As an Autistic These are the Things I Dread the Most About Christmas

I dread the crowded streets as people rush to buy Christmas presents and having to hold my feelings of discomfort bordering on anger inside because people are too loud and too close, and are essentially tourists in the stores that are usually my safety zones, my escape from the world of chaos outside.

I dread people changing plans last minute. I really really don’t want that happen. If Christmas lunch is changed to the 26th, or not at 12 o’clock or the venue is changed.

I dread having a depressive episode during such a happy season.

I dread the last minute pre-Christmas family drama coming out of nowhere.

I dread the bendy roads that give me motion sickness on the way to Christmas lunch.

I dread that first few minutes of awkwardness when I arrive at Christmas lunch, not knowing whether to sit or stand, or where to sit.

I dread the loud and sometimes angry voices from the kitchen, but glad it has nothing to do with me.

I dread people asking me what I’ve been up to lately and trying to make it sound as interesting as possible.

I dread trying to use small talk to talk to people and the resulting very uncomfortable long gap of silence that always follows and makes me feel like this is hopeless.

I dread remembering to make eye contact, but not stare too long.

I dread when I go to talk and my words come out in a garbled mess and I try desperately to make the next sentence come out fluently and coherently.

I dread being hugged and made to feel like everyone likes to hug, and then feeling like a cold psychopath because I don’t like them. I like hugs when given a choice to make them.

I dread being depressed on such a happy day.

I dread having to bite my tongue when someone says something offensive.

I dread telling an extrovert something meant just for them and they go and tell it to everyone else in their bellowing voice.

I dread my nephews opening the presents I bought them that I carefully and thoughtfully selected, only to push them aside and look for more presents

I dread my nephews losing interest in me because I have no cool games they can play.

I dread trying to talk to my nieces.

I dread meeting strangers that are friends of the family.

I dread some older family members (especially relatives I barely see) for giving me a hard time about being quiet.

I dread not having a quiet space to retreat to when I feel overwhelmed or depressed.

I dread people interrupting me when I’m engaged in something important, even if I’m just talking to someone on social media.

I dread drinking too much and end up acting like a buffoon, just because I wanted to feel less nervous and be comfortable speaking.

I dread people acting like their opinions are facts.

I dread that one person who makes a racist comment and I dread not telling them what I really think of them.

I dread family drama.

I dread the food not being ready in time. I dread having to ask what dish has citrus in it.

I dread meeting strangers and seeing their disappointed looks when I barely talk to them.

I dread drunk people telling me not to be offended.

I dread it being over.

Remember to ask about what your autistic family member feels, worries about and needs on Christmas Day.

Note: This doesn’t mean I won’t try to talk to anyone or hell, even hug, but I think it’s important to show people how I struggle.

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The Conversation Conundrum

Engaging in conversation comes easy to most because of the way the human brain develops throughout childhood. We have an innate ability to pick up on social behaviour which helps us build up our social skills that by around the age of 10 we have a basic ability to talk to other children about the common things children talk about. However, for some of us this innate ability is missing, especially in those with autism, other neurological disorders or people with delayed social development.

I’m in the latter category. For me personally I never really had the desire to socialise and due to a severe social anxiety disorder known as selective mutism I rarely talked outside the family home. I saw some progress in my teens but I didn’t see much dramatic change until my mid 20s. By this time I was already diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome and ADHD, and I can’t deny that being prescribed Ritalin not only helped me talk more but have the desire to talk to people at all. I finally had the patience and clear headedness to be able to pick up on social behaviour and put it into practice.

Learning new social skills was a matter of listening to two other people sit beside me and have a conversation and to carefully watch their body language; anything from the length of eye contact made to subtle hand movements. I often got some pretty confused looks from the people I was secretly learning from. I didn’t just pick up social skills from people talking to each other or from my own feeble attempts at having a conversation with someone but from watching actors on TV and in film. I’m a longtime fan of children’s films in the 80s and 90s and I’ve always mimicked the words, mannerisms and even dress sense of those young protagonists.

Some TV shows have been central to my social development or just made me understand confusing neurotypical (someone without a neurological disorder) behaviour. That wasn’t something I wanted to mimic but just be aware of because it was so illogical, things like lying and keeping secrets and the eventual confrontation that surfaced after being caught out. It was mostly science fiction shows that taught me the importance of teamwork and how to think about others. Recently, a TV show on Netflix called Granite Flats showed me how to apologize to people. These sound like very simple things to know but I’m not just taught these things by the characters on a show or film, but the way they say these things helps me actually get the words out at all otherwise it’s very difficult for me to say things such as ‘sorry.’ I don’t just mimic actors but become their characters. I actually sound exactly like the characters, anyone from Data on Star Trek to Captain Malcolm Reynolds from Firefly. I rather enjoy sounding like a space cowboy too. But I can also mimic people I know if I look up to them enough.

