Dealing with an Invisible Disability

As an Aspie in the grown-up academic world, maintaining a professional demeanor at all times is important. Indeed, this is important as an adult in any situation. Having a (mostly) invisible “disability” (for lack of a better term at the moment), I can’t expect understanding from the world outside my closest family and social contacts.

I am usually comfortable with blending in for a limited time in most situations. But sensory overload is still a difficult one for me to handle out in the wild.

My most sensitive sense is my sense of smell. If something smells off, no matter how slight, I immediately lose a good bit of my ability to function. My focus is lost and I quickly get a headache from trying to maintain my cool. Add to this even one more sensory annoyance and the day might as well be done for me.

The feeling of drafts or wind blowing on me from certain angles is one of my bigger sensory triggers. I often find myself making a scene in restaurants playing musical chairs (and tables) to find a spot out of the way of drafts. I don’t mind wind blowing on me if it comes at me straight on, but I don’t like isolated bursts of air or off-center drafts. I especially can’t stand the feeling of people breathing on me. I can’t even stand feeling my own breath on my arm. I have to keep my arms under the covers at night or arrange myself awkwardly to avoid breathing on myself. I also have to rearrange my husband from time to time, :p

Today, there was a terrible smell in one of my classes. It may have been a person. I don’t know. It was one of those smells that most people wouldn’t notice, but it stands out like a sore stinky thumb to me. While attempting to casually redirect my gaze to find a better source of air, the professor asks students who don’t have a book to look on with someone.

…. If I might go off on a a tangent here. This is a HUGE pet peeve of mine. Seriously, huge. I know it may sound rude, but I feel how I feel. It is not my fault or my problem if a lazy unprepared student doesn’t bring their text to class. In some classes, not bringing your text costs grade points. In others, the professors are more lenient. If I forget my text, I’ll be grateful not to lose points and leave it at that. I don’t like being intimidated into sharing my book. It’s like forced charity. It’s peachy keen if some generous student feels like sharing, but I shouldn’t have to feel obliged. It’s not just a principle of the matter thing. I have good reasons. For one, I like to actively write in the margins of my text and underline while in class – sharing with the person next to me makes this difficult. I also may have notes already in my text that I don’t necessarily want to share with some random person. It is MY personal property and I should be allowed to treat it as private if need be. Besides that, there are Aspie related complications – which brings me back to the original topic here…

The student next to me asks if she can look on in my text. Of course I say yes, do I really have a choice? Sometimes I wonder what would happen if I say no. So, while I am already under stress from the funky smell floating around, I have to sit at an awkward angle, with another person well too far into my personal space. Then, queue the breathing on my arm. I was just sitting there, holding my book out for her to see better than I could see it, holding my breath, panicking on the inside over the stream of tepid air hitting my arm thinking over and over again “it will be over soon, it will be over soon.” And do you think that I remember anything the prof. was saying at this time? My own classroom experience suffered because another student failed to come to class prepared.

Fortunately, we didn’t have to browse the text for long, so my situation returned to dealing with only the funky smell. Even though I had been surviving the smell well enough in the beginning, the anxiety caused by that short bout of text-sharing remained long after it was over and continued to interfere with my learning. To anyone looking, I may have looked a little tense, but none too worse for the wear. Then we all leave, no one having the slightest clue that anything so traumatic transpired during class.

Not everyday is so bad, but these sort of things happen often enough to be a problem. Everyone has stressful days, but it’s something else to be stressed and to be unable to talk about it lest I come across as crazy. My stresses have to remain indefinitely hidden for the sake of maintaining an NT public image. And for all my efforts, I never really know exactly how I am coming across to people most of the time. I like to assume that if they aren’t looking at me funny, I must be doing alright. :/


Posted on September 15, 2015, in Autism/Aspergers and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 10 Comments.

  1. I’m also on the spectrum, have social anxiety and depression, so I totally sympathise! The effort of trying to “present” as neurotypical in the workplace and public is such a stressor. I must admit to chuckling at the breath thing, I thought I was the only one who really hated that (I can’t stand my own breath on my arm when sleeping either!). It’s inspiring that you are so able to talk about Aspie stuff on your blog, I wish I was more comfortable to be open with it.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I had some reservations about being open originally, and I still don’t volunteer this info in person (hense the problem discussed in this post). But I decided the pros outweigh the cons – getting this info out there for increased awareness.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. My wife refers to it as a hidden disability. She too cannot stand wind on her face and will sometimes have to alter or cancel plans depending on the weather. I don’t have the best sense of smell tbh but she is able to pick up a ad smell from some distance when I can’t even smell the thing when I’m standing next to it. At her workplace people rarely understand how it affects her tho her immediate team are very helpful. If she had a limp, used a wheelchair or carried a stick then people would be able to empathise more but for some reason us NTs still aren’t very good at recognising or dealing with mental or developmental needs.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Lol, I get so frustrated when I smell things and my husband says he has no idea what I’m talking about. I can smell everything, it’s aweful :/ the only thing us aspies can ask is that the NTs in our lives have patience and understanding when we say something is wrong.


  3. I have the same issue with wind or breath – my husband needs a fan on to sleep at night, and it took me a long time to learn to tolerate it, which isn’t to say that I can ever completely ignore it.

    Liked by 1 person

    • my husband too! He always had the ceiling fan on. I took to going to bd after he fell asleep so that I could turn it of without him noticing. >) Fortunately our current house doesn’t have a ceiling fan. He also likes the noise of a fan or the A/C running and I minimally tolerate it as necessary.


      • Since I was a kid, I’ve slept with the blankets up to my neck, so the breeze doesn’t bother me as much once I’m actually under the covers (so long as it’s not directed towards my head). The noise factor bugs me a little too, but not to the same degree as the breeze.

        Liked by 1 person

  4. Hey Shelley,
    I just clicked through to your blog from Facebook. I hope that’s alright. This is a very well-written post and very illuminating. If you ever want some space from food smells in the office let me know. I’m happy to compromise 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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