Autistic Author, Artist, Advocate, and Speaker

Category: Life Skills

A Close Call with a Whole Gale Storm

metal tables

[image description: two heavy metal folding tables held together by chains to prevent theft. The tables are heaped in a darkened parking lot, where the wind casually tossed them after they nearly crushed Sparrow. Photo copyright Sparrow Rose, 2017.)

Natchitoches is the oldest settlement in Louisiana and it’s a lovely little town with colorful stucco buildings sporting second-story verandas with ornate wrought-iron railings, brick streets, and towering magnolias and live oaks. The house from Steel Magnolias is here, as is an alligator feeding show I was eager to check out. It looked like a perfect place to pause for the Memorial Day weekend, to catch up on work before heading toward Houston. Little did I suspect I would find myself in a life-and-death battle here Sunday night.

There was nothing remarkable about the day. The weather seemed fine, if extremely humid. Sunset was due in about 20 minutes. I was reading a novel about the mother of an Autistic boy (I’ll be reviewing that soon on Thinking Person’s Guide to Autism) when my weather app, Dark Sky, flashed an alert on my screen, letting me know that heavy rain was coming in ten minutes.

I had a couple of quick chores I needed to do that were unpleasant in the rain, so I quickly did them: I filled my water jugs and emptied my trash, including cleaning the cat box, thinking how nice it would be when the rain came and cooled everything off a little. I was parked on the east side of the Walmart and when I took the trash to a trash can, I could see past the store to the western sky which was dark grey with a huge wall cloud filling the sky.

I returned to the minivan and the bulk of the Walmart hid the western sky from my sight once more. The rain started almost right away. I congratulated myself for getting everything done in time to stay dry. My self-congratulatory mood didn’t last long.

The rain came down so hard that the parking lot was filled with inches of standing water. Heavy winds began bringing wave after wave of water rushing toward me. The van began to rock with the impact of the wind. I decided to check my weather app to get a better idea of the storm’s intensity and expected duration. What I saw chilled me. Tornado Warning – funnel sighted, take cover immediately. If you are in a vehicle, leave and seek shelter right away.

I quickly typed “Shit. Tornado warning.” on Facebook, thinking if the worst occurred, at least my friends would know why I had disappeared. Because I travel and spend so much time away from anyone I know, I regularly take measures to enable those who love me to help find me if something should go terribly awry.

I had to act fast. I quickly debated whether to bring my cat or not and decided to leave him. His smaller mass would protect him a little if the van went tumbling and taking him out into that solid wall of rain would not go well. He would have immediately clawed his way free and probably gone under the van. I wished him luck as I grabbed my phone, keys, and the festival pack I keep my money and identification in. I didn’t wait long enough to cram my keys and phone in the pack — I just opened the door and slipped out, locking it behind me.

The rain was pounding and thick. The wind was coming from the west, so I didn’t feel the full force right away because the building blocked some of it. But as I ran toward the Walmart, the wind lifted the two tables in the employee break shelter beside the building. Even with the building blocking the wind, it was powerful enough to pick up those two tables and send them hurtling straight toward me. I watched it speed toward me, a wall of certain death aimed right at my torso and head. I tried to move aside but the wind was so fierce it was like a solid object, unyielding.

At the last possible moment, a side gust of wind knocked me off my feet and turned the table into a curve ball, sending it veering off to the south. I scrambled, half-crawling, toward the building. The wind was too forceful to get past the edge of the building to the door. All the parking lot lights flickered and went out. I took advantage of a niche in the architecture where two walls came together and pressed myself into that corner, watching tree branches and other large, unidentifiable objects go flying past the building.

I had lost a shoe when I fell. Worse, I had dropped my keys. I scanned the ground in front of me as best I could through the storm but all I could see was wind-tossed debris. I knew I couldn’t go back out into the full force of the storm to look for my keys. All I could do was hope they couldn’t get blown into the next Parish before the storm ended. My immediate survival seemed more important than my keys, even though I had no idea how I would get back into my minivan — my home — without my keys.

I have no idea how long I stood there, squeezed into that niche. I took off my glasses, made useless by the rain, and tucked them in the pack. I typed some words of update on Facebook, then tucked my phone in there, too. With everything secured, I made another attempt for the front of the building and succeeded this time. With the power out, the sliding doors wouldn’t open! I was now out in the full force of the storm and stuck outside! I continued past the second door to take cover in the corner between the glass doors and the brick wall, a smaller niche but still some shield against the projectiles flying through the air.

