Technology Is Cool

Sharks playlist

The playlist from a recent San Jose Sharks game at SAP Center arena.

Ryan and I went for a walk Sunday. I wanted to get out of the house and get some exercise. He wanted to get some pizza. So we set out for the pizza parlor about 20 minutes away. Ryan grabbed his phone — and his headphones.

Music has become his constant companion. On any walk, on any car ride, on any errand, no matter how brief, he takes along his phone, puts on his headphones and listens to his favorite songs. It helps him navigate. It helps him wait. It makes running any sort of errand easier.

But, on this occasion, I told him to leave the headphones behind. Since we were walking together, I thought we might, you know, talk. He resisted and offered a compromise. He said he’d play his music at low volume so we could still hold a conversation. I thought about it, and quickly weighed having him accompany me with music vs. him probably not accompanying me at all. I took the compromise.

On our way back home, he was looking at his phone, with his headphones in, while we held a conversation. The topic was hockey. Because, of course. We discussed the early part of the NHL season, and which teams were doing well vs. under-performing. Ryan was consulting the standings on his phone to bolster his arguments.

Then he was looking at highlights. Then he asked me a question.

“Dad, can you get me this song for my phone?” he asked. “It goes like this: err err err, er ERR errerr err” (you get the idea).

We’ve had this conversation before. Ryan has a remarkable capacity to remember and repeat the rhythm of songs. Usually, I have no shot at figuring out what song he means. We have to wait until it comes on the radio. I even put the Shazam app on his phone to help him find songs he’d like to buy.

The beat he hummed sounded vaguely familiar. He offered that he heard it during a recent Sharks broadcast. It was playing in the arena, in the background just as the game was about to start.

I thought perhaps it was a Kiss song — certainly plausible for a sports venue — so I got out my phone and pulled up some of their greatest hits on YouTube.

Ryan shook his head at each one I tried. Back to the drawing board.

“Here, do you want to hear the song?” he asked. Turns out he had heard it in the background of a Sharks broadcast replay that he watched on his phone as we were walking. And talking.

He gave me the earpiece. The song was barely audible in the background as the announcers went over the keys to the game just ahead of puck drop. But it was familiar — a current song I’d heard before but didn’t know the name of. It was too quiet for Shazam to identify, at least I thought so. Still, more clues. We knew which game and which arena had played the song. I thought Google might help solve the puzzle.

Going back to my phone, I searched “San Jose Sharks playlist SAP Center” and got two hits on the Sharks’ official site. One was from 2012-13 and listed all the songs that were played at each home game. Right info, wrong time frame. Ryan was excited by the result, but when I told him it was from two seasons ago, he asked which date. So I told him and of course he replied with the opponent, the final score and the shots on goal total.

I tried the other result. It was undated but I hoped it was from the most recent game, which was the one with the highlight containing our mystery tune.

I clicked and found a list of a dozen or so songs. I recognized a few of the artists, but only one or two song titles. I’m not exactly up on pop music. I read them all to Ryan. He knew a few as well and was able to eliminate them right off the bat.

That left us with about 10 songs to investigate. Using the iTunes Store app, I searched each title, then played for Ryan the 45 seconds or so sample. He shook his head at each. Frustrating, but this was actually fun. I was already envisioning the next step in our investigation when I clicked on the last song title.

We both recognized it right away. It was indeed the mystery tune, “The Joker and the Thief” by Wolfmother. I immediately purchased it so it could be added to Ryan’s phone. We exchanged a high-five.

I asked him what he thought of all the technology we used to solve the puzzle.

“Can you believe that?” I asked. “While walking down the street in New Jersey, we used two phones to identify and download a song that you heard in the background of a highlight of a hockey broadcast from San Jose, California, from a game played last night, that you watched on your phone while walking down the street! How cool was that?”

He shrugged. I reminded him that when I was his age there were no phones that we carried around. There was certainly no way to watch hockey highlights in the palm of your hand.

“But how did you listen to music?” he asked, inviting a lecture on a device called the Sony Walkman.

He remained unimpressed. I think maybe he felt sorry for the deprivation of my analog age.

“Technology is cool,” I said, finally earning an agreement. And with that, we reached our destination, with a song library that had grown by one.

Becoming Oneself

Dave Grohl of the Foo Fighters

Dave Grohl of the Foo Fighters. Thanks for the inspiration, Dave.

My “drafts” folder has grown to a record number of half-finished posts. Some need a little more thought. Some date to some event that no longer feels applicable. Some, I’d love to publish but they perhaps reveal a bit too much about my son or our lives.

