Thunderhead – A tribute to RUSH

I’ve been a fan of the Canadian rock trio Rush for many years, since high school, so when my brother called me up a couple of weeks ago and asked if I wanted to go check out a local Rush tribute band I immediately agreed. I’m glad I did.

Thunderhead logoThe band, Thunderhead, played at the House of Rock in South (St. Louis) County on a Friday night (9 Feb). We got there early to make sure we had a place to sit (and set down our beers!), and good thing. As show time approached the place filled up quickly.

Like Rush, Thunderhead is a three-man band: George Whitlow on bass, keyboards, and vocals, Corey Nelson on guitars, and Mike Ramsey on percussion (you can’t simply call it “drums” when you are talking about Rush!). And I have to say, these guys ROCKED. (Well worth the 5 buck cover.)

I wasn’t really sure what to expect from the show, as I had never seen a “tribute band” perform. I had in mind the “cover bands” that travel the club circuit, playing a collection of covers from various bands, genres, etc. The music is usually good, but very rarely do the bands seem to make a whole-hearted effort to re-create the sound of the original. (Not saying that’s bad, I love a good cover band.)

A ‘tribute band,’ on the other hand, has as its goal a faithful reproduction of most, if not all, aspects of a bands music and performance. In that, Thunderhead succeeded.

One of the things that became immediately obvious when they started playing was that this wasn’t just a bunch of guys that got together on the weekends to play some music. I can only imagine how much time they put into 1) learning the music as individuals, 2) learning the songs as a group, 3) staging the performance (lights, sound, etc), and 4) rehearsal of the whole package.

With the exception of some vocal problems George had (a cold exacerbated, no doubt, by the thick smoke in the club), their performance was right on. As much as I’ve always enjoyed Neil Peart’s lyrics, it is Rush’s musicality that I most love. The extended guitar solos in songs, the mandatory (and brilliantly executed) drum solo, and the group jams that are Rush’s instrumentals were great. My personal favorite – the jazzy, funky, and rocking La Villa Strangiato.

If you live in the St. Louis area, keep an eye on their tour page for upcoming dates. If you are a fan of Rush, you owe it to yourself to check these guys out.

What is your language?

Everyone has their own path to follow through life. Easy to say, somewhat harder to believe because most of our daily experiences involve others who live incredibly similar lives to ours. This sometimes gets in the way of us realizing that there are differences in this world, and that the path that we’ve chosen for ourselves – or that has been thrust upon us – may not be the best path for everyone.

Earlier this week, Dr. Sanjay Gupta from CNN blogged about his recent introduction to and conversation with Amanda Baggs, a 26-year old autistic woman who gets around in a wheel-chair and communicates through a text-to-voice device. In his words, Amanda “opened his eyes about the world of autism.”

Amanda is obviously a smart woman who is fully aware of her diagnosis of low-functioning autism, and quite frankly mocks it. She told me that because she doesn’t communicate with conventional spoken word, she is written off, discarded and thought of as mentally retarded. Nothing could be further from the truth.

A far cry from how autistics, especially “low-functioning” autistics, are typically portrayed in the media. (Compare, for instance, to this portrayal on ABC’s PrimeTime earlier this week.)

Just as technology allows her to communicate through the voice synthesizer (on which she can type over 100 words per minute), technology – in the form of YouTube – has allowed her to be heard by a much wider audience. In fact, it was her video “In My Language” that caught the eye of CNN. Amanda’s description of the video:

The first part is in my “native language,” and then the second part provides a translation, or at least an explanation. This is not a look-at-the-autie gawking freakshow as much as it is a statement about what gets considered thought, intelligence, personhood, language, and communication, and what does not.

I encourage you to take about 10 minutes and view Amanda’s video. If you are already somewhat familiar with autism, this will help you understand even more. If you are not familiar with autism at all, this is a good start in understanding that you really can’t judge a book by its cover.

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Amanda was also featured this week on CNN’s Anderson Cooper 360.

I’ve also written a bit about this on my autism blog in 29 Marbles – Why don’t more people understand this yet?

“In My Language”: The video that caught CNN’s eye

The spark that caught CNN’s eye about Amanda Baggs (see my last post if you don’t know what I’m talking about) was her video “In My Language” posted on YouTube. While it is easy enough to just go to YouTube to watch it, I would like to share it here as well.

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Why don’t more people understand this yet?

One of the dangers of being too close to a topic like autism and autism awareness is that you sometimes forget that not everyone has caught up with you in their perception of that issue. Even people you think should know better by now.

An example that recently struck me was how many people still don’t realize that “low-functioning” autistics can be very intelligent.

In her new book Strange Son, author Portia Iverson describes her initial reaction to the idea of an intelligent “low-functioning” autistic:

“There’s a boy I think you should know about,” Francesca Happe began, gesturing for me to sit down. “His name is Tito.” The renowned psychologist from England, whose specialty was autism, continued: “He’s eleven years old and he lives in India. He’s quite autistic, but he can read and write and he’s very intelligent.”

She smiled at me and paused before going on, as if to gauge my reaction.

