The Downside of Logic

Warning: this is not a happy post.

I am constantly confused by society’s social norms and rituals. And I mean constantly. I see so many people buying frivolous things they can’t afford on a consistent basis and then blaming the government for lower wages. I see people who keep an unhealthy diet and act surprised when they have health issues. I have learned that this is because many people act out of emotion rather than logic. As a hyper-logical person, this baffles me. If you know something is bad for you, why do it to the point that it negatively affects your life?

When you are as hyper-logical as I am, you tend to hurt people emotionally. It’s almost never intentional, but it happens more than I’d like it to. Over the years, I have isolated myself from many people, good people who I think I could have maintained a closer friendship with.

I don’t have many close friends. I don’t think this is a bad thing; being alone does not mean I’m lonely; I really like the friends I have and have maintained over the years. But I know that if I get too close to people, I may end up unintentionally saying something awful or insensitive. Often it is due to a behavior of that person I don’t understand. Maybe I don’t even say it to their face, but I say things like “That person is so fat, why does he keep eating so much every time we see him? He/She should work out more often.” or “Why is that person spending money on alcohol when he or she always complains about being broke?” or “I don’t understand why that person does [insert habit here] I think it’s such a useless activity” or “Why would they vote for [insert political candidate] they have such a STUPID way of thinking, it’s ASININE to think [insert policy here] would work.”

My overly-logical mind means that I end up complaining a lot and sometimes overshare my qualms and lack of understanding of others to the point that they drain others. Lately, I have been seeing the worst in others; if a nice person does one bad thing, I will harp on that bad thing. Maybe I’m right about the bad thing, but it’s not what I should focus on.

Lately, I have been harping on drug and alcohol use. As someone who gained the freshman fifteen in college pretty quickly, I learned my lesson about drinking. I also saw what it did to my health (especially as an athlete). I have smoked weed a handful of times but never got the same thrill as my friends seemed to, plus I don’t think anything other than oxygen is that great for your lungs. I bet weed/cbd oil is better for your lungs than tobacco, but a foreign substance in your lungs is rarely a good thing. I am against the war on drugs and think marijuana should be legal, but that doesn’t mean it’s a panacea, and it doesn’t mean it can’t be abused. Plus, my short term memory is bad enough, I don’t need weed to make it worse!

It seems like everyone has something. Almost everyone has a drink after work, a joint before bed, a cigarette break during the day, to relax themselves. It baffles me as to why we do things we know are bad for us as a tool for relaxation. I enjoy going on a run, reading a book, or going to BJJ as tools for relaxation. An occasional vice is okay, but why do something that is bad for us multiple times a week or every day?

This makes me look pretty snooty/holier than thou, right? That is definitely what I’ve been told and what has been implied when I state this opinion. And my critics are right. In my mind, I have “grown out of” these vices and act based on rationality instead of emotion. In reality, I shouldn’t judge other people for their vices. I suppose a vice is only truly bad if it negatively affects their life; it’s not like your life will fall apart if you go to happy hour every day.

It’s quite tiresome for people to explain stuff like this to me. Most people don’t like overly analytical conversations with friends, it gets taxing. And then that friend becomes a burden. Every conversation becomes a debate or an argument. And who wants that?

My family and a few friends have pointed this out to me, leading to me feeling really bad about judging, draining, and hurting people. “It’s not your fault” they’d say “you didn’t mean it.”  However, I have been in the following situations in the past year:

  • had to listen to someone partially deny the Holocaust and then state that “Jews run the world”
  • had to listen to a doctor (who is in charge of many employees) about how he deliberately pays women less than men because he assumes the women will have kids and leave
  • watched a man go up to an unconscious woman at a party and start petting her hair; she woke up completely freaked out (I was not present for this one, my sister who was at the party witnessed it and told me about it)
  • watched a man stroke my sister’s leg and ask why she was single- this was about two years ago and the man is in his 60s while my sister was in her late 20s
  • watched someone inhale vaporized marijuana and drink with his friends in front of his own children who are less than 10 while his pregnant wife tried to take care of the kids and unload the groceries at the same time
  • had a man come up to me at a party and ask me to ditch my boyfriend to dance with him
  • a family friend who literally ate through his gastric bypass surgery came to my parents house for a party and literally ate so much of our food that we had to frantically defrost extra food we had in our freezer

I think most people would take issue with the points above. I tried critiquing these people to others who witnessed these events later on in the day. It seems that in this world of neurotypicals, people keep most criticisms to themselves because pointing out the flaws in others is hurtful. We must wait for others to change themselves without our input, and even talking about it can seem “too critical”. I don’t think I’d like being criticized ALL the time, but I honestly like when people point out that I’m doing something bad or wrong. I welcome an opportunity where I can learn to not hurt someone’s feelings or make myself a better person. And yet, it is “cool” and okay to tease others based on their shortcomings via memes or mean jokes. I find this very confusing!

