Ask an Aspergirl

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

Tag: self-acceptance

A love letter to the Autistic internet

“Some people will never understand the kind of superpower it takes for some people to just face the day.”

My day begins at 6:30, sometimes 7:00, with worries and unsolvable queries. With self-doubt. With wondering how I will ever get through. My cat sits on my chest as I check the text messages I’ve accumulated over the night — from friends’ tweets across time-zones. If only people understood the lengthy space between waking up and getting up. Wishing for several more hours rest. Letting my chest rise and fall with orangey tabby sitting on mountainous blankets.

Some people will never understand — but they do — to the uninitiated, they are my disability support group — but they are more than that. My not-at-all imaginary friends. Across the world. And yet only 140 characters distance from me. We are broadcasting our breakdowns, meltdowns, shutdowns. Celebrating long-fought for diagnostiversaries with cake. I’ll save a piece for you — eat a slice in your honor. This is the Internet.

As we begin #TalkingAboutIt — sharing our moments of falling apart again, sitting in yet another waiting room, for a diagnosis we have long recognized. But these #onhere understand the anger of being misunderstood. How microaggressions are larger than they appear. We survived April together. Then our Day of Mourning. We are unicorns, Loch Ness. Museum curators of our own lives. Never self-narrating zoo exhibits.

We are our own — no need to explain, #onhere. We are a 24-hour clock, a news-cycle of disability, not-fitting, ill-fitting — creating our own space to be ourselves entirely. Coming out to become ourselves. Knowing no other way, we have made our own. A safety net in cyberspace. In Autismland. There’s a Twitter for everything: disabled, academic, feminist, some faith, grad student problems, me. #onhere together.

In a space where we name our own mile-markers. Adulthood is a process. Independence is an illusion, we remind ourselves. Sometimes we even believe our own stories. In this space, we have a shared story. Created nonfictions. Known and loved — because of not in spite of — I repeat to myself. Tell others what is true. This I know. Because we are not alone, here together. Stories typed into the lines of characters before us.

Here in this place — yes, we are, fitting, belonging. Together — here in this creative space of stories.

An unexpected visitor

Seedling

Drew McLellan (CC BY-NC 2.0)

This weight. This heaviness. This fog. An unexpected and yes, unwanted, visitor. I always thought depression would have more feelings. But this wait. This living in lack is too much for me. Bed is a respite from the drudgery of everyday life. Of pushing myself to do — again and again — until I cannot.

Being so tired all the time is tiring. In the exhaustion of being. In lack. In need. Overly anxious. Too much. Not enough. For me, for them — to get on with it. Shame is a weighty burden.

I want to give you up — a backpack of rocks placed on the shoulders of a small girl, now adult.

I long to molt. To shed this shame. A cocoon for wings — to leave it all behind. But shame is elusive — and it does not tolerate metaphors. It lingers in the broken places — my broken places. It hurt; I know.

Shame rips and tears and weighs me down. Berating me for this exhaustion. Too many words for you — for me, until there was only a blankness. But my words are slowly returning. To page, to life. I am returning to myself. Slowly.

Impatient with myself. This in-between hurts. I am restless for spring. Seeds to ground — looking for tiny sprigs of hope. To see. To savor. To water, then fertilize the soil with pills and words. As a rain of tears speckles the ground. Glittery raindrops appear beneath the soil. My roots and bones ache buried underground.

Healing is hard and I am impatient with time and this artful chemistry, when looking better comes before feeling better. Healing is hard, I remind myself yet again. And growth is slow — and often exhausting. Be patient little sprouts.

Take hope. Then leave aphorisms behind. Find your own words for being alive again. Roots run deeper still, even with little support. We grow so slowly. And patience, like hope, is hard to sustain in dry ground. But still, we hope. Because the absence of hope dries the soil. Seedlings need rain and fertile ground. A plan for living, being, existing. They cannot sustain themselves. Or live on hope alone.

And so we sit with these seeds buried deep in earth. Waiting for spring to arrive here.

