Life so far: growing up, autism, and 100 blog posts!

Years ago, I often thought about starting a blog. With my big dreams of becoming an author, it sounded like the sort of thing that all the high-flying writers are doing. Of course, it was just a crazy idea I had. Nothing serious. Right?

On receiving Blogging for Dummies for Christmas, I thought I’d at least show my appreciation by doing a quick summary of my world as a trial blog post. Now, four years and 99 posts later, my blog has definitely stood the test of time. It’s my way of reaching out, entertaining, and making my mark.

And this is my 100th post! So I thought I’d offer a much bigger summary of my life up until now.

Starting with Taipei, Taiwan, Wednesday 17th March 1993 at 1.13pm. My parents joke about how typical it was of me to come out at lunchtime. To which I say, how many people do YOU know who were born in the middle of the day, week, month, and academic year, on their due date?

People sometimes ask me what I remember about Taiwan. Kind of awkward because my earliest memories include me and my (British) mum hiding from my (Taiwanese) dad after they had been fighting. But hey, I also remember playing with our pets, walking through mountain scenery, and my 4th birthday party. It wasn’t all bad!

Just after said birthday, my pregnant mother and I hastily headed my grandparents’ way – Cam, Gloucestershire. My sister was born. I started school, and was happily oblivious to my teachers telling Mum how weird I was and blaming it on bad parenting. Then we found a council flat.

A year later, while we were on holiday, my now-stepdad made his debut. From then on, he kept turning up on our doorstep. And we on his. This went on for about three years, until he and Mum married, and we invaded his house for good. Did I mention what a cute bridesmaid I was?

Now in Loughborough, I ended up at a school that was actually competent, and hey presto, I was diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome. My response to the news? “Oh…can I have a piece of cheese?”

Secondary school pulled my head out of the clouds with a jolt. It was a scary world of social hierarchies, sport, and teachers with varying levels of empathy. I struggled with friendships. I struggled in classes. Most of all, I struggled to accept that autism was nothing to be ashamed of.

But gradually, I got involved with various social groups at church, and I finally started to make friends and open up about my difficulties. Meanwhile, I was studying animal care at Brooksby College. It comprised manhandling animals of every size and species, essays, poo, and overnight lambing. Pretty grim, but I passed with straight distinctions!

Because I wasn’t ready for uni afterwards, I did a couple of years of home study, and realised that my heart was in becoming an author, not a vet nurse. The second year proved eventful when my Grannie died of cancer, and I still regret not visiting more. But it was also the year I started at De Montfort University, studying Creative Writing and Journalism. It was challenging, and falling out with my friend when we tried living together was hard. That said, I learned more about writing than I ever had before, and I don’t regret it for a second.

And now, here I am, coming to the end of my Christian bookshop internship. It’s been a great year, with great people, and I can’t help wishing I had more time left. But few things in life are permanent, and as I reflect on my significant life events, I do wonder what the next one will be.

 

 

To John: a very happy, hot, and sunny Father’s day

As usual on a Sunday, I am trying to come up with witty, informative reading material that really captures my chosen subject. Unfortunately, it’s so hot, I’m struggling to think of anything remotely clever. Fortunately, my chosen subject has reassured me that he is not remotely clever. Introducing: husband to my mother, father to my stepbrothers*…my stepfather John!

When John first turned up in our lives, we were a single parent family – Mum, five year old me, one year old sister Rhian – living on benefits. My father, for all his apparently fine qualities, had not come up trumps, my earliest memories comprising me and my pregnant mother hiding in her locked bedroom after a particularly nasty fight.

A year on, and we were on a single parents week at a Christian holiday/retreat centre. I don’t remember much about those early stages, except that this man who Mum met during the week kept visiting. And sleeping in our living room. It’s been 19 years, and in retrospect, moving in with him was probably a hint that he was here to stay. Or we were.

I’ve told John several times that of all the dads I’ve had, he’s definitely in the top 50 per cent. He fits all the basic “dad” criteria to a tee. He makes predictable jokes. He makes them again. He sings out of tune. Over the years, he’s helped me and my sister with revision, job applications, and unwanted bits of food. Or food that he mistook for being unwanted. And, despite his earlier assurances, he’s actually pretty clever.

