My first name is Erika. Not Erica. Not Ericka. My last name is Hammerschmidt, which has thirteen letters, including five consonants in a row. People still find it easier to spell than my first name.
In college I majored in German and Spanish. I also accidentally minored in art, just by taking so many art classes for the fun of it. I grow my own vegetables. I cut my own hair, but even when a professional barber cuts it, it still sticks out on one side and in on the other. I’m an author, artist and speaker living in Minnesota. I work at Target as well as giving speeches on autism and writing books. I am married to a space alien named John Ricker, who, like me, is on the autism spectrum.
Below you will find my latest news. Blog posts happen at least once a week here, on Sunday morning. Add me to your bookmarks! I’m always up to something.
It’s harder with a starling than a parrot. Parrots are made to hold things in their feet, and once you’ve gotten a parrot to grasp a pen, it’s easy convincing him to move it against a sheet of paper for a while. But starling feet can’t really hold anything except the branch the bird is perched on.
First I had to make flat holders for little crayon pieces, big enough for his beak to grasp, but light enough for him to lift and move easily. Then came the task of presenting him with a crayon-holder and rewarding him whenever his beak touched it in any way at all. Gradually I’ve worked my way up to giving him a special treat when he holds the thing on his own for a few seconds. Some day in the future, I may be able to get him to hold it and then mash it down on a piece of paper, in the same way he attacks a bug or a blueberry, creating a few artistic strokes of color in the process of shaking it to death.
It certainly won’t be great art. It’ll be barely a scribble, and somewhat less satisfying for the fact that the bird didn’t come up with the idea on his own. People looking at Siri’s drawings may experience some of the disappointment they felt when they saw that online video of an elephant making a detailed painting of an elephant, only to find out later that elephants NEVER paint a realistic picture unless they are rigorously trained to paint that specific thing.
Now, I am not equating Siri’s artistic career to that of the elephant in the video. From what I’ve heard, those elephants are treated terribly, beaten and gouged every time they draw a line the wrong way. I don’t do punishment. I train exclusively with positive reinforcement. Siri gets plenty of healthy food every day (the recommended mix of dog food and poultry mash, with applesauce on the side), but if he does a trick I’ve taught him, he immediately gets dried flies and other special treats he wouldn’t otherwise have. If he disobeys me, nothing happens; I just don’t give him a treat.
There are many reasons why I don’t use punishment or negative reinforcement. I don’t like making any living creature unhappy. And I don’t think it would work well, either. Some animals just don’t understand it. Truth be told, I didn’t understand it in my own childhood. Punishment didn’t work on me. I always saw it as an attack that deserved retaliation, instead of a consequence to be avoided by changing my behavior. Whenever it happened, it poisoned the relationship between me and the people teaching me, instead of making it the enjoyable social interaction it should have been.
Positive reinforcement works. It’s the process behind Siri’s progress on the piano, from showing zero interest in that silly toy, all the way to elaborate recitals like this:
And yes, it may be disappointing, in a way, that he didn’t come up with it on his own. But, at this point in time, it’s worth remembering that he enjoys it enough to do it on his own. When he’s craving attention and treats, he will spontaneously fly to his piano and start playing, without my having to initiate anything.
Yes, he’s doing it in order to get something… but that whole process of playing piano, getting a treat, then playing some more, is fun enough for him that he deliberately chooses to begin it.
I think training can be a great part of life with a pet, enjoyable for both human and animal. I’ve known this ever since I was a child teaching tricks to the family dogs, and whatever other creatures found their way into our home. We took in a lot of unusual stray animals over the years; our house seemed to attract them somehow. Once we even found a guinea pig under some bushes in the backyard. After we brought it inside and fed it, my first reaction was to teach it to shake hands.
It was a very young and cute black-furred guinea pig, very friendly and eager to please, if pleasing me meant that I would give it carrot sticks. This creature would do anything for carrot sticks. So I held a piece of carrot in its face, letting it sniff and nose at the morsel, but holding on tightly, not letting it have a bite until it actually started to paw at my hand. I rewarded each touch of the paw with a carrot bite, until the guinea pig had begun to associate the treats with the action, and soon it was putting its paw in my hand every time I reached out to it.
My parents didn’t let me keep the guinea pig; we had enough pets already at the time, so they gave it to a family they knew. It wasn’t a family of close friends, just casual acquaintances, so I never saw it again… but I’m told that it lived for ten more years, which is ridiculously old for a guinea pig.
I’m certainly not claiming that this long lifespan was due to learning how to shake hands. But I do believe that learning tricks is healthy for pets, and fills a void they may have inside them, left over from their wild ancestors.
If there’s one thing most pets are in great need of, it’s mental stimulation. They live in an environment where predators are unheard of, and food and shelter are given to them with no effort on their part. Certainly it’s less stressful than life in the wild, and most pets don’t want to leave this safe haven. But one can’t deny that it gets a little boring after a while.
Animal minds, including ours, are made for a world where they’re facing constant challenges in order to stay alive. Of course most of us, human and animal, will choose a safer alternative if we can get it. But in order to stay happy in that safety, we need hobbies and games to challenge our minds.
I believe that learning tricks is one of the greatest games that pets can get to play. It’s a combination of engaging mental challenges, snacks, and social time with the humans they love. In fact, it’s so fun that it could even be translated into an enjoyable game for our own intellectually advanced species.
Imagine playing with a friend: you are the trainer, and he is the trainee. You have a task that you want him to do (arrange all the pencils in order of color, or walk in a square three times, or wave a feather-duster at the television; be creative and make up something weird) but you can’t use language to communicate it.
Your only way to tell him what you want is to give a specific reaction when he gets part of it right. He moves randomly around, doing random things to get your attention, and if he happens to touch the pile of colored pencils, you say “Good!”
