Too Much and Not Enough

Boston skyline with trees in the foreground and blue sky above it.
The view from the balcony at dinner.

I’m still processing some feelings about my 25th college reunion this past weekend, and how it relates to moving forward into graduate school this fall. I want to write more about that later as I figure it out, but today I want to unpack the most stressful aspect of the reunion, which was the class dinner on Saturday night.

I met up with a friend for the reunion, and this was the only scheduled event we had registered for, and it kind of dominated the whole day. We drove in early to attend an alumni memorial service (and to beat the traffic), so the day stretched very, very long before dinnertime came around. (It would have been harder to take a break and go back to the hotel than to stay on campus, due to the traffic and numerous other events going on in the area.) It didn’t help that I had slept very poorly the night before, due to the unfamiliar hotel bed.

We did have lots of time to walk around, take pictures, do some shopping, and have lunch, but all of this meant that I was pretty worn out by the time dinner rolled around. Then it started with a cocktail hour, with very few places to sit. The venue was pretty, with a nice view of the city, but standing for an hour after walking so much was very tiring. And while most of my day had been filled with one-on-one conversation with just my friend, now it was expanded to small groups. At first this was ok, because while it was more to keep track of, it also meant that I could just listen to some parts of it, without feeling the need to reply to everything.

I was happy to hear when dinner was ready, both because I could finally sit down and because I was getting pretty hungry at that point. Walking into the dining room, though, I found it disappointing that a) there wasn’t much of a view from that room, b) the tables were packed in pretty close, and c) dinner was a rather underwhelming buffet. I was expecting better food for the price of registration and the (admittedly vague) description of the dinner as “upscale.” Once things got going, however, these were very minor issues compared with the overwhelming nature of the social and sensory environment.

Reflecting back on it after the fact, it’s interesting to note that I didn’t have any issues with social anxiety that whole day. Instead, what came to a head during dinner was a combination of two separate, but related, issues: sensory overload and social overload. In terms of sensory overload, there were a few hundred talkative people all seated in the same room, plus a string quartet or something (I didn’t get a good look) playing in the corner. The noise level was overwhelming, especially all of the voices coming at me from all sides. People sometimes describe noise like that as a roar, or a wave of sound, but for me it doesn’t blend together. It was all separate, and never stopped. Eventually my head felt fuzzy, like my brain had been shredded into fluff by all of those individual needles of sound.

This was bad enough, but it really exacerbated the social overload that was also going on. This had already started, of course, given that I had spent the past twelve hours in near-constant conversation and interaction. So by the end of the day, the addition of more people to all of that interaction really started to take a toll. And with all of the noise, it was extremely difficult to understand what people were saying to me if they were more than about a foot away, and of course people were trying to talk across the table. So it required more and more focus just to follow what people were saying, and often I had to ask people to repeat themselves. And asking just increased the amount of interaction required, so it didn’t take long before I was starting to shut down.

I was able to get up and leave the room once I had finished my dinner, and there was a nice balcony with a view of the Boston skyline. It was quiet out there, and cool, so I was able to recover a little bit. I headed back in when I felt better, but if anything the room seemed even louder after taking a break from it. I didn’t last very long this time, and let my friend know I couldn’t take any more. To be honest, all I could really manage was something like, “I can’t do this,” while shaking my head and getting out of my chair. I fled back into the next room, where I found a table and sat down.

My friend followed me a few seconds later, along with another friend of hers we had been sitting with. They asked if I was ok, and at first all I could say was, “No,” but then I explained that I was overloaded and done being in the dining room. My friend was ready to leave, too, so we said goodbye to her other friend and headed out. I was extremely tired, but I think I was still really wound up from all of it, because even after we got back to the hotel I couldn’t relax enough to get to sleep. (I also needed to stay up a bit to eat some of the snacks I had brought, because I hadn’t really eaten enough dinner.)

The whole experience was both overwhelming and underwhelming at the same time, and the underwhelming nature of the dinner itself made it really not worth dealing with the overwhelming social/sensory aspects. Other than wearing noise-canceling headphones (which were all the way back in my car and would have made me extremely self-conscious), I can’t really think of anything I might have done to improve the situation. Sitting in a different location in the dining room might have helped, but it was very unclear where the best place would have been. Even around the edges of the room, it was hard to find a spot that wasn’t close to one of the buffets, or a busy doorway, or the musicians. Short of filling my plate and taking it outside to eat, I couldn’t really have taken more of a break from it—and at first I was really enjoying the conversation, so I didn’t want to just bail on my whole table right off the bat. Mostly I was disappointed by the whole situation.

