Following the Rules
Our Autistic Expression
Rules are meant to be broken, but to break them intentionally as the quote suggests, I have to know what they are.
My ignorance is no defense, but just know by the stunned look on my face, the reddening of my cheeks, and the sudden lack of eye contact- if I broke some unspoken, unlisted, inexcusable rule, it was unintentional. I can always sense when I’ve erred. I don’t always sense how.
Mostly, when unspoken rules are broken, no reasoned explanation is given. To me, that’s the hardest part. That’s my neurodivergent itch to understand, to apply reasoned thought to everything.
This is one frame with which I view life. There are rules that we must follow, on which we can agree.
For most of my life, I lived for knowing (not always following) the rules. Every choice has consequences, so breaking a rule is a matter of weighing those consequences. The expectations in various situations vary, and there are usually a whole host of things not mentioned in the rulebooks on which I’m also being judged.
I can’t know for sure if neurotypicals consider this when they hold people to the unwritten expectations in any given scenario. I used to think they must. Now I’m fairly convinced its a rare trait in humanity in general. Like extreme empathy. Or virtuosic musicianship.
There are rules everywhere. For everything. At all times.
Even friendships have rules (we call them boundaries) and they’re harder to distinguish. Friendships with the nondivergent are hard to cultivate for this reason. Sometimes they don’t even know what their own rules are, or they change, or they act a certain way because its raining, or some such. I can manage a few friendship like this at a time, but I require much post-hang-out processing to fully understand what I’ve experienced, out-processing interactions, the side eyes and nuances I saw in the moment but couldn’t process while also maintaining my focus on the conversation in the setting. When I said this, they said this, but then they slightly stretched their eye lids, and then immediately ordered another drink, before looking at me and smiling awkwardly. Was this my trespass? Or their internal measure? Are they even aware they did that? And so on.
At least with the neurodivergent, there’s a tendency toward self-awareness or self-pronouncement or clear-cut lines between okay and not okay. There’s an acceptance of variable needs.
There’s also the moral code. Our duty to one another to do our best and do what’s right. I have mine enumerated, but in sum it is “Do unto others” plus “Strive for wellness.”
As I’ve aged, I’ve had an easier time recognizing rules and boundaries. It’s a lifetime pursuit, an academic course of study, understanding what is and isn’t acceptable based on what has or has not transpired in between two people, within a given culture, for my lifespan and the lives of those whose counsel I trust. In many ways, the rules have changed a lot since I was a child, but that’s just a dynamic society acting and reacting, breathing changes.
When people act immorally, illogically, unreasonably, basically like people sometimes do, I’m flummoxed. What’s the motivation? Whyyyyy, I ask the ceiling of many rooms I’m in.
I thrive on rules and I always have. I set them easily for myself and pivot when I need to. It’s about health and wellness, feeling good at the end of the day, or as good as can be expected. It’s about minimizing discomfort, physical, mental, social, and otherwise.
Problem explicitly identified? New rule implemented. Change accepted. Situation improved. Wheel turns.
Change is easy, easier than maintaining the norm. I get itchy sitting still, itchier still remaining the same. I’m fortunate to be engaged to a neurodivergent man of a similar nature — the Scientist and I will be changing together forever.
Here are my main personal rules (personal as in for me, as in I only expect me to live this way and pass no judgment on anyone else for behaving otherwise):
I never drink more than 6 alcoholic drinks in 4 hours, almost never drink 2 days in a row, and never drink before 4pm unless it’s a holiday where that’s typical. Alcohol creates a depressing self-interested spiralized hole in my mind that need continuous, verbal processing to refill. I put this rule first because it has an intense effect.
As a rule, I prefer a structured workplace with an ever-changing and expansive workload, and I seek these environments and situations out. I’ve been tasked with writing operations and training manuals at many of my jobs, and I’ve had many jobs because before I knew myself as autistic, I externalized internal events. At this point, I’m working from home, for a growing company, doing all sorts of tasks in the comfort of nonfluorescent lighting.
To that end, I prefer yellowish light to bluish, warm colors to cool, quiet situations to loud ones, though I love loud concerts when I’m expecting them. I keep my blue light filters on, I track my hours on a daily basis so I know I’m using my time productively, and I thoughtfully manage working my job, starting my own creativity-centered company, writing a blog, taking long hikes, playing pool, spending quality time with my cats, landscaping, and a host of other things. After I hit a personal low, prior to understanding I was autistic, I started climbing, filling my days, and set a rule to never let myself waste time. I sleep comfortably 6–7 hours a night.
