Success Fail!

I read an article the other day. Nothing spectacular, not one to which I was ever intending to pay significant attention, and not one that I sought out – it just appeared in my facebook feed and I was sufficiently intrigued to click through and see what it said.

It was entitled something like “How to be Successful”, and was a list of the things you should do in the workplace in order to achieve success and be perceived as honest, open, secure, confident, and so on. I immediately disliked the article, very very much. It was a classic example of “ableism” and discrimination against the neurodiverse, and it made me cross enough to save it to refer to so that I could write a blog post about it.

I have long known that I could never work in any sort of “business” scenario. The closest I ever got was an administration job for a business project attached to an academic institution. I lasted a month. The tears and trauma of putting on the suit every morning were substantial, and I felt my confidence seeping away day by day as I was evidently unable to do the job that I had been hired to do. At the time I thought they were simply impossible people (that may have been true), but the reality of the situation was probably that I was never going to be able to cope in such an environment. If the list below is anything to go by, then it’s now glaringly obvious why I’ve been such a failure in the world of that sort of work (obviously, this is one perspective on one type of work, in one type of environment – this is a blog post, not a thesis attempting to cover all eventualities, and only provides a snapshot of one particular aspect of success in the workplace).

I learnt from the article that to achieve this “success” I should: sit up straight, use gestures correctly, open my arms, not touch my hair, smile, make appropriate eye contact, and give firm handshakes!

Wow!

And I’m expected to do all that while wearing clothes that hurt me, and knowing by magic when to offer to make tea, and being comfortable with working as a team, possibly in an office with lots of office machinery making a lot of noise and fluorescent lighting overhead, and so on…

It’s no wonder I failed.

If I consider each of these criteria for success one by one then I come to the following conclusions about my ability to meet them.

I can sit up reasonably straight for a short period of time, but I find sitting on a chair “normally” extremely uncomfortable – given the choice I always sit with my legs folded under me, and always have. I imagine this is because the pressure is reassuring and helps balance my errant sensory system. If I have to sit on an ordinary chair in the ordinary manner for any length of time I start to feel stressed and sick. My legs will jiggle (involuntarily), and I will run out of energy very very fast.

I received my draft report from my autism assessment the other day (it will be completed after the next meeting). The assessor observed that I can use gestures, but that my range of gestures and facial expressions is much narrower than would be expected and that my gestures are formulaic and learnt. This is me, with 40 years practice and learning – and I still don’t make gestures or facial expressions like most people are able to.

I should open my arms. Like sitting on a chair, I can do that for a very limited time, but it feels forced and unnatural. My natural inclination is to draw my arms in towards me, to bend my elbows upwards, and to clasp my hands together. Sitting with arms open for any length of time feels contrived and uncomfortable, and, also, dishonest, because it feels so clearly like acting. Apparently having closed arms means I disagree with what someone is saying to me – I disagree most strongly with that assumption!

Apparently touching my hair shows a lack of attention!!! Since hair twirling is one of my biggest lifelong stims, it’s actually something that helps me to pay attention. And, moreover, it’s probably one of the more socially acceptable stims – if they don’t want me to touch my hair would they rather I played with a toy or flapped my hands? Maybe I could substitute the hair twirling for rocking and biting my fingers? I suspect that wouldn’t be acceptable either, but any of the above would actually HELP me to pay attention!

Smiling at the right time in the right place is apparently also good if you want to achieve success. How on Earth you’re meant to know what is the right time and the right place to smile I don’t know, and that’s before you have to remember to do it. I refer back to the assessment report that noted my limited range of facial expressions. This smiling business is rather hard work!

And, of course, there’s the inevitable mention of eye contact. If I make eye contact for too long with people I am, apparently, insecure, but if I don’t make eye contact enough then it’s because I have something to hide. And someone like me, who struggles to make any real eye contact with anybody at all just reads this stuff with blank incomprehension. How do I figure any of this out? What do I do?

The last of these pieces of “advice” is probably the only one I could actually follow. I am perfectly capable of giving a good firm handshake. Though I fear that by the time I’d sat up straight with my arms open trying not to touch anything and to work out what gestures and smiles and eye contact to use I’d have such shaky sweaty hands that even my handshake would fail the “business success” test!

***

Yes, this was just some bonkers article off the internet. Yes, I’m being slightly facetious here (but only slightly). Yes, it’s not typical of all workplaces and I’m sure there are some fabulously inclusive disability aware places with people who don’t judge on any of the above. Yes, I’m sure that sort of workplace is not suitable for everyone, autistic or otherwise. I’m trying to avoid a barrage of “but it’s not really like that” comments because I’m aware that all I’m actually doing here is giving a personal response to an article I saw by accident on the internet.

BUT, the very fact that such an article exists indicates that there are people out there who are still equating the things above with “success”. There is no mention anywhere in the article about the person’s ability to DO THE JOB. It’s all window dressing. It’s all superficial. And on some level it must be true – that those things matter to some people, and if they are the things on which they judge potential colleagues or associates, then autistic people are really going to struggle. We’re at a massive disadvantage – and possibly most massively disadvantaged in the world of work at the “higher powered higher earning” end of the market.

I am not in a position to get any such job, and never was. My business acumen is zero, my ability to cope with working in such an environment lasts for a few hours at most these days. I have never aspired to such a career, but maybe there are autistic people out there who would like to work in such an environment and do have exceptional business skills, but who are judged by their ability to sit “correctly” or do appropriate things with their hands, and their skills will be ignored. That makes me sad.

And, if being able to do the seven things listed above is what enables one to be “successful” then I am destined for “failure” because I have a condition that means I cannot perform those tasks “properly” even with massive effort and 40 years practice. I am DOOMED!!!! (Not really, that last bit was sarcastic)!

