Work Vignettes: awful away-day aftermath

Close Up photo of a cup of black coffee, and an Open Notebook With Pen

July 2017 (one year, almost to the day, after autism identification).

Our team is at a Marketing Away Day.

We’re in a hotel in a leafy suburb of the city. But we’re indoors and, aside from refreshment breaks and lunch, confined for the most part to one room.

It wasn’t the best of starts.

No in-advance agenda. No printed schedule available on the day. No timings provided.

The event begins with a series of “ice breaker” exercises.

***

One is a sensory game involving blindfolds, jigsaw puzzles and verbal instructions, with everyone assembled divided into smaller competing teams. We’re against the clock and against each other.

My severely deaf colleague is, of course, nominated as the instructions-giver – it makes perfect sense that she shouldn’t be one of the team members having to rely on listening. The other two of us don our blindfolds.

She shouts instructions and we try to assemble puzzle pieces into a coherent whole according to her words.

All I can hear, the entire time, is the shouting and chatter from the other people across the room. One male colleague’s voice, in particular, cuts through all else in sforzando bursts.

I’m wondering when the break is.

I get panicky as I work my way through the game. I can’t hear my colleague well enough. I yelp at her for clarification. The pitch and volume of voice grows as I struggle to remain calm and concentrate.

I’m wondering when the break is.

Then we have a music quiz. Name that tune. More my area of expertise.

But I’m so on edge I get disproportionately embarrassed whenever I get an answer wrong.

And overwhelmingly disappointed when our team doesn’t win because I jumped in too quickly to answer a question, but then lost my ability to speak coherently.

(I think the tune was Gangnam Style, but never mind that.)

I’m wondering when the break is.

***

Coffee break time.

One of the colleagues who organised the ice breakers approaches me.

“I’m so sorry. We should have realised that a sensory activity was a bad idea. I hope you’re okay.”

“It’s alright, I’m fine”, I lie.

***

Most of the day is spent discussing our marketing plans for the forthcoming year.

A lot of talking. A lot of listening. A lot of sidetracking.

Our team works well, and I like most of them, but as a group of people, many of them (myself included) have an endless need to jump in, make ourselves heard, and to say our piece.

crescendo.

accelerando.

affrettando.

I’m getting a headache.

The Fire Exit sign is backlit, and the light is flickering.

There are so many noises in this building.

Pipes clanking.

Footsteps.

Doors opening and shutting.

Old-building creaks.

Nothing is played in unison. There’s no reassuring pattern to the prodding and poking of each sound. I inwardly wince at sounds. And I inwardly wince in anticipation of more sounds.

Would it be okay for me to slip out and take a break unprompted?

I know my manager said this was fine, but I still feel awkward about doing so.

***

Lunchtime. We eat. I feel the compulsion to interact with everyone.

Then I escape into the hotel grounds for some quiet, and some greenery.

I’m a little late back to the training room.

***

Afternoon session. Action planning. Back to the talking. Back to the listening.

presto.

Headache intensifying.

Heart rate rising.

A cacophony.

I can’t focus. Everyone’s talking at once. How can I be expected to contribute anything to this?

“Excuse me! I’m really sorry, but I can’t concentrate because everyone’s talking at the same time. Would you mind trying to slow it down?”

I catch one colleague opposite me giving an exaggerated eye roll.

Shit.

I really to sort this out with her later.

***

The end of the day. Finished. Migraine is in full swing.

I spot the eye-roller.

“Hi! I just wanted to catch you and say sorry for earlier. I was having a really difficult time. I hope things are okay.”

“Um, can we talk about this tomorrow? I really don’t want to discuss it now.”

“Sorry, but it would be great if we could resolve it now. I don’t want to leave it hanging.”

I can’t leave it. I’ll be dwelling on it all night if we don’t sort it out now.

“Look. I think you were really rude earlier. We’ve all had a very difficult day and I don’t like being spoken to like that.”

Was I rude? I don’t think I was that rude. I’m sure I said “excuse me”.

“I know, I’m sorry. But this day’s been incredibly difficult for me to cope with. You know I struggle with all the sensory stuff, with listening and so on.”

