Tag Archives: sensory

When Orange Speaks Louder Than Words

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When Orange Speaks Louder Than Words

Mel wearing an orange shirt, dark glasses, and a brown Aussie hat.Fey and Mel nuzzling faces while Mel wears an orange shirt.Mel with only hir torso and arm visible, wearing an orange shirt with an orange crocheted shawl hanging off hir arm.An orange crochet project sitting on Mel's lap, bamboo yarn with a lot of shell stitches that is going to become a cardigan, with a metal crochet hook with a green handle.

Orange is the color of Autism Acceptance Month.  Because it’s the opposite of blue, and blue is the color that everyone is told to wear for Autism Awareness Month.  Which kind of sucks because my favorite colors, and nearly all of my clothes, are brown and blue.  And I used to really hate orange.  Sometimes I hate the term Autism Acceptance, too — I like the idea behind it, but I don’t like the way the term has become a meaningless buzzword in some people’s mouths.  Whether it’s parent groups who throw the word ‘autism acceptance’ around to sound current but don’t actually accept the slightest thing about their autistic children, or whether it’s autistic people who’ve fallen in love with the words and forgotten the meaning.  Either way, I like it as a concept but not as a buzzword.

Anyway, I hated orange.

Then my father died.  I was very close to my father.  As a way of remembering him, I began to wear his clothing. My mom sent me a bunch of his shirts, suspenders, watches, and other assorted clothing and jewelry.  And I began to wear his clothes, regardless of color.  

My father wore a lot of very colorful clothes.  I had to get used to that.  But most of the colors he had look surprisingly good on me.  This did surprise me because his skin was a very different color than mine, much darker.  But someone pointed out that while our skin was different in terms of darkness, the actual hue of our skin was nearly identical.  Which goes a long way to explaining why nearly any color that looked good on him, looks good on me.   The only place we seem to go wrong are on certain pastel shades that just look better against his shade of skin than mine.

Wearing my father’s clothes is more than a symbolic act of remembrance.  It helps me get inside of him.  It helps me find him inside of me.  It helps me find the parts of him that I didn’t even realize were there until he was already dead.  There’s something about it that makes me love him even more, makes me comfortable in my own skin, makes me see the many things about us that are alike as well as the differences.

And orange, most of all, has come to symbolize that entire process for me:  Finding something totally unexpected about my father that was also inside me all along.   Finding that many shades of orange (mostly darker shades, definitely not pastel peach shades) look good on me, sounds like a superficial thing.  But when it’s in the context of my father’s death and the meaning he had and continues to have in my life, there’s nothing superficial about it.  It’s about as deep as things get.  And that’s unexpected as well.

By the way, one thing I never take off is the circular necklace you can see in one of the pictures.  It’s a see-through locket containing hairs from my father’s beard, that he agreed to send me before he died.  I take it everywhere with me, and even a year ago when I was too delirious to understand that my father had died at all or what the necklace was, I still managed not to lose it despite losing some very important items during the same hospital stay. 

So I now appreciate orange a lot more than I used to, and I now have more orange things to wear this month.  Both because my father gave me orange clothes, and because since coming to view orange as symbolic of all these things, I have started making myself more orange clothing.  The shawl pictured above is something I crocheted myself, and the crochet project I am working on in the last picture will be a cardigan made out of bamboo yarn.  I’ve made other orange things as well.

I had other things planned to post this month.  I had a lot of things planned.  Like the song says, “Life is what happens to you when you’re busy making other plans.”  I’ve had tube problems and problems with my steroid levels that have taken up a lot of my time and energy lately.  So I think the very long post I had planned for Autism Acceptance Month is going to turn into a Blogging Against Disablism Day post for May 1st.  And this post will have to suffice for an Autism Acceptance Month post — right at the end of the month, of course.  But all these problems have made my inertia twenty times worse than usual, so getting posts out at all is a miracle and it’s a good thing that the posts I am talking about that I’d planned, are mostly already written months ago, and then stored in anticipation of this month.  Because I rightly guessed that I wouldn’t be able to write much for whatever reason when the time actually came around to have things ready.

Orange also stands for fire.  I used to think that fire meant the kind of anger problem I used to have, and I was afraid of my own fire.  But someone told me that my anger problem was misdirected fire.  That real fire, properly channeled, could mean something closer to passion.  And that’s when I began to truly integrate fire into who I was, and it flowed through me, and it was something I’d been missing for a long time.  Adrenal insufficiency sometimes feels like it tries to drain me of that fire, when I get close to an adrenal crisis, it’s like everything goes flat and deflated.  But when fire is properly flowing through me, it feels like finally being alive again.  So that’s another thing orange has come to mean to me. 

The things I’ve found about my dad in myself, by the way, are not irrelevant to Autism Acceptance Month.  My father and I are both autistic, and we share a lot of traits.  One of the traits that we share that I treasure the most, is our tendency to communicate with objects.  As in, both communicate by means of using objects, and experience communication (it’s the only word that really fits) between ourselves and supposedly-inanimate objects.  I knew to some degree this was true of my father, but it became much more apparent as he was dying, and even more apparent when I received many of his belongings after he died.  I arranged some of them into a memorial shrine, and any time I want to see him all I have to do is look through the objects and I can always find him by sensing the connections between them.  

