Take the Box Away: How I Stopped Getting Triggered and Saved my Sanity

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I don’t watch a lot of TV anymore. Not only does my nearsightedness make this a good habit to avoid, but I’ve found this general stance plays into my autistic sanity — it’s precious, rare, and I need to preserve what’s left of it.

In my younger days, I’d consume and be driven by this one conservative news RSS feed. Poring over it day after day, week after week, I’d walk away “informed” and “more educated on current events.”

The invective became an addiction. The righteous indignation stuck to my bones. My soul would “sear” from this truth. My reflexive fist-clenching gave me drive. But more and more I’d feel the pain and tension.

The revelation finally came after being worn down raw:

I don’t like feeling this angry.

That was it. I no longer wanted to be set on edge. So I took the feed off my bookmarks, trading “being informed” for peace.

I was no less informed. But I was much less angry.

Instead of telling myself “don’t open that box,” I took the box away.

I’ve used a similar approach with my autism, knowing things that rile me up more than they would a normal person.

For those who are generally consuming an enormous amount of stress and panic from reading about coronavirus non-stop, I feel for you. I’ve been there. That’s why I don’t read things like that non-stop. 

Take the box away.

That’s a big thing. More often, I’ll find the adaptations for small things.

My own doorbell broke a while ago. I’m never repairing it. I like the lack of surprise.

Even seating choices, I’m making the effort to find a corner, end of a row, or somewhere where I know I won’t be triggered by proximity.

People with whom I have a difficult time feeling at ease? I don’t shut them off, but I make as much effort to limit contact, keep things high-level, and only opting in when I have to.

Take the box away.

Grinding myself up against things that are only going to sandpaper my flesh and soul down to bone exposed — I can only stand so much of that.

So here I stand against it.

You’re going to open that box if it’s there. I know I do, to my peril.

Take that box away.

We Were Made for This Challenge

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Would it be weird if I said that this COVID-19 pandemic has made my life easier?

Aside from the tiring marathon of working for the past (checks calendar) eighteen(!) days, I’d say my autistic routines have been warped, but they’ve not gotten worse.

I was reading The Ringer the other day, and this one quote jumped at me:

(W)ith no sports, no access to bars and restaurants and movie theaters, and limited interactions with other humans, millions of people are already incredibly bored.

That sound a lot like my life anyway. What’s the issue?

Growing up autistic and discovering more about it later on, I got accustomed to the lack of group entertainments, interactions with other humans, and everything else that people needed to stave off boredom.

I’d venture to say that, in some ways, this new era isn’t challenging us autistic people the same way it is for you.

We’re mostly comfortable in our own safe havens. We don’t have to negotiate the awkwardness of social touchpoints. Or touch! The pre-planning that goes into “talking and acting like a normal person” — totally off my plate. People obligations: gone. 

I’m not bored with this. Tired, sure, but not bored. 

This is the kind of challenge I was made for.

“Yeah, H2, that’s great, but I’m not autistic. I’ve streamed the entire Netflix catalog and crossed all the animals in Animal Crossing. I’m going crazy here.”

Our heroes in healthcare and essential business aside, I can imagine this might be tough on extroverts, neurotypical introverts, or most others trying to stave off this more isolated, temporary reality.

This has always been more of my autistic reality-reality, so let me share things I embraced then and still do now:

Create. If you’ve got this much time to burn, you can only do so much consuming. My outlet was and has been writing; if I had more time, I would then write more. In my younger autistic days, I wasn’t cool enough to know what was “cool” from a taste standpoint. Not much has changed there. But it was cool to create. 

Sharpen a skill. I didn’t have a life, social or otherwise, during my year of teaching elementary school. So I put my routine-driven nature into learning how to juggle. And I’m still good enough at it to wow kids at a party and double as an awkward clown. Same with cooking. Nowadays I try recipes or try making the same thing over until I’m eggscelent at it.

Develop expertise. Surely there are topics you love. If you’re saddled with downtime, pull a page out of Hunter’s autistic hyper-focus playbook and learn even more about something you enjoy.

I read another great quote: “If you can’t go outside, go inside.

The life autistic has been like that in many ways.

Aside from the actual, literal gravity of this situation for many, these are challenging times.

For us autistic people, there are ways we were made for this challenge.

 

We Aren’t Going Back to Your ‘Normal’

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People around the world are limiting social contact and social distancing.

Just like us.

No one is attending events, hitting bars, or flocking to large gatherings.

Neither were we.

Folks are self-isolating, staying from home, angling for remote work.

This is sounding familiar . . .

You’re adapting to a new normal.

But for autistic people, a lot of this is just normal-normal.

I’m not all that stressed about COVID-19 in general; while I’m prone to different stressors, my triggers are all more personal — and they’ve definitely been triggered in their personal effects on me. Work gets busy. Kids get cranky. It just snowed.

