Monthly Archives: November 2014

Big news and important conversations

I have trouble with important conversations. I’m sure everyone does, really. That’s why they’re important after all: because they’re difficult but have to happen anyway. But I think the trouble I have is sometimes different to other people.

Recently, I got some exciting news – a knitting magazine commissioned me to design a pattern. When I shared the news with my family, I’m pretty sure I did it wrong! I mean, I didn’t upset or offend them or anything. But when I told my brother, he exclaimed that I didn’t tell him as soon as he came home and instead waited until a bit later. And my mum said “You never tell us anything!” because the news was surprising.

It was just a regular example of autistic-NT mistranslation. I’ve been thinking about it a bit, and I still can’t figure out what would have been different for them to not have reacted in those ways.

How are you supposed to make news less surprising? Should I have eased into the conversation by saying “So… I’ve been knitting a lot lately…”? The main point is still pretty much one sentence-worth of information, so I don’t see how you could do it in a less abrupt way.

And it’s really hard to know when is the right time to initiate a conversation. Should I have blurted it out the moment my brother walked through the door? Surely not! I thought that I was waiting an appropriate time so as not to seem self-centred and to let him settle in back at home before bringing up something major.

I’m not really bothered by this. I’m perfectly aware of the fact that it’s hard for me to communicate with people, and sometimes it goes wrong and sometimes I’m not always sure how or why it went wrong. I just find it interesting. I guess this is an area where I’m missing out on the innate rules that other people seem to have. Rules like:

  • How to correctly judge the importance of different topics.
  • How to talk about topics of different levels of importance.
  • Which levels of importance are required information for which levels of relationship.

This is yet another reason that I generally prefer text-based communication. It’s so much easier to introduce a new topic via, e.g. email or text. It’s perfectly natural to add a new point whenever you think of it. You don’t have to worry about choosing the correct time and situation for the other person to talk about it, and worry that they might be busy or stressed or distracted. They get to make that decision, because the interaction is delayed and so they can choose the right time to work on their response. It seems so much simpler that way. In a face-to-face conversation, both people are trying to carefully think about both people at once. That’s twice as many people to stress about!

Seasonal excitement

I really like christmas. I also have also had a pretty complicated relationship with it. That relationship changed a lot over time and there are some weird nostalgia-like feelings when I think about the way it’s changed, which then adds yet another layer to the complication of emotions.

(sidenote: I think “complication” should definitely be the correct collective noun for emotions)

When I look back, I can describe my experience of christmas in some fairly distinct stages.

Childhood magic

This was the first ‘stage’ of my christmas experience. My earliest christmas memories are of indescribable excitement, eating chocolate all day, getting new toys, waking up before dawn with a rustling stocking at the end of my bed… all the typical childhood joys.

Dying magic

This was the part where childhood naivety started to run out. It corresponds with the time I learned Father Christmas wasn’t real, but also when I stopped being so desperately interested in toys or sweets. I have some fairly negative memories from this period. Times when I was still instinctively excited about christmas: often for months in advance! But then when the day came, I realised that nothing could live up to the mythical standards I was imagining. And it was over so quickly, after pinning all my expectations on that one day. Then I’d be left disappointed with the anticlimax, and miserable that I wasted so much time and energy being so ‘childishly’ excited for something so appaently unremarkable.

Giving

I created my own solution for the lost magic: giving presents. I’d spend forever planning and organising gift bags with sweets and small toys, deciding exactly what to give everyone and how to present it. This allowed me to be in control of my own sense of excitement. I was no longer waiting for an unknown to fulfil my hopes, because I was the one who knew what I was giving.

Acceptance

This phase started the most suddenly out of all of them. One year I was so depressed that I was barely able to comprehend the idea of a future, let alone the idea of looking forward to or planning for an event like christmas. When it eventually happened, it turned out to be one of my most content and enjoyable christmases of all time. This is when I realised what christmas is really about for me.

