My Autistic Journey Into Mindfulness
I’ve spent my life shutting out my surroundings. It’s time to try embracing reality instead.
There’s a foot-sized painted ceramic salamander sitting on a stone next to my neighbor’s garage. He’s so charming to me, with swirls of navy, burnt sienna, and pale green snaking across his white flesh. His tail is broken. His eyes are bewildered and hollow. I come to a halt in the middle of the sidewalk just to marvel at him.
My overly sensitive, yet withdrawn Autistic self feels an attachment to this inert creature instantly. I don’t empathize with people easily, but with cute objects and animals, I feel a sad, tender yearning for connection. Along with those feelings, there comes a burst of quiet gratitude for the homeowner who thought to put such a delightful little friend in their front yard. For the few moments I’m with this salamander, I’m transported away from all my social anxiety and fretting about deadlines, and find some belonging in the material world.
I’ve walked down this exact sidewalk every single day for months. I’ve lived in this neighborhood and paced its side streets for over eight years. How have I never noticed this salamander before?
How much delight have I lost the chance to experience, because I’m always so swept up in dissociation and stress?
The first time a therapist recommended mindfulness to me, I scoffed at her. I couldn’t see how carefully observing water cascading over my spoons while I did the dishes would do anything to mend the misery in my life. In fact, being more present in reality seemed like it would make my suffering worse.
Many Autistic people report “blanking out” of reality in order to cope with sensory overwhelm. Some of us also disappear from the physical world when there are too many faces and bodies around for us to fully process. One Autistic person I quoted in my book told me that at large family gatherings and at school, the people around him all become “blurry” and he travels into a mental realm that is entirely his own. But the way I tried to detach from an often-rejecting, overstimulating world was by forever flinging myself into the future, forming new commitments, making new friends, completing…