The first time I went to a nightclub in Miami, I was fascinated.
Here was this entire underworld of debauchery set to heavy bass, the kind that gets up in your rib cage and rattles all your insides. The songs all flowed into each other, pulling along a room roiling with bodies, all beholden to the beat. The DJ conducted an entire crowd full of strangers in the dark by turning a few nobs and pressing the right buttons.
People were meeting, and flirting, and touching, and it looked like chaos but upon closer observation, there was a sort of hierarchy, and a litany of unwritten social customs to learn.
Don’t show up til midnight. When you do, make sure you’re drunk already. Smile confidently at the bouncer when he looks at your obviously fake ID. Make friends with the host, if she likes you then she can get you on any VIP list. Squeal when you see someone you only know from other parties, put on a show as if you had absolutely no idea you would see them there (even though you both go to this party every week). Hug them as if they are your long lost lover back from war.
Don’t forget to do your laps around the club every half hour to say hello to all the rest of the regulars, you wouldn’t want to become irrelevant.
It was not a world I could really navigate myself, to be honest. I leaned heavily on three helpers: my charismatic boyfriend, my camera, and alcohol. The boyfriend handled all the schmoozing, the mingling, and the social ladder climbing. The alcohol handled my nerves, and the camera gave me a purpose — something to do, someone to be.
I very quickly fell into the role of party photographer, which was perfect, because I wanted to observe without necessarily participating, and I wanted to document everything I was seeing and study it later. Without her, I think I would have been bored, but with my special interest in hand and free rein to indulge in it, I was in my element.
Every socialite loves a party photographer. My camera got me access, respect, and inclusion. Suddenly I was front row, center, I was on stage, I was being dragged into back rooms where people were offering me keys loaded with cocaine. All I had to do was smile and click — as a “hot girl” in tiny shorts, nobody really cared if I was witty or conversational. They didn’t keep me around for that, and besides, the music was too fucking loud, anyway.
Of course, alcohol greased the wheels of my social abilities; I’d been leaning on it for that since I found my mom’s tequila in the back of a cabinet when I was 15. Heavy drinking made words come out more easily, lubricated the pathway between my brain and my mouth where things often got stuck. It also kept me from worrying if I was doing it right, and gave me something to blame when I didn’t. Oops, did I say something weird? Ha ha, I must have been so drunk. I am such a mess. Isn’t that fun?
What I really loved about nightclubs was the way the dancefloor made me feel. The beat pulsed through my body and vibrated my brain in a way that allowed me to forget myself. I was a boat bouncing on the waves of a bassline, I was no one and everyone at once. There’s a beautiful sense of unity that happens when a group of sweaty humans move to the same song together in an unlit room.
I didn’t have to talk, or make eye contact, or feign interest on the dancefloor. Moving my body was enough, and I could move it anyway that I wanted. (There should be no judgement on a dancefloor — it is one of my cardinal rules.) With the lights flashing colors, the music rattling bones, and my body shaking in time, it was the ultimate stim.
I didn’t understand the sensory-seeking nature of what I was doing back then; I just knew it felt good. I called it “dancefloor therapy”.
It’s something I’d been doing alone since I was a child. I would put on C+C Music Factory, turned up as loud as it would go, and dance til I was exhausted, my favorite songs on a loop. I would make up fake dance routines to NSYNC and Britney, practicing them alone in my room for hours. In my 20’s I got very intensely into hula hooping. I still do things like this now, whenever I’m left in an empty house: my solo dance parties.
If the word “autistic” makes you think, Sheldon Cooper, math genius, hates loud noises, obsessed with trains, you have become victim to autism’s mainstream stereotype. We are not all like this. In fact, there is so much variation within the autistic category, you probably know a few autistic people, who may or may not even know themselves as autistic yet.
I didn’t have my Come-to-Autism moment until I was 30. I had grown up with a brother six years my junior who (mostly) fit that mainstream stereotype. He was my reference for what “autistic” looks like, and since we were so different, I never considered it for myself. I was an artist, and I loved dancing, and I didn’t care about trains. I went to parties! Autistic people don’t go to parties!?
