Sticking to Small Talk

It’s often remarked by autistic people that we don’t “do” small talk. We’d rather not talk at all, or talk endlessly about one of our interests — there is no middle ground. We’re all different, of course, so this isn’t an absolute, but it does resonate with me. But I’ve been thinking about one way in which I sometimes prefer small talk, because it’s more comfortable than self-disclosure.

I don’t necessarily mean disclosure of my autism; I just mean any kind of revelation of who I am and what is important to me. Small talk isn’t my strong suit — I’d much prefer a deep, intense conversation about one of my passions — but it’s safer to stay on blander, neutral ground.

And that’s because all too often my excitement or intensity about a subject has put people off. I’ve learned how not to totally monopolize the conversation, so it’s not that; it’s just that a lot of people seem to get “spooked” by too much enthusiasm. (Their definition of “too much,” that is.) Similarly, the specific thing I’m enthusiastic about has often led to rejection: it’s too nerdy, too arcane, too incomprehensible. I’ve learned to introduce those parts of myself slowly and deliberately, and only to people I expect to (read: want to) interact with again in the future.

So I get impatient with small talk in a social setting, but I also get nervous that someone will ask a deeper question and try to get to know me when I’m not ready for that. The specifics of the setting matter, too; I am very conscious of people around me who might overhear what I am saying and take things out of context. There’s also the question of whether we have enough time (and enough mutual interest) to really get into the subject and truly understand each other, because most of my interests, beliefs and opinions do not make good soundbites. They need some shared context, in many cases.

But mostly it’s about trust, and that takes time to build. In the meantime, I’m likely to stick to small talk until I figure out where we stand.

(Addendum: I should add that I do have some go-to subjects that function well as small talk with most people, but are also strong interests of mine. I can talk about my dogs all day, for example, as well as just about any aspect of nature. Luckily this includes the weather, which is a common topic most people bring up. 🙂 This makes it easier to handle these sorts of conversations while feeling out what else I could go into detail about.)

Authentic Autistic Cooking

I have never liked to cook. I did it a little back when I lived alone, and a little more when I was with my first husband; he didn’t really like to cook either, so we agreed to split the job. But my current husband loves to cook, and, well, I like to let him. 🙂

The only problem is, he works in the evenings three days a week, which means I need to fend for myself for dinner. Sometimes he makes me something in advance, other times I get take-out, and yet other times I eat leftovers or some frozen dinner type of thing. But none of that is ideal, and one consequence (besides me not eating as healthily as I wanted) is a feeling of dependency on my husband; when he isn’t home, I’m not sure what to do, which leads to increased stress. It took me a little while to pinpoint this, but when I did I knew something needed to change.

But cooking? I have never really enjoyed cooking.

For one thing, I like to have clear instructions when I am first learning something. Once I’m comfortable, I can start to wing it, but I don’t like to do that right away. The trouble is, when trying to follow a detailed recipe, I’d inevitably run into ingredients (or sometimes tools) that I didn’t have, so I’d have to adapt it. That involves evaluating what I do have, and making decisions. This quickly becomes overwhelming. Of course, I could always choose a recipe ahead of time and make sure I had everything I needed, but somehow that never seemed to happen. (Good old executive functioning…)

So I decided that if I was going to start cooking for myself on nights I was alone, what I needed was a) step-by-step instructions, and b) the knowledge that I had all the ingredients required. Enter meal subscription boxes.

There are a lot of those out there now; you may have heard of Blue Apron or Hello Fresh, but there are several others. After a bit of research I ended up choosing Sun Basket, because I liked their ethic of using organic and ethically/sustainably sourced ingredients. I also liked that I could choose which meals I received, so I wouldn’t be surprised by a main ingredient that I absolutely abhorred. I don’t have too many food issues, personally, but there are some things — eggplant, for example — whose texture I just can’t take.

So I just got my first box this week, and cooked my first meal last night. This…was a lot of work. With a few small exceptions, what they send you are raw ingredients, so that you are cooking entirely from scratch. That’s one of the things I liked about this plan, but it is quite a lot more than I am used to doing. Also, while the recipes do include timing instructions (while the X is baking, prepare the Y, etc.) at least this first time, things didn’t work out exactly to plan. So it was a bit of a scramble at times.

I also have some sensory issues around getting my hands sticky, or slimy, or in contact with raw meat. So I was frequently stopping to scrub my hands free of oil, lemon juice, and/or bits of food as I went. (That probably didn’t help with the timing bit.) On the other hand, I did enjoy the sensory experience of smelling everything as I chopped and cooked it, as well as the visual display of all the fresh ingredients on the cutting board.

