Who Am I?

Stimming – Week 2 of #TakeTheMaskOff

Posted: July 30th, 2018 | Author: | Filed under: Autism | Tags: , , | Comments Off on Stimming – Week 2 of #TakeTheMaskOff

I wrote an early exploration of stimming, Stereotyped and Repetitive?, in my series of 2016 posts stepping through the Autism Spectrum Disorder DSM-5 diagnostic criteria, what they meant, and the ways they applied to my life. Every human being “stims” to some extent, of course. It appears to be something the human brain needs to generate sensory input, express “energy”, and possibly for other reasons as well. Everyone taps their foot, drums their fingers, hums to themselves, chews pen caps, bites their nails, or some other variation at times. However, the extent, frequency, and nature of autistic stims stand out from neurotypical stims. Most of us naturally stim more often, with greater intensity, or in unusual ways.

And yes, even late in adulthood, I can rock, ask my self a question over and over (often some variation of “what did I do?), hit my head against a desk or a wall, and more. But I never do such things where anyone can see. Moreover, in my experience those are not “normal” stims, even for an autistic person. Those are always a sign of distress for me.

However, I suppress and redirect even normal stims. It’s almost automatic when one is noticed by anyone. I interpret the fact that they found it odd as an internal red flag emergency. Whatever my expression and body language might communicate, if someone comments on something my body or voice is doing, I’m immediately on high alert. Yes, camouflaging involves active steps like managing expressions, body language, and prosody. Social rules have to be understood, interpreted correctly, and acceptable responses offered. Those are some of the active aspects of successful camouflaging. But there are also behaviors and actions that have to be suppressed and hidden. And natural stimming behaviors form the biggest category of things that must always be hidden from view.

Some things can be redirected to less visible actions. I do that a lot. I can also hold things together until I’m alone, even if I have to go to the bathroom or for a walk. But there’s a part of my brain that is always monitoring what my body is doing. And the list of things that part suppresses has only ever grown my whole life. It’s a very long list by now.

Rhi captures it perfectly in her Autscriptic, Mild Autism.

But I’m lucky I’m so mild. I’m lucky I affect you so mildly.

That’s the heart and soul of masking, at least for me. I’m desperately trying to avoid impinging on you in ways you will find … distressing. I’m trying to be human, or present in a way you will accept at least as human enough. I do that every waking minute every single day of my life.

Eventually that became overwhelming for me, especially since I had no name for it, no explanation, and no way to direct and focus my energy and resources. I’m still working to claw my way back. But I haven’t really dropped my mask. I don’t see myself doing that. I know to the core of my being that when I fail to affect others “mildly” things never go well for me.

At the 25:00 minute mark in the video below, Monique Botha expresses it poignantly and so very well. “Yeah, sometimes I might look human.” That’s the motivation behind camouflaging. We can only feel human when other people treat us like human beings.


When you work to become the mask – #TakeTheMaskOff Week 1

Posted: July 25th, 2018 | Author: | Filed under: Autism | Tags: , , | Comments Off on When you work to become the mask – #TakeTheMaskOff Week 1

The #TakeTheMaskOff campaign has been designed as a way for autistic people to share our experience of life in a world that often makes little space for us. The stories, blog posts, and videos often expose a shared pain behind the smile on the face you see. Kieran Rose, “Do I look autistic yet?”, Agony Autie, and Neurodivergent Rebel did a livestream discussing the campaign.

I don’t know if someone who is not autistic is truly able to understand what it’s like to constantly monitor your voice, your face, and your body, checking that everything is as it should be while repressing or redirecting your urges to do things you’ve learned other people will see as odd or strange. And while you are doing that, you are constantly trying to match the words people utter to their expressions and body language, attempting to understand what they mean so you can work out the appropriate way to respond. Oh, and when you do, make sure to adjust your expression and maybe your body position to match what you are saying. It’s pervasive and when you developed it the way I did, that continuous cycle permeates your entire being.

The deeper truth is that for most of my life, I had no inkling that I was “masking”. I did not know that most people do not have to consciously do most of the things I do every single moment. Books did not change that perception. After all, they often describe thoughts of trying to interpret others, awareness of miscommunication, and there are non-fiction books discussing communication in depth. As a result, I believed my experience was similar in type to that of everyone around me. I just thought it came easier to them. Somehow they could always do it better. For some reason, I struggled. I was broken.

In a way that’s true, of course. That’s why it was a natural thing for me to believe. In all the years leading up to my diagnosis, though, it never once occurred to me that most of the time most people aren’t consciously thinking about their body language, expressions, and prosody. Most of the time, people aren’t semi-consciously interpreting every social interaction. Most of the time most people aren’t thinking about any of that at all. They are simply experiencing it. They believe it’s natural. I guess in some way it is, for them at least.