I’m learning how to rest.
I have rules about what I’ll eat and won’t, what I’ll drink and won’t, and when and from where. I don’t often feel hungry or thirsty so I use the clock to prompt me at the same times each day. My food rules are based primarily on my experiences with an undiagnosed stomach disorder I had for the first 20 years of my life, a disorder which immediately got better when I stopped eating pork, meat, chicken, most fried foods, foods with heavy fat and oil content, almonds, raw leafy greens, Splenda, juice on an empty stomach, and full-fat dairy. I don’t expect anyone to keep track of these rules. I manage them just fine and I learned to cook so as not to rely on anyone else to do it for me.
If I’m a guest at dinner, I’m vegetarian. As long as there is a single non-meat dish, I’ll work around everything else based on my internal signaling. I’ll bring my own meal if they cook exclusively with lard. I never settle for an upset stomach, but I never offend a host who is sharing their table with me.
For that matter, if prompted, I will describe in polite or graphic detail the agony of bacon, the indigestion of orange juice, the nights I spent literally on the floor screaming… best not to ask at the dinner table, because I will indulge them for their edification. No, bacon does not go with everything. No, I don’t miss the feeling that a small gnome with a giant pick-axe is trying to cut his way out of my intestines. (The imagery helped me cope when I was a kid. Now it makes people chuckle.)
I prefer when friends can speak the truth, about me, about themselves or otherwise. The truth does set me free. I can accept self-denial from friends, but insist on an open-book, self-aware model from me outward. So what if I’m blunt, awkward, and keep myself to impossible standards? I’m also kind, generous, and supportive. I’ve crossed a lot of bridges, and I’ll help anyone cross theirs too.
Do I drive over the speed limit? Sure. The speed signs in my area were posted in the 1940s and 50s, when anti-lock breaks and power steering were nonexistent, when cars were giant metal boxes with no safety equipment, boats on wheels, so to speak. So I may drive 5-10 over the posted limit, but … what are those drive 30-40mph over the limit thinking? It’s dangerous for us all. Everyone. It’s not an oppressive rule, it’s a matter of civic duty and safety. Survival.
We all have rules in society and we all know them to some extent or another.
There are rules about when to water the lawn. If it’s 2pm on a hot day and the sprinklers are on, not only are they breaking a rule in my neighborhood, but they’re actually boiling their grass from the inside.
Rules about right-of-way on the road.
Rules about hygiene.
Rules about equity, and equanimity.
Rules about greetings and parties and phone calls and comments and the pandemic has made all of these rules entirely unique for everyone, which is just a field day for my mental filing system. If they tell me what they expect from me, I’ll file that away too. Make a mental preference note.
When I learn a new rule, I ask why, what for, unless the reason is obvious.
Do the nondivergent NEED to know WHY it’s a rule? I’d say most don’t acknowledge how many rules they follow, let alone why. People in the herd for one thing or another. Others exist in a world of their own making, with no structure, and nothing but this moment to guide the next. I’m guessing, of course. I have no idea how they think. I just know that its nothing like me.
I’m all for mindfulness, but also learning from experience, mine and others, always learning, and planning for a healthier, safer tomorrow. Growth mindset. Keep growing.
About the Series
I am neurodivergent. Neurodivergent is more appropriate terminology than autistic, a term which derives from the Greek word autos meaning self, a term intended to imply isolation from social interaction. While the definition of autism has expanded over time, I feel it is more flawed and divisive than not (as labels typically are). While I do still refer to myself as autistic on occasion, I’m much more likely to label my notable traits as autistic, as in “this skill or tendency sets me apart”, and to describe myself generally as divergent.
My partner, also neurodivergent, feels similarly. We were both diagnosed later in life, in our mid-late 20s, after running the gauntlet of other health and human service concerns and crossing the eventual “must be autism if it isn’t these other things” finish line. I wouldn’t wish either of our journeys toward diagnosis for anyone, years rife with stress, mislabeling, depression, psychosis, serious medical ailments, and general social othering. The medical and psychiatric communities have already begun to recognize neurodivergence earlier, and with more sincere gender blindness, to provide individuals with the tools, resources, and assistance they require. To “make it” in our society as a person who fall many standard deviations outside the expected average on related scales relies on an individualized approach to education and healthcare. (A much larger conversation for another day.)
Creator of Kid Lit Motivates: a fledgling business on Long Island providing customized educational resources from a unique perspective of education
Author of Maddie Steiner, Fashion Designer