I was browsing through them this morning, searching for inspiration. At the same time, I was listening to the “All Songs Considered” a weekly music podcast from NPR. I listen occasionally — it’s a good way to discover new bands that I’d never hear on the radio. But this episode was of particular interest to me because the guest was Dave Grohl of the Foo Fighters, which happens to be one of my favorite bands.

Grohl’s story is pretty well-known, but for those unfamiliar, here are some of the high points. He was in a series of bands through his teens before landing a gig as the drummer for seminal 1990s alternative group Nirvana. When Nirvana broke up following lead singer Kurt Cobain’s suicide, Grohl decided to form a new band. He recorded a demo which became the Foo Fighters’ debut album. Here’s the interesting part: On that demo, he played every instrument. He wrote all the music. He wrote all the lyrics. He sang all the songs. When he added musicians to fill out a band so he could take this new music on tour, he was the lead singer and lead guitar player. Close to two decades and tens of millions of albums later, Foo Fighters are staples of the adult contemporary charts and Grohl has authored a bushel full of familiar rock anthems, including My Hero, Everlong, Best of You, Learn to Fly, The Pretender and many more.

While discussing the band’s latest project on the podcast, Grohl was asked how his decision to become a musician went over with his parents. His father was a speechwriter and his mother a public-school teacher, so “rock star” probably wasn’t the future they had in mind for their child.

I heard his answer just as I was sifting through my drafts, trying to something that I could polish up and publish today. His answer made me stop and take notice. I replayed it several times to capture exactly what he said.

Grohl had decided a musician was what he was going to be. More than that, he realized a musician was what he was, and he needed to pursue it. At some point he dropped out of school to chase his dreams full-time. He was asked how his parents reacted to that decision.

My mother [the school teacher] always said that it wasn’t necessarily the kid that fails the school. Sometimes, it’s the school that fails the kid. And for someone like me, whose brain might not work like everyone else, it might be better to find another way to become myself, because it wasn’t necessarily happening there. So, it wasn’t easy … but I’m thankful that [my parents] understood there was something inside me that was going to help me make my way out.
— Dave Grohl
(emphasis mine)

It was the words “brain might not work like everyone else” that grabbed me, and made me think of Ryan, of course. But here’s what struck me about the entire statement. You may love the Foo Fighters or you may hate them and think rock and roll is a waste of time. Or, like my buddy G, you may think Grohl should have never stepped out from behind Nirvana’s drum kit. No matter. I think we can all agree that a person who can write songs, write music, and play every instrument on what would become a platinum-selling album has a talent, a passion, a focus, a drive. What if that creativity, that energy, that outsized TALENT had been stifled in the name of following the only prescribed path?

Before I go too far down this road, I am certainly not advocating for dropping out of school. Grohl is, of course, lucky. The music industry, like athletics or any entertainment field, is littered with talented people who never got the breaks needed to become the star Grohl has become.

The point is this: We are all different. We all have different strengths and weaknesses. Of course, there are common skills and abilities we all need to master to some degree to have what would be defined as a successful life.

My son’s brain does not work like everyone else either. If he were forced to experience the educational system in the same manner as “typical” (for lack of a better word) students, his school experience would likely be a miserable failure. I am thankful every day for the team we work with, who offer modifications and support and recognize that there are many paths to success and not all of them are the same. They recognize that sometimes social growth is as importance as educational growth. Because of that, Ryan is in a school environment where he can “become himself,” just as Grohl spoke of.

For whatever reason, Dave Grohl had to leave school to find that environment. I don’t know why. Clearly, it has worked out for him. My son? He’s finding his way in school just fine.

Just ask him.

The Power of Words

Power of Words

File:Power of Words by Antonio Litterio.jpg – Wikimedia Commons

Ryan’s essay, posted here on Friday, garnered a lot more traffic than a typical post. Like, 30 times more. This was thanks to some generous sharing in the autism/blogging community.

The feedback was very positive and I’ve shared some of it with Ryan. I wasn’t going to write a post today, I wanted to let his essay stand for another day. But while perusing Facebook this morning, I saw a comment about it, left on another page where it had been shared, that stopped me in my tracks just as the original essay had.

I shared this with [my son]. He’s coincidentally trying to come up with a topic for an argumentative essay for his middle school English Lit class. I thought perhaps he might identify with Ryan.

After he read it (twice), he was quiet for a min. “Well, what do you think?” I asked. Softly he said, “that boy is like me … he understands.” Without another word, he got up, went to his room & began to write. He’s been there for a while steadily working; not saying anything.

Thanks for sharing & thank you Ryan for inspiring & empowering another boy your age.

That, right there, is why I love this community. I have drawn so much inspiration, hope and comfort from members of this online community, only a few of whom I “know” even in a casual sense. It’s something I’ve reference from time to time here on my blog.

But I think I missed the point.

