Tag Archives: Asperger Syndrome

Tolerance and Triggers

I think in some ways as I get older I’m actually getting less tolerant of things that irritate or upset me.

Or maybe I’m intolerant more these days because I know I’m autistic, therefore my intolerance has (to me at least) a valid justification or root cause so I’m more inclined to allow myself to feel it and give in to it rather than try to miserably soldier on?

Take today for instance. I had been persuaded into acting as a witness for the marriage of a friend of my partner. Unfortunately this meant attending the celebration as well, which took the form of a sit-down dinner for 10 at a local hotel. Normally I would just say no to anything resembling a gathering of more than about 4 people, but I didn’t really have a way to back out of this one, having already been at the registry office to attend the ceremony and sign on the dotted line when required to do my witnessing.

Unfortunately there were two aspects to the event which conspired to bring me to a near-meltdown situation.

Firstly, the bride’s sister was there with her husband and children, and I know for a fact that her husband physically and emotionally abuses her and the children. There’s no way on earth that I’m going to be civil with such a monster, so the only option was for me to ignore him, which gave the event an awkward flavour right from the start.

Secondly, the dinner was a buffet, which itself just rubs me up the wrong way. Why would anyone opt to help themselves to rapidly cooling dishes of congealing food, just so they can have more than one plate of it, and overeat themselves sick, when down the road there are perfectly good restaurants where they actually, you know, cook the food specially for you and bring it to you at the optimum freshness and temperature?

Sadly buffets are very popular in Malta, where the skinflint populace seems to favour quantity over quality and feels they’ve saved money when actually the experience is vastly inferior to, you know, a proper restaurant, and all they’ve done is binge on crap when a moderate freshly cooked meal would be so much healthier and tastier.

And the worst thing about today? Having to watch my fellow diners continue to go back and back to the buffet tables and stuff themselves silly long after I’ve finished my single plate of indifferent main course and sickly-sweet dessert. It got to the point where I was at risk of banging my fists on the table and shouting “Enough! Don’t they feed you at home? Or are you all fucking bulimic and heading off to vomit later?”

My rapidly deteriorating mood must have given me away to my partner (who inevitably knows my ‘tells’ better than anyone) and she made our excuses so that we could leave early. That put me temporarily in the doghouse with her because we missed the cake (MORE fucking food) but in the end she knows that when I have to leave a situation, I really have to leave it, otherwise I’m liable to lose it completely.

So, a pretty horrible day all in all. But I wonder whether I might have stuck it out a few years ago, before I was aware I was autistic, or whether the outcome would have been just the same and I would still have been heading towards a meltdown – but without knowing why.

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Cold Fire

Austistic people have meltdowns. The condition is famous for it. Sometimes things get so overwhelming that the part of us which copes with life and regulates our behaviour just shuts down, and the result is usually something akin to a temper tantrum or emotional explosion.

I have what I’ve learned to call meltdowns from time to time. But it seems to affect me a little differently than many autistic people.

I don’t (usually) fly off the handle. I don’t physically collapse into the fetal position and cry or scream. What I get is a cold rage that burns inside me, and that wants to do harm. To someone, to something, anything.

The things that trigger this in me are many and varied, and there doesn’t seem to be much consistency. Feeling out of control is one common factor though – if I can’t control my environment or circumstances, I’m at more risk, I know that much. And if someone causes something to happen in my life that I think is unjust, that also heightens the risk.

I’m not a violent person, and I think my cultural inhibitions against physically harming someone are far too strong and deep-seated for me to lash out physically. I’ve never hit anyone, ever – despite being physically abused as a child (or maybe because of it).

But when a meltdown happens, I’m still acting on a visceral subconscious instinct – I have no way of stopping myself doing what I do. And what I do is normally self-destructive in some way – either I find myself making social media posts that are likely to lose me friends, or I verbally abuse someone who could easily harm me if they chose to, or I destroy a possession that I would never normally want to lose, or I act out of spite against someone who has never given me cause to, or make an irreversible decision that will harm me in the long run, etc.

It seems my rage, when it erupts, is always directed inwards, whether directly or indirectly. When I do these things, it’s me that gets hurt by the consequences in the long run. And on some level, while I’m in the throes of such an incident, I actually do know this. But it doesn’t stop me. It’s like I have to let it play out until I’m calm and back to myself again.

No doubt a psychiatrist would have a field day with this, and would find causes in my childhood – quite aside from the fact that I’m autistic. And I’m certainly aware that I have a lot of unresolved rage against my parents.

I do consider from time to time whether I should start up again with regular counselling, like I had for a few years after giving up alcohol. But the only counsellor I trust is now living abroad, and it’s harder to properly connect via Skype rather than being in the same room.

So I’m hoping that by writing this post, and forcing myself to examine what happens in a meltdown, maybe I can start to find ways to ‘head it off’, or handle it better somehow. I never want to have a meltdown, and I always hate myself after it’s over. Maybe one day I’ll find that I can control it better. I hope so.

