The challenges of change

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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New Year’s musings

And it starts. Happy New Year, world. Every year at this time, people all over the internet complain about the year gone by, and hope for a better one. True, there have been numerous British and American political events that people are still at each other’s throats over. Not to mention a lot of senseless shooting. And celebrity deaths. But then every year has its low points. And you can bet that this time next year, people will still have their complaints.

Personally, for me 2016 has been quite a significant year. Generally when people say something like that, they mean it’s been tough. I’m not saying that, I just mean that it’s been full of significant life events. Namely:

Moving back home

Graduating with a 2:1

Going abroad on my own for the first time

Getting my internship at the bookshop

Having a blog post published on the National Autistic Society website and starting a Facebook page 

And it’s taught me a lot. Now this could be the part where I post some wise, yet obscure, life lessons that hint at countless hardships I’ve faced. Or it could be the part where I list a few key thoughts I’ve had over the past year and add that, if I don’t state what caused me to have them, then I probably don’t know. Not because I’m secretly hoping for admiration or sympathy. Anyway:

Trying to meet more people in the hope of finding friends is fine, but often the best friendships are the most unexpected. – Following an unfortunate friendship break up, I spent my 3rd year either trying new social events or feeling “peopled out” yet lonely. Now, through unrelated circumstances, I have grown closer to certain old friends, and have established a good level of banter with my colleagues that even makes me look forward to work.

Books or websites describing a condition give you a headstart in understanding, but they don’t describe a specific person. – I’m an Asperger person with emotions. Need I say more?

Everyone needs to feel like they mean something to someone

When trying to figure out why you feel a certain way, don’t force it. Sometimes you have to wait for thoughts to come.

You can only be held accountable for your own actions and mistakes. You are not responsible for others’.

So yeah, this year in a nutshell. Globally, it’s had its pitfalls. For me, it’s been good, and, given the number of people I know who haven’t had it easy lately, I’m grateful for the good times. If a little worried for the future. But hey, bring it on, 2017!

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.

Post uni summer part 1: Graduation

Does my brain look big in this?

Does my brain look big in this?

It seems that in the excitement of graduating, camping, job searching and doing nothing, I have been neglecting my blog. Not that there’s anything particularly odd about that, except that I have almost let a couple of highly blog-worthy events pass me by. Almost, but not quite. Starting with: graduation.

You know those social events that you like the thought of, enthusiastically agree to, then find about as draining as running a marathon? My graduation ceremony, for all its highlights, was a perfect example. Lots to remember, people on all sides, uncomfortable clothes? Check, check and check.

Most people tend to stress about the actual ceremony the most. If anything, that was the least of my worries. I mean, you sit with people you know in designated seats, you’re shown where to walk, you’re shown what to do and then you do it. Yes, you have a huge audience, but other than that, piece of cake.

But before that, the number of things to remember alone was enough to make me need a lie-down. Where and when to collect your clothes. Where and when to go for photography. What to do during the ceremony. When to return your clothes*. What to do about collecting tickets. To name a few.

Previously, I rang the graduation team. I explained to the lady on the phone that I am mildly autistic and have trouble dealing with piecing together lots of information from different sources, and could she please just summarise the essentials. She told me that everything I need to know was on the website, the brochure and in emails. I repeated what I just said, and got what I needed. Phew!

I also had a number of people say to me ‘smile, it’s your graduation!’ I’m not expressive at the best of times, and at that point I was so mentally overloaded that eventually Mum just took me off to a quiet, empty room somewhere, and we stayed there until the ceremony. Graduation organisers, for any graduands on the autistic spectrum, or possibly with mental illnesses, more places like this would be a godsend.

Despite what it sounds like, it was a good experience, and I am glad I went. I got to see certain familiar faces, quite possibly for the last time (get your tissues out. Or not, either way). I participated in that rite of passage that is throwing my mortarboard in the air in a group photo. My family were supportive and patient throughout it all.

And finally, I really can say that I’ve survived uni, and am ready for whatever challenges and opportunities (and clichéd graduation speeches!) lie ahead.

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*Not all your clothes. Just your hired graduation ones.

Job interviews and fears for the future

Lately, I have concluded that, if there is such a thing as a midlife crisis, it starts no later than graduation and finishes the day we die. In other words, life is just one long crisis that we all have to adapt to. Who’s with me? Somehow, I doubt I’m the first person to realise this. And if there’s one thing that is making me face this reality, it is: job hunting.

Actually, my very first job interview was in 2012, at a Christian holiday, conference and retreat center in Devon. As well being a theological learning opportunity, my trial week included making friends from across the world, three square meals a day plus cake, and unlimited access to the sea. I had never felt more at home. And you know what? A week later I got the call saying they couldn’t accept me because I’d need extra help adjusting, didn’t socialise enough* and am too open minded in my beliefs. Not gonna lie, I was heartbroken.

My more recent interview experiences were more bog standard. In fact, all they demonstrate is my tendency to only come tantalisingly close to getting chosen. Last summer I applied for an internship on the marketing team at the Curve theatre in Leicester. Over 30 people applied, only six were interviewed, and I came down to the last two. Gah.

Then last Friday, I had an interview at a skills and employment advice centre in Nottingham for a copywriting position. They were friendly, helpful and impressed by my “passion for writing and making a difference”, but couldn’t accept me due to my lack of previous experience. Were my experiences not obvious on my application?

Realistically, I know this was probably their only way of choosing between me and someone similar but older. But still. Was it worth the two hours (each way) of travelling? Or the resulting blisters on my feet from the smart-but-impractical shoes I save for these occasions? Well, on the bright side, they are keen to have me for work experience after I graduate. Wahey!

