routine

Me Time

Sometimes, I question whether it’s nonsensical to set up my blog posts in the way that I do. For a little glance behind-the-scenes, you should know that I’m currently typing this post out in a separate document, and then, when I finish, I’m going to copy and paste it into the WordPress editor and format it to put on the blog. I realize that I could probably just type my blog posts directly into the WordPress editor, and that by not doing that, I’m probably creating extra steps for myself, but whatever. I have all my blog posts saved and sorted by date in a folder of Google Docs, and at this point, I’m not going to change up the system.

Anyway. None of that really matters, but I was just thinking about it as I went to open this document and start writing the post. Hello, and welcome back. I’m sure you’ve missed me, even though I was here last Tuesday right on schedule. Last week’s post was a little bit off the rails, so I apologize for that. Although I have a slightly clearer idea of what I want to say this week, I’m not sure how coherently it’s going to come across. We’re going to give it our best shot.

So I seem to have fallen back into yet another rut of executive dysfunction, which is a topic we’ve been visiting more and more on this blog, it seems. I think that the past couple of years— by “couple” I mean two or so— have really opened my eyes to the significance of executive functioning difficulties in my autistic life. As I say pretty much constantly on here, writing this blog has been an exercise in discovering more and more how much autism affects my life, and the extent to which autism is responsible for my many personal difficulties which I’ve never been able to explain.

Executive functioning has always been a huge struggle for me, and I’ve given you plenty of specific examples to show you how and why that’s the case: from my summer research job to struggling with schoolwork deadlines to the way I need to structure my life with to-do lists if I want any hope of ever getting anything done. Executive dysfunction, to define it in layman’s terms once again, is the struggle to ‘get things done’ experienced by many people with autism or ADHD. It can make us seem ‘lazy’ or ‘unproductive’ from the perspective of a neurotypical observer who doesn’t understand how our brains work. It’s an incredibly difficult thing to live with, and mine has become increasingly worse as I’ve gotten older and taken on more responsibilities in my daily life. I maintain that executive dysfunction will likely be one of my biggest difficulties in the ‘real world,’ for the rest of my life.

So why are we addressing this topic yet again? I’ll admit that one of the difficulties with addressing the same topic over and over on my blog is that I kind of fear sounding like a broken record. The good thing about this is that me revisiting executive dysfunction over and over kind of does show you just how much it affects my life and causes me difficulty. I want to take a slightly different angle today, and talk about the concept of “me time.”

From when I was much younger— the first time I can remember these sentiments popping up was probably around when I was in middle school— my mom has expressed that she feels that me having too much free time isn’t good for my mental health. In other words, from my mom’s perspective, I feel worse mentally when I have too much time on my hands. My mom’s rationale is that too much free time makes me bored, and when I get bored, I have a tendency to stew in my own emotions, and from there, I wind up upsetting myself by getting anxious or depressed about something. Her proposed solution has always been that it’s better to keep myself busy.

All of this is true, and I acknowledge it. But knowing this about myself has always created an interesting dilemma for me: because I really enjoy having free time, even though I know it’s damaging to my mental health. I think the reason that free time is damaging to my mental health is because of executive dysfunction. This is a connection I haven’t been able to make until very recently, and it’s helped me understand some things which were difficult to explain prior to this revelation.

As you might be able to imagine, the reason I’m writing about this at this particular point in time is because, for the past month, I’ve been on winter break. Winter break means no schoolwork, and even though I have been working on a research project to keep myself busy, I find myself with an incredible amount of free time on my hands as compared to when school is in session. With this time, I have the opportunity for “me time”— free time that’s open for filling with the things that I want to do.

Here’s the problem, and here’s what I’m getting at with this entire digression. Executive dysfunction doesn’t just apply to things that I have to do. It applies to things that I want to do or can do, as well.

In other words, executive dysfunction with something like schoolwork is pretty straightforward. From the outside, it looks like procrastination. On the inside, it’s a crippling lack of ability to start a task, which inhibits my productivity and causes me to work much more slowly than I would be capable of working if I weren’t experiencing executive dysfunction in that moment. It comes in waves, and I work very well when I’m not experiencing it, but when I am, working toward something like a schoolwork deadline is an incredible struggle.

But executive dysfunction doesn’t discriminate between official things like school assignments and things that I’m doing just for the heck of it. And when there isn’t anything ‘official,’ like schoolwork, on my to-do list, I have the opportunity to do things just for the heck of it. This mostly means hobbies— I’ve mentioned before that I’ve always done creative writing as a hobby, and I’ve recently gotten into really amateur painting as well. I enjoy both of these things, and they’re relaxing and fulfilling. The problem is that executive dysfunction can get in the way of me enjoying them.

For example, I’ve had plenty of free time over the course of this winter break, during which I could have been working on my creative writing. While I’ve done some writing, I haven’t done nearly the amount of writing which would correspond to the amount of time that I’ve had available to be doing it. This is due to executive dysfunction, and it’s upsetting and frustrating, because once I go back to school, I’m not going to have nearly as much free time to spend on hobbies like writing, and I’ll be upset, because I’ll feel like I wasted the time over winter break which I could have spent writing.

This is how I can lose entire days when I have nothing to do, and this is the reason that my mom says I don’t do well when I don’t have a lot on my plate. The issue is that when I do have a lot on my plate, there’s a reverse, equally upsetting effect on my mental health, which is burnout. As an autistic person, I’m stuck between really wanting free time and knowing that it comes with a price of executive dysfunction, and packing my schedule so that I won’t experience as much executive dysfunction, but knowing that it will burn me out mentally.

The struggle is as follows: When I’m busy, I find myself wishing, “If only I had free time so that I could do my hobbies and the things which help me relax.” Once that free time comes along, I can’t even do those things, because I have a mental block. Then I get busy again. The cycle repeats.

Like I said earlier, executive dysfunction comes in waves. I have good stretches, which sometimes correspond with my school breaks, during which I feel like I’m spending my free time in a way that’s very fulfilling, and those are really nice. I also have terrible stretches, where I waste away entire days doing next to nothing, because that’s how executive dysfunction works. If this post hadn’t made it abundantly clear already, I’m having a pretty bad winter break when it comes to executive dysfunction. It isn’t bad overall, but it’s definitely been bad in terms of wanting to spend my free time in a more fulfilling way and not being able to do so.

I’m honestly tired of trying to make this sound better than it is— for example, even as I’m writing this post out, I’m reasoning with myself that at least I got my blog post done today, so I can’t count the day as completely useless, but I wish that getting a stupid blog post done wasn’t something that I felt like I had to count as fulfilling because I know I’m probably going to do next to nothing else today. You could argue that I could try to force myself to ‘do something else’ today, but when experiencing the kind of executive dysfunction that I’ve been struggling with lately, trying to force myself to do things doesn’t even feel fulfilling. It’s so hard to explain, but I know that I hate it, and I wish that there was a switch to shut it off.

I hope that this post has given you an idea of this constant struggle for me between the idea of not wanting to feel burnt out by my own schedule but knowing that too much “me time” is a recipe for disaster. I’ll never really have the chance to experience this normally, because that’s how being autistic works, but maybe someday, I’ll have better methods to cope with it.

Here’s where else you can find me.

Next Time: On antagonizing people on purpose.

mental health, the real world

Broad Anxiety

One thing I’ve learned over the couple of years that I’ve run a daily blog is that I sometimes put myself in a situation of writing about a topic that struck me a few weeks prior, due to the nature of my post topics schedule. This is kind of hard to explain, but easy to demonstrate: for example, I wrote a post this past fall about a friend’s kindness toward me in a sensory situation which had been based on a specific incident, but I had already scheduled posting topics out so far that by the time I got to writing about that on the blog, it had been a few weeks since the actual incident took place. This, ultimately, doesn’t really matter— because with the way my system works, I schedule ideas for post topics out on my ‘calendar,’ and they get written about sooner or later— but I thought it would be a relevant preface to today’s post, since I’m in another one of those situations.

