Pride

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

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

I really should pay more attention!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Coffee Please!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Week, Actually!

It turns out to be exactly a week since I wrote the poem in the previous post. I got as far as putting that post together yesterday, but never managed to post it because my functioning let me down and I ended up with a sort of partial shutdown followed by a sort of partial meltdown and abandoned plans to do anything at all except survive.

A pattern is starting to emerge. After some big step up in activity, to a big thing that takes so much energy and generates so much anxiety, the first recovery day is reasonably OK as I’m still just pleased I managed to do whatever it was and I’m still, to an extent, hyped up by having made such a massive effort.

However, the second day is usually the worst, and yesterday, around mid-afternoon, having turned on the laptop to post what should have been yesterday’s blog post, I suddenly felt dreadful and overloaded. It became obvious that I wasn’t up to doing anything at all (by that stage I’d still not even been able to get myself a drink) and I abandoned the notion of either posting on the blog or, indeed, doing anything else on my jobs list. I tried to put it into words and ended up with this:

There’s a certain relief
When I just
Give up.

When I stop trying
To do jobs
Or write blog posts
Or “achieve”
Anything.

I then fell asleep on the sofa for a while, then woke up feeling disorientated and only semi-verbal (I could have spoken if necessary, but forming words was massively hard work).

And I felt low. Not generally low, like some sort of long-term depression, but suddenly low and exhausted, like a shutdown, though it wasn’t a full shutdown of the type I often experience. And I had one of those moments that I’ve not had in a while now, but that were much more common several months ago, where I suddenly felt that life was so very very unfair and I didn’t want it to be like this.

In the absence of anyone I felt I could bother, I ranted into the “Notes” bit of the iPad.

Why me? Why do I have to miss so many opportunities? Tonight I just want to be normal. I want the career I was supposed to have. I want to be able to go out on a Saturday night with friends and not need days to recover. I want to be able to “work hard” and that work to produce success rather than exhaustion and failure. I want to earn my own money. I hate hate hate hate being dependent on other people. I want a proper life. I don’t like having to sit in a darkened room for hours on end in order to recover every time I do anything. I’m bored. Maybe I’m even lonely. Though to be honest I’m so fucking alexythymic that I have no way of distinguishing between boredom and loneliness. I’m so fed up with having so little energy and being able to do so little. I want to work hard at stuff and I just can’t.

And so on and so on and so on. Lots and lots of thoughts of that nature.

I tried desperately to pull myself together and finally got myself a glass of water and a snack, hoping that if I ate then I’d start to feel a bit better. It sometimes helps. But it didn’t really at that point.

I then scrolled through facebook a bit more, hoping for something to distract me. I joined a conversation on a group and because my words weren’t up to much I posted a link to something (on topic) from this blog. Next I knew, the message thing pinged and I had a message from some stranger who was a mod or admin or something on the group – telling me off because hadn’t I read the pinned post and blog links were not allowed and would I go back and edit my comment.

Already low. Already struggling. I burst into tears. I messaged back telling them just to delete me and have done with it. I couldn’t find which group. I probably read the pinned post when I joined, but so many groups, so many pinned posts, so many screens of compulsory trigger warnings, content notes, worrying about pronouns, blog links, not links, this sort of post, not for this group, and so on and so on and so on. I know these things are important for so many reasons, but at that moment I felt old, I felt like someone who grew up before the internet was invented, and I’m still learning, and I can’t learn all this stuff fast enough because my head is so overloaded at the moment. Maybe I should stop posting on the internet at all because I’m clearly an incompetent idiot who can’t even read the fucking instructions properly. I’m wrong wrong wrong. Even online I’m getting the social codes wrong. What hope do I have out in the real world. Maybe I should just crawl under the duvet and stay there until I starve to death?

Remember, this was all going through my head when was basically in meltdown. Too tired even to meltdown properly I just sat and cried.

