Burnout

I crashed out of secondary school twice during the course of my five years there. I dropped out of college by the end of my second year. I bailed on my first ever ‘proper’ job at a fast food restaurant after less than two months and about ten shifts, half of which I didn’t go to. I had to give up on my volunteering position in a cafe after a few months and several missed days.

For a long time I was able to recognise this pattern, but I couldn’t understand it. I was never able to explain it to other people, because it just sounded like I was being irrationally negative: “I just have mental breakdowns every few years, so it’s bound to happen again soon.” People would just try to reassure me that I was exaggerating or making assumptions. But… I usually turned out to be right.

Eventually I came across the phrase “autistic burnout”. It’s an experience that lots of people have described, where a period of long-term gradual overload becomes intolerable. That sounds understandable enough: non-autistic people experience burnout sometimes too, maybe when they have major life events happening. But my burnout hasn’t been at times of particularly major life events – nothing more major than others around my age were going through. The explanation for that is deceptively simple, but difficult to fully explain: I have a much lower than average threshold for stimulation.

Stimulation

I’m not just talking about sensory stimulation here – that’s a part of it, but only a small part. I’m talking about the really general meaning of stimulation. For me, that includes things like:

  • Spending time around people (moreso if they are strangers).
  • Being told what to do.
  • Doing time-dependent and time-limited tasks.
  • Travelling away from home.
  • Anything which involves commitment to a task or a time or anything else.
  • Dealing with a rigid social hierarchy of any kind.
  • Sensory input – a lot (e.g. crowded places), bad (e.g. smells), or both.

There are other things, too – I only wrote down the main ones. Some of them are so subtle that it’s difficult to even define them. It’s probably easier to define what stimulation isn’t. It isn’t “me being at home by myself doing whatever I want”. Anything which deviates from that will be stimulation of some kind or another.

Threshold

I think the concept of stimulation applies to everyone – autistic and otherwise. Everyone is probably familiar with the feeling of needing a break, or being desperate for a holiday, or just wanting everything to STOP. Everyone has a certain amount of energy (or spoons, if you prefer) per day, per week, per hour – and it costs that energy to deal with stimulation.

The difference is that not everyone has the same amount of energy. The average able-bodied NT person has plenty of energy to spare, so that they rarely ‘run out’. Most of the time they are perfectly able to have a full-time job, socialise, look after themself and their home, and pursue their interests and hobbies. The idea of a limited energy level that doesn’t simply result in sleepiness after a long day is difficult to understand if you’ve never experienced it.

But some people – autistic people for example, or people with chronic illness, or mental health problems, or many other things – have a much smaller amount of energy to spend. That means they run their energy down to zero much more quickly when doing the same things. People with reduced energy thresholds can still exert themselves once they’ve run out – just like spending money with an overdraft. But overloading that energy debt can have extreme negative consequences (just like how you pay back more in interest than the amount you actually borrowed).

Depending on the reason for a person’s reduced energy threshold, the result of an energy debt may vary. For a person with chronic pain, getting into energy debt might result in a flare-up. For me, the energy limit is not so much physical as neurological. So the result of me getting into debt is a mental inability to cope: which results in severe anxiety, panic attacks, and depression.

Burnout – meltdown

My description of an inability to cope with overload might sound familiar if you read my post about meltdowns. That’s because it is similar. In fact, I’d say that burnout is a type of meltdown – one that occurs over a much longer timescale. It fits the same niche: it’s my brain’s last resort, an extreme emotional release as a result of overload. But it’s a response to a chronic energy debt, instead of an acute one.

Burnout eventually does have the intended effect – it stops the overload. Because it stops my ability to function at all, which handily includes my ability to go to school or work or do the things that were draining my energy faster than I could replenish it. Just like a meltdown forces me to get out of whatever situation was acutely overloading me.

Aftermath

After I’ve hit burnout, there is an unavoidable period of rest as I pay back that energy debt (which could take weeks or years, depending on how large the debt is). And then, if I haven’t learned my lesson, I go back to the overloading things and start racking the debt back up again.

So, I think I will try to learn my lesson. The trouble is, that’s not easy. I’ve spent my life so far having full-time occupations and catastrophically failing to cope with them. I don’t actually know what it’s like to have a level of stimulation that I can cope with. I don’t know what level of stimulation that will be, and I don’t know how to find out without testing myself until I crash again.

