Since I “came out” last Christmas, I haven’t really written much about how it is to be autistic. To be fair, I haven’t written much about anything at all. These seemingly fallow periods happen. They happen to everyone given to write or create. But as every creative person knows, the blank page never means a blank mind. The creative process is a germinative one. Existing in dreams, in thoughts, in patterns and fragments, in the tiny moments of noticing.
And I realise that this very much echoes my experience of being autistic. There are times when I shut down, withdraw and seemingly lose my ability to be in the world. This is because it simply becomes too much to process any more input. At these times, I become more acutely aware of my process of re-establishing balance, of the body’s drive to move back into homeostasis. I am aware of the creative process in the realignment of synapses, the adjustment of metabolism, the recalibration of sensory and motor responses, the integration of emotions.
I am just emerging from such a period.
After running a week long yoga retreat I had reached overload. Add into the mix a cold virus, and the next ten days were decided.
There are moments in these reset periods where everything simply seems too overwhelming to attempt. Everything is louder, more intrusive, more demanding, more anxiety provoking. I need to sleep constantly, and when I do I have vivid hallucinatory dreams that startle me awake, and leave emotional hangovers that last well into the waking period. My body is on alert. My joints ache: fingers, wrists, elbows, knees, ankles. My big toes and shoulders partially dislocate. I can’t find a comfortable position to sit, or lie. I want to move but it sometimes seems too overwhelming. I have all the symptoms of IBS. I grind my teeth. My jaw clicks when I eat. I can’t stand noise, and my (usually soft and comfortable) ear plugs irritate me. I bump into things, I drop things. Every email, text message and (God forbid) phone call produces a wave of nauseating anxiety. I pretty much exist on tea and toast.
This is normal.
And yet I find freedom in my freshly integrated understanding that all of these symptoms of “not coping”, all these things I once thought of as “failure” are actually necessary in the process of recalibration.
This is the autistic experience.
I know you can empathise, because Autistic experience – whilst seemingly hard to understand - is just human experience, albeit with elaborate bells on. Everyone has experienced overload, on some level or another, at some point. It’s just that for Autists, it’s more in our “normal” range of experience, more regular, more intense. And, far from being a worrisome, pathological state, I see it is inevitable, and essential.
The neat segue is that yoga provides an opportunity to experience the recalibration experience, in a deeply aware and embodied way. Throughout my recent shut down experience, I was aware of the deeper integration through my yoga practice. There wasn’t much asana going on, although significant time was spent in child’s pose. But yoga was certainly happening. In my breath, in my awareness of my body, but mostly in my willingness to sit in awareness of the process.
And when I talk about sitting, it wasn’t always in stillness. Or indeed sitting.
Through the fidgeting and the squirming, there were moments of noticing that occurred right down on the deep cellular level of my body. I can’t describe this to you. Not in words. But it was there. And it was a gift. Not in any trite, motivational poster fashion, but in a way that - for a Yogi - anything that provides the opportunity for deeper awareness is a gift.
The deepest yoga, for me, is about clearing the way for that awareness to arise. And this is the gift that both my yoga practice, and my autism diagnosis have given me. I can allow myself to experience whatever is arising, without feeling that I need to change it, modify it or "heal" it. I can surrender to the recalibrating process of shut down, and find the healing, and the deep learning, in that space.
I no longer feel that I have to constantly try to be something other than the autistic me. To try and "fix" the bits that are socially awkward, easily overwhelmed, oversensitive. The constant work that it takes to try and pass - ineffectively - as "normal" is exhausting. And pointless. These new habits are taking practice and integration. It isn't easy to change 45 year old habits of existing in the world.
As I heard a teacher say recently, Yoga is about “getting out of your own way!” And for me, understanding that I am Autistic has given me the same opportunity.