A while ago, I was eating at a restaurant and a friend noticed that I was working on a cryptic crossword puzzle book I got for Christmas. If you’ve never heard of cryptic crosswords, they are popular in Britain and work by disguising each clue in “cryptic” language that seems to be talking about something else but is actually a very literal reference to the answer, provided you think about it in the right way. For example, the clue “Large mixed drink” has the answer “LAGER,” which is both “large mixed” (mix up the letters in “LARGE”) and a “drink.”

Anyway, my friend asked if the puzzle book was a way me to keep from getting overwhelmed by the sensory input around me in the restaurant. I hadn’t thought about it before then, but I told her I thought she was right. It really does help me to have something specific and familiar to focus on when I’m in a busy or unpredictable environment.

Really, it’s the times when I am just waiting with nothing to do that can be more tiring for me to deal with. It’s hard to keep my mind from getting impatient and running away thinking about what I’m going to do next if I’m waiting for others to make up their minds where they want to go, or if people are just “hanging out” and I don’t know how to contribute to the conversation. The crossword puzzle gives me a way to focus that mental energy.

My other “survival method” is listening to music. If I really feel overwhelmed by the input around me, it really helps to have my MP3 player with me (provided it isn’t out of power, like it is about half the time). I might listen to my music if other people are stressed and I feel stressed just listening to them, or if I’m just not interested in whatever others are talking about. (Or if I just want to listen to music! I don’t want people to think that every time I use my MP3 player, I’m trying to shut them out!)

Listening to music can help me to focus on the task at hand, if it’s something like math, editing, or programming. Music is usually too distracting for me to listen to while I’m reading or writing, unless the music has no words.

Music also seems to help in one other very stressful situation for me– driving. I don’t like to drive and find it a very draining experience, because I potentially need to be alert and aware of everything on the road. (At the same time, I need to make sure I am paying attention to the right things and ignoring mere distractions, or else I will become overcautious and annoy the people behind me by doing things like waiting too long at traffic lights.)

It doesn’t seem to make sense that listening to music and singing along with it would help me to drive, but I think it actually does. Perhaps my focus on the music provides a baseline, a point of reference for me to keep an equally steady focus on the road as I drive, or perhaps it preoccupies an overactive part of my brain, leaving me with the right level of attention to drive cautiously without worrying? I really don’t know. I do know that singing along with music in the car is the main thing I enjoy about driving. (And if I approach a situation that looks especially unpredictable, like a busy, complicated highway interchange, I stop singing, turn the music down, or even turn it off so I can devote more attention to it.)

As usual, I don’t know for sure that these mental processes are typical for people with Asperger’s. It seems likely that most people’s minds work this way, but perhaps they are a little better at narrowing their focus voluntarily without needing to use something like music to do it?