Not a lot of autistic people talk about this, but a lot of autistic people very much do things like this.  And many people have told me they look at objects differently after seeing how I have interacted with objects after my father’s death.  People are used to seeing objects as dead in themselves.   And they are used to seeing interaction with objects as inferior to interactions with people.  They are used to seeing attachment to objects as an ‘attachment to material possessions’, like a consumerist thing.  So they are legitimately surprised when they see someone doing it completely differently than anything they’ve ever seen before.

Some people react well to that and some people react badly.  I’ve been lectured more times than I care to count, on how objects are not really alive and you can’t really interact with them.  Usually they talk to me in the same way they would talk to a five-year-old who believes in unicorns.  Other people have explained anthropomorphism to me at great length, totally neglecting the fact that I’m not in fact attributing human qualities to objects.  I interact with them, they interact back, I see them as alive, but being alive is not a human-specific quality.  And they are alive in a very specific way that has nothing to do with humans and nothing to do with the actual categories of animate and inanimate beings in general, and I interact with them as what they are to a degree that most people who see them as dead probably don’t. 

And usually the person doing the explaining manages to be incredibly condescending both to people like me, and to cultures that don’t differentiate as much between living and non-living creatures as modern Western culture does, or differentiate much differently.  The view is that we’re just simple-minded idiots who don’t yet know enough, aren’t yet highly evolved enough as a person or as a culture or both, to have figured out what Western science knows.  Never mind that their view of how we see things is usually mind-bogglingly simplistic in and of itself.

For some reason, such people seem to feel almost compelled to force their worldview on me.  Like I’m just one tiny little person who happens to be moving through a world full of people who mostly don’t share this worldview.  I’m hardly a threat to anyone.  But they seem to feel threatened enough that they have to quash any sign of difference anywhere they see it.  And I’m not just talking about nonautistic people, I’m also talking about autistic people who don’t happen to share this particular autistic trait.  (Because no autistic trait is universal, and quite often autism involves opposites a lot — so that both a trait and its polar opposite will be common autistic traits.  Sometimes even both showing up in the same person at different times.)

But what really amazes me are the people who are willing to have their mind changed about objects after they see how I interact with them.  They see that there is respect there.  They see that there is depth there.  They see that like many autistic people with similar traits, I move through a very sensual world full of richness and depth.  They see that I use objects to communicate with other people, to say important things that I can’t say with words.  They see the way I use objects to remember my father and to interact with him after his death.  They see that there is something deeply real here.  And they come to respect that, even when they don’t fully understand it.

And I never set out to cause them to respect me.  Any more than I set out to convince one of  friends that being gay is not a sin.  I actually told her I didn’t mind that she thought it was a sin, as long as she didn’t interfere with my life on that basis, and went on living my life around her as I was.  She said that just knowing me changed her mind about gay people on a religious level and on other levels.  And that’s not something I ever set out to do, in fact I was careful not to set out to change her mind.  But it happened anyway.  And that’s how this thing with the objects has happened:  I never intended it, in fact I never would have known the change was happening in some people if they hadn’t told me in private that I had changed their entire way of viewing how people interact with objects. But they did change their minds because of me, intended or not.

And I think that’s really important.  Sometimes people don’t come to accept autism — or aspects of autism, as the case may be — because we’ve been shoving things in their face.  Sometimes they come to accept autism, and autistic people, and autistic people’s ways of being in the world, because they spend enough time around us that they get to see us in a well-rounded context.  Not in terms of rhetoric but in terms of real life.  And seeing us, seeing how we live, seeing that our ways of doing things are legitimate even if they’re different than anything they’ve ever imagined before, that can be far more important for some people than anything we could have to say about the matter.

If saying things weren’t important to me, mind you, I wouldn’t be a blogger.  I may be a reluctant writer at times, but I’m definitely a writer.  But I also think there’s things in the world far more important than words.  And I also think there’s many different ways to communicate something, and writing is only one of them.  Not everyone can write, but everyone can make a contribution, deliberate or not, to the acceptance of people like us in the world at large.  And as writing this kind of post has become more and more difficult for me — it was never easy, but it’s getting much harder with time — I’m learning to very much value my ability to just exist and get things across by the way I exist around people.

There are a lot of things about being autistic that are hard, and I have to confess that lately it’s the harder things that have caught my attention more often.  The difficulty of keeping in touch with even my closest friends, to the point I’ve become almost completely socially isolated lately.  The ever-increasing level of inertia, which has snuck up on me because it looks very different after severe adrenal insufficiency completely reshaped the way I experience stress on a subjective level.  The stress levels that come not from emotional stress but from the sheer strain of having to function on an everyday basis — walking from one room to another, getting in and out of bed and chairs, going to the bathroom, making words, changing feeding tube dressings upwards of twelve times a day, going to new places that are visually overstimulating, anything involving getting information into or out of my brain, thinking on an intellectual level.  Things that most people don’t even know are skills, let alone difficult ones, because most of them are done automatically.  And all of these things are contributing to it not always feeling great to be autistic lately.

