June 29, 2015

An Adult Aspy: A Personal Summary

I'm so excited to introduce you to the author of this article. Lindsey is a very good friend of my family's (really, we consider her to be family). She volunteered to do a guest post on a topic I've been talking about more recently – autism. She herself has mild autism (often referred to as Asperger's Syndrome) so had been a great support with M2's diagnosis of mild-to-moderate autism. Here is her perspective as an adult who has dealt with Asperger's for over 30 years. Keep in mind, the way autism presents itself can vary from person to person. 

Geek. Awkward. The weird one. Anti-social.

I grew up with more disheartening labels than I care to mention. Born into a military family in the early eighties – when mild autism was unknown and women were never diagnosed – my personality quirks weren’t seen as a disorder that could or should be addressed by a professional. Consequently, my ad hoc ‘therapy’ growing up in a society that wasn’t structured for my strengths and weaknesses was less than stellar. I’ve always had the feeling of being left out, right down to my bones – I wasn’t interested in the same things as other children my age, I didn’t know how to communicate with them and they confused me.

Frustrated and lonely, I withdrew into things that I did understand; scholastic pursuits, fine arts, computers, etc. And so my childhood went, actively working on my IQ without corresponding attention to my EQ. I’d implicitly accepted that somehow I was broken, and would spend my life as such.

Then, years ago when I was in my mid-20s, I had a good friend of mine ask a simple question that caused a reexamination of the structure I had built to understand myself. She said, “I don’t want to offend you, but do you walk on your toes? Because I think you’re an aspy.” Considering I take pains to hide my "natural" toe-first stride, this came as a bit of a shock. This friend had been officially diagnosed as having Asperger’s Syndrome, now known as mild autism, and had seen traits in me that paralleled her own. While it wouldn’t be worth the hassle to garner an official diagnosis, as I’m not seeking assistance or programs for help, having a recognized and researched behavioral structure to compare and contrast my personality with has proved a tremendous help in proactively boosting my social integration and EQ. I use trusted and tested behavioral therapies to address traits I would otherwise not have recognized.

Eye Contact – Appropriate eye contact is something most children learn intuitively from watching others around them. Many mild autistics lack this skill, either not enough (appearing disinterested or not attentive) or an uncomfortable staring (appearing aggressive). I still have some troubles in regards to making appropriate eye contact with people I’m speaking with, but is something I try to be actively aware of, especially when conversing with people I don’t know very well. I’ve made good strides in this regard, and mostly falter when I’m highly emotional – tending to avoid eye contact most when I’m angry.

Touch Sensitivity – Growing up, I had a counter-intuitive relationship with physical contact. On the one hand, I liked to climb into my mother’s lap past the age where other children grow out of this, cuddled with people sleeping next to me, and absorbed as much information from touching an object as seeing it. On the other hand, I reacted negatively to others making physical contact with me without my initiating it. I earned a reputation of hating to be touched. It wasn’t until much later in life that I married the two disparate feelings, grasping that it wasn’t that I hated being touched, but that it was too much sensation I wasn’t prepared for. Uninitiated contact was the sensory equivalent of an unexpected camera flash.

Hand Flapping – While I don’t recall much hand flapping as a child, I don’t doubt I had similar self-stimulating behaviors to cope with stressful situations. Hand flapping is about a white noise of physical sensation, like sleeping with a noisy fan. I would never advocate a complete cessation of this coping mechanism (as long as self-harm is not involved), but certain behaviors are less intrusive than others. As an adult, I’ve turned my initial reflex from flapping to either clenching my fists or rubbing my hands together. People are less likely to look at you askance and wonder about what you’ll do next. It’s worked out better if people perceive me as frustrated or nervous, rather than unpredictable.

Toe-First Stride– Toe walking is one of the more puzzling characteristics of the disorder. Many diagnosed autistics naturally walk with only the ball of the foot in contact with the ground, rather than with the expected heel-toe placement. Sometimes this is called walking on tip-toe, but this is rather a misnomer; the heel of the foot is not highly elevated in the step. This lack of heel contact is more often noticed as an unexpected bounce in a person’s stride. When in my home, especially when in socks or bare feet, I walk on my toes. I can’t tell you why, but that’s the most comfortable way for me to move about. Forcing myself into a heel-toe stride feels like I’m stomping around like a rogue jackhammer. When in public, I make an effort at a ‘normal’ stride. Accordingly, I look for flats with good heel support when shopping for shoes, to lessen the thud-thud sensation of a heel-toe placement.