Plus, he’s had a role in many a family anecdote. Like when, pre-marriage, he took six year old me and two year old Rhian to the smallpox museum. Picture it: photos of hideously scarred, dying children everywhere, and a video all about a disease that killed everyone. Mum knew it hadn’t been a success when we came back white as a sheet, and unable to finish our dinner. It seems that John’s stepdad potential could only go up from there.

And of course, bedtime reading. It was John who got me reading people stories as well as animal ones, when he said he was going to read a surprise book. He did a good job of hiding the cover as well; I only got a split-second glimpse of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone before he started reading.

During my sister’s Enid Blyton phase, he had a real knack (or was it need?) when it came to livening up tales of pious schoolgirls with zany French teachers. Not satisfied with his old trick of inserting funny words, he had to give each character a badly-portrayed accent. Welsh? Afro-American? Dalek? You name it.

Yep, John is very much dad material. And I fully appreciate what he’s done for us. I’ve often thought it must take dedication to take on someone else’s kids and help raise them as your own. So I want to raise a glass to all dedicated fathers, and specifically those who take on the role, no matter how late in their children’s lives. Who better to teach me how to quickly predict a dad joke?

 

 

*one of whom features here

 

Next stop: Ukraine

You know when you have such an adventure filled time that you can’t wait to tell everyone about it? And when you get back and they ask, it’s like you’ve just developed travel memory loss? Yep. This is me right now.

And I still don’t know where to begin. So just sit back and watch, as I try to cram travel, stress, adventure, raccoons, toilets, friends, fun, prayer, culture, *deep breath* into one post.

To recap: as part of my Christian internship, I am doing a weekly discipleship course with other Christian interns. And last week, our leader was due to speak in churches in Kiev, Ukraine. Voila, my first mission trip.

If I’m honest, my attempts at being positive about the trip were wearing thin towards the big day. I find big groups a challenge. Airports even more so. What I hadn’t bargained for was having a panic attack just after take-off. Of all the places to be gripped by fear of the unknown, of vomiting publicly, of everything worrying me, it had to be thousands of feet above the ground, surrounded by people, with no way out.

Yet throughout the day, my friends cared. They prayed for me. Looked out for me. My friend Ruth stayed with me throughout the journey, and chatted to me when I felt bad again. I used to wonder how chatting could possibly calm an anxiety attack. I was wrong. It really takes the edge off.

Yes, being mildly autistic in a group of people exploring new territory was tough at times. I find it harder to form bonds in a group. I got fed up with needing help mixing, or understanding what was going on. I wanted to be on the same level as everyone else, but it wasn’t always possible.

You know what, though? I got the help I needed, and I’m fully grateful for it. Because that’s how a good group works, and I would do anything in return.

Besides, there was plenty to laugh at. Like the man with his pet raccoon*, who wouldn’t let one of my male friends take a picture, but was happy to take a selfie with a passing young lady. Or when Mary, who is Ukrainian, introduced me to Ukrainian public toilets: holes in the ground. I decided I’d rather wait for two hours.

In short, this trip saw me at my most exhausted, but there were times when I felt more exhilarated than I’d felt in a long time. I had late night, heartfelt conversations with the girls. I ran through sprinklers** like a fool with the others. I ate till I could burst. We laughed. We took photos. We were alive.

Last, but not least, we did what we came to do. We took part in church services. People at church got healed of physical pain. People on the streets got a chance to feel heard. Some believe, some don’t, but for me, the most important thing was showing them a bit of love.

In conclusion, I want to give my love and thanks. To Ruth, once again, and her dad, our leader, who was so patient with me whenever I was weary or confused. To our translators. To everyone who donated towards this trip. To my parents for their support. To the four friends who contacted me during the week to ask how I was. To certain people who helped me not get lost at the airport or the underground. To the interns whose house I stayed at the night before. You are all wonderful people!

 

*

**

DISCLAIMER: the first and third photos aren’t mine

Injuries and the like

My dyspraxic difficulty in predicting where oncoming people – particularly cyclists – are heading is an accident waiting to happen. Last Thursday, it happened. Barely two minutes after work, I went to cross the road from one corner to the opposite one. An approaching cyclist on the road at 12 o clock* looked like he might be cycling past me. The sensation of forcefully hitting the ground confirmed that he had actually tried to turn the same corner that I was heading towards.

