Busy and Hot

When I woke for the first time today, at around four in the morning, I asked myself what I was going to do with the day. I had all sorts of plans in my head for things I might do, places I might go, what I might write. As it is, I eventually fell asleep again, and have now only just surfaced. It is nearly midday and I know that the plans I made in my head at four this morning are, on the whole, not going to happen.

And after a brief moment of beating myself up about it, I suddenly realised why I was so exhausted and why I haven’t written a blog post since Sunday and why I didn’t write the one I wanted to on Tuesday or the others that I still want to write (one in response to something) and why my admin is behind and I owe people messages and e-mails and so on – I have been busy!

The last two weekends I’ve been playing music. It’s been amazing and enjoyable, and brilliant to meet up with friends (old and new) and to play under a conductor who’s an absolute pleasure to work with. The concert was on Saturday night, so I was pretty wiped out on Sunday, but felt moved to write the rather rambling blog post on pride anyway. Monday I went for a short run, which, given my recent running activity, was a big deal. Tuesday I went to visit my best friend. Wednesday I went for a coffee then went to buy a few groceries.

And all this at temperatures above 30 degrees, which we’re really not used to round here, and which drain my energy rapidly. Furthermore, there is no airflow through our flat, so the only way to stop the hot air stagnating and to get any sort of breeze is to use fans. The noise of the fans is really not good for me and overloads me pretty much to the point of meltdown within a fairly short space of time.

Maybe, to most people, that level of activity and a bit of hot weather really wouldn’t be a big deal. When I think back to the “me” of the past, before two huge burnouts, before mental illness was even identified, that “me” would have looked at the “me” of now and thought myself utterly pathetic. I’d have been unable to comprehend why I couldn’t just get my act together and, with enough willpower, just get on with it.

Of course, the “me” of the past being like that, forcing myself to live that “normal” life for so long, doing what was expected of me and using vast amounts of energy and willpower to do so (largely because I assumed everyone else was doing the same), is a large part of what has caused me to have two major burnouts and to have arrived where I am now, with rather depleted functionality and very low energy levels.

Fortunately the “me” of now is starting to learn. And, a few minutes before writing this post, I realised not how LITTLE I’ve done over the last few days, but how MUCH I’ve actually done. And, I had, once again, to remind myself that my mind works a bit differently from most people’s and that I need more downtime, more space, and that things that come fairly easily to many folk, are actually rather challenging and energy consuming for me.

So the plans that I made at four this morning are now dropped, forgotten. Today I need to focus on self-care. I need to stay at home, even though the temperature in the flat is still 28.5 degrees and the place smells stagnant and nasty because neither of us has had the energy to do any serious cleaning and there’s no airflow because it’s so still. It’s not ideal, but it’s not a choice, because I need the solitude. I need not to go through the anxiety cycle of going out and working what to say to people and so on.

If, and only if, I have enough energy beyond that required for basic self care, I shall try to sort out the jobs lists and my diary, and sort out what I need to do, even if I don’t actually do it, but I expect it won’t get much further than that. As I’ve increased my levels of activity, and as I start to gain a bit of functionality as I emerge from burnout and from the whole “discovering I was autistic and getting diagnosed” thing and all the shock and relief and complete re-evaluation of my life, it’s tempting to think that I can just “go back to normal” without any consequences. But, of course, that isn’t the case.

And, interestingly, the blog post I wanted to write on Tuesday was the one outlining how I now am, four months after my diagnosis (it was the four month anniversary on Tuesday). And I’ve sort of gone and written it anyway – at my second follow up appointment it was noted that the increase in activity and my “recovery” carries a price, and that I need to remember that. This week that price has been that my head has become more and more muddled, I’ve struggled to hold conversations and to form words, I’ve struggled more with basic stuff at home, I’ve retreated once again into eating the same thing every day, and my decision-making capabilities have plummeted.

My level of satisfaction with life has also dropped – despite what might be perceived by someone from the outside (I’ve been seen playing music, going for a run, visiting a friend, and having a coffee) possibly indicating that I am happier with life and doing more “enjoyable” things, I’ve actually felt less happy, more frustrated, and generally more anxious. Yes, I’m really pleased that I got out to play in a superb concert and that I went for a run etc. because these are things I love doing, but they still drain my batteries, and a combination of the heat and trying to fit in other stuff has meant I haven’t been able to recharge properly.

Ironically, a viewer from outside who observed how little I’ve stimmed over the last few days might decide that it’s some sort of “improvement” and some sort of “your autism’s getting better” thing. In fact, the reverse is true. I desperately want to rock hard on the sofa for a bit, to wrap myself in compression, and to hide under my fleece blanket – these are all good and lovely things and part of how I cope with having to deal with the outside world. But I can’t cope with doing them at the moment because it is TOO HOT. So not only am I dealing with bad sensory stuff (noise of fans, feeling sweaty and nasty, smells stronger) because of the heat, I can’t mitigate with the good stuff.

So, in an odd way, I’ve looked more “normal” over the last few days, but the effect from inside is that I’m feeling increasingly dysfunctional and anxious and edgy and irritable. This “how autistic people look vs how they feel” thing is something I’m increasingly thinking about and want to write about some day, because I’m beginning to get the impression that the two are much more likely to be inversely than directly correlated.

In the meantime, I do observe that four months have passed since diagnosis, and that life is continuing to change. The people who wrote Tiny Glimmers back in January and Eight Weeks On back in April would have been amazed by what I have just written above and by what I’ve done in the last few weeks, so even where I’m still failing and still not achieving what I want to achieve (that will probably always be the case for me as my natural inclination is to constantly aim for more and to push to achieve goals and so on), I’m actually achieving much more than I was, which is, of course, progress.

