My recent endeavors: Aspie Cat, National Autistic Society interview, and the Thoughty Auti podcast

Over the past few months, I have taken my autism themed work beyond my blog, and I thought I would share my experiences with my latest endeavors on here. Starting with:

Aspie Cat

I have often compared my autistic struggles with certain cat traits. Things like touch sensitivity, stereotypes about being unfeeling, etc. Then last summer, the idea suddenly came to me: why not portray this in a series of comic style drawings? I drafted a cover page during autumn, and started drawing in earnest in November. Before I knew it, these cartoon shorts became part of a story. Which I am hoping to turn into a graphic novel.

As a child, I loved making up animal stories and spending hours drawing them. You could say I’ve fallen back on an old hobby. The scenes I portray are based on real life issues that I want people to understand better. At the same time, I like to inject a bit of humour into them, because there are some situations you have to laugh at.

National Autistic Society interview

Over the years, my family and I have been following the National Autistic Society. A few months ago, my stepdad contacted them to promote my blog. Long story short, he put them in touch with me, and in February I was interviewed via email for Stories on the Spectrum!

Stories on the Spectrum is a section on the NAS website that features interviews with autistic people from all walks of life. I’m pretty sure that had it been a face-to-face interview, my brain would have frozen and I would have forgotten every relevant part of my life story. As it was, I spent over an hour rapidly handwriting notes until my hand ached. Four journal pages and a long email later, I was satisfied.

The publication date in April initially seemed like ages away. Given that the pandemic, lockdown, and my hasty move back into my parents’ house happened shortly afterwards, in hindsight it felt like another lifetime away. But hey, I’m proud to have made it on there! I talked about my childhood, my experiences at church, and the assumptions I have dealt with about my race and my autism. Go to the link below and have a read!

Meanwhile, if you want to learn more about real life autistic experiences, then browsing through other interviews is a must!

My interview: https://www.autism.org.uk/about/stories/grace-liu.aspx

Thoughty Auti podcast

And finally, I had the honour of featuring on the Thoughty Auti podcast. It is a podcast that covers topics relating to autism and mental health, and is run by Thomas Henley, YouTuber at Aspergers Growth. And my episode was released yesterday!

Back in May, we planned to talk about the impact of early life changes (e.g. moving countries) and my struggles with being biracial and autistic. At first I was so nervous I was digging my nails into my arms without noticing, but Thomas was super easy to talk to, and we actually had a fair few laughs! I did have a classic autistic moment at the end where he said goodbye to the audience and I had no idea he was expecting me to do the same, but that got removed.

So if you want to know about racist schoolboys, being outnumbered by white neurotypicals, and how Thomas and I went off on a tangent about cheese, here it is (you can also find it on YouTube and Apple):

NB: to anyone who’s listened to it, I didn’t think to ask Mum if I’ve ever counted as an immigrant until too late (I haven’t).

Oversharing: the autistic way

When I interact with new people, nine times out of ten, my natural inclination is to metaphorically hold my cards close to my chest. I’ll be polite. Sometimes conversational. On a good day I might even put them at ease with my sense of humour. I might just take a while to really feel comfortable with them.

Occasionally, however, I’ll meet someone who I connect with quickly and naturally, and suddenly I’m at risk of talking too much if I’m not careful. I’ll be rambling about the good and bad things in my life, what sort of day/week I’m having, whatever entertaining anecdote I can think of etc., feeling pretty good. And then my anxiety will resurface and leave me thinking: why did I talk so much?! What the HECK did I just say?!

Some autistic people have been known to be prone to oversharing. Sometimes known as info dumping. That is, talking for way too long and/or in too much detail. Which sounds ironic when you think about how one of the main struggles of autism is social interaction. But because we struggle with social etiquette, we are caught between that need for emotional intimacy and not knowing how to achieve it. So we either clam up and look antisocial, or boycott all the bog standard small talk and rattle off everything we are thinking or feeling.