I’ve come far in the 5 or so years that I’ve been training up my social skills. I’ve also lost them and had to build them up over again which is what happens to autistic adults when they are under extreme stress. I can even lose these skills if I go a long time without talking to anyone. So, it’s important for me to get out there not just for emotional reasons but so I can retain the skills I’ve learned and continue to build them up. There are differences between what an autistic person wants to get out of a conversation verses an NT. An NT, or non-autistic person doesn’t care so much about what words are said but just the time spent with another person, whereas an autistic person really wants to share information and hopes that the other person will learn something new and remember it. That’s not always the case though. In my experience people don’t remember much of what was said at all.

I do enjoy the time I get to spend with people. I’m trying to focus less on the information I give and more on the time spent, especially when building a new relationship with someone. Talking though is still very hard for me to do. I have the usual problems that anyone with social awkwardness or delayed social skills goes through like not knowing what to say at all or worrying about whether the topic is relevant or socially acceptable, and then I have to work out whether what I say will come across as offensive before even saying it. But the actual act of speaking and making thoughts formed in my mind come out of my mouth in the order that I thought them is often a task I fail at. They don’t come out in the right order. I think this is because I think of two ways to say something and combine the two ways together in one sentence. I also get a blank half way through a sentence that I often spend a lot of time quickly trying to remember what I thought of a few seconds ago and grabbing any bunch of words that come to mind and make my best attempt to form a sentence out of them.

However, my friend Patrick seems to be the complete opposite of that. He’s a musician, a bass player that I’ve recently met after years of taking photos of bands he’s been in. I was in awe of his ability to keep a conversation going but staying relevant to the subject. I wanted to emulate that but at the same time it’s my impulsive mouth that makes me say anything at all. Sure, those words can often embarrass me or unknowingly offend others and often make me feel stupid, but it’s my thing. However, I’ve been noticing that I am holding my tongue more in an attempt to stay relevant. Pat though is a really nice guy and despite my social awkwardness which can lead to a lot of impatience by people or have them making fun of me for stumbling, he remains patient and tries to help me get around my little handicap.

Even though I’m still developing my social skills I’ve learned a lot and have a high amount of empathy for an autistic person and even find myself mentally telling non-autistic people to think about how others feel or will respond to the way they’ve said something. It seems these days with social media being such a huge part of people’s lives that they’ve forgotten the very first thing I learned in my social skills training: not everyone will agree with you or have the same interests. Psychologists call it having a poor theory of mind or mind blindness when you fail to understand this. I remember when I struggled to keep thinking of others as separate individuals from me with their own likes, hates and wants, and their own experiences which help shape their personalities.

Still, most people seem to have adequate enough social skills to think they don’t need any further help and still they look at those who struggle socially with impatience. The best thing you can do for someone who is struggling to speak is be patient, not assume you know what they are going to say or finish their sentences for them. We don’t all have the same social ability and the person struggling is often very frustrated at themselves. It’s not uncommon for the more introverted person to hold something against an extrovert who replies before they’ve even finished talking or repeats their words to other people. To them it’s very rude. As for rudeness, sometimes those with poor social skills can say something that might be interpreted as rude but often they’ve just failed to realize it would come across this way. If you keep this in mind and not respond with anger you can probably avoid confrontation and the person will not become depressed over their mistake. Having poor social skills leads to a lot of anxiety and depression and these two disorders really interfere with developing new social skills.

My mood disorder gets in the way of me developing socially. Sometimes I get too hyper and impulsive and slightly delusional to apply what I learned when I was in a more euthymic state, and my depressed and anxious states lead to a lot of self-doubt and negative social scripting, which is thinking of worse possible outcomes in a social situation. Usually though, I use social scripting to help me come up with subjects to use in a conversation and it actually does work.

I still get surprised when I hit a brick wall in my social skills, which happens when people act in ways that I don’t understand or I realize that despite all the years I’ve put into developing new social skills I’m still not able to steer myself out of difficult situations. Usually, my answer to dealing with a heated dispute between me and a friend is to completely get them out of my life. Not everyone is happy with me using this approach but I’m at a loss to know how to work out a solution. So, much work is still left to do if I want to keep my friends. I applaud my friends for trying to keep our relationship intact, I just hope one day I can return the favour.

Is it Right or Wrong to be Overprotective of your Autistic Child?

In my previous post I talked about my own experience with being overprotected by my family but now I want to speak about overprotecting autistic children in general. I’ve been told many times by parents how my posts have helped them understand their autistic children better so I feel some-what qualified to tell them what their child may or may not be feeling. This still roughly relates to my own personal experience but I’m taking myself out of the descriptions. Mostly.

