Time and time again I read and hear how autistic people camouflage their autism so that they are more able to fit in. This makes a huge – and rather arrogant assumption – that we want to fit in – that we don’t want to be autistic.
I can only speak for myself but would like it on record that this is certainly not the case for me! The photo above is of a Speckled Wood butterfly, camouflaged against the woodland floor. This butterfly does not wish to “become” the woodland floor, nor does it want to stop being its authentic butterfly self. It has one reason for camouflaging and one reason only – to avoid predation.
Autistic people mask or camouflage their autism for many reasons; and frequently report the devastating impact of this on their mental health and wellbeing. Autistic masking is more than the reputation management and social niceties most people use every day. It is not simply about fitting in – often it is about avoiding bullying, discrimination, reduced opportunities or downright harm – predation even!
The framing of autistic camouflaging as a means to fit in, invalidates the lived experience of many autistic people. It fails to take responsibility for the discrimination and abuse directed towards autistic people. Until society accepts responsibility for the way autistic people are treated and changes this to become more positive, autistic people will need to protect themselves by masking their autism.
We may wish to take part – but this is not the same as “fitting in”. We may even be invited to join in – but frequently this is tokenistic. Inviting me to a place that I cannot enter because of my needs, but refusing to change it so I can enter or take part, is not inclusion.
I’d like to reframe the idea and commonly accepted use of language about autistic people camouflaging in order to “fit in” – and suggest we use the words to “take part” instead. It is a subtle change of language but the former suggests that those “others” want to become the same as the majority. Whereas “taking part” allows people to retain their identity whilst still belonging to the whole group.
Disabled people should not have to pretend we are not disabled. I would never expect my colleague who uses a wheelchair to put his chair to one side all day at work, because after all he can walk a few steps when he needs to. I would never tell him that I saw him walking a short distance the other day and he looked like he was doing it really well so why can’t he go without his wheelchair all the time? I certainly wouldn’t suggest that we all have to put up with things we don’t like and if we let him use a wheelchair, everyone will want one!
I will no longer be referring to autistic camouflaging or masking as a strategy used to better “fit in”. I shall tell it like it is. There are no excuses. Until society accommodates autistic people and stops the discrimination, mistreatment and abuse so that I can “be” autistic without needing to hide, I shall remind people that they play an important part in my need for masking; and they need to stop!
This brief piece was prompted by a number of discussions I’ve had with people about autistic masking, being authentic and true to your autistic self.
You may like to check out my writing about autistic masking via the menu.
What makes me different?
I’m autistic, so experience the world differently to non-autistic people. My senses work differently – my personal range of sensory experiences is broader than most non-autistic peoples’. I experience some things more intensely (e.g. sound and smell) and others less intensely (e.g. body sensations and balance)
I have less need to form hierarchies than many of my peers – I still love to organise things and compartmentalise them, but we use different systems.
I think about things differently. I tend to consciously think through things that many others find intuitive – and intuitively know things that others have to think about!
So what is the problem?
I am in a minority. A seriously misunderstood minority. This means I often have to hide things like the extent of my sensory overload or my need for clarification.
My logical and literal mindedness puzzles people. My drive for clarity and need for honesty perplexes them.
And often it is NOT a problem. I have integrity, I cannot tolerate inequality. I stand up for what is right regardless of the personal consequences.
So, when is it a problem?
It becomes a problem when I remain dysregulated because I cannot do what I need to do to be in a state where I can learn and thrive. None of us can. But for me, the sensory aspects of the environment – and inside my body (noise, smells, lighting, my emotions) tend to effect me more because my sensory processing works differently.
Being dysregulated always makes thinking, communicating, and looking after myself and others needs, more difficult. That’s the same for all of us.
Humans are social animals. I don’t particularly enjoy socialising and I certainly find humans difficult to understand, but I recognise my social responsibilities. I may not want to hang out with other people for fun – but I choose to have unconditional positive regard for them….. and in fact, some of them are actually quite nice!
When I was younger I would be blunt, straight to the point and say exactly what I thought. I knew I was right. I certainly didn’t aim to be rude. In fact, I thought I was doing people a favour by leaving the bullshit out and getting straight to the point! I saw no need for small talk. I empathised by finding common ground that demonstrated my understanding of the other person’s situation and shared this with them. I used my incredible capacity for problem solving to offer advice, find solutions and share them with others. I wanted to be helpful. My heart was very definitely in the right place.
How was this perceived?
I sometimes came across as rude, self-centred and insensitive.
I am not.
Reflecting on this, it is important to consider that other people don’t necessarily operate in the same way as me. Those sensory and cognitive experiences I listed earlier may be different.
When I appreciate this, I realise how invalidating my responses to others may be. Lets take empathy as an example – a subject I have written about in my personal blogs and for Neuroclastic.
My natural, authentically autistic response to someone telling me something distressing about their own experience is to trawl through my memory for something comparable.
I don’t feel a lot when people share their experiences with me. Other autistic people may be somewhere else in this broad range of sensory experiences and physically feel other peoples pain to such an extent it hurts them too. If I responded with a “yeah well, whatever” to someone’s loss, and my autistic friend with the intense emotional sensations responded with a “omg, that is so awful – look I’m crying too” – neither of us would be much use to the person who was choosing to share their experience with us.
So I developed a technique that uses my very natural abilities of logic and reasoning. I would find something comparable from my own life and tell them about it so they realise that I truly understand.
Except they don’t!
Of course, these genuinely autistic responses can be seen as invalidating for others. And it’s not just issues around empathy where this happens.
If I was to tell someone that they looked dreadful in their new dress when they asked me for my honest opinion, they’d likely be hurt.
I hate lying and I find the games people play where I am meant to know the hidden meanings behind questions, frustrating and disappointing. I am lucky to live in a family where we can be open and honest and not dress things up in untruths.
How can I stay true to myself without hurting others?
As I have matured, I have found ways of remaining authentically me, whilst recognising that other people may be running on a different operating system to the one I’m running on. Expecting other people to appreciate my straight talking just because I’d like them to do that for me, is a non-starter.
I could simply say “I am autistic, I have every right to be autistic and this is how I do things” and expect them to accept this. But they won’t! People don’t. Maybe one day when people understand autism better they will accept our way of being a bit more. In the meantime, I do have people that I can be more blunt with, or skip the small talk. It’s great and is a very small step on a long journey to equality.
Or I could mask my differences and pretend that I am like them too. That I enjoy small talk, that I like to beat around the bush rather than get to the point. That I am happy to lie! But that sucks, and messes with my mental health. I sometimes need to mask my distress and dysregulation in order to feel safer and to blend in – and we all need to behave differently in different situations in order to act appropriately. But long term masking erodes your wellbeing and identity.
How do I find a balance?
The most important consideration goes back to my thoughts on how I treat others – and myself. Unconditional positive regard. Not being an asshole to others or to myself! Recognising our differences and accepting them. Using my desire to find common ground, but not in a way that invalidates other people’s experiences or takes from them and puts the focus on me instead. Not needing to change people, instead accepting them as they are.
I recognise that I am in a neurological minority. The majority of people tend to assume I am like them, because my differences are not usually visible upon first impressions. They should accept me for being me and for being autistic, but they usually don’t.
I want them to treat me in the way that I treat them.
When I am talking with someone that has a different way of being in the world to me, I try and understand how it is for them. Many autistic people do this – it is what makes us so great at masking and camouflaging our autism.
I still use my particular way of empathising to consider that the other person may get an unbearable sensation if I tell them honestly that their dress looks awful on them. Just like I sometimes get an unbearable sensation when I have to make small talk. I consider that they may find our surroundings drab and insignificant and easy to filter out – whereas I am annoyed by the background noise and distracted by their perfume. I hold on to the fact that we are operating on different systems. But I don’t necessarily say all this out loud.
I cannot get them to understand my way of being by forcing it upon them, just like they cannot get me to become less autistic by forcing me to enjoy soap operas and small talk! Nor can I bully them into changing their attitude by blaming or shaming them for simply being born different to me. Nor should they try and bully or “normalise” me or my autistic peers by making us keep still instead of stimming; or keep quiet instead of asking for the clarity we need.
We need to do this together…
I would love non-autistic people to put the same amount of effort into understanding autistic people that autistic people often put into understanding them.
If I am going to accept that I need to be diplomatic when telling you about your dress, so that we maintain our positive relationship and you don’t feel hurt; then I’d like you to reduce the amount of effort you unknowingly make me use when trying to understand your true intentions and desires when we are chatting.
We both need to recognise each others intentions – and we may need to get to know each other and see beyond the stereotypes in order to do that.
Autistic people often communicate really well with other autistic people – we clearly don’t have deficits.
When you know me, you will value my honesty. Don’t write people off because they say or do things that seem odd to your way of thinking. If I accidentally upset you, remember that my intentions may not have been the same as your intentions in the same circumstances – and I’ll try and do that for you too.
I will not compromise my values, but I’m happy to adapt my communication style to accommodate you – in fact I do this most of the time already! Please do the same for autistic people.
I was prompted to write my first blog when I saw the frantic rush by shoppers to buy toilet roll. It triggered my own anxiety about what would happen if panic buying resulted in me not being able to buy the very specific brands of food that I must have.
The world did not run out of toilet roll, pasta, crunchy nut cornflakes or any other items and my anxieties about shortages were unfounded.
However – my distinct lack of anxiety about the potential impact of coronavirus on my health – I believed I would be at low risk due to being healthy and unsociable – was proven completely wrong.
I did become ill in the weeks following writing my original blog and needed to visit the hospital due to my continuous cough and breathing difficulties. This hospital visit was unlike any hospital visit I had made before. Some positives came from it and I was able to share my personal experience of sensory distress and confusion with the health board who were developing some fantastic resources for people who have a learning disability or are autistic. I’m glad I could use that traumatic experience to help others.
I worked as a key worker until late August and also in my role within Autism Wellbeing. We began producing information for people affected by autism. Tips for autistic people; their families; carers; and colleagues; covering everything from the language used in the pandemic; masks and PPE; coping with change; self-care; returning to work and school; and coping with the “New Normal”.
Our popular Covid-19 Resource pack has been widely shared and downloaded. You can get a free copy by following this link:
In fact, we were nominated for and awarded as “Local Lockdown Legends” for the work we are doing online and in our Facebook peer support groups for autistic adults and for parents/carers. (And by the way; many group members are in both groups).
