BOOK ANNOUNCEMENT – Approaching Autistic Adulthood: The Road Less Travelled

To coincide with my 200th blog post, I have some BIG NEWS to break! I can confirm that I have officially written a book: Approaching Autistic Adulthood: The Road Less Travelled. It will be published by Panoma Press, it is due to be released in October 2021 (exact date TBC), and it will be available on Amazon as a paperback and eBook. Alternatively, you can buy one directly from me, as I will receive 100 copies nearer the time. If you are interested, you can message me via Facebook (Unwritten Grace – autism and writing) or Instagram (unwrittengraceblogs). Please stay tuned for more information on other available outlets and for the exact release date.

The book is aimed at young autistic adults, and is an informal guide to dealing with topics such as: explaining autism, overload, friendship, dating, college and university, work, being out and about, and disrespectful behaviour. From autistic masking and burnout, to autism and intersectionality, to dealing with patronising and “neurotypical-splaining“, this book covers a range of issues commonly experienced by autistic people.

Throughout the book, I include my own life anecdotes to back up what I am saying and to give the audience something they can relate to. I like to think I’ve packed in a few laughs too! I also include quotes from several autistic friends and acquaintances of mine. They have been immensely helpful to me, and their contributions have enabled me to portray a variety of autistic experiences that my perspective alone would not be able to offer.

Because the way we talk about autism is changing all the time, I have set myself a few rules of thumb. One: I mainly use identity first language, but occasionally use person first language for the sake of autistic people who prefer it. Two: I use the word “Asperger’s” when describing my diagnosis or another situation where that word is specifically used, but say “autism” most of the time. A lot of people are dropping the term “Asperger’s Syndrome” due to Hans Asperger’s association with the Nazi regime, and I am careful to acknowledge this in the intro. Three: I try to avoid any words that make autism sound like a disease.

Finally, please spread the word either online or by word of mouth, and keep an eye on my blog and social media for more information. I am super excited to share with you this project that has taken over my life for the past 15 months. Any support of my book will mean a lot to me, and even more importantly, there are so many things in there that I wish more people understood. Panoma have been really helpful and efficient throughout the process, and I hope to be able to tell you more soon. Until then, here is a picture of the front cover (designed by Panoma):

Oscar

This time last year, we adopted a new family member. After losing our young, black-and-white cat George a few months previously, we were not in a hurry to get another cat, and certainly not a replacement. So it seems almost ironic that in June 2020, the bundle of energy that came charging into our lives was another young, black-and-white male. Friends and blog followers, please wish a happy first anniversary to Oscar!

My mum decided to adopt Oscar, then aged around 4-5 months old, from his foster family. He was the youngest cat we had taken on since Tango and Bouncer were kittens, and I can remember feeling unaccustomed to having to adjust my arms to hold such a little cat. Nowadays he is easily long enough to take up half the sofa.

Despite having reached adulthood, he still hasn’t lost his kittenish energy. He loves climbing, jumping, and running around like a lunatic. When he returned from having a certain operation, the first thing he did was race around the house as if he hadn’t had a general anaesthetic less than an hour earlier. He is endlessly boisterous and cannot resist jumping on 17 year old Bouncer. As the equivalent of an 80-something year old man, Bouncer is less than impressed by this behaviour, and has found that the most effective solution is to play dead until Oscar loses interest. Oscar shows more respect for Suri, probably because she thumps him if he so much as thinks about chasing her.

As you can probably tell, anything is a toy or a game for Oscar. His favourite toys are feathers and hair elastics. I don’t know why he likes dropping them in the water bowl, but he does. One of his favourite games is sitting on Mum’s dressing table and knocking as many small things off as possible. He loves open windows, something we have to be vigilant about during the summer. He is also fascinated by the toilet, and likes to see how far into it he can get.

When it comes to getting out, Oscar is a proper teenage lad. He loves exploring, and had worried us sick many a time by staying out too long. Only this morning, we were fearing the worst when he had not been seen since about 6:30am. Come midday, I offered to go out and find him myself, only for him to suddenly appear on our drive as I was speaking. I think that was the shortest search I’ve ever done!

For such a firecracker of a cat, he has a real knack for instantly falling asleep in ridiculous poses. He can go from leaping around the room to sleeping like an angel. He loves fleece, and cannot resist suckling on you if you hold him while wearing something soft. His favourite person is Mum, and he has spent many an evening nestled into he lap, suckling on her jumper or onesie. He might be a teenage lad, but he is 100% mummy’s boy at heart!

