It is what it is.

It is what it is.

I find myself having to say this so often.

It’s supposed to be a mantra of mindfulness. Of accepting what is, because that’s all there is. Right here, right now.

At the moment I find myself regretting so much, despite how often I try to convince myself that regrets are pointless.

I regret that my busy home and work life mean I have so far met very few other autistic people “in the flesh”. It’s true, I do need physical connections with people. I might be autistic, and an introvert, but I’m still, ultimately, a people person. But I’d like to meet more people like me, now I really know what and who I am.

But it is what it is. There’s very little I can do to change my circumstances right here, right now.

I regret that I didn’t have this knowledge, about what and who I am, earlier in life. What would I have achieved? How would I have felt? Would I have done more? Found things easier?

…Or not?

It is what it is. The way space-time has worked out for me, it could never have been any other way.

I feel anxious about so many uncertainties going on right now. At work, at home, in my country, and in the wider world.

And I regret sometimes that I can’t do more to make things better, for myself or others.

But it is what it is. I am only one human, and one who spreads herself far too thinly as it is.

The thing is, I’m not actually unhappy at the moment. On balance, there so much that’s good. I’m far more comfortable with myself, at ease and at home with myself, and able to love myself, than at any other point in my life. So much is great for me professionally, personally, and privately.

But I’ve had a taste. I see some of the things my neurosiblings do, I see the way they connect with each other, and I wish I could have more of that.

But, as I’ve done before, I’m making unrealistic and unreasonable comparisons with others. It’s a trap I keep falling into. When will I learn that the grass in my garden is green enough?

Things will change. They always do. I’ve already been able to make change happen, and so much of this has been because I’m autistic, but now I know that I’m autistic. Things I would never once have believed possible have happened. And now I believe even more is possible, and more tangibly possible, than ever before.

I don’t have to rush to do it all right here, right now.

But I can make the most of what is right here, right now.

Rhubarb in the back garden. Blossom on the trees. New beech leaves. Rooks strutting through the local park. Dewy grass in the morning. My enjoyment of my job. My family and friends. My husband’s strong shoulders and daft puns. My daughter’s elaborate stories, pictures, and imaginary worlds. The soft curls of my little boy’s hair, and his mischievous grin.

It is what it is. My life is what it is. It’s a good life, and there’s so much more to come.

Logic, behaviour, and discipline

I was very well-behaved at school.  It wasn’t that I always agreed with the reasons for complying, conforming, or doing a particular thing I was asked; I simply found the idea of being told off or criticised in front of others too stressful to contemplate. I drew far too much attention to myself as it was, what with the frequent crying meltdowns, and being singled out for my academic achievements. I was “over-sensitive”, but otherwise a model student.

Even so, I often felt bemused by the instructions, requests, or reprimands given to me and my classmates by our teachers, or others in authority.

“Don’t put your feet on the table! You wouldn’t do that at home, would you?”

The “you wouldn’t do it at home” argument always puzzled me. We aren’t at home. Ergo, of course we have a different attitude to our environment, its furnishings and features. Why would we act the same?

“The school bell is for my benefit, not yours!”

Why is it so loud that we can all hear it, then?

“Make sure you eat all your tea! There are children starving in Africa, you know!”

Why doesn’t someone send them this food, then?

(I never heard this one at home. Despite being autistic, I was never an especially fussy eater, didn’t experience any huge sensory issues with food, and always had second helpings of everything except the meat. But friends’ parents sometimes used it.)

“Bullying is cowardly!”

Please understand that I was never in sympathy with the bullies. Dammit, I was on the receiving end of enough (verbal) tormenting from other kids to have little time for those who did the bullying. My issue was with the incompleteness of the explanation of the word’s meaning. I had initially had it explained to me as meaning a lack of courage, and little more. The opposite of “brave”, and so I therefore took it simply to mean “scared”.

But surely it’s the victim who would be scared of the bully?

The nuances of the word – its implications of contemptibility, spinelessness, and so on – were never laid out for me. And so, whilst I didn’t argue with the notion, I remained confused.

I’ve always needed to know why something needs to be a certain way. I cannot willingly, unwaveringly accept something if I don’t understand the reason for doing so. And so, like many autistic kids, I moved through my school years in a constant state of perplexedness. However adept – or otherwise – we are with language, many of us really do need things to be carefully spelled out to us.