But orange brought me back to my father, and my father brings me back to objects, and objects bring me back to that rich world that my father and I both take part in.  Which brings me back to the way that just being who I am in front of people has changed their entire way of viewing objects and people’s relationships with them.  And that’s the good side of autism, and this is one of many ways that autism acceptance — the real thing —  can happen.  One person at a time, through living our lives as authentically as possible so that people can see exactly who we are and how we do things.  And when they see that, when they see who we are and how we live, some of them come to accept us on a deep level.   And not a lot of people are talking about that.

So I guess I’m glad for orange after all.

Unfolding

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Me with Fey sitting on my shoulder, and a brown and yellow afghan in front of me.

Me with Fey sitting on my shoulder.

Sometimes I want to unfold
The beauty of the world
As if it was the most intricate
Origami flower
That had ever seen the light of day

Then I want to wait
And wait
Until the flower blooms for real
Until its velvet black blossoms
Tinged with purple edges
Grow fuzz that you can run your hand over

And I want to hand it to you
And watch you rub the fuzz
Against your cheek
Against your lips
Against your nose —
The yellow-black stamens tickle

And then fold the flower
Back into paper
And put it in my pocket
For safekeeping

I would make more of them
And write secret notes
That only some people could read

They would say things like:

“The most beautiful things
Are concealed all around you.”

“You are a flower and
This is how you become real.”

“You are unfolding
Just like this.
Don’t hurry,
Don’t wait.”

I would hide them in plain sight
And I would hide them in places
That only the curious and observant
Would bother looking

I would hide them in places
That can only be found
When doing shit work
For 22 cents an hour

I would hide them so that each person
Stood a chance of finding at least one
Just one
That told them what they needed to hear
Right now
Just then

Unfold them, they become real flowers
Fold them, they become folded paper
You can do this as many times as you need
Because they are magic flowers

And if you get good at looking and listening
With more than just your eyes and ears
You will find these creations everywhere
Left by someone
With far more magic
Than I will ever possess

You know when you find one because
Suddenly something ordinary
Becomes extraordinary
Suddenly you’ve been let in on a secret
About something you’d seen before
But never seen before

It can be anything from
A spray of mud on your pants
To a pair of decorated crutches
To a butterfly

It doesn’t have to be pretty on first sight
Many times it isn’t
Many times it seems horrible
Until that flash of inspiration
When it unfolds into a flower in full bloom

And then every texture is like suede
And every color is like the deepest blue before dawn
And every taste is like boiled collards with butter
And every smell is the fur behind a cat’s ears

I wish I had the magic necessary
To make these things myself
To fold reality into paper
And leave it everywhere for people to find

As it is, all I can say is
Someone has already done it

You can find these magic folded papers
On the inside of a zero
In the yawn of a kitten
In a feeding tube
In a wadded up rag
In a tangled old root
In a leaf that skips down the sidewalk

And all of them are flowers
And all of them are there to tell you
There is more in this world than you can ever see
There is more love
There is more light
There is more beauty

And you are part of it
Always
Even
(Especially!)
When everything seems to be
Crashing down around you

Can you accept
This magic spell
This gift
From the world
To me
To you?

A bunch of stuff that needed saying

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The following stuff is important stuff I wrote elsewhere on the net. If some of what I'm saying doesn't make sense, ignore it, it's just context that I'm not able to describe right now. The main thrust of what I'm saying should make sense without understanding the full context of what I wrote. And I can't rewrite it all right now for this blog. So the following is pretty much as I wrote it. Also sorry for all caps in places, it was because where I was writing it I couldn't use other forms of emphasis. And please don't assume that this is all about autism. Everyone always assumes that everything I say is all about autism. It isn't. Most of it isn't. Not even the stuff that talks about autism is all about autism. I am fed up with just about every such assumption because my world isn't made up of only or mainly autistic people and when I talk about things I always get replies saying “This applies to people without autism too” and I want to say “no shit Sherlock, that's what I meant in the firs

This turned into a long post, and it may not apply to the people I’m replying too, but this conversation just brought up a lot of things I’ve been thinking but having trouble saying.

Thank you for writing that. It’s really important.

Also another point I want to make. There are many autistic people whose best method of communication is nonverbal. By which I mean, not speech, not writing. Some of us this is true of, can communicate well by speech or typing also. Some of us can’t. But we usually have trouble with receptive language — either some of the time, all of the time, or especially, during the early formative years of our lives. I’m one such person.

Most people don’t know this because the current theories of autism all involve us being terrible at nonverbal communication. By which people mean, terrible at one specific kind of nonverbal communication that most nonautistic people are good at. Also, most autistic people who can talk about their experiences in words, are (or believe themselves to be) bad at nonverbal communication, and their experiences get seen as applying to all of us, when this is not true.

