During a recent talk with my NHS counselor, I once again brought up the topic of detachment. I believe that the main hurdle I face is the extreme sense of detachment I have. For example, when I walk through busy city streets, I look around and feel no sense of belonging. I am merely an observer, moving from point A to point B without incident. I have no idea what everyone else is doing around me. I cannot walk in their shoes. I am only aware of my own thoughts and feelings.
I asked my counselor how he felt when he walked out into the street. Sometimes, basic questions like that, that I usually never think to ask, are the most illuminating. He said he felt a part of everything. I definitely don’t; I imagine neurotypical people would struggle to understand this. It’s like I’m floating by – dream like. I move in and out of the crowds like an observer from another planet, generally avoiding eye contact and hoping not to draw attention to myself. Someone once told me I walk with purpose and intent. I guess that is what I’m doing every time I leave the flat. I never venture out to find comfort in joining the crowds; I have some goal in mind that I must achieve without pausing or being interfered with.
When I called detachment my “hurdle” I guess I should make that past tense. Now, two years on from my diagnosis, I feel content with my detachment. I am learning to live with it. It no longer bothers me, because I understand it now – I accept it. The more I research autism, and speak to professionals, the more I understand myself – and accept my autism with confidence. This is where I apparently have a key role to play. My counselor told me that sense of detachment was common among many autistic people; however, unlike me, some cannot leave their homes because of it. So, I’ve been encouraged to write this; to expand more on detachment and what I have done to help combat it – or perhaps more accurately, accept it, since I have never conquered it. Going out every night of the week, martial arts, joining clubs, Meetup groups, DJing in clubs – all admirable efforts, but my detachment, the feeling I just didn’t belong, would always come back to haunt me. Because it will never go away, all I can do is manage it – divert its energies. So, here are my tips for dealing with detachment.
What follows is a holistic approach which I slowly, carefully – and perhaps subconsciously – developed to help me cope with severe detachment. Hopefully, you will find some of it useful, or perhaps be motivated to develop your own unique coping mechanisms.
This will undoubtedly disappoint, but I think the thing that has helped me the most is time. It has taken me half of my life to get to this point. I think that’s something to keep in mind; while everyone works at their own speed, accepting your sense of detachment, becoming confident with it, may take years. If I can do it, you can! To give you some perspective, the first time I recall severe detachment was in grade three. Everyone had to dance to horrible disco music – Abba, Boney M – but I steadfastly refused. I was embarrassed when my friend gave in and danced. I held out. Everyone was insisting I dance; asking why I wouldn’t. I felt singled out. My firm refusal was a topic of discussion for weeks afterwards. To this day, I hate “Rasputin” and despise Abba. That was my first taste of detachment – social isolation. While it was clearly based on one seemingly innocuous event – refusing to dance to disco – my first feeling that something was wrong deeply wrong came in grade six. I recall a trip to a neighbouring school, where we were to start grade seven the following year. Everyone broke out into social groups that I had not seen before. They seemed to know all the other kids at this school. But me – me I stood awkwardly off to the side, unsure of what was happening, feeling left out, helpless and disliked. I got an ominous feeling. I felt it was going to be very difficult for me at this new school, and I was right – it was horrible. Although I was always good academically, it was the beginning of my long, difficult slide down into anxiety, stress and lack of confidence. But the feeling wasn’t restricted to school.
Sometime in my late twenties, living in Vancouver, I realized that I was drifting apart, floundering. I either drifted away from my circle of friends, or they drifted away from me – or a bit of both. It got much worst in my thirties, culminating in a “midlife crisis” in my mid thirties, and did not disappear when I spent most of my forties in a relationship. Now fifty, I’m coming to terms with it.
Like Jason and the Argonauts, I like to set out with a particular goal in mind. Sense of purpose makes up for my lack of social interaction, and helps mask my detachment – if that were needed (can people actually tell we are detached as we walk along?). I’m always on a quest, hunting for something unique – not just any old thing. With a goal to focus on, I find it helps alleviate my sense of detachment, as I make my way through the crowds.
