Guest post: The quest for equilibrium

image shows an out of focus woodland background, with a log and rope bridge in focus in the foreground, overlaid with ‘the quest for equilibrium’ in white text 

In this guest post, Katharine Manning writes about diagnosis, disclosure and managing the demands of everyday life, including her return to work.

It’s over 18 months now since I obtained my diagnosis. That has given me some peace – at last – and a basis for making informed choices about my life including how to rearrange it going forward. After spending several months free of work I finally seemed to get my autistic existence into some kind of balance, after quite a few years of feeling out of kilter but not understanding why. The question was though, would it withstand starting work again?

During my time off I’d found ways to head off or quell the autistic ‘overdrive’ that many others experience. But life was gentle, demands were few and time was plentiful. I got properly fit again by taking up running, one of the last things I thought I’d ever want to do but it helped lift me out of a quite unexpected but severe depression. I watched a lot of TV snooker: not everyone’s cup of tea but I find it good for my soul. It also reminds me of quiet, secure, companionable times spent in the company of my now-late grandparents. My marriage is in a better place, no-one in the family had any major health worries after a run of bad fortune and the ‘youths’ (too old now to be described as children) seem happy in their lives. I’d made quite a long sequence of disclosures about my diagnosis; in fact I got quite a good script going which overcame the difficulties of starting my explanation from scratch each time. Most of these went OK and even though a couple didn’t, I mostly managed not to let those bother me. The overall message and developing my altered identity were heading in the right direction.

Sometimes I find I’ve run out of steam for further disclosures, or just don’t make them. With two long-established friends in particular there was an opportunity but I didn’t take it. There was also a newer friendship where I just didn’t want to. It’s good sometimes just to try and ‘pass’ and let people make of me what they will. In fact I’ve recently made my first couple of new friends in many years so maybe have somehow relaxed into myself. One is (probably) autistic herself and there is a strange joy in finding someone from your own tribe. Oddly enough what has also helped is unlearning some of my self-sufficiency, by engaging more with other people through asking them for and offering help and things.

I had hoped that an extended spell free from work would bring about a fairly thorough ‘restoration’. To a limited extent it did but by no means amounting to ‘recovery’. It brought home to me that my functional deficits cut across all domains of my life. Being at home can be as challenging as being at work, just in different ways. About that time I read a post from the Autism Women’s Network about autistic burnout, which seemed to describe my situation perfectly. I felt it also explained why my AS had become more pronounced during the course of my life, which was puzzling me.

So, what conclusion to draw about what to do about work in future? I decided that the answer is to persist … but make it fit more manageably within my life overall. The idea of ‘managing spoons’ is very relevant to this, deciding how best to allocate my limited energy and personal resources. So I made a full and honest disclosure of what my AS means in a work context and entered into a problem-solving dialogue with my prospective line manager about the job I’d applied for and been offered (he received it well). I’ve halved my previous work hours and though the office is quite a long journey from home I’ve decided to try something new, staying away overnight which gives me quiet time and space to regroup mostly free of family pressures.

On days when I cope well, especially in the work sphere, I do still question whether I ‘merit’ this diagnosis. But then come days when I definitely don’t cope well and I’m reminded of – and eternally grateful for – the value of my diagnosis in understanding and managing my life. I recognise also that my ability to cope at work is a hard-earned consequence of doing just that: managing my life as well as others’ expectations.

I’m still not sure to what extent it might be possible for me to ‘recover’ my mental health which has become characterised by chronic anxiety mixed with some recurring depression. I find myself feeling unreasonably agitated when train carriages aren’t as quiet as libraries: not because I think other people shouldn’t talk but because my brain can’t hear conversations without processing them. ‘Brain fog’ or cognitive clouding is becoming a major issue and my ability to cope with that may ultimately determine whether it is realistic for me to continue in work longer term. Decisions about everyday life are also finely balanced: for instance, managing social anxiety by avoiding contact with people risks getting out of practice and further losing confidence. How much worse might AS get for me, particularly as I age? Might anxiety, irritability and isolation win the day or will a sense of humour, patience and self-forgiveness carry me over the further rough ground ahead?

What’s certain is the value of my support team. As well as family and friends, I’ve been lucky enough to have a very helpful GP who is always willing to listen, understand and research the issues I bring her. I’ve also felt well served by my workplace occupational health department and union representative. I’m fortunate that both my local NHS mental health services trust and autism service provider are progressive and in particular through the latter I found an extremely good-hearted specialist therapist who offers support to people with AS on both an individual and group basis. Finally, one of our local universities is doing some highly relevant research on managing anxiety symptoms in people with autism. By contributing to that I’ve been able to further scientific understanding as well as strengthening my own knowledge of the condition.

