I was walking to meet my partner, Tom, at a restaurant. I could feel the familiar unease building; I’m much more anxious meeting someone at a destination than arriving with them. As always, I sent him a text message asking where he was sitting. I wanted to know exactly where I would have to look to find him when I arrived.
I had been having a fairly good day, and I was feeling more self-reflective than usual. Right after I hit send, I thought to myself—why do I need to know where he’s sitting? Why does it matter so much?
I know the easy answer.
Autistic people like predictability.
I, as an autistic person, like to have a clear mental image of exactly what’s going to happen before it happens. It calms me. It makes me feel safe. But why?
Whenever I feel anxious my go-to method to calm down is to imagine the situation I fear and think of the (realistic) worst case scenario. It helps me stay grounded in the fact that what I am worried about isn’t as bad as it seems. This also helps me understand why I’m anxious about something in the first place.
So I thought: What happens if I show up and don’t know where Tom is sitting?
My gut reaction was, I won’t be able to find him.
I saw myself standing in the restaurant, staring around at all the tables, attracting attention and looking like a clueless fool, Tom anonymous in a sea of heads and shoulders and bodies and tablecloths.
The answer was ridiculously simple.
I have poor visual scanning skills, especially in environments with lots of competing stimuli, like a restaurant. I knew that visually scanning for Tom would be very difficult for me. So I wanted to take the easy way out. I didn’t want to have to struggle.
Working with other autistic people in a professional setting helps a lot with my own self-awareness because I can adopt that sort of clinical, third party perspective when looking at myself. This experience is the only reason why the buzzword “visual scanning” popped into my head.
I realized that I don’t “need” to text Tom before I meet him somewhere. I just want to.
I’ve been thinking about this constantly since I thought of it, realizing it extends to nearly every aspect of my life.
For as long as I can remember—probably my whole life—I’ve been confusing “difficult” with “impossible.”
I confuse disability with inability.
Just because something is difficult for me, or painful, or uncomfortable, doesn’t mean I can’t do it. It just means it’ll take more time and effort.
For a long time, I couldn’t wash dishes.
The sensation of getting my hands wet when the rest of me is dry is indescribably violating, almost painful. It’s a kind of wrong that I feel in my soul. To compare different types of sensory violation: if a loud ambulance is like stepping on a nail, then wetting my hands is like a mouthful of live bugs.
Gloves don’t help. I can feel the temperature of the water, and some always leaks through, so I always get slightly damp, even through industrial shoulder-height gloves (I own a pair).
But since this epiphany I’ve gotten really good at doing the dishes.
I just have to accept that fact that it’s horrible, disgusting, painful, and evil. It’s going to be terrible, and there’s nothing I can do about it. But I can do it. Disability doesn’t mean inability.
I’m horrible on the phone. I have such poor auditory processing that can’t understand what the other person says. I jumble my thoughts, can’t tell when I should start and stop speaking, forget half of what I needed to say, and generally feel like an anxious wreck.
I used to never talk on the phone. But I can talk on the phone. It’s just hard. I avoid it when I can, but if I can’t avoid it… Well, I have to feel horrible for 20 minutes.
Too often I put off essential things, avoid important tasks, give up on hopes and desires, all because I fool myself into thinking I can’t do them. In a way, I’m giving in to the black-and-white thinking that autistic people are so famous for. If it’s not easy, I think I can’t do it.
I often feel like I can’t do anything.
It’s more accurate to say that everything is hard for me.
And just because things are hard doesn’t mean I have to give up.