Speech Levels

During the days following my first autism assessment, the one that went terribly wrong and during which I was declared “too articulate” to be autistic, I did quite a bit of googling of various things in an attempt to establish whether I really was simply going crazy. I found something posted on a forum somewhere, I can’t remember where, about autism and speech. The person who’d written it described how their speech varied and assigned different speech capabilities “levels” from 1-4. Much of what they’d written aligned with my own experience, and it helped me to understand my speech capabilities and how they work.

I have since thought about this quite a lot and have eventually come to the conclusion that I have 5 main levels of speech. I have very little control over which level I’m actually at, and if I try to force speech when it isn’t there it can make me feel really very unwell – these days, now I know what’s going on, I force it less and less, just accepting that my speech isn’t always as it might be expected to be – it’s no big deal, and just allowing it to be as it is (or, indeed, isn’t) is actually starting to allow my health to improve somewhat, even though it makes things a bit more awkward socially.

Interestingly, my husband has always said that when I’m ill or tired or really low and depressed my speech becomes monotone, so I evidently have noticeable speech difference even just in tone of voice at these times, especially once I’m home in a safe environment and not deliberately trying to inflect my voice in the way that I know I should from years of conscious learning. The assessor who diagnosed me as autistic also picked up on the fact that I don’t have the sort of variability in vocal modulation that might be expected – and my range of vocal expressiveness is much more formulaic and limited than most people’s. I, of course, had never noticed this, since my normal has always been my normal!

So, what are my five levels of speech?

Level 1
Fluent easy speech. As far as I know, this level of speech would appear totally typical from the outside and nobody would guess I had any speech issues at all (except, maybe, that I might appear exceedingly confident and dominate the conversation). It feels natural and not difficult and doesn’t use much energy. It might, I suspect, occasionally be a bit too fast, loud, or intense (this, I have been told by others, and I have always linked to the hypomanic phases of bipolar disorder in the past), and it’s more the sort of speech that I use when recounting a story, giving a lecture, or telling someone about something that’s already formed in my head or about which I am knowledgeable and confident. It hardly ever happens if there is interaction with anyone else, and it can be disrupted very easily if anyone stops me, interrupts me, or asks me a question. But the words flow just fine and it doesn’t feel difficult or use a lot of conscious energy.

Level 2
Fluent difficult speech. To the outside observer, I expect this level of speech appears exactly the same as does that of level 1, and, again, nobody would guess I had any issues at all. However, once interaction with someone else happens and I have to listen and interpret as well as talk, or I’m forced to start improvising and talking about something I hadn’t prepared for, from the inside it feels like much much harder work. Being able to continue to sound fluent and remembering to inflect my voice and use the right sort of language and so on is extremely tiring. Once I start to tire I’ll often get quieter and contribute to the conversation less. This is the sort of conversation that feels very different from the inside, but gives very little away to the outside observer. It’s probably formed the majority of my interactions with other humans over my lifetime, and although it serves me well socially and gives me quite good abilities in many ways it often makes me feel dizzy and sick, and if combined with sensory overload can often lead to meltdown if I try to maintain it for too long. It can leave me utterly exhausted, and the effort of producing it often means I need a full day to recover from the exertion of a fairly ordinary social occasion.

Level 3
Idiosyncratic speech. This is still good enough that I can communicate effectively, but, moving from level 2 there would be a number of slight oddities that could be noticed from outside. My word order sometimes gets mixed up (I can hear it as it emerges), and I start to substitute words for more readily accessible ones – I might, for example, be unable to think of the term “extremely bad” and say “very very very not good” instead, simplifying vocabulary. I’ll also simplify my tense structure somewhat. I’ve spoken like this within my own home and to close friends for years, but have usually tried to maintain level 2 out in public. At this level I also often leave out words such as “please” and “thank you”, because I am using speech purely for communication and someone like my husband knows that they are meant and I don’t need to use the extra energy to say them. My best friend informs me that he has heard many examples of this sort of speech over the last couple of decades. It has always simply been taken to be me being a bit eccentric or quirky, or even as some sort of humour. It is easier than maintaining level 2 though, and once I get to a certain stage in any sort of public conversation I will, again, simply be quiet.