Metaphors for self-compassion: The imaginary figures eating my cereal

I reach for elaborate metaphors to describe emotional experiences I’m trying to understand. Shame becomes a monster, crouched by my shoulders. Anxiety is the neighbor who somehow wandered into my house and insists on eating my cereal, while sitting comfortably on my couch, refusing to leave. Self-criticism becomes an enormous iron machine fueled by the thoughtless words of others and my own self doubt. Metaphors help me to fill the gap between the hurt of these experiences and my lack of words to describe just how badly I feel then.

I’m practicing not judging myself when I’m being self-critical and thus ashamed of myself — into infinite loops. My therapist calls this practice, self-compassion — to look at myself like I would a friend that’s struggling or a fictional character whose frustrations mirror my own. It’s easier to be less judgmental towards people who aren’t me. Self-compassion is noticing the strength of my own history — the resilience I’ve shown as I’ve managed the anxiety and learned to care for myself emotionally.

This is hard, and it hurts. Yes, it does. I suppose that’s how the growth process works. But it will come to hurt less as you practice accepting this current experience — even when it hurts, especially when it hurts. Because fighting against it and assuming you’ve done something wrong to encounter these frustrations hurts worse.

This is where I become increasingly self-critical. Because even mindfulness is a difficult practice. To see and acknowledge without judging myself. To be there in the hurt without blaming myself for causing it. I realize it’s easier sometimes for me to blame myself because at least then, I have some (perceived) measure of control. But that’s not true. I am not to blame for the worrisome nature of the period between written exams and oral exams — certainly not for the ambiguities of dissertation proposals and post-grad queries.

Often I feel like I should be doing more, assuming that would quell my anxieties. But I’m learning to recognize what I’ve done, the growth I’ve already experienced. This is so hard, but I keep practicing. Working through meta-shame (shaming oneself about feeling ashamed) is a lengthy process.

I’ve been having a hard time lately — with sleep and with seeing past the stresses of graduate school hurdles. This underlying fear that I am not enough, that I’ve failed to anticipate some trait in myself that will be my undoing is so difficult to shake. Sometimes I borrow the hopes of others: the reminders from my PhD mentor saying that I’m a good writer who can finish this program.

Perhaps hope is replaying that imaginary tape — the one stating, I will eventually be okay, until I come to believe it. To imagine a thriving space that hasn’t arrived, where a future version of myself is both making and finding her fit. It’s imagining how I’ll be enough and valuing the unique vantage point I have as an Autistic woman researching autistic experiences.

For now, self-criticism and shame are my neighbors. They sit on my metaphorical couch, while they make pointless comments about the television programing and complain my cereal is stale. I get off the couch to pour my own breakfast, learning to coexist with this unwelcome company. We glance at one another as my day continues.

Being patient with myself is a process.

Seeking narrative and secondary characters

Last week, I found myself in my therapist’s office, trying to explain why oral exams are utterly terrifying. These comps feel like a manifestation of my disabilities — the delayed auditory processing and pragmatic language impairments — not a demonstration of everything I’ve learned in the PhD program. There’s a gap between my written and oral language, between the thoughts in my head and what I’m able to express — especially when I get anxious. In these moments, I feel so lost — stuck in a space I’m only beginning to understand.

I’m learning to be visibly Autistic and slowly finding allies in my department. The professors who will acknowledge their own vulnerabilities feel safest. In these conversations of invisible disabilities, I feel less alone. We reach a point in these talks when I realize I could continue to remain at a professional distance — talking about my research, not me — instead of showing myself. It feels like a painful kind of show-and-tell. These are my struggles; I’m learning to live with them. How can you help?

The few professors I’ve told I’m autistic, those with whom I’ve shared my narrative, have been surprisingly supportive. So far, my allies consist of special education professors and a statistics professor. In these offices, I feel heard — like what I’m saying makes sense, that it is true, that the supports I’ve requested are reasonable. They are making room for me.

This past week has been a series of phone calls and meetings with helping professionals who will support me in the accommodations process for Orals. A few days ago, I had my intake interview with a student clinician at the University Assessment Center; I began the 4-6 week waiting process for an ASD evaluation. I met with the accommodations coordinator at Disability Services later that afternoon.

