When I was a kid, the Golden Rule was drilled into my head: Do to others what you would have them do to you. Because I tended to take things literally, I tried to follow this by treating people the way I wanted to be treated. This backfired. It turns out, the way I want to be treated isn’t the way most other people want to be treated. I would be more successful by following the spirit of the rule rather than the letter of it, so to speak. In other words, treat other people the way they want to be treated, not the way I want to be treated. Of course, this adds a layer of complexity, as I first have to figure out how other people want to be treated. I imagine it’s so much easier if you already think like most other people do.
I could provide dozens of examples, but for now I’ll offer just one:
My husband and I have moved many times. Being Christians, by which I mean we believe in Jesus Christ, in each city we’ve moved to, we’ve chosen a new church to attend. This is always a very overwhelming experience for me. Everything about modern evangelical church services is designed to entertain and to stimulate the senses. And before the service even starts, there’s having to walk through a crowded foyer and trying to find a seat in an unfamiliar environment. (Also, I’m aware that you can be judged for where you sit — I’ve heard pastors say from the pulpit that the people sitting in the back aren’t serious about their faith or about being at church.) With my sensory issues, I get so overstimulated, everything becomes a blur. The very last thing in the world I want at that point is someone coming up to me and talking to me and asking me questions about myself.
Because of this, if I see a person I don’t recognize at church, I do not go up to them. I respect them by giving them the space and time to get their bearings. That is how I want people to treat me, so that is how I treat them. That, to me, is kindness.
Imagine my surprise to learn that most people come to church wanting to be welcomed and looking for a sense of community, and they will never return if no one talks to them the first time! They will go away hurt and they will tell people what an unfriendly church it is!
The key would be to have the ability to read people, I suppose. To be able to look at someone and tell if they want to be approached or left alone. But reading people is notoriously tough for Aspies. Despite the stereotype, I am actually capable of reading people quite well, but only in a calm environment with little other sensory input. When I’m already overstimulated, like at church (yes, even after I’ve been going there for a while), my head’s in a whirl and detecting such subtleties is just not likely to happen.
My sensory sensitivity isn’t all bad news. I am also capable of receiving intense pleasure and joy from the right sensory input. These are the things that make life worth living:
The smell of rain.
The smell of bread baking, or something with cinnamon, cloves, and apples.
The scent of plug-in air fresheners. A lot of people with odor sensitivity don’t like artificial smells, but I love them, if it’s the right type of scent. I like cinnamon and cloves, vanilla, nuts, and some fruity scents. I don’t care for most flowery ones.
Flavoured, loose leaf black tea, like chai or anything nutty and/or chocolaty, brewed strong and served with lots of sweetener and whole milk.
White rum with club soda and lime over ice.
Having my back gently stroked (by my husband). This is my favourite thing in the world. I also like having the top of my foot gently stroked. I often rub the top of my foot against the sheet-covered mattress when in bed.
Long hair on my bare back.
Stroking my cat’s fur.
Wearing an over-sized, soft, comfy sweater.
The way the air feels in the fall. Crunchy leaves under my shoes. Crisp air and cool breezes.
Beautiful scenery. Rolling hills. Cityscapes. City lights.
This is a follow up to my post My Worst Sensitivities. Here are some more of my sensory issues. I consider these ones to have less of an impact on my life than the ones in my previous post.
Aversion to water. I hate the feeling of water on my skin, and especially in my eyes. I have never learned to swim for this reason. One of the very small number of spankings I ever received in my life was because I was refusing a bath. When my husband and I shower together, he says I have a look on my face like I’m in pain the entire time. Despite how much I hate it, I do shower every day, because I hate feeling dirty and smelling bad more than I hate the feel of water. But sometimes when I can get away with it, like when I’m not working, I put off my shower until later in the day because I’m not a morning person and that horrible feeling in the morning is too much for me.
I don’t like bright colours. I dislike animated TV shows and movies for this reason. I never really liked most children’s shows or cartoons when I was a child because of the bright colours. I especially hate bright red and orange. But the colours I do like, I love. My favourite is a soft greeny-blue.
I have sensitivities to loud noises and auditory processing issues.
When the fire alarm in the building I live in goes off, I shake uncontrollably, even if I know it’s a false alarm. It’s the noise itself that rattles me.
