Dancing Into The Future

Dancing Into The Future

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThose of you who’ve visited my blog before will remember it as Married, With Aspergers and you might be wondering what’s happened. It’s still me writing, all the older posts are still here. But the old title no longer felt relevant to the direction my life is taking now.

I identify as autistic and use identity-first language when referring to myself, so it was out with the “With Aspergers” for a start. And although I’m technically still married that relationship is over. My previous post explains about that. So anyway, that meant “Married” had to go as well.

I spent a lot of time thinking of a new title. It had to reference autism because that’s the main topic in my writing. I thought about loading it with references to stuff I’m a fan of, such as Doctor Who, Firefly, Star Trek, Discworld and so on. But that would have made it long and unwieldy.

Finally this afternoon it came to me: My Autistic Dance. It’s short, the majority of its letters form the word “Autistic”. And the Dance part, well that’s something I enjoy. Indeed, along with hand flapping it’s what my body does when I’m happy or excited. And I’ve been feeling like that a lot recently. So my happy dance happens quite often.

Dancing for me is stimmy. The rhythmic movement naturally regulates my sensory processing when I’m in the throes of emotion. Because emotions bring a whole host of physical sensations: that’s usually how I recognise them. More than that, though, dancing is pleasurable. I love music, and my body just responds to it.

So this blog is now called My Autistic Dance. It’s got a new theme too with a warmer colour scheme. I don’t know about you but the old one felt a bit cold to me, lacking in emotional warmth. It certainly didn’t reflect the positive feelings I have about my current situation and the way I am growing as a person.

I’m getting more involved than I used to. You won’t only find me behind a keyboard on this blog and Facebook now:

  • I was very proud to have an essay included in Autism Women’s Network’s wonderful anthology What Every Autistic Girl Wishes Her Parents Knew.
  • I travelled to Ireland to join Fiona O’Leary and others (including at the last minute Emma Dalmayne) in protesting against the showing of anti-vaccine propaganda film Vaxxed in Dublin.
  • I accepted an invitation from Emma Dalmayne to join the committee of her South-east London-based community group, Autistic Inclusive Meets.
  • I volunteered to present one of the monthly “Lunch & Learn” sessions where I work. My talk will be called Understanding Autism.

There’s more to come, I’m sure, and I’m so excited to see where opportunities like these might take me. I hope you will be there with me and we can all dance together.

Image “dancing in the rain” by Hank Hession. Licensed under Creative Commons 2.0.

Translating Passion

Translating Passion

I have a deep connexion to the written word. The art of writing is one of my great pleasures in life, reading is another. Words are little parcels of meaning and reading one unwraps the gift to reveal a glittering treasure of ideas. Each one is a seed that takes root in the mind, growing and bringing forth sweet fruit.

When I write I use words to build a representation of my mind state. It’s not a simple, mechanical process although experience has made it largely effortless; it’s a creative endeavor in which I use my feelings and mental images as the template through which I shape a story.

I never start with an outline or any structural plan for what I intend to write: inside my mind there is no such linear organization. The ideas exist as a single entity, a gestalt. I see and feel the whole at once, aware of each part but much more aware of how their combination results in meaning that transcends any simple arithmetic of combination.

Words are pigments and brush strokes; the page is my canvas and I paint what is inside my mind, producing an imperfect representation in my drive to express my thoughts. I cannot hope to portray every detail, the intricate richness of what I see behind my eyes. Instead I strive to present a faithful impression, a sketch. To indicate through hints the underlying shape. To provide the dots that my reader can join in their own mind.

Writing is immensely emotive. These elements from my mind that I translate via my keyboard can be painfully intense, carrying as they do a wealth of emotional association. Analogy and visual metaphor have their roots in these feelings: they are the manifestation of my visceral, physical responses to stimuli via the vision-oriented functioning of my brain.

Sometimes it feels as if the ideas themselves are alive within my mind and it is they who strive to be heard through me. The act of writing becomes one of observing as they flow out onto the page. My hopes and fears, loves and loathings want to be heard and they tumble out as I watch, lost in the ecstatic bliss of creative release. To simply call writing a passion falls short: it is far more important to me than that.

Relationship Problems: Validation Failure

Relationship Problems: Validation Failure

I only heard the term validation recently, but quickly realized that I was familiar with the concepts behind it. It is very much about recognizing and acknowledging emotions, both in ourselves and in others, something that I find difficult. This would be true for anybody with alexithymia, and I’d presume is fairly common across the autism spectrum as a result.

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Violence As A Means Of Expression

Violence As A Means Of Expression

I’m not a violent person in general. People who know me well have remarked on my placid nature. But I have a darker side: there’s a reason my mother told my wife to watch out for my temper…

I have a high level of tolerance for frustration or pain but when that state continues — whatever the cause — I become enraged. I shout, yell, scream; I throw things that are close at hand (although as an adult I nearly always have the presence of mind not to break stuff or throw it towards any person); I hit doors and walls.

