Monday, September 13, 2010

Shutdowns and Overstimulation

It’s been a while since I had time to post anything, so I thought I’d make an entry about something that has been plaguing me a lot more than usual over the past three or four weeks, due to my extensive social exposure in that time – sensory overstimulation, social withdrawal and shutdowns. This is a long one, and more personal than my others, so bear with me.

There are a lot of different “triggers” out there for people with an ASD when it comes to their sensory problems. For me, the main ones are to do with sounds, especially overlapping ones, and having to process many different stimuli around me at the same time.

For example, if I am sat in the living room with my laptop, and I have a lot of people talking to me in my AIM window and lots of different things to check into and reply to, I’m likely to overload. If someone were to enter the room whilst I was busy doing something, and the television was on and I was trying to work and people were talking to me, that would be another big trigger for overstimulation, because my brain literally cannot process that many stimuli at once. I end up shutting out everything but one thing – and that one thing is usually the thing I was doing in the first place.

Another thing that is a trigger for me is feeling like people are being “demanding” of me. I become selfish and irritable, wondering “what they want from me” and “why they won’t leave me alone”. If I am busy doing something, especially something of interest or that I really have to concentrate on, and people attempt to talk to me or interrupt me, my chest tightens and I start to become overstimulated, angry and snippish. This is where I most likely offend people the most, as when they attempt to interact with me, I snap at them or ignore them – sometimes deliberately, sometimes because my brain literally does not hear them.

I’ve been spending a lot of time with friends recently, as we are working on a music project together that is drawing to a climax. Music is my biggest passion, and some of my friends have described me as a “musical savant”, even if I think that’s a little too strong (I can recall lyrics, melodies, guitar and bass riffs, drums, you name it, from memory without any difficulty, can dissect music into parts due to the parts-to-whole syndrome, and can come up with good melodies to any set of lyrics quite easily).

However, spending this much time with people has taken a toll on me – a huge toll. One that makes it impossible for me to fathom how my friends and coworkers go about social lives where they go out every weekend with their friends to the bar or a club, or spend every waking hour on the phone or with their buddies, work and play.

Those of you who read my tweets will know that I came close to losing my job last week. The extremely high demands of being so social, so accessible to other people, have left me literally unable to crawl out of bed anymore in the mornings. Some days I won’t even hear my alarm; others I have laid there unable to move, staring at the ceiling, knowing that I am already late and not being able to face the errors that I have made, the consequences, by sleeping in through my countless iPhone alarms that go off every five minutes for at least an hour. My continuous absenteeism and tardiness have caught the attention of my manager and the VP of Operations at my company, who called me in for a meeting. I was tense throughout the entire thing. I fought to look him in the eyes, keeping my gaze on his hairline, and my hands continued to twist and writhe, knee bobbing up and down, even though I was trying to control it. The ring Sammie (my girlfriend) got me was slid from one finger to the next, to the next, to the next, until I dropped it and had to pick it up when he looked down at the paperwork on his desk – my final written warning.

Sixteen sick days in one calendar year and countless lates – how do you explain that you have a disorder that sometimes makes it impossible for you to even consider facing the outside world, especially when your manager doesn’t have a clue about anything autism related, despite you attempting to explain the symptoms and how they affect you?

Since, I have been taken down to part time, with Fridays off to hopefully give me more “me time”, and I have a 9am start rather than a 7am or 8am. Luckily, my bosses want to work with me to hopefully find something that works for me as, when it comes to my work, I’m a machine and churn out the problem-solving of each order I touch twice as fast as my colleagues.

We’ve also been recording at a friend’s house recently, as well as practicing non-stop. The days were long and exhausting, both physically and emotionally. Sometimes, I just shut down. Being crammed into a small Ford with three other guys and Sammie – and occasionally a second girl – for hour-and-a-half-long commutes out of town there and back are not ideal for an Aspie. The continuous conversation in the car and harsh sunlight through the windscreen, along with the need to submerge myself into my iPhone to get away from everything and recover from the day of work and the mild motion sickness I suffer from, along with the panic of where, when and what I was going to eat that evening, took a toll. Most commutes, I had my ear plugs in my ears to block out the noise. One time, I wrapped my scarf around my face too to hide from the light and the sound both, and I wound up falling asleep in the passenger’s seat out of overstimulated exhaustion.

Couple this with four plus hours of continuous noise (our drummer played like a beast) and the commute home, heading straight to bed just to get up again the next morning, rinse and repeat, and you can probably see why I’ve been driven crazy in the past few weeks.

And the worst part about it is that you start to resent the people around you, and take them for granted. I haven’t spent proper time with Sammie since this all started, because any tidbits of time I get to myself I engross myself in my laptop and zone the fuck out of everything around me. Roleplaying and writing has always been an escape for me, a doorway into another world where I can forget the stresses of life (even if I have trouble playing or writing certain character archetypes due to a personality clash with my own, and an inability to empathize with and understand them), and so I have been clinging to it even more than normal over the last month, to escape the overstimulation and over-socialness of the world around me. I haven’t wanted to cuddle, talk, laugh, watch television or socialize at all with my roomie and girlfriend, and I can only expect them to be patient for so long.

