Had to be said…
Had to be said…
pro·cras·ti·nate v.intr. To put off doing something,
especially out of habitual carelessness or laziness. Insert: because everything else becomes just so darn cool.
So. What am I doing right now? I’m procrastinating. I’m good at procrastinating. In fact I’m great at it. If there is anything I WIN at, it’s procrastinating. The goal? Study for my exams that are in a week. The procrastination? I’ve learned how to make hand shadow puppets (I’ve got small animals down, but the elephant’s taking some work), I’ve learned a magic trick with rubber bands, made a stop-motion animation and learned how to light my hand on fire without burning it. Oh, and I’m writing a novel. Why? Because November’s NaNoWriMo, National (although it’s really International) Novel Writing Month. It’s either the best or the worst timing ever.
Exam periods are usually when my brain becomes the most creative, and I guess it’s the same for most other people too. I also usually pick up some new special interest (this year it’s ornithology). Luckily I’ve decided not to learn another language (last year was Chinese Mandarin, but I gave it up because the tonal quality hurt my ears).
So what is it about procrastination that’s so enticing? Is it because it’s kind of illicit? Doing something when you know you should be doing something else? Is it because your brain’s so revved up it has to devour everything in its path, even if what’s in its path has never before looked enticing?
Who knows? Well, I’m sure someone’s written a PhD on it, but if I go looking it up now I’ll spend the next five hours on the topic of psychology and motivation. Which is a topic I love, but setting your hand on fire takes a little less time. And it looks more impressive.
Oh yes, exam month is a brilliant locus of endless creativity, not enough time and an impending sense of ‘I should be doing that’ which is constantly being overridden by ‘but oh my god I can do this instead!’.
It leads me a little into thinking about thought processes in general. I don’t really know how other people think, but I’m going to assume (at least for the moment) that it’s kind of linear. I get this feeling simply because, during conversations people often look at me strangely and ask “where did that come from?” and give me an even stranger look when I elucidate how I got from ‘cabbages’ to ‘pince-nez’. Or whatever.
I think I think like an evolutionary tree. Kind of like this one, just…bigger.
I’ll start off on one train of thought, but suddenly it’ll break off into three or four other trains of thoughts, each of which give off a whole host of others (some stop, some don’t), and my consciousness goes zinging along these trains of thoughts, and it’ll go on and on like that until…well, I don’t think it ever stops, really. But exam time is when it just goes ballistic. It’s when my bucket list gets filled with an inordinate amount of ‘to dos’, I come up with a zillion new projects, discover incredible iPhone apps and develop an Etsy store. And a small business plan. And a screenplay.
And in amongst all of this I have to sit myself down and cram in facts about mycobacteria? Sometimes the brain isn’t fair.
But it can be a hell of a lot of fun.
Autism and Asperger’s Syndrome are conditions on the continuum of the Autistic Spectrum, with much overlap. So much so that in the next edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-V) to be released in 2013, the diagnosis of ‘Aspergers’ will no longer exist, instead being amalgamated into the one diagnosis of ‘Autistic Spectrum Disorder’.
There has been a lot of argument for and against this change, but it’s at the point now where it will happen; from the next release of the DSM, Asperger’s Syndrome will be a diagnosis of the past.
For me, this is positive for two reasons. Firstly, I prefer the term Autistic. There isn’t a political or deep reason, I’ve just always liked the alphabetical structure of the word compared with Aspergers. ‘Autistic’ is more sharp, ‘Aspergers’ is more globular. I like sharp compared to globular, hence the title of my blog.
Secondly, and probably more importantly, my experience tells me that Aspergers is rarely considered a ‘problem’; you’re just seen as ‘a bit odd’. You might be shunned, socially isolated and so forth, but people don’t generally think there needs to be a lot of support in place; instead it seems to be viewed more as a personality trait than a real neurological difference.
Case in point: I have not disclosed my diagnosis to my friends, and even though I’m a typical female Aspie, no one has seen enough of me to be able to fully grasp the difficulties I face. So I chat about Aspergers and Autism purely from an objective, third party perspective, which I can do pretty well since I’m genuinely interested in the topic academically.
One friend I was talking to said this: “But if some females with Aspergers are able to ‘hide’ their oddness so well, then it shouldn’t warrant a diagnosis of anything. Surely then there’s no problem at all!”
At that moment, I realised two things, (a) people don’t really understand what Aspergers actually is, and (b) I hide myself pretty well.
I don’t want to go into all of the difficulties I face being on the autistic spectrum, I’ll get to that in another entry, but something a poster at the Wrong Planet forums wrote really resonates with me:
“…in order to keep up with a nonautistic-oriented world, many autistic people often have to dip into energy reserves that normally people only dip into in survival-related circumstances (to do things they normally couldn’t). And that long-term this can lead to various levels of burnout.”