A powerline directly over my head whipped back and forth ominously and I hoped it wouldn’t break loose and come down on me with a shower of sparks. It held. Debris continued to fly past me, mere inches from my face now.

Having nothing else to do but wait, I typed more updates on Facebook so people would know I was still alive. The people inside the Walmart forced the sliding doors open behind me and the wind pushed me inside the building.

Once inside, my nerves finally caught up with me. Everything had been too immediate to feel fear, anxiety, or panic while outside. Now my body trembled. The people inside seemed not to understand what it had been like, being stuck outside the building. I was counseled to never worry because Jesus is always watching out for me. “Well, eventually he will call me home,” I responded. “I’d prefer that weren’t today.”

While we waited for the storm to pass, everyone’s phone suddenly sounded an alert. I looked at mine and it warned of flash flooding. Knowing we were right on the river, I asked if the Walmart were on high ground and was reassured by many that the river would take days to rise high enough to reach us.

Finally the wind died down. I had to ask several Walmart employees before I found one willing to get a flashlight and help me look for my keys. He offered an umbrella but I was still dripping wet so I didn’t bother. Out we went into the rain, with lightning flashes so bright they briefly lit the parking lot as bright as day. I found my shoe first, which surprised me because I didn’t expect to find it at all. The employee found my keys and I was so relieved I hugged him in gratitude.

My van has some new dents and scratches from the shopping carts that were flung into it, but no windows or lights were broken, the solar panels stayed tight, the cargo carrier resisted the storm.  Mr. Kitty gave me the “you’re back from the dangerous expedition!” meows, but quickly calmed down and set to his favorite hobby, eating. I counted six trees uprooted around the edges of the parking lot, massive roots exposed to the air.

Reports say the funnel cloud touched down about a mile past where I was. My research suggests this was the fourth tornado this town has seen in 2017, unless I missed one. The storm system was huge, stretching along the entire western half of the U.S. Gulf Coast. Only one person was killed.

Weather Underground tells me the wind was 60 miles per hour at the peak of the storm. For an idea of what that looks like, here’s a short video of a 60 mile per hour storm from about 6 years ago:

The storm I lived through Sunday night was a 10 on the 12-point Beaufort Wind Force Scale, also known as a whole gale. At sea, it would have created 30 to 40 foot waves. A hurricane, ranked 12 on the scale, comes with winds above 73 miles per hour.

Today I am grateful to be alive and more respectful of the power of sudden storms than ever before. I have lived through a few tornadoes, but always inside a solid house, never outside. Winds that high are like a solid mass with an irresistible force. My life was at risk, but the wind also saved my life when it picked me up off the ground and dropped me, just in time to miss getting hit by those tables that whisked past my head.

I have talked before about how calm I can be in a true crisis. My autistic neurology sends me into a panic when little things go wrong, but every time I have been in a genuine crisis situation, I have been the calmest person on the scene, guiding people who are standing frozen in their tracks to call for an ambulance, enacting or instructing others in emergency first aid for injured people, putting out fires, finding that one elusive, clever way out of the path of disaster bearing down. When seconds count, I tend to think fast and fall apart later.

I have talked to other Autistics who express similar wiring and related experiences. It’s strange to think that so many of us are people who might get so upset we melt into an emotional puddle because someone ate the last of the breakfast cereal while we were asleep yet when quick thinking matters, we rush forward to save ourselves or others.

My Sunday night could have been a lot worse than it was. But when I think back over it all, I am pleased with my choices. I didn’t see anything I recognized as alarming about the sky — now I have a better idea of what a wall cloud (something I had never seen before) can bring. I am used to the sky turning green before a tornado, but my previous tornadoes were all in Kentucky. Weather is a bit different down here, it seems. Overall, I made fast, good decisions under pressure.

May I never experience sudden severe weather again. But if/when I do, I feel much more confident about my ability to spring to action when the going really gets rough.

The Protective Gift of Meltdowns


[image description: a terrapin in the middle of the road on a hot, sunny day. His skin is dark with bright yellow stripes and his shell is ornate, covered with swirls of dark brown against a honey-yellow background. The terrapin is rushing to get across the street and his back leg is extended from the speed and force of his dash toward freedom. photo copyright 2017, Maxfield Sparrow.]