I can enjoy loud music if it’s music I like and have chosen to listen to, but it drives me nuts if it’s someone else’s. Conflicting noises also drive me nuts. My dad has the tendency to put the TV on, get bored and leave the room without turning the TV off, go into the next room, and put the radio on in there. When I can hear a TV and a radio at the same time, it makes me feel like I’m losing my mind or like my head’s going to explode. It is very, very unpleasant.
I also have trouble in crowded, noisy environments picking out the one voice that’s talking to me. This has always made church attendance difficult for me, as standing around in a crowded church lobby and chatting with people is the expected thing. Trying to skip this is frowned upon, as churches are big on “community” these days and I would even go so far as to say many of them worship community more than they worship God. Going home to read the Bible and pray? Bad. Standing around making small talk about the weather? Good. (I realize if you don’t believe in God, this may not seem like such a bad thing, but for me, believing in God is the one and only reason I’ve ever gone to church. I’m not there for anything else.) In these situations, I stand there and smile and nod and hope they’re not asking me any questions. I have sometimes told people I have auditory processing issues and I can’t understand what they’re saying to me. Sometimes we then stand there in awkward silence before they excuse themselves to talk to someone else, but more often they just keep chattering away and I keep nodding. I don’t know why I keep doing that after I’ve already admitted I can’t understand them. I think it’s just because I hate making people feel bad or uncomfortable.
There are some sounds I like that you wouldn’t expect me to. I love the sound of traffic on a highway. I find it quite soothing, even when I’m trying to fall asleep. I live near an airport and I don’t mind the sound of planes overhead. I also love the sound of rain and howling wind.
Other issues I don’t know how to categorize include:
Sensitivity to hot and cold. This could be related to my hypothyroidism or other health issues. It’s getting worse as I get older.
Motion sickness, when I sit in the backseat of a car. This makes me not want to go anywhere with others unless I can sit in the front, but obviously insisting on sitting in the front seat on outings with people can come across as pretty obnoxious. It’s easier to just stay home.
Oddly enough, I love roller coasters and never get sick on them (although it’s been a while since I’d ridden one because I don’t know anyone else who can tolerate them). I think it’s because a roller coaster ride doesn’t last long enough for the motion sickness to kick in. I’m usually in a car for at least 10 minutes before I start feeling sick.
I might have more issues I’m just not thinking of at the moment, but the ones in this post and my previous post are the ones that immediately come to mind.
I have huge sensory issues. These are the worst ones:
The biggest one is odor sensitivity. This isn’t always negative. I can smell when someone bites into an apple in another room. I can usually tell when something is done baking from the way it smells. I can detect the slightest odor when no one else can, leading people to think I’m imagining things, but the source of the odor is almost always eventually located and I am proven right. My husband jokes that I should get a job as a sniffer dog at the airport.
Unfortunately, as I’m sure you can imagine, this leads to problems as well. I have been known to vomit if I smell excrement, sweat, or food that’s gone even slightly off. I am intensely uncomfortable if I smell cigarette or marijuana smoke. And I am nauseated by the smell of some cooking, especially curry, but also ground beef. Funnily enough, my mom says she was nauseated by the smell of ground beef cooking when she was pregnant with me.
My odor sensitivity is one reason I’m actually glad I’ve never been able to have children. I cannot change diapers or even be near a baby with a full diaper. People say, “It’s different when it’s your own,” but I don’t believe it would be for me, because (and I apologize if this is a rather crude thing to say) sometimes it’s not even different when it actually is my own, if you get my drift. You can imagine how difficult this can make everyday life for me.
I know at least one woman who loathes me and unfriended me on Facebook because I ran outside and threw up when I could smell dirty diapers in the church nursery. She’s one of those people whose life revolves around babies and children, so to encounter someone who is sickened by the smell of their natural functions is a great offense to her. In a way, I can understand. But I can’t help it.
Another problem my odor sensitivity has caused is with my in-laws. I am married to a Brit, and his friends and family always want to go out for “a lovely curry.” Unlike for most Caucasians here in Canada, it seems to be their go-to dining out or take-out choice. But I can’t do it. They say, “You can eat western food while the rest of us have curry,” but I can’t even be present where it’s being cooked or eaten. I will vomit. I have heard my mother-in-law on the phone with her friends talking to them about how weird it is that I don’t like curry, and how it negatively affects their plans.
