Fleeting Attention

Hey there! It’s been awhile, right?

So let me hit you up on another topic from the world of autism. It’s an affect that will lead many times to an autistic person getting misdiagnosed as having ADHD. That’s the fleeting attention span.

As autistic people, we can focus intensely on certain things. We can do this for a long time. Then, just as quickly as we focus, we drop it.

It’s just amazing how out the blue both this focus and lack of focus can be.

(Side note: Some autistic people, like me, do have ADHD. I can attest it is a different feeling and issue than what I just described. But not all of us have ADHD. There is just as much diversity in the autistic community as there is outside of it.)

A Little Laughter Will Do You Some Good

So I wasn’t sure that I had any other idea to contribute in the #TakeTheMaskOff campaign as it wrapped up, until today…

I’ve had a tough week. I’ve been some kind of under the weather for the past two or three weeks, but it’s been really bad this week. So, I went to see my friendly neighborhood medical provider today. I found myself cracking jokes to her, to her nurse, and maybe even to the lady working the front desk. First of all, not my style normally. So guarantee my inhibitions are a bit lowered due to not sleeping well because of the the pain and miserableness I’ve been in all week. Why? Because I normally don’t just start cracking jokes to anyone. But what I got to thinking about was how much humor was helping me cope with said feelings of miserableness.

When it comes to coping for a lot of autistic people, the problem is that most people who are not autistic just don’t understand the mental fortitude it takes to deal with things sometimes. Their answer is usually some variation on the same thing:

If you say this to an autistic person, I warn you right now, be prepared for a poor reaction in return. To “just deal with it” requires so much preparation that we obviously don’t have. You say “deal with it” is the same effect as me telling you that you have to give a 20-minute speech to give five minutes from now on the “Effect of Socio-Economic Statuses Among Crippling Socialistic Desires In Marfa, Texas”! (Sorry, Marfa. You were random here.)

Thank you, Pintrest, and whatever elementary school teacher originally drew this up. This may work for little kids, but it can also hold true for adults. This coping skills wheel is all about self-care.

Self-care is important as an autistic person. You need that time to recharge and gather yourself. Even more so, if you are a newly diagnosed adult, you need time to figure out what being autistic means to you and for you. This will help you start to understand yourself better.

I’m not going to really dip in to the kinds of self-care because those will be different for everyone. Self-care can’t be someone else’s routine. It needs to be your own.

In spite of my own dropping off in contributing to the #TakeTheMaskOff campaign, there has been lots of autistic people contributing their voices for the past several weeks. Please, go on social media, look for this hashtag, and read what autistic people have to say.

What is Stimming?

A big topic about the autistic community is that of stimming. Some people have been often known to refer to it as fidgeting. I would say for me, and likely for many other autistic people, that’s where a line would be drawn.

You see, most people stim. But it is often referred to as fidgeting. It’s often excess energy being burned off.

So what is stimming, and why is it different for the neuro-divergent community?

A stim is short for self-stimulation behavior or actions. I feel the need to address two sides of the same coin. Two conditions in particular share stimming as a trait. Autism and ADHD. I fall in both columns. In conversations I’ve had with other autistic individuals, I rarely hear them say identify a reason for stimming that is anywhere near my oft used main reason.

But in talking to individuals with ADHD, there is some commonality.

My main reason for stimming is for focus. I need actions that can occupy enough of my brain so I don’t go in a million different directions for the task at hand. These stims can take many different forms. Sometimes I do them at the same time as my task. Sometimes, i hop back and forth between my stims and my task.

However, I also stim for other reasons. If I’m nervous, happy, sad…

From the autistic perspective, stimming can almost be considered additional forms of communication. Considering I often find myself unable to find words that I think are an accurate depiction of how I am feeling, stimming is part of body language that communicates as loud, if not louder than my words.

Also, stimming can alter sensory perceptions. Given that sensory processing is a big highlight of the autistic experience, adjusting your sensory perceptions can be helpful. For instance, even when I am supposed to be standing still, I am never really standing still. I’m readjusting how I stand. I’m shifting weight back and forth…almost swaying at times.

