The Party Trick of Autism

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This weekend, we enjoyed a small and adorable birthday celebration for my small and adorable nephew, who turned a whopping one years old.

There was a more sour time in my life where I questioned the necessity of having parties for kids (even my own) who won’t remember birthdays before age five, but I know better  now. You can’t ruin it for kids at that age. They’ll love cake, toys, candles, whatever, and it really takes a lot of the long-term stress out. And if they don’t love it, they won’t remember. 

I don’t remember my early birthday parties. And since I stopped having them after I turned eight, that doesn’t leave a lot of them to remember.

But these days, I get to lean into my clever autistic trick to where others enjoy their parties more while I enjoy less of the party.

I’m not always social, I’m pretty low energy, I don’t add to the chaos, and I’m unusually fastidious. That’s a great combo for me, especially because no one else has it.

Because of that, my party trick is disappearing and making things vanish.

When we host, I’m cleaning. Or I’m picking up dishes as soon as people finish with them. Half the time, I’m at the sink, because I don’t want to deal with the aftermath during the aftermath.

When things go awry, or dogs go wild, or kids go nuts, my number is the first called. I’m not essential, and I’m not the life of any party. Until you need someone to put out a fire, plug a leak, or otherwise tackle a problem. Then it’s at that point my autistic social detachment becomes super-practical attachment; the party can go on while I’m off either luring wild animals or wild children away with peanut butter so a photoshoot can go off without being intruded.

Of course, I might enjoy a gathering here or there on the rare occasion I’m unencumbered with other ancillary duties.

But more often than not, I’m the heat sink, the heat check, or otherwise the Winston Wolf of the party scene — not so much to enjoy it, but to get rid of the mess and let others enjoy it better.

It could be worse.

Down, not Out: Helping Your Autistic People Back Up

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My youngest daughter, Zo, just turned two. Coming from a household with talkative parents and a loquacious older sister, she’s been quick to getting the hang of sentences.

One of them is my new favorite:

“I love you, dada.”

The greater surprise isn’t that she says it. It’s when. She knows and senses exactly when I need to hear it. She just blurts it outright, often with a little toddler hug. I never ask.

We autistic people can’t just “ask for help.” We’ve long since learned that nature punishes the weak, and we don’t elicit the kind of natural empathetic response from others because we’re different. 

But being creatures of machine and routine, we’re often more down than out. Though we’ll rarely ask for it, here’s how to help us up:

Be kind in response. We don’t choose to be down. We’re autistic, not emotionally masochistic. If we had a say in the degree to which things affected us or torpedoed our mood, we would avoid that, just like you.

Be patient. We’re routine driven, and bizarrely, most things clear up once we can bounce into routine. Personally, I have more bad days and very very few bad weeks. That’s not the case for all of us. There are events, times, and seasons – there are no quick fixes.

Take the straw off our back. Disappointment, depression, drawdowns: they are an additional cognitive and emotional burden. You probably can’t fix it. But you can fix other things. It won’t be quick, but it lightens the load on the road recovery. Shoot, even having my sink cleared and the table set for dinner — people doing things for me that I’d normally do — is a help while I cope.

Give space to engage and disengage. We are going to process negative emotion deeply and differently each time. Sometimes I just need to vacate my mind and not choose the words; I appreciate knowing that I am supported in disengaging. Sometimes I need to engage and untangle that ball of dour yarn. Choice is powerful in coping.

Don’t expect fixes; do accelerate healing. Some of the things that help me the most in a funk are meaningful adjustments to routine: walks to the park, dining out, low-effort little joys. But not if I have to be happy during the event or afterward. It’s like setting a bone: the break isn’t healed, but it’s in a place to heal. It will happen.

For my neurotypical audience: invisible differences, disabilities, and afflictions are hard enough on their own, and it’s hard for you to support us through them. I get that.

It might not “make sense” for us to go from incandescent one day to intractably dolorous the next. Or even hour to hour.

It’s like having a giant, decaying log of poison wood tied upon your back, sometimes suddenly: it’s heavy, and it’s toxic. While it might rot down eventually, it is dank and overbearing right this minute. 

Sometimes we need you to bear the weight for a second. Or to bear it with us. Or to tell us to hang on and stay strong while you handle the things we can’t at the moment. Or to help us find a place to set it down while we rest. Or to acknowledge that this going to be awful for a while, but that we can do other things, despite the log. Or just mention that it looks bad, and heavy, but that you’re there, and you see how much it is to carry.

Or to share a taco or two. Tacos make everything better.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Where Days in Autism Turn from Good to Bad

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Most days are good when they start good and don’t deviate from that.

Some days are bad: rarely do they begin that way, but once wrecked, they are hard to un-wreck.

Our days are trains on tracks. They’re not dune buggies on sand. They’re not cars. They’re not bikes. They’re solid, sequential, massive, linear locomotives. They’re not nimble.

The good days on the Life Autistic are a matter of keeping the train on the tracks.

We generally derive a certain kind of functional health, anxiety reduction, and mental acuity from predictable routine, limited variation, actively reducing disorder through discipline, and healthy personal and emotional inputs.

“Ew, gross…routine, discipline, you’re SO BORING, Hunter!”

Shut up.

Just because you work to execute a plan doesn’t mean it’s boring. Try commanding a space mission. It’s incredibly regimented, but it’s far from boring. It’s just executing on one thing at a time.

But that’s where things can differ.

Moon missions, battle plans, football plays, whatever: there’s a procedure for when things go wrong. I can’t always have that procedure.

The bad days on the Life Autistic are when that train falls off the tracks.

Your car can veer off the road and climb back on. A dune buggy on sand needs only find the general path forward. But once a train is off rails, it’s going to stay off for a while.

And that’s what people struggle to understand with our autistic experiences.

Sure, we’d love to “shake it off” and keep moving and forget. But that kind of ‘resilient amnesia’ doesn’t always work. We’re reacting to new variables, trying to plan on the fly to compensate, to focus — it’s a crusher at times.

There are no magic tricks that work. Gratefulness, positivity, mind hacks — they’re often too emotionally inauthentic to add to our already difficult stance of maintaining some level of emotional and social masking anyway!

The worst bullets are the unhealthy emotional and relational inputs. We’re not robots. We have deep feelings. We don’t take kindly to abuse. I’m a grown man and I still get bullied by malicious, unrepentant people. It is hard to navigate these social roads, and it’s only harder when someone rams their spiteful vehicle into mine.

Despite the days going bad, there are things that make the next days better.

The next day.

I am fortunate in that I’m not as affected by longer term depression — other autistic people are, and this magnifies the challenge. That is an entirely different battle.

But for mine, each day is a new routine to be worked through and lived without derailing. More of those are good.

For our experiences, we benefit from how you help mitigate chaos, keep some order, and be kind enough in a way that will keep our train chugging along on the rails.