Autism South West 2017 and A Shameful Tale

Yesterday I got to speak about “Sugar, Stress and the Spectrum” at the Autism South West conference. Specifically I was building on Dr. Luke Beardon’s excellent equation: 

Autism + Environment = Outcome

to explain how internal stressors (internal environment,) such as high or erratic cortisol levels, change the outcome for any autistic person. 

Let me explain. Now it’s pretty well known that being in a supermarket (an external environment stressor) is highly stressful for autistic people (maybe for you too, but definitely if you are autistic.) When somebody is stressed their adrenals ramp up production of the hormone cortisol which raises blood sugar levels in order to deal with threats. (If you have to run away from a lion – you need glucose in your bloodstream to fuel that race for your life.) But unfortunately your body doesn’t distinguish between real or perceived threats. It just acts without question. 

What else happens when your cortisol is raised? Here’s one of my slides:

Now, think how difficult navigating a simple supermarket shop might be when your brain is affected like that… (This is why my shopping gets done online!) Imagine living in a world where a great deal of your environment causes the outcome of reduced abilities to remember, to regulate your mood and behaviour, to organise yourself and make good judgements?

Next in my talk we discussed how consuming excess carbohydrates quickly raises blood sugar levels, causing the body to employ insulin in order to reduce potentially dangerous levels. And then, because your body likes balance, it fires up our friend cortisol again, because low blood sugar is also a threat! The low blood sugar is an internal environment stressor. 

As far as autistic anxiety is concerned: being hunted by a lion = going to the supermarket = low blood sugar!

Anyway, we covered some other useful stuff too but, in the interest of brevity, that’s probably enough for you to understand my shameful behaviour yesterday evening. Shameful because I am a nutrition and health coach. Please don’t judge…

So the conference was fab! Well organised and with brilliant key-note speeches (Sarah Hendrickx and Dean Beadle) that made me both laugh and cry. But, you know, a conference is still a difficult environment for an autistic to navigate. And so my cortisol levels were pretty high…

Now I knew I had a fridge full of delicious and nutritious organic veg and meat at home. I could have rustled something nourishing up in 30 minutes flat. But my memory and good judgement failed me and I demanded we stop off at tesco for ready made pizza (the shame.) And I looked at those huge, insipid, crappy pizzas and could not for the life of me work out how many we’d need and which types we, as a family, would like. My husband found me crying in the chilled aisle and took over. At which point I wandered off and filled the basket with packets of biscuits. I had acted out my own talk perfectly! My high cortisol response had perfectly reflected my slide’s bulletpoints! Oh the irony…

A few things:

  1. If you’d like me to come and talk about diet and autism please contact me here. (Rest assured that I will prepare my evening meal in advance for future talks.)
  2. I didn’t actually eat the biscuits. I was asleep soon after the pizza!
  3. I’m not really ashamed of my choices yesterday. I’ve learned not to blame myself in those situations and am taking care to rest my adrenals today.  


A year ago I was featured on Marks Daily Apple as a Primal Blueprint Success Story and I listed my no.1 benefit as, “I no longer suffer with anxiety, or it’s tricky cousin, social anxiety.” At the time I wholeheartedly believed that. But I have come to know myself better in the last year, and thus have come to understand better what anxiety actually means for me.

At the time of writing I was struck by how I was finally able to live without constant in-your-face anxiety. I once read a fantastic description of living with anxiety as dealing with the fear you experience in the seconds between tripping over a loose paving stone and actually crashing to the ground but All The Time. And that’s how it felt. 

