Boundaries and buffer zones

Boundaries are difficult for autistic people. There’s a lot to process. First, you have to know what your body really needs – you have to interpret the signals. Then, you need to translate that into the physical reality of a solution. Although Aspies don’t necessarily lack imagination, deficits in “social imagination” – which I understand to mean some magical crystalisation in your brain of real potential situations and solutions pertaining to your actual physical and social environment – is one of the classic “triad of impairments” characterising Asperger syndrome. Ergo, you may struggle to work out what boundaries to set. And finally, of course, you have to communicate your boundaries to other people.

The act of setting and enforcing boundaries is covered fairly broadly over different areas of the “blogosphere”. Its relevance spans a vast array of contexts: anxiety (including the non-clinical sense), mental health, disability, women’s rights and the LBGTQA arena, and probably many more. The initial focus of such literature, particularly in relation to mental health, is often around giving oneself permission even to consider the subversive act of setting boundaries. (Subversive because, in a culture which prizes conformity, deviating visibly from the “normal” profile of assumed needs and preferences can be an uncomfortable act.) This is a helpful starting point for autistics as well, as it allows us to recognise explicitly the fact that we are individuals and that our feelings and selves, however different, deserve for that no less protection and respect. However, something that sometimes seems lacking in the literature for those literally-minded of us is: where exactly should those boundaries be set?

Identifying what you need and where your “red line” sits is part of this. But there’s a little more to it than that. One of the issues I had when first setting boundaries was that I tended to tell people exactly where they were. And in actual fact, you really don’t want to do that. If you tell someone where your boundary is, and they are in fact a boundary-crossing fucktard, you will get hurt. You don’t want that. Enter the concept of a “buffer zone”.

Setting up a buffer zone around your boundaries is hard. It’s even harder when you’re new to setting boundaries, and you haven’t quite got used to the idea that you deserve them. (You do. Everyone deserves to feel safe.) But it’s crucial. Here’s how it works.

You have a boundary. Say it makes you really uncomfortable to be touched – not uncommon for some of us with sensory sensitivities. You’re chatting with a new friend and they’re standing quite close by, you’re starting to feel a little anxious. If they move unexpectedly, you’re going to get hit. But you don’t say anything, because strictly speaking they haven’t crossed your boundary.

Just take a breath and feel it when their sleeve brushes your arm. Are you sure you want to risk that?

You could wait until you’re twitching. You can push it all the way to that point where fear is almost visibly seeping from your every pore. Sometimes I hum or squeak when I’m in that space. It’s obvious you’re scared, and your new friend doesn’t understand why.

Anxious you, twitching slightly: “It hurts me to get touched. Can you back off a little?”

Defensive them, offended by what looks like a massive over-reaction: “Don’t make such a fuss! I’m nowhere near touching you!” Houston, we have a problem!

Or instead, you could act now. “Hey, I have a personal space bubble and it’s this big!” You’re backing up a couple of steps to the required distance and waving your arms a bit to draw out your circle. You’re smiling at them, if you can. You’re making it low-stakes. You are literally drawing your very own buffer zone.

Maybe they’re defensive. Maybe they hold the distance and maybe they don’t. But here’s the thing: you made a buffer. So even if they do – accidentally or otherwise – cross the line you set, it doesn’t matter. You don’t get hurt. And by making a buffer, you can be less anxious – making them less defensive. You dial it down a notch. Everybody wins.

With friends you know well, maybe they don’t need a buffer. You’ve been around each other long enough to have a feel for how they’ll treat your boundaries. You’ve built up some trust. If they’ve treated your needs with respect, you can risk letting them in a little closer, one step at a time. But you don’t start with the red line. You don’t immediately show someone where the real boundaries lie.

Trust is hard. Boundaries are hard. Buffer zones make it easier. Even the mental image I’m conjuring of buffer zones right now is all squidgy and comforting. (This may be straying off track…)

Love yourself. Figure out what you need. Set your own boundaries. But don’t forget the buffer zone!

Aspies are from Vulcan!

Who out there loves Star Trek?!

I love Star Trek. It was my “special interest” when I was at school. I think there must have been an aspect of the self-containedness that appealed to me: restricted to one ship, a military hierarchy (if in somewhat idealised form) with rankings to dictate the boundaries of relationships, and a limited number of people contributed to a social construct that – unlike most soaps and dramas – I could actually understand. Things evolved slowly, relationships unfolding in a wonderfully simple and idealistic fashion. Voyager was my favourite, with it’s almost entirely closed system: particularly good for consistency. (Also, Captain Janeway. Who doesn’t want to be her?) I don’t watch it so much any more, but there’s a lot that stayed with me.

