5 Simple Driving Tips

Ages and ages ago I wrote out a few simple driving tips for myself and people who (like me) are maybe not super comfortable driving. I then proceeded to not post or share it anywhere. Well, largely due to… ::gestures at everything:: … I’ve barely driven at all in over a year. What little comfort I had with driving is now long gone, which means I’m going back and reviewing those old tips. So I figured I might as well post them here as well.

  1. Keep as many things as possible “always” or “never.”

When I was growing up, my dad had this fairly complicated set of personal rules he used for whether or not he was going to use his turn signal, that even he couldn’t keep up with. I’d write it out to share, but seriously, it was a lot. Having that complicated ruleset was, I think, was not actually good. 

There is a lot of multitasking in driving, and part of being autistic for me is that I am bad at multitasking. So I reduce what I need to think about by simplifying what I can. If I’m turning, I ALWAYS use my turn signal. Even if I’m in a parking lot, even if I’m turning into my driveway on my tiny little road and no one else is around. Always use it, so that I don’t have to process whether or not to use it, which would be far more complicated for me and take much longer.

Of course, that one is obvious, because you’re supposed to always use your turn signal anyway. Some others I have are

  • Never pass someone who is driving in front of me
  • I am never in a hurry
  • Always drive with my right foot (another legal one, but I’ve seen people break it).

2. Stick to a routine as much as you can.

I need routines. I also like routines. What other people call ruts, I call comfort. But really, sticking with a routine helps keep me stable and functional. It’s a thing.

I keep my driving in a routine as much as I can too. Which, in my case, mostly means doing the grocery shopping on wednesdays. I do my driving on the same days, at roughly the same times, for the same tasks, going to the same place, every single time.

3. If you have to break the routine, plan ahead as much as possible.

Some people do impromptu stuff. Some people like being spontaneous and just… going places. I am not one of those people. If I am going to have to do something that is not part of my weekly routine, such as taking my cat to the vet, I try to plan it out as much as possible. Yeah, I’ll be driving outside of my routine, but I’ll know it’s coming, I know the route, and I’m not surprised by it.

4. Find routes you are comfortable with.

There’s still a lot about driving that really stress me out. Things like highways and merging. One thing that is a huge deal to me is planning out my route to be as comfortable as possible. Again with grocery shopping – there were two routes to the grocery store that I could take. I was fully capable of driving either of them (and had done so, when I had to), but I was much MUCH more comfortable with one of them than the other. So that is the one I made sure to learn as well as possible, and is the one I used.

5. Keep extra spoons in your pocket – and be prepared to use them.

Sometimes a road will be closed. Maybe a tree fell right across the road and now you can’t go. Sometimes the store might turn out to be closed. Sometimes something will go wrong with your car. The point is – stuff goes wrong. Do your best to be prepared for contingencies, plan out possibilities as you think of them, and be ready for stuff to go wrong. Because once in a while, it will.

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Healing looks different for different people

Image description: panel 1: someone is stuck on a desert island. They have used wood to spell out the word “help” on the island.

Panel 2: The stranded person has used the wood that spelled “help” to build a raft.

Caption: Victim mentality will get you killed. No one is coming. It’s up to you.

I have not been able to figure out the original source. 

A while back I saw this on someone’s fb timeline. I gotta say – I had FEELINGS about it, and I want to talk about those feelings. 

Now, apparently this image and its accompanying message was very meaningful to the person who shared it. They talked about how their trauma left them with a victim mentality and an overall sense of helplessness. About how healing, for them, was about learning to take responsibility for themself and overcoming that feeling of helplessness. I do want to acknowledge and honor that message. I suspect that’s what the artist originally intended to convey, and it clearly worked for at least some people.

Buuuuut…

It hit me differently. A LOT differently.

See, MY trauma left me with a lot of difficulty allowing myself to rely on others. In fact, my current Goal in therapy is being able to tell people when I’m not ok, and let me tell you – that is a HARD goal. I’ve been at it for over a year and I still haven’t really achieved it (made some progress, but not there yet). My next Goal is being able to ask for help. So to be abundantly clear here – I am so far away from being able to ask for help that it isn’t even my current Goal. I need to hit a different Goal before I can even BEGIN to approach that one. 

So when I see an “inspirational” comic treating asking for help as “being a victim” and somehow bad… well, it’s hard. Because I’m inclined to agree! Screw asking for help! No one will help you! You’re on your own! 

