Compression

As I mentioned in Too Feely, my taste in clothes is driven largely by comfort and not by style. Those who know me will probably, if they try to imagine me standing in front of them in my normal attire, picture someone who nearly always wears loose elasticated jogging style trousers (shorts in summer), t-shirts (vest tops in summer), and a fleece and maybe a scarf when it’s cold. All of these clothes are usually selected for their loose comfort, their lack of restriction, and, often, their softness. I do occasionally dress up for dinners, concerts and parties, but only usually for short spells of time, and not on a daily basis.

So why am I sitting at my computer, typing this, wearing tight compression sportswear that’s several sizes too small, with an elasticated waist support fastened tightly around me on top of the already compressive clothing? And, more to the point, why am I not feeling sick or in pain or desperate to rip all my clothes off? Why did I CHOOSE to put these things on this morning?

The short answer is “I don’t know”. I haven’t a clue why, sometimes, I am desperate for the feeling of pressure against my body and I crave it and it calms me. Sometimes, when bashing myself against the sofa for half an hour doesn’t work, and drinking several glasses of wine doesn’t work, and thinking mindfully doesn’t work, and everything else I can think of doesn’t work, being compressed DOES work, and it works beautifully well. As I’m sitting here, wearing clothes that I usually wouldn’t go near on an ordinary day, I feel grounded and reassured by them. I feel the anxiety receding. I feel that the deep even pressure from my chest to my ankles is something beautiful, and, truth be told, if I could make it even firmer, even stronger, then I would (I’m limited as to just HOW tight the clothes can be by the need to be able to take them on and off)!

I’ve written before, in poem form, about the weighted blanket I bought in January and how much the pressure from that helps me and calms me. My use of compressive clothing as a calming mechanism since discovering I’m autistic predates my use of weighted items by several months. I wrote the following back in October 2016, in what essentially became a journal that was the predecessor to this blog:

29 October 2016

Weird probably autistic thing number whateverwe’reuptonow.

Mainly noting here for collating evidence / stuff to write about on future blog / in future book etc. And just because this is becoming a chronicle of experiences.

I always wear loose clothes. I know I do. I hate my clothes being tight. So I wear loose soft ones with all the labels cut out.

This afternoon I’ve been pretty weird. On my own in the flat (he is working) and also had a fairly tense week (water getting repaired), out yesterday, loads of stuff on the form (which is getting there – I hope to have it in the post on Monday), and a moderately stressful time.

So this afternoon was letting go time. I knew I felt very very anxious. Very not calm. Rocking and bashing myself on the sofa and stuff in the dark helped quite a lot. But not quite enough. It didn’t quite do what I needed.

I suddenly realised that what I really really wanted was pressure. To be wearing something tight. That was the signal every bit of my brain was getting from my body. I want pressure. Really really want pressure. The message was clear.

So it is Saturday evening and I am home alone wearing my tightest most compressive running trousers and a pair of compression calf sleeves. I don’t own any normal tight clothes, but I do have kit. So I am wearing the tightest kit I own.

And it feels beautiful and wonderful and I feel calm. And right. Sitting here in compression kit.

This is all really really odd.

But it is what is happening. And my promise to myself when this whole thing started was to do it properly. To listen to the signals I was getting from my body and my head. To work out what is needed. What helps. What is all this about.

If the strategies sometimes include wearing compression kit, then so be it. The calming effect is magical.

Back then I just used the smallest running kit I had lying around (and because I’d put on a bit of weight over the preceding year it was slightly too small and therefore helpful). Very soon afterwards, after a few more occasions where I’d hunted around in drawers and things to find other clothes that were fitted and even and a bit too small and decided that wearing compressive clothing from time to time really was going to help me, I deliberately went to my local sports store (as a runner I’m massively familiar with the place as I’m always obsessing about new kit and so on) and selected several items of clothing and various weightlifting things and so on and they’ve become part of my life now.

I did a bit of hunting around on the internet and found that liking compression from time to time is, indeed, not unknown among autistic people. I found tales of people going out with compressive sportswear under their clothes, mentions of corsetry being worn by autistic people, accounts of autistic kids wedging themselves under mattresses, and, of course, information about Temple Grandin’s squeeze machine which it seems she invented to get the sensory feeling of being hugged but without the need for human contact which some autistics are uncomfortable with.

I’m not uncomfortable being hugged by other humans – far from it, although I do have occasional times when I prefer not to be hugged (they’re quite rare), and I’m absolutely not a great fan of being tickled or very lightly touched or being breathed on or similar. But other humans are not always available, and sometimes I do need to be both alone and have that reassuring feeling of EVEN pressure against me (the evenness is very important – I absolutely don’t like straps or inconsistent pressure or anything that feels like it’s digging into my skin).