Stimming is also related to masking, because the regulation that stimming provides. It allows autistic people to keep level enough to mask in front of others.

When I think back to my childhood, I can’t necessarily identify one particular stim. My mother would always tell me “STOP FIDGETING!” But, there is one thing that comes to mind. It is a stim, but not one of physical movement.

I always had this propensity to ask the question “What if?”.

I drove my mother crazy with it at times. But even now, I am inquisitive. I always want to know what’s going on, why it’s going on, and how exactly it works. My imagination ran a little more wild as a child though.

My mother always swore up and down that she was going to write a children’s book one day with all of my best “What If” hits. She’s already a published author, and an accomplished artist. Hopefully she sees this and decides to work on it now that she’s retired.

Thanks for reading through this one. This is week two of the “Take The Mask Off” campaign. Please search this hashtag on social media and read, watch and listen to perspectives from other autistic people.

Origin Story

So a day after posting my last article as a contribution to the #TakeTheMaskOff campaign, one particular thing occurred to me. My origin story is one I haven’t told. However, educating people and giving them a chance to understand autism through one’s lens requires the credibility of telling them where you started. It helps to shape and identify the journey that you are attempting to communicate.

I could try to go back and recall every time in public school that I was singled out because I was acting “weird”, “odd”, or “quirky”. Whether I was being called down for something by a teacher or receiving weird looks and rejection from peers, there is just too much to try to account for accurately.

So I’ll fast-forward to three years ago. We had friends over one evening. After what was apparently received as a pointed exchange between myself and one of them, in a later conversation with my wife, she commented that she thought I might be autistic. She’s been teaching for awhile. Teachers, when they have multiple students with certain conditions in their classes, can begin to identify people with those conditions.

So after my wife told me about this, I did some reading, and I thought “that sure sounds like me”. However, the idea quickly slipped off my radar.

Fast-forward another year…

The job I was working at the time was taking a bit of a stress on me. It was the second job in a row where the company I worked for hired out of their area or region for the first time. I was trying to do my best to get along and fit in, all while trying to do the job I was hired to do. On one particular day, I truly don’t remember what went on that day (shows you how important it was), but I truly thought I had a mental breakdown that day. I found myself in the grocery store just muttering to myself. I couldn’t process what my inner voice was saying to me.

While I was better the next day, I was still worried about what had happened. The only thing I knew to do was to try and get in to see a therapist. Thanks to living in the middle of nowhere, it took an entire MONTH for that to happen.

A month later, and I have a clear head when I go see this therapist. He was fairly quick to identify me as autistic, of which he reaffirmed several times after. It turns out that day I thought I had a breakdown, I actually had a bit of a meltdown.

Having a meltdown was, and still is, unfamiliar territory for me. Whether stated, or just perception of being implied, I always thought I had to keep things like that to myself. Sometimes I’ve been able to deal with things. Other times, it’s been enough for me to just shutdown. So for something to effect me severe enough to have a meltdown is pretty bad.

You see, this is what masking can do to someone who is autistic. Yes, everyone does do some masking. But when an autistic person masks, they are being the complete opposite of their being. It taxes us sometimes so much that we are unable to compensate.

Masking causes health concerns…

That will dovetail in to the week three topic. Please, check the #TakeTheMaskOff hashtag on social media. Lots of autistic voices speaking up during this time.

Tunnel… Car Horn… Echo…

It’s a tunnel. The tunnel is fairly non-descript. You know it’s a tunnel with a road through it because of the cars you see and hear around you. You know it’s probably in mountains at lower elevations because it looks dry and barren all around before you enter the tunnel.

This is the Queen Creek Tunnel. It is along Highway 60 in eastern Arizona, between the towns of Miami and Superior. If you are heading west on this road, shortly after you exit the tunnel, you will exit Devil’s Canyon, and the desert floor will lay below you.

