Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Re-Branding Aspie - Guest Blog by Jennifer Cook O'Toole

Hello Aspierations Friends,

I have a special treat for you!  Today's blog comes to you courtesy of Jennifer Cook O'Toole, author of the soon to be released book, Asperkids: An Insider's Guide to Loving, Understanding and Teaching Children with Asperger Syndrome.  I have my book already on pre-order through Amazon. It is due to be released on May 15, 2012.

Something else is exciting about that date. In addition to Jennifer's book release, Jennifer and I are going to have the opportunity to meet for the first time on May 15th at the William Bennett Gallery in New York City for the 2012 GRASP Awards (Global and Regional Asperger Syndrome Partnership).  

Jennifer, Liane Holliday Willey, Max Chabanik, Karla Fisher and I are all being honored with the 2012 Distinguished Spectrumite Medal (The "DSM"). We'll also have a chance to meet with other award winners in other categories, Dr. Fred Volkmar, Chris and Terry Ballou and Stephanie McCaskill.  It's very humbling to be in such amazing company and I hope it will give the opportunity to for all of us to form new friendships and connections.

Please do check out Jennifer's website after reading her article. I think you'll find her writing charming, humorous, relatable and refreshingly down to earth. Jennifer is also an Aspie. She is a Mom. She is an Advocate. She is an Author. She is so much more and so without further adieu, here is Jennifer's guest blog: "Re-Branding Aspie".

"Re-Branding Aspie" by Jennifer Cook O'Toole

Long before my first baby could read, she knew her logos. Mommy would always stop to answer the siren call of that little green coffee mermaid. As her brothers came along, they, too, learned the power of the logo -- the hypnotic beckoning of the big red bullseye or the promise of new entertainment when a little bitty apple was spotted. Recently, I even discovered that the toy store with the giraffe and backwards “R” sells a Logo Board Game. Let's face it. Marketing execs the world over pay big bucks to ensure that from our beginnings, we all understand the superpower of branding. And they're good at what they do.

It all begins with a label -- or “logo,” an ancient Greek word meaning, well, “word.” But soon, "logos" took on a lot more philosophical weight. It connoted “opinion” or “expectation.” "Logos" alluded to “reputation” in the same way that, today, we have one expectation for a gift arriving in a little blue box, and a very different one for dining experiences held underneath the golden arches. Logos. Labels. Associated expectations. Branding is powerful stuff.

Now, the truth is that few among us would ever admit to being “label ho’s” (yes, it’s an actual entry in Urban Dictionary). Really, does anyone actually believe an “LV” on a handbag will make her more fabulous? No. But we still buy a whole lot of 'em. Like it or not, we are all consumers and bearers of label mania.

OK, you’re asking right about now, I thought this was an article about Asperger Syndrome. What in the heck does a Tiffany's gift box or Mickey D's drive-thru have to do with Aspie? A lot. 

A "label" is much more than a naming word. It is really a language logo, stylized by font or tone of voice, and transmitting expectation, nuance, value. Whether communicated by an image or a word...the mark, the "brand" that is left behind, the point that is made is emotional. Maybe that's why major advertisers prefer simpler "logos"; the most successful use only an image (Starbucks, Nike) OR only copy (J.Crew, Prada, etc). We may "see" a label as a picture or text or "hear" it, as we do when we read or listen. Either way, the end product is an impression...a feeling: scared or uncomfortable, empowered or valued.

In reality, labels and logos are handy: divvying a crazy, chaotic world into bite-sized, known quantities. They are sort of a comfortable, emotional shorthand - expressed in a benevolent symbol (a word or a picture), and instantly understood by all. Familiarity. It's why parents love chain restaurants. We don't have to wonder if our kids will dig the fries at this burger joint. It's McD's, and everyone knows the fries are ALWAYS EXACTLY THE SAME, no matter where in the world you order. We know what we're getting. 

Or do we? How reliable is that shorthand - that "known quantity" - if the underlying information is bad? Labels and logos will cause major heartburn (and heartache) when the "known quantity" is, apparently, not as well-known as some might think. The problem isn't that labels or logos are bad. The problem is that they can be very inaccurate. 

Here’s the thing. The impression usually made by the label "Asperger's Syndrome" is NOT a good one. It’s an unwanted "label" to match equally uncomfortable visual "logos": the "weird kid" on the playground or a meltdown cliche. Doors shut. Conversations stall. Sympathy is offered. Never is there a "You've just been diagnosed - are you going to Disney World?" celebration. Too bad. There should be. Because a realistic picture of an Aspie might surprise you: instead of a "geek," envision a Nobel Prize winner. A beauty queen. A poet. Even a Ghostbuster. Aspies all.

