A Very Aspie Easter: On Holidays (Part 1)

Image  This post is rather late, given that Easter was five days ago, however, I hope that it will be useful for next year’s celebration, and/or clear up some confusion if anything unexpected went wrong this holiday.  Here is my take on Easter; hopefully it will give aspies, and their parents, a better understanding of what this holiday is like for us.  The “Part 1” in my title indicates that I will be covering other holidays as they approach (and hopefully not after they have passed!)

Image1.  Easter Egg Hunts

Most neurotypical kids love running around outside finding bright plastic eggs full of candy, however, such a seemingly simple activity can be fraught with difficulty for kids on the spectrum.  Problem one is the crowd and the noise: shrieking children are painful, and being surrounded by groups of fast-moving, unpredictable people — even if you know them all — can be very confusing and anxiety provoking.  When I was young, I used the behaviour of all the children around me at school and at gatherings to determine what I was supposed to be doing, because I was slow on the uptake with regard to instructions, and didn’t always understand them or the way they were phrased.  When all the other kids were running around and doing seemingly aimless things, there was no structure for me to follow, and I became anxious, afraid I would get in trouble for not following directions, or miss out on something important.

Searching for eggs can be tricky too, when you have a one-track mind.  An aspie can spend so much energy and focus looking in specific areas that he misses everything around him, and is subsequently an ineffective egg-hunter.  It is incredibly irritating when someone else comes along and swipes an egg that was only feet from you, but you missed it because your radar scanner does not have a “wide-beam” setting that allows you to search large areas of space in one go.

The Solution: Avoid the large kid-friendly Easter parties if possible.  If you have more than one child, have one parent or a friend take the NT to the event, and have your own mini-party at home.  Hold a one-man egg hunt in your yard, where your aspie won’t have to compete with louder, faster kids who are better at generalized searching than they are.  If you involve the siblings, have an equal number of eggs and mark them with initials; each kid can only pick up the eggs with her initials on them.

If your aspie insists on attending the aforementioned large kid-friendly party, come prepared with sensory provisions; earplugs, sunglasses, etc. as needed.  Also, don’t be afraid to help your aspie in his search; if other parents take issue, advocate on your child’s behalf; his egg-hunting ability, or lack thereof, should not preclude him from having as good a time as everyone else.

Image2.  The Easter Bunny

It is not uncommon for children, aspie and NT alike, to be considerably disturbed by out-of-the-ordinary characters and figures; ever wonder why in all of your kid’s photos with Santa up until age three or four, she’s screaming?  Santa is a strange man with a giant fluffy beard who has abducted your child and is holding her hostage on his knee.  That’s disturbing for any child.  Moral of the story; if your kid is creeped out by the Easter bunny (and who could blame him; some of those rabbit costumes are scarier than clowns!), don’t make a big deal out of it, get a nice picture of him with his Easter basket instead; it’ll look nicer than a picture of a screaming child and a terrifying rabbit-humanoid anyway.

As many parents are aware, aspies are quite logical in their approach to the world; they are less gullible than normal children with regard to believing in the unprovable.  As such, don’t be surprised if your aspie has figured out the truth behind the Easter bunny far faster than you anticipated, and don’t be surprised if he starts explaining that truth to any child he comes in contact with who mentions the giant rabbit.  Tact is something that all children must be taught, aspies in particular.  You may have to explain in rational terms he can understand, why you would rather he not tell his older cousins that the Easter bunny is in fact a guy in a suit.  The rational piece is important; aspies do not respond as effectively to socially motivated explanations as NTs do.  Instead of, “It’s not nice,” try, “It will make him sad, and that’s a bad thing because….”

Image3.  Easter Clothes

Yes, I know you want your aspie to look nice for church/the family gathering/the photographs, and yes, I’m sure Aunt Martha did spend a lot of time/money/effort finding that shirt and tie for him, and yes, I’m sure all his siblings are cooperating nicely with regard to their clothing.  All of that is irrelevant where the autistic sensory system is concerned.  Those of you whose kids have tactile defensiveness are well aware of the battle that getting dressed can be.  For some reason unknown to the universe, it was decreed that all dress clothes must be made uncomfortable and intolerable, with plenty of lace and awkwardly cut fabric and labels that you can’t cut out without cutting a hole in the back of the shirt and that only go with stiff shoes that no one can balance in or that rub your heels raw.  Mix that with a kid who freaks out when his socks aren’t pulled up high enough or his shirts aren’t tucked in precisely, and you have a recipe for disaster.

