Categories
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. 


Categories
autism masking smalltalk social skills university

Social hangover

I was always someone who thought that being alone was when I was happiest – which makes sense. I would always choose being alone over anything else because socialising would have such a negative impact on me. I wrote this poem titled ‘social hangover’ to describe how it feels. 

Social hangover

The morning sun seeps in
Splintering clammy skin
A wave of humid heat
Through curtains paper thin

Sharp scatterings of narratives
Pangs to a sluggish mind
Burning larynx
Chords severed, left behind

Stuck stagnant in a dry throat
Static embers of last night
Reeling in an uneasy stomach
The acidic bite –

Of unheard words
Boiling turbidly in the brain
A throbbing,  aching
Social hangover pain

Whispers of memories
spiralling deep in my head
The soft comfort of hiding
Under the bed

Anticipation 
Participation
Rumination
Repeat.

I think this poem depicts how it feels to be autistic and navigate social situations.

You may get from this poem that the main issue I had with socialising was the overthinking that comes from it. I would always feel anxious that I’d said or done something wrong. I think that having time during lockdown to learn to accept myself and the way I am really helped me to embrace spending time with people without feeling guilty about doing things wrong and making social errors. It means that I can socialise now without overthinking as much.

So I’ve gone from someone who despised socialising to someone who actually really values social interactions. Obviously the whole sensory side of things can still be an issue but I’m quite good at managing that.

Categories
autism masking social skills Uncategorized university

What would I be, without my autism?

I’ve not posted in a while but I’ve been super busy with work, volunteering and Uni. I got the news that I passed my exams this morning which is great and I’m pretty happy with the way my life is going right now. I just thought I’d write a bit about something that I’ve been thinking about quite a lot recently.

I think once you gain an autism diagnosis, it’s a constant learning process. There’s always more to learn about it. After all, it’s a very complex condition that exists on a spectrum so there are many different ways that it can be experienced by other people. So the more and more I learn, the more and more I get these realisations of ‘ohhh, that’s why I’m like that/ behave that way’. And then on the converse, the more I think ‘wait a minute, is my ENTIRE personality and identity autism?’. Now you may be forgiven in assuming that it doesn’t matter either way – which is possibly true. However, do I really want my entire identity to be autism?

Personality is defined as:

The combination of characteristics or qualities that form an individual’s distinctive character.

While identity is:

A person’s sense of self, established by their unique characteristics, affiliations, and social roles.

I think it’s important to note that anyone, regardless of there disability or condition, will exhibit different personalities. Some people are very individualistic with their disabilities, others identify with the condition and feel proudly part of a group. I think it’s hard to know whether something is an autistic trait or a personality trait and often there is a big overlap. For example, I am a very happy person and get very easily exited by things. Some people would describe me as being like an overexcitable puppy. So my question is: Is my personality a happy go lucky one or, do I just see and feel things very intensely as a consequence of my autism?

We can broadly speak of autism using the analogy of a sportsman. Yesterday morning, I cycled to a nice little spot on the river and had a lovely swim. I was thinking about how much I loved my bike and how I would struggle to live without it. Life just wouldn’t be the same. We can say the same about autism. If the cycling is taken away from a cyclist, that part of the person will no longer be. Just like if you take the autism away from an autistic person, that part of the person will also cease to be. Cycling makes up a massive part of a cyclists life – it’s what they do. Without it, the thing that makes up there identity is gone. It’s the same with autism I think.

Personality is much to do with peoples perceptions and how they respond and react to different things and a lot of autistic people react similarly to certain external stimuli. It could be thought of as like a cake. Imagine you have different options of base eg. Chocolate sponge, vanilla sponge or carrot cake. And then you can also choose sprinkles, fondant icing or buttercream frosting. Imagine that all autistic people have the same base ie autism. However they can have different toppings because there’s extroverted autistics and introverted neurotypicals. Some base and topic combinations are more common than others but that doesn’t mean that either is a given. Neurotypical people can have the same toppings as autistic people just like they can have the same traits.

Photo by Ahmed Aqtai on Pexels.com

That’s not to say that my autism isn’t connected to my personality. Because it is. It is a big part of my individuality. However, I do think that there is more to me than my autism. It is a part of me but not all of me.

This kind of links into whether we use person first (person with autism) or identity first (autistic person) language. Person first language distinguishes clearly between the person and their disability – however many people argue that there is no need for autism to be separated from the person. I think the issue a lot of people have with person first language is that it kind of gives the impression that autism is an accessory. A bit like a handbag that you can just leave at home if you want. Really, autism can’t be cured or just used as an accessory, it’s a neurological difference that affects someones day to day life. You could argue that person first language would require you to say ‘person with gayness’ or even ‘person with masculinity’.” This wouldn’t really make sense. Some people prefer person first language whilst others prefer identity first language. I don’t really have a preference so long as people see me as more than my autism. I feel like often, when I tell people I’m autistic, they can’t see beyond it. I think it’s mainly due to stereotypes and lack of education. Hopefully in the future, this will change.

But to conclude – I think that my autism makes me me. It has caused me a lot of struggles in my life but also a lot of successes. I think that over time, I have learnt to flip the coin and use my autism to my advantage rather than let it be a negative. This has actually come from learning about autism and how it relates to me and my individuality in great depth. I know exactly how it effects me and exactly how I can manage those effects.

Categories
autism masking smalltalk social skills Uncategorized

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.

Photo by Tim Douglas on Pexels.com

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!”.

Categories
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!