Although the question “what’s it like to be Aspie/autistic?” often rates among the Top 10 Most Annoying Questions for many on the spectrum, it actually doesn’t bother me so much. Personally, I would rather someone come out and ask what’s on their mind, or attempt to open a dialogue of understanding, rather than form and retain their own (often-inaccurate) assumptions about us. It might be an “off” kind of question, but hey–the hopefully-good intentions are there.
I can’t exactly tell you what it’s like to be an Aspie, but I can tell you what it’s like to be this Aspie. I can only speak for myself (I’m just one Aspie and we’re all different), but I know that many of us share some common traits, sometimes in strong patterns. So, who knows? This may help foster understanding for more people than I may realize.
And so, here goes…
I wake up with no trouble, usually anywhere between 1am and 8:30am, in front of my laptop, the TV, and the shining living room lamp, where I’d fallen asleep the night before. The lamp, of course, is only one, and it sits in the corner on an end table, putting out 100 watts of light through an earthtone-colored shade. If I’ve woken up closer to the earlier end of the time range, such as, for example, between 1 and 3am, I might go back to sleep around 5 or 6am…but, sometimes not.
I re-position my laptop and pick up where I had left off when I drifted off the night before, combing through research articles on various subjects of interest. I have been doing this since December 2013 or January 2014. I find it oddly stimulating (both intellectually and emotionally) and relaxing at the same time.
Up until recently, my partner (blessed with a consistent sleep rhythm) would emerge from the bedroom at the last minute, all ready to go, and expecting me to be able to just drop what I was doing and catch up within the next minute or two (note: don’t do this to an Aspie/autistic). Suddenly, I am faced with the burdensome task of finding a Stopping Point.
I gather everything up, go through my Mental Checklist (phone, wallet, laptop, hard drive, supplements, water, and anything I was working on the night before). Drop water and keys. Get mad at self.
I’m the driver for both of us (my partner is legally blind), and I cannot express how much I loathe driving. It’s like being cooped up in a cage in the midst of chaos run by animalistic lizard-brains protected by laws written by and for the lowest common denominator. It’s only a 12-to-15-minute commute, but on a particularly electric morning (such as near a Full Moon), I can end up mildly irritated before I even make my way out of the apartment complex grounds.
We arrive at work, as close to our opening time of 9am as possible. Usually, on my way down the hall, I misjudge the distance between the door frames and the rollerbag I drag behind me. Feel the unexpected jolt backward and the prevention of forward movement. Dammit, what is it this time? Roller bag caught on the corner of the door/wall/etc. Ugh. I’m so clumsy.
The socially-obligatory hellos are almost always awkward; the only variable that fluctuates is the degree of awkwardness. I like who I work with; my workplace consists of my partner, one employee, and one part-time contractor. The employee is new but very nice and comfortable to be around. The part-time contractor is also very mild-mannered and gentle, and has been working with us for more than four years. These are great people with warm and calming personalities. Why the hellos can be so tough had been, up until recently, beyond me. I want to say more, but I know from a long history of empirical data that the more I say, the more awkward I feel. So I try to make up for it with a smile.
Because I’m self-employed, this makes my work week slightly easier. I have quite a bit of say in what I do, and how and when I do it. There’s one aspect that is central to my career that is a major stressor that I can’t change: I have to meet personally with clientele. I don’t have to do this every day, so I have designated specific days in which to do this. Mondays are generally out; anxiety levels tend to run high for me on Mondays anyway, and I also need to “install” myself into the office, get my bearings, check my schedule for the week, and begin to plan my day and the coming week. I also tend not to meet with clientele on Fridays; the nature of my job is chronic-condition-based healthcare, and I’ve had plenty of emotionally painful and mentally fatiguing experiences with difficult or cases or non-compliant clientele on Fridays in the past, and the associated emotional unsettlement that lingered throughout the entire weekend.
On days in which I do meet with clientele, given its anxiety-producing tendency, I strongly prefer to do so as early in the day as possible. I’ve known for years now, that thinking on my feet is not one of my strong points, but if I’m going to do it, I’m best in the morning. Once all meetings have been fulfilled, I can comfortably settle in for the rest of the day and work alone, exploring biological-science-related information in great detail, in an attempt to solve a clinical puzzle. The gamut of emotions is eventually experienced in a typical day, ranging from mild frustration (scientific information isn’t always accessible, or when it is accessible, it isn’t always understandable) to elation when I “crack the case”, meaning to solve said clinical puzzle.
I can “dive in” to this study for hours, forgetting to eat or drink, seemingly “lost” in deep concentration. To be interrupted by anyone in any way elicits intense irritation, because the “task-switching” required in order to attend to the interruption is an overwhelming jolt. Here’s why: when I “dive in” to my tasks, it’s like diving underwater. It’s tough to see or hear anything else. The rest of the world is muted. The descent through the layers of concentration and focus is slow, gradually scaling through the depths of the water, properly acclimating to each level, as the world above gets further and further away. A sudden interruption is like being yanked back to the surface. This is dangerous for an underwater diver; they call it “The Bends” and it can be fatal. When it happens to my concentration in the office, it feels like “The Mental Bends”, and it elicits the applicably intense response. This is why each day, I pray that can work in peace, and a needy coworker or patron may be a great source of irritation. I’m not irritated at the person. I’m temporarily irritated at the interruption. Office communication by email works much better, as does taking a break every few hours. These breaks can last anywhere from 15 minutes to a half-hour. I usually, although not always, need a complete change of scenery; the most efficient way to accomplish this is to go outside and just Be Among Nature for a little while.
