Our body image is not just affected by the messages we receive from other people, but by our health, life experiences, upbringing, and personal values – and many more things besides.
Body Image has been a topic of concern for many years. We are bombarded with unrealistic images of unobtainable bodies whenever we switch on the television, view advertisements, or access social media.
The image that we form consists of several factors:
How we perceive our body. How thin, tall, fit, or attractive we are. This may be accurate or inaccurate.
How we feel about our body. Do we like how it is and how it works?
What we think about it. Perhaps we think we should be fitter or healthier, or maybe we’re just right?
The way we treat our bodies. How we care for ourselves, whether we exercise, harm ourselves intentionally or unintentionally, our relationship with eating.
Autistic people may experience all the same type of things in life that affect their typically developing peers, and they will be subject to the same media portrayals of ‘perfection’’. In fact, autistic people may be more likely to experience adverse life experiences such as relationships breaking down; employment and school issues; and poorer health outcomes – simply because their particular neurology puts them at a disadvantage. The way each of us perceives, thinks about, feels towards, and treats our body is complex and made up of a multitude of different factors.
I believe there are some additional factors to consider for autistic people. We may be more likely to experience ‘face blindness’ and have difficulties recognising individuals. We often have strengths in focusing intently on specific topics of interest, we may experience perseveration and a reliance on routines and rituals that help us organise our worlds. This could be responsible for some autistic individuals becoming excessively focused on diet, calorie counts, or exercise regimes. It may make breaking habits that are harmful towards our bodies more difficult too. An autistic person’s sensory processing may impact on their body image as well.
From a sensory perspective, I’ll explore my own experiences and reflect on how they have affected my life.
This has a significant effect on my relationship with my body. My muted sense of where the various parts of my body are in relation to each other means I am frequently misjudging doorways and bruising my arms in the process; I trip over my own feet; and I lift and throw with totally the wrong amount of force required. I find negotiating stairs and escalators very tricky, and if I can’t see my feet, I may as well not bother.
These type of proprioceptive experiences are well documented in accounts from autistic people. They undoubtedly impact on my self-esteem. I am not graceful, or elegant; ever. I don’t dance in public, I’m rubbish at sport, and even walking across a room requires the same kind of internal self talk one would say out loud to a blinfolded person navigating the same route! What I think and feel about my body is never particularly positive. My perception of where my body starts and ends is muted too. I recently cleared out my wardrobe and found a coat that I had bought. It was way too big. In fact, it had always been too big and my husband recounted how I have always bought clothes of the wrong size.
The image I have in my head of my size is not accurate. Not just in the fairly typical way many of us look back at old photos of when we were younger and slimmer, and wish we were as “fat” as we thought we were back then. But in a very genuine way where I have no idea whether I will fit through gaps between cars in car parks, or be able to choose which clothes size to try on in a shop. It is not just a self-esteem issue where I exagerate my weight, but a fundamental difference in how my senses work. I have no idea what size I am – and all those other factors like peer pressure, the media, my health and relationships play into an already wobbly body image.
Knowing how I feel inside, and which emotions I am experiencing, or what my body is telling me I need to do – eat, rest, go to the toilet, and so on – these sensations are frequently muted too. I don’t know if I like you, I’m not sure if I even like me half the time either!
Until recently, when I looked in the mirror, or at a photograph, I had no strong sense that the image was of myself. I remember as a child thinking deeply about what makes people separate from each other. I must have been around seven years old (because I remember the exact spot in the exact street where this ‘revelation’ hit me) and it struck me that I was everyone else and everyone else was me. I cannot put it into words accurately, but it was an incredibly powerful experience. When I reflect on it, I still can’t quite capture what it was that I had discovered, but I know it is something to do with interoception and identity. I had incredibly clear ideas about who I was – I always did, but they were logical, thought-based, and completely detached from any feeling of who I was. I could have been anyone – where did Emma start and end?
This year I taught myself how to recognise myself. I had already begun a process of reflecting on photographs and noticing in a very mindful way that they were of me. I also built up to the point where I could see myself on camera for the inevitable conference calls the Covid-19 pandemic has forced us to partake in. It was a painstakingly slow process, but I can now watch myself in a short film. Prior to this, I was filled with dread, horror and nausea whenever I saw myself. I could not connect in any way with the image in front of me and I found it terryfying that a stranger was saying my thoughts out loud, or was wearing my clothes.
I have embarked on a process of learning about my interoception. I need to take it slowly. Recognising my emotions and bodily functions as my own, feels as terrifying as when I recognised my outer body as my own too. On both occasions I experienced a massive sense of overwhelm in the days and weeks after my sensory renaissance. A mixture of novel delight, fear, and wonder. Mixed with an almost painful sense of self-awareness. It felt important to gently nurture this and not push myself too hard.
My other senses play an important part in creating my body image too. All of us experience the world through our senses. When acting ‘normal for me’, my brain processes this sensory information in muted or intense ways, compared to typically developing people. When I have additional sensory, social, or cognitive demands to process, my sensory processing can become even more extreme. This means that my world feels inconsistent, unpredictable, and disordered.
The way my brain processes the visual information about how I look varies from day to day. Some days I can smell myself strongly – particularly if I have been unwell or terribly upset. I give off a distinctive chemical body odour. I can frequently hear my heartbeat and the blood rushing through my body. My sense of touch is hypersensitive, and I flinch at a light touch. This makes me upset because it appears like I am rejecting the very people I wish to seek comfort from. All of these factors influence how I perceive my body and how others perceive me. This impacts on how I am treated and how I respond to others too.
No reflection on body image would be complete without discussing food and eating. My gustatory processing works in such a way that I have very particular needs when it comes to flavours, textures, and combinations of foods. I have written about autism and food elsewhere, but in brief, I tend to prefer certain colours of food. I lack the imagination to think up original meals and tend to opt for familiar foods. My sense of taste fluctuates, and I can find particular flavours are so extremely unpleasant my body reacts as if I have been given poison!
My need for routine and familiarity (in order to calm my chaotic world) can result in restricted diets. My anxiety and sensory processing can encourage me to avoid mealtimes. As a teenager, my poor executive skills led to me being disorganised and eating quite a limited diet. This resulted in weight loss and poor health. My energy levels frequently soared then crashed in response to my unhealthy eating patterns. This probably had an effect on my emotions and self-esteem too.
Each of us will experience a complicated mix of factors all interplaying to help influence our body image. Our internal and external body awareness will give us a ‘sense’ of our bodies, and our thoughts, beliefs, and feelings about this will play a part too.
As autistic people we may experience additional influences on our bodies – in the form of our atypical sensory processing, and our need for routine, ritual, and repetition. We may intuitively know how to regulate our senses and emotions too. This may be in uniquely autistic ways. Many autistic people find repetitive movements, sounds, visual images, and other sensory input is fantastic for helping with focus, relaxation, stress relief, and joy. These activities can bring a sense of peace and predictability to our bodies and make them feel ‘safe’ and ‘connected’ to our whole self. This is certainly my experience anyway. Unfortunately, these activities may be seen as inappropriate, or a subject for teasing, scorn, or punishment.
Imagine living in a body that feels clumsily out of your control; that shifts its shape from day to day in front of your eyes; that reacts physiologically to the ebb and flow of a restricted diet and rigid exercise plan; and recoils uncontrollably from flavours or touch.
Go back to my opening questions. Is that body a place that feels safe to you? Is it an ok place to be? When what you ‘know’ doesn’t match what you ‘feel’, because you feel nothing but know everything – are you sure it is even you in there?
Is it surprising that so many autistic people are diagnosed with eating disorders, or self-harm, or are vulnerable to abuse? How do you even consent to another person entering the space of your body when you don’t know where that starts and stops?
When I searched the internet for a quote that would capture how autistic people experience emotion, I found plenty of search suggestions along the lines of, “Do autistic people have emotions?”. I wanted to get away from the popular type of search results that frequently reinforce stereotypes of unemotional autistic people so went for something a bit more academic and science-y.
There was plenty of research on autistic deficits and research questions were posed about whether empathy can be taught to autistic people. I also found other research into why autistic people don’t experience emotions.
I cannot honestly say that I felt ‘uncomfortable’ – my emotions don’t work like that. But my very logical mind began matching all these search results I was turning up, against the reality of my own lived experience of autism, and the realities of my peers, family, and clients. It just did not fit!
I “know” that autistic people experience emotions and in diverse ways just like everyone else.
So, I decided to see what the NAS had to say (The National Autistic Society – a well-known UK based organisation). They made a few mentions of autism and emotions in various sections of their website, typically in relation to challenging behaviour or emotional difficulties.
Overall, the perception online seems to be that autistic people may not experience emotions, or they may experience them in out of control ways.
Initially I disagreed with this.
However, after reflecting on this all day, I realise that “yes, we can look like that to people who aren’t able to empathise with us”. I personally believe that non-autistic people struggle with empathising with autistic people just as much as autistic people struggle with empathising with them.
This blog is my contribution to the discussion. It describes how this topic works for me. It may not be relevant to everyone else, or even anyone else, but if it creates an interest in what autistic people may be feeling under the surface and a willingness to explore this with them on their terms then great!
I went off on a wonderful tangent looking for a clear definition of what an emotion is. I discovered articles about the philosophy of emotions and the history of emotion too. I found there were evolutional and theological theories of emotions, and all manner of schools of psychology, neurobiology and sociology that added to the discussion. There is no simple definition – the subject is complex and broad and there seems to be no scientific consensus on a definition.
Most simply put, emotions are states associated with the nervous system brought on by all manner of different things, including our thoughts and behaviour.