And while the metaphor may be meaningful, the actual direct story those images are telling is not a good one. Sure, spelling “help” in the sand still depends on someone finding you. But if you’re stranded in the middle of a sea and you make a raft to set out an “save yourself” you WILL die. Or at least, survival absolutely depends on being found and rescued – just like it did on the island. Only being found is harder, and your probability of dying is higher.

And I AM that person who would construct a raft and set out like that only to die. Because it’s so much easier than asking for help. As I struggle with letting LITERALLY ANYONE know when I’m having a hard time (even my nesting partner. Even my therapist), getting the message that actually I shouldn’t do that at all, I should just keep on struggling alone even when it will inevitably lead to painful failure when asking for help would have honestly been better, it hurts. It hits me like a brick to the chest. 

My truth is just as valid as the person who shared it and found meaning in it. 

THAT is a truth that I personally find much more meaningful than any pithy little saying. The truth that everyone’s progress towards healing is different. My trauma left me in a very different place than the person who shared the image. As such, my journey is different. My healing is different. My needs are different. Neither one of us is wrong – we’re just on different journeys, so the exact same thing will have wildly different meanings to each of us.

I really think this is so important to remember. While I’ve calmed down about it now, at the time I was pretty angry when I saw that picture. It had nothing at all to do with me and everything to do with the person who shared it, but it FELT personal. It FELT like an attack. (in my defense, I did recognize that my feelings were not reality and I refrained from actually saying anything) It’s helpful to me (and probably to everyone) to remember that everyone is on their own path, and that path might look NOTHING like mine. 

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Justice, Mercy, and Definitions

Sometimes I like to think about the concept of justice. Specifically, what IS justice, really? And related to that, what is mercy? I plan to get more concrete about these ideas in application to the real world at a later point – right now I just want to keep things more conceptual.

There seems to be an idea, at least in the US, that justice = punishment. We achieve justice by punishing the people who do bad things. I grew up in a conservative christian denomination, and punishment was a VERY big thing in that. Punishment and justice were words that were used practically interchangeably. 

In more examples that I can’t find the source for because it was all from many years ago, I used to occasionally read a blog by an autistic pastor. In one blog he posted a sermon he gave regarding two values that he considered particularly important to christians – justice and mercy. The question was could they coincide simultaneously. The conclusion was they could not. What really stuck out to me when I read it was that he never actually tried to define “justice” for his audience. Instead, it was simply treated as a given that justice means punishment. It was also treated as a given that mercy means refraining from punishment. Since mercy would mean less punishment, and punishment would mean less justice, they two must be at odds.

I’ve seen the same concept come from atheists as well. Even up to one atheist declaring “Mercy is, definitionally, the suspension of justice.”

Needless to say, I find these definitions VERY limiting.

So I say, let’s go to the dictionary! What does dictionary.com have to say about justice and punishment?

Justice:

  1. the quality of being just; righteousness, equitableness, or moral rightness:
  2. rightfulness or lawfulness, as of a claim or title; justness of ground or reason:
  3. the moral principle determining just conduct.
  4. conformity to this principle, as manifested in conduct; just conduct, dealing, or treatment:
  5. just treatment of all members of society with regard to a specified public issue, including equitable distribution of resources and participation in decision-making (usually used in combination):
  6. the administering of deserved punishment or reward.

Now all of this is absolutely fascinating to me. So many definitions! And despite the fact that (in my area of the world) people treat justice as simply being punishment as a default, it doesn’t show up on the list until definition six. SIX! 

Beyond that, justice seems to be about our conduct. Our actions. Our choices. So justice might be punishing a robber. But it could just as easily be making sure that robbery never happens in the first place. This is where phrases like disability justice, health justice, environmental justice, etc come in. 

And then there’s mercy. Once again, going to the dictionary:

Mercy:

  1. compassionate or kindly forbearance shown toward an offender, an enemy, or other person in one’s power; compassion, pity, or benevolence:
  2. the disposition to be compassionate or forbearing:
  3. the discretionary power of a judge to pardon someone or to mitigate punishment, especially to send to prison rather than invoke the death penalty.
  4. an act of kindness, compassion, or favor:
  5. something that gives evidence of divine favor; blessing:

The mitigation of punishment miiiight be seen in definition 1, but we only see it for sure in definition 3. Otherwise, going by these definitions, mercy can be seen as acting just compassion and benevolence toward people. Maybe those who are against us, but also maybe everyone. And by that way of looking at it, we can absolutely have mercy and justice coincide.

