Shake It Off: Autistic Traits

As some of you may already know, despite no formal diagnosis, I fully believe that I have “high-functioning” autism. Although this self-diagnosis has given me great comfort, I’m very careful about who I talk about it with. A lot of people don’t believe me and respond with a surprised look. I don’t blame them, before I looked into it, I wouldn’t have believed me either. The way autism is portrayed in the media isn’t the way mine looks. I am able to blend into society quite well. I’m like a duck, gracefully gliding along the water. No one can see how hard I’m actually working just below the surface.

I don’t necessarily want to talk about my autism today. I want to talk about the way I view autism in general. I’m not quite sure how the autistic spectrum was determined. The two ends of it appear as totally different disorders in my opinion. How not being able to speak or live on your own and having trouble understanding social cues can be classified as the same disorder never ceases to amaze me. It made more sense to me when high-function autism was called Asperger’s. Anyway, when I refer to “autism” from here on out, know that I am speaking mainly about high-functioning autism.

I guess I’m biased, but to me, a lot of the symptoms of autism seem to be more natural than “normal” behavior. For instance, I’ve always thought it strange that human beings are expected to make eye contact with one another. In the rest of the animal kingdom, direct eye contact is a threat, a sign of aggression. I don’t blame myself for getting anxious and having to make a concerted effort to look someone in the eye when talking to them. The rest of the natural world seems to agree with me that this is not a great idea.

Another common trait of autism is not quite understanding or falling in line with social customs. However, most of these things have been arbitrarily created throughout the centuries. It seems more bizarre to me that most people appear to have inherent knowledge about these rules of etiquette. How should one be expected to know, understand, and accept things that continue to change throughout history and geography? Perhaps autism wasn’t discovered until recent times because in the past there actually were things like cotillion and other ways in which people were formally educated on how to properly behave in society.

The final autistic trait I’d like to comment on is often referred to as “stimming.” This is when a person does some form of repetitive motion in response to strong emotion, either positive or negative. One of the more common forms of stimming is hand flapping. This is one of the key factors that causes me to believe I am on the spectrum. I have had the urge to do this for as long as I can remember. I remember my mother advising me not to do it and my sister teasing me about it as a young child. Since then, I’ve learned to control this behavior in front of others. However, I still have the strong urge to move or flap my hands after a stressful or exciting event. As a teenager, while sitting on the classroom floor, my friends asked me why I was always rocking side to side while we did so. This was another form of stimming that I hadn’t even realized I was doing!

Even more so than the other things I’ve mentioned, I think stimming is actually a natural, beneficial behavior. I hadn’t realized it until hearing it discussed on a podcast the other day, but animals will often be seen doing something similar. It’s quite normal to see a dog shake their whole body after something stressful or exciting happens. I have seen many different species of animals doing something like this. It is a way to discharge excess energy or stress, a way to quite literally “shake it off.” It even makes me wonder where that expression originally came from. Perhaps I wouldn’t be such a tightly wound, anxious individual if I hadn’t been discouraged from doing this self-soothing behavior by society.

I’ve started to see my autism as something to be embraced, rather than just something that sets me apart from most of the people around me. It makes me feel more in tune with the natural world and other animals. To me, society is what’s strange, not my behavior. I’m simply doing my best to assimilate into this painfully artificial world human beings have created. From now on I am not going to stifle myself. When I have that overwhelming urge to shake, I’m going to shake without shame. I’d much rather fit in with the rest of the animals than humans anyway.

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Emotional Intelligence

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I have always considered myself a highly intelligent person. It is one of the only things that I am proud of. I can feel extremely threatened when this aspect of myself is called into question. Until very recently in life however, I didn’t consider that there are different types of intelligence.

I have a friend whom I believe to be very smart. Yet she never did well in school, and there are some things she’s done or said that normally I would consider quite dumb or foolish. Eventually I realized that while this friend may not be “book smart” she has a high level of emotional intelligence. This explanation satisfied me, and I didn’t think much more about it until years after this realization.

When I ask myself the question “Do I have a high emotional intelligence,” the answer is a resounding “no.” The answer isn’t surprising to me as I’ve never been very good with people or handling my own emotions. I was surprised, however, that I’d never even thought to ask myself the question before.