For now, my plan is to increase my level of stimulation very slowly. It’s been two years since I dropped out of college after my latest period of burnout. I spent the first year with no real occupation, which was needed in order to repay the massive debt I’d accumulated over the years previously. For the last year I’ve been studying at home full-time, which entails only minimally more than zero stimulation.

This next year I’m planning to carry on studying full-time, and incrementally add more things into my life. I’m about to become an assistant presenter for courses about autism, which will probably only happen a few times a year but is very high-concentration in terms of stimulation (talking to groups of strangers – eek!). I’m tentatively starting to work on a book and looking into publishers. I’m hoping to take more direct action on my mental health. I want to try to see my distantly-located friends and brother more frequently.

Those are mostly good things, but they’re also very hard. I am extremely wary about pushing myself too much. Burnout is not fun.

Disabled

It’s difficult to explain the concept of limited energy to people who haven’t experienced it. It’s even more difficult to explain when I actually have functioned with a full-time occupation before. If I now say I’m unable to do that, it either seems like I’m flat-out lying, or like I’m deliberately ‘disabling’ myself by limiting what I can do. But neither of those is the case. I never knew that most people don’t feel overwhelmed and overloaded all the time. I did know that most people don’t have mental health breakdowns like clockwork every few years – but I didn’t know why that happened to me and not others. Maybe most significantly, I didn’t know that energy limits existed, let alone that the idea could explain my experiences.

Now that I do know those things, I’m not lying about my past or trying to make myself worse off than I am. I’m finally being honest, to myself, about my own abilities. If that looks like I’m limited myself, it’s only because I’ve pushed myself way too hard for my whole life until now. It might look like I now have the life of a ‘more’ disabled person than I have before. But it’s actually the opposite. I am just as disabled as I always have been, but now I am taking some control over how my life works. I’m looking forward to finding out what happens.

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Change of direction

Last year, I wrote a post about what I wanted from my academic future. I cockily ended that post with “I’m sure I won’t change my mind!” – I should have spotted the potential for irony. Although arguably, I’m not changing my mind. I’m not regretting the decision I made at the time. It’s just that new information and experiences have arisen, and now I am making a new, different decision.

I’ve almost finished the first year of my distance-learning degree, which means it’s time to choose the modules for my second year. A few weeks back, I was in a bit of a crisis about the decision. I was torn (as I have been for most of my life) between psychology and physics/maths.

I say physics/maths, because they are in the same category to me. They fit together and they belong together, and it’s the combination of the two that I’m interested in. Psychology, on the other hand, does not fit together with them. They are two very incompatible subject areas. And don’t bother trying to find a compromise, either. I don’t care about “the psychology of the universe” or “the statistics behind psychology”. I am interested in them in two extremely different, separate, and irreconcilable ways.

Then I had something of an epiphany. I realised that, while I am interested in both areas, I only feel a need to contribute to existing knowledge of psychology. I want to gain new information about autism, and improve the way that people understand it. Whereas I just want to learn about physics. Seeing as my ideal career (in either subject) involves higher study and eventually research, it makes sense that I should choose the one I feel the need to contribute to.

But, then, not long after that epiphany, I had another one – sort of. I watched The Theory Of Everything (the film about Stephen Hawking). And I was overcome with the urge to be a physicist. Everything about the film just made me think “this is the kind of life I should have” and “those are the people I belong with” and “these are the things I need to learn about”. I was reminded just how strongly I feel about physics, in a way that I’ve never felt about psychology. I realised that there’s no point in going with a ‘practical’ choice if it goes against the way I actually feel about the options.

There’s also the fact that it’s possible for me to spend time contributing to psychology without getting a PhD and being a researcher. I’m doing that right now! I am blogging, surveying, working on a book, and I’m about to become an assistant presenter for educational courses about autism. By virtue of my own autisticality, I am already a kind of psychology expert. I don’t need to worry about losing touch with my interest in psychology. I’m always going to be autistic and it’s always going to be relevant.

Whereas I have been reminded that it is worryingly easy for me to lose touch with my interest in physics. My science module this year finished slightly earlier than my psychology module. And in the few weeks since I finished studying it, I am already missing it! But it’s difficult to stay involved in science at the level I am interested in, without formally studying it. I am going to carry on blogging and writing and thinking about autism no matter what else I’m doing with my life. But if I really want to be involved in physics, then I have to actually make it happen.

So, I’m making it happen! I’m switching to a specific Maths + Physics joint honours degree, and I’m going to be a physicist.