He pays more attention to the pencils, moving them around. You say “Good” again when he gets two of them parallel to each other, then again when he happens to get a couple of them in order of color, and so on. See how complex a task you can teach without any words except that one little expression of praise. It’s like a cross between “Charades” and “Warmer, Colder.” It’s fun!
I think Sirius enjoys his piano lessons and drawing classes, and not just because he gets dried bugs to eat. The strongest proof I have is a certain thing he does from time to time. In fact, he did it just now, while I was typing an earlier paragraph.
He flew to his piano, and played several notes. I poured him a little pile of flies next to my computer, and he came and ate a few. But before finishing, he flew back to the piano, leaving flies uneaten. He played some more notes… and then, without me doing anything, he returned to the pile of flies and rewarded himself.
If he were only doing it for the treats, wouldn’t he just have stayed and finished the flies at his leisure? I believe that the give-and-take of playing, eating and playing again— the pattern of the game— fascinates him on some deep level, and he enjoys it for itself, as a whole.
Maybe some day we’ll be able to say the same about drawing.
A couple cute little videos of Sirius the Starling.
Here he is playing his toy piano with great enthusiasm, while John designs D&D characters with a friend in the background.
And here he is chattering along while John and I watched a Chinese opera. At about 48 seconds in, he really gets going. Most of his vocalizations are still mumbly baby-talk, but the occasional “Pretty” or “Birdy” is quite clear.
This is the one at which I’ll have a table, selling my handmade jewelry and other crafts.
My jewelry is crazy intricate Renaissance-fair-type stuff that you can see on my website.
There will be lots of other cool artists too!
Since it’s a bake sale, there will also be baked goods! Probably including some vegan and gluten-free options, because Minnehaha Free Space is into that.
The craft fair will be at:
Minnehaha Free Space
3747 Minnehaha Ave
Minneapolis, MN 55406
If you can get to downtown Minneapolis, it’s easy to get to Minnehaha Free Space from there by train. Here are directions from the downtown library. (I’ll give very detailed step-by-step directions, because there was a time when I was so scared of going new places that I would skip out on fun events just because I would have to get to them on my own… in those days, knowing the route in this much detail would have been a big help for me.)
Without further ado:
First, head from the library along Hennepin toward 5th Street:
At 5th Street, turn and wait at the Warehouse Station and Platform.
I’m thinking a lot lately about going back to writing fiction.
My big writing project lately has been a new memoir, Erika to Earth, where I talk about my life since the publication of my first book Born on the Wrong Planet, as well as exploring in depth some issues that I regret ignoring or portraying simplistically in my first book (which I wrote as a college student with limited experience and a somewhat idealistic worldview).
Similarly, I want to write fiction that portrays humanity with more of its true complexity than the first fictional book I published, Kea’s Flight. When John and I collaborated on that novel, I still believe we did something good in telling the story of some strong and intelligent autistic characters like ourselves, but there are still aspects of it that I regret.
I’ve been working on a sequel, bit by bit, and as time goes on, I’m becoming more and more aware of how important it is for the sequel to be more inclusive.
I want to show a wider range of the disabled people that were mentioned living on the ship. The first book never went into their lives, and I regret that. I want to show those with more severe impairments, those who can’t speak vocally, those whose intelligence was never recognized, those with low intelligence. I want to show Kea interacting with them, listening to them, taking their ideas into consideration. I want to see her learn to respect them, as I have.
I want to show non-disabled people who are more in-depth characters than Brandon from the first book. Life is not just autistic heroes versus allistic villains. I want to show interaction between autistic and non-autistic people as the complex, nuanced, sometimes enlightening, sometimes painful reality that it is.
“Kea’s Flight” included a lesbian, a bisexual and an asexual, all female. I want to show more of the LGBTQ spectrum. I want to show gay and bi men, and maybe some trans characters. I want to make them complex characters and show more scenes from their viewpoints. There were also a few characters in “Kea’s Flight” who were apparently Hispanic (though the setting is such that people’s ethnic heritage is difficult to know). I want to show a wider range of people of color. I want to paint humanity as it really looks, in all its intricate detail, showing all the colors and shapes and fascinating twists.
I know I’ll get things wrong, and I’m prepared to accept criticism. I hope to build my skill at accurately depicting all aspects of the world and its people.
I’m a growing and changing person, and, I think, so is Kea. When John and I created her, our hearts were more or less in the right place, but our awareness was narrower than it is now, and we made her in our image. I believe she can grow as we have, and expand her worldview and the diversity of her group of friends.
THANK YOU to the person who sent me silver wire from my Amazon wish list!!! I didn’t recognize the name on it, so I’m guessing you’re either a casual acquaintance whose name I’ve stupidly forgotten, or a fan who doesn’t know me personally. (Also, I’m writing this cautiously because I’m not sure if you’d want to have your name posted in public). In any case, thanks so much! I made some really cool necklaces out of it.
Looking at my wish list, you might assume I was a lot more new-agey than I am. But no, I’m just artsy-craftsy. The crystals are because I like sparkly things and I want to wrap them in silver wire and make awesome shiny necklaces. The oils and extracts and stuff are because I’m playing with the idea of making my own lip balms, perfumes and soaps. (And, of course, the electronic gadgets are because I’m human and I’m a nerd.)
Also, I put “100″ for the quantity I want of some things. That doesn’t mean I really won’t be satisfied until I have 100. It just means I won’t mind getting multiple copies of the thing, because it’s a craft supply and I may use it up.
And, no I’m not expecting that people will actually buy me all the stuff on this list. But I figured it’s worth a try, since some people do tend get me presents this time of year, and I’d rather have something from this list than some random gift from someone who had no idea what I wanted.