So, what happens when something triggers me? Well, I guess it sort of follows the same path as a meltdown would, except I wind up going into “shutdown” mode instead. Meltdowns and shutdowns are akin to each other somewhat, though both have different end results, despite each one typically starting with overstimulation and annoyance. Something will initially trigger it – it may be that I’m doing something I enjoy, and someone tries to talk to me or distract me from it. A lot of Aspies, I’ve read, become irritated when someone tries to take away something they enjoy doing, because to them it’s the only thing that matters and they can’t stop. Makes a lot of sense for me. Another thing that might happen might be a sudden burst of excess stimuli from the world around me – a lot of people coming into a room all talking loudly, a television and music both being switched on together, a bright light in my eyes, a change of schedule, that sort of thing. I’ll usually start by snapping, and then the definition between whether it’ll be a meltdown or a shutdown tends to happen. I have no idea what the deciding factor is, all I know is that some times are different from others.

If it’s going to be a meltdown, I’ll start to snap at those around me and get angrier and angrier. With shutdowns, I just want to withdraw. I’ll start to become deaf and unconscious to things around me, which will lead to frustration if people attempt to interact with me, because I find it hard to process what they are saying and usually need them to repeat themselves. I’ll squirm away and try to hide my face, whether it’s by drawing my shoulders up, pulling my hat down, or literally burying it in something. Sometimes it’s as simple as closing my eyes or just focusing intently on my phone or laptop. I completely avoid eye contact even more so than usual – going as far as to not even look at a person, let alone their face. If there was a definite trigger, such as food or a decision that needs to be made, I become frustrated with it and reject it completely, wanting nothing to do with it anymore.

The shutdown literally feels like the world around me has been glazed over, like I’m in my own little bubble. I retreat and hide, and use that to counter whatever it is that has triggered me. I disconnect from reality. Because of this disconnection, I’m more likely to take risks, or hurt myself – not angrily like during a meltdown though, but slowly and deliberately. I like to dig my nails into the palm of my hands or bite the skin of my arms and hands, or even hold my breath for long periods of time.

I’ve found that, like meltdowns, there isn’t really a cure for shutdowns except for time. Eventually, I’ll feel recharged enough to just melt back into the real world, which will most likely start with acknowledgement of the people around me again, my hearing returning, and attempts at conversation, such as chiming in with a comment. However, once this has been happening for a while – a month or so, like it has been for me recently – it’s easy to become depressed and just stop caring about everything.

Sort of a depressing way to end this blog, but I’ve never been too good at ending things as a writer. I’m debating sharing some information on Asperger’s with my boss, to better educate her about why I act the way I do. It does interfere with my work life, but at the same time, I don’t want to be put in a situation where I could lose my job for “another reason” they feel they have to let me go. It’s a tough one. I’m hoping with the extra day off a week and the later start, and the fact that life seems to be calming down a bit now, I’ll be back on track shortly and it won’t take longer than a few days to a week of recovery time by myself.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

No, No, Don't Do That!

So, here I am introducing my first Guest Blogger, Wendy Bailey, or Wendakai as her Twitter friends will know her. She is the aging mom of a teenage daughter named Butterfly, who has food intolerances, ADHD, Asperger's, and learning challenges. She lives in cottage country in central Ontario, Canada, across the country from myself. You can follow her adventures with Butterfly at!

Wendy was kind enough to guest blog in response to my previous post, "Rumble, Rage, Recover", to tell the story from the other side of the meltdown.


After surviving countless of my daughter’s meltdowns, I thought it might be helpful to offer some suggestions on how to survive one from the other side.

There are many triggers for a meltdown. These are the ones I know about:

A reaction to a substance that is a toxin for the individual. With my daughter, Butterfly, this might be MSG, propylene glycol, corn syrup solids, or any one of the other forms of concentrated sugars. These make her angry and impatient, sometimes mean, so it doesn’t take much aggravation to get her to meltdown stage. Dilated, uneven pupils, if accompanied by aggressive behaviour, tell us that we’re in that danger zone.

Another trigger is sensory overload. Again using Butterfly as an example, the buzzing lights, beeping checkout machines, noisy buggies, loud background music, hubbub of gabbling consumers, all combine to cause sensory overload in stores, causing unreasonable behaviour and driving her close to meltdown.

Yet another is low blood sugar. This can happen to any of us that if we don’t eat regularly. Our blood sugar can drop below 4 (by Canadian measure) and cause us to go into "struggle" mode, where we start to sweat for no reason, become anxious, have difficulty comprehending a situation, impaired judgement, and perhaps get impatient and angry. This is particularly so with Butterfly who can become very distressed and angry if she goes without food for more than 4 or 5 hours.

Of course, the best plan is to prevent these triggers, or at least see them coming, and take evasive action before the meltdown happens. For me, this meant carefully monitoring Butterfly’s diet; not spending too long in any one store, especially the worst ones for background noise, or anyplace else with obvious sensory pollution; regularly feeding my child.