It doesn’t stop me from reading the commentary of the world, the tales of isolation, the struggles of distance, connection, being conscientious while close and yet far. The withdrawal from touch, seeing others, the new sensation of awkwardness in not shaking hands, hugging, or otherwise coming close.

But I’m feeling a stranger relief now.

Fewer visits, meetings, obligations. All the social readiness beyond work — it is no longer needed. No special reasons why I won’t be meeting people or entertaining others.

The playing field has leveled. More people can now empathize with me, and I with them. Remote work isn’t easy for many, but I find they’re in my boat now. Staying in on a Friday night? That’s an anomaly for many, but not for people like me.

But eventually, there will be a normal you all go back to.

But for those of us on The Life Autistic, have we ever really left?

The parties, bars, gatherings, nights out, hugs. It will ease its way back into the world. The torches of touch will be rekindled. We’ll have connected from afar, coming back together, connecting closer from hence.

You deserve this. You’ll need to go back.

We won’t be coming with you.

Remote Work Has Saved My Life

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A lot of folks are temporarily working from home nowadays. I don’t know how you can all manage that.

Not the working from home part. The temporary part.

I don’t see how people manage not to do this all the time.

Working remotely has pretty much saved my life as an autistic working professional. 

Commuting. Variables. In-person stressors. Impacts on routine. Exposure. Compounded social anxieties, interpersonal ambiguity, even the fact that I walk funny — you name it, I just wouldn’t have had as good a professional experience if I wasn’t able to work from home.

That would have deeply, profoundly impacted my ability to function, provide for my family, accommodate change — all of which have been crucial to my quality of life.

Here are some of the “lifesaving” benefits it affords us autistic people:

An “opt-in” vs. “opt-out” approach. People say I’m really well-networked at work, which is unbelievable. But it would have been impossible without the setup to be intentional about my meetings and meetups. I plan. I come prepared. I get to assess my own social bandwidth and spend it only when I need to. And only when I can.

Selective exposure. I’ll travel and work at one of our locations from time to time. It’s great, but it’s hard to sustain for me. I can struggle with walkups, impromptu meetings, passersby, or frankly — my own unspooled curiosity in finding a peer to get a convo going after eavesdropping something of interest.

Emotional shielding. In my career,I’ve had maybe three great days, a lot of good ones, and some profoundly bad ones. I spend so much time masking even when I feel normal that it’s nigh impossible to maintain that in crisis or legitimate duress. Remote work allows me to disengage, recharge, and reboot without compromising my “image” or comportment.

Communication. When you work remote, you write a lot more. That helps SO much. If you get me talking, then I get myself into trouble. It’s no fun. But if my primary working mode involves more writing, planning, careful thought into what I say: then that’s a benefit!

Freedom to stim. I haven’t written about this yet, because I’m saving it for later — but being able to stim or otherwise pace at autistically-frantic speeds is a wonder for my own mental soothing and health. Can’t exactly do that up and down the aisles at work . . .

Routine safety. I am a creature of habit’s creature of habit — everything from my workspace is ordered, clean (kinda), and arranged for me, by me, with very few disturbances or otherwise unexpected happenings. That kind of routine safety takes away a major stressor.

If you’re not used to working remote, I understand it’s not for everyone. Hang in there. Drop me a line; I’ll be happy to help and hear you out.

But for those of us on the autism spectrum: remote work can be a lifesaver for us. 

It has saved mine.

(Oh, and it probably kept me away from COVID-19 too. That’s nice.)

Social Distancing? We’re The Experts.

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I’ve been reading about the need for “social distancing” in the wake of COVID-19, where the CDC defines this as “remaining out of congregrate settings, avoiding mass gatherings, and maintaining distance (approximately 6 feet or 2 meters) from others when possible.”

Well, gee, if that doesn’t sum up the autistic experience in a nutshell, then I don’t know what does.

This is a challenging time for neurotypical people, where losing out on handshakes, hugs, and general human proximity is a distinct challenge. And it’s tough for most regular folks to practice social distancing subconsciously.

Unless, of course, you’re autistic: people practice it pretty well with us, and us with others.

We’ve lived a life where people definitely don’t go out of their way to close the distance with us. They just know we’re “weird” and “different” and subconsciously they’ll maintain that safe distance (approximately 6 feet or 2 meters) without being asked.

We can be cold, robotic, and unless you’re another robot, people don’t generally look to gravitate toward that.

It’s ok, though. It’s our life autistic. We’re used to this.

I’ve grown up greeting new people with a “hello” and leaving it at that. I already try to find the least crowded space in people spaces. Handshakes and hugs? Well, OK, I’ve gotten better with those, but there’s a quota.

