Constructive criticism – or not

When I was at secondary school, one of the many things I struggled with was people not knowing how to correct me. And given how many times I needed correcting, this was a common issue. Some people got frustrated with me seemingly every time I misunderstood something, or did things differently. Others wouldn’t dream of telling me what to do, and would just smile and nod and tell me well done for breathing. Well, not literally. But for something small like that.

Most teachers leaned towards the latter. As nitpicky as this may sound, I found it embarrassing when they would thoroughly critique other childrens’ work, then tell me – in front of said children – that the rules didn’t apply to me. It was as if having Asperger’s meant there was no point in trying to teach me the same stuff as everyone else.

But some people – mainly kids – were a different story. If I was struggling to make small talk, they would give me weird looks. If I didn’t understand instructions in class, they would get impatient. There were several times when I was trying hard to make friends, and people would tell me I was weird or boring. Thankfully, there were a few who were patient with me, so it could have been worse. But there were many times when I was left not knowing where I was going wrong.

A complaint I’ve heard before about dating an autistic person is not knowing when and how to correct frustrating behaviour. Or how to work through a misunderstanding. I think this can be an issue in romantic and non-romantic relationships. And it is tricky. I know I can be oversensitive to criticism when delivered bluntly or unexpectedly. But I also know it’s important to be able to take it. It’s true – someone with a learning difference will need you to be patient with them in certain areas. And sometimes they will need correcting. So how – as a neurotypical person – do you deliver it?

  • Be aware that if they said something that sounded insensitive, unhelpful, or otherwise inappropriate, they probably didn’t mean it in that way, and may find it upsetting if you get cross with them seemingly out of the blue. There have been times when I’ve struggled with a task, someone’s tried to help me, I’ve explained the entire scenario so I could pinpoint what I wasn’t understanding, and caused annoyance by accidentally sounding condescending.
  • Explain to them not only what they need to do differently, but why. Don’t bombard them with too much emotion or information. Just a concise explanation – and an offer of help if necessary.
  • Learn to distinguish between things they do differently that are of little to no consequence and things that do need correcting. I take a similar approach to other people’s grammatical errors, particularly if they are dyslexic or speak English as a second language. Mixed up or mispronounced words I leave well alone unless asked otherwise. Words or sentences that change the meaning of what they are reading or talking about, I will discreetly point out in a quiet moment. As a person with Asperger’s, I really appreciate people taking a similar approach in social situations.

Hope this post was helpful. Any constructive criticism? Fire away!

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Inspiration porn

Before I get to the point, don’t be fooled by the word “porn”. This is not that kind of blog! Now do read on.

In a recent issue of my writing magazine, I read an article about how to write about disabled characters sensibly. It covered several pretty good points – person first vs identity first language, don’t use slurs, make disabled characters as well rounded as non disabled characters – but I thought I’d look at one that got me thinking: disabled people being seen as inspiring for managing the simplest daily tasks. Or, as the magazine put it, inspiration porn.

For a start, I should probably differentiate between validating someone’s struggles and achievements, and inspiration porn. We all survive tough times, and accomplish things that we’re proud of, and chances are, we appreciate it when people understand our struggles and admire our achievements. I don’t know about other people with disabilities, but for me, being autistic doesn’t change this.

Then you see articles on the Internet about people with physical disabilities, learning differences, etc., depicting them as being an example to everyone just for getting through life with their condition. Maybe they’re shown doing a normal activity that may or may not be harder for them, leaving everyone amazed that they managed it at all. I remember people at school saying they felt sorry for me because of “that thing” I have. Or they need help or friendship, someone offers it, and suddenly that person is a saint. It seems that everything the disabled person does is either because of, or in spite of, their disability.

Now I understand these reactions are well meant. There are things that are harder to manage when you have a disability or illness. Showing kindness to someone who has one is a good thing. But there will be many things in a disabled person’s life that are just routine to them and/or are unrelated to their disability. We don’t exist solely to inspire others by managing these things. Like pity, showering someone in praise over the smallest thing implies that you don’t expect them to be that capable.

I remember I once touched upon a similar topic: being kind vs being patronising. I said that pity is feeling sorry for someone just because of the way they are, as if that makes them lesser. Sympathy is understanding what someone is going through and supporting them accordingly. Perhaps you could compare it to attitude towards race – I don’t want or need to be pitied or admired for being half Taiwanese. On the other hand, I’m sick to death of racist catcalls, and the more people understand why this bothers me, the better.

Do you see? Stories about disabled people making any kind of achievement may be heartwarming, but to truly appreciate the things someone has mastered, you have to get to know them like any other person.

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