Notes from the Spectrum, Part II: Riding While Autistic

Notes from the Spectrum, Part II: Riding While Autistic

November 14, 2015

This is the second post in an ongoing series about living and writing with autism. See Part One if you missed it.

Sitting in an automobile, we see the world as if it were on a television screen. Outside exists on the other side of the glass…a slightly unreal world that doesn’t conform to our controlled environment inside. It’s like watching a newscast from some foreign land, something vaguely worrisome, but that doesn’t quite touch us…On a motorcycle…we are vulnerable…to both the physical and emotional realities of the world. We ride in the world, never merely past it.”

Ian Chadwick, “Riding is More Real”

I shift into my bike’s fourth and final gear when the speed limit increases to 55 miles per hour. Opening the throttle with leather-gloved fingers, I watch in my peripheral as the tachometer’s tiny hand edges toward the RPM red zone. The Internet said this bike will top out at 77, but now that the engine is 40 years old, the number feels closer to 70. I don’t mind. I’m no adrenaline junky on a sleek new sport bike. Neither am I planning a cross-country trek on a Goldwing with overstuffed saddlebags and a tow-behind. I’m a guy with a seven-mile commute down a country road in central Indiana, and my ’75 Honda cb200 suits this purpose beautifully. Row upon row of corn husks push toward open sky. The bean fields have turned a bright maize with shades of saffron. To my left, boughs hang heavy with ripe Osage oranges, which are of course not orange but pale lime, popping to a near-chartreuse against the afternoon sun. The oddly textured spheres look like a cross between a compact model of the human brain and a head of broccoli seen from above. A squirrel darts to a fallen fruit, forages for seeds.

A train track that cuts diagonally across the road. I like to be in second gear for the bump; about fifty yards out, I brake the rear wheel gently with my right foot, squeeze the clutch with left hand, and shift down with my left toes. Back before they paved the crossing I developed a habit of rising off my seat slightly, bearing down on the pegs and absorbing the shock with my knees to keep the bike steady. Though the bump is smoother now, I retain this practice, partly out of reluctance to accept change and partly because I like what it signifies: that as I ride I must make vigilant if subtle physical negotiations with the terrain—that my entire body and mind participate together. That I am vulnerable. I ride in the world, never merely past it.

Shortly beyond the tracks an S-curve requires some management. I slow down and lean decisively to the left for one, two, three seconds, then to the right for the same. I use the inner third of the lane first, then hug the curve. After, there’s an agreeable rolling hill where I give the gas a quarter-turn more just to hold speed. It’s often here that I’m at my most defensive: twice this year a car has come headlong and oblivious, the driver looking down at a phone. What is for them a small steering correction is for me a scare that carries nothing less than the weight of death.

Around the bend, the trees form a natural canopy overhead. It’s an unusual feature, reminding me more of my upstate New York childhood in the foothills of the Adirondacks than the largely treeless Indiana farm country. The tunnel shades the road. I begin to smell the small bog coming up on the right, hear bullfrogs croaking even over the hum of the engine. A turkey vulture soars low, its wings holding steady in that distinctive slight V. I wonder what carrion has garnered its focus.

I catch sight of the small horse ranch. A mottled white creature stands tall and still in the pasture. I believe they said it was an Andalusian Gelding. A few years ago while visiting a church, we met the folks who own this place. It was impossible to say no when they insisted we stop at their house on the way home to show the kids the horses. Our daughter had been devouring every volume in every series of those ubiquitous “young girl and her horse” books, and our two-year-old son was game for anything to do with live animals. Our church life picked up elsewhere and I’ve never seen the couple since. But when I alluded to the place once in a class, a favorite creative writing major broke into a smile and said she keeps her horse there and attends to her multiple times a week.