“That’s fine, but it was difficult for all of us. You know, I bring a lot of myself to this job, to this team. I don’t appreciate you being rude, and I’d rather not talk about this any more.”

“Okay, bye. Sorry.”

Why do I keep apologising?

I feel my face getting hotter.

The pressure of the world forcing its way down upon me.

All senses smashing together as one. Atoms in a particle accelerator (but what remains after the smash in this case?).

A crescendo of emotions, inner and outer noise.

forte.

fortissimo.

***

I walk out through the main entrance gates, and as I walk, the tears come.

The world simultaneously closes in and zooms out.

Oscillation. Then a sonic boom.

I feel myself walled off from it by an invisible force field.

The tears stream.

I start to wail.

I punch my fists into my thighs.

I start to scream.

fortississimo.

I lean against a wall. I can barely hold myself up.

Another colleague finds me. Hugs me. Takes me to a nearby pub, buys me a drink and listens to me as I rant and rave. My headache remains, but I gradually become calm. My colleague offers kind words and no judgement.

Later, I take the long route home. stentando.


[Image: Close Up on The Coffee and Open Notebook With Pen, by Marco Verch. Creative Commons 2.0 licence.]

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Work Vignettes: the verbal warning (Awkward Coffee #1)

An off-white, disposable coffee cup with a plastic lid, placed on an off-white surface, against a blank white background.

Image credit: John Beans (https://myfriendscoffee.com/)

September 2002 (14 years before autism identification).

It’s Monday morning. The start of a new term. Last week was College Enrolment Week.

***

(Just a few days ago, I had been clad in a cheap, over-sized, garishly yellow “Here to Help” staff polo shirt. Small, black insects had clung in loose but numerous clusters to the stingingly bright, sweat-soaked synthetic fabric.

For one extended workday, I’d been assaulted by noise, questions, crowds, confusion, chaos, jostling and overwhelm. Body odour, food smells, raised voices, untidy piles of papers, leaky pens, thirst. No hiding places.

Afterwards, I had trudged, head pounding, sweaty-polo-shirt sticky and migraine sick, back to my friends’ flat. I’m staying with them short-term while I find somewhere else to live, after a recent, sudden relationship breakup.

After a brief slump in their sofa, some food, and brief interactions with my friends and their two-year-old daughter, I’d lain myself down on the mattress in their spare room and cried until I was too exhausted to stay awake.)

***

My line manager has invited me to the college canteen for a coffee.

“I need to talk to you about last week.”

“Okay…”

“I know it was a very busy time, but I have to let you know that some of your behaviour was unacceptable. It’s one thing to get flustered, but I absolutely cannot abide swearing.”

“I’m really sorry. You know I’ve just recently come off the medication the doctor gave me. It takes time to get out of my system – they didn’t stop the prescription soon enough. It’s making it difficult to control myself.”

“I really think that’s no excuse. This is a college. It is not acceptable to speak like that in front of students.”

“I know that. I’m so, so sorry. I’m just having a really difficult time. The breakup was awful. You were away when it all happened. It’s so hard. It’s going to take me a long time to get over it. I’m really stressed at the moment.”

“I know you’re having a difficult time. We all have struggles. But it’s important to keep your personal life separate from work. You mustn’t let these things come out in front of people.”

Clattering from the kitchen.

Chatter from nearby tables.

Searingly bright sunshine streaming through the window behind my manager, silhouetting her face and making me squint at her through barely-open, scrunched-up eyelids.

I can still see the spidery clumps of dark blue mascara that coat her eyelashes, but perhaps it’s my mind’s eye filling in the blanks.

I can feel my face getting hotter. I imagine it getting redder. My eyes…

“Let this be a warning on this occasion. But I cannot have this sort of thing happen again.”

“Okay. I’m really, really sorry.” The tears have started. I bow my head towards the table, so that neither of us sees the other’s face.

I realise it’s going to be time to get back to the office soon. There’ll be students to see.


[Image description: An off-white, disposable coffee cup with a plastic lid, placed on an off-white surface, against a blank white background.]