Memories of that perplexed feeling have stuck with me into parenthood. I see some of the things we tell children off for, and I can very clearly imagine myself in their place, and imagine their bemusement.

And, more simply, there are some things which I know that, in polite society, I need to prevent my children from doing, but which personally, I don’t actually care that much about.

Climbing up onto the living-room windowsill? Well, the windows are too high for them to see through at floor-level. The sill itself offers a better view of the world outside, and is deep enough for a small person to sit on comfortably. There’s a sofa immediately beneath the windowsill to provide a soft landing should they fall, and both my children are fairly adept climbers. They’re not damaging anything, or hurting themselves or each other, and they look like they’re having fun.

Taking saucepans out of the kitchen cupboards and banging on them? Well, it’s a little noisy (and this is something I really struggle with), and we’ll have to rinse them out afterwards as they’ve been all over the floor. But at least it keeps my toddler occupied and draws his attention away from the fridge contents.

Clambering up the slide in the playground (holding onto the rails, of course), rather than sliding down it? Well, it’s not the conventional route. But no other children are using it right now – if they were, I’d move my child to the steps. It’s fun to try out new ways of moving around a space, I’m happy for my children to take measured risks, and I’m there to catch them if they slip.

It’s very difficult to come across as authentic in telling a child off for something you yourself don’t actually see as a problem. I’m very much the slacker in our two-parent partnership in that respect. But I’m very much aware that my husband and I need to set boundaries, and explain to our children that whilst some social rules might not seem to make sense, other people may be upset if they do not follow them.

I’m the first to admit I’m far from perfect as a parent. I’m often short-tempered because of my reactions to sensory overstimulation. My understanding of social rules, and my intepretation of the logic behind them, might be somewhat wayward. But perhaps my ability to relate to childhood confusion about such things helps me to be a little more considered in how I support my children to deal with the pitfalls and challenges of being amongst people.

And there are some behaviours I have no difficulty in encouraging my children to adopt. Saying “please” and “thank you”. Acknowledging when they have done something to upset someone else, what was wrong about it, and apologising. Sharing. Helping others. Being kind and considerate towards other people and animals.

For me, the logic of being empathetic, compassionate and understanding makes instinctive sense.

[Featured image: “Adventure Playground” in Holland Park, by Joe Shlabotnik.]

A thing I really miss.

It’s been one of those dazzlingly sunny spring days. The kind that I value far more than the summer days we Brits tend to experience (which I find veer far too alarmingly between overly hot and disappointingly cold and wet).

And I’ve been tired out by an exhausting term at work, and successive nights of interrupted sleep. On behalf of my family, I’ve declined an invitation to a barbecue with friends of ours because I feel the need to limit my interactions with others, and now the noise and chaos of the household, with my reactions culminating in one of my sadly all-too-frequent “mummy meltdowns”, has sent me out of the house for a desperately-needed walk on my own.

The sun is bright. I wish I were wearing my contacts with oversized sunglasses, rather than my prescription glasses with the transitions lenses whose frames don’t quite cover enough of my face to keep out all the glare. Still, I’m grateful, as I move away from the streets of terraced houses and out towards the fields, hedgerows, and wooded paths, for gentler noises and a less visually jarring, more serene and natural view in front of me.

I take myself down into a nearby valley that was once a favourite running haunt of mine.

Only these days, I’m not running. My left hip subluxes more than ever. My ankles frequently give way. My right knee feels constantly off-track and has been so painful over the past few days that I’m walking with a limp on anything but a flat surface. My body – like my family setup – is such that, after two babies, I have not yet managed to get myself back on track with the one form of exercise I love more than any other, and something in me wonders if I ever will. I’ve never been built for running, no matter how much I’ve loved it, and these days I feel further away from it than ever before.

But though I may be moving at a more sedate pace, still I feel the need to clamber over tree roots, pick my way down steep, rock-strewn slopes, and lift myself over stiles. To experience the need to stabilise myself with underused core muscles. To feel the cushioning of lush grass or a carpet of developing leaf mould under my feet.

I run my fingers over the masses of tiny individual fronds of moss that cover grey stone walls, so much in appearance like a high-altitude aerial photograph of forest on a mountainside. I inspect unfurling beech leaves and opening blossom. It’s because my travel is slowed that I can do these things.

