Triple rainbow – yes, I’m coming out

The term double rainbow has been used to refer to people who are autistic and LGBT. Or autistic and a racial minority. Or a racial minority and LGBT. So what does that make someone who is biracial, autistic…and a lesbian?

I came out to my immediate family in 2015 while I was still at uni, and have since come out to a few friends. I’ve been waiting to write about it until I was no longer afraid of what anyone would think, but I’m not sure if I’ll ever completely reach that point. I feel like not coming out has been holding me back. I’ve been too afraid to talk or write about my feelings and experiences, and although I’m still afraid, I’m also tired of living in fear of other people’s reactions. I may mention my orientation in my upcoming book, I will definitely give it more than a mention in the book after that, and I can’t do justice to either if I can’t talk about it in real time.

And it’s not that I want to rub it in everyone’s faces. I just want to be able to talk about my sexuality, and topics relating to it, as freely as I talk about other stuff, and to speak out against prejudice and ignorance. One of the main reasons I have struggled to accept it is that I’ve already had to combat the shame and stigma surrounding autism. Even being biracial isn’t always easy! While I was growing up, I couldn’t face being even more “different” than I already was. Now, having spent most of my life hiding one part of my identity or another, I feel like I have outgrown the metaphorical closet.

The other is that many of my friends and acquaintances are Christians. And while it was the Christian community where I found friends as a lonely autistic teenager, it was also the Christian community who were firm about rejecting any “gay agenda”. So, to anyone who is unsure what to make of all this, I have a few things to say:

First, I’m not trying to tell you what to believe. Not because I don’t want to, but because I can’t, nor do I have a right to. I’m simply being open and real, for my own wellbeing and to reach out to others in my position. I understand that this may challenge your beliefs, but I also need you to understand how much harder it is to be in a minority category that you cannot disclose without the risk of hostility and alienation.

Second, if you are reading this, chances are, you are my friend. We have a history together. Think about it. Perhaps tell me some of your favourite moments in the comments! I can promise that anything you have done for me and with me will remain in my heart. Just continue to treat me like the sensitive, autistic, nit-picky, awkward, creative, imperfect-but-still-ok human being that I am. Because I am still ok. And I hope you understand that.

Birthday anxiety

Last Wednesday, I turned 28 with the full lockdown birthday experience. Even amid all the restrictions, I was very blessed. I was showered with presents, cards, and birthday messages, and enjoyed a slap-up meal of curry and cake. Apart from anything, I was glad to have something to look forward to in an otherwise very boring time.

The other week, however, I was thinking about the anxiety I always get right before my birthday. Don’t get me wrong, I always manage to enjoy it. Who doesn’t like getting presents and cake? But upon reflection, I realised that my birthday has, in the past, had quite the knack for either causing me stress, or falling at a stressful time.

The earliest example of this would be my 4th birthday, in Taiwan. My memories of it are hazy, but I know that it was the same day that my mum officially found out about my father’s antics with other women. Not long after that, she took me and moved back to the UK, and life as I had known it changed completely.

As a child, I liked parties in theory, and would always get excited before one. Enduring them was a whole other matter. When the social and sensory overload became too much, I would retreat into my room with a book or my soft toys. I don’t think I realised this, but it was my way of recharging. Luckily, one year Mum came up with a birthday party theme that suited me down to the ground: arts and crafts! It was something I was good at, and in having everyone sitting together doing a structured activity, it reduced the usual party chaos.

Once I reached secondary school, the social scene grew more complicated. I was always on the fringes of any social group at best. Suddenly, birthdays (mine and others’) were an uncomfortable reminder of how unpopular I was. I didn’t get invited to many parties, and always worried about how well attended my own would be. I was gutted one year when all but one of my birthday guests were unable to make it because they’d been invited to another social event. I always ended up doing something fun, but the social pressure and the sense of isolation never fully left me.

Also, being in March, my birthdays often coincided with tests, mock exams, or some other stressful occurrence. This continued during my uni years. In first year, I had a surprise Journalism assessment sprung upon me. In second year, I was dealing with a toxic friendship. In third year, to top things off, my birthday was 48 hours before the deadline of a major group project, in which my group was way behind everyone else and trying not to hate each other.