Or we might talk at length about our special interests. It’s our way of trying to connect with people. We’d far rather talk about something close to our hearts than make aimless chit-chat. I think I’m less prone to that than I used to be. When I was a child, I considered my encyclopaedic knowledge of cat breeds to be a core part of my identity. What was so weird about giving a 1< hour lecture on the subject to everyone I met?

It gets awkward when it comes to sharing more private things. My mum was persistent in getting it into my head that it’s ok to talk about such things discreetly with close female friends, but not loudly, publicly, or to boys. Which is a principle I’m thankful for. Without it, I would have spent my teenage and uni years baffled by how some girls talked loudly about periods, toilet details, or sex in a room full of people, while others avoided such topics like the plague.

What I’m less clear on is how much I’m expected to say when someone I don’t know closely asks how I am. Saying “fine thanks” might sound boring or antisocial if the other person wants a proper conversation. And if I’m not fine, I’m not good at lying, even if I don’t feel like talking about it. But then I’ve embarrassed myself in the past by talking about something specific that was bothering me, only to realise afterwards that it was more than the other person was expecting. I might be my own worst critic, but I sometimes feel like I can’t win!

So to anyone who has been subjected to autistic oversharing, please bear with us! We are trying to connect in the way we know best. If you need to change or end the conversation, a firm but gentle pointer will go much further than unspoken expectations.

Autistic meltdowns vs shutdowns

A few years ago, I wrote about autistic meltdowns. Back then, I just thought the word “meltdown” was a catch-all term for any behavioural signs of mental, emotional, or sensory overload. But meltdowns are typically characterised by physical and emotional outbursts and an obvious struggle to deal with one’s immediate situation. And very often I find it hard to express when I’m feeling overwhelmed, because it’s just not in my nature to openly explode.

My main lockdown project comprises writing a non-fiction book about autism, something I have had very little time for in a normal working life. This has required a lot of research, and in reading about the ins and outs of autistic meltdowns, I stumbled across a related, but less commonly used term: autistic shutdown.

Shutdowns and meltdowns are two sides of the same coin. They are both primitive coping mechanisms for dealing with a crisis. The difference is how they present themselves. Someone having a meltdown might lash out. They might shout or scream. They might display repetitive behaviours. A shutdown, on the other hand, is usually far less obvious.

When I have a shutdown, my brain and emotions have reached breaking point. For me, it means being desperate to hide from the outside world. It means being too bewildered and unfocused to function. It might mean having to leave the room because I can’t handle the situation. It might mean crying because of some small trigger that has unleashed festering negativity (though I hate crying in front of people, and will either fight the urge or shut myself away if possible first). Most of all, it means being stuck in a daze with my mind in turmoil and my social skills gone.

But because my instinct is to internalise and withdraw, I can’t always communicate my struggles. So to other people, I might just seem really flustered. I might be uncharacteristically irritable. I might be even more socially awkward than usual. I might come across as confused, or even downright stupid. I might seem moody and anti-social. Or I might be keeping quiet and looking like nothing’s wrong.

As with meltdowns, no two autistic people will experience shutdowns in the same way. Or in the same situations. Airports and the London Underground network always leave me exhausted. When the stresses of 3rd year uni assessments reached a boiling point, with deadlines looming and my coursemates hating each other, I had to shut myself in the bathroom at one point when it got too much. My graduation day was so draining, my mum had to find an empty room for me to just sit quietly. And now we’ve all had to say an unceremonious goodbye to life as we know it, while learning some uncomfortable truths about how the world works. Which makes this a fitting time to be talking about crisis coping mechanisms.

To conclude, I will re-iterate what I said in my meltdowns post about managing these situations. Be aware of what a shutdown means for you, and what might trigger one. When anticipating a high-stress situation, learn what to expect from it, and plan where, when, and how you can recharge. Stick with someone who understands you, and if no-one does, explain to them what you might struggle with while you still feel able. Because you deserve to be heard.

The ambiguity of lockdown

Right now, I’m in a state of conflict over my relationship with social media. On one hand, I’m trying to make the most of the extra time not just to write more, but get my work out there, and in this day and age, I can’t do that without the internet. On the other hand, I fear too much engagement with social media will drive me to despair. Why?

