Constructive criticism – or not

When I was at secondary school, one of the many things I struggled with was people not knowing how to correct me. And given how many times I needed correcting, this was a common issue. Some people got frustrated with me seemingly every time I misunderstood something, or did things differently. Others wouldn’t dream of telling me what to do, and would just smile and nod and tell me well done for breathing. Well, not literally. But for something small like that.

Most teachers leaned towards the latter. As nitpicky as this may sound, I found it embarrassing when they would thoroughly critique other childrens’ work, then tell me – in front of said children – that the rules didn’t apply to me. It was as if having Asperger’s meant there was no point in trying to teach me the same stuff as everyone else.

But some people – mainly kids – were a different story. If I was struggling to make small talk, they would give me weird looks. If I didn’t understand instructions in class, they would get impatient. There were several times when I was trying hard to make friends, and people would tell me I was weird or boring. Thankfully, there were a few who were patient with me, so it could have been worse. But there were many times when I was left not knowing where I was going wrong.

A complaint I’ve heard before about dating an autistic person is not knowing when and how to correct frustrating behaviour. Or how to work through a misunderstanding. I think this can be an issue in romantic and non-romantic relationships. And it is tricky. I know I can be oversensitive to criticism when delivered bluntly or unexpectedly. But I also know it’s important to be able to take it. It’s true – someone with a learning difference will need you to be patient with them in certain areas. And sometimes they will need correcting. So how – as a neurotypical person – do you deliver it?

  • Be aware that if they said something that sounded insensitive, unhelpful, or otherwise inappropriate, they probably didn’t mean it in that way, and may find it upsetting if you get cross with them seemingly out of the blue. There have been times when I’ve struggled with a task, someone’s tried to help me, I’ve explained the entire scenario so I could pinpoint what I wasn’t understanding, and caused annoyance by accidentally sounding condescending.
  • Explain to them not only what they need to do differently, but why. Don’t bombard them with too much emotion or information. Just a concise explanation – and an offer of help if necessary.
  • Learn to distinguish between things they do differently that are of little to no consequence and things that do need correcting. I take a similar approach to other people’s grammatical errors, particularly if they are dyslexic or speak English as a second language. Mixed up or mispronounced words I leave well alone unless asked otherwise. Words or sentences that change the meaning of what they are reading or talking about, I will discreetly point out in a quiet moment. As a person with Asperger’s, I really appreciate people taking a similar approach in social situations.

Hope this post was helpful. Any constructive criticism? Fire away!

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Under the weather

I’ve heard it said that autistic people, on average, tend to get ill less easily. I don’t know if this is true, but my immune system was definitely on my side last week when it got to my second annual appraisal meeting at work, and I hadn’t had a single sick day since I started a year and a half ago. Well done me, I thought.

Then the following weekend, I came down with a cold. I’ve put up with colds before. No biggie. After three days of trying to function normally with my temperature going up and down, however, I had to admit defeat. So on Tuesday, I swallowed my pride – along with some painkillers and some hot honey and lemon – and rang in sick.

Huddling in my room, too bunged up to catch up on sleep, I realised how out of practise I am at being ill. A clear testament to the privilege of being a very healthy person. What do sick people do all day? I spent most of that morning blearily wondering this, before giving in and making myself just sit quietly and read, or watch stuff on my laptop. In hindsight, that was probably all I needed; while I’m still shaking off the last of this cold, I noticed a marked improvement the next day.

I like to think I’m pretty stoical when it comes to discomfort, but some of my childhood memories imply that I took a while to get there. Namely when I developed a bladder infection aged five. I was notoriously bad at taking medicine at that age, and would gag so dramatically when it was forced upon me, it was actually disturbing. To top that, I was throwing up a lot, refusing to use the toilet, refusing to co-operate for the doctor, and screaming the house down. It got so bad that my poor mother joined in the screaming after a while. How I got better, I’ll never know.

