September 15, 2018

You Don't Look Autistic

During my first year in college, I was a bundle of energy and nerves. I was most excited about having a chance to make new friends. I did not know anyone when I first arrived like most freshman. However, I was still insecure about reaching out to people. I still was figuring out what my diagnosis meant to me. When I introduced myself, I sometimes mentioned my Asperger’s to them. At the time, I thought that this tactic would help me make new friends. It turns out it did not seem to improve my chances. Some people would look at me surprised and responded with “You don’t look autistic”. When I first heard that phrase, I honestly believed that it was a good thing. I was overjoyed at the time that I was successful in acting 'normal'. I took this as a sign that I did not have to worry about being judged for my quirks. I did not understand how dangerous that mindset was. Instead of helping, it only hurt me because I developed some unhealthy coping mechanisms in order to camouflage better.
                As I became more involved with the specialized service groups on campus, the phrase started to rub me the wrong way. I noticed a steady fear of uncertainty among the other students when talking about topics like job hunting and forming relationships. It was a struggle because I felt like an impostor, with that sentence "You don't look autistic" echoing in the back of my mind. I am not criticizing the few people who responded with that statement. It was a moment of mutual ignorance from both parties. I do not take pride in hiding my symptoms anymore. Instead, the phrase reminds me of some painful memories of my childhood. It reminds me of times when I cried at night in bed wondering why I couldn’t connect to my peers. It reminds me of when my friends said that they 'like me anyways' despite being weird and their attempts to make me ‘less weird’. I was told that I was picked on because I was not trying hard enough to be normal.
                While that phrase was meant as a positive statement, there is a heavy negative undertone to it. The first issue is that it implies that I do not fit the misconceptions associated with autistic person. Despite the gradual improvement of representation in major media, there is still a struggle to challenge old beliefs when it comes to the image of  individuals diagnosed on the spectrum. The statement “You don’t look autistic” focuses on the idea that there is a certain look or set of actions that should make my Asperger’s obvious to the other person. I have seen this counter argument stressed in other places and I will stress it here to the readers as well. When you meet one autistic person, you have met ONE autistic person. The reason the autism spectrum is referred to as such is because it affects each individual differently.
                The second issue with the phrase “You don’t look autistic” is that it also encourages camouflaging. Camouflaging is when a person on the spectrum acts similar to a person who is neurotypical. This could result in repressing 'stimming behavior' (repetitive actions that help a person with autism as a protective response to over stimulation 1 ) to avoid attention or mimicking certain behaviors observed in particular environments. This causes a lot of additional stress to everyday challenges. For example, I am very sensitive to loud, high pitch noises. Fire drills were hell for me when I was growing up with the loud noises and the crowded hallways. Though I was usually warned ahead of time, they were very stressful on me. To avoid meltdowns, I would cover my ears and close my eyes to avoid being overwhelmed from the drill. Of course this attracted the attention of my classmates. When asked why I covered my ears, I told them that the noise hurt me.
                They could not understand because it was not hurting them; it was just a mere nuisance. In their eyes, I was overreacting to the noise and the crowds. Some of them started to mock me for it. Others told me that I should suck it up or just ignored me. By the time I reached high school, I was sick of the judgmental stares  so I stopped covering my ears even though I was in pain. The other kids still picked up on my sensitivity to loud noises. They thought it was funny to sneak up behind me and yell in my ear to make me jump.
Though I did become less sensitive to certain noises, it caused a lot of stress. Despite not having to deal with fire drills anymore in college. I still struggle with different loud noises in public spaces. To hear the statement "You don't look autistic" was validation for me to continue using the unhealthy coping mechanisms. In the long run, they led me down to a mental breakdown that affected my school work. It took several years to break these dangerous habits with the help of my fiancé and family. To develop a healthy society and improve neurodiversity, this phrase should not be encouraged.
Fortunately, improved medical understanding can aid in improving social discourse. A major step is to improve communications between all the groups involved- from the scientists and autistic people, to the general population. Improved communications will make it easier to wipe away misconceptions around both the diagnosis and people with autism. It will be easier to embrace neurodiversity for everyone in the public sphere. This series will attempt to further this dialogue. Look out next month for the second article in this series- addressing the issues of media presentations and people with autism.


1. Self-stimulatory behavior, also known as stimming... is the repetition of physical movements, sounds, or words, or the repetitive movement of objects common in individuals with developmental disabilities and most prevalent in people with autism spectrum disorders.