Turns out, when your special interest is other humans, you do go to parties. You go to a lot of parties, and you dedicate yourself to learning how socializing works, and you observe and you mimic and you become someone other people want to keep around. Enter: Jess the Party Photographer. Enter: Jess the Hot Drunk Girl.
I spent six years photographing parties in Miami, and I have several hard drives’ worth of files to show for it. I collected images of my world like my brother collected model trains, carefully curating them in the days after and uploading them into Facebook albums, where everyone I met could tag themselves. My social network grew with my photo collection.
My camera became a small monkey I couldn’t get off my back — I never went anywhere without it. I had anxiety if I did. What if something beautiful happened in front of me and I couldn’t capture it? What is the point of going anywhere if I can’t photograph what I’m seeing and store it away in my collection?
Photographing gave me something to cling to, a way to understand, a tangible record of a bewildering world. It also kept me at arms-length — I didn’t participate, I documented. It was a socially-acceptable kind of watching.
My camera took me places. It was a buffer between me and the world, and I’m not sure I would have gone so far and done so much without it. But after a decade I started to wonder if I was really experiencing the present moments of my life when I always had a camera between my face and the world. Slowly, gradually, I stopped pulling it out of my bag. I started leaving it at home, and participating. I stopped drinking, and I stopped going to parties.
Getting sober made me more autistic, or rather, forced me to experience the world without a chemical buffer. I had initially stopped drinking because I thought it would lessen my depression, which had become severe and chronic, but a consequence I didn’t expect was a full identity crisis. I realized that I was a fundamentally different person sober, and it was the first time I had stopped drinking for long enough to get to know that person.
Without alcohol and a camera, I don’t like parties as much, but it really depends on the variables. There are so many! Who is at the party? Where is the party? What do I have to wear to the party? What kind of music is playing at the party? (This, I would argue, is the most important variable…have you ever rocked up to a party where they were only playing trance? Fuck trance.)
It’s very context-dependent, and sometimes contradictory.
I wear noise-cancelling headphones all day, because noise that I can’t control irritates my nervous system, but you will also find me front-row at a show, laying on the fucking speakers until I get sound-bruises on my thighs. I both abhor noise and crave loud music — sensitivity and sensory-seeking are not mutually exclusive.
Similarly, I love losing my body and soul in a crowd on a dark, hazy dancefloor, but a crowd echoing through a bright fluorescent mall will fuck me right up.
In the psychedelic community, they talk about Set and Setting — your mindset and your physical and social environment have a huge influence on your experience. (I know this, because, contrary to popular belief that autistic people are all innocent pure beings who can do no wrong, I did a lot of drugs!) I think Set and Setting are relevant outside of psychedelic trips, though, and perhaps even more so for people who have higher sensitivities.
Good Mood + People I Like + Comfortable Space = Good Time, but Exhaustion + People I Don’t Know + Unfamiliar Space = Bad Time.
Good Mood + People I Don’t Know + Unfamiliar Space could be a Good Time, though, it just depends on the aforementioned variables. My ability to handle any situation and come out mentally and emotionally unscathed is entirely hinged on Set and Setting.
Stereotypes get in the way of our understanding of others, and even of ourselves. I didn’t ever consider that I could be autistic because I was a Social Butterfly Party Person for so long, but now that I understand camouflaging, how easy it is to overlook socially-acceptable special interests, the use of heavy drinking as a social tool and, you know, the fact that not all autistic people are introverts, I see how ridiculous and limiting that assumption was.
Generalizing about other people is a natural pattern-seeking thing our brains do, but it also makes us miss things. We have to stay open and curious and ask questions, and always remember that shoving a human brain into a little box does a grave disservice to a beautiful, complicated thing. Contrary to popular belief, autistic people party, too. You just have to play the right music.