Three Things On My Mind

I started three separate topics for a blog post this week, thinking I could use one or all of them, but frankly none of them is really coming together. For each one, I started to expand upon my observations and draw conclusions…but then things just fizzled and I couldn’t find the point. So here’s just a glimpse into some of the things swirling in my brain at the moment:

1. I’m done with my school semester! I’m very proud of the work that I did in both of my classes, and I’m looking forward to my spring courses, but I also need a break. Luckily, I have a little over a month off — which of course I have already started filling with work on personal projects. I tend to be reluctant to talk about things still in the works, but those are proving very exciting to me, and I’m looking forward to having some time to dive into them.

2. Gift shopping sucks. I spend so much time trying to find something the other person would like, when their interests and tastes are so much different from mine (and screw you, Theory of Mind theorists who say autistic people can’t understand this) that it stresses me out that I might get it wrong. In fact, I get jarring flashbacks to times I was criticized (sometimes quite harshly) for not spending enough, or not choosing the right thing, or some other gift-giving failure. I recognize that this was entirely not ok, but that doesn’t make it easy to shake off. So gift shopping sucks…but at least it’s done for this year.

3. I’ve made some new friends this year, and reconnected with an old friend I hadn’t spoken with in a long time — but I’m wary. So many times I have thought I found a friend who really “got” me, when in reality, I got them. At first that can feel like the same thing, but in the end it’s not. Ultimately, it takes some time to let things build and figure out whether there is some mutual understanding building, or if it’s more uneven. But that’s what makes me wary.

So yeah, just a few things pulling my thoughts about (and of course there are more, in all sorts of directions). But overall I am heading into my long weekend feeling ready for a rest — which for me includes lots of reading, writing, programming, and crafting, now that I have a little “down time.” Hah!

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Interpreting Regulations

When I was in Air Force ROTC in college, we had a month-long training period in the summer between sophomore and junior year, called Field Training. This was roughly our equivalent to boot camp, so it was a fairly harsh environment with a lot of demanding activities and constant scrutiny and evaluation. Strict adherence to regulations was expected.

At the time I went to Field Training, I had very short hair, similar to how I wear it now. This allowed me to stay within regulations without a lot of fuss; if I’d had long hair, I would have had to braid or otherwise bind it so that it stayed above my collar, and given how little time we sometimes had to get ready in the morning, it was nice not to have to worry about that. But somehow I still got into trouble for it.

Now, the regulations around women’s hair are different than those for men, even beyond the fact that women are allowed to have long hair in the first place. Men’s hair has to be trimmed to stay above the top of the shirt collar, whereas women’s hair only has to remain above the bottom of the collar. That’s only about an inch of difference, but it matters when you have a lot of hair that you’re trying to keep up in a braid or a bun.

But I didn’t have to worry about that, right? My hair was trimmed right to the hairline in back, so I didn’t give much thought to keeping it off my collar; it just was off my collar. Or so I thought.

The cadets in Field Training were divided into flights; two flights made a squadron, and all the squadrons combined into a group. (This mirrors the organizational structure of the US Air Force as a whole.) There were cadet officer positions within each of these levels, most of which rotated to give everyone experience with command, but each level was also commanded by an actual commissioned officer who was supposed to provide guidance and discipline while overseeing our training. My flight commander was a woman whose name I can’t quite remember, so I’ll call her Captain Jones.

Capt Jones had short hair, too, although she kept hers longer on top than I did. I recall it as one of those wedge-shaped hairdos with longer, wavy hair on top, and very closely trimmed sides and back beneath. In any case, about two weeks into Field Training, she pulled me aside and told me I had to get my hair trimmed because it was touching my collar. “It still counts if it’s touching the inside of your collar,” she said. “It has to be above the collar, period.”

Now, this was patently false, as I’ve explained above. But there is a far-reaching commandment in the military: thou shalt not interpret the regulations to a superior officer. This includes quoting a relevant regulation to argue with someone senior to you, as well as quibbling with their interpretation of the same. It is considered insubordinate and disrespectful, as well as a form of making excuses.