Even if you ignore all of the planning, presents, giving, receiving… (although all of that can add to it!). For me, the point of christmas is to find a way to make it through the darkest nights of winter. It’s so instinctive: when it’s dark and cold and times are hard, we get together to keep warm and eat and play and make our own lights in the dark. Nothing else really matters.

I’m looking forward to christmas this year. But I don’t feel bad about looking forward to it, like I used to. I’m not looking forward to one short day and a bedroom full of new toys. I’m looking forward to the uniquely human way of dealing with a cold and dark season. I’m looking forward to just existing in the company of all the most important people in my world. I’m looking forward to enjoying the frost and rain from a warm, bright place. I’m looking forward to creating our own reasons to be happy, for ourselves and each other.

Choices

Recently I’ve been thinking about my academic future. I started a distance-learning degree in October, and I quite quickly decided to switch from part-time to full-time. Which means deciding which course/s to add to my workload, because the degree is totally open – so every course is optional.

The course I’m already doing is in science. The main things I was torn between for my next course were maths and psychology. Maths has always been my best and favourite subject. But psychology is important to me because I want to learn about how people – and especially autistic people – work.

At first glance, it seems like maths should be the first choice. It’s been my strongest subject since before I can remember. Anyone who knew me as a kid would always say maths is what I “should” be doing. And I can understand that. It’s even what I think instinctively. But when I think about it a bit more carefully, that’s not the case.

Maths is really important to me. It’s pretty much the first language of my brain. When I reach for an analogy, I reach for mathematical concepts without even noticing. When I’m trying to find a way to understand something, I’m really finding a way to turn it into maths so that it can fit in my brain.

But that doesn’t actually mean that I should be studying maths, or that it’s necessarily my favourite or most important subject. A person who thinks in words does not assume that they want to study language. They use language to process whatever they do study. It’s the same for me, with maths. No matter what I learn or think about, I will be using maths constantly. So I don’t need to worry that, if I don’t study maths, I might lose one of my favourite subjects.

Whereas that is more likely to be the case with psychology. I think about autism a lot, but it’s the subject of my thoughts – not the language of my thoughts. Which means that if I do want to think about autism, I have to actively decide to.

So, I’ve decided on a psychology module. Part of the reason I’m posting this is so that I can read back over it if I start doubting my decision again. But I don’t think I will!

“Everyone feels that way”

This is one of those seemingly small things that really irritates me. It’s such a natural response for a lot of people when someone talks about something difficult, but it absolutely always makes me feel worse.

It’s never true. I mean yeah, a lot of things are pretty common among a lot of people. But nothing is completely universal to everyone. So it’s always an oversimplification and an exaggeration.

It probably means you don’t understand. I don’t think I’ve ever listened to someone talk about an experience and said (or thought), “everyone feels that way”. If I ever do think that, I always assume that I’ve misunderstood, and that generally turns out to be true. If something seems like it’s universal, that’s probably because you haven’t got all the detail. Even a seemingly ‘common’ thought, like “I’m not very attractive”, is always way more complicated than it seems. At its simplest, it might be true that a lot of people think things along those lines. But when you get down to what’s underneath that thought and what it really means, it’s always unique to any person. So dismissing it as “everyone feels that way”, is really just saying “I don’t care enough to understand the full extent of what you are talking about”.

It doesn’t make me feel any better. This is probably something that varies between individuals. Maybe for some people, knowing a problem is common actually does make them feel better. But that doesn’t work for me. If I have a problem, I want solutions or nothing. And telling me that other people have the same problem does not count as a solution.

It makes me feel weak and broken. This is really the big one. Telling me that “everyone feels that way” has the subtext of “and everyone else handles it better than you”. That might not be the intention, but it’s the way my brain interprets it as the most logical meaning. If I’m talking about something fairly everyday that causes me crippling anxiety, and you tell me that everyone gets anxious about it – the implication is that everyone else gets anxious and does it anyway. And I don’t want to, or I can’t, and that means that I’m weaker than everyone else.