Currently there are eight senses associated with humans. The five we probably learned at school: sight, smell, taste, touch, and hearing. The two associated with knowing where our bodies are – proprioception; and the effect of gravity on our bodies – vestibular. The eight sense is interoception – the sense of knowing how we feel. This includes feeling emotions and feeling bodily sensations like needing the toilet or hunger.
For me to describe how my emotions work, we need to consider my overall sensory processing.
My sense organs work fairly typically. My eyes are very short-sighted, but my vision is corrected with glasses. If an audiologist examined me, they would probably say that I have no issues with my hearing. My sense organs take in information in a fairly typical way. However, once that information reaches my brain, it is processed very differently to that of my typically developing peers.
Sometimes I need more information than most people need, in order to register a sensation – I like a full-strength hug not a gentle one for instance, or I can spin on a roundabout without feeling queasy.
Sometimes I need extraordinarily little sensory information to register the sensation – I can hear conversations in a room down the hall, and a door slam sounds as loud to me as a firework does to my neurotypical friend.
And this is where I would like to introduce you to the eight sense: interoception. It works just like all the other senses. It is not responsible for making emotions or affecting them in any way – just like the ears are not responsible for the noise they hear. Our interoceptive sense enables us to notice or recognise or be aware of how we feel.
If the way our brain processes sensory information is muted in so far as interoception is concerned, then we may not feel emotions, or the need to go to the toilet, or that we are hungry or in pain. If the brain processes the sensory information too intensely, then we may notice every sensation within our bodies, or feel emotions more strongly than other people do.
And just like all our other senses, our interoceptive sensory processing can work differently in different circumstances, or on different days.
Here are some ways that a person who experiences atypical interoceptive sensory processing may appear to an outsider, with my thoughts on what may be happening on the inside:
Doesn’t show emotions (maybe they are having emotions but not noticing them?)
Over-emotional (maybe that emotion genuinely does feel that strong to them?)
Loses their temper for no reason (perhaps they didn’t notice the sensation of becoming angry until it was too late to manage it?)
Moans about every tiny ache and pain (maybe their ‘tiny’ ache feels as painful as someone else’s broken leg?)
Doesn’t notice they have a severe tooth infection (perhaps the pain hasn’t registered with them?)
Won’t learn toilet training even though a reward system is used, and they fully understand what a toilet is for (maybe they can’t feel the sensation in their body that tells them they need to go?)
Has no empathy and doesn’t care about anyone else (maybe they don’t know how they feel themselves, so can’t imagine how others may feel?)
Blunt and insensitive – poor social skills (perhaps they have no personal concept of how unpleasant it feels to be spoken to abruptly?)
Easily led, vulnerable, promiscuous– forms relationships with anyone who asks (maybe if they don’t know if they ‘like’ people, they will politely become anyone’s friend?)
Perhaps autistic people ARE having emotions but just aren’t feeling them? No one would say that because I don’t feel hunger I shouldn’t eat. My care givers would be seen as neglectful if they didn’t feed me just because I never noticed I was hungry – food is a basic human need – everyone must have it.
So how about we look at emotions in that way too? Just because I don’t feel sad or show that I am sad, doesn’t mean I can be ignored when something sad happens. To deny me the compassion shown to my more typical peers following a tragedy, is as neglectful as denying me food just because I’m not hungry.
My personal interoceptive experiences tend towards the ‘needs a lot of input to register’ aspect of sensory processing. Growing up, this gave me the appearance of being aloof, disinterested in people, unemotional and cold. On a good day, I could appear strong, brave, and steadfast.
As an adult, I can still be interpreted in this way but I’ve learned to play to my strengths and there are times when the ability to remain calm in a crisis, keep a level head, and make objective decisions under pressure pose an advantage over my more typical peers.
When I was a girl, I knew I was different. I thought I must be a terrible person for being how I was. I remember despairing over my lack of ‘normal’ emotional responses and wondering what was so very wrong with me. Deep down inside I knew I did care and that I was kind and thoughtful (and my goodness, am I thoughtful – I cannot do anything without thinking it through in full first!) but somehow my experiences, my thoughts and my emotions seemed out of synch with each other.
I can remember experiencing traumatic events that would have made any normal person cry or feel distressed and I felt nothing. And not just because I shut off to those experiences. To my young self I wondered whether perhaps I was somehow to blame for these things? Surely I must want them to happen if I’m not even upset by them?
And like every other human, I am more than a product of my genes and neurology. My experiences naturally shaped me and added to the way I experience emotions. A complex cycle was created: My autism affected the way I behaved in response to sensory information; and thus influenced how others treated me; which then influenced my further responses; and so on…
My interpersonal relationships were different to the relationships between my more typical peers. I struggled to develop the skills that would enable me to relate to others with ease. I didn’t feel things like other girls did and I didn’t act like other girls did. I tried my best to copy and pretend sometimes, but on the whole, I was content being self-contained and kept myself to myself, lost in my own world of music, books, and nature.
I was labelled as unemotional and eventually believed that meant I must be uncaring too. Perhaps I was kidding myself that I was alright really? Perhaps my knowledge that I was fundamentally ok – just different; was wrong?
I feel it is important to recall at this point in the blog, that other autistic people may have the ‘doesn’t need much sensory input to register’ type of interoceptive sensory processing. They may empathise with others so intensely it hurts them. You will see how different we all are, but by viewing our emotional responses as a result of our sensory processing it may make more sense of why that is.
At this point, my blog heads off into a little discussed phenomenon. It helps me explain my emotional responses but is my opinion and nothing more. As I learn more about myself, autism, and the complex science of emotions, my opinion will likely change. This is how it makes sense to me at the moment, based on the knowledge and experience accessible to me at this current time.
Synaesthesia is a perceptual phenomenon in which stimulation of one sense leads to an involuntary experience in a second sense. It is widely documented throughout history.
For me, the acidic green of newly opened beech leaves is the colour of the musical chord A minor. C major is sunshine yellow, G minor is matt aubergine. I only see chords in colours not individual musical notes.
My ability at mental arithmetic comes from my experience of single digit numbers as coloured shapes – I can visually click them together to do sums very quickly.
Synaesthesia explains how some of my other senses experience information that was not intended for them. Hearing in colour is a common example. It comes close to explaining my emotional responses.
I’ve described how I believe I actually do experience emotions, but I don’t always feel them or show them. Just like I may not feel hungry, but my body still needs food. As I’ve developed a greater understanding of myself, I recognise that in fact I have more awareness of my emotions than I realised.
As my self-awareness has developed, I have noticed what happens in my body in response to different stimuli. When I have tried to explain this to some clinicians, their response has not always been accepting, or even inquisitive. Very often my descriptions were interpreted as a symptom of mental illness – delusional in fact. I would prefer to see my emotional responses as a form of synaesthesia rather than my “brain not working properly”. Here are a few of the many examples of emotional synaesthesia that I have experienced across my lifetime. Remember – the emotion is there just like it is for every human, but my brain processes it differently due to my muted interoception – which means I may not feel the emotion in a typical way. This processing sometimes appears as synaesthesia. My sensory processing is frequently muted or over-responsive anyway, but these examples are outside of my ‘normal’.
Sadness – my vestibular processing is affected, and I can feel extremes of seasickness when changing direction or speed on a walk; or fail to become dizzy when spinning at high speed.
Shock – vision becomes pixelated.
Happiness – colours get brighter – especially green, that’s why I love nature.
Stress – vision becomes distorted and objects lose their definition.
Tiredness – hearing becomes painfully acute.
Very sad – food tastes gone off.
I have started viewing these signs of how my brain is processing sensory information as “my” emotions. They are consistent enough that if someone were to ask me how I felt, I could confidently give them the name of an emotion that would match their neurotypical expectation of my experience. This helps them understand and helps me get compassionate responses from people. But it bugs me, because it’s a lie! I don’t feel sad, or happy, or stressed, necessarily at that time.
As practitioners we often support people to identify and name their emotions in order to help them get their needs met more effectively – my account is worth considering whenever we do this. Wouldn’t it be lovely if when someone asked how I felt, I could honestly say ‘seasick’. And they would know me well enough to appreciate that my seasick was the same as their sad. That would really help meet my needs.
I mentioned a key phrase back then; “I don’t feel sad, or happy, or stressed, necessarily at that time.”
I have always been aware of this out of synch relationship between my emotions and thoughts. If I need to process what other people would define as an intensely emotional experience, I can analyse it to the point of understanding it at an almost atomic level, but it will still rotate around my brain for years and not lay down to rest. The emotions can’t be forced. I am no more able to tap into emotions now than I was as a young girl.
I don’t see this as a problem anymore. This is how I roll! I am better able to process experiences now that I accept my atypical way of feeling those emotions. When I experience an emotional event now that I understand and accept the way my emotional responses work, I can still analyse the event to gain clarity and process it cognitively. I can also acknowledge that my sensory responses are ‘normal for me’ and nothing to be scared of or view as a mental health relapse indicator. I don’t give myself a hard time because I’m not feeling what I should be feeling. Sometimes I get the feeling much later anyway.
A recent example is of a bereavement that I experienced in November 2019. My initial responses were logical, practical and helpful. My sensory responses were visual disturbance, taste disturbance and hypersensitive hearing. My initial feelings were frequently related to the frustration of my ordered world becoming disordered through the loss of a key figure in it. I may have appeared unemotional, brave, strong, distant, or inappropriate. In June 2020 I felt sad and I cried for the loss. It properly hit me what the loss meant.
The worse thing about feeling emotions in this way but in a delayed manner is other people’s responses. I can look like I am not coping, or attention seeking, or struggling. Everyone else has moved on from these emotions, just as I am arriving. What I would have loved last month more than anything, is to have had the warmth, compassion, love and sympathy shown to me that was shown towards the people who were grieving like that in November. I appreciate that’s not how these things work, but this was a delayed response not a maladaptive one. Frequently I have not received the support I need from others because my timing is wrong or I have hidden my needs because of how it will look if I bring things up all this time later. Can we be kinder human beings I wonder, by giving people what they need, when they need it – even when it doesn’t fit in with our expectations of timing?