Here’s a by no means exhaustive list of what could instantly trigger a pounding heartbeat, buckled knees, nausea, sudden tears, finding myself unable to speak or move, or the desire to run away or drop to my knees with my eyes and ears covered:
A passing motorbike, a child crying, someone shouting, crossing the road, answering the phone, leaving the house, the possibility of an argument, being told off, the noise of a vacuum cleaner, speaking when there were more than about four people in the room, saying/messaging/posting the wrong thing or being misunderstood, getting lost, being late, changed plans, someone else being late, house alarms, other people being drunk and unpredictable, cars going too fast, sirens…

And the worst thing is, while any one of these incidents could trigger flight or fight instincts which might last upwards of a minute, a combination or succession would leave me wired for much longer, meaning I might not recover from something as simple as a minor argument for days. That means living in constant fear even while you go about your daily life desperately pretending everything is fine, because to admit the level of stress you are under would frighten your family, confuse your friends and be just plain irrelevant to co-workers and passers by. 
When I say that I no longer suffer from anxiety I mean that I am no longer troubled by an inappropriate adrenaline response that constantly exhausts and overwhelms. I put this down to a diet devoid of sugar and gluten and rich in good clean fats alongside organic meat and vegetables; and a few carefully chosen supplements. It’s not cheap, but it’s essential for my mental health. 

But anxiety is sneaky. It has a character all of its own. Whispering, confiding, hiding and then waving at you across a crowded room, poking you as you settle down to sleep. It pretends to give you sage advice , “here, wear this dress, it suits you really well!” and then, as you leave the house, “oh gosh, I didn’t realise you were actually wearing it out tonight! How brave!” It cajoles, “yes, you are a good and worthy person, isn’t it strange how nobody likes you!” And it play acts, like a cat, “Yikes! What the hell is that! Oh no, probably nothing, I’m sure it’ll be ok. Don’t close both eyes though, just in case.”

Anxiety tells you that the friends who tell you they love you are probably lying. Anxiety reminds you daily that if you are in a car accident today your children might not have their door key to get in or that they won’t know to let the dog out or what to feed themselves. Anxiety questions if today is the day you think it is, and might you have accidentally left an hour late this morning because there’s different people on the streets than normal and less traffic at the lights. Anxiety wonders if the child crying next door just didn’t get what they want or is being horribly mistreated. Anxiety whispers in your ear that it’s all very well and good that you are feeling more confident these days but that maybe there was a good reason for feeling so unworthy before and that everyone still secretly wishes you’d just piss off. 

I’d really like to tell anxiety to do one. But maybe anxiety is necessary. Maybe it’s the backbone that holds me up, keeps me from over confidence, stops me behaving like an exuberant puppy, licking strangers and leaving puddles on expensive rugs. I really don’t know. I do know that chronic anxiety is common for those of us on the spectrum and I also know that it’s not an exclusive club. So… Talk to me people. What are your thoughts?

Planning a night out!

Tomorrow night will probably be the first time I’ve socialised since my diagnosis about ten weeks ago. I say probably because I don’t actually know if I’ll make it yet.

About four times a year a small group of mums in the village meet at someone’s house for an evening of shared food, wine and gossip. Everyone takes some homemade food along, makes the effort to put on make up and to wear fancy shoes, which always get discarded at the door anyway. Its a relaxed affair, and everyone eats far more pudding than they mean to.

I manage about one in four of these occasions, crying off with made up excuses or genuine headaches. The anxiety is usually more than I can handle. And even if I don’t drink I am likely to have a stress-induced hangover for 24-48 hours afterwards. But this time they are onto me. They now know I’m autistic.

They’ve kindly reassured me that there will only be six of us, most of whom I’ve known and liked for over ten years. They’ve told me, “just come if you like, there’s no pressure at all.” And, love them, they mean it.

But, beyond the basics of what to wear and what food to take, here are just some of the things I will need to plan for in advance:

What time will I leave my house, what route will I walk, how fast will I walk, what exact time will I arrive, who might already be there, what face should I make when someone answers the door, what are the best replies to make to Hello! How are You? Alright? (Or any other of the myriad of opening lines people make), where precisely should I head for when I arrive, who might be in that space already, where should I put my contribution, what should I say, should I accept a drink (I have a very low alcohol tolerance), should I have a mini speech ready or will there already be a conversation in progress, hmm… do I actually have any mini speeches, how should I start them, end them, say them without boring people or confusing them…?

