Tag Archives: anxiety

The Importance of the Pasta on the Left

I was in the cereal aisle in Target, waiting for The Scientist to decide on his cereal purchase, when I overheard this exchange between a mother and her preteen son:

Mother: “James, come and let’s pick out some cereal.”

James (appears from around the corner): “But I haven’t finished looking at all the pasta. I looked at the pasta on the right but I didn’t look at the pasta on the left.”

Mother: “We need to pick out your cereal.”

James (sounding panicked, voice rapidly rising into hysteria): “But I need to look at all the pasta! I haven’t looked at the pasta on the left. I need–“

Mother: “Okay, you can finish looking at the pasta if you promise to come right back here when you’re done and pick out your cereal.”

James: “I promise.” (dashes off around the corner then returns a minute later)

Mother: “Are you done?”

James: (looking happy) “Uh-huh.”

If you’re autistic or you have an autistic child, I bet you know why this conversation made me smile.

James’s mother didn’t say, “You don’t need to look at all the pasta.”

She didn’t say, “That’s ridiculous.”

Or, “You can look at the pasta later (or next time).”

Or, “Stop whining or we’re leaving.”

Or, “Grow up and act your age.” (James was around 10 or 11, I think.)

Or, “Get over here and pick out a box of cereal or I’m taking away your video games for the rest of the day.”

The pasta aisle is a thing of beauty, with it's boxes and bags all lined up by color and size.
The pasta aisle is a thing of beauty, with its boxes and bags all lined up by color and size.

Though she may not understand why James needs to look at all of the pasta when he visits Target, she recognized that preventing him from doing it would result in a meltdown in aisle 13.

And look at the results: The situation was rapidly de-escalated. James was happy. He came back and picked out his cereal as promised, without any prompting. His mother had to wait for him, but an extra minute standing in the cereal aisle beats the hell out of trying to calm a kid having a meltdown in the cereal aisle.

Meet Us Where We Are

There is a lot of talk about how autistic kids (and adults) need to learn flexibility. We’re too rigid, have too many nonfunctional routines. There are elaborate systems for teaching flexible thinking (which is important, I get that). But maybe non-autistic people need to be more flexible, too.

For kids like James, Target is stressful. The noise, the lights, the people, the smells–any or all of these can be overwhelming to autistic individuals. (And yes, based on what I saw I’m assuming–perhaps wrongly, but I doubt it–that he’s on the spectrum.)

If looking at the pasta makes a kid feel better, is that a big deal?

For some parents it might be. Let’s face it–a kid who needs to not only look at the pasta, but to be sure he’s looked at all of it? A little weird. But so what? We all have our coping mechanisms and James has found a way to cope with the stress of Target.

And his mother, bless her, she seemed to get this. She doesn’t look concerned about people judging her for letting her son “have his way.” She doesn’t belittle or shame him for what is, in his mind, a very real need. She doesn’t complain that he’s wasting their time or being uncooperative.

Her response left me wondering how long it took them to get to this point. Because not only did James interrupt his study of the pasta aisle to come when she called him, he returned the second time and picked out his cereal without being prompted. For a kid with such an intense need to study the pasta aisle, this is huge. Huge.

In this one small exchange, he’s learning how to negotiate, how to compromise, how to satisfy his needs while being conscious of his responsibilities, how to keep a promise, how to regulate anxiety and/or sensory overload using coping mechanisms.

Yes, autistics can be rigid. Yes, we have some odd routines or habits. Sometimes this has to be addressed. If James needed to spend an hour studying the pasta aisle, then yeah, big problem.

But a few minutes in the pasta aisle, accepting that the pasta on the left is important, even critical, to this particular kid–that doesn’t have to be a problem at all.

When you have an autistic family member or friend, you’re going to run into situations that you find hard to understand. There will be times when we’re not where you think we should be or where you wish we were.

When this happens, try practicing a little flexibility. Meet us where we are. You might be surprised at the results.

Nightmares: An Experiment in Anxiety Management

Warning: This contains some nongraphic descriptions of violent/disturbing nightmares. 