I hate meltdowns. I hate the way they take over my entire body. I hate the sick way I feel during a meltdown and I hate the long recovery time — sometimes minutes but just as often entire days — afterward when everything is too intense and I am overwhelmed and exhausted and have to put my life on hold while I recover

I hate the embarrassment that comes from a meltdown in front of others. I hate the fear that bubbles up with every meltdown. Will this be the one that gets me arrested? Committed? Killed?

Meltdowns, Like Shutdowns, Are Harmful But Necessary

We Autistic adults and teens put a lot of energy into figuring out what will lead to a meltdown and working to avoid those things whenever possible. Parents of younger Autistics also put a lot of energy and work into figuring these things out, both to try to keep triggering events out of their child’s life and to try to help their child learn how to recognize and steer around those triggers themselves. Outsiders who don’t understand will accuse us of being overly avoidance and self-indulgent and accuse our parents of spoiling and coddling us.

I have written about how shutdown can alter brain function in unwanted ways. Meltdowns also have their dangers and can alter brain function over time. A meltdown is an extreme stress reaction and chronic stress can damage brain structure and connectivity.

But meltdowns serve a purpose, just as another unpleasant experience that can also re-wire the brain if it continues chronically and unabated — pain — also serves an important and very necessary purpose.

Pain is an alarm system that helps us avoid bodily damage and urges us to try to change something to protect our body. While pain is usually unwanted and something we seek to avoid, without pain we would not live very long because we would not have such a strong drive to eliminate sources of damage to our bodies.

Meltdowns are alarm systems to protect our brains.

That idea is so important I gave it its own paragraph. And I’ll say it again: without meltdowns, we would have nothing to protect our neurology from the very real damage that it can accumulate.

So often, I see researchers and other writers talking about meltdowns as if they were a malfunction or manifestation of damage. I strongly disagree. It is easy for someone outside of us to view a meltdown that way because they see an unpleasant outburst that makes their lives more unpleasant or difficult to be around. They see someone who appears to be over-reacting to something that’s not such a big deal as all that. They see someone immature who needs to grow up, snap out of it, or get a “good spanking” to teach them to behave.

When someone doesn’t experience the hell it is to be the person having the meltdowns, they can easily misunderstand and misjudge what it actually happening.

Meltdowns Are A Normal Response To Sensitivities

Let me ask you something: this is a thought experiment and you don’t have to actually do this, but you might understand better if you actually follow along physically. Take your finger and poke the softer flesh on the inside of your thigh with it so that you are pressing the tip of your fingernail into your thigh. Don’t actually damage yourself! You’re just looking for a reference sensation. Poke it about as hard as you might press a button to ring someone’s doorbell.

If you have long, sharp fingernails that might have hurt a little bit (I hope you were careful. The goal here is not to injure yourself — just to create a physical sensation.) It was a quick poke, so it probably didn’t even leave a mark behind, no matter how long your fingernails are.

Now do the same thing to your gums, either above or below your teeth, in that area between your teeth and the inside of your lips. Oh! You couldn’t even poke it as hard, could you? Do be gentle with your gums, please. I repeat, this is not about harming yourself. You don’t even have to poke yourself at all if you don’t want to. You know your thighs and gums. You know without lifting a finger that I am telling you the truth when I say your gums are much more sensitive than your inner thigh.

And you are not “over-reacting” when you have more pain response in your gums than in your thigh, right? It’s easier to hurt your gums so your reaction to the same stimulus is much more intense when it is applied to your gum than to your thigh. You are not self-indulgent or spoiled. You don’t need a good spanking to get over how sensitive your gums are. You just need to take extra care that things don’t poke you in the gums.

So what’s my point? If you are not Autistic — and even more so if you are pretty close to neurotypical — your neurological wiring is more like your thigh. Life pokes at you a lot and you don’t even notice it. Much of life’s poking is fun for you. Some pokes are less recreational but present satisfying challenges. So when you see an Autistic person having a meltdown you might not even recognize the pokes they have been processing all day long because you don’t even feel them.

But our Autistic neurological wiring is more like your gums. Except not even that predictable. Some of our senses may be “hyporesponsive” and we need to stimulate them to be aware that they are even functioning. Some of us spin around or pace in circles. Some of us move our hands or fingers in ways that make us feel better. Some of us blast loud music with a heavy bass and drum component to it. Some of us rock back and forth. Our wiring demands more input than the world’s regular pokes can give us.