I’ll wave. Smile. I can project to where you can hear me across a table. I’m not going to sit close. You don’t want to either. I’ve mastered a certain kind of “bristled” expression that dissuades contact. I’m not even sure if I do that intentionally now.

So if you’re having a hard time with social distancing, ask the autistic people in your life about it.

We have a lifetime of experience and expertise with this.

When this pandemic clears, go enjoy hugging.

We’ll wave and smile.

 

I’m Just Trying to Poach an Egg Here

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I’ve gotten incredibly good at poaching eggs. I can poach them better than most. I can poach them without custard cups. I can poach them better than Alton Brown (he cheats and uses custard cups, sorry).

The first time, I boiled the water and eggs over my pan and got angry. It took me a while before I tried again. This time, I chose to try. I’m autistic and resilient. It took multiple poaches, but I got this down.

Every morning, I poach three eggs.

I pour water into a small, shallow pan in which I drop a capful of vinegar. I use a spatula, and a slotted spoon, and I wait for a boil. As my water develops bubbles, I shoo those away with my spatula. I then crack my three eggs over the flat granite countertop and lay them into the warm water.

After I turn up the heat, I sneak the spatula under each of my three eggs, giving it some lift from that pan. They float in amorphous clouds. They poach until tender, oblong, perfect.

The other day, as I was cooking breakfast that morning, poaching three eggs, my wife asked:

“Is there any way you could make me a breakfast sandwich?”

I wanted to be able to say “Yeah, sure” but my autistic reaction is my core within my core. I tensed. I froze. I could feel my retracting in a way that drew back my shoulder blades and reared my neck back, like my body recoiled at the thought of violating what had been an otherwise precise routine of poaching three eggs.

Deep breaths. Willing my nerves to undo their fraying. Thinking twice before speaking. Finding some avenue that would somehow imbue this with grace.

“Andrea,” I sighed. “I . . . is there . . . what can I make you that will work with the ingredients that I’m working with?” 

I could only change this so much. Otherwise, I just couldn’t. 

I’m just trying to poach an egg here. Three eggs, to be exact.

In a stroke of fortune, she said she’d enjoy a poached egg with an English muffin.

I can do that, I thought. I’ll just eat two eggs instead of three. And I can make English muffins. Breakfast as usual, only less so. 

The eggs turned out perfect, yet again, as always.

Autistic People Literally Explain This – Are you Listening?

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Sometimes the hardest advice is actually the easiest.

One class loomed large in my college course sequence: EN 360 – Advanced English Grammar & Composition. People spoke of it in somber tones, shuddering, recoiling at the mention. Even English majors failed it or barely passed it.

The survivors painted graphic pictures of the coursework: labyrinthine diagramming extremes, freewriting exercises that would cripple your hand, and a gargantuan “annotated bibliography” littered with technical traps and bedeviled details that would papercut the work into failing.

After enough conversations, brave attempts at small talk, researching ahead of time, a colleague gave me the absolute best advice on how to pass and ace the course:

“Just do it exactly how Dr. Chapman shows you to do it.”

This guy had to be kidding. It couldn’t be that easy. It just couldn’t. 

Next semester, for the course, I took Dr. Chapman (as recommended), the school’s resident grammatical and compositional authority, a genteel Southern gentleman, rigid-but-kind, proper-yet-warm.

My first assignment drafts? Trash. He wasn’t pleased. Then again, that seemed to be the consensus for all of us.

But as he started to walk us through how we could revise our drafts, I heard that advice clicking into place. Dr. Chapman walked through the assignment, and wrote out the very words, sentences he was hoping to see in our next drafts.

This. This was it. 

He wasn’t making a recommendation. 

He was showing exactly how to do it. How to rewrite the assignment. The words, the sentences, the sequences.

I wrote them down, word for word. It clicked.

And where the next drafts also suffered for many, they did not suffer for everyone. Because some of us were in on the secret. “He’s telling you exactly how to do it.”

So what does this have to do with The Life Autistic?

We’re telling you exactly what autism is all about.

We’re explaining the why, explaining how we feel, explaining our triggers, elaborating on the challenges of our autistic experience.

If “Understanding and Supporting Autistic People” were a course, you could ace it just by literally listening to autistic people telling you about autism. The more people try to overcomplicate it, to render judgment, to debate the experience, the harder it gets.

But better understanding autism through autistic voice is that easyIt would make your life easy! It would do wonders for us!

Not everyone listens. Not everyone seems convinced that our first-hand narratives are enough to overcome bias or pre-entrenched suppositions or other personal obstacles.

Sometimes it’s easier to believe less than the best, or that something you don’t understand is just “bad,” or that we’re just trying to excuse our faults away. Or that experts about us know more about us and don’t care or see the need to value our voice.

Those are the people who failed courses like Advanced Grammar.

Because it can’t be “that easy” or “that obvious.”

But it is.