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Small talk

I saw something on instagram a few days ago that labelled smalltalk as:

Noise pollution

For autistic people, this is a common belief. Autistic people are known for hating smalltalk, often going great lengths just to avoid it. For example, avoiding people they know in public, just to avoid smalltalk. Smalltalk often occurs in everyday interactions with acquaintances and people we don’t know. And there is good reason for such an endeavour as small talk is something that is not always done on your own terms and doesn’t exactly achieve a defined goal. It is very much superficial and neither party really gets any information of substance or use from each other.I think it is likely one of the reasons autistic people are often labelled as being so intense – because we often drive into the deep, meaningful conversations straight away.

According to the Cambridge dictionary, small talk is:

Conversation about things that are not important, often between people who do not know each other well.

However, looking more in depth reveals that actually, smalltalk isn’t actually about the context of the conversation but more to do with social connection. I always hated smalltalk. It made me uncomfortable and gave me the desire to just leave the conversation. Despite this, I’d say I’ve got the hang of it now as I understand its purpose more. It isn’t about the content of the conversation, but the context and connection. Additionally, having everything online during COVID really helped me to develop my skills in a “safe” environment ie. behind a screen.

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I think that one of the reasons smalltalk was so beneficial in the past is because it signalled that people were not intending to be a threat to each other. In some respects, this is still relevant to today. If people don’t engage in smalltalk then they could be perceived to be unfriendly and therefore a threat. For example, a few days ago, I was waiting at the bus stop at 2am and it was only me and one other person around. If we had just stood there in silence, then we would possibly have viewed each other as a threat but a simple and superficial question of “Is this where the national express stop is?” meant that we knew we had a common motive.

If we think about it a bit deeper, small talk should be easy for autistic people. It is highly predictable. Almost like playing a game where each player knows the next move. People can have an entire conversation without even having to share any information of substance.

Beyond this, small talk can be termed as “social lubrication” and a mutual agreement for people to coexist. It can provide the means to slide into deeper topics and potential friendships. It is the way that we give people first impressions and make new friends and acts as a funnel into deeper relationships. It is highly important in the world of work for networking and there are a lot of courses out there to help business people perfect their skills in smalltalk as it can be the difference between making lots of money or very little.

So, now we have established the importance of smalltalk, how can we get better at it?

  1. Be prepared for common questions

Like I said above, smalltalk is highly predictable and a lot of topics of conversation are often those that are equalisers. For example, the weather is a great thing to talk about as it is something that everyone experiences the same.

Other common questions include: What do you do? Where are you from? Why are you here? What was your journey like? etc

When you first meet someone, you could start with a direct opener such as “Hi, I’m Finty, I don’t think we’ve met before?”

Then you could ask open ended questions that the person can’t just answer yes or no to. Things like “Have you ever been here before?”.

  • 2. Active listening

Show the person that you are listening by responding to them appropriately. For example, by nodding your head, leaning in slightly or saying things such as “uh-huh” or “mmm”. This way, you are showing the person that you care about them and giving them a good impression of yourself.

  • 3. Practice

Whether it be through playing out scenarios in your head or making a conscious effort to speak to one stranger each day, practice makes perfect!

  • 4. Learn how to get beyond the smalltalk stage

Really pay attention to what other people say and latch onto any personal information they give. A good rule of thumb is to tale one piece of personal information, give some information about yourself and then ask one question. eg. If someone says they like sports, I could say “I love sports too! I’m a runner, what sport do you do?”. This way you can get to know a person more and get beyond the smalltalk.

  • 5. Plan your exit

It may seem contradictory but I know that personally, as long as I know that I have an easy get out, I am okay with doing something that makes me uncomfortable – such as smalltalk. One of the worst parts of small talk is worrying that you might be trapped in a conversation forever. Knowing that you have an escape just helps you relax a bit more.

You could say thinks such as: It’s been great chatting with you. Maybe I’ll see you again some time” or “Sorry to rush off. but I hadn’t realised the time!” or “It was lovely to meet you. Have a nice day!” or “Sorry but I’m gonna have to dash off to another meeting!”.

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autism decision making loneliness social skills university

How to get better at socialising as an autistic person

People with autism don’t tend to have the best reputation when it comes to social skills. Autism is primarily a social communication disorder so wether it be due to inability to read people, to understand social cues or make eye contact – as a person with autism, socialising can be very stressful. Despite this, I know many autistic people who thrive in social situations and in this post, I want to try and understand why.

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Things you may be doing wrong

  1. You don’t know what skills you need to work on.

If you don’t know where you are going wrong then you can’t possibly know what to work on! Once you’ve identified where you are going wrong, you can work to push yourself to overcome them. For example:

  • If you get anxious making phone calls, try making one in the next week.
  • If you find yourself interrupting people when they are talking, challenge yourself to let people finish what they are saying before you talk.

2. Not socialising with the right people

I used to think that I was rubbish at socialising but when I came to uni and joined societies where people with similar interests went, I found that actually, I’m okay at socialising. I just needed to find the right people. People are generally nice and will accept your differences just as you’d accept theirs.