And finally, there was last year, the start of the pandemic. Having changed my birthday plans at the last minute, I ended up packing a load of my stuff and moving back in with my mum and stepdad three days later. I was really sad to leave my life behind, and even now, it feels like a sobering anniversary to look back on. But on the bright side, I was desperate to fast forward a year, and now I am at that point in time! Things are still far from perfect, but I am cautiously optimistic that this year will be easier. Touch wood.

What I’ve been working on: a major writing project, the Potty Mouth podcast, and more pet pictures

In this ongoing era of uncertainty, frustration, and boredom, I have been lucky to have both the time and energy to work on things I might not have been able to before. For all the stress and heartache it has caused, being out of work has had its advantages. With that in mind, I thought I’d give a quick(ish) update on what I have been working on.

My biggest ongoing project is my book, currently known as Adulting with Autism: The Road Less Travelled. I’ve been making notes for it for years but have only started working on it in earnest since the pandemic started. Having started out as a mere book skeleton, it has evolved into a compilation of half-hearted and preachy wise and foolproof advice for autistic and neurotypical people alike, my own (hilarious) life anecdotes, and input from other autistic adults. I’m currently at 80,715 words (!!!), and am hoping to hear back from a publisher soon.

On a related note, I recently featured on a podcast episode for the second time (for the first time, please look here)! My former uni coursemate Leah recently created her own podcast and invited me to talk about autism. From the impact of autistic masking, to “getting caught in possession” at school, I packed a lot of topics into 33 minutes! I might not be as cool, outgoing, or as prone to swearing as Leah and her other podcast guests, but I like to think that what I lack in profanity, I make up for in deadpan humour. I have included the relevant links and details below:

Spotify: https://open.spotify.com/episode/4kWNoApQ7ge8lysdDwJUZp?si=v4-z1OzoSHSkRYsojDEJcw

Facebook page: PottyMouth | Facebook

Instagram: @pottymouthpc

Anchor: Potty Mouth • A podcast on Anchor

The downside to all this autism advocacy and these media opportunities is that my writing is feeling a bit stale for me right now. I still have plenty of blog topics in mind, autism themed and otherwise, but my ability to be conversational and witty in my writing seems to be drying up. I apologise if this is immediately apparent! An obvious reason would be that we are all being drained of our mental resources right now. I also put it down to the fact that I have been writing about autism and related topics most weekdays and some weekends for nearly a year and counting.

Because of this, I am grateful to have something else to work on that is entirely unrelated: my drawings! As I mentioned in the New Year, I have started regularly drawing animals and am taking commissions. If you are interested, please go to my Facebook page: Grace Liu Pet Portraits | Facebook, and message me with a photo (or selection of photos) of your pet/s for me to draw. Prices are <£40.

To conclude, here are some recent examples. Who doesn’t love a pet picture?

 

Agnes, the cat who regularly visited my sister and her partner during lockdown 1

 

Our cats, Bouncer, Suri, and Oscar, during the winter

 

Two Welsh cat and dog breeds: a Cymric (longhaired Manx cat) and a Corgi, in honour of St David’s Day. I found these images on Creative Commons. Full credit goes to SMcCandlish – https://www.flickr.com/photos/9275398@N02/5875505831 and camknows – https://www.flickr.com/photos/13101664@N03/11127631543

 

Hugging puppies and kittens. Full credit for the top left and bottom photos goes to The Little Book of Hugs by Raymond Glynne (or Tim Glynne Jones, as the internet seems to be saying now…?). Full credit for the top right goes to The Ultimate Guide to Dog Breeds by Derek Hall

 

Our cat Suri in February 2015 (when she was new) and February 2021

Double standards – neurotypicals and autistic people

After nearly a year of being in a pandemic, I have spent most weekdays and some weekends writing extensively about autism. This has had two effects. 1) Sapping my ability to continue doing so as if it is not getting stale for me. If my attempts at sounding conversational feel forced, please bear with me! 2) Forcing me to reflect on some uncomfortable realities about being outnumbered by neurotypicals. Namely, the double standards by which people are judged depending on how their brains work.

