Having a joke

Some years ago, I shared a funny video on Facebook about preconceptions autistic people have to deal with. “Can you count the handful of toothpicks I just dropped?” “Are you like Rain Man?” “Have you tried dolphin therapy?” You know, the usual. A friend of mine commented – not entirely seriously – “But Grace, people with autism can’t find things funny…” To which I replied “Of course not, what was I thinking? I’d better get back to counting my toothpick collection!”

My sense of humour often catches people by surprise. Which I can understand; I’m a gentle, fairly introverted young woman on the autistic spectrum, someone will make a joke, then before they know it, I’m explaining to them that my seemingly serious reaction was, in fact, sarcasm. When someone I’m with is being silly, I don’t laugh at them, I act like I am silently judging them. When I do or say something silly, I will make a deliberately transparent attempt to act like nothing happened. Or I will just pretend to think I did a brilliant job of whatever I was trying to do.

Actually, as you may have noticed, many of my jokes are about how autistic people can’t make jokes. I would say that one never grows old, but how can a joke grow old when you can’t even make one in the first place? And I did it again…

People with Asperger’s, and other forms of autism, are known for not understanding humour. I should be careful to not dismiss this as a stereotype, because I’m aware that many people on the spectrum take longer to learn things like that. We instinctively rely on spoken language for communication, and sarcasm goes directly against everything about communication that we try so hard to remember. The words say one thing, the voice says another, and somehow people find it funny. When you dissect it like that, it sounds far from logical.

Personally, I see humour as being one of those things that can take longer to learn, but isn’t impossible. I’m not entirely sure how I picked it up. I feel like I’ve developed the ability to see the funny side of a silly, or ironic, situation. I’ve not only learned how to recognise dry, deadpan remarks about life, I like to think I’ve perfected the art of it in my own way. Yet even now, I occasionally struggle. If someone says something that could, very plausibly, be true, I do get confused, particularly when I’m already overloaded. Or maybe I know someone is making a joke, but I don’t know how best to respond.

People like someone who can laugh at themselves, and in situations like that, if you can gently make fun of your own awkwardness, you can smooth things over. A lot of the time, though, perhaps it’s best to just explain that you have Asperger’s and you don’t always recognise jokes and/or know how to respond. But if you are well used to joking with others, and tired of people assuming otherwise, you have to laugh at the irony of them trying to wind you up thinking jokes are beyond you while not noticing you sarcastically playing along with it. Because few things in life are more satisfying than beating other people at their own game.

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The best you can give

When I play my violin at church, there are days when I pick it up and the music just comes naturally. I can sight read, play by ear, read guitar music, no problem. My debut at a new church worship band at the Maundy Thursday evening service, however, was one of many days in which I misread the music, kept hitting the wrong notes, and couldn’t harmonise to save my life. I was tired and anxious, and although I got a fair few compliments, I still felt unsatisfied with my performance.

At church, as with many areas of life, I’m often in awe of people who bring everyone together effortlessly, or give a flawless talk, or are more musically gifted, or…you get the idea. I have watched several friends take a lead role in a service, or other event, and afterwards, reassured them that they did it so well, and that no-one would have noticed they were struggling. They might struggle with anxiety, they might speak English as a second language, they might think they don’t have the right personality or skills, or their circumstances might have made it hard. The audience, however, are unlikely to be judging them, because whatever they are doing is important.

I tell them this while wishing I was as gifted as them. Often the way, isn’t it, when you forget to retain your own advice. And remembering all that is easier said than done, because we cannot guarantee that we will not get a negative reaction. I’ve made all too many autistic social slip ups that have – at best – resulted in odd looks, if not hostility. But when we have a job to do, and we want to do it properly, we don’t have to let our weaknesses stop us.

