Therapy vignettes: was he on to something?

Close-up photograph of household vertical blinds. The lighting emphasises the textures within the blinds, creating an image that seems almost abstract.
Image credit: Ben Hosking

[Trigger warning: death/bereavement.]


October 2006 (12.5 years before autism identification).

It’s a Saturday morning. I’m at the last of a series of counselling appointments provided by work.

The ostensible reason is bereavement; my two remaining grandparents recently died within one week of each other. But actually, we dealt with that in the first week. My maternal grandfather and paternal grandmother had lived long and fruitful lives. Their final months had been full of pain and paralysis, preventing them from living as the people they had been their entire lifetimes. They had been suffering, and they were suffering no longer.

(I’m not incapable of profound grief. I was ten years old when my best friend, a two-year-old black cat named Catkins, was killed by a car. The weeks of disbelief, crying and loneliness that followed were some of the most painful I have ever experienced. And in years to come, I will be devastated by the untimely death of a friend my own age. This will also affect me far more deeply.)

We’ve moved onto something else. Something I alluded to briefly in early sessions, that my counsellor is keen to explore.

***

The counsellor has been sitting opposite me. Although I struggle with eyes, I can’t escape the compulsion to stare at his.

He has some kind of tic (or other neurological quirk?) that makes him flicker his eyes from side to side. I know he can’t help it, but I also can’t help but be intrigued as to its cause, and mechanisms allowing it to happen.

I try to avert my gaze.

***

We’re approaching the session wrap-up. I feel a sense of release, but also depletion. I have expended much today.

“So, as you know, this is your last session with me. But I think we need to look at where to go next. This idea of ‘social impediment’ you’ve been referring to – this seems to be really significant. I feel it’s something that it would be useful to explore in more depth.”

“Okay.”

“So I’m going to give you some details of other providers. You can continue coming to see me. You’d have to pay for future sessions, of course. Then there’s [Service X] – you might find their approach useful. There are a few other options – I’ve written them down for you.”

“Thanks. The thing is…would I have to pay for all of these?”

“Unfortunately yes. Of course you can talk to your GP, but I know the NHS waiting list is really long. You’ll be waiting a long time. And I think you really need some continuity. I don’t want you to have to wait too long – what you’ve been talking about seems really pressing. It would be really useful for you to be able to delve into it properly. We’ve not been able to do this in six sessions.”

“But I really can’t afford it. I don’t earn that much. My husband and I don’t have a lot of spare income.”

“I’m wondering whether you need to think about how much of a priority this is. Your feelings that you are ‘socially impeded’, as you describe it – they seem to be really affecting you. I think you’d benefit from being able to explore it, and get to grips with what it means for you.”

A pause.

“There might be some subsidy available – have a look at [Organisation Y]. There are some criteria, but you might be eligible for some help.”

I look at the piece of paper, and come to the conclusion I probably wouldn’t qualify.

I take a deep breath.

“I’m really sorry. I know this is important. But the thought of having to pay for more sessions stresses me out. I don’t think I can.”

“That’s a real shame. I really feel more sessions might help. But it’s your decision. Anyway, I hope you’ve found this useful for you, and I hope I’ve been able to help you in some ways. Good luck with everything.”

***

Years later, I wonder. Was autism the thing he was getting at? And what would have been my response at that time? At that age?

I’ll never know.


[Image description: Close-up photograph of household vertical blinds. The lighting emphasises the textures within the blinds, creating an image that seems almost abstract.]

Advertisements

School Vignettes: the weird boy

‪Digital painting of a white, blond-haired boy vigorously flapping his hands while walking. A white, brown-haired girl stands in the foreground, looking over her shoulder at him.‬

Sometime around 1988 (28 years before autism identification).

There’s this boy at school. He’s really strange.

He’s not in my class. He’s a bit younger, I think.

Most of the time, I see him on his own at break times, walking round and round the primary school buildings. Always anti-clockwise.

He moves his hands vigorously. He flaps them, but one hand seems to move from side to side, the other up and down. They’re held up in front of his face.

He makes noises as he flaps his hands.