I spent most of my childhood being irrationally worried about illness. You could blame it on my trip to the smallpox museum with my now-stepdad. He found the whole thing fascinating, but the wall of photos of pock-marked children will stay with me forever. More seriously though, it was probably an unfortunate mix of common sense (illness is bad and needs to be avoided) and neuroticism (knowing something is bad and wanting to take EVERY possible measure to avoid it). I panicked if someone in class felt sick. I refused to touch stale food. I was even afraid of going to bed and waking up with a tummy bug. Irrational, I know, but I do remember thinking it.

Having narrowed down these fears to specifically vomiting or deadly illnesses, I got a grip and learned to stop complaining. Unfortunately as a teenager, I even took this too far. I developed what looked like infected insect bites, and put up with them for three weeks. Three lots of antibiotics and several medical appointments later, it turned out I was not only running a fever, but had a rare staphylococcal skin infection and was at risk of blood poisoning. Definitely worth complaining about.

So as you can see, my approach to illness has zigzagged somewhat over the years. I’m still squeamish about vomit, but that aside, my rule of thumb is: eat healthily, rest well, and you’ve got a good fighting chance. And when your immune system does give in? There’s no point in beating yourself up for not functioning at full speed. Make the most of the chance to be quiet, comfortable, and still for a day, and hopefully that’s all you need to get back on track.

 

My first signs of autism

Having long outgrown my phase of hating talking about my Asperger’s, I have since had many conversations about the topic. And recently, one or two people have asked: how did my parents first know I was autistic? Good question.

I don’t have a problem with people asking, let me get this straight. What I do struggle with is answering. It’s a past-tense version of the even more common question – how does autism affect me? My immediate inner reaction is much the same: how do I explain something that feels completely normal to me? My parents could probably give a 10 hour talk on the subject if you asked them, but somehow, most of the time they aren’t there to answer the question for me.

Besides, I quite like not relying on them to talk for me. So I did a bit of research and dug out my old school reports and other SEN* related documents. Voila, a basic summary of a small, autistic me.

Special interests: I had an in-depth knowledge of animals. My favourite bedtime story at one point was a sealife encyclopaedia, and Mum and I spent many happy evenings reading about different types of sea slug. At a snake exhibition, 5 year old me thought there was nothing strange about announcing to the host: “I had no idea corn snakes were polymorphic!” Years later, my go-to conversation starter was “I know all about cat breeds!” When faced with a task at school that involved pictures of various animals, I pointed to the duck picture, and asked what breed of duck it was. The answer was – a line drawing!

Reactions to sensory stimuli: Apparently I was an unusually placid baby…except when people touched me, then I would scream in their face, an urge I still have to fight if someone I don’t know touches me, haha. During any noisy school activities, I would cover my ears if the other children were being too loud…but failed to notice a fire alarm that went off while I was particularly engrossed in some drawing. I was obsessed with food…but would gag dramatically on foods with certain textures, or pretty much any medicine. Yeah, I was a bundle of contradictions.

Interactions with people: I didn’t pick up on facial expressions, body language, and social expectations, and consequently, kids either got bored of me, or took advantage of my naivety. If someone asked me if I wanted to play with them, I would just give an honest “no”. I struggled with concentration and working memory in lessons, and needed an adult to repeat things to me one-to-one. I would show physical, mental, and emotional signs of exhaustion a few weeks into each school year simply from trying to keep up. Yet when given intelligence tests, with just one adult and no kids for company, I kept declaring how much fun it was!

I could go on for ages, but I think you get the idea. Growing up on the spectrum wasn’t fun, but I did it, and I largely have my parents to thank for that. Besides, I like to look back at these things and laugh. Because when you were as weird as me as a child, you just have to!

 

 

* Special Educational Needs

A trip down memory lane, and what I will remember from it

When I was little, my mum took my sister and I to Lee Abbey in north Devon, a Christian holiday and retreat centre we returned to many times throughout the rest of my childhood. Having reached a pretty big low at that point in our lives – not that I was massively aware at the time – meeting my now-stepfather that week was, in hindsight, a sign that things were about to turn around. But I wasn’t interested in minor events like that. Not when I had a whole three storey building, complete with open fields and woodland trails, to explore.

In that holiday, and subsequent ones, I went on numerous adventures. I played my violin at one of their entertainment evenings and had my photo featured in their brochure. I climbed a whole 2 feet into my first and only tree. I got knocked over by a child on a bike when I was playing outside. I discovered room 401, the highest room in the building. Wild times indeed!

