More quiet. More light.

person standing at the bottom of a cave with light shining downIt’s been a pretty low-key week for me. I made the mistake of going on Twitter last Monday, and I got caught up in a roiling, churning mass of conflict that ended up in me muting a handful of people I used to follow, but who had become pretty aggressive and dismissive in their attitudes towards people like me.

Yeah, no thanks. I really don’t need to be told I don’t deserve full respect and consideration — not to mention the benefit of the doubt — by people who share my neurotype. To say I was disappointed, would be an understatement. I just couldn’t believe that people who base much of their online identity on measurable difficulties with socialization and communication and (ahem) empathy, would just say whatever came to mind without realizing that their self-proclaimed limitations were in full-swing… and act accordingly. And as for folks who know as a matter of fact that autistic people are intensely sensitive… but still press ahead with hurtful, exclusionary statements (which are obviously opinions) as though they were God’s Truth… I just can’t even…

Buh-bye…

The net effect was that I went underground. Not literally, though I wish I could have. I just pulled back. Stayed out of interactions on Twitter. Muted more people. Expanded my social filter settings to screen out the virtual screaming. And went about my life.

Depressed.

Cold.

Disconnected.

Depleted.

Things haven’t been all that great with me, over the past weeks. I’ve been through a number of upheavals at work and at home, and not getting to go to my nephew’s wedding in 3 weeks is really bothering me. There’s no way I can make the trip down to Baltimore in mid-August (August!), deal with the whole loud crowd of my family, the unfamiliarity of the situation, the social requirements, the logistics around travel and making sure my partner is okay while I’m away. She can’t make the trip, herself — mobility issues, not to mention the overwhelm for her, as well. It just all feels so overly demanding.

And then there’s the conflict around my nephew’s own spectrum-y self. He struggles with many of the things that I do, but I can never seem to get through to him. He seems to be afraid of me. And yeah, I have been a scary person in the past — especially when growing up. His mom (my sister) still has a ton of issues towards me. Old resentments, hatred, conflicts about any number of things I said, did, or simply was, while we were growing up. Her eldest two kids (who seem pretty spectrum-y to me) seem to have inherited a lot of those issues towards me. And they’re either standoffish towards me, or they take me to task.

Everybody in my family seems to enjoy taking me to task. They seem to think I do the “boneheaded” things I do on purpose. Not much tolerance or leeway there. But then… Aspies. With their black-and-white thinking. And God help you, if you stray outside their range of acceptable thought/behavior… which I constantly do. They still criticize me for not finishing college, even though they actually contributed to the issues that overloaded me and sent me into an agoraphobic tailspin for years after I had to leave university. As far as they’re concerned, I’m just lazy. Defiant.

Whatever.

All around me, it seems like people are just living their lives, getting on with things, living up to their potential. And the best I can manage is getting up each day, going to work, keeping up with my responsibilities, and being reasonably effective at the limited range of things I do. I looked into going back to school, a few months back, and it looked promising. Do-able. Even affordable (because my work offers tuition reimbursement). But when I thought honestly about it, the idea of being locked into a certain course, being forced to take courses at a pre-established pace, in a pre-established order… and not having any leeway in terms of taking a break or getting some space to regroup (once you start, you can’t stop for 2-1/2 years)… it just wasn’t possible. From one week to the next, I never know how I’m going to feel, and with all the real-world responsibilities on me — working full-time, caring for a dependent spouse, being a member of a town board, taking care of the house, helping with a variety of extra activities, and taking care of myself with my requisite activities that soothe and center me — there’s just no way I’d have the energy or the resources to add part-time school to the mix.

I will say, though, that it hasn’t been completely dismal for me. There have been some bright spots. I’ve been reading more, lately. Writing more, too. Studying and checking out (free) online courses I can take. For the sheer love of learning. At my own pace. I’ve got some new foci for my intense areas of specialization, and that’s good.

At least I have that.

Well, not “at least”… actually, it’s pretty awesome, these “new” interests, which are really rekindling of old interests. Anatomy. Lots of anatomy. Cellular, too. And biochemistry. For someone who never finished university (four years, but no degree), I know a sh*t-ton about this stuff. Autonomic nervous system. Nervous system in general. It might not do me much good, academically, but it sure comes in handy in everyday life. Just knowing the difference between fear and anxiety has been a huge help for me.

And that’s what it all comes down to. Helping myself. Because others can’t. I’m pretty much beyond help from others, as far as I’m concerned. My needs and difficulties don’t “synch” with others’ expectations of me. I’m slow where others are fast, and blazing fast where others are slow. So, color me out of place. Perpetually. I’m “sub-clinical” when I’m in decent shape. And when I’m struggling, I often feel like such a disappointment to others (who expect me to be “high functioning”) that they just punish me for showing my vulnerability.

Yeah, I’m pretty much beyond help, in terms of other PNT (predominant neurotype) people. The mainstream has no clue what to do with me, aside from blaming and shaming me. So, never mind them. Life’s too short to spend hassling over those folks. I can help myself. In some really significant and meaningful ways.

That’s what I’m dong, these days. Helping myself. Digging into the things I love with all my heart, without getting bent out of shape over not being able to do them more often (or professionally). I’m still not happy about not getting to do the things I really want to do… weddings, university courses, etc… and I shed my share of tears over them. But that shouldn’t stop me from doing — and loving — the things I can do… sequestering myself with my anatomy atlases and researching furiously online … at my own pace, on my own time, in my own way.

It’s not all good, but enough of it is, to make it well worth it.

#Autistic Day After – Roaming around the house with my headphones on

field with blue sky and clouds overhead

I had a very productive day, yesterday. I did so much that I’d been wanting to do. I wrote some things I’m very happy with. I drove around and did my errands. Shopped. In more than one place. Even went into a big-box office supplies store and… browsed! Imagine that. Usually, the overhead lights and myriad choices keep me from getting anything other than what I specifically came to buy (and wrote down on my shopping list). But yesterday, I improvised. And I found some pretty cool stuff that I’ve been needing. Okay, so I also picked up a movable computer workstation, which I don’t have room for (yet) in my house. But it was a bargain! 75% off the normal list price! So, that was — intellectually speaking — a triumph.

I refuse to let the fact that I don’t actually need it, to deter me from my sense of victory. 😉

I got so much done — and these were important things I’d been delaying for far too long. Yep, I finally got the audio workstation up and running, and in far less time than I expected. I broke up the task into two separate sessions, and I kept at it, till I reached a satisfactory conclusion. I scrubbed the shower walls. I organized my study. I removed the stacks of books and papers from the folding table set up in the dining room, which had effectively turned it into an alternate workspace for me. My dining room is now — almost — a dining room. I added a lamp to my upstairs study, so I can now see what I’m doing. I threw away stuff — including leftover doo-dads from a job I left over 2 years ago. The bag had been sitting in my study (of course) the whole time, as though I wanted to hang onto the memories of that old job.