Level 4
Fragmented speech. At this point it’s fairly certain I’ll eventually lose speech completely, but I CAN still talk, albeit in a way that is unmistakably atypical. I can use single syllable words, or sometimes ones with two syllables (but slowly). I will usually give up worrying about tenses, and there will be no noticeable sentences. It is the most basic spoken communication, but it’s sufficient for me to say, for example “drink” to someone and to get a drink. It is, however, really really effortful. Each syllable has to be deliberately constructed, consciously and with great care, as if learning a brand new foreign language. It feels like there is some sort of faulty connection in my head, and that connection is failing. If I need to communicate anything other than the most basic information at this point I will be typing on my phone and the person with whom I’m communicating will need to read what I’ve typed to really understand what I’m trying to tell them.

Level 5
No speech. This is when the words are gone. Just gone. If I open my mouth and try to make words, I cannot. It’s not a choice. It’s not even, like in levels 2 and 3 above, a strategy to maintain my energy levels. I can still make sounds. I can still hum tunes (wordlessly). But I cannot produce speech. It’s as though the connection between my brain and my mouth has been unplugged. I can usually still type perfectly coherent language (there is a disintegration of typing language sometimes, but it is much rarer) and all my communication will be by facebook message or typing into my phone or some similar method. However, even when I cannot speak at all and am totally mute, I can usually understand what is going on around me just as well as I can when my speech is at level 1. There is no loss of thoughts in my brain, no issue with being able to formulate arguments or learn or think or anything else. The thoughts are all there – I just cannot articulate them via my mouth. “No speech” is very much not the same thing as “no thoughts” and unless I am so deeply shutdown or in the midst of a meltdown or other crisis, I will be absolutely aware of what is going on around me – just not able to respond with speech.

So my speech varies between “articulate” and “nonverbal”. It’s not as simple as an either/or, but is a sliding scale, and I move between the levels fairly often, depending upon my level of tiredness, my mood, my circumstances, who I’m talking to, and what the sensory environment is. Most of this movement is beyond my control – if my words start to fragment and depart there is nothing I can do about it. I have, in the past, maintained level 2 rather heavily as part of my mask – the price for doing so is quite sizeable and leads to situations such as that described in Sudden Illness. It also results in the immense exhaustion I’ve felt over the years, and I’ve found that just allowing myself not to worry about speech and to let it ebb and flow as it naturally does has already helped my health and energy levels enormously. There is a sense of inner peace I get once the words completely go, a sense of calm, recharging, and stopping fighting.

In the past I didn’t know why, but I knew that once the socialising had finished, once I stopped trying to talk to people, once I went home from the restaurant after an evening sitting outside on the pavement, shaking and feeling terribly ill, once everyone else had gone home and it was just me, I breathed a sigh of relief and started to feel better. I always got a certain feeling, one that I’m still struggling to describe, but I can identify very easily, once I was alone and starting to feel better. It’s only recently, as I’ve been seriously experimenting with trying to speak, that I realise that is the feeling of speech being gone. Maybe one day I’ll be able to describe it a little better.

As I said in the previous post, this is still something I’m trying to analyse and to figure out. I’m still working on how I communicate to the rest of the world that speech is often either very hard work and requires intense concentration or is not possible at all. The amount of time I spend at each of the five levels I’ve outlined above is still fluctuating as I continue to adapt to my changed life and as I continue to recover, slowly, from the burnout that was already starting around a year ago. This is very much an ongoing process for me.

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.

Circles

Amazingly, this is my 100th post on this blog. When I first posted to it, last December, I didn’t know whether it would ever get beyond The Discovery, and it was really just a convenient way to let people know that I had discovered I was autistic. In the last four months the blog has seemed to acquire a life of its own, and, from time to time, a few people seem to read it. I can hardly believe that it’s only around eight months since the idea of my being autistic was even suggested – in that time I’ve learnt so much about myself and my life and just how much being autistic has influenced me during the last 45 years.

One of the criteria for receiving a formal diagnosis of “autism spectrum disorder” under the current system is that autistic traits and behaviours need to have been present throughout life (because autism is a lifelong condition). Consequently, the diagnostic process involves a lot of looking back through life and, particularly, back to early childhood. I’m fortunate enough to have a mother with a good memory who is still alive and was able to supply me with lots of information about my early life (I’ll write more on that another time), and it has been interesting to discover what she remembers about my childhood and how it relates to my own memories and experiences.