And the real irony is that I am actually honest, open, and even, at times, can be secure and confident. But because I have a communication disability, some others might have problems perceiving that. Which is sad!

To reiterate – I was definitely cross about the article being quite so ridiculously ableist and I do think there are some massively serious points to be drawn from it when compared to the skills of an autistic person. However, I am old enough and ugly enough also to laugh at such an article, and to say “What a load of rubbish!” My reaction of “Well, I’m an automatic fail then!” wasn’t one of despair, but of sarcastic amusement and a gentle “Fuck you, because you really are clueless about what it’s like to live my life!” to the author of the article and all such articles!

I say this because my husband once wrote a post about how he tripped over a hillock while out running – he’d intended it as a funny story but got a huge number of concerned comments about how sorry people were that he was injured when he wasn’t really injured at all, just recounting an amusing event!

If anyone is still reading at this point and has understood any of this blog post then I congratulate you wholeheartedly! Reward yourself with a cup of tea! I’m off to sit on my feet with my arms crossed, and play with my hair while wearing a blank expression – and I won’t be shaking your hand because I’ll also be holding a cup of tea!

Career Snake!

63-2017-01-02-18-20-57The statistics are, it seems, pretty grim. I haven’t verified the numbers, neither can I give you any details about how many of those considered are formally diagnosed or anything, but I continually see figures indicating that only around 16% of autistic adults are in full-time employment and 32% in any form of employment at all. Even if we allow for quite a lot of error in those figures and consider that there might be people who are unfindable by official statistics compilers, it would still turn out that the proportion of autistic adults sustaining employment is pretty low, and that many of those who do have jobs are working well below their capabilities skillswise owing to the social, sensory, and organisational demands of most jobs.

I have been sliding down the career snake all my life. Despite my issues at primary school and continual bullying through secondary school, I did manage to get quite a good bunch of qualifications, as I mentioned in Expectations Gone. Admittedly, I dropped out of my first degree course, having entirely failed to do what was expected of me or to settle into any sort of proper work routine, but I did manage to succeed second time round and graduated with a good degree. Had you known me in my late teens and early 20s and looked at my qualifications you’d have predicted a bright future for me as far as employment was concerned. The Strong Woman mask also projected an air of confidence that would have added to this impression and it looked, back then, as though I was headed for great things – all I needed to do was put in the work and everything would be fabulous!

However, it was not to be. I did put in the work, lots and lots and lots of it. I based my ambitions on trying to find a career I loved that was compatible with the qualifications I had, and I worked and worked and worked at it. When obstacles were put in my way (I didn’t receive funding to do my master’s degree) I did everything I could to overcome them (got a job to fund myself through and took out a loan to pay the fees). I went without food and heating to save money in order to carry on studying to become an academic because that was the career I really wanted, and I worked until I could work no more.

I had fallen into the trap of believing the idea, still perpetuated today by some of these awful “life improvement” memes, that if you wanted something badly enough and you worked hard enough for it, you would get it.

That is, of course, a fallacy. You are unlikely to achieve your goals if you DON’T work for them, true, but you can’t reverse that statement and say that working for them means you WILL achieve them. It’s simply wrong.

But back then I believed that working hard was the solution. So I did. And by the time my ill-fated DPhil degree studies started to fail I was almost at snapping point with anxiety, financially in trouble, drinking heavily, and dissociating regularly. I didn’t know then that what I was experiencing was dissociation, but I do now. It was with considerable sadness and regret that I abandoned my studies, and with them my dreams, and decided that I simply couldn’t manage to achieve what I’d so badly wanted.

At that point I had no idea that I was even mentally ill, although I evidently was, very. I had no way of asking for help because I didn’t know what sort of help I might need. I had no concept that I had impaired executive functioning and organizing my life and trying to take care of myself while studying almost unsupported and while chronically short of money was simply beyond my abilities. I had the exam results and I believed, therefore, that the only reason I was failing was that I wasn’t putting in the work. It was the only reason I could think of.

A year later, armed with my original degree, I enrolled on a PGCE course. If I wasn’t going to be able to do research and teach undergraduates then I would modify the plan and teach schoolchildren instead. I turned out to be a pretty good teacher. I did well on the PGCE course and got my first job easily (my qualifications were somewhat over the minimum requirements, and my ability to teach “shortage” subjects proved useful). I started my new career, confident that this time all would be well.

Less than three months into the job, all was not well. There was definitely something very wrong with me. I was struggling. I went to my head of department and told him that things weren’t right. He told me that people as clever as me didn’t have problems and I’d be fine. I upped my work level to try to compensate for the things that were going wrong. It didn’t help. I went back to school after the Christmas holiday period and by February I went in search of a doctor because I felt so ill. I got to the surgery and collapsed onto the floor, hardly able to speak. The doctor picked me up and let me recover and I was then signed off work with “debility”. Nobody could really work out what was wrong with me, but I was clearly very unwell. The “debility” label was changed to “anxiety and depression” shortly afterwards and I entered the world of the mentally ill.

I decided that maybe that school had been too unsupportive for me and got another job in a very different school. I did slightly better for a while, but while there my mood started to become chaotic and elevated, and I went into a hypomanic phase (again, not known at the time, but obvious with hindsight). I was also still unable to survive financially – my starting salary was insufficient to cover the rent on my London flat and to service the massive debts I’d incurred while studying. So I applied for a promotion to Head of Department in another school, and got it!

Only a few weeks into the new job I had the breakdown that is now known as “the big one”. It is now evident that I was also in a period of huge autistic burnout. I made my first serious suicide attempts that autumn. My health was destroyed. I never fully recovered from that time, and the slide down the career snake accelerated massively. My days as a high flyer were over and it became a matter of “damage limitation”.

