“Damn, Kaede! You’re one badass bitch!”

It was meant as a highest compliment. It was the second season of the maid cafe, and the hotel just had revoked our catering permissions ten minutes into the start of our special Saturday evening VIP show. The guests were already seated in the meeting room we’d decorated for the show. The games were already set up, the food was delivered and ready to be served, and the hotel was pulling some seriously messed up bullshit to try to make more money.

They framed it as “food safety concerns”, but our team had already jumped through the hoops before the show. It really was all a cash grab by the hotel. We had been able to get outside catering for $5 per plate, we had ServSafe certifications for the maids who would be handling the food. It was brought in insulted carriers, and was within safe temperatures for service. But the head chef from the hotel’s restaurant nixed it at the last second. The hotel liaison offered a “compromise” that we could move all 80 guests to the hotel restaurant where they could still get dinner, and we’d be paying the hotel $35 per head.

Needless to say, I was very pissed off. Six months of planning had gone into this show, but there were ten women and 80 guests who needed an instant solution. This was one of those situations where a spiky autistic brain really comes in handy. I came up with a new plan, and started barking out orders within ten seconds. But it came at a cost. (Besides the financial one, I let the convention chair take care of that later…) I went into instant burnout, and couldn’t maintain “Kaede Mode” for even a second more.

As we paraded the guests through the 40 degree weather from one end of the hotel to the other, I marched and shook a star shaped tambourine over my head, like demonic pied piper. I was furious, but trying my best to make it seem like I was really just very excited that we had to scrap our hard work to go on an unplanned tour to a facility that would not meet our needs. Once we got there, I quickly surveyed the table layout, and tried to rearrange to best accommodate our purposes. The hotel liaison tried to offer “help”, but I put my hand up to her face and said, “Don’t fucking talk to me, or any of my staff.”

Picture those words coming out of this face.

I realize that this probably seemed uncalled for and unprofessional, but I had no energy left for niceness. I barely had energy to stand up.

We pulled a whole new show out of our asses, the guests were fed and entertained, and we all had a great story to share with future cafe staff about “how bad it could be”. Also, the team had now seen me as Katie, instead of Kaede, and were amazed and terrified.

For someone seeing it from the outside, it can look like a Jekyll and Hyde situation. The super competent person who suddenly breaks down and loses their cool for “no reason”. In the case of the hotel that night, I had been using a lot of energy all day to maintain “Kaede” and interact with people in a way that seemed more normal. Working as a convention organizer is already a lot to juggle, but the most difficult part for me was the face time. When I suddenly had to deal with change AND tap my problem solving skills, I couldn’t keep my camouflage up, and I looked like I went from being “den mother” to “ice queen” in a matter of seconds. On the outside, it would have been jarring, from the inside I was thinking:

“We don’t have enough table games to divide, so we’ll need to only do games that don’t require physical objects. It will take twenty minutes for guests to serve themselves at the buffet, so we’ll need to move the third performance to the beginning to keep the rest entertained. I’ll pull ticket staff to cover the extra tables. We’ll need time to set up the sound system for the first performance so I’ll have the ladies stall with line games. We’ll give out free merch as an apology for the walk and the wait.”

The concept of the autistic skill set is one that is well understood by many autistic folks, but not so easily understood by neurotypicals. In large part, it’s because it’s not a consistent skill set from person to person, so trying to categorize it, let alone recognize it, isn’t easy.

For example, I have several skills that I’m very good at. Decision making, problem solving, spacial thought, and pattern recognition. If someone met me, and recognized that I was good at those things, they’d assume, incorrectly, that I was good at related things like team-building, social networking, time-management, and mathematics.

On the other side of the coin, there are things that I’m not good at that other people consider “basic” skills. Small talk, social norms, and not picking my nose in public. By association, they assume, incorrectly, that I don’t know how to take care of myself or my home, or that I’m lazy or self-centered.

I read an article recently that does a great job at explaining this phenomenon, especially as it applies in the workplace. For someone at my age, it’s difficult to explain to people that I wasn’t magically born with the skills I have. They were practiced, over and over…. and over, until I got to the point I’m at today. But all of that focus into small sets of skills meant I didn’t spend as much time on others.

Even things that you’d think I’d have “picked up” from day-to-day experience don’t stick unless I make a concerted effort to beat them into my brain. Makeup and hair is still something I always feel like I’m doing wrong, despite years of having to doll myself up to appear on stage. Also, don’t ever show me a picture of your baby’s first ultrasound and expect me to do anything but nod. It’s not like I don’t know you’re excited, I just don’t know how I’m supposed to react. (So far, I’ve learned that people don’t like it when you compare the blurry picture to phlegm.)

