When eye contact hurts – a personal account of a common autistic trait

--- Joost Wiskerke ---

For most people making eye contact with someone else is natural, effortless and painless.

Now, instead imagine that the other person’s eyes are two piercing laser beams. It probably won’t feel natural to look into them anymore. If you try, it will require effort, and if you do succeed – even for a short moment ­­– it will be painful. You wouldn’t want to experience that, right?

It may surprise you, but the laser beam analogy is actually not far off from how I experience eye contact, most of the time. It wasn’t until a few years ago, when I attended a couple of seminars given by autism researchers, that I learned that many autistic people have similar experiences. That’s why I wanted to write this post for Extraordinary Brains.

(FYI: I don’t have an official diagnosis, but I do strongly identify with several traits commonly associated with autism, including a tendency to avoid eye contact.)

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What I would like other people to understand about me

Many people may never think, or understand, the fact that making eye contact can be a real burden. These are 5 misconceptions that I commonly encounter:
 

1. I may be looking away, but I’m still there!

This is by far the most common problem. People think I’m not paying attention to a conversation unless I make eye contact. In reality, most of the time, my eye contact and my attention are completely independent from each other. My brain frequently doesn’t even really register what my eyes are seeing during a conversation.
 

2. I’m not trying to hide anything, and it’s also nothing personal.

When I don’t make eye contact, it doesn’t mean I don’t want the other person to see my eyes. It doesn’t mean that I’m ashamed of myself or that I'm trying to hide something. It also doesn’t mean that I dislike the other person. Guess what… I don’t even make much eye contact with my own wife! However, it can certainly mean I'm not entirely comfortable or that I'm using all my brain capacity for the ongoing conversation (but more on that later).
 

3. Please don’t judge the book by its covers.

My lack of eye contact may make me look a bit socially inapt and closed off on the outside, but on the inside, I’m a really kind and fun person who is social, intelligent and very loyal. Just ask my friends, colleagues and family :-). I’m convinced that it would be easier for me to meet new people if making eye contact happened more automatically. And I know of at least one concrete example where this type of misunderstanding threatened my academic career (I’ll get back to that topic too).
 

4. The phrase "You can learn to make eye contact, just practice" is not super-helpful.

Yes, it is true, but in my experience only to some extent. Despite years of training, I still easily forget to make eye contact when I talk to someone. At other times, I may want to make eye contact but fail to do so, or I do it too intensely and end up staring (it's hard to get it right!).
 

5. Moving your face into my field of view as a cue for eye contact isn’t subtle.

And I usually don’t think it’s that funny. Sure, using body language may be less harsh than straight out telling me. But honestly, when somebody tries to catch my gaze by maneuvering their head around, I usually first get confused, wondering what they're doing with their head. After that, I feel the same embarrassment and frustration that I experience when somebody verbally confronts me with my weakness.
 

Making eye contact: my perspective

Honestly, making eye contact is a nuisance to me. Calling it my nemesis may even be more appropriate. Despite years of effortful training, I can pretty much still only do it by willfully forcing my brain. And I rarely enjoy it. On the other hand, not making eye contact hurts too. A lot actually. But in a different way. I’ll try and explain myself.
 

When making eye contact doesn’t come naturally

Feelings of fear and anxiety are definitely part of the equation. In fact, for the longest time I was convinced that my problem was related solely to some form of social anxiety. But more recently I’ve come to think that social anxiety isn’t quite enough to explain my problem. I’ve been insecure about how to make eye contact my entire life, no matter who the other person is. The more I think about why I find it scary, the more I suspect that it has a lot to do with the fact that this particular social behavior just doesn’t come natural to me. It really just doesn’t!

Rather than being a fluent process, eye contact to me goes more like this:

The first crucial step is that I have to actively remind myself to look at someone. Then, as soon as I consider making eye contact, my brain will start ruminating: “Is this a good moment? If it is, for how long should I keep my gaze focused on the other person’s face? Is the other person reciprocating the eye contact? If not, why not?”. And this type of frantic internal questioning will continue non-stop for the entire time that I’m trying to make eye contact (irrespective of whether I succeed or not). It makes the act a real challenge! I can’t tell you how many times I’ve wished my brain would deal better with looking at faces and making eye contact.
 

