Chapter A: A New House, A New Cat

First “real” chapter (vs. Pre-A, a preface) in this graphic novel, Chapter A (formerly J, then H) is now published after major upgrade 10.25.2020. It makes the best introductory chapter, because it has lots of action, and its only Autism-specific “lesson” comes at the very end. So it’s like a “preview of coming attractions!” Because it’s “out of sequence” in the flow of this graphic novel, this material will be repeated in Chapter H, where it belongs — between G & I. Yet, while Ch. A’s 12 pages will be reproduced “almost as is” in Ch. H, a new sub-plot interspersed within it doubles the length of Ch. H (vs. A), and covers topics such as social class (within mice), bullying (a bully rat) and even “race” (the mice are a different color from Aspie Mouse).

Notes for Chapter A, “A New House, A New Cat

Once the author discovered that his son — and he — had Autism, he decided to become an advocate for his newly discovered “tribe.” That led to realizing he wanted to re-purpose a comic book character he’d created decades earlier — now as the Autistic star of a new graphic novel. What is now Chapter A was the first chapter (J) written for The Adventures of Aspie Mouse. Designed as a simple chapter — like those he had written earlier — the original Ch. J had no direct reference to Autism in its plot flow: mouse likes playing with cat, cat is not amused, cat tries to catch mouse, mouse wins. The author believed that Aspie Mouse’s Autism would be self-evident to readers familiar with Autism; no need to spell it out!

He then set this chapter J aside to work on new chapters, starting with what’s now Ch. B — AM’s back story of his origins & formal education. As he wrote (and revised) chapters B, C & D, and then plotted out chapters E, F, G & I — writing one to six introductory pages for each of the latter — he added more Autism-specific traits, plots, characters & dialogue. Also, chapter-end questions were added to address how issues raised in these chapters relate to real-world situations faced by those with Autism. As these new chapters were developed and revised — especially Chapter D, which went from eight pages to 15, then 20, and finally 24 — it became apparent that most, if not all, of these post-J chapters would be longer than he’d originally planned. To keep the overall length of this work on a par with other graphic novels, that meant reducing the number of chapters to no more than ten. That’s when Ch. J was reassigned as Ch. H, though page numbers weren’t changed from the never-updated Ch. J when it became Ch. H.

By the time the author finally looked again at Chapter J (now H), he realized it no longer “matched” these later written chapters. Yet that’s also when the author got feedback on this blog that this simple early-written chapter was good and worth publishing “as is” (with art upgrades as per other chapters). In particular, it was suggested the story would work well  (best of all chapters?) if it came first! It was as a good way to introduce Aspie Mouse to readers because it had more action and pictures — and fewer words and “lessons,” vs. later-written chapters. This created a dilemma, however! The material in this chapter was always designed to be later in the sequence of the overall graphic novel. Putting this J/ H material first would disrupt the careful order of the graphic novel, and mean re-numbering (re-lettering?) every other chapter.

So the author pondered, because he admitted putting this chapter first made sense. He was and is committed to welcoming all feedback with an open mind, and then to implement those suggestions that improve the work. So he decided it was time to make a big change! Thus, very late in the process — on the verge of submitting this material to an agent to pursue formal publication — he delayed his query by a few weeks. His new plan: to use the former Ch. J’s material TWICE! First, mostly “as is” with a minor face lift as the new Chapter A. Second, these upgraded Ch. A panels would be re-used as the core story of an expanded Chapter H. In Ch. H, this material would now be read where it belonged in sequence — between Ch’s G & I. To avoid re-lettering the remaining chapters, the former Ch. A would now become Ch. Pre-A — which makes sense, as Pre-A is really a Preface.

However, to make this material worth re-reading in Ch. H, a new sub-plot involving social interactions between AM & neighborhood rodents now would be woven in with Ch. A’s material. The result is a Ch. H twice as long as Ch. A. Counting Pre-A, there are now ten chapters, a nice round number (except that it’s in letters)!