It is both merciful AND just to create accommodations for disabled people so we have the same access to things as abled people do. 

It is both merciful AND just to create a world where no one faces the choice of stealing food or going hungry. 

I feel a little uncomfortable bringing up examples because they could be seen as “political” and I’ve generally tried to keep politics off of this blog. In this case, though, it’s necessary. This is a topic that matters to me, and how we, as a society, conceptualize justice directly impacts how we make our laws. How we structure our society. The systems we put in place, and the systems we do not. 

That is why it matters so much. Thinking about what justice is on a conceptual scale is how we decide how we implement justice in the real world. Personally, I think justice needs to begin well before we reach the point of punishment. 

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Accountability and Autism

Getting straight to the point here – if you have caused someone (or multiple someones) hurt or harm, you have a responsibility to take ownership, apologize, and try to make it better. Even the purest of intentions does not negate this fact, nor does it provide you with absolution.

When I type it out it seems so painfully obvious to me that it shouldn’t even need to be said. And yet, there are people out there who disagree.

I stumble across people who think that saying “but I didn’t MEAN to hurt anyone” excuses them from any responsibility every so often and it always really bothers me. Recently, though, I came across someone who thought that with an additional specific autism modification. According to that person, an autistic person needing to take responsibility and apologize for any hurt/harm they caused, even if they didn’t mean it or understand, is just demanding that autistic people bend over backwards to accommodate NTs. 

It isn’t. That person is wrong. 

To be clear, autistic people do need to accommodate NTs a LOT. A WHOLE lot. Seriously, just so much. We adapt to NT social norms, we conform to NT body language, we change ourselves to make NTs more comfortable. 

This, though? Apologizing, taking responsibility, regardless of intent? Is NOT that kind of accommodation. It’s just being a decent human being.

And to be clear – NTs need to do this too. NTs are also capable of hurting others or causing harm without intending to or even understanding at the time that what they did could be hurtful. And NTs need to take responsibility and apologize when it happens. And yes, sometimes NTs are bad at doing that and it’s frustrating.

Now, the “understanding” aspect of this is definitely a complicating factor at times. There have definitely been times in my life when I’ve accidentally hurt someone and not only did I totally not intend to, but I was entirely lost as to what exactly it was that hurt them. It’s hard to take responsibility for my actions if I don’t even know what I did that was wrong. And it can be incredibly frustrating when I genuinely want to know – I don’t want to hurt anyone! But I can’t learn how to avoid it if I don’t know what I did! – but people aren’t willing to tell me or just insist that “you know what you did.” No I don’t! That’s why I’m asking!

Even so, even with all that frustration, it’s still on me. If I hurt someone or caused them harm, it’s still my responsibility to take ownership, apologize, and try to be better in the future. Even if I don’t know exactly what I did, I can at least apologize for hurting them. In fact, that’s often a really great step one if I want them to tell me what I did wrong. If I make it abundantly clear that I genuinely am regretful and I truly didn’t want to hurt them, I have found that people will be far more willing to believe me when I say that I don’t understand but I want to. And yes, part of this is deliberately communicating in a way that NTs will understand. The simple question “what did I do wrong?” without any padding will, to NTs, look like excuse-making or dodging responsibility. I suspect that when NTs say that, they really are making excuses or dodging responsibility. That, at least, would explain why they take it that way when autistic people say it. So I add padding. It helps.

I do that because for real – I don’t want to hurt people. If I do something that hurt or harmed someone, I really am regretful. If I don’t understand or know what I did, I want to learn so I can avoid hurting people in the future. You know, because I’m not a jackass. And because it’s my responsibility.

To make the usual analogy – it doesn’t matter if I intended to step on your toes or not. If I stepped on them and hurt you, I need to apologize and maybe look out for my feet better. To extend the analogy – maybe my feet are ridiculously tough. Maybe it never hurts me when someone steps on my toes, so it doesn’t occur to me that it might hurt other people. Nevertheless, it will hurt other people, and when faced with that it’s on me to learn, to do better, and to apologize to the people I hurt. 

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Empathy 101 and 201

I have some Opinions on how I see some people talk about empathy and I want to talk about it. Of course, there are LOTS of things I could say about empathy, so to be more specific, I want to talk about some of how people conceptualize empathy – ways that I mentally call “empathy 101” and “empathy 201.”

Empathy 101 is where you imagine yourself in someone else’s position and think about how you would feel if you were experiencing whatever they are experiencing. The idea is that you should consider that they are likely feeling something similar to what you would be feeling and you can begin to empathize with them.

