This was the first fully complete “sample” chapter, after being written/ revised four times plus. Its 1st draft was eight pages; 2nd was 15; 3rd, 20; this final version is 24 pages. Most of the final revision focused on making the art clearer (one complex panel expanded from 1/4 page to a full page) and clarifying/ spreading out some of the dialogue.
Chapter D, “X is for Exterminator” is really the only chapter in this graphic novel that features an adversary, a plot, and even specific scenes taken directly from a monthly comic book the author drew (single copies of each volume) at age 12, starring Aspie Mouse’s progenitor, “Stupid Mouse.” At the end of this chapter you’ll find author notes/ comments, followed by 11 multi-part review and thought questions that parents and teachers can use to stimulate discussion, and hopefully help those on the Autism Spectrum feel better about themselves. In this chapter, questions concern family dynamics, name-calling, truthfulness, and friendships & romance as seen through an Autism prism. In print and online published versions, these comments and questions are intended to go to an appendix, to avoid interfering with chapter-to-chapter flow.
Comments are always welcome — indeed encouraged — even this late in development, as updating will continue to occur — at least just prior to print publication.
Notes for Chapter D, “X is for Exterminator“
Chapter D is unique in this ten chapter volume. The two prior chapters (B & C), along with Pre-A (preface) and the last chapter (I) consist of new situations and plots developed recently, especially for The Adventures of Aspie Mouse, with only a rare panel or line taken from its forebear, Stupid Mouse. The following four chapters — E, F, G & H [Ch. H repeats Ch. A, with new material added in H] — bring in characters and occasional situations originally created decades ago, yet the behavior of the supporting characters in these chapters as well as the plot lines are almost entirely new.
Chapter D, by contrast, is the most faithful to its model. It recreates and expands upon a 5-page storyline the author first drew/ wrote as a 12-year old. Basic plot is the same: family gets a summer house-sitter. The “villain” is the same: an exterminator with yellow or white hair (original was also in black & white) who looks, speaks and acts pretty much as Mr. Kaputnik does now. Mr. K tries several of the same techniques to get rid of the mouse, which fail for similar reasons. There’s even the same ending — family unhappy, mouse glad when they have to come home early. As final homage to the original, Chapter D is the fourth real chapter in this volume, and “The Exterminator” was the featured story in Stupid Mouse #4.
Ch. D is the only chapter in this volume to have a genuine human villain. While it took human intervention to rescue Aspie Mouse near the end of Chapter C (the only time he gets rescued in a life-or-death situation in these chapters — though note that it’s another “Aspie” who saves him!), it’s only appropriate that Aspie Mouse needs no intervention — human or otherwise — to defeat the Exterminator in this chapter. Or more to the point: Aspie Mouse just behaves the way he always does — doing the unexpected — which has the effect of getting the Exterminator to defeat himself.
This chapter also brings in a female mouse (introduced in the prior chapter) who tries to get Aspie Mouse to reciprocate the love she feels for him — or (more likely) the unrealistic pedestal she’s put him on. But it’s complicated — not just because of AM’s Autism, but also because of the moral dilemma that makes him question whether or not he should give into her wishes.
The author is drawing a parallel with his own experience as a young man with this scene: after the author lost his job (due to all-too-typical “unexpected” Aspie-driven behavior that upset people) in a company in which a young woman also worked, the woman suddenly showed up at his apartment alone — which in hindsight was extraordinarily forward, though she didn’t try anything physical. The author rebuffed her (foolishly, again in hindsight) when she revealed she had a boyfriend. Was the author taking a principled stand? Hmm — back in high school, the author dumped a girlfriend for one of her friends he was introduced to while on a date with the one he dumped — so much for high morals! Despite the overall attractiveness — especially the energy/ enthusiasm — of the woman who came to his apartment, he likely rebuffed her more because of an Aspie-driven obsession over one inherited physical trait she had (excess body hair) that nearly every man he knows would dismiss as irrelevant and which even the author had overlooked previously (and would again) in other women.