And in the end…this was by far the best meal I have ever cooked to date. The mix of flavors was very nice, and there was plenty of food. Beyond that, I had a fantastic sense of accomplishment from making this meal, as well as a pleasant sort of fatigue that left me very relaxed after I ate it. I’m looking forward to trying a different dish tonight, and tomorrow my husband and I are going to make one together. It’s only been one night, but so far this seems like a great solution to my original problem of what to do for dinner on my own.

Impatient for Change

No, really. I am.

I have been itching to try new things, learn new skills, begin new ventures. But I’ve been trying to temper that with the knowledge that I am already about to do all of those things, because I am starting school in a month. I’ve still been spending time with online classes and beginning new projects, but I keep having to remind myself that my available time will be dramatically impacted by two college classes, and I have no idea how much.

Will coursework just replace the existing time I spend on self-directed reading and learning, or will it be more? Will I get frustrated not having all of the time I currently have for those self-directed projects, or will I find new areas of inspiration from doing my coursework? How will it feel taking classes that actually have deadlines and consequences, rather than free or inexpensive online courses that I can dip in and out of as I want? How will it feel to be studying social work/human services as an autistic person who really wants to help people but finds social interaction awkward?

I won’t know the answers to any of those questions until I start, and I’m getting really impatient to do that. Actually, I was already impatient back in — holy cow, it was February; how time flies — when I enrolled, but now that it’s only a month away I am really ready to get started. I’ve got my textbooks, a spiral-bound notebook for each a class, and I’m ready to do this thing!

But I still have a month. So I’ve been trying to set goals for this month that will get me ready to really get started — I want to make sure I am relaxed and rested, and I want to establish some new habits that I can hopefully keep going. One of those new habits is committing to a weekly blog post, of which this is the first. (Yes, it’s Sunday so it took me all week, but I’m hoping to get some momentum going!) Another is establishing a daily spiritual practice that is sustainable and can help keep me grounded as I move forward. But as much as I’ve been wanting to try new things lately, establishing new habits is really difficult.

Some of the difficulty probably comes from trying to adjust my existing routines. I don’t really have a rigid daily routine, where I have to do things in the same order or at the same times, but there are certain segments of the day where I feel like some things fit and other things don’t. For example, while I take walks multiple times during the day, other forms of exercise really only feel right in the morning. So does spiritual practice; if I want to establish a daily routine of meditation or prayer, it needs to be in the morning. But then, both of those get disrupted quite easily if I have a bad night’s sleep and don’t wake up as early as usual, or if I have something else going on that day that breaks into that time. I feel a lot of resistance toward simply doing them at a different time that day, and unfortunately once that habit gets broken it’s very difficult to reestablish it.

So I am relying on lists, reminders, and a new journal (with sections for yearly, monthly, and weekly goals) to keep me on track this time. And I am allowing myself some flexibility in just what I do for my spiritual practice; it doesn’t have to be the same thing every day, or take the same amount of time. Same with what I focus on each day for this month — there are some things I’d like to finish up before I get busy with school, but I also want to avoid putting too much pressure on myself in this last month of summer break.

Because things are going to change soon. And I can’t wait to get started.

From Overload to Anger

Sometimes overload — whether sensory overload, social overload, or general emotional overload — feels like exhaustion. It feels like muddy thoughts, dull senses, and an overwhelming desire to escape. That’s often what it feels like, at least for me. But sometimes what overload feels like…is anger.

Let me back up. For most of my life, I didn’t know I was autistic, so I didn’t realize that I was extra sensitive to many sensory inputs. Sure, I could tell when sensory issues were bothering me, but in general I assumed that if they were bothering me, they would be bothering anyone. The situation alone was the cause, not the situation plus my (autistic) sensitivities.

What this means is that I assumed that other people would know they were creating an offensive sensory environment, and they just didn’t care. I assumed my assessment was an objective truth: it simply was too loud. Too bright. Too smelly. Too chaotic. Too upsetting. All the other people involved? They should have known this was too much.

And I would get so angry that they didn’t. Angry that I had to say something, to call attention to myself and the difficulty I was having. Angry that they didn’t just know. Because it should have been obvious…right?

But my assessment is always my assessment: the combination of me and the specific situation. Yes, some things would be too loud/bright/scratchy/crowded for almost anyone, and yes, sometimes people are inconsiderate. But often I would end up getting angry about something no one else even realized was a problem. It might be the annoying, distracting buzzing sound that no one was fixing because no one else heard it. Or the loud background music that kept me from understanding what someone was saying…because of my own auditory processing issues, not the music’s volume.