While this chapter may not offer as many “lessons” for those with Autism vs. most other chapters, Autistic behaviors by Aspie Mouse show up repeatedly right from the start. For example, he shows his problems associating names with faces when he can’t recall his sister’s name. Also, he’s clearly not “tuned in” to social norms (that cats chase mice, rather than mice ask cats to play with them!). Nor does he understand the motivations and reactions of others to his words or actions , as when he thinks Spike the cat is “playing” with him, when Spike’s just doing his job — to get rid of AM! Nevertheless, when the chapter was upgraded in format, a specific lesson (or two) was added to Ch. A’s re-worked ending. The issue — and lesson — is central to so many of the problems that those with Autism — especially if they’re extroverted — face in the world. It’s certainly true for the author — probably the #1 reason he was motivated to create this graphic novel in the first place! To better discuss this issue, “the author” is switching to “I statements” (a tranformational work favorite!).

So both Aspie Mouse — in this chapter, and of course Ch. H, but also elsewhere in this volume — and I go along in our/ my merry way, interacting with one or more others, assuming — incorrectly, as we know how that word breaks down, don’t we? — that we/ I have interpreted another’s or others’ motives, actions and sensitivities appropriately. Then, in the absence of words like “Stop” or “Hey, wait a minute,” we assume we have the others’ buy-in. More to the point, because we are/ I am so anxious, our “executive function” gets so overloaded it looks to others as if we/ I don’t care! Then all of a sudden (or so it seems) we/ I get reprimanded for being outrageous, insensitive, causing chaos & disruption, and are told we/ I can’t be trusted. These criticisms seem to come out of nowhere and lead directly to shame!

For me, it would bring thoughts of becoming a light-house keeper, because clearly (I told myself) I wasn’t fit to be in the company of others. Of course, as an extrovert, the reality of such an exile would make me miserable. It reflects the repeated shame of realizing how my “blurting out” behavior happening again and again and again would result in self-sabotage! These days, though, I know the key to “recovery” and regaining lost trust is to ASK FOR FEEDBACK — preferably ahead of time — before I do something foolish yet again by assuming others would think and react to the weirder thoughts of my mind the way I do (no big deal), when in truth they rarely do (“Aah! How could you SAY that?”).

Another new behavior is not only do I welcome feedback, I take all feedback graciously; I don’t take things (so) personally. Instead, I look at feedback as a growth opportunity. On the other hand, I don’t feel obligated to do what everyone says — or, as they say in 12-step programs: “I take what I like, and leave the rest.” I go with what sounds right in my gut — after first getting that feedback! What keeps me focused on welcoming all feedback is my central “working edge”: My mantra: I am self- accepting, self-forgiving, self-compassionate and self-loving. Stop judging what others say — “witness” it instead. I reduce anxiety by eliminating self-blame. Instead, I blame the “system” I’m using, not my “being.” Or, as I’ve heard in conjunction with the “Black Lives Matter” movement (a quote whose author I’m still trying to track down — Toni Morrison maybe?), “You’re not responsible for what you didn’t learn — until you learned it!” My hope is that the “Aspie” you love can learn self-acceptance as the key to anxiety reduction and regaining trust quicker than it took for me. Aspie Mouse has already learned it — mostly!

When Chapter A’s plot gets put back in context in Chapter H, there will also be a major additional sub-plot, focusing more on social interactions with peers — in Aspie Mouse’s case, that’s other rodents. Social interactions with peers is something those with Autism often have special trouble negotiating. As a result, Aspie Mouse’s Autistic behaviors may then be even more obvious — but so will his positive behaviors that also result from having Autism!

As more human characters get added, the notes at the end of Chapter C will have a discussion about my philosophy on naming the people in this graphic novel. Know that the names have been chosen carefully. It is no accident that the human lady homeowner in this chapter (and Chapters H & I) is Hispanic, nor are her first and last names random. Yessika is the way Spanish-speaking countries spell “Jessica” (my wife and I had an au pair with that first name). Gonzalez was the maiden name of the mother of one of my best friends from childhood.

