OK people, I’m back. Inktober didn’t kill me. Actually I’ve been asked so many times now to self-publish my Inktober flash fic ramblings that I’m looking to do that. But I don’t want to charge money for a very small book that only contains things that are freely available on my blog, so I’m working on some other short fiction pieces to flesh it out a bit. Also because short fiction turns out to be quite fun. Although now I am slightly horrified because I’ve written a 16k romance story that gets a touch racy and if I put it in this book there is nothing to stop my mother from buying it… and then quoting bits of it back at me.
Anyway, I’m back in my happy place and am, once again, Mrs Trellis of North Wales. I had a need for some quiet time away from people; I was starting to get a bit short with others. Not rude or angry, just in a subtle way that revealed the strain I was feeling. My Beloved picked up on it but I’m not sure that anyone else did. I’ve talked a bit about the difficulties I often have with people. But I thought it might be worth mentioning one of the delights about being alone for three days: going unobserved.
An analogy that I hear often is that autistic and neurotypical brains are like different operating systems. Sometimes people say Windows/Linux and sometimes they say PC/Mac and honestly I don’t care which they go for because this is a shitty analogy. Computers are far more similar than they are different. When it comes down to it, there’s not much you can do with a PC that you can’t do on a Mac, and vice versa.(1). And while this analogy may hold that our brains are different, it really does nothing to illustrate how that works.
So I’m going to illustrate with a different analogy: heckin boats. This may be a mistake because I know very little about boats but bear with me. Neurotypical brains are like speedboats and racing yachts. They’re zippy buggers that move onward and around each other and change direction easily. They adapt to different weather and conditions and the people within yell greetings at each other over the sound of their nasty lil motors. This, incidentally, is why neurotypical people are so fucking loud.
My brain? It’s a heckin great oil tanker. There’s a lot in there.
But it’s not the most maneuverable beastie. This brain move slowly, turns with difficulty, and my reaction times are longer than neurotypical ones. That might not seem like it should be much of an issue. It’s an issue all the freaking time. Things that I absolutely cannot do include: drive a car; answer questions quickly; play any video game that requires real-time reactions; hit any form of sporting ball thing with any form of sporting bat or racquet thing. This last one annoys me because I’ve literally never managed it in my whole life. It’s also one of the things that people are least content to accept I cannot do for some reason.
I struggle to move around other people because I cannot anticipate or interpret their movements in time to make the correct response to not crash into them. Among the MANY reasons I don’t get on with movies(2) is that the visuals often move on so quickly that I’m unsure of what is happening. By the time I’ve registered what’s happening, something else is happening. Every year, movies seem to jump from one shot to the other more quickly.
What is the point of routine and rituals? Rituals do for the spectrumite what they do for everyone: they are our best attempt to drive back the darkness and all things that we cannot control. Routines bring safety because they bring predictability. If you don’t have the ability to react in the moment to the million little problems that may come your way, doing the thing a thousand times the same way helps ease the anxiety. If it has always been that way, it may continue to be that way. If things work out differently, will you have the mental flexibility to change course and get a contingency plan going? Will you have the reaction time?
When parents try to train their children to behave in neurotypical ways, they are asking those children to head off on a collision course. “I can be a nippy little speedboat” they say. “If I train you to do the things a speedboat does, you’ll be able to live in the world as a speedboat and nobody will know any differently, and you’ll be at no disadvantage.” Then they complain about “tantrums” that are actually meltdowns due to distress. If you were asked to captain an oil tanker around a little lake with a bunch of little boat in it, you too might feel a bit anxious about the whole thing.
My intention in checking into Gladstone’s Library and checking out of the rest of my life for a few days was partly so I could write, partly so I could read, and partly so I could be that oil tanker without needing to explain, without the fear that I would crash and cause an ecological disaster somewhere. Being unobserved is a key part of that.