We are all the same in that we all have weaknesses. A mix of character flaws, things we’re not good at, or even just our current mindset. Living with Asperger’s, for all its fine qualities, is a daily reminder of that. Literally, at times. You misinterpret people, you melt down, you have poor physical skills. Yet just because we take longer to learn some skills, it doesn’t mean we can’t learn, or that we should shy away from challenging situations. Sometimes we are acutely aware of our struggles, sometimes other people can see them more objectively. Either way, the very essence of doing something for God and the church – and the people in your life – is giving them the best version of you that you can give.

A lucky break

For my 25th birthday last week, I asked my mum for a job. Not a massive pile of presents. No party. Just an actual paid job that I could keep for more than one day. Not an unreasonable request, right?

I won’t lie, job hunting can be soul crushing. Voluntary work is great for what it’s worth – it keeps you busy, sharpens your skills, and contributes to society – but when people offer it as a groundbreaking idea that isn’t filling most of your CV, you can’t help wanting to see the back of it.

So when my internship ended, I started editing for my old university, (re)learning Chinese, and applying for jobs. Lots of jobs. Come Friday 8th December, I got a packaging job. Come Monday 11th December, I unceremoniously lost it, and cried in my room for about two hours. Before carrying on again.

In the weeks that followed, not much changed. Step one: look for jobs. Step two: apply for job. Optional step three: attend job interview. Step four: either get rejected, or never hear back at all. Step five: repeat indefinitely.

Last week, while no different, was looking pretty hectic; you spend ages waiting for a job interview, then what do you know, two come up. The first one was for another Christian bookshop in Leicester. Just a quiet job in a shop, reading the books, keeping everything tidy, and trying not to mind when customers blame you for not having a certain book in stock. All familiar territory, and I aced the interview effortlessly.

The second one, two days later, was for a copywriting job with an online textiles company, also in Leicester. I dressed smartly and looked friendly, and still managed to misunderstand a couple of questions they asked me, and not finish the task I was given. I didn’t think I’d come across well, but hey, let’s put it down to experience.

The following day, I got a phone call from that very company. I gave some good answers, I was told, and my interviewers were impressed. I listened politely, and, with resignation, waited for the inevitable “but…”

Except this time, it never came, and was instead replaced by an offer of full time, paid employment starting on Monday, only three days later! If job applications are like Willy Wonka chocolate bars, then it was this one that had the golden ticket, and I spent the best part of that weekend in a daze as I tried to rearrange my entire weekly schedule in my head.

And now, after what (I hope) has been a successful week, I still can’t believe my luck. I’ve spent each day editing details on the company’s database, and writing product information to go on their website, and my brain is reeling from all the new things I have had to learn. I’ve also spent each day leaving the house at about 7am, cursing the unpredictability of buses, and trying not to fall asleep on my feet. But the nature of the work very much fits my skills, and I love it. My colleagues are friendly and welcoming, good at banter, and also creme egg and spoon races. And you know what? If this means proving myself wrong about my employability, and the world wrong about Aspies managing adulthood, then it truly is a lucky break.

Autistic insecurity

Isn’t it interesting how our personal struggles grow and change with us? So often, I see Facebook posts about how much simpler life was when the most stressful thing was running out of colouring pencils. Or how Year 7* kids have no idea what real stress is. But our worries are no less real in the moment just because there may be worse to come, or there are others with bigger problems. A common feature of Asperger’s Syndrome is seemingly irrational anxiety over any potentially negative situation. So, as an Aspie myself, I thought I’d reflect on my own experiences here.

For a start, children with AS can sometimes have a very black-and-white understanding of the world, which may be particularly noticeable in their understanding of what is safe, and what isn’t. Most people are aware that too much sugar is bad for you, and hey, wouldn’t life be easier if more children understood this! But what do you do when your child is afraid to eat even a single sweet for fear of getting fat or feeling sick?

Thankfully, I’ve long since set myself a limit. No more than the equivalent of two moderate portions of dessert in a day. Maximum. It really pays to know your capacity.

In a similar way, you could say it’s healthy to have an aversion to germs and sickness. What is possibly less healthy is to have an anxiety attack whenever you – or even someone else – starts feeling ill. Or to be afraid of food that had even the slightest chance of becoming contaminated. You know, like when fruit gets bruised, or perishable food is a day past its sell-by-date.