So what was the likely real “shadow” (per Carl Jung) underlying his rebuff? Anxiety — fear contaminated by bad past experiences that may or may not apply to a current situation — that strongly influences the self-image and life choices of nearly everyone with any level of Autism. As noted already, when that anxiety gets elevated in someone with Autism or another “social pragmatic difference,” their “executive function” shuts down, and one is left with anger, self-righteousness and the fear responses of fight, flight, freeze, etc. So Aspie Mouse is more likely afraid — as the author was as a young man — than angry or righteous. Because anxiety is so commonly found in those with Autism (96% admitted it as an issue in one study — see Been There, Done That … by Tony Attwood — with the author of Adventures of Aspie Mouse convinced the other 4% are in denial!), it comes up in many chapters in this graphic novel.
If you wonder why Aspie Mouse does not freeze when cats come after him — freezing in the face of anger or danger being a quite common trait of Autism — it’s because he thinks they’re taking him up on his offer to play with them! If he genuinely thought the cats were trying to kill him, AM’s response would likely be very different. That’s why he can respond the way he does in all situations with cats that occur in Chapters A-D particularly, which make other mice like #83 on the one hand question his sanity and on the other hand see him as a fearless hero! As the author’s late father used to quote from some comedian’s parody of Rudyard Kipling: “If you can keep your head about you when all others are losing theirs … you probably haven’t grasped the seriousness of the situation yet.” That’s Aspie Mouse when it comes to cats!
As per the notes in Chapter C, names in this book are chosen with careful thought. Let’s address one name in this chapter, Kaputnik, last name of the exterminator. It’s an homage to Mad Magazine. The author appreciated that Mad Magazine’s artists and writers would show people who looked and had names more familiar to him growing up in New York City’s ethnic stew, vs. the “generic” Northern European faces/ names of characters on TV, in movies and in other publications (like the Archie comics) — or his own Midwest relatives of Swedish/ German origin — though it turns out many TV/ movie stars weren’t Northern European after all, but had changed their names to fit in! Kaputnik seems to fit the man perfectly (as he explains in the chapter). There is no intent to denigrate any ethnicity or religion; he’s just not a very nice man; if anything, having light-colored hair, he’s the most Northern European-looking character (like the author!) in this work. The author decided not to use an even more famous unpronounceable Mad Magazine made-up name: Potrzezbie.
There are lots of opportunities in this chapter to contrast Autistic behavior (mostly Aspie Mouse, but also Bobby Coppola) with the Anti-social Personality Disordered behavior of the Exterminator (see Questions below). Is Mr. K a Psychopath or a Sociopath? Author’s first instinct is that Brilli (Ch. C) is more of a Sociopath, while Mr. K is more of a Psychopath, because of Mr. K’s habitual lying and attempts to present himself other than who he truly is and cover up what he’s doing, because it would be seen as outrageous, illegal or at least immoral by most people. What both Brilli & Mr. K show is trying to appear other than they really are, no apparent feelings toward those they inflict pain upon, and a need to control the behavior of others. None of these three behaviors is usually present in those with Autism: Aspies are just themselves without any filters; they are generally empathetic to the pain of others, even if they can’t identify that feeling or show it; and while they might fantasize about controlling others (this work’s Author thought he wanted to be “absolute ruler of the universe” as his “dark side shadow”), in reality they have trouble controlling their own behavior (not usually a problem for the Anti-social PD’s).
Several “new” situations appear to show aspects of Aspie Mouse’s Autistic personality that may not have been as evident in prior chapters: his uneasiness with how #83 is casting him as a hero and “coming on” to him; his conflict between liking to live alone, yet missing the company of others; how picky an eater he is (some inkling in Ch. C); and his outrage when he believes he’s being treated unfairly. Most children are big on calling out “unfairness,” but by adolescence, Neurotypicals start learning how cynical and greedy the world is, and put more energy into fitting in (in the late 1960’s on many College campuses, being outraged and fitting in came together, but that’s not typical). Aspies aren’t the only ones who continue to complain about an unfair world — so do activists and idealists — but their focus is more on what’s unfair in their own life, and keep many child-like behaviors in the absence of seeing a need to “fit in.”
