This is autism

Last Monday, Autism Speaks told the world that autism is:
. . . living in despair
. . . fear of the future
. . . exhausted, broken parents
. . . lost, helpless, burdensome children

That kind of autism is not my autism. My contribution to the This is Autism Flash Blog.

I enjoy the sounds of the city around me, the strains of birdsong that I can hear even through traffic, the purring of my cat that almost but not quite manages to drown out all other sounds, the clicking of my keyboard while I’m typing. I hear the trains going past in the distance and I love getting sucked into that rhythm. When I listen to music, I become the notes, the melody, I can pick out the individual instruments and still hear how they work together to create a single sound. I sing along with the counter melody almost by instinct.

I have problems when people raise their voices, start yelling, even from a street away. I have problems with loud cars and motorcycles and airplanes, those sounds hurt my ears so much. Locations with lots of echo send me into sensory overload. Loud bangs, or even just someone clapping suddenly, frighten the life out of me.

This is autism.

I’m able to make the most outrageous statements in a completely neutral tone of voice and with a neutral facial expression.

My friends call it deadpan.

This is autism.

I’m unable to reach the highest shelves in my kitchen or at the supermarket without assistance. That means I either have to buy specialist tools like stepladders with my own money, or ask others to get things down for me. There are no services available. Sometimes I want to cry with frustration when I can’t get something from the top shelf on my own.

This is being 5’3″.

Autumn makes me happy because the piles of fallen leaves make me want to play in them, throw them in the air, smell the mulchy scent of them, hear the whispery crispy sound of them as they’re crushed. Fallen leaves make me feel like a child.

Winter makes me happy because snow is beautiful and shimmery and light. It gives everything a new shape. It’s soft and crispy at the same time. Snowflakes have the most intricate patterns. And having a snowball fight is so much fun, even though the sensory overload from having a snowball land in your collar is indescribable. Snowball fights make me feel like a child.

Spring makes me happy because there is no colour more beautiful than the green of new leaves. I stare up at them and see the sunlight fall through them. And I feel the wonder of new life, of seeing everything for the first time, the wonder of a child.

Sometimes I am able to shake off the shackles of social expectations and act like a child. I wish I were able to do so more often. Not being aware of social rules has its benefits.

This is autism.

I have to deal with people who don’t think like me every day. One of the greatest gifts that autism has brought me is connecting with other autistic people. Sharing the same way of thinking doesn’t automatically mean that we get along, or that we’re all good people. But there is an instinctive level of understanding that has eluded me for so long. Something that is lacking in the majority of people I meet. They don’t understand. And sometimes it seems as if they don’t even want to understand. That they don’t want me to be me.

I’m tired of being told I’m smart enough to figure things out myself. I’m tired of being told to fit in, to stop being so contrary and different. I’m tired of trying harder. I’m tired of getting fired for not being sensitive to office politics, for speaking the truth at the wrong time, for not understanding that sometimes words are more important than actions. I’m tired of having people angry at me for shutting down, for not looking at them, for not responding quickly enough.

This is not autism.

It is not autism that makes people treat me like this. And it is not autism when I’m hurt by how people treat me.

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Lists are an autistic thing, but they’re not an impairment

So, after the success of my huge list of things that I think make me autistic, I figured I’d give it another go. My childhood interview was pretty much a fail (more about that later), so I knew I needed some way to show the diagnostic therapist the impact that the autistic stuff has on my life. Which goes against every instinct I have. Because I hide my vulnerabilities and I concentrate on my strengths. Which is a healthy thing to do. Except when a diagnosis is completely dependent on having a significant impairment. “Needing some acknowledgment and validation” is not a diagnostic criterion yet, unfortunately.

Writing this list took me countless drafts, different set-ups (Word or Excel document? Order by categories or severity?), innumerable tears, and 11 days. It was a really hard thing to do. But it was necessary. I also toyed with the idea of making it funnier by listing examples, but then decided against that because I need this to be as bleak and depressing as possible. I might have to cheer myself up with writing a list of things I’m awesome at. Anyway, without further ado, the list of things I suck at!