There are several reasons, but the one I’m thinking of is this. My main autistic struggles include dealing with ambiguous expectations and mixed messages, which the internet is full of. When Covid 19 took off in earnest, I couldn’t tell how worried we were supposed to be. First it was just a new kind of flu that most people weren’t worried about. Then we had to stock up on essentials. But not over-buy. But also get there before the people who do over-buy. Then I ended up packing my things at short notice, moving back in with my parents, and not leaving the house except for exercise.

Now briefly visiting other people is ok if you follow the rules (which keep changing). Some places are re-opening. Some aren’t. Some kids are going back to school. Some aren’t. We’re allowed to linger a bit more in parks and beaches. But not too much. And it’s all on the brink of changing again. Which is important for the economy. But also dangerous.

Plus I still don’t know how worried to be about the virus itself. My chance of dying from it would be below 1%. Yet hundreds of people die from it every day, while the rest of us need to keep 2m apart. We may get a vaccine this September, or next September. No-one can agree on how effective it’s likely to be. If all this happened 15-20 years ago when even the thought of going near someone with a cold terrified me, I would have panicked too much to be able to function!

I like to think I’m doing a good job of dealing with the lockdown itself. I have a routine. I’ve been honing my skills, learning new recipes, and getting fitter. I’m aware that I’m privileged when it comes to my health and my living arrangements. I just find the ever-changing guidelines and news exhausting to keep up with. I like knowing what’s going to happen, and feeling in control of my life. And having those removed has been hard.

So for the time being, I’m carrying on as I have been, and checking with my family and other people I know about what we can and can’t do now. I’ve had ups and downs, but I’m learning to be at peace with not knowing what’s going to happen. I’m taking control of my life in other ways. I’ve done more writing in two months than I’ve managed these past two years! And for my own sanity, I’m trying not to get more emotionally invested in the news than I have to. I realise apathy isn’t always a healthy attitude. I’m just aware that if I get overwhelmed by what might happen soon, I can’t be productive now.

Representation and why it matters

Ages ago, when I was at uni, I wrote a blog post about disabilities in the media, or, to put it more concisely, representation. I was thinking largely about autism, as I often do on my blog, and disabilities in general, but actually, this is an issue for people in any minority category. Plus women (more on that here). And since uni, I have come to realise the extent of the impact that representation – or lack of it – can have on one’s identity.

Representation in the media is easy to take for granted. We see it in the storybooks and TV we grow up with. We grow attached to the characters in them because they are supposed to represent real people, no matter what species they are, or what sort of world they live in. The more characters – and real life role models – we can relate to, the more we establish a sense of belonging in the world.

The double edged sword here is this. Fiction portrays the way the creator thinks the world should be, and no-one’s perception of the world is flawless or completely accurate. So the majority of it errs towards representing just that – the majority. And the more a real-life person fits the ideals of the majority, the more likely they are to be successful in the media.

I understand why some people are more represented than others. In the UK, most people are both white and British. Most people are neurotypical and able bodied. Most people are heterosexual and cisgender. So I can see why many fictional characters and role models in the media fit those categories.

But what about those of us who don’t?

When we develop an idea of what is the norm that doesn’t match the way we are, it emphasises that feeling of being the “other”. When we see characters that do represent us in some way, it both influences, and tells us, how people see us. If they are relatable and well rounded, that feels like a pretty big deal. If they are nothing more than a stereotype, then we have to deal with the frustration of other people expecting nothing more of us.

For me, what bothers me the most is when people roll their eyes at real and fictional people in minority categories getting the spotlight in the media, and when they supposedly don’t mind people like that as long as they’re not shoving their differences in everyone’s faces. It’s that attitude of taking for granted how represented you are, and not being able to deal with the “other” getting so much as a taste of it.