To be more specific, the thing that was bothering me when I decided I was going to write a blog post about it for this week is no longer actively bothering me, but it’s enough of a factor in my general daily life that I thought it warranted a blog post. We seem to have once again reached the portion of winter break where I find something to be anxious about— see this post, as well as this one, for two perfect examples of past cases of this— and so I’m bringing it to the blog’s attention.

With today’s post, my goal is to do my best to give you an idea of the way an autistic person’s anxiety can compound on itself, and the way that can be completely paralyzing in terms of the way it affects your daily life. I’m tying a bunch of concepts together today— first, the relationship between autism and anxiety to begin with, which I’ve written about ad nauseum on this blog, thanks to the many ways in which anxiety affects my daily life as an autistic person. A second element of this post which I’m really going to try to get through is the difficulty of the autistic need to have a plan, and the way in which that can tie into anxiety when said anxiety is focusing on things that are out of my control. I’ll also try to work in the repetitive nature of cycling in the anxiety process, which can more commonly be referred to as the idea that autistic people get obsessive about particular things that are bothering them and “can’t let things go.”

I recognize that this is going to be a hefty task to undertake, and we’ll see how it goes. But, as is usually the case when I’ve spent a couple of paragraphs speaking in vague terms, it will be difficult for me to continue without making this more specific. So let’s get to the heart of the issue, and we can go from there.

I’ve recently been experiencing a lot of anxiety about the general state of the world. Before I continue, I should note that over the course of the past couple of weeks, I’ve come to the conclusion that the world isn’t ending. Some reading this might laugh and call me ridiculous for even entertaining the idea that the world is ending, since I recognize that this is a dramatic stance to begin with, but others might disagree with me, since there are plenty of people out there who think that the world is ending (based on various things like COVID, the environment, et cetera). The reason I have decided to adopt the stance that the world is not ending is because that helps me feel less anxious. But I should explain why I was thinking about this in the first place, before I continue.

There’s a new Netflix movie which has become pretty popular, called Don’t Look Up, which is basically a satire about modern society and the disregard that people have for issues in the world around them. The premise of the movie is that there’s a comet headed towards Earth which will kill everybody, like the dinosaurs, but the people who discovered the comet have a really hard time getting anybody else (including politicians, who are probably the people the movie makes fun of the most) to care about it and/or do anything about it. The movie was funny and by all reviews pretty good, and I don’t really want to spoil it, but I think I’ve said enough for you to understand why this premise might be upsetting for someone who experiences anxiety about the state of the world.

In the end, this was just a movie. But I can share with you that viewing that particular movie, which, while satirical and fictional, was very reflective of the general apathy that most people have towards current events in today’s society, was something that caused me anxiety and upset me. This was definitely due to my own tendency to worry about things going wrong in the world which are out of my control but can affect me. I think that it’s good that I’m at least self aware about this predicament, but that doesn’t really make it any easier to deal with that anxiety when it comes.

In the broad sense of talking about all the anxiety I experience, I think I could probably sort it into a few categories, or maybe just two: the “specific” and the “broad.” Specific anxiety has everything to do with situations in my own life which are unique and cause me to worry. These situations, even if they don’t resolve themselves right away, are confined to my own circumstances, and are a little bit easier to “deal with,” even if they’re unpleasant. Broad anxiety is about things like the state of the world, or even on a slightly smaller scale, anxiety about the weather (growing up, I was made very anxious by thunderstorms). Broad anxiety has to do with things which I cannot control— although I’ll admit that most anxiety stems from worrying about things out of my control— and often has to do with broader, less concrete issues.

This isn’t necessarily something that is unique to autistic people. People who experience anxiety for any reason are prone to worrying about things, big and small, and many of those people become reasonably nervous about current events. I think that the age of information has caused us to become so over-saturated with news, the majority of which is negative or at least divisive, that we have a tendency to become at least discouraged or sometimes anxious about the way things are.

As an autistic person, I struggle with anxiety about things that I can’t control. I think watching a movie about the end of the world recently didn’t necessarily make me think that the things in the movie were going to happen, but it caused me to reflect on the fact that if bad things were to happen in the world— which they do, every day— there is little control that I have over those situations. In less complicated terms, I refer to this problem as myself “not being able to handle things.” I think that it would be a mistake to neglect the relationship between autism and this issue.

In the end, this is just a case of applied anxiety. It’s already abundantly clear that autistic people experience anxiety at a higher frequency than neurotypical people do, so it follows that this anxiety would focus on particular things, and the state of the world is just one such thing. This was particularly prominent for me recently because watching that movie caused a general anxious spiral in which I decided to convince myself that the world was ending and that there was nothing I could do about it. Again, this wasn’t a case of me deluding myself into thinking that the specific circumstances of the movie were coming true, but that other things were causing the world to end, and I was basically paralyzed with fear for a solid three or four days to the point of not being able to sleep at night.

So the bottom line here is while I’ve decided to accept that the world is not ending, I do know that it’s changing, and that things happen every day which are out of my control. These are the ways in which autism and mental health affect my daily life, and even though I know this post has sort of been a lot of jargon, I hope it helps you understand the real and crippling way in which anxiety (and other mental health issues associated with autism) can inhibit my quality of life.

I hope that you’ve learned something here— but if not, that’s okay. I’ll see you next week for a more coherent post, and here’s where else you can find me in the meantime.

Next Time: The struggle with “me time.”

college, routine

2021: in review

I can’t say that I’m completely motivated to write this blog entry right now, but I really should get going on it, considering I’ve spent most of my morning thus far doing other things in an effort to procrastinate. Given that the day is passing me by, I should probably just suck it up and write this, so I won’t have it lingering on my list of things to do. One thing about writing a blog is that some weeks are a lot easier to get a post out than others, and I think I’m in lazy mode— which I blame on winter break— so here we are, in a bit of a blogging lull. You’ll have to forgive me.

Either way, though, it’s time for a post. We’ve arrived in 2022, and already, in the first four days of the year, I’ve made it a goal of mine that I’m staying as positive as possible. For today, though, we aren’t going to focus necessarily on my goals for the upcoming calendar year but rather the one that just finished. We’ll have time to talk about setting goals for this year— and in particular, for my last semester of college— at a later date. For now, the time has come for the year-in-review post.

If you’ve been with me for awhile, you’ll know that I’m relatively notorious on this blog for “things in review” posts. Recently, I did the fall 2021 semester in review, which I normally do when my finals end in December, and I also sometimes do summers in review. I got to review 2019 and 2020 on this blog, and I also did a weird New Year’s resolution post at the start of 2019 which I completely forgot that I wrote right up until I went searching through my post archives for the purposes of writing this post. Typically, in the end-of-calendar-year posts, I try to focus on a general summation of the year that’s just gone by. It probably goes without saying that writing a post about a year in review could lead me to go on various tangents that don’t have to do with being autistic, so I’ll try to stay on task here.

My 2020 in review post was very much oriented around the whole pandemic thing. This was for very obvious reasons. I did a lot of despairing, especially in the early days of COVID, about how the changes to school, daily life, and society in general were throwing off my sense of routine as an autistic person. I didn’t do this in a way where I was seeking some kind of special sympathy, because I know full well that the pandemic has affected everybody, not just autistic people. I think my extensive lamenting about all the changes of 2020 was more my way of trying to show the readers of this blog what the pandemic looks like from an autistic perspective. In other words, I was applying the theme of this blog— autistic experiences, particularly with regard to attending college— to the real circumstances playing out in the world.

Because the pandemic is still going on— in fact, as we speak, I’m sore in the arm from getting a booster shot— I’m not going to write my 2021 in review as if COVID stuff wasn’t a factor in life. With that being said, I am going to do my best in this blog entry not to make it entirely about COVID. With the loosening of restrictions on my college campus, some old routines in the broader world being restored, and the fact that summer 2021 was probably the best things have been in my area since before COVID started, I acknowledge that the pandemic is changing in nature, and that things are slowly getting better. I’m not going to pretend like it’s gone, or that it isn’t affecting my life and routine. I’m just also kind of tired of thinking about it.

So with all of this rambling aside, let me try to take you through 2021, from the perspective of an autistic college student.

