(Full disclosure: I work for Autistica, and this blog post clearly drew inspiration from the Molehill Mountain app which I’ll talk about later, but all views here are completely my own)
It’s been a week. Outside, I saw the grass was all brown; it’s dying, already. The newsreader on the radio described a wildfire on the moors, before moving on to the many smaller things – hosepipe bans, lettuce shortages, buckling railways. Now I’m reading a Twitter thread, scrolling on as someone explains to a presumed US audience (IN GREAT DETAIL) why the current UK heatwave is Very Serious Actually, because we’re not used to it, and we’re not prepared for it, and it will affect water supply and power supply and crops – this isn’t normal, and with climate change, it’s only going to get worse. I check the weather forecast online – it runs for 14 days, yet it doesn’t show signs of ending… What if it doesn’t end? What if it ends, but too late? What if this year seems like a blip but next year is the one where it all goes wrong? When you think about it, this is a perfectly plausible apocalypse…
I know that for me, heat can be a big factor in sensory overload and the like. I know that in summer this will inevitably sometimes have a knock-on effect on my mood. But the end of the world?! That was a new one.
Mind you, a brain like mine that relies on routine and sameness might be forgiven for thinking that the change in seasons is, in fact, The Actual End Of Days. Heatwaves get everywhere – into your homes and your schools and your workplaces, into the everyday decisions of what to wear and what to eat and how to plan your day, even into almost every interaction with another person (especially if that person is me, to be honest). Little things don’t feel quite normal: my usual blazer is gone, my hair is up in a ponytail even when I’m “being a grown-up” and going to work, and the Underground – a recent special interest – is suddenly out of bounds. Things I would otherwise look forward to, that I logically still look forward to, turn into yet another logistical nightmare to worry about. The weather is always the “headline news” of the day, even when it shouldn’t be.
You could argue that it’s a special interest gone wrong – the same mechanism that finds joy in the minute details, but now finding danger. Before long, anything you can think of is mentally filed under “safe” or, like a spontaneous cup of tea or a quick trip out of the office for lunch, “risky” – even as I think to myself “wait, that doesn’t even make any sense”.
To an extent, all those rules and worries can be managed into a routine of their own – but that isn’t they take up a lot of bandwidth, and when it’s as relentless as it has been, it’s easy to feel more than a little defeated. And it’s only going to get worse, and when I’m in London all the time that will be worse still, and my safe commute will change, and I’m going to have to do another sixty of- thanks brain, that’s quite enough!
What traditional advice (and, sadly, more formal mental health services) often forgets about autistic people is that many of our worries – sensory issues, changes to routine, the eventual meltdowns – can’t just be logic-ed away. (In this case, even the whole armageddon thing isn’t far off the mark…) Equally, sometimes we go too far the other way, assuming nothing can be done because it’s “just part of autism” even as it spirals well out of proportion to the autism-related issues. In short, just because there is a worry you need to consider doesn’t mean that ruminating on it incessantly is healthy or going to solve anything. One doesn’t erase the other. That’s how I interpreted the message behind Autistica’s new Molehill Mountain app which has been so prominent in my life this week – for us, these “molehills” ARE the mountain displayed, but that doesn’t mean we can’t chip away at it.
Telling them apart, though, is easier said than done. Autistic community wisdom is that if you just-push-through too much then it all crashes, but a big takeaway from the past few years is that I feel so much better when I’m busy and distracted – whether that’s at work, seeing friends, or just liveblogging Doctor Who episodes for the group chat – even though leaving the house might seem like the silliest idea in the world. Obviously, I don’t react well to people being dismissive, but weirdly it can be just as bad when other people are empathising, because of that part of me that think “See? This is real, and dangerous.” (It’s fair to say that this makes me a pretty useless communicator sometimes, and being prompted to send a regular daily message to someone you trust is something else I’m excited about from Molehill Mountain.)
Sometimes, the inseparable mix between my sensory overload (which I should listen to) and my near-obsessive worry spirals (which I shouldn’t) makes me feel like I’m “doing it wrong” on both counts. But you can’t do your own brain wrong, even when it’s different from neurotypical people or even other autistic people. And in any case, it never feels quite so huge in hindsight.
It’s been almost two and a half weeks since I last really, properly, felt like myself. But, as I get off the train this morning – on the all-important app launch day, a top-tier adulting challenge when I’ve felt like I’m maybe at half adulting capacity on a good day – the skies are grey. It’s cooler, and the change feels instant. Is this how much energy and enthusiasm I normally have? The mountain, conveniently enough, is suddenly a molehill again. Maybe it always was.