So how am I feeling in this flurry of scheduling and questions about how I know I’m Autistic? In between the waves of overwhelm is a sense of relief, a slow dissipation of fear. I remember sitting in the tiny conference room, with a round table, two chairs, and a whiteboard, being utterly terrified. Waiting for the phone to ring, readying myself for intake, I spread my notes and diagrams before me. This is me; this is my story; in 30 minutes, I will recall two years of manifested ASD traits. I felt I needed to defend my narrative; fearing I wouldn’t be believed, I presented a litany of evidence.

I can recite portions of that DSM-5 entry nearly from memory: when demands exceed the Autistic adults’ coping skills; this is when people like me fall apart. When we convince ourselves we are broken and wrong, developing shame as we learn to hide. Before we found there were others Iike us; we thought that we could get better, if we kept pushing ourselves.

For me, help-seeking is a recent practice. I’ve learned to send texts or show up familiar places when I’d much rather hermit. In these moments, I’m asking others to accept me in the midst of stuckness — in the shutdowns when I talk at a friend, trying to transfer the flood of words in my head to the space between us.

Self-acceptance is a strange process. I notice my quirks, the traits that make me noticeably Autistic, and feel so weird. Othered by a tendency to get lost in my thoughts and completely forget why I entered a space — forgetting about time and place entirely. Noticing shame doesn’t dispel it. But I’m learning to have these conversations that create space for myself. To check in with friends mid-monologue, to try not to apologize for who I am — my way of being in the world. It’s hard.

Sometime I don’t believe myself when I say I’m Autistic. Perhaps because I lived alone in this narrative for so long, not even able to claim it as mine. A story of finding workarounds and people like me in an ill-fitting context. To realize all of the reasons I struggled in clinical work are why I thrive in research. To let myself be odd. To stand in a crowd, amazed as the music of that evening’s concert surrounds us and the room is stimming. We move in the rhythm of that space.

I am learning to accept myself in community — to practice being proud and let others in to see my process. In the hurt of being myself, I am learning to let others support me. As I openly acknowledge that I had a shutdown earlier that day and let myself feel the surprising support that follows. I’m learning to cope, even though my circumstances are still exhausting at times. I’m passing less. I’m letting people help me. Perhaps in this interwoven narrative of why did no one notice is another strand: How to manage, even thrive now. And so, I keep practicing.

Professionalism and passing: When hiding is difficult

The personal is academic for me. My graduate studies are directly informed by my Autistic experience; as I shift pronouns between sentences: persons with autism, Autistic adults, those with pragmatic language impairments and executive dysfunction — just like me is what I want to say. But being completely out as an Autistic graduate student (who will eventually look for a position as an academic) seems unlikely.

It doesn’t help that Autistic behaviors are perceived as unprofessional. I tangle underneath desks at meetings. I use they and you pronouns, but rarely I when talking with professors about my fellow autistics. It feels too vulnerable to acknowledge these personal connections, and yet I both live and work in the Autistic community.

These past few weeks it has been so much harder to hide my Autistic traits. To pass as quirky rather than visibly disabled feels like an impossible task; but maybe I don’t want to pass. I’ve felt so unsteady in the midst of grief — that even if I wanted to pass, I couldn’t. I can see overload, both sensory and emotional, coming more easily.

On Tuesday, I felt so distant from myself — as if my brain was attempting to leave my body to deal with the sads of that day. I assume this is some form of mild dissociation, a sort of mind-body disconnect that happens when I’m feeling utterly overwhelmed. It happens less frequently since I’ve learned grounding techniques and discovered stimming, but when it does, I’m still scared. That uncontrollable feeling is awful.

I remember sitting in front of my tablet at the local cafe and noticing my breathing had become shallow. I was in-between. Body in seat; brain across town. I knew what was happening, but knew I couldn’t stop that distant feeling. At best I could slow it down. As I wrapped my arms around my diaphragm, I attempted to breathe deeply again. I returned to the proprietor for a cup of chamomile tea, panicked in the midst of this frustratingly familiar state.

