If neurotypicals were the minority

A few years ago, I wrote a blog post about neurotypical people – people without autism or any learning difference, that is. It was satirical, it was perhaps a little patronising, and it gave a jokingly serious, article-style description of neurotypicals, mirroring many Asperger descriptions I had read. Not everybody got it though, thinking that I was describing an actual condition. I guess I need to up my game!

If neurotypicals were the minority, it would count as a condition. If they were the minority, we AS people would still have a hard time understanding them, but hey, as the majority, it would be easy to dismiss non-autistic tendencies as weird. If they were the minority, they would need to fight to be understood. So from years of observation, this is how I would explain neurotypical people.

  • Fewer touch boundaries. As a person with Asperger’s, I’m very easily startled by touch, so physical affection is something I share with people I am already close to. For many neurotypicals, patting someone on the arm while talking, or moving in for a hug after one meeting is common bonding behaviour. They’re being kind, and with that in mind, I try to let it go. It got awkward at church the other year when a woman I’d briefly met appeared to be offering a handshake, but in fact was about to kiss me. If someone catches me unawares like that, I have to explain: “I’m sorry for any awkwardness, I’m autistic, I struggle to read body language and am easily startled by touch.”
  • Not very structured. Many neurotypicals have an uncanny ability to understand what is happening and what is expected of them from vague information from more than one source, and passed around with a whole load of irrelevant details thrown into the mix. They then have no qualms about changing their plans at will without making it clear what the new situation is. Meanwhile, you’re doing your bit at the exact agreed time, only to be baffled when the rest of the plan has changed entirely. *Sigh*
  • Reliant on eye contact, body language, and facial expressions for communication. Receiving presents as a child is testament to this, as I mentioned last time. I loved presents, couldn’t wait to open them, and always said thank you to the giver. But because I wasn’t bouncing off the walls with excitement, and looking them right in the eye the whole time, they were quick to think I didn’t like it.
  • Good at physical skillsThe physical co-ordination of some people is beyond me. While I can just about clap and sing at the same time, some people can do things like dance. Or go hiking on a rocky, uneven surface. Or kick a ball around while dodging other people. Or even do any of the above while giving me a weird look for being unable to keep up. Amazing…
  • Have a high tolerance for background stimuliWhenever I have to navigate a busy city, airport, or large train station, it is beyond helpful to have a neurotypical person with me, because they can lead the way without being mentally thrown off balance by crowds of people pushing by, loud noise, too many things to look at, too much information to try to remember…you get the idea.

So on that note, it’s worth remembering this: non-autistic traits may seem confusing. But they’re not a lesser way of being; people without autism have their strengths, and these are important. And no two neurotypicals are the same. They just don’t always communicate like we do, and even though that’s hard sometimes, we are all different and that’s ok. Now go out there and spread a bit of neurotypical understanding. After a lifetime of being surrounded by neurotypicals…I still have a lot to learn!

 

 

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As a child at Christmas

It’s Christmas Day, and I’m sitting here wishing my brain would move as quickly as it was at 1:30 this morning. I don’t know why overtiredness manifests itself in the form of sleepless nights, and I don’t appreciate the irony. I thought I’d grown out of being unable to sleep on Christmas Eve. To be fair though, the cause of my Christmas Eve insomnia has shifted from the anticipation of presents to being walked on by attention-starved cats, replaying any recent social interaction in my head, questioning my own decisions, trying to think of a Christmas themed blog post… You get the idea.

After a few hours of this, it was that contrast that got me thinking about experiencing Christmas as a child and as an adult. I mean, we usually keep it pretty simple every year – lunch, presents, family time, TV – and that’s how I like it. But kids don’t do Christmas by halves. They go over the top with excitement, they want to show off their Christmas presents, and they can scarcely contain themselves.

Unless they’re on the autistic spectrum. Especially if they’re anything like me.

As a child, present etiquette was a bit of a mystery to me. I loved presents as much as the next child, and if someone gave me one, knew I was happy about it. If I was feeling particularly on the ball, I even remembered to say thank you. So why were people so quick to assume I didn’t like it?

It was a while before I got it into my head that you have to look and sound excited when you receive a present, and look the giver right in the eye. A bit longer before I realised I didn’t do any of that. And even longer before I learned that having autism means that displaying body language comes no more naturally than reading it. But as a young adult, I think I’m getting it.

But hey, my lack of awareness back in the day proved advantageous for my mother. For a start, my present lists were basically the same every time. Soft toy, posh chocolates, plasticine. I was easily amused. And to cap it all, I was so unaware of the world around me, she could buy my presents right in front of me, and I would be none the wiser. As much as it was due to autism, my mum put it down to good parenting at the time.