It has taken me a day or so to recover; I didn’t sleep well again that night, and then I had to drive home in the morning. My body bounced back from the hours of walking, but my brain was still fried. Ultimately, I think having a larger venue so the tables could be spread out more, perhaps with smaller groups of people clustered in different areas, would have helped immensely.

And, of course, better food.

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I’m Going to Graduate School!

So…I guess I was busy again during the spring semester, since I haven’t posted since January. 😉 But the semester went very well. I took Sociology of Gender and a class in research methods for the social sciences. Both were interesting, although the latter was mostly focused on psychological research methods, while I’m more interested in sociology. There are some overlaps between the two, though. And the final project left me with a finished research proposal that I’m hoping to turn into an actual project someday (probably with some modifications as I learn more, though). I’ll post more about my final projects for both classes a little later, though; they both relate to things I’ve written about on this blog before.

But, of course, the big news is that I got into graduate school! I will be starting in September in a doctoral program (with a master’s along the way) in sociology, with a paid teaching assistantship that will replace my current part-time job. This will be a huge change in just about everything, but I am very excited about it. They admit only a small cohort each year, due to the financial support they provide, and I’m looking forward to getting to know the other people in mine, and learning what their research interests are.

I’ll be going back to my first alma mater, MIT, this weekend for my 25-year reunion. It’s my first time back in a long time, and of course since I’ve been back in school I’ve been thinking a lot about my experiences the first time around. One big difference as I head into graduate school is that I won’t be living on campus. It’ll be a longer commute than I’ve had in a while, but not by much, and being able to come home to my quiet house in the woods will be a nice change from dorm living. And, of course, I’m older now and have a much better understanding of my neurology and my sensory needs, as well as more confidence when interacting with both professors and peers.

One thing I anticipate appreciating about grad school is the opportunity to focus deeply on my chosen subject matter. Autistic hyper-focus, activate! 🙂 That has also been a nice feature of my last two years in school, since I was not pursuing a degree so much as filling in some undergraduate pre-requisites for my new field of study. So I was able to choose only classes I was interested in. The graduate program does have some required classes, of course, but they’re still focused on sociology and related research-y topics like statistics and writing. And I think I’ll really enjoy having my job also be something related to my field of interest, rather than being completely unrelated as my current job is.

So now I have the summer to decompress and prepare for these big changes. I’ll be staying at my current job until the end of July, then taking August off. I have a couple of possible plans for that month, but I’m waiting to hear some more details before finalizing them. In any case, I’m still doing my usual amount of reading and thinking about research that interests me, and I’m hoping to get back into the swing of writing outside of class assignments again. I do want to blog about my experiences in academia, so I want to re-establish some good writing habits while I have some spare time. So I will be back posting again before another six months passes.

Promise. 🙂

And On Into 2019

Happy New Year! I’m still here, although apparently I didn’t quite manage to post anything to this blog during the entire fall semester and beyond. (Looking back, I see I even said in my last post that I was hoping to get back to a more regular blogging schedule soon. :facepalm:) BUT! I am still here, so…here I am.

The semester went well! I took a sociology class called Social Inequality, and a class in statistics for the social sciences, and thoroughly enjoyed them both. The Neurodiversity Club I helped to found got off to a good start as well, and we have plans for a few different kinds of events for the spring. I also made a lot of progress playing the mandolin, kept up with work, and maintained a steady spiritual practice. It was a bit of a mad dash to the end of the year, but I made it through the holidays and now have a few weeks off of school before the spring semester starts.

During that time, I need to finish up and submit my application to graduate school, which is very exciting. Everything’s almost in order; I just want to take some time to go back over the paper I’m using as my writing sample and make sure it all still looks good. One of my former professors had some great suggestions for potential improvements, and I want to try to work in at least some of them. (Some will have to wait for another time, for various reasons; they were very good ideas, but I’m not sure they’re best suited to this particular paper.)

For the spring, I am registered for a class in the sociology of gender, and one in research methods for the social sciences. The sociology professor also approached me about potentially doing an original research project as part of the gender class, and presenting it at one or possibly two events late in the spring. So I’m going to be thinking more about that over the next few weeks as well, and try to come up with a project I can reasonably do in the timeframe I have. And of course I’ve loaded myself up with a whole bunch of reading I hadn’t been able to get to while I was doing classwork, so the concept of “time off from school” is perhaps a little misleading. 😉

In any case, I also plan to do some thinking about how I want to proceed with this blog. I don’t want to promise a more regular posting schedule (again) because I know things are going to get busy. But I do want to give some thought as to how I might generate some future topics for blog posts, possibly correlated with things I am reading and thinking about for school. After all, if I do get into the program I’m applying for, I’ll be diving even deeper into academia for a good long while. It would be great to have a place to share some of what’s going on with that, both in terms of the actual content of my research and my experiences as an autistic academic. Any ideas? Anything in particular you would like to hear about?