Catching the quiet

Full colour photograph of an orange “super moon” in a deep blue sky, to the left of which are the black, silhouetted branches of a leafless tree.

I must take my life’s rare moments of calm where I find them.

Catch hold of the string holding the serenity balloon before it floats away into the blue.

I cuddle my son to sleep almost every night.

After a busy, noise-filled day, my whirlwind, bounce-off-the-walls, never-still, never-quiet younger child has listened to me reading him stories – all the while attempting handstands, inspecting the slight rip along one side of his dinosaur poster that was torn into existence by an errant foot, examining a stray vehicle rudimentarily constructed from Lego bricks.

I have done my best to contain my frustration at interruptions and interjections, my exasperation at the small limbs whose darting, distracting movements scratch at the smooth canvas of my peripheral vision or knock the picture book out of my hands. I’ve remained calm and patient, despite my exhaustion.

(I have medication now. These days, I am far better able to manage bedtimes than I was six months ago. My temper has been tempered.)

At last, his eyelids are drooping. He issues a yawn. He curls up on his side. Finally, he tells me he wants the light off, and a cuddle.

I oblige. I draw the jungle-animal-patterned duvet up around him so that he is “nice and snug”. And I lie down next to him, on top of the duvet, and I put one arm around him. Nuzzle my face into his soft hair. Often, he asks me to take his little hand in mine and hold it tight, and I do so.

Some would say that I’m too soft. That young children need to learn to self-soothe; to get themselves to sleep without parental input. That he won’t ever be independent if he can’t fall asleep by himself. That I’m making a rod for my back and not giving myself enough of a break.

Maybe. I don’t believe so. He will fall asleep alone on occasion. But where’s the harm in giving reassurance to a small child who needs it? In letting him feel safe, secure, and loved? Surely that’s a better path from which to work towards independence anyway, if that’s the thing that’s desired?

Besides, I have an ulterior motive.

The room is darkened. Still. I am comfortable. And he is quiet. This is a break.

I catch and enclose that quiet in my cupped hands like a butterfly. All too soon, I know I will need to release it; let it flutter free from my hands’ prison. I will have to let the balloon float on.

He’s been asleep for a few minutes now.

Downstairs, I hear repeated bursts of the Danger Mouse theme tune. I hear his big sister running, careering and thudding around the living room; humming, clicking, singing, squealing.

Soon, she’ll want to talk to me. She’ll need to share her latest grand idea, impart the details of her latest imaginary world, or outline the plot of her latest work of fiction. She’ll want to talk about her day. Share her worries, excitements, or causes for celebration.

And I’ll listen. I’ll be there with her.

Just Not. Quite. Yet.

It’s been a busy day. Office greetings. Kitchen small-talk. Meetings. Listening. Processing. Dark glasses in bright rooms. Headphones to block out the noise. Smells. Heat. Sweaty clothing. Sore feet. Too much tea. Dry mouth. Plans to make. Tasks to prioritise. Work to do.

And before I do my next round of listening, I need, however fleetingly, to catch the quiet, and hold it close to me as I hold my son.


[Image description: Full colour photo of a deep blue sky lit by a yellow/orange “super moon” – a full moon that appears slightly larger than normal due to its proximity to Earth at a particular point in its elliptical orbit. To the left of the picture is the black silhouette of some leafless tree branches. Photo by Dave Grubb.]

What’s in the bag? A look at Mama’s stim kit.

Still life colour photograph, through warm dramatic “vintage” filter, depicting, in foreground: a sequin-coloured oversized pencil case, out of which spills folded “infinity hoops”, a black Tangle, a red-and-yellow stress ball in the shape of a Marvel ‘Iron Man’ helmet, a small three-pointed metallic fidget spinner, a fidget football, pine cone and seashell, a piece of grey foam, and other items partially in view. There is a smaller sparkly bag inside in which can be seen a small bottle of aromatherapy oil and a tin of lip balm. Behind these is a black bullet journal, and a red-zipped pencil case with in a colourful dinosaur print fabric.

As time has gone on since my formal autism identification in 2016, and as I’ve gradually learned more about myself – my autistic self – I’ve got better and better at recognising what makes me tick.