The research I’ve managed to do so far suggests that, just like bashing myself against things or hitting parts of my body with my fists or lying under a weighted blanket, that this need for firm consistent pressure is to do with balancing the proprioceptive system – the sense that feeds back to the brain precisely where the body is in space, that tells you where your legs are under a desk even when you can’t actually see them. It seems that, like all the other sensory systems (see Too Bright and Too Loud) autistic people’s proprioceptive systems can be a bit skewed and that seeking pressure (or indeed, being unable to tolerate it) is not uncommon.

And so, wearing compressive clothing when I feel the need has become part of my normal life over the last six months. And, as I hunted around last October for those few items of “too small” clothing I found there were a few. And all my life I’ve had occasional times when I’ve worn them, for, it seems no reason at all. I’ve just got up from time to time and thought I’d wear the tight things today.

Then, a couple of days later, sitting wearing the newly acquired sportswear and a waist support belt, I was suddenly hit with a really strong memory – a memory triggered not by conscious remembering, but by feeling, in the same way that starting to flap my hands had triggered this sort of “feeling memory”. I wrote it up in the journal:

31 October 2016

As I calmed down and felt the pressure from the belt I remembered having a big wide belt when I was a teenager. It was the 1980s so belts were big and wide.

And I remembered sitting at my desk in my bedroom as a teenager wearing some too small shorts and the big wide belt done up very very tight and pushing my chair right up to my desk.

A memory completely forgotten until today.

That was one of the ways I coped back then. 30 years ago. And I wouldn’t have had the first clue why.

This continues to be an extraordinary and revealing time.

I know this memory must have come from some time in my early teens because I can remember the position of my desk and the décor in my bedroom. I also know that I’d had no instruction to wear a wide belt done up tightly for any reason (probably, had anyone known I was doing it they’d have tried to discourage rather than encourage it anyway, so I expect I concealed it, probably afraid I’d get into trouble), and I had no access to anything like the internet or any other influence. But the memory that was triggered last October has reminded me of similar times that go right through my life, through student days, through most of my adult life, right up to the present moment.

And so I shall continue to wear what I am wearing right now until either I need to go out or until I receive the signal from my body (which can often be sudden and dramatic) that says NO MORE! Interestingly, the feeling of needing pressure of this intensity can vanish almost instantly, and when it does, I listen. I’m working out ways of making the system as flexible as possible and of doing what is most needed when it’s most needed, and I’m starting to observe how it all works and still trying to understand what it’s all about!

Storm Clouds

It feels as though storm clouds are gathering in my head these last few days. I’m not sure why, and I can’t work out if there’s anything I can do about it, but I have that feeling that I’m building the sort of tension that will eventually lead to meltdown or shutdown. But not yet. Somehow the energy is yet to be released. Things are too controlled. Maybe, knowing I have a weekend of things to do out in the world means that I’m keeping control somehow. I have that feeling of wanting to cry, but not being able to.

It’s an unsettling feeling, though not totally bad. I don’t even think the overload in my head and the build up of emotions (many of which I’m struggling to identify for alexythmic reasons) is entirely negative. It’s just that I can feel a gradual build up. Of something. I’m trying to analyse what that something is. I’m trying to judge whether some sort of big stimming session would help. I don’t know. It’s a very edgy feeling.

This is the fifth attempt I’ve had at writing about it. What has emerged as a common theme in the first four attempts is that this state is a mixture of two lots of emotion. One lot could probably be called negative, and the other, positive. They are existing inside my head simultaneously, and both pouring these strong, but not totally identifiable, feelings into my system. I get emotions like this. I always have, except when too depressed, or taking large quantities of medication, which seems to blank many of my feelings out anyway. One reason I hesitate to take medication is that much of it takes away things that I value – my appreciation of music, my excitement in the world, and so on.

And so, these huge waves of emotion keep washing over me, and I’m trying to untangle them in order to deal with them. Maybe a therapist would help with this, but I don’t have one, so I’m trying to do it on my own. Although it’s becoming obvious from trying to write it down as best I can that the same things are recurring over and over and my mind is still trying to deal with them. I’ve almost certainly written about them here before, and I apologise for what is probably terrible repetition (my husband says that he is used to me saying everything 98 times) but it seems that this need for repetition, for reassurance, for rehearsing the same argument over and over is probably one of my autistic traits too – something I need to do to get things clear in my mind.

And so the negative thoughts:

The constant nagging knowledge that my life will be limited because I simply don’t have the productive energy that most people do because I’m using so much of my energy to cope with my environment and to process language. I don’t like being limited, but decades of experience have shown me that the consequences of not consciously limiting my life and of trying to “be like everybody else” are poor mental health and catastrophic burnout. I am furious about this. I do not want to have to limit my life, but I must, and I know I must. I have to learn to be gentler, and allow recovery time.

