autism and eye contact

Embrace Autism has a new post about eye contact that’s excellent:

For many autistics, reciprocal eye contact is the opposite of natural or effortless. In fact, when we engage with it, it is a very deliberate act and can often cause us distress. This is because the majority of autistics experience eye contact as a form of hyperarousal.

I’ve always experienced eye contact that way: often too intense. Especially if it’s someone I don’t know well, like on a first date, eye contact can make me feel exposed and vulnerable, like someone is staring into my soul. To this day I have to remind myself to make eye contact with strangers during small talk and groups during group interactions, because it’s hard sometimes.

Passing strangers on the sidewalk is A Whole Thing, because I never know when it’s appropriate to acknowledge them, smile, make eye contact, and/or even say hi (or all of the above?!). When I do offer a stranger a friendly smile and glance, sometimes they aren’t even looking at me! All of that energy wasted! (Maybe they’re autistic too, or just in a bad mood.)

Before I knew I was autistic, I worked in an office with a really long hallway. I struggled to know how to make appropriate eye contact with someone else approaching from the other end. How much eye contact is enough? Not enough? Too much?!

I was REALLY pleased with myself when I came up with a formula: if I see someone at the opposite end of the hallway, look at them for 10 seconds, look down for the next 10 seconds, and look back at them for the final 10 seconds before we passed each other. (I don’t know that it actually took 30 seconds to walk down this hallway, but it sure felt like it.)

Spoiler alert: PLANNING OUT your eye contact is NOT something neurotypicals do! 不不不不不

I’m so glad I know I’m autistic…and that I don’t work in that office building anymore.

Is the Cottage Fairy autistic?

I’m not a doctor and armchair diagnosis can obviously be problematic, but I’ve been watching the Cottage Fairy’s videos on YouTube and can’t help but wonder if she’s autistic. (If you haven’t heard of her, you’re in for a treat! She’s a lovely quiet creative person who lives in a tiny rural town and loves art and nature. You can watch her videos, support her Etsy shop, and buy her book here.)

I’m watching a recent video of hers about being homeschooled and she mentions several things that reminded me of autism:

  • Getting sensory overload in a loud, crowded classroom
  • Being a highly sensitive person (I once saw a meme about how realizing you’re highly sensitive is the first step in realizing you’re autistic. I can’t find it now, but this post is interesting)
  • Feeling different from other kids (this could just be because she moved around a lot)
  • Having strong interests (nature, books)

In other videos, she explores topics like…

Whether or not Paola is autistic, these topics are really relatable to me as an autistic person. The fact that I was an awkward, bookish child who struggled to fit in and was often called “weird” makes so much more sense through the lens of neurodivergence.

With more than 1.3 million YouTube subscribers and tons of warm, supportive comments, it’s clear that Paola and her videos have struck a chord with people, whether or not she’s autistic.

However, if she decides to learn about autism or even pursue diagnosis (keeping in mind that self-diagnosis is completely valid), it could help her understand herself better. Plus, the autism community always needs more representation–particularly female representation–to fight the stigma and popular misconception that only little boys and people like that guy on the Big Bang Theory are autistic.

In any case, I’ll keep watching because she has such a kind soul and it’s refreshing to see someone unabashedly lead a life different from the mainstream

autism and camping

Today, someone I strongly suspect is autistic told me they hate camping.

I related so hard.

I went camping with my family as a kid, then with friends as an adult. But I’d be happy never going again for the rest of my life.

For me, camping ticks a lot of the boxes I hate:

  • Bug bites (not that anyone loves getting covered in bug bites)
  • Change in my normal routine
  • Sleeping in a strange place (not my bed)
  • Undesirable sleeping conditions–no control over noises (other campers, wildlife, etc.) or light or temperature
  • Having to put socks, shoes, and clothes on (while trying to be as quiet as possible) and then go outside to find a bathroom in the pitch-black darkness when I inevitably have to pee in the middle of the night
  • Being cold and wet and not sleeping well
  • UNCLEAR EXPECTATIONS OF ROLES. What and how much food am I supposed to bring to share? Am I supposed to help with communal meal planning and cooking? Is it ok to help clean up instead of food prep? Are people silently judging me for not pulling my weight because I don’t have all the camping gear they have (camp stove, tent, etc.)? SO MANY UNKNOWN VARIABLES and unsaid expectations.
  • Being expected to Have Fun In Nature and enjoy things like hiking (shudder) when I would prefer to have access to my electric kettle, wifi, Netflix, microwave, cat, etc.

