I’M AUTISTIC, SO WHAT?
WHAT DOES BEING AUTISTIC MEAN IN GENERAL TERMS?
So, I’m autistic. It means I interact with the world differently compared to non autistic people. So what?
Being autistic means that a person has differences in thinking, feeling, socialising and communication to varying degrees depending on where they fall on the autistic spectrum. Some autistic people also have some learning differences. What all this means is no two autistic people are the same. And autistic people are different to non autistic people, who are often referred to as neurotypicals or NTs by the autistic community.
WHAT DOES BEING AUTISTIC SPECIFICALLY MEAN FOR ME?
The only thing that is real is the planet, nature, and the species that live on that planet. The systems and rules which we live by are made by people’s brains, for people’s brains.
Being autistic isn’t a disorder, it’s just another type of human being. But because autistic people are trying to bend their brain to work in a world of systems that was created by another brain type, it means they become exhausted, confused, and disheartened when they experience disconnection, failure, anxiety, and judgement for what they don’t do when they already feel they’re working so hard.
The brain produces tons of information we can use to create our lives, but it’s only one source of information from the human body. There is also information that we feel in our gut, and our heart for example. Rarely in society do we use all of this information together to make decisions or design outcomes for us, the people; largely we think our way into creating our world, and while thinking is amazing, it’s not all we have to draw on to create our experiences.
Autism is a spectrum condition that describes a percentage of the population, although we’re often hiding in plain sight, especially if we’re women, because as girls we’re conditioned from an early age to be good, fit in, and accommodate everyone, so no one notices us. We’re invisible autistic women. Pretending we’re not autistic is done unconsciously from a young age, and called social masking. This means we’re hiding autistic traits to pass as NTs. This can be catastrophic to an autistic person’s mental health due to exhaustion and identity issues. Those problems are worsened as an autistic person ages, especially if that person doesn’t have an understanding of what their needs are and how to provide for them.
Getting an appropriate diagnosis for autism can be so helpful to you getting access to help from the government to navigate the systems of society that have been based on the NT brain. If you’re autistic and get a diagnosis, this can improve your understanding of yourself in the context of work, education, health, and other more formal areas of life, which means you can get help in those areas if you’re struggling. But the clinical language in diagnosis reports, while useful to other clinicians, isn’t that helpful as you make friends, over time build trust with them, and want to share your autistic needs so you can choose to meet each other where the other one is at.
In my family of origin we’ve over-adapted to the NT world, and we’ve often struggled as a result. This has lead to hidden shame about being an invisible autistic and not being an actual NT. This isn’t an autistic trait as such, more a feeling that I’ve picked up through my environment that I should cope better with the demands of the NT world. I’m also poor at asking for help and explaining to friends exactly what my needs are, but I’m getting better. And the more I learn to understand myself as an autistic woman the more I can inform my family and friends of my needs.
Obviously autism is a spectrum and we’re all different, but I’m going to tell you something of my autistic traits, as though I were explaining them to a friend I’ve been getting to know, I trust them, and I want to tell them more about me as a person and what my needs are. I’m doing this because this is how it is in the context of making and keeping friends, and you need to let people know what’s going on for you, so you don’t keep trying to over adapt where it’s too difficult and compromise your mental health. Let’s have pride and let our real friends know just how it is for us. We owe them that so they have a chance to meet us where we are. Let’s stop hiding like being autistic is something of which to be ashamed.
MY PERSONAL AUTISTIC TRAITS IN A VERY NON CLINICAL DESCRIPTION
I struggle with social imagination which means I can’t always think of what I would like to do in friendship groups straight away. My point of reference has always been the extroverted, NT view of what being social and happy is, and that perspective is off kilter with my actual needs. Without some introspection and writing things down it can be hard for me to remember what I actually like in the context of socialising. This can make it difficult to approach a friend and say “hey, want to do this? Wanna hang out with me?”
I like to plan, because I’m ADHD and a hyperfocusser. This means when I start something I hyperfocus on it and lose all sense of time, but transitioning to a new thing catapults me into to ether where I become a scatterbrain. I’m not good at adapting to change or last minute plans as a result of this, despite really enjoying doing different things.
I like to be occupied and have things to do in social settings because it means I’m less conscious of having to use social language and social norms. Having a task to do together gives me something to focus on which calms my anxious brain. But I don’t like too much to do at once, because of differences in something called executive function and short term working memory. Differences in executive function, where my long term memory is better than my short term memory, makes it difficult for me to manage lots of tasks all at once.