Feedback and self-analysis have helped

Earlier in this post I described how feedback from people can be very confrontational. That’s not to say that I never want people to cue me though. It helps me deal better with eye contact. For years, one of my close friends has regularly been pointing out when I’m not making eye contact with her. She does it with a lot of compassion and patience. It has helped a little, just like years of training and analyzing myself have helped a bit.

I’ve also learned some camouflaging strategies. If often look just above or below the other person’s eyes. In group settings, I typically try to focus my gaze mostly on one person. The latter tactic combines particularly well with another oft-used social strategy of mine: Navigating social situations by using a “social wingman/wingwoman” (someone I know is socially more fluent and assertive than me). In spite of the progress, looking at people while talking to them is still not easy for me, and it feels unnatural.
 

Autism research made me realize why eye contact is exhausting and can even be painful

This brings me back to start of my story when I talked about how autism research has given me new insights about my problems with eye contact. As a scientist, I regularly get the chance to attend seminars about research conducted by others. While working at Rutgers University, two seminars by autism researchers made a particularly strong impression on me. The first talk was about how faces are an incredibly intense sensory input (eyes are probably the biggest contributor here!), and about how this can be a problem for autistic people who can be hypersensitive to sensory input. In the second talk, the speaker mentioned that autistic people often described eye contact as almost being physically painful. Both of these stories resonated with me.
 

Understanding my own deficits better

I’ve long known that during a conversation it’s much easier and calmer for me to look at stationary objects – floors, walls, ceilings or skies are particularly good for this purpose. Listening to those seminars a couple of years ago made me understand that the reason why eye contact is incredibly exhausting and hugely distracting for me is not just that it doesn’t come naturally, but also that it constitutes a massive sensory input that floods my brain.

Faces – and particularly eyes – have so many visual details and convey so much information! They move a lot too! Add to that my brain’s tendency to get hyper-focused on random details, and its limited capacity for multi-tasking… The problem becomes obvious. After all, the brain has a limited energy supply. Looking at people while they are speaking is one thing. That doesn’t seem to exhaust my brain too much. While talking myself, looking at someone is a lot harder. In a cognitively-intense or emotional conversation, there's virtually no way I can cope with eye contact. The problem gets magnified if the other person is unfamiliar. My brain just doesn’t have the capacity to process it all.

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I struggle with eye contact, but I also know it’s a big deal in social communication

I admit that I often have had (and continue to have) thoughts along the lines of “I should just give up, it’s too hard to make eye contact”. Or in my frustration I may think something like “why is it such a big deal [to others] anyway whether I make eye contact or not?! Can I not just be accepted for who I am?” At the same time, I know that acceptance from others doesn’t solve all problems. Body language – including eye contact – is simply too important in social communication.
 

Making eye contact in my professional life

I think one area where I most often wished for some level of acceptance is at work. As an academic scientist, I sometimes feel hampered by my inability to naturally make eye contact during meetings or while I’m giving a presentation. Unfortunately for me, salesmanship and being good at presenting work are increasingly valued skills in modern-day’s highly competitive scientific community. At least I can compensate my weakness in this area with making strong presentations and knowing my s**t. Compensating is much harder while “networking”, e.g. mingling with other scientists at a social event. Like in most other professional sectors, networking is an integral part of advancing one’s academic career. Here, I feel my limited capacity to make eye contact is a real handicap (the fact that making small talk isn’t really my strong suit doesn’t help either). And this handicap can sometimes have severe consequences.
 

 
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How a lack of eye contact almost ruined my academic career

Years ago, I was interviewed by a committee for a prestigious program in neuroscience at my university. I had explicitly been asked to apply for the program since I was one of the top students in my year. Job interviews are a nightmare for most people, and even more so for autistic people. This interview definitely felt like a nightmare to me! I couldn’t make eye contact at all and felt horrible throughout it. Afterwards I beat myself up for doing such a poor job. A short while later I found out that one of the professors in the committee was hesitant to accept me into the program because I had come across as socially immature and therefore wouldn’t be a great “poster boy” for the program. I only made it into the program because my mentor convinced the committee to let me give a presentation about the research project I had been doing in his lab. This happened in 2005, but it still hurts that that professor initially judged me for my social skills rather than my academic ones.
 

