Sensory Stuff

Our Autistic Expression

How did a Transformers movie help me to understand that I am neurodivergent, and put to rest an oft-voiced complaint about me in social settings? Read on to learn this, and other aspects of our sensory experience, in the latest edition of the ongoing series Our Autistic Expression.

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Because of our late diagnoses, and our tendency to ask innumerable questions about ourselves and about the world, once we both understood that we might be neurodivergent, we sought out indices of our own behaviors (and experiences, tendencies, thoughts, etc) for comparison. As anyone in a similar position will understand, we are endlessly self-aware and search for causal chains for logical explanations. We sought the wisdom of anecdotal experience, alongside reading mountains of evidence-based clinical research and white papers on neurodivergence & autistic expression.

Sensory processing is of great focus in both personal and scientific research. I had never considered my own sensory processing as unusual or atypical, and what I read forced me to think much more deeply.

A dawning moment that I was assuredly on the spectrum was sensory in nature, a realization as epic as the intent of the Michael Bay movie on which it centered. That a Transformers movie should be the catalyst for my self-awareness is both fitting and humorous.

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Like many, I often went to the movies, prior to the streaming age. I always enjoyed the experience but could hardly remember what I’d seen afterward. I couldn’t recall plot details or character names. I had always attributed this to my mind fixating on details it found more pressing – the choices the set designer made, how the composer created suspense, etc.

Despite my inability to nap (lifelong inability, you can ask my mom) and my inability to fall asleep in public, or sleep sitting up, during the biggest action movies, I always fell asleep. No matter how much I’d looked forward to seeing the movie, no matter how important it was to me that I remain awake, 30 to 45 minutes in I was dozing. I never made the conscious decision to close my eyes, never felt bored, tired, or disinterested, and yet, again and again, inexplicably, I was told by those accompanying me, “You passed out,” “You fell asleep,” “You were out like a light,” etc.

And just as inexplicably, I’d awaken during the credits. Star Wars episode 4 is my first recollection of this happening, but many people found that movie boring (sorry fans), so it didn’t surprise me. It happened again during action-adventure movies, most notably during one of the Transformers movies. (I really don’t know which one.)

I was sitting in the theater, excited and impressed by the intense special effects, digital art having come so far in such a short time. It was a magnificent take on the toys I coveted from the boys’ toy aisle as a child in the early 90s.

No less than 10 minutes into the movie, I was having trouble keeping my eyes open, despite the double espresso I’d had an hour before. I fought the sleepiness as long as I could. My body rattled and my skin buzzed from the voluminous surround sound, literally shaking and thumping along with every footstep and every collision. My body pulsed chaotically, deep in my muscles, entirely out of my control. My eyes grew heavier as the bright, colorful, highly pixelated action sequences penetrated my retinae. The last thing I remember before “falling asleep” was the sensation that my heart was going to race itself right out of my rib cage.

At the roll of the credits, my eyes popped open and I was awake. My skin no longer trembled. My muscles twinged, like I’d run a mile without stretching first, but otherwise I felt nothing but shame. The person I was with, someone I was dating at the time, was furious with me afterward. He’d spent money on these tickets, after all, and the least I could have done was tell him I wasn’t interested in seeing it. I had no way of explaining – I was interested!

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With the understanding that I might be neurodivergent, a decade later, this was the first experience that came to mind. I hadn’t been falling asleep out of boredom or exhaustion. And I wasn’t “waking up” at the credits because I sensed people moving around or heard the end roll in my sleep.

I was blacking out from something the community refers to as sensory overload.

The intensity of movies with rising action, incredibly loud sounds, and flashing, colorful images were literally overloading my body’s ability to keep track of all of the sensations it was experiencing. My body was overwhelmed with the inability to turn down or tune out the noise, so to speak. Consciousness requires a lot of neurological resources, and my body’s tendency in these rare and extreme situations was to conserve resources, by shutting down awareness and running on autopilot.

I was waking up at the credit roll because I was never really asleep. I was experiencing the entire movie without consciously having to process all of my sensations. The moment the sensory experience dulled, the light switch flipped, and I was ‘awake’ again, consciousness returned to me.

Likely, my inability to remember any movie is a facet of this as well. Storing anything in short-term memory takes resources too. I like the analogy of a computer’s RAM, or Random Access Memory. If all of my processing power is being used to touch base with my skin, muscles, sights, sounds, etc., then likely the resources (or RAM) available to also catalog memories during these moments is slim.

