Friday, February 11, 2011
Book Excerpt: Autism and Tolerances
Yet more book passages on autism and relationships. Thanks to all the readers so far!
When someone declares, “I can’t tolerate that person!” the speaker probably means that literally in some way. Yes, we really do have “tolerances” and those affect our relationships. When people discusses their tolerances, most are referring to their emotional abilities to tolerate others. However, emotional tolerances are only a part of limits on a relationship.
• Tolerances describe our physical, emotional, and neurological limitations
• Ranges of tolerance vary by individual, though some with ASDs are extremely sensitive
• Composing a list of tolerances can improve self-awareness of social limitations
• Friends and family often know tolerances better than the individual with an ASD
All of us have physical, emotional, and neurological limitations. Some of us can tolerate extreme cold, others can tolerate extreme heat. Some of us are emotionally equipped to work in emergency rooms or disaster areas, while others of us work best away from chaos. The next section of the text explores specific tolerance types in detail.
Though we all have tolerance ranges, the ranges can be narrower for people with ASDs. These definitely affect our friends, family members, and even our coworkers. I suggest creating a list of tolerances to help consider them more accurately. Again, this is an exercise that works best with a trusted friend or family member who can check the list composed by an autistic individual. Some people prefer to create an initial list alone, but the list still should be reviewed for additional insights. If an autistic individual cannot compose this list alone, parents or caregivers can help draft the list.
What tolerances belong on a list? I suggest starting with four broad categories, maybe even creating separate lists for each category initially before compiling a master list. These are the four categories I use:
• Sensory Sensitivity: people produce sensory stimuli, which can be overwhelming
• Emotional Sensitivity: people are emotional, some more than others
• Physical Space: people occupy space; in a relationship, you share space
• Need for Order, Routines: people don’t follow your routine, and some are impulsive
For each of these categories, I suggest starting with how people fall into them. After you consider people and the category you can expand to places, things, situations, and other contexts. Though I am suggesting this for autistic people, there’s no reason this exercise cannot help anyone consider his or her limitations.
You might believe sensory tolerances don’t lead to relationship problems. You’d be wrong. People don’t merely produce sensory stimuli on their own, which can be overwhelming, they also seek out various stimuli. Consider all five senses and try to think of any and every negative experience connected to sensory stimuli. The senses are: sight (visual), taste (oral), touch (tactile), smell (olfactory), and sound (auditory). Some of these are more important than others.
The most obvious sensory problems for me are olfactory: I hate certain smells. Some people, sorry but they need better hygiene. Then there are the men and women steeped in fragrances. Do they not understand a “spray” of cologne or perfume versus a shower? I can get a migraine from some odors.
I’ve been told by some autistics that the smell of foods can be overwhelming. I happen to love most food, but what happens when an autistic person cannot tolerate the smell of a partner’s favorite food? You might think that’s a silly question, but I had one person tell me she couldn’t tolerate the smells of Italian food. (I might have said, “You’ve got to be kidding.”) It turns out, she really, really hates anything that reminds her of tomatoes. He boyfriend, as you can guess, was part Italian. I don’t know how the problem gets resolved — I couldn’t give up tomatoes, much less tomato-based sauces.
Smoking is a serious problem for many people. Candles, incense, and air-fresheners are also problematic for some autistics (and plenty of other people, too). Odors and scents might seem minor to someone else, but for an autistic individual a smell can trigger everything from headaches to serious meltdowns.
People can produce tactile stimuli, too, from their direct touches to choices in clothing. I hate “scratchy” feelings, like some wools. Tactile matters, trust me. I have to have smooth, soft sheets. I like soft fabrics, gentle touches. I hate rough surfaces. Touch is far less complicated than odors, thankfully.
Auditory sensitivity is common among autistics. I hate loud, sudden noises. The local light rail where we live “squeals” around corners and leaves me shaking. I also react to sirens horribly. If you like loud musics, live concerts, and fireworks, I’m probably not going to be joining you out on the town. That’s a serious problem if one friend or partner loves to go to places that are loud and the other hates those places or cannot tolerate them.