I have a lot of nightmares. If the statistics at WebMD are correct, I fall into the 2-8% of the adult population that has nightmares more than once a month. I’d love to know the percentage of people who have nightmares more than once a week. I bet that would make me feel really special.

Lately, though, I’m getting fed up with the nightmares. I’m ready to get myself into the 90+ percent of people who don’t regularly dream about being chased and assaulted.

Locating the Source of the Problem

Recently I began to suspect that my nightmares were related to my Asperger’s. Since finding out that I’m an aspie, this has been my default explanation for anything out of the ordinary.

Some digging through the PubMed database failed to turn up any research strongly linking nightmares and autism. Autistic kids are known to have a very high incidence of sleep disorders (look for a separate post on this next week). Some studies reported that as many as 80% of children with ASD have some form of insomnia. But nightmares haven’t been strongly linked to autism in children and, not surprisingly, there were no studies on sleep disorders in autistic adults.

My next stop was Google. If Asperger’s wasn’t to blame, I needed to find a likely suspect, and where better to hunt for clues than the internet, right?

Visits to WebMD and the International Association for the Study of Dreams turned up good background information about adult nightmares. I scanned through the common causes: medication or withdrawal from medication/alcohol, late-night snacking (because it increases metabolism), a traumatic event, PTSD, anxiety, stress, depression.

Aha! There it was. Anxiety. Asperger’s was to blame after all.

Sort of.

Connecting the Dots

Since I’ve been paying closer attention, I’ve noticed that my nightmares fall into two categories: violent or rage-filled.

The violent nightmares are closer to what most people think of when they think nightmare: being chased, being attacked, being seriously injured. The threatening person (or people) is always a stranger. The dreams used to end in me being seriously injured or nearly dying. A few years ago they shifted. Now the violent dreams almost always end with me seriously injuring or killing the attacker(s). If this sounds like an improvement, trust me, it’s not.

The rage-filled nightmares are characterized by me getting extremely angry with someone I know and blowing up at them. I’m not the kind of person who screams and rages at people in my waking life, so doing it in a dream is strange and disturbing. The rage feels uncontrollable and far more extreme than anything I’ve ever experienced in a sustained way while awake. It feels like I’ve snapped.

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Over time, I’ve noticed a pattern in when I have nightmares. I can go weeks without a bad dream and then I’ll have a string of nights filled with long vivid nightmares.

The trigger for each of the types is specific, too. The violent nightmares usually follow a day where I’ve had a frustrating social encounter with a stranger or acquaintance–something that’s left me feeling tongue-tied, inadequate or embarrassed. The rage-filled nightmares usually follow an unpleasant interaction with someone I know. Often that person will be the target of the rage in the dream.

Armed with this analysis, I went off in search of remedies.

A Possible Solution

One of the most common suggestions I found for reducing nightmares was journaling. I’ve tried journaling in the past, unsuccessfully, because part of my brain spends the whole time going “why are we writing this if no one is going to read it?” But the underlying principle of using journaling to process my anxiety makes sense.

My hypothesis about my nightmares: When a trigger event occurs, I’m not processing the feelings associated with it. The lack of processing in my conscious mind is forcing my subconscious to process the feelings, resulting in the unpleasant dreams.

So here is my Aspergarian solution: a spreadsheet. I’m going to track suspected trigger events and nightmares–along with a couple of other variables, like hormonal fluctuations–to see if there’s any relationship between the two.

Ideally, I’d also like to recognize triggering events and try to conscious process the feelings associated with them, no matter how unpleasant that might be. Avoiding them obviously isn’t working. Maybe making a deliberate attempt to look at the triggering situation, acknowledge what I’m feeling and then tell myself that it’s okay to feel that way will diffuse the power of the triggering events and lessen the frequency of the nightmares.

I’ll be back in a few months with a post about how this works.

The Athletic Aspie. No, really.

Aspies are notoriously unathletic. We tend to be clumsy and uncoordinated. Chalk it up to a motor planning deficit, poor executive function, proprioception difficulties, dyspraxia, or all of the above. Whatever the cause, the result is that we’re more likely to be branded a geek than a jock.