Empathy 201 is where you take in that different people react to situations differently, and not everyone will feel the way you feel in various circumstances.

The thing that seriously irks me when I see it is when people skip over Empathy 101 and try to go straight to Empathy 201. It might sound great in theory, but in practice it doesn’t tend to go well.

Here’s the thing – a major point of Empathy 101 as a deliberate practice (especially for children) is realizing that other people are just as real as you are. Other people feel things just as vividly as you do. Other people have just as rich of an inner life as you do. Small children sometimes need to be coached through this idea and in my experience, some adults still haven’t figured this out. 

Now, Empathy 201 is great. It’s super important. But it doesn’t really work unless you’ve fully internalized the concepts behind Empathy 101. And unfortunately, I’ve seen people use the basic idea of Empathy 201 to excuse their own asshole behavior. It generally goes something like this:

Derriere Hole: ::does a thing that is hurtful, mean, or otherwise unkind::

Random Observe: Wow, that was a mean thing to do. How would you like it if someone did that to you?

Derriere Hole: Well everyone feels differently about things, so how I would feel isn’t necessarily how anyone else will feel, so I refuse to even consider the question.

Derriere Hole has MISSED THE POINT. The point is to genuinely consider the impact your actions have on others – keeping in mind both how you would feel AND possible other reactions people might have. This can be a lot of work sometimes, I won’t deny it. But it’s also VERY important to do, particularly when interacting with others or doing things that will have a distinct impact on others. 

Having said that, I do feel the need to add that I have seen the switch side of things as well – People using Empathy 101 as a way to dismiss other people’s feelings that don’t line up with what they think people “should” feel. “If I were in your position I would be feeling X. You are clearly Wrong when you claim to be feeling Y.” Heck, my own dad has done that to me.

This is why I think it’s so important to keep both ideas in mind when thinking about what other people might be feeling. Empathy 101 on its own isn’t enough. It doesn’t get replaced by Empathy 201, though – only modified. 

Of course, the real problem is that some people just don’t care about what other people think or feel or experience. And those people like to have excuses for their lack of caring. Still, I find it particularly irksome when they use the trappings of empathy as their excuse. That’s just not ok at all.

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Rambling about being an introvert

Hi. I’m an introvert, and I want to talk about that.

But before I start, I want to put in some major disclaimers. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about possible places where my introversion stems from, or maybe aspects of myself that lend themselves to introversion. I’m finding myself worried that if I talk about that, it will sound like it’s pathologizing introversion, which really isn’t what I want to do at all. I don’t think introversion is bad, I don’t think it’s wrong to be an introvert, I don’t think my being an introvert is anything I need to fix. I am quite sure that even if I did “fix” the things I’m going to talk about, I would still be an introvert. 

That said, I want to talk about some things that I think intersect with and possibly “enhance” my introverted tendencies.

First of all, I am autistic. I have sensory difficulties and I struggle with my social skills. For years now I’ve been of the opinion that this really impacts how tiring it is for me to be around people. People are just SO MUCH, you know? They can be so loud and so full of motion and communicate with hints and indirect phrases and expect me to communicate the same way so sometimes they hear things in my words that is so far off from the actual words I said that I can’t figure out how they got there, and they can’t explain it to me even if I ask, and it’s just a lot, ok? It’s like:

Me: I don’t like pie.

Person: I think they have cherry pie in that shop, want to go grab some?

Me: ??? I just said??? I don’t like pie???

Person: I thought you meant that you like cherry pie.

Me: Because I said that I don’t like pie?

Person: Yeah!

End result? Peopling is thoroughly tiring. I need to recharge by myself.

Recently I have been realizing that there may be another aspect to this exhaustion, though.

So there’s this thing called “hypervigilance.” This webpage defines it as “Hypervigilance is a state of increased alertness. If you’re in a state of hypervigilance, you’re extremely sensitive to your surroundings. It can make you feel like you’re alert to any hidden dangers, whether from other people or the environment.” 

When I first heard of it (ages ago) I didn’t at all think it described me. I mean, sure, I’m extremely aware of my surroundings and the people in it literally all the time unless I am somewhere safe and completely alone, and sure I’m constantly closely watching the behavior of the people around me and especially anyone I am interacting with and cataloguing all of their norms so that I’ll know if they do something outside of their norm, but that’s just normal, right?! Everyone does that! Ok, yes, people tend to remark about how thoughtful I am because I notice things about them and remember (THIS person always likes to have a red cup, THAT person likes to have a towel when they’re warm, etc), and apparently I’m remarkably observant, but that doesn’t really mean anything, right?