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I have no proof of this other than that of my own experiences. I don’t know if there would be a safe way to prove it. Now I just avoid Michael Bay movies and most of the trouble in this particular regard has subsided.

My desire to KNOW was strong and had been powerful in the past. Did my awareness of the issue remove the sensitivity? I wished to go willingly into the belly of the beast once more, having gained this knowledge, trying desperately to know myself.

I chose a 4D action movie, which purported to be a sequel to one of my favorite movies, starring Tom Cruise. (It was not a sequel.) In the 4D theater, the seats move to replicate the character’s experience on scene. If a character falls, the chair bumps. If a character leans over a railing, the chair tilts forward. Scents and sprays are directed at the audience to enliven the experience further. I figured, it may not be Michael Bay, but if I’m right and this is actually sensory overload, the added scents, smells, and movement should make up for the loud (if not abnormally loud) sounds and vivid (if not entirely digitally wonderous) imagery.

The moment before I blacked out, my back was crawling with sensation as rats devoured Tom Cruise in a London alley.

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It isn’t just movies. Concerts are a special sort of shock as well. When I feel the bass in my chest and see the lights strobing, there’s a chance I’m a goner. I remember the first half of an AC/DC concert I attended, and then my date forcibly shaking me and lecturing me all the way out to the parking lot about the stupidity of over-imbibing. (I’d had 3 beers, not a drunken black-out’s worth, but seeing me black out, he’d assumed many more.)

Sensory overload is truly a difficult thing to understand if you haven’t experienced it for yourself. It isn’t a headache under a bright light or the grating shudder when hearing nails on the chalk board. It is the overwhelm of sensory input combined with the inability to process all of the data coming through.  And it is exhausting.

In my daily life, I don’t experience sensory overload very often, and I have since learned how to manage my environment in order to cope.

  • I avoid movie theaters generally, and the rise of big screen TV has made movies much more pleasant. When I sense a movie is “too much” (eg a horror movie with a lot of blood and suspense), I sit sideways and casually watch the movie askance.
  • My office and bedroom offer a variety of lighting options, to stimulate or relax sensations, but in general I prefer yellow light to bright white light.
  • I prefer dark paint to light paint, especially in relaxation settings.
  • I’m discerning about the clothing I wear, textures in particular, so that I’m not adding to my sensory load by feeling an itchy synthetic draw on my neck or hips. More about my fashion-related autistic expression here.
  • I sleep with a mask to darken the room, cover digital lights with black tape, and have replaced a noisy air conditioner for one with a quieter motor.
  • I keep gentle, pleasant smelling essential oil or lotion with me at all times, in case an outside smell is nauseating.
  • After a long day, I sit in the dark to recover, with no screens and no sounds, just something to hold my focus, like a sketchbook.
  • I take frequent walks in nature, which only ever relaxes me.
  • I avoid the beach and its vastness.
  • I seek out hugs or personal space when the needs arise.

There are rare times when I need to turn the lights up, the sound on, and create an environment rife with multiple inputs. I’m not entirely sensorially wimpy, so to speak.

The Scientist can never get enough sensory input. Curiously, like me, he really enjoys nature but for different reasons. Pathways among the trees provide an endless amount of visually stimulating textures, colors, and random variations; the outdoors wrap his other senses pleasantly as well. His ideal day is spent on death-defying rollercoasters in the sun with loud music blaring. After a long day, he needs an unfathomable (to me) amount (say, all the lights on, loud anime, a handheld video game, a heating pad, & a fizzy drink). As partners, this makes our living situation interesting, and at times, challenging.

As always, with verbal cues and self-awareness, we do our best to make it work and keep it working.

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About the Series

I am neurodivergent. Neurodivergent is more appropriate terminology than autistic, a term which derives from the Greek word autos meaning self, a term intended to imply isolation from social interaction. While the definition of autism has expanded over time, I feel it’s more flawed and divisive than not (as labels typically are). While I do still refer to myself as autistic on occasion, I’m much more likely to label my notable traits as autistic, as in “this skill or tendency sets me apart”, and to describe myself generally as divergent.