So I try to catch myself now when I start feeling this way, and ask myself whether the problem really is as self-evident as it feels to me, or if it’s partly my own idiosyncratic (and autistic) response to things. Of course, if it is the latter, I can still ask for the situation to be changed — and now I can ask in a way that acknowledges that other people may not have realized the problem, rather than angrily assuming they didn’t care.

And none of this is to imply any self-blame on my part; there’s nothing wrong with having sensory sensitivities and needing to take steps to be more comfortable. But being aware of those sensitivities, and how they contribute to my perception of a situation, can help me not only head off feelings of overload, but also recognize and own that perception before overload flashes into anger.

Delayed Perception

As I’ve been learning more and more about autism since my diagnosis, I’ve come to recognize how different autistic traits manifest for me. (For a recent example, see my last post about black-and-white thinking.) It’s been an interesting process of translating descriptions of autistic traits and/or diagnostic criteria (which can be fairly abstract) into real-life examples — and it’s a process that would not be possible without the many first-person accounts by other autistic people in books, blogs, articles, and tweets. You’ve all helped me understand what a particular trait might “look like” in different autistic people, and so what it might look like in me.

What I’ve been noticing, though, is that while I can read about autistic tendencies and think, “Yes, I experience that,” it’s often hard to notice in the moment that I am experiencing them. Now, I think I’m a pretty observant, self-aware person — but things like sensory overload, or brain fog after stress, can still be affecting me without my conscious awareness. In a way, it’s just part of the nature of the beast — exhaustion after social activities makes any kind of thought more difficult, for example. Sensory overload from external sources makes it hard to notice my internal state. Eventually I notice that I’m feeling fried, but only after it reaches a tipping point. Up until then, I don’t feel myself getting fried.

And then there’s delayed processing. Delayed processing can give me an emotional reaction to something that happened long enough ago that it’s not part of my conscious memory anymore. That makes it hard to realize just why I’m getting emotional. Add to that a degree of alexithymia, so that I don’t necessarily even know what I’m feeling, and things can get very confusing, indeed. So I end up with delayed processing, and also delayed recognition that I am even still processing something.

No wonder meltdowns and shutdowns can seem to come out of nowhere!

So I try to pay attention to my internal state, and also build up greater recognition of the types of situations that are likely to trigger these difficulties. But I’m also trying to learn how some of those intermediate stages feel, like the point where I’m getting socially fried but am not quite there yet. I’m hoping that will help me head off those kinds of problems earlier, and just generally pace myself better when I’m out in the world.

Black and White Thinking

When I first read that autistic people tend toward rigid, black-and-white thinking, I thought a lot of it didn’t apply to me. When it comes to ideas and concepts, I feel I am very open-minded and flexible. Sometimes I think I see multiple sides too easily, and have a hard time staying firm in my convictions. I even find it easy to hold beliefs that others may find conflicting, such as the value I place on reason and scientific knowledge and the value I also place on emotion and spiritual or even mystical experience.

But what I am coming to realize is that my either-or, all-or-nothing thinking often comes into play around people. I am usually very easy-going when I meet people, looking primarily at the things we have in common — and usually there is something, since I typically meet people who are friends of friends, or who are at an event with me that indicates a shared interest between us. I assume that if we have some things in common, we likely have many others. But then if I find one of those people expressing views that I strongly disagree with, even in an unrelated area, it throws into question all of the value I have gotten from their other statements.

Similarly, there have been people in my life with whom I was once close, but whose behavior led to a break in our relationship. I find it very difficult to value the memories of those friendships, and in cases where the person was also in a teaching or mentorship role, I find it extremely difficult to value the things I learned from them. It can take me a long time to circle back around to an appreciation of the ideas or skills they brought into my life, and to not associate those things only with the difficulties that came later.

I don’t particularly want to be this way. I’ve spent most of my life feeling like I am that person who expresses the “wrong” belief and suddenly everyone turns on me; I don’t want to do that to others. At the same time, though, because I can be so open-minded about ideas, I try to be careful about the people I allow to influence me. And the fact is, I have never in my life agreed with anyone 100%. At this point I know that’s not going to happen, so I go in with the (at least theoretical) mindset of “take what works for you, and leave the rest.” So I think I do tolerate a great deal of disagreement with other people — it just has a limit. It’s kind of like my ability to tolerate uncomfortable situations: I can do it for a certain amount of time, but then I’m going to speak up and/or make some changes. So there is a threshold beyond which I will be tempted to disengage entirely with everything about a person, and often that’s not really fair.

