Mini-Review: M in the Middle

M.

When I reviewed the book M is for Autism, I said I wanted to hear more about this girl who calls herself “M.”  I lost my copy of the book, and when I went on Amazon to buy a new one I discovered the students and their teacher had written a sequel.  I was hand-flapping excited (though I tried to tone that down when I told Mom I ordered them).

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Both books arrived yesterday, and I was so startled by M in the Middle‘s thicker size that for a moment I thought they sent the wrong book.  But no, it’s a longer novel.  I missed the colorful pages of M is for Autism, but they occasionally play with the fonts and type to help M communicate.

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This is what happens when you have autistic girls write a novel about an autistic girl.

 

I re-read M is for Autism last night to prepare for the sequel.  I was a little surprised by *just* how short it is; I think that I was so engrossed in the scenes and M’s mind when I first read it that it felt “bigger.”  I loved it just as much the second time.

I was impressed by the consistency of the character and her voice between the two books.  Our main character and narrator is now in year 8 in England (7th grade, here in the States).  She got her autism diagnosis a year ago, and her wonderful therapist has been helping her understand herself and develop strategies for dealing with her often-crippling anxiety.

I do want to caution those of you who struggle(d) with anxiety.  The authors do an incredible job of provoking empathy for their anxious narrator.  Pretty much any time M was taking deep breaths or using another calming strategy, I found myself taking deep breaths along with her.  I read the book in one day – partly because it was so good, and partly because I didn’t want to drag out my time living in her anxious mind.

We get a fuller picture of M’s life in this longer book.  She deals with INCREDIBLY frustrating adults who do pretty much the opposite of what this poor girl needs, fueling her anxiety and pushing her towards mutism.  She encounters a few people who get her, show her kindness, and help her find her voice again.  She has “friends” who turn into horrible bullies and she has friends.  She has an obsessive crush on an older boy, and wonders if she can have a “normal” future.  She tries so hard to fit in.  She tries so hard to have friends.  She tries so hard to do the right things at school.  She tries so hard to combat her anxiety.  She tries so hard to connect with her family while recognizing she can’t do the things they want her to do to show that connection.  She tries. So. Damn. Hard.

While 13-year-old me didn’t have all the same struggles and experiences, I related to a lot of what she goes through.

Again, the authors share some truly insightful thoughts through M’s words.  Here are a few I made note of as I read.

About her mother (p. 113):

She was delighted when we got the diagnosis. She was reading books and web pages and talked about us going to meetings and then she just seemed to stop.  Like she stopped believing I had autism or maybe when the reality of it began to unfold it all became too difficult.  . . .

But I’ve been carrying it around with me my whole life.  This is my reality, and does she realise how difficult that is?

About trying to “crack the friendship code” (p. 115):

And even though the truth is I love being on my own, I feel a desire to fit in and have friends.  Like it’s part of my purpose on earth.  I’m hardwired to fit in!  . . . I want to be accepted by my fellow human beings, but it really is so much easier on my own, and I retreat back to my little pink room, back to the security of my bed and blanket and the comfort of Skylar, season 5, episode 7.

When her mother suggests she write down how she feels, to let her feelings “out into the world” (p. 169-170):

Is it like letting Bella out into the back garden?  I haven’t got a back door.  I can’t just open a door to me and let my feelings out into the world.  Is that what everyone else is doing? Am I surrounded by other people’s feelings that they’ve let out??  Do I pick them up as I pass someone in town or do other people’s anger or jealousy latch on to me as I walk down a corridor?  And is that why I get so anxious?  I’ve picked up all the dumped emotions everyone else has let out into the world and I have an extra quota of feelings?

While writing this, I recalled watching the video about the Limpsfield Grange School girls (where this book was written).  I just realized that one of the plot points (involving the crush’s photos) was inspired by a real experience of a girl at that school.

I strongly recommend this pair of books – for autistic girls to feel less alone, and for people who aren’t autistic girls to stretch their empathy muscles.  It’s an emotional ride, but they both end with glimmers of realistic hope.

My Message to the 4th Graders

This is a post I’ve been wanting to type up for over a year now.  In 2015, I was working with an autistic boy for the third year in a row.  I was a TSS (therapeutic support staff), which meant I spent a lot of time with him both at his school and his house, working on behavioral interventions and doing lots of documentation. (For a little more detail about my job as a TSS, see the post “Crisis of Faith.”)  He had a LOT of hours.  Over those three years I not only got to know him and his family and nurses well, but I came to know and love a lot of his classmates.

