Autistic Memory

Today I am thinking about memory. There seems to be a growing body of research into difficulties (or at least differences) with autobiographical memory in autistic people, especially when it comes to episodic autobiographical memories, which are recollections of specific events in your own life. (This is in contrast with semantic memories, which have to do with remembering knowledge about the past, like your old phone number or high school locker combination.)

I’m not familiar with every aspect of this research, but I’ve come across several references to it lately and it got me thinking. I do feel that I have less-detailed autobiographical memories than many people I know, but I wonder whether this is due more to actual differences in memory mechanisms, or if it is a matter of attention and emphasis.

I remember getting back together with a high school friend after we had both graduated from college, at least five years after high school. She could rattle off all sorts of events that had happened to both of us going back to when we met in third grade—class field trips, school assemblies, things individual classmates or teachers had said and done. She remembered people’s names from way back, too.

Me? I barely remembered anything she mentioned. High school (and everything before it) was blessedly behind me, so why would I remember it? None of the incidents or names my friend brought up had any relevance to my life anymore, so I rarely thought about them. A lot of things did come back when she brought them up, and most of the rest at least rang a bell, but even that didn’t jog much else loose from my own memories.

Similarly, I will forget about things that I have done that were really important to me at the time, even things I did for years. Oh, right, I sang in a community choir for three years. Oh, yeah, I spent a year attending a study group learning Scottish Gaelic. Sometimes these things will just pop into my head, as when I recently remembered the months I spent playing volleyball on two different teams in an adult recreational league in my mid-twenties. And when I hear someone else recount an experience that triggers a similar memory, I can bring it back up, as when I worked with another Air Force veteran for a while and we regularly swapped training stories. (But I will tell you, if you ask me an open-ended question about anything, including my past, my mind will reliably go blank and not serve up any answers at all, even if they’re in there.)

So the fact that they do sometimes pop into my head indicates that the memories are there, they were formed, they’re just not at the front of my mind. And that’s why I think the issue isn’t so much that I have a deficit when it comes to autobiographical memory—I just don’t feel the need to dwell on my own past. Compared to all of the other things I could be thinking about, my past history isn’t all that interesting to me; I’ve been there, done that, you know?

(As an aside, this does lead to funny conversations at times, when I bring up something I used to do because it came back to mind during a relevant conversation, and the person I’m talking to is stunned that they never knew I did that. It just…hadn’t come up before. I mean, I’ll acknowledge that I’ve done a lot of interesting things, I’m just not interested in listing them off for people.)

I guess there is an assumption that just because I was there, it should be important to me. But memories of people and social events are not privileged in my mind; they get pruned like anything else. People forget all sorts of things when they don’t need to remember them—a fact I have been painfully reminded of as I work through a math review for the GRE—and autobiographical memories are no different.

Think of it this way: given how intense autistic interests can be, and how often we can end up coming to know (and remember) all sorts of fascinating facts and info about our passions, isn’t it possible that we just don’t want to devote a whole lot of mental energy to storing and recalling information about people and events that aren’t in our lives anymore? That’s how it feels to me. I’ve got better things to think about than who my fourth-grade homeroom teacher was.

(P.S.: I think there is a lot more to be said about memory in autistic people, and there is definitely a lot of variation in how much or how well people remember. It even varies wildly for me, because I will sometimes get a very vivid flashback of something I thought I’d forgotten. So all of the above should be taken as one person’s random musings on the subject, which may or may not be generalizable.)

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Meeting People

Last Wednesday, I participated in a panel discussion at my community college for autistic students. Well, it was a panel of autistic students, but I suppose it was mostly held for the edification of faculty, staff, and other students. The questions related to our experiences in school on various levels: the physical and sensory environment, the social environment, academic expectations, etc. There were five of us on the panel, and our answers (and our communication styles) reflected a lot of the diversity of “the spectrum,” though of course not all of it.

One of my professors was in attendance, and we had a great discussion about the panel in one of my classes the next day. When he asked me what I had thought about the panel, I answered truthfully that the biggest thing I had gotten out of it was the chance to meet the other panelists! I really enjoy meeting other autistic people. We’re not all going to hit it off, of course, but there is usually a nice familiarity—at least on some level—that I’m not used to feeling with those of the predominant neurotype. And from talking to the other people on the panel, I clearly wasn’t alone in that.