After I’d recovered sufficiently to rejoin the world, helped by my newly acquired husband, I did a bit of supply teaching, and got a part-time job for a while, but I wasn’t really up to it any more. I then had a succession of office jobs – administrator, data entry clerk, personal assistant, and eventually part-time administrative assistant in a small office. All of these jobs I found hugely exhausting and very very difficult. I would be struggling to drive home after a few hours at a part-time job, my eyes almost closing at the wheel. It didn’t matter how early I went to bed or how much exercise I took or how well I ate. I was just knackered. All the time. I finally went off sick from the last job, having, by this time, received a diagnosis of bipolar II disorder, and at the last meeting I had with my boss, the person from occupational health, and the personnel officer for the job, I was almost completely unable to speak. I had come to the end of my office work abilities.

Having failed as an academic, a schoolteacher, and an administrator, I had one last attempt at earning money for myself before succumbing to another cycle of hypomania and depression and breakdown. I answered an advertisement in the local newsagent from a woman who needed a cleaner one day a week. In some ways it was quite a good job. Although the pay was poor and I worked 5 hours without a break, I was often on my own, and I was quite good at it. It was hard physical work as I was expected to do the whole house, change beds, completely clean several bathrooms, and leave everything pretty much immaculate, often after the family had evidently spent a weekend partying. Eventually, however, 5 stone overweight from the quetiapine I was taking, my back and hip gave out under the pressure, sacroiliac pain radiating throughout my body, leaving me unable to walk, let alone clean an entire house in 5 hours. The woman also gave up work temporarily to have another child and I found myself having to cope with people around me and the new baby while I was working and it really wasn’t worth the pain and the triggering effect of the children in order to earn somewhere around what was minimum wage at the time.

By then I had a psychiatrist and a community psychiatric nurse. Both helped me back to some semblance of a life, and I gave up the idea of working completely because it was obvious by then that I wasn’t well enough. I recovered enough to do a part-time language teaching course, but the experience of the course left me needing months to recover. I started studying mathematics with the Open University in order to try to do something with my brain and, rather ambitiously, against all medical advice, did some supply maths teaching in a local secondary school. On the morning of my third day in the job I sat in the school car park in tears of utter exhaustion, knowing that it wasn’t going to work. I loved the job, I wanted to do it. I wanted to be out in the world, teaching, being part of something. But I just couldn’t. Every time I tried I just fell apart and felt so horribly horribly ill the whole time.

I have not worked since I left that job 6 years ago. For nearly a quarter of a century, while many of my peers were climbing some pretty impressive career ladders and becoming academics, businesspeople, scientists, professional musicians, headteachers, top administrators, and so on, I was sliding down my career snake. And no matter how hard I tried to climb back up the snake, the gravity was too strong. And every time I grabbed at a rung of an adjacent ladder, the rung broke and I slid yet further down the snake, before eventually falling off the bottom of its tail, onto the floor.

And it didn’t ever quite make sense why this kept happening, why I couldn’t keep the jobs. It didn’t add up that someone with my qualifications and evident abilities and absolute fierce ambition and desire to work and preparedness to graft and to put the effort in, couldn’t keep even the simplest of jobs. There seemed to be no reason why things just kept going wrong, time after time after time.

Even bipolar disorder didn’t explain it. My bipolar disorder is cyclic. I have hypomanic episodes every few years which lead to crashes into depression. Between those times I am usually stable, moodwise. I have also taken effective medication and developed strategies to help with managing my mood. The treatments and therapies I received for bipolar disorder did, in general, work for bipolar disorder.

But even in the stable times I was still getting sick, and sick in a different way, not a mood way, but an utter exhaustion and unable to cope and having to go off and be silent on my own sort of a way. In a way that has been a mystery for years.

Until I discovered I was autistic. And suddenly those things make sense. And all the failed careers and the lost jobs and eventual unemployment have an obvious cause. Throwing myself constantly into such busy overstimulating environments for years and years has, quite literally, broken me, over and over again. I never had a hope of doing most of those jobs – not because I’m lacking qualifications or not making the effort, but because I am simply unable to cope for extended periods of time in environments that are so hostile to me.

Misunderstandings

61-2017-01-14-16-41-18“Big or small?” the barman asked.

I couldn’t believe my ears. Had he really just asked me that? This was just an ordinary pub, nothing particularly sophisticated, the sort of place where you order a pint and a steak and chips at the bar and eventually someone brings it over to a table with a gold number screwed into the corner.

We’d ordered our drinks, which were now sitting on the bar, and were just completing our food order. Steak and chips or something like that. Then the barman asked if we wanted any side orders. I thought that onion rings would be nice, so I said “Onion rings please” and received the answer “Big or small?”

I stood there at the bar, absolutely amazed that the pub sorted their onion rings by size. Utterly unable to comprehend this level of onion ring detail. I guessed that the big ones came from the outside of the onion and the small ones would maybe come from the middle. I thought the small ones would probably be quite cute.

I turned to my husband and asked him what he thought. He suggested big, and said that he might steal a few. I told him that he could steal a few if I had small ones…

And, of course, he laughed, because, on this occasion he’d understood correctly and I’d understood wrongly. This wasn’t anything to do with the size of the onion rings, but the size of the PORTION of onion rings. I’d completely misunderstood the barman’s question and gone off into a reverie of onion ring categorization that would probably only ever occur in some sort of gastronomic competition – certainly not in a very ordinary pub.

This is the sort of ambiguity that most people’s conversation seems to be full of, the sort of thing that people are supposed to understand as if by some sort of magic. The sort of thing that I’ve been trying to learn all my life, and have never quite got right. Close enough for survival most of the time, and because I’m generally quite affable and quite content to laugh at my own mistakes, it’s all just been put down to being a bit eccentric. Furthermore, there have been occasions where people have laughed at me and I’ve wondered what the joke was, until I realised I’d misunderstood and they’d actually assumed that my suddenly talking about, for example, miniature onion rings, was in fact my quirky sense of humour!