When you’re autistic and you do things a little differently, being observed all the time can be a source of great stress. When neurotypical people aren’t assuming that I have no reason for my behaviour, they’re often demanding that I give a reason for it. If someone had been watching me they might have said “why do you sit on the chair or lie on the bed and stare into space for hours like that?” The answer: I’m not staring into space. That suggests an interest in what’s in front of my eyes, and that’s not where I am. I am inside my head, allowing characters to interact and shaping those interactions into scenes. I can spend three or four hours at a stretch inside my head like that, and not have a need to do anything else. Why do you rock back and forth? Someone might ask. The answer: I stim. It’s relaxing. I don’t know why it’s relaxing. It just is. Why do you walk about, sometimes dance, when brushing your teeth? Answer: I have no idea. But it’s good. You should try it. Why do you make faces at yourself in the mirror every time you look at one? Answer: I find it entertaining. It also helps me to connect with my physical self. When I was younger I would become fascinated by my own reflection. If there was a mirror anywhere nearby, or even my reflection in a window, I would look at my reflection instead of looking at the person I was talking to. The assumption was that I was vain and admiring myself. That’s ridiculous. I am very average-looking, always have been, and am completely fine with that. But I have always had difficulty connecting mind and body, and the fact that I could see a person saying the things I was saying, making the facial expressions I was making, was remarkable to me. Even more so, because that was who the other people in the room were responding to when they spoke to me. Who was this person over there, away from me, performing the actions I felt? Now, look. I’m not an adorable doggo who sees his reflection and thinks it’s another dog. I was very aware that this person was me. But I didn’t feel it, and that’s what made my reflection fascinating. It still is. I don’t get distracted by my own reflection these days, but if I find myself looking in a mirror, I still make faces and marvel a bit.
So it’s not that I have a problem with explaining my reasons – I just did it, after all. But having people see it as an obligation is a pain. Imagine that every time you do something in a way that feels natural to you, a person nearby sees it and says “well that’s weird. Why do you cut your pizza like that?” “Why do you cross the road like that?” “Why do you walk like that? Don’t you know that’s terrible for your posture?” “Why do you sleep in that position?” “Why do you take that route to work?” It’s exhausting, and it’s doubly exhausting if they don’t understand your reasons when they get them. These constant demands for explanations are actually something that abusive people often like to put their partners through, because the implication that there’s something wrong with how you do very basic things really grinds people down over time.
I am extra sensitive to this because of my experiences living with Evil Sister(3) as a child. Not only did she comment every time she thought I was being weird, she also indicated that weird was the second worst thing a person could be (after fat). She went well out of her way to spy on me and monitor my behaviour, listen in on phone calls, read my diary when I started one(4) and when I started locking my bedroom door she’d watch me through the keyhole. That sense that I am being watched and judged, all the time, has never left me.
Another issue that pops up with all sorts of disability is that people assume that you need assistance when you don’t. I don’t get this nearly as badly as someone with a more visible disability. Wheelchair users have strangers step in and try to push their wheelchairs. Blind people have strangers grab their arms and try to lead them about. DON’T DO THIS. WHAT IS WRONG WITH PEOPLE? If they actually need your help, they’ll probably ask. At the very least, if you think they need help, ask first and then listen to what they say.
There are lots of things I’m good at, and lots of things I’m BAD at. With new tasks it can take me a long time to figure out how they’re done. I may seem to be struggling. I may do something in a way that looks backasswards to you. I often don’t notice things that seem obvious to other people. But the fact is that I need time to work out how things are done. I don’t need help, and when someone jumps in quickly to help, a couple of things happen. It becomes less likely that I will work out how to do the thing so that I know next time. You’ve also just pushed a social interaction on me, and this takes up a lot of my brain’s processing power. I’ll probably feel awkward about the implication that you see me as incompetent or stupid. Overall, you may just have changed a situation that was fine to one that is quite stressful.
So that is the luxury that I have felt most keenly here. I adore the library’s reading rooms, and I do use them. But I love the teeny little accommodation rooms too. Bed, desk, chair, wardrobe. That is all. No television. Some of them don’t even have en-suite bathrooms, although there are lots of very nice bathrooms scattered about the place so it’s not an issue. In that little room, I can be as gloriously autistic as I want and nobody will ask why I need to be.
- You may have your preference. Don’t bother to drivel on about it. I do not care.
- See also: prosopagnosia is a bitch; I’m rarely looking at the right part of the screen that the audience was “supposed” to be drawn to; the frequent jumps from loud to quiet and back again put me on edge; I need to wear ear defenders to cope with the loud bits and then it’ll go quiet and I won’t even be able to hear the dialogue; lots of dialogue happens with background noise that makes it incoherent to me. Sometimes a movie is really important to someone, and I’ll go along with them for that reason. But they gotta be prepared for the eventuality that the highlight for me will be the popcorn.
- I don’t think I’ve mentioned her much. Please don’t ask me for more details – I will mention her as and when it’s relevant.
- I actually invented my own alphabet so that I could write without her being able to read it. I can still read and write fluently in this alphabet but I don’t because there’s not much point.