Sensory Issues Part 2 – Sound

The second most sensitive sense for me is sound.

For a time there in my early thirties I thought I was going deaf. I had always had hearing and ENT problems as a child (or maybe I was just autistic?) and so thought this was a continuation of some sort. I saw a consultant who, after tests, told me that my hearing was perfect. So, why could I not hear what was being said if there was any kind of background noise, I asked. He told me it was because I was born prematurely and my inner ear hadn’t developed fully and so it or my brain coudn’t process or distinguish sounds when there was a lot of auditory input. Hearing aids wouldn’t help and the only solution was to learn to lip-read. At that time I had two young children, worked full-time and so had no spare time to take lip-reading classes. Besides, I kind of already did lip-read, and still do. If I can’t see your mouth when you’re talking, I can’t hear you. I can’t process your words.

Roll forward to self-identification and my rabbit-hole autism research and I read about something called auditory processing disorder (there are similar processing disorders for the other senses, too). Aha!
When there are multiple auditory sources, I cannot process them. I cannot pick out the one relevant source – your speaking voice –  and cancel out all the others – background music, the television, other people in the pub, traffic noise, the fan on my computer… you get the idea.
My hearing is actually very sensitive. When we first moved into this house, at night I could hear the pump of the underground reservoir some distance to the back of our house. At least that’s what I think the noise is. It drove me nuts. Last night I could hear it through my mattress – until I put my ear plugs in.

I cannot process information if you simply tell me. I need to see it in writing – whether pre-printed or written down myself as you talk. Alternatively I need to see something done and actively do it myself to either take it in or to learn something new. I cannot easily process the spoken word. I struggle with tv programmes if the speech isn’t clear and have to rewind and watch key bits of dialogue to follow the plot. I can’t tell you if I like a movie unless I’ve seen it a couple of times to let me process it fully.

If you want to tell me something important, you need to be absolutely certain you actually have my attention otherwise it might not go in. I will not hear anything you say if I am focusing on something else – hyper focusing. It’s what many autistics do. If I’m reading, all of my attention is on what I’m reading and no auditory input is going through. I’m not being ignorant. I can’t hear you.

I hate using the telephone. I can’t process the words fast enough to answer in a way that I can be certain is the right response. I have to ask people to repeat themselves. I have to write it down as I listen to be able to take it in. I much prefer email or text.

This doesn’t necessarily mean I don’t like any sound. I love sound. I love loud music – but only my music – I cannot abide Jazz. Remember that fingers-down-a-chalkboard feeling I talked about in the last post? That’s me and Jazz. I cannot bear it. For a while I kept asking why do I  love Blues so much but hate Jazz. What is it musically that makes that happen. Now I can let go of that and assume it’s part of my processing issues.

I will use music as a barrier to all other sounds if I want to concentrate on reading or writing. Sometimes with lyrics (the words just wash over me anyway) sometimes without.

For some autistic people sound is excruciating. I saw a man in a T.V. programme who reported that he can hear electricity humming through the wires in the walls. Some people wear noise cancelling headphones to simply negotiate the everyday world without being overwhelmed. For me, when I reach overload, I get a kind of nausea deep inside and I have to retreat to silence.

So, again, a request. If you know someone who seems to zone out and not hear you, they might not be being rude. If someone wears headphones, they might not be being anti-social. If a child is covering their ears in distress they might be overloaded.
Give us space. Look at what you could do to help. Want to meet up for a chat? Suggest somewhere quiet without canned music and bouncing hard surfaces everywhere. And don’t make a big show of it.

We’ll love you for it.

Taking The Mask Off Is Complicated

You may or may not be aware of the recent, thought-provoking Twitter and blog campaign called #TakeTheMaskOff
It’s what has led me to start blogging again, both as an unmasking process for myself (with all the introspection that requires), and as a possible way to contribute to this world without damaging my own well-being.

What is the mask? you may be asking.
The mask is the sum total of all the ways in which autistic people (to greater or lesser degrees) change their behaviours – either unconsciously (especially if late or un-diagnosed*) or consciously (especially if you’ve been unlucky enough to suffer the trauma of ABA and similar ‘therapies’). Some of us are so adept at masking that we are chameleon-like, able to change and adapt to suit the people and situations in front of us. (And the stereotype of autistic people says we are all rigid and unable to be flexible?)
I was a chameleon. It was the perfect skill set (along with my analytical and pattern recognition skills) for the work I did as both an SME (small to medium enterprise) business consultant and as head of personal and organisational development in a sizeable NHS trust.

