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Autistic amplification

Your six-year-old self timidly clings to your mother’s hand as your eyes are bombarded with harsh rays descending in deluges making you feel like a sweaty performer for the world’s worst stage show as your reddening ears start to swell with the cacophony of babies crying, scanners beeping, suitcases rolling and intercom blaring as you look up to the towering ceiling but regret doing so because now you feel like a powerless pawn in your black tennis shoes from school that are starting to dig and nip at the toes on your feet that aren’t used to walking for this long until you arrive at the giant steel capsule in which you try to stay still for the next two endless hours.

I struggled to navigate large, crowded spaces when I was younger. The airport, with its incessant noises and obnoxiously bright lights, felt like an alien planet and I felt like a bewildered astronaut, with every little detail giving me a unique reason to feel unsettled. When encountering this full-on offensive of stimuli, I often had no solutions other than to cry or to mentally “shut down” and isolate myself within my brain, not saying even a word to anyone. The airport wasn’t the only thing I found intimidating. Pep rallies in my elementary school’s gymnasium overwhelmed me due to the constant shoe-squeaking as well as the wonky acoustics that made each yell seem exponentially louder. I also struggled to eat certain foods, even something as simple as spaghetti, because feeling the slippery texture in my mouth would give me goosebumps.

Even as a senior in college, I still often feel like that astronaut. Walking up the stairs of DeBartolo Hall during class transition periods makes me feel on edge with its hordes of bodies moving in all directions. I can get frustrated and overwhelmed if the noise from a nearby dorm party leaks into my room at night, almost always obligating me to listen to calm music on my noise-cancelling headphones, especially if I need to focus on finishing an assignment. And whenever I wear a suit for a formal event, I constantly feel my scratchy dress pants rubbing against my legs like a cheese grater.

I’ve learned how to respond to my sensory overload, how to recognize moments when I need to enter a quiet space by myself to calm my nerves and how to take deep breaths when taking in new and intimidating sights, smells, sounds, tastes and textures. Fortunately for me, my family and friends have dedicated a significant effort to adapting to my unique sensory preferences. Whenever my family and I sit down to eat at a restaurant only to discover that every seat is full and noise is everywhere, they make sure to ask me how I’m feeling, or they might bring up fun conversation topics to help me distract myself from the stimuli. My friends at Notre Dame recognize that I often prefer quiet, smaller meetups over large, raucous parties, so we form weekend plans accordingly.

In essence, those close to me understand that being autistic means that all my senses are amplified, and they know what options they can provide for me to help me navigate the stresses of overload. This support, alongside my growing understanding of how my brain operates, has allowed me to succeed in environments that would have seemed impossibly overwhelming to a past version of myself. For instance, I use my “full heart and voice,” as the Notre Dame cantor says, when singing bombastic choral anthems with the Notre Dame Liturgical Choir, and I thoroughly enjoy the atmosphere at Notre Dame Stadium on game days. Being part of loving, accepting spaces has helped me learn how to thrive in these situations.

Sadly, many folks have not received support from others to help them process sensory overload. Many neurotypical people simply do not comprehend this type of experience, leading them to respond in counterproductive ways when their neurodivergent peers seem stressed. Consider this example: a young neurodivergent child might cover her ears or cry as she enters a loud cafeteria, but faculty members might simply ignore her, or worse, try to diminish her experience, telling her that she’s simply overreacting. This compounds her anxiety. Not only are her senses being driven to the limit, but no one is willing to help her. She has become isolated, left to fight these complex nerves and fears by herself.

We can do better than that. We can acknowledge the anxieties people face in environments with myriad unique stimuli. We can provide more quiet spaces in our classrooms and workspaces. We can ask our peers what we can do to make sure they feel welcome and comfortable.

In any case, I’ll cease my rambling for now. If I made this any longer, I worry I would’ve made you feel overwhelmed.

Jack Griffiths is a senior at Notre Dame majoring in English with a supplementary major in Global Affairs. His areas of interest include neurodivergence, migration and the intersections between faith and public policy. When he’s not writing, you can find him singing with the Liturgical Choir, walking around the lakes or playing Super Smash Bros. with folks in his dorm. He can be reached at jgriff22@nd.edu.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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Dancing to my inner rhythm

Autism isn’t just an abstract condition that hides in the recesses of my mind. It animates me. It makes me move, sway and dance in unusual patterns. It makes me “stim.”

When I was in early elementary school, I would wave my fingers in front of my face whenever I was excited, such as after getting a good grade back on a spelling quiz or while playing my favorite games on my Nintendo DS. Today, while I no longer habitually “flap” my hands in this way, I still find that my body often moves in tune with my inner rhythm. I might be sitting in a lecture and suddenly notice that I’ve been rapidly lifting my foot up and down for the past several minutes, as if there’s an imaginary organ pedal that I’m using to play the music of autism. When working on homework in the evening, I might feel the desire to get out of my chair and pace around, going in small circular odysseys in my dorm room. Next to my desk, I keep a basket of small toys, including a rubber ball, some lavender-scented putty and an assemblage of plastic cubes attached to each other. I have these in case I need to squeeze or spin something in my hands while completing other tasks, such as participating in a Zoom meeting.

This is stimming, which is often defined as “self-stimulatory behavior.” Through repetitive movements, stimming allows people to manage high levels of excitement or to help them focus. Stimming is not exclusive to autists or other neurodivergent people, as even neurotypical people might find themselves tapping their fingers on their desks or clicking the tops of their pens. However, autistic people often have more noticeable or unique stimming patterns, which can lead to stigmatization.

There are some instances where autistic people learn to manage how they stim, to change how they respond to the music of autism. In my case, however, I’ve found that while I might stim less or in different ways than before, I still consistently experience moments when my excited brain compels my fingers and feet to move around, making it a bit challenging to stay still for extended periods of time.

I suspect that this is the case for a lot of other autistic people. While the specific ways autistic folks stim can vary wildly from person to person, a lot of us will need something to do to satiate the autistic rhythm inside our heads during intensely emotional experiences.

Therefore, it is crucial for everyone — our educators, our supervisors, our leaders, and our peers — to help our communities de-stigmatize stimming. This would involve educating people about why many autistic people do repetitive movements that seem unusual to others. That way, instead of responding with suspicious glances, they recognize that these neurodivergent people are simply trying to manage and make sense of the complex feelings they’re encountering — a daunting challenge that anyone, even if they’re neurotypical, can relate to.

This is in line with how many disability theorists conceptualize a “social” model of disability. Rather than blaming individual people for struggling to adapt to often-unwelcoming institutions, the social model suggests that the struggles that disabled individuals face are primarily due to societal barriers and prejudices. In the case of people with autism and other neurodivergence, we should work to challenge discriminatory policies, practices and attitudes rather than suggesting that neurodivergence itself is the problem. Abandoning harmful and inaccurate assumptions about stimming is one crucial step to achieving this goal. 

In the meantime, I’ll continue to move, sway and dance to my rhythm.