To Hester: a lover of hugs and history

Over the past few years, I have been very lucky. I have found better friends than I ever thought I would, and, more recently, have fallen on my feet at the church I now go to. Now, I could probably get through several blog posts by giving a shout out to everyone I’ve met since my uni years, but for now, I’m giving the spotlight to my friend Hester and her family.

I’ll start with a few key points. Firstly, I met Hess and her family through various Navigators* events and activities. I distinctly remember meeting Hester the first time I went to the Navs weekend away in Blackpool, but given that I spent the whole weekend hiding behind the only person I knew, I fully understand if she doesn’t remember this. While I was at uni, her parents took me under their wings, inviting me over, giving me lifts to places, and showing me endless kindness. And Hester herself, despite any emotional upheaval of her own, is one of my go-to friends and text recipients when life has taken a plunge. Panic attack on a trip abroad? My sister getting dangerously ill? She always has a listening ear and words of comfort. And a hug like no one else.

I’m pleased to say, I’m not the only person who appreciates this. Cue a brief introduction to James: fellow student Nav back in the day, medic-in-training, and a generally great guy. When Hess started coming to weekly Navs Bible study evenings, they bonded over a love of history, castles, and other brainy topics. I had my suspicions about how this would end up when I was waiting in town for Hester and she arrived under James’ arm. Last Saturday, my suspicions came true: they got married!

Given that history is her main forte, I was rather pleased with my suggestion that she should wear a suit of armour on the day, and a little disconcerted when she turned up in a wedding dress instead. I stand by my opinion that this is a highly original and creative idea of mine, but actually, it would have made disco dancing awkward, come to think of it.

In all seriousness, I’m honoured to have been so involved. I was invited to her hen party, and felt like a kid again. This may have been from playing games like pass the parcel and Blind Man’s Buff. It may have been from the sheer amount of cake I consumed. Or it may have been me shadowing her mum the whole time, relapsing into my childhood habit of staying close to the grown-ups when I could be mingling with the other children…

Finally, last weekend, I got to play my violin in the church band! Having got back from holiday two days previously, and arranged to stay with different people the night before and after, I felt a bit like I was on tour. I also felt like my playing gave off the (correct) impression that I’d only been around for one rehearsal, and that I didn’t know at least two of the songs. But whatever my playing sounded like, I loved every minute of the day. In conclusion, I am proud to be friends with Hester and James, and have high hopes for their life ahead. To the bride and groom: a big, Hess-style bear hug from me!

At the hen party

Castle cake!

 

 

*A Christian mission organisation which included a student group in Leicester that I was involved in.

Advertisements

The importance of pets

Throughout the stress, confusion, and complexity that is life, sometimes we have to take a step back and enjoy the simpler things. It could be returning home to a friendly face waiting hopefully for your return. It could be having someone to cuddle when you’re down. Or it could be having someone so desperate to be with you that they force your bedroom door open with brute strength so they can walk all over your sleeping form.

If you’re thinking of a beloved pet, then I’m with you all the way. If not, then what sort of people have you been raised with?

I don’t know about you, but for me, our cats are a solid part of the family. Having recently lost our beloved, cuddly, dopey old Tango, I think this feeling is particularly high at the moment. My budgies, my sister’s hamster, and our grandparents’ dog were a big part of my childhood. Many of my friends and family have animals that they love. So I’m going to try to do justice to the importance of pets.

For a start, I don’t know where I would be without Bouncer, my unofficial Guide Cat for the Autistic. At nearly 14 years of age, he hasn’t retired from calling me until I follow him, leading me into a specific room, then calling again if I don’t follow. I’ve got to hand it to him, without his conscientiousness, I would never be able to find the way to my own room. Then there’s Suri, our resident feline policewoman. When it’s time to feed the cats, the others dare not get too close to our feet lest she repeatedly punch them in the face until they retreat. She has her uses even when off duty; once she settles on your lap, you have a very valid excuse to put off being productive until you can get up again.

Then there’s companionship. True, you can’t share reflections on the human condition, or entertaining life anecdotes. At least, not if you want a two-way conversation. But there are many things about pet company that you can’t beat. Physical affection, for one. If you stroke an animal, or pick it up and hold it close, it can be comforting to both parties. Do that to a person, and it’s just not the same somehow…

More importantly, animals don’t hold you to the same standard as people do. I’ve never worried that animals find my Asperger’s off-putting, judge my Biblical understanding, or disagree with any of my moral principles. Heck, they don’t even mind if you’re in a state of undress. Again, most people are funny about that… But pets have an uncanny ability to forgo social expectations and just be, and if you find that contagious, even if just for a few moments, it can only be a good thing.