Some of our senses are “hyperresponsive” and we need much less stimulation. Life’s pokes are like fingernails grinding into our gums and we need to make it stop because we cannot bear the pain. Loud sounds or high-pitched sounds get to some of us. Others are overwhelmed by the struggle to understand speech when more than one person is talking at the same time. Some can’t stand textures of fabrics or foods.

Most people I know are a complex mixture of hyporesponsiveness and hyperresponsiveness. Most people I know have some senses that are both hypo and hyper responsive, changing over time. I can’t give you any single idea of a sensory pattern for an Autistic neurology because we each have our own combinations of needs.

Normal Human Variation Includes Variant Emotional Sensitivity Levels

But when it comes to meltdowns, it’s not just sensory input (or lack thereof) that will set off an Autistic’s neurological warning system and throw us into meltdown. What inspired me to write about this topic today was reading something I had written a year ago. I spent a few months living in an emotionally abusive situation last year. The man I was living with for a brief time figured out very quickly how to manipulate my compliance triggers. He even commented specifically on how easy it was for him to physically subdue me once he spotted the compliance “fish-hooks” that childhood had left embedded in me.

I’m not going to go into much detail about what he did for the same reason that I shy away from going into much detail about my decade of childhood therapy. I am working on removing those hooks from my flesh. The last thing I want to do is instruct others as to where those hooks are embedded and how to use them to steer me like a puppet.

My point in mentioning the incident at all is that I realized after the fact that my meltdowns had been sending me a very clear message I should have heeded immediately. Instead, I did what I always do: I interpreted my meltdowns as a sign of how damaged I was and how much I needed help to gain self-control. Most of my life, I’ve allowed lovers to convince me to try to medicate my meltdowns into submission. I have hated them because they seemed to illustrate how flawed and awful I was. My thought process went like this: I melt down because I’m Autistic and meltdowns are frightening and horrible and who would want to be my romantic partner? I can’t blame people for treating me badly and wanting to get away from me because look at these meltdowns!

My experience last year helped me to finally realize that I was looking at things backwards.

I don’t melt down because I’m Autistic.

I melt down because something in my environment is intolerable and I am having a normal reaction of pain and/or anxiety. That pain can be from something physical, like an intolerable temperature in the room or a sound that is piercing my eardrums and making me nauseated. Or it can be something emotional, like internal feelings of frustration or external abuse.

Everyone has meltdowns. It’s not just an Autistic thing. But our wiring is different, just like the wiring is different between your thighs and your gums. Some things that make neurotypicals meltdown don’t bother me. A whole heaping lot of things that don’t bother neurotypicals make me meltdown terribly. I’m not deficient in some way; I’m wired differently.

Meltdowns Protect Us From Harmful Situations And People

One of the things I learned last year is that even when I can’t recognize abuse because I have alexithymia, even when I can’t recognize abuse because my compliance training is kicking in full force, my body and nervous system will send me the message with repeated meltdowns.

What I wrote a year ago:

If I have lots of shouting, freak-out, PTSD meltdowns when we spend time alone with each other, yes it’s an Autistic thing. But it also means you’re regularly doing something messed up.

An isolated meltdown could just be a random convergence of awful that has nothing to do with you, but if a pattern develops, you’re probably gaslighting me, mistreating me, abusing me, or generally taking nastily unfair advantage of that same autistic neurology that makes me unable to recognize I’m being abused or mistreated until I see the pattern of meltdowns.

All my life I’ve been told, and believed, that losing my shit was a personal shortcoming I should work to overcome.

I now realize it’s actually my body/brain’s alarm system letting me know something’s seriously wrong in my life. Something bad that needs to be fixed, like yesterday, if not sooner.

I finally realized all this today. Everything suddenly connected.

And in an instant, I no longer hate my meltdowns. I think I might actually love them. They protect me.

So… I still do hate meltdowns. More specifically, I hate having meltdowns. They are hard on me, physically and emotionally. They are embarrassing, messy, frightening.

But I am grateful that my body has a way to tell me when I’m in a bad situation, even if my mind is not capable of figuring it out yet. I vow to respect and honor my meltdowns. This is not the same as excusing my behavior. This is not the same as giving myself free reign to do whatever, whenever.

I still want to do whatever I can to avoid having a meltdown. I still want to work on my ability to detect a meltdown on the horizon and remove myself to safety before things go too far.

