Books with Bad Covers

Well, I’m not sure whether to keep up this blog or not, since it was intended as a writer’s blog and then I completely stopped writing. Anyway, a friend suggested I write another post on aspergers/autism while I figure out what I’m doing, so here it is. My topic for today is… drum roll… the changes to how you are treated after disclosing your autism spectrum condition.

I’m going to try and keep this pretty short, to avoid it turning into a rant, and because I’m ill with the flu (or similar) and really ought to be in bed. There’s no reason why it should be a rant, really, because on the whole I’ve had nothing to complain about in the way I’ve been treated post-diagnosis. Actually let me stress that: my experience has generally been positive.

The reason for this post then is more about supporting those autists who fear the reaction to disclosure, or who’ve had bad experiences – and hopefully to open the eyes of those intolerant folks who create this situation by their lack of understanding and consideration.

So, here are some of the negative reactions we can and do receive, once people are aware we’re on the spectrum:

No – wait – we need a foreword. I imagine there may be readers for whom the realities of AS which have been ground into our souls may not, in fact, be at all obvious. So…. in essence, the issue is that we spectrumites tend not to come across as being particularly warm and likeable people. In writing we might be OK, but in person and in speech we (typically) don’t present a good impression. Hence, we are always at a disadvantage compared to others in social situations. Always. Bearing that in mind, let’s proceed to negative reaction no. 1:

Invalidation of our opinions

Because we don’t express them at the right time, or in the right way, or to the right person.

The classic (and devastating) example is when there’s a major project on at work, with flaws in its implementation. Guess who, with the best of intentions, will stand up in the group meeting and point out all the ways in which the project cannot succeed? Guess who then finds themselves kicked out of the team, or even out of their job? (No matter that 6 months down the track, they may be proven right by failure of the project – or the quiet implementation of their recommendations to save it).

But there’s a less spectacular, more insidious type of invalidation that happens as well. There’ll be someone who just doesn’t like us, or feels threatened by us (why?!?). Once your diagnosis is out, it’s easier for them to discredit anything you say. Behind your back, friends and colleagues are being told: “Ignore what Kay said, she doesn’t understand. She has Aspergers; she doesn’t get it.” And suddenly you have no voice, no opinion deserving of consideration.

So tell me: Is it really the autist who lacks understanding here?

Discounting our emotions

Because our inner feelings are judged by our outward behaviour.

I can’t speak for others on this, but personally my biggest emotions are on a time delay – I can be told of someone’s misfortune, and two days later feel completely devastated. Yet society imposes on us the requirement to respond appropriately in the moment.  Argh. Heaven forbid one should be caught smiling at such news. People see us going through the motions – trying to fake the right reaction – and assume we have no feelings, hence the “lack of empathy” thing.

In fact, my emotions are extreme – they go from zero to ten with nothing in between. It’s overwhelming, to be honest. In an emotive situation I may freeze or run away to prevent a freak-out. So I’m standing there frozen and displaying no emotion whatsoever, and people may assume I feel nothing. Or maybe two days later I can finally recognise and voice my emotion, and need to talk it through, only to be told I should be over it and to stop making a fuss?

Who is it that really lacks empathy here?

Exclusion

Because we say or do the wrong thing.

Social skills training is the treatment of the moment for youngsters with Aspergers, which is understandable. I got the opportunity to learn social skills, too, in a way (it’s called life). And yes, you can improve a little, with practice, but it’s a bit like trying to install software on the wrong operating system. AS is not a social condition, or even behavioural (even if that’s how it’s diagnosed), it’s neurological; we’re just wired differently.

The problem comes when people make assumptions and judgement. When we forget to greet someone we might be considered rude, when we don’t join the conversation we’re unfriendly, when we join the conversation at the wrong moment we’re disrespectful, when we say something inappropriate we’re thoughtless… I could go on, but you get the picture. You’d think it would be easier with a diagnosis, but I’m not sure it is. Without a diagnosis, we’re weird; with a diagnosis, we’re not trying hard enough.

What happens is that our friends and colleagues stop talking to us, or their manner towards us changes, becoming distant or cold. They don’t tell us why. If we press them to find out what we did to so deeply offend them we might be told “you ought to know”. Which, if you think about it, is a bit like telling the blind person who trod on your foot to watch where they’re going.

Tell me, is it the autist who has the communication problem here?

In Conclusion

I don’t believe the above behaviours towards people with AS are uncommon, I think they’re happening every day, all around the world. Maybe they seem like small, inconsequential things taken individually, but for those on the receiving end, they can add up to serious problems.

There’s a word which used to have the innocuous meaning: “the ability to recognise the difference between two or more things, especially the difference in their quality”. Yes, I’m talking about discrimination. Unfortunately for those of us on the spectrum, our behavioural and communication differences mark us out.