My husband is not immune to the “literal effect” either. He once volunteered to help at a party (partly because he had to be at the party and helping is one of his ways of avoiding having to make small talk – in general he’d much rather work than chat), so the hostess of the party said it would be really helpful if he could gather up empty glasses from around the house and take them to the kitchen.

A simple and understandable instruction – empty glasses to kitchen. Easy.

So, every time he saw an empty glass he took it to the kitchen. Each time someone took their last mouthful of wine or beer or whatever and put their glass down, he swooped in and took it to the kitchen, before there was even a microchance that it might be refilled.

The consequence was that people kept having to get new glasses and the supply of glasses ran out about half way through the party and the glasses had to be washed up so that people could carry on drinking.

But the instructions were clear – empty glasses to the kitchen, so that’s what he did!

I’ve apparently been making similar kitchen-related mistakes for many years. I go to have lunch fairly regularly with my best friend and his wife. I sort of know that I should help somehow, because my husband has told me that people are meant to offer to help in the kitchen, but to be honest it always seems so terribly complicated that I just sit there and hope that if I’m really needed to do something then someone will ask me – communal working is something I find really challenging.

Occasionally my friend’s wife has handed me 3 plates and asked me to put them onto the table. I have done this, reliably, exactly as instructed, for around 20 years. I take the stack of 3 plates from her and place them on the table.

About a week after it became obvious that the autism hypothesis was true and I told my friend and his wife that I was autistic, she suddenly said how much sense it made, and immediately mentioned the plates. Apparently for around the last 20 years, when handing me plates to put on the table, what she’s actually meant is that I should LAY the table, putting plates in situ in front of the places where people sit. And similarly with knives and forks.

I have been completely clueless about this hidden meaning. She’s always thought I was being slightly obstinate and unwilling to lay the table. I’ve believed I was doing exactly as I was told!!!

It seems that there are hidden messages all over the place in human communication that I often miss, even when they are apparently clear and written down.

Around 20 years ago I had a boyfriend for a year or so, and, as it became obvious that the relationship wasn’t going to be a permanent one and we started to drift apart, we both started to go our separate ways and move on. It wasn’t an acrimonious parting, just a recognition that things were now over.

I then got a new boyfriend, and started to move on with my life, and shortly afterwards received a letter from the old boyfriend. In this letter the old boyfriend wished me well, and told me that he had a new beautiful girlfriend and was very happy spending time with her now (or words to that effect). I read the letter and thought “That’s nice, he has a new girlfriend, I hope she treats him well and they’re happy together.”

The next time I saw my new boyfriend I reported that the old one had now moved on and showed him the letter. He took one look at it and said “There is no new girlfriend, he’s trying to get you back.” I was completely gobsmacked and couldn’t believe it for one minute. If he wanted to get me back then why on Earth would he invent a fictitious girlfriend? Why not say “I miss you, is there any chance we can see each other again?”

But my new boyfriend was right. Not very much investigating showed that at that time the old one didn’t have a new girlfriend. And the letter was just some sort of ploy – apparently I was supposed to feel jealous or something. One which, of course, completely backfired because I had no way of understanding this sort of game, no way of comprehending that there was some sort of hidden message in the letter – like almost everything in life, I simply took what it said at face value.

There have been many of these sorts of incidents over the years – too many for me simply to have been “a bit slow on the uptake” or to have just ordinarily misunderstood quite so often. I’m certain that everyone misunderstands communication from time to time, but I seem to do it rather more often than most people do, and I know I spend a lot of time deconstructing sentences in my head, trying to work out exactly what they mean and attempting to understand what the other person is really saying, and I often get it wrong. I’ve learnt and learnt and learnt to try to read what people mean when they communicate, but there have always been holes in the learning, and I’ve always been thinking very very hard and very very consciously about what things can mean. I learn from each mistake – I now know that onion rings come in portion sizes, not actual sizes, I now know that putting things onto a table sometimes means laying a table, and I now know that boyfriends pretend to have new girlfriends as a way of trying to persuade old ones to return to them. But all of this is learnt, consciously learnt, one mistake at a time, and I still don’t really understand why people don’t just give more accurate instructions.

I’m still learning, still working it out, but at least I now know that the reason I get things wrong is because imprecise instructions that assume I have a level of social knowledge that I don’t have are really confusing to me. As I start to remember these seemingly innocuous and isolated incidents they’re linking up to form a consistent pattern of things that I misunderstood, or didn’t pick up on. I’m a fast learner, so I keep learning, and I copy copy copy other people who seem to know what to do, but I don’t have the inbuilt social knowledge that other people have.

The social games that so many people seem so fond of are totally lost on me. However hard I try to learn how they work, I always seem to be running along behind all the social people, trying to catch up, trying to figure it out!

But the whole thing is a massive effort, and a whole load of trying to guess what exactly I’m supposed to be doing!

Too Feely

59-2016-12-15-10-49-11Just last week, in my facebook memories, there appeared a status from a year ago. My husband and I had been having a conversation, prompted by something we’d seen on the TV, about how well we slept. I had said at the time that having a husband who pulled the bedsheets and altered their tension or made wrinkles in them was definitely detrimental to good sleeping.

A year ago I didn’t have the first clue I was autistic. I had never heard of sensory processing disorder or any of these sensory sensitivity issues. But I knew, absolutely knew, that one wrinkle in a bed sheet was a disaster! Always had been. Bed sheets should be flat and smooth, with even tension throughout. Anything else was bad. I’ve always been a bit “princess and the pea”ish about where I’ve slept, arranging things so I can’t feel wrinkles, and making sure nothing felt “wrong”!

