Small talk is too much work

I went to a conference this weekend, I wanted to be on time. I checked the first thing on the agenda. It was networking. I felt a heavy weight in my stomach like I’d eaten a lead sandwich. I felt torn. Should I be late or would I be forced to hover around the coffee table in a state of silent, awkward panic? My usual techniques weren’t going to work. I would normally give myself a job and look busy. I have always naturally given myself a role at any event, even if the event had nothing to do with me.

I can talk if I have a purpose. I went as a guest to someone else’s works party and ended up behind the bar serving.

At this conference, I was just a delegate, I didn’t know anyone. The only reason I was attending was that someone had asked me directly and I didn’t want to appear rude. I was flattered to be asked, although I suspected he had asked everyone he’d ever met. My contact was the organizer, he would be off somewhere busy. Lucky guy. I offered help in my email, he kindly declined. I thought begging would seem too much. I arrived ten minutes late so I could blend in. I would rather just leap straight into the first event of the day than have to mingle with strangers. As I was led to the check-in desk, the tall man escorting me casually commented, “there is hardly anyone here yet.” Probably because they hate networking. I chose not to respond, I smiled, warmly instead. He walked away, leaving me stood alone, socially exposed, like a zebra cut off from its herd on an African plain. Luckily, I had a tool kit built up over the years of, “bad traffic isn’t it?” “Have you come far?” “Are we ever going to have a summer?” The conference gave me an added level of questions, like, “Who are you here with?” I love to listen and this allows me to get through these occasions. There are plenty of people who like to talk. I often let them, the downside being, I am not very good at getting away if they like talking too much.

Small talk is awkward because it is a minefield of social etiquette and rules, it has taken me years to master after making a mistake after mistake.

I talk too much or not enough, about the wrong subjects. I don’t know when it’s my turn to speak, and by the time it is, I have forgotten what I was about to say. At some level, I don't see the point of it, mainly because when I look in the eyes of other people, they don’t seem to be very committed to it either. I like knowledge and talking about deep subjects. I enjoy getting to know people and exploring life, the universe, and everything. I am honest and small talk isn’t honest.

A stranger asks me, “How are you?” I know they don’t really want to know, so I say, “I am fine,” and I am not, nobody who ever gives that response is. “Nice day,” I say, “I can’t believe it’s this warm in February,” I am then stumped because the words are meaningless. I will never see the waiter again. It is just such hard work. I need to get the intonation of my voice right, my facial expressions to fit my intention, while intently watching the person and thinking of the polite thing to say in the right circumstance, jumping in when necessary and not talking over anyone else.

Small talk is the worse type of talk, it is not small, it is the most work I do. I can see it is mostly fake or irrelevant, I do it for the comfort of those who expect it, and to fit it, not because I choose it as a recreational activity.

Another person joins the conversation, and I don't have the timing for more than one person to catch their eye, to time my response. I can’t hear what they’ve said over the loud music and electric fan whirring around, then I need to let other people pitch in their points. I find it awkward to know what sort of grouping to stand in, how close to someone, what to say to them, and have time to think to attribute the correct facial expressions. After all of this, I need to periodically check if they are bored. They don’t look bored. What if they are faking? How can you tell? “What do you think?” an intense young man asks. “Oh sounds great,” I blurt, smiling. I hadn’t heard a word. “It was a sad situation,” he clarified, “Oh,” I whisper, quickly exchanging my smile for a frown.

If you observe a group of children trying to engage in small talk, you will notice that they aren’t very good at it. Children talk about the oddest of subjects with no introduction to a change of topic, but they get better with practice. I have disadvantages to start with, and then don’t get as much practice for the type of communication that I have no natural skills for in the first place.

A man walks over to me at the coffee table and stands very close. I awkwardly step back a pace very slowly, like a old film rewinding. He speaks quickly at me. I instantly relax, I know how he feels. Watching his obvious nervousness, I regain my confidence in my ability to communicate. I listen, after ten minutes I want to run but I know to stay is kind. I realise that none of us really ever get it right. I always blame myself for every social mistake, wrongly. Conversations with a stranger are always, on some level, a bumbling affair, full of mismatched offers of ideas and understanding. I don’t have to blame myself every time for every social faux par.

Not enough information

Life can feel overwhelming for an autistic person, there can be too much information. As soon as I step outside my senses are bombarded continually as I walk down the street. Loud, high pitched noises sound from all directions. Strong smells waft by. The movement of people feels nauseating. I feel in almost instant fight or flight. There are videos by the National Autistic Society that show an autistic boy walking through a busy, shopping centre, then eventually having a meltdown. You get a sense of how he must feel. For years, I didn’t know why shopping centres made me want to run out screaming as if there was a stampede of buffalos running after me. The sensory information arrived as a cloud, leaving me stressed and ready to flee. Alongside this daily assault, there is the problem of not enough information.

In social situations and learning environments it can feel as if you are missing whole chucks of implied information that others simply get and you don’t.

Studying acting and theatre at university was a dream come true because it was what I loved. I had weekly physical-theatre lessons and one day the teacher was describing what to do as part of an acting project. He'd said very little. I felt that I had missed something very integral. I quickly scanned the faces in the room of the twenty classmates around me. Everyone seemed to know what they needed. I wanted to get it right, as I always do, so I started asking questions. I didn't want to make a mistake. It was important to me to complete the task to the best of my abilities.

