Monday, April 24, 2023

Frozen at Checkout


Understanding is a difficult thing. From the outside it can look like so many different things. Even if I give an explanation that scratches 50% of the surface, well, it can still be almost impossible to truly understand the elements in play. In this story I’ll do my best, but at the end I worry you still may not have a full understanding of what it’s like living life on the autism spectrum.

Last week I was in Indianapolis for the NTT INDYCAR Series open test at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. One morning, on my way to the track, I stopped at a gas station to grab a drink and an energy bar. It was early, and the sun was still an hour from making it’s first presence known over the Eastern horizon. I was not quite half awake as I grabbed my two things to purchase and headed to the counter.

I’m not a morning person. Maybe that factors into this story, or perhaps it doesn’t, but as I put my goods on the counter, I was experiencing a strong aversion to eye contact. There are different times when this impacts me with a greater severity, and in this story, it was as strong as it gets. What happens when it is strong? It isn’t so much that eye contact is a choice in these times but rather it’s much like having the strongest magnetic repulsion possible preventing me from any eye contact of the person at all, much less the eye.

Looking away from the person is my only option in these times and I usually am looking down, away, and to the left when this occurs. I’ve never seen myself in these instances from the third person, but I probably look about as uncomfortable as possible.

A misconception people will do is to try and throw words they know to this, and perhaps that’s their way to quantify it on their way to understand it. “Oh, you must be introverted” is what they’ll say, but it has more layers than that. It isn’t a moment of, “I just want to be by myself” but rather a full body alert that’s triggered a defensive position of avoiding all eye contact and an attempt to be invisible.

The clerk rang up the two items, asked a question to which I nodded, and then asked another question which did require a verbal response to which I gave and then the clerk said, "No words to soft spoken.” That five-word sentence was like a salvo of bunker-busting bombs to my defensive position, and I quickly began to loathe myself.

Inside my mind during these episodes, I know I should respond with words. I know I could be more social, and more fluid with my outward facial expressions, but when the elements are right, or wrong in this instance, it isn’t a matter of choice. It’s here that, when a neurotypical tries to understand this, they can’t because it isn’t a matter of choice.

I fear these moments that I’m a prisoner in my own brain. Extroverted, introverted, shy, or outgoing all don’t tell the story. The sensation I have in these moments is one of mortal danger as if I make eye contact or speak, I am putting my being on the line. The ability to simply overpower this is not there. Here, again though, is difficult to explain and understand because the way I just worded it may make it sound as if I’m scared for my life. I’m not. Think of it taking a stroll on a sidewalk that happens to have a river of lava flowing safely to the side. It’s staying over on the side and so long as you wander off the path there is no danger. That’s what can happen for me, at times, when needing to socialize. I can’t explain why my inability to communicate was worse during this, but my brain felt it important to stay on my side of the sidewalk and not venture out.

For the rest of the day, I was down on myself. I wish I could simply overpower and “man-up” as some used to say. It’s such a paradox this; my body does everything it can to protect itself to minimize the chance of a bad or unplanned social encounter which in turn creates a bad or unplanned social situation that lingers with me for a long while.

Maybe I’ve explained this well, or maybe I haven’t. I don’t blame the clerk in the slightest. How could he have known what he saw was behavior from the autism spectrum? Maybe he thought I was aloof, or internationally looking away from him as if I thought myself superior. It wasn’t any of those things. It was a potential everyday occurrence of autistic traits playing out. It’s not a choice, it’s something I try to hide, but on days like that I’m unable to, and in the end it’s something that I fear because it creates life in a paradox.



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