A Generation of Nutritional Failure

I’ve been reminded recently of what we all ate when I was a teenager and young adult in the eighties and nineties. Do you remember?

We were the generation who were inculcated with a fear of fat – and especially that evil menace called saturated fat. In our pursuit of a healthy diet, we put fat-free dressing on our salads and sunflower margarine on our reduced-fat cheese sandwiches. We swapped breakfast eggs for packaged cereals, or processed concoctions such as “pop tarts” (a toastable biscuit with 35% sugar). We religiously counted our Calories.

We were also the generation who saw an explosive increase in processed foods. Mashed potato was replaced by instant “smash”, made from dehydrated potato flakes, and gravy became hydrolysed vegetable protein. Whole fruit was replaced by cartons of reconstituted juice. Ice cream (once made from cream and sugar) became a concoction of skimmed milk powders, vegetable fats, stabilisers, emulsifiers, artificial colours and flavours. We obtained our protein from nitrite-preserved bacon, frozen meat patties and orange-crumbed fish fingers.

Do you remember attending aerobics classes, decked out in sweatbands and fluorescent leg-warmers like the kids from Fame? And attempting to work out exactly how many Calories one had worked off, and whether we could allow ourselves a coke? Or were you trying to cut down on sugar and going with the Diet variety?

I’ve been reminded of all this while reading “The Obesity Code” by Jason Fung, a fascinating book which comprehensively sets out the state of current knowledge on the causes of obesity – and how completely, horrifically, wrong we were.

The Obesity Code image

Turns out it wasn’t the fat that was making us fat. Apparently it’s raised insulin levels that are to blame, and what causes raised insulin levels? You guessed it, all the refined carbs and sugars in the highly processed junk we’d been conned into thinking was healthy. And no, the massive fructose hits in our fruit juices weren’t doing us any good either.

Oh yeah, and there’s some new stuff in this book, too. If you’re thinking to go on the paleo diet, or keto, it turns out animal proteins (thought to be low GI and hence healthy) cause insulin secretion too. As do artificial sweeteners.

Perhaps the most important (and neglected) piece of wisdom in this book is this: it is not only what we eat that is important, but when. If we snack between meals, we are creating constant insulin hits and not allowing our bodies to cycle into a low insulin state.

Apparently, if we want to lose some fat, the best way is to periodically fast. By eating normally some days and fasting on others we avoid the fall in metabolic rate which scupper our efforts at dieting by a daily reduction in calories.

So yeah, it seems we should have been listening to the advice of our parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents to the nth degree. Cut down on sugar, eat whole, natural foods (none of this processed junk) and a moderate amount of (full fat) animal produce. Don’t snack between meals and follow feasting with fasting.

And here’s the thing which I can’t quite get my head around, as a member of my generation:

We are allowed to eat butter (and lard and dripping), the crispy chicken skin and the pork crackling.

Yes, really, I kid you not. Go on, I dare you…


Sapiens cover

I really enjoyed this.

The author has taken the state of current understanding of human evolution, of world history and of major religions, together with the basics of capitalism and the scientific revolution, and drawn it all together into a single history of our species.

And it’s so readable! Not repetitive or bogged down with excessive footnotes and references – just packed with insight into why the world has become what it is today.

A fascinating and remarkable book, I wish I’d picked it up sooner.


Failing the Acceptance Test

Yeah, I haven’t been blogging. To tell the truth my mental health hasn’t been the best recently. Which makes it hard to be interested in anything much, except trying to work out why, and what to do about it. I resent how introspective that makes me, how self-absorbed, but that seems to be the nature of the beast. Besides, how else do you battle an invisible monster but by throwing a bucket of paint over it? So everything (and everybody) gets shoved off to the side, just to find enough headspace to function at a basic level, and work out what else I can try.

