The Preamble

I have become increasingly conscious over the last few weeks that there is a significant part of my “autistic journey” still absent from this blog. I’m also conscious that I have so far erred on the side of pointing out some of the inadequacies of services available, and that the only account of an autism assessment I have thus far published is a pretty scary and negative one.

It is true that I have encountered some difficult times during the diagnostic process and that there is much that could be improved. I still look back to the end of November 2016 with some horror and still hope to be able to feed back what happened at some point (one reason I try to type things up is so that they don’t vanish from my mind). And I also look back further to other “care” I have received, including the unhelpful GP who, two decades ago, told me to stop crying and sent me away with a packet of citalopram, and the counsellor I saw, a decade ago, who told me that it was my fault I didn’t fit in with the people at the office and I needed to try harder and learn to wear make-up and be able to discuss it and so on. These times were not good.

However, I can also look back into the history of my mental healthcare and pick out some people who were really good and really helpful. The locum GP who first referred me to a psychiatrist, realising how terribly ill I was, my current GP who has been totally supportive throughout, and a team of people who really did help with issues relating to my mental health and bipolar disorder in particular – an excellent CPN (community psychiatric nurse) and several charity workers who were brilliant. And I can look back into more recent history and see that the triage service (the stage between my GP appointment and my autism assessment) were also as helpful as they could be, and that I eventually ended up having a thorough, helpful, and successful autism assessment, carried out by people who really did know their stuff and really did help me to work out what was going on.

The only comparison I’ve thus far made between the two assessments I went through has been that in A Tale of Two Assessments, but now is the time to expand upon that post a little, and to try to write up, as best I can, five months on, what happened at that second assessment (or, indeed, third, if you count the assessment that was cancelled only hours before it was due to happen). Unlike the first assessment, which I didn’t write up for nearly a month because it was so triggering and upsetting, I’ve left the second assessment until now partly because external factors intervened (my father’s cancer diagnosis, various events to which I was committed, the need to sort out admin that had piled up prior to diagnosis, working on the report with my assessor) and partly because I have simply been exhausted and trying to process the whole thing. I knew, from reading what others had said on the topic, that getting a diagnosis would come with a whole load of conflicting emotions, and my assessors had also told me that alongside the relief would come a whole lot of other stuff, so I was prepared to go through another set of ups and downs like those described in Various Feelings.

What I had been less aware of is just how exhausted I would be, not only from relief because the fight to be recognized and validated was over and my life finally made sense and so on, but also from the energy used to gather the information over the preceding months. Looking back now, I can see that my life, from the end of August 2016 onwards, was almost totally taken up with researching autism. I read over 20 books, hundreds of blog posts, and spent hours and hours making lists, going through traits, going through my life, discussing with a few trusted friends, filling in quizzes and forms and questionnaires. The enormity of the discovery sent my mind into overdrive, and throughout September, October, and much of November I hardly slept or ate, was permanently on a sort of hypervigilant alert, and had a really intense time of discovery, of learning about my early childhood, of piecing things together, and of finally learning how to listen to my body and allowing myself to stim intensively, often for hours each day. Four decades of masking suddenly ended, the energy to pretend gone, completely burned out, and autistic me emerged somewhat powerfully.

Then came the first assessment and the crisis that followed it. My burnout finally reached the stage where I spent a lot of the time in shutdown, increasingly nonverbal, and retreating from the world, just trying to survive. However, the job of getting a diagnosis was still not done, so I kept pushing and pushing, started this blog, gathered more evidence, went through more stress, and my husband worked like crazy to get me the second referral to the team who eventually diagnosed me. Having been through the six months prior to February, it’s not really surprising that once the objective was achieved, I was utterly exhausted. And I still have to cope with being autistic, in my mid-40s and in perimenopause, working out where to go from here, and trying to maintain sufficient levels of self-care not to fall apart completely. I’ve also, tentatively, started to sort out the pieces of my life that were abandoned several months ago and have started to get back out into the world a bit more and begun the process of working out where I go from here, as I’m finally beginning to regain a bit of functionality again.

But now I am as ready as I’ll ever be to fill in the gap in the story of my diagnosis, the tale of the time between Weekend Journal and An Announcement, and of the five hours of my life that gave me the validation and permission to be myself and confirmed that what I’d learned over the preceding six months was true, confirmed by somebody who clearly knew what they were talking about and was willing to give me as much time as I needed to explain, to talk, to work things out, and who made the experience as smooth as it possibly could have been. I can’t yet predict how many blog posts telling this story will take, nor how long it will take me to write them all, nor what other posts I might feel moved to write in between times, before I complete the whole “diagnosis” story, but once I’ve documented the whole process I’ll try to find some way of linking everything up so anyone who’s interested can follow everything sequentially. I’m in the process of trying to organize the whole blog a bit better anyway.