So for many of us — nonverbal communication, and the world of things outside of words, are our best way of communicating. Whether we can also use words or not. I wrote about one such group of autistic people in my contribution (“Untitled”) to the Loud Hands anthology. Because I want people to know we exist. Because I want other people like me to know they aren’t alone, in an autistic community made up mostly of people who experience themselves as terrible at nonverbal communication. Where people even say that autistic communities are communities where people can use text or other forms of language, rather than having to deal with nonverbal communication. Even though there’s plenty of us who do better in person, BECAUSE we communicate best nonverbally, because words, whether we can do them or not, whether we are or seem good at them or not, are so hard and so difficult and so painful to keep using.

There are entire groups of autistic people out there who communicate with each other using our own unique forms of body language that are different from nonautistic body language, different from other autistic people’s body language, specific to ourselves, specific to each other. Who communicate best reading each others writing, looking for the patterns that exist between the words, rather than inside the words themselves. Who communicate best by exchanging objects, by arranging objects and other things around ourselves in ways that each other can read easier than we can read any form of words. Who share the most intimate forms of communication, outside of words, outside of anything that can be described easily, in between everything, seeing each other to the core of our awareness. Who see layers upon layers of meaning outside of any form of words.

In “Untitled” I was writing about my favorite communication ever, my video chats with AnneC (and her cats, when they show up, which Shadow absolutely loves communicating with me over video and reminds her every Friday at the right time because he loves it so much). I don’t necessarily do the best at visual stuff the way most people think of it. But I can see the patterns of movement in other people, including cats, whether or not I see them well in the usual forms of visual perception. And those patterns of movement tell me more than any word ever could.

I can even read nonautistic people fairly well at times — just not in the ways nonautistic people read each other well. That’s one of the problems with nonautistic research into autistic people’s abilities to understand nonverbal communication. Most of it relies on the understanding and use of words at the same time as understanding the nonverbal communication. And most of it relies on the kinds of nonverbal communication that nonautistic people are most aware of. This frustrates me to no end — how can people research forms of understanding that they don’t themselves have and therefore they don’t themselves understand even exists? I’ve actually told researchers ways they can research autistic people’s understanding of nonverbal communication without having to resort to the faulty methods they usually use.

And one researcher told me, when I asked, that every parent of an autistic child she ever met said that their child picked up easily on things like stress in the household, but that SHE ACTUALLY DISREGARDED IT UNTIL I ASKED HER, BECAUSE SHE’D BEEN TAUGHT THAT AUTISTIC PEOPLE COULDN’T READ BODY LANGUAGE. I’m totally serious. If researchers are that biased themselves, how can they possibly hope to even notice that we can understand things they assume we don’t understand?! I taught that researcher a bunch of very simple ways to test that without relying on the painfully stupid research methods that guarantee researchers will find only what they expect to find — relying on us to use and understand words, relying on our understanding of actors and stage conventions rather than real people’s real nonverbal communication, relying on nonautistic people’s limited ability to read autistic body language, all sorts of other flaws that seem obvious but that researchers themselves seem never to notice. So hopefully she will set up some real experiments that show our real abilities.

Anyway. Back to what I was saying. There’s entire subgroups of autistic people out there _ not just my own — who rely on nonverbal means of understanding the world, and nonverbal means of communication. That’s one reason I usually put myself in my videos — because I know that certain other autistic people will be able to read me like a book, even if nonautistic people usually can’t. And that nonverbal communication is a crucial part of my videos. (See why the entire first half of “In My Language” has no words in it. I was trying to make a point about the best way I communicate, the best way many people communicate, autistic or not, verbal or not. Mostly lost on people, who think it’s a video about autism. It’s not. It’s a video about communication and understanding and personhood, that happens to be made by an autistic person. Big difference. I told CNN why I really made the video, and they left out that part of the interview in favor of putting their words in my mouth. I think my real intent was too political for them.)

Anyway. I may be a writer, but my real best form of communication has nothing to do with words. I use words because I have to. Because most people won’t understand me if I don’t. I don’t use them because I like them, or because I “can’t do nonverbal communication so text is best for me”, or any of the usual reasons most people assume. If I could never use language again, spoken or written, I would be really happy. But the world won’t let me do that, so I carry on using a means of communication that is outright painful for me.

I don’t know the people in the video, but I know that the way their bodies move makes intuitive sense to me and communicates things whether they intend it to be so or not. (The forms of nonverbal communication I understand best are unintentional, in fact. That’s one reason tests using actors don’t work on me. I know an autistic woman who failed a test of nonverbal communication because it used actors and she kept describing their real feelings instead of their acted ones. What this says about nonautistic people’s understanding of nonverbal communication is… interesting.) Whether they are able to use spoken language or not, the video would lose a lot if it only relied on showing them speaking or typing the words.

And I really dislike a lot of the self-advocacy movement for relying mostly on the self-advocacy that happens through words, written or spoken. This leaves out people who can’t do either but who are nonetheless quite capable of advocating for themselves through their actions and movements. If I hadn’t spent a lot of my life forcing myself to do words, I might be such a person, so I am always aware of this. Words are not natural to me the way they are to some autistic people. They’re difficult and my development could have gone either way. There are also people who, no matter how much effort they put in, could never have used or understood words, and they are also extremely important, and they are also capable of self-advocacy, and they are still capable of communication that is more full of meaning than the communication of many people who use words.

