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!

 

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My moments of shame

Has anyone ever successfully cracked an egg by tapping it with a spoon without having to mop it off the table, the floor, and their clothes? Asking for a friend.

Most people, at some point, take a moment to wonder exactly how things will be for them by this time in ten years/one year/one week/tomorrow. Sometimes I take a step further, and wonder what cringe-worthy anecdotes have yet to happen? I’ve already got too many to remember, but thankfully, my mother has a memory like an elephant when it comes to things like this, and we decided that some of them were too juicy not to share on the internet. Enjoy! But don’t laugh too much.

For a start, here’s one I’d nearly forgotten about. A few years ago, we were just having our kitchen re-painted when we had a student knock on our door asking a favour. To explain the mess, I may have told him we were “having the painters in.” Not heard that euphemism? Go and look it up…

And that time in my then-violin teacher’s car, aged nine or ten, that I still haven’t lived down. I was with a bunch of her other students, on our way to an exam rehearsal, and I was definitely starting to outgrow travel sickness. So when the car jolted…and swerved…and sped up at random…etc., no way was I going to sink so low as to ask to get out for some air. Then I threw up all over the boy next to me. When I got home, my clothes and the car stinking to high heaven, I tried to tell everyone that “someone was sick.” And let’s face it, I wasn’t lying!

There have also been times when I have actually been a danger to myself. Most notably, during a secondary school residential trip. We were having breakfast in the hotel, and not only did I not see the sign saying not to put croissants in the toaster oven, I also had no idea that pastry is so flammable. The unfortunate toaster and its contents went up in flames, and the last I saw of it as I made myself scarce was my teacher whacking a towel on it.

And of course, among Mum’s personal favourites, childhood stories. I feel like she hasn’t got over every supermarket trip in which I loudly asked things like “Are we going to shoplift? Is it wrong to steal? How do people shoplift?” Or told any shop assistant we spoke to – in detail – about my parents’ recent divorce. Our supermarket, by the way, had a large sign above the door: “Thank you for shopping. County.” Always a precocious child, I pronounced the last word as “country.” But without the “r” sound…

Apparently, I’m to blame for whenever Mum embarrasses me; after all, it’s only payback for every time I pulled my knickers down in front of people as a toddler. Or insisted on going out with string around my neck so I could be a dog on a lead. But worst of all was when she and John were engaged. Being little, I had no qualms about enquiring about her personal life. And so in my mind, it was perfectly acceptable to ask – in public – “Is John going to s*x you when you’re married, Mummy?”

These days whenever that story comes up, my parents invariably joke about John determining Mum’s gender on their wedding day. In response, I remind myself that embarrassment is to be ridden out like any other emotional discomfort, hold my head high, and carry on with my life. Because why give them the satisfaction of succumbing to shame and being unable to laugh at myself?

Asperger’s and Chris Packham

Have you ever marvelled at how much you can learn about something just by reading what people are saying on Facebook?

The other evening, I saw part of “Asperger’s and Me: Chris Packham”, in which Chris Packham, TV presenter and nature photographer, discloses his Asperger’s diagnosis and talks about how it affects him. Having not watched all of it, I can’t do a detailed analysis of the whole thing. Instead, what I thought I’d do is explore a couple of issues brought up by people discussing it on Facebook, and also share my thoughts on what I did see.

I’d never heard of Chris Packham until now, and this is thought to be the first time he has talked about having Asperger’s. In response, some people have said that this film has shown him in a whole new light, and that they had simply thought of him as socially awkward and hard to relate to. This may make them sound bad to you, and is definitely part of why having Asperger’s is lonely. But no-one’s a mind reader, and this is why disclosure is important. It’s hard – I couldn’t face telling anyone for years – but people need to learn, and many are willing to try.

One part I did catch was where he visited a school and a clinic in the US, where Asperger’s and other forms of autism were seen as something to be cured. I’ve said what I think about healing autism, and honestly, this bit disturbed me. The clinic tried to treat patients with shock therapy – electric shocks into the brain that were supposed to realign certain parts of it. The school was chaotic, noisy, and disorganised. The headteacher likened autism to cancer. Worst of all, frightened, screaming children were physically punished for showing any autistic behaviour.

Another issue that came up was: do people “suffer” from Asperger’s? Or is that offensive? Well, it’s not an illness, I’m very firm about that. You don’t catch it, develop it, treat it, stop having it, die of it, or pass it around. With a loving support system and good education, you develop and grow, but you don’t get off that spectrum!

So in that way, you don’t “suffer” from Asperger’s. What you suffer from is being autistic in a world made for neurotypical people, for whom body language and facial expressions make up the native language. You suffer from prejudice, and living with the knowledge that some people want people like you “bred out”. You suffer from people not warming to you because you don’t know how to make friends. That’s a lot of suffering, for a condition that doesn’t cause suffering!

Do I agree that people “suffer” from AS? You don’t suffer “from” it, but I can’t deny it can cause you to suffer. What do you think?

Life so far: growing up, autism, and 100 blog posts!

