Unstrange Mind

Autistic Author, Artist, Advocate, and Speaker

Tag: what is autism?

Alexithymia: I Don’t Know How I Feel

exeter flowers

[image description: some white flowers, species unknown, in a graveyard in Exeter, Rhode Island. Image copyright Sparrow R. Jones]


When I was a child, my mother would angrily ask me why I had done or said something and I would respond, honestly, “I don’t know.” This response did nothing to relieve her anger because she couldn’t conceive of someone not knowing why they behaved the way they did, so she assumed I was lying and just didn’t want to incriminate myself by revealing my true motivations.

 

Sometimes now, from a distance of decades, I can explain my behavior. Time, experience, and an increased vocabulary have helped me to understand my younger self better and be more well-equipped to communicate my childhood thoughts than I was at the time.

 

But just as often, I still have no idea why I did or said the things I did because I still have so little connection with or understanding of my emotional life, both in childhood and today.

 

I have a condition called alexithymia. The name comes from Greek roots: a-, meaning ‘without’, lexi, meaning ‘words’, and thymia, meaning ’emotions.’ Without words for emotions.

 

That’s a pretty good name for it, because that’s pretty much what it is. I do have emotions — quite strong emotions, in fact. Much stronger than I wish they were. But when I try to understand what I’m feelign or why I’m feeling it, I am at a loss.  I can generally tell you (sometimes after pausing to do an internal assessment first) if I’m generally feeling “good”  or “bad.”  I can usually put words to the emotions that are painted in very broad strokes: happy, sad, angry. But that’s about the limit of my emotional vocabulary.

 

To me, emotions are like storms at sea.  They are mysterious and unpredictable. I feel like I can go from zero to furious in 0.4 seconds because I am unable to see all the intermediate shades of emotion along the route to furious, so when I finally arrive at that destination, it feels to me as if it came out of nowhere.  I think it often seems that way to onlookers as well, because my Autistic style of emoting is not always very easy for people to understand.

 

I regularly get feedback from others who have interpreted my “contented”  as “distraught” (it’s called “resting face,”  people.  Mine apparently has a sad/angry tone to it, so I have learned that I have to intentionally add artificial smiles to my face if I don’t want others to accidentally mis-read me as dangerous and unapproachable.) I’ve also gotten feedback from people who see “nervous”  or ” anxious”  when I am actually “energetic and happy.”  It’s called stimming, folks…..it’s not always a sign of anxiety in people with my neurology. Ironically, I have been riddled with anxiety but when I discuss it with someone who doesn’t know me extremely well, they think I’m exaggerating because they can’t see the external signs of anxiety they are accustomed to reading from non-autistic people’s body language.

 

I try my best to live in the deep waters beneath that stormy surface. Meditation helps a lot.  My role model is Mr. Spock from Star Trek.  Vulcans have emotions but practice meditation and other rituals from an early age to learn to control their emotions rather than allowing their emotions to control them.  I work hard to replicate fictional Vulcan emotional training as best I can in my frustratingly non-fiction  human life. Sometimes it even works.  I get better at it as time goes on. But I still “lose it”  on a regular basis.  It’s a work in progress.

 

A 2016 article in Scientific American says that 10% of the general population has alexithymia while 50% of Autistics have alexithymia. I have seen other sources estimate higher numbers, but 50% is a good, conservative estimate.  My reading indicates that alexithymia in the non-autistic population is very oftne the result of an emotional trauma.  No one (to my knowledge. If you know of a case, please share it in the comments) has studied whether Autistic alexithymia is the result of emotional trauma (which wouldn’t surprise me, since growing up Autistic in a non-autistic society can be intensely traumatizing) or whether it’s part of how many of us are wired.

 

The difference — autism with or without alexithymia — could explain many of the differences among Autistics, for example, it might be part of the explanation for why some of us (like me) avoid eye contact while I’ve met lots of other Autistics who report having no trouble at all with making eye contact with others.

 

Having alexithymia (and some states-of-being that seem closely connected for me, such as a very low level of body-awareness) means that when I figure out that I am feeling bad, I have to play detective to try to understand why I am feelign bad and what, if anything, I should do about it.

 

I have developed a sort of check-list to help me navigate the experience of being embodied.