I wish there were videos using their communication — which by definition wouldn’t involve words. Both people who would have been able to use words had they put in a crapload of effort at critical times in their development, and people who would never be able to use them no matter what. Such people exist. I sometimes wonder if they are too inconvenient for some autistic people to remember. I hate when people tell parents, “If you just gave your child a communication device they would be able to type words (or use picture symbols) and everything would be solved.” You don’t know that. You just can’t possibly know that. I hear that a lot, this idea that autistic people would all be able to communicate in words if only they were given a means to type them instead of speak them. And it’s so not true that its utterly ridiculous. I hear it both from people whose main way of communicating is speech, and also from people who use typing, and people who use both. It’s wishful thinking and it’s not true. There are people whose understanding of the world is just like a typical “aspie” except they couldn’t speak for motor reasons, and they are the most likely of those who use typing, to believe this myth.

Reality is that there are lots of people who will either never be able to use words, never be able to understand words, or both. Or whose use or understanding is so limited that they will never be able to use words as their primary means of communication. But they do communicate, whether the communication is intentional or not. And they do matter. And they are capable of self-advocacy. And they should be included in self-advocacy movements if those movements ever expect to represent autistic people, developmentally disabled people, cognitively disabled people, disabled people in general, whatever group is trying to represent itself in that movement. And in order to include them, you have to show their movements and their sounds and all the things they do that aren’t words.

It’s true that many people who are thought not to be able to use or understand language, actually are. And it’s terrible that they are overlooked. But in their desire not to overlook such people, many people claim that all disabled people who can’t communicate through speech fall under this umbrella. And that’s simply not true. In order to communicate with people who will never use words, you have to learn their language. (And surprise, that’s one thing that “In My Language” was actually about. And it would be about that whether I used typing or speech to communicate — either one would be my “second language”, and as such I can easily, easily envision a situation where I never learned and never would learn to use speech or typing, both of which I used at different points in my life.) And each person has one. Sometimes several people have a language that is in common but is not words. Sometimes each one has a separate way of communicating that is not words. But either way, you have to learn how they communicate, not force them to either communicate how you best communicate, or else be considered “non-communicative” for the rest of their life. And yes it’s possible to get consent to use their communication, it’s just sometimes harder work than asking a yes or no question in words.

And a community that doesn’t include such people isn’t my community. The developmental disability community is far better at including such people than the autistic community is, even though not all of the DD community manages it either. One reason I’ve spent a lot of time communicating with people who can’t use words in any form is because I’ve been in the developmental disability system for pretty much my entire adult life and have spent a lot of time with a wide variety of people. And I’ve spent a lot of time communicating with people who can’t and may never use speech or typing or even picture boards. And that’s something that certain segments of the autistic community are sorely missing. Even parts of the autistic community that involve people who don’t use speech, are often made up of only those people who were able to learn typing, and often put forth the (false) idea that everyone could learn typing if only they tried hard enough or were exposed to the proper teaching methods.

The response someone made is true: Some of the people in the video use typing, so they could never be shown speaking the words in the video. But I’d like to go further than people who use speech and people who use typing, because unlike a lot of people, my social world is made up of a lot of people who can’t do either one. And also made up of a lot of people who, even if they can use speech, typing, or both, those are not their best means of communication, and it would be better to show us using our best means of communication rather than merely the form of using words. Not everyone has words but everyone has a voice and a means of communicating. And not everyone who uses words sees words as their primary voice or their primary means of understanding things, and that needs to be respected. And I’m sick to death of spending time in communities where most people seem to miss these facts, and automatically see having a voice as the same as using speech or at least using language.

On growing up with strange sensory reactions, and the difference between passing and being passed off.

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In discussions with other autistic people about how other people have reacted to us our whole lives, I recently realized another thing that makes me different from some other autistic people (I honestly have no clue whether it’s most or only some). Which is in my reactions to my surroundings.

A lot of autistic people who, like me, were assumed (rightly or wrongly) to be anywhere from somewhat to highly capable by many people during our childhoods, seem to have something in common that I don’t have: They were most of the time a combination of several of… stiff, unusually formal, considered “dweeby”, reserved as far as interaction with their physical surroundings yet obviously “engaged” to a certain degree, and in general… lots of similar things I don’t quite have words for.

I was considered some of those things some of the time. But I’ve noticed some people assume that’s how all autistic kids who were regarded as highly competent tended to act. And they leave out of their calculations a lot of things that were true of me.

Yes, I was socially awkward, had meltdowns and shutdowns, and lots of other stuff. But I was most of the time very, very involved in my physical environment in all kinds of ways that made me stick out in totally different ways than many other autistic kids did. Note that it wasn’t all of these things all of the time. It was at least a few of them most of the time at minimum, and when I wasn’t hiding as well it was more than a few nearly all of the time.