This morning’s comment is an example of Ryan’s words providing inspiration and empowerment to someone who is like him. It made me instantly recall another occasion, from very shortly after I started the blog, of a connection we made with a reader who also had a hockey-obsessed son on the spectrum. We told Ryan that somewhere out there was another boy just like him, who cared about hockey in the same way he did.

I remember Ryan’s reaction — he wanted to know when they could meet. Geography made that impractical, but I think just knowing there was another kid so similar meant something to Ryan.

I’m going to share this comment with Ryan when I get home, and I hope he will take from it the same immense pride that I do. In a world that can be difficult to navigate socially, he has, through his words, managed to create a spark in someone similar, someone who nonetheless is a total stranger.

And that’s the beauty of the Internet, isn’t it? The ability to connect on any topic, no matter how narrow, with those who share the interest? We often focus on the negatives of this form of non-social interaction, but there are positives, perhaps especially for those for whom social interactions are a challenge.

It’s why, even though protecting his privacy at his age makes it trickier, I will continue to write and document this journey. Thanks, Ryan, for teaching me yet another lesson.

And Then He Dropped the Mic

Kanye drops the mic

How I felt about Ryan’s essay

I was running late, rushing to brush my teeth and get out the door to catch my train when he said it.

Ryan casually mentioned that he had told his language arts class that he attends a social skills group. He mentioned something about sharing an essay he had written. I poked my head out of the bathroom and exchange a quick glance with Veronica. With a carefully measured tone, to not pass any judgement, she asked the question that was on both of our minds.

“Did you talk about autism?”

The answer came so quick, and so casually offered, it immediately eased my fears about all the implications it carried.

“Yeah.”

And with that, he was back to his typical hive of morning activity. It was an incredible moment, one that passed in a few seconds, but carried so much more meaning. Veronica and I barely had time to discuss it before I headed for the door. She mentioned that maybe the knowledge of his diagnosis was turning out to be empowering. I agreed.

I thought the moment would be the most significant one of my day. I imagined how I would shape it into a blog post.

I had no idea.

Late in the work day, an email arrived from Ryan. This is a rarity. I opened it with anticipation. There was no subject. There was no body text. There was only an attached Word document.

The essay he shared with his class.

In the next few minutes, I stopped everything I was doing. My typical late-day multitasking, trying to get everything done before leaving, ground to a halt. Tears welled in my eyes, both with sadness and immense pride. I hurt for the fear my son felt. I felt awe at the depth of his thought and his ability to express it. I felt admiration for this self-confidence and comfort with himself. And then I wondered how quickly I could get home to wrap him a huge hug.

And one more thing: I just knew I had to share it. So, with my son’s permission, I am doing just that. The following words are his. He wrote them unaided, and without our knowledge. And when he finished, he stood in front of a classroom of middle-schoolers and shared what he wrote.

“How Social Life Should ​Run”

​Middle school is a mad place. We either fit in or we don’t. And if we do, great. I always catch in the corner of my eye, people walking down in big groups laughing. And then there is the extra person. The one who is thought to fit in with the big group, but really, they don’t. That person may struggle to make any friends at all. Do we notice that person? Maybe, that person with the difficult social life is us. If we don’t fit in during middle school, then life could feel like a huge waste. What’s the point of even going to school?

​Once in fifth grade, I said something weird, and everyone started laughing at me. I didn’t know that I would have that bad of an impact on others. In fact, no one needed to react towards me in that way. Back then, I was considered maybe a little bit unusual. I could kind of relate to Sheldon Cooper from “Big Bang Theory” in which he struggles with social life. I barely invited any friends to my house and when I did, we only did what I wanted to do. I didn’t even offer my friends a “beverage.” But at least I had those couple of friends.

I remember back a couple years ago, I had no social connection to the world. At camp during the summer of 2011, everyone else would be playing video games, and I’d be in the corner, writing hockey stats. I cried at camp every day because I thought there were snakes there going to eat me. Now days, I wouldn’t do that. Other kids always attempted to make me feel that someone or something was out to get me. That’s what made me spend my whole entire camp experience in fear. However, being on the autism spectrum side, I couldn’t follow any social rules back then. I had to visit a social group to learn things about social rules and how to make friends, and I still visit there today. But back then, it was a lot worse. I didn’t talk about anything besides hockey stats. Other kids thought I was weird because of that. And I don’t deserve that type of treatment.

​Although I am not exactly like most kids, I still have made tremendous improvement. I will never become a popular kid, as I never had been. I have not only gained social skills, I have gained hockey skills, and upper body strength. And I get the respect I deserve. So why shouldn’t anyone else? So from now on, let’s respect everyone, no matter what race or gender they are. No more “roasting” people, because one day, you’ll be roasted. I believe that it’s okay to be different. Of course it is, no two people are alike in middle school. However, if someone may need extra help, we will give them that extra help!

