Another Step

Having admitted to myself that I was autistic, and having already approached the doctor to be referred for diagnosis, I knew there was something else important that I had to do. I had to let my family know what I’d discovered, and the obvious place to start with that was to call my mother.

I recorded my feelings about doing this:

Deep deep breaths. That was a biggie. Told my mother.

And then noted some of the things that she had immediately said when I’d told her that I would need information about my early childhood and please could she start thinking whether there were any incidents that occurred in my early life that she could remember, or any ways in which I differed from my brother (who is not autistic) when we were young, and could she possibly just start thinking back to the time of my early childhood and triggering memories because the assessment people would want to know.

And without even a pause for breath, my mother remembered being summoned to my primary school (as I’ve described in Circles) when I was 4 years old. She recalled me learning to read at age 3. She recalled my nursery teacher commenting on my behaviour at nursery. She recalled something about a hearing test at 7 months that went wrong because I didn’t behave like a 7 month old should and the person administering the test telling her off about it. She told me how I didn’t respond to spoken words as a baby, only to singing, and how I hardly slept and constantly fidgeted in my pram.

And all this was instantaneous recall, the moment I asked, with no pause for thought. Memories from over 40 years ago. Little things, none of which seemed significant at the time, and none of which was ever followed up (because it was the 1970s and I seemed healthy as far as anyone could tell and when my mother asked what babies were supposed to do (I was the first child and my parents were young and inexperienced) she was told that all babies develop in their own ways so not to worry about anything), all started to indicate that my development when I was very young was, in fact, rather a long way from what would be considered “normal” by most people.

This first conversation was, it turned out, only the “tip of the iceberg” as far as my childhood was concerned. There were further pieces of information to follow, and I’m still, really, in the process of absorbing them all and trying to go through the questionnaires that we did as part of the assessment process. Maybe I’ll manage to write about it all thoroughly at some point, but that point is not yet.

My instant reaction to these revelations was to make a bunch of hashtags:

#theplotthickens
#wouldseemivebeencausingtroubleforalongtime
#thiswholethingisratherextraordinary
#ialwaysknewiwasabitunusualbutbloominheck

I subsequently went through a phase of finding these discoveries about my early life really rather odd and weird, and in many ways, traumatic. It was strange to think that there were things I’d never have discovered about myself and my early life if I hadn’t been going for an autism diagnosis. My husband and I had started to document my own memories of childhood a couple of weeks earlier, but this phone call to my mother took things to a whole new level, because I started to discover things that weren’t part of my existing life narrative.

Furthermore, since I was never able to have any children, I didn’t know whether the things my mother was telling me about my early life had any resemblance to any sort of “normal” childhood development or not, and I ended up having to do a lot of really triggering research to find out, research that brought back horrible memories of infertility clinics and pain and heartbreak and failure, so it turned out to be a triggering and difficult experience from that point of view too.

And, of course, my own memories of childhood had to be activated. And many of them weren’t that much fun either – I was bullied consistently through school and even when teachers tried to find out why things weren’t as they should have been, they weren’t able to come up with any answers, despite sometimes trying, as I described in Head’s Office.

These things are things I still haven’t yet worked through, things that still upset me, things that I know would have been picked up if I was a child today. I can’t help feeling that had I known that I really was different when I was growing up, not just naughty, that I would have felt less bad, been less self-blaming, and not become the suicidal burnt out adult I now am. I’m still not really in a place where I can consider all the things I want to consider – I have to do it a bit at a time, because it is difficult.

My mother, somewhat comfortingly, said to me a few months after that first conversation, that she wishes she had a time machine. Of course, there are so many factors at play that it’s impossible to say that changing one thing would have produced this result or that result (I KNOW all the stuff about autistic kids being “written off” and told they’d never be able to get anywhere in life – I had exactly the OPPOSITE problem and was consistently told how bright I was and given massive expectations accordingly, expectations that I could never fulfill so I was doomed to failure). However, maybe I’d not have been chastised for meltdowns, not been forced to wear wool polo necks which hurt me and so on, and not have learnt, through my early years, to behave and to internalise everything because I was frightened of the consequences and the punishments.

Furthermore, because I learnt fast and turned out to be academically able, by the time I was at secondary school exam stage nobody worried about me. I was succeeding academically, top grades of my year, therefore I must be happy. What nobody knew is that I hardly bothered revising for my O-levels because I assumed I’d be dead by the time the results came out. I didn’t tell anyone because I’d learnt by then that you just didn’t talk about that sort of thing. You worked hard, you behaved, you churned out the exam results, and everyone was happy. It was all part of the act.

Except that the act had a massive cost for me – the thing that had eventually made me as well-behaved a child as I was able to be, turned me into a mentally ill twentysomething and a burnt out thirtysomething. And nobody really knew why until I was in my mid forties.

Getting an autism diagnosis late in life is a weird thing. It opens all sorts of cans of worms that have been sealed shut for decades. I had long since closed the door on my childhood, and on everything to do with children in general, sealed away in a place in my head marked “Do not open – just move on with life!” but I was forced to reopen the door, to take the cans off the shelves, and to let the worms loose all over the place. It was part of the assessment, and it is part of coming to terms with why my life has turned out as it has. It’s something that needs to be addressed as best I can in order to move on and try to build some sort of future with whatever life I have left. I’m not sure it was something I particularly wanted to be doing at this point in my life – having just moved away from all things child-related after my own failure to have any, the last thing I needed was to go back to my own early life – but it turned out to be necessary, and perhaps going through the painful stuff now means that there will be less of it buried and I’ll eventually be less mentally ill as a result, more at peace with it all, and maybe, possibly, more at peace with my own childlessness and consequent response to children, which is something I still struggle with terribly.

And, as I have read in so many places and am experiencing for myself, getting an autism diagnosis late in life is not only about the future, and learning how to live from now on, but also about reframing past experiences, reviewing all of life that has gone before, looking back at so many times when things have gone wrong, or been inexplicable, and looking at them from an autistic perspective. It’s part of the process of making sense of life, and, of course, the later the diagnosis, the more of life there is to go through.