I’ve learned that I can’t function in an office environment surrounded by neurotypical folks because I just don’t fit. They want to gossip, I don’t. They want to talk about TV shows or movies. I don’t. They ask why I don’t eat spicy food, or why I don’t drink alcohol, or why I always wear earplugs, and my answers are never satisfactory. My lack of participation is taken as a personal insult.

The assumption, based on the known factors of my competence with highly complicated tasks, is that I think I’m “too good” for them. I’m described as snobbish, or elitist, or cold. When, in reality, I’m very much a toes-in-the-grass, down-to-earth chick. I like to catch tadpoles, and sit with my chickens, and eat cheetos, and play games with my son. I love sending gifts to people on the other side of the planet just because they were having a bad day. I love to make people laugh.

Not caring about beer doesn’t mean not caring about people who drink beer. Not caring about a TV show doesn’t mean not caring about the people who make or watch it. The fact that there isn’t a correlation between a lack of interest in a topic and lack of interest in a different topic is not a difficult concept to grasp. So why can’t this be applied to skill sets as well? Why do we expect that if a person is good at “thing A”, they will also be good at “thing B”? I’m good enough with my feet to dance, and I’m good enough with my hands to play piano, but I can’t drive a stick shift.

Next time you encounter someone who seems like they’ve spontaneously lost their marbles, or who doesn’t seem to care about “normal” things, try a different approach. Instead of trying to make small talk, or trying to figure out why they are “different”, ask them how they learned to do something they’re good at. Sometimes, there’s an awesome person in there who just doesn’t know how to connect, and you can use your skill to meet them. – K

“Am I in the right place?”

If you are looking for the website of “The Wig Lady”, you are in the right place.

If you are looking for the website of “The Writer/Artist”, you are in the right place.

If you are looking for the website of “The Weirdo from Oakhurst who Ate Strawberry Yogurt Directly off the Carpet in 3rd Grade”…

…you are in the right place. (I didn’t want to waste food, okay?)

So, really the question you should be asking is, “How are all of these people the SAME person?” The answer to that is a little harder to explain, but if you are interested in getting a peek into how a brain like mine works, read on.

Although I have met and talked with countless people throughout my public career, you’ve probably never actually met me. You’ve met Kaede.

This is Kaede, and she really needs a sandwich.

Kaede is my coping mechanism for dealing with stressful social situations. “high functioning” (please don’t use that phrase…) autistic women are often difficult to spot, because we’ve perfected the art of camouflage, or “masking”, to fit in. Kaede is pretty damn seamless by this point, but maintaining her for long periods of time is both emotionally and physically exhausting. It suppresses my immune system, and I become more prone to injury. (And I’m already a mega-klutz to begin with.)

So why would I do this to myself? Because I have to if I want to maintain any amount of success in my public work. As a teacher, as a celebrity, as a “normal human”, I have to try to fit in.

Now, before you take offense to the thought of me being “fake” when you met me at a convention, sit your ass down for a big bowl of education first. Masking isn’t lying. In fact, one aspect of my autism is the fact that I’m too honest or too literal. I’ve never been “fake nice” to anyone I’ve met in my entire life. I couldn’t do it even if I wanted to. But Kaede allows me to do some basic things I normally can’t do, like:

  • Maintain eye contact. (Sort of, I’m actually looking directly below your right eye, or at the bridge of your nose.)
  • Talk to strangers in an audible tone of voice.
  • Receive/give hugs.
  • Have my picture taken.

These simple interactions are something I’ve had to work on for years, and for most of the people I know, even outside of work, this is the “normal” they’ve come to expect. But when I get too tired, my mask slips, and then people think I’m totally whack-a-doodle-doo.

“You don’t seem autistic.”

Really? Because I don’t seem like the media-popular version of an autistic person you’ve come to expect? A young boy, bobbing back and forth in his chair, twirling his hair around a finger, staring at the floor, repeating the same phrase over and over? I agree, that’s not me. The boobs would be the first clue, I’d think.

The publicly familiar version of people on the spectrum focuses mostly on a very specific presentation of symptoms, and resources and information for those of us with the less visible symptoms, especially women, are scarce. Most will be misdiagnosed, or just go through life with this feeling of “weirdness” and no idea what it means or why.

For me, it’s like everything finally clicked into place. My weirdness score has been high my whole life, and as more “oddities” started to manifest, I couldn’t possibly think they might be related to one another. It didn’t make me feel special, it made me feel strange. Like I had an eclectic list of useless superpowers.

  • “Steel Trap” photographic memory, going all the way back to age 2.
  • Ridiculously strong senses of hearing, smell, taste, and touch.
  • Highly auto-didactic: both with knowledge and movement

Then the accompanying list of difficulties..