Mind you, sometimes it is fair; I’m all for dropping any engagement with someone or someone’s work after discovering that they espouse some horrific ideology. I’m talking more about reaching a point where I disagree — strongly but not necessarily vehemently — with someone’s perspective on one thing, and so lose respect for things they’ve said or done in other areas. It becomes all-or-nothing, black-and-white thinking that erases all the nuanced opinions that I usually carry through life.

(I also struggle to find middle ground between doing something “perfectly” and feeling like an utter failure — but that is a topic for another post!)

Too Many Voices

If you’re like me, you probably know how it feels to get overwhelmed when too many people are talking at once. Maybe it’s a relaxed group conversation, or an animated classroom discussion. Maybe you’re trying to have a conversation in a crowded restaurant. But whether or not the majority of voices are directed at you, just the sheer volume — both the volume of noise and the volume of words/thoughts/ideas — begins to overwhelm any single voice, any single unit of information being conveyed.

Sometimes the internet feels like that to me. Especially when it comes to social media, and particularly when it comes to Twitter: whether people are directing their words toward me or not, there are just too many voices for me to process.

And when that happens, I lose my own voice.

I lose my voice because I have to pull back. Otherwise I get lost in the forest of other people’s words, and that makes me lose track of what’s important in my life. Sometimes I really want to reach out, but I can’t figure out what to say. I don’t always want extensive interaction, or help solving a problem — I just want some connection. But then I pause, because I don’t want all the voices focused on me, even though I dread being ignored as well.

So all of this is to say that I have been pulled back lately. Right now I am starting to reconnect with Twitter after nearly a week off, but I am still not feeling ready to share very much. I am woefully behind on reading all of the wonderful blogs I follow, too, and the thought of trying to catch up is daunting. I will be visiting family this weekend, which has its own trials, and we’ll see how “peopled out” I feel after that.

I do want to say, though, that generally things have been going well. 🙂 In fact, that’s probably part of why I’ve needed to pull back from online interaction — there has been a lot going on, and my focus has been pulled into new projects and areas of study. But I’d like to find a balance that allows me to maintain the connections I’ve made in the online world while also not getting overwhelmed by the flood of voices.

April and Accuracy

I think one reason April (at least in its guise as Autism Awareness Month) is so stressful and aggravating for autistic people is the sheer amount of mis-/disinformation bandied about: since many of us like things to be correct, we feel the need to correct it. This often leads to friction, because, well, people don’t like to be corrected, even politely. Beyond that, I think there is often a mismatch in the intent of communication when it occurs between autistics and allistics.

I realize I’m generalizing here, but this is a fairly common trait; I think it’s one reason why autistic people are often said to “take things literally.” (But we could just as easily call it an allistic failure to say what they mean and/or mean what they say.) When someone says something, autistics tend to see it as an informational statement, and evaluate it as such. But for an allistic person, the main point of the statement might have been something entirely different — sharing something that was (unknowingly) inaccurate about autism, for example, might have been meant primarily as a social signal that the person cares about autistic people, not specifically as a sharing of facts. A lot of communication is meant this way: social sharing that signals virtue, for example, or reinforces the speaker’s place in a particular group.

Evaluating and correcting these statements on their factual content, then, tends to put the other person on the defensive — what they hear is a rejection of their social declaration, rather than a more neutral offering of more accurate information. Then we might get defensive, because we were just trying to help, but the other person reacted in a very negative fashion. And then we end up in a widening spiral of miscommunication that is very hard to get out of, because neither person realizes they are not having the same conversation at all.

As an aside, I think this is also what lies behind the phenomenon of person A getting upset about something they believe is true, but only getting more upset when person B tells them that it isn’t. On the surface this is confusing, because if they were really upset about that thing, wouldn’t they be relieved to find out it wasn’t true? But they’re not. I see this all the time, particularly when it comes to people sharing information of…shall we say…questionable origin. Sharing that “news” is often less a matter of informing others and more a case of declaring one’s allegiance, and challenging its accuracy is seen as questioning that self-identity. Plus, again, people generally don’t like to be corrected, even when your intention is to help them feel better by pointing out that the thing upsetting them isn’t really real.

Anyway. I’ve come to realize that this mismatch is actually one of the primary causes of miscommunication in my life. I will focus on a factual detail in someone’s statement, and respond to that, when that wasn’t the point of the statement for the other person. I am slowly starting to be able to notice this before I respond in a factual manner, but at least I’m usually able to recognize it now once a conversation has started to go off the rails. 🙂

P.S. Some of us also tend to take statements literally in the sense that we don’t “get” sarcasm or metaphor, but this is another way that it manifests, and it is the primary one for me. I think this is also related to the “social (or pragmatic) use of language” that is said to be difficult for autistic people (but which, again, could also be characterized by an allistic insistence on unnecessary communication).

