I accept waiting cheerfully in many situations. If Big Corporation puts me on interminable hold, I doodle or paint on old book covers. An hour vanishes in a short-staffed dentist’s office when I have a notebook. Bank lines are an opportunity to invent backstories for the characters I am in line with.
However, if I must wait for a phone call, I cannot focus. Even with a doodle kit or art room nearby, I am unable to sit, draw, or write. I think only of the phone ringing so I can get on with my day.
Likewise, if the cable guy is due between two and four o’clock; I fret and pace from 1:55 to 4:05.
To understand why waiting is sometimes pleasant and other times misery-making, I charted some observations:
My discomfort arises from what my brain is up to while I wait. In any line, I expect my turn will come. I foresee closure and it limits my thinking. The certainty of getting what I need removes ambiguity. My brain does not like ambiguity.
Ambiguity feels infinite. Faced with the intangible, my thoughts spin and branch, weaving an anxious web. This internal turbulence is difficult to describe. I can best relate my perceptions with an analogy.
Imagine you are at the top of a tall building and must descend dozens of flights of stairs to exit. You walk and walk; flowing smoothly down. Your feet know where to go, so your mind is free to think about dinner or other amusements.
The lights suddenly go out. You might be surprised, but you recall how far down the next step is and keep moving.
Then you think, “When will I reach the landing?” and “How many steps until the next set of stairs?” You cannot walk down the stairs without considering where you are. How confident are you that you can count your steps and navigate the landings without second-guessing yourself? Your mind becomes consumed with step-taking.
In my dark descent into ambiguity, I count steps, hoping nothing unexpected happens. My universe permits new possibilities. The number of steps between landings can vary. Even the height of each step is impermanent. Processing the possibilities makes each step an anxious one.
Limits reduce anxiety. Thirty stories in darkness is easier down a continuous spiral staircase. One could even think about dinner again.
This insight helps on a cognitive level, but behaviorally–my mind needs bigger bait than doodles and journaling. I need something else to cope with open-ended waiting.
Can a simple gesture summarize years of friendship? Lunch with my visiting best friend was highlighted by a kindness that leaves me warm and happy weeks later.
For those of you who have not encountered me in real life, I’m a fidgety-fidgeter. I wiggle and twitch when not occupied with a specific task. My fingers boogie at the grocery store. Adrift in a long line, I sway to an internal surf. This physical turbulence labeled me as a “spazz” in school.
Decades later, I learned to doodle and write to divert my energetic mind. The instant and meaningful focus a blank sheet of paper gives me is deeply restorative.
When my best friend Patricia visited me in May, we went to the local lobster pot. After we were seated, Patricia pulled out a mini-notebook and two pens. She handed them over to share her jotted trip notes. I did not read the words, but her lacy and familiar handwriting formed a pleasing tessellation on the page. “We can write or doodle as we feel inspired,” she said, fanning her pretty nails in a rhythmic tap.
It took me a moment to grasp that she was giving me permission to take a mental holiday. She bestowed me with the space, time, and tools I needed to calibrate my cognitive gears.
A swell of appreciative thoughts engulfed me. Patricia has always done delightful things for me, before and after my Asperger’s diagnosis.
My wonderful experience prompted me to assemble a guide for the neurotypical with friends on the autism spectrum. Here are three tips that will endear you to autistic buddies everywhere:
- Know your autistic friend’s sensory issues. Help them by finding quiet spots—dim, spare areas with little or no people. Ten minutes in a peaceful place is like a good night’s sleep to a frazzled Aspie. Patricia found us the quietest booths at restaurants. She used distractions like her doodle kit to help me settle in and calm down.
- Share some special interests. I love rocks. Patricia has walked miles with me as I sought curious, glittery rocks. During our recent beach trip, we hunted peculiar stones. She took her time to examine and enjoy the loveliness of each polished pebble. Patricia welcomes other people’s joy. Be an Aspie for a day and let the beauty wash over you!
- Embrace stims and other quirks. I think of stimming as autistic yawning. It re-boots the brain at a better energy level. When I am revved up, I ‘finger dance “or sway. This expels my excess energy and settles me down. When I crash, I spin to pull myself up to normal.On a long Saturday morning with Liev, I crashed. To perk up, I spun with vigor. Watching with interest, Patricia chirped, “Yay! Wonder Woman!” I laughed so hard. I felt deeply accepted and cherished.