Chapter A: Questions for Thought and Reflection

A 1: In the first panel, Aspie Mouse mentions that his new home was recommended by his sister, but he can’t remember his sister’s name.

a. What problems do you have in recognizing and/ or remembering people — their names, their faces, associating their faces with their names? If yes, what issues have happened as a result? If no, do you know people with such problems, and can you imagine what happens as a result?

b. How are you at identifying and interpreting facial expressions? Have you mistaken a facial expression for one feeling, only to learn the person had a different feeling? Do you usually ask or not ask a person whose facial expressions you can’t “read” to tell you what they’re feeling? Do you explain you have difficulty picking up facial expressions (if you do) or not disclose that? Why?

c. How are you at identifying and interpreting non-facial body language (hand gestures, shoulders slumping, leaning forward vs. leaning back, crossing arms/ legs, etc.)? Have you mistaken a non-facial body language cue for showing one feeling, only to learn the person had a different feeling? Do you usually ask or not ask a person whose non-facial body language you can’t “read” to tell you what they’re feeling? If this is an issue for you, what do you do to get better information on another person’s body gestures?

A 2: The main theme of this chapter — and to a great extent this entire set of chapters — is that Aspie Mouse goes through life unaware of what others are really thinking about, and what they are trying to do in relationship to him. It’s what makes the stories funny — and it also says a lot about the social misunderstandings that those with Autism face on a daily basis.

a. When Spike’s human owner turns off the light to go to bed, Aspie Mouse decides to wake up the cat and “party.” Besides AM’s unawareness of the cat’s real agenda towards AM, do you believe his behavior toward Spike is more: hostile, friendly, scheming, or some combination? Do you identify more with Aspie Mouse or more with Spike in this chapter — or with each at times?

b. Aspie Mouse also hurts Spike physically. When does AM seem to hurt the cat on purpose, and when is he hurting (or even knocking out) Spike without meaning to? When have you physically hurt someone on purpose (biting or otherwise)? When have you hurt someone physically without meaning to? How about someone doing either of these to you? What’s been the result of these incidents?

c. Aspie Mouse gets Spike in trouble with his human on several occasions in this chapter. Do you think AM is getting Spike in trouble on purpose, or is AM just not aware of what could happen to Spike? When have you gotten someone in trouble? On purpose or without meaning to? When has someone gotten you in trouble? Was it on purpose or without meaning to? What was the impact (consequence) of this or these situations on your relationship with that/ these other person(s)?

d. When Aspie Mouse says that human adults “get in the way of fun,” do you think that’s true at times? When has an adult stopped you from “having fun”? Was the stop justified? How much of the problem is that adults see or face the consequences of “fun” in a way kids (or Aspie Mouse) don’t? Is this a problem for you now?

e. Is being unaware of the results of one’s actions — as Aspie Mouse often seems to be — something you associate with Autism? Is it something you relate to, or not?

f. Continuing from e: Are you more aware of the “physical” result of something you did or said than you are of the “emotional” effect on others? How aware are you about the social consequences for you of something you said or did — before you said or did it? — after you said or did it?

g. Is the notion that “those with Autism are very often unaware of others’ wants, feelings, reactions, and the importance of behaving in a socially acceptable way” a stereotype (something people say about people who share certain traits that may or may not be largely true) or a reality in your experience? What steps can you take to change how others see you if they see you this way?

A 3: Spike’s human went from praising Spike for what he did (whether or not he had anything to do with the absence of mice for 5 years) and then when suddenly there’s chaos, she immediately blames Spike.

a. What do you think of the human lady’s response towards Spike until it was too late, unaware that Aspie Mouse was really the one causing the breakage, etc.? Was it fair? Was it just? Could you identify with Spike being blamed for something he tried to stop, rather than be a willing party to? Is that based on anything that happened to you? If you think it’s funny, why do you? Is it because it’s unlikely your own care-givers would change their opinion of you that quickly?

b. Have you been accused of doing something bad for which someone else, who had a much bigger role, didn’t get accused as you did? What did you do in response? Did it get straightened out?

c. Have you ever started something that got someone else in trouble more than you? How did you feel when that other person got in trouble? What did you do in response? Did it get straightened out?

d. Have you been someone who’s started doing things in “fun” that others disapproved of, or which got you punished because of the bad things that resulted (property destroyed, others feeling bad, etc.)? Just on April Fool’s Day and/ or Halloween? Or are you someone who often finds yourself on the wrong end of others’ “fun,” that isn’t fun for you? Or do you try to avoid these situations?