FINANCES

I have no overview of my bank account balance.
I don’t pay bills regularly.
I have no idea which bills have been paid and which haven’t.
I have difficulty prioritising payments.
I have no idea of the amount needed to cover my monthly expenses.
I have difficulty assigning budgets.
I sometimes buy things I can’t afford.
I’m unable to save up money for big expenses.
I forget to open letters and bills.
I have problems organising important documents.
I forget to do important things like apply for unemployment.
I forget to return important forms.
I have difficulty replying to important emails.
I have difficulty writing job application letters.
I get upset about making phone calls to companies and organisations.

PERSONAL CARE

I don’t take regular showers.
I don’t brush my teeth regularly.
I have difficulty remembering to put on deodorant.
I wear the same underwear for several days in a row.
I sometimes forget to shave my armpits even when I’m wearing something sleeveless.
I bite my nails and nail beds, sometimes until they bleed.
I pull out my hair.
I pick my nose even in public.
I sometimes forget to go to the toilet and end up wetting myself.
I forget to eat breakfast.
I usually have no energy to make dinner.
I postpone making appointments for the dentist, the doctor, and the hairdresser.

HOUSEHOLD

I don’t do my dishes regularly.
I don’t clean my kitchen work area regularly.
I don’t vacuum and clean my floors regularly.
I don’t clean my toilet and bathroom regularly.
I don’t do laundry regularly.
I don’t maintain my garden.
I don’t tidy up after myself.
I leave my dirty clothes in a pile on the floor.
I forget to throw food out when it’s gone bad.
I often use knives and plates from the day before.
I forget to bring empty bottles to the recycling bin.
I don’t change my sheets regularly.
I sometimes forget to take out the garbage.
I have problems keeping my clothes and shoes organised.
I forget to water my plants.
I don’t clean the cat’s litter box daily.
I have problems throwing away things I have no use for.

WORK

I’m often late.
I call in sick too often.
I don’t know how to pick my battles or agree on small things even when privately disagreeing.
I don’t know how to voice my opinion in an empathetic, non-confrontational way.
I get very upset when my own priority list gets changed by my manager.
I have difficulty handling criticism that I think is unfounded.
I don’t know how to handle tasks I have no knowledge of.
I have difficulty asking for help.
I try to postpone phone calls to customers as long as possible.
I have difficulty answering emails when I don’t have a real answer yet.
I always follow unimportant rules (like no private internet use at work, or wash up your own coffee cups).
I get upset when other people don’t follow those rules.
I get confused when there are implicit rules that nobody says out loud.
I have problems with lying to customers to protect the company’s interests.
I have difficulty handling unscheduled meetings.
I get upset when people are talking close by or when the radio is on while I’m trying to work.
I get upset when a ceiling light malfunctions.
I don’t like company outings that involve more than just having a couple of drinks.
I have difficulty joining coworkers for lunch unless explicitly invited.

FAMILY AND RELATIONSHIPS

I forget to congratulate people on their birthday.
I forget to plan a visit or send a card when someone has just had a baby.
I don’t often take initiative to meet up with family or friends.
I don’t call family or friends to ask how they are.
I forget to give small compliments.
I need to be explicitly told that information is private and not meant to be told to others.
I have difficulty not focusing on solutions when someone tells me about their problems.
I have problems in the early stages of a relationship because I get obsessed with the person.
I don’t know how to keep a conversation going when I’m not interested in the subject.
I rehearse conversations in advance.
I get upset when someone is late.
I don’t know how to talk to others about my own emotions.
I feel more connected to my cat and my books than to most people.
I often have trouble thinking about what someone else likes to do, unless they tell me.
I don’t know how to introduce myself to strangers.
I often say inappropriate things.
I often take things too seriously.
I have problems not interrupting people when I think of something interesting to say.
I get very upset when I think people are not listening to me.
I am too trusting of strangers.