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.
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.
Riding back over the mountain earlier, a pair of Red Kites swooped down low in tandem in front of me and majestically soared back up high into the bright blue sky. I was close enough to see their individual talons and notice whether either had a tag on its wings. There is something about the solitude of motorcycling and being in the scene rather than observing it from behind a windscreen that makes my heart soar, like those Kites, every time I ride.
My love of biking was sparked as a child. I spent those long school summer holidays wandering around on my own, down on the beach or in the park; or maybe I’d cycle the 15 mile round trip on my pushbike, to Brean Down, a local beauty spot sticking out into the Bristol Channel. I’d climb along to the old fort where I could hide and watch the rabbits and avoid the wild goats! (wild? – these were genuinely absolutely livid, and I felt like I took my life in my hands every time I ran the gauntlet through these hairy, horned, feral beasts). I’d make sure I was home in time for ‘Junior Kickstart’ though. This was a 1980’s British TV show and an offshoot of Kick Start – a televised trials bike competition where competitors would skilfully make their way around and over various obstacles as quickly as possible without touching them, knocking them over or putting their feet down. I can still sing the theme tune 30+ years later – along with the revving engine noise at the end!
I had to make do with bicycling when I was young. We lived in a semi-detached house in a town and there was nowhere to ride an off-road bike. And furthermore, it would not have happened because I was a girl. I wasn’t a typical girl mind. I asked my mum what I was like because I know I never played with dolls or wanted other popular 1980’s girls toys, like a ‘Girls’ World’ – in fact I found the idea of having a severed head (albeit a plastic one) in my bedroom that I could apply make up to and do its hair, quite repulsive. I did have a Cindy doll – I cut its hair off and knitted it some survival clothes for having outdoor adventures in, like being lost in a jungle or stranded on a desert island. My favourite things, according to my mum, and she was absolutely spot on; were reading and cycling. I would get on my bicycle and disappear off for as long as possible, not considering the fear I instilled in her by cheerily recounting how I’d cycled to the next town along the main road and then climbed a hill or gone looking for creatures in the sand dunes. I was an extremely accident-prone child and had a tendency to go off in pursuit of whatever it was that took my fancy that day, with no consideration for safety or telling someone. There was no way I was having a motorbike.
I had my first ride as a pillion passenger on a family friend’s motorbike. I remember how it felt sitting on the back and the pull of the various forces working on my body as we accelerated. I knew at that moment; I would have to have my own motorbike someday. It was all the fun of bicycling but with this added ‘something’.
When I was 18, I bought a moped. An orange Suzuki FZ50. I lived in a town near the Quantock hills and I’d ride up there and wander around, enjoying the solitude away from the busy streets and the flats where I lived. I loaned that bike to a ‘friend’ – well it was someone who lived in the flats who I hung out with. They disappeared off on my bike and I eventually found it dumped and broken. I saved up and bought a Honda step-through – one of the most popular motorcycles in the world ever. The classic C90 in red, with fairing, top box, leg shields – the full works. This bike wasn’t a ‘twist and go’ like the moped, but had 3 semi-automatic gears where you pushed the gear pedal to engage in a gear but without the need to hand operate a clutch lever. I used this bike for my daily commute to college and it ate up the 13 mile journey easily. However, I had decided that travelling to Taunton every day was tiresome and I was offered a room in a shared house belonging to someone on my course and I moved in. I was riding back to my new pad one evening and a young man shot through a red light and I hit the side of his car at 30mph and tumbled over his bonnet onto the road. We agreed to settle this privately and he gave me enough cash to buy my first proper motorbike; with manual gears, a kick start, and trail bike styling – I was about to realise my ‘Junior Kick Start’ dream with Honda’s XL100.
Up until this point, I had motorcycled alone, much like I did most things in life. One night in January 1994, with my arm in a sling from the aforementioned accident, I turned up at a friends’ house. John, Chris and Matt were guys I knew from my old town and had also moved to Taunton and were at the college, and they had planned a night out. Did I want to come along? I decided to give it a try and when I arrived I found that everyone had brought something to drink before heading for town. I’ve never been good at ‘getting’ this type of social etiquette and I looked around the room and asked whether anyone wanted to go halves with me on a bottle of red wine from the off-licence. This one guy said he did and we went off in search of alcohol. He asked me about my injury and we got talking about motorbikes and have never really stopped since. Mal and I have just been sat talking about bikes over lunch in our garden and we both still feel the same about life, motorcycles and each other 26 years on.
I hadn’t taken my bike test at this point because I had a full car licence and you could ride on L-plates with that. I decided to take my CBT and test, and passed first time that April. My first ‘big’ bike was the little Kawasaki Z200, I hope my husband has forgiven me for spraying it matt black. It was a lovely bike and took me on all sorts of camping trips and to rallies and eventually when I moved to Bristol for University, it lived in my front garden and was used for getting around the city. I used to ride to West Wales where Mal had gone to pursue his studies in Lampeter. I discovered the joy of having long rides – and my goodness, everything feels like a long ride on a Z200! I had read Robert M. Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance and my head was filled with tales of the open road and philosophy. I still have a copy of this book on my bedside table and I’ve re-read it at various points on my life and I always find something new that resonates with me. Pirsig was an extremely intelligent, articulate man who experienced treatment with electroconvulsive therapy back in the 1960’s when he was diagnosed with schizophrenia. Every time I read his books (Lila: An Inquiry into Morals further explores the concept of quality started in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance) I reflect on how similarly we see the world even though we are world’s apart. I would have loved to have a conversation with him about so many things – I’d love to know his thoughts on autism.
Although Mal and I rode together either as pillion on each other’s bikes or solo, I never fancied joining a club or gang. It wasn’t just my gender – although I must say, most images of biker girls do not show appropriate safety gear in my opinion! I have just never been part of any ‘scene’. When I moved to West Wales there was quite a few bikers. Lots of students, a local MAG (motorcycle action group), a back-patch club on the coast and a NCC (National Chopper Club). There was a MCC around Lampeter at that time but I’ve always been put off joining any clubs. The back-patch MC clubs are generally male only (there are a couple of female MC’s) and the MCC’s have never appealed either. Mal and I rode around and lived a simple life and we hung out with other people occasionally and life was good. I had spent a good few years by this time with only two-wheeled transport. I had a full car licence but no car and I rode my motorbike day in, day out. Whatever the weather and wherever I needed to. We rented a converted barn in the middle of nowhere and had no electricity and only spring water. There was no road and the track was just about passable, and allowed me another taste of my ‘Junior Kickstart’ trials riding experiences. My favourite ride was over the hills to Lampeter and on a fine day I’d take off my helmet and ride along the ancient roadway, wind in my hair and a song in my heart.
I’ve never been one for fashion or dressing up, and motorcycling suited me for that reason too. I wore my bike gear all the time. No tough decisions on what to wear each day, no not knowing whether I felt comfy or not – I was always comfortable, my bike gear moulded to fit me and didn’t have to be washed so never smelt ‘wrong’ or felt itchy. It also suited living in a barn with no electricity where we relied on a rayburn and gas lights and candles. I’d ride to town and carry home a week’s worth of shopping in my panniers and rucksack, and strap a sack of coal across the saddle.
I opened by describing how being ‘in the scene’ rather than observing, was so important to me. Thank Robert M. Pirsig for that one. Riding a motorcycle is an incredibly ‘in the moment’ type activity. I have practiced mindfulness for a long time, and had an interest in meditation, and philosophy, and science for even longer. When I ride, I can only think about the present: I can wonder, and explore ideas, and contemplate and muse; but I rarely reminisce, or worry, or replay past events or plan for the future. You have to be present because you are on two wheels and travelling at speeds of up to 70 mph (or whatever the legal limit is). If you are not totally and utterly focussed, it is likely you will have an accident. Plus, why would you want to miss a single minute of that wonderful feeling?
So what is it that is so fantastic about biking? For me it’s not the lifestyle, I’ve never been one for conforming to any type. Although, the camaraderie is like nothing else. This morning I know that every biker that raised their hand to acknowledge me, had that look in their eye, and probably a smile on their lips that said “This is fantastic isn’t it?!” I’ve always felt accepted by other bikers, my autism doesn’t even seem to register because it’s about what we have in common not what our differences are. I’ve met lots of different people who ride bikes and I’d say that many of them would be seen as eccentric or non-conformist. It’s fine to meet a biker you have never met before and launch into an enthusiastic tirade about your ride, or their bike, or ‘did you just see that idiot pull out in the Volvo?, or even the cake you just had with your cup of tea. Small talk doesn’t seem necessary and this aspect of biking has always appealed to me too.
The most significant part of biking now makes more sense to me. I’ve always recognised there was ‘something’ going on, on that very first ride as a pillion passenger. Motorcycling affects every one of my senses in a most intense way. It is the most holistically satisfying activity ever. It regulates my emotions and senses like nothing else. Harley Davidson and the UCL have recently conducted scientific research into the mental health impact of motorcycling and the findings showed that the benefits are more like those of exercise (reduction in stress hormones etc), rather than being similar to having a drive in a car. Any biker could have told you this! I’ll describe how motorbiking effects my senses:
Vision: There are so many styles of motorcycle to choose from. I’ve owned and ridden all sorts, the machines I’ve described in this blog and many more besides. I do like a trail type bike personally. I like to sit upright and be high up and get a good view over the hedges. My latest bike is an Aprilia Pegaso Strada – a kind of adventure bike machine. Bikes are beautiful to look at and Mal and I sat just staring at his Enfield bullet and it’s wonderful mechanical simplicity and style.