His classmates were, for the most part, awesome.  This was a kid who would have super-scary aggressive meltdowns, but after it was over his classmates would still invite him to play at recess or help him follow instructions in the classroom.

Friends on a field trip

Friends on a field trip

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In the middle of those years, I had another client, up at the middle school.  In his classroom, there was a boy I’ll call “Hunter.” On my very first day, I suspected that Hunter was on the spectrum, too.  (My gay sister has excellent gaydar. . . do we have an accepted made-up word yet for autism-radar?)  Hunter was the kind of kid who had a lot of trouble socially, and unlike my little client at the elementary school, it wasn’t obvious to his peers that he was struggling.  They just sensed Hunter was different, and got annoyed when he’d be bossy or a “know it all,” and socially ostracized him.  It was difficult for me to watch, especially since I was still in that first year of my self-diagnosis, and I was reflecting so much on my own childhood.

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Back to that first client’s class.  I had seen first sparks of middle-school-girl drama forming as these fourth graders headed towards adolescence.  I had seen how the older students were treating one another.  I had watched these little kids be so considerate of my client and the other “different” kids in their classroom, and felt the hope it gave me for the future.  I didn’t want them to lose that.

So, I did something that is entirely out of character for me, and volunteered myself for public speaking.  I must have been inspired by the guidance counselor’s weekly lessons that were supposed to teach the kids emotional intelligence skills (identifying and handling their emotions, showing empathy, stopping bullying, etc.).  She was occasionally busy and couldn’t come do the lesson, which meant the classroom teacher lost that hour of prep time she had been depending on.  One of those days, I suggested I could teach the kids about autism.  Mrs. C loved that idea, so I let the ideas run repeatedly through my head and wrote my main points out on note cards.  I kept those cards in my bag, and the next time the guidance counselor cancelled, I was ready.  Or, as ready as I ever am to talk in front of people.

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It’s been a long time since that day, so I won’t be able to remember it word-for-word, or remember the excellent comments that Mrs. C and the students shared during our discussion.  I wish I had taken notes on those, because the kids really interacted with me.  But here is what I’ve reconstructed from those note cards.

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At my house, we have a Wii, and we have a PlayStation 3.  If I put my MarioKart disc in the PlayStation, will it work?

“No!”

So, my PlayStation is broken?  Or the disc is broken?

“No.”

[I explained that the two game systems have different operating systems.  I tried also making the Windows/Mac comparison that I originally saw explaining this idea, but they weren’t as familiar with computer systems.]

A lot of you have seen me wear earplugs in the cafeteria.  Why do I do that?

“Because it’s too loud.”

But wait. . . if it’s “too loud,” why isn’t everyone wearing earplugs?

[discussion]

So, do you mean we each have our own “too loud”?  We can experience the same thing in different ways?

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In my psychology classes, we were warned that sometimes you learn about something and start diagnosing all of the people around you with that thing – don’t do that!

[I projected the DSM-5 diagnostic criteria for ASD on the board, and tried to give a quick 4th-grade-level explanation of each section, with examples]

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Where does autism come from?

I know that you guys have been learning about “traits” in your science class.

We know that autism can be inherited.  It runs in my family.

Our environment is also going to play a part in how people with autism develop, how bad some behaviors are, how they learn to cope.

Just like every kid.

Everyone has strengths and weaknesses.  Some of you are awesome at basketball, but not soccer.  Some of you are bad at memorizing multiplication facts, but awesome at geometry.  Some of you are awesome at understanding what others are feeling, and being kind when they need it.

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“Different operating system” does not equal “broken.”

That’s what I want you guys to understand about autism.

It doesn’t mean he’s sick.  It doesn’t mean she’s stupid.  It doesn’t mean he’s broken.

He or she has a different operating system than most people.  The way they experience the world can be different, and so they may react differently.

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You guys have been learning about empathy, and how it’s so important.

When you have a different operating system, it makes it harder to understand how another person is thinking and feeling.  Because if you were in their situation, you would not be thinking and feeling that way.

What are some of your favorite smells?

If you see me at a seafood restaurant, I’m going to look disgusted and unhappy.  You might not be able to figure out why – because to you, the place smells awesome and you can’t wait to eat.  But I hate the smell of seafood.

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In my kitchen at home, my mom has always had a little sign by our kitchen sink.  I see it every day.  It says, “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a tough battle.”

