The Authentically Autistic Health Files: Florence Neville (Me!)

The Authentically Autistic Health Files are a celebration of health and wellbeing practitioners who, like myself, are both autistic and working with clients who are autistic. As you might expect, our unique life experiences, understanding and skills give us particular insights into many of the challenges that our autistic clients may have.

Please do contact me if you would like me to send you a questionnaire so that you can be featured on this blog. You are welcome to remain anonymous and I will always get you, as the featured practitioner to approve copy before I post.

As requested by the other practitioners who’ve filled this in already – in my own words, here I am:

Florence Neville: Health and Nutrition Coach

florenceneville.com

Basic Biography

Although I have had a lifelong interest in health and nutrition (I remember secretly musing on diet plans for my peers when I was only eight years old and my earliest career choice was to be a doctor or nurse!) I actually trained in and gained my degree in music; meaning that my twenties were spent performing, recording, teaching and managing the shop for a violin workshop.

I left the field of music in order to focus on bringing up my daughters in my early thirties and studied for my Diploma in Natural Nutrition when they began school. Unfortunately not long after qualifying I had a breakdown which crushed any confidence I had to feel able to offer advice. Instead I took a job at my local pharmacy – a job that, while it taught me a great deal, was highly unsuitable to my neurotype.

Despite, in retrospect, clearly fitting the criteria I had no idea that I might be autistic until a chance reading of this article by Sarah Hendrickx in April 2016. Luckily I was able to get an appointment with her soon after and was given a diagnosis of Aspergers within the month. A complete reassessment of my life and then learning to work to my autistic strengths gave me a boost in both understanding and confidence, resulting in me feeling able to leave my pharmacy job and re-start my nutrition practice in the Autumn of 2017.

Your Health Business or Specialism

Over the years I have thoroughly researched and experimented with various dietary models including vegetarian, low fat, low calorie, vegan, raw vegan, wheat/dairy/sugar free, paleo, primal, low carb, zero carb and traditional. They all have their pros and cons, but the crucial point is that not one of them is suitable for everyone at all times. What suits me may not suit you, and what suits me now may not suit me in ten years.

So, part of my job is to really get to grips with an individual’s nature and nurture make-up in order to be able to provide a set of guidelines that will enable them to heal most effectively given their genetics, symptoms, lifestyle, budget, and geography. Most of these guidelines will be dietary but helping them to understand how to use light, movement, sleep and rest patterns are also crucial. Seeing a client’s health and wellbeing transform is an incredible honour and I find it really exciting.

How Does Being Autistic Impact Your Health Practice?

I think that my neurotype gives me a specific and unique skillset to work with. I love to research and I am good at spotting patterns, or indeed spotting broken patterns in a client’s health in a way that conventional medicine is not always able to. For instance, if a client is experiencing a difficult menopause I am looking to balance her hormones but I am also working out why that imbalance occurred in the first place; it might be that her adrenal system is overtaxed or that she isn’t eating enough of the building blocks to support progesterone production; it might be that she is eating too many oestrogen mimicking foods or that her liver is overloaded; maybe it’s an emotional issue or perhaps the symptoms are actually due to something else altogether.

I like being able to break down a complex issue and offer it back to an individual in a way that is both easier to understand and gives them the practical tools necessary to work with their symptoms. My role is largely to educate and empower. I have noticed that many autistic people have a unique skill in this area. We don’t tend to accept what we are taught at face value but instead tend to take a different route when internalising a collection of information. “Why?” is of more interest than “What?” when we are figuring out “How?” and so we love to explain how we got to that answer. Having said that, it’s not so easy to explain when we suddenly just know the correct answer without any apparent route whatsoever!

What Considerations Do You Take into Account with Autistic Clients?

My autistic clients tend to have thoroughly researched their own health issues well before making the decision to book a consultation with me. They have often been repeatedly fobbed off by doctors who have not been able to spot patterns and so have tried to self-treat (or just ignored) symptoms on an individual basis. As autistic clients tend to have a more complicated health picture than non-autistic clients I tend to have more “knot unravelling” to do.

