My Place on the Autism Spectrum Part 1: Social Challenges

I – Introduction to ASD

I apologize for the long wait and the length of this post. I hope to try writing more frequently from now on. This blog post will highlight my personal struggles with autism and other mental issues that I deal with or have dealt with in the recent past on a daily basis. My hope is that it will bring about an understanding and possibly sympathy or empathy for people who struggle with autism and mental issues in general. Note that this is only one account of how I’m affected personally. It should not be taken as proof of what others may or may not experience with their own struggles.

I have ASD which is known as “Autism Spectrum Disorder.” This condition has a wide array of symptoms and some people are better equipped to interact with people unaffected by ASD. I am a high functioning autistic so I am better equipped to interact with neurotypical people (people who aren’t on the autism spectrum). The mental issues, not necessarily all autistic issues, that I have identified within myself are: black and white thinking patterns, repetition of thoughts, indecisiveness, overstimulated vision and sound, and difficulty navigating relationships and simple social situations. What follows will discuss these symptoms in more detail and how they create challenges for me on a daily basis.

II – Black and White Thinking

I tend to think in terms of black and white even though I’m very open minded about most things. When I mention black and white thinking here, what I’m describing are absolute rules to live by. Rules without any exceptions. I don’t know where these rules really came from entirely but I do know what they are and how they’ve hurt me. One such rule is “don’t make people uncomfortable.” This rule sounds like it could be a good thing, perhaps even something to teach a child; however, it is incredibly damaging the way I use it. What makes people uncomfortable? Well, staring at them for one. How do I know if I’ve been looking long enough to be considered staring? My solution for not looking at someone for too long is not looking at people in the face at all. When talking I don’t want to make people uncomfortable or be seen as rude so a lot of times I simply do not look at them but rather look down or away, which people typically think of as being disinterested or shady in some way. But the fact is I’m just trying to make them feel comfortable.

Another way of making people uncomfortable? Physical contact. As much as I enjoy hugs I do not feel comfortable initiating them because I feel like I could make someone uncomfortable. So, I think the best policy is to not try to hug others unless they initiate it. I do realize I could always ask for consent but I have a tendency to feel bad about asking too. I think that if I ask consent they might be made uncomfortable about the request and worry about what saying “no” will do to my feelings or they will feel like they have to say “yes” and live with the discomfort. This possibility makes me feel horrible inside.

Another black and white rule is “try to understand others’ perspectives and try to help them understand yours.” How can I possibility screw this one up, right? Well, some people just don’t possess the ability to use language to describe their perspective to where I can understand it, or they don’t feel comfortable sharing their feelings on why they are the way they are. Sometimes people can’t understand where I’m coming from either even though I try very hard to use the most precise and descriptive language possible. When these situations happen I feel like a failure and feel it’s necessary to talk down to myself. I do this because of another rule: “You should be punished when you do something wrong.” If I can’t understand them, I think “You’re not smart enough to decipher what they’re trying to explain.” If they don’t feel comfortable sharing, I think “You’re not worthy enough to deserve that information.” If they can’t understand me, then I think “If you can’t help them understand you then you can’t understand them and you fail at explaining things. You’re so stupid and worthless.”

All of these rules destroy my self esteem and are always taken to extremes. These rules are made worse by my repetition of thoughts.

III – Repetition of Thoughts

When I think of how a thought might shape a person, I think of writing sentences as punishment in school. Imagine instead of writing line by line, you trace the same spot on the paper over and over again. So, when I think of something like “You deserve to be punished when you do wrong,” imagine writing that single line on a piece of paper over and over again, while sitting at a wooden desk, tracing over the same sentence. This eventually leads to the paper being destroyed as it gets eaten through and the desk starts to become engraved with the sentence. Eventually the desk is worn through as well and there’s just a hole left where the sentence has been written so much. The desk itself represents long term self worth and the paper short term. When these thoughts have become ingrained so deeply within me they are very difficult to fill in or replace because they feel natural and a part of me. Besides, change can be very uncomfortable.

This etching of thoughts is what my mind does constantly and the process from short term to long term is much quicker than it probably is in typical people. My mind gets stuck on a cycle and keeps running that cycle countless times. The more I try to chase after the thought to catch it and contain it, the faster it runs away from me, leading to me not even knowing which of my thoughts are the ones that are harming me. They all seem the same, like a constant buzzing of bees. Sometimes, in private, I put my hands over my ears and try to scream out for them to stop and throw a tantrum to try to get my mind focused on something else. This happens rarely and I call it “When my thoughts get too loud.” Even though I’m screaming and throwing a fit I never harm myself or others physically. I at least have that much self restraint.