They sound like a motor engine, and so I assume that his hand movements are a crude, inaccurate attempt at mimicking the actions of a driver behind the wheel of a car. I suppose he must like cars.

He doesn’t say much. I don’t think I’ve ever heard him speak. I’ve seen him cry, though. He seems to cry at lots of things. He wails. Wordless. He thrashes his arms as he does so. I don’t know why he’s so upset all the time.

There are times when I feel sorry for him. He looks even lonelier than I am. Or at least I assume he is – I’m often on my own too.

I like to be alone sometimes, and I often get annoyed when people try to insist that I join in with games at breaktime when I want to wander past the trees at the edge of the school grounds. And I feel lonely because everyone else is enjoying the thing we’re all doing, but I’m not. Other times, I’d like to play, but they don’t want me around. Then I feel really lonely.

At least I can talk to the other children when I need to.

But I wouldn’t know how to communicate with him. Sometimes I’ve been a bit scared of him, of his strange behaviour. I might even have pushed him out of my way once or twice. That probably wasn’t very nice of me.

All the other kids say he’s weird. Aside from a few of the more considerate girls, most are clear they wouldn’t want anything to do with him.

I don’t say much about it. I’m complicit in my silence but, after all, I’m weird enough myself. I give people enough ammunition to tease me already. Better just to go along with the consensus.

I wouldn’t want to draw any more attention to myself by disagreeing with what they’re saying about the weird boy.


[Image description: Digital painting of a white, blond-haired boy vigorously flapping his hands while walking. A white, brown-haired girl stands in the foreground, looking over her shoulder at him.]

‘Unpost’* one: solace in a spider web

Have you ever watched a spider spin its web? I mean, not just watching a speeded-up playback of a time lapse recording on the telly, but actually sat or stood in front of a real spider spinning its web in real time before your eyes?

This afternoon for the first time I did exactly this.

In recent weeks, I’ve been coming to the increasingly clear conclusion that I have, for a long time, been suffering from a certain degree of complex post-traumatic stress disorder (C-PTSD). This isn’t something I’ve randomly decided, and it’s not something I’m plucking out of the air. There have been discussions going on in the adult autistic online world, and much of this resonates with me.

I’ve struggled for some time to write any new posts for this blog. I seem to be in a constant state of exhaustion. I haven’t had the energy, time, or emotional wherewithal to write much in the way of new content – whether whimsical, creative, exploratory musings, or intelligently- and expertly-crafted essays.

I haven’t had the battery power for advocacy, politics, or any form of campaigning on behalf of myself or of any other autistics through my writing. I’m barely keeping my head above water sufficiently to do my job, or be an effective parent.

But my recent “vignettes“ posts seem to be coming out of nowhere. Painful memories have been coming to the fore as a result of chance conversations and certain word combinations I have read or heard online, or they’ve revealed themselves as the landscape and landmarks surrounding some of the stops, halts, or termini on the journey taken by my train of thought.

They’re flashbacks.

They’re vivid.

And while I can’t get rid of them entirely, by capturing them in writing, I’m taming them, before releasing them into the wider world in a controlled fashion, their custody no longer solely my responsibility.

I know there will be plenty more of them.

I’m increasingly realising that I have been traumatised. Not by a sudden, catastrophic event. My trauma is cumulative. It is the trauma of countless small painful experiences. Emotional pain. Intellectual pain. Social pain. Sensory pain. Some of that pain has been of a primarily physical nature; sometimes, the effects upon me of other forms of pain have themselves been physical.

Some of that pain has been inflicted upon me by other people – both prior to and since my autism diagnosis. Some of those who inflicted that pain were fully aware I was autistic, many weren’t. A lot of pain has been (and still is) self-inflicted – I’ve learnt to expect negative interactions with others, or problematic interpretations of my behaviour, actions, and modes of communication. I’ve learnt to assume that I’m the one in the wrong even when I know that, objectively speaking, that isn’t the case. And I beat myself up about it.

Today was a team away day. It was a far more positive experience for me than the event which formed the subject matter of a recent work vignette. The afternoon discussions were practical, and produced some tangible results that might actually help to shape the services we deliver and give us some concrete objectives.