To which I say: everyone deserves to feel represented, no matter how “niche” their life experiences are. It not only educates the world, but also reduces the sense of shame that comes with being seen as different. Because people who are different – in their body, brain, race, gender, sexuality – are real. And real people from all walks of life deserve to feel heard.

Like an animal in a zoo

Recently, my parents were clearing out the study when they unearthed several files of my old school reports, autism related reports, and other such documents, not for the first time. I thought it would be worth holding onto them for any autism books I might write, and with that in mind, I had a look through them.

One thing that strikes me whenever I read these is how I’ve spent my whole life – but especially my school years – feeling like a bit of a spectacle. Being biracial made me stand out enough from day one (literally – the Taiwanese hospital staff were apparently desperate to watch mainly for this reason). But no, that was just the beginning.

Nine years later, from the moment I was given an Asperger’s diagnosis, I spent the nine years after that moment constantly being observed, reviewed, and corrected. Endless letters and reports between my parents and school staff. People of all ages not knowing how to talk to me. Kids thinking I was weird or boring. The frustration of feeling like I couldn’t do anything without being corrected, patronised, or mocked. I felt like a zoo animal, constantly being watched. And it was all these oh-so-happy memories that inspired me to write the following (now carefully edited) journal entry:

I start off small and unaware of my surroundings and the people watching me. If anyone interacts with me in a way I don’t like, I don’t dwell on their behaviour or intentions for long. This is just how the world works.

But as I grow older, smarter, and more desperate for freedom, I start noticing how quick people are to correct my behaviour for reasons that seem illogical to me. I feel increasingly restricted. Children stare at me. Some laugh, some walk on by. Some ask questions about my behaviour. Some are friendly. Some try to talk to me but don’t know how. Why is it so hard?

Adults watch me closely. Some make notes. Some talk about my every move as if it’s completely alien to them. Some talk about things they think I should be learning, things that feel unnatural to me. Some talk to me with that tone people used when I was little. Some offer praise and encouragement when I behave in a way they approve of, others get impatient when I don’t. I barely keep up with whatever it is people expect of me, the pressure of it weighing me down, pounding in my head, twisting in my stomach. Those who care about me fight for a good future for me, but for now I have to patiently wait for that future to happen. The most restricting thing for me is how isolated I feel, watching people not know how to react to me, and then moving on with their lives together, while I’m on my own, wondering if I’ll ever be allowed to just…be.

 

Neurotypical-splaining – making statements about autism to an autistic person

Some of you may have heard the term “man-splaining”. This basically means when a man needlessly explains something to a woman in a well-meaning but condescending way. The implication is that women aren’t expected to be as knowledgeable as men about the area in question, from how to do their job, to female-specific experiences. It’s not that women never need help. Or that men cannot and shouldn’t be helpful. Help is something that is asked for and/or needed. When it isn’t, it becomes man-splaining.

Which brings me onto a similar issue. Being on the spectrum myself, I lose count of how many people have felt it necessary to tell me how Asperger’s/autism works. For example, I will be explaining to someone what autism means for me, either because I need to, or as a topic of conversation. To which they reply something like “People with autism always…” or “Does that mean you’re very…”, or “Ah, like Rainman (or other overly stereotyped autistic fictional character)”. As if they know more about autism than me. Hence my newly coined term “Neurotypical-splaining”.

I’m well aware that generally, neurotypical (non-autistic) people who do this mean well. They probably don’t know how to respond and are trying to continue the conversation. But, as an autistic person, I can’t help finding it annoying. It’s frustrating enough when people talk down to me, or don’t expect me to be able to understand things, in any other context. I’m aware that sometimes I do need help, but when I haven’t asked for it, it just feels patronising.

As for trying to explain to me how my own brain works? If what they say is true, then it’s just pointing out the obvious. If not, then it sounds ignorant.

The trick to avoiding this is to not make assumptions. By all means bear in mind whatever you’ve heard about autism, but don’t forget to see the person as an individual, not a stereotype. So when someone tells you they’re autistic, try replacing statements and closed (i.e. yes/no) questions with open questions. For example:

Instead of “I’ve heard autistic people cannot understand humour”, try “What does having autism mean for you?” That way, rather than inadvertently putting all autistic people in the same metaphorical box, you’re simply asking for a chance to learn.