Somewhat similar to the sunflower lanyards available in some airports, I carry a Kent Autistic Trust “ATTENTION!” card in my wallet. The first thing I did after my diagnosis was to order one. Basically, it notifies people – and particularly emergency services – that I am autistic. I noticed one autistic man wearing his on a lanyard; I used to see him everywhere on the Chatham High Street, so he had no qualms about social spaces. Personally, I like keeping it in my wallet with the option to show it. I never have, but it gives me confidence knowing it is there, ready to help explain why I may act differently, or unpredictably, in some situations. While I feel detached walking through social spaces, I know my card is there for others to understand my detachment. If the root cause of detachment is shared, understanding begins and paranoia diminishes. I recommend searching for something similar in your area.
Before I go into any establishment, I may walk by a few times, hoping not to draw attention to myself. I’ll gaze in through the windows and peer into open doors. Is it too crowded? Is the music horrible? Is the décor off? Is it too trendy? Is it the “wrong crowd”? It has to be just so, or I won’t enjoy it there. Once I find a place I like, I keep coming back. I like to have safe places I can return to, to get away from the crowds. My hope is that they never change. I’m devastated when they close down or change hands, and if I have a bad experience at one, I may not return. Usually, I use the three strikes rule – make three mistake and you’re out! Sometimes, it helps to research in advance, read reviews, and get an idea where you might like to visit. Walking in the door is not a sealing a contract. You don’t have to stay; if you don’t like it – the lighting, the sounds, the smell, the crowd, the sofas, the beer – then quietly turn and leave.
The People Watcher
A lot of people I meet profess to love people watching. They sit in cafes for hours, plying their trade. Why not do the same? I have found that, while I feel very detached, I enjoy watching people. I begin to see patterns in behavior. I make unique observations. Actually, the detachment creates a critical distance necessary for good observation of social interactions. At times, I feel like an anthropologist, observing some newly discovered race. It’s interesting to note how people are similar to animals. See if you can spot the alpha male, the hungry pack or the attention seeker signaling for a mate. Of course, we are animals, but I’m always surprised how many don’t know that we belong to the animal kingdom. If you bring along a note pad, or a camera, you can make all sorts of interesting observations; maybe even get some ideas for stories, books, scripts or inventions. Once you’ve accepted you are a “people watcher”, in a way you have joined a group. You have a purpose being there, and feelings of detachment start to slip away. This is something I had to gradually get used to. It took me a long time to get up the courage to go out alone and just watch those around me, without interacting. Now I do everything alone – clubs, movies, travel. I prefer it and I feel that I am doing something useful – observing and documenting.
It helps alleviate feeling s of detachment if you have a functional role – not a social one. For example, if a friend asks you to help out with an event, be the photographer, journalist, DJ or help set everything up. I’ve found that I prefer doing practical things in social situations; they keep me so busy that I do not have to talk to other people. Having a predetermined function, however, gives me a focus, and alternative to having to engage in chit chat, boosting my confidence and self worth. Whatever your hobby or passion is, think how you can use it to keep yourself busy in a social situation – to make your contribution. You may find that other like-minded people will take the initiative and start up conversation with you, if that’s what you’re after. That is my preference – that others initiate conversation; if it is up to me, I’ll stand alone all night and not say a word.
Stop trying to guess what’s on people’s minds
Often, my feelings of detachment coincide with a deep seated paranoia; I’m afraid I’m being observed and judged. My mind plays out the worst case scenarios – what someone might say or do to me. This sort of thinking prevents me from going out. However, if you’re in the same boat, remember: there are two types of worries. Take them to “worry court” to judge which one they are. There’s logical worries about something that is scheduled to occur in reality (these are things we can actually prepare for), and there’s unrealistic worries that are a complete product of our overactive imaginations and super egos. My detachment often coincides with unrealistic worries. I imagine them in fantastic detail, to the point that my body reacts to them as if they are real: breathing, heart rate, sweating, trembling, stimming, flashes of anger. However, they do not exist outside of my head. Oxygen kills them. Once you’ve thought about a worry, analyzed it carefully, it may well lose its power, allowing you to move on. This has helped me deal with something that has plagued me all my life and put me at odds with friends and associates: I need to stop worrying about what people might be thinking.
