Ch. A: A New House, A New Cat (original Ch. J, 4/1/19; revised as A, 10.25.20; minor update to notes, Q’s 10.8.21 )

First “real” chapter (vs. Pre-A, a preface) in this graphic novel, Chapter A (formerly J, then H) was published after a major upgrade on 10.25.2020. It’s been chosen to be the first chapter — even though the action takes place late in the sequence of the novel — because it has action: it’s primarily the story of Aspie Mouse trying to get a cat to “play” with him. Its Autism-specific “lessons” are limited. It’s like a movie trailer — a “preview of coming attractions!” Because it’s “out of sequence” in the flow of this graphic novel, Ch. A’s material will be repeated in Chapter H, where it belongs — between Ch’s. G & I. In Ch. H, a new sub-plot doubles its length (vs. this Ch. A) — covering social class, bullying and “race” among rodents. Last minor changes 10/8/2021.

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

Once the author discovered that his son — and he — had Autism, he became an advocate for his newly discovered “tribe.” That led to a decision to re-purpose a comic book character he’d created decades earlier — now as Aspie Mouse, the Autistic star of a new graphic novel. What is now Chapter A was the first newly written chapter (then Ch. J) for this new graphic novel. Designed simply — more like those he had written decades earlier — the original Ch. J had no direct reference to Autism in its plot flow: mouse tries playing with cat, cat’s not amused & then tries to catch mouse, mouse wins. Believing that Aspie Mouse’s Autism would be self-evident to readers familiar with Autism, the author didn’t bother spelling it out.

After the author set this chapter aside to work on new chapters — starting with what’s now Ch. B — AM’s back story of his origins & formal education, followed by Ch’s. C & D — the author started adding in more Autism-specific traits, plots, characters and dialog. This made Aspie Mouse more distinct, more identifiable as a model (hero) for Autistic readers, and would help non-Autistic readers see Autism in more nuanced ways. Then chapter-end questions were added to help address how issues raised in these chapters might relate to Autistic readers’ real-world situations.

As chapters B, C, D were written, developed and revised, it became apparent to the author that most, if not all, of these post-J chapters would be significantly longer than he’d originally thought. This was especially true for Chapter D — which went from eight pages to 15, then 20, and finally 24. To keep the overall length of this work on a par with other graphic novels, the number of chapters dropped to no more than ten. So Ch. J was reassigned as Ch. H.

By the time the author finally looked again at Chapter J – turned H – he realized it no longer “matched” these later written chapters in plot or character development. Yet feedback on this blog suggested that this early-written chapter was really good, worth publishing “as is” (with art upgrades as per other chapters), and in fact might be best to be the first chapter! These blog readers suggested the J material would make a great introduction for Aspie Mouse to readers: it has more action and pictures — and fewer words and “lessons” — vs. later-written chapters. The dilemma was that its material was always intended to come later in the sequence of the graphic novel. Would putting it first both disrupt the careful order of the graphic novel and require re-numbering (re-lettering?) all the other chapters?

The author admitted that putting this chapter first made sense. He was and is committed to welcoming all feedback with an open mind — and implementing those suggestions that improve the work. So he made a big change late in the process! On the verge of submitting sample materials to agents to pursue formal publication, he chose to delay his query. Then he worked on his new plan: to use former Ch. J’s material TWICE! First, mostly “as is” with a minor face lift as the new Chapter A. Second, the newly upgraded Ch. A panels would be re-used as the core story of an expanded Chapter H. Thus Ch. H 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 anyway, as Pre-A is really a Preface.

To make this repeated material worth re-reading in Ch. H, a new sub-plot involving social interactions between AM & neighborhood rodents (touching on social class, bullying & race) now would be woven in with Ch. A’s material. The result: Ch. H is twice as long as Ch. A. Counting Pre-A, there are now ten chapters, a nice round number (except it’s in letters, and one is a preface)!

While Chapter A may offer fewer “lessons” for those with Autism than the chapters which follow, 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 face in the world — especially if they’re extroverted (explained in the next paragraphs). It’s certainly true for the author — probably the #1 reason he was motivated to create this graphic novel in the first place! To discuss this issue, “the author” is switching from third person to “I statements” (a transformational 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, given many of us 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 happened again and again and again, resulting 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 are more likely to say something like, “Aah! How could you SAY that?”