“How are we going to get assessed?” I asked, he answered inadequately. I wanted to know what was required of me, so I asked another question, “what do you mean?” suddenly out of the blue he screamed at me, “what do you think I mean Louise!” I honestly had no idea, that's why I was asking.

Feeling literally in the dark is a state I know well, now I don’t like to ask questions. I merely guess what to do and copy everyone else, even if it makes no sense to me. My questions are met with open hostility, and I feel I can’t ask them anymore. At school one day, I requested a ruler from my maths teacher, he threw it at me. Adults go from 0 to aggressive in the blink of an eye, something my dad used to do. I asked my dad for the remote control as an adult, and he threw it at me in anger like a projectile, with the intention of hitting its target.

Nowadays I just muddle my way through every task and conversation, even to the point where I’ve asked people, “is this something normal person would ask? Am I expected to know this?” Just to get an idea if my questions are worth asking, a barometer, to see if my questions have a place in rational discourse. Being autistic makes you an excellent communicator, which may seem ridiculous as it's a communication disorder, but you learn to communicate well with precision, you absolutely know what every word means.

Over the years I'd already worked out the millions of connotations each word has because I'd misled people in the past.

Other people do not give you enough verbal and written information because they lazily rely on facial expressions and body language, and a whole lot of back history is required to understand conversations. The people you meet, don't make situations clear to you because they never need to.

Several years after leaving university I started to volunteer at a hospital radio station. I liked the quiet, focused studio. All I had to do was concentrate on listening and talking. I felt so nervous at first that I shook each time I spoke. I used all the years I’d spent trying to make myself understood to bring clarity to my broadcasting. It was like I instinctively knew what the listener doesn't know. I described the situation in the studio, painting a picture from what I can see. Nothing can be taken for granted for me, due to the blind spots I have in not interpreting non-verbal communication well. I find I can have huge holes in my understanding of what is happening because my perception works differently.

The reason I pick up and prioritise different things from the average person is because my brain works fundamentally differently.

This leads to better communication in a medium that is different to regular social interaction because we are now all operating from a neutral place. Presenting on the radio is as unnatural for everyone.

The solution to the lack of information for autistic people is support from written sources and giving the option to ask questions without aggression. Each person you converse with needs to take the time to make sure they are clear and help fill in the bits that would normally be assumed. It wouldn’t take much to ensure that everyone, no matter what their communication style, could be helped to understand what they needed to know. For me, autism has a dual problem, that often operates together, too much information and not enough.


In praise of odd

If you are perceived as odd, then you might as well embrace it. When you realise that you are intrinsically different to other people it feels like the worst thing in the world, you try everything to get rid of the feeling of being different. Yet at its heart, it is what everyone wants, this is what they are attempting to achieve by wearing a brightly coloured hat or using a bold shade of wallpaper in their lounge. People want to stand out and be a cut above the rest. Where it can go wrong is doubting your place in oddness, not owning it.

Small doubts or a lack of confidence in your strangeness can become the problem to your acceptance, people don’t want your quirks if you can’t fully commit to them either.

If you fully embrace who you are and your oddities to a substantial degree then people will become interested. You can’t be too weird or off the wall as people will entirely write you off, but a certain amount of oddness gives you the edge, it tells people that you are your own person, a trendsetter, someone for the others to follow, that is what they are looking for.

Every self-help book tells you to be yourself and not worry about what other people think. As human beings we do worry about other people and our biggest motivator is to fit in, if you are non-mainstream then you may have been shunned in the past but if you don't fit in there is no point in trying to force it, they can tell and will not accept you. You need to embrace oddness, don't overplay it or rub people's noses in it but just some merely be. As soon as you become apologetic for it, then people lose confidence in its validity and see it is something to ridicule, to pull this off you are going to have to be confident in what it is that is unique about you. We like things that are unusual, we are drawn to unique, vintage and bespoke items in jewellery and wine, we will buy the rarest thing. Your oddities can become a massive asset, marking you out as the unique individual you are.

Every person wants to be unique, and have a quality individual to them.

You're not going to be able to dance to your own tune entirely, or you will become known as the strange hermit on the hill. You can embrace what you already have and make sure it's not a flaw to beat yourself up with but something beautiful to mark you out as different uniquely and beautifully. Go forward with confidence and let the oddness that held you back be the thing that propels you forward. We are all looking for that unique thing that makes us an individual and you my friend have already found it, it was given to you at birth.

Egg-gate

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I was making breakfast for some friends after they’d stayed with us. The scene was pretty chaotic, three adults and four children all crowded around the dining room table, one small child was waving around half a croissant, with strawberry jam clinging to the side of it seconds before it was likely to splodge all over the kitchen chair he was leaning on. One of the dad's laughed as he stumbled trying to reach over and grab some butter from the centre of the table.