At home we focused on our son. He was already home educated and I watched how parents of school educated kids tried to juggle working from home with providing a full time education. An impossible task. Collectively across society, we all did our best and realised there were many benefits to the computer screens and games consoles we often feel as parents are ‘taking over’ our children’s lives. The ability to chat online and out loud to friends, to play games together and stay in touch from the privacy of our own homes is invaluable and has been a life saver for many people. Here is a personal post I shared on Facebook as the first UK lockdown was announced. And a follow up 2 months later:
We are still learning about what is important to us. We have found that routines work well – and letting each family member set the routines that are most important to them is even better. I tend to bake a cake each weekend, we have pizza and a film on a Saturday – we have found that making the weekends special is important for us so we don’t feel lost in a world where every day feels like Sunday.
My initial fear – in fact it was more like a recurring bad dream, was of the pandemic ending abruptly and the streets being filled with people making lots of noise and desperate to hug me – imagining this filled me with terror. Of course, this is not how it has panned out.
I am so lucky, I live in a beautiful place. The natural world has been my escape, my place of solace, my predictably changing best friend throughout the pandemic. I have watched the bare branches of the beech and oak trees in my local woods fill with leaves until the woods became darker under the shady green canopy. And now, they are almost bare again under the steel-grey autumn sky. I have seen wood anemones make way for bluebell and the foxgloves. The Red kite I began observing on March 13th probably nested and raised chicks – but I’ll never know – my blog diary was never finished due to travel restrictions. I satisfied myself with writing about the history of Red kites in Wales instead. Here’s a link to my wildlife blog below. I also continued to write a nature column for my local newspaper as well as running my wildlife Facebook group.
Our family also faced challenges. Being unable to visit a parent who was rushed into hospital on two occasions during lockdown – not even being able to find out what was happening due to confidentiality rules, was upsetting and frustrating and left us feeling helpless. Not being able to meet as a family to lay another family member’s ashes to rest and pay our last respects was tough too. The uncertainties of the pandemic were topped off with the uncertainties of family life.
And on top of this my husband and I have post viral fatigue. Long Covid is what people are commonly calling it. I have had swollen joints, shingles, urine infections, breathing difficulties, and tiredness like you cannot believe. I have barely enough energy to keep myself feeling regulated and my sensory processing has swung from hearing every noise, finding daylight painful, becoming nauseated by any smell – to – not feeling a thing, not knowing where my bruises have come from or finding my hair is matted from where I have rocked unknowingly and continuously all night long in my sleep.
I have felt confused, scared and bewildered. I initially felt annoyed that people were clapping for the NHS – mainly because I like peace and quiet and the sound of my neighbours beating the hell out of saucepans every Thursday evening left my body activated and ready for flight, fright or freeze from the moment I got out of bed on a Thursday morning. I now wish that society was still coming together in this way – the sense of us all being “in it together” has diminished. People are calling other people out for perceived breaches of lockdown and are jumping on bandwagons they had no interest in before. I watched friends throw every ounce of their energy into campaigning about “Black Lives Matter” – my sentiments are with them all the way but it felt like this and other topics were being used as a distraction from the boredom, worry and upheaval of the pandemic; and I watched with shock, bewilderment and disappointment as I saw other friends demonstrate the most ill thought out and racist behaviour ever. I witnessed parts of society get fed up with staying in when the sun came out, so off they headed for the beaches and countryside. It felt like all the world was out of control all around me. It looked to me as if everyone was on the verge of total emotional overwhelm – people I view as level headed were sharing memes and fake news without checking for facts first – pressing “Like” or “Share” because it gave them a shot of something that momentarily eased whatever negative feelings the pandemic created in their bodies.
And I kept baking my cakes on a weekend, kept working, kept walking every day I could. Kept up my self-care and kept going and going and going. My ability to keep doing the same thing again and again in the same way has kept me focused and strong.
And some days I felt peace and at one with the world – I loved the simplicity, the lack of socialising, the space – and the quiet. And on other days I felt stifled, trapped and unable to find any peace – either internally or outside my body. Our one living room felt way too small for a family and I would have given anything for the endless questions about when can my son see his friends again – or the rants about what the government were or weren’t doing – or the continual noise and movement that inevitably comes with living as part of any family – to just stop!
I wondered whether autistic people would fare better than others because we are so skilled at having to cope with uncertainties. We rely on routines, structures, and rules, and are famous for preferring our own company. I wrote about how there was no better time to be an autistic person. In fact, I have a secret to share… Although my autism was never hidden, I had never articulated to the wider world what it was like for me. So I decided to write a blog because I knew I was very unwell – I wondered if I would die from coronavirus and I rushed this out so at least people would know what life was like for me if I did die. I also wrote an article for the local paper about finding peace in nature and calling for humankind to be compassionate towards each other.
Did I do better than anyone else because I’m autistic? Well, firstly it’s not a competition. We all need to play to our strengths in order to thrive in life. My strengths are by their nature autistic. Unfortunately, the medical model of autism describes them in terms of deficits and what is “wrong” with me. My need for consistency and routine, and my unique way of experiencing the world through my different sensory processing system are viewed as symptoms of a disorder. Does being autistic make the pandemic easier to cope with for me? Yes. Would it make it easier to cope with for you? Probably not. We each need to utilise the coping strategies that work best for us. But of course, there is scope to learn from each other, regardless of our neurologies…
Many of us have found we have needed to work from home during the pandemic – and many employers have embraced this and seen the benefits. Some disabled people have been requesting to work from home for years, whether due to accessibility issues that affect mobility; or accessibility issues around transport, communication and the sensory aspects of workplaces. Lets hope that those people who work better this way can continue working from home. I have been home based for many years and was able to give tips to other working people about planning your day; taking breaks; effective communication; and work/home balance.
No discussion about the workplace would be complete without mentioning video calls. I went from being someone who could not even look at a photograph of herself; to being an active participant (if a bit overwhelmed and reluctant at times!) of conference calls; to being featured in films and training videos. It was a Herculean achievement, reached by taking many painful, brave and challenging small steps. The world of conference calls highlighted many of the challenges autistic people face with communication. Not just the act of being on screen and talking to people – that can feel bad enough! But the technological issues that occur during a video call – these feel familiar to me in my face-to-face interactions:
The lag between speech and mouth movements that makes verbal and non-verbal communication slightly out of synch – that’s how my brain processes communication ordinarily. I put a huge amount of effort into matching up facial expressions, body language and speech so that it makes sense to me.
The background noises are amplified on a video call – the scrape of chairs, tapping of keyboard keys, coughs, hiccups and slurping tea – these all sound at the same volume and intensity. Welcome to my usual world of sensory processing where nothing gets filtered!
The lack of spatial clues means you can’t tell where those “mmmm’s”, “uh-huh’s” and other meta-communication is coming from. You may miss the shaking head of disagreement from the person off-camera because your focus is on the person who is speaking. There is soooo much to take in. No wonder we get zoom fatigue!
Did I take up any new hobbies? No
Did I get fit? No….Sorry Joe Wicks…
Did I learn anything about myself, my family and the wider world? Yes, loads.
Do I feel hopeful?
I have fluctuated between feeling hopeful and feeling despair. I viewed the initial “togertherness” positively: the sense of communities supporting each other, clapping together, helping each other out. I remember a video doing the rounds on social media back in the early summer that spread a message of hope and how we’d learn and become a better society because of the pandemic. I cynically thought to myself, that we probably wouldn’t.
I watched the way the media used language, imagery, metaphors and colours to emphasise whatever mood they wanted to portray. I made accurate predictions of the government’s next moves – I’m no conspiracy theorist, or political expert – just an accomplished spotter of patterns!
I have seen people ride by on a rollercoaster of emotions, I have occasionally hopped on and off myself! A “coronacoaster” as one meme describes it.
Coming out of a 17 day Welsh lockdown today, having been on tenterhooks over the US election, fatigued by post viral illness and worried about my family and what the future holds; I could easily feel hopeless – I do feel hopeless. And that’s OK. This pandemic really sucks sometimes!
But when I reflect and look back at the positives that have only happened because I have been alive on this planet in this exact period of time, then yes, I do have hope…
I have gained friends
I made a flute out of a carrot
I have started a PhD
I have swung on rope swings, gone wild swimming in rivers and ridden my motorbike
I am working with colleagues who value me
I have overcome challenges I thought I’d never face
Covid didn’t kill me
I have written…and written… Autism blogs, wildlife blogs, nature columns, information sheets, contributions to a paper on Sensory Trauma, contributions to ‘Neuroclastic’, Facebook groups and pages, and scene 1 of a play- my first ever work of fiction.
And on one occasion I chased a pig and got over 30,000 social media views for my efforts!
You can watch me in my first ever vlog by viewing the YouTube link below, or if you’d prefer a traditional written blog, you can read that instead.
I have decided to go to University. Now then, if Miss Hooper, my very first teacher in primary school heard that news, she might be quite shocked that I am saying this at the ripe old age of 47.
On more than one occasion over the past few decades, I have affectionately cursed Miss Hooper for setting such high expectations for me. Within days of me starting school she informed my parents that I was potential Oxbridge material. A child with my natural academic ability was clearly cut out for one of the top Universities in the land.
It didn’t happen. I didn’t even get close…
So what went wrong?
For a long time I assumed “I” went wrong; my teachers assumed I went wrong; my parents assumed I went wrong. But I didn’t go wrong. The education system simply did not respond to my needs. And this was because of my undiagnosed autism.
Mind you, I can’t think of a single child at school who was diagnosed with autism. This was the 1970’s and no one had yet described the spectrum of autism nor the triad of impairments. And we were still years away from Asperger syndrome being used as a diagnosis.
Right, let’s get back to my school days.
So it’s the New Year of 1978 -I had been to playschool for a year or so and was quite looking forward to joining the big school.
I was already able to read and write – and I already had a bit of a reputation, as I was not backward in informing my playschool leaders when they misspelt my surname. And I was most offended – and I told them – when their response was that a 3 year old shouldn’t be able to spell their surname anyway! You can probably guess how well I was going to fit in with the education system from this moment on.
So here I was about to go to school. I was looking forward to it. I wanted to do some proper work! Miss Hooper, my class teacher, seemed very old to me – I suppose she was almost at retirement age back then – in fact she died earlier this year at the grand old age of 100.
She could be described as an old-fashioned sort of teacher. Strict; slightly distant; very academic and serious. Not at all like the playschool leaders who would happily get involved hands on with the children and cuddle them and play with them and fuss over them.
It was bloody brilliant!