And it’s not just about bedclothes. Right back to my childhood I remember things that made me very very uncomfortable. I grew up in the 1970s, when polo necked jumpers were very popular – I remember pulling at the necks, trying to make them bigger and looser to stop the feeling that I was being strangled. It was even worse when they were made out of wool and to add to the strangled feeling there was this tearing cutting feeling everywhere it touched my skin, as though I’d fallen into a bramble bush or something. I remember being desperate to have a pair of jeans because they were fashionable, but then feeling utterly terrible when I tried to wear them (this was before lycra and stretch made such things wearable) and they felt like they were cutting me in half at the waist.

I also remember, as a child, being in a school play and having to wear make-up as part of my costume. The teacher put lipstick on me and instantly it felt absolutely horrible. Totally disgusting. I told the teacher this and she told me that I’d understand when I grew up and that grown up women loved lipstick and wore it every day. I had a brief flirtation with the stuff in my teens, but it still felt, and smelled, and tasted, absolutely vile. I think I wore foundation twice, before chucking it in the bin because it made me desperate to wash my face because I felt so horrible and dirty and it smelled so bad. I’m 45 now, and I still haven’t become that grown up woman that the teacher told me I would, and now I know that I never will, and the teacher was wrong.

Another of the “grown up woman” things that I ditched in my 20s was the bra. I can bear to wear a wide strapped sports one for the duration of a run, but while I’m actually running only. If I try to drive home after a race or training run still wearing it then I start to feel sick, the cutting pressure across my back, the feeling of the straps digging in, like someone’s trying to slice my skin open. I haven’t worn a bra in daily life for over 20 years, and I never shall again.

The same is true of anything made out of lace. I developed a certain tolerance as I grew up and things did improve as fabrics became better, but still, when I buy an item of clothing, I FEEL it. I will choose the thing that feels good over the thing that LOOKS good EVERY TIME! I also spend time every morning when I put on my socks, lining up the toe seams so they are symmetrical and perfect. I know there are some people with sensory issues who don’t like to wear socks at all – I am not one of them – the feeling of bare feet on the soles of shoes and sandals is not pleasant for me – I would rather wear socks. I am a person who wears socks with sandals, and I don’t care how many stupid memes tell me it is unfashionable – it is comfortable, and that is way more important.

I also mentioned, in The Discovery, how I cut the labels out of my clothes. I don’t know why people put labels into clothes, but every time I buy something new I take it out of the bag and go over it and remove the labels. I assumed that everyone did this, since it is such a routine and normal part of my life and has been for as long as I can remember. I then wash it before I wear it because the stiffness of anything that is likely to touch my skin is horrible. I don’t like the scratchy feeling or the way new clothes smell. I am a person who exists most happily in old t-shirts, elasticated-waist jogging bottoms, and fleeces. I can dress up smartly for an evening, and sometimes do, but it is always temporary, and the posh clothes are off the instant I’m back in the door.

I have spent years wondering how people can go to work all day in a dress, with tights, and high heels. I have marvelled at how they endure the pain of wearing a bra day in day out. I have been overwhelmed by their toughness, their resilience, and their fortitude in the face of what must be so devastatingly painful, and I have long known that I could never be like that. I had a job once that required me to wear a suit. I lasted a month. Just getting dressed for work each morning was so traumatic that I was in tears every day before I even left the house. I eventually went off sick from that job and never returned to it.

In the same way that I have to remove labels from clothes, I also feel a need to remove stickers from books. If I’m reading a book and it has a barcode sticker with an ISBN number on the back and I can feel the raised sticker as I hold the book it distracts me from what I’m reading to the extent that I don’t take the information in. Just as with clothes, I get home from a bookshop and remove anything that might interfere with the smooth surface. Where other people might not notice, I do.

And I was astounded to read, in one of the many books I’ve been reading on autism, about the autistic woman who, when kissed by anyone who left a slightly damp patch on her cheek, instantly felt the need to wipe her face. I am exactly the same. There feels something so terribly wrong, like the surface has been disturbed, and I need to straighten it, to stop the feeling of blemish, of cold and wet.

I am also sensitive to what is on my fingers, and, for many years, have washed my hands in such a way that I thought I had some sort of obsessive washing tendencies, but I realise now that the cause of my handwashing antics is actually to do with sensory issues. I cannot BEAR to have sticky or greasy fingers. Given the option I will eat cakes or pastries with a fork to avoid touching them with my hands, and this isn’t, as I’d wondered, a germ-related thing, but the dislike of feeling sticky or dirty. If you see me eat a bag of crisps then I will most likely wipe my hands on my trousers after every single crisp. If I’m in a place where I can, I’ll also get up and wash my hands afterwards. If I’m out, then I will do everything I can to eat a cake from the packet without touching the cake – I’m quite skilful at it. And when I’m in a position when I can’t do any of these things, it uses extra energy, extra resources, and makes me more tired, more likely to go in the direction of meltdown, and so on. I’ve long marvelled at people who seem so unfazed by eating with their hands, or by people who seem, so effortlessly, to put their hands into mixing bowls when baking, or who think gardening is therapeutic, yet it involves touching soil, which is, for me, a very unpleasant sensation.

I’m the same with crockery and cutlery. My husband is quite used to me sending mugs or knives or forks back because they “feel wrong”. He doesn’t have the same sensory issues that I do (if anything, he is undersensitive to such things), but he will wash them again and again, to make them right. I have, on occasion, been home alone and “my mug” has been greasy in the sink and I have spent all day without a cup of tea as a result. This is what happens on my worst days. On days when I have more energy I will steel myself to wash the mug, and then wash my hands afterwards until they’re back to how they should be, and how they feel right.

It’s a constant balancing act, but what’s so extraordinary is that these things have all been part of my life for decades and I’ve never had the faintest idea why.

Until I started reading books about autism and sensory issues!

Bingo!