And in my case, it’s not just me who is reframing past events. Many of my friends have now made sense of experiences they’ve had with me over the years. My husband now understands things that have long been slight oddities in our marriage. And my family are trying to understand the whole thing.

I made the first phone call to my mother a year ago today. It had taken nearly 45 years for her to find out why her non-sleeping fidgety baby had messed up a hearing test at 7 months old. As soon as I asked the right questions and explained what I’d recently discovered, it became obvious.

I didn’t even know I’d had a hearing test at 7 months until I started gathering information for an autism assessment!

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Variability

Today has been an OK day.
Not amazing,
Nothing much achieved,
Just clothes
And a bit of lunch,
But fine, OK
Perfectly contented
Just to be.

Yesterday was miserable.
I didn’t want
To exist
At all.
Really depressed,
Really low.
Not seeing any value
To my life
Nor any point
In staying alive.
Desolate.
Hopeless.

The day before was nice
I visited my best friend
Had coffee with my husband
Bit of shopping
Good stuff
Nice dinner.
Contented
Fine.

The day before was impressive
Coffee and breakfast
First thing
Cheese and mushroom toastie.
Two lots of shopping
Trousers, washing powder,
Bath foam, food.
All good stuff.
And then a 12K run.
Successful, good day.
If all days were like that
Life would be worth it
Totally.

The day before that
Tried to make tea
Couldn’t.
Drove to town, parked.
After three different coffee shops,
All too busy, frightening,
No words, even to ask for
A latte, which is what I always have.
No hope of buying food.
Returning home
In tears.
Fighting the urge
To damage myself.
Not able to eat.
Seeing no hope.
I’m a jobless, childless, useless
Person in their 40s
Who cannot even
Get a hot drink for myself.

This is the variability of my life.
This is the difference in capability
From day to day.

And I never know
How the new day will be.

And I struggle desperately
To imagine how life
Could be any different
From how it is
In that moment.

When it is good
I make plans
Based on the good persisting
And I imagine
Things will improve
Consistently
And I can achieve
So much.

When it is bad
I see no way
It is worth staying alive
And I have to fight the urge
To give up.
Sometimes
Taking it
One hour, minute, second,
At a time.

This is the variability
Of my life.

(And is also why
This blog
Is so unpredictable.)

Lost Day

I woke early, feeling exhausted, and not a proper sort of sleepy exhausted, but an odd sort of depleted exhausted, like all the energy had drained out of me somehow and I could hardly move. I could hear birds, very very loud birds, wood pigeon calls burning the insides of my ears.

I knew I had to be somewhere today. I knew also that getting there would be difficult. I looked at the schedule for the rest of the week, which I had photographed and saved on my phone. I tried to work out what I might be able to skip without causing too much inconvenience or annoyance. My head wouldn’t think very well, so I started to try to type into my phone:

If this were real life and I’m at sensory levels of now and tiredness. Would be schedule looking.

This was how the language emerged from my finger. I knew it was wrong and that it needed editing. And I also know that when WRITTEN language becomes difficult and starts to go wrong in that way, that I’m heading into shutdown. This is something I’m starting to learn, now that I’m actually observing myself with some knowledge, rather than just declaring myself “ill” or declaring that “my head went wrong” as I have done in the past.

I attempted to speak. There was nothing. No surprise there. If the written words are starting to go wrong then the spoken ones are almost certainly non-existent.

It was still early. I still had to get a message to the outside world that I wasn’t going to be where I was expected to be. The best I could do was to message my husband a few words and hope he could interpret what I was trying to say in order to convey some sort of message to those who needed to know that I wouldn’t be appearing for rehearsals this morning. He received the following messages:

Fail now. Is. Words. Morning. Not.

Now. Schubert. Prob. Can’t.

Tell.

Write hard. Speak not. Food not. Later.

And because he has long experience of such communications, he was perfectly able to send a message saying that I wasn’t able to get to the Schubert rehearsal and had asked him to pass on the message and that I didn’t need food and wouldn’t be able to communicate for a while.

At some point during the morning someone brought me a cup of tea and left it outside my tent. I was unable to respond, unable to move from where I was curled up under the duvet, unable to do anything at all for a while. This is all absolutely normal for me at such times, which have been happening since my early childhood. My mother observed the behaviour, still remembers it well, going right back into my early childhood, and even had a word for it, zonking, which I mentioned in Losing The Words.

Having successfully conveyed a message of sorts to the outside world, my brain then simply closed off. I slept a bit. I lay there staring at the side of the tent, a bit of plain fabric being as much visual input as I could take. I didn’t move. I couldn’t move. I don’t usually remember much from these times, just a feeling of being utterly drained, no energy at all, and something like a deep depression, not being able to form thoughts properly, no ability to translate things into words, nothing. My head is simply closed for business and my body follows it. There is nothing to do at that point except wait – it’s like some sort of reset is required before my overstimulated and exhausted brain will function properly again. I don’t respond, I don’t communicate, I just lie there and breathe, nothing more.

After a few hours I regained the ability to type and to form words and typed some of the thoughts that had by then started to emerge from my head into the notes app on my phone. Having established that I could once again produce proper typed sentences, I was then able to contact the outside world by facebook without my husband having to make the sentence structure for me. It was lunchtime. I was aware that I hadn’t eaten or drunk anything all morning (and couldn’t have – something else my mother had observed about zonking was that food was an absolute no during those times, and when I have attempted to eat or to keep functioning I have simply ended up physically sick and it’s been assumed I had some sort of bug or similar).

Somebody brought food and left it outside my tent. I was unable to thank them except online, but was able to eat by mid-afternoon, and was, it seemed, by this stage, quite hungry – even though I didn’t feel any sort of hungry, once I started to eat it was obvious that I was.

It took another couple of hours for the shutdown to be properly over and a further hour for spoken words to fully return. Although I can’t always tell when I’m going IN to shutdown, or that that’s what it is (though I am getting better at recognizing it as I’m learning), it’s really obvious when I’m emerging because I start to stim again, I start to rock and to move and get back to what for me is “normal”, a state of dynamic equilibrium as I like to think of it. For me, being still either means I am masking furiously and working hard to stay still, or I am ill and in shutdown, or I am asleep, or, occasionally, that I am relaxed under a weighted blanket or completely immersed in something or similar. The rest of the time I move, and that movement restarting is always a good sign – it’s the feeling that you didn’t know something was wrong until it was solved, and the minute it’s solved it was obvious how wrong it was before!