But I also vow to listen to my meltdowns and pay closer attention to my triggers. Meltdowns teach me what my nervous system can handle and what is too much for me. Meltdowns teach me how to take care of myself. Meltdowns teach me what my nervous system needs. Meltdowns highlight areas of my life that are not on track.

Sometimes my depression shows me that something is wrong in my life but sometimes depression is just like a wildfire, burning out of control. The same with anxiety. But I have learned that meltdowns are always highlighting something I need to address.

Meltdowns protect me. Some aspects of my neurology make me more vulnerable. Some remnants of childhood experiences leave me more vulnerable. Meltdowns fill that gap and send me messages about my life that can help me protect myself.

While I will never enjoy having a meltdown, I promise I will always value the protective gift meltdowns bring me.

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…’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

Autistic Inertia: An Overview

Mason Dixon Line

Image description: a photo of the Mason Dixon line from about 20 miles away, taken by Sparrow Rose Jones at the Maryland/Pennsylvania border near Clear Spring, Maryland on October 4, 2016

This is a re-blog of a post originally made on January 2, 2013. It has been slightly edited for grammar, clarity, and availability of external links, but not for content.

Autistic Inertia: An Overview

I was talking with my boyfriend yesterday about autistic inertia. I was describing how it affects me and bemoaning the fact that it’s so clearly a real thing that exists but I never see researchers or educators talking about it — just us Autistics. We know it exists, we know it’s a real thing, but it’s not in the official literature and no one is researching it.

After I described it a bit, my boyfriend remarked upon how similar it sounds to what people with Parkinson’s experience. Upon reflection, that didn’t surprise me too much since Parkinson’s is linked to dopamine and I’ve read autism research that talks about irregularities in dopamine and seratonin in the autistic brain. He did a little searching and found a study using Parkinson’s medications on autistic people that reported little improvement. But he also remarked that if the researchers weren’t specifically looking for improvement in autistic inertia, they may have missed some of the effects of the medication.

I promised my boyfriend that I would send him some links to things fellow Autistics have written about autistic inertia. At the same time, I realized it’s been a while since I updated my blog and so I thought I would just share the information here in case it’s helpful to more people than just myself and my amazing boyfriend who is always so willing to go out of his way to understand me better.

The first thing I ever read about autistic inertia was Anna Sullivan’s handout from her presentation at Autreat 2002: Inertia: From Theory to Praxis. Sullivan talks about the different manifestations of inertia and her descriptions make it clear that inertia is not one single thing. From what I can see, there are elements of executive dysfunction, of low energy/hypotonia, and of being out of touch with one’s body and emotions. And this is just the beginning, from what I can tell. One thing Sullivan doesn’t mention, though, is the idea that inertia is a difficulty in “changing gears.” You will see the professionals talking about “gear changing” issues sometimes and that’s a part of inertia, although not all of it.

Also, Sullivan doesn’t mention that inertia in autistics is not dissimilar to Newton’s inertia, in that not only do we have difficulty starting things if we’re stopped but we also have difficulty in stopping things if we’re started. As I told my boyfriend yesterday, when I start researching for a paper, I have a hard time stopping the research and starting the writing. So I will end up with enough research material for seven papers before I ever manage to make myself stop researching and start organizing my material and writing it out. It does mean that my papers tend to be really good since I know far more than I end up putting in writing. But it also means that it doesn’t matter how early I manage to start working on a paper, I will always be scrambling to finish it at the last minute.

Something very important that Sullivan points out is the unevenness of skill sets in autistics. That is, an autistic person might be able to do something easily one day but run up against severe inertia with the same task on another day. Autism isn’t something constant and steady-state but rather something variable, more like multiple sclerosis, fibromyalgia, or lupus. What we can do one day, we can’t do every day. What we can’t do one day, we might be able to do on another. This, in my experience, has been one of the hardest things for people around me to grasp. People seem to expect some sort of constancy and consistency in the people around them and I’m just not able to provide that steady, constant level of skill and ability. Some days I easily “pass” for non-autistic while other days I am quite obviously Autistic, no matter who you ask.

Sullivan ends with a suggested reading list. Since the article is older, one item on the list might be supplanted with a newer book. Sullivan lists “Punished by Rewards” by Alfie Kohn but I might recommend also reading (or reading instead) “Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us” by Daniel H. Pink.