My technique (well-suited to the consultancy role) was to ask questions, ask for a tour of the place, listen, watch and then adapt my voice, my persona, my language, everything to match that organisation, its leaders, and its staff. It let me fit in and from there get to the bottom of whatever the business or organisational issues were and work with the owner or manager to solve problems.
I was good at it.
No surprise really as I’d been doing it all my life to survive everyday interactions. In a non-professional setting I sit back, watch the interactions, listen to conversations, work out the patterns and then behave accordingly. I’m the quiet one on the sidelines who slowly joins in once I’ve got the measure of what’s required to belong.
Sometimes (increasingly since self-identification) I leave before that point if the mismatch between who I can be and what the situation requires is too great.

That all sounds great, no? A successful career. Making important contributions to local businesses and the healthcare sector. The status and money that go with that.

Yeah, until the point where the accumulation of the costs of pretending grew so great that I burnt out.
On a Friday night in 1998 I finished a massive project putting in place bespoke processes to cover 3,500 staff (I won’t bore you with the details) and culminating in an organisation-wide external assessment. I must have picked the kids up from nursery.
I don’t remember. I crashed.
I spent two weeks in a catatonic state lying on my youngest child’s bunk-bed ‘watching’ video after video of Star Trek, Star Wars, etc. movies.
The next two weeks we were on holiday with in-laws.
That gave me a month in total to come back from the brink.
When I went back to work, I handed in my notice and have not worked full-time since leaving that employment, and mostly not at that level either.
Twenty years.

Most of those twenty years, the mask stayed firmly in place. Of course it did. I had no idea that I’m autistic. Maybe five or six years ago a friend pointed me in the direction of an online questionnaire. It said I was very likely autistic. I dismissed the result as evidence of me being a chameleon. I couldn’t be autistic as I was female (and that’s despite – or because of – a psychology background). Fast-forward two or three years and I came across a blog about female Aspies. Holy shit.
Down the rabbit hole of research I went. I read blog after blog. I completed a number of  questionnaires (several reliable sources required for any theory). I joined various online groups, learned more and more, and understood so much about myself for the first time in my life.  There was no doubting. I didn’t need a diagnosis (more on this on a future post).

It was as if a weight had lifted from me. I wasn’t broken. I didn’t need to be fixed. I could just be me. I cannot describe the relief.

The first tentative steps of unmasking involved sharing this new understanding with others. But who? My nuclear family – husband and offspring. Four of my closest friends – two in real-life and two online.
Over time the number grew to include my parents and in-laws, a couple of people who I guessed were also on the spectrum, and finally a tiny number of people who needed to know because of my own unmasking; “No, I’m sorry I can’t come out at short notice. I’m autistic. I need plenty of warning and it needs to be somewhere quiet and not too busy”.

To begin with this level of unmasking was fine, in fact it was more than fine. It was miraculous. I could let go of the ever-present anxiety of being found out as a fraud. I could stop dreaming-up acceptable reasons for not going out (illness, another meeting, something in my diary). I promised myself that from that point on I would be honest with those who knew (it’s too short notice, I can’t face people today, I haven’t got any words today).
I already had a pretty small group of friends. That group got smaller; some by my choice, some by their choice.
The other area of rationalisation was online. For a while there I’d lived a pseudo social-life, with a fair number of Facebook ‘friends’, Twitter followers, membership of active forums, and some semblance of being a ‘normal’ person who could interact with others. Online is great. It gives me time to think and process before I reply. As time went on though I had less and less energy to give and less and less patience with the this-doesn’t-change-anything nature of shouting into the bucket that can be social media, so I let go there, too.

For a while the anxiety lifted; the depression lifted. I loved my unmasking. I could just be me.

Now I’m into the next layer of taking the mask off and it’s way tougher. It requires looking at the real me. A me I don’t really know because of all the layers of the mask.
I recently went camping with girlfriends. Usually when we do this, it’s part of a festival of some sort, with opportunities to go do other things than just hang with friends. On each of those other occasions I’ve been mute by the last day and needing time alone afterwards to recover.
This year we were camping only, with no festival and all its distractions. I had all my strategies thought out and in fact I was still able to speak now and then on the way home. But only just. Still, I congratulated myself.

That first night back home, however, I dropped back into the catatonic state of exhaustion and re-lived the trip over and over. Without the festival distractions, I had to face myself fully. Down in the dip of depression, I saw myself as serious, nerdy, heavy, and why on earth would my friends want to be friends with me? Why should they have to accommodate my need for isolation, deep conversation, seriousness, and silence when they, to coin a phrase, just wanna have fun?
My usual response to this situation would have been to isolate myself from those friends. Convince myself that they hate me and then gradually lose touch with them. I’ve done it before. It’s a pattern.