Each of these questions will require me to visualise the situation or run through the words multiple times with several variations so that I will have less to spontaneously react to on the night. Because once the evening is in progress I will have enough processing to do in terms of: where will I sit, what will I eat, when will I go to the loo (it’s astonishing how difficult it is to work out when it’s the right time to get up and leave the room, I don’t know how school kids manage this at all!), and, most problematically, when is it an acceptable time to leave?

Because all the autistic folks reading this will know that however much you might be enjoying the occasion, trying to follow the threads of conversation is a bit like playing chase for a few hours across a busy motorway. It’s knackering and highly stressful. And the sooner you can get home to spend a few hours lying in bed awake to process all the information you took in but didn’t have time to deal with, much like a manual defrag on a PC, the better.

But I do honestly want to go. I’ve known these women since our eldest children were toddlers. We’ve seen each other through crises and new babies. We’ve camped together, babysat for each other’s kids, met extended families and drunk many gallons of coffee over the last twelve or so years. They helped us move house eight years ago this week when I was teetering on the edge of a major breakdown.

So, I need to find a way to do this. To quell the anxiety that even though they say they want me to go that they might rather I didn’t. To decide to not worry if I stumble over my words, knock over the wine, offend someone, eat too much (eating is my stim process), fall over or bore everyone. Does anyone have any tips?

I also want to apologise to those of you who are still waiting on some actual detox and food posts! Trying to figure out what autism means to me is taking up all of my thought processing at the moment. Writing some of it down is my personal detox. As soon as I can I’ll get back to it, but I think autism is going to be this blog’s theme for a bit longer.

Love to all of you!

Taking a Deep Breath

I find meditation or visualisation nigh on impossible. Over the years I have tried countless times but ended up so frustrated with my inability to let go and relax that I actually found it quite stressful. Not really the point. 

However, fully aware that it can be a massively useful tool in detoxing I worked on the following visualisation for my detox groups and found that I could do it myself too. And I was never so glad about that as when, a couple of years back, I found myself in hospital with a huge syringe shoved in an enormous abscess (quinsy) on my tonsil with the instruction to please stay completely still. The surgeon apologised in advance, and warned me that it would be very painful. He was right. But, by focussing on this easy visualisation I got through the next few moments as still as a statue while the quinsy was drained. And the surgeon was highly impressed. So, if nothing else, do practice this exercise in case you have to go through anything similar. 

All ready to go? Deep breath… Actually, do you know how to do that properly? If you just took a deep breath with a comedy fish-out-of-water gulp then I’m guessing not. Can you haul yourself up from the sofa or your bed for a minute and sit in an upright position with your feet flat on the floor? Come on, I’ve not got all day and this won’t take a minute! 

Lengthen your back by imagining a delicate chain suspended from above your head, running down through your head, down through the centre of your body, through your pelvis and into whatever you are sitting on. Then give that chain a teeny bit of shiny, diamond encrusted bling and imagine someone pulling it, ever so gently, up to the sky. Breathe in through your nose and as you do so imagine either silver or gold light streaming into your nostrils. Breathe out through your nose and as you do so imagine roots spreading out from the soles of your feet going deep down into the ground. You like that? Repeat it a few times until you can do it without reading this paragraph. Work on seeing your lovely diamante chain absolutely dripping with jewels. Gently stretch it as far as your imagination can take it. Take those strong roots down as far as they can go and spread them around a bit as well. Think of how secure a tree’s roots need to be to stop it falling over in high winds. Relax your shoulders, your pelvis and your knees. Check that chain connecting you to the sky. Spread those roots. Keep your breathing steady, quiet and always through your nose, gradually, gracefully, generously slow it down until you feel at peace with the world. 