One thing that’s become apparent (and I think it’s worth exploring enough to write it down) is that for all I’ve said about autism acceptance, I haven’t truly accepted my own. And therein lies the problem. Let me explain…

It was a field course for work that finally opened my eyes to the connection between AS and my mental health issues – stretching myself too far to overcome the one plainly and directly resulted in the other. It was a painful sort of Eureka moment. So here was the answer, the reason for my struggles: the strategy of pushing through autism issues and striving to do the same as everyone else, which might have worked OK when I was younger, is simply not working for me anymore. It’s making me ill. I can’t keep doing that to myself.

But. But. But.

You see, now I have a problem.

If I’m correct, the only way to maintain good mental health is going to be acceptance of some very uncomfortable truths. Not truths I want to take on board at all. When you read the below, humour me and try putting yourself in my shoes. How would you feel if you were forced to…?

  • Accept that, however late you came to the realisation of your AS, and however great the differences you see between yourself and others with the same diagnosis, however ‘normal’ you consider yourself, there was no mistake. Let’s face it, you would never have sought a diagnosis if AS hadn’t been causing you a whole heap of trouble. It’s impossible to ignore something that has fucked up affected your life so comprehensively.
  • Accept that, while AS might not get worse over time, your ability to deal with it (work around it, compensate for it, and generally pretend it does not exist) has been heading downhill for years. Will probably continue on this trajectory. Pleasant thought, right? In trying to live your life the way you want, regardless of your AS, you’ve bargained away your mental health – and it’s not worth it.
  • Accept your limitations. Which is so much easier said than done when your limitations seem so elastic, and you remember stretching them in the past. This means deliberately not doing things you want to do, know how to do, have successfully done in the past, because there’s going to be a backlash. It means accepting you have a disability. Because however much you want to get out there and live your life entirely on your own terms, you know what’s going to happen when you try and it’s not worth it.
  • Accept that you’re going to have to get smarter about managing the condition. This means planning ahead and forecasting which situations might be difficult. It means accepting the need to tell people enough to get their help in overcoming hurdles, or taking them down. Because (have you accepted it yet?) you have a disability. The alternative is to avoid difficult activities entirely, and be seen as lazy, irresponsible, antisocial, self-absorbed, incapable, unreliable.
  • Accept that other people are not going to understand (however much you try to explain). It’s impossible for them to comprehend how something so basic and obvious (for them) can be so confusing or overwhelming or traumatic (for you). And when you push beyond your limits and they want to know why you’re ill, you’ll have to keep on calling it depression, or an anxiety disorder, or a stress disorder, or whatever seems to fit in the moment. Officially, autistic burn-out does not exist.

I never know quite how my posts come across, but if you’re getting an angry vibe from this, you’re spot on. Being forced to face up to the above points is seriously pissing me off; it’s not something I ever thought I’d have to do, and I resent being pushed to this point. In modern parlance, it sucks big time.

So yes, I’m all for autism acceptance in general, and I’d surely accept the condition well enough in others. It’s just when things get personal that I fail the acceptance test.


The Asperger Superpower


There are, of course, many differences between Greta Thunberg and me.

For a start, she learnt she has Aspergers when she was a child. She was probably told what it was, how it might affect her life, and she’s smart enough to have got the picture. At only 16, she’s obviously been through all the stages – the denial, the anger, the bargaining, the depression – and already come out the other side to acceptance.  Whereas I was well into adulthood before realising that whatever was wrong with me was not getting any better, and it took another decade or so to find a name for it. As far as acceptance goes, I’m still sanding the rough edges off my self-image.

Our personalities are divergent, too. While Greta has already decided that being different is OK and she doesn’t care too much what others think of her, most of my life has been spent trying to fit in and be normal. At school I was always a B grade student, partly because I never got my act together on the concept of homework, but also because why work to get A grades, when all it will do is make you stand out and invite jealousy and resentment? No, thanks. And I certainly didn’t have Greta’s level of determination and drive at that age. There were things I cared about, but not enough to throw myself completely into the cause as she has done.

