Most of my writing on autism tends to pertain to software engineering in some regard, and while I cannot separate myself from it in my professional career there are writings which focus more directly on my experience as an autistic man rather than as a software engineer.
Articles in this particular series, versus "Tales of the Autistic Developer", reflect more on my personal life experiences and how my mind works.
To many I pass very well as neurotypical, a mask I've spent years cultivating, but beneath that mask there's quite a bit going on. Some triumphs, some struggles, some just living life honestly but stories nonetheless I occasionally tell and write on and this is one such story.
Creatures of Habit
It has been said that autistic folks are creatures of extreme habit, and in my case I have found this to be extraordinarily true. It's perhaps one of my greatest challenges in interacting with neurotypical society, and frequently the tell which fellow autistic or neurodivergent folks can tell I'm one of them. Perhaps a few more astute neurotypicals can catch on, but not often.
This presents me with a very difficult problem: The world is rarely so kind as to be perfectly orderly, and life rarely follows a strict schedule.
Given that, how do I go through life? What happens when I meet with disruption?
Panic and Freezing
Let's start with what happens with enough disruption. When sufficiently knocked out of my normal schedule it's not a matter of simply being uncomfortable, it's a matter of full-blown anxiety bordering on panic. If pushed far enough into this state I will completely stop, freeze, and start shutting down. I will do whatever it takes at that point to get out of the situation and retreat, or my body will start making me do so.
This can manifest frequently in migraine attacks, complete inability to stay still, severe nausea, severe tiredness, insomnia, and in the worst case passing out.
For years I would focus on treating the symptoms rather than treating the underlying issue of panic caused by sufficient divergence.
If that sounds sufficiently disabling and impossible to live a normal life with congratulations, you understand in a small part what my childhood was like before I understood myself more.
But I did find a way.
If I cannot maintain a sense of normal, an equilibrium if you will, I descend into states of anxiety and panic. Given that treating symptoms only constitutes a patchwork solution applied after the point of no return, how do I go about solving that?
Truthfully I don't. That's part of my secret, at any given time I'm under exceptional stress and anxiety, so I do what I can to mitigate that and give myself a sense of normal even in times where there's no such thing.
I call this experience, as many like me do, grounding.
We seek familiar experiences, whether that be food or drink, scent or feel, or any other number of things. In a state of chaos we find something to tether us back to the core of our being so that we may live in some part a normal life.
If you have known me for any reasonable amount of time the grounding measures that I'm about to tell you will come as no surprise, and will probably explain quite a lot about my compulsions.
Whether or not it's booked down to the minute, I do have a schedule I follow almost every day to a T: Wake up, shower, tea, work, lunch, work, coffee, go on a walk, supper, tv, writing / grounding, sleep.
Very rarely will I deviate from that, even if I'm in a completely different situation. On off days I tend to substitute in guitar, art, writing, resting, or wandering aimlessly for a bit.
If someone knocks me off of it I'll start to get gradually more uncomfortable and will very likely end up doing one of the following grounding methods very quickly.
I will warn those of you who truly enjoy good coffee and seek it in earnest that you might want to skip this section. Familiarity of experience is far more important to me than quality of, though I do enjoy quality on occasion and finding new familiars.
Any town I go to I can reliably predict there will be a Starbucks somewhere around, and almost every single one of those stores will have a very similar feel between them. I know that I can wander into one, get a familiar drink, find a corner, and disappear for a moment.
If you see me in one very likely I will have headphones on and one of a sketchbook, a reading book, or a computer on me. During 2020 when I was mostly isolated the only real "going out" we did was to the drive through of a Starbucks to get a coffee and go back home.
One thing to note though is I'm sure if I were more towards the east coast it'd be Dunkin, or around SF it might have been Peets, but I ended up with my habit and so the story goes.
Heck, I even found one in Australia, and that was certainly well outside my normal.
If I've hit the end of my ability to cope, you'll very likely see me revert back to games I used to play when I was younger.
Minecraft is the most frequent item on that list, though before I made a conscious choice to fully eliminate MMOs from my life Maplestory would have been more likely. It allows me to stop thinking, to escape, and to collect myself before returning to the real world.
It's also the reason why I make such a strong point of not acquiring any new addictive games to my repertoire. People have tried for years to get me to play Chess, and you can imagine why that would be a horrible idea. Sure, I'd likely be good at it, but I'd also rebound into competitiveness and go far too deep into escape for it to be safe for me.