Miss Hooper gave me extra reading lessons and I was allowed to choose books from the junior children’s library, even though I had only just started in the infants. I was even allowed to stay in at lunchtime and do more reading instead of joining the other children outside to play. I very much fitted in with this school system and I was happy to be spending my time there, stretching my brain.
I’d like to point out at this point that autism is a spectrum. That doesn’t mean some people are mildly autistic and some are severely autistic. And it doesn’t have anything to do with academic ability either. Autism is a spectrum because whilst all autistic people share similar ways of processing the world; this manifests in different ways. I was academically bright – yet took a very long time to learn how to tie my shoelaces. I could talk with ease about one of my interests – maths or animals for instance. But I struggled to know what to say to make friends.
For me, it is these contradictions that are the very essence of my autism. The huge expectation from others – and myself – that because I can do this thing very well, I should be able to most other things very well too. I remember a phrase used repeatedly about me as a child. “How can someone who is so clever, be so stupid?” This very negative phrase has taken a lot of shifting from my internal dialogue, probably because I felt it summed me up so perfectly.
I got hold of some old pictures I drew in my first school year and some of my classwork too. I can remember the sheer joy of finishing my work and asking for some extra sums to keep me busy while I waited for the rest of the class to catch up. I remember exactly how I used to think aged 4 when I drew these pictures – I was exactly the same then as I am now. So it’s nice to look back and remember that I was actually quite a sweet, fairly ordinary little girl too.
Have a look at my vlog (about 4 and a half minutes in) if you’d like to see more of them.
I am begining to see how I was starting to look to the other children. I mean – a 4 year old who asked for extra maths – for fun! Yep, my differences were beginning to show…
But no one suspected that this socially awkward, pedantic child with a massive obsession about numbers and animals was autistic. I was lucky in a way because my academic brightness and extremely polite “good” behaviour, masked some of my difficulties. My quirks – as they were probably perceived – were tolerated because I was bright and well behaved.
I was told I was clever – I knew I was clever. I was probably a total pain in the backside because my need for accuracy, order and consistency, combined with my academic ability meant that I would correct people whenever I felt it was needed and not really take into consideration anyone else’s feelings or opinions. However, I was – and still am, a polite person, and very considerate. I would happily correct someone because – goodness me, that’s what ‘I’ would want them to do for me. Surely, they must want me to tell them what they got wrong? And I’d tell them with no malice; no unkindness – just total honesty, straight to the point logic and reason – you know what? – they’d probably find me super helpful. Wouldn’t they?
Of course – this different way of experiencing empathy and interacting with others was not the typical way of my peers.
Let’s skip on a few years to secondary school.
Secondary school was bigger. More people, separate lessons, different classrooms, and a timetable to negotiate.
Things started relatively ok.
But over the course of my 5 years at secondary school, things deteriorated. I’ll share some genuine extracts from my school reports…
Year 1: This is from the Head of Year: “Emma has shown herself to be a pupil of the highest quality… She is enthusiastic and often terribly energetic and excitable about what she is doing… She is clear thinking and responsible and I am sure has much to offer the school in the future… The staff reports speak for themselves. An excellent report”
Yep, there I was. A bright future ahead of me. Lets see what the individual teachers had to say..
Maths – there should be no problem there… Grade A for effort and A for achievement – great, now what did my teacher say? OK, here goes: ”Emma works extremely well in class. She is a little dogmatic in her approach to mathematics, but at least discusses with me any disagreements she has over method!”
Yeah, well. I suppose that sounds a bit like me!
The rest of that first year report was also good. A’s for everything apart from P.E.
That wasn’t a surpirse, I have the coordination of a blancmange! I can remember from primary school how my parents were told that there hadn’t been a single P.E lesson where I didn’t injure myself in some way.
Anyway, lets look at my second year at secondary school…A good performance in all subjects according to my Head of Year. Perhaps a little too talkative.
Yep – drama teacher here says “very talkative but pleasant with it”.
Mmmm. Spanish: “Emma is a lively character, perhaps a little too lively at times for her own good”
French… “Emma’s concentration in class is apt to lapse rather too much”
Science… “Emma does not seem to work to her full ability. She can occasionally behave stupidly”
Actually Mr Hughes, I don’t think you are meant to use the word “stupid” when referring to your pupils.
History next…”Disappointing…lacks depth, Emma must be wary of developing a superficial approach”
Right, so not quite the “pupil of the highest quality” from Year 1. And whilst I was still mostly getting A’s for achievement – my grades for effort were now tending to be B’s.
But, Oh how I wish they knew the sheer amount of effort I had to put in just sitting on that crowded, noisy bus whilst teenagers screeched and sprayed copious amounts of Impulse body spray around; so that I could spend a day in brightly lit classrooms, full of people who were just not like me.
By the third year I needed to be choosing my options for GCSE’s – the new exam that was replacing O levels. I was not happy about GCSE’s. There was coursework required and homework to complete – I liked tests and exams – coursework meant sustained efforts and the ability to demonstrate you really understood something and could apply it across a range of contexts. And I preferred relying on my good memory, and winging it in the exam!
“Emma must learn to pay attention” – that was from my English teacher – and this is one of my favourite quotes ever – “Her ability cannot be questioned; her attitude can!”
And there you have it – my shift from being a bright, lively engaged member of the class, to a child who is perceived as having an attitude problem.
“There is room for improvement” according to the French teacher – I still got an A though, so where I needed to improve, I’m not sure.
Around that time I also remember frequently being told that I wasn’t listening. And I would of course reply that I was and repeat what had been said word for word.
And then… wait for it, I’d be told “Well look like you’re listening then”
So I developed my “listening pose” based on Rodin’s The thinker ….. It also felt nice to do and is still a favourite soothing strategy when I need to calm myself in front of other people without drawing too much attention to it.
“Easily distracted” in Spanish
“Needs to do a great deal to redeem herself” … that’s physics
Here’s a nice one… History “Emma is a highly intelligent and articulate girl with a waspish sense of humour”
Thank you for that, I only didn’t take history as a GCSE option because I didn’t like the other history teacher – he was sexist – and I told him. He said that the girls should help their mum’s with cooking and cleaning in the holidays.
“Fussy and disorganised” …that’s the Art teacher
So I entered the last 2 years of compulsory education. I had chosen my options, which were as science based as possible. I wanted to study medicine and unfortunately I had told my parents and teachers this aged about 7, so everyone was counting on this actually happening. That initial pressure of being Oxbridge material had stuck with me.
Inside, I knew I was different. I pretended to like pop stars and boys like the other girls did, but I didn’t really. I pretended to like make-up but actually found it felt extremely unpleasant to wear. I liked animals and nature and thinking about things and being on my own. And I was the most gullible, easiest to tease, bully or pick on child ever. And I repeatedly kept doing whatever it was that made people pick on me. And I had no idea what it was. No amount of masking my undiagnosed autism, ever really hid it. I knew I was different. Everyone else knew I was different.
But overall, academically I was doing ok- ish. My fourth year report refers to me “having ability but not quite attaining what I am capable of”
I was told I needed to be more disciplined and determined – to get things done on time – to be more consistent.
My math’s teacher was worried about my attitude; yep, so was my French teacher; my physics teacher criticised my ‘forgetfulness’; my chemistry teacher said I needed to apply myself more. The careers teacher was concerned about me being “nervous over using the telephone”
But there were some positives too.. I went to a religious school so R.E lessons were compulsory. I opted for the GCSE called ‘Religion and Life’. It was interesting and there were plenty of philosophical discussions to be had. Mr Paul, my R.E teacher is firmly stuck in my memory. I started secondary school in 1984 – and he suggested we read the George Orwell book of the same name. he welcomed my questioning mind. Here’s what he said about me….
“Emma has so many ideas that the effect can be torrential! I am considering issuing the rest of the group with umbrellas so they can survive the deluge! Actually, Emma is invaluable as a catalyst of ideas and her learning and grasp of religious ideas is very promising.”
That was a nice thing to say about me. But I bet you can imagine how I was starting to feel confused, troubled and frightened. I was still mostly getting A grades for my achievements, but I didn’t look like I was putting enough effort in. I was distractable and inconsistent and forgetful. Some teachers thought I was great. Others thought I had an attitude problem and found me exasperating.
The background to this was of course my autism – my very different sensory processing system that found some noises so painful, it was even agreed by the school that I didn’t have to go in the woodwork or metalwork classrooms. But the impact of my autism was not just academic – yes I was dogmatic, I was distractable and so on. But I was also bullied mercilessly. I found fitting in and making friends painfully difficult. I also had some horrific life events to cope with that were secret and almost unbearably painful to cope with. My life outside of lessons was horrendous – and none of those teachers knew.
In my fifth, and final year, the teachers seemed more positive about me. Probably because I did well in my mock GCSE’s. My report comments are mixed, but so so many of them are describing a very typical autistic girl.
Listen to this positive one: “Emma has an occasional tendency to gallop off into the sunset in the pursuit of an idea that attracts her, but which is not strictly relevant. But I suspect that is just the way she is. A super student and a lovely person”
My confidence in my cleverness was diminishing and my physics teacher describes how I underestimated my own ability.
My chemistry teacher refers to me being disorganised and “not averse to stopping him mid-flow to clear up any point that has not been made clear” – I’m not sure if that was meant as a positive or a negative. Either way, it’s pretty autistic.
I was feeling relief I think that school would soon finish, and I could leave. I planned to take A levels in a College of Further Education – a much better setting for me. The teachers tended to drop the dark sarcasm in the classroom once you got to call them by their first names, instead of Sir or Miss.
So I sat my GCSE’s. I did well. I went off to take science A-levels – but as the college staff reported, I did not cope well with the transition. I tried A levels a second time. But no. Education just wasn’t working for me. If you have a read of my blog about how I learn – and the difficulties this causes my teachers, then you’ll understand more about how the combination of sensory, social and teaching factors just don’t work for me at all.
So we skip forwards 30 years and I’m off to do my PhD. I’ll be a doctor – but not the medical surgeon I had planned to be. My PhD is about neurodiversity and employment.
And this is because I have been successful in my career. Being a catalyst of ideas is useful. Being nervous of using the telephone is still problematic, but where my skills are valued, colleagues are often – but not always, happy to make accommodations. My differences can be an asset. I have an appreciation of the world being a far more complex place than I did as a child. I still call people out when I need to – I’d still tell that history teacher he was being sexist. But I’d be more diplomatic with my maths teacher, and I certainly wouldn’t tell him he was “wrong” just because his way of working out a maths problem was different to mine.