My brain, meanwhile, was reminding me that this was day 2 after doing something big. Some sort of meltdown in whatever form was inevitable. The incident with the facebook page was actually just the straw that broke the camel’s back (by the way, does anyone else literally have a little snippet of video in their head, like a GIF, of someone putting a single straw onto an already overloaded camel, in which the camel then falls to the floor, its back broken? And does anyone then imagine the work a good vet would have to do to rehabilitate the camel, all for the sake of one measly straw? Or is that just me?), and everything had been building since the weekend, and gradually getting closer and closer as time went on. I’d spent the morning stressed about a post concerning cooking from scratch, which made me feel incompetent and stupid, I’d read another post about how life was too short to moan about things changing, which made me feel disabled because my brain struggles with change, I’d read something about women wanting motherhood and careers, when I have neither, which again made me feel useless to society, I’d failed even to be able to fill the kettle to make a cup of tea, and so my bloody camel was absolutely at maximum loading capacity.

Eventually I calmed down. I hid the group from my feed, poured myself a beer, and sat quietly on the sofa. I had a couple of short chats with a couple of people online, both of which calmed me. I watched the telly. And by the end of the evening things were pretty much OK again and I eventually put myself to bed, having had a couple of longer chats with a couple of friends online (my husband was away overnight, having been out for a late evening).

And this morning my functioning level is improved. I’m in the midst of making a cup of tea, and feel like I probably need to eat something reasonably substantial, having hardly eaten at all yesterday. I might even start to get a few things done.

And I now ask why I’ve written up what happened yesterday. Why have I spent the energy basically recounting feeling a bit rubbish, when my general approach to this whole “being autistic” thing is to be positive?

Maybe just to indicate that it’s not all sweetness and light, so that others who have similar experiences can relate? Maybe to try to convey to those people who see me at my most functional out in the world, and might be tempted to think that I’m absolutely fine, that there is a price to pay for doing the things I want to do? Maybe just because it helps me to sort my head out a bit and to process what happened and to move on? Who knows?

All part of life, I guess. And I said at the start of this blog that I wanted to be as honest about it all as I could. So maybe that’s why? Shutdowns and meltdowns (or the partial versions thereof that I experienced yesterday) are part of the deal, part of the autistic life. For me, they always have been, but now I have the vocabulary and knowledge to analyse them, so that is what I do. And it helps to put a day like yesterday into perspective to be able to look at it rationally now my thinking abilities have mostly returned.

Now I just have to gather enough energy actually to post the posts on the blog! And to put them onto facebook and twitter. And to start to reconnect with the world once more. Then I need to see what are the most urgent jobs that need doing from my list because, as is becoming all too apparent, I have to do what I can when I have the energy in order to get through days like yesterday when the energy simply isn’t there!

Six Months Public

I don’t have time to write a long blog post right now as today I’m going out into the world to play music, to continue the process of discovering just how much I can push myself to do things and what adaptions I might need in order to be able to live the best life I can, and to keep rebuilding my life, which fell apart so spectacularly in the latter part of 2016.

However, I wanted to post something, to mark the six month anniversary of publishing The Discovery, which was the post in which I disclosed my autistic identity to anyone who cared to read the post. Only two posts preceded it, an introduction, and a bit of background, and I could never have imagined, six months later, just how much I would have learnt and written and connected with other bloggers and people in the autistic community. On that day, back in December, I was, to put it mildly, extremely nervous about what might ensue, and I still, at that stage, had no idea that the responses from most people I know would mainly be of the form “Well, of course you’re autistic, you mean you didn’t know” or “Well that makes total sense”!!!

I wrote about Disclosing Identities back in January, and I stand by what I wrote then. For me, full disclosure has been relatively smooth, although I am still getting back out into the world (like today) and I am still working on getting a smooth and brief script together to talk about being autistic in ways that are most likely to be understood and appropriate when discussing with people out in the world. I’m also still very much at the start of the process of working out what adaptions I might need in order to successfully participate in various activities and not end up having a meltdown or ending up too ill to function.

But, six months on from what was the real start of this blog (and might, at the time, also have been the end of it), things are OK. I am yet to be told that I “can’t be autistic” (or any similar phrase) and I’m still wondering whether that’s because I do, in some ways, fulfil autistic stereotypes (I do rock back and forth quite a lot, I am fairly random with eye contact, I do sometimes have full-blown meltdowns in supermarkets, and, yes, I do like mathematics and find it calming), or whether I’ve just been monstrously lucky to be surrounded by such supportive people!

Whichever way, six months from the nervous day on which I posted that first post, life now feels very very different. Still very much a work in progress, but a long way from how it was back in December.

