Friday, August 28, 2009

change and acceptance

I was talking (on the eviol phone) to my guy (fiance! we'll call him J.) last night, and we were talking about acceptance and change.

(note - we're long distance, cross-[US-Canada]border and working on not being)

We both went for an initial consult at an aspergers clinic when he was in town. The specialist I saw was talking to us about acceptance and change. What about me and aspergers do I/he/we want to work on, and what is it that we accept as the way I am, and work with? Important question, and one I have a hard time answering.

In "The Way I See It" I recall Temple Grandin writing about how sensory issues, while not specifically in the Diagnostic Criteria (perhaps because it is not externally verifiable?), is one of the main problems for autistic people in day to day life. In other words, it affects functioning day to day in a striking way. It can be the root of a lot of behaviour seen in autism. She is not the only one I have encountered who sees autism this way.

Yesterday was a long, busy day, of teaching yoga and working at the studio front desk for 6 hours. Interacting with lots of people. Bright sunshine. Constant music we're supposed to pipe in. Incense that I like to burn to create a "mood" but that overwhelms me somewhat. Cold air, temperature changes. It caused what I consider very common for me - a sensory overload that doesn't create a meltdown, but taxes me almost to the edge of one, but I don't fully realize I am that close. A kind of collapse into exhaustion can sometimes preempt a meltdown. I haven't learned my patterns yet. It feels unpredictable. I think as I learn my triggers, I will have a better sense of this.

So last night I was talking on the phone after working. I got in bed.. under my weighted blanket which had helped me settle so well the night before. My body was absolutely crawling with sensory "bugs" and I couldn't settle, my body was aching and buzzing and itchy. My pants were hiking up to my knees, shirt didn't feel right, blankets weren't sitting right, and I was cold. Cold is a big problem.

I took a step back. As often happens on the phone (auditory channel) I was doing mostly listening and little talking. I was listening to J, curled up in a ball, scrunching my face, body tense, holding my head, pressing into my eye, squirming, frowning, and generally just spazzing out. And I realized something. From the outside, I looked totally distressed. I was somewhat losing my ability to listen to what J was saying, but I was still present, and yet, I knew that if we were not on the phone but in person, J might have reached his limit long ago, reading my body language - my emoting - as totally distressed with what he was talking about. I would have been completely failing to show him that I was listening and actually interested and motivated to hear what he had to say in that moment.

Because my body wasn't letting me. Because however much I was trying to make his speech the primary focus of attention, my body wasn't letting me.

My aspie sensory stuff is, I will assert, significant but comparatively mild to some people's sensory defensiveness.

And this is where I spill over into political anger at the lack of understanding about this autistic experience of sensory disintegration/overload: when you read what I am describing to you, (as an NT, if you are reading, or as someone who experiences some version of this)... and you extrapolate and intensify this experience I describe by a factor of 100 ... does it make ANY SENSE WHATSOEVER that an autistic person would be trapped in that, literally unable to attend to external (social) information, let alone emote appropriately?


J and I gained insight from this sensory moment in a number of ways:
  • He got some perspective on just what I was going through at that moment, and got a better sense of past instances where I seemed to be disturbed, and how he might've wrongly interpreted my behaviour
  • It further clarified how much it is important that the both of us work on getting me physically comfortable in order to socially interact. If I am in such discomfort, it may be highly frustrating to try and have an important conversation with me
  • What I am emoting isn't necessarily what I'm trying to communicate to the world. And this more generally means that when I interact out in the world, people aren't "getting" me. I may have a frown on my face and that has nothing to do with the person I'm dealing with but they may interpret my facial expression as related to them. Oops. Not their fault..
Sensory integration is workable, because neurology is plastic, meaning changeable. If I am right that reducing sensory defensiveness and disintegration means I can attend to social information better and emote less discomfort that gets misinterpreted, then some of the social issues can be worked on with a little less effort because learning can actually take place. If I'm freaking out in my body, it's kind of hard to learn.

There's a TON more I could write about this. Acceptance, as my specialist suggested, is important -- I need to, J needs to, accept my experiences as valid. Accept that this is where I am right now. This moment. The next moment.

Because while it is helpful to know what can be worked on and what is "intractable" about being aspie, I firmly believe that unless I can reach acceptance, I will not be able to change what can be changed. Because in trying to change it I won't be coming from a place of awareness of where I am at. Learning happens best when it stretches a person comfortably, a bit at a time, without so much effort that exhaustion and frustration ensue.

It's exactly like yoga, actually.

If I approach the problem with a lack of acceptance, I am actively resisting, not relaxing into the place where I can really be open to the lesson. The lesson may not be appropriate at that time. I will be less flexible. My mistakes could hurt me (cause a backwards movement in progress, whatever that means). It won't be fun. That's right, it won't be fun and I won't want to practice what I'm trying to learn. It will be too uncomfortable.

If I don't accept something, I can't open it up and examine it, therefore I cannot really change it because I haven't delved down to discover the root of it.

So I could try to force myself to learn social cues, body language, how my face is supposed to feel when I want to convey happiness rather than pain. But if I'm feeling pain, it's a lie. If I can't focus enough to comfortably take in social information because of sensory overload, I will literally suck at doing it. I will have trouble learning the lesson, I will fail, and I may be convinced that I just can't do social.

Temple Grandin has made huge strides in how much she can function in the world. This is externally verified (see foreward in her latest book). She says clearly and strongly to autistics that they must work on things and overcome many obstacles in order to succeed.

As much as acceptance by NTs, as much as a neurodiverse perspective is necessary, as much as no one who experiences being autistic chose it, and as much as any of us like who we are (and we SHOULD like who we are!), being in the world requires certain things. Grandin asserts as well: change what can be changed. That is the path to greater success (and I would say more importantly, less suffering) in the world. Define success as you want, but take control of everything you can take control of.

Be where you are. Be open to being someplace different. And breathe.


Karen. said...

I might've negated the previous post with this post. ah well.

Corina Becker said...

This is interesting. I have a tendency to "bottle up" my exhaustion and sensory distress so that I can focus on social interaction and work. The problem then becomes that I don't notice when I'm getting into that tired, almost meltdown state.
Well, I'm getting better at recognizing when I'm getting too tired to function.

But yes, to quote a part of the Serenity prayer: "God grant me the serenity
to accept the things I cannot change;
courage to change the things I can;
and wisdom to know the difference."

Karen. said...

Corina - Yeah, totally. I often operate in "high alert", and not that effectively either. I think it heightens the effect that most neurological conditions are spotty - some days I can do, other days I can't. I think it confuses people, and in their perception I appear more capable and functional, and maybe it seems like I'm just being obstinate when I'm not functioning well.

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