One of the great things about Star Trek is its characters. They’re multicoloured. All of them are strong, in their own way; but it’s in the spectrum of their vulnerabilities that the real interest lies. There’s Tom Paris, with his chequered history and survivor guilt. There’s Harry Kim, just a little bit too young, idealistic and homesick: his naivety sits on the fence between invoking protectiveness or annoyance. The half-Klingon Torres fulfils what is in many ways an extension of Uhura’s role in the original series: a focus to challenge racial and cultural stereotyping, addressing closely and painfully the impacts of such divides.

And it doesn’t stop with race or gender. Dr “Bones” McCoy of the original series, grumpy but lovable; indignant, inflexible and abrasive; and yet somehow not weak. Seven of Nine, a grown up child, a mess of analytical genius and PTSD and contradictions. Tuvok. And the inevitable Mr Spock.

Comparing autistic people to Vulcans is something of a cliche: something you read on the internet in quirky, unrealistic pop news. Not something I ever expected to happen in real life. As it happens, it has – but that’s not really the point. It’s an analogy that, secretly, I quite like. Because it’s usually made by someone who knows nothing about Star Trek, and nothing about the very nuanced characters and characteristics of these fictional Vulcans. This is also roughly equivalent to their understanding of autism. They see the stereotypes, the surface behaviour – reliance on logic, the struggle to understand human social relationships – and they match. So they say “you remind me of Mr Spock”.

And inside, I laugh. Because I am, and I am not, like Mr Spock. Just like autistic people, there is more to Vulcans than first meets the eye.

Let’s take a look at some of the reasons autistic people might be compared to Vulcans:

  • Vulcans find human behaviour chaotic and unpredictable – “illogical”.
  • Vulcans have strong analytical skills, and place a high value on logic. (This is something seen particularly in autistic women, who often turn to logic to unpick complex social situations and problems.)
  • There is a tendency towards rigidity in rules and their enforcement.
  • Vulcans appear unemotional – but they can show both empathy and love. “I have been, and always shall be, your friend” (Spock, in The Wrath of Khan). Stilted, uncomfortable, painful to articulate – but it’s there.
  • They have hypersensitive hearing! (On any away mission, the Vulcan is always the first to sense approaching danger.)
  • Vulcans tend to be solitary and quiet. Rather than socialising, they spend a lot of time alone to meditate and recharge.
  • Some Vulcans understand analytically the importance of emotional communication to humans, but struggle to do it themselves.
  • Occasionally Vulcans struggle with outbursts of emotion.
  • They are all different! Mr Spock and Mr Tuvok, underneath all their logic, have very different histories and personalities.

Of course, there are differences between this fictional species and the reality of us as autistic humans. Emotions for Vulcans are a cultural taboo: one which they take pride within their species in learning to suppress. Autistic people in public may seem repressed or withdrawn – but in a safe environment, or among their own, can be emotionally expressive. There are references in Star Trek to a long distant past in which Vulcans could not control their emotions: an age of violence, chaos and fear. If not totally irrelevant, this may be intended as an analogy to autistic children learning to “control” meltdowns as they grow up. If so, it would be dangerously misleading. Autistic adults don’t “control” their meltdowns: they learn to avoid and manage the triggers leading to that level of sensory overload. But nonetheless, it’s easy to see how these two very different cores of being manage to generate almost identical surface behaviours.

So I laugh, secretly, because these people are both right and they are wrong – and it doesn’t matter. The underlying details of Vulcan and autistic people’s nature aren’t the same. But that’s not what these people see. They see behaviours that match. I see behaviours, accepted.

I laugh, secretly, because those people told me something they’ll never realise. They match my identity with a different species – something so odd it is not even human. But in that one thought, they show me how I can exist among others, as me. Star Trek paints a vivid picture of a society in which people like me are an intrinsic and valued part – not as some defective version of humans, but as Vulcans. Spock, Tuvok and many others are accepted by the people around them, who understand their differences, value their strengths, and learn to read the different ways they show their emotions and feelings. In the Star Trek universe, people who move like me can live full and complete lives, as themselves, without needing to change or conform.

