Fine

(This was written a while ago but another blogger posted something with the same title right before, so I’ve waited to post this.)

Somebody asks, “How are you today?”
I answer, “It’s been a hard day, actually.” But in my head I’m saying “You’re supposed to say fine. You’re just supposed to say fine. Don’t say anything more than fine.”
I can’t say “Fine.” It’s not fine. I’m not fine. It has not been a fine day.
So the other person says, “Oh, what’s wrong?”
I don’t answer. It’s not a good question, but I realize I have gone against the script and have prompted it. It’s all my fault for deviation.
In my head I try several responses.
“You probably don’t want to know the gory details.”
“You probably shouldn’t ask unless you really want to know.”
“I’m not very good at only hitting the high spots.”

I know this about myself, but depending on “how I am” – what kind of day it has actually been, and how tired I am, or if I’m anxious or overwhelmed, perhaps have already been barely coping all day (all week, longer) and am at my limit – it may be very difficult to impossible to come up with a suitable response. A response that allows you to save face and not be subjected to the actual truth. A response that lets me not feel guilty and agonize over responding in the wrong way.

I’ll probably struggle to say, “Oh, nothing.” But this is not really acceptable to either of us. You feel bad because I’ve made it obvious that I know you don’t really want to know. I feel bad because I didn’t say it to make you feel bad. I just wanted to let you off the hook.

If you continue and ask, “What’s wrong?” you’re likely to get the whole story with footnotes to make sure you not only understand the issues, but have the necessary background information, in order, play by play, in gory detail.

This isn’t because I’m completely anal or narcissistic, though I will immediately realize that’s what you think. It’s because I’m not really sure what information is important to help you empathize with me. To connect with me in a meaningful way. That’s probably a lot more important to me than it is to you. I know my empathy is often different than other people’s because different things are important to me. It’s one of the reasons small talk is so damn difficult.

So, if you ask an Aspie/Autie how they are, be prepared for the truth. Understand they will pay you the compliment of being honest, of trusting you, and will appreciate your sincere interest.
Or don’t ask. It’ll save you both a lot of frustration.

(This is autisticmotherland’s “Fine”. Different angle and perspective. Go read it!)

Small Talk

I was reading an excellent post on M. Kelter’s experience of conversation and social input in general – Sorting Social Data (Go read it!) – that resonated with me on a lot of levels.

It’s always so helpful to hear other autistics relate and try to describe their thoughts and experiences on processing issues as it’s so difficult (BECAUSE of processing issues) for me to describe and understand them. I find reading other’s ideas and experiences triggers memories and realizations of my own.

In reading the above post I was reminded of an incident that had happened just the night before. An old friend of my oldest (also autistic) daughter was in our area playing with his band and she had come down from Oakland to join us in going to see them. We picked her sister up from work and, with a couple of hours to kill before the show, went out for Thai food. I love the fact that we can talk about all kinds of random things together, or not talk at all, and (at least as far as I’m aware) don’t feel stress or awkwardness in either case. I think we are completely comfortable together.

About halfway through our meal, two women came in and sat at a neighboring table. My daughters were discussing something, but the conversation at the other table was interfering with my ability to keep track, though I wasn’t purposely or even consciously listening to the other conversation.

Until I was.

I was trying not to laugh. It reminded me of one of my favorite movies and a script that we – both daughters and myself – use frequently:

Mashed Potatoes and Tall Actors

Except they were talking about shopping around for churches and cooking and other unrelated things. One woman had a slow, lugubrious voice and repeated herself several times on seemingly unrelated topics. It was hard to tell whether the other woman was talking too softly for us to hear sometimes or simply wasn’t responding to everything the other lady said.

I looked to see if my daughters had picked up on it and they had, their expressions looking very similar to Sandra Bullock’s at the end of the above clip.

At that point it became impossible for me to focus on almost anything else. It’s just a good thing that we have very good senses of humor. And while I don’t in general like making fun of people, sometimes it’s impossible to not find them funny. We were laughing.

I got to thinking about it today, though. As funny as it was to overhear it, it would have been absolute torture to actually be a part of it. I have a short attention span for such conversations and little of the right kind of imagination or patience to participate in topics I’m not interested in. If it’s a case of showing interest in a friend’s interest, I can do that. I can think of pertinent questions to ask and respond appropriately (I think) because I care about my friend and am able to be interested (however temporarily) for their sake. I am interested in their interest, not necessarily the topic itself.

