- Mental Health
I'm a Female With Aspergers - So Sue Me
Asperger’s is simply not something I can define in a sentence or two, but it is certainly my experience. It wasn't til I was 21 (and my mother payed for me to attend an appointment with a top psychiatrist who specialised in autism) that I had an official diagnosis. Before this I had done a number of tests, my doctor thought I might be bipolar or obsessive compulsive because I seemed to exhibit traits of both of these. Not particularly liking this suggestion, but test after test, time after time, the results came back as 'high functioning autism' to say the least.
It is important to remember that autism is heterogeneous and no two people with it are the same. But of course, there are traits and similarities between people with Asperger’s. From the original study by Hans Asperger, males have made up the vast majority of cases of those with Asperger’s. It isn't just a somewhat lacking diagnostic model that makes it harder to diagnose a female with Asperger’s: women are generally better at masking or 'acting' to disguise their Asperger’s traits than men. And perhaps females tend to be more social and communicative on a whole. And yes, there are biological factors. Numerous research now tells us that the brain of an autistic female is more like the brain of your average male, not a man with Asperger’s. Studies indicate that roughly one female for every nine males is diagnosed with so-called "high-functioning" autism- that is, autism without an intellectual disability.
Female Aspies have a tendency to prefer one-on-one social interactions, where it is much easier to concentrate and filter out the background noise and hone in on the conversation. I can certainly identify with this. Many people with Asperger’s admit to suicidal thoughts (often linked to chronic anxiety, social exhaustion and accompanying depression, and of course though they are not always co-morbid, they often are). I have struggled with these in my life, particular my late teens and early 20s. I found it difficult when all my friends seemed to enjoy and attend parties which I found too overwhelming. I would try very hard to be there but usually the same thing would happen... I would attend for a bit and then 45 minutes to an hour in I would feel quite overwhelmed by all the noise (particularly when you throw alcohol into the mix) and I'd literally get a headache and find some or rather excuse to leave. There were times when I would go home and cry because I just felt so out-of-place, but I understand this now to be a shared experience of many with Asperger’s- wanting to fit in, but not quite getting it- experience exhaustion at commonplace social functions. I honestly adore my friends and am blessed to have some wonderful ones in my life, but smaller social gatherings where I can hear people properly are infinitely preferable. A journal article by a US-based professor I read recently theorizes that a big part of the reason that people with Asperger Syndrome experience a great deal of fatigue is because they are always consciously processing things with their intellect, as their brain doesn’t do it automatically. This means that the sounds and irrelevant goings-on your brain filters out as erroneous background noise, plus reading people's body language are factors an Aspie is constantly battling to understand.
I have been extremely sensitive as long as I can remember. Primary school was awful, i was bullied badly, predominantly because the sounds of the other children playing at recess (in particular, the yelling) hurt my ears and I often just wanted to read my books. To top it off, my brother and I grew up without TV until I was 15 which meant I was often a bit clueless anyway about the toys and games the other children discussed. I often didn't understand what the fuss was about (insert said toy or rather) and now I understand that advertising works slightly differently on Aspies. The product is the most important thing, regardless of the packaging (I usually choose men's razors to shave my legs because they are generally cheaper and suit my needs just as well- why would I pay extra for pink or purple?) Anyway My Mum was and IS AWESOME and a keen sewer and made me (what I can now see and are pretty cool) hand-made clothes. A lot of love, time and care went into making those garments and the fabrics are bright and colourful. But I was picked on relentlessly, used to cry a lot (which was anxiety related) and therefore hated school. I had a patch where I refused to GO to school which made things a little difficult for my parents. I had learning difficulties in the early school years and the teachers thought I might be dyslexic. However at my particular primary school they had been doing the 'big room' tests, which was where 3 to 4 classes of children would be learning in one big room, to test if this was somehow more productive in learning. So you would have 100 or so children in one master classroom instead of 20 or 30. You can imagine the noise... Unsurprisingly, results later showed just the opposite, this was detrimental to most children’s' education experience, and once I was put back in a single-class classroom, I was up-to-scratch pretty quickly, and my teacher was surprised and how fast I made up. This is likely because, like most people on the autistic spectrum, I have sensory problems which do include a high sensitivity to noise. It is much harder to filter out background noise and noises that many people wouldn't be bothered by (or possibly even notice) but these noises can be unbearable. Though almost thirty, I still have to chant 'act normal, ACT NORMAL' every single time I hear a police or ambulance siren- the noise stresses me out to the level that I want to punch something and I have quite literally run away while in public before. Smell is another huge one. I get extremely upset when someone that smells bad gets near me on the bus, and once I even sprayed air freshener round myself coz the bus was too crowded to move away and I thought I might throw up. I dislike strong-smelling foods intensely and yes onto the next one, food is another biggie. I certainly had disordered eating in my late teens, I got into quite particular 'familiar' eating patterns and disliked foods in particular colours. Food with strong smells upset me a lot and, while I have learned to re-train my palette, more research suggests that this is quite common for female Aspies in particular to experience disordered eating or 'abnormal' eating. I have always disliked quite salty food which rules out a lot of stuff really- think popcorn at the movies, salted chips, salted nuts, and most deep-fried stuff - anything salted really! I still find it very difficult to eat at some social functions (say, a work party) when a) I am feeling stressed and the place I experience anxiety is my stomach and b) the food is unfamiliar to me. But my bowel condition does come into this too as it affects my appetite sometimes, too. Nowadays I eat an extremely balanced and nutritionally sound diet but let me choose and I will eat pretty much the same thing day after day, week after week, sometimes month after and not get bored. As long as I like the food I would so rather have my 5 pieces of dark chocolate and a big piece of liquorice for dessert than some fancy concoction I have no idea is hygienic, tastes that good, or something my tummy will be okay with. I have some quite major bowel issues which I can control to an extent following the FODMAPS diet, and a combination supplements but it is interesting to note that there has been a major link discovered between forms of autism and bowel issues. Gastrointestinal (GI) disorders are, in fact, THE MOST common medical conditions associated with autism.