 

 

 

Tango and Bouncer, the mirror twins

George

Thomas eating broccoli

15622138_218350028617976_4480458331398799027_n

Suri guards the Christmas tree

 

 

Rhian, a babby at Christmas

Yes. That is something I wrote – and illustrated – on a piece of paper, when I was little and my sister was a baby.

My sister, commonly known as Rhian, Rhiazza, Rhi Rhi, and by one of our uncles, Rhajazzle, had to come into the world in the thick of our family drama, three months after our arrival in England as a single parent family. I don’t think our early aquaintance made much of an impression on me. The following summary of Mum’s return from the hospital is testament to this:

Me: Where’s Rhian?

Mum (reveals the newborn baby in her arms): Here

Me: Oh (wanders off)

To begin with, I like to think I did a good job of asserting my authority as the official Big Sister. I had to; Rhian had this really annoying tendency to get snot or dribble on my toys. When you think about it, making her promise not to before letting her play with them was a very reasonable solution.

Rhian was not a soul to be tamed, however, and my days of being the dominant sibling were short lived. Once she was old enough to play with me, I had control of most of the toys, but she was fully in charge of what happened to them. In an argument, she was a force to be reckoned with, and as an overly sensitive autistic child, her tantrums used to terrify me. At one point, I kept crying that I felt “unforgiven!”, and Mum, in a fit of uncharacteristic naivety, asked Rhian, “you do love your sister, don’t you?” Cue a big “NO!” from Rhian, and further floods of tears from me.

She still hasn’t forgiven me for…whatever it was, by the way. I have asked.

For the most part, though, she was a fair minded and considerate younger sibling. When Mum married John, Rhian, who had decided she was first in line to inherit the wedding dress, very kindly said I could borrow it if I ever got married. When we went downstairs for breakfast, I was apparently allowed to go first on my birthday. She also showed a lot of interest in my development; I distinctly remember overhearing her telling our parents how much better I was at eating my crusts.

As we shifted into adolescence, I don’t think much changed except that I was firmer about not wanting to play with her, and after a while she lost interest anyway. Suddenly, wanting me to play was replaced by wanting me to read extracts of my diary to her. Or making me play Super Mario Bros on her Nintendo DS because I was so entertainingly bad. I did have to take cover many a time when John had to help her through exam revision and things got a little heated, but hey, at least I was no longer first in the firing line.

One thing Rhian doesn’t tire of is seeing how far she can challenge me emotionally. Her becoming life-threateningly ill in hospital in September was her most successful attempt yet. Having been turned away from A & E twice with what was dismissed as muscle pain, Mum forced the medics to take her seriously, and she was diagnosed with aggressive pneumonia, pulmonary embolism, pleurisy, and pleural empyema with one collapsed lung. She was in agonising pain – and close to death – to start with. Yet when I visited, she was well enough to roll her eyes at me for fussing, and complain about being in a room full of old ladies. Definitely on the mend.

And now, as a third year theatre student, she is in her first professional show, as Princess Tiger Lilly in a pantomime* production of Peter Pan. Three months ago, I’d accepted this would be a miracle. Now she’s dodging the evil Captain Hook, while accepting fanmail from small children (!!!). Does it get any better than this?

Rhian, accept this 700 word long fanmail from one proud big sister. And Merry Christmas!

 

Image may contain: 1 person

Image may contain: 2 people, people smiling, people sitting

Us as bridesmaids following our parents’ wedding

 

Image may contain: 2 people, people smiling, people sitting and glasses

At the hospital

 

Image may contain: 3 people, people smiling, people standing and indoor

 

 

*Non-British readers: a pantomime is a British Christmas tradition that is a show full of slapstick, crossdressing, song-and-dance, and audience participation. Loosely based on famous fairy tales and contains more pop culture references than you would think could be crammed into two or three hours.

My Grandfather, a Kind Old Man

You know those nagging regrets that won’t leave you alone? Anything from wanting to change something about the past to eating out and wishing you’d had dessert – or hadn’t. Relatable as these regrets are (!!!), what I was really thinking of was not blogging about Grannie before she died. Which brings me onto the topic of this post which I’ve been planning for months. Surprise, Grandad, this one’s for you!

My earliest memory of my grandfather was of how tickly his moustache felt whenever he kissed me. Not being a fan of tickly things on my bare skin, I would, rather formally for a child, politely ask “On the head, Grandad.” To this day, this is our main catchprase whenever Grandad is around. Messages from him to me often end in “xx (on the head)” – for an example, just look through the comments on my previous posts.

Another neat little phrase that hasn’t grown old started out as a compliment I gave him when I was little. Mum thinks it’s ironic that I summarised him as a “kind old man,” when he was barely older than my stepdad is now. Details, details. I clearly saw him as a good-hearted and fun grandfather, and he was. When he looked after my sister and I (pre-school and early primary school age, respectively) when Mum went to hospital, I have vague memories of him playing a joke on my sister that involved a very realistic, shiny plastic banana and a bunch of real ones. Interestingly, she remembers this better than he does. When our mum and stepdad were on their honeymoon, we went for a photo shoot in our bridesmaid dresses. Why did we look so happy? Grandad was standing behind the photographer pulling faces.