But today “progress” will be achieved by resting and gentle tasks and self care, not by pushing on through. That way, I hope that I’ll be able to start to recharge my batteries enough to be able to do more running and music and socialising and to be able to think clearly enough to deal with admin and communication and to write more of the blog posts that I’d like to write!

Autistic Haikus

So this morning my
Executive functioning
Is rather broken

Yesterday speech was
Not coming so easily
As it sometimes does

I forget to eat
And I am very rubbish
At preparing food

Looking at eyes of
Most people is not helpful
And feels pretty weird

If I try to be
A non-autistic person
I get exhausted

Sometimes my head can
Have a disaster and ex-
Plode into meltdown

Strip lights are evil
And should be banished from the
Surface of the Earth

I remember things
With patterns and pictures and
Short films in my head

I am not good at
Sitting still or on a chair
Movement is better

My fidget spinner
Is one that glows in the dark
It is very cool

The fridge is sounding
Very very very loud
To my good hearing

Not knowing for years
I was autistic has bro-
Ken my mental health

Learning stuff is cool
I get interested in
Things rather strongly

As a kid I chewed
My school tie but now I have
Proper chewy things

Conversations are
Often rather hard for me
To initiate

I flap my hands and
Flick and twirl my fingers when
I’m stressed or happy

Being diagnosed
Autistic at forty five
Is a big relief

A While, Maybe?

I’m still a bit behind with quite a lot of things, including stuff that I’d like to write here. Technically, today should be another rest day after the busy two-day weekend I’ve just had, especially as it’s the first time I’ve been out of the house for most of the day for two consecutive days in a very very long time. I’m also conscious that the weekend was preceded by a busy week and that my head isn’t working quite well enough to say what I want to say yet. The thought to word translation mechanism isn’t running smoothly – it feels as though it needs a drop of oil on the machinery or something.

It was an interesting weekend. Saturday I managed fairly well, although forming words became more and more difficult as the day went on, and by the end of the evening I was finding trying to translate my thoughts really laborious and hard work. Sunday morning was difficult – even my comfiest and loosest clothes felt scratchy and constraining, and I spent most of the day feeling gently nauseous. I never even attempted to remove my darkest sunglasses – even through them it was as though the brightness had been turned up to somewhere beyond maximum, and when I got home it felt as though my entire system was in overdrive. I rocked hard and bashed myself on the back of the sofa for a bit then fell asleep under my weighted blanket, which helped.

But it was a successful weekend. I managed to do approximately fourteen hours of orchestral rehearsal and concert, and both my playing and physical robustness were pretty reasonable. Not as good as they were in the past, but better than I expected in the current circumstances.

There were friends and allies there, including an old friend I hadn’t seen for years, and with whom it was good to re-establish contact. I wasn’t as social as I’d have been in the past, and not as much as I’d really like to be able to be for both networking and just getting to know folks purposes, but since I’m now officially socially inept rather than merely empirically so, I feel rather less guilty about going off on my own to eat lunch, taking a proper break from people now and again, and sitting in a corridor wearing ear defenders, rocking back and forth on my own. This is all OK now, and a great relief too.

I could easily have sat and sobbed about half way through Sunday afternoon, but didn’t. Having an explanation for why I feel so suddenly emotional about apparently nothing some of the time really does make it easier to deal with. Makes it easier to rationalise in my brain. It’s actually OK just to feel wrong sometimes, especially when I’ve been out in the world surrounded by people and noise and lights for hours on end. There’s a reason for it.

And years of musical training help – focus in on the playing, which is what I do, which is why I was there in the first place. In the same way as I went to the autism conference because of the intense interest and need to learn and pursue that interest, I keep returning to the world of orchestral and chamber music playing because I am driven there by that interest and the need to keep doing it and keep learning. Music is probably the longest lived “interest” I have and has persisted throughout my life, only vanishing when I’ve been severely depressed or deep in burnout. Trouble is, orchestras inevitably involve people – so I have to do quite a lot of work (being with people) in order to get access to the playing!!!

The aftermath of the weekend is interesting. I’m very tired. My word translation is off. I can feel myself struggling to say what I want even interacting online. I’m more triggered than usual by things – someone on facebook extolling the virtues of “cooking from scratch” made me really angry (I didn’t comment, just ranted at my husband a bit – he’s used to it). I drank rather more than I should have done last night. I’m still finding sounds too loud and lights too bright. And my executive functioning (ability to get my act together and do stuff) has taken something of a battering, as has my task initiating and switching ability.

None of this is surprising, given that I’d had an evening rehearsal the week before, then the final meeting with the autism assessment service, then stayed up all night watching the results of the General Election as they were announced, and then spent a weekend out in the world. Those things between them have used up nearly all my energy in the past week.

However, what’s different from how things have been for a long long time is that allowing the language system and functioning system and sensory system to decline, and just going with it now I know what’s happening, means that I am not ill after such activity as I would have been in the past. Not making myself chat to people at lunch breaks, spending time stimming quietly on my own, only making eye contact when absolutely necessary, not forcing words in order to “be polite”, and so on, all mean that I’m not feeling that awful “sick” feeling that I’m so familiar with to anything like the extent I would have done in the past. I probably appear slightly “odder” from the outside, but on the inside I’m actually calmer, and also, currently, considerably less depressed.

And I’m tired yes, but not quite so bone-numbingly exhausted as I might have been. Partly, I suspect this is because I’m continuing to recover from burnout, but even though I’m going out into a world that won’t always understand me or the way I work, the fact that I understand myself already removes a whole load of pressure, so this huge internal pressure I’ve always felt to “succeed” is now off.

I realise this is another rather erratic rambling blog post. And I’m still conscious that there are things that need sorting here. I’ve also been sporadic on the facebook page and not had much energy for twitter. I did manage to write one of the “poem things” after the first evening rehearsal though. At the time I didn’t manage to post it, so I’ll include it here.

