Self-care is important, especially for Autistics.
I’ve been semi-following the events going on on Autistic twitter lately: the Nazi rally and deaths, the watching and decrying of that Netflix series, Atypical, which hasn’t had any Autistic consults so it generally is cringe-worthy, sucky television. This is on the heels of the health care debate and also in the midst of whether we’re bombing North Korea and/or Venezuela and I had college friends from Guam so I actually know where that is and….
So, yeah, the world right now is getting a bit spinny out of control.
I’ve noticed that we Autistics, likely because we can’t go out as much as neurotypicals, will obsess online with what’s happening in the world and how it’s showing us how the world is going to end. I’ve been trying to just say some prayers and let God fix it. Why? Not because I don’t want to help, but because I know what is likely to happen to me if I’m not careful. We start school in a little over a week, I can’t lose my voice now. I can’t have a melt-down now. There’s never a good time to struggle Autistically, but some times are worse than others.
So I’m careful about how I interact online. I have to be. And honestly, with today being the feast day of St. Maximilian Kolbe, the priest who gave his life for another prisoner in Auschwitz, who refused German citizenship just because he couldn’t handle the white privilege and got locked up just because of that, well, I’ve gotta believe he’s got this.
What follows is my account of the first time I was unable to speak.
A few times when I was younger, I remember not speaking because I was mad about something and didn’t want to speak, lest I say something stupid. I think it was a conscious choice, but now I wonder if it was or wasn’t.
Last night, when I got to my evening class, I realized that I left something at home and as I was searching for a virtual copy, I was struggling to come up with the right search terms. I was going to have to come up with another version of what I would have brought to discuss, or admit I couldn’t present. Not a huge deal, since my teacher is understanding and I could have submitted it upon returning home where I would surely have found what I was looking to find.
But during this, I think I stumbled onto the Facebook feed of one of my former students. A Latina, she has three daughters. They are all citizens (not that it matters). Her eldest daughter was legitimately scared, and asking over and over again whether they should be packing since they’re going to be sent back to Mexico. This, clearly, freaked out the younger girls.
Around this time, I realized that I wasn’t able to speak. I talk to myself a LOT. I like to hear the sound of my voice and rehearse things I’m going to say. I was sitting alone in a room, and suddenly, I couldn’t speak. I couldn’t decide if I was faking or not. I started panicking. Then, I remembered the Autistic Twitter Universe talking about how people were internalizing the pain of others today (moreso than usual) and it was going to be a hard day. I remembered my husband losing his voice at work when he was stressed. In his case, it got better when he came home. I texted him and then decided to tell my teacher, in writing. Fortunately, he’s easy. We had a conversation while I wrote and he spoke and he said I could leave or stay and we’d make things work. We did, as it happened.
Here’s how the experience went:
As the class progressed, we were discussing some interesting pieces. To back up, it’s a class on editorial decision-making, and we bring the first page of something from a creative journal and decide if we’d keep reading or not, so each week, in addition to other work we do, we each bring a “poem or page” to class to consider. One classmate brought a piece by a face-blind author who is also a creative writing teacher who has published many books on creative writing (okay, like 2 plus a textbook). I like her writing books, but I’ve always wondered if she’s Autistic, in addition to face-blind, because some things she says ring true to me in such a way I wonder if allistic people would “get” them to the same degree. Regardless, this wasn’t about that. Instead, she wrote an essay about growing up with her father who may or may not have been gay, but he definitely cross-dressed. It seemed to be a piece about him searching and how it affected her. My friend was talking about how this is his story not hers, and I was getting increasingly mad. She’d mined her story already, so now she was going to tell us about her dear old dad? Really?
The other classmates were still saying, well, it’s her story, too. She was saying (and I was shooting notes to her, sometimes, to support her) that it’s not HER story; it’s a piece about HIS identity. You don’t write stories from other people’s identity. My friend and I agreed if it were fiction, we’d both be okay with that. A lot of people are narcissistic, and think someone else’s difference is all about themselves, not the person with the difference. But as fact, she’s coopting his story. As fiction, we gave her wiggle room to create a NARRATOR who made it all about him or her. It’d be like a fictional story where an Autism Mom™ (see here for usage) talked about her Austic kid. We could then talk about how, in the story, the mom is being an ableist meanie, stealing her child’s story and making it her own. Totally cool. But if it presents as non-fiction, it invades the privacy of the kid and it turns into “poor me” syndrome on the mom, which is what happens whenever we make someone’s difference about ourselves.
She ended up having to leave early because she was verging on a panic attack. After a few more minutes in class (we broke up into “groups” to discuss our plan for our final, which was impossible for me, so my teacher and I passed a few notes, whereby we both talked about being worried about her), and when I got out, she was out there and we started “talking” in writing, and then eventually, slowly, my words returned to me. It was as if she needed me to speak to let her know that Neurodiverse people are unusually stressed right now; we’re not angsty about the election. We’re internalizing the pain of others, and if you do that enough, we shut down.
I will note here that I did NOT have a panic attack. I wasn’t having that whole near heart attack thing that goes with those. Since I was able to make jokes about my lack of speech by the end of the night, shortly before my voice came back, I started thinking about what physically happened. I could, with a lot of effort, move my mouth a bit (open/close), but my tongue stopped moving. It wasn’t the front part of my tongue, but the middle of the back, and it was frozen, as if stuck to my mouth. It was bizarre. I could make some sounds, if I really worked at it, but I found myself laughing silently in class and using other gestures and just writing stuff out. When my words came back, it was with CONSIDERABLE effort. One. word. at. a. time. until I could string together a whole sentence. And then, with some pausing, it all was fine again.
The experience got me thinking. I was sure the election was involved somehow. Was the reason why I had this happen because I taught all day, then had class at night, where I would be expected to be social? Was it the whole idea of what Trump stands for? What caused it?
I was glad I had my phone and plenty of paper and pencils, but what happens if I’m teaching and it happens again?
I’m starting to consider asking to go part-time next year. Unless we get health insurance, there’s no benefit that way to being full-time and I wonder, a bit, if I can no longer do a full teaching day, five days a week and do the other stuff that brings me joy (and/or income). I worry a bit that that was involved, but I don’t want to freak out my principal.
Maybe this election was just a unique thing, pushing me over the top.
It’s unsettling, for sure.