Ask an Aspergirl

Essays and poems about Autistic experience, mental illness, & (post-) ABD life

Tag: being socially different

Expressive mediums: In crayon, poems, and imagery

Intricate tree stims I write because it helps me make sense of the world. I’ve journaled for as long as I can remember, mostly to get the sea of words from my brain to the page before me. Writing helped me see my worried thoughts; they became real, even though I couldn’t slow them down.

I remember when I first started seeing my therapist, I could only discuss thoughts and ideas. Finding feeling words that described my inner reality was much harder. Help-seeking is incredibly difficult when you’re not even sure what you’re feeling beyond bad and muddled. I could talk about the emotional experiences of fictional characters, but struggled to talk about myself. We used the third person often in those early sessions:

“Imagine you as a nine-year old girl living in those circumstances. What would she have been feeling then? Maybe you can tell me about that.”

I discovered metaphors and imagery in the midst of finding long-forgotten feeling words. I didn’t know how to verbalize my emotional states, but I could write about them. Then I’d read aloud what I’d written during my womyn’s writing circle. I started going to circle during my first semester in the PhD program. What a rough transition. I thought I’d have an easier time after switching from an applied practice program to a research-oriented program. I’d forgotten how difficult transitions can be — and so I wrote about these experiences. I talked about utterly perplexing social scenarios and traumatic events by channeling these memories into poetry and then reading those pieces aloud.

These days, I’m making sense of what it means to be a self-recognized autistic woman with co-occurring generalized anxiety and lingering grief. I’ve cobbled together mental health supports and social networks on campus and at church, and yet being who I am is exhausting sometimes. I talked with my PhD mentor last week about trying to find my fit in a department where I feel expected to pass as typical.

“Most days, you’re ‘good’ quirky. That period when your [psych] meds weren’t working properly, you were concerning quirky. You’re in a field full of weirdos — just look around. If I ever thought you couldn’t do this [finish the PhD program], I wouldn’t have suggested you apply.”

After this conversation, I decided to let myself be more autistic. If I didn’t pass particularly well anyway — quirky (read as visibly autistic) on a good day — perhaps I didn’t have to try so hard to appear typical. I’ve learned to stifle my passions because they turn into monologues. I feel odd tapping my fingers when I’m overloaded. I started bringing my Tangle (a stim toy) to class and work. I sang to myself as I shelved and stimmed. I brought my 24-pack of crayons to church.

I’ve documented this process of letting myself be autistic in a series of poems and images that I decided to call stimmy art. I drew the tree and accompanying poem during a church service in which I felt triggered. Drawing trees is a grounding experience — a series of repetitive movements that becomes a vibrant picture. I can keep adding branches and foliage until I’m ready to stop.

In these expressive mediums, I let myself be what I need in that moment. I hope to feel decreasingly self-conscious when I engage in self-care. Laura Hershey — poet and disability activist — reminds me, “Remember, you weren’t the one who made you ashamed, but you are the one who can make you proud. Just practice” (1).

  1. “You get proud by practicing,” a poem by Laura Hershey — http://www.thenthdegree.com/proudpoem.asp

The self-criticism machine

The self-criticism machine is sneaky. I can hear its gears slowly turning as words enter my brain and escape out of my mouth. I remember my first session with Dr. W (therapist lady) and the preface I expressed:

You’ll notice as we meet together each week that I interpret everything as criticism. No, seriously — everything. That neutral piece of feedback you provided, I will somehow interpret as “you are a deeply fucked up person who needs to change everything about herself.” This is how my brain works. I have no idea how to control its functioning.