We’ve established that being in a minority is hard. When your communication style is different from the majority, it can feel like you have to push yourself twice as hard just to achieve the same things. When your experiences and struggles fall outside of the so-called norm, you have to fight to make yourself heard and hope that some people will listen.

There are constant misunderstandings between neurotypicals and the autistic community. I have heard it said that these things work both ways, which makes it even. I disagree. Misunderstandings do work both ways, but when one neurotype heavily outnumbers the other, and is therefore deemed “normal” and “right”, that does not make it even. Let me explain.

When neurotypicals don’t understand autistic people, it is because autistic people are complex and confusing. When autistic people misunderstand neurotypicals, it is because we are bad at understanding people.

When neurotypicals struggle to show empathy towards autistic people, it is because autistic people are unemotional and robotic. When autistic people struggle to show empathy in a neurotypical way, it is because we lack empathy altogether. NTs have spread so many stereotypes, described autism purely based on how autistic people come across, and shamed autistic people for not behaving in a neurotypical way. Those of us on the spectrum often feel our own and other’s emotions profoundly, and spend much of our time trying to learn how to connect with neurotypicals, yet we are the ones who apparently lack empathy.

When neurotypicals can’t read autistic body language, it is because autistic people are bad at displaying body language. When autistic people can’t read NT body language, it is because we are bad at reading body language.

When neurotypicals are unable to predict how autistic people will behave or react, it is because autistic people are unpredictable. When autistic people are unable to predict how NTs will behave or react, it is because we are bad at predicting people’s behaviour.

Many neurotypicals are only willing to bend so far to understand autistic people better, and are quick to alienate anyone who is different to them. Meanwhile, most of us on the spectrum have experienced constant pressure to adapt to and make sense of other people’s social expectations, yet we are the ones who are deemed bad at communicating.

I hope it goes without saying that these are criticisms about attitudes towards autism, not an attack on neurotypicals. I will always be grateful for people who listen and try to understand. Meanwhile, fellow autistic people, if there are any crucial points that I have missed, please let me know!

Agreeing to disagree – opinions vs realities

I have often heard people say that it’s important to be able to voice your opinion and disagree with others’ without being accused of hate speech. To an extent, I agree. I think everyone has a right to voice their opinion, and when people are able to do so respectfully, it can be an opportunity to share knowledge and learn. And being able to disagree with someone without tearing them down is a rare asset.

I also think, however, that it’s one of those sentiments that is basically true but is taken out of context way too easily. It’s one thing to respectfully disagree when it really is just a difference in opinion. Trending topics – fashion, news, pop culture, even politics – are never black or white because there is always more than one perspective.

But where minority experiences are concerned, I think it’s to easy for people to judge, or make inappropriate jokes, then feel attacked whenever anyone calls them out. A controversial issue might be a mere joke or topic of debate for some people, but for others, it will be their reality. Surely they have a right to set the standard for how seriously their struggles are taken?

For example, when neurotypicals dictate how we should talk about autism without input from autistic people, it feels like they are trying to speak over us. I understand that some neurotypicals mean well, but it saddens me when we are seen as a subject or learning tool, rather than equals. When they think that places of work and education don’t need to be more disability friendly, they have probably never struggled with the system in these places. When they declare people like me to be broken by vaccines, it is as if they think we would be better off sick or dead than autistic. And autistic people who disagree are often met with hostility.

It doesn’t stop there either. When people in racial minorities complain about racism, some white people get offended and think they are complaining about the entire white population. Then, when said white people get called out for any racism, they insist they’re just voicing their opinion. I have been teased at school because of my mixed heritage. I have had strangers shout racist things at me for a laugh. This isn’t an opinion; it’s a reality for me. I can only guess how much worse it is for fully non-white people.

Then there’s homophobia and transphobia. I have seen posts on social media saying that these terms are nothing more than an unfair accusation. I realise that many people have strong beliefs about this, but too often these get in the way of listening and trying to understand when LGBT people talk about their struggles.

Am I being controversial? Possibly. Perhaps that’s what comes of having so much time to reflect on things and nothing interesting going on! But I also think this is an important topic to consider, and I hope this post helps fellow minority people feel seen.

