Sunday, 3 July 2011

Suppressing My Autistic Reactions

It seems this has been a month for getting things off my chest. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how for so long I’ve repressed and stifled my ‘natural autistic self’, ie turned a natural reaction into something else, or somehow covered it up, suppressed all outward manifestations of it, or simply stopped myself completely from doing it, at least in front of others.

So far, I can see two main areas in which I’ve done this. The first is sensory-related. Almost as far back as I can remember, my acute sensory perceptions have not been granted any validity, or any space simply to exist. When I complained, displayed discomfort, tore off an irritating item, ripped a label out, put my hands over my ears, covered my eyes, insisted on a hat and sunglasses even on grey winter days, refused to eat certain foods, gagged or retched – whatever the reaction was, to an overwhelming stimulus – others’ responses were all pretty similar:–

“You’re too picky”. “Don’t be so fussy”. “It’s not bothering anyone else.” “Why on earth are you wearing that?” “It can’t really be that bad.” “Can’t you just put up with it?” “You’re so weird.” “You’re being over-sensitive.” “Just be quiet.” “Quit complaining.” “You’re making a fuss about nothing.”

And on and on. So, over time, especially as I grew into adulthood, I did stop complaining. I shut up. I gritted my teeth, hunched my shoulders, and forced myself to endure - piercing, blinding lights that made my eyes run like Niagara. Smells that made my gorge rise and my skin crawl. Foods that made me gag and my stomach lurch. Clothing that felt like people were sticking pins in me. Noise that battered me, or seemed to be drilling holes in my head. And when I couldn’t bear it anymore, I fled. I hid, learning to cry without sound, in private, in toilets, or head down in cars, or behind bedroom doors. I learnt to not buy strongly scented toiletries or cleaning fluids, and some types of fabrics. I avoided certain foods, and noisy places and people. I circled around strong smells, or left the room. I made excuses and invented reasons why I couldn’t do something or other. I got called ‘anti-social’, and asked ‘where did you get to?’, and ‘what are you doing in there?” (Toilets are a great place to hide, you can always answer “what do you think I’m doing!?”) I grew ashamed of my ‘weakness’. I assumed others were somehow stronger than me, braver than me, better than me. I saw myself as ‘less than’ them, for not being able to put up with the things they said were ‘nothing’. It never occurred to me that they didn’t experience the same reactions I did. I leave it up to you, to imagine the toll all this took on my nerves and physical strength, not to mention my self-esteem.

The other area in which I suppress my ‘autistic’ reactions is in my movements. I hesitate to call them ‘stims’, as I’m still not entirely sure what counts as a stim. All I know is, my whole life I’ve had these movements I feel compelled to do. I rock gently, or twist and contort my body around. I do a jiggle up and down; or rise onto my toes and down again, I move from one foot to the other, wiggle my toes, or do a kind of ‘all-over’ wriggle. I run my fingers along any pattern, on a tablecloth or whatever. I fiddle with scraps of paper, or my watch, or some other part of my body, like my ears. I do a sort of ‘twisting’ motion with my hands. And sometimes, especially if I’m restless, or feeling good for some reason, I sit up in bed and bounce like it’s a trampoline, or maybe thrash my legs around, or my arms, maybe laughing, or crying a bit. And others I can’t describe - they are simply movements that help me connect to my body and the world around me.

And people’s reactions?

“Sit still.” “Stop fidgeting.” “What’s up with you?” “Do you need to go to the toilet?” “You look like you’re about to take off!” “Have you got ants in your pants?” “What are you so excited about?” “What’s with the dance?”  “God you look so weird when you do that.” “Oooh-kaaay…” Sniggers, stares and ridicule. Jeering comments thrown from passing cars.

And more, and more. And yes, over time I stopped a lot of these too. There are some things I haven’t done since childhood, such as jumping up and down when excited or upset, or twisting around and hanging upside down on living room chairs. And the rest, well I learnt to do them in private behind a closed door, or when no-one else was around. In time I suppressed so many I couldn’t even do them in private anymore. (And then I wondered why I felt tense so often, or detached from my body. Huh.) Some movements I learnt to disguise, turning them into something else, something more ‘socially acceptable’, or to make excuses for them (“I’m just doing a stretch.” “I’ve got an itch.” “My wrists are stiff from the computer.”). It’s only since learning about AS, that I’ve begun to examine my movement patterns, and realise how much I’ve suppressed or disguised, not even admitting to myself that I did anything ‘unusual’. This really struck home for me the other day, when I was out for a walk. It was late, getting dark, the light was poor, and no-one was around. I was only dimly aware I was doing a movement with my hands that could best be described as a sort of twist-and-flick at the air – until car lights warned me of approaching vehicles, and I turned it first into a clapping motion, then a rubbing of hands together. It was cold, so this was okay, right? I thought, my God, how many times have I done this, automatically changed a motion that feels good, into something basically meaningless and useless to me, but ‘passable’ to others, simply in order not to attract unwelcome attention?

And what price have I paid for it? What price have I paid, for suppressing so much of my self, my natural movements and reactions to the world? How much of a part did this play, for instance, in my getting Chronic Fatigue Syndrome? I know that stress was and is a major factor in my illness. How much stress has been contributed by these suppressions of my true self, I wonder.

And how much can I reclaim what is natural to me? I’ve learnt the hard way that it’s not good to make a target of yourself. That’s become too ingrained in me now to just drop, even if it wasn’t unwise. But I would like to at least when by myself or with others on the spectrum, or others I trust, to let my true self emerge more. To say when some noise or smell is too much, or that I don’t wish to eat certain foods. To move in ways that soothe me or let out stress. To be honest. To be me. The real me, not the self I became to please or placate others. I am so tired of not being that true self.

To be my real aspie self. That’s what I want, more than anything. Wish me luck with it.


  1. Oh I do wish you luck with it, but it sounds like you are well on your way!

    I could so relate to what you wrote, but that is not uncommon in Aspie Bloggyland.

    And I have been having the same inclinations, to let me be me, that you are having – rediscovering the me that got buried. I find this corner of the Aspie blogging community to be a very safe place to just be myself. There is lots of support here for being authentic, for being the best Aspies we can be!

    And I too have wondered how much of a role the stress of trying to pass for “normal” played in my getting CFS. I think if I had been painting landscapes, or driving a truck, I may have been less stressed than in social work. My goodness, can you imagine a worse match for this Aspie than social work? Perhaps selling life insurance maybe :)

  2. Social work? As an aspie? Oh, my, i feel for you! Yes, that must have been really stressful. Even my (now retired) NT mother, who spent many years as a social worker, felt stressed by it often. I think this is yet more reason why i want to be a writer, as i don't have to deal with people face to face!!! Lol.
    I know an aspie guy who drives a truck, he delivers new vehicles late at night, becos, he says, he doesn't have to deal with people. He claims he hates them. (I don't think he does really, just the pain-in-the-butt ones, lol.)