Yet sometimes those meltdowns take you by surprise because you’re preoccupied or at the wheel of the car or something that requires your attention. One time we were on our way home from an outing. It had been a while since Butterfly had food, but we were almost home and were merrily discussing what we’d buy if we won the lottery. Butterfly said we’d buy a mansion and give each of her Barbie dolls its own room. I didn’t see what was coming and started to chuckle at this rather silly scenario. Suddenly Butterfly was enraged, calling me a mean bitch, and screaming that I wasn’t being fair if each of her dolls didn’t get its own room. Oh oh. I got her home and ran into the house to get food, quickly. Still outside, she kicked a snow scoop leaning against a tree. Unfortunately it kicked back, its handle whacking her in the mouth and chipping her front tooth. She froze, then suddenly said, "Oh God, that’s my big tooth. That’s my permanent tooth."

Yes, it took something like that to snap her out of it. I got some food into her and she was fine, except for the trip to the dentist to repair the broken tooth. No, we didn’t win the lottery, and no, her Barbie dolls never did get their own rooms. And yes, she was embarrassed that she melted down over something so silly.

The thing is, there is no reasoning with someone in meltdown, because it isn’t a reasonable thing. I think the most important thing to remember is that it isn’t something they are doing to you. It’s something that’s happening to them. Do not engage with the person in meltdown. If they call you names and tell you they hate you, big deal. They don’t mean it. They’re not in control of themselves. Do not argue. If they want a room for each doll in that imaginary mansion, hey... what does it hurt? Don’t wrestle with imaginary dragons.

If they aren’t all the way in meltdown, but clearly getting there, ask if there’s anything you can do to help. If they rage at you, back off. Be neutral, do not fight for your status in their eyes, your politics, your values, your ideology, or anything else. Because it’s all meaningless. Just back off until they’re finished. Then give them some space to cool off. And then ask again.

Once again, it’s not something they’re doing to you, it’s something that’s happening to them. So don’t take it personally. Just be there for them.

Wendy Bailey

Friday, July 30, 2010

Rumble, Rage, Recover

If someone was to ask me what the most difficult, most crippling thing about having Asperger’s Syndrome was, I would immediately know how to answer them. Although the sensory and OCD problems I have can annoy my friends and family, and the social phobias can hold me back in public, nothing can compare to the violent, unpredictable, and uncontrollable meltdowns.

I’ve noticed that a lot of people, on Twitter and via e-mail, comment that I help them understand their loved ones a little better, understand what happens inside their heads and why they do the things they do. So I wanted to write a post about what I believe to be the hardest part of living with an autistic person.

(You can disagree with that statement if you want, but this is just coming from my own personal experience.)

Meltdowns are emotionally and physically exhausting for both the Aspie and anyone who is conversing with them at the time. My own meltdowns have been happening for as long as I can remember, though I mostly had them to myself in my bedroom as a kid, and it was cast off as me being “a brat” rather than an actual genetic problem with my brain. However, when you move out with friends and you’re still having temper tantrums at eighteen years old, you have to realize there’s a problem somewhere. It’s caused problems for me in relationships and friendships, and I’m sure it’s not only freaked people out, but made them think that I’m some sort of angry, bratty diva who can’t handle the tiniest changes.

I recently read about something online which really helped me understand exactly what happens to my body and mind during one of these meltdowns, because when you’re caught in the heat of the moment, you oddly don’t remember much. It’s called the “Rumble, Rage, Recovery” system. I’m going to try and explain it and go into detail about what I’m thinking and feeling during each stage, partially for those who want to read it and partially to get it off my chest. I don’t find it easy to “talk” about my emotions, but it’s often easier to “write” it.


The best way to explain this stage is “sensory upset”. The thing it reminds most people of is a volcano that’s rumbling, just waiting to blow its top. Something happens that sets me off – be it too much chaos or noise around me, over stimulation, a change of schedule, whatever it is that annoys me at that moment. The most usual one is a change of schedule. I’ll receive a phone call from Roomie (because she’s one of the only people I like answering the phone for) letting me know that we have something important to do that evening, or that an emergency has come up. This rearranges my entire evening, and therefore causes a lot of stress and upset, which transfers into annoyance.

At this point, anything will grate on my nerves – people talking to me, light touches, my clothing, text messages, traffic, bright light, loud noises, the sound of someone eating or drinking, over stimulation, too many things happening at once, etc. Every time something interacts with me, I feel another thread of control snapping. That’s the best way I can think of to describe it – little fibers snapping one at a time each time something annoys me. I grit my teeth tighter and tighter, trying to force myself further away from whatever’s annoying me, further into my own world of distractions so that I can try and relax. I snap at people and start to say things that I don’t mean, and the more I’m expected to talk, the more frustrated I get. At this stage, it’s extremely difficult to calm down, and I become a time bomb just waiting for an excuse to go off.

I think at this stage, the best thing to help me avoid going into a full-blown meltdown would be literally to just leave me alone. Maybe I should instigate a safe word, so that when I’m finally ready to talk again or be talked to, I can signal to people around me that I’m okay? If I’m left in complete silence, and not touched or spoken to or prodded or provoked or interrupted in any way, I may be able to keep myself from going into the next stage.


If I don’t manage to calm myself down from the Rumble stage, which is about maybe 30-40% of the time, I go into what they call the Rage stage. This is the meltdown itself, the “temper tantrum”, if you want to call it that. It doesn’t happen immediately – there isn’t a switch that just flicks in my brain, and suddenly I switch from stage one to stage two. It’s quick, but gradual.

