Short Timers

I was asked for my opinion of why many of us who live on the Autism Spectrum do not stay on a job for the long term.  I have often repeated in my blogs of a nugget of Autism wisdom:  if you’ve met one with Autism, you’ve met only one.  There are short time job keepers who do not live on the Spectrum; whereas, there are those on the Spectrum who have spent their entire years in the workforce at one place.

I don’t know the statistics for what is the average job length for those who have Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). I was a job hopper in my 20’s.  So much so that I consider that decade as being my turbulent years.  Whenever I am wishing I didn’t have as many birthdays to celebrate compared to my younger counterparts, I think of that decade and decide I’d rather keep my near-60 status.

Stability came when I finally landed a job in my hometown’s police department where I stayed for five years which at the time was a record for me. The reason was I landed in a job where my strengths matched the job.

I believe there is a strong connection between my strengths and weaknesses with my ASD. My tendency to hone in on details instead of the big picture was an asset to my once held favorite job as a library cataloger.  I held that job for 10 years.  My favorite job when working for the federal government was that of a records analyst. Both jobs were detail-oriented that didn’t require as much social interaction as other jobs. I still fondly recall the one who taught me cataloging telling me, “You’re a natural.”

There are jobs I wish I could delete from my memory like I do computer files.  My ASD diagnosis reveals why I hated those jobs.  For example, I held a job in retail and I lasted only three months before they laid me off after Christmas.  In truth, it being laid off was an after-Christmas present because I was so awkward at it.  It required a lot of social interaction and being quick on my feet with customer’s questions and service. It’s not that I don’t like people. I am not anti-human.  It’s just I don’t like being around them much.

As a substitute teacher’s aide, I am around people, staff and students, all day long.  But there’s compensation.  I have the privilege of often working with children who are growing up on the same Spectrum that I travel on too.


The Self-Talk

In early December 2016, a 12-year-old girl caught my attention in an autism unit class where I was subbing for one of the aides. The student was doing the “self-talk” in the middle of the classroom. She paced the floor while doing it and a few times skipped across the room.  Although I couldn’t make out what she was saying to herself, I knew it was possibly a story with a cast of characters and dialogue was unfolding in her mind.

Watching the child that day was a life-changing moment. It was the light bulb that led me to my own Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) diagnosis.  The difference between me and the child is I know there are places and times that I should not do the self-talk. I try not to do it in public but it wouldn’t be unusual, for instance, to be caught talking to myself while taking a walk in the park. If there were a video camera in my bedroom, one would see a lot of me doing the self-talk. I reckon if I saw myself on camera, I would be “weird” to me.

The following are some questions I’ve been asked and my answers.

Is talking to oneself stimming?

I don’t think talking to oneself is stimming since by definition stimming is repetitive movement. Sometimes when I am doing the self-talk, I am pacing back and forth. I especially did this as a child when I would go outside to the side of the house and pace; or do so in my bedroom. The pacing is repetitive movement or stimming. So I sometimes stim while doing the self-talk but not always.

How important is self-talk to me?

Well, to ask me to stop doing it would be like telling me not to breathe. It isn’t going to happen! Even if I made an effort to stop, I predict I would fail at every attempt. It’s not really a choice. It’s just something I do living on the Spectrum.

How do you deal with an autistic person who talks to themselves?

Respect what they do as being something they just do. If they are doing it in an unsafe place or situation, then that’s different. But if not, just leave them be. And above all, don’t think they are crazy. It is just what we do and more likely than not, it isn’t something we outgrow. If I should live to be 80 or more, I’ll still be a talker to myself. Some of my best conversations are with me, myself, and I.


My Friday the 13th Meltdown

My living on the Spectrum includes hearing some things more loudly, tasting some things differently, smelling some things more strongly, and feeling some things more strongly.

It was supposed to be an ordinary afternoon assignment subbing for a teacher’s aide in a special education pre-school class. It turned into an unordinary day with a few sentences. It is easy to remember the date because it was Friday, the 13th. I’m not superstitious or anything, but that Friday, the 13th, will go down as memorable because I spent the afternoon in meltdown country while trying to pretend I wasn’t in one.

While I was watching three of the seven students in the play section, I was told to put something away. I wasn’t yelled at, but it took me back in my mind to 1st grade when the teacher had me stand in a corner.  I imagine to a neurotypical, it would have been no big deal. Something that fell off one’s back.  I so wish it could have been that way for me, but living on the Spectrum includes feeling things strongly.

I felt a thrust of panic shoot through me landing in the pit of my stomach.  I can’t begin to guess how many times I’ve lived through similar experiences and it’s just as painful as it was when I was a child. I immediately responded in a socially acceptable way without showing any sign of my panic button going off. I didn’t want anyone to know I was falling in meltdown country.  I had a job to do and had to keep what was going on in my inner being a secret somehow.

