‘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! ☺️

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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. 27: “Stim” stim-doodle/doodle-stim

A portrait-orientation doodle, in coloured pen, featuring the word “stim” in ALL CAPS repeated five times, in varying fonts, colours and styles. The words are decorated with, and surrounded by, many line-drawn shapes and patterns.

Doodling is a stim, and here is a doodle about stimming. A stim-themed doodle-stim/stim-doodle.

How very meta.


[Image: A portrait-orientation doodle, in coloured pen, featuring the word “stim” in ALL CAPS repeated five times, in varying fonts, colours and styles. The words are decorated with, and surrounded by, many line-drawn shapes and patterns.]

#AutismAcceptance/#AutismAppreciation Doodles ‘n’ Scribbles, no. 26: post-meltdown rainbow/star stim-doodle

A doodle, in portrait orientation, of five-pointed stars outlined in black fineliner pen, and filled in with colouring pencils in rainbow colours. Some stars overlap others, and they vary in sizes.

This image is much more overtly a “doodle” than some of my others. I started it in a manager’s office at work, where I’d been give some space and time to recover from a severe crying meltdown in response to some bad news, delivered some six months ago. after a period of uncertainty.

I see it as being more of a stim than a piece of art. The repeated stars somewhat irregular in position and size but nevertheless predictable in shape, the comfort and reassurance of a palette restricted to seven colours, albeit bright and cheerful ones, but in muted pencil instead of loud pen – all these things served to soothe the pain of my shaken, chaotic senses and emotions.

Plus, rainbows and stars. What’s not to like?


[Image description: a doodle, in portrait orientation, of five-pointed stars outlined in black fineliner pen, and filled in with colouring pencils in rainbow colours. Some stars overlap others, and they vary in sizes.]

#AutismAcceptance/#AutismAppreciation doodles ‘n’ scribbles, no 24: another 20-minute mindful paint in the park

A full colour, landscape orientation digital painting of a wooded area of an urban park in springtime. The sky is blue, and there is a red-brick building in the background, and a path to the right of the picture. The painting style is rudimentary and impressionistic. The composition is not ideal, with rather too much grass in the foreground.

I stopped for 20 minutes painted this on the iPad on the way home from work last Thursday. It’s a good exercise in discipline to try and do art work within a tight timeframe — I prefer obsessing over detail, but I think it’s helpful to hone my skills of observation and composition, in particular, by dashing some stuff off very quickly. I also feel somewhat as if I’m laying myself bare by posting something so “imperfect”, but that doing so helps me agonise less over others’ perceptions of me.

Detail is beautiful, but for my own self-care I’m occasionally trying to let it go, as a way of addressing some aspects of my anxiety.

I still have so much to learn.


[Image description: A full colour, landscape orientation digital painting of a wooded area of an urban park in springtime. The sky is blue, and there is a red-brick building in the background, and a path to the right of the picture. The painting style is rudimentary and impressionistic. The composition is not ideal, with rather too much grass in the foreground.]