Dear Doctor, Dentist, Hairdresser, Kindly Neighbour reaching out to touch me during conversation…
I may like you, I may not. It doesn’t matter. This is MY body. I do not have to give you access to it.
Please do not presume you can touch me – whatever your motives or profession.
I may ask you to touch me, I may ask you stop. Please respond with respect.
If I react by pulling away, asking you to stop, or acting in any way distressed then stop immediately.
Do NOT ask if I’m OK. I’m clearly not and it is not for me to justify why, it is my choice. Instead consider what you can do to make this easier for me.
Ask me if you can touch me or tell me what you are going to do.
Give me time to process that and wait for me to agree before touching me.
Do not tell me you will be quick; it will soon be over; or it doesn’t hurt. Do not keep going when I say stop. These actions are disrespectful at best and abusive at worst.
Maybe I don’t like being touched by other people because of how my sensory processing system works – many autistic people don’t. Maybe it’s because it triggers memories stored deep inside my body – of abuse, pain and trauma. Maybe I just don’t like it. Maybe one day it is OK and one day it isn’t. That is none of your business. I don’t need to “get over it” so that you can touch me. I don’t have to dissociate so that you can touch me. I don’t have to put up with it so you can touch me. You just need to take my lead because it is my body.
If you are reaching out physically to connect with me emotionally and I don’t reciprocate, then thank you for wanting to connect with me. Please don’t take the reaction of my body pulling away as rejection. Please find a different way of connecting with me that works for us both.
I do not need to give a reason for not wanting to be touched – however, please consider that every person you meet has an inner life that you may know little about. Autism, sensory processing disorder, PTSD, trauma, abuse. Or perhaps they just don’t want to be touched – that’s fine too.
Make no assumptions about how I wish to be touched. There is no hierarchy of body parts that you can have freer access to than others. It is all me and it is all my body. You don’t know how I process the sensation, and you don’t know how I perceive your touch. If I feel violated, frightened or under threat, your motives are irrelevant – telling me you won’t hurt me is irrelevant. Showing me you won’t hurt me by stopping IS relevant.
“Non-vascular plants tend to be small, but some grow quite large”
That was one of the last pieces of information I remember hearing in a classroom. It also gave the kiss of death to my academic endeavours at that time.
I had wanted to study this particular ecology course for years and finally took the opportunity following redundancy to enrol on a course. It was mostly practical – hooray! It was topic based – even better! And it was my absolute favourite subject, and I already knew masses about it – I’d be surrounded by other interesting mature students and we’d spend loads of time outdoors in the field and minimal time indoors – what could possibly go wrong?
What went wrong was that my way of thinking, learning and understanding was completely incompatible with the course providers way of explaining, teaching and describing.
What would have helped me when the lecturer described non vascular plants, was an example, a diagram, a photo or something to get my head round so I understood what they meant.
What actually happened was this conversation inside my brain…
“NON-VASCULAR blah blah blah SMALL, SOME blah blah blah LARGE”
I started rooting around (pardon the pun!) in by memory bank for a seed of information (sorry!) that I could grasp hold of to help me clarify what the lecturer meant. Imagine the mental equivalent of searching in your laptop files for a folder named “non vascular plants” and the computer processor whizzing through every available file one by one to find the best match.
At that moment what I actually needed was to press pause and make the teacher stop while I searched for information. I don’t possess a speedy processor like a computer has, and that’s not how education works. You can’t put people on pause, it would disrupt them and everyone else. So I did the next best thing…
I took a deep breath, braced myself for looking stupid, and stuck my hand up. I tried to catch the teacher’s eye, but without having to make eye contact – not an easy task! Fortunately she noticed me and I asked “Can you give me an example of a non vascular plant please?”
And she said…”I’ll get on to that in a minute” and carried on describing the various attributes of non vascular plants:
They don’t have special tissues for carrying food and water (xylem and phloem)
They tend to be smaller than vascular plants
They don’t have seeds
They prefer water
So now several things were happening inside my head.
A voice from my youth was telling me “See what you’ve done? What a stupid question. Everyone else knows apart from you. You need to sit still, everyone hates the person who asks questions. Even the teacher. See, she won’t even answer you”
So I had a bit of a mental battle with that unpleasant voice, along the lines of “It’s fine to ask, you need an example so you can create a visual image in your head and get on with learning. Stop giving yourself grief. You are 46 not 6. You are not at school. You know this triggers you. Relax. You’ll do fine”
I was aware that the teacher was still talking but I was actually too engrossed in my internal battle to know what she was saying.
I was also aware of the fly buzzing (interesting) – the lights flickering (ouch!) – the pencil tapping (annoying) – the chair scraping (aaaahhh that HURTS!!!) – the breeze through the window (nice) – the bird outside (I wonder what it is and what it’s doing?) – the breathing of the woman next to me (creepy) – the minty breath of the man across from me (yuck, I hate kissing people who chew gum, it’s icky and sweet and minty cold – I hope I don’t have to kiss him – get a grip Emma, why would you have to kiss him?!) – keep your hand still Emma – DO NOT do that hand thing you do to calm yourself down – take a drink of water instead (you’ve overpoured it and it’s running down your chin stupid – don’t think about the horrible cold wetness) – the brightness of the whiteboard and the reflections on it (don’t even look!) – the people walking past (FFS don’t they know I’m trying to concentrate) – sit up straight ( that’s ‘A VERY IMPORTANT THING’ in education, the ability to sit on a chair properly) – when did I last pee? I hope I don’t need to go. Do I need to go? Goodness knows, but what if I do? (panic) – the ceiling tiles don’t match (why don’t they match?) – keep your hands out of sight Emma, for goodness sake don’t calm yourself down (they already know you are thick because you don’t know what “large” means – don’t let them see you are weird too) – the picture on the wall is crooked (why??!!!) – and the myriad of other things that were of absolutely equal importance to my brain at that moment – and always, always are.
And I was still trying to work out what was meant by “Non vascular plants tend to be small, but some are quite large”. My brain was thinking…”Small like a tennis ball? Or an ant? Or something else? Empire state building large? Or an elephant? Surely not, what else is large, I wonder what it can be large like?”
I am a visual thinker. When someone says a word, I create a picture in my head. That’s possibly why I am more comfortable in the world of science and tangible things rather than in the world of abstract ideas and fantasy. I can do abstract ideas, but I need to make them concrete somehow. That’s why I love analogies and sharing examples of how autism works in practice and what is going on undercover.
I had no picture of a non vascular plant to use as a starting point. I had nothing to measure “small” and “large” against. Further describing the attributes of a non vascular plant added additional processing demands. Learning that a thing I cannot imagine anyway, has no seeds and no xylem or phloem is asking me to take an unknown and then asking me to take stuff away from it. My brain was ready to pop.
And all this reminded me why me and education don’t work. And my self esteem plummeted.
So whilst I appreciated the teacher’s need to get on with the lecture, I was left floundering…and behind everyone else in the class. If she did go on to give an example of a non vascular plant, I missed it. My urgent attempts to block out all that unfiltered sensory information, soothe the tormented schoolchild in me who was busy reliving the trauma of her early educational experiences, and work out what a non vascular plant could actually look like, got in the way. In fact, it could well appear that I interrupt and then don’t bother to listen to the answer. In fact, I am sure I’ve heard teachers tell me exactly that!
So what could have helped?
Easy. A simple response to my request for an example: “think mosses, liverworts, low lying plants without roots and seeds, non-vascular plants tend to love water” would have been fine.
That would have given me enough to go on.
Or this could have helped if it was displayed on the Powerpoint presentation. Thinking visually doesn’t mean you need to give me a physical picture. It means you need to give me the information I need to create a picture for myself:
Or something like this may have helped me and would have been quicker to process than the above example:
Any of these three ways of giving me an example would have enabled my logical brain to work out how to define “small” and “large” and identify what was meant by non vascular plants. I would have known that the Empire State Building was a bit much because I could have applied my understanding of “oh, it’s something like a moss – of course, if it’s large it’s not likely to be tall because it is not rigid enough” etc etc
So why did I feel a bit thick?
Because everyone else “already understands” what large means in this context. So why don’t I?
I have an open mind, of universal proportions. It is unfiltered and massive and capable of zooming into the atomic level in order to understand something, and then zooming back out again and looking at it from every conceivable angle – plus a few inconceivable angles too! This is why I am renowned for “thinking outside the box”, talking utter nonsense, and coming up with some inspired ideas – and half the time I am not sure which is which. I am not constrained by convention or accepted hierarchies or preconceived ideas.
My world is not only big and unfiltered, it is fluid and shifting and changing all the time. My sensory processing works in such a way that my experiences of sensory information fluctuate. We all experience this – think how much louder a noise sounds when you are scared and alone at night. Or how everything looks brighter when you are happy. My brain needs much more, or much less sensory information to register the sensation than some people do anyway, and this is further affected by everything from my mood, to my health, to the type of environment I am in and how busy, bright, loud and smelly it is.