 

First I have to figure out if I am in need of my checklist. Here are some of my warning signs that I’m not functioning optimally:

 

  • I am screaming
  • I am crying
  • My body is shaking
  • I am obsessively going over unpleasant past memories
  • I am spontaneously (meaning I am doing it during my personal time, not as research for something I am writing) conducting Google searches  on topics related to unpleasant human interactions and how to cope with them
  • I am dizzy or experiencing some non-typical (for me) cognitive difficulties
  • I have lost the ability to speak
  • I find myself unwilling to go someplace or do something I either enjoy or know that I need to do in order to keep my world intact (like the tax office or the social Security office)
  • I am not sleeping (or sleeping too much)
  • I am not eating (or eating too much)
  • I am constantly thinking bad thoughts about everything the people around me are doing

 

These are my main warning signs that I need to run a self-diagnostic check.  If you have similar difficulties to the ones I discuss in this essay, you might want to write out your own list of warning signs.

 

My diagnostic checklist starts with medical emergencies and works its way down from there.

 

  • Check my blood sugar
  • Check my temperature
  • Assess whether I need to use the bathroom (strange though it may sound to those who don’t experience this, I am often unaware of physical needs unless I specifically direct my attention to the body I live in and focus on the physical sensations it is experiencing.)
  • When did I last sleep? Am I sleep deprived?
  • When did I last hydrate?
  • When did I last eat?
  • Am I experiencing an emotion? Try to discern whether it is mostly anger or mostly sorrow. Continue to break it down from there, looking for physical clues.

 

A book I’ve found helpful in this last task is: The Emotion Thesaurus.  It is a book for writers and it includes descriptions of the physical things that happen to the body when experiencing 75 different emotions. I would love to have the emotion body responses turned into a deck of cards I could carry in my pocket.

 

The only emotion cards I’ve ever seen are profoundly unhelpful for me because they just have things like photographs of human faces experiencing feelings (useless for me as I can’t read feelings from a photograph) or even worse, cartoon drawings of emotions.  I need the body experience descriptions like in the Emotion Thesaurus to help me identify the emotions my body is having.

 

Usually by this point in my checklist I’ve found my trouble.  If not, I just try to do what I can to mitigate the damage — isolate myself from others, be kind and nurturing to myself, try to dive beneath the surface if I can and if I can’t, I try to wait for the storm to blow over and the sea to become calm again.

 

I wish I had more to say about emotions and alexithymia, but I’ve pretty much hit the end of what I have on offer for this topic.  If you’ve read my blog for very long, you’ll realize what a statement that is, because my standard blog essay is twice the length of this one.  Struggling with emotional lability and alexithymia has been the battle of a lifetime for me and I sometimes wryly joke that I’ll finally get it figured out when I’m lying on my deathbed at 120 years old.  Things do seem to be getting better, though. My 40s have been much better than my 30s.  My teens and 20s were such horror shows I’m amazed I survived them. I predict my 50s will be my best decade yet.

 

If you’re a parent and you’re struggling with your child’s emotions, you might feel like life is punishing you, but I’m here to tell you that the real hell is the one your child is living through.  I know it’s hard to be gentle and understanding with someone who yells and throws things, hits and bites. But I’ve been that person for a lot of my life and gentle understanding is exactly what we need most.  Help your beloved person learn how to trouble shoot and do self-checks.  Help them learn how to decipher and name emotions.  Help them find emotional management techniques that work for them.

 

Don’t get upset if they reject meditation or breathing techniques.  We’re all different and some Autistics get *MORE* anxious when they try to use these tools. Don’t be afraid to try medications but work to avoid “drugged zombie”  as a chosen result.  It might be easier for people around us when we’re doped out of our emotions, but it’s not good for us.  Vow to only use medication that enhances an Autistic’s life and coping skills, and never use medication or dosage levels that operates as a “chemical straitjacket”.   Our responses to medications are often non-standard so be prepared to experiment with much smaller (or much larger) doses than other people need.  For example, Temple Grandin recommends using only a 1/3 dose of anti-anxiety medications when prescribing for Autistic people.

 

I hope something, anything, I’ve written here is helpful to you.  I’d love to see a lot of discussion in the comments section.  This is a topic I’ve struggled so hard with  that I feel inadequate to even address it at all.  But it needs to be said, so here I am saying it.  Be well, gentle readers, and may your emotions ever serve you rather than the other way around.

 


edited to add:

A linkback from another blog that linked to this post included a link to an alexithymia questionnaire that quanitifes one’s level of Alexithymia.  I scored 149, “high alexithymic traits.”