Years went by, and Grannie and Grandad continued to be a strong influence in our lives. Then at the start of 2013, Grannie was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Suddenly, contact became so much more important. Mum would be ringing regularly, or driving from Loughborough to Gloucestershire, while I had the surreal task of emailing Grannie about which pieces to play at her funeral. Throughout this, Grandad waited on Grannie hand and foot, unendingly patient and never asking for help.

This wasn’t the happiest time in any of our lives, but ironically I don’t think our family had ever been so united. And it was through this that we got to know Grandad even better. Since Grannie died, he has survived well with support from many sources, and has lived life to the full, be it moving into a new flat or doing marathon walks across Spain.

And now today is his birthday, and I have just completed his surprise birthday present. Happy birthday Grandad! xx (on the head).

Dear early-teenage self

20150307_143604

Dear early-teenage self,

I thought I’d write this for several reasons. One: I was getting all nostalgic while reading your diaries, even if it was mainly you moaning about your life. Two: it might make good blogging material. You’ll never be great with computers, but you will start a blog. Which apparently turned two years old yesterday! Three: Kirstie from Pentatonix did something similar on YouTube that was quite inspiring. This, by the way, is proof we do find a favourite band. Eventually. Four: it’s nearly our birthday.

I recently figured out something crucial: you spend most of your time longing for emotional intimacy that you don’t have, because of the invisible social barrier called Asperger’s. As far as your diaries are concerned, you may be sensitive, emotional and a bit whiny, but now I think I understand why.

I’ll be honest, you’ve still got many hurdles ahead, but plenty of good stuff too. Remember when we moved to Loughborough aged 8, and we hoped with all our heart we would find at least one close friend? Just be patient and over the years, you’ll meet some great people. Including Hannah. She might seem eccentric, but she’s going to be your uni housemate and your closest friend. And she will introduce us to Pentatonix – Evolution of Music. Her best friend, meanwhile, will pal up with yours. Ironic, eh?

Rest assured, you’ll become more self-aware, outgoing and assertive, and (marginally) more socially skilled. We still hate conflict, but hey, some things never change. Look on the bright side, you have a great family, no matter how weird and annoying (you think) they are. The cats are still alive and well, and we even acquire a few more along the way. And don’t take Grannie and Grandad for granted either. Grannie might be short-fused sometimes, but when you lose her – which you will – you’ll cry every day for at least a week.

It is ok to have Asperger’s, you know. It might be a while until you realise this, but when you do, embrace the acceptance you receive. There will always be trials and tribulations, but you can deal with them. We do still get anxiety stomach aches, though. And we start getting migraines occasionally. Sorry about that.

Over the years, we do learn more about God and Christianity. In fact, we form our closest friendships at Christian related activities. Just keep an open mind and an open heart.

I should probably be signing off now, as I’m behind on a certain uni assignment. That’s another thing: we get into De Montfort University! I would tell you about all the writing we get published, but at this stage in your life, you probably won’t believe me.

In the meantime, just keep honing your self awareness, and don’t let your social struggles get you down. And keep your musical skills fresh – you might ditch the steel pans, but you will go many places with your violin and voice.

All the best,

Your nearly-22 year old self.

20150307_143226

Christmas Special blog part 2: Christmas Traditions

Here it is – an unpublished would-have-been feature on Christmas and autism. If my increasingly frequent blog posts are getting annoying a) blame my lecturers and b) I’m not making a habit of blogging twice in as many days, so don’t worry. Meanwhile, enjoy!

What are Christmas traditions these days? Well, what do they involve for you? For me, Christmas will typically include church, cake decorating, minimal coursework and pulling one of our cats out of the Christmas tree. My family and I make quite a big thing of Christmas; some of you may be with me on this one, others not so much. One thing’s for sure: your way of celebrating an occasion is as unique as you are.

I know that for some people with disabilities, Christmas is a bit of a challenge. This is the first special needs article where I’m not writing from recent experience. According to my Mum, she could buy presents for me as a child while I was with her and I would be none the wiser. If anything, though, I think that must have been an advantage.

Having said that, I did have trouble expressing gratitude for presents, no matter how much I liked them. It still doesn’t come naturally to show a lot of emotion, but my parents taught me the drill at an early age: look at the giver of the present with a pleased expression and say thank you. Might sound simple, but it doesn’t pay to forget it!