Note to self, those memories are flawed. It wasn’t that great of a position, and in the end, it probably set me back. It’s just your alexithymia messing with you again.

I got my power cord from work, so I can work from home tomorrow, and I figured out where and when I probably lost my old power cord. I bought myself a battery-operated, cordless weed trimmer, so I can edge back the encroaching growth that’s responding to all the rain we’ve had with an explosion of enthusiastic green. I love having it this lush, after years of too little rain. But I’m starting to feel hemmed in. Today, I’ll give the tool a try — after reading the instruction manual, of course. Don’t want to maim myself in the process, which I have a tendency to do.

I dropped something on my toe, and it’s bruised and painful. But it’s not swollen and I can move the toe, so I won’t be going to the emergency dept for it. I’ve had broken toes before, and I know what to do for it, if it is broken. I don’t think it is. My feet bruise easily, and it feels more like a bone bruise. I’ve had this lots of times. I’ll just follow the standard protocol. And avoid the hospital. By all means.

I handled yesterday like a total boss. Even when my plans got messed up, I adjusted. I pivoted. I adapted. And I had a nap in the afternoon, which was good. I had a nice balance, and at the end of it all, telling my partner about everything I did overwhelmed her. Just thinking about everything I did made her head spin — metaphorically, that is! 😉

Today, of course, I’m paying the price for my hyper-productive day. My right knee is sore, for some reason. My head feels like I’m underwater. I’m in a bit of a daze. And I’m going to do far less today, than I did yesterday. Fortunately, I can. Because I got so much done. Today, I can relax. A bit. Just let myself be.

The biggest news, I’m happy to report, is that I’ve given up.

As in, I’ve given up having a lot of attachment to outcomes, when it comes to other people. Things I undertake. Plans I have. Projects I’m pursuing. I’ve been far too attached to the idea of specific outcomes, specific reactions, specific progressions of what-happens-next. I’ve gotten all caught up in the hopes and fears and dreams of what-may-be… and it’s blocked me from really focusing on what’s in front of me. Having a specific outcome in mind has ironically kept me from actually achieving those things. I’ve gotten so twisted up in thinking things need to go A Certain Specific Way, that when they don’t go that way, I’ve suffered.

Lord, how I’ve suffered.

When someone doesn’t react / respond the way I was hoping (which has been happening a whole lot at work, lately), I spend way too much time ruminating over what I did wrong, what I can do differently, why they did what they did… and it’s never a productive use of time. My partner has been unpredicatable, lately, too. Some of her good friends are seriously ill. And the partner of one of her colleagues just died from complications due to a condition that my partner has – albeit in a much less severe form. Cue the anxiety. For good reason. And all the work I do to help assuage the fears and reassure her… well, it’s not doing that much good, these days.

When my plans fall through, when stuff happens that screws everything up that I’ve been working on (which is also happening at work a lot, lately), I take it personally and get all mortified about things not going the way I promised they would. I have to report on my progress to people, and it seems like in the past months, I end up having to back-track and revise my story, every week or so. It’s really distressing for me.

These are the things I’m giving up. Getting all invested in things turning out a certain way. Putting on pressure to get things to happen a certain way. Pushing and advocating and all that other crap, that I’m supposed to want to do, for the sake of personal productivity and effectiveness. Oh, sure, I’ll continue to do it all — I’ll put on a good show. But put my heart into it? Nope. I’m done with that.

Just like I’m done with getting all bent over crap I’m supposed to care deeply about. I don’t care deeply about so much of this neurotypical, mainstream B.S. that’s supposed to be so important to me. Who cares? Who the hell cares? I certainly don’t. And I’m not sure why anybody else cares, either, except maybe to fall in line with the rest of the crowd and feel like they belong.

So, what’s all this got to do with roaming around the house with my headphones on?

A lot.

I put a lot of myself into yesterday. I sank a lot of effort, a lot of attention, a lot of my coping skills into everything I did. That was mostly for everyone else’s sake, to be honest. For the sake of my obligations to work, to my partner, to the neighborhood, the town, etc. Today, I get to spend the day on myself. I do have some stuff I need to do later. But that’s later. Right now, I’ve got my headphones on, I’m wandering around, alternately staring out the back door at the bird feeder, and curled up on the living room couch reading Austin Shinn’s book A Flickering Life: A Memoir of Autism (which I’m really enjoying and marking up sections to comment on later). I’ll go out for a walk later, just take my time strolling up the road and back. Then I’ll have a nap. I think. That’ll give me time to recharge my internal batteries, so I can finish up the must-do stuff this afternoon.

But right now, it’s time to eat some cereal, wander around the house listening to music I love, and chill.

 

What’s in a word? Of the semantic sense and sensibility of #autism

Loomes paper wordcloud

Gill Loomes was kind enough to forward me her paper It’s only words: a critical ‘insider’ perspective on the power of diagnosis in the construction of autistic social identity. I’ve been reading it – and re-reading it – over the past couple of days, and I’m finding (and re-finding) a lot of thought-provoking ideas therein.

Every autistic person seems to feel differently about their autistic identity. They can feel differently from others, as well as differently within themselves, from time to time. I know I do. I first self-identified (actually self-diagnosed, because in the spirit of diagnosis, I identif[-ied] the nature of (an illness or other problem) by examination of the symptoms. I looked at a whole array of symptoms I’d experienced and struggled with over the years, and I used them to identify the nature of the problems I was experiencing in life.

Ironically — or perhaps quite logically — once I had a “diagnosis”, I gradually stopped needing one. How does that work? Well, once I had a thorough understanding of what made me “tick” (not in the stimmy way), what made things harder for me, what made things easier, my problems stopped being problems. And what sometimes felt like an illness actually led to a level of understanding that relieved — even prevented — so many of my symptoms.

And gradually, I’ve come around to feeling like I identify as autistic, more than I am diagnosed. I’m disinclined to the medical model — as useful as it was to me, once upon a time. — and I seem to be approaching a new juncture in my life. Much as Gill seems to be in hers:

I’ve spent years trying to find out more about this so that I could explain myself. I’ve worked so hard. I’ve studied. I’ve spoken. I’ve written and I’ve taught. But I’m tired of having to justify myself. I’m tired of fighting to explain that autistic women are different – different from other women, different from autistic men. I’m tired of trying to set myself apart by explanations that are unique to autism. I’m tired of it because it gives the words in my diagnosis, along with social understandings of autism, a power in my life that I’m sick of – all in the name of making me ‘other’.

Our differences are indeed our distinction. For good and for ill. And the words we use to describe ourselves have power. They are social currency – the meanings they convey and evolve are powerful agents of change. And from one culture to another, from one person to another, they can create different kinds of change. It’s all very complex. Dynamic. And yes, confusing.