This time I reached out to one of those friends. She came back with a list of reasons of why we’re friends. Reasons that I can see are valid and not just lip service. She’s one of the jewels in my life.
I probably need to contact the other two, ask why they are my friend. It’s a very vulnerable thing to do, to take my mask off even further. It feels so very self-indulgent, so childish, so much like I’m fishing for compliments.

I’m not. I’m trying to understand…

and be understood.

*Diagnosis – this is one of those instances where I’m using a word even though I disagree with it for myself. Diagnosis comes from the medical model and assumes that autism is an illness or a disorder. I prefer the word ‘identified’ and that autism is a naturally occurring difference. That what makes autism a problem is society’s inability and unwillingness to make room for those differences.
I also accept your right to use the word you choose, if you are autistic.
I also hold it lightly. In the context of children and adults who are profoundly affected by being autistic within our culture, I don’t have enough knowledge or experience to make any kind of rigid stand here.

Snotty bitch or boring nerd?

There’s a thing that happens to some autistic people (maybe all? I don’t know since I’ve not met all of you). It’s called selective mutism. Now, to begin with it’s a misleading phrase. It makes it sound as if we choose to be mute when it suits us. We don’t. I have no control over the times when my brain and mouth don’t connect, nor when my mouth goes into overdrive.

Let’s take the ‘snotty bitch’ scenario first.
There are times when I cannot make any words come out of my mouth. I can be sitting at a table at a social event with a perfectly nice person beside me and be unable to speak. Inside my head there’s a voice saying “Just say something, anything. Pleeease”.
Insect, Grasshopper, Cricket, Green
Yeah, crickets.

The accompanying feeling is as if I’m pushing against a stretched-taut piece of cling film, or wading through treacle. There’s this tension of attempted forward motion against resistance and the resistance wins. It happens with strangers and close friends.

As a child I remember hovering at the top of the stairs at night, wanting to shout down to my mum, trying to make the shout come out and failing. It stuck at the back of my mouth. The ‘want’ versus the block in my throat is painful.

Another time, sitting around a campfire with friends playing word games, full of silliness and hilarity, unable to dredge up anything to add. It’s excruciating. There is nothing more lonely than being surrounded by people having fun and yet utterly on the outside, unable to connect to the fun. I’d rather be on my own than have to feel that.

Meeting online friends for the first time in-real-life and unable to summon any of my written eloquence. Unable to look at them, smile at them, or hug them. Locked behind my perspex screen that keeps all the terror and panic shut down. On the outside I appear serious, aloof, and unfriendly. On the inside I’m sobbing with the unmet need to connect.

So, what about the boring nerd?
If you happened to meet me on one of my more voluble days, you would tell me that I must be lying about my mutism.
I have no idea what the switch is that turns me into the boring (I’m assuming) nerd that you can’t shut up. For fifty two years I had the “Shit, I’ve done it again.” moments, with no idea what ‘it’ was. People’s eyes glazing over, or them simply walking away from me mid sentence or interrupting and starting a completely new conversation when I hadn’t even got to the point of what I was saying. Do I try and pick it back up again? Do I join in with theirs (and how the hell do I do that? I can’t read when I’m supposed to join in)? Or do I just shut up and go quiet? Usually the latter. The other two tend not to go very well.

Get me on a favourite topic and I will pin you to the wall with information. Information gathering, pattern recognition, and then synthesis of new perspectives are some of my skills, and I have a huge enthusiasm to share. The subject is fascinating, or thrilling, or shocking, depending upon the topic, and you really ought to know all about it. There are so many different angles and perspectives and to do it justice you have to consider them all. Don’t you see?

I’m beginning to learn that I don’t have to tell everything. I don’t have to give all the backstory. I’m not being dishonest if I omit all the detail (honesty is an unbreakable rule). I can tell myself to shut up. I can water myself down. And it hurts. I lose some essential part of me.
And I watch neurotypical people talking and think, “But they’re not listening to each other either. And how can they find all that small talk interesting? How can they talk for so long about nothing at all?”

I’m lucky in that I have a few jewels of friends who generally find my intense interests, well, interesting. Still, I’ve learned to ration myself (mostly). To remind myself to ask about their stuff, too. Some of the time it works.
There are also those dark times when I cannot imagine why they are my friends. I’m so serious, so nerdy, so heavy and, when the mutism kicks in, unable to join in with the fun stuff or maintain it for any length of time. Depression is a bitch.

