Tome

I’m autistic.

By now, I would hope that most everyone reading this would take this statement as more or less automatic. “I hear you, bird,” I can already imagine some of you saying. “You’ve told us this.” I have, yes. What I haven’t told you is what that really means, at least for me. Which is to say, I haven’t really gone into the mechanics of how my autism impacts me. I’ve talked about what it means to me at a metaphorical level — it underpins some of my otherkin senses, some of my therian senses, and a great deal of my magical theory — but so far I’ve managed to avoid talking about how my autism really impacts me as a person, and what it means to me to be neurodiverse in a neuronormative society. Yes, including the one I built for myself.

Content warning: This may make people uncomfortable. I will accept if it does. You are allowed to walk away. I would appreciate it if you told me this is why you’re leaving, because silence hurts, but you’re under no obligation to do so. Also, please realize that this is how I perceive my autism. My experiences are not universal, nor do I intend to speak for anyone but me. When you’ve met one person with autism, you’ve met one person with autism.

With that established, we unfold.

Frontispiece: The Familiar
The clinical definition of autism and related disorders is that people on the spectrum “don’t understand social cues.” I’m going to do what almost every autistic person I know does, and use a shitty analogy in one of my fields of interest to help explain what this means. Imagine that you’ve got a familiar, something like a daimon or a dæmon. Take a moment, and ask yourself what your familiar looks like. What species is it? Can it perch on your shoulder? Does it sit beside you? What does it smell like? How does it feel when you touch it? Sit for a moment and pet your familiar; what sounds does it make when you do? Is it content to stay close to you, or does it enjoy running around and darting back to you from time to time? Take a moment and breathe some life into this creature. Take a few minutes, and give yourself a familiar.

Now imagine that every time you enter into a conversation with somebody, your familiar is also entering into conversation with the familiar paired with the person with whom you’re talking. While you’re chatting about sports scores or pull requests or romance or whatever, your familiars are busily chatting about you. They’re exchanging all kinds of information with each other about your emotional states, your surface thoughts as reflected in the train of conversation you’ve been having. They’re sharing with each other the details of how you’re feeling, or at least however much you’re feeling that rises to the level of external visibility, and they’re communicating that emotional perception data with each other, and with you. “Ve’s tired,” your familiar whispers in your ear. “They’re aroused but bored. She’s impatient. Sie’s projecting happiness but it’s a cover for something.” You don’t have to ever ask the person with whom you’re talking how they’re feeling; your familiar simply tells you. It’s a stream of information available to you, fed to you alongside your sense data with the world. If you do ask, it’s really more to doublecheck your familiar’s responses.

Most importantly, I want you to realize that most people with familiars take this process for granted, because they’ve always had their familiars. People don’t typically think about what the world is like for the blind because most people can see. They don’t think about what the world is like for the deaf because they can hear. The world and its attendant social norms are constructed around the assumption that people have familiars. Guess culture relies heavily on people’s familiars sharing emotional context efficiently and correctly. The infamous question, “Does this dress make me look fat?” presumes that people have familiars which can pull overtime, automatically translating the self-negging question that practically begs for a soul-shattering affirmative into the plaintive cry for validation for which most people have learned by now to see it. Even something as simply as speaking in euphemism or using sarcasm, particularly ironic sarcasm — and, in fact, the very concept of irony itself — is steeped in people’s reliance on their familiars. These forms of communication depend on people’s familiars noticing when the text of a conversation doesn’t match the subtext — when the emotional context of statements deliberately fail to connect with what’s being said — and to correctly interpret the connotations of those juxtaposed conversational elements. People with familiars, by which I mean allistic people, almost never have cause to pause and reflect on how complex and complicated and just plain difficult making sense of the world would be without a familiar doing all of this automatic emotional parsing for them.

I’m autistic. I don’t have a familiar.