Nurture, not nature: the impact of being autistic in a neurotypical world

Through writing regularly about autism, I have noticed that there are many resources that describe inherent autistic traits. Many of these resources are by and for neurotypicals. Some of them are by autistic people explaining from the inside. What I haven’t seen so much of is something I have reflected on a lot lately: what traits might someone develop as a result of being outnumbered by non-autistic people? I can’t speak for everyone, but I can speak for me. Before I do, let me say: I am not making excuses for myself, because I know my flaws need to be kept in check. I am simply reflecting on how some of them came to be.

One of my main flaws is oversensitivity to criticism and judgement – real and perceived. If someone comments on, say, what a big portion of food I have at a meal, I immediately get self conscious. Am I greedy? Have I broken some implicit social rule? Similarly, if I behave in a noticeably “autistic” way and someone asks me why, I feel unreasonably frustrated. I know how important it is to understand each other’s differences, but sometimes it feels like I can’t just “be” without having to explain myself or face people’s judgement. 

I have realised that this is largely down to years of being monitored and corrected by teachers, and being teased and isolated by some of my peers. The latter in particular has led to another unhealthy tendency of mine: always feeling like an outsider. I resent feeling like an outsider in any situation, yet I am aware that that is my comfort zone because I know how to be that person. Once the excitement of making friends with an individual or a group has worn off, I am quick to assume they will get bored of me. If a friend grows close to another person, whether platonically or romantically, I sadly accept that they prefer that person now, when it might not even be true! I haven’t completely fought the “outsider” mindset yet, but I’m getting better at keeping it in perspective.

Then there’s my inability to trust my own judgement. What with all the mistakes I’ve actually made and the number of times I’ve been told “you’ll take longer to learn x” or “autistic people are always bad at y”, I expect to be wrong. At work, I was often told I needed to voice my opinions more and speak up about any changes I wanted to see. If I asked a question that was supposed to be obvious, it was sometimes met with annoyance. Very often, I had an idea of what the answer was, but was constantly worried that it had changed or that I had misunderstood.

Lastly, there is masking – that is, constantly trying to behave in a neurotypical way. It’s unavoidable, and in some situations, even necessary. I have often reached the point, however, where I have tried to mask my autism for so long, that I can’t keep it up. I have reached a better understanding now of when masking is and isn’t necessary. However I have been doing it out of shame for so long that I don’t know how to voluntarily unmask. I am not alone in this. Those of us on the spectrum put so much energy into being what people expect us to be, that we easily lose sight of who we really are.

Work woes, Christmas cheer, and pet portraits

Hello all, and here’s hoping for a Happy New Year! Regarding my blog, I realise I have let myself go lately, but am hoping to go back to blogging every other weekend. Right now, I will ease back into it with a few life updates from the past couple of months, and a summary of what I am working on at the moment.

My work situation has seen a few dramatic changes over the past year. After a few days of working from home in March, I was furloughed. It was yet another sudden change to get used to, but hey, I had more time to write than ever before! Then in the summer I narrowly avoided redundancy by successfully applying for a different job in the same company. It wasn’t easy, but I did what I could to make it work.

Sadly, it was not to be, and I found out at the beginning of November that I had failed my probation. It was a massive knock to my confidence, and I was hurt and angry about a lot of things. In an attempt to be productive, or maybe numb the pain, I pressed on with my writing for a while but felt increasingly burnt out and needed a break. Instead I focused on my drawing and Christmas preparations, and waited for my blogging mojo to return in its own sweet time.

Unsurprisingly, I wasn’t in the most festive of moods at first. I had lost my job, I’d had to officially abdicate my room in Leicester, and the covid rules were constantly changing. When Christmas came, however, it was peaceful and we had fun. I decorated the tree and made Christmas sweets. We talked over Christmas dinner about everything in 2020 we were glad about. Rhian and I played our old favourite Wii, DS, and computer games together and opened our stocking presents in my room like old times. Despite the restrictions, it was still Christmas in all the ways that mattered.

Now, as well as my book and my blog, I have started a small business selling pet drawings. I loved drawing as a child and teenager, and fell in love with it all over again when I started Aspie Cat in 2019. Under my family’s suggestion, I started drawing photos of people’s pets. When the ones I did as gifts were well received, I set up my own Facebook page: Grace Liu Pet Portraits | Facebook. I will be doing commissions for <£40. For more information, please check out the above page!