Autistic Christmas

I haven’t really written much for a while, it often feels like everything has been said, and I’m not sure what I can add to the ever-growing treasure-trove of autistic writings. But, I remember back when my son was younger and I was looking for strategies to support him, and then when I was struggling and not sure about getting myself assessed, and I remember that what helped me most was reading lots of accounts by autistic people and parents of autistic children (autistic and otherwise). I didn’t always agree with what I read (and still don’t), but reading about the same thing from many different angles is helpful, even if it’s just to confirm that they’re wrong and I’m right…

I know that many others have written about Christmas for autistic people, especially how to help autistic children cope with the festivities and social requirements. From my perspective as a parent of an autistic child, much of what I’ve read has been about how to prepare autistic children to manage the social demands of Christmas. It has been more about moulding the child to fit the expectations and rather less about moulding Christmas to fit the child. It’s also become clear, as an autistic adult, that little thought goes into supporting us with Christmas.

Christmas can be the best time of year for some autistic people, families often do the same things every year with little change, the food is predictable and there is usually more choice and freedom around eating than usual, and for those autistics who like to plan and be in control, it offers an opportunity to show off fabulous organisational and hosting skills (I am not one of those autistics).

For many of us though, and for many of our children, Christmas and the preceding weeks can be incredibly difficult. This post is for us, so here are my tips for an actually autistic happy Christmas.

School children will almost certainly be overwhelmed and exhausted

November and December can be pretty awful for autistic pupils, particularly in primary schools. Predictable timetables are often set aside in favour of impromptu carol singing and rehearsals for Christmas performances. Pupils get increasingly excited and loud as Christmas gets closer. Talking and thinking about parties and presents can be very stressful for our children. Schools might bring in entertainers or have background music playing. The expectations to be happy and good for Father Christmas can be too much to ask of our more anxious children.

Schools can help by providing detailed and up-to-date timetables and supporting our children’s access to quiet spaces if needed. Schools also need to be aware of the sensory impact on our children, whether it’s the hypersensitive child struggling and shutting down with sensory overload, or the hyposensitive child unable to concentrate and hyperactive as a result of the sensory stimulation, or the child with a combination of hyper- and hypo-sensitivities whose reactions seem inexplicable to the teaching staff.

Parents can help by being aware of the challenges, helping prepare children for change but also advocating for their needs to be met. Those of us with children who hold it in all day and then release the tension at home need to think really carefully about what this cycle of suppression and explosion is doing to our children’s mental health and well-being. Don’t feel bad about keeping children off school if it’s all too much. From his second year of primary school I kept my son home every year on the day of the Christmas party, I did not ask permission, I merely informed school that he was unable to attend. The occasional strategic day off can really make a difference and be the difference between enduring and enjoying.

Autistic adults can find workplace social expectations and interactions complicated and anxiety-provoking

Workplaces in December are full of people talking about Christmas, asking about Christmas, distracted by Christmas and planning work parties. We might struggle with the same sensory and social difficulties as our children, but have often developed more sophisticated masking and coping skills which, under these festive pressures, can slip and crack. Up until I started to suspect I was autistic I did my best to join in and do what seemed expected, but slowly over the past decade or so, I became more confident in declining to join in things I knew I would struggle with.

Employers and colleagues could make things easier by not pressuring us to attend social events, or, even worse, making them compulsory. For me, twinkling lights, shiny decorations and Christmas music are a huge distraction when I’m trying to work. I accept that many people enjoy the chance to decorate the workspace and get in the ‘festive spirit’, but some discussion and accommodation would be welcome. This might be as simple as asking where to put things so they aren’t distracting or uncomfortable for the autistic employee. We might need explicit information about any workplace traditions, don’t assume we know just because you do, chances are we don’t.

When autistic people do want to attend parties and events, it would help if they were planned in a way that minimises social, sensory and other distress. It can help to have clear information about any dress-code, ideally there would be no dress-code so those of us who struggle with the sensory impact of clothing aren’t irritated and irritable because of what we are wearing. Provide information about the plans for the event, if the event has several stages, such as drinks at a bar followed by a sit down meal followed by dancing, make it clear it’s ok to pick and choose what to attend. I can manage a sit down meal but would struggle with the rest, if I know when and how things are happening I can plan and build my own coping strategies into the event. Think about the impact of background music, cracker-pulling and party poppers on your autistic employees and colleagues.

To my fellow autistic adults, don’t feel you must do and be like everyone else, it’s quite freeing to say no when you want to say no. I’ve found that pretty much everyone else is so wrapped up in their own Christmas stuff that they’re fairly oblivious to those, like me, who just want to ignore it all.