Smell: Who doesn’t love that smell of hot engine, petrol and oil? It is the most satisfying smell to open your garage door to.
Auditory: I love a big single cylinder engine. I had an XBR500 café racer style Honda before the Aprilia and that too had a wonderful slow, deep, thump of a big single cylinder motor.
Touch: The feel of wearing clothing that is solid, fits well and has no fancy bits to irritate me is great. I love the sensation of sitting on the bike and being able to feel things with the extremities of my body. The clunk of the gear pedal, the twist of the throttle and the wind in my face.
Taste: It isn’t a proper ride out if you don’t have chips or a cup of tea and cake! Mal says I should write a book called ‘Around Britain by cake’. Whenever he recounts a past ride-out I’ll always remember where we stopped and what we had to eat there. Food just tastes so much better when your senses are switched on by the joy of riding.
The next 3 senses are the ones less discussed outside of autism circles. These are the important ones for me though when it comes to motorcycling:
Vestibular: This is the sense of where your body is in relation to gravity. This is the sense that biking really excites in me. I like speed but I prefer acceleration. That pull and push of speeding away from a standing start just gets me going every time. When I am moving, my clumsiness disappears, and I can judge speed and distance in a way I just can’t when not on the bike. The forces working on my body as I travel switch something on in me that lasts much longer than the ride itself.
Proprioception: I mentioned my clumsiness and if you saw me off the bike you’d probably advise me that motorcycling is not for me! The clothing helps give me a sense of where my body is in relation to itself. I feel sensations in parts of me that I didn’t know existed otherwise. Having recently taken up riding again after a break, I realised that the vibration of riding and the repetitive movement of using my hands on the clutch and brake levers give me a sense of where my forearms are. I’d forgotten I had forearms to be honest and I frequently have bruises around my wrists where I knock things because I don’t notice in time. I need to put a lot of movement into my arms to notice them – I wonder whether that is why certain repetitive movements involving shaking or flapping your arms are so common in autistic people? The vibration (that favourite big single-cylinder engine again) gives me a sensation throughout my body. It’s neither pleasurable nor uncomfortable, it just seems to vibrate everything awake and I know where my body is for ages after a ride. I have certainly been less clumsy during those periods in my life where I rode daily.
Interoception: This is the sense of knowing what you feel – whether that is bodily functions like being hungry or your emotions. I have weak interoception and motorbiking awakens a pleasant feeling in me. It’s not a strong emotion, it’s more an inner peace where I know I’m ok, I know I’m contented and I know that I am part of the world.
Have a read of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenence
“Yes” he replied, “you’re always kind and don’t give punishments for no reason”
I’ve been a mum for quite a while now and I’m wondering when my natural maternal instinct will kick in! Actually, I don’t expect it to. Now that I understand my autism diagnosis more clearly and recognise how my sensory processing works and in particular my interoception – or sense of knowing how I feel; I am as likely to feel a natural mother as I am a natural teapot, or natural anything else.
If I don’t feel like a good mum then does that mean I’m not one? Of course not. I often don’t feel like I need the toilet – but I still have to go regularly! I did not feel that I dislocated my knee when it was twisted out of shape. And I may not experience feelings of intense love or anger or regret, but I know what these emotions are and although the feelings may not be there for any of these examples, they are still valid and very real experiences, albeit “felt” in a different way.
I “know” that I need to use the toilet regularly, I need to eat regularly, I need to be aware of my body and potential injuries. I “know” that when something upsetting happens I may not feel a strong emotion in my body but my sensory processing may become hypersensitive sometime later that week. I know that eventually, after a lot of intense cognitive processing, I may have a sense of an emotion – often long after the event. Or I may not. This is just how I am. I also know with every ounce of my being, that I love my family.
I was delighted and surprised when I discovered I was pregnant. It was unexpected and we had experienced previous losses. I enjoyed the experience of being pregnant and was super-fit and swam every day in the local pool – only just able to bend down and put my shoes on afterwards by the time I was in the last weeks of my pregnancy. I also walked with the dogs several times a day and was even riding my motorbike until the throttle cable snapped and I pushed it back into the garage where it sat for many, many years unridden.
My experience of birth was traumatic and lengthy. Eventually our son was delivered by emergency caesarean section. He was 11 lbs (5kg) and was certainly not going to come out via the traditional route. I remember desperately needing a can of fizzy orangeade and a ‘double decker’ chocolate bar straight after he was born and I begged my husband to get me them. I have never craved anything so fizzy and so orangey, so much in my life! My husband had to make a visit to the shops the next morning to exchange the new-born sized baby clothes for something that would fit this strapping lad.
We settled in to family life and I was very unwell for a long time and will forever be thankful for the continuous support my husband gave me to help look after both myself and our son. I have very few memories of family life, unfortunately, but I have lots to share about how we live; how we cope; and what we think about life, the universe and everything. Our family’s story is not solely mine to share and it is up to our son if later on he decides to describe incidents and events from his life or not. My own autism, and my own upbringing has influenced how we get along together. And this is what I will share in this series of blogs:
Food, eating and drinking.
Food is a huge topic to cover. We often take for granted that we eat our meals and snacks and hardly give a second thought to it. But there are multiple things going on with regards to mealtimes:
The environment – a familiar family meal at home, or a busy café, or eating whilst in the car, or on a picnic. The list could go on. These places vary in terms of social etiquette and sensory input. Anxiety levels can increase very quickly in certain environments because of the sensory processing demands (think scraping chairs on café floors, laughing customers and smelly food)
The ‘rules’ – when I was growing up, my family were very keen on table manners. I took to that quite well – I enjoy a rule and knowing how I ‘should’ behave. It can get complex though because rules can feel very contradictory to an autistic mind. “Eating outdoors walking down the street or sat on a bench in town is unacceptable and bad manners” but “Eating outdoors sat down on a blanket in a field is a picnic and a treat”. “You must use a knife and fork properly” but not for pizza, or for a buffet, or for the chip shop. But chips at home must be eaten with cutlery.
Interoception – knowing you are hungry, knowing you are full, knowing what you fancy to eat, knowing if you like something or not. Personally, I always opt for exactly the same thing when I eat out or I choose it before I get there. I know what I’m getting and I don’t have to make a complex decision based on what I feel like whilst in an overwhelming environment that is going to suppress any sense of what I feel anyway.
Choice – regardless of whether your interoception works in a way that indicates to you what you’d like to eat, choosing from potentially infinite potential meals is almost impossible. “What do you fancy for dinner?” is usually followed by my brain rapidly firing through the following thought processes:
What have we got? – I don’t know.
What should I be asking for? – Is there a correct answer I’m meant to know?
I know, what did I have yesterday? – I’ll ask for that.
And that is why I often eat the same things every day. I also tend to opt for carbohydrate rich, yellow, beige and white foods, and cheese. You know where you are with a white food. No one can hide something inside white food that you will come across unexpectedly. These foods are pretty safe. You know what you’re getting! It’s also easier to imagine what you want from a list of choices if that choice is limited to one colour. Less thinking!
Proprioception – coordinating cutlery whilst sitting up straight in a chair with the sudden smell of hot food wafting up your nostrils takes a lot of concentration! I do nothing intuitively or naturally and I need to constantly check where my body is . This is hard work.
Consciously coordinating chewing, swallowing, breathing and talking requires a great deal of focusing. It is easy to lose track and cough and splutter.
Taste – like many people, my sensory processing works in such a way that I can experience strong aversions to certain tastes whilst not noticing other tastes that some people find repulsive. I enjoyed licking door keys as a child and although I haven’t licked a key in many a year, I am tempted to do so just to get that hit of sour, acidic, metally tang that is both unpleasant and strangely alluring at the same time! My brain tells my body that certain tastes are not just unpleasant – they are dangerous, repulsive and should not be eaten. Fortunately, there aren’t that many tastes like that for me and I tend to prefer bland foods but I’ll enjoy a mild curry or chilli, but I will not go near tastes that ‘shouldn’t’ go together like sweet and sour food. What is more significant to me is…
Texture – the sensation of certain foods in my mouth is so extremely repulsive, I am struggling to write about it candidly whilst thinking of examples! Throw away your logic and consider mine instead for a moment… I like a jacket potato, I like chips, boiled spuds are fine too. Mash is not. They are all potatoes and I’ve had endless “but you like potatoes” type discussions in my life, but no one is going to convince me otherwise that mash is just potato and fine to eat. I will eat occasional mash – for instance on top of a cottage pie that my husband has made. That is because I know exactly what that mash will feel like in my mouth. There will be no surprises. “Just try a little bit” does not help me. Food is not consistent. Different brands of baked beans taste very different to each other, and with my poor interoception and ability to know whether I like something or not, how am I meant to know if someone has poisoned my beans, or if they have gone off, or just swapped them for a different brand? I know they are still beans and I like beans, but they don’t taste the same and that means something is WRONG!
Temperature – I need the temperature to be just right. I’m blonde – maybe its a ‘Goldilocks and the three bears’ thing?! If it is not just right, I won’t eat it.
The key thing to remember is that none of these variables are working in isolation. And that is why I can appear so picky about food. If a café has lots of music playing, and bright lights and smells of meat (which I don’t like) then it is likely that my central nervous system will be really fired up and working out whether I want to run away; freeze; or fight. I may become hyperalert and over-responsive to sensory information and find I can’t tolerate something I usually eat because it tastes different. Or I may shut down inside and be under-responsive and crave something strongly flavoured that registers on my taste buds. If I am stressed about something going on in my life, or it is a big day because of an interview or event, my sensory processing works differently too. This is not a conscious choice on my part but an automatic reaction driven by my atypical neurology.