One of the ways that I differ slightly from Ms. Loomes, is how power is perceived. I think my situation is very different from hers, because I’m not “out” as an autistic person. Just to my partner. Not to my extended family. Not to my workplace. Not even to my PCP/GP. Autism, for me, is a very personal thing — a phenomenon I don’t want to hand over to others for their interpretation, lest it be trampled like pearls before swine. People just don’t “get” autism. They have their ideas about me. I really don’t feel the need to get into it with them — perhaps because I sense the following will happen with me:

I’m tired of it because I believe strongly that this power comes not from the autism itself, but from a society that cannot tolerate difference, and that especially cannot tolerate unnamed difference. If you can’t find the words to articulate your difference – and the hurt, the brokenness and the vulnerability that it causes, then those things can’t exist – you are told that you are ‘normal’ or that, ‘we all feel that’. Well I’m fed up of this power – the power of a diagnostic label to account for, and to own, my inability to conform.

Because I haven’t shared my own diagnostic label, the society I inhabit doesn’t have that same power over me. I live in a country which violently opposes difference, punishes (sometimes kills) people who don’t conform and comply, and cannot tolerate any nay-sayers in this land of Golden Opportunity. God forbid I should be less than enthusiastic about my chances in life. God forbid I should be honest about my misgivings about the future of this nation, this culture. God forbid I should be anything less than proactive and positive and can-do in every damn’ thing I undertake. The forced optimism is tiresome and tiring. And autism is the ultimate “downer”.

What? Me autistic?! How could that be?

I find myself extraordinarily weary today. It’s been a long week, and I’m cranky. I’m tired of my job. I’m tired of my life. I’m tired of all the many and varied ways my life is more difficult than it needs to be. It’s a holiday weekend, but it doesn’t feel like a holiday. It just feels long. And there will be fireworks on Monday night, which I am dreading. I hate fireworks. Always have. They’re pretty, sure. But all that noise. And the crowds. And the change to my routine. Even if I stay home, I’ll still be “treated” to an intermittent barrage of bangs and pops and crackles and booms. It’s inescapable, this weekend. And I just now realized how it’s weighing on me.

So… earplugs.

But enough of my digression. Back to topic…

The power that words have is considerable. In the wrong hands/mouths/minds, they can wreak havoc.

how all-consuming this explanation (and one’s reliance upon it) can become. I’ve been so passionate about this idea. I am an autistic woman. I am not a woman with autism. Autism is a pervasive developmental difference and it affects every part of me. I don’t dispute this, but this is not where I suggest the problem lies. I argue that the problem lies not in the pervasiveness of autism in me as an individual, but in the pervasiveness of its use as an ‘explanation’ at the level of specific, observable behaviour – an account for everything that I am and everything that I do.

Melanie Yergeau talks about this in her paper  Clinically Significant Disturbance: On Theorists Who Theorize Theory of Mind. She talks about being disenfranchised from her own voice, being literally told that she wasn’t speaking for herself, articulating her own experiences.

Suddenly, the experts claimed, I wasn’t talking. God, no. “That’s your depression talking,” they explained. “That’s your autism talking. That’s your anxiety talking. Really, it’s anything but you talking.”

. . .

Regardless of what I said, it was my autism saying it. My body became site for ventriloquist rhetoric, words that never were. While conversing with the EMTs, desperate to appear sociable and “normal,” I found myself narrating my every anxious action with, “That was a pre-programmed response. That was a pre-programmed response.”

I do not know what they wrote in their charts. In my depressive moments, I tend to imagine that they mapped the ebbs and flows of my echolalia, in echolalia. “That’s just her autism talking,” the clipboard repeats, like a running toilet. “That’s just her autism talking, talking, talking. That’s just her—autism talking.”

When autism is considered a diagnostic category (which it is, according to the DSM-V and the ICD-10), it’s considered the domain of the professional class, a caste of conceptual overlords who may or may not deign to notice you, who may or may not dispense formal recognition upon you. I have the same issues with autism being in the DSM, as I had with homosexuality being listed (until 1973). It’s a difference, not necessarily a disorder or a disease. And yet, there it is — a condition, possibly co-morbid with a range of other issues… awaiting treatment.

It’s always problematic, when you hand over your self-definition to an official term-dispensing body of experts who work by committee and tend to change their minds from time to time. It puts you in a precarious position, and yet… For many of us, engaging with an amorphous diagnostic group-think entity is the first step towards getting a solid conceptual foothold in who we are, what makes us “tick”, what can help us “tick” differently — or perhaps stop some of the most bothersome ticking from even happening.

It’s also a first step towards securing a place in society. Especially societies which have low tolerance for divergence from their preferentially enforced norms. As Gill says about her own autism diagnosis:

I need this explanation because the world is unkind and does not tolerate difference. Anything that strays too far from ‘normal’ gets stamped on, unless it can account for itself and make itself legitimate – legitimate in terms that are acceptable to the social world. And so, my diagnosis takes on a social life of its own.

It’s a slippery slope, isn’t it? You need it, and then you struggle because of it. You want it, pursue it, and then can be used against you. But if you don’t have it, you run the risk of getting stamped on. And if you do have it, but you don’t tell others, you run that same risk.

Ultimately, it’s really up to each of us, how we engage with our identities, how we understand ourselves. How we navigate our social worlds. In the world I was raised in, nobody was really allowed to “use” disability — hidden or otherwise — to get accommodations. You sucked it up. You took a handful of pills. You did your duty and you did your job. If you died on the job, you were practically a saint. And if you sacrificed your own health and well-being for others (but still kept going, kept giving, kept suffering), you were given special consideration and held up as a shining example for all others to follow.

Chronic pain? Stop complaining. Everybody has pain.

Anxiety? We’ve got a religious denomination for that.

Digestion problems? Eat more of what’s bothering you, so you get used to it. Or, if you have to avoid certain foods, do so discretely. Don’t inconvenience others with your weakness.

Sickly? Fevered? If a handful of pills doesn’t fix it, remove yourself from polite society until you feel better. If you never feel better, we’ll arrange a nice burial for you.

In the context of today’s world, this all sounds cold and unfeeling, and yes — it is/was. There are still a lot of people who feel that way. That’s one of the reasons I don’t spend much time in that part of the world. That socio-cultural cocktail of religion, work, pills, and powering-through stopped working for me, decades ago.

That’s one of the big reasons I don’t discuss my autism with my family. In their minds, if you’re struggling enough to talk about it, you must really be struggling. So much so, that you’re just a little less than human. I worry about this happening:

the use of my autism as a pervasive explanation of who I am and what I do robs me of agency, of ownership, and ultimately of the
chance to learn and grow. In the case of pain, or of failure, we feel a need to name these – to account for them and to attribute them. Therefore, in moments of worry about (potential) failure, my story becomes:

“Autistics can’t do that. My autism makes that impossible for me.”