I mentioned that I welcome feedback. In fact, I take all feedback graciously. I don’t take things (so) personally. Instead, I look at feedback as a growth opportunity. This is definitely new behavior for me. It is not how my Autistic brain normally would operate.

However, while I listen to all feedback, I don’t do what each person says I should do. 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 know — until you learned it!” My hope is that the “Aspie” you love can learn self-acceptance as the key to anxiety reduction, keeping their “executive function” open (not flooded) and regaining trust quicker than it took for me. Aspie Mouse has already learned it — mostly!

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.

After the lady’s cat runs away, she confronts Aspie Mouse, and is surprised AM seems to understand what she’s saying to him. Why AM understands her is a mystery that will be solved during as the book goes along, with a final question on it in Chapter H. But what’s worth separately discussing, as Question A 6 b-d suggest, is how in this instance, AM’s response to the lady is at least in part NOT the response most people associate with Autism — he lowers his head in shame, then shakes his head yes and no in answer to her questions. This allows her to trust AM. If AM gave Prof. Gonzalez the complete typical Aspie response to her questions (including keeping his head still), the Author believes she’d be unsure whether or not AM could understand her, which would would mean adding at least another page or two for her to figure it out another way. In the absence of such common social gestures showing shame/ remorse, it’s hard for Neurotypicals to trust those with Autism — who instead usually just stand still as if “frozen” (no facial gestures, no head movement, no looking another in the eye). AM primarily DOES respond Autistically except for the head movements: he doesn’t look at the human resident; his facial expression is rigid; and as the Professor comments, he doesn’t run away. So how Aspies usually respond when confronted — with many or all elements of a “freeze” response to anxiety — is likely a good discussion topic.

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 events in each chapter funny — while showing the social misunderstanding problems 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) to immediately blaming Spike when suddenly there’s chaos.

a. What do you think of the human lady’s response towards Spike, 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’s happened to you? If you think it’s funny, why do you? Do you believe 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 other humans’ words.

a. 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.

b. Those with Autism tend, especially when more anxious than usual, to be either very animated — making extravagant gestures, speaking loudly, talking on and on, and asking lots of questions — or they get very quiet, make few if any movements with their heads and face, and don’t look at whoever is speaking to them. If you’re on the Autism Spectrum, which are you? Whether or not you have Autism, why do you think either of the just mentioned behavioral responses would cause others not to trust them? What might someone with either cluster of Autism responses do to help others trust them more?

A 5: Aspie Mouse, though a young adult mouse, really loves to play (especially with cats!). Most of the play involves what is sometimes called “imaginative play” — play from the mind, rather than “set” play, which would be 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.

  1. Prof. Gonzalez — the human resident in his new home — confronts Aspie Mouse after her cat Spike runs away (p. A-11), and trusts AM more as a result. What about AM’s non-verbal responses to her would be seen as Autistic in nature? What about AM’s non-verbal responses are uncommon for those with Autism?
  2. (Cont’d from A 6-1): Why do you think the Author believes she’d have dismissed AM as just another mouse that couldn’t understand human words if AM didn’t show at least one atypical Autistic non-verbal response? Explain why those with Autism whose non-verbal response to a verbal confrontation is more typically fully Autistic would have trouble getting others to trust and understand them. Is this a problem you have?
  3. 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 with disruptive words/ behaviors often enough to notice it?
  4. 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?
  5. 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?
  6. Are you one of those for whom this pattern happens so often you live in terror not knowing when it will happen again? (See A 6-8 & 9 below for possible remedies.)
  7. 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?
  8. 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?
  9. 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?