A future world where I am not disabled: just different. Idealistic, maybe. But what a world to hope for.

Seeing myself

I’ve written about meetings before, and how they’re the stuff of nightmares. This wasn’t a meeting, per se. This was a briefing. This should have been safe.

We were talking about team cohesion. The nightmarish concept of team building dissected in detail – obliquely, not by name, but recognisable in full and terrifying form. But the everyday stuff got a mention too. How to encourage knowledge sharing, technical briefings; just talking to each other about what we’re doing, getting a feel for what’s going on in the department.

“I know”, says one smart guy, full of confidence and authority. We’ve been talking about people sharing their work in briefings, informally, chatting on stage or gathering the team around a plot. I can do this. I would enjoy this. “Let’s video the talks. We can save them on our internal website so people can share their knowledge”.

But no. No, this is not a thing. Chatting with my colleagues about a plot: every day, absolutely. But videoing; picturing; recording? That is something altogether more sinister. I almost bolted the room.

I know, you see, that I am wrong. My movements are clumsy, hands ceaselessly restless, legs pacing out of key. I have a crooked smile. My voice is too loud, too forceful. The pitch, often rising excitedly, is too low for the brightness and enthusiasm it means to convey – I’ve been told it’s intimidating. There is no music to the spoken tone, no phrasing to give the lines their depth of meaning. Speaking in words is a graceless act, stilted, all harsh lines and corners. Like a small child draws, with the pencil scrunched up in its fist, thick lines spreading from a blunted edge pushed too hard against the paper; and like that drawing, the finished product is artless, naive, painful to the ear and to the eye.

I exist each day knowing this about myself. I know how I look; how I sound; how awkward it must feel to be in my presence. Yet I hold my head high, having taught myself to believe that this does not matter. My talents are valuable, and they lie elsewhere. And this is completely true.

But that knowledge is fragile. The understanding is brittle. And seeing myself in image, speaking and moving in that way that does not fit, that does not flow – being so wrong – would shatter my confidence to the bone. To be recorded, this shattering of self-image branded onto physical media to be relived again and again and again, is merciless in its permanence. The humiliation forever and inescapable. I cannot bear to see myself.

It is strange to be faced, out of the blue, with the remembrance that normal life is not like this. That most competent adults are aware, confident and comfortable in themselves. This fear of self-awareness on a literal, physical level is not something that’s accepted in the professional world. My fear is unreasonable. It’s weakness. It’s unprofessional, and it will hold me back.

I do resent this. I resent that my professional life is governed by a system that demands conformity. It is not enough to be good – even sometimes to excel – at what I do. But I must look right. I must “be” right. I must smile, and move, and think, and feel, like everyone else. I must be open and willing share my inner self; but not as me: as some false, created inner self that looks like it’s supposed to. My work is not enough. I must have the courage and the confidence to show my “wrong” self to the world, to suffer judgment and humiliation, with only that tiny inner voice to remind me that the only person qualified to judge me is myself.

It’s hard, sometimes. Seeing myself.

Two years too long

I try not to let things get to me. I have a tendency towards strong emotional responses when faced with unfairness, injustice or blatant prejudice, regardless of whether it’s directed at me or others. I try to put that in a box. Unless I can take action to change the situation, I do my best to ignore realities that hurt me to feel. But still, every so often, something will set me on fire.

I saw this, from the NAS:

And it made me SCARY mad.

I’ll never forget the night I realised I was autistic. I was walking home from a concert I’d cried all the way through, with the friend that had kept quiet all that time. We walked three miles in the middle of the night because I said I couldn’t face the bus. I dropped a line about probably being “a little bit autistic”. And he said, “yeah”.

I got home and looked it up on the internet. Luckily I found the National Autistic Society, rather than anything more sinister. But still, it was about 2 weeks before I could really stop crying.

The concert was on a Friday. I spent half the night reading up on autism – seeing myself everywhere, my face reflected in the little things. I read about how to go about getting a diagnosis: what to tell the doctor and how to prepare. I made notes, volumes of notes, about how I fit the criteria. I wrote constantly. I cried, on and off. I slept in between.

There were people who scraped me up off the floor during that time. They could be on the phone, made sure that I ate. They came over when I needed them. Although I hadn’t even known myself before – I didn’t know how to be a friend – they were there for me. They were friends, good friends, even though I wasn’t. I didn’t deserve them, and I was so, so lucky I had them. They probably saved my life. But that’s not what this story is about.