I got hold of these old reports when I went to see my family in early September. I didn’t even know they were still in existence. I wondered if my autism would be apparent when I read them. Judge for yourself.
I struggled my way through school, without knowing why. Surely a bright, talkative girl would be successful? But she wasn’t. Well not in the way school expected anyway.
Usually in life, I have been most successful when I have played to my strengths, and other people have played to my strengths.
I’d like teachers to think about the bigger picture when they are writing or thinking about pupil’s “stupid behaviour” or “attitude problems”. Neurodiversity could be behind it. Especially when you view the bigger picture and see the pupil’s strengths as well as the issues. These characteristics often create a picture of someone who experiences the world differently – and that can bring innovation as well as challenges.
Teachers also don’t always know what goes on outside of the classroom either, and the impact of these things on a child too.
School age Emma was academically bright, full of ideas, disorganised, forgetful, distracted. She had a tendency to go off on a tangent, to question and to say what she thought. She was – and still has, nervousness around using the telephone. Still accident prone when it comes to doing P.E. Still can’t even be in the room with certain noises, smells or lighting. At times still socially awkward.
Unfortunately, school put me off learning. Put me off making friends. And put me off myself, if truth be known.
Our son is home educated. He had a fantastic primary school experience but once we saw that some secondary school teachers still used the same old sarcasm, still viewed difficulties with writing, copying from the blackboard or having the correct equipment at the correct time as “behaviour issues”, we decided to educate him ourselves. And we are all thriving because of it.
I do feel things you know! I may have hiked several miles along the Welsh coast path – and back again – to see if I could “walk off” my dislocated knee. I may have been “incredibly strong and brave” during labour and breathed through my contractions without a cry passing my lips. And I even spent a week away at a children’s camp aged 11, with a broken arm that everyone thought was “nothing to worry about” because whilst I told them I was injured, no one took me seriously because I just wasn’t saying ouch in the right places. I was still hurting though.
Conversely, I can also stress about sensations on my skin that doctors can find no evidence for; and feel so unwell before a thunderstorm I want to curl up in a ball and hide away. More than once I have visited the doctor with physical symptoms only to be told there is nothing wrong with me.
Just because I don’t “feel” pain in a conventional way, doesn’t mean I am braver, weaker, stronger, or more sensitive than other people. When I am unwell or injured my symptoms may not even be experienced as pain – frequently my mood and emotions let me know that something physical is going on. However, when I am distressed or emotional, these feelings may be experienced as physical pain – or more commonly as sensory processing disturbances. Changes to my vision or vestibular processing for instance.
I can’t explain how this works but I accept it in exactly the way I accept my other sensory processing differences. Synaesthesia is widely documented and believed as a variation on human experience. I experience some music and colours in this way myself. I put my unusual experiences of pain, illness and emotions down to a similar phenomena.
I have learned to trust my own experience of my body rather than that of medics and interpret my symptoms accordingly. Unfortunately I am rarely believed. I therefore have a dilemma: do I continue to say ouch in the wrong places – and be viewed as a hypochondriac and dismissed as having nothing wrong. Or do I tell the truth and describe my symptoms honestly and inform the doctor of what the symptoms are most likely indicating – leaving myself open to being viewed as delusional. This is a very likely outcome of me sharing my symptoms truthfully with doctors, because I have a psychiatric history. Or do I lie and try to use the words and terms they’d understand – for example, I could pretend that I was feeling the pain of my injury far more severely than I was. This isn’t an option for me – I can’t justify lying in this situation.
Or do I avoid seeking treatment for any physical or mental health issues I may be having? Do I join the many other autistic people who have poor health outcomes, just because my atypical experiences are not believed – despite me clearly being lucid, articulate and reasonable. Goodness knows how people who are less confident and articulate cope!
Caring for someone else who says ouch in the wrong places…
For a long time I assumed I was either totally unfeeling – or totally oversensitive. I also believed a lot of lies I had told myself or believed from others. Sometimes I assumed I was somehow stronger and better than other people who appeared so weak and lacking in emotional strength to me – those people who got sentimental about things, or lost their tempers, or got flustered in a crisis. At other times I felt weak and pathetic, and the worse human being on the planet because I couldn’t cope with the little things that didn’t bother other people, or I’d know something was wrong with me, but no one would believe me. Perhaps I was mentally ill; perhaps so damaged I was beyond repair? A fraud; an alien; evil. I had a perfectly logical reasoning for each of these potential explanations based on comparing myself to others and believing the lies I told myself or others told me. Of course, none of these were true.
Then I had a child. And there was suddenly another human who was perfect, untainted by the world, definitely not an alien or evil – but very much like me. Once I had spent a very long time coming to the conclusion that I hadn’t damaged him in some way, we sought clinical input on his differences – those differences that were very similar to my differences. And we learned amongst other things that he is autistic.
It didn’t take long to realise that I am autistic too.
Our son has better health outcomes because we understand that not everybody experiences things in the same way. All of us process sensory information in individual ways. Whilst there is a typical range of sensory experiences, most people have experienced unusual sensory processing at some point and can relate to the experiences that many autistic people have everyday. Most of us will relate to how our hearing becomes acutely sensitive when we are scared and even the quietest noise can startle us with how loud it sounds; or the feeling of “sea legs” when we have come ashore after being on a boat and our brain is telling our limbs that everything is still moving.
Autistic people may experience these extreme types of sensory processing experience as our “normal”. We may process the world in a muted way where sounds, lights and smells barely register with us – or we may experience sounds, lights and smells as intense or even painful sensations. Most of us experience a mixture of these variations – and they may fluctuate depending on what else is going on; our environment, mood and general wellbeing etc.
Knowing how we feel physically and emotionally is determined by our sensory processing system. The sense that really plays a part in knowing when to say “ouch” is interoception. Our interoceptive processing system enables us to recognise body signals like being hungry, tired, needing the toilet, pain and emotions. Just like the other senses it can work within a fairly typical range – or it can be muted or intense – and remember this can vary for each of us on a day to day basis too. Have you have ever not noticed you need the loo until the last moment because you have been so engrossed in what you are doing you haven’t recognised the signal in your body? Or known something was up but you couldn’t work out what? Or realised you were tired or hungry. That’s interoception.
Learning about interoception has taught me an important life lesson. Compassion. And also self-compassion. I am no better or stronger than anyone else just because I don’t feel pain from injuries unless they are very serious. Nor am I a pathetic loser because the sensation created in my body by needing to wait for something is so intense it makes me feel edgy, uncomfortable and completely unable to shift my focus onto anything else. I may not feel love for other people as a sensation, but I absolutely love them with all my (very logical!) heart.
And just because other people may not take my experiences seriously doesn’t mean I should disregard those experiences.
All human beings have basic needs – warmth, safety, food, love and so on. When we look after other people we need to meet these needs, regardless of whether the person we are caring for is aware of the need. A baby cries so we check out whether they need feeding, changing or a cuddle. If our child doesn’t notice they need a drink, we still give them one – to do otherwise would be neglectful. Our child may not notice they have bruised themselves falling over – but we still check them out for injuries and treat them with care. A child that may not be feeling an emotion we might call “love” or who may not turn to us for comfort when they are upset, still needs to be shown love and comfort – even if this is on their terms rather than our own. Perhaps this isn’t through cuddles and praise, maybe it’s through listening to them talk about their favourite interest or letting them press their feet into your tummy while they play on their own with a toy – different sensory processing systems require different responses.
Having a child made me appreciate the disservice I was doing myself by viewing my experience of interoception with a judgmental attitude. It’s not surprising – emotions are what makes humans most human. If I asked you to describe a robot, it would probably look human and have all the various sense organs that humans have and do very humanlike things, but lack emotions. My unusual auditory experiences for example, are much more accepted than my unusual interoceptive experiences. Ultrasensitive hearing, the ability to smell someone in the next room, or instantly spot a typing error on a printed page are unlikely to result in judgmental labels such as ‘evil’ or ’emotionally unstable’. A lack of typical emotions seems to equate to an almost robot-like lack of being human. And in my experience it is easier for people to treat others badly if they don’t view them as human.
I need to treat myself with the same compassion that I treat other people. Extend my willingness to meet other people’s needs in unconventional ways with meeting my own needs in unconventional ways when I need to.
Soothing my own “ouches”
Once I had accepted that I wasn’t in fact evil, damaged, an alien or any of the other explanations I gave for my undiagnosed autism, I set about understanding how I actually process the world. It’s been a tough journey, but thankfully is getting easier.
Resilience is often discussed within mental health. Fortunately we can learn to become more resilient and this is all the easier when we explore this from an autistic rather than neurotypical point of view. A person whose experience of sensory processing is one of Sensory Trauma and constant invalidation from clinicians is severely disadvantaged. But many autistic people are fantastically resilient by the sheer fact they are functioning in a world that is biased towards the majority of people who are not autistic. We also tend to be able to self soothe by using our bodies and senses to regulate ourselves – this may be through our intense interests, our repetitive movements, or our ability to follow routines. Sadly these strategies that promote autistic resilience can be seen as part of the medical model disorder of autism. Fortunately autistic voices are getting stronger and society is recognising the social model of disability and the unique strengths that autistic people possess.
But it still hurts!
At this moment I have little faith in the medical system. I continue to say ouch in the wrong places because that is how my sensory processing system works. It is not broken so cannot be fixed. I have always been like this and always will be. I refuse to lie and pretend and say ouch in the “right” places.
The world needs to change. I am unable to receive the treatment I require for physical or mental health issues because I cannot articulate them in the accepted language of clinicians. I prefer to avoid seeking help because of past experiences of being mislabelled and badly treated. Although my autism has now been correctly diagnosed, it was overshadowed for many years and those past labels will always be there.
It is unlikely that in my lifetime I will be able to say ouch when I hurt, and describe my physical and emotional experiences in my own genuine way and be listened to and accepted. What a shame – and how shockingly bad that is for a society that sees itself as modern and inclusive.
There are no easy answers – I keep chipping away at the system when I have the energy – and keep showing myself compassion and self-care. If this blog resonates with your own experience or you wish to share it to spread the message further, then please go ahead and share.
Interoception is the sense most recently added to the five senses I was taught about at school, plus the two others added more recently. Learning more about this eighth sense could make a big difference to many people’s lives. Understanding that we each have different levels and ways of feeling things is as significant as realising we each hear and see things differently. We need interoception to be considered alongside all the other senses – and without judgment.
