When someone asks me if I’m detail oriented I don’t know how to respond. Sometimes I think I can only see the details.
Since I was a kid I’ve been obsessed with tiny things—tiny animal figurines, tiny dishes, tiny bugs, tiny details in a design of a carpet or a tapestry. I notice things that other people don’t notice, and even if they do, they don’t seem to give much thought or appreciation. I often gave inanimate objects personalities and human characteristics and I associated numbers and colors with different genders. My eccentric ways of thinking and behaving became known to me as “weird.”
I was informally diagnosed by an OT as being on the autism spectrum at 28 years old and formally diagnosed at age 30. The diagnosis didn’t come as a surprise to me, but it was a validation of this part of my identity and my struggles. For a long time I searched for reasons why specific things didn’t seem to work for me (such as talk therapy), why I am seemingly stand-offish to new people, why it takes me awhile to adjust to change or to shift from one task to another. The diagnosis began to tap into this.
It began to explain why I have super-human hearing. I can hear every conversation going on around me, every machine buzzing, vacuum cleaners or televisions two houses down. This can be an asset because I’m a musician and producer. I can often hear things other people can’t and I’m more sensitive to dissonance or subtle volume changes in a mix. It’s helped my music immensely, but it also hinders me in some ways because the sounds that I think are overpowering—neurotypical people think are “subtle” or they don’t even notice it at all. It can be a challenge because I can easily get overwhelmed by sounds and find myself avoiding restaurants or changing tables, searching for places where it isn’t as loud. I get overstimulated and have meltdowns because I can’t block it out. I can’t filter what sonic information is important from what isn’t. Some days are better than others when it comes to sensory overwhelm. But no matter what the day or situation, my mind is processing audio and visual input in hyper speed.
In one of my timed diagnostic tests I had to process symbols and patterns quickly. I scored in the 99.5 percentile. That means my brain processes visual information fast. Really fast. I have to consciously tell myself to slow down. On the other hand, it generally takes me longer to process conversational information and discern emotional input. It might even take me a week to process a situation where I was being harmed by someone, for example. Suddenly, I will feel very upset and I have to work out why. It can be frustrating and many people in my life have grown impatient with me because I seem to them to be "behind." I also ask a lot of direct questions, may come off as rude or blunt and like to have all the logical information in order to make decisions or come up with action plans. The details are everything and because I’m hyper-focused on them, sometimes I don’t see the bigger picture until later. I analyze all outcomes, options, and all sides surrounding a situation or concept until I reach the core of it. Though it takes me longer to process certain things, I often arrive at insights that no one around me would ever begin to consider. Since I’ve been circling the core concept and gathered all the details, I can frame the situation or concept in a way that is unique and a perspective that could be potentially valuable.
It’s difficult to not fit in, to not think the same, to process at a different speeds and in a different way from the majority of people around me. Though the way I process can be frustrating, I also see the advantages. Having a divergent brain has deeply informed my work, my interests, and the way I experience the world. I have done my best to translate those experiences into art in some form. I gravitated to music and writing at an early age because I could use it as a way to communicate things I could not otherwise. I could communicate emotions through symbols and archetypes, through rhythmic patterns, through body movements and gestures, through sounds and silences. I could write the things I saw in my mind with characters and concepts, rather than communicating verbally, which didn’t seem to get to the heart of what I wanted to say.
Art helped me connect with my own emotions and thoughts as well as process interactions with others. This deep-diving into various artistic mediums and practices at times left me feeling isolated in my own head, but it also had the power to connect me with other artists—such as in bands, film classes and writing communities. This was my main connection to the outside world and these practices enabled me to process parts of the sensory input and interwoven concepts that would otherwise “take over” my brain. It was a cathartic and safe way to release the hidden storm of energy.
To this day I struggle to cope with outside stimuli and verbal communication as well as executive functioning. Because I was quiet, and did well academically, I flew under the radar. I was able to somewhat model behavior and “echo” the behaviors of other people around me. Like many autistic AFAB people (assigned female at birth) my struggles were silent. I went unnoticed and often went to dissociative coping mechanisms. I masked the autistic characteristics well. This caught up to me over time and I’ve been dealing with the inevitable burnout of masking for decades. But through the silent times I had my notebook, colored pencils and markers. I had a piano and drum sticks. I don’t think that I would have ever survived without art and creativity living and breathing inside me.
As an artist I can utilize my sensory aptitude as a strength, whereas in life situations, I was taught to think of it as a weakness. I always thought of being sensitive as a negative thing. Those words “too sensitive” were used as a way to invalidate my experience of the world and I began to shut down, turn inwards, beat myself up and isolate from others because I believed there was something wrong with me. In my artistic practice the sensitivity and tactual reverence could be fostered and appreciated. In many ways artistic practice became my life-line and I’ve worked on integrating the notion that sensitivity is a gift, a valuable asset and an evolution.
I’m still working on ways to accept myself, to encourage myself and to validate my experiences. It will be a lifelong goal—to love the ways that make me different. It’s an important goal and I think that if I am able to accept myself, work with the challenges and harness my abilities—my contributions could be more vast than I ever could have anticipated. That’s a goal, as well as valuing myself for who I am and not just for what I do. It’s been a mission of mine to connect neurodiverse and autistic artists and work together to create unimaginable things, disrupt industries and advocate for change.
People are beginning to realize that the autism spectrum is vast and interconnected, has many facets and overlapping conditions and effects. There are autistic folks with varying abilities, diversabilities and disabilities. There are autistic people with different communication styles, preferences and alternatives. There are autistic people with a knack for pattern recognition, mathematics, creative strategy, research, progressive thinking as well as a vast-reaching and deep understanding of loyalty, honesty and, yes, empathy.
The world is beginning to value neurodiversity and adjust to the notion that being “sensitive” to specific stimuli is actually a good thing. Though there are many challenges that autistic people face, there is a lot of hope that the world will begin to listen to our voices, become more open minded and start adapting to us. There is a long way to go for acceptance and we need continued advocacy efforts towards integrated opportunity and more understanding of the way we think, behave, and exist in a world that was not designed for us. I believe this effort can be advanced with the work of autistic artists, musicians, poets, writers, and thinkers. Art is a way to communicate, connect and understand. It’s a global language that links us. It has the power to bring disparate minds together in a way that nothing else can.