And boy do I know about burnout.
I think that this is a big difference between a text book and what I experience; my biggest problems come not only from my differently-wired brain, but also from the intense stress of trying to pretend that it’s not different at all.
So I spend the majority of my day working through social interactions on a cognitive level, pretending that I don’t hear the buzz of the electrical equipment or the flicker of fluorescent lighting, and wrestling with my attention span to at least appear like I’m not already five topics away from whatever the conversation’s supposed to be about. It may not sound too difficult or life-impacting, but it’s exhausting. Bodily and mentally exhausting. Coupled with the sensory sensitivities it can become overwhelming and lead to a catastrophic system failure.
As Tony Attwood has said, Aspergers might be seen as mild autism, but it sure isn’t mild to the person who’s got it. And it isn’t. It really isn’t.
I don’t know if it will actually make any difference, but being allowed to legitimately call myself autistic rather than ‘having Aspergers’ might give others a little insight into the fact that I do experience difficulties even though I do my best not to show it. It might make people aware that even though it may not appear so, my life is, at times, a living nightmare.
Of course, the danger of that is having people pity me, which would be worse. Because although my autism can make the world a horrendous, terrifying and painful place to be, it can also make it an inspiring, awe-filled paradise.
But this is all conjecture, of course. It will be very interesting to see how the updated DSM impacts the Autistic community. And me
An interesting find
Typos smash me in the face. Yes, I said smash - it’s a brutal word, but it’s appropriate. Aspies are apparently remarkably good at picking out mistakes; it’s an inbuilt mechanism that can lead to inappropriately pointing out other people’s. I’ve been told that this is done primarily to make oneself superior (since Aspies tend to have a superiority complex).
This may be so, but I also present an alternate analysis. I don’t go looking for mistakes - they smash me in the face all on their own.
Imagine a perfect stain-glass window, shapes and colours exactly as they were intended. The beauty is tangible - the light catches the glass and throws elongated approximations, no less beautiful, upon the floor.
Without warning, the glass smashes. The sound is deafening and the beauty you were enjoying only moments before is irreparably damaged. The universe has become unstuck - it is decidedly ‘not right’. You are ripped so suddenly out of the world in which you are immersed that it is almost painful.
This is a typo.
If I am grading a paper or editing a piece of writing I find great pleasure in correcting the mistake. With a red pen, if available. It feels like righting the universe and I can heave a sigh of relief. If it’s not in something I can edit, I tend to fume a bit - a long bit - before moving beyond the shattered window to a new one. But I’m still aware that it’s there and it takes a lot of energy to ignore it.
This effect is magnified when an unintended malapropism, catachresis, solecism and the like come into play. Something like “My life has done a three-sixty” when they actually mean a ‘one-eighty’. A three-sixty merely takes you around and lands you right back to where you started, and I get so caught up in that fact that I miss the whole point of the conversation.
The same goes with mispronunciation. I find it incredibly difficult to stop myself correcting the speaker and sometimes I only remember after I’ve made the correction. I think people think I’m not paying attention to the salient points of the conversation when I do this, but it’s like my brain needs to smooth out the imperfections in order to eliminate the distraction it causes. Perhaps it’s like a tic - the world isn’t righted until the mistake is sorted.
Someone who has helped me with this is - funnily enough - Stephen Fry. I make no secret of the fact that I am in love with this man’s brain; it’s so deliciously hungry for knowledge that you can’t help but be swept along with it. Fry has this podcast about language that I find fascinating. In it, he lauds the English language while slamming those who are up in arms about minor misuses and grammatical errors such as “12 items or less” (as opposed to the more correct ‘12 items or fewer’).
His conclusion, essentially, is that language is for everyone and if we had to utilise it perfectly nothing would ever get written.
And I realised two things. One, he is right - language should not be hindered by the fear of making a mistake. If it was, we wouldn’t have Shakespeare, who apparently couldn’t even decide on the spelling of his own name, or JK Rowling, who was slammed by some because her writing style wasn’t perfect. And two - my own usage of English is decidedly imperfect and full of everything that’s ever shattered my mind-space. Typos included.
I’ve always been aware of the latter, which is why most of my writing remains locked away on an external hard drive, relegated to never seeing the light of an open forum because it wasn’t perfect. And that’s just plain wasteful.
I can’t stop typos from jumping off the page and delivering the equivalent of a right hook, but I can try to roll with the punches, perhaps by thinking WWSFD - What Would Stephen Fry Do? I can also be more comfortable with my own imperfections, (which will take gargantuan effort due to my massive ego).