“Tito is a wonderful poet as well,” she continued. “He’s even published a book, an autobiography with some of his poetry in it.”

“And he’s autistic?” I asked in disbelief, thinking I must have misunderstood.

“Yes, he is definitely autistic. … There is only one Tito in this world, and no one else like him. He is his own disorder,” she replied with certainty.

I knew that no one had ever heard of such a severely autistic person being able to write and communicate independently. But wasn’t there even a remote chance that there could be others who looked and acted just like Tito but couldn’t communicate? At the very least, couldn’t Tito provide an extraordinary window into the most severe kind of autism?

This exchange between Iverson and Happe occurred in Spring 1999 and serves as the starting point of the story that Iverson tells in her book. Not to spoil the ending, but by the end of her story (circa 2003), Iverson comes to the conclusion that to me today seems so obvious: Tito is not one-in-a-million, he is not “his own disorder.”

Fast forward several years to two days ago. From his blog, Dr. Sanjay Gupta of CNN describes a recent meeting he had with Amanda Baggs, author of the ballastexistenz blog:

Amanda is obviously a smart woman who is fully aware of her diagnosis of low-functioning autism, and quite frankly mocks it. She told me that because she doesn’t communicate with conventional spoken word, she is written off, discarded and thought of as mentally retarded. Nothing could be further from the truth. As I sat with her in her apartment, I couldn’t help but wonder how many more people like Amanda are out there, hidden, but reachable, if we just tried harder.

Trying harder starts with getting the word out. But how to go about it? I’m glad that Dr. Gupta has written about Amanda, and that Anderson Cooper had her on his show last night (I’ve not seen it yet). Too much of the coverage of autism is doom and gloom, maybe this will help to get the word out to a few more people.

But I have the feeling it is going to be a long, hard trail, because even those that should know better by now obviously don’t know yet. Dr. Gupta captures this problem well in his closing paragraph:

I am a neurosurgeon and Amanda Baggs opened my eyes about the world of autism.

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There is also a story about Amanda posted on CNN Health.
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Update: From Anderson Cooper’s website on CNN, it looks like he may have more with Amanda on tonight’s show (22 Feb 07).
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Diagnosis: Autism – nothing new on 60 minutes

A quick follow up to 29 Marbles: Autism on 60 Minutes – 18 Feb 07 . My first thoughts after watching the 60 Minutes piece Diagnosis: Autism on Sunday night was, “Wow, this was a non-event.”

Maybe it’s just me, and the fact that over the past year I’ve been soaking in just about every autism story, theory, etc and reading several autism related books, but the show didn’t seem to shed any new light on anything.

Of course, if I were the parent of a recently diagnosed child, or (gasp) the parent of a 6-12 month old who wasn’t responding when I called his name, it would have been a different story. But what exactly would I have learned?

Every child is unique

Yesterday, abfh wrote something that captures perfectly how I feel about being a parent – not just of an autistic son, but of both my kids (emphasis is mine):

Children are always different from their parents and from one another in a great many ways, and each child is uncharted territory. No one ever knows how well they can deal with parenting any child. It’s always a matter of gaining experience on the job, observing how the child grows and learns, and loving the child enough to let the natural process of growth take place, unconstrained by the parents’ needs and assumptions.

This has now found a place in my trusty notebook of things I want to have handy. If anyone asks me how I “deal” with parenting an autistic child, I’ll simply show them this.

Autism on 60 Minutes – 18 Feb 07

I’ve already set the DVR to record this. Though the teaser article gives a little preview of what they’ll talk about, I’ll withold any comments until I’ve had a chance to watch it.

With no known cause or cure for autism yet, researchers are trying to detect the earliest signs of the disorder so they can begin treatment earlier, giving parents some hope against a condition the government now says affects about one in every 150 children.

60 Minutes correspondent Lesley Stahl reports on ongoing research this Sunday, Feb. 18, at 7 p.m. ET/PT.

Homogenized Education

Quite a while back I posed the (mostly) rhetorical question, “Why doesn’t every child have an IEP?”

I was brought back to this train of thought recently by a passage in Roy Richard Grinker’s Unstrange Minds (emphasis is mine):

To be sure, debate is brewing about whether some of the these higher-functioning children should be classified as autistic or even disabled. Some disability experts contend that the problems encountered in educating children with Asperger’s Disorder lie less with the individual child than with the educational system. The U.S. educational system, they suggest, has disseminated Asperger’s Disorder as a category because it is useful to its attempt to make the student body as homogeneous as possible. The paradox they identify is that a child who doesn’t fit in has to be seen as somehow impaired in order to justify an effort to normalize him.

This trend toward ‘homogenized education,’ an attempt to make sure that everyone* learns the same thing in the same way, reminds me of many – mostly misguided – attempts to do something similar in business. If you’ve ever heard the term Business Process Engineering, you know exactly what I’m talking about.

The fallacy in this approach, of course, is that education and learning are not processes that lend themselves to efficiency. Not perfect efficiency, anyway. That’s not to say that their aren’t things that can be done to improve the process.

But identifying a process and then trying to make everyone adhere to, and excel in, that process just won’t work in education (just like it doesn’t work in business).