 

The other blog entry is: Can you name all those emotions?
And the emotion blindness questionnaire is: Online Alexithymia Questionnaire

What Is a Disorder?

Smilodon Fatalis

Smilodon fatalis, the sabre-toothed cat. The name means “fatal knife-tooth” and this was the most exciting creature I’d spotted on my travels since the Borophagus hilli,  “Bone-crushing Dog” I saw at the Hagerman Fossil Beds in Idaho last  year. I discovered this graceful yet skeletal creature at the I-79 Southbound West Virginia welcome center. Photograph copyright 2016, Sparrow Rose Jones.

Yesterday, I posted an essay about Autism Speak’s new mission statement, and in that essay I wrote: “We are different and disabled but not disordered and we do not need you to accept a disorder; we need you to accept us.”

A reader commented:

Great article overall, but I’m a bit confused as to your meaning of ‘we are not disordered.’ As a person who does have multiple disorders aside from being autistic, I’m worried about what this implies when it comes to people with mental illness and other neurodiversities beyond autism; that maybe it is a ‘throwing one group under the bus to support another’ thing. I can’t imagine you meant that on purpose, and it certainly could be me misconstruing the meaning (it may have just meant to remember we are people before we are ‘disordered’) but I thought I’d point it out in case it was confusing to anyone else as well.

You are correct, dear reader, I did not intend to throw anyone under the bus. And I did not throw anyone under the bus, intentionally or accidentally. Since you are confused, I decided to make a fresh blog post so I can explain my perspective more thoroughly.

Before I start in to topics like “what is a disorder” and “why do I say that autism is not a disorder” and “mental illness” — because that’s a lot of ground to cover — let me make one quick side note first:

The Language of the Neurodiversity Paradigm

There is no such thing as “neurodiversities”  unless you are speaking in the same sense as modern physicists when they talk about “universes.” Neurodiversity is, to quote Nick Walker’s excellent and foundational essay: “the diversity of human brains and minds – the infinite variation in neurocognitive functioning within our species.” You can see why the plural form, “neurodiversities” doesn’t make sense….unless one is speaking of neurodiversity among multiple species or among multiple peoples, such as humans on Earth and denizens of some as-yet undiscovered planet with which we might establish communication in the future.

I think what you meant was “neurodivergences.” I apologize if I appear to be nitpicking your word choice, but the language of the neurodiversity paradigm and of the neurodiversity movement (two different things – see Nick Walker’s essay. It’s a must-read, really) are still new enough and the topic is important enough that we must all work hard to use this language accurately while these ideas are still taking shape in society’s general consciousness. The linguistic work we do today will save us so much difficulty and miscommunication in years to come. I am multiply neurodivergent and the accurate use of this language is very important to me because it provides such clarity in communicating my lived experience.

Now, on to the actual point of this essay.

What is a Disorder?

I can’t say enough good about Nick Walker’s work and if you have a couple of hours to watch his presentation from February 23, 2015 at CIIS, you should watch this video. I definitely recommend it, both for understanding why I say autism is not a disorder and for exposing yourself to Nick Walker’s brilliance.

For those who don’t have time or data to watch the video, here is my summary of Nick’s points that pertain to what I am discussing in this essay (there is so much more in his presentation than this. I love Nick Walker’s work so much. Every time I take the time to listen to or read Nick’s words, my entire world gets bigger.  Nick Walker is like human LSD: he expands my consciousness every time I take a dose of him.)

The following paragraphs are in italics because they are my paraphrasing (and sometimes direct quotation) of what Nick Walker says in the above presentation.

Diversity is creative potential. Exciting new things are introduced to society by people whose minds work differently from the minds of those in the culture around them. All forms of diversity are subject to society’s power dynamics, which means that those whose minds are neurodivergent — whose minds work in ways that are noticeably different from the neuromajority — are pathologized and called disordered or ill. It’s just another social power dynamic and an oppression of a minority’s civil rights, just like what we’ve seen before around gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity, culture, etc. The dynamics work the same way.

Books like the DSM tell us that autism and other neurodivergences are disorders, but it’s important to remember that science has been used for a long time to justify the oppression of those who diverge in ways that society does not approve of. The oppression of neurominorities that comes from using science to describe us as “disordered” is the same pattern we have already seen so many times in the past in other groups who have struggled to assert their civil rights against a society that chooses to pathologize their existence.