Sullivan mentions a posting from Kalen and it’s really good so it should be on the to-read list as well: Inertia: by Kalen. Kalen writes about inertia from a more Newtonian perspective, including both getting stuck within a task as well as getting stuck trying to do a task. Kalen also mentions how disabling inertia can be in a person’s life. It was a relief for me to read someone else describing inertia that way because it has certainly prevented me from doing many things I really wanted to do and it’s hard not to feel lazy or inadequate about one’s own inertia without the proper understanding of what it really is and what it really means.

Kalen describes inertia as “a combination of attention shifting and motor planning difficulties” which definitely resonates with my experience. There are times when I am only able to act by willing my body to perform and just as many times when I cannot get my body to perform, no matter how much will I exert. When I lose the ability to speak, I can think about the sounds that I want to create. I can think about the ways my mouth and throat and lungs move when I generate those sounds. But I cannot will my body to speak. It is as baffling to me as it is to those around me, but I can think the words — I can even type the words — but I cannot speak the words when I am in a state of “speaking inertia.” Just as there are times when those around me feel I might never shut up, there are times when it seems I might never speak again.

Kalen offers a few suggestions for how to work with or around inertia, warning that not all suggestions will work for all people, nor will a suggestion that works sometimes for someone work every time or in every situation for that person.

Aspergia Jones writes about the idea that autistic “special interests” might actually be a form of inertia in her blog entry on her site, Letters from Aspergia. She talks about inertia as a sort of “stuckness” and mentions how much more we Autistics tend to get overtaken by “ear worms” — music stuck in the head. Or movies stuck in the head. Or anything stuck in the head. I have gotten stuck on a word or phrase and ended up repeating it over and over. In my opinion, yes, “stuckness” is inertia, whether it’s being stuck on a special interest or stuck on song lyrics or just stuck.

In the original version of this blog post, Aspergia Jones posted a comment:

Thanks for the link! You’re right, very very little is written about autistic inertia, even though it really is A Thing – personally, it can be more disabling than the social stuff. I think the research tends to concentrate on the things about autism that are a problem for or seem weird to neurotypical folk, like stimming and differences in social interaction. Things that affect us deeply but don’t affect those around us – like sensory/motor stuff and inertia – get a lot less press.

Although, just as with every other aspect of autism, it is easy to assume that all difficulties trace back to an autistic trait even when they don’t. On LiveJournal, ChaoticIdealism writes about Autistic Inertia & Sleep in a way that makes it clear to me that they are living with Non-24-Hour Sleep-Wake Disorder and assuming it’s actually a manifestation of autistic inertia. I can really relate to that since I originally thought that my own Non-24 Disorder was actually Autistic Burn-out. (That’s a whole different blog entry, but you can read about autistic burnout in Amanda Baggs’ excellent essay Help! I seem to be Getting More Autistic!)

Ali/Eliot writes about inertia and perseveration as two sides of the same coin in his blog entry, Stare Up at the Sky. He talks about how difficult it can be to make decisions — everything from big decisions like buying a new laptop to little decisions like what to eat for lunch. He talks a bit about how his partner, Kitty, does thing to make it easier for him to eat regularly and make other decisions.

This blog entry is no longer available. In the original post of this blog entry, Ali wrote a comment:

The post you’re referencing of mine is a couple of years old, and my thoughts haven’t drastically changed so much as refined a little. Inertia and choice paralysis (which isn’t a term I used in that entry but I think is self explanatory?) also happen for people who are perfectionists–and I’m that, too. The basis is entirely different, at least in me. Autistic inertia is most of what I listed in the post originally: needing external or internal prompting to begin or end a task (or part of a task), where task is a value-neutral word for any possible thing you could be doing. The perfectionist inertia is more about the choice paralysis: you can’t pick which option because one of them will be the wrong option or at least not optimal, so until you have all the data ever you’re stuck. I think my long example in the post about laptop purchasing is actually more related to perfectionism than to autism.

There’s overlap between the two, but thinking about them as separate things has helped me sort out what I can consciously change (the perfectionist stuff) and what I can’t or find very difficult to change (like remembering to eat if I’m distracted). And it’s been almost like there’s inertia about my inertia: when I can handle the perfectionist stuff, it makes it easier to brain together some of the physical inertia or get the song I’ve had stuck for over a week out of my head.

Andrea has a few tips on how to battle inertia in her blog entry Coping With the Inertia of Task Paralysis. But, as a commenter points out: “Great ideas, Andrea, but how the heck am I going to remember to do all that? I have a hard enough time remembering to remember and now I’m supposed to remember the reminders for remembering? Help! I’m trapped in an infinite regress!”