Another big thing I have really struggled with is a concept that that Aspies 'feel less' or 'don't care' so much about other people. This is just my opinion and experience here but nothing could be further from the truth. I feel emotions so strongly I often wonder if someone is shining a magnifying glass that is manipulating my limbic system. I care about my family and friends VERY much indeed but when you have high-functioning autism, your queues for reading people are much more verbal and literal. And in that transition from child to adolescent to adult, the older we get, the more people tend to say less what they mean a lot of the time, and communicate it instead through body language. This means that we have to a) 'read between the lines' (which we don't tend to be very good at) or b) ask questions about meaning and intent (which tends to infuriate people, particularly when they think that something should be plain as glass and obvious to a point). I have had people say 'HOW do you even HAVE to ask that?' about this or that, and felt like the dumbest person for miles. And yes, I have given myself a hard time about it plenty of times. But there are other things I can do fairly easily I guess- I never really studied at school that much and managed to get by mostly with merits and excellences (with the exception of science, which I was terrible at, and loathed). When I was at Marsden in my secondary years I came top of my class in most subjects. Maths I liked. Maths and music to me have many similar components: logic, pattern and rhythm, which tend to make sense to Aspies. Science on the other hand is irrational and variable; I have never been very good at science. I can remember numbers fairly easily and characters' dialogues in books; I can improvise fairly easily on the piano without too much effort, remember long pieces of music to play along with etc.
Stasis and familiarity is definitely preferable to change. Well I don't exactly mean stillness, more the comfort and some sense of stability that routine provides me. And yes, I can go 'outside' of my routine (which I have tried numerous times to push myself and change) but the resulting anxiety is so extreme it can be nausea-provoking. I have a morning routine which is particularly important to me and provided this goes according-to-plan, my morning tends to be pretty good. When routine goes out the window or some other variable interrupts it, I can (for the most part) 'act' it out okay, but inside I'm shaking and things are not good. I remember when it snowed and the roads were closed still trudging through the sinking sleet to town (with freezing feet) because that is my routine. And the day we had a large earthquake in Wellington, so large that most offices and work places were closed, I still walked in to work, because to me the earthquake didn't seem that bad although I could see debris here and there on the way in and the thought of work being cancelled was strange and eerie. I guess, my routine is much deeper than a simple affinity. What are these routines about, you might ask? The best way I can describe it is as being the anchoring factor that brings a sense of stability in an otherwise hectic and overwhelming experience of the world. Social exhaustion is another factor- and of course ALL humans experience this at different times and frequencies to varying degrees. But an example I'd use was a day at work I had the other when it was hectic this and that, then we had our end-of-year team lunch. So instead of having some quiet time on my half hour, for an hour and a half we were in a very loud, bustling restaurant. There was so much going on and I didn't like the food at all which was all bizarre deconstructed this and that new-age cuisine and by the time 4 pm came I had an intense headache, a clamp or anxiety in my stomach and cried all the way home on the bus. And it is not that I do not like being around people- I LOVE people- but the constant socializing in my corporate role followed by no 'brain break' to have non-communication time just exhausts me. I know this is perhaps not the norm but some days, when I go into the staff room and someone keeps talking to me, or I just need to go and not be around people, I go and eat my lunch in the disabled bathroom. Just for a little peace and quiet.
We all have similarities and differences, and we all have likes and dislikes. And passions and cravings and wants and things in life we experience that may drive us nuts... But I think it stands to reason that with the 7.6 or so billion people in the world there is a wide contrast in how some of our brains work, bodily mechanisms; how person a versus person b and c may see, think and operate in daily life.... I don't think being Aspie makes me 'different' or 'special'. I just view myself as a proportion of the population who has a brain that works slightly differently than perhaps is neuro-typical, but that doesn't make it wrong. Variety is the spice of life and variety allows our species to continue as a whole. :)
© 2018 Catherine Emsley