In fact, except for one person who had to leave for a class right away, we all stayed an extra twenty minutes after the panel was done, in order to chat and get to know each other better. And we started talking about setting up some kind of regular get-together, like a casual drop-in lunch, that would allow us to stay in touch. I really hope we’re able to carry through with that, given that this semester is almost over.

Then the next day, on Thursday evening, I went to a social/support group for trans and non-binary people for the first time. And it was so cool to, again, find a sense of familiarity in other people’s experiences that I don’t usually get. Even when our paths had been very different, and our actual gender identities varied, the fact that each of those identities was accepted, and we could all talk openly about our feelings and experiences without the usual gendered assumptions was really freeing. I’m looking forward to going back again.

Both of those experiences last week—especially coming on back-to-back days as they did—highlighted what a difference it makes (for me, anyway) to meet people who experience the world (and/or themselves) in ways similar to my own experience, which is usually quite different from that of mainstream society. We’re not all going to agree on everything, but it’s just nice to know I’m not alone. And for the most part, I have found myself in very good company.

Reading People (Or Not)

Sometimes I just have to let things go. I find myself going over and over something I’ve said, second-guessing my own reactions and wondering if I’ve inadvertently said something wrong, pissed someone off, hurt someone’s feelings…but I’m not going to figure that out by rehashing it over and over. Either they’re going to tell me so, or not.

The trouble is, people often don’t tell me one way or the other, and therein lies the problem. I can’t help it if people don’t tell the truth about their own reactions, and I can’t be expected to just know. It’s been pretty well established that people with vastly different ways of thinking and experiencing the world have trouble seeing each others’ perspective—we think differently, so…we think differently. Damian Milton calls it the “double empathy problem,” and points out that it’s not a one-sided autistic “deficit,” but rather a mutual disconnect in our understanding of each other.

And I definitely know that my reactions to things have been misunderstood with great frequency throughout my life. I’ve been called selfish while I was actually bending over backward to make someone else more comfortable, and I’ve been called thoughtless when I was actually consumed with concern for someone else. That’s one of the reasons I worry so much about people’s reactions when I say something that might make them uncomfortable, or need to ask for something to change. I have no idea if they’re understanding me, or if they’re reading something into my words that isn’t there.

One problem is that I can’t really trust how I read people, so before I say something that might potentially be taken negatively, I have to prepare for all sorts of reactions. I kind of have to assume the worst, to be honest, just so I don’t get blindsided if and when they jump down my throat. (In my defense, I have also correctly predicted reactions that were all out of proportion to the situation, even when others told me that I was worrying too much, and of course that person won’t react that way. But those were situations where the person in question had previously overreacted and taken things personally, so I had already seen that pattern play out. It’s interaction with less-familiar people that sends me into a tailspin of self-doubt.)

My therapist noted this week that I seem to have problems “owning” my negative reactions to things, and she’s right. It came up toward the end of our session, so we haven’t had a lot of time yet to pick that apart, but a great deal of it is due to all of the above: expressing a negative reaction to things, even a mild one, has so often been punished that I do so only warily. Either it’s misinterpreted as a personal attack, or taken as me asking for special treatment instead of “sucking it up” and getting on with things. And so I’ve learned to be extremely diplomatic in my approach…but I still end up with no idea what the response will be, even when I think I’m being completely reasonable.

At least I can usually recognize what is reasonable and what isn’t, both in terms of my request or statement and in terms of the other person’s reaction. And I get righteously indignant when people react unreasonably. But that still leaves me feeling bruised and vulnerable, and wanting to crawl back into my shell and not engage in situations where I might need to speak up. Because that’s the tension I feel all the time: I can’t not speak up when something is unreasonably uncomfortable or unfair, but I hate speaking up to point those things out.

But you know? The times that I have spoken up, usually about things that other people were silently putting up with, I have always had at least one other person—and usually more—tell me that they appreciated that I said something, because it bothered them, too. I just wish they would take the initiative once in a while, because it sucks always being the one to reach a breaking point first. But I suppose our social and sensory sensitivities make that almost inevitable, like being the canary in the coal mine. The situation is toxic for everyone, but autistic folks are going to feel it first.

An Active April

I’m sure I’ll write more about April as Autism Awareness/Acceptance/Appreciation Month at some point in the next thirty days, but…not today. Today I am planning and prioritizing all of the various things I need to do during April, many of which have to do with everybody’s focus moving onto autism for the month.