I went to my GP the following Monday. I sat in the waiting room for an hour, holding everything in. Before I knew it didn’t matter if I rocked, it couldn’t hurt anyone, I held myself rigid. I clutched the printout I’d made: a bullet-pointed list under each criterion. I took it in with me, and burst into tears.

My GP was great. She took the printout to read. She didn’t let it faze her that I cried, that I was strangely calm and coherent while I cried. She took me seriously, and told me she didn’t know what the procedure was, but could she phone me. Then she phoned me that night after work, and said there was a form for referral. Since I knew myself best, would I like to fill it in and send it back to her? A couple of weeks later I got the letter from the NHS saying the waiting list was long, but I was on it. And things went quiet.

It was well over a year before I heard from them again. The diagnostic service was amazing. They treated me with compete dignity and lack of fuss, accommodated my anxieties as a matter of course, and gave me all the right information to feel comfortable. They knew what I needed without me even having to ask! But by the time I had an NHS diagnosis, bringing with it precious access to the local autism support group, it had been almost 18 months.

Two years is too long.

In the meantime, I’d been lucky. Incredibly, impossibly lucky. I was able to get funding for a private diagnosis. Within six months of everything falling apart, I had official recognition. I had documents that entitled me to support at work. I had access to some limited expertise. No longer stranded, with this glimmer of a safety net, I could begin to build from scratch for myself an identity that was real. Yet for those six months, I had nothing. I was nothing.

I kept my job. I kept my house and my car. My family supported me. The people around me, although they never knew it, kept me from suicide. I was given time and space to recover. I built a shell, a hollow of myself – and it somehow held. For six months. I would not have survived for two years.

Two years is too long.

My GP did everything right – more than right. She listened to me, read what I’d written, realised I knew what I was talking about, and made it easy for me. Not everyone has it that easy.

I have friends, now, seeking diagnoses. People I care about, stranded and struggling. You can’t hope to get a referral unless you’re struggling. One’s GP flat out says she can’t make a referral. Another can’t even get a face-to-face appointment with the GP: only a phone consultation. I couldn’t have had that conversation over the phone – how can they? Of course: they can’t. I walked into my GP surgery and had a referral within two weeks. They’ve been fighting these barriers for months. And that’s before the clock even starts.

Two years is too long.

This isn’t a political campaign from the NAS, in the sense that they’re supporting any one particular party, but it’s the first campaign that’s ever really hit me. If you’re in the UK: register to vote; then do. I’ll vote. It’s small. It’s all we can do.

When I am disabled

Autism, including Aspergers, for better or worse, is classed as a disability. We could debate the rights and wrongs of that for a virtual eternity, and probably never arrive at a solution. A disability by the medical model: definitely no; although autism is often co-morbid with more physically disabling conditions. By the social model: yes. Yet by this argument it should be possible, in the right environment, for autism not to be disabling at all.

I am very fortunate. With increasing understanding of how my mind and senses work, and the things I need to stay healthy and functioning, I’ve been able to mould my life around those needs. I live alone, in a quiet area, which gives me enormous control over my home environment. And one of the most crucial benefits of my job is the autonomy I have over my working hours. With flexitime, as long as I put in the right number of hours per week, no one minds if I leave 2 hours early one day and make it up the next. Learning to use this for day-to-day self care and management has made a very positive difference to my life. I would go so far as to say flexitime is as important as any of the reasonable adjustments I’ve requested, possibly even essential for me to function effectively. And probably 90, 95, even 99% of the time now, I do function effectively. Day to day, I don’t feel “disabled”.

Sometimes, though, it strikes home.

I feel like I’m doing really well at the moment. Building on the things I learned over the past two years of crises, I’ve been picking up new challenges at work and pushing forward with my career aspirations. I’ve been overjoyed remembering the sheer satisfaction of working hard and being repaid in actual success! After those endless months of running as hard as I could just to stay where I was, sometimes it does seem too good to be true.

But this sort of thing has a cost. Using expensive social, professional and executive functioning abilities, even to have fun, drains my energy much faster than I’d like. And I’m still really bad at scheduling enough time off work or switching off when I’m busy and need down time. So inevitably, there was a meltdown. And unfortunately, it just kept giving.

