Asperger’s and faith

Last year, during my weekly New Wine discipleship course, I had to lead morning devotions for one session, and I was asked to discuss how being on the autistic spectrum affects my faith. My immediate reaction was to think that having Asperger’s Syndrome isn’t relevant to every little thing in my life. I mean, there are plenty of factors that have shaped my beliefs, and my attitude towards church. But is AS really one of them?

It would be nice if I had some fascinating backstory of how I became a Christian, but the truth is, I was raised going to church. I was very lonely as a teenager, and it was while my confidence was at rock bottom that I got more involved with church youth activities. I went from being unable to talk about autism to being able to explain how it affected me without being afraid of judgement. Here was a social scene that was outside the norm, and as well as fitting right in, I was learning what being a Christian was really about. So in that sense, autism did have a role to play.

Churches in general are often a real mixed bag. From the outside, it would be easy to see Christians as either deluded, self righteous fools, or as people who cannot be anything but kind and inclusive to their neighbours. But people just aren’t that black and white, and Christians are no exception. And I would be lying if I said Christianity has been an easy ride for me, because it hasn’t. There are opinions I struggle to agree with, and many more issues I don’t even understand.

Besides, a church community is a social group like any other, and that means people, and mixed messages, and complex relationship dynamics. At the beginning of my discipleship course, I was surrounded by other young people who I would be spending a whole day with every week. Some people already knew each other, some didn’t, but we were encouraged to “go deeper” with each other from day one, and the very idea spooked me.

While other people bonded within the first month, I got off to a shaky start and I thought I’d never get used to it. It would have been so easy to withdraw and keep everyone at arm’s length, but I made myself get to know them, remember their names and make friends. Before I knew it, I had completed my first mission trip and was talking about everything I had learned in front of an audience. Seems that God really does see us through these things!

Which brings me back to my morning devotions talk. Having been on the course for three months, I reflected on my experiences at church so far, and the message I wanted to share came to me. So that morning, I got everyone to discuss the passage in Genesis in which Moses insists that he doesn’t have the skills to lead. And the thought I left open to discussion was: We all have something that shakes our confidence in our potential. Moses’s was his fear of public speaking. Mine is having a form of autism. What’s yours?


What I’ve learned about myself this year

What have you done this year to make you feel proud?

Feel free to break into song at this point.

For me, 2017 has been almost as significant a year as 2016. I went on my first mission trip. I finished my internship. I became the magazine News and Sports editor at my old university. I got my first job, then lost it on my second day. I saw my sister Rhian go from being dangerously ill in hospital to joining the professionals on stage. Ups and downs seem to come without much warning.

It may be clichéd, but you do learn more when key things happen in your life, and you find you’ve passed yet more milestones. I spend so much of my time these days feeling like I’m growing mentally stale with no schedule being written for me. But then something will happen that will challenge me emotionally, and spark off so many reflections that I cannot record them in my journal quickly enough.

Now I am no life guru, or self help professional. Nor do I aspire to be. I just thought I’d share a few self reflections that I have managed to pin down this year.

  1. I’ve often said that uni helped me be more assertive, and I stand by that. And it shows in my friendships; I’m less afraid of judgement, less inclined to want to keep the peace at all costs, and somehow more open and emotionally intimate with my friends.
  2. If I’m not careful, I have a tendency to accept sub-ideal conditions until they go from bad to worse. This can be in any situation, be it toxic friendships, volunteering somewhere where I get shouted at, or ignoring a malfunctioning lightbulb in my room until all three of them have died…
  3. I actually do have a taste for adventure, which I think was awakened during the Ukraine mission trip. I may have had a panic attack on the plane, struggled to find vegetarian food that wasn’t chips or cake, nearly got lost on the underground, and been out of my comfort zone spiritually and socially…*deep breath* yet I still see the appeal in seeing a new country with a group of friends without knowing what to expect.
  4. I like to think I’m emotionally intelligent, but if I’m in the thick of a bad time, I will see my emotions as invalid, and press on until I either get ill or have a panic attack. Or feel ill because I’m panicking. Or panic because I feel ill. You get the picture…
  5. My weaknesses don’t seem to have changed, and include handling conflict, socialising in groups, and self righteous anger about anything that goes against my morals. A couple of examples would be cat prejudice and misogyny, and perhaps they are worthy causes to fight for. But when I simmer with resentment over ways in which other Christians – whether I know them or not – treat others in ways that go against what the Bible says about compassion, I forget how much don’t understand the Bible, and how much I struggle with certain aspects of it.