I would also like to point out that, throughout my life, I have been heavily critiqued. Every behavior of mine that did not fit in to the world of neurotypicals has been critiqued. Every time I wear an outfit that is just not right or I’m a little bit clumsy, I am critiqued. So I feel some hypocrisy when I am told not to critique others when it is perfectly okay to critique me.

This brings me back to my childhood conflict of whether I should be social or not. Should I go back to my days of keeping to myself, get in to a wake up, work, recreational activity, go to sleep schedule? I won’t bother anyone. Or do I take the risk, be social/make friends, and hope I don’t hurt people? This debate constantly rattles in my brain. As a child, I dreamed of living far away from everything in a small house with a dog. No one could hurt me and I couldn’t hurt anyone. No confusing social rituals, no hurting anyone; I’d just go to work, do my job, and go home. For the record, this conflict is more of a passing moment in my adult mind, but was more serious in my child mind.

Learning how to live in this world is challenging. It hasn’t gotten any easier as I’ve gotten older. I am constantly confused, and so many people act like understanding these irrational behaviors is part of life. For some people, I suppose it is. I have heard many people say they were overwhelmed with social media during and after the election. Frankly, the hysteria associated with this election, is not far off from what has gone on in my mind for many years, except the confusion and anger is directed at my own social misunderstandings and not politics. While I have never thought of taking my own life (I really value my life and the lives of others, I think suicide is one of the worst things in this world), this kind of confusion is likely one of the reasons why autistic people are much more likely to commit suicide.

I am back to seeing my old therapist because I have been so confused with some things that it has profoundly affected my day-to-day mood. I really hope I can talk some of these things through. She has been very helpful in the past so I have faith that I can come out with the tools to deal with these emotions.

Learning Disability

I have written about my Aspergers, but not yet about my learning disability.

My learning disability can best be described as a processing disorder. It is difficult for me to link certain processes or steps in a problem together. I also have trouble translating my thoughts in to words. It took me a long time to learn how to write because even though I could see the letters and knew what each one meant, I would end up just drawing a straight line across the page and crying because I couldn’t figure out how to write. To visualize what is going on in my brain, imagine a wire that is broken but both ends are sparking hard enough to make a weak connection.

I went to a school for kids with learning disabilities from kindergarten through second grade. Despite rigorous testing that showed I had learning disabilities (Asperger’s diagnosis came a few years later) I did not quality for state aid, so my parents had to pay college-level tuition to pay for me to go to a school in Manhattan, New York. I woke up at 5:45am every morning to catch the 6:30am school bus in order to get to school on time.

Those three years while I was in that school were amazing! With class sizes of only 12 people and two teachers in a classroom, I received all the help I needed. And with a class of only 12 people, everyone was friends with everyone! I went to occupational therapy (coordination issues) and speech therapy once a week. It was nice for my parents too, as the other parents of the kids in my class were all wanting to help their kids and were thus understanding of all the other parents and their concerns. During the second grade, I was devastated when I found out that my test scores were high enough to mainstream me in to regular public school. Many of my classmates ended up staying at the school through high school, but all the ones I keep in contact with are successful in their respective careers.

After going back to public school, I did well academically (it was a mixed bag on the social front) up until the 6th grade, when my family moved to New Jersey, where the public schools were much better and competitive. I quickly started bombing math exams and dreaded school like never before. My quirks certainly did not help me socially. Most of my conversation consisted of spouting random facts I knew from thumbing through my family’s large encyclopedia collection. Remember those?

I made my way through middle and high school with the help of an army of tutors, mainly in math and science. I have always been pretty good at reading comprehension and writing, but math and science were my weaknesses.

College nearly broke me. I got decent grades my first year, A-‘s and B+’s mainly, but I was taking intro-level courses similar to my AP classes in high school. When my second year came around and I started thinking about my major a little more, the higher level classes drew out my learning disabilities once again. Despite hearing explanations over and over for many concepts, and seemingly understanding them, I was unable to answer my homework questions and bombed many tests. I nearly failed the two classes I took. I begged my parents to let me drop out, that college wasn’t for me, why should they waste their money if I’m going to do so badly? I wanted them to let me come home (even though I didn’t want to leave my friends) and take coding classes at the local community college. With a firm no, my parents insisted I keep trying and switching majors to find my place. I am grateful they pushed me because I do think the college experience helped me grow, intellectually and socially.

