field questions as best I could. The division vice president started to ask me something about my "God-given talent" and I felt compelled to interrupt him as fast as I could and emphasize that what he was seeing was purely the result of practice, and the only natural advantage I might have had to start with is having a good spatial sense. It's a little sad, I suppose, that for all of the time that I spend with a cube I'm not anywhere near the fastest in the world. Last time I checked, if I averaged 35 seconds under competition conditions, my ranking would be somewhere are 16,000th in the world. What I realized, though, is pure speed is not really the thing that I practice any more. What I do and what I seem to practice is demonstrating the cube while solving it, and being able to maintain my end of a conversation and answering questions while solving it. It may not be conducive to me having better times, but I'm still enjoying it, and I'd like to think it's more entertaining this way. Our division vice president used my little demonstration as a way to segue into talking about how each branch and in a larger sense the entire company needs to work as a team, and about how it's helpful to have a mix of different talents available on those teams.

Several of the regular customers at our counter are accustomed to me, despite some of my personality quirks, but only one so far had been daring enough to drop this question on me.

"So, are you autistic? Like your brain never shuts off?"

I didn't really know how to answer the question at that moment, but it's certainly something I've thought about. All I could tell him was that both of my children have been diagnosed with Asperger's, and that the current version of the DSM includes Asperger's as part of a larger generalized disorder diagnosis criteria. I think I may have made some sort of "the apple doesn't fall far from the tree" comment as well (or I thought it but I'm unable to distinguish the difference when replaying the event in my head later). The customer then went on about how autism was probably caused by "those big needles they stick in women when they're pregnant". At the time I presume he was talking about epidural anesthesia, but now that I think of it he could have just as easily have been talking about amniocentesis. I had to remind him that there are strong genetic factors involved in autism and Asperger's and I tried to describe the surge in cases in Silicon Valley, but I think I came off like a rambling lunatic. It's not uncommon to come off like a rambling lunatic if you present a completely different viewpoint that someone else is unprepared for.

As far as I can tell, no my brain does not shut off.

Certainly there are facets of my behavior that are similar to those of my children, and there are things that I still have to deal with now that most people that aren't on the spectrum don't give even a moment's notice to. When I'm comparing my immediate family to other people I tend to consider myself closer neurologically to my children and my wife than the public at large, but I realize that I'm probably a little bit closer to neurotypical than they are. This isn't an on/off sort of thing - this is precisely why it's referred to as a 'spectrum'. There are a wide range of presentations and behaviors, and you're going to see the same kind of diversity that you would hope to find in the public at large.

So, maybe I am autistic, or maybe I'm just part of the larger autistic phenotype but for me doesn't matter. It matters a little bit for my kids, if only in making sure they don't get run over by the modern standards and metrics-based approach to the education system. Asperger's isn't something that's going to be 'cured'.   Often, smart kids with Asperger's weren't even being diagnosed in years past because the profile of 'gifted' seemed to allow for a lot of eccentricity. Most of what's required in a setting that's trying to foster real growth - for any person - is knowing what an individual's strengths and weaknesses are, and working with it. If that means a visual schedule, or a to-do list, or a flowchart helps get things done, then that's how it should be done. To my friends, I'm not a diagnosis, I'm just me. And if that's the person that can explain imaginary numbers to their kids, or figure out why a particular cable routing has less signal gain than is required, or knows what flavors of Mountain Dew are available where, or can find an obscure part out in the warehouse, or remembers what happens when you just barely move the on-off switch of an Atari 2600 to the off position and back on again, or the guy that can explain a Rubik's cube while solving it, then that's the me that they expect - and I'm happy to be that person.

As a side note, the event where we picked up the cheap cube was one of the Surfers for Autism events. Ever since my older son had been diagnosed, we have been going to these events in our area when we can. It's a great organization, and they get a lot of community support everywhere they go. It's been a great opportunity for us to talk to other parents going through what we're going through, and to talk to people about Asperger's and how understanding the underlying neurology of Asperger's may lead to more insight to the other autism spectrum disorders. It's been one of the best things for our family in terms of dealing with our own idiosyncrasies and learning about ourselves in a new context.