Unfortunately, I never got the memo on this. All my life I’ve loved sports and being physically active. Loving sports, in my case, isn’t the same as being good at sports, but I’ve never let that stop me.

Though my parents didn’t know I had Asperger’s they did know that I was clumsy. One of their nicknames for me was “Grace”–as in, “careful there, Grace” and “that’s our daughter, Grace.” I think this is funnier when you’re the one saying it than when you’re the one tripping over an inanimate object.

Perhaps in an effort to help me overcome my lack of coordination, they signed me up for a lot of individual sports: dance, gymnastics, bowling, golf, diving, swimming, karate.

Most of these were activities that I could do with other kids but didn’t require the type of interaction that team sports do. I was on a bowling “team.” All that meant was that I took turns with four other kids. The bowling itself was an individual pursuit. Other kids took a turn. I took a turn. I got to add up the scores. I wandered off to watch one of the arcade games. Someone called me back when it was my turn. It was great.

Golf and dance and karate were the same. I did these things alongside other kids but not really with them. There was an appearance of social interaction. The actual amount of interacting I did was minimal and that was fine.

I’ve always loved individual sports for exactly this reason. I learned to swim soon after I learned to walk. My family had a swimming pool in the backyard so I was in the water months after being born and enrolled in swim lessons as soon as the YMCA would take me. Swimming is still one of my favorite ways to relax. I love being in the water–the sensation of weightlessness, of gliding, of floating, of being surrounded and suspended–and I love the rhythmic movement and sensory deprivation of a long swim.

My YMCA Minnow patch – one of the few things I’ve saved from childhood.

As an adult I took up running. Like swimming, I enjoy the rhythm of running. I also like the way it gets me out into the quieter places–trails through the woods, quiet paths along the river, a beaten single track frequented more by deer than humans. I loved long bike rides as a kid for the same reasons.

The Beauty of Individual Sports

I tried team sports. In middle school, I was on the school softball and basketball teams. It was fun but I wasn’t very good at it and spent most of my time sitting on the bench during games. I also got razzed a lot by coaches for not making enough effort. My basketball coach was always yelling at me to be “more aggressive” but I had no idea what she meant.

There was a lot about basketball that I didn’t quite get. Team sports have many variables–the rules, the other team members, the fast pace, the ball (inevitably there’s a ball involved).  For the typical aspie, this is a lot to manage. By the time I got to high school, I knew that team sports weren’t for me.

But individual sports! This where aspies can shine. When I’m out on the trails or in the pool, I feel strong and athletic. I feel like I’m coordinated and connected to my body. I feel like I’m good at a sport! Forgive my exclamation points, but this is exciting for someone who grew up feeling clumsy.

So, let me sell you on the wonders of individual sports for aspies of all ages:

1. You can progress at your own pace. Individual sports allow you to measure your progress against yourself. While you might compete against others, most individual sports also encourage “personal bests.” Running a new best time for a mile or swimming a personal best for a 400 is as fulfilling as beating an opponent. Maybe more so, because it’s an indication that your practice is paying off and you’re better at your sport than you were a month ago or a year ago.

2. You can be part of a team without the pressures of a team sport. Individual sports can be less stressful than team sports when it comes to having to perform well every time. If you have a bad day as a team player, your actions can impact the whole team. If you have a bad day as a cross country runner, you might not place well, but one of your fellow runners could still win the race. There are team consequences, but they tend to be less severe.

3. You can practice by yourself. This is a huge advantage for aspies. Because of our motor coordination issues, we might need a lot more practice than the average person to learn or master a skill. When that skill is something that doesn’t require a team or a partner to practice, we can spend hours working on it alone, at our own pace.

4. You play side-by-side with others. Team sports put a big emphasis on bonding with other team members, which can be stressful for aspies. Individual sports allow you to play alongside others, interacting as much or as little as you feel comfortable.

