19: Poison People

There’s a type of person I categorize as a “Poison Person.” They may affect me mentally, emotionally, physically, socially, sensorially, or any combination of these. They will sap my coping and social skills until I am reduced to an anxious, exhausted blob. They may actually be wonderful people; they may even be people I desperately want to like. But they are like poison to me.

A Poison Person:

  • demands eye contact
    • implies dishonesty if little or no eye contact
  • invades personal space, gets in my face
    • may try to force hugs or kiss on the cheek
    • consistently moves closer when I move away
  • wears heavy perfume or scents, is a heavy smoker
  • is impatient
    • demands immediate responses and actions
  • talks loudly or yells
  • jumps topics frequently and rapidly
  • speaks extremely quickly. Is a “hyper-speed” talker all the time
  • jumps in to fill the silence when I’m trying to process something
    • supplies what they think I might want to say or what I might be feeling
    • derails my thought process, sometimes causing me to have to start all over again
  • mocks or makes fun of me/others
    • gossips constantly, makes me wonder what they say about me
  • treats others as inferior
    • is patronizing, condescending, infantilizing, or dismissive
  • lies frequently
    • cannot be trusted; breaks confidence
  • is un-empathetic or uncaring
  • has dry, abrasive humor and finds it funny when I can’t read it

A poison person may have more than one of these traits. Rarely, I meet someone who has ALL of these traits…and I run for cover.

In theory, I avoid a Poison Person at all costs, but unfortunately many PP’s can be fairly practiced at hiding these traits. Other times,  it’s someone who is not easily avoided (example: Boss).

The effect that a Poison Person can have on me is best illustrated through a story:

I went on a shopping trip with two fellow expats while studying in Japan. One was a fairly familiar friend, the other a casual acquaintance. Normally I would avoid going anywhere with people I didn’t know well, but I was desperate to get to this particular store and had no way of getting there otherwise.

The car ride to the store was only twenty minutes, but it felt like an eternity in hell. We took the acquaintance’s car and she had air “fresheners” all over. Those things are like little migraine bombs for me. I could have handled that much, if she hadn’t been a Poison Person in disguise. As she drove, words just kept rocketing out of her mouth like verbal diarrhea.

There was no pause in the stream of words for the entirety of the car ride and I was right next to her in the passenger seat. My friend in the backseat did little to engage in conversation, and I became the sole target for the onslaught. She often spoke more quickly than I could hear (much less process), all but shouted her words, adopted high-pitched voices to imitate people, kept locking eyes with me in the rearview mirror, often grew impatient (and louder) if I didn’t fill the infinitesimally brief silences with an adequate response within her self-allotted timeframe….

Unfortunately, it didn’t stop when we reached the store; she kept it up throughout the entire hour-long shopping trip as well. I had difficulty thinking through what I needed to get while in the store–even with a list in hand. I became anxious and wanted to either sink to the floor and cry, or run out the door and into the night. At one point I excused myself to go find some random item I didn’t even want so that I could have two minutes of calm in which to breathe deeply.

By the time we got back to the car, I was at the end of my rope. During the twenty minutes of overpowering one-sided conversation returning home, I had to focus on breathing and not throwing up. I was nauseous and had a pounding headache. My thoughts were scattered and I struggled to say anything at all. I answered her in one-syllable words, hoping she might get the hint. I didn’t feel comfortable asking her to speak more softly (or not at all) because it was her car, her driving, and her kindness that got me to the store at all and I didn’t want to be rude or ungrateful.

Once I got home, I was completely nonverbal. I couldn’t force myself to speak. Instead, I sat on the couch and rocked. By the time I had calmed down, it was time for bed and I collapsed into bed in absolute exhaustion. My final thought that night was, “God, it must be exhausting to be her….”

[image description: “Ghost Plants”, succulents of a pale green color. They took very pointy, yet beautiful. They are very geometrical in appearance.]

18: Empathy (Part 2)

Hyper-Empathy and My Media Choices

I began writing about my experiences as a hyper-empathetic Autistic person in 17: Empathy (Part 1) and quickly realized that I had too much to talk about in just one post.  Today will continue my look at empathy–this time through the lens of my media consumption.

As I mentioned briefly in Part 1, I struggled a lot when watching TV or movies as a child until I realized that I was having extreme issues over-empathizing with characters or people on screen. If I’m being honest with myself I sometimes still struggle hugely with this, but I’ve learned to be much more selective with what I watch.