Fast forward to early August 2019. At the ripe old age of 26, I felt it was high time I grew up and attempted my first solo holiday. After scouring the internet for cheap package holidays abroad, I decided to take a trip down memory lane and back to Lee Abbey.

I’ll be honest, it was partly because going abroad alone still looks too complicated right now. But I also wanted to see how it would feel to revisit a part of my childhood, and what I might take from it. And it was great. My room was directly below room 401. I went on solo walks every day just to immerse myself in the outdoors, or to explore Lynton. Despite my social awkwardness, I got chatting to dozens of people from all walks of life during mealtimes. My poor tree had been reduced to a stump, but hey, you can’t have everything.

So what have I taken from all this? Here are a few little things:

  • How easy it is to get back into creative activities, such as drawing and painting, in a place with minimal WiFi
  • The simple joy of sitting in a secluded outdoor spot high above the sea with your journal, book, and bottle of ginger beer
  • The relief of being far from work and city life for a while
  • How much smaller old childhood haunts somehow become when you retrace your steps as an adult – when did those massive staircases get so much shorter?
  • The necessity of changing your routine briefly just to refresh your faith and your perspective on life

To conclude, here are just a few photos:

I am not diseased

People on the internet have had many things to say about vaccines causing autism. I have had it on my mind for a long time now, to write about this subject myself. When I sat down at my computer today, like so many times, the words wouldn’t come. So I did something that I knew would motivate the words in me. I researched the subject. Googled articles that were written out of fear, and scoured the comments for the ones that hurt me the most. And let me tell you, it worked.

Now I am no scientist. I don’t know the ins and outs of vaccines. I don’t even know everything about autism beyond my own personal story. So whatever your stance is, this isn’t a personal attack on your opinion. This isn’t about vaccines. It’s not even about anti-vaccine arguments. It’s about the attitudes towards autism that so often lie behind them.

When people argue against vaccines, they say they’d rather they, or their children, were unvaccinated than autistic. They talk about the damage that vaccinations cause in children. About what a terrible disease autism is. And the anti-vaxxers whose autistic children have had their injections? How they knew something was “wrong” with their child in the days following their first shots.

Do they ask anyone on the spectrum how they feel about all this? Do they know how hurtful it can be to be seen as so diseased, damaged, and dysfunctional that you are better off dead?

I can’t speak for every individual. But it doesn’t look like it. So let me clear a few things up.

To those of you who see autism as a more debilitating condition than smallpox, I am not diseased. My brain is not damaged. Yes, having Asperger’s Syndrome in a world full of people who don’t is hard. Yes, I have my weaknesses. But still, there is nothing wrong with me. I am a fully functioning young adult. I am an aspiring writer. I have a job, friends, an independent life, and an IQ of about 130. And I would rather have AS than any life threatening disease.

And if you cannot change your mind, or at least don’t know where you stand, know that there are people out there who are vulnerable to your attitudes and lack of understanding. Immune to polio I may be, but immune to other people’s prejudice I am not.

Tales from the gym

Exercise has always been important to me. I’m no athlete – my parents both run regularly, my mum was a Pilates instructor for many years, my stepdad swims, and my sister is a qualified dancer and actress, leaving me feeling like the family couch potato. In my defense, I have been going to the gym regularly for several years now. I don’t claim to love it, but nevertheless keep it up because I know it is good for me.

Last month, I moved to be closer to my job. If you had asked me then if I had any worries about this, the actual moving process would have been top of the list. Joining the gym that is conveniently across the road from where I work wouldn’t. Moving day came and went pretty smoothly, with little to report. My new gym, meanwhile, has probably caused me to burn more calories from sheer stress than from the exercise itself.

I spent my first visit being unable to find anything; namely the entrance to the building, the lockers, the lockers that had functioning locks, the labels on said locks telling me to use a 10p coin (instead of a £1 coin), and the gym itself. I could barely be bothered at this point, but thought hey, I’m new here, of course everything’s confusing, things can only get better.

Oh how wrong I was.