I haven’t had a full-blown shutdown in a while, I said. But this makes sense, considering that emotional processing takes a significant amount of energy for Autistic adults. This grief is so recent and visceral. I sat for some time with a lunch slowly eaten. I realized I wasn’t going to class that day. I approached the proprietor and asked her how I could talk with my professor, who was expecting a fully functioning grad student to appear before her, not an overloaded autistic adult.

She gave me a two-sentence social script to email my professor. She reassured me of how she had seen me grown in the two years I’ve visited her cafe. She reminded me how well I was coping. I remembered her previous community work and reminded myself that witnessing people falling apart was probably a familiar sight from those years. I told myself it was okay; that she wanted to help me.

I kept breathing and remained in the cafe until the proprietor closed the doors for the afternoon. I checked in with my advisor, who knows I’m both Autistic and clinically anxious. She continues to remind me that she notices my strengths and my impairments. Sometimes she explains me to relevant parties when I’ve run out of words.

I remember telling my therapist later this week, at this point, it would be difficult to doubt that I am Autistic. I am stubbornly choosing not to pass in public settings, especially if doing so requires me to prioritize others’ comfort over my wellbeing. My stimming and monologuing can be incredibly othering, but there is nothing wrong with these self-soothing acts. I’m learning to accept that sometimes I can’t hide; that it’s okay to appear visibly Autistic, even if I feel strange taking care of myself.

Earlier you called yourself wonderfully odd, she said. Yes, I suppose I did, I said. I’m moving toward a space of self-acceptance, hoping I can create a climate of acceptance in academia for young women like me. I stubbornly remain in special education research knowing that self-advocacy is a full-time job along with the school work. I feel like I need to defend my narrative, that I am a 25-year-old PhD student who is knowledgeable about developmental disability, who recognized herself by living and working in this field.

I believe this narrative and as I continue to examine my assessment options, seek academic supports, and find allies in my department; perhaps this story grows richer. I tell my story to understand it, lessening my own isolation, while also realizing I’m not alone in it,

Feeling alien

The past few days, I’ve been rereading Rudy Simone’s collection of interviews with autistic women, Aspergirls. I remember reading Simone’s book for the first time and taking copious notes; these women whose stories were contained in these pages sounded like me. I didn’t feel so alien, and as I continued to immerse myself in its narrative, I felt known.

In returning to Aspergirls, I noticed something else: These women were working through the shame of being themselves in a world ill-equipped for people like them. To recognize one is autistic in one’s 20s (or later) is a jarring experience, but it can also be incredibly comforting: I’m not wrong; I’m different and that’s okay. But it’s difficult to shake the internalized sense of wrong that comes with struggling to fit into an allistic world.

Let’s talk more about shame, she said. This seems to be an ongoing narrative I’ve been working through. If I can see shame at its sources I can begin to dispel it. But shame is tricky; sometimes I’m ashamed of the shame I experience about my own limitations: the missing social cues, getting lost in a task sequence, and trouble following verbal directions. These are everyday reminders that the autistic experience can be exhausting, even with all of the workarounds I’ve developed. Then I feel othered and odd all over again.

The alien nature of Autistic experience is a commonly used metaphor in our community. I recently checked out A Field Guide to Earthlings, a help guide designed to explain allistic (non-autistic) social behavior to autistic people. One of the early forums for autistics was Wrong Planet, yet another reference to that alien feeling — the not belonging here.

I remember writing a notecard for myself: “You are here in this place; you fit; you belong.” For me, the experience of feeling alien was accompanied by a sense of shame: “I don’t know how to fit; maybe I am alone in this.” Shame breeds isolation, especially when it’s accompanied by a sense of generalized anxiety. These lingering fears — of being yourself, of being visibly Autistic and perhaps being othered in the process — can make you hide. You script and avoid talking about yourself because that’s too awkward. You fear being misunderstood because it’s a familiar narrative (and it hurts).

I am an Autistic woman with an undergrad degree in psychology, working toward her PhD in a special education related field. I recognized these traits in myself about two years ago, which means I’ve managed these programs of study using a large number of workarounds — the rituals and routines that help me remain a (mostly) functional adult. I feel like a magician sometimes, with these slights of hand designed to make me appear typical or at least the more socially acceptable quirky.

