The Feeling of Ferocity

In a post about a month ago, I mentioned in passing that I was about to try out a new martial arts class that was starting up in my town. I’ve now been training there a month, and really enjoying myself. 🙂

It’s still a small class, split between some teenaged beginners and another woman returning to training after earning her black belt over ten years ago. (We have a bunch of other things in common, too, so we really clicked.) She and I have been working on more advanced forms and techniques, which has been fun and engaging; I’ve already relearned two old forms I used to know, and last week we learned one that was brand new to both of us. That form got me thinking about the most valuable aspect of training for me.

It’s a very Tiger type of form, so the energy is aggressive and strong. There’s very little defense in it — except in the sense that to Tiger, the best defense is a good offense that never lets up. And whether or not that’s a good overall fighting strategy for me personally, I think it’s valuable to cultivate, because of what it does to my energy. I mean, I realize that as a 45-year-old, bespectacled woman, I am not striking terror in the dojo, but I do love that feeling of ferocity. It creates and sustains a fighting mindset, and a fighting mindset goes a long way.

I don’t think there’s a martial artist out there who hasn’t been asked if they’ve ever “used” their martial art. When people ask me that, I usually say no, because I know what they mean — they want to know if I’ve used it in a physical, hand-to-hand confrontation. And I haven’t. But I do try to follow that up right away with a but…because I’ve used my training every day since I started as a teenager.

I’ve used it while facing down verbally aggressive coworkers who didn’t like a woman disagreeing with them. I’ve used it while speaking uncomfortable truths in workplace meetings when no one else was willing to. I’ve used it while pushing back against assumptions about what I “could” or “should” be able to do. I’ve used it to get through autistic burnout and restructure my life to better suit me, instead of just putting up with misery. Hell, I’ve used it in everyday social encounters when my anxiety was getting the better of me. And I keep using it as I move into new territory that scares me, because I know I can dig in my claws and climb.

“It” is that fighting mindset, the feeling of ferocity that powers action and keeps fear at bay. I can’t always conjure it, but practice helps. And right now I have Tiger to help me with that.

On “The Spectrum”

I like the phrase “autism spectrum.” I use it in the tagline of this blog (“Days in the life of an adult on the spectrum”), and “on the autism spectrum” (or just “on the spectrum”) is my go-to substitute for “autistic” when I want to switch things up a bit. But I have to admit that the spectrum metaphor has some major problems.

The main one is that the idea of a spectrum calls up things like the electromagnetic spectrum, which gives the impression of something linear. Visible light falls within a particular range, for example, and each color has its place; it either has this wavelength or that one. We can speak of high-frequency or low-frequency radiation, and relate different types of energy by where they fall with respect to each other.

So people treat the autism spectrum as similarly linear, through the use of functioning labels and phrases like “mild autism” and “severe autism.” The spectrum metaphor is generally seen as representing functioning level (although, as this article in Disability Studies Quarterly points out, it was originally framed in terms of impairment level, which is exactly the opposite), but the trouble is that one’s ability to “function” is not something that is easily (or consistently) located on a linear scale. It can’t be directly measured, and usually isn’t even well defined.

So there are several problems with assigning functioning labels (and thus a “position” on the spectrum) to an individual. One problem is that one’s ability to function is constantly changing, and is often environmentally dependent. Another problem is that someone may be “high functioning” with regard to some “functions” but not others. In fact, as that same article (which I very highly recommend reading in full) points out, differences in “functioning” levels are not just differences in intensity, but also differences in kind; two people might both be labeled “low-functioning,” but for very different reasons. So there is a huge problem with trying to map functioning levels as if they were a single, sliding-scale variable like wavelength or temperature, when in reality, they are multi-dimensional and not conducive to being collapsed into a single line.

Then there is the fact that collapsing functioning levels (or, conversely, impairment levels/support needs) into a single line seems inevitably to lead to a hierarchy of value, wherein the “higher functioning” are seen as better. And ironically, labeling the ends of that line creates the binary categories of “high(er) functioning” and “low(er) functioning,” which begins to erode the very notion of a spectrum condition in the first place. Thus we end up with arguments about whether “high-functioning” autistics can have insight into the experience of “low-functioning” autistics, as well as a general attitude that treats “high-functioning” people as needing no support, and “low-functioning” people as having no strengths.