…I think.

 

What is autism?

I have gradually become less certain of the answer to this question. At this point, my short version is “I have no idea!”.

The most accurate answer is “autism is the label given to people who fit certain behavioural traits”. That’s so circular that it’s pretty much meaningless, but it’s also the only answer that really means anything.

Autism was originally defined based on behaviour, by two separate researchers who described a small number of individuals fitting certain traits. Since then, it’s continued to be defined based on behaviour, although the actual criteria have changed a lot over time.

When something is defined by appearance, it’s easy to automatically assume that there’s something ‘underneath’ that sums it all up. The most pleasing and logical explanation is that autism is caused by one thing, one difference in brain structure or growth or biochemistry – and that every autistic person has that same underlying thing. The trouble is, there’s actually no evidence for that. Lots of people have tried to find it, but no-one has succeeded. There are vague bits and pieces that autistic people tend to have certain brain differences, or that most autistic people share a certain cognitive trait, or that there’s a correlation between autism and some biochemical process. But if something can’t be shown to apply to every autistic person, then it can’t be considered the underlying ‘thing’.

Of course it’s still possible that there is one underlying thing, and we just haven’t been able to find it yet. But it’s also possible that there’s not, and that there are multiple different underlying things which can result in autistic traits. That seems plausible based on the fact that no-one’s been able to find something that’s consistent across all autistic people. But it also raises the question of why and how the same set of traits can arise from various completely different causes.

So, there may not be one underlying thing. And there has never been a perfectly consistent set of behavioural traits. And yet, we still act like autism is ‘something’ and that we all know what it means! This kind of uncertainty makes me feel like I shouldn’t be writing about autism at all. How can I write about something when I don’t know what it is? But then I remind myself that no-one else knows what it is either, and they’re all still writing about it.

I think it’s pretty likely that there are subtypes of autism. Although I definitely don’t think those subtypes correspond to the functioning levels or the autism/Asperger’s distinction that is so popular. If they are defined by anything, my guess is they’re defined by the types of cognitive processes a person has, which is probably influenced by whatever is the underlying cause of their particular autism. I have spoken to autistic people who I strongly relate to, and others who feel almost as different from me as NT people are, as well as a wide range in between. And those groups do not remotely correspond to whether a person is considered high or low functioning, whether they can speak, or what diagnosis they might have.

But – at least for the moment – it’s useful to have a name for this big overall group of people who tend to have a lot of things in common. Until we have a better idea of what the subtypes are (if there are any), or until we are accommodated so well that we don’t even need a label, ‘autism’ is handy. Better to have a vaguely defined label than none at all. I don’t know what we mind find out about autism in the future (especially once researchers stop wasting all their time and money on trying to cure it, and start learning actually interesting and useful things). But for now, as a scientist, all I have to go on is the best available evidence and hypotheses.

So, I guess I’ll just carry on writing about this thing which I don’t remotely understand, which I can’t possibly define, which no-one is able to make sense of, and which is somehow still a hugely important part of my life.

The gender talk

I haven’t explicitly talked about gender on this blog before. I haven’t exactly been avoiding the topic, it just never seemed relevant. But then as I avoided mentioning it for longer, it became a Big Deal, so I avoided it even more.

Terminology 101

Before I dive into talking about myself, I’ll start with explaining some words. I’m going to try to make this aimed at absolute beginners who have barely heard these words before.

I’ll start with possibly the most important distinction of all: sex vs. gender.

  • Sex is the physical characteristics of a person’s body. It’s defined based on a combination of traits (hormones, genitals, among others). Most of the time people can be neatly classed as either male or female – all those traits line up. But at least 1% of the population are intersex, which means they aren’t unambiguously male or female according to typical definitions.
  • Gender is a personal, internal sense of identity. Everyone experiences it differently – it is, by definition, subjective. But some of the things that may go into making up a person’s gender identity are:
    • The pronouns that feel accurate to them.
    • The words and labels that feel accurate to them.
    • A sense of belonging to a particular group.
    • The sex characteristics they feel comfortable with (whether or not those are the characteristics they currently have).
    • …among many others.

Sex is very rarely actually relevant. The only people that really need information about a person’s sex are their doctors (and even then, only sometimes!), and their sexual partners (likewise!). In any other situation, it is gender that is relevant. Gender tells you how a person should be referred to, how they should be treated, what groups and facilities they belong in, and all of that other important stuff. Gender is also way more complicated, and it’s where most people get confused – especially if they’re never thought or learned about it much before.