I’m sat at my desk at work. Outside the lorries have been reversing non-stop since 8am. Each “beep beep beep” sends an arrow of pain and shock straight into my chest whilst simultaneously burning my eyes and ears. I can hear my colleagues laughing and joking in the corridor outside, completely oblivious to my pain and to the lorries. I don’t want to go and see them because the tsunami of perfume and aftershave mixed with the sudden change in brightness when I leave my dark room for the fluorescently lit corridor will hit me so hard it will almost wind me. And their voices will get even louder, and the laughter will hurt my ears and make me jump and sound like someone chucking a bag full of spanners into a washing machine on spin cycle.
But it’s ok. I stay where I am, hyperalert and shivering at the thought of someone opening the door to my office to see me. If they do, I will need to quickly whack my mask of normality on, and pretend all is well – and nod my head and make eye contact and fight the urge to hide under my desk and sob. If I am lucky I will still be able to speak but will probably say something a bit awkward or slightly out of place as my overloaded brain tries to coordinate thoughts into spoken language.
I’ve tried to tell people how my world is. Some doctors thought I was mentally ill. Some colleagues thought I was unsociable. Teachers thought I was lazy, distracted or not trying. Some friends thought I was weird. Some partners assumed I was overreacting. I always knew I was different but couldn’t quite say why – if I wasn’t an alien; and it wasn’t pathological; it couldn’t have been spiritual, then what was it?
The trouble is this is my reality every single day. All day. It is not an overreaction. It is not an exaggeration. It fluctuates so can be difficult for myself or others to anticipate.
This is how my sensory processing works. Nothing more, nothing less. Simple. My sensory processing system works differently to the majority of peoples.
Why is my sensory processing different?
Again, the answer is relatively straightforward. I am autistic. I was born with a sensory processing system that works differently to other peoples.
My earliest hospital notes refer to how I would not feed or would feed very slowly and if someone persevered with my bottle of milk, I would typically fall asleep whilst being fed.
Roll on 47 years and I am still the last to finish my meal. A few weeks ago, I was discussing this with a friend who is far more knowledgeable about sensory processing than me. We were both eating an apple and I discovered that I have a completely different awareness of sensations in my mouth than she does. I can feel food on my lips and the tip of my tongue, and then again as I swallow, but in the centre of my mouth I have almost no sensation. This means that when I eat I feel very stressed because I never know when food is going to reach the back of my mouth. I frequently gag and I am highly anxious about eating because swallowing often comes as a surprise and catches me out. My awareness of how my body feels is muted.
This is quite different to how my hearing works. My brain tends to process sounds as very loud and harsh. Some people may refer to this as hypersensitivity. Whereas my brain processes sensations in my body as quite muted. Hyposensitive interoception you might say. These terms are all well and good for clinicians who are not autistic – they tend to feel comfortable using their sensory experiences as the “norm” and measure my experiences as “too much” or “too little”. My normal is different though and always has been.
This experience with my friend and the apple helped me understand more about how my sensory system works. Interestingly I was yawning non-stop by the end of our focused fruit eating session, and I did have a lie down and sleep afterwards. This is very typical of how a human being’s nervous system works when we are in danger. Fight, flight, or freeze. My parasympathetic nervous system responded to my stress and I couldn’t help but crash out for an hour or two. Just like I did as that tiny baby who felt distress at having something in her mouth from the moment she was born.
My reactions to certain sensory information are totally proportional to what my brain is processing. It is logical to run away from danger, or fight if your life is being threatened. Completely normal to freeze if you are terrified, or collapse and disconnect if everything is too overwhelming.
The difference between myself and someone who experiences eating an apple as mundane; or laughing colleagues as insignificant; or reversing lorries as mildly irritating at the most – is the way our sensory processing systems work. My brain processes those sounds and sensations differently to the other person I have just described. My brain gears my body up for action or inaction because it perceives a threat that the other person does not.
My reactions are normal for me. Their reactions are normal for them.
I have always been like this because I am autistic, and for me this is how my sensory processing system works. It is not a choice; it is part of my neurology. Other autistic people have their own sensory processing experiences because we are not just made up of our neurology, we have our physiology; our life histories with all their joys and traumas; our individual personalities; and our own psychologies, capabilities and characters.
Each of us perceives the world differently. To me, a vacuum cleaner may be a terrifying source of noise that looms towards me, spewing its musty, dusty smell and roaring like a belligerent dragon. To you it may be an innocuous piece of cleaning equipment whose only fault is it takes up too much room in the cupboard under the stairs! I understand perfectly well what it is for. I’m certainly not scared of it and I absolutely don’t feel any emotions towards vacuum cleaners in any form – positive or negative – they are vacuum cleaners for goodness sake!
For me, this piece of equipment causes me great distress because of the effect it has upon my senses. For you it is fine. We both see the same item, understand its intended function in the same way, but our relationship with it is very different. It causes me pain in my ears and makes my body react as if I am being attacked… It cleans your carpet.
There is no right and wrong in this situation. We perceive things differently. A bit of mutual understanding can go a long way. So can a bit of common courtesy. I wouldn’t do something that hurt you, so please don’t do something that hurts me. I cannot desensitise myself to this, its how my body works.
Of course, many of us grow up assuming our perception of the world is shared. I didn’t know that most people don’t have to have their food arranged in a certain way because vinegar or sauce touching bread would require the whole meal to be thrown away due to the unbearable texture created when bread gets damp. You may find that outrageously picky and assume I am spoilt or attention seeking. You may assume that everyone finds the smell of perfume enjoyable (they don’t!) or that everyone likes to look at spreadsheets on a computer (believe me I can’t!) or that brushing your hair is easy (some days, it really, really isn’t!).
My reactions to sensory information may well appear unusual to you. But for me they are logical and proportional.
Spending my day to day life in anticipation of what distressing sensory experiences may happen next takes a toll on my health and wellbeing. It is not healthy to spend my life in an activated state, hyperalert because I am scanning for latent danger. The ordinary activities that happen frequently throughout the day are an unavoidable potential source of trauma for me. And maybe people won’t understand when I demonstrate how distressing they are – perhaps they will think I am overreacting or have challenging behaviour. Maybe they will pathologise my reactions and mislabel them or not even believe me at all.
My experience of the world and the way I react to it has impacted on how I am perceived by others; how they have responded towards me and how that has affected our ongoing relationships. It made me more vulnerable to other types of adverse life events and left me growing up without a sense of agency. I was left invalidated and unheard.
I’m not the only one…
Autistic people have been describing their sensory differences for a long, long time. Blogs, interviews, and personal testimonies are filled with evidence of sensory differences and the effects these have on autistic people. Autism and trauma are discussed together frequently. They can manifest in similar ways and be difficult to tell apart. Being autistic increases vulnerability to trauma – of course it does! Being in a minority in a neurotypically biased world where your differences are perceived as deficits is not a good starting point for anyone.
But there is more to it than that…
The way I perceive the world through my senses is in itself traumatic. Repeatedly experiencing unavoidable pain every day that makes my body react as if it is in mortal danger is traumatic. Not being believed is traumatic. On top of all the trauma I have experienced due to the impact of my autism and the adverse life events that I have been through, I have experienced trauma since birth. Perhaps even before birth. This is sensory trauma.
Sensory Trauma has been hidden in plain sight for a long time. It is time to start some conversations about this lived experience of autistic people. It is time to be listened to. At Autism Wellbeing we have prepared a position paper about Sensory Trauma and made a short video about it.
I would like to hear other peoples experiences of sensory trauma. We are publishing our book soon and are interested in feedback on our position paper.
Our position paper has been published by ourselves at Autism Wellbeing because we want it to be read as widely as possible. It has only just been made available – please leave a review on amazon if you decide to buy it. You can purchase the position paper here:
All humans have needs, starting with the absolute essentials we need to stay alive such as food, water and the air we breathe; along with all sorts of other needs depending on our individual personalities, physiology, social and emotional requirements.
Whereas the essentials are things all humans require, we may each need different things in order to be able to thrive and reach our potential. Do we ever reach our potential as humans? Who knows? But what I do know is that on the journey towards self-actualization we must consider our uniqueness as individuals.
And for me that includes my autism.
What makes this different for me as an autistic person?
Like many autistic people growing up, I was painfully aware that I was fundamentally different to my peers. I did my best to fit in with them in order to minimise the teasing; the exasperation I created in others; and the bullying. This involved a common strategy used by many people, including autistic people called ‘camouflaging’ or ‘masking’.
As a girl and young woman, autistic masking involved me acting in a way that meant I appeared more similar to my peers than I was – this included pretending I was interested in things that girls should be interested in like bands, boys and make-up. It involved me not asking too many questions that would expose my naivety and my particular thinking style – going along with conversations that involved euphemisms and slang in the hope that all would become apparent. It rarely did!
And hiding any mannerisms, movements or ideas that exposed my autistic differences.
Interacting like this meant I frequently missed out on getting my questions answered – or even asked, most of the time! It meant that I never quite understood how friendships and relationships truly worked, I just sort of understood what it was people did within them – and I tried to copy as best I could. I avoided many social situations because they did not appeal to me, and I was not particularly popular because I did not appeal to my peers either.
All in all, I missed out on lots of knowledge and information that my peers were able to gain through intuition and knowing how to ask the “right” questions, rather than the random, unfiltered questions that went off on a tangent like mine frequently did. My social development wasn’t behind that of my peers because I lacked capacity for understanding, it was behind because I lacked opportunities for gaining understanding. I was too busy masking.
For example, I was bright enough to know that asking my classmates what the technical difference was between the two intimate-relationship based expressions: ‘getting off with’ and ‘having it off with’ would end in them ridiculing me. So, I did not seek clarity. I tried to logically make sense of the language to find the answer out for myself, but failed. That boy stuff all seemed quite odd anyway, as did most of human behaviour, and my naivety and vulnerability exposed me to many risks and left me ill equipped to cope with relationships, and understanding and advocating my needs, rights and desires.
Another negative impact of masking my autism meant I was unable to regulate my senses. I did not recognise or appreciate the impact that noisy, brightly lit, and smelly environments had on me, so I didn’t avoid them or limit them. I forced myself to carry on whilst on the verge of total overwhelm – or I shut myself off so that I could function without feeling anything at all.
Opportunities for gaining knowledge, and for developing decent coping strategies, self-advocating and asserting myself were denied due to my survival strategy of masking my undiagnosed autism.
I’ve done OK, I’m beginning to thrive and I’m recognising my potential and the value of my uniqueness. I’ve got to this point through gaining acceptance of how I am, and by playing to my autistic strengths.
What has this journey looked like for me?