I was also told that I would ask for the same sort of presents each year. Usually a soft toy, chocolate, plasticine and a book about whichever subject I currently had an autistic obsession with. I was never interested in whichever children’s toys were popular at the time, a common issue with autistic people and Christmas.

For some, these things go on into adulthood. This isn’t necessarily a problem – I mean, why would popular trends be any more interesting at Christmas than at any other time of year? Another thing is that an aversion to change means that a season of lots of people, excitement and surprises can be too much to handle. This can be more stressful. For the more introverted among us, having, or attending, a houseful of people, or remembering who to keep in touch with while you have the time is exhausting enough without being overloaded by the sudden disruption to routine.

So how do people on the spectrum deal with this? By keeping surprises to a minimum, maybe. Some autistic people prefer to be told in advance what they are getting for Christmas, some may simply want the same things each year. Or by getting used to each change one by one – getting the tree out, then gradually adding decorations over time, for example. Keeping track of presents you have bought? Make a list. Making sure to have a break from people? Now this is where I speak with experience. Full of food, in your own room and surrounded by presents – it doesn’t get much better than that.

I think the point I am trying to make here is that we all have our own ways of making the most of an occasion, and autistic ways are no exception. Hoping to enjoy Christmas? Spend time with your family and friends. Eat, drink and be merry. If, like me, you are a Christian, go to church. Enjoy and appreciate your presents, no matter how different they may be to your peers’. And don’t be afraid to retreat from it all. Whichever way you choose to celebrate, or not, each to their own, I say.

To the bride and groom!

IMAG0028 After spending at least a fortnight having nothing interesting to blog about, this weekend has been the stuff of legends. It’s not often that I allow my stepfather to help me fail at Ceilidh dancing (pronounced “kaylee” – no, I didn’t see the spelling coming either). And it was a once in a lifetime event for family and friends alike, but most of all for my dear stepbrother and stepsister-in-law, the newlyweds Mickey and Sarah.

Those of you who have been reading my blog since April will already know about Sarah. If you haven’t, she and I have been friends through letter writing, blog following, room sharing and, more recently, my visit to her student house in St Andrews. Thinking about it, her dating my stepbrother Mickey may also have been a contributing factor. She is also, next to my Grannie, my most loyal blog follower, as was shown by her reading and commenting on my last post even with the wedding day looming large.

My first memory of their relationship was of 12 year old me asking 15 year old Mickey to describe his new girlfriend, preferably without getting too sentimental about it, and him deliberately describing her as over-romantically as possible. Since then, other family members may have had a closer view of their relationship than I have. However, when pretty much everyone who gave a wedding speech recounted how Mickey is on the way to overcoming his fear of fruit and vegetables and how video games are no longer the main love of his life, I do know where they are coming from.

About a month before the wedding, my sister and I had the honour of attending Sarah’s hen party. It was an Alice in Wonderland themed tea party, complete with Alice in Wonderland themed garden ornaments and intricately decorated crockery with labels saying “drink/eat me”. Apparently there was a prize for the best decorated hat. Unsurprisingly my sunhat covered with foreign postage stamps, though showing my superior sense of originality, may have been put to shame by other guests’ mad hatter/wedding/flamingo themed handmade hats. The music was a combo of Disney, Taylor Swift and Carly Rae Jepsen, to name but a few, and I have a feeling this was Sarah’s way of saying a fond farewell to her favourite songs without Mickey there to intervene. All in all, a fantastic party.

3750_10152917464205220_2026253489_n

The wedding, on Saturday 13th July, was a huge success. The order of service sheets were said to be indicators of everything that would be happening during the wedding, but we all knew their real purpose: to be used as fans to combat the hottest heat the UK has had so far. As I witnessed the ceremony and marital vows take place, I was struck by how quickly the past two and a half years had gone since their engagement. I also felt a renewed sense of respect for how far Mickey and Sarah had come in their relationship and their obvious love for each other.

The Ceilidh dance was part of the wedding reception, along with cake, a bouncy castle, cake, getting reacquainted with Sarah’s friends, cake, etc. Maybe it was the few sips of champagne I’d had, maybe the heat was affecting my brain – but I, with my two left feet and fear of looking like a fool, somehow ended up dancing the evening away. And enjoying it. And leaving the building more tired than I sometimes am after a gym workout.

One of my favourite parts of the reception was Sarah’s sister’s bridesmaid speech. It was witty, informative and gave Mickey clear instructions on how to live with Sarah. So, to conclude, I would just like to wish Mickey the best of luck in finding ways to distract Sarah from things that over excite her, other than by playing dead or pretending there’s a fire. I also sincerely hope that Sarah is successful in preventing Mickey from naming their future children “Captain”, “Damaj” or “Danja” – I’ve told her she can go into hiding in my room until the birth certificates are signed. Mostly I would just like to echo what has already been wished a thousand times: a long and happy future together. All my love to you both.