My partner, also neurodivergent, feels similarly. We were both diagnosed later in life, in our mid-late 20s, after running the gauntlet of other health and human service concerns and crossing the eventual “must be autism if it isn’t these other things” finish line. I wouldn’t wish either of our journeys toward diagnosis for anyone, years rife with stress, mislabeling, depression, psychosis, serious medical ailments, and general social othering. The medical and psychiatric communities have already begun to recognize neurodivergence earlier, and with more sincere gender blindness, to provide individuals with the tools, resources, and assistance they require. To “make it” in our society as a person who falls many standard deviations outside the expected average on related scales relies on an individualized approach to education and healthcare. (A much larger conversation for another day.)

Sincerely,

Sunshine

Of Www.sunshineandthescientist.com

Creator of Kid Lit Motivates: a fledgling business on Long Island providing customized educational resources from a unique perspective of education

Author of Maddie Steiner, Fashion Designer

Everything Fashion:

Our Autistic Expression

In this installment, I recap all I’ve discovered about myself and the Scientist in all our preferred, fashionable glory.

Your Fashion is Not Our Fashion

We are nonjudgmental and do not hold anyone to the standards to which we hold ourselves. It’s critical you understand this if you read on.

Photo by Tamara Bellis on Unsplash

A Time and a Place

The destination, setting, and intended mood dramatically affects the choice of attire. The Scientist and I have both been accused of being somewhat cartoonish in our outfit choices, but only because we have a deep-seated desire to match the environment — a desire that ironically makes us stand out. I wish to fit in, he wishes to blend in (I think these are different.)

Where most people have something of a capsule wardrobe or a set style that they wear for most things, or a seasonal approach, or an affection for neturals, our wardrobe is entirely contingent on the expectation, the setting, the mood, the location, the crowd, etc. Each of these factors holds weight.

I’ve never owned, and never will own, an LBD.

Before the Event

Before a job interview, party, hang-out, family visit, date night, etc., I don’t worry over the directions, the people, the food, or anything else. I consider what the outfit should communicate.

It’s a function of my anxiety, insecurity, preparation, and self-control — my autistic expression. I can’t control most variables, but I can doll myself up to look the part.

If I’ve never been to a place before and can’t see pictures ahead of time, or if I’ll be with people I don’t know, I fret about wardrobe.

Standing Out by Trying to Fit In

It may be hard to imagine this from outside the spectrum. Imagine if everywhere was actually a movie set — a location designed intentionally a certain way for a certain reason. There’s lighting, style, texture, energy, etc.

Then, the actors are dressed specifically to match the tone. Muted colors or bright, matching or contrasting, symbolic in one way or another — patterns appropriate to the architecture, time period or set by the lighting — cuts and styles seeming to originate from the era, blending seamlessly to create an illusion for the audience… All things the clothing designer considers when dressing the actors for full effect.

I’m not acting. This is me, for real. I’m becoming the most appropriate part of the scenery as I expect it to be. The Scientist too, to a lesser extent. His wardrobe has been cultivated to be timeless, unique and memorable — much like his personality. He’s not concerned with fitting in to the background so much as being himself, inspiring his own mood for the day, and matching the tone I’m setting.

I attribute my fashion obsession to many factors. I was singled out for my clothing in elementary school. I wasn’t allowed to wear dresses because of how I boyishly sat and played. I wore hand-me-downs from my brother’s closet and was forced into oversized, stiff tees. My body developed early, well ahead of my peers. I was obsessed with fitting in with others, with everyone, through my first 25 years. I felt insecure and detached and craved fitting in. I’m bored over the blandness and unoriginality with what the stores are offering. I need to inspire my own mood to want to socialize. Everything I do stems from an intentional choice.

To feel remotely comfortable, I need to look like I belong, by my own standard. I am a chameleon with thousands of skins.

Photo by Ekaterina Grosheva on Unsplash

On Being Different, Extra

I never want to be the center of attention. I take very few pictures and no videos of myself because I’m ironically not very attached to the way I look. I check the mirror once or twice a day, and not always before I leave the house in the morning. I always wanted to be more than just a pretty face and took a lot of umbrage whenever anyone said “it’s a good thing you’re pretty.” Beauty is irrelevant. It’s luck of the genetic draw. I’d love to blend in, to appear less striking, to be taken seriously as a mind not a face.

But since I intentionally choose my outfits based on an endless wardrobe, I end up standing out. Grudgingly.