Too Loud

53-2016-12-29-22-14-42I sat in the masterclass, trying to hear what the teacher was saying to the student, straining my ears against the noise coming from my left. A woman who was sitting a couple of seats away from me was taking notes – with a pencil, and the sound of it scratching on the paper was getting so loud that I could almost hear it drowning out the voice of the teacher. I glanced round the room to see whether anyone else had noticed, but if they had they were giving no indication that they were the slightest bit worried by it.

I’ve noticed that since I’ve been in burnout my sensitivity to noise has increased dramatically and my ability to filter out extraneous sounds has declined substantially. I’ve always had issues with background noise, and usually I’m working really hard to filter out the things that I want to hear from those I don’t – this takes a huge amount of energy and I can only usually do it for a finite amount of time before some sort of meltdown occurs.

Interestingly, the noise in the eating place last summer (see The Discovery) was one of the main contributing factors to my eventually being identified as autistic. Not being able to cope with the noises of food, plates, eating, talking and so on AND then having to eat my own food was one of the big triggers that made me seriously anxious and I ended up figuring that it was so stressful being in that environment that the best thing to do would be just to give up eating while I was there because the whole food experience had become so very difficult. Of course, that wasn’t a great strategy, and explaining my difficulties and being given dispensation to eat somewhere quieter was a rather more realistic approach!

Eating noises in particular are something I find very hard to cope with and, as I’ve seen memes on the internet, I’ve gathered that there’s a name for this – misophonia – which is apparently something else not really recognised by medics. So I have a double problem – I can’t cope with quiet eating situations because the individual noises are too stressing, but I can’t really cope with noisy ones too well either. Catch 22. Maybe I should just accept that communal eating is a jolly unpleasant experience and stay away from it completely? Or maybe a more sensible solution might be to limit it and be aware that it takes extra energy!

But it’s not just eating. We don’t have a separate kitchen at home, just an area at one end of the sitting room. When my husband is cooking, particularly if he’s frying anything, the sound of the stuff in the pan can sometimes quite literally hurt my ears. I also get similar problems with cutlery clanking on plates, or pots and pans being rattled and so on. Even when there’s no cooking going on, I sit there waiting for the fridge to stop making a noise so I can get some peace. I really would be the world’s worst kitchen worker!

Usually I manage to cope with most of the noises in the everyday world. Like bright lights, they exhaust me and I need to recover from them. Like with light I’m trying to figure out a way to dull them somewhat, especially now I know that I’m not hearing the same things that other people hear (not because there’s anything wrong with my ears, but because the way my brain processes sounds is rather different). Unlike with light it’s more difficult. Wearing sunglasses is an easy adaption – I’ve worn glasses since I was a teenager and have to wear them anyway to be legal to drive the car and to be able to see. Glasses are no big deal.

Earplugs or headphones are an entirely different matter. I can tolerate having earphones in for a short while, but I’m permanently slightly uncomfortable with them in because of how they feel in my ears. Apparently there are people who can sleep with earplugs in – I don’t know how because they drive me nuts after a very short time. I have worn earplugs at airshows and so on, but the sound of my own voice is then totally unbearable and I only keep them in for the noisiest jets. I would also feel very vulnerable out alone without being able to hear what’s going on around me, because I use my hearing so much as a safety mechanism – maybe the advantage of hearing so much of the background noise upfront is that I notice things like footsteps behind me or the whistle of wind in bicycle wheels when I’m about to cross a road, or similar. I haven’t yet solved the noise problem – that’s very much a work in progress!

And, of course, sound has the additional problem over sight in that it isn’t just the filtering of noise that’s the issue, but a lot of the time coping with sound requires the auditory processing of language too. It has now become obvious that spoken language doesn’t come naturally to me and filtering out conversations from other conversations is something I’ve always found really hard work – which is why I’ve often found myself at parties following a conversation that I’m not even part of and when I’m then asked to contribute have had to ask what has just been said as if my hearing was a bit dodgy!

I’m fairly confident that when I’m recovered from the current burnout things will get a bit better. During most of my life I’ve generally preferred having music playing to having silence – music is a huge and very important part of my life. Interestingly, sometimes, background music (as long as it isn’t too loud) can be a steadying influence on me when I’m surrounded by talking and conversation. It feels to me as though it enters my head on a different channel from conversation – it goes straight in and has meaning instantly without the translation mechanism needed for words. However, when I had the 2001 burnout I couldn’t cope with music at all and craved total silence most of the time. This time around it hasn’t been quite as bad, but all my volume controls have been turned right down and I need everything very soft. On bad days I can’t watch the television with sound and simply put the subtitles on and read them instead. I have managed to play in the occasional concert and the music itself hasn’t been too bad, but the applause at the end of the show is very very painful at the moment. Again, I’m hoping this will improve.

Of course, living in a flat with 3 lots of neighbours is really not ideal in this situation. And the fact that I’m only getting out about once a week means I’m spending an awful lot of time listening to the neighbours’ doors squeaking, their showers running, the noise they make in the corridor outside, the car alarms in the car park below, the dogs barking, and worst of all, the noise of the primary school kids arriving in the morning (the primary school is very close to our block of flats). The voices of babies and small children produce the same effect that knives clanking on plates or people chewing or pencils scratching on paper do. I’m guessing it’s something to do with the frequency of the sound or the structure of the wave or some similar thing – maybe I’ll research it one day, but for now it’s just simple observation.

And, like everything else, now I know how much energy I’m using to cope with filtering noise and trying to focus in on what I actually need to hear, I’m going to have to adapt things a bit. More recovery, more time spent in silence (or the closest I can get to it, given my living circumstances), more time on my own. We’ve also discovered how to disable the entryphone to our flat (nobody ever visits unscheduled anyway) and we now have all ringers on phones permanently turned off. Social occasions will have to be prepared for, recovered from, and rationed to things I really want to do. Having to cope with the sheer amount of noise in the world is yet another thing that drains my energy and causes exhaustion, overload, and sometimes meltdown.