It’s harder to monitor interest when the topic is shifted in my direction. I can talk at great length about the subjects that fascinate or affect me deeply. The subject of autism creeps into almost everything if I’m not careful. It’s such a huge part of my life – how I live, how I process things, how I teach, and so many of my students are also autistic – that I have to closely monitor myself and the people I’m talking to, even my own family. Music and teaching in general, likewise. I think I’ve gotten much better at self-regulation lately, but I still get carried away and too passionate for some people sometimes. That is always followed by anxiety and self-recrimination, which I try very hard to avoid.

But if there’s no passion in the topic on either side, merely mundane chit-chat – no, I can’t do that for long at all. I will become extremely exhausted very quickly. I’ll try to, as politely as possible, extricate myself from the situation. If that doesn’t work or isn’t possible, I’ll just walk away. If I’m part of a group that is engaging in it, I’ll just leave. I think it’s sometimes taken as rude, but it seems to me that it would be far more rude to interrupt the conversation to say that I’m leaving. Why would I want to draw attention to that fact?

I rarely participate in conversations at work. The staff room is not a place to relax and be comfortable for me. I DO like to connect with people, but I need to do it in small doses and preferably one-on-one where it’s easier to follow conversation and know when I’m expected to talk (notice I said easier, not easy). I can do the “Nice weather today”s with friends and strangers alike if I’m not overwhelmed by other issues, but if I am, you might not get an appropriate response or response of any kind. And please don’t ask me how I’m doing unless you really care and want to know the truth. Sometimes having to say, “Fine” because I know that’s the only response the asker will tolerate, makes me feel like my head will explode.

The other issue with trying to be sociable in the staff room (or other social gatherings/places) is it takes a huge concentrated effort to participate, even on topics I am interested in, and sometimes even just to listen. Sooner or later (but usually sooner) I’m aware that I’m not responding/acting/speaking in the right way. I don’t know exactly what I’ve done wrong but there’s a definite chill in the atmosphere and my brain starts screaming, “Shut up!” or “Disappear!” or “You’re an idiot!”(to myself, not the others!) And most of the time I have no idea why. It’s even worse when I know I’ve said or done something – usually expressed an opinion or preference – that is unwelcome, socially unacceptable, or politically incorrect (though probably honest and true), no matter how inconsequential it is. Then I’m going to suffer for days. Anxiety goes through the roof and I may suffer PTSD symptoms. I don’t need the punishment of others – I do it to myself!

B B Shepherd is a musician, educator, and author and can also be found at Glistering: B’s Blog

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The Little Professor is Compensating for Something: Theory of Mind and Pedantic Speech

Excellent post from The Artism Spectrum about why we over-explain.

The Artism Spectrum

“That woman is irritating,” Cara says.

“What?” I say. “Why?”

“She can’t separate herself from her own knowledge[.] […] She keeps saying things like they’re obvious when they are not, in fact, obvious.”

(—Veronica Roth, Allegiant)

pedantictwilightFULL Drawn w/ GIMP. Yes, it’s My Little Pony. Who better to illustrate pedantic speech than Twilight Sparkle?

The inspiration for today’s post comes from… a novel I’m reading, believe it or not. I’ve finally gotten around to reading Veronica Roth’s Divergent series this week, which my mother has been raving about for years. It’s actually been pretty great! It’s very Young Adult Fiction, so anyone not used to the genre will probably hate the writing style, but the story is gripping, and I’m loving the diversity and dimensionality of the characters. Plus, I have a soft spot for dystopian young adult scifi.   If you’re a Divergent fan, don’t worry; this post is…

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The Sound that Surrounds Us

As an autistic person, one of the hardest things to endure and the most common factor on reaching overload for me personally is noise.

I find it impossible to sleep if it’s noisy. Sleeping in summer, when my bedroom window has to be open to catch any breath of cool air, is sketchy at best. Once upon a time I lived in a relatively rural area. I took the relative quiet for granted. The only night time noises I recall – except for the very occasional noisy neighbor – were howls from coyotes, but I never heard them in the house. For the past fifteen years or so I’ve been living in cities, in apartments. Not by choice. I can get used to the sound of traffic within reason. The steady swishing of cars down the street becomes similar to waves of the ocean, though not as soothing. While I can feel my brain expanding -relaxing? – in a delicious, calming way at the ocean, traffic noise causes a tightening, more shutdown – defensive? – sensation.