We are the books with bad covers.

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

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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

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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.

Musings on (my) Mental Health

Looking at what I’ve written here, I’m dumbfounded that I’m actually going to publicly post something so revealing of myself.

Why?

I don’t know, maybe because this has been on my mind, and yesterday I finally figured something out. Maybe because keeping silent only increases the stigma, and something here might help someone else. Maybe because I am who I am and I do what I do.

So, here goes…

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(illustration of amygdala by Bona Kim)

So… there’s a little almond-shaped area in the brain, located in the anterior temporal lobe just below the pre-frontal cortex and in front of the hippocampus, called the amygdala. This area is responsible for making instant assessments on levels of threat in the environment and raising or lowering our state of arousal accordingly. For me – and for anyone with an anxiety or stress disorder – the amygdala has become over-sensitised. Sometimes small stressors trigger an extreme response and sometimes the response doesn’t shut down properly.

It took me a while to work out that I was ill, probably because I’m on the autism spectrum and my amygdala works a little differently anyway. Neuroscience has yet to provide all the answers, but they’ve noted differences in amygdala size and numbers of neuron connections in some of us. I’m taking this to explain why I’m naturally under-reactive to most things, and over-reactive to a few. Hence my difficulty in distinguishing the boundary between “normal (for me)” and “something wrong”.

Anyway, having eventually established that something was actually wrong, here is my approach to putting it right.

A lot of this I’ve discovered recently and I’m still working through putting it into practice, so it’s early days, but I thought it worth writing down, if only to keep myself on track.

  1. Addressing the Cause

It’s worth reflecting on the reasons why people are vulnerable to developing mental illness. I recently read an interesting book on evolutionary psychiatry –  it’s called “Good Reasons for Bad Feelings” by Randolph M. Nesse.

Good Reasons

In the prologue is stated something seemingly obvious but also (I think) quite profound:

Natural selection shaped emotions such as anxiety, low mood and grief because they are useful …our suffering benefits our genes. There are also good evolutionary reasons why we have desires we cannot fulfil, impulses we cannot control, and relationships full of conflict …evolution explains the origins of our amazing capacity for love and goodness and why they carry the price of grief, guilt, and, thank goodness, caring inordinately what others think about us.

The take-out for those of us with anxiety or stress disorders – the thing to remember in the darker moments – is that our amygdala is our friend; it’s doing its best to keep us safe. If something in our environment has caused it to over-react, we should be looking first at changing our environment.

So when I set about trying to cure myself, my first move was to address all the big problems in my life, trying to reduce major stressors and overcome any barriers to my mental health. The surprise was in realising that my over-sensitive amygdala had already solved the biggest problem of all.

Nearly a year ago, in sudden overnight haste, with no prior planning or fore-thought, I left my husband. From the point of view of my long-term health and wellbeing, it was probably the best thing I ever did. But would I have left him if I’d been in my right mind at the time? Probably not. I didn’t know it but I was already ill. Bless my hypersensitive amygdala, it caused me to freak out intensely enough and for long enough to leave. It saved me.

Unfortunately, once mental illness develops, one can’t just shake it off and ‘get over it’. Just like a physical illness, it needs treatment and takes time to heal.

Probably the most common treatment method is Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), but when I first read about it I was dismissive. CBT seemed to be based on “thinking yourself happy”, and therefore of no use in addressing the real life problems underlying one’s mental state. However, after going through the process of pruning the problems from my life, after doing everything I could to set myself back on track, I was frustrated to find that I was still having acute stress reactions. Over nothing.

This is when it hit home to me that, although they call it mental illness, it’s essentially a physiological problem in the brain. This is why someone with no apparent worries can still be stuck with anxiety, or why someone with minimal stress in their life can still have a stress disorder. Even after getting our lives back on track, there’s a malfunctioning process in the brain which still needs to be fixed.

  1. Setting Up for Success

I think of this illness as being like heart disease. If you have a natural vulnerability to heart disease what’s the sensible thing to do? Even if there’s a potential treatment, you’d want to look after your heart in the meantime, so you’d do what you needed to do: eat healthily, limit stress, increase exercise.

Didn’t I say that mental illness is a physiological problem? The brain is a critical organ just like the heart, so the same principle applies.  I’m breaking down what I need to do to manage my mental health five ways:

  • Maintaining motivation. Regardless of inherent vulnerabilities, my natural state is a state of good health and I don’t have to accept less.
  • Exercise. It’s not about fitness or weight loss. It’s about easing a prolonged state of arousal by going outside and walking… and walking some more, until the nervous energy burns out. Adrenaline is not our friend.
  • Watching the diet. Two things seem to be key:

(a) Cutting the sugar. Yes, I know the brain runs on glucose, but with blood sugar, steadier is better. A sugar high is always followed by a sugar low. (Not that I’ve managed to quit the white poison yet – this is a work in progress).

