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autism Balkans decision making holiday hyperfocus loneliness masking social skills university

Balkans Roadtrip

I’ve just got home from a roadtrip across the Balkans with my two high school friends. We booked our flight to Budapest back in December so for a long time the trip was simply referred to as Budapest 2022. Then we went on a trip to Dublin at Easter and gained a trip mascot – Kevin the carrot. We created a Kevin the carrot Instagram page called Kevin’s crazy carrot adventures so spent a lot of the trip getting content for it. A group trip is something I never really thought I’d do but I really really enjoyed it.

This picture was taken in Bosnia at the Tara Canyon. It is the second deepest canyon in the world and we had a 6 hour rafting trip down it.

Countries visited: 7

Number of days: 18

  1. Budapest, Hungary
  2. Ljubljana, Slovenia
  3. Lake Bled, Slovenia
  4. Hochstuhl, Austria
  5. Belgrade, Serbia
  6. Sarajevo, Bosnia
  7. Tara canyon, Montenegro
  8. Split, Croatia
  9. Trogir, Croatia
  10. Zagreb, Croatia

This trip isn’t really something I ever thought I would do for a number of reasons:
It was very poorly planned
I get stressed when I have to spend to much time with people
We were constantly changing location

This is a view of Lake Bled in Slovenia.

A lot of these points are relating to my autism and I will explain further below. 

It was very poorly planned
For autistic people, lack of planning is a big issue. We like to know all the big W’s – who, what, when and where. We all had exams until 1 week before the trip though which is where the planning problem came from. It helped massively that I had exams to focus on first. I’m a very all or nothing/ black and white style thinker so whereas I used to need to know exactly what I was doing, I am now a very in the moment person and struggle to think ahead to the future – which provides a planning problem on the other end of the scale. Luckily, as we were travelling before school holidays, it didn’t matter that we were last minute. We did it all very systematically:

  1. Decided how long we wanted to go away
  2. Which countries we wanted to visit
  3. How long we wanted to spend in each country
  4. Which places we wanted to go to in each country
  5. How we would get between cities

We left the daily itinerary to when we got there but had a good basic plan. I really didn’t mind this because my main issue with lack of planning is wasting time and not having anything to fill a time slot however, I took my laptop meaning that in the time that the others spent faffing, I could work yet still be available to contribute to any decision making. In the past I think I’d have just got very anxious at the empty time spent unsure of what the plan was. 

I get stressed when I have to spend to much time with people
The main reason I don’t like spending too much time with people is because I get exhausted from socialising. Despite this, I found I was fine. I think this is because I went away with a group of friends who I have known for a very long time so can be myself around them and don’t have to mask. This relieves most of the strain of being with a group of people for a prolonged period of time. Additionally, a lot of the time we spent together was walking which is far less intense. 

We were constantly changing location
This is something that in the past I would have found very stressful because I like knowing that I have a ‘safe place’. Despite this, I find now that as long as I have my phone and laptop with me on a trip I’m fine. This is mainly due to the fact that it means I have a sense of normality in that I can work. It probably doesn’t make sense but it just provides a constant and something that I’m in control of. I am someone who likes to exercise as a way to relieve any stress so it really helped that most of the days were spent walking around. Our trip total miles were 255! I do think my friends got slightly frustrated that my solution to everything was walking. Lost? Don’t bother with Google maps, just walk and you’ll get to an important landmark eventually. Too hot? Just walk. Too tired? Walking will energise you. 

So overall, it was a great trip and I had an amazing time.

This was taken on the way up a mountain, at the border with Austria.

Top tips:
1. Don’t get night buses to save money, they are really busy, you won’t get any sleep and it’s much better to get an early morning bus. The bus from Sarajevo to Split was one of the most scenic rides I’ve been on and I had a whole row of seats to myself. 
2. If you are in a group of three or more, it’s often cheaper (and more pleasant) to rent an apartment. 
3. Splitwise is a great app for logging shared expenses. 
4. Most of the touristy attractions are quietist early morning and late afternoon. 
5. As long as you have access to a washing machine, you can manage with a small rucksack for 3 weeks. 
6. Using a monzo travel bank card means you won’t get charged for using a card abroad. 
7. Most cities have apps for buying tickets both for the airport shuffle bus and in the centre. 
8. Make sure you always have a snack supply. 


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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.

Photo by Kindel Media on Pexels.com

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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autism decision making hyperfocus loneliness masking obsession Uncategorized

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!

Photo by Tara Winstead on Pexels.com

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 loneliness masking

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

Photo by Egor Kamelev on Pexels.com

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.

Photo by Jeswin Thomas on Pexels.com

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.