3. Not socialising in the right place

I find that if I meet up with people in groups and indoors, (for example in a cafe) I really struggle to participate in conversations because I can’t focus on everything that is going on at once. When I arrange to meet people, I often suggest going for a walk as I find it a lot easier to talk as there is less pressure and it is more acceptable to have periods of silence.

4. Dwelling on negative thoughts and overthinking

It is very easy to spiral into thinking about what you are doing wrong and ways you’ve messed up when reflecting on social situations. However, it is important to practice self compassion because everyone makes mistakes! Rather than overthinking things you may have done wrong, learn from them. Identify where you’ve gone wrong, think about how you can do things differently next time and move on! This is easier said than done, but by focusing on thinking about what you can do going forward rather than what you have done wrong, you are doing something positive and proactive.

5. Not getting on with people

Sometimes, you may perceive people to not like you or sense friction when really, you are just misinterpreting them. Some things you could do to get over this are:

  • Learn about other cultures. Friendships aren’t all about similarities. Sometimes you’ve got to appreciate differences too. Look up documentaries, exhibitions or books on different cultures so you can understand them more.
  • Keep and open mind and try not to jump to conclusions.
  • Ask questions – Rather than saying “You’re wrong!” ask “How come you think that?”

Ways to overcome these problems

  1. Study other people

Socialising is an art and is just one of those things that is better learnt through observation than learning a set formula. Think about:

  • What is their body language and eye contact like?
  • How do they make people feel?
  • What do they talk about?
  • What are their energy levels like compared to the other persons?

2. Visualise

Another thing you can to to improve your social skills is visualise certain scenarios and play them out in your head. It links to the above paragraph because you can visualise yourself doing the things that a ‘good’ socialiser does.

3. Active listening – encourage people to talk about themselves.

Active listening is a really good skill to have and will make people want to spend time with you. I actually did an active listening course a few years ago that really helped me. Some top tips are:

  • Show that you are listening through your body language. For example, make eye contact, nod occasionally as they talk and lean forward slightly.
  • Listen to non verbal cues. Are they rubbing their eyes because they are tired? Crossing their arms in defence? Or maybe they are just smiling.
  • Try to focus on listening and not preparing your next question while they are speaking.
  • Say ‘yeah’ or ‘uh huh’ to show that you are listening.
  • Don’t try and solve their problems, just offer a listening ear.
  • Ask questions relating to what they’ve said or repeat or paraphrase things back to them eg. ‘It sounds like that made you really upset…’

4. Start and end the conversation right. To start the conversation:

  • Ask a question eg. ‘How’s your day going?’
  • Ask for their opinion eg. ‘What do you think of the new….?’
  • Give a compliment eg. ‘I love your t-shirt! Where’s it from?’
  • Make an observation about the surroundings eg. Isn’t the wether great!’

Then to know when a conversation is over:

  • Summarising statements eg. ‘Well, I hope it works out for you!’
  • Short pleasantries eg. ‘It was great spending time with you!’
  • Mentioning meeting again soon eg. ‘We should meet up again to do this again!’
  • Referring to other commitments eg. ‘I have sooo much work to do later!’

Non-verbal signs include:

  • Packing up belongings
  • Looking at their watch or a clock
  • Appearing distracted

Hopefully these tips will help you have better social interactions!

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Why Autistic People Make Good Employees

Looking at the traits most commonly associated with autism, you could be led to believe that autistic people and employment don’t go very well together. However, it is important to remember that although autistic people struggle in some respects, they also have many strengths and good qualities that can be very advantageous to employers. Autism is a spectrum and no autistic person is the same, meaning people can present very differently. Just like neurotypical people, every autistic person will be more suited to some jobs rather than others. I think it is really important that autistic people are given a chance in the workplace, as well as the appropriate adjustments. Below are some reasons why.

  1. Alternative perspectives & logical and creative thinking

People with autism tend to be very good at problem solving and take a logical and structured approach to work. This, coupled with creative thinking, allows autistic people to think up alternative approaches to things – which can be really beneficial. We are both resourceful and innovative. I think for me, my mind is constantly on the go and if I’m asked to do some brainstorming, I will come up with a multitude ideas. Maybe not all of them will be useful but I will keep them coming until a solution is formed. We are also good at seeing crucial things that may have been overlooked.

  1. Loyalty, reliability and punctuality

Autistic people love routine so once they are settled into a job, they will usually stay there for a long time. Similarly, due to this need to follow strict structure and routine, autistic employees are very likely to stick to time limits and be punctual.

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  1. Focus and concentration

One so called negative autistic trait is the fact that we easily get obsessed with things. We can easily shut everything else off, just to focus on one thing – which is great if it is something to do with work! It means that we will often be devoted to projects and therefore do them to a very high standard.

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  1. Sense of right and wrong

We tend to have a very good sense of right and wrong. We will often fight for justice and not let things go until we get them. I think this often stems from our black and white thinking.

We are also very honest and, although our bluntness can sometimes be an issue, we will bring up problems in the workplace that other people may prefer to just avoid bringing up. Personally, I think this is good in terms of a workplace developing.