This process is exhausting, even though I’ve given up on the idea of passing (unless the situation leaves me with no other option). I want to be visibly Autistic when I can: to stim in public, monologue without fear of boring my conversational partner — to be myself. But even as I practice being proud, part me is still terrified. Of what you might ask? That my self-made organizational supports will fall apart and so will I.

And this is the point where my therapist would ask, what would happen if you did? I’d attempt to develop yet another contingency plan; well I suppose I could… And that would be… I’d imagine the okay that would follow. We would talk about how well I was coping. This is fine, but I’m still tired of needing elaborate diagrams to complete final essays in a timely manner — tired of completely forgetting why I walked into a room.

To know how much work it takes to live a functional adult life with my Autistic brain — a neurotype that struggles to fit itself into an allistic world — is tiring. And in this exhaustion, I feel wrong, even though I’ve struggled to thrive among all of these things. Part of me wonders if I just worked harder I could be better. That’s the internalized ableism talking.

Yes, you have executive dysfunction and social disability, but just stop being that way, it says. Stop shaming yourself. Why do you do that anyway?

These are the self-critical parts of myself with whom I dialogue. But I can’t quell the shame on my own because internalized ableism doesn’t begin with me. It is reinforced by faulty expectations and misunderstandings of what it is to have a disability. I’m learning to ask for help as I question this narrative — of what it is to be functional, independent, or even an adult. I’m changing these mile markers.

I have a whiteboard with multicolored notes reminding me of activities of daily living, appointments, and upcoming coursework. There’s a column for the support people in my life, who encourage me to manage the anxiety and socialize even when it’s intimidating (to be around people, when I’d rather hermit). I have a desk at work I cover with sticky notes. I’ve learned to write all auditory directions down, so I can remember them. Part of me is ashamed of these actions because they remind me of my struggles, but they help me anyway.

The Autistic Internet reminds me that I’m not alone in these fears of being myself or the frustrations of still needing workarounds to get through the day. With each Twitter post or blog entry I read, I’m reminded that I’m creating my own kind of normal — a relatively predictable, fulfilling existence — and reminding myself that will be enough.

Show me the place where I fit.

I long for a land that’s free from explanations — a space that’s mine. The interwebs were a start, a collection of words transmitted across these bounded spaces — to women who understand because they’ve lived it too. To feel utterly isolated, but not know why is terrifying. We grow tired of all of the words necessary to feel heard — the explaining, reexplaining, the doing the best we can; not sure if it’s enough.

Knowing just how hard managing can be, still is. We become incredible self-advocates — keepers of our own stories — because we have to — to be ourselves; to find a measure of self-understanding. As we learn to believe ourselves. Of course this is a thing, she replied. It just is and you are thriving. Perhaps you’ll notice that too in these found, transformed safe spaces.

In text, in verse, in exchanges of retweets and favorited messages; we are found. We are loved. First here, then in real life. Can we really distinguish between these spaces? Safety. Communication. Assured mutual support. Perhaps that’s enough.

We’re not just practicing; we’re living, becoming ourselves — across timezones. In a series of 140 characters. In images shared. In complexities of thought somehow expressed in 2 to 3 lines. It’s another way of being, reminded we are “different, not less” — conventional pragmatics as a second language.

How are we doing this? Don’t know… but we are; she stopped explaining — leaving space to merely be. Watch me be — learn for yourself. Perhaps you’ll watch as intently as I do, trying to be heard; longing to understand, to be understood — across settings feels impossible. Too vulnerable. So I try in this series of spaces, hoping these verbalizations will stick.

Get off me, shame! You’re not mine. Sticks like magnets. I shake you off again. Hoping for an internalized sense of safety, I listen intently to your words, longing to believe them, knowing I will.

I am slowly becoming myself across these mediums — learning to find my fit. It’s not due to my lack of trying when you miss the point. These words are coherent, but not easily understood. Explaining. Rephrasing. Saying them again. Maybe I’ll be heard. And yet I’m not to blame for these misunderstandings. That’s not my shame. It’s yours. I shake it off slowly.

