I’m the youngest person in my PhD program. Everyone else has at least a year on me, and most of them are 4 or 5+ years older. Every Friday morning, we have a 4 hour laboratory course (starting at 8am, no less), in a really amazing subject. Today’s lab had 2 parts (and they split the class so we were in small groups) – my group’s first section involved looking at a lot of interesting critters under microscopes. It made me super duper happy, and definitely more than a little flappy, rocky, and stimmy. I love microscopic critters (and macroscopic critters, and all sorts of other stuff too), and it was super duper neat to see all of them, and learn what they were called and how they worked and things. Plus, they were SUPER DUPER CUTE!!!!!! <invoke lots of stimming and happiness>. Most of my classmates don’t explicitly know I’m Autistic (though 2 of them do). They all know that I’m younger than them, and that might explain some of my immaturity. They also know I’m super enthusiastic about my subject, and can get very bouncy. They also know I have sensory issues and I’ve explained why I have to sit in the same part of the classroom every day. And they know I have a lot of difficulty with most social interactions. If any of them actually sat down and thought about it for a minute, they’d realize I’m Autistic. But it doesn’t come up in conversation, and it doesn’t really matter in academia – if you can’t be lost in thought in grad school, then what has the world come to? But this morning, was an Autism-filled morning. First the happiness/excitement of looking at all the cool critters! Definitely moments where I wanted to say to my classmates: “Yes, yes, I KNOW my Autism is showing!” But I wasn’t ever met with hostile glances… just smiles at the young girl who is so excited about the lab. There were some squeals and bounces from other classmates as well, so I wasn’t even alone. This is why I love academia. I don’t have to explain anything. They take me as I am, and accept me for me, quirks and all.
The second part of the lab, we were doing a more controlled experiment with a bunch of chemicals, and a fancy microscope. It involved a LOT of noises and smells, and by the time we were halfway through, I was into “stim for survival” mode. I have happy stims and agitated stims (and stims for other things too). “Stim for survival” involves lots of small rocking back and forth on my feet and hand flapping by my sides. I can do that without being really obvious and still be functional. It’s calming.
But then a subset of us went into the microscope room. I have “superhuman hearing”. It’s one of my hyper-senses, and it’s one that can cause a lot of pain. When we walked into the room, immediately, I was met with an assaulting high-pitched noise. One that was incredibly painful, and induced the “hands over ears/ tears in eyes/ massive rocking/ ‘that is a bad bad bad noise’/ hand wringing/ neck twisting” response, a response that I am usually able to curb before it gets that extreme. Everyone (especially the professor) was like “what noise? There’s no noise, you’re crazy” and I’m standing there, face twisting with pain (I bite the insides of my cheeks to keep myself from making insane faces), breathing weirdly, and trying to explain “there’s an awful high-pitched noise. It’s coming from over there. It hurts and I can’t filter it out, I’m sorry!” while forcing my hands away from my ears and trying to look respectful of the professor and not disrupt the lesson any more than I have. Because I know that my reaction was disruptive. I couldn’t help it. It was like walking into a room with 10 fire alarms going off, all at once, all at super high pitched frequencies. After the initial shock, I managed to get enough words out to explain to the professor that I have “superhuman hearing” (or to him, I’m just younger than everyone else, so I haven’t lost that part of my hearing – only one other in the room could hear it, and it was just at the edge of her limit and not that loud for her, since she could barely hear it), and he went on with the lesson. I barely made it through the “this is how to use the scope” parts of it, but I did. Lots of rocking and hand-wringing, and I bit my cheek so hard it bled. And only a little bit of fingers in my ears. The sound made me feel physically sick, shaky, and awful. Sensory overload, indeed. I’m still getting over it, hours later.
So this morning was definitely an “excuse me, my Autism is showing” day. I don’t have many, and I’d like to think I’m pretty good at hiding them until I can escape the situation, so as not to draw attention to myself, and not be disruptive. But sometimes it happens. I have worked my whole life to learn how to “pass” as neurotypical, and in the times when I can’t pass (which, really, is most of the time), to simply render myself invisible, and not draw attention to the fact that I’m not passing. It’s something I do now, almost as second nature. I have a huge number of tricks and techniques I’ve developed to render myself invisible, so as not to commit the crime of letting my Autism show.
When I get thrust into sensory overload, I grasp my hands together incredibly tightly, bite the insides of my cheeks, squeeze my eyes shut, and count to ten. Then again and again, until I’m able to escape the situation, or build up manual filters to get through it. I rock on my feet. I move to the back of the crowd so that everyone’s back is to me, so they don’t notice that I’m not acting like them. It shouldn’t be that way, but it is. I’ve been living independently from my parents (who abused me for letting my Autism show) for nearly 4 years. But 18 years of abuse is hard to shake. But today was a rare day where I just didn’t have the energy or mental capacity to hide. Not enough spoons, so to speak The sound was too much, I was too overloaded and I lost it. I managed to pull “it” back together, and continue with the class, but it was a near thing. But once, just once, I’d like to feel comfortable saying “excuse me, my Autism is showing”, and have people not look at me like I was crazy for having to cover my ears for an awful sound.
Sometimes having an invisible disability is even more debilitating, because no one can see it. The assumptions are different. The expectations are different. I look just like everyone else, but my body and brain process the world completely differently. I would love it if, next time I walk into a room and had a sensory overload, instead of having people try to convince me I’m hearing things, or that I’m just wrong, and trying to draw attention to myself for no reason, to accept that I’m not attention seeking (the moment my brain went into overload and I had to cover my ears, I began to wish to be invisible and not draw ANY attention at all), and to accept that I am hearing a sound that is real and there, and to help me deal with it. But above all, I wish that it was safe and acceptable to say “excuse me, my Autism is showing”.