I walk along with my arms outstretched beside me, hands shoulder-height. This seems to serve some proprioceptive purpose that would once have been addressed through faster movement, arms pumping. All around me green. Still well within the bounds of the city. So comparatively close, even, to the city centre – and yet still so far removed, so seemingly rural. Birds sing. Insects hum. Traffic is a distant murmur. I sing, hum, and murmur to myself as I move along. 

In the city today, a half marathon is being run. Many people I know are running it. And I feel envious. There are so many things I miss about running.

Races, with their communality and camaraderie, but limited small talk or inane chitchat. Chip timing. Counting down the mile markers. Finish lines. Souvenir medals. Celebratory drinks and meals.

Solitary leisure runs, meditative, exploratory, thoughtful. Hard slogs uphill, purposeful, pounding me with the physical feedback my mind and body so often crave. Tempo runs, testing myself, pushing myself. Quick runs around the block, just enough to release a satisfactory amount of post-work tension.

Feeling bodily tired but mentally, emotionally, and sensorily sated.

Of course, nowadays I still have the gym. But it’s not the same.

I make my way past clearings in the woodland. Past allotments. I spy a lone red tulip, abloom at a roadside, petals open wide to the sun, yellow centre and black stamens stark against the scarlet. I stop to take a picture. The basic camera on my budget smartphone fails to do justice to the detail I see before me, although somewhat unusually it does capture a flavour of the vivid, shining Irlen contrast between colours that causes me to see flowers literally glow. I guess the light’s good, today.

Would I notice such a thing if I were moving more quickly? Probably. Even when running, I still tended to spot the detail in my surroundings. An autistic thing, I suppose.  But I wouldn’t have stopped to take a photograph. I wouldn’t have looked quite so closely.

I find half-remembered footpaths and bridleways. Half-remembered fields, occupied by horses swishing their tails. Wood pigeons scatter leaves and twigs as they beat their wings to fly from resting-places on tree branches. Half-remembered trees, half-remembered hills. I find myself on a gradual curve back upwards – I can’t be out too long, after all. I get hotter and my breathing gets harder as the incline increases. My right knee aches a little more.

Eventually I’m back home. Later, I read friends’ Facebook posts about the race. It was hard in the heat. I congratulate them on their efforts. And I genuinely do feel pleased for them. Pleased, but still envious. I wish I didn’t, but I can’t help it.

As I type this post, my toddler son is asleep, cuddled up on me. He is breathing audibly, but softly. He’s warm, calm, and peaceful, and the soft curls of his hair smell of baby shampoo as I nuzzle my face into them. And I think to myself: I’m quite happy here. This is a place I want to be, and I don’t begrudge that my life is different from that of those out running today. I don’t resent them for it. And whilst it doesn’t give me that “high”, there are other sensory boosts to be gained from a quiet walk, drinking in all that surrounds me.

But oh, how I miss the action of running through the woods, or across the fields. The freedom. The release. The dynamism with which one moves through one’s surroundings.

There is nothing like it, and nothing else that will ever quite fill the same void.

#AutismAppreciation: 7 things that make me a valuable employee

Before April came around, I’d been mentally conjuring up my plans for activism, amplification, signal boosting, the promotion of acceptance, and whatnot. As it happens, events have conspired against me, and I haven’t been as active in railing positively against the “awareness industry” (as fantastic new blogger Little Sparrow puts it) as I’d hoped to be. Long story. I’m sure there will be more posts this month on the subject of ‘awareness’ and, more importantly, acceptance, but right now I want – nay, need – to get really positive, on a very personal level.

I so often do myself a disservice. I make unreasonable comparisons between myself and others. I indulge in a nice line of internalised ableism. And right now, with my organisation undertaking a ‘review’ of various services, I’m feeling a little anxious. I think things will be fine. But I can’t be sure.

But a colleague said a lovely thing the other day that made me ponder:

“But you’re so, so employable!”

And just yesterday, I formally become a Senior Fellow of the Higher Education Academy (unless you work in learning and teaching in UK – or perhaps Australian – higher education, this may mean very little to you. But if you do, you’ll know this is a rather noteworthy piece of professional recognition). I’m feeling pretty good today, professionally-speaking.

And so it’s time to get on board with autism appreciation and acknowledge how bloody awesome I am. Sorry for the personal trumpet-blowing (it’s never something I’m especially comfortable with), but right now, after a tough, tiring few months, I need to give myself a bit of self-love.

