Recently, I was asked to contribute to a collection of writings about autism and ageing. The request contained guidelines for content, etc.. I found it very demanding, due to the structure required. I am still writing the piece.
While trying to figure out what to write and what to leave out, it occurred to me that there were two major variables operating that shaped my development: Awareness and acceptance.
I was unaware of my autism until I was 70. My behaviour reflected my ignorance. I was seen as an egotistical, cold, controlling person. I didn’t understand why I was the way I was. Once I became aware of my autism I began to see myself differently. Acceptance has taken me a long time, but it has happened and now I am comfortable with my autism.
Awareness and acceptance really are the key to living comfortably with one’s autism.
A major issue, from my point of view is the role addiction plays in folks on the spectrum. I have struggled with addictions for decades. However, I need to be clear that an addiction is not the same as a “special interest”. Addiction is characterized by a cycle of behaviour. First, there is the presence of stress which raises the level of anxiety, or excitement. This leads to the addictive behaviour, such as drinking alcohol or taking a drug like tobacco, OR playing a computer game. Some types of internet activity, such as online pornography can be very addictive, as can online gambling or shopping. This is a generalized description of addiction. Special interests are not addictive.
Some of my addiction struggles have included opiates, cigarettes and most recently, online pornography. I had always liked porn. I thought it was harmless. Then, there is an underlying issue of my penchant to want to hide. There was security knowing that I could hide from stuff that I could not handle, like crowded rooms or loud noises. Later, in adolescence, we would play war in a huge park, and I would always set up as a sniper. I could hide and see them but they couldn’t see me. Online porn allowed me to hide from reality and still “participate”. The reality is that what I hid from included my family, my work, and everything that I was doing. This began in the mid 90s when online porn first began to appear, and before it was found to be potentially addictive. I still struggle at times especially If I am very anxious.
For me, the major issue is how does my autism affect these behaviours, if it does? The answer, as best as I can see is yes, there is an interaction between addiction and autism. Autistics are known to have very high levels of what is called “baseline anxiety”, or the level of anxiety when not stressed. I am a high anxiety person. Addictions are self-reinforcing. When we do the addictive behaviour, we are rewarded (e.g. opiate or nicotine or an orgasm or winning a hand or game) for that behaviour. Autistics generally prefer very predictable situations. Addiction behaviours may serve to help provide this sense of predictability. Whenever I have had a lot of unpredictability in my life, I have found myself struggling with addiction issues.
I would be very interested in how addiction has affected other autistics, regardless of their age.
I have already written about the terms Autistic, Asperger and disorder. The labeling effect is strongly associated with our perception of the meaning of the word. An example is the word Asperger. It can mean a disorder, a neurotype found on the autistic spectrum, or even a form of autism that is “superior” to other expressions involving types of autism.
When I recently went to my G.P. for a follow up on my spine surgery, she used a term that startled me. The term was geriatric. It was used in the context of geriatric services and making sure that I was signed up for them.
I know that I am 74 years old. But, I don’t see myself as old or elderly! It doesn’t fit my image of who I am. I need the services because of my surgery, not because I am geriatric!
As has been said, “We are what we think we are”. I am a 74 year old autistic man, currently recovering from surgery and I intend to continue being physically very active as soon as it is possible.
My first response to new situations is usually NO. Like many autistics I prefer routines. They are predictable, and for me, feel safe. However, life isn’t always predictable or safe. So, since leaving the hospital, change has been the norm. First, my cabin was unliveable. I can no longer heat with wood since I can’t lift and cut the wood. I then lived a few days in a motel room. The owner of the motel then offered me a fifth wheel trailer to live in. It is just about perfect for me.
So, the point of all this is that the saying Good things come to those who wait, seems to be true. As an autistic, it’s the ability to see this that is a challenge for me. Words like stillness, waiting, patience, tolerance and acceptance now have a much stronger meaning.
In my last entry I described dealing with aversive stimuli while in the hospital. By centring myself in a quiet place, I was able to basically ignore the chaos that one is exposed to in hospitals. This is sometimes known as cognitive control and it becomes easier to develop as one gets older. Of course it takes awareness of our quirks and aversions to exercise this cognitive control.
The Red Cross loaned me a shower chair to use as my balance is still not 100%. I put it in a very small shower (barely large enough to turn around in). I turned on the water. The water filled the stall with spray. At that point I realized that I could not get myself to step into the stall. I have a strong aversion to putting my face into water. When I shower, I slowly put my body into the stream but keep my face out of the water. So, I stood there and began to choke up with fear. After a moment I turned off the water and took a sponge bath.
The point of all this for me is Stay aware and be prepared meet all challenges, including some really old ones.
In last November, I was walking 6-12 km. per day and kayaking 2-3 times a week. Then, I had a violent coughing attack while driving. After that, I began to have issues with my arms and my walking started to break down. On Boxing Day I went to Victoria for an MRI of my spine. Two days later they performed surgery on my spine. I am now on the mend and am getting better every day. I can walk and my arms are good.
When I was put in the hospital I informed them that I am autistic. The surgeon placed me in a private room. I was frightened but okay. Two days after the surgery I was moved to a room with three other men. The biggest issues for me were the levels of stimulation; the lights, smells, noise and the food were challenging, along with remarks like I can’t tell you’re autistic or you don’t act autistic.
However, lying on my back for two weeks allowed me to think through a number of issues that I have struggled with for decades. One is so-called “magical thinking”. Like many on the spectrum, I have difficulty seeing the large picture of the world, usually known as the Gestalt. Without having a plan that would dictate what I would need to do, such as my higher education or a job, I would just do whatever I needed to do without thinking about outcomes or consequences of my actions. If, for example, in intimate relationships, it was time to move past the courting phase I would not know what to do so I would sabotage the relationship. I could not overcome my fear of emotional commitment, as I had no idea of what that meant. My inability to see another’s perspective kept me in an egocentric bubble.
Now I understand that everything a person does affects those around us and I need to keep others in mind when I speak or act in a specific way. My partner has been telling me this for many years. I can now more clearly see the issue and will be correcting the issue as it arises.
In future entries I will address other issues that have arisen since this experience has occurred. Thank you and I welcome all feedback.
If knowing my quirks helps me to understand my autism more clearly, then it seems like a good idea to explore them. So, here’s a list of some more of my quirks.
I use the same dishes, forks and anything else I can without changing anything. I do what they call routinize almost everything.
I have a very short attention span if I am not interested in something, and I can focus for hours if I am interested. If I am not interested in what someone is saying, I will walk away while they are talking. Recently I learned that to do this was rude.
Socially, I seem to be clueless.
I seem to be unable to sustain a healthy intimate relationship. When the passion begins to subside I seem to be unable to go to the next level. I have been married six times. Only my current wife refuses to give up on me, although we are currently living apart.
I have more than one special interest. I can talk for hours without understanding when people become bored.
I seem to have little or no common sense. I could never figure out the sayings like “A stitch in time saves nine “. My question was always Nine what?l
I am sure that I have many more quirks. This is an ongoing process for me. I would like to hear from other folks who may have “autistic “quirks.