But it has never come naturally to me. It’s a skill I developed with a lot of effort and work as a child and one I am constantly trying to refine and improve. It requires effort and energy for me to maintain. Every second. Every minute. Every hour. Every day of my life.

And that means that the term “mask” doesn’t really fit me. A mask is something you can put on and take off. I don’t feel like that’s an option for me anywhere outside the online sphere. But my written words don’t require camouflage. They are more ‘me’, I think, than anything people see and hear in person. But even if it were an option, I have no idea how to remove my ‘mask’. It’s intertwined with my identity. It’s part of who I am. I’m aware of its presence since I have to work to maintain it, but nothing I do is exactly volitional. It’s responsive. I’ve trained myself so thoroughly, I rarely even think before reacting. I don’t ‘choose’ to mask. I’m simply trying to survive and live.

I think of it more in terms of the actions a chameleon takes to camouflage itself within its environment. My camouflage is often faulty and incomplete, but it has worked well enough that I’m still here and doing at least okay by many of the usual measures.

The reality is that I mostly pass as one of you, something that not every autistic person can do. I wrote about that experience in The Price of Passing. I guess I’m lucky? Mostly I put my head down, focus on the current demand or crisis, and try to find a way through it. It’s the way I’ve gotten through 53 years of life. I don’t really know how to do anything else, even when my efforts clearly aren’t working as well as they once did. Or perhaps they never really worked as well as I thought they did? I don’t have any answers. And despite the hashtag, I can’t say I’m taking the mask off. My words just try to expose a little of what lies underneath it.


Stereotyped and Repetitive?

Posted: August 27th, 2016 | Author: | Filed under: Autism, Personal | Tags: , , , | 6 Comments »

In order to meet the DSM V autism spectrum disorder diagnostic criteria you have to meet at least two of the items in section B. I’ve going to start with section B in my personal assessment because that was the most difficult for me to initially see in myself. I suppose after a lifetime of trying to normalize my behavior as much as possible, that’s not terribly surprising. The diagnostic language of the criteria also can make it difficult to translate into your lived experience. I actually went into my initial meeting to determine if an assessment would be helpful wondering if any of them really applied to me. The assessment process revealed how much they do fit and since the assessment I’ve become increasingly aware of the extent to which the criteria apply.

So, the first criteria is “stereotyped or repetitive motor movement, use of objects, or speech.” Reading that was an odd experience for me. As I mentioned in my general post about my assessment, I’m not lacking in verbal intelligence. I understand all of those words, both independently and in context. But the meaning that sentence intended to convey initially completely escaped me.

And at first, research didn’t help very much. When you have no idea what you’re actually trying to find, most of what you will initially find online about autism involves children and frequently involves children who appear to be at severity level 2 or 3 under the current criteria. And descriptions or videos of the behavior of a young child are not particularly helpful illustrations for a 51 year old adult.

For example, the most common motor movements described are hand flapping and rocking. I have no memory of ever hand flapping (once I watched videos of it) so either it’s not something I’ve ever done or it’s something I learned to suppress from a very young age. I do occasionally rock under stress or when thinking, but typically only when alone.

My first clue that there might be more involved came when filling out one of the screening forms prior to my assessment. The form was clearly designed to be filled out by parents of a young child, but one of the questions was about spinning. And that stopped me in my tracks. As a child, I would spin all the time. I would spin until I was dizzy. I would practice techniques I read about ballerinas and ice skaters using to spin longer without getting as dizzy. I loved spinning rides. As a young father, I would spin my children. I still spin in office chairs. I spin under the lights of the Zilker Christmas tree. I would spin when dancing. I don’t spin as much anymore, mostly because socially appropriate contexts have largely vanished, but I still like to spin. I’ve never thought anything about it. It was a moment when the world shifted for me and it truly registered that my perception of myself and typical behavior might be … out of phase with the perceptions of others and with reality.

I believe pacing was also mentioned. And again, as a child I remember my mother saying more than once I was going to wear a path in the floor of my room I paced so much. I know I need to walk or move to think things through even as an adult, but never thought much about it. Sometimes my wife has told me that I should sit down because I was making her nervous.

With that added information, I finally found autistic adult descriptions of ‘stimming‘ and I began to realize how extensively it unconsciously or semi-consciously permeates my life. Apparently, I stim all the time, and have for my entire life. I want to explicitly mention a post and a video on stimming by Amythest Schaber (video also embedded at the bottom of the post) that were among the first I found from an adult perspective, helped me realize what sorts of behaviors this criteria actually covered, and helped me start finding other adult autistic descriptions of ‘stimming‘. (The word remains a new one to me, so it will take some time before I’m really comfortable with it.)

