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.


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!




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!


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 – or communicating to – other people. Experts would say non-verbal signals. Or eye contact. Or me 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.



Look into my eyes…

What is it about eye contact that can make someone so uncomfortable? Or completely put them at ease? Well there are lots of things. Duration. Emotion behind the eyes. Timing. To name a few.

Lack of eye contact is one of the most tell-tale signs of autism. Apparently I was no exception as a child. I remember learning over the years that simply hearing, and verbally responding to, something that’s been said, isn’t enough. In other words, to feel heard, the person speaking needs to feel seen.

Autistic people have many reasons for lack of eye contact. If I’m not looking you in the eye as much as I should, there could be any number of reasons. You might have caught me when I was concentrating on something else. The most likely one, however, is simple: sometimes I forget. I know how eye contact works. It’s just something I have to consciously remember.

And occasionally, if emotions are running high, it is too much. As I’m often acutely aware of emotions anyway, looking in people’s eyes sends my ability to focus out of the metaphorical window. Or maybe I’m trying to hide my own emotions, usually resentment or tears. This is a common one for autistics and non-autistics alike.

Another reason, which I’ve yet to hear from anyone else, is that if someone is talking at length to me, I find it easier to take in what they are saying if I’m not looking into their eyes too much. Eye contact means involuntary communication. And that takes up concentration. But then people cannot tell the difference between when I’ve stopped listening and when I’m listening uber-hard. So I do need to work on that.

Which I am. When I’m not forgetting to make eye contact, I make a conscious attempt to give the look that shows I care, and encourages people to open up to me. Or if I’m trying to get a point across. As for playful banter, I’ve mastered eye communication to a T. Just ask anyone who’s ever seen my Hard Stare.

Even working in the bookshop has taught me more about the importance of eye contact. Just little things like catching a customer’s eye and asking them how I can help them (when I’m shopping, I keep my head down the whole time hoping the salesperson won’t notice me, but that’s just me). When I offer loyalty cards, people are much more likely to accept if I look them in the eye the whole time. And if nothing else, a quick glance between colleagues when facing a difficult customer signals: RED ALERT!

So am I just stating the obvious a lot of the time? Well maybe, to non-autistics. But that’s the whole point; eye contact formalities often aren’t second nature to people on the spectrum. At best, they’re learned behaviour. But then that isn’t obvious to people not on the spectrum. Which I why I write posts like this. Now look me in the eye and tell me autistic people can’t communicate. Go on, I dare you.


Come on, look at that face! Who wouldn’t want to make eye contact?


Face blindness – do I know you?

I am a very visual thinker. Generally. When it comes to analysing a person, or a situation, I’m all for common patterns and the bigger picture, but when doing something that requires memory, I will often rack my brain for relevant visual details. Recalling a past event? I’m on it. Learning a new route? Stored images of all the places I pass – if in the correct order – may be my only saving grace. (Saving Grace, gettit? I amuse myself…)

Unfortunately, my visual memory draws the line at faces. Plenty of people are bad at faces. Some are worse with names. And some people, often on the autistic spectrum, are notoriously bad at both. Has anyone ever ended up making small talk with a (non) stranger who recognised them from an event that happened years ago? Bet you have.

But how often do you fail to remember someone you met earlier in the day? Like when I went to Blackpool with the Navigators in 2015. I spent the afternoon in town with Jonny and the guys, and got into a long conversation with a lad from Birmingham. Come quiz night that evening, I introduced myself to one of my team mates, who, by some unfathomable miracle, was the same person. Don’t you just hate it when new people do that?

Except they’re not doing anything. And according to a radio talk and related article (here:  that my mum discovered, there is a name for this: face blindness. Or prosopagnosia. Which, apparently, is common in people with Asperger’s, and other forms of autism.

When you think about it, this makes sense. Asperger’s Syndrome basically means that, despite the lack of developmental delay seen in more severe autism, you are not fluent in facial communication. And recognising messages portrayed by the face is only one step forward from recognising the face itself.

When I first read the article and listened to the talk, I was sceptical. Unlike the woman featured, I have no trouble recognising my own mother. Or my friends. Or people I interact with at length regularly. And if I’ve properly seen you at least once in the past, that doesn’t necessarily mean I won’t remember you. It’s just that that also doesn’t mean I will remember you. But, like autism, face blindness probably has a spectrum. Or maybe I’m just face-shortsighted.

I think this is partly why I have quite complicated boundaries when it comes to touch. You might feel like you know me well enough to tap me from behind or hold my arm without warning, but if we’re not close friends or immediate relatives, I can’t promise I won’t react as if a complete stranger is crossing my personal boundaries. Like at church when we were sharing the peace, and a woman whom I’d apparently met before moved in for a kiss on the cheek, nearly giving me a heart attack. It’s honestly nothing personal. I just need a gentle reminder.

Although if you know me well, and you still give said reminder, I will quite likely pretend I have no memory of you. Just a warning.

Creative writing

I have always been better at expressing myself through writing. I know this because I relied very heavily on my written work and hardly at all on social status to get me through the terrifying world of school and college. Apparently this is often the way with the autistic brain. Which makes sense really.

I mean in face-to-face communication, we are expected to read the other person’s face, understand what they said (taking into account how they said it), remember to only display body language of the deeply interested variety and come up with a response that won’t cause them to look at you as if you are speaking Martian (*takes deep breath after ridiculously complicated sentence*). And all in the space of about a microsecond. When you think about it, you can see how all that could send a socially challenged brain into a mental overload. And my brain is not good at dealing with overload.

Writing, in my experience, is a slightly different kettle of fish. Rather than having to deal with the stresses of instantly having to respond to spontaneous verbal communication, you can play with words, add some, remove others etc to your heart’s content. My earliest memories of honing my writing date back to the days when I would regularly communicate with my mother by writing letters and posting them under her door.

Such messages included “Dear Mummy: are you sorry I hurt my knee?” Or “I am sorry the book got broken, maybe we can fix it somehow”. Or Mum’s personal favourite: “Dear Mummy, (my younger sister) is being a beast. I picked her up and put her down and she went out. Love Grace.” An essay on my mum, written in year one, read “My mummy is good and kind and pretty and firm when me and my sister are bad. Sometimes my sister is bad but I am good most of the time.” Pure literary genius.

Over these past few months, people have often told me, unprompted, how much they love my blog. Having been told how witty or articulate they think it is, I can only assume that my blogging alter ego is on a completely different wavelength to my face-to-face-in-the-real-world-persona. Frustratingly, said alter ego has been reluctant to make an appearance lately, leaving me in the lurch with writers block of the worst kind. And a touch of what feels like the internet equivalent of stage fright, as I dread the possibility of running out of interesting topics and boring my blog’s multiple readers.

My application for the Creative Writing and Journalism course at De Montfort University saw me racking my brains for how to creatively write about a box. I understand that not doing an English A level meant having to prove my worth by actually sending in some work, but really, did the topic have to be that ambiguous? Apparently it did, and so I ended up writing a short story about a memory box, and the happy/sad/poignant memories linked with its contents. If that wasn’t enough, I then had to write an in-depth analysis on the whole thing, followed by an essay on why I want to study Creative Writing with De Montfort. However, it seemed that my luck was in, as I was given an unconditional offer, and will be starting uni a week on Monday. Hooray!

And so will (hopefully) begin my writing career…