I have also noticed a tendency for autistic clients to apologise at the outset for being blunt, outspoken and needing to be given a lot of background information. In fact, this is how I much prefer to work – these qualities make my job easier!

While I don’t seek to treat autistic clients differently I am still learning quite how wide the range of executive function challenges are from one client to the next. This is why a dialogue is so important – it’s not appropriate to just issue information and a set of recommendations based on what will make the most difference to an individual’s health if they will be overwhelmed by the information and not do any of it. Meanwhile some clients prefer to jump in at the deep end from the outset.

Do You Have or Have You Had Specific Health Challenges of Your Own?

Over the years my own health challenges have included anxiety, depression (including five major breakdowns,) insomnia, chronic constipation, compulsive eating, acne into my late thirties, frequent and extreme bouts of fatigue, multiple bouts of tonsillitis (including emergency surgery for quinsy,) asthma, aching joints and frequent lung infections.

I find that, for me personally, all of these have responded well to a diet based on healthy fats, organic vegetables and meat; and well sourced supplements together with some lifestyle changes and certain naturopathic techniques. I am in better health now, in my mid-forties, than I have been at any other time of my life! I also see an amazing acupuncture and zero-balancing practitioner in Bristol and she has worked miracles when I need extra support.

What Are Your Own Health and Wellbeing Routines and Non-Negotiables?

I require a great deal of down-time. Clean air, sunlight, organic and minimally processed foods; eight hours sleep, walking and periods of silence are crucial for me to remain physically and emotionally healthy. Paying attention to the seasons in terms of food and lifestyle keep me connected and grounded. Working with varying energy levels over the course of my menstrual cycle is vital. And, while I don’t drink much, really good coffee makes me feel good!

Sensory Toolkit

The autistic community is generous with tips on navigating the outside world. I learned a lot from my Twitter friends! Since I learned to keep a “toolkit” in my bag at all times then being out and about causes far less stress. My kit includes both blue-blocking glasses (for the rare occasion that going into a fluorescently lit supermarket or department store is unavoidable), sunglasses, ear-plugs, headphones, rescue-remedy spray and a hanky doused with essential oils.

Meltdowns and Shutdowns

My meltdowns and shutdowns are rare these days but are generally triggered by being overwhelmed (social and/or sensory), by intake of junk food or by mould exposure. I need to be able to escape either to a quiet and dark safe place or into nature; I need calm reassurance (because I am generally frightened by my reaction) and I need grounding. It will often take me several hours or even days to recover, during which I will likely be mute and unable to pull my face into any kind of expression. I have been incredibly lucky that my husband has never once assumed my reactions to be tantrums and sulking and has always instinctively known how to support me.

What Are Your Plans?

I am really excited that there is now a growing understanding that nutrition, done right, can support autistic people to truly thrive and play to their own incredible strengths; and I love that I have the opportunity to help drive that forward in my practice.

My pie-in-the-sky dream is that one day I can be part of a linked practice that brings together autistic practitioners (nutrition, bodywork, herbalism, coaching etc.) with someone who can effectively deal with the day to day stuff (answering the phone, appointment setting and dealing with the finances) for those of us with executive functioning issues. Maybe one day…

Who Are Your Health Inspirations?

So, so many… I am always inspired by people who push the boundaries in health fields. I would recommend reading anything by Nora Gedgaudas or Dr. Christine Northrup. I love listening to the range of guests on the podcasts The Lifestylist, Bulletproof Radio and ReWild Yourself. Mark Sisson’s website is a fantastic resource.

Do You Have any General Advice or Closing Words?

Balancing rest and play is crucial. I hibernate in winter so that I am more able to get outside and be part of things in the summer. If I have been sociable on any one day then I will need at least one day to recover. A good night’s sleep is crucial if I am to be able to even speak to anyone the next day but that sleep is only possible if I have nourished myself well during the day.

 

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The Authentically Autistic Health Files: Toni Boucher

The Authentically Autistic Health Files are a celebration of health and wellbeing practitioners who, like myself, are both autistic and working with clients who are autistic. As you might expect, our unique life experiences, understanding and skills give us particular insights into many of the challenges that our autistic clients may have.

