Posted in family life, sqt

{sqt} – just living life

This is a real {sqt} post this week: just seven updates from our life 🙂 Visit This Ain’t the Lyceum for the rest of the linkup!

  1. I now officially have my autism diagnosis! So if you read my series for Autism Acceptance Month, which I wrote during the diagnosis process, you can now be comfortable in the knowledge that it comes from a “real” autistic person instead of an imposter. Not that I think most self-diagnosed individuals are – but it was how I was afraid I would be perceived (and honestly, I was deeply afraid that it was true of myself). It was a lot easier than I thought it would be, and also a lot more uncomfortable. I was so afraid, the whole time, that the psychologist would tell me I was just intelligent with typical gifted quirkiness – and then I would be left wondering, if that were so, why I seemed to struggle so much with things that came naturally to the gifted friends I grew up with? But fortunately for my peace of mind, I can now say I’m autistic with confidence, and I say it to myself a lot when I need to advocate for myself or address areas of weaknesses in my life, and it helps to stop the perfectionist depressive thinking patterns from asserting themselves.
  2. I have realized how much game play helps with the development of strategic thinking and forethought, by watching Rondel grow in those skills. I’ve seen him take the initiative to plan a course of play at the beginning of a game; stay aware of the events of the game so that opportune moments for deviating from that plan can be seized; look ahead at his opponents’ possible moves to make the optimal choice for his own; and see several steps ahead on the pathway to his desired end – in several different game settings. These are really valuable skills for life, not just for games! This is all about considering options, observing the environment, planning for the future, and making decisions in the moment that affect long-term goals. When I write up his kindergarten year summary, I may include some of these games in a SPED section under executive functions…
  3. Teaching something that I don’t remember learning is challenging. In other words, while we are all into math and science over here (definitely at least a grade ahead in math, and more for Limerick), we’ve barely done more than the alphabet and letter sounds when it comes to reading, and I’m struggling to know where to go next. I have a few ideas from my sister-in-law and I looked up some phonics/beginning reader games online that look fun (my kids are always up for a new game) – but to me, reading is like breathing. I can’t imagine (or remember) life without it. And how would you go about teaching someone to breathe?
  4. I may have a new favorite food, and I think Aubade would agree. I whipped up some heavy cream, added some yogurt and maple syrup, and discovered paradisiacal creaminess with just the right balance of airiness and weight, sweetness and tang. We’re calling it “breakfast cream”, over here.
    IMG_5466
    Picture is of Aubade in a black and white striped polo shirt at a kitchen table with a bowl of whipped yogurt, eating a spoon of it, with white smears all around her mouth and nose.

    The recipe is very straightforward: two parts heavy cream, whipped until very stiff; beat in three parts plain Greek yogurt (I used full fat); sweeten with one tablespoon maple syrup for each quarter cup of yogurt. Last time I made it, I rolled it up inside fresh crepes with diced peaches; Aubade just ate three bowls of it unadorned 🙂

  5. The cantaloupe vines have reached the top of the trellis (8 feet high!) and are beginning to claim the other side. It makes for a beautiful shady green retreat from the world, tucked under the trellis on a camp chair, looking out at the sunflowers starting to bloom. The fruits themselves are not overwhelming in number (which could be because I planted too many too close together), but they are massive. Paul keeps asking me if I’m sure they aren’t actually watermelons and I can’t really blame him because I have never seen cantaloupes this size in my life…

     

  6. Every few months for the past couple years, I’ve pulled out my old pattern blocks to see if the kids are interested in them – and now at last their interest and their fine motor skills are there! Limerick and I make patterns (he prefers to work with me rather than on his own, even if he’s making all the decisions), and Rondel tends to build animals. Aubade isn’t really ready – but she has fun playing along with the boys 🙂

    It is such a great foundation for an understanding of geometry and the more mathematically abstract styles of art, and having the hexagonal base is a nice contrast to our other building toys which are either octagonal (Brain Flakes) or rectangular (Legos). And it’s just so much fun… I could make patterns for hours.

  7. This past week was rather interesting for me in terms of theological discussion. My sister-in-law and I had a discussion about Protestant/Catholic differences that spilled over onto Facebook (where actual Catholics got involved, to my delight) and many text messages days later. Then, I spent a morning with two Protestant missionaries on home assignment, and finally was accosted by two Mormon missionaries that same afternoon. These are all concepts and divisions I have thought about and researched a lot, but I don’t often have the opportunity to actually discuss them in real life very frequently. And I realized that while I still am officially Protestant, I was arguing the Catholic side and thinking in Catholic terms more often than not during all of these interactions. So, having surmounted the autism diagnosis hurdle, addressing this theological hurdle is next on my list of Important But Uncomfortable Things To Address. I’d be interested in any resources, thoughts, or experiential wisdom you have to offer here!

Again, don’t forget to visit the linkup today! If you share your own blog there let me know and I’ll make sure to read it, or I’d love to hear some of the highlights of your week in the comments as well 🙂

Posted in autism acceptance month, sqt

autism and faith

This post is part of my april autism series for autism acceptance month. Visit the first post here for links to the rest of the series!