The outside world,
Even when friendly
And something
I want to do,
Is sometimes
Utterly
Utterly
Exhausting.

Last night
I returned
To an evening rehearsal.
People
Noise
Lights
So. Much. Input.

This morning was spent
In bed.
Mostly asleep.

When I got up
And dressed
My clothes felt like
They were trying
To suffocate me.

It took many attempts
To write a Facebook status.
I have still failed to make
A cup of tea.
Even filling the kettle
Beyond me.

I don’t know how long
It will be before
I have enough energy
To post this
On the blog.

A while, maybe?

Understands What?

“Until everyone understands” proclaimed the slogan on the front of the conference pack for the National Autistic Society’s one-day conference on Autism and Mental Health.

I sat, during the afternoon tea break of this conference, which I’ve already described in some detail in My Conference Day and Content Report, and pondered exactly who “everyone” was, and, perhaps more crucially, exactly WHAT everyone would, ideally, understand about autism and autistic people. My experience, at a conference supposedly designed specifically to promote understanding about autism and autistic people had indicated that understanding was still distinctly lacking!

First off, there were the practical arrangements at the conference itself as far as autistic people attending were concerned. The worries caused by the initial e-mail about the parking were just the start of a really stressful and difficult conference that seemed to have almost ignored the access needs of the very people it was supposedly advocating for. Being forced to sit in really close proximity to strangers who were wearing non sensory-friendly clothing was absolutely horrible for me, and my request for an end seat was given hardly a thought. Furthermore, no allowance was made for those of us who struggle to sit “normally” on chairs and cope by rocking or pressure stimming with our legs folded under us. There was also no area available for those of us who might happily have spent the day sitting on the floor. Another autistic blogger who was at the conference and blogged about it afterwards observed that some delegates were strongly perfumed – although my own sensory sensitivity to perfume is relatively low, some autistic people find strong scents absolutely unbearable.

I had already compensated for lighting and sound issues by wearing sunglasses and earplugs (the onus was entirely on me to take care of myself this way) and the impossibility of even knowing where the quiet room was without any sort of map or plan in the conference pack meant that I never even located it. Someone online said there was a sign in the foyer, but getting into the foyer any time after the start of the conference was, for me, impossible, owing to the sheer number of people crammed into such a small space. Similarly, the instructions for splitting into streams were only given in spoken instructions, which I struggle to keep in my head – I never did work out where Stream B took place, and had I been hoping to attend that stream would have been really grateful for a map showing where that session was located.

And, of course, it was the issue with the foyer that prevented me from accessing food, drink, or toilet for the whole day. In order to have accessed any of these I’d have needed a carer, but there was no provision for one to attend with me unless they also paid the conference fee. As an autistic adult (and, indeed as a person on low income) I was entitled to a “reduced” fee for the day (including, presumably, the cost of the food and drink I was unable to access), but it was still sufficiently high compared to my income that I thought long and hard before signing away what was, for me, a large amount of money (you can maybe gather by now that I really am keen to learn and to get information, as I spent a very large slice of my monthly income to spend a day in quite significant discomfort and you might well ask why I would do such a thing – I hope I’ll answer that question later). Furthermore, the displays of books that I would have liked to have browsed were also in the foyer and therefore inaccessible – it’s little wonder that I do most of my book shopping on Amazon these days!

I was, to an extent, prepared for many of the difficulties I encountered throughout the day. Although I have not been to large conferences for a long time (I believe I last wrote a conference report around 20 years ago), I know that the logistics of organizing a large conference are not straightforward (and even less so when the space booked for the conference was quite so tight as it turned out to be). I also knew that I was, to an extent, entering a world that would be alien for me. It was obvious that the registration form had not been designed with autistic people in mind – not only was the pricing structure unclear as far as autistic adults were concerned, but the drop-down box forced me to use “person first language” and describe myself as a “person with autism”. I have been part of the autistic community for considerably less than a year and in that time it has become abundantly clear that, like me, the majority of autistic people prefer to refer to themselves as “autistic” and not “with autism” (which somehow implies that autism is an add-on). I’ve heard “professionals” say that “person with autism” emphasizes that autistic people are people and is therefore, somehow “better”. To be brutally honest, if someone needs reminding that we autistics are people, then the problem lies with them!

However, there was a really bright moment in the day when Lorraine MacAlister was discussing the support programme Teen Life at the end of the lunch break. MacAlister explicitly stated that the language of the programme would refer to participants as autistic teens, having taken advice from autistic people themselves! That was the moment that made me say YES! to myself. Somebody in the NAS is listening. Somebody IS understanding and believing autistic people. This is progress! Yay!!!

It was also obvious from the list of delegates attached to the final conference instructions e-mail that as a mentally ill autistic adult I would be in the minority (at a conference about autism and mental health, yes, I know – the irony is not lost on me) and that most of the delegates had described themselves as teachers, carers, parents, and so on. I’d be interested to know how many autistic people attended (I knew there were several through my contacts on facebook, and I subsequently discovered on twitter that there others who’d been there), although I do absolutely recognize that educating those who are not autistic is a really important part of the NAS’s work – it’s just a shame this education cannot extend to showing non-autistic delegates how an autistic-friendly event could be run, and didn’t include education on, for example, not wearing strong perfumes!

And so we come to the speakers. Like with the logistics I was prepared to encounter tough material (if I’d been expecting fairy stories then I was in the wrong place), and I’d read and absorbed enough information about the keynote speaker to expect that there might be some challenging aspects to his presentation. However, I was here this time to see (and hear) for myself rather than to read the reports of others and I started out with as open a mind as I could.