I think this world has a long way to go, before people with significant differences are actually accepted and treated with the same levels of equanimitous calm as standard-issue hyper-normative individuals. People have a strange way of limiting you, when they slap a label on you. And it all depends on their interpretation of the label. Of course, some labels can be empowering — granting you folk hero status. But in the end, these are essentially conceptual shortcuts, containers for collections of complex concepts which vary in significance from person to person.

The real question, in my mind, is what we do with our labels, and how we engage with them. We can’t help but use them. We can’t help but think about them. But what else can we do with them? Certainly more than we have, thus far.

… if you want to help those autistic people who are in pain, from failing according to society’s expectations, you can’t just do this by finding out more about autism in order to give words to our failure to conform, so that we are ‘off the hook’ (though still ‘different’, ‘other’, ‘broken’). You need to – we need to work to make the world a more comfortable, more  loving place for everyone to fail according to the harshness of society’s expectations and demands, and to learn from those failures and hurts (because, apart from anything, one of the best ways to make me comfortable with failure is to enable me to see others very obviously failing and recovering. Imitation is one of my learned skills – let me use it!). Otherwise we can’t grow – and we in turn cannot shape society.

I’ve personally seen how sharing my own failures and triumphs (in spite of those failures) has done others good. It’s mostly in my real life — attending meetings where I had to take full public responsibility for screwing up certain important tasks that messed up an overall project, then worked overtime to make up for it… admitting that I forgot something important… ‘fessing up to other various royal screw-ups that I was sure would alienate everyone around me, but somehow ended up endearing me to them all the more… At their core, people understand that others mess up. they can relate to people who do. And they look up to those who can recover and move forward.

But if I chalked up my failings to autism (which always plays a role)? What then? I’m none too sure that the otherwise kindhearted and compassionate folks who forgive me now for my apparently neurotypical infractions, would be comfortable with my autistic shortcomings.

Who knows, though? Who really knows? I might be exaggerating their reactiveness, but I’d rather err on the side of caution. There’s a lot at stake, not least of which my independent agency and standing in the world. I have a reputation to uphold — not because I care about what others think of me, but because that’s keeps me employed, so I can put food on the table and keep a roof over my head. I also like to buy a new pair of shoes, when my old ones wear out, every 5 years or so.

In the end, I think that our understanding and acceptance and relationship towards our autistic identities is also very spectrum-y. We go through cycles. We change our minds. Sometimes we suspect we’re not even on the spectrum, then something happens and we think, “Silly me! How could I have ever doubted it?!” And I think we should be given that freedom to question, to explore, to doubt, to reconfirm — both within ourselves and in the larger autism community.

Whether we’ll ever get that same latitude in the neurotypical world, is anybody’s guess. But we can at least start within. We can at least be our own best friends and provide the freedom we know we need — in exactly the ways we need it.

Embracing the rigour of the #autistic life*

Every day is strenuous for me. I’m constantly testing and pushing myself. Does that make me disabled? I don’t think so. It makes me different in ways that are more demanding than the average person experiences.
Every day is strenuous for me. I’m constantly testing and pushing myself. Does that make me disabled? I don’t think so. It makes me different in ways that are more demanding than the average person experiences. – Quote from The #autistic medical model makes me sick

* Note: I’ve spelled “rigor” with a “u” (British spelling) because it actually feels more rigourous 😉 Ha ha! Just having a little semantic fun on a Friday.

This is another one of those dog-tired days, when my mind is spinning and I have no idea how I’m going to get through the day. I’ll get through it, of course. It’s what I do. But in one piece? In a good frame of mind? I dunno.

I have to deliberately remind myself of the fact that I’m tired, because I tend to lose sight of that. I get so tired, I can’t figure stuff out — including what sorts of emotions I’m having, and what I should do about them. I get physical weariness confused with depression and low self-esteem. It probably sounds strange, but a lot of different emotions feel like each other to me, so I have to sort them out logically, scientifically, objectively, in order to not get dragged down into an emotional hole. Once I figure out what the emotions are really about, I can get on with my life without quite as much suffering.

Come to think of it, I think that’s why blogging helps me so much. It helps me sort out my emotions — literally — and figure out how I’m truly feeling.

Anyway… I’ve had a heavy week of peopling, and it’s taken a toll. I had a lot of meetings, some of which felt like utter failures, but which were actually okay. Nobody seemed as horrified by my performance as I was. They all seemed to think everything was fine, while I was convinced I was careening towards disaster. I know where the disconnect is happening. My emotions are getting jumbled up, and I don’t have the presence of mind to sort them out, sometimes. I haven’t yet gotten back in good shape from my business trip, last week… and last night, it felt like the whole world was falling down around me. I just wanted to crawl into a hole and leave everything behind. I really wanted everything to just end. My marriage. My job. My mortgage. I wanted to take the money I’ve saved, get in my car, and keep driving till I didn’t recognize anything around me.

Start fresh. Leave all the overwhelming and inescapable responsibilities in my rear-view mirror. Literally. Stop it all. Just stop. And start fresh. Run away! Run away!

Run away! Run away!
Run away! Run away!

I knew I was tired… logically, I knew it. But the whole alexithymia thing was dragging on me (as it often does). I knew I’d had a highly interactive week. And I also knew that I had fallen behind in a lot of my work. But I was really unclear about how I was supposed to feel about that. Was I supposed to be proud of myself for making it through at all, or frustrated with myself for not doing everything I’d intended to? Was I supposed to be depressed because I didn’t live up to my promises, and I’m putting my team and projects at risk? I wasn’t clear about all the stuff I’d actually gotten right — it just felt like everything was wrong. Again, emotional confusion based on my physical state… bone-tired weariness….

And now I can’t find my power cord for my work laptop. That’s unfortunate. I’m working from home today, and I’ll need to plug in. For a while, at least.

Well, I always have my mobile phone to use in a pinch. I can do just about everything I need to do on that device. I’ll just be judicious with how I spend my power. And I’ll order a new power cord from facilities.

Or, I’ll drive to the office and get the cord I have there — no, come to think of it, I’m not doing that.

But I digress. I started out wanting to write about how an autistic life is a rigourous life, by its very nature. In my piece about how the autistic “medical model” makes me sick, I talk about how just because autism can be demanding — even depleting — that doesn’t make it wrong or disordered, in and of itself. It’s demanding, yes. But it also has a whole lot of advantages, and I wouldn’t trade it for the world.

Wanting to “cure” autism, in my mind, is like wanting to cure fair skinned people who live in sunny climates. Should “ginger” folks who burn at the slightest exposure to the sun be forced to expose themselves to sunlight without any skin protection so they can get used to the UV rays. That’s never going to work. We all know that. It’s just going to harm them. Burn them. Make them miserable. Possibly give them cancer, eventually.