I’d like to indulge, if I may, in a little imaginary time travel, back through my life, to what, for me, has become an important point as far as my life as an autistic person is concerned. I start from now, 2017, when I am 45 years old, newly diagnosed, and slowly recovering from an episode of burnout. As I go back through my life I think about the 39-year-old receiving a diagnosis of bipolar disorder, the 36-year-old who still couldn’t cook a meal, the 33-year-old who got randomly ill on holidays, the 29-year-old who spent nights bashing their head against the wall and drank bottles of whisky and ate packets of pills and hoped never to wake up again, the 26-year-old who sat at their desk trying to write their doctoral thesis while feeling like they were in a bubble and the world was unreachable, the 23-year-old who graduated top of their class but who ate the same thing for dinner every night and drank alcohol before breakfast every morning, the 19-year-old who couldn’t learn from lectures and dropped out of their first degree, the 16-year-old who was still being bullied at school and whose best friend was a cat, the 13-year-old who was routinely pinned down on the floor of the toilets by the other kids, the 9-year-old whose headmaster thought they were being abused at home, and, eventually, my time travel stops in a primary school in Bradford in 1975, where a little girl sits on the steps of a temporary classroom, crying.

The little girl is crying because it is playtime and she hates playtimes. She hates small children. They are noisy and they run around all over the place in a disorganized manner, and some of them step on the cracks in the pavements which means that very bad things will happen, and they are mean to her and some of them eat sweets in the morning which is against the rules, and so she cries, and she waits, desperately, for playtime to finish, so that she can retreat to the safety of the classroom where there is a teacher who might protect her, and where the children sit down and where it is quieter.

I know these things about the little girl, and have always known them, because I remember them. I remember many things about being 4 years old, but, as I started to question my mother, I discovered that there were things about my 4-year-old self that I didn’t know. One of these was that my teacher summoned my parents to school because she was concerned about me. I didn’t interact with the other children, and, most particularly, I wasn’t learning to write. I just sat and made my pencil go round and round in circles, filling page after page with scribbled circular patterns. The teacher said she’d never encountered a child like me and didn’t know what to do.

Finding out about this “circle drawing” was the first of many rather surreal discoveries about myself that I’d never have made if I hadn’t started asking questions because I was gathering information for an autism assessment. It shocked me somewhat, and I felt a huge sadness for that frightened stressed little kid, trying to withdraw from the world into something comforting, trying to survive in what felt like a very hostile environment. I cried many tears for her, because I couldn’t go back in time and help her, and I knew what she would have to go through before she finally understood why life was so tough. Just after diagnosis I wrote the letter below (complete with muddled tenses) to her, and during the information-gathering stage I went to a shop and bought pens and paper and drew circles and coloured them in. Because that was all I could do.

You will now realise why the “profile picture” on this blog and on the facebook page is what it is, and why I chose that particular picture for the post in which I revealed publicly that I am autistic. Today’s picture is from a similar, but different, drawing of circles.

The most important question I had for my autism assessor during my follow-up appointment was something like this: “If I had been 40 years younger, would I have still been receiving an autism diagnosis at this point in time, i.e. in 2017?” Her answer was that I would have. And she went on to say that, with the knowledge of the present day, the point at which I would have been identified as autistic would have been the point at which I went to school and sat on my own drawing circles and my teacher was concerned about my behaviour to the extent that she summoned my parents in to discuss it. That coupled with things we know about my behaviour at nursery the previous year, and various other things during my early development, would have triggered a diagnosis.

For some reason, knowing that, if I were 4 years old today I would be being diagnosed autistic, as a 4-year-old, is important to me. I have tried to think about why that is, and I came to the conclusion that the diagnosis my 45-year-old self received in February, although it covers my entire life, is a diagnosis for the future, for planning, for strategies, for rebuilding my life. The “diagnosis” my 4-year-old self received, retrospectively, in the follow-up appointment yesterday is, for me, the diagnosis that starts the process of making peace with my past – it feels like some kind of justice for that distressed little girl, crying on the steps of the classroom.

Of course, the other reason that age 4 is so significant for me as far as being autistic is concerned is that, as I started school and had to work out how to survive, it was the time I started to mask. It was the time that I started to learn what to do by watching other people, teaching myself to interact with other human beings. The social codes that came so naturally and intuitively to most others, who sought out human contact, were things that I had to learn through a cognitive process. I’m only just beginning to understand this, and how it has impacted my life. Being undiagnosed protected me from being “written off” or “cured” or whatever, but it meant that I worked fearsomely hard to try to make the world work for me and expectations were made of my abilities that I simply couldn’t fulfil. I believe the damage to my mental health started around that time – as an undiagnosed 4-year-old trying to fit in, learning to sit still, learning to socialize, and to do as I was told to avoid punishment, I was storing up the trauma that would eventually result in decades of mental illness and suicidal ideation (which switched to active attempts to end my life in my late 20s).

