Nera Birch

@theautisticpinup | contributor
Super Contributor
I am a self advocate who is passionate about speaking and writing on what it is like to be autistic. I live in Cleveland, OH with my beautiful commune. Come check out my website, I'm Not Drunk, I'm Autistic at https://theautisticpinup.com/
Nera Birch

Sensory Overload -- Why I Hate the 4th of July as an Autistic Person

The 4th of July is one of my least favorite holidays. One of my autistic sensory issues is my hatred of loud noises. In fact, it was one of the earliest signs of my autism. Whenever there was a thunderstorm or even a hint that one might be on the horizon, child me would be terrified. I would have so much anxiety over the loud, unpredictable noises and would often just end up throwing up until it was over. I am still trying to get over my fear of thunderstorms, but I have gotten better. Fireworks are another story. The 4th of July poses its own set of problems, both sensory-wise and social-wise. Sensory-wise, the aforementioned loud noises are overwhelming. I loathe when people set fireworks off in their backyard, which seems to be a common theme where I live. I constantly feel under attack, not knowing from which direction or when the loud noise will occur. Socially, it is the holiday that makes me feel the most alone. As a kid, I would have to watch my family set off to have fun at the fireworks show, while I was left at home. I tried going with them a couple of times, but it always ended up with me locking myself in the car, terrified at the sensory battlefield happening around me. As an adult, my ex-spouse would force me to go to fireworks shows by exploiting my autism. They would tell me it wasn’t fair that they had to miss everything, just because I “couldn’t handle it” and was “ruining things like always.” That would make me feel so guilty that I made myself suffer through the festivities. I am very happy to be out of that toxic relationship. I was invited to a barbeque this year, but I can’t go because they are insisting on setting off fireworks in the backyard. Since it was my fiancé’s family, we tried to ask them to accommodate me and not set off loud flammable objects in a residential neighborhood, but they just told him to come by himself. Luckily, he refuses to leave me alone on a day that scares me so much. To anyone looking to set off fireworks at home this year, please think about the people (and dogs) living around you. This might be a bit of playful fun for you, but for me and anyone else who shares my terror of loud noises, it can be incredibly difficult to get through. You never know who is in their house crying because noise-canceling headphones can’t block out the unpredictable explosions happening around them.

Nera Birch

When I'm Wondering If I Should Tell My Therapist I Hear Voices

Therapy has long been part of my life. My parents started taking me to a psychologist when I was 4 to find out what exactly was “wrong” with me. In third grade, I started seeing a therapist who turned out to be a very abusive and toxic person in my life for over 15 years. Ever since I stopped seeing her, I have completely avoided all therapy even though I desperately need it. I have trauma from both an abusive childhood and an abusive ex-spouse that I am having difficulty processing and I know talking to someone will help me. I am slightly worried about seeing another abusive therapist, although that is not the reason I have avoided finding one. My main concern has do to with one of my biggest coping mechanisms. My head is a very noisy place. I hear voices on a daily basis. I would say there is only one mean voice. Most of them are absolutely lovely. They talk me through difficult moments, keep me company when I’m lonely, and help me process my confusing emotions. Janis Joplin is my absolute favorite artist and her voice is often one that appears in my head during my darkest hours, which brings me comfort to no end. The good voices even do a pretty decent job at blocking out the mean voice, although there are many times it manages to slip through. My parents made me scared to talk about the voices in my head. They told me hearing voices, even positive ones, meant a trip back to the mental hospital the one and only time I brought it up when I was 12. A return trip to the mental hospital was and still is my greatest fear. Because of that, I have never told any of my doctors about the voices in my head. In fact, I would outright lie to them if they asked me if I heard any voices. It’s only been in the past few years that I have accepted it myself. I still get anxious talking about it even with my closest friends, much less a stranger that I haven’t even met yet. Right now, I am struggling with the decision about how much I should tell my therapist when I find one. I want to be honest about what is going on in my head. Otherwise, how will I get the help I need? Even though I love most of the voices, I would not mind getting some help dealing with the scary one. But I am very worried about getting a negative reaction from someone who is a professional. I know that I don’t have to stick with a therapist who isn’t right for me, but I am worried that I won’t allow myself to use the positive voices if a professional tells me that it is a harmful coping mechanism, even though I know for a fact that it is the best one I have. I know that finding the right therapist for my complex cornucopia of mental health needs might take a long time, but I think that if I can find the right person, my life will improve. And I know that the right person will be someone who respects me and acknowledges the fact that I am my own best advocate. Can you relate? Let Nera know in the comments below.

