There’s something here…something I need to describe to you all, a picture of some inner workings that might help to answer the question “wait…you’re autistic?” For those of us who don’t appear to be autistic, we get this question/comment frequently…but we most certainly feel that way, and (internally at least) present that way. I am self-identified, and perfectly comfortable with that self-identification. The more I learn about people like me, the more I see I'm there, without a shadow of a doubt. My brain works differently, it processes information in a unique way, and there's no shame in that game.
But I digress...
The other day I was having this experience…stuck, completely spinning out of my own mind and unable to ground or focus or move forward. My head was racing, light years beyond where it should be, pulse-quickening, heartbeat thumping… unable to concentrate. In short, I felt neurotic.
This is what happens when I’m new at something, I don’t understand a task, or I am forced into a situation I'd rather not be in (like networking). To a slightly different degree, this also happens when I am engaged in a preferred task...I hyper-focus, have a million questions, and need at least some of them answered before I can sit still and concentrate.
To an outsider, these questions might look completely irrelevant, bizarre, or annoying. I may look like I’m trying to control the situation, am tied to a particular outcome, or am focusing on the wrong thing. I assure you, I am not. I am simply trying to orient myself to what makes sense for my internal compass and move forward from there.
The places I focus are generally on logistics…the concrete how/what/where/when that feel so very important. This orientation helps me organize my thoughts so I can focus and concentrate on the task at hand. Without these, I can hardly pay attention to what someone may be saying, what they are describing or what is happening around me. Without these I can’t take in information, or in order to take it in I need to concentrate to the N’th degree…far more than should be required for the information being presented.
I have a friend who is autistic, and he describes this for himself as well. For this guy, he can’t concentrate well on movies, because if the plot or the character development doesn’t make sense to his orientation, he can’t focus on what’s happening. He gives a fantastic example of this with watching Harry Potter. He wants to know if Hogwart’s is free...and if so where does the funding come from? Is it a socialist society, or what is the fundamental structure that supports this type of schooling? Of course, his friends watching have no answer to these questions…and kindly (or maybe not so kindly) ask him to be quiet and just watch the movie and enjoy it for Christ's sake. But he can’t. Not without having these fundamental questions answered that will ground him into the way his brain organizes information.
I’ll give you another example, from my own experience, so you can see what I’m talking about…
Recently, a friend invited me to attend a surprise event with her. I’m a fan of surprises, but there was SO MUCH I needed to know. All I knew was the day, and that it would be hot and I should wear a summer dress. Ok, good information. Knowing what to wear certainly helped, that would have been a first question. But…I also needed to know what time would we be there? How long would we be gone? Should I eat breakfast, pack a snack, wear sunscreen? Maybe I’d need layers, or comfortable shoes, or are heels okay? Would I be back by a certain time, and who would be driving? Once these logistical needs were met, I was happy to wait for the surprise…I was happy to be picked up, not knowing where we were going and just enjoying the day.
You see, I needed a container, a safe space I could orient into, that had obvious boundaries and known parameters. It helps me to feel safe and trusting and open to the experience.
My daughter is like this too…I give her lead time when she is going to have a new experience, so she can come up with the questions and get ready for transition and not totally freak out. She wants to know things like…Who will be there? What will we talk about? How many people will there be? Will we have lunch before or after, and what will be for lunch? I’m patient as I answer these questions, but sometimes they simply can’t be answered because there are too many unknowns…that can be frustrating for us both, but I also understand what is happening to her. I get the need for a container, a series of expectations so when the event occurs, we’ve already thought about it, we’re already somewhat prepared for the experience which protects us from shutting down.
Concurrently, I may freeze...only able to observe and take it all in before I can actually talk. I'm proecessing...deeply processsing. Sometimes to a degree that I'm not even aware of, and later insights will come to me from these observations that I didn't even realize I was taking in. It's taken me years to realize that this is my processs. For so long I've tried to force myself to be friendly, to talk to people in new situations, to jump right in. But I do so much better when I allow myself space to observe, to settle, and let the envrionment land with me.
As a child I would find kids playing and watch them, for what felt like an eternity. Maybe it was only 20 minutes, I have no idea. But I'd watch, and then I'd go find my dad. "Daddy, I found some kids I want to play with, can you introduce me?" Patiently, he'd follow me to the group as I hid behind his leg like a forest animal behind a treestump. "This is my daugther, Cynthia, she'd like to play with you, ok?" Generally the group would accept me and I'd join right in, pretty soon comfortable as could be, already aware of the personalities and the rules of the game because of my observations. I'm still like this...I still prefer to observe and to have someone else introduce me, but I'm learning...
I'm learning to do it all. To allow myself my processing, my time...the ability to sit still and observe, or ask all the questions as I freak out before settling in. I'm learning to share this with others, so they don't become annoyed or confused. I realize that I don't look shy, or neurotic to those who know me well. And that's true...I'm not, for the most part. But internally, it's a whole different landscape.
Next week, I'll dive in a bit more to those characteristics that are more hidden...the internal world of a person who is neurodivergent but doesn't look that way. There's a lot of us out here...so many more than you might realize. In fact, you might be one of them. In which case: Welcome.