Running Just Below the Line

I have felt on the verge of a meltdown for the past several days. Stress built up steadily for all of last week, and being out of town for the weekend meant that I was not able to maintain my usual routine that brings me into the next week more refreshed. Being aware of this has allowed me to avert some of the negative effects this might have caused, but I still feel like I am running just below the red line. So I started thinking about meltdowns, including the word’s origins in the management of nuclear reactors.

Nuclear reactors run on heat; they essentially use atomic fission as a fancy way to boil water. But too much heat can become dangerous, so there are mechanisms in place to keep the temperature under control. The main one is to circulate water through the system to keep things cooled down to a manageable level. This needs to be done on a continuous basis; even if active fission is not currently happening, the system still needs to be cooled. Things in there are just hot, and it takes a lot of effort to keep that heat balanced and contained.

I often feel like I run hot inside. If operations are proceeding on their usual routine, it’s manageable — I might not even feel it if I’m doing a good job of balancing out stressors with some nice, cooling downtime. Working on projects I’m interested in also feels cooling, even though it can involve a sense of passionate intensity; it’s a different kind of heat, I guess. But I need to have that balance.

If the water circulation in a reactor is stopped, the heat from the fuel rods will boil away any existing water until they are no longer immersed in coolant. At this point, they can literally start to melt, creating a pool of very hot, highly radioactive material on the floor below. If this is left alone, it can get so hot that it melts through the surrounding containers, spreading radioactive contaminants into the outside world.

When I don’t get my cooling time, I can feel things start to come apart. My chest tightens, and I start to feel tension around my eyes. I feel stifled, bottled up, in need of something to release the pressure. At this point, every new frustration, no matter how small, ratchets up the heat a little bit more. And if it’s a big frustration? Now we’re in trouble.

But notice that a meltdown is not an explosion. It is a melt. It is damage sustained by the reactor due to its own heat. That damage can spread outside if its containment becomes broken enough, of course, and that is always the main focus of public concern. But it starts in the core. Whatever else happens, the first casualty is the reactor itself.

My meltdowns don’t hurt other people. Perhaps they’re more like partial meltdowns, when the fuel rods have started to melt, but are able to be cooled before they burn through containment. I cry, I scream, I find other ways to dissipate the heat. So after an initial show of concern, all seems under control, and the public breathes a sigh of relief.

The reactor core, though? Still damaged. Still unbalanced. And still in need of cooling for a good long time.


Putting In The Effort

I’ve written before about how much I’ve been enjoying my sociology class, and that enjoyment has continued as the semester has progressed. There are only three weeks left of classes, and while I’m looking forward to having a break, I’m going to miss this one. The readings were well chosen, and we’ve had some great discussions about them.

I haven’t liked my psychology class as much, but I attribute that primarily to the structure of it as an online class, and to frustrations with the textbook. It’s also a little too basic, given my earlier familiarity with a lot of the material; a psych class in high school got me hooked on learning about how humans work, and it’s been a fascination for me ever since.

That’s mostly because explicitly learning about this stuff has really helped explain so many things that didn’t make sense to me intuitively. I feel like I’ve always been something of a social scientist, making observations, forming hypotheses, and testing out different approaches. Other autistic people have expressed similar feelings; perhaps the most famous is Temple Grandin’s description of herself as being “an anthropologist on Mars,” trying to figure people out. Many of us analyze our every interaction, looking to crack the code.

The thing that strikes me most about that right now is how much effort we put into this whole human interaction thing. And it really is a ton of effort: the amount of processing that goes into even casual social interactions can be exhausting, and the mental strain that results is often a big factor in autistic burnout. Plus the time it takes to get things “right” can easily lead to social anxiety, as the cumulative weight of failed interactions starts to add up.

So why is there still a pervasive stereotype that says autistic people are not interested in social interaction? Certainly, some of us aren’t; we’re a varied bunch, after all. But as a generalization, it falls far short of the reality, and I think the sheer volume of effort we put into every interaction gives an indication of how short it falls. And given that some new research shows that neurotypical people are less interested in interacting with autistic people based on superficial first impressions and social judgments, it’s past time we stopped placing all the blame for social difficulties on the autistic side of the interaction. We are putting in the effort. I think we should get some credit for that.