IV – Indecisiveness

Another aspect of my thoughts is indecisiveness. This happens mostly when trying to decide what I want to do with my life. Growing up I had a vast array of interests from magic tricks to technology to drawing to writing to acting; basically being creative and logical, which followed me into adulthood. I had no idea what I wanted to do and I had no focus on any one skill. I bounced back and forth and never really improved beyond the point of my own natural talent for some of these areas. This indecisiveness has continued into the present. I bounce back and forth between several interests and never dig deeper than the surface. I simply haven’t been able to make up my mind as far as what contribution to society I want to make and feel obligated to because it’s attached directly to my self worth.

V – Overstimulated Senses

Some people like to listen to their music loudly and proudly. However, I’m not one of those types of people. When I hear a sound that I deem too loud I become paranoid and concerned for my safety. My fight, flight or freeze response is initiated. This happens a lot during social situations when there are multiple people talking to each other. I feel like I’m drowning in a sea of noise and it triggers my “when thoughts get too loud” response because all I’m feeling is chaos and terror.

This sense of terror can also be activated during visual stimulations. Usually when I see a crowd of people I feel like the walls are closing in and feel like they’re just going to turn on me, shove me down to the ground, and start kicking me mercilessly. My mind reacts like I’m in desperation, screaming for them to stop, and I either run away, or stay frozen in place. When I stay another thing happens. In order to be able to deal with the situation going on in my mind I separate myself from my senses. This is a defense mechanism that causes me to dissociate from my senses and emotions. I basically feel non existent and robotic by being completely logically driven. When I do this it makes it impossible to connect to others. So, either way it’s a lose/lose situation. Sometimes I get stuck in this phenomenon and feel detached from myself as a person entirely. I did this for several years, but have recently found a way to snap out of it which I will discuss in a future post on emotions.

VI – Simple Social Situations and Relationships

ASD makes me feel deficient because I’m in no way a savant like some people with autism are, such as the character in the movie Rain Man. As I’ve said before, I don’t have a singular specialized interest, my focus is more generalized, and I have many interests. I feel like I’m in between the geniuses on the spectrum and neurotypical people. I feel lacking because I can’t I socialize properly, and I can’t solve complex problems and remain lost in my thoughts.

Unlike some people on the autism spectrum who have no grasp of social situations and body language, I have just enough of an understanding to get me into trouble. I care about how my words and actions affect others and want to succeed socially. I want to have typical relationships to feel normal and useful in some way. However, I often mess up and it shatters my self esteem. When trying to start a conversation I have difficulty keeping the conversation going. If someone says “Hi, how are you?” to me then I usually respond “I’m fine.” Then that’s the entire conversation. If I make it into small talk phase then I spend most of the time trying to think about what to say so I am not misunderstood and so I don’t hurt other people’s feelings or make them feel uncomfortable. Usually, it takes a few moments to try to process the situation in which case it’s too late because the person has given up interest in making small talk with me and found another who seems more interested. This is usually why I prefer text messaging in some form because it gives me more time to think about what to say than what is given to me in person.

If someone does actually want to talk to me and expresses genuine interest in me I become very excited and very attached to that person. I don’t want to lose the rare person who actually finds me interesting so I grab on too tight and put them up on a pedestal. Since I’ve basically laid claim to this person I feel that anytime they interact with someone else, when I’m feeling insecure, that I’m not worthy of their friendship and I become jealous of the other person they’re giving attention to. This causes me to feel isolated and alone and desperate for attention which makes me instantly think suicidal thoughts and I share them with said friend to get attention. Over-attachment, jealously, and desperation complicates things and a friend more than likely thinks that I’m crazy and will want to get the hell away from me. Or maybe s/he thinks that s/he is hurting me. Which makes me feel even lonelier. Even if people do care about me, I feel unworthy of their care because I feel broken.

A lot of the time I think about different possibilities of reality. What I mean by this is for every single action or word spoken, there are countless other possibilities. These are the “what ifs” of life and I think about them quite a lot. I think things like “would this person be my friend if I acted differently?” This causes me to have a lot of regrets and feel guilt over many things, even these imaginary what ifs. I constantly wonder if there’s a reality where everything is better and I’m happy and live with as few regrets as possible. What follows is a hypothetical situation where I will sort of take you along on a journey throughout a type of social situation that has happened many times to me and one I really want to change.

VII – Hypothetical Social Situation

This section is going to combine everything I’ve talked about and a couple of things I didn’t get to mention into a mental journey through a particular type of situation when I try to interact with a friend.

* I approach the location where said friend is. I have spent time mentally preparing and psyching myself up for this visit. *

This time is going to be different. This time I’m going to prove that I can have a normal conversation.

* I go to the area where my friend is. There are other people surrounding my friend. *

What do I do? What do I do? I have to prove that I can have a normal conversation. I have to prove that I can be a good friend and actually seem interested.