The meltdown itself was fairly subdued. I knew it was going to happen halfway through the last choir rehearsal before our concert. The organ was too loud – so loud it hurt. I had to time my breathing, exhaling slowly through the pain, like pushing weights you’re struggling to lift. The hand drier in the ladies bathroom made me scream and cover my ears. In the two hours between the rehearsal and the concert, I didn’t talk. I hid in my coat, clinging to the passenger seat of my friend’s car as if my life depended on it, and cried. That was all. That night the organ didn’t hurt. We made something beautiful. The next day I didn’t do much. But it was still too much. I needed more time.

I went to work on Monday. I didn’t have to talk much. There weren’t any meetings in my calendar. I remember looking at the previous week and going, “my God, that’s why I had a meltdown”. I thought briefly about how to learn from that and see it coming in the future, but it felt like too much effort – I was too tired. I’d do it another day.

Tuesday came, and with it an opportunity: one of those small, everyday chances that when followed repeatedly add up to something that matters. I took it, ran with it, nailed it – boom! By 11am, I was wrecked. Wednesday didn’t look good. I caved in and booked the afternoon off. I couldn’t bring myself to take the day.

You know where this story goes.

On Friday morning I arrived at my first meeting of the day, a whole and complete autisticly overloaded wreck. It was classic “low-functioning” stuff. Rocking, avoiding eye contact, staring at the table or the floor. Muttered echolalia – lots of it. “Run, run, run”. My favourite word when I’m anxious, uncomfortable, embarassed; when I want to get out. “Run”.

I didn’t manage a full day at work that week. People saw things they shouldn’t have seen. Yet no matter what my echolalic mind was screaming at me, I couldn’t actually run. It just wasn’t a solution that occurred to me. Never mind that this is what paid sick leave is for – there’s no category, you see, for autistic overload, in the tick-boxes you have to choose from on why you’ve called in sick. So clearly I’m not allowed to go home sick if I can’t spell my own name. There’s no rule for that. It must not be allowed.

This is when I am disabled.

Next week I will have to explain to my colleagues why they saw what they saw. I will have to reassure them that this is a temporary thing – that it’s like being jet-lagged or having the flu. That even though I can be staring at a wall one day, crying, stumped by dilemmas that a five-year-old could overcome, that next week I can be even brighter than they are. That this is what it means to be autistic. I will have to swallow my pride, again, and trust that they will not judge me. And then I will talk to my manager and we will make a “rule” that I can follow, so that next time I will cope.

As long as next time is the same.

Unashamed

April is coming, and my Facebook feed is full of articles. Autistic friends, begging their connections not to “light it up blue” this coming month. And this cover of a huge step forward in autism acceptance from BBC, welcoming Julia onto Sesame Street. A muppet with autism.

Julia isn’t “a muppet with autism”, though. Julia is autistic.

For the first time, today, I mind.

A little background. It’s been a turbulent couple of years. When I first crashed into the autistic community, bruised, alone and frightened, the “person-first” debate didn’t much interest me. Why would I care what people called me? I was still grappling with the monumental implications of this diagnosis for my life, my future, my prospects for growth and happiness in this world. What did it matter whether I “had Aspergers” or “was autistic”? The earth-shattering, devastating reality was the same. Words, gone with a careless breath, were less than wind.

But now. Now I am more than I was. Now I know what autism means, for me. Now I know that my autism does not limit what I can achieve – only influences the methods by which I can progress. That it is not the characteristics of autism itself that stand between me and what I want from my life. What stands in my way, as an autistic person, is so often the attitudes of other people. Always intimidating, and sometimes insurmountable, I know now that these barriers are not of my own making. I have weaknesses, and I have strengths; not because I am autistic. But because I am human.

Autism describes me. Autism is a part of me. Autism is my strength and my sensitivity, my empathy, and the strange inability to express those feelings. Autism is the laughter and the tears that bubble up inside me when I need to show my love. Autism is why I spin and why I sing and why it gives me joy. Why would I want to disown that? Why would I want to separate that from me?

I am autistic. Unashamed.

Team building: the working Aspie’s nightmare!

If there’s one certainty about working in an organisation with a reasonable budget, it’s that at some point, inevitably, someone will decide we’re just not working together effectively as a team. Maybe we don’t talk to each other enough, so information isn’t getting to people who need it. Maybe we’re not helping one another cover deadlines, so things are being missed. Maybe the attitude in the office is toxic and back-biting, with liberal helpings of aggression and defensive behaviour heaped out in steaming spades on innocent bystanders. It doesn’t matter what the cause. The solution is the always same. Clearly, we need to do team building!