From the outset it was obvious that Tony Attwood is supremely skilled in the art of rhetoric and is a slick and practised speaker. However, it also became obvious very early on that he was not addressing the entire audience. I very quickly realized that in this context I was a “they”, and there was no concession given to the fact that there were autistic delegates present. While the majority of the audience laughed at Attwood’s “jokes” (about robots, Oxford and Cambridge, the Antiques Roadshow, and whether or not autistic people were still virgins in their mid-20s), I started to become somewhat irritated by this “humour”, most of which seemed to be carefully calculated to get the non-autistic members of the audience on side. I also wondered, though, how funny the parents present would find the jokes about virginity when their own children reached their mid-20s and were struggling with relationships? The fact that autistic children grow up into autistic adults (rather quickly) seems to be perpetually forgotten or ignored by so many people who focus on children.

As someone who was a classroom teacher for 5 years, I’m absolutely aware that humour can be a great way to teach and to help an audience to remember points that are being made. BUT, and this is a really big BUT, when that humour is at the expense of a minority group, it crosses the line from being fun and educational to being downright offensive. Attwood’s references to having “learnt Aspergerese” as some sort of language came over as downright crass, and his pointing out of his own proof-reading mistake in one of his slides, followed up by the assertion that “some aspie would probably point it out to him” was horribly reinforcing of stereotypes that really should have been consigned to history by now. I wrote in my notes: “You do not need to be autistic to be able to proof-read a slide properly – I have loads of allistic friends who are superb proof readers!!!” Attwood also used the term “neurotypical” to refer to non-autistic people throughout, never explaining that he was doing so colloquially or addressing the fact that there exist non-autistic neurodivergent people, who he basically erased from the planet with his language. He is, sadly, not alone in this.

Throughout all of Attwood’s sessions I kept having to remind myself that the “they” and “them” he was talking about was actually me. It felt like, as far as he was concerned, I was not part of his audience but one of his “subjects”. The converse of the “humour” was the sad story – tales of family members and patients also elicited responses from the audience, although in this case, sympathetic muttering rather than polite laughter. Throughout the day I was determined to be my authentic autistic self and didn’t deliberately seek out other humans (I was overloaded by the sheer number of them in the room in any case), and nobody spoke to me or approached me. I wondered, when hearing these sympathetic mutterings what people were thinking about the obviously autistic person sitting in the corner gently rocking to myself and chewing on a necklace designed for the purpose (I’d already damaged my fingers by chewing the skin off – ironically during the session on self-harm)!!!

At the outset of the last plenary Attwood directly spoke to us (the audience) with the words “You, as the parent/carer…” which was an interesting experience for me since I am neither a parent nor a carer. Was I even supposed to be at this conference? Was this talk for me at all? I have heard the term “othering” used when describing Attwood’s style, and it seemed very much to apply in this case. He also used phrases such as “somebody must fall in love with an aspie or they’d have died out years ago”, implying that “falling in love with an aspie” was some sort of weird penance maybe? He also seemed to focus rather heavily on those autistic people who would, under the (now superseded) DSM-4 have received (and still do receive, in some places under the ICD-10) a diagnosis of Asperger’s Syndrome, and also used the terms “severe autism” and “classic autism”, neither of which is beloved of many autistic people. I didn’t get much of a sense that he respected the whole of the autistic community with all its richness and variety of experience.

There were other indicators that Attwood was not really up to date with current thinking in the neurodiverse community and had focused his work on the view from “outside” rather than listening to those of us who make up that community. I also believe I heard him misgender someone, though I’m not in a position to call him out on that without hearing from the person concerned and establishing what they are comfortable with. It was also an interesting conference to attend for me as my main experience at conferences thus far has been of academics presenting to academics and many of the questions are often challenges or additions to the work presented. The questions that were drawn from the floor in this case were predominantly of the “please can you tell me what to do about my child / children I teach” and so on. When asked about autistic children in school being bullied, Attwood suggested that some other kids could be “trained to speak Aspergerese” (that phrase again) and could then be issued with “jigsaw puzzle badges”. At the mention of puzzle pieces I nearly fell off my chair. Does Attwood really not know just how offensive the puzzle piece symbol is to many members of the autistic community? Should somebody tell him?

It was a really interesting experience actually hearing all this. And it was in contrast to Khalid Karim’s professionalism and Wenn Lawson’s inclusive friendliness. I’m not saying that Attwood’s work hasn’t been incredibly useful in many ways. His strategies for balancing energy and dealing with meltdowns and shutdowns are excellent, The Complete Guide to Asperger’s Syndrome is a mine of information, and I shall also willingly read the recent book on depression, and it was obvious from some of the questions that many of the people at the conference learnt a great deal from him – I totally appreciate that most of them probably don’t, as I do, have 45 years experience living as an autistic in a non-autistic world, many of them will not have self-harmed or attempted to take their own lives, nor will they have experienced meltdowns and shutdowns from the inside. Neither will most of them have spent the last 9 months intensively studying absolutely everything they possibly can about autism, as I have! In many ways that is my privilege. Although Attwood would probably just tell me I was being a “typical aspie” or some such!

I had read tales online of autistic people returning from Attwood’s talks upset and traumatized. Partly because I was prepared for it, and partly because I treated the whole experience as an academic exercise, that wasn’t the case for me (although my sensory system was so overloaded when I got home that I could barely run a bath because the noise of the water running was so painful to my ears). Half way down the penultimate page of my notes I wrote “I wonder whether I could organize a proper autistic friendly conference” and I remember thinking “Right, my goal is to be speaking at things like this in 5 years time and I’m going to remember this experience”. Going to the conference has, to an extent, started me thinking about what role I might have in the future – what place there might be for an autistic adult who has academic experience, teaching experience, a fierce desire to learn, and is happy to stand up and speak to an audience? Is there some small way in which I can improve the world for all autistic people? Can I facilitate understanding of all things autistic using both experience and knowledge? Only time will tell. I know that, for the time being I’m still learning and still recovering from a severe autistic burnout, but I am also starting to get ideas and little beginnings of things to think about for the future. I might have spent most of the day silent, stimming, unable to access food, and not putting on any sort “social mask” (simply not enough energy for such a course of action), but it didn’t mean my brain was switched off – in fact, allowing myself to stim and not to worry about pouring energy into trying to chat to people or behave “appropriately” was the exact strategy that allowed me to spend my energy absorbing the information and thinking about it in some depth!

