Beneath the Snow

I’ve been in pulled-back mode lately, quietly creating underground. It’s still winter, after all, and not yet time for outward growth. But there is something more than that; I know I am affected deeply by many things in this world, but sometimes it takes me some time to recognize just how deeply. And there are many things that take me time to come to talk about, or write about, in a way that I can put out into the world.

Maybe that’s been my primary challenge when it comes to maintaining a blog. I start one in a period of expansion, of putting my words out there for others to read. But then comes a time of contraction, when my focus turns toward taking information in more than sending my opinions out. Often I am still writing, still creating, during this time, but it is more raw, not yet ready for public consumption. Or perhaps I am more raw, not yet ready to have my words read and judged by others.

Like the woods I live in, I need this time of (apparent) dormancy, of gathering energy for the next season of expansion. I look out on the snowy landscape and know that life is doing its work, as am I.

Tracking Myself

I like tracking things.

Right now I’m not talking about following animal signs in the woods, although I like doing that, too. 🙂 Instead I’m talking about tracking things like my activity/exercise, my water intake, my reading habits and my spending. Noting something down (or seeing it recorded using an activity tracker) is motivating for me. It gives me the same good feeling as checking something off a to-do list.

I’m thinking about this now because I just got a new activity tracker. When my old one was starting to fall apart I considered not replacing it, because there are also good arguments (that I’ve made to myself) for not quantifying everything in your life, but when I went a week without it I really missed it. I like seeing the trends and statistics that it gives me, and I do find that it motivates me to move more.

Tracking some things also reminds me of who I am. That probably sounds weird, but I’m thinking of how I track the books I’ve read — glancing back over the list reminds me of different subjects I’ve been interested in. And seeing the whole eclectic collection reminds me of who I am in full.

For similar reasons, I keep a file on my computer with a timeline of major things that happened each year. <Reminds self to update that for 2016…> I feel like I forget parts of myself sometimes, like things that I’ve done, if I’m not doing them right now. “Oh, right, I was in that community chorus for two years.” Things like that, and sometimes even bigger parts of my life, just slip my mind once they’re over.

So I like keeping track of things, sometimes for multiple reasons. Keeping track of money flow in and out is just practical, for example, but it also helps me to feel more relaxed about that area of my life, because I know what’s going on with it. And like having to-do lists, tracking things in an app or on my computer helps keep me on track (no pun intended) and supplements my memory — plus I like having data in which to find trends and patterns. Even if I don’t do anything further with it, it gives me a sense of accomplishment, a visual “trail” to show how much I’ve moved my body, what I’ve been reading, how I’ve been living. It reminds me of me.

Weekend Overload

Some days I don’t have too much to say. Last Friday, for example, was a fairly routine day with nothing much to blog about. Saturday and Sunday, however, were days where I had a lot going on, but not enough energy left afterwards to write about it. It was a pretty busy, mostly good but also draining, kind of weekend.

Saturday my husband and I went out shopping. We had planned to go in the afternoon, but there was snow forecasted for later in the day and we wanted to get back before the roads got bad. So we started out a little rushed, but I was looking forward to getting this stuff done.

The first stop on our trip was a local department store, where I wanted to pick up a new pair of jeans and a few other things. That whole experience was extremely draining in an aggravating, over-zealous sales clerk kind of way. I hate clothes shopping in general, and I just want to be left alone to figure out what I want. On top of that, I was looking for men’s jeans (because I’ve basically written off women’s jeans at this point; don’t get me started) and I didn’t want to explain myself. I just wanted to do my shopping, but this one saleswoman wouldn’t take “No, thank you” for an answer and kept trying to be “helpful.”

So I was frazzled by the time we left that store (but happy I had found a pair of jeans I liked), and then we went food shopping. I have recently altered my diet to try to avoid some digestive issues that have been bothering me, so instead of my husband doing the shopping on his own he wanted me to come with him to pick out some new foods. At least here there weren’t salespeople hovering over our every move, but I find grocery stores overwhelming on a sensory level. It’s mostly the sheer volume of STUFF to look at and process. Plus there are bright lights, obstacles to avoid, and decisions to make about this or that brand.