The first priority is my upcoming webinar for young autistic adults interested in starting their own business; that’s coming up this Wednesday. To to fair, its timing wasn’t specifically related to April, as it’s part of a webinar series that has been going on since (at least?) February. But I ended up with a date in April, so it happens to be right at the beginning of the all-autism-all-the-time frenzy of the month.

Then two weeks later, I will be participating in a panel discussion at my local community college on the topic of being a student on the autism spectrum. I’ve been in communication with the coordinator to help streamline some of the questions and make sure the focus isn’t entirely on areas of difficulty. I’m really looking forward to this event, actually, and I’ll be curious to hear what other students have to say about their experiences.

At the end of the month I’ll be attending the Annual Autism Conference put on by Autism Connections in western Massachusetts. One of the keynote speakers will be Steve Silberman, whose book Neurotribes is still one of my favorites on the subject of autism (and definitely my favorite by a non-autistic author). I’m not sure what else to expect from this one, but I’m curious to see what the overall tone of the gathering is, and how inclusive the organization is of autistic perspectives.

During all of this, I also have to get through the last full month of my spring semester, do all of my software-testing work, and keep up with my responsibilities to my coaching clients. Oh, and try to expand the contents of my Etsy shop, get some writing done, and have some kind of family life with my husband and dogs.

It’s a lot, but it’s manageable. It’s all about prioritization and tracking. Calendars, checklists, and to-do apps are my friends—actually, they’re way closer than friends. Todoist is pretty much my constant companion these days, and I highly recommend it, especially for recurring tasks that need to be done every day, week, or month. And I recommend including self-care and “recharging” activities on to-do lists, because they’re important, too. There’s something particularly satisfying about getting that feeling of accomplishment from checking something off your list when that something was itself relaxing and rejuvenating. “I got so much done today, including taking a break!”

Speaking of which, it’s looking rather nice outside. I think I’ll go enjoy it.

Anti-Social Media

I have something of a love-hate relationship with social media. I mean, it’s got the word “social” right there in the name, so that’s probably no surprise. I do use it, but I tend to use it in very specific ways, depending on the platform.

Twitter: I have a few different accounts on Twitter, which I use to organize various streams of information. The one I use in connection with this blog, for example, is pretty much “all autism, all the time.” This is the primary one I post to, while the others are mainly for informational purposes.

I’ve been engaging with it less lately, however. I find Twitter to be both valuable and problematic; the short format makes it easy to skim posts to find things of interest, but it also does something…scattering to my brain. The short format also seems to lend itself to statements that are absolute and unequivocal, which tend to rub me the wrong way. Overall I tend to come away from it feeling on edge, if not outright pissed off.

Instagram: I use this to share my photography, and to follow other people’s photos from around the world. I follow both people I know and people I don’t on this one; if you follow me and your postings look interesting, I will follow you back. If you’re posting all selfies and pictures of food, I probably won’t.

Pinterest: Honestly, I don’t really use Pinterest in a “social” way at all. I use it to unwind and look at beautiful pictures related to several of my many and varied interests. I save images of potential craft projects, as well as pictures related to nature, animals, and geekiness. I think I’ve followed one person I know on there; otherwise I use this to connect with images and ideas, not with people.

Facebook: I use Facebook primarily with people I know. It allows me to keep in touch with relatives and friends in a way that I otherwise wouldn’t, given my aversion to frequent gatherings and dislike of phone calls. It’s ironic, though, because on the one hand this is the platform where I connect with people who actually know me in person, but on the other hand, it’s also the one where I feel the most constrained when it comes to sharing my opinions and activities. I have learned over the years that I DO NOT like long comment-conversations on Facebook, even if they are positive and not contentious. (If they are contentious, I will literally lose sleep due to stress.) And frankly, I have never seen a Facebook conversation actually sway someone’s opinion. I’m sure it happens, somehow somewhere, but I have only ever seen people dig in their heels, or just ignore the arguments presented.

And here is where I have a huge peeve with social media. It is true that many of these platforms are perfect for sharing one’s views on current events, and for helping to motivate activism. But that is not how all of us use them (or we might use some platforms this way, but not others). It annoys me to no end when I see people taking others to task for not posting about this or that thing, or equating “not posting” with “not caring.” What I always want to shout back at them is, “Not posting about it here does not mean I am not a) talking about it elsewhere, b) deeply concerned about it, and/or c) actually taking concrete action about that thing.”