I’m still not fully able to explain to people what being autistic really means. I’m still encountering “yes, but we all get tired…” types of comments, and I’m not yet able to articulate in words that what I mean is something different and that I’m not on about it being the end of a long week and I just fancy a bit of a lie-in. I need to write a blog post about this, I know I do. It is nibbling at my insides (yes, it feels like that) and I need to deal with it. Ditto the current controversies about stim-toys and spinners. I have so many and various thoughts about the whole thing, but I can’t make them into words currently, and that is frustrating me.

And talk of schools and classrooms and so on keeps pulling me back to my own childhood, the door onto which I had closed, I thought for good, until last year, when it had to be forced open. And once it was open, it was really useful for getting my diagnosis, but it hasn’t brought back floods of joyful memories, but of a time when my main objectives were to stave off bullying, to learn to behave, and to achieve good results academically. I had no chew toys or spinners – so I chewed my tie and my jumper and I played with bits from my pencil case and got into trouble for doodling during lessons (among other things).

The late diagnosis thing still irks me. The fact that I had to get THIS broken before anybody noticed that I was autistic. The fact that I was born at a time in history when the world didn’t know about people like me. I’m still sad and angry and regretful at so much of the first 45 years of my life. I’m still furious with the mental health specialists who didn’t know. Today we talk about acceptance being preferable to awareness – even the most basic awareness 20 years ago of autism in those of us who were AFAB might have saved me so much heartbreak.

And here I am, a 45-year-old burnt out non-binary autistic, going through the menopause, learning who I am, trying to rebuild my life, and doing it, currently, without help from anyone except a husband and friends. And I often feel like I am breaking, like I just want to vanish off the face of the Earth, because my youth has gone, and I want to cry for all these things, because they’re still bothering me.

But the positive thoughts are also strong:

The relief at no longer feeling the pressure to be a high flyer. The knowledge that I have a disability (and yes, for me, it is disabling – there is much to be investigated regarding models of disability, but that is not for now) and therefore I can stop beating myself up when I don’t achieve what I thought I should be able to is reassuring. The knowledge that the levels of self-care that I need are now “permitted” is such a huge relief, so liberating, and even joyful. I don’t have to be some kind of superhero any more – I can built this new life and stop pretending to be someone I’m not.

Most people I know are being massively supportive. I’m hugely lucky to have most of them in my life. Far from being deserted by old friends, I’m still, even, making new ones, people who care enough to be interested, people who read this blog and who are helped, people who understand the difficulties, and some who do not but are investing their time and energy and are willing to learn and be caring and understanding. This makes what I could call “big feels” – I don’t have a better expression than that currently. Like so often these days, I just hope people know what I mean.

And though I cannot change the past or do anything about my childhood or its difficulties, I’m now massively enjoying allowing myself to explore the world that has now opened up of toys and things to fiddle with and things that I can buy for myself without anybody to tell me not to. I can sit and stare at my glow in the dark spinner until it runs out of glow, I can roll the ball around on my fidget cube for hours at a time, I can have all the toys now that I never had as a child, and because I am old and spend the majority of my time at home alone nobody will tell me off for doing these things. I am making up for lost time in a big way, finally releasing all the bits of me that have been hidden all these years.

And the fact that the diagnosis has come at all, even this late, is still enough on its own to make me cry with happiness. The relief, the liberation, the knowledge of who I am and why I am and how I am. The permission to be something other, the explanation of why I’ve felt as I have all my life, and the solving of hundreds and thousands of mysteries from the last 45 years. The letting go of the old expectations, the shift to a neurological identity and a gender identity that feels properly comfortable to me, rather than one I was taught was the case. The hope that I will eventually recover from this burnout and will eventually get through this phase and that life will be better than it ever has been, and that I’ll eventually build a life that will be right for me.

And part of what is causing these emotions feels like some sort of huge “sigh of relief” from my entire being. I read about labels and words and why do I need the descriptor “autistic” if I know who I am. For me, I needed that descriptor to SHOW me who I am. Learning about what it means to be autistic is teaching me how to be who I am – because after 4 decades of acting roles, my real self has become somewhat obscured and needs a little help to emerge. I’ve had a lot of training to be someone else. I have a lot to discover. The minute I knew, and I allowed myself, and I learnt for the first time in my life to follow my instincts, things felt very very different.

And each time I’ve tried to write about this, these simultaneous bunches of feelings keep emerging, over and over again. Not even oscillating, like the states described in my earlier post, but together. Sadness and anger and regret alongside relief and liberation and happiness.

And the word at the end of every piece is still “autistic”, as if I’m still trying to make my head accept it fully, embrace it fully, and be able to go out into the world and live it fully. I want to do that, so very much. I know that it will not always be easy – but I do not shy away from difficulty and I never have.

Even writing it all down like this has actually changed how I feel, released some of the energy that I had when I started typing around half an hour ago. I’m calmer. The storm clouds have rolled on past for now. They will be back. The next meltdown and next shutdown will happen at some point, but typing everything up like this has had a healing effect for now, sorted things out a little. If anyone’s still reading, then thank you for indulging me. It has helped.