Because autism is a neurological difference that impacts the way a person perceives and makes sense of the world around them, it affects every part of an autistic person’s lived experience: from school and work, through friendships and marriage and parenting, to religion or lack thereof. For the seven quick takes linkup this week, I’ll be sharing seven thoughts connected to the autistic experience of faith: one study, three aspects of religion that may make faith more or less difficult for autistic individuals, and three essays from other autistic writers (two Christian, one not religious).

Don’t forget to visit Kelly at This Ain’t the Lyceum for the rest of the linkup!

  1. According to a study from Boston University, autistic individuals are more likely to be atheist or agnostic and less likely to belong to an organized religion. While a statistical study of this type cannot explore (and categorize, and analyze) all the various reasons that lead individuals to religious decisions, this particular study also coded several forums for various thinking traits and noted where they differed significantly between autistic and neurotypical populations. Perhaps not surprisingly, areas of difference included emphasis on rationality, social discomfort, and social disinterest. Let’s run with those areas of difference for a while.
  2. In modern Western culture, rationality, logic, and clear, critical thinking is most often associated with atheism or at least agnosticism. Autistic individuals are not exempt from the pull of those cultural associations – and it doesn’t help the cause of religion when it is publicly tied to pointless traditions and illogical, superstitious thinking. As a scientist, I see God’s glory shining brilliantly in the intricacies of biology (from the ecosystem level down to the molecular, everything so tightly bound together in ever-widening webs). I see it in the laws of logic and math that provide a pathway for understanding and explaining reality and truth. But if someone grew up being told that burying a statue in your backyard would help you sell your house faster, or that the whole Bible was intended to be read literally despite clear indications of allegory and myth (in the Lewisian version of the word), or that mental illness was a result of a lack of faith – that person would have a much harder time reconciling the beautiful logic of science with God. Since autistic individuals are on average significantly more likely to emphasize rationality in their thought processes, that difficulty would be compounded for an autistic person and be much more likely to end in a rejection of faith.
  3. Social discomfort is an aspect of the autistic lived experience of religion that might be missed from a neurotypical perspective – but it is certainly significant. There are weeks where simply staying in service on Sunday is a struggle for me, because of the anxiety surrounding the social environment. Even on a good week I typically avoid talking to anyone during the official greeting time, and an unwanted intrusion (read: friendly tactile greeting from happy neurotypical to poor sad girl sitting with her head down who must be lonely) can make the rest of the service almost unbearable. For someone entering a religious service from a different background, the discomfort, uncertainty, and anxiety can be even worse.
  4. Social disinterest is a related but distinct phenomenon. Many neurotypicals keep going to church because of the community they find there: the friends they make, the chance to catch up on what everyone is doing, the networking and small talk and friendly interactions. This is unlikely to be the case for an autistic individual (or at least it will be less of a factor). I go to church because it forces me to focus on worship and the Bible, and because I know intellectually (and believe from what the Bible says) that the community of faith is important in a spiritual and eternal sense. But I don’t draw energy or encouragement from any of the trivial small-talk that surrounds it. If an autistic person does choose to be part of  an organized religion, it is very likely that they actually believe it to be true, and are pursuing it despite the discomfort and disinterest of the social experience of it instead of using it as simply a source of friendship and community. I suppose that is a positive, actually. Believing in something really seems like the only rational reason to go through the actions religion necessitates.
  5. “Because that was always something that bothered me before university: I knew so many Christians who firmly believed that God’s works were the result of some kind of magic rather than science. It felt like intellectual dishonesty to agree with them, but I didn’t have the breadth of experience to know that I could disagree with other Christians and still be a ‘valid’ Christian myself.
    You see, I have always believed that science was God’s ‘computer’, or at least his OS. Just the same as how nobody designs a game without a playable set of rules, you wouldn’t create a universe without a decent set of physical laws, and a few handy mathematical constants.
    Honestly, the deeper I looked into mathematics and its uncompromising logic, the more I appreciated how beautifully God crafted the universe. Religion encourages us to find God’s amazing works in the mountains and rivers and sunsets, but if you have a mindset like mine and want to witness God’s glory, take a look at his OS.” – Chris Bonnello, Asperger Syndrome and Religion: Reconciling Logic with Faith
    Please read this whole article! It is a great outline of one autistic person’s reasons for faith and lived experience with religion, and hits on a lot of points that I’ve heard from other autistic people.
  6. This article by Brett Hanson touches less on the reasons to have faith and more on the religious experience of autistic individuals. Like Hanson, I find myself distracted from the overall point (and emotion) of a sermon or worship song because of an error in one small detail in that sermon or song. I realized in junior high that while I found it easy to meditate on and praise the life that we have in God, and the light that comes from God, it was harder for me to understand the love of God and feel it in an emotional way (looking back, I see that I didn’t feel or express things the same way my peers did, and so thought I must be missing something). It can make “fitting in” more difficult – but that attention to detail can push someone to deepen and broaden their theological knowledge, and that resistance to emotional sway can help someone ask hard questions and push for the truth when it might otherwise be obscured.
  7. Finally, this article by John Elder Robison is an excellent examination of historical reasons why autistic individuals may have poured themselves into the church, although the author is not himself religious. He sees in the texts of early church leaders the systematizing, logical thought processes of the autistic mind. In the great cathedrals, temples, and pyramids he sees evidence of autistic skills at work, intuitively grasping concepts that modern mathematics and engineering are still uncovering. As he writes, “[…] the church was as a bastion of structure, logic, and reason for its era. In those years, the church and the military were two places a young man could go to find order and rationality.  If you were a thinking sort of person, the church offered the kind of home some of us seek in universities and laboratories today.” 