One clear example of this is the show “America’s Funniest Home Videos.” I know many of my readers aren’t from the US, so I’ll explain. On this show, viewers watch home videos sent in by other viewers and (hypothetically) laugh until they cry. My family used to watch the show pretty regularly. Some of the videos are adorable, others are sweet, and some are funny. But I realized after a while that I was really tense while watching and noticed I was most upset when certain kinds of videos came on. There are a good number of videos sent in of people slipping, falling, crashing, or otherwise hurting themselves on camera. I hate those!

I understand logically that probably no one was actually seriously hurt in these videos. I realize that people probably wouldn’t have sent them in if they had! I get that the person in question may even have found it funny themselves. But it doesn’t really matter. For me, there’s truly never been anything funny about a person in that kind of situation—even if they’re perfectly fine. The “funny” videos where someone dropped a birthday cake or scared their child while wearing a mask aren’t any better for me. I empathize too much and feel sad and guilty about the dropped cake or upset and betrayed by the parent who frightened the kid.

There are certain storylines in other shows and movies that I usually don’t enjoy watching either. One great example is the infuriating “barter” episode. The one where a character runs around for the entire episode trying desperately to reach some goal only to fall continually just short of it. Where a character has a priceless object —let’s say, a vase— that they want to trade for a famous baseball card while at a flea market. Unfortunately the baseball card collector has her fair share of vases at home and refuses…but mentions she would just love that shiny red action figure at the table next door. The main character rushes to the action figure collector who tells them they aren’t interested but really wants the antique music box sold by their competitor… The story goes on until our hero has traded their vase for a candelabra for a chess set for a Pac-man lunch box for a whole host of things… all until they get that shiny red action figure and go to the baseball card vendor, only to find that she just sold it. You know–the really, really frustrating and infuriating episode trope. That’s another example of something that’s meant to be entertaining but makes me incredibly anxious and upset.

I could go on and on with media:  books, news, video games, movies, TV, music, etc. I have to be very careful about what media I consume for many reasons, but empathy is one major one. Watching the news has almost always caused me extreme anxiety or even panic attacks. Certain songs can send me quickly into a spiral of sadness and anxiety. Books can pull me into their pages and make me over-relate with characters who exist only in the ink on a page. Horror and gore are things I cannot stand, even a little. Disconnecting from or not engaging with certain types of media has been essential to my survival as a hyper-empathetic person.

Over time I’ve gotten better at both selecting media and at recognizing when I’m over-empathizing. These are some things that help:

  • I don’t usually watch reality TV (well, that’s not just due to empathy…).
  • I avoid depressing or distressing movies or shows.
  • I mostly avoid going to the cinema (big screen=big impact, plus no pausing).
  • I’m very selective when keeping up with the news.
  • I remind myself during difficult scenes that actors aren’t really in the situations they act in.
  • I mute dramatic music when I notice it affecting me in a scene.
  • I do something else while I watch to ground myself in reality and disconnect more from onscreen emotions.

I’ve found that a healthy mix of avoidance and coping mechanisms means I can enjoy more media. I still tend to watch mostly children’s shows, cartoons and anime, and fantasy/scifi movies and TV though. The rest just don’t usually interest me and these genres pose less of a potential threat to my mental and emotional health.


So there you have it! This is another post that makes me feel vulnerable and I’m still processing why that is. Maybe because I’m tackling a stereotype that is still so widely believed. Maybe because I’m afraid people will see my sensitivity and empathy as weird or signs of weakness. Maybe because I’m afraid people will discredit and invalidate my experiences. I’m not really sure yet, but I also think it’s important for me to be honest and share true insight into the way I experience the world.

The next time I post about empathy, I want to focus more on the positive aspects of being hyper-empathetic!

Click here to read 20: Empathy (Part 3) The Good!

 

[image description: A pink and green succulent with ragged thorns around the edges. The center is textured with white flowers that sit partially in a pool of water.]

16: Sensory Series (1) Auditory

Many Autistic people struggle with sensory input–whether it be hypo- (under/low) or hyper- (over/high) sensitivity. All of my sensory experiences are on the hyper-sensitive end. This means that the world is a very overwhelming place for me a lot of the time. I wrote about 5: Sensory Overload & Control in a previous post.