Please do contact me if you would like me to send you a questionnaire so that you can be featured on this blog. You are welcome to remain anonymous and I will always get you, as the featured practitioner to approve copy before I post.

In her own words, here is Toni Boucher:

Toni Boucher

Autism Consultant, Writer, Speaker.

I work with autistic teens and adults around the world to help them reach their relationship, school and career goals. I also consult with families and companies to help create autism friendly environments and approaches.

I’m 47 years old and have been obsessed with autism since I first learned about it in high school. I’ve been working with autistic people since 1989. To learn about how I discovered my own neurodiversity you can read part of my story Confessions of a Closet Aspie.

Working with other people on the spectrum really helps me to function more effectively as a professional because my natural rhythms and patterns are very similar to the people I support. Traditional work hours and patterns have always been challenging for me to maintain but since my clients also are nocturnal, intensely focussed, obsessed, have sensory issues and require periods of recovery after being out in the world I can meet my own needs and accommodate my clients natural tendencies at the same time.

The Authentically Autistic Health Files: Laura Z. Weldon

The Authentically Autistic Health Files are a celebration of health and wellbeing practitioners who, like myself, are both autistic and working with clients who are autistic. As you might expect, our unique life experiences, understanding and skills give us particular insights into many of the challenges that our autistic clients may have.

Please do contact me if you would like to me to send you a questionnaire so that you can be featured on this blog. You are welcome to remain anonymous and I will always get you, as the featured practitioner to approve copy before I post.

In her own words, here is Laura Z. Weldon:

Laura Z. Weldon

Health Coach, specializing in supporting clients with chronic mental and physical illness and people who identify as highly sensitive or neurodiverse. I am also a Pilates instructor and have completed Cranialsacral II and Reiki II trainings. I am halfway through my education to become a naturopathic physician (we are primary care doctors in 20 US states) with an additional masters in integrative mental health.

Laura Z. Weldon, business name Weldon Wellness, neurodiversity work under Autistic Empaths

Basic Biography

I grew up in Kentucky, a Southern state in the US. I was diagnosed as an adult, so I grew up being called “shy, sensitive, and gifted” rather than autistic, which I am both grateful for, as I was able to establish my identity outside of diagnosis, and regret, because I needed support in ways no one recognized.

My childhood memories are coloured by my sensory experiences – grade school was coarse pig hair carpeting, fluorescent lights and the smell of fluoride. My weekends in the country with my grandparents were spent reading books alone in trees and swimming in the river while never touching the bottom.

After high school, I moved to NYC to complete a BA in English Literature at Columbia University. I was always fascinated by how people thought, I suspect because I knew that my own experience was different from others’, and this is partly what drew me to literature – it offered a way to glimpse into the thought processes, interactions, and insights of others. I lived and worked in New York City for six years.

I was never someone who was certain about my path; as a child, when someone asked what I wanted to be when I grew up, I would say “5 feet 9 inches tall.” My vague intention after undergrad was to pursue a MFA in creative-nonfiction, but I waited because it didn’t feel like quite the right fit. In time, like many others who work in health, I came to this field through discovering what helped me heal myself. I attended a 2-year post-bac pre-med program at the University of Louisville in KY and then applied and was accepted to naturopathic medical school.

I moved across the country 3 years ago with my partner and our Doberman Huxley. My partner has been one of my best friends since middle school; he is not quite neurotypical, but not autistic. I call him my partner rather than my boyfriend to reflect both my queer identity and the fact that we share our lives together. We now live in Portland, OR while I attend the National University of Natural Medicine (NUNM), the oldest naturopathic medicine program in the United States. I am pursuing both the ND degree and an additional master’s degree in integrative mental health.

I turn 30 this year. I first had a counsellor suggest I may be autistic 5 years ago, while discussing my difficulties in social situations at parties and other overstimulating environments, but I did not pursue a diagnosis at that time. After several years of gradually coming back into my body after a lifetime of what I call “functional disassociation,” the underlying sensory triggers became clearer.