Making eye contact can enrich social interactions

In my personal life, I luckily get a lot of acceptance from the people around me. But that doesn’t solve all my problems. I’m fully aware of how useful eye contact can be in social interactions. And powerful! I’ll never forget how I once made an elderly woman cry because I made eye contact with her for the first time during her final session in our psychotherapy group. My eyes told her that I cared about her. I also know that omitting eye contact makes me miss a lot of emotions and subtleties in people’s words. I do think that missing body language can at times be a strength and make conversations easier (at least when the other party communicates in a similar way) – when you rely on verbal communication alone, there is less to misunderstand. Much more often though it makes me miss jokes, or it prevents me from accurately identifying others’ emotional states. I’ll give you another anecdote that nicely illustrates that last point.
 

 
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If I had looked into her eyes…

Years ago, I completely missed the fact that a girl was in love with me. For months! I had been interacting with her regularly, but just didn’t realize there was anything more to our conversations than them being enjoyable. Until one day, when we walked into each other while I was out for lunch with a friend. When the girl left our table after a couple of minutes, my friend – who didn’t know the girl – said it was super-obvious from the way she had looked at me that she was in love. I didn’t believe it. Surely I would have seen signs of it before, right? Of course, it turned out my friend was right. And although I couldn’t reciprocate the girl’s feelings, my confidence still got a nice boost!
 

How looking at faces currently helps me understand Swedish

I’ll end this blog post with a completely different advantage of looking at people that I recently discovered. Since moving to Sweden last December, I frequently try to follow conversations in Swedish. Although Swedish is somewhat similar to Dutch (my native language), it isn’t easy for me to understand it. However, I’ve noticed that it really helps to pay attention to people’s bodies, and particularly their faces. Without this added visual information, my brain understands a whole lot less Swedish. Don’t get me wrong though – it’s not like it’s any less stressful or exhausting for me to look at people who speak Swedish. Or that I’ve all of a sudden started making a lot of eye contact in Sweden. As a neuroscientist, I simply think it’s interesting that my brain seems to prefer to avoid looking at faces during conversations in Dutch or English (languages I’m fluent in), whereas it appears to really benefit from the visual input when I try to listen to a foreign language.
 

The take home message of my long story

Eye contact will probably always remain a struggle for me. In every conversation I’ll have to choose whether or not to engage in it. But I know there’s a lot to gain from moments of successful eye contact, so I’ll keep trying. At the same time, I hope for understanding from other people when I do look away.

© Joost Wiskerke 2018

Love & Autism: My Neurodiverse Marriage

--- Anonymous ---

Finding a partner when you have an extraordinary brain can be difficult, and perhaps this is sometimes extra true for those of us who are autistic.

We live with a messy mixture of strengths and difficulties, and because every autistic person is completely unique, there are no simple guidelines. Many of us feel isolated, many of us are single, and many of us don't even know where to begin!

But here I won't outline the difficulties that we face or deliver a bullet list of solutions. It's just my own story about a marriage that seems to be sustainable for our particular combination of two unique autistic brains.

 
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Opposites on the same end of the spectrum

My husband and I are both autistic and highly intelligent, but apart from that we're polar opposites in terms of strengths and challenges. Actually, we're quite a comical illustration of how broad the spectrum is.

He gets overwhelmed by eye contact and can't understand body language. I'm hypersensitive to social cues but often misunderstand them, and I maintain eye contact with an intensity that can penetrate the comfort zone of the most extroverted neurotypical people. I'm debilitatingly sensitive to touch, lights and sounds, whereas he fails to notice intrusive inputs and doesn't know where his body is in space.

I pick up between-the-lines communication, but don't know how to respond, and my sense of humor is sarcasm-based and rather bizarre. He can't for his life pick up hints or understand irony, and likes slapstick humor and teasing. I use metaphors – he doesn't.

He stims by touching his hair whereas I spin on chairs and walk in circles. I do it in secret; he does it without awareness. He is heavily into repetition and rituals, while I can't easily form habits or organize my days. We both need to live in a small, simplified world, but for completely different reasons.