Now that I type it all out, camping sounds HORRIBLE. Reminds me of concerts–just a perfect storm of yuck.

Needless to say, not all autistic people hate camping! (Or concerts!) I’ve done a bad job in the past on this blog of lumping all autistic people together as if we all universally hate and love the exact same things. Autistic people may have things in common, but we aren’t a monolith.

One of my loose unofficial goals for the future is to start saying no to things I KNOW I DON’T WANT TO DO (like camping and going to concerts) instead of second-guessing myself and talking myself into it even though I already know I’ll regret it. I’m not saying I’ll never try new things. But if I already know something to be true of myself, why put myself through misery?

Go camping. Have fun. I’ll stay home.

autism and injustice

Saw this on social media and immediately felt validated:

Been in SO. MANY. JOBS. where the injustice really got to me. Maybe it was sexism–men getting more chances and opportunities and recognition than anyone else. Sometimes it was racism–the company was 100% white and/or made ZERO effort to recruit from BIPOC communities. Maybe there were accessibility issues or neurodivergent folks weren’t supported (or begrudgingly supported and considered “high-maintenance” and then let go).

But when I actually spoke up about it, this was the response from leaders:

  • Uhhh…we don’t care.
  • You’re being too sensitive.
  • Shut up and do your job. (Not that bluntly, but that was the gist.)
  • You expect a workplace to be perfect, and no company is.
  • OK, you fix it. (Subtext: because I’m not going to.)

Rage! Pure rage!

It’s INCREDIBLY frustrating to see injustice, work up the courage to say something despite possible retribution, AND THEN have other people gaslight you and act like you’re the weird one.

Oh, I’M SO SORRY (sarcasm) that you wanted to keep mistreating people and I pointed that out!

Neurotypical folks’ response seems to be, “Jeez, calm down.” Which is infuriating too.

The question isn’t, “Why are autistic folks so worked up about injustice?”

It’s “WHY ISN’T EVERYONE ELSE???”

autism, Wednesday Addams, and privilege

Janet Mock once wrote about “pretty privilege” for Allure:

[Pretty privilege is] the societal advantages, often unearned, that benefit people who are perceived as pretty or considered beautiful.

Pretty privilege can give way to more popularity, higher grades, more positive work reviews, and career advancement. People who are considered pretty are more likely to be hired, have higher salaries, and are less likely to be found guilty and are sentenced less harshly. Pretty people are perceived as smarter, healthier and more competent, and people treat pretty people better. Pretty privilege is also conditional and is not often extended to women who are trans, black and brown, disabled, older, and/or fat.

Watching Wednesday on Netflix reminded me of this.

I was excited to watch the series because I’d read chatter online that Wednesday was autistic. I eagerly watched a scene with Wednesday and her therapist, thinking it would come up, only to later finish the entire season and realize that the therapist never realized Wednesday was autistic. The word “autism” is never even mentioned. Maybe she was meant to be coded as autistic, because she certainly displays some traits that read that way–perceived lack of emotion, hyperfocus, not understanding social norms, being misunderstood and seen as weird, etc.

I couldn’t help but love Wednesday, even though she was pretty selfish and unapologetic about being a dick to her friends. I watched wistfully, wishing I could act with that much disregard for social rules. She’s basically a young female Sherlock Holmes (at least the Benedict Cumberbach version)–aloof, a loner, brilliant, talented, and confident (maybe even conceited). And she rarely, if ever, tries to mask!

But you know why she gets away with it? PRETTY PRIVILEGE.

She’s young, beautiful, thin, cishet,* able-bodied, stylish, and rich (or at the very least comfortably upper-middle class).

I daresay most of us autistic people don’t have all of those luxuries.

