The importance of pets

Throughout the stress, confusion, and complexity that is life, sometimes we have to take a step back and enjoy the simpler things. It could be returning home to a friendly face waiting hopefully for your return. It could be having someone to cuddle when you’re down. Or it could be having someone so desperate to be with you that they force your bedroom door open with brute strength so they can walk all over your sleeping form.

If you’re thinking of a beloved pet, then I’m with you all the way. If not, then what sort of people have you been raised with?

I don’t know about you, but for me, our cats are a solid part of the family. Having recently lost our beloved, cuddly, dopey old Tango, I think this feeling is particularly high at the moment. My budgies, my sister’s hamster, and our grandparents’ dog were a big part of my childhood. Many of my friends and family have animals that they love. So I’m going to try to do justice to the importance of pets.

For a start, I don’t know where I would be without Bouncer, my unofficial Guide Cat for the Autistic. At nearly 14 years of age, he hasn’t retired from calling me until I follow him, leading me into a specific room, then calling again if I don’t follow. I’ve got to hand it to him, without his conscientiousness, I would never be able to find the way to my own room. Then there’s Suri, our resident feline policewoman. When it’s time to feed the cats, the others dare not get too close to our feet lest she repeatedly punch them in the face until they retreat. She has her uses even when off duty; once she settles on your lap, you have a very valid excuse to put off being productive until you can get up again.

Then there’s companionship. True, you can’t share reflections on the human condition, or entertaining life anecdotes. At least, not if you want a two-way conversation. But there are many things about pet company that you can’t beat. Physical affection, for one. If you stroke an animal, or pick it up and hold it close, it can be comforting to both parties. Do that to a person, and it’s just not the same somehow…

More importantly, animals don’t hold you to the same standard as people do. I’ve never worried that animals find my Asperger’s off-putting, judge my Biblical understanding, or disagree with any of my moral principles. Heck, they don’t even mind if you’re in a state of undress. Again, most people are funny about that… But pets have an uncanny ability to forgo social expectations and just be, and if you find that contagious, even if just for a few moments, it can only be a good thing.




Tango and Bouncer, the mirror twins


Thomas eating broccoli


Suri guards the Christmas tree




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?


It’s a common image, isn’t it? You study, you graduate, you see the rest of your life ahead of you, and you’re desperate to find your purpose in life. And then you despair when you realise you don’t have one. Right?

People have many different opinions on big topics, like purpose, and fulfilment, and some might even say destiny. At university, with all the learning you’re (hopefully) doing, it’s so easy to think the world is your oyster from then on. And optimism is important, because you need to feel like you have something to be really living for. But adulthood is hard, and if you only expect to be moving forward on a steady upward slope towards your dreams, life will be disappointing.

Then at the other end of the scale, you could argue that there’s no point dreaming. Nothing lasts, nothing is certain, and you’ve just got to deal with whatever you’re given. I’ve never been inclined to agree with this attitude, because you never know what you could achieve if you keep dreaming and planning. But even just writing that argument has got me wondering: is there any truth in that?

After months of job hunting, disappointment, and finding ways to stay busy, I’m struggling with feelings of disillusionment at the moment. I’ve always wanted to be a writer. I’m working on book drafts, Demon magazine editing,* and this blog, and have often considered starting podcasts. Writing is how I communicate best, but sometimes it feels like nothing more than an old childhood dream. As a Christian, I hear, or read about, so many inspirational stories about people who have beaten far worse odds and survived by the sheer strength of their faith, and as much as I keep praying, I can’t help wishing I had that strength.

Facebook, by the way, for all it’s many fine qualities, does nothing to help here. Rather, it taunts you with glimpses of how successful your friends and acquaintances seem to be, whether socially, romantically, or in the world of work. Thus creating a standard that is about as reachable as the end of a rainbow. But your goals in life don’t have to be like that.

We all seem to have a need for certainty in our lives. It’s like a basic emotional need so that we have at least some foundation for the way we live. I do believe in having a purpose, but I also believe there is a trick to it. You’re not born with it, you don’t find it – you choose it, plan for it, pursue it, and if it doesn’t work out, you choose another. You might not have full control, but the direction you try is your choice.



*The Demon is the magazine of my old uni, De Montfort University. Despite my lack of interest in sports, I’ve somehow become the News and Sports editor. My role comprises correcting other people’s work, repeatedly announcing deadlines, and reeling at the thought that I’m the only person on the team who remembers when the Demon was a newspaper. Riveting stuff.