The key is to realize that you aren’t a psychic. Would you want to be? I’m a fan of Fortean Times and, although I’m very interested in the topic, I don’t think there is enough science fact supporting psychic abilities. So, try your best not to worry what people are thinking, as you walk along. Rest assured, whatever they are thinking it is probably not as deep, unique or original as what goes through the autistic mind. People go out for social reasons, to be a part of it; when you come to realize that your role is different, it will help you make your way through the throngs.
People with certain interests wear badges; it’s a signal to others that they share their admiration. For example, I have always worn a lot of tour shirts – A LOT! I’m somewhat infamous for it. Some people (girlfriends) find it a bit much. I’m afraid I’m an eternal teenager. My excuse is that, especially in the 80s, music was my life; my identity developed alongside my musical interests. In retrospect, those shirts were my badges; my bold statements of intent – this is what I like and I’m proud of it! I recommend walking around wearing some apparel that displays your special interest. In my case, I have had people comment: “nice shirt”, “I like your shirt” or even scream out of a bus: “Depeche Mode!!” It’s actually really fun to be walking along and suddenly a complete stranger comments on your shirt. I recall walking down a very narrow, Dickensian street in Rochester; I was wearing my Sparks tour t-shirt. Suddenly, this large tour bus started towards me, horn blaring. I panicked, thinking I had to get out of the way, but then I realized the driver was motioning towards me. He was pointing at his chest (meaning my shirt) and giving me a thumbs up! I live for random things like that. They take the edge off my detachment. Random events are my way in; my entry into a brief social interaction – and it’s fun. On the other hand, I recall my grade 10 geography teacher watching me come down the hall with my Depeche Mode t-shirt. He roared: “Depeche Mode? What’s that – some kind of dessert?” Can’t win ‘em all.
Some shirts I wore in the 80s.
Check the Listings
Even though I feel detached, which has often been the cause of endless stress and anxiety, I’ve always avidly searched the alternative media to circle events that interest me. The act of circling events fills me with confidence and optimism. There is always the hope that I will find some like-minded individuals there, thus alleviating my detachment. Having lived in Windsor, Vancouver, Toronto, New York and London, I’ve regularly scanned and circled The Georgia Straight, eye, Now, Exclaim!, The Voice and Time Out (before it became a useless collection of ads). Sometimes, it’s reassuring to think that a group of people have planned an event that seems tailor made to meet your needs and interests.
I believe that many of my feelings of detachment stem from my own unique modus operandi. As I pass through social spaces, I just don’t have the same goals and intentions that NTs have. This often leads to misunderstandings, disagreements and even some ugly episodes – almost physical confrontations. When you enter a social space, there are unwritten rules of how to behave, how to look, what you should be doing and why. Otherwise, people are likely to become suspicious, dismissive or even angry at you. Unfortunately, owing to my autism, some social hierarchies are alien to me, so I have felt the full brunt of misunderstandings with NTs. However, if there is only one reason to be in a social space (my favorite excuse is photography) there is a Meetup group to match it. If you’re anxious about venturing into social spaces, or are tired of being detached from the social reality around you, you should look into a Meetup group that matches your needs and interests. There are even some for autistic adults. I have been to one myself and it was a great experience. It’s reassuring to meet others with the same outlook and hurdles as you have; it is a mutual opportunity to share feelings of detachment and work on managing them so you can enjoy the best life possible.
I do not like contemporary shops – the lights, the horrible music, unengaged staff (string into mobile phones), dull clothing that passes for trendy, the smell of the perfume counter. I prefer charity shops, used vinyl, used books, vintage, boot sales, yards sales, garage sales, and flea markets. For me, these are much more than just a shopping experience, and I’m not necessarily there just to but something. They stir memories and a sense of comfort. Unlike impersonal, contemporary, expensive goods designed for the latest trend, the items on sale once belonged to someone. Perhaps the person selling them has some special interest in them. Perhaps you can share that with them, if only for a moment. In addition, shopping experiences like this have a less corporate, more individualized feeling. You’re less likely to be deluged by horrible fluorescent lighting or noisy teenagers. In shops like these, my purchases mean something to me, above and beyond an egotistical need to display what you have bought. Thoughts and meanings attach themselves to objects. It’s nice to inherit some of their history, or rekindle a piece of my own – something I had when I was young, that I remember like it was yesterday. A quick transaction like this beats being 100% detached and, in the past, has made my day.