The conference has also inspired me to return to serious study of autism. Since my diagnosis in February I’ve eased off a bit and lost the impetus slightly, but it’s now back and I have new things to think about. I sat at the end of the conference wondering how this phase of “understanding autism” will be viewed in the future. I pondered the connection between adult autistics and allistic autism researchers, and how the two might work together and respect each other. I thought about the organization of events, about what might be researched and written, about the lack of focus on adults, and about how the current “understanding” seems to be very much based on models created by non-autistic people.

I got the feeling that this whole area is still very new, and that genuine understanding of autism is still very much under construction. But I also wondered whether Attwood’s approach was beginning to become part of “the past” now and whether greater consultation with autistic adults might be the way of the future. I came away with a sense that if the National Autistic Society really are going to keep going “Until everyone understands” then they have a long job ahead of them, and even their conference organizers still have a lot of understanding to gain – I didn’t return the feedback form at the end of the day because I simply didn’t have the energy, but I shall tweet this blog post to the NAS, and maybe, just maybe, somebody there will read it.

And as for me, was it worth going? Absolutely it was. It took me two full days afterwards to stop feeling really quite ill (there’s a reason these blog posts are being published a week after the event), but the knowledge I gained (about many things) was huge. I’ve also made new contacts online, started generating ideas in my mind, added to my reading list, and gained insight about many things.

Perhaps even more than that though, I proved I could do it. It wasn’t easy, and it was the first time I’d been out of the flat all day, without a known ally to look after me, in over 9 months. It took an awful lot of energy. But I managed it, survived, didn’t fall to pieces, and even learnt quite a lot. It really did feel like something of an achievement!

My Conference Day

As usual, my curiosity got the better of me. I wanted to know, to find out more, to increase my knowledge of what was going on with autism research, and to see some of the people who had thus far been just names on book spines or people I’d encountered in internet discussions. And so, when I came across a link on facebook to a one-day conference, organized by the National Autistic Society, on Autism and Mental Health, I initially saved the link, then, in a moment of confident madness, signed up to attend.

It turned out to be a really really interesting day. For very many reasons. I learnt a lot!

I was expecting it to be supremely challenging and had already baulked slightly at the confirmation e-mail, which had stated that parking was limited and that those who couldn’t park would have to use a park and ride service (there seemed to be no thought for those of us who often find public transport almost impossible), and, despite my best attempts to be early, heavy traffic meant I arrived rather later than I wanted to. Fortunately the hotel staff directed us to a nearby place to park – which was great in that I didn’t need to walk a long way in lieu of taking a bus, but made me edgy because it didn’t tally with the instructions in the e-mail.

However, I wasn’t actually late, which was a huge relief, and I went in to register in a very busy foyer area – I found my own name badge and was then handed a scratchy lanyard and a spiral bound conference “pack” (more of a “book” than a “pack” really). I noticed many displays of books and so on, which I hoped to look at later, and managed, with considerable effort, to collect a drink and a pastry on my way in – I hadn’t been able to eat before leaving so figured some nourishment would be a good idea. I then headed into the hall, where around 400 people had gathered.

A woman in an NAS t-shirt was close by the entrance. I asked if it was possible to have a seat on the end of a row. She told me that “there might be some over there”. There weren’t, so I sat on the penultimate seat on the front – at least there was space in front of me that way. Someone else came and sat on my other side, making me feel crushed into the small chair which was crammed right up to the chairs next to it. This was going to be really hard work. Exhausting and difficult. The stress levels started to rise.

A voice came over a loudspeaker asking people to fill up rows from the middle. More squeezing in, more crushing up. This was in stark contrast to the poetry event I’d attended a couple of weeks earlier where it had been announced that people should feel free to move chairs off to the side, to sit on the floor, and to be comfortable. Today was not going to be comfortable at all, rather the reverse. I took my fleece off and the person next to me invaded my space with their prickly jumper and even more prickly hair, making my arm flinch – it was like being prickled by a cactus the whole way through. I wedged my fleece between us in an attempt to avoid further prickling. The person on my other side (evidently also autistic) tried to move as far away as possible but was not confident enough to move their chair at that stage.

There was a short introduction by two people: Lorraine MacAlister, who was wearing a fascinating blue top with sort of “open-plan” arms, and Rachel Townson, and then the first of the day’s plenary sessions, from Tony Attwood, began. I’ll discuss the content of all the conference sessions I attended in a separate post because I took 11 pages of notes in addition to the mini reproductions of the slides that were part of my conference pack, and even I know that there might be a sensible limit to the length of blog posts sometimes!

About half an hour into the first plenary I knew I wouldn’t be able to get through the whole thing sitting “properly” on my chair. I could feel the sweat starting to trickle down my back and knew that the nauseous feelings I get in such situations wouldn’t be far behind. I moved my chair forward ever so slightly in the desperate hope of getting some space, and eventually took one of my shoes off and folded my foot underneath me, which really helped. I also put my attenuating ear plugs in, because I was becoming aware that the amplified speech was already overloading me, and this was going to be a long day – if I didn’t want to become a practical demonstration of an autistic meltdown for the assembled company I was going to have to take some action to avoid it.