I stood by the cooker desperately stirring some scrambled eggs. I’d made everyone poached eggs but the children didn’t want them so I’d gone back to make some eggs more to their liking. “They won’t be long,” I called, looking over my shoulder, only to look back to see scrambled eggs sticking further to the bottom of the pan. I glanced down at the floor to see a fake beanbag egg, one of my children’s toys that was part of an egg and spoon race set, it may well be the only piece left. I laughed to myself, eggs all round.


I reached down to pick up the discarded toy egg as I walked towards the table with the freshly made scrambled egg. I happened to stand next to my four-year-old daughter, after dishing out the scrambled egg on the children's plates, I asked her, "do you want an egg?”, brandishing the fake egg. She looked at me, then the egg and then back at me, she burst into tears. I immediately knew that I’d made a terrible mistake and instantly regretted standing near her, it really was just a matter of chance I'd chosen that spot. There was just so much laughter around the table and we are frequently silly about so many different things but my daughter did not find this funny at all. I comforted her and apologised, I tried to explain that I thought it would be funny and I didn’t do it to upset her.


My daughter often doesn’t seem to be on the autistic spectrum but I believe she is. Many people I've known over the years have been unsure whether she is, perhaps to make me feel more reassured, yet it is instances like these that drive it home to me how she struggles to understand situations other children find more straightforward. To hurt her this way was all the more upsetting to me because I felt just the same as a young girl, now years later, my autism diagnosis clarifies these instances and makes them more understandable to me. I can’t protect her from these misunderstanding, apparently I can’t even stop doing them to her myself, but I can understand where she’s coming from and give comfort from the shame and embarrassment these misunderstandings  cause, and help her later when she is ruminating about the situation.


Several days after egg-gate my daughter told me frequently, often out of the blue, "I didn’t like the trick you played on me with the egg," she explained that she knew that the egg wasn’t real but it still upset her. I apologised again and tried to explain that I meant nothing by it I just wanted to make her smile. I didn’t try to brush it under the carpet as just silliness and tell her to get over it, I listened to what she had to say, I apologised and I helped explain and clarify. A week later she came up to me, “I’ve got an egg for you,” she said gleefully, holding the toy egg, "thank you." I said, smiling.

Reactions to Hidden Disabilities

I have noticed recently that people have a strange reaction to disability. It seems people naturally don't like others getting special treatment. They are not heartless. If they see someone struggling, they will generally rush to be of service. They understand that if someone is in a wheelchair or has a walking stick, they may need extra support. My evidence then for this distaste for others getting different treatment, is the strong reaction to people using the disabled toilet or disabled parking spaces. It would be understandable if the person upset were disabled and felt that someone was taking advantage of the facility. I have never witnessed this happen, but I have seen perfectly able people become annoyed if they think that someone they perceive as clearly capable is using either a disabled space or a disabled toilet.

I know people with conditions like MS who have to carry around a walking stick otherwise someone may challenge them about the perfectly legitimate and legal rights to park in a disabled space that they have a badge for. Disabled toilets now have stickers on the door saying that some disabilities are hidden. The public should know this, but instead, this needs to be written on a door, I am assuming, due to the challenges, people have faced from the public when going into a toilet that they have every right to use. It is almost as if the aggrieved person is unconsciously saying, ”well I want to park there but I can't, and if I can't, you can't either.” It doesn't strike me they have a sudden desire to protect the rights of other disabled people, they just don't like people gaining an advantage which they don't have.

The attitude of people with disabilities seems different. Someone with a disability is trying to work around the disability. They are fighting not to be judged by what they can't do. Disabled people are sometimes embarrassed that they will be judged by their disability, and not seen as credible, or able to do the things they want to. I have seen people struggling to do things that anyone else would ask for help with. We then have a situation where one group of society is desperately trying to find a loophole to get special treatment, or something they believe they deserve, and another set of people who are desperately trying to pretend that disability doesn't stand in their way. The downside to this is when someone with a disability, who has been trying to cope, then asks for help, it is sometimes not seen as a reasonable request because so many other people are exaggerating minor difficulties that don't really hold them back. I have experienced this at work when I have had to downplay how I struggle and when I asked for help it has been ignored or deemed unimportant.

My advice then, if someone comes to you and shares their need for support, treat it with kindness, and ask what you can do to support them, rather than listing ways that you have also suffered in an attempt to reach out. Requests like these are not necessarily an ask for sympathy but a request from necessity.


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Feed the goats!

 

”Feed the goats!" I shouted. I held my daughter by her dungarees. She looked terrified and was pulling away from me. ”Feed the goats,” I demanded again, this time louder. Everyone was staring. I was mortified. My daughter remained silent. I was pleading now. ”Please, feed them.” I wasn't gonna to stop until she did. We were at a stalemate. I too was wearing dungarees. She tentatively held out a piece of carrot. The goat took it from her hand. ”I did it!” she exclaimed, delightedly.

How did we get here? Me shouting, clutching onto a piece of denim, as my daughter squirmed, while everyone watched in horror. A grown adult, getting a little girl to feed a goat she had no desire to feed. I had already forced my daughter into a pair of dungarees, onto a slide, to cuddle a guinea pig against her will, and here we were wrestling by the animal pens.