What I “know” about the world, does change from moment to moment because my reality is chaotic and ever shifting due to the way my sensory processing system works. I create order, predictability and systems to understand things and to anchor myself to. I learn facts off by heart. I match the unknown to the known in order to learn. It is completely feasible to me that “large” could mean elephant size or the Empire State building size.
I have no natural filters, to help me find the “correct” answer, so I use my own filters. They are called “taking things literally” and “logic”. I impose routines and structure to give me that order and predictability that is missing from my world. The more chaotic my world becomes, the more I rely on my filters.
When I don’t have enough information and apply logic or take things literally it can expose truths that others gloss over and miss – I notice things or patterns that are frequently overlooked by other people. It can also involve me appearing to misunderstand things. I may have made perfect sense of what I know – but if what I know is only part of the finer detail, and not the bigger picture, I could be completely on the wrong track.
I struggled through the rest of that day on the course, determined to prove I had what it takes… I didn’t. I had further struggles with following instructions – “go and gather some plant material” was followed by me sneakily watching what my classmates were doing and copying. I knew “plant material” didn’t mean a whole tree but WTF did it actually mean? The trouble with sneakily watching and copying, is it rarely goes undetected. In a school setting it can easily result in taunts of “look at her copying us, do you want to be our friend Emma?” followed by laughter and further mocking. Explaining my way out of that situation by telling my classmates in a completely honest and logical way “no thank you I don’t want to be your friend, I don’t even like you” does not actually result in appreciation of my honesty, or even relief that thank goodness the weird kid doesn’t want to be their friend. It further alienated me from my classmates and made teachers think I didn’t even want to try and fit in.
I got to the end of the first day of that weekend long course, ate my meal in the communal dining hall – further sensory and social nightmares – all whilst desperately trying to convince myself I could do it and I wasn’t a total failure. But I couldn’t do it. I went to bed and awoke at 2.30am and spent the next 4 hours crying and tormenting myself about how useless I felt.
I am sharing this glimpse into a few hours of my life to show how my brain processes things. The way I logically think and the way my sensory processing works. But what I really want people to realise is the impact of these things. I cannot help how I am. It is not a choice. I am not deliberately asking stupid questions, or not listening, or getting distracted.
“Trying harder” adds a further layer of pressure that alerts my senses to scan for danger and my brain to process the sensory information it is receiving in more extreme ways – everything gets even louder or even brighter – or I can no longer feel where my body is and what it is doing unless I look at it. My world becomes more chaotic and I need more structure. I lose my anchors and come adrift and I have to seek clarity and create order. I suddenly need to ask more questions, I become more literal, I need to do more of those things that that regulate me. I can risk the outcome and not do these things, or opt for self-preservation and mask these needs. The resultant masking is a temporary fix that leaves my needs unmet and chips away at my self-esteem and identity.
There is a living, breathing, beautiful human being behind every assumption we make about what autism is or isn’t. My face may lack expression, I may look bored or distracted and like nothing bothers or effects me. But look back at the sheer volume of processing that I am doing to understand a “simple” statement. Look at the additional things I am processing – all those sensory experiences that are clamouring for equal attention with each other. Reflect on how every single one of those sensory experiences has an associated thought, emotion or train of questions to additionally process. Think how complicated and painful and distracting and distressing that may feel, how hard I am trying to cope and fit in. Perhaps you know of autistic children that look like they are keeping it together at school and then come home and collapse from the sheer overwhelm? Consider just how overwhelming it actually IS for them. Feel humbled that they can take their mask off with you.
Do you know what would help in this situation when accessing education?
Autism awareness? Perhaps… A little bit maybe.
Autism training that teaches the traits of autism? Absolutely useless in this situation.
Acceptance? That would be nice – but actually you shouldn’t be accepting that a fellow human being is in this state of distress.
Kindness. Absolutely, but ONLY if you know what kindness means for me.
So what would help me most is for you to recognise that I am a fully human, three-dimensional person, with an inner life as complex as the next person’s. I am unique, I am not lesser, or somehow not taking it in, or unable to understand things. Every single human being is unique. I have explained my experience of learning and each of us will have our own unique preferences, strengths and needs. Adapt and respond to every individual. On a practical level, I need very, very simple adjustments:
An adjustment of attitude. You need to accept that my world and your world could be very different. But each are totally and utterly valid. No amount of adjustments in the form of equipment, support or special adaptations will work if your attitude towards me doesn’t adjust. It’s a reasonable expectation – and a right.
Start small. adjust the environment based on what everyone needs. Encourage people to sit where they are most comfortable. Near a window, facing a door, whatever.
We all benefit from regulating our senses. Do we need all those lights? Can we get rid of some of the background noise? Reducing the amount I have to process with some of my senses gives me a better starting point for learning. Having the option to increase sensory input can help too – let me move when I need to. So how on earth do we balance everybody’s needs if we are all different? Remember we are whole people. Maybe I don’t like noise when I am working but you do. You like lots of light and I hate artificial lights. So I wear my headphones and you sit by the window. Autistic people are frequently great practical problem solvers. We can help each other. And as a whole person, I recognise that my senses do not work in isolation. If I cannot control the noise, I can regulate my other senses, it still helps. If I am autistic and have got as far as being sat in your class, I will undoubtedly be a resilient person with extensive experience in handling adversity and distress. Ask me about me.
Please answer my questions. If someone is bold enough to ask, they clearly want to know. Do not assume that because it is not important to you, it may not be important to them. You may be enabling them to continue a train of thought that would otherwise derail.
Allow students to photograph or record lectures. That way they can replay them or feel comfortable in distracting themselves or regulating themselves when they need to, without losing track.
Recognise different learning styles. I absolutely must have information in the right order so I can build up a picture. Some students need to do things practically, others prefer listening. Recognise your own biases if you are a teacher. I stayed away from describing learning styles in depth in this blog, because it is more important to focus on each individual’s needs.
Lack of understanding does not mean lack of intelligence. Ability in one area does not mean ability across the board. Difficulties in one area do not mean difficulties across the board.
Ask people what they need. Ask in a way that is practical. If you say “what do you want?” It might sound inclusive and as if it is offering me choice, but how do I narrow down what the options are? The question is too big. Instead ask me which is preferable between option a and option b. Learn from the experts – the ones with lived experience.
It can take me time to process things. I may have a question about something you said five minutes ago or five days ago. Build in time for this and make it perfectly acceptable to ask. It does not mean I am slow or not paying attention. Remember how much extra stuff I am processing just by being in that room. If you ask me something, give me time to process it. Don’t ask me again but in a different way because you assume I haven’t understood. You will double my processing, not reduce it.
And remember that each of us has a life full of past experiences that will undoubtedly have played a part in how we feel today. Stepping into situations that highlight our struggles is a risky business. Respect that.
I haven’t been back in a classroom since. I left the course deeply disappointed. I was the child whose parents were told when they dropped 4 year old Emma off on her first day of school – already reading and writing – that she was destined for Oxbridge. It never happened. I have a photographic memory and love learning so sailed through my GCSE’s with no effort. Two attempts at A level courses and two attempts at a degree – the second attempt lasting less than an hour! None worked out for me. I found employment and worked my way into a successful professional career. I even completed a MA successfully via distance and work based learning. I am writing this blog to share some insights that may help people. I also need to process what all this means for me as I embark on my PhD research. Again by distance learning, but this time with me owning my autism and asking for support and understanding upfront. My research is about employment and neurodiversity. Unlike education, the world of work is a place I have largely thrived. But for many autistic people that is not the case. This is where I hope to use my positive experiences to change things for other people.
My son started playing an online game called Clash of Clans, about two years ago. He had his first mobile phone and he and a few mates downloaded it.
We had a good talk about online safety and set about learning how to “chat” with other players. In fact I googled a list of text speak and abbreviations so we could decipher all the BRBR’s, CoC’s, and TIA’s.
But the chatting bit wasn’t for us and he convinced me to download the game too and join his clan. I thought it was a good idea so I could a) keep an eye on his safety and b) ‘get down with the kids’ – LOL – and find out what the attraction was with gaming.
Then there was c). Unintentionally I found I quite enjoyed playing, and it provided lots of opportunities for mother and teenage son chats about life, the universe and everything.
The game involves starting from scratch with a base that you can gradually build up with troops of different types, and defenses and resources. You take part in battles and as you win more loot and gain more experience you can upgrade your base and all its various archers, giants, wizards and dragons. You win more money and increase your magical abilities. You can spend your resources however you wish and shape your base accordingly.
And being a game, once you have accumulated enough experience and resources, you can level up. And with that comes tougher opponents to battle and higher stakes.
It’s very much like life. My son mocks the players he refers to as “rushed”. The ones who use real life money to upgrade their weapons while they are still novices and learning their battle skills. They are easy opponents to beat. Their bases look flashy with all the newest kit, yet weak and simple to penetrate and win an easy victory.