It’s strange now to think, just over five months later, about those five hours on that day. It was a day that had been long awaited in several senses – the time after the first assessment had felt like an eternity, the months following the discovery had been intense and focused almost entirely on getting a diagnosis, and the four decades of a life that didn’t quite work had finally got to the stage where all those little things that weren’t quite “right” would be explained and validated by one sentence on one rather surreal day.

It was certainly one of the most significant days of my entire life!

The Incident

I can still remember the moment, even though it was some years ago now. It was the moment the woman kicked me, and then shouted at me, and I went into a total panic, terrified, unable to articulate anything, unable to cope, and my senses went haywire and I needed to scream and run away and not be where I was any more and everything felt terribly terribly wrong.

Running away at that moment, however, was really really difficult. The best I could do was to get to the side of the pool, get out as fast as I could. Shaking and trembling I managed to retrieve my stuff from the locker, put minimal clothes on over my wet costume, then slammed the locker door, screamed in anguish, and ran towards the exit of the leisure centre, and to my car, and to safety.

Except that I never reached my car. The manager of the leisure centre stopped me and wouldn’t let me leave. She made me sit down and I started to feel really sick. She started talking about police. I started to think “Oh fuck, this is seriously bad news”. I managed, just, to say the words “Mental health” to her, hoping desperately that once she realised I was in the middle of what I believed at the time was a really bad panic attack she’d let me go. She didn’t, although she did decide not to call the police on me, but instead called the local doctor’s surgery, taking my name from my leisure centre admission card.

Eventually I was deemed calm enough to be allowed to leave, and I returned home, where I then received a call from the surgery, which didn’t help matters at all because it reignited the panic. I slammed the phone down on the doctor, desperate to be left alone.

I never went back to that particular leisure centre, even though I had a membership that had some time still to run. I swam a few times again at a different pool, until it became too much and I just gave up swimming, even though it was something I loved doing, and, at the time, was the only regular exercise I took. Somehow it was just too difficult and the memories of that “panic attack” were just too painful.

I saw my own GP shortly after the incident and tried to explain to her what had happened and to get the incident erased from my medical records. It had been reported and noted that I was “violent and aggressive”, which I disagreed with. I didn’t feel violent or aggressive – I felt scared and distressed and not in control of my actions or my head, like there was some sort of explosive reaction inside me that I was powerless to stop. There was no violence. If anything I was trying to STOP anything that might have been perceived as violence, trying really hard to stop whatever it was that was making the world feel so awful at that moment.

My GP was sympathetic but said she couldn’t erase the record completely, however, she would add to my notes to put my side of the story on there and to point out that I had a history of these rather extreme “panic attacks” and that none of it was my fault. It was a damage limitation exercise at that point, but it was the best I could do.

Just over three years ago we moved to a different area, and to a place within easy walking distance of a swimming pool. I was aware that it was there. I took up running shortly after we moved and ran past it fairly regularly. Before the “incident” (as it is now known) I’d have been straight down there and joined, but I hesitated, because swimming had ceased to be my thing, even though it had very much been my thing for many years. Running was now my thing – it was safer, easier to be alone, with no time constraints, and so on. However, I did eventually take out a membership, which I only used once – after I’d run my first marathon someone said to me that swimming was a really good way of recovering, so I went down to the pool and did 42 lengths (one length for each full kilometre of the marathon distance) a couple of days after the race.

Then last September I went to see my GP again, following the suggestions from several friends that I might be autistic. My husband and I took quite a lot of notes we’d made about my childhood and my subsequent life and a list of things we’d taken as examples of autistic traits that were listed in various books we’d used for research. I think I started by saying something like “This is going to sound really random, but some folks have suggested I might be autistic…” before letting my husband take over the narrative because it all felt so weird.

My GP almost literally kicked herself and said something along the lines of “Of course, why didn’t we see this earlier?” or similar. And then, in a further “lightbulb moment” she mentioned, unprompted by us, the “swimming pool incident” and at that moment it became obvious that what had happened that day, several years earlier, was not a panic attack but an autistic meltdown (one of rather a lot of such things that have happened over the years). Bizarrely, the incident I’d tried so hard to have erased from my medical records actually confirmed the autism hypothesis, and my GP was writing the referral for a formal autism assessment pretty much before we’d even left the room.

After that one post-marathon swim, well over 2 years ago, I never went back even to the new pool. I discovered quite quickly that I could recover from marathons perfectly well without swimming, and something I’d enjoyed as a child, absolutely loved as a student, and done reasonably regularly throughout adulthood simply disappeared from my life. I had running now in any case, so it really didn’t matter whether I swam or not.