Various Goings-On

It’s been a busy summer, but a kind of comfortable busy; I’ve had plenty of time to pursue new things, as well as to relax, while moving forward with plans in several different directions. I’ve been spending a lot of time studying for the GRE, which I am taking this Saturday. (GRE stands for Graduate Record Exam, which is required by many graduate programs in the US; for those familiar with other US standardized tests, it’s kind of like the SAT but for graduate school. It’s about a four hour long test of English language and mathematical ability.) Most of my studying has been brushing up on math that I haven’t needed in over twenty years, most of which I expect not to need again after the test, but so it goes.

I’ve also been working on a couple of different writing projects, one of which I am hoping to finish up before fall classes start at the beginning of September. There’s a little over a week between getting through the GRE this weekend and the beginning of the semester, and I think that will be enough time. It’s nearly done as it is, I just need to do some final edits and put together an introduction that highlights the major points.

Speaking of the fall semester, I am also excited to say that I have been working on getting a Neurodiversity Club started at my school! We had a preliminary meeting back in June to gauge interest among students who identified as neurodivergent (in whatever way), and had a great response. A couple of us then worked together to put together a proposed club constitution, which we will finalize with the larger group later this week. Then it gets submitted to the Student Activities coordinator, and if she approves it, we present it to the Student Senate in September. I’m really excited about it, because it’ll be a way to provide peer support for neurodivergent students, as well as raise the profile of neurodiversity in general.

I’m excited to be getting back to school and starting new classes, too. I did take a week off from work and most other scheduled activities last week, which was nice. I visited family for a couple of days for my birthday, and then spent a lovely week at home with my husband and dogs. We both started playing the video game We Happy Few that week, which is a fantastic (but quite dark) game with a dystopian, alternate-history setting. (It’s got this wonderfully quirky and amusing tone, though, despite the eerie and often-depressing storyline. I like the combination quite a bit.) I heard about the game from Invisible Autistic, who drew a comparison between the game mechanics and autistic masking. Having played it for several hours at this point, I completely agree with the parallels she noted.

So, busy, but mostly busy with fun and engaging things. I’m hoping to get back to a more regular blogging schedule after this weekend; I’ll at least have new classes to talk about, and stuff about the Neurodiversity Club. I think one reason I like being in school is the structure it gives to my schedule. Work does that a little bit, but my current job is so flexible that it’s not quite enough structure. But speaking of which, I need to sign off and get working for today. Talk to you later!

Archery and Anxiety

I have recently taken up archery, something I remember loving as a child and wanting to get back to for a long time. It’s been long enough, though, that it’s basically a new pursuit, which means there is a learning curve. And if you’ve ever tried archery, especially without much detailed instruction, you know that often that learning curve slides right into the intersection of bowstring with forearm.

In my case, it didn’t take long. Just a few days after we started, the string caught me right on the inside of the elbow, just at the top edge of my leather arm guard. (So I was trying to be careful, but…ow.) And then it hit me again, in almost the exact same place. And let me tell you, that tender spot inside the elbow is also one place that happens to bruise spectacularly when it gets hit by the bowstring. It’s a week later now, and it’s still a vivid purple and yellow.

This was motivation, however. With proper form, this kind of impact doesn’t happen, so I quickly learned what I was doing wrong, and how to improve my arm position and alignment. Other problems arose, however, when I tried to put this new understanding into practice.

I couldn’t help but flinch a little. Instead of releasing the arrow smoothly, with all of my focus on the target, part of my mind was worried about my arm, and my draw became more tentative. It wasn’t enough to send the arrow too wide, but it was enough to interfere. And, of course, it took a lot of the enjoyment out of practice and made me less enthusiastic about doing it.

It occurred to me later that this isn’t too different from social anxiety, at least how it often manifests for me. After suffering enough repeated social “failures,” I flinch away from engaging again; I anticipate that it’s going to hurt. So I often avoid social contact, and even when I try, I hold back. I don’t put all of myself into it. But of course, this makes me all the more likely to fail—people can tell that I’m not fully engaged, and maybe that makes me seem uninterested, inauthentic, or even dishonest. The arrow of my intention misses the mark.

