Autistic insecurity

Isn’t it interesting how our personal struggles grow and change with us? So often, I see Facebook posts about how much simpler life was when the most stressful thing was running out of colouring pencils. Or how Year 7* kids have no idea what real stress is. But our worries are no less real in the moment just because there may be worse to come, or there are others with bigger problems. A common feature of Asperger’s Syndrome is seemingly irrational anxiety over any potentially negative situation. So, as an Aspie myself, I thought I’d reflect on my own experiences here.

For a start, children with AS can sometimes have a very black-and-white understanding of the world, which may be particularly noticeable in their understanding of what is safe, and what isn’t. Most people are aware that too much sugar is bad for you, and hey, wouldn’t life be easier if more children understood this! But what do you do when your child is afraid to eat even a single sweet for fear of getting fat or feeling sick?

Thankfully, I’ve long since set myself a limit. No more than the equivalent of two moderate portions of dessert in a day. Maximum. It really pays to know your capacity.

In a similar way, you could say it’s healthy to have an aversion to germs and sickness. What is possibly less healthy is to have an anxiety attack whenever you – or even someone else – starts feeling ill. Or to be afraid of food that had even the slightest chance of becoming contaminated. You know, like when fruit gets bruised, or perishable food is a day past its sell-by-date.

As we start to mature, we often tend to worry less about the physical world, and more about problems with other people. I’ve always found conflict a struggle, and I think this has evolved from Mum having to skip parts in my Pingu storybooks where anyone got cross, to me soaking up other people’s negative emotions and not wanting to make things worse. I have improved – I want to assert my opinions, or say no, and I’m more likely to now – but old habits die hard.

Besides, social situations can cause a lot of anxiety for people like me, because we’re so afraid of making mistakes that we couldn’t have foreseen. In a big group of people, it’s easier to keep a low profile because that way, at least you know where you are with everyone else. For me, groups of three are the worst. So often, the other two will hit it off really quickly, and I just don’t know how to keep up.

Living in a world where socially skilled people come out on top can create a strong desire to prove oneself – if not socially, then intellectually. I’m fighting despair when it comes to all the job rejections I’ve had – how do I know employers don’t find AS to be a social turn-off? I’ve always wanted to be a writer, and autism awareness is a noble cause. But, if I’m honest, my ambition does come from a need to have something to aim for. Because we, as people, need to find meaning in something, and maybe our best chance to prove ourselves is by pursuing something important to us.




*aged 11-12 years


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?

Less employable?

A few weeks ago, as some of you are aware, I had a bit of a setback. Three months after I finished my Christian bookshop internship, I got a job as a packaging assistant at a warehouse, and was elated. I spent the whole day filling Land of Soap and Glory gift sets, moving faster than whenever I exercise after weighing myself. Apparently I didn’t start meeting my targets until the afternoon, but not to worry, other workers apparently took weeks to speed up.

So I went back for day two and got sent home for not working fast enough. After being given no training, no target, and no way of knowing how close I was to meeting it. Way to dramatically change the mood.

I sometimes think that having a learning difference and trying to find a job is the human equivalent of being one of the “less adoptable” pets at an animal shelter, overlooked because they have a medical condition, or are old, or need to be rehomed in a specific kind of environment. And lets face it, having Asperger’s does make some things harder. It also makes other things easier. But it’s the potential disadvantages that most people worry about.

From my experiences as an intern, and as a volunteer at various places, the main things I struggle with are speed and interpreting other people. Despite my frequent complaints about rude customers, the bookshop was probably the most Aspie friendly environment I’ve worked in. It required attention to detail, a love of literature, and an approachable, customer friendly manner. But then I also had to frequently ask customers to pause the lengthy set of instructions they were giving me, and repeat back to them what I think I’d understood. Then of course they’d rephrase everything, and I’d have to ask again.

As for speed, university taught me a lot about writing a whole article in the space of half an hour. What it didn’t teach me was how to stop being dyspraxic and chuck exactly the right number of toiletries into a gift set, and complete an unknown number of packages at top speed with no training.

Yet so often, the reason I work more slowly is because I’m trying so hard to do it perfectly. My blog posts, while not perfect, are a testament to this; I spend all afternoon trying to think of a great topic, and the best way to word it, and usually start writing at 5.30pm! In a shop, I’m happy to do the long, detailed tasks, like sorting and stickering and tidying, because I thrive on precision.

I’m also very firm about adhering to rules and commitments. Apparently that’s a bit of an Aspie trait. I’m rarely late, I don’t cancel plans unless there’s no choice, I do what I’m asked the first time (usually), and I don’t break rules. At the bookshop, we were frequently left short of change for customers whenever random people came in asking us to change a £20 note for them. I pulled a few strings, and now the shop doesn’t give more than one £5 and five £1 coins.

