I was out shopping for stim toys yesterday at a local gift store, when I had one of those typical geek-out moments with NT folks who weren’t nearly as enthused about my subject as I was. And true to form, I couldn’t stop that downward slide into enthusiastic social awkwardness that left everyone feeling a bit strange and strained.
I guess maybe I was feeling a little self-conscious, because I was buying the colorful squishy and bendable toys that are supposed to be for small children, but were for me. I was really caught up in examining them, literally like a kid in a candy shop, and I felt a little self-conscious… braced for some social interaction, where someone might come up and ask me what I was doing or try to strike up a conversation, and then I’d find myself explaining what I was doing, and why.
People like to talk to me. It’s the bane of my existence. I do long for human contact, but it’s so damned fraught with (insert just the peril of your choice here) that I just dread it. I get confused. I get turned around. I misinterpret what people say. They misinterpret what I say. And worst case, is when someone thinks I’m being more forward than the average bear, and they take it as a flirtatious or sexualized invitation. That’s gotta be the worst. Not only am I happily married for 25+ years, but I’m also about the last person to desire an outside dalliance. When I was younger, it was one thing. But I’ve got no energy for that sort of thing, anymore.
Now, with regard to my anxiety over feeling compelled to explain to people that I was looking for stimming toys for myself… I could have easily passed as a parent or an aunt buying toys for her child for her nieces or nephews or a friends kids or whoever. Despite my compulsion to just lay it all out there, I wouldn’t have had to tell people the whole truth about what I was up to, including that — guess what, I’m autistic, and I need to have extra help keeping myself focused and calm due to sensory overload. I could have pretended to be a loving mother or aunt or friend buying for an upcoming birthday. But it was the end of the day, and I didn’t have the energy to pretend. I just wanted to enjoy the experience of getting myself some stimming props — really enjoy it.
I guess I did feel self-conscious about it, though. And I guess that made me nervous.
That whole going out in public thing.
Anyway, I just wanted to get out of the store. I didn’t want to chat with the ladies behind the counter. I just wanted to pay my money, grab my toys, and go away, so I could play with them and soothe myself and just enjoy myself, at last.
It almost worked, too.
I was at the checkout counter and had just about completed the transaction without incident, when one of the young women standing behind the counter complimented me on my blouse. I was wearing one of my light silk blouses for work, which is one of my favorites. I have five of these types of blouses, each with a different pattern and in a different color, and they are lifesavers. They’re dressy enough to wear to work, but they are also incredibly comfortable. The silk is very light, and it doesn’t chafe. I can roll up the sleeves, or I can leave them down, which is rare. My wrists are very very sensitive to touch, and I usually have my sleeves pushed up to near my elbows. These blouses are different, though, and they don’t bother my wrist as much.
And the best thing of all, is that I have enough of them that I can wear a different one on each day of the week and not run out of comfortable dress clothes for work.
“I like your shirt,” the young lady said.
“Thank you!” I smiled in my brightly NT-ish way, all the while just wanting to get out of there.
“They’re nice colors,” said the other young lady.
And I was off to the races.
“Thank you,” I said with a sudden rush of energy. “It’s really comfortable, too! It’s warm in the winter and it’s cool in the summer, and they’re light and feel really great!”
The women behind the counter smiled at me in that way that I can never figure out. Do they want me to shut up, or keep going? I couldn’t tell. So, I continued. I told them all about how I have four more of them at home, all with different colors and patterns, so I have a different one for each day at work, and once again — how comfortable they are, in both summer and winter. Seriously, those blouses are a Godsend, as most clothing is (and always has been) a torture to wear. I was so happy to share that information with people I thought were interested, but the whole time they started to get this distant look in their eyes like they were sorry that they had even mentioned it.
Not to be deterred, I told them about how they traveled well, then I could fold them up tight (I made a squishing motion with my hands) and pack them (I mimed putting them in a suitcase), and then when I put them out on the hanger, they fell right out (my hands waved in front of me, as though with a life of their own). It was a total geek moment, replete with all the delicious details I could muster.
And by the time I was done talking, I realized it was far more detail than any of the young women at the gift shop actually wanted to hear.
Panic. Utter panic. I had that sick, sinking feeling in my gut — you know, the kind you have when you’ve been having a wonderful time sharing about things that mean so much to you, and it brings you to life… and then you see the glazed-over looks in the eyes of the people you’re talking to, and you see a sudden glint of something that could be mean-spirited judgment, and like all those other times, you expect to turn and walk away, while they whisper things behind your back about being “weird” a “geek” or just “really, really strange”.
It’s that moment when you realize that, once again, you’ve mis-read a situation, and while you thought it was wonderful and energizing, it was actually a trap that you walked right into. A trap that you set, yourself, and that you can’t even extract yourself from, because by the time you figure out what’s what, the damage has been done, and once again, you’re the weird one out. On the margin. The butt of jokes. The freak, the weirdo, the crazy lady who can’t take a hint.
And it’s crushing. Because all I ever wanted to do, was share what I love more than anything – to spread the joy, and see someone else light up the way I do, when they too realize the beauty and elegance of an idea, a thing… a dressy blouse for work that doesn’t trap you in a hell of tactile torture that you’re obligated to wear, or you might not fit in… you might not look like a good team member… you might get marginalized, and eventually lose your job.
This is one of my ongoing social issues that really undercuts me on a semi-regular basis. I get so excited about things that I care about, that I don’t actually realize that other people don’t want to hear the level of detail that I’m offering. I can’t for the life of me understand why someone wouldn’t care about these things, because it makes so much sense, it solves so many problems, and it’s such a beautiful and elegant solution that you don’t come across every day.
But those young women probably never could have related to my elation. It was just a pretty blouse to them. But to me it was a lifesaving tool to keep me properly integrated with the rest of the NT world, keep food on my table, and not exhaust me with tactile overload for 9 hours out of the day. There’s no way they could have known just what that blouse — and all the others like it — meant to me. Because they’ve probably never had a single moment of their lives enduring excruciating autistic overload, because “that’s what everyone else does”.
All they probably wanted to do was pay me a complement. I got that, as I was getting in my car and driving away.
Once again, too little realization, a little too late.
And that’s what happens when I’m fatigued, overloaded, and I have a handful of stimming toys I’m super excited about.