And instead of “Does that mean you’re obsessed with computers?” try “What sort of things are you interested in?” By rephrasing this question, you’re changing it from making an assumption to simply asking them the sort of question you might ask anyone.

Hope that helps! I realise this may seem like a small thing to get annoyed about, and perhaps it is, but it’s such a common occurrence – and so easy to avoid – that I felt it was worth discussing. Because sometimes we on the spectrum need to politely point out what I said earlier: that we are individuals, not a stereotype.

 

 

 

Moments that summarise my autistic experience

When, as a child, I would introduce myself to a new person, and then feel it essential to add “I know all about cat breeds”.

When, in a busy place, I can’t quickly read what an approaching person is about to do, or where they want to move, and so just stand there dithering instead of actually moving out of their way.

When someone I don’t know well reaches out to touch me and I struggle not to flinch.

When someone is talking to me and I have to remember to not keep looking at all the other things I can hear just as clearly.

When I am talking to someone, and I try and remember to make eye contact, even though I can focus better on what I am talking about if I am not also trying to focus on their face.

The frustration I sometimes feel about spending my life constantly having to explain myself and autism to people, while knowing that feeling isn’t entirely reasonable because people need to know.

Coming out of lessons during secondary school and struggling not to cry because of spending yet another hour misunderstanding what was expected of me.

The humiliation I feel every time I struggle with something that most people find easy – especially when around people who don’t know me well.

When I’m with a big group of people in a public place, and while they’re all engaging in various conversations, I’m listening to the background music I can only just hear and am trying to figure out its key/harmonies, especially if it’s a song I recognise.

Every activity at school that required us to get into pairs or groups inevitably ending with me being left out.

When I had to bite my tongue and remain polite when I told someone I was autistic and their response was “aww, bless you!”, as if I was a toddler who had just fallen over.

Spending break times at secondary school reading, or doing homework, in the special needs room, just to avoid the loneliness of being alone in a massive crowd of kids outside.

Every time someone tells me “autistic people are very (insert stereotype)”, as if they, a neurotypical person, know more about autism than me.

When my mum recently asked me if I would like to go to a social event in a few weeks and added I would need to decide soon, and I struggled to decide because I could not mentally make that adjustment to my expectations for the coming weeks without taking time to think about the practical implications for me.

Spending half of my primary school years having no idea why I wasn’t connecting with the other children the same way they did with each other.

That time someone kept suggesting I get healing for autism and I stood my ground and kept firmly repeating that I am not sick, or a lesser human being, I just think and learn a bit differently. How big and brave I felt for having done it. How small and shaky I felt on the inside.

 

 

Age “appropriate” interests

One of the earliest traits of Asperger’s is unusual interests – that is, things that might not appeal to people of a similar age. We’ve already established I was a strange child. The sealife encyclopaedias I used to want Mum to read to me at night when I was 4 are a testament to that. And it brings me onto a topic that, like many others, I stumbled across on Facebook: age appropriate interests.

A recurring debate within this topic is to what extent should autistic children – and adults –  be persuaded to take an interest in similar things to their peers? This is a tricky one, and it can be a morally grey area. Is it helping the person to learn and grow so that they are not stuck in the same patterns throughout adulthood? Or is it forcing them to be someone they’re not, just to please the rest of the world? Let us have a think.

For a start, is “appropriate” even the right word? It’s so subjective, and varies between different generations and cultures anyway. I texted Mum to ask her opinion, and had a quick phone conversation about my various interests growing up.

Far from worrying about what a weirdo I was (and arguably still am), she fell in love with my individuality, and found it baffling that my first teachers treated me as if I had just landed from outer space (rather than Taiwan). I liked wearing a different shoe on each foot. I read snake encyclopaedias cover to cover. I would often rather read, draw, or make things, than watch TV, much to my headteacher’s disgust. In short, I was quirky and intelligent. What’s inappropriate about that?