My sensory system remained on high alert for the rest of the day – I managed to go and sit in the audience to hear some of my friends singing and playing music, but used earplugs against the applause and was deeply grateful to a friend who asked others to move away from me to give me some space during the performance.

By mid-evening I was able to drive home, where my husband had “the food” (whatever I’m currently eating we call “the food” – I have cyclic obsessions with food where I eat the same thing every day for months, and always have done) ready and waiting for me, and I spent the evening doing all the familiar routines and being with the animals and recharging properly ready for the next day.

But what should have been a day participating was basically lost to a massive shutdown, and there was nothing I could do about it. I would have liked to have been in the rehearsals that morning. I would have liked to go to tea that day. I would have liked to join in the celebratory feasting and dancing (although I knew that the feasting would have been a non-starter anyway and I’d have been eating alone somewhere quiet), but I couldn’t.

But at least I know what causes these times now, and I have a word for them, shutdown, which makes sense to me and enables me to understand what’s going on. At least I have people who are willing to understand it too and to bring me food and so on and to help me out when it happens. And I know that I’m not getting some sort of illness (as has been suspected on many occasions in the past) and that I will feel better in a few hours’ time – I just need to wait, to be on my own, and to have as little input into my system as possible.

Last year, when the same thing happened, all I knew was that I felt inexplicably awful and couldn’t even tell anyone how or why. I spent a night silently crying in my tent in the dark, without food or help, with nobody even knowing where I was because I’d lost all ability to communicate and wasn’t even able to type a message to my husband. And short of “something mental health related or maybe a virus”, I had no idea why I was like that.

This year wasn’t ideal. It’s not really how I want to live my life, missing out on good times, having to skip rehearsals, having to sit on my own because my system can’t cope with much social interaction or noise, and so on. But it is better than the distress of previous years, than the anguish of desperately trying to function, trying to make things work, having to call in with some “unknown illness”, making myself worse by continuing to try to speak or function as I “should”.

I don’t like having to live this “half life”, which is what it feels like. But knowing why these things happen means I’m much less self-blaming, much kinder to myself, gentler to myself. And simply allowing the inevitable shutdown to run its course and not trying to push myself out of it means that I actually recover more quickly and am generally healthier as a result. Maybe once I’m more fully recovered from the recent burnout I’ll be able to do a bit more – I do hope so.

It does still all feel very much like a work in progress still. I have my answer as to why these things happen to me, but I now have to work out the best way to live, which I haven’t quite managed yet.

Dark Thoughts

This post should, I think, be one that carries additional content warnings beyond those on the home page of this blog. As you might guess from the title, material that some might find triggering or distressing might well be included here, so please protect yourself if you’re vulnerable and only proceed if you feel able to cope or have safety strategies in place. I should also add that I’m not in any immediate danger, despite having regular thoughts about my own place on this planet, and I have my own strategies sorted for the time being.

I find myself in a slightly odd situation when writing about and publishing posts about the darker side of my mind. When I started this blog one of the things I wanted to do was to be as honest as possible about as much as I could as possible, partly because that is just the way I am, partly because one of my hopes is that by discussing the more difficult topics (such as suicidal ideation) I will, in some tiny way, contribute to destigmatising them, and partly because there might be others who, like me, will read that there is someone else out there experiencing these thoughts and feeling and will feel comforted by the knowledge that they are not alone (even though this usually raises the rather odd situation of “I’m glad it’s not just me,” hastily followed by “I don’t mean that I’m really glad you feel horrible and want to end your life, just that I’m reassured that I’m not alone”).

However, when I am at my worst, one of the things I struggle to do is write about it. And, even if I do manage to type any words (usually into my phone while curled up under a blanket), the chances of my having enough functionality actually to publish them on this blog are pretty much nil. So I’m always playing a sort of “catch up” with the dark thoughts!

I’ve had a pretty rough week this week. Regular readers of this blog will know that I was away from home and spent a LOT of time surrounded by people during the preceding week. I didn’t know whether I’d even manage to be there, and it was only because of quite a lot of people giving me quite a lot of support that I was able to manage at all. However, even WITH that huge level of support and acceptance, it took every ounce of energy I possessed just to cope with an absolute minimum level of activity, so this week I have, unsurprisingly, been utterly wrecked.

I’ve done a lot of thinking about the amount of effort put in, both by me and by others, and have been considering hard whether it’s worth pursuing some of the more difficult things that I keep trying to pursue. I’m clearly disabled enough that I need care and adaptions just to enable me to participate in many things. I haven’t yet managed to process all my thoughts about this, and certainly if you’d asked me on Monday, I’d have declared that I was never leaving the flat again, ever, and that there really was no point continuing with life. I managed to post a couple of blog posts in the better moments, but that was about it.

However, time and solitude have meant that (I think) the worst is now over, and I’m gently starting to resume life, and to start to think more sensibly about my future exploits in the outside world. But, looking back to Monday, I thought it was important at this stage to acknowledge that this process of autistic discovery is not all wonderful relief. The wonderful moments such as those described in The Magic Spot and Liberation! are part of the experience, yes, but there is also a bleaker side of an autistic discovery, particularly, perhaps, for those of us who have a lot of anger and sadness at the way our lives have turned out. I could, if I wanted, make this blog all about the wonderful bits, a great celebration of beautiful stimming and hand-flappingly joyous discoveries and solved mysteries and so on, but it would feel like lying, so I won’t.

The darkness of this week has in no way been comparable to that described in The Aftermath, although I have, once more, had to work seriously hard to persuade myself that it is worth staying alive for the time being. It’s all very well accepting myself as an “out and proud” autistic at home, but once I have to interact with people in the outside world I have to work out exactly how I do that – there’s a blog post fermenting in my head about it – and that causes me to ask a LOT of questions about my value to the world and my purpose in the world and so on. The immediate answers delivered by my head are not all that encouraging, and I have to do a lot of work to debate them.