I would sniff things. Books, pencils, wood of all types. If I saw a cat I would get down on all fours and politely (in the cat world) sniff their noses. I would sniff rocks, tanbark, metal, rubber, computer and TV screens, and many other things I came into contact with. Not to mention picking my nose and sniffing the contents (no I have never been able to stop no matter how much teasing or reprimands happened or even injury to the inside of my nose by peeling the lining off, it’s like trichotillomania, it’s not that easy).

I would also grab things and stick them really close to my eyes, or wave them around in the vague vicinity of my eyes (I have good peripheral vision so this means anything from just in front to on the sides). I would wave my hand in front of computer monitors. I would do things with my fingers just to watch them. I would spend hours watching ants or water (which I might also get my hands involved with) or lots and lots of other things involving getting things really close to my eyes. And chasing dust particles. Not to mention doing a very intense purr-like noise that jiggled my eyesight up and down.

I also did elaborate things with clothing, hair, and jewelry. Not for the purpose of decorating myself for the sake of others, but for the sake of being able to carry around things I could either grab and look at, or see anytime I had a mirror, or (in the case of braids) run my fingers over. This stuff wasn’t an enactment of a social ritual (which is good because sticking earrings and pins throughout your hair doesn’t get you anything but laughed at) or for any reason external, it was entirely so I could have lots of portable stimtoys. I could grab the necklaces and stare at them or suck on them, ring my bell necklaces in my ear, stare at, smell, or suck on my paisley shirts or busy-patterned skirts, run my fingers over coiled braids or other jewelry, or stare at the whole mess in the mirror.

meandbrothers

(The photo shows me sitting in between my two brothers, in my brother’s room, with lots of jewelry on, staring at one necklace or similar object.)

I also had some visual phenomena I would get really absorbed in. I see various patterns that probably range from retinal lights and afterimages to migraine auras (both my parents get migraine auras without the headache) to the occasional seizure. But I would get totally lost in that stuff, and find patterns in it the way people do with clouds. I got sent to at least two separate counselors (one in an academic summer camp and one in my brief attempt at high school) for staring at walls in my free time in order to watch that stuff. Other kids just used that as an excuse to do things like wave their genitals in my face to try to get me to stop (it’s amazing what people will do to you for the crime of not appearing to pay attention to them, even when they make it clear you’re weird enough they don’t want your attention).

I was constantly sticking things into my mouth long after that phase is over for most people. Not just pens or pencils either. I chewed sets of rubber jacks balls to the point of really embarrassing my mother once when someone caught me sticking several in my mouth on video. I did this the most often before puberty but I did it after too. I was really happy when someone gave me different lengths of aquarium tubing when I was nineteen for the express purpose of chewing. I chewed and sucked on my own skin, too, hard enough to leave marks. And my hair. And ran the outsides of my tongue over my molars over and over to create a sour taste. And had a metal necklace I sucked on and spat out over and over until the outer gold-colored metal wore off.

I also liked textures like velvet, cat fur, varnished wood, anything large and cold and flat, etc. and pressed anything from hands to cheeks to large amounts of my body onto them, or rubbed them.

I had a weird thing I did in chaotic environments like school dances where I would frequently stand right by the speaker because even though it was earsplittingly loud the music was more orderly than the crowd noises. (At first I’d dance if asked to, or outright find someone to dance with if the song was “Stairway to Heaven”, but later I found it easier to just spin in circles.) I also hummed, whistled, and sang, sometimes all in rapid succession, and had a single toned hum I would do by keeping my ears clicked so internal sounds were loudest and then humming to drown out other chaotic noise. Got pulled out of school assemblies for clapping my hands over my ears over and over to create a rhythmic pattern to people’s voices or music. Played single songs until I wore out several tapes and tape players.

And this is not to mention the spinning, which I did at every dance starting just after seventh grade instead of running up to the speakers or trying to dance with people. And which I also did plenty of without dances as an excuse. And the pulling out all the paper towels, and all the soap, from dispensers, then smearing the soap all over mirrors. And climbing things. And assorted other things that were more actions than any one sense being explored.

And doing something kind of hard to describe. In new situations my sensory input seemed more and more chaotic. (Been planning a post on something related to that too.) And after awhile instead of panicking, I’d started embracing a sense of total randomness. This is the same sort of thing that could make a person really lose it in new situations, but it’s sometimes possible to sort of ride it out like some kind of funhouse ride instead of becoming tense or fearful. (Or as an autistic friend of mine puts it, “As long as there are shopping malls, I will never need LSD.”) This is yet another thing you never hear about because it’s assumed “resistance to change” is just The Way Things Are for all autistic people instead of being one of many possible responses to a more central experience of having things become really confusing the more change or new or unexpected input there is.

And when I did talk about my special interests they were about things like fractals, chaos theory, alternate realities, and psychedelic rock bands. Or any and all kinds of surreal or nonsensical things (including going around saying weird things in several languages that I couldn’t actually speak except to say weird things in). (The embracing of nonsense being one more way to deal with the speed of things changing around that time.) This… did not help.

Then there was… the other stuff. The ways I seemed cut off from the world instead of overinvolved in the wrong parts of it.