I appreciate dear Patricia and her kindred, making friendship meaningful and fufilling for every generation of spectrumites!
This summer, I upgraded from perennial chat room lurker to actual participant. Now, I correspond regularly on adult Asperger/autism boards. Years of silent observation taught me that all chat rooms host trolls and other predictable characters.
Any place where you share your experiences, one person posts the “worst experience ever.” Their stories are so appalling, your credibility is stretched. In fact, when the same person posts “the worst experience ever” across multiple threads, some people openly reject them.
In the autism boards, members accept and support a person with a terrible tale; even when a person consistently posts great difficulties. Since autists frequently grapple with work, relationships, and sensory overload, they possess empathy for those who struggle.
Like other boards, autism boards have trolls. I flip a mental bird at them and move on to the next comment. I am more troubled by mildly offensive posts.
When someone responds, “Well, everyone feels that way,” in response to a personal disclosure, my eyebrows arch. I wonder what the person’s intention is. Do they intend to invalidate another person’s feelings? Are they trying to be helpful? Are they in denial? I cannot navigate the ambiguity.
I am tempted to react in anger. I reveal details online I never shared before. It’s hard for me to divulge anything, let alone an embarrassing or tender moment. Questioning the validity of my experiences wounds me. If I was so normal, why do I have the difficulties I do? It often seems as if it such comments are a subtle form of blame.
So, I am ready to pick up my flame thrower and blast napalm at the “everyone feels that way…” commenter. I have a lifetime of being misunderstood for fuel. Yet, that comment needs to be addressed. And it must be addressed with empathy. I cannot assume ill will.
First I will concentrate on the comment, then the feeling.
Rudy Simone, author of Aspergirls addressed the “everyone feels that way” attitude:
It’s the same with all Aspie traits–everyone experiences some if not all of them, but not at the same level of : INTENSITY, FREQUENCY and QUANTITY.
It doesn’t matter if you are diagnosed with autism, Asperger’s, Tourette’s, ADHD, OCD, depression, or bipolar disorder*. Every “normal” person experiences some degree of your atypical neurological and emotional heritage. This is a good reason to build tolerance on both sides of the fence.
I will reject anger and look for opportunity. I plan to help the well-meaning and confused understand the difference between their normal experiences and autism spectrum experiences. I intend to share more personal stories to illustrate the intensity, frequency and quantity of my life. I will build empathy and put down my internal flamethrower.
*Yes, I deliberately left out schizophrenia.
I read Asperger’s Syndrome and Difficult Moments to learn respectful methods of helping my overwhelmed son. One of the most helpful interventions was “proximity control.” This formal sounding action is simply being next to an Asperger child without engaging with them. Your presence is felt, but does not require specific interaction for either of you..
Adult Aspies benefit from proximity control. I feel agitated and restless when I am alone. Having the kitty for company is soothing, but having my husband blinging away on the guitar is best. Many women married to Aspies struggle to understand why their husband wants to have them nearby.
My grandmother was married to a man who had both Asperger’s syndrome and bipolar disorder. She spent her life trying to understand his “nervous spells.” Yet, in her letters, she realized Grandpa felt organized and strengthened by her quiet presence:
My father likes the same quiet company. Before he retired, he faithfully earned a living for his family. The anxiety he coped with on a daily basis would give the most courageous pause. After work, my mother’s companionship settled his nerves so he could sleep and go to work the next day.
As a child, my mother emphasized how much of a Southern Gentleman Dad was. He would not touch his food till she sat by his side at the table and picked up her fork. Despite father’s impeccable cordiality, I know his behavior runs deeper than upbringing. Dinner is simply more delicious with Mom beside him for company.
Aspies and neurotypical people both crave company. But we preffer differnt types of company. An Aspie’s ideal companion is subliminal. We don’t need words to maintain companionable peace, being is enough—as if radiated body heat bears secret messages only we comprehend. Too much talking clutters our minds and disturbs our mental symmetry.
My husband and I share a tacit harmony. We don’t make small talk or ask polite questions. We address relevant issues; make plans, and express affection. Goofy interludes persist. We sense each other’s presence across the household. Each knows the other is close by—this is a comfort.
Understanding this helps me to appreciate my son’s most frequent request: “Be with me, Mama.” So, I sit on the couch with my doodle pad and just “be.”