And, it seems, I am not alone. This morning somebody shared an article on facebook. I haven’t checked its veracity so I am merely reporting something shared by a mainstream media outlet (I don’t have the spoons to go back to the primary source right now), but the report talked of “investigating concerns about suicide rates among autistic people” and “research shows that two thirds of adults newly diagnosed with the condition had contemplated suicide.” If this is the case, then I’m certainly part of that two thirds.

Research results such as these are no surprise to me. In fact, from my own personal experience, I’m amazed it’s not higher. I have been contemplating suicide for as long as I’ve known what suicide was. I sort of assumed that most people did, but that, like me, they just didn’t talk about it. My feelings were borne out last autumn when I read Philip Wylie’s Very Late Diagnosis of Asperger Syndrome (Autism Spectrum Disorder) in which he described a further suicide attempt after his own diagnosis at 51.

Having such thoughts and memories does, for me, prompt me to review my “progress” as far as my own process of discovery and diagnosis is concerned. After so long in the mental health system I’m also very attuned to mood monitoring, and I’m also continually trying to assess my state of recovery from burnout in order to try to work out what level of functionality I might eventually hope to achieve and what kind of goals and plans I might make for the future (probably my strongest motivators to keep living are to achieve goals, to learn “things”, and to “find out what happens next”)!

I wrote the words below back in February, three days before I received my diagnosis. At the time I considered them too dark to post, and, since I was diagnosed just days later, and then life changed again a few days after that, they were never published. I feel there’s sufficient distance to publish them now, and I’m very aware that there are others still going through the diagnostic procedure who might relate to some of them. Also, however dark life has been this week (and it has been quite dark), it hasn’t reached the stage it was at back then.

If they don’t diagnose me
I can’t see the point of going on living.

Because I hate my life so fucking much.

I have always hated life.
I don’t know why people care about it so much.

I do not belong in this vile place.

But I was told to behave.
I was told to smile.
I was told to work hard and be good.

So I did.

But everything still turned to shit.

And I smiled publicly through the shit.

And unlike the kids who got spotted and got shrinks and stuff
I used those fucking accursed bastard brains to compensate.
And destroyed my mental health in the process.
The smiles hiding a ticking time bomb
Of mental illness and desire to be dead.

They thought I was happy because I passed exams.
But the exams were the retreat from the misery of people.

And later I drank myself oblivious when alone.
And cried.
And tried to end this hell.

And still nobody has believed me

45 years.

Still fighting.
Still not knowing who I am.
Still being told that maybe I have brain injury.

Why why why.

How much fucking longer?

I’ve written quite a lot more dark words about dark thoughts this week too, more about how angry and frustrated I am at my inability to function in the world, about how long all this took to discover, and about how much I struggle with some aspects of life. I’ve also had cause over the last week or to consider the vast gulf between some of my abilities and some of my disabilities, and how that gulf makes life so very complicated and unpredictable. I’m still working on trying to formulate those thoughts into something coherent though, so I’ll stop for now as this post is already quite long enough and my writing ability is almost exhausted for now – I can feel the sentence structure is no longer flowing and easy and that I’m having to use large amounts of brain power to translate my thoughts into readable words, so it’s time to stop!

Leaky Head

I have been inattentive to this blog recently. My head has been so full that processing thoughts into words has not always happened. I have also been back to the place mentioned in The Discovery and, more recently, in Going Back, Doing My Best, and Packing.

I am still analysing the experience of returning. I am still recovering from being with so many people for so much time. My husband went away for a couple of nights an hour after my return and I have now not seen another human or spoken a word for over 40 hours and I am starting to regain a little equilibrium.

I am also trying to work out what any of it is for. And I spent a long time yesterday “persuading myself That I even want to [live]”, which is still not a foregone conclusion for me. In the end, I gave up trying to work out why I do anything at all, and simply reminded myself of Scott Jurek’s words: “Sometimes you just do things!” These words have served me well on many occasions over the last few years.

Better analysis will have to wait for a while. Pouring so much energy into things outside my normal routine has left me somewhat depleted and also very behind with blogging and “desk work”. There is much to catch up on, and it will take time. I am having to take things very very gently.

However, the last day I was away, the 20th August, was a significant anniversary for me – exactly six months since my formal diagnosis. And, at four in the morning, sitting in a tent in a field, I typed the words below into my phone. Just something to try to mark the occasion somehow.

They’re very unformed thoughts. I have not analysed them, nor edited them (beyond dealing with a couple of autocorrect fails), and my head’s not really in a place for discussing some of them yet. I suspect I’m also repeating things I’ve said before. Maybe this is the way my brain is doing the processing, still trying to work out what has happened in the last year and where to proceed from here.

Please don’t challenge me on the thoughts below. I’m not up to being challenged on them. They are my truth from where I am at the moment. I do not want positivity. I do not want reassurance. Those things are uncomfortable to me right now.

My head needs space to process the thoughts and I need to challenge any that might need challenging by myself, in my own time. I do not currently have the strength to debate them with others. I merely present them to you as they are.

My head is full of anniversaries.
The end of this summer’s music
Reminding me of how things ended
Last summer…

Then
I was just at the start
Of exploring
The “autism hypothesis”
As I called it.

Me? Autistic?
No.
I did not “suspect”
I had not “wondered for a while”
It hadn’t occurred to me
At all.

TBH I hardly even knew what autism was.
I sure as hell knew nothing about
Sensory issues
Executive functioning
Autistic inertia
Social imagination
Burnout
Masking
Stimming
And so on.

Except that I did.
I knew all these things
Really really well
Because they had been part of
My normal
All my life.

I just assumed the world was
The same
For everybody.
And that life was basically
A competition
To see who could cope
And be tough
And behave “properly”
Like they tried to teach me.

I knew I was weak
Because I couldn’t tolerate it well
And got so mentally ill
That I wished to be dead
Most days of my life
For as long
As I could remember.
I assumed this was normal.
Most folk wake up
Wishing they hadn’t,
Don’t they?