Disparate Facts

I’m going to tell you a few facts about me. These things have always been true. They are, on the whole, things that I have always known about myself. For the last 45 years they have been steadily accumulating, and just regarded as my “quirks” by everyone who has known me and known about some or all of these things.

1. I never go to the cinema. Although I went a few times as a child it was never at my initiation and as an adult I’ve hardly ever been. The last time was over a decade ago and we left after the first 20 minutes.

2. I was really naughty at primary school, constantly on headmaster’s report, constantly in trouble for various things, and not really getting any significant work done.

3. I do not know the name of any other person (apart from my husband) in the town where I live. I do not know my neighbours’ names and have never spoken to any of them.

4. I am deeply unfashionable, never wear make-up or a bra, and am utterly unable to comprehend why, say, wearing socks with sandals could be wrong since it’s comfortable and easy.

5. I really like even numbers and most particularly numbers with lots of factors. I like square numbers, and I believe numbers have a sort of hierarchy where some are more relaxing than others.

6. I scratch my head a lot and pick the skin off my scalp. In my 20s I did so very very badly and had open wounds on the back of my head. I didn’t know why I did this, it was just a thing I did.

7. If I spent 20 minutes or so in our storage unit I start to feel very very exhausted and sick. I have to sit down and I then deteriorate to the point where I have to go outside.

8. Sometimes I go really really quiet and just stop talking. It usually happens when I’m really exhausted or really stressed or I’ve just become really angry about something.

9. I cannot tell the time easily from a traditional clock face. Neither am I very good at telling left from right without thinking about it really hard and making writing movements with my fingers.

10. I was bullied all the way through school, even at secondary school where I wasn’t regarded as naughty any more, but as a bit of a geeky strange kid.

11. I’m a really rubbish cook. Before I was married I lived mainly on takeaways and toast, and I often forget to eat and have very little idea of how hungry I might be.

12. I sometimes get really really stressed and angry at everything in a really really short space of time and need to run away or hurt myself and I have absolutely no control over it.

13. I have never been able to keep a job for a sustained period of time and most of the jobs I’ve had I’ve left with some sort of mysterious mental illness, usually given as depression.

14. Left to my own devices I take my shoes off and sit with my legs crossed like in primary school assembly, or sometimes with them folded underneath me.

15. I get really stressed when I’m near the fridges in supermarkets. I usually leave my husband to do all the fresh food shopping and spend my time sniffing every single sort of fabric conditioner.

16. I have never had, or wanted, a satnav machine. I love looking at maps and if I have to go somewhere I don’t know then I look it up in advance and memorise the map.

17. If I am going to do an exam and I agree to meet up with people in the pub afterwards I will be much much more nervous about the pub than I am about doing the exam.

18. When I start a new hobby (or resume an old one) I take it very very seriously. I buy loads of books and research it online and often work on it late into the night.

19. My legs jiggle almost constantly if I don’t consciously try to stop them. I cannot sit still and have been known as a fidgety person all my life.

20. I will automatically assume, once I’ve finished writing this blog post, that you’ve already read it, even though I haven’t posted it yet! I will have to keep reminding myself that this isn’t the case!

If I had listed these facts a year ago I would have seen no connection between them whatsoever – they would just have seemed like a list of random unrelated facts. In fact, I would never have even contemplated making such a list – why on Earth would I have connected my inability to cook, with my avoidance of the cinema? or my behaviour at primary school, with the fact that I have never owned a satnav? or getting exhausted at the storage unit, with resisting fashion trends and not wearing make up? Thinking about these these things there seems to be very little connection, if any at all, between many of them.

Until you start playing “autism bingo”!!! I should imagine that, if I gave this list to a group of autistic people, many of them would look at it and say “Yes, me too, me too” or something similar. Obviously, not every single thing would apply to every single person (everybody’s different after all), but the minute I started researching autistic traits and examining my life, the above list of apparently disparate facts suddenly links up and makes perfect sense. It seems that I wasn’t really “quirky” in the way that I thought – these are all just standard manifestations of autistic characteristics!

I’m fairly certain that I will discover many more things that could be added to the list above as I continue to examine my life from an autistic perspective.

It really is about understanding.

Very Very Tired

Imagine…

You ran a marathon yesterday
Or had a big meeting at work
Or took a difficult exam
Or moved house
Or finished a huge assignment
Or travelled a long long way
Or dealt with a family emergency
Or been to a large all night party

Or something else similar…

These are big things.

You might expect
To be
Very
Very
Tired.

And today you would need to rest.

In my autistic world
I know that if…

I went out of my flat yesterday
Or spoke to several people
Or had to sit still for a while
Or encountered harsh lighting
Or chatted for a few hours
Or had to wear particular clothes
Or sent a few e-mails
Or gone for lunch with friends

Or something else similar…

These would be big things.

I would expect
To be
Very
Very
Tired.

And today I would need to rest.