It’s a strategy game too – just like life. You can run at your enemy willy nilly, throwing your best bombs and shooting your best arrows and sometimes you’ll taste victory. Or you can plan and strategise and choose your battles and sneak in and win that way – or do all that right and step on a hidden bomb and lose!
There are no sure fire ways to win every battle. Preparation is important, but no amount of preplanning and picking your best troops will predict your next battle. My son and I often discuss strategy and technique, and the various analogies our game playing has with life. As a respected level 3 Master who reached those impressive heights with no cheat codes or spending of actual cash, I am worth listening to!
As an autistic person I frequently like to do things in the same way each time. It provides me with much needed predictability in this chaotic world I find myself in. It means I am wonderfully reliable, solid and consistent. It also means I can be metaphorically shooting my level one arrows when I’m fighting level six battles.
I still have my favourite old attacks and defenses now I’ve leveled up, but I have to ensure I adapt them to a more sophisticated opponent. If I keep on using my winning strategies from my early playing days now I’m in the Master league, I’ll look amateurish and rarely come out on top.
But I like my winning strategies from my early days. Life was simpler and enemies easier to predict. I want to keep using those winning moves. They served me well. They got me where I am today. Without them I would not be here now. But they don’t win me many battles anymore.
I’ve levelled up.
I need to learn new skills and different moves.
My son and I talk about how as autistic people this can feel tough. It’s like starting again from scratch each time we level up in life. Much harder than a computer game.
But with it comes new techniques, more resources, fancier strategies and greater opportunities.
We may be prone to keep on doing things the same way regardless. Sometimes I’m asked why I do things in such complicated ways, or why I always do things the way I do even if it’s not that effective.
Partly its the old message of “try harder” taken far too literally. Partly it is because it works – or rather it worked. But life sometimes moves on whilst I’m still doing the same old thing.
Sometimes I level up in life and don’t upgrade my skills in line with my progress. Mostly it is because it takes lots of conscious effort to work things out. There is always a logical reason for why we do things. Why change that? Doing things the same way is predictable and introduces a comforting, familiar pattern into an unpredictable and ever changing world.
We should be as proud of our life achievements as we are of our gaming ones. Finding that the old techniques no longer work could be a sign we’ve gone up a level. New opportunities are open to us and new resources are at our fingertips. It’s worth trying out some new moves.
I have no energy for masking at the moment and know that this means I will either appear totally unstable or I’ll muck up everything I have worked so hard to create.
It makes me want to give up as there seems no point.
Situations remind me that no matter how hard I try, how well I mask, and how fantastic my skills are – I am still really crap at being a neurotypical person. But I’m not neurotypical so why does it matter?
Because autistic people are not valued as whole people. My skills can be appreciated but the rest is still measured in deficits.
People assume I want to be more normal, or I’ll somehow learn to fit in. I don’t. I won’t.
I want the whole of me to be appreciated.
I often find neurotypical people dishonest, vague, inconsistent and tricksy. I still love many of them though. I accept I find those aspects of their persona difficult and confusing. I may not even like how they do things sometimes. Perhaps they occasionally annoy me. But I still love them and wouldn’t dream of writing them off as lesser, or as a broken version of me.
We are all perfectly imperfect human beings.
That’s why I’m fed up of being autistic today. I’m tired and overwhelmed and have no fight left. I get more tired anyway because my brain does so much more processing. On top of that I have to put all that effort into fitting in so I’m allowed to have a go at normal stuff like work and friendships.
My brain rarely rests. My body is usually alert to danger and ready to react.
Most people don’t realise this, and when I end up having to tell them so they’ll stop unintentionally hurting me, I feel humiliated and reminded of how the world is not designed for me.
That’s why I’m fed up of being autistic today.
So I’m taking it easy. I’m cuddling my dog. I’m taking care of myself and hoping tomorrow will feel better.
Self-care is the only way. I have a capacity for joy that others may never achieve. I seek out those sounds that reset my soul. I notice the patterns the rain is making on the window and trace each tiny droplet until it has my full focus. I read those comments that remind me I am not alone. I move in ways that reminds me I am in here – I have a right to be alive.
I rest, I recharge. I don’t plan my next battle. I remind myself that this neurotypically biased world is not of my making. I look at the birds and the trees and I reflect on the words of Mary Oliver. I remember where I belong.
Simply put, “video chats mean we need to work harder to process non-verbal cues like facial expressions, the tone and pitch of the voice, and body language” according to Gianpiero Petriglieri, an associate professor at Insead. Paying more attention to these consumes a lot of energy. “You cannot relax into the conversation naturally,” he says.
Many of us will also spend time awaiting calls; ensuring our technology is working; and that there are minimal distractions. This can add layers of anticipatory anxiety and stress to an already energy sapping process.
According to Andrew Hines, assistant professor at Dublin University, and PhD candidate Phoebe Sun; we can improve our video call experience by scheduling shorter meetings. A lot of what determines how fatigued we become is based on what we are listening to.
The voices transmitted through the internet in real time are unedited and therefore crude to our ears. That is why we can wile away an hour listening to a podcast interview but feel drained after a video meeting – even if we didn’t have to contribute.
Their article describes how subtle sounds such as key tapping and swallowing sounds will be captured and amplified through our laptops or other video call making equipment. Squeaky chairs, eating crunchy snacks and slurping coffee can sound to the listeners as if you are chewing in their ears. Our brains respond to annoying, unnatural and unexpected sounds and force us to focus on them. The ability to filter out information is significantly reduced due to the lack of spatial cues and the loss of our ability to recognise the direction of a noise.
Network delays can cause speech; gestures; and meta-communication – all those “Mmmm”, “Uh-huh” and nods of agreement, to become out of synch. Again, this adds to the video call experience being exhausting.
So what has this got to do with autism?
I enjoy writing about shared human experiences. From my very first blog back in March, I recognised the parallels the social impact of the Covid-19 pandemic may have with some autistic people’s everyday experiences.
I am sure that those of us taking part in frequent conference calls will understand the phenomenon of “Zoom Fatigue”. Those of us who are also autistic may well draw analogies with our usual face-to-face social interactions. I’d like to share my personal reflections on this to offer an insight into a world you may not have considered…
When I am in a face-to-face meeting I experience all the same challenges as many people do on a video call:
I cannot filter out background noise or recognise spatial cues.
My hypersensitive hearing causes me to focus on all those annoying breathing noises, the slurping of drinks, and the screeching of moving chairs – with equal intensity.
Awaiting meetings is stressful. This anticipatory anxiety boosts my already high levels of sensitivity even higher.
Eye contact feels overwhelming and painful. But unlike a video call, I can’t slap a post-it note across someone’s face to avoid looking at them!
My brain processes visual and auditory information at different speeds which can cause difficulties and a lag in my understanding.
Knowing when it is my turn to speak takes effort.
Is it any wonder that I am so exhausted after ‘normal’ social interactions? My challenges aren’t because I dislike people, or I don’t understand the rules of conversation. They are processing issues.
What helps is the same courtesy and good humour we have on conference calls. And an awareness that this may feel as clunky, awkward and never-ending to me as many of those video calls do!
I could have explained exactly how I experience the world from the moment I could talk. In fact, I frequently did! The trouble was, my world, and my normal was not the normal of my typically developing peers. In the 1970s and 1980s, autism wasn’t really mentioned – and certainly not in relation to girls – particularly those who were academically bright and able to just about pass off as normal enough to get by. Well, normal enough for adults to not have too many concerns. My peers on the other hand could spot my autism a mile off! Neither they, nor I, knew there was a name for this – we all just knew there was something fundamentally different between the way I experienced the world and the way they did. No amount of masking my autism or trying to fit in was convincing enough to others to prevent them from noticing, and deep down inside, I always knew there was something different about me too. It took many years and many misdiagnoses to find out what that fundamental difference was called.
There are pros and cons of having a formal, or medical diagnosis of autism. For me, I already had some diagnoses. I disagreed with many of these, or felt they didn’t describe the full picture. I needed to get the right label, to slap firmly over the incorrect ones. For others, a diagnosis is not necessary or needed, or even wanted. I can’t say a diagnosis in itself, has opened up support or opportunities, or in any way practically advanced my life, but for others it certainly can. However, the freedom to accept myself following my diagnosis has changed my life. Deciding to seek a diagnosis is an entirely personal choice and I believe that anyone who looks at the diagnostic criteria or listens to an extensive range of first hand autistic experience and honestly thinks to themselves “that’s definitely me” is autistic. A formal diagnosis is a label or description of something that is already there. Good people who always accepted me remain good and accepting. People who didn’t listen or even try to understand, remain unchanged.
My diagnostic assessment was based upon the DSM-5 criteria. (The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.) My thoughts on whether autism is a mental disorder (it isn’t) or whether an assessment based upon deficits is the best way of assessing whether someone is autistic (it isn’t) are irrelevant in some ways. This is the standard way of assessing Autistic Spectrum Disorder and getting this changed is a battle for another day. I will use this blog to look at the assessment criteria and describe what is going on for me when it comes to each of these manifestations of autism the clinicians look for when making a diagnosis.