What makes me such a damned good employee, then?

1. I can become interested in, learn, and focus on (almost) anything.

The fact that I was an “all-rounder” at school was something of a mixed blessing.  During my earlier school years, I maintained my record as the straight-A student, but as puberty kicked in, social interaction got more complicated, and academic and personal demands increased, I began struggling to know where to channel my energies. I had difficulty prioritising, and experienced agonies over decisions about which subjects to pursue and which to “drop” (the Tyranny of Choice, folks).  The fact is, I’m generally better when I’m focused on One Thing. One Thing in Depth. It’s why I loved my MSc year so much.

But what I’m focused on doesn’t actually matter so much. As long as it’s interesting to me, I’ll get excited about it, plough my energies into it, and do all that I can to make it work, for me and others involved. This means that, specific technical knowledge aside, I could potentially step to any number of new fields. It also means that, when I’m teaching, training, or speaking about what I’m working on, my passion will come through.

(An aside: there is a common argument that UK schoolkids are asked to “specialise too early”. On the one hand, I completely agree with this sentiment. How are you supposed to make life-changing decisions about what career you want to pursue, and thus, what subjects to study, when you know so little about what’s in store? On the other hand, I think people like me benefit from opportunities to focus intensely on one subject at a time, and then move on to another, potentially completely different one, when we’re ready. My specialisms tend to shift over time).

2. I care.

My strong sense of justice, and my ethical convictions, mean that these days I’m pretty picky about the types of organisation I’ll be willing to work for. But whatever job I’ve had, I’ve always cared about doing a good job. Perfectionism can at times be debilitating, and can seriously slow me down, but the fact that I always care about doing a good job means that I’m rarely complacent. It also means that I care about the people work with (my colleagues), and the people I work for  – in my case the academic staff I work with, the students they, and I, teach, and the wider communities outside my organisation who benefit from the teaching we do.

3. I have excellent attention to detail.

Yes, I can be very, very picky and pernickety. But my attention to detail means that my teaching sessions, and the accompanying materials, are well-designed and meticulously thought through. It means that when someone needs to pick up a bit of teaching at short notice because I’m not able to deliver it, they’ve usually got everything they need to do a reasonable job of it.

It also means that when I’m supporting an academic colleague with their teaching, I ensure all bases are covered. Yes, this does mean I’m often guilty of “info-dumping”, but it means I always provide a firm foundation for further exploration. People can pick and choose which material to engage with, but there’s unlikely to be many glaring omissions.

It also means that I can design great information systems and keep websites spick ‘n’ span, and that I’m also a shit hot proofreader.

4. I’m a passionate, engaging teacher.

I have this on good authority from many of the people I work with. And I have a fair old whack of ‘official’ evidence in the form of qualifications, and written feedback – from staff and students – on my sessions. And I firmly believe that it is some of my autistic traits that make this so.

For me, coming out of the classroom after a really good teaching session feels just like coming offstage after a really good gig (man, I miss playing in bands!). The buzz is the same. The truth is, I enjoy performance. I’m always surprised when neurotypical folks think it unusual that autistic people would be interested in performing. After all, many of us do it all the time. I’m aware of copious autistics who are fantastic, commanding musicians, actors, comedians, performance poets, and public speakers. Yes, when masking, we may be “performing the role” of the neurotypical, and this can be bloody hard work, but performing in front of an audience when you’re well prepared and you know your material is a different matter entirely. It can be truly invigorating (although you may experience a slump in energy later on).

I like to keep myself amused in the classroom. One thing I’ve noticed about myself and other autistic people is that we’re not very motivated to do stuff that doesn’t interest us or seem useful to us. This desire to keep things interesting means I’m often looking for ways to vary or improve what I do with my teaching. But, as I like to see “the point” in something, I will rarely make change for change’s sake. If I make a change, it’ll be to keep myself motivated, or as an attempt to solve a problem.

Finally here, movement. I can rarely root myself to one spot when delivering because of my need to stim. I simply cannot keep still. But as I teach a subject that is practical, applied, and frequently conveyed best through interactive, “workshop”-style classes, my need to move about the classroom allows me to observe and engage with everyone in the space.

5. I have excellent command of the written word.

This is great for report-writing, disseminating research, giving constructive feedback to students, professional blog writing (yes, I do blog for work as well), producing instructions and guidance, and all sorts of other applications.