Meanwhile, here are some drawings I have already done. Enjoy!

Bear, one of the cats from my Leicester lodgings, who died in October. It was this sympathy card that sparked the suggestion that I do pet drawings as a business

 

Bouncer, Suri, and Oscar

 

Hamish, Pippin, and Orlando

 

Inca and Teddy, my friend’s degus

 

All the cats we’ve ever had. This was a birthday present for my mum

 

Rooster (Bear’s brother) and Nelly

 

Seb, who belonged to a family I’m close to

 

Seb again

‘Tis the lead up to Christmas

Recently there have been at least a couple of Christmas themed poems on Facebook about the trials and tribulations of living with an autistic person. Here’s my sort-of-heartfelt, sort-of-satirical, spoof about the trials and tribulations of living with neurotypicals. Yes, it’s even tackier than I intended. Enjoy!

 

‘Tis the lead up to Christmas, and all through the day,

Festive preparations are well on the way.

We’re all in the kitchen surrounded by mess.

There’s work to be done, no time to de-stress!

 

Cake decorating here, mince pies baking there

And us walking into each other everywhere.

Can’t judge where to step – wait, am I in the way?

Too much talking and mess jumbled up in the fray.

 

So I’ll step away from the chaos and cake.

With too much going on, I could do with a break.

I like Christmas, yes, but it can get too mad

With all of the prep and social calls to be had.

 

A crowded kitchen today, a video call last night

With the chat breaking up and the wrong level of light.

No clear turn to talk, no idea what to say

And having to put up with the sound delay.

 

For there are challenges that come with being autistic

In a neurotypical world where you’re always missing a trick

With odd social rules about conversation

That you have to learn out of pure obligation.

 

After a tough few weeks in a difficult year

Full of change and uncertainty, losses and fear,

We all need a holiday, and time to have fun

But a break from the NT world? Easier said than done!

 

Refusal to change, unclear communication,

Confusing demands that just lead to frustration,

And times when they leave me feeling stupid and small

And so burned out, I can’t function at all.

 

I’ve fretted and agonised, worried and moped,

Over all recent things that haven’t gone as I’d hoped,

And wished there were more people who understand

That I’m constantly trying as hard as I can!

 

But amid all the struggles, I like to remember

Everything to be thankful for this December.

So I’ll start with the obvious: my friends and family

Who know and support me and have always stuck by me.

 

For each neurotypical is different, I’d say,

And very unique “in their own special way”

Though some are illogical, strange and confusing,

Some are supportive, kind and amazing.

 

Now, as I rejoin all the family madness

With a much clearer head, I’ll do it with gladness.

At times I’ve felt lonely. At times I’ve felt stuck.

But with such a strong base, I know I’m in luck.

 

So Merry Christmas to all, and to all one last thing,

Whether you’re doing well or simply surviving,

Amid all the chaos at this crazy time,

With all the right people, you’ll pull through just fine.

 

Image may contain: christmas tree, table, tree and indoor

Am I autistic or do I have autism? Part 2

A while ago, I wrote a blog post about identity first vs person first language. Or “autistic person” vs “person with autism”. Back then, the controversy over this was new to me, and it hadn’t occurred to me to have a preference. Because they both mean the same thing. Right?

If both preferences are at opposite ends of a scale of which I was in the middle to begin with, then I wouldn’t say my opinion here has done a complete 90 degree turn in either direction. I still think it’s important to ask about and respect an autistic individual’s preference. And I don’t mind if someone uses both in casual conversation. I still do myself! But if I had to pick only one, I would choose “autistic person”. Let me explain.

“Person first” language was a concept coined by neurotypical parents and professionals talking about autism, many of whom still prefer it to this day. Their logic is that someone shouldn’t be defined by their condition and they liken it to calling someone with cancer a “cancer patient”. They very often have the best of intentions here, I do understand that, but there are several flaws to this logic.

