On Owning our Strengths

I had a text yesterday from a friend, “focus on what you can do, not on what you can’t.”

That’s not in my nature. Is it in yours? It makes sense though doesn’t it. Sure, you need to acknowledge those areas in which you could either improve on, get some help with or just write off; but why do we dwell on what we can’t do to the detriment of what we are, actually, pretty damn good at?

For years dwelling on the things I can’t do has held me back from offering what I can do for the world. Real issues with executive function stopped me from persuing academia; limited social skills meant I lacked confidence to push my business forward; and others mistaking holes in my knowledge for a lack of intelligence began to rub off on me. There’s nothing like others seeing you as crazy or lazy for you to start believing the hype!

I’ve watched friends take huge risks with their careers, living arrangements and long term plans over the last twenty or so years and by-and-large these risks have massively paid off. When I asked,  “Why?” they confidently replied, “Why not?” Meanwhile I’ve always played it safe with the sneaking suspicion that I could-do-better but an unwillingness to risk failure and be laughed at. 

But here’s the thing. More recently I have made some exceptional friends. Off the scale artists and wordsmiths with depths of intelligence and insight that have blown me away. But I couldn’t understand why they didn’t have the glittering careers that they deserved. I would sell my right arm for their talents. 

But. Three things…

1) Each of them is also autistic.

2) Each of them is dismissive of their own gifts. 

3) Each of them is equally in awe of the abilities I have that I had dismissed!

If you have had a lifetime having your flaws and inabilities being pointed out to you – Just be friendly! Smile! Concentrate! Stop doing weird things with your hands! You’re so disorganised? You’re too old for temper tantrums! Why would you even say that? You’re so bad with money? Why won’t you answer me? Oh stop crying! What do you mean it’s too bright/noisy/busy/smelly? Just eat it! Just wear it! Just make the phone call! Stop fussing! I thought you were supposed to be clever? I thought women were supposed to be able to multitask! Everybody else can manage that – why can’t you? – then it is incredibly hard not to focus purely on the things you can’t do.

I am in no way dismissive of the similar trials that allistics (non-autistics) go through. Confidence is often an elusive thing for many, many people. But this theme seems to run considerably stronger through the autistic women I have come across than for most others. 

Because while we can do some things that very few other people can do, we can’t do a lot of things that nearly everybody else can. 

So what’s the answer?

I’m not entirely sure. On a personal level it takes a major shift in thinking to flip the can’t do: can do ratio to something more positive. But we can also all remember in our transactions with others to remind them both of their strengths and of our own. And we all need to all see beyond someone’s more obvious achievements, recognising that the playing field is not always level. A lack of achievement is not always down to a lack of talent. (And, while you’re at it can I please recommend you read this rather brilliant post from Luke Beardon?)

I’m out of words! Tell me yours. What do you think?

 

 

Lost in Paris

I was all fired up to write either a recipe or a detox post today, but then I got sidetracked editing this blogs categories for a drop down menu, and I haven’t got the time now. Bother. But I did promise myself that I’d write something so I’m going to give you a memory post.

Back in the mid-90s, while I was a music teacher, I joined a friend’s band called Movietone for a couple of years (I think that link should take you to album tracks etc. I’m playing on the Day and Night and The Blossom Filled Streets albums) During that time we also did two sessions for John Peel, played some gigs (Bristol, London and Brighton) and did a mini tour in Paris! In case you are wondering, I mostly played viola but also doubled up on piano, glockenspiel, guitar and bass (the last two of which I had to learn specially.)

Now, a thing I have noticed about us Autistic people is that our personal risk assessment processes are not generally in line with those of the rest of the population. Make a phone call? Panic. Try to leave the house? Panic. Cross the road? Panic. Walk the streets of Paris alone late at night with minimal grasp of the language, a poor ability for map reading, and no working mobile phone? Meh! Which is why, when we had a night off and I found out that another friend of mine was also playing in town that night I figured I’d try and find him to say hello. How hard could that be?

