I’ve been pretty quiet this past year. It’s been a very intense past 18 months, between major health problems, teaching, research, grad school, and general craziness. I’ve gotten through it, in large part, due to having built up a great world of support around me. I’ve been living in a safe environment for the past 11 months (!), and what a huge difference that has made. I have wonderful friends and an amazing roommate, who are all there to help me when I need it, who go out of their way sometimes, to make things accessible and “E-friendly”. I’ve gotten to a place with my research where I know what I need to do to finish my PhD (yay/yikes!). In short, it hasn’t been easy, but I’ve been thriving in ways I never knew were possible, because I’ve managed to shape my environment in a way that minimizes my difficulties and allows me to concentrate on other things. It’s also given me a lot less fodder to write about, and a lot less time to write it in.
Now I’m on a major adventure. I’m currently 8 time-zones away from my life, friends, and support network, in a new country with different cultural norms. I’m here for 2 months. And I’m struggling. It’s not that I don’t want to be here – I really do, and the opportunity I’ve been granted here is incredible. I’m learning a lot, and it’s a great thing for my academic career. Yet I’m struggling mightily, because my support system is nearly half a world away. “Support” can mean many things to people. In my case, I’m not talking about formal, institutional, or government-based support. I’m talking about supports that people I trust help me with. Little things that I and others around me can do that make it possible for me to function. This post, however, does not depend on that definition of support – it applies to any and all supports that are in place to help someone with or without a disability function.
I learn how to do new things and go to new places by watching others. When I’m in a new place, I really need a guide. I need someone to follow, who can take me to the relevant places and events, and who can introduce me to the relevant people. Here, I don’t have someone to show me how to properly use the bus, or how to go to the grocery store, or how and when to interact with my colleagues. I don’t understand how to go to a restaurant, and a shop? Not even a little. It’s not like it is that much different from my home, but I’m not very good at generalizing these things. I’d have these same issues if I moved even 30 miles away from where I currently live. It’s really tough to go somewhere alone for the first time for me. After that first time, it’s easier, but often that first time is near impossible to do by myself. The action potential required to initiate something, to get over the initial anxiety and apprehension, is so incredibly high that I often can’t even try. I am getting better at it, and have been for years (I can now travel to a strange city on my own for 2-3 days, stay in a hostel, and explore, at least a bit – this is a HUGE accomplishment for me), but sometimes it all gets to be too much.
This isn’t to say that I’m not slowly learning and adjusting to being in this new place. It’s just that my learning curve is much steeper right now than it would be if I had someone to help, and the amount of mental effort involved is enormous, and takes away from the other things I need to do, like research.
Anyway, this is all a way of saying that supports are important, and they are different for every single person. For me, a huge help comes when I can have some company while adjusting to someplace new. It’s not that I can’t do it on my own. I sometimes can. It’s that doing it on my own takes significantly more energy and effort than I have to give. With that support, I can learn to navigate a new situation and still be able to communicate and work and do what I need to do. Without it, I might learn how to navigate part of the situation, and after, I end up huddled in a corner, unable to talk or function for hours or days.
While this isn’t the only aspect of being autistic (not even a little bit) or the only thing I have supports or workarounds in place to help with, it is currently something I am struggling with a lot. Because this is taking up so much of my mental effort, my usual ability to handle sensory overload is greatly decreased. My tolerance for sounds, textures, tastes, and smells is much lower than it usually is. I’m stimming a lot more (and not the good kind of stimming, but the “I’m super agitated and panicking, and about to crawl out of my skin or have a complete meltdown” kind of stimming). My ability to carry on a conversation or articulate my thoughts is very low (particularly awkward when trying to converse with my new advisor), and my ability to initiate pretty much anything is almost nonexistent.
It’s all connected. My brain has a finite amount of effort it can expend. When I don’t have the support I need, my available brainpower gets significantly overtaxed trying to compensate. That’s what supports are supposed to help with. They help us live on equal footing. They give us the tools and opportunities to be ourselves. They help us where we need help, but allow us to thrive on our own power. They don’t assume that we can’t. They help us so we can.
To those of you who read this who have acted as my ‘guide’ before, going with me on adventures to new places (even if that new place is a new grocery store or the little store or restaurant down the street, or inviting me over to your house for dinner), please know how much I appreciate you.