I have food taste and texture sensitivities, as well as gastrointestinal issues. For texture, the worst is any kind of fat or gristle in meat, and I am grossed out by anything with bones. (I’m this close to becoming a vegetarian, but that’s a topic for another post.) When I go out, I stick to boneless skinless chicken breasts, shrimp, or white fish. I don’t like fish such as salmon, as it’s too strongly flavoured. At home I will eat roast beef, only if it’s boneless and I’ve cooked it in the slow cooker until it’s very well done and removed all obvious fat.
I don’t like most strongly-flavoured cheeses, and I don’t like spicy food unless it’s Mexican and as long as it’s not overloaded with cumin. In fact, Mexican is one of my favourite cuisines, taste-wise, even though it sometimes gives me a stomach ache. Speaking of stomach aches, I get horrible ones from bananas. I get mild ones from cucumbers and avocados. I like leafy greens, especially spinach, but it goes right through me. I also abhor the taste of coffee and won’t even eat mocha-flavoured desserts.
It is very difficult for me to eat at other people’s homes and I have had very bad experiences as a result. To compound this issue, I am prone to hypoglycemia, so I do need to eat regularly. If I find myself somewhere that has nothing I can tolerate, I can end up in a bad state. I have to try to remember to carry a fast sugar plus a protein bar at all times.
I am sensitive to the feel of some fabrics and fits of clothing. I have hated corduroy my entire life. Touching it creeps me out as badly as nails on a blackboard. I also don’t like velvet or suede. There are others I have an aversion to that I don’t know the name of.
My sensitivity in this area has increased as I’ve gotten older. I used to be able to wear uncomfortable things for the sake of so-called beauty (like pantyhose back when they were still in fashion, or high-heeled shoes), but I can’t do it, or perhaps I’m not willing to do it, anymore.
Now I will only wear soft fabrics, preferably with some stretch in them, and nothing too form-fitting in my abdomen or arms unless it’s very soft and stretchy. In recent years I have shopped almost exclusively at Old Navy because I can always find affordable, comfortable clothing that fits me the way I want it to. I’m sorry if that sounds like a commercial. They’re not paying me to say that. They can if they want to.
I also don’t like physical touch. I remember my parents arguing about this when I was a child. My mom thought I should hug the relatives, and if I didn’t like it, I should get over it, because it’s the kind and loving thing to do. My dad thought I shouldn’t be forced to hug anybody. He doesn’t like hugging either, so that is one thing he’s always understood about me.
My aversion to touch got worse when I was about 7. I remember being cuddled up to my mom and smelling a certain odor coming from her body, and it just grossed me out to the point where I couldn’t touch her after that. I never explained that to her, and I don’t think I should have, but I think she’s since felt hurt by my rejection of her physical touch. Also, around the same age, I somehow came up with the weird idea that if people touched me, they would be able to read my mind, and I didn’t want that. It’s not that my thoughts were bad, it’s just that they were mine.
I no longer believe people can read my mind. Maybe my life would be easier if they could, as my motives would no longer be misunderstood like they often are.
There are exceptions to my aversion to touch. I like touching and being touched by my husband (although there are things I can’t tolerate even with him, like being tickled), and I can hug my closest friends. And I love cuddling with cats, although I can’t always stay in one position for a long time like they want me to.
I have become pretty good at putting on an act, like when I used to attend church, where people hug all the time. I act like it’s okay and like I even enjoy it, but my skin is crawling with revulsion the entire time. And there was this one woman I couldn’t handle hugging because she had really bad body odor, so not only was I repulsed by the touch itself, but I nearly vomited every time she came near me. Then I was terrified of hurting her feelings if she realized I was vomiting because I thought she smelled bad. But then I actually did hurt her feelings because I started avoiding her. She became very aggressive, actually chasing me down and saying, “I’m not going to let you get away without giving me my hug!” (For what it’s worth, I heard her saying that to other people too, so I wasn’t her only target.) It was so horrible, I actually finally had to confess to her that I was uncomfortable with hugs. To my utter horror, she started to cry and she told me about how when she was a child, she desperately wanted someone to hug her and no one did, and that’s the reason it was so important to her to have hugs as an adult.
Immediately after the encounter, I went out to my car and had one of my meltdowns, crying and shaking and gasping for air. I was certain that I was a horrible person who had disappointed God with my lack of love and my callous treatment of one of His people. I felt that I’d be better off staying away from people entirely, instead of being around them and hurting their feelings so badly.
More of my sensitivities are mentioned in my next post.
