A Thin Fine Line

This is a musing about invasion of privacy and the thin fine line between funny and sinister.

When one has been accorded much care, consideration and respectful support from a great number of people, one may become not only quite overwhelmed, but also lulled into a feeling of security, such that when this sense of ‘safeness’ is challenged, one becomes suddenly unsure how to react. One incident was highlighted in my previous post, “Confronting the Invisible.”

Recently, I have been encountering a series of little events, each one so minute in isolation that only the very observant or meticulously private person would react to, let alone notice at all. I have tried hard, in deference to the more prevalent “hey, relax!” laissez-faire social perception of the majority, to downplay in my own mind, each of these events which nevertheless irked me greatly. However, now that I am faced with an escalating rate of recurrence of these ‘small things,’ and the accumulation of which are forming a disturbing but as yet nebulous denouement with an accompanying mixture of utter weariness and foreboding, I am finding harder and harder to brush them all off.

First, some background is needed. In my school, there is a security device fitted to the doors of the floor housing the postgraduate research space, and the entire floor is supposedly only accessible by postgraduate research candidates with a special code embedded in their student cards. Within this rather large space, is a lovely lounge area fitted with a microwave oven, a kitchenette with plates, glasses, mugs and cutlery, and even a dish washer and detergent supplied. There are tables and chairs for us to use, and a large balcony with beautiful views on three sides of the city, all the way to the harbour. The rest of the floor is demarcated into small individual spaces for candidates who need studio spaces. There is also a good sized room with desktop computers and a photocopier, and another with AV equipment etc, that we can all use. We have our own toilets too, which are newish and usually quite clean.

In consideration for my autism hypersensitvity needs and upon approval of Lucy as my emotional assistance dog, I was allocated a corner space with windows on two sides, near the entrance, and it is wonderfully isolated, and spacious enough for Lucy to lie down in. I am very much in love with my space – it is on so many levels ideal for me – and to me, it also symbolises the level of support that the people in my school have extended to me, as an individual, as well as a reflection of the university’s active support for Student Equity and Disabilities rights.

Immediately after my rather hurried moving in to the space, I had to begin work on the installation components for my exhibition (Roaring Whispers). I only had two months. Hence, the configuration of the space is not as ideal as I would have liked to have made it. I also lacked the money at the time for any proper furniture or storage systems for my work. I was left a metal storage cabinet which I have filled, but it doesn’t lock. All my things, therefore, were inside that space, barricaded by two large easels, but unsecured.

The first incident was innocuous enough, although it annoyed me a great deal as it was. I left an old, beat up and ugly plastic Ikea pencil cup in the far corner of the long washing up sink (nearest to my space), with two of my paint brushes soaking inside. The next day, the cup was gone, and my brushes were thrown into the sink, a little further towards the middle than where I had left them originally. You see, this is an autistic quirk, I remember exactly where I placed the cup and brushes, I still have a visual image of it stored in my mind, much like Temple Grandin’s photos in her mind of things. This was my “cup and brushes in sink” photograph, with a non-semantic note attached to it telling me to retrieve it the next day. Imagine, if you can at all, my agitation when I found the cup was missing and my brushes strewn along the sink? Maybe not. Unless you have some kind of mental quirk or you are autistic yourself. But this is an effort towards extended thinking and stretching of empathic boundaries, so I do hope you try this exercise of empathy with me. Right, so, after a few seconds of first being flummoxed, then mildly angry, then spurred into action, my body followed suit and both mind and body headed down to the Security Office, composing in the mind some kind of verbal explanation and trying to make it as coherent as possible. Even then, in that mild state of anxiety, I was trying to be empathic to the neurotypical viewpoint, not thinking of myself as more important, but rather thinking of how to best communicate so as not to cause offense as the priority. Always. However, it was not quite enough. The people at security listened patiently to my brief recount of the event, tried hard not to laugh in my face, and told me in a ‘comforting the crazy child’ voice that it was probably just a funny joke someone had pulled on me, and I’d soon enough find it lying around somewhere else if I looked. OK. I get this reaction very often. I have ceased to be upset, so long as the delivery is kindly and bordering on the respectful. After all, these people should not be expected to know the complexities of my neurological operation, and I am grateful for kindness at all. The individual security personnel are also very nice, and I have developed a good rapport with them, probably because of Lucy, as is most often the case with my social interactions these days. I have even on several occasions showed and explained my art and work to them! There is no reason, thus, for me to be upset with Security. I laughed it off too, telling myself how silly to be upset over a mundane neurotypical prank – even though I felt it to be confusingly childish and reflective of low-level thinking that I wouldn’t expect from anyone pursuing a research postgraduate degree? Yes, once more, I am wrong again.