Will it ever become easier for young people to find jobs or will it just get harder and harder until all but the most privileged are broke? Clearly I, for example, need more experience before I start working, even though the only relevant experience I can get is work! Can we really stay strong together across divided political or theological opinions without destroying each other over them? Actually, don’t answer that.

If you haven’t already noticed, I do fear for the future at the moment. For myself, for my generation, for humanity as a whole. I may elaborate on this separately, or on the EU referendum, or the Orlando shooting, if ever a 500ish word-long thought strikes me that I feel like sharing with the public.

In the meantime, I’d better get my backside in gear and apply for more jobs that require more experience than I’ve got. And try to keep myself occupied without becoming a couch potato. In other words, hurry up and wait. A phrase coined by a recent graduate, I reckon.

 

 

*Even if I wasn’t autistic and a bit of an introvert to boot, it was a silent retreat week! I still feel like shouting this, if only for the irony.

 

 

 

An impossible task?

After a good, stressful, productive, or just a little crazy, three years, I have recently finished uni for good. I was never going to be a huge fan of that perfectly reasonable question “So, what are you going to do now?”. Now I may be allergic to it. Including when the person asking is myself. Symptoms: high heart rate, nervous twitch, sweat breakout. To save the breath of anyone asking, I wish I knew.

Besides applying for part-time jobs, worrying about the future and playing Sims 3, I have been working on a little something to get me thinking about my goals for my life, for this summer, for this week, whatever. Voilà, one vision board!

board

And it’s so simple, yet fun, to decorate. Lists, mindmaps, stickers, favourite song lyrics, and a good dose of motivational quotes. Starting with this gem from a childhood book of mine*:

“The way to deal with an impossible task is to break it down into a number of merely very difficult tasks, and break each one of them into a group of horribly hard tasks, and each one of them into tricky jobs…” – Terry Pratchett, Truckers – p153.

Straightforward, yet sums up my plans for the future in just one sentence. Become a well known, if not famous, author? Impossible. Start a YouTube channel and make videos about living with Asperger’s? Impossible. Find a place of my own? Go travelling? Start a training school for Guide Cats for the Autistic? So what if the last one actually is impossible in my lifetime. You get the picture.

Half the trick is knowing the answers to the following questions. What do you want to achieve? How do you work best? What drives you? Simple, easily asked questions. Bordering on clichéd territory and yet could impact our view on our life if we really gave them some proper thought. Let’s break it down. What sort of things inspire you? Music, deep conversations with friends, correcting injustice, getting closer to achieving my goals, in my case.

Think about that thing in life you really want to do. Does it motivate you? Worry you? We’ve already ascertained becoming an author, for example, is impossible. Right? But brainstorming ideas for fiction or non fiction material isn’t impossible. Writing short pieces of prose isn’t impossible. Creating a detailed, cohesive synopsis? Tricky, but doable. Researching publishers with requirements that fit your agenda, then editing over and over until someone accepts your work?

Just be persistent. Some things are impossible. But unless your goals include flying, immortality, mass destruction, or turning everything into chocolate, don’t make them so by not even trying. Note to self.

 

Novel preview in progress – or how not to help an Aspie

Nearly seven months ago, my course mates and I were at the beginning of the end. Several essays, one booklet, two group projects and four presentations later, and we are facing the final curtain. Of university. With one more week until the final deadline, I am about to finish writing my dissertation* – a few extracts of a novel that I had been planning for years now. Presenting the first preview of…When You’re Strange.

The story mainly focuses on 16 year old Eleanor and her struggles with secondary school and parents who can’t agree on a possible diagnosis. Some of it is inspired by my real life experiences, some is supposed to portray humourous insights about people and inspiration for kids on the spectrum. So, how many of these failed attempts at understanding autism have you heard?

Extract 5

‘Excuse me, sir?’ Mr Adams?’ Eleanor asked, before she could stop herself.
Mr Adams paused, still facing the staff room, and looked over his shoulder at her. ‘Yes, Eleanor?’
‘I, um, I’m sorry about the other week…in PE…’ she faltered. Why did this have to be so hard? She didn’t even know what to apologise for!
‘It wasn’t a hard game.’
Eleanor took a deep breath, trying to remember what it said in the leaflet about explaining to other people. Say it like it is.
‘I have Asperger’s Syndrome, which means I have trouble with reading people and physical co-ordination,’ she said.
‘Oh,’ Mr Adams looked down. ‘I’m…sorry.’
‘Why?’
‘Never mind. It’s ok. I had an Asperger student a few years ago.’ He paused. ‘But everybody’s clumsy or awkward sometimes. We can’t make allowances for anyone having an off day. Do you understand?’
Eleanor shrugged. Not really.
Mr Adams went on. ‘Besides, although you made a few errors, I didn’t see you struggling too much. But if you ever need extra help, just let me know.’
‘Ok.’ She looked at the floor. Had he understood?

 

Most students I have known feel like they can’t be free of their dissertation soon enough. If anything, if I want to turn this into a proper book, I could be spending many more years on it. But if I can get it published, it will be one goal crossed off my bucket list. I’m glad I chose to go to uni, and I don’t regret it for a minute. It has pushed me one step further along my chosen path, and on the day I see my name on the front of a book, it will all have been worth it.

And on that note, happy Autism Awareness Month!

 

 

*Known as a Portfolio, in Creative Writing speak. But would you have understood what I meant if I had used that word instead?