Is freedom of speech really free?

This was a popular topic of debate in my journalism lectures at uni. In fact, some people got so wound up in their freedom of speech that the rest of us would spend the best part of these lectures sitting back and watching, as at least two people passionately argued their stance on free speech, or politics, or whatever. I don’t know if the best part was when someone would still be sulking after the lecture about not getting the last word, or when comments beginning “Your mum” were thrown around. Either way, quality entertainment.

What does freedom of speech really mean anyway? I like to think there’s more to it than simply being able to say what you like, but honestly, that is how most people seem to take it. I was musing on this the other day when I read a Facebook post that was nostalgically remembering the good old days when one could make a joke without having to worry about insulting women, racial minorities, LGBT people, etc. Really, it’s so tough being in a generation where everyone has a voice, not just heterosexual white men…

When people make statements online – for whatever cause – conflict in the comments section will inevitably ensue. And you can bet at least one person will defend their viewpoint by using the “free speech, free country” card. But people who try to be “PC” in their use of speech are stigmatised and mocked. Apparently casual racism, or sexism, or whatever, is fine, but trying to show respect and compassion towards other people makes you subject to ridicule.

And none of this answers my question.

The way I see it is this. Freedom in any form isn’t as simple as being able to do whatever you want, with no regards to the consequences. Think about growing up. You spend your childhood being heavily dependent on your parents, then your teen years testing their boundaries and your own limits. You take matters into your own hands, and when you fail, you get angry when your parents still make sure you get your comeuppance just when you thought you were entitled to more privileges.

But your parents don’t give you more freedom because they stop caring what you do. Rather, they do so because they are trying to trust you to make your own decisions without having to be told. At any stage in our lives, we will inevitably abuse our privileges, and the consequences will be no less real.

Make sense? We are free to voice our opinions, but that doesn’t make it any more ok to attack others. No-one is always fully right or fully wrong. Conflict may be unavoidable, but if you manage it by defending your side without tearing down someone else’s, you’re making a step in the right direction.

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!

The neurotypical mask

We all spend a good chunk of our lives putting on a metaphorical mask for the world around us. Relatable, right? You wear an “I’m fine” mask when you are dying inside. Or an “ideal version of me” mask when with people you can’t quite be open with. Or an “I’m in control of my life” mask when you suddenly realise you are an adult…

Or a “neurotypical” mask, as an Asperger person in a world of neurotypicals. That is, non autistic people.

This past week has not been the best. Having got a packaging job the week before, I turned up for day two and was sent home for not working fast enough on day one. Ouch. And it’s at times like this that my neurotypical mask keeps slipping.

Let me explain.

With my mask, I can listen to someone without breaking eye contact to look at everything else I can hear just as clearly. With it, I can laugh at my own mishaps without getting frustrated or embarrassed. I can not react to people I don’t know well touching me unexpectedly. I can go to parties, and have fun while fighting the feeling of being both overcrowded and isolated. I can not only make small talk, but also put new people at ease with my sense of humour. With my mask, I can manage rather a lot.

But when the mask slips, I say the bare minimum to new people. When it slips, I get irrationally angry about any mistake I make, autism related or not. My brain drops my social skills in order to free up the capacity to deal with my current situation. I am slower at understanding sarcasm and jokes, and interpreting instructions. I either avoid social gatherings, or spend the whole time feeling desperately lonely and self conscious when everyone else knows how to bond in a big group. I am very easily confused by too much background noise, or too many people talking at once.

See? The neurotypical mask is a hard mask to hold. In fact, the other day, when I had a panic attack at a social gathering and shut myself in the bathroom for ages, I think it must have fallen off altogether. And when that happens, I can’t face anyone other than – at most – my parents, and I either clam up, or rattle off every scary thought and feeling inside me without even trying to find my mask.

Basically, having a learning difference can be exhausting. We on the spectrum put so much brain power into making sense of the neurotypical world that we are bound to burn out. If this happens over something that “isn’t that hard!”, then either it is that hard for us, or something else has pushed us to that point. I speak for myself when I say I will explain what I need when I can. Neurotypical people, I realise that learning differences aren’t an excuse for every shortcoming, but do try and cut us some slack once in a while.


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.