Today’s post will start my “Sensory Series” where I talk about how I experience each sense individually and how I cope with such strong sensory input. Part 2 of the series can be found here: 23: Sensory Series (2) “Picky Eater”.



Hearing is the sense that gives me the most trouble to the point that I often wish I had a mute button for the world around me. Sometimes I even wonder what it would be like to have a cochlear implant that I could detach when sound was just too overpowering. The world is such a loud place and it seldom stops talking.

Some days are better than others. Sometimes my brain does a better job at filtering sounds toward the back of my mind, but most days the sound comes at me all at once in a jumble of confusing, overwhelming chaos. Each sound jockeys for position at the front of my mind as each insists I pay close attention to its deafening shouts. It’s an exhausting experience to be constantly inundated with such a loud, insistent world without the ability to filter any of it out.

Even now while I write this post in a relatively quiet room, sound is everywhere. The high-pitched chirping of a bird outside the window is joined by the electric whine of the TV (which is off), the shower running upstairs, a family member walking on the floor above me, a goose in the front yard honking incessantly, the walls and windows settling, the wind swooshing through the trees out back, an electric toothbrush pulsing, a door opening and closing, the hum of the ice maker, the neighbor’s car door slamming…. All loud. All insistent.

I am very easily startled, overwhelmed, or distracted by sounds. I’m likely to jump at a sudden loud noise and it can often be very painful. A lot of sounds are physically painful to me:  fireworks (which I also feel as a punch in the chest), alarms, sirens, anything shrill, etc. Some are less painful but more overwhelming; those make me feel like I’m drowning:  crowds, loud music, revving engines, etc.

These are some of the most extreme sounds for me:  fireworks, fire alarms, sirens of any kind, pitch-bending (sliding between notes), dentist drills, wood saws or drills, squealing bike brakes, shrill voices, whistles, people whistling, motorcycles revving, airplanes overhead, loud voices/shouting, loud and unexpected sounds in general, high-pitched noises, tapping or clicking, people talking behind me, crowds, out of key music, hairdryers, vacuum cleaners…. 

While I doubt that these things are pleasant for most people, they can be absolutely excruciating to me.

It’s important to note that auditory sensory overload isn’t always related to sounds I don’t like. When I’m overstimulated, I can’t handle any sound. Not my favorite song or an otherwise pleasant white noise or even the sound of a loved one’s voice. At that point, any sound is toxic until I recover.

Below are some examples of my intense auditory sensitivities to give you a better idea of my experiences:

LOOPING

Sometimes a noise or sound gets stuck in my head. I call this “looping” and it can be maddening. Think about something like nails on a chalkboard. (Even typing that makes me physically uncomfortable. But that cringing sensation that a lot of people experience is how many sounds feel to me!) Imagine that sound getting trapped in your head and sort of echoing again and again and again–long after the actual sound has passed. This happens to me fairly frequently and it’s extremely painful and distressing. 

ELECTRONICS

I did an experiment with a friend once while studying abroad. After months of being annoyed by the high-pitched whine of the old TV in the corner of the dorm kitchen, I finally grumbled, “It’s so LOUD!!” My friend looked at the sumo match on the TV, back to me, and then back to the cheering crowd on the screen. “Loud? Ok, I’ll turn it down.”

I shook my head. “Not the program. That shrill sound that comes from the TV.” He cocked his head and muted the TV–listening intently. To my surprise, he said he couldn’t hear it. I was completely shocked.

You can’t hear that? Seriously? It’s all I can hear…” We decided to do an experiment. I turned my back on the TV. He kept the volume muted and silently turned the TV on and off and I told him whether it was on or not based on the whining sound. I left the kitchen and started to walk down the hallway, calling back to him “ON! OFF!!… ON!OFF! No, STILL ON! Ha, tricky!” as I passed room after room.

I made it all the way down to the end of the hallway where I could still hear the faint sound of the shrill TV. When I got back into the room my friend was shaking his head.  “Is that why you always turn it off when no one’s watching it? I thought you just really hated sumo or something.”

FIRE ALARMS

One year while teaching in Japan, my desk was located directly beside the fire alarm. I didn’t realize this because it looked different from the ones I’m used to seeing. (In some ways I’m glad I didn’t know because if I had, I may not have been able to relax.) One day, we had an unexpected fire drill and the alarm blared directly at me. It was actual physical agony. I can still remember the physical pain throughout my body and the extreme nausea. I legitimately almost threw up. I was on edge for the rest of the day—jumpy and fidgety until I could go home and sit in a dark, quiet room with both earplugs and headphones.

