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Tag: autistic

The Benefits of Stimming

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First off, for those who are wondering what on Earth “stimming” is, it’s shorthand for self-stimulating, and basically refers to a range of actions that Autistics often engage in such as hand flapping, making noises, rocking back and forth, etc.

These behaviours are, unfortunately, often viewed as disruptive and inappropriate, and therefore discouraged. I would argue they shouldn’t be, because stimming can actually be a very important and beneficial practice. So, what’s so positive about it? Here are just a few of the ways in which it can be awesome:

– For those of us who are Autistic, our thoughts and feelings can be very intense, to the point where it can feel like our bodies can hardly contain the energy it takes to process them. Stimming can act like our brain’s stabilizing thrusters, keeping us on course and focused. I personally find I do my best thinking when I’m stimming. In fact, I am stimming frequently as I write this blog entry.

– Similarly, when we are stressed, stimming can be like the safety valve on a boiler, allowing us to let off steam and prevent ourselves from becoming overwhelmed and having a meltdown.

– It can be exercise! For me, a good stim session is like a mini workout. Beyond just burning off a few calories by hand flapping or going for a gallop, the benefits of physical activity in terms of both mental and physical health are well documented.

– It feels amazing! When I stim, my brain is lighting up like fireworks, and I feel like hot molten chocolate is coursing through my veins. In my experience, there’s not many things quite as enjoyable.

These are just a few examples; I’m sure other Autistics could add more many more, and in fact, if you’re on the spectrum, I’d love to get your input on this.

In short, what might outwardly appear to be a meaningless act of misbehaviour is in fact a complex mechanism of self-regulation with remarkable benefits. It is my hope that as we work to build a more inclusive and understanding society, stimming will be accepted as just another way in which we humans interface with our world.

Solitary Confinement

A common misconception about autistics is that we have no interest in social interaction, or even that we despise it.

Now, I’m sure this is true of some folks on the spectrum, (and plenty of people off it for that matter) but the reason I call it a misconception is that it is often treated as a blanket rule, with potentially devastating consequences.

All too often, autistics want very much to socialise, but simply aren’t sure how to initiate and sustain a social interaction. When their well-meaning attempts to strike up a conversation are met with a negative or even hostile response, this can discourage them from trying again. They become reluctant to initiate contact, and this is misinterpreted as “oh, they don’t want to socialise because they’re autistic,” thus perpetuating a feedback loop of isolation.

Having met and worked with hundreds of autistics over the past few years, one of the most pervasive mental health issues I’ve seen is loneliness. This is something I have struggled with myself.

Don’t assume that because someone sits by themselves, doesn’t go out, or never proactively seeks out contact, they want to be alone. They might, but don’t jump to that conclusion. Reach out to them. Ask them. If they’re genuinely wanting some time and space to themselves, then give it to them. But don’t buy into the myth that all autistics abhor human contact and are happiest when left alone. Because that’s how so many people end up trapped in a prison of well-meaning ostracism.

This can be especially true of non-verbal autistics. Don’t confuse the inability to speak with a lack of any need for social connection either.

We tell our kids to talk to the children who sit by themselves in the schoolyard. Let’s not forget that this lesson, like autism itself, extends beyond childhood.

There all along

Centuries ago, we didn’t know that plants generated the oxygen we need to breathe, or that the Earth’s magnetic field protected us from the full force of the sun.

Decades ago, we didn’t understand that the crystal prism of Autism diversified human thought into new ideas and perspectives that enriched humankind.

But that too was there all along.

 

Diagnosed with a tumor: facing my worst fear

In a strange kind of way, my OCD is almost like a dark mirror image of my Autism. It has that same overwhelming focus on a specific subjects, except instead of it being a focus of passion, energy, and joy, it’s a focus of terror.

For almost as long as I can remember, serious illness has been something that my OCD has fixated on. This has been exacerbated throughout my life by the deaths of my father from a heart attack, two of my grandparents in recent years from cancer, and my mother’s own battle with cancer a few years back.

I can’t even count the number of times over the years that I’ve been convinced I’ve had a serious illness. OCD can turn every freckle, every muscle knot, every cough, every headache into an anxiety attack. As a result of this, I’ve had many false alarms in my life that turned out to be nothing.

Then, last month, I was diagnosed with a nerve sheath tumor. And suddenly, that ephemeral terror has become terrifyingly real.

Now, a nerve sheath tumor is hardly the worst kind of tumor to be diagnosed with; the majority of cases turn out to be benign. But when you have OCD, even relatively low chance of malignancy is magnified until it towers overhead like a monolith of solid shadow.