We may not want to admit it, but labels do carry a lot of social influence. And we wield them savvily...because though we say others' opinions don't matter to us - they do. We do care what others think of us and, because we love them, we care what others think of our mini-me’s (aka, our kiddos), too. We plaster our minivans with public labels of love - displaying their school logos, sports mascots and stick figure caricatures for the world to see.

But sometimes, benevolence betrays us. Sometimes, shame and fear of a label does more harm to our families, our students, our kids than we realize.

You see, many parents, doctors and teachers don’t have a good understanding of what Asperger Syndrome is. Without solid information, they are intimidated by the “label,” and without really understanding it, reject it entirely. When adults are scared or embarrassed by a label they don't want (for whatever reasons), children are denied the social, academic, and emotional support they need.

I have heard other parents and educators complain that a child is “academically brilliant but socially very immature, and awfully particular about everything.” They may see kids struggling and hurting, and they want guidance. But when answers to their inquiries include the possible label "Aspie," conversations often end. Fast.

"You don't want a kid to have to walk around with THAT label," I have heard well-meaning folks say. They couldn't be more wrong. 

When it fits, the diagnosis -- or “label” -- “Aspie” is a gift, not a curse. I know -- I have three Asperkids and was diagnosed, myself, as an adult. More than my “Ivy League” diplomas, size-I-can-still-fit-into-my-prom-dress jeans, or any professional accolade I've won, “Aspie” is my “label” of authentic self-awareness, acceptance and true empowerment. I understand now that I may be different, but I am not deficient.

What does "Aspie" actually mean? In general, “Aspie” describes bright folks who are a lot better with facts than with people; we have a very hard time understanding or anticipating others’ points of view, and therefore find great comfort in anything logical or precise. When the world seems big and unpredictable, it’s only natural to seek anything that will organize the chaos.

Aspies are, by definition, of average to above-average intelligence. In fact, it’s not uncommon for extremely gifted children (especially girls) to be hugely under-diagnosed, simply by chalking particular behaviors up to being “really smart.” Being “really smart” does not make someone hold fast to rules or routines, become overwhelmingly absorbed with a particular topic, be rigid in thought or behavior patterns and generally a bit immature socially. It just makes them smart. Asperger’s accounts for the other stuff.

You’ll see our "Aspie-ness" in interactions with other kids (sounding like “little professors,” being bossy, the “playground policeman,” or just retreating if it’s all too hard); often they’ll do better with children who are younger (more controllable) or older (take the Asperkid under-wing), or with adults who find the “mini-grown-up” entertaining. Asperkids usually have a “special interest,” which can be all-encompassing and provides a mental respite from the confusing nuances of social situations. Also common are sensory sensitivities (to noises, crowds, textures) and attention troubles.

By nature, Asperkids tend to get a bit fixated on part of a thing, an idea or a situation rather than grasping the whole shebang (psychologists call this missing the “gestalt”). I tell my kiddos that it’s like seeing only the mashed potatoes, but not noticing the entire Thanksgiving meal. We also call it “getting right to the toenail of the matter” or missing the big picture. 

Fine, fine. Maybe "Aspie" isn't a bad thing, then. But is it a necessary label? Why pigeonhole a kid with one more (big) descriptor? Let me answer that question with a question. What do you do at a STOP sign? You stop, right? And what do you do if the sign on the door says, “Push”? You wouldn't get very far by pulling on it.

Labels tell us how to react to a particular situation. Don’t floor it when you see “STOP” and don’t tell an Asperkid to “just go make friends.” Neither one will have very good consequences. 

If/then. If it says “push,” don’t pull. And when a teacher or parent has the courage to worry less about impressions and more about the child involved, great things can happen for everyone involved.

With better understanding of what Aspie really is (and isn't), the label can finally be helpful rather than daunting. How? Just try to assemble some Ikea furniture if the directions are all in Swedish. When you can't figure out what's what, or what to do with it, your new bed is never going to evolve beyond a pile of djonk. When everyone knows what to expect, everyone can learn how to respond. That's a win-win all around.

Bottom line: if you think that you may be raising or teaching an Asperkid, then you have a choice to make. How will you react to the label? How will you teach the child...his friends...her school...your family...to react? 

As a mom, a teacher, and an Aspie, I ask you to please -- be the child's champion, and find out more. 

To us, "Aspie" is no label to fear or soldier through. It’s real life. It’s relief. It’s potential and promise and game-changing honesty. We are a society in love with labels and logos. Don't be afraid of this one. Don't get me wrong - my minivan still breaks for the green mermaid and my handbag is covered in some fancy C's. But for me and children like mine, "Aspie" may be the most important label we'll ever get to wear.


Thanks so much for guest blogging, Jennifer!  Great article!  I'm right there with you! Please let us know what you think in the comments section below!  Also, please check out Jennifer's website, www.asperkids.com

Until next time, Aspierations friends!
Let your light shine!  Go Asperkids!

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