I focused on taking notes, something I’ve learnt over years of being a student and taking minutes in office meetings. The material was not unfamiliar to me, both from reading and, sometimes, from personal experience, and I was on a mission to learn, so taking notes and following the slides seemed like a good strategy in any case. While there is much about Attwood that is controversial (I’ll be writing about that later), I was still, at that stage of the day, observing and taking in information, and hadn’t reached the “analysis” stage.

The second speaker, Wenn Lawson, was instantly relatable in a way that Attwood hadn’t been. I was still desperately uncomfortable, squeezed into the tiny chair, without sufficient space to stim as I felt I needed to (a discreet fidget cube will only get me so far if my body is predominantly contorted into a “normal” sitting position), but the calmness of Lawson’s delivery helped to bring the anxiety down somewhat. I was still much disturbed by the noise of pages turning, and even more so by the feeling of the air on my arms from those close to me turning their pages, but I knew I’d manage to get through to the break time by this stage.

Break time meant relief from the chair. I knew everybody would be moving anyway after the break, because the conference was splitting into three “streams”, each focusing on different areas. I got up and went to the back of the hall and out to the foyer where refreshments were available. And that was as far as I got. I knew, from the way in that tea was going to be problematic for me – hot water, tea bags in wrappers, milk goodness knows where, complication complication complication. I’d just about managed it once, at the start, when the foyer was rapidly emptying. This time there was no chance. I even struggle to make a cup of tea in my own kitchen much of the time, and I knew that in these circumstances it was beyond me. I stood and looked at this sea of people and thought “Bollocks! This is the bit where I need a carer and I haven’t got one” and for a brief moment thought that attending at all might have been a mistake. I might even have gone home at this point if I’d been able to get to the exit, or if I hadn’t been determined to “complete”, in the way that I so often am!

So I went back into the hall, unrefreshed, and resigned myself to the fact that I probably wouldn’t be able to eat or drink or use the toilet all day (the toilets were also in the foyer place). They’d said there was a quiet room of some sort, but I had no idea where it was. They’d said to ask. I’m not sure I could have found words to ask anyone, even if I could have worked out WHO to ask from within the giant sea of humanity threatening to wash me away in a tidal wave.

But I have one or two strengths that meant I survived. First, I had, sensibly as it turned out, taken a couple of snacks and a bottle of water with me in my bag. Secondly, I might be very low on executive functioning skills and I might also be very mentally ill a lot of the time, but physically I’m pretty robust. My system can survive on snacks. I can go all day without a wee if needs be and if I budget fluid intake carefully. So I headed for the safest place I could find, which was the corner of the room where the next session was to take place. I moved a chair off the end of a row and put it next to the wall so I’d be able to rock without bashing into anyone else and pressure stim against the wall, and I got out my phone and retreated into my world, with my friends, where I knew I’d have loads of support.

I discovered online that there were other autistic people there having exactly the same problems that I was. The phrase “not autistic friendly” popped up, and I knew, at least, that I wasn’t the only one who was having difficulties. On my own facebook wall I updated my friends, and had a brief chat on messenger with one of them. Tension released somewhat. There were people there who could rescue me by talking me through it online if necessary.

My improved seating arrangements, with both shoes off now, sitting comfortably with my legs crossed up on the chair, back against the wall, made the next session much easier. The autistic person who’d been sitting next to me in the first session was nearby and had clearly had enough of chair sitting too and moved, sensibly, to the floor, which was quite a nice red stripy carpet that I’d be happy to have in my sitting room given the choice. Khalid Karim turned out to be an engaging speaker and the subject matter was actually more interesting than I’d anticipated.

Then was lunchtime. I stood up and wandered, again, to the back of the hall to see whether there was any possibility at all that I’d be able to access lunch. There wasn’t. Not a hope. I stood for a few minutes and assessed the situation then returned to my seat and to the internet on my phone. Some of the other autistic people online had managed to find the quiet room and said it was lovely. I looked in my conference pack to see if there was any information as to where it was, but there wasn’t, so I abandoned that idea. I ate the snacks I’d brought with me and sipped my water, just enough to prevent total dehydration, but not enough to need to access a toilet.

I chatted to my friends on facebook again – one of them even offered to ring the hotel and try to get some food sent to me (I have some superb friends), and found myself accidentally listening to something about autistic teenagers, presented by Lorraine MacAlister, which had a moment that made me say “YES!” to myself, and gave me hope that somebody somewhere is actually listening to autistic people.

And then it was back to Tony Attwood for the rest of the afternoon. It was rather an Attwood-heavy day all in all! I was, however, reasonably comfortable in what I now regarded as MY seat (by that point I’d have happily wrestled anyone who tried to move me). Even though people were still eating and still trying to access lunch, Attwood refused to delay the session, basically saying that people “should have been faster”. I’d be interested to know HOW they could have been faster, since 400 people trying to eat from a buffet in a crowded foyer in 50 minutes is such a tall order!

It was somewhere during this session that Attwood’s “humour” really started to grate on me. I wrote something in my notes about the quantity of wine I would need this evening in order to recover from some of what I was hearing, then, having vented slightly in ink, returned calmly to taking notes about schizophrenia. I have an academic training. I use it when I need to. I had got to the point where I was starting to critique this man. And I was still gathering information. Information is my currency.

After a final tea break (during which I didn’t even attempt to leave my seat) there was a final plenary. I watched them undivide the room back into its full format and those who were still there (which, creditably, was most people – though not so many as earlier) returned to the room. I was pretty tired by this stage, but continued to listen, while starting to reflect on the day. I was also getting desperate for some solitude and some respite from the loudness of the amplification and the constantness of so many people, but I stayed until the end.