From an accessibility point of you, everything had been handled pretty well. The venue wasn’t sensorily objectionable. I, and a fellow autistic working in our section, had received plenty of advance information about the structure of the event, and details on the format of specific activities. I didn’t feel remotely uncomfortable about ducking out of conversations during the breaks and sitting in a corner with my headphones on, or taking myself outside for a breather.

But the first exercise of the day felt problematic for me – we were each asked to pick a shape that we felt most closely represented who we were as individuals. Having looked at the material beforehand, I had already made up my mind that I was a “squiggle“. There were a fair few of us squiggles, including a not-insignificant number of neurodivergent folks in the room.

I associated the squiggly line with dynamism, energy, creativity, exploration, lateral thinking, and a busy, active mind. Boxes are too rigid; circles have some appeal to me, with their lack of endpoint, their sense of unity, continuity, inclusiveness, and something of the holistic. I don’t see myself as a pointy triangle or a rectangle.

We were asked, in individuals then groups, to note down words associated with each of the shapes – the ones we most strongly identified with, our second choices, and those with which we identified the least strongly.

Whilst it was meant to be a harmless, lighthearted, not particularly scientific activity to provoke discussion about team dynamics, and help us think about the characteristics of some of the people we work with, I couldn’t help feeling triggered by some of the more negative words and phrases that a few “non-squiggle” colleagues associated with my shape.

Flaky

Out of control.

Messy.

Doesn’t plan anything – or struggles to stick to plans.

Unpredictable.

There was hostility towards some of the other shapes as well – the “box/square” came in for a fair bit of criticism.

But whilst it was not intended that we read too much into this, I was reminded of all the times when people have levelled criticism at me without fully understanding me. I’ve been told I was out of control, that I can’t multitask, that I’m disruptive. I’ve called myself “stupid” and “lazy” because I procrastinate, have difficulty planning and organising, and difficulty seeing things through – often because too many other ideas are crowding my consciousness, vying for my attention, but also, frequently, because I simply can’t make my brain “do the thing”.

I’ve been criticised, and often criticised myself, simply for being the way I am in a world in which my way of being isn’t the majority modus operandi.

When all the time, I’m having to negotiate far more just than the explicit task at hand. I am, in fact, multitasking by default, because – as a disabled person and an autistic person – I am simultaneously performing so many extra “jobs“ on top of the one that I’m paid to do. I don’t always have the energy to perform that job well as well as I’d like, because my energy is being expended elsewhere in a way that those who do not share my neurotype couldn’t possibly imagine.

And as a perfectionist, that sucks. I like doing things well.

So recently, I’ve been going through a bit of an “I hate my brain“ period. I’ve been resentful of the fact that I’m a polymath, with a constant explosion of ideas taking place in my brain, but little ability to focus on one project, activity, or idea to execute well, and little time or energy to devote to these passions.

It’s not really the right time to chase my dreams – my children are still very young, both are neurodivergent and need a lot of input. I’m still getting to grips with new job and a new work environment. Various members of my family, and I myself, are experiencing a fair few health challenges.

Which means I find myself resenting the ideas that come to me. I can’t actually do anything with them, but I don’t have the patience to leave them be, or make a note of them to pursue at a future time when I’m more sufficiently resourced to do so.

After the away day, I was tired. So much listening. So much processing. So little rest. But as the working day finished earlier than usual, I decided not to go on a long wild walk, but instead to take my usual route home through several of the local parks but do so more slowly, more mindfully.

Rather than feeling the compulsion to experience the expansive, the large-scale, the landscape at macro-level (as is often the case when I chose to take myself outdoors to shake off my overwhelm), I was compelled to examine the outdoors in miniature.

I stood watching bees pollinating flowering bushes and shrubs. I was fascinated to note that certain types of bee preferred certain plants. I appreciated, for perhaps the first time, the what-should-be-damned-obvious fact that bumblebees (being insects) have bodies (like all other insects) that are articulated into three distinct sections rather than being a somewhat indistinct ball of fuzz with a head, legs and wings.