I’ve pondered for the last year or so whether I’d ever swim again. I vaguely have in mind that I’d like to do a triathlon some day, so thought that swimming might feature in my future somehow, although it was always “in the future” and since I don’t currently have a working bicycle or anywhere to keep one, triathlon is still firmly “in the future” and will probably require another house move in any case.

But last week a friend of mine went swimming. And I was suddenly rather envious. And I googled the opening hours of the pool to see when they might be. And I found my swimming bag, as it had been left, over 2 years ago, with costume, goggles, towel, and so on, all ready to go. Maybe? Just maybe? Then this morning on my facebook memories from a few years back there was a status saying that I’d been swimming for the first time in a year (evidently one of the times I was trying to get back into it, but that didn’t stick).

And the temptation was finally too much. Armed with the knowledge that it would be a total sensory overload experience and that how far I’d get with it depended not upon my physical swimming ability, but upon my system’s ability to cope with noise and light (even though my goggles are slightly tinted, they’re not as dark as I’d like) and being in close proximity to other people. KNOWING this was the case I was better prepared than I have been in the past, and the magic of the internet was also able to provide a little graph showing when the “least busy times” were, so I picked the time when it was likely to be emptiest (over lunchtime as it turned out), and it was indeed quite empty in the main pool.

And I bought a single swim, not a membership, so there’s no pressure to go again. If it turns out to be something I can manage to do regularly I’ll consider a membership at that point – rather than going in fast and crashing out, I’m trying to take it gently, one swim at a time, and not pushing how long I stay in the pool until I work out what my sensory system can cope with because I really really want to avoid a repeat of the meltdown scenario, which should be easier now that I know what it was all about and what caused the “incident” all those years ago.

Being back in the water was lovely. My arms aren’t as strong as they were, and my cardio isn’t what it was a couple of years ago (I already know that from recent running exploits), but I happily swam 40 lengths – I thought I’d go for a kilometre to be gentle, rather than the mile that used to be my regular swimming distance for many years. I was conscious that the real challenge wasn’t the swimming at all, but just being in the pool with people and noise, and I was trying to monitor how that felt. So far, so good, although I was pretty wrecked when I got home and needed total dark and silence for a while to calm down.

Who knows what happens next. One swim at a time for the moment. But I’m hopeful I’ll get back something that I used to love, now I know what caused it to go wrong several years ago.

Trail Return

So last weekend I went back to the place where I fell apart while playing music last August.

And this weekend I went back to the place where I fell apart while running in my last race before burnout hit so badly that I was forced to take a complete break from running, to the place mentioned in The Background, where I eventually pulled out of the race, believing that I had some sort of mystery illness because I felt so dreadful.

This afternoon we drove to what is, during that race, aid station 4 (and which is a car park most of the time). I parked the car in pretty much the same place as I sat with a race official almost a year ago, trying to explain that I was really not well, but I didn’t know how I was not well. I didn’t understand, then, why everything was so painfully loud and bright and hot, or why I felt constantly as if I was about to be sick or that I really felt that I needed to burst into tears but couldn’t.

I didn’t understand then why, at the previous aid station, I’d felt like the trees were coming towards me, I’d been unable to form the words to ask for a cup of tea, and the voices of people around me were distorted and incomprehensible.

Neither did I understand why the world around me seemed to be breaking into a million little fragments, and I couldn’t make sense of any of them, still less run an ultramarathon.

Back then I put it down to a combination of “mental health problems” and “maybe a virus”. It would be a few weeks more before someone suggested I might be autistic, and another month before I started to take the idea seriously.

I’ve gradually started to return to running over the last few weeks. I went out and did a couple of kilometres, then 5K, then 8K, and I also did 12K of strenuous walking earlier this week. All of this, however, has been on the road, mostly not far from home where the running was concerned.

But today was different. For the first time in a year I took kit with me and changed into it elsewhere (which requires a lot of executive functioning energy). I drove and parked out on the trail. And I did 8K of trail running, on gently undulating decent path, admittedly (it absolutely wasn’t fell running).

Once again I drank warm disgusting water out of the bladder in my backpack, once again I pushed myself hard physically (I’m actually pleasantly surprised at how much residual fitness I’ve retained, though I have some way to go before I am where I want to be). It was also a hot day, which added somewhat to the challenge.

And I chose to go back to the very same place where I’d fallen apart in the race nearly a year ago. To deal with the psychological stuff too, to run the same path that I’d previously staggered, before collapsing, ill and broken, by the side of the trail, from where I had to be rescued by race officials and a car to take me to safety.

Today was an interesting experience. The physical bit was actually quite easy, and I didn’t feel any great psychological impact, though the memories of sitting in a folding chair, sipping flat coke, and desperately trying to find words to convey to the race officials what was wrong with me (I didn’t know, of course) were very strong.