For years
People have asked me
“Why are you so tired?”
“What have you been doing?”

Until I knew I was autistic
I could only say
“I don’t know.”
“I don’t understand.”

I was just as baffled
As everyone else!

I know now
That
For me
As an autistic person

The cause of this
Utter
Debilitating
Exhaustion

Is simply
Existing.

Existing in a world
Where people communicate
Constantly
By talking.
Instinctive to many
But an effort for me.

Existing in a world
Where the input to my brain
From my senses
Is massive
And overloads my system
Until I can no longer cope.

Existing in a world
Where people sit on chairs
And care about appearances
And follow secret rules
That nobody told me.

It takes a lot of effort!

Misunderstandings

61-2017-01-14-16-41-18“Big or small?” the barman asked.

I couldn’t believe my ears. Had he really just asked me that? This was just an ordinary pub, nothing particularly sophisticated, the sort of place where you order a pint and a steak and chips at the bar and eventually someone brings it over to a table with a gold number screwed into the corner.

We’d ordered our drinks, which were now sitting on the bar, and were just completing our food order. Steak and chips or something like that. Then the barman asked if we wanted any side orders. I thought that onion rings would be nice, so I said “Onion rings please” and received the answer “Big or small?”

I stood there at the bar, absolutely amazed that the pub sorted their onion rings by size. Utterly unable to comprehend this level of onion ring detail. I guessed that the big ones came from the outside of the onion and the small ones would maybe come from the middle. I thought the small ones would probably be quite cute.

I turned to my husband and asked him what he thought. He suggested big, and said that he might steal a few. I told him that he could steal a few if I had small ones…

And, of course, he laughed, because, on this occasion he’d understood correctly and I’d understood wrongly. This wasn’t anything to do with the size of the onion rings, but the size of the PORTION of onion rings. I’d completely misunderstood the barman’s question and gone off into a reverie of onion ring categorization that would probably only ever occur in some sort of gastronomic competition – certainly not in a very ordinary pub.

This is the sort of ambiguity that most people’s conversation seems to be full of, the sort of thing that people are supposed to understand as if by some sort of magic. The sort of thing that I’ve been trying to learn all my life, and have never quite got right. Close enough for survival most of the time, and because I’m generally quite affable and quite content to laugh at my own mistakes, it’s all just been put down to being a bit eccentric. Furthermore, there have been occasions where people have laughed at me and I’ve wondered what the joke was, until I realised I’d misunderstood and they’d actually assumed that my suddenly talking about, for example, miniature onion rings, was in fact my quirky sense of humour!

My husband is not immune to the “literal effect” either. He once volunteered to help at a party (partly because he had to be at the party and helping is one of his ways of avoiding having to make small talk – in general he’d much rather work than chat), so the hostess of the party said it would be really helpful if he could gather up empty glasses from around the house and take them to the kitchen.

A simple and understandable instruction – empty glasses to kitchen. Easy.

So, every time he saw an empty glass he took it to the kitchen. Each time someone took their last mouthful of wine or beer or whatever and put their glass down, he swooped in and took it to the kitchen, before there was even a microchance that it might be refilled.

The consequence was that people kept having to get new glasses and the supply of glasses ran out about half way through the party and the glasses had to be washed up so that people could carry on drinking.

But the instructions were clear – empty glasses to the kitchen, so that’s what he did!

I’ve apparently been making similar kitchen-related mistakes for many years. I go to have lunch fairly regularly with my best friend and his wife. I sort of know that I should help somehow, because my husband has told me that people are meant to offer to help in the kitchen, but to be honest it always seems so terribly complicated that I just sit there and hope that if I’m really needed to do something then someone will ask me – communal working is something I find really challenging.

Occasionally my friend’s wife has handed me 3 plates and asked me to put them onto the table. I have done this, reliably, exactly as instructed, for around 20 years. I take the stack of 3 plates from her and place them on the table.

About a week after it became obvious that the autism hypothesis was true and I told my friend and his wife that I was autistic, she suddenly said how much sense it made, and immediately mentioned the plates. Apparently for around the last 20 years, when handing me plates to put on the table, what she’s actually meant is that I should LAY the table, putting plates in situ in front of the places where people sit. And similarly with knives and forks.

I have been completely clueless about this hidden meaning. She’s always thought I was being slightly obstinate and unwilling to lay the table. I’ve believed I was doing exactly as I was told!!!

It seems that there are hidden messages all over the place in human communication that I often miss, even when they are apparently clear and written down.

Around 20 years ago I had a boyfriend for a year or so, and, as it became obvious that the relationship wasn’t going to be a permanent one and we started to drift apart, we both started to go our separate ways and move on. It wasn’t an acrimonious parting, just a recognition that things were now over.

I then got a new boyfriend, and started to move on with my life, and shortly afterwards received a letter from the old boyfriend. In this letter the old boyfriend wished me well, and told me that he had a new beautiful girlfriend and was very happy spending time with her now (or words to that effect). I read the letter and thought “That’s nice, he has a new girlfriend, I hope she treats him well and they’re happy together.”