What makes me anxious, overwhelmed, panicked, angry. What makes me calm, happy, blissed out, joyful.

I’m increasingly better at looking after myself. But this ability to look after myself is continually pushed to its limits, and beyond. It seems that the more I learn to cope with and overcome, the more I get another load of difficult stuff shunted my way. By gosh, I still have a lot to learn.

But I’m far more positive in how I address this nowadays.

A couple of months ago, I put together a stim kit. I was sick of having random bits and bobs floating around in my bag, in each of my different coat and jacket pockets, or scattered around the house and on my desk at work. Sick of repeatedly misplacing favourite objects and toys. Things getting rusty, encrusted with grot, scratched or broken.

I don’t always need things to stim with, of course – dancing, pacing, singing, and many other activities don’t require ‘stuff’. But having small items to hand makes things easier in a lot of circumstances.

Different strokes for different folks

I wanted to give myself more options – a stim for every mood and every occasion. I’m always looking for things to add to it, but for now I’m quite happy with what I have at my disposal.

(Although yes, some of us do indeed like having things to stroke, and I’m still searching for a nice scrap of velvet ribbon…)

I personally let other people (both autistic and non-autistic) try out the stuff in the bag from time to time. It’s great to see someone get fresh stim ideas or discover something new that really works for them, and also fascinating to see what does and doesn’t help different people. I also like to de-mystify and normalise stimming as a ‘thing’.

You don’t have to share your stim stuff with other people, of course. It’s entirely your choice whether you do so or not. I like to, but we all have different preferences.

Very recently, I put something similar together for my daughter (six years old at the time of writing). Hers has some of the same items, but some variation – there’s more squishy and chewy stuff, which suits her.

I’d recommend that all autistics, and parents of younger autistic kids, consider assembling something like this – it’s great to have positive options for redirecting negative/self-injurious stim urges, calming oneself, promoting focus, as well as for sheer enjoyment.

So what’s in the bag?

These are just things that suit me. Everyone has different preferences, and it can take some time to work out what you might want in a kit, and what simply isn’t worth bothering with.

Here’s a rundown of what I have in mine.

Obviously, the main bag itself is a stim item. It’s an extra-large pencil case covered in gorgeous double-sided “mermaid scale” sequins. They’re fun to look at. Tactile and interactive too. As for what’s inside…

First, the things I’ve purchased with actual money:

  • Infinity hoops/kinetic flow rings: Oh. My. Gosh. These look and feel sooooo good.
  • Fidget spinners: I have two in this bag. One is yer classic plastic dooberry (a bit like this one) which I may or may not abandon, as frankly it’s not very good (it was very cheap); the other a “deluxe” metal spinner by Nomad that spins for aaaaaaages.
  • Fidget football polyhedron spinner: this particular metallic thingummy doesn’t spin for very long and is a bit flimsy (another thing that was super-cheap). But it kind of looks cool, and the individual coloured circles make a cool “pwoingy” noise when you wiggle them about.
  • ‘Iron Man’ helmet stress ball: squeezy proprioceptive anger release. Also good for maintaining strength and mobility in hands – something I struggle with because of some anatomical oddities. Plus…Marvel (I also have a Hulk fist on my desk at work).
  • Miniature slinky spring: fun to stretch, run fingers over and hold. The repeating coils are also soothing to look at. This one was from a multipack similar to this one, left over after we’d finished filling a load of party bags for my daughter’s last birthday party.
  • Tangle: one of the first “official” stim toys I bought. An old favourite, but these days gets less outing than some of the other more novel items. One thing that irritates me slightly, given my auditory sensitivity, is the clicky noises it makes when I’m fiddling with it – fine in a busy place, but not so great somewhere quiet.
  • ‘Unicorn poo’ glitter slime: comes in a pot, to keep it safe from glooping up the rest of the bag. Feels lovely and cool on the hands but leaves no mess. Squishy and squidgy. Sparkly.