I’ve been so impressed with you guys and the other kids in this grade who I’ve gotten to observe and know these three years.  You do so much to be kind and include other kids.  That is really special.  Not all kids are like that.  And I don’t want you to lose that.

Stay kind.

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When I was growing up, I had a really hard time reading other people, and they had a hard time understanding what I was thinking.  I’d feel happy but wouldn’t look it.  I didn’t make a lot of eye contact.  I was obsessed with dinosaurs, Ghostbusters, and Ninja Turtles.  I couldn’t color until all 96 crayons were in meticulous rainbow order.  Before I could read, my mom had to read my favorite TV show’s episode title when it came on the screen, or my day would be ruined.  She was really happy when I learned how to read!  I wore my socks inside-out because the seam bothered me, and I hated most clothing.  Some of these things got in the way of relationships, and made school hard.

Sound familiar?

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I’m 30.

I still wear some of my socks inside out.  I’m a lot better at understanding what other people are feeling.  I still like things to be organized.  I still have a hard time making new friends.

One reason I wanted to talk to you guys about this is that one day you will be 30.  You’ll meet people who have different operating systems.  Be kind.  Give them a chance.  They might make your life more interesting.

Cards I gave the class on my last day as a TSS.

Cards I gave the class on my last day as a TSS.

An Autistic(?) Hero

The first thing I said to Dad as we left the movie theater was, “Wow, so he was autistic.”  Dad said he had been thinking the exact same thing.

My autism-radar started beeping when I saw his lack of eye contact talking to the dock officer about the contents of his case, but I acknowledged that it could be just because he was being deceptive.  But no, the difficulty with eye contact continued.  And there were the awkward social interactions, the special bond with animals, the admission that he didn’t really have friends at school, the awkward goodbye of the end.  That settled it.  Newt Scamander could be on the autism spectrum.

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I was excited to have a Hufflepuff featured in film, because Pottermore (v. 1.0) sorted me into that house and, after the initial revulsion, I read the welcome letter and I embraced it wholeheartedly.  I was also excited to have a Harry Potter film that I wouldn’t ruin with constant comparisons to the book it was based on.  Having the Hufflepuff hero show up with autistic traits absolutely delighted me.

As soon as we got out to the car, I began Googling “Newt Scamander Aspergers.”  It was immediately apparent that I wasn’t the only one who picked up on his traits.  The absolute best post I’ve read about Newt was written by a mom who has an autistic son, a boy who is a lot like Mr. Scamander.  Instead of quoting it at length, I’ll point you to the original:

The True Magic of ‘Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them’, by Melanie R. Meadors

Like she said, whether or not Newt is “officially” or intentionally autistic really doesn’t matter.  What’s awesome is that a person with autistic traits is presented in a positive light, the traits aren’t something he has to “overcome” in the film, and he makes friends who accept him as he is.  I’m officially a fan of Newt Scamander, and I’m thankful to Rowling and the filmmakers for making a person like him a true hero.

Another piece about Newt that I really enjoyed was written by Emma Lord:

On Newt Scamander, Toxic Masculinity, & The Power Of Hufflepuff Heroes

Have you seen the film?  I’d love to hear your thoughts!

Lessons from Speech Class

This month I finished my last class for my associate degree in Information Sciences and Technology. It was a speech class.

More accurately, it was a class focused on the “Principles of communication, implemented through analysis and evaluation of messages, with some attention to formal speaking and group discussion.” Unlike the on-campus offering where you take turns giving short speeches in front of the class, this course focused more on analyzing messages. I chose CAS 100C instead of 100B, to avoid having to do group work.  (I’m so over group work. See image below)

group project

This class was a LOT of writing, which translated into a LOT of time spent on it each week.  I’ve been called a “good writer,” but it takes time for me to write.  Especially when it involves the need to read (and sometimes find) scholarly articles that are to be cited in that week’s essay.  In addition to the weekly essays, we had to write and record two 6-8 minute speeches as our midterm and final.

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I was really fighting my perfectionism this semester.  No matter how many times I reminded myself that my grade didn’t matter, no matter how many managers at work (2) told me to chill out and “just pass,” no matter how many times my boss guaranteed the grade would have no impact on my job. . . . I just couldn’t not care.  I tried SO HARD to turn in work that wasn’t up to my personal standards, yet I still ended the class with an A.  The professor even asked if she could share some of my work with the rest of the class as good examples.

