Asperger’s and friendships – part 2

Does anyone else miss the days where friendships were formed by arranged play dates and a common interest in beanie babies? You know, before the days when the very word “friendship” meant a social hierarchy, in which kids who talked about cats all the time were not at the top? Yeah. Me too.

Just over a couple of years ago, I was at uni, writing regular online articles about being an autistic student, and I thought I’d give a few pointers on friendship. I didn’t fit in at uni, didn’t see many people outside uni, and was overly-dependent on a friendship that was going downhill faster than if it was rollerskating down a ski slope. In retrospect, I probably wasn’t in a good place to be doling out friendship advice.

I mean, what advice can I offer? That trying to make friends can lead to bitter disappointment, while not trying somehow ends in people bonding over a shared sense of humour before suddenly sharing all their darkest secrets? People in your life can make or break your trust. So just focus on the ones with whom you’ve exchanged secrets, shared your hurts and laughed until you’ve cried. The sheer quality of the friends I have made lately trumps all the social setbacks I’ve had, and I am so incredibly grateful to them.

As someone with Asperger’s, I think true friends are underrated. A few years ago, as a lonely teenager, I thought they were a miracle, as I wrestled with the notion that I might always have trouble relating to others. At best, other kids would come back to me when any boyfriends or cooler friends were out of the picture. At worst, they lost interest completely.

Over time, I have picked up a few tricks of the trade. Observation, for one. What does the other person say that hints at their personality? What do they find funny? What do they like to do? Or talk about? Then there’s empathy. Interpreting faces and body language may be hard, but if you really care when they’ve had a tough time, or are out of their depth, or even talking about something important to them, show it. Listen. Make eye contact. Encourage them to talk more, while respecting their privacy with sensitive issues.

And finally, a little humour can go a long way. If you can joke about how shy you are with new people, or something stupid you’ve done, then you can break through awkwardness. When you feel awkward, you can either metaphorically bury your head in the sand, or laugh at yourself and encourage others to do the same. Why do you think I dedicated an entire blog post to some of my most embarrassing anecdotes?

A group as good as it gets!

 

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My moments of shame

Has anyone ever successfully cracked an egg by tapping it with a spoon without having to mop it off the table, the floor, and their clothes? Asking for a friend.

Most people, at some point, take a moment to wonder exactly how things will be for them by this time in ten years/one year/one week/tomorrow. Sometimes I take a step further, and wonder what cringe-worthy anecdotes have yet to happen? I’ve already got too many to remember, but thankfully, my mother has a memory like an elephant when it comes to things like this, and we decided that some of them were too juicy not to share on the internet. Enjoy! But don’t laugh too much.

For a start, here’s one I’d nearly forgotten about. A few years ago, we were just having our kitchen re-painted when we had a student knock on our door asking a favour. To explain the mess, I may have told him we were “having the painters in.” Not heard that euphemism? Go and look it up…

And that time in my then-violin teacher’s car, aged nine or ten, that I still haven’t lived down. I was with a bunch of her other students, on our way to an exam rehearsal, and I was definitely starting to outgrow travel sickness. So when the car jolted…and swerved…and sped up at random…etc., no way was I going to sink so low as to ask to get out for some air. Then I threw up all over the boy next to me. When I got home, my clothes and the car stinking to high heaven, I tried to tell everyone that “someone was sick.” And let’s face it, I wasn’t lying!

There have also been times when I have actually been a danger to myself. Most notably, during a secondary school residential trip. We were having breakfast in the hotel, and not only did I not see the sign saying not to put croissants in the toaster oven, I also had no idea that pastry is so flammable. The unfortunate toaster and its contents went up in flames, and the last I saw of it as I made myself scarce was my teacher whacking a towel on it.

And of course, among Mum’s personal favourites, childhood stories. I feel like she hasn’t got over every supermarket trip in which I loudly asked things like “Are we going to shoplift? Is it wrong to steal? How do people shoplift?” Or told any shop assistant we spoke to – in detail – about my parents’ recent divorce. Our supermarket, by the way, had a large sign above the door: “Thank you for shopping. County.” Always a precocious child, I pronounced the last word as “country.” But without the “r” sound…

Apparently, I’m to blame for whenever Mum embarrasses me; after all, it’s only payback for every time I pulled my knickers down in front of people as a toddler. Or insisted on going out with string around my neck so I could be a dog on a lead. But worst of all was when she and John were engaged. Being little, I had no qualms about enquiring about her personal life. And so in my mind, it was perfectly acceptable to ask – in public – “Is John going to s*x you when you’re married, Mummy?”