I’m certain I’ve mentioned it before, but one of the things that is so interesting about an autism diagnosis later in life is that it not only suggests strategies for coping with life better in the future, it also makes sense of the past. I cannot change the past, obviously, but getting the “diagnosis” for my 4-year-old self is another step in accepting it and understanding it.

Dear Four-Year-Old,

I was talking about you recently, to some nice people.

I was remembering what it was like for you at playtime at school. I was telling the people about the three big girls who used to be mean to you, and how noisy it always was at playtimes, and how much you wanted to get back to the safety of the classroom where there was a teacher who might protect you from the other children, who were frightening and who you didn’t want to be with.

I was also talking to your mother recently. She was telling me how she and your father were summoned to school to talk to your teacher, because there was a problem. In fact, there were a few problems.

I know you could already read very well before you went to school, and the teacher wasn’t very pleased about that, because she was supposed to teach you to read but you already could. She wasn’t very happy with your parents, who had supplied the books.

I found out from your mother that your teacher was concerned because you weren’t learning to write, like the other children were. Instead of writing you just sat and made circles in your writing book, using up all the paper, and any other paper available. Your teacher said that she had never met a child like you, and she didn’t really know what to do. Your parents didn’t know what to do either, so it was decided that you would not be allowed any more books so you didn’t damage them or use up the paper by drawing circles on it.

I know where you lived. I remember the street. I also remember that some kids from the street let your Space Hopper down and you were really unhappy about that because you loved bouncing up and down the street on it. And even though there was a man who worked at the garage and took it to blow it up again it wasn’t quite as bouncy as it had been before, which was sad.

I could send this to your address, which I still remember well, even though you only lived there briefly. But it would never reach you, because the mail can only go forwards in time, normally a few days or weeks. It cannot go backwards 41 years, which it would need to to reach you.

Neither can I come back in time myself, because there is no time machine. But if I could, I’d talk to your parents and teacher. And I’d try to explain that you are a bit different from most other children, and I’d give them a list of things they might look out for, and I’d work out what they could do to try to help make your life a bit easier, because I know that your life turned out to be very very hard in so many ways.

I’m not sure how convincing I’d be. A crazy person from the future, nearly as old as your granny is in your time. And, of course, there would be so many problems anyway because most of the information I have now is from books that will not be written until decades after the time you live in. I have a magic machine that allows me to read lots and lots of information about kids like you, but it won’t work in your time, because it relies on things that haven’t been invented yet.

If I could come and see you I’d try to protect you. I feel sad that you had to go through what you did, and I feel sad that your life was so hard and nobody knew how hard it was. I’d like to tell you that it got better soon, but I can’t, because you have many years of really hard stuff still to go through and many many tough times ahead. Life will be harder than you can even imagine right now. I’m sorry I can’t do anything about that, but you will find a way through, and eventually you will find out why it is like that.

But I would pick you up and hold you tight and tell you that you will, sometimes by strength, sometimes by accident, find a way to keep going through it all for at least another 41 years. There will be things that will help – your parents will not really understand you and they will not know for a long time that you really need extra help and support, but some of the things they do will help anyway. They will continue to supply books, which will help. They will get you a friend who is more comforting than any school friend could ever be, who will have soft fur and will purr for you. And they will let you do some of the things that make life feel better to you.

You know that recorder? The one you chew (yes, I know about that – I’ve still got it somewhere, and your teeth marks are still on the mouthpiece), keep playing it, and the other musical instruments you will learn in the future, because they will be really important to you. Keep reading and keep learning all the other stuff too – being interested in things and learning things is going to be one of the ways you survive in the world.

I will never be able to tell you this, but in 41 years time I will find out about the circle drawing, and I will draw some circles for you, because that is the best I can do for you. Because I am grown up now I can buy lots of really nice paper, and loads of books, and felt pens, and I can draw neat circles now and make patterns and colour them in – you’d have loved that!

When I finally tell the nice people all this, and I tell them about you and about all the other things your mother has recently told me, they will finally understand. And they will tell me some information that will explain why your life didn’t work out the way it was supposed to.

I can’t come back in time to care for you, or to explain. I wish I could.