It took me nearly two hours. My map skills sucked more than I can explain. I found myself in various dead ends and alleyways (some with suspicious looking deals going on), and I realised that I had completely misjudged the scale of the map. I retraced my steps several times and I finally realised that setting off on this quest was not, in retrospect, a smart move. I kept ending up the wrong side of the river and I couldn’t work out safe places to cross some of the busier roads. And I didn’t know how to ask for help! A few times I considered turning back but figured that I should see this through. I didn’t want to admit defeat.

Eventually I found the venue but by this time the doors were closed and the queues were building up outside. So now the question – how do you blag your way into a well attended Courtney Pine gig with no language skills? I pushed my way through the throng of fans to the door and, with a highly apologetic tone and some poor miming repeated the two poxy phrases I’d practised to myself before leaving – Er, mon amie? Un bassiste? Seriously, that was all I’d learnt! But you know what? Those crowds of fans, patiently waiting for the doors to open, they worked out the deal and yelled at the security guys to let me in. And, when he tried to argue, pretty much opened the doors and shoved me through as I shouted Merci!! Merci!! What lovely people!

Sadly I only had about half an hour to see my friend before he had to disappear and then I figured that I should probably find my way back to the apartment rather than stay for the gig. But as I left the building my heart sank and my knees buckled with the realisation that it was now about 10.30pm and I still didn’t really know where I was. I sat on the steps, stared at the map and wondered how the hell I was going to hold my shit together. And then the rain started. And when I say rain? It was that freak kind of rain that runs down your neck and soaks you to the skin within minutes. What the hell to do? I couldn’t even clearly see a few meters ahead of me the rain was that heavy. The only upside was that nobody would have been able to see the tears.

Now this next bit was pretty crazy. I took a deep breath, somehow went into some kind of hyperfocus and saw the route back in my head, by which I mean that all the side roads and distractions kind of fell away from my vision and I started to run like I was following a satnav. I think it took me less than half an hour to run my way back without any mistakes and in torrential rain, with a map that was so wet it completely disintegrated. As I got to an area I actually recognised I started laughing out loud and sprinted the last bit.

My friends opened the door to me laughing hysterically while pouring the rainwater from my shoes. I couldn’t get the words out I was laughing so hard.

I wanted to think of a witty and snappy way to round this post off but I can’t. Au revoir!

 

Celebrating Christmas


Here’s the thing. I love Christmas. Truly, truly love it. But maybe not in the way that others do. While we don’t celebrate the day in a religious context my family (my husband and two daughters) and I mark this time with rituals and symbolism that have meaning and significance to ourselves.

Might as well get it over and done with, here’s a list of what we don’t do and why!

  • Cards (massive drain on the environment, finances and executive function.)
  • Increased sugar intake (and thus increased anxiety, irritability, insomnia, acne and weight gain.)
  • Parties (social interaction when our emotional energies are at their lowest of the year? Nope.)
  • Flashing Christmas lights (headaches and anxiety.)
  • Christmas crackers at home (I really can’t justify buying plastic tat produced by severely underpaid and mistreated factory workers and destined for the bin.)
  • Presents for the sake of obligation (honestly, we don’t need anything. Nothing worse than having to smile and gush over yet another item produced by those poor factory workers and using up the earth’s resources.)

But here’s what I love, love, love!!

  • Getting to spend time around my precious husband and daughters. They are my favourite company. I know we may only have a few years left before our girls create their own traditions so we’re making the most of eating good food and snuggling with them while we still can.
  • Food. Easy, simple, delicious. We do the same every year: Nigella Lawson’s cranberry and orange Christmas muffins for breakfast with orange juice and prosecco. (And coffee. Lots of coffee.) Then a mid-afternoon, fully organic roast dinner which I prepare on the day while they watch some Christmas movie. Nuts, a bit of chocolate, a bottle of organic beer or a glass of port will feature at some point but not heavily. And then Christmas pudding with custard or cream for supper. Delicious, filling and minimal food coma!
  • Decorations! Every year a real tree, and foraged mistletoe, holly and ivy. Tiny static fairy lights and decorations made from wood, metal, ceramic or glass. Also pine cones and dried orange slices. And lots of beeswax or organic soya candles.
  • We also have a range of Christmas CDs ranging from pop to jazz, classical and soul. Something for every mood.
  • And time. Time away from school and jobs is precious. So we share the housework and spend our time, resentment free, in cooking, eating, watching movies, walking the dog, reading, playing board games or just chatting and catching up – checking in with each other.