These days whenever that story comes up, my parents invariably joke about John determining Mum’s gender on their wedding day. In response, I remind myself that embarrassment is to be ridden out like any other emotional discomfort, hold my head high, and carry on with my life. Because why give them the satisfaction of succumbing to shame and being unable to laugh at myself?

Handling conflict

Social skills are often a bit of a mystery to Asperger people. We misread faces and body language. We misunderstand certain instructions. We take a little longer to form friendships. That said, many people on the spectrum get pretty good at learning – or at least compensating for – skills like these. I like to think I’m one of them. But there is one social skill that I just don’t have yet: the ability to manage conflict.

In my last post, I talked about things that scare me. Conflict is one of those things. I sometimes wonder if it’s to do with early memories of family arguments, quickly followed by early memories of leaving behind everything I knew at the time. According to my mum, however, I was no better before then. My refusal to listen to any parts in Pingu story books in which characters got cross was a testament to that; my dear mother never tires of laughing at how often she had to change “shouted” to “said”. So clearly my personality played a part.

Is conflict particularly hard for autistic people? Look at it this way; any social interaction requires the brain to be on high alert for the implication behind words, and the very meaning of body language and facial expressions used. Now throw in some high emotions. Add a little anger, fear of making things worse, and a pinch of difficulty in expressing yourself eloquently. Sound hard to you?

As you know, AS people are often thought of as being logical and insensitive to people’s feelings. For me, the opposite is true. In the right frame of mind, I like to think I’m pretty logical. I can analyse myself, other people, and most situations objectively. Unfortunately, I soak up people’s negative emotions like a sponge. I’m bad at taking criticism, and I know it. I mean, when people have told me that, I’ve been offended, but I can believe it, with a bit of…well, objective analysis.

I’ve also had trouble setting boundaries for fear of offending, and it’s this that has caused many of my mistakes. At school, people would soon learn that they could help themselves to my stationery, or treats from my lunch, and be none the worse for wear. Yet anyone I complained to would offer the same crazy suggestion: say “no” to them, thus being selfish and hurting their feelings. I know, right? Unthinkable…

Fast forward to uni. The place where you form lifelong friendships. I thought the best way to maintain a friendship was to always put the other person’s wants and feelings before my own, and after a while, I became desperately unhappy. Which was a real wake up call.

I’d like to say I’ve learnt a lot since then, but I still find conflict hard. I want to be able to let other people’s quarrels wash over me. I want to know how to manage disagreements in a way that strengthens a relationship. But over the past couple of years, I’ve realised that standing up for your needs isn’t selfish, or unthinkable, because you can do so without tearing the other person down. Most importantly, everyone deserves to be heard. If nothing else, try to hold onto that.

What scares me?

My childhood, as some of you know, got off to an interesting start. But there is one early memory that spooked me deeply. It left me a quivering wreck, and has stayed with me to this day. It was a scene of carnage and destruction. It was the day Thomas the Tank Engine crashed through someone’s house. On TV. Yeah.

As you can see, I had a sensitive disposition as a child, which, in many ways, hasn’t fully left me. I’ve had several irrational fears throughout my life. Weirdly, Halloween has never been among them. I’ve never been an avid fan of it – my family as a whole are not interested – but it has inspired me to reflect on the things that have scared me at some point. Before you read any further, don’t judge me.

After Thomas, my next fear was anything that made a loud bang. Balloons, party poppers, and I think at one point even Christmas crackers. My mum wonders if it has anything to do with arriving at a party – still shaken after a nasty, pre-divorce fight between my parents – at the precise moment everyone in the room let off a load of party poppers.

My most intense fear – mercifully no longer the case – was probably fireworks. I remember being about six, and attending some kind of outdoor entertainment. Without warning, the sky exploded with hundreds of the damn things, and I remember screaming, trying to run, and spending the rest of the evening buried under a blanket, crying. Mum remembers a similar occasion when there was an unexpected display during some late night shopping we were doing. I panicked, fled, ran across the road, ran into the nearby supermarket, and was completely unreachable.

