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).

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.

Social distancing and staying sane

We’re one week into a lockdown, and I could argue that this is the most autism friendly lifestyle that could be imposed on us. People aren’t allowed to get too close to each other. Any physical contact right now is unthinkable. Social gatherings have been banned. The only outings we’re allowed to take, besides essential ones, are solitary walks. Not so bad, right?

Sadly, I could also point out that this coronavirus situation is everything that I, and many people like me, dread. Rules – and therefore plans – changing on a daily basis. A mystery disease sweeping across the world, the stuff of nightmares for me when I was growing up. Mixed messages from multiple sources about what to do and how worried we should be. Not knowing how things will be from one week to the next.

Yes, all this change has been draining. My anxiety headaches and stomach aches are pretty frequent at the moment. I miss my routine. I miss seeing and hugging my friends. I miss not worrying about my own and my loved ones’ health, having enough food, and the future of my work. Plus I may be an introvert, but I’d rather keep to myself by choice than by law!

And yet I know I’m getting off lightly. My health is not at risk either from work or pre-existing vulnerabilities. I’m not poor. I have a home, and a family to stay with. I have friends who I can text anytime. And I’m in a country with a good healthcare system, and frontline workers – including people I know – risking their health to keep it running.

Besides, I think I’m making the best of the situation. Thorough, regular handwashing is a fact of life for me. Hand sanitiser? Already have six bottles. Plenty of fruit and veg? Check. And, for my own sanity, I wrote the following tips on getting through all this:

  • Communicate with friends and family to check up, ask questions, and share feelings
  • Journal 
  • Maintain as much of a routine as possible
  • Focus on skills – in my case, writing, art, violin, cooking, and re-learning a bit of Chinese
  • Read more – new books give me a break from reality, while familiar books are a source of comfort
  • Focus less on how worried people say we should be, and more on official rules and guidelines

As for my blog, it looks like I may have more time for it over the next few weeks, so may go back to writing a new post every week with the occasional break. I do have plenty of other topics I plan to write about, but I’ve been wanting to get this one off my chest for a while.

So until this is over, I will repeat things that many people have said that cannot be emphasised enough. Be safe. Be kind. Make the most of everything you’re thankful for – family, friends, health, food, whatever. Shop sensibly so that you have what you need and other people can still have what they need. And remember, no matter how many changes and hardships this brings, it’s not going to be like this forever.

 

Goodbye George

Last Friday, as I was winding down for the week, my parents called me with some very sad news. While I had been going about my daily life, our lively, cuddly, clown cat George had gone missing a few days earlier, and that morning, it had been confirmed by someone on a nearby street that he had been killed. A week later, I am currently spending the weekend with my parents, while struggling to get it in my head that George is not about to scratch at the door so he can push his face into mine. With that in mind, the least I can do for him now is write a long overdue tribute to him on here.

This April would have marked his fifth year with us. Five years ago, less than a month after we adopted Suri, my stepdad, John, arose early one morning, and was surprised to find a second black and white cat in our house, desperate to get out. And then, over the next few weeks, it happened again and again. This new cat was a barely full grown male, unneutered, un-microchipped, and getting thinner with each visit. Something had to be done.

With no owner to be found anywhere, Mum started feeding him, and later had him chipped, neutered, and treated for cat flu. To shelter him while he became braver about coming in regularly, she bought a cat kennel (yes, that is a thing). And to top it off, blessed him with a name: Signor Georgio Armeowni. Or, to most people, George.

One of the things that always struck me about George was his wide-eyed, childlike approach to life. One of his main hobbies was sleeping in the daftest positions without a care in the world. He was the young boy to Suri’s teenage girl personality, and never understood why licking her face ended with a slap round the head from her. He was obsessed with following Tango, who hated him on sight, and never gave up on wearing him down, until Tango grudgingly accepted him. He knew no personal boundaries, and if I ever dared sit down, read, use my phone, lie in bed, stroke the other cats, or generally do anything, George would be there.

As a late-neutered male, I once said his brain must be made of testosterone. He was the keenest hunter, and while my parents spent September adventuring in Australia, I spent every weekend* trying to make the carpet look like it hadn’t had any contact with decapitated wildlife. He also liked to live on the edge. A few years back, I almost had a heart attack when I stepped out of the shower, and George jumped in through the open (first floor!)** window and emerged from behind the blind!