I’d vaguely hoped to see the book displays on the way out when it was quieter, but all was packed away when I returned to the foyer, so I was never able to access them, so I just left. Fortunately the car was close by, and as I got in and locked the doors behind me I felt a certain sense of achievement that I’d done it. I’d just sat and listened to a session about how kids store up all their tension throughout the school day then go home and could release in by smashing up the recycling (a strategy of sorts I suppose), I felt like this was the end of my school day, but instead of smashing up the recycling I contented myself with the calming effect of beautiful gear changes, slotting into gaps in the traffic when changing lanes, getting out of town from memory, going back via the motorway, and feeling the freedom of being back in my own space.

I finally got to eat that day when my husband returned home from work via the chip shop! And I did have several glasses of what might be termed “maladaptive strategy” to go with my chips!

Clear Air

The storm didn’t really come in the form of a meltdown in the end. I was so exhausted that it morphed into a shutdown instead.

I’d had a really really busy day. The busiest in months. I went to play in a performance of Mendelssohn’s Elijah with a local choral society – playing my viola from time to time is one of the very few things I didn’t abandon completely when burnout hit. The gig entailed a three hour rehearsal in the afternoon, then being hosted at someone’s house for supper, then the concert in the evening, which also lasted nearly three hours.

I’d done a similar gig last December, but declined the supper invitation and spent the intervening time sitting in the car on my own. This time I braved supper – partly, admittedly, because it was done on a “get in touch if you don’t want to have supper” basis this time around and my “getting in touch” abilities are pretty poor at the moment!

So I’d had this massively long full-on day. I’d been totally open about being autistic and having mental health issues (I’m getting slightly better at talking about it all). I’d kept my sunglasses on for most of the day. I’d coped with eating while sitting on a proper chair at a table and even participated in the conversation over supper a bit. I’d left supper slightly early to give myself some space to be alone before the concert. I’d spent most of the interval sitting on the floor, wearing my ear defenders and rocking back and forth. And I had, of course, played all 90 pages of the viola part of Elijah – twice (perversely, although physically very tiring, that was actually the easy bit)!

I got home and downed a few glasses of wine and ate some cheese, then went for a bath.

And then felt exactly as I had done in the pub episode in Sudden Illness.

I suddenly felt absolutely dreadful, sat up in the bath, unable to keep still, and burst into tears.

And this is where what happens now deviates from what used to happen in the past.

In the past, I would have stoically continued, as I did in the pub, to act as “normally” as possible. I might well have ended up being sick, and would probably have got almost no sleep and have spent the night in bed lying awake, shaking, believing myself to have some sort of illness that I couldn’t quite rationalise. I have pushed on and on in such circumstances so many times.

And the result of that pushing has been a continual decline in my mental health, a continual drain on my energy, and the resulting burnouts and erosion of my functioning abilities. Trying to be strong has, in fact, weakened me. “Faking it until I make it” has not worked – in fact, the more I faked it, the less I made it.

So I sat in the bath and cried, and my husband came to investigate and found a distraught mess. He calmed me down and drank the orange juice that I had asked for not long before as I indicated that I couldn’t drink it. And he also realised that my ability to speak was completely gone. Fortunately he’s used to it – and actually rather reassured now that we know I’m autistic, having thought, for the last fifteen years, that when I didn’t speak to him for hours at a time I was actually cross with him for some misdemeanour!

Then I went to bed, and beat my head against the pillow for a bit, before finally settling down to sleep. And I did sleep, where, in the past, I would have been unlikely to.

The next day my words didn’t return until mid-afternoon. My system finally closed down, and I did little more than lie on the sofa and sleep from time to time. But I felt calmer. The tension had gone. The storm had passed. The air had cleared.

And now I understand why this happens from time to time it feels easier to cope with. I’m not getting ill in the same way I did when I tried to fight through and keep still and so on. Although, perversely, the behaviour I exhibit probably looks more disturbing and maybe even frightening from the outside, from the inside it is very different.

In the past, an outside observer would just have seen someone who seemed like they were unwell and therefore became quiet – I’d have looked as most people expected me to look. But inside I would have been feeling utterly terrible, utterly unable to comprehend why I felt so bad, and in a total state of panic and desperation.

These days an observer would see someone who was completely unable to talk, compulsively rocking, maybe flapping their hands, bashing themselves against things, and even (though I try not to do this too much) hitting their own legs and arms with their fists. The part of me that has spent over 40 years trying to fit into a neurotypical world knows that I must look odd, and even maybe distressing, to the outside observer.

But inside, these things calm me. Inside they feel instinctive and normal and OK and can very quickly make me feel much much better, better enough to settle down to sleep. Better enough to wake the next morning and know that it doesn’t matter if I still can’t speak and I have to draw a letter T on my husband’s skin with my finger to indicate that I’d like a cup of tea.

And he no longer thinks I’m just asking for tea that way because I can’t be bothered to ask properly. And I no longer force the words to return before they are ready, and my brain therefore has time to recover.

It still feels very new, because it is still very new, allowing myself to be like this. I know from reading posts on groups and so on that many late diagnosed autistic people struggle to allow themselves to be who they really are, after decades learning to live a different way. And I’m certainly not always finding it easy – the intersections with the outside world can be particularly difficult at times, and the change from the old life is huge. But I am determined to live as my real self – 45 years was quite long enough to maintain the act that so nearly killed me on many occasions.

So that is the way it now is. And my way is to allow myself to be as fully autistic as I need to be wherever and whenever possible. And to be open about it as much as I can.

And maybe it sounds really odd, but that actually makes me really really happy, because it feels so completely right.

The new life becomes more and more real as time goes on.

Oscillating

The undamped pendulum mentioned in Uncomfortable continues to swing. My life continues to feel like it has some way to go before it settles into whatever my new “normal” becomes.