I think the generation I grew up in was more strict about table manners and finishing what is on your plate and eating what you are given, without question. That helped me in some ways because the very strict rules meant I at least had some structure and predictability around mealtimes. However, the predictability was I’d end up being told off! Every single time. And that has added an additional component to my relationship with food. In the 1970s and 80s, sensory processing wasn’t understood like it is today, and I was viewed as fussy or a picky eater. We understand more about it now and I’ve been able to use both my own upbringing, that recognises the importance of structured mealtimes – and my personal insight, that recognises the challenges and distress of autism to inform how we have brought our son up.
In our house, we don’t make a big deal about food. It is a big enough deal already! We totally appreciate how our son may like something one day but not another day and how his logic for not eating something may not work along the same lines as our logical reason for why he should eat it. A balanced diet is important and we have had weeks and months where we metaphorically pulled our hair out thinking “he cannot just live on that for the rest of his life”! But he hasn’t. Eventually, whatever it was that drove him to need to eat a particular food or avoid a particular food has changed and he has tried something else. Here are some tips that we’ve used over the years:
Regulate your own emotions and senses before you begin. Then help your family regulate themselves.
Don’t panic (or at least don’t look like you’re panicking!). If your panic is sensed then stress levels will rise. If stress levels rise, whatever the sensitivity is may increase.
Choose your battles.
Keep mealtimes calm and never make any of it a big deal. Most children will not starve themselves to death. Talk to your health visitor or GP when you need to.
I imagine it is normal to feel powerless or like a failure or neglectful. Don’t compare yourself to other parents who talk about their ‘perfect’ sounding families and child-rearing skills.
If it works for your family and you are fulfilled and living life how you choose then consider carefully why you would do things differently just to appear ‘normal’.
Teach rules that are 100% honest and consistent and teach different rules for different scenarios e.g. eating with your fingers is fine at home but not at Nanny’s house because Nanny is old-fashioned and will view it as bad manners.
Make learning about food a family hobby or interest. Grow some food to eat. Cook together and don’t worry about experimenting as you don’t have to eat it! Bake a cake and mix the ingredients by hand and not a spoon – if you like the sensation. Learn about food groups and a balanced diet.
If a particular colour of food is preferred then find a balanced diet from that colour.
Never use food as a reward or a punishment. Ever.
If certain textures are preferred then find a balanced diet using that texture.
If cutlery is tricky to use then order food when you are out that doesn’t require cutlery e.g. pizza.
Choose your battles. It’s worth repeating!
Choice can be overwhelming and whilst we may think that giving a choice may make it more likely they’ll eat it, it may not. You could be just adding to the overload. We have a weekly menu up on the fridge. This means that meals are predictable with no nasty surprises and there is enough time to process what the meal will be and decide if that’s ok or if we want something else.
It is perfectly logical to like something in a café but not at home or vice versa. If you are a person who has to analyse and categorise everything to understand it. And you only see the bigger picture by first studying the smaller pictures in intricate detail, then you will notice when things are different or don’t go together.
Choose your battles.
Social eating is different to eating on your own or with your family – it can be very overwhelming and you may need to take time before and after to regulate your senses and emotions and those of your family.
Make your own rules. Who says you have to eat at a table? Or with other people? It can be nice, and it is seen as an important social occasion, but if at first all you can do to ensure your child is fed is to give them what they like, when they like it, where they like it then do so.
If using cutlery is difficult, risk assess whether they can use alternative cutlery. Maybe this will be specially adapted handles for knives and forks or even extra sharp cutlery that makes cutting easier. (like in the photo).
Use plate dividers to stop certain foods touching each other or use separate plates.
Don’t tease or point out things you find odd. Accept people’s preferences. (I need to have my burger arranged in a particular order, I only have a tiny bit of milk on my cereal, vinegar must never touch bread – yes, this is unusual but taking the mickey out of me for it just reminds me I’m different and makes me feel sad for being me)
Take it step by step. Why is your goal important? If it is about making sure your child is healthy then of course. If it is about conforming to what you think you should be doing as a parent then challenge yourself!
In our home, the aim is not to get our son to eat everything or eat certain things that we know are good for him. We offer simple choices between a couple of things that we know he likes. Whenever we introduce a new food we keep it laid back. Mealtimes may not be the best place to try a new food – keep mealtimes safe and predictable. Try new food as an activity on its own where it is fine to have an extreme reaction – positive or negative! It’s also fine to change your mind or try something at a later date. Our son knows that green leafy vegetables often taste bitter to children and that as he gets older the taste may change – he finds this interesting and is happy to consume spinach as part of a scientific experiment on taste and ageing.
Our family believe that food is an essential part of life. We need nutrition to live healthily. Apart from that we do our own thing!
I’ve always known I am me. I’ve also always known I am different to many other people. It has been hard to put my finger on it. As a young child I wondered whether it was because I was too clever – I was thriving academically at primary school – this was before my experience of the education system went terribly wrong! Or maybe I was an alien because I certainly didn’t seem to be on the right planet at all. Or perhaps I was a psychopath who was manipulating everyone she met with her constant conscious processing and analysis, and superficial charm that enabled her to pass off as normal when she very clearly wasn’t.
Of course, it became apparent that my difference is very real, but also very easy to explain. I am autistic. I have always been autistic and I’ve viewed hospital notes from around the time of my birth and listened to my parents accounts of how I was a slow feeder that didn’t like being held or comforted. In fact, there is nothing in my life’s events that cannot be accounted for by my autism and these early accounts of my atypical sensory processing are the start of a lifetime’s worth of examples of how my differences have created opportunities, challenges, misunderstandings, joy and normality for me.
Unfortunately, I did not know I was autistic for a very long time. I only knew I was different. I did my best to try and fit in and the resultant masking of my autistic traits played havoc with my wellbeing. Deep inside, I felt that I was probably ok – how could I not be? I was kind, I was thoughtful, I always did my best, I tried hard. But I also related strongly to the little boy in the Hans Christian Anderson story ‘’The Emperor’s new clothes”. Was I the only person on the planet who could see what was actually going on? Why when I helpfully pointed out mistakes or inaccuracies or called people out on the bullshit they were preaching, did they act as if what I saw was wrong? Why in this world where I had been brought up to be truthful was I being told to buy into the lies? My sense of probably being ok was gradually eroding into a sense of there being something fundamentally wrong with me.
Again, I struggled to put my finger on what it was that was wrong with me. My sensory processing is not typical of many peoples and I don’t experience things like a gut feeling or awareness of my gender, sexuality or even my likes and dislikes. Everything I “know”, I know in my head. I am female because I have a female body – I have no ability to comprehend what trans people mean when they say they know they are in the wrong body because I have no idea whether I am in the right body or even on the right planet! I am heterosexual because I love my husband and am attracted to him, however I do not even look at other people and sense attraction towards them because that would go against my commitment to my husband who I love deeply. I eat the food that annoys me the least and that I can tolerate in my mouth. Growing up I also knew that I didn’t “get” lots of the stuff that other people intuitively got. My attempts to understand and soothe myself took me down a variety of constructive and destructive paths and some of those led to long-term involvement from mental health services.
I have tried fitting in with a variety of groups of people, medical diagnoses, philosophies, and beliefs throughout my life much as most people do. The desire to know where we belong seems universal throughout humankind regardless of neurology or any other part of our identity. Although I developed an ability to camouflage my autism, I always knew when I wasn’t being genuinely me. My lack of a gut feeling doesn’t mean I don’t notice things, only that I notice in a different way. People use the expression “like an alarm bell going off” and I understand why they use that metaphor. When I meet someone or go somewhere and things don’t quite fit as they should, I experience an uncomfortable, edgy, clanging, noisy sensation that warns me something is definitely not right. I get this feeling when I meet people whose words and actions demonstrate different sets of values. It is more than the usual difference between the two that most people show in normal day to day behaviour – the typical modifying of our behaviour to act appropriately in a variety of situations – not being rude or insensitive and so on by kerbing our urge to swear or tell the truth regardless of consequences. This is something fundamentally different that sets off alarm bells for me. The contrast is as out of place as a spelling error on a typed page or a tiger showing up in my local woods. It is a concrete mismatch that is quantifiable and nothing to do with feelings. I know it (in my head).
I also “know” absolutely solidly when something is correct. I know my autism diagnosis is correct because I can (and have!) matched every single scenario in my life against that fact to test if it is accurate – and it is. And that is how I have come to write this blog. I have more of a sense of how I am as well as who I am. The label is so correct, I forget I am autistic a lot of the time, in the same way as I don’t consciously consider myself British or female or Caucasian as I go about my day. These things only matter when I am facing advantages or disadvantages based on these parts of my identity, the rest of the time they are irrelevant.
Gaining the correct diagnosis has righted a lot of wrongs, particularly with regard to incorrect psychiatric diagnoses. The hardest wrongs to right have been the labels I have attributed to myself, based on the lies I have believed that others who have misunderstood me have said about me and to me. The process I have been through post-diagnosis has been intense and all consuming at times.
It has left me with a sense of freedom to move on with my life. I am solid in my identity – I have always been me all along. The mislabelled bits were still me, the camouflaging bits were still me. I have desperately tried to unpick and categorise what is autistic me and what isn’t. How should I be authentically autistic, how do I unmask? I want to be able to be myself and act in a way that is more noticeably autistic at times e.g. by asking for people to adjust the volume or lighting in a meeting or to be able to regulate myself in whatever way works without feeling ashamed of flapping my arms about or bouncing up and down. I question whether I am too damaged, or too untrue to myself, or whether I am ashamed of my autistic identity because I can’t do these things comfortably. I am not. Every single bit of this is authentically me. No one is purely their neurology, no one is only their gender or their job title or their sexuality or religion. We are a mixture of all of these things and to try and stick the autistic bit in a separate category just doesn’t work for me.