I used to be thin, wear makeup, and have longer ~more feminine~ (barf) hair. So my weirdness was more acceptable. (Props to A Mythical Creature for inspiring this post and getting me thinking about appearance and autism.)

But now, as a fat genderfluid person with short hair, my autism isn’t cute or quirky or edgy. Instead, it’s another reason for people to ignore me or write me off. (Am I also bumping up against ageism as I get closer to 40? Yes! It’s frickin’ weird! I don’t like it!)

What I’m trying to say is that Wednesday’s experience would’ve been much different without all of her privilege, especially pretty privilege. (I know, I know, she’s not real, she’s a fictional character, but anyway.)

Can you imagine if the protagonist of a show was, say, a gender non-conforming autistic person in their 40s or 50s who WASN’T thin or conventionally attractive? If THAT person was standoffish, blunt, aloof, a bit self-righteous, and obsessed with death, then “normies” would probably write them off as an ugly weirdo, not a sexy goth to doggedly pursue romantically despite their protestations.

I love autistic representation on TV. I really do. Even when it’s flawed (that reminds me, I still need to watch the rest of Extraordinary Attorney Woo). But I wish autistic people didn’t have to be hot, straight, and brilliant to be likable.

*Don’t get me started on how it would make WAY more sense for her to be asexual or gay.

autism and jewelry

I’ve always been a ring-loser. Take my ring(s) off to wash my hands, forget to put them back on, lose them in bathrooms.

I thought I was forgetful. Maybe I just hate rings…and all jewelry!

Whenever I wear a necklace, I’m aware of it. It feels…off. Some autistic people like stim jewelry, or fidget jewelry, because they can play with it. I saw a necklace on Etsy that spins, and you can get it custom-made with two different textures on the front and back (for twice the stimming enjoyment). I think I would just look forward to taking it off, though.

Right now it’s very “in” to wear several different necklaces layered. Different lengths, different pendants or charms or whatever. I love the look and wish I could do it. But again, I HATE JEWELRY. The only thing worse than one necklace would be three. (Shudder.)

I tried narrow little scarves, like half the length of a necktie, knotted very loosely around my neck (in an attempt to channel ~French girl chic~). Same for bandanas. But they all get in the way of my messenger bag strap. Plus, they’re just not very practical for playing with dogs. What am I gonna do, take off my necklace/scarf every time I play with a dog? Accessories are ridiculous!

If I ever get married, I’d want some sort of non-ring symbol. Maybe a little tattoo on my finger (but then again maybe not… #divorce). Maybe nothing at all. All I know is, something that’s supposed to make you happy–marriage–shouldn’t come with an accessory that is physically uncomfortable.

I know women are supposed to want diamonds or whatever. But wouldn’t they just catch on everything, like sweaters? Who wants a poky rock sticking off of their hand? IT’S JUST NOT PRACTICAL.

Maybe jewelry is just one of those neurotypical things I can happily give up, now that I know I’m autistic. It seems almost too good to be true…can I really just abandon all the silly appearance-based rules women are “supposed” to follow and wear loose comfy t-shirts and leggings and NO JEWELRY? It kicks off a whole panicked conversation in my head:

Autism self: Duh, of course you can just wear what’s comfy. Fashion rules are arbitrary and sexist and just designed to make money.

Masking self: But women are supposed to look “put together.” What if I look like a slob, or people think I’m “not trying”? French people don’t wear athleisure!!!

Autism self: Uh, you already wear jean shorts and tank tops and sports bras, and no one has scolded you or loved you any less. Also, I don’t think any French people will take an international trip just to mock you.

Masking self: That’s a good point. But I should still wear makeup, right? So I look like I “made an effort”?

Autism self: Nope. Not if you don’t want to. Admit it, it’s so much nicer to rub your eyes or splash cold water on your face anytime you want without worrying you’ll mess up your makeup.

Masking self: Yeah…that IS pretty great. But what about athletic shoes? You know, the big comfy ones you’re only supposed to wear to the gym? I can’t wear those all the time, can I?