But, what I did experience, very strongly, was exactly the same sensory overload that I had done the year before. As I got back to the car and met up with my husband (who’d been running in the opposite direction – we rarely run together), the sick, dizzy, bad feelings overtook me and I knew I was totally wrecked. I sat in the car and suddenly felt the familiar ill feelings engulf me. My running kit was suddenly unbearably constricting and I simply took it off (my husband attempting to shield me from a man in an adjacent parked car – though by that stage getting the clothes off was all that mattered to me). I put my ordinary t-shirt on, then bashed my head against the door frame of the car several times, which helped, and my husband suggested that maybe we should walk around a bit to dissipate some of the evident tension.

So I ended up walking circuits of the car park, flapping my hands wildly, while my language fragmented and sentence structure fell apart, and I ended up monosyllabic.

My husband, who is quite accustomed to me being a little out of the ordinary simply remarked “You really are mad as a box of frogs aren’t you?” I concurred, and pondered the madness of frogs in boxes, as I usually do!

By the time I felt well enough to get back into the car to drive home my speech had completely gone, and as I type this, 3 hours later, it is just returning, in effortful monosyllables (and I’m still really stimmy and unable to sit still). However, with the loss of speech, the ill feelings started to subside, and I was able to drive us home perfectly well.

And I’m pleased, because I did something today that would have been unthinkable even a few weeks ago. I’m still very burnt out, still a long way from well, and I now know that one of my major challenges when running out in a world with so much light and noise and so on is to deal with the effect that the sensory overload has on my system. It’ll be even more challenging during races when I’m going to encounter other people in large numbers, and going to have to find a way of explaining how much energy it takes to speak to them or to process their words if they speak to me. There’s a whole lot of learning and so on still to be done.

But today I got back out onto the trail. I managed to do something I haven’t done for nearly a year, and I observed how far I can push myself before my system breaks.

And it’s so much easier to deal with now I know WHY it happens. There’s a long way to go until I figure out how to deal with it all, but at least knowing what I’m dealing with is a good starting point!

It was good to be back. Doing what I love, starting the journey back to long distances, when I hope to be out there on the trails, running through the night again, and experiencing the magic that is ultrarunning!

What A Year!

It’s my birthday tomorrow!

Don’t panic – this isn’t some sort of crisis of ageing, or plea for cake (though I’m not averse to cake), or any other similar thing. I have no issues with birthdays – been having them all my life and am generally pretty chilled about them.

I do always have a little moment of thinking about the actual number though, and usually, when I move from an odd to an even number it’s really satisfying – especially if it’s a really good even number with loads of factors, or some nice symmetry or something. 46 could be worse – a year of life for every chromosome is quite satisfying, and the fact that its prime factorisation is 2×23 echoes the chromosomal connection, since chromosomes come in pairs, enhances that satisfaction (even though 23 is a much larger prime factor than I’d ideally end up with for maximum numerical pleasure). That it’s made up of two adjacent even numbers pleases me, as does the fact that the digits add up to 10. I’m sure I’ll be thinking of many more advantages and disadvantages of 46 as a number over the coming year!

So today is the last day that my age will be 45. Unusually for an odd number, I find it really pleasurable. Prime factorisation of 3x3x5 is good, the fact that it is the sum of the digits is even better, and, of course, it is a multiple of 5. Multiples of 5 are the most preferable of all the odd numbers to me, so being a “5” is always good. Furthermore, the digits add up to 9, which is a square number (nice) and it is, itself, a triangular number! All this is good!

However, aside from an excuse to enjoy a bit of prime factorisation and so on, and maybe eat some cake or have slightly nicer wine for the evening, birthdays do make me pause, just briefly, to remember birthdays gone by and to reflect on the past year.

And this year I’m looking back at the last 12 months and basically thinking “Crikey! Did all that really happen?” in a really really big way.

Really really big!

Because 45 is always going to be the age I was when I discovered I was autistic and when I received my diagnosis.

I’m still struggling to explain just why such a discovery and diagnosis is such a big thing (though talking to others who have been through the same has revealed that I’m not the only one who regards this as such a big thing, as life-changing, and probably even life-saving (or, perhaps, life-prolonging, because I have to die sometime, just a case of whether that sometime is sooner or later)). I am, of course, still trying to get my head round the whole thing in any case – the discovery was only 11 months ago and the diagnosis less than 5 months ago, and on my last birthday I was still totally clueless about my neurology and about many of the things that have occupied my mind for most of the last year.

I wasn’t someone who’d “suspected for a while” (though I always knew I was a tad on the eccentric side and generally did things my own way, and I’d been aware all my life that the world was generally confusing and often difficult, and so on – but I assumed that was just the way life was for most folk and they just had more energy than I did), so I really have gone from “completely oblivious” to “diagnosed autistic” in a rather short space of time.