Before this class, I had started learning more about the Enneagram, and I was suspecting that I’m a type 1, the “Perfectionist.”  My excruciating struggle with my performance in this class made this pretty obvious.  I’m thinking about doing more investigation regarding Aspergers and the Enneagram.

One day early in the semester, my boss and I got out of the office for lunch.  He could tell I was struggling (perhaps the fact that I was on the brink of tears clued him in).  Bemused, he reminded me that I just have to pass.  I told him the story of the inspirational “Do your best at not doing your best” image on my phone.

do your best

He said, “I have one better than that.  Do your best at the things that matter.”

He then elaborated, talking about the need to evaluate my priorities, and to make sure I’m spending time and effort on the important things, like relationships.  Basically, if I’m getting a lower grade because I’m playing video games, that’s bad.  If I’m getting a lower grade because I’m focusing on doing well at work, and volunteering at church, and investing in relationships, there’s nothing wrong with that.  Even though I had a tough time following my manager’s advice, I’m extremely grateful that he gave it.

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A big revelation came after I received my final feedback for the class.

I had been super anxious about recording the two big speeches.  Like most people, I don’t enjoy public speaking.  But since I was recording this instead of presenting it to live people, that wasn’t the big reason for anxiety.  We were supposed to use an “extemporaneous” delivery for these speeches, having only words and short phrases on our note cards.  That really stressed me out.  Like most people on the spectrum, I can struggle with verbal communication.  I do much better when I have the time to carefully think out how I want to word something.  And when I have that time, I think I do it well.  I like making sure I get the words right to communicate effectively.  That is really hard to do “on the fly,” when I have a time limit in which to speak all of my main points, research, arguments, transitions, etc.

Our professor gave us a good strategy for how to deliver an extemporaneous speech.  We were to write out the full-sentence outline of the speech, then turn that into an outline of key words and phrases.  We could memorize the introduction, since it’s beneficial to have those introductory words “just right,” and it would give us more confidence for the rest of the speech.  But the rest was supposed to be based off of the short outline on our note cards.  She recommended we rehearse from the short outline, starting over again from the beginning any time we faltered and forgot details.  I tried this for the first speech, but as I rehearsed I found that I was really struggling with getting the words right, so I ended up writing way more on my note cards than I was “supposed” to.

For the second speech, I was reminding myself again that I just had to pass the class, which essentially meant I just had to turn in a speech.  Any speech.  Even a terrible speech.  I would still pass.  I had found enough sources to meet the assignment requirements, done a lot of thinking and synthesizing, sorted the ideas into main points, and had written up my full-sentence outline.  I simply didn’t have time to do the full-blown rehearsal to learn the speech, and I didn’t care if I got points docked for the delivery.  So I printed the entire outline on sheets of paper and cut them in half to be more note-card-sized.  That way, I could glance down and see EXACTLY how I wanted to say it.  (As I made edits to the content, I left the original outline file intact, so I could turn in something that was slightly different than what I said in the video, in case the professor compared them.  I’m sneaky like that.)

I recorded my speech two or three times and called it a night.  A few days later, I got the grade, along with this feedback:

“Really good extemporaneous and conversational delivery.”

Wait, what?  I had the whole thing written out!  I thought you said it would be obvious if we were reading from the page? I rehearsed, but in the end I was essentially reading it word-for-word from my printed outline.  How did I manage to fool you?

Then I realized: Oh.  Right.  I’m autistic.

Writing out words before I say them is a coping skill I developed long ago.  I need to call the mechanic to get a few issues looked at?  I’d better write it out.  I’m going to have a difficult conversation with a boyfriend?  I’d better write out some key points, because once the emotions hit I’m going to struggle to remember what I wanted to say and how to say it.

  • For my non-autistic classmates, reading their speech would be obvious.  They wouldn’t sound conversational.
  • For me, trying to speak off-the-cuff from an outline would leave me stumbling over words, pausing awkwardly mid-sentence, and anxious.  I wouldn’t sound conversational.

I was highly amused when I realized that for me to “pass” as an NT giving an extemporaneous speech, I had to use my coping skill of writing everything out.  I then had to fake being spontaneous and conversational in my delivery as I read, which of course is something I have unconsciously been practicing for years!

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To me, this was a good lesson in respecting who I am.  I have to remember that my brain, my struggles, and my skills are not typical.  The path I take to get to a goal will not always look like the path my peers take.  I also learned how fortunate I am to have people in my life, like the managers at work, who care enough about me to give me good advice and moral support when I’m on the verge of a mental breakdown.  Finally, I learned that I’m absolutely done with school for the foreseeable future!