Or another analogy: forcing kids who are allergic to nuts to eat peanuts, so they “get used to” them, and refusing to give them a shot to counteract the anaphylactic shock. That makes no sense. No parent in their right mind would do that to a child they love, and countless schools jump through all kinds of hoops to keep allergic kids away from nuts. But they won’t make accommodations for autistic kids who are suffering — often (like me, once upon a time) in silence.

“Exposure therapy” for autistic people is a ridiculous concept. And yet that’s what autistic people are expected to pursue — “suck it up” and just get used to the equivalent of burning sunlight on fair skin… or metaphorically eat a handful of peanuts (with no Epi-pen in sight), to acclimate their bodies to the substances that make them swell up in life-threatening ways.

It’s absolutely pointless. And it’s counter-productive in many ways. Accepting that an autistic life is an exceptional life, which requires greater rigour than the neurotypical mainstream way of life, is — to my mind — core and critical to understanding autism, in the first place. And that acceptance needs to happen on two fronts — 1) with the autistic individual (who probably already knows it), and 2) in the broader world outside, which has a lot to learn about how to A) stop hurting us, and 2) make the most of our talents and abilities.

See, it’s not easy accommodating us. It’s not easy getting accommodations in the first place. In my case, alexithymia keeps me from seeing and sensing clearly what I actually want and need. I literally do not know, at times, just what that is. And then I need to figure out how to express those wants/needs in a way that makes sense to neurotypical folks. It’s not easy. And I often just “bag it” — leave myself and my own wishes/needs out of the equation, so I can live my life more simply. Once I get what I ask for, I then need to navigate using it properly and managing the situation to make sure I’ve gotten it right. Hm. That’s certainly not easy! And I need to give feedback to people about whether I’m all set or not — yet another challenge.

For the rest of the world, it’s even more confusing. They don’t understand how I function, they don’t understand what I need or why I need it. And they often don’t know whether things are working as desired.

Fer-example: People I work with don’t understand why I sequester myself in my cubicle, more often than not. They think I should be socializing with them, chatting for extended periods of time about this, that ‘n’ the other thing. They don’t seem to understand why I wander off when I’m overwhelmed, and they don’t get why I sometimes chase them out of my cube. They don’t understand why I’m not a big fan of going to loud, busy bars after work to socialize and eat food I shouldn’t be eating, surrounded by people who are drinking things I dare not drink. I’ve tried to explain, but it falls on deaf ears. I’m in the minority. My job is to “catch up” with the rest and conform. For the sake of the team.

My boss seems particularly mystified by me, even though I’d bet good money on the chance he’s on the autism spectrum, himself. He’s got a very Aspie-fied approach to understanding people, and social interactions seems to be his #1 area of specialized focus. He makes the effort to include me, to get me involved in things, then he’s confused when I’m not all whoop-dee-doo! about participating in things like business trips to Las Vegas, or wading into receptions and social “mixers” with complete strangers.

The thing is — and this is what I think gets lost in the whole autism accommodations discussion — when I (and others) are provided the different circumstances we need, in order to be at my/our best, the results far, far outweigh the costs, in terms of overall value/expense. There’s a massive “ROI” on letting me (and others like me) function the way that best suits my/our autistic nature.

That’s why the general concept of “accommodations” kind of irritates me. It’s too disability oriented for my taste. It feels like it’s all about managing deficits, preventing meltdowns, and doing the equivalent of replacing all the divots on the golf course, so somebody else can play through without disruption. It feels to me like it’s too much about avoiding disaster, and not enough about making possible the amazing, remarkable, unique results we can provide… if we’re just allowed.

Yes, autistic folks DO have issues with environmental aspects that are best avoided/mitigated. Yes, we DO suffer terribly, when we’re not accommodated and we’re forced to “suck it up” and just power through. The thing is, when we live and operate in a world that is exactly the way we need it to be, amazing things can happen. I’m not just talking about inventions and discoveries and cultural creations that move the human race forward. I’m talking about an extraordinary quality of life and humanity that can emerge to widen the understanding of what it means to be human, what it means to have a soul.

There are plenty of autistic people who don’t seem to have any particular skill or talent that sets them apart from the neurotypical crowd. And those people have value, as well. The ones who have learning difficulties or disabilities. The ones whose IQ scores are lower than expected. The ones whose burning passion is a select class of inanimate objects that most people don’t give a second thought to. And then there are the ones who have no burning passion at all, who don’t know what they’re feeling about anything, who feel no joy or elation, who frankly don’t know why they’re even here. Those autistic people have value, too — in ways that very few people can understand, but still matter. Very much so.

Autism is by its very nature rigourous. And when you accept that, welcome it, even embrace it, you’ve got yourself a pretty interesting life, I have to say. For me, the rigour happens every day. And by the end of it all, I’m wiped. Just done. By the end of a work week, I sometimes don’t even know my own name or recognize myself in the mirror. But I pull myself together and keep going, regardless of whether or not I’m on good terms with my reflection.

Because there is work to do. And I choose to do it.

For today, I won’t withdraw all my savings from the bank, hop in my car, and drive away to leave it all behind. There’s a good chance I won’t do that tomorrow, either. Or the next day or the next day or the next… It’s enough to recognize that that’s what I’d absolutely love to do, because this life-ing stuff isn’t easy. It’s rough-and-tumble, and it hurts like hell, sometimes. But that’s the deal. Joy and pain. Sunshine and rain. It’s all part of it, and yeah, it’s worth the trouble. Every bit of it.

Autistic rigour. I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Sharing : The Autism Definition Debate – Language Matters

Autistic individuals share a neurological type, which is qualitatively different to that of non-autistics, and which will necessarily impact, both positively and negatively, on aspects of their thinking and learning; sensory processing; social relational experiences; and communicative style, abilities and preferences. An autistic person’s experience of and ability to be successful in the world, will be dependent on the closeness of compatibility, between their individual profile of skills and requirements and their physical and social environment. Levels of sensitivity to environmental factors vary between individuals, and within the same individual over time, so that the presentation of autism is ever changing. A person’s neurological type, however, remains constant, and being autistic is a lifelong identity (Leatherland, 2017).
Quote reads: Autistic individuals share a neurological type, which is qualitatively different to that of non-autistics, and which will necessarily impact, both positively and negatively, on aspects of their thinking and learning; sensory processing; social relational experiences; and communicative style, abilities and preferences. An autistic person’s experience of and ability to be successful in the world, will be dependent on the closeness of compatibility, between their individual profile of skills and requirements and their physical and social environment. Levels of sensitivity to environmental factors vary between individuals, and within the same individual over time, so that the presentation of autism is ever changing. A person’s neurological type, however, remains constant, and being autistic is a lifelong identity (Leatherland, 2017).