* An exception to this are the “gifted” children, which I wrote about here.

Video games: Future of education or harmful obsession? (part 3 of 3)

Both Marc Prensky‘s Don’t Bother Me Mom, I’m Learning! and Olivia and Kurt Bruner‘s Playstation Nation are aimed squarely at parents, and their recommendations to parents about how to handle video games are, not surprisingly, right in line with their personal opinions about video games. Among many other ideas for parents, Prensky recommends that parents make an effort to understand the games their children are playing, even going so far as to recommend that parents try playing some of the games with their kids. In many ways, his approach is, “They’re going to do it anyway, and it is better to understand what they are doing and how it affects them than to not understand.”

The Bruners have pretty much the opposite recommendation, basically telling parents to avoid exposing your kids to video games at all. As a replacement/alternative, they recommend “you identify five or six possible categories of interest for your child and invest the time and money necessary to explore options, trying them out until you find that perfect game, hobby, sport, book series, old television show DVD set, or whatever tickles your child’s fancy.” (Except for video games, of course.)

The pursuit of mastery, of any skill, requires a great deal of passion. To those who don’t understand the appeal of the skill being pursued, this passion often comes across as obsession. This seems to often be the case with parents and their children. As parents, we should try to encourage, or at least indulge, our kid’s passions.

If you’re having trouble getting your hands around this idea, I’ll leave you with this question and answer from teen-ager Luke Jackson:

Q: When is an obsession not an obsession?
A: When it is about football.

How unfair is that?! It seems that our society fully accepts the fact that a lot of men and boys ‘eat, sleep and breathe’ football and people seem to think that if someone doesn’t, then they are not fully male. Stupid!

Girls are lucky enough to escape this football mania but I have noticed that teenage girls have to know almost every word of every song in the charts and who sang what and who is the fittest guy going, so I suppose an AS girl (or a non-AS one) that had interests other than that is likely to experience the same difficulties as a non-football crazy boy.

I am sure that if a parent went to a doctor and said that their teenage son wouldn’t shut up about football, they would laugh and tell them that it was perfectly normal. It seems as if we all have to be the same.

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Video games: Future of education or harmful addiction? (part 2 of 3)

Video games, Marc Prensky argues, are a conduit for our children to learn in a way that just wasn’t available to previous generations. This comes in large part because the game developers understand what it means to engage the digital natives so that they want to play – and thus learn – more and more. Prensky gives 12 reasons that games engage us.

  1. Games are a form of fun. That gives us enjoyment and pleasure.
  2. Games are form of play. That gives us intense and passionate involvement.
  3. Games have rules. That gives us structure.
  4. Games have goals. That gives us motivation.
  5. Games are interactive. That gives us doing.
  6. Games have outcomes and feedback. That gives us learning.
  7. Games are adaptive. That gives us flow.
  8. Games have win states. That gives us ego gratification.
  9. Games have conflict/competition/challenge/opposition. That gives us adrenaline.
  10. Games have problem solving. That sparks our creativity.
  11. Games have interaction. That gives us social groups.
  12. Games have representation and story. That gives us emotion.

Olivia and Kurt Bruner, on the other hand, see “complex” video games as an addiction waiting to happen. In fact, they point to the complexity of the games and the game developers’ attempts to engage us as a deliberate strategy by video game developers to get players addicted. Here are some key points from a section in the book titled Driving Forces of Game Addiction.

  1. Beating the Game: The first driving force for game addition is the desire to finish, in part due to the satisfaction of completion or simple pride – wanting to beat the game.
  2. Competition: Allowing people to interact with each other puts the game in the hands of the players, rather than the game programmer…. Creating a game with flexible rules allows players to develop their own playing styles, moves, and tactics.
  3. Mastery: The desire to master a game is also potentially addictive…. Programmers are encouraged to give players enough “feedback” from the game so that they can learn to master it, drawing them back over and over again.
  4. Exploration: The addiction of exploration has been part of computer games since the beginning. In fact, some of the first games were entirely about exploration. The wildly popular game Myst, for example, used exploration as its basis, capitalizing on the strong urge to explore interesting places or uncover secret levels.
  5. The High Score: Players spend countless hours playing video games simply to beat a competitor’s high score – even if that “competitor” is one’s own last game!
  6. Story-Driven Role Play: Designing the game to the script of a story will compel players to finish, to see how the story ends…. The harder it is to finish the quest or story, the more likely the game will feed addiction. This is why more and more games are designed with a story foundation and with increased level complexity.
  7. Relationships: Many video and Internet games are designed to create an odd type of peer pressure in which players rely upon each other for support. Such games also leverage the draw of artificial relationships, allowing players to build “friendships” with people they would not otherwise meet or even like. Thanks to anonymity, people feel more open talking about personal issues online without fear of judgments they might face from real-life friends and family.

To Prensky, video games are a passion that can lead to positive learning and skills, such as this story about 10-year-old Tyler. For the Bruners, video games are an obsession that lead to destroyed lives, expressed in the several examples they describe several in their book and on their website.

In Part 3: Recommendations for parents

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