My final thought would be that, ideally, the church would still be “a bastion of structure, logic, and reason.” God is equally the great engineer and scientist as He is the great artist and poet, is He not? So too church can be the pillar of logic, the laboratory of theological and philosophical inquiry, just as much as it can be the neighborhood block party or the safe space for sharing emotions and struggles.

Posted in autism acceptance month, sqt

{sqt} – seven senses: sensory processing struggles and strategies

This post is part of my april autism series for autism acceptance month. Visit the first post here for links to the rest of the series!

In autism – and a myriad of other neurological conditions – the brain struggles to interpret input accurately, either over- or under-responding to it. That then naturally leads to reactive behaviors that can cause difficulties in social interaction and everyday functioning. As this is a topic that a person could spend their whole life studying, I’m going to settle here for briefly describing each sense, a few potential symptoms of dysfunction, and one or two corresponding coping tools. Where possible, I’ll share from my own experience, both personally and with family and friends. Conveniently, there are seven senses – so I’m linking up with Kelly for seven quick takes today!

  1. Auditory: The auditory system is responsible for the recognition and interpretation of sounds. Auditory processing dysfunction is distinct from hearing loss itself, and can present as a difficulty in discrimination between similar sounds, extreme sensitivity to noise, or conversely the desire for more noise in the environment. I personally am fairly sensitive to sound – loud noises (like a crowd or a concert or a loud restaurant) make me physically tense, a day with the kids will leave my ears literally throbbing, and I struggle to focus at work without some way to eliminate the irrelevant sounds around me. For a while I was jealous of Rondel’s over-ear headphones from the church special needs ministry, but a few months ago I started using Vibes ear plugs and have found it makes a significant difference. Reducing the amount of incoming sound reduces my brain’s automatic overreaction, and thus reduces my anxiety and tension from the music at church, increases my emotional margin as a parent, and helps me work with more efficiency and focus. I can’t eat with them in, but I can have conversations without significant loss of clarity, and for the help they give me it’s definitely worth it; I highly recommend them.Ear+Plug-21
  2. Visual: As with the auditory system, visual processing is different than vision itself. For example, I have always had poor eyesight, but do not struggle with visual processing at all. People who do have visual processing dysfunction may find it difficult to keep their place while reading, distinguish between similar shapes/letters/numbers (as in dyslexia), find a specific object out of a group (like searching for Legos or puzzle pieces). Rondel has some difficulties with the visual aspects of reading, writing, and math – he reads backwards, flips or inverts letters and numbers, has trouble figuring out what word or problem comes next, and quickly shows signs of fatigue (slowing down, rubbing his eyes, etc.). After his preschool evaluation raised a red flag, we went to a optometry and vision therapy office and were prescribed a pair of magnifying glasses that help him a lot, so I’d recommend going to a professional if you suspect processing difficulties here. There are exercises that can help, but they typically require more knowledgeable guidance.
  3. Touch: The body has five different types of touch receptors: light touch, deep touch/pressure, heat, cold, and pain. Someone with tactile processing dysfunction could therefore be sensitive with regards to some of these receptors and not with others – or even by over-sensitive to some and under-responsive to others! This can manifest as very particular requirements for clothing (tight, loose, cotton, no tags, certain textures, etc.); dislike of being touched by other people; desire to stroke objects that feel certain ways; avoidance of messy play as a child; dislike of hair cuts, hair washing, and tooth brushing; engaging in potentially self-injurious behavior like scratching and head-banging; and so on. Personally, I am fairly normal with regards to heat, cold, and pain, but am very over-reactive to both light and deep touch. Something trivial that rubs me the wrong way (literally!) can bother me for hours – whether it is a hand on my shoulder at church, the grate of cutting a frozen strawberry or the pilling on an old shirt. And I am always slightly uncomfortably aware of everything I’m wearing, even my favorite and most accommodating clothes. What helps here? As far as I can tell, wearing clothes I can tolerate and choosing the most comfortable outfit possible for the situation – even when that means changing multiple times a day – helps a lot to minimize the strain. Having a fidget cube, clips, sticky tape, or some other texture to occupy my hands is also helpful – it distracts from other sensations and helps my system regulate emotionally and physically.