Here’s another great contribution by Luke Beardon (and others) — The Autism Definition Debate – Language Matters

Education is all about teaching and learning. Well, it should be all about teaching and learning, however, for all teachers to teach and all learners to learn, it must also be about equality of access. From my perspective, as a member of The Autism Centre, equality of access, through the genuine inclusion of autistic students – which sometimes means adaptation, and sometimes means making reasonable adjustments under the Equality Act – always means that practice should be based on a good understanding – not necessarily of autism per se, but of how autism impacts on the student, within his or her own specific environment, at any given time.

But where is the starting point for all this understanding? What are the building blocks upon which to develop educators’ understanding, which might lead to good teaching and successful learning, and reduce risk of inequality for autistic learners?

Read the full piece — The Autism Definition Debate – Language Matters

The #autistic medical model makes me sick

iceberg floating in water
There’s more to my autistic self and experience than the medical model can conceptualize

Note: This piece is about me — and only me — it’s my deeply considered opinion, based on my own personal experience of inhabiting this planet for over half a century. You’re free to believe whatever you like about the true nature of autism. But this is my stance (right now). If you disagree, write a better blog post and tell me about it. 🙂

Lately, I’ve come across a number of bloggers talking about how autism is more than just a “difference” for them. It’s a genuine disability. They suffer from it. They have family members who appear to suffer intensely from it. Autism is the source of tremendous pain and struggle for them and their loved-ones, and there is no way they’re ever going to sanction autism as a “difference”. It’s too disruptive a force in their lives, for that to ever happen.

I also had a brief exchange with someone last week who actively embraces the idea of autism as a disability, and they align themselves with the disability rights movement. They have the best of intentions, I believe, and from a philosophical point of view, I can agree with the value in doing that.

There are a lot of autistic people who are disabled. There’s a whole lot they cannot do, and my never be able to do, because of their issues and traits. I know a handful of autistic folks who wouldn’t last a day in the working world I inhabit. I’ve also known some autistic folks who do extremely well in my work environment, but struggled terribly with other issues.  Autism is no joking matter, when things are at their worst. I’ve been through the proverbial “wringer” many times, myself, and I have to continually make conscious choices for or against things, because of the effect I know they’ll have on me.

One day, I can be completely laid out by my issues. The next, those very same issues lift me to sublime heights. If I remove the causes of my pain, I remove the source of so much inspiration. It’s all a matter of degrees with me.

For the record, I don’t consider myself disabled. Yes, autism can be a disabling influence in my life, but its effects are temporary and mutable. It’s like being a sprinter who has to run a marathon, every single day of my life. My routine exhaustion and need to remove myself and recharge (lest I begin to implode from overwhelm and sensory overload) is conceptually no different for me than the results of a strenuous workout. Every day is strenuous for me. I’m constantly testing and pushing myself. Does that make me disabled? I don’t think so. It makes me different in ways that are more demanding than the average person experiences.

Is a thoroughbred racing horse disabled, because it can’t eat the same types of grains as other horses? Because it is so high-strung and hypersensitive that it develops inexplicable white spots on its legs? Is it disabled, because it’s temperamental and prone to outbursts? No. It’s a thoroughbred. It’s a unique and different kind of horse, and when it’s allowed to do what it does best, you’d never ask it to be anything different.

And I come back to it again, is autism itself THE disabling thing?

I’m not so sure. I mean, being autistic predisposes me to overwhelm, hyper-sensitive pain and discomfort, as well as the occasional meltdown/shutdown. Much like having fair skin predisposes you to getting sunburned, if you don’t use sunscreen. In the case of fair skin, the solution is not to change your skin, add more melatonin, or convince yourself the sunburn doesn’t really hurt. It’s to take steps to avoid sunburn.

And that’s where I see the medical model of autism going afoul of my autistic person. According to the medical model, autism itself (or in the above example, fair skin) is the root of the problem, and it needs to be eradicated. It’s a disorder. It’s a dysfunction. It’s an aberration that — for the sake of smoother functioning of society — needs to be changed in some way, if not gotten rid of entirely.

Classifying autism as a diagnosable disorder (and I’ll freely admit, the idea of diagnosis appeals to me, not because of the medical overtones, but because of the science — Science!cue Thomas Dolby) makes it a “thing” that needs to be fixed, that needs to be addressed. It removes it from me, as a person, and turns it into the cognitive-behavioral equivalent of a tumor, a mass, a growth of some kind. Maybe the “mass” is benign, for the most part. Maybe it just causes occasional discomfort. Or maybe it impinges on nerves and causes me unspeakable pain. In any case, it’s something separate and apart from me that arises from a physical cause and is addressed as a distinct (but disposable) aspect of my life experience. According to modern medicine, this condition, this disorder can (and should) be treated.

The thing is, it’s all more complicated than that. Yes, my body is differently “tuned”. Yes, there are experiences that others take for granted, which are unbearable to me. Yes, there are many aspects of my life which are physiologically uncomfortable, even painful, and depending on my state of body and mind, those aspects may be more or less extreme. But is a physical/medical approach the one and only approach I should take, when it comes to managing my situation?

Is changing the essential makeup of fair skin the only way to avoid sunburn?

Obviously (to me, anyway), there’s more to it. There should be more to it. Because what parts of life are ever that simple? Few, if any.

There’s the whole environmental thing. And the whole social thing. And the whole accommodations thing. And the whole pro-active self-care thing. There’s me taking care of myself, and there’s having other people to help watch out for me.  There’s my diet, there’s my exercise, there’s my social circle (or lack thereof). There’s my inner state, my outer circumstances, my interactions with the world around me… That all comes into play in an intricately interconnected dance, so that I cannot possibly ascribe to only the medical model as a way to explain and address my autistic experience(s).

It’s all very well and good to seek physiological explanations for why things are like they are with me. I tend to turn to biochemistry and neurobiology for explanations about why people behave like they do, and in some cases, they offer greater clarity. Certainly more quantifiable data.

But to look at those quantifiable data in and of themselves, with no connection to the outside world and the artificially created circumstances… that’s just asking for trouble.

Because then the problem originates in my system. It says there’s something wrong with ME, my physiology, my own personal context. It seems to absolve the outside world of any kind of credit or culpability and treats my system as a self-contained, hermetically sealed entity that has a mind of its own and does what it pleases… just ’cause it feels like messing with me.

To overlook the effects of environment, as well as human-made complications and challenges, does my physiology a disservice. It makes it sick. It makes ME sick. It makes us out to be disordered, in and of ourselves, rather than in relation to hostile circumstances.

Expecting me to just motor through life, carefree and happy-go-lucky, regardless of extenuating conditions is like, well, expecting a fair-skinned individual to walk across the Kalahari Desert without any cover-up or sunscreen, and not be sunburned. It’s like running a thoroughbred hard, putting them up wet, and then repeating the process again the next day — or that very same afternoon — and doing it again. And again.

So, that’s my “take” on the medical model, as it applies to me. I’m sure I’ve missed some important nuances, and I am probably over-simplifying things, here and there. Or maybe I haven’t, and I’m spot on, all across the board.