New bruise collection? Check. Bandaged foot? Check. I’d also like to thank the passer-by from the hospital who wouldn’t let me go until she was sure I didn’t need medical attention. Anyway, I did what most self-respecting women would do: cry a bit, take a bath, eat chocolate and complain to anyone listening.

And reminisce about mishaps gone by. Namely a near-identical incident at a holiday/retreat centre when I was six. I was playing outside, didn’t see the girl on a bike in time and consequently got flattened. My sister likes to think I was re-enacting that moment. I like to think it was foreshadowing what was to come 17 years later.

Another time, I went on a trip with the Brownies to a rollerblading arena. I fell down. I got back up and kept trying. I repeated this until I went face first and sank my teeth into my lip. Blood was spilled and a dislike of slippery surfaces was ignited.

Then there’s my nearly-ten-years-old bread-knife scar. I don’t know what sort of bread that knife was made for, but definitely not the sort that displays resistance to pressure. In fact, it skidded wildly and took a pound of flesh from my finger. Which had to be strapped to my other finger. I distinctly remember showing my sister the used dressing the next day, and her responding “you’ve had your period on it.” Brilliant.

Medical issues have demonstrated two things. One: I over-react to touch. Back in Year 9, what started as an irritated eye landed me at the doctor’s, then the optician, then the walk-in centre and finally the hospital’s eye department, where I was diagnosed with a simple eye infection. I don’t know how the medics got the eye drops into me, but Mum had to pin me down, unable to move, and hold both my head and my eyelid. Eight times a day for at least a week.

Two: I under-react to pain. When I was 15, I found what looked like insect bites on my tummy. Three weeks later, I realised they may be infected, and went to the doctor. Following several ineffective antibiotics, I carried on as normal, until my parents got one look at my weepy, burning skin and took me to the walk-in centre. Turned out I had an extremely rare staphylococcal infection, was at risk of blood poisoning, and had been running a fever without realising. Yikes.

Yet somehow, I’m still alive. If I go a month without writing a blog post, you may rectify that statement. Until then, fingers crossed!

 

 

*Meaning he was directly ahead. Not to be interpreted as the whole thing happening at midnight.

 

Awkward encounters

I seem to have accumulated a lot of entertaining people-related anecdotes lately. I think this is what comes of entering the world of work and serving the public. Or maybe it’s yet another perk of being autistic. I don’t know. On one hand, many of the following incidents did happen before, during, or after work. On the other, my mum has pointed out that I have the sort of aura that people stopping other people in the street immediately pick up on.

For one thing, I’ve always been susceptible to racist jibes from strangers. I’m half British, I’ve lived in this country since I was four. Yet I got it all the time from boys at secondary school. I’ve had various guys shout “ni hao” to me in the street. And then a few months ago, some boys loitering outside said school shouted “Great Wall of China!” at me on my way to work. My sides are splitting just thinking about it.

Then of course, there are people I’ve seen at work. Most of them are anywhere from normal to lovely. But of course, there are always a few who are rude about your job performance, have out-of-control children, or who just aren’t the full ticket. Like the woman who left her new loyalty card on the counter where I couldn’t see it, then came back and got all shirty with me for not rushing after her to return it. Yep. Definitely my fault.

Or the man who kept muttering Bible verses, insults towards the shop, and questions that made no sense, and then asked what was wrong with me when I didn’t follow. And kept talking about me to my colleagues but nothing to my face. Apparently I was the one with the problem. Clearly.

And it’s not just when I’m out and about, either. I was alone one evening and ended up answering the door to a young woman asking to speak to the homeowners. I said they were out, and added that we don’t take calls like this. She then said I was being patronising, and really rude treating her like a cold caller when she was trying to do her job*. In her defence, when I apologised, and explained I was autistic and hadn’t known what to say, she apologised back. Can’t complain.

Still, it’s not all frustration and rudeness. Only this week, I had a woman come into the shop looking for a book for a friend, but she couldn’t remember what it was called. Thinking she was collecting an order, I asked for “her name.” Thinking I meant the author’s name, she said she’d just check her phone. Which left me wondering why she needed to check her friend’s name on her phone…

 

 

 

*Whatever that was. Turning up out of the blue uninvited, I think.