Years ago, I often thought about starting a blog. With my big dreams of becoming an author, it sounded like the sort of thing that all the high-flying writers are doing. Of course, it was just a crazy idea I had. Nothing serious. Right?

On receiving Blogging for Dummies for Christmas, I thought I’d at least show my appreciation by doing a quick summary of my world as a trial blog post. Now, four years and 99 posts later, my blog has definitely stood the test of time. It’s my way of reaching out, entertaining, and making my mark.

And this is my 100th post! So I thought I’d offer a much bigger summary of my life up until now.

Starting with Taipei, Taiwan, Wednesday 17th March 1993 at 1.13pm. My parents joke about how typical it was of me to come out at lunchtime. To which I say, how many people do YOU know who were born in the middle of the day, week, month, and academic year, on their due date?

People sometimes ask me what I remember about Taiwan. Kind of awkward because my earliest memories include me and my (British) mum hiding from my (Taiwanese) dad after they had been fighting. But hey, I also remember playing with our pets, walking through mountain scenery, and my 4th birthday party. It wasn’t all bad!

Just after said birthday, my pregnant mother and I hastily headed my grandparents’ way – Cam, Gloucestershire. My sister was born. I started school, and was happily oblivious to my teachers telling Mum how weird I was and blaming it on bad parenting. Then we found a council flat.

A year later, while we were on holiday, my now-stepdad made his debut. From then on, he kept turning up on our doorstep. And we on his. This went on for about three years, until he and Mum married, and we invaded his house for good. Did I mention what a cute bridesmaid I was?

Now in Loughborough, I ended up at a school that was actually competent, and hey presto, I was diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome. My response to the news? “Oh…can I have a piece of cheese?”

Secondary school pulled my head out of the clouds with a jolt. It was a scary world of social hierarchies, sport, and teachers with varying levels of empathy. I struggled with friendships. I struggled in classes. Most of all, I struggled to accept that autism was nothing to be ashamed of.

But gradually, I got involved with various social groups at church, and I finally started to make friends and open up about my difficulties. Meanwhile, I was studying animal care at Brooksby College. It comprised manhandling animals of every size and species, essays, poo, and overnight lambing. Pretty grim, but I passed with straight distinctions!

Because I wasn’t ready for uni afterwards, I did a couple of years of home study, and realised that my heart was in becoming an author, not a vet nurse. The second year proved eventful when my Grannie died of cancer, and I still regret not visiting more. But it was also the year I started at De Montfort University, studying Creative Writing and Journalism. It was challenging, and falling out with my friend when we tried living together was hard. That said, I learned more about writing than I ever had before, and I don’t regret it for a second.

And now, here I am, coming to the end of my Christian bookshop internship. It’s been a great year, with great people, and I can’t help wishing I had more time left. But few things in life are permanent, and as I reflect on my significant life events, I do wonder what the next one will be.

 

 

Kind or patronising? Just ask

One of the things that I had no idea how to deal with at school was when people spoke to me as if I was a toddler. I would be muddling through a lesson with as much difficulty ease as the next kid. Who, if they weren’t ignoring me, would be trying to do stuff for me, explaining the simplest things, and telling the others “it’s not her fault she’s slow.” Or weak. I even had one person ask me – completely innocently – if I had brain damage. Seriously.

And it wasn’t just kids. I remember a teacher talking about our latest homework assignment, and mentioning how I’d been allowed to skip certain parts because they were too hard. Or classroom assistants who would follow me like a shadow in front of other kids, when all I needed was to ask a few extra questions.

What I found hard was knowing what to say. For the most part, I’d internalise the inner conflict between not wanting to offend and hating feeling patronised. Very occasionally I’d speak up, but the other person would act like I’d just karate chopped them! So much for not offending.

It’s hard to know where to draw the line here. If you have a disability or illness – whether physical or mental – you will probably have extra needs that require accommodation. And you don’t want to be ungrateful to someone who wants to help. Don’t wait until you feel like exploding. Just explain to them the nature of your needs – and be sure to add what you don’t need.

And if you are someone who wants to help, you might want to look at these pointers.

Don’t be afraid to ask your autistic/partially sighted/depressed (etc.) friend what sort of help they need. Do be discreet, especially if they are with other people – you don’t know how open they are about their needs, and they will appreciate you trying to learn without embarrassing them. One of my new discipleship course leaders took me aside recently to ask me about my Asperger’s and how it may show itself on the course. I gave a brief explanation, told her about my blog, and later brought in this letter. Both parties were happy.

Don’t make assumptions about their abilities. Any writing about their condition only describes exactly that – the condition. Not an individual who has it. Just give them the help they ask for. No more, no less. I find I’m more comfortable asking for help if I know it won’t make the other person act like I’m stuck in a burning building. Trying to help always comes from the best of intentions, but when repeatedly done unnecessarily, tells them “I don’t think you are capable.”

Note the difference between sympathy and pity. Pity is when people say “I feel so sorry for *insert name* because of that thing he/she has.” Sympathy is paying attention to what someone is actually struggling with, and offering moral support because you care. As for words like “cute”? Babies are cute. Pets are cute. Mature adult humans? Forget it!

