Words can be elusive. Thoughts and feelings are hard to understand and even harder to communicate. Sometimes I find it easier to explore and understand what I’m feeling through art. I’ve struggled my whole life to ever consider myself artistic. Art, I always thought, was something people did to create things for the sake of creating and they did it because they were artistic in nature. It never occured to me that perhaps people were creating things as a form of expressing inner conflicts, feelings, and thoughts they couldn’t otherwise adequately express in words. It only occured to me that I did that. “I’m not making art, I’m letting my mind sort itself out.” Aren’t we all? For a rigid thinker like me, something abstract like art can be difficult to fully comprehend.
To me the creation of art is how I speak to the world and how I process my experiences, gaining a better understanding of myself–I don’t think of it as being art but alternative words or snapshots for me to ponder of what lies beneath the maelstrom of my conscious brain.
Painting has become a primary source for processing my internal landscape. Others look at my paintings and see art, I just see feelings and thoughts and a heavy amount of information. Importantly it has become one of my favorite methods for exploring some of the harder, more difficult-to-understand aspects of my autism, such as meltdowns.
Snapshot: Sensory Meltdowns
| part I |
Sensory overload is a massive topic and I’m certain I’ll be writing several posts about it because it does tend to largely inspire the style of my art. This post in particular focuses on the confusing nature of sensory-induced meltdowns as expressed through a painting that was done as I was recovering from sensory overload from processing several data-heavy conversations, confusing information, and getting additionally overwhelmed by loud auditory stimuli. This painting is meant to convey one particular, overarching aspect of overload for me: chaos.
When you look at this, what do you see? There are layers upon layers; dozens of colors, dots, and dabs; swipes and scrapes; spatter and glitter and gobs of paint all to create texture (the metaphoric layers of processing). The lines seem like they’re trying to form shapes but they get lost in confused swirls, interrupted by swipes of color (information) going in varying directions with different destinations that all seem lost in a web of larger information. Thoughts try to form but get nowhere (dots, dabs) and focus is fractured by walls that spring up and block the ability to grasp concepts long enough to fully understand them. Every attempt to organize the chaos into something sensible is met by yet more chaos–the closer one looks the more lost in detail they become. The overload is all of the paint on a single canvas giving you too much to look at, too much to sort through, too much to comprehend.
What does this feel like? It’s entirely over-whelming, sometimes frightening. My mind is out-of-control and I feel slightly disconnected from my body, like the sensations are incongruent with my experience, and that lends its own anxiety. The emotions are too many, too fast, too confusing and I’m not good at identifying them in real-time. The frontal lobe of my brain feels like someone put a spike through it. The harder I try to focus the more everything scatters, the more my head pounds, and if I try too hard for too long to process I get disabling migraines that can wipe me out for an entire day or two.
Sometimes it’s like too much pressure in my head and body. Sometimes it’s like a hundred voices (but not actual voices, just hundreds of lines of information feeding into my psyche at once and I can’t focus on one). I become intensely emotional but I don’t know what emotions I’m experiencing or why. I become exhausted, irritable–angry, even–and lash out at whatever is nearby, be it a person or an inanimate object: “Stupid fucking chair!!” *kicks chair over* And to think…all it did was catch my sweater as I walked by it…hardly worthy of the violent outburst it received.
But my mind is in so much chaos, so much pain; my body is confused and feels like lightning is zapping me–not like a tingling sensation but like a jumpy, fiery, dangerously-energized charge that is unstable and makes everything seem more aware…like every skin cell is more alive than it’s ever been. It makes sitting still and staying focused almost impossible. It makes the soft, concerned touches from my husband feel like hot fire pokers, cold ice picks, needle-encrusted gloves, sandpaper fingers. It makes me jump, recoil, tense up.
If I’m lucky enough to not be shutting down at the same time I can actually say, “Please don’t touch me,” but far too often I’ve already succumbed to selective mutism and just ended up pulling coldly away from his touch, curling into a fetal position, communicating with my body messages I never intended to send because they weren’t congruent with reality: “Don’t touch me, I don’t like you right now. I’m mad.” Or in somewhat better cases I just go rigid and hug myself while he hugs the brick wall that I’ve become, trying my best to allow contact that he needs but I can barely stand.
Side note: Since my diagnosis I no longer force myself to allow contact when I’m over-stimulated and my husband now understands my need for physical and emotional space while I recover from sensory overload and/or meltdowns. I think it’s important to work with one’s neurodivergence rather than against it.
Exhaustion invariably follows these sensations. My brain is keyed up, my body is keyed up, and more often than not I’ve been stimming incessantly to maintain a sensation of connectedness to my body, to help me focus and calm, and that takes a toll as well. When you rock, sway, count (use your brain resources), bounce, and pace like a caged tiger you tend to amplify your physical and mental exhaustion, but the trade-off is maintaining enough of a connection to your physical being that your mental being doesn’t descend into full panic.
Take another look at the painting; thousands of strokes and dabs. If each stroke and each dab represents a sensation, thought, stimulus…could you hold your own and not explode? Like a balloon being over-filled, a person can only take so much before they burst into little pieces. Being on the autism spectrum just means that my balloon (stimulation tolerance) fills up rapidly–sometimes too fast to catch before it pops (and when it pops confetti just gets everywhere). And thanks to how hard it can be to find all of the little balloon pieces amongst the confetti mess, it takes me a much longer time to put the balloon back together again. And as you might have guessed, a repaired balloon can be more susceptible to future pops if not properly repaired.
If you’re neurotypical you have the benefit of your brain sorting through all/most of that information in real time and mostly on a subconscious level. For example, if your body says, “My bladder is full,” the NT brain can translate and communicate that clearly and effectively. For me the message “your bladder is full” is not translated in real-time and not as a clear message. I will, instead, receive mixed information or information that feels “anonymous”, i.e. I know my body needs something but I don’t know what is needed and I don’t know what part of my body is sending the signal. I instead start to feel anxious, jittery, scattered, agitated, and begin stimming to re-establish a connection with my body that feels as if it’s drifting. It can take me anywhere from 20 minutes to several hours to realize I need to pee. As a result of a lifetime of this delayed comprehension of my senses (topped-off by intense focus on special interests that made it excruciating for me at times to break away from my interest to satisfy the droll needs of my physical body) my bladder is…needless to say…not as strong as it used to be.
Exploring my autism through art has been tremendously helpful because it takes longer to formulate a clear understanding of my experience and feelings than it does to let my hands express it for me on canvas. I need a lot of time and space (both physical and mental) to figure out what’s going on inside and the process of painting is a gift to myself of deliberate dedication to sorting, acknowledging, and releasing all of the information swirling and crashing through my being so that I can make room for yet more (because the world, and life, is relentless). It is my hope that through continued painting I will learn more about the patterns of how I process so that I can be more wise in the ways of navigating my internal landscape in real-time. At least, for now, it provides me the opportunity to process more efficiently after-the-fact.
As I continue to explore my experiences through art I hope they lend–if nothing else–a more colored-in picture of a female autistic life.
Disclaimer: My experience does not reflect the experience of all people on the autism spectrum. While some of the symptoms that I discuss can be common for those with ASD that does not mean that my experience of my symptoms is the same as how others experience the same symptoms. No two people are alike and, indeed, no two autists are alike, either. Furthermore, how females experience autism spectrum disorders is often quite different from how males experience them.