As we start to mature, we often tend to worry less about the physical world, and more about problems with other people. I’ve always found conflict a struggle, and I think this has evolved from Mum having to skip parts in my Pingu storybooks where anyone got cross, to me soaking up other people’s negative emotions and not wanting to make things worse. I have improved – I want to assert my opinions, or say no, and I’m more likely to now – but old habits die hard.

Besides, social situations can cause a lot of anxiety for people like me, because we’re so afraid of making mistakes that we couldn’t have foreseen. In a big group of people, it’s easier to keep a low profile because that way, at least you know where you are with everyone else. For me, groups of three are the worst. So often, the other two will hit it off really quickly, and I just don’t know how to keep up.

Living in a world where socially skilled people come out on top can create a strong desire to prove oneself – if not socially, then intellectually. I’m fighting despair when it comes to all the job rejections I’ve had – how do I know employers don’t find AS to be a social turn-off? I’ve always wanted to be a writer, and autism awareness is a noble cause. But, if I’m honest, my ambition does come from a need to have something to aim for. Because we, as people, need to find meaning in something, and maybe our best chance to prove ourselves is by pursuing something important to us.

 

 

 

*aged 11-12 years

The importance of pets

Throughout the stress, confusion, and complexity that is life, sometimes we have to take a step back and enjoy the simpler things. It could be returning home to a friendly face waiting hopefully for your return. It could be having someone to cuddle when you’re down. Or it could be having someone so desperate to be with you that they force your bedroom door open with brute strength so they can walk all over your sleeping form.

If you’re thinking of a beloved pet, then I’m with you all the way. If not, then what sort of people have you been raised with?

I don’t know about you, but for me, our cats are a solid part of the family. Having recently lost our beloved, cuddly, dopey old Tango, I think this feeling is particularly high at the moment. My budgies, my sister’s hamster, and our grandparents’ dog were a big part of my childhood. Many of my friends and family have animals that they love. So I’m going to try to do justice to the importance of pets.

For a start, I don’t know where I would be without Bouncer, my unofficial Guide Cat for the Autistic. At nearly 14 years of age, he hasn’t retired from calling me until I follow him, leading me into a specific room, then calling again if I don’t follow. I’ve got to hand it to him, without his conscientiousness, I would never be able to find the way to my own room. Then there’s Suri, our resident feline policewoman. When it’s time to feed the cats, the others dare not get too close to our feet lest she repeatedly punch them in the face until they retreat. She has her uses even when off duty; once she settles on your lap, you have a very valid excuse to put off being productive until you can get up again.

Then there’s companionship. True, you can’t share reflections on the human condition, or entertaining life anecdotes. At least, not if you want a two-way conversation. But there are many things about pet company that you can’t beat. Physical affection, for one. If you stroke an animal, or pick it up and hold it close, it can be comforting to both parties. Do that to a person, and it’s just not the same somehow…

More importantly, animals don’t hold you to the same standard as people do. I’ve never worried that animals find my Asperger’s off-putting, judge my Biblical understanding, or disagree with any of my moral principles. Heck, they don’t even mind if you’re in a state of undress. Again, most people are funny about that… But pets have an uncanny ability to forgo social expectations and just be, and if you find that contagious, even if just for a few moments, it can only be a good thing.

 

 

 

Tango and Bouncer, the mirror twins

George

Thomas eating broccoli

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Suri guards the Christmas tree

 

 

Asperger’s and faith

Last year, during my weekly New Wine discipleship course, I had to lead morning devotions for one session, and I was asked to discuss how being on the autistic spectrum affects my faith. My immediate reaction was to think that having Asperger’s Syndrome isn’t relevant to every little thing in my life. I mean, there are plenty of factors that have shaped my beliefs, and my attitude towards church. But is AS really one of them?