(b) Brewed coffee is my nemesis. Every time I have an episode I swear I’ll quit, but then comes the downcycle and I’m as sluggish as a… slug?… and I start on the coffee again because I absolutely need it. And I can handle it fine… until I can’t. (This is another work in progress).

  • Taking medication. As long as it’s understood that there is no medication that will cure an over-sensitised amygdala. None, nada. What medication can do is ease the post-meltdown blues enough to get me to work in the morning.
  • Quitting the guilt-trips. Every mother will know exactly what I mean, but the ‘aeroplane oxygen mask’ rule holds true. We need to look after our own health to be fit to look after our kids. It feels selfish, but it really isn’t. And I try not to be embarrassed at treating myself carefully when I ‘don’t seem ill’; that just means I’m doing a good job.
  1. Uncovering the Cure

For a while, it seemed to me that my nervous system was broken and there was nothing I could do about it, but I’m reliably informed that’s not the case. We just have to de-sensitise the amygdala.

This process has been demonstrated with people with specific phobias. They undertake exposure therapy, which involves repeatedly exposing themselves to the object or situation that triggers them until they become de-sensitised. Apparently, it works every time.

The complicating factor in my case was that I could not pin down a discrete object or situation that was triggering me. With a bit of thought I could identify some connecting factors to my meltdowns, but they were internal – a configuration of emotions. I was stymied for a while by the near-infinite number of situations with potential to trigger those emotions.

Now I’ve realised identification of triggers is only the starting point. Because the amygdala is essentially activated by a fear response, I need to dig a little deeper into working out which subconscious fears underlie my emotional responses. Exposure therapy for me will be to recognise and address those underlying fears.

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So yes, I was surprised to discover that CBT might be useful after all. The useful part is the theory related to identifying one’s Core Beliefs, and how adherence to those beliefs can create cognitive distortions. In other words, sometime in the past, I developed a belief about myself and/or the world which led me to fear certain situations. The brain, being the highly evolved, tricky thing it is, ‘creates’ logical explanations for one’s behaviour, to give oneself the illusion of self-determination rather than recognising that our actions stem from old fear conditioning. These are the cognitive distortions.

It takes a certain amount of self-examination to work past the ‘logical’ explanations which we think underlie our behaviour, to the fear response below that, and then back to the original Core Belief which produced that fear response. But that’s what I need to do: to get right back to the Core Belief and work on changing it, because that (hopefully) will eliminate the fear response entirely, together with the need to employ cognitive distortions to maintain my illusion of self-determination.

Yes, I know it sounds a bit hippy, or New Age or whatever. I didn’t think I was into all that stuff, either. Peace, sister 🙂

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  1. Working the Cure

If you want to understand how it works, here is an example (dealing with one of my common and more obvious triggers):

The triggering emotional configuration:

  • upset/anger over injustice, intense frustration and a sense of powerlessness.

Common element in triggering events:

  • Someone in a position of authority has made a decision which affects me and about which I was not consulted or my opinion not taken into account.

Actual events that triggered me:

  • My employer requested a doctor’s report on aforementioned health condition. I was fine with that idea for a few days, before having an epic meltdown over the thought that I would have no control over what the doctor wrote, and my employer might use it to make decisions about my employment.
  • My employer decided to cancel my corporate card (which was mostly my fault for not completing training on time). Minor meltdown at having no recourse.
  • The rental agency for my house agreed to extend my agreement another year (excellent news!) but with a 17% rent increase. No meltdown, but I got a bit keyed up about the size of the increase.

‘Logical’ explanations for my reaction (Cognitive Distortions):

  • This is unfair (fallacy of fairness)
  • This is going to cause me so much trouble (filtering/catastrophizing)

(Now it starts getting painful – press the sore point.) Underlying fears:

  • Loss of control over aspects of my life –> imposed changes, uncertainty

(Ah. Hello again, Resistance to Change. I’m not ready to attempt addressing this one – let’s move on to Core Beliefs.)

Underlying Core Belief (tease it out like a splinter):

  • I can’t express myself effectively and my opinions are not worthy of consideration; I have no power or means to influence those who are making decisions affecting me.

What actually happened:

  • On querying my employer I was reassured that the doctor’s report was just for information and I would be consulted on any decisions affecting my employment. My doctor discussed with me what to put in the report.
  • After sending an email explaining why I missed the training deadline and appealing the decision to cancel my corporate card, I was offered another opportunity to do the training.
  • I checked typical rent amounts in my suburb and the rate of inflation, and sent an analysis to the rental agency. They accepted a lower rental increase.