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  1. Knowledge and specialist skills

Many people with autism develop special interests. Their thirst for knowledge can often mean they can become experts in their area of interest with an in depth knowledge of the field. This is great when working in an area where this specialist knowledge can be applied.

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  1. Ability to do repetitive tasks

Often, people with autism find repetitive tasks enjoyable. In a chaotic and overstimulating world, repetitive tasks bring calm. We can do the same thing for hours on end, without losing concentration and making mistakes. We can happily do jobs that other people would find tedious and boring.

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How to keep down a job as an Autistic person

In my previous article, I gave some tips on getting a job as a person on the autistic spectrum. But what about when you’ve secured a job? How do you keep it? Work is hard for the majority of people and for autistic people, despite the skills, knowledge and positive attributes autistic people bring to a workplace, it can be particularly challenging and be filled with barriers to overcome.

The main issues with employment arise when employers don’t recognise these barriers or subsequently attempt to remove them.

The main reasons that people with autism may struggle at work are:

  • Overwhelm
  • Anxiety about change
  • Difficulty dealing with change
  • Work environment
  • Lack of awareness

Overwhelm

If you’ve had a job before, it’s likely that before starting the job you had to complete and array of admin tasks – all of which can be overwhelming and require significant organisation. Signing contracts, providing bank details, national insurance number, background checks completing forms etc…. If you’ve never done these tasks before, it can be really hard knowing where to start and how to find all the information.

I remember when I started my job in the warehouse, I found it really stressful having to source all the information for the forms. I found that the best way to do it was to create a checklist and focus on one point at a time rather than trying to do it all at once. I now keep all the important documents and information in one place to make the process a lot easier in the future.

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Anxiety about change and issues coping with change

Autistic people tend to really struggle with change. This is because they use routines and rituals to try and cope with the chaos and distress of everyday life. Keeping things the same gives some sense of control. A new environment can really disrupt this. For my most recent job, I work remotely meaning there were a lot fewer changes to contend with.

Before employment autistic people might have lots of questions such as:

  • What will I do as soon as I arrive at work?
  • What will my colleagues be like?
  • What will the work environment be like?
  • Will I have to stay overtime?
  • When will my breaks be?
  • What if I get overwhelmed?

The list goes on and it can be very easy to get stuck in a cycle of overthinking about these things. When I started my job, the thing I was most worried about is what the actual job would be like. I was lucky in the fact that my partner at the time started at the same time as me, which gave some form of sameness and comfort as we were in it together. Additionally, the first week was classroom based and gave us a really good introduction to the job and gentle easing into the warehouse work.

Something that can be done beforehand is to request that employers give (if they haven’t already) clear guidance on what can be expected in the job role, working hours, what the general day to day structure is like etc. You could even ask for an opportunity to visit the workplace prior to starting to be introduced to colleagues and the environment. This can really help with visualising what the day and routine will be like in order to aid the transition.

Settling into the new job and environment can be really hard however there are some things that can aid the transition.

  • Ensuring people know your preferred method of communication. If you prefer written instructions or instructions given separately then tell people!
  • Develop a plan for how you are going to prioritise certain tasks.
  • Sometimes it can be useful to ask for the personal profiles of colleagues. In the most recent job I had, we had to all create personal profiles with key facts about how we communicated and what we found annoying.
  • Some employers may offer mentors to give support.
  • Ask for clear guidelines on what the rules are and what is ‘acceptable’.

For example, I always thought that the half an hour break at the warehouse started from when you left the chill but it turns out that the majority of people started it after going to the toilet and sitting down with food. This is an example of something that is ‘acceptable’.

Work environment

For many people, it is the work environment rather than the actual job that causes the most issues. This can be due to sensory problems. Many people with autism are more sensitive to sensory input than other people. Things like lighting, noise, smells and temperature can all cause sensory overload. One of the issues I have is having a conversation with someone when there is a lot of background noise as my brain seems to focus on the background noise rather than the person talking which can be problematic when being given instruction in a noisy environment as none of it goes in. I was quite lucky in my job as I find that a way to reduce overstimulation for me is exercise and my job required me to constantly be on the move.

If I was in an office space I think I would really struggle to work. I’m in the library at uni now, on the quietest floor yet there is still too much noise for me. Sniffing, clicking, typing etc… Luckily I have headphones.

Sometimes employers will be proactive. For example, if you work in a shop that gets busy, they may move you to a quieter area. Sometimes it’s important for you to be able to respond to your needs yourself or let your employer know that you are struggling. I used to start making a lot of mistakes in the warehouse when I got bored because my brain couldn’t process the information anymore so I would get moved to a different role.

It is standard for employers to provide opportunity for feedback and this is a great time to tell them what’s working and what isn’t.

Lack of understanding

Often, if colleagues don’t know that there is a reason for your peculiarities caused by autism then they may just label you as weird or misunderstand you and develop friction. Autism is called a hidden disability for a reason – many people don’t know that you are autistic until you tell them. If employees don’t have understanding of the condition, you will potentially lack the support you need from others. There are many unwritten rules in the workplace that can be hard to grasp. These rules vary, so it can be good to talk them through with someone. Additionally, many workplace break times involve a lot of smalltalk – which can be hard to grasp but some good topics of conversation are:

  • The weather
  • TV
  • Plans or the evening

It’s a good rule of thumb to avoid controversial topics such as politics or money.