I really hated this prohibition. If someone was wrong about something, it shouldn’t matter whether they were above me in rank or not: I should be able to (politely, of course!) point out their error to clear things up. Both my memory and my attention to detail were exceptionally strong, and since I worked very hard to make sure I learned all of the rules, I typically knew the regs that applied to me inside and out. So when someone else got them wrong, or (worse) accused me of getting them wrong when I knew I hadn’t, I wanted to be able to correct them. It was a matter of fairness to me, as well as accuracy; if I was actually getting something wrong, that was one thing, but being told I was wrong when I wasn’t was another thing entirely.

So biting my tongue was always hard, but it was frequently expected during my time in the military; strict hierarchies tend to require that. I did find ways to raise issues, however, and it’s a skill that has benefited me in the rest of my life as well. I’ll call it the Question That Isn’t a Question (QTIQ). In Capt Jones’ case, it went something like this:

“I’m sorry, ma’am,” I told her. “Was I wrong that it just has to be above the bottom of the collar?”

See, by phrasing things this way, I can bring up my understanding of the issue in a way that’s not confrontational. The hope is that this will jog the other person’s memory that, oh yes, that is the case, or at least open the door to further discussion that might lead to actually looking things up for clarification. It’s not really a question, because I already know the answer, but it allows me to challenge factual errors that I could not otherwise correct due to power imbalances. It might make me sound like I’m uncertain or timid, but I’ve been in enough situations where I really had to avoid pissing off powerful people, and it has worked well for that.

In this case, unfortunately, it didn’t work to change the situation. Capt Jones informed me that, yes, I was wrong, and I needed to go get my hair cut asap. So there was nothing else to do but say “yes, ma’am,” and try to figure out where the hell the barber was.

But she was still wrong.

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.

Putting In The Effort

I’ve written before about how much I’ve been enjoying my sociology class, and that enjoyment has continued as the semester has progressed. There are only three weeks left of classes, and while I’m looking forward to having a break, I’m going to miss this one. The readings were well chosen, and we’ve had some great discussions about them.

I haven’t liked my psychology class as much, but I attribute that primarily to the structure of it as an online class, and to frustrations with the textbook. It’s also a little too basic, given my earlier familiarity with a lot of the material; a psych class in high school got me hooked on learning about how humans work, and it’s been a fascination for me ever since.

That’s mostly because explicitly learning about this stuff has really helped explain so many things that didn’t make sense to me intuitively. I feel like I’ve always been something of a social scientist, making observations, forming hypotheses, and testing out different approaches. Other autistic people have expressed similar feelings; perhaps the most famous is Temple Grandin’s description of herself as being “an anthropologist on Mars,” trying to figure people out. Many of us analyze our every interaction, looking to crack the code.

The thing that strikes me most about that right now is how much effort we put into this whole human interaction thing. And it really is a ton of effort: the amount of processing that goes into even casual social interactions can be exhausting, and the mental strain that results is often a big factor in autistic burnout. Plus the time it takes to get things “right” can easily lead to social anxiety, as the cumulative weight of failed interactions starts to add up.

So why is there still a pervasive stereotype that says autistic people are not interested in social interaction? Certainly, some of us aren’t; we’re a varied bunch, after all. But as a generalization, it falls far short of the reality, and I think the sheer volume of effort we put into every interaction gives an indication of how short it falls. And given that some new research shows that neurotypical people are less interested in interacting with autistic people based on superficial first impressions and social judgments, it’s past time we stopped placing all the blame for social difficulties on the autistic side of the interaction. We are putting in the effort. I think we should get some credit for that.

Divergence and Diversity

There are two terms I sometimes see people get mixed up when talking about autistic (or otherwise non-neurotypical) people. Those terms are neurodivergent and neurodiverse (used as adjectives), or neurodivergence and neurodiversity (used as nouns). Others have explained the differences before, of course, but I wanted to walk through my own thinking on the matter.