Next, some free stuff (be creative. Look around your environment and see what you can find):

  • Pine cones: Fibonacci spirals! Patterns! Knobbly textured loveliness! Beautiful.
  • Larch cones: similar to above. But they’re also kind of delicate and pretty in a way that pine cones aren’t. More a visual thing than a tactile thing.
  • Seashell: more natural mathematical beauty. Knobbles, spirals, smooth bits, shiny bits, ridged bits. Lots and lots of tactile soothing loveliness. Calming colours.
  • Piece of packing foam: softer and squishier than a stress ball, this nevertheless provides a teensy bit of propriceptive stimulus, but is also fun to fold and unfold, wiggle around, or simply to run one’s fingers over.

As well as all of the above, there’s a sparkly “bag within a bag” (another visual stim in itself). This is for items that either:

  1. Smell and/or are balms/liquid, and would thus otherwise taint the rest of the stim kit;
  2. Are easily breakable (e.g. glass bottles);
  3. Are small and thus likely to be difficult to find in the midst of the main bag;
  4. Might get tangled up with other contents; or
  5. Need to be kept clean.

In here is where I keep:

  • Lip balm: nice to smell (I have a chocolate-y one), and good for keeping lips smooth and avoiding the scratchy feel of dry skin
  • Aromatherapy oils: good for a more intense (albeit only occasionally needed) fragrance hit – especially when there’s a need to block out more noxious nose-irritants. I have a couple of bottles of oil blends: ‘Less Stress’ (clary sage, lemon, lavender); and ‘Energise’ (peppermint, frankincense, lemon).
  • Handkerchief: the holdable soft fabric receptacle for the above-mentioned oils (sniffing straight from the bottle looks weird, makes my nose tingle, and means the cap is left off too long, which has the potential to cause deterioration to the active components in the oils.
  • Foam ear plugs (in a small plastic case): for when I need to dampen down noise, but noise-cancelling headphones just aren’t appropriate for whatever reason.
  • Communication necklace, from SpaceRobot Studio: to indicate to other people – usually when in autistic space – my level of willingness/ability to communicate verbally with others.

What else helps me?

In addition to these items, I always have handy:

  • noise cancelling Bluetooth headphones (plus something to play the music on, of course). Mine are Lindy BNX-60s, at just over £80 – my budget wouldn’t stretch beyond this, but they do the job well enough for my purposes.
  • sunglasses

They’re generally big-enough, frequently-worn-enough items for me not to lose them (thus far, at least…).

The other things that go everywhere with me are my bullet journal (learn more at the official bujo website), and my dinosaur pencil case, full of lovely coloured pens, pencils and fine liners. Doodling is a stim, but bullet journaling is another absolute life-saver in helping me organise my life, stay mindful, and keep as sane as possible.

When at home…

Over the summer, I also had made for me a weighted blanket and lap pad. These have been a revelation. If you want the low-down on why these are so helpful, Princess Aspien’s video on the subject is a good insight. They don’t come cheap (I couldn’t afford one for a very long time), and I recognise I owe my possession of these wonderful items to a certain degree of material privilege.

***

I hope this post is of some practical use to people.

I recognise that some items are more affordable than others, and this means that for some, it can be a struggle to meet your own sensory needs. If this is you, then I wish you all the best with finding something affordable that works, and I hope your circumstances get easier. In the meantime, look around your home. Look outdoors. Pebbles, seed cases, pieces of packaging (cleaned), bubble wrap, pine cones. Wherever you are, keep a lookout for something small and portable to stim with.

For everyone: I wish you well in finding the stims that truly work for you.


[Featured image description: Still life colour photograph, through warm dramatic “vintage” filter, depicting, in foreground: a sequin-coloured oversized pencil case, out of which spills folded “infinity hoops”, a black Tangle, a red-and-yellow stress ball in the shape of a Marvel ‘Iron Man’ helmet, a small three-pointed metallic fidget spinner, a fidget football, pine cone and seashell, a piece of grey foam, and other items partially in view. There is a smaller sparkly bag inside in which can be seen a small bottle of aromatherapy oil and a tin of lip balm. Behind these is a black bullet journal, and a red-zipped pencil case with in a colourful dinosaur print fabric.]