The first thing I’ll say is that 2021 was not bad, but was, at points, kind of weird. I think I learned firsthand this year that growing up and moving towards adulthood as an autistic person is something that makes me anxious and uncomfortable. I started 2021 as a junior in college, and now, in the first days of 2022, I’m preparing to start my final semester of college as a senior. I wouldn’t even say that I feel like 2021 went by particularly quickly, at least not when stacked up against other calendar years, but the semesters of school within 2021 did go by quickly. If I had an explanation for this, I would provide it, but I think that time just feels like it’s moving more quickly when school is in session than when it’s not, because I’m busier.

The spring semester of 2021 was definitely better than the fall semester of 2020, and the last two or so months of the spring 2021 semester were the reason I felt like my junior year wasn’t a total bust. I really branched out socially at school towards the end of my junior year, which I count as a win. I spent my entire freshman year as something of a social hermit, bent on the cynical idea that friendship was a myth, and then, by the time I was finally coming out of my shell sophomore year, we all got sent home, and that sort of stunted my social growth. I would consider the spring of 2021 to be the point at which I finally caught up with myself from before COVID, and got to a level of sociability which I considered an accomplishment. This was partly due to me gaining more social self-confidence, and partly due to other people including me.

So all of this is a really long-winded way of saying that I think I had a lot of social growth in 2021. The fall semester that just finished was an opportunity for me to build on the social growth which I experienced in the spring, and I would say that went pretty well. I still struggle with being socially drained, and I’m not going to pretend like me leaving behind the life of being a hermit means that I am now a social butterfly, but I think it’s good that I no longer lock myself in my dorm room while I’m at college.

In terms of academics— lest we forget that attending college is, in fact, for the primary purpose of taking classes and getting grades— I would consider 2021 a really good year. Both the spring 2021 and fall 2021 semesters were academically successful for me, and I’ve built up a streak of continuously topping the previous report card every time a new term comes to a close. I’ve done a lot to prepare myself for graduate school, which is my next step after graduation, and I’ve also done a lot of personal research.

In terms of what 2021 was lacking, I would say I didn’t take as much time for myself as I would have wanted to. This isn’t necessarily because I was extremely busy— although I did take on a lot of new responsibilities this year— but more because I was experiencing some form of emotional burnout which kind of stunted my ability to sit back, relax, and just do some random hobby or something. I’ve written before on this blog about how I really enjoy creative writing, and 2021 wasn’t a very good year in terms of taking time for that hobby. I’m hoping to get back into writing in 2022, so we’ll see what happens. I’ve always regarded time dedicated to my hobbies as a sign of how my mental health is doing, so taking so little time for myself this past year wasn’t exactly very reflective of a good mental state.

Does that mean I think I’m doing badly, mental health wise? Well, not exactly. As I sit here and write this post, I acknowledge that I’ve felt better than I do right now, but I’ve also definitely felt worse. My young adult life has been a constant struggle with managing my mental health, which I consider to be one of the foremost challenges of being an autistic person. I don’t think that I’m at all an expert on how to deal with mental health struggles, even with all the soliloquizing that I do on this blog about how much I’ve learned. The bottom line is that this is something I’m still working on, and I’ll probably never fully understand. I don’t think that 2021 was a complete failure with regard to my mental health, but I think I could have felt better than I did. I also could have felt worse.

I think that, especially in the case of reflective posts like this one, I think subconsciously a lot about the notion of “surviving” versus “thriving” as an autistic person in college. I would say that, in 2021, I thrived in some areas but only survived in others. Academically, at this point in my college career, I would say that I’ve been thriving, and maybe I’m even moving toward a point where I could say I’m socially thriving as well. I don’t think I’m thriving when it comes to my mental health, but then again, I think the idea that a person living with autism in a neurotypical world can be thriving in all areas a hundred percent of the time is really misleading. As I prepare to start the last semester of college, I have to acknowledge that the way I’m doing is the way I’m doing, and I have to take myself as I am rather than beat myself up for the ways in which I’m still struggling.

The scariest thing about looking toward 2022, by far, is the fact that 2022 will entail an incredible amount of change for me. I graduate in May, and from there, I’m going to be getting my first real taste of “adult” life. I have to face being an autistic adult in 2022, and there isn’t any more delaying of that fact. I’ll talk more about those next steps at a later date, but it’s anxiety-inducing as someone who clings so strongly to my routine to know that, just as I’ve gotten “used to” college life, everything is once again going to change.

For now, though, I think I’ll leave you with all of that reflection. I hope you’ve found something useful within this post, but I won’t pretend to believe that this is the most coherent thing I’ve ever written. My apologies— and I’ll try to do better next week. Here’s where else you can find me.

Next Time: Managing anxiety about things out of my control.

social

Emotional Hypersensitivity

And just like that, we’ve arrived at the final blog post of 2021! I don’t really wish to talk about the fact that it’s already the end of 2021, nor do I really wish to talk about the fact that it’s about to be 2022, either. If you know me, you know that my tradition around New Year’s is to do a calendar-year-in-review post, so you can expect that next week. But for now, I’m going to stick to my willful ignorance, and pretend like the end of the year isn’t fast approaching. We’ll do more boring, reflective stuff at a later date. Next Tuesday, to be more specific.

Today, I want to talk about something which has been on my mind quite a bit recently. I feel like a general trend of this blog is that I write about learning something new about myself all the time— in other words, writing this blog has helped me understand a lot of things about myself which I didn’t previously realize were related to being autistic. The type of post I’m going to give you today sort of falls under that “didn’t realize it was an autistic thing” category— other, similar posts I’ve written within the past few months include my experiences with meeting new people, being a picky eater, and really needing to have a plan. In the cases of those three example posts, it’s not even that I was completely unaware that these things were related to being autistic prior to doing enough reflection on them to write a blog post— it’s more that I didn’t realize just how much my autism affects me in those specific situations, and the extent to which I can chalk up a lot of difficulty to the struggles associated with autism for the respective issues.

I guess that’s kind of a wordy way of saying it, but my point stands: this blog has led me to discover more and more things about myself which can be explained by acknowledging that autism is a complex disability which affects each person who lives with it in various and difficult ways. No two autistic people experience its difficulties in exactly the same way, since, after all, no two people are the same to begin with, but a lot of challenges associated with autism do share similarities between one autistic person and another, and recognizing those challenges is something which can help autistic people feel less alone in their already-difficult experiences.

All of that is a preface to what I’m going to say in this post, but I felt that it was an important point to harp on, because I’m once again citing an area of my life in which my autism affects me profoundly and noticeably. For what it’s worth, this particular issue is something which I’ve often attempted to ‘brush off’ or ‘get over,’ and it’s only recently that I’ve started to realize that the reason it’s so difficult to do that is because it’s ingrained in me as part of autism.

So what am I talking about? Well, to finally get specific, I’m talking about emotional hypersensitivity. Note that I’m using yet another semi-clinical term which I taught myself recently as part of trying to learn about the way my brain works (I did this earlier in the fall as well). I’ve skated around this subject in the past, but never exactly dedicated an entire post to it. Usually, when I talk about emotional hypersensitivity, I’m doing it in the context of a discussion about my mental health, like this one from last school year. Today, I want to have this conversation in a slightly broader sense.

What, exactly, is meant by emotional hypersensitivity? Well, it’s really not that complicated: autistic people, myself included, are prone to feeling emotions in an extremely intense way, to the point where an emotional experience which a neurotypical person might be able to ‘get over’ or ‘brush off’ is enough to ruin an autistic person’s mood or even their day. As is usually the case when I’m trying to define a new term, it’s going to be difficult for me to continue this discussion without getting into specifics.

I acknowledge that I’m an extremely sensitive person. I think that previously, I recognized emotional hypersensitivity in myself as me feeling all emotions very strongly, which I would still say is accurate— I struggle to make sense of my emotions to begin with, and as a highly emotional person due to being autistic, I let my emotions affect me to the point where it can inhibit my social and functional abilities in daily life. I consider this a separate issue from mental health, although mental health can certainly come into play here as well— I’m prone to depression and anxiety, which can both get intense and mentally taxing, but I don’t really consider those things ‘emotions,’ so I’ll leave that out of the discussion.