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Knowing your limitations

Before I knew I was autistic, I have many memories of agreeing to do things way outside my comfort zone, because I guess I figured I had no excuse not to do them.

Things such as attending parties, going to work social events, dinner parties, group activities – they were what normal people did, and I didn’t feel I had a valid reason to say no, so more often than not I said yes and then had a thoroughly miserable time at whatever the event was, usually feeling awkward and out of my depth, hating everyone around me and hating myself for having failed to find a good excuse to get out of it, or for not being strong enough to just say no without giving a reason.

It used to take me days after each event to recover, after having spent days or weeks before the event dreading it, with my anxiety levels building almost to breaking point.

Now, as a self-aware Aspie, I understand why these occasions were so unbearable for me, and I know that, despite what some people say, there is nothing, absolutely nothing, to be gained by trying to do something outside my comfort zone. “Oh look, I did something outside my comfort zone!” “Oh wow, how do you feel?” “Like shit.” “But it must have been good in some way?” “Nope, can’t think of anything.” In fact I think autistic people don’t have a comfort ‘zone’ so much as a reinforced concrete barrier, through which it is pointless to try and go.

Why would I put myself through that hell, when I could simply, you know, not do it?

So I say no. No to dinner parties, no to group barbecues on the beach, no to New Year’s Eve gatherings. Being self employed now means that work events are a thing of the past thank goodness. I don’t mind eating out with a friend, or even two friends at a push, but they have to be good friends – friends who know my character and accept it. And I don’t have many of those.

I was almost persuaded to attend a big event later this month (a school reunion some 30+ years after we all left school) – and I even bought flights – but several weeks after saying to an eager friend that I would go, I took a look at myself and realised that my anxiety levels were through the roof, my skin was breaking out like a teenager, I was having nightmares about the event, and other aspects of my life were suffering. So this is now a no, too. It’s just not worth it. And to be honest, out of the 200+ people in my year at school, I only wanted to talk to a handful of people anyway. The rest I either had no wish to talk to or hardly knew. And me, as a former alcoholic, in a room with possibly 100 people, almost all of them drinking to excess? No way in hell. A small sacrifice for peace of mind, and a lesson re-learned and reinforced.

POSTSCRIPT: It’s now the day of the event and I know I made the right decision. My skin has cleared up, I’m sleeping better and my anxiety levels are back to normal (which is to say, I have always lived with anxiety but now it’s manageable again). There’s a small part of me that’s a little sad about not getting to see two or three people in particular, but the sadness doesn’t translate into regret. And maybe I’ll get to see them in the future, in an easier situation.

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The first ‘A’

Considering the name of this blog, it’s probably about time I posted something about my autism, otherwise I’ve wasted a damn good domain name.

I have Asperger Syndrome. Sometimes called “Asperger’s Syndrome”, “AS” or just “Asperger’s” (not Assburgers). To some that makes me an “Aspie”. I didn’t use to like that term, it felt like using it made light of my condition, but I’m more relaxed about it these days. So you can pretty much call me what you like. I’ll probably ignore you anyway.

I’ve known since I was in my early to mid teens that I was “different” from my peers in some fairly hard-to-define ways. I had obsessive interests and an amazing attention to detail, and although I was intelligent I had great difficulty understanding others, let alone relating to them in social situations, I couldn’t “read between the lines” or understand body language, I had problems understanding how to approach the opposite sex appropriately, I thought of myself as ugly and awkward, I didn’t really “do” empathy or grief (though I could imitate them), I had bouts of irrational and self-destructive anger usually followed by an anxiety attack, I was very serious (though I enjoyed certain kinds of humour) and I was hyper-sensitive to certain sounds and sensations. All these things are still with me of course. AS doesn’t go away, you just learn to cope and adapt.

Unknown Condition

During my teens, twenties and early thirties, I had never heard of Asperger Syndrome. Basically because it wasn’t recognised as a condition until 1994. In fact I barely understood what autism was, let alone that I might have some form of it.

Nope, I just thought I was weird. Sometimes I blamed my genetic heritage, sometimes I blamed my home environment, sometimes I blamed my schooling (inevitably, I was bullied), sometimes I didn’t blame anyone or anything. But the obsessions, emotional coldness and difficulties relating to people wouldn’t go away, and my gradually increasing alcohol intake didn’t help me to understand myself any better. I also suffered increasingly from bouts of depression, and when you couple all this with being in a long term difficult relationship, I was having a pretty miserable time of it.

In my mid thirties I started reading up on personality disorders, since by that time I was becoming more and more convinced that there must be something definable that was wrong with me, even though I had no idea what it might be. The internet had arrived by this point, and so I did some online tests and talked with some people on forums. I didn’t get anything conclusive from these tests, but then I followed a link or someone’s suggestion, I forget which, and did an autism test. I was almost off the scale. I found and did a couple of other autism & Asperger’s tests, and again the results were emphatic – it was extremely likely that I was autistic, specifically Asperger Syndrome.