The next time I saw my new boyfriend I reported that the old one had now moved on and showed him the letter. He took one look at it and said “There is no new girlfriend, he’s trying to get you back.” I was completely gobsmacked and couldn’t believe it for one minute. If he wanted to get me back then why on Earth would he invent a fictitious girlfriend? Why not say “I miss you, is there any chance we can see each other again?”

But my new boyfriend was right. Not very much investigating showed that at that time the old one didn’t have a new girlfriend. And the letter was just some sort of ploy – apparently I was supposed to feel jealous or something. One which, of course, completely backfired because I had no way of understanding this sort of game, no way of comprehending that there was some sort of hidden message in the letter – like almost everything in life, I simply took what it said at face value.

There have been many of these sorts of incidents over the years – too many for me simply to have been “a bit slow on the uptake” or to have just ordinarily misunderstood quite so often. I’m certain that everyone misunderstands communication from time to time, but I seem to do it rather more often than most people do, and I know I spend a lot of time deconstructing sentences in my head, trying to work out exactly what they mean and attempting to understand what the other person is really saying, and I often get it wrong. I’ve learnt and learnt and learnt to try to read what people mean when they communicate, but there have always been holes in the learning, and I’ve always been thinking very very hard and very very consciously about what things can mean. I learn from each mistake – I now know that onion rings come in portion sizes, not actual sizes, I now know that putting things onto a table sometimes means laying a table, and I now know that boyfriends pretend to have new girlfriends as a way of trying to persuade old ones to return to them. But all of this is learnt, consciously learnt, one mistake at a time, and I still don’t really understand why people don’t just give more accurate instructions.

I’m still learning, still working it out, but at least I now know that the reason I get things wrong is because imprecise instructions that assume I have a level of social knowledge that I don’t have are really confusing to me. As I start to remember these seemingly innocuous and isolated incidents they’re linking up to form a consistent pattern of things that I misunderstood, or didn’t pick up on. I’m a fast learner, so I keep learning, and I copy copy copy other people who seem to know what to do, but I don’t have the inbuilt social knowledge that other people have.

The social games that so many people seem so fond of are totally lost on me. However hard I try to learn how they work, I always seem to be running along behind all the social people, trying to catch up, trying to figure it out!

But the whole thing is a massive effort, and a whole load of trying to guess what exactly I’m supposed to be doing!

Too Feely

59-2016-12-15-10-49-11Just last week, in my facebook memories, there appeared a status from a year ago. My husband and I had been having a conversation, prompted by something we’d seen on the TV, about how well we slept. I had said at the time that having a husband who pulled the bedsheets and altered their tension or made wrinkles in them was definitely detrimental to good sleeping.

A year ago I didn’t have the first clue I was autistic. I had never heard of sensory processing disorder or any of these sensory sensitivity issues. But I knew, absolutely knew, that one wrinkle in a bed sheet was a disaster! Always had been. Bed sheets should be flat and smooth, with even tension throughout. Anything else was bad. I’ve always been a bit “princess and the pea”ish about where I’ve slept, arranging things so I can’t feel wrinkles, and making sure nothing felt “wrong”!

And it’s not just about bedclothes. Right back to my childhood I remember things that made me very very uncomfortable. I grew up in the 1970s, when polo necked jumpers were very popular – I remember pulling at the necks, trying to make them bigger and looser to stop the feeling that I was being strangled. It was even worse when they were made out of wool and to add to the strangled feeling there was this tearing cutting feeling everywhere it touched my skin, as though I’d fallen into a bramble bush or something. I remember being desperate to have a pair of jeans because they were fashionable, but then feeling utterly terrible when I tried to wear them (this was before lycra and stretch made such things wearable) and they felt like they were cutting me in half at the waist.

I also remember, as a child, being in a school play and having to wear make-up as part of my costume. The teacher put lipstick on me and instantly it felt absolutely horrible. Totally disgusting. I told the teacher this and she told me that I’d understand when I grew up and that grown up women loved lipstick and wore it every day. I had a brief flirtation with the stuff in my teens, but it still felt, and smelled, and tasted, absolutely vile. I think I wore foundation twice, before chucking it in the bin because it made me desperate to wash my face because I felt so horrible and dirty and it smelled so bad. I’m 45 now, and I still haven’t become that grown up woman that the teacher told me I would, and now I know that I never will, and the teacher was wrong.

Another of the “grown up woman” things that I ditched in my 20s was the bra. I can bear to wear a wide strapped sports one for the duration of a run, but while I’m actually running only. If I try to drive home after a race or training run still wearing it then I start to feel sick, the cutting pressure across my back, the feeling of the straps digging in, like someone’s trying to slice my skin open. I haven’t worn a bra in daily life for over 20 years, and I never shall again.