As a very logical, practical person, I wanted to major in business or economics and work in a developing country to help build up their markets and processes or create policy around these issues, as I thought this would be a good way to enact positive change and still earn a living. I gave Political Science a shot as well, but I continued to get bad grades even in the lower level classes, and became increasingly disillusioned with the way the American government works. I ended up as a Sociology major. I thought the subject was/is interesting, but I resented it because it is just not a practical, marketable major and is grounded largely in theory.

When I finished college, I knew I was going to have to go back to graduate school. I had a strong interest in urban planning, and knew I’d be unable to get a job without a graduate degree. Graduate school was surprisingly okay; the material was right in line with my strengths. I even conquered my fear of math and really enjoyed data analysis.

At my current job, I have been feeling overwhelmed. I have really had to curb some of my Aspergers-induced ramblings and combative debates in social interactions with my co-workers. I am careful about the social events I go to so I’m not overloaded but still socialize with my co workers in a more relaxed setting. Additionally, I am learning new coding languages at work while still working on projects. This has become overwhelming for me; I really like data analysis but some of these coding languages are not particularly intuitive and others have picked it up much more quickly than me. I am not a competitive person at all when it comes to school or work, but I do want to be competent at my job.

I have been trying to study the material as much as possible during and outside of work. At this point in life, I’ve learned all the techniques to work around my learning issues, but the biggest one is to just work really hard, to study intensely and immerse myself in the material. I have to read the material slowly, over and over again, and do several practice problems. Studying alone is key so I’m not distracted. In lieu of a tutor, I post questions on Stack Overflow or Reddit, which has served me well thus far.

I Hate Crying

I hate crying. I find it to be a useless activity of self pity that results in nothing more than a wet face, red eyes, and no solution to the reason you were crying in the first place. If other people cry, I don’t judge them because they must have their reasons for it and crying doesn’t harm anyone, but I don’t understand why people do it. As women, we are often expected to be more sensitive and emotional (and then criticized for it), but I rarely cry in the same context that other women do, even now. I wasn’t crying as a child because people were mean (well, most of the time it had nothing to do with people being mean) but it was due to various sensations and irrational fears that I couldn’t process. I rarely cry in response to a sad/bad event. I wish our brains were programmed to be more rational more of the time.

When I was younger, until I was about 7, I cried all the time, becoming hysterical for seemingly no reason. I have vague memories of being terrified of of many things- hugs, food textures, etc. Many times, I would clench my jaw until I started shaking and hold back crying until I exploded in to tears. As I grew older, I felt the need to cry less and less as I was taught to process my feelings more effectively. In fact, I rarely cry now, except in certain situations; I’ll go in to that in a bit.

I also don’t like the vulnerability of crying. When you cry, everyone knows you are upset about something. If I feel like I’m going to cry, I start breathing very deeply and avoid eye contact. I will often excuse myself and walk away. If you don’t cry, there are certainly ways to hide being upset. This presents a huge problem for me. Crying (sometimes) can be cathartic and a healthy way to express emotions. But when I feel sad, I feel a deep sense of grief and hyper-empathy (the latter is common in people on the spectrum, contrary to the belief that we are emotionless robots) which can create an emotional backup inside of me, like a clogged pipe with a lot of water pressure behind it.

One of my major breakthroughs in dealing with emotions was reading books. I love to read, and used to read constantly; life is much busier now or I’d read more. Reading is a good escape if you are not good at being social. I’d sneak books to the dinner table, read during recess, read on the toilet, and read after my parents turned the lights out. Even though the characters in most of the books I was reading were fictional, many of the situations and emotions were realistic. This meant that reading these books were effectively giving me various strategies and templates to deal well emotionally in a variety of situations. In the fifth grade, I started keeping a diary, which I maintained through middle school. By high school and college, I had matured enough emotionally and had grown a pretty thick skin (it’s very hard to offend me), so I was able to effectively handle most things that came my way.

One of the pluses (in my opinion) of being on the spectrum is my ability to be very rational. Instead of crying or feeling immense discomfort from holding in my tears/sadness, I am now always trying to figure out why something may have made me upset and how I can change that in the future. Was it my fault? Was the other person right or wrong? What steps can I take to prevent this situation from happening again? Admittedly, this can become an obsessive habit (I have a notebook full of past arguments where I’ve listed causes and solutions of the issue) but overall, it’s a good thing.

However, one situation in which I am bound to cry is when I’m in a relationship. Being in a relationship requires you to be emotionally vulnerable, and therefore more susceptible to crying if there is an argument. If I argue with a friend, I don’t feel as emotionally invested in those arguments or debates, so I’m unlikely to get upset, or at least not upset enough to cry. However, romantic relationships seem to be a completely different ball game. Being in a relationship requires you to really open up to the other person and really trust in them to not judge you. This is part of why dating was also difficult; the thought of opening up, not just about having Asperger’s, was pretty terrifying. I didn’t want to be judged negatively for parts of me that I couldn’t change and look weak for crying. In these cases, crying isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It is certainly not fun, but it does help release and express sadness.