I play classical guitar, you might even notice I have slightly longer nails on my right hand. Not exceptionally well, mind, and any teacher of repute would probably force me to relearn from the basics and probably be correct in recommending me to do so. That said, it's something I grew up enjoying as a tactile feeling.
You could likely divine my mood by which pieces I was playing more frequently. Excessively minor or exceptionally fast pieces were especially strong tells for me.
Personally I enjoy Bach, Barrios, Lauro, Mertz, and Piazzola. Particularly I enjoy Mertz's Three Nocturnes Op. 4, Lauro's El Marabino, Piazzolla's Invierno Porteño, and CPE Bach's Solfeggietto.
This perhaps is the most interesting of my grounding habits, and that would be scent. Particularly perfumes and colognes. It's something I can wear throughout the day to recall memories and perhaps make a few new ones.
Given that as an autistic man I also have an exceptionally strong sense of smell this grounds me on multiple levels. Firstly to memory and feeling, and secondly from the world around me in some small part to make it a bit less loud out there.
Some of the more common ones I tended to wear:
- Tom Ford's Tuscan Leather to jazz bars
- YSL's L'Homme when I was coming into my own at work with Square
- Chanel's Allure Homme Sport Eau Extreme when I started dating my now wife
- Xerjoff's Mefisto when we drove across the country together
- PDM's Herod when I got married
- Amouage's Reflection Man when I started presenting at conferences
...among several others.
Now granted this also means that if I have a bad memory associated with something the opposite happens. It's part of the reason I would never wear something I really liked on early dates, and the reason I mostly avoid wearing YSL L'Homme Ultime.
Do I spend too much money on this? Probably, though for me it's a small cost relative to the calm it can bring, and by this point in my career I can certainly afford it without compromising my finances.
Mostly I wear them for me, and tend heavily towards more subtle scents rather than trying to get "noticed", as they're more of a little secret that whispers to me throughout the day rather than a megaphone announcing my presence.
It was also very intentional that this section is longer than the others, as it's one of the strongest grounding methods I have. It's also, tellingly, a subject I could spend several hours chatting on if someone were to get me started.
Back to Earth
Most of my life, in some regard, is escapism and grounding. It's seeking familiarity over novelty to assuage my anxiety.
These are just a few of the ways I try and return myself back to earth to interact with society. Without them? Well I would rather not return to that state of affairs.
To Be "Normal"
To many people I appear very normal, and they'd never think twice when interacting with me. That mask comes at a great personal cost, and there are days I wish the world were more accepting of people like me and how we exist.
Where I grew up that hostility was a daily experience. Any deviance from "normal" was met with repeated efforts to bend me back in line, and has left me with quite a bit of resentment for such people and systems which inflict that on others.
It is, therefor, not remotely surprising that I am politically liberal and am so vocally in support of marginalized groups that many where I grew up would very much like to stop existing altogether. It's also not surprising that I moved away to escape that.
The compulsion for normalcy has driven such people to quite literally torture autistic people with shock therapy, ABA to compel "socially acceptable behavior" through inflicting PTSD, and more.
I'm not normal, nor will I ever be, but despite that I have every right to exist and to enjoy life in my own way as do others who are different, and it's a very scary time to be different in America.
Dark? Potentially, yes, but these are the things we live with every day. I did not decide to be autistic, I did not magically or medically contract it, but I do have to live with it and how society treats people like me.
I write as I do to raise awareness of very real problems, how I personally approach them, and to bring light to the harms done to those who are different.
Our existence is not political, and neither is talking about it.
Top comments (4)
People who don’t fit their society’s standard of “normal” are often the most empathetic, understanding, and compassionate people ever. There should be more “not normal” people in the world, IMO.
Thanks for sharing this is a great post! I have a lot of these same experiences. Tight schedules, and escapism (and medication) help me deal with the anxiety that life brings. Another thing I learned along the way is boundary keeping.
The people in my life know I need a lot of forward notice to participate in anything and I am going to flake about 50% of the time , yet somehow they put up with me! I think if you can be lucky enough to surround yourself with decent people it helps so much.
Are you aware when you're masking? I am not always certain I know when I'm masking myself, sometimes it's obvious, usually I can't tell until later when I feel drained.
Perhaps ironically I've spent most of my recent years learning when and how I mask, as it's been more of an ingrained habit by this point.
As I've learned more about autism and ND, I've learned that I likely also am. Only recently did I learn that masking is something you can be unaware of and I'm currently not really able to tell. I suppose like most things it takes me time to really digest and think about interactions after the fact to understand them. Anyway love that you posted this!