Conclusion:

  • My Core Belief has been demonstrated to be false. I’m perfectly capable of expressing my opinion, and that opinion has been deemed worthy of consideration on several occasions. If decisions affecting me are unfair, I’m able to mount an appeal with a reasonable chance of success.
  • I’m a lot more resourceful, capable and effective than I give myself credit for.
  • New Core Belief: There’s no need to panic, I can handle this 🙂

See, that’s how it’s done.

‘Anxiety’ is the Wrong Word

Something interesting happened to me this week – I had a 2-day long anxiety attack.

Which I guess is not something  one would normally write about in a blog, but in fact, once you remove the fear of judgement (and get over the self-absorbed ‘why me?’ thing), it’s actually quite a fascinating phenomenon. And I wanted to share because it made me realise how many misconceptions I had (and presumably lots of other people have) over the topic.

First off, I did not equate what was happening to me as ‘anxiety’ at all.

To me, anxiety is that feeling somewhere between worry and fear that precedes an event you are dreading. That kind of anxiety serves a useful purpose – it makes you just uncomfortable enough to knuckle down and do what you need to do (e.g. revise for that exam, practice for that interview, etc.). Or it makes you so uncomfortable that you realise you’d be better off avoiding the dreaded event altogether. I know that feeling.

This was something different. The way I would describe it is having a nervous system in hyperdrive. Everything was amped up to the max, like switching to a more powerful battery. My thoughts were faster, more repetitive, and loud enough to miss half of what people were saying to me.  Talking came easier than usual, though – faster and more impulsive. I had an intense need to keep moving (tapping my fingers, jiggling my knee, springing up and going for a walk), to release nervous energy. I felt myself starting to sweat. If someone had touched me from behind I would have jumped out of my skin. That first night I barely slept, but the next day I wasn’t drowsy – I was still wired.

It could almost have been fun, except that I was at work and I could have done without having my colleagues see me in that state, agitated and jittery. Would they think me a nervous wreck? And yes, when your thoughts are circulating, repeating, escalating, the smallest of negative thoughts can become a monster. A minor frustration expands until it truly feels like the end of the world. I didn’t get as far as a panic attack, but approached too close for comfort.

I wouldn’t have called the experience anxiety, though, because that’s putting things the wrong way round. It wasn’t anxiety causing physical symptoms, it was the physical symptoms – the hyperarousal of my nervous system – that was causing small anxieties to escalate.

Do you see the distinction? It’s important, if you’re thinking about treatment, because confusing the two types of anxiety might make you think, for example, that counselling sessions of the ‘talk about what’s worrying you’ kind are going to help prevent this kind of attack. They won’t.

So what was going on?

When I tried to explain to someone what was happening and they mentioned anxiety, my knee-jerk reaction was to deny it was any such thing. But then, being me, I googled it to check. Did what was happening to me match any type of anxiety disorder? Here they are:

Generalised Anxiety Disorder (GAD) – excessive, uncontrollable worry about a range of ordinary situations like health, work or finances? Nope, this was an acute attack not a chronic condition. That doesn’t fit.

Social Anxiety Disorder (SAD) – avoidance of social or performance situations for fear of being embarrassed or rejected? We-ell, I had considered this in the past to explain my difficulties with social interaction, but then I realised I had the letters the wrong way round; not SAD but ASD. So, no.

Panic disorder – associated with regular panic attacks, which are sudden, intense episodes of irrational fear, shortness of breath, dizziness and other physical symptoms? Not that acute, no.

Obsesssive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) – unwanted thoughts and impulses (obsessions), causing repetitive, routine behaviours (compulsions) as a way of coping with anxiety? No. Well, OK, I did mention repetitive thoughts but I’m pretty sure that’s the ASD again.

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) – a group of stress reactions that can develop after witnessing a traumatic event. Symptoms include (1) Re-experiencing the trauma, (2) Avoiding reminders of the event, (3) Negative changes in thoughts and mood after the event, (4) Feeling ‘on edge’ and overly aroused? Well… yes. Number 4 would fit. Except that I haven’t been in a situation traumatic enough to produce PTSD.

One thing I was pretty sure of was that however one might label this attack, it was related to ASD. Certainly it had the usual hallmarks of being bizarre, nonsensical and inexplicable. Truth be told, it’s happened a few times before, though I was less aware at the time, and it seems to be a cyclical thing, with an acute incident every few weeks.

All my internet searches were telling me was that autistics are at increased risk of anxiety. But what kind of anxiety and why? Googling was getting me nowhere; I couldn’t find a single site that could offer an explanation that fit.