The particular ways I demonstrate my so-called deficits aren’t that important. What is important is that people understand the diverse range of ways autistic people show or hide their autism. I will explain what is going on underneath the surface of some of my presenting behaviours. Each autistic person is different so I speak only for myself.
I have learned how to understand people and situations and have tried to study and find a script for every possible scenario that may happen on earth. This is clearly impossible and also extremely exhausting. I have learned to script conversations in my head and I am constantly second guessing what may happen. I understand body language – I can use my hands to add emphasis to a point I am making, I understand which words are appropriate to use in which contexts, and I have lots of stable and respectful relationships – but only within very strict frameworks like relationships with colleagues or family, where the boundaries are clear and expectations are laid out up front. Put me outside of my comfort zone where I have no script or framework with rules to refer to, and I struggle big time.
Of course, trying to take my scripts from one context to another doesn’t always go smoothly – no wonder I may use stereotyped speech or avoid social situations. As a child I would appear incongruously grown up for my age and talk like an adult. This was like handing my typical peers a double edged weapon to hit me with. Not only was I weird, but adults thought I was very grown up for my age too and my peers assumed I was showing off. Both things were worthy of teasing, bullying or disdain. Responses that further hindered my ability to interact with others and ate away at my self-esteem. I’ve got quite clever at using my scripts, I know how to add variety and ask open questions so that people talk about themselves. I can see patterns and go for a close match in conversation, rather than repeating the same conversation I’ve already had with someone. This has helped me build relationships and the more comfortable I am with people, the less self-conscious I feel. I don’t need to put as much energy into getting it right, and the conversation begins to flow naturally sometimes. Learning things in this way means I can give and take in relationships – it may feel clunky or robotic at times but is my best effort.
I’m certainly a caring person, so why the problems with emotional reciprocity? My interoception – or knowing how I feel inside, is frequently muted. The processing speed of my emotions is typically very slow. Have a read about my experience of empathy, it will explain this in more depth.
When I am having a conversation with someone, I am concentrating hard to understand what they are saying, to read their body language and work out the correct response. If this is someone I don’t know well or who uses lots of sarcasm or vague language, I have additional processing to do. I don’t get a gut feeling about things, I have to use logic to work things out. Very often I don’t really know what I like or dislike. This means that if someone tells me something about themselves e.g they experienced an accident, I know that I should say something sympathetic and not just ask lots of questions to seek clarification. But do I actually feel anything about their experience at that point? Well, no.
Later on, when I have had a chance to process what they told me, I can begin matching their experience to my own experiences to see what I think and feel about it. I might think then that their accident sounded awful and I may consider how I would feel in that situation. In my head I am looking for a pattern to match their experience to so I can understand it and say the correct thing in response. Too often, I get this wrong and what I believe is empathy, actually looks like I am making it about me and invalidating the person’s experience. Or it may look like I am not genuine, because my emotional response is delayed. I did ‘feel’ bad about the aforementioned accident, just so much later it would have looked weird if I had shown it.
This means it is often easier to avoid relationships because they are hard work. I don’t come across like typical people. I can offend people or appear to be self-centred or only interested in my own hobbies. I know this and try my best to not be like it, sometimes it’s easier to just avoid people rather than get it wrong. Not having a sense of liking or disliking things and people means I don’t necessarily get a lot of reward from relationships.
Small talk is tricky. It is full of statements that are not meant to be taken literally. “How are you?” is not meant to be answered honestly. To play along with the rules of small talk feels wasteful and dishonest to me. I appreciate it is part of what neurotypical people do to make their social interactions work – I view it a bit like when animals ‘play’ but are actually practicing asserting their dominance or place in the pack. I don’t really know why it is valuable in humans when they have the self awareness to just get on with being honest and not play games – it is not valuable to me. I would rather get straight to the point. It is like the foreplay of relationship building though, and by finding it difficult and avoiding it, it means I am less likely to get to the stage where relationships feel meaningful. The meaningful relationships I do have tend to be long lasting, loyal and strong. I have no difficulties with them at all.
Social interactions are also affected by my sensory processing. Eye contact in particular, involves masses of visual processing. My tactile aversion is triggered because if I am close enough for eye contact, I am probably close enough for touch. My sensory processing works very differently to my typically developing peers. If I am having a conversation, I will be consciously processing all the aspects of social contact I have just described, as well as the smell of the person; the sounds I need to focus on and the sounds I need to ignore; plus my proprioception and the need to stand or sit still, use my body appropriately to make the correct gestures, and adapt my tone of voice.
I may give the impression that I don’t socialise much because I don’t like people – not true. Or because I don’t understand how to interact – definitely not true, I probably understand it better than many people. I can’t see where the deficit actually lies. In fact, maybe it isn’t a deficit – I am genuinely having to process much, much more than neurotypical people have to process when interacting socially. No wonder it’s difficult!
I have touched on why I may be repetitive, and also on how my sensory processing is very different to that of my typically developing peers. When you begin to understand how my brain processes sensory information and how some of this is muted, and some of it is so intense it is painful, or so distorted it is not recognisable as being like that of my peers, you may get a feel for how challenging my world is to live in.
My need for predictability and routine becomes easier to understand. Rituals bring an added sense of control and familiarity, and repeating routines enables me to have some sense of being able to influence what is happening inside and outside of my body. My world is not predictable – my sensory processing fluctuates depending on how much I am having to process externally – e.g. in busy environments. Or internally – e.g. an illness I may not be feeling, or bodily functions I have to mentally search for in order to notice. Repetitive actions in themselves may feel very regulating or soothing to my senses, which is why I do them more when feeling under pressure.
Others may view my reactions to sensory input as hyper or hypo reactive. Believe me, my reaction is perfectly proportional to the reality I am experiencing! My unusual sensory interests are perfectly normal to me. I find it unusual that other people don’t hear music in colour or are so preoccupied they miss all the beautiful tiny details in nature that I see, hear and smell.
I am able to focus on subjects that interest me with an intensity that many others don’t possess. My lack of interest in what I perceive as an unnecessary focus on hierarchies and conformity in society, means I choose whatever it is I like to be interested in with an open mind, and frequently approach the subject in an innovative way. My interests provide me with consistency, predictability, and an escape from the stresses and strains of life. They enable me to be good at something in a world where I am frequently seen as deficient. They are a safe ‘go to’ when I need to place my mental energies somewhere.
Pretty self-explanatory – and a good test for anyone considering whether they are autistic or not. My autism was present before any of the other factors that shadowed me getting the correct diagnosis.
My functioning is impaired when I am in environments or communicating with people that are not accommodating of my autism. I thrive when I am in environments where my needs are met. My autism is exactly the same, I haven’t suddenly developed social ease or typical sensory processing. Of course, a medical diagnosis will be based on the medical model and not a social model of disability or illness. I always process the world in an autistic way. How big a problem this is depends on more than just me. It is up to you too.
Receiving a diagnosis has been positive for me. I understand my life experiences, challenges and strengths much more realistically. I feel able to be myself and I have more confidence. I hope that autistic people are listened to more readily, so that future diagnostic criteria for autism focuses on authentic autistic experience, and not just on how this looks to non-autistic people.
The examples I have given are my own personal ones. If any autistic people wish to add their own examples to the comments section, I would love to read them. Every person is different. The diagnostic criteria is based upon the manifestations of a person’s autism when it is observed in a non-sympathetic environment, or by professionals working within a system which views their own particular experience of the world as normal. I find the focus on deficits hurtful. I have spent a lifetime feeling deficient – and now its official! I don’t view myself as defective, and neither do other people who know me. Whilst the medical focus is on what autistic people can’t do, progress towards acceptance and understanding of autism will be hindered. And certainly there is no way of truly valuing us. I do not believe it is as simple as turning the deficits approach to diagnosis into a strengths based approach. I do struggle with things. We do live in a world where the majority of people are not autistic so that will inevitably mean I am different. Every autistic person will have different strengths, in the same way as they have different challenges. We are all unique. In the future, I would like to see clinicians developing an understanding of “why” and not just “what”. This will ensure that people who slip under the diagnostic radar due to their ability to mask their autism or who don’t fit the stereotypes will be able to be taken seriously when contemplating a diagnostic assessment.
I was diagnosed by clinicians who understood “why”. Their approach towards me was compassionate and interested. I was not made to feel deficient. I am not convinced that all clinicians understand the “whys” behind an autistic person’s presenting behaviours. Please share this article with whoever you feel needs to read it.
I’ve heard this said quite a lot – particularly since my diagnosis. Firstly I’d like to say “Thank You” to the people who have said it. I mean that sincerely. This has been said to me when people have been empathising, or trying to relate to my situation – it has even been said to soften the perceived blow of having a ‘disabled’ child. I am heartened that people want to put themselves in my shoes and I hope they bear with me and read this blog; reflect on other ways they can show their solidarity, and continue in their commitment to understanding autism.
