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.

 

 

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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?

 

 

Post uni summer part 1: Graduation

Does my brain look big in this?

Does my brain look big in this?

It seems that in the excitement of graduating, camping, job searching and doing nothing, I have been neglecting my blog. Not that there’s anything particularly odd about that, except that I have almost let a couple of highly blog-worthy events pass me by. Almost, but not quite. Starting with: graduation.

You know those social events that you like the thought of, enthusiastically agree to, then find about as draining as running a marathon? My graduation ceremony, for all its highlights, was a perfect example. Lots to remember, people on all sides, uncomfortable clothes? Check, check and check.

Most people tend to stress about the actual ceremony the most. If anything, that was the least of my worries. I mean, you sit with people you know in designated seats, you’re shown where to walk, you’re shown what to do and then you do it. Yes, you have a huge audience, but other than that, piece of cake.

But before that, the number of things to remember alone was enough to make me need a lie-down. Where and when to collect your clothes. Where and when to go for photography. What to do during the ceremony. When to return your clothes*. What to do about collecting tickets. To name a few.

Previously, I rang the graduation team. I explained to the lady on the phone that I am mildly autistic and have trouble dealing with piecing together lots of information from different sources, and could she please just summarise the essentials. She told me that everything I need to know was on the website, the brochure and in emails. I repeated what I just said, and got what I needed. Phew!

I also had a number of people say to me ‘smile, it’s your graduation!’ I’m not expressive at the best of times, and at that point I was so mentally overloaded that eventually Mum just took me off to a quiet, empty room somewhere, and we stayed there until the ceremony. Graduation organisers, for any graduands on the autistic spectrum, or possibly with mental illnesses, more places like this would be a godsend.

Despite what it sounds like, it was a good experience, and I am glad I went. I got to see certain familiar faces, quite possibly for the last time (get your tissues out. Or not, either way). I participated in that rite of passage that is throwing my mortarboard in the air in a group photo. My family were supportive and patient throughout it all.

And finally, I really can say that I’ve survived uni, and am ready for whatever challenges and opportunities (and clichéd graduation speeches!) lie ahead.

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*Not all your clothes. Just your hired graduation ones.

Moments at uni – the good, the bad, and the manic

Most fun: going on a field trip to the Birmingham BBC studios. Namely, having my picture taken with a dalek, seeing where live morning TV, music and The Archers are recorded and being in a short radio drama about being eaten by a cannibal. (3rd year)

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Most embarrassing: reading out a short story I’d written to the class, and the main feedback from a guy going on about how bad it was and how it didn’t fit the requirements given, while punctuating every criticism with “no offence.”* (1st year)

Most stressful: 3rd year group projects, InDesign, no water in the flat…pretty much all of this year!

Weirdest: many moments with certain people on my course present. Ranging from listening to a detailed imitation of sex noises, to everyone’s boobs being given names. Like ‘Ben and Jerry.’ Or ‘Trinny and Susannah.’ Or in my case, ‘Ant and Dec.’ (3rd year)

Stupidest: realising I no longer had my bag of books, not finding it anywhere on campus, reporting to security, then going back to my flat and finding it in my room. I tried to tell security “it had been found”, but they wanted to know where and by whom… (3rd year)

Most annoying: when I was in the DMU choir and I told them I couldn’t make it to a performance, as it clashed with the day I had just told the Derby Telegraph I would be changing to. When I got roped in anyway, the people in charge swore blind they heard me say I could make it… (2nd year)

Funniest: when political debates in Journalism lectures got so heated, many minutes were wasted by two students (not quite, but almost) shouting over each other about freedom of speech, should kids be interested in politics, etc. Meanwhile, the rest of us – lecturer included – would be watching in wide-eyed silence. ‘Twas quality entertainment. Yes, I do think someone should have brought popcorn. (2nd year)

Overall worst: almost missing my only exam (1st year). Or being told I didn’t need to come back for more counselling before I’d explained how low I was, emotionally (2nd year). All in the past.

Overall best: my final marks – 70%, 66%, 66% and 61%, and 66% (a 2:1) overall. Woo!

And on that note, happy graduation to my fellow graduates!

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*In his defence, he was autistic. I had this theory that we were put together because we had the same condition, so of course we would work well together.

Novel preview in progress – or how not to help an Aspie

Nearly seven months ago, my course mates and I were at the beginning of the end. Several essays, one booklet, two group projects and four presentations later, and we are facing the final curtain. Of university. With one more week until the final deadline, I am about to finish writing my dissertation* – a few extracts of a novel that I had been planning for years now. Presenting the first preview of…When You’re Strange.

The story mainly focuses on 16 year old Eleanor and her struggles with secondary school and parents who can’t agree on a possible diagnosis. Some of it is inspired by my real life experiences, some is supposed to portray humourous insights about people and inspiration for kids on the spectrum. So, how many of these failed attempts at understanding autism have you heard?

Extract 5

‘Excuse me, sir?’ Mr Adams?’ Eleanor asked, before she could stop herself.
Mr Adams paused, still facing the staff room, and looked over his shoulder at her. ‘Yes, Eleanor?’
‘I, um, I’m sorry about the other week…in PE…’ she faltered. Why did this have to be so hard? She didn’t even know what to apologise for!
‘It wasn’t a hard game.’
Eleanor took a deep breath, trying to remember what it said in the leaflet about explaining to other people. Say it like it is.
‘I have Asperger’s Syndrome, which means I have trouble with reading people and physical co-ordination,’ she said.
‘Oh,’ Mr Adams looked down. ‘I’m…sorry.’
‘Why?’
‘Never mind. It’s ok. I had an Asperger student a few years ago.’ He paused. ‘But everybody’s clumsy or awkward sometimes. We can’t make allowances for anyone having an off day. Do you understand?’
Eleanor shrugged. Not really.
Mr Adams went on. ‘Besides, although you made a few errors, I didn’t see you struggling too much. But if you ever need extra help, just let me know.’
‘Ok.’ She looked at the floor. Had he understood?