It’s a way of one-upping other people’s problems. It’s great to offer advice based on a similar experience. But when that turns into “my problems are worse than yours”, it gets unhelpful and annoying really fast.

Maybe this is all just one of those mysterious autistic-NT communication barriers. It’s hard for me to imagine being the type of person that finds this helpful, but maybe most NT people do. Otherwise, they wouldn’t say it all the time, right?

Inertia

Inertia

inertia: a property of matter by which it continues in its existing state of rest or uniform motion in a straight line, unless that state is changed by an external force.

Autistic inertia is common but little-known and poorly understood. It lies somewhere on the borderline between catatonia and executive dysfunction.

Inertia doesn’t mean laziness, or not wanting to do things, or procrastinating – although it can look like all of those things. But sometimes it also looks like mania, obsessiveness, or even a burst of motivation. Because inertia just means difficulty changing state, and that original state can be anything. The simplest explanation for how inertia looks and feels: sometimes an autistic person ends up doing something they don’t want to be doing, or not doing something they do want to be doing.

Causes

There are a lot of different possible causes and contributing factors for inertia, and they can be different for everyone.  Part of what makes it difficult to understand or explain is that there can be endless possible causes, which can all lead to apparently the same result. I’ve been thinking carefully about this for a while, and I’ve come up with a list of the most common causes for me.

Energy levels. This is the most catatonia-like one. It’s hard for me to switch from low-energy to high-energy activities, or vice versa. This is part of what’s happening when I’m sitting at home and I need to get up and go out. My brain is stuck in low-energy mode and I can’t properly imagine or work out how to switch into high-energy mode. It’s also what happens when I start doing something like tidying up my room, and I end up spending hours frantically cleaning and organising things. In that situation, I’m stuck in high-energy and it’s easier for me to switch to a brand new high-energy activity, than switch to low-energy mode and take a break.

Time anxiety. I have trouble describing this, but it’s a really big thing for me. I think I have trouble with medium-term time perception. I can abstractly imagine periods like months or years, and I can instinctively understand very short times like minutes or seconds. But in-between lengths of time like hours or days are difficult for me to get my head around. So if I need to start an activity that is going to last for a medium-term amount of time, I can’t properly imagine how long that is. Which makes me really anxious and confused, and so I can’t start the activity because I can’t imagine it.

Decisions. This is probably the most obvious executive function-related cause. Sometimes it’s just really difficult for me to make a decision. Especially if the choices are arbitrary, or uncertain, or I feel like I’m missing information, or any number of other things. One obvious example of this is when I have a chore to do which has an unspecified time limit. For example, I know that I need to wash some laundry at “some point today”. But because it’s not specific enough, and there’s no other way to make the decision, I end up not doing it at all. I can be thinking “I need to wash laundry today”, and sitting around doing nothing, but it’s still difficult to actually make myself do it even with nothing else in the way.

Memory. Another definite executive function thing. My working memory is disproportionately weak, considering my long-term memory and general abilities. If there’s nothing to prompt or remind me about a task, I will often completely forget about it. This can even happen with things that I really want or need to do. It’s not that I deliberately ignore it or pretend not to think about, so that I can avoid doing something. It’s just that it genuinely doesn’t cross my mind unless there’s some kind of external cue.

Hindrances

The simplest and most obvious thing that affects my susceptibility to inertia is general stress. Stress from overload, anxiety, tiredness, or any of the millions of things that can bother me. When I’m stressed for any reason, I’m more likely to have trouble with all of the contributing factors to inertia. Executive function and memory gets harder because I have less cognitive resources to spare, it’s harder to handle any additional anxiety because I’m already anxious, it’s more difficult to override my instinctive energy level sticking when I’m busy stressing about other things.