Perceptible shudder.

So let’s talk about team building.

The traditional selling points of team building seem to be built around the following:

  • People are inhibited in the workplace! They need a different environment to show their true selves and learn to shine.
  • Destructive team and workplace habits are ingrained and reinforced by the working environment. The team needs to be shaken up to break those habits.
  • People need to get to know each other on a personal level to develop the trust they need to work together.
  • If people do something non work related together, it will show up their hidden strengths, which will build and improve the way they work together as a team.
  • Everybody here loves each other really; we just need to be somewhere other than work to show it. (OK, this one I may be paraphrasing slightly. But the essentials are valid!)

I won’t comment (at this point) on the validity of those particular assumptions and views. But what tends to result is something like this:

  • A team outing to an exciting new location
  • Doing a community service type activity together
  • Learning a new, non work related activity together
  • A consultant is brought in to do “psychological” team building exercises
  • Some element of “trust” in colleagues is at some point required

Which is all well and good from an able-bodied neurotypical perspective*. But let’s take a look at this from an autistic angle.

First, the exciting new location: how do I get there? Will I be able to drive? Can I get a lift – but then what if I have to leave early? I’ll be disoriented, I probably won’t be able to find my way around. Can I get a map or layout in advance? Where are the toilets? And the schedule will be different – can I get a copy of that? Will I know what to expect? When will I be able to find food? Will there be a quiet space? No? Whimpers quietly.

On community service: this is guaranteed to bring out the worst of all the above, and more. Simple activity? Think again. We need instructions – explicit instructions – and there’s 100% certainty here that we’re going to have to beg. No one can quite believe that a person would need guidance on how to do a litter pick – but believe me, if we’re asking, we do. And then there’s the endless hours of unstructured socialising in a work based hierarchy. It’s hard enough to develop our original “rules” on the differences between work and social interactions. Trying to apply “work social” rules out of context can be close to impossible.

How about learning or trying a new activity together – surely that’s OK? We’re breaking down the hierarchical structure, based around experience or expertise, to something where – in theory – we’re all starting from the same fresh slate.

Except that we’re not. Everyone “learns” at different rates. But I need quiet, isolation and the safety of a familiar environment in order to learn. I need to be prepared, to know basically what to expect. I can’t ask the right questions the first time around. Of course, giving me this information in advance wouldn’t be “fair” on everyone else. So this will be a day of quiet desperation, attempts to hide behind the rest of the team as I struggle to make sense of the simplest new concepts in an alien environment. Incredulous stares, pity and condescension as my “stupidity” is exposed. A day of being labelled and judged for things I can work around quite effectively whilst doing my job, yet stand out like blood blisters in isolation. That gutwrenching moment when I realise nothing will be the same after today. How will this impact my professional repuation? When will I be able to look my team in the eye again?

And the “trust-building exercises”, oh my! There are parts of me that I’ve learned to keep hidden. Things that make “normal” people uncomfortable; things that I’m rightly afraid of being judged for. Such exercises – based around the naive yet pervasive illusion that everyone shares the same basic comfortable “normality”, a common ground – are designed to draw these things out. Fear of humiliation and exposure are uppermost in my mind.

Lovers of team building, if you are working with anxious, autistic or otherwise “different” people, please consider the following:

  • Team building is the ultimate in terror for a productive (or quietly struggling) Aspie.
  • Unfamiliar places, new activities and disruption to routines are extremely difficult for us. We need to know things in advance that other people might not need, in order to cope.
  • There is a massive risk of meltdown or shutdown in traditional team building environments.
  • We don’t want our colleagues to see this! We’ve spent a lifetime building a professional demeanour, learning to deal with the unexpected as our job requires. We don’t want to damage that reputation.
  • You don’t want our colleagues to see this – especially yourself. Trust me. It’s ugly.

Team building lovers, I beg of you, show some sensitivity. Don’t make us do this. Allow us to retain our dignity and professionalism. Find some other way of building team trust and cohesion. But not like this. Please, not like this.

*Actually, I have it on reliable authority that “normal” people also hate team building. As well as suggestions on actually useful alternatives. But that’s another story 🙂

Pacing

On Friday I shut down at work. When my boss saw me, he asked how bad it was, and if I needed to go home. I did need to go home. So – somehow! – I said yes.