When I was a kid and there were safety drills at school, I would be a complete wreck waiting for the alarm, during, and for the rest of the day. It would make me anxious and physically ill for the entire day. I remember trying to be “tough” like all the other kids who could walk down the hallways laughing and joking, but I always had to shove my fingers in my ears and grit my teeth as I raced out of the building.



Coping

Ear plugs: I wear earplugs while I sleep and I have done for at least a decade. I can’t fall asleep without them; I can’t even begin to relax and let down my guard without them. I’ve started to bring earplugs everywhere I go and wear them in restaurants especially.

Noise-cancelling headphones: When I first got my headphones, I wore them every chance I got but found that I panicked when I had to take them off for work. I think they actually made me more sensitive to sound and that was a horrifying discovery. Now I only wear them when I really, really need to avoid a sound that earplugs just won’t help with.

Stimming (Blocking or recovering from bad sensory input with good/neutral stimuli): Humming or singing softly to myself is one of the most effective tools to help me deal with auditory overstimulation and sensory overload. This works by blocking out other sounds and giving me some control over what I’m hearing. Unfortunately, it’s something that society has made me feel uncomfortable doing in public, but sometimes I can’t help but do it to survive. I’m getting better at doing it in situations where I need to.

Silence: I bathe in silence whenever possible. Silence is a breath of life.

For the next Sensory Series post on “picky” eating, click here: 23: Sensory Series (2) “Picky Eater”.

 

[image description: An office building that’s absolutely covered in dark green ivy. It even covers the majority of the windows. In places, the building appears to be made out of ivy.]

 

11: Like Night & Day

When I was about 12-14 or so, my anxiety, depression, and panic attacks were at their very worst. The world was a terrifying place. Night was the scariest time. During that period of my life, each time the sun set there was such a sense of absolute finality. I had a strong feeling that everything was ending (the day, the hours, the light, etc.). Each and every night, it felt like the sun would never rise again. It was so bad that I frequently had anxiety and panic attacks as the sun was setting.

Looking back, I think part of the problem was control, or lack of. The sun would go down and night would fall, and there was nothing anyone could do to stop it. Not me, not my parents, not anyone.

I don’t think it was the sun going down so much as what it made me realize. I was realizing how little power or control I really had. I was having panic attacks and health issues that made me painfully aware of how little control I had over my own body or mind. What was worse was realizing that even my parents had little power. They couldn’t magically fix me, just as they couldn’t magically make the sun rise.

I still occasionally feel this panic come out of nowhere as the sun sets. I now have such strong coping mechanisms that it rarely fazes me anymore, fortunately. But it still causes me a twinge of strong anxiety every now and again. But I have techniques. I remember that the sun is always shining somewhere in the world. I fantasize about hopping on a plane to follow the sun. I turn on all the lights and distract myself with a good book. I remind myself that–while I can’t control a lot in life–there are still plenty of things I can control.

Night Now

Looking back, it’s hard to believe that night was such a terror-inducing event.  Now, night is my haven. I’m not sure when this drastic shift occurred, but I do know that it took place over a very long period of time. It was a crawling, struggle of a transition.

I love the night. Especially late night. It’s my favorite part of the day in many respects. The night now feels as it should:  a natural end to the day.

But to me, it’s more. It’s permission to relax. I can relax from the day’s work. And I don’t mean just my job. I mean the work of functioning in the outside world. I can stop the constant self-regulation that I must perform throughout the day.

Night feels so blissfully alone. It’s wonderfully quiet, wonderfully dark, and wonderfully peaceful. People aren’t bustling around nearly as much, businesses aren’t open, cars aren’t honking, the sun isn’t glaring….

Everything is pleasantly muted: colors, lights, sounds, people, demands, responsibilities….

Night is my time. It’s just me in my space with my own rules and my own control.

Nighttime is as far removed as I can get from the sensory overload-inducing, frenzied world that some people actually appear to enjoy living in!



I take this dramatic transition as hope. Hope that I can learn the necessary coping mechanisms to turn a fear into a love. Discovery that something terrifying doesn’t have to be permanent. Knowledge that I am strong enough to be my own light.