I first went for an evaluation for sensory processing disorder, and then after reading memoirs by autistic authors and learning about the differences in the female phenotype I found myself resonating with other aspects of autism. I saw a psychologist who specializes in women on the spectrum last February, and after a few rounds of tests and interviews was diagnosed autistic (what would formerly have been Asperger’s). I felt that getting an official diagnosis was important for several reasons for me personally. As a future mental health professional, I wanted to know how mainstream practitioners would identify traits I found in myself.

I wanted to be open about my diagnosis to show that autistic people are not all one pattern of experiences and behaviors, and that even if I “do not look autistic” my experience is still similar to others who may fit a more stereotyped definition (typically the male phenotype). I wanted to be able to get the accommodations I needed at university to attend lectures remotely and wear sunglasses in conference rooms in the clinic. The bonus I did not expect to come with my diagnosis was finding community and connection around shared experiences, particularly through the #ActuallyAutistic community on Twitter.

Health Business and Specialism

I have worked as a health coach and Pilates instructor since 2012. My “special interest” has always been humans, our minds and emotions, and over time it has evolved from literature to psychology to medicine (and what a beautiful combination those fields are together; see narrative psychology/medicine in traditional or indigenous practices, for example).

I love working with people one-on-one, learning and exploring together how their thoughts and emotions impact their behavior and lifestyle choices. I strongly believe that there is a way for everyone (who is not in an acutely stressful situation, like extreme poverty or other traumatic contexts) to find a way to live a balanced, healthy, and enjoyable life. (Yes, even people with disabilities and chronic illness – health does not mean without challenge and there is no one “perfect” way to be healthy.)

My role is in supporting people to make these changes, gradually and experimentally, to improve self-awareness and discover what dietary choices, movement practices, and other forms of self-care work best for them as individuals. The fact that there is no one right answer for every person or even for a single person over a lifetime means that this work is always interesting and personalized, a journey of learning about another person’s way of being in the world.

Every suggestion I make to a client is an experiment. I offer an idea and if it fits for them they try it out. If they do not follow through, or find that they did not like it or for any other reason it wasn’t right for them, then that suggestion is either something they need greater support on OR it simply isn’t right for them and their lives, so we move on and try something new. Lifestyle changes should never be a question of willpower.

Specifically, I do a lot to support GI health and emotional balance. Many clients work with me to support them on elimination diets to discover underlying food sensitivities, do Candida protocols, or switch to therapeutic diets like low-fodmap for SIBO. When appropriate, I incorporate mindfulness practices (as they suit the client) and suggestions for maintaining an enjoyable movement practice (I don’t talk much about “exercise” because our bodies are made to move; it should not have to be a task on a to-do list.) I work with vitamins, minerals, and herbs as appropriate and in conjunction with clients’ physicians.

My decision to pursue a degree in alternative healthcare through naturopathic medicine, instead of allopathic or MD medical school, grew from a frustration with the medical system. I am in no way against pharmaceutical medicine or allopathic care; in acute situations it is truly a miracle of modern medicine. With chronic conditions and mental health, however, I found those approaches overly reductive and algorithmic, and I was frustrated by the lack of initiative to seek out true underlying causes of imbalance and disease. In addition, many doctors seem to have lost their role of “physician as teacher”; I hold this aspect in highest regard, as I believe it is our duty to help patients understand their bodies and how to care for them, even if it takes a little extra time.

As a result, much of my work with clients also involves some degree of patient advocacy. We talk through questions to ask their physicians, what symptoms are important to bring up and have addressed, and how to maintain a sense of agency in an interaction with such a strong power dynamic.

While in medical school I do not take on many clients at a time, but I love this way of working with people and find it powerful and educational for both client and myself, so I intend to continue working in this capacity part-time throughout my education and even once I am a physician.

How Being Autistic Impacts My Health Practice

I am still working out exactly what being autistic means to me and what aspects of my personality and thought process are attributable to being autistic and which are simply me. I know that I pick up on patterns easily and can think of “out-of-the-box” solutions, which is helpful when clients feel like they have tried everything and there is nothing left, and which will be helpful in diagnosing patients in the future.

