Lonely in a crowd

Parties. Love them or hate them? If I know people who will be there, I’m happy to go. Once I’m there, I can expect one of the following outcomes. It’ll be a great bonding time with friends, and social energy well spent…or I could be watching everyone having fun together, wondering how they click so easily, and not knowing how to join in.

To start with, I have more friends now than I ever had growing up, and I’m so grateful for what they’ve done for me. But I’ve been to a few social occasions lately, and during one where I was watching the others talk, laugh, and have fun, it kind of hit me how lonely Asperger’s Syndrome can be. I can, and usually do, get on well with people individually, but it’s so frustrating still not knowing how to really get noticed in a group.

I mean, tripping over a step in front of over 10 people this summer got me noticed. But possibly not for the right reasons.

I’ve blogged about Asperger’s and groups. I’ve also, in a fit of uncharacteristic optimism, covered what’s good about the condition. What makes it so lonely at times?

Most of the time, I don’t even know what I’m not picking up on from other people. Experts would say non-verbal communication. Or lack of eye contact. Or needing alone time when it gets too draining. I know. I’ve heard it all before. Whatever it is, it can make people think I’m not interested. And that’s really hard.

You know the saying “three’s a crowd?” Couldn’t have said it better myself. Threes always make me anxious. No two members of the group will have the same relationship dynamics, and you can bet two people are closer to each other than the remaining one. Fair or not, it’s only natural, and I don’t know how not to be that awkward third person. At least if you feel invisible in a big group, it’s understandable when there are so many others to talk to. When you’re one of only two people for someone to bond with and they still prefer the other person? Dispiriting, to say the least.

One of my biggest insecurities – no matter how kind people are – is the thought of being the one who always needs help, but has nothing to contribute. You need help understanding what’s happening. You get confused by too much going on, or too many instructions. Occasionally you’ll say something inappropriate that seems logical to you. It’ll always take longer for you to learn to read people. I’ve heard these things over and over, and trust me, it would be an easier burden to bear if they weren’t true.

I know it all sounds a bit negative. But hey, we all get lonely, and sometimes the best way to reach out to others is to share your struggles. I don’t sugarcoat these things. Or exaggerate. Nor am I asking for special treatment. I’m just being real. And if you have similar worries, I hope this helps.

 

 

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The digital age – smarter, better, faster, stronger

Does such easy access to technology make us smarter? This was a long-car-journey-thought of mine ages ago. People believe we’re cleverer than ever before. There’s more knowledge and news circulating, and doing so more easily than even a generation ago. So there’s definitely some truth in that.

I don’t think it started in this generation, either. The main reason TV, radio, and the telephone took off so quickly was because people were gaining access to news. Since then, inventions like that have been upgraded over and over, with new inventions being added to the mix. Now we can scroll through Facebook like our own self-updating newspaper, only better, because it (mostly) caters to our interests, and includes friends’ news, as well as general headlines. Phones aren’t just communication devices – you can take pictures with them, count your steps with them, beat them at checkers even on the hardest level, hehe… You really have to marvel at the brains behind technology.

A common complaint about so much digital entertainment, social media, etc. is that we are forgetting how to use our brains. I can believe that; kids these days are given iPads, phones, computers to play with, when the whole point of toys and pretend games are to help them develop their brains.

And it doesn’t stop there. If I’m bored, it’s tempting to see what’s available on YouTube or Netflix, especially if I’m supposed to be doing something else. We can spend so much time procrastinating online, that we have less time for reading, hobbies, or going out. And, more worryingly, achieving our goals.

There’s no harm in having fun with our devices. But they don’t have to stop you from having a mind of your own, and a productive life. And, for many people, they don’t. Ironically, I’m hoping I’m one of them, while sitting behind a computer trying not to get sidetracked by Facebook.

Being able to communicate so freely is a double edged sword. I’ll start with what I do like about it. For a start, staying in touch is easier than ever. If I want to catch up with someone, or even just ask how they are, I only have to whip out my phone. It’s not the same as actually seeing them – I mean, you can’t hug them (!!!) – but if one of you needs emotional support, the other person is only a few clicks away.

Not forgetting how quickly you can make yourself, and your work, known. As if to prove this point, I am currently writing this blog post about it, which I plan on sharing to my millions thousands hundreds 150 or so page fans.

One thing that scares me about the internet is just how easily people tear each other down. There’s always been too much negativity flying around. Now we can hide behind a screen and a profile picture, and say what we like about that trashy celebrity, or that guy who disagreed with a comment we made. Something YouTubers like to do is find an entertaining way to show off all the hate comments they get, and I envy their ability to laugh it off. But why do people get such a kick out of spreading hate so freely?