One of the more complex problems I’ve encounters is color sensitivity. I’m not sure what triggers it, but I met a non-verbal boy bothered by the colors yellow and brown. I happen to dislike anything that looks “dirty” but that doesn’t seem to be the case for this young child. His parents said he would scream at the television when he saw yellow. He’d cry in the mall. I’m not sure if this was resolved, but it is definitely a real condition for some autistic individuals.
My wife can attest to a problem I have that many autistics report: I mirror, and even magnify, the emotions of people around me. And people are emotional, some more so than others. Parents and care providers tell me that some non-verbal children are so overwhelmed by any strong emotion that it can cause meltdowns.
Friends, family, and peers unintentionally can trigger withdrawal or meltdowns with excitement or anger. Even laughter causes panic for some autistics. Such responses to emotion inevitably cause friction within relationships. Imagine trying to never express joy or anger so an autistic person isn’t overwhelmed. Forcing yourself to be restrained is exhausting, just as it is for an autistic individual.
I respond quickly and deeply to anyone being hurt or abused; it can be overwhelming to be around someone suffering. It is as if emotions are contagious. You can imagine how badly awry this emotional sensitivity can go. I need to be around someone less emotional, more “constant” than most people. Angry people scare me, literally, and even loud people can seem angry to me. I am uncomfortable with “bubbly” people, too. It is the extremes of emotions that bother me, not specific emotions.
Any couple or family can appreciate the problems of space. People occupy space — kitchens and bathrooms often being epicenters of disputed space. In school and work relationships, we also are forced to share spaces. Conflicts are inevitable, it seems, when people are in close proximity.
Proximity tolerances begin with what we call “personal space,” which is the amount of distance we expect between two people. Different cultures have different proximity tolerances, which seem to be learned during childhood. These proximities signal cultural meanings, such as “getting in someone’s face” to indicate anger or being “standoffish” to indicate distrust. Because these are learned behaviors that are internalized over time, people tend to retain the proximity lessons learned as children.
Autistic individuals and the parents of autistics tell me there is a surprising range of personal space preferences among autistics. Some people assume those with ASDs are always distant, but that is not the case. Parents have told me some children and teens with ASDs “cling” too closely to friends and family. A teacher told me of a student with autism she felt was trying, literally, to stay within the teacher’s shadow. Being physically too far away or too close to others affects direct and indirect communication.
Beyond how people exist and interact in space, there are issues of spacial arrangement and control. Again, this is not a problem unique to autism: everyone has preferences when it comes to the design and arrangement of spaces. I like to be near windows and able to look out doors. It’s not quite a claustrophobic response, but I like to feel a space has openings. I hate to feel trapped. Other autistic individuals prefer small, closed spaces. There’s no one preference.
Because people with ASDs can be more rigid in their preferences, it is often best to let an autistic child choose which chair is his or hers, which shelves, et cetera. I realize this can seem like allowing the autistic child or adult too much control, but at least starting with this approach minimizes trauma and meltdowns. Over time you can help an autistic person try alternative arrangements. Understand, this isn’t about being in charge from the autistic perspective — it is about keeping things familiar.
Order and Routines
As the discussion of physical spaces reflects, individuals with ASDs like order and routines. This insistence on order is both physical and temporal. We like daily schedules as much as we like our furniture to be arranged in a particular manner. Change is unwelcome.
There are spontaneous people and planners. Most of us are between the two extremes, but the majority of people with ASDs prefer plans, schedules, and calendars. We like to do the same things at the same times, even if that seems boring to other people. And then, right in the middle a routine, an autistic person can have an impulsive desire that is so unpredictable and overwhelming that it throws everything and everyone else into chaos.
I would never be able to tolerate disorder and chaos in a living space, office, or classroom. My wife is organized — extremely organized. She is certain she could be more organized and that we could be more efficient, but the reality is that she’s an impulsive sorter and planner. My wife is probably more organized than I am, mainly because she’s less prone to distraction.
I’ve heard coworkers complaining about messy family members, those people comfortable with dirty dishes in the sink and laundry on the floor. I could be cleaning constantly, upset by the disorder. I’m upset with stupid little things, so major messes would be unbearable. The “Odd Couple” might be a funny play, but the reality is that such differences can strain and even destroy relationships.