We picked up a lot of good stuff, though, and got back home just as the snow started. By this point we were both starving, which didn’t help my energy levels, but then the rest of the day I could just relax and get some energy back.

Usually we try to do errands like that on Saturdays so that Sunday is free as a real decompression day before the next work week starts. This Sunday, though, we had afternoon plans. I had a local Asperger/autism support group to attend, and he had a meeting with his friend and business partner, who lives close to where my group meets. Both of us were looking forward to our activities, but the place we were going is almost an hour away, so all in all it’s close to a four-hour outing whenever we go, and in wintertime that means driving back in the dark.

My group had a good talk (and I got to vent about the combination of social anxiety and sensory overload I had experienced the previous day) and my husband had a good meeting. It started snowing again on the drive home; it wasn’t sticking to the road yet, but visibility was bad at times. By the time we got home I was again feeling pretty burned out from the driving and two hours of discussion.

The good thing is, my husband had just bought me my first weighted blanket as a present. 🙂 So I curled up under that while he cooked dinner, and by the time we ate I was feeling much more relaxed. Those things are really amazing; mine is only 4 pounds and doesn’t feel like it’s all that heavy when I first spread it over me. But it has such a soothing effect — and more so if I double it up. I let my husband try it after dinner, and he said, “It feels like a hug.”

Even with the blanket, though, all of that is probably why I didn’t sleep very well last night; I had a lot of tension in my body (especially my jaw) and my brain was definitely over-processing. I’ve been trying to take it easy this afternoon, and reminding myself that I have another three-day weekend coming up, when I don’t have any particular plans to go out. If I were still working a job where I had to be in an office with other people every day, I would be in for a very bad week.

A Long, Weird Ramble About Autism and Gender

A lot has been written lately about autism presenting differently in males and females, and how this leads to more boys being identified earlier, while girls often go unnoticed until they are women. Some of this writing has been very helpful, and it has led to a number of us recognizing ourselves and seeking confirmation, instead of getting caught up in stereotypes based on one slice of the population.

But I also sometimes find it odd to read about autism in terms of gender. It gets me thinking of those other articles I’ve read that say Autistics are 7 times more likely to be gender non-conforming in some way. So I think there are probably a lot of us who cross those lines between a “male” and a “female” presentation of autism.

I also think there are two ways of looking at this issue. First is the idea that gender-based stereotypes of “autistic” behavior have guided the diagnostic process — clinicians are looking for traits identified in young white males of a certain socio-economic status, so they miss other traits that don’t fit what they’re looking for. This is the narrative in a number of articles I’ve read; they discuss the ways in which women and girls go unnoticed because of gender-based assumptions of what autism looks like in boys.

I think this definitely happens. But the other way of looking at it is that society’s gender-based assumptions also shape how autism manifests in boys and girls growing up.

A personal tangent for context: I’ve never felt particularly female. I didn’t feel like I was supposed to be male, either. Sometimes I’ve felt like both, sometimes I’ve felt like neither. But I’ve always found it jarring when I realized someone was seeing me as female, and only female, and responding to me differently than if I were “just a person.”

Because that’s how it made me feel, sometimes; I was just being a person, and suddenly someone else was calling me a “girl.” I encountered this time and time again, especially when I was in predominantly male environments, such as martial arts classes, the physics department in college, and when I served in the US Air Force. I would be going along, doing my thing, when I’d realize I wasn’t just part of the group like everyone else: I was “the girl.”

On the flip side, I’ve never felt entirely comfortable in all-female spaces that were specifically set up as all-female spaces. (If a group just happens to consist of all women, that feels fine to me.) I don’t have a problem with women-only spaces existing, and I understand why some women prefer them — I just never feel at home in them. I don’t feel a strong connection with the idea of being female, so if a space is set up with the idea that there is a bond between us because of our femaleness, I’m not going to feel like I fit in.

(I am curious about the experience of being in an all-female, all-autistic environment, though. There’s a women’s support group in my area that I have yet to be able to attend, but I plan to check it out sometime.)