When communicating publicly online, perhaps the trick is to ask ourselves if what we are saying is in any way kind or helpful. If not, then is it really necessary?

To my future employer…

My internship is over, and once again, I am fervently applying for jobs. I think of it as being like uni coursework, except you get either no feedback, or negative feedback, in response. Pretty dispiriting.

My parents advise me to mention on any job applications that I have Asperger’s, and to explain how that affects me. My former boss says to just mention it if the topic comes up naturally. And I do worry that mentioning it too much puts people off. But I also worry that if I don’t explain properly, people won’t understand. Which got me thinking: what do employers need to know?

Having Asperger’s does not stop me from being relational. I’m not allergic to people. I want customers/clients to get the best out of whatever I am helping to offer. I want my colleagues to have a good working day, and I love it when I make friends in the working environment. Basically, I care about the people I work with, and I will go the extra mile for them.

I thrive when I can work on something carefully and meticulously. I’m happy to do jobs most people find boring, if I know what to do. I want to to my job, and do it perfectly – whatever it is. If a job needs doing, and the expectations are clear, I will focus hard until it is done. Simple.

Being on the spectrum means I am less expressive. Sometimes I don’t come across as interested or enthusiastic as I feel, and I may not know how best to show it. I also find it harder to pick up on non verbal communication, and if I knew exactly what that was, then I wouldn’t find it so hard. I think I’m being normal, then somehow everyone around me just “gets” each other, and I’m left wondering what I’m missing.

I like to know what is happening, and what any plans are. Apparently more so than most people. If everything’s happening quickly, and lots of people are talking, I know I keep asking what’s happening, or what we’re about to do, and even if it seems repetitive, I really appreciate a clear explanation.

When explaining my struggles, the most important thing is understanding. If I need help, or something to be done differently, I will say so. For issues like the points above, however, the most helpful thing is to simply remember them, rather than thinking I’m weird or helpless.

Some pretty basic points here, but crucial too, I think. Looking for a job too? What would you add to the list? And if you’re already employed, is there anything you wish your employer or colleagues understood?

 

Customers versus shop assistants

A while back, I found a quote on Facebook, which – to paraphrase – went something like this. When a shop assistant goes home, and someone asks how their day at work was, you, as a customer, are part of the answer.

I’m coming to the end of my Christian bookshop internship, and I have seen all manner of customers. Different ages, races, walks of life, you name it. Many interactions I have with them are fairly bog standard. Hello, can I help with anything? I’ll have a look…they’re right there/no we don’t have that in stock. That’ll be pounds, do you need a free carrier bag? Thank you, have a nice day!

And some people know exactly how to brighten someone’s day. Some regulars actually give us chocolate. Or a bottle of juice each. Some even need a listening ear. They’re ill. Lonely. Disillusioned. They see the shop as a safe place to vent, and I always feel honoured to have gained someone’s trust.

But of course, some drive you crazy. They expect all shop assistants to know everything. They take it very personally when something they swear we had 10 years ago is unavailable. Before opening time, they might be waiting outside the unopened door, then getting huffy with us for not opening, because they need to get back to where they’ve parked illegally. Or they come waltzing in straight past the opening times stuck at face level, one minute before closing time, and ask when we close. Before spending ages browsing.

Another thing that frustrates me is when people ask for a very specific item, but can’t give me a title, author, or publisher. A Moroccan leather Bible? Tempting to say “Damn, sold the last one five minutes ago.” A Church of England booklet on the rite of confirmation? Said customer was very cross with me for not finding this, when they’d come “all the way from London” and we’d “never let them down until now!”

Yes, some people can be downright unpleasant. We recently had someone ask us to change a £20, and make it quick, thank you very much. We were reluctant; having done so earlier had left us short of change, and we needed to preserve what was left for real customers. The person asked if we would give them change if they bought something, and got angry when they realised we had enough for that. They were more cross with my poor colleague, who was trying to explain to them, and even said so to “reassure” me. You know how it is when you feel more angry when someone messes with your friend than with you? I do!

This, by the way, was hours after my other colleague, who speaks English as a second language, got yelled at by someone for struggling to understand them and not speaking clearly enough. And about a week after I listened to a customer’s complaints about life and compliments on my job performance, only to learn they had been banned for making sexual innuendos.