Instead, I have a book, and let me tell you right now that mine is the most wondrous and resplendent of books. In this book are all my notes about the ways in which everyone around me acts when they’re expressing their emotions. Inside the frontispiece I keep a quick reference chart, a list of handy reminders to be applied everywhere. The first time I meet someone, I add a new page to my book, a page dedicated just for them, along with some quick sketch-notes to get me started like how I met them, how I felt at the time, so I have a baseline against which to compare later, and what I thought they were feeling at the time so I know where to start note-taking. The more I interact with people, the bigger their pages get, or the more detailed their analysis becomes. The more I learn about people, the bigger their sections of the book are, but also the more confident I am in relying on what’s in the book because the more times I’ve had to validate and cross-check my notes. The better I know people, the faster the lookups become and the more likely I am to get a result I feel safe in trusting.

If I see someone I don’t know well smiling, I may note that they can smile — I know people who don’t — along with whatever emotion they seem to be experiencing in the moment: joy, schadenfreude, deep sadness, whatever. The next time I see them smile, I’m going to think they’re feeling the same emotion unless something clues me in on the idea that they’re feeling something different. When that happens, and that happens a lot because people are complicated, I have to start making tables of disambiguation. If I can’t tell from the smile alone whether someone is happy or trying to cover a deep sorrow, I’ll note both and add a cross-reference against some other cue. The position of their eyebrows, perhaps; are they raised like in surprise, or furrowed like in anger? Maybe that’s not enough so I’ll check the tension in their neck, or how they’re holding their hands. Maybe understanding is to be found in the slouch of the spine or the pace of their walk. Maybe it’s in the length of the pauses between texts, or whether they get dessert with lunch. Maybe there is no external cue for which I have notes; in that case I’m going to have to put on my best smile, swallow my gut-level fear, and ask in as neutral a tone as I can, “Hey, how are you feeling right now?” Then I have to hope I get back enough information out of the words they use in reply that I can cross-reference those against my keyword list for emotional cues, and I can update my book, assuming I get a response at all. Sometimes I just get a shake of the head, which might be “I don’t know” and might be “I don’t want to talk about it” and might be “bad,” depending on person and situation and time of day and, well, any number of factors.

You can get a sense, I hope, for how big this book is and how complicated these lookups can be. Doing that for people I know well is pretty easy; I have a good memory so I don’t have to look stuff up as often, and I have a fairly high degree of confidence in my ability to infer what I don’t know, based on other things I do know about them. Doing it for people I know less well gets harder and harder the less well I know them, because the more holes I know there are in my lookup charts and the less confident I get in the accuracy of my inferences. I don’t even bother trying to make sense of strangers and people I don’t plan on getting to know; that’s why I have the frontispiece, to give me some general guidelines about how to act around people I don’t know at all so I run minimal risk of causing them harm, or of getting harmed myself. It’s not intended as aloofness or rejection; it’s a survival strategy to keep me from being a complete alien on this planet.

One thing I want to make explicit here is that having a book instead of a familiar isn’t bad. Nor, for that matter, is having a familiar instead of a book. I’m different from most people, but I’m not better and I’m not worse. People’s familiars gets better at understanding others’ emotional contexts out of habit; the longer any two people are around each other, the more their familiars are likely to get to know each other and understand their summoners simply out of repeated exposure. I get more detailed maps of people’s behavior patterns because of study. The longer I’m around people, the more opportunity I have to study them, understand them, make detailed maps of behavior and physical cues to emotional response. It’s the same information set, but processed using a different set of neurons through a different set of pathways, built off a different base set of information, but ultimately leading to similar-enough results that most people, for a very long time, never really noticed that I was autistic until I told them.

In fact, there are ways in which having a book instead of a familiar is an outright benefit. I’ve noticed that there’s a limited set of people, my family or clutch or flock or whatever you want to call them, for whom doing the intricate deep dives necessary to suss out their complicated emotional states actually gives me energy, because it positions me to lighten their burden in ways they can’t see how to accomplish for themselves. Because I’ve had to make a conscious study of others in order to make sense of their emotional contexts, I’ve had to learn the emotional ranges and expected states of a few people with an intimacy that most allistic folks will simply never know. It’s the difference between being good at something as a talent, and being good at something as a skill. I’ve got no talent in this arena, but I can make up for some of that with a lot of study and understanding, the reward for which is that I can stop looking at the book because I know those people so well I can just remember their emotional contexts. I can understand them in ways that approximate understanding myself, and in that, I take deep pride and draw immense amounts of joy. I can’t go broad, but I can do deep.