 

Now that the homework is over, I have time for activities I truly enjoy, such as photography.

Now that the homework is over, I have time for activities I truly enjoy, such as photography.

Mini Review: M Is for Autism

Recently I read Kathryn Erskine’s book Mockingbird, which is told from the perspective of a 10-year-old Aspie girl named Caitlin.  I still haven’t figured out how I feel about that book.  I’m always excited (and a little anxious) when I see a book featuring an autistic character, especially a girl.  But like I said, I don’t know how I feel about that one.  There were certainly moments where I thought, “Yes!  That’s exactly how it is!” but . . . well, I’ll let you be the judge.  It’s worth a read, though I warn you it is emotionally exhausting (she recently lost her brother in a school shooting).

When I was reading a few reviews of Mockingbird, hoping they would help me process my own thoughts and feelings, I saw something about another book, M is for Autism.  This book was written by a group of autistic girls and their creative writing tutor, because there aren’t enough books for teenage girls with autism.  That fact right there made me love the book even before I opened it.  When I did open it, I was surprised to see that it is full of color – not just the illustrations, but the pages themselves.  I LOVE that.  In fact, there’s a lot I love about this book.

m is for autism
Things I love about this book:

  • It’s colorful!  Every page has color.
  • M is a believable autistic character.  She has autistic traits without fulfilling EVERY stereotype, and has specific, unique quirks and interests.
  • I was pleasantly surprised that the mother gets to narrate a few pages.  I appreciated getting to hear her perspective, and it is very realistic – a mother who truly loves and wants to help her daughter, but just gets so darn frustrated and doesn’t always understand her.
  • Her therapist is wonderful. I wish I had her.
  • “It’s not an illness.  It’s more a way of being. It’s your wonderful state of mind, the way you view the world. That’s not being ill.”
  • It emphasizes that autism isn’t really the problem, anxiety is.
  • It touches on topics like social confusion, teasing, stimming, coping strategies, sensory issues, diagnosis, labels, therapy, support, and the complexity of it all.
  • This quote:

“I think you’re struggling too much. Everyone has a bad day, week, month even year but this is too much M. This is constant stress and anxiety. Life shouldn’t be too much of a struggle M.”

She’s right. Less of a struggle would be good. Life is a struggle when you’re trying to be normal.

 

The book made me smile, but it also made me hurt for my own 13-year-old self.
My only complaint is that it’s short – you can read it in a single sitting.  That isn’t a criticism of the book; I think it is long enough to fulfill its purpose.  That’s just a personal desire to read more about M and her journey 🙂
If you’d like to learn more about the writing of the book, here’s an article: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/women/health/what-is-it-like-to-be-a-girl-with-autism/

 

After writing this, I think I’ve figured out one of my thoughts about MockingbirdMockingbird feels like it was written by an NT for NTs – to help them better understand autistic kids, sure, but it’s for NTsM is for Autism is absolutely 100% for autistic girls.  It can help NTs better understand autistic kids, but that is for the sake of the autistic kids.

Acceptance, Not Awareness

This past Friday I had my mid-year review at work, the first such meeting since I was hired full-time a few months ago. It was a much more in-depth evaluation than the little “here’s a paper with all 10’s circled on it, let me know if you have questions, sign here” I had at my last job.  My manager was very positive and complimentary, gently providing “growth areas”  rather than “weaknesses” or criticism.  My peers also provided a few positive comments for him to share with me.  In a summary section, he wrote something like, “She is different, and that’s a good thing.”  He does not yet know that I am autistic, but since I work in IT now, I’ve been able to be a little more authentically me than at past positions.

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This weekend I was continuing my way through the book Neurotribes, which is excellent.  The problem is, it jumps between stories so cool that I excitedly read them aloud to unwilling victims, to parts so heartbreaking that I have to put it down for a while.  I was reading the section on Lovaas and the early days of ABA, and researchers’ use of punishment.  It was so upsetting that I was stimming (a lateral hand-flapping movement) and engaging in self-injurious behavior (biting my hand) – two of the very behaviors that were physically punished in these early studies.

I talked to a person about this right after setting the book aside (I will use “they” as a gender-neutral singular here). I was so worked up after talking to them that I was still doing a lot of the rapid hand-shaking while I was preparing some coffee.  They then said, “You’d better get that out of your system by Monday if you want them to still think you’re ‘different in a good way.'”

