Jiu Jitsu and Autism Pt 4

It’s been requested over the last couple of years that I write a follow up post to my “Jiu Jitsu and Aspergers” series from back in the day. I thought I had gotten everything out with that series, and honestly it was a scary one to publish since I hadn’t disclosed my diagnosis to many people at that point. This might be a rehashing but there’ve definitely been changes since I wrote that piece 8 years ago! (Click Here to check out the article that started it all)

Two big changes:

The Aspergers diagnosis is now defunct and dated (as are the terms high/low functioning), my diagnosis is now simply “Autistic”. The other change being that I was promoted to my black belt last year.

So where does that leave me?

I’m still me. I’m learning and unlearning a lot through work with my therapist. Autism seems to have taken a recent spotlight through media representation, which is both a good thing and a bad thing. Education and awareness is good in general, but media will of course represent the extremes of something from their own vantage point, not understanding what actually goes on in a brain that is wired differently than theirs. The stereotypical autistic person they usually end up portraying is the sensationalized version that is a small fraction of the diagnosis spectrum.

Sensory Issues:

Since my last posting on this topic, I have had to stop driving a car. It is just too much input/reaction for me to safely handle. On bad/low tolerance days I could focus either on; watching my speed, staying in the lines, or driving directions. I got speeding tickets because I was having to focus so hard to keep my car going where I wanted it and safely avoiding all the other moving (and stationary) objects that I just didn’t pay attention to speed, or I would be swerving in and out of lines while watching my speedometer. It all added up to more stress than it was worth to me. I switched to a combo of bicycle and the bus. The bike is easier because I don’t have to watch a speedometer, and can stop easily if I need a focus break. It was less convenient on the surface (especially given the state of the bus system in Nashville), but a better choice overall.

More recently I have started paying closer attention to my tactile sensitivities. Can I push through the day with a jacket sleeve touching the base of my thumb or an odd feeling fabric making up my gi pants? Yes, yes I can. But these little stressors add up and if it’s something within my own control, shouldn’t I control it and make it easier for me to handle the things I have no control over? As such I’ve done a closet purge and gotten rid of items that I find uncomfortable, got myself a floofy fleece hoodie to relax in at home, and am eyeballing an oversized Totoro plushie I found online.

I recognize now that while I can’t tolerate light physical contact, firm to hard is actually soothing. I’m guessing this is another reason why Jiu Jitsu is a good activity for me!

Pattern Recognition:

I’m starting to make some realizations about how deep my penchant for pattern recognition goes. I have realized that I don’t read people’s facial expressions emotionally, but I can recognize a change in their behavior pattern that tips me off if something (positive or negative) is up. So, the better I know someone (and get the hang of their normal behavior) the better I can read their emotional changes.

It’s frustrating because I can predict to pretty good accuracy an issue down the road – but no one takes me seriously if I try to point it out. Then the crisis hits and they all scramble to address it and I just heave a sigh.

In Jiu Jitsu it has definitely been an asset! When I figured out the mechanics of a triangle choke, I was able to easily apply the same thing from all angles (inverted reverse triangle finish anyone?) Learning my training partners’ movement patterns helps make me seem like I know a lot more than I actually do.

Special Interests:

My primary special interest has remained Jiu Jitsu – I’m going on 11 years now of it! It brings me great joy that I’m surrounded by people who don’t think it’s odd if I want to talk for hours about training techniques or theory.

It has been particularly difficult for the past few years. First, we had all the gym shutdowns with the coronovirus, and then just as we were getting into the swing of training again I had a very bad injury. I’ve been recovering for over a year now and haven’t been allowed to train properly (at all in the past 5 months post-op). I had the best possible sports osteopathic surgeon piece my knee back together again – he is confident I will be back to full impact with no restrictions, it just takes time.

Not being able to participate feels like a part of me is just a dark empty space that nothing can fill. I’m back on the outside looking in again. I have tried my best to keep myself engaged through teaching and watching film, but it is a pacifier that can’t be sustained. It has reached a point where I can actually see a life for myself where I never train again, and it terrifies me. I am determined that I WILL be back!