And with all that in mind, onwards and upwards! Meanwhile, here are just a few of this year’s highlights:

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Last orchestra concert


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24th birthday


Ukraine mission trip


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Jennie and Jan’s wedding



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My sister, Princess Tiger Lilly!

Rhian, a babby at Christmas

Yes. That is something I wrote – and illustrated – on a piece of paper, when I was little and my sister was a baby.

My sister, commonly known as Rhian, Rhiazza, Rhi Rhi, and by one of our uncles, Rhajazzle, had to come into the world in the thick of our family drama, three months after our arrival in England as a single parent family. I don’t think our early aquaintance made much of an impression on me. The following summary of Mum’s return from the hospital is testament to this:

Me: Where’s Rhian?

Mum (reveals the newborn baby in her arms): Here

Me: Oh (wanders off)

To begin with, I like to think I did a good job of asserting my authority as the official Big Sister. I had to; Rhian had this really annoying tendency to get snot or dribble on my toys. When you think about it, making her promise not to before letting her play with them was a very reasonable solution.

Rhian was not a soul to be tamed, however, and my days of being the dominant sibling were short lived. Once she was old enough to play with me, I had control of most of the toys, but she was fully in charge of what happened to them. In an argument, she was a force to be reckoned with, and as an overly sensitive autistic child, her tantrums used to terrify me. At one point, I kept crying that I felt “unforgiven!”, and Mum, in a fit of uncharacteristic naivety, asked Rhian, “you do love your sister, don’t you?” Cue a big “NO!” from Rhian, and further floods of tears from me.

She still hasn’t forgiven me for…whatever it was, by the way. I have asked.

For the most part, though, she was a fair minded and considerate younger sibling. When Mum married John, Rhian, who had decided she was first in line to inherit the wedding dress, very kindly said I could borrow it if I ever got married. When we went downstairs for breakfast, I was apparently allowed to go first on my birthday. She also showed a lot of interest in my development; I distinctly remember overhearing her telling our parents how much better I was at eating my crusts.

As we shifted into adolescence, I don’t think much changed except that I was firmer about not wanting to play with her, and after a while she lost interest anyway. Suddenly, wanting me to play was replaced by wanting me to read extracts of my diary to her. Or making me play Super Mario Bros on her Nintendo DS because I was so entertainingly bad. I did have to take cover many a time when John had to help her through exam revision and things got a little heated, but hey, at least I was no longer first in the firing line.

One thing Rhian doesn’t tire of is seeing how far she can challenge me emotionally. Her becoming life-threateningly ill in hospital in September was her most successful attempt yet. Having been turned away from A & E twice with what was dismissed as muscle pain, Mum forced the medics to take her seriously, and she was diagnosed with aggressive pneumonia, pulmonary embolism, pleurisy, and pleural empyema with one collapsed lung. She was in agonising pain – and close to death – to start with. Yet when I visited, she was well enough to roll her eyes at me for fussing, and complain about being in a room full of old ladies. Definitely on the mend.

And now, as a third year theatre student, she is in her first professional show, as Princess Tiger Lilly in a pantomime* production of Peter Pan. Three months ago, I’d accepted this would be a miracle. Now she’s dodging the evil Captain Hook, while accepting fanmail from small children (!!!). Does it get any better than this?

Rhian, accept this 700 word long fanmail from one proud big sister. And Merry Christmas!


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Us as bridesmaids following our parents’ wedding


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At the hospital


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*Non-British readers: a pantomime is a British Christmas tradition that is a show full of slapstick, crossdressing, song-and-dance, and audience participation. Loosely based on famous fairy tales and contains more pop culture references than you would think could be crammed into two or three hours.

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?

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?