A huge ‘hidden’ but acute disability of mine is something that many autistics share: executive dysfunction. Teetering at the edge of a cliff, there is that sensation of falling, and yet one is still on firm ground – if just only by a hare’s breath. The feeling of executive dysfunction, of running out of what they call ‘spoons’, being at the very thin and slippery border, that unstable, fine line between (a veneer of) absolute control and complete breakdown, is a queasy, heart-rupturing silent scream. Sometimes, the tasks can be the most rudimentary, things that people just do, as naturally as any spontaneous activity like brushing their teeth or picking their nose. For example, answering multiple WhatsApp messages one after another upon emerging from a three hour meeting, without mixing up the who, how, where, when details of doing and saying. Then again, most people do not have to do all this while trying to quell gurgling, seething, frothing nausea, sometimes even excruciating migraine headaches and sharp stabbing pain in the eyes and inner ear, all from sensory overload. For the autistic person with executive function challenges, dealing with ‘simple’ chores can often turn into a battle with large roaring monsters, and staying on top of things becomes a colossal full-body, underwater wrestling match with an invisible Leviathan. For me, this is especially overpowering if ‘things’ involve many different human beings who are interacting in ways that seem to my brain to be alien, diverse, fragmented and scattered. The more human interaction is in the pot, the more cruelly exacting the grand performance becomes. Making mistakes is an inevitable and frightening feature in this unmerry-go-round. The ringing of the phone or the pinging of message notifications have become Pavlov bells of agitation and vexation for me. I have a horrible white-hot searing fear of sending messages to the wrong people, or not remembering certain details when people ask questions outside the ‘compartments’ in my mind that I’ve created for them. A person messaging me directly, taking a conversation outside a group chat but asking me questions that (in my mind) belongs to the group chat, can quickly send my brainwaves into wriggling, jiggling, wildly gyrating spams. I panic – why I do not know because it is not logical to panic – and of course I end up replying with either some garbled nonsense, or wrong information, simply because my mind has short circuited.
Even the most ‘expert’ of non-autistic ‘experts in autism’ fail to notice the subtle nuances of executive dysfunction and mental-sensorial overload as it happens in real time. In fact, I have yet to meet a non-autistic ‘expert in autism’ who can actually ‘expertly’ communicate with the autistic me. It is usually I who have to make all the necessary overtures – performing the unnatural as naturally as possible – in order to get any meaningful communication across. And autistics are supposed to be the ones ‘impaired’ in social interaction and reciprocal empathy?
This is how my autistic executive dysfunction plays out. On the surface, nothing is noticed. Not yet. There I am, deep underwater in the miry depths, engaging in mortal combat with that Brobdingnagian of Executive Dysfunction, but people sauntering by throw nary a glance at the pond, and nobody sees the tiny desperate bubbles bursting silently as they make contact with the aerosphere. All is cleverly concealed, until my spent and bloated corpse makes its way upwards, causing a huge blister on the placid surface. Then comes the shock and even derision. The accusations too.
People can be ‘aware’ that autism means a difference in neurological function. People can even be ‘aware’ of the terms “sensory overload” or “executive dysfunction” etc. But people have little or no idea how to identify the actual unpacking of all their ‘awareness’ in real time, especially if the autistic person is labelled by the non-autistic world as “high functioning” (not rocket science to figure out why I detest functioning labels, is it?). All this Autism Awareness with its fanciful labels is therefore as useful to me – an actual autistic person – as Blahblahblahdittydoodada. And this, while mildly comical, is not at all funny.
I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again. I am autistic. I love what I love with intense, all-consuming passion. And I am great at doing what I am great at doing – even rather brilliant. But I find the simple activity of keeping track of WhatsApp messages so difficult that I have developed a phobia for the sound of a message notification.
Prepotence in uncomfortable co-existence with decrepitude.