A lot of attention in this chapter — and the many parts of Question D 3 — is paid to telling the truth vs. telling lies. That’s largely because honesty is both a positive trait and a potential problem trait for most people with Autism. It’s positive because — as we see with Bobby in the prior chapter C especially — a reputation for telling the truth can keep Aspies out of trouble when something bad happens. On the other hand, telling the raw truth can also cause trouble: “tattling” on another can lower an Aspie’s anxiety temporarily, but cause major problems in interactions with the person being “told on” afterwards, or even with the entire peer group; also, mentioning only the negative parts of what happened, but “withholding” what may have been positive, actually distorts the truth, and turns it into a “lie by omission” (the most common form of “lying” by most Autistic folks).
Question D 3-4 focuses on something that’s difficult for most people — not just those with Autism — to understand: how “reinterpreting” what happened or what someone else said to be more positive or neutral is so beneficial, because it increases connection and positive thoughts about oneself and others. So many self-help programs for adults are based on helping people do just that. They work on the premise that “the greatest source of human unhappiness is the need to be right.” Step One: separate the “facts” from my “opinions.” Step Two: Seek another more positive “interpretation” or meaning than the negative thought I first “made up.” It’s also known as “becoming a witness instead of a judge” per Carl Jung. Aspies can do this, perhaps even better than other people, because they’re less persuaded by group norms; on the other hand, their Executive Function is so easily shut down, that having time to insert a different way of thinking before it does is more difficult. Here’s an example I heard in real life: a 50-year old man’s mother calls him every day and asks, “Did you brush your teeth, did you comb your hair?” What’s his reaction? She’s controlling, doesn’t trust him, etc. Then he learned how to change her words’ meaning to “I love you son, but don’t know how to express it, so I ask you these silly questions instead.” Her words never changed, but his attitude toward his mom did! It’s probably just as important to change one’s opinions about ONESELF! So after blurting something out that costs the Author or someone else on the Autism Spectrum yet another job, instead of telling oneself, “OK, you idiot. You did it again. What’s wrong with me?” how about, “Oops, my anxiety got the better of me again. OK, what can I do to lower my anxiety next time before I say something I will come to regret? There’s nothing wrong with me — but I am different and that difference really shows up in social situations. So I need help to keep that urge to say something hurtful at bay.” Attack the behavior, not me or the other person! Think of how many times in this (and other chapters) various characters — like the Exterminator — assume evil intentions on the part of Aspie Mouse, and yet that’s not at all what AM is thinking or feeling. Another way to take the burden of guilt, shame and blame out of these situations is to choose to believe what many coaches in improving self-confidence and effectiveness teach: “Everyone, in every moment, is doing the best they can.” The key to making better choices is to be aware of alternative actions and having the discipline to decide to do them. And to chalk up “breakdowns” to not using or fully learning the right “system.” The problem is the system, not me, the person!
Stranger than fiction #2: When the Exterminator says that living with a “pest” would be as bad as “… a dermatologist who couldn’t manage his own dandruff or zits,” it’s sort of homage to a real friend of the author’s (a world-renowned physician/ professor at a research university with a slew of published articles) who indeed had a bad case of dandruff when both author and doctor were in their early 30’s. The author believes (based on his own experience in the College Textbook industry) that College Professor is perhaps the prestigious occupation most heavily populated by “Aspies,” but other professions such as law and medicine also have them: the physician noted above is one of two eminent M. D. friends who the Author is pretty sure are on the Autism Spectrum, based partly on their unusual grooming habits — the other is a Psychiatrist whose wife complains that her husband won’t wash his hair!
The contrast between the Exterminator and his Autistic brother-in-law Lennie is not based on specific people the author has met (though certain aspects are from such folks). As with other “inventions” in this work, this contrast helps move the story along in a good way.
Questions for Thought/ Discussion: Ch. D, “X is for Exterminator“
D 1: (Similar to Q B 1) On page D 1 to top of p. D 2, Aspie Mouse says he likes his home & the idea of living alone.
- What do you like about where you live? Dislike?
- When do you prefer being alone? When would prefer being around other people? Which specific person or people would you rather be around most or all the time?
- Do you have pets at home? If more than one, do you have a favorite? Do pets respond well to you? Why do you think a pet may prefer one member of the household to another if that appears to be true?
D 2: As the Coppola family prepares to leave for their summer place, Bobby & Claire appear to bother/ tease/ fight with each other. (Similar questions are also found at the end of Ch. A — for Aspie Mouse and his siblings — and Ch. C for these same two children; so if you’ve answered them for Ch. C, you may want to skip them — unless reading more about Bobby & Claire’s interactions causes you to rethink your answers).