Shortly thereafter, I was assigned to assist one of the students who was severely autistic. Try to imagine this picture: A 58-year-old woman with autism trying to calm down a 5-year-old child with autism while she is fighting back tears as she is melting down inside. It is sort of like the blind helping the blind.

The thinking part of my brain was telling me, “All you need to do from now on is…  It is no big deal, stop thinking about it, etc.”  That was logic talking and there’s nothing logical about my hypersensitivity.  There were no shortcuts. I had to weather through all the stages of fear, shame, guilt, and anger before I would ever feel any peace about it.

Then, it came time for gym class. The activity was video dances and the lights were out while the kids danced. Thanks to the lights being out, I was relieved of having to fight back the tears. I let them stream down my face. I wanted so much to retreat to a corner, rock myself silly, and cry my heart out.

One thing that replayed over in my mind was the school day would end and I could make my escape back to my safe place at home.  I had been looking forward to the weekend but I knew a cloud would hang over it by reliving the afternoon episode of my Friday, the 13th.

The tears had dried up by the next morning but there was anger brewing. I went to the tennis range and hit the ball against the wall. My game of tennis was off because I took my frustration out on the ball. I was whacking that ball as if I was hitting what brought on my meltdown. If the ball could have talked, it might have said, “Hey, I didn’t do anything!!!”

Prayer without ceasing was a constant as I weathered the turbulence. The Lord’s Spirit spoke to my heart that it will pass and I knew it would. A verse that came to mind was:

2 Samuel 22:29
You, LORD, are my lamp; the LORD turns my darkness into light.

I didn’t lose my sense of humor. No meltdown has ever taken that; at least, not yet. I chuckled at my thought that come the next Friday the 13th, I should spend it in hibernation.

I’m one of those on the Spectrum who takes a long time to get over even a small slight. I predict I will have a conversation a decade from now if I should live so long in the shower about what I might have done or said differently on that Friday the 13th.

The Mystery of Compassion on the Spectrum

Someone on the Autism Spectrum asked me: Can people with Asperger ‘s feel compassion? I have the impression that I can’t.

This was a question I had been dwelling on pretty much since I learned I had Asperger’s Syndrome a year ago. I responded to the question saying to my fellow “Aspie” that it is a mystery to me as to the moments I feel compassion and those I don’t.

There are times I hear a story or see one on the news or witness one in person that pulls at my heartstrings. But yet, when one would expect me to shed a bucket of tears I do not. If I could turn on the tears at will, they would be fake.

Years before I learned I was living on the Spectrum, I worked with a colleague who had a son diagnosed with Autism. When my co-worker’s Dad passed away, his son, who I believe was around 10 at the time, told his Grandmother he just couldn’t feel sad, or cry, about his Grandfather.  The Grandmother, knowing of her grandson’s autism, knew the child was being blatantly honest, but it still took a swipe at her heart.

I remember feeling stunned and sad at the time that this boy did not experience grief. However, if I had taken an in-depth look at my own past experiences with death, such as my own grandparents, I would have had a clue then that maybe I was autistic myself. If I had known then what I know now, I could have told my colleague I understood where his son was coming from.

I have a friend who lost her husband years ago. I cannot understand her going to visit his grave as often as she does. I don’t judge her. She’s not doing anything wrong. I haven’t ever married and so how could I understand losing a spouse. I care about my friend but I just can’t feel as her family and other friends do as far as having compassion and understanding for her ongoing grieving.

It seems I have more compassion for those in my outer circle than in my inner circle. I have gotten more teary-eyed over the death of someone’s pet than a relative or family friend. I don’t have an answer as to why I shed tears or why I don’t. I just have to accept it as something I can’t change. I am capable of caring; of compassion; it’s just in some situations I can and others it just isn’t there. I wish I had a sincere “compassion button”.  Then I could just turn it on and off, but there’s no such button.


Getting There

A special education instructor who works with children who have Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), who is a parent of one with ASD, and a sibling to another, gave me a wonderful gift — understanding. She stated: “You have a bigger perspective of ASD than I do because it’s your life.” I don’t think I could count the ways ASD impacts my business of everyday living.

Such as if I like something, I go overboard with it. It’s just that simple. Some of my gadgets are toy gadgets that I doubt many 59-year-olds have. Such as a robotic sphere ball operated by a smartphone app. My grandniece and nephew like to visit their Great Aunt. Besides my charming personality, they are attracted to my gadget family. When they are older and can understand what ASD is, they’ll have the explanation of why their Great Aunt’s bedroom was their playground away from home.