We were at a birthday party. It was my friend's son, and both of my children knew him well. My kids love farms, and I thought it was going to be a lovely day. The birthday boy had a wonderful time, and so did all of his friends. It went a slightly different way for my family. It was a baking, hot day, and there were around 10 children at the birthday celebration, with adults nearby.

During the party, my children were reacting ever so slightly later than the other children, missing out on the experiences, getting their food and drink last, missing the jokes from the party organiser; not able to express their true feelings, and communicate their wants and needs. This came out in gasps of frustration, tears and screaming. They refused to do things that the other children were doing, and they panicked, it felt so stressful. My husband and I were running after our children, while the other adults were chatting with each other.

”It's going to get you," the party organiser teased, as he waved a chicken about. My children cried. They thought the chicken was going to get them. ”Ah," he shouted, quickly, to make the kids jump, all the kids laughed. My children cried, they didn't get the joke. It was just frightening to them. If someone tells you that a chicken is coming after you, mixed in with all the other facts he was giving, you believe it. You certainly do if you have an autistic spectrum condition. If the smells, sounds, and the sheer amount of people are overwhelming to you, and the facts and jokes are mixed together.

”You can stay a bit longer,” my friend said, as she packed up her son's birthday cake. We decided to do that. The rest of the children received their party bags and left. My children were suddenly wholly different. Where they had struggled, they did things with ease. Where there was screaming, there was silence. Where there was resistance, there was acceptance. My daughter happily cuddled a rabbit, played on the tractors, and went up and down the slide 20 times.

I sat by my daughter as she was happily cuddling a black rabbit called Velvet. She told me that she wanted to hold a rabbit earlier and not a guinea pig. She wasn't able to communicate that at the time. Everyone else was given a rabbit, and she expected to get one too. My daughter didn't want to feed the goats not because she was frightened but because she didn't like the feeling of them licking her, it felt too strange.

How did I end up trying to get her to do things she didn't want to do? Firstly, I had asked her to wear dungarees because I thought they were more appropriate for the farm than the pink dress she wanted to wear. ”People won't know that I am a girl mummy," she said. I agreed to wear dungarees too, to show that women and girls could wear them. In the case of the goat, I thought if she just tried it she would realise it isn't as bad as she thought. I felt she was letting her anxiety get in the way of something that could be quickly over. It was a technique that had worked before. The more you worry, the worse something gets I thought. Except for this time I had timed it poorly. It came across as shouting at my daughter for no reason. Finally, the slide was something that my daughter really did enjoy but needed a great deal of encouragement to ensure that she gave it a try the first time.

Later on the farm, in the exact same place, my children were unrecognisable. They were the beautiful, articulate, confident, creative, risk-taking and playful individuals they are. Autism, what autism? Twenty minutes earlier they had been screaming, crying, resisting, fighting, noncompliant, inarticulate, shy, mute and anxious. There are many reasons why children scream and shout, it is essential to understand why. It could be as simple as not liking a goat licking you but being unable to communicate that. With observation, acceptance, and help, let us enable our children to have new experiences that aren't terrifying. Then let's hope they dare to feed the goats.

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Guts

I was late. I usually am. Luckily, I saw on the group page, that other people were running late too. I was only five minutes away. Plenty of time, I thought. I waited at the traffic light. It was a beautiful, sunny day. It hadn't rained in weeks, which was rare. I glanced out of the window.

The van in front of me pulled forward, revealing something on the road. I realized that I had partly driven into it. It looked like newspapers, fallen off a van, and run over a few times. It also seemed like.... could it be? It looked like raw meat...entrails. No, it couldn't be. I pulled forward to close the gap. I looked in my rearview mirror and saw a woman in the car behind me suddenly start waving her hands in a silent panic, like a mime trapped in a box with a smell. What on earth was I in?

The lights changed, I accelerated forward but my wheels span. I lurched forward. I made it through the lights. What was it? Fearfully, I drove down the hill. I managed to park near the meeting place. As I slid out of the driver's seat, I was greeted by a putrid smell. It made me feel sick. I paid for my parking ticket. I didn't know what else to do, I was late. I returned to the car and held my breath as I stuck the parking ticket to my windscreen. 

I rushed inside to meet the group. "I've had the worst day ever," I announced.  "I wouldn't bet on that," one of the people I was meeting said. "I have just driven through raw meat," I said. That comment silenced them.

We tried to work out if it was possible to have driven through raw meat. Eventually, one woman said, "there is an abattoir on that road." Well, that was it. The only raw meat on the road for a 150-mile radius and I drove right through it. "How offal," I said. Someone sniggered.

As I drove my car home, I wondered if this incident was a metaphor for my life. When you venture out into the world, you never know what you will find. You expect to meet friendly faces, and instead, you end up sliding around in guts. You wouldn't predict that was going to happen in a million years. Rather like life, I returned home to clean up the mess, but the smell still haunts me. How do we get rid of the things that linger? You can scrub and scrub, but the memories remain.

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Do you feel different?

Louise announces she has autism on her breakfast show. She then interviews the person that diagnosed her 2 years ago, Ged an Autism Specialist Nurse and someone who recently found out that they had autism Jo. They discuss what autism is, why it is called so many names, how it affects women and why people are diagnosed late in life. Ged and Jo have never been on the radio before and are broadcasting live.