I am less likely to make assumptions about someone else’s experience because I am very aware that how we seem on the outside and what we feel inside can be vastly different. Many practitioners are unfamiliar with or even judgmental about the idea that someone can be “highly sensitive,” whether that is a personality trait or as aspect of neurodiversity, so people who know that they are more reactive to their environments and even supplements and medications often feel relieved to have that recognized and addressed.

Ironically, I think that my high capacity for empathy is part of being neurodiverse; I experience some degree of mirror-touch synaesthesia or emotional and physical empathy which allows me to have a glimpse into other people’s internal experience and connect with them more intimately and authentically. (Just don’t ask me to talk to a group of people at the same time!) I am also frankly honest about myself, so when it will serve the client to hear something about me I share it without hesitation, which I find helps build trust and communication.

One of the practical ways being autistic has impacted my work is that I see the majority of my clients online, using video chat services. While I am in medical school I am expected to be out in the world more than my system finds ideal, so being able to work with clients from the comfort of my own home is immensely helpful. I also find it is helpful for my clients, as many of them deal with social anxiety, movement or transportation challenges, sensory overload, and other things that may it easier for them to communicate from their own homes. I suspect telemedicine will become more common in the future.

What Considerations I Take Into Account with Autistic Clients

While science is frustratingly lacking in explanations, there are many physical and neurological aspects to being autistic that are often ill-addressed. Common “co-morbidities” as they call them include anxiety, depression, migraines, digestive issues/IBS, epilepsy, connective tissue disorders and so much more.

I think that the connection between sensory overload and anxiety is incredibly important and better addressed when seen as a neurological response to a context the body does not feel safe or comfortable rather than a mental health issue (although simply being autistic in a neurotypical world can certainly have mental health repercussions).

My approach with an autistic client would be similar to all of my clients in that I always work in a personalized, individualized way (“If you’ve met one autistic, you’ve met one autistic), but it would certainly have more of an emphasis on GI health and the gut-brain connection, as well as managing sensory input and unique dietary challenges, including texture sensitivities, lack of appetite awareness, and executive function difficulties with preparing meals.

I think it is always easier to understand a shared experience, so being autistic myself I think helps both by being able to offer suggestions that have worked for me and to allow my clients to feel more comfortable to be their unmasked selves. For example, stimming during a session, not making eye contact, or preferring to have the session by chatting/typing instead of speaking would all be perfectly okay with me.

My Own Specific Health Challenges

After undergrad, the stress of the education and living and then working in such an incredible but overwhelming city took its toll. I became quite ill for several years with the early stages of a (still undiagnosed) autoimmune disease, and other symptoms that I now understand were autistic traits and processing challenges emerging because my body was under duress.

By discovering and eliminating my food sensitivities, healing my gut lining, and rebalancing my microflora I was able to enter remission. My primary challenges now are SIBO (small intestinal bacterial overgrowth) which limits my diet considerably, migraines, and sensory dysregulation. I use my sensory toolkit and a lot of GABA supporting herbs to decrease my migraine frequency and intensity and keep the volume of the world at a reasonable level.

I have a primary care doctor who monitors my physical symptoms, but I work primarily with a Chinese medicine practitioner who uses acupuncture and tuning forks to improve my processing and help me stay grounded in my body. He thinks of digestive issues and sensory issues as one and the same – they are both challenges with taking in and integrating the outside world.

Health and Wellbeing Routines; and Non-Negotiables

I am not as attached to routine as many others in the autistic community, but there are certainly practices and boundaries that have helped me thrive. My strongest routine is that I stop working by 8pm every night to eat and relax on the couch with my partner and dog. I need this time to switch off my hyper-focused brain or else I will have difficulty sleeping.

I have switched almost entirely to online shopping and delivery, which eliminates the excessive sensory input and stress of shopping in stores. I go to a sweat lodge ceremony once a month to support myself spiritually. I take a few yoga classes a week, because they keep me flexible and strong while offering an hour of quiet and grounding movement. I eat only things that don’t aggravate my body, but don’t restrict anything else (translation: I eat a lot of chocolate).