Part of that was due to my being heavily tuned into internal sensations. Like when I would sit down cross-legged, pull my skirt across my lap, stare at it, and proceed to vividly replay in my head scenes from Red Dwarf or Star Trek (other times it was listening to white noise and picking out single frequencies to replay songs I had memorized). Other times it was just something like pulling my hair over my face like Cousin It (wonderful to stop seeing lots of overloading stuff), or sitting around with my eyes shut. Or what my parents just called “Staring” with a capital S, where I’d basically sit there and appear to be staring at nothing at all (which could range from overload to replaying things in my head to just some coincidence of my eyes and facial expression, or could even be getting lost in various visual oddities I discussed before).

The point of all this? When many people picture an autistic kid who went undiagnosed until early adolescence, they seem to picture the formal stiff thing going on. They don’t picture the kid who involved herself in all kinds of supposedly inappropriate sensory activities, and seems physically pulled towards these things as if by gravity. But that was me.

I didn’t do these things every second of every day. But I did them enough to attract all the wrong kind of notice. While some people called me a nerd or a computer or those usual insults, much of the teasing I got revolved around being very, very attracted to physical sensations of all kinds, or else looking very, very tuned out. There’s a reason my mother insists on comparing me to Luna Lovegood rather than a more stereotypical nerd (or to, say, Ernie Macmillan, who was so formal he sounded pompous).

Yeah I did get called a nerd But mostly I got other things. When you’re younger and you behave this way, you become a weirdo, alien, psycho, crazy, tard, space case, elf (yes that whole fantasy started because someone called me one — if I could pick a Tolkien creature to compare myself to I’d be an Ent) etc. When you get a bit older you get called even crazier. And then eventually everyone and their dog thinks you’re on drugs.

This is one reason that I question the entire concept of passing. I rarely spent five minutes around other children before they figured out I was different. Often it was more like five seconds. Kids weren’t generally picking up my intellect or nerdiness (they might pick that up later but not immediately), they were picking up my strangeness. Much of the time they said so quite openly and as we got older they were trying really hard to explain why I was strange. But I was always strange, there was never a point even when I did my best attempt to “behave” that this was ever in question. Even when neuroleptics drastically tamped down on my ability to explore my environment in those ways I could expect to wait seconds before I was pointedly and often out loud judged as some kind of Other. Even among kids in mental institutions where the rate of neuro-atypicality was higher, I only very occasionally connected with anyone and it was always their doing, others just either shunned me or found ways to do harm to me.

Weird thing is even though I heard all about being strange my whole life I always underestimated my strangeness. I rarely connected all the dots in others’ reactions to me. I knew I was different but since I couldn’t imagine how all the things I did looked to others, I assumed I was “normal enough” largely because of that and because I was always around myself and therefore found myself… not boring exactly, but like I was used to me. The same way I never knew my autistic brother stood out that much even though he did (although more in the stiff/nerdy way than the sensory/strange way, we are very different people).

But once I put the dots together? Passing doesn’t make sense. What happened was people saw every single thing I did and then since they didn’t know about autism they formed other explanations. So I was crazy, or on drugs, or wanted attention (why do so many people accuse others of wanting attention when the actions prompting it are entirely not focused on other people at all, while they don’t tell people that starting conversations is attention seeking even though it is???) or any explanation at all they could come up with. Sometimes several at once.

As I’ve discussed before, the drug assumption meant I have been both asked for (???) and offered pot, acid, shrooms, DMT, ketamine, speed, mescaline, harmaline, and assorted really obscure “natural” hallucinogens (I did not take more than three on that list, and only after being accused of it got me curious). This took no effort on my part, especially when attending a school so well known for drug use that it made a top five list of drug schools. All people saw was a strange girl dressed like a hippie who did lots of odd things, looked spaced out, and reacted to all kinds of sensory input in a very raw sort of way that often made me respond more to texture and pattern and color than to the socially agreed upon nature of the object. Plus I was fun to get stoned because it made me have even more sensory processing trouble and ratcheted up my anxiety so much that it was easy to manipulate me into doing amusing things like jumping out windows so people could laugh. (One of my support staff has another client who has a very severe cognitive
impairment. I was telling him about this and he told me she gets the exact same crap from her neighbors.)

Another thing that happens when people form these explanations is they begin picking up on irrelevant details that confirm their explanations while blocking out information that conflicts with their explanations. Because of my reputation for drug use, people would claim to smell marijuana coming out of my room whenever I burned incense (I never did that in my room). Have allergies that make your eyes red? Must be stoned. Have naturally large pupils? Must be on acid. Have trouble bathing or washing clothes? Drugs make people not care about that. Have fluctuations in your abilities? Must be based on when you’re high and when you’re not. You can’t win around this kind of fallacious thinking.

Kids who pass don’t get accused of being on drugs by everyone from children to teachers from the age of twelve or thirteen onward. Kids who pass as nerdy or “just gifted” don’t get ostracized and accused of being both on drugs and crazy, or sent to the counselor, when they go to a summer camp filled with nerds who are mostly classified as gifted. Most “just gifted and nerdy” kids thrive in those environments and tease the kids like me who are clearly odd for other reasons. My best friend met me in such a place when we were twelve after seeing me spinning by myself, asking someone who I was, and getting “That’s Amanda. She’s crazy.”

