By Alexandra Forshaw
Life as an autistic woman can be hard going sometimes, a balancing act between necessities that take energy from me in exchange for the means to survive and the pleasurable pursuits that replenish and restore me.
Work takes a big bite out of my days during which I’m often in an environment that’s less than perfect, inflicting its fluorescent lighting and open-plan proximity to other people with all their noises, busy movement and smells. It’s not that I don’t enjoy the company of people but I like to choose who I spend time around, and to have the option of leaving when I’ve had enough rather than when the clock says it’s time.
Time is something I find difficult, the way so many daily activities force my gears to mesh with those of the clocks that set a standard pace. That’s something that has never felt natural or comfortable for me. Activities have their own tempo that varies according to my mood, and when other people impose a metronome beat I have to push myself to march in step.
Freed from the tyranny of the clock and left to my own devices I pay no heed to hours and minutes, aware only of the passage of the day’s light and the cycle of the seasons. I have structure but it takes the form of sequences and collections as opposed to rigid timetables. My routines are malleable and elastic rather than rigid and tied to the divisions of a clock face. It follows that many of the ways I choose to pass my time reflect this.
A particular favourite is visiting art galleries and museums because these places offer a refuge away from the world and all its imposed schedules. When I step through the door into a gallery I can simply focus on what’s around me and lose myself for a while in the thoughts and feelings that are inspired by the exhibits. As an artist myself I love to experience visual art, opening my senses to what’s before me and allowing my emotions to run free.
At various times I’ve stood in front of artworks and laughed out loud, had tears of grief run down my face, stood open-mouthed in shocked awe, and come out in goosebumps while shivers ran down my spine. Not every piece evokes a response and some days are more emotional than others, but I always find the release wonderfully cathartic.
There’s more to it than a good emotional workout: I’m also fascinated by the intellectual aspects. Art history is something of a passion, to the point where I’m considering pursuing it as an academic course of study, and I make full use of my pattern recognition abilities to spot similarities of theme, influences and techniques across various works, periods and artists.
One of my typical days out visiting a gallery involves a combination of planning in scrupulous detail and an approach that is so casual it borders on irresponsible. Travel is one of the areas where I manage my anxiety by working out my journey in detail. Trains can be a challenge because of the logistics of coordinating multiple stages but thankfully technology can take care of most of that nowadays. If I know where I need to end up I can just type it in and let the magical machine tell me where to head next.
That’s a tool I make use of often, not least because my strategy for train travel involves turning up at the station whenever I happen to get there and getting on the first train that’s heading in the right direction. I’ve learned that not setting a target arrival time at my destination removes one of the biggest causes of stress, my fear of being late. The same applies to the trip home afterwards. It’s liberating to be able to come and go as you please, to focus on what you want to achieve rather than when you want to achieve it.
Managing the travel to minimise anxiety makes the whole visit more enjoyable. I can wander around the gallery without intrusive worries about getting home, without watching the clock, and instead immerse myself fully in one of the activities that brings me great pleasure. It’s time away from the rest of my life, a chance to take the weight off my mind and recharge my mental batteries.
At the end of the day I’ve usually been on my feet for hours, walked a fair distance, and probably not looked after my physical needs very well. But these days aren’t about that, they’re about maintaining my mental balance, fulfilling my emotional needs. It’s important to feed and exercise the mind as well as the body.
Alexandra is an autistic visual artist and designer, mother, software developer, trustee of Flow Observatorium (@ObservatoriumF on Twitter), and board member of Autistic Inclusive Meets (https://autisticinclusivemeets.org/).