And finally…remember that not every aspect, or even hardship, of a person’s life is linked to their condition. Special needs or not, anyone appreciates friendship from someone who takes them as they find them.

Dyspraxia

Safely away from the room full of over exuberant preschoolers!

Physical co-ordination, like too many things, has never been my strong point. This may have been obvious on my grandad‘s video of three year old me at Kindergarten in Taiwan, just sitting on a tricycle, fiddling with the parts but not zooming around the room with my peers. Or maybe later on, when Mum signed me up for ballet classes to improve my physical skills, only to spend weeks teaching me how to skip. Step, and hop, and repeat…

Actually, I’ve pretty much alluded to my dyspraxic tendencies here. Sport at school was my own hell on earth. Picture it: being surrounded by a field of people who may or may not be on your side running everywhere, shouting all at once, and a ball that you are supposed to be running after and moving in a certain direction, while being scolded for being so slow. Yes, it seems I am dyspraxic.

In general, I’m not a fan of self diagnosis. But most people on the autistic spectrum have dyspraxia. And my gross motor co-ordination* skills have always been sub average.

Which is basically what dyspraxia is. And when you already have to stretch your brain extra hard just to be nearly as socially skilled as most people, it can be a bummer to put up with. I didn’t learn to swim until I was nine. I needed parental help with learning to catch a ball. And there are some skills I never mastered: cycling, skipping with a rope, and walking on slippery surfaces.

By adulthood, if not adolescence, it often becomes less obvious. But even then, you may be aware of little ways in which you struggle. Like balancing. Or multitasking – yes, even if you are a woman! One thing I’ve noticed is that I tend to be slower on stairs (except the ones at home), especially when walking down. I can often make myself go faster, but it requires concentration.

Plus physical work. I spent my sixth form years (age 16 – 18) at Brooksby College studying animal care. This was a very hands-on course, 40% of which comprised farm practicals. Checking up on the new kittens was my favourite part. Trying to herd stampeding pigs or sheep into a confined space without getting laughed at by certain other students wasn’t. Similar to the dogs at a kennel and cattery I volunteered at. I put up with my boss yelling at me for two years before I decided I’d had enough.

I realise I’ve given a rather negative overview of dyspraxia. Truth be told, I’m just trying to explain how frustrating it can be, and to give others on the spectrum something to relate to. Besides, when I’m not wallowing in self-doubt, I know what I’m good at. I’m studious, physically fit, a careful thinker, detailed writer, and – despite the dyspraxia – a moderately competent violinist. Just not a dancer, footballer, acrobat or farmer. We all have limitations, but don’t let them stop you from recognising your talents.

Oh and I can also skip. Almost forgot that one.

 

 

*physical

I remember…

Among writers, it is a pretty well known fact that one of the best ways to beat writer’s block is by doing a writing prompt. You know, a little exercise that gets you writing about something. Anything. So tell me this: how is it that, while writing this post, I spend about an hour deciding how best to write the beginning?

Well, enough of that, and on to a simple exercise I learned during my first year at uni. If you’re trying to get your writing brain in gear, or even just bored, set yourself a time limit and begin with:

I remember…

Having a boy at secondary school call me a “ch*nky”, most likely to impress his mates. I don’t know if he was hoping to get lucky, but strangely, I don’t find casual racism to be much of a turn on.

Not understanding why Mum was being so violently sick in the months before my sister was born.

My grandparents’ cats coming back from the vet and me not knowing why the female was shaved on one side and the male under his tail.

Visiting the Nottingham Christmas Market with my secondary school as a reward for good behaviour, and one of the boys getting caught shoplifting.

Calling potato wedges “wedgies”.

My thirteenth birthday party, in which I must have eaten a ton of chocolate, party food, pancakes and birthday cake. Not surprisingly, the party ended with me feeling a little peaky.

And this was before the food hangover…

Going to my Friday night Year 10+ youth club, and the evening coming to an unceremonious halt when a boy’s arm went straight through a window. His arm was shredded and spurting blood, and he was definitely crying.

Overhearing him at school some time later bragging to other kids about how it was just a scratch and how he’d laughed throughout the whole thing.

Recovering from the trauma of my (then five year old) sister being rushed to hospital with a broken arm when I realised I could watch any video I wanted without negotiation.

Saying goodbye to Mum after hers and my stepdad’s wedding reception, and trying not to show how much I was going to miss her.

Mum and I moving from Taiwan to England when I was just four, and not understanding how final this was after so many holidays with my (English) grandparents.

That “first day of school” feeling on my first day at university.

Learning about the Black Death at school and being afraid to sleep with my lamp off that night.

The first time I had pizza when I was little, and thinking it was the best thing I’d ever tasted.

 

So there you go. Besides getting you writing, this is also a pretty entertaining group activity. Just get your heads down, write down as many random memories as possible, and exchange. How weird does it get? Why not have a go and get back to me?