I’m sure there is much more out there on autistic inertia, but the above is a fair introduction to the topic. Please do discuss this in the comments! I really want to hear from anyone and everyone about inertia, whether it’s personal experiences or scientific (or even pseudo-scientific) theories. This is a topic that needs to be understood much better than it is and right now we are the ones hashing the ideas out. It’s up to us to figure out what’s going on and what to do about it.

Thanks for reading and I look forward to hearing from you all!

How Having Savings Saves You

emergency fund

[image description: a red fire alarm box that says in emergency break glass but inside the glass instead of a handle to pull for the fire alarm there is a stack of hundred dollar bills.]

Welcome to the new, permanent location of my blog. I own this domain and have, effectively, done the online equivalent of moving out of the dorms and into my own place. What better way to celebrate than writing what I’m about to write about financial independence.

I’ve written a good bit about preparing your children for the world. It’s especially important if your child is Autistic to prepare them for the world with specific advice about how the world works. So often, we need to have things spelled out for us. We need step-by-step plans. We need to get a peek into the future and know what to expect. I know some of my Autistic friends are great at spotting patterns and protecting themselves, but I, as you probably already realize if you’ve been reading my writing for more than about two minutes, was not so lucky. I learned a lot about how abusive the world can be and I learned it in what they call the School of Hard Knocks. I’m still learning it. I still get knocked up against pretty hard by a difficult world.

Being on disability, I’m not permitted to have savings. I’m going to explain to you now why that is so dangerous. It’s going to scare you. It should scare you. I hope it scares you into action. The ABLE Act is great and will help a lot of people, but there are restrictions (and that’s why I wrote last year about the importance of saving every scrap of documentation of disability while your child is young.) The ABLE Act is a new law that allows disabled people to have savings accounts (a single 529a savings plan of up to $100,000, permitting donations of up to $14,000/year), to be used for specific purposes, without losing disability benefits. That’s huge and could affect nearly 6 million disabled people, although it’s only begun being implemented in a few states so far. But the catch is that you have to have a disability onset before age 26. And, more than that, you have to prove that date of onset and get the government to agree with your proof.

My age of onset is long, long before age 26 and I have documents from age 19 that prove it…or should. The government has looked at my paperwork, documenting institutionalization for the same disability I’m currently collecting SSI for having, and declared that it doesn’t count. So I can’t use the ABLE Act to build a savings account to save me in case of disaster and I can’t switch to SSDI Adult-Child benefits (which would increase my income and put me under a much less draconian set of rules than I currently live under on SSI.) I’m working toward becoming self-supporting, but I’m nearly 50 now and still barely earning any income. There’s a strong chance I may never achieve my goal of self-sufficiency and may never live at or above the poverty threshold.

But I digress.

Today I want to talk about why it’s so important to create a world where disabled people are able to have savings. And I want to start with a Reddit thread that’s in the process of going viral.

A friend on Facebook shared this link. I’ll give you the link but I’m also going to summarize it for you because it’s a long link (and I do recommend reading every single comment on it if you do go there. And I do recommend going there. It’s both instructive and amusing–that schadenfreudian amusement of watching an abuser in distress about getting what’s coming to him.)

My Girlfriend Elaborately Made Me Homeless

Here’s my summary of what transpires on that thread: A man hit his girlfriend. She went away for a few days but came back. He apologized. She accepted his apology but lost trust in him (as well she should have.) When they moved from their apartment to a nicer apartment owned by the same landlord, she gave him airy dismissals when he asked about signing the lease and he accepted them because he liked letting her deal with the numbers and money and stuff. She had good credit and his was trashed so her credit got them the apartment in the first place. He didn’t think much of it when he asked about signing the lease and she said, “oh, that’s all taken care of” or something equally breezy.

Fast forward and he’s getting angry again, they’re having “spats” (his word for it) in which the police arrive to settle things. Then one day he goes to work and comes home to find all her stuff gone and a lawyer serving him a document requiring him to move out within 45 days and not contact his (former) girlfriend. He’s distressed and outraged but can do nothing – she has played her hand well and he will be gone and she will get the nice apartment back and go on with her life minus one abuser.

