In our latest interview from the Naked Series, we sit down with Ariston to discuss meltdowns, autism and the psych ward.
JACY: Alright, let's begin. How about you start off by telling me a bit about yourself and what brought you here today.
ARISTON: I’m Ariston Vallejos and I’m from Klamath Falls, Oregon. I think I came here today to discuss autism because the last year of my life has been focused around it in a multitude of ways. I started working with high school students that have ASD (autism spectrum disorder) and learned that I am on the Autism Spectrum as well. This last spring a number of really stressful events compiled all at once and I ended up having to spend some time in the psych ward. The experience was pretty traumatic but I came out of it with a better understanding of myself. It’s been an interesting year to say the least.
ARISTON: I just turned 31 this summer and discovering I’m on the spectrum as well as possibly having bipolar disorder is a pretty intense thing to learn a bit later on in life.
JACY: Did you have any of your own intuitions towards these things before the psych ward or was this all a shock?
ARISTON: It was both. It was a shock and also once that idea was presented to me it was an absolute truth. There was no denying it and a lot of things made sense. I kinda felt foolish to not have realized it and I am still processing. Portland is an especially difficult city to find accessible mental health care, so I'm still struggling to find a therapist. There simply aren't enough mental health resources for the rapidly growing population. Additionally- if you weren’t diagnosed with ASD as a kid - you’re kinda out of luck. People don’t know how to diagnose adults because the metric was made for children.
ARISTON: I haven’t disclosed my autism to anyone except for a handful of people I'm close to.
JACY: Yet you're comfortable doing this interview. Interesting.
ARISTON: Yeah, I’m ready.
JACY: It's crazy but we live our whole lives within ourselves so we are our only reference point for what life is like. So when a doctor or peer suggests "You're not having the 'normal' experience due to X,Y, and Z" I think there can be relief in assigning some reason to what has caused hardship for you when navigating the world. I'm wondering in your case, was there relief or worry?
ARISTON: Both. Right now I’m really off balance and overwhelmed but yes- there's relief in the validation that some of your struggles are due to tangible reasons rather than just feeling like I'm a terrible adult.
Since learning I'm neurodiverse I’m trying to celebrate all the amazing things that means but it's also been tough. Because had I known this as a kid I would carry so much less trauma. There would have been more support.
I have a pretty active imagination which is common for people on the spectrum. My brain is always running multiple conversations and scenarios - so sleep is difficult for me. It takes extra focused effort for me to have conversations in person, and I really struggle with executive functions like emotional control, impulse inhibition, and basic self care like feeding myself.
Keeping myself clean and groomed can be another big challenge for me. One manifestation of my autism is hyper-sensitivity. I'm extremely sensitive to lights and sounds. They can really effect me if they’re offensive, loud or surprising. I think a lot of people who are neurotypical don’t understand that these sensitivities can be so intense that mundane tasks like getting your hair cut or taking a shower can be traumatizing.
My biggest daily struggle is brushing my teeth. My mouth is especially sensitive so things near or in my mouth are generally upsetting. It's a difficult thing for me to get into a healthy habit of. And cutting my hair! I haven’t cut my hair in three years because I hate it.
One of my first real memories was going into the hair salon to get my haircut and everything about it was awful. The lights, someone in my personal space, someone touching me - - but the worst thing was the sound of the hair when it’s cut. I hate the sound of hair being cut.
JACY: I wanted to ask you about that - are these small tasks difficult due to remembering amongst all the other activity in your brain or is there physical reactions as well?
ARISTON: Oh, there’s totally physical pain to it. I have a student who can go into an OCD trance if his clothes have any imperfections in them or aren't super soft. He will completely check out and tears his clothes apart. Then when he settles and sees his clothes are tattered, it can trigger a meltdown from embarrassment. ASD folks have a superhuman level of sensitivity.
Like I used to be a professional editor because I can see the tiniest changes in colors. I have a really interesting relationship with color. It feels almost sacred. I have moments of synesthesia where I see certain mixtures of colors and I can taste or smell things that aren't there which is wild. The colors trigger a haptic response.
JACY: Do you have any examples?
ARISTON: It happens often when I'm watching sunsets. I feel tingly all over when the colors crossover. It’s usually when I’m meditating or in nature. Sometimes I can taste the color blue.