It’s gotten me into embarrassing situations in the past. Moments or evenings I’ll regret forever because I overplayed my outfit. I’ve lost friends over it. I’ve ruined days being too…me.

Fabrics, Brands, Patterns, and Prints

I won’t wear leather or fur, because it seems silly and cruel to me in a world where the fakes have become as good if not better than the reals.

I don’t wear realistic animal prints for much the same reason, but I never pass up a green zebra print or a colorful feather pattern if it’s right.

Keep your name brands. I don’t want to pay exorbitant prices to be a walking billboard for a corporation. The brands that most people pay the most money for seem less valuable to me, lower quality, poorer construction. For that matter, I’m happily thrifty and incorporate vintage pieces often.

I don’t have too many fabrics I won’t wear, but I know the textures I don’t find comfortable. By feel, not by name. I have a few items in my closet that I love the look of, but can’t wear because of fit or feel — and eventually I’ll weed them out when I’m tired of trying to love them and the disappointment has faded.

The Scientist has an encyclopedic knowledge of fabrics, patterning, and construction. He can touch a fabric or see it on a hanger and identify the percentage of the blend. He also dabbles in sewing and clothing design. He wears a lot of birds, flowers, and natural textures. His retirement dream is to design a clothing line.

Colors

The Scientist and I are both able to see more colors than the average person. Although tetrachromacy is typically considered a female trait, we both identified many more color variants than the average when tested. It likely makes us even more attentive and discerning.

I know what goes together. For me. It would be impossible for me to verbalize these rules. They vary by decade or inspiration, cut and mood, all sorts of variables.

I nearly never wear red, blush, or beige. I firmly believe navy and purple can go with anything if you’re using them correctly. There are 100+ versions of each color. Anything can be a neutral. I love using contrasting colors from the wheel, watching for pastel/bright/primary/jewel combinations, and switching up options seasonally. I tend to be a year or two ahead of where the trends are, but I attribute this more to my growing boredom, not because of some insider fashion knowledge.

The Scientist is adept at monochromatics, moreso than I. I’ve never met anyone who can wear shades of red that work together. He also finds ways to match neighboring colors on the color wheel- something I never attempt but something I find so compelling. Usually he prefers blue or lavender.

Photo by Darling Arias on Unsplash

Head to Toe Fit and Style

I know it when I’m comfortable, which varies greatly based on my anxiety. Despite a fairly static body type, my anxiety will dictate how comfortable I feel in tighter fitting clothing or revealing more skin day to day. Sometimes I really need to show off this or that to feel feminine. Sometimes I need to cover up entirely in billowing fabrics.

My choice is predictive, though. The Scientist can predict an upcoming meltdown if I’ve chosen one of a few “I give up” pieces of clothing in combination. Usually, this is an ill-fitting black shirt with brightly colored rainbow leggings and something that just doesn’t match the rest.

(He’s helped me see my patterns in so many wonderful ways. I highly recommend finding an empathetic neurodivergent partner, if you have an empathetic neurodivergent mind.)

I prefer sneakers — Vans or Cons — which the Scientist has explained is because of my metatarsal arch, which requires a flatter, more protected surface. I toe-walk (common with neurodivergence), and my weight leans toward the outstep of my foot, not the ball. I’m working on fixing my gait and soon I’ll wear corrective braces. It’s not all bad though — I have highly developed musculature in my toes (finger-toes, I call them), and I have pointy, dainty dancer feet for them being size 10 hairless mammoths.

The Scientist is more predictable in fit and style. He likes a tighter fitting pant, a looser fitting button-down, and a seasonally appropriate sleeve. A suit whenever it is appropriate. No pants in the summer, shorts. Always socks. Palladium boots. Tommy Bahama casuals.

Mood

How do I want to feel today? What am I trying to convey? How can I inspire myself to create or focus or embody the nuanced part of myself I deem important right now? Is there a fashion era that will assist me in getting there? A color palette? An attitude? For as much as I want my style to match the environment, I’m also thinking how my style can alter my mood for the moment.

Feeling sluggish? Definitely wear the career casuals associated with office work. Feeling relaxed and free? The artsy throws and pastels will do nicely. Let me layer up the knits for the fun of fall. Break out linen for the freedom of summer nights.