I have seen the jigsaw puzzle piece imagery associated with autism and I don’t relate to it personally. I am my own puzzle that is still being put together. I have no idea what the picture will be and in fact I have thrown the box away! My autism is not a piece that was missing, it is more like the glue that holds all the pieces together. It was there when the first piece was laid and will be there until my puzzle is finished.
A few weeks ago I hadn’t heard of self-isolation but so far I am loving it! I have been enjoying contact with other people more than I have ever done.
That sounds contradictory and even a little facetious I suppose, and in no way do I wish to belittle other people’s experiences. It got me thinking though about how we all take things for granted and how some autistic people will have so much to offer the wider world at the moment. This is because some of the shared struggles in our society during the Covid-19 pandemic are very common daily challenges for autistic people, who have had to learn to cope with them well. I am delighted that so many people are working together and talking about a better world that we can create out of this dreadful and terrifying situation. This is a time for people to listen to each other and learn from each other and share with each other as equals. There may be some viewpoints that we don’t usually hear, or quite likely that we don’t usually listen to because of the biases that exist in society and in our own subjective views of the world.
Now is an ideal opportunity to come together and understand each other better, to learn from each other and have a go at seeing things from different viewpoints. We can all learn from this shared experience of the Covid-19 pandemic. In every other species in the natural world, diversity is a positive thing and an essential component for survival. Isn’t it about time humans caught up?
Before I go any further, we need to discuss empathy. Lots of people have written about autism and empathy – and far better than I can attempt to. You may have heard that autistic people don’t have empathy because they lack theory of mind and can’t imagine how another person thinks and feels; you may have heard that autistic people have too much empathy because they feel absolutely everything. There are different types of empathy anyway – emotional, cognitive and compassionate, for instance. There is no universal definition of how empathy works for autistic or non-autistic people.
This is my personal blog so I’ll describe how empathy works for me – but remember that we’re all different. Some friends of mine who are autistic feel other people’s emotions so strongly and intuitively they find it overwhelming :
My sensory processing is very different to a typical person’s. I hear, smell and see things intensely and notice the details that others miss – in fact I can’t filter any of this out which makes it tough to concentrate or relax; I flinch and jump at a light touch on the arm or an annoying label in my jumper but don’t notice I’ve left half my dinner on my face! I need to walk and do strong physical activities so that I know where my body is and what it is doing or I’ll bump into things and trip over endlessly. It is frightening and disorientating to feel so detached from my body at times.
And internally, my interoception is such that I have attempted to “walk off” a dislocated knee; I have managed several hours of contractions during labour by using breathing techniques and not a cry passed my lips; I may not notice I am coming down with the flu but I will feel unbelievably depressed instead for no reason. I can feel no emotion whatsoever when someone dies or there is a tragic accident – but then it hits me later and then I appear to be dwelling on it, not letting it go and attention seeking, and surely “I should be over it by now”. I don’t have a great sense of what I am feeling and what I do feel is not necessarily accurate so I do not trust my “gut feeling”, in fact, I may not even have one! So, if I have no idea what I am feeling then how on earth am I going to know how you are feeling?
What I understand is gained by observation and learning. I have read a great many books and I have a career in working with people, either in a supportive role, or as a manager. My colleagues include support workers who demonstrate daily how social interactions work; psychologists who tell me “why” people do what they do; psychiatric nurses and psychiatrists who explain “what went wrong” and a multitude of other professionals and families and individuals that I learn from every single day.
So I have developed a good knowledge bank about what people do, some of the potential reasons why, and what an appropriate response should be. And even better, in work this stuff is written down and as long as everyone is consistent and responsive to learning and adapting, then if you follow a person’s support plans or risk assessments you can interact in a meaningful way with people who are really distressed and struggling with communication. It makes me look rather good at all this people skills stuff!
With all this mass of sensory information bombarding me, and no filters; and all the mass of knowledge I need to take on board just to know what to do, things can become overwhelming. I need to compartmentalise things and create rules and systems to work within or else I can’t function. A bit like having some easy to identify folders and sub-folders on your laptop. I am very open-minded because I don’t have filters like “socially appropriate interests for a middle aged woman”, or “cake isn’t a suitable breakfast food”, I don’t get caught up in the excitement of talking about a television programme with colleagues – it creates no emotional response in me. I am not impressed by which car would make me appear most successful or cool – I look at the practicalities of it instead. I am not interested in the hierarchies many people value.
My belief system is one of my own. I have explored religions and share many principles and ways of living my life with a number of different faiths and beliefs but ultimately I don’t believe in any of them at all. I do believe in “doing the right thing”, in “being kind” and enabling people to be themselves so long as they are causing no harm. I am absolutely solid and unswaying in my beliefs. People call this integrity. This is what causes me to be the person speaking out against injustice even though it could be detrimental to my career. It means that I can regulate my own behaviour and act in a fair and consistent way towards other people because I have no ulterior motive and I’m not doing it just to conform or fit in or because I’m frightened of getting into trouble if I don’t.
I don’t “feel” empathy particularly and this can be very useful when supporting someone who is upset or when I managed a residential service for people who displayed challenging behaviour. My reactions don’t tend to trigger other people, there is nothing for their distress to feed off coming from me and I tend to create naturally calm environments around me where emotions don’t escalate because of my interactions or behaviour. I “know” that certain behaviours in another person mean certain things and I combine my knowledge of the individual or situation, and my personal beliefs to create my response to their situation. The down side is, if I have misunderstood or it is a new situation then I don’t know the “rules”. It is also relentlessly exhausting.
Recently I asked a colleague for tips on managing a new situation I had not come across before – the particular type of small talk being used in the Covid-19 pandemic between people who don’t know each other well and want to vent about it. (I am good with talking to friends or family or colleagues about the topic, it’s just this particular aspect I was struggling with). I don’t want to dismiss people, invalidate them or escalate their anxieties but I don’t want to hang around and catch or spread something either! Fortunately my colleague understands me and understands autism so captured it in a way that I understand and can use. She said that when someone random starts talking to me about coronavirus I can use this technique: “Acknowledge (e.g. yes, it is terrible), Divert (e.g. but the weather has been lovely, have you seen all the birds?), Walk away (e.g. I must get going now, bye)” This is a perfect way of managing the situation and explained to me in a way that I can learn off by heart and apply in a number of settings. It also saves me from looking rude, disinterested or going off on a tangent. I have added this to my encyclopaedic knowledge of how to get by in life. This is how I operate. It can feel a bit false and on a bad day I wonder whether I’m some kind of robot and not human, but this is how life has always been for me.
So this is how my empathy works: It is a practical application of doing what is right for the person I am empathising with. I used to think empathy was about finding something in common with the person that we can both relate to and talking about that because that’s how it looks like to me when I observe empathy in the general population. But that can feel very invalidating for the person and is as if I am hijacking their emotional situation, or attention seeking, or making it all about me. I try and avoid that, but it is a difficult balancing act that I frequently get wrong. For the people that know me, it doesn’t matter. They understand that my intentions are good and about being caring, but my actions may appear random, blunt or insensitive. It’s no big deal to them but it holds me back from interacting more with others because of my fear of getting it wrong and being misunderstood. Empathy is extremely complex and difficult to get correct.
There is a place for the “things we’ve got in common” aspect of empathy and this blog will invite the reader to look at autism from that perspective. I respectfully ask that if the reader is not autistic they don’t assume that because we have things in common we must all be “a little bit on the spectrum”. Try and appreciate the complexities and fundamental differences behind the diagnosis. My husband has backache at the moment and is feeling tired, he is not however pregnant. Or even a “bit” pregnant! The important message I would like to share is that fundamentally there is one thing we have in common regardless of our neurology – and that is our humanity.
I like things to be predictable. In fact my husband frequently tells me that I must stop trying to second guess everything all the time. Clearly he doesn’t appreciate the total carnage that would occur if I were to do that! I have to know what is going to happen so that I can plan. If I don’t then how can I ever know what it is I am meant to do? Anything could happen! In fact, my husband is fantastic and he knows that in my unfiltered world I need some predictability and routine to guide me. We have a calendar on the wall and a magnetic planner on the fridge. They have appointments and anniversaries recorded on them. There is additional information at the moment about our lunch and dinner menu. Outside of this self-isolation period, I would not need this level of detail about our meals. I know that my husband will have something prepared for us that we enjoy – and the fact that we always have breakfast, lunch and dinner is enough information for me. But at the moment, in these times of uncertainty, I need to know that lunch is a veggie sausage roll and salad and tonight we are having spaghetti bolognese, followed by strawberries and yoghurt. Breakfast doesn’t need to be written up. Breakfast is easy. It is always crunchy nut cornflakes for me, after all, how could I possibly know the day was underway unless I had my daily fix? I describe my anxiety around the panic buying in my earlier blog about anxiety and coronavirus, and elaborate on the value of routine in my other blogs too. Our son felt much better about life once he had replaced his old pre-coronavirus routine with a new one – this is shared in my blog about coping well and self-care.
My need for doing things a particular way that is planned and organised has been called many things:
• Control freak • Highly organised (when it makes sense to others) • Highly disorganised (when it only makes sense to me!) • Inflexible • Procedure led • Consistent • Rigid • Insensitive • Thorough • Diligent
As you can see, interpretation of why I do things the way I do is open to whichever agenda or opinion you wish to hold. I can appear to be all of these things. I can actually be all of these things – and none of them – and they vary as well. Even though I love a rule and would categorise and break everything down into its tiniest elements if I could, I have to accept that human beings do things for a number of different reasons and these reasons are not fixed across one person, let alone across the entire human race. Me included.