To finish, I would like to thank every customer who shows nothing but respect, good manners, and the occasional treat (!!!). And to the minority? Kindly remember that shop staff are not God, or computers. We just want to survive the working day, and get home to our families. Don’t you?

“Things Not To Say To An Autistic Person”- my reaction

If I had a pound for every time I read or hear the statements below, I wouldn’t be job searching…

Today I thought I’d take a different approach to usual and have a look at a video: BBC3’s “Things Not To Say To An Autistic Person” available here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d69tTXOvRq4. It’s part of a series in which people in a social minority share with each other – and the viewers – what sort of things they constantly hear from people. And after watching the one about autism, I thought why not share my thoughts? So here are the statements covered.

“But you don’t look autistic!”

Can you tell me what an autistic person looks like? I’ll have a go. Human sized. Hair, mostly on the head. Two eyes. One mouth and nose. Four limbs, but only two are used for walking. I can’t really give much more detail, though, because no two autistic people are alike…

Autism isn’t a physical condition. In fact it’s not even one condition, and I’m well aware that those on the severe end of the spectrum may present as being obviously different. But it’s only their behaviour that shows it.

“What’s your special ability?”

The assumption that people like me have a special ability is, to be fair, loosely based on truth. It also implies that people on the spectrum have superhero alter egos. Which isn’t the case, because frankly, life’s not fair.

It is common for autistic people to have an above-average IQ, and an intense, detailed fascination with their area of expertise. I mean, not every five year old would know a polymorphic snake when they saw one. And yes, assuming someone is gifted is better than assuming that they’re dumb. But blatantly assuming anything can sound annoying, and anyway, it’s not always as simple as autistic people having one super-talent and struggling with everything else. Autistic obsessions may be rigid while they last, but they can change and overlap.

“Everyone’s a little bit autistic”

Nothing wrong with this statement exactly, but does everyone who coughs have a little bit of asthma?

“Autistic people don’t feel empathy

Let me stop you there. Many autistic people aren’t as expressive as neurotypicals. We don’t always know how to respond to people during immediate, face-to-face interaction, and yet somehow, we over-empathise. If someone I’m with is unhappy, it’s like the air is thick with it.

“You could be normal if you tried”

I don’t try. I just am. For me. Don’t even get me started on healing

“How would you describe autism?”

A hard question, but not necessarily an inappropriate one. Having Asperger’s, i.e. at the mild end of the spectrum, I’d say poor co-ordination, difficulty reading people, a mix of detailed and innovative, and overall a bummer, but also perfectly normal. Well, “normal.” If you want a lengthier description, you’ve got one right here.

“What is the best thing about autism?”

To be honest, it’s a nuisance. But hey, I can joke about lacking empathy or humour in a way that would be insulting coming from anyone else. I have life experiences, and an understanding of the world, that are apparently different from neurotypicals’. Plus, if I didn’t have it, I might not be writing this blog.

There you have it. Personally, I wouldn’t put a ban on those last two points, but other than that, please try to remember the issues touched upon. And while you’re at it, watch the video, and tell me what you think. How can one deal with these statements? Could they be replaced with something more appropriate?

Our New Wine family

“I don’t know what to expect from these meetings…I’m on the outside, wishing I knew someone closely, but not feeling comfortable enough to say anything…”

Ten months ago, I wrote myself a letter. I was at my course’s church, surrounded by other Christian interns, and we had been asked to write to our end-of-year selves. Two days ago, these letters were returned to us, and we were asked to take time to reflect on how far we’d come.

I was enrolled on the weekly New Wine Discipleship course as part of the internship I’m doing at a Christian bookshop. And if I’m honest, there were times when I thought I’d never find my feet there. Everyone was getting to know each other. No-one else had to calm down in another room when asked to write and perform a talk. We were all advised to “go deeper” with each other in conversation, and quite frankly, this terrified me.

In situations like this, you can either go running back to safety, or you can push yourself forward. So when I tried to act sociable and relaxed, or remember people’s names, or make a beeline for anyone I now recognised, that’s what I was doing.

I don’t know how I’ve gone from that stage, to thinking about how much I’m going to miss it, but I have. Each Monday session has been draining, but we’ve done so much together. Our first weekend away. Our Christmas party. The Ukraine mission trip. Jennie and Jan’s wedding. And finally, to go out with a bang, our end-of-year graduation ceremony.

Our last day was the most uplifting and exhausting yet. After opening our letters, we all sat in a circle with someone in the centre, while everyone else voiced words of encouragement and special memories. A real reminder of how we value each other.

But what could anyone say about me, the quiet one who always needs help? Let’s say I was humbled by how many things my friends appreciate about me.