The same is true of anything made out of lace. I developed a certain tolerance as I grew up and things did improve as fabrics became better, but still, when I buy an item of clothing, I FEEL it. I will choose the thing that feels good over the thing that LOOKS good EVERY TIME! I also spend time every morning when I put on my socks, lining up the toe seams so they are symmetrical and perfect. I know there are some people with sensory issues who don’t like to wear socks at all – I am not one of them – the feeling of bare feet on the soles of shoes and sandals is not pleasant for me – I would rather wear socks. I am a person who wears socks with sandals, and I don’t care how many stupid memes tell me it is unfashionable – it is comfortable, and that is way more important.

I also mentioned, in The Discovery, how I cut the labels out of my clothes. I don’t know why people put labels into clothes, but every time I buy something new I take it out of the bag and go over it and remove the labels. I assumed that everyone did this, since it is such a routine and normal part of my life and has been for as long as I can remember. I then wash it before I wear it because the stiffness of anything that is likely to touch my skin is horrible. I don’t like the scratchy feeling or the way new clothes smell. I am a person who exists most happily in old t-shirts, elasticated-waist jogging bottoms, and fleeces. I can dress up smartly for an evening, and sometimes do, but it is always temporary, and the posh clothes are off the instant I’m back in the door.

I have spent years wondering how people can go to work all day in a dress, with tights, and high heels. I have marvelled at how they endure the pain of wearing a bra day in day out. I have been overwhelmed by their toughness, their resilience, and their fortitude in the face of what must be so devastatingly painful, and I have long known that I could never be like that. I had a job once that required me to wear a suit. I lasted a month. Just getting dressed for work each morning was so traumatic that I was in tears every day before I even left the house. I eventually went off sick from that job and never returned to it.

In the same way that I have to remove labels from clothes, I also feel a need to remove stickers from books. If I’m reading a book and it has a barcode sticker with an ISBN number on the back and I can feel the raised sticker as I hold the book it distracts me from what I’m reading to the extent that I don’t take the information in. Just as with clothes, I get home from a bookshop and remove anything that might interfere with the smooth surface. Where other people might not notice, I do.

And I was astounded to read, in one of the many books I’ve been reading on autism, about the autistic woman who, when kissed by anyone who left a slightly damp patch on her cheek, instantly felt the need to wipe her face. I am exactly the same. There feels something so terribly wrong, like the surface has been disturbed, and I need to straighten it, to stop the feeling of blemish, of cold and wet.

I am also sensitive to what is on my fingers, and, for many years, have washed my hands in such a way that I thought I had some sort of obsessive washing tendencies, but I realise now that the cause of my handwashing antics is actually to do with sensory issues. I cannot BEAR to have sticky or greasy fingers. Given the option I will eat cakes or pastries with a fork to avoid touching them with my hands, and this isn’t, as I’d wondered, a germ-related thing, but the dislike of feeling sticky or dirty. If you see me eat a bag of crisps then I will most likely wipe my hands on my trousers after every single crisp. If I’m in a place where I can, I’ll also get up and wash my hands afterwards. If I’m out, then I will do everything I can to eat a cake from the packet without touching the cake – I’m quite skilful at it. And when I’m in a position when I can’t do any of these things, it uses extra energy, extra resources, and makes me more tired, more likely to go in the direction of meltdown, and so on. I’ve long marvelled at people who seem so unfazed by eating with their hands, or by people who seem, so effortlessly, to put their hands into mixing bowls when baking, or who think gardening is therapeutic, yet it involves touching soil, which is, for me, a very unpleasant sensation.

I’m the same with crockery and cutlery. My husband is quite used to me sending mugs or knives or forks back because they “feel wrong”. He doesn’t have the same sensory issues that I do (if anything, he is undersensitive to such things), but he will wash them again and again, to make them right. I have, on occasion, been home alone and “my mug” has been greasy in the sink and I have spent all day without a cup of tea as a result. This is what happens on my worst days. On days when I have more energy I will steel myself to wash the mug, and then wash my hands afterwards until they’re back to how they should be, and how they feel right.

It’s a constant balancing act, but what’s so extraordinary is that these things have all been part of my life for decades and I’ve never had the faintest idea why.

Until I started reading books about autism and sensory issues!

Bingo!

Too Bright

52-2016-12-25-22-53-15I have just changed the lighting in our sitting room – again. I’ve unscrewed yet another bulb from one of the main lights (which are made up of five stalks, each with a bulb on the end), turned the other main light off completely, and installed a lamp with a low wattage bulb instead.

A few weeks ago I stopped using the main lights in the bedroom and installed a lamp in there with another fairly dim bulb. I now only turn the main lights on when I really need to see anything. I also turned the brightness on my computer screen right down to the minimum, and even so can only manage to spend about an hour at a time working at the computer before I start to feel quite ill and need a significant break.

I have become seriously sensitive to light in the last few months, or, more accurately, I have become properly aware in the last few months, of just how seriously light affects my health.