Maybe then the windows won’t shatter but instead just crack a little. And maybe, just maybe, the crack will add something interesting and valuable to the picture.
But if I read one more “should of”, “would of” or “could of”, I’m going to scream.
"Should HAVE", peoples. "Have."
I can remember the very moment I chose my mask. Not the whole mask, of course, but certainly a large chunk. It’s interesting because it’s the type of mask I’ve been told I need to develop for my career, so I have no doubt neurotypicals are accustomed to the idea.
We all wear a mask– someone we want the world to see, especially when we deal with acquaintances, people at work, those we meet on the street, and even when we’re dating. It’s when we’re with close friends and family that we’re supposed to be allowed to let the avatar drop, because they’re supposed to accept us for who we are. Suffice it to say, I’ve been a little more guarded.
Now, in no way do I want the proceeding paragraphs to come across as a wail about my childhood. I had an awesome childhood. I really did. Here’s a small insight: My parents were incredibly strict and ‘no’ meant ‘unequivocally, in no uncertain terms, no.’ I had a bed time and (past the age of 2 when I grew out of some amusing parasomnias) it was diligently adhered to. Homework had to be completed on Monday. I had very specific chores and very specific rules of conduct. And if I stepped out of line with any of it, I’d absolutely know about it.
This was my childhood. It was absolute heaven.
Everything was, essentially, black and white. I knew what was expected of me and I knew what to expect of my parents. There were rules, regulations and certain punishments for breaking those rules and regulations, and I felt safe. Stable.
But everything was couched in normalcy. In being normal. One of the best behaviour-modifiers for Aspies, according to Dr Tony Attwood, is an ‘appeal to intelligence’, and oh boy, is he right. I was having fun with the alphabet one day when I was very young, imagining throwing the letters up in the air and singing them out loud as they fell past my mind’s eye, all mixed up.
“Stop that!” my Mother scolded gently, “People will think that you don’t know the alphabet!”
And that was the end of that little game. I could think of nothing worse than being thought of as non-intelligent.
My stimming was curtailed abruptly as my Father told me that people would think I was mentally deficient. I was also told in no uncertain terms that people bumping into you or accidentally touching you MUST BE TOLERATED.
And this was the beginning of my mask – one of toleration and normalcy, which was best portrayed when I was not saying anything. So I didn’t. Unfortunately, this has the adverse side effect of appearing like you have no personality. Which was a shame, because my head was teeming with amazing, wonderful thoughts and imagery, but I had to keep them to myself lest someone think I was stupid.
One day ten years ago, outside of a very particular classroom door at a community college I attended in parallel with high school, I was on the floor with a notepad, pen and a book on biology. I love biology. Love it. I was reading a chapter on microbiology when a woman walked to stand in front of me.
“Oh wow,” she said, breaking my concentration. Normally I would have needed to struggle to replace my mask, to stop myself from screaming at her to go away and to remind myself that she MUST BE TOLERATED. Instead, I stared up into a face that was showing obvious delight, and I was somewhat thrown at the intensity of it.
“You’re keen! Studying biology, are you? I used to study biology, microbiology was my favourite.”
And something that I had never done before just happened. I spoke to a stranger without any scripting.
“Yeah, it’s pretty cool, I’m studying for the Biology Olympiad although I don’t actually expect to get anywhere since the kids at my school are ridiculously intelligent and will probably go on to represent the country, but I don’t mind, it’s a lot of fun and good practice for Uni.”
To my utter delight and amazement, her smile got bigger.
“Well I think you’ll do great at Uni! Oh, could you tell me where classroom 34A is? This place is like a rabbit warren!”
I laughed, “I know, it took me ages to figure out how to get back here after the dinner break! 34A is back up the stairs and to your right.”
“Brilliant, thanks for that! Good luck with your exams!”
You may have noticed I used a lot of exclamation marks. They are completely warranted. The woman left to follow my directions and I felt drunk on achievement. I had just had a conversation with a stranger; at the age of sixteen.
I remember afterwards distinctly thinking that if I got such a positive reaction from being so upbeat myself, I would have to try it again, and with other conversation topics I was interested in.
And so I did. With varying degrees of success, as expected, but I gave it a damn good shot, and it served me well. The only thing it didn’t cover was small talk.
Ugh. The hated small talk. I would sometimes fantasize about being able to engage in successful small talk, but my fantasies would be silent because I couldn’t think of a single thing to say.
I added small talk to my mask over the course of four years when I worked part-time in a health care setting where I would see clients for almost exactly five minutes at a time. I had to work very hard to develop these skills. Not only what to talk about, but whether to talk at all. Whether to offer tissues, whether to touch someone on the shoulder, whether I should be horrified at a revelation or laugh at it, whether I should agree with an assertion or provide another perspective, whether I should apologise for something that wasn’t my fault… I could go on, but I think you get the point.