Now the bar for her festive accomplishments has lowered. Now her biggest achievement is not tiring of the same joke year after year: handing me any distinctively rectangular present and telling me it’s a beachball. It seems that Mum was not content to leave it there this time, and so it was that among my presents I found – in a large rectangular box – one beachball. Brilliant.

Christmas performances have been a constant throughout my life. They’ve simply shifted from typical school/church nativities and carol services, to being “sixth narrator” in my primary school’s A Christmas Carol performance, to playing in the school orchestra/steel pan band in town, to singing almost in time with my current choir in the park.

As a child, I would need constant help keeping up with what was going on, with an adult or even a fellow child helping me focus, while I wondered when it would be finishing, so I could avail myself of any post-performance snacks. As an adult…no wait, nothing’s changed.

And so, as the Call the Midwife Christmas special draws ever nearer, I will wish you all the merriest of Christmases. Eat, drink, and be merry. May this be the start of a Christmas beachball trend! And a year of better sleeping.

Autistic frustration

One of the many assumptions I’ve had people make about me is that I must be prone to anger outbursts. I don’t remember anyone saying it to my face, but I do remember Mum telling me about people who have thought that. Needless to say, this isn’t the case – Mum has always said if I was any less aggressive I’d go into a coma – but I realise it’s true for many people with Asperger’s and other forms of autism.

Outbursts are often listed as a symptom of autism, which, at first glance, makes sense. Plenty of children and adults experience this, whether due to frustration, sensory overload, stress, and many other things. But then I thought about some of the more basic signs and symptoms of autism in comparison, and I came to the conclusion that anger outbursts aren’t a direct symptom of autism. They’re an expression of built up frustration.

It sounds like the line between the two is very blurry. Put it like this: symptoms of autism are directly caused by differences in the brain. For example: overall high intelligence, but trouble reading faces and body language. Misinterpreting things people say. Different reactions to touch, and other sensory information. Fixation on topics of interest. I’ve reflected, rambled, and ranted about them often enough.

As I write this, I’m thinking about how it drives me mad when people see autism as a bad thing…while feeling fed up with it and wishing it wasn’t an issue. But in a way, that proves my point: autism doesn’t cause frustration. Having autism in a world full of – and made for – people who don’t does.

Autistic frustration is a range of issues in its own right. It comes from spending half your life having to explain yourself, and the other half needing people to explain themselves. It comes from having to work twice as hard just to keep up in social and academic settings made for neurotypical people. Having to grit your teeth when people talk down to you, or make assumptions about you, because you know they mean well, and you don’t want to hurt their feelings. Wanting to connect with your peers but lacking the know how. Then, just to top it all, not having the social skills to communicate all this.

Which, thinking about it, is partly why I blog: while my face-to-face people skills have improved, I still communicate more naturally through writing. It may feel like a chore at times, but it’s still what I do. Besides, it’s important to help people understand. I don’t expect miracles from other people, myself, or my writing. Accepting that sometimes things are different for me is what helps me be less self conscious. And if you can overcome self-consciousness, even if only a little way, you will find it easier to see beyond the negatives.

Being included

My teenage years were quite a lonely time for me. I’m sure I’m not alone in this. I soon got used to sitting in the SEN* room during breaktimes because it was easier than being alone in a crowd of friendship groups. One or two people made the effort to talk to me, and I appreciated it, but mostly I had to put up with other people talking about social events I wasn’t invited to.

If you’re not reading this while listening to some sad violin music, then you should be.

This is one of many struggles for young people on the autistic spectrum. Despite the “unemotional” stereotype, many of us are weighed down by the need for intimacy but difficulty in connecting. Since secondary school, things have improved significantly for me, give or take a few bumps along the way, but when non-verbal language isn’t your forte, sometimes it’s as if people forget you exist.

But while the stereotype that we don’t care about people is usually untrue, it is true that people with Asperger’s can find social events overwhelming. I was reflecting on this recently; I love feeling like I belong, and that people want to spend time with me. Sometimes, however, I get invited to social events where I don’t really know anyone properly, the activity is something I find hard, or I’m already feeling drained. Then if I say no, I inwardly scold myself for being ungrateful when social isolation used to be a real problem for me. If I get left out, I feel lonely. If people try to include me, I shy away in favour of being alone. Right?

The fact is, I always appreciate any attempts to help me feel included, even if I’m not front-and-centre at every social event. A bit like how a person in a wheelchair may want to be as involved as the next person, but might be reluctant to agree to go on a hike. Besides, I’ve been to a fair few events outside of my comfort zone, and actually ended up enjoying them – a few years ago, I wouldn’t be seen dead in a tent, for example! I just like to know that I’ll have at least one close friend I can stick with who understands autism, and opportunities for quiet time.