And I find myself in the slightly odd position of being rather knowledgeable about being autistic, simply because that has been my lived experience of the world all my life, which is rather strange. And, of course, because when I then get interested in something (such as autism) I get VERY interested, I’ve learnt a whole load of stuff that I’d never even have imagined existed this time last year! And most of it basically describes me, and my life – and I turn out to be rather less unique and different than I’ve always assumed! This is also odd – I was a quirky, crazy, eccentric, and rather batty neurotypical person who had basically failed at loads of stuff and was seriously mentally ill (all of this so I thought, though I’d never have used the term neurotypical because it wasn’t part of my vocabulary), and then suddenly I wasn’t – I was a really rather ordinary and quite stereotypical autistic person who’d been trying to be something I wasn’t for decades and had broken myself in the process (quite a revelation)!

And I’ve spent much of the last year thinking about all this, and learning, and realising that I AM, in fact, very stereotypically autistic. And as soon as I put autism into the equation, my life makes sense in a way that it never has done previously. And as soon as I realised what had been happening all these years and ran out of energy to mask, it all seemed so very very obvious!

And all this happened when I was 45. From first suggestions, formation of hypothesis, through self discovery and the diagnostic process, discovering other autistic people, taking my first tentative steps into becoming part of the autistic community, becoming a blogger, and starting the process of reframing my past and pondering what might make a more suitable future than the one that I’d been working towards all my life (and failing to achieve).

There’s loads more to do and loads more to learn. I’m still reading and watching and working out how to respond to people’s questions. I’m still trying to work out how to respond to my OWN questions – this is not something that happens overnight, and my views on things are still constantly changing and evolving in the light of new information. This is a process that will probably continue, to a greater or lesser extent, for the rest of my life.

But one thing is fixed. For the rest of my life, the year during which my age was 45 will forever be one of the most important years of my life (maybe even THE most important). The twelve months that have just happened have undoubtedly changed my entire identity (yes, it really IS that big – I am of course “still me” in many ways, but the knowledge I have gained in the past year means that my life will never be the same again – my past looks completely different now, and the way I live my life and feel about myself and my place in the world has changed forever – this is not a bad thing, rather a great relief and liberation from years of pretending to be someone I wasn’t)!

Tomorrow will be my first birthday as a known autistic (obviously, I’ve been autistic on all my other birthdays, but just didn’t know). I’m not sure how I feel about it (thanks alexithymia), but I sort of think it should be significant somehow. Perhaps I’ll work it out at some point. I think maybe there is a sense of moving on and continuing to rebuild my life and continuing to experiment and to work out what I’m actually going to DO with however many years I have left on this planet (that isn’t yet obvious to me, having had to ditch many of my previous expectations), but also a year of “this time last year”s ahead, as I continue to process everything that has happened and to review each milestone in my autistic journey with the benefit of a year’s hindsight.

But whatever happens in the future, what happened when I was 45 will stay with me for ever. 45 will never be “just another age” for me. Not only did I get my diagnosis at 45, but the whole process happened within that year. I can’t imagine I’ll ever have another year like it again.

My mind’s still a bit blown by it all really!

But, on balance, in a good way!

Pendulum Pushing

Just as the oscillations
Start to settle
I push the pendulum again.

“Let’s do more,
Let’s try to return
To some of my old life,
To music, to running,
To being out in the world
And seeing people
And being
Functional!”

Yay!
Exciting!

But, the thing is,
That doing those things
Means I push the pendulum

Just as it settles
And calms
I cannot resist
Giving it another huge
SHOVE!!!!!!!!

And then it swings wildly back
In the other direction.

Of course it does.
That’s how pendulums work.

So I push
And achieve
And get that feeling
That there might be
A decent future
After all.

That I might cope out in the world
Even sometimes enjoy
And maybe even
Have one or two friends.

But then I crash.
And lose confidence
And have to retreat
And can’t judge if I’m getting
Things wrong, socially,
And I plunge back into
A much more depleted state.
I struggle to eat
Or interact
And I wonder
Whether there is
Any place
For me
In this world.

And once again
I question
The value of my life.

And write gibberish
(In italics below)
At 3 in the morning.

My brain knows this is how it is.
And that it is the only way
To rebuild life
To something
That I feel
Is worth
Bothering with.

And I always push
Because that is my way.
And I don’t want people
To stop asking me
To do things.

But I have to accept
That there is a price.
And I need to recover.

And in the meantime
My head won’t work properly.
And I can’t think
Well enough
To blog or write except
In this “poem” form.

Maybe it is enough for now.
Maybe I just have to accept
That sometimes
Life feels rather bleak.