Thereafter, on several separate occasions, I began to notice that someone or some people had entered my space. I always leave the windows closed and latched, but when I return to my space the next day, a window or two will be opened. Then there began to be shoe marks and scuff marks on Lucy’s bedding. I also noticed my mess on my working surfaces had been subtly reordered – indicating that things had been fingered, lifted and placed back, but not exactly in their original positions. This is the Aspie chick who, as a child, would break into a meltdown if anyone so much as touched her pencil cup and rearranged her pencils! No, I did not have a meltdown. I took several deep breaths, hugged my gentle greyhound, and sat down to reorder the chaos on the tables. It took me some time to calm the feeling of anxiety that anyone would feel upon an intrusion into one’s personal space, which is an absolute travesty to an autistic person, because personal space is sacrosanct to us. But I did calm down. And plunged back into work with intense concentration. So, yes, I have come a long way since. I am proud of myself for some success at self-intervention, and why shouldn’t I be? (OK, this is supposed to be humour, Aspie chick funny-irony, get it?)

I have asked myself this too many times: Am I being paranoid? Bear this in mind, my space is at the end of a longish narrow corridor (about a little more than ten feet?), unoccupied by anyone apart from me, and where the school stores some art material. Anyone wishing to enter and have a look-see has to do so with deliberation, walk along that corridor in a coordinated manner with purpose, and not merely a casual “I was just passing by and my hands just moved a little and touched your stuff” kind of thing. The person who nicked my dirty ugly old Ikea plastic cup had to do the same, since that position in the sink where I left it is only two feet from the edge of my space – an 8 foot walk from the common corridor into this narrow corridor.

The people at Security were right about the old plastic cup, of course. The cup was returned a week ago. It was placed at the other end of the long sink, dry as a bone, and nicely in an upright position. Another act of deliberation.

The final straw for me came on the last day of my exhibition, just two days ago, on Friday. I had not visited the space for awhile, because I was busy with the exhibition and manning the reception table all day from 10am to 4.30pm. I only noticed it when I began to move the installations back into my space. Someone had come inside, stepped all over Lucy’s bedding again, and left a blue ethernet cable stuck inside one of the plugs in the far corner of my space! No, I did not go into meltdown at all, but I admit I am now extremely distressed and struggling to contain a good measure of agitation. I regret that, in my state of heightened anxiety, I sent an email to my supervisors about this situation. I don’t exactly know why I regret it, except to say that I spend a lot of my thought life battling the demons of “what should I be doing that is ‘correct’ in the neurotypical social context?” As a consequence, I spent the better part of yesterday thinking and rethinking and re-rethinking about what to do, and composed yet another email, this time to the professor in charge of our space. Perhaps I should have done the latter instead. Just one email will suffice. With a cc feature to both my supervisors? I am middle aged, but I still have trouble figuring out the surprises in neurotypical social situations, and I am sometimes told I over-think it, which makes things not much better at all. Bats in the dark without functioning radar. That is the visual image I have in my mind where it comes to the implicit situations.

I am here to work. I have a Ph.D to complete. I love my work. And I would like to presume that each and every one of the people inhabiting that floor is there to work, and loves their chosen field of work too. I do understand the social-minded neurotypical need for connecting on planes that I am either not interested in or I do not grasp the nuances therein. I am ok, even if it disturbs my hypersenses, I am mentally prepared, when people congregate in the lounge area to chat – sometimes it gets really noisy and the feminine screeching does hurt my ears and trigger severe migraines, and I begin to wish they would just go out into the balcony to do their thing. after all it is so lovely in the balcony. However, these are not things I would complain about. I have to accept these as part of living in a world where I am in the minority, and the majority holds sway. It is intellectually acceptable to me. I either pack up and leave if I cannot bear the noise, or I just put up with it and carry on working. However, I am perplexed to the point of sheer torment when my personal space is deliberately invaded and I have no inkling of who are responsible and why they are doing what to me seems utterly senseless acts.