Speech Processing – To not put too fine a point on it, I’m an educated and intelligent individual. I don’t say that in a condescending or bragging tone, but as an admission that I’ve done well scholastically through the years. Unfortunately, sometimes I’m taken for being slow on the uptake or a bit of a space cadet, because speech processing is not one of my strong points. A similar judgment happens when someone is conversing in a non-native language; the extended search for a particular word to convey a concept more precisely will inaccurately give the impression of a slow or ignorant mind. Luckily, conversation is a skill that can be improved with practice. While I still have trouble assembling what I’d like to say during especially complicated or subtle conversations, everyday banter has become smoother and more natural as I’ve focused on improving it.

Integrated Social Anxiety – Not all mild autistics have anxiety issues to boot, but enough do to make this complication worth mentioning. My own social anxiety and autism traits are intimately linked – not intuitively understanding other people leads me to feel isolated and uncertain in social situations, and that confusion makes me anxious and ill. From experience I’ve learned I need to couple behavioral therapy with a prescription SSRI to cope effectively with this imbalance. A side benefit of my particular prescription (sertraline HCl, brand name Zoloft) is that the drug has a “disconnecting from the outside world” effect. I call this a benefit, as it reduces the sensory impact of life enough for me to handle physical contact, movement, unexpected loud noises, etc., with grace.

Though perhaps not the case for those diagnosed with more severe levels of autism, I’ve come to view my personality not as an autism-spectrum disorder, a thing to be cured, but more as a different operating system. Apple OSX to the world’s Microsoft Windows, if you will. My efforts have been focused on how I can best integrate with society at large, rather than trying to change the core of my being to match. I will still “geek out” about things that interest me, but actively watch for the glazed look of too-much-information when talking to others. I’ll never love talking on the phone to strangers (where I lack visual cues to help interpret speech), but make myself do so in optional situations, to become less terribly anxious when I’m required to do so, such as client calls and job interviews.

And, most importantly, I take these experiences, these 30+ years of living with, well, ME, and share them with other people. With people who have no experience with autistics, so they won’t fear the unknown. With people who have autistic friends and relatives, so they understand what makes us tick. With people diagnosed or suspected of being autistic, so they won’t feel alone or rejected. It’s how I pay forward the good things in my life, and make this a better place to be.

Author Bio
Lindsey is a graphic designer who lives, works and plays in the D.C. metro region, and has known and loved Melissa, A, and their kids for years. She is currently available for freelance design work and is interested in full-time graphic design positions as well. Find out more about her services and experience.

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  1. Thanks for sharing your story Lindsey!

    1. I'm an adult aspy I didn't relies the heal toe thing till u sed it every thing is spot on grate article

  2. Thanks for sharing your experiences. I work with individuals with autism and I think it is more challenging without early intervention. Thanks for sharing so people don't need to fear the unknown.

  3. This is a very informative post and I learned a lot. This is a must read for all parents, so they can watch out for the signs.

  4. This was a wonderful post--thank you! :)

  5. Excellent article! Very informative. I wish Lindsey all the best!

  6. Elizabeth O.6/30/2015 9:37 AM

    Hi Lindsey and thanks for sharing your beautiful story with us. I learned a lot from this post and I hope a lot of parents will read this,

  7. This is a great post that is full of information. Thanks for sharing.

  8. I heard that walking on your toes was better for your legs and feet but I may be wrong! I had no idea these were some common traits of those with Asperger's Syndrome.

  9. This is a very good story. I've learned a lot just by reading this post. I never knew that toe walking was a symptom so that's very interesting. Thanks for sharing your story.

  10. Lindsey here. Thank you all for your support and comments! It's taken me a long while to be able to articulate my internal feelings and reactions, and I'm pleased by the positive reception.


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