Easterseals Arkansas Ambassador Aaron Likens is a notable presenter and author of “Finding Kansas.” He took two years off from writing following some personal inner struggles but is back after landing his dream job in 2020 as one of the starter/flagmen for the NTT INDYCAR Series.
He explains in a blog post, “I have walked through the shadows and have to make peace with it. It was years and years but I’m back! My brain finally worked out that the sum of my being is not dictated by a single person. I now understand the evidence that people always pointed out when I attempted to say I wasn’t okay.
“I have a newfound understanding of the challenges we on the autism spectrum face and endure daily. So often professionals would say, ‘Aaron, what makes your content and presentation so unique is that you aren’t a clinician talking about data or third person observations but instead you’re a participant.’”
Aaron is blogging nearly daily now and looks forward to raising the level of autism awareness. We are happy to partner with him on this journey.
Below are excerpts from recent blog posts. You can read the full entries at http://lifeontheothersideofthewall.blogspot.com/.
Why I Twirl
Aaron recounts a school presentation during which he discussed why he does certain fidgets with his hands to help him cope with anxiety and other emotions that may arise during any given day.
When I’m just a tad bit nervous in public I’ll twirl my belt loops. It’s not very noticeable unless you know what you’re looking for, but why do I do this?
It’s the way I regulate my anxiety. If I don’t do this the anxiety bubbles up and up and it becomes overwhelming to the point that I can’t focus on what I need to focus on so this very small movement and sensory input in my fingers allows me to sort of… think of it this way… you’re extremely hungry and there’s the world’s best soup in front of you but it’s just too hot to eat. You know the feeling, right? The feeling of soup that’s too hot that makes your entire mouth feel like it’s on fire. There comes a point, though, that the temperature of the soup gets to the point that it’s tolerable and not that overwhelming heat blitz that can’t be handled. That’s what the belt loops do for me; they lower the temperature of anxiety.
I have another hand motion and when I was in school kids would, sadly, make fun of it. I do this when I get extremely excited, and I do try not to do this in public but there are times where quite simply I’m going to have to. I then proceeded to show them which is using both hands moving right near the speed of sound either by my ears or cheeks. The room was silent as I continued, That motion allows me to feel the excitement and start to purge the excitement. Without this the level of excitement is going to grow and grow until it feels like I’m going to explode. I don’t know why it works, but it does, and it’s my way to manage the emotions that may come during the day.
It’s unfortunate that some get made fun of for such things. Do I wish I didn’t have to do this dance of the fingers? Yes, I do but wishing it away won’t get rid of it. If you only knew how much strength it took for us on the spectrum to get through a day! Easy things you take for granted may be difficult and exhausting for us and each of us on the spectrum may discover little tricks such as twirling belt loops as a way to help us get through the day.
Why I Don’t Watch Shows Involving the Autism Spectrum
Aaron explains the reason he steers clear from shows and movies with people on the autism spectrum as the main focus.
I have nothing against those shows. The reason why I don’t watch is that I’m trying to protect myself from emotions.
The misconception out there is that those with Asperger’s fully lack emotion. I laugh, and then want to cry, when I hear this because it’s not based in reality. What is true is that I’ll do what I can to avoid situations that will entail an emotional response, or I will do my best to conceal the emotion because emotions often cause more emotions which bring about more and that is just so tiring.
With no shallow or middle ground, the emotions that are triggered become a tidal wave. If emotions of outward empathy and inward reflection are spurred at the same time it is an overwhelming mess. With the “everything is now” memory system I have, when a memory is conjured up by relating to a scene from a show, the emotions I had at the initial moment of living it are brought back to the present. And, since I had a hard enough time the first time I felt something, it’s even more difficult many years later with now interest being added to the initial emotional debt.
That person you may know that is avoiding a movie, or genre, perhaps like myself with things involving the autism spectrum, there could be a silent reason as to why they will do whatever they can to steer away from it. I’ve known this about myself for almost a decade and couldn’t describe it to anyone. It took me a decade to get the bravery to say why so if you don’t get an answer as to why, perhaps it’s too deep, too personal, and they too would want to avoid the tidal of emotions that can be brought about by seeing a struggle they struggle with on the television screen.
Social situations leave Aaron wanting to run far, far away. In this post, he explains why.
Having Asperger’s, for myself, has many advantages. In the coming months I’ll cover those but today I’m writing about the most tiring and anxiety producing element. This is the reason I try to avoid social situations at all costs. The cause? It’s what I like to call “positional warfare”.
Since the onset of the pandemic, my social encounters has been cut drastically outside of my work for INDYCAR, and this has been a challenge for me because, in the five years I didn’t blog, I got extremely apt at the random social encounters. As with anything in life, though, practice is needed to remain sharp and at the grocery store yesterday a battle of position raged.
My girlfriend and I were getting some supplies and food and while she was looking at shampoo in the soap area, which is more open than the traditional long aisles, an older gentleman came up behind and partially beside me. I could see him out of my peripheral vision, and he was just there. I didn’t want to turn my head to fully see him because I didn’t know what he was doing. Was he waiting for me? Waiting for my girlfriend? Did he just want to push his shopping cart past? Was something expected of me? So many questions and the only thing I could do was process more questions which left no answers.
When this type of processing takes place, I start to “question everything and react to nothing.” What this entails is that I become so deep in thought and so flooded with a near adrenaline induced anxiety storm that I look unnatural in the environment I’m in, or as the literature says, “uncomfortable in own skin.”
For most of you out there, a social situation like this lasting no more than a dozen seconds is something that you’d forget about by the time you put the milk in the fridge, if you even recognized it at all. For myself, this is daily life; a random encounter that I can still sense a trace of anxiety almost 24 hours later. This is why the positional warfare rages on; it just isn’t the moment of the battle but the fear of the next one when I’ll be wondering, “Is this posture okay? Where should my arms be? Eyes… eyes… where should I be looking with my eyes! Wait, do I look uncomfortable in my own skin now?”
Aaron talks about how important nonverbal communication is to people like him living on the autism spectrum and how masks have impeded that important aspect of daily living.
I may be almost two years late to this conversation, but I haven’t written in two years so I haven’t been as observant in behaviors to notice. However, while flying back from the race near Miami I did notice just how much I rely on nonverbal communications.
While boarding the plane Monday morning and the flight attendant greeting me while entering the plane I gave my awkward upward head swoop and sort of smiled. I’ve come to learn that the quick smile I give is typically enough to spare me from having to say anything aloud. Also, I may move my lips slightly to emulate speaking with no noise being made. This could lead the person to think I said something and they just didn’t hear it.
My goal in random public is to be a chameleon and be invisible. I want to avoid random social encounters and each movement I take while walking is trying to keep the avoidance as strong as possible. I’ve learned all the moves I need to pull off to keep this bubble of isolation intact, but I just didn’t realize how much I relied on the minute facial expressions to keep it all functioning.
When the flight attendant said, “Good morning,” Aaron did his head swoop and mouthed “good morning,” forgetting the attendant couldn’t see his mask-covered lips. As he walked to his seat, he heard a “Well, good morning to you too!”
I played it back, “they said good morning and I mouthed it and raised my eyebrows ever so slightly and… and… OH! She didn’t know I mouthed it!”
Another odd thing is that, when it comes to mistakes like this, I’m destined to make the same mistake over and over and over again until I have one of these moments. I don’t have a strong ability to see things from another person’s line of sight or viewpoint. Another one of my sayings is, “I think therefore you should know” which would apply to this situation.
I wonder how many errors I’ve made these past two years in thinking another person can see my face when they couldn’t.