Nera Birch

Sia Became Suicidal Over 'Music' Backlash: An Autistic Person Responds

“Music” is a film written and produced by Sia that was released in February 2021. From the second previews began to air, the backlash started pouring in. The biggest controversy was the fact that Sia chose a neurotypical actor (Maddie Ziegler) to portray an autistic person. Many autistics, including me, wrote about our concerns online. Neurodivergent people need to be represented by neurodivergent people. Let’s just say that Sia did not handle her response to this valid criticism well. Recently, Sia made a statement saying she felt suicidal and ended up in rehab after a relapse because of the extreme outrage over the movie. First off, I want to make sure that I am respecting and not invalidating Sia’s struggle with suicidal thoughts. I myself have struggled with suicidal ideations for as long as I can remember. We can’t discredit Sia’s feelings and what she is going through. That being said, that is far more respect than Sia showed the autistic community. I watched the movie and it was two hours of my life I am never going to get back. I don’t get offended easily, at least about autism. I often make jokes about myself, some that people might deem a little tasteless. You either laugh or cry about it, and while I do both, I prefer laughing. But from the second Maddie Ziegler danced onto the screen, I felt ice running through my blood. Her character, to me, felt like a very offensive caricature of autism. I had to mask through the movie because I felt self-conscious showing any autistic behavior. Every time she moved her head, twitched her fingers, or even had her mouth open, I felt like someone was making fun of me. There was also the issue of restraint being shown as a technique to help calm down autistics. Restraining someone can be dangerous, even deadly if done improperly. I was restrained by my father many times and it was incredibly traumatizing. I actually had a meltdown during one of the restraint scenes because of how much it upset me. I was not the only one who had issues with these scenes. Sia had to respond to the criticism of the restraining scenes by putting this disclaimer at the beginning of the movie: “’Music’ in no way condones or recommends the use of restraint on autistic people. There are autistic occupational therapists that specialize in sensory processing who can be consulted to explain safe ways to provide proprioceptive, deep-pressure feedback to help with meltdown safety.” All in all, this entire situation has been a mess. The lesson we need to take away from this is that autistic people are our own best self-experts. When we advocate for ourselves, people need to listen and respect what we are saying. We also need to have much better representation in the media. I want little autistic children to watch a movie or a show about someone with autism and feel good to see themselves on the screen.

Nera Birch

How My Autism and Surviving Sexual Abuse Intertwine

For quite a while in my life, I thought sex was a painful and uncomfortable experience I would just have to get through instead of enjoying it. Part of my autism is that I don’t like to be touched or need to be touched in a certain way. That makes sex and even non-sexual contact complicated. I have very definitive moments where I need to be left alone. This didn’t always line up with how my ex-spouse wanted to treat me. I used to have what I termed an “autistic” day. This was before I truly fell in love with my autism and realized that every day was an autistic day and that is something to be celebrated. But back then, it meant a day when I was unable to pretend to be neurotypical. I was burnt out or having a lot of trouble processing and being touched was the last thing I needed. Even something as small as being touched too lightly on my arm and I would have a panic attack. My ex-spouse refused to accept that as an excuse, however, and would tell me that I didn’t love them enough. There were worse incidents. There were quite a few times where I was forced to have sex when I absolutely couldn’t handle it. But it was easier to get it over with than have to listen to my spouse guilt me and scream at me. And it meant I would be left alone, for at least a little bit. I truly didn’t realize that this behavior was sexual abuse. I was convinced that my autism was just such a barrier, such a detriment that I needed to compensate by doing things I didn’t want to do or face not having any human relationships at all. I have since escaped that situation and now live in a very peaceful, non-abusive environment. I have made great strides in my physical relationships and a large part of that is because I now surround myself with people who don’t just view me as a sexual object and who respect my boundaries. I truly relish getting to tell someone that I don’t want to be touched, so much so that I will shout it out gleefully while stimming. There is a lot of healing I still need to do, though. While my brain is on board with my various partners touching me, my vessel sometimes struggles to get the message. I have times where my body decides it does not want to have sex, even if my brain does. This can pose problems, but I always make sure to verbalize what I want to be happening. Hopefully, with time and my loving and understanding partners, I will be able to enjoy sexual encounters in a way that works best for my autistic self.