Firstly, cancer is a life-threatening disease. It is something that people develop, it is destructive to a person’s health, it can kill, and it can also be treated. With all that in mind, of course it’s not part of who someone is. Autism, on the other hand, is just a difference in the brain. It is present from birth, it is not an illness, it cannot kill, it cannot be treated (contrary to popular belief and wishful thinking), and comparing it to something as scary and debilitating as cancer is actually rather insulting. I am not a neurotypical person with a disease or medical problem. I am autistic, and that means I think and learn differently in some ways.

Also insisting on only using person first language implies a negative bias against being autistic, as if it is something shameful. And being ashamed of it is an attitude I am determined to leave in the past.

And finally, one simple but important point: I don’t like neurotypical people dictating how we can and can’t talk about autism. It is a step in the right direction to ask someone on the spectrum what they prefer, but continuing to insist on person first language except around certain individuals is still portraying neurotypicals’ opinions on this as the default. Studies have shown that around 90% of autistic adults prefer identity first language. Someone can say “autistic person” around me all they want, but if they still try to set the standard for how most people talk about autism, they are still talking over the autistic community.

I have read about people saying that the autistic community have “unorthodox” or “controversial” opinions here. What they mean is that these opinions are not held by many neurotypicals. I am not saying that they shouldn’t have an opinion. It just feels like they are forgetting that these opinions in favour of identity first language are coming from people who are talking about their reality and their identity. What’s so unorthodox or controversial about that?

Dealing with anxiety

The other weekend I woke up during the night with a migraine, which quickly spiralled into a panic attack. My heart was racing. I felt hot and clammy but couldn’t stop shaking. I thought I was going to vomit. My head felt like someone was drilling into it above one eye. Worst of all, I was alone in the dark and overwhelmed with fear. Not an ideal situation.

One thing I did take from that night was inspiration for this blog post, but before I go on, let me clarify: I am no mental health expert. I’ve never been diagnosed with or treated for any mental illnesses. I don’t want to undermine people who have by exaggerating about my own problems. I have, however, struggled with anxiety for as long as I can remember and it was this recent incident that got me thinking about it.

I’ve heard that in children, anxiety often manifests itself as physical symptoms. I was (and as an adult, still am) a classic example of this. I’ve always been prone to headaches, nausea, abdominal pain, and insomnia. While spending my childhood being overloaded by the neurotypical world, I would sometimes have to leave lessons – or even school – feeling queasy. If asked, I would be unable to think of anything that was bothering me. Then some time later, I would start talking about a school related struggle or conflict between my peers that I was worried about.

Ironically, a common anxiety trigger for me was the risk of illness. Then when I started feeling sick, I would worry that I was ill. Bit of a catch-22.

These days I’m better at making the connection between my physical and emotional state. Until recently though, I didn’t know how to deal with anxiety symptoms besides riding them out and keeping going as best I could. I dealt with previous panic attacks by shutting myself in the bathroom until I could face people again. Now, my coping strategies are as follows:

  • Making time for recharging before I need it desperately. For me, recharging mainly comprises creative pursuits like reading (including rereading familiar books), drawing, colouring, and journalling
  • Identifying possible causes of stress. Maybe work. Interpersonal struggles. Sensory overload. Recent or less recent difficult events. It can even be things that are manageable on their own, but too much on top of other causes of stress
  • Reducing screen time before bed. If I have all or most of a day to myself, I will happily watch a film or an episode. However, if I only have the evening, I self-regulate more effectively if I’m not scrolling mindlessly through social media or YouTube
  • Inwardly repeating the lyrics to a calming song. It forces me to slow my thoughts down and focus on something soothing and familiar
  • Writing down all the things on my mind. It gives me a sense of control and a little more perspective in that I can see which things are bothering me the most and which ones can be dealt with and when
  • Breathing slowly. A variant of this strategy that got me through my latest anxiety attack is to slowly breathe in and blow out. I felt like I was channelling all my discomfort into the blowing until I’d blown it all away. I know you can’t literally blow physical or emotional discomfort out of you, but it really worked
  • Talking to a trusted person. While I really can’t face social activities during intense anxiety, having a close friend or family member with me does make a difference
  • Grounding. In other words, thinking about what I can see, hear, and feel around me

The hard truth is that there is no easy way to get rid of anxiety forever, but with the right self care, you can keep it in check. Feeling good is worth waiting for, but take it from me, it cannot be forced!