Divergence and Diversity

There are two terms I sometimes see people get mixed up when talking about autistic (or otherwise non-neurotypical) people. Those terms are neurodivergent and neurodiverse (used as adjectives), or neurodivergence and neurodiversity (used as nouns). Others have explained the differences before, of course, but I wanted to walk through my own thinking on the matter.

Neurodivergent is used to describe an individual (or homogeneous group) whose neurotype diverges from what is considered typical. There are several ways in which to be neurodivergent: one might be autistic, ADHD, or dyslexic, to give just a few examples. Neurodiverse would then describe a group of people with a diversity of neurotypes represented.

So an individual would not be considered neurodiverse — she would be neurodivergent, and possibly part of a neurodiverse group. But if a group consists solely of individuals with the same type of neurodivergence, it wouldn’t properly be called neurodiverse. A monocropped field of some rare strain of wheat might be different from the norm, but it is still not a diverse ecosysem.

A similar distinction holds for the noun forms of the words: neurodivergence describes a particular neurotype that is different from neurotypical, while neurodiversity is created by the presence of multiple different neurotypes. So the former describes an individual neurotype, while the latter describes a group with more than one neurotype included (such as the human race as a whole).

As a brief aside into another language peeve of mine, it should become clear from considering these terms that not being autistic doesn’t necessarily make someone neurotypical; they could be otherwise neurodivergent. That’s the value of the word “allistic,” which explicitly means “non-autistic.” Neurotypical people are allistic, but not all allistics are neurotypical.

Actually, to pick a few more nits, it’s debatable whether any individual truly is “neurotypical.” Typical, like normal, is a statistical thing; the “perfectly typical” brain probably doesn’t exist in the real world, and certainly there are variations among people who would all be considered “neurotypical.” My therapist likes to use the phrase “more neurotypical,” which I think is more accurate, and I also like Luke Beardon’s references to the “predominant neurotype,” or PNT, in Autism and Asperger Syndrome in Adults. Treating it as simply that which is most common takes away some of the lingering associations with what is “normal,” which is usually a short step away from what is “proper” or “correct.” It still ends up being the baseline from which other neurotypes “diverge,” but at least it’s a step toward seeing our differences as part of a healthy, diverse human ecosystem.

Still Flowing

Well, it’s going to be another short-post week this week. I said last weekend that I expected this week to feel long, even though the workweek was short, but it actually flew by, and the weekend was no exception. I got almost everything done that I wanted to do, but now that it’s Sunday evening I don’t have a whole lot of brain space left for thinking up a blog post.

I’m actually really looking forward to Thanksgiving week, because my husband and I stay home, and it’s a nice long weekend to catch up on things. Things usually get hectic again after that, and now I’ve got end-of-semester stuff to look forward to, on top of holiday preparations, so…yay?

But for now, things are still flowing. Onward!

Water swirling down a waterfall and past bare rocks in late-afternoon autumn light.

Recharging My Batteries

…is not something I did this weekend. In fact, I need a weekend after this weekend, but I’m not going to get one. At least I do have this Friday off (for Veterans Day), so it’ll be a short work week, but I expect it to feel long instead.

I visited family this weekend, including going to a wedding reception for my cousin. I hadn’t gone to any family functions in a while, so it was good to see people (although everyone’s kids had grown roughly six feet taller, so I didn’t recognize any of them) but it was also very loud, the food arrived late, and everyone was very huggy. Focusing on conversations against a background of loud music and lots of other conversations took a lot of energy.

Overall, though, it was a really good visit — I got to spend time with my parents and sister, and the dogs were really well behaved. I even got some study time in, so I’m not too far behind my usual weekly schedule. I’m just wiped out now, after the three-hour drive home in a rainy drizzle.

Last week I was actually very good about being aware of my energy and anxiety levels, and postponed starting on a new work project that could have started on Thursday, because I had a lot of things to get done before heading out for the weekend. Of course, that project was postponed until tomorrow, so I can’t really take the same steps this time, but at least I did get a lot of things wrapped up before the weekend so they won’t be hanging over my head this week. Just the usual load of work, school, and personal projects — but I’ve gotten used to managing that, and I can find little ways to recharge as I go.

And that starts right now, with a relaxing rest-of-my-Sunday. Hope you’re having a good one! 🙂

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?