I have many wonderful holiday memories like watching Christmas Vacation every year with my parents and brothers, or eating stuffing, mashed potatoes, and turkey covered in gravy on Thanksgiving while watching the Detroit Lions lose to Brett Favre’s Packers. This is a joyful time of year but also stressful – filled with sensory issues, unexpected visitors, and unwanted gifts.
The audio sensation of my brothers’ six children screaming and playing with noisy electronic rodent toys or the olfactory sensation of dirty diapers from the babies – worse yet, the slobbering dog who decides to eat off your plate, licking it clean; the unexpected visit from your uncle who smells of cheap Smoker’s Choice cigars and Mad Dog booze, pouncing on you with a bear hug. Don’t forget the sensory-unfriendly gifts. Your aunt’s handmade, itchy wool sweaters and scarves.
All these things can add stress to your holiday season. I have learned five simple ways to make my holiday more joyful.
Bring fun travel backpack to keep my mind at peace in the midst of sensory chaos: In this backpack, I have books, a notebook, pen, stuffed animal, and earplugs. Reading books helps keep my mind at ease. During the last ten years, I have read over a 1,000 books. I use my notebook and pen to write down ideas that come to mind. Autism causes my mind to over-analyze thoughts with a notebook I can write them down and not be hyper-focused on them. A stuffed animal reminds me of being a child and makes me feel happy, and my earplugs block out unwanted sounds from meddling kids.
Find a place to be alone when I feel overwhelmed by the holiday festivities: At holiday events, I always make sure I have a place I can go when I feel overwhelmed by my environment. When I celebrate Easter, Thanksgiving, and Christmas at my parents’ house, my refuge from the sensory storms is my old bedroom. In this room, I have over 4,000 books and all my favorite toys like Star Wars, Indiana Jones, GI Joe, and Calico Critters.
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College can be a major part of adult life for some people on the autism spectrum, I know it was for me. At college, you have a lot more freedom to make choices that can directly impact your future. One of the things I enjoyed the most during my college years is that my special interests weren’t something that I had to keep to myself. I was able to explore my interests, write academic papers about them, and engage with others around our shared interest in the topic. It was a place where I felt free to be myself. However, that’s not to say that it wasn’t without its challenges. Here are some important things I learned during my time at college that I hope help other individuals who have either just started their journey or intend to begin school soon.
Join groups – Social relationships can be tricky for people with autism. However, college provides a great opportunity to make friends. In college, you can join special interest groups or even create your own. I have a special interest in Japanese history, holidays, and art forms. As a teenager, it was difficult to find people who wanted to talk about obscure topics like Takarazuka (a type of stage performance where women play all roles) and Tanabata (a star festival). However, in college I was able to connect with like-minded people. Through the relationships I forged, I was even able to travel internationally and participate in some of these activities.
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“Tell me I can’t so that I can show you that I can,” Armani Williams
By Ron Sandison
- What were are greatest challenges having autism?
I feel like my greatest challenges of having autism is the communication and social interaction. All my life I have been dealing with issues growing up but I have managed to steadily improve those tactics, being a little more proactive around other people and that’s going to help me in the long run as I continue to live my life with autism.
- How old were you when you begin to speak?
Good question, I can’t remember when I did. It’s been a long time since I was very little. I would say it was when I was 2 or 3 years old. It sometimes takes time before you can say your very first words.
- Did you have any sensory issues? If so, how did you learn to overcome them?
Yes, I had some sensory issues especially when I was young. And I still do today but I have been able to reduce those issues and overcome them just by looking at my surroundings and knowing what’s going on in today’s world. When I hear or see something that I don’t quite understand, I use the internet and research things on Google to help me understand certain things I don’t know. The more I learn about different things, the easier it is for me to translate the information to my brain and the next time it comes up it’s like, “Oh, I have heard about this before”, or “Hey, I know what this is.”
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Anxiety can be challenging for anyone to experience – it can keep you from doing the things you love, meeting new people, or often from pursuing new goals. Now imagine these typical hardships being paired with sensory challenges. Self-advocate, Raven Pressor, shares her first-hand perspective of experiencing anxiety alongside ASD and shares some advice on how to support individuals like herself dealing with this common comorbidity.
Raven, thanks so much for speaking about this personal topic. Can you tell us a little bit about yourself?
I’m Raven and I’m 36 years old. I live with my parents, and my hobbies include video games, crochet, knitting, reading, and spending time with my cat and two geckos. I have ASD and anxiety, and was not diagnosed with ASD until I was about 24 years old.
How would you describe the feeling of clinical anxiety to someone who has never experienced it?
For me, it first feels like I’m a little shaky and edgy. It can escalate into a queasy stomach, racing heart, tight throat that makes it feel hard to breathe, lightheadness or dizziness, and a weird tingly feeling in my face and hands. These symptoms occur during a full-blown panic attack. There are also emotional symptoms too, like an intense desire to return home if I’m out (a fight or flight response) and generally afterwards, some amount of shame at the loss of control.
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While reading the article “How to Meet Autistic People Halfway” from the New York Times, I was impressed by how accurate its portrayal of the social issues autistic people have was, as I have faced many of them myself. I have found it hard to make friends, and though I’m happy with my small circle of friends now, it is harder for others to accept that I only have a few really good friends. My mother reminded me recently that I used to take a book out on the playground and read. It bothered her more than it bothered me. I was teased, and my theory at the time was I’m better off alone, then I won’t get upset.
One of the things that really struck me about the article is that they discuss eye contact, and how hard it is for many autistic people.
“Take eye contact. Some autistic people say they find sustained eye contact uncomfortable or even painful. Others report that it’s hard to concentrate on what someone is saying while simultaneously looking at them. In other words, not looking someone in the eye may indicate that an autistic person is trying very hard to participate in the conversation at hand. Unfortunately, this attempt to engage often gets interpreted as a lack of interest.”
This is something I’ve really struggled with, and have worked hard on. It still is difficult for me at times, especially when I’m upset or angry. I’m lucky that most times when I have issues regarding eye contact, I manage to explain it, and am dealing with people who understand me.
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