We're both socially insecure. He shuts down in large groups and calls me his social wingman. I melt down after social events and hold on to him in public places.

My first impression of him was that he was overly opinionated, and his first impression of me was that I was quite intimidating. But we became friends and gradually got to know each other over a few years. But obviously, he wasn't "my type" and I wasn't his.

Fast-forward another few years and we're married. How did this happen?

 

Challenging social expectations 

I said to him from the beginning that I wasn't girlfriend material. My internal template of a romantic relationship contained certain building blocks. Unconditional closeness, frequent or at least regular sex, babies... I just couldn't see myself living in a romantic relationship without constant sensory overload.

I resisted, but we talked. We talked about our fears and dreams, about our weaknesses and needs. He was scared to lose his personal space and his other friends. I was scared that I'd disappoint him. We were both scared to end up suffocated. We were both scared of being heart-broken.

Once all our fears were out in the open, they were less of a burden. I began to think of our relationship as something that we were about to create, in our own way – not according to societal assumptions. Years later, we still get confronted by new challenges, but so far we've navigated through them together.

 

Merging sensory differences into physical connection

Naturally, one of our earliest challenges was that of our very different sensory experiences. Touch and intimacy are integral to bonding.

At first, I didn't tell him how hard it was for me to be touched. In the meantime, he couldn't read my non-verbal cues and adapt his actions to them. He was also facing his own battles, because he'd always been overwhelmed by physical contact and scared of making mistakes through his poor social intuition. This could all have gone terribly wrong, but we've tried to find words for it, and are gradually figuring it out.

I've broken down many times. I've hated myself, I've tried to conform, I've tried to let go. He's faced the pain of never knowing whether I'd flinch or invite him. Intermittent, unpredictable rejection can be a deal-breaker for any relationship, but add some autistic inflexibility and you can probably imagine how lost he's felt at times. What are the rules today? He just never knows.

We could've given up early on, but we keep trying to turn to our common strengths: verbal communication, honesty and loyalty. Understanding each other's fears, reactions and limitations has saved our marriage.

Gradually, he has developed social interaction strategies for my different sensory states, and he simply asks if he's not sure. This way, he uses his intelligence, pattern recognition skills and verbal strengths to navigate an otherwise tricky social territory. I, on the other hand, help him with his insecurities by using words, rather than my body language, to guide him, and I don't get offended or upset if something goes slightly wrong. We can both feel safe.

Step by step we're finding our very own ways of being close, and we are close. Every morning and every night, we wrap ourselves around each other and share warmth and peace. And every now and then we converge for a verbal evaluation of how we feel about our physical connection. We always agree that things aren't perfect, but so far we've wanted to keep going.

 

Bridging communication differences

Our equally autistic but very different communication styles have clashed majorly! There have been times when things seemed impossible, and we still need to put some serious effort into resolving misunderstandings every now and then.

My personal logic is that potential issues should be addressed before they grow into a problem, and I prefer to just ask if I suspect that someone is burdened by frustration. His experience is that a problem has to be near-deadly before you confront someone with it, and he easily gets flooded with defensiveness and emotions upon direct confrontation. See the problem?

It took several serious clashes and a lot of talking before we began to understand each other's perspectives. I had to respect that my confrontations caused emotional overload (the analogy with sensory overload really helped me understand this). I try to approach him a bit more carefully. He had to understand that I don't build up resentment before bringing things up, and that my tone of voice doesn't match my intentions. He is less easily threatened these days.

Other times, when I'm near a melt-down, I can get unreasonably passive-aggressive. He puts his foot down and tells me to stop lashing out at him, and this helps me take responsibility for my behavior. Once we're on the same team again, he sometimes embraces me to help me through it. Other times it's better if I withdraw to a dark room and wait for it to pass. The important thing is that we don't get lost in irrelevant arguments.

We've come up with little tricks. They're mostly verbal, because that's how we roll. He might say "I'm feeling very attacked by you right now" or "What do you actually want me to do about this?" I might say "My tone of voice might sound angry, but I'm really not angry", or "I'm trying to control a melt-down but it's leaking out as aggression, I'm so sorry". We're coming up with strategies as we go, and we are trying to be patient with each other.