I have since taken my “gadgetitis” to the yard. I recently acquired an electric blower/vac/mulcher. I was so excited when it arrived via UPS that I took it out for a ride in the backyard immediately. I spent more time figuring out how to attach the attachments than I did blowing, vacuuming, and mulching leaves. My lack of fine motor skills gets in the way of putting something together in a jiffy. In fact, some mornings it is a piece of work putting me together (such as battling pierced earrings).

When I turned it on and started going over the yard vacuuming up leaves, it would be light to carry. I noticed it wouldn’t be long before it was heavy to tote around. Common sense would have dictated it was because the bag was filling up with leaves. It took at least a month before I figured that out. I was under the illusion I could vac until the yard wasn’t covered in leaves without emptying the bag. It was a good thing I finally figured that out before the bag busted from being overfed.

After every session, it was a pain to separate the bag from the tool’s main body. How bad was it? I didn’t care if I ever saw my yard gadget again. Then, one night a light bulb went off in my mind. I didn’t need to take the bag off to unload the mulch. All I needed to do was to unzip the bag and unload where I wanted the mulch to fall. Then, zip the bag up and keep going or put the tool away.

I wish I had figured this all out from day one of using this yard gadget, but the wires in my brain don’t operate that way. It is a zig-zag train track I have in my brain. Getting to know my yard tool, like so many things, is not a straight shot from point A to B. I do get there but it takes me a while.


Autism and its Invisible Females

As a woman with Asperger’s, I relate to the belief that women on the autism spectrum are invisible.

In my job as a substitute teacher’s aide, I am often assigned to autism units. It didn’t take me long to realize that the overwhelming majority of students in these classes are male. Their behaviors are usually more visible than the few female students there are.

As to the question of why are men more likely than women to have autistic traits, or receive a diagnosis of autism, Professor Simon Baron-Cohen, director of the Autism Research Centre who, along with PhD student Emily Ruzich, led the Cambridge/Channel 4 study. They found there’s a lot of research showing that testosterone changes brain development.

Males on average produce more testosterone than females, even when in the womb, and the data shows that children with autism on average have higher levels of the hormone than typically developing kids.

This backs up a 2009 study that looked into the prenatal testosterone levels of typical four-year-olds. “The higher the child’s prenatal testosterone, the more autistic traits they had,” says Professor Baron-Cohen.

These findings suggest the critical factor may be hormone levels rather than gender and could be pivotal to further understand the higher rates of autism diagnosis in men. But, as Professor Baron-Cohen points out, “It’s only one piece of the puzzle.” He adds: “The nature of science means one new finding opens up a hundred new questions.”

Wendy Lawson, author of “Build Your Own Life: A Self-Help Guide For Individuals With Asperger Syndrome” and a self-described autistic woman, believes girls on the spectrum may be underdiagnosed because if they have obsessive interests (often a feature of spectrum disorders), these are more likely to be socially acceptable than the obsessions of boys with autism. Girls, she says, might get into reading or animals, which seem normal, “so people don’t pick up on our social difficulties.”

Jennifer McIlwee Myers, who has Asperger’s and is the author of “How to Teach Life Skills to Kids with Autism or Asperger’s,” concurs. She says boys on the spectrum are more likely to respond to their difficulties with anger and aggression, while girls are more likely to “deal with issues quietly,” cultivating extreme “niceness” and imitating other girls’ behavior. Boys who have the vision problems that sometimes go with autism spectrum disorders may hit other boys, she explains, while girls might instead cling to other girls. And a boy who attacks other kids is going to get intervention a lot faster than a girl who cries quietly every day. Myers says there are “a lot of invisible girls” who are autistic but never get help because nobody notices.

I personally didn’t realize how I try to act like other people until I learned I was on the spectrum. I act “normal” to avoid making people mad and not being singled out as different.  Females on the autism spectrum may just be better at imitating neurotypicals than our male counterparts.  And that imitation makes us invisible.


The Uniqueness of Autism

She’s on the Spectrum but she doesn’t know that yet. She’s 5 years old going on 35. This kindergartner reminds me that if you’ve met one person with Autism, you’ve met one person.

Most students in the autism unit are on the shy side. As one with Asperger’s Syndrome, I am not a chatterbox either. But this child has not met a stranger. It doesn’t matter how long has it been since I’ve subbed in her class.  When I walk in, she makes a beeline towards me as if she sees me every school day.

One of her repetitive behaviors is asking people their name over and over again. The teacher warned me about this the first time I had laid eyes on her. The teacher and classroom aide advised me not to answer every single time she asks. I didn’t but my silence didn’t dissuade her from asking every half hour.

When I escorted her to and from gym class, we passed by several teachers. There wasn’t a single teacher she didn’t say hello and give a hug. She knew all the teacher’s names. I’m good at remembering faces, but names? Forget it! I asked the teacher when we returned from the gym if the child knew every teacher on campus by name and she said with a smile and a wink, “She’s working on it.”