I’ve always known that light levels mattered to me much more than they seem to to a lot of people. When I’ve been very depressed in winter I’ve been greatly assisted by both a lightbox and a “daylight” alarm clock. I also struggle, during the long days of summer, to get to sleep at night or to stay asleep past dawn if I don’t have complete blackout curtains. I even bought a special curtain rail that fits close to the wall so that not the slightest sliver of light can be seen once the curtains are closed. It has to be dark, really really dark.

My sensitivity to light is also, I have discovered, a large part of my inability to cope with shopping. Shops tend to be brightly lit places, with lots of fluorescent bulbs. I have recently been experimenting with wearing dark sunglasses in supermarkets and have found they help significantly with the nausea and exhaustion that I always assumed was part of the normal shopping experience.

Considering light sensitivity has also solved another mystery. Around 3 years ago we had to move to a rather small flat, and most of our possessions are currently in a storage unit some 20 miles away from home. They need sorting very badly, as they were packed in great haste and many are unlabelled. I’ve had several attempts over the years at going to the unit, unpacking a few boxes, and starting to sort through their contents. After around 20 minutes I become so tired I cannot stand, and not long afterwards I start to feel desperately sick and in a state of collapse. This has always puzzled me. I’m a strong, relatively fit person with a great deal of physical stamina (I run ultramarathons for a hobby), yet just unpacking a couple of boxes finishes me off. This has never made any sense.

Until, a couple of months ago, I considered the lighting in the storage facility. Which is similar to the sort of lighting in supermarkets, but even brighter and more intense. Unshaded and glaringly bright industrial strip lighting. And suddenly a mystery that has puzzled me for nearly three years was solved – the reason I cannot work in the storage unit is that the lighting in there quite literally makes me sick.

Obviously, we now have a problem to deal with – I have to be able to sort the stuff, throw what we don’t need, repack tidily the things we want to store until the time we can move somewhere a bit bigger, and rescue things that are precious and needed and bring them to the flat. But at least we now know what the problem is, so we can work on solving it.

My sensitivity to light also explains a couple of mysteries from my past.

When I was a teenager and first needed to wear glasses I thought that getting photochromic lenses would be pretty cool, and also really useful because I wouldn’t need to have a separate pair of sunglasses. Because my stepfather was an optician, he gave me my glasses as a present for many years, and I always had photochromic lenses because I discovered I really really liked them. However, by the time I was in my late 20s I’d moved away, things had changed, and I started to buy my own glasses. Because I was struggling for money, owing to being unable to keep any sort of job for very long, I simply started to buy the cheapest glasses, the ones with plain untinted lenses. My energy levels decreased significantly at around the same time, although it’s only with the benefit of hindsight and new knowledge that I’ve connected the two events, but now that I have, it’s rather obvious.

During the latter stages of the 2001 episode of burnout, I started to realise that I was going to end up in a rather serious situation with rent and food and so on as it became obvious that I was going to lose my job. I didn’t have the first clue what to do about this, so thought I would try to get to the nearest branch of the Citizens Advice Bureau in the hope that someone might be able to help me. I remember walking down the street, near where I lived in north London, and as I walked the light got brighter and brighter and brighter. Eventually it became so painful and so overwhelming that I collapsed onto the pavement. People rushed over to help me. And I eventually sat up, managed to rest for a while, and got to the CAB, who were no help at all.

The mystery about this episode was that as I came round I looked to see how other people were reacting to this sudden painful intrusion of brightness into their lives. And, oddly, none of them seemed to have noticed at all. They were just carrying on with their lives. The mystery of why these people hadn’t all collapsed in the street as I had was another that was only solved in the last few months, when I started to read about autism and sensory processing disorder.

So, discovering I am autistic has explained yet more mysteries from my past, and given me the information I need to work on solving problems in the future. I suspect some of the exhaustion I’ve felt when going home from jobs in brightly lit offices and classrooms has also been down to light, and if I ever do get well enough to work again then suitable lighting might be the sort of adjustment I’d need in order to stay in a job.

As far as we are able, we’re sorting the lighting out in the flat. Being able to just have gentle natural light would be lovely, but much of our flat is entirely internal, without windows, so we have to make the best use we can of the gentlest lighting we can cope with while also leaving the option for something brighter when we need it to see properly.

And I now have sunglasses, in my prescription, in two levels of tint, medium and dark. Wearing them out in the world is definitely helping me to cope. I wish I’d known years ago that something as simple as wearing sunglasses regularly would improve my life so significantly.

But I do now know. And this is why, although discovering I am autistic means I know I will never “get better” and I need to rethink my ambitions for the future, it also means that I can start to do things, such as altering lighting and wearing sunglasses, that will improve my quality of life on a daily basis. I can stop wasting energy trying to cope with unnecessary exhausting visual input and use that energy to feel healthier, or to achieve a little more, or even a bit of both!