Ever since I was diagnosed with it, that sense of imminent doom that follows you around every day when you have OCD has grown exponentially, like a rising tide, and at the moment each day is a struggle to keep my head above the inky dark water. The indeterminate wait makes matters worse; I’m on a waiting list to have the tumor removed, but I currently have no idea how soon that will happen, and until I can be seen by a specialist I won’t know if it’s benign or malignant either. And so the black tide seems to stretch ahead as far as the horizon.

In the meantime, I’m trying to be as proactive as I can in shoring up my mental health; I’m trying to keep myself as distracted as I can with positive things like my work in mentoring and advocacy, my writing, seeing friends and family, and opting out of stressful events or situations. All the tricks and techniques I’ve learned in 13 years of battling OCD are being fired on all cylinders, and for the moment I’m managing to hold the fort.

The most statistically likely outcome is that I have the operation, it turns out to be benign, and that’s that. But for the moment I’m facing what is easily one of the greatest psychological challenges of my life so far. Then again, so was moving out of home, at the time, and beating self-harm. I’ve never backed down from my demons before, and I won’t now.

“When should I tell my child they’re autistic?”

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Ah yes, one of the most common questions I’m asked in my work as an advocate. Now, I’m not a parent myself, and have zero experience in raising children, so I can only answer this from the perspective of someone who grew up autistic and didn’t get a diagnosis until the age of 20.

The thing is, while it may have taken until adulthood for me to get a definitive answer, from a very young age I knew that I was different from my neurotypical peers. As far back as early primary school, I remember noticing that I thought, felt, and behaved differently to them. I just didn’t know why.

And that feeling of not knowing drove me up the wall. I’ve always been the kind of person who takes comfort in knowing the why of things. When I understood the reason for things being the way they are, then I could accept them; on the flipside, few things had me more anxious and frustrated than an unanswered question.

Before my diagnosis, there was always that persistent doubt and uncertainty buzzing around my brain like a giant mosquito; what was wrong with me? Was I going mad? Was I a bad person? Getting diagnosed with autism was like finally getting to take a bazooka to the bloodsucking bastard. Just finally having an answer was a big step towards finding peace with myself.

Now, in my case, it wasn’t that my parents had known and kept it a secret; they found out at the same time I did. The reason it took so long was that, back in the “those days”, (you know, when phones had cords and stegosaurus still walked the Earth) autism was far less understood than it is today, and I didn’t fit the “rain man” stereotype of that time.

But I genuinely believe that, if I’d been known from early childhood, maybe at around 5 ideally, it would’ve saved me a great deal of stress.

Now, obviously not every autistic child is going to be just like me. But kids are generally a lot more switched on then adults realize. I’m sure most of them have also figured out from a fairly young age that there’s something different about them.

Knowledge is power, especially knowledge of one’s self, and only when we truly understand ourselves can we achieve self-acceptance. I wish I’d been told sooner, and if I were to have an autistic child of my own, I wouldn’t wait to tell them.

And when I did, I wouldn’t treat it as though I was informing them they had an illness; I would simply explain that yes, there is something different about them, but it’s not a bad thing. On the contrary, it’s something special. Something that does bring with it some challenges, but also strengths to be proud of.

Autism as an ally against OCD

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One of the quirks of Autism is that it’s often a package deal, arriving pre-bundled with another condition, such as ADHD or Oppositional Defiance Disorder. Buy one, get one free!

For me, this accompanying condition was Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. Hell of a double whammy, right? Well, sometimes yes, but the way they interact isn’t as straightforward as you might think.

See, the primary focus of my OCD is a fear of disease and contamination. Back when it was at its worst, in my late teens and early twenties, if someone coughed or sneezed anywhere near me, or if I accidentally stepped on a discarded tissue, I’d go to pieces like a china plate Frisbee’d into a jet engine.

Now, perhaps as a result of my autism, I’m a very analytical, scientific person, so I tried to combat this irrational terror with cold hard facts, I did a lot of research about diseases. It epidemiology actually became one of my autistic special interests for several years.

And during the course of this research, I kept crossing paths with the concept of immunology; the idea that our immune systems grow stronger over time through exposure to pathogens. That’s how many vaccines work for example, they train your immune cells to recognize a virus so that when the real thing shows up they know how to fight and beat it before it can hurt you.

I was fascinated with this concept, and it gave me an idea; that maybe, I could build up an immunity to my fears, and my triggers, through gradual controlled exposure. My autistic affinity for structure came to fore, and I drew up my battle plan with meticulous exactitude. Every day, I’d try to confront one of my fears, just a little bit. Not by jumping head first into it with anything super terrifying, but just taking a small step. I’d set myself goals, and timelines to reach those goals.