What I’ve learned is that the problem isn’t really crying in and of itself; it is my inability to process emotions effectively. As you can see, there is no one single tool that will fix that issue, but there are many other things I’ve done to cope.

Sensory Overload: Holiday Edition

I normally LOVE Christmas and the holiday season. I like buying gifts for people I care about, I love all the decorations and festivities, and I enjoy spending time with family and friends. I watch lots of Christmas movies, always see the tree in Rockefeller Center, and try to go ice skating. However, I went in to full sensory overload this year.

I ended up going to four Christmas parties in four days. That’s four days of having to dress nicely, talk to a lot of people, stay up late, and do it again the next day. Wearing nice clothes (that are often made of uncomfortable fabrics) for a long period of time while talking to people for a long period of time can drive me nuts!

I went to a party on the 23rd where I had no social issues or overload, but my overload started to kick in on Christmas Eve. I went to a party with my dad, sister, and my sister’s boyfriend, as my mom and younger sister were out of town. I went to the party knowing that I knew the host fairly well, but would not know most of the other people there very well. I keep a few social rules in place for these kinds of situations, largely based on some of my weaknesses:

  • keep the conversation light; most people don’t want to dive in to a deep political discussion with someone they barely know
  • ask how that person knows the host- it’s the easiest conversation starter
  • be ready to talk about your job and where you live- people always ask this and it’s easy to talk about
  • don’t get overly defensive if someone asks you something too nosy
  • maintain eye contact!

It seemed as though people wanted to stick to their own preexisting social groups; I tried to start talking to some people, but was pretty much ignored after we exchanged names. Lots of people seemed to want to talk to my sister and her boyfriend; all I can think is that they were curious about the new-ish couple in the room. Needless to say, this made for a fairly awkward evening that felt much longer than it really was. I began feeling anxious because literally everyone else was not having a problem keeping a conversation for the duration of the event. My anxiety grew to the point where I stayed in the bathroom for ten minutes. I’ve heard people on the spectrum say they feel like they were born on the wrong planet, and boy did I feel that way at this event and on Christmas Day. 

The next day, I woke up, picked up my mom and sister from the airport, picked up my boyfriend, and got ready for Christmas Day festivities. My entire family, my sister’s boyfriend, and my boyfriend all came to this party, so I felt a little better going in. I really like the crowd at this party every year, I’ve known most of them for most of my life. However, a few are fairly ardent Trump supporters who became quite abrasive. I can debate politics with just about anyone (I am a political nomad, I have no attachment to any one party but feel strongly about certain issues and governing principles) but these supporters were the kind of folks who speak loudly and repeat phrases they liked without giving me concrete reasons for their support. As someone who obsessively researches these issues, I simply had to keep my mouth shut because I knew there was no way they would listen. I enjoy having my viewpoint pushed and learning from others (I sometimes like being proved wrong because it means I learned something new) but this was clearly not going to happen here. At this point, every voice and noise began to feel like it was rattling in my brain, bouncing around as though a rave was going on.

I wandered in to the next room, where there were three small kids between the ages of 2 and 6. They were playing in one corner while myself and the other folks my age were watching television. With three kids playing loudly (which occasionally involved me being jumped on and punched), people talking, and the TV going, this was not a great escape from the slew of ignorant political comments. I’m sure most people would have been fine in this scenario, but between the past two days of activity and all of this stimuli, I felt exhausted and near tears. I can normally handle little kids bothering me a bit, a loud TV, and ignorant conversation, but after multiple days of social events and small talk, this was just too much for me. My brain felt like it was going to explode and each noise felt ten times louder than it really was. 

The odd thing is, there were a couple of people my age who I happily spoke to, but I had this deep, underlying sense of anxiety and discomfort that plagued me for a large portion of the evening. I occasionally stared at the TV and focused on controlling my breathing.

When I got home, I opened my presents alongside my family. I felt terrible, because I didn’t look excited by the presents, but only because I was so exhausted from the overload. My mom commented that I was quiet and I could tell she thought I didn’t like my presents. I didn’t like that she asked me “How could you possibly be tired?” but I did feel awful so I started complimenting my presents. I really did like all of them, I was just so damn mentally exhausted. I went to bed and tears of exhaustion and guilt rolled down my face.