I knew I was bad
Because I was still naughty
Even when I was trying to be good.
And I was still lazy
Even when I was working my hardest.

And then I discovered I was not
“Normal”
After all.
And please don’t think
That telling me I AM normal
Is in any way helpful
Because it is not comforting
Nor reassuring.
It is invalidating,
Gaslighting.
And upsetting.

There is
A weird feeling of discovering
That most other people
Perceive the world
Differently.

Must be odd for them!

I wonder what it’s like.

But I’ll never know.

My head is full of anniversaries
The date on my calendar app
Reminding me of how things ended
Exactly six months ago…

Then
I was at the end of exploring
The “autism hypothesis”
Because it ceased to be a hypothesis
And became a formal diagnosis.

Six months of learning about
Autism
And
Sensory issues
Executive functioning
Autistic inertia
Social imagination
Burnout
Masking
Stimming
And so on.

And discovering that my normal life
Wasn’t so normal
After all.

And that most other people
Weren’t being tough
In the ways I thought they were.
The assessor was clear on that.
And absolutely totally clear
That I fulfilled all the diagnostic criteria
Even things I hadn’t discovered:
My gestures and expressions
Limited and atypical.
Things that should have been
Learned intuitively
I had instead
Learned cognitively.

My head is full of anniversaries
And I think I should be
Writing something more
Organised?
But life has been sapping my energy
And my mind still needs
More processing time.

The thoughts are just there
Undefined
Randomly swirling.
Logical arguments not yet formed

But the anniversaries are there.
Six months since diagnosis.
Half a year.
That should be significant?
Maybe?
Perhaps it is and that’s why I’m even writing this.
It feels significant.
Six months since liberation.
Six months since it became OK
To stop trying to be “normal”
To give up the old life
(Though I’m yet to work out
How to proceed from here)
To recognise how disabled I really am
And how much care I need
Though, perversely, I’d rather be independent.

Six months is a long time
A lot has changed.
Six months is a short time
There is still a long way to go.

I am still learning.
There is so much to learn.
I’m still new to this autism malarkey.
Both new to the whole idea of it
And the theories
And debates
And arguments.
And to how and where I fit
Into the whole neurodiversity thing.
Confusing complexities of language.
The triggering effects of so much exposure
To children and childhood and parenting discussion
An area of life I had cut myself away from because it is so alien and painful.

And while I have lived for decades with my “normal”
Redefining myself as autistic is odd.
I was colourful, eccentric, weird, something special and different.

Now I discover I was just a common or garden autistic all along.

I feel much less unique.
More bog standard.
But I also know now I’m not normal.

Paradox.
I’m odder and less odd than I thought
Simultaneously.

And I have to learn to live
Practically.
And keep persuading myself
That I even want to.

Now is not really the time
After a week of memories
Almost no sleep
Meltdown
Shutdown
Self-injury
Dissociation
People
Music
Trying to cope.

But today is the date
So I have allowed
Unformed thoughts
To escape from my head.

My head is full of anniversaries.
So full
That some thoughts
About them
Have leaked
Out of my finger
Onto your screen.

Content Report

During my conference day I attended five presentations in all, three plenaries, and two from Stream A, which I had selected as the one I’d deemed most likely to have the least “child specific” content when the initial programme was published. I was, however, pleased to see that the slides for all streams had been included in the conference pack so I’d be able to look through them later.

At this point, I’d like to add a content warning. The titles of the talks I attended were: Exploring depression, Coping strategies for anxiety, Deliberate self-harm in children and adults with autism, Autism and psychosis, and, Catastrophising – why do we do it and how can we deal with it? As you can probably guess from those titles, this wasn’t exactly light-hearted subject matter, and suicide, suicidal ideation, and self-injury were discussed on several occasions. This whole blog carries, on the home page, a warning about such things, but this post might be a bit heavier on such content than usual, so might be one to save for later if you’re currently vulnerable. I should also say that I’m using language I wouldn’t usually use (for example “people with ASD”, and referring to autistic people as “they”) to reflect the way some of the speakers presented more accurately, even though such language is not preferable to most autistic people, and definitely not to me.

This blog post might also be one of the longest I’ve ever written, but I wanted to include the whole conference in one post rather than splitting it. I’m also aware that I’m simply reporting on the material presented and where I’ve commented on that material it has been entirely from personal experience. I have not, at this stage, made attempt to verify or refute any of the material from a scholarly or research perspective.

***

Tony Attwood began with his talk on depression, which linked in with his recent book “Exploring Depression and Beating the Blues”. He outlined the proportions of those with ASD who had depression as being approximately one third each of continual depression, cyclic depression, and no depression. He discussed “depression attacks” as something that “they” go through, and described how, at those times suicide was possible simply because the person suffering the “depression attack” would be desperate for the pain to end. Certainly, my own experience when severely depressed has been that my primary motivation for the suicide attempts I’ve made, or the ones I have planned but not executed, has been a strong desire for the pain to stop.

Attwood went on to discuss the overt pessimism of people with ASD, their diminished vocabulary to describe their worries, difficulties with friends, sensitivities to sadness in others, how sadness and anxiety seems to “stick” in the brain more than happiness, and how they accept “I’m stupid” messages more readily than others. Intellectual performance anxiety was also discussed, as many people with ASD struggled with sport and socialising they relied heavily upon intellect for self esteem (this was certainly the case during my own teenage years).

“Special interests” and their role in combating depression were discussed. The old clichés were wheeled out – dinosaurs received a mention, and the description of a child who had stated they “wished to be a robot” raised a titter of laughter from the assembled delegates. It was asserted that people with ASD liked to describe themselves by “what they do”, and there was a brief discussion of teenage girls with ASD and how they were not bitchy, and were likely to be interested in opera at age 15, so might come across more like a 25 year old while being emotionally less mature. While I’d have challenged Attwood on the emotional maturity thing, I recognised myself as a teenager who wasn’t much interested in other teenagers – although in my case I was into string quartets, symphonies, piano concertos, tone poems, and oratorios – my love of opera didn’t really blossom until I was at College in my early 20s!