 

Bridges

On my way to work there is a bridge. Just a simple road bridge crossing over the motorway.  I have travelled over it many times but today is different. Today there are flowers attached all along the railings. I remember on the news hearing that someone in my town had fallen from a bridge. This isn't the first time that this has happened in my hometown. This isn't new but it isn't usually this bridge. It is usually the other bridges. I don't know for sure but I'm pretty sure that someone has fallen from every bridge in my town. 

Today the bridge is lined with colourful bunches of flowers still in their wrapping.  People must've cared about this person and they are hurting.  I drive to work every morning and the flowers remain.  With each passing day they grow browner until there is no colour left. I wonder what will happen to the flowers, whether eventually they will be removed and whose job will it be to do that?  I feel sad every morning when I look at this bridge and think of the desperation and grief that must have occurred here.  It reminds me of the pain of others and what they must be going through still.

On the other side of the road people have written messages of hope and solidarity. They seem to be affected by the bridge too.  They want to do something to reassure those that come here, for whom life has become just too unbearable.  They want to comfort them and reassure them that this isn't the only way.  It has left a mark on me and isn't long after first seeing it, when travelling on the motorway, I look up to see another bridge covered in flowers,  in another town.  When will there be a time that our bridges aren't adorned with the flowers of grief?   Loaded with sadness, with 'what ifs' and lives changed forever.

The bridge I see every morning is more sacred than a graveside and more poignant than a funeral service. Today I quit my job, and  although it is a massive change for me, somewhere in my heart I'm grateful that I will no longer have to cross that bridge on the way to work.

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Why am I proud?

I have decided to embrace my autism on Autism Pride Day this year. It is not that it's hidden or that I have kept it a secret but more that I have felt too ashamed or not been able to properly own it. I haven't been able to advocate for myself or explain in a way that others find helpful. I am compartmentalized. One piece here, another there. I hide my difficulties in an attempt to feel that I belong and to not feel different. My life's been filled by people pointing out all the mistakes I have made, that I feel I can't make any. "You can't say that! You shouldn't do that. Why are you doing that?" Were all frequent remarks when I was younger.

 

I've not been proud that I have an autistic spectrum condition, in fact I have been ashamed, but they don't do 'I'm not ashamed anymore' day. I was asked, on the day I received my diagnosis, "if you could change it would you?" My answer was, "yes, in a heartbeat." This condition, that causes me so much pain, that is the root of my difficulties, and keeps me from getting close to others, can go for all I care. My husband disagreed saying, "it makes you, you" He is right. It gives me much of my personality, perspective and abilities. It is my humour and my imagination and why I feel so unique. 

 

I respect people who find this condition too awful to celebrate and those who are strong enough to say that they are proud of what they have and who they are. I would like to be proud too of me and of how I have coped. For those who feel pride around autism, it is a pride in you or your loved ones. It is a pride in your uniqueness. That you have done nothing wrong. That you have met and overcome massive obstacles. For me it's a, "I refuse to be ashamed anymore day!" I wish to celebrate the thing that is me, whatever 'me' is.

 

It is important to talk about this condition and all it's variations because often the difficulties come from society and ignorance. People are more aware than they ever have been about autism but there are so many assumptions and confusions. People seem to have been only half listening. The more we can share who we are and celebrate our wonderful contributions to society, the more we can talk about what is hard, and just how plain awful our condition can be, the more support, understanding and compassion our communities can give.

 

I have always felt broken and sad. I compare myself to others and I feel less than. When I stand alone I feel proud. I like me. I know I am kind, creative and funny. I know I am trying my very best and that is why I am proud.

Scaffolded Socialising

Socialising can be difficult. It is not necessarily that people are actual loners, which can be the case, it is more that people find socialising complicated, awkward and sometimes embarrassing. How long will the event last, who will be there and what will you be doing? What if you run out of things to say or worse still, end up stuck with someone who is discussing cladding or a weekend they had in Llandudno three years ago.

That is why people make friends more easily at school or college because they have a common place to meet, activities to do together and things in common. In more loose social situations people can end up relying on social lubricants like alcohol. Eating also helps. If you're waiting for your meal and chatting in the meantime, it can be a huge relief when suddenly the starters arrive. Just to give you a fresh topic or sometimes just a break. One of my favourite questions to ask is, "how is the chicken?" I find it an act of great friendliness, particular as I am a vegetarian.

It is often helpful to have an activity to do. That is why going to the cinema is a popular first date. You are able to do something together and then later go and discuss the film. Just starting from scratch, when you hardly know someone is extremely difficult. Speed dating is a formalised way of meeting people, in the extremely treacherous world of dating. The difficulties around initiating a conversation, continuing it and ending are all solved through formality.

At Christmas time, you have the opposite problem. You know your family too well and therefore have said everything worth saying. In that case, Christmas crackers work. They provide you with an activity, a joke to tell, a question to ask, a game to play and even something to wear. If you are very lucky you get a fish that attempts to tell your fortune. Highly inaccurate but hugely entertaining. Even the act of pulling a Christmas cracker is an initiation to a social interaction. Will you pull the cracker with me? Listen to my joke. I like your hat.