The annoyance starts to elicit explosive responses from me, such as snapping, yelling, continuous swearing, or even physical responses (throwing my hands in the air, hitting things, kicking, lashing out, digging my nails into my skin, etc). My vision glazes over and I get “tunnel vision”, and I’m unable to really process my surroundings properly. I lose all emotions, save for anger, rage and frustration. Nothing has consequences and I say things I don’t mean, the most common phrases being swear words or “I don’t care!”. The rage transfers to my arms and legs, and I feel the muscles tense and coil, and that’s when I feel I have to lash out. If I’m in the car, I’ll usually punch and kick the dashboard, or hit the ceiling above me. If I’m at home, I’ll throw things and slam doors and pummel my mattress. I’ll grab my hair and dig my nails into my arms and palms. I’ll scream and yell and make “animal” noises if I’m mad enough.

The whole time, there IS a tiny voice in my head telling me that this is unjustified, that I’m overreacting, and that I’m going to regret it. I want to stop, but I literally can’t control myself. I can’t control the anger. I don’t mean the things I say, but I have to say them, because I’m just so angry I need a way to express it and let it out. Think of it like a valve that’s building pressure behind it, and is trying to let the pressure out as quickly as it can so that it doesn’t burst and do itself damage. I feel like I need to let the steam out, and as fast as possible.

As a kid, I would hit my brother if I got mad at him, and I always had the urge to bite him, but as an adult I’ve never full-on hit anyone (I’ve pushed a little, etc, but not actually hit). That was how I tried to relieve the anger when I was younger – biting. I would bite myself, my pillow, and my brother if he got too close to me. Biting was just the best way to relieve a lot of pressure and steam at once, more so than hitting or kicking. The pressure on my jaw just felt really good, and so I would bite softer objects like my pillow, clothing, bedcovers, whatever was closest to me when I was having a meltdown in an attempt to get it all out. Plus, screaming and yelling into a pillow is the perfect muffler, so it was definitely the preferred method of release for me.


Different people with autism have different methods of recovery, or sometimes the recovery method depends on their mood, or how bad the meltdown was. Sometimes I cry and apologize profusely, and beg for forgiveness. Sometimes I sit quietly and stare into space, not really able to talk even though my brain is processing whatever people are saying to me. Most of the time, I’m so exhausted I just want to sleep. The Recovery stage is the stage once the anger and frustration has all been released, and you’re left tired and drained in the aftermath.

Most of the time, I cry and apologize. I’m exhausted and I just want to nap, and I’ll usually lay with my eyes closed and try to rest. I’m aware of how badly I’ve fucked up and I’m always terrified and ashamed. If the meltdown is bad enough and I’m tired enough, I’ll sit and stare into space, and just let my brain process my surroundings whilst inwardly thinking.

If I had to give any advice regarding the Recovery stage… well, it’s difficult, because I believe that, especially in adults with autism but with children too, you should be taught that the behaviour is upsetting to those around you and very hurtful. I don’t believe that it should be “acceptable”, even if everyone knows it can’t be helped. It does happen and it will happen, and you deal with it each time, but it is still important to understand that those meltdowns are upsetting for EVERYONE, and although you can’t help it or stop it from happening, it’s good to have that understanding of its effects on others.

I’d say that, during the first five or ten minutes of Recovery, your Aspie is very tired and upset and sensitive. Save all serious talking for at least fifteen to twenty minutes after the Rage stage breaks – don’t try to talk about how upset the meltdown made you or how it was unjustified or how to make it better next time the second you see the signs of the Recovery stage. Your Aspie will need to rest and allow the final shreds of the Rage to dissipate. However, once the Recovery stage has been noticeable for a while, depending on how he or she reacts, your Aspie may actually be in the perfect mood to talk about what happened, and how you will try to handle it next time, due to how tired and apologetic they may be. Gently try and talk to them about it and see how they react. Of course, I’m no expert, I’m just going by my own experience…

As far as time is concerned, I would say that, on average, my Rumble stage can last anywhere from five to thirty minutes, Rage can last from one to fifteen minutes (depending on intensity and how much energy I have, and how bad the meltdown is), and Recovery anywhere from ten minutes to half an hour.

I hope that this post helped someone out. I think it maybe helped me to get it down onto paper. If I could change one thing about myself, it would be the meltdowns. I’m on anti-anxiety medication to help me avoid the meltdowns as much as possible, but it’s not perfect and they still happen, more so when I’m tired or busy, or in an uncomfortable situation (such as schedule changes, public or over stimulating places, unfamiliar surroundings, etc).

I’ve always had these meltdowns, and I honestly thought I was just a disgusting, horrible, angry person and would be a domestic abuser for the rest of my life. I suppose that’s why realizing there was a reason why I overreacted the way I did, why I had these meltdowns, came as something of a relief. Still, I try not to use it as an excuse, and I’m working every day to find ways that I can nip these meltdowns in the bud, or at least control myself until I can be alone to relieve the stress and let it out without upsetting anyone around me.