Let me introduce you to the self-criticism machine:  Insert neutral statement into its cogs and watch my automatic thoughts about myself (“I am wrong.” “I don’t fit.” “I’m going to get stuck.”) spin these words into a deeply critical treatise on how flawed I am. This will subsequently be reinforced by actually critical things people have said to me and I have internalized — the casually spoken remarks that have chipped away at my sense of self. Perhaps you meant to sound constructive. Maybe I even needed to hear what you had to say, but your words will stay in my brain as a deeply critical statement about my being:

“You are wrong.” “You don’t fit.” “You’re not trying hard enough.” “I can’t believe you missed that.” — rinse and repeat

Unsurprisingly enough, I’ve learned to slow down the self-criticism machine using a combination of cognitive-behavioral strategies and a series of affirmations:

“You are enough.” “That thing you’re doing is so hard. I know that, but look at you. You keep trying and working, even though it’s difficult.” “There is nothing wrong with you.” “You are known and loved — because of, not in spite of — yourself.” “There are people who care deeply about you. They’ve stated that both directly and indirectly.” “You can do this.”

In the midst of all of this, I wonder, “How did I become so critical of  myself?” Perhaps in having to pass as relatively neurotypical (or at least quirky), I internalized a sense of shame about who I am — an autistic young woman who is visibly different. I’m so afraid of not finding a place where I fit — maybe because it’s hard to keep pretending to be normal (whatever that means). Passing is exhausting. I think I’m feeling the effects of this process as I enter my mid-twenties.

I’m learning to refer to myself as autistic in everyday situations — to mention my autistic traits in my day-to-day conversations — and I’m gradually shedding this internalized sense of shame. As I tap my fingers together in the local cafe, I’m giving myself permission to stim when I feel overloaded. When I send my PhD mentor or chaplain friend blog posts I’ve written about being an autistic woman in an NT world, I’m sharing the person I’ve always been. When I openly admit how hard it is to engage in small talk, I let  myself acknowledge that I’m struggling.

It’s okay to struggle, and in these conversations, the kind people I know — the ones with whom I can share my vulnerabilities — remind me they’re proud of me. They tell me I’m growing and strengthening. I’m becoming the autistic woman I’ve always been. She is freeing herself from the gears of the self-criticism machine as she inserts love into its cogs.

Quirky kids among us (and the adults they become)

Troy and Abed in the morning“I hate being an oddball,” Meg said. “It’s hard on Sandy and Dennys, too. I don’t know it they’re really like everybody else, or if they’re just able to pretend they are. I try to pretend, but it isn’t any help.”

“You’re much too straightforward to be able to pretend to be what you aren’t,” Mrs. Murry said. “I don’t think I can do anything till you’ve managed to plow through some more time. Things will be easier for you. But that isn’t much help right now, is it?” (1)

“Kids we are calling ‘quirky’ are the ones who do things differently. They live with us in our houses — but they live in slightly different time zones, seeing the world around them through idiosyncratic lenses, walking just a  little out of step, marching, even dancing to the beat of different drummers.” (2)

As I think about my elementary and middle school years, I recognize I was a quirky kid. I read several years above grade level and in fourth grade, I found Madeleine L’Engle’s novels in the city library’s teen section. Reading A Wrinkle in Time, I related to Meg’s oddness and frustrations with her inability to fit in with her peers. She couldn’t pass for normal — as Mrs. Murry reminded her, “She was much too straightforward” for that to work. I collected big words and used them in stilted conversations in which I tried to show peers my passions (see attempt to start an Ubbi Dubbi club) (3).

I read constantly, and my all-encompassing interests shifted with available materials. Going to the public library weekly was a favorite pastime for a voracious reader like myself.  I remember being utterly fascinated with new religious movements  and being the only teenager who attended the world religion seminars at church. Back then, I felt more comfortable around adults than I did spending time with my peers. Maybe I could relate better to adults; maybe they were more accommodating to my quirky ways — maybe both.

I am a quirky adult: I’m rule-bound, utterly resistant to change, and prone to monologues about pop culture and feminism. I learned sarcasm as a second language and often miss the forest for the trees. I’m detail oriented and make connection between things that others don’t see. Sometimes when I try to describe my thoughts, I’m met with blank stares or exhausted looks. I have unconventional social skills; I’ve learned workarounds for my lack of attention to social nuance. I manage relatively well, but it can be an isolating experience. Maybe that’s why I return to A Wrinkle in Time when I’m feeling like an oddball — Meg (and Madeline L’Engle) understood me.