Nor do kids who are passing really well have it assured that they will be only given single rooms from a certain point on so as not to alarm their roommates with their strangeness (yes my roommates complained about rooming with a “crazy person” or “weirdo”). Even in mental institutions. (And kids who pass really well certainly don’t get singled out as strange in those places.) This is not passing. This is being flagrantly strange and having it bother people enough that they try to think up all kinds of reasons to explain it to themselves.

When most people explain things to themselves, odd things happen. They don’t see what you’re doing. They see their explanation. They see “crazy”, “high”, “stupid stunt”, or whatever they have explained things as in their minds. And if they have to have their expectations disturbed enough to explain things to themselves, then you are not passing.

I know a lot of people that things like this have happened to. Even people with purely physical impairments. A woman I know has muscular dystrophy and when she began hanging onto the walls for balance, people explained it away as attention seeking or anxiety induced. That’s the exact same sorts of explanations (with the addition of the ever present drug thing) that I got with a much lesser known autism-connected progressive motor impairment that caused me to freeze in place, be unable to cross certain barriers easily, or lose the ability to speak.

I once froze for a solid ten minutes, with (as I heard those around me noting) fixed dilated pupils pointed straight at a bright light, on a high school field trip. Nobody told my parents. People figured it was drugs or anxiety, and everyone was sort of pointedly avoiding the subject (and avoiding me) the rest of the trip, treating me like I had done something unspeakable. I frequently had the same thing happen in college and was said to be on drugs (never happened when I was actually on them). Happened in the psych system and was called psychotic or dissociative or just left unexplained. Happened around new agers and they insisted I was either astral projecting or somehow being very spiritual. The same thing happened to me at an autism conference, and someone with the same movement disorder told me the journal articles to send to my doctor. I did and he recognized it immediately and diagnosed me with that condition.

Is that “passing”? No. It’s “being passed off as”. It’s people seeing a thing, being uncomfortable, deciding on an explanation, and coming to remember the explanation more than the thing itself.

Similarly, now that that and other conditions have me using a powerchair full time, all the traits that had people who just saw me walking around thinking I was either autistic (if they knew anything about it) or intellectually disabled, the powerchair has become their explanation for all those traits. So now I’m back to being considered purely physically disabled by some people, which has led to overestimation rather than underestimation of my cognitive abilities.

I can do one particular thing throughout most of my life and have it explained in different ways depending on age, clothing (hippie clothes, school uniform, “regular” clothes, sloppy clothes), location (regular school, college, special ed, institution, apartment, at home with my parents), haircut (messy, combed, long, short, parted in different ways, nonexistent), range of deliberate facial expression (less or more limited due to the motor impairments), and a zillion other factors. But I’m the same person and my reasons for doing whatever it is have remained constant my whole life. I have seen kids doing things like eating paper or lying on the floor, and if they’re considered “gifted” then it’s eccentric or attention seeking, if they are considered druggies people figure it’s the drugs, and in institutions or special ed it’s because they don’t know better. But I bet the reasons for doing it are the same regardless.

But as someone who was a strange kid, and paid the price for being a strange kid, I am really uncomfortable with the concept of passing. Passing would be if I never did the things I listed in the first part of this except in private. Something I only ever managed in part. Having people constantly bugging you and making things up about you because you do these strange things is not passing. It’s having people pass things off as something else. It’s having teachers accuse you of drug abuse until everyone believes it and you become curious. It’s freezing up and having other kids laughing and jumping up and down on top of you and going “see she doesn’t feel it”. It’s being singled out for bullying even among other “gifted” kids and “crazy” kids. It’s having “crazy” or “druggie” or “does weird things for attention” be the first words people use about you when strangers ask who you are. It’s having even people you thought were your friends comment gleefully and frequently on these topics as if you are more a source of entertainment than a friend. It’s having people shake you, kick you, wave their hands in your face, and make loud guesses about what’s going on, every time you lose speech. It’s that one guy who likes to come up to you and tell you what “everyone’s saying” about you. But it’s definitely not, ever, even when doing your best acting, being treated like everyone else. Which is what passing would be. Passing has its own set of problems. But “passed off as” is not passing.

The other point of this post is that I’ve talked to even a lot of autistic people who assume that there’s only two general appearances that autistic kids can take: Sort of awkward and stiff and nerdy or dweeby, or else completely cut off from people and constantly rocking and doing other stuff like that. And while I sometimes did both of those sorts of things, I think I was usually something different from either stereotype. Much of what made me stand out and get both teased and “passed off as” various things, especially both before and after the few years I reined it in a bit, was the way I related to objects around me, and sometimes appeared zoned out. Most of which has to do with how I process information in the first place. And while I know many others who were and are like this, it seems like even many autistic people can’t resist having their imaginations constrained by the main couple stereotypes. And I almost never hear this particular appearance discussed. Lest this become a third stereotype, I should point out that there are lots and lots of different ways we can appear, and that a single person can appear different ways at different times. It’s just important to avoid stereotypes. They don’t help.