When I returned, I filled in a membership form. Come the third time, I tried to get in as a full member, except that the staff had no record of my membership on their system. Their most logical explanation was that I must have put my form in my bag and taken it home. Needless to say, there was no sign of it, nor any way that I would have been allowed to go ahead with my workout without handing it in first.

Which indicated that they must have mislaid it. Complete with my bank details, written loud and clear. Not good.

Feeling pretty fed up about this, I politely but firmly raised the issue with someone at the desk. They just told me to fill in another form. I reiterated that someone here had left a document with my bank details on it lying around goodness knows where for all and sundry to see. This interaction was repeated a couple of times before I gave up in frustration.

I then sent an email via the city council, retelling the story and highlighting the GDPR* rules at stake, which gave them a bit of a nudge. After some careful scrutiny of their CCTV cameras, a member of staff discovered that I had not filled in the entire form, and the person who had taken it had shredded it, but left no notes on the system. To compensate for all the stress – and the fact I’d needlessly changed my debit card – they gave me 2 weeks free membership.

Of course, not every staff member believed me during that 2 week period, or was able to find the notes explaining why I was getting in free. But it’s the thought that counts.

And now I am a full member. What could go wrong now?

 

 

*General Data Protection Regulation

Vegan prejudice

How do you know if someone’s vegan? Don’t worry, their daughter will write a blog post about it!

A new twist on an all-too-popular joke these days. I do amuse myself.

People say that being vegan – or even knowing someone who is – is an eye opener to some of the things that happen in the world. Very often, they mean the level of animal cruelty that so often comes with food production. Or, to put a more positive spin on it, a whole new way of cooking and eating.

For me, being a vegetarian with a vegan family definitely does all that. But there is one thing that makes me wary of trying it myself, and no, it’s not my love of cheese. I’m very fond of cheese, don’t get me wrong, but I used to feel the same about bacon and I honestly don’t miss that as much as I once thought I would.

My real reason is just as cowardly: the hatred and prejudice towards vegans that is spreading at least as quickly as the cause itself. The internet practically exploded when Greggs started making vegan sausage rolls. So did Piers Morgan when he tried a gelatin free Percy Pig. You see it in day-to-day life as well. People often don’t object to food that doesn’t contain animal products, or is bacon or cheese flavoured but has no traces of the real thing. Until you put the word “vegan” in front of it. Then they can’t get away fast enough.

Plus, any article on the subject will inevitably be followed with comments like “why not just eat an ACTUAL sausage roll?” Or “vegans should go stuff themselves with kale and leave our sweets alone”. Or “vegans are some of the preachiest hypocrites I have ever met, they should all just shut up and stop shoving their views in my face…”

So here’s what I have to say to those comments:

  1. Vegans – and vegetarians – rarely give up meat because they hate the taste. They simply do not want to eat something that an animal had to die for. Some love meat/dairy/egg substitutes. What’s wrong with that? Others see no need for them and can still have as wide a cooking repertoire as anyone.
  2. Having a veggie version of a popular chewy sweet in no way interferes with your right to keep eating the regular ones. Being a vegan doesn’t make you want variety and indulgence any less. Why does it bother so many meat eaters when vegans try to achieve that?
  3. Many of the most preachy, hypocritical articles and comments I have read have come from meat eaters who complain about vegans shoving their opinions down people’s throats but have no issue in doing the same. Then maybe for good measure, they’ll throw in a quip about how veganism is a lie because it’s impossible to go through life without causing harm. As someone from a family who feeds their cats meat, I KNOW. That’s not the point. The idea of veganism is to simply reduce your part in cruelty as much as possible.

I may not be a vegan myself, but prejudice in any form gets my blood boiling, and I’m glad to have got that out of my system. Being a vegetarian can be enough hassle, and I’m still working on dealing with the minority categories I’m already in before I choose to put myself in another. Through years of meat eating, vegetarianism, and veganism between us, my family and I have always been firm about not forcing our own ways on other people. Yet once people get it in their heads that this should go one way, they forget it actually applies to everyone. Couldn’t we all benefit from remembering that?

The VEGAN Christmas cake a made and decorated the other year.