Coping strategies are important when you’re autistic.
Sensory issues can be eased by stimming, headphones, dark glasses. Stimming distracts from negative information, creating positive sensations that make it easier to deal with an influx. Headphones and dark glasses reduce the amount of information our brains have to deal with.
For me they all fall under a wider umbrella of dealing with the processing.
My brain has to process a lot. All the time. Every choice sends a cobwebs of choices and decisions through my mind. Mind-maps explode left, right and centre. The smallest thing can trigger a downpour.
So whilst dealing with the raw sensory input pouring in, there’re then all these other processes to do.
Throw in “masking” and socialising, and I’m not just having to consciously decipher your body language and expressions, I’m also having to project my own in a way that you can understand. That incredible neurotypical ability to read body language and emotions intuitively, sadly doesn’t extend to those of us who are neurodiverse. And as we know only too well, learning to interpret them consciously takes effort.
All those processes have to be poured through the not-in-any-way infinite resources of my brain. Too many demands at once, and it all stops working. It bottle-necks. Too much info trying to pour through too narrow a space.
Which brings me to my coping mechanisms. It’s all part of the storification that so many of us do.
Let’s pretend there’s an event I want to go to in a new place. I’ll start preparing days before. I’ll check out the place on street-view if I can. That’s some visual processing done. I’ll try to find maps or floor plans or pictures of a new place. The more familiar it is, the less I’ll have to take in when I get there.
At the same time I’ll be building a plan of the day. If I know something is happening at eleven, then that makes it easier. If it’s a more vague time, then I’ll need to construct a different plan based around other events in the day. Each possible variation will need its own plan. The more uncertainty, the more plans and therefore the more work to do before hand.
If the uncertainty is too great, and the pre-processing becomes too enormous, then I’ll fall at the first hurdle. I will already have wasted all my mental capacity on just trying to consider the variables. I may overload at this point depending on energy levels.
If I manage to find lots of information, and the timings are fixed, and I have a vague idea of who will be there and how it will go, this means less processing. If I’m doing something for the second time, then there’s less work to do than the first time around.
Once I’m there a certain amount of processing will go into overcoming any sensory issues. Some will be devoted to projecting my reactions correctly (if I feel I need to). Some will be devoted to working out other people’s body language. Some to storing layout. Some to pattern-finding (can’t help it, I think it’s a form of stimming that does help soothe me).
Arrival will be peak processing. I need to make decisions quickly, I need to work people out, I need to decide what I should be doing.
At this point I usually become painfully clumsy, as I’m devoting the energy I usually use on my body-placement, to working out what I should be doing.
If I’ve done enough work before-hand, and there have been no enormous disruptions, then at this point I will have enough spare to take in information and enjoy myself.
If I’ve misjudged it, or there has been unexpected change, then I may be barely verbal, and just able to return a smile. I won’t take anything in, and the value of it all is negligible. Bottle-necking has occurred. Too many processes and not enough me to work through them all.
But let’s assume it’s gone well. Out the other side there are more processes to be done. Thinking about what happened and when. Storing information for next time. Analysing what went well and what didn’t. What I can do to improve things for next time.
Slowly, after the peak, I will move back to normality. The fewer demands on me in this time, the sooner my energy and processing reserves will refill.
Familiar surroundings, minimal interactions, low-levels of sensory information, all help with this.
Just like an athlete after a hard session, I will need to let my body recover.
Before diagnosis I would only indulge refuelling if my brain forced things. Shutdown was the way that it protected itself from my unreasonable demands.
If you try to run and run and run, with no rest, then eventually you won’t be able to run. Your body will not be able to respond to you. It will shutdown.
By planning, preparing, and ensuring downtime to recover, I am able to do so much more. It may sound intensive and exhausting, but it’s not nearly as exhausting as trying to do it all with no preparation.
The more information there is available, the less processing, and the more accessible things are to me. Let’s not pretend that most people wouldn’t find better planning helpful!
If you’re reading this, and it sounds exhausting, then why not think about some of the ways the places around you could become more autism-friendly. Is music played as standard? Is it necessary? Can you put floor plans and photos on your website? Would you consider adding a bit more detail to plans? Mentioning who will be there, with pictures? Setting times out clearly? Giving things form and structure makes everything seem more professional and cohesive too. There are many upsides to thorough planning and sharing those plans.
Adjustments may seem insignificant, but they can mean the difference between attending and not. If they’re that trivial, why not make them? Where’s the harm?
It’s always worth examining our spaces with a critical eye.