    fidgetcube
    The smooth ball and sharp gears are my favorite!
  4. Smell: People who are over-sensitive to smell will notice and be bothered by (or enjoy, it’s not all bad) smells that most people acclimate to or don’t notice in the first place. I have to leave the room and sometimes the house because of my husband’s personal care products – and he doesn’t even use cologne so nothing is supposed to be that scented (he doesn’t even smell his deodorant, and while he can smell the chapstick he isn’t bothered by it). There are certain people and places I struggle to enjoy being near simply because of the way they smell, because my body doesn’t adjust to it. Similarly, Rondel is very bothered by the smell of certain foods, even foods he likes to eat, and we’ve found that at those times it is helpful to light a candle (unscented or with a light scent we all enjoy) at the table to neutralize the aromas of the food.
  5. Taste: The stereotype of autistic individuals being extremely picky eaters comes from the frequency of sensory processing difficulties involving both taste and touch (the texture of food can be even more problematic than its taste for many people). Rondel and I can taste the differences between brands of the same food, sometimes disliking one while loving the other, and sometimes just needing time to incorporate the new brand into our mental repertoire. Some people, whose brains over-react to taste, might prefer bland or soft food; others might crave very hot, cold, spicy, or salty foods. For people with extreme reactions, it can be very difficult to even try new foods, since the potential physical response can be so unsettling. It doesn’t mean they are being difficult or resistant to change – they just have a very good reason to expect a new food to be an unpleasant experience. I do try to have Rondel taste new foods – but only at dinner, and only if I have reasonable cause to believe his sensory system won’t overreact to it (I’m never going to try to make him eat mashed squash at Thanksgiving, for instance). I also try to keep as many healthy and sensorily-acceptable options available as possible, so he doesn’t fall back on things like chips 🙂
  6. Proprioception: This is the body’s sense of itself and where it is in space. An individual who struggles with proprioception may run into things, hold things too tightly (potentially breaking them), kick and stomp, constantly climb on or hang from things, or play too roughly. What’s helpful here is to provide the deep touch and heavy activity that helps the brain identify the body clearly: to jump on a trampoline, to wrestle, to give bear hugs, and to lift, push, or pull heavy objects. Regulating the proprioceptive system that way can help calm someone who is anxious or upset, or can help prepare the body and brain for quiet focused activities that don’t stimulate the body enough for the dysfunctional proprioception to fully engage. In a way this is a lot like what all young children need – this is a system that takes time to develop, like the visual system, and dysfunction may not be apparent until a child is older.
  7. Vestibular: This system handles the brain’s perception and understanding of the body’s movements. So an under-responsive vestibular system will lead to cravings for wild, constant movement: spinning, swinging, fast and crazy amusement park rides, flipping upside down, and generally never holding still. Conversely, an over-responsive vestibular system may present as over-caution, a fear of heights, dislike of swings or rope ladders at the park, or a preference for sedentary activities (which can then lead to social struggles, unfortunately, as children can be mean to other children they perceive as “wimpy” or scared). Letting someone hold onto you when they are anxious about an activity that taxes their vestibular system can provide both physical and emotional support and give them a chance to experience something that would be challenging or impossible without that support (I’ve gotten to be that support several times and it is definitely a privilege) – but from what I’ve read there isn’t an easy solution here. Some things will improve with age and others may benefit from occupational therapy.

Links for additional reading:

Do you struggle with any aspects of sensory processing? What tools or techniques have been most helpful for you?

Posted in autism acceptance month

autistic inertia

This post is part of my april autism series for autism acceptance month. Visit the first post here for links to the rest of the series!

Ever since I took physics and learned the word “inertia”, I’ve used it in an off-label manner to describe my own difficulties in beginning an activity, changing to a new activity, or stopping an activity that I’m interested in. I have a lot of inertia, I’ll say, so it’s hard for me to get started with something, especially if it isn’t something I have a lot of motivation to do (like cleaning the bathrooms!). Or: I am mentally like a very heavy ball rolling along and it can therefore be hard to stop my brain from pursuing its direction of interest (for instance, obsessive reading at the expense of all other good things like sleep). Then there is the emotional inertia: once I am angry at someone or about something, it is incredibly difficult to stop feeling that way – but once I am close to and grow to trust someone, it is equally difficult to damage my respect for and loyalty to them.

It always seemed to me that most people didn’t have quite so much trouble getting started on disagreeable-but-necessary tasks, or have to race to recalibrate to avoid panicking when plans abruptly change, or get stuck on one particular thing for quite so long. For example, no matter how far in advance I prepare for something, I am always struggling to finish it right as the deadline approaches – I just keep merrily going along in one step of the process and suddenly realize with horror I’m almost out of time to do any subsequent steps! Or I’ll set phone reminders and ask my husband to text me and think about it every day and still manage to “forget” to make a necessary phone call for weeks, because I don’t have the mental ability to initiate an activity I dislike without some type of urgent motivation (again with the dirty bathrooms…). Or I’ll find myself unable to read anything other than the one book I’m currently absorbed in, so I’ll just read it over and over and over again until the hunger for it finally abates (I read Lord of the Rings over twenty times when I was 18-20 years old, as a reference point for this. I just could not move on. And that was hardly a unique situation…)

A few years ago I tried looking up this concept online to see if anyone else had similar struggles, and to my great surprise I found that other people had noticed the same phenomenon and even given it the same name! There is something very reassuring about not being odd and not-quite-right all by oneself. From what I can tell, this inertia is related to several executive functions that can be impaired in autism, and is related to more commonly-referenced autistic behaviors such as rigidity, adherence to routine, discomfort with transitions, and perseveration. It is not due to laziness or stupidity; it’s just a result of the way the autistic brain is wired. And that is certainly a relief to hear when someone has spent years berating themselves because they’ve tried to change and couldn’t – and it also provides the accuracy of understanding necessary to design helpful solutions to the inertia problem. For example, no matter how many times I tell myself I need to get my lazy self in gear and clean the bathrooms, it isn’t going to happen and I’m going to be swamped in guilt and struggle to do anything else either – but if I tell myself something like, I’m in here anyway supervising a bath so how about I just wipe things down and see how much I can get done, I can usually get it taken care of and then have the glow of having conquered a difficult obstacle to build off of.

