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.


STAGE #1 – THE “RUMBLE” STAGE

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.


STAGE #2 – THE “RAGE” 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.


STAGE #3 – THE “RECOVERY” STAGE

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

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Yes... I'd Like A Pizza, Please.

The telephone.

Alexander Graham Bell and Thomas Edison were caught in a race to the finish line in 1876 in attempts to receive the patent for what has been considered a great invention that has, for almost a century and a half, improved the way human beings have been able to effectively and efficiently communicate with each other all over the world.

That is, unless you’re an Aspie.

For many people with Asperger’s I have spoken to, communicating via a telephone can be just as hard, if not harder, than communicating with someone face-to-face. Whilst those with Asperger’s Syndrome find it difficult, even impossible, to interpret social cues and facial expressions, this is a skill that can be learned with time and persistance by 'cataloguing' various experiences in your mind and attempting to recall them whilst talking to somebody, or even by relying on and copying the reactions of the other people involved in the conversation.

Over the phone, it’s not exactly that simple. Using a telephone means that we are unable to physically see the person we are communicating with, and therefore we have to rely on our own instincts and on verbal and emotional cues to figure out when and when not to chime in, as well as how to react and what to say.

I’ve always had a problem with using the phone. I know it’s probably not the same for all Aspies out there, because just like neurotypicals we’re all different. But I believe my difficulties with using the phone, which have developed into a full-fledged phobia (or should I say 'fear', considering 'phobia' usually implies that it’s irrational with no real base for the emotion?), are caused by my Aspergic traits.

I work in a call centre. And there’s the irony of this entire blog – I’m an Aspie with a pronounced, crippling fear of telephones, and I work in a call center. Laugh it up. The people I work with are extremely accepting of my weird, quirky nature (the way I will spontaneously try to chime into conversations with things that make no sense, my little OCD habits, the way I’ll babble for hours about specific narrow-minded topics, the way I’ll hide by myself in a corner if socializing becomes a little too much… the list goes on), and I enjoy my job for the most part. I work in the Resolutions Department of an online retail store, and the majority of my workload is handled via e-mail.

However, I go to work every day with that subconscious gnawing at my stomach, the ever-present fear that I will be asked to log into the customer service queue and assist with their call overflow.

On Monday, two days ago, I received an e-mail from a customer. She was angry because I had requested, via e-mail, photographs of the item she purchased that arrived damaged on her doorstep. And she demanded that I call her so that we could, quote on quote, 'talk. Immediately, I felt a pit open up in my stomach. I sat there and stared at the screen. My first inward response was, “But we can’t talk on the phone! We’re handling this by e-mail, that’s what I do. That’s my job!” Throwing a telephone in there still confuses me somewhat, especially considering my mental map of a typical order that crosses my desk is all e-mail based. Heck, I’m even terrified of using the fax machine! Anything that breaks the rigid, tight schedule of e-mails and pre-constructed templates with tiny personal changes just doesn’t compute in my mind for the most part, and leaves me with a sense of confusion.

And then, the fear sets in. I think I spent about forty-five minutes in a bathroom stall, breathing shallow and trying to keep myself from going over the edge. There’s been times before where I’ve had to call a customer and I’ve panicked myself so much that I’ve thrown myself into a full autistic meltdown at work. Luckily, I have a few friends at work who are aware of my Asperger’s, who know of the Rumble-Rage-Recovery system, and who are able to help remove me from any situation where it looks like I may break down in front of my other coworkers.

Now, the expected response time to get back to a customer’s e-mail is twenty-four to forty-eight hours. So what did I do? I ignored it. I pushed the e-mail to the bottom of my Outlook, left it as read, and procrastinated for as long as I could. The e-mail sat there for the duration of Monday, Tuesday, and finally today, when I was finally forced to face it. I have ignored phone call requests from customers before, which has landed me in deep trouble with my supervisors. I can’t very well explain to them that I’m terrified of talking to people on the phone, can I?

So today, I spent about an hour staring at the order, re-reading all of my e-mails, trying to mentally prepare myself for the inevitable phone call that was looming over me like an Angel of Death. I felt sick, I was panicking, but I continued to write out on a piece of paper just about every single answer to every single question she could possibly ask me about her damaged product. My fingers were shaking as I typed in her number, and I kept hanging up before I was finished so that I would have to type it again, stalling for time. Each ring sounded like it lasted about a minute, and each time I prayed the answerphone would kick in.

Now, I leave answerphone messages like a complete wreck. I always feel like I’m talking to a box. I’ll usually stutter my message out, and end with an awkward, “So, yeah. Um, call me back! Okay, so… yeah. See you then!” I think ‘so, yeah’ has become my catchphrase – I seem to use it all the same when I have no idea how to conclude a sentence, or whether the other person is waiting for me to say more, or whether I SHOULD say more. But anyhu…

The answerphone did not pick up, and instead my customer did. I never know if they can tell whether or not my voice is shaking, but save for freezing up every now and then, I honestly think I do a bang on job for someone who’s absolutely petrified of talking over the phone. I thicken my British accent as much as I can (North Americans are typically receptive to this, I’ve noticed) and my voice usually pitches up ridiculously high and becomes very rigid, structured and proper. But I get through it. She was angry, but I don’t think she was as angry as I thought she would be. I promised I would do what I could to proceed without photographs, and she agreed. So I hung up.

I never really know when is the best time to hang up, either. I’ve cut so many people off before, and just sat there staring at the phone thinking, “Oh crap, what did I just do?!” My fear of cutting people off usually leads to dead air on the line, as I never really know when to talk so, to avoid interrupting, I usually just… don’t.

I’m the same with my cell phone. My motto is, “If it’s important, they’ll leave a message or text me!” There’s about a total of three people I’ll willingly answer the phone to, and the rest I will ignore and pretend I didn’t hear it ringing. When people call me out of the blue, I’m usually stuttering, or I just sit on the line and don’t quite know what to say. I hate it when people call to 'chat'. Using the phone in that situation will make me angry and irritable, and I’ll start to feel the oncoming Rumble effect. I’ve had full-out fits on the phone with people because they’ve asked me, “What’s wrong? You sound upset?” and I’ve just exploded at them. The motto of the story being: it’s better to just send me a text.

I have issues with making phone calls all the time. If I’m co-piloting the car and my friend says to me, “Call so-and-so and let him know we’re almost there,” I will always, ALWAYS text. I won’t call unless I’m absolutely forced to. If I have to make professional calls, such as inquiring about singing lessons or college courses, or trying to rent something, I will freeze up and quite often, if forced further, throw a tantrum. Another thing that I have trouble with is calling to order food to take-out. I’ve gotten on the line with Panago Pizza so many times and the lady has answered, “Hello, my name is –blank-, what can I get for you this evening?” and I’ve replied, “Um… I'd like a pizza, please.”

I’ve lived my entire life by mimicking other people in social situations, and reacting to certain circumstances in an over-dramatic manner that I have seen people on TV shows and characters in cartoons perform. So when I’m stuck on one end of a telephone relying purely on vocal cues, conversations can become very tense, very stressful, and very panicking for me, to a point where I will flat out ignore calls and refuse to make them, and become increasingly angry, irritable and afraid if I have to. For now, I think I'd like to stick to texting, e-mails, and instant messaging.

Maybe once they figure out a way to incorporate big, yellow emoticons into telephone calls, I’ll find it easier to communicate?