The Life Autistic: Crowds are Terrible (but not Impossible!)

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“Hunter,” said my mom, “you would have hated this.”

We were trekking through the Denver Zoo a few weeks back; I’d taken my parents and Mo (my oldest) for a morning excursion – t’was a gorgeous day that needed a zoological touch.

Since my dad’s into reptiles, snakes, all the fun animals – we made a beeline to the Tropical Discovery exhibit, a cavernous building replete with tunnels and dankness.

This exhibit’s attraction was also its detraction: with it right by the entrance, it was subjected to bus load after bus load of elementary schoolers that day, class within class, children of all walk and ilk cramming, compressing into the exhibit, packing the floor and the walls full of scamper and cacophonous voice, echoes, agitations, exclamations —

Loud place, tight space. Uh oh.

The parents of autistic kids are nodding right now. Classic meltdown recipe here: overstimulation plus lack of release valve = explosion or implosion (or both)!

Hence, Mom said I would have hated this.

Would have.

I looked at her, managed a small smile, coaxed out a polite laugh.

“I’m good.”

/record scratch

/freeze frame

Yeah, folks – you read that right: crowds were a challenge for me. My mom remembers me devolving into a miniaturized, stroller-bound fire engine wailing at emergency levels when I was forced to endure a trip to a shopping mall (a lost artifact of the 80s and 90s).

Now?

I have mastered crowd control.

How?

Acclimation. There’s still a bit of latent anxiety, but I’ve done crowds and chaos so many times that I’ve just learned to roll with it. Try, try, and try some more.

Predictability. If you know you’re going to get wet in water, so to say, then it takes the shock out of it. That’s key! It’s also why I’ve gotten along well with whitewater rafting – I know I don’t go to stay dry.

Enticement. I like the zoo. I like concerts. I like events where there’s a thing. I like things I like, irrespective of crowd. Now, if I’m getting dragged through a TJ Maxx stuffed to the gills with fervid bargain hunters, then yeah, I mightn’t be the best there.

Crowds took work and take work, but now they do work.

Of course, they’re still terrible, even if tolerable. 🙂

The Life Autistic: A Place on the Spectrum

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“Aren’t autistic people like super geniuses who can recite pi up to a Brazilian [sic] digits but can’t tie their own shoes?”

“Well, there’s an autistic kid I know and she’s completely non-verbal. I thought all of them couldn’t talk?”

“How come you don’t have the kind of autism where you can play piano by ear?”

I’m not an autism expert. I just have experience with it. And with that comes a teeny bit of expertise, which I’ll share.

Autism is a spectrum of behavioral and communication disorders that span the gamut in severity and symptom.

You can read about the signs, manifestations, all the goodies from the National Institute of Mental Health here; it’s a decent summary.

The spectrum is broad: you’ll find some whose language abilities are exceptional and some severely impaired. Some who war with sensory input and some who just “prefer not to be touched.” Some who are off in their own little world and some whose own little worlds are in entirely different universes.

Each person is different, with symptoms and severity each their own. Some are affected to obvious degrees, others more subtle.

I am on the milder, high-functioning end of the autism spectrum.

Most people don’t know unless I tell them.

Same with many who reside on my side of the spectrum.

We’re different, but we blend in. We act almost normal enough to fool people — even ourselves — that we’re just like Everyman with a side of “oddness.”

But still, we are on the spectrum nonetheless.

See that “unruly” kid you might find at the playground, the one who is dashing up to other kids, ululating in some quizzical glee, wanting to play but can’t talk to them or initiate a game, or the one who melts down just because another kid interrupted his line of arbitrary pinecones?

And did you catch that “normal” human being who shows up to a party, obviously not wanting to feel left out, ambling through the crowd, small pleasantries here and there, eyes darting away from others eyes one to the next, fading off to the wall, going mild when the crowd goes wild.

Mute to acute, talented to timid, chaotic to curious, unique but similar, yet altogether still human: that’s the spectrum.

The Life Autistic: A Walking, Talking Dictionary

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“He’s very well versed in the language arts, but that can make it difficult for him to be concise at times; or at the very least, it can be a bit distracting. Jokingly, I feel like I have to have a dictionary close by when he has the microphone.”

Second-hand feedback from a friend? Paid review from a life-coach? Psychological assessment?

Nope.

Ever met someone who rattles off ten-dollar words, like a prolix braggodocio overreaching to project a modicum of erudition to . . . crap, I’ve done it again, haven’t I? 

If you’ve had the misfortune of listening to me long enough, you’ll hear me drop some sesquipedalian gem, some bloated word or other arcane, esoteric phrase. But it’s not some kind of semantic showoff, I swear!

It’s the autism talking, for many reasons simple and complex.

If I had a nickel for every time I was pegged to be “trying to sound smart,” I’d have a lot of nickels.

♫ I like big words, and I cannot lie. ♫

It’s that simple. There’s no front, no show, no putting on airs to trick people into making me look intellectual.

I enjoy the variety our language provides. I’m intrigued by new ways to say old things. I’m enriched by adding different colors to the vocabulary palette. It’s like practicing something new, toying and teasing with phonaesthetics, sounding out syllables to make intricate the mundane. I talk enough as is – why not make it enjoyable (for me, anyway)?

But that’s exactly what runs me aground at times. 

When I’m afraid of being dismissed as an awkward weirdo, hey, maybe I can be the smart awkward weirdo. Or if I need to gain some comfort in a conversation, where I fear my voice won’t be heard, hey, why not speak in a way where I’m comfortable? 

It might be nice knowing at least two synonyms for “purple” or not needing a thesaurus in a pinch.

But that quote above?

It was from one of my annual reviews.

At work.

A review that, y’know, dictates promotion and pay. And word choices that always tilted toward the upsized section of the menu? That didn’t help.

Big words, bigger problems. 

I can’t always “switch off” who I am. Please, do be patient: if I didn’t care about you or your audience, I wouldn’t be speaking. Just give me a little time to work my way out of the dictionary and into the thesaurus for you.