Oscar on day 1

 

First time outside

 

On top of the bookshelf

 

First time in the snow

 

Playing the air cello in his sleep…?

 

Guess which one of these things wasn’t a birthday present?

 

Oscar today

Getting healed?! part 3 – help vs “help”

Ages ago, I wrote a couple of blog posts about the concept of getting healed for autism. I was strongly opposed to such an idea when a well-meaning person suggested it to me. Then I read about the perspective of parents of severely disabled autistic people who apparently would have a better life without autism, and suddenly I wasn’t so sure. I remained adamant that I don’t need fixing, but I couldn’t help worrying about promoting views that dismissed the suffering of people with higher support needs.

But after a lot of reflection, I realised that speaking up for the right to exist as an autistic person doesn’t have to be the same as denying support to anyone who needs it. When we speak against treatment, we aren’t saying that autistic people do not need help. The problem is that so often “help” is all about forcing someone to be more neurotypical, and less about easing suffering. And if, through finding a better quality of life, someone overcomes some of their autistic traits, then so be it. But the priority should always be their wellbeing, not their social image.

I understand there are some severely disabled autistic people who may have a better quality of life without some of their autistic traits. I understand why they, and their family and carers, may need a lot of support. But there is a fine line between help that equips someone to manage situations they struggle with, and “help” that forces them to be someone they’re not in order for people to accept them.

The sad thing is, there are still people who think it’s sad that autistic people work, play, and learn differently to neurotypicals, because the world is conditioned to see anything outside of neurotypical norms as lesser. There are still people who aren’t explicitly against autistic people, but complain when we struggle with eye contact, express ourselves in an autistic way, struggle with things that neurotypicals find easy, etc. There are still “interventions” and “treatments” (two words that I am always suspicious of) that ignore autistic needs and communication in favour of enforcing compliance and masking. And there are still too many resources that speak over autistic people instead of promoting what we are trying to say.

By speaking out against these issues, I am not trying to romanticise autism. Rather, I am trying to raise understanding and acceptance. I am not a sick, broken, or otherwise damaged neurotypical person. I am an autistic person trying to break free from years of masking my natural traits out of shame, and being encouraged to believe that being autistic is lesser. I write about these issues to help make the world a safer place for all autistic people because we deserve to be ourselves without shame.

My gay “lifestyle”

Years ago, I can remember attending my then-church cell group. It was a typical, comfortable Sunday evening, but then somehow the conversation turned to what the Bible says about sexuality. The flaws in the logic of LGBTQA (+) people claiming they were “born this way”. How important it is that we reject any “homosexual agenda”. I got through the discussion with the only coping mechanism I knew at the time: keep quiet, head down, emotional barriers up. But then another phrase got my attention: “the gay lifestyle”.

What? Since when was my sexual orientation an entire way of life?

This is an all too common phrase that is thrown around by people who see being LGBT as the defining characteristic of LGBT people and their lives. Straight cisgender people are complex, nuanced human beings, while LGBT people are nothing more than a stereotype. Right?

As a newly “out” lesbian, let me rectify that perspective with a summary of my lifestyle.

My lifestyle is trying to cook dinner with the cats getting under my feet and my parents dancing and singing to the music I’m playing. It’s spending most days staring at my computer, waiting for some writing inspiration to hit, amid hours of editing, deleting, and mindless scrolling. It’s trying to hone my drawing skills, scrutinising every tiny detail, and wondering if I should colour with Mars Black or Midnight Black. It’s having games nights with my parents, the stupid names we give each other on our scorecards, and the way even the most competitive evenings always end in laughter. It’s the work we all put into looking after our cats, and all the fun and companionship they give us in return.

But to people who cannot see past a gay person’s sexuality, that isn’t enough. No matter how 3 dimensional we are, there will always be people who cannot see our sexuality as anything but a deviant way of living that overshadows every other aspect of our humanity. So to anyone fixated on the gay part of my lifestyle, here it is:

My gay lifestyle was keeping quiet about my sexuality so that people would accept me. It was listening to people talking about how LGBT people shouldn’t be included. It was coming out to my family and friends because I was tired of living in fear. It was nervously writing a coming out blog post a few weeks ago and being overwhelmingly relieved by how understanding everyone was.

Now it’s allowing myself to acknowledge my thoughts and feelings surrounding my sexuality. Now it’s trying to shed the anxiety, shame, and bitterness that I have been battling for more than half my life. Now it’s wondering how to make the world a safer place for other LGBT people.