When I was a child, no one had any idea that I was (possibly) autistic. I don’t think people knew a lot about Autism/Asperger’s back then. My parents and teachers considered me socially awkward and emotionally immature, but it was assumed it was because I was an only child. They thought if I were around other children more, I would gain the social skills I was lacking.
So, I was forced to join Brownies, gymnastics (wow, was that ever a bad fit for me!), and various church groups. I hated all of it. To this day I hate group dynamics and group activities. I usually like being with people one-on-one but I loathe being with people in groups.
After there was talk of having me skip grades and it was determined that I lacked the social maturity to be with older kids, my mom considered home schooling me so that I could advance academically at my own pace without being held back by my peers. She ended up deciding not to because she thought if I stopped being around other kids at school, I would never learn those all-important skills.
As it turned out, I never got better at social skills by going to school or participating in extracurricular activities. It was by taking the initiative to read self-help books, and then once the internet came along, by reading posts in discussion forums which helped me learn how other people think. I learned more that way than you would expect. For example, someone would post something like, “Help, there’s this creepy girl at school who wants to be friends with me!” And from the description of what the girl was doing that was so off-putting, I learned what not to do. It was very enlightening, and if it weren’t for the internet, I probably never would have been able to “eavesdrop” on conversations like that and mine them for clues about how to correctly interact with people.
I know there will be people reading this thinking, “You can’t learn social skills by reading!” But I really did. Reading is the way I learn, and it works well for me because I can do it in a non-overstimulating environment. If I’m overstimulated, which I always am when there’s a lot of people around, I absorb nothing.
TV also helped.* When I was a kid, there were a few years where my parents had determined that TV was evil and was poisoning young minds, so we didn’t have one (and then later when we did, we lived in a rural area where there was no cable and we could only get two channels). I feel that really set me back. Not only had I lost one of the only areas of commonality I had with other kids (leading me to ask questions like, “Who are the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles?!”), but I lost that window to the world and that opportunity to observe people interacting from a safe, non-overstimulating place. Not that TV always depicts the world or people’s interactions accurately, of course, but without it, and before the internet existed, a kid like me was almost completely cut off from the collective consciousness. If you’re already weird, it’s a great way to get even weirder, because you have nothing to compare yourself to. I couldn’t compare myself to the kids at school or in groups, because I’m unable to be observant when I’m overstimulated.
I’m an avid TV viewer now, and combined with the internet, it keeps me in touch not only with pop culture, but also with societal norms and values.
I think I am far more socially skilled as an adult than I was as a kid, and I think most people who know me would agree. (Unfortunately — and this may seem like a contradiction — I am also more socially anxious now. In other words, I perform better outwardly, but I feel worse on the inside. Perhaps that could be a topic for a future post.) I think I appear normal to most people. It’s not until they start asking me questions about my lifestyle and interests that they find out I’m weird. I’m not entirely sure if appearing normal is a great thing though. It just causes people to have expectations of me that I can’t live up to.
I think I’m one of those people who you either love or you hate. The small number of true friends I’ve accumulated over the years think I’m the nicest person they’ve ever met. I’m a good listener, I’m accepting, loyal, and I never expect people to be anything other than what they are. I’m horrified by the thought of hurting people’s feelings and even though I sometimes blurt out the wrong thing, especially if I’m overstimulated, I try very hard not to. Even then, my friends often tell me they value my honesty.
The people who don’t like me, loathe me. They think I’m an unfriendly, lazy, oversensitive, overemotional, stubborn oddball and who knows what else. I can only go by the things people actually say to me (I’ve been the recipient of an insane amount of criticism over the years).
I actually have less interest in sociability now than when I was a kid. Back then, I may have hated groups, but I did like people and want friends. Now, other than my desire to spend time with my long-time friends, which I can’t do because they live too far away, I almost don’t care anymore. I find it too exhausting to meet new people. Starting over from scratch with someone and having to answer all their questions and participate in all their social stuff just doesn’t feel worth it. If I found people I could really connect with like the friends I already have, I would love it. But the people I might have the ability to connect with are probably hiding somewhere like I am.
I find them on the internet sometimes. In Texas, in England, in Sweden. It seems I have to comb the world to find people I can relate to.
*Just to clarify, I’m not saying TV is always a positive thing for everybody. There might be people for whom TV shows become an unhealthy obsession and obscure reality, leading to absorption in a world of fantasy. But I’ve never been that way with it, and for me it’s been a positive thing.