So removing our conversation from a.) the mental health terms, and b.) the broad idea of feeling emotions in a stronger way than neurotypicals are accustomed to, I can get a little more specific about emotional hypersensitivity in daily life. I’ll now bring in my example. I’ve grown up in a family where it’s very normal, and very common, to poke fun at each other in a completely harmless and benign way. I’m talking about typical teasing exchanged between family members, and everybody in my household does it, myself included. Since being home from college this winter break in particular, I’ve realized that I am extremely sensitive to this teasing, despite knowing that it is done in a playful way between family members, and that it is not malicious in any way.

For example: I routinely snap at my younger brother because of jokes he makes at my expense. He does not do it out of a genuine desire to upset me, but because joking around is standard in our family, and always has been. I do the same to him, but unlike myself, he is able to take the teasing, and does not react in a sensitive way. I’m a different story. I’ve been known to ruin entire family dinners because I can’t take a joke. This is an experience which is frustrating not only for me but for the rest of my family, and no matter how hard I try, I can’t make myself be less sensitive about it. It’s only recently that I’ve realized that this hypersensitivity is an autistic trait.

Another clinical term which I have seen used to describe this and similar experiences is ‘rejection sensitive dysphoria.’ While I’m less familiar with this one, it’s used to describe the heightened emotional reactions that autistic and other neurodivergent people often have to certain social interactions. Here’s a quote from a health website to help me define it: “[Rejection sensitive dysphoria] is characterized by extreme emotional sensitivity to being criticized or rejected, whether real or perceived.” Most common in individuals with autism and ADHD, this particular condition can often present as what most would consider unreasonable emotional sensitivity, and it can lead to social alienation and/or judgement.

The difficult thing in specific situations, like me socially clashing with my own brother because I can’t take a joke, is that I don’t want to react the way I do. There is only a certain amount of control which I actually have over the way my autism affects my emotions. I can’t just choose not to feel something, and expect that I’m not going to feel it. It’s extremely upsetting for me when I know that I’m having an unreasonable or adverse reaction to something, and that I can’t just turn it off. This makes the entire experience all the more difficult— because I’m trying to be better, but I can’t change the way I feel.

The thing is that my family is not going to change the way we talk amongst ourselves just because I am sensitive. This is something I’m coming to terms with slowly but surely, but it does leave me with a question of how I should deal with my own emotional hypersensitivity— besides snapping at people, that is. The fact of the matter is that ‘getting over it,’ for autistic people, is not as easy as it might sound. My brain is literally wired in a way which makes it extremely difficult for me to get over that emotional sensitivity, even though it would be more convenient for myself and others if I were able to do so. As I’ve said many times on this blog, the neurotypical world is not going to adjust to fit my needs— especially when it comes to being too sensitive.

So what do we do? Well, that’s a good question, and one I’m still struggling to answer myself. So much of my journey with this blog has been recognizing that my ‘problems’ are not so much fixable issues but rather clinical experiences which have to do with the wiring of my brain. Because I find it so difficult to ‘deal with’ these ‘problems’ of autism, my go-to strategy is just to force myself through negative and unpleasant experiences. I’m sure I don’t need to tell you that that isn’t exactly a fun way to go through day-to-day life.

But, unfortunately, that is the reality for the majority of ‘higher-functioning’ autistic people. Maybe, at some point, this blog will present you with actual solutions. I can’t promise all the answers, but I can promise an authentic account of my own experiences. I hope this has taught you something, and I’ll see you when it’s 2022.

Here’s where else you can find me.

Next Time: The year in review!

social, the real world

Autism and Pets

To start out this blog post, I’ll have you know that I made my very best attempt to write this ahead of time. I even opened my computer last night, as in Monday night, in an earnest effort to be productive. Seeing as it is now almost 11:00 my time on Tuesday morning, and I am just starting this, we can all tell how that turned out. But I guess it’s the thought that counts.

This is the second week in a row that I don’t really feel like writing this post at the time I’m writing it, but at least, unlike last week, I’m not doing it on a Wednesday night with little to no excuses for being so late. The reason I don’t want to write this blog post isn’t so much because of the fact that I’m writing it— in fact, in classic winter break fashion, I have very little to do, at least if we’re talking about things that aren’t preparations for Christmas. There are plenty of gifts that I could be wrapping for my family members right now— I’m sort of the designated wrapper in my house, except when it comes to gifts that are for me, since I can’t see those. There are also plenty of other holiday tasks that I could be doing. I enjoy holiday tasks, but I quite literally have plenty of time to do those thing, and it is Tuesday.

So in the business of doing the things that I say I’m going to do on certain days, e.g. blogging on a Tuesday instead of randomly on a Wednesday, here I am. The reason I don’t want to write this post has less to do with not having the time and more to do with the content. But I’m the one who decided I was going to write on this topic to begin with, so I might as well get to it.

A warning before I formally begin: this post is about pets, and it will become clear momentarily that I’m writing about this due to the recent loss of one in my family. If you, like me, find these topics upsetting, don’t worry… I won’t be offended if you stop reading. I would probably have to check out myself if I weren’t the one writing it.

The fact is that these things happen, and I’ve thought about doing a post like this for a long time, so here we are. In fact, the reason my post was so delayed last week, and the reason I may have seemed kind of out of it within the writing, was because of this issue. But you’re probably wondering what I’m actually talking about, so I’ll tell you now: last Wednesday night, shortly after I put up the semester-end blog post, my family’s cat passed away. He was 17, and we had known that he was not doing well for awhile, so it wasn’t exactly a surprise, but that doesn’t mean that it wasn’t a really difficult thing to go through.

In this recent, very sad experience, I took the opportunity to reflect on the relationship between being autistic and having pets— especially because said experience was happening in real time at the point of me writing last week’s blog post. Like I said, this is something I have thought about writing a blog post on before, but I think I’ve put it off precisely because I find the topic so upsetting. I’m going to speak in general terms as much as possible, but I think that there are some truths I can really highlight here, to help you understand a little about why autistic people are so often extremely attached to their pets.

Losing our cat last week was not the first time that I’ve lost a pet in my life. When I was in seventh grade, our other cat— who, actually, was the aforementioned cat’s brother— died very suddenly, to the point where it was jarring because no one had expected it at all. This was, of course, very sad for my family, and I was sad, but a much more traumatic experience for me was the loss of our family dog when I was in high school. Like before, it was very sudden, but it was a case where we knew there was something wrong but didn’t realize how severe that something was until it was too late. It was markedly one of the worst things I’ve ever gone through, and to this day, I can’t think of it too much without getting extremely upset.

It isn’t news to me, nor do I think it would really be news to many other people who know a little about autism, that autistic people get particularly attached to beloved pets. I think the reason the loss of our old dog was so deeply upsetting for me was because I had become extremely close with the dog. We had gotten him when I was eight, and I was eighteen when he passed away, so he had been my ‘childhood dog,’ having been in my family pretty much as long as I could remember. I think there is a level of emotional attachment which autistic people form with certain pets and animals which makes it extremely upsetting for us when anything might happen to those pets.

By this, I don’t mean to imply by any means that the loss of pets is not upsetting for neurotypical people. It shouldn’t have to be said that this can be deeply upsetting and even traumatizing for anyone, especially for a child or for someone who has had a pet in their life for a very long time. This is a topic which most pet owners can’t even think about too much without becoming upset, and completely understandably so. But I do think that there is an extra element at play when it comes to autistic people, because of our difficulties connecting socially with other people.

I can’t think of a good example of this off the top of my head aside from myself, but it’s very easy for me to conceive of an example where an autistic person feels that other people don’t ‘get’ them as well as their pet ‘gets’ them. Pets can become sources of comfort, and quality time with them can be a way for autistic people to socially recharge. I use cats and dogs as examples because these are the animals which I have grown up having in my life, but there are plenty of other kinds of pets which autistic people might form strong attachments to. Today, more and more autistic people are also getting service animals— usually dogs— who are uniquely trained to assist autistic people in their day-to-day lives.