Quirky Kids is an informative book for parents helping their quirky kids  find their fit in their schools, families, and communities. These quirky kids “are the ones who do things differently” and have “skewed development, temperamental extremes, and social complications.” With support, neurodiverse children and adolescents  — who may experience attentional difficulties, hyperactivity, depression, or anxiety as well — will become adults who manage quite well most days (4).

They’ll have their off-days – when they’re feeling ashamed of themselves or overloaded with expectations – but they will cope, even thrive, as they grow into themselves. I am growing into myself as I find my own ways of managing  and surprisingly thriving.

“The world needs its quirky children, its quirky adults, its quirky minds, and its quirky sensibilities; for all the challenges they face, quirky people enlarge and enhance life for us all.”

  1. L’Engle, M. (1962). A wrinkle in time. New York, NY: Farrar, Strous, and Giroux.
  2. Klass, P., & Costello, E. (2003) Quirky kids. New York, NY: Ballantine Books.
  3. Ubbi Dubi – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ubbi_dubbi
  4. Autistic, Allistic, Neurodiverse, and Neurotypical: Say what? – http://crackedmirrorinshalott.wordpress.com/2013/04/12/autistic-allistic-neurodiverse-and-neurotypical-say-what/

Point, Counterpoint, Actual Point

This entry is for Point, Counterpoint, Actual Point: A Collaborative Blog Series, an idea proposed by Nattily,  who writes on her blog, Notes on Crazy.

POINT: People want me around.

COUNTERPOINT: Everyone is always so nice to me — they must feel sorry for me since I tend to worry aloud about things around them. I don’t know when people want me to stop talking or change the subject to something they would rather discuss instead. That must get tiresome after a while.  My pop culture references annoy people. People glaze over after I begin a monologue; I’ve only recently noticed that, though I have wondered if people find me odd.  Maybe I’m annoying. I feel so uncomfortable around other people sometimes, as if they want me to leave, especially when I have nothing in common with anyone in the room. I don’t fit anywhere.

ACTUAL POINT: My close friends have told me, verbatim, “We like having you around.” I’m kind and insightful. I listen and talk through people’s worries with them because I know what it’s like to feel ridiculously anxious about things. People are nice to me because they like me — not because they pity me. I’ve met people who are mutually nerdy about television programs and films — we’ve had long, productive conversations. There are places where I feel deeply uncomfortable, but that doesn’t mean there is anything inherently wrong with me. Sometimes I miss social cues, but that doesn’t  mean I alienate people. My friends understand that I’m trying the best I can to participate in conversations. I’ve found communities where I fit.

oh thats so nice

CONCLUSION: People want me around, and that’s okay.

Being a trapezoid

Some of us are trapezoids.

But some of us are trapezoids…

Dear readers, I’m currently working on another piece for the blog about divergent thinking — oh grad school, making sure this time of year is ridiculously busy — but meanwhile I’ll share a poem I submitted to friend for an event in which she’s participating. My womyn’s writing circle has been a source of comfort this semester. As I typed out this poem from my little brown notebook (finished my first one about a month ago and was pretty excited about that!), I was reminded of how writing spaces have been a safe havens for me this semester. Change is scary, and I’ve had plenty of it,  between the new program and the growing realization that I’ll need to find another job for next fall — oh applications, I have become quite familiar with you. I’m beginning to think one never really stops applying for things, be it schools or employment, even volunteer programs.

So here’s my poem about being different and realizing finding one’s fit (if that’s even possible) is a process: Trapezoid, a prosy-poem by Aspergirl

So my trapezoidal readers, go and be awesome. You are anyway, regardless of whether you believe that about yourself.

Divergent thinking and feeling ragey

So apparently this chart resonates with me more than I recognized at first...