Bottom line: the medical model may work for some things. But my autistic nature and experience? Nope. Doesn’t do the job on its own.

And I’m sick and tired of being treated like I’m sick and it’s all my (and my autism’s) fault.

Mission accomplished – now I get to go home again

sunrise over a mountain with a barn and field in the foregroundI wrote this yesterday morning, then my day got busy, and I had to get myself home. I’m home now – and very glad of it.

22 June, 2017

So, the trip has actually turned out okay in the end. This actually isn’t a surprise, because that’s always how it happens. The thing is, it’s so damned costly, in terms of energy, attention, peace of mind, etc.

I’d do this more often, but that’s like saying, “Oh, I’ll eat cheesecake for every meal!” or “I think I’ll spend every penny in my bank account on a regular basis — drain my coffers as soon as they start to fill up — and see how that works out.”

Short-term, it’s fun and exciting. Long-term, it’s absolutely brutal. And for the record, it makes no difference whether the expenditure is on something fun and uplifting, or something miserable and obligatory. It’s all expenditure. And now I’m looking at another couple of weeks of recovery… I just need to take it easy for the next while.

I’m glad I came, though. I made some good connections with actual peers. I work in pretty much of a bubble at work. Due to staffing cuts, I’m the only one in my “group” who does my kind of work. There are others who sorta kinda handle the same stuff I do, but I’m “an army of one” in my particular domain. It has its advantages, but it can also be isolating.

I’m running out of energy to keep writing, so I’ll leave it at that.

It was good to connect with others — and in my own very autistic way, actually. I had a few “bumpy” experiences at the start, and I began to feel down on myself about it. But I decided to ignore my sense of social failure — it could be wrong, after all, given my sometimes acute alexithymia which gets very confused about what’s really going on and how I’m really feeling.

In the end, it was a good idea to ignore my sense of social ineptitude, and just keep going. I ended up making some good connections, and I got some good information. And for that, I’m grateful.

Now I’m home again. And very grateful for that. Now, to get back to my regular routine, and my regular life.

It’s a beautiful day today.

This afternoon and tomorrow I get to be myself

girl walking down forest pathI can feel the relief just about to break. This is the last day of my conference, and after 2 days of super-saturation — no, make that 3 — I’m more than ready to turn tail and run home. It’s Wednesday. The last day of this professional networking extravaganza. The last day of alternating between making the best of things and making a run for it.

Seriously, how do people do this? Oh, I know — they’re neurotypical. And they drink. That’s how they do it. I don’t qualify as either of those, so…

I’m too tired to elaborate.

Anyway, the whole thing is over by 2:00 today. Then I get to be myself. Sigh. I get to hang out with people who live here, wander around some of my old “haunts” (I used to live in this area, over 20 years ago), and see how things have changed. I’ll go for a long walk down at the waterfront. Have some dinner… Just enjoy myself. Then, tomorrow, I get to hang out with a friend whom I haven’t seen in something like 20 years. We used to be close. We used to work together a lot. It was a great time, but she’s here, and my partner and I are on the other side of the country, so…

Anyway, it’s just about time for breakfast. I nearly missed it yesterday, because I didn’t read the program schedule properly. I’ve been to plenty of these conferences, but for some reason I missed that whole breakfast thing. Not today. I’m hungry. I need fortification. And according to my internal clock, it’s nearly time for my lunch. So, better get a move on. Get my shower, get myself dressed, and head on over to the excitement.

I’m just so looking forward to this all being done. So, I can go back to my regular life and not have to worry about all this … stuff. Just to be able to relax, to not be “on” all the time, and chill out. Stim a bit. Talk to myself a bit. Wear the clothes that I want to wear, and be done with it. Just be done.

And then… go home.

Sweet relief.

They get some, I get some, the situation gets some

telephone- ole with lots of connectionsI have a little under half an hour, till I need to get on a conference call with my work. I’m traveling this week, with a user conference on the other side of the country – literally. My sleeping schedule is pretty much thrown off — for here, that is. My body is still keeping with the time zone it’s used to, so I’m waking up at 4:30 a.m. instead of 7:30. And I’m ready for bed by 8.

I haven’t been doing a very good job of getting to bed by 8, but at least I haven’t gone much past 10:00. That’s some victory. I’m pretty much resigned to the fact of being “dog tired” all this week, and I’m living accordingly. Not expecting much of myself in loud and busy situations, not expecting myself to be able to sustain attention for more than an hour at a time.

Yesterday I was in an all-day training which wasn’t very well designed. So, it was hard to pay attention, especially during 2-hour blocks of time. I kept losing my place, then catching up… spikes and troughs, peaks and valleys. Just like me. Plus, my boss was messaging me during some of the presentation, so my attention was divided several times. By the end of the day, I was wiped out.

But (of course) they had a reception at the end of the day. Two hours of milling around with people who were drinking and becoming progressively louder. Incredibly awkward. For me, anyway. I can’t stand those kinds of things, but to me, it’s obligatory, because that’s where people are “relaxed” (after getting a few drinks in them), so they feel more comfortable opening up.

Not a good use of time for me. Pure obligation. I was so… challenged, last night. I was tired. So, so tired. Overwhelmed. Super-saturated. Couldn’t hear properly. Couldn’t talk smoothly. Couldn’t interact the way I wanted to. I worked overtime to compensate with my deliberate (feigned) curiosity about other people’s lives, got stuck in a fewe extended monologues on things that mattered to me (of course they were fascinating! 😉 ), and mumbling and bumbling when put on the spot. I seriously cannot put words together when I’m tired, can’t hear, and a group of people (who were seamlessly talking about themselves and their lives just a minute before) turn to me and say, “What about you?”

Ugh. It’s just not my skill. Sometimes I can do it, other times not. Last night, I couldn’t. Oh, well.

I was supposed to go to dinner with a “select group” of attendees who were hand-picked to talk about some special aspect of this special technology. And I was totally going to go. I had agreed to go, so my system told me, Go. When you commit to something — especially when you’ve accepted a gift that’s kind of an honor — you follow through. So, I was going to do the right thing and stick with my Plan.

But when I got back to my room to wash up and change, I thought, “What the hell am I thinking? I can’t deal with those people now! Especially after they’ve had a few drinks in them.” People tend to get louder, when they’re drinking, and my hearing was not up to par. I felt like I was swimming under water, and everything around me was muffled, dampened, without clear, distinguishable sounds. Plus, when I can’t hear, I have to get close to people to distinguish their words, and that either makes them uncomfortable, or it gives them “the wrong idea” and they seem to think I’m interested in them. When I’m listening intently, I can be very interactive, and I’ve noticed that with me, it elicits an uncomfortable “vibe”, and with women, they seem to draw away from me.

I don’t mean anything by it. I’m just trying to hear what they’re saying and understand what they mean. I’m not looking for a date. But apparently, that’s what people do on business trips? I’ve heard about something like that… Not me, though. Nope. No thanks. Infidelity is not for me.