Pathologization of “disorders” leads to a social urge to normalize those who have been considered “ill” or “diseased” because their brains work in ways that differ from the “straight and narrow” neurotype that society has chosen to label as “healthy” only because it is way that the majority of people’s  brains work. The phrase “mental illness” is false and a scam. When these neurodivergences are labeled as illnesses, people are convinced that the way their brain naturally works is a disease. I’m not dogmatically anti-medication, but I’m anti-bullshit and I think the term “mental illness” is bullshit. 

There are government labs where vials are stored. These vials have anthrax, small pox, measles, and other illnesses. You cannot have a “vial of bipolar” or a “vial of autism.” These do not exist outside the bodies and minds of the people who embody them. It’s us, not illness. When I say that “mental illness” is bullshit, I’m not saying nobody should ever take medication. If you are severely depressed and there is a drug that works for you and you want to take it? Go ahead. You should not have to call yourself “ill” in order to get the mind-altering drugs you want.  I don’t think people should be involuntarily medicated, ever. But I’m all for consensual medication of anyone who wants it.

There’s a whole industry around selling these things as diseases and we live in a society that is increasingly hostile to carving out niches for people who function on different rhythms. When you honor your body and brain, Bipolar no longer feels like an illness. You’re surfing your neurology. How do you find the safe spaces to shape your life? If no one does it, it stays unsafe for people to do. The more people out there doing weird stuff with their brains and self, the more acceptable it becomes. We have an obligation to be really weird to make space for other people.

So there’s the background to my answer: what is a disorder? A disorder is an illness. I have some disorders – a connective tissue disorder that can be very painful, for example. But autism is not a disorder. Bipolar is not a disorder. Schizophrenia is not a disorder. There is no such thing as a mental illness because our mentation is our self and we are not ill. We are divergent members of a neurodiverse population that needs the full span of neurodiversity to fuel creativity, innovation, and the full expression of humanity.

Am I Throwing Anyone Under a Bus When I Say That Autism Is Not a Disorder?

I most definitely am not. I am not saying , “autism is not a disorder, but some other mental stuff is.”  I’m saying exactly what I said in yesterday’s essay: “We are different and disabled but not disordered and we do not need you to accept a disorder; we need you to accept us.” I’m not saying other people are disordered; I’m saying Autistics are not. I’m not speaking for other people at all — it’s not my place to speak for other people … although I don’t believe in the construct of “mental illness”  so if anyone is calling someone else disordered, it’s not me. I didn’t think I needed to make that explicit, but here it is explicitly stated now.

Am I Saying We Are People Before We Are Disordered?

No, I don’t engage in person-first language. If someone else wants to use person-first language to describe themselves, I will respect their choice, but I believe in identity-first language because I don’t believe we are disordered at all.  There is no need for person-first language, in my opinion, because person-first language is designed to separate people from things that are deemed shameful or diminishing in some way. Autism is not a disorder, it is not shameful, it is not diminishing. I see no reason to use person-first language. In fact, person-first language inherently implies that there is a disease or disorder present in a person, so I find person-first language offensive when directed at me. As I said, I will respect someone else’s choice to use person-first language to describe themselves because people should have the right to self-identify in any way they choose. But person-first  language is not appropriate for me.

So, no. I am not at all saying that we are people before we are disordered. I am saying we aren’t disordered and it is an oppression to suggest that neurominorities are disordered at all. We are people: Autistic, Bipolar, Multi-dimensional, Kinetic, Schizophrenic, and so on. If you are in one or more of these categories and you have accepted that you are ill, disordered, diseased …. know that you are not required to view yourself that way. You are not required to accept society’s labeling of you based on your divergence from the mainstream type of mind. You are fully permitted to embrace your natural mind, as it is, for the beautiful and creative brain you possess. read more about the Neurodiversity Movement and Mad Pride and rejoice in your uniqueness. Celebrate it. Help to forge new pathways for those who will come after you. The more that we accept and celebrate our uniqueness, the easier and safer it will be for future generations to be authentic to their natural bodies and brains.

I hope that my words are somewhat less confusing now.

 

 

 

 

Is Everyone “a Little Autistic”?

apples

How do you like these apples? Just as apples can be different yet all be apples, people can be different yet all be fully human. You can’t support someone’s differences by pretending they don’t exist.

(Originally posted December 5, 2015)

You’ve heard someone say this before, right? “Oh, well, autism is a spectrum and I think that means that, really, everyone’s a little bit autistic.”