There was some slightly uncomfortable discussion of how “Britishness” corresponded to “Asperger’s Syndrome”, with mention of Oxford and Cambridge, and the Antiques Roadshow, which Attwood subtitled “Spot the Aspie”! Train spotting and people who were still virgins into their 20s were also mentioned, and the assembled audience once again laughed obligingly, succumbing to Attwood’s skilful rhetoric.

Attwood’s slides provided an interesting checklist (presumably taken from the book – I don’t yet have a copy of it) of signs of depression, and he also discussed strategies that might be deployed to help. I very much liked his concept of an “Energy Bank Account” (pretty much the same thing as I use when I talk about “spoons”, and which I’m currently working on for my own monitoring of my own energy/spoon levels). He discussed the need to treat depression before an ASD assessment can accurately be made, he discussed exhaustion, and also mentioned that if enthusiasm for a usual, big, special interest was gone then depression might have taken root very deeply. He talked about animals often being better than psychologists in some circumstances – that very strongly resonates with my own experience!!! Medication was also briefly mentioned, as were unhelpful tools (such as alcohol – my own “self medication” of choice), and possible strategies for staying safe during a “depression attack”.

***

The second plenary was given by Wenn Lawson, who I’d been very keen to hear as I’m very much enjoying The Nine Degrees of Autism, which he co-wrote with Philip Wylie and Luke Beardon. Lawson, who, unlike Attwood, is actually autistic, was instantly relatable. He outlined how applause was painful, which is absolutely the case, and was keen to voice concerns that there might become an “us and them” situation with autistic and non-autistic people. He also mentioned the need to build resilience in autistic people.

Much of the first part of his talk was focused on the notion of object permanence, and how much the lack of object permanence in autistic people can generate anxiety. Object permanence is that knowledge that something is still there, even when you can’t see it. Lawson mentioned his need for a photograph, a visual reminder, of his partner. Lack of object permanence on my part is the reason that we don’t put food away in a cupboard in our flat – if it’s out of sight it simply isn’t there, so my husband leaves it as visible as possible to maximise the chances that I’ll eat!

Lawson also discussed how autistic people rely on being interested and how special interests can be something other than traditional “hobbies” – they could be connected to something to wear, something to eat, or similar. Of course, developing a rather strong interest in autism was the whole reason I was at the conference in the first place – so this made absolute sense to me!

Lawson also discussed how to develop resilience by giving options on plans, to make things less concrete to avoid anxiety when plans were forced to change. He used the example of a school timetable that was prone to change and suggested that actually writing extra options onto the timetable would, to an extent, prepare for possible change in advance, and also gave the example of a girl going to a restaurant who might have to cope with a different table or waitress, and how preparation in advance might be a useful strategy to help the girl cope with issues that might arise. This sort of resilience is a necessary life skill for an autistic person to learn and to practice on a regular basis. Getting outdoors and getting exercise was also discussed as a way of building resilience, and how doing so might usefully be linked to interests connected to technology, such as geocaching, bikes with computer chips (I thought of my own love of looking at the stats on my Garmin after I’ve been for a run), or, in other cases having an animal such as a dog.

The way that more able adults often worry about things more was mentioned and how insight doesn’t actually change the anxiety problems associated with change, but can make it worse, not better. However, it seems that autistic brains gain more plasticity with age (unlike neurotypical ones). Lawson then discussed the processing of information and mentioned his own synaesthesia, which associates colours with moods. He stated that the mood of the audience was predominantly yellow, although I can’t remember what mood yellow represented, partly because the person with the sharp jumper was asking their friend what synaesthesia meant and the friend was googling it on an ipad, and partly because for me, yellow is E major, so everything in my head instantly went into four sharps!!!

The need for different sorts of cues (visual, auditory, kinaesthetic) for different people was discussed, as was motivation. Clubs and social motivations are unlikely to appeal to AS people, so movement and response has to be initiated in other ways. Lawson, like me, fails to see the problem with using ipads and technology in the classroom or in other situations. He suggested that the sort of anxiety triggered by demands placed on the autistic brain might be ameliorated by, for example, sending a text message to an AS person rather than asking them with spoken words. He cited one of his own family members saying that strategies that make the AS person believe that they’ve thought of what to do themselves are often the most successful.

Learning to be independent is often possible, but learning to be interdependent can be difficult with high levels of anxiety. Lawson also discussed the difficulties that AS adults might have when unable to communicate effectively with neighbours and so on because answering the door or telephone provokes too much anxiety. Information that isn’t conveyed by e-mail / text will often be missed. He concluded by mentioning mindfulness and asserting that it is very underrated as a tool for coping with some of the difficulties caused by being autistic.

***

Khalid Karim and his colleague Sarah Baines wisely started with a caution about the material in their presentation, which was focused on self-harm. Karim was an engaging speaker, and started by explaining some of the terminology often used to describe self-harm, including self-injury, suicidal ideation and so on. The question of what suicidal ideation actually means was discussed, and whether suicide attempts were part of the same thing. It was also noted that in the research the material available is predominantly concerned with genetics and statistics, but that there is almost nothing written about what can be done about self-harm in people with ASD.

After a brief discussion of how self-injurious behaviour (SIB) can become stereotyped in ASD (as opposed to “impulsive” in psychiatric illness), Karim went on to say how critical it was to ask not WHAT a patient was doing to self-harm, but WHY they were doing it. He also mentioned the recently increasing incidence of suicide in the general population, but that ASD data were very difficult to find and that suicide attempts are very much underreported. Autistic people are, apparently, more likely in general to have suicidal ideation, but with co-occurring depression the likelihood increases dramatically. Many ASD adults have suicidal ideation and have made suicide attempts.

The importance of discovering, in a clinical setting, what a SIB was trying to communicate was emphasised – language skills are often reduced when anxiety is high. SIBs can also be used, consciously, as a coping mechanism, and it’s important to try to understand whether the stressor is internal or external. SIBs can also be comforting and a relief from anxiety, even though they are difficult for an outsider to watch. An outside observer might instinctively try to stop such behaviour, but that might, in fact, have the reverse effect or cause the “patient” to redirect their behaviour to something even more harmful.

