Nuerodivergent Survival Guide

It’s hard being different than everyone else. So here is an all-in-one guide to the way that I handle being nuerodivergent, which in my case means that I am autistic, with ADHD, OCD, RSD, Bipolar, Sensory Processing issues, and Agoraphobia. (It’s a long list, but it’s honest.) This will be a living document that I add to as I find new ways to deal with my issues.

My mom likes to tell a story about something I said as a girl. One day she said to me, “You’ve always marched to your own drum.” I laughed, then replied, “Mom, I am not even working with a drum. I march to the piccolo.” I was probably twelve or so. I wish I knew then how true that was. I wish I knew how hard it would be to march to the piccolo. But I’ve managed to make my own music, and I hope that with my help, you can too.

First up, is a triple threat…

Hyperosmia, Misophonia, & Photophobia

Hyperosmia, misophonia, and photophobia.. (oh my!) …are respective sensitives to smell, noise, and light. Or in the world of some autistic people, just having a nose, ears, and eyes. These sensitivities can trigger stress, or be the result of stress, whatever makes it happen, it is something that we deal with every day.

So how do I do it? It requires tools, accommodations, and occasionally, trickery, but I do it everyday.

Here’s how…

Let’s start with the nose… Hyperosmia is basically having a very sensitive sense of smell. Just like misophonia and photophobia, this can also happen to people that are not autistic. For example, pregnant ladies can tell you that some smells will literally cause you to rage. Or vomit. Either way, they are very uncomfortable.

This is different for everyone but a good example is one my husband suffers from. He has a difficult time with big box stores because of the smell of their cleaning supplies. (This is just one of his sensory problems with box stores, so I do all the shopping.) He also cannot go near a candle aisle, let alone a Bath and Body works. The complexity of so many perfumes makes him both stressed and sick.

Mine is a little more obvious. I can’t take the smell of garbage, dishes, or dirty laundry. I also have trouble with urine and fecal smells. I know, who doesn’t hate the smell of pee and poop? BUT does it cause them to have an anxiety attack? Or does it make their executive dysfunction go into overdrive and literally paralyze them with fear? I doubt it.

Alright, onto the ears. Misophonia is when a sound is so unpleasant it can cause you great stress. I have an auditory processing issue, so a lot of time I am only getting 75% of what is being said right away. Sometimes even less. My hearing is just fine, it’s actually very good, but whatever connects that input into my brain is a little bit shoddy. So if a sound becomes too complex like people talking over each other or too loud, or even just too fast and frenetic, I will experience stress. There are also noises that just put me into an uncomfortable rage that I will do anything to stop. One of these is a problem I am dealing with right now, my dreaded ice maker-

My husband and I love ice in our drinks. We’re very American in this way. But our house is an old 1960’s ranch that doesn’t have a waterline for our fridge. So we have a countertop ice maker. Or what I like to call a gravel-throated-demon-that-exchanges-my-sanity-for-cold-beverages. Whenever it moves the water from the small reservoir to the ice making trough, it makes the worst sound ever. It’s gotten to the point where I’ve been getting in trouble for overfilling it because I want to smother that sound with more cubic inches of water. It doesn’t work and all of our ice sticks together. Then I have to take out my anger on the machine with an ice pick, very dangerous.

Sound is also another rough one for my son. But just like me, it is particular sounds. He can’t stand echoes. Doesn’t like screaming or yelling, noisy rooms, and in one hilarious instance, a very loud sneeze from my mother. This doesn’t mean he only likes quiet. He loves cartoons, he loves his baby shark. And he can handle almost any loud noise as long as it is outside to mitigate the echoes. Like a siren? He may not like it, but he can handle it just fine.

Now finally, photophobia, or sensitive eyes. My photophobia is actually two-fold. Yes, my autistic nature does make me more sensitive to light. And if I am stressed, light can be like a knife to the brain. But it wasn’t always that bad. In my quest to find the right medications, I experienced a side effect from an antipsychotic I was taking that made me extremely sensitive to light. To the point that I often had to wear tinted sunglasses, sometimes even inside. (My favorite are a pair of rose-colored glasses. Which I find both pleasant and ironic.) I stopped that medication but my eyes were never the same. Just another reason to fight for the right diagnosis from the beginning.

So How do we deal with all that?

Well there are three ways to go about it, again this is from my experience, I am not a professional, but for me it’s desensitization, elimination, or trickery.

For example, with the pee and poop smell, having a baby really desensitized me to that very quickly. I still don’t like the smell but it certainly makes me change my son’s diaper within the first whiff of any kind of movement. So diaper rash was a rare occurrence in our house, silver lining there.

Which is actually the second rule of thumb for me, elimination, or get rid of it! So with scary noises, use noise canceling headphones, or put in your earbuds. Or my tinted glasses that I told you about for eyesight. (By the way, I’m really interested in trying out Theraspecs. They are a little too expensive for me and my family’s medical bills but I’m saving up.) If anyone thinks that I am being rude or pretentious for wearing sunglasses inside, I just explain that I have a vision problem. Most people are understanding of that. There’s also a lot of fun things you can do with blue light canceling glasses or modes on your computer screen. Technically some of these are what you would call an “accommodation.” Accommodations are not only kind for people with disabilities, they are often necessary. So if you or someone you love needs an accommodation, don’t hold back.

Oh! Different colored light bulbs there is another one! But that one is actually a little more of my third rule.

Trickery! Sometimes you just have to trick your senses with things that are more pleasant than what is unpleasant. I sometimes attribute this to my ADHD, since I am naturally drawn to things that interest me more than what I should be paying attention to, but I think it would still work for people who are not ADHD.

So with the smell thing- if I need to do the dishes and they are especially stinky, because we had broccoli last night and I left them in the sink because I got distracted, etc, etc, I will solve that problem by lighting my favorite candle. My favorite one right now is something I got at Target, it’s pineapple and bamboo scented, but really, it smells like a tropical fruit starburst. It’s awesome. Sometimes I put on my favorite perfume, also Target, Pacifica Blood orange, to be specific. Or I bleach something (this last one is not very healthy or environmentally friendly, but I am being honest here.) The point is it has to be strong enough to cover the smell you dislike without overwhelming you.

For hearing, I will sometimes listen to something more relaxing or consistent than what is happening in the room. For example, my son is watching a manic cartoon with lots of wild music, or baby shark, and he is just babbling so loud that my shoulders are far up enough around my ears that I could legitimately classify them as muffs… if any or all of those things are happening, I might put in my earbuds and listen to an audiobook. Or pleasant music. Or my favorite of all, ASMR. ASMR is such an important tool in my mental health kit that it gets it own post.

A non-parenting example is I love cooking, but I hate the sounds that accompany it. Frying? I can’t handle it. It sounds like the gastronomical equivalent of sheer panic. Chopping? All I can hear is the potential of losing a finger. Whisking? Shit no, I cannot stand whisking. But you know what I can stand? An exciting futuristic dystopia about a hierarchical society on Mars. I’m looking at you Red Rising by Pierce Brown. Yes, dystopia can be very relaxing. Who knew?

As usual the point is, I am autistic with sensory processing issues, they are certain things that are always going to be harder for me. BUT with the right tools and tricks, they aren’t in the realm of impossible. Some of these things might seem so simple that they are silly. But it’s the simple advice that is often the most overlooked. So put on your rose colored glasses, pop in your earbuds, and get cooking. The world is your oyster. Unless you don’t like oysters then… the world is your tropical fruit starburst.