But I will eventually find out why it all happened as it did and I will discover what makes life so hard for us. There is a word that describes people like us, even though nobody will apply that word to you in 1975. We are autistic.

The nice people listened, and heard all about you, and about the person you became, and they told me that my discovery was correct. You had a different sort of head. I have a different sort of head. We were never designed to fit into the world in the ordinary sort of way.

Stay strong little person. You will survive, and in 41 years you will understand. And you will finally be listened to and believed. And it will make life feel better and you can start to work out how to make an easier future.

See you in 41 years’ time!

A Forty-Five-Year-Old from the future

P.S. In 10 years’ time some girls at school will tell you that you’re too ugly to get a boyfriend. They are lying. You find someone who understands you perfectly and you will have a wedding with really nice cake!

Strategy Deployment

Yesterday I went out again, to something social, where I met quite a lot of people, and where I was out of the house for quite a lot of hours. I went to an afternoon symposium, a series of lectures, then to dinner, once again in my old college.

I employed similar planning strategies to those described in Out to Dinner: a couple of days’ rest beforehand, comfortable clothes, stim toys, dark glasses, and plans for an easy couple of days afterwards so I knew that I could take my energy levels into the red zone if necessary because once I was home I didn’t have to do anything at all except breathe (and that’s something that usually happens without my having to think about it).

Additionally I took some attenuating ear plugs (originally bought for potential use in noisy orchestras and recently discovered in a pile of stuff) and my recently acquired ear defenders, just in case I found a way that I could usefully use them.

It was an interesting afternoon and evening in many ways. It was interesting in the ordinary way in that I learnt some stuff from each of the lectures. I also saw several people I hadn’t seen for a few years, and some others I’ve seen more recently, and it was good to catch up with them. And, of course, it provided me with an opportunity to continue analyzing what I can cope with when I’m out in the world, and what I can’t.

Apart from the dark glasses and slightly more casual clothes than was the norm, the first thing that might have been described as slightly out of the ordinary behaviour was the way I sat during the lectures. I took my boots off and sat with my feet tucked under me, my legs up close to my body, in various formations throughout the afternoon. I nearly always sit, by choice, in some variant of this position.

Very interestingly, I went to a similar symposium in that very same lecture theatre a couple of years ago. I remembered sitting in exactly the same way. I wasn’t wearing dark glasses, but my clothes were still slightly more casual and I sat with my feet tucked up under me in the same way. And that was years before I knew anything about autism, about the beneficial effects of “pressure stimming” (I still have a whole blog post to write about that stuff sometime), and before I realized that I was doing something, perhaps a bit socially out of the ordinary, because that was something that my body needed to do in order to feel OK.

(As an aside, I made no other adaptions on that occasion a few years ago – and I remember it being one of the nights that I woke up in the small hours afterwards feeling sick, shaky and very very wrong – that was always the norm for me after such events. Now things are changing.)

My first real break with “doing what everyone else was doing” was at the tea break between sessions. I used the strategy that I’m now getting used to during the breaks of orchestral rehearsals – get myself a cup of tea then get out of the room with the voices and the noise and the crowds of people as quickly as possible. I went to stand outside in the quadrangle. I was joined by a friend (the one mentioned in the first sentence of Out to Dinner), who gave me a biscuit (a good idea, since I hadn’t yet managed to eat) and asked whether I was OK with him being there or whether I needed to be alone. Since I’m comfortable with him and he knows what’s going on in my life I was happy for him to stay. It wasn’t difficult out in the cool air away from the artificial lights and the noise of too many voices.

When we went back for the second session I knew that my senses were already beginning to tire as the sounds of the voices of those speaking seemed much much louder than they had done during the first session. I decided to try the earplugs. They helped. And not only did they help with reducing the volume of the speaker’s voice to a manageable level, but they really really helped with one of the most painful noises of all – applause. I’m now trying to work out whether there’s any way I can use them in concerts, because applause is a sound that I’ve always found, at best, unpleasant, and at worst, really very painful.

I also felt perfectly justified in wearing something in my ears to alter my hearing perception because there were several in the audience also wearing things in their ears – though they were trying to enhance their hearing and I was trying to reduce mine!

Interestingly, I also looked round to see what other people were doing in terms of stimming. I noticed someone rubbing their hands, someone playing with a pen, and someone jiggling their legs and playing with the hem of their trousers! I’m noticing all these things much more nowadays (again, there’s a whole blog post to be written about this – I have so many things I want to write about, but I can’t make all the words at once)!

