QUESTION FOR YOU: Has knitting/making helped you find greater emotional or physical health? I would love to listen in the comments.
Knitting and handcrafting as helpful to mental health has a growing body of literature. I will list many resources in future on the topic. But for today, I want to get down the thoughts that have been swimming for a while about recently making a diagnosis for myself that caused everything in my 52 years of life to click together like little cog wheels that had been running with slight hitches suddenly sync up and run fluidly.
A 20th century definition of the word diagnosis is identification of the nature of an illness or other problem by examination of the symptoms.
Original meaning of Greek roots “dia” (apart/observe) and “gignoskein” (know, recognize)
I choose to focus on the origin of diagnosis, to know and recognize some truth, and prefer to think of it as understanding, not illness. A path to official clinical diagnosis is long, and unfortunately I do not have insurance to cover it, so I need to be content with 100% believing I fit this group of differently abled humans.
For most people who know me, I don’t believe this is an earth-shattering diagnosis and likely suspected, and for others who don’t know me, I might risk rejection of employment or other acceptance by having this be part of my public record. Heck, I’ve blabbed for seven years on a blog that reveals more than I wish I had, and no evil gremlins have dropped out of the sky to blaspheme me yet, so I am feeling brave enough in this moment to share this, because I hope it might make someone else feel less alone.
I have come to the recognition that I am on the autistic spectrum, formerly called high-functioning or Asperger’s in the 1980s as a nod to a man who described different levels of autism severity, but the name is no longer in the diagnostic manual. Even though Asperger didn’t name it after himself, recently several prominent articles have been written about his role in eugenics movement in Nazi Germany, something I prefer to distance myself from as far as possible. I do not judge anyone who uses the term though to describe themselves.
The diagnosis itself is only a few decades old in the US, so was not a descriptor of people when I was a child. Diagnosing myself has led to greater and greater compassion for my parents in this light looking back through time. High-functioning autism in women specifically is only very recently being discussed and studied. Turns out many women tend to mask their autism by social observation and blend in as “normal,” whatever that is. In men, AS is much more described, which is why large tech companies’ open secret is they primarily run on what is now being called “neurodiversity” of the mostly male mode of functioning. Engineering, coding, technical brilliance is a key feature for many males, along with poor eye contact and apparent lack of empathy.
I love this quote from an interview with Rudy Simone, author of Aspergirls, on my reading list, on the topic of diagnosis.
The trouble is the way the diagnosis is viewed and the way it is handed down. I have girls write to me who have just received the diagnosis and they are told, ‘You will never be able to have a job or a relationship.’
I say, first, fire that doctor and second, it shouldn’t be a diagnosis, it should be a proclamation: ‘You will have intense focus and interests. The likelihood that you will develop incredible skills or talents is much higher.’ There’s a lot of beauty to being on the spectrum.
KEY FEATURES GLEANED FROM VARIOUS WRITINGS ON FEMALE AUTISM SPECTRUM I RECOGNIZE IN SELF
- Strong ability to focus attention.
- Strong connection to non-human beings, most challenged with human connection and communication. Temple Grandin has contributed incredible body of work in this vein. Even though I can’t be around horses or most fur-bearing critters without a three-alarm immune system crisis, for me, this is most reflected in an intelligence I call “ecopsychological awareness,” or a deep understanding of my place inside an ecosystem. I’ve had this innate understanding as long as I can remember, corroborated by my parents who had patience to walk 2-year-old me around a single block for an hour due to the depth of attention I paid to each living organism along my path…. Shout-out to Greta Thunberg, who lives this passion with her heart.
- Strong imagination, sometimes as escape or coping mechanism for social dread. Yes, I had an imaginary dog who never barked, and drew an entire thriving social community of fleas inside my class cubby in 4th grade, a form of graffiti my teacher didn’t quite appreciate.
- Happiest in solitude, in solo ventures (we typically don’t think of asking someone to join us anywhere – we just go). I enjoy doing things in groups as long as we are all working on a clear goal/project and my task is clear. As a teen, I asked an adult, “How is it that people have fun?” I see this now as a classic autistic question. I literally struggle with fitting my version of what’s fun into most social “fun.”
- Many AS women seem to be poets, musicians, writers, medical professionals in greater numbers than the more mechanical gifts typically attributed to men.