Diary, Journal or Something to Read
I like to keep multiple journals on hand. At different points in my life, I have kept dream journals, field journals (for work), diaries and “books of thought” – ideas for stories, scripts etc. If I’m going somewhere, I feel comfortable having a journal and a pen with me. Invariably, I keep them in my bag or rucksack. I do not seem to be able to go anywhere without a bag full of stuff. I feel confident and prepared, knowing I have reading materials and something to write on, should I stop somewhere for a drink or food. Maybe, subconsciously, the rucksack – formerly used when I was a student, now used for work – makes me feel busy; I have work to do, which helps alleviate feeling s of social detachment.
If you are heading out alone, and want to have something to do (in place of socializing) that does not attract undue attention, then I advise planning ahead: have one or two things in your bag to help you pass the time. I find journals are great because they help organize my thoughts and bring them into actuality. Whatever goes in there eventually gets used, or gets accomplished. Sitting writing, even though I am detached from the social exchanges around me, gives me a sense of purpose and pride.
When you’re wandering through the throngs, it helps to have a healthy sense of humour. It’s a coping mechanism that has helped me time and time again. Sometimes, what I see or hear ends up in a short story, or becomes a humorous anecdote, should I ever have the occasion to share it. If you set yourself up as an “observational comedian”, you’ll find it easier; you have a role to play, even though those around you (probably) aren’t aware of it.
Sometimes, random things are said or done that are humorous, but you can also go searching for places and situations where humor may be found. Sometimes, it’s not that obvious. For example, the parade is probably not nearly as interesting as some of the characters lining the streets. Have a look around; you may get some humorous photos. A large, loud group of people at a wedding are not nearly as interesting as a person seated alone, looking like they just swallowed a carton of sour milk. So, to help you accept your detachment, pretend you’re a comedian, visualize doing some stand up based on what you have seen, or envision a sitcom etc. Detachment won’t consciously bother you as much if you cherish the absurdities of everyday life!
One thing I have struggled with my entire life is living in the moment. I never felt a part of things and I was extremely hard on myself – my own worst critic. I used to try and force myself to stop being so detached, but it never seemed to work as planned. People around me appeared happy, content and gregarious, but in the same conditions I just could not manage it. As I mentioned before, it takes time to develop a system to manage social detachment – and a lot of trial and error. First, you have to realize you have the problem; then you set about doing something about it. My involvement in martial arts was a key step in the right direction.
I’d always been fascinated in martial arts (the topic will be expanded upon in a future post) and, after joining Taoist Tai Chi and some Aikido classes, it was reaffirming to read that martial arts are great for living in the moment. You can’t be detached and practice any form of martial art; you have to be in the present, ready to act, following specific, rigorous techniques. It didn’t take long for me to start feeling better – more confident. Not to mention it is fantastic exercise; the stretching alone helps manage stress and anxiety. Currently, I love Muay Thai.
Since there are several martial arts you can experiment and find out which is best for you. I recommend looking them up on YouTube and following some simple introductory lessons; that’s what got me into Muay Thai. This will cost you nothing and you do not have to leave the house. If you like it, you can take the next step – which I will do with Muay Thai training – and visit a dojo (a gym where you learn) to see if you like training in that regimented social space. Dojos tend to be very controlled, with routines and practices you follow every time, so autistic people may feel more comfortable there; there are not as many random, surprising social interactions as there are in reality. Many dojos offer free visits, even some free lessons to see how you like it; I intend to take advantage of some free introductory lessons for Muay Thai. It is not in a dojo’s best interests to keep students on if they are not happy. Only a disreputable dojo would keep you on just to get your money; I’ve never had that happen. If you don’t like practicing with others, you could pay extra for private lessons, or learn at home; there are complete martial arts courses available on line.