  • Sound hurts and sometimes enrages me. I constantly have to wear earplugs when I’m in public. (Which make my ears bleed from my latex allergy.)
  • I have to wear sunglasses in public, even when it’s not bright outside. My eyes feel scared without them. (I don’t have a better way to describe that.)
  • Certain smells that others find pleasant or completely undetectable cause pain, or make me vomit.
  • I can taste things other people around me can’t, which has made them think I’m picky, or being “dramatic”, but really, carbonated water makes my tongue feel like it’s being electrocuted.
  • There are some materials/fabrics/textures that I can’t touch. If I touch them on accident, I yank my hand back in disgust.
  • I experience motion sickness in places most people don’t.
  • I don’t process drugs normally, so anesthesia and painkillers are always a crap shoot.

Then there’s just the “weird” stuff…

  • I perceive some letter sounds as “bright” or “dark”.
  • If I see numbers on the clock or odometer in sequential (12:34), repeating (55555) or palindromic order (140041) I have to make someone else “witness” it.
  • I give everything a voice and a name. This includes inanimate objects, animals, food, body parts, whatever. I regularly carry on conversations where I voice multiple participants.
  • When I remember something, I see my exact location in the exact scene, and will use my hands to “reach” for other people’s positions in the scene as if I’ve actually been transported through time and space.
  • I create sounds for motions that normally wouldn’t have them, and repeat the sound every time I do the motion. (For those of you who are familiar with my wig work, you may recognize this as “scoop, scoop, scoop” or “tap, tap, tap”… I have hundreds more.)
  • I dream in full color, full sound, and often lucidly. I also remember all of my dreams, including songs I have written while asleep.

And finally, the things that make it difficult to fit in…

I have zero tolerance for dishonest behavior. That might sound like a good thing at first, until you review your day and think about how many times you told a “white lie” or did something even a little shady at work. If you were working for me, and you lied about something like taking someone else’s lunch, or spreading a rumor about another coworker, I’d straight up fire you on the spot. That’s not an “if”, that is something I’ve done multiple times. When the shoe is on the other foot, and I’ve encountered a manager or boss who lied, I had to quit ASAP because continuing to work there made me physically ill. (I quit a 65k a year job because of this very reason.)

I don’t understand, and can’t duplicate superficial behavior. Seriously. I’m really, really smart, and I understand a lot of psychological concepts and social phenomena, but I have never been able to understand the “why” or “how” of the shallow. As a side effect, I can’t make small talk, and that leads people to believe that I just don’t want to talk to them. From the outside, I’m perceived as cold or shy, when in reality, I just have no interest in talking about things I have no interest in. Unfortunately, most people don’t feel comfortable talking about anything deeper than a kiddie pool, so I’m sitting by myself at the deep end.

Because I don’t forget anything, I end up having the exact same conversation hundreds or THOUSANDS of times. It’s the Groundhog Day effect on a small scale. I’m the only one who remembers the conversation, but the other person doesn’t, and sometimes, it’s a topic that I really don’t want to discuss another time. (Like a recounting of abuse or another painful memory.) They don’t understand why I’m agitated or short, and it takes a tremendous amount of energy to hold in the screaming.

I can’t multitask, but I also can’t stop working. Some people have mistakenly described me as “creative”, and only one person has ever caught just how wrong that is. (Thank you, April.) I don’t create because I want to express myself, I create because I need to keep busy, and the world doesn’t keep up with this need. I literally have to make things that never existed before just to keep up with my brain. I can’t sleep until I’m exhausted, and even then, my dreams keep me busy too.

I have to have rules, order, and routines. I’m very good at planning and organizing complicated events, but I get visibly enraged when someone tries to alter the course mid-stream. From the outside, this is seen as intractability or being a “control freak”, but internally, I’m upset because I’ve put a lot of careful time, thought, and energy into creating an interconnecting pattern, and changing one aspect could cause others to collapse.

I don’t “get” social media. I understand, from a business standpoint, that keeping an open dialog with fans and customers is important, but I can’t understand why anyone would possibly care about anything I have to say outside of updating them about events or new products. I don’t feel like I’m important, and I don’t like attention, so the whole concept of posting things just for the sake of posting is insanely narcissistic. So why am I bothering to post this? Well, that brings us to the meat of the issue.

“It might help someone else.”

When I first began to see the pieces finally clicking into place, it was because I discovered another author who experiences many of the same things I do. Then I found another. Then a bunch more. All of them were successful, intelligent, well-spoken women (at least in printed form), who had the same “weirdness”.

So maybe I can be another link in the chain to someone else, and maybe by reading about my experiences, and how I’ve learned to cope and manage, they’ll find some useful tools to help them in their own journey.

And for everyone else, I’ll have plenty of poop jokes.

Other Ramblings…