Unfortunately, it also takes a willingness on the part of those people to become the subject of active study, because that’s the only way I get to that point. It doesn’t happen automatically — I don’t have a familiar doing the work for me — and so I end up having to pay attention to people’s behaviors in ways that a lot of folks probably find off-putting. I know that most people don’t like being treated as analytical subjects, but it’s the only tool I have to cope with this aspect of the world that allistic people not only take for granted, but that they expect me to perform on automatic. I can’t. It’s not that I don’t want to do so, or that I don’t know how. It’s that I simply can’t. I don’t have a familiar; I have my book, and that’s all I’ll ever have.

In short, the success of my coping strategies — the speed with which I can look stuff up in my book relative to other people’s familiars telling them — was a mask. Many of you knew that mask as “th’ buni.” And that leads me to the next bit, the difficult bit.

Body: The Coping Strategies
I said that I can cope with having a book instead of a familiar. What I haven’t talked about in any great detail before is just how tiring those coping strategies are, especially if I have to do it in anything close to real-time. When I asked you to envision yourself a familiar to do this work for you, I meant it explicitly in the sense of this work being done for you. Some part of your consciousness is automatically processing the emotional context of people’s communications for you. It’s not something you’re doing consciously; it just happens. This knowledge of how other people must be feeling is presented to you as part of your communications, steganographically encoded within their body language in a way that allistic brains decode as a matter of routine operation. Mine doesn’t; if I want that information, I have to remember to go look for it, and I have to consciously try to make sense of it all.

In short, whenever I’m in communication with an allistic person who isn’t aware that I’m autistic and isn’t communicating with me in ways that are conducive to my autism, I basically have to multitask just to hold a conversation. And, just so I’ve drawn the line on this particular glyph with sufficient emphasis, multitasking burns mental energy faster.

Worse, some behaviors, and by extension some people, just burn me out faster than others, no matter how much I may like them. People who rely heavily on sarcasm and irony wear me out almost instantly, even when I can tell they’re being sarcastic, because I have to do the lookup every time to confirm how I’m supposed to take any given statement. People who rely on guess culture and face-saving and other indirect connotative communication methods to share information can completely crash my reserves even on a good day. People who are just hard for me to read exhaust me because I struggle to find enough information from which to disambiguate, and that forces me to be a lot more cautious, and a lot more thorough, in my own communications in order to compensate for my lack of understanding. You’re not bad people, I swear, and I’m not a bad person for not being able to keep up with you. It’s just that you require me to hold a huge amount of information in my head in order to make sense of even simple declaratives. I swear I’m not passing judgment on any of these behaviors in the abstract, or on any of the people I know who are like this. You be you. Just, understand that forcing me to engage with these behavior patterns — asking me to perform heavy contextual disambiguation in real time, to remember complex networks of interrelated contextual cues, or to decipher emotional state from minimal context cluing — wears my focus faster than just telling me what you want does. The more lookups I have to do to understand what you’re actually saying, the less information from which I have to work, and the faster I’m expected to have that understanding at the ready, the more of my energy reserves I have to spend just to talk to you.

I used to have vast stores of energy. Th’ buni used to say, “I am quicksilver, I bond with all.” And she meant it. I meant it, when I was her. It wasn’t just a declaration of magical intent; it was a statement of autistic principle: I will make an effort to understand your emotional communication strategies and I will make as detailed a set of notes in my book as I must in order to communicate with you as effectively as I possibly can, as good if not better than people who can rely on their familiars to do the heavy lifting for them. It doesn’t matter if I have to decipher the lengths of the pauses between your words or understand what hasn’t been said to make sense of what has. I will understand you as well as I understand myself. Netzah shaliach.

I can’t do that any more. Those energy stores are gone. The fires of transformation took them. I don’t know when I’ll get them back. I don’t know if I’ll get them back. At least for now, I don’t have them, and I have to assume they will not return. I understand now that becoming Orrery was more than a magical change. It was the mask failing. It was autistic burnout. And now I’m going to ask you to pause this essay, and go read that last link. Please, please please, please please please I beg you, go read this. Even if you don’t come back here, go there and do this so that you have a better sense of just what it’s like for me living in your world. This is my world right now, and it may be for some time.