Energy Budgeting

I have a fairly busy week coming up. There are things in my diary that I’ve agreed to do that involve other people and are therefore “fixed” and would cause stress to me and others to cancel or change. There are also jobs that I really do need to do this week because not doing them would cause consequences (paying bills, dealing with various messages, making decisions about what to commit to over the next few months so other folk can plan, and that sort of thing). So I’m a bit stressed, and a bit anxious about how I’m going to cope with it all.

Part of what has happened over the last few weeks is that my state of “wellness” has shifted slightly. I’m far from “well” or able to live anything approaching what might be thought of as a “normal” life, but I’m no longer so ill that it’s obvious my life can only consist of getting out of bed, staring at the telly for a few hours, and then going back to bed again, which was how it was a few months ago. I can now manage to leave the flat on my own from time to time, even though it exhausts me, and, consequently, I’m doing rather more than I have been for many months.

But this increase in activity comes at a price. Each time I increase what I’m doing, a bit of functionality drops off somewhere else or I end up, on the days I’m not out in the world, back to being so ill that I can barely get out of bed. I managed to get to the conference the other week, and then to write it up as fully as I could, but the result was that I then spent two full days barely able to do anything and retreated back under my blanket on the sofa, stimming almost constantly, and not really managing to eat properly. You might have noticed that, as I’ve been doing more I’ve been blogging less. I only have so much energy and cannot use it everywhere at once.

And so I need to budget my energy. If I’m going to have enough energy to do the things I want to do in life (or, at least, as many of them as possible – I’d really have liked a full-time job and a family and to have been able to have a hobby or so on top of that, but I’m realistic to know that, for me, those things simply aren’t possible), then I’m going to have to save my energy rather carefully and work out what things drain my energy and what things give me energy, and how I can balance the two.

Which is, of course, why, stupidly, I’m up and out of bed before 10 in the morning this morning, too much in my head to go back to sleep, and now sitting at the computer writing a blog post about it!!!

The irony is not lost on me that I’ve woken up this morning feeling not too bad and am struggling to rest in the way that I know I should be doing if I’m to get through the rest of the week without falling apart. I’m just hoping that I can get the important jobs like bill paying done today so that at least I can allow myself to crash out later in the week if I need to, and I can spend all available energy dealing with the inevitable anxiety that seeing people (some of them new) and going to places (at least one of them unfamiliar) later in the week will inevitably cause.

It’s also particularly difficult to budget my energy at the moment because I don’t actually know how much energy I have to start with. In terms of spoon theory, I’m currently being given a number of spoons at the start of each day but I don’t know how many there are (I’m sure others with variable conditions will relate strongly to this feeling). In terms of monetary budgeting, it’s like working with a bank account without a balance available – I might have enough in there to go on a spending spree and buy whatever I like today, or I might go out and try to buy essential food and not have enough to pay for it. I simply don’t know, so it all feels like a bit of a guessing game right now and all I can do is keep trying to find out where my limits are.

What I do now know is that the only way to manage these energy levels is to let them settle as I stabilise after burnout, to work out just how much functionality I have in what areas, and then to start to look at how I can optimise life in general to be as good as it can be. I’m still accepting that it’s never going to be the sort of life I anticipated it would be when I was in my late teens and early twenties, nor the life that many other people expected me to have at that time. I’m still trying to figure out what I can do and get to a point where there is some sort of stability in my life. Currently, it all feels rather unknown and rather challenging and rather uncertain.

I could, of course, decline the offers to meet people, to play music, and to go out to dinner. I could give up the idea of ever running in big races. I could abandon plans to continue studying and learning. And I could decide to spend the rest of my life watching daytime TV, scrolling through social media, and playing with the animals. It became evident years ago that I can’t hold down a life-sustaining job for any length of time and I am not able to live independently. It also became apparent some years ago that having a family wasn’t going to be in my list of options either.

However, I’m interested enough in things that I don’t want to abandon all my goals and I do want to get back out into the world as much as I can. But, unlike in the past, I now have knowledge that makes me experience almost everything in life very very differently. I feel like I almost went into hibernation back in September 2016, and I’ve spent months, mainly hidden away in the flat, exploring my real identity, finding autistic communities online, learning the language of the autistic world, discovering things about my past, learning to listen to my body, having hundreds of “lightbulb moments” where I suddenly realise that there’s something ELSE I have always done because I’m autistic, and also allowing myself time and space to come to terms with what has happened and to recover from the huge burnout that had been building for some time.