e. Have you ever felt so “wronged” that you were tempted to “run away from home” as Spike did? Or did you have another reason to want to run away from home? If not, do you know someone who has either done so or told you they were seriously considering doing so?

f. Do you wonder what happened to Spike? Most cats who lose their home end up in a pet shelter and don’t get to live with another family. On the other hand, cats who go outdoors kill more than a billion birds a year. How does reading these last two statements affect your feelings about Spike? Cats in general? Cats you know?

A 4: On page 2, Aspie Mouse wonders why he can understand his new human lady’s words, yet he can’t understand any other humans’ words. Why is this so? This mystery “teaser” question will be easier to answer after you’ve read Chapters B through H (particularly B and H). Ponder this as you read through the next seven chapters. It will be asked again as Question H 2.

A 5: Aspie Mouse, though an adult mouse, really loves to play (even if much of it is with cats!). Most of the play involves what is sometimes called “imaginative play” — play from the mind, rather than “set” play — using a board, designed card games or computer programs created by others — or a third type: organized team sports.

a. How much do the adults in your life play — other than with their own kids or relatives’ and friends’ kids? Why or why not? In your experience, when adults play, is it more “imaginative” play, “set” play, or organized team sports? Is this ratio different from what you see kids do?

b. What messages have you received from parents, teachers, etc. about whether (and/ or how often) adults should “play”? How about teenagers in high school? At what age do you think people should shift from imaginative play to “set” play (cards, board games, etc.) and team sports? Do you believe there should be time for all three?

c. Have you been told that there’s a certain point in growing up when you should mostly give up play to focus on preparing to grow up — to launch a career, marry & start a family, settle down, be responsible, etc. At what age should that be?

d. Or were you told that being responsible doesn’t mean giving up “play” — that being responsible might make it easier to be able to continue playing? What do you think of that last idea?

e. How much play do you allow yourself? Do you feel free to play, vs. having some guilt or shame? What do you like to do in play? Is it more likely to be by yourself, with others in person, with others online? How much of your play is “imaginative”? “Set”? Organized team sports?

f. What impact do you believe watching violence on television and in many computer games — where the consequences of that violence (hospitalization, permanent brain injury, funerals, etc.) aren’t shown — has on kids hurting others or getting hurt when they play together?

A 6: (Similar to Question H 7) When the lady homeowner tells Aspie Mouse about the impact he’s had on her life and Spike’s, Aspie Mouse expresses shame, sadness and remorse.

a. Is Aspie Mouse’s situation — doing or saying things that seem fun or innocent to you, only to learn afterwards that your words and/ or behavior have had a really bad effect on others, that you’re “disruptive,” and you lose trust with friends, co-workers and/ or family members– familiar to you? Have you done it a lot, sometimes or rarely? If not, do you know someone with Autism who behaves or speaks that way often enough that you notice it?

b. When this situation happens to you (if it does) — you’re seen as disruptive, untrustworthy and/ or someone who makes situations worse — what feelings come up for you? If you don’t believe you do this often, what feelings come up when someone else behaves in such a disruptive way?

c. Does this sort of behavior — whether you’re the one doing it, or you’re one who witnesses it — cause you anxiety? Or increase anxiety if you know you’re usually anxious? What happens to you when your anxiety increases — do you tend toward acting out angry? run away or feel like running away? freeze? Do you make good decisions when this happens?

d. Are you one of those for whom this pattern happens so often you live in terror not knowing when it will happen again? (See g below for possible remedies.)

e. Are you able to tell others that you do or say the things you do because you have Autism, and not because you are being mean or ignoring others’ feelings on purpose? If not, what stops you?

f. What changes in behavior have you tried to avoid having this happen again to you (either as the one who is disruptive or the one who hates seeing it happen in another)? What strategies might you employ to make this behavior pattern less likely to repeat?

g. Do you meditate? Count to 10? Wait until you get feedback before you say something or do something that you may think harmless, but in your experience may not be seen that way by others?

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