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.]

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.]

#AutismAcceptance/#AutismAppreciation doodles ‘n’ scribbles, no. 16: Ooohhh! Deeeetails!

Cartoon Mama Pineapple, full colour. A white female-presenting person with brown midlength hair clipped to one side. She is wearing a pink top, and has her hands clapped together an a lovestruck, dreamlike expression on her face. The words “Oohhh! Deeeetails!” Are written above her, and coloured love hearts radiate outwards from the image.

Autistics like me see, hear, and feel the details. Everywhere. We can’t stop our brains from detecting everything. When we’re vulnerable, tired, stressed, or anxious, or already overloaded, it’s hard to cope.

But sometimes, details can be delicious. When I’m relaxed, I revel in them. And sometimes, drawing my focus towards one particular detail or cluster of details keeps the rest of the clutter out of view.


[Image description: Cartoon Mama Pineapple, full colour, drawn in felt tip. A white female-presenting person with brown midlength hair clipped to one side. She is wearing a pink top, and has her hands clapped together an a lovestruck, dreamlike expression on her face. The words “Ooohhh! Deeeetails!” Are written above her, and coloured love hearts radiate outwards from the image.]

#AutismAcceptance/#AutismAppreciation Doodles ‘n’ Scribbles, no. 13: Being an Autistic Parent (PART 1)

A comic strip of four panels, laid out in portrait orientation, and drawn digitally in black and white. PANEL 1: IMAGE: A headshot of Mama Pineapple, a white female-presenting person with mid-length hair, sweating, shaking, and looking exasperated, with a tear running down her left cheek. TEXT: “Being an autistic parent can be really hard sometimes.” PANEL 2: IMAGE: Mama Pineapple with her hands over her ears, surrounded and overwhelmed by a whole range of loud noises including children’s voices, loud sudden sound effects, and the Danger Mouse TV series theme. TEXT: “The noise can be overwhelming...” PANEL 3: IMAGE: A messy floor covered in Duplo bricks, soft toys, books, drawings and half eaten biscuits. A child’s foot is just disappearing out of view to the right of the panel. A teddy bear is being flung into the scene. The bottom of a switched on TV screen is just in shot at the top right hand corner. TEXT: “...as can the visuals.” PANEL 4: IMAGE: Mama Pineapple looking unsure/worried, flicking the fingers of her right hand by the side of her face. TEXT: “Am I grown-up enough? I struggle to keep myself organised, let alone my small children.”

First attempt at a (sort of) comic. Part 2 (which takes a happier, more positive slant!) coming up tomorrow.


Text description:

A comic strip of four panels, laid out in portrait orientation, and drawn digitally in black and white.

PANEL 1:
IMAGE: A headshot of Mama Pineapple, a white female-presenting person with mid-length hair, sweating, shaking, and looking exasperated, with a tear running down her left cheek.
TEXT: “Being an autistic parent can be really hard sometimes.”

PANEL 2:
IMAGE: Mama Pineapple with her hands over her ears, surrounded and overwhelmed by a whole range of loud noises including children’s voices, loud sudden sound effects, and the Danger Mouse TV series theme.
TEXT: “The noise can be overwhelming…”

PANEL 3:
IMAGE: A messy floor covered in Duplo bricks, soft toys, books, drawings and half eaten biscuits. A child’s foot is just disappearing out of view to the right of the panel. A teddy bear is being flung into the scene. The bottom of a switched on TV screen is just in shot at the top right hand corner.
TEXT: “…as can the visuals.”

PANEL 4:
IMAGE: Mama Pineapple looking unsure/worried, flicking the fingers of her right hand by the side of her face.
TEXT: “Am I enough of a grown-up? I struggle to keep myself organised, let alone my small children.”