A 7: A list of 27 Autism Characteristics, followed by four questions related to them:

  1. No eye contact
  2. Sensory sensitivity: noise, certain lights, smells, touch/ textures, foods, hunger/ bathroom needs; physical space (stand too close/ far from others; need escape); creative, passionate re art, music, touch
  3. Self-Regulation: Speech: voice volume, repetition & variability; amount (see #6)
  4. Self-Regulation: Stimming – flapping, swaying, repetitive body/ hand movements/ head banging; use “fidgets”
  5. Anxiety (fear) & Overwhelm. Executive Function closes up > Meltdown: fight, flight or freeze. #1 barrier to ASD good mental health. Key: lower anxiety — yoga, meditation, count to 10, positive self-talk.
  6. All-or-None Thinking & Behavior: Say too much/ ask too many questions or say/ ask nothing; flat affect or too dramatic; not show or over-express feelings (see #7); avoid people or obsessed w/ some; loves/ overuses puns or humorless; substance abuser or teetotaler — extremes, no gray. Learn to sit in discomfort, seek middle.
  7. Difficulty identifying feelings; then not show or over-express them. Mistake not showing for not feeling & over-showing for “acting/ exaggerating.” Learn core feelings (mad, glad, sad, scared) & “not about me”
  8. Lack of Social Understanding, of others’ expectations (unaware). Ask for rules, put in writing and study as if taking school test. The core trait that drives the Adventures of Aspie Mouse: why his choices makes one laugh.
  9. Pattern-seeking/ solving problems in unique ways: why they’re inventors, good at “detail oriented” jobs; creative, intuitive.
  10. Special Interest(s) can pay off having unique expertise for work/ hobby. Great for self-esteem, relaxing, lowering anxiety.
  11. Independent thinkers/ most inventors; no/ weak peer influence/ expectations.
  12. Work well independently once focused, trained, boss “gets”/ in right environment
  13. Self-entertaining: If access to special interests, never bored; need no playmate.
  14. Rule follower: conscientious once buys in; then help enforce, offer improvements.
  15. Honesty, innocence, naivete: unusually truthful, will even tell on oneself. Positive side of “lack of social understanding” (see #8).
  16. Love routine/ dislike change and transitions: helps in self-regulation; holds on; loyal, slow to adjust, won’t jump ship.
  17. Unaware of impact of actions on others (adds to friction from #8): so invite feedback, don’t explain yourself.
  18. More logical than emotional: Makes for discomfort – Aspie of feelings; others for Aspie not expressing them.
  19. Emotionally delayed: emotional age 2/3-3/4 of chronological. Catch up slowly. Good to delay intimacy (honor your own clock).
  20. Low self-esteem: Stop self-blame! Give counter-messages: your unique strengths & you’re not at fault.
  21. Lack of trust, all feels unsafe: others’ trust/ safety priorities puzzling, why is my “feels right” labeled “unacceptable?” No! Unexpected! Choose your own safety priorities or those of others in household.
  22. Over-sensitivity > what’s said/ happens: over-reacts or no visible reaction (cares, can’t show it). Don’t take personally, let it go, Laugh about it vs. taking too seriously.
  23. Can’t remember names (even faces), read body language – not priority, can be by choice.
  24. Disconnected from body, including health, personal hygiene, need to eat/ sleep/ use bathroom, place in “space,” prone to self-injury (intentional & not).
  25. Extreme thoughts swirl inside mind, unrestrained by social norms; if spoken often leads to trouble, even if you’d never act upon the more scary thoughts. Challenge negative self-talk with positives and dismissal.
  26. Depression, suicidal thoughts, acts: anxiety & depression treated w/ same meds (body can’t tell difference); from low self-esteem, bad self-talk, sense of hopelessness. Get help, especially Cognitive Behavior Therapy.
  27. Hard to get & keep friends, jobs & relationships: to overcome, must work to lessen own & others’ discomfort. Listen! Show interest in others’ lives, passions & get feedback on your impact on them (see #17).

a. Which of these characteristics can you identify that Aspie Mouse or another Autistic rodent or human character exhibits in this chapter? How about a non-autistic character? Repeating a characteristic already answered in the chapter-specific questions above is optional.

b. What examples of cats or other non-human/ non-rodent animals acting Autistic do you find in this chapter?

c. Which Autistic traits shown by a character in this chapter can you identify with? Optional to repeat or not those already given in answer to any other question above for this chapter.

d. Which Aspie characteristics shown in this chapter aren’t traits you have?

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