***

Sometimes I still get
An overwhelming feeling
Of not belonging
In this world.

Even when progress
Is made.
Even when life is
Apparently
Improving.

I still wonder
What I’m even doing
On this planet.

Words echo in my head.
Some recent,
Some from years ago.
My mind interprets them
And nearly always
Draws the conclusion
That the place
Would be better off
Without me.

A last small thing
Making everything
Feel so wrong.

But I am supposed
To be a success story.
I am constantly told
I am brave
And stuff like that.

But I don’t feel brave
I feel small
And unbrave.

I still wonder
How much of this “brave”
Is an act
A great effort
Of foolery
By my brain
Which is
Once again
Covering for
My broken mind.

I can walk the walk
I can smile and succeed
But I am still coming home
Destroyed and exhausted.

I still do not feel
I have found a place
In this world.
I slot myself into corners
Where I can
And I know what to say
In so many circumstances
Because I have learnt
And learnt well.

But the world still does not
Make sense to me.

I am returning to my life
But still an actor.
Maybe this is how
It has to be.

I have an explanation
But no solutions.

Perhaps this is as good as it gets.

It isn’t very good really.

Pride

Today is, the internet informs me, Autistic Pride Day!

This is another of those things that, until this year, I wasn’t aware existed. Just like autism awareness day / week / month or whatever, I was pretty much oblivious to all of this stuff, just as I was oblivious to the fact that I was, it turned out, autistic!

I really should pay more attention!

I’m really not sure I can claim to be proud to be autistic, since being autistic was an entirely effortless process on my part – all I had to do was be born! The processes that meant I have an autistic brain went on all by themselves without me having to do anything at all – I just existed in the only way I knew how!

I’m not quite sure even that I can be proud of surviving this far while working to survive in a world that turns out to be a bit more challenging for me than it is for many others. I’ve had several times of trying not to survive and my survival through them has been entirely down to luck. I suspect I only coped with such high anxiety levels because, to me, they were just normal!

Neither do I feel that I have yet done anything much else to be proud of, although I’m at least sufficiently aware to know that some of my friends will tell me off and say “Yes, but you do xyz and it’s amazing…” and so on! I’m still working on this bit, and it’s probably the area where I have the most internalised ableism towards myself – I know I haven’t fully dealt with the issues discussed in Expectations Gone and Career Snake!, and that that’s still very much work in progress.

Furthermore, the society in which I live generally measures value in terms of financial success – it’s all very well being told “well, you write a nice blog” or “that was lovely that you played some music”, but if I show up at the checkout in the supermarket and tell them that I’d like to pay for my food with “nice comments”, then I’ll go hungry. The part of me that was brought up to believe that I would earn my own money and be “successful” in that way is still fighting with the part of me that knows just how little I contribute and how I am entirely dependent upon handouts from others to survive. I can’t even claim to be pulling my weight domestically – I don’t raise kids because I couldn’t have them, and my husband does about 90% of the domestic work in the flat!

Anyway, I digress. This is supposed to be about pride. And, perhaps, pride in a rather different sense, but because of the way my mind works it’s going through all sorts of “pride” things and I now have a video clip going through my head that shows a large group of rather handsome lions roaming around a grassland somewhere in what is probably Africa! But I’m not supposed to be blogging about lions!

So, returning to what the day is supposed to mean, it seems that it’s meant to be some sort of celebration of neurodiversity. There are probably marches and things and parties or whatever, that I’m unlikely ever to go to because I’m not really a marching sort of a person – more of a blogging sort apparently!

It also seems that one of the basic tenets of the movement is that neurodiversity in general (and presumably autism in particular) is part of a natural variation in human existence, rather than some deviation from the norm that requires a “cure” (I’m still at a loss as to what people who discuss “curing” autism can possibly mean – it just makes no sense, given that it isn’t an illness or a disease).

It also seems to emphasise the notion of autism as a “difference” rather than a “disability”. I’m still forming my ideas about difference and disability, and still getting to grips with the whole “medical model” and “societal model” thing. I class myself as disabled (and have done for years, ever since it became apparent how my mental health issues affected my functioning), but I’m still trying to figure out to what extent the disabling effects of me being autistic and mentally ill are a result of my inability to function in certain ways and to what extent they are a result of the society in which I live. I haven’t even managed to sort out what bits of my “disability” are down to me being autistic and what bits are the result of mental illness. There’s a lot of work still to do.

The more I think about all this, the more I realise I don’t know, and the more I feel like I’m only just scratching the surface of issues about minority groups, privilege or lack of it, models of disability and so on. I’m a musician and scientist, not a sociologist, and I’m a bit out of my depth at the moment. There is a lot of observation and learning and thinking still to be done before I can really start to analyse it all.