That bothered me.  But I didn’t have the words to express to them why it hurt so much.  First, it was just the latest in a long line of comments like that throughout my life – those, “I hope you don’t do that in public,” or, “Are you going to shower before you go out?” or, “You don’t say that at school/work, do you?” kind of comments.  The ones that insinuate I haven’t yet learned how to behave “properly” around normal people, out in public.

Second, and this is very much related to that category of comment, I only engaged in that behavior because I felt safe to do so.  In my own home, with people I trust, I’m going to feel freer to behave in ways that are not seen as “acceptable” in other settings.  I’m going to complain about tasks I’ve been assigned at work, but I’m NOT going to have a bad attitude about them around my manager and coworkers.  I’m going to skip a shower when I’m staying in, but I’m NOT going to go to class with greasy hair.  I’m going to release extreme emotion nonverbally through self-stimulatory behaviors, but I’m NOT going to be as obviously autistic in the behaviors I select when I’m around people I don’t trust with that.

Third, they used something that was an extremely positive, affirming, and accepting comment about me to shame me for my autistic behavior.

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I was recently talking to another Aspie-girl about how hard it can be, living with neurotypicals.   We talked about how sometimes we trust someone with an explanation for our behaviors, or explain how we feel about something, and they end up using it against us later – even if it’s just what they see as a friendly teasing comment, it still hurts, and makes us less likely to trust again.

So, if you love someone on the spectrum, please recognize that often those “socially-unacceptable behaviors” you see are indications that the person feels safe with you.  Especially if you only see the behaviors in a “safe” setting, like the person’s home.  And please, if we trust you with an explanation of how we think and feel, don’t use it against us.

And for you autistic people reading. . . what advice should I give?  Be more careful whom you trust?  Don’t let your guard down and be so “autistic” around people?  No.  On my drive home today, Jars of Clay’s song “Inland” came on my shuffle.  The song I named this blog after. I was thinking about how even though another song on the album is my favorite, I was glad I got an “Inland” lyric inscribed on the ring I wear every day.  The words “you keep walking inland” are a constant reminder to me that I must press on, I must engage in community and relationships, I must keep trying.  I must keep walking inland – “where no man is an island.”  And so must you.  Don’t give up explaining, expressing yourself, and teaching.  Learn to live among people who are not like you, learn to communicate with them, and treat everyone with the respect and kindness you want yourself.   Don’t hide.  Don’t retreat.

 

It’s the only way we will gain more acceptance. 

Inland Ring

 

A Good Change

Hi blogging friends, I’m still here!  I’ve been quite busy, and though I’ve had many ideas for posts, I simply haven’t had the time/energy to sit and write.

To get things rolling again, I’d like to talk a little about some of the reasons I’ve been so busy.  I’ve mentioned before that I have been taking online classes.  This summer, I got a full-time internship while taking 2 classes.  Combine the stress of getting up early and working full days at a brand-new environment (with new norms and new responsibilities and new people) with taking two writing-intensive classes as a perfectionist (I take forever on writing assignments) and I was STRESSED.  I was really on the verge of a breakdown multiple times.  Mom told me she was ready to kill me once, and Dad had to talk her down.  I had no down-time for relaxing with a favorite show or working on a sewing project or visiting my best friend.  That isn’t healthy for me.

Lots of computers

IT intern life.

But. . . this internship is the one that a guy at church told me about a year before, and I had really hoped to get.  Not only was it an excellent learning experience, but it is leading to full-time employment.  I’m amazed at how much better this workplace and work are for me.  My confidence and self-esteem are slowly being built back up.  I’ve joked before that in making this career change, “I’ll still be working with autistic people – they’ll just be my coworkers instead of clients.”  It turns out, my years of hard work at practicing social skills and having to teach them to kids have paid off.  In this field, I actually stand out as having good social skills, instead of other fields where I’ve been surrounded by NTs and been the “weird” one in a bad way.  It’s all relative.

office box fort

A grown man (with grey hair) built a fort. A box fort. At his cubicle.

Not only am I surrounded by people who get my geeky references, quote the same kinds of shows/movies, and appreciate a good special interest. . . but I can bring sensory objects to work for myself, and instead of getting weird looks I get jealous ones!

office toys

Personalizing my cubicle – complete with a visual stim toy!

