Thursday, June 6, 2013

Explaining Discomfort

There's a fear I have and it is fought each and every day. My goal in life is to fit in, be normal (whatever that means) and to just be. Having Asperger's, however, can sometimes create complications and while the complications are often the major story there is another story in play beneath the surface.

So often I talk about the complication itself but what I leave out is what happens the rest of the time. What does this mean? I've talked a lot about anxiety recently but there is another aspect I have omitted. It's also been a while since I stated this, but I am hyper-vigilant to my surroundings. This vigilance is always on and I am on constant alert for what could create an issue be it loud noises or random social encounters but this vigilance has more than one layer.

I'm now in Syracuse, New York and last night Kyle, the USAC interns, and myself went to this rather busy BBQ place. This alone worried me and yesterday when Kyle said that we were going to eat there my response was, "Is it loud?" Now what type of question is that? If someone is talking about a place to eat isn't the normal question, "is it good?" For a person on the autism spectrum my question wasn't that far out of the ordinary and here is why. I said my vigilance has two layers and one is protecting myself from highly uncomfortable situations but secondly it's to attempt avoiding situations where I might have to explain why I am uncomfortable.

Look, for those that don't have it, and don't have family that are on the autism spectrum, it's a tough thing to explain. Imagine this; let's say you have a horrible fear of going to the dentist and while you're on the chair with all the sounds of the drills and bright lights someone simply asks, "hey, what's wrong?" At that point in time are you going to be able to put into words that could be understood by the person who is asking that question?

So last night, at this BBQ place, we were seated outside because it was a perfect night and to my right was a row of motorcycles. Because of this I couldn't really enjoy the place, the atmosphere, or the conversation. This within itself is somewhat of a crime as I love being in new places because one never knows when they will ever be back in a certain place, but instead of enjoying this my eyes were glued to those walking on the sidewalk as I worried, no, obsessed with a fear to my soul that a person would step up and sit on one of these bikes. Why? There were about a dozen bikes and the furthest one away was at most 15 yards away and I hate loud noises.

As time progressed my fear grew and grew and it had two dimensions. One, obviously, was the discomfort of a starting motorcycle engine. I can remember when I was about six and my friend's dad started a motorcycle engine and I screamed for at least ten minutes. Back then no one knew why, but now I know and I was worried that, if a person started a bike engine, there would be some sort of reaction on my part. And if I had discomfort what would those seated with me say?

The last thing I want is to be noticed. When someone notices I'm having an issue of some sort two things normally happen. The first is "what's wrong?" which is very much like the situation I explained about the dentist and then the second part, if I explain at all, is "oh it isn't that bad." Perhaps saying this is an attempt to make me feel better somehow but it has the opposite effect. I do know, for you (or rather most people) that whatever is creating an issue for me is a non-issue for others but the fact of the matter is that it is an issue for me. Minimizing it doesn't help me. Saying it isn't that bad is, in a way, stating that I am weak. I understand that if I were normal (whatever that is) this noise, light, or whatever would be just another passing moment in life, but that's not the case for me.

Right before the food came out a person sat on a bike and I prepared, and there it was. I know I work at a race track but here's the thing; at a racetrack I have ear protection which truly minimizes the noise. I can tolerate it. Also, the sounds are constant. The issues with random motorcycles are that they are, well, loud but there is no predicting when or when not a rider is going to rev the engine to a fever pitch.

The noise was loud and I grimaced. At this point in time I want to be invisible. I don't want to be noticed, I don't want to be a burden; I just want to ride out this storm. Don't tell me that it isn't that loud because for you it isn't, but for me it is.

This is the reason anxiety can run deeper than what one might think. The episode itself is bad enough but also the fear of how those around me will react. Will they think less of me? Will they think I'm odd and if so, will they say it aloud? I had a purpose when I started this post by proclaiming that I just want to fit in and when something happens, say, a bunch of motorcycles firing up I am going to have an issue with it. All I did was grimaced and try to disconnect myself from the noise, but I did have a look of discomfort. Thankfully no one pointed this out or critiqued the situation and that was great. The last thing I wanted to do was to explain the situation as it was unfolding. Anxiety is bad enough without the fear of social ridicule.


  1. I have a question for you Aaron, that I've been wondering about since I started reading your blog. You say up front in this article that you want to blend in, be "normal" and not be noticed. But almost everything about your life right now is putting yourself in a spotlight of one kind or another, whether it be at a race track or in front of a listening audience. My question though is would you trade your present life right now to not be on the Autism spectrum? You travel a great deal which I envy every time I read your articles. I love to experience new places and new things. Like you said, you never know if you're going to ever come back to that place.

    But a great many of your experiences are a direct result of your Autism and how you go about dealing with it. Do you think you'd have experienced nearly as much in your life as you have if you did not have that to deal with? Just my curiousity about people popping up.

  2. One thing I have learned in life is- part of blending in requires observing how others do things- from their actions to the way they say things. When I am in doubt, then I will recall from my mind on how others react in similar situations that are as close to what is happening as possible. I might not be 100% perfect. But at least it's passable most of the time.

    Anxiety is really a horrible thing when it comes into play in our daily lives. A lot of people have to deal with this various times in life, autistic or not. If we learn how to deal with this head on as much as possible, our confidence will slowly grow. On the other hand, if we keep on avoiding them, we will never improve if escaping is not an option for whatever reason.

    I will give you an example. A few days ago, I was about to drive home after I mailed something at the post office. As I was walking out to my car in the parking lot on a semi-busy street, a stranger who said that she liked my shirt asked if I was willing to have a conversation with her.

    In that situation, I had two choices- making up a white lie saying that I have to return home, or talking to her and seeing how things goes. I chose the latter... and we ended up having a nice conversation for 10 minutes. Having a conversation with strangers is something that I am not particularly good at. But then I thought about the job demands for my job, these kind of things will happen until I retire! Unlike my student days, I can't hide behind a supervisor when these situations come. So, I toughened up and viewed it as practice. If I were to treat other autistic individuals some day, I am going to say to them, "Unless it's a '9-1-1 emergency' (a list that we would go over), you are NOT going to run away from situations that are tough for you. Instead, use the skills we have covered in therapy to the best of your ability. After that encounter, I want you to make some notes on what went well and what went wrong. To be concrete, you CAN list nothing but all positives or negatives, depending on how you feel the encounter goes. We are going to go over it on our next session." If they are not confident, role play common situations before they leave will be my go to method next.

    My approach might sound like one from a drill master. But, believe it or not, my current occupational therapist (I got switched to a new one recently) is using that approach more or less with me with some of the things I will be encountering in life. I like that because I am an all business person myself when it comes to personality... though I do have a fun loving side, too.