I was able to sleep in a little the next day, as I had a holiday party at 3pm. However, in the back of my mind, I was thinking that I had to pack, buy my gift for a gift swap, go back to my apartment in NYC later that evening, and get ready for the rest of the week. I spent the forty minute car ride with the radio off, slowly controlling my breathing, and trying not to cry. I seriously debated pulling over and just hyperventilating and crying for a couple of minutes, but drove on. The attendees at this party were my boyfriend’s friends; I really like just about all of them, so the guests would not be an issue. I was able to snap out of my funk when I got there and managed to have a pretty great time.

I began to feel anxious once again as I began driving home, and felt a strong desire to be alone. All the thoughts of getting ready for the week and not having a lot of time to do it crept through my mind. I thought of the past couple of parties and how anxious they had made me feel. My dad was kind enough to drive me back to my apartment (my dad is a very kind person) where I quickly unpacked and sat on my bed with my head in my hands, mentally exhausted but with many thoughts running through my mind.

My dad drove me back, my mom had ironed all my work clothes, my sisters had bought me nice gifts, and here I was, agitated because I had gone to too many social events? I felt so ungrateful. There are people in this world with really taxing jobs and stress in their personal lives, my own parents work long hours and are in their sixties and they barely seemed tired! Yet I can hardly attend a few events without feeling like collapsing. This is the first time I had felt this way in some time. I wanted to run in one direction and just be alone for days and then go back to work instead of having to wake up in 7 hours to go back. I knew I could not tell my parents I was feeling this way because I think it would really be a slap in the face to them considering how hard they work and that they don’t feel as stressed as I do. Plus they have had 28 years of dealing with my issues.

I did not anticipate all this overload because I’ve dealt with Christmas just fine in the past. I think the issue here is that I did not know my limits. For next year, I should perhaps

  • opt out of a party or leave early if I see that there are many events lined up
  • try harder to tune out other distractions if there are a lot of things going on at a party
  • make as much of an effort as possible to get more sleep during busy times by going to bed as soon as I get back
  • ensure I have time for myself. Self-neglect is one of my weaknesses; whenever I push through a tough assignment or have a lot of things to do, I am not good at taking breaks or even eating enough.
  • if someone says or does something that irritates me, pause, and think why they may have said or done that. I often don’t understand why people do or say things, but if I think long enough, I can figure out the logical or emotional sequence behind someone’s actions. I need to learn to mentally detach better when I don’t agree with someone and know that engaging in conversation may do more harm than good.

My New Years will probably be pretty low key, and I am looking forward to getting back to my regular routine and resetting my brain a little bit. I have spent many years pushing through awkward social habits and scenarios to achieve pretty good success, and I need to treat this weekend as a bump in the road as opposed to thinking “Dammit, something is wrong with me, I can’t fix this.”

Race

One of my first memories is sitting in preschool, staring at the back of my hands, and noticing they were brown. Everyone else in class had white hands, white faces, white skin all over. I had a feeling they didn’t eat rice and curry at home or that their mothers scrubbed them vigorously to ensure the smell didn’t stick. They went to church on Sunday. I was at temple listening to Buddhist chants and meditating, something deemed “weird” by the general public until recently.

They seemed so comfortable talking to one another, so happy. It took me years to realize that back then I thought I was weird and felt left out because of the color of my skin. I thought I was the way I am because that’s how people look like me are.

To clarify: I don’t think my peers were/are racist. (at least not all of them and not most of the time) I was clearly different from them, but I associated my being different and left out with the color of my skin, that there was somehow a connection between being brown (I am Sri Lankan, but was born in America) and being awkward. This connection was only solidified by the stereotypes of brown actors/actresses on TV, and the fact that my parents largely socialized with other people who looked like them.

I saw the other kids at school with their perfect, white bread sandwiches,  handcrafted with the perfect ratio of cold cuts and mayonnaise. I don’t think they went home to rice and curry or had their mothers vigorously scrub them to get rid of any hint of what we ate. We fumbled through clothing stores, trying to dress like the other kids. Not in an attempt to be cool, but just to be normal, to try and assimilate. That’s what immigrant families do; we try to fit in to this new land and integrate, accepting the struggles and judgment in silence.

When we went clothes shopping, I hated it. I hated the textures and colors, I was constantly overwhelmed. But around the time I turned 9, I became equally upset because I felt like every clothes shopping event was a constant attempt to appease the overwhelmingly white crowd that surrounded me at school and my parents at work. It’s like being part of this weird minstrel show where if we can either act the part of the people watching or climb back in to the stereotypes that we are so constantly teased for.

Many of my brown-skinned peers in middle/high school only hung out with those who looked like them, probably because their parents started hanging out together when they were just kids. New immigrants in a new country, it makes sense that those parents would meet up with and socialize with each other as a form of friendship and solidarity. Many of them were also in some of the more advanced classes; I was only in a couple, and was often barely hanging with my classmates in those classes. So I was in this strange limbo of not being “brown enough” for one group of people yet still feeling a little different in my group of largely white friends.