Once half the group had stopped crying, we moved on to Jess’ game. In two teams, we each had to decode clues about where in the city we should go to, take a group selfie once there, receive the next clue, and so on. I don’t know why we had to run everywhere, but when my team decided to race, I started at the back, and out-ran all of them. Just saying.

And onto the most important part, the graduation ceremony! While we were hitting the town, Jess had prepared our paper graduation hats and certificates. Once we were assembled, she even dedicated a short speech to each of us before presenting us with our certificates. A true ceremony if ever there was one!

To end the festivities, we had drinks and a meal at a local tapas bar. Thinking about it, having a cocktail on an empty stomach and zero energy probably wasn’t my wisest choice. I shifted between feeling increasingly sociable, and overly anxious. And lightheaded. But hey, tripping over a downward step, and talking about my feelings to the next person* who would listen proved entertaining, if nothing else.

At this point, I’m going over my preferred word count to conclude with a personal shout out to everyone!

To Ruth B, my first friend on the course who looked out for me from day one, and who always goes the extra mile for the group

To Wole, whose God centred enthusiasm is unmatched, and whose random singing had us all in stitches

To Matt, a good worship leader who can start and finish any theological debate

To Ruth G, who I commute with, discuss the course with, and also happily be alone together with

*To Mary, who translated in Ukraine even though it wasn’t easy, and who let me chatter aimlessly about how I shouldn’t have had that cocktail

To Elijah, who also translated, and helped me navigate Ukrainian cafes

To Jan, who trod the Christian bookshop path before me so we could compare experiences

To Miya, who, in Ukraine, listened to me complaining about how useless I sometimes felt

To Jake, who, like me, started off in super-introvert mode, but is actually pretty fun to watch at a wedding disco

To Alex, whose sense of humour is equally questionable and brilliant

To Cameron, who made a good second-in-command in Ukraine

To Nathan, always the cool head in any tricky theological discussion

To Isaac, who frequently gives positive feedback on this blog

And of course, our leaders: David, who got us through the first tricky term, Jess, mother hen and vicar-to-be, and Simon, who led us through Ukraine and made sure I didn’t get lost. Hats off to everyone!

Image may contain: 2 people, people smiling, shoes and outdoor

DISCLAIMER: the photo belongs to Jess, not me

 

Getting healed?!

A few weeks ago, a customer came into the shop, and, as customers often do, asked me a lot of questions at once that I was struggling to make sense of. When trying to get him to clarify what he wanted, I told him I have Asperger’s Syndrome, a form of autism, and sometimes communication is confusing for me. But alas, there is hope, fellow Aspies. Because according to this man…I could ask God to heal me!

My reaction, as a Christian, is this. I believe in praying. I believe that people can be healed. I also believe that, just because God can heal, it doesn’t mean that He should, or will. I have to say, though, I wish my immediate response had been that eloquent. What I actually did was falteringly explain that autism is not an illness to be cured, but rather a difference in the brain, and that implying otherwise can hurt. He got it in the end, and surrounding colleagues and customers were impressed. So clearly I did something right.

But then I thought to myself, no matter how many times I hear how important it is to embrace our differences, I do get frustrated. I do wish I didn’t need extra help. I’m often fed up with my struggles, yet I couldn’t help feeling offended at the notion that I should change. Am I just acting like a special snowflake?

I don’t know. But not every struggle is a problem that needs to be “cured”.

I recently had an interesting message exchange with a friend who, as we were chatting, was watching a documentary about children on medication for conditions like autism and ADHD. She asked me how I felt about that. Now, I respect people’s decisions here. It’s up to the individual. If medication proves more beneficial than not, then good for them. But I’m wary of people who treat Asperger’s as an illness, when it’s not caused by germs, or hormones, or bodily harm. So I gave her the following analogy.

Imagine a group of people, all from the same country, faced with someone from another country and who speaks a different language. Chances are, they are lonely. They want to communicate, but they find their limited vocabulary very frustrating. They might wish they were the same as everyone else, but should everyone be praying that they suddenly become British? Or American, or the nationality of your choice…

No. Of course not. It’s up to them to learn English (or whatever), and it’s up to the others to be patient with them. And it will always be their second language. But with enough learning and patience, they may speak fluently, and become a popular, respected group member. And they can bring to the table a language and a culture that everyone else barely knows about.

Do you get what I’m saying? In a similar way, learning differences can be a bummer. But they don’t have to stop you from flourishing. The trick is working through it, seeking support when you need it, and finding a way forward.