Receiving a diagnosis of autism is a complex process. The diagnostic criteria is based upon clinicians identifying certain traits, experiences and behaviours, and all sorts of biases may come into play. This may be why certain groups of people are under-diagnosed or misdiagnosed.
In my opinion, the assessment criteria for diagnosing autism is based on stereotypes and deficits and could benefit from being updated. People who don’t fit those stereotypes, or are skilled in adapting to their atypical experiences of the world can easily be overlooked. However, there are some skilled clinicians out there that understand “why” autistic people do what they do and they are able to delve deeper and unpick all the various complexities of the person’s experience and identify whether autism is in fact the correct diagnosis.
Whilst every autistic person is unique and completely different to the next autistic person, we all have one thing in common. We have always been autistic. Autism is lifelong. No one becomes autistic as an adult, and there will be evidence of autism right from the very start.
So are we all a little bit autistic?
No – we’re not. But we do share some experiences and behaviours. There is plenty of stuff about autism that is relatable to people who aren’t autistic. That’s why I enjoy using analogies to share my experiences.
If I described my atypical sensory processing, sensory overwhelm, and my need for adjustments in a scientific or medical way, it’s likely that you might see me as very different from you. That’s ok – I probably am. But if you can relate to a scenario such as this one then you may begin to ‘feel’ what it’s like for me as well as understanding why I’m different.
Picture this: You’re driving around in your car looking for a parking space and it’s raining, the radio is blaring out, the heater is on and you’re way too hot in the car. You’re thinking about that appointment you need to attend and what you’re going to say, and you’re not sure if you’re wearing the right clothes, and you can’t see an empty parking space. The windscreen wipers are swishing back and forth on maximum speed, and even though you are leaning forward and screwing your eyes up, you just can’t see where you can park. It’s all beginning to feel a bit much. So you turn the volume down on your car stereo and turn the wiper speed down – suddenly it becomes easier to find that parking space. You’ve done nothing to improve your vision, or the parking space detecting ability of your eyes, but the drop in volume means the overall processing your brain has to do of all that various sensory information is reduced and it becomes easier to focus. That’s similar to the level of overwhelm I often feel and why I need to have peaceful, calming environments to live in.
If you find that scenario relatable it doesn’t necessarily mean you’re autistic – but it demonstrates that all our senses work together and reducing input in one sense when we’re becoming overwhelmed may prove beneficial. It also demonstrates that when we are under pressure, sensory information may feel more acute or distressing. It gives a feel of what my ‘normal’ feels like and when people understand that, it is more likely they’ll be compassionate and accommodating rather than seeing me as ‘different’ or ‘other’. If they bump into me in town and see me starting to “look like a meerkat” as my husband and son (affectionately?!!) refer to it when I have to go into a big shop with all the lights, temperature change, music, smells and escalators, maybe they’ll not think “look at that lady acting weird, standing tall and alert like a meerkat on guard duty” but “I wonder if she is finding this overwhelming like I do sometimes and what can I do to help?”
So yes, we have things in common. But as I’ve elaborated on in an earlier blog – just because my husband has backache and is tired at the moment, it doesn’t mean he is pregnant. Or even a little bit pregnant. It just means he can relate – and that’s a good thing.
I find this diagram helpful for explaining the autism or autistic spectrum. The spectrum is not linear like the top image, it is more like the coloured wheel image below. I perceive non-autistic people as being a bit obsessed with hierarchies and linear things. I’m sure that individually people aren’t, but our society seems to enjoy ranking stuff – whether that’s a school’s league table or a football league or on a talent show – it happens all over the place. I’m a great lover of categorising things myself, but my default setting is not usually based upon the typically perceived norms of what makes one thing better than something else. It all feels a bit judgmental and you miss so much beauty in the world when you rank stuff and only focus on the “best”.
The trouble with having a spectrum with ‘mild’ at one end and ‘severe’ at the other is it’s total rubbish. Simple. You can no more be mildly autistic than you can be mildly gay. You can’t be severely human. Or a little bit on the French spectrum. It just doesn’t work like that. The characteristics and experiences autistic people share come under various categories and each person is affected differently by them. A person who has no verbal language skills with highly developed motor function will experience the world and be treated very differently to a person who is highly articulate with poor coordination. Each has their own challenges and strengths. Both are autistic and it feels difficult to say which of them is more severely affected by their autism. One can climb a mountain – one can make a phone call. How do you rank that? You begin to realise that the severity is nothing to with the person at all – but is to do with the situation or environment they are in. The social model of disability becomes far more relevant than the medical model we are more used to. The person hasn’t changed but suddenly when other people’s attitudes or their environment becomes more accommodating, they become less disabled.
Personally, I’m not too bothered when people try and relate to me by saying they are a bit autistic too. I have other battles to fight and if I tell them not to say it, I’ll reinforce that I’m pedantic. I want to build bridges between people, but I’d rather they didn’t say it though. I find it a bit annoying because it is inaccurate – and believe me, when your ‘normal’ world feels as chaotic as mine does, you need at least a few things to be ‘right’, ‘clear’, ‘accurate’ and ‘consistent’.
Many autistic people, myself included, have had a lifetime of knowing we are different to our typically developing peers. Some of us have believed – and been told – that we are ill, damaged, or wrong for being how we are. For some autistic people their diagnosis has validated their identity. For me, it has given me the freedom to be myself and the confidence to reject the incorrect labels others have given me or I’ve believed about myself. Some autistic people are loudly proud of being autistic. Hearing others saying they are a bit autistic too may feel invalidating or belittling of the very real achievements autistic people make every day in just getting by in a neurotypically biased world.
Many of my blogs end with a reflection on what we have in common. This is important to me because most of all, I am human. I have every right to exist – regardless of my neurology. My diagnosis has not just validated my identity as an autistic person but as a woman and a human being too. There is something very wrong when people wonder whether they are in fact a true human being – just because they are autistic.
I want to relate to other people and understand how their world works for each of them – I have spent my lifetime doing this and sometimes I try to copy, or pretend to understand so that I fit in better (this can be called ‘masking’ in autism, and I’ve blogged about it). I’d like people to have the same enthusiasm and commitment towards understanding the autistic world as I have towards understanding the neurotypical world. We need to recognise our shared humanity. Seeing people as “other” – whether that is in generalisations like ‘autistic people are like this’ or ‘all neurotypicals are like that’ is a dangerous road to go down. The rise of right wing politics across our planet scares me and we should take heed of what we know about how things like prejudice, stereotypes and discrimination work. Dividing people into “us” and “them” rarely leads to inclusion, equality and peace. In our own lives we can explore how to work together and see the shared experiences and use them to relate to each other better, whilst accepting we are all different and we all need different things. And that’s why human beings are so awesome!
“OK, put your hand on the gear stick, press the clutch down with your foot, engage first gear, slowly lift the clutch and release the handbrake and press the accelerator with your other foot all at the same time” – you’re off.
Easy, isn’t it?!
I find that the analogy of learning to drive is useful for describing how social communication frequently feels for me. Most of us who have been driving for years can do it automatically and even hold conversations with passengers and listen to music whilst taking in the road conditions and anticipating any risks or changing road conditions up ahead.
I’m one of those people. I can get in my car or on my motorcycle, intuitively find the controls and I’m off!
In fact, driving – and riding motorbikes and bicycles – are things I find extremely enjoyable. They are in the very small group of physical activities I can do without needing to consciously think about what to do with my body.
Social communication on the other hand is something that has never become automatic, and I assume that after 47 years of trying, it possibly never will. In a conversation I often feel like that learner driver I once was – awkward, painfully self-aware, and a bit clunky on the controls. I might get the order right, and use the controls appropriately, and get from A to B, but my knuckles are white from gripping the mental steering wheel inside my head so hard!
From a communication perspective I can ‘drive’ well enough to pass my test. Like many learners, I possibly have fewer bad habits than some experienced drivers. I probably know the rules of conversation better than many people – I try to be conscientious, thoughtful and considerate. But just like understanding the highway code off by heart – it’s not necessarily the way people “actually” drive. All those rules you’re meant to break – all those things that we know aren’t “real driving”… These things pass me by, and in communication situations, I often feel like a very competent learner who has passed their driving test with no major faults – but is actually not representative of most road users!
Being a mechanic doesn’t help much with driving either. My understanding of people is good, as is my knowledge of vehicles. I know more than the average person about how engines work, the sounds they make when something isn’t quite right, and the way other people drive. I can competently fix someone else’s puncture or service my own bike adequately – much as I have a good understanding of people and can help other people with their communication skills. This doesn’t help me be a better driver though; either in a vehicle or out there socialising.
When I am on familiar social roads I can begin to take in the scenery and enjoy the journey, but if you were to send me across the channel to where they drive on the other side of the road I’d be floundering. Put me in a social situation I’m unsure of and I struggle. I can do what I do, well. A bit like when I moved from Bristol to West Wales – my pulling away from junctions and roundabouts was far faster than needed and fortunately didn’t result in me rear-ending any of the local, laid back drivers that are used to having plenty of time for manoeuvres.