- If you live or lived with one or more other children growing up, especially non-Autistic (neuro-typical), how do/ did you and they get along?
- Same situation (grew up with other kids, Autistic or not): Was there jealousy — complaints about fairness — about parents’ treatment about achievement, abilities, success, attention, and how rules were applied to you vs. them? Do/ did such complaints go both ways, or did you or another child complain a lot more, at least in your memory? Would the other child(ren) likely agree on who complained more?
- If you’re an only child, did you wish you had a brother or sister or both? How might life have been different?
- If you grew up with other kids at home, did you often wish you were an only child? How might life have been different?
D 3: Telling the truth vs. telling lies is a theme in this chapter, especially from p. 5 top through p. 8 top, given the Exterminator’s apparent love for “playing with the truth.”
- Which previously introduced character in this graphic novel (Chapters A-C) does Mr. K, the Exterminator remind you of? What “diagnosis” — not Autism — would you give both that previously introduced character and Mr. K, or would you say their diagnoses might be slightly difference? What specific non-Autistic behaviors does Mr. K show that are similar to those shown by that previously introduced character?
- How honest do you believe Mr. K (the exterminator) is when he says he tells the truth, just not the whole truth? Who do you think he’s trying to convince? Do you agree that he’s telling the truth in these situations? Explain.
- Mr. Coppola says “withholding” key truths is lying. What do you think? When might it be truthful — even useful — to withhold details in explanations? When might it be useful in social situations to withhold opinions, especially negative opinions, you have about others?
- Is there a difference between withholding “facts” (what a movie camera would record happening) and “opinions” (what you think about the situation beyond what a movie camera would record)? Can you think of a situation when coming up with a different, more positive opinion of what another person said or did (same facts) would help your connection to that other person? Or when telling yourself “Let me focus on the problem, don’t ‘blame’ myself; I did the best I could” would make you feel better about yourself?
- When have important people lied to you? Did they withhold important information or did they make stuff up? What was the impact on you when you found out the truth?
- When have you told untruths/ lies? Did you withhold important information or did you make stuff up? The author believes those with Autism are far likelier to withhold information than to make things up: do you agree with that? What’s true for you?
- What feeling(s) do you have when you aren’t truthful (mad, glad, sad, fear, shame)? If it was discovered you didn’t tell the truth, what was the impact on others? … the impact on you? What feeling(s) came up then (mad, glad, sad, fear, shame)?
- (When) is it a good idea to withhold truths to protect another person’s feelings? (When) is it a good idea to withhold truths to avoid bad consequences for you?
- “Dumping” is when someone only says what’s bad or negative about a person or situation, while “withholding” what’s positive. When has someone dumped on you? When have you dumped on someone else? How can you avoid “dumping”?
- How might you tell the truth in a way that keeps you safe from others’ upset?
- Bobby has a “sixth sense” that something “isn’t right” about Mr. K, the exterminator. How often have you felt something like, “I can’t trust this person, even if I don’t know why”? Were you right? Or do you usually believe you trust too much, and so believe everyone you meet is telling the truth until you have proof otherwise (it’s often said those with Autism can be too gullible/ naive)?
- How does it feel when you learn you’ve been lied to or information was withheld with the intention to mislead? What can/ do you do about that?
D 4: panel, p. D8, Mr. K (the exterminator) calls Aspie Mouse names (“mutant,” “computer-controlled robot,” “gay”). (Similar questions follow Ch’s. B & H)
- What feeling is the exterminator showing when he calls AM these names? Who else might be a target for what the exterminator is feeling?
- What does the exterminator believe about Aspie Mouse when AM avoids the smell of an “available female mouse”? What’s the real reason AM dislikes that smell? When have you had a belief about another person or even yourself that information discovered later persuaded you to change your belief? Do such discoveries make you curious to ask/ check how many other beliefs you have that may be based on incomplete or wrong information?
- If you’re called a “name” that you know isn’t true (such as Mr. K calling Aspie Mouse “gay” when he isn’t), how do you feel? How do you respond? Does it feel different and is your response different if you believe the “name” is true vs. knowing it’s not true? Does it matter about the “name” if you are proud that you believe it’s true vs. you have shame about it being true? What happens inside if you’re not sure that a “name” fits you, but wonder if it might be true for you if others keep saying it?