It’s understandable that a mother or father would feel that they should shield their autistic child from the world, a world they are yet to understand and where they cannot intuitively pick up basic peer-leveled skills as easy as other children. It makes sense to. It’s a maternal instinct that just kicks in, but as I go on to explain there needs to be a balance between being protective but still slowly unraveling the mysteries of the world for your child and preparing them to navigate through that world for when you are no longer there to help them.

Most children will have 2-3 friends and the natural skills to pick up on the right and wrong social behaviour and may even learn other life skills from their friends. The social ability these children learn at a young age is already putting them ahead in terms of independence compared to a child with autism.  Because these children seem able their parents might give them some extra responsibility such as house chores or walking the dog. But even though an autistic child is significantly impaired compared to these children it’s still important to give them the same responsibilities as long as you are aware of their ability and limits. It’s especially important to get autistic children doing chores because it won’t occur to them that this is a skill needed in later life. You will have to very clearly in simple literal words explain to them that this is the case. You may have to do this for other things too such as the importance of school and how that will help them get a job later. An autistic child can either excel at school if they like the work enough or be way behind if they find the work uninteresting.

Never assume that your child will just get it because his or her non-autistic siblings can pick up on information quite well. This can relate from everything from brushing their teeth twice a day to keep away cavities to setting them up for their first year away from your care and protection. People with autism need routine to feel safe and have difficulty transitioning from change. Moving out of the home is a dramatic change for your child so you must carefully explain to them how everything will change. In my experience I had severe stress over unpacking and getting rid of boxes, unforeseen things like the moving van shutting down so I didn’t have any clothes, to meeting my older siblings in the city, to buying food and cooking it, to feeling like the house I lived in wasn’t a home. I was left alone with very few people to help me. Eventually, it occurred to my sister who I was living with that I wasn’t handling things and she stepped in and gave me some pointers. But I still wasn’t prepared for everything and there were a lot of anxiety attacks, almost fatal accounts with running into not-so-friendly people on the street to overcoming financial unrest.

Not preparing your child for their new life away from home can lead to developing anxieties and not knowing how to handle situations. This preparation needs to happen early in life, continue in adolescence and all the independence training needs to happen when they are at least 17. Getting them an after school job or just after finishing high school will benefit them when they are in their mid-twenties and working in a field they are passionate about and strive in.

Teach them about the not-so nice people in the world; the bullies, terrible bosses, swindlers, cheaters – every sort of unsavory personality you can think of so they know who to look out for and can never be taken advantage of. But don’t make them lose faith in humanity; there are still some roses out there among the thorns. An autistic person turning against non-autistic people or NTs is dark path you don’t want your child to go down. I’ve been there from time to time and it’s much better having a laugh with my NT chums then thinking they’re all out to get me.

Teach your child social skills from an early age so they don’t become confused and saddened over not being able to be like their peers. Tell them they are autistic but that just means they have a different brain that doesn’t pick up on social cues well nor can it understand what much more social people are thinking about or expecting them how to act. Tell them that they might have a hidden talent because they are autistic. Start giving them social tips. Don’t become angry with them when they may say something that sounds completely out of line but explain to them it’s inappropriate and tell them what is the more acceptable thing to say. I cannot stress enough that if you ever need to tell off your child that you don’t shout, that you explain to them that what they’ve done or said is inappropriate and tell them what is the correct way to act. Failing to do this will make your child think you are getting mad at them about nothing and they will start to see you as mean, scary and unreasonable.

Keep updated on their progress. If they seem to slip give them a bit of encouragement, say how well they did before and that they can still do this. If they’re upset about something don’t just say it will be ok, find the source and deal with the problem. Your child will most likely want a solution not a hug, although sometimes, they want both. Speaking of hugs leads me to another issue: the surprise hug. Autistic people may or may not like hugs but one thing they can’t tolerate is being surprised with human contact. Ask them if it’s ok and when they say yes give them a hug. Autistic people like to control the world around them to keep the chaos at a low. Chaos to them is sounds, chatter, movement, being bombarded with images – they like structure and routine and would like to know what will happen next. Eventually they may learn to deal with less structure and it might be good for you to slowly introduce this to them because life will not always allow them to have as much control over their environment, just note how they are feeling with a loss of structure.

One thing adults with autism know is what their limits are, some have even pushed themselves beyond that limit and have ended up with mental illness or suffered a loss of acquired skills and had to build those skills up all over again. We call it a long-term shutdown; you would know it most commonly as a nervous breakdown. So, don’t push your children to face their fears too much. Be wary of medication too as your child may be sensitive to it. Always check your family history for mood disorders and heart problems before giving them stimulant medication too.

On the one hand it is good to be somewhat protective of your child but you need to set them up for the world, know their sensitivities and limits and always do your best to understand what’s going on with them. Never brush them off when they say they are uncomfortable or can’t do something. Help them become calm and work together at overcoming this obstacle.