So when Greta claimed Aspergers was her superpower, my first thought was to scoff. That’s what they tell newly-diagnosed kids, to prop up their self-esteem (or in the hope they might grow up to be Einstein). Who does she think she’s kidding?

Yes, I know, shame on me for being cynical. And for not acknowledging something important, which is that the condition does convey advantages in some areas. And yes, maybe I should be celebrating the strengths as much as I vent on the weaknesses. So this post is intended to make up for that.

The hard part is in explaining just what the Asperger superpower is, or what it does. How does it work? Having Aspergers doesn’t give one any more insight into the subconscious workings of one’s brain than anyone else, so it’s a bit like the old adage of explaining sight to a blind man.

What I can say is, those who question how a 16-year old can be qualified to talk on climate change really don’t understand. Personally, I have no doubt that Greta would be capable of not only reading and understanding scientific reports, not only identifying and extracting the important points, but of incorporating that data into the complex geopolitical model of the climate change debate that is being constantly updated and refined in her head. That’s the essence of the superpower.

The thing I find amazing is that this tiny autistic girl can then walk amongst thousands of shouting protestors at a climate rally and maintain enough composure to be able to make a speech. With perfect diction, in a foreign language. How crazy is that?

Incidentally, those who say she ought to smile more don’t understand, either. It’s pretty clear that the way she gets through public engagements is by focusing on what needs to be said and ditching anything distracting from her purpose. For autists it takes a lot of brainpower to remember under which social circumstances one is supposed to smile. (Personally I do it the other way around and try to smile all the time, which is usually OK, until someone tells me their dog just died. Woops.)

But I digress. The point I’m making, in a roundabout way, is that we shouldn’t be seeing the condition as either a superpower or a disability. It is not either/or, it is both.

While Greta is happy to claim the superpower aspect, she’s too canny to publicly admit to the downsides. But it’s implicitly there, if you read the full quote of her tweet:

“I have Asperger’s and that means I’m sometimes a bit different from the norm. And – given the right circumstances – being different is a superpower.”

It’s in the qualifier, the “given the right circumstances”. The trick to being successful with this condition is to find a niche which makes maximum use of the superpower aspect and minimises the disability aspect. It’s about working out the best way to use the cognitive tools we’ve been given, within the limitations imposed.

So now, having thought about it, if anyone suggests to me that Aspergers is a superpower, I might be inclined to agree. But I might also point out, to avoid any resentment, that just like superpowers in the movies, Aspergers comes with downsides too. Since when did possessing a superpower ever make anyone’s life any easier?

Take care, Greta.

Review of ‘House Rules’ by Jodi Picoult


In the 2 weeks or so since I read this, after a bit of cogitation on whether or not I liked it and whether I had anything to say about it, I’ve decided that yes, I did, and yes, I do.

The story centres around Jacob, a young man with Apsegrers/autism and an obsessive interest in crime scene investigation and forensics. When his support worker disappears and is later found dead, Jacob is accused. We don’t discover exactly what happened until near the end, so there’s an element of a murder mystery to this novel, but the reader can make a good guess at how things might have gone down. The strength of this novel is not in the murder mystery itself, but how the accusations against Jacob play out on a personal level to the characters.

Certainly the author is a good writer, I was impressed by her ability to tell the story through the first-person viewpoint of several characters. Emma was particularly nuanced, perhaps being closer to the author herself, but Jacob and Theo were well done, too.

It struck me that the author was brave to portray an autistic character in a first-person point of view. There are some with a “them and us” mentality, viewing Autism as a minority subculture, who would take offense at a neurotypical attempting to write an autistic voice. I say, good on her for giving it a shot. Autistic people are, first and foremost, people.

And this is, primarily, a novel about Aspergers/autism. The author has obviously done a huge amount of research and the novel is heavy in AS details (which I can forgive, as the condition is nothing if not complex), and this is the driver of the plot, too. In essence it revolves around the way an autistic person’s view of himself can drastically differ from how he is viewed by his family, by outsiders, and by the legal system. It’s about the difficulty of finding out the truth and obtaining justice when dealing with someone with a literal mind, communication difficulties, and a condition so many associate with a lack of empathy. In that sense, this is an important novel.

