Going Back, Moving Forward

View from inside a dark hall with tall ceilings, looking out through three tall windows onto a sunny day.
Looking out from inside the main entrance to MIT

As I mentioned last week, I’ve been having some feelings about my recent return to MIT for my 25th reunion, and how that relates to how I’m feeling about starting graduate school in the fall. Thanks to alexithymia, I’m still not entirely clear on what all of those feelings are, but I can at least articulate a few things at this point.

One thing I noticed while walking around campus is how little I remembered about how to get around, outside of the most obvious landmarks. I can chalk some of that up to physical changes that have occurred on campus over the past 25 years, but to be honest, there was a lot I just didn’t remember. My therapist has pointed out that having fuzzy or ill-formed memories of a period in your life (childhood, for example) is a common symptom of having had depression during that period. I think this is absolutely spot-on regarding my time at MIT, which was four years of increasing pressure, anxiety, and alienation. I’m sure I was deeply depressed for a good portion of it, too.

Another thing that came to mind, especially as I talked with people from my class, was how completely my interests have changed from when I first decided to attend MIT. Well, I shouldn’t say “completely,” I suppose; I had been very interested in psychology and other social sciences starting in high school. But I was certain, back then, that I wanted to be a scientist in some sub-field of physics, so that’s what I went to MIT to do. It was not a good fit.

I excelled in math and science in high school, and I received a lot of praise and attention for this in particular because I was (perceived to be) a girl, and that made me think it was what I wanted to do. At MIT, I kept up, but I quickly learned that I didn’t like physics as much as I had thought I would. Perhaps more importantly, I met a lot of people who really did live and breathe their chosen fields, which made it clear that this was not something I could keep pursuing for the many more years it would take to get the advanced degrees needed to do interesting work in the field—a field whose work no longer appealed to me anyway. For reasons to do with my ROTC scholarship, I was limited in my options for changing majors, so I stuck it out in physics, gritting my teeth and taking humanities electives to keep myself sane.

This is one reason I hadn’t seriously contemplated graduate school until now. Right after graduation, of course, I was far too burned out to even consider more education anytime soon. Because I was an Air Force officer, and a master’s degree was eventually required to be promoted to major, people would ask me early on (even as a brand-new 2nd lieutenant) when I was planning to start working on it. I would shudder inwardly and tell them not right away, I still had a lot of time. (And I doubted from the beginning whether I would be staying in long enough to make major anyway, so…)

But even later, when I started thinking about going back to school, I always felt at a loss when it came to what I might study. More physics was right out, but then what? Not only did I not really know what I wanted to do, I also dreaded the possibility of finding myself in the same position of studying something that felt like a chore I was forcing myself to do, rather than something I was truly interested in. Even when I started taking classes two years ago, thinking I might eventually apply for a Master’s of Social Work to become a counselor, I knew that a lot of that curriculum would be very difficult for me to navigate. Learning psychology is great, but the practical aspects of learning counseling skills, and all of the interpersonal elements of that kind of work, seemed more daunting.

Then I took sociology. It’s funny, because it was a little bit of a fluke; I was planning to take Intro to Human Services my first semester, as it was a prerequisite for most of the other classes that I wanted to take. But it was canceled at the last minute, so I substituted Sociology 101 instead. That was on my list of classes to take, but I had initially planned on taking it a little later. It worked in my schedule, though, so I took it right away…and realized this was the thing I wanted to study.

In a way, I had been studying it for a long time. Sociology is a vast field, or maybe a series of related fields, and a lot of my reading over the years could be filed somewhere under its umbrella. As I mentioned earlier, I enjoyed learning about psychology starting in high school, but even more than individual psychology, I was fascinated by social psychology and the study of social interaction and the structure of society. And is it any wonder? The social world was frequently baffling to me, and yet here was a way of studying it, picking it apart, and looking for patterns. That first sociology teacher described sociology (citing C. Wright Mills) as “making the familiar strange,” in that it questions the taken-for-granted nature of society and holds things up for study that most people didn’t think twice about. But for me, a lot of that “familiar” was already strange. Of course I wanted to study it.