I suppose what I’m saying is: future employers, don’t be put off by words like “Asperger’s” and “autism”. If you don’t understand, just ask – if you don’t get given an explanation anyway. If the job vacancy has attracted the interest of someone with a learning difference, then maybe the nature of the work is right up their street. Keep an open mind, and a giving attitude, and you’ll have one happy employee. Provided you keep them for longer than a day.

A strain on the senses

Have you ever watched a film – or children’s TV show – told from the perspective of a small, anthropomorphic* animal in a world full of humans? Put them in a scenario where they are trying to navigate a busy place packed with people. They cannot focus on their destination when there are so many legs to dodge. They have to make split second judgements about where to move when, they feel like they could get squashed at any moment, and you can bet there are beeping cars, barking dogs, lots of shouting, and any number of obstacles.

It’s a weird analogy, but that’s what springs to mind when I try to explain what a sensory overload feels like. I might not be small, furry, and animated, but this is how I feel walking through a massive party, an airport, a big train station, or even a busy town or city. I can’t mentally filter everything I can hear and see. I find it hard to read people and make judgements about how and when to move, so I have to really concentrate when moving through a crowd. Crossing roads without traffic lights is even harder, and don’t get me started on cyclists. Also, if someone is talking to me I can often hear them well enough, but I’m not in the best place to give an intelligent reply because I can’t filter out what I need to.

People with autism are known for over – or under – reacting to stimuli. My theory is that our senses aren’t different, exactly; rather, our brains respond differently to sensory data. Can you see why, when there’s all sorts happening in the background, we show attention-deficit tendencies? To use another TV analogy, I sometimes wonder if someone without autism experiences that kind of environment like a scene in a public place where background events are visually and aurally dimmed down, and what they are focusing on is front-and-centre. But I can’t speak from experience.

And it’s not just hearing. Some, like me, are easily startled by touch; Mum says she has never worried about me getting touched inappropriately because I’d break the wrist of anyone who might try. Similarly, certain textures may be uncomfortable. Some people don’t like clothes made from specific materials, or that are too tight. As a child, I always had to cut the labels off, because I was too aware of them. Some people, on the other hand, may be less aware of physical sensations. They may not notice even severe pain, or they might simply neglect their own needs.

Some people struggle with particular food textures or flavours, and may be unable to stomach anything too stodgy, bitty, spicy, inconsistent, etc. Having been raised eating Chinese/Taiwanese cuisine, I love spicy, vegetable based food. Yet I’ve never liked mayonnaise, fruit crumble, custard, gravy, or various stereotypically British things. Also, despite always liking jacket potatoes, it took me years to trust mash. Asperger logic at its best.

I think this is another issue where, for the most part, I explain so that people are aware, not because I expect help. Anyway, awareness is helpful if it means the other person knows my social skills might be down until I can hear myself think, and in situations like that, the best help is probably the most subtle.



*meaning human-like in some way (physically and/or mentally). Think Disney.

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.


Asperger’s and friendships – part 2

Does anyone else miss the days where friendships were formed by arranged play dates and a common interest in beanie babies? You know, before the days when the very word “friendship” meant a social hierarchy, in which kids who talked about cats all the time were not at the top? Yeah. Me too.

Just over a couple of years ago, I was at uni, writing regular online articles about being an autistic student, and I thought I’d give a few pointers on friendship. I didn’t fit in at uni, didn’t see many people outside uni, and was overly-dependent on a friendship that was going downhill faster than if it was rollerskating down a ski slope. In retrospect, I probably wasn’t in a good place to be doling out friendship advice.

I mean, what advice can I offer? That trying to make friends can lead to bitter disappointment, while not trying somehow ends in people bonding over a shared sense of humour before suddenly sharing all their darkest secrets? People in your life can make or break your trust. So just focus on the ones with whom you’ve exchanged secrets, shared your hurts and laughed until you’ve cried. The sheer quality of the friends I have made lately trumps all the social setbacks I’ve had, and I am so incredibly grateful to them.

As someone with Asperger’s, I think true friends are underrated. A few years ago, as a lonely teenager, I thought they were a miracle, as I wrestled with the notion that I might always have trouble relating to others. At best, other kids would come back to me when any boyfriends or cooler friends were out of the picture. At worst, they lost interest completely.

Over time, I have picked up a few tricks of the trade. Observation, for one. What does the other person say that hints at their personality? What do they find funny? What do they like to do? Or talk about? Then there’s empathy. Interpreting faces and body language may be hard, but if you really care when they’ve had a tough time, or are out of their depth, or even talking about something important to them, show it. Listen. Make eye contact. Encourage them to talk more, while respecting their privacy with sensitive issues.

And finally, a little humour can go a long way. If you can joke about how shy you are with new people, or something stupid you’ve done, then you can break through awkwardness. When you feel awkward, you can either metaphorically bury your head in the sand, or laugh at yourself and encourage others to do the same. Why do you think I dedicated an entire blog post to some of my most embarrassing anecdotes?

A group as good as it gets!


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.