FEELINGS

I have problems coping with changes in plans.
I always order the same things in fast food places.
I have irrational food dislikes that I disguise as allergies.
I get upset when I’m in a crowd.
I get very upset from loud or ongoing noise.
I get upset in brightly lit environments.
I don’t like having the TV on.
I have problems personalising my environment (like hanging up pictures).
I have problems disconnecting from dreams on waking up.
I have problems watching thriller or horror movies and knowing it’s not real.
I don’t get anything done when I’m sick or in pain.
I get angry when being complimented on something that I think is undeserved.
I get stuck on things needing to be perfect.
I hide in my bedroom for weeks when I feel unable to cope with things.
I hate myself when looking at this list.
I want to be perfect.
I don’t want to be normal.

High and low

People, especially medical professionals, are very fond of saying that real autism is nothing at all like how it’s depicted in Rain Man, the famous 1988 film with Tom Cruise and Dustin Hoffman.

Guess what? I disagree.

In this clip, Ray (Dustin Hoffman) is trying to explain to his brother Charlie (Tom Cruise) why he’s not comfortable wearing the pair of underwear his brother gave him. He always wears boxer shorts and these are Hanes. They’re too tight. They’re not comfortable. So he didn’t put them on. He tries to explain which kind of underwear he prefers, but gets stuck on saying which ones he always buys, the boxer shorts at K-Mart. And so Charlie ends up screaming at him that it doesn’t matter where he buys his underwear. “What difference does it make?! UNDERWEAR IS UNDERWEAR!”

No it isn’t. Even neurotypical people have their preferences. Some people can’t stand boxer shorts. Some people hate lacey knickers. Some people prefer cotton, others prefer synthetic fibers which have more stretch. Loose or tight, sexy or functional. We’ve all tried out different types and settled onto something we like to wear.

The difference between autistic people and non-autistic people is that deviating from our preferences is really hard for many of us. Either it’s because our routine gets interrupted, which means we need some time adapting to the new situation. Or our sensory processing difficulties make it impossible to think of anything but the unpleasantness of this strange fabric against our skins. It’s like having an itch you can’t scratch. There comes a point where you can’t think of anything else, let alone focus on what someone else is saying.

And when you’re speaking a different language, when you don’t know the “normal” way of explaining this, you get accused of making a big fuss about nothing, like Ray.

That’s why I actually recognise so much about this scene. This is a fairly spot-on example of what autistic people deal with every day, down to the anger and frustration of the neurotypical people around them. Of course it’s fictionalised and overcharged, because hey, it still has to be entertainment. But it’s not as inaccurate as the medical professionals often claim it is.

Maybe because Ray is visibly autistic. He’s what is often referred to as low functioning. And low functioning is bad. It gets you institutionalised and treated like a child, incapable of making rational decisions.

Guess what? I can be low functioning too.

Other people will say I’m not at all like Rain Man. I own my own house. I work 40 hours a week. I have a higher income than most people I know. I don’t receive any government assistance or disability benefits. I go to parties and socialise with coworkers and do my own grocery shopping and meet up with friends for drinks and even go on holiday by myself. That’s so high functioning that nobody believes me when I say I am autistic.

I will say that I am like Rain Man. That is why I posted a video of me being nearly non-verbal. That is why I showed how much trouble I have keeping my house clean. That is why I wrote an angry post about peeing myself in public.

Triplets eating lunch on a couch

We are alike © Msphotographic – Dreamstime.com

I am both. It depends on the activity (I’m crap at paying bills, I’m good with shopping on a budget). It depends on circumstances (I’m fine on the phone when it’s work related, I try to postpone personal phone calls as long as possible). It depends on how much I’ve forced myself to go beyond my comfort zone lately. Functioning on a neurotypical level takes a lot of effort for me, which means I run out of spoons faster than you’d expect.

So if I can be both, what exactly do high or low functioning labels mean? Have we really looked at a person’s strengths before labelling them low functioning? Or do we just look at the obvious symptoms that set them apart from neurotypical people?

Do we judge people only on either being visibly or invisibly autistic?

Guess what? I think the answer to that last question is yes. And that is why I reject functioning labels. Because it says nothing about my functioning. It only describes what others think of me.

If you know of any other insightful posts on this subject, please let me know in the comments! Shameless self-promotion is allowed as well!