The other basic tenet of the autistic pride / neurodiversity movement seems to be that it is led by autistic people themselves and is not a day for organisations led by non-autistics! This, I really hope, is something that will prosper. It’s so true that so much autism research and so on is still led by non-autistics and that there is still such a long way to go in really understanding (as I discovered at the recent conference) what it’s like to live as an autistic person in a world that is, for want of a better expression, distinctly sub-optimal for our neurology!

Of course, given the situation I’m now in, I’m actually rather fascinated to discover what it might be like NOT to be autistic – I feel, to a large extent, that I’m just me and always have been, and what I actually discovered when I found out I was autistic was not that I was different, but that 90+% of the rest of the world was different! From my perspective my autism diagnosis was effectively the same thing as most of the rest of the world receiving a diagnosis of allism!

I’d really like to spend a day living with a neurotypical head to see what it was like because it would be fascinating to compare with my own experience. Are there really people who sit still on chairs and don’t find it deeply exhausting and uncomfortable? Is it actually true that there are folk who can chat in small groups without trying consciously to compute every single thing they say and work out when they should contribute to the conversation? I’d be fascinated to discover – though I wouldn’t want to commit to more than a day because I’ve been used to my own head for quite a long time and there might be all sorts of things about my neurology that I’d suddenly miss – I don’t even know at this stage what they might be because I’m so used to my normal being my normal and so unaware of how other types of brains might work! Perhaps the fact that I worry little about things that seem to vex many people is part of my being autistic and I’d really miss that freedom of thought? Who knows? But I do know that I’ve discovered a contentment since getting my autism diagnosis that’s rather nice and that I’m not in a hurry to mess with it!

Anyway, I digress again. And now return to the tenet of autistic people themselves having a voice and being part of the discussion of neurodiversity. That is, of course, part of something that I do manage to do a bit (being a blogger, not a marcher), and, as I discussed in my final conference blog post, maybe an area to explore for the future. Who knows what I’ll be able to do, or what impact it might or might not have, but it’s a possible direction for the future and if I can ultimately be helpful to other members of the autistic community, which I have suddenly, and rather unexpectedly, become part of, then maybe that really will be something to be proud of!

Coffee Please!

Yesterday I shared an article on my facebook page, along with a few of my thoughts and a few of my husband’s thoughts. Several of my friends made comments, and what struck me was the difference between the comments from my autistic and introvert friends and my non-autistic and extrovert friends. I was going to reply to a couple of the comments on the thread, but, as the reply formed in my head, I realised it was really much too long for a facebook comment, so I’m now turning it into a blog post instead!

The original article had started with a picture of a board outside a coffee shop, stating that customers who went in and said “Small coffee” would be charged $5, those who said “Small coffee please” would be charged $3, and those who said “Good morning, how are you, please could I have a small coffee” would be charged $1 (or something like that – the values and exact statements might have been different, but the sentiment is the same). The point of the article was that baristas work damn hard for very little money and that they are, apparently, grateful for recognition in the form of people saying please and exchanging the kind of small talk pleasantries that strike terror into the souls of those of us who are neurodivergent.

And so, of course, the article had been picked up in a number of neurodivergent groups and cited as “ableism”, and I eventually decided to share it on my wall despite the potential for triggering and using up valuable spoons and energy dealing with the fallout of all those who might accuse me of being rude and having no manners. I shared it with my own short commentary added to that of my husband, who had also shared it. The gist of what I said was “This is the sort of thing that would seriously put me off even going for coffee on days when I’m struggling to cope. The message I receive from it is that the world is not for me. I should stay home because people think I’m rude. It makes me feel like giving up on life” and the gist of what my husband said was “This is why the neurodivergent and those disabled by mental ill health can’t have nice things. When we have dismantled every barrier, “manners” will remain as the last bastion of exclusionary entitlement. How’s about this – everyone with the neurological privilege to demand good manners start campaigning for baristas to be paid the wage they deserve for being the life-giving superstars they are; and for coffee shops to be accessible to those for whom eye contact or social interaction are as draining as thinking.”

Several of my friends had shared the article without any sort of commentary. And a couple said so on my thread and said that the difficulties autistic or very introverted people might have with such things hadn’t even occurred to them. This was not unexpected – if you are able to speak without rehearsal and remembering to use words such as “please” is something you don’t have to do consciously, with effort, every single time you do it, because you know, for some reason, that people like that sort of thing, then it wouldn’t occur to you that a sign outside a coffee shop telling you that you have to pay more for coffee because you struggle with social codes and so on, would be, on some days, sufficient to make you burst into tears and vow to give up coffee for ever because the whole business of trying to get it was just so stressful and you were so frightened of getting it wrong (and, of course, because you can’t hold down a job because of the same issues that cause such stress over buying a coffee, you don’t have enough money to pay the expensive rate if you screw up and get it wrong, which, given that your anxiety levels are by now through the roof, having read the noticeboard and realized that this is going to be a difficult experience on which you will be judged, you probably will).