Then there are people themselves. The noise of people is excruciating. Today there is a child squealing in the neighboring building. It’s not that loud really, and not necessarily an unhappy sound, but every time it squeals it feels like my bones are going to leap out of my skin. I could close my window and turn my air conditioner on, but my energy bill is horrendous and it’s quite a lovely day. I’m trying to cut costs. Should I have to close my window because someone’s child is squealing? It’s been going on – intermittently – for hours.

noise warning

I have a soundproof headset but I find it even more uncomfortable than ear plugs. It gives me a severe headache within minutes, even at its loosest fit. I probably need to get something expensive. Something that has soothing masking noise would be nice . . . light rain or ocean waves. Having music or a video on would help drown out noise, but it distracts me too badly from whatever else I’m trying to do. I cannot write or read with music or TV on.

The funny thing is, I have a very noisy job. As a music educator I deal with not just large classes of children but all their instruments too. I enjoy an interactive classroom, and I assure you the instrumental sounds we make are not always pleasant or even cohesive music, especially this early in the year! Children need to be able to practice freely, and I give them that opportunity, especially at the beginning of class. Not all of them are allowed to practice at home. Some also live in apartments and are actually considerate of their neighbors (as I am) or are not allowed to for other reasons. It upsets grandparents. It disturbs babies. Or the parent doesn’t like the noise. Or the student just doesn’t bother. For whatever reason, many of my students do not practice at home, so I encourage them to play freely at the beginning of class. It’s something I can handle for a limited time and for logical reasons. And the music that we eventually make, and the joy the students have in making it, is SO worthwhile. My students come to understand that, while I don’t require them to be silent at the beginning and ending of class, they must be relatively quiet during class, and speak one at a time, but that’s a different issue.

HOWEVER . . . having to endure other people’s noise at home is completely different. Being woken up several times during the night by cars playing thumping loud music, people talking loudly as if at a football game, and even the homeless people going through the dumpster – it takes a toll. One of my neighbors has an extremely loud voice. Everything seems to be yelled and his laugh is like an explosion. HAHAHAHA! He stays up very late and my bedroom is next to his living room. His TV is loud too. I’ve asked for them to be quieter at night but he actually got aggressive. I just avoid them and try to live with it.

I wear ear plugs to sleep even though they are very uncomfortable for me and accentuate the noise in my head. I don’t feel rested after sleeping in ear plugs, but it beats not sleeping at all. I wear them to concerts too, at least until my ears adapt to the noise, but I don’t go to concerts often for that very reason. I don’t deal well with crowds of people either, but that’s a different issue as well. Perhaps I should have been an astronaut. I hear space is very quiet.

astronaut in space

Except for the whole fear of heights and claustrophobia thing.

Anyway, I thought I’d write something about what it’s like – being so sensitive to noise – as I sit here wearing ear plugs in the middle of the day because a neighbor’s child is squealing. It’s been all day now. I had three children and none of them screamed or squealed or yelled. Not in the house for no reason.

Why is this necessary and how do neurotypical people endure it? Most people just don’t seem to notice these things. Do you have issues with noise? If so, what have you found that helps? Have you had experience explaining it to other people?

B B Shepherd is a musician, educator, and author and can also be found at Glistering: B’s Blog

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Sorry, I Can’t See What You’re Saying…

a picture is worth a thousand words

I have begun to understand that unless I have time to “picture” what a person is saying, I often don’t “hear” them. It’s definitely gotten trickier since I have some hearing damage from amplifiers, but I now realize it’s always been this way. It might be one reason it was hard to maintain or even gain friends in school. Sometimes I might not have grasped what they were saying and probably didn’t respond in the right way, or at all. I can see how that would appear rude, weird, or offensive. I suppose it can make a person appear stupid too, in spite of the complex thought processes that might be simultaneously going through that person’s mind.

Speech doesn’t need to be slow, necessarily, but when I listen to something verbal, I have to be able to picture what’s being said. Visuals and modeling in class settings can be very helpful, even for adults. I was talking to a friend today who was talking so fast, I couldn’t keep up a lot of the time. I heard names that I knew and could picture the people, but not what was being related about them. It was very frustrating. It has only recently occurred to me that this is an aspect of my autism and that not everyone has to picture things to process language. I don’t always have trouble, but often in new or stressful situations with new information, I have to work much harder to comprehend what is being said.