Anna Sullivan’s handout on inertia from Autreat 2012 is the most comprehensive description I’ve found of inertia, and takes the time to break down why it is in fact different from laziness or poor decision-making, and how it is possible for someone to not do something they actually want to do (personally, I have now or have had in the past significant challenges with four of her examples: I cannot make arbitrary choices, I used to struggle a lot with breaking a large task into smaller pieces, I cannot put myself into a desired mode of operation on demand, and I find it very difficult to move from a low-energy to a high-energy state). Reading through her list of practical tips was insightful as well – although I’ve stumbled upon a lot of those strategies myself, having them articulated objectively makes it easier to remember and practice them in the future. (If you click through to the article, note that the abbreviation AC refers to “Autistic and Cousins”, including other neurodivergent groups and individuals in the discussion).

Are you an inertial person? How does it affect your day-to-day life?

 

Posted in autism acceptance month

stims!

This post is part of my april autism series for autism acceptance month. Visit the first post here for links to the rest of the series!

Before we began Rondel’s diagnostic process, I had never heard the words “stim” or “stimming” – so I’ll assume it’s new to a lot of you as well.

“When we feel an emotion or a collection of emotions very powerfully, stimming can help us manage these feelings without overloading. Often emotions like sadness, anger, or anxiety will prompt stimming as a way to both experience these less pleasant emotions while also keeping our cool.” – The Stimming Checklist

Essentially, a stim is a behavior that provides sensory, social, or emotional regulation to a person. Some of the most familiar (or stereotyped) stims among autistic people are hand flapping, rocking, and head banging – but to stop at those would be extremely limited and inaccurate. The Stimming Checklist has accumulated over 1400 different stims from user submissions (although some are essentially repeats as people submitted different wordings of the same behavior, there are still a lot), just to give you an idea of the diversity and range of stimming behavior! They also give a more detailed description of what stimming is and why people may stim, including the above quote about stimming for emotional regulation.

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From the Ausome Cork facebook page: 8 Functions of Stimming

My most reliable stim is skin picking. It can be embarrassing at times, since my upper arm is dotted with scars and scabs, but in the moment it is less noticeable than something like hand flapping (or running away screaming, lol), so I keep doing it. The sensation of it helps to alleviate almost any kind of tension, and also helps me stay focused on something if my thoughts are wandering (maybe by occupying the part of my brain that would otherwise be distracting me!). For example, if people around me (or even in a movie) are arguing and saying hurtful things, even if they are sarcastic or joking, I will start to pick to help calm down my physical reaction to the emotional turmoil I’m sensing around me. On the other hand, I’ll also pick if I’m bored and can’t do anything because I’m stuck waiting somewhere.

Hand flapping and deep breaths with loud exhales are stress-reducing in the way that pushing down the valve of a pressure cooker reduces the internal pressure – they cut out a lot of tension very rapidly but in a very dramatic manner – and I tend to only stim that way in the privacy of my own home. In class or other lecture-type environments, I write (notes, thoughts, or the alphabet), calculate irrational square roots by hand, draw geometric designs on grids, play games on my phone or laptop, or else generally become unable to sit still or pay attention due to my mind wandering off into some far off land and my physical tension steadily rising.

While stimming behaviors may appear strange or odd on the surface, therefore, it is important to understand that they can play a significant role in the life of an autistic person, as I am hardly a unique or extreme example. Trying to force someone to stop stimming altogether is going to be harmful in the long run: it will deny them access to some of their coping strategies for sensory overwhelm or emotional stress, and force them to spend significant amounts of energy and focus on holding in their stims at the expense of other things.

“If anything, stimming improves my concentration. It’s a release, like sneezing or scratching an itch. Have you ever tried to ignore an itch? What if someone told you it was wrong to scratch yourself to relieve an itch? What would that do for your concentration?” – Cynthia Kim, Musings of an Aspie

However, not all specific stims are healthy, no matter how helpful they may be in the moment. My skin picking certainly falls into this category, as does any other self-injurious stim. In these cases it is worth the effort to find a replacement stim, if at all possible (I haven’t found one for myself yet), and it is emphatically better to consciously redirect towards a positive replacement stim than to simply try to eliminate the damaging one. Without that deliberate replacement, it is likely that an equally unhealthy stim will take over instead (for example, I tried to stop picking my arm last year and ended up creating sores all over my legs. Not helpful at all, that.) So if I ever figure out a good strategy for finding a replacement and making it stick, I’ll be sure to update you…

Do you stim? What do you do and why? Does someone you know? What do you think about it? It’s ok if it seems weird 🙂 – I sometimes think my own stims are weird even though I know why I do them and how it helps me!

