Small Talk and Complaining About the Weather

Yesterday, after my dental cleaning, the hygienist set up my next appointment, which would fall in August. She laughed and said, “By then, we’ll be complaining about the heat instead of the cold.”

I laughed with her, but I cringed a bit inside. Complaining about the weather seems to be reaching Olympic heights this year, with the Polar Vortex affecting so much of the nation, more and more schools closing due to extreme weather conditions, and peoples’ general obsession with griping about the current conditions.

As someone who has cultivated the skill of small talk over the years, I’ve always known weather is a part of it. Weather is something that everyone experiences so it is quick and easy common ground, readily available fodder for small talk. I’ve prided myself on coming up with small-talk-based discussion revolving around other things – when I fall back on the weather, I consider it a weakness in my own social skills.

Yet people seem obsessed with weather! It’s too hot, it’s too cold, there’s too much snow. Is it small talk, or do they really hate the weather outside? I don’t quite get it.

I love weather. It fascinates me. Living in Wisconsin, I get all the extremes. The newly named Polar Vortex, frankly, is normal for us. We expect high temperatures below zero for a period of time each winter. We expect an average of 55 inches of snow per year. In the summer, we are a bit cooler than other places, but we still have days that settle in the mid-90s and the humidity is intense.

When a storm is poised to hit, I turn into a weather geek – I’m watching for the severe weather bulletins, I move the pets and important papers and such to the basement if tornadoes are threatening. If it’s snow, I work ahead if I can, so I can take a day off and enjoy it with the kids if school gets canceled.  

You’d think I’d LOVE talking about the weather! But discussing what is actually happening isn’t on most people’s agendas. They just gripe about the cold and snow, or complain about the heat and humidity. And I’m at a loss to explain why they do that. Is it just small talk, or is it something more?

I know some people do suffer Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) where they are depressed during the winter months. There are places where the unusual winter weather causes genuine problems for people – like the horrific traffic jams in Atlanta last month where ice and snow coated the twelve-lane highways while too many people were trying to use them. And I always feel great compassion for anyone whose life is upended by a tornado or a hurricane. But that’s all different from griping about another day of cold weather.

I suppose I should consider the weather a gift, an easy tool to use for small talk, but sometimes I wish there was a bit more substance behind it all.

How’s the weather by you these days?

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Asperger’s and Christmas Stress

Let’s face it, the holidays are stressful for everyone. Throw in the social anxiety and sensory issues associated with Asperger’s Syndrome and Christmas can be a living hell – but only if you believe it has to be!

What? As adults, we face a great deal of Christmas expectations, from decorations and office parties to the right holiday clothes and dinnerware, and, of course, the perfect gifts for friends and family (one day that Lexus with the big red bow will be in my garage! Riiiiiiiight).

But those expectations are learned. We are conditioned to behave that way; we fall into a pattern of stress. If we tune into our real selves, listen to what we need and ignore the messages yammering at us about how we are supposed to be, we’ll all be better off.

Let me tell you an improbable story about Christmas in America…

Seventeen years ago, my son was the youngest in the family. We had entered a phase where my generation had just become adults and I was the first to bring a child into the family circle. Nearing the age of three, he was becoming aware of Christmas – the trees, the lights, the music, the presents, the chaos.

Christmas morning arrived and we filled the living room: six loud, large grown-ups and one small child, talking and laughing and tearing open boxes. Although we visited my parent’s house frequently, it was still unusual to be there that early in the day. Having a brightly decorated tree in the middle of the small living room was also strange, as was packing the room with so many adults. Still, he seemed fine, and he sat down in front of his allotted pile of brightly wrapped gifts.

With a little urging he opened his first gift. I don’t remember exactly what it was, but he moved on to the second gift, and a third. Plenty left to go in his pile. With great anticipation, everyone watched him open that third gift – it was the year of the Tickle Me Elmo, and Grandma just happened to pick one up at the mall because she thought it was cute. A week or so later sales went through the roof and the toy became impossible to find.

He opens the Tickle Me Elmo, we snip it free of the bindings holding it in the box, everyone admires the coveted must-have toy of the season, and then the adults tucked into their gifts as the laughter and conversation continued. Gotta get everything unwrapped and move on, right?

After a while, we realized someone hadn’t finished opening his pile of gifts. In fact, he wasn’t even in the room anymore! My brilliant little boy, overwhelmed with sound and light, feeling no driving desire to open every gift in sight, quietly took his Tickle Me Elmo and removed himself from the situation entirely, relocating to a quiet, safe room where his regular toys were kept. When the adults approached him, he tried to get away, clutching Elmo and protecting himself from the chaos.

He paid attention to his needs. He didn’t let the pressure of participation or the drive of greed push him into doing anything he didn’t want to do. He was charmed by his new toy and decided it was time to relocate, for his own benefit.

This holiday season, listen to your own needs. Most people need quiet time to appreciate the beauty of the season. Go for a walk and admire the lights in your neighborhood. Make a cup of tea and sit by the fireplace. Or find a quiet corner in a safe place and enjoy something new. Follow the wisdom of a three year old, and the happiest of holidays to you!

“Your child has autism… I’m sorry.”

There’s a lot of buzz in the autism community right now regarding a recent statement from Autism Speaks co-founder Suzanne Wright and the subsequent resignation of author and Aspie John Elder Robison from his position with the organization.

At issue is the treatment of people with autism. Wright and Autism Speaks frequently talk about how autism destroys families, how it sucks the money, energy, and life out of every family affected by autism, and how it has to be stopped.

There is NO DOUBT that families raising any kind of special needs child are seriously stressed and need all the support they get. The problem is, the way Autism Speaks presents it, the child is evil, destroying its family, and ALL children with autism are severely disabled. Understandably, high functioning folks with autism are a bit offended by this.

Autism Speaks is continuing to promote the myths and stereotypes that make it even more difficult to raise a child with autism, and what we really need is tolerance and understanding (and, yes, more money, better support programs, and research to help treat those with particularly challenging symptoms).

My journey with autism started thirteen years ago, and the script could have been written by Autism Speaks… my son was struggling in school. A team of specialists evaluated him, and we had our meeting. I was on board; I loved my son and wanted to find out what I could do to help him.

They described their findings and said, “We believe he has autism. You should look into something called Asperger Syndrome.”

And then one of the specialists placed a sympathetic hand on my shoulder and, in a sad voice, said, “I’m sorry.”

Wait. What? Asperger Syndrome – never heard of it, but I can look into it – but why is this behavior specialist expressing sympathy to me as if someone in my family had just died???

I loved my son. I knew he had potential. And I was not about to write him off. But everyone in that room treated me as if a huge tragedy had just occurred. Autism. Evil. But I knew my son. I recognized his diagnosis for what it was – a tool!

Yes, a home with an autistic child contains a lot of stress – but a lot of the stress comes from financial challenges, scheduling challenges, support challenges, and lack-of-tolerance challenges. Huh. Those are all caused by other things – other people, lack of resources, lack of understanding. Autism wasn’t evil – and my child certainly wasn’t to blame!

Bottom line is that autism is a challenging condition, but children with autism can be taught, and a significant number of the children being diagnosed today are not severely affected. It may seem like the end of the world when your six-year-old is failing first grade…

… but thirteen years later, that child is now a sophomore in college, living on campus in another state,  and he made the dean’s list. I couldn’t be more proud!

 

(I wrote my mystery novel, Asperger Sunset, as an exercise in explaining, in story form, what it is like living on the high end of the spectrum… it’s available in paperback and Kindle, from Amazon.com – and if I were independently wealthy, I’d send a copy to everyone involved with Autism Speaks!)