Fantasy and Real World – Living in Both

It was a tough day, as I recall, subbing for one of my friends who is a Physical Education (P. E.) coach’s aide.  The school had grades from kindergarten to the fifth grade, from 5 year-olds to 11-year-olds.  It isn’t always the case, but that day it was the kinder who outperformed the other grades at not following instructions, successful at not paying attention, and sensational at tattle-telling on each other.
  
There were a few kids in each grade who were in their own world on the gym floor.   Their attention spam was near zero.  The coach’s instructions fell off their ears.  If she said to jog, they either ran as if their shoes were on fire or walked at snail’s pace.  I imagined going up to one of them, holding their sweet face in my hands, and asking, “Hey, is there someone in there?”  
 
Truth is, I am often in my own world too.  Sometimes I zone out when I’m supposedly watching the kids on the gym floor like a hawk. 
One of my fellow travelers on the Spectrum who attended this school’s autism unit reminded me of an escape artist.  Without any prior notice, he would break away from the classroom without leaving it.  A sure sign he was in his own world was when he in the middle of class do his imitation of a drummer.  His sweet compassionate teacher knew he needed to do his escapism now and then and within limits she did.
 
I was an escape artist at his age and still am!  I try not to do an “escape” demo for public consumption though, especially when I’m at school.  I know that escapism is just plain weird to the eye of the beholder.  Living between two worlds is just one of many things some of us autistics do.
 
I maintain a sense of humor about zoning out.  Such as one time when I was walking into my favorite electronics “toy” store, Best Buy.  When I first came inside the store, I was mentally off in my own world just as the school kids had been.  It wasn’t until after I walked into the store that I was awakened to the “real” world by the feel of chin straps.  Ought oh!  Other shoppers might have wondered “if someone was in there”.  Why?  I don’t normally shop with my bike helmet on.  

Now It Makes Sense

In the weeks and months that followed my self-diagnosis of Asperger’s, reruns of past episodes of my childhood played in my mind. I recall one day in particular when I subbed as a teacher’s aide at the elementary school I attended back in my school days.  As it would anyone visiting their childhood school, memories flooded my mind.  It was different though because I was looking back with a new pair of lens.

The knowledge of my living on the Spectrum solved the mystery of why my Mom never had to tell me to do my homework. It explained why I managed to get through my entire adolescence without a curfew. Or, why I had no phone in my room or desire for one. It explained why I was the silent one at the very few parties I attended. It explained the loneliness amidst people while at school, church, visiting relatives, etc.  It explained why loneliness wasn’t around when I played with my imaginary playmates as I paced in some private place. 

It now makes sense why a change in my daily routine was and still is as upsetting as I imagine it would be for a pilot and crew to be in a no-fly zone. I know better why even a slight word of criticism would shut me down.   I do mean down!  Even at my age, criticism has a melting down effect.  I will replay a confrontation where someone scolded me, justified or not, for not only days but years, even decades.  I truly wish I could put such memories in a “trash bin” like I do junk e-mails.

I am so thankful I had my lightbulb moment.  For me, that moment occurred when I was subbing in an Autism unit and observed a child do what I never saw anybody do but for me.  When I saw the child step into her imaginary world in the middle of the classroom, it was like watching my own self at her age. 

Since that moment, much about me started to make sense.  It is like a curtain opened up.  Despite the hardships of the past and present, I accept having Asperger’s. It is better to know than to be in the dark about what is behind my feeling like an alien in the neighborhood.  

If I were asked to describe myself in a few words, it would be a “silent observer”.  I would have said that decades ago.  But since knowing I live on the Spectrum, it makes sense that I am such.

My Autismland Cast of Characters

Someone told me long ago that if you can laugh at it, it hasn’t defeated you. I have kept that thought in the back of my mind ever since and I added another: if I can write about it, it hasn’t defeated me either. So that’s one reason since learning I was on the Autism Spectrum at the end of 2016 that I write about it. So with that in mind, writing about it with a dash of humor, here’s some of the cast of characters I live within Autismland for better or worse.

Ms. Stimfield

She is definitely a daily character in Autismland. She is a quick change artist – a leg shaker, a rocker, floor pacer, jogger, and fidgeter. This character is a soother for my sensory overload. Good medicine for my anxiety. A character of repetitive motion that helps me focus. Ms. Stimfield is a friendly character I am thankful to have around.