I can navigate the roads of social communication, but the effort is huge because I’m usually having to consciously work out what to do unless the road is one I have travelled down many times before. I prefer to keep my social journeys close to home and not venture out at busy times or in bad weather. We all find it helpful when other road users use their indicators properly – who hasn’t felt frustrated by someone indicating left that then turns right?! Why can’t people communicate accurately too and say what they mean and mean what they say?
I’ve been able to talk for over 4 decades and don’t fancy highlighting my social struggles with the equivalent of L Plates. I’d rather other people were courteous and gave me space and time to work out how to navigate through social situations safely and at my own pace, on my own route and under my own control. I wish that interacting with people was as straightforward as driving and I wonder why I have never got from that learner driver feeling of everything being conscious and clunky, to where I can just jump in and enjoy the ride?
My son asked me to take him to Tesco’s as he hasn’t been out in public since March. He wanted to know how social distancing works and how our local supermarket looks.
Supermarkets are my biggest sensory nightmare – in fact, when I lay awake in the middle of the night, filled with that particular anxiety that only visits you in the wee small hours; the scenario I play in my head usually escalates along the lines of: “You know that crap thing you did yesterday at work Emma? – Well, you’ll probably lose your job. – And then you won’t be able to pay the mortgage. – And you’ll lose the house. – And you’ll have to get a job in Tesco’s!!!” The ultimate peak of this catastrophising mountain that I create out of a very insignificant molehill almost always includes me internally watching myself experiencing total sensory overload whilst forced to work in a supermarket.
So I mentally prepared myself; made sure I felt regulated and able to cope with the sudden bombardment of sensory information that would hit me and my son; took a deep breath; and in we walked.
It was tough.
I patiently explained; repeatedly, that:
“No they are not deliberately being (insert an expletive of your choice here) – there are lots of reasons why people aren’t following the arrows”
“Some people may be feeling overwhelmed like us – there’s lots to think about – all the arrows, and the 2m distancing and trying to find your shopping – they possibly don’t even realise they are going the wrong way and standing too close to us. I’m sure they’re not doing it to be rude”
But inside I shared my son’s exasperation and was glad that my focus was on making the shopping trip a learning experience for him. It helped me push my own frustration, confusion and fear to one side. Afterwards he said to me “Mummy, I’m glad we did it but I don’t think I’ll do it again”. Inside I thought exactly the same.
If the world is a chaotic, overwhelming and confusing place in the “normal normal”, then the “new normal” is something else to behold if you are autistic. I have created lots of guidelines and rules to follow that help me get by in day to day life. Stock responses to questions; routines for doing particular tasks; time for self-care and self-regulating; almost like an internal cognitive and sensory map of how everything should be. This helps me make sense of my world and function quite well. Without my “map” I would be stuck. Unfortunately, there is another way I can become unstuck, and that is when someone changes everything around. Suddenly my “map” is of the old normal and not the new one.
My brain and body want to operate in the familiar – that is what they are programmed for, but the familiar has gone. Have you ever driven somewhere unfamiliar and relied on a Sat Nav? You experience a diversion due to roadworks or an accident, and suddenly you have to digress from your route and you realise that actually, you have no idea of where you are and how to get back on to your route and continue towards your destination. The Sat Nav keeps ordering you to do a U turn when possible and wants to keep sending you back to that closed bit of road you can’t go down. You can’t re-programme your Sat Nav because you are driving and you have to keep going forwards, not knowing if you are getting nearer to, or further from your destination and as it is all so unfamiliar, there’s no way of finding out.
That sense of being lost happens to me frequently. If I didn’t programme my social “Sat Nav” that tells me how to interact with people appropriately I’d be constantly lost. If I didn’t “map” how places should look, smell and sound I’d have no idea if I was in the right place, doing the right thing.
Other animals use “maps” too. My dog’s map is very definitely based on smells. She recognises when other dogs have been on “her” favourite walk, and she often indicates to me where a fox may have crossed the track and is very helpful in identifying potential sites for my trail camera.
Migrating birds are able to sense the earth’s magnetic field and that’s how they can return directly to the same summer and winter destinations every year without fail. Humans in fact have the same physiological adaptations as these birds, and I wonder whether that’s why some of us have a better sense of direction than others – perhaps the sense of magnetoreception that is found in some other animals is present in humans too?
All humans use our senses to help us know where we are in the world. But senses don’t work in isolation – they are closely linked to our memories and emotions. Perhaps your child cried their eyes out when you washed their favourite cuddly toy because it didn’t smell right anymore. Maybe the taste, smell and texture of rice pudding takes you straight back to your school days and the dinner hall and all the associations you have with that.
Autistic people often have atypical sensory processing, which means we may need more or less sensory input than other people do. We can be hypersensitive and experience a normal television volume as deafeningly loud or we may be hyposensitive and not get dizzy from spinning round as fast as possible on a roundabout. This sensitivity varies from person to person, sense to sense, and moment to moment, and often becomes more extreme in times of stress, when adrenaline kicks in and starts triggering that fight, flight or freeze response we all get from time to time.
I expect places to smell, look and sound a particular way. I need them to, so that I know how to interact with them. When things change, I feel unsafe because the predictability and familiarity has gone. My map and rule book may as well be thrown away and I have nothing to replace them with. That is why I can become overwhelmed in certain situations – it’s not about disliking change, or needing routine because I am some type of control freak (and with a nod to any control freaks reading this – I personally can’t see why being a control freak is such a bad thing anyway!). I can only function by preplanning how to do things. Knowing what to expect is a great help with this. Whether that is planning a routine for my day, or having an agenda for a meeting in advance, or rehearsing in my head how to handle a situation – it all helps me function and thrive. My sensory “map” helps too.
Sense of sight.
I love that I spot the finer details that others miss – like the hairs on these newly unfurled beech leaves. I can proof-read written work quickly and accurately because mistakes jump out at me. Unfortunately, this also means I can’t ignore or tolerate things that are out of place. Someone else rearranging my things very slightly, does not annoy me because they look a little bit different. It annoys me because they look completely and utterly different and like a totally different thing that I have to learn about from scratch all over again! In these Covid 19 times – if you wear a face mask then you don’t look like you and I will probably not recognise you. I am the person who thought she had a new colleague at work and went through the painful small talk and introductions process a second time with someone I had already done it with – they had just had a new haircut that’s all!!!
This is the sense I am currently struggling with. It is a sense that connects straight to our emotions. People smell different at the moment and this is unsettling. They are leading different lifestyles (maybe they are working from home, have changed their diet, are exercising differently and have different stress and other hormones raging through their bodies). They smell more strongly to me because I’ve got used to avoiding them! This double whammy of ‘different’ and ‘stronger smelling’ makes going out feel very overwhelming. When people smoke, and wear perfume/aftershave then it all becomes too much to process and I feel myself switching off in order to cope or becoming so overwhelmed I can’t think or talk in words.
Although my house is rarely quiet – I have a teenage son who enjoys making a lot of noise at times. I can control the amount of noise coming in to my ears and brain, to some degree. I can wear my noise cancelling headphones and the noise in my house is fairly predictable – although the thunderstorm the other night made me almost jump out of bed! In town, the noise comes at me from all angles. Sudden alarms; shouting, laughing and talking; traffic noise and so on. The cacophony of noise is like a solid wall of sound that hits me full on and I can’t distinguish the bits I need to listen to.
My other senses are also affected by the “new normal” and its not a specifically autism related issue. Plenty of people are finding car journeys are making their children feel travel sick – normally they are fine, but they’ve got out of the habit of traveling in a moving vehicle. Many of us are enjoying the peace and quiet; we’re finding the reduction in social pressures has been a relief and a break from the high intensity lives we often lead.
Many of us will find the lifting of restrictions challenging and they will take some getting used to. All of us have different sensory preferences – regardless of our neurology. Some of us will find the fluorescent lights in shops way too bright and distressing when we start visiting towns again. Some of us will feel anxious when travelling because everyone seems to be driving so fast. On top of this are the social distancing rules – and the way they change, and some people disregard them. I have made my own rules for coping with this:
Safety First! If someone comes too close to you in a shop, it may be best to move away from them even if you were there first. They may not have noticed how close they were, they may have difficulty judging distances, or they may not care. What is important is that you are as safe as possible.
It is OK to feel annoyed. It is reasonable to expect other people to follow rules.
I am taking this step by step. The sensory processing aspect is difficult for me – I’m dreading the day we are allowed to hug people again – what if someone wants to hug me and I flinch? What if they touch my bare skin, and they smell of perfume and I can feel their breath?!!! I don’t want it to be noisy and bright and smelly. I want it to be the same and predictable and familiar and I think I’ll stay in and just go on the internet and write, and message my friends from a safe distance! I can’t predict how this “new normal” will look and I’m out of practice with doing people things. When I do interact with people I remember why I find it tough – they overstimulate my senses, and confuse my brain with their inconsistent rules, they have hidden agendas that I don’t intuitively understand and I am reminded at how I’m just not very good at being a normal person! After spending time away from my own little world at work or visiting a shop, I am exhausted.