Over time, bit by bit, the fear response became less powerful, and I was able to get to the point I’m at today where I can use a public bathroom, something that was unthinkable to me ten years ago. So as it turns out, my autistic traits, like my systematic thinking and my focus on my special interests, turned out to be a potent weapon I could utilize against my anxiety.

Of course, we’re never going to completely eliminate anxiety, and nor should we. It’s a fact of life. And in fact it exists within us for a reason; without it we would’ve died out millions of years ago, because we wouldn’t have run away when the saber-toothed tigers jumped out at us.

But excessive, chronic anxiety, is something that we can train our brains to resist. And for those of us on the spectrum, who are particularly prone to this type of anxiety, leveraging our own neurology can give us an edge.

In the case of both myself and many children I’ve worked with, it has helped a lot to turn this strategy of confronting our fears into a highly structured plan, a game almost, that reflects our literal and logical thinking. Structure is a comforting thing, and since unpredictability is itself often a source of anxiety, just making a plan like “I will use a bin once a day” or “I will interact with a cashier by myself once a week” is therapeutic in itself. It puts our challenges into a format that’s tailored to the way our brains work.

Now isn’t a process that’s going to happen overnight; it’s not even going to happen over weeks, it’s going to take months, it’s going to take years. But I know from personal experience that by utilizing our autistic strengths, it’s possible.

When I was 18, my anxiety was so extreme I could not leave the house. If you’d told me then we’re I’d be today, I wouldn’t have believed it. I spent far too long fighting fear on its terms; the turning point came when I decided to fight it on mine, with autism as my ally.

Besieged

With OCD, the mind is a battleground, like a city embroiled in guerrilla warfare. Light and dark fight house to house, neuron to neuron, to capture and control the vital areas.

In a war, not every battle will be won. There will be times when the darkness gains ground, when barricades collapse, defences are overrun, and shadowy soldiers with bayonets of ice storm building after building.

But there are also times when the sun bathes the city in radiant warmth, the bayonets of ice are melted, and the shadows are driven back. This sun burns with the fire of love and kindness. Sometimes the clouds of circumstance and the smoke from the battle below obscure its rays. But as long as it burns strong, there is hope for the city, for darkness can never permanently reign over a world with a sun.

A change in perspective

A shattered mirror stretching as far as the horizon

A trillion splintered planes

In stillness, jagged chaos

In motion, a rolling sea

The ocean isn’t broken

It’s not meant to be perfect.

Let the stars shine

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If you’re reading this, you’ve probably heard that it’s Autism Awareness Month, or as many of us would prefer, Autism Acceptance Month.

You might be wondering what you can do to contribute. You might have heard a lot of contradictory messages. Here’s what I’d advise, presented in my usual style of a metaphor more labored than a blue whale giving birth.

Among stargazers, there’s a term called “light pollution”. This basically refers to when light from stronger, usually artificial sources like houses overwhelms the light of the stars so that you can’t get a good look at the night sky in all its glory.

Something similar tends to happen with public discourse on autism, where the voices of those who are not themselves autistic tend to be given more of a platform, and in turn drown out the millions of actual autistics struggling to be heard.

I think it’s time we turned down the lights so that the stars can shine. We live in a wondrous world where the miracle of social media allows us to communicate on a scale never before seen in human history. Let’s use this to amplify autistic voices. Share posts, blogs, and messages from actual autistics. Listen to what we have to say. If you want to know something, ask us.

Artificial light has a purpose, but that purpose is not to smother the stars.

“A Normal Life”

Very often I hear people say “all this autism positivity is fine for you high functioning types, but what about those who are low functioning, who are non-verbal, who will never have a normal life?”

I guess my response would be, since when is a “normal life” the only worthwhile existence? Why can’t somebody who is non-verbal lead a happy life?

Happiness looks like different things to different people. Maybe they don’t need a high flying career, a spouse and kids to make them happy. Maybe for them happiness is collecting green straws.

And if they’re satisfied with that, what’s the problem? Why should their happiness count for any less because they find it in the simple things in life?

For such individuals, autism positivity means valuing their happiness rather than mourning the fact that they don’t conform to society’s standards of what success and normality look like.

When advocates like myself talk about embracing the positives of autism and nurturing the spark within each autistic, we’re not just talking about savant-type “superpowers” but also simply focusing on the things that bring a person joy and fulfillment.

Because at the end of the day, what is more important; a “normal life”, or a happy life?