Predictably, time passes too quickly for me and before I know it, it’s time to leave the office. In years past, my partner would simply approach me and say, “time to go.” I felt irritation, halfway between resenting being treated like a child and resenting what appeared to me like a lack of regard for my wishes and needs in favor of his. In recent years, he would simply stand in the doorway of my office, not saying anything. This, too, was a mild irritation. It took me a few more seconds to realize he was there, so his presence didn’t pack the same jolting effect, but once I did realize he was there, I felt the obligation just the same: must find another Stopping Point.
The workday is book-ended with my least favorite activity: driving. Again. The effects of driving on me depend largely on the density of the traffic; I enjoy driving in the country on the open road; sitting in bumper-to-bumper traffic is a moderate form of torture. It appears that about 50-75% of drivers are idiots (my numbers are generous, by the way). I have finally convinced my partner to at least wait until after the peak of the rush hour was past, before even entertaining the idea of leaving the office. Despite my clumsiness, I am a surprisingly capable driver with unexpectedly quick, intact reflexes. Music keeps me relatively calm(er), so I have an iPod with over 5200 songs on it wired directly into my truck’s stereo system.
Once we’ve returned, after I have chatted on the phone with any one of the three or four people in my inner circle with whom I had plans to talk that evening, the rest of the night is mine/ours. I change into my sleepwear (yoga pants or sweatpants and a long-sleeved shirt), unpack my laptop, position it in the same place, and grab my cell phone and dinner or snacks (always some form of dark chocolate and typically a fruit-and-vegetable smoothie) and naturally-flavored water. With this in hand (after I’ve dropped a few things a few times or rounded a corner too tightly and hit the wall with my shoulder), I dive for the couch, curling up in my usual position, in the same spot, with the same blankets. Blankets are a must; I need their weight. This also means that I have to keep the air conditioning set a few degrees cooler. My partner assumes his usual spot, too. We exist together comfortably and contently, without any further outside obligation.
We usually decide on a movie or cable TV show (very select, of course). The laptop opens up once again, the TV and cable box come to life, the cat settles in next to me, and everything I had just rounded up is situated in their rightful places around me, within easy reach. It’s time to escape into the warm, familiar ocean that is the scientific research world once again. My partner will eventually make his way into the bedroom, kissing me goodnight beforehand. He knows I won’t be coming to bed. It’s nothing against him. I’m just not ready for bed yet and I don’t want to disturb his sleep. I miss him at night, but I don’t mind being alone. I wonder if he misses me.
PubMed.gov makes a great night-time companion for me. I have significantly less anxiety now that I collect individual research articles of interest and save them to my hard drive. (I did have to get a separate removal hard drive; my on-board hard drive is over 90% full.) I will fall asleep doing that. Often, I will fall asleep so suddenly that it happens while I’m in the process of saving an individual file. I may wake up anywhere from five minutes to eight hours afterward, staring at a “Save As” box.
I’m surprised when people ask, “doesn’t that keep you awake? Isn’t it interfering with your sleep?” This question is so common (OK, maybe five or six times; my circle is purposefully small) that it has almost gotten annoying. The answer is, “no”. Really…no. Why would it? It relaxes me. Relaxing activities facilitate sleep. I know these people mean well; the mild annoyance I feel is nothing personal.
Sleep, by the way, will hit very suddenly, as if someone flipped a switch on my back from “on” to “off”. Its timing is completely unpredictable, however; one night this week, it was 8pm; last “night” it was 4:15am. Often, if I fall asleep earlier (which for me is 9-11pm), I might wake up at 1-3am and be awake until about 6am.
So….do I go out to eat? Occasionally, and preferably during the quieter times between peak times.
Do I go shopping? Grocery shopping, yes, although my husband goes in. I drive, he shops. There’s one exception: if the parking lot is fairly empty, such as on a Saturday morning, I’ll go in myself. (Apparently, I’m not alone! Many non-Aspie husbands do the shopping or otherwise run interference in public for their Aspie wives.)
Do I go to the mall? How emphatically can I say hardly ever? Yeah, forget it. I’d rather stick safety pins in my nostrils. Going to the mall causes an instant neurological “buzz” or “pressure” that quickly mounts to an overwhelming level, which can immediately manifest outwardly as fatigue and frustration.
Do I go on road trips? Yes, at times. Preferably only to rural or remote areas. I find that I need to do this every so often, but the frequency varies.
Do I go out with friends? At times; how often I do so varies significantly, and seems to correlate inversely with my energy expenditure during the week (i.e., the more I’ve had to drive and interact with people during the week, the less likely I’m going to want to go out on a weekend. Weekends are generally the only times during which I’m under zero obligation to do anything and I actually have a chance to rest and recharge). I’ve gone to hang out with a good friend or two twice in one week, or I might not go out (in terms of a purely social situation) at all for several months at a time.
I might, however, take a few hours on a weekend and clean. That is a chore. That is a process. That is an ordeal…which will get its own post in the near future.