But I will continue with the self-care and show myself the same compassion I have used towards myself throughout lockdown. I am not alone in feeling anxious and overwhelmed about this. I am relieved the restrictions are being lifted little by little. I can get used to the “new normal” little by little too.
The kindness and positivity seen in society at the start of lockdown has appeared to shift into anger and disregard for others. I hope it is just because people are fed up. Maybe everyone is scared by the changes? As lockdown eases, I am glad that I have coped and got this far. The world is going through unprecedented times and who knows what will happen next. I have learned so much about myself and how resilient I am and what I need to do to take best care of myself and family.
The bits of lockdown that I have most enjoyed, I will continue to do. My Saturday morning baking, my walks in the woods, the friends I message and spend time online with. I will continue to write the blog that I started in lockdown, and I will continue with being kind to myself and others.
I had never heard of this phenomenon until last year. I was having a discussion with a professional who works on the local NHS Autism team, and she asked if I wanted to have a look at a questionnaire about camouflaging and masking. I thought why not, and promptly set about answering the 25 questions. I emailed my response back and was delighted to hear I had scored really highly on all areas! “Well, I’m clearly not as autistic as I thought I was, I knew I’d get a high score because this is all obvious stuff that everyone does all the time. See I’m as normal as the next person”. I thought to myself.
My high score wasn’t because I’m not that autistic, in fact it indicated that I mask almost all of the time and this is a very common experience in autism. I was beginning to feel uneasy. I had realised I was autistic by then but wrongly assumed the ‘autism spectrum’ people talk about was a linear thing with mild autism at one end and severe autism at the other. I would probably be a little bit autistic – because I work, I have a family, I function well enough to convince most people I’m normal. And I’ll forget about all that other stuff; the never fitting in, the always knowing I was different, the misdiagnoses and failure to reach my potential – that’s probably all because I’m just such a crap person! Of course, it is not like this at all – you can no more be mildly autistic that you can be a bit gay, or slightly pregnant. The spectrum is a collection of different elements, aspects and strengths and every one of us who is autistic, has their own unique combination of these. And everyone that isn’t autistic is not on the autism spectrum.
The questionnaire was scored in the areas of compensation, masking, and pretend social ease. Until this point, I had assumed everybody pretended to be normal all the time. I realised that some people were more ‘normal’ than others, but I had no idea that there was even such a thing as masking. I still cannot comprehend how neurotypical people operate in terms of social interactions, so watch out those of you who know me, I plan to find out and will probably question the hell out of you!
Types of masking.
There are lots of different ways autistic people cover up their autism and its worth having a read of other people’s experiences . I’ll touch on three elements of camouflaging and my choice of terminology has no great thought behind it and is not a definitive explanation – to be honest, much of the language used in research and accounts of masking feels a little judgmental to me – it suggests ‘normality’ and deficits :
Compensation – this includes all the tricks and tips I’ve taught myself (and others) over the years. The techniques for making realistic eye contact by looking at the person’s mouth instead of their eyes. I had the added bonus of having regular investigations and treatment for hearing problems as a child, so my lip reading was positively encouraged. A few years ago, I considered writing a book for autistic people about how to get by in life. I had worked as a manager of a residential service, with a woman who had been in the care system since childhood and had a whole host of psychiatric and behavioural diagnoses. I supported her through assessment for Asperger’s (as it was known back then) and when it came to my work appraisal she wrote some feedback that said “Emma is really good at teaching me the tricks of the trade”. I was delighted at this – not least for the compliment, but for her accurate use of complex language. In fact, I was the one who said to my line manager “What do you think she means by that Karen?”
Masking – this includes hiding my distress, confusion, and difficulties whilst pretending all is well. I have spent my life feeling as if I have been winging it, and I am often only moments away from making myself look totally stupid by asking a question that everyone else intuitively knows the answer to. The further in my career I have gone, the more I have had to mask. Every time I hear a new piece of business jargon I have to look it up so that I can keep up with the conversation. I have to suppress my need for clarity and my desire to blurt out “Why are you talking such utter nonsense?!” But pretending I know what is going on isn’t always helpful. I’ll give you one of my embarrassing moments:
I was sat in the board room in a very serious meeting and the person talking used the phrase “the elephant in the room”. Now, I absolutely knew this was not to be taken literally. An alarm went off in my brain that said “idiom/metaphor/figure of speech alert”. So I used my quick thinking brain to whiz through everything I knew about elephants to try and work out the meaning. Elephants are big – are they talking about something that is big? Elephants have big ears and a trunk – no it can’t be to do with that and stop it Emma, do not go off on a mental tangent about the different types of elephant and their respective physiology. Elephants never forget – aha, maybe it’s to do with memory or remembering something. What else do I know about elephants?….And then the question came: “Do you have any thoughts on that Emma?” And I realised that I hadn’t got a clue what was going on, or what the question was, and I couldn’t even grasp at an answer out of thin air. The conversation had moved on and I was lost in the world of Proboscidea. I was probably the only person in the room with the taxonomic knowledge to name the order that elephants, mammoths and mastodons sit in – and I was probably the only person in the room feeling stupid, anxious and lost! And all because I didn’t want to make myself look stupid for not understanding something. I challenge you to spend a day in your workplace or school considering how complex language is if your default setting is to take things literally.
I also mask my need to move about or do anything that ‘looks’ autistic. I find moving is very regulating, it helps me concentrate, focus and come up with ideas – all the sorts of things employers and teachers encourage. But it would put me in the firing line of ridicule, misunderstanding and people would assume that there was clearly something wrong with this otherwise bright and articulate woman who can’t keep still and behave ‘properly’.
Assimilation – I never felt like one of the girls at school but I knew my life would be easier if I pretended to be like them. I learned about boyfriends by listening to what other girls had to say and joining in the conversations as best I could. I was not attracted to boys at all as a teenager and I wasn’t attracted to girls either. I learned the language of relationships but had no idea of the meaning of some of the terms (‘getting off with’; ‘blow job’ etc). You’ve read how my brain works when I described the elephant in the room – go figure! Many of the girls at school read magazines and studied and giggled at the problem pages and articles on how to know if a boy fancies you and how to flirt and so on, so I joined in and copied. This was useful because it gave me some proper concrete information on how to have relationships with boys and made me appear to have something in common with my peers. I wasn’t interested in having a boyfriend but knew it was a normal part of growing up. I worked on how to flirt and how to tell if a boy was interested in me but unfortunately put so much energy into ‘getting it right’, I never considered consent or whether I wanted to go out with them. I can’t remember having feelings towards other people as a child, sexual or otherwise. I didn’t like or dislike people. I didn’t look at someone and find them attractive. My sister covered her side of our bedroom with posters of pop stars and my friends talked about boys they fancied and got excited when certain actors were in films. None of this did anything for me at all. I bought a small photo in a frame of George Michael in Speedos, because Wham! were very popular back then and I knew it would be easier if I said I liked someone. The photo sat on my bookshelves whilst I lived at home and was my attempt at fitting in and somehow feels a rather ironic choice now – gay and dead! RIP George x.
Don’t we all mask?
I assumed everyone masks. I know for a fact that my old line-manager swears her head off outside of work but was always totally professional within her role as a director. I know that it would be rude and feel hurtful if I replied honestly when someone asked if I thought they looked good in the item of clothing that I thought looked dreadful on them. I know that you cannot go through life being impulsive and doing and saying whatever you want at the expense of others. So isn’t masking something we all do?
I’d argue that it is not. Those things are the normal day to day, not being an asshole type things we do because we are sharing this planet with each other and need to get on. Kindness is essential, even if it is frequently overlooked and undervalued in our society. Kindness comes first for me. If I choose the kind option then it may mean I modify my behaviour or instinctive response. I may need to hold back and rephrase my honest response into something diplomatic and kind – but I can still be true to myself and be honest. Assertiveness is a good way of being true to yourself because you still meet your own needs but also meet other people’s needs too. I will compromise my behaviour but not my values.
So what is different about autistic masking?
Quite simply. The cost.
Masking your autism always comes at a price. And I have paid with my mental wellbeing. The costs are twofold. The direct mental health costs of camouflaging are exhausting. Whilst I’m concentrating on getting my eye contact right, I’m using valuable capacity that could be used for answering the question or thinking. And the continual anxiety of whether I’m getting it right wears me down emotionally and cognitively. The indirect costs are things like low self-esteem from getting into all sorts of scrapes while pretending to be normal, and not feeling sure of who I am and whether I am an ok person or not, as I feel I’m living a lie.
It erodes my identity because I’m not sure which bits of me are truly me. If you ever share doubts about your identity with mental health professionals, it can indicate various psychiatric conditions and personality disorders. Misdiagnosis of autistic people is common and once a label has been given; every trait, behaviour and experience may be interpreted as part of that labelled disorder – this further erodes the sense of identity and creates a sense of being damaged or ill. It also creates a sense that you can somehow get better and recover. Autism is not an illness and recovery is not going to happen. Living a fulfilled and valued life can happen though, but in my opinion is unlikely to whilst you perceive yourself as broken and needing to be fixed.