Too Bright

52-2016-12-25-22-53-15I have just changed the lighting in our sitting room – again. I’ve unscrewed yet another bulb from one of the main lights (which are made up of five stalks, each with a bulb on the end), turned the other main light off completely, and installed a lamp with a low wattage bulb instead.

A few weeks ago I stopped using the main lights in the bedroom and installed a lamp in there with another fairly dim bulb. I now only turn the main lights on when I really need to see anything. I also turned the brightness on my computer screen right down to the minimum, and even so can only manage to spend about an hour at a time working at the computer before I start to feel quite ill and need a significant break.

I have become seriously sensitive to light in the last few months, or, more accurately, I have become properly aware in the last few months, of just how seriously light affects my health.

I’ve always known that light levels mattered to me much more than they seem to to a lot of people. When I’ve been very depressed in winter I’ve been greatly assisted by both a lightbox and a “daylight” alarm clock. I also struggle, during the long days of summer, to get to sleep at night or to stay asleep past dawn if I don’t have complete blackout curtains. I even bought a special curtain rail that fits close to the wall so that not the slightest sliver of light can be seen once the curtains are closed. It has to be dark, really really dark.

My sensitivity to light is also, I have discovered, a large part of my inability to cope with shopping. Shops tend to be brightly lit places, with lots of fluorescent bulbs. I have recently been experimenting with wearing dark sunglasses in supermarkets and have found they help significantly with the nausea and exhaustion that I always assumed was part of the normal shopping experience.

Considering light sensitivity has also solved another mystery. Around 3 years ago we had to move to a rather small flat, and most of our possessions are currently in a storage unit some 20 miles away from home. They need sorting very badly, as they were packed in great haste and many are unlabelled. I’ve had several attempts over the years at going to the unit, unpacking a few boxes, and starting to sort through their contents. After around 20 minutes I become so tired I cannot stand, and not long afterwards I start to feel desperately sick and in a state of collapse. This has always puzzled me. I’m a strong, relatively fit person with a great deal of physical stamina (I run ultramarathons for a hobby), yet just unpacking a couple of boxes finishes me off. This has never made any sense.

Until, a couple of months ago, I considered the lighting in the storage facility. Which is similar to the sort of lighting in supermarkets, but even brighter and more intense. Unshaded and glaringly bright industrial strip lighting. And suddenly a mystery that has puzzled me for nearly three years was solved – the reason I cannot work in the storage unit is that the lighting in there quite literally makes me sick.

Obviously, we now have a problem to deal with – I have to be able to sort the stuff, throw what we don’t need, repack tidily the things we want to store until the time we can move somewhere a bit bigger, and rescue things that are precious and needed and bring them to the flat. But at least we now know what the problem is, so we can work on solving it.

My sensitivity to light also explains a couple of mysteries from my past.

When I was a teenager and first needed to wear glasses I thought that getting photochromic lenses would be pretty cool, and also really useful because I wouldn’t need to have a separate pair of sunglasses. Because my stepfather was an optician, he gave me my glasses as a present for many years, and I always had photochromic lenses because I discovered I really really liked them. However, by the time I was in my late 20s I’d moved away, things had changed, and I started to buy my own glasses. Because I was struggling for money, owing to being unable to keep any sort of job for very long, I simply started to buy the cheapest glasses, the ones with plain untinted lenses. My energy levels decreased significantly at around the same time, although it’s only with the benefit of hindsight and new knowledge that I’ve connected the two events, but now that I have, it’s rather obvious.

During the latter stages of the 2001 episode of burnout, I started to realise that I was going to end up in a rather serious situation with rent and food and so on as it became obvious that I was going to lose my job. I didn’t have the first clue what to do about this, so thought I would try to get to the nearest branch of the Citizens Advice Bureau in the hope that someone might be able to help me. I remember walking down the street, near where I lived in north London, and as I walked the light got brighter and brighter and brighter. Eventually it became so painful and so overwhelming that I collapsed onto the pavement. People rushed over to help me. And I eventually sat up, managed to rest for a while, and got to the CAB, who were no help at all.

The mystery about this episode was that as I came round I looked to see how other people were reacting to this sudden painful intrusion of brightness into their lives. And, oddly, none of them seemed to have noticed at all. They were just carrying on with their lives. The mystery of why these people hadn’t all collapsed in the street as I had was another that was only solved in the last few months, when I started to read about autism and sensory processing disorder.

So, discovering I am autistic has explained yet more mysteries from my past, and given me the information I need to work on solving problems in the future. I suspect some of the exhaustion I’ve felt when going home from jobs in brightly lit offices and classrooms has also been down to light, and if I ever do get well enough to work again then suitable lighting might be the sort of adjustment I’d need in order to stay in a job.

As far as we are able, we’re sorting the lighting out in the flat. Being able to just have gentle natural light would be lovely, but much of our flat is entirely internal, without windows, so we have to make the best use we can of the gentlest lighting we can cope with while also leaving the option for something brighter when we need it to see properly.

And I now have sunglasses, in my prescription, in two levels of tint, medium and dark. Wearing them out in the world is definitely helping me to cope. I wish I’d known years ago that something as simple as wearing sunglasses regularly would improve my life so significantly.

But I do now know. And this is why, although discovering I am autistic means I know I will never “get better” and I need to rethink my ambitions for the future, it also means that I can start to do things, such as altering lighting and wearing sunglasses, that will improve my quality of life on a daily basis. I can stop wasting energy trying to cope with unnecessary exhausting visual input and use that energy to feel healthier, or to achieve a little more, or even a bit of both!