The Solution: Decide just how vital those nice clothes are.  If you’re not one to recognize the religious aspects of the holiday and aren’t going to church, does he really have to look fancy?  Will his relatives really care that he’s not in a coat and tie?  If the answer is yes, or you just want some pictures of your aspie where he’s not wearing the same thing he wears the remaining 364 days of the year, you can improvise.  Set a timer for how long he has to wear them (I recommend no more than ten minutes) or put more tolerable clothes on underneath, such as cotton shirts or long underwear (only do this if you’re going to remain indoors or another relatively cool area; long underwear in April sucks.)  Maybe you can take closeup photos that only show your aspie from the waist up, thereby eliminating the necessity for nice trousers to go with his fancy button-down shirt, or bring some spare clothes for him to change into once everyone at the gathering has seen how charming he looks in his Easter outfit.  The one thing you don’t want to do is ruin his holiday by forcing him to remain in clothes that feel like sandpaper and fibreglass for the entire day.

Image4.  Candy

Many aspies on specialized diets are unable to eat the same types of food that their NT siblings eat.  This poses a problem on holidays that involve mass-produced wholesale candy.

The Solution:  Get inventive with your Easter treats: instead of hiding candy in those eggs, try small toys like bubbles, stickers, fun-shaped erasers (especially effective if you can find some in the shape of an “aspie interest-focused” figure), marbles, mini slinkys, coins, etc.  Alternatives to this include making your own diet-friendly candy such as honey-covered pecans or gluten-free caramel (more tricky if you are attempting to abstain from sugar.)  Find ways of making the non-workable aspects of the holiday work as best you can, so everyone can have a good time!

Image5.  Family Gatherings and Other Crowded Settings

In general, aspies and crowds do not mix.  There is a lot of noise, a lot of visual stimulation, a lot of novel social expectations and an overall level of general chaos.  Be aware of your aspie’s “people-meter” and watch for signs of trouble.  If you see him withdrawing, getting irritable, or stimming more than usual, these are all signs that he needs to leave where he is and what he’s doing to get some time alone or with one other person who won’t overwhelm him.  Depending on your aspie’s age and awareness of his internal states, you may be able to set up a signal for him to use, to indicate to you when he needs to go upstairs, take a walk, play with the dog in the basement, or sit in the car for a while.  It’s important that he be able to do these things when he needs to, otherwise his social, emotional and physiological stress levels will overload, and you will wind up with a meltdown on your hands, which will put a damper on everyone’s holiday.  If your aspie is unable to communicate to you when things are getting too much, keep an eye on him; ask every half hour or so if he’d like to take a break.  If he’s unaware he needs one and doesn’t want to leave, ask him to keep you company while you go upstairs/for a walk/to the basement, etc. or ask if he’ll help you with something that needs passing out or setting up, activities that allow him to remain engaged with the family without forcing direct social contact.

For aspies who have a hard time sitting still for long periods of time, consider letting him skip the church sermon by staying with a friend/relative, or, if he must come, bring things that will occupy him; books, small toys, drawing paper, etc.  Don’t be afraid to get up and leave if need be; it will be less embarrassing than the things that might occur if you stay.

 

Late as it is, I hope some of these tips prove useful to those of you with kids on the spectrum; you may find you can adapt some of them to other holidays as well.  Happy Easter!

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Dinotopia: On Special Interests

Special interests, or “obsessions” as laymen like to call them, are definitely one of the fun parts of having autism.  There is no greater feeling than immersing yourself in the thing you love more than anything.  Special interests make conversations exciting, they make school projects and papers enjoyable, and if you’re lucky, they can turn into college majors and careers.  Nothing excites me more than knowing I’m going to love my job more than anything for the majority of the rest of my life, because my brain can focus so intensely and so passionately on one specific thing for years at a time.  Even when the interest wanes, the love is never lost.

Image

This is a parasaurolophus, a hadrosaur, or “duck billed” dinosaur.  Due to a long-standing childhood affection for the Land Before Time series, he is my favourite dinosaur.  I can go on for ages about him and his “terrible lizard” brethren; my knowledge of these creatures spans pages, hours.  I know because I’ve engaged my long-suffering family in one-sided conversations about them that turned quickly into long-winded lectures.  High functioning as I am, I ought to know better than to drone on for ages about things no one else is interested in, so why do I?  Because I can’t help myself.  Talking about the things that interest me on this level is a compulsion, an internal need that needs fulfilling.  I don’t bore people because I want to, I do it because I need to; there is so much fascinating knowledge that needs to be spread, so many minute details that need sharing.  It’s as if my brain, once turned on, broke its switch and now cannot be turned off; the only way to stop it is to derail it and cause a potential collision.