Having other people around can also sometimes make things worse. I’ve written before about how other people overwrite my edges very easily. When I need help to get something done, that’s great. But when I need to do something a specific way, that’s a problem. If I want to do some university work on the dining room table, and someone else is tidying up – I can get ‘stuck’. Instead of my own energy level getting stuck, the other person’s energy level gets in my way. I have trouble doing a low-energy activity like sitting and working, if there is someone doing high-energy things around me.

Workarounds

I don’t have any easy solutions (sorry, if that’s what you were hoping for). The first step is to accept that inertia is a thing that happens and can’t be completely solved or taken away. But there are two main things that help stop me getting stuck, or get me un-stuck if it happens: prompts, and planning.

Prompts. This one can help with all the causes to varying extents, but most significantly problems with memory. I leave reminders for myself when there’s something I need or want to do. I write lists of things I like doing, to check on when I’m bored. I conscientiously keep a to-do list for even minor tasks. I am in the routine of automatically looking at the calendar when I go into the kitchen. All of these help me dodge around the fact that my brain isn’t very good at remembering things by itself.
Other people can be very valuable prompts, too. They can remind me of things, and can be very helpful when I’m stuck on a decision. If a decision is completely arbitrary, then often the easiest solution is to just get another person to make it for me. It’s not mentally taxing for them, and it makes whatever I’m doing much easier.

Planning. This is really important to help with making decisions, and also the mysterious ‘time anxiety’. When I need to make a decision, I work through it as systematically as possible. I break things down into small parts and logically figure out the pros and cons and the best solution. Doing that helps me avoid the fact that I’m not very good at: a) knowing what I want, or b) instinctive or common-sense decisions.
Planning helps with time anxiety by breaking things down into small enough parts for me to imagine. If I’m going to be spending five hours at a family gathering, I get as much information as I can about exactly what will be happening. That allows me to imagine things in smaller parts, like “half an hour in the lobby with drinks”, and “the speech will last ten minutes”.

Recognising

Inertia is a weird and subtle thing. It was yet another trait that I didn’t initially realise that I had. But realising and accepting that I do experience it has helped me deal with it. It’s never going to go away, and I probably wouldn’t want to – sometimes it’s handy to accidentally spend all day cleaning! But at least I can now understand what’s happening when I don’t seem to be doing what I want to be doing.

Scripting

When I’m with same-age friends, I often end up being the one who interacts with the ‘adults’ and strangers on behalf of the group. It’s usually me who talks to the person at the checkout, or the waiter, or whoever seems to be in charge and know what they’re doing.

It’s strange, because I’m not very good at interacting with people. I can’t really keep up with smalltalk or start a conversation with a friend. And yet I’m much better at those kinds of stranger interactions than my peers.

I think it’s to do with scripting. For a lot of autistic people, scripting is important. It lets us plan out what needs to be said, and prepare for all eventualities. We can use scripts to make sure we know the right thing to say in a certain situation. I’m good at purposeful conversation with strangers because I’m good at scripting. I plan what I need to say and make sure I get my point across with the most efficiency.

But I’m bad at non-purposeful social interactions, for the same reason. When there’s not a specific piece of information that needs to be exchanged, it’s impossible to plan out the interaction. What am I supposed to say? How do I say it? What do I expect them to say in response? It’s a nightmare.

Neurotypical people my age are generally good at that stuff. They seem to like improvising and playing with social dances and games. But because they’re good at that, they also tend to be bad at scripting – because they don’t generally need it. So when they do need to have a functional interaction, it’s difficult – because their usual social skills are less relevant. Tactical dishonesty and subtlety is not very useful when trying to get a specific message across.

I always used to be confused when my outgoing friends became suddenly shy and awkward when trying to interact with a stranger like a cashier or waiter. Over time I learned that their social skills were better suited to social relationships. While mine are better suited to functional interactions.

I think this is quite an interesting example of how autistic people don’t have worse social skills, but just different skills.