Being autistic means the social part of the brain is asleep, so all social processing goes through the part of the brain dedicated to decision making, working memory, and other day to day functioning. In short? I’ve got a short term memory like Nemo, but I will remember what you ate for brunch the day we did the whole Cinema Brunch edition of Lost Boys Restoration, along with the entire Lost Boys script, because films from the 1980s that I loved as a kid is one of my special interests. BUT, I can’t do basic maths without a pen and paper and lots of quiet. When I worked in retail, I needed a list to anchor me back to the jobs on my shift so I could happily break away to interact with customers.
I struggle to follow social communication sometimes, particularly in nosy environments because of auditory processing differences. My brain can’t filter the important bits (the people speaking) and it wants to prioritise ALL the stimulation at once. This means two things. A) I get exhausted because I’m over stimulated. B) I’ll be aware of the general feeling of a group, whether the atmosphere is good energy or turning into something else, but I can’t necessarily pick up all the details of social conversation because it’s coated in other noise. Also, a social conversation moves pretty fast, and the subtle meaning changes as it hops from person to person. This means you may say something between you as a group like “we love red wine, but most of the group agree, while some of us like French wine, we prefer the Spanish variety”. I might fathom that we’re talking about wine and that someone mentioned French wine, so as I love French wine, I might chip in with “Yeah French wine is the best”. On the face of it, there’s nothing wrong with saying this. This statement is true for me, and is still true for me whether I say it or not, but in the general connectedness of this particular conversation, to state this at this time, it seems to the others a bit random. My general work around for this is to have a fringe conversation with a person, because I’m better at one to ones as I know who to focus on. But if it’s noisy, I may still have the same problem.
I suffer with sensory overwhelm and regularly need to decompress after being out amongst people and overstimulating environments.
Social language is a second language to me, so I analyse what I said and did after a social interaction and wonder if I got it all wrong. I have little idea of why people do the things they do on social media and will micro analyse why someone posted an image of their sandwich that day. If you tell me to ask questions if I don’t understand, I will ask lots of questions and draw out what you say, as long as you’re still standing there talking to me. I’m a magpie of the social language, picking up new shiny bits all the time to include in my social performance, and when I say “performance”, I don’t mean I have an intention to deceive, but I understand the more socially nuanced I can be the more comfortable other NT folk are. I appreciate NTs, and I want to understand them, while not losing myself in the process. I once had an experience in Italy; I tried to ask for directions in Italian but got it wrong and ended up saying with my eyes and my embarrassed look that “actually I’m English but I’m trying because I’m interested your language and in the churches you have here in this gorgeous country”. The lady I spoke to actually walked me all the way to the church because she knew I didn’t speak her language, but she appreciated that I was trying. That’s the reason for understanding the other, yourself, and disclosing to people your needs where appropriate. Once people know you’re autistic, what that means to us all as humans, and that actually you are asking for help, they will offer help. People are actually cool and nice. But we just need to understand that we are all still people even when we communicate a bit differently and sometimes, it’s a bit awkward.
Sometimes it will take me three days to process what you said and work out how I feel about it. My long term memory will store this information and release it the next time I see you because conversing and connecting with you is important to me, but I might not do it in real time, not because I don’t give a shit, but because that is how my brain works. I hope you don’t mind that? I know it looks weird, but it isn’t. It’s perfectly normal when you know my brain type. Love ya too:)
Sometimes I will be so excited to talk to you, about the thing I’m excited about, I will talk over you because I’m not sure when it’s my turn to speak, but I’m excited. Other times you’ll be waiting for me to speak and I won’t know I’m up, particularly if my nervous system is overwhelmed.
Sometimes when you’re in emotional pain and I can feel it in my body like it belongs to me and I’m also already very tired, I may forget that I have to just be there for you emotionally; my default mode may come online instead, and I’ll offer practical solutions to stop your pain that seem completely invalidating to how you feel, but really it’s because I feel your pain so much that I want to help. I forget, that illustrating to you that our relationship means everything to me needs to come first over any practical solution I may have to offer.
I may frown when I’m shutting down because I’ve been out all day, doing lots of “peopling”. I may not be able to speak or make facial expressions. I’m not rejecting you, bored of you, or thinking you’re a problem. I’m an electric car that can only go 100 miles before my battery is flat. I can’t afford to apologise for that anymore.
I will go into nature a lot to recharge my batteries. Nature is also my mirror and helps me to see myself. I will also be a bit of a cat whisperer, and an animal lover in general. But you don’t have to be. We are all different.
Are you autistic? Pitch in with your experiences and reactions to this. I’d love to know what you think:)
“Lyndsey Pearce is a UK based writer. She lives with four male gerbils, but only knows the name of the albino because the other three are identical brown. She eases her guilt over this by singing the outro of “Humiliation” by The National to them all, badly. “
WRITING ABOUT BEING QUIETLY, INVISIBLY, DIFFERENT BUT SAME
Quiet misfits mulls over introversion, energy management, autism in females, highly sensitive people, managing loss, LGBT women, creativity, and being yourself.