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Feeling Overwhelmed and Capable as I Walk Through the World With Autism

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I love walking. If I can, I’ll walk to my destination. Groceries, post office, shopping, visiting friends and just for pleasure. There’s only one major problem: noise. Cars, people chatting, footsteps, water, leaves rustling in the wind, my own feet on the gravel, ducks, dogs, cats and faraway trains. Imagine hearing all of that at exactly the same time, at high volume, with no way to stop it. That’s what autism is for me. Sensory overload, left and right. Light, noise, the wind in my face… I can’t filter any of it. I can’t go on my beloved walks without extensive preparation. Headphones, tangle, the correct shoes for the ground I’ll be walking on and the right music. Ready, set, breathe and go. Every walk is terrifying, yet calming. Which can be rather confusing.

Over the years I’ve learned to accept that I have autism and how it affects me in daily life. That simply going with the flow isn’t always an option for me. That planning things takes time and accepting that the days after social situations I will feel utterly destroyed and useless from the interaction the previous day(s). It’s knowing I need peace and quiet to do anything and letting the people around me know how they can support me best. Because if you’re cleaning up and you pick up the phone, how hard can it be to just continue cleaning after that? Well, for me, it’s a near impossible hurdle. Which means I try to avoid being disturbed when I do anything, and let people know I don’t mean to be rude for not answering the phone.

I can’t work in a room with other people. Even their breathing could be distracting for me, and I always feel like a horrible person for feeling that way. Of course I have learned to overcome some hurdles with a bit of conditioning. Lately I’m able to reply to a text and then continue doing my work, as long as I switch the song I was listening to during replying to that text. Writing it out like that makes me feel rather silly, but it’s been working perfectly.

Some struggles blow way up, and even during the blow-up I’ll be thinking to myself “Calm it down, what even are you struggling with?” and I don’t have the answer. As much as I wish I did, I don’t. It can be as simple as a break in routine. Like someone putting the biscuits on the table is a signal for me to start putting the kettle on for tea. But then one day I’ll be told “No rush, I don’t want tea yet.”

Static in my brain. Biscuits equals tea, that’s the routine. This tiny little change, having a 10-minute wait in between those two things, can be the cause for a total meltdown. And yes, I do feel rather foolish for that. But I can’t help it, that’s what autism is. I can’t cope with that tiny change as much as I really want to.

Does this mean I can’t have chaos, and need every minute of my day planned? Not really, no. I call it “planned chaos.” As in, I will have no clue what I’ll be doing during that time, but I know that I won’t have a clue. And usually that works out pretty well. Some days don’t have an exact routine, but I’ll have a little list of things that I know I need to do. Groceries, tidying, play a game and cook dinner. When I’ll be doing those things, I’m not exactly sure. But at least there will be some structure to my day as I know I will be doing those things. Not doing those things would be a big no-no and cause for huge amounts of stress.

I never enter a day without knowing what it will hold for me. I’ve had to learn over the years how to be as flexible as possible with this. But you can’t tell me in the morning that we’re going out for dinner when I have cooking on my to-do list for that day. Or rather, you can tell me, but I’ll need all day to adjust, meaning I’ll be a little worn down and quiet until that dinner.

It’s not always easy. Not for me and certainly not for the people around me. Having these struggles makes me feel like such an obstacle in people’s lives. They have to tell me when they want to do something and when, or at least give me a rough idea. And I can only imagine that it makes me not the best person to be friends with. However, I have a select few friends who get it, and actually make it work. Because at the end of the day, all I need is a confirmation of the time and if they have set plans. If not, that’s OK — at least I know. And that’s what’s important for me.

Being friends with someone like me, someone with autism, is like having any other close friend. We just need a little more security, that’s all. If you agree to meet, be a little more detailed about the when, where and what. Be aware that sometimes the town center can be a bit overwhelming and make sure to plan a drink in a quiet cafe. Or sit at home with a nice movie; it doesn’t have to be complicated. A little understanding can go a long way. And please, please do ask questions if you’re confused about how to do something or what not to do. We’re great at explaining things in detail and much rather you ask than have a misunderstanding!

The world can be a scary, overwhelming place for someone with autism, but that’s OK. I see every day as another adventure, another storm I need to somehow calm and another mountain to climb. And with my quirks and lack of verbal filter (which, to be honest, can be rather funny) I’ll make it through to the night, to do it all over again the next day. As exhausting as it is, those few times that I’m dying of laughter with a close friend, they make it worth it. I’ve accepted I need a little more time and structure, and that means that I’ve overcome the hardest hurdle of all.

Acceptance isn’t easy, especially if the world is so loud and overwhelming, always telling you the way you are is “wrong.” The only thing that’s wrong is that frame of mind. Accept yourself and prove the world wrong. Autism s*cks, but we’re not as incapable as we’re made to believe.

Photo provided by contributor.
Originally published: February 21, 2018
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