 

[image description: A table with many flower-shaped lamps on them. The background is dark and the red and yellow flower lamps are shining brightly.]

9: My Support System

Church

Although I am not religious now, I am grateful for my ELCA Lutheran upbringing. My father was the pastor of our church when I was a child, and being a Pastor’s Kid (PK) means that I was exposed to a lot of different people all the time. We lived in a parsonage connected directly to the church and we often hung out in the common spaces of the church at one event or another.

I was able to interact with people from many backgrounds and ages, most of whom were eager to talk to the toddler and adolescent me. I attribute a good deal of my early socialization to this. It was a safe space where I felt loved.

Another way church helped was the pattern and routine of it all. The services were very structured; I knew the general outline of it at any given point. And the music! I was able to thrive through structure and music at church. And hearing and learning the familiar stories told time and time again was also comforting. In this, I found a pattern and normalcy.

I also think that I learned to be a more kind, compassionate, and caring person being in church so often. I think it was very therapeutic in many senses. The community of it all, the music, the structure, the loving messages from the pulpit…. It was again a safe and caring space, and one that made me think and grow.


Counselors

I’ve been incredibly lucky to have been in therapy since the age of about thirteen. After a traumatic experience, I fell into a deep depression accompanied by extreme anxiety. I was lucky enough to start seeing a therapist several times a week, then once a week, then every other week, and so on. Since then, therapy has been an invaluable tool in my life.

Each time I’ve moved for school or for a job, I’ve found a new therapist and usually see them once a week, once a month, or every other month. Sometimes I’ve been able to go a year or two without a session. But I like to check in with someone occasionally to refresh my mental health and make sure I’m still on the right path.

No matter the frequency, therapy has truly been invaluable to me. Not only have my counselors helped me find techniques to work through and lessen depression and anxiety, my first therapist in particular taught me to thrive. She laid the basic foundations for coping mechanisms that I would need in order to make it through rough times in my life.

I think that being in therapy from such a young age and for so long has gifted me with a unique level of introspection, emotional intelligence, and grasp of coping skills. I wouldn’t be the person I am today and wouldn’t have been able to face challenges and do as well as I have so far without the hard work in these sessions.


Teachers & Professors

Middle school was a very difficult time for me. Sadly, I didn’t often have the support of teachers in a very overpacked school where they always seemed overworked.

But in high school, I was lucky. The band director and choir director were literally the difference between me graduating with honors and me dropping out. At least, that’s how I see it. They were always there if I needed someone to talk to. They were kind, caring, patient, supportive, and more.

Through their music programs, I found structure and discipline. And any time I needed a quiet place to relax, their offices were always open to me. I really can’t thank them enough for all they did for me in those four years.

Similarly, many of my professors in college supported me, encouraged me, and gave me places of refuge to rest when I was overwhelmed. Several of them took me under their wings and encouraged me as I created and completed independent studies, developed my own major, studied abroad, and succeeded in graduating.


Friends

I have also been incredibly lucky in my friendships. Although I went through a period of toxic friendships at one point, I ultimately ended up finding some of the most incredible, patient, funny, compassionate friends I could ask for. They have been a constant support in my life even as I continually moved abroad and out of state, struggled with mental health issues and social phobia, was diagnosed with fibromyalgia, and generally was a pain in the butt. I truly could not ask for more dedicated and loyal friends in my life.


My parents

My parents have always been my strength. Through both mental and physical health struggles, they’ve never given up on me. They created a safe, sensory-friendly home where I could thrive and grow. They surrounded me with books, music, love, and opportunities. They encouraged learning, curiosity, imagination, and scholarship. From them, I learned compassion and empathy. They have encouraged my self-exploration, independence and independent thought, but they’ve made it clear that they are there if I need them. I’m truly grateful that they are my parents.


My husband

I met my husband at a time when I was fairly certain I might be on the Spectrum and I was seeing a therapist to begin evaluating me. Even before we were dating, I felt safe enough with him to confide in him the truth. At this point, very few people in my life knew anything was going on with me, but I somehow knew that I could trust him with this part of me.

I was so lucky (I know I keep saying that, but it’s true!) to meet this person who is infinitely understanding, kind, patient, compassionate, and loving. He encourages my self-exploration and search for my authentic self. He’s patient when I’m having sensory difficulties and he’s held me through more than one meltdown. He accepts my Autism and loves me for me. He’s the only person who knows my soul. He’s such a positive light and I can no longer imagine my life without him.