Parties often work well if there is a quiz element or games. Team building works on the basis of using drama games. These are often overused and seen as embarrassing. When people become adults they feel inhibited and don't want to take part in drama games or any game for that matter. If this is how everyone feels, imagine what it is like for people that have any social problems. If you are anxious or lack the skills to socialise then going out and joining in with others can be an absolute nightmare. Especially if you don't know who will be there and whether you have anything in common with them. What if you don't know the first thing about cladding or North Wales?

I was part of a friendship group, and when I first joined, they spent a lot of time doing pamper evenings and going out for meals. These sort of events, and parties, are particularly difficult social events. As time went on I started introducing events like murder mystery nights, games nights and taking part in sports and activities. Naturally without realising it I had created a way to socialise that is entirely based around activities. Having a games night is particularly helpful, if the conversation is going well you can ditch the game entirely as if it is no longer relevant, if not play on and talk around the game or through it.

If a formalised event is too much for some people because it is too restrictive and seems too much like organised fun, and a straightforward social event is too difficult and can result in people not wanting to attend, how do you strike the balance? I would propose a sort of scaffolded socialising. The sort of activity that doesn't seem preplanned but isn't entirely spontaneous either.

The example I am going to give is the picnic. No organised fun is needed, all the people need to know is to bring an item of food. A picnic on your own is quite boring, you would have to prepare all the food yourself. It is much better to have a picnic with others, everyone benefits. Having a picnic with other people enhances the experience it doesn't detract. It is more than the sum of its parts.

There are plenty of elements in a picnic that aid you socially or least to start the social experience. You are helped with the initiation of the social interaction through the act of sharing the food. For example, "where shall I put my tomato salad?" The picnic blanket is a focal point for the food and people sit around it but you get to choose where you sit, be that close or further away from other people. Whatever you choose you'll be in the vicinity of the main area. If eye contact is a problem or you don't want to sit directly opposite someone you can angle yourself away, such is the nature of sitting on a blanket. The very act of organising the food and sharing the various items; cutlery, cups, and plates, leads to lots of practical conversations. You can then go on to talk about who has made what dish and which foods you enjoy. There is a very definite end to the social interaction where everyone helps to clear away and packs away the picnic blanket. Then it is time to say goodbye. There are other activities that can be added such as enjoying the view and being in nature, which can be very calming. You can add extra elements like playing sports or games.

Everyone needs help socially when they are meeting people for the first time. Yet in lots of instances people struggle socially to such degree that it never changes even with people they know well. Some sort of social scaffolding is needed in all events. At least an awareness that every event needs something in it that aids social communication. There is no need to not have it because it benefits everybody. Another helpful device is having a quiz or some sort of interaction where people can form groups but don't necessarily have to talk to one another about what they do for a living or other such small talk. You are working together in a common goal but not in a juvenile or patronising way.

Having these elements, or scaffolding, in social events can be helpful rather than having full-blown organised events. This allows people to have time out when they need it or to adjust themselves if they're having sensory processing difficulties or simply to move away from someone who is boring them or with whom the topic of conversation is ended. If you don't include these things to help people and go for a more straightforward party. You will notice that people do this sort of thing naturally, you may find people sat in the kitchen or off to one side or even helping to clean up or pour drinks for people. These things give people a role or a purpose so they don't feel socially awkward. Therefore it is helpful to give them a game, give them an activity or help them to be more social. Everyone will benefit and have a better social experience and you will have a party or gathering to remember. Sometimes nothing is more lonely than being in a crowd. In supporting others you'll be helping them to feel less lonely and less isolated and more connected to other human beings. What can be better than that? Pass the salad.

It's midnight

It's midnight and I need some support. I feel that people don't like me or at the very least don't understand me. I feel more comfortable helping others or being kind. It makes me feel stressed to tell people I am suffering. I feel sorry for them to have to hear it. I don't want to have to discuss what upset me, what worries me or my thoughts. It makes me feel different. More lonely.

I have a communication disorder so I can't tell you properly how I feel and what you can do about it. It will stress me to have to work it through with you, to explain. What if you don't get it? What if I feel worse? I know how I feel. I just can't tell you. This isolates me further.

I send an obscure message out on social media. Was it too desperate or obscure? How do other people do it? How do they innately appear to know how to seek help, comfort and manage conflict? I would rather not mention it. Too much trouble. I might be judged. People might dislike what I have to say or think I am taking up too much time.

I have to say something though. People think I am fine. That I am happy. They come with their problems. I am more than happy to listen. It takes the pressure off me. It then becomes too much, a burden. I feel unable to take my time and lean on someone. I am afraid.

Someone responds to my post. I panic. I instantly want to make it better. I tell them everything is ok. I feel calmer. It isn't ok.

I am lost.

I wonder what to do next. I look at the clock.

It is one in the morning and I need support.

To all the bloggers that have gone before

To all the bloggers that have gone before. 
Thank you. 
Thank you for putting words to your thoughts and feeling. 
That at first seem random now appear as truths to me. 
The line that makes me feels, 'ah ha I feel that too.' 
I am not alone. My thoughts occur in another individual. 
I am connected. 
I am accepted.
I am respected.

