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!!!

Autistic Haikus

So this morning my
Executive functioning
Is rather broken

Yesterday speech was
Not coming so easily
As it sometimes does

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Learning stuff is cool
I get interested in
Things rather strongly

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

Conversations are
Often rather hard for me
To initiate

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

Being diagnosed
Autistic at forty five
Is a big relief

Understands What?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My Conference Day

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Limit Exceeded

Two days
Out in the world.

Drinks in a pub.
Walking,
Talking,
To three other people.
Some difficult subject matter.
Decisions to be made.
Negotiating.
Head already overloaded.
Working so very very hard.

A meal out,
Eating,
While talking,
With noise,
And people.
More difficult stuff.
I managed half
My food.
Achievement.

Then home.

A stimmy evening,
Unsettled.
Sleep
A long time
Coming.
Wakefulness
Followed
Quickly.

Then up again,
Dressed again.
Coffee and a snack.
More noise
More conversation.
Lots and lots of voices
Trying to filter out
The necessary bits
And to describe
And explain.
Eating again too.

A shop.
My legs starting to tire.
The lights brightening.
A walk.
And, already overloaded,
Unable to cope
Unable to explain.
Needed neutral
Or gentle
Non confrontational,
Or silence.
Didn’t get it.
Head overboiled…

Meltdown.

Unstoppable
Inevitable
Out of my control
Fuse tripped
Bottom fell out
Of
My spoon drawer…

Trying not to bash my head
Against a stone wall.
Desperate to damage
To replace the pain
In my head
With easier pain,
To make the wrong feelings
Right again.

Collapsed on the pavement.

Pulling my hair
Tearing at my leg
Simultaneously
Regretting and glad of
Short fingernails.

Wishing I had never
Been born.

The sun
Dazzling
Through dark glasses.
Bright bright bright.

Distant voices.
Phone call.

Another universe
There are people there
But they are outside
My head.

I understand the words
But am unable to respond.

Words gone.
Connection severed.

I head for my car,
Safe space.
Mine.
Closest there is
To home.

Trying to sort
With others
By typing on phone.
It wasn’t supposed
To end like this.
I was supposed
To be stronger.

Driving home
Waves of nausea

The last emergency spoon
Used.

Sofa.
Blanket.
Darkness.
Silence.
Everything
Hurts.
Ears ringing.
Head in pain.
Body aches.

My husband messages.
He comes home
Early
To care for me.
I eat a few crisps
For dinner.

Eventually,
Exhausted,
I sleep.

I wake, tearful,
Wishing I was no longer alive.

Finally I get out of bed
At three in the afternoon.

After an hour and a half
I manage to get
A glass of water…

I know I should eat.
I don’t want to.
But I eat soft white cheese
With a spoon.

And recovery begins.

This is why
I have not blogged
For a few days.

Life is not
Easy.

Making Tea

It has just taken me around 2 hours to make a cup of tea.

“That’s ridiculous,” I hear you cry, “it doesn’t take 2 hours to make a cup of tea…”

And my sensible brain, my logical brain, knows you are right. I am a physically sound adult, with a perfectly reasonable brain, who has made hundreds of cups of tea in their lifetime, and making a quick cuppa, with kettle, water, mug, teabag, and milk all within easy reach should be something I can almost do with my eyes shut by this stage in my life.

But I can’t. Because I go to the kitchen, and I complete the first stage of the tea making procedure (fill the kettle with water) and my autistic mind (the bit with the impaired executive functioning – I promise I’ll try to explain all about executive functioning as soon as I can) simply stops processing at that point. My mind believes that the tea is made, because it has no further instructions – often, I cannot sequence tasks, so I do the first bit of the task and my mind makes a little tick in a box in my head and says “done”!

Twenty minutes later I remember that I was thinking that it would be a good idea to have a cup of tea. I look down at the place on the floor next to my sofa where the tea lives, and see a piece of carpet that holds only dust, hairs, a few bits of dubious provenance (I haven’t been up to vacuuming recently), and some vague tea stains from previous cuppas. But no actual tea.

So I return to the kitchen. And I put the kettle on to boil, because I realise that I didn’t quite manage that bit last time. This time I will FINISH the process, and I will get my tea. I am determined. Tea will be mine.