I owe so much of who I am and what I’ve accomplished so far to the people around me. I’ve been so loved and supported, and in some ways I think that’s one reason I wasn’t diagnosed until 27. Through the efforts of the people in my support system, I’ve been able to succeed rather than flounder. Through their love and support, I feel like I can do anything.

Thank you from the bottom of my heart!

 

[image description: A sunlit Japanese maple tree in early fall. The leave are shining golden and orange in the sunlight.]

 

5: Sensory Overload & Control

I have a lot of sensory issues. I have enough that I will be writing multiple posts where I talk about each sense and how I experience it because there’s just so much to talk about. This post is primarily to explain what sensory overload feels like to me and how overwhelming sensory input makes it necessary for me to control my environment.

If you don’t know anything about sensory overload or Sensory Processing Disorder, this (quite accurately terrifying) video is a good place to start. It does a fantastic job of painting a picture of the kind of sensory overload I tend to experience. I would say “Turn down the volume!” but since we Autistic people don’t get the luxury of turning down our surroundings, it could be interesting to try to watch with the volume as is. That being said, don’t blow out your eardrums or overwhelm yourself too much! If you have sensory issues and/or anxiety, I don’t recommend watching the video. I couldn’t make it through and what I did watch made me incredibly anxious and emotional. 

This is one example of one of my worst recent experiences with sensory overload:

My family visited me one summer while I was living and working in Japan. During one of our outings, I had a sensory overload induced meltdown. It was a hot, sunny day. Temperatures were over 100° F that day (38° C). Sunlight glittered off any shiny surface. The heat and brightness from the sun beating down on us made me feel nauseous and dizzy.The humidity stuck to me like a damp, hot, fuzzy blanket taken prematurely from the dryer and forcibly wrapped around me. The sweat trickling down my back was too much; it felt like insects crawling all over me. Tags and seams on my clothes felt like razorblades digging into my skin.  My feet throbbed from walking all day. Even the taste of water was too much. I couldn’t handle all the sounds around me, even after shoving earplugs so deep into my ears they ached.

I lashed out and snapped at my family and even (quietly) at strangers who were “too loud.” I didn’t want anyone touching me to comfort me. I had nervous twitches and had to keep tapping my fingers repetitively against my leg (a form of stimming) to focus and cope as I raced back to the hostel. When I got there, I grabbed my mother’s noise-cancelling headphones, curled up in the fetal position and pressed the headphones to my ears with the earplugs still inserted. Even that wasn’t enough. Even the sound of my own breathing was too much to handle. It felt like something was crawling under my skin. A few times, the sensation became too much and I had to flail my arms as hard as I could to get the feeling to stop. Eventually I could sit up, and then began rocking back and forth. Throughout it all, I was mostly nonverbal; I became mute….

I’ll write more about my sensory experiences in further posts, but I hope this gives some idea about how sensory processing difficulties can add up and overwhelm someone.


Control

Some people like or need to have a sense of control over a situation. Some people seek that control as a power trip. There’s often a bad connotation of the word “control.”  

But I personally find my occasional need for control stems from a want to have a say in what little I can in a world not made for me–not designed for me. In a society that feels chaotic and takes all my willpower to exist in without melting down, I’d say that a little control is justified.

So, what do I mean by control? Hopefully these things seem like small adjustments to neurotypicals, but they are huge for me. Ideally, I like to have some say in some of the following when out in a public setting:

  • Being able to choose where I sit.
    • If I can keep track of noises and people visually, I can deal better with noise. But if it’s a crowd, the noise is behind me, or I can’t find the source, I can’t anticipate when it will happen or see the source as it makes the sounds. Additionally, having someone or something behind me making noise makes me extremely uncomfortable to begin with. I prefer to be able to track things at all times. I need to know what sort of social, sensory input will be coming from and when or at least have a vague idea.
    • The lighting in a room can make all the difference, especially if it’s crowded!
    • Trying to sit somewhere I won’t see a TV screen that will distract and overstimulate me.
    • Not sitting next to or nearby someone with heavy perfume, cologne, or cigarette smoke on them.
  • Being able to control volume and type of sound
    • If the music is too loud or someone is drumming their fingers or clicking a pen incessantly, I need to be able to either wear earplugs or headphones or ask someone to stop a behavior.
  • Being able to choose what I want to/can eat without judgement
    • I have a lot of trouble eating certain foods. I’ll go into detail about this in a post about texture and taste, but being able to order whatever I want without comments or judgement is key.
  • I need to know I can leave
    • I need to know that I can get up from the table and escape a quiet space like the bathroom, outside, or the car.
    • Knowing I can leave a situation or environment, whether temporarily or permanently means I’m able to remain in a stressful situation much longer.