You do not see me.
You do not know me.
I am here.
Listening.
Waiting for truths to be spoken.
Courage to be summoned.
And walls to be broken.

Your truths are not empirical.
Not academic.
Not peer reviewed.
But they speak to me like arrows to my heart.

To know that one person thinks that thought.
Feels that pain.
Knows that angle.
Is enough for me.
Enough to feel understood.



Whose Autism is it anyway?

As soon there were suspicions of me and family being on the autistic spectrum I wanted to write about it. I felt there was a story to tell. A story untold until the way I was could be explained. I felt it needed an explanation. I, found it odd. Other people, found it odd. Suddenly it all became clear. I wanted to explain. I wanted to clarify. I wanted to inform and help if I could. It seemed no one really knew much about the autistic spectrum despite there being so much public information out there.

When I was diagnosed I felt tremendous relief. I felt I needed a diagnosis for people to believe me so that they didn't respond 'no, not you.' To be honest all I received now when I tell people is 'oh'. I didn't have the courage to go and speak to other people on the spectrum.

I instinctively knew that others viewed autism differently and have different ways of expressing themselves and different fears and joys. I knew that some people wanted to celebrate the ASD that they or their child has. Others were in pain. They saw their children suffering and they wanted this thing to be gone. They wanted it cured. They had no time for these celebration people. They were at times hostile. I was afraid. Afraid of offending someone with my lack of knowledge so I made sure I knew what I was talking about by completing a year-long course on every aspect of ASD.

Looking for comfort and looking for acceptance. An acceptance which I had never received.  I joined a Facebook group of like-minded individuals. I was silent for a while but witnessed differing opinions. It seemed at times that people were scrambling around, confused, sometimes in the dark about things looking for answers and reassurance from strangers.

On one occasion one lady was corrected for something that she had said. It was about the levels of ASD. Many people jumped on this and the girl felt she had to leave the forum. I explained what  I had learnt about the levels on my year of study.  The girl hadn't said anything that was based on opinion. It was factually accurate. As someone who finds accuracy important, I tried to kindly shed light on what I thought she was trying to say.

The group turned on me. I explained that I wasn't saying I preferred levels but that that was how it was being done at the moment. They told me that I was typical of someone who was diagnosed later in life and that I should ask autistic people what they think. I found this odd as I am autistic.  I could ask myself. The comments hurt me and left the group. I guess it is ironic that a misunderstanding should impact people who have communication difficulties. I thought it was more than that though. I thought it was people not listening, not accepting others and actually being quite mean.

Now there was another divide, between those who have been diagnosed  most of their lives and those who have been in the dark for so long. I have taken on board what was said to me and I try to bear in mind. Unfortunately it silenced me. I didn't write on this blog any more.  I suddenly felt I had nothing to say.

I have now decided that I only ever spoke for me. That is the only person I can speak for. It is worthy of sharing and people can ignore it if they like. I can only speak about me. I can only speak about my autism but after all whose autism is it anyway?




Loneliness

I feel lonely. Maybe not all the time but probably most of it. If I were to stop and think about it, I would realise I was lonely but I try not to stop and think. I lack a connection to people that I have never understood until I realised I was autistic.

I have told people in the past that I have felt lonely. It only happened twice. Once with a housemate and the other time with a relative. Both times it was a cry for help, for my difficult feelings to be seen, but in both cases, it was ignored and never mentioned again. If someone told me they were lonely, I would ask them what I can do and if necessary never leave their side.

People say you feel most lonely in a crowd. I would agree. The more people around you, the more lonely you can feel and the more guarded everyone else is. I have seen close friends change in an instant in public. Even to me. I want to say, "What are you doing?" "It is just me. Be yourself." People aren't, and believe me I understand. Being autistic, most of my daily interactions are, to a certain extent, faked. It does, however, mean I am quite consistent in the way I am. The act is now me. This is who I am, a social being I created. To call it fake is unfair. It is more real than real. If I have to exist in the social world, then this is how I do it. If anything, others are faker than I. My act is more real than theirs. If I get the chance, I say how I feel, but it isn't really that accepted, so I go back to the version of myself that is accepted. In neuro-diversity terms, it is known as 'passing'. To pass as a regular person, whatever that is.

I used to be exceptionally shy. I think society understands shyness in girls and almost prefers it. As a child, I once went to a pantomime on my own. I was sat with another girl on the coach. I didn't know what to say so I pretended I had a toothache the entire time. From an early age, I have managed to make friends if there is only one person but as soon as someone else came along the original person would go off with them. I thought my loneliness was because I was an only child and I vowed not to only have one child myself.

Before I was married I felt so unbelievably lonely it hurt. When I got married, for the first time I felt complete and to a certain extent whole. My children also mean that I am less lonely. Yet I still feel lonely. It is like a shadow. It is sometimes large, and at other times small, but it is always there.

I am now quite extroverted and some people don't believe I have ever been shy. I recently was at a party and I knew most people. I asked to take a selfie with two girls I knew. They then asked me to take a picture of them together. Later, I looked at the picture of the three of us and they were huddled together and I was stood slightly away. Not my choice. Just the way we had stood. I was different to them, at some almost imperceptible level.  I have lots of these photographs. This same photo has been recreated year upon year with every friend group I have ever known. They know intuitively that I am slightly on the outside and this is where I end up standing.