Family traditions and expectations might need to adapt and change

We don’t have extensive family obligations over Christmas, meaning we have been able to create a set of low-key Christmas traditions that work for us, without unwanted pressures and social demands. Perhaps the most important rule is that, apart from an Advent calendar, Christmas at home does not begin until school term has ended. Throughout December school pupils seem to get increasingly excited and excitable, and my son gets increasingly overwhelmed (and just a tad annoyed!) by it all.

During this period, home needs to be a safe place for him to escape and relax. School is CHRISTMAS CHRISTMAS CHRISTMAS all day long, so we keep home Christmas-free, predictable and ordinary. We put up a tree and decorations the first day of the school holidays, though even that is a concession to me as my son would probably prefer decorations to be displayed just on Christmas Day.

Mostly over Christmas our days are like any other day of the year. On Christmas Day we have breakfast together, which is always toast made under the grill and served in a toast rack, instead of toaster to plate as usual. The rest of the day is quiet and the only noticeable difference is free access to chocolates all day long. Some years ago we discovered that zoos and other attractions are often open on Boxing Day, so while everybody else is doing social and family activities, we take advantage and enjoy the relative peace and emptiness of a zoo, aquarium or, in recent years, the wonderful Eden Project. These places are too busy for us most of the year, but we wrap up warm and it’s a great opportunity to avoid crowds.

We are an autistic family so it’s fairly easy to meet all our needs simultaneously over Christmas. I am aware that for families with a mix of autistic and non-autistic adults and children it’s harder to balance all the needs, but care needs to be taken to ensure that autistic needs are not ignored or forgotten.

It is ok to decline invitations, or for different family members to attend or not attend different events. It might be easier to host so that autistic family members have some control and the safety of their own home and spaces and things. It might be easier to go visit but for a limited time or with one parent leaving earlier with the autistic child. Autistic adults and children need to feel able to use whatever helps them get through situations, and they need allies to support them.

Importantly, finding an event stressful doesn’t necessarily mean we don’t want to be there, we might just need to do that on our terms, with our chosen supports and strategies, and that needs to be ok. Headphones, hoodies, fidgets and screens can help, and they don’t always mean we are withdrawing, they can be exactly what we do need to enable us to participate.

Ultimately, family members need to think about, consider and listen to their autistic relatives. Spacing out seasonal activities, building in downtime and space for interests, picking and choosing what to attend, sticking to plans, encouraging self-advocacy and respecting the views and needs of autistic children and adults, will all go a long way to making Christmas easier and more enjoyable for everyone. And perhaps sometimes it would be good for autistic needs to come first…

Present buying can be tricky

One thing I suspect many of us have in common is an inability to hide our disappointment with a misjudged or unwanted present. We don’t set out to be ungrateful and we don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings, but we can’t always hold back those initial thoughts and feelings. The more we try to remember to show gratitude the more stressed we get and the more likely we are to get it horribly and rudely wrong.

Surprises can be very difficult for autistic children and adults. I find this really problematic as I do actually like surprises, but only if they are things I have already identified to myself that I want or need, or something unusual and interesting that I would never have thought of but is exactly the sort of thing I would choose for myself. With my partner I manage this by adding lots of possible options to an Amazon wish list and enabling him to choose. I add things throughout the year and try to forget what I’ve added! My partner just provides a list, and has no expectations or desire for surprises or off-piste gifting.

My son did not like surprise presents until last year, but like me, it can be a tricky ask as he is quite particular about what he likes. It has always helped a lot when family ask what to buy and stick to the list, they then get his genuine response and thanks, rather than a somewhat blunt ‘what did you buy me this for?’. Many surprises have been completely ignored, whilst others, like the rare spinosaurus tooth, have become treasured possessions. Some autistic children prefer to know exactly what they are getting, and this can include needing presents left unwrapped. The anticipation and anxiety of not knowing can be too much pressure which takes away the joy. It doesn’t matter if tradition and the ‘rules’ say surprises are good and presents must be wrapped, if doing that causes unnecessary stress.

It’s important to do what works not what is expected when what’s expected is not what works, and I think that’s my message for enjoying Christmas. It doesn’t matter when and how you decorate and put up a tree, it doesn’t matter if your family Christmas ‘dinner’ is posh toast, it doesn’t matter if you stay home and open presents you asked for, and it doesn’t matter if you don’t leave the house for a week, what matters is doing what works and what’s best for you and your family.