And now, after nearly five years, there is a big empty space; on the beds where he slept, on the windowsill where he sat, with the toys he loved to chase. We didn’t get to say goodbye. We won’t have a body to bury or cremate, because he wasn’t given to the nearest vet. So, as we try to move forward, remember this: if you find a dead cat, it’s not rubbish to be left or disposed of. It may well be a beloved family member and friend. And if there is a family out there grieving for that cat, the least you can do is give them one last chance to say goodbye.

Nothing like a bit of telly time

A fairly standard lie-in for me

George discovering a pop up baby bed over Christmas

 

* I returned from my home near work at weekends to feed the cats during that time – my parents paid a pet sitting company to do it on weekdays

**There is a fence outside, just below the upstairs bathroom window. That is the only explanation

Christmas goals – expectation versus reality

  1. Expectation: Get all my Christmas shopping over and done with by mid December at the latest. Reality: I don’t know what my family wants. My family also don’t know what they want. Cue a last minute browse round the shops >2 days before Christmas.
  2. Expectation: Get loads of uni coursework done before Christmas Day. Reality: Hopefully make a start on an assignment by New Years Eve. (Note – this was during my uni years, and is mercifully no longer applicable).
  3. Expectation: Make as much vegan friendly confectionery as possible, with my various vegan/lactose intolerant family members in mind. Reality: Make a plate of marzipan fruits and call it a day.
  4. Expectation: Protect the tree from the cats at all costs. Reality: Give up trying to keep them out of the same room and just accept whatever happens.
  5. Expectation: Make some festive decorations with a good friend from work for our desk decorating competition. Reality: Break a stapler. Attempt to fix said stapler. Accidentally staple my own finger. Spend most of the evening slowly and painfully removing staple with tweezers while both of us try not to freak out.
  6. Expectation: Write a deep, carefully thought through blog post that captures the essence of the festive season. Reality: After hours of procrastinating, start writing about the first thing that comes to mind, try to make it vaguely Christmassy, then finish it as quickly as possible so as not to be late for the Call The Midwife Christmas special.

I have always thought of myself as someone who loves Christmas. I still think this, but lately I’ve come to realise how draining it actually is. My mother has been working her backside off to make this a good one. My sister is in another pantomime, and will be getting back to work tomorrow. Meanwhile I’m still getting to grips with juggling work, cooking, and other aspects of regular life with present shopping, two parties, two dinner socials, a choir performance, and a church carol service.

In recent years, my attitude towards Christmas has shifted from childlike excitement at the beginning and disappointment when the tree comes down to enjoying it while it lasts, then appreciating the stillness that follows. It’s all too easy to get so caught up in trying to make it perfect that we wear ourselves out and lose focus of what’s important. I mean, I love all the special food, and presents, and making the place look lovely. But on reflection, I realised that my main priorities are these:

  • Quality time with the family
  • A break from everyday life
  • Appreciating what we’ve got
  • Making memories

When you think about it, the first Christmas wasn’t elaborate. I don’t get the impression that Jesus was born in splendour in that cold, dark stable. And yet, as the story goes, there were gifts, and there was love. So I try to appreciate what we have, without worrying about how to make things bigger and better. And as always, find the humour in the simplest things.

Having said that, I’m still disappointed that, despite literally bleeding for my festive looking desk, this is the best I could do (see below). But at least the staple incident brought a smile to the faces of many friends, in and outside of work. And if that isn’t the true spirit of Christmas, then I don’t know what is!