And then my mind ticks the box again…

I wander off, again, my mind once more tricking my brain into believing that the tea-making procedure is complete and I will soon be enjoying a cup of warm brown liquid of the type that many people from my particular part of the world find so comforting and familiar.

And, of course, I have failed, once more, to join the individual tasks together, and been unable to complete the (supposedly) simple task.

You’re probably starting to understand at this point just WHY it takes me two hours to make a cup of tea, and why there is such huge effort involved in such an endeavour. Each stage has to be thought of, consciously, separately, and the amount of processing power that a complex task like making tea can take is enormous. For years I have blamed this on simply being a bit “absent minded” (yes, everybody forgets things, everybody has put the kettle on to boil and wandered off) or on the strains of mental illness, but in my case it is extreme, and always has been. I’ve compensated behind the scenes as much as I can, but I eventually get to the point where I simply give up eating and drinking because the mental processes required to deal with them are so far beyond me that I just can’t work them out.

Then you need to add in another factor to the equation – inertia. I have always known that I had huge inertia, and have even used that word about myself for many years (probably since I learnt it in physics lessons when I was at school). I have discovered in the last few months that there is such a thing as “autistic inertia” (the thing that means autistic people have real difficulty starting tasks, stopping tasks, and changing from one task to another – this is another area I’d like to write about properly once I have the ability to do so, but for the time being, just imagine the very worst procrastination experience you’ve ever had, something you really really really didn’t want to do and were finding almost impossible to start, then multiply that by about a million, and you’ll get the idea)!

So, once I’ve sat down on the sofa after supposedly finishing making my tea, I find it almost impossible to move to get up again. And, once I’m up for the next stage in the tea making I sort of forget how to sit down again and end up wandering round the flat (which doesn’t take long because it’s rather compact) in a sort of bemused manner trying to work out what I was supposed to be doing.

My impairments in ability to sequence and complete complex tasks (such as making a cup of tea) and inability to start/stop/switch tasks have been things I have lived with all my life, and I’ve made gargantuan efforts to compensate for them by using enormous amounts of brain energy, consciously forcing myself off the sofa, consciously making myself try to think of the next stage in the tea-making process, and so on, which has, of course, made me really really exhausted. Despite enormous willpower (I have no shortage of willpower – I’m the kind of person who can run 60km on a busted leg to complete an ultramarathon etc etc) I have never been able to learn to make a meal with any reliable success or managed to change from one task to another without a significant break in between and a lot of effort. When I have tried to do these things it has very quickly led to shutdown or meltdown.

And, as I’ve progressed through life, things have got worse, not better. I was probably at my peak ability sometime in my early 20s, when, like most people who are young and reasonably fit, I had more energy than is the case now. But still it wasn’t sufficient, and by working so very hard to try to be “like everyone else” at that stage in my life and by believing the hype about how “cooking from first principles is somehow “better”” and trying to do what was “best”, I stored up years of damage that only became apparent when my mental health fell apart in my late 20s.

Now I know better than that and am learning that I have to work with the mind I have and not fight against it, although that in itself takes rather a lot of strength, and learning to ignore the “advice” so freely given by those who don’t actually have a clue just how incapable I actually am, is going to take a bit of getting used to. My life has been about striving for achievement, and improvement, not about adapting and taking things more gently – that’s a huge shift for me.

And just at the moment I’m doing more external things than I have been over the last few months. My executive functioning issues had improved slightly, but as I’m now using energy to do a bit of music (which I want to do), deal with benefits forms (which I need to do), fix to see my father (which I both want AND need to do), and arrange my follow-up appointment with the autism team (which I also both want and need to do), I’ve noticed a decline in my ability to function within the flat, a need to stim more, and a more regular loss of words – the energy to do other things has to come from somewhere!

Of course, doing what I’m now doing in terms of activities would have been impossible a few months ago, so there is progress, but it’s very interesting to note how much my basic abilities, with such things as tea making, suffer when I’m diverting energy elsewhere and can’t use it to patch over the holes in my mind where those particular connections are missing.