 

Most students I have known feel like they can’t be free of their dissertation soon enough. If anything, if I want to turn this into a proper book, I could be spending many more years on it. But if I can get it published, it will be one goal crossed off my bucket list. I’m glad I chose to go to uni, and I don’t regret it for a minute. It has pushed me one step further along my chosen path, and on the day I see my name on the front of a book, it will all have been worth it.

And on that note, happy Autism Awareness Month!

 

 

*Known as a Portfolio, in Creative Writing speak. But would you have understood what I meant if I had used that word instead?

Entering third year and a possible Facebook page

Here’s a little “expectation-versus-reality” scenario. Imagine your first year at uni – whether past, present or future. Everything is new and scary but so full of possibilities. Perhaps for the first time, you are seriously learning about what you really want to do, and you have three years ahead of you in which to become as well educated as those third years you see in Open Day talks.

Then comes second year – possibly the university equivalent of middle child syndrome. You’re not all fresh and naïve anymore, but hey, you’ve still got time.

Now onto third year. Suddenly you are grappling with the realisation that you have less than a year to achieve your education-based goals before your life is devoid of structure and meaning. It seems that third years today are not as prestigious as the third years of two years ago.

I think I discovered this when I took part in the Journalism News Day last Wednesday during the reading week. Journalism staff and students alike got together to form a mock news desk, and I found myself working with a couple of first years. We were sent out to do a vox pop i.e. pester some unfortunate passers by for their opinions on a certain subject. What was that subject? The tampon tax and the self-explanatory free bleed protest outside Parliament. I’m sorry, but you did ask.

It was through doing this that I realised both how much I’ve learned (about the course and uni overall) and how dumb I still feel. Interviewing strangers about periods isn’t my strong point, as shown by how the girls I was with had to help me with the talking. We got a good handful of quotes, however, and after submitting them, I spent the rest of the day writing an article on the same subject for the News Day’s publication here: https://leicestershirepress.wordpress.com/2015/11/11/sanitary-protection-petitions-and-the-period-protest/

As you can see, finishing uni can be trying. I’m trying to figure out a career, write part of a novel for my dissertation and also get over a sad friendship breakup with a certain ex-housemate. But despite what it sounds like, I’m still happy with my course, and have big dreams for the future.

Which brings me onto my next point. I’m aware that many aspiring professionals in their field of expertise create their own Facebook page to publicise whatever they do. Over this year, I have been wondering whether or not I should get my own page to promote my blog and any other writing I do, in order to increase my chances of a career as an author. I know this is supposed to be good publicity, but I’m a bit sceptical.

For one thing, I feel embarrassed about tooting my own horn too much. For another, how effective would it be anyway? Chances are, the only people who would “like” it, would be existing Facebook friends who are genuinely interested. Although I suppose this would be a relief for those who inwardly groan every time my blog pops up in their News Feed. Also, if I continued to share my writing on my Facebook account as well, then people who are interested would just be getting it twice.

Before anyone advises me, I’m not expecting cries of “Do it, Grace!” so that I can say “No, I couldn’t possibly…oh alright then!” I suppose what I’m asking you all is: do you think this would be a good idea?

Fresher’s week for the autistic student

When I was new at De Montfort, I had an idea to write an article for the Demon newspaper about Asperger’s and starting university. When I was in my second year, I actually wrote said article for the Demon website. Come third year, and it has just occurred to me to adapt it for my blog. As follows.

As a new student, you may have been given all sorts of university related advice. Make the most of it, have fun, work hard, play hard…sound familiar? But being on the autistic spectrum can make a new and busy environment feel more bewildering than exciting. So if you’re unsure what to make of it all, here are just a few things to bear in mind.

Don’t rush into joining social groups.

Joining societies is an easy way to make time for what you enjoy doing the most, as well as an opportunity to get to know people. Remember, though, that the university lifestyle is a busy one, so you may want to get accustomed to your routine first. Societies are always worth a try, but make sure you know you have time before you make any definite decisions.

Be open and matter-of-fact about your condition.

That doesn’t mean it should be the first thing you tell people, but when the opportunity arises it will help them understand any difficulties you have. If you are talking with someone about your uni experience so far, explain that you are autistic and struggle with change or being around lots of people. Similarly if anyone is confusing you, explain that you are autistic and ask them to repeat what they just said. They will understand you better, and you never know if they are having similar experiences.

Look for opportunities

May sound simple, but as an Aspie, retaining information that hasn’t been told to me directly is something I’ve always found hard. Listening out for events that your lecturers might mention or noticing posters or Facebook announcements is a good start. However, if you’re like me, it might be easier if you think about what sort of opportunities you are interested in (social events, work experience, voluntary work, etc.) and research them.

Don’t take on more than you can manage

You may feel like there is a lot of pressure to join societies and be as sociable as possible. Do go a little way out of your comfort zone if it means finding activities you enjoy, but don’t push yourself so hard that you are too exhausted to enjoy yourself – or, more importantly, study. Most students’ goals for uni are to learn as best as they can and have fun, so don’t be too busy to manage either!

Chat to people

It might feel difficult, but if you look around you during a lecture, these are the people you will be working with for the next three or four years. Don’t worry if you take a while to make friends – this is surprisingly common. When you sit next to someone, introduce yourself. Ask them where they’re from, what they think of any work that’s been set, how they’re finding uni, and be prepared for them to ask you the same. Remember to listen as well, when it’s their turn to talk, and try to show an interest in what they are saying!

Hope that was helpful. Now go on and make the most of it!