I was extremely attached to the dog I mentioned earlier. While many family friends and people I grew up with knew my dog or at least knew of him, none of my college friends got the chance to know him, although I do have pictures of him in my dorm. What most people who know me now do probably know, or at least maybe they’ve noticed it once or twice, is that I carry around “the dog.” By “the dog,” I mean a small, stuffed black lab who looks just like my old dog did. “The dog” goes with me everywhere, and I haven’t gone a day without “the dog” since the actual dog who looked like him died. I think that “the dog” deserves a post of his own, because my emotional attachment to a stuffed animal at the age of twenty-one is something we could definitely get into on this blog, but it’s relevant to this topic pretty directly, so it was worth bringing up.

I miss my cat who we just lost very much, but I think that this has been a bit easier to digest and less traumatic than the loss of my dog in high school, because he lived a long, full life, and everybody knew that he wasn’t doing well. I should mention, while we’re on this topic, that we have another dog today— I wrote about her once, very briefly, when we got her, which was my sophomore year of college. She’s currently in the room that I’m writing this, barking at squirrels. While it was difficult for me to adjust to having another dog who wasn’t my beloved childhood dog in the house, the two years since we got her have helped me adjust to that big change.

I think that, at some point in the future when I decide to write about “the dog,” I’ll have more to say on this topic, and on the idea that autistic people get particularly attached to their pets. For now, I don’t really feel like getting further into this, for obvious reasons. I’m sorry for doing a post that’s on such an upsetting topic, but these things do happen in our lives, and I felt that it was relevant.

I wish you all a merry Christmas, and I’ll see you one more time in 2021 before we’ve reached the New Year! Here’s where else you can find me.

Next Time: On the relationship between autism and emotional sensitivity.

college

Fall semester 2021: in review

So… it’s Wednesday. Not only that, it’s late in the day on Wednesday. I kind of do have an excuse for this, even though it’s not a very good one. I should have planned ahead and written this blog post sometime over the weekend, so that I could schedule it to go up on Tuesday, but other things got in the way, and then I was on a small trip from Monday until earlier this afternoon. I meant to write this right when I got home today, but it’s been a bit of a rough night, so here we are. I’ll try not to let being tired from travel and/or being sad inhibit the quality of this blog post, since it’s supposed to be a pretty big one.

Well, okay. ‘Big’ is a subjective term. This is a post that I’ve actually written three times now, if you count today, and it’s going to be the last one of its kind, since I don’t have any fall semesters of college left. I thought, when I started this post, that I had written a fall semester review post my freshman year, but I guess I wasn’t doing them yet back then. Nonetheless, we did this my sophomore year and junior year— and now we’ve come to senior year. Given that I am now at home for the Christmas/winter break, and that the semester of college has come to a close— grades and all— it is time for the fall semester in review. I apologize that it’s coming to you a day late.

Actually, if we want to get technical about it, this is the one-week mark in terms of time since I finished the semester. At this time last week, I was just getting through the door after coming home from school. I had the last of my exams at 1 PM last Wednesday on campus, and after that, I packed up the things I would need from my dorm over break, drove across the city I go to college in so I could be at my church job for 5:30, and then drove home after that. It was snowing a little, but not that much. I recognize that I’ve never actually talked about my ‘church job’ on this blog before, but all you really need to know is that I started a church music job this past semester, and it’s relatively inconsequential to the story besides that. Anyway. The point is, my semester finished a week ago today, and I was getting home right around this time last Wednesday.

This means that when you last heard from me, I was in the midst of exams, but I didn’t really talk about exams then, because I knew that I was saving that for this post. The report on my end-of-semester exams is not necessarily interesting. I took them, and I did well. This was the academic capstone on a long semester of work, some of which you heard about due to me having an executive dysfunction crisis over one of my two senior theses, and also when I had to do a stress check because I was so generally overwhelmed with my schoolwork. I had had a feeling, going into it, that this semester was going to be a lot of work academically, so there was no real surprise there. I feel like next semester is going to feel a lot easier on that front, because I’m not going to be actively responsible for completing two 30-page papers while also doing all of my other schoolwork and various activities.

So it was a lot. But I also finished strong. I really don’t try to disclose specifics of grades on this blog, because I think it’s pretty much irrelevant to what I’m trying to do here, but I will share, because I’m proud of it, that this was my best semester for grades thus far. I’m hoping that I can match it next semester, because that will mean I can graduate in particularly good standing, but for now, I’m taking the victory of this semester for what it is.

As a general review of the semester, I can say this much: it was definitely better than last fall semester. Last academic year, in general, was not the best, but spring semester was for sure better than the fall, and I would say that this fall semester topped even that spring semester. I can’t pretend that a lot of this has to do with COVID stuff, because it does. My junior year was pretty terrible in terms of limitations on my college experience due to COVID, which was understandable but still a bummer. I did make some strides my junior year, mainly socially, and that’s a nice thing, and academics were pretty consistent, as I find they usually are just as long as I put the work in. Mental health wise, it was still a tough year.

This semester, I think, was better than that, on the whole. I struggled with some day-to-day stuff, because I’m gradually coming to the conclusion that there isn’t much rest for the autistic person existing in the neurotypical world, but I’m also learning that I can’t let discouragement about things being difficult stop me from having good experiences. I have this tendency to find something small to worry about or focus on no matter what is going on in my life, but when I look back at the way the semester played out, all of my small worries feel kind of inconsequential. Which maybe speaks to the value of worrying about small things in the first place, but then again, I can’t control the worrying when it happens. It just happens. I accept it.

Socially, I think I branched out some more this semester. I remember making a note in my end of junior year post about how I felt like I had spent a lot less time alone in my room in the last few months of school, and I can confirm that I spent even less time alone in my room this semester. I’m finally starting to feel like I have a group of consistent friends who I just do random things with, which is something I’ve thought about a lot lately. I’ve had good luck making friends in college, especially for someone who struggled to make friends in high school, but until this fall semester, I never really felt like I had friends who I saw outside of my various school activities. This isn’t to say that my friends from ‘activities’ aren’t true friends, because they definitely are, but due to my antisocial nature, I tend not to see those people on the weekends or anything. This semester, I saw a small handful of friends pretty consistently in my idle time, and it made me feel a lot less isolated while at school.

I also did a lot of reflecting this semester on the idea that this was my last fall semester of college, and even though that mostly just led to me being sad about having to graduate next semester, it also did help me enjoy the moment for what it is. I’m sure I’ll have more thoughts on this sentiment as next semester plays out, and my imminent graduation gets closer, but for now, I’ll just say that I thought about it a lot.

All in all, I would say that it’s been a good semester. I try not to ‘rank’ semesters against each other, because I feel like that encourages the idea of me competing against myself to have a good time while at school, and I think having a good semester is an achievement all its own. And yes, I know I just spent several paragraphs describing how this school year is going much better than last year did, but I feel like that’s a special case. In general, I think that things are going well for me at college. I think that I’ve come a very, very long way since I started. And I think it’s going to be really, really difficult to graduate.

But for now, we aren’t going to think about that. I’ve sufficiently exhausted myself by writing this, and I think I have to be done for my own sake. I’ll see you next week, but here’s where else you can find me.

Next Time: About autism and pets.

routine

Having A Plan

And just like that, it’s 5 PM on Tuesday. In my defense— and I feel like I’ve said this more times in the past month or so than I would have liked— I forgot that it was Tuesday until approximately five minutes ago, at which point I said, oops, and got my laptop open to start writing this post. To be honest, I’m kind of mentally exhausted right now, but that’s just for final exams reasons, and it won’t take me long to write this post anyway. At least I’m doing this on the correct day. I can say that much.

My apologies in advance, because there’s going to be a slight change of plans for the topic this week. If you were hoping for a post about schooling, which was what I wrote I was going to do today at the end of last week’s post about autism and diet, then I regret to inform you that I won’t be doing schooling this week. It’s true that I very much do want to do some blogging about schools and education with relation to autism at some point on this blog, and I will get around to it eventually. But every so often, it happens that an event or incident happens between Tuesdays that feels very relevant to my autistic experience, and I decide I want to write about it on the blog as soon as possible. That was the case this past weekend, so that’s what we are going to talk about today.