Superior to Miami has been probably my most favorite drive in the entire country. The formations through the canyon are a sight to behold. There are so many interesting things to look at. The drive it self is engaging as it twists, turns, and changes elevation. Eventually you pass through the small community of Top Of The World, only then to head back down in to Miami.

One of my more favorite parts of this drive is the Queen Creek Tunnel. I’d love to drive through there with a window down and honk my horn just to listen to the way it echos. It makes me happy.

This is one example of one of the things I would do that was out of the way and didn’t bother people. I didn’t have to worry about what others thought, except for the random other vehicle that would be in the tunnel with me at the same time.

As an autistic person, I don’t always have that luxury. I’m often around people that won’t, and may never understand me. That’s always too bad considering the effort I put in to trying to understand them. So I would mask. Yeeeessssss, everyone masks to some extent, but for me, I’m often taking guesses at what I am doing. It doesn’t feel natural. I don’t understand it, and I learn nothing in the process.

Masking is an exhausting process. There’s no time to be able to turn it off. Our “eccentricities” are not so easily written off by others as they are when it’s a non-autistic person. In the times behaviors aren’t written off, sometimes some nicety is used to communicate the desired change in behavior. It is full of subtext. This subtext is something you’re likely to pick up on if you are a non-autistic. However, for autistic people, those chances are slim. It’s real sapping trying to figure out what someone wants out of us when they won’t tell us.

There is a campaign that has started this week, led by some prominent people in the online autistic community. It’s called “Take The Mask Off”.

The topics and discussions are designed to educate about masking, what it is, and the effect on autistic individuals who must mask in the current society.

Since learning that I am autistic, I have gotten to the point I rarely mask anymore. I’m sure those close to me have seen that. It doesn’t change what I think about people. I just can’t always interact in THEIR desired manner. It’s not healthy for me. I will still make “social adjustments” here and there. However, these actions are by rote, and I still don’t always understand them. But I do understand that these adjustments help make others more comfortable.

Please take in all the content for the #TakeTheMaskOff campaign that you possibly can over the next six weeks.  Maybe it can help you learn more about autistic people, why they are the way they are, and be able to communicate with them a little more on their level. After all, this world is about compromise. A little push. A little pull. We are ALL better off when we meet in the middle.

Friends

This is a touchy topic…a hot button conversation…

But I’d like to talk about it in context…

Do you know how hard it is for an autistic person to make friends?

Let’s talk about the process of making friends first. You have to get up the courage to talk to someone first. That can be easy or tough, depending on your nature as an introvert or an extrovert. But the key is to find something you have in common.

Then you have to be able to make small talk. Sometimes it is around that thing you have in common. But it is a tougher proposition if you haven’t figured that part out yet. You may start with the weather, big local news, or the latest sports scores.

It’s really like dating. You go through a feeling out process. You try to find someone you enjoy being around. You find someone you can have conversations with. You find someone that passing time with feels like fun instead of a chore.

Eventually, you can build that friendship. You talk about deeper things. This person is another sounding board in your life. This is another person that can hold you accountable. They’re not just friendly with you. They are REAL with you. Eventually, you move up to the status of BEST FRIEND. You are thick as thieves. Those are awesome types of relationships to have.

Let’s add a layer on this. When an autistic person wants to make friends, there is often difficulty in the grey area. We often go at just a small drip to make sure the pipes don’t freeze, or we go full bore. Going full bore is how you will often see an autistic kid going. Yes, this will create some awkwardness at times. But many times, other kids haven’t gotten the learned behavior of shutting out differences. As autistic kids get older, you will see them be less outgoing because, unfortunately, they’ve learned that the world doesn’t accept them for who they are. They feel shut out. They feel rejected. They feel not wanted. (Yes, I realize some autistic people do live in their own head and don’t detect this behavior, but some do.) It can be demoralizing to be rejected. So there is a learned behavior to push away and to not engage.