Summer goals: expectation versus reality

  1. Expectation: Have a massive clearout, paying particular attention to all the extra tat I acquired during my uni years (no, seriously, it will happen this year). Reality: Keep telling myself that every year.
  2. Expectation: Meet up with *insert friend*. Reality: Have lengthy text conversation with them about the days when one of us is free, but the other isn’t.
  3. Expectation: Get through reading list. Reality: Add more to said list than I cross off.
  4. Expectation: Take up singing lessons again to overcome fear of singing on my own. Reality: Wait until I’m alone in the house. Listen to Memory or The Sound of Music on my iPod. Mumble along too quietly to hear myself properly.
  5. Expectation: Improve at Chinese. Reality: Remind myself again of the difference between the words for “horse” and “mother”. Tell myself that at least I am far from meeting strangers’ assumptions about my mother tongue.
  6. Expectation: Get back into art. Reality: colour in a single object in one of my ten or so adult colouring books. Feel suitably accomplished.
  7. Expectation: Try to practise my violin more often. Reality: Practise once. Make notes on how to improve next time. Feel suitably accomplished. Forget about notes. Repeat process every month or two.
  8. Expectation: Work on my writing. Reality: make minor adjustments to the book plans I made last year. Convince myself that my life’s ambition of becoming an author is just around the corner. Feel suitably accomplished.

I think my heart sank a little bit when I scrutinised my previous journals for summer to-do lists, only to realise that they were nearly the same from year to year. But hey, this summer has already given me more than my share of fun and adventure, namely:

  • Visiting Jennie, and taking a train that had to stop and go back the other way. Getting off in the middle of nowhere and being told that replacement taxis would be arriving shortly. Having to be rescued by Jennie and Jan when the replacement taxi drivers had no memory of being booked.
  • Missing the train home and waiting an hour for the next one.
  • Taking my semi-Asian skin for granted, and accidentally giving it sunburn.
  • Finding out I have astigmatism as well as short sight.
  • Nearly being defeated by the Sainsbury’s self checkout, with the intervention of Sainsbury’s staff who were evidently too good to let me pay for the same item twice.

All riveting stuff. And now, after a draining few weeks, I find myself more in need of a holiday that I have felt in a long time. So until next time, happy summer everyone! Think you can cross off a summer list better than me?

A sudden improvement, and a blogging update

Last post, I was a little bit at the end of my tether. My work was teetering on the rocks, and I was feeling like a bit of a let-down. So I tried to remember my usual coping mechanisms for stress, and to make myself feel more productive, I wrote a slightly cliched blog post about them. Oh and I also prayed. A lot.

In the fortnight since then, my faith in myself and the power of prayer has been restored. Tentatively. Last week, the end of my probation was fast approaching, and was mainly hinging on my speed and accuracy during a certain task. Miraculously, with a target meeting technique I’d thought of but never tried, I did it. Long story short, my boss was pleased with how quickly I’d improved, and has extended my probation period by three months. Woo!

Right now, I’m hoping that things will keep looking up, and that this isn’t just a one off. I can’t help wishing that autistic miscommunication wasn’t an issue, and that I could have passed the first time just like anyone else. But my parents think that people on the autistic spectrum should be entitled to a longer trial, and to be honest, I’m just grateful to have got as far as I have.

I mean, this past fortnight has gone better than I dared hope, and now the pressure is less intense, I can feel the difference physically as well as emotionally. This improvement, hasn’t come without its cost, however, and over the past month or so, I have sometimes had to resort to going in even earlier, meaning getting the bus at 7.07am, then getting home nearly 12 hours later and revising anything I still haven’t conquered. On the plus side, I have taught myself how to do Excel formulas! VLOOKUP, anyone? On the minus side, I am exhausted.

Which brings me onto a quick word about blogging. When I started my Facebook page (https://www.facebook.com/unwrittengrace/?ref=br_rs), I pledged to write a blog post every week, give or take the occasional break. I started doing it every Sunday. Then recently, I switched to Saturday. Then every other Saturday. Now it’s getting tricky. I’m commuting and working dawn till dusk every weekday and I’m juggling choir, the gym, church and its worship band in between. And now, all my Saturdays are completely booked up until August.

I’m not going to give up my blog unless I give up breathing, but right now, finding a slot for it is about as easy as finding a bus on a bank holiday. If I can stick to the two week regime, I will. Otherwise, I may blog on a free weekday evening. I may blog on a Saturday or a Sunday. I may revert back to my old habit of blogging on some random day every month or so. I’m unlikely to keep it this way in the long term, but for now, so be it.

 

Managing stress

As I have been getting fully immersed into my new job, it has not been without its stresses. On top of new skills to learn and remember, and targets to meet, there is also the added complication of autism and communication. And now the end of my probation is looming. Joy.