Both of us have a lifetime behind us of repeated misunderstandings and multiple flavors of social isolation. We both have a voice inside that says "You're a failure and no one likes you". Both of us can get completely stuck with this thought, and it can completely block progress in conversations. So for our relationship to work, we face the continuous battle (anti-battle?) of self-acceptance.

 

Embracing what can't be changed  

Sometimes we're not on the same wavelength and just can't be. Sometimes we wish that we could change each other, and very often we wish we could change ourselves.

I sometimes cover my ears when he speaks because I suffer from the volume. Sometimes I interrupt him in the middle of a sentence to ask him to keep his voice down. He's somehow learned that this isn't criticism. It isn't easy for him to live with my sensory defensiveness, but he works hard to accept it for what it is.

He's often wished that I could merge better with his family and friends. I've been known to hide from Skype conversations, withdraw from social occasions, and decline invitations to events we were invited to as a couple. In the beginning, I wanted to hide my difficulties and he had no way of bridging the gap between me and his friends. He was being crushed between guarding my privacy and preventing misinterpretations. These days I'm less secretive, so he can simply say I'm too overwhelmed to visit, while I can try to show my love in other ways. This problem won't go away, and it'll always require continuous mindfulness, in terms of expectations, flexibility and planning.

I used to wish we could share each other's sense of humor better. But gradually that's disappeared. Somehow, we are both learning to appreciate jokes that we don't intrinsically enjoy, and we are learning to accept our own failures to "get it". We try to focus on sharing the joy instead of focusing on what we don't share. There's definitely a lot of hilarity in situations when overt-seeming jokes completely fly over the other person's head. I make fun of him and he makes fun of me. That's fun. And we both have other friends that are better targets for the type of jokes we personally enjoy.

Another example of mutual accommodation is how we take care of our home. I have executive functioning deficits and can get disorganized, mildly speaking. He has obsessive-compulsive traits and wants things spotless. Luckily, we both make a real effort to meet halfway (although towards the tidy end of the tidiness spectrum because it's way nicer there!). I keep my piles in one place and he makes an effort to not go crazy. And I happily clean the house as long as he reminds me.

It's different for everyone, but for us, verbal communication is our best tool for figuring out how to live with each other and ourselves. That includes our continuous process of deciding what can be improved, what can be accepted, and how to learn to embrace all of it.

 

Nothing's ever perfect, but that's okay

There is a lot to the ongoing mission of keeping a relationship alive and healthy. Finding the right person is bloody hard, especially when you're autistic. Once that barrier is overcome, it's a continuous journey of social engineering and self-acceptance. Nothing's ever perfect and it doesn't have to be. I think a relationship can be successful through the creative use of strengths such as loyalty, morality, empathy, or whichever assets you can find inside yourselves. For me and my husband, the future can't be certain, but so far... so good...

5 ADHD-Doubters You Might Encounter in College

--- Maggie Pecsok ---

 
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Some people just do not understand the concept of neurodevelopmental conditions. To be fair, I’m diagnosed with one, and have been studying them for three years, yet I still find them hard to wrap my head around. It still hurts, though, to feel misunderstood.

Here are five hyperbolized archetypes of “ADHD-Doubters” that you might encounter in college. They are conglomerations, exaggerations, and expansions of my personal experiences.

 

1. The Ignorant Friend

The most common doubter you will encounter. Your diagnosis does not make sense to your Ignorant Friend. Maybe you were acquaintances for a long time before he eventually found out that you have ADHD, and his picture of ADHD does not fit with his perception of you. He asks you some offensive questions about it – questions which make it clear that he thinks your diagnosis is merely an exaggerated reaction to “being a kid”. You’re disappointed, but you understand that he can’t see into your head. Depending on the friendship, you either arrange a heart-to-heart and try to get him to understand, or else accept the limitations of the friendship and never bring up ADHD again.