I will admit that I’ve often considered what it would be like not to have such intense and passionate interests, and have come to the conclusion that I would probably develop some form of depression if I didn’t.  The idea of drifting vaguely from minor interest to minor interest, with nothing capturing my attention or excitement for more than a few days or months at most, is very disheartening.  I live for my interests; my life literally revolves around them.  They are the first thing I think about when I wake, and the last thing I think about before bed.  I strategise ways of postponing my homework so that I can spend more time studying, researching, collecting and filing away facts in the information storehouse that is my brain.  Every opportunity I get, I find ways of incorporating them into class projects or discussions.  I skip my own lessons at university so I can go and teach my interests to people at other schools.  Without my obsessions, my life would lack focus, drive, meaning.  I’d be a shell of a person, drifting, without any idea of her true purpose in life.

So, the next time you get cornered by an aspie rattling on about trains, or dinosaurs, or the French Revolution, or dishwashers, smile patiently and wait it out; he’ll be glad to have someone take a real interest in his information, and you will undoubtedly learn some very useful things in the process.

Squeaky Doors: On Sensory Issues

It is most peoples’ assumption that the worst part about being on the spectrum is the inability to effectively communicate with people, and yes, that can suck, but it has been my experience that the worst part of autism is the sensory issues.  There is nothing worse than wanting to enjoy the film at the cinema, but you can’t because the audio track hurts.  Nothing worse than wanting to be able to eat healthy foods so you’ll stay alive longer, but you can’t because they make you gag, or they smell so awful you can’t be in the same room with them.  Nothing worse than wanting to have fun on that day out, but not being able to because the sight, the sound, the smell, the proximity, of all the other humans bustling about, encroaching on your space with their noxious perfumes and shouting down their cellphones or at their screaming kids, is hell on earth for you.

That’s my life every day.

As I grew up and experienced the world, it became more and more apparent that it was built without my species in mind.  This point is epitomized by my library door.

On my college campus, as you might expect, there is a library, with four standard issue stainless-steel doors that permit entry and exit.  One of those doors however, needs lubricating, or replacing, or welding shut, or something, because every time it is opened, it emits an earth-shattering, nails-on-chalkboard squeal.  And nobody notices.  Nobody, that is, but me.  Day after day, I walk up to those doors, carefully avoiding the defective one, but always keeping an eye on it, because I know someone is going to approach and open it.  They do, and it squeaks, and sends horrible shockwaves down my spine, and they walk right through, as if hearing nothing.  They don’t notice the door because they are attuned to a much louder, busier world than I am.  What they do notice though, is my pain; they watch me as I cover my ears and push open the door with my elbows; I can feel them.

I was not designed for a world like theirs; the dampeners on my internal sensors were defective, or broken when they were installed.  There has been one upside to my damaged circuitry though: it has allowed me to develop an intuition for the sensory systems of others, that those around me do not have.  I know when my sister’s flute-playing is hurting the dog by the way he flicks his ears; whenever the cat follows me into the bathroom, I always let him out before I flush, because I know it’s worse for him than it is for me.  I feel empathy for infants in crowded, noisy places in a way I rarely feel for other people, because they are defenceless, and their parents are completely unaware of how comparatively sensitive the undeveloped sensory system can be.

So, the next time you see an aspie in a crowd, do not make your first thought, “How can I include him in the conversation?” make it, “How do I think he’s handling the sensory environment?”  Being NT, you have the benefit of being able to read his body language and differentiate loneliness from pain in a way that is hard for us; use it to your advantage, and make a new friend in the process.

On Weird Things NTs Say

For those of you unfamiliar with the term ‘NT’ it means ‘neurotypical’, and refers to “normal” people, people not on the spectrum.  As a consistent observer of daily NT behaviour, I have come to the conclusion that NTs can say some pretty odd things, things that rival even the weird stuff aspies come up with.  These are the top five that I’ve taken note of.

1.  “You take things way too literally.”

No I don’t, has it ever occurred to you that you take things way too figuratively?  How do people manage to make the huge cognitive leap from hearing, “they were thick as thieves” to understanding, “they spent a lot of time together”?  It’s not even a matter of rote memorisation, because NTs seem to instinctively know the meaning of idioms they’ve never heard before without having to ask about them.  I find this a fascinating trait.