Closer to home I spotted a ladybird perched atop a valerian stem. I noticed its mouthparts, antennae, the articulation of its six limbs, its individual pattern of spots, and the smaller segmentation of its thorax, visible briefly on the underside of its body as it clambered over a leaf stem, beneath the modified wings that were its scarlet, polka dotted shell.

And then I saw the spider.

A garden spider, minutely patterned in greys, beiges and taupes. A particularly tiny example of the species.

It had just begun to construct a web between several valerian stems. The radial threads were already in place, and at the point I started to observe the tiny creature, it was in the process of strengthening the centre. As I watched, it finished this stage, before constructing a few non-sticky spiral threads to allow it to scamper to the outer reaches of the structure, before spiralling inwards with the final, sticky silk that would form the completed web.

The threads were so fine they were barely visible without holding my head at a tilt.

I had never before appreciated the meticulous complexity, or the beauty, of the web-spinning process itself.

In watching the story of the web’s construction unfolding before my eyes, I slowed down. I relaxed. I smiled. I took solace in nature doing its thing. Solace in the spider’s web.

And I appreciated my brain again. Appreciated my love of detail. My love of close-up examination that is just as strong as my love of patterns, connections and the bigger picture. My ability to enjoy such things without having to quantify them, or question whether or not I should be spending my time enjoying them.

I felt restored.


*I have Anna Nicholson of Transponderings to thank for the idea of ‘unposts’ – it’s useful sometimes to be able to post a set of uncategorised, stream-of-consciousness musings. I’ve recognised the need to be able to write without necessarily putting pressure on myself to come up with something polished.

Anna – I hope you don’t mind me pilfering this approach! ☺️

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.]

Therapy Vignettes: the awkward silence

A hastily-sketched digital painting of a shadowy female figure seated by a window shaded by blinds, gazing attentively but ambiguously towards the viewer.

[Note for non-UK readers: in this, and similar posts, I use the term ‘counsellor’, synonymous with what others call a ‘therapist’, i.e. someone who works in a one-to-one confidential setting providing listening/talking therapy and support.]


Autumn 2000 (15.5 years before autism identification).

I’m in a dimly-lit room in the secluded, greenery-shrouded portacabin that (at this point in time) houses the university counselling service.

It’s cold and grey outside. Late autumn. Close to my birthday.

Taupe vertical blinds shade the anonymous nearly-square window.

A cube-shaped cardboard box, ornamented with a pink, purple and cyan floral pattern and dispensing crisp, white tissues, sits on a low wood-effect table.

***

I’ve been seeing the counsellor for a few sessions now.

All since – upon my return from a long day manning a society information desk at the Freshers’ Fair, and on catching sight of the sight of piles of unwashed crockery and pans in the kitchen – I broke down uncontrollably on the floor in the back doorway of our student house, and my friends insisted I see someone about how I was feeling.

And here I am again.

And here, once again, is the same silence.

***

It always starts this way.

Having greeted me as she led me to the therapy room, the woman sitting opposite me has remained silent since we both sat down.

Earnest, attentive eyes on me.

Waiting.

It’s always like this.

What does she want me to do?

What are the rules here?

Is this the way all counselling sessions are supposed to begin?

I try to work out my opening gambit. What is the first thing I should say in this situation? What does she want me to say? Talk about how I’m feeling? Talk about what my week has been like? Actually ask her what’s supposed to happen?

And if I don’t speak, will she eventually prompt me?

Or might it be possible that the entire 50 minutes passes by without a single word?

And how might that help me?

Would she actually allow that to happen?

I just don’t know.

I wish someone would actually tell me what’s supposed to happen. It’s making me agitated.

Earnest, attentive eyes on me.

Waiting.

***

At last, the silence becomes too much.

I resign myself to breaking it – hoping that, as I start to speak, I’ll gradually work out what I actually want to say, and that, gradually, I’ll become at ease with speaking to this stranger staring earnestly and attentively at me.

I take a deep breath…


[Image description: A hastily-sketched digital painting of a shadowy female figure seated by a window shaded by blinds, gazing attentively but ambiguously towards the viewer.]