Social Stuff:

Being around the Jiu Jitsu community has made me feel much more competent and confident in social settings. Overall, I think the sport attracts the awkward misfits who are more accepting and forgiving of the awkwardness of others.

I have never dated, and probably won’t in the future. It is so difficult for me to maintain friendships that adding deeper levels just seems an insurmountable task to me, more trouble than it would be worth. Just know that if I count you as a friend, that means something.

I find it difficult to make a good first impression without feeling like I’m putting on a show of something that isn’t who I really am. The term is “masking” where I hide my natural pattern of speech behind a mask that is more socially acceptable. Everyone has always told me to “just be yourself and people will appreciate the real you!” – but in my experience that is a well-meaning lie. The real me is awkward, makes people uncomfortable with bluntness and vocal inflections, doesn’t have a filter on facial expressions, etc. Probably the reason that, while growing up, the other kids in my peer group thought I was “creepy.”

Nine times out of ten, if I greet people with the real me, it just doesn’t begin or end well. So many of my (now) friends have said that when they first met me, they thought I hated them. If I wear my goofball mask it is a predictable role that other people know how to relate to right off the bat. It’s less stress in the moment, but more stress in the long term. Sometimes I’m so exhausted when get home that I just sit down and stare at a blank wall for a solid hour before I’m able to start to relax with a book or movie.

That said, it’s better than it was before. I’m more aware of my limitations and am getting better at regulating myself. Controlling the things in my environment that I have control over means I have more energy to deal with the ones I can’t control. Since people with Autism have to expend more mental/emotional energy to do simple daily tasks, I have to conserve my energy where possible in order to make it through the day.

Anxiety:

I had a 3-day long anxiety attack last week. I learned something new from my therapist through it. Since my brain has no filter for the world I will eventually hit “critical mass” and my brain/nervous system just says “no.”

I say it’s like boiling a pot of water. Everyone else can boil their pot uncovered but I have a pressure cooker lid firmly in place. The pressure that would normally just dissipate from the act of heating up the water (aka, functioning in society) has nowhere to go for me.

Even as I explain it, it sounds like I’m just making excuses. Especially when people try to relate by saying “I think everyone is a little autistic” – which to me sounds like a minimization of my own difficulties. I can function if I try hard enough, so I must be lying or exaggerating. The toll it takes on me though is not sustainable over the long term.

In Closing:

Not a ton has changed really. I am still me. I am just trying to learn more about myself so that I can be a better human. Achieving my black belt was a huge saga that I will one day possibly share, but I need to be a little further removed from circumstances before I do that.

As I have risen in the ranks, I have felt the responsibility to look out for my fellow students. I would spend my weekend rehearsing all possible questions and interactions that I could come up with so that I could have an answer for someone as opposed to my classic deer in headlights stare. They know I care, even if I’m still a bit rough around the edges.

I’ve been more open about my diagnosis in the past couple of years. I think it’s because I have come to accept it more and feel more confident. That said, I’m actually awaiting an official assessment through an ADA approved evaluation center. I’ve been diagnosed by several therapists but if it’s not done through the approved evaluation center it’s not considered “official”. It’s an expensive drawn-out process, which is why I haven’t done it before – but with the salary from my new job I will be able to afford it!

4 thoughts on “Jiu Jitsu and Autism Pt 4

  1. J.

    Informative and a fantastic post Nicolle.

    I’d like to highlight your demonstration of the ability to adapt to your own circumstances. It’s no small task to recognize that you may not be fit to operate a motor vehicle. But to follow that up immediately with an adaptation to cover the void is genius.

    In much of the reading I’ve done about Autism, and other neurological conditions, there seems to be a commonality in the ability for the individual to adapt and overcome. A strength, in my opinion. You’ve demonstrated this multiple times throughout your story.

    While much of this is likely, as you said, just who you are. It’s very comforting for myself to learn of the creative solutions you come up with for the varying types of struggles often occurring with Autism.

    I am rooting for you. I hope to one day see you on the mats in prime condition. Be sure to nurse your mind as well as your body.

    You continue to inspire.

    Jesse.

    • Nicholle Stoller

      Hi Jesse,
      Thank you for the kind words! Adapt and improvise is life – the path to my goal might be a bit different than that of someone else, but it still gets me there eventually.

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