In a work setting, I get a little frustrated when times, places, figures, numbers, statistics, etc. are being thrown around with no visual references. They mean little to nothing to me unless I can process them visually. Same with directions on how to get somewhere. I’m a great map reader, but don’t just rattle off directions and expect me to retain them. I won’t unless I have a visual reference for the directions or places you name. At least write them down for me, then I’m fine. Meetings are horrible, especially when there are always those few people who insist on talking in the background. It often muddies or supercedes what I’m supposed to be listening to.

It’s especially hard on the phone when, without visual interaction, I also have issues of not knowing when I can talk. Poor reception can make things even more difficult. Sometimes I can’t get a word in as it doesn’t seem to be my turn. If I try to say something, I feel like I’m interrupting. If the person I’m talking to takes over the conversation before I’m finished, I can’t hear what they’re saying because I’m still thinking about what I was going to say. I fake it a lot too. If I completely get lost, I have to ask people to slow down or start over, but a lot of the time I just pretend to hear what they’re saying and try to make occasional responses, hoping they’re appropriate. I listen for words that stand out, and if I think I’ve missed something important, I ask them to repeat it. I try not to do that too often or they won’t want to talk to me anymore!

I enjoy watching videos more than TV as I can stop and replay sections I couldn’t catch the words of, especially as I tend to love shows with witty, playful dialogue (Gilmore Girls, Buffy, Firefly, Sherlock), but they tend to talk so fast!

It’s the same when I read. Although I love words and books, I read slowly. I have to be able to picture what I’m reading. I guess that’s why I appreciate description so much. I tend to write a lot of description, too, and that’s mostly what I’ve been editing out of my currently published novel. No one’s complained about it, but it’s very long.

I also can’t listen to more than one thing at a time. Apart from just finding it annoying, it’s completely confusing. If more than one person is talking at a time I hear nothing but vocal noise. If there are a lot of people talking, it soon becomes overwhelming. I avoid those situations. In class, my students learn they can’t talk to me at the same time. They become very considerate about it when I explain. We have our noisy times – especially at the beginning and end of class – when I just deal with it, and my autistic students learn to cope with it too. But the rest of the time I’m listening very intently. Once we start really working, it can’t be chaotically noisy. It’s something of a mixed blessing.

Please never make the mistake of thinking that someone who processes slowly is of lower intelligence. In many situations they might run circles around you – mentally speaking, at least. Other distractions and eye contact are issues for another day.

How do you process language? Do you have trouble with auditory/language processing? What is your experience?

B B Shepherd is a musician, educator, and author and can also be found at Glistering: B’s Blog

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Autism and Depression

I Am Paggliacci

Yes, I know everyone is probably overusing Robin for various reasons, but I saw this and couldn’t help thinking about myself and my children, and applying it to the things I am learning. I’ve seen it or something similar before, but that was before I understood myself as I do now. Before I understood myself as autistic.

I have (since a small child) always dealt much more with anxiety than depression, but depression was a significant part of my teenage experience (which I hid from in intense interests and explained away as other things), haunted me through my twenties and thirties (and it was much harder to ignore), and almost debilitated me after the death of my mother, my one solid anchor and advocate in life. For six months I got up and went through motions, was even able to teach reasonably well (I think – I have no memory of that whole period except for darkness and drowning) and wondered if I’d ever feel “normal” (or what passed for normal to me) again.

My saving grace in life since my mid twenties, apart from my faith (the importance of which I in no way want to minimalize) has been my children. Through my rocky marriage, subsequent abandonment and divorce, severe financial need, and trying to rebuild our lives, I kept going because I had to. I know a lot of people in the same circumstances have not been as successful.

I’m not going to try to guess the causes of Robin’s depression. Nobody will ever know for sure. But I do want to say a word about understanding and acceptance. About autism and other differences. Now that I understand myself as an autistic woman, I find it easier to accept myself. No, I don’t use it as an excuse for negative behaviors, but I can allow myself to be myself. It’s very liberating. It has not banished the anxiety, but I understand it now. Knowledge is empowering.

One of the greatest stressors for autistics is the pressure to conform, to try to appear and act and even think “normal,” which is to say, neurotypically. It’s emotionally and mentally exhausting. It can be extremely depressing.