And I really, really wanted to know, with all the existential angst triggered by thoughts such as: “Why is this happening to me now, when I never had a problem before?” And “Oh shit, is this going to get worse?”

And then I found something, in Temple Grandin’s book “Thinking in Pictures”, and I realised why the author is held in such high esteem; she has remarkable self-awareness and insight. Though my few attacks have been blessedly brief and mild in comparison to the levels of anxiety she’s dealt with her whole life, I recognise the same underlying mechanism at work:

“…I started living in a constant state of stage fright, the way you feel before your first big job interview or public speaking engagement. But in my case, the anxiety seized me for no good reason…”

“I now realise that because of the autism, my nervous system was in a state of hypervigilance. Any minor disturbance could cause an intense reaction. I was like a high-strung cow or horse that goes into instant anti-predator mode when it is surprised by an unexpected disturbance.”

“I figured out that my nerve attacks came in cycles… I also knew from past experience that the attacks would eventually subside. The first relapse occurred during a new equipment startup at a meat plant. Stress can trigger a relapse. I just toughed out the nerve attack, and it finally went away….”

“I realised that I often had periods of several months when my anxiety was quite low, and then suddenly a panic attack would flip a metabolic switch and my nerves would go from a tolerable 75 mph to a horrible 200 mph. It would then take several months for them to subside to 75 mph. It was like switching the speed on an industrial-strength fan by pushing a button. My nervous system instantly jumped from a brisk breeze to a roaring hurricane.”

“Dr Jack Gorman and his associates at Columbia University describe a process called kindling, which may explain such sudden increases in anxiety. In kindling, repeated stimulation of neurones in the limbic system of the brain, which controls the emotion centers, affects the neurones and makes them more sensitive. It’s like starting a fire in kindling wood under the big logs in the fireplace. Small kindling fires often fail to ignite the logs, but then suddenly the logs catch on fire.”

“Most of my problems were not caused by external stresses such as a final exam or getting fired from a job. I am one of those people who are born with a nervous system that operates at a perpetual state of fear and anxiety. Most people do not get into this state unless they go through extremely severe trauma, such as child abuse, an airplane crash, or wartime stress. I used to think it was normal to feel nervous all the time, and it was a revelation to find out that most people do not have constant anxiety attacks.”

Funny how much more insight one can get from reading the personal account of one sufferer than from any number of internet articles. Makes me think, you know, for all the scientists who are studying autism spectrum conditions, they seem no closer to getting the full picture than I am to producing the Unifying Theory of the Universe.

Oh, and if reading Ms Grandin’s words makes you concerned for me, don’t be. Unlike Ms Grandin, I wouldn’t say I feel nervous all the time or live in a perpetual state of anxiety. The occasional high-jinks of my nervous system have been little more than an inconvenience.

Anyhow, I do have two thoughts from all this.

The personal one is that, thanks to some stressful life events combined with my ASD, I seem to have developed an intermittent (and hopefully temporary) nervous condition with similarities to PTSD. Lucky me!

My other thought is that, if this kind of attack is what is meant by autistics being prone to anxiety, I think that ‘anxiety’ is the wrong word. Or at least, it is woefully inadequate to describe what’s going on. Wouldn’t it be better explained as autistics having a more sensitive nervous system, so that sometimes a seemingly minor trigger can lead to a prolonged state of hyperarousal, including heightened levels of anxiety?

If you have to reduce it to a label, call it autistic hyperdrive. That sounds so much cooler.

 

Positivity as a Social Skill

Well, still no novel writing going on here. It’s been a difficult few weeks for me, bordering on traumatic if I’m honest, but I’m not ready to write about that yet, I’m still processing it all. Still, I wanted to write something here because… I dunno… it seems silly to have a blog and never write anything in it. So here I am.

This is my effort at a bit of pop psychology, another post related to Aspergers. Not really sure why I wanted to write it. Maybe just to understand myself better, or help you guys understand me, or in a roundabout way help you understand yourselves, from a neurodivergent point of view.

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So, it happens sometimes that I’m talking to someone and their manner towards me changes and I have to think back to what I’ve said and try and work out how I’ve offended them, or what it is about my words or my manner that’s turned them off. Actually – scratch that – it doesn’t just happen sometimes, it happens a lot.

I can often work out what I did wrong, given the time and space to think about it. Too late, of course, to change that person’s perception of me; and without much hope that my no-longer-particularly-plastic brain will adjust enough to avoid repeating the mistake next time, all I can do is get frustrated with myself.