That’s the magic for us. Wishing all of you your own magical festive period, and sending you huge love 💜

Grief

It’s been a helluva year! While the storms of political egomania, brewed from ignorance and fear have raged around the world; tidal waves of very real threats to the marginalised, the environment and to any hopes of a more peaceful existence have been triggered. The collective grief to these metaphoric event hazards has been overwhelming. 

And, on a more personal level, grief is very much a part of me at the moment. Six months ago I found out that I was autistic. An explanation as to why social interaction has been so, so difficult for me over the years. 

Through this new information and self-understanding, I’ve finally been able to piece together why so many of my relationships have been dysfunctional and have ended so badly; why breakdowns, shutdowns and meltdowns have been such frequent intrusions in my life; and why I’ve never been able to match up to either my own or other people’s expectations. 

And so I’m grieving for missed opportunities, failed friendships, and for years spent wasted in beating myself up for not scoring higher on a set of values that were not, after all, appropriate for me. I was hoping to have finished and done with the introspection by now. Enough already! Get over it!

But I remembered this week that we, in the Northern hemisphere, are currently in the season ruled by the Chinese Five Element of Metal, that of Autumn. Metal governs grief, personal and metaphysical boundaries, the lungs (I’m finally recovering from a month long chest infection) and large intestine. 

The Metal element describes the final leaves falling from the trees and rotting down in time for Winter’s period of stillness and restoration. Metal is the element of of pure blue skies and clean air, of the final harvesting of crops and of fields to be ploughed and picked over by the birds. Metal governs old age – a time of reflection; questioning and refining core beliefs and of purifying and eliminating anything that is no longer useful, whether stale air, waste material, ideas, beliefs or emotions. If there were ever a good time to grieve, that time is now. 

But grief is not a comfortable emotion. And it’s hard to control its outward flow. Like adjusting a pressure valve it can be a delicate act to find the balance between stomping grief down and becoming all consumed by it. But the process of letting go is, particularly right now, vital to being able to greet the stillness of Winter with a clear heart and a calm mind. 

We cannot stop the destruction of hurricanes created by climate or politicians but by honouring time-honoured spiritual rhythms we have a better chance of refining and fortifying our personal resolve and conviction to create those micro-eddies of love, humour, warmth and kindness that help return humanity to a place of balance. 

Autism Is…

My good friend over at The Silent Wave responded to a twitter request for the hashtag #autismis with this great post and I wanted to add my voice too because autism is a widely misunderstood condition that really deserves not to be. 

The criteria for an autism diagnosis is complex because it affects us, as individuals, in profound and unique ways. And yet I have noticed that people are reluctant to ask autistics how they are personally affected. Maybe out of lack of knowledge, maybe out of embarrassment, maybe because they are wary of being asked for support or maybe because they just don’t know the questions to ask. I don’t know. But as being misunderstood can be one of the most distressing aspects of being autistic I’d be ever so grateful if more people would put any preconceptions to the side and ask questions. 

See if this post helps for you to get the conversation started! 

For me personally – Autism is…

… having had to study reading body language, tone of voice and facial expressions as a kid by watching others, figuring it out and practising in front of a mirror. Still misinterpreting the subtleties. Being gullible. Assuming that someone being sad or angry is my fault and getting highly stressed at not being able to resolve that. Being completely clueless as to someone’s intentions towards me. I honestly find it almost impossible to know if someone wants to be friends with me, can’t stand me, wants to end a conversation or is flirting with me. This can result in crippling paranoia. 

…not undertaking anything (parenting, making health/lifestyle changes) without thoroughly researching it first but being unable to learn, research or revise anything that doesn’t hold my complete attention. I read six books on parenting babies before the birth of my first but didn’t read three of the four set texts for my Literature A level; and while I might spend months reading obsessively on, say, gut health I didn’t revise at all for my undergraduate finals. 