Throughout my childhood, I was interested in things aimed at younger kids, like my extensive family of soft toys. I was also interested in things for adults, like cat breeds and reading Watership Down. What I couldn’t be bothered with were toys and media aimed at my peers, as a small child and as a pre-teen. Dolls? Popular TV programs? Forget it. Other people disapproved of me carrying soft toys everywhere after a certain age. But my toy cats were my closest friends at the time. Why should I give them up?

As I became a teenager, I grew more self conscious, while other kids grew more judgemental. I learned the hard way that saying “I know all about cat breeds” wasn’t the best conversation starter in secondary school. Mum gently introduced me to the Now That’s What I Call Music CDs, and Mizz magazine. My stepdad had already started reading Harry Potter to me. Not because they wanted to change me, but to help me find common ground with other kids.

And I did get into all three of the above. I read all the Harry Potter books and looked forward to the next Mizz every fortnight. I still haven’t tired of certain Now 60-something songs. It’s a hard balance to strike, but my parents managed, and I’m grateful for it.

So that basically sums up my stance: if introducing someone to what their peers are into is genuinely helping them, then it’s worth a try. But don’t force it on them; it only encourages them to be ashamed of the way they are. Personal interests and popular trends often don’t last forever anyway, so why use either as a measurement of what’s appropriate? Whatever the person’s interests are, if you can honestly say you are prioritising their wellbeing – and not their image – then you’re on the right path.

How do I talk about myself?

As an autistic person, one of the things I struggle with is rules changing. It’s not that I can’t deal with things being different. It’s more that when information is passed to and from a number of different people and resources, and there is a bit of uncertainty about how things should be, I find it hard to keep up. And for the most part, I can manage that, and make sense of what’s going on in my own way.

But when one thing that is constantly changing is how we talk about autism, how am I supposed to make sense of that?

When I was first diagnosed, the salient facts were these: I have Asperger’s Syndrome. Asperger’s is on the mild end of the autistic spectrum, thus making me an autistic person. And then times changed, diversity became more widely celebrated, and autism more widely understood. Which are great things. But with all that, there is now a lot of confusion. For me, anyway.

First, there was the whole “autistic vs has autism” debate. Some people felt that calling someone “an autistic person” was defining a person by a label, and not recognising them as a person first and foremost. Then others disagreed; they felt that saying someone “has autism” made it sound like autism was something to be ashamed of when it is a key part of who the person is. I explored the topic myself in an earlier blog, and felt pretty confident in my stance: I will fully respect other autistic people’s preferences, but personally don’t mind either way.

In a similar way, some take offence at the word “disabled”. They don’t want to be seen as less than, and one could argue that autism is only considered a disability because it makes up a minority. Others see no shame in counting themselves as disabled, and don’t let the concept get to them.

And it gets more complicated. I started using the word “autism” more than “Asperger’s” when talking about myself because people seem to understand the word “autism” better. I didn’t, however, realise just how much the term “Asperger’s Syndrome” was falling out of fashion. For one thing, people seem to be just diagnosed with the umbrella term “autism spectrum disorder.” For another, legend has it that Hans Asperger – who the condition is named after – was a Nazi supporter. So people, fairly enough, stopped wanting to be associated with him.

Then there are the “functioning labels” – high functioning and low functioning. These terms give an idea of whereabouts on this invisible spectrum a person is. But people have found that they can be misleading, in that they simply give the impression that “high functioning” autistic people don’t struggle, while “low functioning” people don’t have strengths.

With all these different arguments, it gets confusing. I’m aware that plenty of neurotypicals don’t know how to talk to, or about autistic people, and as frustrating as that can be, there’s no hope if I don’t even know how to talk about myself. There are points I agree with and ones I disagree with, and I think it boils down to individual preference. I don’t need neurotypical people telling me how I can and can’t talk about myself. I do appreciate open questions with minimal assumptions behind them. Because autistic people are individuals. And a group of individuals may need to raise their voices together to be heard, but they won’t always shout the same thing.