Knowing I am autistic goes some way to explaining how I feel and has taken the pressure off. I no longer keep wondering why am I different. I know. Will the loneliness go? I hope so but I am not sure. What it does do is show me the deep loneliness in others, and that, I can do something about.

20 pints of milk

I was helping out a friend and she sent me a text message, "Please can you get me 5 x 4 pints of milk". Simple enough I thought and went to the supermarket. My friend clearly wants 20 pints of milk in 4-pint containers. I buy 5 my friend is happy.

When I get to the shop there are no 4-pint containers to be found. There is either 1 pint or 6 pints. I don't think my friend would be happy with 20 bottles of milk but does she want 20 pints, or would more or less be OK? What if she wanted the 4-pint container because it was the right size for her freezer?

I call her. The line is bad. I say, "There are only 6-pint containers." She says, "I only want 5." The line breaks off. 

5 what? Pints? Not 20?

Oh no! I nearly bought 20.

I call her again. I shout down the receiver, "How many pints do you want?" She shouts back "20 pints." "They only have 6 pint containers, how many do you want, 18 or 24 pints?" I reply. "Get me 3 or 4 containers," she says. 

3 or 4? 18 pints or 24 pints? Would one be too less and the other too much?

I asked "Would 18 be enough?" My friend said, "24 pints is fine."

I buy them.

Most people would have bought what they thought was right. I didn't want to waste my friends money or not get enough. Autism can hinder you at the moment others wouldn't even be bothered. It makes us very reliable and precise but sometimes causes us confusion. We are capable but you might just have to clarify on the phone the odd time.

To my autistic child

You are special and more unique than you'll ever know. While everyone else tries to fit in and follow, you are so focused on the things that interest you. You look at things from a different angle and see the beauty that they miss. Art and music touch you deeply. You dance, spin, twirl, clap and sing.

Your emotions are strong and because of that you feel great joy, wonder and awe. The smallest thing can hold hours of delight. You know sadness too but this will show you how others may suffer. The world has lots of suffering but it is what unites us all as human beings.

You are determined, dedicated and trustworthy. You keep your promises and don't want to let people down. You may be seen as too honest but to many this will make a refreshing change. Others will warm and open up to you in ways they wouldn't to others.

Your heart is massive. Sometimes you may need to close off from the world if the feelings become too strong but use this time to recharge and replenish. Your sensitivity will help you understand people, animals and the world better. This fuels your need for fairness. Fairness, kindness, and doing what is right is important.

You have a great sense of humour and your laugh is infectious. You remember facts and love to learn. A comment from you can be wise and insightful or make people howl with laughter. You are as people find you. Straightforward and consistent. In an ever changing world of loyalties, you remain loyal.

Others may not see you as I do. They may laugh in a mean way or not get you. They may try and exclude you or worse. That is their loss. If only they took the time to see what a wonderful person you are and what a good friend you are to have. Waste no time on such individuals.

People who doubt you, don't realise that you are a precious butterfly and if you decide to land by someone then they are truly blessed. They should be glad that someone so beautiful and interesting chose to land by them. They should be quiet and gentle until you feel comfortable and then admire what you have to offer.

I hope the world sees what I see. A funny, clever, big hearted, trustworthy and dedicated soul, and I couldn't be prouder.

Everyone seeks to be themselves truly, but few really are. You are one of them.

Yours forever grateful to know you.

Your Mother x

Making Sense

How do we perceive the world? Is my red your magenta? Is that why people wear Hawaiian shirts and others are blinded by them?

Autism Spectrum Conditions have a sensory element of either being under or over-sensitive to stimuli. This sensory processing difference is often seen as just part of the symptoms. I, however, think that either the sensitivity or under sensitivity is a key part of autism rather than a simple symptom. Socialising and communicating are going to be more difficult if you have to process all the assaults on your senses.

My senses are hypersensitive. I have only recently discovered this or at least become consciously aware. I should have realised. I once threw my husband out of the car for eating an apple. It was just too crunchy.

Showers are a massive problem. When I was a teenager I hardly showered and that wasn't just because I was a teenager. The water comes at you like little knives. You have to cower in the corner of the cubicle beside the loofer. If you had a loofer, which you don't. 

I get in my car and the stereo is too loud. It is particularly odd because I am the only one who touches the stereo. I have made my own stereo too loud. That is an important thing to remember. That my sensory reaction changes over time. Sometimes I can go to a party other times daylight is painful. It feels like a hangover. Sunglasses on even when it is raining. Most people think that my reaction lenses are slow to react. Why else would I be where sunglasses indoors or in November?

Sometimes I listen to loud music and at other times someone clearing their throat frightens me to death. 

The biggest clue to my autism was supermarkets. Whoever invented vast warehouses full of flashing lights, smells, music and hundreds of people were clearly not autistic. That is why we have online shopping. Unfortunately, you still have to open the door to the delivery man. Everything has its downsides. We need to iron that out.

If you see me in shades, with headphones on, with head down. I am blocking out the world in order to exist in it.

Turn the light off would you?

The Hawaiian shirt is between you and your conscious.