5. Individual sports tend to be rhythmic, repetitive and predictable. And what do aspies like more than rhythmic, repetitive, predictable movement? Running, cycling and swimming are like large-scale, socially acceptable stims. And you can do them for as long as you like. The more, the better!

6. Individual sports can burn off a lot of excess energy. Many individual sports are endurance based, making them an ideal way to tire out a high-energy aspie. Even moderately vigorous physical activity will burn off excess energy and trigger the release of endorphins, which not only improve your mood but can reduce anxiety and help you sleep better.

7. Individual sports improve coordination. All sports improve coordination, but individual sports tend to be more “whole body” sports, requiring you to integrate all of the parts of your body to achieve the best possible result. Think of the type of movement required for swimming breaststroke versus the type of movement required for playing shortstop.

Why Exercise is an Essential Part of Managing My Asperger’s

I need to get in at least an hour of running, swimming or walking every day. I need to exercise every morning. When I say need, I’m not kidding. If I didn’t exercise religiously, I would likely be on medication for both anxiety and depression.

Hard physical activity burns up the unwanted chemicals in my body and generates a nice steady flow of good chemicals. Exercise takes the edge off my aspie tendencies and leaves me feeling pleasantly mellow.  If my physical activity level falls for a few days in a row, I start feeling miserable. I get short-tempered, cranky and depressed. I lose my emotional balance. I don’t sleep as well. I find it harder to focus.

Being physically active also keeps me connected to my body. I have a tendency to retreat into myself and become disconnected from everything that isn’t inside my head. I’m also still–in spite of decades of sports practice–more clumsy and uncoordinated than the average adult. Being physically active helps me combat this and makes me more physically resilient when I do take an expected tumble.

A Little Different Spin on Physical Activity

One of my favorite bloggers, Annabelle Listic, has written a wonderful post–Kinect with Me!–about how she is using the physical activity of gaming to address some of her concerns (which are different from mine). I’ve never played a video game that requires physical interaction but her post got me thinking that this type of gaming might have many of the same benefits as participating in an individual sport.

Eye Contact: The Conversation within the Conversation

Making eye contact–or more precisely, not making eye contact–is a big issue for people with Asperger’s. Neurotypical people seem to be especially frustrated and confused by this aspect of aspie behavior.

Even the professionals, who can offer up all sorts of theories as to why we don’t make eye contact, don’t seem to get the fundamental issue. In one study, the author pointed out that people with AS don’t make use of expressive information in the facial region of the eyes, “even when it’s available.”

That last part made me laugh. That’s like giving a Russian/Japanese dictionary to a person that can’t read either language and asking them why they aren’t using it. Just like that dictionary, the part of the facial expression around the eyes is a foreign language to an aspie.

Reading Expressions: The Eyes Test

I’m moderately good at reading facial expressions. I get the biggies like happiness, sadness, surprise, anger, and confusion. More subtle expressions–those that rely most heavily on the use of the eyes and the area around the eyes–are much harder for me. For example, on this list of 30 facial expressions, I would not have correctly identified the ashamed, concerned and contempt faces.

It’s important to note that “reading the mind in the eyes” (as the professionals call it) involves more than just the eyeballs themselves. It requires understanding how the subtle changes in the muscles around the eyes convey emotion. This becomes more obvious when you take the creatively named “Eyes Test” which requires you to use just the portion of the face between the nose and forehead. If you’re curious, you can find and take the test here:

Instructions (scroll all the way to the bottom of this file for the record sheet and scoring key)
Eyes Test Part 1
Eyes Test Part 2

(You can also find an interactive version called Reading the Mind in the Eyes at Test My Brain but you need to enter some demographic information to take it.)

I did surprisingly well on the test and here’s why: I cheated.

I suspect that most NTs taking this test would look at an expression and spontaneously have an idea of what the expression was. This is probably why the instructions say to choose an answer as quickly as possible.

How did I cheat? Before even looking at the expressions, I found myself reading all four possible answers. Then I looked at the expression and began the process of elimination. Here’s one of the expressions from the test with the four possible answers:

A sample question from the Eyes Test

My process of elimination: I know right away that it’s not dominant or horrified. It looks more like friendly than guilty, so the answer is friendly. If I hadn’t been given four choices for each expression, there is no way I would have spontaneously provided some of the more subtle answers like insisting or uneasy.