The Meltdowner

Not so thankful for “The Meltdowner”! The monster of the cast. The ogre may arise over some small aggravation or arrive for no reason at all. At least, the Meltdowner doesn’t come around every day. Its appearance raises the tension in my body to where it feels like an erupting volcano. After its leaving, I am as drained as I would be after being caught in the midst of a noise-filled crowd with little elbow room.

The Escape Artist

Another daily character that is the most mysterious member of the cast. If you came upon someone talking to themselves, pacing the floor and/or performing gestures indicating they are off in another world, you might be leery of the person. I do this but I make every effort of doing it without witnesses. I know if I could see myself on the video camera, my escapism would look strange even to me. No matter, it is a necessity for me. The escape artist has been around since childhood. It helps me cope in a world I don’t understand.

Ms. Chatterbox

Ms. Chatterbox is a delightful character. She shows up when I’m having a one-on-one conversation about one of my limited list of topics I am interested in. If someone asks me about one of my passions/obsessions, Ms. Chatterbox will deliver a monolog. Since I don’t have too many conversations on a daily basis where the topic is down my alley, Ms. Chatterbox isn’t always around in Autismland. However, I do enjoy her appearance. Unlike the Meltdowner who leaves me feeling drained, she leaves me with a bounce of energy after chatting with someone who shows genuine interest in whatever I’m going on and on about.

Ms. Solitaire

To put it simply, Autismland is living alone surrounded by people. I’m most comfortable doing things on my own. I picture myself in public more as an observer than a participant. A worse punishment would be to be amidst people around the clock than to be in solitary confinement. I truly need to have Ms. Solitaire in my daily life such as when I come home from my school classroom assistant job. I love working with the kids and staff but the challenges of social interaction are exhausting. I need Ms. Solitaire to help keep The Meltdowner at bay, if possible. It is Ms. Solitaire who recharges my batteries.

Ms. Perfection

This character makes me think of one word: annoyance. She is persistent in reminding me I have to finish whatever I start. Not only finish, but it is perfect enough that I can walk away from it with nothing left undone. She is exhausting! On the other hand, I’ve gotten many kudos in various jobs I’ve held over my career thanks to being driven by Ms. Perfection.

The Organizer

This is the most useful one of the cast. It prompts me to organize things by color, alphabet, age, genre, etc. It isn’t a chore to organize; it’s a TREAT! I am in a delightful place when the Organizer is at work. The other day I secretly organized my Mom’s kitchen pantry. I did hers because all my stuff is organized and re-organized one too many times. Sometimes the Organizer goes overboard. Anyway, I bet she had cans of food that she didn’t know she had on hand. Since she is neurotypical, I don’t think the pantry will stay in the order I put it in.

Ms. Sensitivity

Another annoying character but not to the degree as the Meltdowner.  Ms. Sensitivity shows up when there are certain noises and smells that raise my anxiety.  She is the reason I wear an eye mask at night to avoid the lights coming from my collection of electronic gadgets.  She is the reason I have one of those gadgets, my “Alexa” home assistant, to play white noise music to drown out my heartbeat or the snoring coming from another room.  Ms. Sensitivity doesn’t kick up a storm when the music playing is my music.  But when it is someone else’s music, she will kick and I will feel like a cat whose tail got caught on a chair leg.

The Distractor

This character heavily endows me on a daily basis with doses of “frustration”!  I can’t read a page without this character’s interference unless what I am reading is “spellbinding” to me.  That seldom happens.  Same with watching TV.  The Distractor doesn’t want me to watch a TV program on my recliner with my hands folded in my lap. I need to have something to do while watching such as a crossword puzzle or fidgeting with my fidget spinner.  Any TV program that can have my undivided attention without the Distractor … well, it seldom happens.  Thanks to the Distractor I haven’t been to the movie theater for a couple of years because it doesn’t make sense to pay no small price to sit in the theater drifting off in the Distractor’s la-la land.

 

I’m sure I left some characters out, but this posting is long enough.  There are characters wearing white hats and others wearing black.  And, some are not entirely white or black just as Autism itself.  It isn’t entirely black or white either.

