"There's only one hard and fast rule in running: sometimes you have to run one hard and fast."

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

What it's like to be mildly autistic

It's World Autism Awareness Day and, though I don't often talk about it, I thought I'd write a little about what it's like for me to be on the autism spectrum. Most people don't know I'm autistic, though the thought that I'm a little "off" is common. While I'm classified as having a mild case, that's a matter of depth and my problem is one of breadth; of 140 markers looked for in an assessment, I showed 130, when most people with autism present with 10-20. It affects everything.

First, an anecdote

During the first week of my first job, my boss told me we'd need strips of aluminum for an experiment, so he led me from the lab to the machine shop, pulled out a sheet of aluminum, placed it on top of a machine, pulled a razor blade from a box and cut a perfect 1 inch strip. Then he told me to make 200 of them and get back to him. George was twice my size; I didn't know if I could cut that thickness of metal with a razor and I knew I couldn't cut that straight, but I had his strip to use as a straight-edge and I found that, if I used all my strength, I could cut a strip. After two, the blade was dull - and I could see there wouldn't be enough blades to finish the job. By 10 strips, my hands and arms ached and my back was starting to get sore. After 20, the phone rang and George wanted to know how much longer I'd be. I had no choice - I just barreled along, cutting as fast as I could, slicing up my clothes and my hands with the dull blades, sweat pouring from me - and ran out of aluminum after 150, so I figured that was enough. After the experiment, I went back to the shop to clean up and saw that the machine I'd been cutting on was designed to cut sheet metal. George had cut one strip by hand because it was faster to do one that way then to set up the machine, but he thought it was obvious I'd use the machine. After all, I knew what it was for; I'd used one before. It just never occurred to me - I never really saw it. To George, I'd spent 30 minutes doing a 5 minute job and was useless the rest of the day.

That's what it's like. There's always something incredibly obvious to everyone else that I don't see. And I never know what that thing might be, so I'm constantly on the lookout for clues as to what I'm missing. No one can guess what I'm going to miss and you can't explain every detail of everything; there are things that are just "common knowledge" that don't get explained.

Because there's the constant fear of missing something, I stick to what I know, being comforted by routines that have worked in the past. If leaving for somewhere at 6:47 gets me where I need to be, that's what I do each time, even if it means sitting in my car for an hour because I'm early - each time.

Besides being confusing and scary, it's also lonely. I'm an extreme introvert as well as autistic, so I like being alone 23 1/2 hours a day, but that's not conducive to forming relationships. I speak an average of ten words per day - really! - but those who know me would be surprised at that, because of the almost endless torrent of words once I do start talking. People find me aloof, but it's because I don't really get smiling, or small talk, and I don't look at people when I'm talking. It never occurs to me to initiate things, so I can go a very long time without contacting people - for example, I was dating a woman in college and didn't see her over the summer and just expected things would not have changed when I saw her in the fall (it was a big surprise to me that I hadn't talked to her in 3 months; needless to say, she was not happy with me).

Each person on the autism spectrum is different, but that gives you at least an idea of what it's like for me.


wildknits said...

Thanks for the "look inside" one person's experience of autism.

just another runner said...

Appreciated this.