So… ok. Yes. Turns out I totally am hypervigilant. I don’t really want to get into why I’m hypervigilant in this post – suffice to say it’s crap from my childhood and we can leave it at that. 

The point is, this is definitely another thing that makes interacting with other humans SO EXHAUSTING for me. It takes a lot of energy to pay attention to everything. It also definitely contributes to why group interactions are so much harder for me. Not only are the social dynamics of group situations far more complex, but there’s so much more to watch! Each new person isn’t just one new point to observe, they’re a whole new factor. I can’t just watch the person and how they act, I must watch how they interact with each individual as well as how they interact with the group as a whole. Possibly also how they interact with sub-groups. It’s just so much.

This does leave me wondering a bit as to whether or not I would still be introverted if I weren’t autistic and hadn’t been exposed to things that lead to my being hypervigilant. And honestly? I really don’t know. There’s no way to know, because being autistic is a core aspect of who I am and the hypervigilance came about during very early formative years. All I know for sure is that apparently I was a VERY talkative baby and young child, but at some point in those childhood years (like, elementary school) I just… stopped talking. I became silent, and people definitely liked it better that way. 

All I know for sure is that:

  1. I’m an introvert now.
  2. My being an introvert is ok.

Regardless of where it does or doesn’t come from, it’s definitely a major part of who I am now. And one thing it is NOT is something wrong with me, no matter what any extrovert trying to “fix” me has to say about it (sorry, that’s another rant for another time). I’m the kind of introvert who prefers one-on-one interactions, and I am ok just the way I am.

Even if I do sometimes like exploring possible roots of my personality traits.

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Involuntary hospitalization, a response

I was perusing youtube, as I do sometimes, and stumbled across a video in which a psychiatrist talks about his approach to involuntary hospitalization, and makes some generalities about how the mental health profession approaches involuntary hospitalization as a whole. 

To put it briefly, he claims that involuntary hospitalization is only used in extremely dire cases of suicidality. Cases where the patient has immediate risk, and it looks probable that things will change in a week so it’s really a matter of getting them through that week.

And I have FEELINGS about this. Strong enough FEELINGS that I want to write about it. Now, I am going to go ahead and assume that everything this psychiatrist said is totally true for him – but it is very much NOT true for the mental health profession as a whole. 

So I’m going to go ahead and talk some about my history. I have been involuntarily hospitalized three times in my life. One of those times was honestly justified, the other two were not. None of them actually helped me. 

The first time was when I was in middle school, and I didn’t yet have any real concept of needing to hide suicidal thoughts if someone directly asked about them. I was in a special ed program due to being “emotionally disturbed” and one day my special ed teacher sat me and another student down to just have a casual conversation with us. At some point in the conversation, the teacher oh-so-casually asked us if we had ever thought about suicide. We both answered in the affirmative. Then she asked if we’d ever thought about how we would accomplish it. The other student looked a little surprised at the idea and said that she had not. I, being entirely too naive, said that I had and happily launched into an extensive explanation of all the ways I had considered of how to unalive myself and the reasons I had rejected each possibility or kept it as an actual possibility.

Now, I can certainly see this freaking the teacher out. It’s probably alarming to hear! I could definitely see recommending therapy or something in response. To be clear – I didn’t have anything resembling a plan or any kind of intent to act on it, just thoughts that, while alarming, were not immediately dangerous. In any case, maybe a day later I found myself in a hospital for “suicidal thoughts.” 

The second time was in high school. This time I really had tried to unalive myself, so it’s hardly surprising that after my ER visit I was whisked off to a psychiatric hospital for a while there.

The third time was in college. I was depressed and self-injuring (which was nothing new, I had been doing that since elementary school). That was apparently enough to wind up locked away yet again

I consider myself extremely fortunate that none of my experiences caused me significant trauma. There are many people out there who are not so lucky. I still had to deal with doctors and nurses who openly did not care about the patients, some who even had open contempt for their patients, hearing care providers loudly mock me from just past an open door, plus the overall dehumanization that seems to be part and parcel of psychiatric hospitals. 

While I can see how one of my hospital stays was justified, absolutely none of them actually did me any good. They taught me better ways to hide my pain, the importance of not actually telling people when I’m not ok, and that there are limits to how much I can trust the people who are supposed to be taking care of me. 