The spectrum metaphor has generally appealed to me as a rhetorical device, but I do think it should be improved or replaced. I really think it needs to be non-linear — but the funny thing is, as I was planning out this post I realized that when I think of the autism spectrum, I picture the spectrum of visible light, but I picture it like a circular color picker wheel:

Circular color wheel


I don’t know if I’ve always thought of it this way, or if I was influenced by a memory of this cartoon — I read it a while ago, but hadn’t thought about it again until I looked it up for inclusion in this post — but I like it. It takes away the hierarchy, and hints at places of overlap between “high” and “low” functioning levels. I also like the way the “Aspie quiz” presents its results as a multi-axial mapping of traits, like this:



Example results from the Aspie quiz, arranged in a circular spiderweb.

So, while I don’t have a specific proposal for a metaphor to replace “the spectrum,” I think it should be something like those: non-linear, multi-dimensional, and complex enough to really reflect the variety of autistic experience. Any ideas?

Long Week

Time for another blog post! And…I’ve got nothing. Seriously. My mind is blank.

Actually, it’s more like my mind is full, too full of schoolwork, work work, household tasks, and miscellaneous reading, to the point where nothing coherent is, um, cohering. It’s been a busy weekend after a busy week, so now I am going to take the dogs for another walk on this gorgeous fall day, and then play video games before starting all over again with another Monday.

Hope you’re having a good one!

Needing to Be Right

I was at a meeting of an autistic/Aspie support group a few weeks ago, and one of the other members asked if others shared the trait of “needing to be right.” This is a trait commonly attributed to people on the spectrum, so it made for an interesting conversation.

My take was that I like being right, but more important to me than needing to be right is the goal of getting things right. When I share factual information, I want it to be right. When others around me share factual information, I want that to be right as well. In both cases, it bothers me to think that people are being given bad information, and so I want to correct it.

Now, if something sounds not-quite-right but I don’t know enough about the subject to argue with it, I will be highly motivated to investigate and learn more. That means I probably won’t be satisfied to take your word for it. If I do know enough to disagree, I will do my best to provide evidence for my point of view, and I expect you to do the same. And if I turn out to be wrong about something, I will adjust to include the new information — but again, I’ll need evidence of the accuracy of that new information before I accept it.

Part of this likely is due to being autistic and having the sort of logical, analytical mind that is common (though not at all universal) on the spectrum. But part of it is also rooted in my scientific education. Arguments by assertion or appeals to authority are not valid evidence, so although in the short term I might let the matter drop, moves like that are not going to change my mind.

So yeah, I probably come across like I need to be right all the time, but really it’s just that I want the information to be right. Is that so wrong?

Outside My Comfort Zone

I’ve been wearing my MIT class ring again lately, as a reminder to myself that I Can Do This. And by “this,” I mean…everything. Everything has just been a lot lately, including a lot of new things and new challenges that I have taken on. So a little reminder that I have met some pretty big challenges before has been welcome.

And to be honest, I need that reminder in part because I have a tendency to underplay my past accomplishments, especially if they don’t have a direct and obvious impact on my present circumstances. Yes, I have a physics degree from MIT, but I’m not really using it right now, so it’s almost like I forget about it. And it’s not even completely true that I’m not using it; no, I’m not working in the field of physics, but I use that education every day. I use it when I employ critical thinking, and when I confidently dive into a new learning experience. That degree taught me how to think, and (being me) when am I ever not thinking?

Similarly, I have a black belt, but it’s from a school that doesn’t exist anymore, and I’m not actively training right now, so I almost forget about that, too. I think of myself as someone who has been a martial artist, not someone who is one right now. But the fact is, my experiences in the martial arts have shaped huge parts of who I am and how I move through the world, and I do still use the lessons from it that go beyond the physical training aspect. It is part of me.*

So this post is to tell myself that I can remember these things when it seems like a big deal just to leave the house and deal with people, or to make a phone call, or when I am waiting on pins and needles for a reply to an email that might not have been received well. I can take on new challenges with the knowledge that I have met challenges before — and when I have days where everything is too much of a challenge, I can take a day off without feeling guilty.

And lastly, when someone sanctimoniously suggests that I “just need to step outside my comfort zone” on one of those days where things are just too much, I can reply, “Whelp, I live outside my comfort zone. Why don’t you try that for a while and tell me how it feels?”

* Also, I am about to try out a new karate school just opening in my town! I am very excited, because it’s a style I have enjoyed in the past, and the instructor is happy to let me just learn without worrying about rank, since I have that black belt from a related style and have trained in his before. I am really hoping it works out, because I would love to be training again in a way that makes me happy.