Now, you can’t practice martial arts in any old social setting; that’s restricted to the dojo. Instead, it is something that gradually changes your overall mindset when you are in various social situations; it makes you more alert and aware of the flow of things. You will become more confident that you can manage difficult social interactions (e.g. aggression and threats) should they occur. However, you can do some martial arts style stretches, even while seated. Which brings us to some techniques that are, shall we say, more subtle and less obvious in social spaces.
Body Scan, Stretching and Counting
Let’s face it – commuting in London is a nightmare for everyone, let alone autistic people. Normally, I really enjoy train travel; in fact, I prefer it. With no bumps or start-stops, and a constant path each time, it can be really relaxing to watch the landscape roll past your window. However, noisy, crowded trains – especially with antisocial behavior – can easily ruin my morning routine, increasing my stress and anxiety and basally destroying the day before I’ve even arrived at work. If I find myself seated somewhere without the option of moving away from negative stimuli, I make the best of it using body scan meditation.
Body scans are powerful and wonderful visualization techniques that can be practice in any social space without attracting too much attention. I find they really help me feel “in the moment”, reducing stress and anxiety. In fact, when I open my eyes after a scan, the colours seem more vibrant; I can feel my breathing and circulation improving. Luckily, body scan techniques are readily available as apps and on YouTube.
However, I have my own method. Have you seen the classic sci fi film “Fantastic Voyage”? It left a huge impact on me when I was young. So, what I do is envision moving through my entire circulatory, respiratory and skeletal systems. I start at the top of my head, envision a glowing energy, and then move down through every vessel, nerve and joint. I do it slowly and meticulously, visually where I am in great detail. By doing this, I am placing myself “in the now”, thus relieving stress and anxiety. I find it very helpful.
Stretching is something else I do every day, especially when seated for a long time. Tension builds up in social situations, so it helps me relieve the negative effects on my body. Once my body is loose, I feel much freer and confident, as I walk through social places. I have a series of stretches that I do; some I can do seated on public transit, waiting in line or in a more private place just off to the side of the crowds. My stretches are based upon Tai Chi, Aikido and NHS web sites dedicated to relieving scoliosis and sciatica. Again, do some research and find the best combination for yourself.
The last thing I’ll recommend is a variation on counting – similar to “counting sheep” to help you fall to sleep. I find myself counting odd things – how many post boxes on one street? If you’re into numbers, you might want to apply something similar to get you involved in your surroundings. Many years ago, I was an avid fan of “Science International”, a Canadian science show hosted by Joseph Campanella. One episode left a lasting impression on me; they discussed how counting and visualization can relieve pain. They recommended you visualize a large “10”, then count down to 0, carefully visualizing each number. When you hit zero, you visualize what is bothering you in the very centre of the zero; then you visualize pulling out what’s bothering you. I found this somewhat successful with pain – visualizing a spike being slowly pulled from my head to get rid of a headache – but I find it is more useful to help relieve social anxiety and feelings of detachment.
One way to reduce detachment is to enter a social space where everyone is there for the same, singular reason, so it is highly likely that shared interests brought them there.
In the past, I’ve done all sorts of night courses, workshops and further education. I always met people who I got along with. If you take a night class, beware the “know it all”; night classes always have one. The “know it all” is easy to identify. They shout out and try to correct the teacher. They jump on any opportunity to discuss themselves in detail, adding several minutes of irrelevant personal context to even the most mundane subject. Their sole purpose seems to be attracting attention to themselves and showing off their mighty intellect. You have to wonder – if they’re so smart, why do they need to attend classes in the first place? You’ll have to wear you’re “observational comedian” hat to help navigate through it; look around and see everyone rolling their eyes as the person goes on and on, wasting everyone’s time. Aside for the now-it-all, I’ve always enjoyed further education. I love coming up with new skills and learning new things and meeting like minded people. It is much easier to socialize when I’m with a group who is working on a project where I can make logical input, such as film making.