Friday, July 23, 2010

The Invention Of Lying

One thing I’ve noticed about myself, even before I received my diagnosis and realized that I was autistic, is my tendency to try and adapt to the environment around me. I touched on this very briefly in a previous blog when I talked about mimicry, an ability a lot of Aspies learn in their childhood. According to several online resources, mimicry is one of the main reasons that a lot of Aspies, particularly girls, are not diagnosed early, or at all.

We live in a society where image is everything. People, specifically young people and teenagers, are very conscious of the way they present, what is stereotypically “cool” and what isn’t. And this can vary between different cliques and groups; for example, Anime enthusiasts will think listening to Gackt and other Japanese artists is the only acceptable way to enjoy music, whereas metal heads will hate on you if you don’t like Iron Maiden or Dream Theater, and ‘gangstas’ will only listen to R’n’B, hip-hop, etc. If I were to approach a group of punk-hardcore enthusiasts and proclaim my love of video game music, they would laugh me back out of the door.

And yes, I’ve actually studied this. Human behaviour and psychology is a sort of fascination for me, maybe because my thought patterns aren’t exactly the same as those I grew up around. I know a lot of autistic people, particularly children, are oblivious to what is ‘socially acceptable’, and although I don’t always know how to act or what to say or what’s ‘appropriate’, I have done my best to study human behaviour and trends so that groups of young people will accept me.

I’ve grown up around all different kinds of cliques, the most predominant being the ‘scene’ kids, ‘gangstas’ and ‘musicians’. The majority of my friends and Roomie’s friends fall into one of these three categories, and I’ve learned what to say and what not to say to ensure that each group accepts me. Most of this consists of, of course, lying.

For example, if one of my ‘gangsta’ (I’m sorry, I really can’t think of a better word for this) co-workers asks me if I enjoy clubbing, I used to typically respond with a ‘yes’. I would even list a couple of clubs in town, most of which I have never been to, which I would call my favourites. With my ‘musician’ friends, I will act as if I am too busy to go to random shows despite really wanting to, even if I don’t want to go, because I know that it’s ‘not cool’ to not want to go to a show and listen to live music. If one of my ‘scene’ friends asks me if I’ve heard of a band, chances are I will carefully lie and say that I have, because I don’t want to appear stupid and not ‘in the know’. Learning to adapt to one’s surroundings and mimic those we are around and are friends with seems to be imperative for an Aspie who wants to fit in, unless you happen to be blessed with friends who will accept you no matter what.

And so, I learned to lie.

Lying is a dangerous, dangerous way to socialize. It puts me on edge and makes me uncomfortable, but it used to be how I lived throughout my teenage and young adult years until very recently when I decided that I was allowed to be who I wanted to be, at least with my closest friends and co-workers. There’s always the fear that someone will call you on it without realizing that you’re lying. For example, if I were to lie about having heard of a band, or understanding a slang word (the meaning of which I have no idea), and someone were to ask me to explain it to someone else, I would be in trouble.

Lying about slang and certain things I was naïve about was definitely something that got me through my entire childhood, teenage years, and early adulthood, even up to today. I remember being with friends when I lived in Alberta, and they had used coke the night before. Now, being naïve, I thought that ‘coke’ and ‘crack’ were the same thing – I had assumed that ‘crack’ was just a slang word for ‘coke’. So I mentioned something about them snorting crack, and I will never forget how hard they picked on me for weeks afterward for that. I’ve never really understood the adult, sex- or drug-related slang, but I’ve always played along as if I do, laughed at the jokes I don’t understand, not wanting to have to admit my lack of knowledge in front of a large group of people.

I spoke to Some Aspie (@izmyaspieshowin) on Twitter to get another fellow Aspie’s input on the trait some of us have where we fight to blend into our surroundings. I requested their opinion on the subject, and I would like to share it with you. Although it’s somewhat different to my own experiences, where I am aware of who I am but hide it, I saw a lot of similarities in Some Aspie’s tendencies and experiences, and my own;

“I chameleon. I find myself adapting to my environment like Randall from Monsters, Inc. just to fit in. I have less of an idea who I am, because I don't have an antenna for that, so I think I draw from what is around me to know how to act. I think in an effort to relate to people, and not come off so mean, uncaring, or unfun, I try to act like them some, to not seem too copycat. I have learned quite painfully at times that who I am is not understood or accepted, so to avoid pain, I act different. Not fun, but better. I still don't see why most people follow the same paths. When someone does something they consider "out there" they make fun, or label you. In reality, Aspies are quite smart, and paying attention to why and how they do things can be a secret weapon. I am seen as almost psychic.”

Since my diagnosis, and the acceptance of who I am as a person and my own desire to be true to myself and be proud of who I am, I have fought to break my habit of such intense mimicry and lying, and only use it in situations when I need it (formal events, meeting new people who are particularly judgmental, etc). The recent trend that it is ‘cool to be uncool’ seems to have helped me a lot in that I can palm off my weirdness and most people seem less fazed by it.

Still, the ability to ‘chameleon’, as Some Aspie put it, will always be a tool that I have to help me in situations where being myself simply isn’t acceptable, and where I honestly have no idea how to act on my own.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Thanks For The Compliment!