Yes, there are autistic extroverts. I am one of them. But the introvert tendencies that happen are not just self-preservation for physical and mental health. They are learned behavior from the standpoint of bruised ego and hurt feelings…things that no one realizes has happened because it is not often we tell anyone. We end up learning that others don’t want to hear our problems because they aren’t classified as problems in others’ minds.

I’ve had good/best friends in different seasons of life. Unfortunately, they’ve all moved on to something else. The friendships never deepened to the point of making lasting bonds. I have plenty of acquaintances. There are plenty of people who are friendly, and I try to return that friendliness every chance I get. There are people who are always concerned about if I’m having a good day and how I am doing, for various reasons.

But let’s be honest…

For as hard as it is for any person to make a new friend, I as an autistic person have to work three times as hard as the next person. I’m not just overcoming that hump of making a connection. I’m having to make sure I don’t register as awkward to others. I’m not allowed to be myself because others have a hard time seeing through pre-conceived notions of what behavior from a person should be.

Making friends as an autistic person is a tough as being that good television show with the genius story lines that gets axed by the network after one season. You never get a chance to see the layers. You never get a chance to see the story unfold.

But why do I have to work so much harder than everyone else?

I don’t write this seeking pity. I don’t write this begging for friends. I write this to be open. I write this so I can keep myself healthy. I write this to be real with myself. Many times as I write this, I’ve asked myself if I really want to blow this lid away. Frankly, I do. I do it in the name of helping others understand. If this is a battle for me, you don’t know how many more people face this same battle. And if you are facing this battle, you are not alone.

Be real.

Be authentic.

Be open.

Be accepting.

When Does “Weird” Become Unacceptable?

I saw online this weekend someone talking about how they were not picked on or bullied for being autistic. Instead, it was done because they were weird. And you know what? I get it. I know the “weird” label was attached to me as a kid, and still is often today. But I’ve got to think…

At what point does “weird” become unacceptable in our society?

My child is a typical little boy, but he has some quirks and weirdness to him if you observe him enough. However, someone always befriends him at school. He usually has at least one friend, and sometimes a small entourage of friends. They get attached to each other. I think some of the friends are trying to take care of him, but it is still positive attention.

I had an autistic student for two years when I taught school. The first year, she was all but invisible in the class of mine she was in. The second year, some of the girls in the class took a shine to her and befriended her.

For me, I had friends when I was a kid, but not many. I was often picked on and bullied. Through the grapevine, I end up hearing some pretty mean things still being said about me as an adult.

I’ve been picked on because I’m weird and different. But at what age do people decide weird is no longer an acceptable thing? Is it when peer pressure kicks in during the tween years? Is it in high school when the artificial class system that includes jocks, geeks, nerds, and goths kick in? Is it younger than that? Is it a behavior that is learned at home?

It really is a toxic behavior.

Kudos to those who actually befriend us who are “weird”. You do brighten our day.

The Myth Of “High Functioning”

You may call someone high functioning, but inside they are a hot mess.

I’ll begin with this.

I get it.

The phraseology of “high functioning” in regards to an autistic person is in the social-ingrained lexicon of society. I can’t be mad when people use it when they don’t know any better. What I can do is work to dispel the myth.

Let’s start with my kid. I know his patterns on how he gets tired and wore out. He’ll get tired faster than I do. That’s what kids do. However, when he does not have the freedom to be himself, you can see those physical signs of being wore out sooner in the day. Let’s use going to church on Sunday morning as an example. He’s not your “perfect” little child who is quiet as a church mouse, but he does fairly well for what he can do. In an hour of this, I see his physical signs of being tired. On a day of his own making, that doesn’t show up until almost dinner time.

Let’s dip in to how it works with me. I can provide you with some more specifics.