I am in therapy now. I am genuinely happy with my therapy and I like my therapist. But I will never, ever tell him if I’m suicidal or pondering being unalive. I have actually thought about how nice it would be if I could ask for help when I’m feeling like that, but the reality is that it’s not worth the risk. Because I will NEVER go to a psychiatric hospital ever again. I am so serious about that. Never ever ever. 

When a mental health professional says that they only consider involuntary hospitalization in the most extreme of circumstances, the primary thing I hear is that they consider involuntary hospitalization sometimes. They consider it a valid tool and they will sometimes use it. Which means that when it comes to suicidality, I will continue to go it alone. This is even more true now that I am transitioning, as I would definitely not call psychiatric hospitals to be safe for trans people.

The comments section of the video has quite a few people with experiences similar to or worse than mine. I am clearly not alone here. And I’m saddened to see that the youtuber did not appear to respond to any of those comments. This is clearly a serious issue that mental health professionals NEED to address.

I do want to add a final note that while all of this is my truth and extremely serious for me, I do know that there are also people out there who have benefitted from psychiatric hospitalization. Their truth is theirs, and I don’t intend to invalidate it. Nor am I trying to influence anyone on what is right for them. Only to say what is right for me, and to point out that regardless of what is right for any given individual, there is clearly a systemic problem going on and it needs to be addressed.

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Ordinary vs. Not

Or maybe Normal vs. Not.

This has been on my list of possible topics for many, many years. It was on my old list, before I stopped blogging for several years, and it’s still there. It’s something I want to talk about, but it’s hard for me to find the words. So I’m just going to do my best and hope at least a few people hear what I’m trying to say.

The first problem is what even is “normal”? It’s a tough question. I’ve seen the concept of “there’s no such thing as normal” for years now and I’ve had a broad range of reactions to it. The first time I saw it, I hated it. It made me SO ANGRY, because “normal” was a dream for me. I wanted, so very badly, to be normal. To see “normal” be dismissed like that felt like a personal affront. Like it was just casually dismissing all of my deep and complex feelings around the basic fact that I’m NOT normal.

Time has, of course, since passed, and my view has evolved at least a little. If you asked me to describe what a “normal” person is I don’t think I could give you an answer. There’s “typical” but that’s different from “normal.” And there’s no such thing as a typical person. There are various traits that can be listed as typical (like neurotypical), but I’m pretty sure not a single person on the planet is entirely made up of typical traits. If there is, that in itself is pretty atypical.

Even so, I am Not Normal in ways that make me stand out and be on the receiving end of discrimination, hate, and other unpleasantness. There are, of course, the two that this blog centers around – I am autistic and I am trans. I didn’t choose either one. In fact, I spent years of my life desperately trying to be normal in both of those areas. All it got me was misery and failure. In the end, I am who I am and that cannot be changed. 

So another aspect of this is the different ways I’ve seen people view the concept of “normal.” For me, “normal” was something I longed for. I spent so much of my life ostracised because of my differences and my inability to fit in that normalcy really looked wonderful. I genuinely thought that the key to happiness was achieving some standard of normal. Of course, happiness has come from self-acceptance and self-love, but that’s a topic for another time.

But then there are people who view “normal” very differently. Which really shocked me at the time I ran into it. For instance, I once had a friend with a Ph.D. who really prided herself on her intelligence. We once had a conversation on our views of what “normal” is and it was a shock to both of us. Because to her, “normal” was something to be eschewed. Normal was bad, normal was less. Normal was beneath her. She had grown up with the idea that it’s important to be better than normal people, smarter than normal people. She presented me with the analogy of pens in a cup – you don’t want to be just an ordinary pen in the cup, you want to be the BEST pen in the cup, the one everyone wants to use. I responded by saying that in that analogy, I’m not even in the cup. I’m the pink glitter pen over on the side that’s maybe super great in situations that call for pink glitter but otherwise I tend to be overlooked. From my perspective, ALL the pens in the cup are normal. From her perspective, I don’t even exist to be compared to.

It was an interesting conversation.

Now let’s have yet another example from my life! I don’t even know how many years ago, probably from way back in my 20’s, when I was on a dating website and was still living as a woman. I got a message from a dude who used that classic line “you’re not like other women” as some kind of bizarre compliment. Of course, I’m not like other women in that I’m a man, but I was in heavy denial at the time so that’s not how I took the comment, nor was it how it was meant. I wasn’t about to accept a compliment that involved insulting an entire gender, and I said as much in my reply. He came back with something about how he had thought I could have been extraordinary, but apparently I just want to be ordinary (sorry, the messages are long gone so we’re relying on my memory here for the general gist of what was said). That was the end of the conversation but I must say, I found that last reply of his HILARIOUS. He obviously intended it as some kind of neg or for me to feel insecure about myself, with “ordinary” somehow being bad or undesirable.