It was a very strange moment. I’ve spent the past year or two trying to set up safety mechanisms to cater for happenings just like this. Talking about accommodations. Making creative use of flexitime. Skirting around the issue of “bad days”, delicately, never quite committing myself to describing what it looks like when I am incapable, completely, of existing in company. They’ve seen the irritability, the frustration when I can’t find words, but they’ve never seen the end point. How I can stare at a plate of food and not make the connection to actually eat. When I just switch off and fade out, staring into space. How my system shuts off everything, refusing to process what I see or hear without conscious effort. How everything is an instinctive response. Decision-making is impossible. Something I can no longer force.

Until recently, I would have said no. I would have felt guilty, berated myself for what I am and the decisions that led to this point. I would have sat at my desk all afternoon, struggling through the simplest of tasks. That was the instinct: to hide. A deeply held belief that my identity is shameful, that I do not deserve supports, even those I invested and risked so much to build. But this time, I said yes.

I’ve changed.

Coming out of those places, of shutdowns and meltdowns and overloads, I can’t help but overthink. It’s what drives me to write. Although I am rarely asked, I want to find the words, to paint a picture for people who don’t share these experiences. I want them to know what it’s like for me, why I disappear from the world. I wanted to explore, for myself, why I no longer felt guilty for the sorts of mistakes that led to this shutdown.

The thing is, this week was challenging. A lot of non-routine things were going to happen. The plan was complex in places; the schedule was busy. No red flags jumped out at me, but several – if I had been looking – were distinctly orange. And I was tired going in. Perhaps I should have seen it.

Let’s take a look at those flags. A long evening straight from work: 2 events in a row, buffered by dinner in an unfamiliar pub. Cycling out in unexpected, driving rain. A 9 o’clock meeting the next day. Two. Doable, I thought. Then a nagging headache all morning, artificial meeting room lights too bright to countenance; the sweet, soft relief of Anadin at lunch time, and the feel of my body relaxing, losing tension in quantities I hadn’t recognised I’d carried. Every warning light suddenly flashing. Looking at my schedule for the next morning. Another 9am. And a 10, and an 11. And somewhere to be at 12. Maybe I should reschedule the 10 o’clock. But I had the evening free. I’d be OK.

And that’s where I failed. Because after several weeks of things going right, I’d forgotten my limits. I’d forgotten how too many things, even simple things, can make me fall over so completely. I’d forgotten that one evening to myself, given where I was, wouldn’t be enough to set me up for the next day.

Those orange flags weren’t red. For most people, they probably wouldn’t even be orange. Three meetings in a morning probably wouldn’t even raise a flag in most people’s eyes. But for me, that’s a challenge. And in combination with too many other challenges, that’s a red flag. The guilt isn’t that I fell down. The guilt is that I didn’t act to avert things when I had the chance. The guilt is that I got over-confident. It was going to be OK. I’d been doing fine. But I’m still autistic.

For most people, there is slack in the schedule. A bad day is recoverable. But for me, a week at work can be like running a race.

Picture a distance: the furthest you can run. (Or walk. Or, if you can’t walk, I expect you won’t need this analogy to understand.) Picture yourself at the start of the distance, taking a breath. You’re prepared. You know your pace. You know what you can take. You’ll stride out long, slow, easy. If there’s a hill, you’ll slow down. But you’ll keep going.

It takes some mental effort, pacing that race. You want to finish in a good time. But at the same time, you know exactly how hard you can push. You know if you go too hard, you’ll run out too early. You’ve done it in training, when you were still exploring your limits. You’ve felt that burning in your legs, the weakness, the whole-body exhaustion, wanting nothing more than to drop and curl up on the pavement. You’ve walked home in your running kit, shivering as the sweat cools off your back. Avoiding eye contact with anyone you pass. Wondering what they’re thinking of you. But today is the day you’ve been waiting for. And you’re going to get it right.

Imagine each week starting like that race. You know you can do the distance. You feel confident: in control. But you have to be prepared. You have to carb-load. You have to get enough sleep the night before. And if the route changes at the last minute – a diversion, a longer or steeper road – there’s always the risk that you’ll flake out before the end.

Anyone can screw up a race. You feel bad. It’s one stand-out event, you’ve prepared forever, and you let yourself down. It’s your own fault.