I was thinking about this deficit a lot today. So I decided to take an emotional intelligence test on Psychology Today’s website. Even as I was going through the questions, I could tell I was not doing very well. My result at the end was only 57 out of 100. A grade I never would have received in school. Unfortunately you had to pay to learn anymore details. But it was enough to confirm my suspicions about myself.

In my opinion, this is yet another piece of evidence that I am on the autistic spectrum. It is hard for me to admit to myself that I have this huge lack of knowledge and understanding. I cannot believe I have gone my entire life without realizing this. Not only that, but I have no idea what I can really do about it. Perhaps this is something a therapist would be able to help me work on somehow.

I suppose at least now I know and can take this into consideration as I go about my life. As someone who has been called a “know-it-all,” on more than one occasion, it is quite humbling to discover this handicap. I hope that in the future I will be able to improve in this area.

Questions

One of the reasons I suspect I may be on the autistic spectrum is my inability to comprehend and/or engage in small talk. Ever since I was a child, it has always seemed boring and nonsensical to me. I didn’t (and still don’t) get the point of saying: “How are you?” “I’m fine.” “Nice weather, today!” Or just asking random, vanilla questions for seemingly no other purpose than to fill silences. I do hate awkward silences, but I seem incapable of generating these space fillers that come so easily to most people.

Part of the reason it seems to be so difficult is because I am not really interested in having those types of conversations. I feel like I’m being phony. Asking people questions I don’t really care about the answers to. It’s like putting on a show. It’s a lot of work for me. It’s tiring. And maybe I sound cold. Do other people genuinely care about the answers to all those generic questions? I’ve just never had any interest in talking for the sake of talking. The silence is only awkward to me because I feel like other people are expecting me to talk. I supposed I quickly got tired of hearing people say “you’re so quiet!”

There are questions I’d like to ask people I don’t know yet. I realize that each of us has our own universe within our head. I am fascinated by the different things people think and their perspectives of the world. I like to know about people’s pasts too and how that has influenced who they became. The problem is, I don’t really know when the appropriate time is for learning those things about a person. I guess that stuff is usually divulged organically through other conversation. But often if I just wait for that to happen I find myself stuck in a limbo of surface level interactions.

I have a hard time remembering to ask questions, because the questions I’d like to ask are too random and possibly inappropriate, offensive, or insensitive. And as I’ve said I feel weird trying to make small talk. So instead I usually end up talking about myself a lot. Sometimes I wish other people would do this too. That way I could know what interests them, what is important to them, get a good idea of who they are. I always get along best with extroverted people that easily fall into talking about all sorts of topics and branching out from there. I’m absolutely hopeless at carrying on a conversation with someone who is quiet and reserved. It’s almost palpably painful for us both. I find myself wishing social etiquette would allow me to just remain silent. I guess that is rude though…

I want to make a list of some of the questions I’d really like to ask of people I don’t know yet. Maybe someone reading this could tell me if they’d be okay to ask or what context I could give them to make them okay. Here are just a few that come to mind:

  1. What is the last dream you can remember?
  2. What is your first memory?
  3. Do you believe in God?
    • Why or why not?
    • How has that impacted your life?
  4. Have you ever done any recreational drugs?
    • What have you tried?
    • What was your favorite and why?
    • Why did you try them initially?
  5. Are you afraid of dying?
  6. What was your childhood like?
    • What is one impactful moment from childhood you remember?
    • How do you think it’s affected you?
  7. How do you see yourself?
  8. How do you think other people see you?
  9. How would you like people to see you?
  10. What is something you’re passionate about?
  11. What was the most difficult time period in your life?
  12. What was the best time period in your life?

These are just the first questions that came to mind. Some seem more appropriate than others, but I wouldn’t know how to sprinkle any into conversation naturally. Maybe you could suggest some more interesting, yet normal questions to help me chat with a new person. Can any of you relate to this type of discomfort? How do you handle it? I’ve definitely gotten better at faking it with time and practice, but I still don’t think I’m a very good conversationalist. I’m not sure that’s really something you can learn.