No sooner had I started to absorb this enlightening information than I had a reason to use it as a way of getting out of trouble. I had a meltdown at work due to the inflexibility, jobsworth-ness and general asshattery of a colleague, and I was in big trouble. Sent to the director, I decided to use the only piece of ammunition I had, and I said that I had Asperger’s and that it caused me to have trouble containing my reactions appropriately at times. This got me off the hook, life got back to normal and in time all my research and enlightenment kind of faded into the background. It’s like I knew that I probably had AS, but I was scared to consciously embrace it, because I didn’t want to be different. Looking back it seems like it was too much to handle, with all the other pain in my life. Dumb, really. I should have stuck with it and tried to work out a better understanding of myself. I blame the booze.

Fast Forward

So after several years of not really thinking about AS, and all kinds of other life events (emigration, giving up alcohol, counselling, relationship breakup, a subarachnoid haemorrhage that nearly killed me, new relationship, etc etc), I was triggered into thinking about Asperger Syndrome again more recently by a friend – or rather the difficulty I was having interacting sympathetically with this friend.

Something went ‘click’ in my head and I thought “so this must be what AS is all about”. I decided it was time to be honest with myself, learn what I could about whatever it was I had, and respect myself by embracing it.

Now it was 2015 and there were more online tests available. I did them all. Every single time, the result was “Asperger Syndrome” or “High Functioning Autism”. And every time I was well into the autistic range of results, never borderline.

Lots more clicks in my head. So this was why I couldn’t tolerate being in the same job for more than two or three years without losing patience with the people I worked with. This was why I literally couldn’t see things from other people’s point of view – I had a severely stunted “theory of mind“. This was why I was so hyper-sensitive to light touch and could hear a mosquito at 10 metres. This was why I “stimmed“, in my case picking at skin and pulling eyelashes, and moving my fingers in patterns. This was why I was so clueless when it came to the opposite sex. This was why I always hated eye contact (I can do it when I have to but it leaves me feeling violated). This was why, when I had a meltdown due to an inability to cope with someone’s behaviour or attitude, I could never face them again and so I simply cut them out of my life. This was why, in social situations, I always felt like I was watching a foreign language film without subtitles. This was why I got obsessed with certain things to the exclusion of everything else. This was why I only felt truly myself when alone. Let’s face it, not understanding all “this” was probably also why I got depressed and why I had spent most of my twenties and thirties getting drunk most evenings.

Right Now

So now we come to the present day. My autism is still officially self-diagnosed – though I’ve talked to some knowledgable people about it, including my counsellor, I haven’t been to a specialist and undergone tests to get an official diagnosis. Sometimes I think I’d like to do that, to get a final confirmation of what I already know. Othertimes I can’t be bothered – why bother when I do already know? What would I gain from it? Nothing that I can think of. I’m certainly not looking for special treatment.

This recent understanding and recognition has already changed my life in a very significant way – I finally realised that I would never, ever find a job that I would stick to without getting terminally pissed off with colleagues after a year or two, so why put myself through that any more? So last year I went self-employed and am now a busy independent IT consultant. Who says autistic people can’t succeed in life?

I’ve also found more, what can I call it, inner peace. That’s probably the best way to describe it. Now that I know why I am like I am, and I know there is no cure, I have no choice but to accept it, and accept everything that goes with it. So I do, and I live my life accordingly.

For example, I know that I will always hate and regret going to parties, so I don’t go to them any more. I know that truly understanding (not just intellectualising) someone else’s point of view will always be severely challenging, and so when it comes to my girlfriend, I make an extra effort to imagine I was in her shoes when I’m trying to understand her reasoning and emotions. It’s not easy but I’ve made some progress, which I don’t think I would have been able to make if I didn’t fully understand what was going on in my head.

I also know that I tend to neglect friendships to the point of losing them, so I simply don’t prioritise making friends any more. To be honest my relationship with my girlfriend gives me pretty much all the personal interaction I need, and I don’t miss having more friends. I have one or two people I feel quite close to, some acquaintances who I get on fine with, and people who have been friends at various points in my life and remain as social media friends, and I find that’s enough. I don’t feel lonely.

There have been two further side-benefits of this new-found self-awareness, and I can connect both of them with the easing of stress and angst that my self-diagnosis has given me – a few months ago I gave up the antidepressants I had been taking for several years, and then a little more recently I gave up smoking, replacing it with vaping.

So, as Freddie Mercury would say, there you have it. I’m not slightly mad (sorry again Freddie), I’m just autistic. And I don’t think I mind, either, most of the time. It is what it is, and I can’t change it, so I may as well get comfortable with it. It feels settling to be able to give my weirdness a name. I’m not one of these “autistic people are better” would-be activists, and I don’t really care either way about the controversial organisation Autism Speaks, which seems to generate so much heated discussion in the autistic community. In fact I don’t really think of myself as part of a ‘community’. I just am who I am. And that’s kind of OK.

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