So apparently this chart resonates with me more than I recognized at first… [also: click on the charts since I recognize how tiny they appear to be]

“Self-advocacy, especially face to face is very difficult. We might write like Shakespeare, but we’re just plain shaky when speaking up for ourselves.  She probably gets tongue-tied, angry, or cries. Thank god for typing! Real time self-defense is not our forte. She has to learn to self-advocate, but it will never be easy or second nature” (p. 66, Simone, 2012). This statement definitely resonated with me today, after attending an event and feeling particularly odd and out-of-place.

I went to a discussion forum today and found myself getting really frustrated with the speaker who was discussing women’s reproductive rights, although he was framing the issue in an incredibly anti-choice context. Oh dear readers, I’m socially liberal, but I’ll rarely discuss politics on the blog. I only mention this incident because it reminded me of how terrible my social filter becomes when I feel passionately about an issue and feel as if I have to speak up. I got shushed of all things, by some guy annoyingly enough who told me I was making him look bad as a fellow student.  That just made me angrier, although in the moment, I mostly just felt like crying — got the sense that this was just one more social scenario I’d somehow managed to fuck up entirely (oh… lizard brain, calm thyself, you are not the cause of everyone else’s frustrations — it’s okay to speak your mind as a sometimes angry, third-wave feminist).

Today especially - highlighted yellow section

<———– So this is what happened, I felt as if I “tend[ed] to receive less tolerance and more expectations from others because [I] appear[ed] more adept” and yet I “hate injustice and hate to be misunderstood and this incit[ed]  [an] anger and rage meltdown,” so I started to cry the minute I found some liberal friends who were standing on the opposite side of the room. The universe has a funny sense of humor: I wanted to sit by the door because I thought I might have to leave the forum early, and somehow, I ended up sitting at the Conservatives table. So inevitably, my socially liberal self was feeling a bit ragey by the middle of the event. I even joined a slow clap for funding early childhood education programs near the end of the discussion. That wasn’t awkward because I joined that contagion of hands asking for change, and then I honestly was beginning to give fewer fucks about what the Conservative dude trying to silence my awkward self was thinking. Although, I did apologize for making him feel uncomfortable after the event

orson_wells_Slow-Clap

— I know, half-hearted, “I’m sorry you were offended sort of non-apology,” but it was the best I could do at the time before I got to my friends and could freely sob for feeling so awkward – made it work the best I could at the time).

Well if nothing else, the experience reminded me that divergent thinking is useful. I joined a conversation between a group of retired educators, and realized that I wasn’t the only social liberal in the room. It was nice to talk with others about my passion for early childhood education (one of the topics discussed during the forum) and my own Aspergirl traits. They reminded me that, “We need divergent thinkers [like you, it seemed],” which at the time I found vaguely comforting. One of my friends who I saw on the way out also told me, “You don’t have to apologize for speaking up.” Sometimes when I feel like the oddest person in the room, I need these sorts of positive affirmations.

So on that note, thank you retired educators and friends for your kind words post-forum today.

Ford hugs Arthur Dent

I find others’ verbal affirmations of my sense of self feel like hugs for my psyche.

ReferencesSimone, R. (2012). 22 things a woman with Asperger’s syndrome wants her partner to know. Philadelphia, PA: Jessica Kingsley.

Blaming oneself in relationships and finding people who notice your strengths

change is like stepping off a curb...

It’s realizing you’ve stepped off a sidewalk curb, without even realizing it was there.

Let’s read through this scene together (by now, dear readers, you’ve noticed my love of emotional mirrors via popular culture) and then begin our discussion:

Scene from In Treatment – Sophie, week 8

Aspergirls seem to get so used to looking for environmental cues that they blame themselves when they miss them, especially when social scenarios end badly in the process. I  have a fellow Aspergirl friend who says that “change is like stepping off a curb without realizing it’s there.” Such changes, especially when we miss the cues leading up to them, are difficult to process emotionally. Many of us also have a history of trauma or social frustrations (e.g., bullying or fucked-up relationships) that make us feel powerless enough as it is, so we look for ways to enlarge our responsibility over a set of circumstances beyond our control, if only to feel a sense of power over them.

