November 1, 2015 is Autistics Speaking Day. It is the day where autistic people share their experiences on social media. While I have already made quite a few blog posts about my experiences with autism, I still have a few subjects I wish to cover for this post.
There are three main topics I wanted to cover today: stimming (which I have not discussed in any of my previous posts) sensory issues (which I briefly touched upon in my article about meltdowns, as well as in my more recent “twelve secrets” post) and the finding out where you are wanted. Even some of the ideas I previously discussed need some sort of elaboration. When writing these articles about autism, I certainly don’t sugarcoat anything. I expose the bare naked truth regarding what it’s like to be autistic, such as…
Stimming is any form of self-stimulation of the senses. Wikipedia defines it as “the repetition of physical movements, sounds, or repetitive movement of objects common in individuals with developmental disabilities, but most prevalent in people with autistic spectrum disorders.” Stimming comes in many flavors, including but not limited to: hand flapping, rocking back and forth while sitting, twirling a piece of string or hair on a finger, or even sniffing something. Many people find stimming to be unsettling. Someone will be in the supermarket when they see a kid flapping his hands or smelling a bag of dog food, and will wonder what the issue is with that kid. The answer is that there is no issue: stimming is a completely natural and healthy behavior. In autistic people, stimming is oftentimes a psychological need, to the point where times where we have to suppress our stimming (such as a job interview) become stressful. Oftentimes stimming is almost involuntary. We don’t always realize it when we’re doing it, so when we have to suppress it, we have to actually monitor our own movements and make an effort not to stim. Stimming helps to distract us from sensory overload (more on that later) adds sensory input as needed, and calms us down if we’re feeling stressed. There are also certain behaviors that appear depending on the person’s mood, which makes stimming a useful way for parents to gauge how their child is feeling. A happy child might flap their hands, sing, run about, or jump up and down. Parents of autistic children should watch out for stims such as rocking back and forth, squeezing something, hitting themselves, or skin picking. These can all be indications of stress, and parents should figure out what, if anything, is making the child stressed, then take actions to remedy the situation. Doing so is not only beneficial for the child, but it could avert a meltdown, which is better not only for the child, but also for you and any other people who may be around. This kind of behavior is extremely common in children with autism. It doesn’t disappear in adulthood, but it may change or become less prevalent. Up until I was about seven or eight years old, I had a tattered blanket that I would sleep with every night since I was a baby. One of my favorite things to do was smell it while sucking my thumb. That blanket always had an interesting, soothing scent. My mother would buy string cheese for the whole family to snack on (yum) and I would always save the wrappers just so that I could flap and twist them. Up until I was about eleven years old, I used to chew on lots of things. At twenty years old, I still flap my hands or jump around when I’m happy or excited, but I take care not to jump around or flap too obviously when I’m in public, so as not to draw negative attention to myself. I have moved on from flinging string cheese wrappers to flinging pens and pencils (some of which were stimming items when I was a kid, and consequently have little teeth marks on them.) It’s not uncommon to find me rocking forward and backward while I’m sitting. Some people may laugh at me upon finding out that I still sleep with a teddy bear, but I have a good reason for doing so. While sleeping, I rub and push my face against the back of the teddy bear’s head; the faux fur gives me textile input, and I sniff it while in my early stages of sleep. It sounds weird, but the teddy bear does have a smell (when you’re autistic, everything has a smell) which I find rather calming. I oftentimes squeeze items, especially in times of stress. I have a Silly Putty egg on my desk, as well as a lump of snow putty, both of which I like to squeeze and stretch. Although the tiny white beads in the snow putty come lose and get all over my hands and my working area, I find the texture more appealing. So, which one will I choose? That depends on how stressed I am and whether my need for pacifying textile input precipitates my want to not make a mess.
2. Sensory overload and sensitivity
When discussing sensory issues, I oftentimes compare myself to a dog. The autistic brain is extremely sensitive to any incoming information from the eyes, ears, nose, tongue, or touch receptors. This is one of the causes of meltdowns and shutdowns. Some people are miffed when their autistic children are picky eaters, but a lot of the times it’s because they’re sensitive to the tastes and textures of different foods. Every child is different, so each will have their own likes and dislikes when ti comes to sensory stimulation. In my case, loud sounds have always been a problem for me. I can’t stand the sound of vacuums. I can use a vacuum, provided my ears are covered. I dislike it when people raise their voices, or when someone turns up the volume on the TV too high. I understand that there has to be noise in the world, and if it weren’t for noise we wouldn’t have all of the great music that we have, but sometimes the world is just too loud for my delicate ears. Aside from that, I have a mild form of synesthesia. I commonly imagine letters and numbers to have colors. When I think of the number fifteen, I don’t just think of fifteen. I think of a yellow fifteen. The letter Z is deep gray. The letter G is light purple. Sometimes, I imagine the color sequence of a word (usually a short word) based on its pattern of letters. For example, the color sequence of my name, Gina, is light purple, sea green, autumn leaf orange, and blood red. When a thunderstorm is coming, I’m the first person in the house to know, because I hear it before anyone else does. Aside from the occasional moment of sensory overload (which is rarely even a severe problem for me anymore) none of this has a profound effect on my life, and my intentions in writing this article is not to highlight myself as being vastly different from others. Rather, my aim is to point out that, despite my differences, I’m like anyone else.
The “Belonging” Crisis
This can affect anyone, autistic or not. However, because of the stigma attached to autism, it can be hard to remember that somewhere, someone wants you in their life. Through late middle to mid high school, I suffered from a “Belonging Crisis.” I firmly believed that nobody wanted or needed me, and that I was completely useless. I thought that I had no purpose in life other than as a comedic prop; I was born merely so that others had someone to mock. I waited for my happily ever after to come, until I grew up and realized that life isn’t a fairy tale. Although I have, for the most part, lost interest in princess stories, my favorite fairy tale will always be Hansel and Gretel. One day, something changed, and I made it change. In my junior year of high school, I decided to try writing for the school newsletter. People liked what I had to say, and I ended up winning an award for my writing. Then, I started volunteering at my local animal shelter. I always look forward to volunteering there. It doesn’t matter how small I feel before going, because every time I go to the animal shelter, I always leave feeling a little bigger. Because of me, someone found a new best friend, a dog enjoyed some brief time out of the kennel, and a couple of rabbits didn’t have to go it alone. I recognize that my powers are limited. I am one person. I can’t save every homeless animal or person. I can’t single handedly cure AIDS or end world poverty. I can, however, make small differences within my personal microcosm, and if I can make a difference for someone, that’s all that matters. Taking all of these risks gave me the opportunity to grow up for a second time and realize that life is a fairy tale if you want it to be. You just have to write your own happily ever after.
That’s why Hansel and Gretel is my favorite fairy tale: instead of waiting for a prince to rescue them, or waiting for a fairy god mother to give them glass slippers, they found their own way home.