The more unpredictable a situation is then the more people will create a routine so that there is some predictability. I loved reading survival books when I was young. All about how to live off the land after a plane crash with only a small tin containing a magnetised needle, a coil of wire, a match (with the end dipped in wax to keep it dry) and some other handy items. I also know which bear to run away from and which to make yourself look big in front of! I know how to turn urine into fresh water and how to skin a rabbit that I have caught in a noose (using that handy bit of wire). All of this has been completely and utterly useless in my life – particularly as a vegetarian. I should have studied books on how not to get bullied, not be so gullible and how to make friends! However, I do know that in a survival situation it is important to structure your day. Shipwreck survivors are likely to have created themselves a routine and stuck to it rigidly, even through the days of dark depression and flagging motivation. The world feels very frightening to people at the moment and the language and media coverage used to share information about the coronavirus pandemic often conveys fear. Every day can feel like a survival mission for some people. When you consider the difficulties of sensory processing and add to that the particular way imagination works for a lot of autistic people then it begins to make sense why autistic people experience so much anxiety.
Another way that people create predictability is by their behaviour. Sometimes I will plan and structure my outside world to give me a sense of order and control and sometimes I will provide my own internal predictability. This is important to me because I don’t have a great sense of what is going on inside of my body due to poor interoception and I have terrible proprioception as well, which results in countless bruises that I don’t remember getting from where I have misjudged doorways or fallen over my own feet.
I took my son to a trampoline park last month. We both enjoy a good bounce and he challenged me to a jousting duel on the balance beam above a pit of foam. I was wearing black socks and I stepped confidently up onto the black beam and held my pugil stick ready in my best jousting pose. My son approached from his end of the beam and all of a sudden I realised I was absolutely frozen solid. I had taken my glasses off for safety reasons and I could no longer see my black socks on the black beam and although I knew my feet were down there somewhere, I could not make them move despite shouting at them silently inside my head to move forwards or back. There was nothing more I could do. I had to suffer the humiliation of asking a teenage lad to knock me off the beam where I was stuck and into the pit of foam so that I could crawl out!
This experience made me realise how easy it is to misinterpret the actions of autistic people and it reminded me of a training session I attended where my partner said I was refusing to take part in a particular activity. In fact I was unable to despite my best efforts. The task involved using a mirror to complete a simple drawing exercise and in the same way as I couldn’t move those feet of mine because I couldn’t see them and therefore had no sense of where they were, I couldn’t make my hand draw when I could only see it in the mirror. I find mirrors and videos of myself extremely distressing. I have absolutely no sense whatsoever that the person I am looking at is me. I have been looking at some old photos recently and trying to make myself connect in some way with that person in the picture. It is difficult. My inability to recognise myself and move my body or “comply” as so many professionals like to call it can look like I am being lots of other negative words like “uncooperative” or “refusing”. It makes it seem like a choice when it isn’t. It adds a label to a person that does them no favours and offers no help or understanding.
Now that you have a deeper understanding of what it is like living in my body, you may understand why it can feel so reassuring to create predictable and repetitive sensations. There are as many reasons for this as there are for my need for external routines, and they vary in a similar way too. People sometimes use the word “stimming”. It’s not a word I like because it makes something that is so central to who I am (yet keep more hidden than almost anything else I do) feel pathologised and a symptom of something that is wrong with me. I feel ashamed of myself both for doing this in the first place and feeling like this about it, but I have a deep respect for the people who are confident in their openness and ease at being themselves. I would like to live in a world where one day a person flapping their hands in excitement or to relax is seen as normal. Self-stimulatory behaviour as it is sometimes known can be many things including:
• Hand flapping • Jumping • Twirling things • Making favourite noises • Stroking fabrics or textures • Sniffing objects • Listening to a repeated noise
There are as many of these as there are people and the purpose of stimming can be to relax, to liven myself up, to feel good, to calm myself down, to help myself think, to give myself a sense of familiarity and control. It is a need that I have and not something I have a choice over. I don’t view it as a problem that I should give up. I don’t have any repetitive behaviours that are harmful to me (unless you count getting your head kicked in for looking weird!) and if I did or if our son did we would try and change them into something less harmful, but I would never try and stop something that is integral to being me or anyone else. Repetitive behaviours are likely to be increasing across society during this time of uncertainty. Maybe the reader has their own examples? Perhaps you are nervously tapping your leg up and down more at the moment? Or smoking more? Or biting your nails? Maybe that relaxing bath with the essential oils every evening is vital for your wellbeing? Perhaps you’ve taken up knitting again and find the repeated motion of the needles and the sound of them clicking together rhythmically is soothing? Don’t be surprised if your autistic friends, colleagues and family members feel the same and please don’t jump to the conclusion that an increase in repetitive behaviours always means that something is wrong with them. There is something wrong at the moment – the Covid-19 pandemic – and it feels perfectly rational to me to increase my coping strategies because of that. I have a huge selection of coping strategies at my disposal and I try and use the healthier ones.
I have a tendency to take things literally and for me, this is nothing to do with a lack of ability to understand information. I’ll share a piece I wrote recently that describes how this works for me and is pertinent to the current world situation.
So with all this fear, why am I enjoying the social isolation so much? I see inspirational quotes on social media about how we’ll all one day be able to hug in the streets, meet for coffee and engage in small talk yet again. This is not inspirational for me. In fact, if you asked me to describe what a really bad day was like, then those three things would be in there, and pretty near the top! But I am enjoying socialising online and I have been in contact with old friends that I’d lost touch with and I’ve even been on the phone. Yes really. Did you know that you can actually speak with people out loud down a phone and they will talk back? It’s not just for using as a diary and handy internet search tool. I am realising that I am far more sociable than I ever imagined. The threat of having to meet face to face has been completely removed and I am free to communicate from another room! Let me explain why this feels so great:
I like people. I find them interesting. However, (and please reflect on the earlier part of this blog and how my senses work and how I have no filters and a tendency towards a literal interpretation of events, before you take this personally and pass judgment) – people are overwhelming.
Imagine yourself in an empty room with nothing going on. Gradually, people enter the room. It may not bother you, but try and think about it through my senses.
People smell. Every single one of us has our own smell and many people top that off with fragrances too. Imagine all that mixing together and having to be processed. This processing alone will use up some of your capacity to function. Have you ever tried concentrating when there is an unpleasant smell in the room?
People are noisy. Laughter and shouting feel the same to some people – e.g. frightening. All the noises combine and it is difficult to know which you should be paying attention to. So on top of processing the smells, you now have to calm yourself from feeling scared because of the noise and work out what to tune in to.
People move about and are unpredictable. They touch you out of friendship and to build rapport but that hand reaching out may feel uncomfortably gentle and tickly but if you flinch you will look rude so you have to switch a bit of yourself off to cope with the potential touch. So you reduce your capacity for socialising even further by switching a bit of yourself off.
…Another bit of you is processing the smells. Another bit of your capacity is calming yourself down because of the noise. That bit is also saying to you that you must act “normal” and not do anything too autistic to cope with all this like flap your hands about. You are also trying to listen to the correct conversation.
Then the person makes eye contact with you. This feels physically painful and you feel nauseous and panicky. You know that eye contact is normal so you have to use a bit of your capacity to make sure you are doing enough eye contact, at the right intervals and for the right duration. It would be easier not to but that feels rude. Think for a minute about a scenario at a job interview, for instance. Imagine being asked a difficult question that requires thinking. Where do your eyes go? Most people’s eyes will move from eye contact and turn to look slightly upwards and away from the person (or downwards and away from the person if they are feeling intimidated or told off). It frees up some capacity to think.
I haven’t even covered all the senses yet but am conscious of being repetitive. Now add in some factors like taking things literally and struggling to know how you feel or how to show empathy appropriately.
I hope this has shared my experience and helped make a point without being too preachy. My avoidance of social situations is nothing to do with liking people or being aloof. My outward expression because of my poor interoception may make me appear to be disinterested or bored or unemotional but that is not the case. I avoid social contact because it is so bloody exhausting!
What I have found is that this reduction in social overwhelm has increased my usually overloaded capacity. I am able to relax and enjoy things and my focus has been intense and productive. I also know that I am good in a crisis. A line manager once said to me “I do believe you thrive in a crisis” and she was right. When others are reacting emotionally, I am calm and logical and continually seeking a practical solution. Sometimes this is annoying for people. Sometimes people don’t want me to solve their problems, what they want is a listening ear and a person to just sit near them that they can share it with and I am very good at getting this wrong and defaulting to being helpful and trying to fix things. At the moment though, my traits of being calm, following instructions and being able to hyper focus are useful and valuable. Some of my most commercially successful work has been done at times other people would have taken off for compassionate leave. Having a focus gives me a purpose and it regulates me because I know what it is I am meant to be doing. It channels my energy. I was told once that I should take it easy at times of high stress. This was said by a mental health professional that was viewing my undiagnosed autism as a psychiatric illness. This is good advice for some people but not for me. There is always a balance to be found though between focus, interest and obsession. I explored the benefits of seeking information in order to cope with situations in an earlier blog and noted that it is important not to become obsessed. Here are some tips:
Self-care and regulating myself is part of my daily routine. It consists of activities likes walks and exercise and meditation sessions but mostly from integrating self-care as a way of doing things rather than a special activity I have to plan. This is much better for me because if you do things mindfully, for instance, you don’t have to find time for a mindfulness session. I’m more likely to stick at things and remember to do them. My hobbies are important at the moment and I am delighted to see that it is becoming “normal” again to have hobbies. Years ago, people would ask each other what their hobbies were and they’d take pride in them. They weren’t always competitive things but were activities that provided a focus and brought enjoyment to the person. Hobbies have gone out of fashion in mainstream society but autistic people frequently have hobbies. Sometimes this is pathologised in my personal opinion, and is referred to as a “Special Interest”. I have friends who are comfortable and proud of the “Special Interests” label and they quite rightly say that their special interest is far more than a hobby. It is something they have an intense and deep knowledge about, something that brings them far more pleasure and satisfaction than the hobbies people tend to have does. I agree with them on that and to call their interest a hobby would be disrespectful and invalidate the importance of it to them or their incredible levels of knowledge, commitment and skill. This is the great thing about people though. We can disagree on things. I am totally cool with calling my friend’s special interest a special interest and she calls mine a hobby. There is no right or wrong and we both know what we mean.