 

Posted in autism acceptance month

seven challenges of autism

This post is part of my april autism series for autism acceptance month. Visit the first post here for links to the rest of the series!

Yesterday I shared seven highlights of being autistic; today I’m sharing seven challenges. It would be dishonest to imply that autism is without struggle – that it is a purely neutral neurological difference – and it would make advocating for necessary supports far more difficult. We have to acknowledge what our problems and needs are before we can ask for help or expect others to recognize our challenges, after all.

  1. Social communication deficits
    • This is part of the diagnostic criteria for autism, actually. This is all the awkwardness and unusual behavior and missed cues – the differences in posture or gesture or volume that make a person stand out, or the more subtle tells of anxious fidgets and poorly timed laughter. This is being 13 and hurting a family member’s feelings because you didn’t appear grateful for their Christmas present, and being totally confused about it because you thought you had done everything right. This is being in high school and having a peer tell you that you really ought to look someone in the eye when having a conversation – and then learning to focus on people’s noses instead, so well that your psychologist doesn’t realize that’s what you’re doing (this may be part of why I like large and distinctive noses 😛 ). This is laughing with everyone else even though you didn’t understand the joke, or laughing at statements that no one else finds amusing. This is forgetting social scripts because you’re just so excited about something, and jumping right into the topic without the formalities of the greeting first. This is mistiming the breaks in the conversation and either cutting people off before they’ve finished or pausing too long and making them think you’re tuning out. It looks different for everyone, but it is always present and it takes a toll; even if you can play the part most of the time, it can be extremely draining, and when you can’t act that role you risk stares and stigma.
  2. Sensory sensitivities
    • This can also be a major struggle for many (most, probably) autistic people. Noises (even at normal volumes) can be physically painful or excruciatingly uncomfortable, as can certain smells. Textures – as relates to both touch and taste – can be incredibly important. Rondel cannot tolerate the texture of foods like banana, avocado, and sweet potato, for instance, and craves very cold or very dry foods instead. Touch can be very overstimulating; for example, we were releasing ladybugs and while the kids were letting them walk all over their hands, the feel of their feet on my hand made my whole body tense up and lingered for hours after the fact. While every autistic person is going to have different sensitivities, it is fair to assume that all of us will “overreact” to some sensory input in potentially unexpected ways – and it’s just the way our minds and bodies work together.
  3. Language development
    • Many autistic people struggle with some sort of language impairment; autistic speech ranges the full spectrum from non-verbal to completely fluent, but even the most verbal individuals tend to show certain idiosyncrasies. Some autistic individuals use assisted communication devices to help express their thoughts and feelings in words when they can’t do so verbally. My friend’s son can speak a limited number of words and phrases (always increasing!) that he uses to express a large range of questions and comments. Rondel began speaking rather earlier than normal, but his speech was very difficult to understand and his grasp of pronouns is still shaky (he refers to himself in second person, especially in emotionally charged environments). I used to have fairly significant echolalia, and would repeat whole sentences or the final few words of a sentence after speaking (I remember doing it quietly for a while, and then just in my head eventually. At one point my mom told me that she had considered taking me to a professional about it when I was little, but it tapered off on its own). Language abilities are not an accurate indication of an autistic individual’s intelligence or communicative desire, however. Amy Sequenzia is an excellent example of a person who, despite not being able to speak, has intelligent and powerful thoughts and ideas to share – she just uses the written word instead of the spoken word to do so.
  4. Rigidity (discomfort with uncertainty and change)
    • An autistic person doesn’t necessarily have a rigid schedule for each day which must be followed down to the time at which they use the bathroom – that’s a bit of a stereotype. But routines are most certainly a source of stability and thus of comfort, and it takes some time for the autistic mind to recalibrate when those routines are changed. Just today, for instance, I had to do bedtime with all three kids on my own, so I brought Aubade’s bed into the boys’ room and talked all afternoon about how we were going to have a sleepover and I would be snuggling with Aubade so I’d still be in the same room as the boys. When bedtime actually came, however, and the normal routine was altered by the fact that I was on Aubade’s bed rather than one of theirs, Rondel couldn’t handle it. He became angry, defiant, argumentative, and so keyed up that he couldn’t stay still or quiet, until he left the room for a bit to rage away his discomfort and adjust to the changed circumstances. I have found that for both myself and Rondel it is best to have a clear idea the night before (or at least first thing in the morning) what the general plan will be for the day, so that I’m not setting up expectations to be unmet, and to be honest and patient when plans do have to change.
  5. Anxiety
    • When I spoke with my psychologist on Thursday, she mentioned in passing that anxiety is such an assumed aspect of autism that not all clinicians even bother to mention it separately on a diagnosis. I always, always thought anxiety was normal. I didn’t realize until adulthood that most people don’t feel sharp pain in their chest after every significant social event (like an evening spent with a date), or have to do breathing exercises before making a phone call, or go through life with a generalized fear that they’re going to make a mistake and ruin everything, or scratch their skin until it bleeds to keep the nervous tension manageable. I didn’t even know that all of that was called anxiety until my youngest sister was diagnosed and I found myself trying to explain it to our middle sister… it was just how life was, for me. And apparently that’s how it is for most autistic people; according to Chris Bonnello’s 2018 autism survey (with over 11,000 responses), about 60% of autistic people struggle with anxiety disorders – it was at the top of the list of co-occuring mental health conditions.
  6. Intellectual impairment
    • This isn’t a side of autism I’ve personally experienced, except potentially secondhand though my friend’s son (although it is hard to tell because of his language delays). But according to the scientific literature at least half of all autistic individuals are also intellectually impaired, and in clinical terms this is the dividing line between “low-functioning” and “high-functioning” autism (I’m aware some people dislike these terms for their over-simplification and potentially demeaning tone, but as they’re used in the scientific literature it’s helpful to know the definition of the terms in that context). Autism advocacy that ignores this half of the autistic population is thus woefully incomplete! And this is definitely a challenge, given the unreliable quality of special education in the schools and residential support for adults. These people are at the highest risk of being abused, neglected, or taken advantage of, and it is important for society as a whole to realize that having less intelligence – just like having poorer social skills! – does not make a person less deserving of dignity and as much autonomy as is feasible.
  7. Emotional expression
    • Emotions can be terrifyingly treacherous for autistic people. They can be devilishly difficult to decipher, acutely uncomfortable to witness, and extremely explosive to experience. I find myself trying to share with Rondel the same lessons I had to learn about the anger that tries to take over, and empathizing with the overwhelming strength of those volatile emotions (I still have them after all – I’ve just learned more coping strategies by now). Some of the scenes in movies that are most moving to my husband are intensely horrible for me because of the raw and visible emotion involved; I can engage more fully with the character’s emotion if it is diluted or filtered somehow, like through the written words of a book or animation and scripting aimed at a younger audience. Otherwise it is too overwhelming. Similarly, I struggle to talk verbally about things that are important to me (or things that have a lot of anxiety wrapped around them). Both my mom and my husband have at different times in my life maintained a joint journal where I could write down things I needed to express and communicate and receive written responses without the anxiety-ridden emotional tension of a face-to-face conversation.