If you can, it could be a good idea to provide your employer with some information to give to colleagues about how your autism effects you. Most workplaces offer disability awareness courses as well.

In my opinion, it is a good idea to disclose autism to an employer as they will the have certain duties to you. The main law that is relevant to you is the Equality Act 2010. It requires promotion of opportunity for disabled people. It means that you shouldn’t be discriminated against based on you disability and should be treated equally and fairly.

It also means that you should be given reasonable adjustments. 

Reasonable adjustments

Reasonable adjustments are changes that employers make in order to best help you carry out your role. They can include:

  • Having your own desk.
  • Enforcing a policy that avoids people being noisy near your workstation.
  • Agreeing an alternative dress code due to sensory sensitivities.
  • Allowing flexible hours.
  • Allowing noise cancelling headphones.
  • Allowing you to start early and finish later to avoid rush hour.
  • Putting communications in writing.
  • Being given advanced notice regarding changes.
  • Extra training.

Some useful resources:

You may be entitled to extra financial support as an autistic person in employment: https://www.gov.uk/financial-help-disabled

practical and financial support can be provided to help you start or stay in work https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/access-to-work-factsheet/access-to-work-factsheet-for-customers

Equality act 2010 https://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/2010/15/contents

Free advice on workplace rules and rights https://www.acas.org.uk

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Autism and the need to be busy all the time

In my previous blog I mentioned that in order to overcome my loneliness, I tend to make myself really busy in order to feel like I have a sense of purpose. I thought I’d unpick that a bit more.

Just to put things into context – A few weeks ago, I had a two hour exam, followed by a meeting with a charity I’m a youth campaigner, a two hour meeting for a peer research job I have followed by a meeting with an environmental group I’m part of. And then, after all that, I still had to log some hours of work. So, when I say I’m a busy person – I really am!

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I just feel like I function well in chaos. Everything I need to do is constantly whizzing round in my head. I like it like the though. It’s like my head is constantly being pulled in all directions. I don’t so much get stressed but excited. I think the emotions are very similar and my body confuses the two meaning I am not so much effected by having so much on my plate but rather in a constant state of being happy and looking forward to things.

I’ve not seen much online about hyper productivity and autism but I’m sure it must be common. In society today, I think it is extremely easy to be pulled into the trap of trying to find purpose. We are generally taught that we are valued by how we contribute to society rather than the value we give to our own lives and those closest to us. There are pressures from all round to be productive and as an autistic person, prone to take things to the extreme in order to appear normal – hyper productivity occurs.

A while back, I tried to change. I tried to do less. It didn’t go very well. I figured out that the issue wasn’t in the things that I do, it was in the way I did them. I am very prone to attempt to multitask but I think what I’ve learnt is that it is better to give my attention to one thing only, rather than multiple things at once – whether it be with studying or spending time with friends. I find that the more busy I get, the more busy I want to be.

There are two sides to the coin of being really busy and motivated to do things. It can be a bad thing. When I first started Uni, I really struggled with prioritising the things I needed to prioritise. I was clinging onto the things that had kept me busy throughout lockdown when really I should have given them up. I think that it was my way of coping with the change of moving out because it gave me a sense of normality while distracting me. I always that because I hadn’t reached burnout yet that I was fine, however I wasn’t devoting energy to the things I needed to.

So why might Autistic people be more prone to this?

Desire to fit in

I think a lot of the narrative in society, especially since the pandemic, tells us that we have to be productive all the time. Volunteering for things, even when our plate is already full. Making promises and having to rush tasks just to make it work. Being consumed by work all day every day. And then once you’re technically done with a something, you feel guilty for not doing more. It’s a vicious cycle. You judge yourself for what you haven’t done, rather than looking at what you have done. Yet being hyper productive is a way to feel worthy, fulfilled, and in control. And so you become obsessed.

Obsessive nature

A really common theme in people with autism is the obsessive nature. Obsessions give stability, security and control. Sometimes however, with people who mask a lot, we can fall into the trap of becoming obsessed with whatever is socially acceptable, just taking it that extra bit too far. Social media is definitely a place where toxic productivity festers, for example through tweets about spending the pandemic learning new skills and utilising every second. Many people focused on productivity during the pandemic. Many people felt afraid and uncertain so tried to gain control. If you are busy, you are distracted from fears of the future. It was all over – free courses online, really amazing experiences being offered online and widening access to things that we’d never have imagined doing before. But – How do you know when to stop? For me, that’s where I struggle.

Executive function

Executive function and self-regulation skills are the mental processes that enable us to plan, focus attention, remember instructions, and juggle multiple tasks successfully.  I’ve seen it described as having a role similar to a conductors in an orchestra. It manages and organises each musician. Tells them when to begin, how fast or slow, and when to stop playing. I struggle knowing when to stop things and when I’ve done enough. I get hyper focused and as a driven person, take on more and more.