It all starts when you’re born, and the doctor picks you up and says “It’s a ____!”. At that point, you have officially been given your assigned-at-birth gender. That just means that someone assigned it to you when you were born. You didn’t pick it yourself (you were a baby!), someone else picked for you. Generally when people assign gender, they base it on observable sex characteristics (the doctor looks at the baby’s genitals to decide).

For the majority of people, that’s the whole story. They spend their life comfortably agreeing with the doctor’s assigned gender. Those people are called cisgender. That just means their actual gender identity is the same as the gender they were assigned at birth. Because babies (except for potentially a tiny number of exceptions) are always assigned as either ‘boys’ or ‘girls’, cisgender people are always binary. That means a gender identity that fits one of the two most common options – men and women.

For some people, they later realise that the doctor’s assigned-at-birth gender was wrong. Some people might discover that as very young kids, other people don’t notice until they are adults, or any range of ages. Those people are transgender. Their actual gender identity is different from what they were assigned at birth. When transgender people realise that their gender identity is not what they were originally told, they may do various things to help themselves feel comfortable. Things like:

  • Changing their name and the pronouns they go by.
  • Changing the groups and facilities they use.
  • Changing some of their physical sex characteristics, e.g. through surgery or hormone treatment.
  • …among many others.

Some transgender people are binary – men or women. Others are nonbinary – which just means, not simply men or women. People might identify as nonbinary if the various factors of their gender identity do not match up (for example, they might prefer to be called ‘he’, but prefer to have female sex characteristics), if they have preferences which don’t fit either option (for example, they might prefer to be called ‘they’ instead of he or she, or to have sex characteristics which aren’t considered either male or female), if their gender identity changes over time (for example, they sometimes feel like a man and sometimes like a woman). There are countless different ways to be nonbinary! And there are countless labels which describe all those different types of nonbinary. Things like: agender, androgyne, genderfluid, and many more. I couldn’t possibly describe all of the possibilities.

I’ve made a diagram to summarise how all those different words are connected with each other:

Summary

 

So what?

Hopefully my general explanations above have demonstrated why gender matters, and what it means. Some basic guidelines for being a good person when it comes to gender:

  • Listen to people’s own description of their gender (not anyone else’s) – and believe them. It doesn’t matter if you don’t understand (but try to understand).
  • Refer to people in the way they choose – their name, their pronouns, and other words like ‘man’/’woman’/etc. It doesn’t matter if it’s difficult to get used to, it’s basic courtesy.
  • Don’t ask questions you would be uncomfortable answering yourself. (Hint: don’t ask people about their genitals – that’s never OK).

I’d also like to add a disclaimer here. Everything in this post is controversial and debatable. Some people will disagree with me about my definitions or my categories, some people will be upset that I’ve missed things or think I’ve included things that aren’t necessary, some people will feel their identity can’t be described using my framework. All of that is important, and you should always, always prioritise an individual’s feelings and preferences over some general definition you have. I’ve tried to be as neutral as possible, but I’ve also been necessarily brief and I couldn’t possibly explain all of the nuances of this topic in one post. As long as you follow the ‘good person’ rules above, you should be fine. Never stop learning!

About me

I am agender. That means I don’t have a gender identity – I’m not a man, I’m not a woman, I’m not both, or in-between, or a mixture – I’m neither. Agender is a type of nonbinary identity. Nonbinary, in turn, is a type of transgender identity.

I’ve handily highlighted myself on the diagram from above:

Me

So, for readers of this blog, the relevant information about me is simple:

  • Don’t call me a man or a woman, or other types of gendered words. You can call me a person!
  • Don’t call me he or she. Use singular ‘they’, in the same way you’d use it for an unknown person. For example: “They wrote a post for their blog and edited it themself”.

I hope this has helped you learn something, and maybe cleared up some misconceptions!

 

Old friends

A few weeks ago I unexpectedly ran into two people who I haven’t seen in a year. The year before that I only saw them a few times in total. But up until two years ago, they were part of my very closest small friend group.

It was very strange seeing them again. A lot has changed in all of our lives. I certainly feel like I’m very different to who I was when I was close with them. But at the same time, talking to them again made me feel like almost no time had passed since the last time.