I brought in a little tin of Thinking Putty.  My best friend gave it to me years ago, but I didn’t use it much.  Then, I discovered that I needed a quiet fidget at work, and I fell in love with the putty.  So did my coworker, who kept asking me about it.  Finally, I just ordered a multi-pack of mini-tins from Amazon.  Three of the other interns and that one coworker signed up to buy it from me before it even came, and I sold/gave tins to three more coworkers shortly after that.

Thinking putty

Assorted putty

 

They joked about me being a “putty dealer”  . . . so when demand increased for more and firmer putty, I decided to order a pound to save everyone money.  I even bought little tins from Amazon for them to keep it in!  I’ve already sold a few ounces.  There are 9 or 10 of us playing with putty in the office now.

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“Breaking Putty”

 

But enough about the putty (which really is awesome.  Check out Crazy Aaron’s website).  I have a number of ideas for posts, which I will hopefully get to soon.  During last school year, I had the chance to talk to my client’s 4th grade class about autism, being different, and kindness.  I’d love to try to type up a recap of the conversation, because it was a really good one.  It gave me hope for the future.  I also have a rough draft of a post about favorite fictional Aspies.

Rallying

A few weeks ago, I had a really long weekend.  Work that week had been stressful.  I traveled to see friends after work on Friday, but it was an emotionally draining visit.  The next day, I spent at least 8 hours at a small gathering. . . again, it was lovely to spend time with these friends, but socializing with more than one or two people is going to wear me out.  I drove home that evening, and since I had coffee to stay alert on the road, I wasn’t able to get to sleep for a while.  I was emotionally exhausted and ended up crying in bed, and the next morning I woke up with a headache (from the too-short sleep and the crying).  I couldn’t sleep in, because my family was going to a gathering, where I would again be socializing and listening to people talk about things I don’t have (wedding plans, babies).  As I stumbled around like a grumpy zombie trying to get ready to go, I was told I needed “to rally” because it was important.

 

I’m not still curled up in bed under my weighted blanket.

This is me rallying.

I put on clothes that aren’t a t-shirt and pajama pants.

This is me rallying.

I’m responding with nods, grunts, and short exasperated sentences instead of snapping at the upbeat attempts to get me to join in the chatting.

This is me rallying.

I’m allowing my picture to be taken and trying to smile.

This is me rallying.

I’m getting in the car again, even though I just traveled from the other side of the state a few hours ago.

This is me rallying.

I’m strategically isolating in the car to simultaneously recover and prepare for more socializing – hooded sweatshirt to block the sun, squishy pillow to try to sleep, noise-blocking headphones; then, when sleep fails me, escaping into an episode of a TV show streamed onto my phone.

This is me rallying.

I’m getting out of the car instead of staying in here and sobbing or sleeping.

This is me rallying.

When told, “I need you to rally,” one more time, I respond,

“This IS me rallying.”

and I walk into the house, projecting the friendly persona expected of me.

 

 

Random Relationship Advice from a Clear Non-Expert

I recently read an article about the benefits of writing, and I decided I would spend some of my time off this Sunday writing down some thoughts.  Valentine’s Day is coming up, so the topic of relationships is looming large.  There are no romantic prospects on my horizon, but at least I’ve got my box and cards ready for the party at work.  (I’m gonna be the coolest 30-year-old in the 4th grade).

Ninja Turtle sewer box to hold my valentines

I was a Christian teenager in the 90’s, so my shelf is lined with the usual suspects – Passion and Purity, I Kissed Dating Goodbye, When God Writes Your Love Story, etc.  I’ve also been listening to the Boundless Show podcast a lot, which is geared towards Christian single young adults, so relationships are the most common topic of discussion.  In addition, I’ve read a few books specifically about Aspergers and relationships, like Asperger Syndrome and Long-Term Relationships, The Journal of Best Practices, and 22 Things a Woman with Asperger’s Syndrome Wants Her Partner to Know.  But most of what I’m sharing here I’ve learned the hard way.

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“No man is an island” – and a couple shouldn’t be, either.

Like a lot of Aspie girls, my dating life began atypically late.  When I had my first boyfriend in college, my best friend called me out on some stuff – but I wasn’t totally honest with her about the relationship.  It turns out that was really stupid, and I vowed to not make that mistake again.  I now have a team of trusted advisers that I consult in matters like this – my best friend (and her husband), my pastor and his wife, and my parents.  This caused some friction with one guy, because he didn’t like the fact that I was talking about our relationship with them, but I’m still very grateful that I did.  I don’t mean you should complain to everyone about your significant other – if you need some help discerning between seeking counsel and gossiping, check out my pastor’s book.  But it’s important to have people in your life who know you well and can look at a relationship more objectively than you can when you’re in the middle of it.  Choose them wisely.  You don’t have to do everything they advise, but you’ll be better off having them as part of the process.