 Hyperfocus

I think Hyperfocus is a less talked about autistic trait. It involves a person becoming fixated on a specific thing, topic or event. It’s more than just concentration. It can mean that we are extremely productive and get a lot done. I can go all day going from one important thing to the next, sending email after email that would take other people hours to write. It seems easy because I am just in this mindset of ‘go go go’. However all this does have its draw backs in that we have less energy for other things – often the important day to day things like admin tasks or keeping on top of washing.

Something that I have used to help me with this is time blocking – assigning certain times to certain things. I find it so easy to get lost in doing something that it gets to the end of the day and I realise I’ve spent far too long on one thing to the detriment of another.

Time blocking is a time management tool that divides your day into separate blocks of time. Specific tasks are allocated to each block. 

By setting reminders on my phone, I have to move on once the time is up. At first it was really hard to do because I hate leaving things unfinished and often my brain will keep looping back to the unfinished task but now, I just view notion (the app where I keep everything on my laptop) as a second brain so I can just tell myself that it’s okay because all the work I’ve done is still there, it’s not going anywhere and I can pick up from where I left off. Changing my view to this really helped me.

I think another reason I struggled with time blocking is the fact that I work best when I want to do something rather than when I’m being told I have to do it. What I tend to do to get round that is split all the tasks that I have to do up, and then give myself options that I can choose myself for each time block.

All of this has really helped me because before, I was consumed by my work and not balancing things very well at all. I was trying to just fill every minute with ‘finishing things off’. Now, I still fill every minute but I also have specific times for things like socialising, meeting people and running. And because I have specific times for certain things, I make sure to give my undivided attention to each thing I’m doing rather than trying to multitask.

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Autism and masking

I’m just starting this post with a quote that I find very important when thinking about high functioning autism.

“(so called) mild autism doesn’t mean one experiences autism mildly… it means you experience their autism mildly”

Adam Walton

It is very much relevant to girls on the spectrum who go to great extents to mask their autism in an attempt to appear “normal”.

Masking: When autistic people present or perform social behaviors that are considered neurotypical. 

I was diagnosed with autism in March 2016. It came about after my therapist suggested it. I remember her first introducing the idea to me and being quite shocked, almost offended. I didn’t see autism as something that people like me would have. When I thought of autism, I thought of the vulnerable and disabled people that my parents work with – not me. They work with autistic people so how could they not know? The therapist showed me a leaflet and told me to highlight the things that affected me in either green, amber or red to represent the extent to which they related to me. I was surprised to see that a lot of them described things that I experienced. Ultimately, it was up to me whether to be assessed or not and I just thought that if it could give me answers that I should go for it. I also knew that the people at school with autism got a lot more support than I was at the time. I wanted to be more supported because school was awful so any way to make it easier was a bonus. I would be able to access practical support and be able to advocate for myself.

I think if I had been diagnosed as a child, that perhaps things would be different. I may have been over supported and as a result, be less independent and more limited but as a teenager, I could have control over what support I was given.

I was involved very little in the actual assessment. They mostly asked my parents lots of questions about my development and childhood. My high school teachers also had to fill in a questionnaire. I was only there for a very short time. I was asked questions, had to do a role play and read a book. I remember before I got the autism assessment, my parents told me not to ‘pretend’ to be someone I wasn’t. I think they thought that I might ‘act’ autistic to get the diagnosis. I tried to act normal. I was told that there were no right or wrong answers but I knew that certain answers would result in a diagnosis and some wouldn’t. I struggled with the role play and also making eye contact with the assessor. I also felt quite nervous as my parents and someone else was watching through a one- way screen. I didn’t read any blogs, watch youtube videos or read books on autism before my diagnosis because I didn’t want it to influence me. All I did was read a leaflet given to me by my therapist. I wasn’t an expert in autism so I didn’t know the ‘right’ answers or relevant things to share with the clinicians. I was just myself.

I wasn’t surprised when I got the diagnosis because I’d known my whole life that I was different. I think that the biggest thing that my autism diagnosis has given me is being able to understand myself and know who I am. I have been able to reconcile with myself for growing up thinking the way that I was, was my fault. I actually think now, that it is more of societies fault for not accommodating for anyone different.

So why didn’t I get a diagnosis sooner?

It is largely accepted that there is a gender bias in Autism diagnoses with more males being diagnosed than females. I believe that there are many flaws in both societies perceptions of autism and also in the way it is viewed by health professionals. Many women go undiagnosed because they present differently to autistic men. Much of the indicators for autism don’t take into account gender differences in autism. Women are generally better at hiding their autism compared to men and are simply viewed as a ‘bit different’ or ‘shy’. For some people, living behind a facade is fine and they get by but for many women, it is exhausting to be constantly pretending that you are someone you’re not; only being yourself when you are in a ‘safe’ place. Women get diagnosed with every other mental health condition but autism because they are compared to the male representation. They gain labels that they don’t fit.

But the main reason…..

Masking

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As said above, masking is when autistic people present or perform social behaviours that are considered neurotypical. 

Masking has different motivations in different people however ultimately it comes from a desire to fit in. Sometimes, things like personal safety can depend on masking and therefore a person needs to mask. It is often a subconscious effort: behaviours learnt by observing others, adjusting the way we speak to match the tone of others, learning through watching TV programme or practicing making certain facial expressions.