 

2. The Condescending Significant Other

A painful manifestation of ADHD doubt is when another person attributes ADHD symptoms to your personal character. In the context of romantic relationships (or even close friendships), this misconception can be toxic. Beware of the Significant Other who views you as someone to be “taken care of”. If you detect this sentiment, a serious conversation is needed. If the conversation doesn’t stick, evacuate immediately! Few things are more disempowering than a partner who views you as incompetent.

 

3. The Competitor

One night, you’ve invited friends over for a small party, and the conversations get personal. When you share that you take medication for your attention deficit, she suddenly oozes bitter jealousy. This ADHD-Doubter wishes she could take Adderall because she is trying to get into law school and needs to maintain her GPA. She seems to have concluded that since you are not visibly or catastrophically “disabled”, your are gaming the system by taking Adderall. You shrug, “Well, the doctor says I need it,” then quickly change the subject.

 

4. The Puritan Roommate

Freshman year, you are crammed into a dorm room the Dursleys would have reserved for Harry Potter. It’s a new space, new routine, new everything, and you find it disorienting. Your rigid-minded roommate believes that efficient adaptation to college simply requires self-discipline and hard work. In many ways, you envy him, and for many reasons, he resents you. The main point of tension: everything on his side of the room is at a right angle, while you have a more, um, “intuitive” system. Not wanting to be disrespectful (or perceived as such), you work to maintain a tidy living space. You apologize when you make mistakes. You might stay friends with the Puritan but you do not room together next year.

 

5. The Benevolent Professor

When having a deep talk with your favorite Professor about your future, you mention that your experiences navigating life with ADHD have really shaped you as a person. She is incredulous. “You have ADD? But you’re engaged during class.” You explain that you’ve learned how to compensate. Plus, you love her class, so it’s easier to pay attention in it. From her praise about “growing up”, “overcoming ADHD”, or “getting through it”, you realize she does not understand the idea that ADHD will always be a part of you. 

 

Navigating college life with ADHD is going to lead to some misunderstandings. Sometimes you meet people whose brains don’t understand your brain. When this happens, it can hurt to feel misunderstood. But having an extraordinary brain is so worth it.

© Maggie Pecsok, 2017

My brain just won't do it: Autism and sensory chaos

I've struggled with this for as long as I can remember, yet almost nobody knows. I've become an expert at compensating for it. But every time my sensory processing deficits leak into my daily life, I face another battle to regain self-acceptance. 

I have autism, which makes me unique, loyal, honest, and objectively a pretty cool person. No seriously! But one thing I really wish I could change is the constant chaos caused by my sensory hypersensitivities.

 
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My brain isn't efficient in deciphering the world around me – it does so very slowly and not in real-time. In a familiar environment I have few problems. But introduce me to a new room, and I will most likely struggle. 

It's alright if my interactions with the new environment are straightforward. Say for example that I'm going to a meeting with a new person in a new building. I can use a map to find the building and I can find the room as long as it's in a logical place. Upon entering the room I will quickly establish the location of the visitor's chair, and that's often all that I need.

But say instead that I'm going to a social event at an unfamiliar venue. Upon entering, I must quickly scan the environment so that I can figure out where to hang my coat, who to walk up to, and where to get a drink. But as soon as I walk in, sensory inputs bombard me from all directions. There are tables, windows, glasses, smells, shoes, voices, dresses, people, music... 

I'm unable to process this into meaningful information like "walk towards the couch and say hi to Ryan". If I can buy myself "processing time", say, by chatting with a good friend while looking around the room, I might be able to behave like a regular person for the rest of the night. But if I don't get this extra time, or if I'm simply too tired, I can be so at a loss for context that I leave unannounced or break down and cry in the bathroom. May I introduce the infamous Autistic Meltdown, which must be hidden at all cost. 

I'm intelligent and emotionally pretty well-functioning. I don't have social phobia, and I'm not even particularly shy. If the circumstances are perfect and I can compensate well, I can give the impression of being happy, social, strong, emotionally stable and fun to hang out with. I struggled greatly with social interactions when I was younger, but these days I can do it, through well developed compensation strategies – many of which have formed subconsciously over the years. 

Yet, in every new social group I join, I tend to gradually build up a reputation for being quiet and slightly neurotic. The discrepancy can be confusing even for me, and it's painful to be regarded as shy or antisocial when that's not what I am. I just need things to be predictable and quiet! 