But getting back out into the world uses energy. It uses energy in unexpected ways. Every time somebody asks me the question “What do you do?” it saps my energy levels massively because I have no simple answer and have not yet developed a reliable script. Every time people expect me to have “normal” social skills, or to chat in a group, or to be able to process the sheer amount of speech in the world, I get exhausted. Every time I have to explain because I’m meeting people who don’t know me online and don’t read my blog, it’s knackering. Every time I hear someone using person first language or functioning labels and so on I want to scream at them, I want to make them understand, but that all uses energy – things that are taken for granted in autistic communities online are totally foreign to most people in the outside world and, as is so often the case, the only way to deal with it is self-advocacy (ironically, I have a communication disability but in order to get my needs met in the outside world I have to be able to communicate effectively in a way that is exhausting and difficult to me)!!!

None of this surprises me, of course. Some of it I’ve known for years, and some of it is very easy to deduce when I think back to a year ago when I’d never heard of “burnout”, “stimming”, “inertia” and so on (I promise I’ll write proper blog posts explaining terminology at some point – it’s something I really want to do, but I can only process all these things at a certain pace and I can’t do everything at once). I know that there’s no reason why most people would have the faintest clue of what it’s like to experience the world as I do (and, of course, it turns out that I don’t know what it’s like to experience the world as they do either) and I’m now having to work out the interface between me, now unmasked, totally public and “out” and determined to be as authentically autistic as possible, and the world outside that won’t always totally understand me.

And it all uses energy. Lots of energy. And I don’t know whether I even have that much energy much of the time. But, ten months after discovering it was very likely I was autistic, six months after the low point of the aftermath of the first assessment going so badly wrong, and nearly four months after diagnosis, I’m starting to gather just enough energy together to do a few “normal” things out in the world. And since I’m no longer masking, or pretending, I’m hoping that I’ll gain quite a lot of energy from that – enough to compensate for the energy I’ll use doing all the necessary explaining.

So energy budgeting is very much something I’m thinking about at the moment. I’m starting to gather resources, starting to think about how I could make a system that will work for me (much like my old “mood diary” did so effectively in managing my bipolar disorder) in monitoring things, and what some of my goals for the future are going to be. Since I now know I have quite substantial limitations on what I can do because my neurodivergent brain needs so much energy to process “ordinary” things, I’m going to have to choose my goals and activities quite carefully!

This still feels like very very early days. There is still a long way to go. But it’s a start!

Leaving Home

I know I must be terribly terribly ill.
I feel dreadful, sick, and panicky.
Maybe I should cancel? Not go?
Send an e-mail. Say I’m unwell.

Why did I agree to this?
A stupid moment of madness?
What possessed me to think
That I could go out into the world today?

I sweat, and my heart pounds
As though I had been training hard.
Everything gets louder and brighter
And my mind can’t focus on simple tasks.

I work though the list,
Checking that I am dressed appropriately,
Forcing myself to eat, a crumb at a time,
To avoid an energy crash later.

My shoulder aches and I am certain
That it is damaged and injured.
Just like my legs always are
A few days before I run a big race.

My brain fights back.
These injuries are manufactured in my mind
I know that, just as I know they will vanish
And be forgotten once I get home again.

When the sick feeling subsides a little
It is replaced by utter utter exhaustion
As though I have not slept
For months on end.

I struggle to move or to motivate myself
Again, my brain fights back.
I know these feelings because
They have been normal for as long as I can remember.

There is, of course, the risk that I won’t cope
And will end up in tears on the floor,
Totally melted down
Unable to function.

Maybe the unpredictability
Of my coping mechanisms
Is what leads to such huge anxiety
Every time I try to leave my home?

Maybe the effort of fighting the anxiety
Makes it even worse
And uses up even more of my
Scarce energy?

All I know how to do is to continue
To live with it, as it is.
As I always have,
And probably always will.

I always assumed that everyone
Went through this same process
Every time they left their homes.
I still do really, because it is so normal.

But my only alternative is to give up
To stay at home for ever,
And never to take up opportunities
That so often lead to good times.

So I keep going, and live with what is
Because I like to play music, to run,
To see the outside world,
And to spend time with friends.

And my brain continues to arbitrate
In the debate between
Anxiety and low energy on one side
And continual FOMO on the other.

Understands What?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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