My journey is ongoing, I certainly haven’t arrived at a destination where I have found my purpose – but on the good days I am beginning to thrive instead of just about making it through yet another day of struggles. Life has become less of a struggle – but there was no “Eureka!” moment of throwing away that mask, embracing my autism and finding the world had suddenly become welcoming of my neurodivergence. The world remains biased towards people who on the whole are not like me, society still needs to change and become more inclusive. I am grateful because I have more insight and opportunities than I have ever had that I can use to make my life better.
Unmasking and being authentic
I have always wanted to be accepted for being me, I have longed for people who will appreciate my questions; my unique perspectives; and my differences. But that doesn’t mean I can act impulsively or disregard other people’s feelings – even when those feelings are very different to my own and seem illogical to me.
Humans are social animals. I find social occasions challenging due to my sensory and cognitive processing, but I recognise that I have social responsibility towards my fellow humans. Like many autistic people I am passionate about equality and fairness and I become distressed at the injustices I see in the world and continually seek ways of balancing inequality and making the world a better place.
So taking off my mask and behaving authentically autistic by stopping people mid-flow to ask for clarification; or correcting someone who has made a mistake; or publicly laying on the floor rocking and crying because the noise, lights and smell of the room have become too unbearable; or distracting everyone else by moving about; or telling someone exactly what I think of them – these are all things that are genuinely “me”. They are my default settings in some ways – but should I take that mask off and show them? Or should I keep it all in and hide how the world is making me feel, keep the mask on and let my identity and self-esteem slowly erode away?
For me, the answer is “neither”.
We are social animals; our actions usually impact upon others. Our actions create responses in others and shape their attitude towards us and how we are subsequently treated – whether this is right or wrong means nothing. There are consequences for everything we do.
There will be times that I am blunt, I will say what I think, I will correct people or stop to them mid-flow in conversation. I will need to move about in order to regulate myself. I will experience sensory overwhelm in such a way that I am debilitated by it sometimes. As I said before, these are my default settings – I did not choose to have senses that work in this unfiltered way. I do not choose to take things literally. I am driven by seeking balance and find injustice so very “wrong” I cannot turn a blind eye to it. In fact, many of these so-called aitistic deficits that I was born with, are also my autistic strengths.
Can I unmask then without experiencing negative consequences?
I believe that everyone masks some of the time. It is what makes us human – and social. No one can be unfiltered, or impulsive, all the time and function well socially.
So, I choose not to mask my autism – I own it! And that means being proactive and taking responsibility for myself as well as others. Here are some examples of ways I am authentically autistic:
If I know something is going to be difficult, I prepare. I don’t mask my autism to myself either! Going to town is tough so I plan short trips, I take headphones and my bottle of water. I keep scented nasal inhalers in my bag. I don’t keep pushing myself but take time out to regulate my senses and take stock of the situation. I am proactive so that the chance of me becoming overwhelmed is reduced.
I make arrangements prior to needing adjustments wherever possible. I let someone know that if they are holding a meeting, I will need the agenda up front. I ensure people know that I prefer a text first if they wish to speak to me on the phone. Or if someone just calls, I don’t answer but ring back later when I feel comfortable rather than answering and becoming stressed. If I am entering a conversation where I am likely to need to ask questions, I’ll ask upfront how to do this best. “I’m much better at taking things in when they are written down, do you mind if I make notes please?” or “I tend to lose track if I need clarity, is it ok to interrupt to ask questions if I need to please?”.
I am assertive. If I am asked to do something that will be difficult for me I will state my needs up front without needing to justify them endlessly, make excuses, or apologise for how I am: “Emma, would you like to come to a party on Friday?” “No thanks, I really don’t enjoy parties myself, but I hope you all have a lovely time, thanks for asking me”
If I need to regulate myself, I will politely leave and go and do whatever I need to do, rather than trying to get through the situation silently whilst hiding my needs or disrupting everyone else. I will keep things to hand that help me – I may have things to fiddle with, to stroke, to crunch on, to drink. I’ll choose the chair that suits my needs best and I’ll sit near an exit and I’ll ask if there is noise or lighting that can be adjusted if need be.
I am quite a private person, so I tend to state my needs with little explanation and add to that if necessary. I do not need to justify why I need things to be like they are. Sharing my diagnosis is occasionally helpful but frequently people don’t have a great deal of knowledge about autism and may even misunderstand it. If I am not in the mood to be their teacher, I don’t have to be! It is ok to say “I am not able to wait in this queue because of my disability, please can I go straight in?” I have frequently found that if I am assertive, people will respond more positively than if I bombard them with information about why I need something.
What really, really helps?
Like many autistic people, I have a life full of effort. Effort to fit in, or effort to hide how I really am. Effort to not offend people. Effort to understand how everything works.
Even my unmasking is full of effort. My unmasking means I own my autism and I am proud of who I am and what I have achieved. But, my autistic default settings, as I like to refer to them remain unchanged. I do not choose to be blunt in order to offend people – I am puzzled that some other people do not value honesty as much as I do. I do not ask questions to annoy people, but to understand them better. My need for peace and quiet is not done on purpose to be awkward. My logical way of thinking that is so useful in some situations may seem out of place when it comes to interpreting hidden meanings or reading between the lines – but I accept that many people prefer operating in this complicated, tricksy – dishonest I might even say – way.
I can’t really hide these fundamental facets of my personality. I don’t feel a need to apologise for them either. My autistic deficits (if you view autism in a medical way) are also my autistic strengths: my integrity, my eye for detail, my innovative ways of thinking, my passion and depth of knowledge.
All humans have strengths. All humans are imperfect. That is something that unites us – autistic or not.
So, when I do act authentically me – yet offend you, please remember this: I am probably doing my best. I am probably not being deliberately annoying or trying to point out your errors. I may have defaulted to the wrongful assumption that you see the world as I do. Please try and see the world as I do for a moment too.
I will take responsibility for myself and accept my social responsibilities. This means that I recognise that not everyone else experiences the world like I do, and my actions may be interpreted differently to how they were intended. It helps me when non-autistic people reciprocate and take my perspective and discover how I am perceiving the world. When this happens, they may realise that my lack of eye contact is about conserving my strength for concentrating on their spoken word, rather than becoming overwhelmed by the deluge of sensory information that comes from eye contact. Then it becomes less important to them as they understand that I am not being rude. Then our interaction becomes more positive.
I believe that autistic people compromise, and even deny their needs endlessly. Masking our autism means our needs don’t get heard or met. We constantly try to fit in with a world that may feel alien. My description of how my unmasking works demonstrates how important my sense of social responsibility is. Just because I don’t like hanging out with people for fun, doesn’t mean I don’t care about them. Perhaps if more people were willing to meet me halfway when it comes to communicating authentically, we would have more fun!
In the same way that we show kindness and compassion towards others, it is important that we show ourselves kindness and compassion too.
During times of stress, or when we are feeling fragile, struggling, or overwhelmed, it can be easy to give ourselves a hard time, or tell ourselves to toughen up. I often feel that society tells us time and time again to “just try harder”. And time and time again, I keep doing more of that thing that wasn’t working for me – but even more so! I don’t have enough hours in the day to fit everything in, so I stay up later. I don’t have enough energy to even take a shower, but I’ll sort out washing my son’s mountain bike. I keep going, holding on to the false belief that it will somehow make me stronger and better able to cope.
However, resilience isn’t built by doing the thing that hurts you even more so that you get used to it! All that does is teach you to put up with harmful things you should actually be avoiding.
Like many autistic people, I experience sensory information like sound and smells in a different way to many typical people. Some autistic people have difficulties processing how we feel – our sense of interoception may be muted, or alternatively, over-responsive and we can feel bodily sensations (hunger, needing the toilet etc.) and emotions in a less or more intense way than other people do.
I am an ‘under-feeler’. I often don’t know what it is I feel – I’m sure there is something going on but I can’t say what or where. On an off day, if I am lucky I have a general sense of ‘meh-ness’ or that life is ‘probably not ok’. When other sensory input is bombarding me, my interoception weakens further.
Many of my senses are affected in a slightly bizarre looking way. My visual processing can go haywire and I lose chunks of my vision because it’s too noisy. Or something very upsetting happens, and rather than feel sad, I feel seasick when I change my walking pace or direction. The issue is with my neurology, my brain is processing sensory information differently. It is not an issue with any of my sense organs.
All of us experience the world through our senses. This includes how we see, hear, smell, taste and touch the world – as well as how we know where our bodies are and how they are feeling. To function at our best, we need to be in what is sometimes referred to as the “just right state”. This means that our brains and nervous systems can receive, organise and understand sensory input and respond to it in a regulated way.
We all need different amounts of input at different times. Many autistic people need more sensory information or less sensory information than other people typically do in order to become, or stay regulated. Emotional and sensory regulation is about doing what we need to do to get the balance just right. For me, this is the fundamental principle of self-care. Unless I’m in an ok place to start with, there is no point attempting any more sophisticated self-care techniques. The fantastic thing is most of what we can do to regulate ourselves is very straightforward.
If we feel hyped-up or over-stimulated, we may need to calm ourselves. If we are feeling lethargic, flat, or floppy, we may need to do something energising. Regulating ourselves is part of our daily lives for most people and often we don’t even notice we are doing it. If I need to do something a bit nerve wracking I’ll instinctively take a deep breath first. If I need to unwind after a busy day, it feels natural to run a warm bath with some of my favourite scented bath oils. When I want a pick me up, I’ll enjoy the stimulating effect of inhaling the aroma of my mid-morning cup of coffee.
We are also quite natural at co-regulation too. This is when we help each other regulate ourselves. As parents we are often attuned to our children’s needs – I may recognise my son’s distress before he does and act in ways that helps him to regulate himself – whether that’s a hug, or a warm drink, or a wrestle.
I firmly believe that self-care is a disposition rather than a technique or approach that can be got out and used when required. It’s an attitude and a way of living. However, I haven’t always taken good care of myself. I learned the hard way and I struggled for years and used all sorts of unhelpful and harmful ways to regulate myself and cope with the inevitable stresses and strains of life.
As an autistic person I experience the sensory processing issues I described above. I also experience some of the other common experiences that autistic people have:
My world feels chaotic and confusing as my processing of it fluctuates daily; depending on the environment, my health, the weather, my mood and how much I have going on.
I seek consistency and order so that I have something solid to anchor myself to. Frequently I find the neurotypically biased world we live in doesn’t understand or offer me this stability, so I have to create my own.