Mysterious Argument

43-2016-12-31-12-56-27“Oh shit! I’m lost,” was the first thought that entered my mind as I started to calm down, closely followed by “Oh double shit, he’s got the hotel key, I’m going to end up sleeping on the streets tonight.”

I had had a row with my boyfriend. A big row. The sort of row that had led to me being almost physically violent, really aggressive, yelling some fairly colourful language, and then storming off into the dark. Into the heart of a foreign city, very late at night, on my own. I can still see the street in front of me, still hear the French voices around me, still smell the cooking smells and see the people sitting at their tables with their pichets de rouge and so on…

As I stood in the dark and tried to figure out what to do next, given that I’d now landed myself in a rather precarious situation, I also felt rather sad and upset that what should have been a perfectly idyllic wonderful evening in a place I’d wanted to be for so long had turned out so badly. As far as I could remember we’d been planning on having dinner and were in the process of choosing a restaurant from the many available when we’d suddenly got into a huge fight about something and it had all gone horribly horribly wrong.

Fortunately, my then boyfriend, who these days goes by the title of “best friend”, was, and still is, a sensible and caring human being. He did the very best thing possible in the circumstances – allowed me to storm off, but followed me at a discreet distance so I didn’t know he was observing me, and, once I’d calmed down, he approached me and I burst into tears and we took some time out for me to sort myself out before we did eventually find somewhere to have supper. And I didn’t end up sleeping on the streets.

We already knew each other well enough by this stage that he was starting to observe that I had really strange behaviour issues when I hadn’t eaten and that my mood could change rapidly if I was hungry, but that he’d often suggest we should eat and I’d swear blind that I wasn’t hungry, even if, when subsequently presented with food, it then became obvious that I was hungry. There’s a whole blog post to be written sometime about my relationship with food, but for the time being, it was becoming obvious by this stage that I needed feeding regularly, even when I didn’t feel hungry.

So the evening was eventually rescued, and we concluded that we’d had some sort of a fight about something, but we weren’t really sure what, but that it had really upset me, and he apologised and I apologised and we agreed that we needed to go out for dinner a bit earlier the next night to avoid me getting too hungry and things were smoothed over. We went on to enjoy the rest of our holiday in Nice, eating good food, bathing in the Mediterranean, and so on.

The mystery of what the “argument” was actually about remained unsolved for two decades. Even though this incident was around 20 years ago, neither of us has ever forgotten it. Over the years we’ve occasionally discussed it and wondered what we were arguing about, but we’ve never really been able to pinpoint anything. My memory is that something just made me totally freak out and that it must, therefore, have been pretty bad and he must have said something dreadful to me. His memory is that we had looked at the menus of a few restaurants and he’d asked me which one I’d like to have dinner at and I’d suddenly gone totally berserk!

It’s never really made sense to us, and has just become “one of those things” and we’ve laughed about it since, and I’ve said what an idiot I felt when I realised he had the key (afterwards, whenever we went anywhere, he always gave me the key so that I’d never end up sleeping on the streets, even if I did go charging off into the night), and he’s said that he always had me in sight and was keeping an eye on me, and it’s just become part of our shared history as a somewhat bizarre incident.

Until three months ago. Until I started to re-view my life from an autistic point of view. Until I realised that the times I’d suddenly gone crazy while camping over the summer of 2016 were not, in fact, weird panic attacks, but were autistic meltdowns. Until I realised how similar those meltdowns were to countless incidents that had been happening throughout my life.

All these times, a familiar pattern. Suddenly, a switch flipping in my head, feeling like I was going to explode, completely losing control of my behaviour, feeling so totally disorientated and furious and unable to cope, needing desperately either to hit something or to run away from everybody and everything, to be alone, not being able to articulate any feelings or understand what was going on, words gone, the only way to deal with the huge pressure and bad bad feelings to do something physical, to get out the stress and the feelings somehow, a need for people to be far far away, unable to cope with the slightest touch, wanting to be anywhere else but here, massive massive rage, completely involuntary and uncontrollable.

Even sitting here trying to type up what it feels like I’m not really even scratching the surface. Maybe one day I’ll be able to do a better job of describing what the inside of a meltdown feels like, but it’s hard, because part of the problem is that in that moment there are no words for describing, it’s just huge strong feelings of wrong and bad and more wrong and more bad and a big big need for explosion and release of lots of terrible terrible energy…

And that was how I’d ended up standing in a dark street in Nice, thinking “Oh shit! I’m lost.”

It was early on in the holiday, possibly even our first night in Nice, and therefore either the end of the second or third day away from home. We’d travelled from home to London, and picked up the Eurostar to Paris, where we’d then spent a night. The next day we’d crossed Paris and boarded a TGV bound for Nice, a marvellous journey, watching the vegetation gradually change, and heading for the sea and the magic of the south. We’d then checked into our hotel, but were still tired from travelling.

And, as I’ve already observed, food had been a bit sporadic. My routine was out of kilter. I was tired, exhausted. Away from home, and although having a wonderful time, totally overstimulated. Even back then, at what was probably the height of my masking abilities, before mental illness had taken over my life in the way it subsequently did, and as a reasonably young fit woman, I didn’t cope properly with many aspects of “normal” life. Too much of anything too different too quickly often caused me problems, but I coped and coped and coped the best way I could, and adjusted life just enough that I could manage.

However, 20 years ago, I was exhausted after two days travelling, hungry because I hadn’t eaten for a while, and out of routine and away from the comforts of home. And my boyfriend did something as simple as asking me to choose a restaurant for dinner, to make a decision. I am not very good with quick decisions anyway. And at that moment I was totally incapable of making a decision. And my mind exploded. And I had a meltdown.

But we didn’t know it was an autistic meltdown until 3 months ago. Two decades of wondering what the mysterious argument was about are now at an end. There was no argument. My system was simply overloaded and I could no longer cope.

Another mystery solved, simply by knowing that I’m autistic!