Doing better.

Sometimes along comes a thing that’s meant to address neurotypicals but—in ways where I don’t even know where to start—arguably is just as useful as a way to remind autistics themselves that their own behavior, in fact, is not self-contradictory.

Once upon a time, in the decades before my diagnosis, I went through phases of voluntary exposure to what I now understand were challenging environments for my undiagnosed autism. There was a time where I often went to see live music (small clubs and bars, not enormous arenas and stadia); there was a time I went to San Diego Comic-Con every year.

I’ve talked in the past a bit about the latter and how making use of a sort of introvert’s toolkit happenstantially addressed many of such an environment’s difficulties for the autistic brain and nervous system I didn’t then know I had. The linked piece, among other things, makes an important observation that helps explain how I was capable of the former.

Even if you don’t intend to be patronizing or disrespectful, be prepared for us to get a little defensive even if you’re just asking in complete earnest for us to explain why we can’t manage a noisy restaurant one night but can deal with a concert the next. Or if you genuinely believe you’re being encouraging and supportive.

Sometimes, we have to “save up” sensory tolerance reserves in order to do a thing we WANT badly to do, but typically can’t (and certainly can’t do repeatedly).

Due to the lack of diagnosis, I also didn’t back then have much call for cultivating a deliberate awareness of how different activities affected me. While I suspect that “saving up” sensory tolerances in order to go see a local band likely is a thing I did, and while I suspect that doing so then required some degree of recovery, I can’t actually relate any particular example of either thing.

Regardless, this weird sort of sensory budgeting (often accompanied by spoons budgeting) that we sometimes can pull off definitely is a real thing, but it’s one of those things that run the risk of neurotypicals viewing as proof that we’re simply being stubborn or selfish—somewhat akin to the fact that, contrary to many of the employment skills development articles out there, many of us can’t simply call up hyperfocus on command.

We’re not being willful; we really are just wired this way. For what it’s worth, much of the deciding factor in whether and how a given experience will impact us is linked to the degree of control we have over that experience. I can’t explain the neuroscience or the psychology there, but it’s true.


There’s another thing from the piece that brings to mind something else I recently ran into. Here are two examples it gives of the sort of thing autistics might hear from neurotypicals.

“Wow, you did [difficult thing]! Maybe it’s just your anxiety holding you back and you just need to get out of your comfort zone more?”

“See? [Thing] isn’t a big deal, you just need to believe in yourself!”

The other day I ran into an article about a new streaming series depicting several autistics that cast actually-autistic actors in the roles. Setting aside that based upon the trailer I still don’t see my own awkward-for-all-sides mediocre autisticness depicted, I had one particular wince.

“All that fear and anxiety that you’re feeling,” a neurotypical character says to an autistic character who does not tend to go outside, “you just gotta push right through it. Make that fear your bitch.”

This is not how anxiety works. At least, it’s not how my own anxiety works. Judging from the linked piece I began this with, I don’t think I’m alone.

We are working harder than you will probably ever know to get by every day, and the fact that you can’t perceive this doesn’t mean we need to be “pushed a little to reach our potential.”

(To be fair, the trailer doesn’t then show the autistic character just sort of throwing himself into the world at large. Instead, he’s decked out in dark sunglasses and ear defenders. Nonetheless, it’s hard not to want to wave my hands around exclaiming, “But, see, that’s still not ‘making fear your bitch’, it’s making use of very important mitigations which can help reduce the anxiety.”)

I’m aware of the hazards of judging a show based upon a single line from a trailer, but this doesn’t give me much hope in advance that with this show Jason Katims indeed will “do better”.

Addenda

  1. So I watched the first episode of As We See It. There’s a lot in it that works but there’s most assuredly stuff that’s…not good.
  2. Mandy pushing Harrison to take the one-block walk to the cafe, to just push past the bright sun and the noise, is not good. (I did appreciate her idea to be talking to him on the phone as he does it.) Mandy telling Jack to make eye contact when he goes in to apologize to his boss is not good.
  3. It’s not clear to me whether these ultimately will be shown to be flaws in Mandy’s approach or if Jason Katims thinks this is how you treat autistic people. Her approach certainly is not all wrong—witness her begging Violet not to apologize for her meltdown—so it’s not all bad. I remain, though, skeptical, especially with this Harrison storyline. We’ll see.