Nera Birch

5 Things I Want My Dentist to Know as an Autistic Adult

I absolutely hate going to the dentist. I know that most people do, but as someone who is autistic, it is a complete minefield full of anxiety, sensory issues, and being touched. Here are 5 things I want my dentist to know. 1. My nervousness is not a sign of intellectual disability. When I get anxious, I have a very hard time masking. I flap, rock, and wring my hands. Every time I go to the dentist, because of the intense fear I am displaying and the fact that they can see an autism diagnosis in my file, I get asked questions such as, are you your own guardian or who drove you here? The answer to both is me. Just because I am quaking like a leaf does not mean I can’t function in other aspects of my life. Of course, people with intellectual disabilities also deserve respect and quality care, but making assumptions based on a person’s stimming and behavior can be harmful. 2. I am not afraid of the pain. I’m afraid of the difficult sensory experience ahead of me. I hate the sounds of the drill, the noise my teeth make while metal scrapes against them, and the brightness of the light shining above me. I wear headphones with a podcast while there, but I can still hear the shrill buzzing of the drill and feel it vibrating around my skull. Normally, if I get too sensory overloaded I flee the situation, but you can’t do that at the dentist. 3. The worst part of going to the dentist is not the going to the dentist part. It is the week before. My anxiety slowly starts ramping up and by the day before the appointment, I can think of nothing else. By the time I get into the waiting room, I have spent a couple of days in abject terror thinking about my appointment. The dental work is always far less bad than my anxiety makes it seem. 4. This is an appointment I might have put off for far too long, not just because I am scared, but because even the act of calling to make the appointment drains me. I am getting much better at this, but I used to not go to the dentist until I was feeling intense pain, which led to me getting many cavities, fillings, and root canals that might not have been needed if I had gone to the dentist on a regular basis. 5. I have trouble remembering to brush my teeth. I have not-so-fantastic executive functioning skills and it can be difficult to remind myself to do basic human tasks. This too has led to more dental work that would not have happened if I had remembered to brush my teeth every night. I get very embarrassed going to the dentist because I don’t want them to judge either me or my teeth. I am working hard to fix this. I have a reminder set on my phone to brush my teeth and I make sure to keep my toothbrush in a visible space so I can be prompted.

Nera Birch

What It Feels Like to Go Non-Verbal as a Verbal Autistic

As I sit, staring blankly ahead in the midst of my autistic meltdown, words course through my mind at the speed of light. All of my coping mechanisms seemed to have vanished, so the words are very negative. I am being brought back to traumatic memories and events. The voices of all the people who have abused me come out to play. I find myself back in my childhood home, having a PTSD episode about being shoved into my room and having the door locked when all I wanted was a hug. The scariest part for me is when I try to yell for help, but I can’t. I can feel myself trying to push the words from my head out of my mouth but it just won’t happen. I might be able to repeat a phrase over and over, but I can’t control what phrase it is nor can I stop it. Other than that, it’s complete silence. I am usually very verbal. I often have a hard time processing and sometimes words can take very long to run down the tunnel and out of my mouth, but I can make it happen. There are times, however, I go completely non-verbal. This usually happens in times of burnout or during a meltdown. My vessel just shuts down and I feel like a shell of a human. It doesn’t usually last very long, but there is always the next meltdown glimmering on the horizon. There are days where I am just having a meltdown every hour, which greatly increases the chances of me going non-verbal. The basic difference, for me between verbal and non-verbal autism is the actual ability to physically use their voice, not the words inside their head. Thanks to all the technologies available now, people who can’t use their voice to speak now have very useful tools to help them communicate. Your ability or inability to speak words has nothing to do with levels of intelligence or functioning. I adore notebooks and I have them scattered around the house. If you flip through them, you’ll see to-do lists or notes on my current knitting project. Every so often, you come to a page that has a messy and frantic message, pleading to make everything stop. When I am non-verbal, writing is my only hope of getting words out of my brain. I always try to have a notebook near me, even in the car. I have been rocking, tears streaming down my face, for who knows how long. I can feel a dull pain in my thighs and I know that I will have bruises tomorrow from punching myself. Slowly, the cloud lifts, and I suddenly hear myself screaming “help.” A small bit of controlled verbalism is back. My boyfriend comes running down the stairs and gives me the deep pressure that helps snap me out of the scenes in my head. He holds me while I babble like a toddler, my words very limited, but more than I had a few minutes ago. Eventually, the meltdown stops, and I find myself back on the normal plane of existence. I have won another battle in the war that is my autism.