I'm telling you it's a superpower and a curse. I’ve been described as a sensory searcher which means I'm always looking for sensory input. Touching nice things, feeling the wind, stretching - which gets into masking. Masking is a term often used around ASD for people who are taught to suppress their habits. As a kid my mom really drilled me to mask a lot of my behavior. My biggest compulsion is to move my body. Fidgeting, rocking - I just find motion soothing. It’s how I regulate.
But as a kid its ‘stop wiggling, stop whistling!’ Now I’m trying to let my body just be because what’s so wrong with wiggling? What’s wrong with moving around? I want to break that conditioning so I can stop masking my behavior to make those around me more comfortable at my expense.
JACY: With masking - being told not to wiggle, not to whistle, etc. What did it look like when you masked for too long?
ARISTON: I'd have a meltdown. As a kid I would scream and punch. My room was riddled with holes in the walls. All this 'Don't wiggle, don't whistle, don’t bounce around...' All that energy would accumulate until I would just explode.
I remember being in a gift shop in Hawaii when I was quite young. My parents bought be my first pair of flip flops and were trying to put them on my feet. The feeling was so unfamiliar it sent me into a rampage. There were all these signs in the shop like 'you break it, you buy it' and I guess it was so intense the clerk didn't care and just begged us to leave. It's things like that.
JACY: Tell me then - it seems you’ve had to learn a lot of coping skills yourself as you were unguided as a child. What does sensory upset look like now as an adult?
ARISTON: Meltdowns are a loss of control and often physical outbursts. The last meltdown I had led to me spending time in the psych ward on watch for self harm. It starts as manic energy and grows till I feel like I have less and less control over myself. It’s kinda like blacking out. In this last instance, I destroyed a lot of things and self harmed by punching holes in the walls and throwing my head against things which I haven’t done in a long time.
JACY: How do you feel on the other side of meltdowns?
ARISTON: It’s hard. Every time it feels like a failure. But you know as an educator, working with ASD kids has become so important because it’s provided me with extremely valuable perspective. 'This is how I am, and this is what my body needs to do sometimes. It’s ugly and it’s scary but it’s okay.'
That’s the same attitude I try to teach my students. I have a student that’s extremely temperature sensitive where if he gets even a little overheated he'll go into a vicious, scary, self harming meltdown. He’s a strong kid and he’ll throw his head against the wall again and again. It takes 3-4 of us to get him into a safe hold where he can calm down. And we’re not upset. We get it. We’re trained in trauma informed care so we can help these kids when they are unregulated. And I’m trying to apply that practice to myself but it’s hard and I’m still working on it.
JACY: It’s so interesting that you teach what you struggle with. What are your thoughts about your gravitation towards this career path whilst not knowing this about yourself?
ARISTON: A lot came to light for me last year after my dad almost died. We were supposed to motorcycle down to Mexico together, but he got hit by a driver who was texting. My dad was sitting on his motorcycle at a stoplight when the guy hit him from behind going 50 miles per hour. His spleen ruptured, he broke all his ribs, his collarbone, two vertebrae, lost a portion of his intestines... It's a miracle he's alive. My brother and I put our lives aside for a month while my dad was recovering in ICU. He was in a coma for five days and woke up on my 30th birthday. It was simply a miracle.
The whole experience was obviously traumatic, and coming back to Portland was overwhelming.
I was still in a place of intense PTSD. I had had to uproot my life and leave PDX in the middle of the night to frantically drive to Bend after receiving a phone call that my dad was bleeding out in an emergency helicopter transport after being hit by a vehicle. You just don't jump back into your life after something like that. I ended up ultimately having to walk away from my job and I was homeless for a few months I finally got a room back but yeah - it’s been all across the board this year. I’m just super grateful to be where I am now.
This past year has been full of growing pains. But my experience as a person navigating this pathology has been shifting into the space where I’m really valuing the gifts it brings.
Before today I wasn’t telling anybody about this part of my life. It will be interesting to see I'm treated differently by my community after sharing this publicly. Moving forward I want to be vulnerable and open with everyone. I'm done masking my natural behaviors to make those around me just a little more comfortable. My goal moving forward is to use platforms like this to not only advocate for myself, but also others that may not be able to.