Thinking upon three autistics, my middle son (age 20), my adult partner, and myself, I came up with this list of eight suggestions for more effectively interacting with our loved ones, friends, and colleagues:
- Having predictability in my day. I do best when I know what to expect. I don’t like surprises of any sort; not even well-planned “happy” surprises. I need time to thoroughly consider and visually walk through what will feasibly transpire in the future. When I don’t have ample time to process, I get confused. Change of plans causes a whirlwind of what ifs and hows. In response to surging panic and confusion, I might make biting remarks, fully recede in thought, ask a series of well-meaning but sometimes “annoying” questions and/or escape the scene of the change-of-plans crime. When there is change, it is best presented in a rational, slow, and logical manner.
- Having things out in the open and in order. This applies to real concrete objects and other people’s thoughts and opinions. Having someone be transparent and upfront helps me stay focused on the immediate present and not drift into the land of what ifs. Having things in reach and out in the open, such as one pair of socks (sorted and ready for every day of the week) and toilet paper rolls (the extra ones), and things I use every day (toothbrush, toothpaste, shampoo, and pertinent notes) makes life predictable and easier. This has to do with object permanence and generalized anxiety disorder. It’s hard for me to logically (and emotionally) trust that objects are there or will be there when I cannot see them. This isn’t something I can change. It has to do with my neurological structuring.
- Having something to look forward to. I function best when I can anticipate or reward myself with an enjoyable experience. Thoughts of an upcoming happy time help counterbalance the torrential ever-building storm of anxiety. I don’t need anything fancy. Knowing I am going to treat myself to my favorite takeout meal, thinking of a new release of a television series that I can binge watch, knowing I am going to have a day to myself to sleep in and rest, or lunch with a dear friend—all these small things add up and help me keep going.
- Having an outlet for my angst. It took me a long time to figure out how to release my stress in a healthy way. I didn’t readily realize certain things that I innately did were natural stim techniques, such as playing video games, watching a television series, cleaning, organizing, perusing social media, reading and re-reading my writings, and creating in multiple forms/projects. It also took me some time to recognize that if I spend a significant amount of time stimming and then that distraction from the challenges of life and sensory overload is removed or ends, like a video game or TV series does, I am left rather dumbfounded and out of sorts.
- Having silence. I absorb with all my senses on the highest notch. Music becomes rhythmic colors and memories. Smells bring me forward and backward and forward again in the timeline of life. Words enter and become living entities with personalities and their own wherewithal. Tastes evaporate, mingle one into the other, forming insights and possibilities. I am uncomfortably penetrated and other times lavishly bathed in the swirling motion of my environment. Having reprieve from the noise and incoming data is essential to re-energizing.
- Having others know I might not be able to follow through. Overall, I am a reliable person. I stick to my word. I mean what I say. I say what I mean. I show up on time. I keep people posted when I change my mind or circumstances dictate a change in my plans. With that said, I still have to renege from time to time. Usually, if I am a no-show, it’s a result of a potpourri of thoughts that spin me into overwhelm mode. So, whereas I might have seemed super excited, or at minimum a bit interested, when I originally committed, by the time the actual date rolls around, a lot might be bouncing about in my over-filled brain, including self-doubt and multiple questions: What to bring? What to wear? How to get there? How to act?
- Having unconditional love and acceptance. I thrive in an environment where I am loved for me, where people aren’t expecting me to change, or to pull my weight under their strict direction and personal guidelines, a place where I can follow my own pursuits and self-nurture. I do best when there are long periods to any given day in which I can become absorbed in thought and endeavors without interruption. I need my alone time much like the human body needs sleep.
- Having others know I need ample time to process. I cannot function well without having ample time and space to go through what is occurring in my life both externally and internally. During the act of processing, I might act in a way that seems out of the “norm” or unexpected. I might ask a lot of questions, I might retreat into a private space, I might lash out, and/or I might have an anxiety attack. Knowing other people understand that I am doing the best I can do (and that I am taking in a lot all the time) lessens my discomforting thoughts.
Life with someone we love, no matter their neurology, often comes with various ups and downs, including days when we have challenges understanding how another person operates. By seeking knowledge from an individual about their unique perspective and outlook, we help to build a bridge of better understanding and mutual respect. And in the long run, we gain valuable tools for navigating various relationships throughout our lives.
Samantha Craft is best known for her writings, found in her well-received book and blog Everyday Aspergers. A professional educator, she has been published in peer-reviewed journals and featured in various literature, including Aspien Woman, Autism Parenting Magazine, The Mighty, Spectrum Woman: Walking to the Beat of Autism, Project Aspie, Art & Autism, and Different Brains. Craft also serves as a diversity and inclusion consultant and as the senior recruiter and outreach specialist at ULTRA Testing, an innovative technology company with a neurodiversity hiring initiative.