Various types of SIB were discussed, some of which were familiar to me from personal experience, and possible causes of SIB in autistic people were listed – for example repetitive, sensory, self stimulatory, poor sleep, communicative, anxiety, and so on. The management and impact of SIBs was also discussed.

Attention then turned to suicidal ideation, which is, apparently, really common in people with ASD – this is also borne out by my personal experience. Suicidal ideation doesn’t, however, always translate into suicide attempts, and, obviously, not every suicide attempt will translate into a completed suicide. It would seem that suicidal ideation peaks in the 20s, and precipitating factors for actual attempts vary. For those still in the school system there seems to be a reduction in suicidal ideation during school vacations. Depression, severe anxiety, and psychosis exacerbate the risks, as can feelings of exclusion – an autistic child in a mainstream school can often be “included, but excluded” so although they are physically present, they sometimes don’t make the same friendship connections with other children, even if they’re not actively bullied.

Karim also noted that the media has a role to play in self-harm. He observed that every time there is a programme on self-harm on the television the incidence of self-harm increases. He also noted that conventional “anger management” is a waste of time in these situations, and that poverty has a really significant role in increasing self-harm. Dangerous behaviours can also increase if they produce a desired response – the example was given of a kid climbing up a high building in order to get the fire brigade called because they liked fire engines. It was noted that understanding autism and mental health issues is complex and really hard work. A further example was given of a neurotypical carer assuming that a child’s self-harm was the result of the child’s mother having recently died, when, in fact, the issue was not the death of the mother but simply that the child was being bullied at school.

The issue of whether the “patient” even WANTED to be treated for their SIB was also addressed, and whether they even thought it was a problem. Maybe someone hitting themselves is a valid coping strategy, however distressing it might seem to an outsider. The need for flexibility in dealing with patients was discussed – an example was given where Karim had interviewed a child who was happy to be interviewed while upside down. It was also noted that sometimes the best strategy was to treat, say, sleep problems first, and that suicidal ideation in kids under the age of around 10 was often a way of expressing distress rather than really showing an understanding of death.

***

For the second session in Stream A, on psychosis, Tony Attwood was back at the microphone. He started by exploring the connection between ASD, schizophrenia, and psychosis, and went on to observe that schizophrenia was a common misdiagnosis in teenagers and adults with an ASD as the psychiatrists were often uncertain of the interpretation of phrases such as “hearing voices” and that imaginary friends and catatonia were often confused with signs of schizophrenia. Attwood also asserted that people with ASD were great at logic but less good at emotions.

Attwood discussed the connection between imaginary friends, people with ASD talking out loud while thinking in order to clarify thoughts (this reminded me of my own “scripting” behaviour), and the late development of internal dialogue in people with ASD. He also returned to the concept (mentioned earlier in the day) of AS people assuming what he termed “god mode”, in other words, compensating for lack of sporting and social abilities by developing an intellectual arrogance, especially if they were smart. He called this “Sherlock syndrome”.

Misdiagnosis of schizophrenia was further discussed. Many patients on chronic mental health wards were given a diagnosis of schizophrenia and then locked up for decades, when, in fact, they had ASD and had then suffered a breakdown.

The psychological reactions that many people with ASD experience as a result of being different were also listed, and it was noted that depression often starts young in people with ASD, who can seriously question the value of life (this latter tallies absolutely with my own experience). There was also an assertion that effusively social places such as Italy might be worse places for people with ASD than places such as Japan. The mimicry, acting, and chameleon-like behaviour of women and girls with ASD was mentioned as was the fact that such behaviour can lead to dissociative personality disorders and, in adulthood, substance abuse. Furthermore, those who hide in their houses in adulthood and become reclusive can apparently suffer from psychotic issues owing to sensory deprivation. It was also noted that people with ASD have high levels of paranoia and jump to conclusions, leading to diagnosis of prodromal signs of schizophrenia.

Catatonia was then discussed at length, as was isolation, and the withdrawal of many ASD people from the world because life was simply too difficult. The slowness of movement and difficulty initiating actions in catatonia was noted, as was the dopamine hypothesis and possible link with Parkinsonism. Attwood also asserted that catatonia was regressive.

***

The final plenary was also given by Tony Attwood, who was talking about catastrophising, particularly in regard to meltdowns in people with ASD. He started by outlining the rapid acceleration in intensity of emotions in people with ASD, describing the autistic brain as having an “on/off” switch rather than a neurotypical “dimmer” switch. He gave a brief introduction to the neurology of an ASD brain, positing that ASD amygdalae are larger and more overactive than those of neurotypicals. He suggested that this might be an adaption to aversive sensory experiences. The role of the frontal lobe in controlling “fight or flight” behaviour was also discussed as was the fact that in people with ASD the frontal lobe doesn’t receive information before a meltdown, so conscious control of emotions is not possible at that point. A meltdown might have been building for a while before it actually happens.

Attwood went on to discuss the potential use of fitbits (and presumably any other device that measures heart rate) as a good external indicator of a person’s anxiety levels. He also noted that saying “just relax” to a person in a heightened state of anxiety does not work, but that focusing on breathing or similar might.

He went on to discuss the mind of a filing cabinet, full of cognitive and social skills and proposed that one of the problems with intense emotions was that they effectively “locked” the filing cabinet, cutting off those skills and strategies and that even with instruction, many coping tools would not be available and that the best strategy was to remove triggers and to aim for calmness. He suggested that those dealing with meltdowns should behave “like a satnav” calmly redirecting and avoiding all analysis of what happened. He also suggested that getting rid of all need for sociability would be a good idea, and, if possible to engage the mind in some sort of special interest related activity – he gave the example of a child who was keen on numbers being encouraged to focus on some sort of counting activity. As a person who has huge meltdowns myself I did find much of this advice sensible and I might draw on it when I’m putting together the “how to” guide I’m eventually hoping to produce for those who might encounter me at such times.

As had been the case during the first session of the day, “depression attacks” were discussed. The advice for dealing with these “depression attacks”, which I thought sounded rather like what I’d call some sort of shutdown, was basically good.