  • Eye contact: I can make eye contact with you. But after a few minutes, it physically hurts. I can sustain that eye contact, but my involvement in what’s going on goes down fast.
  • Technology use: If I am in a group meeting setting where I am supposed to be listening to what someone is saying, don’t be surprised if I take out a computer or my smart phone. Yes, technology use is often considered addictive, but that same effect helps occupy enough connections in my head where I actually can listen and focus.
  • Too much chaos, or other negative energy around me: If I am supposed to be focusing and working on something, this is a non-starter for me. The severe nature of negative energy permeates in me and can, if overload occurs, cause a short circuit in my brain.
  • Speaking extemporaneously: Sure, at times I will know something about a subject and can speak at length about it. That’s what you might hear referred to as an “info dump”. I can speak off the cuff about anything, but not often. The pressure of doing so draws that energy from me. Despite of that energy draw, there is no guarantee I can come up with something of any consequence. I do much better writing out my thoughts. I can edit myself.
  • Sound/Noise: For me, the volume of something is not a big deal. The big deal is multiple sources of noise all competing at the same volume level. My brain hears all these sources individually and tries to process them all simultaneously. But it can’t accomplish that. This differs from others who can ignore background noises entirely, banishing them to the singular white noise.
  • Three-dimensional spatial issues: Having someone behind me in most cases is very stressful. It’s not something that will cause a meltdown, but it is something that saps my energy in an exponential manner.

So, some days I can handle this stuff really well (and this is by no means an exhaustive list). Other days, I am not able to handle even half of this. I put my best face on in public, because socially it is not acceptable for things to effect me the way they do. But when I am not in sight, I let go, and sometimes can’t function for a little while.

Every autistic person battles their own issues. Every autistic person has trouble with this social disability. Some of us are just equipped to keep the effects hidden better than others.

You may call someone high functioning, but inside they are a hot mess.

Making A Difference

Someone wrote online today about how the trials and troubles of being an activist sometimes just makes them want to quit. It’s a shame to read that. Some people are pre-disposed to spur positive changes for different groups of people. They may not know what they are getting in to, but they want to help and push an agenda nonetheless.

Other people want to make a change because it is something they are effected by. That’s the group I would qualify with. I want to force changes. I want to make a difference. I want people of different neurotypes to not be shunned and to be given the ability to achieve things, just like the rest of the people on the planet. The more change I can invoke, the better.

But for myself, or anyone else in my shoes, this approach can be tiring. That’s when you must remind yourself of one thing. Who are you doing this for? What person? What people?

Me? I’m doing this for myself. I’m also doing this for my kid. If I make a difference for the two of us, I know I’ve been successful. If I am able to help others, then I’d be over the moon.

Multi-tasking

I wondered if I would have a good idea to write about today. I wondered if I would have something I could make sense of. I just came across probably the boldest, yet most simple statement by another autistic individual online that explains me well.

“I’m good at multi-solving, not necessarily multi-tasking.”

I know you’ve thought about what it would take to effectively multi-task before. Balance this. Take notes on that. Remember that one thing. Don’t forget that other thing.

Let me give you a peak in to my brain. I’m autistic. I have OCD. I also have ADHD.  In my mind, I start spinning on one thing. I NEVER spin on multiple things at once. But what I often do is jump from one thing to another in rapid succession. This happens with an autistic person. This happens with a person with ADHD. Can you imagine the combined effect of the two?

My brain must always be churning on something. Anything. The more I have to churn on, the better. By strict definition, I may be a workaholic. By the spirit of it all, I am not a workaholic. This happens whether I am at work or not.

So, the jumping between multiple items, let’s compound that with the OCD. I am obsessed with specifics. It has to line up a certain way. This makes me stick on one item longer to get it just so. This also makes me fight with myself to go on to the next thing.

You can tell at this point that, if I’m claiming to be mentally wore out, that I am down and out for the count. It’s not often I do that, but it is very legitimate when I do.

What is my goal in all of this? Get it answered. Get it finished. Wrap it up in a neat little bow. Keep it simple. Keep it concise.

My inner-workings are chaos, just like I feel this blog post is. But I am always churning outcomes. I am really good at multi-solving. Multi-tasking? Not so much.

It is fairly common that I can provide the correct answer (not always, but often). But as my Algebra 2 teacher always chastised me on, I never showed the work. Or at least the work I was “supposed” to show.