Now that’s how to take a deep breath. Do it anytime you feel angry, miserable, confused, tired; unable to concentrate or ungrounded in any way. Even better – try to do it at least once every day. It will help you to feel centred and strong and it only takes a couple of minutes. If you’ve got kids at home talk them through it too. Interestingly (well, to me anyway) I’ve always found that our pets love it when anyone in my family does this, if we concentrate on breathing for a few minutes they’ll often come and sit with us. In fact, while I’ve been writing this (practising as I go) the dog has left her bone to come and sit on my feet. 

Have a lovely, relaxed week people, hope to see you next week!

Primal Eating – Four Months In

Regular readers of this blog may recall that I’ve given sugar and grains the boot and I wanted to give you a bit of an update on how it’s going and recommend some books that have helped me along the way. I’ve read plenty of criticism over the paleo/primal diets, largely directed at the labels themselves; I’ve seen the reactions over the high-fat low-carb diet, based on paradigms that seem somewhat outdated now; and I’ve laughed at the articles claiming that without sugar we will have no energy to get up in the morning. Because my diet is now based on eggs, meat, fish, veg, butter, cream, yoghurt, coconut oil, nuts and seeds and I feel better than I have for years.

Benefit no.1
I no longer suffer with anxiety. I’ve dealt with some tricky situations recently both at work and socially and I’ve been able to work through them without complete melt down, tears, belly ache, racing pulse or insomnia. I have even been out with friends and not agonised over each detail or felt responsible for other people’s moods.

Benefit no.2
No depression. No moping. No crippling lack of self-worth. No wishing the world would swallow me up. Last year I was unable to enjoy my summer holidays. My mood refused to elevate no matter what I did. This year I’ve had a fantastic time, the highlight of which was having complete hysterics when I face planted off a paddle board in Cornwall rather than the graceful dive I’d planned to execute. I howled with laughter until the tears streamed down my face. I felt real joy on a number of occasions. I can’t stress how big a deal this is.

Benefit no.3
No binging. No cramming down a huge bar of chocolate / packet of biscuits / hastily made cake and then eating a meal an hour or so later. I occasionally lose control over crisps but we are talking a couple of small packets, not an entire family bag of kettle chips.

Benefit no.3
No cravings. A lack of depression and anxiety is largely to credit, but even pre-menstrually I am fine with a couple of squares of dark chocolate.

Benefits no.4, 5 & 6
My nails have stopped peeling, breaking and flaking and have become incredibly strong, shiny and flexible. My previously thin and brittle hair is thickening up and becoming soft. My mild acne is finally, after nearly 30 years, nearly cleared up and my developing wrinkles have been replaced with softer, plumper skin.

Benefit no.7
My body temperature is better regulated. I only realised this when I was swimming in the sea with only a bikini and light rash vest. I’m getting better at handling heat too, which normally makes me very uncomfortable.

Benefit no.8
This may seem strange but one of my dyslexic traits appears to be easing… I cannot normally remember sequences (words, numbers, instructions etc) but I have noticed recently that when I’m playing piano I can memorise short passages. I’m interested to see if this improves further.

Benefit no.9
I’ve lost nearly a stone. And I’ve been eating a lot! I take my coffee with thick (heavy) cream. I use a lot of butter. I eat a couple of tablespoons of coconut oil daily. I eat homemade icecream.

Benefit no.10
Now that I don’t need to cram food in – to give me energy, to make me sleepy, to comfort, to fill up, to alleviate whichever symptoms I cannot otherwise deal with, I am really enjoying my meals again. I do not fear hunger or get anxious before mealtimes. And so I can savour and appreciate. My family is also enjoying the new variety of food that I’m dishing up.

In essence, life is good and I feel like it’s only really just getting started. I still get upset, angry and tired – but these states of being are proportional to what’s going on. Leaving me to get on and enjoy the rest of life without self-sabotage.