After the second session there was a drinks reception in a very reverberant space. I stayed for only a few minutes because I knew it was seriously overtaxing my system. I left everyone else to it and went outside and sat on a step, rocking, in the twilight (and the freezing cold – really should have taken a coat) and put my ear defenders on. I was there for maybe half an hour until the cold got the better of me and I ventured back inside, still wearing my ear defenders, and eventually found a couple of friends and we headed off to dinner.

That time alone, cutting the world out, making everything as silent as possible (not completely silent, but significantly better), and stopping all interaction or worrying about sitting still, really really helped. I would have liked to be at the reception. I would have liked to have been drinking wine instead of elderflower fizzy stuff, I would have liked to be networking, chatting to friends, catching up with everyone, looking at the exhibits and so on, but I am learning that this is the sort of thing that I need to ration very very heavily in order to be able to stay well. This is one of the ways in which I am, perhaps, most disabled – I cannot take part in events such as noisy drinks receptions for any length of time unless I accept that it will have a seriously negative impact upon my health. I have long known that parties and so on tire me beyond belief and cause me to become seriously unwell afterwards – I do at least now know why and I can start to control things a bit.

Refreshed from my “time out”, I was then able to go into dinner, chat to people around me with some confidence, and to spend an evening in the Common Room, which actually turned out even to be enjoyable. My best friend ensured I was sitting in a reasonably advantageous position at dinner (as close to a corner as possible to avoid sensory input from all directions), I took care not to over eat, as before, and later, when I started to feel slightly dizzy and unable to comprehend words while standing and increasingly failing to take part in a group conversation, I went to sit down. I’ve also discovered that I find conversation much easier when I’m seated – If I’m not using energy to stand then I have more available to be able to convert thoughts to words!

So this week’s “event” went well. It was also easier than previous times doing similar things have been. I suspect this is partly because I’m starting to see a bit of recovery from burnout, partly because I have a new-found confidence following my diagnosis (more on that in a future post), and partly because I’m learning what strategies work to help me get through such an event without ending up sick for days afterwards.

Admittedly, I had to adapt my behaviour quite considerably yesterday, I didn’t get out of bed until after 2pm today, and I wouldn’t have been able to hold much of a conversation this morning (I tried a little speech earlier but it was really hard work and since I’m here alone I didn’t even bother using that amount of energy for anything more than experimental purposes), but it’s progress. It’s working out how I can best function in the world and get the most possible out of life without destroying myself in the process!

Looking at Eyes

I was chatting on Facebook messenger with a friend of mine. We’ve been friends around 5 years, and she is probably, after my husband and best friend, the person I see most regularly in real life.

“So what colour are my eyes then?” she asked.

I paused for a moment, thought about her hair, which she dyes dark red, and it seems to match her skin, so I guess that before she dyed it it must have been dark. “Brown!” I respond.

“Er, no, they’re blue actually.”

She then asked me about the eyes of a mutual friend who I also see quite a lot in real life. Even darker dyed hair. I was confident about this one. Much more obvious. “Definitely brown,” I said.

“Nope, wrong again, she’s another like me with dark hair and blue eyes, except that hers are greyer than mine.”

I really wasn’t very good at this eye colour game. So far 0/2 on the eye colour score!

“Her mouth wiggles a bit at the corner sometimes and your teeth point inwards,” I proffered, in an attempt to show that my observation skills weren’t completely up the spout and I hadn’t been ignoring my friends for the last 5 years!

She laughed! And told me that this was further proof of her observation that even before I had the slightest clue that I was autistic my eye contact skills were, at best, somewhat idiosyncratic!

***

I was in the kitchen with my best friend. He asked me if I knew what colour the eyes of a mutual friend of ours were.

I thought about it. Our mutual friend has grey hair. I think it might have been dark when he was younger. Somehow I couldn’t quite imagine what colour eyes he might have though.

I admitted I didn’t know, and that if someone really needed that information from me then the only way I could supply it would be by looking at a photograph.

***

I mentioned eye contact in an earlier blog post. A discussion ensued on my Facebook wall. Somebody I went to school with between the ages of 13 and 18 commented on the discussion. She clearly stated that she remembered that whenever she looked at me I would look away very very fast. She said she thought at the time it was something that “clever people did.”

