Freedom Friday: Mindful living with Asperger’s Syndrome
August 22nd, 2014
When trying to make sense of the social world as a person diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome I have often found myself learning social skills through observing those around me, especially non-verbal gestures such as facial expressions and eye contact. This can often leave little scope for exploring one’s own emotions and feelings, such as being able to notice how they arise and pass and where they take control over one’s actions. Stepping back from the flow on a ten-day Vipassana retreat enabled me to get in touch with this.
One of the purposes of ‘Vipassana’ (which means to ‘see things as they really are’ in the Pali language) is to help those who practice the technique to experience themselves as they are and experience sensations as they occur. By sensations I refer to anything experienced at the physical level, both those that arise from internal bodily feeling and those that arise from external factors, such as the surrounding temperature or the materials of the clothing one is wearing. A mixture of sensations occurs throughout the body constantly, but due to the many distractions around us we are often oblivious to them and how they can determine our thoughts and actions.
Observed in noble silence for ten days with no verbal communication, no non-verbal gestures or signals and no contact with the outside world, a Vipassana retreat provides a distraction-free environment in which one can get more in touch with oneself and be able to observe the comings and goings of thoughts and feelings, including different degrees of Asperger-related obsession with thoughts. As a person with Asperger’s Syndrome what I found so helpful about there being no non-verbal communication was that I find trying to interpret a lot of non-verbal gestures (including understanding how other people feel about me) very confusing, which can then become a source of worry and anxiety, especially if I feel someone is giving me the ‘silent’ treatment. But during the retreat, being aware of the absence of non-verbal communication helped reduce a great deal of this worry, thus giving me more freedom to explore and understand the workings of my own mind.
During the first four days of the retreat participants are instructed to focus on the breath coming in and out around a triangular area from the tip of the nose to the upper lip, one gradually begins to notice a range of physical sensations that arise and pass around this limited area. Participants are encouraged to observe different sensory experiences as they occur rather than create sensations that we find comforting, allowing each breath coming in and out to be as it is naturally and each physical sensation to arise and pass as naturally as possible. On the fourth day one is then instructed to gradually expand awareness throughout the body, scanning through the body slowly starting from the top of the head.
Participants practice this technique for up to ten hours a day throughout the retreat, including three hour-long sittings of serious determination where one shouldn’t make any major movements to their posture or open their eyes unless absolutely necessary. This is so that as well as noticing different sensations or any urges to move, (such as averse sensations around the knee joints when sitting) one is able to observe their response rather than acting on it and acknowledge that sensations, both pleasant and painful are impermanent and subject to change.
Where I find Asperger’s Syndrome can be a strength during practice is through applying attention to detail and being able to notice sensations very closely. Sometimes, due to sensory preferences, the mind can end up being controlled by sensations that can lead to one becoming controlled by obsessive thought. With continued practice and patience, I found that I was able to exert more control over my mind, including Asperger-related tendencies and obsessions, rather than allowing them to control me. Thanks to this I noticed that each night I was going to sleep much quicker than normal. I felt I was able to notice sensations on a deeper level, including blood flow and vibrations throughout my body coming from my heart beating. Normally, my mind distracts me from going to sleep.
I came home from the retreat thinking that although our physical make-up takes up a limited physical space it has a huge degree of variation with regards to what it is made up of in both a spiritual sense (with the five elements, earth, water, wood, fire) and in a scientific sense. Atoms and particles (the source of most physical sensations) are a constant in our make-up and we are unaware of how much they are influencing our thoughts and actions and how they trigger habits and obsessions. With awareness developed from patience and practice one can eventually exert more control over the mind, and thus more freedom from mental constraint, including anxiety and depression.
On my return to the outside world I noticed just how dependent we can be on external factors for happiness and self-esteem because we aren’t often in tune with how we are within. Turning our mirror neurons towards us enables us to see who we are as we are in the present, rather than being constrained by the need for outside approval. In turn, being happy in this way reflects well on those around us.
What’s Wrong Wednesday: Advocates cracking down on sheltered workshops
August 20th, 2014
Jeff Long was one of 21 men with intellectual disabilities discovered in 2009 toiling away at an Iowa turkey processing plant and living in deplorable conditions while earning just $65 per month from an employer with an expired subminimum wage certificate. (Melanie Burford/Dallas Morning News/MCT)
A nationwide effort is underway to lodge federal complaints against sheltered workshops that are not fully complying with the law.
The National Disability Rights Network — an umbrella group for the federally-mandated protection and advocacy organizations in each state — is asking its members to aggressively review the practices of employers in their area that pay people with disabilities less than the federal minimum wage of $7.25 per hour.
Under current law, employers can obtain special permission from the U.S. Department of Labor to pay people with disabilities what’s known as subminimum wage. However, businesses with special wage certificates must adhere to strict procedures when doing so, regularly assessing each worker’s productivity level, among other requirements.
“We have good reason to believe that in many cases things are not being done correctly in those environments,” said Amy Scherer, a staff attorney with the National Disability Rights Network, which found in a 2011 report that government oversight of employers paying subminimum wage is limited.
Through an initiative launched late last month, the national group is urging its members across the country to report suspected violations to the Department of Labor. Already, an employer was discovered with no records documenting the payment of subminimum wage to its workers with disabilities.
Individuals can contact the protection and advocacy organization in their state if they are aware of a potential violation, Scherer said. Her group is hopeful that a coordinated effort to file complaints this summer will spur the Labor Department to act.
Officials with the federal agency said they welcome the effort.
“The agency has been pursuing strategies to strengthen compliance,” a Department of Labor spokeswoman said in a statement to Disability Scoop. “These strategies include using all available enforcement tools to remedy and deter future violations; providing new compliance assistance materials and tools; and hosting new compliance conferences for employers, community rehabilitation programs, advocates, workers and other interested parties.”
Hundreds of thousands of people with developmental disabilities are believed to work for less than minimum wage. But the practice has become contentious in recent years as individuals increasingly live and work in the community as opposed to segregated environments.
Just last month, President Barack Obama signed legislation limiting the ability of many young adults with disabilities to work for less than minimum wage unless they first explore other employment options.