I don’t imagine, for one moment, that I shall ever achieve the stability that many people seem to in their lives – I’m just not built that way, and I know that monitoring my mood and my functioning abilities and so on will probably always be a part of my life. I know that my abilities and skills are very uneven and that they fluctuate significantly from day to day – yesterday it took me 3 hours to make a cup of tea, but this morning it was less than an hour. And, when I look back through my life, these things have always been the case.

But I do believe that things will eventually settle into something a little less crazy. I’m still only 9 months out from the very first suggestions that I might be autistic and only 11 weeks out from my diagnosis. These are early days, and things I have read by others suggest that life will calm down somewhat over the next year or so.

As I start to recover a little from burnout I’m also pushing myself out into the world a bit more. Strictly speaking I don’t NEED to push myself quite as much as I do (people say to me that I should take time, rest, and so on), but I am keen to get back to things and to do as much as I can (simply because I’m generally interested in stuff I think). The result of the pushing when out is that I’m regressing slightly at home – returning to the simpler comfort food more often, spending more time stimming, losing verbal functionality a bit more often, and so on. I’m starting to work on observing the patterns and looking at ways of monitoring them.

And so, each time I increase my activity, or push myself, or whatever, the oscillations get bigger, and then I need to stop and allow things to settle a bit. I find myself switching, every few days between two basic states – one in which I’m really negative and struggling and finding life tough, and the other in which I’m actually quite positive and optimistic and keen to make plans for the future.

So, during the negative times I end up with these sorts of feelings:

1. I want to hide under the duvet, away from the world, safe underneath a blanket, and just stay indoors in the dark for ever.

2. I do not want to eat, drink, or, sometimes even move. I am anxious and distracted and every tiny thing feels like a huge huge effort.

3. I am hypersensitive to things that I read, and I worry that I’m getting things wrong socially, even online. I constantly find that people don’t react to things the way I expect them to and I feel like my judgement is off somehow.

4. I struggle even to post on this blog or on my facebook wall and don’t feel that I have the right to be around or to even breathe the air. I’m frightened of the whole thing, nervous to post blog links up in case people hate them and don’t want to read them, fearful that I’ve upset people when the number of page likes goes down, and so on.

5. I feel like an alien everywhere and like a total beginner, even within autistic communities such as on social media and the blogging world. It’s like everyone else is somehow a “grown-up” and I’m standing in the corner at the party trying to work out what to do.

6. I feel huge fatigue at the whole “autism thing”. I look at the pile of books and scroll through my feed and I wonder what happened (I’d hardly even heard of any of this a year ago). I feel worn out by the last 9 months, the constant research, the incessant discovery, and I just want to do something different.

7. I sometimes feel totally freaked out by the whole thing. Everything has happened so fast. Suddenly my life was upended and I’m autistic and what on Earth happened there and I don’t know who I am any more, and I just want life to go back to normal and stop throwing weird shit at me.

8. I feel as if it will never get better and that if life is going to be like this for ever I can see very little point continuing with it. I feel useless and believe that I will never be able to contribute anything of real value to society.

And during the positive times I end up with THESE sorts of feelings:

1. I want to be out in the world again, back in my running shoes, back playing in orchestras, going for coffee, seeing people, and so on.

2. I’m even starting to fancy particular foods again on the better days and I can manage to eat a little more and a little more sensibly. I can do laundry and a bit of admin work.

3. I’m better able to respond with humour and more capable of brushing off the difficult stuff using brainpower. I put a more positive interpretation on things that are said and am learning to weed out the “advice” that I now know is not helpful for me. I cope better when the response is not what I was expecting because I know that’s part of my social imagination difficulties and I can rationalise it.

4. I will happily chat away on social media, share blog posts, and even write more posts with a certain level of confidence. If fewer people like the page then it’s no big deal, and if people don’t like me posting links to blog posts then I’m not really worried – folk have a right to choose what they look at or otherwise.

5. I feel that I do have some experience and knowledge about being autistic that I can contribute to the discussions, and when I feel like an outsider I’m perfectly comfortable with that – I’ve never needed a “tribe” before and I don’t really need one now. I can just be me, whatever that turns out to be.

6. I still feel that there is so much to learn about autism and being autistic. There are more books to read, more things to learn, and I have a huge list of things to research and blog about and discover. I’m even diagnosed now and can do this at my pace, and I might even find an area that interests me enough to form part of my future.

7. I feel so much more “at peace” with myself than I’ve ever felt. Discovering that I’m autistic might be new and unfamiliar and a bit crazy, but I know it’s right and it explains so much and I feel so much happier already and am treating myself more gently and appropriately and there’s no way I could go back to the old life, ever, because this new one is so much more ME and I find myself thinking how wonderful it is to have discovered it at last and I want to go and shout it from the rooftops!

8. I feel like there is hope for a much better future. I make plans for things I’d like to do in the next five years and I start to think about what I might like to do with the rest of my life. I feel like I might even be able to do something useful at some point and think about what that might be.

And so, these two states describe my life currently. I oscillate between them approximately every 2-3 days. On the good days I catch up with admin, write blog posts, try to do a little work, maybe play my viola, get some exercise, and sort the house out a little. On the bad days I just try to get through, to survive, and to still be alive at bedtime.

There’s some connection between the amount I push myself and make myself do things and go out into the world and the two states above – sometimes I deliberately maintain a positive “act” of sorts (maybe I am still masking somewhat) in order to do something I want to do or have planned and don’t want to cancel, and the result can be a tumble into the negative state. I’ve also noticed that the negative states often end with me becoming nonverbal, as though they’re caused by my head needing some sort of “reboot” and also that meltdowns are more likely in that state, particularly when I’ve pushed myself out and maintained the “act” described above.

And so the cycle continues, and I expect it will for some time to come as my brain continues to process things and I continue to work out how to deal with such wildly fluctuating moods and energy levels.

I guess it keeps life interesting…