Now, I can see why someone might say that. I said something in my first book, No You Don’t: Essays from an Unstrange Mind, that might seem to support that idea: “And if you aren’t Autistic, don’t be surprised if you recognize pieces of yourself in here, too. Because autism is a difference of intensity and frequency but above all, it is a slice of the human condition. If you are human, you will recognize yourself in some of the things I write.”

This passage does not say that everyone is a little autistic. It says that Autistics are human beings. As my book says a couple of pages later, we are not “a different species, an alien creature, a changeling, a robot, a freak of nature.” We are human beings and so much of what we experience is fundamental to the human condition. Our autistic nervous system affects how we experience our humanity — our experience is often heightened in intensity and colored by our different perspectives on life. But it is humanity we are experiencing because we are fully human.

The converse of “all Autistics are human” — “all humans are Autistics” — is not implied and does not hold. When I say all Autistics are fully human (which, in case you were doubting, we are!) I am in no way implying that all humans are autistic . . . not even a little bit. People see that Autistics are human and that we often experience very intense versions of basic human experiences — anxiety, for example. We often carry a lot of anxiety and we get stressed out and we meltdown from high stress.

Since everyone has felt anxious at some point and everyone has felt overloaded with stress and everyone has “lost their shit” at one point or another, some people get mixed up and decide that sharing such a common experience as a stress and anxiety meltdown means that they are “a little autistic” too. But that is not true and it is a diminishing thing to say, particularly to Autistic people.

If everyone were a little bit autistic, Salvation Army bell ringers would be illegal. If everyone were a little bit autistic, nothing ever would have strobe lights. Ever. Fluorescent lights, sirens, shirt tags, sock seams — these wouldn’t exist. There would be a strong social taboo against dragging a chair across the floor and making that horrible scraping sound with it. Perfume and cologne would be outlawed as hazardous substances and every school and workplace would have a quiet zone for recuperation. How we handled turn-taking would not involve long lines of people standing scrunched up close to each other. In short, if everybody were a little autistic, our whole society would look a great deal different than it does.

Experiencing a taste of what we live with does not make someone autistic, not even a little bit. It would be like me saying that, because I sometimes lose the ability to speak and need to type in order to communicate, I completely understand the lived experience of being an Autistic who never communicates with their voice. I can guess at the experience, but I do not live it. I have intermittent mutism and that does not make me “a little non-speaking” any more than someone who hates standing in lines or even someone who lives with daily anxiety is automatically “a little autistic.” The struggles I face are not the struggles others who have never spoken experience. The struggles non-autistic people face may have some surface similarities to struggles Autistics live with but that does not make someone “a little bit autistic.”

The only way I know to communicate how dismissive it is to say something like “we are all a little autistic” is to shift the whole idea into the context of some other disabilities:

“Sometimes I am looking for something and it’s right in front of me and I just kept missing it even when I was looking right at it. We’re all a little Blind, aren’t we?”

“The other day, I was sitting funny and my foot fell asleep. When I stood up, I almost fell down from the pins and needles. I guess we’re all a little paralyzed, huh?”

Those are ridiculous things to say. But so often I hear people saying analogous things, and not just about autism. How about, “I have to keep my house so clean and everything put away. I am so OCD!” Or “I am completely addicted to Sudoku puzzles!” Have you heard, “I can’t make up my mind. I just keep going back and forth I’m so schizophrenic.” Or, just as bad, the words are applied to something inanimate: “Rain, then sun, then rain, then sun. The weather is so bipolar today!”

Don’t do this! When you use someone else’s disability as an adjective for your quirks or otherwise reduce it to a one-dimensional descriptor, you are making light of their entire life. And when you say everyone is a little bit autistic, you are trivializing what it actually means to be Autistic.

I understand that some people have good intentions. They want to highlight the humanity of Autistics. Be careful — this is how person-first language arose: through an overzealous urge to bludgeon others with a disabled person’s humanity for fear that no one could see it otherwise. Others may be saying they are a little autistic in order to show solidarity with people they view as “fighting the good fight.” I’d like to show solidarity with People of Color but I would never dream of saying we’re all a little bit Asian or everyone is Native American inside or I’m a little Black. So don’t try to appropriate my disability just to show solidarity with me. I will appreciate your support just fine if you just try to pay attention and be sensitive. You can’t support my differences by pretending they don’t exist.

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