While I applaud the author for tackling this subject, there were aspects with which I was uncomfortable.

Firstly, I was not convinced about the way Jacob’s autism presented. Even knowing the wide variety of trait severity out there, and knowing that some with a sky-high IQ can still struggle significantly in daily life, the dichotomy between trait severity and IQ in Jacob seemed too extreme. There’s a reason why classic autism and Aspergers Syndrome were once separate diagnoses, and I believe that intellectual capacity generally does help to moderate behaviour. So while I agree with the author that a child diagnosed with classic autism might potentially become an adult with Aspergers Syndrome, in Jacob she seems to have mixed the two, presenting a young man of great intellect who retains an absolute rigidity over things like food colours, and still has the uncontrolled screaming kind of meltdown.

Since Jacob’s meltdowns and his intellectual abilities are both necessary parts of the plot, my doubts detracted from the realism of the story and induced an element of disbelief in the legal proceedings which might otherwise have felt more dramatic.

I was also a little uncomfortable with the way in which Emma tackles her son’s autism, by placing him on a gluten and casein free diet and feeding him some very expensive supplements. Multivitamins and fish oils I can understand, but he also gets liposome-enclosed glutathione, an oxytocin nasal spray and daily injections of vitamin B12.

This is certainly consistent with Emma’s character – the mother who will do whatever it takes to improve Jacob’s life and relieve the family of his worst behaviours. I get that. What I’m uncomfortable with is that the benefits of these treatments are presented in the novel unchallenged. She tells us that the nasal spray and the B12 shot help with his anxiety, and average reader (who hasn’t studied the scientific literature and does not know that there is in fact no scientific consensus that such treatments have any benefit whatsoever) is likely to take this as gospel truth.

On reflection, despite these niggles, I’ve decided that I like what the author is doing here, overall. And it was certainly a very readable story, keeping me entertained for a couple of days. Recommended.


This is why…

Sorry, no images (it’s late and I can’t be bothered). But I hadn’t posted in a while and I wanted to keep up the blog.

First off, I just wanted to reassure those who were worried about my health (hi mum!): I’m still tapering off the antidepressant (down to ⅓ dose), but as far as I can tell, I’m all recovered from the anxiety/stress disorder. My nervous system has settled down and I’m not getting hyper for days or getting upset over small things like I was before, so I’m thinking my amygdala has reset back to normal, which is great !

This has freed up a bit of energy to start working with my son on some of his issues. I should have done this before, but better late than never. I won’t talk about this too much because I try not to infringe my kids’ privacy by writing about them on my blog. (The basics of it is that a perfectionism-anxiety thing related to his Aspergers has become a roadblock in the transition from school to adult life, and might take a bit of work to overcome. But better not go into that here).

So what else to write about, I was wondering? If I follow what’s been on my mind, I’m still working through a few Asperger-ish issues of my own (yes, I know you’re tired of this topic, but I can’t help it. Obsessive interests come with the territory).

So at the weekend I read “House Rules” by Jodi Picoult. This was essential reading really, on account of it being about a single mum with 18- and 15-year old kids, the elder of whom was on the spectrum. See? What choice did I have? I’m still mulling over what I thought of that book, and might come up with a review later once I’ve decided whether or not I liked it… please stand by…

Other than that, I thought I might try and give people a better explanation of where I’m at – and in particular, why I’m still a little hung up on the autism thing. Because it occurs to me that I’ve never really explained. Or not very well. So here it is…

The thing is (apart from it being my latest obsessive interest), Aspergers has been causing me trouble. It’s been causing me trouble for years, which was why I found out I had it, because I got to the point of desperately wanting to know just what the heck was wrong with me. It caused difficulties at work leading to a period of unemployment, and it seriously hampered my ability to be the mother to my kids that I felt they deserved. And now, even though I know the reason why, Aspergers is still causing me trouble because having a diagnosis doesn’t change the condition and it’s not like there’s a cure. So even after diagnosis, Aspergers has been a factor in the breakdown of my marriage, has led to me turning down lucrative job offers, and caused me to reduce my working hours at a job I love. To get where I want to be in life, I need to develop strategies to manage it effectively. It’s an on-going process.

