The majority of people I hear talking about autism (from outside our community) seem to believe that autism is about being insensitive, non-empathetic, having no sense of others or the world around us, and being unable to relate. We’re “impermeable” to them — solid blocks of concrete that can’t let anything in.
We’re logical, because we don’t “get” the whole emotional thing. We make decisions with our heads, because our hearts are shriveled up, stunted, and like the Grinch, three sizes too small. We don’t have capacity for the “soft” sides of life, according to some — including leading researchers (who shall go unnamed, so I don’t give them any more visibility).
In a recent post, I proposed that our logic actually stems from the fact that, as autistic people, we are so sensitive — to physical sensations, as well as emotions and empathetic experiences — that we have to learn how to manage the flood of all that sensations that are constantly intruding on our experience… or else.
I know I’m not the only autistic individual who finds life a repeated assault on my senses, with my vision and hearing and sense of touch elevated… even while I tend to have very little sensation of balance and where my body is relation to the world around me, and other senses — like taste and smell and the feeling of striking something so hard I bruise — are subject to extreme variation.
On top of it all — what joy! (not) — the emotional floodgates unleash torrents of sensed experience that drag me from ecstatic highs to the deepest, darkest pits of extreme lows, sometimes in a matter of minutes. That’s how I know not to pay too-too close attention to my mood swings, and not to get too down by my depressive episodes. They pass. I know all too well, how quickly (and inexplicably) they pass. That knowledge has kept me alive, through all the times I wanted to end it all. I’m still here, because I hang onto that transience… and I hold out with curiosity.
That spiky autistic profile is not just about skills and abilities. It’s also about experience. Sensation. Permeability.
Yes, permeability. Being open to the world in unseen ways, being affected by it, impacted by it, shaped by it, in ways that no one else can see. That invisibility is partly because I’m stoic throughout. I’ve had to learn to be stoic, because a little girl who acts out, is a little girl who gets punished. Pushed and pulled — which is the equivalent of being beaten, when you have tactile sensitivities. Corporal punishment, doled out at the hands of people who probably had no idea how much they were really hurting me.
The whole world has no idea how much it’s hurting me — and so many others like us.
Second reason is because apparently non-autistic people can’t actually relate to anything that doesn’t have to do with their own personal experience. How strange, that they label us as the empathy-impaired sorts. Untrue. Untrue in the extreme. It’s the other way ’round. I feel everything. I sense everything. I participate in the cesspool of human emotions and experiences, without ever wanting to. I’m permeable. It all gets through. I only wish I were as non-empathic as I’m purported to be.
I have to protect myself. That much is so, so clear, after the past few weeks. It’s been a trying time, and I’m tired. I’m worn out. Depleted. Not only from the constant activity and the increase in social interactions (including a shit-ton of conference calls, reminding me yet again how much I hate talking on the phone). It’s been incredibly painful. But what to do? It can’t be helped. If I want to keep my job, I have to take hit after hit, and keep coming back for more. I have to put on my stoic face, remind myself it’s not forever, and step up… to get slammed. Knocked around. Exhausted, wiped out, drained… and then told I need to give more. Do more. Be more. Be like everyone. Be like normal people. Be a team player. Step up. Step up and take the hit. Everyone else is doing it, so get in line and take your daily medicine of pain. Just like everyone else.
Except I’m not just like everyone else.
I have to protect myself.
Protect myself from their inefficiencies that are making everything So . Much . Worse.
Guard myself against their bad behavior, their oversights, and especially against their emotional outbursts.
Deflect their emotional neediness, their grasping, cloying need for reassurance (especially with this fucking election going on).
Shield myself from their pettiness, their infighting which makes everything that much worse and prolongs the process of resolution.
Heaven help me, I need to be on constant guard. I’m tired. I’m over-extended. I’m a lot more permeable than usual.
And it’s not just the bad stuff I need to guard against. It’s also the “good” stuff. There are certain people around me who are drawn to me… they have that hungry look in their eye, longing for connection… and they don’t know how to do it without bringing sex into it. It’s a danger. They want to engage in that way. They’re looking to connect. And they want to do it in ways that damages their marriages – and could compromise mine. It happens with men. It happens with women. It happens with just about anyone I know who feels vulnerable and worn out, and looks to me to ease their pain… to fill up a part of them that gets so depleted by the ways they choose to live their lives.
I have to be careful, because the shared sense of connection can fell like I’m sharing it too, when I’m not. It’s easy for me to overlook that phenomenon. And a deep sense of shared connection (which I have by default) can escalate into something more than it ever should be. It’s happened before. I’ve gotten in trouble before. And now I know better. I also know that it’s the kind of thing that I need to guard against, because I’m aware. I’m a hell of a lot more aware than the non-autistic folks who are just oozing a need to connect… emanating their hunger for intimacy that they think can be satisfied by a romantic interlude.
That cannot happen. And as uncomfortable as it is for me, when I realize it, the best thing is to — yes — realize it. And nip it. Nip it in the bud. Keep things professional. Keep things distant. Boundaries, mate. Boundaries. Friendly, but not overly familiar. Keep it clean. Keep it clear. Because I can. And they can’t.
The onus for managing the dynamics between others and myself typically falls on me. The adult in the room is responsible for the behavior of the children, and neurotypical folks strike me — quite often — as children. Immature, prone to peer pressure, and sexually inexperienced — not so much with activity – though that’s often the case – but with their sexuality, in general. They don’t have a lot of inner monitoring or management skills, and so they’re more than a little impaired. To keep myself safe, and also keep things from turning into something that’s oh-so wrong, I have to “ride herd” on the dynamics… steer them in the directions I’m most comfortable with.
It sounds unfairly burdensome to me. It probably does to you, too. But what’s the alternative? To seize each “teachable moment” and evolve the neurotypicals around me, to better acquaint them with what’s really going on inside them, train them to notice when they’re being “emotionally incontinent”, and shepherd them along the path to self-enlightenment? Not gonna happen. Also, consider that when I’m in the thick of it, I’m over-taxed. And that means my processing time is slowed. And I stop being able to verbalize. I stopped verbalizing the other day, when I melted down over a particularly challenging series of events. Seizing teachable moments only works if you’re not prone to selective mutism.
So, I take things as they come. And I remind myself repeatedly that “It’s not me. It’s them,” when I’m feeling rushes of emotion and reaction that do not seem consistent with my own perspective. It happens. I’m permeable. I have to remember that, so I don’t lose myself in the sea of other people’s runny emotional muck. Because shutting myself down is not an option. If I do that, I lose my most reliable connection to the world around me — my orientation, my advantage.
If you want the highs, you have to manage that lows. If you’re going to be permeable (and we don’t always have a choice), you have to recognize the dangers, the risks, and learn to work with them.
So they don’t work against you.