This reminds me of the passage, “While it’s true that some Aspergirls just don’t want friends and are happy being alone, the thing I have found in my research is not so much an innate lack of desire for friends, but an acceptance of the fact they will never have them” (Simone, 2010, p. 100). Simone also reminds us that “Doctors and diagnostic manuals are telling us that we are not cultivating appropriate peer relationships, but in light of all these things it makes sense” (p. 100). When I was younger, I remember feeling more comfortable around older people than my same-aged peers. They seemed more accepting of my all-encompassing interests and idiosyncratic language. I was the girl experimenting with big words, while wearing sweater vests.

I suppose the good news is that as we grow older, we can surround ourselves with people who tolerate, and even enjoy our quirky ways of being. I’m always on the lookout for people who love film or other kinds of media as much as I do. There’s a kind of love that comes in talking with someone who shares your passions (be it comic books, black-and-white films, or feminist zines, and everything in between).  Supportive people don’t make you feel like it’s completely your fault when you monologue for a while or say something completely out of context.

As I was reading Aspergirls, I also noted this: “Because of Asperger/fluid intelligence, I was able to make some unique connections that were beyond what I was being taught, and I was misunderstood” (p. 112). I definitely have had times when I’ve been on the receiving end of the side-glance of people mildly confused about how I pieced things together. My closest friends and colleagues take the time to understand how my Aspie brain processes information in seemingly strange ways. But I’ve also noticed that this sort of  meaning-making allows me to examine problems in novel ways. Those who notice my strengths have helped me to empower myself.

I remember one conversation in particular in which a friend asked me, “What would you think of a girl who’d been through all of that and was thriving in a Ph.D. program?” “She’d be pretty amazing,” I said. What stuck with me was her reminder, “You can tesser — you see things in ways that others can’t.” My friend knows I love A Wrinkle in Time, but her statement resonated with me in a way I hadn’t expected. Oftentimes, my friends help me to see past myself, when I have trouble doing so on my own.

Aspergirls, anxiety, and the therapeutic process

Reassuringly enough, Liz Lemon finds life to be perplexing sometimes.

Reassuringly enough, Liz Lemon also finds life to be perplexing sometimes.

This evening, I read a piece that Todd VanDerWerff wrote following the series finale of In Treatment. Every now and then his words will come back to me :

“Therapy, at some level, is performance art. It’s a deliberately created space where people come together to engage in an artificial construct meant to get at deeper truths but not really guaranteed to do so. Therapy only works if all of the players agree to the artifice. The second anyone realizes that it is, to some degree, bullshit, the whole edifice falls apart. That’s not to say that the idea of therapy is bullshit or that real insight can’t be gained from going into therapy. But therapy as we understand it is a construct built by therapists and patients over the course of a century, and the “roles” played by both parties are as firmly entrenched as actors on a stage performing to an audience. Deeper truths can be found within that construct, but both parties have to be willing to agree to the artifice. And that’s not always the case.”

As an Aspergirl, I find my life is filled with scripts, some I intentionally created to know what to say in a difficult situation (e.g., talking to a supervisor at work about a potentially problematic situation) and others that I inadvertently use  on a daily basis, such as in a coffee shop making conversation with stranger. I’ll find myself asking what the person sitting in the booth beside me is reading or studying and follow-up with questions based on those interests. I’ve gotten quite good at the process over the years, and yet I still wonder if I’m bothering them. That’s because inevitably I’ll lapse into a monologue about my own interests and then feel self-conscious. “Am I talking too long? Do you need to get back to what you’re doing? Do you even care what I’m saying?” Some of these statements remain in my sea of thoughts, while others I attempt to verbalize.