I seek clarity through using logic and by taking things literally – I expect my honesty to be replicated in others – sadly that may not be the case!
My brain is always consciously working out what to do. It can be tricky to pack any more processing into it. It’s easier to rely on learned routines, set pieces, and organisation.
My body is always waiting for the next bombardment of sensory pain. If I shut it off I have to stop relating to everyone and everything. If I stay alert, I risk getting hurt.
Filters and hierarchies – what are they! I am open-minded, inquisitive and fascinated by everything – but dare not ask in case it’s the “wrong” question.
I spend a great deal of time masking. This means I have more opportunities, I’m taken more seriously, I look more normal and so get treated better. It also means I don’t get my needs met because no one knows my struggles. No one answers my questions. I make my body behave unnaturally in order to not upset people. Basically, I encourage my dysregulated state rather than using self-care. When people tell me to just be myself, I feel relieved – then realise they often mean “be yourself – but not like that!”
I get immense joy and healing through my senses and feel blessed that I experience things other people may miss.
I can focus on my interests with incredible intensity and commitment.
I see patterns, trends and details others overlook or filter out.
So long as I am allowed to experience it this way, my world is big, fascinating, ever-changing, and always full of wonder.
I frequently feel that I miss the things that many neurotypical people intuitively understand. I have always felt that way. I also feel that autistic people intuitively know what they need to do to regulate themselves, cope with the ups and downs of life and engage with the world. These things we intuitively know may not look very neurotypical. They may even be misunderstood, pitied or mocked. Perhaps they aren’t even considered self-care, simply because they don’t always look like a neurotypical person’s self-care. But my interests, and my sensory connections to myself and the wider world are my self-care. I have learned to play to my strengths. My autistic strengths.
At times of increased demand, an autistic person’s routines, structure, and self-care and regulation can include an increased need for order, timetables, questioning, and repetitive behaviours. This is not a sign of regression; not coping; or ‘becoming more autistic’. It is a similar response to everyone else’s and is driven by the autistic person intuitively understanding what will help them cope. Most people do more of whatever it is they do to cope in times of need. Whether that is writing more lists, biting their nails, hyper-focusing on a hobby, bouncing up and down, rearranging their CD collection in order – or whatever.
Fostering an attitude of kindness towards ourselves is good for our wellbeing. It can become a good habit if we practice it regularly. I had to learn how to make a habit of self-care. My default used to be self-hate. It’s not surprising when you have grown up in a world that is biased towards neurotypical people; that has increased exponentially in terms of the sensory information all around us every day; that doesn’t believe you, or thinks you are ill, disordered, broken or wrong when you try and explain how it genuinely is for you. A world that assumes you are deliberately doing what you do just to annoy everyone else. Surely an intelligent person like Emma can’t be that stupid.
But I intuitively knew I needed to self-soothe. I needed to find peace and calm. I needed to direct my intense energies somewhere. And for many years it was hit and miss. I accidentally stumbled across some good ways of achieving this and some dangerous ways.
It was not natural for me to shift towards self-care. I tried at various points in my life to follow particular methods, models and techniques. I frequently hear people say how meditation just doesn’t work for them; or yoga is a non-starter; or they don’t have time to do anything creative and wouldn’t know where to begin anyway. I’m one of those people. I am highly organised in some ways but completely unable to plan or remember to do any special self-care activities as well.
So I don’t. Well, I tell a lie, I sort of don’t!
I needed to change my attitude towards myself.
“Actually Emma, you’re alright really. Don’t take those negative thoughts so literally. Look at your achievements, you’re fab!” But I knew I wasn’t fab. If anyone is going to win a battle of thoughts and words against me, it’s me! Trying to convince myself logically that I was worthy of compassion didn’t work. I learned there was no point arguing with myself. Fortunately, compassion is not actually a feeling. It’s what you do and how you treat people.
But I also knew that I am a practical problem solver. I am not one who is overcome by emotions, and I have never been able to force my emotions anyway. So I stopped fighting myself. It reminded me of when I lived up this really rough track in the middle of nowhere. Friends who attacked the track in their car and tried to conquer it could end up knocking the silencer off their exhaust! I would set out at a slow speed and let the car find the path of least resistance. I’d gently hold the steering wheel but let the car find it’s own way around the potholes and over the bumps. I’d reach the top slowly and surely – and intact.
I didn’t make changing my mindset any part of my journey. Instead, I focused on making a new habit. This was the time where I had to be really organised and plan things with my self-care – it felt clunky and awkward at times. I felt painfully self-conscious and had to keep telling myself to back off when I taunted myself about trying to be compassionate towards myself. I remembered some tips from my music playing. Nigel Kennedy, the violinist says he slows a new piece of music right down so he can play it. And then he repeats it at least 40 times at slow speed. Even when he knows it off by heart and wants to speed up, he keeps creating his muscle memory through accurate repetition. Once it is firmly embedded, he can begin to increase the tempo.
Our brains are not a muscle. But they do have neuroplasticity and can create new pathways. So I practiced. I wrote a list of things to do when I felt bad. I kept it on my phone. They were simple things that would regulate my senses like doing some washing up; stretching an elastic strap; pushing against the wall; listening to music through headphones; eating some crunchy crisps or nuts. They sound ridiculously pointless. How can pushing against the wall stop me from feeling dreadful? But the key was to do them before I felt dreadful – and practice them throughout the day. They are not fixes, they are ways to feel regulated. Once I am regulated, my body slows down it’s search for hidden danger and things begin to gain their true sense of proportion again. Everything becomes more manageable.
I also practice my mindfulness techniques. I have used mindfulness for decades, I occasionally attend classes or formal sessions in order to refresh my knowledge. This isn’t essential, but works for me. Mostly I make sure I do things in a mindful way – once again, it’s a disposition rather than an activity. I may eat part of my meal mindfully – I’ll notice what the food feels like in my mouth, and how it tastes. I’ll put my knife and fork down in-between mouthfuls of food. There’s no way I could eat a whole meal in this way – just by attempting it I’d be putting myself under so much pressure, I’d ‘fail’. So I don’t set myself goals. I just check in with myself several times a day and have a mindful moment. No pressure, no goals, if it doesn’t feel right, that’s fine. Success and failure don’t form part of the experience. If I go a whole day without doing anything mindfully then so what. When I do things mindfully I have moments of peace. Moments of living outside of my busy brain. It really helps. This way of treating myself is compassionate and works well for my personality. I have a tendency to really get into the things I’m into. I’m either no good at something, or I’m an expert! I am either disinterested, or I’m its biggest fan. Self-care can be planned, it can be structured, but it can’t be forced. If it becomes an obsession, it stops being self-care.
But I like being into stuff! I quite like obsessing. I certainly love delving as deep as I can into a topic and immersing myself in new knowledge. That’s fine. I see it as one of my autistic strengths. My ability to hyper-focus in times of stress is like a laser beam of positivity piercing the fog surrounding my brain. So I do hyper-focus, but in times of known or anticipated stress like the current pandemic, I have a mantra of ‘wide not deep’ and ‘only positive’. I create myself windows of intense focusing and try not to fixate on only one topic. I have always loved nature and always will. It will always be my escape, my asylum from the urban world. I have absolutely disappeared off down some wonderful rabbit holes in times of stress. I have also focused on other topics too and I have actively distracted myself from immersing myself in struggles that will sadden me or that I cannot change. I may not have contributed to the solution but I haven’t added to the problem either. I sometimes need to be a pacifist and not join some of the wars our world is waging. I need to conserve my energy for my own battles, I need to strategise and conserve my strength for the battles I cannot avoid. I feel lucky that I have an ability to focus and enquire and explore subjects with objectivity and open-mindedness. My self-care involves using my interests as a distraction, to feel good, to achieve and to lose myself. I make sure I use that immense mental energy in a positive way.
I have written a blog about sensory joy and healing. I describe how it feels to experience intensely positive sensory experiences.
I make sure I prioritise those activities that bring my joy. For me that means walking in the woods; listening to music; having time with no noises from people; time with no questions; mindful moments where I just notice without analysing or questioning. It’s about reducing some of the cognitive and sensory demands.
I may notice myself being unkind towards myself – perhaps I’m berating myself yet again for how crap I am at life. Or perhaps I’m pushing and pushing in the hope things will go right, just because I want them to and I’m putting all this effort in. Sometimes I challenge myself, but mostly I shift my focus. I no longer need my list I practiced with. All that practicing has paid off. I am finding that mostly when things start feeling bad, or going wrong, or however I want to put it, I reach for compassion as readily as I used to reach for a personal insult towards myself. Of course I still feel bad – but I feel less bad about feeling bad. I can feel utterly fed up – but in a safer way than before. The world has not started treating me any better sadly. But I have stopped handing it so many stones to throw at me.
There are other simple techniques I use. These too were part of my practicing and now come more naturally. I read positive things people have said to me in messages. I bake a cake. I avoid interacting with people unless I am fairly certain they will not add to my stress. I do something helpful and kind towards others – it’s quite difficult to treat yourself badly when your mindset is on being kind to others. Even if I think I am the biggest loser on the planet, if I start doing something positive or helpful for other people, my self-loathing shifts.
I find positive physical things to do. Proprioceptive input is massively regulating for me. If I have that horrible sensation in my body that I can’t shift, that is crying out for pain, and that just won’t be soothed, then I mindfully and gently do something that gives me a massive hit of body awareness. Sometimes I think what I want is a hug, but I don’t always want the intensity of another person that close to me. Controlled movements are key. Pushing against the wall; deep massage with an electronic massager; my weighted blanket – all these help me to feel soothed and comforted. I can also create an awareness of my body through moving and enjoying the sensation. Whether that is repeating something that feels good, stroking something that brings me comfort, or even dancing around the kitchen disgracefully when no one is watching. I can locate myself back in this unpredictable, shape-shifting, sensory nightmare of a body again. I can begin to realise it is me and that’s ok.
Sometimes when it all gets too much I switch off to protect myself from further onslaught. It used to be hard to switch back on. I choose to stay engaged more of the time now, but that requires proactive self-care to keep myself regulated.
Here are some suggestions for how you might like to consider making self-care a way of doing things for yourself…
• If you feel yourself becoming tense, angry or stressed, take your time, back off from pushing yourself, take a few minutes to chill
• Accept that sometimes things feel tough and this is not your fault
• Use your senses to notice what you can see, feel, smell, and hear in this moment
• Do something that is fun – dance with your kids, make something, listen to music
• Regulate your senses and emotions so you are more able to cope
• Consider the language you are using towards yourself in your thoughts and words
• Treat yourself in the way you treat your most loved ones
• Make a list of helpful strategies you can go to when you notice you are being unkind to yourself
Do something kind for someone else
Find one good thing that has happened this year, this week perhaps, or even today. It you feel like it, find another, and another. Let that hyper-focusing mind seek out some positive memories and thoughts.