It’s actually kind of ironic that I decided to come right out of the gate and announce that there was going to be a change of plans, because plans are what I’m writing about this week. For what it’s worth, I didn’t start the post that way on purpose. I haven’t written an excessive amount on here about the relationship between autism and ‘plans’— I do have a routine category for posts, but a lot of that has had to do with executive dysfunction and its various misgivings, and not so much to do with the idea of plans. I know that I’ve written a little bit about having a daily routine, and even regimented eating habits, all of which sort of tie into the idea of plans, but I want to get a little further into a broader definition of plans today.

Plans are something which majorly affect my autistic life, and I honestly think that I’ve gotten so used to being preoccupied with planning and routine that it sometimes escapes my notice just how much the idea of plans affects me. You may have heard that one of the major characteristics of autism is liking to have a very specific, strict routine— in other words, autistic people like to have a plan and know that plan for how things are going to go. This applies to the very specific, like a daily schedule, as well as to the broad, like the process of planning out various things on your calendar. Strict adherence to a planned and expected routine is one of the major and most common traits of autism, and a disruption to this routine can mean anxiety, meltdowns, or general emotional distress.

There isn’t really any way for me to unpack this without getting a little more specific. To do that, I can give you a really good example of a situation in which my need to have a plan comes out very obviously. I’ll start by saying that, as I’ve written about on this blog before, my college life has reached the level of predictable where I don’t really experience that many plan disruptions. Sure, classes are cancelled every so often, and extra meetings pop up in my schedule, but everything goes on my desk calendar, and that’s a surefire way for me to know what’s going on in my life at what time. It tells me where I need to be, at what time, and what the plan is. Even with the occasional disruptions to college life like an extra choir rehearsal, a different work shift, or the change in schedule for final exams— all three of which I have experienced within the past week— don’t really bother me, per se, because my college life on the whole is very predictable.

With that digression aside, I’ll get to the example I promised you. A time when I very much show my need to have and know a plan is when I go on vacation. My family has been known to want to kill me in the lead-up to vacations, because I frequently insist on planning out each day of the trip, down to what food we’re going to eat and when. My family doesn’t travel that often, so this isn’t a constant issue in our lives, but when we do travel, I am, put simply, a total pain in the butt about planning things. Autism makes it so it’s almost impossible for my family to “go with the flow” on vacation.

But the reason I try to take such firm control of my family’s schedule when we go on vacation is because I know that, with enough pestering, I can control the schedule, and therefore, no one else is controlling the schedule for me. Something that gives me an incredible amount of anxiety is going on trips where I’m not in control of the schedule, and, even worse, where I don’t really know what to expect. When I went to Spain with my college choir my sophomore year, I experienced some of the worst routine-related anxiety and distress of my life. The trip was absolutely worth it, but I would be lying if I said it was not a major challenge.

Spain was not the first time that this happened, nor will it be the last. I always struggled when I went away on the handful of school trips I did from sixth through eighth grade, as well as high school— although, sitting here writing out this blog post, I’m not sure I can recall going on any school trips in high school that lasted longer than a day. Even day trips, though, give me this same routine anxiety. This upcoming January, I’m going on another trip for school where I’m not in control of the schedule, which will last for a few days, and I’m already stressing myself out about it.

In general, I do not do well when I’m not in control of my own plan. It causes me anxiety, and can lead to meltdowns. I had a meltdown in my hotel room the first night that I was in Spain, and thankfully, my best friend at college— who is also autistic— was my roommate for the trip, and could help talk me down a little, but it was still thoroughly embarrassing. You may ask yourself why I sign up for these kinds of things if planning is so important to me, but I feel like if I let my autism dictate what I can and cannot experience, I’m going to miss out on a lot.

Now that I’ve gone on this lengthy tangent describing the general issue of me and schedules/plans, I can get to the specific incident which inspired this blog post. A major component of my adherence to my own plans is that I get really, really bent out of shape when plans change in a way that’s out of my control. This past Saturday was a perfect example.

For context: I have a job at a church in the city where I go to college. It’s a music job, and I’m assigned to sing at various Masses (Catholic church services). I was assigned for a Mass this past Saturday at 4:00, and when I got in my car to leave campus at 3:30, my car did something weird when starting up, and I didn’t feel confident driving it. I had to call my boyfriend’s family, who were in town for a choir concert we would have later that night, and ask if they could bring him and myself to the church— they were already planning to attend the Mass at 4:00. They arrived and picked us up, and I already knew that I was going to be late, because of my whole car debacle.

Being late stressed me out a little, but it was out of my control, and I was in communication with my boss, so I wasn’t in the worst state of stress. What happened next made it worse. When we tried to drive downtown to get to the church, we discovered that there was a Christmas parade happening, and that many streets were blocked off, which barred our access to the roads needed to access the church. After a series of issues with traffic direction and driving all over the city, we realized that we would not be able to make it to the Mass at all.

Let me be clear before I continue: this was out of my hands, as well as out of the hands of my boyfriend’s family. No one in the car could have changed the fact that the city was ‘locked down’ for the parade, and that we couldn’t get to where we needed to be. The fact remained that my routine and plan for the day had been entirely thrown off. I wasn’t able to make it to the church, by no one’s fault, not even my own, and as a result, I got back to my dorm and had something pretty close to a meltdown.

This is the perfect example of what can happen to me when circumstances outside of my or anyone else’s control change a plan that I had for myself. I think that this incident stuck out to me in particular because it really emphasized the fact that I cling to my routines. This is something that, like I said at the start of this post, honestly escapes my mind a lot of the time, but it affects my daily life in a disruptive and upsetting way. I struggle with plans a lot, and I think the only reason that I don’t get more distress out of this is because, like I said, my college life is pretty predictable.

I could definitely write a lot more about this, but this post is getting long as it is, so I’ll sign off now. Next week, it’s time for the infamous semester-in-review post, because it’s finals right now, hence my forgetting that it was even Tuesday today. Here’s where else you can find me in the meantime.

Next Time: My last undergrad fall semester in review.

discussion, media

Autism and Diet?

This blog post is definitely going to go up a little later than I usually post, but in my defense, I’m late for a good reason. I have spent my Tuesday morning doing something very exciting. This might count as a sort of micro-update to the post I made last week and even this one from awhile back. As of the moment that I am typing this, I have officially turned in both of my senior theses— but with a small caveat, so I can’t really pop any champagne yet. Due to the way my double major works at school, the final draft of my History thesis was due today, so that one is firmly finished, and I won’t have to revisit it. As a side note, that’s the one that I was having a total stress fit over in the post about executive dysfunction from awhile ago that I already referenced above.

So History is firmly and completely done. Which I guess is a good reason to pop champagne. If I even liked champagne. The other thesis, for Theology, isn’t actually completely done, because what I turned in just yesterday was only the first draft, but I’ll count that as a win of its own, because I don’t actually have to do revisions on that paper until after this semester is over. Which it will be, by the way, in eight days. We won’t think about that yet, but I thought this general academic update would be a nice way to start out the post, and to account for why I’m not on the ball posting first thing in the morning like I try to do most Tuesdays.

Today’s blog post actually doesn’t have to do with anything specific to my life at all, except for the way I’m going to introduce it. This came up in class, and I’ll be the first to tell you that autism really doesn’t come up in my classes a heck of a lot, given that what I’m studying is, like I was talking about above, history and religion. I don’t want to disclose a terrible amount of detail about this story, because I have a lot of respect and admiration for the person who made the particular claim that I’m going to dissect in this post, but some context is necessary if I’m going to base an entire post around it to begin with.

So I’ll give you the short version of what happened: earlier this month, a professor said in one of my classes that changing your diet can ‘improve’ autism.

For a slightly more contextual version of events, I’ll share that autism wasn’t the only disorder being discussed in the list of things which a change in diet can help to ‘improve’— but telling you the other things on the list will probably confuse you all the more. If I recall correctly, the list of conditions which changing your diet can help with were Alzheimer’s disease, depression, and autism. I admit that I know absolutely nothing on whether or not diet can affect Alzheimer’s symptoms, but I would not be surprised to find out that the depression one is true. It’s obvious that the way you eat can have an effect on your moods, and as someone who has struggled with depression as a compound symptom of my autism, it makes complete sense to me that a good diet might be able to help with depression symptoms. Obviously, this couldn’t cure depression entirely, since depression— like autism— isn’t something that you can ‘cure,’ but I think that the diet thing sounds at least reasonable as a way to make things slightly better.