Other tools and strategies were also discussed, particularly physical activity and the notion of using physical activity specifically for emotional release, although stimming, one of the most powerful tools for regulating emotions, was not mentioned. I’m very familiar with such strategies, although I’d not previously thought of “smashing up the recycling after school” as a tool for controlling emotions. Special interests and the value of animals were also discussed, with examples being given of parents being advised to get pet snakes and horses for their children! The role of medication and examples of maladaptive and adaptive strategies were also discussed as the session concluded.

***

The four sessions I didn’t attend because they were in different streams were on jealousy, speech and language therapy, self-esteem, and mindfulness. I’ve glanced briefly through the slides for the first three of these and read the article on mindfulness that was given in the conference pack. I have used mindfulness to deal with my own mental health issues over the last few years, with considerable success and I was pleased to note that the author of the article emphasised the circumstances under which it was not advisable to begin a mindfulness training programme – namely when there is upheaval in life or suffering from acute psychiatric conditions. I’d have been interested to attend any of these sessions, particularly the ones on self-esteem and mindfulness.

Evolving Understanding

Now that I come to see it written down, that title seems really really strange. But I can’t think of a better one, so it’ll have to do. What I’m trying to say is really something along the lines of “I want to write about how my diagnoses (particularly with regard to mental health and neurology) and my understanding of those diagnoses and ability to discuss them has evolved over time” but that’s way too long for a blog title!

In addition to being autistic, I also have bipolar disorder (bipolar II to be precise – which means that my manic episodes are actually called hypomanic episodes and are somewhat more moderate than the full mania of bipolar I, but that my depressive episodes are generally longer and more extreme than the depressive episodes usually associated with bipolar I (there are also other forms of bipolar disorder, including cyclothymia (often called rapid-cycling) and, I believe, something about mixed states or not specified – my knowledge on current bipolar disorder designations is a bit rusty as I’ve not done much work on it recently and I don’t have the time to do a research project on it today)).

I was formally diagnosed with bipolar disorder in 2010, although I had evidently been self-diagnosed for some time before that. I briefly wrote about my experiences back in July 2009, and I was clearly already comfortable with the self-attributed label at that time, so I suspect I had been self-diagnosed for some while before then – I really can’t remember. I have openly and comfortably spoken to anyone who cares to listen about bipolar disorder, depression, and anxiety for many years now, and I’m currently learning to do the same regarding autism. As it’s bipolar day today I had wondered whether simply to share my previous writing about my experiences with bipolar disorder, but when I looked up those writings my rough style and my evident lack of knowledge were just a bit too grating, so I decided to write this post instead.

And so we come to the notion of evolving understanding. It is clear from my 2009 writing that my own understanding of my mental health and neurology has evolved massively in the last 8 years. It is also clear that the understanding of autism in general has evolved massively over the last 8 years. And it is also clear that some of the issues in my life that I attributed to bipolar disorder back in 2009 were obviously related to my being autistic, as this quote, from 2009, shows:

“Every so often I get stressed, sometimes for no apparent reason. And sometimes, as happened when the treadmill broke recently (it was really just the last straw), I go over the edge. I cry uncontrollably, I am unable to focus on anything and incapable of making even simple decisions. Work becomes impossible. I feel terribly guilty. Eating normally becomes impossible. My senses go haywire. I shake uncontrollably. My legs HURT. And the world becomes a very frightening place, full of bright lights and loud noises, where even little old ladies with sticks seem to move at the speed of light. It is worse in the mornings. And, as I am now discovering, rather hard to write down in a way that makes any sense.”

Bipolar disorder, particularly bipolar II, and particularly in those who are AFAB (Assigned Female At Birth), has traditionally been a common misdiagnosis in the days when the understanding of autism was poorer than it is today. I did wonder, when I received my autism diagnosis, whether my bipolar disorder diagnosis would be removed, because so many of the ways the two conditions present and interact can be similar. However, bipolar disorder is also a common comorbid condition with autism, and the prevalence of bipolar disorder in the autistic population is far higher than in the population as a whole. During my assessment there was a long discussion about my mental health and about how bipolar disorder and autism interacted in my life, and I’ve also mentioned this interaction in the post about Different Language. The conclusion was reached that bipolar disorder is, for me, a comorbid condition alongside autism, and the two have to be considered together.

It’s also obvious now, from the quote above, just how many of the characteristics I ascribed entirely to bipolar disorder in 2009 were actually part of my being autistic (“My senses go haywire” and the subsequent descriptions of sensory problems associated with light and sound are obviously autistic characteristics, in hindsight). For the best part of a decade, bipolar disorder was blamed for pretty much everything that was “wrong” with me, and for a decade or so before that it was simply “anxiety and depression”. As life has progressed I’ve steadily acquired more diagnoses (and more “labels”), which might be seen as bad in some ways, but is actually providing me with much greater understanding of how my head works, and I hope, eventually, how to control it sufficiently to live a life of reasonable quality.

Perhaps, when I’m a bit more able to focus than I am currently, I’ll write a bit more about bipolar disorder and how it affects me and how it fits into my life. I’ve spent most of the last decade becoming reasonably competent at managing the condition, through a combination of medication, various talking therapies, mindfulness, and, possibly most important of all, keeping a daily mood diary (which I did for years until summer 2016 when the “autism hypothesis” was formed and things went completely crazy – once I am a bit more settled I shall set up a monitoring system that takes both bipolar disorder and anxiety and autism into account). Although some of these treatments were not totally suitable for me because they exacerbated issues caused by undiagnosed autism, they did, on the whole, work for management of my bipolar disorder – what I need to do now is to adapt them so that they’re working WITH my neurology to improve my mental health, not against it.

And my understanding of mental health issues and neurology continues to evolve, as, I hope do the understandings of others. Part of the reason I write this blog is to try to understand things myself (it is well-known in teaching circles that explaining things to other people is a good way to test understanding) and also to try to help others understand the complicated world inside some of our heads!

I do, however, fear that I’ll look back on that last paragraph (and possibly most of the rest of this blog) in 8 years’ time and think that my “rough style and my evident lack of knowledge were just a bit too grating”, just as with the 2009 writing, so maybe it’s time to stop here.

Euthymic bipolar day to you all!