One of the mistakes I make is to be overly negative. Yeah, just like that ^^

From what I’ve read, negativity is a pretty common problem among those on the spectrum. Together with literal thinking and too much honesty, negativity and a pessimistic attitude are probably what cause us so many problems in job interviews and the like. These are behind our (perhaps justified) criticisms of previous companies/ bosses, our cautious assessment of our own abilities and ready admission of our faults.

So I’ve been mulling over why. That is to say, I’ve been thinking about why I tend towards negativity and how that ties in with my own personality, on the assumption that it might be similar for others. Let’s explore a few hypotheses:

  1. We’re a bunch of miserable depressives

Maybe this is how it seems to others, but no, I’m not buying it. It can’t be the whole truth because when people call me out for negativity, it usually comes as a surprise to me. Generally speaking, when I made the negative statement I wasn’t feeling particularly miserable or blue, nor was I intending to be that kill-joy who ruins the mood and gets everybody down. It’s actually rather upsetting to realise that’s the way I’ve unintentionally come across, when I was just trying to make conversation.

Admittedly, they do say depression is a common co-morbid, but not all of us are sufferers. People just mis-read us when it comes to mood, as they mis-read us in so many ways. There has to be more to it than this.

  1. We deal in truth and logic

For reasons that I won’t go into here, many of us keep our emotions dialled down to zero. (Incidentally, this is why we can have trouble making decisions – because we’re trying to work through all the variables using only facts and logic, without the moderation of feelings). It also means that when we talk to you, we’re likely to favour statements of fact.

In that millisecond before an utterance passes my lips, my mind runs through a checklist, something like this: Is this statement true? Or does it fit with the available facts? Is it justifiable? Can it be logically implied? What others take as a pessimistic comment may be, for me, a simple statement of the facts as I see them.

  1. We can’t foresee people’s reactions

Running through that mental checklist takes time, and people don’t want to wait forever for me to speak, so I might not finish the list. Sometimes you just have to say something, anything, before they decide you’re cognitively impaired or mute. So I might not get as far as asking myself “Is this statement appropriate in the circumstances?”

And because my emotions are dialled down to zero, I might not think to make another important check: “How is this statement going to make people feel?”

Hence you get James Damore pointing out to Google that women are less able than men to work in tech. The poor guy had the double Asperger whammy of taking Google’s freedom of speech policy literally, and no understanding that such comments, however logically justifiable, are bound to offend.

And you get me, just trying to make friendly conversation, saying something which fits my idea of truth but is implicitly (or even explicitly) critical, of others or myself.

The trouble is, people don’t want to hear uncomfortable truths; they want to feel good about themselves and about what they’re doing. They’re not going to continue a conversation that makes them feel awkward. If we want a favourable reaction, we have to make our interactions positive and uplifting.

So how to people do it? This whole positivity thing?

My argument is that I’m just as positive as anyone else on the inside. Maybe even more so. The issue is one of communication, of displaying that positivity externally by communicating in a socially acceptable way. Hence my argument is that positivity is not only a mindset but also a social skill. And social skills can be learnt, in theory.

I say “in theory” because I’m a little cautious, nowadays, in assessing my ability to improve my social skills. I guess years of trying and failing have taken a toll. It’s tempting to just give up.

So when I read this paper on the value of learning to reframe negative statements more positively, my first thoughts were cynical. It’s hard to believe such a simple technique, learnt over a few 10-minute sessions, could have long-term beneficial effects.

https://www.researchgate.net/publication/281761886_Using_Reframing_to_Reduce_Negative_Statements_in_Social_Conversation_for_Adults_With_Autism_Spectrum_Disorder

But perhaps I should re-phrase that:

Experience has made me cautious about the benefit of social skills interventions, but what do I have to lose? This reframing may be worth a try.

 

Always a Reason

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What the hell am I even doing?

That was my thought as I sent an email to work, requesting a special consideration for my ASD.

Just WTHAIED?

Considering I only just got the permanent job and am still on probation, it felt stupidly impulsive. And I can be impulsive, I’ll be first to admit that, but I’m pretty sure I’m not stupid. Yes, okay, I now accept that I have a developmental disorder, that I might not be quite up where I should be on a social and emotional level, but I’m not stupid. There’s always a reason.

This one dates back 5 years. Being a ‘live-in-the-present’ sort of person, I rarely think back to the past and have a terrible memory (probably atrophied from lack of use 😀 ), so I can’t recall exactly what happened. All I know is I took time off work because I’d lost the ability to cope, I was burnt out. And what I do remember was not understanding how that could have happened, because I actually enjoyed my job, I liked my colleagues, and I wasn’t under a particularly heavy workload – it just made no sense whatsoever.