I like receiving compliments. Who doesn’t? Truth be told, I’m a little awkward about receiving them, and never really know how to react. I had a girl tell me once that I was adorable and she loved my hair, and I responded by saying, “Thanks, I like your, um, tee-shirt.” Looking back, that could’ve been perceived as an insult rather than a returned compliment, given that I commented on her interchangable clothing and not a feature she was born with. But my awkwardness and shyness at receiving, processing and returning compliments doesn’t mean I don’t like getting them.

With that being said, I am probably worse at giving compliments than I am receiving them. It’s odd to think that an action that provides the recipient with such self-satisfaction and happiness could be difficult for me. And the funny thing is, the majority of the time, I don’t even realize that I should be giving out a compliment until someone prods me to remind me.

Online, it’s easier. I think all communication is actually easier for me online. I can express my emotions easier with text and emoticons than I can with words and expressions, and I’m far less shy. Online, I can easily give compliments to people. But face-to-face, it’s a lot more difficult for me.

Let’s take my favourite of my two room mates as an example. Roomie is a gorgeous, curvy, twenty-something-year-old brunette with designer glasses and a quirky, cute style of dress. Like all other girls, she likes to be complimented.

Every now and then, she’ll come downstairs dressed up ready to go to work (she works as a PR agent in the music/acting industry here), and I’ll consciously make a mental note that she looks really good, astoundingly good sometimes, but for some reason my brain doesn’t process the fact that I am supposed to take that acknowledgement and advise her of it. Other times, I’ll even subconsciously make the assumption that the compliment has already been delivered, and so I often get confused when she asks, “So… do I look okay?” and I reply, “Didn’t I say you did already?!” Lots of times, we would go out and she would do her make-up and ask me halfway through the night, “You didn’t say anything about my make-up, do you not like it?” and it was at that time I realized just how bad I am at forgetting to give compliments even after I have inwardly made a note of and liked something about someone.

With big things, like hair colour changes or cuts, I always have extremely good attention to detail and always notice. Most of the time, I’ll make a compliment without any problems too, because I have noticed and I simply have to point it out. But simple, less-permanent things, like make-up or clothing changes, I will notice and forget to compliment.

Another thing I forget to compliment is people’s talents and actions. Roomie is extremely managerial, and she does a lot to help me organize and schedule my life. She buys me groceries when I’m at work and does her best to ensure my schedule doesn’t change much and, when it does, I have apt notice and the details I need to keep myself from having a blow-out. She’s brilliant with Photoshopping and website coding, and she’s ridiculously smart. And I always forget to compliment her on all of these things, despite knowing that she has all of these talents and watching her use them with awe.

Because of this, in public, I’ve started forcing myself to give unnecessary compliments. There’s a girl at my work who has the strangest, most awesome 50’s style of dress. Every day, I compliment her on her outfit of choice because I’m worried that, if I don’t, I’ll continually forget to compliment her and she might think I’m rude. Over the past week or so, I’ve started complimenting Roomie at every opportunity because I want her to know that I appreciate her. Even if these compliments are a little overexcessive, I’d much rather compliment too much than not at all.

I suppose the point of this blog is to remind you that, if your Aspie doesn’t compliment you for a new hair-cut or a gorgeous job on your make-up, please don’t take it personally and think that they are being rude or ignorant. Chances are they DID notice, and simply forgot to compliment, or thought they already have. I’m not sure how many other Aspies out there have this problem, whether it’s a part of our social awkwardness and ineptness, but I know it’s one for me that irritates me, because I don’t want to appear rude or ignorant of other people’s efforts. I do notice, I just… don’t always remember to let you know out loud that I do!

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

It's Just An Expression...

I’m an observer.

I always have been, I always will be. Perhaps it’s my attention to detail, the fact that I’ll always notice car number plates (which REALLY confused my roomie for the longest time, when we would be in the car and I would suddenly go, “Ha ha! UGH!” and she wouldn’t understand until I pointed out that ‘UGH’ was the last three letters on the number plate of the car in front), or that I’m one of the best proofreaders my friends know because I’ll be able to pick out all those tiny spelling errors or when something doesn’t look perfectly even in Photoshop.

As a child, I was also an observer. I read online that a lot of children with Asperger’s, particularly girls and sometimes boys too, learn how to cope in social situations by mimicking the actions and reactions of other people.

I believe this is one of the reasons it has taken me until my very late teens to be diagnosed as having an Autistic Spectrum Disorder (though I do prefer the word ‘Syndrome’ to ‘Disorder’). As a child, I was very over-dramatic with my physical motioning. I remember thinking to myself every time I moved, every time I reacted to something, of an action a cartoon character would make in reaction to the same sort of stimulation. For example, if I was asking where something was because I was confused, I would pull a ridiculously exaggerated facial expression and spread my arms out really wide, palms up, fingers splayed, like you would see an animated character do in a cartoon. Instead of being blank and lifeless, I was over-dramatic.

I remember adults would comment on it, and I remember other children picking on me for it, calling me ‘Drama Queen’ or ‘Drama King’. It was facial as well as physical, and I would overreact to everything. This went hand-in-hand with my already gangly, awkward nature of pulling my uniform socks up to my knees and running with both arms thrown out to the sides (the kids used to tell me I looked like I was trying to take off). I watched a lot of cartoons from birth until my mid-teens (I still do, but not as much, due to adult responsibilities like work), and I remember being particularly entranced by the way the characters moved, the way their bodies and faces reacted to things, and how over exaggerated it was. It was a little easier to read – it was forced and deliberate.