2.  “How are you?”

I’m fine.  Exactly the same as when you asked me yesterday… or this morning… or twenty minutes ago.  The NT fascination with knowing precisely how someone is doing at any given moment is quite curious, though not as curious as the NT fascination with asking how people are, and then expecting that they receive a rote non-answer such as, “Fine.”  It doesn’t matter if a meteor crashed through your roof last night, when people ask how you are, they expect you to say you’re fine, even if they happen to know that said meteor crashed through your roof, and that logically speaking, you should not be fine.  I’ve learned to blend in and give the expected response, though the ritualistic requirements of this repeated nonsensical social exchange border on autistic repetitiveness and obsession with asking the same question over and over and over, if you want to know the truth.  Similarly redundant statements include, “How was your day?”, “What’s new?” and “It’s nice to meet you.”  (Even if it wasn’t, I have to say it was, thereby making the statement meaningless.)

3.  “I like you” when I don’t

I have recently learned from my sophomore-in-high-school sister that there are social protocols whereby you pretend to like people you hate so they don’t get mad at you and back-stab you for threatening their popularity.  I went through four years at two different high schools, and was never once aware of this protocol.  I find it intriguing to watch my sister approach someone she knows from school with a big smile and a, “How are you?” only to turn around as soon as the person leaves and say, “I really don’t like her.”  Apparently if she were to ignore the person, this would be an even bigger threat to said person’s popularity, and could, I understand, incite a war.

This is not just an adolescent phenomenon.  I have been around many people who pretend to be nice to someone right up until they leave, or, equally strangely, say things about their friends they would never say to their faces.  This practise makes me very wary of the sorts of things my friends say about me when I’m not around.

4.  Anything but “I like you” when I do

This occurrence is equally curious; people have elaborate “mating rituals” whereby they do and say things that express their affection, in the hope that the object of those affections notices their display.  My sister says it’s because just saying, “I like you” is too blunt, and frankly, uncool.  Unfortunately for the socially impaired, and those who want to court them, such abstract roundabout advances often go unnoticed, or unrecognised for what they are.  Case in point: I have recently been informed that my friend, my friend’s mother, and my friend’s friend were all blatantly aware of a boy who had been sending “peacock vibes” my way for a considerable period.  Guess who was the only person who missed it?  Yeah….  So, long story short, sometimes to get what you want, you have to be a little more bat-to-the-head about it, especially when dealing with your average aspie.

5.  “Oh, autism, yeah I’ve heard of that, so what are you, like, Rainman or something?”

Um, no.  Just… no.  First off, Rainman was based on an intellectually disabled savant who didn’t even have autism, second, the majority of autistics are way higher functioning than that.  Third, I just told you, with my own words, that I’m autistic, ergo I am not like the virtually nonverbal Rainman, thank you.  For the sake of the autistic community, that film needs to just go away.  That is all.

So, a few things worth pondering; turns out straight-forward language isn’t so straight-forward after all.

 

*Thanks to my dad for helping me come up with this topic 🙂

Introductions

Hello everyone, my name is AspieRabbit, but you can just call me Rabbit.  This blog, if you had not deduced from the title, is another “day in the life of an aspie” type blog, wherein I describe various social, emotional and cultural experiences through the lens of an aspie — a person with Asperger syndrome, or high functioning autism; me.

As a full-time college student, I will have some interesting stories to tell that revolve around today’s youth, and the general higher education system.  As a self-ascribed expert on autism spectrum disorders, I will occasionally provide “advice” posts for friends, family, teachers and significant others of aspies wherein I attempt to bridge the social and emotional gap by offering suggestions on how best to support those in your life who are on the spectrum.  Fellow aspies, I will attempt to impart the knowledge I collect as I go about life regarding everything from social encounters, dating (you may be waiting a while on this one), how to handle sensory issues, and how to both self-and professionally diagnose, among many others.  I myself was self-diagnosed for the better part of two years, and, when done correctly, it is a perfectly valid claim to make from a social standpoint.  Clinical help, accommodations and government assistance however, all require the piece of paper.

At any rate, I hope you all enjoy reading this as much as I will enjoy writing it.  Welcome to the oddball sanctuary.

 

P.S. if readers ever have topics they would like to see addressed, leave them in the comments and I will try to get to them 🙂