Finally, I have realized that my periodic hypersomnia (needing to sleep more than 10, 11, or even 12 hours a night) is directly correlated to overstimulation and simply being out in the world more than I can tolerate, so I allow myself this sleep and recovery time without judgment or self-criticism. Also, herbs, herbs, herbs (see my toolkit).

Sensory toolkit

I never leave the house without a valerian root tincture. Valerian is a GABA (inhibitory neurotransmitter) supporting herb that is traditionally used for sleep, but I find that if I take it before entering an overstimulating environment my tolerance is considerably higher and my anxiety much less (and, interestingly, I don’t get sleepy). I take several other less intense herbs that support GABA as well, including gotu kola, damiana, and skullcap.

My noise-cancelling headphones have literally changed my life, especially for air travel. I keep sunglasses in my bag for fluorescent lighting, and an earthy essential oil blend that helps me feel more grounded and can block out unpleasant smells. I wear very soft clothing, down to wire and clasp-free bras. I wear a puzzle ring when I leave the house that I use for discrete stimming. At home, I have a weighted blanket that helps during meltdowns. I’m also hoping for some special earplugs for Christmas that reduce background noise rather than block sound!

Meltdowns and Shutdowns

Shutdowns for me are almost entirely sensory and show up in very graded ways. Some days, after too much input/processing the day before, I feel this “veil” sensation that makes me feel like everything I am interacting with is far away, as though behind plexiglass. True shutdowns, when speech becomes more challenging and my face becomes less expressive, are rarer now that I know and respect my limits most of the time, but are common when shopping, after being in a fluorescently lit clinic for several hours, and during the holidays when I am in a home with 20+ family members.

The only way to come out of a shutdown for me is to check out of the world temporarily, either by staying home for a day or two or preferably going camping. Meltdowns for me are a result of an overtaxed system (again, usually sensory, but can also be too much social interaction) with the addition of an emotional stimulus, even a small one that would not normally upset me very much. This then implodes into a rush of overwhelming feeling and tears. Not much can be done during a meltdown other than wait it out, but I do really like deep pressure from either a weighted blanket or a hug from someone very close to me.

Future Plans

My primary focus of research is on sensory processing sensitivity. As a personality trait this can be called “high sensitivity” or “HSPs (highly sensitive people),” and I believe it overlaps with emerging diagnoses like sensory processing disorder and many people on the autism spectrum, myself included. I have a survey up on my website where anyone (they don’t have to be neurodiverse!) can explain what their sensory experience is like that I am using to guide my research into areas that will be directly applicable to clients and patients.

For now, while in medical school, I am not trying to expand my business so much as the people I work with. I would love to have more neurodiverse clients so I can continue to learn how best to support our community.

After I graduate, my intention is to return to my home region and practice as a natural/integrative psychiatrist and bodyworker. I would love to have half of my practice online as it is now, working as a health coach or naturopathic consultant for highly sensitive and neurodiverse clients, and have the other half be an in-person practice supporting the local community. The region where I am from deals with high rates of opioid addiction and poor rural mental health services that I feel would greatly benefit from an integrative mind/body/spirit approach.

Within the scope of bodywork, I am also learning how trauma shows up in our bodies and our disconnection from our physical experience, and how bodywork can be used (gradually and safely) to help re-establish a safe and healthy connection to ourselves and our inner experience.

My Health Inspirations       

I’m afraid this list is too long to go into! (I’ll start with you Flo, for taking steps to change your career and help in this way!) I have a goodreads list of books I recommend you can see here: https://www.weldonwellness.com/laura/. If anyone wants a suggestion about a specific condition or topic I’d be happy to offer them by email.

This past year I found Aspergirls by Rudy Simone very reassuring and full of useful information.

General Advice and Closing Words (Prompted by my question: What advice do you wish you had been given? What advice do you give yourself? What one great piece of advice would you like to give readers of this post?)

Be unapologetically, authentically you, because only you can offer that to the world.

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?

 

 

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 💜

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.