But whether or not I feel female, society sees me as female. I was seen as a girl growing up, and socialized as a girl; that socialization shaped my outward behavior, and thus changed the presentation of my autism.

While a quiet, painfully shy boy may raise questions, quiet, shy girls are desirable. They’re cute. And not only does society see this as normal, it shapes girls to be quiet and accommodating. People talk about the “masks” that Autistic women have learned to wear, and how that mask lets us “slip under the radar” undetected until (perhaps) later in life when the mask starts to break down. But we need to talk as well about the societal pressures that shaped that mask — the pressure to conform, to be social, to be “nice.”

Some of us never cared about that, I know. But a lot of us, tired of being ostracized, did our best to learn “the rules.” And “the rules” are highly gendered.

(That means there are also strong societal pressures on boys and men, especially around a certain presentation of “masculinity.” I haven’t experienced those pressures, though, so I’m not really talking about them here — but I do know that they exist.)

So if social pressure wanted me to be quiet and accommodating, what happened when I needed something — quiet time, dimmer lights, different food — to help me cope? I kept it to myself and pushed on. Speaking up for what I needed was discouraged, was seen as intrusive or presumptuous,  so I didn’t. And what happened when I got overloaded enough for a meltdown? That meltdown turned inward. I didn’t explode and lash out, I buried it in silent rage that eventually turned into depression.

Interestingly, a lot of my life was actually shaped by resistance to those gender rules and expectations, too; when society insisted that girls were not good at math and science, and I was, I took that as a point of pride and pursued those fields harder. When I was the only girl in my high school computer science class (this was the 80’s, kids, and it was very new) or the only girl in AP Physics, it pushed me harder to represent “my” gender well, even though I didn’t always feel like a full member of it. This was not necessarily a good thing, as I learned in college when I realized physics was not at all the career I wanted — but it represents another way in which I was shaped by gendered expectations in my childhood.

So what would you have seen when you looked at me then? A quiet girl, excelling in school and rarely asking for anything. Inside I was only half a girl, not knowing what to ask for, confused by everything and constantly misunderstood. Was I “masking” my autism, or just responding to every signal I could pick up and interpret?

The funny thing is, I actually just remembered an incident in which an early elementary school teacher (maybe 2nd grade) told my parents that she thought I was too quiet. My parents scoffed. I was in a class filled with some of the most rowdy, rambunctious kids that my school had ever seen (seriously, they changed class trip schedules because my grade would be too much of a handful) and they thought I was a problem because I was quiet? I agreed with them at the time; I wasn’t a problem, I was one of the “good” kids.

But now I wonder what that teacher saw.

Managing Project Overwhelm

Some days I have lots of time to work on projects, but I get completely overwhelmed by choices. I have a lot of different interests, after all — I could write (but on which project?), I could work on an app (but which one is closest to being ready?), I could read (but which book?), I could crochet, I could draw, I could get outside with my camera. And this is after I have already let go of several things that weren’t holding my attention anymore.

Then there is the fact that some of my projects are BIG. They feel daunting, and I know that they will take prolonged effort over many days or months. Just thinking about working on those can cause my brain to fuzz out, so I can’t even think of the next step for any of them.

I happened to run across this article on Twitter today, though, and it helped me come back to earth a little: Approaches for breaking down big tasks. It reminded me of some of the things I learned in previous jobs, and from reading David Allen’s Getting Things Done. So I picked one of my app projects and started making a checklist of what else needs to be done on it. This helped me not only decide on next steps, it helped me identify what information I needed to learn first, and find a resource that would help me do that.

I’ve learned that trouble making decisions is an aspect of autism related to executive functioning, as is difficulty with organizing one’s thoughts. I have always relied on lists and notes to keep myself on track — and it worked so well that at first I thought I was really good at those things, instead of struggling with them! But as I’ve gotten older, some of these issues have gotten more pronounced, so it is good to have reminders now and then that I have tools and techniques for managing them.

It Is Raining in My Brain

Rainy days make me sleepy. Rainy/icy winter days make me want to hibernate for a good long time.