At first, even being indoors didn’t help, and it was with Mum’s patience that I slowly became more able to watch fireworks out of the window, and later, step outside the flat with them going off in the distance.

Another weird thing I struggled with as a kid was escalators. In my defence, why would I trust a surface that moves beneath my feet? Similarly, I was also afraid of walking on anything slippery – and still am, if I’m honest. This is most likely my dyspraxia manifesting itself, but I sometimes put it down to trying rollerblading, falling over, and sinking my teeth into my bottom lip. Yowzers.

I like to think that as a young adult, I’ve become less fearful. I mean, I’m less scared of spiders than I used to be. I can tolerate the occasional small/thin legged one in the same room. But there are spiders, and then there are the huge, hairy tarantula clones that randomly appear in the bath, come summer and autumn. Not my cup of tea in the slightest.

Lastly, one that I’m not proud of: vomiting. As a child, I was terrified of illness in general. If someone at school started feeling sick, I’d have an anxiety attack. I wouldn’t eat food that was even slightly old, or at risk of exposure to germs. Ironically, I would get so worried about getting ill, I would start feeling ill. Which then worried me sick. Pun intended.

Nowadays, I’ve come to accept that illness is inevitable, an unlikely occurrence, and usually short-lived. Regarding specifically vomiting related illnesses, I’ve been working on that over the years. But I will say this for myself: it was my fear of stomach bugs that motivated me to aim for five fruits and veggies a day, to give my immune system a good fighting chance. Wouldn’t you call it a blessing in disguise?

Asperger’s and Chris Packham

Have you ever marvelled at how much you can learn about something just by reading what people are saying on Facebook?

The other evening, I saw part of “Asperger’s and Me: Chris Packham”, in which Chris Packham, TV presenter and nature photographer, discloses his Asperger’s diagnosis and talks about how it affects him. Having not watched all of it, I can’t do a detailed analysis of the whole thing. Instead, what I thought I’d do is explore a couple of issues brought up by people discussing it on Facebook, and also share my thoughts on what I did see.

I’d never heard of Chris Packham until now, and this is thought to be the first time he has talked about having Asperger’s. In response, some people have said that this film has shown him in a whole new light, and that they had simply thought of him as socially awkward and hard to relate to. This may make them sound bad to you, and is definitely part of why having Asperger’s is lonely. But no-one’s a mind reader, and this is why disclosure is important. It’s hard – I couldn’t face telling anyone for years – but people need to learn, and many are willing to try.

One part I did catch was where he visited a school and a clinic in the US, where Asperger’s and other forms of autism were seen as something to be cured. I’ve said what I think about healing autism, and honestly, this bit disturbed me. The clinic tried to treat patients with shock therapy – electric shocks into the brain that were supposed to realign certain parts of it. The school was chaotic, noisy, and disorganised. The headteacher likened autism to cancer. Worst of all, frightened, screaming children were physically punished for showing any autistic behaviour.

Another issue that came up was: do people “suffer” from Asperger’s? Or is that offensive? Well, it’s not an illness, I’m very firm about that. You don’t catch it, develop it, treat it, stop having it, die of it, or pass it around. With a loving support system and good education, you develop and grow, but you don’t get off that spectrum!

So in that way, you don’t “suffer” from Asperger’s. What you suffer from is being autistic in a world made for neurotypical people, for whom body language and facial expressions make up the native language. You suffer from prejudice, and living with the knowledge that some people want people like you “bred out”. You suffer from people not warming to you because you don’t know how to make friends. That’s a lot of suffering, for a condition that doesn’t cause suffering!

Do I agree that people “suffer” from AS? You don’t suffer “from” it, but I can’t deny it can cause you to suffer. What do you think?

Tango’s tale

Cats are aloof, they say. Cats are dignified, they say. So tell me, any of you, has anyone ever seen a cat quite like this one?

If you know me – or at least my blog – very well, then you will have met Bouncer. Pictured above is his brother.

What prompted me to suddenly give Tango a bit of screen time was something actually quite sobering. Earlier this week, with little warning, he took ill rather dramatically. Having vomited copiously in at least two rooms, my mum and sister found him in a state of collapse. While the picture above indicates, not entirely incorrectly, that collapse is a normal state for him, he was rushed to the vets, put on a drip and kept in overnight.