I’ve said it before and I will say it again: I know I cannot change people’s personal beliefs. What I want everyone to understand is that people like me are more than just a stereotype. And if you take the time to understand us, you will see that there is more to the oh-so-gay “lifestyle” than meets the eye.

Belonging and being myself

One of my unhealthy thought patterns is my ongoing “outsider” mindset. I’m sure I am not alone in this. I am quick to worry that friends will lose interest in me. When I find a community where I fit in, I end up hiding certain traits or parts of my identity for fear of losing my place. I can keep this up for quite some time, but in the long run, it only leads to further feelings of alienation.

I sometimes feel bad for saying this when I have a supportive family and great friends. But something I’ve been reflecting on lately is how I have always struggled to feel any sense of belonging as someone in multiple minority categories. It’s even harder when there is pressure to “be yourself” in order to connect with people who may react negatively to me doing so. I often wonder if this is a common struggle for anyone who is “different” in some way. So I thought I’d explore it here.

Being half Taiwanese means I have been different literally since birth. It was not uncommon for strangers in Taiwan to stare at me or even touch me when I was very little (to which I reacted by screaming in their faces!). Now, having lived in the UK since I was 4, I have often had to deal with assumptions or even rude comments about my race. From passing lads shouting “Great Wall of China!” to people asking if I speak English, it always rubs it in how people see me as a stereotype or a foreigner.

Then there’s autism and the stigma surrounding it. As an autistic person, I have always been surrounded by people who think differently to me and see their way as the norm. I am lucky to have family and friends who understand me pretty well. But even in recent years, I have had people take it personally when I don’t make enough eye contact, or when I don’t have the energy for socialising. At school, I spent most of my time either alone or burning out from trying to act more neurotypical. I saw being different as shameful, and I hated myself for it.

On top of all that, I was also trying to suppress my sexuality. I couldn’t face yet another thing that set me apart from other people. I had to sit through Christian talks and conversations about how gay people shouldn’t be accepted. I had to listen to people in my new friendship circle saying we should resist any “gay agenda”. I would hear discussions about the importance of “being vulnerable” in the same community where certain members were openly homophobic. While I was opening up more about autism, my sexuality remained taboo.

Mercifully, when I came out last month, I received nothing but overwhelming positivity. This is something that I will hold onto forever.

People often emphasise how important it is to be real. Unfortunately, when doing so could be met with hostility, it’s not always that simple. So I thought I’d conclude with a point made by a very wise friend the other year. To establish a sense of belonging in any community, should we focus less on pressuring each other to open up, and more on helping people feel safe enough to do so?

What I’ve been too afraid to say

The other week, I took the plunge and disclosed my sexuality on my blog and social media for the first time. It was something that had been in the cards for several years, and when I finally did it, I was overwhelmed – and humbled – by all the uplifting comments I received. To anyone who either sent any of those comments or has already been there for me in my coming out journey, please know how much I appreciate you.

In terms of things I’ve wanted to say about the subject, however, my last post only scratched the surface. So today I thought I’d summarise all the things I’ve wanted people to understand over the years.

I want to say that I am not perverted, broken, or dirty. Being a lesbian isn’t all about sex any more than being straight is, nor does it mean I am constantly harbouring feelings of attraction to every woman I meet.

I want to say how scared I have been of being gay in a heterosexual world. I can’t count all the times I have wished people could understand how lonely it is, knowing which people are hostile, but not knowing which ones are safe. To some extent, I still feel that.

I want to talk about how desperate I used to be for reassurance that there is nothing wrong with me, and that I am not selfish for wanting to find love just like straight people. Again, to some extent, I still feel that.

I want people to know how much it hurts to hear a talk, or read an article, about how LGBT people are the perpetrators against anyone who disagrees with us, and how we do not deserve to be accepted or included. I want people to know that when they mention how they would struggle to befriend or work with an LGBT person, there could be an LGBT person in the room listening to them. I especially want people to know how painful it is when topics like this are thrown around in a Christian setting where people are encouraged to be open and vulnerable about their struggles.

I want to talk about how hard it can be, watching Christians celebrate dating, marriage, and parenthood in a community that believes that people like me should not aspire to any of these things. Similarly, I want to point out that, in such a community, being single as a straight person is often seen as just a chapter in life, while for gay people, it is considered a lifelong gift.

More than anything, I just want people to understand that LGBT issues are real, and that homophobia is not a false accusation. I did not choose to be a lesbian. I am not yet another controversial topic for debate. I am weary of listening to fixed opinions of LGBT people and our struggles from people who have no understanding of what it’s really like. I am here, I am being real, and I don’t want to be afraid anymore.

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!