- Periods of mutism can be common. For a period in high school, I was so silent that a teacher remarked when he saw me at a social function years later, “I thought you were literally mute. So glad to hear you expressing yourself.”
- Tend to not care about clothing, have confusion around when or how to dress up/dress down…definitely true of me. Even though I appreciate the process of making clothing, I actually wouldn’t mind wearing a potato sack.
- Tend to have what is described as naivete, confusion over when being manipulated, and for this reason can seem younger and can be targeted for abuse/bullying. I won’t go into the negative side here, but all my life I’ve been told I seem younger than my chronological age and at 50 was asked by a marketing caller, “Can I speak to your parents? Oh, sorry, I thought you sounded 11.”
- Strong emotional outbursts unable to articulate well (in my youth), periods of intense fatigue from managing social confusion/pressures. Deepest bows and apologies to my parents for my teen years.
- Delayed sexual maturity/interest, routinely 5-10 years beyond peers.
- Most fascinating and reassuring of all to me, folks who study women’s traits through the Asperger and Autism Network, as well as Tony Attwood, the Australian originator of much of the world’s work on high-functioning autism, say women on AS can make great parents. Whew!
- So far, substance addiction as form of coping seems more prevalent in men than women on the spectrum.
- Due to meltdowns from sensory overwhelm and exhaustion from social anxiety, women are often misdiagnosed or secondarily diagnosed with depression/anxiety, borderline personality, without autism spectrum ever considered.
- An “expectation gap” between brilliance and competence displayed in some areas, while foundational things seem confounding. My biggest anxiety is around owning and buying things, for example, which does not fit into a consumer society very well.
- Communication style that is talking at (monologue) rather than talking with.
- Synesthesia (I have for colors and letters – check out Daniel Tammet’s books) and other “differently connected” or exaggerated sensory experience. It’s common for autistic people to walk in a room and take in all the ambient noise on top of every simultaneous conversation…recipe for overwhelm. I’ve turned this superpower into my living for 25 years, accurately transcribing conversations and background noise for media.
- Many seem to leave behind a trail of partial degrees or jobs. I personally have been accepted to three graduate programs and half finished one, ironically in Special Education, dropping out when I reached complete overwhelm in the face of student teaching and managing an entire classroom.
- A chameleon aspect to personality due to observing people. If I’m conversing with someone with an accent that differs from my own, I begin to sound more and more like them. With travel in my younger years, I was accepted into various cultural groups not of my origin, and each time, people thought I was culturally part of that group (part Polynesian in Hawaii, part Japanese in Japan, part African with African group, part Hispanic or Native in New Mexico).
I have read and have lived that women on spectrum can tend to have extremely sensitive sensory systems that prevent us from ingesting most addictive substances. For me, discovering Buddhist meditation 30 years ago, followed by a true allergy to alcohol after daughter’s birth, followed by a vegan diet in past decade, as well as daily knitting and nature connection practice have greatly improved my overall quality of life and led to much stronger emotional regulation than I could access in my youth.
My current coping skills and practices have led to a life that is medication-free for years, and I am forever grateful after years of off-and-on therapy, antidepressants. Knitting is one piece of that. I also have found that medication when spelled meditation works as the best anti-anxiety practice ever.
HOW THIS RELATES TO KNITTING
I have observed that many leaders in the knitting and hand-making blogging/vlogging community have identified various mental health concerns and sometimes physical health concerns that have both been alleviated with a daily knitting or making practice.
A large-scale study out of the UK has shown blood pressure drops and people report great relief of mental or even physical pain after knitting for a period of time.
For me, knitting not only allows me to feel connection with an ancestral lineage of people through time, it is a process over product endeavor, to have colors and textures running through my hands. It is calming, reassuring, repetitive, and gloriously satisfying when an object made with your own two hands is complete. Especially when I have a chance to gift what I made to someone else.
I am no expert in Ayurveda (a several thousand year old health system originating in India), but I ran across another way to view how repetitive use of both hands might help us. In this view of the human body, we have Marma points, accupressure points, in our hands that connect to our entire physical being. Fascinating stuff to consider.
One last note: I would be willing and happy to participate in any study or interview about women on autism spectrum to contribute to further understanding.