Running into an old friend is a very unfamiliar experience for me. I’m pretty young anyway, so I haven’t had much time to develop and then lose touch with friends. I’ve also hardly had any ‘friends’ in the first place. Most times when I’ve lost touch with people (like when I left primary school, and then when I left secondary school), it’s been a relief to have them out of my life. But losing touch with someone who I actually have largely positive memories and feelings towards – that’s never really happened before.

We lost touch because we all left college and were no longer seeing each other daily just out of habit. Everyone became busy with their new things and meeting up became more like a chore than anything else. It’s been two years since college ended and I still have no idea how I actually feel about the situation. Am I sad? Do I miss them? Do I care? I’m not sure. I really did enjoy spending time with them when we were close. But I don’t feel like I desperately want to spend time with them now. We would have very little to talk about, not much in common, and no shared reference points.

So, were we only friends because we happened to be at college and school together? It can’t be quite that simple, because there are plenty of people who I went to school and college with, but I certainly didn’t have ‘plenty’ of friends. Is it just that we happened to be in more classes together? Is it just because they took pity on me and invited me to sit with them at lunch when they saw me by myself? (Yes, that really is how we first met).

If we have other things in common apart from college, then why have we lost touch? Surely if we really enjoy each other’s company, we should all still be putting in just as much effort to see each other as we always used to (even if external circumstances made that rare or more difficult). But that’s not the case either. When we left college, I pretty much accepted that we were going to lose touch, and soon gave up on trying to initiate contact. Most of the others seemed to do the same thing.

Did we stop getting in touch so that we wouldn’t be saddened by letting it happen organically? I don’t think that was the reason for me. I knew it was going to happen sooner or later, so I was resigned to the potential sadness involved, regardless of when or how we lost touch.

In the last few years, I have increasingly developed online friendships. These are a very real and important experience for me, but they also cause me even more confusion about the definition and purpose of friendships. If I made friends with the school friends at least partly because we were at school together, then why did I make friends with people online? We certainly haven’t been forced together by circumstance. Some aspects of getting to know each other online are extremely inconvenient: geographical distance, timezone differences, lack of easy ways of getting in contact. And yet it’s happened anyway, and some of my online friendships are much closer and more significant to me than in-person friendships of the past. Why? I don’t know! I don’t understand any of it! What are friends, anyway?!

My instinct is that my online friendships formed because we had a lot in common. Online profiles make it really easy to summarise your interests, identities, and personality. A significant number of my online friendships happened because I read someone’s profile and then sent them a half-joky message saying “We have lots in common, we should be friends!”. That kind of thing can’t really happen in-person. Instead you have to try to subtly collect information about a person until you can decide whether you will be capable of getting along. I guess some people might find that easy (or even enjoyable?), but I certainly don’t.

I suppose it’s also easier to reach a wider pool of people online. It’s easier to narrow down the type of people you’re exposed to by your own interests and preferences. So that makes it possible to be a lot more picky. If I wanted to be friends with autistic people at college, there would have been maybe two or three people who I was aware of. If I want to meet autistic people online, all I have to do is write a bit about myself and I end up surrounded by a community of autistic people.

So the friends I make online are likely to be more closely suited to me than people I meet in person. Maybe that’s why I don’t feel sad about losing touch with my college friends. They were really good friends at the time, and were very important to me. But they were important as my school and college friends. Now we aren’t at school or college anymore, I don’t need school and college friends – and neither do they. They have their own new friends now: university friends, work friends. And I have my own new friends too, friends that are suited to my life as it is now.

Real-time interactions

Real-time

I have trouble with real-time interactions. By ‘real-time interactions’, I mean the kind of situation where people are responding to each other directly and immediately. That means things like: talking face-to-face, on Skype, on the phone, and (sometimes to a lesser extent) using text or instant messaging.

I have trouble with them because they are not well-suited to my communication style. I am slower to process the things other people have said, and need even more time to formulate my own responses. I prefer delayed interactions, like emails, because you are expected to make a slow and thoughtful response, rather than an immediate one.

My trouble with real-time interactions is not obvious though. If you were having a face-to-face conversation with me, you probably wouldn’t realise I have difficulty. In fact, you’d probably say that I was very articulate (people have described me that way before), and be surprised that I’m saying this.

Automatic speech

The truth is that my mouth is a lot better at real-time interactions than I am. That means I’m good at automatically responding to communication, using words and phrases that really sound like they mean something. If someone says hello, I say hello back – I don’t think about it, it’s practically a reflex. Automatic speech like that is probably familiar to everyone to some extent.

