Another Spectrum

Personal ramblings and rants of a somewhat twisted mind

Aging and autism

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Today the wife and I visited The Feilding Craft Market. I look forward to such events, but always with some trepidation. And as I age, the trepidation becomes more pronounced. I’ve always understood the risk of such events triggering a migraine – being indoors, they’re where:

  • it’s noisy –  the noises and voices of hundreds of people wafting in and out of range, swirling together, becoming single strands and then breaking apart into a myriad of sounds before disappearing again into the hubbub. Sort of like an audio fireworks display in close up. It takes a huge amount of concentration to identify one sound from another.

    Is that someone talking? To me? A stall holder starts a conversation with me and the words of a passing mother to her child become entangled into the sentences, rendering the stall holder’s message unintelligible. Which words belong to who? I force a smile and move on. Was I rude. I don’t look back.

  • the lighting is uncomfortable – at least at first. after a while it becomes unpleasant, and eventually almost unbearable. The colour of the artificial lighting is wrong. It’s too white. The shadows are wrong. Their edges too sharp. Objects project more than one shadow. Textures and surfaces become exaggerated in the light, more pronounced somehow and become unpleasant. Perhaps a bit like how some people react to fingernails being scraped across a chalkboard. I squint in a vain effort to lessen the effect of the assault.

  • the air is thick and stifling – I can feel it as I drag it in and out of my lungs. It’s heavy. The smells of human bodies mingle with soaps, aroma oils, leather, wood, salami, coffee, herbs and spices. One moment in pleasant combinations, the next in combination that induce sensations of nausea. A woman passes with perfume so sickly sweet, and the food products in the stall in front of me turn from appealing to disgusting in an instant. I move on quickly as knot forms in my stomach.

  • it’s full of chaos and movement – People in a constant state of movement, avoiding each other with apparent ease, except with me, where we both end up doing a semi synchronised dance before one or other of us manages to get sufficiently out of step to allow a passing maneuver. Even worse is trying to overtake someone moving in the same direction but at a slower pace. I swear overtaking on a busy highway is less stressful and can be accomplished quicker and with less effort.

    Each and every movement is a distraction. I keep loosing my place as I attempt to read an information poster. Movement in my peripheral vision constantly causes my eyes to turn towards it. I look back as the poster. Where was I? Half way down? Never mind, the distraction has caused me to forget not only where I was but what I have already read. Start from the beginning again. No idea why I wanted to read it anyway. I move on as the stall holder approaches.

  • I loose the wife – again and again. Some people might say the place is a sea of faces. To me it’s a sea of eyes and noses, mouths, chins and hair. Which combination belongs to the wife? She’s 35 cm (14 inches) shorter than I am, so can eliminate most, but of course she’s usually hidden behind someone else. I see a hand waving above the sea of hair. It’s attached to a sleeve of the right colour, so it’s probably her. United again – at least for a few stalls.

  • there’s no personal space – While I recognise that my personal space might be slightly considerably larger than most, it seems that everyone else is willing to forgo theirs at such events. I’m not. I stop to watch a demonstration. Someone moves in beside me. Their arm occasionally brushes against mine. Far too close. Then I sense someone close behind. Definitely closer than 60 cm (2 feet). Time for a quick escape.

I managed to hold it together. I even cracked a few jokes with the last stall holders as they packaged up the dozen craft beers the wife decided to buy on the way out. I’d practiced a few jokes specifically for circumstances that would likely occur at such an event, and apart for the one that I had to ad-lib slightly and ended by being tongue-tied, they appeared to have the intended effect.

One aspect of aging that is become more apparent is that stamina becomes less abundant. While I suspect events such as the craft market have always been just as stressful, my ability to endure them has become less. – particularly over the last few years. The almost two hours we spent there was absolutely exhausting, and I think if the wife had wanted to spend longer there, I would have had to leave her there by herself.

When we arrived home, the tremors began, my hands shaking violently as I struggled to pick up snack and a drink. I felt very light headed and it took an extreme conscious effort to complete the steps necessary make myself an espresso coffee. The coffee beans go into the grinder, not the cup. The machine won’t heat up unless it’s switched on. You get the picture.

Very quickly I felt very tired and decided to lie down for a short time while the bread maker kneaded the dough. I woke up almost six hours later and the dough had expanded to the limits of space available in the bread maker. What’s good is that the sleep aborted a pending migraine. What’s not so good is that it won’t do anything good for my sleep pattern, such as it is, nor for the quality of the bread that has just been baked.

For five decades I had assumed that everyone experienced crowded environments in much the same way as I do, but that for some reason other people were less affected by the experience. Somehow they managed to overlook or ignore the discomfort that I believed they too experienced.

Since my autism diagnosis, I have gradually come to the realisation, that most people experience such events very differently than I do. They don’t find crowded spaces disorienting. They enjoy the social interaction. The sights, sounds, smells and bustle are stimulating and enjoyable, not overwhelming and torturous. We might live in the same physical world, but the way I experience it in its entirety is very different. This is especially so when we consider the social environment that, as human beings, we all must share.

The medical profession consider autism a disorder, and perhaps it is, but I and a majority of autistics perceive it as a difference, and in time I hope we, in the neuro-diverse community, are proved right. After all, only fifty years ago, homosexuality was considered a disorder by the medical profession, and some sections of society still consider what comes naturally to most people is wrong for gays.

What is becoming clear to me is that many autistic traits that most neurotypical people perceive as deficits are perfectly normal in light of how autistic people experience the environment around us. In a social order designed by and specifically for the autistic community, a great many neurotypical traits would also appear to be deficits.

In societies such as that we have evolved in Aotearoa New Zealand, cultures have to some extent integrated, but more importantly they have become intermingled, retaining their distinctiveness, while becoming part of a larger whole. This provides a more vibrant, rich and diverse society where we learn to appreciate not only our similarities but also our differences.

It’s true that in order to make it work for all, the dominant Pākehā culture must make significant adjustments, and we are moving along that path, although not as fast as it should. Some find it very uncomfortable. Likewise I’m looking for adjustments within the dominant neurotypical culture to allow not only the neuro-divergent community to exist (and there are powerful influences trying to eliminate it), but to encourage it to prosper. In the end we’ll all be richer for it.

Author: Barry

A post war baby boomer from Aotearoa New Zealand who has lived with migraines for as long as I can remember and was diagnosed as being autistic aged sixty. I blog because in real life I'm somewhat backwards about coming forward with my opinions.

2 thoughts on “Aging and autism

  1. Thank you Barry for your full description of your experiences. While I am aware of the sensory and social sensitivity and overload some autistic people may experience, your description of the disintegration of sensation and overwhelming effect of this for you does add to my level of understanding and empathy for yourself and others. It is no wonder that your brain may collapse into migraine after that assault.
    Being of an introverted disposition I wear out in lengthy social encounters or in high stimulation situations such as you described and my resilience has become less with age too. It is very helpful to hear from the inside the much higher levels of stress you experience compounded by the underlying breakdown of sensory and social processing (at least in the sense that NTs expect). I agree that society does not take account of differing ways of experiencing the world so that people with a variety of characteristics may live with reasonable comfort and flourish in their daily lives.

    • Thank you for your comment Christine. I often wonder if neurotypicals can relate to the descriptions of my experiences and those of others on the spectrum. It seems that our words are not completely lost 🙂

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