I often don’t get to have this kind of control over my environment in public, but I’m getting better at learning to ask those I’m with to accommodate me. I’m still working on not feeling selfish or overbearing, but these requests are not pickiness. These things are not whims or me being a control freak. These are small adjustments or allowances people can make (which often should not affect them much) that can make a tense, stressful, overwhelming, or even scary situation a pleasant one.

 

[image description: A busy picture with half a dozen different types of flowers and plants of varying colors, shapes, and textures. Pinks, greens, oranges, reds, and greens make the picture a little overwhelming.]

4: Spinning & Rocking

Spinning

While I was teaching in Japan, I often went to visit one of my favorite students in his private one-on-one classroom. He was in the first grade, Autistic, and the sweetest and funniest kid in the entire school. I’d often stop by to play and we really meshed well together. I understood his style of play and genuinely enjoyed myself. He knew I was a safe teacher who would always respect his boundaries and needs. We were buddies. But there was one thing that we didn’t have in common. He really loved to stand in the middle of the classroom and spin. One day while I grew nauseous watching him spin, a thought struck me.

“I never spun.” I shrugged and put it from my mind, remembering that all Autistic people are different–just as varied and unique as neurotypical people are.

It wasn’t until an hour or so later that it hit me. Wait… yes, I did. I spun obsessively. But not in a way that would seem out-of-place for your average American child in the 90s.

For a period of years, I would rollerblade for hours and hours every day on my own. And my absolute favorite thing to do while rollerblading? Spin. I would spend literally hours doing spins, skating in circles in the driveway, and spinning around support beams in our cement-floored basement.

Why did I do it? I remember it being extremely comforting. It was a time when my thoughts flowed naturally or not at all. I had mental clarity during that time, but was also able to just stop thinking when I wanted to. 

The feeling of spinning or skating in circles made my mind and body relax. There’s something very natural about a circle. Something beautiful. There’s no real beginning or end. It’s solid, predictable, and reliable.

Why did I like spinning so much? Perhaps it has to do with the sure, mindless, and unchanging certainty of a circle. Maybe it was something to do with the pressure on the body I could feel as I spun.

Maybe both. Or neither.


Rocking

Why do I rock when sitting and sway or rock on the balls of my feet while standing?

It feels so right. My anxiety drops away, I take deeper breaths, and my scattered thoughts slow. Rocking or swaying fill me with such a peace, calm, and genuine sense of wellbeing. Somewhere deep inside my chest something stills, unwinds, and then fills with a deep sense of assured peace.

Maybe it’s hard to understand, but it feels like getting home after a long day, being enfolded in a loved one’s arms, and sinking into a perfectly-temperatured bath all at once. It’s safe and blissful.

I’ve noticed that my rocking can give me a lot of insight into my mental, emotional, and sensorial states. The above-mentioned side-to-side rocking tends to be a soothing motion that might mean that I’m calm or content, especially if it’s slow. On the other hand, rocking front-to-back almost always means that I am in distress, panicked, or overstressed. The faster the rock, the greater the inner turmoil. 

Sometimes my body begins to rock involuntarily. This usually only happens when I am very tired. It’s a rapid, abrupt movement forwards and backward as opposed to my usual, slow and gently side-to-side sway. This is a clear warning sign that shouts MELTDOWN IMMINENT! (Take cover!!)

I realized that I often have a natural urge to rock to comfort or regulate myself, but that I don’t allow the motion. It’s just another thing that I’ve involuntarily suppressed in an attempt to pass as “normal.”

I’ve gotten better in the last year at allowing myself the freedom to rock when I need to. I almost always allow myself when in private and I’ve even gotten better at rocking gently in public when it will help me cope with a situation. Undoing years of masking and mimicry will take time, but it’s an essential part of unapologetically seeking my authentic self.

 

[image description: A massive, pink, rose-like flower is central to the photo. Dark green leaves peek out at the bottom of the picture.]