September 8, 2018

Body Language 101: Eye Contact

In the animal kingdom, many animals will avoid making eye contact unless it is to challenge a rival for food, a mate, or territory. However, eye contact serves a different purpose for humans. For people, eye contact is frequently used as part of conversing with other people. It lets a person know that you are focusing on them. This may seem like a simple task for someone who is neurotypical. It is a stressful one for someone on the spectrum because it takes a greater amount of concentration to make eye contact.
                In the recesses of my memory, I can hear my mother's voice saying "Eyes on me, eyes on me." whenever I looked away from her. She would back this up with using her finger tips to attract my attention back to her face. This tactic was useful for me growing up because it allowed me to maintain my focus while keeping eye contact the whole time. One of the reasons for the success of this tactic was my age. I was still young enough to not be overwhelmed from other factors. It also helped that I trusted my mom and she was very patient with me. As a result of this practice, I am no longer bothered by making eye contact.
                 This exercise can be best utilized in a quiet environment with minimal distractions. You could ask a trusted friend or family member. For a discussion, talk about a topic that both yourself and your partner are interested in. Discussing a topic that is mutually interesting could help make it easier to maintain eye contact. If it is too stressful to use a general conversation, you can use a written script to read. This script could be from a work that you are interested in such as a play or a novel. As long as it is a topic that both yourself and your partner can enjoy together.
                Before the exercise starts, work out a gentle reminder you wish your partner to use to help redirect your eye contact. These reminders could be a visual cue, verbal reminder, or a combination. Figure out which one will work the best for you. If eye contact is something that is a big struggle, set short time periods to practice before moving on for longer conversations.  Also discuss either how long or how frequently you want them to remind you. This is a gentle exercise, if you are feeling overwhelmed or anxious, let your partner know that you want to stop.
                However, if you are not comfortable with asking a person, you could practice with yourself either in the mirror or with a photo. This may be a little more stressful since it becomes your responsibility to remind yourself. The purpose is to gradually improve maintaining eye contact without taking away your focus.
                If you are a parent of a autistic child, it may help to encourage positive reinforcement when they do manage to make eye contact. Positive reinforcement could help make eye contact less stressful for the child. Patience and understanding will be crucial for this to be successful. Eye contact will be difficult because it will take a lot of focus for your child to maintain. When they start getting agitated, it would be best to stop the exercise until they are calmer again. It is important to remember that the goal of this exercise is not to force them into improving their eye contact, but a gradual growth.
                This is not an exercise that encourages masking either. If improving eye contact is a personal goal, this may be a possible exercise to try out. It can be frustrating trying to balance focus between making eye contact and listening to the speaker. Autism effects everyone differently. If this exercise is causing anxiety for you, then I do not recommend continuing. The goal is to improve eye contact in a gradual, non-stressful exercise.
                The Empathetic Aspie is a supportive community for people on the autistic spectrum and allies. I encourage readers to share their experiences in the comments. Discuss in the comments below about aspects of the exercise that worked or did not work. By sharing our experiences together, we can create a solid foundation for support and friendships.  

September 1, 2018

Time Management Tricks

Time Management Tricks
By Jessica Costa

                Time management is a challenging skill to develop, yet it is something that can improve your daily life. It can be overwhelming to keep up with chores, manage school/work and still have a social life. Practicing these time management skills will help make these tasks less overwhelming. For example, some chores, like washing dishes, are usually done daily. While other chores, such as laundry, can be done every 2 to 3 days. Trying to remember everything can cause the brain to feel like it is imploding from all that weight. Fortunately, there are several ways to help balance time between everything without being too overwhelming.           

Post-it Notes are good to use as a small reminder backed up with some other tricks. The most important part is to make sure that they are well- placed. They are most effective when they are in a spot that you look at every day. In high school, I placed post- it- notes on my bedroom mirror because that was right by my door. You should play around with different spots to figure out the best place.

Whiteboard should also be placed in an area where it can be easily seen for most days. These are slightly more effective because there are different styles of whiteboards that can be used. You can buy a simple blank one for customization for multiple tasks.  If it is challenging to plan out the weeks or months then a calendar whiteboard would be the better choice. You could purchase different colored markers to represent a different day or a different task. The choice of their meaning is up to you.

Picture Chart  is friendlier for visual thinkers and younger children. While writing reminders down is a popular trick, it is not the perfect tool for everyone. Pictures can be completely personalized to represent different tasks. Some of them can be easy. Dishes could be a picture of a plate and silverware or laundry could be a shirt. You can choose which image works best for your memory.  

Phone Reminders are  helpful if you frequently use technology. The limitation with the previous tips is that they remain at home. A phone alarm can be personalized to the specific time and day it has to be done. You can set up how frequently the reminders go off. However, you should make sure that the alarms are set to vibrate during work/ class.  

A Daily Planner  could be a better alternative if you prefer not to use the smart phone. You can use them to write or draw- in your goals for the day. Similar to white boards, you can utilize custom color codes of your own choice. The notebooks can come in different sizes to your personal taste.

                It is important to remember that it will take some practice and time to figure out which one or combination of these tips would work best for you. Start with one strategy for a certain length of time. If that does not work, then try a different strategy until it becomes part of a natural routine. Not all of these strategies will be a perfect fit for every person. It can be frustrating when a strategy works for a short time and then does not seem to work at all. With enough practice, these tricks will ease into becoming part of your routine.