But for me it can extend to much more seemingly-complicated speech. In an unplanned conversation, I often end up feeling like I’m just watching myself and wondering what on earth I’m talking about. I’ll find myself saying things which I don’t agree with, which don’t make sense, or which actively contradict things I’ve said before. And I say them because my brain is just mashing together elements of the context (like whatever the person before me just said) with an appropriate inflection and hoping that it sounds about right.

For whatever reason, my brain taught itself to make me look like I’m communicating whenever I am having trouble. Someone with a similar level of communication could have easily developed such that they just didn’t speak, instead of making non-communicative speech like I do. I don’t know why I do automatic speech and some people don’t, but I think there’s a lot less difference between us than there might seem.

Bad odds

I’d estimate that in an unplanned real-time interaction with a person I don’t know (I cope better with more familiar people), my apparent communication is about 20% accurate. That means that about 20% of the things I say are things I actually mean, and that only about 20% of things I want to get across actually do get across.

Imagine a person who could only speak about 20% as much as most NT people – that’s how effective my communication is some of the time. Don’t seem so articulate now, do I? In some ways, it’s handy to be able to ‘pass’ as NT in that kind of situation. It’s a lot easier to make it through a brief and inconsequential encounter if I can smooth things over with automatic ‘NT-speak’.

But in other ways, I sometimes imagine it would be better if I actually did only speak 20% as much in that kind of interaction. At least the things I did say would be accurate, so I wouldn’t have to worry about accidentally lying or talking nonsense. It would also mean that my communication difficulties would be a lot more obvious to people, and so they would be more likely to believe me when I say I can’t cope with real-time conversations.

Solutions

My usual solution is to try and make interactions as favourable to me as possible, to prevent automatic speech from kicking in at all. It’s worse if I’m in a busy or stressful situation, if there are a lot of people around, or if I’m talking about something that makes me nervous or uncomfortable.

The biggest single factor is that the interaction is unplanned or unexpected. I can handle scripted situations like buying something from a shop, because I can plan exactly what I need to say and I know what to expect. Some of my most memorable disastrous conversations have been answering unexpected phonecalls, or being abruptly taken aside for a ‘chat’ by someone. Most of these things are made worse in conversations with strangers, which are generally unavoidable.

But there are also situations when automatic speech happens with people I know, like family. Things like parties and gatherings, or difficult and uncomfortable topics can trip me into NT-mode even with people I really trust. I don’t know if it’s obvious from the outside, but it feels quite obvious from the inside. If you’ve known me at my most comfortable, then my NT-mode will be conspicuous, because I will seem much less autistic than usual! If my responses are as snappy and expressive as NTs’ usually are, it’s a good bet that I’m not in full control of what I’m saying.

The ideal way for other people to react to that would be to change the situation so it’s closer to my communication ideal, but that’s not always possible. If that fails, then my only advice to people interacting with me is: don’t take anything I say too seriously! I am very happy to be asked “Did you mean that?” if I say something that’s out of character or doesn’t make sense. It gives me a chance to actually process what I said, and a chance to take it back or correct it if I need to. I think it’s counter-intuitive for NT people, but anything I communicate in writing is always more reliably accurate than anything I communicate through speech.

Internet people

What it means to be an Internet Person

The internet is a really important part of my life. Sometimes I feel embarrassed about that, but I try not to.

The reason I sometimes feel embarrassed is because people who don’t rely on the internet as much as me find it incomprehensible. And the easiest response to not understanding something is to criticise or insult it. The truth is, I find it incomprehensible that there are people who don’t use the internet at all.

If you don’t use the internet as much as I do, you probably reacted to reading that by thinking “How sad, you can’t entertain yourself without the help of computers”. But it’s nowhere near that simple. Yes, sometimes I use the internet to entertain myself when I’m bored. And there are times when that could be replaced with a book or going for a walk, but I choose the internet because it’s easier or more convenient. Sure, feel free to consider me lazy for that – I’m sure it’s sometimes true.

But that is by far the least important use of the internet for me. Here are some things I wouldn’t have or do if it wasn’t for my use of the internet:

  • I wouldn’t know, or be able to communicate with, many of my closest friends.
  • I wouldn’t know how to best care for my pet gerbils – and might not even have them if I’d never learned what good pets they make.
  • I would never have progressed further in knitting than making a misshapen rectangle.
  • I wouldn’t be learning Swedish right now.
  • I wouldn’t be able to motivate myself to shower or leave the house.
  • I wouldn’t be studying my degree.
  • I wouldn’t know that I was autistic. I wouldn’t know other autistic people. I wouldn’t be writing for and learning from other autistic people.