- When have you been told you’re not “manly” or “feminine” enough? Then answer same questions as in D 4-3 above, but specific to not being manly or feminine enough. How well do you accept that any “differences” from how others expect you to be are OK, even when others tease you by saying it’s “wrong” to be the way you are and/ or they “expect” you to behave differently?
D 5: Continuing the theme of D4, Aspie Mouse teases the cat Mr. K brings into the house, including calling the cat “names,” starting from the bottom of page D11.
- If you’ve been called names, which names bother you the most? The least? What’s different when the teaser/ name-caller is the target of bullies vs. a bully?
- Do you believe those who calls others names feel good about themselves? What might be reasons — other than trying to hurt others — for someone to tease another?
- When is teasing or name-calling a good-natured way of connecting people, and when on the other hand is it hurtful/ painful/ pushing others away? How might people differ on what’s hurtful/ painful as opposed to good-natured/ connecting?
- Aspie Mouse and “#83” in Ch’s. C & D call each other “letters/ morning mouse,” “numbers mouse,” etc. How do you view these names — connecting or distancing?
- When have you called others “names”? If you have, when/ why did/ do you? What other way might you have handled the situation if you don’t like being called names (what do you wish someone else did to tease or express annoyance with you instead)?
- What might be one or more good ways to handle others who call you names?
- Would you step in if someone called a friend or classmate a name, or otherwise teased that person, and you believed it to be hurtful to that friend? If yes, how? How much do you believe a bystander taking action can change a bullying or teasing situation?
D 6: Mr. K (the exterminator) tries different techniques to persuade the cat he gets from the animal shelter to catch and kill Aspie Mouse (bottom, p. 13 ff.) , after his own techniques fail to work. First Mr. K belittles the cat for being weak. Then Mr. K promises the cat great food and a secure home — though (as he admits) it’s all a lie.
- When someone tries to shame/ belittle you, are you more likely or less likely to do what’s being asked? Why?
- Do you respond better to positive offers or negative threats? Under what conditions? In your experience, which do you trust more? Which are more likely to come true?
- When someone can’t or won’t follow through with either a positive promise or a threatening one (as Mr. K admits he can’t), what does that do to your trust?
- How often do you follow through with negative threats or positive promises you make? What’s the impact on others’ trust of you?
D 7: At the bottom of page 19, when #83 calls Aspie Mouse a “hero,” he pushes back, saying he’s a failure, because he has no friends; no one (in his case, that means no cat!) wants to play with him.
- Do you have many friends, a few (or even one) good one(s), or no friends? Are you happy or unhappy with this situation? What for you is the difference between a friend and an acquaintance?
- If you’d like more friends than you have, why do you believe you don’t have more? How much of not having more friends was your decision (you didn’t want them), vs. they didn’t want you, and vs. it was a mutual decision? What other factors could be involved — such as what Aspie Mouse says in the first panel on page D-18, that he’s not good at “taking turns”?
- Is the reason Aspie Mouse gives for “having no friends” (cats don’t want him to be “it”) true — or even logical? How might Aspie Mouse change his belief about having no friends by looking at the situation differently?
- If you have fewer friends than you’d like — or none — what beliefs that you have about yourself or others (you might even mistake some beliefs as “facts”) might be operating? Are you willing to consider challenging or changing any of these beliefs?
- If you’ve lost a friend you once had, what reason (other than moving away) do you believe resulted in ending the friendship? If you’d like to re-gain such friendships, what change in belief or behavior are you willing to make — without expecting the ex-friend(s) to change theirs (and they might surprise you after you reach out)?
- How often are your friendships based on common interests, vs. something else (such as your parents put you together or you judge you can talk about more personal concerns with this friends than you can with other people)? If you have more than one friend, do they know/ like each other? Do your friends share common interests or is their most “common interest” you — otherwise they’d likely have little in common?
- Are most or even all of your friends on the Autism Spectrum? Do most or all have another “difference/ disability?” Do you have any Neurotypical friends? … friends of other races, religions, ethnicities or nation of origin? Why do you believe this is the mix of friends you have? If you would like a more diverse mix of friends, what might you do to encourage that? If you’d rather not have a more diverse mix of friends, what’s your belief/ reasoning behind that?