At school, I often felt different to everyone else. Micro insults meant that I changed my behaviours. Small comments led to me fine tuning my behaviour to eradicate anything that made me appear different. These habits became ingrained in me.

Some ways that masking may be shown is:

  • Forcing eye contact (This can be very uncomfortable and also make you appear shifty or on edge if it isn’t done right)
  • Imitating friends or peers (This is often detrimental as leads to loss of identity)
  • Disguising stimming (such as using leg jerking or nail biting as more socially acceptable stims)
  • Forming a mental bank of rehearsed social cues

The result of masking can be very detrimental to autistic people. It is utterly exhausting to be constantly repressing your true self and leads to a loss of identity as well as potential mental health issues.

So if the consequences are so bad, why do we mask?

  • To succeed in school or a job
  • Avoid stigma or bullying
  • To make friends
  • To fit in
  • To feel like you belong

Ultimately, masking is a reason why many autistic females go undiagnosed and if I look back at my childhood, it is apparent that I spent a lot of it masking.

Really, it is no wonder that my autism went undiagnosed. I was visibly a bit different but not different enough to warrant a diagnosis. Something needs to change in the autism diagnosis process to enable girls to get a crucial diagnosis before reaching a crisis point.

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autism loneliness

How to not be so lonely as an autistic person

Loneliness and Autism is often misunderstood. It is a common misconception that autistic people prefer to be alone however many people with autism actually do want to share time with other people, share thoughts, feelings and ultimately be understood.

With autism, there’s a constant struggle between wanting to spend time alone, be absorbed in narrow interests and repetitive behaviour, and wanting to connect with others.

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I have always struggled with loneliness. and I think it is very much due to my autism. I think I felt most lonely at school. It’s hard to be friends with people when you are the odd one out. Even when I was with people, I felt like I didn’t belong.

People know the definition of loneliness, but there’s a misconception that it means being alone. Not quite. I am quite empowered by solitude. Often, people feel lonely when surrounded by people. I think I felt most lonely at high school because I compared myself to the sociability of others.

Loneliness is the most awful feeling. It feels like being the person who nobody wants to pair up with; being the third wheel; sitting people watching at lunch, wishing you could be like them; lt feels like crushing disappointment; doubting every ounce of your being; being full of things to tell people but realising you have no one to talk to; It is making a fool of yourself in front of people because you’re socially awkward; It’s realising that no one needs you or wants to be with you; You’re in a busy room, laughter surrounds you in a suffocating chorus, but no one notices if you are there because you’re not funny enough, not happy enough, not cool enough, you’re not enough; You try to smile at people as you walk past, for a small reassurance that you do exist, but they always have other people to smile at; It’s sitting there, surrounded by people, eyes glazed over and your throat constricting.

The thing I’ve come to realise is that I don’t feel lonely when I’m alone. I feel lonely when I am surrounded by people who don’t understand me. It is this lack of understanding that builds a wall between me and other people. I know that when I can relate to people, I don’t feel lonely. It is human nature to have social interaction, even for introverted people like me.

People always tell us that it is good to be different and that we should embrace it but despite their nice sentiment, it’s usually only meant within certain parameters. You can’t be too different – only the type of different that fits within social norms.

I think the common causes of loneliness in autistic people are related to the way society treats people who are different.

People are afraid of what they don’t understand and what is different. It is something that protected us in the past. People try to eliminate differences because they pose a threat. They like their communities to be uniform because it makes them feel safe. Seeing someone different forces people to examine themselves and their own beliefs which most people dislike doing so rather than change themselves, or accommodate person who is different, people like to exclude and alienate them, further exacerbating their loneliness.

I think communication can also be a big barrier to not being so lonely. I really struggle being in a group of people and often end up third wheeling. I prefer to meet people one on one. I think it’s hard to explain this to others. If friends are meeting in a group it can be hard to explain that I do want to meet them, just not in a group. I might also struggle to explain that i’m not declining an invite somewhere because I don’t want to meet them but more because I don’t like the activity. I can be very blunt over text as well which can unintentionally offend people. When trying to make friends, my lack of eye contact can put people on edge or make them think i’m anxious. All these differences make it really hard to maintain friendships and lead to me feeling lonely.

I still struggle with loneliness these days just not so much as I did before and for the time I was in a relationship, I didn’t really feel lonely at all.

When you are lonely, you can be your own best friend.”

To try and stop myself being lonely I try to be part of communities that have the same sort of goals as me. It’s highly unlikely that you’ll find someone exactly like you (and if you do you are extremely lucky) so it is good to think about any interests you have that other people may also have. For example a really enjoy running and Parkrun (a free, weekly 5k run) is a really friendly community I am part of, and where I have met some great people. A lot of the steps towards alleviating loneliness involve putting yourself outside of your comfort zone – which is hard but so so worth it. Sometimes, you’ll put a lot of effort into people and they won’t reciprocate but you’ve got to realise that it isn’t so much a reflection on you but them and you’ve just got to persevere. You will find your people eventually!