So…I don’t know. I have thought several times about disconnecting from social media altogether, but I keep having second (and third, and fourth) thoughts. I really do feel the need to reach out to people sometimes, to share things going on in my life and see what’s going on in theirs. But I also know that it stresses me out, and it’s often just a distraction when I want to be focused on something else. And then there are the privacy issues, media manipulation, and deliberately-addictive qualities of social media outlets that are just flat-out problematic. Am I talking myself into quitting them now? Maybe. Let me go see what my Facebook friends think.

Work But Not “Work”

I realized something while I was driving to school for classes this past Thursday: I work really hard. Like, really hard. I had two journal entries, two longer papers, a test and a quiz due this week, and I got them all done early. This was on top of actually going to class, putting in all of my work hours, making progress on my novel, taking karate classes, working on crafts, and spending at least half an hour per day on my spiritual practice. Oh, plus walking the dogs and spending time with my spouse.

I actually do find time to relax; I played a video game for about two hours this afternoon, and I usually unwind with a movie or a good TV show in the evening. It’s just that there are a lot of things I like to do, and so I tend to get a lot of things done. But it takes a lot of work.

I am constantly, relentlessly, aware of the next thing that I need to do, prioritizing and reprioritizing as things come up during the week. (This is one reason I hate for my plans to be interrupted, or to have things scheduled at the last minute; it’s hugely disruptive to the map I already have in my head.) When I had that realization in the car on Thursday, my mind felt like steel: tempered and honed, cutting through unnecessary distractions. And I realized that it’s like that a lot.

So I work really hard, and I’m good at the things I do. But I am finally coming to terms with the fact that I am vastly unsuited to having a full-time job, or even a part-time job that takes a significant amount of energy. I haven’t had a full-time job since I burned out around the age of thirty; I cut my hours to part time before finally leaving that job, and I’ve only worked part time since. And even that stressed me out before I found my current remote position, which at least allows me to work from home and have some control over my hours.

Part of the problem is that both my energy levels and my ability to focus vary during the day, and from day to day during the week. That’s one reason I enjoy doing a lot of different things: when words are flowing, I can get highly absorbed in writing; when my brain is tired, I can make something with my hands instead. Working at a job where my hours are set and I need to do the same thing every day regardless of how I’m feeling or where my interest is focused is just…exhausting. Add to that the sensory and social aspects of an office environment, and it’s no wonder it’s a recipe for burnout.

What I’d like to do instead is build up ways to support myself with my own projects (really, for my husband and I to support ourselves with all of our various projects, since he’s also very creative and hard-working). It’s just slow going—and additionally hard when you throw in the need to have some kind of job(s) in the meantime. We need alternatives to the current structure of “work,” to be honest; whenever I try to think of ways to improve the employment experience of autistic people, it always comes down to, “Well, work just shouldn’t suck so much.” And that would be better for everyone.

Making Things

I really enjoy making things. That goes for creating intangible things like written works and computer programs, but I really find it satisfying to make something tangible with my hands. So I’ve picked up a number of crafting skills over the years, some more in-depth than others. I tend to cycle through them over a long enough period that I end up having to re-learn things when I return to them, but I also pick up skills fairly quickly so it works out fine.

Lately I’ve been focused on crochet; earlier this month I made a pair of fingerless gloves for an old friend I’ve gotten back in touch with, and another pair for my husband. I just started getting back into chainmail crafting as well. I’ve mostly made chainmail jewelry in the past, but I’m working on a new dice bag now, since I’ve also gotten back into playing Dungeons & Dragons on a regular basis.

Both chainmail and crochet can be very soothing, with repetitive patterns and attractive materials that I enjoy working with. They also both create textures that I find very pleasing to look at and touch. The pouch I’m making is formed as a widening circle, and the rings are small enough to form a dense weave that is essentially a flexible metal fabric. (They may not be the most efficient size to use, but I really like the effect.) The light glinting off the rings is also very soothing; my eyes keep getting drawn back to where it is sitting on the table, waiting for me to add to it.

At various times I’ve also enjoyed wood burning, leather working, metal stamping, and various types of jewelry making. I used to sell some of my jewelry on Etsy, but didn’t really put a lot of effort into marketing it. I’m actually thinking about reopening that shop soon, and expanding it to include examples of the different types of crafts I enjoy, as well as different themes that interest me. There’s nothing in there now, but I’ll share a link when it’s open. I’m calling it “Incurably Eclectic.” 🙂

Flat circle made up of interwoven stainless steel rings