So Much To Say

report-card-bearI haven’t posted in a while. It’s not for lack of things to say. I want to write about how Ryan got to observe how official hockey statisticians work, and perhaps planted the seed for a future career. I want to write about how he decided to play a new sport, which is simultaneously a potentially wonderful and terrifying idea. I want to tell you to watch this Tom Rinaldi piece, which has nothing to do with autism, but you need to watch it anyway. (But only if you have tissues handy. Seriously. Watch it.)

I want to tell you how Ryan stopped us in our tracks this morning when he told us what he shared with his language arts class, and how we’re proud of him for it. I want to comment on the latest senseless tragedy in the autism community. I want to tell you how I spent a half-hour on the phone with director of support services for students with disabilities at the University of Michigan, and came away encouraged — about a lot of things.

Each is worthy of a post and discussion. But I don’t have time for all of them now, and some need much shaping to protect Ryan’s privacy.

Instead I will tell you how Ryan made us as proud as he ever has this week.

If you’re the parent of a school-age child and you’re anything like me, the words “school project” are probably terrifying. Now, mix in “group project” and “oral presentation” and a dose of social deficits. Terrified yet?

Ryan is doing very well in school, but science has been a challenge all year. The opening unit, astronomy, was a real struggle for him (and his parents). A big chunk of his grade depended on his completing a group project on black holes and presenting it to the class. We observed with growing consternation as his daily “check-in” grades, which are supposed to show understanding of the previous day’s lesson, routinely came back very low. We checked in with the teachers. We checked in with his case manager. Veronica spent hours working with him. She became an expert in Stephen Hawking’s thoughts about the Big Bang theory. Ryan committed to staying after school for extra help. He studied like a demon.

Slowly, but surely, his understanding of the material grew, a product of hard work.

The oral presentation was Monday. Monday evening, Veronica received an email from his teacher:

I could not let the day go by without informing you of the wonderful job that Ryan did in his presentation of part of his Black Hole Project. He was animated, knowledgeable and used pertinent examples. He should be so proud of his performance. We are very proud of him and how well he has mastered and explained the concepts of the Black Hole Project. You would enjoy hearing him and seeing the confidence that he has developed born out of his hard work and indefatigable research, which is paying off in his presentation.

Veronica forwarded the email to me at work. I read it as I picked up the phone to make a call, and I had to hang up. I was so damn proud of him. He worked so hard to master the material and present it to the class. When he sets his mind to something, he will not rest until he sees it through. It’s an attitude and an ability that will carry him far.

Tuesday, the grade for his project came back. He scored a perfect 250/250, raising his grade in the class to an A. Veronica sent a note to the co-teachers:

Dear [co-science teachers],
I just checked parent portal and saw that Ryan has an A in your class at the moment and got 250/250 for the Black Hole Project. I cannot begin to tell you the celebration he had when I told him. He is so proud of himself. What a learning experience: work hard and you will have success!

Thank you both for all your understanding, patience and help with Ryan. It means a lot that you are both so invested in his success. He said to me: “I did this without an aide”. (I’m sure you’ll appreciate my tears and smiles over that statement).

Each of the teachers wrote back, and their words are worth sharing.

First one:

Ms. [co-teacher] and I are so proud of Ryan. He has made such wonderful strides in his education and in his independence. He can count on himself now to get the job done. He has learned not only about black holes but more importantly that hard work and perseverance do bring rewards, which is cause for celebration. He earned every point of this project by his persistence in researching and preparing himself for his presentation. There was no question that he could not answer. As a matter of fact, he wanted to answer all of the questions for his team. I can only wish that his enthusiasm would rub off on other students. I know that he will study diligently for the test and do well. After the test, we will start human biology.

And the other:

Ryan should be so proud of himself for the time and effort that he put into this project! His grade was well deserved, and I am so proud of Ryan!! [Co-teacher] and I are both aware that it was not a walk in the park for anyone, but Ryan truly put his all (and then some) into it. As [co-teacher] said, we were both very impressed with his presentation. It was evident that he took the time to prepare himself and study his research. Hard work truly pays off!

There is so much there to celebrate. Yes, he had plenty of help from teachers and Veronica, but he only achieved this because it mattered to him. Because he cares about doing well in school. Because he has the self-confidence that comes with knowing the material, to stand in front of his class and present it. He recognizes the significance of his growth and independence. That his teachers recognize it, too. He has the discipline and drive to put in the time to master concepts that are difficult for him.

And oh by the way, those last two qualities? I’d be hard-pressed to deny those are because of autism, not in spite.