It’s hard to get out of that cycle. As I continued to practice my archery, however, I found I was able to regain some confidence as my form improved. But first I had to just accept that each attempt might hurt. If I was doing things right, they wouldn’t—but I wouldn’t be doing things right if I let my fear distract me and keep me from fully committing to each shot. Instead I had to release the fear before I released the arrow.

I don’t hit my arm very often anymore, and I haven’t hit it so painfully again. But I also bought a different arm guard that protects me a little better and gives me more peace of mind as I’m learning. This lets me focus on really improving my form without getting stung by every single mistake.

It would be nice if I could wear some kind of similar gear to protect against social “stings,” but I think a good parallel is being willing to be vulnerable when connecting with other people, but also being aware that some pain can be guarded against. Sometimes that means learning to keep appropriate boundaries, because not all things are safe to reveal to all people. Sometimes it means avoiding people who hurt you through no fault of your own; unlike bowstring slap, social harm isn’t necessarily self-inflicted, and sometimes it’s not your form that is out of line.

But sometimes it’s enough just to notice that I’m preemptively flinching. Then I can take a look at what’s going on and figure out if it’s really warranted. Take this blog post, for example: I wrote the initial draft yesterday, and ever since I’ve been second-guessing whether I really want to put it out there. It’s not like it’s super-personal, but it’s a little personal, and I find myself wondering if I’m exposing myself to criticism by publishing it. (Actually, I wonder that with practically every blog post.) But it doesn’t do me any good to hold back, and if I flinched and second-guessed everything I would never get anything done.

So, with that, I release the arrow.

On Masking

I’ve been thinking about the concept of autistic masking, sometimes also called camouflaging. This is the act of concealing or suppressing one’s autistic traits in order to appear “normal.” Masking may include the suppression of “stimming” movements or sounds, putting up with sensory inputs that are painful, forcing oneself to make eye contact, or following previously-practiced social scripts in order to blend in and appear non-autistic.

Such masking takes a toll on multiple levels. As Laura Hull and her co-authors found in “Putting On My Best Normal,” camouflaging is frequently experienced as mentally and physically exhausting, due to the constant vigilance required. Masking one’s autistic traits can also lead to a lack of support (or a lack of diagnosis altogether) because one’s struggles aren’t evident. Lastly, it can make one feel inauthentic, even to the point of losing touch with one’s own identity. And if you can never truly be yourself, all the connections you make with other people feel false as well.

Now, most people wear masks at least some of the time. Sociologist Erving Goffman wrote a foundational book about this back in 1956, called The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. In it, he discusses the self as a performance: we try to manage the impressions others have of us by presenting ourselves in a certain light, hoping this will lead them to treat us the way we want to be treated. To do this, we choose what information to present about ourselves, and what to conceal.

This “impression management” is, essentially, masking: we reveal and conceal different parts of ourselves in order to be accepted and seen in the best possible light. Consider, too, how we present different aspects of ourselves in different contexts; the self we present in the workplace or classroom is not the same self we show to our friends at a party. (Theoretically, at least, if you go to parties.)

So, to some degree, masking is a universal phenomenon, and it can be a valuable social skill to have. Then why is autistic masking so often draining and even damaging? I believe the key lies in that opening phrase: to some degree.

Autism is such a pervasive difference in our “wiring” that masking it is a constant effort; it’s not like simply not mentioning some embarrassing incident, or making sure you don’t have spinach in your teeth. It’s more like trying to maintain strict control over every natural instinct you have in terms of how your body wants to move, how you express yourself, and how your mind works. So in trying to appear “normal,” autistics may need to mask a lot more than someone just trying to present themselves “at their best.” So of course it ends up being much more draining.

It’s also important to note that many aspects of masking can cause stress directly. Making eye contact is very uncomfortable, even painful, for many autistic people, but many of us do it to meet social expectations, or to make others more comfortable. Stimming movements such as rocking, finger-flicking, or tapping are often a way of relieving stress and/or burning off energy that has nowhere else to go, so restricting those behaviors then causes stress to increase in an already-uncomfortable social situation. Similarly, forcing oneself to put up with—or even pretend to enjoy—a sensory situation that is causing distress (but which no one else seems to mind) will increase stress as well, and can easily lead to a meltdown or shutdown later.

There is also a difference between voluntary masking and coerced masking. When someone is making a choice about how to present themselves in order to appear at their best, this is a voluntary decision. Sure, it’s stressful to put on your best social presentation during, say, a job interview, but that’s a choice you make to give a good first impression. When, however, you have been told over and over (explicitly or implicitly) that who you are is not acceptable, and yet you still wish to be accepted, your subsequent masking of those unacceptable traits is essentially coerced. In other words, when not masking is met with ridicule, bullying, and ostracism, you end up masking out of fear. So of course this will have negative effects.