So, instead of going to dinner with the crowd, I went to dinner by myself. It was very nice. I got to a restaurant that a friend recommended. And I’m going to leave my options open tonight, in terms of what I do. There’s a customer appreciation event after the conference today, so I’ll go for a little while. But I can’t stay late. I’ll set some alarms for myself, so I look like I’m getting a message or a text.  Then I can excuse myself. And retreat.

I don’t expect to be as wiped out tonight as I was yesterday, though. Today and tomorrow, the conference will be at a pace I’m more comfortable with — a keynote opening with speakers selling an hour-long burst of information download, followed by a short break to catch my breath, then another info download, a break, more info… lunch… more info… break… more info… then the event.

After tonight, I’m “off the hook” for all that socializing. The conference ends tomorrow afternoon, then I’m staying in town till Thursday, so I can catch up with friends I haven’t seen in 20-some years. Fun! And it’s my pace.

So, in the grand scheme of things, everybody gets their “piece” of my energy and attention. The event itself, the people I’m with, the dynamics we have, and me. Last but certainly not least — me.

 

 

Self-defensive #autistic camouflage or cross cultural competency?

side-by-side pictures of a woman standing with an umbrella - on the left gray and burred, on the right, clear and sharp and colored

I’ve been thinking a lot, over the past few months, about camouflaging, masking, and otherwise concealing my autistic tendencies from the people around me. I’ve been doing this all my life, and much of what I do in this regard is really reflexive. It’s not necessarily something that I do intentionally, it’s just a seamless adjustment to the immediate environment.

There is been an increasing amount of talk about how autistic women get missed, don’t get diagnosed, and miss out on a lot of support because clinicians and other people in positions to support them don’t actually recognize the autistic nature of their traits and the challenges. What people observe in us — and then see — can be very different from how we know our lives to be. And it can cause tremendous suffering. I’ve been through much of this, myself, and it really is annoying to be told by others that I seem too “normal” or I don’t “present as autistic at all”, so therefore it must not be a genuine issue for me.

There are so many things wrong with that point of view, I can’t begin to count them. And if I were to write up a response, my rant would last for a good 20,000 words at least. So, I’ll spare us all, and take a different – and slightly more positive – approach to this conundrum.

Autism has been discussed here and there in terms of being a cultural difference, as well as a neurological one, and it seems to me that in that light, we could consider so-called masking or camouflaging as just another form of cross-cultural competency. I lived in Germany for two years while I was attending university, and I generally passed for European. That was fine with me, because those were the Ronald Reagan years, the Cold War was in full swing – starting to flame out, actually – and Americans did not have a particularly good reputation in the part of the world where I was living. So, it was more to my advantage if I concealed my American citizenship, and I blended with my surroundings.

Did that make me a traitor? Did that make me disloyal to my country? Some people might think so. But the area where I lived was not very well-versed in what it really means to be an American, and there was a lot of prejudice, bias, even discrimination towards mainstream Americans. I was not a mainstream American, so they actually had no quarrel with me… so why should I have to be vexed by the problems caused by people other than me?

It was rare that anyone thought I was American. My accent did not betray any trace of the United States, my clothing choices were strictly European, my habits of schedule and the things I bought for myself and ate for meals, were all distinctly European. In the end, I did return to the United States and not long after I got back, I started to really understand what an American I really was.

So, my passing as European ultimately did not change anything fundamental about who I was, where I was from, or my character.

The very same thing can be said for me now, as I pass within the neurotypical world. I have a distinctly autistic outlook in life, I have the full range of hyper- and hypo-sensitivities, and when left to my own devices or surrounded by other artistic folks, my very neurodivergent character shows up in plain view. I stim, I rock, I go on in great detail about my passion projects.

But when I’m surrounded by non-autistic individuals, it serves me better to blend in, to meet them on their own terms, and interact with him in a way that will facilitate communication rather than block it. I mirror them. Because it works for us both.

In many ways, this is like moving to a country or living in a country where your native language is not the official language. That doesn’t make your native language any less valuable or useful, it simply means that in order to get along do you have to conduct business in the official tongue of the place where you live.

The same holds true for customs and etiquette. It’s all very well and good if I have my own sensibilities about whether or not to shake someone’s hand, whether or not to eat with my fingers, whether or not I should wipe my nose on my sleeve, or spit on the ground around me. But if those behaviors are not acceptable within the cultural context of where I am, then doing them puts me at a social disadvantage, and it also disrupts the customary interactive flow of the world where I reside.

Being autistic in a non-autistic world is for me really no different than living as an immigrant in a whole new country. If I’d moved here from Balochistan, I’d still live out my years as an ethnic Balochi. And as much as I may seek to adapt and blend in, and as much success as I may have a doing that, it still never gets rid of my “ethnic” autism. Because, that’s my nature.

Looking at things in this light, the stresses and strains of camouflaging, blending, fitting in, all seem a lot less vexing to me. If I get caught up in thinking how hard it is that I have to camouflage, how hard it is that I have to make the extra effort to blend in, I can quickly start to feel like a victim who has no place in the world around me. But if I look at this as just another form of cultural competency — knowing how to meet the requirements that we all have to meet, on some level — then it seems more like a skill and less like an affliction.

Of course, that doesn’t change the fact that it’s often not easy and that it often takes a lot out of me in terms of time and energy and even money. I don’t want to amplify the glories of blending, acting as though there’s no cost. There is.  But I’m still dedicated to job bringing myself into alignment with my immediate world, because it’s important for me to do well with others, to do right by our relationships, and to have as full a life as I can… even as I do make the concessions and the sacrifices that are required to simply get by.

So, as with many things, I have very mixed feelings about the whole business of blending. It’s a useful thing, but is demanding. And sometimes it takes so much out of me that I have nothing left for my own life, when I’m done with taking care of my obligations. It’s not easy. It’s hard.

But at the same time, I don’t want to make it sound like it’s a horrible cross to bear, or that there’s no element of choice in this for me. I think for me, there is a certain element of choice, even while I just instinctively blend, almost by reflex. I suspect that women do this more readily than men – then again, I know of a number of autistic men who do this instinctively, as well. So I don’t think it’s fair to make generalizations in this respect. I’d rather talk about my own experience and leave it at that.

Would I ever want to not have to blend? Would I ever want to stop camouflage and completely? I don’t think so. For me, social interactions are very much a business – they’re transactional, they transcend the individual, and they require extra effort to be successful. I think that everyone makes certain concessions to others when they interact, and it’s important to me that I do that for the sake of others, as well as the sake of the relationship that we have. If there are people around me who or comfortable with my autistic quirks, then they will see those autistic quirks. But if they’re not, I’m not going through the effort of dealing with them and their biases.

I can avoid that. I’ve trained myself well.