In short, I wouldn’t be doing much at all.

Why I’m an Internet Person

I know that some people don’t use the internet much – some people don’t need it much. But there are a lot of different types of people who the internet is well-suited for, and I just do happen to be in lots of those groups.

  • Shy people.
  • Introverted people.
  • People who communicate better in writing.
  • People who find it difficult to go out.
  • People who like reading.
  • People who like learning.
  • People who have trouble making friends.
  • Autistic people!

I know that last one is a bit of a generalisation. They’re all generalisations, of course. It’s just that I think a lot of the reasons I benefit so much from using the internet are related to being autistic. Some people might think it’s sad that most of my closest and most fulfilling relationships are with people I’ve never met. But it’s not that I’m choosing that over face-to-face relationships. It’s that I wouldn’t have those relationships at all if I wasn’t using the internet.

What I get from being an Internet Person

I was talking to my brother the other day about the computer game Minecraft, which I’ve recently started playing. I mentioned that I had been playing a multiplayer game online, and he said “But with who? How do you find people to play with?”. And then he paused and said “…You know people, don’t you.” My brother, the most sociable, gregarious, and charismatic person I’ve ever known – he would have trouble finding someone to play Minecraft online with!

I know that’s not the best example of a vital social skill. But I think it’s representative of the general way that I am able to use the internet to my advantage. Playing Minecraft might not be the most enriching, productive, or sociable use of my time. But playing it with other people, where I can talk to them and work together, is still better than playing by myself.

It might not seem like much of a skill, but I think effective internet use can be really valuable. I read a post recently (be warned for a bit of swearing, and confusing formatting if you aren’t familiar with tumblr), which is part of what prompted me to write this one. My ability to find friends to play computer games with is just one minor example of the way I can use the internet to my advantage.

All those other things I listed are yet more examples. And that linked article mentions another big one: rapid skill acquisition. My default when I don’t know something isn’t “never mind then”, it’s “I’ll look it up”. I find it truly baffling that there are people who think easy access to information online can possibly be a bad thing. But I’m sure those same people find it baffling that the internet can be so important to me.

I spend a lot of time on the computer, and that’s OK. I’m an Internet Person.

Autisticality

The word ‘autisticality’ was actually coined by my friend. Although I’m sure other people have said it before too; it’s quite a natural word to create, really. It could just as easily be “autisticness”, “autistitude”, or even – “autism”. Oh, wait.

In theory, autisticality means just the same thing as autism, right? “That kid’s autism affects their social skills”, “that kid’s autisticality affects their social skills”. And yet, it’s different somehow.

Maybe it will make more sense with some other examples. How about a broken leg:

  • My broken leg means I can’t walk.
  • My leg-broken-ness means I can’t walk.

They have the same meaning in the simplest way. But “broken leg” is very concrete and specific. Whereas “leg-broken-ness” is abstract, like it’s one-step removed from just “a broken leg”. It makes it sound like “leg-broken-ness” is some kind of all-encompassing permanent aspect of the person. That’s why the second option doesn’t make much sense – it’s actually just one small and temporary part of them. In this case, it has one specific effect: making them unable to walk.

Autism/autisticality works the same way, but in reverse:

  • My autism means I am prone to anxiety.
  • My autisticality means I am prone to anxiety.

The first one sounds like “my broken leg means I can’t walk”. It feels like saying “my specific, temporary, and abnormal medical condition gets in the way of me functioning like I usually do”. The second one feels like saying “this overall aspect of me defines the way I am as a person”.

There is a person who can walk, temporarily disguised by the broken leg. But there isn’t a non-anxious person, disguised by the autism.

There is just a person, and autisticality.

Precise language

When I had my formal assessment, the report said I used very precise language. I didn’t really understand what that meant. I’m still not totally sure  understand it. But I had a small realisation recently when I was trying to communicate with someone.

I emailed my distance-learning tutor with a question about something I was working on. When I got a reply, he seemed to be answering a completely different question to the one I asked! By default,  I assumed that was my problem and my fault. But when I talked to my friend, they suggested it might be the opposite.