* I glance at the friend’s eyes. *

Look down. Look away. You don’t want to make him/her feel uncomfortable. So, stop looking! Wait! No! This is one of those thoughts that aren’t constructive and hold me back. If I want to improve my socialization I will need to learn to look people in the face. When I do that then I gather all sorts of information about the type of mood the person is in and can gage how he/she is reacting to my words and actions.

* I try to look again. This time s/he is looking at someone else talking. Jealously takes over and self esteem becomes lower. *

Why is s/he talking to that person? Didn’t s/he see me come in? Am I not important? Is our friendship meaningless? Why would s/he ever really want to be friends with me? I’m not normal. In every possible reality I’m not important to him/her. If I try to go and talk then I will be interrupting possible joy s/he could’ve gotten from the other person that s/he is talking to. Shut up! Stop thinking like this!

* I walk away and find something else to do. Eventually the noise dies down and I go out to where the friend is. *

“Hi.” s/he says to me.

“Hi.” I say back trying to be friendly. However, I cringe at the sound of my own voice.

My voice is horrible. I hate my voice. I need to find my female voice. Why the hell can’t I practice more. Why do I suck so bad. I probably don’t pass and probably look terrible right now and always. I’ll never look how I want to look. Curse these long lanky arms and legs. Curse these big feet and giant nose. Curse this stubble! Stop it!

“How are you?” s/he continues.

“Fine, and you?”

* More people approach and s/he goes to them. I get trapped in a corner. *

Crap, how do I get out of here? The walls feel like they’re closing in. I can’t breathe. Oh crap, I can feel my thoughts getting too loud. I’m freaking out! I have to get out of here! I have to get out of here NOW. Should I just ask them to move so I can leave? Don’t do that you idiot! That is rude and you don’t want to take a way his/her time from people who are making him/her laugh do you? No, I don’t want to do that. I’ll just wait it out.

* Breathes deeply. Since I can’t run, I begin to separate myself from my emotions and anxiety. *

What am I doing here anyway? I don’t feel real. I feel like a ghost. I might as well be a ghost since I can’t socialize properly anyway. What if none of this is real? What if I’m dreaming? What if my entire life is a dream or a simulation? I feel so hollow now. Devoid of anything. How could anyone ever want to be my friend? Why would anyone want to be in a relationship with me? I’m worthless. I’m not a real person.

* Movement has happened and I see an opening. I quickly scurry towards the gap. *

I might as well just go now. I’m already a mess and couldn’t make a connection anyway since I can’t feel anything.

* I go to leave. *

“Bye.” I mutter in a sad sombre while looking utterly defeated.

“Goodbye!” s/he says in a friendly voice with perhaps a touch of sadness. Or is it disappointment?

* I get in my car and drive home but my mental journey doesn’t end as I’m driving. It’s only just begun. *

What the f**k was that? Why didn’t you do better? Well, I got really freaked out by all the stimulation and wasn’t prepared for a multiple person conversation. Don’t give me that! You know this stuff already. Quit making excuses! I’m sorry I’ll do better next time. How? You always say that but don’t do anything! You’re nothing! Nothing! NOTHING!

* I make it home and collapse in absolute shame and disgust with myself. I feel horrible and start to throw a fit. I hit my bed and throw my pillows. I yell. I cry. I try to cry into my pillow and suffocate the sound. Hoping for it to stop or for me to die. Eventually it stops. I send a text. *

“I’m sorry for the way I acted and will do better next time.”

* Then I don’t hear a response. *

It’s probably nothing. S/he is probably just busy.

* More time passes and I begin to really worry. *

“Are you mad at me? I’m so sorry if I upset you. I don’t know how to interact with people very well. I don’t deserve your friendship and I don’t even deserve to live. Please just tell me what I can do to make it up to you. I want to die. I WANT TO DIE!”

* Eventually I hear back and I have to be talked down to calm down a bit. I keep apologizing for everything over and over and over again. So much so that it probably seems fake but every apology is sincere and loaded with remorse and guilt and a desire to stop causing others pain. I just want this inner chaos to end but am clueless as to how to make it stop without my own death. *

VIII – Conclusion

This concludes this blog post. I hope you found it informative and easy to understand why I do the things I do in social situations. Figuring out how this mentally destructive system was very difficult to do and took a long time to fully figure out. Trying to define the problem while going through mental chaos is nearly impossible, but I eventually figured it out. I prevailed. Writing this brought some tears up so it wasn’t entirely logical but more from the heart.

Also, I want to offer a sincere apology to anyone my actions or words may have have hurt in any way. You all deserve better and that’s what I want to become. That’s what I vow to become! I have been struggling with this for a long time and have only recently figured it all out. So, I’ve really been trying to work hard on solutions or workarounds. In the next post I will discuss what changes I’ve been making and what I’ve learned and discuss a little more of what has been the biggest struggles. Stay tuned for part 2!

Thanks for reading.