***

My husband says that when I do look in his direction I then don’t look away when most people would. He says it’s as if I point my eyes in that direction and then just forget and leave them there. It always slightly freaks him out!

***

So, it seems that I have been “faking it” as far as eye contact is concerned, probably all my life. I’ve certainly never been able to glean information about the state of a person from their eyes, beyond such things as closed = maybe asleep, or tears = maybe sad or happy. I’ve also observed that even when watching television I don’t look at eyes. I go through my life and think of people I know or have known quite well – relatives, friends, former colleagues. I cannot picture what any of their eyes look like. I know they must have eyes, but I cannot visualise any of them. But I can easily visualise mouths and noses, and, in some cases, ears.

This faking really has been fake. Even when I’ve apparently been looking at eyes, I haven’t taken in any information about them. I cannot picture what my own mother’s eyes look like. Not a hope.

This is still news to me. I wasn’t aware of anything beyond remembering instructions given to me as a child, probably by schoolteachers (I can’t remember) saying “Look at me when I’m talking to you!” So I did as I was told. For the next 40 years.

So why have I been faking it? Why is looking at eyes so weird?

I believe that the schoolteachers probably wanted me to look at them because they thought that it was an indicator that I was paying attention (which it wasn’t – I was, and still am, perfectly capable of paying attention to what someone is saying without looking at them – probably rather better that way in fact). I have also looked at fellow musicians when playing chamber music and so on, and again I think it’s just a sign to people saying “I know you’re there, I’m listening to your part, and I’m paying attention.” It doesn’t actually help me to pay attention, but I know that people think you’re paying more attention if you look at them. It’s a learnt fact and a practised technique. It’s been a large part of the mask. But as far as communication is concerned it’s meaningless to me except to show that I’m paying attention.

And, it seems that while I’ve been faking some sort of approximate eye contact I’ve been using massive amounts of energy to do so (as described in An Experiment) and been pretty much avoiding the real thing whenever possible.

And all this while not even knowing I was autistic. I had no reason to avoid eye contact. Not anything tangible. But I did this fake thing for decades. So it was obviously something that wasn’t quite comfortable for me.

And so recently I’ve tried to describe what actual eye contact (from the few moments it has happened unavoidably and sort of by accident, when I haven’t moved my gaze fast enough) actually feels like to me.

And the best I can come up with is that it feels a bit like being naked in public in front of an audience somewhere very very important and totally overwhelmed in a way I can’t describe, and a bit like being poked with a sharp stick.

Which, when I put it like that, explains perfectly why I’ve faked it all my life and why I will now only even attempt it when absolutely necessary. Eye contact might be some wonderful communicative thing in some people’s worlds, but in my world it’s just rather creepy and uncomfortable.

I’m eccentric, but not “get naked in front of an audience until my brain explodes” and “be poked with a sharp stick” sort of eccentric!

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 Loud

53-2016-12-29-22-14-42I sat in the masterclass, trying to hear what the teacher was saying to the student, straining my ears against the noise coming from my left. A woman who was sitting a couple of seats away from me was taking notes – with a pencil, and the sound of it scratching on the paper was getting so loud that I could almost hear it drowning out the voice of the teacher. I glanced round the room to see whether anyone else had noticed, but if they had they were giving no indication that they were the slightest bit worried by it.

I’ve noticed that since I’ve been in burnout my sensitivity to noise has increased dramatically and my ability to filter out extraneous sounds has declined substantially. I’ve always had issues with background noise, and usually I’m working really hard to filter out the things that I want to hear from those I don’t – this takes a huge amount of energy and I can only usually do it for a finite amount of time before some sort of meltdown occurs.

Interestingly, the noise in the eating place last summer (see The Discovery) was one of the main contributing factors to my eventually being identified as autistic. Not being able to cope with the noises of food, plates, eating, talking and so on AND then having to eat my own food was one of the big triggers that made me seriously anxious and I ended up figuring that it was so stressful being in that environment that the best thing to do would be just to give up eating while I was there because the whole food experience had become so very difficult. Of course, that wasn’t a great strategy, and explaining my difficulties and being given dispensation to eat somewhere quieter was a rather more realistic approach!

Eating noises in particular are something I find very hard to cope with and, as I’ve seen memes on the internet, I’ve gathered that there’s a name for this – misophonia – which is apparently something else not really recognised by medics. So I have a double problem – I can’t cope with quiet eating situations because the individual noises are too stressing, but I can’t really cope with noisy ones too well either. Catch 22. Maybe I should just accept that communal eating is a jolly unpleasant experience and stay away from it completely? Or maybe a more sensible solution might be to limit it and be aware that it takes extra energy!