It would be nice if I had some fascinating backstory of how I became a Christian, but the truth is, I was raised going to church. I was very lonely as a teenager, and it was while my confidence was at rock bottom that I got more involved with church youth activities. I went from being unable to talk about autism to being able to explain how it affected me without being afraid of judgement. Here was a social scene that was outside the norm, and as well as fitting right in, I was learning what being a Christian was really about. So in that sense, autism did have a role to play.

Churches in general are often a real mixed bag. From the outside, it would be easy to see Christians as either deluded, self righteous fools, or as people who cannot be anything but kind and inclusive to their neighbours. But people just aren’t that black and white, and Christians are no exception. And I would be lying if I said Christianity has been an easy ride for me, because it hasn’t. There are opinions I struggle to agree with, and many more issues I don’t even understand.

Besides, a church community is a social group like any other, and that means people, and mixed messages, and complex relationship dynamics. At the beginning of my discipleship course, I was surrounded by other young people who I would be spending a whole day with every week. Some people already knew each other, some didn’t, but we were encouraged to “go deeper” with each other from day one, and the very idea spooked me.

While other people bonded within the first month, I got off to a shaky start and I thought I’d never get used to it. It would have been so easy to withdraw and keep everyone at arm’s length, but I made myself get to know them, remember their names and make friends. Before I knew it, I had completed my first mission trip and was talking about everything I had learned in front of an audience. Seems that God really does see us through these things!

Which brings me back to my morning devotions talk. Having been on the course for three months, I reflected on my experiences at church so far, and the message I wanted to share came to me. So that morning, I got everyone to discuss the passage in Genesis in which Moses insists that he doesn’t have the skills to lead. And the thought I left open to discussion was: We all have something that shakes our confidence in our potential. Moses’s was his fear of public speaking. Mine is having a form of autism. What’s yours?

Purpose

It’s a common image, isn’t it? You study, you graduate, you see the rest of your life ahead of you, and you’re desperate to find your purpose in life. And then you despair when you realise you don’t have one. Right?

People have many different opinions on big topics, like purpose, and fulfilment, and some might even say destiny. At university, with all the learning you’re (hopefully) doing, it’s so easy to think the world is your oyster from then on. And optimism is important, because you need to feel like you have something to be really living for. But adulthood is hard, and if you only expect to be moving forward on a steady upward slope towards your dreams, life will be disappointing.

Then at the other end of the scale, you could argue that there’s no point dreaming. Nothing lasts, nothing is certain, and you’ve just got to deal with whatever you’re given. I’ve never been inclined to agree with this attitude, because you never know what you could achieve if you keep dreaming and planning. But even just writing that argument has got me wondering: is there any truth in that?

After months of job hunting, disappointment, and finding ways to stay busy, I’m struggling with feelings of disillusionment at the moment. I’ve always wanted to be a writer. I’m working on book drafts, Demon magazine editing,* and this blog, and have often considered starting podcasts. Writing is how I communicate best, but sometimes it feels like nothing more than an old childhood dream. As a Christian, I hear, or read about, so many inspirational stories about people who have beaten far worse odds and survived by the sheer strength of their faith, and as much as I keep praying, I can’t help wishing I had that strength.

Facebook, by the way, for all it’s many fine qualities, does nothing to help here. Rather, it taunts you with glimpses of how successful your friends and acquaintances seem to be, whether socially, romantically, or in the world of work. Thus creating a standard that is about as reachable as the end of a rainbow. But your goals in life don’t have to be like that.

We all seem to have a need for certainty in our lives. It’s like a basic emotional need so that we have at least some foundation for the way we live. I do believe in having a purpose, but I also believe there is a trick to it. You’re not born with it, you don’t find it – you choose it, plan for it, pursue it, and if it doesn’t work out, you choose another. You might not have full control, but the direction you try is your choice.

 

 

*The Demon is the magazine of my old uni, De Montfort University. Despite my lack of interest in sports, I’ve somehow become the News and Sports editor. My role comprises correcting other people’s work, repeatedly announcing deadlines, and reeling at the thought that I’m the only person on the team who remembers when the Demon was a newspaper. Riveting stuff.