If you are interested in seeing how you’d do on this type of diet (an avoidance, but not total abstinence of sugar, grains, pulses and trans fats; an overall low carbohydrate intake combined with an increase of animal based protein sources and a high level of healthy fats) I’d recommend starting with the following:
Sarah Wilson’s I Quit Sugar and I Quit Sugar for Life
Mark Sisson’s Primal Blueprint
Liz Wolfe’s Eat The Yolks
Mary Enig and Sally Fallon’s Eat Fat, Lose Fat and Nourishing Traditions.
Jimmy Moore’s Keto Clarity.

I’d also like to apologise for the lack of recipes recently. I’ve been following so many fantastic recipes by other people that I haven’t been making up my own recently. But I think it’s time. Let me know if there’s anything I should include!

How Flojo got her Mojo back.

I have had an on-off relationship with depression for twenty five years now. It’s clutches have all but consumed me at quite random times; sometimes during periods of great stress, sometimes surprising me like a horror movie just when things have been settled and calm. But this last bout has been my most complicated yet, treading water for over eighteen months, smiling and waving on the surface but often feeling my legs weighted by bricks towards the colder depths. Everything else was fine, a fantastic supportive husband, a loving family, relatively financially secure, good health, ok a fortieth birthday to deal with but no biggies. But social anxiety was taking me over 24/7.

A bit of background. I have struggled with groups of people for most of my life. Never fitted in with my age group at school, never understood the subtle nuances within friendship groups. Arguments, even minor disagreements confused me; if someone didn’t believe the same as me how could I trust that they believe in me? In pubs I’ve never been able to distinguish between a conversation next to me or one at the other end of the table. My concentration flits between the two and I lose both the thread and the flavour. Those pictures of varying facial expressions portraying different emotions used in diagnosis of the autistic spectrum? I tried that and my score was low, very low. Phone calls were almost impossible as a disembodied voice going directly into my ear with no back-up clues of body language teamed with the inability to filter out someone’s words with visual distraction cause me frequent distress. I have also discovered recently that I have various dyslexic issues – words refusing to stay still on a page, an inability to remember sequences of numbers, letters or instructions; left and rights were the least of my problems. Even worse, I never realised that these were not universal problems for everyone. That in itself was pretty isolating.

In my teens I learnt the unparalleled joy of playing in orchestras and this, I feel, was life changing. Planned, organised conversation. Such bliss. Everyone working towards the same end melodically, harmonically and rhythmically. Sat centrally in the viola section all the combined sounds made sense. There were written instructions and time honoured rules (follow the conductor, look to section leaders for clear visual clues, blend your sound with others) to be followed that still allowed for creativity, for interpretation, for intellect and emotional stimulation. Music gave me the confidence to make eye contact, to initiate conversations, to follow a joke through. It also provided an environment in which to meet crazy, creative, clever, witty and passionate people. I was less of a square peg.

Fast forward to a year or so ago and I have an awesome husband who loves me with my freakiness rather than despite of it. In fact, I fell in love with him when I realised he was the only person I had ever allowed myself to “be me” with. I have two loving, talented, creative, beautiful and confident daughters. I have no shared musical experiences any longer for various and complicated reasons but I still have the learned skills to appear confident, sometimes to even be confident in situations that require it. It’s not a matter of no longer being shy, it’s knowing that transactions go better between strangers when I am open and friendly. But, within a group of people that I know, and even like, I still do not fit in. Judging when to speak and when to shut up, who to look at when more than one conversation is happening, when to move around and risk crashing into something like an elephant or just sit tight and risk boring the person I’m sat next to – all of this is stressful.