Anyway. Onto the main point. I want to talk about this misconception that diet and autism are linked, because the instance in class earlier this month was not actually the first time I had heard that. One of my mom’s friends once told her that she knew someone with an autistic son whose autism ‘disappeared’ once their family switched to the Keto diet. I highly doubt that that happened, but the fact remains that some people think that a change in diet will help autism ‘go away.’ Let’s unpack that.

I don’t usually do this, but today, I’m going to be using actual scientific evidence on the blog. I’ve pulled up an article from the Mayo Clinic to help explain my point. Here’s a quote from a medical doctor in that article:

“There’s no evidence that special diets are an effective treatment for autism, now called autism spectrum disorder.

Autism spectrum disorder is a complex brain disorder that has no known cure. For this reason, many frustrated parents turn to unproven alternative treatments — such as restrictive diets that eliminate gluten and casein — in an attempt to help their children.

Gluten is a protein found in many grains, and casein is a protein found in dairy products. However, there’s little evidence that diet triggers autism spectrum disorder or that restricting gluten and casein improves symptoms. And for growing children, restrictive diets can lead to nutritional deficiencies.”

This article is basically a caution for parents who are considering changing their autistic child’s diet in hopes that it might lessen the ‘intensity’ of the autism. In summary, the claims that diet can ‘help’ with autism are false, because there isn’t any evidence to prove that it can. This scientific truth is clearly not something which a lot of people acknowledge, and I attribute that mostly to the easy spread of misinformation among the general public thanks to social media. If you see online that diet can help with autism, and you’re a parent who is that desperate to help their autistic child have a good life, maybe you’re going to believe that there’s some truth to that, and try it out for yourself.

I think that some autistic people’s initial reaction to the claim that autism can be fixed with diet adjustments would be to be offended, and while that definitely crossed my mind, I’m honestly more confused than anything else by this entire argument. While it’s true that scientists don’t understand all the genetic ins and outs of autism, and that there’s no way to ‘cure’ it (which is a good thing, by the way), it’s clear that autism is a neurological disorder, not a physical one. If we were talking about the ways in which a change to your diet can improve heart health, we would be having a much less confusing conversation.

And look, I get it: the way you eat does affect the way you feel. But autism isn’t just something that you ‘feel’— it’s a disability, and it’s part of who you are. You can’t change the neurological, genetic makeup of your brain, just by switching to Keto or going gluten-free.

The one thing I will say, which maybe adds a tiny bit of truth to the claim, is this. I was talking about this with my mom prior to writing this post, and she pointed out that of course diet can’t ‘fix’ autism, but maybe diet could help with some of the mood issues that autistic people struggle with. Depression is a great example. I already said that it makes sense to me how diet could help with the symptoms of depression. Because a lot of autistic people, myself included, struggle with depression, a change in diet could help to lessen the intensity of that particular aspect of living with autism. This doesn’t mean that the diet change would completely get rid of the autism, but it could help with parts of it. This is the only way that I could see some truth in the claim about diet helping with autism.

Like I said earlier in this post, this is a difficult one for me to write due to the fact that I very much respect and enjoy being taught by the professor who made this claim. To be clear, the professor teaches in a field which doesn’t have anything to do with genetics or neurology, so I chalk up the incident in class to the abundance of misinformation about autism that the general public has access to. I just thought that this would be interesting to bring to the blog because, again, this isn’t the first time that I have heard someone say that, and I wanted to write about it to make clear that it isn’t true.

And hey— maybe you, the reader, have learned something! Regrettably, I’ve timed out on the amount of time that I have to write this post, because I have class very soon and a busy day from that point thereafter. I’ll get back to you next week, when I’ll be in the midst of finals. Here’s where else you can find me.

Next Time: Let’s talk about autism and having a plan.

college, mental health

Stress Check

In the interest of full honesty, I should tell you that my stress levels have been way too high to even think ahead of time about doing this blog post, which means there has been absolutely no prior planning in anticipation of this moment when I am sitting down to write it on Tuesday morning. Last week, I did myself a favor and wrote the post on Monday, ahead of time, but I wish I had had that luxury yesterday. You’ll have to forgive me for flying by the seat of my pants.

Fittingly enough, though, I did plan to write this blog post about my stress levels, and so here we are, starting off the post with a declaration about just how stressed-out I am. I can’t promise you the most coherent blog post today, but we’ve been there before, and we’ll no doubt be there again in the future. It’s been awhile since I did any kind of mental health check-in on this blog, and even though I always feel a little bit like I’m venting when I do that kind of thing, I find that it’s a good exercise in being honest with those who are reading, because I did, after all, promise that this was going to be an authentic blog about life in college with autism.

So without further ado, if it was not completely obvious from the above two paragraphs: I’m feeling pretty stressed out and generally overwhelmed at the moment. But let me dive into that a little, and try to explain what’s going on in my head.

Last fall semester, during what I would now consider one of the hardest stretches of weeks in my life thus far, I hit a pretty obvious mental health low point, which I wrote about openly. I should be clear that what I’m experiencing now, even though it’s happening during a fall semester, is really different from what I experienced last fall. Last fall was a little bit of a train wreck, if we’re being totally honest. This fall has not been one, at all. The truth of the matter is that a lot of the stress I’m feeling, and a lot of the weight on my mental health, is due to pretty typical college student things. Of all the problems a person can have, this is a pretty good problem to have, in my opinion.

Let’s face it: every college student deals with stress. I’ve made the observation over the course of this semester that college students even seem to share their stress, as a collective or community experience— it feels like stress levels ebb and flow throughout the semester based on how busy of a time it is for classwork, and almost everyone feels that stress at once when it does happen. I’m no exception to the rule. I’ve had many times, not limited to this semester, when I am overwhelmed by midterm exams, a lot of papers being due, or a lot of things being on my schedule.

So I’m not unique for having these stressful experiences. Far from it. I think the question I should ask myself as I write this blog is whether autism adds another piece to the puzzle, so to speak, when it comes to being overwhelmed by college. I would be inclined to say that the answer is yes, but I struggle to put my finger on exactly why that is.

It could be that I’m prone to executive dysfunction, so having a lot on my to-do list creates anxiety, because if my executive functioning levels aren’t particularly good on a day when I need to get a lot done, I’m in trouble. It could be that I simply experience more anxiety than your average neurotypical person, and stress exacerbates anxiety. It could be that I’m dealing with all of the normal difficulties of autism combined with added stress from my college workload.

Whatever the reason, I am feeling pretty overwhelmed right now. I feel grateful that, at least, I recognize this in myself, but the difficulty comes when I ask myself the natural next question: okay, so I’m overwhelmed and stressed out— but how do I fix that?

And the answer is that I don’t really know. Just like I was talking about last week, in the case of not really understanding what meltdown recovery would look like for me because I’ve never made space for it in my life before, I don’t know how to ease my own stress, especially because I still have a lot to do whether or not I’m feeling better. The conclusion that would be most obvious would be to say that I won’t feel better until everything is checked off of my list, but that’s an awfully long list, and I would like to believe that I’ll be able to feel better before all of it is done.

To give you an idea of what’s stressing me out at this particular point, it’s been a very, very busy past few weeks. On top of standard classwork, I’m responsible for turning in two senior theses before December 1st, both of which still need some work before they are ready for submission. I took the GRE, a standardized test which is basically the equivalent of the SAT for graduate school, last Friday. My applications for graduate programs are due in January, which is going to require a lot of careful work and attention from me. I’ve been writing music for the music group that I am in charge of, on top of running rehearsals and the normal schedule of things there. I feel like I haven’t caught a break in weeks— and the hardest part is that I’ve honestly felt this way for the better part of the semester.

I don’t want to get too ahead of myself by trying to reflect on the semester, because I have a lot to get through before it’s over— despite the fact that it will be over two weeks from tomorrow, whether or not I’m ready for it to be. But I can say pretty confidently that this has been the busiest semester of college thus far, and though I’ve held up alright for most of it, it’s really catching up to me now.