Meanwhile, we were told he probably had something wrong with his heart. I inwardly accepted that this blog post was going to be something between an obituary and a eulogy.

To get a diagnosis, he had to be taken to a feline heart specialist in Derbyshire. Two car journeys, a heart scan, and a three-digit-long fee later, it turned out there was nothing wrong with his heart. So much for that.

Tango’s defining trait has always been his docility. At least one of the vets described him as “such a dude”, and at no point during his x-ray at the vets, or heart scan in Derbyshire, did anyone feel the need to anaesthetise him. For him, there seems to be a very fine line between illness-induced lethargy and normal behaviour. He barely woke when, as an animal care student in my teens, I had to give him a physical health-check for an assignment. I think he was a bit disconcerted when I started flexing his legs, but I was finished before he even got around to reacting.

We went on holiday a few years ago and left the cats in the care of one of my stepbrothers who, at one point, rang Mum and John, because he was worried about Tango. Needless to say, we had to reassure him that no, nothing was wrong with Tango, and yes, lying with his legs in the air and rarely waking up is perfectly healthy behaviour. For him.

For such a placid cat, he is a bit funny about late-neutered males. He hated Basil, my late grandmother’s cat, on sight. While Basil bullied Bouncer relentlessly, Tango pursued Basil with a Mr Hyde persona if he so much as looked at him; it was as if, for every blow Basil gave Bouncer, Tango would dole out two. When George kept turning up in our garden as a stray, it looked like he was in for similar treatment. Now, give or take the occasional fur-flying squabble where collars go pinging off, they seem to have come to a truce. In fact, George is fascinated by him, and doesn’t seem to understand that, while bottom sniffing has its perks, Tango doesn’t share his enthusiasm for it.

Now he and Bouncer are 13 1/2, having joined our household when they could still fit in one hand. Tango may be the soppiest cat I’ve ever met, but I’ll say this for him: in his own way, he’s stoical. He may be inclined to roll off beds in his sleep, he may panic if your keys rattle too loudly. But, as the brother who drew the short straw healthwise, he continues to be his usual trusting self throughout eczema medicine, eyedrops, and at one point a cone collar, being forced upon him. And while we’ve all been losing sleep over the thought of losing him, he has dealt with the ordeal with his usual unconditional trust and affection. Couldn’t we all learn from that?

The challenges of change

People say there’s good change and bad change. A while back, I expanded on this. Some things should change, some things will inevitably change, some things shouldn’t change, and some things will never change. Sound about right?

This is definitely true in a broader sense, but at the time, I was actually thinking about people as individuals. People change all the time. Some refuse to budge when push comes to shove. Others make a conscious effort, and there’s a very fine line between putting on a show just to impress, and changing so that you grow and improve.

You’ve probably heard that people on the autistic spectrum – like me – struggle with “inflexible thinking”. In response, I’d say I’m a flexible thinker, and a less flexible doer. I’ve willingly dealt with, and sometimes even welcomed, something new. I don’t have a meltdown if one week has a slightly different schedule to most weeks. I’m wary of getting so stuck in a particular thought pattern that it’s impossible to see outside it. See? I can handle change.

But my parents would point out that, in spite of all that, I still find it hard. And actually, they have a point. If things are going to be different, I like to know about it in advance and prepare as much as necessary. Right now, post-internship, I’m at a bit of a crossroad. This past fortnight has had some rather unexpected ups and downs. On top of that, I’ve had one-to-one meetings with new people, job applications and an interview, and a new editorial role on De Montfort Uni‘s magazine, the Demon. I can’t deny, it’s all very unsettling.

I think the reason people like me struggle with change is because there is a lot we don’t understand that comes easily for others, and so we feel a strong need for our environment to make sense. When there’s a lot going on, and I’m always asking what’s happening, when, where, etc. it’s like I can’t see all that, and am feeling my way in order to get a picture of my current situation.

I suppose the main thing to understand about change is that it’s unavoidable. Also it’s hard to pinpoint any specific way of handling it when every situation is different. I guess if something new is coming up and you know it, prepare and learn, even if it means asking the same things more than once. New things that you know nothing about are harder, but they’re not always bad. When things do go wrong, be aware of your needs and emotional reactions, and think about how you are going to get through. As for good change, it might help to think about why it’s happening, or what good may result, and if you don’t know, even if it feels difficult, that’s ok.