Spot the Celebrity
Nothing is more awkward than sitting next to people you know with nothing to say. If I had my way, I would say nothing at all, but – to be honest – this makes me feel guilty. All of my past fiends (and girlfriends) were neurotypical; thus, I felt obligated to make them comfortable by supplying them with some social communication, otherwise I may suffer the standard comments: you’re quiet, you seem distracted, you’re off in space, where are you, what’s wrong, what’s on your mind? Provided the person you’re with has a sense of humour, I recommend a game of “Spot the Celebrity” – my own creation! Simply challenge the person you’re with to look around the social space for anyone who looks like a celebrity. While waiting for a flight in Heathrow (airports – any autistic person’s nightmare!) I spotted a perfect Peter Sellers circa 1960s. While waiting for a ferry to depart for Victoria (BC), a girlfriend and I spotted the entire cast of Apollo 13 – perhaps planning a film about a ferry journey that goes desperately wrong? You get the idea! Games like these play to our strengths – visual intelligence, pattern recognition, long term memory and making connections between seemingly desperate situations.
I have been an enormous fan of surrealism since my discovery of the movement back in my university days. Amongst the many tings that fascinated me, and were strikingly similar to things I was already doing (perhaps subconsciously, to help me cope) was the surrealists’ random walks. Once you are confident enough, they will help you branch out from safe places and away from routes more travelled. They are more of an urban adventure than a forced attempt at socializing. Our imaginations are strong – use it to combat your feelings of detachment. You can develop your own random walks, or do what the surrealists did – pick something at random from a map, then walk towards it. I love looking at maps to get an idea where to venture into. Sometimes, I just set out with a vague goal in mind, then wander aimlessly as the wind carries me.
I always loved Halloween. It was my favorite time of the year. I’d plan my costume months in advance. When I was wearing a mask, I felt curiously alive – a part of everything around me. I felt safe. The irony is, unbeknownst to me, my mask covered another one – the mask I wore over my autism. Yet, I felt so free and confident – like a new person. Oddly, NTs do the same thing. Wearing a mask brings out something hidden in everyone. If everyone is wearing one, perhaps we feel more a part of things? While I don’t engage in the latest cosplay rage (maybe I should?), having lost my taste for Halloween costumes long ago, it seems to me this is an ideal activity for autistic people to become involved in – one where they are not detached but an integral part of the social event.
Know When to Call it Quits
I’ve found that put a lot of effort into managing my autism in social spaces, to find and maintain my comfort zone. Oddly, leaving that comfort zone can be a huge source of anxiety for me – more so than originally taking a chance and having a seat somewhere. How do I leave without people reading something into it? How can I leave quickly and quietly without incident? Do I have everything? Will I return? Do they want me to? Leaving is an art form, but once I’ve done it, the sense of relief is massive.
Generally, I am immediately aware that I am uncomfortable, but – except in extreme cases – I am unwilling to complain. Perhaps some noisy people seat themselves next to me, the entire establishment becomes too noisy, I hear or see something that turns me off, lighting is adjusted, management asks that I move seats, slow service or I am just plain bored. I think asking to be seated elsewhere is rude, even though it was probably rudeness that made me want to move in the first place! I can’t imagine moving seats away from noisy people only to have them watch me across the room – meal ruined. I think it is best to leave before things deteriorate too much, thus putting you off social spaces altogether. Like a band playing their last song of the night, you want to go out on a strong note. If, although feeling detached, you’re comfort zone has taken a hit, I think it is best to politely move on. Trying to weather the storm will leave you with no comfort zone at all. Remember, NO ONE goes to a social place to be annoyed and made to feel uncomfortable, so you should not put up with it. Have a contingency plan – another place to go to.
Depending on my reason for leaving, I may never return to a social space, or I may give it the benefit of the doubt and try it again on another day or time. However, I always use a “three strikes, you’re out” rule; I won’t return if there have been three off-putting incidents, regardless of what everyone else thinks.
Writing this was an interesting experience; it’s difficult to sit down and think what you do every minute, every day – perhaps subconsciously – to help you deal with reality. From one lone traveler to another, hopefully these tried-and-true, time honored techniques will help you navigate the alien, sometimes surreal, neurotypical social constructs. I don’t want you to go through half your life like I did. While they’re not perfect, techniques like these have helped me deal with my extreme detachment. Remember – we autistics share unique brains, generally coupled with a combination of logical approaches, creativity, unique problem solving and pattern recognition. We should be using these powers to help manage our feelings of detachment, so we can contribute to society and move towards happiness and fulfillment.