Now, after reading about others’ experiences with autistic burn-out, the picture is clear. This is what happens to those of us who remain undiagnosed by mid-life, the ones with mild traits, who’ve learnt to mask their difficulties and live a normal life. Normal activities for others can be uncomfortable for us, they create a little extra stress. Over time, it builds up. Maybe I’d just been juggling too many projects, going to a few too many client meetings, maybe I’d lost my head altogether and attempted to engage in verbal negotiations. Repressed autism demands payback.

Well, now I have another job, and I’m enjoying it even more than the last. The work is right up my street and my colleagues are great. I felt comfortable enough to disclose my ASD to my line manager and his reaction was just like my parents, a non-plussed: ‘but there’s nothing really wrong with you, is there?’ Which is good, because that’s where I want to be at, and how I want to be perceived.

Except…

Sitting there at the back of my mind is fear. Not fear of how I might be perceived, it’s greater than that. It’s fear of losing it all – the job, the colleagues, my self-esteem, everything, through another burn-out. I’m willing to do just about anything to avoid that.

So what can I do? I figured the only way is to increase self-awareness of my limitations and do my best to stay within them. I need to recognise the situations that cause me stress and instead of just “sucking it up” as I would have in the past, I need to learn how to avoid them. I have to stop pretending I can do the same as everyone else without consequences. Basically, I have to loosen up my self-control and allow myself to be more autistic.

So that’s why, when something at work was bothering me, when I was put in a situation which I felt I should have been able to handle – which anybody else would have been able to handle – but which was actually stressing me out, I gave in. Well, I tried making it a suggestion. Then I tried outright asking for what I wanted. And when nobody was getting it – because how could they? It wasn’t a problem for anyone else – I sent an email essentially saying, ‘I’m on the spectrum, this is an issue for me, and I need your support’.

It felt bad, having to do that. ‘Uncomfortable’ doesn’t even begin to describe the feeling, the uncertainty and vulnerability. The trouble is, I know how bizarre this must seem to others, that someone who seems to be normal and capable might suddenly start claiming to be autistic and in need of special treatment. Too weird, right? It wouldn’t surprise me if they start thinking me to be – I don’t know –  self-serving? Attention-seeking? Mentally unstable?

But this is what it is to have ASD, isn’t it? Being Asperger is to be chronically misunderstood. We do things that are perceived as odd and defy expectations. What people don’t understand is that, just because we have trouble expressing why we do what we do, just because it makes no sense in their eyes, doesn’t mean there’s no reason.

There’s always a reason.

ASD and Acceptance

So, it’s been a while. I’ve been a bit distracted over the last 3 months or so, getting my head around the concept of being on the autism spectrum. Not because that’s changed anything about who I am, but because it’s forced me to confront a few uncomfortable truths about myself, which had never before been at the forefront of my mind.

Right now, I really want to stop thinking about it, to ‘get over it’ and get back to more productive pursuits (like writing, yay! – Thanks, Alison, for reminding me how much I enjoy even talking about writing). But I’m feeling like I need one more post on the topic of ASD. Maybe just to set down some of what I’ve learnt, and to get things clear in my head, so I can move on. So here are my thoughts. Oh, and this is going to be a long one, I’m afraid… and mightily self-absorbed. More like an essay than a blog post (you have been warned).

So, first off, how did this happen? How can someone go their whole life without realising they’re on the autism spectrum?

I think it’s because, in the past, I had little self-awareness of the sort that lets you see yourself as others see you. In my teens, I was pretty much oblivious to my own social ineptitude, chalking my mistakes up to immaturity. In my twenties, I read about the concept of emotional intelligence, EQ, and realised I had a deficit, but still thought I was capable of change. In my thirties I was having babies and emigrating and was too busy to think about anything much.

It took me forty-odd years to get to the point of realising that, not only was I failing to behave towards others the way I thought I ought, the way everyone else did, but there were limits to how much I could change that, however much effort I put in or however many years’ experience I gained. Maybe I needed those decades of trying to be like everyone else and not quite succeeding to recognise that if I hadn’t outgrown my limitations by then, I probably never would.

So that’s how I came to the realisation that there was a hard-wired difference in my brain. When Aspergers ticked a lot of boxes, that led me to seek a diagnosis. But to have it confirmed, well, the effect on my psyche was unexpected. And, well, kind of brutal.

I guess I thought it would be a relief to know – and yes, it was. For a while. Until I started reading about ASD and consciously noticing my own behaviour. Like noticing how truly inept I am at explaining myself verbally (or, horror of horrors, over the phone). Like at the Spec Fic group, when we’re given a writing prompt, noticing how others can write a story off the top of their heads and I… well, I just can’t. And realising that the reason I clash with my Director at work is because he has a top-down thinking style (decide on a solution and design towards it), whereas mine is an autistic bottom-up (gather data, analyse, and see which solution pops up). And however much I ought to know the importance of not disrespecting one’s boss, I can’t bring myself to see his way as right. And, worst of all, I can’t stop myself from telling him so.

