Monday, November 18, 2013

This is Autism (Alex Abbott)

Written by Alex Abbott
'Every time I talk with my mother - as I did recently - she asks me about something which, appears to me, completely out of left field. Here's a typical conversation:

"I went hiking earlier."

"What kind of flowers were there?"

"How would I know that?"


"My boss asked me to find some contact information for people in congressional offices. It was for an event."

"What kind of event was it?"

"I don't know. I was doing what my boss told me to do."


Reading more blogs about autism, written by (and largely for) autistic people, like "Musings of an Aspie" has given me a better handle on my day-to-day attempts to cope, a stronger awareness of my strengths and limitations, and - critically - the willingness to see clearly when it comes to how being on the spectrum may affect my life more often than I care to admit.

Sometimes, I read about problems that I have, in fact, experienced but never found the words to explain. Cynthia Kim, author of Musings of an Aspie, frequently refuses the idea of "executive function" on her blog. She discusses her own experiences struggling to do things like: focus - follow a conversation coherently - socialize - remember details - keep track of time - as her abilities to process the world fluctuate - expanding and constricting - in different circumstances and surroundings.

I have so often felt the same frustration, over and over again, but I never had a term to describe this difficulty, and it's not easy to get people to understand why I'm having problems doing things that are very easy for other people and often simple for me, when I'm not overloaded by extra stress or stimuli. My sudden inability to have so much as a casual conversation makes me feel incredibly anxious and embarrassed.

I spend a vast amount of mental resources solely so I can function appropriately in a neurotypical world. It takes an uphill effort just to ensure that my behaviors and my reactions match the people around me, so much so that I have to prioritize my attention and devote myself primarily to things that tend to be most important in any given context that I'm in. The faster things are happening, the more responsibilities I have simultaneously, the more people aggressively demand my attention...the quicker my ability to function erodes and I lose the ability to understand what I'm doing or communicate what I'm feeling.

If I'm at work, I will put all my abilities into making sure I understand the precise requirements of my projects, being friendly and mollifying my colleagues (which does not come naturally, and takes a whole lot of practice!), and maintaining a sense of situational awareness that is hard to explain but extremely important to safeguard - when I get caught off-guard, I tend to become paralyzed or lose all sense of what I'm doing, and I feel a lot of pressure to avoid leaving this impression at work. Who wants to be perceived as unreliable or a flake at their workplace?

Given all of that, when my boss tells me to do a job, I don't spend a lot of time thinking about - as it appears to me - extraneous, irrelevant information. I protect my mental functioning like other people protect their personal space, property, or body - I have to protect and conserve this vital part of myself, as a professional and as a human being, and I do whatever's necessary so that I can succeed and stay in one piece. I'm doing the best that I can do.

Similarly, when I'm in a social situation, I have to spend a lot of time monitoring the reactions and body language of my friends so I can support them and be there for them, and make sure that I'm not alienating them or accidentally steamrolling them, or ignoring them, or making a situation awkward or uncomfortable. 

If you happen to meet me, I'm a random guy like anybody else - which is true on the surface, and of course that's how I want you to treat me - but maybe you don't know that there are times when I practically have to expend the resources of an orchestra conductor or a flight controller just to ensure that I am socially competent - (at the level where almost everyone expects me to function - everywhere, and pretty much all the time). 

While I possess an abundance of talents, happen to be a well-read, intelligent person, and have earned a college degree - my mind does not work like the minds of most other people. I have my own challenges and responses, my own ways of managing my day-to-day life and coping with my environment. What's my larger point, and what am I really trying to say here? 

I want you to know this about me: that it's often exhausting, and endlessly frustrating, just to live in a way that doesn't leave me feeling like I'm disappointing my friends, my family, or my employer.

You should know, that when I can't live up to this standard, when I feel myself falling desperately short of expectations, that I feel like absolute crap, wrecked with anxiety and paralysis and desperation and confusion.

You should realize that I'm tired of being "on" *all the time*. I need space. I need time to process, time to reload, time to decompress. That being said, autism is merely one, albeit an important, part of who I am and it's just one possible challenge that I could have. Like every other person, I have received some blessings and overcome some difficulties, and all I ask is the opportunity to be understood and appreciated for who I am.

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