The last time I was with her class, she repeatedly asked not only my name but my mother’s name, my brother’s name, etc.  Finally, I turned the tables on her and asked her what was her name.  Her answer: “NOYB”.  I said what???  She said, “none of your business.”  Okay, she is a smart aleck too, but an adorably cute one.

Worry Offers Wrinkles, Lines, and no Solutions

In the Book of Matthew, 6:27 and Luke 12:25, Jesus asked which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to one’s span of life. I admit if my worrying could extend hours to my lifespan, my lifespan would be mighty stretched. Worrying is something I confess I do even though all it gives me is wrinkles, lines, and no solutions.

Worry is a sure sign I am failing in the “faith” department and accomplishing nothing. Someone named Van Wilder said that worrying is like a rocking chair. You can sit yourself down in that chair at sunrise and rock in that chair until the day is done. Come sundown, you’ll still be where you started. That’s as far a distance as worrying gets you too.

One of the hardships of living on the Autism Spectrum is anxiety. ( My own personal nickname for the Spectrum is “Billy”). Tony Attwood, a leading authority on Asperger Syndrome, sees those with highly-functioning Autism, or Asperger Syndrome, managing anxiety as a daily part of their lives. According to conservative estimates, 65% of adults with Asperger’s Syndrome suffer from anxiety and depression compared to 18% of the general population. I’m one of those in the 65% who takes medication for it.

A popular prayer that often comes to my mind is about accepting the things one can’t change, the courage to change the things one can, and the wisdom to know the difference.

I can’t change having Billy around and the baggage that comes with him. He can be good to have around but sometimes, I wish I could divorce him. For instance, I can’t shoo away meltdowns. I can’t wish away anxiety pangs that have no rhyme or reason to them. Fortunately, since taking my medication, such pangs are fewer and sleep isn’t a challenge as it used to be. I can’t rewire my brain to turn into an extrovert and thrive on being around people rather than thriving on being alone. I can’t help it that I can’t process verbal instruction as fast as others. I can’t help it that a change in routine puts me in a tailspin. I can’t help it that I need to pace the floor and retreat to my fantasy world to cope with a world I don’t understand.

Prayer is always a good place to start with the coping process. That’s at the top of the list of tools to knock off worry. Take meltdowns, for instance. When one comes, I can do something about it such as finding an area of refuge, stim as much as I need to (pace, jog, rock, etc.), with a prayer on my lips. I can’t prevent their coming, but I can choose to prayerfully weather them through and not to worry about when the next one is coming.

In my better moments of thinking, I see Billy as a daily opportunity to live my faith. He is something I either can choose to worry about or not. Worrying won’t make Billy go away any more than not worrying will either. But I’ll have more peace of mind and more fun by not. Even better, I’ll be living my faith in the Lord which has the added advantage of having a closer walk with Him.


My Bigger Perspective

I’m fortunate to have a job where I work with teachers who teach children with an Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) and with the students themselves. I have a teacher’s empathetic ear to my own ups and downs of living on the Spectrum. The students with ASD are my fellow Spectrum travelers. Helping students whether they are in general or special education is therapeutic. The icing on the cake is I earn a paycheck and receive therapy at the same time.

It is always a treat to have an assignment at the school where I initially suspected I had ASD. The specific behavior of one of the students was the light bulb that led me to my diagnosis near the end of 2016.  Seeing her reminds me of the impact she unknowingly had on me.  She can’t hold a conversation but she does know me by sight. To say she is special is an understatement.

One of my assignments at this school took me from classroom to classroom working with special ed students who attend general ed classrooms. I spent a little time with a 4th grader who needed assistance with getting around. She can’t use stairs and so one of my chores was to escort her up and down the elevator. She is so determined to be independent! I think she could have operated the elevator with her eyes closed since she has to use it so much.

One of the staff has the job of taking special ed students out of their classroom and holding one-on-one or small group sessions. We had a couple of conversations about ASD since her son was diagnosed at a young age of having ASD. I told her of my own ASD behaviors/obsessions and I didn’t tell her anything that surprised her. My behavior and that of her son was more alike than different. She cited examples of her son’s traits/obsessions and it sounded all so familiar. I was uplifted by this conversation. I could talk to this lady for hours but when it was time to sign out and go home, I did since I had to stick to my routine. The teacher did say something that I took with me and inscribed in my heart:

“I have the perspective of a parent with a child who has Asperger’s. I have the perspective of a sibling who grew up with a brother who has severe Autism. I teach children who are on the Spectrum. But you have a bigger perspective. It is your life!”

I understood what the teacher said about it being my life. It affects every aspect of it. If I could somehow even for a short time separate myself from my ASD, I don’t know who I’d be but it sure wouldn’t be me.