Pup in the Hat

You’ve probably heard of Dr. Seuss’s “Cat in the Hat”.  Well, here’s a tale of a pup in the hat.

The puppy doesn’t bark or bite.  It won’t hurt a fly.  It doesn’t have to be fed or cleaned up after.  Truth is, it’s a stuffed pup.  It arrives at school with his 4th-grade owner.  If the boy is at school, the puppy is at school.  The stuffed animal is showing some wear and tear from being toted around so much.

Along with carrying the puppy, the child wears a hat to school.  He might say he’d feel naked without it if he could carry on a conversation.  Maybe one day he will.

In the classroom, he tucks his pup inside his hat like a mother puts a baby in a cradle. He’ll place his pup in the hat inside his desk, occasionally checking on it like I constantly check to see if my keys are where I left them.

On days I have subbed in his class, I notice he doesn’t get much done because his mind escapes into his own world.  I know all about that because I’m an escape artist too.  He will do some classwork; then, go back to daydream land.  The work he does get done shows he is a smart boy.

He introduced me to his puppy.  I tried to introduce him to his math problems but he didn’t take the bait.  When he packed up for the day, he didn’t forget his companion.  He wouldn’t go home without it, but he did let the pup out of the hat.  He wasn’t about to leave school without his hat on.

Swing High

One thing in my childhood that set me apart from the other kids was the swing.  I did swing like my siblings and neighborhood kids.  But when I was on the swing, my mind was far from the swing set.  Far from the backyard or playground.  I was swinging in my make-believe world with a cast of characters under my direction.  I was both the director and the star of the story.  The more exciting the story, the higher I swung.  It’s a wonder I didn’t swing high enough to knock the swing set off the ground.

The “swing” memories came flooding back to me at the school playground where I was subbing for a Physical Education (P.E.) assistant for a couple of weeks.  This was a school I didn’t have as much a subbing history with as other schools.  I had only subbed in their gym and not in any of their classrooms.

As I was watching the 2nd graders on the playground, I saw a boy sitting on the swing who wasn’t swinging.  He noticed me watching him and asked me to push him.  I suspected he might be a special education student since most 2nd graders can push themselves.  I did my part and pushed him for what seemed like a good half hour; although it was probably half that.  He reminded me of myself at his age because he was an escape artist too.  If I understood what he was saying to himself, he was pretending to be on an airplane.  He was having such a good time that I kept on pushing even though my arm was aching for me to quit.

Another child came up and said it was his turn.  This gave me an excuse to give my arm a rest.  The boy knew the other child and gladly gave up his seat.  I suspected maybe they were in the same class and I was right.  The other boy needed a push too.  Oh, dear, I couldn’t refuse.  I’m particularly biased when it comes to special ed children.  And these two boys and I had something in common – the autism spectrum.  I realize this when the aide in the autism unit came up and assisted me with the two boys.

I don’t deny I wasn’t glad when the coach blew the whistle and I was relieved from swinging duty.  However, I wasn’t at all sorry about my arm getting a work-out.  They were doing what I did when I was on the swing at their age.  The only difference was I didn’t need someone to give me a push.  If I had, I would have hoped someone would have come along and given me a push.  That’s why I pushed at their request so they could both swing high.

Between Two Worlds

He is the youngest in his family and the oldest in his class of students who are all living somewhere on the spectrum.  This has been his class since first grade and it will soon come to an end.  Middle school is on his horizon.

You could call him an escape artist.  Without any prior notice, he breaks away from the classroom without leaving it.  He escapes into another world created by his imagination.  He has been known to get up in the middle of the classroom and do his imitation of a drummer.  He goes through the motions of drumming without a drum in hand.  I don’t know that he owns a drum set, but he must have at least an interest in the instrument.

I relate to him since I am a fellow escape artist.  The only difference between his and my escapism is I don’t do a demo for public consumption.  When I was his age, I most often escaped in the privacy of my bedroom or the side of the house.  I didn’t perform in front of my teacher or classmates.  When I invariably got caught in the act of stepping into another world by adults or other kids, it was embarrassing.  I knew then as well as now that escapism is just plain weird to the eye of the beholder.

Escapism is a necessity for me and this child.  It helps us cope in a world we don’t understand.  Living between two worlds is just what we do.