D 8: Dr. Temple Grandin says she found seeking an intimate relationship with anyone was more trouble than it was worth, given how her Autism presented. Others on the Autism Spectrum marry or are otherwise in long-term intimate relationships with partners — some of whom are Autistic and others non-Autistic. On pages D 16-17, #83 tells Aspie Mouse she would be interested in being physically close with him (hugging, etc.).
- What are at least three reasons Aspie Mouse is uncomfortable with #83’s offer to hug him? What additional reason(s) does Aspie Mouse give for being even more uncomfortable when #83 kisses him?
- If you were in Aspie Mouse’s position (someone you found attractive approached you in a similar situation), how do you think you would respond? Why? What change(s) in the situation would make you more likely to say yes? To say no?
- Would you rather be the one asking or the one being asked to get closer? Why?
- Do you believe you’re interested in having an intimate relationship with someone, or do you believe, like Dr. Grandin, it might not be worth the challenges? Why?
- Other things being equal, would you prefer to date/ marry someone else with Autism or someone without Autism? Why?
- Explain how you see friendship and intimacy either going together or conflicting (Aspie Mouse clearly thinks intimacy gets in the way of friendship)? Can or should you be friends with someone you desire as a romantic partner? What problems might you expect to have if you don’t think you could be someone’s friend unless you were interested romantically?
D 9: The Exterminator mentions several positive traits tied to Autism that his brother-in-law Lenny has: gentleness, good with animals, inventor, great gamer.
- What positive traits do you see as directly tied to having Autism in yourself?
- What positive traits do you see in others that result from their Autism?
- What positive traits tied to your Autism have people without Autism complimented — or even envied — you? Do you celebrate with them or play down these compliments? What were you taught about accepting or even celebrating such compliments?
- How have or can you use your positive traits tied to Autism to improve your self-esteem and/ or offset negative attitudes you may toward the parts of these same or other Autistic traits that you dislike in yourself? … that others have told you they dislike in you?
- Overall, do you see your Autism as a: liability? disability? difference? advantage? Explain.
- The exterminator Mr. K later says the same “positive traits” he sees in his brother-in-law Lenny also drive him crazy. Why? Do you have Autistic traits that some people view positively and other people view negatively? What’s your response to that difference in reactions?
D 10: The Coppola’s return from their summer place when the Exterminator leaves.
- When has your family changed its plans (not because of anything you did)? How did it affect you? What feelings came up for you as a result of that change? What might help you become more accepting of change (often a struggle for those with Autism)?
- When has your family changed its plans because of something you did or said? What feelings did you have as a result of that change? What feelings did other family members have? Did you regret your role in that change — then or later?
D11: Per Question A 7: a list of common Autism traits, followed by two questions related to them:
- No eye contact
- Sensory sensitivity: noise, certain lights, smells & touch
- Voice Volume, Repetition & Variability
- Stimming (repetitive body or hand movements)
- Anxiety (fear) in social situations
- Executive Function easily overwhelmed > meltdown responses of fight, flight or freeze
- Over-sensitivity: over-reaction or no visible reaction (mistaken as not caring)
- Love routine/ dislike change and transitions
- Pattern-seeking/ solving problems in unique ways
- Special Interest(s) that can lead to unique expertise
- Lack of Social Understanding
- Honesty, innocence, naivete
- Can’t remember names or faces, read body language etc.
- Not Showing or Over-showing Feelings
- Extreme thoughts swirl around inside, unrestrained by social norms.
- Talk too much/ ask too many questions or avoid attention (silence, don’t ask Q’s)
- Difficulty getting & keeping friends, relationships & jobs
- Difficulty feeling safe, really trusting others
- Don’t Understand Jokes or Overdo “Puns”
- Sharing one’s diagnosis — should I or not? When & where?
a. Which of these characteristics can you identify that Aspie Mouse or another Autistic rodent or human character exhibits in this chapter — either negative or positive? How about a non-autistic character? Feel free to skip any characteristic already answered in chapter-specific questions above.
b. Do you find examples in this chapter of cats or other non-rodent animals acting Autistic? If yes, how?