So when I ride by, I think of them all. This is important as it comprises the only landmark on my ride that is peopled. I like it that way. I don’t want to know or think about many people on this route. I want mostly to be alone, present to each moment, to the landscape and its exigencies. For within seconds I’ll be in town, the small village where my university’s sensible brick buildings sprawl across bucolic acres; where being in community with well over a thousand people represents unique challenges for an autistic person—challenges that, as life-giving as they are, I can handle for only so long before I need to retreat into solitude again.

Many people with autism use various forms of self-stimulation, or stimming, such as gentle rocking or feeling certain textures, to calm ourselves. In an interview with the BBC, Temple Grandin said that “dribbling sand through her fingers was a feeling that calmed” her, adding that stimming “may counteract an overwhelming sensory environment, or alleviate the high levels of internal anxiety [people on the spectrum] typically feel every day.” She concluded that stimming helps people on the spectrum “refocus and realign their systems.”[1] So I covet my motorcycle ride as a form of stimulation that benefits me, lowers my anxiety, and helps me better handle my daily tasks and relationships.

Beyond simple stimming, though, the trip down the Marsh Road enables me to enact a metaphor for the autistic life. Autistic people, like motorcyclists, live deeply in the world; we never merely move past it. I’m talking here about sensory overload, which is common among those of us on the spectrum. It’s tougher than people think, that phrase which gets bandied about carelessly in reference to a movie’s fast-paced chase scene or the varied smells of a good dinner.

Without getting too far into the specifics of diagnostic types of sensory processing disorders, suffice it to say for now that many autistic people feel things more sharply and directly, and therefore may respond dramatically to everyday sensory input that would have little or no impact on a neurotypical person. I don’t think it’s a stretch to claim that it’s like the difference between riding a motorcycle and driving a car.

A few examples: I can be thrown completely off track by visual stimuli such as a small pile of mail in an unusual place that has gone unnoticed by everyone else in the house. If I hear someone sing a fraction of a note off key, I can experience it like nails on a chalkboard; I may need to leave the room and take time to recover. If someone touches me without warning I will be startled and sometimes upset for several hours. If the room temperature is uncomfortable by just one or two degrees, I might have a panic attack and go into full-on meltdown mode. The list goes on (and on and on), and varies for every person on spectrum. We are highly vulnerable in this way. (Incidentally, telling an autistic person that he or she “just needs to learn to relax” always makes it worse. We can’t, and it’s not our fault.)

Sensory triggers can feel like an endless stream of challenges created for the express purpose of ruining our days, especially when they come in the context of a social-relational realm that is frequently perplexing, frustrating, and energy-sapping. Count your blessings if, like a driver tucked safely inside a comfortable SUV, you can take anything in this world in stride. Most of us on the spectrum simply cannot. We feel every bump, every tiny pebble in the road that threatens a crash.

The sensory overload I experience on the motorcycle ride down the Marsh Road is powerful, but it is also soothing, as it occurs within a (mostly) predictable environment that I must honor and engage carefully. In that setting, I can attain success, a concept that too often eludes me in many aspects of my life. Both the structure and the work of the ride are comforting. The clutch and gearshift and throttle and brakes and kick starter—even something as small as a turn signal—do not respond with the fluid grace of a contemporary machine; it’s more like driving a vintage car with no power steering. It takes both hands, both feet, and, among other things, a keen vision switching purposefully between straight ahead, left and right, down at the pavement, in both rear view mirrors, to a quickly-clouding sky, and across multiple gauges on the bike. Insects from tiny bugs to plump bumblebees hit you in the chest and the head while the incessant gusting of the wind, too, demands to be taken into account at every moment.

Operating the bike within this robust atmosphere takes concerted effort, an effort I’ve learned through practice. The experience produces a unique serenity for me. I may not be able to control or handle some of what comes my way on an average day, but I can navigate the old Marsh Road just fine, and have fun doing it. That feels good. And I think it probably spills over into other areas in ways I don’t understand. In the autistic life, wins can be tough to come by. So I’ll take one wherever I can get it.


[1] "Stimming: What autistic people do to feel calmer” BBC News Ouch blog. BBC, 5 June 2013. Web. 17 September 2015.

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