If my mother is reading this: You tried your best in an age where very little was known about high functioning autism. The medical profession was just becoming familiar with it and our town was much too small to hear the chatter from the cities. I’m happy you were protective of me because it showed love and understanding where others saw a stubborn and lazy child. I don’t even want to go back and change things because even though I would like to have a job like everyone else I wouldn’t be working towards a career I am passionate about. You taught me to love God, always be polite and put others before you. It’s because of being unsure about what was best for me as a child that I can now educate those in what I believe is the way to prepare their autistic children to become independent.  For that I thank you.

An Introduction

Help! They Want Me To Socialise is a perfect coming together of my mental health issues, my extreme dislike of the mainstream and my most relatable feature: just your common socially awkward geek with a love of comic books, science fiction and videogames.

It’s the perfect description for me and tells you all at once everything you need to know about me. I’ve had a lot of blogs over the years but they’ve been about very specific things and I could never deviate from a certain theme. The problem is I constantly think up things to say that I can’t condense into a couple of paragraphs. They come and they go and even though they kept me up all night or entertained me during the day they never get written down. What a waste of a couple of hours of thought!

This blog will mainly cover these topics:

1) Mental health advocacy; autism, ADHD, bipolar and anything else I feel like talking about. I need a place to post my annually autism and ADHD awareness day/week/month posts because my Facebook friendslist is not a big enough audience to reach. I’ll try my best to not make the posts too personal and emotional and I’ll try to use them less as labels. I have so many diagnosis’s and suspected ones that jumping between the labels when they suit me seems kind of ridiculous.

2) The journey of writing my first screenplay, which I should be spending time on now but after four days of failure I started to take a break from worrying about how much of a damn struggle it is to write.

3) Some passing thoughts about video games. I study them while I play because at one time I was doing research for a science fiction novel that never got completed and then I just sort of became addicted to them. I also want to continue my article series titled ‘In Defence of the Videogame’ that responds to criticism about them being mind numbing and creativity stifling to children.

4) Band photography. I‘m most known as a band photographer and despite this depressing three month break I might just go out one night and take some photos of bands. I’ve been taking photos of bands on and off for about 10 years. I’ll share some photos here and might attempt to write a live review. I’m a big supporter and contributor to the live Australian music scene. So, it makes sense that the next two gigs will be headlined by Jimmy Eat World and AFI.

5) Everything else. Any thoughts I need to let loose that I can’t explain in less than three pages.

Now don’t be misguided by the blog’s title – I do like to socialise – but I find it both confusing and frustrating. Saying ‘hello’ isn’t so hard but I have never once in my life followed that with ‘how are you?’ and I keep trying but nothing comes out. Then, I have to try and keep the conversation going when all the answers I end up giving are either ‘yes’, ‘no’ or ‘I don’t know.’ Then I say things without thinking which isn’t always the worst thing for me. It’s not my ideal way to communicate though because I want to say what I’ve given great thought. The next frustrating part of socialising for me will have to be the fact that I don’t always find a lot of people interested in what I have to say. That’s not a lack of confidence on my part – you’ll find I can be very passionate when talking about my interests and when people dare to mock me for liking something deemed too nerdy to talk about, I’m not embarrassed at this so-called faux pas – I’m enraged.  These topics are my life and how dare people just stand there looking smug as though I should know that they are too unpopular to talk about and be appropriately embarrassed by bringing such a topic up. I disagree with such a notion and wish people would give me a chance to talk about such things and they’ll find out my communication style changes from awkwardness and appearing to not to feel confident about anything I say to self-assurance and with so much confidence it borders on arrogance. OK, I am arrogant at times. I admit it.

In short socialising is tough on me and I hardly ever walk away feeling satisfied. I seem like I’m easy to get along with but I keep my true feelings hidden. Fact is, socialising to me is a waste of time and energy and I really only do it for two reasons: 1) to practice my skills and 2) to make people happy. Perhaps I’ll add a third: to better develop the characters in my stories. I at one time wanted to understand human social behaviour but what I found I didn’t like and I wouldn’t mind being clueless about it again.

I love my friends even though I really only get along with one really well but I just don’t think I get enough out of it. I at times need to be intellectually stimulated and so go to my books and then think over what I’ve learned and then I write about it. Not even watching movies or writing a screenplay is enough stimulation for me.

I don’t really understand what so many people get out of socialising. Whatever it is it’s something I’m missing – as in missing the ‘want’ of whatever this thing is. I’ll do the social thing occasionally but I don’t require it to be happy. In fact, I’m happier when I’m not doing it because when I do socialise I tend to get pissed off with people. Although, I need to socialise enough to not regress those few skills I already have and futilely try to build on.

Maybe I’ll post about this issue more. It certainly would make the blog title more relevant.

So this is me. This is finally a blog that goes over every area of my life. I hope you like what you see here.

Stay tuned.

Shadro