I felt things heighten over time; as years passed without dating, I would see white men dating white women, and brown men dating brown women. If I had a crush on someone who was white, I always told myself “This isn’t realistic, I’m too different looking.” This is not something that was rooted in hate or dislike of white people; it was based on observation and perception. I have also had the unfortunate experience of guys coming up to me who had some kind of weird Asian fetish, so that certainly didn’t help.

I didn’t want my friends to know about my learning problems or Aspergers; I didn’t want them associating my awkwardness, social/emotional lack of awareness, or eccentricities with either of those.  I started telling self-deprecating jokes about brown people. Accents, being cheap, strict parents, you name it and I was making fun of it. I was beating them to the punch line, calling out awkwardness associated with people who looked like me before people could inquire otherwise. All those other brown kids are NERDS, look at me, I’m different, was the image I put out. People laughed with me before they got the chance to laugh at me. I sold out, giving others ammo for existing stereotypes and not reconciling any of my internal battles.

People began to tell me I “wasn’t like the other [brown people] they knew” that I was one of the “cool ones”. In spite of this, these were the same people who constantly suggested pointed any brown guy who entered my vicinity and suggested I date him, without any knowledge of how he was as a person. It took me a while to realize how ridiculous and offensive this is. Brown kids are made fun of for being nerds all the time, and now that I’m telling bad jokes about it, I’m one of the “cool ones”? And yet y’all are implicitly suggesting I date only brown people? It also occurred to me that I was actively helping facilitate that kind of mentality every time I told crappy jokes based in stereotypes. I had shifted the blame/cause from my learning disabilities and Asperger’s to the color of my skin.

When I began seeing my boyfriend, I began thinking about all of this. He is Sri Lankan, like me, but moved here from Sri Lanka as a kid. We began talking about topics like racism and white privilege. Despite everything I just typed, I denied a lot realities about racism and prejudice in many of our discussions. In many ways, I was discounting his experiences and reverted back to the old “if you work hard enough, none of that stuff matters.” This continues my string of incidents where I am emotionally inept, driven by ideas I’ve copied and pasted in my mind from various articles instead of forming my own opinion.

I read this interview with Ashok Kondabolu, the hype man for the group Das Racist, and the brother of the comedian Hari Kondabolu. He makes this very compelling point that I relate to strongly (genders reversed, of coursea):

“When I got a little older, when I had a crush on some white girl, I’d think about how when she was imagining her boyfriend, it definitely wasn’t some Indian dude. And I was like shit, this would be way easier if I were white. Which is something I still think constantly all the time.”

I sat there in shock after reading that part, and immediately replayed what I’ve typed in this post in my mind. About two weeks later, I met up with some friends from graduate school. I mentioned the above quote and said how strongly I related to it. I was met with complete silence, probably because it made them feel really uncomfortable; maybe because they knew it was the truth, and maybe because they knew there was nothing they could say. I begged for that fifteen seconds of silence to end, for someone to say “I’m sorry you had that experience.” Instead, the conversation moved to another topic.

When I came home, I finally started thinking about this issue. I didn’t read any articles and copy and paste ideas. I sat back and thought about everything, the way I act, the way I see the world, and everything in between. The next time I met up with my boyfriend, I told him about the article and how I’d brought it up to my friends who responded with silence. He told me “They don’t know the struggle.” We had an honest conversation, about how things are different for us than they are for a lot of other people, in many ways. Neither of us expect any kind of special treatment because of this, but we both agreed that we wished there was some way people can understand what it’s like to be in our shoes. We became even closer than before, our shared experiences bringing us together. This experience, in some ways, helped me learn to think about things outside of statistics and quotes and think about real-life experiences.

My boyfriend asked me why I didn’t further push my friends from graduate school on these issues during my trip. I said that I didn’t want to make them uncomfortable, to which he responded “Do you hear that? You stopped pushing forth a dialogue because you didn’t want to ruin the day for three white people.” Truth be told, I keep my mouth shut sometimes because I am honestly afraid that my impulsive and emotionally unaware nature will hurt someone, but in this case, he was correct. I was afraid to push forward an issue that personally affected me with my own friends because I thought the truth would upset them.

I don’t think about these issues all day. However, the best thing I think I (and others) can do is to call people out when they say something racist or ignorant, and explain why what they said is offensive. My biggest fear is making them uncomfortable, not through the content of my words, but the way I frequently speak; my speech patterns can become monotone, I will speak loudly, and my mind-blindness will rear its ugly head.