The knock-on effects of mental health treatment can further affect your wellbeing. Stigma, discrimination, and side effects of medication are just three of the many ways this can happen.
Another effect of masking is that you don’t regulate your emotions or senses when you need to. All those times I stop myself from moving about to regulate myself, I stay dysregulated. All that energy that goes into keeping still or not reacting to whatever it is that is causing me to become overwhelmed further increases my distress. And no one knows. That is a serious issue because if no one knows how distressed I am until I absolutely have to show it by either falling apart or completely switching off (some people would describe how they experience meltdowns or shutdowns) then I will look like I overreact. I struggle to identify and verbalise what I am feeling anyway and if I am hiding what my body is telling me I need to do to feel better, no one can ever help me. Also, the idea that so-called ‘high functioning’ autistic people don’t do all those autistic things is reinforced – which is unhelpful and inaccurate. The same is true of not asking for clarification, or time to process information – my needs go unnoticed and therefore unmet.
Regular masking means you may never learn decent coping strategies because no one knows you are not ok. Then when something happens in life that is difficult, traumatic, or distressing, you have no idea how to cope.
Should I take off my mask?
Or even could I? Or do I want to? Yes, I would like to be more “me”, but that doesn’t mean going about my day impulsively and insensitively doing what I please or saying whatever comes into my head. I have a choice in much of what I do. I do not have a choice in how my senses work or how my brain processes information. I will react strongly to a loud noise because my body and brain think I am in danger and no amount of me telling myself otherwise will change that. I will take things literally, or not be able to read between the lines sometimes. I do have a tendency to be honest and upfront, and my brain will opt for the honest answer every time, regardless. I cannot choose how I react to all of these things and sometimes other people need to be more understanding and patient. Where I can choose how to react, then I do my best. Or if I’m having a bad day, I’m a pain in the backside – just like everyone else can be!
I have been very fortunate in having a career where I have had some excellent mentors, role models and line-managers. I trained to become a registered manager by taking part in a scheme where I had placements in a range of different care services under a number of different managers. I used my excellent skills at masking to observe, analyse, copy, and practice the management styles in each placement and gradually hone them into my own style that worked for me. This is where my ability to mask has been a huge benefit. I wasn’t doing it to disguise something, but rather to try out what worked for me so that I could become a good leader myself.
So I don’t necessarily need to stop masking. On occasion it can benefit my mental wellbeing because it enables me to learn skills that are good for my personal development. It enables me to ‘test out’ how to behave in certain scenarios. It helps me learn rules for behaving in particular situations.
However, it is essential that I have balance, and any period of masking needs to be balanced with times of not masking. For me, camouflaging for lots of the time is not sustainable. I am blessed with having people and places that require the minimal amount of covering up.
What am I masking?
I am similar to many autistic people because I compartmentalise things. The world is so chaotic and unfiltered, the only way I can cope is to divide it all up into bits that have their own rules and explanations. That way I can function day to day because I have less to work out. If I am at work, I know how to behave in an appropriate way. If I am in the village shop, there’s another set of rules to follow as far as conversations, behaviour and social interactions are concerned. I can even cope with people being in a number of a categories – living in a rural village, it is quite normal to see people in a number of their roles – my conversation at the GP surgery is very different to my behaviour when I see my GP at a concert we are both playing in. This works well for me until people pop up in the wrong places or the rules change! It enables me to mask better too. I can have a mental phrase book of small talk for the shop, small talk for work, chats while dog walking and so on. I am more comfortable with defined roles and tend to have more meaningful relationships within boundaries. I know how to pretend to be whatever the particular type of ‘normal’ is in any situation. It helps me predict and I feel more confident.
The trouble is, this reinforces that very disjointed sense of who I am. It adds to the questions I have about my identity and what is authentically me. I have needed to join up my compartments a bit more so that I feel more whole. I am not just autistic Emma or wife Emma or mum. This also makes me question again – what is it I’m masking? Where is the autistic bit? Of course, there is no autistic bit in the same way as there is no female bit of me or British bit. These parts of my identity run through every part of my being.
How do I take off my mask?
When I was first diagnosed with autism I went through a process of revisiting every experience in my life and viewing it through the lens of my autism. I looked for anything that was out of place (how very autistic of me!) and I could not find one single example that would show I was not autistic. Things that had puzzled and frustrated me about myself for years became crystal clear. I felt liberated. I felt that I wanted to be proudly autistic and why should I hide? I felt like I wasn’t autistic enough because I was so good at hiding it, and maybe I should try and act a bit more autistic? But I didn’t really want to. I wondered if I was properly autistic because I don’t do lots of stereotypical autistic things. Was that because I was ashamed? How the hell do I be this authentically autistic version of me?
I thought all around this subject and could not get my head around it at first. But like so much of my processing, it took time and involved taking the long way round and detouring off all over the place. I concluded that my need for compartmentalising everything was holding me back. The autistic bit of me is all of me. When I masking, I’m still being me. When I am being a pedantic, annoying know-it-all that won’t stop telling you what it is I need to you to absolutely know, right this minute, that’s me too! The totally scatty, unable to organise her own lunch woman – that’s me. The hyper-focused, innovative thinker that solves problems others can see no way round – that’s also me. The cowering from the sudden noise Emma is the same Emma that stands up confidently in front of people and shares her knowledge. The woman pretending she’s ok because she doesn’t want to let on she hasn’t got a clue, that’s Emma. And so is the woman who stands up for others and tells the truth regardless of the effect, because it is the right thing to do – it’s all me.
When should I take off my mask?
I am not letting myself down or failing to be authentic by masking. How dare others judge me for coping the best I can. Particularly when the risks of not masking are so dire – ridicule, discrimination and misunderstanding. And how dare I force myself to act in a way that doesn’t sit right either – be that through masking or not masking.
My wellbeing is important. If my masking affects my mental health in a negative way then it is clearly destructive and I need to reduce it. But that’s not just down to me. I may decide “Fuck it, I’m going to flap my arms about next time I need to in a meeting as I’ll feel much more able to concentrate”. That will not go down well – regardless of the rights and wrongs of it.
Do I have the right to? Absolutely. If I had a different disability then it would be accommodated. No one says deaf people can’t move their arms to communicate through signing, because it looks funny and might upset the other people in the room. Do I need to be the warrior out there being authentically autistic so that stigma is challenged? That’s up to me, but no, I don’t have to be.
What would help though is better understanding. Being sensitive to the needs of autistic people and creating more accommodating environments that don’t create sensory overload. Using language that is clear and not open to interpretation. Giving people time to process questions instead of asking again in a different way and thus doubling the amount of processing. If autistic people were properly, compassionately and genuinely listened to, all this would be clear – I am not saying anything out of the ordinary. If people acted in this way then I wouldn’t need to ask so many questions or regulate myself as much. If people got to know me and understood my values and recognised that although I may seem serious, I have a good sense of humour and although I may seem unemotional, I am passionate about many things. Then, when I do say the wrong thing or act in the wrong way, they’ll know it’s just Emma being Emma and she doesn’t mean anything harmful by it.
How will this look?
Living authentically, is about living. It’s the journey not the destination. The world is not ideal so it is likely I will always have occasions where camouflaging my needs is preferable to meeting my needs publicly. If I choose to mask, that’s fine and totally authentic. If I can’t help myself from masking or don’t even know that I’m doing it because I’m so used to it, then that is clearly authentic too. Masking is never a sign of failure. Aspiring to not mask is not essential – the world gives autistic people a hard enough time without us giving ourselves one too. I have more acceptance of myself because I have more understanding – and that means I feel more in control and more able to choose how I live. Will I apologise for needing to meet my own needs and regulate myself? No. Will I ask more questions when I need to? Almost definitely. Will I do things that make me feel self-conscious? Probably not. Will I compromise my values or lie? Never.
But how will this work for everyone else – if I have considered my part then what about you? If you are someone who has good social skills and understanding then do you really have to insist that someone who is uncomfortable with eye contact looks at you? If you are good at all that stuff then why is it not you that is changing your behaviour? If you understand something and someone asks a ‘stupid question’ then why not be patient and explain rather than show your frustration. If you are puzzled by another person’s sensory experiences then why not enquire in a gentle way so that you can adapt and adjust so that they feel as comfortable as you do?
I don’t purposely do things to make other people feel uncomfortable, but I can’t tolerate bullshit either. The world feels very different at the moment and I’m pleased to see people acting in a less bullshitty way. It is good to see that we all wear casual clothes at home when we are on our work conference calls. It is good to see that many of us have pets and children that are important to us and what we really like is having a walk or sitting in the garden. When the ability to shop, spend and consume indiscriminately disappeared, many people re-evaluated what was important to them. Why not make understanding and accepting each other more, part of that?