Rather than a sign that I’m bad at communicating with people, it could be a sign that my communication is more precise. So much so, that other people don’t respond with the precision I expect. It seemed like my tutor had given the email a cursory glance and just replied to the question he assumed I was asking. Which would probably work with a neurotypical student – someone who used vague enough language that the message could be picked up from a cursory glance!

I’m trying to give him the benefit of the doubt, here. I could assume that every student that ever emails him gets a disappointing response to the wrong questions. But that seems unlikely somehow – surely he would have noticed if that was the case. So the next logical conclusion is that something is different in the communication with me, compared to with other students.

Which is where the precise language part comes in. I guess I learnt to communicate while learning that other people didn’t seem to pick up on my own hidden meanings – because I was surrounded by NTs who had their own unspoken language and didn’t speak mine. So, I had to learn to make my words completely unambiguous, to prevent that from happening.

This might be part of the reason I’m so good at explaining things to other people. I’m an expert at making words express exactly what I want them to. But it also means I get frustrated when other people can’t do the same in return. I have had countless infuriating text-message conversations with friends, where I have had to resort to listing my points with  numbers, and demanding they respond to them each individually! I’m sure it’s equally irritating for them, but I don’t know how else to make the conversation work. Clearly it’s not possible for me to communicate in NT language (I have certainly tried). So I just have to hope that other people will try to ‘meet me part way’ and do a bit of the translating themselves.

Binary trust and friendship

My ability to trust people seems to be binary. I don’t have the capacity for complex in-between levels of trust or closeness, like “acquaintance”, “friend”, or “close friend”. Everyone in my life can be sorted into one or the other.

By default, strangers start off as ‘untrustworthy’. The untrustworthy state has certain characteristics:

  • I don’t automatically believe things they say, unless it’s supported by evidence or by a ‘trustworthy’ person.
  • I don’t expect them to honour commitments or keep promises.
  • I don’t tell them anything about myself that I consider private, personal, or important.

It takes a long time for someone to become trustworthy. I only started properly trusting my newest friend from college after almost two years of spending time together every day. That in-between period consists of me being cautious and guarded, while observing the other person to gather evidence of trustworthiness. When I eventually decide to trust them:

  • I assume they are telling the truth and believe the things they say.
  • I expect them to honour commitments and keep promises.
  • I will tell them anything about myself that I want to.

I think my binary trust state is a result of a combination of different things. Part of it is probably autistic black-and-white thinking, part of it is having different social skills and standards to NT people. And another part is probably a learned defence mechanism, as a result of having so many negative social experiences in the past.

When I like someone, I am immediately desperate to get to know them. I don’t see the point in waiting around with small talk, when I already know that I like them enough to make friends. But this method doesn’t tend to work with NTs, because they get freaked out or confused by it and things go wrong. So as a result, I’ve taught myself to suppress that urge, and instead to be very cautious in order to protect myself.

Binary trust also protects me from good relationships which go wrong. If I’ve classified someone as trustworthy and they break that trust, they are demoted permanently. This happened with a secondary school friend after I found out they lied to me.

The interesting thing is that my trust state for someone doesn’t have that much of an impact on what the relationship actually looks like from outside. When I stopped trusting that secondary school friend, we didn’t stop being friends. They probably didn’t even realise anything had changed from me! I was still happy to spend time with them and have fun together. I had just lowered my expectations, so I no longer believed things they said without evidence, or expected them to keep commitments, or told them anything more about myself that was important.

Similarly, when I eventually classified my college friend as trustworthy, they probably didn’t notice much difference. I had changed my rules for my interactions, but the rules themselves aren’t the only things which define the interaction.

I think the main reason for this is that I’m an extreme social mirrorer. When I made my secondary school friends, it happened because they took pity on me standing around by myself. They immediately started treating me as a friend, and so I reciprocated. Even though it was still another year before I properly classed them as trustworthy, my behaviour matched theirs straight away.

Similarly, I mirrored my college friend. But in this case, they were extremely reserved, and so I was too. Which made it even harder for us to become friends! And when I eventually decided they were trustworthy, things didn’t change much because I was still mirroring them and being reserved. It just meant that if situations arose in which I could e.g. tell them something about myself, I was allowed to do that under my new rules.

It’s only in recent years that I’ve noticed this binary trust state. I’m not sure if that’s because it’s a relatively recent development, or because I’ve just never been aware of it. Probably a mix of the two. It’s strange to think that other people don’t do this, though. It’s hard to imagine being able to have complicated rules that are different for every person in your life. How would you keep track?!