Is there anything I can do about any of the above? No, not really. This is what makes it autism and not just learned character traits – these behaviours are basically out of my control.

So… yeah. I think I’ve discovered autistic frustration, too.

On the other hand, the more I learn about ASD, the luckier I feel. It’s such a wide spectrum in terms of the severity of traits, whether mind-blindness or executive dysfunction or hypersensitivity, and factoring in co-morbidities, in all respects I’ve been incredibly fortunate. Aspergers is so much easier to deal with than classic autism, and with a decent IQ and no learning difficulties or sensory sensitivities to speak of, I’ve had it remarkably easy.

Even amongst those at the mild end, it’s sobering how much a minor brain difference can potentially affect their lives. There are some shocking statistics out there about levels of anxiety and depression amongst those on the spectrum. And long-term unemployment rates are horrendous. They’re so really, truly, awful, that I’m furious at the injustice of it, with a passion I haven’t felt about anything since I was an undergrad.

Seeing how much easier my life has been compared to others on the spectrum, sometimes I wonder if I haven’t got it all wrong, that maybe what I’ve got is not the same thing at all. But then I start interacting with the people in my life and I start noticing my own thought-patterns and behaviours (because once you start it’s hard to stop), and, yep, it’s clearly the same thing. How it affects people, though, is… well, it’s complicated.

I’ve been reading a bit about ASD and there’s a particular book that really made an impact on me. It’s called “Autism and Asperger Syndrome in Adults” by Dr Luke Beardon, and in it is presented a simple principle:

Autism + Environment = Outcome

In other words, the inherent severity of autistic traits is only part of the picture.

Summarising the concept in my own words, if one accepts that autistic people think and experience the world differently to neurotypicals, and that most social environments have been set up by and for neurotypicals, it’s hardly surprising that an autistic person might feel out of their element and suffer stress and anxiety.

In the sphere of work, for example, there might be a role that would be perfectly suited to an autistic person’s talents. But with recruitment practices relying on networking and multiple interviews, with HR staff acting as corporate gatekeepers, and with the modern emphasis on communication skills, flexibility, and teamwork, that person is unlikely even to get through the door.

But I’m digressing. As angry as I feel at the employment situation for those on the spectrum, what I was trying to say is more general, related to the environmental factor.  The reason I’ve had things so easy, I believe, is not only the mildness of my traits but also having been brought up in a favourable environment.

My parents had a lot to do with that. Looking back, they were amazingly tolerant – I never, ever, felt that they were disappointed in me, or they might have wished for a daughter with a more conventional personality. As a child, I felt loved unconditionally. With all the self-esteem issues that go along with ASD, that has to be the greatest of gifts. Somehow, the way my parents brought me up has given me a deep sense of security and a belief in the inherent goodness of other people.

Later, when I started out at work, my colleagues were also remarkably tolerant. In hindsight, engineering was a good choice. I was working with smart, well-educated people, who were secure enough in their own worth not to engage in bullying or passive-aggressive behaviours. If you can forgive a (slightly sexist) over-generalisation, the fact that most of my colleagues were male may have contributed to an environment that was less attuned to social mis-steps. These were guys who understood the value of cutting out the gossip and getting on with the job.

Because of my parents’ acceptance of a quirky daughter, I survived to adulthood without major issues. Because of colleagues’ acceptance, I’ve maintained employment for most of my life. And because of my husband’s (somewhat begrudging) acceptance, I get a certain amount of leniency with my behaviour at home.

I like to think this goes both ways, and an accepting environment for me has benefits for others. It gives me space to do what I do, to use my talents. At work, apparently my ability to focus exclusively on a task for hours on end is an autistic trait, too, but of the good variety. There are odd little things I seem to find easier than others, like looking at a roadside slope and sketching it more-or-less to scale, like picking out landslide hazards faster. And in writing groups, does ASD have something to do with my ‘feel’ for stories – my quick grasp of plot patterns, and keen eye for errors? Probably.

So, when it comes down to it, I’m not complaining.

I guess what I’m saying is all about the importance of acceptance. While I know I’ve been incredibly fortunate in having ASD in its mildest form, and having the intelligence to adapt to it, that’s not the whole story behind my relative success in life. And while I know life is incredibly tough for those facing the challenge of the more severe forms of autism, I’m inclined to believe this principle holds for them, too. That is, that everyone has the potential to develop skills that are useful to society. To give those skills space to grow means creating environments that in which the person’s worth is recognised and respected, they are loved unconditionally, and above all, accepted.

Yeah. That’s all I wanted to say.