Autism self: I think you know the answer

***

I guess it comes down to feeling lovable. For 30-some years, I tried to be “normal” so people would love and accept me. But that’s exhausting (and expensive and futile). Then people don’t even love the real you, they love the masking you. If someone’s love for me depends on my outfit, that doesn’t really sound like love.

Letting go of old masking habits is hard and scary, but I hope I can do it because it feels so dang good to finally be myself.

autism and core values

I recently took a free “values assessment” and WOW was it obvious it was written by a neurotypical.

Apparently four of my five top values are:

  • Peace/calm
  • Certainty
  • Security
  • Financial stability

These are amazingly boring and not representative of me at all.

They’re representative of my AUTISM.

It reminds me of a video review of Love on the Spectrum where the person says, disliking thunderstorms isn’t a quirky character trait, it’s part of REAL SENSORY ISSUES.

My therapist would probably insert here that it’s impossible to separate me from my autism. And I get that. But this values assessment was still wack. Many autistic people prefer structure, order, routine, predictability, etc. over spontaneity, surprises, and chaos! It’s just how our brains work!

Yes, peace and security and financial stability are important to me. I love schedules and order. But that’s not who I am. There are tons of other possibilities for core values, including some I think are a bit more accurate:

  • Pleasure
  • Curiosity
  • Creativity
  • Beauty
  • Love
  • Loyalty
  • Honesty
  • Uniqueness
  • Compassion
  • Growth
  • Friendship

I hope eventually neurotypicals understand that autism isn’t a quirky character trait or a list of likes/dislikes, it’s sensory and communication stuff that isn’t a preference. IMO, it’s the equivalent of telling someone, “Oh, your core values are food and shelter and clean water!” No, those are just basic human needs. It’s accurate on a very basic level, but it doesn’t tell you ANYthing about the person’s unique likes/dislikes.

I imagine it would be similar for folks with ADHD. Their “core values” according to the assessment might be variety, stimulation, excitement, change, etc. because that’s what gives them dopamine! But that doesn’t fully explain what’s important to them.

Yes, I’m autistic. That tells you SOMEthing about me. But it doesn’t tell you everything, much less what my core values are.

autism and flirting

Ugh. Do you ever just get mad at yourself for being autistic? I am, right now.

I tried to flirt with someone last night and it did NOT go well.

As an autistic person, most (if not all) of my understanding of social norms and expectations comes from TV, movies, reading stuff online, and observing others (rather than some neurotypical intuition).

In my observations, teasing seems to be a major method of flirting. You gently tease the person about something, they blush and get all cute and embarrassed, you look at each other with the heart-eyes emoji, and bam, you’re in love. (What could go wrong! Eek.)

I tried to tease a love interest about their choice of beverage last night, since it was unusual. But it didn’t get the desired result. So I tried again, more playfully. (A mistake, I guess?) Then they just seemed irritated. Finally I was like, OK, this doesn’t seem to be working.

Then I felt that familiar cocktail of icky feelings: shame, anger at myself, frustration. Why do I have to be autistic? Why can’t flirting and relationships be as easy as they are in the media? Why didn’t I intuitively know the best way to flirt with this person? Why is so much unspoken in interpersonal relationships (and why can’t it be spoken for those of us who don’t pick up on subtext)? Should I have said something like, “Sorry I accidentally insulted you–I’m autistic and not good at flirting”?

It goes the other way, too. When people have teased me in the past, I’ve thought, Aha! THIS IS FLIRTING! When someone teases someone else on TV/movies, it means they’re interested in them romantically. But alas, it wasn’t true. Either the person didn’t like me romantically or just never acted on it. (WTF, movies and TV? Why do you keep steering me wrong?)

I’m trying to give myself grace for being who I am. There’s nothing wrong with me, or being autistic. The right love interest will understand. But it also sucks sometimes.

autism and city noise

Loud noise = bad. (This seems to be the autistic consensus.)

But there are a lot of OTHER noises that are annoying and disruptive, at least to me.

I grew up in a quiet suburban neighborhood. When I moved to a city, my new coworkers asked me what I thought of the city so far. “There are a lot of sirens!” I said. (Not the answer they expected. Thanks, autistic bluntness and social awkwardness!)