I know this probably seems strange, because I really am right on the edge of the spectrum, and to meet me you might not notice anything too wrong. I’m just a little awkward sometimes, a little thoughtless on occasion. It looks like a minor personality thing. What you’re seeing, though, is the result of decades of coping mechanisms.

Did you know that autism actually changes one’s personality? Adjustment to an autistic brain creates particular personality traits – not exactly the same in everyone but with common features. And they change over time. Though I can only tell you how it’s worked in me…

Unlike classic autism which can be diagnosed at age 2 or 3, the Aspergers type is more commonly diagnosed at age 9 or 10. Essentially, this is because there’s no language delay (in fact aspies can have advanced vocabulary and reading ability), so it only gets noticed when social skill deficits become obvious.

Some of us manage to muddle along socially and don’t get diagnosed in childhood. For me, around the age of 9 or 10, I started working out a few things. Such as the idea that one is supposed to share things with friends. The discovery that people didn’t react well when I voiced my thoughts. I learnt to watch what others were doing and saying and copy them to fit in. At heart I’m an extrovert, you see – I enjoy the company of others and I want to have friends, I want to connect.

Probably around the same age, I also became an obsessive reader, getting lost in books for extended periods. This was the autism. It was a combination of the tendency to hyperfocus and the need to escape from a social world that was getting hard to handle. Books were also a safe way to experience and learn about emotions, acting as a primer in how to deal with them in an acceptable way. This is how autism superimposes introversion over an otherwise extroverted personality.

Another personality trait common to autistics is neuroticism. Unlike in neurotypical folk however, for whom neuroticism generally has a negative impact, in autistics neurotic traits correspond to better social functioning. I’m not making that up, there’s been a study on it. I think neuroticism is also something the autism pushes on us. We learn to go inside ourselves, to practice metacognition – much as I’m doing here – to explore why we think what we think and feel what we feel. It’s necessary to work out how to adapt and survive.

We tend to become conscientious workers, too. Some of the positive traits often quoted of those on the spectrum are reliability, loyalty and honesty. Although we can be cautious in assessing our abilities, if you can pin us down to saying we’ll do something then we’ll do it. (Well, as long as we don’t get focused on something else and forget).

I wasn’t always as conscientious as I am now, though. Again, it’s a coping mechanism I’ve learnt, because when you can’t connect with people, how else can you demonstrate your good intentions but by doing what they tell you? And when the correct responses to others’ emotional states is elusive, at least you can follow their explicit instructions. In contrast to our social lives, work becomes an important area in which we are capable of functioning at a decent standard.

So this is where I’m at. I’ve become a conscientious worker, somewhat neurotic, and am getting a reputation for being anti-social. It’s not that I want to be a recluse, but in a vicious circle, the more I drop out of society the more I forget how to be social. I’m nearly 50 and I’ve never learnt (or have forgotten) how to initiate or maintain a conversation. I’m not kidding. And the trouble is, inside, I’m still the extroverted kid who wants to have friends and to connect meaningfully with others.

This is the reason I struggle. It’s hard to break down an insularity developed over decades and allow myself to open up to people and show my true self. I even struggle to work out who my true self is. If I were to stop myself from aping others, pretending to be normal, who would I be? And if I’ve spent decades covering up my true self because of others’ reactions, dare I probe any deeper and reveal what’s underneath, or is it best left hidden? Should I accept the necessity of what I’ve done to myself, together with the cost in lost opportunities for connectedness and friendship?

I’m not finding it easy, to be honest, working through this. But whatever. It is what it is.

And that’s my explanation why.