This all left me feeling very out of place at a reunion for a school that is so intensely focused on science and technology that it has a single department for “Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences.” But this actually brought me full circle to the disconnect I felt while at MIT, and ended up making me feel better about the whole thing. I was out of place there, both that weekend and 25 years ago. But I didn’t know myself back then: I didn’t know I was autistic, I didn’t know what I wanted to do, and I didn’t know a whole lot of other facets of myself. I’m ok with being out of place there now; it’s not where I belong.

It is still part of me, though. I’ve been thinking of the move from physics to sociology like it’s a hard, right-angle turn, but physics isn’t a bad starting place for any field of study. I value the training I received in critical thinking, the scientific method, and not being afraid of complex math. And, of course, the trial-by-fire nature of MIT (it’s also called “drinking from the firehose,” so maybe I’m getting my metaphors mixed?) taught me a lot about taking on hard challenges and just plain getting things done. Ultimately, it feels good to have gone back for my reunion, and I’m ready to move forward in this new direction without hesitation.

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! 😉

On Alert

Here’s another bit of writing from my social psychology class last semester. We were reading and discussing the influence that groups have on our level of physiological arousal, and how being in a group tends to heighten our sense of arousal, which can be experienced as excitement or as stress. There was one section that broke out a few different reasons for this increased arousal, which I found interesting in light of my tendency to feel overwhelmed or anxious in the presence of others.

The first one was evaluation apprehension. When you feel others are judging you, you feel “on alert.” An obvious example is the way most people feel nervous about public speaking, or performing a solo musical piece for the first time. Everyone’s eyes are on you, and you worry about how you will look to them. But the same goes for informal social situations, especially if you have been teased or ostracized in the past for being socially awkward. You start to feel as if every social occasion will involve evaluation and judgment, and this breeds anxiety.

The second factor was distraction. When you are performing a task as part of a group, it’s easy for your attention to become split between doing the task yourself and looking to see how the rest of your group is doing, especially if you notice someone else faltering. For example, I used to sing in a small choir, and it was very hard to stay focused on my part if another member shifted position, or stumbled on the timing, or otherwise drew my attention.

The last factor mentioned was the “mere presence” of other people. This didn’t seem well-explained to me, just thrown out there as a catch-all to say that people (and non-human animals) still get aroused by the presence of others even if they aren’t distracted or competing with each other. But for me it did connect with a third factor that comes into play, which is sensory overload from the presence of other people. This could just be considered a part of the distraction factor, because it is often sensory input from a group that causes distraction for me, but it’s also there as an unconscious influence even if it doesn’t distract me at the time. So yes, the mere presence of other people—especially in large numbers—definitely has an effect on me as well.

Short Post, With Snakes

I’m tired. I’ve had a busy week with a lot of frustrations, and every time I start writing something I keep second-guessing whether I really want to say that, and wondering if it will invite conflict that I am not up to dealing with. And it’s not just events in my life that have exhausted me this week; it’s also the endless drumbeat of bad news and worse news and downright horrible news that keeps filling my inbox and my podcasts and my social media feeds. So many people are marginalized and under attack, and it just feels…relentless.

At the same time, I don’t want to completely disengage, because I want to stay informed and able to contribute, in whatever ways I can, to the efforts to make things better. I have also realized that I am fascinated by the research I have read around prejudice and stigma, and while my main focus for the paper I am writing is the stigma surrounding autism, I am drawn to read more broadly about stigma. This doesn’t make my reading list any sunnier, of course, but there is something about approaching this subject in a systematic, sociological way that helps me think more clearly instead of feeling like there’s nothing to be done about it. Understanding a problem is the first step toward addressing it.

So I am going to dive back into that for now, and leave this blog post short. And here’s a photo of a nice little garter snake I met today—snakes are stigmatized, too, after all.