This has transferred over into my adult life, forming habits that I both hate and am grateful for. I’m not sure if other Aspies will feel the same or understand me when I talk about the ‘mask’ – I call it the ‘mask’, anyway, because that’s what it feels like. When I am talking with a group of people, or even one-on-one, my face doesn’t always like to form expressions, especially not appropriate ones. Every now and then, I’ll feel the overwhelming urge to grin broadly at the most inappropriate times, usually when being told or telling something that should be depressing or upsetting. For example, I was watching a crime show with my roomie the other night, and she said to me, “I think I remember this one, what happens?” And as the father died on the screen, I turned to her and said, “That’s right – I remember too, the father dies,” and I felt the overwhelming urge to smile. Not because his death amused me at all; in fact, I understand that it was a really upsetting plot twist, and I don’t like seeing death at all. But for some reason, even though it didn’t amuse me at all, my lips wanted to twist into a grin.

Anyway, I experience what I call the ‘mask’, and I call it that because it doesn’t feel real at all. It feels very over exaggerated, very fake, and doesn’t always relate to what I feel inside. It’s almost as if I’m forcing the emotions out, because inside I may be blank or just mildly reacting, but outwardly I overreact. Let’s form a hypothetical situation in our heads, where a friend of mine is trying to talk to me about her room mate not doing the dishes after promising she would do them.

FRIEND: Dude, you remember I asked her to do the dishes? Well, guess what. She totally didn’t.
ASPIE BRIT: Oh, yeah. I remember.
MASK: Dude, no way!! She didn’t?! That’s ridiculous! You asked her like, tonnes of times!
FRIEND: I know, right? So I told her I wasn’t going to put up with her crap anymore.
ASPIE BRIT: I guess that makes sense, if she keeps doing it.
MASK: *trying to think of what would be the ‘right’ thing to say to this, what would be good to back my friend up, a fact or a comment about people in general* Dude, totally!! I mean, what the hell! She’s always doing this. And it’s just not right, you know? You can’t just dump your crap everywhere and expect someone else to pick it up. That’s just not something room mates should do, it’s not fair to you, man.

That’s just a short example, but you would have to imagine a lot of exaggerated ‘OMG NO WAI’ facial expressions in there, and a lot of open-mouth gawking with no real emotion behind it. It almost feels like I’m forcing these facial expressions (because I still don’t quite have the hang of bodily expressions, save for rubbing my eyes), and although I’m twisting my features, my face still feels blank. And when it comes to reactions, I have a few main ones that I use depending on what the situation warrants.

Shocking news: I drop my mouth open a bit, open my eyes wide and lift my eyebrows, and usually say, “Whaaaaat,” or “Dude.”

Sad news: I wrinkle my forehead and brows a little and say, “Oh, no. Hun. That sucks.” Usually, the vocal pattern on this one isn’t as good as the rest, and can sound a little flat and emotionless. I’m working on sounding more interested.

Great news: I slap on as big of a grin as I can manage at the time and say, “No way! That’s awesome.”

A lot of the time, I’m terrified that people have started to notice that my expressions and reactions are either too bland or too overenthusiastic, or that they’ve realized I constantly re-use the exact same ones over and over again.

Another thing I’ve noticed is that, if there IS a reaction I am very confident with and I feel it correctly inwardly, I will massively over exaggerate it outwardly. For example, if I see something funny, I have to literally point and laugh my heart out overenthusiastically even if I don’t find it THAT amusing, and I have to reiterate to the people around me how hilarious it is until they acknowledge me and take note of my amusement.

I’ve still noticed I tend to mimic those around me, on television and in movies as well as in social situations. I was at a small get-together for a friend’s birthday last night, and a few of the guys there were ‘rocker’ guys – very cool, very confident. They would sit with their legs open, one forearm resting lazily on one knee, chewing gum, and their expressions were very lazy and ‘cool’. And so, I automatically began to mimic that way of sitting, speaking, reacting, etc. I don’t really know if I do it subconsciously or consciously. I just know that, depending on the people I am around, I will always act slightly differently.

I suppose the point of this blog is to address the ‘masks’ that we Aspies may or may not be forced to wear just to appear warm and emotional rather than cold, selfish, blank and boring, and for us all to share some of our coping mechanisms with other Aspies, and how you all are learning to deal with situations where you may be under- or –over-exaggerating. If you have any comments, or anything to share, please do! I don’t have many coping mechanisms for now, except to live and learn and not repeat mistakes (and to ALWAYS remember to be enthusiastic and ask questions when they are talking about their interests so that I don’t appear rude), so anything you want to share with me and anyone else who might be reading it greatly appreciated!

Friday, July 16, 2010

A Little Too Much Information?

“Hey,” my boss addresses me one afternoon, walking up behind my chair, “so I've noticed that this order's been going on for a long time...”

The opportunity to make a joke, to make someone laugh, to gain that positive reinforcement through amusing my friends and colleagues, is just too much to resist. And so I shoot back, without any forethought whatsoever and loud enough for most of my coworkers around me to hear: “Your mum goes on for a long time!”

