Long Week

Time for another blog post! And…I’ve got nothing. Seriously. My mind is blank.

Actually, it’s more like my mind is full, too full of schoolwork, work work, household tasks, and miscellaneous reading, to the point where nothing coherent is, um, cohering. It’s been a busy weekend after a busy week, so now I am going to take the dogs for another walk on this gorgeous fall day, and then play video games before starting all over again with another Monday.

Hope you’re having a good one!

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Outside My Comfort Zone

I’ve been wearing my MIT class ring again lately, as a reminder to myself that I Can Do This. And by “this,” I mean…everything. Everything has just been a lot lately, including a lot of new things and new challenges that I have taken on. So a little reminder that I have met some pretty big challenges before has been welcome.

And to be honest, I need that reminder in part because I have a tendency to underplay my past accomplishments, especially if they don’t have a direct and obvious impact on my present circumstances. Yes, I have a physics degree from MIT, but I’m not really using it right now, so it’s almost like I forget about it. And it’s not even completely true that I’m not using it; no, I’m not working in the field of physics, but I use that education every day. I use it when I employ critical thinking, and when I confidently dive into a new learning experience. That degree taught me how to think, and (being me) when am I ever not thinking?

Similarly, I have a black belt, but it’s from a school that doesn’t exist anymore, and I’m not actively training right now, so I almost forget about that, too. I think of myself as someone who has been a martial artist, not someone who is one right now. But the fact is, my experiences in the martial arts have shaped huge parts of who I am and how I move through the world, and I do still use the lessons from it that go beyond the physical training aspect. It is part of me.*

So this post is to tell myself that I can remember these things when it seems like a big deal just to leave the house and deal with people, or to make a phone call, or when I am waiting on pins and needles for a reply to an email that might not have been received well. I can take on new challenges with the knowledge that I have met challenges before — and when I have days where everything is too much of a challenge, I can take a day off without feeling guilty.

And lastly, when someone sanctimoniously suggests that I “just need to step outside my comfort zone” on one of those days where things are just too much, I can reply, “Whelp, I live outside my comfort zone. Why don’t you try that for a while and tell me how it feels?”

* Also, I am about to try out a new karate school just opening in my town! I am very excited, because it’s a style I have enjoyed in the past, and the instructor is happy to let me just learn without worrying about rank, since I have that black belt from a related style and have trained in his before. I am really hoping it works out, because I would love to be training again in a way that makes me happy.

What Are My Interests?

I never know how to answer that question. Granted, I dislike open-ended questions in general, but I find I particularly freeze up at that one. And when it comes in a context related to autism, I feel doubly awkward about it, because I find people expect me to have a narrow range of obsessive “special interests,” but I’m just not like that. As the name of this blog implies, I’m…eclectic.

At the highest level, I’d say that I like to learn things, and I like to create things. A look at my shelves will show numerous books related to:

  • psychology and sociology;
  • history;
  • politics;
  • religion and spirituality;
  • martial arts;
  • mythology;
  • nature: birds, mammals, insects, trees, minerals, climate, astronomy, and more;
  • technology and programming;
  • arts & crafts;
  • gender;
  • physics;
  • and of course, autism.

Considering that many of those are umbrella categories, in which I have multiple sub-interests, that’s really just scratching the surface.  And that’s not counting the science fiction, fantasy, thrillers, poetry, and comic books I enjoy.

My creative endeavors end up spread out all over the place, so even I forget about some of them. I recently wrote down a list, though, because I was brainstorming how I could bring all of my creations together, and where I might do that. The list includes:

  • writing fiction, poetry and essays;
  • photography;
  • increasingly, videography as well;
  • making jewelry, mostly chainmail and beads;
  • crochet, including amigurumi;
  • drawing (still rather rudimentary, but improving);
  • making music;
  • programming;
  • cooking increasingly delicious meals;
  • and miscellaneous crafts (leatherworking and woodburning, for example)

So what are my interests? How can I possibly answer that question?

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.

Conferences And All They Entail

Yesterday, I attended the AANE (Asperger/Autism Network) 2017 Spring Conference, which was titled Hiding in Plain Sight: Shining Light on Women with Asperger/Autism Profiles. It seemed primarily geared toward professionals working with people on the autism spectrum, but two of the keynote speakers were autistic women, and there were quite a few of us in the audience as well.

VoxVisual wrote up an excellent recap at her blog already, which is great, because I am still too wiped out to be that organized. <grin> And honestly, I don’t know that I would have too much to add when it comes to describing the speakers, the venue, and the overall experience. So go read her summary, if you want to get an idea of what the conference was about.

(And yay, we got to meet! 🙂 That was really cool, even if we had to postpone dinner plans due to exhaustion.)

But while I don’t want to duplicate her efforts in recapping the conference, I do want to write about my subjective experience of planning for, getting to, and physically attending it. First of all, I was selected to read an essay I had submitted, as one of six personal accounts of being a woman on the autism spectrum. (You can read that essay here, if you like.) So even before conference day, I was interacting with the organizers to polish up my essay and make sure I was ready to present it. The volunteers I emailed and talked with were very good about setting expectations and answering all of my questions — clearly they (as women on the spectrum themselves) were aware of some of the anxieties that might arise.

The week before the conference day, I made sure to print out all of the information I would need — directions, schedule, a clean copy of my essay to read — and make a checklist of other things I would need to bring. I wanted to bring plenty of water, for example, and I would be bringing my own lunch. Lunch was included in the conference registration, but having recently cut wheat out of my diet, I was concerned about the gluten content of the sandwiches offered. Besides, I figured the day would be stressful enough without subjecting my body to unfamiliar food (which doesn’t always agree with me).