 

 

I remember…

Among writers, it is a pretty well known fact that one of the best ways to beat writer’s block is by doing a writing prompt. You know, a little exercise that gets you writing about something. Anything. So tell me this: how is it that, while writing this post, I spend about an hour deciding how best to write the beginning?

Well, enough of that, and on to a simple exercise I learned during my first year at uni. If you’re trying to get your writing brain in gear, or even just bored, set yourself a time limit and begin with:

I remember…

Having a boy at secondary school call me a “ch*nky”, most likely to impress his mates. I don’t know if he was hoping to get lucky, but strangely, I don’t find casual racism to be much of a turn on.

Not understanding why Mum was being so violently sick in the months before my sister was born.

My grandparents’ cats coming back from the vet and me not knowing why the female was shaved on one side and the male under his tail.

Visiting the Nottingham Christmas Market with my secondary school as a reward for good behaviour, and one of the boys getting caught shoplifting.

Calling potato wedges “wedgies”.

My thirteenth birthday party, in which I must have eaten a ton of chocolate, party food, pancakes and birthday cake. Not surprisingly, the party ended with me feeling a little peaky.

And this was before the food hangover…

Going to my Friday night Year 10+ youth club, and the evening coming to an unceremonious halt when a boy’s arm went straight through a window. His arm was shredded and spurting blood, and he was definitely crying.

Overhearing him at school some time later bragging to other kids about how it was just a scratch and how he’d laughed throughout the whole thing.

Recovering from the trauma of my (then five year old) sister being rushed to hospital with a broken arm when I realised I could watch any video I wanted without negotiation.

Saying goodbye to Mum after hers and my stepdad’s wedding reception, and trying not to show how much I was going to miss her.

Mum and I moving from Taiwan to England when I was just four, and not understanding how final this was after so many holidays with my (English) grandparents.

That “first day of school” feeling on my first day at university.

Learning about the Black Death at school and being afraid to sleep with my lamp off that night.

The first time I had pizza when I was little, and thinking it was the best thing I’d ever tasted.

 

So there you go. Besides getting you writing, this is also a pretty entertaining group activity. Just get your heads down, write down as many random memories as possible, and exchange. How weird does it get? Why not have a go and get back to me?

 

 

Off to work I go…

You know that weird adjustment phase when you go from being a complete couch potato to suddenly being busy? And you have only a few days’ warning before you have to dive head first into the world of work? And suddenly you are that person behind the till, saying “That’ll be £9.99,” “Would you like a bag with that?” and especially “I’m sorry, I’m still new, I’ll just get my colleague!”

As it happens, I do. Having spent the summer haplessly job hunting, I heard on the Navigators Facebook page about an internship vacancy at a Christian bookshop. Full time retail experience and training – Christian literature themed, at that – complete with a Discipleship course once a week. Right up my street.

So I applied, and was subsequently interviewed. Nothing too scary, just questions about how I work, how I became a Christian, how my Asperger’s affects me, what books do I like. What followed was a period of increasing anxiety. What were my chances? Was I again to be turned down due to my special needs? Would they think that the books I’ve recently read – Harry Potter and the Cursed Child and The Dalai Llama’s Cat – were for sinners? Irrational, I know, but how calm can you realistically stay?

Yet somehow, I was accepted. I was still in Spain, and annoyingly, the day I found out was the day my phone stopped having signal at Grandad‘s house. But my now-manager contacted Mum, who contacted Grandad, and only a few days later, I was off to work.

Working for the first time is an ample situation in which to demonstrate what you are and aren’t yet capable of. For example, I seem to be incapable of not breaking the price gun at least once. But on a positive note, I now know how to take sales. Here’s your receipt, have a nice day!

My Discipleship course so far is proving mildly stressful. The people there are all lovely, and in terms of of spiritual growth, it looks very promising. It’s just that, for all the non-autistic tendencies I have learned, I still don’t present myself at my best in a room full of new people.

Or when I am given an hour to write a five minute talk on a parable. I’m used to writing under pressure, I’m used to Bible studies, I’m used to social situations. Somehow I still panicked. Somehow, with extra time, I managed to complete and perform my talk. My audience was enthusiastic, and whether this was out of genuine admiration or sympathy, I really appreciate their kindness.

And on that note, I’m also raising a glass to all my more experienced colleagues, who have been endlessly patient with me. Hopefully I’ll learn how to get more ink out of the price gun without destroying it.