Summer goals: expectation versus reality

  1. Expectation: Have a massive clearout, paying particular attention to all the extra tat I acquired during my uni years (no, seriously, it will happen this year). Reality: Keep telling myself that every year.
  2. Expectation: Meet up with *insert friend*. Reality: Have lengthy text conversation with them about the days when one of us is free, but the other isn’t.
  3. Expectation: Get through reading list. Reality: Add more to said list than I cross off.
  4. Expectation: Take up singing lessons again to overcome fear of singing on my own. Reality: Wait until I’m alone in the house. Listen to Memory or The Sound of Music on my iPod. Mumble along too quietly to hear myself properly.
  5. Expectation: Improve at Chinese. Reality: Remind myself again of the difference between the words for “horse” and “mother”. Tell myself that at least I am far from meeting strangers’ assumptions about my mother tongue.
  6. Expectation: Get back into art. Reality: colour in a single object in one of my ten or so adult colouring books. Feel suitably accomplished.
  7. Expectation: Try to practise my violin more often. Reality: Practise once. Make notes on how to improve next time. Feel suitably accomplished. Forget about notes. Repeat process every month or two.
  8. Expectation: Work on my writing. Reality: make minor adjustments to the book plans I made last year. Convince myself that my life’s ambition of becoming an author is just around the corner. Feel suitably accomplished.

I think my heart sank a little bit when I scrutinised my previous journals for summer to-do lists, only to realise that they were nearly the same from year to year. But hey, this summer has already given me more than my share of fun and adventure, namely:

  • Visiting Jennie, and taking a train that had to stop and go back the other way. Getting off in the middle of nowhere and being told that replacement taxis would be arriving shortly. Having to be rescued by Jennie and Jan when the replacement taxi drivers had no memory of being booked.
  • Missing the train home and waiting an hour for the next one.
  • Taking my semi-Asian skin for granted, and accidentally giving it sunburn.
  • Finding out I have astigmatism as well as short sight.
  • Nearly being defeated by the Sainsbury’s self checkout, with the intervention of Sainsbury’s staff who were evidently too good to let me pay for the same item twice.

All riveting stuff. And now, after a draining few weeks, I find myself more in need of a holiday that I have felt in a long time. So until next time, happy summer everyone! Think you can cross off a summer list better than me?

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A sudden improvement, and a blogging update

Last post, I was a little bit at the end of my tether. My work was teetering on the rocks, and I was feeling like a bit of a let-down. So I tried to remember my usual coping mechanisms for stress, and to make myself feel more productive, I wrote a slightly cliched blog post about them. Oh and I also prayed. A lot.

In the fortnight since then, my faith in myself and the power of prayer has been restored. Tentatively. Last week, the end of my probation was fast approaching, and was mainly hinging on my speed and accuracy during a certain task. Miraculously, with a target meeting technique I’d thought of but never tried, I did it. Long story short, my boss was pleased with how quickly I’d improved, and has extended my probation period by three months. Woo!

Right now, I’m hoping that things will keep looking up, and that this isn’t just a one off. I can’t help wishing that autistic miscommunication wasn’t an issue, and that I could have passed the first time just like anyone else. But my parents think that people on the autistic spectrum should be entitled to a longer trial, and to be honest, I’m just grateful to have got as far as I have.

I mean, this past fortnight has gone better than I dared hope, and now the pressure is less intense, I can feel the difference physically as well as emotionally. This improvement, hasn’t come without its cost, however, and over the past month or so, I have sometimes had to resort to going in even earlier – meaning getting the bus – at 7.07am, then getting home nearly 12 hours later and revising anything I still haven’t conquered. On the plus side, I have taught myself how to do Excel formulas! VLOOKUP, anyone? On the minus side, I am exhausted.

Which brings me onto a quick word about blogging. When I started my Facebook page (https://www.facebook.com/unwrittengrace/?ref=br_rs), I pledged to write a blog post every week, give or take the occasional break. I started doing it every Sunday. Then recently, I switched to Saturday. Then every other Saturday. Now it’s getting tricky. I’m commuting and working dawn till dusk every weekday and I’m juggling choir, the gym, church and its worship band in between. And now, all my Saturdays are completely booked up until August.

I’m not going to give up my blog unless I give up breathing, but right now, finding a slot for it is about as easy as finding a bus on a bank holiday. If I can stick to the two week regime, I will. Otherwise, I may blog on a free weekday evening. I may blog on a Saturday or a Sunday. I may revert back to my old habit of blogging on some random day every month or so. I’m unlikely to keep it this way in the long term, but for now, so be it.

 

Managing stress

As I have been getting fully immersed into my new job, it has not been without its stresses. On top of new skills to learn and remember, and targets to meet, there is also the added complication of autism and communication. And now the end of my probation is looming. Joy.

But if there’s one thing I’ve learned about facing your struggles under pressure, it’s that you can either be overly humble and self-deprecating, or you can look for ways to improve and press on with your head held high. Chances are, there are people around you who want you to come out ok. And take it from me: letting your mistakes overwhelm you won’t solve anything.

Which is why, when under stress, it helps if I break down whatever I am dealing with into manageable chunks. Like essays at uni. I’d look at the topic I need to discuss, break it down into the main points, divide the word count between them, and voila, my essay had a skeleton. Figuratively speaking. Now I’m applying the same principle to work: look at my email of targets, organise all the notes I’ve made since day one, and highlight the things I haven’t mastered, so I can revise them. Somehow, these things seem less scary when you can see what you’re facing and how to face it.