Every autistic individual struggles with different challenges, and these are just a few of many. I didn’t touch on the existential loneliness of feeling disconnected and different and left-out; the low employment rates of autistic adults; the common physical co-morbidities associated with autism; or the ever-present mask and concomitant imposter syndrome. But I think it is important to share another finding from Chris Bonnello’s survey: that of all his autistic respondents, less than 15% would take a cure for autism if it existed.

cureforautismsurveygraph

Challenges and all, autism is a part of our identity and to remove it would be to fundamentally change who we are. Instead of trying to do that, let’s acknowledge our differences and struggles and design (or improve, or strengthen) the societal supports that will allow autistic individuals to flourish and thrive in their own unique way.

Posted in autism acceptance month

seven awesome things about being autistic

This post is part of my april autism series for autism acceptance month. Visit the first post here for links to the rest of the series!

Because autism is still seen in a largely negative light, I thought I’d cover some of the positive aspects of being autistic before addressing the challenges associated with it (you can come back tomorrow for that side of the coin). And since today is also the {sqt} linkup with Kelly, I have seven positive autistic traits listed here!

  1. Systems-oriented thinking and pattern recognition
    • “Autistic systems-oriented thinking, developed to its fullest potentials, means insight into the rich depths of underlying patterns and structures, the beauty of the deeper levels of natural order beneath surface realities, the beauty of the Tao.” – Nick Walker, “Autism, Aikido, and Systems-Oriented Thinking”
    • This is probably the defining characteristic of my method of approaching the world. I strive to organize the data I observe into systems and structures and patterns, always editing them to encompass more complete datasets, always delighting in each new connection and relationship I can find. As a kid, it meant I was quite good at games like Set (which is all about patterns), and loved exploring the grammatical structures of language and the mathematical patterns of numbers. In school, it meant I was able to assimilate information from different classes into a cohesive whole, giving myself a strong network of data to pull from for tests and projects. At work, it means I’ve spent a lot of my time learning database science on the side to help my team process and record information more efficiently, to pull out the patterns and connections between the datapoints we need to store. And personally, it means I never settle into one philosophy of life – new information can always shift my internal understanding of the structures of reality, hopefully into a more accurate conformation 🙂
  2. Sensitivity to beauty
    • Increased sensory sensitivities, while definitely a challenge at times, can be accompanied by increased awareness of and sensitivity to beauty in the world. This could be natural beauty: the still blue of a cloudless sky, or the undulating mist off a waterfall; it could be artistic beauty: the throbbing pulse or soaring heights of instruments that express emotion we could never put into words; it could be the small and unnoticed details of life: the scent of rising bread or the sweep of curtains blowing in the wind. Just as we can be inordinately bothered by sensory inputs most people don’t notice, so too we can see and be awed by the beauty of things most people don’t notice – like the texture of a piece of fabric, or the feathers on the back of a moth.
  3. Powers of observation
    • This is connected to the first two traits, obviously: good observational skills are needed to create useful systems for understanding the patterns of reality, or to find beauty in the details that often escape attention. It makes a lot of sense in light of the definition of autism I shared here earlier also – if the autistic mind is taking in more information more intensely than the neurotypical mind, it’s going to be able to observe more details. Rondel notices all the bugs around him wherever he goes, and pays attention to the shape of their bodies and the patterns of their color; when he wasn’t even two, he was able to figure out the make (and often model) of a car by paying attention to the details of its shape and design. A friend at church notices the relationships between the people around him, putting together the connections of family and friendship in his mind even though he struggles to articulate them verbally. I was apparently able to see instantly if something had been changed in a room when I was a very young child. The details we observe may not always be particularly useful, but our minds are thirsty for them, hungrily seeking out the information around us to store away inside.
  4. Honesty and Loyalty