Now. Many questions are rushing through my mind in a deluge of silent babble. Questions that a polite but distressed Alien will ask when faced with chaotic conundrum in a world with contexts too disordered to comfortably fathom and logicise. I ask these questions with careful respect – I do not see the different neurological cultures as an “us vs. them” conflict, but rather something I constantly strive to understand better and adjust to, in the hope that others will do the same for me. This is, after all, the focus of my Ph.D research and practice. And in most part, there is great synergy and empathy to be found all round. It is when the unexpected occurs that I am stumped, because I cannot comprehend or apprehend the implicit meanings in this situation. Here are some of the questions that plague my mind. They are not new questions, they arise each time an autistic person hits a glass wall, and a thin fine line is being trod upon or broken.

Am I interpreting this wrongly? Is there ever a ‘right’ way to interpret intrusion? Is this, what I call intrusion, merely fun and games to the neurotypical society, and therefore just a series of pranks, and should I go along with it and laugh together with the perpetrators? Should I be finding humour in the fact that they have repeatedly invaded my personal, mental and physical space and trampled over my dog’s bed and left dirty shoe prints behind for me to clean? Is intrusion upon one’s inner sanctity ever considered funny? Is this a neurotypical social precept that I have failed to grasp and hence by voicing my disapprobation, now come across as churlish and ‘un-sporting?’ Where is the ‘funny’ that I have completely missed – would someone please point it out to me? Someone suggested to me that this is a form of cruel, subtle and childish bullying. This theory is a more grim continuation of the ‘pranking’ theory offered by the people at Security, though the latter may not realise it. Pranking is, to me, and many who study psychology, a form of target practice. The victims are usually unsuspecting and vulnerable. It stands to reason that if these ‘pranks’ are anonymously executed and repeated, it becomes more and more sombre in its undertones, rather than lighthearted. Have I become an unwitting target for someone’s dissatisfaction with the spatial arrangements and facilities? I love my space, but I hear that some others are not happy. And perhaps there is jealousy involved? Mixed in with that the fact that I do not ‘socialise’ the way that the others tend to do? (I do notice others who do not socialise too, the older ones, in my age group, who come in to work, nothing more. But then again, I do not look my age, and hence have no idea how others may perceive my quiet self isolation?)

I am a willing student – if someone can patiently teach me that this is actually really funny and these people are doing this because they like me, and if someone can show me the points of logic behind all this, I am more than willing to do my best to learn, accept this as yet another difference in modus operandi, and just ‘suck it up’ (as many with autism are too often told to do, though without good explanation). If this is not possible, then logic tells me that I am in a very undesirable position. And I ought to find a pathway out of this.

My more immediate practical solution is to buy office storage cabinets and put all my work inside, and lock them up when I am not at work. That will not stop these people from entering and playing with my things just for their idea of what is fun, but it will prevent unwanted theft. And there is always that security camera just above my space – the Security people have assured me it is functioning. I honestly don’t want to make a fuss. I repeat, I am here to work. I want to stay focused on my work. But I will definitely make a huge issue out of it, police reports if necessary, in the event that anything valuable is taken. The cabinets are very costly. Each one will set me back almost AU$300 inclusive of delivery and assembly – because I do not have the physical strength to assemble something that large and tall safely. Why can’t people just behave decently? But that is a silly question to ask, I know that by now.

Postscript:

My school is a wonderful school! I am ever so grateful and thankful for the way the people in charge have helped me deal with this issue. I am not in the state of mind to give a coherent and concise account of exactly how, but I just felt I needed to say here that I have been given the utmost respect, consideration and support from my school regarding my concerns, and I am reassured that measures will be taken to prevent any such future intrusions. Thank you, my fabulous school and all the people in it who make it so!

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