Neurodivergent is used to describe an individual (or homogeneous group) whose neurotype diverges from what is considered typical. There are several ways in which to be neurodivergent: one might be autistic, ADHD, or dyslexic, to give just a few examples. Neurodiverse would then describe a group of people with a diversity of neurotypes represented.

So an individual would not be considered neurodiverse — she would be neurodivergent, and possibly part of a neurodiverse group. But if a group consists solely of individuals with the same type of neurodivergence, it wouldn’t properly be called neurodiverse. A monocropped field of some rare strain of wheat might be different from the norm, but it is still not a diverse ecosysem.

A similar distinction holds for the noun forms of the words: neurodivergence describes a particular neurotype that is different from neurotypical, while neurodiversity is created by the presence of multiple different neurotypes. So the former describes an individual neurotype, while the latter describes a group with more than one neurotype included (such as the human race as a whole).

As a brief aside into another language peeve of mine, it should become clear from considering these terms that not being autistic doesn’t necessarily make someone neurotypical; they could be otherwise neurodivergent. That’s the value of the word “allistic,” which explicitly means “non-autistic.” Neurotypical people are allistic, but not all allistics are neurotypical.

Actually, to pick a few more nits, it’s debatable whether any individual truly is “neurotypical.” Typical, like normal, is a statistical thing; the “perfectly typical” brain probably doesn’t exist in the real world, and certainly there are variations among people who would all be considered “neurotypical.” My therapist likes to use the phrase “more neurotypical,” which I think is more accurate, and I also like Luke Beardon’s references to the “predominant neurotype,” or PNT, in Autism and Asperger Syndrome in Adults. Treating it as simply that which is most common takes away some of the lingering associations with what is “normal,” which is usually a short step away from what is “proper” or “correct.” It still ends up being the baseline from which other neurotypes “diverge,” but at least it’s a step toward seeing our differences as part of a healthy, diverse human ecosystem.

Still Flowing

Well, it’s going to be another short-post week this week. I said last weekend that I expected this week to feel long, even though the workweek was short, but it actually flew by, and the weekend was no exception. I got almost everything done that I wanted to do, but now that it’s Sunday evening I don’t have a whole lot of brain space left for thinking up a blog post.

I’m actually really looking forward to Thanksgiving week, because my husband and I stay home, and it’s a nice long weekend to catch up on things. Things usually get hectic again after that, and now I’ve got end-of-semester stuff to look forward to, on top of holiday preparations, so…yay?

But for now, things are still flowing. Onward!

Water swirling down a waterfall and past bare rocks in late-afternoon autumn light.

Recharging My Batteries

…is not something I did this weekend. In fact, I need a weekend after this weekend, but I’m not going to get one. At least I do have this Friday off (for Veterans Day), so it’ll be a short work week, but I expect it to feel long instead.

I visited family this weekend, including going to a wedding reception for my cousin. I hadn’t gone to any family functions in a while, so it was good to see people (although everyone’s kids had grown roughly six feet taller, so I didn’t recognize any of them) but it was also very loud, the food arrived late, and everyone was very huggy. Focusing on conversations against a background of loud music and lots of other conversations took a lot of energy.

Overall, though, it was a really good visit — I got to spend time with my parents and sister, and the dogs were really well behaved. I even got some study time in, so I’m not too far behind my usual weekly schedule. I’m just wiped out now, after the three-hour drive home in a rainy drizzle.

Last week I was actually very good about being aware of my energy and anxiety levels, and postponed starting on a new work project that could have started on Thursday, because I had a lot of things to get done before heading out for the weekend. Of course, that project was postponed until tomorrow, so I can’t really take the same steps this time, but at least I did get a lot of things wrapped up before the weekend so they won’t be hanging over my head this week. Just the usual load of work, school, and personal projects — but I’ve gotten used to managing that, and I can find little ways to recharge as I go.

And that starts right now, with a relaxing rest-of-my-Sunday. Hope you’re having a good one! 🙂