At the time, I was definitely still wanting to be ordinary. I didn’t know I was autistic but I did know I was weird and different and struggled in many ways that other people didn’t. I didn’t realize that I was trans, but I did know that I hated being a woman, wanted desperately to be a man, and absolutely loathed certain parts of my body. Being “ordinary” sounded absolutely wonderful compared to that.

As I wrap this post up, I do want to acknowledge that I did not attempt to define “normal,” “typical,” or “ordinary” in this post. The words, while similar, are not identical and are not used in the exact same ways or domains. My partner wanted to point out that to them (thanks to their work) “normal” is a matter of distributions. However, no one bothered to carefully define normal or ordinary in these conversations or memes either. They are words that we have feelings about, and clearly those feelings can vary wildly depending on the person and how they personally relate to those words

I still don’t know what “normal” is. Maybe there’s no such thing (at least when it comes to people). Maybe “normal” is whatever we make it to be. If “normal” is a list of traits, then I’m normal in some ways and not normal in others. 

Ultimately, I’m me. And anyone who tries to pass judgement on me or make me feel things based on my adherence or lack thereof to some standard of normal is definitely someone I want nothing to do with.

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I figured out what “high functioning” means

Just to jump straight to the point here – “high functioning” just means “passes for neurotypical (NT).”

Ok, now the ramble about why I think that and how I reached that conclusion.

Non-autistic (and some autistic) people really seem to want to divide autistic people into two basic categories – high functioning and low functioning. The criteria, however, always seemed to be vague and undefined. Years ago I had found a website (maybe on tumblr? I really don’t remember) that was just a collection of what autistic people had been told makes us high functioning. Sadly it either doesn’t exist anymore or possibly I just can’t find it, but it was a fascinating smattering of things. Maybe it’s because we smile, or because we have a job, or because we talk well or write well, or who knows?!

We autistic people (or, at least, a great many of us) have been trying to say that this division isn’t actually useful or helpful in any meaningful way. For instance – I cannot hold down a job. I’ve tried, it does bad things to me. I can write eloquently enough, but I struggle with conversation and am lost in group dynamics. Usually I can go grocery shopping by myself, but sometimes I will get completely overloaded and end up huddled in a ball with my arms over my head while everyone else gives a wide berth to the strange person doing strange things. 

I am generally labeled as high functioning, even as people who are labeled as “low functioning” can do things that I cannot, like hold down jobs or make eye contact. So why am I called high functioning? Well, it’s simple, really. I am categorized as “high functioning” because during brief interactions, I will often enough pass for NT. Unless there is already something wrong (like I’m having sensory overload) I can mask reasonably well for short periods of time and people are unaware that they are talking to an autistic person. 

The strain of masking can be immense at times and take an absolutely incredible toll, but I do it anyway. Why? Because I fear how people will react if they can see that I’m different. That I’m “not quite right.” As I talked about when discussing whether or not to disclose my autism to my doctors, I worry about assumptions they may make about me. Will they still believe in my ability to have autonomy over my body? Will they be like that one guy I met on a train that one time and ask me where my “handler” is? 

Because that’s how it is. People make a quick assessment of you and then make a whole bunch of assumptions based off that assessment. That’s at least partly only to be expected – we can’t deep dive into the personality and abilities of every person we meet – we interact via shared social cues and assumptions. It’s the only way we CAN interact for basically any brief contact we have with another human being. And that’s fine… until it isn’t. 

Sometimes those assumptions are flawed down to their very core. Like the assumption that “high functioning” people don’t need support, and “low functioning” people just can’t do things. Or that time when someone took my saying that I don’t want to be cured as meaning that I don’t need help. Which just… what? How in the world did you connect those two wildly different points? Yet people do, ALL THE TIME. And one of the things people do is make an assessment of a person based on a few seconds of seeing or interacting with them, judge them to be high- or low-functioning, and then draw further conclusions from that regarding their abilities or their needs.

We need to stop using the terms. Still, when I had the realization that high-functioning just means “passes for NT” it really felt like suddenly things fell into place. Suddenly so many things that had been confusing just made sense. THAT’S why people say that. THAT’S what they mean. And that’s why they have no idea what they’re talking about when they try to use it to figure out what we can or cannot do.

