Why are Brent’s eyes closed and is he sniffing his dog’s head?

I am aware that I might appear a little unusual to folks at meetings. I am autistic and I have post-traumatic stress disorder [PTSD]. It is difficult to say where one starts and the other ends, but both produce a great amount of stress and anxiety along with processing and sensory difficulties. These difficulties are exacerbate in situations such as meetings. Of course meetings are a regular part of my job as a program director and I have worked continuously to find ways to adapt my ability to participate to assure that I am able to listen, to give feedback and not become so overwhelmed that I accomplish neither.

I know how to appear in meetings in a socially acceptable manner with the handshakes, eye contact and thoughtful head nodding. I understand those sorts of social conventions make people feel comfortable, however they are not the best way for me to participate. For example, eye contact is uncomfortable, even painful to me and as is being touched by people I don’t know well, even handshakes. It is important to understand as well that I cannot process too many words, either verbally or written, all at once. Words cease making sense to me when I’m not given time to sort and process what is being said. When I’m asked a question, I need time to process before I can answer. And the noise of too many voices, or too much fluorescent light, or someone sitting too close to me can distract me to the point where I am no longer able to engage in what is being discussed.

Over the last year or so I have made a conscious effort to drop the mimicry and find different ways to engage which work for best me. First off there is my constant companion, my dog Mona. Mona is my support animal; she helps me feel less anxious, more grounded and much more in the moment. Despite her gentle looks, she is serious about maintaining our space. And I do sniff the top of her head. It comforts me. Also I make very little eye contact and usually only enough to make others understand that I am listening. It is easier for me to pay attention to someone when I am not making eye contact. I try to position my chair so that I’m facing slightly away from people. PTSD dictates that I sit with a wall at my back. It feels safer. I know shaking hands is social convention, but it might or might not happen. I have found lately that closing my eyes helps my concentration a great deal as does rocking gently in my chair.

I imagine being in a meeting with someone with his eyes closed, rocking back and forth while occasionally sniffing his dog’s head might not be what folks are used to experiencing, but mimicking social convention does not really work for me anymore.The ultimate goal of meetings is communication and while I may present myself in an unconventional manner, it is because I am interested in engagement. I’m very interested in what you have to say.



[Brent White is Autistic. He designs and directs adult programs for intellectually and developmentally disabled adults for the non-profit Ala Costa Centers in Berkeley, California].

3 Responses to Why are Brent’s eyes closed and is he sniffing his dog’s head?

  1. wildlyrandom says:

    You are one very courageous man! Hopefully the people that surround you are kindness themselves too.
    I simply hide away now, I can no longer bear the mimicry, as I can no longer handle the blatant unkindness! But I will get over it, once I’ve convinced my brain that indeed, it may love itself all the more for its differences! 🙂

    You know, I go into panic mode (inwardly) if I cannot sit with my back to a wall; I also hate walking anywhere but at the back of a group.
    However, with a smile on my face, I will admit, that I too, love to smell the top of my dog’s head. Thinking about it right now, I realise that it calms me in a joyful way.

    • acatalacosta says:

      My dog Mona helps me be in the world in a way that feels safe. I’ve given up on trying to force myself to mimic NT modes of social interactions. I don’t have the energy. But I am aware that it might look odd to people and that sort of amuses me.

  2. wildlyrandom says:

    There are things I do, like talking to myself, to help me negotiate my way around even a store. When my daughter was little I could ‘talk to her’, but then she grew up. I hadn’t considered that a little dog (I have 2 huge ones) could serve the same purpose… and many more no doubt.

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