Besides, in doing that, I feel like I’m setting reasonable goals for myself. It’s just a question of paying attention to your capacity, and, when setting goals, starting small. Often I make a list and highlight the priorities. Sometimes I just try one thing at a time. Either way, it feels both proactive and like I’m taking some of the pressure off. My worst habit, when facing any kind of workload, is to aim to achieve as much as possible, and between not having superpowers and being too stressed to do anything, I’m left feeling like a waste of space.

For now, though, my main coping mechanism is determination. Not from ambition, or a naturally motivated personality; if I relied on sheer character, I would still be in bed. The fact is, these past few weeks have been hard, and I’m scared. Scared of failing, scared of being a disappointment, scared I will lose the desire to prove myself. So while I run on fear-fuelled determination, excuse the decline in the quality and quantity of my writing. And remember: when things get challenging, you might not have control over the events around you, but you do have the power to keep trying.

 

Communication confusion

If someone were to ask me to briefly summarise Asperger’s Syndrome – not that they often do – I would put it like this:

– Difficulty reading faces and body language
– Difficulty interpreting things people say, especially instructions
– Poor physical skills
– Above average IQ
– Detailed long term memory
– Good at learning – and correctly using – spoken language

But in a specific situation where I have misunderstood something and fallen short of expectations, I can’t explain what I’m confused about, or what went wrong. Other people will ask me why I struggled with something that they probably see as blindingly obvious, and so often I’m left feeling stupid because I just can’t explain.

Often it’s the same with smaller, more mundane things. Why do you not join in with the group conversation? Why are you so easily startled? Why do you still need help finding your way there? In response, it would be so easy for me to reply: How do you find so many things to say to all those people? Why aren’t you startled when someone behind you pats you on the shoulder? How can you memorise a route you’ve only taken once while following other people? But these aren’t answers, because – apart from “I’m autistic” – I don’t have any.

In these situations, people asking about Asperger’s is fair enough. The hard part is answering those questions. How do you explain the way you are? It’s like trying to explain what your own accent sounds like! And when people expect you to communicate why you’ve misunderstood someone, the irony is that you have a communication disorder, and can’t explain any better than they can. Because part of being autistic is struggling to see how you come across compared with others.

One of the things I find hardest is unspoken expectations. Despite the autism stereotype, empathy has never been a struggle, and I have even learned to use it to pinpoint people’s emotional needs. But when I’m in a situation where there’s pressure to perform well – practically or socially – and pick up things that haven’t been explained, I’m completely lost without clear guidance on how to manage the situation.

And that’s not to say that AS renders you incapable of communication. We just process things differently, and who’s to say “differently” means “worse” anyway? We take in information in a concrete, logical manner, accompanied with a lot of careful thought, and in a world where most people instinctively know what’s expected when given ambiguous information, we are in a minority. So while we power through that world, and keep honing our non-native neurotypical* language skills, please bear with us!

 

 

*Non-autistic

Ni hao! Where are you from?

The other week, my mother showed me a video on Facebook: What (Not) To Say To An Asian Person. It featured a couple of East Asian women explaining how to avoid making a race-themed social faux pas. Naturally, the comments section was full of words like “special snowflake” and “stop-whining-about-issues-we-have-never-experienced-but-are-judging-you-for-anyway*, ” and “how DO you talk to them?”

Which, to be fair, is an interesting question. The short answer is: if you talk like one respectable human being to another without making assumptions about the other person, then you’re probably getting it right. But I thought I’d break it down further.

For a start, upon seeing someone who may be in a racial minority, I like to assume that they speak English and don’t want to be singled out. Apparently, though, it’s perfectly acceptable to say a random greeting to them in a language that all people who look like them must speak – especially if you have no other reason to talk to them. Or to shout it through the window of your moving car. Ni hao! Konichiwa! Or be downright racist and shout “Great Wall of China!” at them to impress your mates. Right?

Wrong. It’s not simply saying hello. Do you have the same urge to shout a greeting to a completely white stranger? I never know why people do it, but if they want to be funny, clever, or cool, then they’ve got work to do.

And sometimes it is meant to be friendly. But having heard “ni hao” used as a slur – and even combined with catcalling – I just associate it with being made fun of. Besides, how do you know what language someone speaks? A white person, for example, could come from any continent in the world! Don’t get me wrong, if you’re fluent in their language, and they struggle with yours, then great. Otherwise, a simple “hello” or “hi” will suffice.

Interestingly, when my mum lived in Taiwan, she had a lot of passing strangers say “hello” or “good day”. If I ever went back to Taiwan and experienced this, I would be too amused by the irony of being in a reverse situation to usual to be offended.

As for asking where I’m from? Loughborough, England, UK. No, where am I really from? Born in Taiwan with a Taiwanese father, but raised British since age 4. What about my mum? British. Do I talk to, or visit my father? No. My ethnicity is no secret, but honestly, sometimes it’s like being questioned by the Spanish Inquisition! I like to think I just look like a dark haired British person, but the number of times I’ve heard these questions has disproven this. I don’t mind talking about the subject – it’ll come up naturally if you hang around with me long enough anyway – but I can’t help feeling a little self conscious when questioned on the first meeting.

I realise I’m being a bit sensitive. I think having a learning difference has made me fed up of being scrutinised for my differences, and I am working on that.

So there you go. Discussions like this so often lead to people thinking minority groups expect special treatment. If I need special treatment, I’ll swallow my pride and let you know, but apart from that, it’s the opposite. I just want people to get to know me for me, and learn naturally how to treat me based on that.

 

 

*Well maybe not those exact words…

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.

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.