As a child there were holes in my bedroom walls where I had punched or kicked through the plasterboard. I have punched and kicked through doors, or burst them from their hinges. In later life I have learned to punch solid brick walls where the only resulting damage is to my hands or elbows: this lessens my shame in the aftermath.

Because I do not want to act in this way. I know that my rages can frighten my wife. I have never aimed my rage at a person, although their actions might be the cause, and I believe that my inhibitions against harming a person or animal run too deep even for my rage to overwhelm. But even I can’t be absolutely certain. Because there have been accidents: a couple of times I have pushed somebody away from me after yelling at them to go away and they have fallen. I once hit my wife with the door I was pushing closed as I tried to keep her away from me; I didn’t even notice she was right behind me. Does this mean I could go on a rampage, attacking random people I encounter? I seriously doubt it: my drive is simply to release the anger and I have always aimed it at inanimate objects.

But I have caused people harm as a result of my involuntary violent outbursts. I am lucky that I caused them nothing worse than a bruise: I have to live with the consequences of what I do, whether my acts are conscious or not. As it is I always feel deeply ashamed once the anger subsides and I calm down. I feel guilt. I usually cry and shiver — it’s similar to the effects of shock. I will not — cannot — excuse my violence. But I can try to explain.

Why do I do it? That’s a very important question. I am usually able to communicate effectively but emotion is a minefield: I have alexithymia which means I have great difficulty identifying and describing my emotional states. Strong emotions, especially negative ones, are very stressful. Add to that the fact that I become practically non-verbal when under stress — words are in my mind but I can’t get them to come out of my mouth — and you have a recipe for disaster. I’m not able to communicate my state of mind or my immediate needs which adds to the sense of frustration.

I fall back on instinct which is to lash out, to exhibit violent behavior. It is a reaction, just as screaming is a reaction to acute pain — rather than calmly stating “My word, that hurt”. As a child it was described as “temper tantrums”: that was the best description my parents could come up with. When I am in that state, which is thankfully very rarely, I do not have any other viable means of expressing myself. Instead of reaching the crisis point I have learned to recognize the early signs that I am heading in the direction of a rage and take steps to remove myself from the cause. Often this is as simple as walking away for a while until I feel calm.

For this reason I can understand that when an autistic person — adult or child — expresses themselves through aggression or violence they are displaying a reaction to pain, frustration or some other stimulus that is beyond their ability to handle. This understanding comes from personal experience in my case but isn’t hard to grasp. How many non-autistic people would become aggressive if unable to otherwise communicate their distress? What if they had a severe toothache but their mouth was taped shut? Imagine them trying to seek help in the face of that handicap and in the grip of such pain. Don’t you think they might exhibit some aggression?

Understanding is key. You don’t pour oil on a raging fire: you cool things down. Remaining calm in the face of the rage is so important; anything else simply feeds the flames. And understanding is not difficult to learn. Yes, it takes patience and practice. But when you care about the person experiencing the rage surely your first desire is to help them, to do what is best for them?

Humans may consider themselves apart but are still animals with all that entails. Even a domesticated animal — your dog or cat, say — can react with violence when in pain. Why is it that some people can understand and accept this behavior from their pet as natural but not see the parallels in a child? I may not be able to excuse the violence in myself but nor can I excuse a failure to understand its causes in those close to me, or close to anybody else who suffers something similar.

I am lucky in that I am able to analyze and explain what happened once the violent episode has passed. For those who are not so lucky and are not able to do this I can hope those close to them might gain some insight from my own experiences. I can’t say that the violence is avoidable but there are ways of handling it calmly that reduce its severity. And analyzing its causes can help you develop strategies to avoid the triggers. Above all, please remember that the violence itself can be as traumatic to the one experiencing the rage as it is to one observing it: it is disturbing to feel that you are not in full control of your own body, and on top of that is the shame and guilt in the aftermath.

Losing Patience

Losing Patience

Several times, especially in recent weeks, I have been put in an awkward, discomfiting position when out socially. One minute I will be feeling at ease among friends and then one person will start behaving badly – disparaging and insulting others, being antagonistic, even spiteful, and completely shattering my sense of calm.

This person absolutely refuses to accept that they might be in the wrong, instead reacting angrily to criticism and blaming anyone and everyone around them; the phrase “chip on the shoulder” comes readily to mind. I’m starting to wonder if there’s some psychological problem behind these personality traits – the Wikipedia entry for narcissistic personality disorder includes the following:

Narcissists have such an elevated sense of self-worth that they value themselves as inherently better than others. Yet, they have a fragile self-esteem and cannot handle criticism, and will often try to compensate for this inner fragility by belittling or disparaging others in an attempt to validate their own self-worth. It is this sadistic tendency that is characteristic of narcissism…

But this speculation does not address the issue at hand, namely that this person is causing an increasing amount of ill-feeling and upset. I know that I’m reaching the limit of my patience in dealing with this person’s demands and prima donna antics, and I’m far from the only one feeling this way.

I find that I am dealing with the stress caused by this person’s behavior by switching off from these interactions – I have become increasingly emotionally detached as a form of self-defense. While I still care, I am no longer willing to be subjected to this kind of bullying behavior.