I am learning to be myself — slowly. There is nothing wrong with you. That felt sense of wrong isn’t yours. Never belonged to you. It was left for you by a series of short-sided, distant, emotionally distracted people. They tried, but it wasn’t enough. Never was. But you are, enough I mean. Finding you belong. Your own narrative in this collage of stories.

Getting unstuck is exhausting, but worthwhile work — out of the muck and mire, you emerge slowly. But in this process, you are enough. Continuing on. Learning to be, without pushing or pressuring. Speaking. Verbalizing. Waiting for understanding to stick.

It will, she said reassuringly. And it — and you — will be enough.

Details and gist: The interplay between cognitive reasoning and emotional reasoning

When I think about people I know well, I picture the first page of a script — the part listing their preferences and backstory. I’ve noticed that although I’m not particularly intuitive about people, I can make sense of them using intrapersonal details. Maybe that’s why I like television commentary. Television writers know how to analyze characters and scenarios in ways that make sense to their readers [1].

My memory for intrapersonal details helps me maintain relationships. I’ve read about the dichotomy that autistics can experience between cognitive empathy and emotional empathy. Although we have trouble figuring out what someone might be thinking or feeling based on nonverbal cues, we can make sense of their experience using reasoning skills. I’ve learned to think of back-and-forth interactions as a logic puzzle: Based on what I know about this person, what could I say next?

Using cognitive reasoning to fill in gaps in emotional reasoning is probably a workaround I developed to ease myself into social situations. I don’t know what to say, so I imagine myself entering the dialogue before I initiate conversation. As a kid, I tapped adults on the shoulder to get their attention and asked questions before the time for asking questions arrived. I suppose after receiving negative feedback for these social behaviors, I learned coping strategies for this lack of social intuition.

The only problem with these sorts of workarounds is the inevitable reluctance to enter conversations that accompanies my process. Trying to find my place in groups feels like a game of conversational tetherball. I don’t know how to begin speaking without inadvertently interrupting the current speaker.

My memory for details at the expense of gist can be scary when I’m trying to navigate potentially unsafe situations. A few weeks ago, a seemingly creepy guy at the library hugged me without prior warning (certainly didn’t ask for my consent). I didn’t recognize how disturbing his behavior appeared until he was already encroaching on my space. I missed the prior cues that he didn’t respect others’ boundaries.

I’m learning to avoid blaming myself when I miss these sorts of nonverbal cues. Yes, maybe I could have seen the signals earlier and avoided a scary scenario, but it wasn’t my fault that happened. Sometimes I love my detail-oriented nature. I remember people’s backstories in vivid detail, as if they were characters in a rich narrative.

When I talk with people who have been through familial trauma, I know what to say to them (and what not to say): Partially because I have shared experience, but also because I can see their narrative as a concept map — how their present and past intersect. This skill helps me listen and accept what they’re saying without needless questioning.

As frustrating as it can be to miss the forest for the trees, I’m “practicing being proud” of my memory for details [2]. My passion for information (and probably my path to graduate studies) comes from the same place that leads to missing gist. I can acknowledge and accept both of these parts of myself.

  1. http://www.avclub.com/tv/in-treatment/
  2. http://www.thenthdegree.com/proudpoem.asp

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.

Coaching Along the Spectrum

Because nobody is an island.

The Little Explorers Activity Club CIC

Autism Friendly Holidays & Pony Rides

sleep wake hope and then

life as an autistic (former) grad student

Craig Nash

AT THE INTERSECTION OF BEAUTY, BEER, HOPE AND HEARTACHE

piper grace lynn

writer. feminist. human advocate.

recoveringmamablog

life, love, kiddos, recovery

Seeing Double, Understanding Autism

raising awareness and understanding the perspectives of children and adults on the autism spectrum

Eclectic Autistic

Days in the life of an adult on the spectrum

Let's Queer Things Up!

Talking mental health with Sam Dylan Finch.

hayle williams

If you are afraid to write it, that's a good sign. I suppose you know you're writing the truth when you're terrified. [Yrsa Daley-Ward]

distractedblog

Just another WordPress.com site