#TakeTheMaskOff: authentic vulnerability

Cartoon drawing of Mama Pineapple, a white female-presenting person with chin-length red hair. She is clenching her left fist in order to make her bicep bulge. Tears are streaming down her face.

One of the things I’ve always hated about myself is how easily I burst into tears, and how often I cry.

That’s not to say I’m ashamed of it. It’s my natural reaction to surprise, bad news, overwhelm, discomfort, confusion, and a whole range of other scenarios, situations and feelings. It’s just how I am.

The reason I hate it is not that it shames me, but because it draws others’ attention to me at times when I’m feeling especially vulnerable. And my very dramatic outward displays of emotion make me vulnerable. I am left exposed, demarcated, spotlighted, in a way in which others are not.

I’ve been crying a lot over recent months. I’m cagey about talking too much about the reasons for this on this blog, because while I’m often very candid and open on here, many of those who read my words know me in person, including some people I work with.

Currently I’m contending with huge amounts of change. I’ve lurched from one period of uncertainty to another. This particular dark cloud, while it has evolved and morphed in shape and outline, has been hanging over me for well over eighteen months. Its form has been given greater definition in the past couple of months, but still that form has yet to settle into a state of finality.

I’ve had bad news delivered to me, and many people around me, in very exposing, “public” settings.

I’ve had reassuring structure and routine ripped out from under my feet. I see gaping nothingness in front of me, however much others around me try to reassure me that the unknowns will come to an end at some point.

I’m experiencing a form of bereavement – not over a lost loved one, but over the loss of a particular combination of relationships, things, environments, and a way of being that I’ve loved, and that has made me feel supported, contented and happy for a good few years, even while I’ve contended with many difficulties elsewhere in my life.

Throughout it all, I’ve been told to remain professional, and to “try to use my coping mechanisms” to manage my distress.

But I’ve been unable to prevent myself from crying.

I’ve been unable to prevent myself having meltdowns. At work. At home. In public places.

It’s all too much.

My sense of vulnerability raises my already-pretty-extreme levels of anxiety.

How do others perceive me?

Can I truly be regarded as competent? Professional? Capable? Able? Trustworthy?

***

The truth is, I can be all these things, and vulnerable. Such qualities are not mutually exclusive.

Since my diagnosis, I’ve always been open about my autism.

My reasoning is that I struggle to be quiet about aspects of truth about myself; and that I simply wouldn’t want to be around anyone who looked negatively upon me as a result of knowing that I’m autistic. It’s a part of me, and by rejecting my autism, anyone who does so rejects me.

But my emotional vulnerability is as much a part of my autism as my sensory sensitivities, my pattern-spotting abilities, my attention to detail, and the deep joy I experience when working on things that interest me.

I am not ashamed of that vulnerability, but I now feel I need to go further than such a state of neutrality; of not-negativity.

I have started to embrace it as a fundamental personal truth.

Sometimes, it means – as someone I know recently put it – that I’m “taking one for the team” in more readily displaying those feelings that others around me feel internally, but are unwilling or unable to convey to the outside world. I’m raising awareness.

My vulnerability is authentic.

My vulnerability is real.

My vulnerability is human.

And – perhaps perversely – my ability to allow myself to be vulnerable makes me strong.

Crying is cathartic. The pressure is released. This can sometimes take hours, but it does go. And when my tears have all been shed, and my wailing and sobbing has quietened, I’m exhausted, spent; but the tension is gone.

I know I’m alive, I’m here, and I can carry on.

Right now, I can’t keep up appearances. I can’t pretend I’m fine. I can’t currently wear the mask of acceptable social interaction very much of the time. I’m having to cope with too much.

And while crying can be useful, and I’ve done the Very Helpful Thing of making others aware of how serious things are, no-one should be repeatedly subjected to So Much Stuff that they dissolve in a puddle of tears on an almost daily basis. It’s tiring. It’s not a modus operandi I’m keen on.

Hence time off work, and limited time online. I’m trying to keep my life as quiet as possible at the moment. I need to rest, recover, and recuperate.

But I’m still here.

I’m authentic, I’m vulnerable, and I’m human.