But it’s a matter of biting my tongue at the right time, and for the sake of my own dignity, I will try to do that as much as I can.

Mind Blindness

Many on the autistic spectrum have what is called “mind blindness” which means that person is unable to see issues from the perspective of others. This can result in less empathy and understanding of others.

I can get unnaturally upset or confused in social situations because I don’t understand why others say or do certain things. This makes political debates difficult, and I often have to literally bite my tongue to keep from being impulsive. There was a time period where I would literally say things word-for-word that I read on the internet or in books instead of forming my own opinion. Sometimes I am so blunt and impulsive that hurt the feelings of others, or so aggressive in my speech that others don’t want to engage in conversation.

This has gradually improved over time. What helped me the most was going to college. I was exposed to people from a wide variety of backgrounds. Listening to a wide range of people speak about their personal struggles and worldviews helped me understand what other people might be going through in their personal lives. Also, watching TV and reading books gave me interesting insight as to how people act. I know books and TV characters often don’t act how people act on real act, but I feel that the interactions and stereotypes portrayed are effectively distilled forms of emotion. So it was a good way for me to observe emotions as an outside viewer even if they were exaggerated. However, these actions did not completely change the way I speak and act.

I recently got in to a big fight with a close friend of mine. The issue was that I often dominate the conversation in social situations and that I am often overly critical of others. Both relate to my inability to relate to others and see the other side of things. We talked it out, but I shed a lot of tears. I don’t cry often, but when I do, it’s because I feel I have hurt others; in a strange way, I care about others the most when I hurt them with my lack of empathy. I do not like causing others pain or discomfort, it’s something that I am constantly trying to avoid yet I always fall in to the trap of hurting their feelings.

I entered a very deep sadness after that conversation. Before sleeping in my bed, I sat in my closet, knees to my chest, rocking back and forth for about an hour. I used to hide in my parents or my own closet as a child and do this when I felt lonely or upset. After this sleepless night, I cried intermittent tears and lay in bed for hours. (good thing I was out of work sick anyway) My friend felt guilty for making me upset, but quite frankly, it was something I needed to hear and the criticism wasn’t even worded in a rude way. I don’t blame my friend at all. I ran through many scenarios in my mind where I know that, in retrospect, I hurt someone’s feelings badly because I said something impulsive, or a time I dominated the conversation because I was dogmatic about my viewpoint.

In these situations, I have often thought about, but have never acted on, cutting off all social networks and doing everything by myself to stop hurting people. As a child, I often imagined living my life like this- going to the movies by myself (I do this frequently now, can’t be bothered to make plans with people sometimes), working a job that required little social interaction, and basically doing any and all activities without another person.

I can’t expect perfection from myself, but I know I can control the frequency of my social mistakes. I do not want to fall in to the trap of blaming Asperger’s for my errors; with the knowledge of my issues, I should be able to control impulses on a reasonable scale. I am in a constant battle between making these mistakes and beating myself up over them.

I try to carry a notebook around with me at all times. Whenever I make a social mistake, I write it down (not necessarily right at the moment) so I can think about how to fix it next time. I’ve also started pausing for a period of time before speaking during a conversation. My hope is that these strategies will continue to help me.

Just Keep Stimming, Just Keep Stimming…

I am face down on my bed, sort of on all fours as my knees and elbows touch each other, like a contorted version of the yoga pose known as child’s pose. I haven’t pooped in at least a week. I’m mumbling to myself and rocking back and forth, sweat all over my face and tears seeping in to my mattress. I am just five years old and am terrified of God-knows-what, and this is my way of dealing.

Stimming, short for self stimulation (get your mind out of the gutter please), is a form of repetitive behavior that allows the person to soothe themselves in situations where he or she may be overstimulated by external factors. It can be as simple as playing with your hair or rubbing your hands, or something more obvious like flapping your arms and making loud noises. It can also escalate to a full on tantrum, like the one I had that literally made my parents cancel a vacation midway to take me home and get me diagnosed.

My parents and a few teachers showed me what behaviors were and weren’t acceptable in public. I learned that it was not okay to throw tantrums in public, how to tell someone when I felt uncomfortable, and what other things I could do to deal. In kindergarten, the teacher gave me a balloon full of sand to squeeze when I felt scared and overstimulated.

Just a  couple of weeks ago, I had two episodes where stimming was necessary for my personal sanity. While abroad with my family, I was in a store where they sold hand-blown glass goods. I generally despise shopping unless I need something; I find shopping without a purpose to be a waste of my time and impulse buys to be a waste of money. After a few minutes of browsing, I became bored with the wide array of brightly-colored glass goods. My sister and mom were looking at various decorative plates (ridiculously expensive by the way, who pays hundreds of dollars for a plate you can’t even eat on?) for over an hour, deciding which ones would look nice, couldn’t we just serve food on this one and wash it gently, how will we get it back to the US, etc.