My dog has just come in and jumped up on the bed to see me – I can smell the weather on her. It feels exciting to be able to tell that autumn is approaching, just by smelling my dog!
We take the same walk every day, down the track and across the field to the little piece of woodland that looks out over the meadows to the distant river and castle. I’ve walked this route for 20 years – either with Blaze, or with my previous dogs. I never get bored of it though, and I take such delight in how it is always a different experience. A good, solid, natural, different experience each time; a difference that is meant to be. Rather than a man-made, enforced, upsetting of the natural order, type of different experience, that makes people think I’m typically autistic and “don’t like change”.
I notice the tiny insects; I hear the far away birds; I smell which animals have passed by. This means I have a whole world open to me that others miss – it is like a great, exciting secret between me and the Universe. It feels special and precious, and an honour. Sometimes my interest and curiosity are stimulated, and I observe and study and wonder at the natural world. Sometimes I just let my senses take it in and I don’t engage my thinking brain at all. The power of my senses gives me respite from the endless mental processing I have to do in order to function the rest of the time.
The physical power of music moves me. I can reset my dysregulated body with just one, single, repeated noise that has the power to rebalance me. I can listen to an orchestral piece and take in the enormity of it, like an overwhelming wall of sound – or I can follow the different instruments, interweaving and passing the melodies and harmonies back and for between them. No tune ever sounds the same twice. Music creates in me something that can’t be captured in words. I see musical chords in colour – and when I see these colours in nature, I hear them in my soul.
My senses work differently to many people’s. I can feel pain and fear from sights and sounds that others find mundane or inconsequential. This can be overwhelming – and other people frequently don’t notice the extent of my suffering. But I can also become overwhelmed by the joy and beauty I discover through my senses. Sometimes I secretly smile inside because I know that I may look calm, bored, or even detached to a casual observer; but in my soul I am full of joy, I am experiencing psychedelic colours; orgasmic noise; and fragrances that cleanse and purge my body and mind.
I can heal my painful and distressing sensory experiences.
I can listen to music; I can walk; I can smell lavender to calm me, or sandalwood to help me think.
I can crunch on pickled onion crisps and allow the astringent flavour to cut through my brain fog and overwhelm – and reconnect me to the world again.
I can listen to the same glissando and allow it to lift my mood, exactly in tune with the rising pitch.
I can move my body so that I know it is me and I am in control and there is something predictable and safe that I have agency over. It makes me be “me” again – I fit back in to the world that so often overwhelms and alienates me.
I am privileged to have a sensory system that can bring me such joy and healing.
Our body image is not just affected by the messages we receive from other people, but by our health, life experiences, upbringing, and personal values – and many more things besides.
Body Image has been a topic of concern for many years. We are bombarded with unrealistic images of unobtainable bodies whenever we switch on the television, view advertisements, or access social media.
The image that we form consists of several factors:
How we perceive our body. How thin, tall, fit, or attractive we are. This may be accurate or inaccurate.
How we feel about our body. Do we like how it is and how it works?
What we think about it. Perhaps we think we should be fitter or healthier, or maybe we’re just right?
The way we treat our bodies. How we care for ourselves, whether we exercise, harm ourselves intentionally or unintentionally, our relationship with eating.
Autistic people may experience all the same type of things in life that affect their typically developing peers, and they will be subject to the same media portrayals of ‘perfection’’. In fact, autistic people may be more likely to experience adverse life experiences such as relationships breaking down; employment and school issues; and poorer health outcomes – simply because their particular neurology puts them at a disadvantage. The way each of us perceives, thinks about, feels towards, and treats our body is complex and made up of a multitude of different factors.
I believe there are some additional factors to consider for autistic people. We may be more likely to experience ‘face blindness’ and have difficulties recognising individuals. We often have strengths in focusing intently on specific topics of interest, we may experience perseveration and a reliance on routines and rituals that help us organise our worlds. This could be responsible for some autistic individuals becoming excessively focused on diet, calorie counts, or exercise regimes. It may make breaking habits that are harmful towards our bodies more difficult too. An autistic person’s sensory processing may impact on their body image as well.
From a sensory perspective, I’ll explore my own experiences and reflect on how they have affected my life.
This has a significant effect on my relationship with my body. My muted sense of where the various parts of my body are in relation to each other means I am frequently misjudging doorways and bruising my arms in the process; I trip over my own feet; and I lift and throw with totally the wrong amount of force required. I find negotiating stairs and escalators very tricky, and if I can’t see my feet, I may as well not bother.
These type of proprioceptive experiences are well documented in accounts from autistic people. They undoubtedly impact on my self-esteem. I am not graceful, or elegant; ever. I don’t dance in public, I’m rubbish at sport, and even walking across a room requires the same kind of internal self talk one would say out loud to a blinfolded person navigating the same route! What I think and feel about my body is never particularly positive. My perception of where my body starts and ends is muted too. I recently cleared out my wardrobe and found a coat that I had bought. It was way too big. In fact, it had always been too big and my husband recounted how I have always bought clothes of the wrong size.
The image I have in my head of my size is not accurate. Not just in the fairly typical way many of us look back at old photos of when we were younger and slimmer, and wish we were as “fat” as we thought we were back then. But in a very genuine way where I have no idea whether I will fit through gaps between cars in car parks, or be able to choose which clothes size to try on in a shop. It is not just a self-esteem issue where I exagerate my weight, but a fundamental difference in how my senses work. I have no idea what size I am – and all those other factors like peer pressure, the media, my health and relationships play into an already wobbly body image.
Knowing how I feel inside, and which emotions I am experiencing, or what my body is telling me I need to do – eat, rest, go to the toilet, and so on – these sensations are frequently muted too. I don’t know if I like you, I’m not sure if I even like me half the time either!
Until recently, when I looked in the mirror, or at a photograph, I had no strong sense that the image was of myself. I remember as a child thinking deeply about what makes people separate from each other. I must have been around seven years old (because I remember the exact spot in the exact street where this ‘revelation’ hit me) and it struck me that I was everyone else and everyone else was me. I cannot put it into words accurately, but it was an incredibly powerful experience. When I reflect on it, I still can’t quite capture what it was that I had discovered, but I know it is something to do with interoception and identity. I had incredibly clear ideas about who I was – I always did, but they were logical, thought-based, and completely detached from any feeling of who I was. I could have been anyone – where did Emma start and end?
This year I taught myself how to recognise myself. I had already begun a process of reflecting on photographs and noticing in a very mindful way that they were of me. I also built up to the point where I could see myself on camera for the inevitable conference calls the Covid-19 pandemic has forced us to partake in. It was a painstakingly slow process, but I can now watch myself in a short film. Prior to this, I was filled with dread, horror and nausea whenever I saw myself. I could not connect in any way with the image in front of me and I found it terryfying that a stranger was saying my thoughts out loud, or was wearing my clothes.
I have embarked on a process of learning about my interoception. I need to take it slowly. Recognising my emotions and bodily functions as my own, feels as terrifying as when I recognised my outer body as my own too. On both occasions I experienced a massive sense of overwhelm in the days and weeks after my sensory renaissance. A mixture of novel delight, fear, and wonder. Mixed with an almost painful sense of self-awareness. It felt important to gently nurture this and not push myself too hard.
My other senses play an important part in creating my body image too. All of us experience the world through our senses. When acting ‘normal for me’, my brain processes this sensory information in muted or intense ways, compared to typically developing people. When I have additional sensory, social, or cognitive demands to process, my sensory processing can become even more extreme. This means that my world feels inconsistent, unpredictable, and disordered.
The way my brain processes the visual information about how I look varies from day to day. Some days I can smell myself strongly – particularly if I have been unwell or terribly upset. I give off a distinctive chemical body odour. I can frequently hear my heartbeat and the blood rushing through my body. My sense of touch is hypersensitive, and I flinch at a light touch. This makes me upset because it appears like I am rejecting the very people I wish to seek comfort from. All of these factors influence how I perceive my body and how others perceive me. This impacts on how I am treated and how I respond to others too.
No reflection on body image would be complete without discussing food and eating. My gustatory processing works in such a way that I have very particular needs when it comes to flavours, textures, and combinations of foods. I have written about autism and food elsewhere, but in brief, I tend to prefer certain colours of food. I lack the imagination to think up original meals and tend to opt for familiar foods. My sense of taste fluctuates, and I can find particular flavours are so extremely unpleasant my body reacts as if I have been given poison!
My need for routine and familiarity (in order to calm my chaotic world) can result in restricted diets. My anxiety and sensory processing can encourage me to avoid mealtimes. As a teenager, my poor executive skills led to me being disorganised and eating quite a limited diet. This resulted in weight loss and poor health. My energy levels frequently soared then crashed in response to my unhealthy eating patterns. This probably had an effect on my emotions and self-esteem too.
Each of us will experience a complicated mix of factors all interplaying to help influence our body image. Our internal and external body awareness will give us a ‘sense’ of our bodies, and our thoughts, beliefs, and feelings about this will play a part too.
As autistic people we may experience additional influences on our bodies – in the form of our atypical sensory processing, and our need for routine, ritual, and repetition. We may intuitively know how to regulate our senses and emotions too. This may be in uniquely autistic ways. Many autistic people find repetitive movements, sounds, visual images, and other sensory input is fantastic for helping with focus, relaxation, stress relief, and joy. These activities can bring a sense of peace and predictability to our bodies and make them feel ‘safe’ and ‘connected’ to our whole self. This is certainly my experience anyway. Unfortunately, these activities may be seen as inappropriate, or a subject for teasing, scorn, or punishment.
Imagine living in a body that feels clumsily out of your control; that shifts its shape from day to day in front of your eyes; that reacts physiologically to the ebb and flow of a restricted diet and rigid exercise plan; and recoils uncontrollably from flavours or touch.
Go back to my opening questions. Is that body a place that feels safe to you? Is it an ok place to be? When what you ‘know’ doesn’t match what you ‘feel’, because you feel nothing but know everything – are you sure it is even you in there?
Is it surprising that so many autistic people are diagnosed with eating disorders, or self-harm, or are vulnerable to abuse? How do you even consent to another person entering the space of your body when you don’t know where that starts and stops?