Nera Birch

Noodle the Pug Brings the Dog Version of 'Spoon Theory' to TikTok

Noodle the pug is the new oracle of our times. Every day, on social media, you can find out if this 13-year-old pug is having a bones day, which means he is able to stand up, therefore making it a good day. No bones days happen when Noodle just refuses to do anything other than flop over, indicating that the day won’t be the greatest. Noodle is more than just a cute predictor of how good your day will be. Anyone with a disability or a chronic illness can relate to Noodle. Noodle is basically the dog version of the spoon theory. There are some days that are just more difficult than others. There are some days where we can stand and some days where we can’t get out of our bed. Unlike Noodle, humans are judged much more harshly when they have days where they can’t function at their highest level. I have what I consider very few spoons. Being autistic can take a lot out of you. I constantly have to mask, deal with all the overwhelming stimuli around me, and work on social relationships that confuse me every second of the day. I don’t get a break from my autism. It pervades every aspect of my life. There are days where like Noodle, I have bones or spoons. I am able to go out in the world and complete the tasks necessary to live. I can write, run errands, and generally function. I also have a lot of no-bones days. I get overwhelmed very easily and the few spoons I possess can very quickly run out. Those days, I tend to have a lot of meltdowns. It is very hard for me to do anything more than sit on the couch and cry. I often go non-verbal during these days, which is incredibly scary for me. Those of us who have few spoons aren’t always listened to. We are expected to do our best no matter what and anything less is a show of weakness. I had days where I would have to drag myself to work, incredibly burnt out. All I would want to do is crawl under my desk and rock. Instead, I had to mask my agony and pretend that nothing was wrong. My spoons would be in the negative and I would always pay the price later. But I didn’t have a choice. I had proven that I could act like a “normal” person and therefore had to live up to that expectation. People seem to empathize much more with Noodle than humans that struggle on a day-to-day basis. I get that it is easier to do that. I like dogs way more than I like people. But we should take the empathy and love for Noodle and apply it to the humans around us. If someone is having a rough day or doesn’t seem like themselves, consider the fact that maybe it’s a no bones day for that person and don’t judge them. Noodle can be more than just a cute puppy that tells you your luck for the day. We should use him as a blueprint for how to treat the people around us. @jongrazplan your day accordingly ???????????? ##nobones ##bonesday ##noodletok ##pug♬ original sound – Jonathan

Nera Birch

Why the Texas Abortion Law Terrifies Me as an Autistic Person

I’m going to be very blunt about this. I dislike children. They are sticky, loud, and produce various substances from every orifice of their bodies. For me, having a child sounds like my worst nightmare. I know for a fact that if I ever got pregnant, I would go for an abortion as soon as I could. That’s why Texas’s new six-week abortion law both scares and insults me, especially as an autistic. I want to preface this article by saying that having autism does NOT mean you would be a bad parent. This article is written from my own viewpoint, regarding my own sensory issues, maternal instincts, and lifestyle. I have some severe sensory issues, especially when it comes to noises. A child crying or screaming hurts every fiber of my being. Not only that, but one of my worst sensory issues is the shushing noise. When I hear that noise, I have to start punching or pinching myself, to make the indescribable feeling inside of me go away. I also have a lot of autistic meltdowns where I often hit my head on the wall until someone comes and helps me. What would happen if I was holding my child and I went into meltdown mode? What if someone made the shushing noise to my child and I broke down? If I was forced to have a child, I truly fear that I would inadvertently end up hurting it, just because of autistic reactions I can’t handle. I also need time to myself. I need to be able to sit down, process, and breathe. You can’t do that with a small child. You constantly have to be on alert to make sure they don’t kill or maim themselves. At this point, you might say, why don’t you just have the child and put it up for adoption? My answer to that is there are issues with me just being pregnant. One of those concerns is the fact that I don’t take the best care of my vessel. Due to sensory and executive functioning problems, I will often forget to or don’t want to eat or drink water. I also get very little sleep and the sleep I do get is not restful. I am honestly surprised I haven’t collapsed at this point. I also have a condition called POTS that messes with my heart rate and blood pressure. There is no way I would be able to sustain a healthy pregnancy for either myself or the fetus inside of me. All in all, I feel like this is something basic that we shouldn’t even have to discuss. People should be able to make their own choices about their bodies. If people truly cared about the child growing inside of someone, they would take into consideration the life they would lead when they exit the womb.