Now I live on a busy street. (It was quieter when I moved in, but over the past few years, it’s gotten busier.) Here are some of the disruptive noises/sounds:

  • Marches/protests (good, but noisy nonetheless. fewer now, but almost every day in summer 2020)
  • Ambulance and fire truck sirens
  • General traffic noise like cars whooshing by
  • Occasional car crashes–loud screeching brakes, honking, yelling/arguing
  • People walking by playing music or talking on the phone loudly
  • A lunchtime food truck playing music to announce its presence
  • Dogs barking
  • Car alarms–someone parks on my street whose car alarm is really sensitive and goes off regularly
  • Trash and recycling trucks going by weekly, with sounds of bins clattering and being emptied

When I first moved here, some people asked about the traffic noise. “I just tune it out and pretend it’s the ocean!” I joked. I tried to convince myself it was fine. (And for lots of people with less privilege than I have, it’s not a choice. Affordable housing is in noisy, less desirable, more polluted areas!)

But now that I type all of those out, it makes me realize it might be good for my autism to live somewhere quieter. I’ve been lowkey thinking about moving recently but haven’t taken any action because MOVING IS STRESSFUL and CHANGE IS SCARY. Moving would be a huge life disruption, not to mention expensive!

Plus, I always bought into the “city living is cool, suburbs are stupid” thinking. “Cool people” lived in cities, and “boring people” lived in suburbs. City people valued art, non-chain restaurants, walkability, ~shopping local~ and all that stuff, whereas suburban people were mindless cookie-cutter lemmings who didn’t care about the planet and drove huge, gas-guzzling cars and ate at Applebees.

Yikes. Pretty gross oversimplification, right?

Not only is that black-and-white thinking (which I’m working on moving away from, slowly), but it doesn’t take into account ALL THE REASONS someone might live in a city or suburb. The suburbs are cheaper and you get more space. Maybe you’re a parent (I don’t know why you’d make that choice, but whatever) and the suburbs have better schools or something. Maybe it’s closer to your job. 簪\_()_/簪

And to be honest, living on a quiet street where I actually have a parking space (OR GARAGE) is pretty appealing. Maybe I’d get distracted less, since I work at home. Who knows? Maybe it’s something to start looking into.

***

P.S. Again, I realize I have a TON of privilege to even CONSIDER a) moving at all, and b) moving to a quieter area. Lots of people don’t have those options at all.

autism and narcissists

(Not to be confused with my post on autism and narcissism!)

I was watching a video about narcissism and skimming through the comments when one jumped out at me:

Yikes. It’s so true.

I’ve known several narcissists, from friends and relatives to bosses, and each one is toxic and gross (while appearing charming). I don’t think being autistic attracts narcissists–I don’t blame myself for other people’s suckitude–but I definitely see how narcissists can prey on autistic people.

For me, being autistic means I constantly question my reality and look for cues from other people. What am I supposed to be doing/saying/feeling right now? How do I “mask” to look “normal” in this situation? What is an “appropriate” response? Because being my autistic self, unmasked, often opens me up to teasing or being misunderstood.

I think that makes it REALLY easy for narcissists to gaslight autistic people. If I’m used to questioning myself and second-guessing my instincts because my brain works differently, a narcissist can take advantage of that and say, “You’re not understanding this” or “That’s not what happened” or “I never said that.” Or even “You’re not picking up on the subtext.”

Ah yes, it must be MY fault since I’m autistic and the narcissist is neurotypical, right? /sarcasm

I’ve never told the narcissists in my life that I’m autistic, either because I only got diagnosed in the past couple months (yay! finally!) or because I just didn’t trust them. I don’t think it’s a good idea, because a narcissist will take ANY vulnerability you show them and use it against you. I’m sure if I disclosed to former bosses that I was autistic (had I known) they would’ve used that to question my judgment or perception of events. The last thing anyone needs, autistic or not, is to give narcissists fuel to belittle us or trash-talk us to others.

It’s been a long road, but hopefully I’m finally learning to trust myself, my instincts, and my experiences, even if narcissists and/or neurotypical people tell me I’m wrong.