… obsessively cleaning or tidying a clothes drawer / under the bed / the bathroom cupboard half an hour before a guest turns up while panicking about the messy pile of washing up / living room in disarray / floor in need of vacuuming. 

… crying at sappy songs, Disney movies and happy endings in books. Not being able to watch the news or see certain films because of the inevitable nightmares that may still haunt me months later. 

… not being able to remember a basic sequence of verbal instructions, a phone number, someone’s birthday, or even memorise a simple musical phrase (I have a music degree). Often speaking or writing complete gibberish because I can’t access the words or put them in the right order. If I have to try and push through this state for an extended time or under stress I may not be able to speak at all. 

…walking into walls, missing my mouth with a glass, tripping up, mis-estimating how quickly a car is moving towards me (I’ve been in several road accidents and so have not learned to drive), not knowing how physically close I am to someone, being unable to throw or catch a ball. 

…being caused physical pain by the smell of strong perfumes, peoples breath, sweaty dogs, mould, washing powder, fabric conditioner and air “fresheners.”

…being thoroughly nauseated by stickiness, oxidising fruit, other people’s or animals saliva.

…being unable to function at all in busy, noisy, brightly lit places such as department stores or even some museums. I become quickly overwhelmed; unable to do much but find somewhere to sit and focus on trying to breathe and not be sick. 

…not being able to distinguish between concurrent conversations in a room. I guess that for most people it’s similar to being in a very noisy and echoing indoor swimming pool or gym hall. 

…finding all social transaction  exhausting. I want to be able to do it but every aspect of it is tiring. I’d like to spend time with friends, go to parties, go out spontaneously or even have an easy conversation in the street but all of these often cause a tailspin of anxiety due to the communication issues as mentioned above and are compounded by changes of plan, lateness and the potential addition of other people in the mix. A four hour shift at my pharmacy job leaves me in the state most people are from an eight to ten hour shift. 

… having behaviours that can seem childish. Jumping up and down when excited, doing a happy dance, hugging people enthusiastically, running away under stress. And crying. Always crying! 

…being misunderstood and talked down to all the damn time. I think I know why. I ask a lot of questions because I like to be sure of things, and I have a perplexed expression when I’m listening to the answer because my brain is a) filtering out other distractions b) figuring out the speaker’s facial expressions and c) jumping around making multiple connections to other knowledge or ideas I have. But I have a really high IQ. And a wide knowledge base. So it’s really frustrating when someone dumbs stuff down for me, doesn’t answer the question I asked, gives me an opinion rather than fact or just can’t be bothered to elaborate. 

…being great at acting for short periods of time. Because it’s easier to smile and tell people you are fine than it is to explain all of the above all the time! And because I don’t know if you have the time or emotional energy to take it on board either. And because the more stressed I am, the less I’m going to be able to find the words to communicate how I’m feeling anyway. So, yep, I’m Fine Thanks! 

If you’ve made it reading all the way here – Thank You! You are a most awesome human being and if I was with you I might be jumping up and down and hugging you right now!

Science and Nature

I’m going to go out on a limb here. I’m going to say that every time I hear someone say that something has been scientifically proven, or scientifically unproven, my immediate thought is, that doesn’t sound very scientific!

Let me explain. I am not anti science. I think it’s a great thing. But I think that people have somehow forgotten or just not realised that scientific “proof” as non-scientists are presented with it is often a potent mix of economic and political bias baked with a liberal interpretation of the statistics involved and served with a healthy dash of media fear-mongering. Pure science is rarely deemed newsworthy. 

Let’s take the health of western society which (and yes, I am going to be very general here for the sake of brevity) for tens of thousands of years thrived on a diet high in organic fat, protein, seasonal produce and un-treated water. Walking, running, climbing, swimming and swinging daily in all elements without sunscreen, sports drinks or orthotics. Sleeping when tired. Socialising in small communities while hunting, gathering and caring for each other. 

Modern medicine was necessitated by an increasingly intensive agriculture and industry based society in order to invent ways to keep the population alive and useful without easy recourse to the basics that had allowed the human population to thrive thus far. And now, guided by medicine, by science we have scientific proof that we need low-fat margarine, fluoridated water, sunscreen and gym memberships. Please! 