People are, justifiably, applauding this woman’s bold move. She is, quite understandably, a hero in her own life story and a role model. She got out of an abusive relationship without putting herself at physical risk to do so. There’s just one thing: this smooth and bloodless self-extraction is not available to most people in situations of domestic abuse. The woman had a lot of resources available to her that Autistic adults often do not have. And one of the biggest ones? Savings.

This is why I keep telling you to work harder to extend the ABLE Act. It’s great that it helps millions of people. That’s not enough. This is also why I keep telling you to teach your children how to say no and mean it and back up their no with action.

I have a book coming out very, very soon. I don’t have a specific release date, but it’s teetering on the threshold even as I type. It’s called The ABCs of Autism Acceptance, published by Autonomous Press, and I have a whole chapter about the abuse that Autistic people cope with every day. The statistics are so huge, even my jaw dropped when I was researching it and I am hard to shock when it comes to the knowledge that Autistic people are vulnerable to victimization (yes, it’s chapter V in the book. How did you guess?)

Not having financial resources is one of the things (not the only thing, but a huge thing) that keeps us so vulnerable. Even with all my experience and all my knowledge and all my determination for self-determination, I still ended up in a situation in April of this year where I needed the police to come supervise as I left someone’s house to make sure I was able to leave with all my possessions and without being physically harmed. It could have been a lot worse than it was. And I was lucky that I already live in my van because otherwise I might not have even tried to leave, knowing I had no money and no place to go.

In the Reddit thread I’ve linked above, one person wrote a comment in which they included a link to a sort of “choose your own adventure” story about a young professional woman who gets trapped in an abusive relationship and an abusive job due to financial pressures. The story then “rewinds” and tells itself again with the young woman choosing to build a (pardon the language) “Fuck Off Fund” so that she doesn’t get stuck in a sexually harassing job and with a verbally and physically abusive boyfriend because she has savings. She has a minimum of $3000 savings, which is more than I’m allowed to have. The government would cut off my benefits if I had $3000 in savings and I’m not an up-and-coming young professional so that’s a pretty big deal for me. Here’s the story. I also recommend reading it, even though I’ve just given you a pretty good summary of what you’ll find there:

A Story of a F*ck Off Fund

No matter what you call that savings account, it’s a lifeline. It’s a way out of abuse. Autistic people get abused every day: by romantic partners, by landlords, by bosses, by neighbors, by family, by roommates, by caregivers. The list goes on. We are incredibly vulnerable because we live in a world that has kept us incredibly vulnerable. So many of us live on disability income that functions under legislation that keeps us in a child-like state our entire life, stripping our autonomy and self-determination. Another large slice of our demographic are chronically underemployed, struggling to get by on minimum wage or less — and I’m talking about young people with bachelor’s and master’s degrees in this group. The super-successful among us who get held up as cultural icons (I don’t actually have to name their names, right? You know who I’m talking about.) are the exception, not the rule.

We Autistics deserve something better. We deserve a better life. And we deserve a savings fund. Sure, some people will fritter away their money like the first example in the “F*ck You Fund” article I’ve linked above. But for so many disabled people, for so many Autistic adults, it’s not a case of frittering anything away because we don’t even have it to start with.

When you are preparing your child for the world and preparing the world for your child, think about these things. No matter what future you envision for your child, make sure it’s one with an emergency savings fund and protected access to it — protected from victimizers who would try to take it for their own and protected from those who would try to deny your child access to it in times of genuine need.

And beyond that, educate your child to protect them from abusers. Teach them that no means no. Teach them to own their bodies and money and minds and lives. Teach them to be strong and proud. Whether they’re headed off to college and a career or headed into a life of round the clock support, teach them. These are scalable skills that can be tailored to any life, any life situation. The way I use my skills of self-protection as a traveling vandweller will look different from the way an Autistic university professor uses skills of self-protection and different from the way an Autistic living in a group home uses skills of self-protection, but we can all be taught how to own our power and defend our boundaries and protect our lives from the predators that all of us are going to encounter in our lives because Autistic vulnerability does not respect these apparent differences and strikes hard at all of us.

There is so much more I could say about this, but I have a lot to get done today, so I’ll just stop here. I encourage you all to discuss these things in the comment section. Share resources with one another. Get to know one another. I have a wide variety of readers, from fellow Autistic adults to parents of Autistic children and parents of Autistic adults to professionals who work with Autistic people and our families in many different capacities. Get to know each other and talk about this important issue and help all of us move forward when it comes to protecting Autistic lives without removing Autistic autonomy and self-determination.

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