Bad Days, Part 1: Autism and the Common Cold

Back in the summer, Foxtears was ill for a week or two. They wanted to write about the variability of autistic symptoms, but were having a hard time. They had a headache, painful eyes, a sore throat, congestion. Just getting through the day became hard work. The difference between a good and a bad time are always marked, but the transition is usually too rapid and internal to be clearly observable; illness made the deterioration slow and visible, the energy to simply exist visibly draining their ability to do more.

Tolerance of physical contact went first, any sensory addition to the infection’s physical discomfort was too much. Mobility – they cocooned in a blanket, conserving spoons and keeping warm. Much more flapping than usual, out of frustration. We left the house on a day they were feeling up to it, but crowded public places and, especially, shrieking children were visibly taxing. The following day, their resources were just gone: executive function and verbalisation ground to a halt, with whimpering and flapping their only means of signalling distress, and a several-minute lag between, “What do you need?” and the ability to answer, “I’m cold.”

On good days, things are much easier. Foxtears is still, intermittently, touch-averse, although usually less violently. Articulate, analytical, they may need time to understand their internal state – but they can say they’re working on it, that an answer is pending. Their communication is much higher bandwidth when they have the energy to spare for it. Not all verbal – their physical and audible stimming express a wide vocabulary. Intensity and inflection of flapping are the first to reappear, followed by a richer variety of gestures and body language. Their audible stims branch out from distress whimpers, regaining purring, mewing, a variety of squeaks and snuffles.

Illness presented a exploded diagram of Foxtears’ variable symptoms: their capabilities, and the ease with which circumstances can deny access to them. The thing to take away isn’t, of course, that illness can be hard on autistic people; it’s that any day, any period of time, for any number of reasons or no perceptible reason at all, can see a difference in someone’s capabilities. Verbal today does not mean verbal tomorrow. Background noise that’s tolerable right this second can cause a meltdown this afternoon, in an hour, or in five minutes. There may be no warning before capabilities shift, not even to to the one experiencing it.

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