Google Maps told me the drive would be about two hours each way, but I would be driving in toward Boston (and back out again) around rush hour, so I gave myself extra time. It ended up taking me about 2 1/2 hours each direction; I left home around 6 am and got to the conference center (after parking and making my way through several wings of the hospital building) a little after 8:30. The first speaker didn’t start until 9, so that was perfect.

Check-in was easy, but walking into a large crowd of people outside the venue was disorienting. And it wasn’t just the people: there were tables with food and coffee, other tables with pamphlets and fliers for the organizations who put together the conference, and too many other things to look at. So I went in to find my seat; at least I knew I was supposed to sit down in the front, and when I got there someone recognized my name tag and directed me to a seat.

Since I was early, though, I stood back up to see if I could find Vox. We had told each other what we would be wearing, and shown each other pictures, so this turned out to be easy. 🙂 I felt like we immediately clicked, and spent the rest of the time before 9 chatting about several different things. (As would come up later at lunch, with some other women, socializing with other Aspies/autistics can be soooo much easier!)

I went back to my seat just before 9, where I met a couple of the organizers and some of the other speakers. I felt a little exposed sitting in the front row, right in front of the podium where most of the speakers would be standing (and therefore where the camera for the live-stream would be pointed). This didn’t become evident until the second speaker, though, because the first was himself being live-streamed from the UK. Being in the front row also meant I was looking up most of the time in order to see the slides, or up at a different angle to look at the speakers’ faces. The venue was fairly bright, too, and sometimes the sound was too loud, while other times it was too quiet.

By the noon lunch break, I had finished all of my water (I was very warm for most of the day, as well) and was developing a low-level tension headache. My neck and shoulders were tight, something that had crept up on me without my really noticing it. I think it was all of the ambient noise from the crowd — people turning pages as they followed along with the speakers in their printed slide packets, occasional whispered conversations, people moving around. These are the same sorts of things that had stressed me out while working in an open-plan office, things I didn’t even consciously notice until I learned I was autistic and tried wearing noise-canceling headphones. I guess I still don’t notice them until they’ve built up into tension and pain.

(As an aside, it was interesting to read Vox’s observations of the reactions from the audience, and what things seemed to surprise or interest — or upset — them. Since I was in the front row, I didn’t get a perspective on that.)

Lunch conversation was great, and it was good to get some food. (I also snagged some more water.) It probably wasn’t the best idea when I suggested we seek out a table in the larger hospital cafeteria to eat — it was busy, and sometimes hard to hear each other over the dull roar — but it wasn’t clear where else we could have settled down to eat. The rooms near the conference venue were already pretty full by the time we all got our food.

Settling back down for the afternoon, I was already pretty fried. As I mentioned earlier, I was really warm during most of the day. It was a very cold day, but I thought I had dressed in a way that struck a balance between keeping warm outside and not being too bundled up inside. Apparently I should have worn something a little lighter. It also didn’t help that I was scheduled to present my essay in the mid-afternoon, so I had most of the day to be nervous in anticipation of that. My nerves weren’t too bad in the morning, but during Liane Holliday Willey’s talk after lunch, it was all I could think about.

I also felt like my voice was going to be hoarse from all the talking over lunch and during breaks — but I didn’t want to drink too much water before I had to talk, because I hate the feeling of having to pee while trying to focus on something else. So I decided it was probably for the best for my mouth to be a little dry; it would probably help my voice sound a little clearer than if I had too much moisture.

(Seriously, these are the logistical practicalities that run through my head all the time. All. The. Time.)

In the end, I was very happy with the way my presentation went. My knees were shaking, but my voice wasn’t, and I had a podium on which to steady my hands. After I was done, I was very happy to be sitting in the front row, because I only had a few steps to walk before I was back at my seat and out of the public eye. And I definitely felt my shoulders relax — though not completely — when it was over.

Maybe because of that feeling of finally-now-I-can-relax, I kind of floated through the last talk of the day. It also was a bit less relevant for me, as it related more to parenthood, but I did enjoy some aspects of it. Mostly I was just getting hit by the cumulative weight of all of the sensory input of the venue, the social interactions during lunch and breaks, and the cognitive processing of listening to all of the talks, as well as all of the logistical planning required to navigate through the day. I managed to have a few more — really excellent, I have to say — interactions after the event was over, but yeah, I was very much done.

My brain was foggy with all of that by the time I left, and I still had a 2 1/2 hour drive home — over half of it in the dark. At least in this direction I was leaving the city traffic behind, and most of the night driving was on familiar terrain. I had listened to an audiobook on the way in, but by evening I was talked out and needed music. So I put all of my Dar Williams albums on shuffle and sang along with her for the whole way home. 🙂

Overall, this was a great day, and I enjoyed the conference immensely. While I think there may have been some ways in which the venue might have been improved as far as sensory issues — Vox mentioned several in her post — I also feel like a lot of the things that eventually wore me out were just…going to wear me out. I also think I might have been better off sitting somewhere in the back for the morning, and only down in front during the talk right before my presentation. I would have felt a bit less “on display” and also would have been farther away from the epicenter of all the light and sound.

I feel like there is so much more to say — for example, I really, really enjoyed listening to the keynote speakers and the other first-person accounts, and think they provided a lot of good information and perspective, especially to those in the audience who weren’t on the spectrum. But I wanted to write this up as an example of how…involved it can be to attend something like this as an autistic person. And now I’m going to enjoy a nice quiet weekend to unwind, because I can. 🙂