Photo by Atikh Bana on Unsplash

Memory

Recently, I realized how my outfits function as a touchstone for memory. I don’t know why — perhaps because of the care with which I select them, their uniqueness or weighted importance, or just seeing them in my periphery each day.

Always, automatically, what I wore is a shortcut to the coded file. “Remember that day?” you might ask. Do I? I remember, I was wearing — oh the weather — the scenery — the people — the conversations — and then yes, I do remember that day.

I didn’t realize it was so important to me until the Scientist and I became nostalgic about our own experiences together. “Remember when…” he’d ask. “What was I wearing?” was always my reply. Knowing I have a tendency to encode memories differently, he never took offense when I didn’t remember right away. He can usually recount at least some of the outfit on the day in question and the memory floods back.

The regularity with which I asked him about my clothing drew my attention to my memory’s predilection. And because he and I spend a lot of time together, and because he dresses deliberately as well, his outfits have helped me encode experiences I otherwise would have forgotten. He’s my favorite sight in every scene.

I have trouble remembering the stuff people usually remember , in favor of things people typically don’t notice. I don’t remember the plot of the movie, or who was at the birthday, or what year the party was — my memory might be the strange thought I had when I walked in the room, the fact that I’d seen that poster before, that I got stuck in traffic on the way, or the faded color of the carpeting. I’m me everywhere, and my brain never stops analyzing and formulating — it has no sense for what to prioritize in memory, and certainly no accurate sense of day or year.

But…I can remember…I am this outfit on this day at this time for this reason — so Easter 2019 — the sage green, knee-length, modest dress with delicate lavender flowers that I wore under the lilac denim jacket I’d bought for the occasion with my olive green high-top Vans— meeting the Scientist’s extended family, wearing spring colors and wanting to be me, a casual-yet-romantic-inspired me — and I’ll never forget that day. It’s the intentionality with which it was chosen, the specificity of the clothing, that jogs the day back.

An Unbelievable but Totally True Addendum

The Scientist and I met on a dating site a few years ago. Actually, I’d seen him many times in various contexts before, but didn’t put together that all of these cute guys I’d seen and been too shy to talk to over the years were the same guy. He was the guy that tutored at the library where I worked years earlier. He was the guitarist in that concert I’d been drooling over before that. He was the guy on Myspace that all the girls somehow struck up conversations with before that.

He was the 8-year-old sort-of-Goth kid in the Marilyn Manson shirt that I met at the picnic when I was the 12-year-old wearing the multi-colored striped baby tee and gray parachute pants with butterfly clips who played violin. We’d exchanged a few words. We’d gone our separate ways. We realized it decades later based on the clothing we each wore and what we remembered of the other.

It’s sort of like an autistic fairy tale, wouldn’t you say?

What do your clothes say about you?

I’d never expect my structure to fit around anyone else. And I know that many neurodivergent people consider color, texture, etc in choosing outfits. What else matters about your clothes? Are they communicating something? Are they standing you out or fading you in? Please tell me your autistic expression — I would love to know more.

Photo by Sarah Brown on Unsplash

About the Series

I am neurodivergent. Neurodivergent is more appropriate terminology than autistic, a term which derives from the Greek word autos meaning self, a term intended to imply isolation from social interaction. While the definition of autism has expanded over time, I feel it is more flawed and divisive than not (as labels typically are). While I do still refer to myself as autistic on occasion, I’m much more likely to label my notable traits as autistic, as in “this skill or tendency sets me apart”, and to describe myself generally as divergent.

My partner, also neurodivergent, feels similarly. We were both diagnosed later in life, in our mid-late 20s, after running the gauntlet of other health and human service concerns and crossing the eventual “must be autism if it isn’t these other things” finish line. I wouldn’t wish either of our journeys toward diagnosis for anyone, years rife with stress, mislabeling, depression, psychosis, serious medical ailments, and general social othering. The medical and psychiatric communities have already begun to recognize neurodivergence earlier, and with more sincere gender blindness, to provide individuals with the tools, resources, and assistance they require. To “make it” in our society as a person who falls many standard deviations outside the expected average on related scales relies on an individualized approach to education and healthcare. (A much larger conversation for another day.)

Sincerely,

Sunshine

Of Www.sunshineandthescientist.com

Creator of Kid Lit Motivates: a fledgling business on Long Island providing customized educational resources from a unique perspective of education

Author of Maddie Steiner, Fashion Designer