I am just autistic. 

Often, my symptoms of sensory processing deficits are subtle and without much consequence, such as not remembering places or details because I never actually took them in. Other times, it can get really debilitating. For example, when I woke up the first morning in a B&B, I knew I had to walk down the stairs, find the breakfast area, figure out how to serve myself breakfast, and presumably interact with the host in some way. I stayed in my room for several hours longer than I wanted, because I knew it would be such a challenge. I wasn't shy. It was just an absolutely overwhelming sequence of events to orchestrate. When I went to the university library for the first time, I sat down in an armchair right inside the entrance, and used my smartphone to study the library website for floor plans and other clues, before I felt ready to lift my gaze and begin to make sense of the physical environment. In college, I consistently avoided departmental functions. In my private life, I've generally – and sometimes subconsciously – found excuses to avoid social events. Eventually most people stop inviting me, which is both a relief and a source of immense pain. 

Most of the time my mentality is: "What's the worst thing that can happen?" I do keep pushing myself to do the things I struggle with and I've had quite an amazing life as a result (though perpetually exhausting). But truth is that I do fear the irreparable social situations that can result from not being able to make sense of the environment. 

Take this example from my early childhood: We were leaving the swimming pool and walked through the exit gate. Even though I could see another person approaching, I turned around and determinedly closed the gate right in front of them, then walked out of the building. Mom was upset and told me that people had been whispering and wondering what was wrong with me. I felt immensely embarrassed and stupid. Even though the sensory information had reached my consciousness, it wasn't synthesized into anything meaningful, such as "A person is approaching; therefore, do not close the gate". 

I have many unpleasant childhood memories of moving through a chaos of anonymous inputs without meaning, and even stronger memories of the social consequences of some of those moments. In my adult life, it has been even worse in some ways, especially in my 20s when I was still trying to go to social events and kept blaming myself very harshly for the social shortcomings that resulted from my brain's regular failures to compute the world.

Then there are the little things that don't matter quite as much. I can't cope with team sports and I find it hard to cross the street when there is traffic. When I tried to play laser strike I got so overwhelmed that I hid in a nook and cried. If someone gives me verbal instructions, like "grab a fork from the second drawer to the right of the fridge", I generally have to ask for a couple of repetitions while trying to figure out what it means. I find it hard to understand movies and most of the time I end up with no recollection of them afterwards. I watch them over and over to compensate.

I've found numerous little tricks for creating that little window of extra time that I need to process novelty. The main themes are: 1) preparing myself by visiting a venue before an event, 2) avoiding messy places, and 3) using my strengths to compensate. For example, if I'm going to get hands-on training on a new laboratory technique, I find a way to go to the room beforehand and map out everything that's in it, making sure I know how every piece of equipment works in detail, and finding out everything I can about what I'm about to learn (Google is my best friend). Then, in the training session, I am faced with minimal novelty and have a fair chance of avoiding a meltdown. This is a crazy-sounding approach, but it works, and the bonus is that I become a technical expert and efficient troubleshooter. The downside is that people think I'm obsessive-compulsive or insanely overambitious. 

But truth is that I'm really just trying to survive.

It's not fear. It's not something that I can "get over". My brain just won't do it. Sadly, the most successful strategy for dealing with the social consequences of it is to be alone, which is a strategy I sure have implemented throughout most of my life. When I make friends, I quickly find myself in untenable situations where I no longer can comfortably avoid parties or no longer can hide the disability. So I avoid making casual friends, and I pretend to be much more antisocial than I really am. 

But things have gotten better! As an adult approaching middle age, I'm beginning to just simply explain that I have sensory processing problems and therefore have some limitations. To my surprise, there have been no adverse reactions. It's okay with people if I go out for a quiet walk in the middle of a party to regroup. It's okay if I ask colleagues for some extra time to process new information. Learning to simply explain things without drama seems to be the key to acceptance and inclusion for me. Implementing this strategy and forgiving myself for failures is a continuous process though. 

I will always have this limitation, but I'm discovering that social isolation is not the only way to live with it.