But it’s not just eating. We don’t have a separate kitchen at home, just an area at one end of the sitting room. When my husband is cooking, particularly if he’s frying anything, the sound of the stuff in the pan can sometimes quite literally hurt my ears. I also get similar problems with cutlery clanking on plates, or pots and pans being rattled and so on. Even when there’s no cooking going on, I sit there waiting for the fridge to stop making a noise so I can get some peace. I really would be the world’s worst kitchen worker!

Usually I manage to cope with most of the noises in the everyday world. Like bright lights, they exhaust me and I need to recover from them. Like with light I’m trying to figure out a way to dull them somewhat, especially now I know that I’m not hearing the same things that other people hear (not because there’s anything wrong with my ears, but because the way my brain processes sounds is rather different). Unlike with light it’s more difficult. Wearing sunglasses is an easy adaption – I’ve worn glasses since I was a teenager and have to wear them anyway to be legal to drive the car and to be able to see. Glasses are no big deal.

Earplugs or headphones are an entirely different matter. I can tolerate having earphones in for a short while, but I’m permanently slightly uncomfortable with them in because of how they feel in my ears. Apparently there are people who can sleep with earplugs in – I don’t know how because they drive me nuts after a very short time. I have worn earplugs at airshows and so on, but the sound of my own voice is then totally unbearable and I only keep them in for the noisiest jets. I would also feel very vulnerable out alone without being able to hear what’s going on around me, because I use my hearing so much as a safety mechanism – maybe the advantage of hearing so much of the background noise upfront is that I notice things like footsteps behind me or the whistle of wind in bicycle wheels when I’m about to cross a road, or similar. I haven’t yet solved the noise problem – that’s very much a work in progress!

And, of course, sound has the additional problem over sight in that it isn’t just the filtering of noise that’s the issue, but a lot of the time coping with sound requires the auditory processing of language too. It has now become obvious that spoken language doesn’t come naturally to me and filtering out conversations from other conversations is something I’ve always found really hard work – which is why I’ve often found myself at parties following a conversation that I’m not even part of and when I’m then asked to contribute have had to ask what has just been said as if my hearing was a bit dodgy!

I’m fairly confident that when I’m recovered from the current burnout things will get a bit better. During most of my life I’ve generally preferred having music playing to having silence – music is a huge and very important part of my life. Interestingly, sometimes, background music (as long as it isn’t too loud) can be a steadying influence on me when I’m surrounded by talking and conversation. It feels to me as though it enters my head on a different channel from conversation – it goes straight in and has meaning instantly without the translation mechanism needed for words. However, when I had the 2001 burnout I couldn’t cope with music at all and craved total silence most of the time. This time around it hasn’t been quite as bad, but all my volume controls have been turned right down and I need everything very soft. On bad days I can’t watch the television with sound and simply put the subtitles on and read them instead. I have managed to play in the occasional concert and the music itself hasn’t been too bad, but the applause at the end of the show is very very painful at the moment. Again, I’m hoping this will improve.

Of course, living in a flat with 3 lots of neighbours is really not ideal in this situation. And the fact that I’m only getting out about once a week means I’m spending an awful lot of time listening to the neighbours’ doors squeaking, their showers running, the noise they make in the corridor outside, the car alarms in the car park below, the dogs barking, and worst of all, the noise of the primary school kids arriving in the morning (the primary school is very close to our block of flats). The voices of babies and small children produce the same effect that knives clanking on plates or people chewing or pencils scratching on paper do. I’m guessing it’s something to do with the frequency of the sound or the structure of the wave or some similar thing – maybe I’ll research it one day, but for now it’s just simple observation.

And, like everything else, now I know how much energy I’m using to cope with filtering noise and trying to focus in on what I actually need to hear, I’m going to have to adapt things a bit. More recovery, more time spent in silence (or the closest I can get to it, given my living circumstances), more time on my own. We’ve also discovered how to disable the entryphone to our flat (nobody ever visits unscheduled anyway) and we now have all ringers on phones permanently turned off. Social occasions will have to be prepared for, recovered from, and rationed to things I really want to do. Having to cope with the sheer amount of noise in the world is yet another thing that drains my energy and causes exhaustion, overload, and sometimes meltdown.