But there’s no need for guilt. Because you pushed yourself. You tried. You misjudged. There was shame; but there was also understanding. It taught you something. You’ll try again next time.

Every time I fall, I feel guilt. But every time I fail, I remind myself that everybody fails. Everybody makes mistakes. I’ll try again next week. And I’ll make it right.

Executive function is…

Sometimes I wonder why it takes me so long to get anything done. And then I remember…

Executive function is opening the jar before poking the spoon at the jam.

Executive function is boiling the kettle before trying to pour water onto the coffee grounds.

Executive function is pants, socks, shorts and running shoes … in that order.

Executive function is what lets you make dinner on the fly, without arranging all the ingredients first in order of use, neatly lined up across the countertop. Executive function is what saves 15 minutes for the oven to heat up; what gets dinner to the table on time. Executive function is being able to decide what to eat of an evening without having a plan in advance.

Executive function is being able to start a new task without rehearsing it over and over in your mind beforehand.

Executive function is stripping the bed before starting the wash into which the bedclothes were supposed to go!

Reduced executive function is why autistics need time to plan ahead for new activities.

Reduced executive function is why we can shy away from commitments or, despite our best intentions, may fail to follow through.

Reduced executive function is why we need to know miles beforehand about even the smallest changes in routine.

Reduced executive function is why so many struggle without the proper support to make it through school; to hold down a job; to manage our own homes and lives.

Reduced executive function is one of the main things that holds us back from achieving our potential.

Despite reduced executive function, thanks to careful planning, I am enjoying a unexpected flurry of wintertime productivity at work.

Despite reduced executive function, I have signed up for a frightening number of non-routine seasonal activities, artfully placed for maximum disruption to eating routines – and so far am on track to follow through on all of them!

Despite reduced executive function, with cards sent and presents waiting only to be wrapped, I am almost ready for Christmas.

With foreknowledge, we can achieve. Given control, our differences are strengths.

Happy Christmas everyone!

Disconnect

Someone at work today asked how I was coping with the long nights. People are aware of my SAD. Offhand, I said I’d been OK up until about the last week or so, but I was getting a bit tired now. No big deal.

Then I thought for a minute about when time got away from me. Maybe it was a bit more than a week. Maybe two. Perhaps three.

I no longer have a sense of time.

I remember the moment I first felt panic that the minutes were slipping away. It was in the middle of a Saturday morning, on my way to the shops, when that afternoon I had somewhere to be. There was that horrible sinking feeling in my gut, chasing the hours that slid through my fingers, realising how completely I’d misjudged. I panicked. Rushed my shopping, called a taxi. Lost the taxi. Found the taxi moments before it pulled away, a breath away from being just one more no-show. Deep breaths, shaking, as we crawled through traffic on the interminable journey home.

I made my afternoon appointment, overloaded, but invisible. No one saw it: not for a moment; not the merest flicker. I passed, exquisitely. I paid with the Sunday. It wasn’t enough.

Three weeks ago.

In winter, I cannot cope with overload. In winter, I do not have the capacity to recover myself. There is not enough daylight, and not enough time. I cannot expose myself to the risk of uncertainty; I cannot allow myself to panic. I must be slow, quiet, centred. I must be calm.

On that Monday morning I went into survival mode. The plan had already lost the non-essentials several weeks before. But this was the morning when I drew a breath, and relaxed. I forced myself to slow down, to breathe. Not to stop, but to keep moving, no matter how slow. Don’t fight it; just be. It didn’t matter if I was late. It didn’t matter if I didn’t show. Nothing mattered, but to be calm. To keep moving. One step at a time.

It’s a curious feeling, to be centred in the eye of the storm. I am slow, while the world spins. I am quiet, while the world screams. I am; and somehow, strangely, the world is not. Steadily, methodically, I move through this madness without feeling. I am calm. I do not connect. Displaced from reality, I am serene.

I do not want. I do not feel. I am not hungry or thirsty. At night I wait passively for sleep that takes hours to come. The choice to begin each day is one I no longer allow myself to make; for if I allowed myself that choice, then I would choose wrong. I know this, without feeling sadness. I feel only the weight of my self as I sleepwalk, dreamlike, through the wild cold winter. I still know that the winter will end. I still remember what it was like to live.

I do not stop. I must not stop. Until it ends.

One step at a time.