I had a pretty good day despite the weather — decent work day, great session with my therapist (though that did require driving in the aforementioned rainy/icy weather), and some interesting reading on gender that is going to be swirling around my mind for a while. But now I’m just done.

I was hoping to get in some good project time after finishing work, or put in a little time on  some training I am doing on a new area of testing, but I am having trouble stringing together enough words for this short blog post. I describe this feeling sometimes as my brain being “fuzzed out.” Thoughts become a static fog, like a three-dimensional version of old-fashioned “snow” on a TV screen when channels weren’t broadcasting. (Since I know I’m dating myself, here is a YouTube video of TV static.)

Sensory overload can trigger this for me, as can mental fatigue, and apparently when it is raining I have a much lower threshold for it. Fun.

So I am going to relax now, maybe do some light reading instead of study, and maybe play a game for a while. Happy Tuesday!

Of Errands and Kingfishers

Today was a weird mix. I had to go out and run errands in the middle of the day, and that was draining — and a bit frustrating, as one of the stores I wanted to go to was closed because of the holiday. (I had known that was a possibility, but even so, I do not like having The Plan change.) Those errands did include picking up some new notebooks and a whiteboard that I am hoping will help me organize my various creative projects, so that made the outing a great success in the grand scheme of things.

Then I also had a lot of time today for some of that creative work itself, including some writing on a novel that is still in the formative stages, and some practice drawing. I’ve been wanting to get better at drawing, as it’s something I’ve always found difficult (and therefore always thought I sucked at). I started sitting outside and drawing things in nature back in November, but as the weather has gotten colder that is a lot less appealing. So today I decided to draw something based on a photograph of a belted kingfisher (a type of bird) that I took back in June.

My biggest problem with drawing is perfectionism. If I’m looking at the thing I’m drawing, then looking at my sketch, I’m disappointed. I’m not capturing every detail perfectly, I’m clumsy with the pencil, I’m inadvertently smudging things with my hand. But when I go back and look at my drawings later, I think they’re not half bad.

I’ve also always drawn with too heavy a hand; elementary school art teachers tried to teach me how to sketch the initial lines lightly, but I never got it. Maybe it’s because I often find that my fingers don’t do exactly what I want them to do unless I am pressing down a little harder.  Since learning I’m Autistic, I have wondered if this and my related difficulty with handwriting (I still have to concentrate in order to make Bs and 3s correctly) have to do with the fine motor skill issues that often go along with autism. This is something I’m trying to stay aware of now.

So here is my kingfisher. I thought about including the original photo for comparison, but given that comparison with reality is exactly where my insecurity and perfectionism about my drawing lies, I’m not going to. 🙂Pencil drawing of a belted kingfisher (bird) on a branch.

New Year’s Template

I don’t really do New Year’s resolutions. I do set goals for things I want to accomplish, but that goal-setting isn’t always tied to the turning of a calendar page. (I also don’t have any particular affinity with January 1st as the beginning of the new year. I note it for the sake of writing the correct date on things, but otherwise I kind of already marked the turning of  a new year back on the Winter Solstice.)

But what I decided to do today was to spend the day doing some of the things related to my current goals and projects. So I started a new crochet project this morning (which, with luck, will be a hunter-green vest, my first real clothing project other than hats and scarves). I also spent some time outdoors with my camera on this gorgeous winter day, in a combination of body movement and spiritual contemplation. And I finally got back to an iOS app I’ve been working on, and got it working again after some of the code had gotten broken in the changeover to Swift 3 last fall.

I still have a number of other pursuits I wasn’t able to incorporate into my day — I’ve got some writing projects in the works, for example, and I’m trying to learn how to draw — but I do hope to find a little time for some reading this evening. Plus there’s still another day of my weekend, so there should be room to work a few more things in. The nice thing is, the day still felt relaxed and unhurried, and getting back into programming felt good (although finding those last few bugs definitely left me fried). And I got to spend the day with my husband and dog, which was especially nice.

So instead of making resolutions, I’ve been reflecting on my goals for projects like these. And I guess what I’m hoping is that this weekend will set a template for the calendar year to come. Have a great 2017. 🙂

Snowy brook in the woods