The first hurdle in getting into a good group of people is getting over the initial stage of first meeting them. Here are some tips:

  1. Focus on the other person – rather than focusing on yourself and how you are coming across, focus on the other person, it’ll make you less self conscious.

2. Ask open ended questions that can’t just be answered with yes or no. Think about ones that start with the Ws, What, where, when, why etc

3. Comment on the surroundings, things like “I really like the food here”.

4. Make small talk – it’s best not to talk bout heavy subjects or anything provocative when you first meet people but instead talk about things like the weather or anything interesting in the news.

5. Ask questions about things you have in common.

6. Laugh at yourself – humour is a great way to get over any embarrassing thing you do.

7. Be an active listener – show that you are listening to people by asking follow up questions and showing that you’ve understood.

8. Fake it till you make it – sometimes you’ve got to act confident to start feeling confident!

I think that one of the reasons that I like to be so busy all the time and taking part in so much social action is because I try to get over my loneliness by having a sense of purpose. It is a good thing to do however it can limit your chances at having a good social life! So it’s all a balance really.

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autism decision making medical school university

Decision making as an autistic person

I really struggle with decision making. I even struggle with making simple decisions such as what flavour ice cream to get or what to have for tea. In fact, these small decisions are often the most exhausting to make and are the main reason why I rely on sameness: eating the same meals everyday, wearing the same clothes and buying the same things from the shop.

Bigger decisions, such as choosing a degree are even harder and one of the main reasons I actually chose to pursue medicine is because it would reduce uncertainty. I’d have something to pursue and a guaranteed career path at the end of my degree. In addition, it gives me a goal that every decision I make can relate back to.

I just wanted to share a quote that I came across a a few days ago that I thought was really quite profound.

If you obsess over whether you are making the right decision, you are basically assuming that the universe will reward you for one thing and punish you for another. The universe has no fixed agenda. Once you make any decision, it works around that decision. There is no right or wrong, only a series of possibilities that shift with each thought, feeling, and action that you experience.

Deepak Choprat
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It resonated with me because I used to feel very much paralysed by decision making. I think catastrophysing and overthinking all stem from the black and white thinking that is a typical autistic trait. Often, my brain leads me to think that there are only two possible scenarios: Good or bad. In reality there are many possibilities to every situation with equally as many factors to influence them. This thinking just leads to an overall snowball effect of spirallig into thoughts about what ifs. I often overthink any decision I make and obsess over what could have happened differently, as well as what I may have done wrong. Like many autistic people, I am highly self critical.

I think i’m extremely good at making logical decisions, especially when it is concerning other people which I think is in part due to being able to detach myself from the situation. I think that making decisions is all about gathering data for me. I like to research things extensively before jumping to conclusions, thus having a lot of data to consolidate my choices. If I have a lot of data, or all the pieces to the puzzle so to speak, then I am able to be confident in my choice. This could explain why I am bad at making decisions relating to any interpersonal issues as I am unable to gather sufficient data or worry that I have misunderstood and gathered the wrong data.

There is also the factor of uncertainty that decision making brings. Oftentimes this fear of uncertainty can be a driver of decision making. Autistic people struggle with uncertainty, often more than neurotypical people, so if an option gives less uncertainty, then it could be a better decision. There are so many variables in every single part of our lives. Things fail, people lose, things go wrong all the time. Sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worse. There’s only so much you can prepare for things. So much of life is unpredictable and control is just an illusion that helps us stay sane. I may feel in control of everything in my life, but a natural disaster could suddenly jeopardise it all. No matter what I do, nothing will ever go completely to plan. Which is hard to accept but that’s why I really like the above quote, because it views things in a different way.

I think additionally, one of the main issues with autistic people and decision making is our ability to deal with the consequences. This is due to being so self critical about our mistakes and ruminating over small details. We hold onto these minor things as if they are memories that should be cherished – or in my case, factors in future decision making (hence why it can be overwhelming when. so many factors come into play).

All of this indecisiveness can lead to us making good decisions, likely better decisions than neurotypical people however, neurotypical people are often able to better deal with the consequences of poor decisions and don’t waste so much of their life worrying.

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Here are my top tips for decision making:

  1. Try to remember the above quote when you are stuck in a cycle of trying to make the perfect choices.
  2. Rather than making one big decision, maybe make small choices along the way. For example, if you are making a choice about changing career, you could volunteer in that area for a while first.
  3. If making a small decision like what to cook for tea, you could either stick to the same meals throughout the week or use an app that looks at what food you have in and tells you what to make based on that.
  4. Shop online specifically for what you want so you won’t be overwhelmed by the choices available.
  5. Write a pros and cons list down and think rationally about the outcomes of each option.
  6. Try to do things that are out of your comfort zone, it may be hard at first but it will open up more opportunities in the future.
  7. Remember that nothing is permanent and there is always a way out of something if you don’t like it.

Categories
autism book Poetry

I published a book!

Late last summer, I decided that I wanted to do something purposeful and have a project that I could work on over a period of months so I decided to put together all my poems about autism into a book, as well as produce illustrations and explanations for the poems. It was hard work and I found the editing very tedious but it is finally here.