On the bright side, at least, this is the week of Thanksgiving break. I’m still at school as of now, but I get to go home soon, and classes resume next Monday. This break feels like an artificial time to relax, because I’m still going to have responsibilities looming over me, but I’m going to do my best to enjoy the holiday and try to put those things aside until after school is back in session. With any luck, the Thanksgiving break might be the recharge I need to get through this last stretch of the semester. Something has to give, because I am seriously struggling with the stress.

At least I know that I’m not alone, and that most college students feel this way at one point or another. I do wonder if autism complicates things, and I think it probably does. But at least this is an honest update on where I am at this point in the year, and I’ll keep you updated as things move along. Like I said, the semester will be over two weeks from tomorrow. I’ll meditate on the implication of that some other time.

For now, here’s where else you can find me. If you celebrate, have a happy Thanksgiving!

Next Time: Is autism linked to diet?

mental health

Meltdown Recovery

I’m starting to write this post on a Monday for a change, but I must warn you that pretty much the only reason I’m starting this on Monday is because I know that my week is about to get totally crazy, and if I don’t start now, I’m not really sure when I’m going to have the time to do this. That might be a little bit of an over-exaggeration, because I always try to find the time on a Tuesday to do the blog, but I’ve been thinking about all the things I have to do between now and Thanksgiving break, and, well… let’s just say it’s not a pretty picture.

In fact, in a sort of indirect way, the topic I’m writing about today can tie into that overwhelming sense of stress that I’m feeling. I want to revisit the subject of meltdowns today, something I have only written about on one other occasion. I think that it’s interesting that it took me three entire years of blogging to even bridge the idea of meltdowns, because, as I discussed in that first post from earlier this semester, meltdowns are a pretty major part of the autistic experience which are more or less unique to being autistic (and/or neurodivergent, in some cases).

Meltdowns are also one of the things about living with autism that are most recognizable to an exterior party, in my opinion. I wrote about this one other time besides the post linked above, but in a broader context— it was a post about how you shouldn’t judge distressed children in public, because you don’t know the extent to which a child’s distress might have to do with disabilities, invisible emotional issues, et cetera. In other words, not all crying children in public are brats, and we shouldn’t be quick to jump to conclusions in those situations.

That post was about being able to recognize autistic meltdowns in a public place, and I tried to make it a PSA about withholding your judgement if you witness something that seems like a difficult situation. I should reiterate, especially because I’m bringing that post up again now but also because this post is going to deal with autistic children, that it’s very important to me that I make clear that meltdowns are not something only experienced by children. Autistic people of all ages experience meltdowns, myself included. The post I wrote earlier this semester was about a meltdown that I had, and I have had meltdowns since that point. There isn’t any certain level of “functioning” which denotes that an autistic person does not have meltdowns. Even those who practice heavy social masking and don’t appear to seem autistic, such as myself, are prone to meltdowns when we get overwhelmed.

I’m lucky in one sense, at least— that being that because I cope with my struggles with mental health and burnout in a gradual way, I don’t have meltdowns on what I would consider a regular basis. I have to get really overwhelmed and distressed to have what I would consider a meltdown, but it’s very much a real possibility and not just something that lurks in the hypothetical background. To give you some context, I had a(n albeit minor) meltdown about three weeks ago, because I was feeling really stressed-out about the future after my graduation, and I pretty much thought myself into a spiral until there was no preventing it. I’ve been known to do this before, but meltdowns can be triggered by all kinds of things, not limited to stress. Sensory overload is another thing which can cause a meltdown.

Anyway, I think that’s enough digression. What I actually want to talk about today is an extension of the meltdown topic itself; I want to talk about meltdown recovery. If you’re confused by this term and/or it’s unfamiliar to you, know that I’ve been in the exact same boat as you for most of my life thus far, and I’ve only recently learned what this means and added it to my autism vocabulary. I learned this, of all places, on Instagram, and I will now tell you the story of how this knowledge came to be.

Social media does this wonderful thing (read my sarcasm) where it tracks your interests, and tries to show you content that you will enjoy or engage with based on what it thinks you’re interested in. I’m surprised that I haven’t gotten more content related to autism suggested to me thus far, but I remember really vividly that earlier this semester, I stumbled across a short video that a mom made documenting “meltdown recovery” with her autistic daughter. I have my opinions about parents who put their kids’ entire lives on the Internet, but we’ll keep them separate from this post, because this video actually helped me learn something interesting.

The ‘plot’ of the video was as follows: the mom used an on-screen caption to explain that her daughter had had a really rough day at school, and had to be picked up early because of having a meltdown, and so they were using the afternoon for “meltdown recovery.” The video then went through a list of things that the mom helped the daughter with in order to help her “recover”— such as eating a safe food, sitting on the couch with a sensory-friendly blanket, and watching one of her favorite TV shows. Explaining this out might make it seem like the mom just let her daughter relax and watch some TV to wind down from a difficult day at school, but the context of the daughter being autistic and having had a meltdown recently was really important. The mom placed special emphasis in the video on the fact that all of the things she did to help her daughter “recover” from the meltdown were ‘safe’ things that would ease her daughter’s sensory input, level of distress, and overall comfort. This might be slightly difficult to understand if you are not autistic or you simply aren’t familiar with these elements of autistic experience, but as an autistic person viewing this video, it made all the difference.

The reason I bring this up on my blog today is because it took this video for me to even learn what meltdown recovery is, and that it exists at all. In my life, I have struggled to make room for meltdown recovery after times of great distress, if ever at all. I don’t know that I would be able to pinpoint a specific method I use to help myself feel better after I experience a meltdown, because, to be honest, a lot of how I cope with meltdowns is just to brush it off and hope that I will feel better as soon as possible. While I do have certain things that I would say relieve my stress— for example, I’ve recently gotten into painting as a hobby, and creative writing has always been something that I enjoy as well— those things aren’t necessarily going to be foolproof ways to make me feel better after a meltdown. I speak from experience.

The idea that some autistic people, or families of autistic people, practice meltdown recovery, gives me hope, because I feel like this might be one of the few ways in which autistic people can actually help themselves feel better when things are going tough. I think the difficulty, then, would be figuring out exactly what works for you. Meltdown recovery isn’t going to look the same for every autistic person, and a lot of autistic people— in particular autistic adults— don’t necessarily have the time in their schedule to stop everything and recover when they have a meltdown. My number one thought while watching the video was that I wish I could practice that kind of self-care, but I don’t have the time to do it.

I also don’t mean this post as a criticism of parents of autistic children who don’t use meltdown recovery as a method, because that’s not my intention. After all, my own parents never knew that meltdown recovery was a thing when I was growing up, and I imagine that that is the case for a lot of families. I can pinpoint an example of what might qualify as my mom’s attempt at helping me with meltdown recovery— when I was a sophomore in high school, I struggled with some pretty severe depression, and there was one occasion when my mom let me skip my afternoon activities at school and we went to the store and bought a bunch of snacks, and then I just went home and sat around for the night. To my knowledge, though, I didn’t have a meltdown that day; I was just in a sad state of mind.

I think that when an autistic person has a meltdown— especially an autistic adult who is overly self-aware— there’s a tendency to want to brush it off and feel better, and therefore to ignore the meltdown and not give oneself time to recover. While I know firsthand that finding the time to recover from a meltdown can be difficult, I wonder if dealing with meltdowns overall would be easier if meltdown recovery was something that was encouraged in autistic circles and families. Instead of pushing ourselves through these difficult situations, we should try to give ourselves time to heal from them.

I don’t know yet what would constitute meltdown recovery for me. Like I said, the biggest issue is finding the time to slow down. Unfortunately, meltdowns don’t wait for me not to be busy, and I always seem to be busier than I would like to be anyways. I do think that this is interesting food for thought, though, and I hope I’ve given you something to think about, because the topic has definitely piqued my interest. I’ll see you next week, one week closer to the end of this semester. Here’s where else you can find me.

Next Time: Surviving the end-of-semester stress during the home stretch!