You may be aware that science is becoming  increasingly interested in autism. This is evidenced by the sheer number of cause claims and “cure” research turning up on the net. Now, let’s be clear, autism is down to a difference in brain wiring. It seems unlikely that any one trigger, such as genetics, stress in pregnancy, or vaccination will cause such a specific deviation from the “norm.” It also seems rather fanciful to suggest that any amount of therapy, whether conventional or complementary, is going to re-wire the brain so dramatically that it causes such an exact reconfiguration of the neural pathways. 

As I see it, we have three factors at play in autism. Perception, Interpretation, Action. Any claim or cure needs to be able to address each and all of these to effect a permanent change. To my knowledge, this has not yet actually happened (although much effort has been put into researching these factors separately.)

It is important to note here that many autistics would not wish this to be so either, for while our perception of most types of stress is generally far higher than that of allistics (as is often evidenced by our actions) our interpretation of information is unique to each individual and is as valid to the benefit and evolution of society as the next persons. 

Now, I have a theory. It may not be a scientific theory, but it is my current theory and if anyone thinks it’s worth researching further please do! My theory is that the further we (the population and the individual) strays from the food, water, movement, direct sunlight quota and work/rest/play model that sustained humankind for most of our existence, the more stress we subject our bodies to. Now it is stress that causes our physical selves to adapt in order to keep us alive. It is these very adaptions that our physical selves make that give feedback to our brains as to how to react to stress. Acute stress is vital to existence. But accumulated chronic stress? That’s always going to cause problems. Chronic stress forces adaptive responses that, whether structural, biochemical, digestive, neurological, behavioural etc. may not be beneficial to either the individual or the community at large. 

Meanwhile, any therapy that enables us to return to an earlier lifestyle model is going to help to relieve stress, allowing our adaptive systems to stand down and informing our brains that everything is ok. Autism itself is not the problem. Stress is. 

If I’ve been on an ancestral based diet, had some time away from  people other than my immediate family and/or a close circle of friends, slept well and spent time walking barefoot through a forest you’d be hard pressed to pick out any of my more autistic traits. But on a binge-eating cycle, after a winter of multi-tasking under fluorescent lights and having to communicate daily with strangers  I’m going to be spending all my energy on trying to behave “normally”, and I will go into meltdown and I, along with anyone in the vicinity, will have to suffer the consequences. 

I don’t need an explanation as to why I have autism and I sure as hell don’t need a cure, but I will take any therapy that enables me to thrive with, rather than despite of, my autism. 

And I know from experience that the therapies that help me to do this, from natural nutrition, to acupuncture and to homeopathy are the ones most often hounded by and “disproved” by science. And I feel that the energy used by the scientific communities, the pro or anti activists and the media to argue whether or not structural therapies, precaution used in vaccinations, and the overuse of antibiotics are valid in preventing an apparent rise in autism, could be far better spent in helping all of us, whether autistic or allistic, to more closely emulate a lifestyle that predates the study of science altogether. Because living a life more closely aligned with nature allows all of us to thrive, without need for either cause or cure. 

Some Recommended Blogs. 

In the last few months there’s been a lovely increase of followers of and commenters on this blog. Thank you. Thank you to all of you, both new and old followers. Thank you to those of you that comment, that hit that like button, that re-blog, that send links via Twitter and Facebook, that email or message me privately and to also those that just read my ramblings. I truly appreciate all of you.

Today I’d like to recommend a small selection of the blogs that I follow. Specifically those from a new community of autistic bloggers (many of whom had either an official diagnosis of or a self realisation of autism in the last few months) that has been a haven of support for me.

Each of these bloggers has a unique, authentic, warm and eloquent writing style. Whether you yourself are autistic or allistic and whether you’d like to be more informed, crave community or just appreciate great writing please check these awesome blogs out.

https://autnot.wordpress.com/

https://soniaboue.wordpress.com

https://mamapineappleblog.wordpress.com/

https://thesilentwaveblog.wordpress.com/

https://visualvox.wordpress.com/

https://amyes87.wordpress.com/