And I’ve realized that although my diagnostician found ample evidence for this criteria during my assessment, that was really just the proverbial tip of the iceberg. Since then, I’ve been identifying them through both direct observation and by considering reactions by those close to me over the years. For instance, I vibrate or shake my legs apparently quite frequently. I’ve become more consciously aware that I’m doing it, but I also remember that my wife for years has told me to stop because I’m vibrating the sofa or the table. Or my feet are propped up and rustling newspapers and the sound is bothering her. I can stop with conscious effort, but I have a tendency to start again unconsciously.

I also will shake my arms down to my hands with them down at my sides. I’ve always just thought of it as releasing tension, but I realize that when I’ve done it around my wife, she’ll ask if I’m okay. I will also often curl and uncurl my fingers repetitively sequentially. I will tense and relax different parts of my body or curl and uncurl my toes in public settings, which are things that are mostly invisible to others. I can’t say I even ever consciously thought about it until I was diagnosed.

The criteria also mentions speech and again, I apparently use speech in a stereotyped and repetitive manner. I hum or sing segments of a song over and over and over again. I just joked about it being ‘stuck in my head’ if anyone ever commented, and I suppose that’s true in a way. But it’s something that’s been a constant all the way back to childhood. I remember one time when I was pretty young and we were on a road trip. I was in the front passenger seat and apparently kept humming or singing under my breath. I guess it was driving my mother crazy as she was driving because she kept telling me to stop. I would stop for a little bit when asked and then start again. We stopped at a gas station and my brother and I decided to switch seats. As we drove off, I apparently started singing under my breath again. My mother had reached her limit, reached over, and slapped my brother! She hadn’t noticed that we had switched seats.

I also speak to myself constantly. When I’m doing something, I will often verbalize what I’m doing at that moment. My wife and others will often ask what I said and I just say something like, “Oh, I was just talking to myself.” My family has gotten somewhat used to it, I guess. As with constantly singing or humming the same thing under my breath, I never recognized it as anything out of the ordinary. I realize now, though, that it’s probably my constant monologue in a child’s shrill, squeaky voice with a northern Louisiana twang that drove my mother to train me in American standard speech. I just knew that when I was nine years old, she sat me down with a tape recorder and had me speak, record, and play back how I said something versus a standard American accent version until I was trained out of the twang of my accent.

The criteria also explicitly mention echolalia in a parenthetical, a term I had never heard before. Again, the initial examples and videos I found were not very helpful and I thought it didn’t apply to me. As I delved more deeply, though, I realized that wasn’t true. For instance, frequently when my wife and I have been having a discussion, she has abruptly (from my perspective) said something along the lines of “that’s what I just said.” I’ve normally just awkwardly said I was agreeing or I was acknowledging what she said. It was awkward to me because I wasn’t consciously aware of apparently echoing her words. I think sometimes it’s an automatic way of ‘filling the silence’ when I’m having trouble finding words. Sometimes I am just signifying agreement. Other times, I’m not sure I can ascribe a reason. It’s apparently just something I do.

When I read about delayed echolalia, I realized that was also something I do pretty frequently. I often interject quotes from movies, TV shows, books, or other sources, generally without attribution. And I do so because it seems like the natural response to something that has happened, to express a thought, or just because it seems to fit. When I think about it, those quotes often prompt confusion from my family members, especially if they don’t recognize the source or context. Other times, one family member has explained the context of my quote to others who didn’t know it. I realize this has long been a significant ‘quirk’ of mine.

The list goes on. I also tend to make clicking or smacking noises at times. It drives my wife crazy and I try to self-monitor, but hardly a day goes by when she doesn’t point it out to me. Apparently ‘pressure phosphene’ or pressing on your closed eyes to generate visual effects is an autistic stim. That’s also something I’ve done at times my whole life. I would do jump rope, pogo stick, and other jumping activities by myself as a child for hours on end for the rhythmic motion.

It’s a challenge to look at myself and realize that for 51 years, my self-perception and self-understanding have been off the mark. I believe it will be helpful, at least in the long run, to have a more accurate self-image. But it’s also very difficult. It’s even been a struggle to write these posts. And that’s very unusual for me. Typically when I want to write, I start typing and the words just flow. I go back and edit and I’m done. But I mentally walked through bits and pieces that are in just this one post for days before I could even start writing. And once I started, it was a multiple day struggle to transpose my thoughts to words.

This process is really hard.