So, I got to thinking about this, ironically, on the way home from having a coffee at my usual coffee shop (where, thankfully, I know the protocols and I had enough energy to ask for coffee in an appropriate way and because the place is familiar and I always eat the same things for breakfast there were no decisions to be made or other problems to be dealt with (I have, over the years, frequently gone somewhere to try to access food and gone away still unfed because simply asking for food or deciding what to have was too difficult)). I tried to imagine what it might be like to go out for coffee and to be able to just ask for the coffee with a load of fancy language that you hadn’t rehearsed several hundred times in your head during the drive to the place. I couldn’t, of course. Improvised speech seems like an extraordinary concept to me (and I assumed, until last year, that it simply wasn’t something that anyone did – only when I started questioning non-autistic people about their speech rehearsals on the way to social events and when they looked blankly at me and didn’t seem to understand what I was on about, did I realise that there are people who are able to improvise conversations on the spot without getting utterly shattered by it and having to go home and sleep for hours to recover)!

So I translated it to the area in which I am, rather seriously, privileged. My mental health is poor, my executive functioning is shockingly terrible, and my social skills are either lacking (if I’m saving spoons) or practised and exhausting (if I’m masking and doing what I have learnt over the last 40 years is the “correct” thing to do). BUT, I’m physically robust, and fairly fit, and probably of more than average strength for my age. I constantly use the huge privilege of a robust physical body to compensate for my social and mental deficits – at the autism conference I was able to go all day without eating or drinking properly or going to the toilet (If I’d been diabetic or had continence issues that wouldn’t have been the case). I think nothing of walking or jogging several kilometers which means that I can basically avoid using public transport in everyday life – if I have to park the car several miles away from where I’m going then it’s no big deal – I’m great with maps and I can walk a long way (I can even climb over gates having done 90km in an ultramarathon when I’m at my fittest). If I see a big flight of stairs then my first thought is “Wahey, hill training”. This is all because I am massively privileged as far as physical ability is concerned.

And so, just as my non-autistic extrovert friends don’t notice how intimidating signs about “how to ask for coffee” are to me, I skip around town and bumps in the pavement or kerbs or steps or flights of stairs or any of those things don’t even register on my radar unless I consciously think about them. BUT, I constantly remind myself, and am reminded by my friends with physical disabilities (whether they be things such as heart conditions or whether they require wheelchairs just to get around), that these things can be huge obstacles. Maybe I’m at an advantage here, because it’s easy to visualise how difficult it must be for someone in a wheelchair to deal with a step, but much less easy to imagine how difficult it might be to deviate from your usual script when faced with a sign outside a coffee shop?

I absolutely don’t blame those to whom it has never occurred, because for many of them, how could it have – I know it from the inside so it’s easy for me to understand, and one of the reasons I write this blog is to try to explain to others what it’s actually like and to assist with understanding. I’m also all in favour of people not ACTUALLY being rude to other people. The notion of being rude to someone who’s making coffee for me is abhorrent to me – I’m deeply grateful to them for doing something for me that I can’t do myself and for making my day better with a cup of something delicious. Maybe I’m just not always able to express that gratitude as perfectly as I should, according to the original article, be able to? Maybe this is where my natural language differs from that of many other people – my husband brought me an unexpected kebab last night and I didn’t thank him in words – I flapped my hands at him, because that’s the language we use at home, not the conventional language of society that we use consciously when we step out of the door!

I’m running out of words at this point and have now backed myself into a corner and am also desperately worried that I might have offended somebody because I’m not well enough versed in the language of disability to be sure that I haven’t screwed up. If I have, then I apologise profusely, because, contrary to the implications of the original article, if I get it wrong, I really don’t mean to. My lack of eye contact and social interaction with strangers is, at the moment, the only way I can actually manage to get out into the world at all and do anything – it’s a protection mechanism to prevent my mental health disintegrating further than it already has.

The last thoughts I had on my drive home from coffee this morning were of two of the “risk factors” that have been identified on my report following my autism assessment. One stated that I was at significant risk of being misunderstood and thought badly of because my levels of social interaction might cause me to appear rude, and the other stated that in order not to appear rude I was inclined to make huge efforts to follow social codes consciously and that doing so was seriously damaging to my mental health! Over the years I have, of course, tried so hard to get it right that it has left me burnt out and hardly able to function at all.

Anyway, whatever I might have got wrong here, I got one thing right – this really was a bit too long for a comment on a facebook thread!!!