My poetry book allows unfiltered access into the mind of a recently diagnosed autistic female and reflects on the many emotions associated with being on the spectrum. Many of the common traits associated with autism are touched on in the book and the meaning behind the poems are explained in detail. These poems are written from the perspective of an autistic individual who appears fairly normal due to masking her autistic traits, but they also show the repercussions of this and what it feels like to be an outsider in a society made for neurotypical people. They also offer insight into certain autistic behaviours, explaining why autistic people do things different. In addition to focusing on autism, there are poems about anorexia. These poems offer a glimpse into why so many autistic females end up with eating disorders in adolescence.

All in all, Not Neurotypical shows why our society needs more people who understand autism. Many people on the spectrum are misunderstood and therefore cannot access the freedoms they deserve. This means that autistic people cannot reach their full potential and in general, have lower life expectancies.

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autism breakup medical school

5 Ways to get through a Breakup as an Autistic Person

Breakups are unpleasant and the emotions they bring up are complicated. Grief, confusion, heartbreak, anger, sadness, anxiety…. All of these are normal reactions. Even if things ended well, you’re still likely to have some sort of reaction.

For autistic people, a breakup is arguably just that bit harder. A breakup brings uncertainty. and disruption. Whether it be routine, identity or even your home – everything changes. Nothing is set in stone anymore, future plans up in the air. The unknowns can seem overwhelming and leave you wanting to go back to a relationship, even if it was toxic.

You can’t start the next chapter of you life if you keep re reading the last one.

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1. Don’t go searching for a quick-fix

This is going to take time. No matter what anyone says, there is no quick fix. everyone is different and processes things in their own time. It’s as much as taking each day as it comes as it is anything else. Accepting that it will take time and that you will heal is a big part of the process. It is so hard to accept that something that was once a massive part of you and your life will become a memory and it is normal to feel like you are going through a bereavement. As you grieve the loss of what you thought would be your future, think about future aspirations to replace your old ones. Use the time to pause and think about where you are in your life and what you want moving forward. There is something positive to be gained from every experience if you look hard enough to find it.

2. Try to write down your emotions and piece them together

It’s important to identify and acknowledge your feelings.Autistic people often (contrary to popular belief) experience more empathy, this means that you may have a good understanding of how your ex feels. you may feel both angry and sad for them at the same time. You may be frustrated because they hurt you but you still really care for them. It may be painful, but trying to suppress or ignore your feelings will likely make them come out in another form. Allowing yourself to feel the pain and emotions may worry you but these feeling won’t remain intense forever. Grieving is essential to the healing process and the intensity of the emotions will decrease over time. No matter how strong your grief is, it will not last forever.

3. Don’t blame yourself

There will always be ‘What ifs’. There will always be something you could have said or done but you can’t keep replaying the past – it’s already happened. Don’t dwell on who is to blame but look at things from a different perspective. This could be a good learning opportunity. It’s useful to focus objectively on what the relationship was lacking and how it failed. A chance to see where things went wrong and how you can make sure they go better in the future. You could even buy a journal specially for writing down these thoughts and feelings.

Autistic people are great problem solvers. Try and look at this as a time of self growth. Things will change in the future and to move on, you need to understand and process what happened. The more understanding you have, the more you can learn from what happened.

4. Reach out to others for support

I think this one is the trickiest for people with Autism. A lot of articles will suggest meeting with friends or making new friends however for autistic people, socialising is the last thing you want to do when you are feeling rubbish. It is hard enough in normal conditions. If it isn’t too much you could ask to meet up with a friend for a walk as it is often easier to talk to people whilst walking and not face to face. Additionally, you may feel like your ex is the only one who truly understood you and who you didn’t have to mask around – so it can feel pretty isolating and lonely. Despite this, there are a lot of people out there who can support you, whether it be family, counsellors or support groups. People who have been through painful breakups themselves are especially helpful as they know what it is like and can give you hope.You could also join a new club or group because even if you don’t make any best friends straight away, face to face contact usually helps improve your mood.

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5. Try to focus on positive coping mechanisms

During any time of high stress, it is exceptionally important to look after yourself.

  • If you struggle to stop and are constantly on the go, it may be an idea to treat yourself as if you have flu.
  • Get plenty of rest and time to recover.
  • Pay attention to what you need and don’t be afraid to say no.
  • Don’t be pressured into making any important life decisions whilst you are in such an emotional state either as you may regret them in the future.
  • Stick to a routine. This is probably one of the most important ones as sticking to a routine will help structure your day and give you purpose.
  • Avoid using Dugs, Alcohol or food as a way to cope. There are better, less destructive ways of coping. If you are an obsessive person, it may just be a good idea to avoid drugs and alcohol completely.
  • Eat, Drink, Sleep and Exercise – Everyday!

A few coping mechanisms to try

  • Eat some crunchy vegetables (strange one but it actually relieves a lot of tension!)
  • Start a new project (distraction is always good)
  • Do some volunteering
  • Write a letter, imaging you’re giving a friend advice on how to cope with the situation you are in
  • Go running

It may hurt. It may feel like the world is ending. But you’ve got this!