But I did get a cup of tea today, eventually, so that was an achievement!

One Month On

I have how had my official autism diagnosis for a month. In that month, life has continued to change almost as rapidly as it did before I was diagnosed. My father’s cancer diagnosis has obviously changed my priorities with regard to how I spend my limited energy over the coming months. My financial situation has once more become difficult and precarious and is causing me considerable amounts of anxiety. And I have, with huge regret, realised that I cannot, at this time, continue with the maths degree that I so badly wanted to finish, so it is time to let go, to stop pushing, and to admit that I have simply run out of time and energy.

Obviously, life is still a long way from where I’d like it to be. My sleep patterns are still poor, which is not great, but they’re better than they were a few months ago. I’m now managing to leave the flat around twice a week, which is a slight improvement. When I do go out I am slightly better able to cope because I am more aware of which strategies work for me and I’m learning to give myself more recovery time afterwards.

I have now started, very slowly, to eat just a little better than I have been doing, which is no bad thing, since I saw a full-length photo of myself recently and was slightly shocked at how thin I looked. I finally weighed myself a couple of days ago and discovered that I’ve lost a stone since last summer, simply because I have felt too sick and anxious to cope with food. This is not good – I was not trying to lose weight, particularly not in that way, and I am just lucky that I was in good enough physical condition to start with that my body could cope. I am also still drinking too much alcohol in order to cope, but am starting to try to cut down just a bit in order not to do too much more damage to my physical health.

However, despite all the difficulties mentioned above, the persistent insomnia, the struggles to go out, and the continuing dysfunctional relationship with both food and alcohol, there are signs that things are improving. My husband and several friends have remarked that they perceive my underlying mental state to be improved and, even though I’m still getting some extremely sad, angry, and regretful moments, I’m starting to accept things as they are in a way that I didn’t before my formal diagnosis.

There were several people who said, before my diagnosis, that since I knew I was autistic, they knew I was autistic, and my friends and family accepted that I was autistic, there really wasn’t any necessity for me to pursue a formal diagnosis in order to understand myself. What none of these people understood, however, was my need for validation, reassurance that I hadn’t simply imagined the whole thing, and the huge huge confidence that the formal diagnosis has given me. This might not be necessary for everyone, but for me it was essential. And it really has made a massive difference to my life.

The formal diagnosis also, for me, marked the end of the old life, and the beginning of the new one. The process of discovery in the preceding months was like a sort of introduction, perhaps an overture before the curtain was raised at the beginning of the first act, or maybe the preface before the start of chapter one. My old life has been demolished, and now the process of rebuilding can begin.

There is obviously a lot of relief that the process of seeking a diagnosis is now over, and I feel, even more than previously, that my life now makes sense in a way that it never previously did. As I predicted in the last few paragraphs of Why Bother, the diagnosis has finally given me full permission to stop regarding myself as a naughty, lazy, failure of a human being. I also feel liberated from the pressure to “succeed” that has pervaded my whole life so far. There is still a long way to go and I still, frequently, feel that I am not entitled to breathe the air and that the world would be a better place without me, but I am still only a month into the new life, and there’s nearly half a century of the old one to analyse, reevaluate, and reframe.

Furthermore, I have to go through the process of mourning the life I might have had if only it had been recognised that I was autistic before I got to my mid 40s. There are still difficult topics to tackle – the mental health professionals who failed for two decades to recognise it, my childhood, the incessant, triggering, references to small children when I try to research autistic traits, and where I fit, if at all, into the autistic community (I am used to being alone and to shying away from being part of any sort of group, and discovering that there are others who experience so many of the same things as I do is, for me, somewhat disconcerting).

But one month after diagnosis there is a calm, even more so than that I felt after discovery. I strongly believe that there is a very good chance that my mental health will, eventually, be better than it has been for decades, possibly even than ever before. I am already, after just four weeks, much more confident about describing myself as autistic, and feeling that I have a right to do so. I’m also treating myself much more gently than I did previously – because now I have official permission!

I’m certain there will be yet more phases to go through, and not all will be easy, but maybe, just maybe, I will eventually rebuild a life that works. And it will be a better life than the one that officially ended four weeks ago.