Th’ buni will not be back, and even if and when I exit burnout, I can’t afford to ever be her again. The level at which she ran those coping strategies represents a burn rate relative to my recovery that’s completely unsustainable. In time, I’m sure I will recover somewhat. I’m sure that where I am right now is far reduced below what I’m actually capable of doing, but I know that I dare not push myself to try to live the way she lived, to be the person she was. I can’t keep pretending to be allistic, and I can’t keep pretending that the book and my coping strategies are anything but that: coping strategies to make up for not having a familiar in a world that assumes everyone does. If I try to flip pages that fast any more, the book just catches fire.

So, now here we are at the questions: what does it mean, when I say “I’m autistic”? What does it mean when I don’t run the coping strategies to pretend to be allistic in an autistic world? How do I plan to get out of burnout?

Let’s start with two really critical terms: disambiguation and fractals.

Disambiguation, in this context, is the process of taking what someone says, which I can understand perfectly well because I can make sense of people’s words just fine, marrying it up with all the emotional context clues that I have to look up in my book, and filling in enough missing meaning in what’s been said to convert it from many possible interpretations into one actionable sentence. By way of example, if my spouse asks me, “What do you want to do tonight?” this could be a straight up question asking me if I already have plans in mind. However, this isn’t the only way people use this question, and I know it, and because I know it, I’d be remiss if I didn’t at least investigate the possibilities. It could just as easily be — and very likely is — a statement of emotional condition — I’m bored or I want to spend time with you or my depression is getting away from me — attached to some investigation about my availability — are you interruptible? or you don’t look like you’re doing anything important right now; is that true? — and some qualifier indicating intensity — please drop what you’re doing or I’m just grumbling; this isn’t that big a deal — all bundled in a question and framed as an inquiry. Facial expression, tone of voice, body language can all influence these interpretations further, lending nuance to the question that no doubt I’m supposed to simply figure out.

None of that information comes to me automatically; for each of those possibilities, I have to check my book. Tone of voice will tell me intensity. Facial expressions will factor into intensity but also emotional condition. Doing each of those analyses has a cost. All Keet did was ask a question — “What do you want to do tonight?” — but it forced me at minimum to identify three different possibility spaces, assign a best-fit to each of them, and then go back to the question and re-examine it in light of what I think is actually being asked. Very few people really want to know whether the dress makes their asses look fat; they want to know if their partners still find them attractive. The question is not about the question; it’s about everything else wrapped up in the question. Parsing all that out takes effort, effort which right now I may not be able to make because I don’t have the emotional or attention reserves to figure it out.

Some of you are thinking, “Surely, Orrery isn’t saying she has to do this for every question.” That is, I’m afraid, precisely what I’m saying. Leaving room for ambiguity requires me to work out the details on your behalf. Some of those might not even be relevant to the question but I may not know they aren’t important until after I’ve done the analysis, which means even if I don’t want to spend the energy, I have to do so regardless if I want to answer the question I think is actually being asked. It’s invisibly placing an expectation of emotional labor on me to engage in the conscious process of disentangling what I think you want from what you said, because you haven’t given me enough information in just your words to tell me what I need to know to do that without a lot of guesswork.

If I ever look up at you blankly and just ask, “context?” I’m trying to tell you that, whatever it is you just said, it’s not enough for me to understand what you mean. Be more specific. Make fewer assumptions. Stop trying to figure out where my familiar went and tell me what it is you’re trying to communicate.

Fractals, meanwhile, are about what you think they are, self-similar concepts. In this case, however, when I say self-similar, I mean that the means to decoding the meaning of a communication are contained within the communication itself. Most of my friends by now know that I am the talkybird. I’ll write five-thousand words without batting an eye — this essay’s already over four-thousand and shows no sign of slowing down yet — and when people ask me for the summary, I’ll point back at the reams of paper behind me, heft the stack in my talons, and say, “this is the summary.” What I’ve never really understood until now is why I’m like this. To be blunt, it’s because people without familiars take for granted that other people don’t have them. It’s the same process in reverse! When I drop a volume of words on somebody, it’s because this is what I think it takes for me to correctly encapsulate all of the necessary information to do the decoding of the idea that I actually want to convey without having to spend energy on disambiguation. It’s me trying to compensate for my own lack of a familiar by assuming nobody else has one either.