Obviously, in a real-time social interaction, no one is going to have four possible emotional options floating around their head to help me guess at what they’re feeling. Like most aspies, I’ve learned to use other information to try to fill in the blanks when it comes to facial expressions. I often focus on a person’s mouth, which I find conveys emotions more explicitly to me than the eyes.

I can gather some additional data from a person’s voice, especially when I know the person well. When my daughter calls me, I can tell from the way she says “hi” what kind of mood she’s in and what the conversation will likely be about. Unfortunately this only works with people I know well.

Over time I build up a databank of voice qualities for a person. With enough conversations in the databank, I need only a few words to recognize the happy voice, the lying voice or the you’re-not-gonna-like-this voice.

Why Learning to Read the Eyes is Challenging for Aspies

If we can learn all of these work-arounds and hacks for reading emotion in others, why can’t adult aspies just learn to read the eyes?

There are programs to teach children how to do interpret facial expressions. But for adult aspies, it’s a bit more complicated. We’ve grown up and spent decades of our lives not making eye contact.

Are we unable to read the eyes because we don’t make eye contact and therefore don’t have a rich enough data bank to draw on?

Or . . .

Do we not make eye contact because we discovered early on that the eye region doesn’t hold any useful data for us and our limited data gathering abilities are better “spent” on areas like (in my case) the mouth or voice?

It sounds like a classic “chicken and egg” scenario, doesn’t it?

Add to that level of discomfort that many aspies feel when it comes to making eye contact and it’s easy to see why learning to use and read the eyes in social interaction can feel like such an overwhelming prospect.

Is Making Eye Contact Multi-Tasking?

More than once I’ve read the suggestion that autistic people don’t make eye contact because we have trouble doing two things at the same time. This strikes me as ridiculous. Is making eye contact and talking really the equivalent of doing two things at once? If that’s the case, what about walking and talking? Running and talking? Driving and talking? I can do all of these things with no trouble. Sometimes I even talk while walking and chewing gum. How’s that for multitasking?

Moving on . . .

The wrong kind of eye contact!

When Eye Contact Becomes Too Much

The level of discomfort that people on the spectrum experience when it comes to eye contact varies from mild to unbearable. The discomfort also varies from situation to situation. I’m more comfortable making eye contact with people I know very well or hardly at all. People who I know somewhat (professors, fellow students, business acquaintances) are the ones who make me most uncomfortable when it comes to eye contact.

The discomfort goes beyond simply feeling weird. It’s a physical sensation. I physically feel like I can’t continue to look into the person’s eyes a second longer. If I do sustain eye contact beyond that point, I get a strong sensation of needing to flee the room.

The classic “fight or flight” symptoms suggest that my brain is perceiving sustained eye contact with certain people as a threat. Why is this? And why does it happen most strongly with people who I consider acquaintances but not strangers or intimates?

Perhaps it’s because I’m self-conscious about the uneven balance of social power in these situations? The other person is clearly gathering social data from my eyes but I’m not able to do the same. Ironically, given my small range of often inappropriate expressions, what they’re gathering is probably as useless as the fragments of nonverbal communication that I’m picking up from them.

Eye contact with strangers tends to be fleeting and meaningless. The exchange of information feels limited and safe. Eye contact with my husband or daughter, on the other hand, carries none of the social balance of power issues that I feel with acquaintances. I don’t need to worry about what they might be discovering about me or whether I’m missing some key nonverbal cue (because if I am, they’ll tell me).

Acquaintances, however, are still (or sometimes perpetually) in the “getting to know you” stage. We’re feeling each other out, gathering data that will determine the course of future interactions and cement our perceptions of each other.

For NTs, eye contact is a rich and layered language. It’s the conversation within the conversation. As aspies, we’re largely deaf to this language. It’s no wonder it makes us so uncomfortable when others try to “speak” to us with their eyes.