So if you’re not sure how someone on the spectrum feels about being invited to something, it doesn’t hurt to ask. They may say no, but if they’ve repeatedly felt left out in the past, they may still want to know that they were thought of.

 

*Special Educational Needs

 

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.

 

Communication confusion

If someone were to ask me to briefly summarise Asperger’s Syndrome – not that they often do – I would put it like this:

– Difficulty reading faces and body language
– Difficulty interpreting things people say, especially instructions
– Poor physical skills
– Above average IQ
– Detailed long term memory
– Good at learning – and correctly using – spoken language

But in a specific situation where I have misunderstood something and fallen short of expectations, I can’t explain what I’m confused about, or what went wrong. Other people will ask me why I struggled with something that they probably see as blindingly obvious, and so often I’m left feeling stupid because I just can’t explain.

Often it’s the same with smaller, more mundane things. Why do you not join in with the group conversation? Why are you so easily startled? Why do you still need help finding your way there? In response, it would be so easy for me to reply: How do you find so many things to say to all those people? Why aren’t you startled when someone behind you pats you on the shoulder? How can you memorise a route you’ve only taken once while following other people? But these aren’t answers, because – apart from “I’m autistic” – I don’t have any.

In these situations, people asking about Asperger’s is fair enough. The hard part is answering those questions. How do you explain the way you are? It’s like trying to explain what your own accent sounds like! And when people expect you to communicate why you’ve misunderstood someone, the irony is that you have a communication disorder, and can’t explain any better than they can. Because part of being autistic is struggling to see how you come across compared with others.

One of the things I find hardest is unspoken expectations. Despite the autism stereotype, empathy has never been a struggle, and I have even learned to use it to pinpoint people’s emotional needs. But when I’m in a situation where there’s pressure to perform well – practically or socially – and pick up things that haven’t been explained, I’m completely lost without clear guidance on how to manage the situation.

And that’s not to say that AS renders you incapable of communication. We just process things differently, and who’s to say “differently” means “worse” anyway? We take in information in a concrete, logical manner, accompanied with a lot of careful thought, and in a world where most people instinctively know what’s expected when given ambiguous information, we are in a minority. So while we power through that world, and keep honing our non-native neurotypical* language skills, please bear with us!

 

 

*Non-autistic

Having a joke

Some years ago, I shared a funny video on Facebook about preconceptions autistic people have to deal with. “Can you count the handful of toothpicks I just dropped?” “Are you like Rain Man?” “Have you tried dolphin therapy?” You know, the usual. A friend of mine commented – not entirely seriously – “But Grace, people with autism can’t find things funny…” To which I replied “Of course not, what was I thinking? I’d better get back to counting my toothpick collection!”

My sense of humour often catches people by surprise. Which I can understand; I’m a gentle, fairly introverted young woman on the autistic spectrum, someone will make a joke, then before they know it, I’m explaining to them that my seemingly serious reaction was, in fact, sarcasm. When someone I’m with is being silly, I don’t laugh at them, I act like I am silently judging them. When I do or say something silly, I will make a deliberately transparent attempt to act like nothing happened. Or I will just pretend to think I did a brilliant job of whatever I was trying to do.

Actually, as you may have noticed, many of my jokes are about how autistic people can’t make jokes. I would say that one never grows old, but how can a joke grow old when you can’t even make one in the first place? And I did it again…

People with Asperger’s, and other forms of autism, are known for not understanding humour. I should be careful to not dismiss this as a stereotype, because I’m aware that many people on the spectrum take longer to learn things like that. We instinctively rely on spoken language for communication, and sarcasm goes directly against everything about communication that we try so hard to remember. The words say one thing, the voice says another, and somehow people find it funny. When you dissect it like that, it sounds far from logical.

Personally, I see humour as being one of those things that can take longer to learn, but isn’t impossible. I’m not entirely sure how I picked it up. I feel like I’ve developed the ability to see the funny side of a silly, or ironic, situation. I’ve not only learned how to recognise dry, deadpan remarks about life, I like to think I’ve perfected the art of it in my own way. Yet even now, I occasionally struggle. If someone says something that could, very plausibly, be true, I do get confused, particularly when I’m already overloaded. Or maybe I know someone is making a joke, but I don’t know how best to respond.

People like someone who can laugh at themselves, and in situations like that, if you can gently make fun of your own awkwardness, you can smooth things over. A lot of the time, though, perhaps it’s best to just explain that you have Asperger’s and you don’t always recognise jokes and/or know how to respond. But if you are well used to joking with others, and tired of people assuming otherwise, you have to laugh at the irony of them trying to wind you up thinking jokes are beyond you while not noticing you sarcastically playing along with it. Because few things in life are more satisfying than beating other people at their own game.