Yes, I can be a little long-winded at times. Brevity is still something I actively have to work hard at. Being autistic often means having to give myself constant reminders that it’s not always necessary to include All The Things.

But written communication is well within my comfort zone, and my attention to detail, interest in many of the subjects I write about (and interest in language itself), and the fact I care about my work, all mean I’m pretty adept at attuning my writing to the needs of my audience.

6. I can see connections, links, and patterns.

I am neither simply a “big picture” thinker, nor a sequential, piece-by-piece thinker. Yes, I appreciate detail; but I’m also constantly connecting minute, granular elements into complex pictures, networks and patterns. I don’t even need to step back – the connections and wider contexts come to the fore as I work through it all.

This links back to being able to get interested in anything. I’d almost go as far as to say that, for me, disciplines don’t exist; I see links between all sorts of apparently disparate elements. This is useful in teaching – especially as I teach such diverse groups of learners. I can pull in examples from all over the place, make them fit the context, make them relevant, and thus make whatever I’m teaching relevant.

It also becomes handy in diagnostics – identifying someone’s unique set of circumstances, problems, and needs, and thinking up ways to help them. Great for one-to-one support to colleagues and students. It means I can also broker interesting connections between people.

7. I will assume the best of everyone.

My dislike of hierarchical structures means that – social communication problems notwithstanding – I’ll talk to anyone. This doesn’t mean I’m not anxious about the interactions (I’m autistic, goddammit), but it does mean that regardless of someone’s standing or status, I’m unlikely think negatively about someone unless they give me good reason to do so, and I’m also unlikely to be nervous about talking to them simply because of who they are.

For me, it seems entirely logical to believe that no person, or group of people, is superior or inferior to anyone else. We’re all human, and to think that one group is “better” than another seems a perplexing notion to me. But because I am different from the majority, I recognise difference, and the importance of difference, in others. Our differences inform our experiences. They inform whether we are privileged or disadvantaged, dominant or marginalised. They cannot be denied.

That’s not to say I don’t have some biases. We all do; we can’t help it because we’re influenced by our lived experiences and the circumstances in which we had those experiences. But because I care about the people I work with and for, that’s something I’m working on.

Okay, so here are some other things about my autism that need to be ‘appreciated’…

It works both ways, folks. In appreciating all the ways my autism impacts positively in the workplace, I also have to appreciate what aspects of the workplace cause me difficulty.

And it’s important that those around me do the same.

I need the people I work with to understand, and appreciate, that I am often working far harder than they are simply to operate in a neurotypical-dominant environment. I am always fending off sensory and information overload. I am consciously having to analyse and process interactions with colleagues and students. And I am rarely afforded the “luxury” of being able to work uninterrupted, or choose exactly when to switch tasks. Often this is dictated for me, and not always in a way that is conducive to me transitioning smoothly between different pieces of work.

When I get angry about being interrupted mid-task, I need people to appreciate that I am not being intentionally rude. Of course I don’t want to be rude to people and come across as a complete arsehole. Autism, or any other “difference”, is still no excuse for being an arsehole. But please bear in mind that every day of my life I am expected, and required, to operate in an environment not ideally attuned to my particular operating system. And yet I’m still expected not to ever make other people uncomfortable. Given that an interruption has already caused great disruption to my brain’s functioning, it’s not always possible for me to remember my “script” of acceptable responses to that interruption. I need people to accept and appreciate that when they interrupt me, it will take my brain a long time to get back on task, and this can be very, very stressful. Believe me, I’m trying to be nice.

And so, given that I care so much about doing a good job, and about the people around me, I need them to appreciate that if I do or say something wrong, or something that upsets others, the chances are I will be ruminating over it, and feeling guilty about it, long after the other person has moved on, forgiven, and forgotten. It may be a small incident, and mean “nothing” to them, but the likelihood is, I will still be analysing and processing the incident for a long time after it actually happened.

So the upshot of a lot of this is that I need people around me to appreciate that I am almost always tired. And when I say I’m knackered, that means I really, really am.

I’m good at what I do. I’m employable, and far more than that. I am not merely a collection of deficits, deficiencies, and difficulties. I have undoubted strengths.

And like all autistic people who work, I want to be appreciated for these strengths, while also asking those I work with to appreciate my need for support, and undertanding.