Happy Christmas

[image shows a Christmassy sign with the words …Oh…Oh…Oh, which has been inverted from the original which said Ho…Ho…Ho…, which itself is an homage to our own Ho Ho Ho garland which we hang turned around to read Oh Oh Oh for a touch of festive subversion]

Being me


A year ago I gave a presentation about mothers on the autism spectrum at the National Autistic Society’s Professional Conference. I had never spoken in public before and it seemed to be well received. I wanted to write up my presentation for others to read which resulted in this blog. I chose to blog anonymously because I believed that being open and public could complicate my life in ways that I wasn’t ready for.

I was particularly worried about my colleagues and clients and how they would perceive me as an autistic person. Because, let’s face it, most people don’t understand autism. I also know that the more open I am about being autistic, the harder I find it to mask, and the more my autism shows. Massive structural and cultural changes at work meant I was already struggling, and I wasn’t sure I was strong enough to expose myself while already suffering with high levels of anxiety.

Six weeks ago I resigned from my position, and today is the start of a new chapter in my life. For the last 18 years I have worked in the criminal justice system, in what was the probation service, a profession which always prided itself on strong values and a commitment to justice, but which is now largely privatised and profit-driven. I am in the fortunate position of being able to take a break from working and spend some time finding a way to bring together my skills and interests in a way which is meaningful to me.

My name is Paula Sanchez and I am autistic. 

Autism and interviews

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[image shows the text ‘Performing without a script’ against a background image showing a manual typewriter on a bleached wood plank desktop]

Performing without a script

This week I had an (unsuccessful) interview for a role which I was quite capable of doing and which would have fulfilled a long-held ambition. I am not confident or arrogant enough to have thought I stood a chance against the competition, but I had hoped to demonstrate my capabilities at interview and to come away believing that I had given my best.

Instead, I completely fell apart.

Despite being diagnosed autistic, I still have moments when I wonder if the diagnosis was wrong. After all, I manage to balance the demands of work and family life, I am independent and fairly well educated. I didn’t think I needed much in the way of support and adjustments. But, slowly, I am realising that for me to move forward, out of my carefully constructed safety bubble of the familiar and predictable, I do indeed need support and adjustments. My autism is limiting me and I want to stretch those limits.

In common with many autistic people I have spent hours analysing my performance and trying to work out what went wrong and what I should have done differently. If I had a time machine and could return to the day I was invited to interview, what advice would I give myself? What should I do next time?

Book a hotel room: even though the interview was little more than 20 miles away, terrible weather disrupted my travel plans. I have an appalling sense of direction and getting lost ate up my contingency and last minute preparation and relaxation time. A night away from the responsibilities of work, home and parenting might have helped me get into and establish my role.

Ask about the interview room: and let the interviewers know about any sensory problems. My interview room was very hot and I was distracted throughout by an electronic buzzing noise. A picture of the room would have helped so I knew what to expect.

Ask about the dress code: I would have been more comfortable if I hadn’t tried to smarten up from my usual fairly casual workwear.

Ask for the interview questions to be presented in written as well as verbal form: interviews are stressful for most people, but, as I discovered, for some autistic people (like me!) they can be so anxiety-provoking that processing information and verbal skills are severely impacted. I struggled to both process the questions and formulate coherent responses. Had the questions been written down I would have been able to take my time to read and think before speaking.

Ask for the main questions in advance: it is not unusual for many of us autistic people to struggle with situations where we have not been able to prepare. It is basic autism awareness to limit surprises and prepare as much as possible to enable many autistic children to participate. Autistic children become autistic adults, and our needs for support might change as we get older but they don’t all disappear.

Ask to take notes into the interview: despite copious preparation, I failed to recall any of my prepared responses or themes. None of the interview questions were a surprise, but, coupled with my already hindered processing, and perhaps some literal interpretation, my prepared scripts proved elusive. Some brief notes under potential headings and keywords would have helped jog my memory and provided a framework for my replies.

Ask to meet the panel ahead of time in a more informal setting: I realise that this might be a step too far for some interviewers, but walking into a room of strangers was my tipping point. I struggle to meet new people even at my best (except at work where I am in ‘work role’) so some element of familiarity would have reduced my anxiety. This could also be ameliorated by conducting part of the interview in a non-verbal format, perhaps written questions and responses by email followed up by a face to face interview.

Don’t look at lists of what not to say: it appears that, when under pressure, if my brain is given a choice between ‘what to say in this sort of interview’ and ‘what not to say in this sort of interview’ it will opt for the latter. Next time I will only focus on what I should say.

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The interview panel were very kind, and I have had encouraging feedback about my written application. Next time I will be proactive in asking for adjustments so that I can show that the me in person matches up to the me on paper.