I cannot even relax with drink (I do not like the feeling of being drunk, I feel too vulnerable). I compensate with stuffing my face with sugar and stodge. I joke about being qualified as a nutritional therapist with no discipline around chocolate. I develop increasing anxiety about social situations as basic as the school run (what to wear, where to stand, how to stand?). I make plans then cry off (instead spending the evening crying bitterly at my failure). If I do go out the pressure of ignoring that urge to bolt, to shut doors behind me and run is exhausting and I cannot focus. Friends are oblivious, how can I explain that I just want to be loved, respected, listened to when I know I will not trust any of their attempts at assurances. Those that do not seem scared off I become overly dependant on. Needy. Clingy. My self respect becomes non-existent. I cannot work out what particular flaw makes me not good enough. Am I too boring? Too intense? Too loud? Do I look so bad people don’t want to even look at me? Am I too embarrassing to be seen out with? Have I made the stupid mistake of not apologising enough or not being grateful enough? Did I say something stupid yet again? Exhausted by the inner dialogue I spend hours daily bawling my eyes out, curled into a ball on the sofa. I make the decision to stop contacting anyone so that I do not have to do with the inevitable paranoia that follows when they do not contact me back. I guess I burned too many bridges because I no longer heard from too many people for it to be a coincidence.

I make a doctors appointment, cry, refuse drugs but accept tissues and a referral for Cognitive Behavioural Therapy. But do not take it further. Group therapy? Really? I read up on CBT and laugh bitterly when I catch myself noting that while it might make me worry less it won’t actually make people like me. But it gives me perspective. And I read more.

I note that I do actually have a couple of very good friends that I am always comfortable with. They never judge. Always kind. Accepting of my nervous energy and my humour. They are two of the kindest, most creative and most enthusiastic people I have ever met. I always feel better for having seen them although these occasions are few and far between. They see through my often brutal directness and teasing without taking offence and instead talk art, music, health and personal philosophies with me. There is no competitiveness. No awkwardness. And I never have the sense of not understanding the rules when I talk with them. I never feel like I should constantly apologise for stepping over some invisible line. We just talk, listen, interrupt, laugh. Maybe it’s not just that I am an unworthy friend. Maybe I was just trying to be friends with the wrong people.

I finally realise that I know full well the answer to my anxiety and sleepless nights. Pure laziness has stopped me from sorting it out. I remove sugar from my diet. Then grains. I no longer binge eat. I sleep soundly. I stop crying. I do not have to replace eye make up and drag on a uniform of cheeriness and normality before my family return home each day. If the concept of grain and sugar intake influencing mental health is a new one to you I’d really recommend researching it. I knew it in theory, but had forgotten to apply it to myself.

And, over the following weeks, with the clarity that comes with not living daily with anxiety or brain fog I realise that I no longer crave friendship-at-whatever-cost any more than I still crave a tray of hot brownies. Being part of a close-knit gang that have been together since school; having friends that will show up at your house, stick the kettle on and curl up on the sofa with you; trusting others enough to get drunk with them, get into blazing arguments and then proclaim undying love for each other; clothes shopping together, spending an evening sharing wine and secrets; going on holiday together: all those things that make a sit-com, a movie scene, a paragraph in a rom-com novel – they are someone else’s reality. I cannot keep wishing for what isn’t going to happen. Move on. Wise up. Appreciate the thousands of fabulous moments I already have and will continue to have. As my husband quotes regularly, “take pleasure in the details.” I have, and am, so much more than the things I don’t have.

And, as this realisation begins to hammer home, I notice how my energy levels continue to increase, and I rediscover my love of cooking, and I lose weight, and I remember that I actually like to exercise, and time with my family grows increasingly precious. I get that spring back in my step, I care less about what others think of me because it’s largely irrelevant, and I care more about what I think of me. I recall that I was once taught that, “not being the person you are meant to be is the biggest stress of all,” and make the belated connection that if I was trying to be someone else – no wonder I was stressed!

I’m not sure where I go from here. In the last six weeks I feel like I’ve turned several corners. Insight is a marvellous thing! I’m not totally sure who exactly I am, but maybe not everyone does know that, and I guess experience makes us change anyway. The point is that I know now that I’m good enough and that I’m looking forward to whatever the future brings. And I’m truly grateful to the family, friends and experiences that have got me to that level. And, much though I want to apologise in case you’ve read this and wish you hadn’t bothered because what a drama queen! I’m not going to. But I would like to thank you for reading to the end. Much love to you from me, Flojo xxx