I still have to work through all these things cognitively, they don’t come intuitively, but I am at least able to do it and I feel confident with my ability to shove that mask on when I need to and be open, kind, caring, thoughtful and attentive. As long as I’m not stressed. When I’m stressed the cracks begin to show and I make incorrect assumptions. It’s like trying to do an algebra exam when someone’s saying random numbers in your ear and flicking your pen. It’s hard, but the earth hasn’t shattered and I don’t think I’ve upset too many people in the process of attempting to be a functioning member of society.
I know some people on the Autistic Spectrum don’t like the idea that we have to develop a mask and feign neurotypicality, and to be honest, I don’t like it either. But there’s a lot of things in life that either (a) I don’t like or (b) are not fair, and there tends to be a fair amount of overlap.
Strangely enough, though, it’s those things that fall into the (a) category which have given me a remarkable amount of resilience. The ability to tolerate that which MUST BE TOLERATED is like a muscle – the more you use it, the stronger it becomes. Classic neuroplasticity. And because I’ve had to use this ‘muscle’ a great deal, I’ve tended to be the go-to person for situations such as dealing with recalcitrant customers or getting spiders out of the living room.
But atrophic muscles aren’t built up by dead-lifting a Mini Cooper, and it’s easy to tear something if you try.
So it’s a balancing act, I think, wearing the mask when it’s needed and letting it slip when appropriate. Because my IQ and past achievements mean nothing if I’m burnt out and can’t get off the floor. I need to remain functional, and to do that I need support.
But something I have done over the last quarter of a century is to re-evaluate ‘normal’. A lot of people like to ask “What’s normal?” I understand that they’re trying to ask a rhetorical question to emphasise the difficulty of aspiring to be ‘normal’, implying that there is no normal to be able to aspire to and therefore we should stop trying because it’s an unachievable goal. Except there is a definition of ‘normal’– it’s a value located within two standard deviations from the mean of whatever it is you’re measuring. Humans are pretty good at picking you up if you’re outside of its boundaries and I spend an inordinate amount of time trying to remain within them. Therefore the point is moot and rather dull.
What I prefer to ask is “What’s so hot about normal?”
It’s convenient to be able to choose a neurotypical persona to wear in certain circumstances, and sometimes, to get what you want, it’s a necessity. But I do hope that one day it will be just as acceptable to have an autistic brain as it is to have a different hair colour.
I’ve been trying my whole life to ‘be normal’, but I’ve realised it can be decidedly dreary.
Stop and smell the roses.
It’s what all the media and self-help books are telling us to do, isn’t it? I happen to think that autistic brains are pretty good at doing just that.
Or maybe it’s just me. Especially when there are an abundance of ‘roses’ to smell. Like the praying mantis that appeared at the end of my swimming lane one morning – I stared at it for a good half an hour. And then there was the sunrise over the hills on my camping trip that made me drop my tin cup and physically gasp. The same world that can be so totally overwhelming and toxic has the same capacity to blow my mind in the most marvellous of ways.
Too bad I can’t control which it’ll be.
But I suppose that’s the price I (we?) pay for the opportunity to be fully enraptured in the patterns of sunlight though venetian blinds, the trail of water droplets down a car window, the absolute thrilling beauty of ten pages of math-question calculations equalling 1.
I mean, really…1!
When I was in high school, and hadn’t completely developed my NT mask yet, people used to feel sorry for me. They often felt their pity should also be accompanied by a pat on the head (which I learned to duck pretty quickly). But really, when the media keeps lamenting the lack of rose-smelling and the (apparently epidemic) ‘missing the small pleasures of life’, I have to wonder; would you like me to feel sorry for you? How can you miss the perfect spider web hanging outside your garage? Or the incredible patterns you can make by rippling water through an ice-cream container? Or spinning an egg?
Oh, right. You’re busy thinking about mortgages, taxation and how appalled you should be when a co-worker wears the same top as you to work.
Or what about the miniature flowers planted along the pathway? There are some that I just have to look at and touch. One time, on the way to a lecture, I was doing just that when another student hurried by, laughing; “That’s hilarious; you’re already ten minutes late to class and you’re stopping to look at flowers.”
“Yeah, but look at them!” I said, “They’re amazing!”
She continued to laugh. “Actually, that’s true.”
Shocked, I turned to find her sweeping her eyes over the bushes, perhaps actually seeing them for the first time, despite having walked the same path for almost a year.
I stood and we walked to class…
I think there might be hope for neurotypicals yet.