What is important is that everyone can benefit from finding an interest or hobby. It gives a break from the day to day mundane parts of life. It provides respite from the stresses and strains going on around us. It enables us to put our energy somewhere productive and creative. My hobbies are fairly mainstream and this is not uncommon in girls and women who have autism. We tend to be more affected by social pressures and choose to pursue interests that don’t make us stand out any more than we already do. What I will say is, enjoy your hobbies and take an example from those unconventional people in society – autistic or not. I’m pretty mainstream with my hobbies compared to some people but still a little unconventional. Do whatever it is that brings you joy. If your interest is motorbikes and you’re a woman then so what! If you have a secret stash of animal bones in your garden that your husband doesn’t know about (oops! until now), then who cares!
These are strange times. People keep telling me this. They are right.
I feel fear of the unknown everyday because I am autistic. I crave predictability and feel stressed when my routine changes. I want to understand everything I can so that I feel in control, but there are some things that need more than an explanation to sort them out. I crave solitude and time on my own so that I can have a break from the overwhelming world. So please don’t feel sorry for me sat on my own or when I turn down an office party – I like being like this and I don’t want to be more sociable, it’s ok and I am alone but certainly not lonely.
There are valuable lessons to be learned from each other and I include all people in this – of every neurology, gender, sexuality, race, age or IQ. I secretly (well not so secretly now!) hope that many of the quietened voices in society will be heard during this time of reduced social contact. Those people that don’t thrive in a busy, social world; those people that are problem solvers every day of their lives; the innovative thinkers; the ones who find simple pleasures in life with total disregard for perceived status; the ones who aren’t heard because their voice isn’t communicated through speech or people simply don’t listen to them. If we are going to make a better world through this crisis then lets make sure everyone is enabled to play a part in it this time.
“Mummy, I’m happier now I’ve got a new routine”. This is a relief for us all in our family. We are no different to any other family at the moment coping with these strange and uncertain times. Some of our challenges may feel a bit quirky, unusual or just plain selfish to other people but they are our reality in the same way that every single individual, couple and family will be having their own unique set of challenges at the moment.
We were eating our Sunday dinner. This was important. My husband had cooked a favourite roast meal for us, the same as on any other typical Sunday. I made sure that my veggie sausage acted as a gravy breakwater so that no gravy seeped on to my roast potatoes. What I would have given when I was young to have those food dividers on my plate to ensure separate foods didn’t touch! But back then when I was growing up, it was called being a “fussy eater”. My son, who is a teenager and now bigger than me; and who enjoys wrestling; cartoons that involve lots of swearing and gross-out humour; and is planning how he will attract girls by developing a muscly chest and holding our cute dog in a photograph for his tiktok account (I kid you not!) has mashed potato not roast. And it is lovingly crafted into the shape of a steam ship by my husband – complete with upright sausage funnel. This familiarity brings us pleasure and reassurance. Even the dog is happy, she recognises Sunday by all the visual, scent and auditory cues that go with our weekly roast dinner and she’s eyeing up her bowl in readiness for some leftover veg. If our son settles down with a partner when he is older, I hope they have skills in making sausage and mash steam ships!
Our son announced to us that he was happy because he has a new routine now. He listed his routine and although it didn’t sound that educational, healthy or varied, it was a good solid routine that would fit into these strange times and add some predictability and control for him. It is like this:
Watch a cartoon
Play video games
Go outside for the afternoon
Watch YouTube videos
Watch a comedy programme or a car programme
Bedtime story with dad
In fact, it is a fantastic routine because he has created it himself and we can add in various bits and pieces to his day that won’t upset the routine but will add variety and balance. For instance, the YouTube video watching time can be used to slip in something educational. The video games time can be spent online gaming with friends – including old friends he has lost contact with. The outdoor time can be used for all manner of activities that will promote exercise and wellbeing.
Before this new routine had become set in our son’s day, he was extremely restless and although I feel I shouldn’t say it; demanding. He cannot initiate activities for himself and it was an endless “mummy” (said in a very particular tone that consists of 4 syllables and a whine) “what shall I do now?”. This was mostly because he did not know what to do but also because he freely admits he likes saying “mummy” like that. He tells me that he finds the sensation in his mouth and ears very satisfying. It probably also creates a stronger reaction in me than his normal chatter if I’m honest, and as someone who is not particularly demonstrative or outwardly emotional, he possibly enjoys seeing my lack of patience escalate whilst I am trying to look calm and normal! Of course, getting fantastic sensory feedback from certain sensations can be very stimulating and if you repeat them endlessly it can create its own sense of calm, predictability and control – and just plain, feel nice – which is important to remember during these times where so much doesn’t feel nice because of the anxiety whirling through society. I am sure an increase in repetitive behaviours is a fact of life for many autistic people at the moment. His new routine hasn’t stopped him asking questions or seeking reassurance about what is happening or needing prompts for what to do next but it has helped him feel slightly calmer and helped us as parents understand him better which means we can respond in a more helpful way. It means we can concentrate more on our own self care which is vital, particularly when you are all under one roof. I need to wind down at the same time as our son winds up in the evenings and this can create quite spectacular meltdowns from us all if not anticipated and proactively managed. I’m not saying it will avoid overload or overwhelm but it has reduced the impact of it.
My own anxiety about the uncertainties has increased too and of course my autism is affecting how this looks and feels. I imagine I have the same anxieties as the rest of society about getting ill and seeing loved ones get ill. And the whole, massive, almost infinite box of “what ifs?” and “whys?” that is sitting directly above my head, drip feeding my brain at the moment. My routine hasn’t changed much and some pressures have been reduced because I thrive on working from home and my job is safe, my employers are fantastic and I have a valued and important job that is enabling me to focus my coronavirus anxieties and the need to plan, control and understand what is going on into something positive, useful and beneficial. It also means I can leave Covid-19 at the metaphorical office door when I finish work and I can focus on other things.
It is important for me to have breaks from interests and I crave balance in my life constantly because I know it benefits me. I have a tendency to hyper focus and fixate on things to the point of obsession and this can be detrimental to my wellbeing so I need to compartmentalise things so that they don’t take over. “Broad rather than deep” is my mantra at the moment. Although I readily admit that my ‘normal’ depth is probably deeper than most people’s – I can’t just let it lie, I have to explore, find out and see how everything works. I can hear my mum’s voice berating me “you have to fiddle with everything don’t you, why can’t you just leave it alone instead of taking it apart and breaking it?!” I have always been an analyser.
Social distancing. I had never heard of this phrase two weeks ago, but I am loving the experience. I am absolutely not being facetious about this. I have been more sociable than ever before. I have reconnected with old friends, colleagues and acquaintances and I’m enjoying the online contact with them. What makes this work is that there is no expectation that we will have to meet face to face. I avoid friendships and going out in groups because I find it so painful not knowing what to do and say and it reminds me that I am different – and that reminds me of every negative experience I have ever had of being weird, different and an easy target for bullies or teasing.
Our son is from a very different generation. Differences are more accepted and he has grown up with ‘different being normal’ in our family. He is far more self-assured than I am and he is missing his friends and the face to face contact and being able to run around with them and play fight and hit each other and muck about and wrestle them. Strong proprioceptive input is important for his sensory regulation and although I am a middle aged woman and smaller than my son and therefore not a good wrestling partner – particularly if you take into account my accident proneness – we need to find time for lots of strong hugs and squeezes and physical work like digging the garden and moving firewood and bouncing around on a gym ball. He also misses talking with his friends and the PlayStation is a wonderful tool at the moment because he can play online, (combat games mostly) and pop his headset on and talk to them. It does make the house feel rather small though with his put-on Cockney accent shouting orders at his platoon to take down enemy troops!
Education can wait. It can be done by stealth. Sneak in an educational YouTube video; strike up an interesting and informed discussion or debate about sociology, politics and the media – there is after all a wealth of information out there ripe for discussion. The biggest lesson I hope he learns from this is how to develop resilience and good coping skills. I wasn’t taught these and I didn’t learn them myself from watching others. What I did learn as a child about coping was not always the healthiest or safest ways to get by and has cost me deeply in wasted years where I no longer thrived and in ‘treatment’ and therapy to put things right. It was far easier to rebalance my missed education. School was not a good place for me and in terms of exam results I certainly ‘failed’ even though my attendance levels were high and I did not miss time because of a pandemic. When the time was right I completed a Masters degree and I have just written out my proposal for the PhD I am going to undertake. It was relatively easy to achieve with hard work and the right sensory environment for studying in. What was much harder to rebalance and is a daily effort on my part is my mental wellbeing.
Self-care through these times is essential and I hope we can make a better, fairer, kinder society because of this pandemic. Even if we can’t, the most important thing for our family at the moment is being together, reflecting on what is important to us and for us and helping each other cope. That is the thing we can influence. We cannot make politicians see sense, we cannot make people follow advice, we cannot learn everything there is to know about immunology and virology and medicine and even if we did it may not change anything. But we can take our time, take stock of who we are and create new routines that work and demonstrate how important it is to take care of ourselves. From that, good coping skills and resilience will come and that will be a more useful lesson in life than doing sums or history lessons.