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?

 

 

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. 

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. 

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!

Lack of Empathy?


A couple of years ago I was asked to deliver some pain medications to a customer on my way home from the pharmacy where I work. I had not been informed that there had been a prior mix up resulting in her having been without her meds for a couple of days, just that she needed them that day. Walking home from work begins my decompression time from a job that I find highly stressful and so by the time I knocked on her door I was unprepared for the shock of her grabbing the bag, waving it in my face and yelling at me because they were late. I do not react fast to vocal information and so my feet had taken control and walked me away from the situation before I had a chance to explain anything. By the time I got home I was in tears. Then the next day I was called in to explain why the customer had emailed in with a furious complaint about me and included the line, “I hope she understands how I felt when she is old and in pain.” I think the phrase, “lack of empathy” was also used. 

I was thinking about this occasion last night while I was pondering the decision to leave Twitter for a while, following the outpouring of grief, anger and confusion resulting from the EU referendum. I have a limit to how much of other people’s pain I can deal with. I suspect it is why I have become a fixer. I have become pretty good at offering solutions for upset or illness. But I cannot provide that shoulder to cry on or be part of that healing circle that others (mostly women) find useful as they discuss and talk their way through grievances. While others find solace, compassion and reassurance in shared experience I hear only voices in competition either in who suffered the most or who can sound the most sympathetic. While they feel relief from putting the world to rights over a bottle of wine and then sleeping soundly, I find their process stressful. To the point that I will probably be looking bored and will be forcing myself not to drum my fingers in the table in annoyance. Instead I want to offer solutions so that problems can be solved and so that I can sleep without obsessing all night. 

For these same reasons I cannot read newspapers or listen to more than the most sanitised of headlines because my powerlessness to solve the worlds injustices crushes my very soul. Every Twitter link to the story of rape, torture, environmental destruction or war leaves visuals in my head that I cannot erase. (Even a fictional horror-film plot line someone told me over three years ago haunts me still.) And yet I cannot unfollow everyone who posts these because I do not wish to upset them and I cannot possibly ask people to sensor themselves on my behalf. So what the hell am I supposed to do? Cut myself off from all outside information and social interaction? 

I don’t think so because the flip side of socialising, whether in person or online, is that other people’s happiness is drug like to me. Good news calms me, restores me, elevates me. It reminds me why life is worth living. Isolation would deny me that chance. And would also deny me the joy in passing on that good news and making someone else happy. 

A girl at school once told me that I was irritating because I was always happy. She was wrong. I was mostly unhappy; anxious, confused, depressed and severely overwhelmed. But I figured that being chirpy and positive might make other people happy, and that then they might like me. And I stuck with that mindset even when experience taught me over and over again that it was wrong! 

But, I’m off track. I’ve rambled off into reminiscence. Here’s the point I’m trying to make: autism is often associated with a lack of empathy. But autistics themselves maintain that, if anything, they have too much empathy. Speaking for myself, I think that maybe perceived empathy may be more of a problem. If you are distressed by a problem then I want that problem to go away, and fast. I do not want you to be distressed. Your distress, for me, is too abstract to help you to relieve directly and so I will put every emotional, mental and physical resource I have available into solving the problem itself for you. But if I cannot solve it then it becomes, for me, a black hole and I, in turn will become distressed to the extent that I have to withdraw completely. From the situation, from you, from everyone. So, contrary to outward appearance, I do not suffer a lack of empathy. Far from it.