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Prosopagnosia

(Image is of a series of faces lacking specific features. I was not able to find who made it)

Hey, want to read about another thing about me? Well… I certainly hope you do, because I’m about to write about it.

I have this thing where I am not so great at recognizing faces. One example – remember the Lord of the Ring movies? Remember two of the characters – Boromir and Aragorn? Well, I couldn’t tell them apart. I had to watch the ENTIRE trilogy more than once (and that is many hours of movie watching right there) before I could even begin to tell them apart. Let me tell you, that made for some confusing movie watching. Ok, rugged guy with a goatee is talking to someone, which one is he? I was actually pretty ok on recognizing the other characters. I could even (mostly) tell the hobbits apart. It was really only those two who looked indistinguishable to me. And with even that, the movies could be remarkably confusing at times because I didn’t know who was doing what. 

Another story. This time from middle school. A whole lot of the boys were long and lanky, with short brown hair and a goatee. I couldn’t tell ANY of them apart. School felt like being surrounded by faceless clones – a handful of people were sufficiently visually distinctive that I could recognize them, but they were by far the minority. Anyway, that’s not actually the story, that’s just the background. In gym class we had a bit where we had to run a mile, which had been judged as 8 laps around the parking lot. Either in an effort to keep us honest or just to give the runners one less thing to think about, we were paired off – one person runs, the other person watches and counts their laps. Sounds great, right? Well, I was paired with one of the dozen or so Long, Lanky, Short Hair and a Goatee boys. 

Oh no.

I tried going to the teacher to let him know that I could not distinguish my partner from the other boys, but he was not interested in listening to me. So… I did my best. Which wasn’t that good. I desperately tried to find SOME distinguishing feature so I could recognize him but did not succeed. I stared intently at the faces of the boys running past while the run was happening, trying to see if one of them would click as the one I’m supposed to be watching. Sometimes I would see one of them and think “ok, I think that’s him” but other times I was sure he must have run another lap by then and I missed him. 

This story has no solid wrap-up. I did my best. I called 8 laps when I figured it was probably right, and no one questioned it. I never was able to tell my teacher about my inability to recognize my partner. 

One more story. This one from just a few days ago. I like to explore music that is new to me, and since I live under a metaphorical rock there is a LOT of music out there that I’ve never heard or even heard of. I recently found a song that’s by two singers – Jessia and Bebe Rexha. Having no idea who those two ladies are, I went ahead and googled them and took a look at the image results. They… kinda look identical to me. I spent some time looking at the images REALLY HARD and making a point to check for typical distinguishing features (lip shape, cheekbones, eyebrows, chin shape, things like that) and eventually was able to tell them apart, but it was a very deliberate exercise I had to do. It does not come naturally to me at all.

Well, as I’m sure you have already pieced together since I titled my post after it – this is a condition called prosopagnosia. It is not at all uncommon in people on the autism spectrum. 

I’ve never really gotten better at recognizing faces. I’m honestly not sure that it’s something people can learn. I HAVE gotten better at recognizing people via other means – things like their clothing style, the way they move or stand, maybe something particular about how they do their hair. I am also generally able to recognize people if I’m around them enough. At some point enough about them becomes familiar to me that I can recognize them when I see them. Though maybe I’ll just leave out how long that has taken me at times, or for just how long two of my friends (who were girlfriends of each other, and so together a lot) were completely indistinguishable to me. I just spent that time trying to avoid assuming who was who and waiting until they said something that made my brain go “oh! It’s THAT one!” I can tell them apart now, but damn did it take a while.

It’s not so bad to live with now, but wow was it frustrating and painful while I was growing up. I’m pretty sure it would still be frustrating and painful if I had to exist in an office environment or something like that. Luckily, my life is constructed in such a way that this particular difficulty isn’t too disabling for me, but not everyone is so lucky. 

So consider this your reminder for the day that not all disabilities are visible. They aren’t even necessarily physical. And if you’re one of the allistic people reading this and you have a co-worker who never seems to recognize you? Well, maybe it isn’t their fault, and maybe it’s just as frustrating for them as it is for you, if not more so. I have many, many more stories of not recognizing people – I simply picked a few to share. I also have stories of recognizing people when others couldn’t – by silhouette. No features visible, but I could tell who it was by the way they walked. I process information differently than other people do. This means a lot of things, and one of them is that faces just don’t give me information all that well. 

But it’s part of who I am, and I’m ok.

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