This kind of coerced masking can even be completely unconscious, as it was for me before I learned about autism. I simply grew up absorbing the norms other people expected me to follow, even though they were often painful to follow (and when I was younger I probably didn’t follow them very well). Eventually this caused some serious burnout, because the exhaustion and constant vigilance mentioned above were just as real even though I didn’t know I was masking anything. Scratch that: I knew I was masking something, I just didn’t know it was autism. Ultimately, I was simply masking myself.

It’s really hard to get out of the habit of masking, though. For one thing, it does get to be a habit, especially after decades of doing it. For another, it’s sometimes hard to know the difference between the well-adjusted sort of social presentation that everyone does in order to keep good boundaries and maintain professionalism, and the self-negating camouflaging that capitulates to social norms that see autistic traits as inherently deficient. It’s a tricky position to be in, especially when you also want to be able to navigate the non-autistic world while still being true to yourself. And I don’t have a ready answer for how to do that; it’s still a work in progress.

Attribution Errors

My last couple of posts have been drawn from brief essays I wrote for a social psychology class I took last semester. When Laina Eartharcher shared the second one on her blog Laina’s Collection, she commented that “What I get out of this is that we’re not as “weird” or “disordered as much of the medical profession makes us out to be. Maybe we’re just more aware of it, and it might be heightened for us through our wiring, but it might not be so “wrong” after all.”

It turns out that’s exactly what I wanted to get across by posting some of my thoughts from that class. 🙂 I had that experience all the way through, in fact: I’d read some section of the textbook and think, “Ok, so everyone (in aggregate, at least) has this experience. So why is it so pathologized in autistics?”

Consider how we interpret and explain other people’s behavior; this is often wrapped up in the so-called “theory of mind” that autistic people supposedly lack (but don’t really). The way it is presented, autistics have difficulty taking the perspectives of others, and understanding what is going on inside their heads. However, people make decisions all the time when interpreting others’ words or behavior, and they don’t always get it right; one prominent example in our textbook was of a man misinterpreting a woman’s friendliness for flirtation. In order to interpret the meaning of behavior, we need to attribute it to something, and in this case the friendly smile is misattributed to sexual interest.

Our attributions are also affected by how much we know about what the person in question is going through. Let’s say someone gets impatient while waiting in line, and snaps at the person ahead of him. If you know he’s been under a lot of stress and is maybe on a tight schedule, you might be more understanding and cut him some slack. This is called a situational attribution; you are attributing his crankiness to his external situation. If, however, you don’t know this person at all, you might be more inclined to assume he’s just a nasty person with a bad attitude. This is called a dispositional attribution; you are attributing his snappishness to his personality, or disposition. We assume his hostility is due to his personal traits rather than adverse circumstances.

With me so far? These two things combine into the idea of the fundamental attribution error, which is the tendency to downplay the effects of circumstances and instead attribute behavior to personal traits…when it comes to other people. When we justify our own behavior, though, we tend to point to the situation for an explanation. So if someone else is late, they’re lazy and inconsiderate. If we ourselves are late, we were held up in traffic, or had a last-minute emergency that we couldn’t avoid. (But of course, if we do something noble and good, that’s all us, and not circumstantial at all. 😉

There are several potential reasons for this fundamental attribution error, not least of which is the fact that we have a lot more knowledge about our own circumstances than those of other people, so we can put our own behavior into context more easily. Plus we want to feel good about ourselves, so if we make a mistake we look for external reasons why we might have slipped up. There are cultural influences, too; individualistic cultures like the US are more likely to attribute things to a person’s individual traits. But they all add up to a tendency to interpret other people’s behavior differently than we want our own behavior to be interpreted.

It also means that, by ignoring situational influences, people misinterpret others’ intentions all the time. So why are autistics particularly singled out for having “theory of mind” deficits when we have trouble with social interpretation?

In the end, this relates back to what Damian Milton calls the “double empathy problem.” In this way of thinking about it, social communication “issues are not due to autistic cognition alone, but a breakdown in reciprocity and mutual understanding that can happen between people with very differing ways of experiencing the world.” Of course, when you’re autistic, and interacting primarily with people who do not share your way of experiencing the world, things like misinterpretations and misattributions may indeed be more frequent. But that’s not an autistic deficit, that’s a deficit of mutual understanding.

So yes, in addition to finding social psychology fascinating, I went through the entire class thinking, “Hey, that’s a thing autistics get accused of “struggling with” all the time, but in reality the human as a social animal is just…kinda bizarre.” At least we have people out there studying these things to try to make sense of them! 😉