One side-effect of this is that I think it’s made me a better writer than I would be otherwise. In stories, as in my life, my words are all I have. I am made of them, in a very real sense. I’m not the greatest — I haven’t been making a lot of time to practice my craft and I’m still overcoming a lot of esteem issues thanks to some sharply negative past interactions — but I’ve gotten a lot of practice at making dense and rich nuggets of text, simply because that’s how I think when I’m left to my own devices. Yeah, okay, some of my prose can be a little purple, because I think it’s prettier that way, but on the whole I’m proud of my wordsmithing when I get on a roll, and I get a fair bit of feedback from folks telling me that I’m good at it and I should do more. Believe me, that’s another reason why I’m reorganizing large chunks of my life so I have the emotional and temporal space to focus on my writing.

Another consequence, though, is that if you interrupt me in the middle of sharing one of my volumes of text, even if you think you understand well before I’m done, I’m going to come away feeling like I haven’t had a chance to adequately communicate. If I get anxious or upset or I have a hard time stopping a conversation, this is often why. It’s not that I want to drown you out or barrel you over. It’s that I’m genuinely worried you’re not going to really grasp what I’m trying to share with you. It’s because if I stopped you at the same point you’re stopping me, I wouldn’t understand what you were trying to say. I wouldn’t be able to reassemble the rest of the fractal without the as-yet-unstated context. Further, I’ve had ample cases in my life of people interrupting me, telling me they understood what I was saying, and then demonstrating that they actually didn’t grok. It’s not all the time, to be sure, but it’s often enough that I don’t actually trust most people when they tell me they understand if they’re interrupting me before I’m done. I get that I talk a lot, and that I’m probably wordier than you’d like, but that’s no excuse to cut me off, especially if you’re going to get it wrong.

Of course, if you flat-out tell me to stop talking, I’ll stop; I’m autistic, not an asshole. That said, I keep track of the people who ask me to stop but then do whatever it was that I was trying to ask or warn people not to do. I’ve got a pretty good memory for who interrupts me by leaping to incorrect conclusions about what I was saying. And I absolutely remember those who tell me to stop and then don’t re-engage later to make sure I’ve recovered from having been cut off. I used to write off when people did that to me. I intend to start writing off people who do that to me. I don’t think those who won’t show me the patience to let me get where I’m going in my native idiom deserve a whole lot of my sympathy when they try to second-guess me and fail, especially if they aren’t particularly interested in what impact it has on me. If you need me to stop because this isn’t a good time, or even if there will never be a good time, I can respect that, but please tell me that reason. I am begging for your help to try to get whatever part of my head that feels disrespected and unheard to calm down, and knowing why your need for my silence is more important than my need to feel understood usually goes a long way towards me being able to do that.

And again, I can’t make you tell me. You’re free to give any reason you like, or no reason at all, and I will respect that. But I remember who shuts me down without giving me what I think is a good reason, and who shuts me down without bothering to tell me why. Communication is only really successful when it’s bidirectional; this is what my communication looks like. If you really want to be my friend, you’re going to have to get used to it and not treat how I communicate as an imposition or an inconvenience. Relying on familiars to communicate vital information to me is a form of ableism, and expecting me to ever be comfortable relying on your familiars — especially if you’re in the habit of cutting me off — is as well. I have a long history of sweeping those behaviors under the rug on the grounds that keeping my friendships was more important than being comfortable. Then I hit autistic burnout. I can’t, and won’t, do that any more.

Colophon: The Checklists
And that’s what really brings me down to the heart of this whole discussion. I’ve said, over and over again, that I’m in burnout, that I don’t have the energy to run my coping strategies, that I can’t keep being th’ buni. Am bird now. What I haven’t said is what that means, for me or for anyone else. Here, I hope, is a quick rundown of what I mean:

  • I’m going to strive, to the extent I can manage it, not to do emotional state lookups in real-time any more. Keeping up with allistic emotional cues is exhausting. If you want me to know how you feel, tell me. If you want me to act on your emotions in a particular way, tell me. If you come to me seeking emotional comfort and pettin’s, and you don’t tell me you want emotional comfort and pettin’s, and I start to try to solve your problems because I happen to be in engineer-head in the moment, I’m not going to let you make me feel bad that you didn’t get what you wanted out of the interaction. It’s your responsibility to communicate what you want. It’s not my role in communication to figure out your motivations for you.
  • If you don’t know what you want when you start talking to me, tell me you don’t know and I’ll be happy to work with you to figure out what works, but if I start taking one approach and you realize that’s not what you want and you don’t tell me, again, that’s not my responsibility. Use your words to communicate.
  • I’m going start fast-failing out conversations and discussions where I have to do heavy disambiguation by asking, “context?” I’ll do my best to communicate what I think I’m missing, but I’m going to start making explicit what information I’m having to look up and what information I don’t have in order to understand your statement. You may be unprepared for just how much you’re taking for granted. You have been warned.
  • If I do reflexively guess what you want and I get it right, you should consider that a lucky accident. Take a moment to silently thank whatever trickster god you venerate that sometimes the Great Myxany lines things up on your behalf, and don’t count on it happening again.
  • If I’m trying to communicate a fractal, and you cut me off, I’m going to make a point of saying if I’m uncomfortable or anxious as a result of that exchange, and I expect you to at least acknowledge that discomfort and anxiety even if you can’t address it, the same as I would expect people to acknowledge when they’ve aggravated other people’s depression or anxiety or ADHD.

This isn’t a complete list, but it’s everything that comes to mind right now. And, because I want to make it clear in the other direction, here’s the simplest guide I have at this moment to help make communicating with me easier and safer for everyone:

  • Use your words with me. If you want me to know something, you’re going to have to tell me. If you don’t know how to communicate it in words, tell me that you have a thing you need to share that you don’t know how to explain, find a metaphor or an analogy, share that, and ask for help working backwards to get at what you want. I’m more than willing to do extra lifting for folks who need help using their words but you have to ask me. I will not volunteer.
  • Be verbose, direct, and explicit with me. Avoid euphemisms unless you have explicit knowledge that I’m going to understand them. Avoid sarcasm and irony if you can. If you must rely on them, do it in a way that makes it blatantly obvious that you’re being sarcastic or ironic, including telling me that you’re relying on sarcasm.
  • Minimize your reliance on Guess Culture around me. Ask me for what you want directly instead of trying to work out whether I’ll say yes to a response in advance.
  • Present me fractals. Tell me what you’re going to tell me, tell me, and then tell me what you told me.
  • Respect my powers of observation and the effort I’m making to make sense of your allism, rather than getting mad at me. If you’re giving off a set of emotional cues so loudly that even I can read them from across the room, at least have the decency to validate my observations if I mention them. If I see you with puffy swollen eyes and tear-streaks on your cheeks, don’t blow smoke up my skirt if I say you look upset and offer to give space for you to talk about it. At least give me credit for having read you correctly, rather than try to pretend you’re not emoting up a storm. All that does is make you look foolish and convince me I shouldn’t talk with you when you emote like that.
  • If you’ve got any question about what you want me to understand, imagine that you’d have to communicate absolutely every bit of what you have to share with me via e-mail. You don’t get facial expressions, tone of voice, body language, or anything else. All you have are your words. Now try to say what needs saying.
  • Above all else, remember that I don’t have a familiar and stop relying on yours when you talk with me.

There are a lot of behaviors that people would like to believe are “common sense” or “common courtesy” that are founded on the assumption that everyone’s heads are wired up the same way; they’re not actually common in the sense of being universal in applicability. I understand that communicating with me is going to put demands on people. A lot of folks are going to struggle with this, and some people just aren’t going to be able to manage it. I get it. Just consider how much work the world invisibly demands of me every day and ask yourself whether that’s really fair, and if it isn’t what you can do to fix it. I’ve met most of you far more than halfway for a very long time. It’s my turn to come to you, metaphorical hat in talon, and remind you of the emotional labor I’ve done on your collective behalf treating your allistic behavior patterns as normative. They’re not, I can’t keep doing it, and if you want me to keep being part of your world, you’re going to have to figure out how to talk on my level for a while.

Cold hearted-orb that rules the night
Removes the colours from our sight
Red is grey and yellow, white
But we decide which is right
And which is an illusion