Now, had this been between two friends in a non-work situation, it would have probably been hilarious. At least, in my experience it would have been. I've noticed that people react to 'your mum' and 'that's what she said' jokes with more enthusiasm than most other jokes, no matter how often you quote them and how overused they've become. But to my department manager, in the professional setting of an office workplace, this was probably in hindsight not the cleverest thing that could have come out of my mouth.

For an Aspie, I think I'm a pretty social person. By this, I mean that I can enjoy being around people and I like having friends. I'm not an entirely solitary creature, though I do enjoy my time alone, and if I am around people or in social situations for too long I will crack and have a meltdown. But when I'm at work, for the most part, if there are people around me, I have a tendancy to become very excitable and enthusiastic, overwhelmed with my surroundings and the hustle and bustle of my busy yet very chatty and sociable department. We're sort of like a work-family – we're all different, but accept each other's quirks. Which is probably why they find me and my odd habits and outbursts and suchlike extremely entertaining.

A while ago, someone made a 'your mum' joke. From what I can remember it was a pretty good one, when I analyse it from a language point of view. I laughed, as did everyone else. Someone else made one later on that day, and it became a ridiculously overused habit in my department that we would crack 'your mum' and 'that's what she said' jokes back and forth during the work day, when our boss was out of earshot.

And so, when I made the joke to my boss, my mind automatically made the connection between the 'your mum' joke and the hilarious responses I would get from my colleagues, and I imagined she would also laugh. However, the entire department went quiet and my boss just sort of stared at me, and told me that it was innappropriate for the office and, if we were going to make jokes, to do it quietly.

'Your mum' jokes are now, for the record, officially banned from our department after someone from sales got offended overhearing one of them. Probably one of mine, since I have a habit of talking a little too loudly at work.

The point of this blog post is to share with you a habit I've noticed with myself, which I'm pretty sure is linked to my Asperger's, and that's what I call the “TMI Syndrome”. TMI – or Too Much Information, if you're not familiar with netspeak – is a probably I've always had, for as long as I can remember. It might be closely linked to the same urge that encourages us Aspies to talk... and talk... and talk... and talk about a subject no one around us is particularly interested in. I became obsessed with the video game Final Fantasy VII in high school, and it was literally all I would talk about. My small group of friends must've been SO ANNOYED with me! But I believe the same thing that encourages us to keep going – or won't allow us to stop – is responsible for the fact that I have no idea if what I am about to say is appropriate for the situation or not.

Somewhere in my life, I made a connection that being cocky, witty, sarcastic – generally, a douchebag – was an attractive quality in a person. I cracked a few one-liners (language patterns are easy to work with once you figure out what makes a one-liner funny!), and people responded well to the fiesty me. Heck, all the characters on TV and in video games and movies that people fall in love with are like that! However, my brain obviously associated/associates that sort of rude, fiesty comeback and sexual innuendo with a positive reaction, because now... I can't stop. There's no proofreader between my brain and my mouth, and so not only are random babbling speeches coming out, most of which I get confused with halfway through or attempt (and fail) to backtrack when I realize how stupid it sounded, but I'm also making comments or sharing stories that are usually extremely inappropriate. People often end up getting frustrated with me or taking offense, because they doesn't realize that I'm just trying to be humerous and 'bond' with them via barbed wire comments, and they assume I'm just being an asshole.

Another great one was when one of my coworkers was late to a meeting. My department manager asked us where he was, and I responded with a laugh, “Maybe he's in the bathroom, changing his tampon?” Needless to say, any laughs from my coworkers were obviously hidden, and my boss gave me a stern talking-to afterward about my professionalism. But I had heard my friend cracking that very same joke whilst we were watching TV at my place a few days beforehand, so I had no idea why it hadn't had everyone reeling in laughter during that meeting!

A counsellor at school once described me as an “excited puppy”, who just gets very overwhelmed and overexcited with all of the stimulation around me and bounces around, and doesn't realize that my playful nips are sometimes painful. But looking at it again now, I see it more as I have no idea exactly what is appropriate for a given situation and what isn't. My room mate helps me pick out clothes to events, dinners, even just social gatherings, because sometimes I'll break down and have a meltdown, I'm so frustrated about what to wear. I have no idea what is the expected style of dress, how formal or how casual, so I often end up over- or under-dressing. I always won costume competitions at school because I would overdo everything. I had no idea it 'wasn't cool' to over-dress for costume competitions, and would spend the day feeling proud of my mum and my hand-made efforts, whilst the other kids would point and snicker in their half-arsed costumes or no costume at all because they were 'too cool' to dress up for a silly school fancy dress day.

Anyway, the point of this blog (because I have a habit of making them extremely long) I suppose is to reach out to other Aspies who may have experienced this sort of “TMI Syndrome”, who say things without thinking, who confuse when is or isn't appropriate to say a certain thing, or who end up babbling about things they really shouldn't with other people, especially strangers. I tell the truth far too much, and I always divulge too much information, and I wish I could say that it makes me keep my mouth shut, but when I become too overwhelmed or overenthused by a social situation, I literally can't stop myself from babbling.

I suck at ending these things, like ending conversations, so I guess I'll finish it here with a joke.

...Just like I finished your mum last night! ;D