Slender garter snake next to a small rock on a dirt road, in mixed light and shadow

Anxiety in Context

As part of my human services class, I wrote about the differences between an approach that attempts to help a person by understanding their problems in the context of their environment, versus one that focuses on something like childhood trauma as the root of their trouble. I used an example from my own life to illustrate the point I wanted to make, and given the content of that example, I thought the essay could pull double duty as my blog post for this week. 🙂

By focusing on the individual in context, we can take into account environmental factors that may be influencing a person’s internal state and related behavior. This approach locates the source of problems as being in the relationship between the individual and her environment. Potential solutions, therefore, will take into account environmental changes as well as personal changes, perhaps even extending up into changes in law or cultural expectations.

In contrast, a focus on personal history, such as childhood trauma, locates the source of problems as being within the individual herself, and seeks to address them on that level. Potential solutions will then revolve around personal changes within the individual herself, and not larger structural changes in society. It could be argued that considering the role of childhood trauma is taking the individual’s environment into account, but it is the environment of the past, and specific to that person’s history.

When I first started therapy, I was primarily seeking help with anxiety. Part of this manifested as high levels of social anxiety when interacting with other people. We discussed childhood experiences for quite some time, and I could definitely relate incidents of childhood bullying, betrayal, and ostracism to the anxiety I continued to feel in groups of people, or when meeting someone new for the first time. This located the problem within me, in my particular history and its reverberations.

Years later, however, I gained a different understanding of my social anxiety when I learned that I am autistic. Instead of this social anxiety arising specifically from past experiences, I saw it as arising from a life spent in a world that expected me to think and behave like everyone else, all while not knowing that I was autistic. In a way, this may still sound as if I am locating the problem within myself, specifically in my autism, but in truth the problem comes from the interaction between me and an environment that does not expect or understand neurodivergence.

This has become clearer to me as I gain more experience interacting with other autistic people. When my ways of thinking and acting are understood and accepted, I do not feel the same social anxiety that I do in other contexts. In other words, my social anxiety is a product of me being in a particular environment; if my environment changes to one with different social expectations, the anxiety goes away. Even just knowing that the problem is a transactional one makes a difference on those occasions where I can’t change the environment. Understanding where I might have difficulty allows me to change my approach, and also helps avoid excessive self-blame if things still go awry. I can see my anxiety as a bad environmental fit, rather than entirely a personal failing.

Keeping My Cool

Snow-covered hemlock trees with the morning sun behind them

I hate conflict. Really, seriously dislike it. I always end up feeling terrible after (and during) an argument, even if I feel that I was completely in the right. Part of it is that I always do want to consider other perspectives; I want to be fair, and hear the other side out. But what this feels like internally is this: I absorb the other person’s viewpoint, and really take in what they’re saying. It can even feel like I am adopting their point of view, “trying it on” to see if it makes sense to me. But then I end up getting defensive, because it feels like my own perspective is being overwritten, and I’m afraid of losing my own viewpoint. I feel like I have to claw my way back to my own thoughts and feelings, and that can be scary.

On top of that, I generally don’t feel like the other person is doing the same thing, so I end up feeling like I am losing ground, wavering in my conviction by even pausing to consider the other point of view. But I really do think this ability to take on other perspectives, to suspend judgment for a moment and really try to see where they’re coming from, is a strength, and that society would be a lot better off if more people did this. So it’s not that I want to close myself off and stay dogmatically attached to my own opinions — but I do want to avoid that feeling of defensiveness that arises.

What I try to come back to is this: people are free to disagree with me, and I am free to disagree with them. I don’t need to convince everyone to agree with me, and in the end it’s not possible to get everyone to agree on everything. This is freeing to remember, and allows me to step back from seeing an argument as a battle that can be won or lost, and instead think of it as an interaction that might show me something interesting.

I’m not always able to remember this, but when I do, it calms me down immensely. I am not responsible for single-handedly “fixing” the world, or for changing everyone’s minds. Even when the issue is something I consider extremely important, even vital for people’s well-being, this is still the case. Often it’s just not the time or place for a particular argument to be accepted, but I also know that very often people hear and dismiss things that they later come back and reconsider. So maybe I’m planting a seed that will bear fruit later — I may never know. The only thing I can control is how well I make my case; whether that changes the other person’s mind is up to them.

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.