As they sat discussing what to buy, the rainbow selection of glass products became more and more overwhelming. Wine glasses, glass animals, glass sculptures of people, and murmuring discussions of buying this really expensive melted sand you don’t need made me trapped and insane. I felt like a hamster in a cage and giant fists were knocking on the glass walls. I tried staring off in to space, as this is my first method of blocking out external stimuli. When that didn’t work, I sat down, put my elbows on my thighs, and moved the weight from the back of my heels to the front of my toes, back and forth, without moving my whole body; this is my compromise instead of rocking my entire body back and forth, which might make a scene. When none of this helped, I moved my gaze to the floor, close my eyes, and put my hands over my ears. I hear my dad faintly calling my name. My mom notices, calls my name, and asks if I feel overstimulated. I nod my head yes, and she says we can go outside. However, I am steered to another floor in the building my family wants to explore. This thankfully only takes a few minutes, but I am upset that my mom knew I felt bad and still kept us inside the building. I run outside, pushing through people trying to get in, not caring about the stares coming my way.

As soon as I’m outside, I feel like my head had just come up from being underwater, like I had just survived drowning. I hear my dad mumbling in the background, calling my actions bizarre (my dad’s reactions to some of my behaviors will be in a later post) but my mom comes over and asks if that was hard for me. I let out a tense “yes” and keep walking.

Two days later, we are in a store that sells very high-quality leather goods. Shoes, wallets, belts, jackets, gloves, anything leather and they have it, and once again, it’s hand made and expensive. I want nothing to do with this store, everything is expensive and I’m fine not getting a fancy wallet or pair of shoes.

My mom and sister bully me in to trying on several pairs of shoes. “I don’t need shoes” I tell them “I have enough”. No you don’t, they tell me, you never know what clothes and shoes you have (admittedly, I am not great at knowing when to buy new clothes or shoes until I realize they have holes in them) just try these on, it’ll look great. Once again, colors of leather and shapes of products rush in to my view, overloading my senses. I feel more and more crazy as I try on more shoes, internally mumbling about how this is making me crazy and buying without needing is pure gluttony, for me at least. (I don’t really care what other people do with their money, but keep me out of it) I finally cave and settle for a nice pair of black flats, good for any occasion with a cute bow on the end. Now my mom is buying shoes for my dad, my sister is getting her jacket tailored, and we are getting a belt monogrammed for someone. I am feeling peak overstimulation, and stare in to the black space between long rows of shelves, clenching my jaw and praying for it to be over. I nearly have a heart attack at checkout when I see the prices and cringe at the four bags we are carrying out of the store, full of bags, a belt, and several pairs of shoes. Once again, I exit and feel like I’ve just been saved from drowning, but it takes me a while to feel okay again. We sit down to eat and I blankly stare at the menu, slowly trying to regain my sanity. My mom looks at me and says “I know that was very painful for you.I just want you to have nice things.”

I know there are going to be instances of overstimulation in my life that I can’t avoid. I’m lucky that I can now deal with many social scenarios, but any time I am effectively forced in to making a decision I don’t want to make and am faced with many choices, (like the two shopping scenarios above) I feel insane. Not the “oh this is boring, can we leave please?” that many people probably feel when they are dragged along to an event or shopping, but a crippling “This is too much, I can’t take this, I need to leave” feeling. Here are some things that have helped me deal:

  • deep breathing/meditating- this is the most effective one, in my opinion
  • squeezing on to a stress ball
  • covering my ears
  • looking at my phone- I avoid this because I already look at my phone too much
  • thinking of something completely unrelated, whether it’s something I’m obsessing about, various issues in the world, etc. 
  • clench my jaw- I can’t really recommend this one, it can’t be good for you and if I get really upset, I start to shake as well. But it does happen, so I figured I’d list it
  • Pulling at my hair where it’s tangled- again, not a great one. But I know that some people will twirl their hair around their finger, which is more reasonable.

As a kid, I would sometimes do times tables in my head or internally recite random facts and lists I remembered. When work gets stressful, I’ll go to the bathroom for a few minutes and breathe deeply. Unfortunately, I still have episodes when I blow air loudly out of my mouth at random intervals if I’m feeling overstimulated or stressed. This used to happen in college/graduate school somewhat frequently, hence why I’d often study alone.

I’m not a parent, but if I had a kid, I wouldn’t him/her from stimming. I’d teach them that screaming or other disruptive behaviors aren’t okay in public, but would try and find methods that are more subtle yet still effective. I know it looks odd, but it helps the person and doesn’t harm anyone.