So how does this idea of scripts fit into the therapeutic process you might ask, dear reader? As an Aspergirl with an anxiety spectrum condition, I’ve been to a lot of intake interviews over the years. Such sessions consist of semi-structured interviews and behavioral observations, which in themselves are highly scripted. Therapy itself can be scripted as well, but it’s difficult for me when a therapist won’t acknowledge the reality of the situation. As much as I share, they’ll always be the ones guiding the session, asking the questions, and in turn, editing the script. It makes sense to me as someone with child and adolescent counseling experience and as a patient that, “Therapy as we understand it is a construct built by therapists and patients over the course of a century, and the ‘roles’ played by both parties are as firmly entrenched as actors on a stage performing to an audience.”

My anxiety alters the way I manage social scripts, both the ones I’ve created and those that are part of my daily experiences. When someone provides constructive criticism, my lizard brain automatically jumps to all the things I supposedly did wrong that day. My anxiety deeply affects my perceptions of the world, even as I take my psych meds and use the cognitive-behavioral tools I know so well.

Even in therapy, I worry about how I’m perceived. The waves of anxiety get smaller and smaller, but they never seem to go away entirely. And so I continue to hope that “deeper truths can be found within that construct” as I seek out mental health professionals who attempt to understand my experiences, but can also acknowledge that they will never fully understand me. That’s okay, good even. The women therapists over the years with whom I’ve enjoyed working have been amazing listeners who only asked questions because they wanted to better understand my story.

In hearing others’ stories we better understand our own.

At a certain point in your life in your life, probably when too much of it has gone by…

Phoebe: Look. I think about Alice falling. And I look down, and I get scared.

Miss Dodger: Yes

Phoebe: I don’t want to do those things or say those things. I just have to… except here. Everywhere else, I feel ugly.

Miss Dodger: I want to tell you something which may not make any sense. But I should say it just so that one day, you might remember it and maybe it will make you feel better. At a certain point in your life, probably when too much of it has gone by… you will open your eyes and see yourself for who you are… especially for everything that made you so different from all the awful normals. And you will say to yourself… “But I am this person.” And in that statement, that correction, there will be a kind of love.

Phoebe: I’m so scared.

Miss Dodger: We all are.

I’ve found Miss Dodger’s monologue from Phoebe in Wonderland  to be unbelievably comforting when I’m having a hard day, and I feel so odd and out-of-place. I first saw this film in the middle of my undergrad years, and it resonated with me in a way I hadn’t expected. It’s a narrative I’ve come back to on numerous occasions, for reasons I’m still beginning to understand. I was reminded of this scene yesterday when I basically outed myself (as a person with clinically significant levels of anxiety) at a staff meeting.

A fellow staffer asked, “Did you have too much coffee this morning [because I was talking more quickly than I usually do, and my conversational pace is already relatively fast]?” And so rather than using any of my standard workaround / “that is none of your business” redirective statements, I simply replied, “No, my psych meds are just leveling out.” Our interaction felt pretty awkward from my end, and my friend seemed disheartened that she’d pushed me to disclose my mental health status, but at the same time, it was nice to just normalize my experience. As I begin to tell my own story, I continue to be surprised by how terribly ordinary mental health conditions can be. A friend of mine says, “None of us have it together. Some of us are just better at pretending [to be normal – as Liane Holliday Willey would say] than others.” I get that now — maybe in a way I didn’t before I started attempting to be more open with others, as I share my own vulnerabilities.

Not to say the process of measured self-disclosure (right place, right time, and right person) or self-acceptance, for that matter, is easy, but it’s more manageable than I expected. So I’m an Aspergirl with an anxiety spectrum condition… That’s definitely not fun and can feel overwhelming at times, but I’m getting better at finding social-emotional supports.

These people remind me, “I will open my eyes and see myself for who I am… especially for everything that made me so different from all the awful normals. And I will say to myself… ‘But I am this person.’ And in that statement, that correction, there will be a kind of love.”

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