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Communicate about what physical touch is okay.

When a guy nervously worked himself up to asking me if he could hold my hand, I thought it was silly/unnecessary. Yet I really appreciated that he respected me enough to ask about stuff like that (maybe he was just terrified, but still).  My first kiss had been stolen from me, and that taught me a lot about the need to discuss boundaries, because after that all the guy wanted to do when we were together was make out.  Which doesn’t *actually* help grow a strong, healthy relationship.  This topic is especially pertinent for people on the spectrum, for a few reasons.  One, we (generally speaking) have trouble reading the non-verbal communication that is a huge part of romantic interactions.  This makes it more difficult to know what the other person is thinking and wanting, unless they spell it out verbally.  Two, every individual is different when it comes to what kinds of touch we like and when, and sensitivity to touch can be a major issue for autistics.  Some individuals absolutely can’t stand light touch (the kind that is common in flirtatious interactions) to the point that it can make them feel panicked or physically ill.  Personally, I get kinda weirded out by light touch, especially if I don’t see it coming.  I also dislike hugging people I don’t strongly like (I’ve written before about how I used to run away or fight with relatives who tried to hug me when I was little).  Yet when I’m with someone I’m close to, I love physical contact – it’s actually one of my love languages.  It needs to be on my terms.

So respect others’ rights to their own bodies.  Find out about their sensitivities and what they’re comfortable with.  You don’t have to make it super awkward, but be polite and keep those lines of communication open.

Snuggle bunnies

These two bunnies love to snuggle together.

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Emotional boundaries are just as important as physical ones.

What was that I said about learning things the hard way?  Ugh.  I really don’t have any specific, solid advice for this one.  It’s honestly hard to know how to build intimacy in an appropriate way, aside from saying take your time and don’t talk about certain emotional topics too soon.  It was a chapter in the book I Gave Dating a Chance that first introduced me to the topic of emotional intimacy, and I realized my good friend and I had crossed that line.  I won’t go into detail here, but I still haven’t fully recovered from the aftermath of that.  It resulted in one of the hardest times in my life (when I read the second Twilight book, I completely sobbed when Edward left Bella and there were those blank pages for each month, because I had lived that).

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Be honest.

This one should go without saying, but I’m talking about more than not lying.  It’s hard, because no two people are 100% compatible- there are going to be things we have to overlook or let go.  But we need to figure out which things really do bother us, and be honest about them.   At some point, if you try to ignore things, it won’t be pretty.  They’re going to add up and poison the relationship, or you’ll get in a fight about something unrelated and suddenly those myriad little annoyances will come spilling out.   I had a situation where I had said things were okay, but then I realized I was truly bothered by the low level of communication from a guy.  When I brought it up, it got him really upset, because I had previously said things were okay.  (Of course, it didn’t help that I sent a rather tactless e-mail instead of having a conversation about it, but that’s a topic for another day.)  This is why I bookmarked page 103 in Rudy Simone’s 22 Things a Woman with Asperger’s Syndrome Wants Her Partner to Know –

There’s also “alexithymia,” the inability to identify what one is feeling and therefore, not being able to express it or describe it in words.  If you tell her something that upsets her, she might not know it at first, or know why, so she might say, “Okay,” when in actuality, she doesn’t really feel okay . . .   We have a reputation for “saying what we mean and meaning what we say,” but if we don’t now what we are feeling at the time, we can’t.

Simone then brings up the topic of the spectrum “sixth sense,” and how we can tell something’s wrong even when someone isn’t telling us.  This is another reason I am bringing up the topic of honesty.  I’ve been in situations where I know something is up, even though I might not have hard “proof,” and I’m an emotional wreck wondering if I’m imagining things until finally I get the person to explain and confirm my suspicions.  Drag that kind of thing out long enough and you’re going to cause more hurt than if you had said something sooner. So be honest.

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I guess that’s it for today. A final random thought – when I look back at my relationships, I see that each one emphasized one area of connection above the others – spiritual, physical, emotional, intellectual.  It’s the spiritual connection I miss the most.