But if there’s one thing I’ve learned about facing your struggles under pressure, it’s that you can either be overly humble and self-deprecating, or you can look for ways to improve and press on with your head held high. Chances are, there are people around you who want you to come out ok. And take it from me: letting your mistakes overwhelm you won’t solve anything.

Which is why, when under stress, it helps if I break down whatever I am dealing with into manageable chunks. Like essays at uni. I’d look at the topic I need to discuss, break it down into the main points, divide the word count between them, and voila, my essay had a skeleton. Figuratively speaking. Now I’m applying the same principle to work: look at my email of targets, organise all the notes I’ve made since day one, and highlight the things I haven’t mastered, so I can revise them. Somehow, these things seem less scary when you can see what you’re facing and how to face it.

Besides, in doing that, I feel like I’m setting reasonable goals for myself. It’s just a question of paying attention to your capacity, and, when setting goals, starting small. Often I make a list and highlight the priorities. Sometimes I just try one thing at a time. Either way, it feels both proactive and like I’m taking some of the pressure off. My worst habit, when facing any kind of workload, is to aim to achieve as much as possible, and between not having superpowers and being too stressed to do anything, I’m left feeling like a waste of space.

For now, though, my main coping mechanism is determination. Not from ambition, or a naturally motivated personality; if I relied on sheer character, I would still be in bed. The fact is, these past few weeks have been hard, and I’m scared. Scared of failing, scared of being a disappointment, scared I will lose the desire to prove myself. So while I run on fear-fuelled determination, excuse the decline in the quality and quantity of my writing. And remember: when things get challenging, you might not have control over the events around you, but you do have the power to keep trying.

 

A lucky break

For my 25th birthday last week, I asked my mum for a job. Not a massive pile of presents. No party. Just an actual paid job that I could keep for more than one day. Not an unreasonable request, right?

I won’t lie, job hunting can be soul crushing. Voluntary work is great for what it’s worth – it keeps you busy, sharpens your skills, and contributes to society – but when people suggest it as if it’s a groundbreaking idea that isn’t filling most of your CV, you can’t help wanting to see the back of it.

So when my internship ended, I started editing for my old university, (re)learning Chinese, and applying for jobs. Lots of jobs. Come Friday 8th December, I got a packaging job. Come Monday 11th December, I unceremoniously lost it, and cried in my room for about two hours. Before carrying on again.

In the weeks that followed, not much changed. Step one: look for jobs. Step two: apply for job. Optional step three: attend job interview. Step four: either get rejected, or never hear back at all. Step five: repeat indefinitely.

Last week, while no different, was looking pretty hectic; you spend ages waiting for a job interview, then what do you know, two come up. The first one was for another Christian bookshop in Leicester. Just a quiet job in a shop, reading the books, keeping everything tidy, and trying not to mind when customers blame you for not having a certain book in stock. All familiar territory, and I aced the interview effortlessly.

The second one, two days later, was for a copywriting job with an online textiles company, also in Leicester. I dressed smartly and looked friendly, and still managed to misunderstand a couple of questions they asked me, and not finish the task I was given. I didn’t think I’d come across well, but hey, let’s put it down to experience.

The following day, I got a phone call from that very company. I gave some good answers, I was told, and my interviewers were impressed. I listened politely, and, with resignation, waited for the inevitable “but…”

Except this time, it never came, and was instead replaced by an offer of full time, paid employment starting on Monday, only three days later! If job applications are like Willy Wonka chocolate bars, then it was this one that had the golden ticket, and I spent the best part of that weekend in a daze as I tried to rearrange my entire weekly schedule in my head.

And now, after what (I hope) has been a successful week, I still can’t believe my luck. I’ve spent each day editing details on the company’s database, and writing product information to go on their website, and my brain is reeling from all the new things I have had to learn. I’ve also spent each day leaving the house at about 7am, cursing the unpredictability of buses, and trying not to fall asleep on my feet. But the nature of the work very much fits my skills, and I love it. My colleagues are friendly and welcoming, good at banter, and also creme egg and spoon races. And you know what? If this means proving myself wrong about my employability, and the world wrong about Aspies managing adulthood, then it truly is a lucky break.

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 light bulb 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!