Exactly 10 years ago to the date, i.e. 12th November 2010, I was introduced to the world of autism. As a student of psychology, I had briefly heard the term autism while studying human development but had not really understood it. A friend of my father’s – Ms. Jayashree Ramesh – is the Director of ASHA, and on that day, Jayashree ma’am took me under her wing as a volunteer. I look back on it as a historic day that has changed the course of my life. Not only did I find an area that I am very passionate to work in but I also started to understand so much about myself, which is the basis for this piece of writing.
When I think about my earliest memories, I remember feeling like I was a very finicky child. There are videos that my parents have taken and lots of stories narrated in the family that solidified that idea in my head. I was a picky eater with lots of foods that I did not like. As a baby I used to gag on some foods and throw up very often. As I grew up into a teenager, I noticed that while my palate expanded, I still had trouble with eating certain foods – tomato, cherries, raisins, any kind of berry, jams, pickles, etc. We were living in Dubai at that point and different kinds of dates were available to us year around – and of course, I could not eat any kind of date (dried or fresh).
We moved back to Bangalore in 2000 and while living with my grandparents, I noticed that my grandfather did not like tomatoes either. It was such a relief for my 12 year old self to realise that there was one other person with this oddity in dislikes. Sadly the list of foods I didn’t like kept growing longer – beetroot, mashed banana, murabba, cooked apple, dry fruit laddoo and so on. What helped me hugely was that the family took all of this in their stride. If there was something on my plate that I would not eat (we have been taught to eat everything on our plate), either my brother or mother would quietly take it and eat it themselves.
Living in Dubai in our childhood meant that we spent a lot of time on the beach – what fun times we used to have. I distinctly remember that the sensation of wet sand on my feet would trouble me so much that I used to keep a towel to wipe my feet, which you can imagine how often I had to use while on the beach. And hands had to stay clean too!! By the end of any beach trip, my towel would have its fair share of sand from keeping my hands and feet clean 🙄
The need to keep my hands clean continued into the kitchen too. When I learnt to chop vegetables, I would wash my hand as soon as I felt something wet or sticky. I was very happy to chop hardy vegetables like carrot and onion, but tomato, pumpkin, bhindi were quite a challenge. Making chapati dough also turned out to be a nuisance. I hated making the dough and would scrap off the stickiness from my fingers quite frequently.
On the first day of class in the clinical psychology course I had chosen in my Bachelors, our teachers had warned us that we will feel we have characteristics of some of the illnesses that we study, but that does not mean that we have that illness. Psychiatric issues are generally magnifications of our personalities – skewed or otherwise. So when we came to the chapter on obsessive compulsive disorders (OCD), I felt that that was what I had. However when I sat down with my psychology teacher and we spoke about this in detail, I realised that there was a reason for every single time that I washed my hands or feet. When there was no cause for them to become dirty or sticky or messy, I didn’t feel the need to wash them. Phew!! That was another sigh of relief. However the question of why I feel like this still remained at large.
We were taught techniques of desensitization when I went on to do my masters in counselling and this struck a chord in me. I decided that I was the best subject to practice those techniques on and started working on them. It has been 10 years of consistent practice, and really slow results, but I am very proud to say that I can now knead a whole batch of bread without needing to wash my hands off in the middle, I am able to take care of my garden (with all that moist soil) for a full ten minutes before the need to wash my hands becomes overwhelming and I am becoming more comfortable walking barefoot in the grass.
So let me get back to why I started this article with my introduction to autism. It was when Jayashree ma’am and her team of very knowledgeable teachers were explaining about autism to me and helping me understand how to work with children on the autism spectrum, that the light bulb came on for me. My issues with needing to keep my hands and feet clean and dry are sensory based. More importantly – when I listed down all the foods that I do not like, I discovered that they all have the same texture – sticky and moist. For the first time in my life, it did not feel like the list of foods I dislike is a random, long list. My dislikes were categorised into specific food groups like soft dry fruits (raisins, figs, dates), cooked fruit, and therefore anything made from those was what I have trouble eating. It was such a revelation, because a few years later I tried fresh figs and loved them. This changed my life and I longer felt like a fussy, picky individual (tags that I hated).
I started studying arts based therapy in 2017 and decided to push myself out of my comfort zone. So I started colouring with oil pastels, used my hand to smudge colours (instead using a tissue paper) and was marginally successful for a minute or two each time. I’ve even started applying glue to paper to make collages and try not to cringe when gum is stuck on my fingers – though I do run to the sink to scrub that stickiness away after a few minutes. However the amount that I am overwhelmed with the need to wash off the unpleasant sensations is reducing every year and it motivates me to continue to practice and push my boundaries.
With these understandings it has become a lot simpler for me to deal with the nuances that trouble me – I am able to pre-plan as to where I will have trouble and therefore solve it quickly. The latest has been with composting. Composting our wet waste is something I am very keen to do, but touching a mix of cocopeat, vegetable waste and flowers from pooja is still not possible for me. Rather than not do it at all, I found a really simple solution!! Garden gloves. Wearing gloves (which I ensure is clean and dry on the inside) has helped me put my hands all the way into our compost pile, mix and create wonderful compost.
Learning about autism propelled me into a better understanding of myself and my sensory based issues (my next write-up will talk about my early experiences with autism in detail). It has been a journey filled with a number of lows and a few highs to reach this point where I know what my oddities are and how to manage them. So if any of you out there feel like you have a variety of likes and dislikes without any commonality, do look through the lens of sensory issues and see if that makes better sense.
And that’s it from me, my clean hands, dry feet and happy palate until next time.