Autism Appreciation

Ah, yes. Autism Awareness Month.

Once more, we meet again.

(Ok, it really starts tomorrow, but I’m already looking over the horizon in weary resignation.)

Last April was my first time writing about this phenomenon, as it was my first time experiencing it…well, no, not my first time as an autistic person, because I’d been that all along. But it was my first time knowing that I was autistic, knowing that I was one of the people the world was allegedly being made aware of.

Did all that awareness work? It hadn’t up to that point; as I wrote last year, all of the previous “awareness” months hadn’t made me aware that I was autistic, so clearly the type of “awareness” being spread was not so helpful in that regard. From the generally baffled and surprised reaction I’ve gotten from people as I’ve started to tell them I was autistic, it hasn’t helped them become more aware, either. And my continued exposure to mainstream impressions of autism hasn’t convinced me that awareness is growing on a larger scale, either.

So I’m with those who say we don’t need any more of that type of awareness. But we do still need more real awareness — the kind of awareness that comes when we listen to what autistic people have to say about autism. We need the kind of awareness that counters the fear-mongering approach of groups like Autism Speaks, the kind of awareness that would help people like me realize we’re on the spectrum, and help the people around us to understand how we see the world.

I am also with those who say that beyond Autism Awareness, we need Autism Acceptance. It isn’t enough to be “aware” of autism if that awareness leads you to rail against it and treat it as a great burden on society that needs to be cured. Although I would hope that true awareness would not lead in this direction, acceptance is still another step beyond awareness. As Shannon Des Roches Rosa has written, “Awareness is passive. Acceptance is a choice.”

So should we rename April to be Autism Acceptance Month? It would be an improvement, I think, and I fully support those who do so. But I also think we can go another step further, and call it Autism Appreciation Month.

Because just as we need more than awareness, we need more than acceptance. Acceptance can manifest in very positive ways, but it can also manifest in ways that involve one group “putting up with” another group as an act of charity. “I accept your many flaws and love you anyway” is sometimes the vibe I get from that sort of thing. (Not always, but often enough to raise my hackles.) Appreciation, though, requires recognition of our strengths as well as our struggles, of our gifts as well as our “deficits.”

Can we as a society come to appreciate the benefits bestowed by our sensitive autistic senses, our iconoclastic honesty, our deep love of our interests? Can we celebrate the physical and emotional expression embodied in spinning, bouncing, flapping, or rocking? Instead of grudgingly making accommodations, can we learn that making workplaces and public environments more comfortable for autistics makes them more comfortable for everyone, and actually thank autistics for pointing out the problems?

That’s what we really need: a true celebration of our differences, and recognition of how those differences can be a positive force in the world. But I think that’s going to take a little more than one month to achieve.

Taking Steps

So. I have been Taking Steps.

(When I put it in caps like that, I feel like a Terry Pratchett character — which isn’t a bad way to live a life, frankly.)

I mentioned last month that I was considering going back to school, in a totally different field compared to my bachelor’s degree, but I didn’t explain what that new field was going to be. That was partly because I was still weighing some options, but also because I was still mulling over this whole course of action, thinking about what it would be like. But as I said above, I have been Taking Steps. I have enrolled at my local community college. I have transferred credits from my bachelor’s degree. I have taken placement tests in math and English. I am getting ready to select (and meet with) an advisor. I have picked out classes for the fall (and am getting really excited about them). So I guess I’m doing this.

But what am I doing, you may ask? I am getting ready to start studying in the field of human services, with an eye toward working — in some capacity — with other autistic people in a supportive role. That may eventually lead to a master’s in social work and clinical certification, or it may lead in some other direction; I’m not sure yet. All I know is that something needs to change in the way that autism is seen by those in the helping professions, and I want to be part of that change.

I want to help older adults learn to make sense of a late-life diagnosis. I want to help younger adults transition into independent living. I want to help autistic children and their parents understand that children on the spectrum learn and grow, and they can do so in ways that honor their differences instead of erasing them. And I want to help educate teachers, doctors, therapists, and other professionals to understand what autistic people need…and what we don’t.

Now, I am also Taking Steps toward doing what I can without a formal education in the field, but the education piece feels very important to me. It’s not just about getting a piece of paper that other people will respect, but about learning more about how to be a good source of support. A combination of study and practice seems a good way to do that.

That, and reading more Terry Pratchett, of course.