I attended a meeting yesterday to talk about the new school year. It was only a few hours long and it was great to see and connect with my colleagues again, but after a summer of relatively free expression and low interaction with others, I had myself on a very tight rein. I stopped myself from commenting so many times and still seemed to say something wrong at times, or maybe just at the wrong time (I still struggle HUGELY with this). By the time I got home my brain was shutting down and I couldn’t think straight. I slept for most of the afternoon in a dark room. At one time, that would have caused depression as well.

A prevalent comorbid condition for women on the autism spectrum appears to be depression. This depression can be caused or at least exacerbated by the constant struggle and exertion it takes for acceptance, to fit in, to seem “normal;” dealing with constant fear of bullying, sarcasm, teasing, ridicule; and the constant questioning and analyzing of ourselves (often in a negative context), wondering why we don’t understand others and situations we find ourselves in.

In fact, it is becoming clear that many women might be misdiagnosed with a host of conditions including depression, anxiety disorder, OCD, ADD, and others, that may indicate that they are actually on the autism spectrum. Remember that 1:4 ratio? Many women (and some men) do not present as clinical (predominantly male) Aspergers/autism, but a closer examination of their traits and history and a wider understanding of the way females (and some males) present these traits make the diagnosis more likely. Regardless of “why” people are autistic (and I DON’T see it as a negative thing), just knowing and accepting that you are can be extremely liberating, comforting, and validating.

I haven’t thought about depression in an immediately personal way since I began to understand what has made me different all my life. And since I’ve begun to understand and really accept myself in this context, I have not experienced any significant depression or deeply negative thoughts. Maybe I’m just resilient that way. But for those of us on the spectrum, or for those who are becoming aware that they might be on the spectrum, accepting ourselves, allowing ourselves to be ourselves even if we are still chameleons in public, can be liberating. Maybe even life-saving.

I’m sure there are many causes of depression and all kinds of people can experience it and suffer from it to different degrees. It is a human condition not exclusive to one type of person or another. But, as with any other condition/disorder/disability/difference, we shouldn’t patronize or punish the person experiencing it.

I hope that, if you are diagnosed with autism or suspect you should be, you will find out all you can about it, embrace it, find your strengths and glory in them whether others understand or not. And know that you are not alone. You’re not broken. You’re not “wrong.” You’re just different, and that’s okay. You are an incredible human being and, no matter how others see you, you are amazing.

To the person on the outside looking in: Regardless of underlying causes, to the person dealing with chronic depression, don’t just say, “It’ll get better,” “Chin up!” “Tomorrow’s another day.” That’s like throwing a life preserver that doesn’t fit to a drowning person who still has no way of getting out of the water. The sentiment is nice but is less than useless. You have no idea the depth of their pain and struggle. You certainly don’t know the reasons for it. Accept and support them anyway you can, but don’t trivialize their experience.

I’d be interested to hear from others who have successfully managed depression.

B B Shepherd is a musician, educator, and author and can also be found at Glistering: B’s Blog

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Finding Time

Let go and see what happens

This seems appropriate as I am about to take a step into the unknown. Who knows what will come of it, if anything? All I know is, I have nothing to lose.

I’ve recently returned from a week’s vacation in the Pacific Northwest and now it’s time to get back to work, at least to writing. The work that actually pays my bills will start in a couple of weeks too. So I was thinking about how we spend our time–the things we like to do when we don’t have to do something else.

My profession is music but I find I spend less and less leisure time on my own music and music making. Time to just play for fun, to practice too, and work on original pieces. And I love art, especially simple drawing, but inspiration for it is a whimsical creature that comes (usually at the most inappropriate moments) and goes (leaving regret in its wake). I am carving out time to take my oldest daughter on an art date this week. I’m taking her somewhere specific where we can sketch things that I think she’ll be interested in (I haven’t told her where) but even that has been postponed several times already.

I had every intention of drawing every day this summer, but it seems the more determined I am to stick to a plan, the harder it is to actually do anything. Is that just me? I wish I understood how it works! So for now I’m still concentrating on writing, getting the present project finished and trying something new and scary with it before returning to the newer project (also almost finished). And hopefully I’ll find time to just breathe and enjoy the creative spirit however and whenever it strikes me.

What are the things you enjoy doing when you have time? Do you find it easy to allocate the time to them or do you feel like you should be doing something else? If you have a method that works, how do you do it?

B B Shepherd is a musician, educator, and author and can also be found at Glistering: B’s Blog