There is some middle ground.

If the setting is ‘professional’, I drop into my role and perform. I can speak fluently and interact effectively. I know my stuff, I can draw parallels with the real world, and I can take that out beyond the current boundaries into something new that moves people on.

If the setting is social it’s so much harder, so my knack is to find a job or a role within that social setting. When I was a member of the PTFA I survived the twice-yearly fund-raisers by taking charge of the bar and serving behind it on the night. I could do that. I had the script off-pat, knew all the banter, and we made a fortune for the school.
The role could be as simple as we’re-here-to-support-Peter. I can do that; sometimes.

Another option is alcohol, which of course has its consequences.

When the stars allign and I’m with close friends or family that I can trust, and who find the same stuff as me interesting, I can drop into that sweet spot of chatting and laughing.

All of these come at a cost. Talking to people takes a lot of energy and I usually have to retreat later to somewhere quiet, with no people, and build up my reserves again. How long it takes depends upon the intensity of interaction, how much I’ve been able to drop into well-rehearsed scripts (teaching my yoga classes for example), and how well I know the people involved.
( A great analogy here is the spoons theory. Go Google it if you haven’t heard of it.)

None of this is intended to be whiny – my apologies if that’s how it comes across.
I want to be honest; authentic.
I want neurotypical people to catch a glimpse of what’s going on behind the mask; give us some space, don’t write us off, even be honest about what we’ve done to spoil the vibe.
I want other autistic people to not feel quite so alone or maybe have a moment of “Shit, that’s what’s going on!” if they’ve puzzled for years over what the hell goes on in that whole social thing.

Mismatched Communication

It’s funny how the most mundane of conversations can lead to an opening of awareness.

I went for lunch with two friends and whilst I tackled my masala dhosa, I recounted a conversation with my youngest son. He had accused me of thinking he was stupid. That he had already told me that (the thing that I had just said to him). Why did I keep taking his ideas and presenting them back to him as if they were mine?

Cue beam of light brightening the dark corner of “I’ve done it again? What did I do wrong?” that has plagued my social interactions for as long as I can remember. Little bits of information coming together to make sense of this mystery.

“No, no,” I said to him. “In my head, I’m not telling you to do something. When I repeat what you say, what’s in my head is affirmation. When I repeat what you say, I’m either confirming that I agree with you or I’m repeating it as a means of processing what you just said.” (Little bit of back story; I have problems with auditory processing, which until I read more about autism and sensory overwhelm, I had labelled as a-bit-deaf-when-there’s-background-noise-of-any-kind.)

Penny-drop. Echolalia. My kind of echolalia. It doesn’t sound like the classic autistic echolalia that we read in text books, but that’s what it amounts to. And why I think I do it; either an attempt at reciprocity or to take in and understand what’s being said. That’s what’s inside my head. This may or may not be true for other autistic people.

Back to my masala dhosa lunch…

Mysore Masala Dosa. Recipe, How to make Mysore Masala Dosa ...
These two friends are part of a small handful of people who I’ve told I’m autistic since I self-identified three years ago or got a formal diagnosis a few months back. (Late diagnosis; I’m fifty five and spent fifty two of those years thinking I’m broken.)
They’ve listened to me as I’ve tried to work out WTF is going on. It’s a big ask, as the saying goes.

Earlier in the conversation I told them that I was appreciating more and more just how often I am off-the-mark in everyday conversations. How much I hadn’t realised it and blithely carried on, thinking I was good at this communication lark.
I asked them to let me know when something I said was off because the last thing I wanted to do was hurt them.
One of these friends confirmed that she had been getting more and more annoyed with me. She hadn’t told me. We were in the territory of losing another friend and not knowing why. She couldn’t remember any specific examples, or was wanting to be kind. Probably the latter; she’s a kind person.

At the telling of my son’s I’m-not-stupid.-That’s-what-I-just-said! story, she sat up straight, looked at me and seemed to come to a decision. “That’s what I’ve been feeling,” she said. “That you think I’m stupid or something”. Nothing could be further from the truth.

My attempts at social bonding come across as insufferable-know-it-all-ness, whether it’s down to echolalia or my pin-you-to-the-wall enthusiasm for my latest favourite subject. It’s not my intention, but that’s kind of irrelevant. It’s how I’m perceived.

So, I make a plea to all neurotypical people reading this. If something seems off, tell us, with specific examples. Be courageous. Be honest. Or just be plain, bloody, mad at us, but tell us. We can’t read your minds. You can’t read ours.