Nera Birch

Depression vs. Autistic Burnout: How to Tell the Difference

My depressive episodes and my autistic burnout episodes are two completely different things, although it did take quite a while to figure out that they were two separate entities. When I was younger, they blurred together a lot. I wasn’t able to verbalize the difference until recently. In my depressive episodes, all I want to do is sleep. Napping is the perfect way to diminish hours until it is time to go to bed again. I cry so much, usually loud gasping sobs. I also will talk to myself while crying, mostly nonsensical sentences. With burnout, I basically become paralyzed. During burnout, all I can do is sit somewhere and stare off into space. I don’t even feel like sleeping. I just become non-verbal and stare at the wall until a human comes along and tries to snap me out of it, although I am not always able to. If I’m by myself, it’s even worse, because I just have to sit there, waiting for it to be over. It’s like my meat puppet is there, but my soul is gone. I am able to cry, but it is usually just silent tears running down my face. Burnout is one of the scariest parts of being autistic, for me. It is terrifying being unable to even twitch a finger. There are differences in what causes the depression or burnout. I feel like my depression is more of a mental state and my burnout is when I just completely shut down. My burnout occurs most when I am done trying to exist in the scary human world and need a break. It happens a lot when I feel lonely or when I am going through a PTSD experience involving my abusive parents or ex-spouse. It also correlates a lot to when I feel like my social skills are inadequate and that no one will ever want to interact with me. One thing that is the same in both burnout and depression is the mean voice in my head. It is a constant litany of self-hate that enjoys reaching into the deepest depths of my mind to find whatever material it can use. The mean voice delights in bringing up whatever is necessary to keep me in a state of misery. Another similarity is the urge to kill myself. Both depression and burnout hurt a lot physically and mentally and my usually passive suicidal thoughts take a turn for the worse. The last thing they have in common is the occasional yo-yo effect. I will find myself being terribly upset one moment, better the next, and right back into the sadness. That makes it even harder to cope, because I never know what or when is happening next. There aren’t many tips I can give for dealing with either depression or burnout, other than to just try and get through it. I have made plans while in a good state of mind as to what to do if burnout or depression strikes. I have a list of activities, such as knitting and reading, and a list of people I can go to if I need help. I tell myself a lot that each minute that passes is another minute you managed to survive. It might be the smallest triumph, but at least it is a triumph.

Nera Birch

How Migraines Affect My Mental Health

Migraines are, luckily, not something I get on a constant basis, but I have one at least every month. I tend to get a lot of eye migraines. Usually, one of my eyes starts pulsing and it feels like my head is splitting open. I also get incredibly nauseous. It hurts to have any sort of light near me and all I want is complete darkness. A lot of my migraines tend to be from stress or anxiety, although my seasonal allergies do contribute. When I get migraines, it tends to set off a chain of events that not only derail my daily life, but also hurt my mental health, which is precarious on its best days. Migraines most impact my mental health by taking away my coping mechanisms. I constantly have to distract myself from my brain. I always have music, an audiobook, or a podcast playing, or I am reading. The moment I have nothing to concentrate on is the moment everything goes wrong. My brain releases a tirade of insults, traumatic memories, and suicidal thoughts. When I have a migraine, I have to sit in absolute silence, in the dark. It is the perfect feeding ground for all of my mental health issues and I have absolutely no defense. I just have to ride it out. Crying is also another coping mechanism I use on a daily basis. It helps me release both positive and negative emotions in a healthy way. When I have a migraine, crying will just intensify it, so I have to make sure I hold back my tears. I have to mask, which is very draining for an autistic. The physical pain of the migraines is also very hard for me to handle. Because of my autism, I have a difficult time processing pain. It can get very intense and overwhelming for me. I don’t even have a way to lessen the sensations of the migraines. Unfortunately, I have only found one medication that stops my migraines and I can’t take it for other health reasons. I just have to fight through the agonizing pain. Having my migraines connect to my mental health status can lead to a vicious circle of getting migraines from poor mental health days and those migraines creating more poor mental health days. Migraines also make me feel trapped in my vessel, both emotionally and physically, which can trigger PTSD reactions from past trauma, which in turn leads to more migraines. There really is no way for me to win or even get a break.