    • Many autistic people are highly uncomfortable with untruths. As the author of the blog An Intense World says, “It’s not that someone with autism cannot lie. I can lie… [but] when I lie, it really, really, really, really, really bothers me. It’s like a deep brain itch I can’t scratch. So I don’t lie. It just bothers me too deeply, and I’d rather not be that uncomfortable all the time.” I’ve found that I can tell incomplete truths if absolutely necessary, but even that is difficult to do – part of me wants to provide all the information involved so the communicated picture is accurate.
    • Many autistic people are also highly loyal. While autistic individuals may not form many attachments, the ones we do form are deep and lasting. I can see this already in my son: while he has normal conflicts with his siblings, he has equally as many conflicts with me because he identifies himself so strongly with his siblings that he is ready to fight for them if I reprimand or correct them. As Cynthia Kim writes on her blog Musings of an Aspie, “My attachments to people are few, but when I do form a bond with someone it’s a strong one. I will stand up for the people I care about in the face of a great deal of opposition.”
  5. Creativity and Unique Problem-Solving Skills
    • Autistic people see the world differently – so the things they create and the solutions they envision are also often a bit different! In my personal life, I see the unique style and form of my sister’s poetry and other creative writing; the way a child with severe speech delays at my church is able to communicate his thoughts through actions and echoed scripts; and the endless repertoire of “games” my son designs to explore his interest in the animal world and include his siblings at the same time (not to mention his eye for three-dimensional representation of said animals). When I was in high school volunteering in the children’s ministry at my church, a young boy who was later diagnosed with Asperger’s (part of the autism spectrum) noticed the folding table wiggling one week, crawled under the table, and proceeded to analyze the joints until he’d discovered multiple potential causes and tried to fix them. And he was only five!
  6. Deep or abstract thinking
    • Rondel asked me the other day why Jesus needed the disciples if He is God and can do anything. He asks me if God can know what we are going to do before we do it, and how that works, and seems to understand the answers I give him. He wants to know how high you can go before the air ends, and why the earth holds the air to it, and what exactly gravity is. He asks me if I will always love him, and why, and how I know that I will, and the answers give him peace when he’s recovering from a struggle with his more negative impulses. Autistic people usually don’t have much “common sense”, but our minds like to explore the deeper questions of life, and we are often able to separate facts and ideas from their social context to examine and compare them on a level field or in a new context.
  7. Expertise (and special interests!)
    • When the autistic brain gets excited about something, that thing becomes rather all-encompassing. We can spend hours a day for months or even years absorbed in the thing that is so fascinating to us – and as a result, we can accumulate some serious expertise in those areas! Rondel is a good example of how this can look in young children. His first special interest was vehicles, and as I noted above he was a master of vehicle identification at a ridiculously young age (I once asked him if a particular car that he’d told me was a Mazda was a Mazda 5 or a Mazda 3 hatchback and he knew the right answer without hesitation…). Next came dinosaurs, when he learned so many different species of dinosaurs that his grandparents were amazed (and often emphatically corrected!). Now that animals are his primary focus, he can talk for hours about the characteristics of different animals, the interactions between them, the environments they live in, and so on. By the time an autistic person reaches adulthood, they’ve cycled through quite a few of these interests, providing themselves with a solid network of information to build upon for the next one (or for more mundane things like work). And even in areas that are not special interests, autistic skills in observation and pattern recognition can lead to the development of expertise, as I’ve found in my own work environment.
    • Beyond the usefulness of expertise, of course, special interests are a source of pure joy. Rondel is so happy when his mind is full of animal facts and stories and experiences, and he’ll engage with anyone available about the topic. I am so happy when I’m reading Harry Potter fan fiction (my current most embarrassing interest) that I struggle to stop reading and do anything else, and if someone is willing to listen I can share all my favorite theories and plot lines and alternate universes until they manage to escape. It is satisfying in a profound way to plunge into the depths of something and discover the hidden treasure within, to block out the overload of information from everywhere else and really seek to know one specific category of things. And experiencing that joy is one of the most awesome things I can think of about being autistic.

If you are autistic, what is one of your favorite things about it? If you have a friend or family member who is autistic, what is one of your favorite things about them that stems from the fact that they are autistic?