By Helen Carmichael
With a late autism diagnosis, I am learning to better identify my sensory landscape, and to understand how social interactions work (or don’t). After over 40 years of ‘masking’ – trying to behave appropriately in a broadly neurotypical world – I have also become aware of how much energy this costs me. This piece is a snapshot of a single day, recording my awareness of masking and my building sensory overload. I also trace the bliss of experiencing flow states and altered perception, in my hobbies and in nature, which I shift into for balance and relief.
I am at home. I am relaxed. I am immersed in checking and cross checking some knitting patterns, doing calculations, looking up yarn I will never buy, looking at what other people have made. My mind is free, it is freestyle, freewheeling, making connections and firing off ideas. Floating, skimming in the deep, connected flow. It’s just me and my mind, doing our thing. I know that I can dip into this state, I know the reading, the interests, the textures that can help pull me into the current.
The guy in the coffee shop smiles and asks how I’m doing. I know from something about his tone and body language that he doesn’t give a damn about how I’m doing. In a split second, conscious decision, I pull my facial muscles into an approximation of a grateful smile, looking somewhere near his right ear and muttering:
“Yes, yeah great thanks!”
This is what they want to hear, this is how it works, the social currency. I have spent one of my tokens and my mask tightens just imperceptibly, drawing just a few precious drops of energy.
Still the sun is shining, the fabric of my dress is soft and I feel the paving slabs solid beneath me, radiating slight warmth. I move among the market stalls, laden with seaside photography, glossy olives from Spain, second-hand books. It should be easy to let go of that sliver of untruth. I remember an experiment I tried for a few months: I answered every question honestly, while still aiming to be reasonably tactful. The tact required mental gymnastics, but the veracity was freeing. I remember those days, the jolly, baby-faced barista asking chirpily how I was doing as he whipped up a latte. My reply,
“Not so great.”
Fleeting tension, a micro-expression of confusion. Then he regains his poise with the nonsequitur:
“Well, have a great day!”
Integrity. No mask, no penalty. But I felt awkward for the guy. His social mask slipped for a brief moment. He fell down a rabbit hole, saw himself in my world. And quickly, deftly, pulled himself back up.
The day wears on; an acquaintance who has been friendly at other times blanks me in the street. A hail of confusion and second-guesses runs through my mind. Later, I fail to judge when another friend wants to leave a conversation, leading to a painful gulf at the end, with her fumbling gradually backwards across the car park, shouting out goodbyes as I try to impart unnecessary information.
My mask takes two more hits, running perilously low now as it gets heavier and more wooden. No longer protective. Just a huge graven edifice I push in front of me, like a boulder up a hill.
Supermarket. Heaven help me. My mask falters – imminent expiry. I stare at a wall of brightly-lit chicken, waiting for the free range organic one with the best date stamp to just fly out and rescue me. Damn you chicken. No there is no stand-out poultry in this hellhole establishment and there is too much choice. The edges of my vision begin to fizz and I feel my ears buzzing with an insistent whine. It’s the pale keening of my mask crumbling, revealing the tenderness beneath.
I will myself to look at a wall of cans.
I just want to go home. I can’t cope I can’t cope I can’t cope. It’s just shopping buy something and leave. I snap to, mesmerized by a display of stationery that I don’t need. I have permission to leave.
I give myself permission to leave.
It seems to take painfully long to leave.
The dirt path is relief and the willow branches whisper by the river, the old stooping chestnut forms a wall between the monetary human enclave and gloriously uncivilized territory. The air is humming; a blanket of visual snow plays over the meadow. A fine haze of soft rain that never lands. Intangible, my fizzing neurons weave a spell. Sometimes I catch it through my window as it falls so delicately, with a density and shimmer of light and water that I have to open the window to make sure. The gloaming, low light of evening where plant life emerges in iridescent song, this is the peak moment for my neural precipitation. I don’t doubt its reality. I see it, with my own eyes.
All this time, I thought you saw it, too.
Helen Carmichael is a video game designer. She works with her husband in their small company, Grey Alien Games, and has done a fair amount of PR dressed as a highwaywoman. Previously a science writer and editor, her writing on sensory experiences features in the autism anthology, Stim. Her interests include sustainable fashion and hedgerow herbalism.